Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Tim Virnig
'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Tim Virnig, the Brand Ambassador for Thunderworks Games. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Hey Tim, you've been a big promoter and supporter of board gaming for years, but let's talk about you for a bit. What are some of your favorite games? Any favorite mechanisms in games? Who are some of your favorite designers? Euro, Ameritrash, RPG, all of the above?
My entry into gaming came a few too many years ago than I'd like to admit with role playing games like D&D and Call of Cthulhu. Just like the gang in Stranger Things playing in our basements rather than being outside getting some sun! I still love the cooperative story-telling process in RPGs. Creating the character, building the backstory and the world around the characters. I guess that's what really connects with me in Thunderworks Games Roll Player. I love playing it with a table of people who get into telling the story as well as the dice placement.
My favorite kinds of games are cooperative. I like it when games bring people together to work together. They can be great team-building exercises. I will never say no to playing Flash Point from Indie Boards and Cards or the Fantasy Flight co-ops like Mansions of Madness or Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth. That doesn't mean I shy away from competitive games. We play a lot of the Evolution games from Dominic Crapuchettes and North Star Games in our house because my daughter loves beating me at it consistently. Terraforming Mars from Stronghold Games hits the table a lot and my weekly game group has been playing a lot of the Clank! titles from Renegade Games getting ready for the release of Clank! Legacy.
What made you decide to carve out a niche for yourself in the board gaming hobby by using your social media presence to boost board game content?
My reason is quite simple: the world is a crazy place right now and so much of what we hear and read in the news is about people taking sides and divisions. I think our hobby can be a remedy to that. It can be about bringing people together around the table to accept our differences over a common love of playing games. I play because I have the chance to meet people and get to know them. The cardboard, dice, meeples, mechanics and strategies are only the tools that bring us together to have fun. It brings me so much joy when I see people online or at a convention of different ages, colors, genders, etc. having a great time playing a board game or getting immersed in an RPG. I want to spread that love to a wider audience online. I want others to see the positivity and inclusion we are trying to build better and stronger in our hobby when so much today is trying to promote negativity and exclusion.
You now work in the industry, as well. When did you start with Thunderworks Games? How did you wind up getting the gig?
I am a natural teacher and have a very approachable and energetic personality. I love teaching games to people and am not afraid to walk up to complete strangers and invite them to join a game. I spent quite a bit of time running demos of games for other publishers in stores and local conventions in the Midwest and getting people excited about games. Here in Madison where I live, we have quite a few well known designers (e.g. Kane Klenko, John Kovalic, Matt Quock, Kirk Dennison, Keith Matejka, and home of The Game Crafter) so there was no shortage of opportunity to meet, hang out and play test with them. I got to talking with Keith Matejka of Thunderworks Games, after a session play testing what would become Cartographers, about ways to better promote and demo games to people when he asked me to use my passion and talents to teach and share the games for Thunderworks. I was already a huge fan of Roll Player and super eager to help a friend and fellow Madisonian so I jumped at the chance. It's a huge honor to get to represent Thunderworks at stores and the conventions we attend.
What exactly does your role of brand ambassador for Thunderworks Games entail?
My role is to represent Thunderworks to help build brand awareness, represent it in a positive light, and by doing so increase sales. That means showing off our games to those who might not have heard of them or played them, being a smiling and enthusiastic presence at our booth at conventions, teaching the games, and building relationships with stores and game media creators like the Punchboard family. The board game hobby is full of so many great games and so many fantastic publishers that it helps to have someone boost the signal a little bit who enjoys working with people. I am not saying that Keith doesn't like meeting people but this gives him time to focus on the design, publishing and business aspects as well.
What is your favorite Thunderworks game to play?
This is where I am required to say, “But who can pick their favorite child among all of them?”, right? The one that I spend the most time playing is probably Roll Player with the Monsters and Minions expansion. There is just so much going on in it. It's a dice allocation puzzle with dice rolling combat and card collection. Just so many ways to play it and so many different ways to win. I have probably played it hundreds of times with plays at stores, conventions, and sharing it with game groups but I still never get tired of it. The key to its re-playability are the choices you can make. I learn something new from it each time I play or see others' strategies.
I am also really enjoying Lockup and the reception it is getting. I don't yet have as many plays of it as Roll Player but its quickly becoming a favorite. The blind bidding element can make for some tense moments that I really like.
I know a big title for Thunderworks at Gen Con was Cartographers, tell us a bit about that one. What made it stand out at such a busy convention?
Once in a while a publisher hits a note that resonates with gamers at the right time. Cartographers was a bit of a risk for Thunderworks. Keith decided not to release it as a Kickstarter campaign but to open it to pre-orders on our website (www.thunderworksgames.com). The roll-and-write genre is getting pretty crowded but we felt that with the unique player interaction and scoring elements that it was different enough to rise above the crowd. It's ironic that where Roll Player is all about all the dice, this “roll-and-write” has no dice. It's what we're calling a flip-and-write or a draw-and-draw. We weren't sure if we gambled right but were overwhelmed by the reception it got. It appealed to fans of the Roll Player universe as well as entry level gamers. It is a quick filler game but with enough thinking to satisfy more seasoned gamers. I think its the player interaction that makes it so fun. If you flip over a monster raid card, you pass your map sheet to another player either to the right or left depending on the card and they will draw the monsters on your map leading to negative points if you don't block them in. It gives it just enough “take that” to make things heat up.
Post GenCon, we are still excited to see the very positive response in retail. We blew through the first printing and have a second printing on its way to satisfy the demand. So much demand that Keith already has a small expansion in the works to keep things fresh. I can hardly contain myself when I see people posting their maps on social media. Colorful and much better drawn than my chicken-scratch doodles. I'd make a terrible cartographer!
The Lockup Kickstarter recently delivered to backers. How has the reception been on the game?
The Kickstarter campaign was very successful with about 2,500 backers and we did more than that with direct orders and sales at GenCon but its a slower burner than Cartographers. Its just now starting to hit tables and the reviews and buzz is building. We put this game in the Roll Player universe along with Roll Player, Monsters & Minions, Fiends & Familiars and Cartographers. Fans of the other games will recognize the the artwork of Luis Francisco and Lucas Ribeiro and feel right at home in the Kingdom of Nalos. You are playing a minion this time rather than a hero. Locked up in the Kulbak prison, your crew of gnolls, kobolds, bugbears, goblins, or insectoids are trying to win influence to secure your release when King Taron arrives at the end of six days. It's a satisfying mix of placing your minions to gather resources, hire more crew members and build some very unique items all the while trying to avoid suspicion.
Lockup is listed as a worker placement game on Board Game Geek. Having played that, I'm not sure I agree. What are your thoughts?
It is very difficult these days to classify game mechanisms. Especially when games are starting to combine them into hybrids. Lockup is more than just a worker placement game although it has that element. The bidding feature during the Roll Call phase lets you place some of your crew face down so your opponents don't know the strength of that crew member. It pumps up the excitement when you can fake out others to over bid. It feels like a tense poker hand where you bluff your way to everyone folding when all you had is a pair of twos. There is worker placement, action selection, bidding, and set collection. All of that in a game that plays up to 5 players in hardly more than an hour. It even has a challenging solo mode.
Thunderworks just finished a Kickstarter for Roll Player Fiends & Familiars. What is this second expansion going to add to Roll Player?
Keith has a rule for expansions he publishes. They have to add more play content without adding significant playing time to the base game. Fiends & Familiars certainly achieves that. Firstly, it adds an additional player board with the choice from 15 familiars to join you on your journey; such as the Cursed Raven, Jackalope, or Blood Badger (An homage to the University of Wisconsin mascot badger). Now you can place dice on the familiar and use a special unique power and gain points for color and number placement like on your main player board. There are some more cool monsters and minions to fight and some amazing market cards to buy. But watch out for those pesky fiends! The fiends are placed on some of the new updated initiative cards and attach to your character when you take those dice and hang on causing penalties and limit your actions until you can banish them with earned XP cubes or charisma tokens. Also it wouldn't be Roll Player without lots of dice and Fiends & Familiars adds some new split dice to the bag. These are two-colored dice with lower values of 1 to 4 but can be used for either or the two colors. This creates more choices to add to your strategy. Lower values but a choice of colors. It's always a fine balance in Roll Player and that's what makes it so re-playable.
It has been our most successful campaign so far as the popularity of Roll Player continues to grow and fans new and old are excited for new content. It funded on the first day and went on to find about 7000 backers and easily unlock all of the stretch goals. We could hardly keep up and got real creative with ideas for additional cards and player boards. Even letting backers choose some of the new player characters like Treefolk and even Penguinfolk in the running. Roll Player fans are very creative!
I've been doing a lot of demos for this expansion and everyone is loving it. I never get tired of teaching it and look forward to doing more as it hits fulfillment and store shelves in the 2020 convention season.
I heard a rumor there is an upcoming title from Thunderworks called Roll Player Adventures. What, if anything, can you tell me about this? Is it another expansion, a standalone game? Will there be legacy elements? Is it an RPG?
I can confirm the rumor as true but we are saving more of the details until later to keep the element of surprise. What I can tell you is that it's going to be HUGE! In Monsters & Minions, you went to war against Dragul invaders. In Fiends & Familiars, you befriended wild beasts and dispelled cruel spirits. Now your fully formed, battle-hardened heroes must defend the kingdom of Nalos and uncover a mystery that lies at the heart of the Abandoned Lands. Roll Player Adventures is a cooperative storybook board game for 1-4 players set in the world of Roll Player. Players inhabit characters, face challenges, and make decisions that will change the story as they progress through 11 core Adventures and a re-playable Side Quest.
Adventures does not require the Roll Player base game or any of its expansions to play. Pick from one of six pre-generated characters, or import a favorite Roll Player character and take them on a heroic journey. This IS the Roll Player magnum opus! The culmination of all the hard work of Thunderworks Games over many years. I won't say it will be our greatest game ever but it will be our greatest game so far in the Roll Player universe. Just wait to have your socks knocked off when we launch the Kickstarter campaign in later 2020.
Before we wrap up, is there anything else you'd like to share about yourself? Any other hobbies, interests, or passions?
People are my passion! I enjoy meeting people and getting to know them through the gaming hobby. I focus on promoting voices in board game media – big and small – especially by boosting voices that aren't getting heard and are also working to promote diversity, inclusion, positivity and love of playing games with people – just like what Punchboard Media is doing. I try to do what I can to make the world and our hobby a better place. Games are a great tool to do that.
I also work as a corporate trainer and financial educator for a large credit union in Wisconsin and spend some free time collecting pulp sci-fi and fantasy paperback novels, watching 70's kung-fu movies, trying to be a better dad to my teenage daughter, and kayaking the Madison lakes. I would love to invite your readers to follow me on Twitter at @tim_virnig.