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Thunderworks Games

In 2015, Keith Matejka published his first game, Bull Frogs. An abstract-strategy area-control game about placing frogs onto Lilly pads. Fast forward six years, and he has quit his previous day job in the video game industry and has his own board game business built around one of the biggest games on the market Roll Player, and is about to finish production on his biggest game yet, Roll Player Adventures.

I was very keen to find out more from the man himself. Roll Player is one of my favourite games and Monsters & Minions is one of the best expansions to any game ever! So, this was quite exciting for me!

On A Roll!

Roll Player is one of the most successful games of the modern board game era, selling bucket loads of copies and currently ranked within the BGG top 200. I was only recently introduced to the game during lockdown so have not played above a two-player yet, so I was keen to get the perspective of someone who had enjoyed the game in higher player counts.

Kay from Kay Plays Games, has a fantastic Instagram account that I really enjoy, and Kay happens to be someone who has played Roll Player in higher numbers many times! So, I reached out to seek her expert opinion.

“Roll Player scales well to any player count. Through a simple increase in the number of dice and market cards available each round, the game accommodates four players without any changes to the difficulty. The downside to playing with four is the increase in downtime, which can drag on if any player is prone to the dreaded analysis paralysis. As this is essentially a multiplayer-solitaire game with little direct player interaction, there isn’t much to keep you occupied on other players’ turns beyond planning your next move. To counteract this, if all players agree, I like to carry out the “place dice” phase simultaneously (i.e. each player selects a dice in turn order as per the rulebook, but then all players place their dice, take attribute actions, and gain gold at the same time). This speeds up the game significantly but does require a level of trust that everyone is playing correctly. With new players, you may want to play by the rules for a while, perhaps switching to simultaneous play halfway through the game.”

OK, let’s talk about Thunderworks most successful game in more detail. Roll Player is a beautifully simple game. You are creating a character. Utilising the core mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons to forge your characters traits, weapons, and characteristics. Anyone familiar with the RPG world will instantly recognise many of the mechanics and terminology. But let me clear. You absolutely don’t need to have an understanding of D&D or RPG’s to play and enjoy this game.

At its core, Roll Player is instantly appealing to many for so many reasons. The massive bag of dice! The brilliantly designed player mats with perfectly punched out holes for said dice to nestle neatly in. The variety of gameplay with the multiple boards, backstory, and alignment cards. There is so much to like! And this is probably in part, why it has sold so many copies.

Roll Player also appeals to me as someone who has recently got into the world of Dungeons & Dragons. WBG reviewer and all round good guy, Tom from Bury Board Games has taught me how to play, and we have been playing our own little adventure during lockdown. I am also now running a game for my family which is hilarious fun! It has been a wonderful experience and opened my eyes to the huge world I was previously missing. This made me enjoy the Roll Player game even more. But I must stress again, this is not necessary to play the game.

Roll Player works by rolling dice and placing them in a communal area. Players then in turn, chose which one they want to take and add to their player mat. Both number and colour are relevant to your potential scoring options. Later powers can enable you to move or change the die face, but most of the time, what you place, you keep for the game. You are looking to achieve certain number, colour and pattern-based targets in a seemingly abstract manner, but of course all dripping with the immersive theme of D&D and the overall arching idea of character creation.

Each turn, you simply make one choice. Which dice to take and where to place it, but the options this presents often feel infinite. Not in a way that hurts or is frustrating. But in the way that makes games like this so fun to play. You are thinking about the row it is going in and the potential accumulative total this can now reach. Each row represents one personality characteristic and you will have a target to aim for. How strong is your character? How intellegant can they become? Your Backstory will also offer more juicy end game points if you can place the right colour dice in the right places on each row. And your traits and skills you acquire along the way will also offer rewards based upon certain row scores and dice placement.

It’s a beautifully balanced puzzle, that offers high levels of reward win or lose. Yes, you want to outscore your opponents, but regardless of your relative score, every player ends the game with a fully formed character. One you made. From your choices. Fully formed with a unique set of characteristics, traits and skills. It’s a very rewarding experience.

And yet some people were left wanting more! With this new awesome character created, players then wanted to do something with it! Namely, fight something! Preferably some type of monster! Keith always had plans for something like this being in the game but wanted it to be an expansion rather than the core game. You can hear more about this in the interview above. It was fascinating to hear his thoughts on how he wanted to create something the fans wanted, but also remain true to what the game was.

And so Monsters & Minions was born, and with it, one of the greatest board game expansions ever was created! It can be added into the game with minimal extra rule explanations or game length. Seamlessly fitting into an already brilliant game but bringing fresh new twists on your decisions. No longer does your character sit just within your own world, conceptually forming turn by turn. They now exist in the Roll Player world from round one, ready to fight their way to victory.

This may sound rather detached and perhaps irrelevant, but it helped me immerse myself into the game even more. It made me become more invested in what I was doing earlier in the game and sucked me into the world the game creates. Not only are you preparing to do battle with the end game boss monster, but smaller minions appear each round, offering you the chance to go and fight and seek the rewards they hold.

But the best bit of the expansion is how the final end game monster’s characteristics are revealed. At the start of the game, three random cards will be drawn showing you the location, obstacle and attack metrics specific for this games chosen monster. For each minion you successfully battle that has the trophy symbol on the card, you can secretly look at one of the cards. Crucially revealing ways that fighting the monster at the end can reward you with points. This information is revealed in scret, just to you. But you can now plan accoridngly.

It’s a brilliantly tantalising mechanic, that encourages players to fight the minions rather than just shop for new items, weapons and traits each round. And doing so in a way that adds real excitement to the game. Knowing things other players don’t is always fun. But other players second guessing what you may have learnt by analysing your choices after reading them is even better!

With the success of this first expansion, Thunderworks Games then released the second, Fiends and Familiars. This time, affecting the set up and bringing negative affects into the game for the first meaningful time. Now we have little critters nagging away at our attempts to develop our character. As a player, you have the choice to avoid these affects and reduce your options when picking dice, deal with the affects head on by using resources to rid yourself of them, or ride the affects in the hope your positive actions will out way their impact.

Initially, I was unsure about this. I felt uneasy having something bad to deal with, after two boxes of pure “good stuff!” But after a few games, I realised it just makes the choices throughout the game more interesting. Which makes the game better. It also really improves the two player and solo game by making the choices tighter, which for me in my current restrictions, team mate wise, is a welcome addition.

Overall, the Roll Player games have rocketed straight into my top 20 games of all time, and I am astounded it took me this long to bring them into my collection. Roll Player offers such a fun, challenging, rewarding and social experience. I don’t see myself ever tiring of the game.

With the addition of two, quite simply brilliant expansions too, you have so much replayability in these three beautiful boxes. I can see why they have been such a huge success, and would wager, will be for many more years to come. As Keith says himself, Roll player is an “evergreen.”

I cannot wait to see how Roll Player Adventures expands on this, and brings a narrative arc to the proceedings. It will be joyous to bring the characters I create in one world and see how they fair in another. But for now, all this talk of Roll Player has made me hungry for some dice rolling. I’m off for another game!

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