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 Ta-Te Wu, who designed Cat Sudoku, Cat Rescue— I'm going to try to pronounce this one, Di Renjie, Kung Pao Chicken and a bunch more. Ta-Te, welcome to the show.

Ta-Te: Thank you, Patrick.

Continue reading “#144 – Ta-Te Wu”

Patrick: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer and talk about their experience in game design and the lessons they've learned along the way.

My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I am going to be talking with Cameron Art, who designed Vowl. Cameron, welcome to the show.

Cameron: Thank you for having me, Patrick.

Continue reading “#143 – Cameron Art”

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 Kris Fosh, who designed Catapult Kingdoms, which is on Kickstarter as we are recording. It'll probably be off Kickstarter by the time you hear this, by about a week or so. There will be late backing, and we will talk about that a little bit later, but Kris, welcome to the show.

Kris: It is great to be here, thank you. Thanks for the call.

Continue reading “#142 – Kris Fosh”

Hello friends,

Today is a special episode of the podcast. I have some exciting personal news that I wanted to share and then at the end talk about how it affects the podcast.

Achievement Unlocked: Engaged

Last week I proposed to my girlfriend and she said yes so I’m now engaged.

So needless to say I’m very excited. Since flashmobs aren’t exactly cool both because of corona virus & because it's 2020 and flashmobs feel like a 2012 phenomenon. I decided to do it in my own special super nerdy way.

I made a mini escape room for her to solve. When she came in in the morning she noticed a ring in a ring box in a cryptex. So she can see the ring but she can’t get it. The bottom of cryptex has a 5 letter lock. 

A puzzle pod (cryptex) containing the engagement ring.
Puzzle Pod (cryptex) containing the engagement ring

That was the introduction to the puzzle. She then had to search for all sorts of other little clues around the apartment. All in all there were 5 mini puzzles and it took her about 20 minutes until she could finally get the ring and she said yes.

The ring & some puzzles
The ring & some of the puzzles

How Does This Affect the Podcast

So how does this affect the podcast? Well we’re planning on a private ceremony and having a few smaller parties when coronavirus goes away. So we’re planning a few different events and it’s taking all of my brainpower and I just don’t have the time to continue running the podcast.

I’m not going to shut anything down but I’m not going to promise to have an episode every week. As long as I have time I’ll release episodes but if I’m behind in wedding planning that’s going to take priority.

This is episode #141 and I feel like I’ve got so much out of this podcast. I’ve met over 100 game designers and heard their stories. I found the traditional route to publishing games and I learned about a few non-traditional routes. I also created, planned, ran a Kickstarter, and fulfilled my own game Fry Thief.

All of that has me wondering if there’s someone in my audience who would be interesting to hold the torch. Maybe it’s you – the person listening to me right now.

I think it might be nice to have someone take the framework of this show, interviewing indie game designers, but putting their own spin on it. Asking their own questions. I only have my own point of view and I’d love to hear someone else’s point of view.

So if you want to interview a few board game designers reach out to me through my website. I’m happy to help you get started with whatever you need. I really think it could breathe a new life into the podcast and give all of the listeners a fresh perspective.

So that’s it for this week. I should have a regular episode next week and I have a few interviews setup for the following week so there will be more content coming. But I can’t promise exactly when it will come out.

I’d love to have all of your help.

Thank You Patrons

I want to say thank you to my patrons on Patreon. They’re currently paying for hosting so because of them it makes sense to keep hosting this podcast so that everyone can hear these past 140 episodes.

I will be posting how exactly I planned this engagement on Patreon. I’ll share my initial plan which I setup before COVID-19 and then I’ll share the scaled back plan during COVID.

Wrap Up

Thanks everyone, keep making awesome games & happy designing.

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 to 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 to the awesome and amazing Ben Moy, who designed Breakdancing Meeples and plenty of other games on The Game Crafter. And he creates awesome content reviewing components for The Game Crafter called The Board Game Blueprint. Ben, welcome to the show.

Ben Moy: Thank you very much, Patrick. It's great to be here.

Continue reading “#140 – Ben Moy”

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 Jon Vallerand, who designed With A Smile & A Gun, which should be on Kickstarter when this episode airs. He also designed Cartographia, which was supposed to come out at Origins this year, and it was delayed because of coronavirus. We'll talk about that a little bit later.

Right before we get to the show, I normally talk about my Patreon at the end of the show, but I wanted to share a little update in today's episode that two people recently joined. They help me support the show, and I just wanted to say thank you. I'll share a little bit more at the end of the show, but just one more time. I super appreciate it, and it means a lot to me in these crazy times where someone gives you five bucks for the work you put into it. I think it means a little bit more, even now during this coronavirus time, so thank you very much. Now, Jon, welcome to the show.

Jon Vallerand: Hey, thanks for having me.

Continue reading “#139 – Jon Vallerand”

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.

Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. Welcome to 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 Juli Bierwirth and Adrian Kerrihard, who designed Mantis Falls, which is coming out on Kickstarter June 30th, which should be probably about a week before this podcast drops. Juli and Adrian, welcome to the show.

Adrian Kerrihard: Thank you.

Juli Bierwirth: Thank you.

Continue reading “#137 – Juli Bierwirth & Adrian Kerrihard”

Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designer's 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 Ralph Rosario, who designed The Alpha. He has another game that has been signed but hasn't come out yet, and he is a member of my local game design group here in Colorado. Ralph, welcome to the show.


Ralph Rosario: Thank you, Patrick. Thank you for having me. This is great.

Patrick: I know you because we've been going to the same game design group for a while, but the audience doesn't, so I've got a lightning round to introduce you to them. Ready to go?

Ralph: I'm ready.

Patrick: All right. If you're stuck in the wilderness, Ralph, what food do you think you could scavenge or round up in some way?

Ralph: Boy, I would be in huge trouble. I've watched lots of Alone, which is show on History Channel where it's got these survival experts who just go and have to live as long as they can off of nothing, and they just bring some supplies and build their own shelter and everything. I think I could maybe gather some nuts or something, but I think I'd be dead pretty fast or be calling for help quickly.

Patrick: Ralph, I think I could find or discover mushrooms, but I would just eat them and hope they're not poisonous. So, I would definitely die probably before you would. What is your go-to quarantine game?

Ralph: I haven't played many physical games, I've played more online. I've played lots of Potion Explosion, a little bit of Carcassonne and then some Ganz Schon Clever. So, quick little things that I can do online. I got the Humble Bundle.

Patrick: So these are on Steam, then?

Ralph: Yeah. Potion Explosion and Carcassonne are on Steam, and then Ganz Schon Clever is the online website where it's technically in German, but you just need to click numbers and push stuff. I've been doing that for a while.

Patrick: Cool. Very cool. Then if you're at a con with someone and it's the end of the day, and you're tired, but someone says, “Ralph. One more game.” What is that “One more game” that you'd be willing to play?

Ralph: I think I'd just say No Thanks because it doesn't require a lot of thought. It's just super simple and quick.

Patrick: OK. Very cool. I don't think I've– Did you make me play No Thanks? I think you did.

Ralph: I think I did, yeah. It's where you've got the cards numbered 3 to 32, and then a couple are removed, and then you have to decide, “Do I want this, or do I pass?”

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

Patrick: Yes. Got it. Very cool. OK. I don't know the answer to this, Ralph. How did you get into board games and board game design?

Ralph: I always have been into games and competition, so my family is very introverted, and you know me personally, so you might see that I'm somewhat introverted as well. However, compared to the rest of my family, I am a giant extrovert. I always needed something to do because conversations were not happening, and I found games as an escape, and I also found sports as an escape.

As an athlete in high school and an athlete in college, when I met my now wife, we did lots of sports. We played lots of volleyball and flag football and softball and everything, and then she ended up when we moved to Colorado, she tore ACL so we couldn't play sports for a while. Then I started playing more games and buying more games because I needed something to scratch that competitive itch.

Then we started to snowboard again, and then she broke her wrist again, so then I got more and more into games. Again, it gives me that outlet for having some competition. That's the biggest thing. But back when I was in college, my mom got me Carcassonne and Catan, and at that point, I thought, “These games are cool. But they're also really complicated, and I don't want any part of them.” Then as I've gotten older, I guess I've matured, and now I see those games as simple and want a little bit more.

Patrick: Very cool. I knew your wife had some– Like, tore her ACL at some point. I didn't realize that's what got you into games. It was basically that you were forced to stop sports so it opened open up time and you found that games could fill that hole.

That's pretty cool. OK, I want to talk about your game The Alpha, because it's actually– My side of the story is it's one of the first games that I played at the– Boy, let me see if I remember the name.

Ralph: Prototopia?

How did you move your game along so quickly?

Patrick: Yeah. Our local meetup group is called Prototopia, and it's one of the first games I played there. It's cool to see you start what you– You came in, I think I wrote down here in my notes, I think I played your prototype in early 2018, and you had it signed by Bicycle.

Or, I think it's now Games by Bicycle as their hobby game division in August of 2018. It was cool for me to see you rapidly develop this game and you came up with lots of versions and tested this and tested that, and you pitched it, and I almost want to say it was like you pitched it, and they were just like “Great,” and it just worked. How did you make the game so quickly, Ralph?

Ralph: It felt like tons of luck. I think I just combined lots of ideas that I had from other games that I played. I like Formula D, and what I liked about Formula D, the racing game, was the dice grow as you increase in speed in the game. I thought that was cool, it was very easy to understand, and it had simple decisions.

But there was some luck in it and also some strategy, and so when I was designing my game, I wanted the same idea. Originally I had started with different sized dice to represent the different animals in the game, and then I ended up making it simpler because D6's are easier to produce. So I changed that, and I wanted to create simple decisions, and I think I started with a good base.

When I originally was testing it, I brought it to board game republic, which is a food cafe with board games, and I had never been to one before. I tested it, and I got feedback from this other local designer who seemed to know what he was talking about, and I was like, “Maybe there is something to this. I should keep trying.” So I looked up more groups and then found the Prototopia group, which is where you play tested it.

Then we all– I kept getting good feedback on it and minor suggestions and feedback, so then I'd make those changes, and it just seemed to come along quickly. I don't necessarily believe that was all of my doing, and it just felt fortuitous to me. I also got good feedback from people, so that helped. I guess I should also explain what the game is.

The game is a “Push your luck” area control game. In the game, you control a pack of wolves, and you're hunting food, and so you're hunting for different animals in the forest. There's some animals in the near forest, some animals in the far forest, the small animals, are in the near forest, and the big animals are in the far forest.

Each animal has a different payout in terms of the amount of food you can get, so you have to decide, “Do you want to play it safe and go for the small animals, or do you want to be more risky and go for the bigger animals?” I think the other thing that I wanted to do with this game was I was listening to Ludology at some point, and they had an episode on the prisoner's dilemma.

When I was in college, I majored in psychology, and now I'm a mental health counselor, so I've always found a prisoner's dilemma super intriguing. Not a ton of people who aren't into games or game theory are familiar with it, but it always creates an interesting social dynamic to me. I wanted to incorporate that into the game, so that's the tiebreaker mechanism in my game.

You use this prisoner's dilemma, and it's not just a one-time thing, it's a multiple-time thing. It also can be a three-person prisoner's dilemma or a four-person prisoner's dilemma. It creates this fun tension and fun social dynamic that breaks away from the game but is a meta that's formed within the group. I think that just hooks people in as well.

Patrick: Yeah. The prisoner's dilemma is a huge part of the game, which is fun. I just want to go back to one thing, Ralph, because I don't think we talk about this enough. It's cool to hear, and I think also I have the context for how this game started and what it is now. But in your early versions, I think a berry was a D4, and a small animal was the D6, and a bigger animal is a D8, and an even bigger animal is a D12, and then the bison was a D20.

Different sides met different things, and as you said, you did later go to D6s. It's interesting to me that your inspiration, Formula D, I've played that where lowest gear is the D4, and the next gear is the D6, the next gear is the D8. You get it. It's cool to hear that you were inspired by this game, you took something from it with a different dice, and then at a certain point you left the different dice, and you kept more or very similar probabilities on the D6s.

That's cool that you're able to let that go because I think lots people would have held onto that, and it would have made the game a little bit more putzy, I think.

Ralph: Yeah. It changes the payouts, and then you've got to manufacture a bunch of different dice as well, which seems like a giant headache for people who do that. I thought it would be easier for someone to be like, “This works. We could figure this out.” As opposed to figuring out all these custom dice that are various sizes as well.

Patrick: Did you figure that out before pitching to the publisher, or is that something you discussed with the publisher after they signed it?

Ralph: I think it came from– I was reading through a bunch of information from different websites, specifically on board game design, which many guests have talked about. They were just talking about the challenges of manufacturing, and I thought, “I can do the same thing with D6s.

I just need to work the math and work the numbers for the different distributions of resources on the dice. I can do that and keep the same feel, so I did it before I had shown it to publishers. Again, it's still kept everything similar, so it works. I got lucky again with that because it was like, “This seems like a good idea. Let me try it.” And then it just worked.

Patrick: Great. Can you tell me what is the process? Or, what was your process of getting it signed?

Ralph: Again, I was bringing it to these groups to try to get some feedback, and then it was, again, more research trying to figure out “How can I get this in front of people who need to see it?” I had blindly sent emails to companies that had produced one positive result of someone asking for more information, but nothing seemed to work. I had made a sell sheet, and I had made a rules document at that point, but I did not have a video, and it was just a text description.

But then I changed course and decided, “These people who are in this game design group in Denver are going to go to Origins.” I didn't even know what a board game conference was, and I was like, “Sure, let me go. I can go with these people. They seem to know what they're doing.” I went with them and just trusted the process, and I had done some research and made sure I've got a sell sheet, and I've got rules that are printed, and I've got prototypes ready.

So I did all that, and then I was actively trying to figure out about publisher speed dating, which was huge for me because that got me in front of a ton of people, and I didn't need to schedule things. Then it wasn't me trying to get in with my reputation, and it was they were looking for something. I randomly and luckily found a sign up for that on the day it happened, so I got into the batch, and it was a first come first serve thing.

I feel super fortunate in that and kind of greedy as well, but you and then our other friend Jonathan Woodard in Colorado, he got in as well. We all got to go to this event and pitch our games at this speed pitching event, so that was super helpful, and that's what ended up making this game get signed. Interestingly enough, I was pitching it, and I don't do any selling. I just describe the game as it is, and if they're into it, they're into it. If they're not, they're not.

But I just let it be, and I don't think I was desperate in any way. In terms of like, “Here's what this does. It's so awesome. It's so incredible.” It was just, “This game does this. Blah, blah, blah.” Then I just let it sit with silence in terms of feedback. And if they showed interest, great. If they didn't, they didn't. I honestly left, and I felt there were maybe two companies that were interested in the game when I left the event, and I was super excited about that, but then I didn't hear at ton from them.

Then a week later, after Origins, I got an email from Bicycle. They're like, “We want to playtest your game, can you send us a prototype?” And I said, “Sure. Let's do it.” I sent the prototype, and then two months later, they sent me another email, “We want to talk to you about signing a game and a licensing agreement. Can we make that happen?” I said, “Yeah. Great. Here, schedule a time.” Then we called, and we talked on the phone, they explained their process for about half an hour or so.

Then I read over the contract, and I talked with Jonathan, who had two games signed at that point, and I asked for his feedback and input on what I was reading. Then I signed the deal and turned it over to them, and so it was– It seemed crazy because that was, again, the first conference I had gone to and it somehow worked out. Again, I wasn't selling anything, which was the interesting part to me. They just seemed to want it. Again, it was another fortuitous thing. I'm going to keep using that word, but it just seemed that way.

Patrick: I want to jump in here, because first of all I had Jonathan Woodard on in Episode 60, I'll link to that in the show notes. All of us went to that same speed dating event, and it's fascinating. Ralph, I love your story because I've heard from some people who they plan 20 publisher pitches over a Gen Con weekend. I just can't do that.

That's not my style, I want to play games, and I will go to speed dating events like you did, but I am definitely not going to set up a million publisher meetings because it's putzy and it's not what I go to game cons for. But Ralph, I love hearing that you went to your first game convention, you didn't know what it was, but you just went and then you signed up for speed dating the day of.

You go there, and you just tell people your game, you're not hyping it up. You just tell people, “Here's my game.” Two people are interested, and then it just worked. It's great to hear that, Ralph. I think it's nice to hear that not every single time, you need to put in a ton of legwork. Sometimes it's about putting– Obviously you did, I shouldn't say “Putting in enough legwork,” because you did so much work preparing the game, tweaking the game and preparing the game manufacturing-wise.

Switching to the D6s and having a sell sheet, you did all that, and then it was great. You had a publisher speed dating event, and you found the right publisher, they found you, and it didn't require hours and hours and hours of researching publishers. It just took a little bit of legwork, but not a crazy amount. I love hearing that.

Ralph, I don't think I realized this, but I have to find the episode number. We went to the same speed dating event, and I think technically you went on day one. I went on day two, but it was the same type of event. What's interesting is you had two publishers interested in your game, and I had two publishers interested in mine, and it's helpful to know that one of them took my game home and didn't sign it, and one of them took your game home and did sign it.

There's something about you just have to keep trying until you find that right fit. At some point, that'll happen, and Ralph, it's so cool to hear that happened for you on the first try. It gives me hope.

Ralph: A lot of it, it makes me think of dating in general where it's somehow about fit, and if there isn't a fit, it doesn't work out. Some of that seems like fortune, and some of that seems to be a result of planning. In my case, it was more fortune, but to any game designer, I think that's a good sign.

If you can find the right fit or they seem to find you, it will work out. Or sometimes it just might not be the right fit. That's not anything personal, and it just wasn't the right place at the right time.

Bicycle is releasing your game directly to retail. Is there any loss in not having a Kickstarter?

Patrick: Yeah. So, Bicycle– Or I should say, Games by Bicycle, is releasing your game directly to retail. Just in this day and age where I'm just so used to backing games on Kickstarter, it's funny that it's a little weird for me. I know certain companies like Stonemaier Games, they release directly to retail, and you can preorder through the website, but it's not Kickstarter.

But I love that they're doing this, and I should say they are releasing your game on June 16th. I had to look that up, but June 16th and we are recording this a couple of weeks ahead of time. But this episode should come out on June 16th, or a couple of days after.

So as soon as this episode comes out, your game should be available in stores, which is cool. But are you a little bummed? Or, do you have any thoughts about not being on Kickstarter? Does that bug you at all, or are you totally fine with that?

Ralph: I am completely fine with it. Going into this whole thing, I had zero interest in trying to publish games myself. I don't feel like I have enough interest in trying to make money. It's more like the creation aspect that I enjoy. I felt like I made this cool thing, and I wanted people to do it. If people bought into it, great, then they will go and manufacture it.

I don't feel personally losing anything regarding Kickstarter, and it sounds to me Kickstarter produces tons of anxiety and worry and excitement and everything and an emotional roller coaster. I don't think I necessarily want that, however, what's interesting is Kickstarter can give you immediate feedback on “What's the market size for this game?” I feel like that's something I am missing out on, and maybe my game will sell nothing, and maybe it will sell a ton.

I don't know. I just have to wait, and it's like a playtest session. I go to test my prototype, and I don't know what's going to happen, and people might love it, and people might hate it. I just have to sit with that discomfort, so I think I think that's the biggest loss. I'm not getting immediate gratification or immediate feedback on what the market is like.

Patrick: Yeah, I guess you do lose some immediacy. It is nice knowing I had 5,000 people back the game, and you know you're going to make slightly more than 5,000 copies. But also Ralph, you pointed this out, and I don't think we talk about it enough, I would say Kickstarter gives you high highs and low lows. When you exceed your expectations, everything's amazing, and I didn't have too many user questions because I only had 500 something backers or just shy.

But you also do have the low lows, where you're not meeting your funding goal, or you're running ads, and you're using– You actually have to spend money, and then you're not making the money back. There is something great about not dealing with that. Yes, you get excitement, but you also get to skip the anxiety that comes with that. That is a great point of feedback.

Ralph: Yeah. The emotional impact and the financial impact of running a Kickstarter is way different, and you can be a little bit more detached if it goes straight to retail.

How important is a local game design community?

Patrick: Very cool. So you cued this up just a couple of sentences ago, but what is–? How important is this local game design community to you? I know we've been in the same one, what does it give you? I don't know if this is the right way to frame it, but what would have happened if you didn't have this local game design community?

Ralph: I think the biggest thing would be bias in some feedback that I'm getting, if I playtest with my wife or my friends or close friends, I think they're honest with me. However, I also think they're going to tend to be mindful or aware of how I might feel about their feedback, and they might cushion what they say to me, whereas in this game design group the explicit purpose is to test games and give feedback and do it in a more procedural way, in a sense that you're trying to make good games or better games and you don't care about the designer's– This doesn't sound right, but the designer's emotional well-being.

Where your friends or family might be more caring about how you feel as opposed to the product that you created, and so it's been awesome because I've also gotten tons of diverse feedback. There are people in that group who do not want to play The Alpha ever and seem to dislike it, and it's not in their comfort zone, and there are other people who love it. And there are other people who might not necessarily like it, but they have fun while playing with it because of the people they are with.

I think that's the neat part for all of us if you're in that group you're creating community within the group. You're also getting lots of eyes on the game that are not necessarily intimate relationships with you or close personal relationships with you. It gives lots of different feedback. Also, when I playtest your games or playtest anybody else's in the group's games, I can pick ideas from what they're doing or what they've designed, and I can hear lots of feedback. Lots of the feedback that you hear when you're playtesting a game is just general feedback on the game that isn't necessarily– Like, you'll get lots of solutions to a problem.

Again you need to filter through that and figure out, “What is the core experience or the core game that I want to create? Does this match?” I got tons of feedback. One of the things is my game has luck in it. There's no doubt about that. I got a suggestion at one point to add a spinner to resolve conflicts. I was like, “OK. That is an idea. Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate that. That would, I guess, give people more random outcomes as opposed to it being predictable.”

So again, I need to validate that person's experience, but also I need to filter that through and say, “That doesn't match with the experience that I want to try to create in this game.”

Patrick: I just love getting feedback like this. It's like, “Here's my game. The point of the game is to lie and deceive your friends.” “I like this game because you have less lying and deceiving your friends.”

Ralph: Exactly.

How do you approach feedback when play testing your designs?

Patrick: Like, “I hear you.” Because one of the core parts of your game is this prisoner's dilemma to resolve ties, and you can hear the feedback about why someone might not want that, but you still don't want– You can hear the feedback, but if that's your goal, then you're just not going to act on it.

So you wrote this question here, Ralph, and I think you just answered it, but let me know if there's anything you want to add onto it. How do you approach feedback when playtesting your designs?

Ralph: I wanted to add one other thing. The other thing I would add is I'm going into playtests, and I get feedback from Patrick on my game that turns are taking too long. Based on all the testing that I've done in the past, turns are the appropriate length. They used to be way worse, and Patrick is the single person that keeps saying this. I need to aggregate all that data and determine, “Is Patrick's voice being heard and listened to?” What might happen is over the course of three weeks, I decide to completely disregard Patrick's feedback because it's the only person that's saying that.

However, in three weeks, I might come to an Epiphany. I'll be like, “What Patrick said makes a ton of sense. I need to do that. I need to shorten turns.” So I take in, or I try to take in all feedback, whether it is valid to me in that moment or not, and then reflect on it later on. There's no specific procedure that I use. But I think there's truth in what everybody says, and I need to respect that and then at some point potentially revisit it.

That happened multiple times over the course of this design as well, and it was that someone would say something and I would disregard it. Then two weeks later, I would recall what that person said, and it was like, “That was a really good idea. In the moment I was internally defensive, I didn't express that outwardly. But then I realized there's lots of merit to that, and I need to try that, and then I'd try it, and it worked.”

And I'm like, “Oh my God, that was brilliant. Thank you for that.” I can point out to four or five people who gave me feedback on The Alpha, and I can say that specific change in the game came from your suggestion on this one day. I talked to them about it, and they're like, “Really? I didn't even know that.” And I was like, “Yeah. You said that, and that totally made a huge impact on the game.”

I think it's taking feedback from everybody, even if you disagree with it in the moment, and then look back on it later. Again, it could be something that's valuable.

Patrick: I love that. I think I had a similar experience with some of my games where if someone says something that's against my intuition– I think the turn length is a good example, let's say I think I have short turns. Only one person says, “These turns seem long.” I always write it down, and then I go, “OK.”

You thank them for their feedback, and they gave you their time even if you disagree with it. But I think for me, what's helpful is to sometimes look back through my feedback and then maybe I look back through the last ten playtests, and I'm like, “One person in each group said that the turns are a little bit too long,” and I sometimes don't always notice the trends until I look back on my notes or until a couple of weeks have passed.

So I love– I think there's something very valuable about taking in every single piece of feedback, and sometimes you don't act on them, but just being open to– I guess this is about being open to acting on that feedback later, which sounds like you did a really good job of that.

Ralph: You and I have very different approaches too, it sounds like. Because you write things down, and I never write down the feedback that people tell me unless it's like “That was a super clever, brilliant idea. I don't want to forget this. I'm going to write that down.” I think I just somehow recall what was said, or the key things that stuck out. So that's interesting as well.

Do you have a white whale of game design?

Patrick: Is there an element of game design that you're working on that you haven't been able to crack? Is there a white whale of game design?

Ralph: Yes. So, I wanted to– I tend to choose topics that are different than the norm. I don't want to necessarily create trading in the Mediterranean games, or I don't know what else. A game about orcs and dwarves and elves and all that stuff, like a fantasy theme. I want to do something out of the norm, or I find something that was fascinating to me intellectually.

So again, I like the prisoner's dilemma, the tragedy of the commons. The one I've been trying to crack is figuring out the placebo effect, so I want to create a game that somehow uses the placebo effect in a game mechanic, but I cannot figure out how to do it. Every time I do, it seems like it's just a random luck of the draw thing.

I don't think that does it justice, so figuring out how to turn the placebo effect into a game mechanic would be incredible. If anybody has any ideas, I would love to hear them. Please reach out and share with me your wonderful ideas and I'll try to turn it into a game.

Patrick: So now is– I normally ask this at the end, Ralph, but where can people–? If they have an idea on a placebo effect, where can they find you?

Ralph: Only on Twitter is the best way for me for game design stuff, and I don't even post very much, but my handle is @CurlyandPickled. It's a weird name, but I have curly hair, and I like to play pickleball. So, @CurlyandPickled on Twitter.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated game?

Patrick: Awesome. Then I'm looking down through the other questions here, and you highlighted, “What's your favorite underappreciated game?”

Ralph: I got to go with Xenon Profiteer, it's by Eagle Griffin Games, and T. C. Petty III designed it, and I think it's super clever. It was deck construction and then deconstruction, so it reminds me of a new game that just came out through Game Right by Emma Larkins, which is deck deconstruction as well.

It sounds like her version is a little more streamlined, but I find it fascinating because it was, again, taking one mechanic and then doing the inverse of it. It's intriguing, and it's a unique topic, and also, the rulebook has some humor in it, which I think comes from the designer, which I also appreciated.

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

Patrick: Ralph, you made me play this game, and I'm very happy you did. It is super fun. I would have never thought of a game like this, and it just feels very different. We're all used to deck-building games, and this is very different where you add cards to your deck, and then you filter them out, and then you get certain points for doing it.

Super fun. How about this, Ralph? You've been doing this for a while now, so you have one game signed, and it's going to be coming out when this episode comes out. You have another game signed in addition to that's going to be coming out a little bit later. What's a resource you would recommend to another aspiring game designer?

Ralph: I am going to do three. I'm a cheater. The first one I would do is I getting 8.5×11 sticky labels, so you go to Office Depot or wherever, and you can just use your printer and print on that and then just cut it into stickers and attach it to whatever you want. If you want to put it on cards or you, want to put it on tiles, and it's super convenient because, again, it's a sticker and it's a giant sheet of paper.

It's just like printing on paper. The second thing I would recommend is I tend to not like graphic design programs that are free because then I have to learn them. I also don't like graphic design programs that require a subscription because I'm cheap, and I don't want to keep paying for something, so I've got one for Mac and one for Windows. The one for Mac is called Graphic, and that's $30 bucks, and it's got plenty of features. If you know nothing about graphic design, it's got more than you need. If you know some about graphic design, it seems like it's got enough to satiate you.

It's not going to do as much as Photoshop, but it does plenty. Again, it's $30 bucks, and it's called Graphic for Mac. Then the one for Windows is Affinity Designer. That's the same thing, and it seems like it's got more features than the Graphic program. However, I think it's $50 bucks. I found a discount earlier this year, where it was $25 bucks during Covid.

So again, $25 bucks on this graphic design program that does a ton, and I don't need to worry about the internet cutting out. I don't need to keep paying a subscription. It works fantastic, and that's helped me just find graphics and put them into designs so that I don't have to create art myself. I can just pull things from the internet, or whatever.

Patrick: I will just second one of these. Ralph, I also got Affinity designer at the start of the pandemic, and I'm looking at their website. It is still currently 50% off, so for those of you who are listening, you can– It's 50% off. Just the last thing is it can open Photoshop files, so I've used other graphic design programs, and sometimes you find other assets, and they're created in Photoshop, and it's annoying when you can't even open those files.

It's nice to have at least one graphic design program that can at least open Photoshop files, and maybe you can pull a layered file apart or do something simple, then do other stuff with it. But it's just nice to have at least one program that can open stuff up. Was that it, Ralph? Two graphic design programs and the stickers?

Ralph: Two graphic design programs, and the stickers.

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

Patrick: Perfect. So my other question then, Ralph, and I'm very curious on this for you, is what is the best money you've spent as a game designer?

Ralph: I am going to go with– What am I going to go with? We're going to go– I'm going to say– Man, I don't know if I have an answer. I should have known this because you ask this every single time, and I still can't come up with one.

I'm going to say going to Origins. Deciding to just jump off the diving board and just go, because 1) it forced me in front of people, and it forced me to show my game whether I was ready or not. I got valuable feedback from other designers, I got to connect with other designers, and I ended up getting a game signed.

Patrick: So, let me rephrase this. If you're an aspiring game designer– Because here's the thing, obviously, in your case your first con you got a game signed. Which is like, best case scenario. But even if you didn't get a game signed, would that still have been really good money spent?

Ralph: I think so. Because it opened me up to a whole new world because I had never seen– I'm going to be kind of mean here. I hope I'm not too mean. I had never seen that giant of a collection of geeks and nerds in my life, and it was great. It was great.

Everybody was super friendly, and everybody was super nice. Everybody was really, really into games. I think way more so than myself. However, again, it was awesome. It gave me a new perspective on game design as well because there's a vast amount of people that are interested in games.

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

Patrick: Awesome. Ralph, you've got a game coming out, and you've got a game signed. What does success look like to you?

Ralph: I feel like it's all about creating for me. That the perks of having a game signed and feeling proud of that fact and “Someone decided to take this thing that I created” is cool. But I don't anticipate making tons of money from it, or from game design in general, but it is a good creative outlet. I think that is success.

If I can continue to do it and find interest in it, and it gives me a sense of challenge as well. Because it's problem-solving, you try to make something, and it doesn't work, so you try to fix it. I think that's success to me if I can continue to try to solve problems and help others along the way.


Patrick: Awesome. So then I like to end with a game called Overrated/Underrated. Now I know you've listened to the show a couple of times, but just in case there's someone new who isn't listening, I'm going to give you a word or phrase and then you have to tell me if it's overrated or underrated.

So if I said, “Built-in webcams,” you might say, “Those are underrated because without paying any extra money, you can very easily have video conversations with people.” Something like that. Got it? All right.

Ralph: I always wanted– I want to call it “Choose a Side” because you have to pick one.

Patrick: Yeah, that's what makes it fun, Ralph. Because if I let you go, “It's appropriately rated” every time it's no fun. I want to paint you into a corner, either one side or the other. It's way more fun that way.

Ralph: Exactly, yes.

Patrick: I'm just going to go with an eight-sided die, a D8. Overrated or underrated?

Ralph: I'm going to say underrated because you don't see them very often in mass-market games, so not many people are familiar with them. They need to get more exposure. More D8s, please.

Patrick: All right, so we are recording a little bit after Memorial Day. Not “How was yours?” But just Memorial Day in general. Overrated, underrated?

Ralph: I'm going to go underrated because we need more days like that, where we're honoring people who have done service or committed to trying to make our world a better place. In addition, we need more days where eating brats and eating hamburgers is encouraged.

Patrick: Yes, more meat consumption days. I get that.

Ralph: Yes. Or more Boca burgers or Impossible burgers or vegetables. All that kind of stuff too, I don't want to be biased.

Patrick: How about painting miniatures? I'm going to add context for people here. I know you painted some miniatures for that Detective City of Angels game, so I know you've done this. Painting miniatures, Ralph. Overrated, underrated?

Ralph: I'm going to say underrated. For those who are not involved in it, you can create amazing things. I think you are phenomenal at painting minis, whereas I am like a third-grader painting minis. It's really neat, and I don't think enough people do it. I don't know if I would necessarily buy all this stuff for myself, however, I found it very fun to create.

Patrick: Cool. Just curious, have you played games with those miniatures, or has the game mostly been on the shelves, and you haven't got to experience the painted miniatures in the game?

Ralph: I haven't gotten it to the table again yet. I need to.

Patrick: Interesting. I think the last one, here's a very specific one. I want to go with coffee shops, but the context is during a quarantine. Overrated, underrated?

Ralph: Boy, I'm going to go underrated now as well. I have not been to one, and I need to get to one. However, coming up soon, I'm going to be taking a road trip somewhere, and I am going to be stopping at Starbucks to get some coffee, so that will be great. I think normally they're overrated and everybody goes to them and they're too overused, but now I feel like they're not getting enough attendance, or at least I'm not seeing it, and they're underrated now.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Awesome. Ralph, thank you so much for being on the show.

Ralph: Yes, thank you for having me.

Patrick: Where can people find you and The Alpha online?

Ralph: You can Google search Bicycle Games, and specifically under their games tab, you'll find The Alpha. Online, you could find me on Twitter @CurlyandPickled.

Patrick: Awesome. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to this. If you leave a review, Ralph said he would join you in howling at the moon. Which pretty cool for a wolf-themed board game designer.

Then I just wanted to share, if you like this show and you want to support it, you want to hear more episodes, you want to help keep the lights on, go ahead and chip in $5 bucks on Patreon. It would be appreciated. That is all I've got, everyone. Until next time, happy designing. Bye-bye.

Patrick: Hello, everyone and 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 careers in game design and the lessons they've learned along the way. My name is Patrick Rauland and today I'll be talking with Jonah Kellman who designed Lucent, which recently funded on Kickstarter. Jonah, welcome to the show.

Jonah: Thanks for having me, Patrick.

Continue reading “#135 – Jonah Kellman”