A Reddit AMA Charles Mruz, director of board game documentary Gamemaster, interview took place in July 24th, 2020. The documentary spotlights five board game designers who have found success or are trying to break into the industry, while established creators such as Klaus Teuber (The Settlers of Catan), Matt Leacock (Pandemic,) and Elan Lee (Exploding Kittens) share their stories. For those unaware, AMAs are a very popular “Ask Me Anything” feature mainstay on Reddit that often attracts big names. You can see the original conversation here or you can see the recap below.
SEE ALSO: Reddit AMA Tom Vasel
REDDIT AMA CHARLES MRUZ INTERVIEW TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What was the hardest interview to prepare for?
- What did you learn while filming that was surprising?
- What is one of your favorite games of all time?
- What would you like to see from the game industry in the future?
- What game are you most looking forward to?
- What kind of game would you design if you ever designed one?
- Who was the person who you were most excited to meet?
- What advice do you have for new directors?
- Were there any folks you wanted to interview but just couldn’t nail down?
- Do designers talk about their failed games?
- What are some moments you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
- What first inspired you to make this doc?
- Where and when will be able to catch this in Europe?
- What board game would you like to see as a movie or TV show?
- What are your favorite shoes to interview people in?
- What were some of your challenges with getting your subjects to open up about themselves and to talk about the topics you wanted to cover?
- Did the mention of the Mensa seal get deliberately left out?
- What was an unexpected complication while filming?
- Do you have any suggestions for pandemic time gaming?
- How come you didn’t include Monopoly?
- What do you think is a common trait that can be found in super successful game designers?
- Were there any people in particular that surprised you?
- What’s your favorite unexpected moment in the movie?
1: What was the hardest interview to prepare for?
Running around Gen Con, we got a lot of interviews on the fly. So sometimes I had less than 10 minutes to look up who somebody was, try to figure out how they fit into the movie, and ask them questions that were relevant. Because if I can’t ask them questions that are relevant, then I’m just wasting everybody’s time.
2: What did you learn while filming that was surprising?
The precise breakdown of how royalties work, as told to us by Susan McKinley Ross. If a game costs $20, a designer is likely walking away with about 50 cents. This seems to have surprised a lot of people.
3: What is one of your favorite games of all time?
I love Dominion. There’s just so much variance. It’s a simple card game where you can sub out which cards are used, and if you have all of the cards made for the game, there are literally over a million combinations. So even though the game functions the same, it’s a different game every time you play.
4: What would you like to see from the game industry in the future?
As we explored in the documentary, I think the industry is starting to open itself up to more different types of themes in games, featuring different settings and different characters. Different stories that maybe haven’t been explored before. And I hope they keep going further and further in that direction because different stories will open up the hobby to a different audience. And different people coming to play games will make for a different gaming experience all around, even with older games.
5: What game are you most looking forward to?
It’s upcoming in the States, but I got a chance to play it ahead of time – the game MY CITY by Reiner Knizia, which was a Spiel des Jahres nominee this year that didn’t win. It’s a very light legacy game that’s a little bit easier to digest than most legacy games. It’s really fun. Every time I play it, I play for 90 minutes, and it feels like 20 minutes. It’s really good.
6: What kind of game would you design if you ever designed one?
First of all, I don’t know that designing a game is in the cards for me because I’ve had a front row seat to seeing how difficult it is. And I prefer to leave it up to the experts and others who are trying to make it their career.
But if I WAS going to design a game – I love the way that a game like Codenames is so simple and seems like it should’ve been around forever and someone should’ve thought of it in like 1920. Even though it was made in 2016.
I would want it to be a game that just makes so much sense that you can’t believe this wasn’t invested 50 years ago. But obviously, that’s a lot easier said than done, which is why I’ll leave it to the experts.
Or maybe a party game. Those are fun.
7: Who was the person who you were most excited to meet as you were filming?
Either Klaus Teuber or Eric Lang. In both scenarios, they are elite, A-level game designers, and on top of that, there was a lot of build up to actually meeting them.
With Eric Lang, I went looking for him at Gen Con. Even though I wasn’t sure he’d be there. And luckily, I found him. And then it took months of scheduling and being vetted (rightfully so) by the people at CMON to make sure we weren’t crazy people. And so finally when I got an hour in the room with him, I made sure to make the most of it, which is really easy to do because all you have to do is let Eric Lang talk for as long as he wants.
And when I met Klaus Teuber, it was like meeting Father Time almost. Like meeting Thomas Edison, in a way. Because he’s the inventor of something that so many people use regularly. But it wasn’t intimidating because he’s the sweetest man ever.
8: What advice would you give to new directors?
It depends if they’re directing a narrative feature or a documentary feature. Keeping in mind that I have only done this one time more than someone who has done it zero times.
I would say don’t be married to a plan. Because if you’re walking in married to a plan, then you’re not listening to what the day calls for, and you’re going to end up swimming upstream and fighting probably what’s best for the production and thus for the movie and thus for the day.
I read this book called The Tao of Leadership. It takes the principles and philosophy of Taoism and applies it to modern-day leadership situations. And most of the time, the book tells you to just let people do what they’re going to do, and don’t step in unless you have to.
You have to remember that being a leader means you’re leading people. You’re not telling them how to do it, and you’re not doing it for them.
9: Were there any folks you wanted to interview but just couldn’t nail down?
I wouldn’t say we couldn’t nail them down because technically everybody said yes. But the logistics didn’t work out for one guy – Alan Moon, the creator of Ticket to Ride. Alan Moon lives in Syracuse, and he said, “Yes, but you gotta come to me.” And Syracuse is about five hours NW of Manhattan. And so logistically, it just never worked out. But he did say yes!
10: Did any of the designers give any insight on “failed” games or games that didn’t make it completely through development? I’d be interested to know if there was anything that was in the works but never happened.
Designers usually don’t talk about their failures because they don’t really view them as failures – they mostly view them as games that they haven’t figured out how to make work yet.
11: What are some moments you loved but ultimately had to leave on the cutting room floor?
There was a story about the first time that Eric Lang met Reiner Knizia. Because Eric Lang was working at Fantasy Flight and was not a name designer at that point yet in career. And he was tasked with working on one of Reiner’s games. And when Reiner found out about it, he got on a plane and came to Fantasy Flight Games and played the game with Eric Lang. And pointed out everything that Eric Lang had done wrong with the game. At the end of it, they were friends, and Eric Lang said it was a great learning experience.
And then we also have a lot of great Reiner footage too with some of his stories. Everything he said was insightful. Got some great opinions on what makes a game fun and what he looks for when he is designing a game.
One of the most interesting things he said was a response to the criticism that all of his games are similar. Or that a lot of his games are similar. And his response was that, and I’m paraphrasing, is take birds: to a regular person, if they see a bird, they say, “Oh, look, there’s a bird.” But to someone who loves birds, there are many different types of birds, many different species of birds. So while someone might look at a card game and say, “Oh, look, there’s a card game,” someone who loves card games understands that there are many different types of card games with many different mechanisms and distinct nuances.
Eric Lang explaining the three types of game designers. You’re either an artist, a businessman, or a rock star. He’s said it elsewhere, I think it’s somewhere on the internet.
12: What first inspired you to make this doc? Are you a gamer yourself? It’s clear a lot of heart and soul went into this.
Yes! I play a lot of board games, and nearly everyone on the Gamemaster team loves and plays board games as well. Jimmy Nguyen, who is a producer on the documentary, has made documentaries in the past. And at a certain point, we both decided that we should take our love of the hobby further – and that turned into this documentary.
Jimmy, from experience with the last two docs, knows that you have to be in love with your subject or you’ll run out of steam. Because docs take longer than you think to complete. No matter how long you think a doc will take to complete, it’s going to take longer than that.
13: Where and when will be able to catch this in Europe?
We’re still working on closing the European deals! As soon as they’re finalized and we have dates to announce, we will announce them on our Twitter and Instagram. I promise we want it to be viewable in Europe and all over the world as soon as possible just as badly as you do!
14: What board game would you like to see adapted into a movie or TV show, and what would it take to make it good?
I don’t know what board game it would be, but for a movie or show to be good I think it shouldn’t feel chained to what happens in the game. Make up a brand new narrative, as long as the heart of the movie is the same as the heart of the game and feeling of the movie is similar to the feeling one gets when playing the game. The LEGO Movie is the perfect example of something like this.
15: What are your favorite shoes to interview people in?
I did almost every interview in my Adidas Stan Smith Deconstructed shoes. These are my favorite pair of sneakers I’ve ever owned and they don’t make them anymore. [MORE INFO]
16: As a first-time documentary director, what were some of your challenges with getting your subjects to open up about themselves and to talk about the topics you wanted to cover? How did you know they’d make great personalities for GAMEMASTER?
First off, before interviewing everyone, I asked two questions: Can you tell me about your game? And why did you make this game?
Depending on their answers to those questions, I would schedule a time where we could talk more at length. And with most people, we would chat for 40 minutes to an hour. I would ask them different questions about what went into the game, what the process was like, what went into it personally, and get a general feel for their personality.
How did I know that things would work after that? It was a mix of gut feeling and luck. But those initial discussions also helped me get people to open up more because during the filmed conversation, I already knew the answers to a lot of questions. And the subject and I already had a rapport. So when it came time to shoot, they were already comfortable with me because I wasn’t a stranger to them.
17: It was mentioned having Mensa and Spiel seals were what the games sell most. There was a whole segment about Spiel awards which was very informing but no other mention of Mensa. Did they get left out deliberately?
Mensa did not get left out deliberately. Charlie Bink’s game Trekking the National Parks was a Mensa select game. We also interviewed a person from Mensa about the process of how Mensa selects the games that are going to be “Mensa Select.”
Short version is anyone in Mensa can pay to go spend a weekend playing board games with other Mensa members and then they vote.
Because this is an event that costs money Mensa was very concerned that we not disrupt anyone’s experience or ask anyone for interviews (as they should be.) We didn’t have the resources to go to this event if we could guarantee interviews.
At the end of the day you have to pick and choose what works and what services the movie overall and we just didn’t have enough stuff to make an interesting segment.
18: What was an unexpected complication while filming, and how did you/your team solve it?
That’s more a question for the producing team. I don’t know the full story, but I have a feeling there are multiple times when we almost or did run out of money. And somehow, some way, at the end of the day, we did not run out of money. I don’t know all the details, but that’s thanks to having an amazing team. Also not uncommon in documentaries.[producer Jimmy Nguyen] We ran out of money a whole lot LOL
19: Do you have any suggestions for pandemic safe/approved games or ways to play them with social distancing?
Yes, I do. Codenames has just released a brand new way to play online, and it’s a beautiful layout. There’s also Board Game Arena. And there are many board games that have beautiful phone app versions. Our favorites are Lords of Waterdeep, Terraforming Mars, Yellow and Yangtze, and Splendor. Highly recommend.
20: How come you didn’t include Monopoly?
We were mostly focusing on the wave of games that happened around the mid-90s that have kind of exploded since. Also, Monopoly has its own wonderful documentary, which is lots of fun and you should check out.
21: What do you think is a common trait that can be found in super successful game designers?
One similarity that I found: the overwhelming majority of game designers played Dungeons and Dragons when they were younger. And I think the correlation is that playing Dungeons and Dragons, in a way, is like designing your own personal game as you play through it. There are very few restrictions. You’re really only limited by your imagination and what works. And also the DM.
So it makes sense that people who found a love for this at a younger age want to continue that same experience of designing their own game in some kind of professional capacity.
Another common trait is that I think in successful games, the designer is really keyed into who the audience is for their game and also what the gameplay experience is like. Almost over the functionality of their game.
22: Were there any people in particular that surprised you or stories that really stuck with you from the many interviews you conducted?
Some people were a little kookier than I was expecting!
But seriously, it was very clear after talking with Elan Lee and Eric Lang that those two guys are nothing short of genius. The footage that did not make it into the movie of those two guys is equally as compelling and insightful as the footage that is in the movie. And unfortunately, the footage that got left out just didn’t work in the context of the film. But talking with both of them was really an experience.
23: What’s your favorite unexpected moment in the movie?
The moments with Scott and Evelyn Rogers. When they sat down at the table and gave him attitude about his game.