An interview with Thunderworks’ founder & lead designer, Keith Matejka
Founded in 2013 in Madison, Wisconsin, Thunderworks Games is an independent publisher of award-winning strategic card and board games games. Best known for titles like Roll Player and its spin-off Cartographers, Thunderworks Games is dedicated to designing original and innovative table top games with amazing artwork and high caliber components. Collaborating with many excellent designers and artists, Thunderworks produces thoughtful, memorable, and above all enjoyable games.
One of the many board game publishers based in our homeland of Wisconsin, Thunderworks has really taken off in recent years. Raking in awards and positive reviews left and right, Thunderworks is just hitting their stride. A friend of our store, Keith Matejka is the driving force, founder, owner, and one of the designers behind this success. He and his crew have not only been gracious enough to demo their games at our events, but Keith was kind enough to give us an interview!
But first, lets take a brief look at a few of the titles that put Thunderworks Games on the map.
Are you the type of person who loves creating D&D characters you might never even plan to play? Love collecting loot and gear for your epic avatars? Then Roll Player is the game for you!
A slightly tongue in cheek take on Role Playing Games, this dice drafting character building game gives you all the fun of rolling up an RPG character, plus the joy of a set collecting and strategic thinking card game. Mighty heroes don’t just appear out of thin air — you must create them! Race, class, alignment, skills, traits, and equipment are all elements of the perfect hero, ready to take on all opposition in the quest for glory and riches.
In Roll Player, you will compete to create the greatest fantasy adventurer who has ever lived, preparing your character to embark on an epic quest. Roll and draft dice to build up your character’s attributes. Purchase weapons and armor to outfit your hero. Train to gain skills and discover your hero’s traits to prepare them for their journey. Earn Reputation Stars by constructing the perfect character.
Beautiful art and engaging mechanics have made this game a success. Now with several expansions and optional upgraded material components like metal coins and dice towers available, Roll Player continues to roll out fresh new content and even more replay value.
Awarded the Dice Tower’s Seal of Excellence, check out their review video with Tom Vasel.
One of Noble Knight Games’ best selling board games of the last couple years, Cartographers presents a new way to look at the world of Roll Player. It might be considered a “Roll & Write” game, but gone are the dice and character creation of Roll Player. Now, you’re out to explore and lay claim to the uncharted wilderness beyond, in the name of the Queen.
But you are not alone in this wilderness… The Dragul contest your claims with their outposts, and so you must draw your lines carefully to reduce their influence.
Reclaim the greatest share of the Queen’s desired land and you will be declared the greatest cartographer in Nalos!
Played over the course of a year, this “Flip & Write” take on classic roll & write mechanics offers each player a blank map of the territory to fill in as they explore. Maximize your points by working with the conditions posed by the randomized conditions present in each round. Each season, players draw on their map sheet and score against unique conditions at the end of the season. The player with the highest reputation at the end of the year is declared the winner.
The Twist – Don’t get too attached to your map. Attacks by the monsters in this region are all but certain, and they may force you to swap your map with another player’s in the rush to escape! Maybe you’ll get your map back, maybe you won’t…
One of the coolest aspects of this game is the player count. You can play this as a solo-game, a small group game, or with a whole hall full of players! You can play with as many people as you can offer a blank map and show the season’s cards to. This makes it a hit at large gaming events and conventions as much as on kitchen tables and living room floors around the world.
This game has really taken off. Mini expansions and accessories are already available, and a sequel (stand alone or mixed with the original) is coming soon!
See S vs J’s review, Cartographers: A contender for best roll & write ever made
Quite different in flavor from many of Thunderwork’s other more fantasy leaning games, Dual Powers steps into the ring of political intrigue almost dipping a toe into the waters of table top war games.
In March of 1917, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne of Russia. In his place, a conservative Provisional Government formed, representing the official authority of the state. Opposed to the newly formed government stood the Petrograd Soviet, an elected council of workers organized by socialist activists.
Over the following months, an internal struggle for power and influence would dominate the country and spark a social revolution. In this state of dual power, or dvoevlastie, charismatic and powerful leaders would rise with the tide of public dissatisfaction and change the course of Russian politics forever.
Once again offering a great solo play option, this 1-2 player game sets players on one side of this struggle through political action, social maneuvering, and military conflict. The player with greater support at the end of the game will shape Russia’s future, and either launch or suppress the impending Civil War.
Curious about this cunning game? Let Keith himself give you a demo in this video!
Thunderworks’ Origin Story – The Interview
And now, let’s talk to the man behind the success, Keith Matejka!
Keith, it’s been such a pleasure to work with you as well as the games you design and produce.
“Thanks! I’m very proud of what we’ve done, and where we are going.”
The games have been a big hit, and visitors to our Wisconsin Games section in our shop often ask us questions about your story. Can you tell our readers a little about how Thunderworks was born, and how you landed on the name?
“I founded Thunderworks games in 2013 after designing Bullfrogs and deciding I wanted to use Kickstarter to publish it. I knew I wanted to start a company, but I struggled with finding a name for a long time. One evening, I was in Sister Bay, WI watching the 4th of July fireworks over Lake Michigan, and my 2-year-old son called the fireworks “thunderworks”. And I said, ‘Hey, that’s it!’ So, the name was decided.”
How did you get into game design in the first place? Did you study game design and development?
“I don’t have any professional training. My desire to enter design comes from my love for games, and just being around them so much. The best education is playing and analyzing great published designs. Some of the drive to start designing came from playing games that I thought could be improved and wanting to try my hand at it.”
What were you up to before you launched Thunderworks?
“I was in the video game industry for 15 years before leaving to do board games full-time. Most of those years were spent as part of a production (project management) team. The skills and experience doing that work in video games are very valuable for any project-based work, including board games. My experience working with video game artists helped when working with board game artists, for example.”
“Thunderworks Games was a project I did in the evenings after I was done with my day job at Raven Software in Middleton, and my son was in bed. In 2018, I decided to do Thunderworks full-time and become my own boss. I didn’t start paying myself anything until that happened. For the first 5 years of the business, all the money that came into the company was reinvested into it. It’s been a great couple years since I made that decision, though it was a scary one, for sure.”
What was your proudest moment as a board game designer?
“I always enjoy seeing other people randomly playing my games, but the proudest moment was probably when I got my first copy of Bullfrogs, my first game, from the game manufacturer. It really felt like I had accomplished something.”
People often wouldn’t associate Wisconsin as a place hopping with hot designers & game producers. What has it been like growing as a publisher in the Madison area, as opposed to, say, New York or LA?
“Well, Wisconsin is a great area to be a game designer. Gaming culture is a big thing here. I think some of that comes from the colder climate, and some of it comes from the fact that D&D originated here. There is a strong local community of designers here that all do their best to help each other out. It’s a great breeding ground for fantastic games!”
Note from the Knights: To name just a few of the many great game designers currently in our area, there’s Kane Klenko, Kirk Dennison, Ed Marriott, John Kovalic, Mike Wokasch, Seth Van Orden, Brett Meyers, Alexander Cobian, R. Ben Madison, Jonathan Carnehl, Andrew Hanson. We’re discovering new additions to this list all the time! If you’re a Wisconsin game designer, developer or publisher, reach out to us by email or on social media! We’d love to spotlight you and make sure we’re carrying all of your games.
Sounds like we’re already in a great location to launch even more game designers. What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps and get into table top game creation?
“Jump in head first. Just go for it, and read all you can from other creators. Most people in this field are happy to share their knowledge, which can help you avoid the pitfalls that others have already navigated.”
That’s certainly the impression we have been getting from all the publishers and designers we chat with. Gamers love to share and get ideas from one another!
Where do all the fantastic concepts and designs of Thunderworks’ games come from? Do you come up with them all yourself?
“I publish about 50% of my own designs and about 50% from other designers. Inspiration for my own games comes from my love of playing games and my critical/wondering mind. There are so many great games out there. When I play a new game, I often think about how I would use the mechanisms from that game in a different way, or how else the designer could have approached the design. This often inspires new ideas for new games.
When I’m looking at prototype designs for potential Thunderworks titles from other designers, I always ask myself what the final game would look like. How much do I like it? Sometimes if I fall in love with another designer’s game, I just get so excited to be the one that brings it into the world, that I can’t not sign it up as a Thunderworks title.”
So how many people are on your team?
“Thunderworks is still a company with 1 employee (me). I have a lot of contractors, friends, and volunteers that help me run the company, but so far, we remain a small group.”
Is there a type of game or mechanic that you in general avoid or dislike?
“I am not a fan of most dexterity or party games. Or anything with a massive amount of luck. I’ll play almost anything, but it’s rare that I’m really excited about a single game.” Interestingly, Tiny Towns’ designer Peter McPhereson expresses a similar bent away from strong ‘luck’ mechanics.
Who is your favorite game designer?
Do you have a favorite game right now, or one that you find yourself playing often?
“War of the Ring is my favorite game, but I rarely get to play it. I’ve been playing a lot of games about mining and trains lately, as my 9-year-old son loves those themes. Whistle Stop and Tinner’s Trail have been getting to the table a lot lately.”
How have things been going for Thunderworks in recent years?
“Roll Player and Cartographers are the best performing Thunderworks Games titles to date. Roll Player is entering its 8th printing, and over 100k units of Cartographers have been printed worldwide. Both titles have been published in over 10 languages and have received many awards. Most notably, Cartographers was nominated for the Kennerspiel award from Germany this year. It’s exciting to see so many people enjoying them.”
A glimpse into the future
We imagine you have more coming soon, as always. What should we keep our eyes peeled for in 2021?
“For sure. The Thunderworks 2021 releases are: Roll Player Adventures, Cartographers Heroes, and Cape May. RPA and Cartographers Heroes were both successful Kickstarter projects. We’re expecting RPA to release in July or August.
Cape May is headed straight to retail. It’s a city building Eurogame set in New Jersey in the early 1900s, from new designer named Eric Mosso. The artwork is by the famous Michael Menzel (known for Stone Age and Legends of Andor) so you know it’s going to look incredible.
Also, keep an eye out for Theme Parks, a theme park building game in late 2021 or early 2022, with amazing artwork from Vincent Dutrait. It’s designed by another newcomer from the Chicago area, named Nate Linhart.”
Fantastic! Its a delight to see new names finding their way to notoriety with great companies like Thunderworks Games. You can be sure we will be carrying all of your latest and greatest games, and hopefully we will get back to in-store events soon, so we can invite you back to show them off.
Thanks for your time, Keith!
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