Welcome back to Dish midway through a lovely meal with boardgame renaissance man, Ryan Laukat. We are outside at Log Haven, a lovely restaurant in the woods and canyons outside of Salt Lake City. It is a heatwave, we are dining outside, and there is an elaborate shade structure over the entire courtyard. Currently, the day is late enough that the shade is being moved with ropes and pulleys; it looks like an America’s Cup sailor tightening a sail.

RL: Oh, nice.

DTD: wow.

RL: That’s cool.

DTD: That is something else. Wow.

RL: Fancy.

DTD: I know. That’s something else. So, I guess I’ve got to bring that to Arzium. To your now trilogy.

Arzium is the fantasy world in which many of Ryan’s games take place – Above and Below, Near and Far, and “now” the upcoming Now or Never are considered the “trilogy.” Technically, it could be argued that some earlier games also took place within Arzium, such as Islebound and CIty of Iron.

RL: Oh yeah, “trilogy.” Yeah.

I really like quotation marks.

DTD: “Trilogy.” So, it feels like you had that whole world mapped out and figured out and worked out before the games. Is this just… Have you duped me?

RL: Maybe a little bit.

Knew it.

DTD: Awesome.

RL: I mean, there was some of that. Like I kind of dabbled with it, even like as a teenager. I would like draw frog pictures and stuff, fill up books and stuff like that. But it kind of… You know, we make up a lot as we go along, too.

DTD: I mean, Above and Below had so much story in that storybook, I don’t think you could help but figure out, “Oh, there’s these peoples, and these problems, and these adventures, and these legends, and…” You’re worldbuilding as you’re making a story book like that.

RL: Yeah, right. It’s definitely… You know they say there are two kinds of writers, right? There’s a discovery writer. And then the, whatever the other one is, the planning writer, the person that plans the whole thing out really carefully. I’m definitely a discovery writer.

I think it was clear Ryan was a discovery writer as soon as he said “and whatever the other one is.”

DTD: That’s awesome, I think I’m a discovery player.

RL: OK… [laughs]

DTD: What it always reminds me about, is they say that people play board games either to explore them, to win, or to socialize.

I know I was not nearly the first to say this, but I’ve said it a LOT now.

RL: Oh yeah.

DTD: And I think that’s actually a bastardization of that original article about Magic [the Gathering], and people playing Magic for different goals.

In Magic the Gathering, there are archetypical player types, which have earned cute nicknames, such as Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. The article is fascinating.

RL: Oh yeah.

DTD: With Spike and Timmy and all the characters.

RL: Right. I like vaguely remember that.

DTD: Yeah, I couldn’t. I haven’t played enough Magic to follow it.

RL: It’s funny. Magic is such a huge influence on the industry, but I actually didn’t play a lot as a kid. I played a few times, you know. I have some cards, but it wasn’t like an obsession. It’s funny, because it’s such an influence on so many designers, game designers, I think.

DTD: Oh yeah. I forget what game it was… I was playing a game, and someone recently told me, “Oh, this board game is exactly like Magic.” And it just kind of blew me away, that that was the first conclusion. It was Kemet!

RL: Oh. That’s interesting.

DTD: It was Kemet. He said all the colors correlated, all the actions correlated. And I had never thought about that before. But I mean, without a doubt, it outsells every board game made put together by so much, that there’s so much influence out there.

In 2020, Magic the Gathering earned Hasbro $581.2 million in revenue.

RL: Oh yeah, sure. Once you take… Like once you open the hood, you can see the Magic influence on Kemet or so many other games too, honestly.

DTD: Oh yeah, the deck-builders for sure. It was… Someone actually told me that deck builders were disappointing to them, because they were basically prepping to play a game of Magic, and then they never played it.

You know who you are…

RL: [laughs]

DTD: As soon as their deck was good, they just quit. You know, the game was over.

RL: Well, that is funny, because in Magic there’s like two games. There’s the multiplayer game, and there’s the solo game.

DTD: Prepping for the game – Oh, and that’s a weeks-long adventure.

RL: I think that’s part of its success, really.

DTD: Absolutely. Still waiting to see if there’s a board game out there, that’s going to encapsulate that intricate planning moment. I mean, deck-builders do it on the fly, and they’re by nature fast and tactics oriented. And, you know, everything off the hip.

RL: Right.

DTD: But a game where you’re actually planning out and constructing a deck, so to speak. An engine builder of some sort. I’m surprised that hasn’t happened yet.

RL: Yeah, I think people have dabbled, but… I mean there’s Millennium Blades.

DTD: I think that that’s more theming than structure. But yeah, Millennium Blades, it’s a really good game. And I get the feeling of it. But hard core Magic people said it’s not at all the same.

2016’s award winning Millennium Blades by designer D. Brad Talton, Jr. and Level99 Games uses a collectible card game as the theme in a deep economic game. You go from a starter deck of cards to the regional tournaments in a few hours.

RL: Ah, they’re not getting that same feeling.

DTD: Not the same feeling. I don’t even, I don’t know if it’s even possible.

RL: They want the Magic feeling condensed in a 45 minute…

DTD: Yeah, I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

RL: Right.

DTD: So, speaking of 45 minute games, I recently played Sleeping Gods.

This was hyperbole. The intentional exaggeration of a value to its extreme for comic effect. Sleeping Gods takes about 6000 hours for a single game. Again, “hyperbole.”

RL: [sputters, laughs] Yeah.

DTD: And did the whole campaign in one sitting.

RL: Oh, wow.

DTD: With, well, we had a group of friends at the house for a birthday.

RL: Oh, nice.

DTD: This was a game… We set up a little game convention, said “It’s your birthday. What do you want to play?” And he said, “I want to play a legacy game, a campaign game, that takes up the whole weekend.”

Ask and ye shall receive, Master Jason.

RL: Oh wow.

DTD: Purely for research, we pulled out Sleeping Gods. And it was 16 hours.

RL: Oh my gosh, wow. Yep. It takes about that long.

To be fair, no one is expected to sit through the entire game in one session. There is a very good system in place for saving games, packing the box, continuing later.

DTD: And I loved it. There were so many really unique, cool elements in there. To the point where, when I got home from that weekend I pulled it out and started playing it with the family.

RL: Oh, wow! Awesome!

DTD: So, we’ve started our second campaign. Not one sitting, this time. My wife won’t sit for that long.

RL: Oh yeah. I cannot look… So, wait, wait… Really? 16 hours, one sitting. Oh my Gosh.

DTD: I timed it because I’m one of these people who puts in all my gameplays.

So far in 2021, I have played 346 games, for a grand total of 287 hours. And yes, that is 8% of all my waking hours so far this year. I cannot recommend the Board Game Stats app enough.

RL: That is just great. So you must have like played it all night, or like super late.

DTD: Yep, we went straight through, and we all loved it. I mean, nobody said, “This is too long. We gotta stop. this is insane.” Because it just, it just kept moving along. So, bravo.

RL: Oh man, very cool. Thank you.

DTD: I really enjoyed the combat mechanisms with the grid structure, almost polyomino structure, where you’re moving health between cards. The book, of course. The books get more cohesive as I play the games. You know, I’m not going to say, you know, [Tales of the] Arabian Nights level.

In Sleeping Gods, the monster cards each take damage onto a grid. Damage is laid square by square and it can spill from one monster onto the next.

Now, Arabian Nights is a different “story” entirely, and is actually famous for having extremely random, scattered, eclectic story lines.

RL: [laughs] Yeah, sure.

DTD: But, Above and Below was a little scattered, and they [the trilogy of games] just got tighter and tighter. Which is really cool.

RL: Yeah, yeah. That’s definitely the direction we have moved over time.

DTD: Oh sure.

RL: So yeah, and it’s funny because Sleeping Gods was influenced by playing open world computer RPGs. And so definitely, I wanted it to have that same feel. You gotta have that cohesive campaign. It’s like a D&D campaign.

DTD: Sure.

RL: Seeing recurring characters and all that.

DTD: We’ve got quests and stories and backgrounds. And you keep getting sent to this place or that place.

Clayton, my favorite waiter of all time, brought our entrees. Presumably because we looked weak and delirious. Ryan had a grilled salmon with polenta, tomato coulis, Tuscan crumbs and a warm artichoke and fresh mozzarella salad. I had Chilean sea bass with blistered shishito peppers in a fermented black bean-shiso broth.

RL: Thank you.

DTD: Oh beautiful, thank you so much. Thank you, wow. More shishitos.

RL: Ah, oh right. Do you have a garden?

DTD: I’m trying. It’s funny I grew up, I grew up in New Jersey, and we didn’t really have much in the way of gardens, or growing food, or anything like that. So, it’s become a fascination with me, that I can actually grow something in my yard and eat it. It’s just never occurred to me, that connection never occurred to me, when I was growing up.

Everyone in New Jersey grew tomatoes, which I did not like. And somehow none of those tomato gardens did well anyway.

RL: Yeah, so I’ve been, just the last 2 years, I’ve been doing a similar thing. It’s like kind of a rough garden.

DTD: Oh cool.

RL: But I have so many pests, like half of it gets eaten, it feels like.

DTD: My fruit trees get eaten like crazy, and that’s OK too.

RL: Oh yeah, we got that same problem. We have fruit trees too. A giant cherry tree that always has like worms in it.

DTD: Oh wow.

RL: But we’re spraying this year, so we’ll see what happens.

DTD: We have pomegranates, apricots, and peaches.

RL: Oh nice. Wow, pomegranates.

DTD: Pomegranates are amazing. I never was excited about pomegranates. And then I started growing them, and I’ll pick 50 pounds of pomegranates and just juice them all. And it’s so good. It’s just amazing.

Tremendous amounts of work. Although my best advice for juicing pomegranates is to separate out the aryls, blend them, and strain out the seeds.

RL: That’s awesome.

DTD: So, peppers have been my recent thing.

RL: Oh yeah, that 50 pomegranates is crazy. I actually love pomegranates, so that would be fun.

DTD: It’s so much work. Not growing them, eating them, you know. Pomegranates are kind of designed to have you not enjoy them very quickly at all.

RL: It’s so true.

Waiter:  How’s everything tasting?

We all know when Clayton says “How’s everything tasting?”, what he really means is “I love you.”

DTD: Oh, it’s very good.

RL: Very good thank you.

DTD: So, how long was Sleeping Gods kind of in the hopper? How long was that being worked on?

RL: That one took about three years. I mean it’s… And it had some pretty drastic changes, too. That was one reason it took so long. It felt like, I felt like I was like teaching myself.

DTD: I actually “Oh wow’ed” at how fast it was. I keep forgetting that you’re self-publishing, and when I talk to designers who are going through, you know, the mainstream publishers, three years is a quick timeline for a regular game. Not a big huge campaign thing.

RL: Oh, that’s true. I’m so spoiled, honestly. That’s one reason I started the company, because I do not have that patience. I cannot wait, you know.

DTD: You just want to do it, now.

RL: We gotta finish it. Get it out there, you know. But, I think what I like… Obviously game development and art and all that takes a certain amount of time.

DTD: Sure.

RL: But the part I hate, is like, I would send games out. I would submit them to publishers, and wait like 9 months. And then finally they’d say, “Oh, we can’t do it”. And that’s totally understandable. Now that I’m a publisher, I know why. I know why they… That’s how it works. They’ve got tons going on. They’ve got stuff before mine. You know, they don’t have time to do that. But as a designer, it drove me nuts; I just could not wait 9 months.

DTD: So, I gotta ask… Most of the more artistic people that I’ve talked to, one of the more difficult parts is trying to figure out when something is done. Do you have problems with that? Is there always a little bit of tweaking and a little bit of changing going on?

RL: Yeah, I mean anyone familiar with my Kickstarters will know that we change mechanics, even after funding. So yeah, it’s hard for me to let it go. And honestly, that fuels the 2nd edition thing, too.

DTD: [laughs] You’ve done a couple of those.

So far, Red Raven has made second editions out of Empires of the Void, The Ancient World, and City of Iron.

RL: Yeah, I have. It’s like a few years later. We obviously did the absolute best version of that game we could when it came out. And then three years later, I’ve had time away from it, you know. And there are just like little things I would change, personally.

DTD: Wow, we are attracting fans. [There are a few bugs about.] So, are there more titles in your back library that you are considering for a 2nd edition?

RL: There’s only one, and it’s Islebound.

DTD: Oh man! I would love that. Actually, Islebound is one of my very favorites. Such a neat game.

RL: Yeah, I like it a lot, too, personally. I feel like it’s actually one of my favorite designs that I’ve done. And I feel like there were a couple things that I would tweak about the game. But I think a lot of the mechanisms in there are some of my favorite, that I’ve done in any of my games. But other than that, I don’t think so.

DTD: Wow.

RL: People hate it when I do that anyway.

DTD: Really? You get backlash? Ancient World, and things like that gave you…?

RL: Yeah, people hate it when I do second editions. We did an upgrade pack for the Ancient World, just because I know… People were, you know, upset.

The Kickstarter Campaign for The Ancient World second edition raised $234,948 in September, 2018. One pledge level did offer an upgrade kit for people owning the original edition.

DTD: It’s somehow more satisfying to update and upgrade your own copy, than to get a new copy.

RL: Sure, and I can understand that. So that’s why we did that.

Yeah, I backed the upgrade kit…

DTD: We’ve been trained by video games.

RL: Yeah, that’s true.

DTD: So, how was it doing the doing the documentary? That’s a pretty cool deal.

Crafting Arzium is a documentary being made by Zoom Out Media about Ryan and Malorie Laukat, and their creation of the Now or Never board game. The documentary was funded through Kickstarter in March, 2021.

RL: Oh yeah, it was really exciting. I remember thinking like, “This is like gonna be a fun new challenge.” You know, because we’ve never done anything like that, really. So that was exciting.

DTD: Were you actively involved in the creation of it? Or were the Crafting Arzium people basically following you around like a wildlife documentary?

RL: Well, pretty much. Yeah, it’s Eric Rayl. He’s kind of doing that, and yeah, I mean basically he just comes and it’s like a kind of like a wildlife documentary. [laughs]

DTD: “And we see in the corner… Ryan is eyeing the easel…”

RL: I mean, we did some collaborative stuff. Like, he wanted to show how the landscapes of Utah have influenced me.

DTD: Oh cool! Yeah.

RL: So, we would recommend places to go. He had ideas about where to go to, but we knew little spots that we could go to, to film.

DTD: I could totally see that. Now that you mention it.

Having driven down the canyon road to Log Haven, I can certainly recognize these landscapes in Ryan’s art.

RL: Yeah, definitely. I mean, they definitely have been. So that’s a big part of the movie, I think. Because we went all over Utah filming different outdoor stuff.

DTD: That’s awesome. I guess I hadn’t thought about it too much because I haven’t really explored around here at all. But just from where I was driving around today, I could see The Ancient World and box covers, really.

RL: [laughs] Yeah, right, yeah, it’s it’s true. I’ve got this thing for the desert, too. And like I spent a lot of years in my childhood, going down to southern Utah. My grandfather had a, he had a cabin down there.

DTD: Wow. Well, nothing better for art inspiration. So, what kind of, what kind of games did you play when you were a kid? What was your repertoire?

RL: I was playing… To be honest, I was crazy about video games as a kid.

DTD: Who wasn’t?

RL: That was the thing I was really into as a kid. I grew up on LucasArts games, like [Star Wars] TIE Fighter and the adventure games. And Super Nintendo. Those two things had so much influence on me.

Lucasarts perfected the point and click adventure game, with the most popular titles being The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) and Maniac Mansion (1987).

DTD: Yeah, I think I have a huge section of my brain dedicated to 1970s and 80s video games and computer games. Much more than I’m ready to let go.

RL: It’s funny how your brain can remember all those, like little puzzles.

DTD: Every single one of them! Yet when my old body picks up the controller and tries to play one of them, I am hopeless. I can’t do any of them anymore.

RL: Yeah [laughs] But for tabletop games, I mean it was… I mean, it was mostly like Risk, and it’s like a lot of classic stuff… Chess. A lot of Clue and stuff like that until my friend introduced me to role playing games. And after that it was like…

For the non-Americans out there, Clue=Cluedo. For the Americans, Cluedo was the original name, a play on words of “Ludo”, Latin for “I play”.

DTD: That kind of took it over.

RL: That was it, you know.

DTD: Yeah, I still remember having just long weekends where you just play role playing games constantly. And there would generally be a whole day just making characters.

RL: Oh yeah.

DTD: And the excitement around that, you know still is… I think that’s still something we’re all striving for.

RL: Oh yeah. So, I was really into that.

DTD: So, did that go into Megaland at all?

RL: Oh, for the.. do you mean for?

DTD: The video game influence.

Megaland (2018) was released directly to Target stores, and took place in a video game world.

RL: Oh yeah, definitely.

DTD: You can definitely feel some love in there.

RL: Yeah, you can see the, like the video game map, the Mario map on the back of the cards, right.

DTD: Love, obsession… You know it’s all degrees of the same thing. Yeah, I definitely grew up on text adventures and role-playing games on the computer. I was in an odd situation. My dad worked in the industry, so I had access to computer mainframes, from when I was like four.

RL: Oh wow. Wow, very cool. That was like, unusual.

DTD: It was weird. It was a weird upbringing. So, I’d play Adventure, which is the Colossal Caves, and early versions of Zork showed up on MIT Networks before it ever showed up on PC’s. So, I’d play all those things.

Adventure, or Colossal Cave Adventure, by Will Crowther, showed up around 1976 on computer mainframes, specifically the PDP-10, and is generally considered the first text adventure. It was definitely a major influence on Zork, which followed around 1978.

RL: I’ve often wondered if like… For a long time, I thought, “How could you implement the Zork mechanic in a board game?”

DTD: A couple of people have tried. Have you played around with Cantaloop?

RL: No.

DTD: Cantaloop is more like the LucasArts games, actually, where it’ll show you… It’s a book and it shows you a big picture, and there’s a mechanism in there to examine this or to use this item on that.

RL: Oh really. Do you have an app with it? Is it facilitated with an app?

DTD: It’s not app driven, it’s actually facilitated by the old red filter.

You know, the red lenses that clarify a garbles page of red and blue squiggles.

RL: Oh yeah, OK.

DTD: So, everything is coded on one page, and then you use the red filter to find out what’s really there.


DTD: But it’s really impressive. They’ve done a really good job on that.

RL: Wow, I have to check that out.

DTD: Just the number of… The number of edge cases and iterations and everything like that that they have to do is pretty incredible.

RL: Yeah, that’s true.

DTD: Yeah, Cantaloop is the first in a series. And it’s been available in the US for a couple months. But the second one is now about to drop.

Cantaloop Book One is titled Breaking into Prison. Book Two is A Hack of a Plan, and Book Three is Revenge, Served Warm. Book Two is scheduled for release in August 2021.

Come back next time as we finish out dinner, I get ninja attacked by a shishito pepper, but still have the sense to think about dessert. Plus Ryan and I talk about games old and new that have impressed us over the years, and Ryan gives some thoughts on Kickstarter versus pre-order systems.

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