Annika and Kai from the Finnish board game blog Todellisuupako interview several designers, publishers and board game personalities. Since the blog is only in Finnish language, here is a collection of original English interviews for non-Finnish speakers to enjoy as well.
Annika Interviewed Keith Matejka, designer of the new hit game Roll Player. Keith has also designed the smart area control game called Bullfrogs that we really like. Besides designer, Keith Matejka is also a publisher. He is the man behind Thunderworks Games
Annika: What is your personal (board) gaming background? You have started to design and publish games quite recently, and you’ve instantly hit good scores with your games. You’ve also found very good artists to work with. So I’m curious to know, (1) who found you? and (2) how did you connect with all those brilliant professionals you’ve worked with?
Keith: I played board games and card games when I was young. I had a babysitter that would bring over games like Survive, or Scotland Yard, and I really enjoyed playing them with my sister. As I grew older, I became interested in D&D and other adventure style games. I enjoyed pouring over D&D manuals and I would often design my own dungeons and adventures for my friends to play through. I then moved over to computer games (Ultima, Zork, Dark Castle, etc) for quite a while.
As an adult, I got my break for a job in the video game industry. I think making video games my career opened up the opportunity for me to get back into tabletop games. Two events happened at the same time that pushed he headfirst back into the hobby. First, my friend (who was from Puerto Rico) found out there was a hot game on BGG and demanded we go buy it and play it. It was Puerto Rico and it was great.
Secondly, I was playing D&D with friends and finding I didn't have time to play such long games anymore as an adult, and found out about Descent and Arkham Horror, which I believed would provided a similar roleplaying style experience, but it would be more contained. So, started my resurgence of passion for tabletop games.
In terms of design, I just decided to try to design a game one day. I work at video game developer, and a few of us decided to try our hand at creating tabletop games. My first larger design was decent, but I eventually put it on the shelf and started working on Bullfrogs, which was my first published game.
Bullfrogs is a fast playing area control game for 2-4 players.
In terms of finding good artists, I took a look around my game collection, found art I liked, figured out who the artists were and sent them emails. A little back and forth to finalize details, and artwork was underway. I did some art direction as I had a pretty clear vision of what I was looking for, and I trusted the abilities of my artists.
I've worked with John Ariosa for Bullfrogs, Roll Player and Roll Player: Monsters & Minions. He's well-known for his work on Mice & Mystics and Summoner Wars(which I love both).
For Blend Off, I started with an artist I work with at my day job named Wayne Koenig, and ended up adding Mr. Cuddington to help finish the cover. Mr. Cuddington is a husband and wife team that does a lot of work in board games. They are an amazing talent.
The graphic design of all my games has been done with Luis Francisco. I meet Luis in an artist group on Facebook. He recommended an additional artist named Lucas Ribeiro for Roll Player: Monsters & Minions who worked out great.
I've actually never met any of the artists I've worked with, besides Wayne (on Blend Off), since we work together in our day jobs. Crazy connected world, isnt' it?
Roll Player is illustrated by John Ariosa (Photo: Keith Matejka)
Annika: What was the reason behind starting with your own company, Thunderworks Games, instead of working with already existing ones? Are you a full-time worker at TWG? Is there other personnel? You have published several games through Kickstarter; would you say it is the best way for small companies to publish games? What have you learned from your KS-projects?
Keith: When I was working on Bullfrogs, I was in the position to decide if I wanted to pitch the game to traditional game publishers and try to sell it, or if I wanted to try and self-publish it. I thought about it for a long time. In the end, I saw guys like Jamey Stegmaier and James Mathe publishing board games with the help of Kickstarter and documenting the details of their successes.
I decided I was a horrible salesman, but I had the production/project management experience that I thought I could pull off the self-publishing thing. It was more of “why not just try it” kind of thing instead of a strategically planned thing.
Thunderworks Games is me. I have contractors that help me out with things, but it's a single-operator company that I run when I'm not at my demanding “regular” job.
Kickstarter offers a great opportunity for creators with a great idea to get their games made. I'd recommend it to people, for sure.
Running a Kickstarter is a huge task, and it take a lot of effort to run one well. The #1 piece of advice is to make sure you take the time to prepare properly, and to make sure you are marketing your game before the Kickstarter. Don't expect people to find your game and back it without letting as many people as possible know it's coming. Once the Kickstarter is live, it's too late to build the crowd.
Annika: Tell about the designing process. Is there a bunch of ideas your head (mechanics/ themes/ both) just waiting to be designed and published?
Keith: When it comes to design, don't wait for inspiration. Just start making stuff. Be ready to fail and learn from your mistakes. Play lots of games. Find out what you like and try to design something in that style. I don't have a huge list of ideas in my head. I just start making stuff, and playtest like crazy. Eventually, it will be come something good, or you'll abandon it for some other new idea.
Annika: Is there a theme for which you’d definitely want to design a game in the future; are there themes you avoid? Or do you develop several projects simultaneously?
Keith: I'd love to do a cyberpunk or post-apocolyptic game someday, but I don't have one of those started yet. I'm not a huge space game fan, so I doubt I'd ever head in that direction. I sometimes have a few things in the works at a time, but there's usually one game that sits center stage. I try to focus on one game as much as possible. Otherwise, I think I would never finish anything.
Annika: Do you have a clear picture how you’d like your game to be illustrated or do you give free hands to the artists?
Keith: In terms of artwork, I have a pretty clear idea of what I want and try to find artists who have done similar things in the past. I prepare some art direction and some examples, but try to let the artist really own the look, if possible. I find you get the best results if you aren't dictating every detail about visuals and trust the artist to do a great job.
Annika: You have also designed some one player games, for example the single player mode for Herbaceous – is that your specialty?
Keith: I have designed quite a few solitaire games at this point. I honestly don't play a lot of solo board games, as I don't find them particularly compelling. On the other hand, people seem to really enjoy the solo designs I've done. I do find the challenge of taking a multiplayer experience and trying to create a solo version interesting, but I don't spend a lot of time playing them myself.
Annika: What is your personal taste fo board games? Which games get tp the table most often? And with whom do you play?
Keith: I play a lot of different types of games. I try to play a lot of the newer games, but also reach into the back catalog and play classics that I may have missed. I think it's part of a designer's job to be very familiar with what's popular in the industry and have played a lot of different games.
Keith Matejka thinks that it is part of designer's job to be familiar with a lot of different games. Here he is playing some Ghost Busters co-op with the boys.
I sometimes go through phases of playing certain types of games. Lately, I've been playing more story-based stuff like Gloomhaven and Near and Far. Six months ago, I was playing a lot of escape room games like the EXIT series or Unlock. Last year, I was playing a lot of heavier Euros like Voyages of Marco Polo, and La Granja.
My favorite designer is Martin Wallace. Of his titles, I really like A Study in Emerald, Automobile, Tinners' Trail, and Via Nebula.
Though, my favorite game of all time is War of the Ring. I don't play it very often, but when I do, I really enjoy it.
Annika: How is the board gaming culture in Wisconsin / your home town? What would be THE ultimate board gaming experience for you?
Keith: I live in Madison, Wisconsin. There's a really great gaming culture here as well as a very strong designer scene. Wisconsin is the home of Dungeons & Dragons. I think the cold weather here also helps encourage indoor activities like tabletop gaming.
There are a bunch of designers here that all playtest each others' games. Many of them are published too. Examples: Seth Van Orden (Stockpile), Kirk Dennison (Flagdash), Kane Klenko (Fuse/Flatline/Dead Men Tell No Tales/Mad City/Covert/Flip Ships/Pressure Cooker), Ed Marriot (Scoville), Brett Myers (Nanuk/Rome: City of Marble), Dan Cunningham (Lunarchitects), JT Smith (The Captain is Dead), Nick Bentley (Stinker), John Kovalic (ROFL!/Double Feature) and Mike Wokasch (Starving Artists).
Ultimate gaming experience? I have it every time I meet a fan of my games.
Annika: Could you tell something about your future designing/ publishing plans; Roll Player: Monsters & Minions; Sunset Over Water (when will the KS-project be launched and what’s your role in the game?); and in the further future?
Keith: Sunset Over Water is being published by Edo over at Pencil First Games. The team on that is the same as the team on Herbaceous. Edo had asked me to do the solo version of Herbaceous, and came back to for the solo version of SoW. Steve Finn is the core designer of that one. I just came in and did the solo version.
I just had the successful Kickstarter or Roll Player: Monsters & Minions, so I working on getting that one manufactured. The next Thunderworks Game will be “Dual Powers: Revolution 1917” from Brett Myers. It's a 45 minute, 2-player deduction and area control game that takes place in Russia in 1917. It's great. I'm also excited to be working with Brett on it.
Past that, I'm working on the design of a game called “Skulk Hollow” that Edo's going to publish for Pencil First Games. And I have a couple more things in the pipe. I'd like to return to do another Roll Player expansion next year, if there's interest.
Annika: Thanks for the interview, Keith! We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.
Annika interviewed Trey Chambers, the man behind games such as Argent: The Consortium (2015) and Harvest (2017).
Annika: What is your personal (board) gaming background?
Trey: Well, like many my entry to the hobby was The Settlers of Catan (I will never call it Catan! Never! At best I would refer to it as "Settlers" which isn't even in the title anymore). A friend of mine casually suggested we try it out, and we then played it nonstop twice a week until we burned out. After that, I set out in search of other games and discovered BGG which lead me to my first three game purchases: Ticket to Ride(which I've never been a fan of), Galaxy Trucker, and Agricola (still one of my favorite games to this day). Ten years later it's still my number one hobby, and I host a weekly gaming meetup.
Annika: Do you work in gaming industry or somewhere totally different? Where do you live? With whom do you play board games? Any other free time activities you like?
Trey: Like several other game designers, I'm a teacher (12th grade English in my case). I'd like to design full time one day, but I'll need to get a lot more games published for that to happen. I live in Houston, Texas, and I game with a very close knit group of about 30 friends (we do everything together, not just gaming). I have many other hobbies though, including writing, reading, video games, karaoke, and cooking.
Annika: You have started to design and publish games quite recently (except for the PnP game in 2009), and you’ve instantly hit good ratings with your games. All those years between 2009 (Detective) and Argent, what happened? Were they years of heavy planning and play testing? What has inspired you most as a game designer?
Trey: I've been designing games since I was a kid, but never really knew how to make a prototype for my ideas. In 2010 or so, friend of mine taught me how to print out game components on label paper then stick them to cardboard. Once I learned that skill, I was able to make any kind of prototype I wanted.
Argent: The Consortium at the table. Photo courtesy of Trey Chambers.
Argent (originally called The Consortium) was one of my very first designs. I loved worker placement games (inspired by the likes of Agricola), and I wanted to put a twist on that genre. That lead me to the core design principle of having workers with special powers then I just developed it from there. I developed it on my own and shopped it around to publishers for three years until Level 99 picked it up. Then I developed it with them for another 2 where the game went through some huge changes. That covers most of the gap between 2009 and Argent's release. It was a labor of sweat and love!
Annika: In the designing process of Harvest, were there drastic changes along the way? Due to play testing etc.?
Trey: No actually. Harvest was a million times easier to design than Argent, which took years and ended up being VERY different from the first prototype. In contrast, the final version of Harvest is very similar to the original prototype. All the core things were there from the beginning: only two workers, only a few rounds, the initiative system, the action cards, the buildings, the five different crops with their size variation, the fertilizer (poop) and water resources, the Plant/Tend/Harvest cycle, the main game board with three common spaces...etc.
Development with Seth Jaffee of TMG lead to several important additions though, mainly balancing and the variable player powers (which is my favorite thing about the game!). So the process for Harvest was mainly one of refinement. The core game was already a tight and fast Euro with some depth. My overall goal with Harvest was to design a good, meaty worker placement game that is easy to learn and plays in a short amount of time. I don't think any others exist in that particular space, so think TMG succeeded in making this a reality with Harvest.
Annika: Looking at two of your published games (Argent: The Consortium and Harvest) they have a fantasy theme and they utilize variable player powers and worker placement mechanics. Are these things you enjoy most as a player as well? What is your most recent favorite game, not including your own?
Trey: Harvest wasn't originally a fantasy theme, but shortly after designing it I added that theme and the Elixir to add a unique twist to the typical farming aesthetic. The game originally had pixel art and was called Pixel Farmer when TMG signed it. They liked the fantasy theme and thus put it into their Gullsbottom fantasy setting which includes the excellent games Harbour and Belfort. I love the whimsical nature of it, and it fits Harvest perfectly.
I enjoy fantasy settings in other games. It's probably my favorite, or at least the most prolific in my collection, though I also love space themes, western themes, and Japanese themes. My current gaming obsession is Gloomhaven, also a fantasy theme.
Annika: Your upcoming game, Empyreal: Spells & Steam also has a fantasy theme and is set in the same world as Argent. But this time you are visiting the genre of train games. What kind of twist you have in mind compared to the well known games of the genre? Can we expect a shorter game that still gives you the feel of full game like we did in Harvest? When will the KS campaign launch?
Trey: Empyreal is definitely going to be a unique take on the train game genre. The normal trappings are there: network building and pick-up and deliver. But we've added many layers: unique player powers, powers you learn over time, asymmetrical terrain costs, and "Spell Cars" which are added to your train and hold the different types of goods but also provide special abilities for your company.
So you've got three different ways to learn special abilities and build an engine (pun intended) with unique powers and combos. Like Harvest, it will be a robust gaming experience packed in a fairly short game for a strategy game, but closer to the 1 hour mark whereas Harvest is more like 30 minutes. The Kickstarter will be launching very soon, probably late April 2018.
Annika: Do you have further plans for your future as board game designer?
Trey: Oh yes. I'm always designing, I've written about 150 rulesets, created 50 or so prototypes, and at any given time I'm developing 2 or 3 games in hopes of publication. I do a lot of "set a game down, pick it back up in a year or two with a fresh set of eyes" so my designs are constantly rotating in and out of being actively developed and spending some time marinating. One of the reasons I want to do this full time is so I can develop more games to "publish ready" status because currently I only have time to get one or two games to that level per year.
Annika: Thanks for the interview, Trey. We wish all the best and look forward to see Empryreal!
Trey: Thanks for the opportunity. I hope this was informative!
In our biggest interview yet, Annika got to talk with Richard Garfield himself.
1. Mechanisms in games
Your board games always seem to fresh, not repeating themes or mechanisms of your earlier games. How do you do this; do you actively strive to achieve this?
RG: I see myself as a student of games, and I love exploring the vast range of games that are out there. Not just the most popular games, but also the cult favorites and classic traditional games. Not just board and cards games but sports, electronic games and children's games to name a few. I don't actively strive to create a wide variety of design, but that is an outgrowth of my love of the variety the world of games has to offer, and my interest in exploring it more fully.
Bunny Kingdom is among the lighter and cuter games designed by Richard Garfield.
There are some common nominators in your games, however. The fairly high level of interaction, and the moderate (perceived) luck factor. Is this a conscious choice and do you think these factors elevate the gaming experience, and how?
RG: I tend to favor high interaction low politics games over passive aggressive interaction games. Politics is the term I use to describe when 3+ players or teams can freely team up against each other; a 2 player or 2 sided game is not political. Games with 'gotcha' mechanics are often political, you choose who to hurt with your game actions. Games can be highly interactive without being very political - poker is an excellent example of that.
As far as luck and skill in games goes - I like games with a lot of both. Many see that as a contradiction since they see them as opposites - but I see them as independent of one another. There are games of low skill & low luck (tic-tac-toe), high skill & low luck (chess), low skill and high luck (roulette), and high skill and high luck (poker). The advantages of having a game with a bit more chaos in it is that players of high skill can play with players of low skill and still have a good game. Such a game can also spin into unfamiliar and unexpected territory making the games more varied and rewarding players for ability to adapt quickly.
Does theme play a role in your design or do you largely go mechanics first? One would think that as a mathematician the mechanics would usually be your starting point.
RG: It works both ways for me - though I do tend to design from mechanics first. An example where I designed from theme is Netrunner, and a small game Pecking Order. I currently have a game called Fat Dracula with a publisher that was designed from the name alone.
More typically I have a game design mechanic I am exploring, and when I have something that works I try to find a theme that resonates with it. Often the drafts are themed with generic fantasy simply because it is broad and non committing. After I have a theme I do like I redesign the game from ground up with that theme in mind, because want to take advantage of the theme rather than just paint it on - as much as possible. This is exactly how the development went with King of Tokyo.
In KeyForge every deck is unique.
KeyForge is now just around the corner and from what we’ve heard, the whole concept sounds fascinating. After coming to understand the fact that the printing technology actually makes unique game content possible, the next question that springs to mind is about the algorithms involved. How great a challenge is it to come up with ground rules for the system to come up with balanced and yet unique decks?
RG: It was a fun challenge there is a lot of room for exploration here. I should correct one thing though - they are not balanced in the usual sense of the word; I tried to make most decks able to win against most other decks with a little luck and skill, but it is impossible to design with the variety I wanted and have the decks be 'fair'. Instead, we added a handicapping system so players could play a wide variety of decks against one another fairly.
It is also possible to play fun games without handicaps or balanced decks - some of my favorite experiences in the game has been trying to topple a strong deck. My opponent and I both know which is favored and we take turns playing it with glory going to the player who brings it down.
My focus was therefore less on balance and more on making the decks genuinely have different character. I wanted to make a game where you would play differently if you know both your deck and your opponent's deck than if you were playing with a deck the first time.
What is in your mind the core audience for the KeyForge? Seems like it could be great choice for people who would love to play games like Magic, but just don’t have the time get into all that deckbuilding. Also, we could see it being a bridge between TCG-players and those who play a lot of board games or more traditional card games with set components.
RG: There is a lot of excellent play in trading card games but many players don't want to participate in constructed play. It is time consuming and often expensive to participate in that way - and to be successful players often have to take other peoples designs - which takes away the sense of character that players often want from a TCG. Drafts and sealed deck can provide that play, but are generally disposable experiences. I wanted a game that had the variety and character of a TCG, but was entirely about play. This is largely inspired by the early days of TCGs when we would have leagues that gave limited numbers of cards to each player - and they would play with those cards for weeks or even months.
2. The importance of gaming
How would you explain the importance of board games to you personally (designing and business aside)? Do you manage to play a lot of games nowadays and what is the part you enjoy the most?
RG: Games are the main way I relate to people - they play a part in almost all my relationships. There is nothing I enjoy more than exploring a game, old or new, with family or friends. It is also one of the tools I use to understand the world. When trying to understand something complex - like a facet of economics or evolution for example, one of the things I like to do is model it with some sort of game.
I do play games a lot. I find that when I don't play games I don't enjoy life as much, and certainly don't design as well.
I am sure you have heard a lot of stories from the players of your games, top experiences they’ve had while playing or maybe a game has had a great importance in their lives. Can you share any story that has stuck on your mind particularly wel/b]
[b]RG: I have no stories in particular but have many times heard from people thankful that they found a community they felt they belonged to. Games in general are good for bringing strangers together because they provide rules and a sense of safety for interaction ... from which a relationship can grow.
What do you think is the cultural importance of gaming? Nowadays almost everyone plays something and games have a great visibility in our culture. Do you think that the games are more important to people now than in decades and centuries before?
RG: I suspect games are more important for a number of reasons ... we have more free time, intellect is more important to success, and they give a more genuine connection than many of our electronic intermediaries do, to name a few. At the same time I think historically games are much more important than most people understand, because much of our game history was lost since it was largely a spoken history.
Here in Finland a new branch of academic research is emerging, called gamification. It focuses on the central role of games in society , and it is used more and more in education. Do you see this kind of development in the US?
RG: Games are a hugely underutilized tool in education - and that is being corrected to some degree, though it still carries a connotation of frivolity which can make it less appreciated than it should be. In society outside of education the influence of games is apparent, and the term gamification has become a buzzword. Unfortunately my impression is that its use in business is centered on Skinnerian or Pavlovian tricks to addict players to certain behaviors, rather than truly incorporating games. It is sort of like if we started putting words on signs and claimed we were using "literature" to help warn people. While I think games have immense possibilities I have grown somewhat cynical about the term gamification.
Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (aka Jyhad) was published soon after Magic the Gathering in 1994.
3. Designing and publishing games
You have told in past interviews that you have a lot of prototypes, waiting in a drawer (even for a decade!) for the right time to be taken out again and to be finished and published. This to my ears requires a lot of patience. Do you consider that to be one of your basic qualities as a designer?
RG: It is absolutely one of my characteristics, and it one of the most important reasons my games are like they are. There is some patience but perhaps less than it seems. I am dazzled by so much of games there is always something to explore, that putting something on hold is as much an excuse to explore something else as it is an act of patience with regard to that project. And, while this slow process works well for me it is not something I think is generally applicable - many designers are very fast and very good. People's minds work in different ways and the important thing is to figure out what works best for you. I happen to be slow, hands-on (I like to play lots of prototypes rather than just think about them), and intuitive (I often don't realize why I want to go in a particular direction until later).
In your experience, what are the top-3 qualities a promising game designer should develop in him-/herself in order to become a successful designer?
RG: It is important to actually play with people who will give you critical feedback, but learning how to interpret that feedback is often not obvious. Feedback might be in the form of a suggestion which as a designer you might know doesn't work. But that suggestion is generally a solution to an unspoken problem which can be addressed in a different way. For example, a player might want to add wild cards, which might not work in your design - for some reason. But that could mean they have trouble getting the right cards, or perhaps they are just looking for extra variation in the deck. If you can figure out what they are really after you can solve those problems perhaps with a larger handsize, or a few special cards. Similarly they might complain about something which isn't really the issue. The game is too long could really mean the last half is boring. Understanding that gives you additional ways to address the issue - you can shorten it or make it more interesting in the second half.
The ability to let go of mechanics is important. Designers often have more going on than is good for a game, and figuring out what to cut is important. I usually see a game as having a complexity budget. You can add extra complexity, but you want to get value out of it. And if you can cut something which is increasing complexity for marginal increase in interest - you will be better off.
The most important skill to develop is the ability to understand what people like in games outside your comfort zone. It is easy to say a particular game isn't for you, but it is often possible to learn why others like it - and even cultivate an appreciation of your own. With that appreciation you can being something new into your game design. The more tools you have the more games you can make.
How do you see the development of the publishers’ professionalism during the last decades? Have things changed a lot in board gaming industry?
RG: Publishers have gotten a lot more professional in general, and yet they are still largely driven by love of games.
4. This and that
It must have been psychologically hard, amid all the joy, when Magic the Gathering broke through to be a great success. Did you have good mentors or how did you cope with the sudden fame?
RG: The fame was a good sort of fame - it was overwhelming when at conventions but when outside that context I could have a normal life. It is hard for me to imagine being recognizable everywhere as a true celebrity is. There was some disappointment in leaving academics to focus on game design; I liked teaching, math, and being in a university environment. However, the chance to be able to think about, play, and design games full time is something I would never pass up.
And lastly, a lighter question. Which board games have you mostly played lately? What was your most recent board game purchase?
RG: Paper Tales is the most recent new game I am playing, and Space Base. Some old games I am playing again include Nations, Magical Athlete, and Codenames.