Minty Fresh Game Design with David Miller

Minty Fresh Game Design with David Miller

February 22, 2019 1 By Ryan Sanders

Interview with David Miller covering mint tin games – both ones he has made, ones that are upcoming and even advice for designing them.

David, thanks for joining with us and to talk about designing pocket size games. You run subQuark and design all its mint tins games – which are games that fit in those Altoid-sized tins. Could you tell us what inspired you to start designing games that fit into these little tins?

David: Kate and I were watching an episode of Mythbusters about zombies. They had a segment that gave me more angst than any movie ever had and I wondered how I could get that same sense of fear across to others. I started to think about designing a board game. I had never considered making a game before. I spent a few months working on a full-sized game complete with 29 hex tiles, bunches of Euro-style pawns for zombies, lots of dice, and cards. Then I looked at how games are manufactured and quickly learned that virtually all games are made offshore and involved large quantities like 5-10,000 games. That intimidated me and also left a lot of the production out of my hands and control.

At the time, the most economical but decent quality box I could have custom made in the US cost $5 each! And the 29 hex tiles were going to be at least 50 cents each. That made the game too expensive to produce.

I looked for alternatives to boxes and found gripper jars. Those big plastic wide-mouthed containers that you can get things like nuts in and I could apply a custom label for about 20 cents. All the game bits could fit in it but the tiles were still too expensive. So I kept looking and found the tins we now use.

That big board game would never fit into one of those but I started thinking about making other games. Mint Tin Pirates was born soon after that when I was out to lunch at our local burrito place with a game friend. We challenged each other to each design a pirate-themed game that could be played while waiting for lunch. We both made one and I decided I wanted to Kickstart it. I joined a local MeetUp game design group and brought several copies for a blind playtest (complete with written rules so that I wouldn’t interact at all with the testing). It was great feedback and the head of the group said I should make four games for a Kickstarter. Looking back, I think he was yanking my chain but I took him seriously and Kate and I created Mint Tin Aliens. I figured a Kickstarter with two games might have better odds of succeeding and it did.

Just in case there is someone that is reading this and is not aware of subQuark. Could you run down your mint tin library for us and tell us a bit about each game?

David: Mint Tin Pirates is a 2-player light combat game that plays in around 5 to 10 minutes and features a Pirate Ghost. Mint Tin Aliens is a 2-player set collection game that was modeled off the statistics in Ticket to Ride and some of the scoring in Carcassonne and it plays in 15 to 20 minutes. Mint Tin Mini Apocalypse is 5-10 frantic minutes of 2-player real-time game action that has a tremendous amount of decisions to make at a frenetic pace. It has its own flow chart to illustrate how many decisions you need to consider for every single roll. It also has a seven-piece soundtrack created by an up-and-coming film score composer

And our newest is Mint Tin Mini Skulduggery. We’re so thrilled to have it out as a 1-4 player game. The solo mode’s great and you can play 8 with two games. Gameplay for four is about 5 to 10 minutes and it’s the perfect game while out to dinner or hanging out at your local brewery. We both really enjoy playing this one, even after inspecting 48,000 skulls, 6,000 dice, and hand-pressing 1,700 lids. We’re now assembling those games for the recent Kickstarter rewards.

What are people’s normal reactions when you show them that you design board games that fit in those tins?

David: We always carry at least one game with us. That’s either Mini Apocalypse or Mini Skulduggery. If we’re playing them, people will come up to ask about them or even join us with Mini Skulduggery. They’re always intrigued and when we tell them that we’ve shipped 10,000 to 49 countries, they lean in and get serious. If we tell them how Mini Apocalypse did $65,000 in 19 days, they often say we should be on Shark Tank!

But our success is because of the backers and the people we’ve come to call friends over the last 4 years. They make these games fun and their camaraderie is why we do this.

What’s next for subQuark?

David: We have a few games in the works but it looks like we’ll be doing Mint Tin LunaSyr next. It’s a 2-player resource game about mining on the moon. It’s played over 12 rounds and at around 45 minutes, it’s the longest we’ve done. There are a few tweaks to work out and loads more playtesting. We hope to Kickstart in the fall. It’ll have some non-traditional game components such as hardened glass tokens and might come in a round tin. There are too many game bits to fit in a normal tin.

We also have a game about falling into an abandoned mine, Mint Tin Mineshaft, and another that will be a solo game inspired by the 1986 Legend of Zelda. Both will be using the “Delta d10 System” which is our attempt at a dice engine that doesn’t need any note taking and produces three results off a single roll.

For the immediate future, we’re going all out making the rewards for mint tin Mini Skulduggery. A typical day of that is work our day jobs, get home, grab or make dinner, then spend 4 or 5 hours making games. The weekends have us doing 10-12 hours a day. We should be wrapping up in a few weeks. We do our own shipping and we’ve learned a lot from the 3,000 packages we sent out for Mini Apocalypse. But a thermal printer and Kate’s awesome checklists make it pretty easy.

When you have an idea in mind for a mint tin game be it mechanic or theme – do you design the game small-ish,  and when it’s a working prototype then cut what is needed (be it mechanics or components) to make sure it fits in a mint tin or do you design with the measurements of a mint tin in mind?

David: That’s a really great question and a really tough one too. They kind of happen all at the same time. It would be like asking an author how they write a book. Do they cut down the pages and plot to make it a novella or pad it to make it a novel? The idea will take the space it needs. For me, it is a bit constrained, initially to: “can I fit this in a normal mint tin?” Then I likely wonder: “can I make it fit in a mini tin?” I wouldn’t take what fits in a regular tin and then try to shoehorn it into a mini tin, but if the game can fit, then maybe we go that route.

Here’s the perfect example of that: Mint Tin Mini Skulduggery. It’s a game that didn’t need cards right from the start, so that means it did not have to be in a normal tin. There are micro cards that can fit in a mini tin but if they need to be shuffled, that would be a terrible player experience. The only way we’d do micro cards in a mini tin is if they were game bits that were used to show something or place something on, but never for anything that needed regular shuffling (if a handful of cards needed to be mixed up once for play, then maybe, but not for what we’d call standard card-in-hand gameplay).

Anyway, back to Mint Tin Mini Skulduggery! I was surfing around the web, as I often do while watching TV, looking for old games, like ancient to medieval, that might translate to a mint tin game. I came across a Finnish pub game that looked fun. It didn’t use tokens and the scores were low. So I started jotting down ideas in a notebook (I have a half dozen Moleskines around that I work with and I always carry one with me). I had some of these tiny stone skulls laying around from prototyping our solo adventure game so thought those would work. BUT . . . they were pretty big, relatively speaking, and we had a decision to make. Make it a four player in a normal mint tin or make it a two player in a mini tin. A mini tin seemed more ideal because they are incredibly easy to carry. I keep mine in my jeans’ watch pocket.

It kept rolling around in my head that a 4-player game would be nice to offer since our other games are two players. So mini tin vs four players?  Ugh. I discovered that the stone skulls could be made smaller and ordered some to see how they felt. They were smaller and pretty tiny for my fingers but they would allow for the mini tin to become a 4-player game. However, I was concerned about them being so small and put the question out on twitter and facebook completely with pictures so that our friends and supporters could make the decision. After all, the game is for them and we want them to enjoy them. I learned a long time ago that the thoughts and suggestions form a large group of people will always improve what I may “think” is the best.

Resoundingly a 4-player game was preferred so that’s we worked towards and ultimately launched.

So yes and no to designing for a tin. Our first game, which isn’t out that I mentioned earlier, will never fit in a tin. We want to get it out there but it’s a big box game. Actually, Kate wants it to be a tiny bug-out bag game and that would fit the theme so well.

One of the games that will launch soon (maybe next or after another one) is Mint Tin LunaSyr. It doesn’t fit is a normal tin and the gameplay would suffer if we tried. Well, let me rephrase that. We could make it fit in a normal tin if we did chipboard tokens. But we look for unusual and non-traditional materials. Had we used chipboard for Mint Tin Mini Skulduggery, it would have been about 80% cheaper to make. But we aren’t a big publishing house, we aren’t trying to use the cheapest acceptable materials to maximize profit. It’s kind of like a pizza chain. In order to sell $10 pizzas, they gotta use pretty cheap ingredients. If you make a pizza at home, you’ll probably use much higher quality ingredients (pink slime for hamburgers comes to mind).

We don’t personally have anything against chipboard, but our games are non-traditional and we love finding odd things to make them with. Mint Tin LunaSyr will use tiny hardened glass tiles for some of its tokens. Sure, they cost 20 times more than chipboard and weigh more for shipping too, but they have a nice feel to them and I think players will appreciate that.

But those tokens and make the game too big for a normal mint tin. So we’ll probably place it in a round tin.

Our solo adventure game, Mint Tin Odyssey, isn’t looking like it will fit in a tin and there’s nothing we want to take away to make it fit. So maybe another form factor and might not be called Mint Tin.

What have you learned thus far will fit in a mint tin comfortably? Do you know X amount of cards fit with a couple of mini dice- or only two or three cards fit if you want pieces, etc?

David: Lots of trial and error and lots of ordering different items to see how they fit. For cards, it all depends on what weight and finish. We use 310gsm linen-finish black or white core cards so that’s different than a 290gsm smooth finish. There are a number of places where you can order single decks of different cardstock and see what you think fits. And it can vary greatly with your components too.

There’s no set “78 cards with 10 meeples” standards. Do you use mini meeples, standard ones or large ones? The manufacturer of them also varies the size. Our Florida supplier’s meeples are a millimeter or two thinner than some we’re considering from Germany. We like using US vendors but the German ones are about two thirds the cost, are made with sustainably harvested wood, have certified-safe finish, and a lower reject rate by us (to be fair, we can be very picky but the difference between reject 3% and 1% when you’re dealing with 60,000 meeples adds up!).

And the logistics of getting stuff that fits has a lot to do with tons of Googling and what you see as acceptable and what your friends and backers will like.

But the logistics of making the game is just one part of all of this. For us, we handle all our own shipping. For Mini Apocalypse, we sent out 2,900 boxes and, as far as we know, all were early. Not bad for a two-person operation. We’ve learned how to efficiently build rewards, how to batch print postage with printing equipment that’s nearly maintenance free, and ship them in packaging that both protects them but also keeps it as affordable as possible for players.

I spend a tremendous amount of time working on packaging and final game costs. I spend months tweaking a spreadsheet loaded with formulas calculating the game cost. It’s not good enough to say “Kickstarter takes 10%” because they don’t. It’s less than that and taking a rough 10% isn’t fair to backers (or to us). We know what it costs to make the games, the precise percentage that’s lost to rejected components, and up-to-the-minute shipping costs. It’s lazy when a Kickstarter says they’ll figure out and bill you later on shipping. You know your game weight (or you should) and you know shipping costs. Even though we did Mini Skulduggery in December, we knew there would be a USPS rate change in 2019 and that info was available to us.  LOL, an obvious soapbox issue for me.

What is your favorite part of design games that fit in mint tins?

David: My favourite part is hunting down the bits that we’ll use. The logistics of that are rewarding to me. What fits the theme? Ooh, tiny stone skull beads for Mint Tin Mini Skulduggery or real poured silver bullion for a possible “silver edition” of Mint Tin Pirates.

The next thing I like is actually making the games. Right now the house is a huge mess with plastic bins here and there. Full of inspected dice, skulls, pressed tins. And coming up with creative ways to make the assembly of those games as efficient as possible.

We’ve assembled ten thousand games over the last three and a half years and that’s pretty cool for two people. I’m sometimes told that our approach isn’t scalable and what would we do if we had an order for 10,000 games in one month. We would do exactly what they do for offshore production—we’d get more bodies working on it and hire some students.

Do you find them easier to playtest than a normal size game because you can carry the prototype in your pocket?

David: Great question. Yes, being so portable helps, like the story Kate tells at the beginning of the last Kickstarter page. That and since the games need very little space or setup, it’s really easy for people to see us playing and then ask if they can try. That’s always fun.

As wrap this up, what advice do you have about designing a mint tin game?

David: Gameplay has to come first, despite the final form factor. If you’re designing within specifications set forth by a contest, think about what you can fit in the tin. Mini cards? How many max? Meeples – what size and how many? Cubes, dice, coins, tokens, the same thing. Once you have an idea of the max you can use then you’ll be able to narrow your ideas down. Most people have lots of ideas for games and some obviously won’t fit. It would be hard to make any version of Castles of Burgundy fit but maybe easy to expand on something like Coin Age.

Gameplay should never get cut because of tin size, if that’s the case, it’s probably not the right game for it.

And for tons of inspiration and cleverness, far more than I have, go look at the yearly mint tin contests on BoardGameGeek. So many awesome games.

And one last thing, unless the contest specifies it, think about having your rules online. It’s hard to fit rules in and you’re seeing more games doing this. Card Rogue comes to mind – a big box game with no rule book in it. Kind of makes sense too as far as updating rules go.

Thanks again, for taking the time out to do this interview, David.

David: Thanks for the chance to share what we do and keep tabs on us via Twitter and Facebook.  Play well, smile a lot, and be awesome!