The Father Geek Spotlight is an ongoing feature that focuses on ordinary people doing an extraordinary job of living the geek life and loving it. It’s about moms and dads, grandmas and grandads, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters who have passionate interests and share them with family, friends, and the occasional stranger they meet on the street who they swear they know but can’t quite remember why or from where…
Father Geek interviews Matt Saunders: Father, Geek, and Board Game Designer
FG: Thank you very much, Matt, for taking the time to sit down with Father Geek to tell us your story. Let’s get to it, shall we? Matt, you are a father, a geek, and a board game designer. That game being, of course, Mow ‘Em Down, a game I have had the pleasure to play with both my little geeks and friends. But before we get to that, can you briefly describe how you have used games to engage your little geeks?
MS: Thanks for the opportunity to share about Mow ‘Em Down and my family with your readers. Growing up, one of my favorite activities was playing games like Monopoly, Balderdash, and Acquire with my parents and siblings, so it was natural for me to become a dad who finds ways to introduce his own little geeks to games.
FG: And how many little geeks to you currently have in your clan?
MS: My wife and I have two little ones. My son is 6, about to finish Kindergarten, and my daughter is 4, going into Pre-K next year.
FG: What types of games do you play with your little geeks and the family?
MS: Like so many other families, we started playing Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders with them when they were two or three. Two other games that we’ve used quite a bit with them are Kids of Carcassonne and Hey! That’s My Fish! And our current family favorite is The Magic Labyrinth.
FG: Excellent games! Do you have a family game night?
MS: We don’t have a regular family game night, but occasionally on a weeknight or on a Saturday afternoon we break out a game or two to play with them. Recently, I’ve enjoyed introducing several games such as Small World, Dominion, Santiago, and Fresco to my oldest little geek. He is still an emerging reader, so with games like Dominion that have a lot of text, I need to explain to him what the card is about, but then he catches on quickly. I love seeing both his and his little sister’s minds open up through gaming!
FG: You named some excellent games there. Great to play with little geeks and big geeks alike! What lessons do you attempt to teach while playing those games with your daughter and son and how do you go about it?
MS: With my daughter, the biggest accomplishment is to learn the mechanics and recognize choices in the game. For example, in Kids of Carcassonne there are two simple mechanics, draw and place a tile, and then place meeples if any roads are completed. She is just now beginning to think about different choices. In Hey! That’s My Fish!, she is beginning to realize that she can move any of her penguins on her turn instead of just moving the same one all the time.
With my son, I’m helping him pay more attention to the quality of choices he makes in a game. Sure, it’s tons of fun for him to buy a Thief card in Dominion (because it’s very fun to steal money from Dad!), but perhaps there is a better way to spend money than buying multiple copies of the same card.
Beyond mechanics and choices, we use games to teach a few important life lessons:
- Do the best you can – if everybody is trying their best, then it’s always a “Good Game”
- Play fair – because losing while others know you tried your best feels a whole lot better than winning while others suspect you were cheating
- Be gracious – whether you win or lose, let the other players know they played a good game
- What have you learned? – we sometimes take a moment after the end of a game to talk about what we tried to do to win the game. I think this is an important skill in life – to evaluate our choices and learn from or build upon the past.
FG: Outstanding! You are living the Father Geek dream! We approve.
Playing and designing games would seem to go hand in hand. Can you tell us a bit of history of how you came to design and self publish Mow ‘Em Down?
MS: The seed of the game began many years ago when I was in college. I was working at the family manufacturing business in Colorado, assembling parts for the riding lawnmowers. Some friends and I were passing time one afternoon dreaming up crazy merchandise related to the lawnmower. I remember joking about making a board game themed around the lawnmower.
Years later in 2004, we were visiting my wife’s family in Washington for Thanksgiving. We lived up in Canada at the time. I spent a lot of time that weekend with her cousin, Marc, who was a history teacher. We always played lots of games whenever we got together about twice a year. In fact, he was the one to introduce me to Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne and thus opened up the realm of Eurogames to me.
That Thanksgiving we talked about how he was using games in his classroom to teach various history units, and he also brought a game that he had been designing. We stayed up late one night play-testing it. I remember not being able to sleep afterward; my mind was racing about all kinds of different ideas for his game. I was in awe of this idea about making games.
On the drive back to Canada, the memory of joking about making a lawnmower board game came back to me, and these two things coming together was what got me started. The game percolated in my mind until Christmas break, when I actually made a prototype and played it with my family.
FG: Oh? How was it?
MS: It was bad! But the foundation had been laid, and I spent time off and on over the next three and a half years tweaking the game.
FG: I have a game design of my own that I have been tweaking for as long as I remember. I am no stranger to it, my friend. Please, continue.
MS: We eventually moved to Kansas. Many friends and family from Canada, Colorado, and Kansas play-tested it with me every chance I could twist their arms into doing it.
FG: That’s what friends are for! Dinner parties, helping you move, and spending countless hours play-testing.
MS: In 2007, I decided to get serious about self-publishing the game. I realized that the manufacturing company was going to have a big event the following summer to celebrate the production of their 100,000 machine. So I got to work getting everything printed and all the components purchased. The week before the event was spent assembling and sorting the bits into boxes. My dad, mom, sister, brother, their families, and my family all pitched in with putting 250 units together. It was a lot of work, but we had a ton of fun, and the game debuted as scheduled at the event in August of 2008.
FG: Wow, that must have been a lot of work! So very happy to hear that friends and family pitched in! I am certain that made the entire experience all the more meaningful and satisfying. How was the game received at the event and afterwards?
MS: I thought it would be a smash hit since there was going to be a large European delegation (especially Germans) at the event. With all the talk about how popular family games are in Europe, I thought I’d sell out and be taking orders for a second print run. As it turns out, it seems that Europeans interested in lawncare and manufacturing could care less about board games! Ha! I asked a few of them about which games they played. To my surprise, each one said Monopoly. There were a few people who were excited about the game, and about three fourths of the reviews I’ve received, including yours, have been positive. I haven’t marketed the game very well, so there are still several copies available for purchase at the Walkerware store. Every now and then I get notification of a “word-of-mouth” sale, which is nice.
FG: Would you say your own experiences as a father and a geek have influenced your game designs? And if so, how?
MS: Honestly, not much to this point. My son was only a few months old when the idea for Mow ‘Em Down was first conceived. When the game debuted, he was almost four and my daughter had just turned two. I can say; however, that my love for game designing has had an influence on my kids, especially my son.
FG: How so?
MS: Soon after I made my game, we were at home one evening, and my son invited me from the kitchen to see the dexterity game he had made in our living room. I don’t exactly remember how it was played, but he was using balls and other items from around the house. Recently, he has been making up a lot of games for our drives in the car. Most of them are story telling games. Our favorite is the “Car Game”, as he calls it. Each person picks a fictional character (he’s often Batman, and my daughter often chooses Cinderella), picks a car (he often chooses “The Supersonic Car” and my daughter chooses a “Shoe Car”), and takes turns telling about where they drive to and what they do there. It’s great entertainment for our drives.
FG: That sounds like a fantastic game! I will have to give that a try on my next family car trip. Sounds like you have a budding game designer under your roof. Do you include him in your game design process?
MS: My son likes to join me in my early play-testings. Most of the time the games are very rough and unplayable, so I get to try to explain to him exactly why something isn’t working. I think he enjoys getting to be part of the creative process. One of my ultimate dreams would be to do what the father-son team of Geoff and Brian Engelstein are doing and design a game with my son.
FG: I completely agree. The Engelsteins have truly set the bar when it comes to “family geekiness”. Something I hope to aspire to someday, myself. What are some of your favorite games and game mechanics?
MS: I tend to really enjoy games that have some type of economic component to them. Maybe this is due to my early years of playing Acquire and Monopoly. Some of my current favorite games include Powergrid, Steam, Colonia, and Santiago. I think I’m in a minority; I like paper money!
FG: Oh, that’s not true…as far as you know….
MS: To be fair, I haven’t given poker chips a chance, but I have no strong desire to do so. I enjoy games with auction mechanics and am personally fascinated with the idea of games that, like Mow ‘Em Down, use a lowest-bidder-wins auction. I don’t think there are many games out there like it, but one I just recently learned about and would really like to try is Hotel Samoa.
FG: Actually, it was the lowest bidder wins mechanic that really fascinated me in Mow ‘Em Down. You are correct that there are not many games that use that approach when it comes to bidding, which I think is a shame. I’m not familiar with Hotel Somoa and will have to give it a try. Can we expect to see any other games from you in the future?
MS: Definitely! I’m not sure if I’ll go the self-publishing route again, though. Even though I love economic games, I don’t make a good business person.
FG: Glad to hear you are still working on games! What are some of the new projects you are working on?
MS: I can’t say much about it, but I currently have a game in the semi-final round of a design contest. The winner of the contest will be published. Keeping my fingers crossed. I also have several other design ideas that I’m working on from time to time.
FG: Exciting! When you get those games ready to play for a wider audience, you can set aside a chair at the game table for the Father Geek.
Thank you very much, Matt, for taking the time to speak to us, giving us a peek into the life of a game designer and a father geek! We wish you the greatest of success in the future and expect to hear more about the great games you are working on. Until then, we are more than satisfied with Mow ‘Em Down… but are always eager for more!