Tim Fowers

#114 – Tim Fowers

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'll be talking with Tim Fowers, who designed a bunch of games. Many of them you've probably heard of. I think the two that I'm most familiar with are Burgle Bros and Fugitive. There's also Paperback, Hardback and Sabotage, and a bunch of other games. He also put together the Tabletop Network Conference, which I talked about already in episode 103, so you can go back and listen to my thoughts on the conference. Tim, welcome to the show.

Tim Fowers: Hey, thanks for having me.


Patrick: So we start with a lightning round just to introduce you to the listeners, sound good?

Tim: Sure.

Patrick: All right, who is your favorite character in Burgle Bros?

Tim: Probably the Rook himself, he's just the overconfident Danny Ocean. We recently did a little comic book with the Burgle characters, and the Rigger was the other one that came out as a pretty classic character. It allowed us to maybe tell a little bit of an actual story in the universe and get to know the characters more.

Patrick: Yeah, they're an archetype. I like that. Now, if you were a Fugitive for some crimes– You'd have to be a Fugitive for some reason, Tim. What crime would you be guilty of, or in trouble with?

Tim: Shoplifting.

Patrick: Shoplifting? OK, like clothing? A game?

Tim: I don't know.

Patrick: OK, great. I stole when I was five. I remember I stole a toy from a store. I don't think I knew what I was doing, but my parents totally made me return to the store and give it back to a store owner. So, we're the same. And then finally, what's a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?

Tim: The one I meet just to hang out with people?

Patrick: Yeah.

Tim: GDC, the tradition is to play Cockroach Poker with people who are hanging out between talks.

Patrick: OK, Cockroach Poker. I don't know what that is, but it sounds cool.

Tim: It's another form of BS, but it's more like there's a chain of liars. You're trying to suss out where you think the weak link in all those lies were. It's great, I highly recommend it.

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

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

Tim: I was a big fan, I was a videogame player, and I had seen Catan a couple of years earlier. I saw some people playing it, and I'm like, “That looks dumb.” Let's see, and the path was mostly through my brother in law who was singing the praises of Twilight Imperium, the second edition, Space Opera. I played Master Orion and had some love for that genre, and he got me that for a birthday, and then I don't remember how I heard about it, but I heard the third edition of Twilight Imperium was coming out and had this drafting mechanic, or the role selection mechanic, that was this big deal from this other game called Puerto Rico.

I'm like, “What is that?” And so I started going down the rabbit hole, and then I bumped into– Then I did try Catan, and I think the moment that lit me up was Power Grid. Just how clean the systems are, how the demand on the resources work. It was doing so much with so little, and it felt like “These are just pieces,” and it really could sing. But I didn't see that as a path at the time, so it helped fuel this drive into making games in general. I also was into the indie games, indie videogame scene at that time. That's right when Braid was coming out and the PC download days. Me and a buddy, we just decided to dive in and take a stab at it.

Patrick: That's exciting.

Tim: But yeah, I definitely got the entrepreneurial bug. I have a stable job and a house and kids, and I'm like “No. I want to do this.” So we sold the house and went on a series of poorly planned out decisions, but then you don't jump off the cliff if you don't know what you're getting into.

What made you choose to design board games over video games?

Patrick: What made you go more into the board game side than into the video game side? Because that sounds a little bit like a fork in the road. What made you choose board games?

Tim: For me, they always have coexisted. I've always just seen them as different media, and I always try to pull video game sensibilities into board games and vice versa.

Patrick: Like what?

Tim: Now, Boarding was inspired by pick up and deliver, or what I understood pick up and deliver to be. On the board game side, Wok Star, my first board game was very much inspired by diner dash and time management games. I feel that both of them– For me, it's just fluid. The reason Wok Star got made was that I had partnered with a programmer, my friend Tom Mason, and programming is a lot of the work. I just had a lot of extra bandwidth, and so I was like, “I'll spin up this board game project on the side,” and I would just brainstorm with him, and then I'd do another iteration.

So that turned out to be pretty good and got some legs, and Wok Star has its own up and down story. I can dive into it, basically, I went to Protospiel 2009, and Gil Hova was there.

Editor's note: Gil Hova was on in episode 25.

We got to meet each other, but I didn't know anybody else. I got a lot of interest from Mayfair Games. They liked what Wok Star was doing, and so we gave them a prototype, and they told us, “Don't show this to other publishers while we're looking at it.” But then they proceeded to string me along for the better part of a year, not even giving me a yes or no. After that, I was like, “This is dumb.” I got some motivation, and I built 100 copies of it, just sourcing entirely US stuff. I worked with Blue Panther to get some boxes made and some boards made, and then I sourced the parts in the US and then assembled them in my house.

Me and my wife went to Origins, which was local to us at the time, and we just decided to launch. 2010 Origins was the launch of Wok Star, and so then I was like, “Maybe I'll make it on my own.” Kickstarter was just getting off the ground, but I was a little shy about– There was a lot of unknowns. I didn't know about manufacturing and whatnot. So I ended up signing with [Z Man], which also didn't end up being a great idea. They gave me a good rate, and they're fine to work with, but in the middle of the production or the schedule, they got bought by [Philosophia], which later got bought by [Asmodee].

After the purchase, they're like “No. We still want to make it. We still want to make it.” It finally had been two years later, and at this point, I was working at Amazon, and they're like, “OK. We're going to make it. We just don't think that your art style appeals to the European market. We're just going to redo the art as Anime style.” And I'm like, “We're not really on the same page here.” So I walked away. I was like, “You guys aren't getting this,” so I took the rights back and proceeded to– But it's been years now and I over-polished it. I was working in a vacuum, so I didn't like how Wok Star ended up.

But what I learned is you need someone around you to tell you when to stop, when you're starting to lose the game because you're trying to transform it into something you feel competes with the current market or has these new sensibilities, or just– I felt like other games like Escape had come out and I needed to change Wok Star to still be relevant. I overdid it. I got away from it, and I oversimplified in the pursuit of making it more accessible. At the same time, I walked into another publisher after I walked away from [Z Man]. Again, because I was afraid of manufacturing and whatnot on my own, so I handed it over to Game Salute, which is Game Salute. So, that ended up being its own train wreck.

Patrick: Let me interrupt, not everyone knows Game Salute. But let me say what I think I know, and then you can correct me because I'm probably very wrong. But they bought a whole bunch of stuff, they tried to publish a whole bunch of things, and they fell apart. Is that the very short version?

Tim: Yeah, they bit off more than they could chew. They just tried to keep– I think they did 34 Kickstarters that year, so they were just signing and signing and signing and trying to mine that Kickstarter money and they were gold rushing it. It was pretty bad. In my case, I insisted on another thing that I thought people needed, but we didn't need, which was, “We need an electronic timer so that you can hear when the time was up because that'll make all the difference.”

And it didn't matter, but it proceeded to delay the production significantly. But they didn't communicate that, and they just said “Everything's fine. Everything's fine. Everything's fine,” until about a month from shipping they're like, “We're going to need another six months.” That piled on top of other mistakes they had made, just blatantly lying in these in these updates. It didn't go well, and Wok Star wasn't a massive hit by itself, but I used it to piggyback. What I did is I had come up with Paperback alongside it, and I didn't feel like I could get it much of a Kickstarter audience.

So I worked out a deal with Game Salute, I'm like “OK. I'm going to launch Paperback at the same time you launch Wok Star, and we'll have parallel campaigns, and we'll do bundles with each other.” They were fine with that, so that allowed me to launch into my own production. I felt like I could piggyback and get some of an audience off of that, and get Paperback into my hands. For the most part, that worked.

Patrick: Interesting.

Tim: That's that arc for Wok Star, but then that leads into the other steps that got into making board games.

What is it like to work with so many different types of games?

Patrick: So, Tim. One of things I like about your story is you talk a lot about how you tried this, and you tried to work with this person, and that didn't work. You tried to work with this person or this company, and that didn't work. I really want to come back to that. It's one of the cool stories you can talk about how you're very independent.

But one of the other things I want to talk about first is you made a just giant variety of games. You have word games, which are Paperback and Hardback. You have the Wok Star, which is a food game. You have a cooperative heist game, which is Burgle Bros. You have the airplane pick up and deliver game– You have a ton of games.

What is it like to work with so many different types of games? Here's a theory I have. One of the theories I have is you will lose customers crossing genres. Like, does that happen?

Tim: The thing is, I index high on valuing innovation. I feel like there's a lot of habits that came out of following the indie video game scene and just realizing the quality I had to have. But also just that I had to be clever. I had to do something in a new way to attract people, so part of my whole model is that I feel like I have to do something novel. Sometimes it's just a new peanut butter and chocolate thing where it's two things you wouldn't expect, or sometimes it's a little more derivative.

But in general, yes, I index high. I don't feel like– I feel like if I'm too close to another design, even if it's my own, that it's an uphill battle trying to get an audience for that. Each game I fret about alienating my audience, Sabotage being the latest one. Where it's like, “This is a heavier game. I know some people think of me as a certain type of game, but I think other artists or designers have done this. [Inaudible] has got range, when you're talking about types of games. For me, I just think it's more about when I find a new flavor.

If you see cooking, it's like, “If I add these things together, it's a new flavor.” For me, when you get into a lot of design, it's combinatorics. 504, the game by [Freeman Frees], is depressingly accurate in that sense where it's just like “Here's seven different mechanics, you can put it together in any way, and it makes a game,” but it's soulless. That goes into needing a theme to make it all connect and be a fantasy and everything, but for the most part, once you are experienced in a lot of different types of games, you just use them like you're just trying different flavors together. You see what matches, and there's some people that are very particular about “OK. I'm going to get to the moon.” There's two types of designers. There's designers that are going to– They're like frickin' NASA, they're going to get to the moon no matter what.

There isn't another planet they're going to go to, or half-way is not OK. They've got to get to the moon. Whereas other designers are like Christopher Columbus, where it's like, “We didn't make it to India, but this is pretty cool.” Not to get into genocide or anything, but just generally being open and seeing where the game, the pieces that you're playing with, listening how they're resonating, and see where they want to go. Wok Star was originally Left 4 Dead: The board game. It was supposed to be this zombie–

Patrick:  What?

Tim: Yeah, Zombies, zombicide. Because customers and zombies are the same thing, right? But those pivots are just like, “The game is telling me it wants to be something else.” And listening to that, or if you have a particular goal in mind, you throw it away, and you're like “OK. It's not doing what I wanted it to do emotionally, or it's not living up to this fantasy, then I'm going to throw it out and try something else.” It depends on what your victory condition is with what you want to do with your game, like Ryan Lockett has told me a similar story.

He was working on Empires of the Void II for a long time, and all these other games would come about as he was attempting to make the sequel. Each of them took on a life of her own, and they needed different themes, and they needed different things, but that tree bore a lot of fruit in pursuit of that one game he wanted to make a worthy sequel to. Eventually, he did, but there's also just some designers who are chasing a magnum opus.

They have a thing they want to make, and hell or high water, they're going to make that game, and it's going to be awesome. And other people are just like– So that's the thing, is I feel like I'm going where the low hanging fruit are, where I think there's an interesting thing. I've tried to set up my whole lifestyle business being able to just drop everything and follow something that is interesting at the time. Like, “OK. This seems fruitful. I'm going to chase this right now.”

Patrick: I'm hearing a couple things. I think the thing that's coming through is, yes, it's nice in some cases to have games in all of the same theme, or they're all the same size, or they're all the same this or that. But for you, innovation is the most important thing, so you're not going to not go down a path just because it doesn't fit some arbitrary rule.

Tim: Yeah, and you don't know– Here's the thing. You don't know, when you're starting as the designer you don't know who you're making games for, you're making it for yourself, and you don't know what other people are like you. I've seen this with several designers, that they'll start making a game and until they start taking it to conventions and testing it and seeing who shows up to play their games, is really who they're lining up with.

I had a friend that made Gruff, Brett Critchfield, and he didn't know until he got it out that it's for 13-year-olds and their dads who used to play magic. That is who played his games and loved it at conventions. He don't know that making it, and he was just making a game for himself. There is a reflection of you in the marketplace that you're not going to know until you put something out there. Like, I found that my sensibilities led me towards these games that couples like.

Young couples are how my whole business models worked because they're pretty internet savvy, and they found Kickstarter. It all works out, but I always make sure now that when I want to make a game, even if it's heavier or has different theme, I always make sure there's some nice two-player mode for it. It plays well with two, and I'm also not a lot about direct competition. I'm more about asymmetry.

Patrick: It's interesting to think that– I think the initial when you're just looking at a genre of a game. OK, “This is a heist game” or “This is even a co-operative heist game, or this is a head to head where you're pursuing, one of you chasing the other person. The person is running away from the law.”

Those to me sound like totally different audiences, but the way you just set it, “It's the more affluent, internet-savvy young couple,” that type of person will buy both games even though they are totally different genres. I love hearing that, because I think so often we just get, “This is for people who like fantasy,” and it's so much more than that. I like that you brought in other elements.

Tim: Yeah. It's almost like, thinking about it as a demographic, and it's like “How many different types of games are in your closet?” And even then, I still feel like– I don't betray them, but I feel like I go outside of– But that's just what I want to do as an artist. I want to chase what's interesting to me. I think if I do it early enough in my career that people will be okay with it like they'll be able to understand that every game I make won't necessarily be for everybody, and that's fine.

It's more important that I'm exploring it and looking for new and interesting things, than fretting too much about satisfying my existing audience or satisfying an audience in general. To that end, I've had several designs that nobody– How am I going to say this? They weren't for me. I've had certain designs where I'm just like, you get to a certain point, and I'm like, “These mechanics are super clever, and I know there's an audience for this, and I have an idea who it is. But I can't make this game.” Normally that would be one that I would send off to a publisher or whatever, but I just don't do that. There's a lot of really good games that I feel like end up on the cutting room floor with—

There's a lot of games that just don't get made because I can't make that game. A lot of times I feel like where I can, I'll try to share ideas, like “I was working on an RTS that used deck building.” Or “I was working on a fighting game that used flowcharts,” and I have all these ideas. I still would love to make that game if there was– At this point, it would take a different twist though, because I'm not in love with– Basically, I have to pick games that I'm OK playing five hundred more times or more. Because in my business model, I'm married to them, so if it's a game for someone else, I have to just put it on the shelf.

Can you tell me why you’re such a big advocate for selling games through your own website rather than distribution?

Patrick: You brought up your business model, and that's just one of things that stood out to me from one of our first conversations about when I was asking you about advice on how I should make my game. One of the things I think is that you're such an advocate for people selling their own game on their own website and through Kickstarter campaigns and stuff like that as opposed to selling through distribution.

Which means giving it to a distributor and the distributor gives it to retail stores, and I think for many, just to set the context here, for many board game designers and publishers that is the holy grail. When you have retail stores who sell it for you, and you only get to keep a couple dollars for each game, but they do all the– 99% percent of the work for you, once you've made the game. Can you tell me why you're such an advocate for selling through your own website, and through follow up Kickstarter campaigns, and stuff like that?

Tim: Kickstarter is the magic sauce here. It really couldn't happen without it, but it's such a magic bullet for all the elements you need to get off the ground. Find an audience, test an idea, there's all these things that Kickstarter gives you. First of all, Kickstarter makes this happen. But from the very beginning, when I was researching who to sign with on Wok Star, it's like I very quickly found out how the world works in Board Games. But there was the example of Cards Against Humanity where they were just like, “We're going to make something, and we're going to sell it.” That's where I think innovation, and on top of that they had amazing marketing, that's where innovation—

Because I don't advertise, and I still sell a ton of games. Mostly it's just like I feel like the innovation is the advertising, after the fact, after the Kickstarter and the ongoing game. But it's a rat race, if you're trying to get ahead in the standard model, it's tough. You need to have a whole bunch of games in the pipe with a lot of different publishers, and you need to have some pretty high price points or to have a really breakout hit to be able to do this full time.

So, what sent me down this path was a conversation I had with– And I've told this story before, but I met a guy who was local to me, he was making a party game, and he was getting it in distribution. He was trying to– I had lunch with him, and it was very clear that he had just different victory conditions. He wanted to get it– He was selling 50,000 units a year of this game, and he wasn't full time.

Patrick: What?

Tim: He was trying to get it to 100,000, so he could sell it to Hasbro. Like, he had an exit strategy. What you don't realize is that there's two types of entrepreneurs, and neither are bad. But you just need to understand there are people not like you. He is an MBA standard entrepreneur. He just wants to make things successful, and he doesn't care what. Versus me, that helped me identify that I am an artist. I want to come up with these ideas, I want to share them with people, and when people enjoy them, I get energy from that.

I feel delighted when people are– And other people just want to make something successful by whatever metric. If you look at the industry, two people I think in our industry that have got bad raps in the past, [Dan Yarrington] and Seth over at Mayday. Both of them are very much entrepreneurs, like in an MBA sense. They want to make a business successful. They're not particular about a particular design or aesthetic, they're looking for opportunity, and you have most of the rest of the board game industry in a place where they're doing it from a passionate point. Both the designers and the consumers are very much in this place of understanding passion and excitement about an idea and whatnot, that's the world we live in.

But in all these other industries, where you're making spoons or whatever, you're just looking for an opportunity. A conversation I have with new designers, they come to me, and they're like “I had this idea,” and we'll talk through the idea, and at some point, the conversation I've found a productive exercise is to ask them “If you could already be on the other side of a successful game, so this is a year in the future or two years in the future. Your game is successful by all metrics, but you only get to keep one thing. You can keep all the money you made, or you can keep all the notoriety that you've gained or just fame, or however, you want to say that. Or people knowing that you made something that they enjoyed, that whole side of it.”

People will fall down on different sides of that. They're just like, “If I have money, then I can do other things, or I can do what I want, or whatever,” and other people are like, “No, I don't care about the money. I just want people to know that I created something they enjoyed,” or whatever. There's different angles on that, and it's like, “Do you want all the money or fame?” I think it just helps people understand that there are other types of people out there, and it helps them identify their victory condition for making something and for “Why are you doing this?” Being introspective about that, I think, is useful. And being brutally honest about like, “What do you want?”

Patrick: I'm a big fan– My favorite question that I've asked in every single interview at the end, and we'll get to this, is “What does success look like to you?” Most of the people I've talked to on the show seem to just want to make a thing, but there are definitely a few who it's about getting published, or it is about going full time.

I think it's a very good thought exercise to ask, “If you could only have one, all the money or all the recognition,” I think is the best probably the best word, “Which one do you go for?” I love that.

Tim: Yeah, that's a good word.

Patrick: You brought up something else that I forgot that this is a thing, is you support yourself full time with this. Correct?

Tim: Yeah. That was the whole goal. For the last four years, I've been full time.

At what point did you think you could go full time in your game design career?

Patrick: A lot of the people that I interview on this show have only made one game, so they're not there yet unless it's Cards Against Humanity. At what point–? And you've been doing this, and I think Wok Star the first version came out in 2010 and it's now 2020. So, you've been doing this 10 years, when could you go full time? How long would that take you?

Tim: That was part of this whole discussion with this guy that was making the party game, was he wasn't full time. I knew the numbers, so my guess is that I had to make something that I could keep a high margin on and still sold a decent number of cards. Because otherwise, you're just buying a lottery ticket on whether—

Basically the traditional model, if you're trying to go through distribution through a publisher, there is going to be one game in a thousand that is a breakout and you can live off of. I even had some hard conversations with other publishers that approached me, and I'm just like, “How many of your designers are full time?” And they're like, “None of them.”

Patrick: That's a great question. I had not thought to ask that.

Tim: My whole thing is, I did this hustle as a hustle on the side. I was working at Amazon as a game designer in the game studio, and I have a lot of creative output, and a cubicle career or a large video game doesn't facilitate getting a lot of your ideas into production, so I need an outlet. I had already done Wok Star and whatnot, so on the side, I started doing board games. It wasn't against my non-compete, so I was just like, “Let's do this.” But I did Paperback and Burgle Bros entirely on the side. It ran the campaign, did everything so.

Early on in my career, I took crazy risks, like “Let's go move in the middle of Kentucky and make board games with no runway,” but this time around, I was like, “OK. I'm going to go because I saw that Wok Star when it was in that publisher hell, was spreading. There's only 400 copies in existence, and the demand for it was going up and up and up and up.” Which was why I overdesigned it and ruined it and all that stuff, but I was watching the natural mechanisms of the board game industry.

When you have something new and interesting under its own power, just given time, board games are viral by nature. It's just people aren't usually used to the time scale. They are used to the time scale, and they're used to this digital viral where it blows up, and then distribution is trying to push that same thing. These days in distribution, you have a month to really hit it with distribution and sell well, or that game is DOA. That's how quickly– My games don't peak for two or three years. Hardback is just starting to come into its stride right now, and so I find that if I make something innovative and I wait, and I keep my day job, a lot of it is just being confident that you've got a good thing and waiting.

A lot of these companies have done well just because they stuck around because there's a lot of churn in these smaller board game companies. If you could just stick around and find your audience and give them some new things to buy, you can get up to that magic thousand true fans level of entrepreneur sustainability. So I made a bet, I thought that Paperback could be a really broad market game and was doing new things, and I rolled the dice. I just did it in a way that if it worked, I would be able to go full time eventually. That's the model I'm going with, and yeah, it doesn't work for everybody, but I've had this debate with other designers and different models and whatnot. It doesn't work for every game, it doesn't work for every designer, but if you train the marketplace to buy direct, they get used to it. In the end, they want to support you. That's what Patreon does.

Patrick: Yeah, this is great. Let me point listeners to an essay, and I believe it's called A Thousand True Fans. I'm pretty sure, I just looked this up, by Kevin Kelly. I read it years ago, so I don't remember the author, but it's a classic.

I'd say almost a classic essay in the startup world, where you just need a thousand people who like your product and buy one new product every year for a hundred dollars, or several products that add up to a hundred dollars every year and that's enough to run a business, a thousand fans. If you haven't read that before, go ahead and Google A Thousand True Fans. It's just that, for me, it's an inspirational essay.

Tim: The other caveat with entrepreneurship is also how much uncertainty can you handle in your life? If you don't entirely know where your next paycheck is coming from, how much can you handle that?

Patrick: Yes. No, absolutely. I am low on the risk spectrum. I do not want a lot of risk, and I am very happy with what I've done with the board game world, but I don't think I want to go into the board game industry unless it's a full-time salaried position. Because it's just too much.

Tim: Or, sorry. The other thing before I forget is what it comes down to when it comes to what your victory condition is and how intense that is for you, and what family situation you're in. Because there's not a lot, I wouldn't give up to do this. What I did is once I realized I could go full time, I moved out of California to Utah, which isn't the awesomest place to be, but it's cheap.

I had a cheap place I could live, and just being in a situation where you're like– Part of it, I don't know. I don't know that you have to sacrifice. But there's some crazy stuff I went through to get here, and I would do it again. Even knowing that there's one point in Kentucky where we're like, “OK. If we have to shut off a utility, which one do we turn out first? Power or water?” And like, I would do it again. To get here, it makes the victory that much sweeter when you get here. I know this is the good days. I know how to enjoy that now, because of what I've given up to get here. I feel like this is retirement. I know there's lots of work I do to keep the business going, but I treat it emotionally as retirement, and it's good.

Why did you think creating an event like Tabletop Network is important?

Patrick: I don't think I can interview you without bringing up Tabletop Network at least a little bit, so I've brought it up. It was in episode 103, I think, go back and listen to it if you want to listeners, but why did you think it was necessary to create this? What made you want to make this?

Tim: It was a mix of things. It's actually, Jeff Beck was the guy that was pushing it. Jeff Beck has his own brand, but we collaborate on a lot of things. I took him under my wing as an apprentice, but he was pushing this because it's like “I'm in the video game industry, and there's a thing called GDC where people give talks, and everyone in the industry goes to it, and it's this big thing.” And I'm like, “Why doesn't this exist in the board game industry?”

And the reason is because as soon as you get designers together, they're like “Let's play test.” And you're like, “But we were going to talk about–” “No. Let's play test, because play test. You've got other designers, that's the best play testing.” And so we're just like, “What if we just tap the brakes a little bit and let people give talks and do some workshops, and also just the camaraderie? Instead of focusing on what's your next game? Let's just hang out with each other for a bit. I know we're all trying to hustle, but let's just hang out and make friends in the industry and maybe new collaborations.”

And so a lot of this is just helping, we're trying to help the industry mature. There's all these new– We're trying to act like, “OK. You've read some articles, or you've made a game. This is how you're going to level up in your skills as a designer, and best practices and whatnot.” Turns out that it's a needed thing, and we're still small in the number of people we have, but the vibe is amazing. The energy, and it's just– There's a ton of energy in tabletop.

Teaming up with BGG, we're able to get fantastic speakers, and then we're able to do the New Voices initiative, where we actually can move the needle when it comes to getting underrepresented groups exposure and experience in game design. So, it's great. It's much bigger than me. Me and [Jeff Eaglestein] and [Jeff Krauss], we all have different roles, but it's just a natural thing that needed to exist, and we're just trying to help it. And also, realistically, it helps me. Because I'll Skype with anybody and talk with them about their game, but it doesn't work at scale. By doing tabletop, I can help a lot more designers.

Patrick: Nice. Let me give you kudos on one thing, your New Voices scholarship, and I just happened– There is something about being in the room because I literally just sat down next to Fertessa Allyse. I interviewed her, and it's coming out after we're recording, but before your episode will air. So I'll link to it, and it was just great because literally, I happened to sit down next to her. I was chatting to her and listening to her story, and I'm like, “This is interesting. We should get on the podcast and chat about it,” and now, because I met her at this event now, her story is going to spread a little bit farther.

So, that's definitely a super cool– Like, you can point to that and be like, “That is from that event,” because I literally sat next to her at one of the things. It's cool, and I wish you the best of luck with it. I'm going to keep trying to go back to it because it's really good. So we're going way over on time, but all of your points are super interesting. I'm just rolling with it.

Tim: Just play it all at one and a half-speed, and we'll be fine.

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

Patrick: Yeah, there we go. Let me jump down to the ending questions here, because I think there's a lot of value in them. What is a resource you would recommend to someone who is thinking about getting into game design? So, they're an aspiring game designer. What is something you'd recommend? And by resource, something usually free or cheap, like a book or a podcast excluding this one, stuff like that.

Tim: There's this evolution where you do house rules around a game, and then you do, “I'm going to do a plus one design, where I'm going to take this game, but I'm going to fix it.” Then eventually, you start to get into a blue ocean where it's like “I'm making a whole new thing.” I think that process of just transforming the games that you enjoy into games that you think you'll enjoy more is just an exercise, but book-wise The Art of Game Design is still just really top of class when it comes to like—

Games are so hard to pin down that using the concept of the hundred lenses, these are just ways to look at a video game or ways to look at a board game. Then we're also going to be releasing some talks from Tabletop Network throughout the year. I think that the breakout hit this year was a Gil Hova's Player Avatar, and what was the other training–

Patrick: Agent?

Tim: Agent, yeah. Oh, my gosh. That was like–

Patrick: Just as another example, I talked about that on my episode. That was one of the few because I watched a bunch of sessions, that was the one I had to talk about. Because it was very, very helpful language. I think we need events like yours so that we can keep developing that language.

Tim: It was just such a delight.

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

Patrick: Great. I'm a frugal person, so with the exception of conferences, I try not to spend money on things. What is something–? What is the best money you've spent as a game designer? What's something that is worth every single cent you spent on it?

Tim: Shopify? For me, it's Shopify plugins. I can pull it up here because Shopify is the store that I sell through. But there's all these plugins that let me do really good things. I had a plugin that would put a coupon in people's receipts, and that worked phenomenal for viral marketing. But then they wanted to charge me for it. Just little things on my website for discounts and data reporting, but there's one of them that exports all of my orders into Google sheets by country. So I'm able to manage 6 different warehouses automatically. It just dumps the orders into these Google sheets, those warehouses look at the Google sheet and take the order. It's super smooth for running an international direct sales business.

I don't know, and there's a couple others I can recommend if you want to dig into it. But I'm just saying Shopify as a platform is super good, especially because how extensible it is. A lot of these are little $5 more a month or $10 or more month so they can add up, but when you're at the scale of my business, they're absolutely worth it. Another one lets me, and I basically have a whole mirror website where it's all the wholesale pricing.

I can have one website, and if you're a retailer and you go, and you log in, all of a sudden, all of your items are there, and you can order through the same system, and it channels to the same output. Maybe that's a little too much in the weeds, but if you ever get into that and you're a designer, and you're like, “I'm selling my own stuff, and I want to figure out how to use Shopify, I'm happy to share everything that I'm using.”

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

Patrick: Fantastic. By the way, Tim, you don't know this, but that is my day job is talking about e-commerce. So, I talk about Shopify all the time. I'm very familiar with it, and it is a great platform that I recommend to a lot of people. If you're going to sell– And my site right now, LaidBack.games is powered by Shopify, so there we go. I'm doing a little experiment with it. Then last real question here is, what does success in the board game world look like to you?

Tim: At this point, I don't feel like I have a particular mountain I'm trying to climb. There's not a threshold of “I want a Kickstarter that makes a million dollars,” or there's none of those anymore. I feel like right now, it's just making a game that does something new and is executed well and finds an audience I'm cool with. So far, most of my games have been able to sell for a long time and work out, so I guess more of that. I'm finally coming back to sequels, I did Burgle 2, and I'm looking at a Now Boarding expansion.

I'm just looking at those. I did a Paperback expansion, but it didn't get a lot of traction. Hardback was going to be an expansion, but that turned into its own game. So that, in the sense of just honoring the audience for a game and giving them more of what they want, I am doing a bit of that. It took me a long time to come back to Burgle with some new ideas, and I'm happy where we ended. Because I'll never do the thing where I hold back some of the game for the expansion. I stuff all the value in the game and walk away with no regrets, so an expansion has to come from “OK, do I have something new to say in this design?”

Patrick: Very cool. It's nice to hear that your goals, I'd say, are almost more long term. You just want to keep going, you want to grow a little bit, but it doesn't have to grow crazy. You just want, for you, you just want to– I'd almost say, “Keep on the course.” Like, just keep going?

Tim: Yeah. I don't want to have employees, and there's things I don't want to do. What's the whole, How I Built This, the podcast. When they interviewed Dyson, the guy that made the vacuums, it took him years to build the business, to be the CEO, to finally loop back to “Now I can be an engineer again. It would be nice to be able to get some of this offloaded when it comes to running the business and whatnot, so I could just do the design part of it. That would be nice, but I'm so paranoid about my own runway that I don't know at what point that will be. I would rather do that for forever than ever have a chance of not being able to do this. So, I try not to burn hot when it comes to any of that.


Patrick: Interesting. I like to end with a game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Tim: Sure. Wait, no.

Patrick: Excellent. Even better. I like throwing people in the deep end, so I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you're going to tell me if you think it's overrated or underrated. If I said “Dolphins,” you are going to be like “Underrated because they're super intelligent,” something like that. Cool?

Tim: Sure. Sounds good.

Patrick: All right. I'm going to go with high-replayability games. By that, I mean they can be played over 100 times without any of the things being– Without it being an identical game. Overrated or underrated?

Tim: Probably overrated. I think the legacy has helped people understand realistically how many times they're going to play a game, and I've played this game, like with Fugitive I put the events in because I knew people would look at the game and be like “This does not seem very replayable.” And for some people, it's not. But nobody plays with those events. When you get what you get, Fugitive when you get Fugitive people just play the base game with just the numbered cards.

It's a great replayable game. It's more about the person you're playing against than the game, but the event cards are just so the people that would fret about that on a surface level before they've dove into the game, I have something to throw at them. And be like, “Look at this. It's got some variability. Get off my back.” Because there's a sticker shock with certain games, where people are like, “This doesn't look replayable.” So yes, I think it's overrated.

Patrick: How about New Year's resolutions, overrated or underrated?

Tim: Yeah, I don't do those. Those are overrated.

Patrick: Great. How about, I just want to go with the social deduction genre. And by that I mean, just like the werewolf style games. Overrated or underrated?

Tim: They'll always sell. I'm not going to judge the people that buy them, but I don't think I'll make one. It's just the thing. It's like the Mario Kart problem. Is Mario Kart fun? Or is it just hanging out with your friends fun? It's just like, where's the fun coming from? Social deduction leans so hard on the fun of human interaction and deception and all that stuff we like, that is taking up so much of– It's doing all the heavy lifting for you. I feel that you can just do a couple of different twists here and there, and playing more of that is good.

So yeah, I think they're overrated. When it comes to– It's like a slot machine. It's always going to be fun because it's just something fundamentally wired in you. But it's– Again, I don't want to say “Lazy.” I've played a ton of these, and I was out doing a print play version of Resistance before it came out. At this point, I feel like especially with everyone feeling like it's a gold rush on those with Kickstarter.

Patrick: OK, great. Last one, soda. Overrated or underrated?

Tim: You mean, “Pop?”

Patrick: Depending on what part of the country you're in, yes.

Tim: I'm just messing. I like soda, and I like soda water. I'll do the Lacroix.

Patrick: OK.

Tim: So, yeah. Underrated, I'll do soda.

Wrap Up

Patrick: There we go. All right, Tim. Thank you so much for being on the show and sharing all of your wise information. I super appreciate it. Where can people find you online?

Tim: If you want to follow me on Twitter, @TFowers. All my good stuff, my digital games, and my analog games are all Fowers.games. You can see what I'm up to.

Patrick: Because my name has a .games and your name has a .games, we obviously have the best TLDs. We obviously rock that.

Tim: Right?

Patrick: So, Tim, thank you again so much. It was really good.

Tim: No, thanks for having me.

Patrick: Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes, or wherever you listen to us. If you leave a review, Tim said he would send a heist team to your house to see if they can sneak out all of your board games. So, that could be fun, or it could be terrible.

Tim: I have a crew. It's a thing.

Patrick: Great, excellent. Still, at the time this recording, my game Mintsugi is still in the final stages of The Game Crafter contest. I'm still waiting to hear where it goes. I might self-publish online, so again, as I've mentioned last couple of episodes, I will have an email list for the game, I'll link to that on the show notes. Then Protospiel Denver will be in March of 2020, and I think it's in the middle of March.

I'm going to hassle Tim to come if he can, and I'll be attending. I'd love to play your game, so just message me on Twitter, and I'll try to set up a time to play a game with you. Again, link in the show notes. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, or you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I'm @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

Tim: Cool.

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