I’m very pleased to welcome Michael Mindes and Seth Jaffee from Tasty Minstrel Games today. TMG is five years old this year and I wanted to look back a bit with the guys who are at the helm. It’s a fun and informative interview that I think you will like.
Tom: First, Congratulations! Five years – amazing. TMG has a great reputation for quality games and great customer service.
Seth: Thanks for the kind words!
Michael: TMG is filled with folks that are, at their core, gamers. We know how disappointing it is to get excited about a game and have it fall flat or be missing pieces.
Tom: Where/How did you two meet?
Seth: Michael mentioned this on a podcast recently… I was in 6th grade with his older brother Jacob. Jacob and I became friends based largely on the fact that I had just gotten a Nintendo and the game Contra. Jacob had 22 games, but not Contra, so I would trade my game for 3 of his for a week or two, then a different 3 games or so… etc. At that time Michael was 5 years old. Once he grew up, it turned out his interests and mine were pretty similar, starting with the time he taught me Magic: the Gathering.
Michael: Yep, I was basically too young to remember very well, so I believe Seth’s account of it.
Tom: That’s a neat story. Whose idea was TMG?
Seth: Michael has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and at some point he became interested in the idea of starting his own publishing company. So the idea for TMG was his. The “Tasty Minstrel Games” title came from some random conversation – while bouncing from topic to topic we somehow landed on Monty Python and The Holy Grail, the part where they ate Sir Robin’s minstrels (and there was much rejoicing). Then someone – I’m going to go ahead and say it was me – suggested jokingly that the game company could be called “Tasty Minstrel,” and it stuck!
Michael: I think that Seth does not provide himself enough credit. I saw him making or developing great games and not being able to get published. I always wanted to be involved in the creation of games, so I thought “why not?”. And that stuck!
Tom: How did TMG start?
M: As a thought in my mind. This thought: “I love games. I am smart. I should publish games”. Then it is a matter of when. My wife and I found out we would be having our first child, so I decided to go for the stability of working with my father as a financial adviser over borrowing money to start a game company. Fast forward 3 years from then and the company I worked for got bought out, and the buyer paid all of the financial advisers to not leave.
So, I used a portion of that money to start TMG and publish our first games. The thought at the time was, “what is the worst that could happen?” And the answer was lose some of that unexpected windfall cash.
Tom: Lucky for us! Why did you do it?
Michael: I love games. I wish there were more games that I would be able to enjoy with my kids. I wanted to do everything associated with games, and I figured that there could be decent-to-good money in game publishing if done right.
Tom: When did you know TMG had made it?
Michael: I don’t think that TMG has made it yet. We spent the first 5 years building a foundation consisting of a fan base, a track record, production skills, development skills, built up financial capital/inventory, and connections in the industry.
We are at the beginning as far as I am concerned. I will consider that we have made it once TMG has enough of a back catalog of hits to be able to pay for myself and all of the necessary employees to run TMG and be confident that we will always be able to cover the next payroll.
Tom: An excellent answer. Speaking of the TMG catalog, would you run it down for the readers who may not know it?
Seth: According to BGG, the TMG lineup includes:
Belfort: Guild Promo Pack #1
Belfort: The Expansion Expansion
Bomb Squad (upcoming)
Captains of Industry (upcoming)
City Hall (upcoming)
Coin Age (upcoming)
Dungeon Roll: Hero Booster Number 1
Dungeon Roll: Winter promo (upcoming)
Eminent Domain: Bonus Planets
Eminent Domain: Elusive/Exclusive Victory promo
Eminent Domain: Escalation
Eminent Domain: Escalation Promo Pack
For The Win
For The Win: 3-4 Player Expansion
Ground Floor: Overfunding Achievements
Jab: Realtime Boxing
Kings of Air and Steam
Kings of Air and Steam: World Fair (upcoming)
Templar Intrigue (upcoming)
This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The 2-4 Of Us (upcoming)
Train of Thought
Village: Customer Expansion
For The Win
Seth Jaffee’s Brain Freeze
Tom: Wow! That’s a lot of games. Eleven of which are upcoming. Impressive. And there are some VERY good games in there. Homesteaders is an extremely underrated game in my opinion. So tight. So many critical decisions. The auction. So good. My kids’ favorite by the way. Belfort is another favorite of ours. I really like Rialto, JAB, EmDo, and Martian Dice. Ground Floor is a brain burner ( I have an interview with David Short in the works.)
Seth: Good question… I’m not sure anyone can say that they really knew it would be a game changer. I originally became aware of Kickstarter in 2010, when a board game project called Inevitable (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dystopianholdings/inevitable-dystopian-tabletop-gaming) was running. That project earned about $9k, and I thought “hey, this is a neat way to fund production of games.” I told Michael about it, but he didn’t seem too interested at first.
Right about that same time, another board game funded on Kickstarter called Alien Frontiers (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/clevermojogames/alien-frontiers-retro-future-sci-fi-board-game?ref=live), with even more impressive numbers – twice as many backers and almost twice as much funding. Again I suggested that Michel look into it for TMG.
At some point Michael did look into it – and he actually did an impressive amount of research into the Kickstarter website and other (non-game) Kickstarter projects, and determined that it could work for TMG as well.
My card game Eminent Domain was the first TMG Kickstarter project (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/627547359/eminent-domain-the-next-evolution-of-deck-building?ref=live), which managed to rustle up three times as many backers and almost three times as much funding as Alien Frontiers! By today’s standards that project might not be very impressive, but at the time there really wasn’t much in the way of precedent. We felt really good about the outcome!
Michael: I think that Seth has said plenty about this. We did not know that it would be a game changer though at the time… The reason we did it was to make Eminent Domain earlier than we would have been able to otherwise.
Of course, it is a game changer for us, because it allows us to do more. Significantly more.
Tom: Inevitable? I’m not familiar with it. I’ll have to do some research. Alien Frontiers was indeed the watershed game that caught everyone’s attention. EmDo was not far behind though. It was very successful.
From what I’ve gathered from all the interviews I’ve done since EmDo/Alien Frontiers, KS is a definite plus to the industry. As you said, there are many good games that we would not have without it.
What games have you designed that just didn’t cut it?
Seth: As all game designers do, I have a whole list of game ideas and designs at different stages of development – some I’m actively working on, some I’d like to get back to one day, and some on the cutting room floor.
My biggest disappointment though is a game by a friend from the Board Game Designers Forum (David Brain) called All For One (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/20941). It’s a medium weight euro style pickup and deliver game about the Three Musketeers which I got involved with way back in 2003. I worked on David’s design with him for quite some time, through several versions, to a point where I really thought it was as good as many of the published games out there. Unfortunately we didn’t have any luck finding a publisher, and so the game just sat there on the shelf for long periods of time. At this point I still like the game, but I think it feels a little old-fashioned, and I think it could use an overhaul.
Michael: Basically all of the games I have designed or thought I should design over the years are not going to ever be good enough for TMG to release as a big game. I do not have the tolerance for the meticulous testing required to get games to that point.
Thankfully, with micro games, games are more likely to just work or not. So this allows me a space in which I can try to design games. Still, I lose interest in the perfection process too quickly.
Michael: Yes, one and it is very sad. But this happened recently and I don’t know who picked it up yet so I won’t say what game it is.
Seth: I’m not sure which title Mike is referring to, but I have a different one from a couple of years ago. I heard about a game called The Manhattan Project (http://bgg.cc/boardgame/63628/the-manhattan-project) online and liked the sound of it. I contacted the designer to ask if he wanted to submit the game to TMG… he said it wasn’t ready. Six or eight months later that designer attended a Protospiel event where James Matthe was in attendance, and James signed the game on the spot for Minion Games. I’m just glad somebody published the game, because I enjoy it very much!
Tom: That’s one of my favorite games! Such a good design. I’m sad for you that it escaped.
Seth: I’m not sad. I sometimes have to remind myself that unless it’s the next Trivial Pursuit (and in this industry, nothing’s likely to be the next Trivial Pursuit), it’s really not a big deal if another publisher ends up publishing a game we would have liked to publish.
Tom: Right. Good for the designer and that publisher and for us because we will get to see it in print. Who do you desperately want to work with?
Michael: I don’t know. Most of these folks probably wouldn’t really be in the game industry.
Seth: I’m not sure I’d say I “desperately” want to work with anyone, but ever since I met Antoine Bauza at a convention in Los Angeles I thought it would be fun to work with him on some game design.
Tom: Favorite game personally so far.
Seth: My favorite TMG game so far has got to be Eminent Domain… obviously 🙂 But not counting that one, I have a real soft spot for two of our older, less appreciated games: Jab (http://www.geekdo.com/boardgame/62853/jab-realtime-boxing), and Train of Thought (http://www.geekdo.com/boardgame/56835/train-of-thought).
Michael: Eminent Domain. Easily, it is my favorite game by a long shot. I have probably played it 150-180 times, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Seth has played it 400+ times. It hasn’t gotten old. Ever.
Tom: Jab is a great design but can be hard to get a handle on. It’s very unique. I love In The Year of The Dragon and Puerto Rico. Such well designed games and fun. GtR is pretty good but I need more plays. Haven’t played Brass. Yet.
Best experience so far?
Seth: For me the best experience was walking into the hotel for BGG.con 2010 to find 4 tables of people playing print and play copies of Eminent Domain, before I even got there. The game wasn’t even out yet, the Kickstarter project was in progress, and people had not only made PnP copies of the game, but brought them to the convention and taught the game to a room full of people!
Tom: Wow! That must have felt awesome. It’s because EmDo is a fantastic game. I hope to have a similar experience one day.
Michael: There isn’t any best experience that sticks out in my mind, too many to choose from. I always like hearing about parents playing games with their kids and EVERYBODY enjoying it.
Tom: Well, be happy because I have those experiences all the time with my kids. EmDo is on the short list for the year once my son’s reading skills are up to it. It’s hard to play when he needs me to read his cards for him.
Seth and Michael: Traveling to the warehouse in Atlanta to try and fix manufacturing errors that should not have occurred. That was so disheartening.
Tom: Best lesson learned?
Seth: I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons as we’ve gone, and we’ve got a lot more to lessons ahead of us. One of the biggest for me was to not get so focused on something small that it distorts or distracts from the bigger picture.
Michael: To not be so big picture that you ignore details. Ok, that was prompted by Seth’s answer. I think the best lesson that I have learned or relearned would be to stick with it and one that I learned in my first week working with my father. People don’t want to hear excuses about how something got messed up, they just want to know that you are fixing it, what you are doing to fix it, and when it is fixed.
Seth: While I am constantly interested in the new hotness coming out each year, I am not the type of gamer who likes to play each game only once and then move on. I prefer to play a game several times, enough to get the feeling I’m getting better at the game, mastering it. If I had my way, I’d play each game until I was bored with it!
Tom: I totally agree. One play is not enough. Usually.
Seth: It’s rare I get the chance to do so, but for the games that do see that much play, I like to see expansions released. I especially like expansions that add to the game experience without changing it too much – I don’t really want the expansion to be a whole different game, but I like to have new and refreshing options. It’s nice when an expansion can add a 5th player and some new components and dynamics, and best when it can do so without adding too many new rules.
By way of example, I feel like Eminent Domain: Escalation (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgameexpansion/136313/eminent-domain-escalation) is a well made expansion, and so far from what I’ve been reading on the internet I think we did a pretty good job with it.
Michael: How I feel about expansions is very cynical. I feel that there are too many expansions and that too many of those are fixing a problem in the base game that should have been caught before publishing. I want TMG to be publishing full, complete, and balanced games.
It is often hard to expand something that is already finished. So, the expansion really needs to add something and increase the depth of game play. See Eminent Domain: Escalation and Belfort: The Expansion Expansion.
That is the gamer side of my publisher brain. The financial side of my publisher brain sees the potential dollar signs. I am glad my gamer side of the brain is more dominant. Which means you are unlikely to see expansions from TMG that are full of air and short on gameplay.
Tom: I’m in the ‘only if the expansion adds significantly to the game’ gang. I agree that a game should be release complete and not need an expansion to fix something known. It’s kind of shady feeling and seems like a money grab. I’m glad to hear that TMG is not into that.
What’s on tap for 2014?
Seth: Michael’s already announced that after a brief hiatus, TMG will be bringing a couple new games to Kickstarter: Harbour (http://bgg.cc/boardgame/155969/harbour), by Scott Almes with art by Rob Lundy, and Bomb Squad (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/142267/bomb-squad), by Dan Keltner and David Short with art by the same people who illustrated Flash Point Fire Rescue.
Later in the year we should have Scoville (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/145659/scoville), by Ed Marriott ready which recently funded on Kickstarter, as well as a whole host of microgames (Coin Age, Templar Intrigue, Burgoo, This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The 2-4 Of Us, and Dungeon Roll: Winter Promo Pack). We might have a one or two other things in store as well!
Michael: And we have other projects to deliver like City Hall and Captains of Industry. Not to mention more micro games and other projects that I am very excited about!
Tom: I’m excited to get to play Harbour. I got the PnP and have printed it. Just need to get it to the table. It looks great. Scott Almes is one of the hot designers right now. You have history with him. He did Martian Dice, which is a really fun, one of the first ‘micros’ in a sense.
I heard TONS of great buzz about Scoville. All the local gamers are raving about it. Bomb Squad sounds like a blast. (sorry I had to do it) I don’t remember Templar Intrigue. Can you talk just a bit about it?
Michael: Like Werewolf, Templar Intrigue is a game of hidden information, partial information, deduction, deception, and accusations. Unlike Werewolf, Templar Intrigue does not require a moderator, has no player elimination, and plays VERY fast.
In Templar Intrigue there are two teams, those loyal to France (and thus the King) and those loyal to the Templars, which start with asymmetric information. And of course, you might not know who is on your team…
The game is played quickly over a series of hands with the first player(s) that win 3 times being the winners of the game. There is some information that is public and perfect information in addition to hidden information and information that is revealed over the course of the hand.
For example, everybody knows who the King of France is, because, well, he is the King of France! Additionally, all of the players know who is a Knight Templar and who is a Monk. But of course, not all of the Knights are loyal to the Templars, and not all of the monks are loyal to Philip.
Tom: That sounds really fun. I like the Templar legends. And it’s a micro-game? Deduction games are the rage at the moment it seems. So micro and deduction – sounds like a hit to me. Fallout from Coup I guess.
Seth, didn’t you have a Templar game at one point?
Seth: I have a design on the back burner about the Knights Templar. It’s a rondel game with a Mancala mechanism, kinda like Trajan. In fact, it was inspired by my incorrect assumption of how Trajan’s rondel mechanism would work! Maybe one day I’ll finish it…
Tom: That’s the one I remember. I’d really like to see that one at some point. I really like that subject matter.
What does TMG look like 5 years from now?
Seth: If I could see 5 years into the future, then I’d be doing some investing right now. 🙂
Michael: Seth takes the easy way out here. The answer is that I don’t know, but I have some ideas and they all excite me. But I mostly want to concentrate in the moment (all zen like) so that we can get to some of these awesome potential futures.
Seth: I will be heading to some conventions in the upcoming months. I don’t know when this interview will go live, so some of these cons may have already happened… if your readers are going to be at any of these then I hope they’ll come say “hi” and play a game with me!
MidSouthCon in Memphis, March 21-23
SaltCON in Salt Lake City, March 28-30
KublaCon in Burlingame (by San Jose), May 23-26
and of course Gen Con, August 14-17
Tom: Unfortunately I’m not able to make it to any of those. If y’all are on the East Coast swing by Durham. It’s a gamer/designer haven.
I want to thank Michael and Seth for taking time to talk to me. I hope all of you readers out there enjoyed this interview. If you did leave me a comment.
I have several interviews in the works that I think you will like – Patrick Nickell of Crash Games, Doug Levandowski of Meltdown Games, Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games, and a couple of others. Come on back now ya hear!