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.
Patrick: So, I have a lightning round to introduce you to the guests. Does that sound good?
Ta-Te: Sure. OK, go ahead.
Patrick: All right. Imagine you have no cats, zero cats. If you had to choose between adopting one cat or three cats, what would you choose?
Ta-Te: I will try two, two cats.
Patrick: But you've got to choose between one and three.
Ta-Te: Between one and three? Then I'll go with one, just to be safe.
Patrick: OK. Don't want to be overwhelmed by cats, got it.
Patrick: What is your favorite pandemic/quarantine activity?
Ta-Te: I try to find video games to play that would keep me occupied for a long period of time.
Patrick: OK, great. Then back when we have conventions again, what's a game you'd play with someone every single time at a con?
Ta-Te: I don't have a game that I play all the time, I just walk around and then just play. I usually like to play test games, so I just join whoever has their prototype on the table, and I just sit down and play.
Patrick: You don't have that one game that you love, that you can't resist?
Ta-Te: No, I can't think of one right now.
How did you get into board games and board game design?
Patrick: That's great, very cool. All right, so first real question here, how did you get into board games and board game design?
Ta-Te: Board games, I played it– My first game was actually Axis & Allies, and that's back in high school. After that, I started to get into board games and play them, so that's how I started. But there's a big period of time between Axis & Allies, and when euro games are imported, they're more available in the US. So, after that period of time then I started to play a lot of euro games.
Then game design, I always like to design different things, including games, and I remember I usually tell people when I was little, I'd make different games I'd draw on paper. Sometimes they were a maze, and I just forced people, my friends, in school to play my game. That was back when I was very little, but more for publishing, I started maybe 20 years ago. My first published game is probably 15 years ago. There was another one a long time ago, but that was a total failure. The one I published 15 years ago is not so much better, but it's progress.
Why did you choose to make lots of Kickstarter campaigns instead of making and releasing that perfect game?
Patrick: This is super interesting. I love it, and I love hearing that you've been doing it a long time. I think lots of people who are– There's a lot of new board game designers, so it's cool to hear that you've been doing this a long time. But the reason I wanted to bring you on my show is for the next couple of questions.
The thing that I think gives you this unique perspective is you've created and released a dozen Kickstarter campaigns roughly, and one or two have failed, but one or two have done well and gotten lots of backers. None of them were like Exploding Kittens, you're not making millions of dollars, but they're all making a decent amount of money. The one that I backed roughly two years ago was Cat Rescue, which earned like $22K, which is super respectable.
So, I want to ask you two questions on this. Number one is, why do you do this? Then I think maybe in a minute I'll ask you, “How do you do it,” but why do you choose to make so many games instead of making and releasing that one perfect game? Which is I think what a lot of game designers do.
Ta-Te: I'll answer the second question first. I don't think there's a perfect game, but there is a perfect game for some people. Because there is no one game, you cannot have a game that will satisfy all the audience. Back to the first question, I published for a long time, but there was a pause for 2-3 years, maybe before Cat Rescue. During that time, I would just try to analyze and figure out, “Why am I doing this?” If this is what I want to do, and so I start to analyze the industry, and there are tiers or steps to get you from the concept into a published game.
Then I break it down to the parts I like to do and not like to do, so it's come down to, I have so many games because this is the way I like to be in this industry, and the reason is– OK, like I said, there are different steps to the process into getting games out to the market, and I think I'm very good in the beginning part of it. Concept, creating concepts, developing games. But I'm not good at marketing, and I don't like to have my own booth in a convention because I like to go to conventions, but I like to go walk around and play games and socialize with people.
I don't like to man my booth, so if you want to publish a game or Kickstart a game and then get a lot of funding you have to spend quite a lot of amount of resource with marketing and go to different conventions to promote your games, and then in a way I'm lazy, and I don't like to do that. I'd rather spend more time designing games because that's what I love.
I design games, I put games together, and then put them on Kickstarter, so I'm not going to get a lot of money, but I think I'm happy with the process, and I know this is what I'm going to do. I'm OK with not getting a lot of funding, but I will enjoy the industry the way I am comfortable with it.
Patrick: OK, this is awesome. There's a lot here. Let me see if I can first unpack this. So, there's a couple of things here. Number one, I love that you love design like I think a lot of people– You're aware of how much time you spend in design versus manufacturing, shipping, logistics, marketing, etc. Partially you've done this so that you can spend as much time as possible in design, in the thing that you love doing, the thing that's enjoyable.
I love hearing that, and I think a separate part of that is you also know the process well enough that you know you can get funded and you're happy, basically you know that “With X amount of work, I can raise $5-10-20 grand. Enough to fund the game and to send it out there and then to be done, and then to move on to the next game.” Is that a fair summary, based on– If I can–? Is that a fair summary?
Ta-Te: Yeah, I know the things I had to do to get funded. I can gauge how much I can get funded, and then that's also how I set out my pledge levels, so it's just enough, and then to make a print run and send it to people. I'm happy with that.
What do you do to release so many games?
Patrick: I love this. I think a lot of game designers, including myself, fall into the trap of “How do I make this game better?” You just always ask that question, and sometimes the game is good enough. So I guess my question to you is, how do you stop working on a game when there might be a little bit more you could put into it, but maybe not?
Ta-Te: When I design games, and I always tell people that before you– Or, after you have a concept, you should start writing down who are you designing this game for? Like, number of players, the age, and whether it is a family game or a hobby game. That helps you frame your game design.
So, that kind of answers your question, it's like, “Is this game done?” My game is for family, for people who just play a casual game at home. Then this game, I know it shouldn't be too difficult. I might add one or two events or optional rules, but this is how I know if this is done or not. That's one of the metrics.
Cat Rescue has been picked up by Chronicle books. Can you talk about that process & how it happened?
Patrick: Got it. Super interesting. I want to go into something else that I think is related, so I backed your game Cat Rescue in 2018, and then I noticed when I was doing research for this episode that it has since been picked up by Chronicle Books. Who I know they do other stuff, but they also do some nice lightweight games like yours.
Can you just tell us–? So basically, here's the summary. You published the game yourself in 2018, and then a publisher picked it up after that and is going to continue publishing it. Can you talk about that process and how it happened?
Ta-Te: I was very fortunate. I was actually in San Jose Protospiel, and that is a great little– Not little, it's a pretty big Protospiel, and I love that event. So I was there, and then I just demoed [inaudible], and then I think one day I probably demoed [inaudible] probably 20 times, and I think one of the editors was there from Chronicle Books. So she played it, she liked it, and then we started talking after that.
Usually, when I go out to conventions, I do play testings, either my games or other people's games. I love to go to different Protospiels, so it's important to play test games in many different places like I was in Taiwan and China for about 5-7 years, so I grew up in LA, but I went over there, and I was designing games and tried to publish games. I'd go to different provinces to play test, and I found people in different provinces, they like different things about games.
They play different games too, so I realized it's important to play test in many different places. Not like in different areas around your city, but it's more in the greater area. You need to go out to different states and places and play test. You get different feedback, so I like to do that. And also, that's why I like to go into Northern California to play test. To get back to your question, sorry, that's how I met Chronicle Books.
Patrick: Let me ask you this if you– So number one, I think you're the second or third game– I've had over 100 on my show, but I think you're only the second or third game designer who has had a published game after it came out on Kickstarter. Sorry, had a publisher license their game after it came out on Kickstarter, which I think is interesting. Would you have been fine either way?
Like, if you released your game Cat Rescue and it just came out, and it was done, and that's fine? Sorry, I guess what I'm trying to say is, “Would you have been disappointed if it wasn't picked up by a publisher?” Or was it just a bonus for you that it got picked up by a publisher?
Ta-Te: It is a bonus because I wasn't expecting– I've had my game licensed before, maybe 10 years ago. I have two games licensed by Z-Man Games, and they're small card games. So I do have a few licensed games, but again, I choose my process of work, so I just don't like pitching because I'm not good at it.
I just don't pitch, and I don't have the patience to wait to get a response, so I just chose to self-publish, and that's one of the reasons. I didn't expect people to want to license my game, especially after Kickstarter, but to them, the amount I printed is still not a large amount. They're fine with it, and they like the game, and they're very– I like them because they are great work with. It was a pretty good combination.
I also noticed that the games differ. The new version includes a mat, the original version had cubes. How did stuff like this happen?
Patrick: Cool. I love hearing it. The other thing I wanted just to– That I think is interesting about your process is that the games differ, so the game that I got with the Kickstarter has an interesting plastic box, and it has some cubes that mark the outside edges of board. The new version includes a cool cloth mat that replaces those cubes and some of the things. So I guess, is it cool for you to see your game evolve by basically a publisher picking it up and then making a slightly different version?
Ta-Te: Yeah, I think that's great. Because I know I'm doing this by myself, of course, I have help, but overall I'm trying to get my own games out, and there's only so much I can do. I like what I did with Cat Rescue, but I think some companies like Chronicle Books can do it even better, so they did, and I'm really happy with it.
Also, one of my games, Promenade, I started it last year, and it's licensed by [Rio Grande]. Their version is coming out, there's a little delay, so hopefully, we'll be out by the end of the year or early next year. Then they received it, and then they did a better job overall with the packaging than what I can do, so it's great. I absolutely don't mind, and I'm pretty sure a decent company can do better. I don't think my packaging is that bad, but it's like I can do like 80%, and then they can make the other 20% and make it perfect.
Patrick: Totally, yeah. No, and I'm not saying your first version is bad, it's just interesting to see that there are different versions.
Patrick: So I look back on Fry Thief, the game that I launched on Kickstarter, and there's one thing I left out of the rulebook– And it's a tiny thing, it's not a big problem. But I'm like, “God. Why did I leave this one sentence out of the rulebook?” It's this thing that annoys me, and there's one or two cards where I'm like, “Maybe I could have cleared this phrasing up a little bit more. I don't want to say, it's not jealousy, but I'm like “Man. I wish a publisher would pick it up so that we can do Fry Thief again and just tweak those last couple of things to make it just a slightly better game. So let me ask you this, both selfishly for me but also for the listeners, how do you–? You have a game that's come out on Kickstarter, and it's already been published, is there anything you can do to attract a publisher like Chronicle Books to pick up your game?
Ta-Te: I don't know, I just think I was really lucky to get them published. Again, it's not all my games are picked up. I guess you just have to try your best, and also for rules, again, I play test a lot, and I send prototypes to people to play test, and I have people who proofread my rulebook because English is not my first language. I just try to make sure it's all covered, and just try your best to play test. Design and play testing, I think part of it is based on experience. The more you play test and the more you design, you get better. It's less likely you'll miss obvious things. But I don't know the answer to your question, but I was just very fortunate. Very lucky.
Patrick: That's great, and I think one of the things that is very clear is that you spend a lot of time play testing your games and play testing other people's games, so you probably just happen– The more you're out there, the more likely it is for you to be in the right place at the right time. By you going to play testing events in your area outside of your area, you're just increasing your odds of meeting the right person to have these fortuitous events happen.
Ta-Te: I think that that makes a lot of sense. Because when I go play test, I'm going to see publishers there, and they're going to play your game, and maybe they like it and think it is interesting. But it's just that sometimes you have more rough games, not like more complete games. But it's OK, you're just there to play test, and if you're lucky, then you get a publisher to sign your game.
How did publishing your first game change your process?
Patrick: So let me ask you this, you've had roughly a dozen campaigns on Kickstarter. How has your process changed? What are things that you do now, or don't do now that you were doing originally, or weren't doing? Like, what are the differences between how you first started publishing things on Kickstarter and things you do now when you publish a Kickstarter campaign?
Ta-Te: Di Renjie was my first Kickstarter game, and I wasn't thinking– The idea of Kickstarter is different now. It's really that you've got to have the right amount of pledge levels and stretch goals, and I'm horrible at stretch goals. It's that preparation that you must have, so over time, when I design games, I would think if this game is suitable for Kickstarter. If not, then I would keep it and maybe just find a good time to publish that game.
You have to find a game that is suitable for that platform for Kickstarter, and you have to have a way for you to maybe to create stretch goals or some expansions to keep people interested in that Kickstarting environment. To keep people going and funding your project, so it's more like a game to solve, kind of. It's like a marketing strategy, in a way.
I'm getting better in creating the project on Kickstarter, but still, marketing is really hard. You have to– If you are able to work with some marketing companies, I've heard some are good, and some are not as good. You just have to be careful, and because I don't know how to work with them, I usually just ignore them.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a new game design?
Patrick: Cool. So, what sort of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before you start a new game design?
Ta-Te: Research? That depends on– I always had to do some kind of research, for example, name research. I go to BGG and make sure there's not a conflict of game title.
Ta-Te: Or even the game design, I'll do research on– Let's say I'm doing a cat game, I go– I did, I went through almost all the cat games on BGG to make sure there is nothing similar, even with the topic. There might be something similar, but if the design and everything is different, then I'm OK with it. I think that research is very important because I don't want my game too large and realize, “There's another game with a similar mechanic, and so forth.” If you did research already and then there's a game out there that maybe is not on BGG, then there's nothing you can do, but I think it is a very minimum thing that you are supposed to do as a designer.
Just to do some research, and also it's good to know what is out there. Is your game better than what's out there already? If not, then you should redo, or maybe make it better. Otherwise, I think there's no point that I'll publish that game. There's a lot of research that I do, and also there's scene backgrounds. If I'm doing Cat Rescue, then what should be included and that could be part of my game element. I think that that will help you design the game and be a little bit more thematic.
Do you have a white whale of game design?
Patrick: Got it. Is there anything that you've tried to do that you haven't been able to crack yet? Is there a white whale of game design or just something you're trying to get into your games, but you just haven't been able to figure it out?
Ta-Te: There's some mechanics, I just personally don't like to play that kind of a game, so I don't bother to design them. I like to design, so that's why I like to explore different mechanics, and it's very satisfying for me to experiment on mechanics. I like that. There are games with mechanics that I haven't published. I think the challenge for me is to publish it, so I wouldn't know if this is a product that people can like and that they can accept. It's not something I like personally, but it's a product that people will buy.
To me, that is a good design. It's not a design that I tried to overcome or anything like that, but just sometimes, when I design a game, there's an issue, like “How do I fix this and how do I make it more friendly to play? The flow is better?” Things like that. I think it takes time and also experience, and also that's why you do play tests. You go out there and ask people, “This time and this play test I'm trying to tackle this area. Because there's a problem with this, and I get negative feedback because of this part of the game.” Some people will help you, so that's why you do play tests.
What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Patrick: That's very cool. You've been doing this a long time, what's a resource that you would recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Ta-Te: Now, because games are, even the mechanics grow in numbers, so you definitely need to go to BGG and then research those mechanics. Not all of them, but the one that interests you and probably will be part of your game. So, mechanics on BGG and then also different Facebook groups.
I spend a lot of time there, there's a card game and board game design Facebook group. You can go there and do some research on and see if you can find your local play test groups and then participate, and then help out. I think over the long run, and you have great return.
Patrick: Is there a website or a podcast, not including this one, that that gives you– That's useful for you?
Ta-Te: I usually just use BGG and Facebook, those two places. I can't think of– I'm pretty sure there are a lot, I just probably need more information for other people, I guess. But those are the two that I focus on.
What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?
Patrick: Got it. Cool. Then, what's the best money you've ever spent as a game designer? What's worth every single cent that you've paid?
Ta-Te: That's a tough question. I thought I prepared something that now I forgot. I think it's about backing other people's game. I've backed games that I can afford, of course. Then also, I think it's interesting that they're trying– A lot of games, like what you back [inaudible] you didn't play. I think a lot of people do that too, I back games and then I don't play both of them. It's not because they're not a good game to play, I'm pretty sure they're great, but just backing them is more important than playing them. So I think that's the thing I think is worth the value of money.
What does success in the board game world look like to you?
Patrick: I will definitely say, I learned a lot about– I'm looking at my games behind me right now, but I learned a lot about packaging from other games. Just learning like, “This many cards fit nicely in this type of box with this type of packaging.” I think you learn so much of that stuff if you just back a dozen Kickstarter campaigns a year before–
Probably a little bit more than a year or so that they have time to get made, but a year or two before you make your game, I feel like you learn a lot. That probably is a really good investment when you think about it that way. Last question here is, what does success in the board game world look like to you?
Ta-Te: I would think that I would probably be the same right now, but more games, I guess. Again, I like and enjoy the process. I don't want to– I go to Essen, Germany for many years and unfortunately no one can go this year, so and I have a distributor who sells my game, and I am really grateful and very happy because I don't– A long time ago when I first went, for the first few years I had my own booth. I don't like that. I don't want to stay in my booth, so now I have them so I can just go and enjoy myself.
I want to continue to Kickstart games and publish games, and then to be able to go to travel and to go to different conventions and meet people and just play games, play test games. I think that's enough for me. I mean, money is great and more money is even better, but I think that the process and the moment that you walk into the conventions, that feeling is so great. Meeting your friends from all over the world and playing games, chit chat, and then meeting more people. I think that it's that feeling the industry gives you, it's just very wonderful. I just like to have that and continue to– That's it.
Patrick: I hear you, that's great. I like to end with a silly game called Overrated/Underrated. I'm pretty sure you don't know what this is, so I'll explain it briefly. I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you need to say if it's overrated or underrated. I might say, “A built in web camera.” And you're like, “Underrated. Because it's so convenient that every device has a built in web camera,” something like that. Cool?
Ta-Te: OK, I'll give it a try.
Patrick: All right. So, creating an app for your board game. Overrated or underrated?
Ta-Te: I think it's overrated because not every game is suitable to be on app, to be an app you've got to– It's people playing regular app games, they want to play, and they like their anticipated levels, getting rewards and so forth. Your board game is probably not going to have that kind of level, so they have to either just design to put your game as it is into the app, or they have to recreate it into a real gaming app. So, I think it's just a small amount of games that is suitable. I don't think you should just– It's not a must. If it happens, it's great, if not, it's not a big deal.
Patrick: Sure. All right, how about this? Thunderstorms, overrated or underrated?
Ta-Te: The game Thunderstorm?
Patrick: I was going for actual thunderstorms, but you can choose either one.
Ta-Te: I'm sorry, which one?
Patrick: I was literally just like the phenomenon, the weather pattern of thunderstorms.
Ta-Te: Actually, like real thunderstorms?
Ta-Te: Or is this like–? Oh, OK. No, I think they're cool. You need one of those every once in a while, I guess.
Ta-Te: I'm sorry, maybe because I'm in California, I don't get that a lot.
Patrick: Yes. You don't know this, but I ask– Half of my questions are board game related and the other half are not board game related. So as an example, hidden information is the next one. Overrated or Underrated? It's obviously board game related, but hidden information. What do you think? Overrated or underrated?
Ta-Te: It's hard to say, but I think it's underrated. It's important in every game when you have a deck of cards, and you have hidden information. It's important to have randomness in your game, but not too random. To me, I think it's important. So don't go underrated, I guess.
Patrick: OK, great. Last one is literally not board game related, swimming pools. Overrated or underrated?
Ta-Te: I think it is underrated because I love swimming, but hold on. If you're talking about having a swimming pool at home, it's probably overrated, because there is a lot of maintenance and you only swim like three times a year. So yeah, it's overrated, I think.
Patrick: I love how nerdy you got there. Owning your own swimming pool, overrated. Swimming in someone else's swimming pool, underrated. Got it.
Ta-Te: Yeah, that's right.
Patrick: Ta-Te, thank you so much for being on the show.
Ta-Te: Thank you, Patrick. Thank you for the invite.
Patrick: Where can people find you and your games online?
Ta-Te: Like I said, I'm not very good at marketing, so I'm all over the place in a way, but I'd love to focus on one place. I have a website, and it's SunriseTornado.com. It has some of my recent games, and I have Facebook, just my name, Ta-Te Wu. Now I'm trying to develop my studio's Facebook page, so hopefully, you can find it by searching for Sunrise Tornado. You can find the Cat Rescue page, the Cat Sudoku page.
Like I said, they're all over the place. Then my Twitter is @tatewu1, [inaudible] is also my password, so that's why I created a different one. On Instagram, I am @tatewu, and I think that's pretty much it. That's where you can find me. My email, you're always welcome to email me. No spam, but my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. So yeah, there you go.
Patrick: Awesome. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please give us a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to this. If you leave a review, Ta-Te said he would give you cat adoption advice. So, that's fantastic.
If you want to help me keep the lights on and keep all these episodes free and available for everyone, I have a Patreon. You can throw in a couple of bucks, and it makes a big difference, it just pays for all my boring hosting costs that go along with making the podcast. So with that, until next time, everyone. Happy designing, bye-bye.