Malachi Ray Rempen

#138 – Malachi Ray Rempen

Patrick Rauland: 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 Malachi Rey Rempen, who designed Itchy Feet: The Travel Game, Roll Camera, and he started his own game design studio called Keen Bean Studio. Malachi, welcome to the show.

Malachi Rey Rempen: Hey, Patrick. Thank you for having me.


Patrick: I'm super excited to have you here, especially because you are a listener, and you reached out, and because we've chatted a little bit by email. But the audience doesn't know you, so we've got a lightning round. Are you ready for the lightning round?

Malachi: Let's do it.

Patrick: Brilliant. Favorite continent?

Malachi: Antarctica.

Patrick: Have you been?

Malachi: No, that's why it's my favorite. It's the one I haven't been to.

Patrick: Great. Favorite mode of travel? Like plane, train, boat, etc.

Malachi: Stilts.

Patrick: Stilts? All right. How far can you go on stilts?

Malachi: I don't know. I haven't been that far. It's been a long time since I've been on stilts, but I can walk on stilts, and it's still the fastest way to walk.

Patrick: OK, awesome. Love it. Then what's a game you'd play with someone every single time at a convention?

Malachi: If I'm honest, anything. When I go to conventions, I'm a kid at a candy store. I feel like I'm relatively new to the hobby, so I'm like, honestly, if anyone comes up and wants to play anything– If you want to come up and play Monopoly, I'd be like “Sure.” I'd be happy with pretty much whatever.

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

Patrick: Great answer. All right, so first real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Malachi: I came at it sideways. When I was a kid I played games, I played– My dad's German and I live in Germany, and when we were growing up we would play a lot of these odd little German games, which to my American friends and family were very odd. Like [inaudible], and [inaudible] and [inaudible]. These odd German games, we played a lot of those. Monopoly was banned from our house. My dad refused– We had a copy, but we weren't allowed to play it. My dad said, “Whenever I played that when I was a kid, we would just fight. So we can't play that game.” So luckily, I didn't play much Monopoly growing up.

But we would play Risk and so on, just like any family would play board games. I played Magic: The Gathering when I was in middle school, and then it fell out of my life, and I became passionate about filmmaking and telling stories and making films. I went to film school, and when I graduated, I traveled around the world at different festivals with my thesis film. Then I worked in Hollywood for a while, and then I moved to Europe and started a business in freelance filmmaking for a while, and now I teach filmmaking at a private school here. Then one day, one of my friends introduced me to– The group of nerd friends we had introduced us to Pandemic: Legacy.

This was my first modern board game. Needless to say, it blew my mind. I had never played Catan, for most people, that seems to be their gateway game. I never played that, and Pandemic: Legacy, not only is it a great board game in and of itself, and it's cooperative, and that blew my mind, but also legacy. All of those things all at once, it was great. Again, I didn't think, “I'll make board games.” But at the same time, ever since I'd moved to Europe, I had started this webcomic called Itchy Feet: The Traveling Language Comic. Initially, it just started when I moved to France and wanted a way to document the weird things about being an ex-pat and learning new languages and cultural differences and these kinds of things.

I didn't want to keep a journal or a blog or write letters home or something, so I just thought, “I can do a comic. I've always doodled around in little comics,” and then it took on a life of its own, and I never stopped doing them. Then you got into a habit, and now it's been almost 10 years that I've been doing this comic, and at that point around the same time I played Pandemic: Legacy I was looking for ways– The audience with the comic had gotten big enough that I had started to think “Maybe I could do some merchandise.” Because unlike filmmaking, webcomics for me was not my art form. I wasn't precious about it, and I was happy to sell out as soon as I could and put it on cups, mugs, and hats, whatever. I'm not Bill Watterson, and it's not Calvin and Hobbes, whatever.

People were asking for it too, and they were like, “I would buy a mug with Itchy Feet guy on it.” And I was like, “OK. I could probably drum something 

like that up.” So I was thinking about different merchandise, and one of my friends was like, “You should do a card game.” This was shortly after exploding kittens, which is the same idea. The guy who did The Oatmeal did this card game and made it big. I just thought, “Sure. There's enough people, probably, that could go for that among my audience that would like a card game with the Itchy Feet characters,” and so on. So I reached out to my followers, because I didn't know anything about making a game, and I thought, “Surely someone among my fans does.” Sure enough, [Maxine Riu] is a now a good friend of mine, and he was a reader of Itchy Feet, he does mobile games. He was like, “I've been interested in trying a card game. I read Itchy Feet, and I like it, so let's try it.” So we spent about a year and a half designing and play testing and trying all these different things out for Itchy Feet.

Then in 2017, in August, we Kickstarted it, and it was a crazy success. It was way– Looking back now, I was so ignorant then. But I literally put the goal for what I wanted the goal to be. That was my goal, my actual goal, which was $10,000 dollars. Which was like, “This is what I would need.” That's what I assumed I was going to make based on what I figured the amount of my followers would convert to buying a card game. We raised $113,000 at the end of the month, and I just was like, “What? Where is this coming from? This is crazy.” After that and then I went to Essen that year, and then after afterwards a couple of publishers picked it up, one in the UK and one in South Korea. They've been publishing it as of this year. My wife said to me one day, basically to the effect of “You'd be stupid not to do another game. This is crazy.” That was far more success with this little card game based on my webcomic than I ever had with making films, which was always my number one passion. I was like, “Yeah. OK, I'll do another one.” That's when I struck upon the idea of doing a board game based on film making, which is my next upcoming project, Roll Camera.

Then I started Keen Bean Studio, and I just got sucked into game design and into board games and this whole new industry and this whole world. It's such a breath of fresh air from the film industry. There's so much money in movies, and there's so much power and so much status and all of this stuff, and there's a lot less of that in board games. There's just not enough money to attract the jerks, or at least not as many of them. It's just been so lovely. It's such a lovely community, and it's so much fun. I've been having a blast. So, that's my board game story.

Patrick: Yeah. In my day job, I work a lot with open source software, and because there is a lot less money in open source than there is in closed source software and other stuff, I think I've seen the same thing where there's a lot– The community is so much nicer because there aren't the people who just go into the community just for the money. I think people who are board game designers are there because they love board game design. No one– Very few people are there because there's so much money in board game design and they have skills in board game design even if they don't love the medium.

So, that's a cool thing. I just want to go back a point, and I love that you set a goal of $10,000, and you got $113,000. Listeners, in the show notes, I'll link to the Kickstarter campaign. But I love that you raised $113,000 when you only expected $10,000. It's great to hear when that happens, as opposed to “I think I'm going to get $50,” and then you get $12. It's nice to hear it goes surprisingly in the other direction sometimes.

Malachi: Yeah, my friends had launched– It wasn't a game, it was a piece of hardware that teaches you how to code. They had done a Kickstarter, and they were my heroes, and they had raised, I think, $12-13 grand. I was just like, “Oh my God, that's so much money. That's so crazy. If I made that, it'd be incredible.” Then it was three days, and that was gone.

You’ve been running a comic strip since 2011, and in 2017 you launched your Kickstarter campaign. How important was it to have an already established audience?

Patrick: The thing I think I want to, the thing I'm interested in is your comic strip Itchy Feet. I looked online, and I think you started that in 2011. You launched the Kickstarter campaign in 2017. So you had six years– Keep in mind you made the comic strip initially like you started the comic strip as its own totally separate thing. But for six years you were building this audience and then when you did your Kickstarter campaign, I assume– I didn't check this ahead of time, but I assume you didn't do a whole bunch of Facebook ads and you didn't do a crazy newsletter strategy. You didn't do anything huge, did you? To prepare?

Malachi: For the game, you mean?

Patrick: Yeah.

Malachi: No, I didn't do anything or any of that kind of stuff. I barely knew that any of that stuff existed. I did read The Stonemaier blog, so I wasn't totally ignorant, but I didn't do ads or anything. I was just like, “Why waste that money? Just whatever fans want to get it, they'll just get it. I guess the word spread beyond that is my only account of what happened because I didn't do any of that stuff. I don't have the metrics or the data to figure out where all these people came from. I can't learn from that success, unfortunately.

Patrick: Got it. It's very cool to hear that you raised $113, I love hearing it. So let me ask you this, how important is it to have an established audience? Here's what I know, obviously I think we can say I think you raised a ton of money and without a ton of effort. Obviously every Kickstarter campaign, every game design does take a ton of effort, but you didn't have to spend hundreds of hours running Facebook ads to build an email list or go to—

I've talked to so many people on the show who have gone to every con in the Northeast to prepare for their Kickstarter campaign and get people to write down their emails on a piece of paper. But you didn't do that, and I love that, but maybe do you have advice for people who are trying to build an audience? Because it's so important. How do you–? I'm not asking this question the right way today. Do you have advice for people?

Malachi: How important is it to have an already established audience? I think, for me, I would never have even considered it, and it never would have crossed my mind if I didn't already have that audience. I wasn't coming at it with an idea of, “How do I build this audience?” It was more like, “OK. I have an audience. Now, what are things that I can do with this audience?” Because it wasn't– That's the funny thing is it wasn't something I was focused on. I didn't want to be a web cartoonist. I was doing it because I like it, and I enjoy interfacing with people about it and sharing these stories and stuff, but it was never my passion.

For films, I would never– Which is my passion, or at least was a lot more back then especially, I never would've done a Kickstarter because nobody was paying any attention to my film work. The only reason that I'd even crossed my mind to consider Kickstarter was because of that audience. That said, I think that it doesn't mean you should feel disheartened if you don't have that audience. I think I've seen a lot of successful strategies of people starting with a small game, a small card game, something just to prove that you can deliver something on time and build up very slowly over the course of a long period of time in several projects, build up goodwill, build up a following that way. I think it's, and I don't know, six years of giving out free comics every week. If that's going to be slower or faster, the other thing I would say as far as advice, and it's something I think you yourself are doing, Patrick, really well is to give stuff away for free.

You're doing this podcast, and you're doing it on a regular basis, it's something that people can expect, and it's something they look forward to. It's something they can set their clocks to, and it's the same way with Itchy Feet. It just never stops. If you're going to give something away for free, think about Jamie Stegmeier did the same thing with his blog. That's where he initially drummed up a lot of that interest was because he'd spent years putting this content out and giving it to them. I think key to that is that number one, you do it for free, and you do it with no strings attached, and you do it because you want people to have it. And number two, that you– I lost my train of thought. That's what you get for not editing your show.

Patrick: It's all good. How about this, I think I figured out a better way to ask the question I wanted to ask, which is most people don't have an audience. Do you recommend going the route of almost building up your own game design audience? As you said, maybe you release, or maybe you experiment with an unofficial expansion for a game. Where you just release it for free on your own website, and then you release a small card game, and then you release a bigger game with boards, and then you finally release a bigger game. Do you recommend going in that direction? Or is there something else?

Malachi: That's a good question. I would recommend that, as I said, find something you want to give away– I remember what the second thing was, that it's shareable. I think that's important that this content that you give away if you are going to give away stuff to drum up a following, that that content is something that people want to share. It's not enough to just put stuff out there and just hope that it sticks. It has to be something that you think other people are going to want to take away and use, and that's why the best stuff is artwork or educational resource.

Like what you're doing, where people like me tune in to learn, and then the next time someone's going to ask me, “What's a good board game resource?” I'd point them to this podcast, and then that's one more person that you have. That's a shareable piece of content that you've created. I think that's a really useful thing, and I think if you don't want to do that then basically if you don't want to go that route and you don't want to have people– You don't want to have to do that for whatever reason like you don't think you have anything that people are going to want to share or you don't have work that you want to give away, which you do. But if you don't want to do that, then I think then you're just talking about basically starting an internet business and all the things that come and go along with that.

Which is a different beast, and that has to do a lot more with Facebook ads and newsletters and stuff I'm doing now with this new project. But I think that's also a possible way to go, and I think it's probably– If you enjoy, and I think here's what I would say as far as advice. “Do what you enjoy, because all of this is too hard and too much work to do if you don't love it.” So if you love business and you like businesses-y things, and you're into internet marketing, go that way. There are lots of– That's where a lot of these small board game companies I've seen pop up. It's because one of the people involved in it has experience in internet marketing and e-marketing, or if you're more of an artistic person, then go the route where you're putting out your art, and people start following you that way and drum up interest through that. I think whatever it is that you like to do, start by giving it away for free. See people get into it and then go from there because if you're too cynical and calculated about it, it's going to backfire, I think.

Patrick: I love that, and I appreciate– I feel like my brain is still turning on today, so I appreciate you helping. The way you're answering the question is helping me think of the way I wanted to ask it, but I think– Just for listeners out there, if you want to give something away, there's so many things you can give away. You can give away rulebooks– You can edit someone's rulebook. You can give away, if you're an illustrator or if you have any graphic design skills, you can give away tips or actual– Little bits, you don't want to do too much, but little bits of graphic design work.

Or if you're good at game design, then write it up on a blog and share it with people and share what you're learning. I appreciate the way you said it, make something that's shareable to spread your name. I think Jamie Stegmeier is probably the person who is best at this with a million articles on Kickstarter, and he also does the other video series I like so much from him on YouTube is My Favorite Mechanic. Anyone could have done that, but he does it in such a good and brilliant way that it's so shareable, and he's shared everywhere in the game design world.

Malachi: I think what's key to that too is that even though he knows what he's doing and he's doing it as part of a larger plan, he also clearly just likes doing that and he clearly is interested in just picking out a mechanic and talking about a game. That comes across, and that's why it works. It doesn't work if you're just doing it because you think you have to. It's not homework.

You’re also a filmmaker. How does filmmaking and storytelling come into board game design?

Patrick: I dig it. So, shifting gears a little bit. You said that you're also a filmmaker, and I think you teach filmmaking. How does filmmaking and storytelling come–? How does it merge? What are the similarities between filmmaking and storytelling and game design?

Malachi: I love this question. It's something I've been thinking a lot about recently, actually, because initially– My personal opinion, I'm of the opinion that games and stories are fundamentally different things that you cannot– They're not combinable, I suppose. You can't mesh them, and yes, there's things like choose your own adventure stories or that Netflix choose your own adventure movie and stuff like that. Or video games that have a great narrative and stuff, and even board games that have beautiful narratives. I would argue that those are two things happening alternating.

A video game will have a cut scene, and the cut scene will be a passive experience for getting the story, and then you're back in the seat again, and it's an active experience. Yeah, there's ones where the cut scene is interactive and so on, like I don't know, Half Life or whatever. But it's still shifting gears from putting you in the seat and then letting you receive the things because I think games are fundamentally a participatory experience, whereas stories are a passive one. It is something you are receiving. Your imagination is activated, but you're not contributing to the story.

As soon as you do that, then it's not a story anymore, it's a game. I think, personally again, that a choose your own adventure book or story or whatever is more game than story because, at the end of the day, the story that comes out of is usually nonsense. The reason for that is that there's nobody creating the backbone of that team to support it from beginning to end. That said, I think what games and stories and movies especially share in common, is that as a designer and as a filmmaker, you are creating an experience for the audience, for the players. When you do that, when you're creating an experience for people, there are certain rules that you follow and certain things that you do to keep that engaging for them and meaningful for them throughout the whole thing.

One example, is that a good game? I think a good game experience and a good film as well has a beginning, middle, and end. It has an arc in the beginning, and you introduce the players and the characters, you give some background, you set the stage. I'm not even talking really about the rulebook, and I'm talking about when the game begins. I think a good game, the first couple of turns you're getting all of that stuff. You're getting into how and introducing how the mechanics are, what the basic mechanics are, what's the basic tension? What's the goal? What are the various tools you have, and how do they initially start to interact? OK, this is where we are. Then in the middle, in a movie you introduce maybe a B-story of a character, you have some new twists, and you have some new allies, you have some new complications in the story. I think in a good board game, it's the same thing where now you're starting to see “OK. Here's the basic mechanics. Now we're throwing in this, and that and the other,” or “Now here's what happens when these three or four mechanics all interact with each other,” and then you start to—

The complexity starts to become emergent, and you start to realize, “Wait. This is way deeper than I initially thought. It's not just putting birds in a sanctuary, and they're working together and creating this engine. That's Wingspan.” Then there's the end, which is that's when all the threads come together, and all the things culminate. There's this climax moment when the stakes are the highest when it's win or lose.

Usually, in that period you don't want to introduce new elements, I think in a game at that point in that third act, all of the pieces should be set. Then it's more about how the decisions that you made earlier on are then unfolding, and it's the same in a story where you don't introduce a new character in the third act to save things. That's a Deus Ex Machina, and then it just feels cheap. It's usually decisions that were made earlier on start to then have a cause and effect chain that leads to this climax.

Patrick: I definitely see that definitely don't want to add new elements, and the resolution of– I'm thinking of The Hero's Journey. Last night I forgot what movie I was watching, but I was watching this movie, and it followed the hero's journey perfectly. There's some movies– I think many movies follow The Hero's Journey, but this one just followed it almost explicitly and very obviously. There are certain things you can't do. You cannot introduce a new character in the final resolution. It just doesn't make sense.

Malachi: There's one more thing, there's another thing which I think is important. I think probably more so than the beginning, middle, and end. Because there are movies and there are games that don't have that, that don't have a clear cut beginning, middle, and end. Tarantino is famous for making films that are told out of order. The beginning, middle, and end is still there, they're just not necessarily in that order. I think games are the same. I think you could have novel experiences that don't necessarily follow a formula, but I do think one thing that probably you can't get away from in both stories and games is conflict and tension.

I heard this great– I was listening to Cole Worthy speak, and he said someone asked him the classic, “Do you start from a theme or do you start from mechanics?” He said, “Neither one.” He said he starts with a point of tension or interaction. And when I heard that, it was a revelation for me. It was such a great way of thinking about design and thinking about building it around this point of tension, this conflict, which is the exact same thing in a story. In games, people always saying, “I want interesting decisions,” is something I hear a lot. “I want this game– This game doesn't have interesting enough decisions,” or “This game has really interesting decisions.” As designers, we're always told that's the core of it, that your game has to have these interesting decisions. I think that always to me, it was meaningless advice to me initially because I didn't [inaudible], but what does that mean? How do I make a decision interesting? I think what it comes down to is tension.

I think it comes down to the same thing in a film, in a story you want the characters to have to make interesting decisions. They're only interesting if they matter. The decisions that they make, if you don't care whether or not they make one decision or another, then it's not interesting. It's the same in a game if it doesn't matter whether you do one thing or if it's not clear if you do one thing or another, then it's not interesting because it's just muddy. I think a good game, like a good movie, you need to have a clear goal. You need to know exactly what you're going for. You need to know what's in your way, and it needs to be clear what's standing between you and that goal, including what tools you have to overcome those obstacles.

Then there has to be stakes, and you need to be clear on what will happen if you do not achieve that goal or what will happen if you do not get around that obstacle. That sounds obvious, but I've played a lot of prototypes from designers where it's just a lot of stuff. It's just things happening. It's the same thing with movies, and I talk about this all the time in my classes with students where they just film a lot of things happening. It's like, “That's not a story. It's not interesting.” We have to be clear on, “Who are we following? What do they want? Why does it matter if they get it? Because if it doesn't matter, who cares? It's not interesting. I'm going to go watch something else.”

Patrick: I think when it comes to stories, we often think about, “I'm creating something” or “I'm showing something” or “I'm revealing something” or “I'm writing something.” But I think what's what really good storytelling is about is you also don't show anything that you don't have to show. If you don't need to show someone crossing the road to achieve their– We understand that they cross the road, and I think some board games could use with that. Where you leave out those extra silly– I can have a 10-hour movie of my day, or I could have a 30-minute video of my day where it only shows the important decisions that I made that affected that day. I think more board games could do that, where you can just take away some of those– I don't want to say “Bookkeeping steps” because sometimes games need bookkeeping, but just some of the less important steps in the game.

Malachi: Or it could be, and I'm guilty of this as much as anyone, is adding a mechanic to do a specific thing that only is going to come up once in a while. It's like, “Does it have to be this whole other mini game? Or can it just be a token or something like that? How much of it does it need to be complicated, and how much of it can you strip away?” They always say, “Good design is not how much you can add to something, it's how much you can take away from something before it starts to lose what it is.” And I think that's good advice, or even something I tell my students as well is “You want to begin your stories as close to the end as possible,” which is something we do in real life by the way. When we're– If I asked you if you came up to me and said, “Mal, the craziest thing happened to me the other day.” You're going to start building a story.

You're going to start to use a beginning, middle, and end, and everything, but you're going to start it at the point of interest. You're going to start with the hook because you know instinctively that's what is going to hook me. And I think it's the same in a game where you don't want to have a lot of initial setup, where it just takes you– And I don't mean setting out the pieces, I mean the first couple turns where you're just doing rote things just to get up to speed. You want some good advice that I heard? “If people are playing the same, doing the same couple of actions at the beginning of the turn, then just have that be part of the setup and start the game there.” Because you should start when it starts to get interesting. Don't start with a whole prologue. You don't need that.

Patrick: Great. You and I were thinking the exact same thing, so if everyone on turn one takes two money from the bank, then just start everyone with two money. The way you said it, “Begin your story is close to the end as possible,” for games, it's just begin your game as close to the end as possible.” That is fantastic advice. Just skip as much of the mundane stuff as you can to get to the really interesting stuff.

Malachi: I think though, you don't take that too far, but you do want to have– There is something to be said for turns which allow the game to reveal its complexity to you rather than just games where I have to learn all of the rules in order to understand how I make my first turn. I always found that overwhelming, whereas ones where it teaches me as I go along is also really useful. But that's the difference in a film between show don't tell and telling and not showing, you can have a character go through their day and give you a lot of interesting information that's important for you to know, or you can just have them– You can explain stuff in an opening narration, which is the worst possible way.

From a monetizing your audience perspective, does it make sense to make games or focus on Patreon?

Patrick: This is great. Love all this. There is one other thing I wanted to chat with you about. I noticed that you have a Patreon for your comic Itchy Feet, which earns roughly about $350 bucks a month. I thought it was just really interesting that you have this comic that's making you $350 bucks a month, but then you also had this Kickstarter that raised $113 grand. Granted, just once in the last six years since you've been running your podcast, or eight years or ten years since you've been running your– Not your podcast, sorry. Your comic. But I'm just wondering, from a monetization standpoint, does it make sense to focus on–? Maybe you should, have you ever thought, “Maybe I should make more games as opposed to focusing on making more content for your Patreon?”

Malachi: I think at the core of that question is I think they're two different– I don't think you have to choose, I guess is what I'm saying. I think they're different audiences. I think the audience which supports me on Patreon is doing it because I do this free content, this comic. I don't think if I did a Patreon for my game design, for example, that would work. Because it's not free, the end result is a product which you pay for, and that is the support. I assume when I'm buying a game that I'm supporting the person who made it and that they're getting paid. Patreon is more about work that someone's doing on an ongoing basis that is free, like your podcast.

So I think although there's overlaps in those audiences, you'd hope so, I'm doing this filmmaking game in July, but I hope that some of the Itchy Feet audience will come over to that and convert to that. But I can't guarantee it, and I can't count on it necessarily because they're there for the comic that comes out every week. They're not there to buy my moviemaking board game, so I do think they're a bit different in terms of monetization. You are talking to two different people, one person you're asking support for this artistic work that you do otherwise for free, and the other is a group of people who are paying you for a product. I guess your question is just, “Should you pick the one that makes you the most money?” Is that what you mean?

Patrick: I guess I'm curious because there's different types of business models. and the easiest business model to get going just across any industry is consulting. “You give me a big chunk of money, I help you one time, but then we part ways, and we're done.” To some extent, that makes me think of Kickstarters and games because most games go through one print run, so you had one massive $113,000 dollar single check from Kickstarter.

Of course, a lot of that went to manufacturing and shipping and art and all the help from people to make that campaign happen. But then you got to keep a chunk of that, versus Patreon. $350 a month, that's definitely not enough to live on, but it's also pretty consistent. It'll just keep going as you keep this content going. Anyways, they're just very different. One is like a giant bucket of water, and the other's like a drip of water. I'm just curious, which one maybe you want to focus on?

Malachi: I'm definitely starting to turn away from– Not turn away from the comic because it was always a side thing for me. But I'm turning away from movies a little bit and turning more towards games as a viable business model. I don't know that I would do it full time, I don't necessarily like the idea of doing anything full time. There's too many other things that I like to do. But it's certainly hard to ignore that $113K, and who knows, I hope my next project is successful. For me, it's going to be the to test the waters a little bit, and if this one also goes well, then I'll think “OK. Maybe there's something I can—

Maybe I can take a crack at this, and if it goes poorly, then I'll think, ‘OK. Obviously, Itchy Feet was a one-off thing. I'll go back to making comics.'” I think promoting a Patreon is harder to do, and you can't put Facebook ads out for a Patreon. Patreon depends on people knowing who you are and liking your work, and sometimes people read my comic for five years before they go, “I could chip in two bucks a month.” So I think unless you're making something that you're making astounding astronomical numbers on the work, then Patreon is like a nice extra– It's a tip jar, basically. The real money's in business. I think at the end of the day, and if you want to make money in this industry or any industry, it's in the business part, it's not in the arts, unfortunately.

Patrick: Interesting. Great. I love hearing this stuff. It's always helpful. Also, I know a lot of artists who I'll have to play this episode for them. Good stuff.

Malachi: I think that the artists who are able to, and this goes for actors and filmmakers and painters, anyone. It's the ones who know how to hustle who make it. It's not the best ones. That's the unfortunate truth, is that the quality is not as rewarded as hustle. Someone who can put their name out there, who can get attention on their work is much more likely to– I mean, look at me. I made a card game that I'm sure half the people who listen to this podcast are better game designers than me, but I had this audience, and I was able to put it out there, and so it gained traction. I think that it's the same with movies. This is part of the reason why the film industry was so hard for me to break into, is because I just didn't and wasn't interested in the business of it. I was interested in the craft of it, and the craft is not rewarded. It's the business.

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

Patrick: Yeah, it is the business. All right, let me move on to some of the other questions here. You have a more unique perspective, and you run your own online comic. I'm curious, what's a good resource that you'd recommend to other game designers?

Malachi: I've got a weird answer if you're up for a weird answer.

Patrick: I love weird answers.

Malachi: Because I had a bunch of low hanging fruit, like the Stonemaier blog and [James Matthies] blog and the Facebook groups, the cast and so on, Tabletop Simulator. But I think I would recommend your ears. Your own ears. Seriously, I think feedback is design. I think feedback is the key to good design. It's not perspiration– Sorry, inspiration. It's the perspiration. Part of that comes from the feedback. You can't iterate if you don't know what's not working, and you often don't know it's not working if you're too attached to your work. So the same goes for filmmakers and storytellers and any art, any art form that those who succeed or those who are able to ask someone else what they think about their work and then listen to them. I've been to Protospiels and board game nights with prototypes and so on where the designer will sit down with people who are luminaries in the industry, play their game, and then as soon as these people open their mouths to tell them what they think, they have excuses.

They have justifications for things, “This was meant to be like that.” And it's like, “Dude. You're not going to be able to stand at everybody's table and explain to them what you meant with this rule. It has to stand on its own. The only way that it can stand on its own is if you shut up and listen to what people are saying to you and take notes and go, ‘Aha, very interesting,' and ask questions.” That I think is the most valuable resource that you can have, is just to be quiet and just listen to what someone else– Ask what someone else thinks and care and genuinely be interested. Because it doesn't mean you have to listen to them, they don't have to design the game, and they're not the designer. But you need to listen, at least.

Patrick: Yes. Always, always, always listen. Even if you totally disagree, that's great advice.

Malachi: Words to live by in these times as well, eh?

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

Patrick: I hear you. What is the best money you've spent as a game designer?

Malachi: Probably a combination of my workflow, it's basically an iPad Pro, an Apple Pencil, and Tabletop Simulator. What is so great about that is that I can– This is coming from somebody who, for the longest time, avoided any digital interface with my artwork, and it just– This is also from somebody who loves to prototype with cardboard pizza boxes and tape and little bits and pieces. I love that part of game design. That said, I think being able to sketch something on the iPad and then just drop it into Tabletop Simulator instantly and then immediately start playing with it. It's honestly way faster than sketching things out on cards for certain stages of the design process. Not all of them. But that was easily, that's paid for itself so many times over just in the sheer speed at which I'm able to iterate.

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

Patrick: Great. Love it. Then, what does success look like for you in the board game world?

Malachi: Success looks like Ryan Lauket. I seriously think he's great. I think I saw him when I backed Sleeping Gods last year, and I'm eagerly looking forward to it coming. When I saw that, and I looked into how he runs [Red Raven Games], this guy draws, he does the game design, he does the writing, he does the graphic design. He does all of the promotional material, and he does the 3D modeling. He does all of this stuff, and he does have a little bit of a team there, obviously helping him with some of this stuff, and he works with his wife and his brother, I think.

But that to me, what a cool lifestyle. Just to make stuff with your family and have this little business, you're running out of your home, and that would be amazing to me. I don't necessarily care about doing it full time. A lot of game designers I hear talk about that big transition from quitting your day job and all that stuff, and actually, I quite like my day job. I don't want to do it full time either, but that's not necessarily the marker of success for me. It's not whether you're doing something full time or not, for me it's “How much freedom do you have in it? How much are you the master of your own work?”

To me, I think I'm not saying that I'm no Ryan Lauket, and I don't think everyone should necessarily aspire to be. But you always need someone to look up to, and you need someone who's at a place where you can go “If he can do it, maybe I can too.” That's where I'm at right now. If I could draw and design and publish my games with my close friends and family, that'd be the life.

Patrick: Listeners, I will have a link to Ryan Lauket's page on BGG in the show notes. Because he has done some amazing stuff and I'm totally envious of Ryan Lauket. He has done some cool stuff. I'm a big fan of people that can do everything, and there's something very cool about that. When it's like “I did the cover, I did the rulebook, and I did the game design.” There's something cool about that, as opposed to, “I'm very happy with the games I made, but I didn't do the illustrations. That's not a skill I have or a skill I've developed.” I don't know, when people say, “I love the artwork for your game,” I go, “I paid someone for that.”

Malachi: It's really rewarding to work with a great team. Especially coming as a filmmaker, that's a really valuable experience. But there also is a certain bottleneck to it where then oftentimes you're waiting on someone else, and then you're again, you're not in full control of your thing. And that's part of it, for me anyway.


Patrick: So, last there's an Overrated/Underrated game. Since you've listened to the show before I know you know what this is, but just for the people who haven't maybe heard an episode before–

Malachi: The game is underrated.

Patrick: “The game is underrated,” great. I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you just have to say “Overrated” or “Underrated” and give me one sentence why. The first one, games that can be played on airplanes, are they overrated or underrated?

Malachi: Underrated.

Patrick: Give me one reason why.

Malachi: Because when you watch movies, people can peek over your shoulder, and that's creepy.

Patrick: OK. What about–? I'm going to butcher the pronunciation of this, but the Shengen area, which is the part of Europe where you can travel– Once you get into one part of this Shengen area, you can travel through the rest of Europe without needing a passport or a VISA because you've already gotten into it, which is most of Western Europe. So, overrated or underrated?

Malachi: Underrated. It's hard to underrate everyone agrees it's pretty sweet. But it's still underrated, and I think it's fantastic that it still exists, and I hope it exists for some time to come.

Patrick: Cool. So, this next one is something that I recently came across. A physical board game that has extra downloadable content?

Malachi: Overrated.

Patrick: Why?

Malachi: Get your iPad off my tabletop. There, I said it.

Patrick: I get it. Then lastly, I'm just going to go with travelling through the United States. Overrated or underrated?

Malachi: Overrated.

Patrick: And why?

Malachi: It's funny, Europeans have this thing like “I've got to go to the States. I haven't been to the States yet, but when I do, I'm going to do a road trip. Yeah, I'm going to do a road trip.” It's this road trip idea in their heads, and I don't think they realize that a road trip in the States is a lot of driving. There's a lot of empty space there, and I've spent a lot of time doing a lot of those drives, and there's a lot of boring stuff.

I do like road trips now and again, but I think if you're listening to this and you want to travel to the United States, I would much more recommend you pick one place, stay there, and then explore that place as much as you can within that time that you have. Branch out maybe for a couple hours here and there, but don't try to do Austin to Las Vegas to San Francisco in a week. You're going to have a bad time. Pick one place, go to Santa Fe, and stay there for a week. You're going to get much more out of it than if you try to blast through everything.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Absolutely. Love it. Malachi, thank you so much for being on the show.

Malachi: It's been so great. Thank you, Patrick.

Patrick: Where can people find you in your games? Online.

Malachi: Keen Bean Studio is at or I'm also at is the comic, is the game, and my latest game is Roll Camera: The Filmmaking Board Game which you can see at

Patrick: Awesome. Listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you heard this. If you leave a review, Malachi said he would send his potato character from the comic to your home, so that's exciting. Then if you want to support the show, please join us on Patreon.

It helps pay for the podcast, and it keeps the lights on so that I can keep making cool content and keep talking to cool people like Malachi. You can visit the site at, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I'm @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

Malachi: Bye.

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