Interview with Keith Matejka

As part of my ongoing series of interviews with people involved in the board game industry, I was fortunate enough to have some of Keith Matejka’s time. Keith is a board game designer, as well as the founder of Thunderworks Games (Roll Player, Cartographers). Let’s hear some more from the man himself about the games so far, and their upcoming title – Cape May.

cape may banner
The banner for Cape May – If this was set in Cornwall, where I live, that seagull would have a stolen chip in its beak


ME: Hi, and thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions Keith. First of all, just for anyone reading this who doesn’t know you, could you give us a quick introduction?

KEITH: Hi! My name is Keith Matejka. I live in Madison, WI with my wife and son. I am a board game designer and publisher. My publishing company is called Thunderworks Games, which I established in 2013. About half the games I publish are designed by me, like Roll Player, and the other half are from other designers, like Cartographers.

I worked in video games for over 15 years before moving to work on board games full time. I play bass guitar and I have played music most of my life.

ME: I know playing games with other people has been difficult over the last year, but which games have been your favourites in the last few months?

KEITH: I’ve been playing board games with my family much more in the last year due to COVID, so the games I have been playing are more in-line with their tastes. We are Harry Potter fans, so we’ve been enjoying Hogwarts Battle and I’ve been introducing some classics to my son, including Power Grid and Ra.

As publisher, if there’s an opportunity to play a game, often playtesting takes priority over playing published games. So, I’ve spent a lot of time playtesting upcoming Thunderworks titles, like some upcoming Cartographers map packs, an upcoming Roll Player Adventures expansion, Cape May, and some unannounced projects we’re working on.

ME: Speaking of Roll Player, the setting for the game is such a clever idea. How did you first get inspiration to create a game, about creating a character for a game?

KEITH: The spark of inspiration for Roll Player came from playing games. I was at a prototype playtesting event here in Madison called Protospiel, and I was playtesting a friend’s roleplaying game. I had finished up my first publishing project called Bullfrogs, and I was looking for something new to publish. Afterwards, I was thinking about roleplaying games. I played a lot of tabletop roleplaying games in college, and have also enjoyed roleplaying video game games like Skyrim, or older video games games like the Ultima series. When I worked in video games, I worked on a lot of character creation software in the past as well. So, I asked myself “What if there was an entire game about making characters?”

I started thinking of Roll Player as a parallel to other games on the market. Roll Player is very “meta” – the game before the game. So, would think “If Dominion is the pregame to Magic the Gathering, then Roll Player is the pregame to D&D/Pathfinder.”

ME: I think ‘meta’ is the perfect way to describe Roll Player. Off the back of knowing that, would it be safe to say you’re a fan of role playing games?  If that’s the case, if you had the chance to recommend one RPG that everyone should play, which would it be?

KEITH: Yes, very safe 🙂. There are so many great RPGs out there these days. I think the best RPG for someone is one that fits your interests best. Do you like rolling lots of dice and fighting fantasy monsters? D&D’s perfect. If you are playing with younger kids, No Thank You Evil has such a simple ruleset, beginners can understand it and start playing quickly. If you like some science-fantasy, Shadowrun is amazing. If you like horror movies and detective stories, Call of Cthulhu is your best bet. Kids on Bikes is great for lovers of the 80’s and Stranger Things.

For me, the RPG that I’ve played the most and have the most love for is Vampire: The Masquerade, as I like social roleplaying in a world I’m already familiar with… and I like vampires.

ME: Thanks for the advice, No Thank You Evil sounds like one I’ll check out with my son. It was really cool to see how Roll Player built up from creating a character, to battling monsters and taming creatures, with the expansions. Now with Roll Player Adventures taking the series to a natural place – campaigns with your characters – was there always an intention to create the series in this way, or was it a more organic process after the success of Roll Player?

KEITH: Roll Player was intended to be a small, focused experience – just a game. The added Roll Player expansions and the addition of other games in the line started as a response to the feedback from playtesters and fans of Roll Player. Players wanted combat, so I added it. Players wanted to go on adventures with their characters, so we built it.

The growth from a game that was intentionally as generic as possible to one that has a world built around it with political factions, leaders, kingdoms and important characters all came together organically as they were needed. We still continue to add details to the world with each new game in the setting. There was no master plan. The world evolves as new games need it to.

ME: That’s fascinating, I didn’t realise it had grown as organically as that. Moving on to another of your games, Skulk Hollow was such a neat implementation of asymmetric gameplay, with players taking the roles of either a hulking Guardian or a band of foxes. Will we see more games in this universe, and if not, will you be looking to make more asymmetric games in the future?  If so, can you give us any teasers?

KEITH: I always have always loved asymmetry in board games. Skulk Hollow is a game I designed, but is published by Pencil First Games, which is Eduardo Baraf’s publishing company. Ed is a good friend, and he asked me to work on this game for him a long time ago. Luckily, it’s been a successful title for him, so we’re going to do more in the line. The next game is called Maul Peak. Design is locked down, and he’s finishing up all the art ahead of a Kickstarter later this year. So, keep an eye out for that.

Ed has lots of plans to expand the Skulk Hollow world (World of Bore) with more products. I think asymmetric gameplay is a big piece of that equation, and I’m sure there will be more games that feature asymmetry in their designs. As for Thunderworks Games published titles, I don’t have anything in the works that is nearly as asymmetric as Skulk Hollow, but it’s something I consider incorporating as new ideas come together.

ME: Then we’ve got Herbaceous was a complete change of theme and style for you. It’s a gorgeous little game, and a very relaxing game to play, but how did you come to be involved with it?

KEITH: Herbaceous is also published by Pencil First Games. The core design is from Steve Finn. I designed the solo mode.

When Herbaceous was getting ready for Kickstarter, Ed asked me if I’d be interested in working on the solo design, as Steve wasn’t interested in working on it at the time. I had some extra time, and I was excited to work on something new, so I jumped onboard. Ed sent me the files, I spent some time with it, and delivered the solo mode to him.

Herbaceous was the first in this line of games I worked on. After Herbaceous, we did Sunset Over Water, Herbaceous Sprouts, The Whatnot Cabinet, and Floriferous. All these games were designed by Steve, and I helped out on the solo game. They’re fun projects for me because they’re small in scope, and there are a lot of restrictions on what I can and can’t do. It’s a fun challenge. The design of the core game is locked when I start, so I have a clear goal, and a limited number of additional components I can request, etc.

ME: I’m really excited about Cape May, Thunderworks’ new Euro game this year. I see you’re listed as a developer for the game. How long has the game been in development, and what made Thunderworks decide it was a game for them?

KEITH: Eric Mosso, the designer, showed me Cape May at Origins Game Fair in 2018, and we signed the contract for publication at the end of that year.

When I first played it, there was something about it that really was exciting. I’ve always loved economic games, and euro games. In Cape May, there’s a really interesting decision space for players on each turn. Making plans and using the various gameplay options finding fun solutions to find the best move at any point in the game.

Thunderworks has enjoyed a lot of success with fantasy-themed games, but I want to do more than just one type of theme. What I choose to publish is determined almost completely by what I personally enjoy. If the game is super fun, I’m interested in publishing it, not matter what the theme, or mechanics are.

It’s been a long road to publication on this title, but we knew that going in. Thunderworks is a small company. I target 2-3 releases a year, so that means sometimes games are often signed and placed in the queue until I have the time to focus on them. I am pretty involved with every title I release, so they can take some time.

We did quite a bit of development on the title, which Scott Bogen, a friend and social the media/marketing expert at Thunderworks, took the lead on. He was very excited about the game and really helped shape the final product.

Michael Menzel’s did all the illustrations for the game. His artwork is amazing! He was the artist I wanted on the project at the very beginning and he is the perfect artist to establish the game’s look. So, we took the time needed to make sure we could get on his busy schedule. Regarding credits inclusion, sometimes I put my name in the credits, and other times I don’t. It often depending on how many design updates were made during development after signing the title.

ME: I really like the fact that there’s no hard-and-fast rules about what you’ll publish, and that producing a fun game is first and foremost in importance. Cape May’s real-world setting and traditional Euro game feel seems like a change of direction compared to past Thunderworks titles. Do you think this will be a one-off, or can we expect to see more games in this style in the future?

KEITH: Thunderworks will continue to publish fantasy games, but I also want explore other genres. Dual Powers: Revolution 1917 was the first real-world setting game I published. Cape May is the second. I plan to continue to publish games in a wide variety of genres with a variety of themes. I don’t want to restrict myself from publishing an amazing game just because it doesn’t fall in-line with other things I’ve already published. So, anything’s possible. 🙂

ME: Cape May is another game in the Thunderworks stable that supports solo play. I know that the past year has forced a lot of us to look for single-player options, but Roll Player included it before that. How important is a solo option to you, as a designer, and when during the development process do you start to work on the single-player game?

KEITH: Every Thunderworks title has included a solo mode for solitaire players (with the exception of Blend Off!). I consider it a requirement for publication for any future title. More and more people are playing solo, especially in the last year. It’s also just a nice option to have, knowing that if you can’t get a group together, you can play the game by yourself.

I usually work on the solo mode after the multiplayer design is complete. I want the solo game to emulate the multiplayer game as much as possible, and then I usually end up adding a small “bell or whistle” to the solo design to give it a little something unique.

I evaluate the multiplayer version of the game, isolate all the interaction points of the game, and think about how that interaction can be simulated, or maybe remove the interaction if it’s not critical to the solo game.

ME: I really love learning how different designers approach solo play, so thanks for the insight. While you’ve got a captive audience, is there any more you’d like to tell us about Cape May that we might not already know?

KEITH: Cape May is a medium weight euro that players 1-4 players in around 90 minutes. Players play as entrepreneurs in a seaside Victorian city in New Jersey. Develop new commercial and residential buildings along the city’s historic streets while taking the time to discover the local wildlife as well.

Preorders for Cape May open on May 17th and will be delivered around July of this year. Preorder Cape May directly from Thunderworks to receive the Vocation Mini-Expansion for free. The Mini-Expansion includes roles for each player that provides a once-per-game power, and adds a special event card to the event deck.

ME: That’s great. Thanks for your time Keith, I can’t wait to see how Cape May turns out.

My thanks again to Keith Matejka for his time and insight. With any luck I’ll be covering Cape May as soon as I get a chance to.

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