I first met Mike at the 2nd-annual Connecticut Festival of Indie Games where he was showing off his game, Catch of the Day. Since then Mike has become a regular in the Geek Gods Discord channel, chatting away about game design and other geeky tabletop talk.
Let's start with you telling everyone a little about who you are and what it is you do.
Hi, Rob! Thanks for having me. My name is Mike Belsole, and I’m a game designer from New York. I started seriously designing games in 2015. One of my designs, Catch of the Day, won Most Spirit and Best in Show at the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games in 2017. I was completely blown away by that. Through that festival, I got a well-connected agent who pitches the game to interested publishers at conventions that I just can’t afford to attend. It’s all very exciting stuff, but it’s also a lot of waiting for publishers’ replies. In addition to designing, I’ve recently started editing other designers’ rulebooks which I really love doing. It’s a whole different puzzle than game designing yet equally as satisfying.
Currently, I’m seven months into an eighteen-month trip around the world with my partner, Grace. We’ve been spending a month volunteering in each country we visit, and right now we are helping to teach English in Indonesia. I brought a few prototypes on this trip, and playing them with people from lots of different cultures and backgrounds has been really fun and informative.
Wow! Traveling around the world? How's that been? Where have you been so far?
It's been fantastic. So far we have been to Costa Rica, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Italy, England, Greece, and Indonesia. After we leave here we will go to Japan, South Korea, Austrailia, New Zealand (where we will live for six months), Hawaii, and then settle down for a bit near Austin, Texas. We try to go to as many board game stores, cafes, bars, playtesting meetups, and conventions as we can along the way. I went to the UK Games Expo a few months ago where I worked for Scottish designer/publisher Bez, demoing her game system, Wibbell++. I've never worked for a publisher like that and it was a really wonderful and educational experience. I learned a lot from her. I also had the opportunity to pitch some designs to publishers through the UKGE's networking meetup and a Shark Tank-like event they call the Wyvern's Lair. Those were really validating experiences. In September we will be at the Tokyo Game Show, and in October we will go to PAX Australia where we will most likely be Enforcers. We always try to work at as many PAXs as we can in the US, so that will be really exciting.
Sounds amazing. What kicked off this trip?
Grace and I figured that if we volunteer somewhere in each country, we can afford to stay as long as we want since we aren't paying for food or lodging - just cheap flights, trains, or buses. I worked and saved for two years, and now I'm spending it all. It's a pretty wildlife, and I realize that I am very lucky to be able to do this.
That's quite the experience, and it's awesome that you're gaming along the way! What's the craziest story from your trip so far?
Haha. There's a lot to choose from. We find volunteer work through a website, and one profile we found was a single mom in Scotland who wanted help with basic house chores, helping her son with school, and just generally hanging out with new people. We assumed we were going to a small house in the suburbs or something. It turns out it was a full-fledged honest-to-goodness Scottish castle. It had forty-five rooms, a cinema, and peacocks freely roaming the grounds. We couldn't believe it - it was incredible to live there. She also loved to play board games, so she was really happy we were there. At that point, we had about eight games with us.
That sounds unreal! I hope you're taking tons of pictures.
What's it been like gaming in all these different countries?
Ha. We have way too many pictures.
It’s been an absolute blast. People get so excited when I tell them what I do, and they can’t wait to play games. While working for a family of seven in Ireland, I was invited to help one of the kids with her awesome roll-and-move game. I inspired our Scottish host to make her own game out of components from Catan. We were invited to an Italian playtesting meetup near Bologna.
It’s also nice to find a slightly different selection of games. We were really lucky to be able to pick up a copy of Ganz Schön Clever in Germany (it’s fantastic). We never seem to run out of people or places to play. Thankfully, board game cafes and bars are all over Europe. I’m really looking forward to finding out what Japan’s board game scene is like.
One thing that traveling unexpectedly helped me with was explaining my designs to people whose English wasn’t so strong. It forced me to use simple language and therefore helped me focus on delivering the most important information in the easiest way. I would never have had that experience otherwise.
I'm very interested to hear about gaming in Japan once you're there.
Let's talk about your own game designs a bit.
Sure. What would you like to know?
Give me a bit of history. When did you start designing?
I started seriously designing games in 2015 after hiking the Appalachian Trail with Grace. We decided to try and make a game based on that experience, but the first playtest was a total disaster - unplayable. I wanted to know why it failed so hard, and so I started reading articles about design and attending design panels at cons, and before I knew it I was hooked. It was all I wanted to do with my time.
Tell me a bit about how Catch of the Day came about
I really like push-your-luck dice games, but most of them have players rolling dice by themselves for a while, leaving other players to just watch and wait for their turn. I wanted to design a game where all players are involved in every moment of the game. So Catch of the Day is a fishing themed push-your-luck dice game where the other players roll your dice for you. Essentially, every round, one player is the captain who is looking to load their boat with lots of fish. Everyone else is part of the crew, casting their nets into the ocean (rolling a die) looking for fish to sell to the captain. The captain gets to pick whose die they want to load into the boat, but its value is known only to the player who rolled it. They can tell the captain what they rolled, but they don't have to tell them the truth. So there is a bluffing aspect to it as well. Crew members get paid if the captain picks their die, and the captain gets paid if they make it back to port without getting mutinied. It's been a huge hit at cons and game nights. Families especially love it as it gives them a fun excuse to lie to each other.
How long has the game been in development?
Since January 2017. It was dreamed up while we were in a fishing village in Ecuador early that month and then first playtested at PAX South a couple of weeks later. I got really encouraging feedback from a lot of people there including Matt Fantastic and Nate Murray. I didn't know who they were at the time, but I saw them on a panel later that day and then realized how lucky I was that they stopped by my table at the Unpub booth. Matt has since become a really good friend and mentor.
What's your history with gaming before designing? Were you always a gamer, or was it something you got into later in life?
I've always been a gamer. My childhood was spent playing board games like Risk, Monopoly, and Battleship, and video games like StarCraft, Tomb Raider, Counter-Strike, and Star Wars: Galaxies. Later on, I got into Magic and Warhammer 40k. Until finally, when I was in college, I was introduced to The Settlers of Catan and the modular board blew my mind. Since then it has been a slow and steady descent into the madness that is hobby board gaming.
What are some of your favorite games of all time?
Risk for sure. My friends and I used to have sleepovers where we would play one game of world domination over the course of an entire weekend. Catan with Grace and my friend Josh. We play it so much that we have rituals that must be performed while we play. In fact, when Grace and I got engaged, we printed a fake development card that we used to simultaneously announce our engagement to Josh and invite him to be our officiant - it also came with one victory point. My favorite game of the recent hobby games is Alchemists published by Czech Games Edition. It's brilliantly funny and a damn hard puzzle, even on easy mode. It makes my brain hurt in all the right ways. I'll play it anywhere with anyone at any time.
Now on to the hard-hitting questions. You said you were ending your worldwide tour in Texas, of all places. Why are you abandoning the Northeast, the most bestest place in the whole country?
Do you not love us anymore?
Lol! I still love the Northeast! Grace's mom lives in Texas and we'd like to be close to their family for a change. We've been living with my family in New York for a long time. I spent most of my life in New York and I'll always be a New Yorker at heart.
It's OK. You can still be a Nor'easter.
I'll allow it 😉
Phew! I appreciate that. 🙂
So what's the plan after settling down, or is that too far ahead in the future?
The current plan is to eventually settle down in North Carolina and open a BB&BG - Bed, Breakfast, and Board Games. Not sure when that will happen, but that's our goal.
I like the sound of that.
Thanks! It should be fun.
I think that's about all I've got. Like to add anything before we wrap?
If anyone wants to follow me or my designs, I have a mailing list that is sent out very infrequently. They can sign up at eepurl.com/c9_eNb. I'm also active on Twitter @DWaffleGames if that is more their cup of tea.
This was a lot of fun! I appreciate you having me in your series. I don't have time for podcasts so this series is basically all the designer interviews I consume.
About the Nor'easter Series
Nor'easters is a series of articles spotlighting a different tabletop game designer, publisher, or content creator from the Northeastern United States each week. The series was inspired by all the amazing people in the industry I've met over the years in my home region of the US.
Make sure to come back every week and see who is spotlighted next! To see a complete listing of the series' articles, click here.
Media personality Rob Kalajian has been a staple in the board game world for many years. As a former writer for Purple Pawn and the owner of A Pawn’s Perspective, Rob focuses on board game reviews, events, and news. A self-proclaimed geek, Rob loves all things toys and games and even helps raise his four kids in his spare time.