Interview with Mom’s Choice Award-Winner Justin De Witt

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Mom’s Choice Awards is excited to announce another post in our interview series where we chat with the inventors, designers, publishers, and others behind some of our favorite family-friendly products.

Hi, Mom’s Choice readers! Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with one of our honorees, Justin De Witt, who is co-owner of Fireside Games and designer of the Mom’s Choice Award-Winning game, My First Castle Panic! My First Castle Panic is a cooperative board game in which preschoolers work together to defend their castle from monsters coming out of the forest. My First Castle Panic fosters the development of educational skills, such as identifying colors and shapes, problem-solving, and turn-taking. If you’re looking for a perfect game to introduce your children to board games, My First Castle Panic is the game for you! Keep reading to find out more about this awesome game and its designer, Justin!

MCA: Hi Justin, thank you so much for joining us today, and congratulations on your Mom’s Choice Award! My First Castle Panic is a kid’s take on the classic Castle Panic board game that really embodies the phrase “fun for the whole family.” Tell us about yourself!

The Mom's Choice Award-Winning Game, "My First Castle Panic."

The Mom’s Choice Award-Winning Game, “My First Castle Panic.”

Justin: Bedford, Massachusetts area, but my dad was a literal rocket scientist, which meant I was raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico (when he worked at Sandia National Laboratories) and Seattle, Washington (when he worked at Boeing). As a kid, I created board games to play with my friends, whether they wanted to or not. My interest shifted to video games as I got older, and I spent less time on board games. I met my wife, Anne-Marie, when we were both working at Valley Medical Center in Renton, Washington. She was a speech-language pathologist, and I was training staff on new software to schedule patients. She was into slam poetry, and I had a two-person punk band. Soon after, I earned dual degrees in graphic design and illustration at Western Washington University and went on to pursue animation, working on projects such as Blue’s Clues Birthday video games. We ended up moving to Austin, Texas, where I started a dorkabilly band called 85 dB, based on the noise limit and the number of times our band was politely shut down for violating the ordinance. We fell in with a group of friends that played board games. After playing Settlers of Catan, my passion for creating board games returned, and soon our friends were requesting my games to play.

MCA: That’s quite an interesting background you have there, thank you for sharing! It’s always wonderful when you can turn beloved childhood activities into your dream job. Tell us about the creation of your company, Fireside Games!

Justin: Because of the ongoing interest in our games and not seeing an immediate fit with existing brands, we decided to start Fireside Games. I was working at Steve Jackson Games at the time and thought about pitching Castle Panic to Steve and Phil Reed (the CEO) but felt the playfully backstabbing feel of that brand didn’t quite align with the friendly, cooperative feel of Castle Panic or the other games in my backlog. In 2009, we released Castle Panic under the Fireside Games brand. It was a hit from its launch and has become a staple in the market.

MCA: It definitely has! What needs were you trying to fill when you created My First Castle Panic?

A family playing a giant version of "My First Castle Panic" outside of a retail shop.

A family playing a giant version of “My First Castle Panic” outside of a retail shop.

Justin: After developing and releasing 3 expansions to Castle Panic (The Wizard’s Tower, The Dark Titan, and Engines of War) and 3 variations (Dead Panic, Munchkin Panic, and Star Trek Panic), we reached out to our trusted retailer partners to ask them what they’d like to see on their shelves from the Panic world. They uniformly requested a preschool version of the game. That surprised us because kids as young as 5 can play Castle Panic with their families as long as they have support, which is easy to provide in a cooperative game. Then I started thinking about what a Castle Panic game specifically designed for preschoolers would look and feel like. I realized that a game that simplified the steps and the goal took out the reading requirement, and supported their learning of basic shapes and colors could foster a lot of independence. Now, instead of relying on help from older siblings and adults, preschoolers can play My First Castle Panic independently and even teach the game to new players. That level of independence causes many preschool fans to call it simply My Game.

MCA: My First Castle Panic is the perfect game for any parent wanting to introduce their little ones to the world of board games. Can you tell us about the game design process?

Justin: When designing a game, I start with either a game mechanic that I’m interested in or a theme that appeals to me. In either case, I meld an initial mechanic and theme together pretty early since each one informs the other in the development of the game. I work on it independently until I feel like I’m ready for additional input. Then, the first person I share my design with is Anne-Marie, who has gone on to design a few games for our company catalog as well. When we both agree on how the game design feels, I reach out to a community of board gamers to get outside feedback. We make sure that the playtesters match the target market for the game. For My First Castle Panic, that meant going to local daycare centers as well as asking non-local parents to print and play the game with their kids. We knew the game was going to be a hit when the kids played the game for hours on end and called out to each other to teach them without any input from us beyond the first turn. Parents told us that the kids wouldn’t let them put away their black-and-white paper copies after the initial playtests. They wanted to play before and after school, and it became a motivational reward. One of the preschoolers came up with the idea of having a dungeon to throw the monsters into, and I decided the bottom of the box could be repurposed well for that. The nice side-effect of having the dungeon in the box is that you actually put the game away as you play! After incorporating feedback, the last steps are finishing the rules and moving on to production.

MCA: Studies have shown that there are so many benefits to cooperative board games for young children. Can you tell us about some of those benefits?

Justin: Cooperative play really helps kids learn how to pay attention to the needs of everyone and to think about how to work together for a shared goal. It’s amazing to watch kids light up when they realize how to cooperate and the sense of belonging on a team. Belonging is one of the needs all people have, and using a game to foster that helps their social development. It also helps soften the feelings of losing. They don’t lose alone if the castle is destroyed. Everyone loses together and adults can model how to cope with loss.

MCA: My First Castle Panic is quite a hit with thousands of 5-star reviews across different e-commerce sites where the game is sold. What have those responses been like for you and your company?

"My First Castle Panic" full game.

“My First Castle Panic” full game.

Justin: We’ve been so very pleased with the response to My First Castle Panic. We hear daily from parents about how much their kids love playing the game and the sense of ownership they feel about the game. We get videos with kids explaining the game to the camera or showing a particular moment of the game, usually sharing their cards to help capture a monster or reacting to the castle standing or falling at the end of the game. Sales of the game are quickly approaching those of Castle Panic. The French version (Attrape Monstres) launched through our publishing partners Space Cow, and is doing very well there as well. It’s up for the As d’Or (Golden Door) Award there in the children’s category, which is considered the game of the year in France.

MCA: What is next for Castle Panic?

Justin: First, we’ll be fulfilling the deluxe version of Castle Panic for everyone who backed in on Kickstarter. (That version has plastic pieces for the castle structures and plastic miniatures for all of the monsters, with rotatable bases to track the damage.) Then, we’ll release the Castle Panic Big Box, Second Edition for everyone who wants the complete set but no plastics. After that, we’ll be releasing the second editions for the base game and each of the expansions, including a new expansion. The new expansion is called Crowns and Quests and will feature a royal family and court with unique abilities and will include special quests that have to be completed to win the game. Every expansion changes the game up in some way, but this expansion changes the game with each quest. We think fans will love it.

MCA: That’s all very exciting, please keep us posted, and thank you for a wonderful interview! 

You can learn more about Justin De Witt and her award-winning book, My First Castle Panic by visiting their MCA Shop pages.

Interview With Justin De Witt

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