In this interview episode once again we have 2 people at the same time! We shine a spotlight on the hosts of the Tabletop Testing Nights in Leeuwarden, Friso Roolvink & Mitchel Bonnema. Besides facilitating playtesting tabletop games, they have more to do with games.
What work do you do?
Friso: I’m currently a producer at Grendel Games, a company that makes seriously entertaining games. My main job is managing schedules, budgets and resources. Managing resources is a really impersonal way of saying that every day I play a complex management boardgame called ‘who will work on which project and how do we make sure that every project meets its deadline’. Aside from playing around in excel sheets all day, I do my best to make sure everyone in the team is happy and works well together. So a lot of planning, puzzling, problem solving, communication and playing nice together. Who would have thought I’d like board games?
Mitchel: I am a lecturer at the Hanze Applied University (Hogeschool) in Groningen, where I give courses in topics such as business, game design, graphic creation and agile development, but also do project and internship coaching. I basically have a hand in almost every element of creating a game related product from start to finish. I am also the co-owner of Critical Bit – a game and app development company based in Leeuwarden. I’m a game designer and graphics artist and work together with my two programmer colleagues. Whatever experience I gained in the last 7 years in owning my own game company, I can use as a teacher in front of the class.
Any cool projects we should know about?
Friso: Yes! The Board Game Jam! Together with 2 friends I’m organizing a yearly event where 20-30 aspiring and veteran board game developers come together to build board games in just a weekend. The time pressure combined with the fact that you are working in a team leads to very quick results. After just one day, most of the groups already have a playable game which can then be polished and tested during the remaining time. The end results are usually really impressive, especially regarding the time constraints. To give an impression of what is possible in three days: three of the games that we created during a Board Game Jam, were at a level of polish that we could pitch it with a publisher (which we have). The Board Game Jam is definitely a great way to learn about a lot of aspects of creating board games and always leaves me with a satisfied feeling.
Mitchel: With Critical Bit, one of our biggest projects is an app called Fighting Trainer – a free app where users can check out near 100 different moves of well known fighting styles. Fighting Trainer isn’t a big cash cow, but it’s the perfect project for us to tweak and look at user responses, where different little marketing ideas and app updates can be safely experimented with. Another project me and my colleagues are currently working on is in a very early stage, where we can already take some lessons from things we tried with Fighting Trainer. We released a game on Steam a few years back as well called Reign of Bullets.
In terms of personal projects however, being a teacher takes up quite a lot of my time, but I try to fit in a little side project here and there. I have some experiments for card games lying around, but never really gotten to take it seriously and getting to the stage of releasing something. At the moment I’m working on a little card game where players develop a culture and language together. You could call it a semi-role playing game, as people without role playing interest or experience are still given enough tools and are guided by the game to add something to the session, without things hopefully feeling forced. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I feel there’s some interesting steps to take with this.
How is the Blokhuispoort as a location?
Friso: The Blokhuispoort is very charming. I mean, it looks like a castle, what more do you want!? It really sparks the imagination and there’s always a nice story somewhere in the building. Aside from that it is also practical. We usually play in a big room with a lot of large wooden tables that seem to come right out of aforementioned castle. Now that I come to think of it, we should definitely host a big medieval feast there some time. Combined with a board game night of course.
Mitchel: These past few years the Blokhuispoort underwent a lot of structural changes, a modernization of sorts as some parts of the building with literally crumbling to dust. This basically meant for me and my company (and for a lot of others in the building) that we had to move around from section to section as the building was being renovated. Quite hectic. With these new changes the old prison building is perfect for small scale companies like mine. But also for events and meetings such as the tabletop testing night. There’s something inspiring about the old aesthetic while having all the modern functionality of a normal office building.
What affinity do you have with tabletop games?
Friso: I have been playing and creating tabletop games since before I can actually remember. Luckily my mother could tell me that I created my first board game when I was around 7 years old. It was probably also my mother who did most of the work and inspired me, but as far as I can remember, I really liked it and was very proud of it. Since then I’ve been doing it on and off as a hobby, both playing and creating. I’ve created about 15 prototypes in my whole life, of which 3 are multiple year projects which never got to see the light of day because of my inexperience. It’s really not that much compared to who I call ‘real board game designers’. That’s why I have a lot of respect for anyone actually being able to design, finish and get a game published, it takes a lot of perseverance.
Mitchel: Back in the day I used to think board games were old fashioned. This idea spawned from years of playing games like Monopoly and Rummikub. When the surge of new era board games like Michiavelli, Carcasonne, Catan and Dominion popped up, it renewed my interest. I started buying “heavier” games with each new purchase, ending up with games like Gloomhaven, Arkham Horror and Civilization: A New Dawn. This in turn got me to start playing tabletop RPG’s as well, like Dungeons and Dragons. It basically meant that, with each purchase I did, things got a bit more complicated and out there.
Here and there I started experimenting with ideas of my own as well. It would be nice to release a board- or cardgame at some point, but for the most part I’m more interested in the back and forth that comes from generating these gameplay ideas than the actual production of games themselves. I found out that I like the fact that I can discuss, give feedback on and critique what game designs are being experimented with, including my own, which is why me and Friso Roolvink wanted to set up tabletop testing nights in Leeuwarden. It gives a chance for people to show off their own work, where ideas often come from very different places than my own. This in turn helps me evaluate my own ideas and findings.
What prior work experiences is really useful in your current job? What helps you now with game design?
Friso: A lot of what I did during my life revolves around games. Playing them was probably the most prominent activity, but in light of my current job and hobbies, let’s call it extensive research. I originally started out as a game designer (of digital games) which I have been combining with project management, teaching game design and running a business for the first 5 years of my career. Obviously the skills I developed then are very applicable to board game design as well. Now that I barely do any game design as I focus on my job as a producer, designing board games is more and more a creative outlet for me. It calms the creation craving monkey in me. What really helps me now to keep learning and developing my game design skills is talking with and learning from the people that attend the Tabletop Testing Nights and Board Game Jams.
Mitchel: Working as a teacher has me evaluating my own words all the time. Who am I to say students should do something differently when I do things wrong as well? This really got me to look at my own validity, which helps in motivating myself. Other than that, my own company of course gave me a lot of good and bad parts of all things considered in game design. Unresponsive clients, strict deadlines, unclear goals, but also on the flipside great cooperation, getting to know new tools and systems, and delivering on what you promised after months of work.
What games (digital and tabletop) do you really like?
Friso: There are so many… Slay the Spire is one of my favorites since it is a very good roguelite with card based combat and deck building. So very much inspired by analogue games, but makes perfect use of the possibility of digital games. The latest Magic the Gathering digital adaptation is very good as well. Mystic Vale is one of my favorite analogue games because of its card crafting mechanic and polished feel and I really like the whole Civilization franchise because it’s basically a digital boardgame of epic proportions.
Mitchel: I don’t play a whole lot of competitive digital games anymore. In most cases I find that I just don’t have the time to keep up my skills enough to enjoy myself online. I much prefer single player or cooperative experience instead. Story based games like The Last of Us or God of War, or pick up and play games like Borderlands or Earth Defence Force are what I much rather spend time on. That interest sort of bled over to my boardgame preferences as well, where I now much rather play a game for its theme or shared goal rather than being victorious over others. As mentioned before, Gloomhaven – for me personally the perfect blend of exploration, cooperation and tactical choices having to be made. Or Arkham Horror the card game, where the deck you choose to build is part of what your character is like. The weapons, allies, skills and abilities you put in that deck defy how you interact with the challenges throughout a campaign. I find the emotional trigger to be interesting, where it isn’t just about winning and feeling victorious, but that you actually made a change or influenced something.
What advice would you give a game designer or someone aspiring to work with games?
Friso: You can get the best advice, buy the best tools available, read every book on game design, get inspiration from other games and people, but despite how much fun all of this can be, none of it will result in seeing your own game being played by other people. So stop wasting time reading interviews and, to quote a famous LaBeouf, ‘JUST DO IT!’.
Mitchel: Keep in mind player control. Where in a digital game you press a button and all things happen as a reaction, with tabletop games it’s the player who has to place the tile, give coins or turn over a card, and it’s the player who has to calculate the amounts, has to move the units by hand and has to keep track of scoring. Don’t forget about how the player influences the game. Something might seem very different on paper compared to when you’re actually playing it. Getting your hands on 15 abilities can be fun, but having to hold all of them in your hands less so. What does this do to the game’s feel? Think about the logistics of all the actions as well as the effect on the game itself. My solution to this is to basically “fail faster”. Build something playable from your idea as soon as you can. If it doesn’t feel right when placing those cards or moving those units, change things. The earlier you start, the easier it’ll be to change things.
Thanks for your time guys!
Interview by Arjan van Houwelingen