The first time I met Tim he was wearing a toga. Right there that explains much about the man. It was at the first-ever CT-FIG and he was there with his game Oh My Gods!. Since then I've seen Tim at various conventions, chatting with him a ton online, and was even invited by him to present at award at BostonFIG 2017. The dude is a machine, and I have no idea how he keeps up with everything he's involved with and how he keeps a smile, even though it's sometimes sarcastic, on his face.
Also, Tim hasn't had Taco Bell in years, and that's sad. Here's a map of the ones near him. Boston has a surprising lack of Taco Bells.
Tell me a bit about yourself and what you do
Picture it, Sicily, 1912...
I'm totally including that, just so you know
Yup. This is a candid interview
So ... is what I'm writing going to be word-for-word on there?
First person or third person?
You know, like we're sitting down at the table enjoying a nice marinara
This wine sucks. Where's the waiter?
This chair is uncomfortable. Do you have a cushion?
That's because it's water. I'm cheap.
Guh, it's a bit stuffy in here. Can you turn the temperature down?
Just answer the question like I can handle the truth.
You said "enjoying."
I don't feel like I'm enjoying much here.
That's because you're difficult
Foot rub, please...
I just washed my hands
OK OK, I'll actually answer your question...
I'm Tim Blank and I'm a game designer. More than that, I wear a number of hats in the game design world. I'm the President of the Game Maker's Guild, the largest group of game designers in New England, and Vice President for the Boston Festival of Indie Games, where I run the tabletop showcase. I published my first game, Oh My Gods!, in 2016, and have my second big game, Bumuntu, coming out from Wizkids in October, 2018 (at Essen). I also am part of a number of other indie game design networks, where I do my best to support indie game designers around the world.
Let's dig right into Bumuntu before we touch on anything else. Tell me a bit about the game.
Sure. It's a light strategy game that explores the Bakongo culture. The Bakongo are the largest group of tribespeople in Central Africa. In the game, you're a tribal leader bringing your people to prosperity by earning the favor of the animals. The game draws upon themes from traditional African folklore as well as symbols and artifacts from the ancient Kingdom of Kongo.
And because everyone asks, "Bumuntu" is the Kikongo word for "civilization."
Can you go into a bit of the game's development history and how you ultimately ended up with WizKids?
Bumuntu has a long development history, but the goals for it have always remained the same. When I first started it, I set out to make a game that had three goals:
1. It had to be elegant - I wanted a game that was easy to play, but had a lot of depth in what strategy you chose. I've heard many players use this exact word to describe it.
2. It had to have a strong table presence - Once it was all splayed out, I wanted the game to turn heads; to make people stop and take a minute to check it out. Every time I take it out at a convention, this happens, so I think I've achieved this.
3. It had to have an original theme - I didn't just want another space- or farming-themed game out there. I wanted to use the game to tell a story or teach players about something they didn't know, but still ensure it's a good game outside of that. And I believe I did that.
In every iteration of the game, I made sure to keep these three goals. I've found goal-setting to be a great design exercise because in limiting yourself to these goals, you get truly creative and come up with something unique. Had I been willing to compromise on any of them, Bumuntu would be completely different.
As for publishing Bumuntu, I did a lot to get it out there. I brought it to a number of conventions where I knew publishers would be. I also entered it into a number of other contests and showcases to just get it some recognition in the board game world. I was in publisher speed-dating at GenCon 2017, and did a lot to work my network with it. After bringing it to Metatopia and Unpub, I caught wind that Zev from WizKids wanted to check it out. So at the following Metatopia, I made sure to connect with him and set up a time to play it. He loved the game, I loved the company, and it's been great working with them!
So how was the process different between Oh My Gods! and Bumuntu, starting from development and moving through the different paths for publication?
Well, with Oh My Gods!, I self-published it, so this left a lot up to me. Not only did I design the game, but I had to worry about manufacturing, funding, shipping, logistics, marketing, distribution, going to conventions, etc. I quickly learned that publishing is not for me. After I had the games in hand, I was spending more time with the business aspects of publishing than I was designing new games. After expressing these frustrations to a friend, he asked me "Do you want to be a designer, or do you want to be a publisher?" And that's when it all clicked. So I refocused my place in the board game world, and decided that I would seek out publishers for all of my future games. Doing this has been a great decision. It has not only given me more time to design, but has allowed me to make better use of my time at conventions (because I'm not always running a booth), as well as meet new designers and publishers.
I've seen you at conventions. You're usually a pretty busy dude! How to do you manage game design, Game Maker's Guild, Boston FIG, and a day job?
I've heard of this fabled thing called "sleep." Once you cut that out of your life, you've got lots of time to do many things!
But seriously, a lot of it is prioritizing what's important to you and carving out time in your schedule to devote to it. It helps that I have a partner who is super supportive of my game design efforts, and a job that believes in work-life balance.
So tell me a bit about the Game Maker's Guild
We started as a group of designers in the greater Boston area who get together 2-3 times per month to play each others' games and make them better. Most weeks, we get 20-30 people per event, so designers get all different perspectives on their games. We have a few other branches around the country - a decently sized one in Philadelphia, a very active branch in New Haven, and small group in Idaho.
Boston is a great city for game design. Not only do we have a very strong group of designers, but we also have a lot of colleges, many of whom have programs in Game Design (and many of our members teach them). The colleges and local game stores/cafes are huge supporters of what we do, so overall, it's a wonderful environment to design in. Personally, I've made a lot of great friends though GMG - friends I see weekly, people I've traveled all around the country going to conventions and events with, so it's more than just a game design group - it's a community.
Did that sort of lead into BostonFIG, or did the two come about on completely different paths?
Oh, it definitely lead to BostonFIG. The President of GMG at the time also was one of the individuals who ran BostonFIG. They needed a Director of Curation back in 2015 and because of my participation with GMG, I was asked. I didn't quite fully know what I was getting into at the time, and four years later, I don't know if I'm still 100% sure. But it's a lot of fun and I'm glad to be a part of BostonFIG growing every year.
BostonFIG has become a pretty large event. How long does it take to plan something like that?
We usually start in January, and then the event happens in September. But we do a lot of post-mortem stuff in October-December, so it's pretty much a full-year thing. We also do some other events as an organization - most notably BostonFIG Talks, which happens every January, so even then, we're filling out off time.
But it's not all constant. Different departments have different timelines. The tabletop curation stuff tends to happen earlier in the year (March-June) and then mellows out mid-summer. Other departments really kick up mid-summer, so it's not like we're all constantly putting in another 40 hours/week into it.
What's it like for you when the day actually comes? What's the come down like?
The come down?
Yeah. Right after the con.
The day of (and the day before) are really exciting for me. Many of the designers, I've only met virtually and know them in the context of their games. So to meet them in person and get to know them outside of that context is exciting. On the day of, I try to make it a point to enjoy the show as much as possible and bask in how great it is.
Right after the show is always exciting, too - I get a lot of really good feedback from the designers, curators, and the audience. I enjoy reading all the reviews and seeing the posts about how much fun the audience and designers had. Thankfully, almost everyone really enjoys their experience at BostonFIG, so catching up is always a nice pat on the back. That's not to say that we don't get negative feedback, too, but that's usually very minor and/or something we're already well aware of.
Let's get into a bit of your gamer history. What games, if any, did you play as a kid? What are some of your favorites now?
I grew up playing Scrabble. It was kind of my family's thing. And our games would get heated. We'd be screaming "That's not a word!" and everyone would get up in arms. I had friends who would literally get scared watching us play. It was great.
Right now, I play more indie games than anything else - such is the life when you're so involved in the indie community. I really do need to play more published games, though! I've recently gotten immersed in D&D 5e lately and am starting to learn how to DM. As for board games, I've been excited about Santorini, Century Spice Road, Codenames, and Monikers (a 2014 BostonFIG game, by the way).
When did you start designing?
Since college, I've been designing games and making my friends suffer through them. About five years ago, shortly after I made them suffer through an early prototype of Oh My Gods!, I got serious about it. I knew I had something special with that game, so I thought I'd take it as far as I could.
What about some of your earlier designs? Care to share some insight onto the ones that didn't make it?
My game right before Oh My Gods! - It was basically Michigan Rummy but without the gambling. And that's when I learned that if you take the gambling element out of a gambling game, it's usually not very good. I also had a game that I thought would be 30 minutes, but after 90 minutes of playing, I realized that we were still in the first "set up" phase of the game. I've also had a number of other games that haven't lasted on a table for more than 10 minutes (and not because they were short games, either). And then there was that time I designed the game Lanterns, almost mechanic-for-mechanic, and then played Lanterns and literally said "Well, #@$%."
Does #@$% stand for "fuck" or "shit?"
OK. Just want to make sure we're clear.
Potty no-no words are OK here
Matt must've had a ball, then.
He did. Indeed, he did.
So what's coming up on the horizon for you?
Well, Bumuntu releases in October, so I'm excited for that. Other than that, I have a few ideas I'm kicking around in my head, but need to get my butt in gear on playtesting them.
Where can people find you in the upcoming months? What cons will you be attending?
Right now, I'm looking at GenCon and ConnecticutFIG (the little brother of BostonFIG). Then, of course, BostonFIG in Sept, and probably Unplugged and Metatopia. Would be nice to go to Essen to see Bumuntu get released, so here's to holding out hope for that!
Awesome! Like to add anything else before we wrap this up?
Do you like pineapple on your pizza?
We. Are. No. Longer. Friends.
This interview is over!
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.