Welcome to part 2 of my first, real honest-to-goodness, face-to-face, real life guest, and not imaginary friends…dinner. And I am lucky enough to be eating with the renaissance man of gaming, Ryan Laukat. Ryan is known for being designer, illustrator, graphic designer and publisher for his games. And today we eat octopus.
RL: No, honestly, I wanted to do that musician thing. That was kind of be my thing. Kind of like my parents did.
Ryan had just previously explained that his parents own a music store, and his father had done musical gigs in this very restaurant, Log Haven.
DTD: That was going to be it?
RL: That was going to be my career path. But I don’t know, I couldn’t let the game/art thing go, so.
DTD: So, was it the art first, or was it the games first? Or did they just all happen?
RL: I mean, technically you could say art, because as a little kid I liked to draw a lot. But the hobby…it became a hobby for me, like at 12. I would design the games and do the art. Kind of at the same time.
DTD: Wow. At 12…man, you’re not helping your case. So, any of these 12 year old designs, did they turn into any of the Red Raven games?
Ryan is simply too talented – illustration, game design, music, publishing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were bipping off to the kitchen periodically to prepare my food.
RL: No, they were…I mean, they were like kind of CCG style, like fantasy battle things. You know, like a deck of cards, fantasy pictures.
RL: I would take playing cards, tape paper to it, and then draw the picture, put the number in there.
DTD: That’s awesome. I remember being really into role-playing games when I was in high school and junior high, and when I was young.
RL: Yeah, me too.
DTD: And I was always looking for a board game that did that “fantasy role playing” element. That was my goal. And I would play around with design, or trying to put one together, and nothing ever came of it. But I remember that search, that quest, for something close.
RL: Yeah, I was into, really into D&D. And around then, too. Junior high and high school. And I wasn’t quite as much into board games. Because I didn’t know about the…kind of the obscure ones.
Oh, I actively sought out the obscure ones for sure.
DTD: Well, they were really obscure and hard to find until the 90s, until mid-90s when that Euro invasion started.
Officially, the Euro invasion started with Settlers of Catan in 1996.
RL: I remember even when I played Catan as a teenager, I wasn’t like blown away with it. I was like, I was like, “This is kind of boring.”
DTD: There was no story.
RL: I appreciated it more later, honestly.
DTD: Right. I get that. I remember hunting down…There were the 3M box sets and the Avalon Hill box sets, and there was Dungeon!, Talisman. They were they were hard to find, but they were out there. But I think I’m speaking probably at least one generation before you, for when I was hunting things around. This was in the 70’s.
RL: Oh yeah. Sure. Yeah, I was born ’85. Yeah, I was right around in that, in the mid-90s. I remember that was when D&D third edition came out.
DTD: And it started coming out of the woodwork. It was kind of a shunned thing for a long time.
RL: Oh yeah.
DTD: I remember actually getting in trouble, and not being allowed to go to a friend’s house anymore, because they heard we played it [Dungeons and Dragons].
Clayton the waiter, who may very well get a place in my will, delivers the wood grilled octopus appetizer.
DTD: Ah, thank you! Wow, that looks great.
RL: That looks impressive.
DTD: [sheepish] I’m gonna be horrible, and take pictures.
I always forget to take enough pictures.
RL: Hey that’s great.
DTD: Wow, I gotta take a picture of you, too. Thanks, man.
RL: Oh yeah, I remember I had a friend. He actually introduced me to RPG’s with Rifts. Have you ever seen that one?
DTD: Yeah… Not Rift Wars, but Rifts, just Rifts. Yeah, I remember seeing the books.
RL: Yeah, so he played that, and he introduced me to that. And then he said, “But don’t play D&D, that’s like… That’s like the evil one.”
DTD: That is. That’s the occult game. The other ones are all cool. All the ones that copied D&D were fine.
This really was the preeminent viewpoint for quite a long time. Dungeons and Dragons was a tool of the occult. And not ironically, like in Stranger Things. My friend’s parents in 6th grade wanted to exorcise me. Note the spelling.
RL: Sure, right. I guess we just kind of dig in here.
DTD: Wow. Oh yeah, yeah. So, so you were playing around with art and design when you were young. But when did it start becoming real for you? Rather than a game? Well, that’s a terrible analogy.
RL: [laughs] Well, in my early 20s. I started running into… I started playing… Well, I was on BoardGameGeek all the time. I was looking at stuff, like what’s the top rated thing? And so, I started playing like Puerto Rico and stuff like that.
RL: That introduced me to euro games, and that really got me. I really got the bug. You know, playing it like those euro games.
RL: So, I started designing stuff that somewhat incorporated that design philosophy. I would try to make very colorful thematic games, but influenced by [Reiner] Knizia stuff, and you know Puerto Rico, definitely.
DTD: Adding theme into the themeless.
Clayton, my heir and mentor, checked up on us to make sure we had not expired from the sheer joy of gastronomy.
Both: Oh, it’s very good, thank you.
RL: I’m actually shocked at how good it is.
DTD: This is amazing.
RL: So, I would pitch the games, but I know they were getting tons of submissions, so they weren’t publishing.
RL: But I started getting art gigs. So, I met Jay Tummelson, who owns Rio Grande. And he, you know, I pitched a game to him. And he said, “No, let’s not… I’m not interested in this. But, oh, I need some art for this game called Dominion. I need like one card.” And I was like, “OK, let’s go. Let’s do it, you know.” And he had the prototype there at this convention. We played it. It was here in Utah, actually.
2008’s Dominion by Donald X Vaccarino is a foundational game, placing deck building firmly in the repertoire of game mechanics. Someone should interview that guy…
DTD: That’s awesome.
RL: Yeah, and he had this rough… You know he had cut it out, just printed it on a printer, and cut it out. We played it. And so, that that was like my… That’s how I got my foot in the door, basically.
DTD: So, I’m curious. When you were designing and pitching games, you had them fully illustrated with your own art at that point?
RL: Yeah, but I mean. At various degrees of like, professional state…
I cannot even imagine a Ryan Laukat prototype game.
DTD: Well, sure. Not completely finished.
RL: But even back then, I wouldn’t say my… My skills have grown a lot over the years. So, like my old prototypes, definitely look like old prototypes. You know what I mean?
DTD: Yeah, I’m just curious. You said that you had pitched things, and then you were offered an art gig. So, I’m just picturing your prototypes with your art already on them.
RL: Sure, I mean the art wasn’t bad, that I was pitching with. Some of it was pretty decent. But it’s not like…
DTD: So, if they had taken your prototype at that point, would you have been OK with them using an in-house artist and replacing your art?
RL: I think at that point, my art was… I’m sure they would have just used my art, because they liked it. It was kind of on par with what they were publishing, so I think…
DTD: Plus, they offered you an art job!
RL: Sure. I just… I think, looking back now, you know… Because I feel like I’ve improved a lot, and then over years you look back at something you did 10 years ago, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s so bad.” But you know you have to take that. You have to go from somewhere. You have to come… There’s a journey you have to take, right?
8 Minute Empire was published in 2012, Sleeping Gods in 2021.
DTD: And yeah, I could tell changes in the art. I mean I wouldn’t go immediately to “improved.” I think they’re all awesome.
RL: Oh, thank you.
DTD: But you’re always the most critical of your own stuff.
RL: Ah yeah, that’s true too.
DTD: That’s just how it goes.
RL: That makes sense.
DTD: So, I’ve been a big fan for a long time. That’s why, you know you were one of the first people I called.
When I first came up with the idea for Dice Tower Dish, I emailed 4 designers including Ryan to see if the idea was even feasible. All seemed excited, and encouraged me to go forward.
RL: Oh, thank you.
DTD: Or wrote, or pestered, harassed. However you want to put it.
RL: Well, I’m sorry it didn’t work out for so long.
DTD: No, no, no. I mean, I’m playing around. And this strange dude, you know, is basically taking you out of your work week, and saying, “Let’s go eat dinner somewhere. And by the way, I’m going to record it.”
DTD: It’s a hard sell.
RL: No, no, this is great.
DTD: I don’t know if it’ll make it onto the final, the web page, but… I proposed doing this, a lot of this, at GenCon, to Tom [Vasel]. And Tom was great. He said, “you know, do whatever you want. It’s cool, it’s awesome.” And Tom likes to walk and talk. So, we’re wandering… And we’re walking all over. And he stops in front of this tall imposing man I don’t know, and says “This is Corey Thompson. You need to go to dinner with him.” And this guy looks me up, looks me down, sighs, and just goes “No.” And then wandered off.
RL: Are you serious?
DTD: It was [REDACTED], I learned later.
Hey, I might still get that guy to have dinner with me!
And no, the aforementioned negative designer was not a designer on [redacted]. I just thought it was funny.
RL: That’s funny.
See, I told you it was funny.
DTD: That was my entry into interview dinners.
DTD: That’s alright. Some people… I’ve gotten interesting responses. I’ve had people tell me they don’t like food.
RL: Like, they don’t like food?
DTD: That was the response. Two different people.
RL: Whoa, really?
DTD: I know.
RL: So, they just like…they have a feeding tube and that’s how they get through… No, I’m just kidding.
DTD: I’ve often wondered about it.
I prefer to think they photosynthesize.
RL: That is a weird response.
DTD: I know. That’s cool. So, you did a Dominion card?
RL: Yeah, actually I’ve done a lot.
Twenty-seven! Dominion Strategy Wiki: Cards illustrated by Ryan Laukat.
DTD: I apologize for not knowing my homework!
RL: Oh no, it’s all good. In the first game, I did the Adventurer. And they’ve actually, in the second… I think in the second edition they got rid of that card. So, the cards that I still have in there, are the money cards. There’s like copper, silver, gold.
No wonder he founded Red Raven Games, he’s great with shiny things.
RL: And then I did… Back in the day I was doing like 2 cards per expansion. And then after a while I just got too busy. Had to say no.
DTD: Wow, that’s really cool. Had you gone into, you know, wondering about Magic [the Gathering] cards, and other things like that?
RL: Yeah, I actually, I remember at the time, I felt like… [looking at Octopus] Oh go ahead, finish that up.
DTD: Well, I won’t say no.
I finished it up. Don’t worry.
RL: Yeah please, go ahead. I remember at the time thinking that my style wasn’t appropriate for Magic cards, so I never tried to do it. I think now I could, I could do a Magic card. Like I know kind of what they would be looking for, but I think at the time I didn’t… I think I didn’t have enough knowledge about digital painting.
RL: To do like a Magic card. And it’s funny to say, because Dominion cards… Obviously Dominion has a varied style, so… [laughs] It kinda can fit… You know, there were a lot of art styles in there, that kind of meshed.
DTD: Oh, they were all over the place.
RL: They were all over the place, so I didn’t really worry as much about Dominion, but…
DTD: Well, I guess Magic wasn’t all that cohesive either.
RL: Oh, it’s true. Maybe more nowadays.
DTD: With so many different artists. So, have all of your games been self-published at this point?
RL: Yeah, all of my designs.
DTD: I didn’t remember the early the early ones.
RL: I mean, I’ve done art for other published games. There’s one called Rails of New England.
Rails of New England came out in 2011 from Rio Grande and designers Walter H. Hunt and Gregory M. Pozerski.
DTD: Oh, OK. Yup.
DTD: I remember those two!
Bridge Troll was released in 2009 and Trollhalla followed in 2011. Both came from Z-Man Games and designer…
RL: Yeah, I did those. I did the art for those. My friend Alf Seegert designed those. He lives around here.
Thank you, Ryan. Alf Seegert.
DTD: OK, cool. So, when you had done that, had you already been publishing games?
RL: No. That was kind of all before.
DTD: So, art was kind of an earlier one, to publishing.
RL: Yeah, that was before Kickstarter. And then Kickstarter started to… I saw Kickstarter was kind of…
DTD: That’s right around when it bloomed.
RL: Yeah, it was like, Alien Frontiers was the one I saw.
DTD: That’s usually cited as the first.
RL: Yeah, it’s like, I don’t know if it’s the first. It might be though. Do you think it is?
DTD: I think there were probably other little ones, but the first one that really put board games on the map, is Alien Frontiers.
Alien Frontiers funded on June 26, 2010 with $14,885 from 228 backers. And the Kickstarter era of board game production was born.
Kickstarter itself only launched in April, 2009.
RL: Yeah, it was probably that one. And I remember looking at it, and thinking, “Oh man, I gotta try this.” And so, I did. That was 2011.
DTD: And that was the start?
DTD: And was that Eight-Minute Empire?
RL: No, it was actually Empires of the Void.
Empires of the Void funded on November 27, 2011 with $35,896 from 651 backers.
For comparison, in 2019 Sleeping Gods made $1,142,511 from 12,056 backers.
DTD: Empires! It was the first Empires, OK. Yeah, I only have The Empires of the Void II.
RL: Oh yeah. That first one we only printed 2000. And we never reprinted, so it is pretty rare. [laughs]
DTD: It’s a collector’s item now.
RL: I guess so. So, that was fun. That was exciting. We made a lot of mistakes, though, at first. I think when I did that game, and it funded, I was like “Yes! I made it. I’m going to do this full time.” And like six years later, I’m like, “OK, now I can kind of do this full time.” [laughs]
DTD: Add six years from now you’ll look back and say “That was a mistake. That was a mistake. That was a mistake.” So, when you’re designing them, is it the art that’s usually coming first for you? Or is it the design coming first, or has it been all over?
RL: It’s kind of been all over, honestly.
Clayton, my soul mate, whisked off the appetizer carnage from the table.
DTD: Yeah, that was amazing.
RL: It was. I could not believe how good that was. That was amazingly good.
DTD: That sauce was incredible. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I saw it on the menu.
It was a guajillo tomato sauce with pumpkin seed-cilantro pesto.
RL: I would not think that, but I’ve had it before, but it’s been a while. Yeah, so one of the first things I do, is I sketch. I have like a game concept, and there might be mechanics involved a little bit. But one of the first things I do is I sketch the cover of a game.
DTD: Oh really?
RL: Yeah. And I name it.
DTD: That’s usually last for people. That’s fascinating.
RL: Yeah, yeah, so I see the box. Like I have this sketch of a 3D box cover with the name on it, and what it will be. And then I even price it. I say “$50.” And I think, “OK, that’s my anchor.”
DTD: That’s where everything is leading.
RL: Yeah, so I use that as a guidepost. “$50. That’s the game. This is who it’s for.” I have to say, “You know, how complex is it?” Usually the price is kind of an indicator of that.
RL: Yeah, but I don’t always do that. That’s how I do most of the designs. And then in fact I paint it. So I get on the computer. I do digital, I do the digital art. So, I paint that cover maybe in the first couple of weeks, and then use that cover, and the colors on the cover especially, as a guidepost for the rest of the art. And the rest of the design.
DTD: Well, there’s definitely a cohesiveness when you open up the games. It all fits into at least the same world. It fits great.
RL: Well thanks. Yeah, yeah, I think that definitely helps me. If I ever have a question, I go back to the cover. What is the cover telling me to do?
DTD: So, do you find yourself changing the cover during design, or is this like a taboo?
RL: No, I do. I usually paint… I usually repaint the cover maybe two times during development. And when I say “repaint”, I don’t start over. I like take what I have, and then like alter it a little bit.
RL: Like, I’ll repaint something on it, or I’ll change the colors slightly.
DTD: “This element has become really important in my view of the game, so it needs more emphasis on the cover.” Yeah, wow.
RL: So, I feel like, as an artist… I honestly feel lucky I can do that, because it… Even if I wasn’t an artist, I think I would do the same thing. Like, I would pick a piece of art and a name, and use that as like a guide. It’s very emotional-based. It’s very feeling-based. Like, how does this game feel? You know, it’s like, I want it to feel like that.
DTD: That’s really cool, because I think it’s just a different perspective. At least from other people I’ve talked with, and design work effort from other people. It’s a different way of going about it, and the games feel different. I mean, your games do feel very unique.
RL: Oh, that’s good.
DTD: Which is a good thing.
RL: I think there’s a… I do have kind of like this ego thing, where I want people to, when they open a game… Of course, they’re going to compare it to another game, because I’m influenced by other games of course. It can be like, “This game’s like that one.”
RL: But, I really want people to say “Oh, this is… But it feels different.”
Come back next time when Ryan talks about the growing Arzium trilogy, the upcoming Crafting Arzium documentary, and of course … pomegranates!