Charlie Labuz

#154 – Charlie Labuz

Patrick: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer every single week, and we talk about their experience in game design and the lessons they've learned along the way. My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I'm going to be talking with Charlie Labuz, who designed Parched, which is a game that uses coasters, which we will definitely be talking about in the show. Charlie, welcome to the show.

Charlie: Hey Patrick. Thanks for having me.

Introduction

Patrick: So, I know you. I found your game on Kickstarter, I discovered your game on Kickstarter, and we've emailed back and forth a little bit. But the audience doesn't, so I want to help them get to know you. I've got a lightning round in the beginning. Are you ready?

Charlie: Sounds great.

Patrick: All right. What is your favorite drink?

Charlie: I'm drinking coffee right now. I take it black, but recently, before when I was going to cafes more often, I was doing a shot in the dark. So, black coffee with a shot of espresso. That was my go-to when I needed a kick.

Patrick: A shot in the dark? I have not heard that before. That's great. Black coffee with a shot of espresso? Wow. I'm drinking– Just so you know, I'm drinking the sugariest sugar coffee that– This should not be called coffee. So we have different coffee styles, I love it. Do you have a favorite–? I'm going to call it a “Drinking establishment.” It could be a bar, and it could be a coffee shop. But do you have a favorite place to get drinks?

Charlie: I live out in Seattle, and I'm actually in the Ballard neighborhood, and we're blessed to have an awesome bar scene and a lot of craft breweries. My favorite of the many is called Peddler, and it's this bar that has this bike theme, but the reason we originally fell in love with it is my buddy is vegan, and they always have a vegan food truck there. They make the most amazing, greasy, dense vegan food. Just things I would never describe as vegan, and having that alongside this bar that serves pretty good beer. Peddler's awesome if you're ever in the Ballard area.

Patrick: Fantastic. There is a restaurant in Denver called Water Course that happens to be vegan, and I take people there all the time, and they're like, “No. I don't want to go.” Then they try the food, and they love it. I love those places where the food is great and happens to be vegan, rather than things that are like—

I don't know, maybe I think sometimes those vegan and vegetarian places get a bad rap if they don't do a good enough job standing up and having their own really good food that's good on its own. It sounds like that place has really good food on its own.

Charlie: The number of people I've brought there that have enjoyed it, whatever [try vegan food is]. It's been great.

Patrick: All right. So, last one here. What is a game you would play with someone every single time at a convention? Every single time you're at a board game convention, someone's like, “Do you want to play this game?” And you can't resist, what is that game?

Charlie: I've never actually been to a convention, which is maybe an interesting thing to unpack. I'm relatively new to the industry and the space, and just this past year, with everything being so crazy, it would have been the ideal time for me to jump into those waters. But it hasn't happened, and I lived with a buddy who was a huge board game nut.

He got me into games, and one game that we loved playing was Kemet. I do love those longer, intense games like that, and I haven't been able to play it for like two years because I haven't lived with them for that long. So, if someone asked me to play Kemet, I'd have to sit down immediately and play.

How did you get into board games and board game design?

Patrick: Awesome. I haven't played that game, but I've heard it numerous times, and it looks really good. So, cool. How did you get into board games and board game design?

Charlie: I started answering how I got into them a second ago. It was through my friend Pat, we both did a teaching program together down in Louisiana, and we were brought together through the struggles of teaching. The way we blew off steam after we came back from teaching for the first time ever was to play board games together, and he had a giant collection.

Up until that point, I was pretty white bread American as far as board games go, my family grew up playing Monopoly and everything like that. I liked it because I was competitive, but he opened up this whole new world to me. I was excited about that, I played Dominion and a lot of Doom Town and whole a whole host of other games with them. I got into board game design just because I was playing board games.

It seems to be something that happens with whatever interests I get into, I have a novel right now that I'm trying to shop around to publishers. Just when I get into something, I end up wanting to create something of that sort. Which is a particular kind of mindset, it's a creative or a design mindset that I enjoy making things just as much as I enjoy taking them in, and probably more.

Patrick: So, I'm hearing– Boy, I don't even know what to call you. I want to call you, like, just a general creator. You just like making things. Do you like challenging yourself, is that why you do this?

Charlie: I do call myself a creator, and I don't know. I guess I like a challenge as much as anybody, I don't know that that's why I do it. I don't like being pushed into the corner and being forced to do any one thing, which is maybe why my interests are so diverse and why I work in so many different mediums.

But there is definitely great joy in creative freedom and being able to make something that no one else has made before, and make it your own. I do definitely find joy in that, and there's a challenge in that, but I guess it's not necessarily why I enjoy it.

Patrick: That's awesome. I love it. OK, so just one more one more follow up there. Do you think you'll continue making board games, or is this probably like you're going to make this one game, and then you're going to find another passion to pursue?

Charlie: No, I don't think this is going to be something that I just leave behind me in my rearview mirror. I have a few other ideas that are already somewhat in the works, and I think what's cool about board games is that they aren't– Is there another medium for me?

I don't intend to leave a medium behind like I'll continue writing my entire life, and I've been doing a lot of sketching that probably will never make it out into the world, but I will sketch my entire life. I think board game design is also another medium that I won't leave behind, where something like, I don't know, basketball. My knees are getting bad, so I can't do that anymore for various smaller interests.

How did you decide to make a game using items you could find in real life?

Patrick: Sure, got it. Cool. OK, so let me get into your game because I think it's cool. It's called Parched, and listeners, I'll have a link for it in the show notes to the Kickstarter campaign. It did recently end, I think, just a couple of days ago if I'm remembering correctly.

So, there's a couple of really cool things about it, but just looking at it's literally a game that uses coasters for your drinks, your coffee cups, your glasses, whatever. There's basically little bits of blue around the outside, not all the way around, part of the outside there's little bits of blue and you want to connect a line of blue all the way from the starting source all the way to your side of the board.

You're either hops or beans, and you want to bring the blue line, a direct blue line, all the way to your thing. But I think the coolest thing here is that it uses real-life objects like it uses a coaster. It's not, there aren't special cards. This isn't a cool domino set, it uses coasters. So why did you decide to make a game using items that you could, I guess I'll say, find in real life?

Charlie: To begin with, I felt really sad every time I saw boardgames hidden in a closet or on some shelf in the basement, they're such beautiful works of art. Especially, I don't know if you– Like, board games keep pushing this even more and more and focusing on the artwork, that it is sad to just have them boxed and put away. It should be something to be featured, and this was one way to get a board game out of the closet and have it live out on your coffee table or out on your bar top.

To have it be functional and have something elegant, useful, and fun. Bringing all those ideas together. Now that's the nice story about it, but in reality, I more stumbled upon it. Much like I stumbled upon octagons, which is weird as well, so I was playing with a bunch of tiles that I picked up from Home Depot and realized that they would make good coasters as well as good test pieces.

So those ideas just became linked together, just from having to use that material as my playtest material. Among some of the hexagons, I also had octagons, and I was like, “Why don't I try these out?” It took me a while to– I was surprisingly slow to realize that they don't tessellate very well.

Patrick: What does “Tessellate” mean?

Charlie: Just how they connect. The idea that octagons will always have a square in between their edges when you try to line them up. Which works out very well for the game that I made because it's about the path-building on the edges, and it doesn't necessarily matter that they fit together perfectly. So from that initial happenstance play testing with these weird tiles from Home Depot, I ended up getting a lot of character and different concepts for the game.

Patrick: It's very cool looking. I love it. So, I'm just looking at it, and it looks like there's maybe about 20 of them. Is that correct? Maybe a little more.

Charlie: Yes, that is the case. It's a little excessive for a coaster set, but it's what I ended up needing for the game.

Patrick: So, my actual question is if people come over and you have a party, and then they want to play, do they steal coasters from people who are already using them? Like, how does that happen?

Charlie: In my house, I have plenty of seats, so that isn't too much of a problem.

Patrick: Nice, awesome.

Charlie: But I guess if you're one to play a two-player board game in the middle of a party, then you might run into problems.

How did you decide to manufacture the game? Can you even go through a traditional game manufacturer?

Patrick: Yeah. OK, that might be a “Me” problem. Got it, cool. So let me ask you about manufacturing, because– Or, whatever term we want to use here. Just to make the game, because it is a wooden coaster set. How did you decide to manufacture it? Did you–? Are you doing it yourself with a laser cutter, or are you using a manufacturing company? How are you doing that when it's not a standard board game component?

Charlie: I have been making them myself in my house for the past year, largely for playtesting, but also, I've just gotten a few beta sets out into the world, and that has taken a ton of time. The laser cutting process is just pretty slow, given that I'm trying to get a fair amount of detail onto the coasters themselves.

I wanted to go through manufacture, even though I like having the control of the process myself, so I've been searching. It was a bit of an interesting search because I didn't imagine that I could go through the traditional board game manufacturer, so I talked to woodworkers in the US, and I talked to some people who worked with plasters and porcelain.

There was a possibility that I could have gone with them, but it would've been a very different product because it would have been very expensive to go with those people. I could have sold a premium product through a premium home goods store, but it wouldn't have been the board game market anymore. So I did, I had a contact who knew someone at Panda, and I went through Panda not having too much hope, but they were into it.

They're making it happen, and ultimately I think the construction is going to end up being– The construction is pretty simple because I'll just give you a couple pieces of wood that are glued together. A coaster isn't that complex of a thing, but I was excited that they were willing to try and do something custom like this.

Kickstarter-wise I noticed you had 313 backers and you raised $26,000. How did you get there?

Patrick: Yeah, that's cool. I wouldn't even know if a board game manufacturer could do it, but they can. Awesome. The other thing I wanted to point out with your campaign is I just noticed that you had like 313 backers, and you raised $26,000 dollars, which is a pretty high dollar amount for a small amount of users. I did some quick math and assuming I didn't do it poorly, and I think that's like $83 bucks per user on average.

So I guess, did you spend a lot of time thinking about the different tiers on Kickstarter? Because I noticed you have people can pledge $5 dollars and get nothing. You did do the T-shirt thing, which some people recommend against. You have the main game for $40, you have a twofer for $70, and you have the premium set for $100 bucks.

So did you think a lot about that? Because I think that's a great way to do it, to have a premium version, so you don't need hundreds and hundreds of backers, you need maybe three hundred backers, and you can still make a ton of money on Kickstarter.

Charlie: I was honestly surprised that it's huge so heavily towards the more premium set, I initially was just thinking about it as “OK, I need 625 of my backers at the $140 dollars level, and that's going to be my bread and butter.” But the $100 dollar tier ended up being a godsend because I needed that with a number of people who ended up contributing.

I will say I think that a lot of my contributors were people that I ended up knowing, and that helped with the size of the contributions, which was good. I do wish that I could have spread my net a little wider and gotten some of the smaller backers, too, as well. A little larger amount of smaller backers, but definitely having that option was integral to getting my campaign.

Patrick: Cool. I dig it, and I'm just looking at the game, and it's a two-player game. Did you spend any time thinking about how to make it three or four players? Or did people not care or think about that?

Charlie: I played with it just a little bit, and the way the game is set up, it didn't work out perfectly, given that I was trying to work with a set amount of coasters, and including more players would require more coasters. Then just the concept of the game fell away.

There is the possibility of trying to figure something out like that in the future or some kind of expansion, but I don't know that necessarily makes sense. Just with the simple two-player coaster based concept, it's very intimate. You're sitting down, you're having a coffee with one person, and then you're going to play this board game with these coasters that are right there.

Patrick: It's super cool. I totally dig it, so I guess how long did it take you to design this game? Was it an hour on a day, or was it five years?

Charlie: Time has ceased to exist for me. I guess I started playing with Parched two years ago, and it was just under two years ago that I stopped, I was teaching before this, and then I had some mental health things, and I took a step away from teaching briefly, and then it became permanent.

So what was great was that I had this board game project to work on and threw myself into that, and then also my writing, which I was doing a lot of, and I've been doing a lot of. How many hours a day? That's hard to say. I don't function well in that way.

As we were talking earlier, just about me being a creator and having many interests, I'll do something for a couple hours, and then I'll work on something else. Doesn't mean I'm not committed to that idea, it's just– I don't know, I'm fresher.

Patrick: I get that.

Charlie: Yeah. When I can, like, focus on something when I want to. But it's been over the course of the past two years, and it's seen a lot of refinement and development, particularly just in the gameplay mechanics. Some more in the card laying aspect and how things get manipulated and how the coasters get manipulated. But the coasters have remained more or less the same throughout that process.

Patrick: OK, so speaking of the coasters, are there other items–? Are you looking around your home now, and you're like, “I wonder if I can replace these items with a game?” Like, are there other items now you're thinking about making games out of?

Charlie: No, not– That's a great question.

Patrick: I'm trying to think of items that you have multiples of, like hangers. I have too many hangers. What can I do with hangers? That's probably a pretty boring game, but there's nothing else.

Charlie: I like that vision. I think I've been thinking about coasters a lot still, and I think it's very fruitful ground, and I don't know. I think every household around the world could use a set of coasters, and I'm hoping to– What I would want to do with my next coaster based board game would be to simplify it and get something down that's a six coaster set, something that you would–

Patrick: Sure.

Charlie: It's more reasonable, and maybe I can make it very premium if I wanted.

Patrick: Sure.

Charlie: I could have this nice plaster or even some kind of stone, I don't know. But designing a game that's interesting and replayable that only has six components or maybe six coasters and a deck is difficult, so that hasn't– I haven't quite figured that out yet.

Patrick: But even, what– Even tic tac toe is, I think you need five of each circle and X, so you need at least 10 pieces just for tic tac toe.

Charlie: Right.

Patrick: It's hard to make a balanced, replayable, fun, abstract style game with six pieces. That is a challenge, sir. So when you figure that out, email me, and I'll get you back on the show, and we'll figure out how you did it.

Charlie: Sounds good.

How did publishing your first game change your process?

Patrick: So this is your first game that you published, now that you've done one, and obviously you have stuff to go through the fulfillment process and deliver it to people, but what would you do next time? Let's say a year from now, two years from now, five years from now, you have a new game. What are you going to do differently in your process now that you've gone through the whole thing once?

Charlie: I'm excited to, with my next game, get more into the board game community and attending conventions and taking advantage of all those opportunities once they open up again because I have been flying. I think I've done things very well; I think I've created a cool game and a very well designed game, but have largely been flying blind and just leading myself in a lot of ways and experimenting.

That's led me into a lot of bumps in the road that I probably could have avoided. Also, it's lonely to work by yourself all the time. So just being able to engage in a community is something that I'm craving right now, so that's something that I hope putting Parched out there can be an entrance for me into this community. Then I want to bring more to the community as well. So definitely, that's going to be the key to me moving forward.

Do you have a white whale of game design? Something you try to figure out every time but you haven’t quite cracked it yet?

Patrick: I love that. I'm very fortunate that before the pandemic, Denver had, I'd say about twice a month board game design meetups, and those got me moving. It was really fun, and they're people I recognize, and they're people that I have relationships with. Like, we're friends. Without that, it's really hard to make games for me right now, so I hugely miss that community part.

So, I definitely get that. Do you have a white whale of game design? And by that, I mean, is there something that you tried to either put into this game or a different game, but is there something you've tried hard to get it to work, and you just you haven't been able to get it yet?

Charlie: I mean, I would also say a more simple coaster design, like I mentioned earlier. Definitely something I played with, but I also have a concept for another one of my interests is climbing and a bouldering based game.

Just the way I'm trying to set it up, it's very numbers intensive for me to get it balanced because I'm trying to grade 100 different climbs and give them different difficulties and different skill aspects. It's just something extremely different than what I'm doing with Parched, so it's something that I think I will eventually complete and bring to the world. But right now, just figuring out the numbers of it is has been a little intimidating.

Patrick: So, I was thinking snarkily that a game about bouldering would have to do a lot with finger strength. So, you are you fighting over cards with your thumb and your index finger? Are you trying to pull a card towards you? Just because that's been my experience with climbing, is I apparently need more finger strength somehow.

Charlie: I do like that idea. I might have to build that in.

What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?

Patrick: All right, this is great. OK, you've been doing this for a little bit. You just had your first game fund, congrats. What is a resource you would recommend to another indie game designer? What is something–? And by resource, I mean something that's free or easily available.

Charlie: Honestly, I don't have a single resource or a single person that I go to. I am a huge proponent of typing a question into Google or just going straight to YouTube and looking at a video of someone going through their design process. I'm trying to revamp my logo, I was recently told that it looks like it was made in the nineties with Microsoft Paint.

That's just my personal brand log, so I'm trying to redo that. But I mean, there's just so much good material out there for free, just like on YouTube. People walking you through step by step of their amazing designs, and it's a great place to start. It's not board game-specific, but I don't know if board game design doesn't need to be board game specific either.

What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?

Patrick: That's great. I love it. What is the best money you've spent in game design? What's worth every single cent that you put into it?

Charlie: It's a premium investment, but I would definitely say it's been worth its weight in gold, has been my laser cutter. I don't know that's something– I will say that it's not something that everyone should buy, it certainly isn't. But it has paid off in terms of production, and it's going to continue to pay off in the future in terms of playtesting.

It's going to be able to create premium quality playtesting components for anything I want to do in the future, and it's basically– It will be essentially paid off after my first shipment of games and the Kickstarter and all that, so that's been awesome.

Patrick: So, just roughly speaking, how much is a laser cutter?

Charlie: What I have is about $3,000 dollars, but there's a variety of different options out there, and you could definitely get something a little bit cheaper, and I would– There's always other options. You could do a CNC drill for drilling away wood rather than using a laser, it could be a slightly more affordable option, or even a small 3D printer might be cheaper than the large laser cutter I have.

What does success in the board game world look like to you?

Patrick: Sure, love it. OK, so then what does success in the board game world look like to you?

Charlie: I wish I could say. I've heard people answer this question before and say things that are very positive, just like “I want to make someone happy with my board game.” And I do, I do want that, but I think I'd be somewhat dishonest if I didn't say I want to see my game go out there and be financially successful.

That, to me, is somewhat, and it isn't about the money, it's more about my own personal insecurities to a certain extent. One way that I know that I have been successful in this area is if I win the capitalist game of board game design.

Patrick: Sure.

Charlie: I don't know. That's why I ended up going through a Kickstarter and why I'm not doing just small sales, small craft sales. I wanted this thing to succeed on a larger scale to a larger audience, so I'm hopeful that can happen to that. I hope people are happy with the game, and that's the only way it's going to be financially successful anyways. So I guess those goals are intertwined.

Overrated/Underrated

Patrick: No, I totally love that. It's going to sound so silly, but just because someone else has a different vision of– Like, I'm literally asking, “What does success look like to you?” Financial success is just as valid as “I want someone to have fun.” I think I agree with you where I've done lots of little entrepreneurial things.

I have lots of little side hustles, and part of the thrill is going, “Did I make something good enough that someone's willing to buy?” Which is different than other goals, so I appreciate that challenge. Let me move on to the Overrated/Underrated game. Now, I think you've heard of this. Correct?

Charlie: I have, yes.

Patrick: Great. So I'm going to give you a word or phrase, just for new people here– I'm to give him a word or phrase. He's going to tell me if it's overrated or underrated and a one-sentence description of why. If I said printers, you're going to say “Overrated” because they always break. Something like that. Cool?

Charlie: Got it, OK.

Patrick: First one here, 3D printing. And I mean this in the context, just in the context of board games and maybe making your own pieces or designing your own board games or something like that. Just 3D printing in the board game design space, overrated or underrated?

Charlie: I'll say underrated, just because I think 3D printing is so cool. Just the idea that you can create something that wasn't there before just by, I don't know, plugging in a little design into your computer, and this printer just spits it out in 3D. It's world-changing in a lot of ways, and I don't know how it could be overrated. Especially if we're talking about playtesting.

Patrick: Cool. Let's go with koozies, the little things that you put around your beer cans to keep them cool, that type of thing. Overrated or underrated?

Charlie: I'm going to say definitely underrated. I saw an amazing koozie the other day, it was a glove, so this person's hand went all the way into the koozie and was permanently attached to their beer. It was incredible.

Patrick: Very cool, I haven't seen that. So this one's a little bit weird, I don't know if it's going to work, but we're going to try it. Games with sound, overrated or underrated?

Charlie: I can't say that I've played one, so I couldn't tell you–

Patrick: All right. So, let me tell you what I was thinking of. What is the game where you–? Taboo. Now, this is not a board game, strictly per se. But it's the little device, and there's the time, you can hear a thing go, and you need to have your team guess the word and pass off the device to the next person before it buzzes in your hand.

Charlie: Gotcha. I mean, just based on that example, I have to say “Overrated” because I can feel the anxiety building.

Patrick: OK. We are recording this on Election Day in the US, so I wanted to go with the Electoral College. Overrated or underrated?

Charlie: Massively overrated. Sorry, founding fathers.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Years ago, I used to think it was a neat system, and now I'm like, “I don't know. Maybe it's not so good.” So cool, I love to hear that. Charlie, thank you so much for being on the show.

Charlie: Thank you very much for having me. It was great to be here.

Patrick: Where can people find you and your games online?

Charlie: You can find me at CharlieIsCreating.com, and then same thing on Instagram and same thing on Facebook, @CharlieIsCreating.

Patrick: Got it. No Twitter, you're against Twitter?

Charlie: Yeah. I am not currently on Twitter.

Patrick: Cool. Listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Charlie will pick up a beer that you ordered at the bar, and he'll deliver it to you. That's as much as he's willing to do here. Instead of talking about my Patreon, I did want to mention that for Black Friday, I am doing a big sale.

If anyone wants to get ten copies of Fry Thief, I'm going to give you 50% off. I don't know if I'm going to do an email sign up, but just go to my site, LaidBack.games on Black Friday weekend, and there will be a super-duper cool discount if you want to get a whole bunch of copies of games for friends and family and all that stuff.

You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, and you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I'm @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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