As I stroll into National Mechanics, the Old City gastro-hub for Philadelphia’s geeks, I immediately spot Ray Merkler sitting at one of the tall tables closest to the entrance. His head is down, eyes darting back and forth from his iPhone to his iPad. When I approach his table and say hello, he looks up, smiles, and promptly turns off his iPad and places his phone, face down, on the table.
“Can I invite you to stack phones with me?” He asks, gesturing to his facedown iPhone.
I pull out a barstool and sit down, looking at him quizzically as I take my iPhone out of my pocket. He grins as I place it down on the table.
“I was having dinner with some developers, when Dain Saint from Cipher Prime introduced this to us,” he says, picking up my iPhone and placing it on top of his. “He said that he wanted to have a real conversation. I’ve been stacking phones ever since.”
Fortress is a strategy card game designed to be played with a regular deck of playing cards. In the game, the deck is divided up; Ace through 6 go into your ‘die’ stack, and they take the place of a traditional six sided die. It’s your D6. Anytime you need to roll, you draw a card from the die stack.
The other cards? Those are your soldiers.
Each player picks a King from the deck, and they have to defend that king while attacking their opponents. You do that by building up a fortress (the name of the game!) with your royal guard, which get attack and defense bonuses based on your roll. Different suits have different bonuses to attack and defense, if they match their can be a bonus or a penalty… there are a lot of strategic elements squeezed into a simple deck of playing cards.
“Most card games like Magic: the Gathering or Pokémon,” says Merkler, “are won by the person who is the wealthiest… or has the richest parents. It’s the kid with the Dad who loves the game, buys them the cards, and sets up their deck for them.”
In the game of Fortress… everyone’s on the same playing field.
When asked how he came up with the complicated concept, Merkler laughed. “Like all great ideas, it came from crippling boredom.”
Fortress began seven years ago, in Merkler’s cubicle at his former job. With nothing of interest to do, he decided to kill some time with a deck of cards… and made up a game. Fortress was born as a physical card game in a cubicle, which ironically, is likely where a lot of handheld iPhone gamers will end up playing it, killing time with this seemingly simple, yet complex, strategy game.
“I hit more than a few points where I didn’t want to work on it anymore,” says Merkler. “I didn’t realize it back then, but that’s just a part of the creative process. I realize now. You hit those humps and you just need to get over them.”
However, growing accustomed to the ups and downs of the creative process wasn’t the only obstacle Merkler had to overcome. Merkler suffers from bipolar disorder, and has struggled with mental health issues for years. From medication to meditation, he’s sought every solution to manage his condition, including cathartically writing about it on the Hindrances to Progress (his company) blog. By sharing what he’s been going through in an open forum, he hopes to inspire others with a similar disposition.
“A big part of depression is self confidence,” says Merkler. “You’re consciously and self consciously telling yourself you can’t do this, you can’t do that. You have to remind yourself… yes I can. To hang on. Dealing with depression isn’t a battle. Battles end. It is a journey, an experience. With mental health issues, you have to be able to cope with anything. It takes a lot of discipline and willpower, but it can be done.”
And he isn’t in it alone. Ray’s loving wife, Melissa, has been there through it all, supporting him during the development process. When they moved to Haddonfield, the stress of the move was rough on Merkler. And in an effort to make space in their new home, he decided to donate all his Nintendo and Super Nintendo games to the Digital Game Museum in Sunnyvale, California.
“Somehow, Mel managed to sneak my copy of the original Super Mario Bros. out of the packaging before I shipped everything,” Merkler says, smiling. “When I woke up the next morning, there was a framed shadow box with the game mounted inside it. I burst into tears immediately. It was the first video game that was actually mine. In fact…”
At this, Merkler rolls up his sleeve, revealing a bright orange pixeled box with a question mark on it, with green vines stemming from the top, wrapping around his bicep: A Super Mario Bros. brick block, with a beanstalk and piranha plant head at the end.
Despite the return to classic strategy gaming with Fortress and his Super Mario Bros. inspired ink, Merkler isn’t entirely old school. From modern console games like Skyrim to Viva Piñata (“What? It’s a charming freaking game!” - Merkler) and handheld iOS titles like Minomonsters, he finds joy and draws influence from a little bit of everything.
“IGDA Philly is great,” says Merkler. “I go to the meetings three or four times a year. A lot of people involved are students from Drexel or Penn. It’s great for them and great for developers looking for people that are hungry for experience.”
“Philadelphia’s at a point where a lot of studios are releasing games,” he continues. “Final Form Games had Jamestown and Cipher Prime is at the point where they’re practically prolific. Will [Stallwood from Cipher Prime] is an unbelievable designer. I’d love to say I don’t know how he does it, but I do know. Relentless practice.”
Relentless isn’t a word I’d use to only describe Stallwood though. Four years and a completed game later, Merkler is well deserving of the title as well. While his one-man development company might be named Hindrances to Progress (“I liked the idea of naming my company after what you’re using games to do”), Merkler hasn’t let anything hinder his.
He’s broken out of his own fortress, and given the gaming world something special; a unique strategy game unlike anything out there, complete with charming artwork, an intuitive interface, and fantastic music.