I was lucky enough to recently speak (via the miracle of email) with James Mathe, the man behind Minion Games. Aside from starting up his new independent publisher based in Wisconsin, James may well be one of the busiest men in gaming. He’s had his fingers in more pies than your average baker, so I decided to ask him to start with a bit about himself… Here’s what he had to say for himself.
In a past life I was a contract programmer, but I’ve been in the gaming industry a long time now. I started one of the first multi-player LAN gaming centres in the world. I pioneered the digital download market for RPGs with the creation of RPGNow.com. I now own two Game Stores in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area and an online game store at RPGShop.com. Recently I have begun publishing board games as Minion Games and I’m the designer of a game called Those Pesky Humans. I guess one could say that starting businesses is sort of my gaming hobby.
Well, it certainly seems that you like to keep yourself busy! Obviously your work takes a fair chunk of your time, but what kind of games do you like to play in your spare time? What’s big at Minion Towers?
I generally enjoy Euro games, some of the ones I enjoy are Pillars of the Earth, Endeavour, Cyclades and Power Grid. Some other favourites of mine are Steam, Dominion, and Citadels. I attend a monthly meet-up group and we love our Werewolf too. Lately though, I find myself playing a lot more prototypes (through submissions) than actual published games.
That sounds like a good time to segue into what you guys are up to with Minion Games… I recently played NILE, a new card game you’ve just released. Would you like to tell us a bit about that and the other games you’ve got out at the moment?
NILE is a great little card with a Euro-game feel. It’s all about harvesting resources on the (you guessed it) Nile. You vie for control over fields and each round when the Nile floods you harvest a resource of the top of your matching field (which is how you score). The great thing about NILE is the scoring is based on sets, so there is strategy to getting a variety of resources in your score pile. It’s a great filler for any game night.
We also have 3 other games out right now:
Those Pesky Humans which is a humorous light dungeon crawl where one player sets up the dungeon and the other players try to ransack it. It’s designed not to end up being a miniatures battle game, so plays in 90 minutes with lots of replayability. Great for even kids just starting to get into gaming. Legitimacy is a game for younger crowd with a roll-and-move mechanic where players adventure around the land to complete quests to become the rightful heir of the realm. There’s a lot of humour and many beatdowns on the leader! Lastly, Sturgeon is a party card game of Big Fish Eat Little Fish. You must get two sturgeons on your side of the lake by playing minnow cards, then eating them with bass, then eating them with sturgeons. You can use swim cards to eat other people’s fish or weeds to protect your fish. There’s also a fisherman to watch out for!
All four games should be available through world-wide distribution, so ask your local game store to carry them!
Obviously, having experience in owning your own stores, you know what it’s like for more independent games production companies. It can be a hard life for them, especially when it comes to things like distribution and getting your games noticed. What approach have you taken with Minion Games to try and get them to stand out from the crowd?
There are two key elements we focus on. First we try to find games with interesting and creative themes. We don’t really need yet another farming game do we? We also try to keep them on the light and humorous side in fictional worlds (because who wants to play reality?).
Second we use a high quality artist and layout person for our covers. A game should be able to sell itself based on the cover and back cover. You can’t count on someone pitching your game to a new customer, so you need quality design. Being a store owner I have a feel for what can stand out and what are things to avoid with the design of the boxes. We try to find new and fun games to play and not just redo older games or themes, but some game themes seem to always be in demand (like the dungeon crawlers) and unlike some publishers, we’re willing to try these out.
Distribution is a tricky thing in our industry right now. Stores expect the distributors to be Just-In-Time inventory for them, but the distributors have been burned too many times so they order light much of the time – especially with new publishers – so game stores have a hard time getting things or just give up. We use a consolidator which is sort of a “distributor to distributors”. This gets us in with fifteen distributors around the world at a higher fill rate. We also offer store demo copies, so nag your local store to contact us!
We can find you guys at miniongames.com – do you think that the internet makes life easier for smaller publishers like yourself to get your brand out there, or do you think people will always be looking towards the big boys like FFG for their next purchase?
Of course the Internet helps a lot. In fact we usually release our products as Print & Play first to help build awareness and build a direct customer base. Reviews online also play a major role early on. Brand is very important and creates plenty of sales just based on name. That is our goal, but the Internet in that case is only a medium to spread the word good or bad. Quality and originality are more important for start ups making a brand.
You really seem to be looking to the future – where do you see Minion Games in five years?
Our goal is to release five to ten games a year with a goal of increasing print runs each time. Within 3-5 years we hope to sell enough games to allow us to make custom dice and miniatures for our games as well as expansion for top games. Then we can have real fun!
So do you see your future as having everything done in house or do you guys accept submissions from prospective designers?
Oh, we’re always taking submissions. In fact NILE was done by just some guy I found online. We have 7 games in the pipeline of which only one is of my own design; two are from previously published game designers – the rest are from first timers.
Nice! So if people want to get in touch, you won’t straight ignore them! How do readers get in contact with you?
I never ignore anyone and as a small company, we actually get back to you with input on your game within a week or two… not a year later as some have. Just write to us (the email is firstname.lastname@example.org) with a picture of your prototype, rules, and description. And no: we (nor anyone else in this industry!) will not steal your ideas!
Nice one! Cheers for taking time out to talk about what you’re up to with Minion Games, and good luck for the future.
If you’d like to check out titles like NILE, Those Pesky Humans and more, head over to the Minion Games website. There’ll also be reviews of both those games here on the site soon.