Warning: This interview contains some adult-like potty language. Deal with it.
I first met Matt, though I don't actually remember it, in high school through a mutual friend. It wasn't until much later when said friend reintroduced us when Matt has Kickstarting his game, Glamazons vs The Curse of the Chainmail Bikini. A few years after that we'd meet up again at the first-ever Connecticut Festival of Indie games which was held at Elm City Games. Since then I always look forward to chilling with Matt at conventions and seeing what kinds of crazy shit he always seems to be working on.
Tell everyone a little about yourself and what it is you do.
I’m Matt Fantastic and I help make games. I own Prettiest Princess where I publish weird stuff; mostly games but also zines, books, and vinyl records. I do freelance design and development for a lot of publishers. I co-own Elm City Games which is a game shop and library in New Haven. I teach game design at Quinnipiac University. I creative direct for Vice Games. I run the New Haven Game Makers Guild and host Fantasticon. I do creative consulting outside of games too for companies like Netflix.
I also do a lot of general fixing in the industry having been involved in a bunch of different roles for the last 10-15 years; so like if someone needs another attached room at Gen Con or the scoop on current Chinese factory drama or booth staff or whatever, I get the call and usually can help.
Generally speaking, there isn’t a whole lot I don’t do in at least some capacity. I’m probably forgetting something too.
Damn. That's a pretty full plate. How do you find time for it all? Each one of those things seems like it's a full-time job on its own.
Yeah. It’s a lot. But it all kind of fits together nicely; like running a New Haven Game Makers Guild event at the shop helps the community, builds our customer base, gives my students an opportunity to do better playtesting, and builds our local playtesting.
I also love most of what we do so it’s easy to kinda work a lot. Not having kids, and never wanting kids, doesn’t hurt either!
Oh and can we add that I also work as a publishing agent for designers looking to get their game pitched around and signed.
And with the creative stuff, having a lot of projects going at once means I can bounce around as my brain gets excited about whatever and that creative freedom really allows me to do much better work.
Sounds like a great life to lead. Can you tell me a bit about your history as a gamer? What games did you grow up with? When did you discover the never-ending rabbit hole that is hobby gaming?
I grew up in a gaming family so I’ve been into games my whole life. It was a really big deal when I was a little kid and got to join the family D&D game. I still have a character sheet I started in 1986!
D&D was my favorite game growing up, without question. I absolutely loved it and would just read the books over and over. When I was little I loved Fantasy Forrest, and then grew up into stuff like Elixer and Heroquest. Clue: The Great Museum Caper, Fireball Island, and Axis & Allies also stand out. We played all the classics of course, along with the hobby stuff. I played a lot of pinochle with my mom and grandfather, and we had a old Hoyle’s book that we went through and learned everything in it and played some.
So I’ve been following and around games pretty much my whole life. My career started mostly as a way to do cool stuff in the industry and maybe get paid a little to buy more games haha. So I started volunteering at booths, getting involved in local playtesting, and just generally being around games as much as possible. It slowly started to make real money and take up more of my professional time so I made the jump to a full time career in games. It was after a long time grinding it out in the trenches and building a reputation and network of friends who I still rely on for advice and assistance.
Damn. That's quite the history! What are some of your favorite games right now?
Haha yeah. I also played a lot of Magic when it came out, though I’ve not been a consistent player.
My favorite game is still D&D. No contest. I love big metagame diplomacy driven stuff like Twilight Imperium, Dune, and Game of Thrones. Rising Sun is looking like it will join those too after I’ve played it a couple dozen times and feel confident about it. Chaos in the Old World is amazing. Heroscape is still basically perfect. Intrigue, Bohnanza, Tumblin Dice, Coup, Skull & Roses. Homeworlds is an oft overlooked gem. I’ve also got a huge affinity for weird stuff even if I don’t actually get it to the table much. Stuff like Mushroom Eaters, Dungeon Degenerates, Dread, and Diet and Friends. Pretty much every Japon Brand does is worth checking out.
Newer stuff I’m into... Kingdomino is great but I think I may have played it out. It’s totally cheesy for me to say it, but I adore Heads Will Roll and still play it all the time just for fun. Been really digging on Star Wars Legion lately too.
Let's talk a bit about game design. When did you start designing? What was your first design ever? What was your first published design?
Well it depends on what you count as design... I was making shitty games my whole childhood! I created my first real D&D adventure/dungeon when I was about 10 or so. It was very much a classic AD&D dungeon crawl around a wizard’s castle. I think I still have some of the notes for it somewhere.
I made a lot of roll and move dungeon crawls and adventure games. Really typical mediocre game design that worked but wasn’t interesting at all and really was just an amalgamation of games and ideas I liked.
When I was in high school we did a huge Fireball Island update, with all sorts of additional rules and built a MASSIVE 4’ x 4’ board that weighed like 25lbs. Who knew we could make a few million bucks with it? (Rob & JR and everyone at Restoration did a much, much better job than we did!)
When I was a little older but not really “in the scene” yet, I did a few games that went nowhere. Two that stand out are one about competing plants trying to outgrow each other, sort of a classic abstract with more direct conflict and zones of control. Then another one, that I’ve always wanted to revisit conceptually, called Fairy Exterminator where everyone is a goblin competing to kill the most fairies and claim the recently vacated position of Royal Fairy Exterminator. It was mostly just riffing on Weed, which is a pretty direct rip off of Mille Bornes. The scene near the beginning of Labyrinth when Sara first meets Hoggle deserves to be a game!
I started getting involved with playtesting a while ago, so my first rule book credit is (I think) the original Cutthroat Caverns. We had a pretty good local scene with a lot of opportunities to get involved, and people like Zev and Curt were super generous with their advice and guidance. Fun aside, I thought Pandemic was a bad game that Zev shouldn’t sign. Fuck me I guess.
My first published solo design is hard to pin down; I don’t know how much I count self publishing, but we’ve been kicking out weird stuff for some years now. It wasn’t until more recently that I started to take actually being a designer seriously, I’d always been more involved in behind the scenes stuff, so it’s fairly recent work. So I dunno, U Mad Bro was the first thing that got any real traction. (And it’s long out of print, but was picked up for a retheme and rerelease that should be dropping soon, That’s Not Lemonade from Tuesday Knight Games). I did an “expansion” for Bearanoia, which is a game I originally published, but I don’t think that counts.
So what's your criteria for deciding what gets self-published and what gets pitched to another publisher?
There are a few factors that go into it...
Is it something I have a more complete vision of and want complete creative control over?
Is it something that doesn’t really have much of a potential market?
Is it something I can manage production on easily?
So something like Love Will Tear Us Apart, which is a game about dividing your possessions during a contentious divorce that is single sheet of paper you tear apart in the course of the game hits all of those criteria pretty easily. Then there are projects we do still pitch around but do a little run of a couple hundred in their original vision. Sometimes these get picked up and changed for more mass consumption.
I’m pretentiously very interested in exploring what we can do with the medium of games and how we can expand the form. I want to see more challenging themes and productions that aren’t just focused on the current paradigm of fun or edutainment. Interactive media in the digital space has moved well into exploring that territory. We see games that really fight against what we think of “games” being. But we don’t see a much of that in tabletop outside of indie RPGs and LARPs. When was the last time a game made you cry? Or overwhelmed with guilt? Or meaningfully scared? Let’s see more Brenda Romero and Nate Hayden.
Back to Prettiest Princess, the thing is that I’m a shitty project manager and shitty at logistics. Like, really shitty. So we only take on stuff that’s pretty easy for me to handle at this point. I’d love to bring someone on who is great at that stuff, but it’s not a big priority at this point really so it doesn’t get a lot of effort put towards it. Hopefully it will change someday as we do have some bigger plans.
We publish some stuff from other designers as well, and we’re doing little comics and books. We also just put out a vinyl record which is something I’d like to do more of. I ran an indie record label for almost a decade back when I was playing music and touring full time so it’s a natural fit to bring some of that back into my life now that I’m playing in a band again.
Ultimately Prettiest Princess exists as a way for us to make our weirdo art projects and is generally non commercially focused. It doesn’t mean we would be against having something hit or whatever, but our decision making process puts profitability at the bottom of the priority list.
You've got some stuff that's pretty out there, but not so out there that other well known designers aren't dipping their toes in. Vice Games publishes some pretty adult games, but you got to work with Bruno Faidutti on that label, correct?
Yeah so Vice is kind of a whole longer story, but I had already been talking to Bruno about having Prettiest Princess publish his game and then I was approached to help run Vice so we just rolled it over there since it was a perfect fit for one of the launch titles.
I think with a lot of the more out there stuff, it isn’t so much and issue of designers not having interested and excitement to make games that aren’t exacted focused on the mainstream, but rather a function of there not being publishers that are really interested in such niche stuff.
Though with Vice and the adult games specifically, that category has a lot of potential but traditional game publishers are worried about the brand impact.
With Prettiest Princess and the arty games, like stuff exploring the collateral damage in bombing campaigns or existential philosophy, it’s just not that commercially viable, especially not in the traditional industry paradigms. But with Prettiest Princess specifically not being profit driven, we get to focus on creating exactly what we want from an artistic perspective. If something is exciting, we try to do it. It’s not to say that we’re against making money or anything, we need to keep a positive cash flow so we can continue dumping it back into new projects, but rather that our only consideration in terms of the potential market is how many copies of something we print at a time. If I’m really excited about something, we may just print 50 or 100 copies of it, but we’re going to do everything we can to make it exist.
And so lots of designers have ideas all over the place, they just don’t have the outlet for these sorts of projects so they either don’t pursue them much or maybe make the game but never pitch it or expect it to go anywhere. So I have designers asking me regularly if I’m interested in this project or that project that they’ve long wanted to see happen.
It's awesome that you can provide that outlet!
So what's next? What other games, or opportunities, are you currently working on?
We have a bunch of projects going at the moment! As freelance designers there are a bunch of games signed and on the way over the next couple years, and we of course keep making more to pitch around. Some of these have been announced, like Before There Were Stars and Three Monkeys, and a bunch more haven’t yet.
We’re doing a lot more contract development work for publishers lately so there a number of projects that we did some work on in the pipeline as well.
On top of that, we have a number of designs that we were asked to make, primarily license based stuff that we can’t talk about till the license holder says we can. Plus the projects I have for in house publishing via Vice or Prettiest Princess.
With Prettiest Princess we also have some more comics and books on the way, the game industry drawing themselves as cartoon raccoons book should be out for Origins for example.
Then I’m still teaching, doing guest seminars, and random consulting & fixing throughout the game industry.
There’s almost for sure something I’m missing too haha.
Let's talk a bit about Elm City Games. How did it come about?
Totally by accident really. I had been running public gaming events for around a decade, and at the time was doing a few different ongoing things, one of which was hosted by a local coffee shop. Long story short, one night I was drinking with the owner and by the next day we were looking at joining forces to add games to the existing coffee shop. Then it just sort of exploded way beyond what either of us expected. We had somewhere between 500-600 people come through on our opening day and ended the first week with about 150 members. Pretty quickly games was making a lot more than the coffee shop side of things. Since then it’s evolved quite a bit more, and we may have some huge news in the next few months to continue that growth and evolution.
I should probably start wrapping this up. Anything else you'd like to add? Anything I forgot?
I dunno? Want me to rant about games as art and how not selling well doesn’t mean you’re “indie”?
Oh I should plug stuff too yeah?
Before There Were Stars comes out at Gen Con.
Three Monkeys just got announced and we’re real stoked on that.
That’s Not Lemonade should be popping off soon.
Lots of other stuff on the way too!
Heads Will Roll just dropped.
The X-Files Everything is Connected game came out a couple months ago.
Check out the cool books and records and weird games we have coming with Prettiest Princess.
Visit us at Elm City Games in New Haven!
Hire me to do dev or publishing agent work for you!
Give me weed and alcohol when you see me!
Do more with the gaming medium than just simple entertainment or edutainment. Explore other themes, presentations, experiences, and emotions. Push the medium forward! Digital games and tabletop RPGs have been doing this for years and we need to get there with board and card games too. Take risks!
Not being popular doesn’t make you indie. Nothing wrong with bar bands or grandpa getting into water colors, but no one is pretending they are on some “indie” shit just cause they aren’t really making professional moves.
There is 100% nothing wrong with making games as a hobby or doing things “unprofessionally”, I love it, but conflating that with creators doing serious work as professional craftspeople that is purposely not as accessible to maintain a sense of cohesive artistic vision is a real disservice to those creators.
Consentacle is indie. Mushroom Eaters is indie. Doing a minimum quantity print run of “like Caracasone but in space” isn’t indie. I love that people are finding whatever joy they can joining in making stuff, but it’s apples and oranges.
As an industry, we desperately lack a cohesive framework for critical and editorial analysis. The cultural commentators generally treat the medium as commodities to be “reviewed” rather than pieces of art to explore and analyze. I want to see the NY Review of Books, not Consumer Reports. Or at the very least, I want to see them both well represented.
These things all tie together into pushing the medium forward as an art form.
And to be clear, I’m perfectly happy creating and enjoying the most mass market of games. But I also want to see more than that from the form. And I think we need to see more of that from the form. We’re so over saturated with solid games, we need some new weird shit to keep things fresh.
I’m unapologetically pretentious as fuck about this stuff.
There's nothing wrong with that!
I think it can be pretty polarizing! But I think that’s just me in general. I really do believe that if some people aren’t offended or really not into whatever it is you’re doing, that you’re not really doing anything interesting.
Oh also, fuck gamergate, fuck alt right trolls, and fuck Nazis. These scumbag motherfuckers need to be cleared out of our scene. They aren’t welcome and it’s our obligation to protect our community against racist sexist homophobic xenophobes.
Especially those of us with social capital and power; it’s an obligation to use those privileges to make things better. Being a queer white cis dude means I can pass and have immense privilege. I have to use that as best I can to help lift everyone else up. Then we can start to break down all the systemic oppression that plagues not just our scene, but the world in general. Whatever force I can exert on helping bring that about, I have to as a decent human being.
Though I should also be clear that there movements and segments of these underrepresented and discriminated against populations that aren’t for us to all be pushing into. There are times we can take leadership roles, and there are times we need to just shut the fuck up and listen to how we can help, if we’re even invited to that table. A big part of dismantling that fucked up power structure is recognizing our own positions of power and actually ceding some of that. It’s exciting to lead the charge against oppression, but much less so to actually live that day to day. It’s always a struggle to keep thoughtfully approaching these things and constantly questioning your own motivations and actions.
But then there is also a time to just start punching Nazis. Cause fuck those guys.
Nazis certainly need to be punched. I'm all for it.
Very much so. And I’m in a position of privilege being a dude who isn’t small and literally teaches fighting to people (Krav Maga), so my experience with threats and violence is very different from a lot of people who have much more pressing concerns about their own safety and security. Not everyone has that ability, and we absolutely need to not judge anyone in that position. There is a world of difference between not giving a shit and being worried about your safety. All the more reason why I feel even more of an obligation to be loud about this shit; it’s one of the things that I am well suited to and can really support people with.
So yeah, smash the heteronormative capitalist patriarchal super state.
But also, check out the cool stuff we make?
Thanks for answering my questions!
Of course. Thanks for letting my run my big mouth!
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 “Devar-TTY” Kalajian has been a staple in the board game world for many years. As a former writer for Purple Pawn and the owner of Devar-TTY’s Pawns Perspective, Dev now focuses mostly on video games and TTRPGs. A self-proclaimed geek, Rob loves all things toys and games and even helps raise his four kids in his spare time.