A Conversation With John Moller of Unpub, Part 1

I am very excited to have John Moller as my guest this time.  John is the founder of Unpub, an organization that assists game designers get their games into a publishable form through playtesting, connecting people, and advice.  This is a long interview so I’ve broken it into two parts.  Part two will come in a couple of days.

Unpub.net is a network is game designers, publishers, players, retailers and artists working towards the creation of new and unique table top games that will keep people entertained for generations to come! 

unpubTom: So John, tell us about John Moller.

John: I’m a guy who likes games. I do other things, of course, but they’re not all that relevant. My standard answer is that I do different things for different people. I’m a lighting designer who specializes in theatre and concerts, I’m a voting machine technician for my county, and sometimes I’m a welder. …But none of that is important. For me they’re impediments to getting down to games.

Tom: You have a varied palette of skills.What do you do to fuel your gaming habit?  

John: I play as often as I can. When I can’t, I talk about games or I write about games. If I’m not doing one of those three things, I’m probably working.

Tom: What game got you hooked on gaming?   

John: That’s a complicated question. I have a LOT of memories of games and playing games, but I don’t remember being a game player. My brothers are like 10 years older than me, so I have early memories of trying Dungeons and Dragons, experimenting with Shogun (now called Ikusa,) and playing lots of mass market games like Uno, Monopoly and branded board games for things I loved. I remember playing games with my

Uncle Wiggly - a classic
Uncle Wiggly – a classic

Grandmother including Tiddly Winks and Uncle Wiggly. There was an older lady, Mrs. James, down the street who I would go play card games with some afternoons. I look back and games were always there….somewhere, but maybe not in the forefront. …until high school when I got into CCGs. I started with Star Trek and tried Star Wars…and then fell into Magic: The Gathering. That put us in the way of seeing other games and finally experimenting. I think my first “real game” was Carcassonne, but the true revelation came with Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. My inspiration for design came from James Ernest’s Cheapass games line in the early 2000s. It’s been a snowball since then.

Tom: Lord of the Rings. You must have played that with Darrell. He mentioned it as his first ‘real’ game. Uncle Wiggly holds a special place in my heart too.  And my grandmother and her friends were card players so I learned a few card games early, Catch The Five in particular. Cheapass has inspired me too. It’s good model for getting games out there. I wonder why it hasn’t worked for anyone else.  Now let’s talk about Unpub. What is it and where did the idea come from? John: Unpub is short for unpublished games. We are a growing network of designers, players, retailers, publishers and artists. It started out as a single event ( The Unpublished Games Festival,) which we’ve run for the last two years, and has grown over the last year into an participant run organization that has held more than 15 events around the country. We are focused on supporting unpublished games primarily by helping them get played, gain feedback and get better. We do that by holding different events like the Unpub, Unpub Minis (held at game shops,) ProtoZones (held at conventions,) and through our growing play-test at home program. We’re looking at adding other programs in the future.  Where did the idea start?…Well, that’s kind of a long story. It started with the Regional Rio Grande Game Design Contest in October 2010 that was held at the Congress of Gamers. The event was awesome but it was a contest. I loved the interactions, the friendships, and the feedback that weekend created and I thought: “there has to be a way to make this happen again.”…So, I said “what made that event work for me?”…and created the first Unpub. It was basically people getting together specifically for

TC Petty III, one of the cogs that keeps Unpub going
TC Petty III, one of the cogs that keeps Unpub going

play-testing prototypes. I hadn’t heard about Proto-Spiel or Metatopia at that point, so I thought I was creating something new. It was a great event and we decided to do it again the next year. It got bigger…and then… well, we decided to take the act on the road. Now we’re heading towards our 3rd Unpub (January 19 and 20th) and it promises to be the biggest one yet. We’ve already got some big guns coming to the show this year like Compounded by Darrell Louder (with publisher Dice Hate Me Games,) and the awesome economic game East India Company by Paul Owen which has yet to find a publisher. That’s just two… of what is now more than 40 games that are appearing at Unpub3 and the list grows every day.

John: The ‘getting people together to play-test’ is a key to good game development. I think it is an awesome and sorely needed service. It seems that you’ve touched a nerve. I for one am very glad of it.I think it is a fantastic idea.  

I saw first hand how valuable it can be at The Escapist Expo. How many games have been ‘unpubbed’?

John: That’s a complicated question. We’ve done a lot different things over the past year from show up and play events, to actual registered events, to simply listing prototypes that are going to be at events (which was a big hit at GenCon and actually helped at least one game find a publisher.) All told, in the past year Unpub has probably had contact with around 130 different games. The number we would quote as actual Unpub Games is probably around 90. To be really considered an Unpub Game, and get the full benefit of everything we provide we want the game to appear at an Unpub Event. So, after around 15 events…roughly 90 games isn’t bad. We’ve been involved at some level with about 13 different publishers as well. All of those numbers continue to grow.

Tom: Ninety games! Thirteen publishers! That’s amazing.  It really shows that the future of the game industry is bright. How many of the Unpub alumni are published or contracted games?

John: We’ll claim about 15…but there’s a lot that goes into that number. Some of the games in the program had publishers before they got to us like Salmon Run and Pixel Lincoln, but were able to gain the benefit and the

buzz of Unpub to help move them forward. Other games decided to self publish...which is tricky and I don’t

 Contract negotiations for The Great Heartland Hauling Company
Contract negotiations for The Great Heartland Hauling Company

recommend. Others have used us to improve and find a publisher like Compounded.  We really serve all three of those strategies. The other side is, we’ve got a group of play-testers that enjoy blind play-testing. We’ve done some work on the side for a one or two publishers connecting games they want play-tested with groups of play-testers. We’re hoping to step up those efforts again.

Tom: The play-testing aspect of Unpub is very intriguing. We’ll come back to that. Is Unpub working like you envisioned it?  What would/will you change?

John: The great wisdom about starting any business is to go into it with a plan. That’s great wisdom and I absolutely did not follow it. So there’s very little “envisioning” that went on. When this all started I thought it was going to be one event each year. I was really okay with that. I didn’t even anticipate it being a big event. It was just a thing I wanted to do that first year and it was successful enough that there was enough interest in doing a second one. After Unpub2… there were so many voices whispering in my ear that we needed to do more. People wanted this to be more than a one time thing. …and people told me they didn’t want to come to Delaware. SO, I put my thinking cap on and said, “well, how does this work?”…And then we plowed forward. Strike while the iron is hot is another great piece of wisdom that I did follow.  The initial concept behind the website was an open market where designers could list their games, and publishers could come and find what interested them and then take the next step. It was about making it easier for the designer, making them the draw. We started the list and the Unpub Minis. The minis became more important…so we started holding more of them and working out the details so they can proliferate. I kept hearing people talk to me about getting these things in conventions…which sounds great to me. So we went forward with an idea and got shot down pretty

TC Petty III and the Big Blue Noodle. The Noodle marks the ProtoZone.
TC Petty III and the Big Blue Noodle. The Noodle marks the ProtoZone.

hard. I’m stubborn, so we still moved forward unofficially…because I truly feel that we have to offer has value and has great value at the convention level. Designers with prototypes are marginalized at most conventions. They’ve got to be their own salesman but it’s so hard to connect to the right audience. Putting all the designers with prototypes in one place is a good idea because there is safety in numbers. It let’s people who want that kind of thing find that kind of thing. If a publisher knows they can see Unpublished games at a certain place, they will go there.  At Origins we had 9 different publishers in our area just about every night. Our GenCon area, made possible by Game Salute, higher numbers and more foot traffic. The big cons spawned 6 small fall conventions and some great opportunities leading into next year. But…that wasn’t on our list of things to do when we started. We’ve also been…not very well, but growing a small program of at home play-testing. Connecting play-testers with games…and providing print and play games that need play-testing.  Bottom line? The initial concept was helping games find publishers, what we are now is a service that seems to be specializing in play-testing and promotion. That’s become our goal: to help make good games great. We do this by doing everything we can to get games played. We continue to find new avenues to do that and make new connections to help it grow.

Tom: It’s really amazing how it has grown. What feedback has been most valuable?

John: Every piece of feedback I’ve heard carries value. As with designing a game, you hear what they’re saying and you try and listen to what they mean. People want more opportunities…and we’re working to create more. I have a good group of dedicated people who help me out…but the program really thrives and will endure with the realization that’s it’s participant driven. We have the system now… If someone says to me “Why don’t you have an Unpub Mini near me…?” I can say: “I will if you’ll help me…” And there’s a place to go with  documentation and guides to make that happen.  We can have Unpub Mini just about anywhere there are game designers and a place with space for people to play games. Apart from that…we just try to do everything we can to provide

Darrell Louder at an Unpub Mini at 6 Feet Under
An Unpub Mini at 6 Feet Under

people what they need. We are always open to ideas and suggestions. …But, and this is something I do try to stress: We know what Unpub is now. We’re not having contests or starting forums to talk about game design. There are places for that (The Game Crafter and the Board Game Designer’s Forum respectively.) We are about play-testing and promotion. Getting games played and getting people talking about them.

That’s part one.  Part two will be posted in a couple of days.  Please come back for it.  It is a ton of fun.