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Interview With Matthew Dunstan

matthew dunstan
matthew dunstan

Welcome to the Zatu blog! Today we are diving into the world of Matthew Dunstan, designer of Village Rails, the Guild of Merchant Explorers, Dice Hospital E.R, and so many more!

On your BGG profile it says your first introduction to modern board gaming was Catan, do you remember what the games you tried next were? And do you still own / play them?

I can’t quite remember at that early stage (when I was around 12 I think), but I remember more clearly when I got back into hobby games at university. Games that stand out were Ticket to Ride, Kingsburg and even a brainmelting game of Vinhos! I still own the two former games, even if I don’t play them that much. To be honest, now that I’m a full time designer I tend to have even less time to play games from my own collection.

How long were you designing games before you got your big break?

I started designing games around the beginning of 2011, when I was still living in Australia. Most of these early designs weren’t very good, and I never really finished them – a pretty standard journey for most designers I think. I then moved to Cambridge in the UK in Sept 2011, and met Brett Gilbert and starting playtesting with him. Around this time I started working on a new game that would eventually become my first published game Relic Runners. From starting on the design to it actually being published and available was another 2 years (it was released at Essen in 2013). So I guess around 3 years it took from starting to design to having a game published.

That being said, probably my ‘big break’ came with Elysium, which was published in 2015 by Space Cowboys – I think it’s the game that got the most attention early in my career (it was even nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres), and people still talk about it today 7 years later, a rarity!

Were there any designers / publishers that you took inspiration from for your own early designs?

I don’t think there were any specific designers that inspired me – of course Richard Garfield and Magic: The Gathering was always there as a foundation for me in modern gaming, and you can probably see its influence most in games like Elysium and Monumental. Relic Runners was actually inspired by the Travelling Salesman problem, an idea from mathematics, rather than any existing game or designer.

Was the move to a full time games designer a tough move to make?

I had been thinking about it for a number of years – I’ve been lucky that pretty much the whole time I’ve been designing games I’ve had a very flexible full time job, first as a PhD student, and then as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge. Working on games was definitely in my spare time, but over the years it slowly took up more and more time, and started earning more and more money.

Financially speaking, probably the game that allowed me to go full time was the Adventure Game series, co-designed with Phil Walker-Harding and published by Kosmos. It was the first game where I saw consistent significant earnings over several years, and it still is going strong. I think to be a full time independent designer you either need a huge hit, or a game series that has good sales and can have regular releases, the latter of which is what happened with the Adventure Games.

In terms of making the final decision, it was actually pretty easy – due to pandemic related changes in my life (I moved from the UK to the Czech Republic) it meant that I had to leave my existing job, and so the decision was made for me! So I’ve been full time as a designer from the start of this year.

What is your favourite game currently in your collection? And how many games are in your collection?

Would have to be either Race for the Galaxy or Innovation – I just love special power card games (again, like Magic), and I think Tom Lehmann and Carl Chudyk are geniuses. I would love to make a game that is even a bit as good as either of those.

My collection (not counting my own games) is probably currently around 100 games, although I’ve had to cull it quite a bit recently as I am about to move to the other side of the world!

I know you have made a lot of games with other designers, is there a designer you haven’t yet worked with who you would like to?

Plenty! Eric Lang, Elizabeth Hargrave, Tom Lehmann, Stefan Feld, Simone Luciani, Jonny Pac would be the first off the top of my head. But really, I love working with new designers and trying out new partnerships.

When designing a new game does the theme formulate before the gameplay or the other way around?

There is no one way that all my games come about – sometimes there is a theme that sparks the idea, or a mechanism, or even a type of genre or product that I really want to make. For example, with a lot of the narrative games you have to really think about what experience you want the players to have, how do they get information, how do they share it – any initial idea hopefully goes a way to answering these questions.

How many games do you currently have in development? And can you let me in on anything exciting like a follow up to Next Station London?

I think I have about 14-15 games currently under contract and in development, including new titles for existing series like the Adventure Games and Echoes. And yes, we are working on a new city for the Next Station series, hopefully to be released next year. I can’t say much more, except to say the city is in Asia!

I know you have to demo and play your new releases a lot to help with publicity, does this mean that you shy away from playing them again in the future or are you happy to play one of your old releases?

That’s a tricky question – I think a lot changes between the time you work on a game and the time when it actually is released and other folks start playing it. So sometimes I think my mind has just moved on, and isn’t as interested in playing older designs. That being said, sometimes the opposite happens, and I’ve had enough distance from the project to be pleasantly surprised when I finally get to play it, especially when it’s the first time to enjoy the real components and illustration. There are moments where you go to yourself ‘yes, I had forgotten that this game is actually quite fun!’

Do you think you may attend the UK Games Expo in 2023?

As I alluded to earlier, I am moving to Australia very soon, and so I think for the next few years at least I won’t be able to make it to any overseas conventions. It’s a sad thing – I’ve gone to the last 10 or 11 UKGEs and it will always be one of my favourite conventions, especially the Playtest zone run by the ever-brilliant Rob Harris.

You are also one half of Postmark games and you have released two excellent print and play games so far. Is this method of publishing a good way for you to get more games out there in peoples hands? And can you let me know what games I should look out for from Postmark games in the future?

I think Rory Muldoon (the other half of Postmark) and I found a lot of common ground in our thoughts about a) getting some of designs published that were perhaps too small or otherwise unsuitable for the traditional model, and b) thinking whether there was a different approach we could take to publishing and distribution that could eliminate most of things we didn’t to do, mostly producing physical products and then shipping them around the world! And I think we managed to tap into something pretty special with Postmark – it definitely has done better than we had ever expected it to.

At the moment, we don’t have any news to share about future releases, but we are hoping to settle in to regular schedule of one new game each year, alongside releasing content for our existing games (another advantage to the print at home model).

Away from board games, what else do you like to do in your spare time?

I have been thinking that I really need to find a new hobby! That’s the problem with taking what was your hobby and turning it into your job. I’m getting back into building Lego and doing custom builds for that, and I also enjoy making mustard and jams, and probably might explore that a bit more.

Final question on behalf of the Zatu Bloggers. Do you dunk your biscuits in your tea / coffee or do you think that is a crazy notion?

I dunk all the time! Don’t think that is odd at all. Of course, we Australians even invented the best dunking ritual – the Tim Tam Slam! Check it out on YouTube to see the most delicious combination of biscuit and hot drink.

We hope you enjoyed this interview with Matthew Dunstan. To check out our list of the Top 5 Matthew Dunstan games, click here!