Whether it’s “Apples to Apples,” “Trivial Pursuit” or “Settlers of Catan,” board games are all about competition.
But off of the board, the gaming community is a more collaborative one. Gamers come together to play, game designers play-test each others’ game prototypes and offer feedback to make everybody’s game as good as possible.
And now, with the advent of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, game designers can get feedback and suggestions from players who support them. Those suggestions can end up shaping the finished product.
Madison game designer Keith Matejka has benefited from that collaboration in creating his games. Even though he designed and published his award-winning game “Roll Player” on his own, he’s had a symbiotic relationship with the people who play it.
“It’s kind of nice to let people who invest in your game dictate some of the small details,” Matejka said in an interview in the back room at I’m Board game store on University Avenue.
The back half of the store is full of long white tables where gamers and game designers get together to play and offer feedback on each others’ games. It’s become a familiar place for Matejka. Posters of his games “Roll Player” and “Bullfrogs” adorn a wall.
Matejka moved to Madison about six years ago to take a job as a producer for Raven Software, where Matejka works on video games with a large team. But he also began getting back into tabletop games, something he had enjoyed as a kid.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “I was looking for opportunities to meet new people in a new town, because the social element of gaming is a big deal. You play a bunch of games and at some point you play so many and you think, ‘I could make one of these.’”
After releasing a couple of smaller games like “Bullfrogs,” Matejka began work on his biggest game yet, “Roll Player.” The game is inspired by the process of “rolling up characters” for a role-playing game, in which players roll dice to determine their characters’ attributes and skills before they head off on an adventure.
In “Roll Player,” there is no adventure.
“There are games that are all about going through a dungeon — dudes on a map rolling dice and fighting monsters. This game is about the part before that,” he said.
The game is all about creating a character that’s better than those of the other players — rolling dice to get the attribute and skill levels you want, buying armor and weapons to beef them up, even training them to bump up their skills.
Matejka initiated a Kickstarter campaign for the game in fall of 2015 and raised $51,000. As is increasingly common with such game campaigns, backers got the chance to put their own stamp on the game while Matejka was working on it. Some investors got to write the backstories for some of the characters in the game and others paid to have their own faces used as models for some of the characters.
The game was released in August 2016 and has now sold about 10,000 copies. Earlier this month, “Roll Player” won the prestigious Dice Tower Award for the Best Small Publisher game.
Matejka went back to Kickstarter to raise funds for an expansion pack and ended up raising over $350,000, seven times the original funding. Perhaps ironically, the expansion gives players the chance to take their characters and fight a monster with them, much like in a role-playing game.
“There are more than enough people who say, ‘I love this game, but I made this character and now want to do something with it,’” he said. “That wasn’t really a design goal.
“The base game is the game that I wanted to make. And the expansion is where the fans wanted to go. I was like ‘Ok, I’ll go there, but I’ll go the way I want to go.’”
Matejka said that although the scale of making his own board games is much smaller than working on a large video game, some of the same skills do carry over. But he’s still amazed at the response to "Roll Player."
“It’s crazy that one guy can design and publish this game that wins big awards," he said. "That’s all on my shoulders.”