Artem, Unbroken, and Golden Bell Studios - How Do You Move Past Online Drama?
Like many other Kickstarter hopefuls, Artem took his passion for board games beyond hobby and into the creative scene beginning with "Cauldron". After its successful delivery, Artem went on to create "Unbroken," a highly anticipated solo game of survival that went on to become one of the most controversial titles in the board game world alongside Golden Bell Studios.
Hey Artem, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Glad to, Phil. It was awfully kind to approach me to do this and I’m excited to contribute to the great resource you have going.
I am a big fan of games of all kinds – have always found games to be a wonderful medium to tell stories, engage imagination and make your brain work in a fun and interesting environment. Having always enjoyed tinkering with game systems and creating things – a few years ago I tried my hand at designing board games and loved the experience of making games come to life for others to enjoy.
I live in Toronto, Canada with my awesomely patient and supporting wife and our two sons. We like to spend time out in nature, especially if there’s a beautiful Canadian lake to swim in. No matter how much I try to nudge my love of Pixar films onto the kids they still prefer the Illumination movies. Among other things we love playing games as a family (well, the 1.5 year old mostly tries to eat the pieces, does that count?).
My other hobbies include running, aquariums and songwriting, though I dearly I wish I had more time and energy for all three.
Hmm... well that's too bad, but hang in there! I'm sure they'll turn to Pixar eventually :)
So, what was the spark that led to your decision to design board games? How did your family react to your decision at the time?
I encountered the wonderful world of modern board games in 2011-12 (with titles like Catan and Munchkin) and my appreciation of the amazing possibilities presented by these new games kept growing. I have always enjoyed creating things and thought I had a pretty good feeling for what makes games click, further supported by a background in statistics and ability to map out the mathy part of game mechanics. So I decided to give it a shot.
In addition to just designing a game I needed a lot of support and was very grateful to receive it from friends and family. I am fortunate to be surrounded and supported by wonderful talented individuals who are generous with their time, so I had a ton of support in terms of illustration, graphic design, production and marketing. As a nobody starting out in an emerging hobby it’s super helpful to not need to outsource!
I’m very grateful for the tons of work those people put into our first game. It would never be possible without their passion and commitment.
Your first Kickstarter, Cauldron, was successfully funded back in 2015. Could you share what the game is about?
Cauldron is a game about competing potion brewers duking it out for the supremacy in the field of alchemy. It pits potion masters from different folklore traditions (like the Slavic Baba Yaga vs. a more traditional pseudoscience-focused Alchemist) as they collect icky ingredients, steal from each other and lob spells to hinder others and further their own interests.
It is basically resource management based on sequential collection of resources from a joint pool, with a lot of take-that thrown in. Lords of Waterdeep meets Munchkin, the way I found it helpful to describe for the campaign. It is also a game for people who are very comfortable with confrontation – it offers lots and lots of opportunities to interact with others, to the point where some people found it to be a bit too mean. On one hand I agree with the assessment. On another I kind of wear it as a token of distinction for the game as something that sets it aside :).
How actively were you and your family keeping track of the campaign funding? How did it feel when it finally hit the 100% mark?
Oh, you know, an active Kickstarter is a full-time mental activity. It took a while to fund (a couple of weeks) and it was a gradual process, so it felt really deserved at the time. I remember feeling a great deal of relief when we finally surpassed the funding goal – it made demoing the game so much easier for me, knowing that the base goal is met – before there was a lot of pressure on every opportunity to get a backer.
The core group of family and friends that I described above as helping with the process was very involved all the way through, but there wasn’t really a full feeling of celebration at that time – we knew that it was just a start of lots of hard work in the journey to get the game made and delivered. The celebration only kicked in once we could mark the project as complete.
A quick glance at the comment section reflects happy backers satisfied with the game as well as the early shipping. What do you think was the key to the campaign's success?
I think the small size of the campaign made it manageable for me as a first-time creator. Cauldron had about a thousand backers and we did not really encounter any major difficulties with the production process. Shipping ended up being significantly more expensive than I estimated (cue portentous music hinting at things about to get dark in upcoming questions), but because of the project’s size – I could basically cover the overage through personal finances. Many issues are solved if you’re willing to spend a little bit more and that was the case with Cauldron.
Looking back, how was your experience with your first ever Kickstarter?
It’s a good question that’s kind of hard to answer now, given that I’m so far past that point and so engulfed in my second Kickstarter (portentous music intensifies!). I think the biggest benefit was just experiencing the entire journey from concept to creation of art and graphic design to rule writing to getting prototypes out for review to running a campaign to production and finally the fulfillment. The first time going through that you are kind of feeling your way through it blind (even if you do it after reading the wealth of knowledge compiled by Jamey Stegmaier and the late, great James Mathe) with a lot of anxiety between initiating a step and then seeing it come to fruition. Every time I went to a bank to wire thousands of dollars to China, I thought I’d never hear from them again. Just normal first-time jitters I suppose. Knowing the process really gave me the confidence in being able to repeat them in the future. Perhaps too much confidence as we’ll see.
Unbroken was your next project, and it went very differently in comparison to Cauldron's, to say the least. But before we get into that, could you tell us more about the game?
Absolutely. Unbroken is a solo game of survival and revenge that tells a sad story of an adventuring party that descends into the perilous underground only to be ambushed and, for the most part, killed. You, the player, take on the role of the sole survivor of the doomed expedition as you wake up wounded an unarmed, in hostile territory with monsters still after you. Your goal is to find your way, make weapons out of scraps you find and battle the monsters using a mix of your strength and cunning.
It was created as a dedicated solo game with an emphasis on integration of theme and mechanics, based on resource management with emphasis on strategy rather than random outcomes (e.g. dice). It was also made to be a very quick-playing game – most Unbroken games will only take 20-30 minutes. In that I tried to create an experience that was as accessible as possible for people like me who were busy with work and family and likely didn’t have time to enjoy a four-hour stress-filled analysis paralysis over a game of Mage Knight.
Given the game’s success I think it really found its place as a quick solo game but also as an option specifically dedicated to solo gamers – one that didn’t make them feel like an afterthought but shone a spotlight on this side of the hobby.
You mentioned earlier about your background in statistics. How does mathematics come into play when designing a game like Unbroken and how do you go about masking it behind the theme? Are probabilities something that you actively think about when playing games with others?
Well, in Unbroken’s case it’s actually not probability that matters most but the mathematics of changing values of resources based on circumstances. The challenge was to have a strong baseline model that attached a value to each resource and then design a series of special cases where those values would change, depending on circumstances (e.g. your awesome high-damage axe isn’t much use if your target can only take a certain number of wounds per round).
Connecting those special challenges to game’s theme was a really fun challenge. For example, normally there is no need for the player to collect wood or metal for the final stage of the game (presumably after their weapon have already been upgraded). But I wanted to introduce the potential of that not being the case, so two of the game’s final bosses do require metal and wood for the battle. Specifically, Metal can help you avoid the Basilisk’s petrifying gaze (as you look into the reflection) and you need a piece of Wood to stake the Vampire through the heart. This translation of theme into mechanics was probably one of my favourite parts of designing Unbroken.
This approach also helps build the internal logic of the game and increases the level of immersion, so that players feel like what they’re doing is more than just sliding cubes along trackers.
Unbroken was a highly anticipated game even before the campaign started. How did you go about spreading the word on the game and growing your fanbase?
Oh, you know what, I totally forgot to mention that in the “lessons learned” question before. One thing you learn is the unofficial structure of the board gaming community – the Facebook groups, the Twitter personalities, the right forums on BGG, the way to not get kicked off r/boardgames on Reddit. That awareness really helps in knowing when and how to talk about your game.
The first rule of thumb that I always followed was to make it about more than just your campaign. I tried hard to first and foremost be an active and selfless participant in any community I was going to promote to so that when I would be telling people about my game – I would be a known quantity. I particularly want to highlight the Solo Board Gamers group on Facebook as being a fantastic community with so many dedicated and passionate people generous with their time and advice. Shawn and Syndey Bristol do a bang-up job maintaining it, along with the rest of the admins.
I also made it a priority to make the game as accessible as possible through sharing of evolving Print and Plays throughout the game’s development. It was very special to get the game to people who have been with the project ever since it was a bunch of cards hastily assembled using my awesome PowerPoint graphic design skills. I put the game up for contests like the Solo PnP Contest (ran annually by the awesome Chris Hansen on BGG). I tried my best to showcase both the gameplay and art assets of the game as much as possible and I think over time it really gathered a lot of interest.
(speaking of which – the game really benefited from the exceptional work of the illustrator, Nikolai Ostertag who brought the dark fantasy of Unbroken with the terrifying monsters, treacherous catacombs and beat-up characters to life so vividly).
As someone who doesn't play solo games, it's amazing to see the kind of numbers reached by Unbroken's campaign (16,531 backers pledging nearly $600k). What do you think was the key to successfully market a solo game like Unbroken?
I think the primary reason for this success was that it was a dedicated solo game created to be a solo game first and foremost, celebrating solo gamers rather than treating them as also-rans. Really allowed the community to get behind it (which made the difficulties it ran into all the more disheartening later on).
Another solid reason is that it was made to look good. Between Nikolai’s wonderful illustrations and the superb job on the austere, stark graphic design by Alina Marchewka – I think Unbroken benefitted from a very eye-catching KS page, which is really a requirement for success nowadays.
Finally – it was significantly cheaper than it should have been, especially in terms of shipping costs. In my attempts to attract backers I have made some very optimistic calculations in terms of shipping costs and allowed the margins of error to be way too thin. What resulted was a very attractive product at a very low price – wonderful for getting backers on board, disastrous for fulfilling the project.
How much of this success had you anticipated? What was the most difficult part in handling a project of this scale?
I expected Unbroken to succeed, even to do very well. Realistically my very optimistic estimate was for it to make upwards of $80k. The fact that it made seven and a half times that left my head spinning and full of anxiety regarding the ability to fulfill such a huge project.
Despite the campaign's massive success, Unbroken was soon wrapped up in controversy involving all parties―the publisher (Golden Bell Studios), the customers, and you. Could you shed some light on how and when and for what reason Golden Bell Studios came on board?
Ah, hello and welcome to all our readers who skipped straight to the juicy part! Yes, I am perfectly aware that right now majority of discussions around Unbroken are not focused around the game itself and have much more to do with the difficulties that the campaign encountered with fulfillment outside of North America. So, let’s take care of that.
Towards the end of the Kickstarter campaign I made a decision to relinquish the publisher role for Unbroken and transfer it over to Golden Bell Studios – a publisher/distributor that I worked with previously on Cauldron (post-Kickstarter). Because of this change my role with the project now is mostly that of game designer, though I try to do whatever I can to provide information and answer backers’ questions to the best of my ability.
Golden Bell taking over the campaign meant that certain changes had to be applied to the process. Specifically – the preparation of the materials to be print-ready took a few additional months as new art assets were added by GBS artists, mostly Rachel Korsen. Every card received flavor text and the rulebook got expanded with many additional examples and explanations. There were also additions of QuickStart reference guides to help learn the game. This process took time and an immense amount of work and back and forth, which I found frustrating at the time, especially since this added to the project completion timeline.
However, with this being done already – many backers point out these specific additions as something they appreciate about the finished product, so I am glad that ultimately the extra effort was applied.
There were some questionable practices made by the publisher including the use of media mail and in their unprofessional replies to backlash from the backers on Kickstarter's comment section. First, were you aware of such practices prior to it becoming public knowledge? What was going through your head as these events unfolded?
And also... What is your relationship with Golden Bell Studios like at the moment and will there be any changes moving forward? In what ways have you been mitigating this situation for the customers? What keeps you from putting a stop to all of this and moving forward?
(Editor's note: Artem provided a single response that addresses all of my questions on Golden Bell Studios so I put all of the questions together here instead of awkwardly inserting them between his responses)
As we continued working on the campaign it became obvious that some of the arrangements we had in place would need to be changed, particularly those that had to do with importing games into Europe. At the same time getting close to the fulfillment and getting some specific quotes – the costs to distribute the games to backers seemed to significantly exceed what was originally planned for. We described the situation to backers in a project update and GBS made a decision to ask for optional additional funds to cover some of this differences.
The goal was to make sure financial constraints would not keep them from fulfilling the rest of the campaign, while keeping the nature of extra costs optional. As that was happening, GBS were searching for arrangements to deliver the games to all the regions, with the Australian/Asian portion being in place (although ultimately more expensive than expected) and UK (as of this writing) being in final stages of agreement negotiation. The European portion is where GBS faced the biggest challenge because of the large volume of games to ship and limited budget. The agreement for that region is not in place mostly because the options explored were too expensive given the limited budget the project had remaining.
Considering these delays unacceptable, GBS made a decision to pause and collect additional funding to enable the fulfillment. The details of that collection are being worked out and will be provided in an upcoming update by GBS and will include ways that all parties can pitch in to push things along. On their end, GBS is pursuing retail sales of the game in the regions that were already fulfilled (US/Canada) to fund the shipping. On my end – I intend to run a personal fundraising campaign and forward all money raised to further support the distribution to backers. Backers will also have the opportunity to contribute extra funds to speed up the shipment of games. Details of this plan are to be presented by GBS in late August.
All of this is far from ideal. The project is late, and it will take some more time still before all of it is delivered. It has people feeling angry and frustrated and to some extent I understand these feelings. I take responsibility for some of these issues too. Regardless of this – Unbroken is not an abandoned project. It is facing challenges; the publisher is working through the challenges. As long as that’s the case I will do whatever I can to help them get games to backers. I do apologize to all backers who are yet to receive their game and especially those who feel slighted by the project. I’m sorry the experience has been so negative.
Finally, a word on style of communications. Throughout the process there were many instances of tempers flaring and the kinds of exchanges that were taking place around the project were not the type I’d ever want to see. GBS has their own style that I continue to disagree with. They stand by it and invite backers to decide whether they want to be involved on future projects with them. I can only echo that invitation. My goal continues to be to treat everyone with respect and expecting the same in return.
Phew. There we go. I am certain that will leave some folks dissatisfied, but that’s what I can share in my current capacity.
If you could expand just a little bit more... In your relationship with Golden Bell Studios, how much of a voice/power do you have in influencing their work process? Would you want to work with Golden Bell Studios again in the future?
I speak to GBS frequently, probably almost every day and they do ask for my opinion on how to proceed with certain things. I provide my advice as candidly as I can, and we do not always agree, mostly because our goals in our respective roles do not line up 100%.
Ultimately all final decisions regarding the game’s production and delivery logistics, as well as finances, come down to GBS. It is for that reason that I am not always able to answer questions backer continue to address my way (e.g. production of extra copies for retail, timing of realization of shipping undercharge). Which, to be fair, I think is the expected relationship between the designer and publisher. I do feel that I have good control over the mechanics of the game where there was not a single instance when something was changed over my objections.
As for the future – I am signed on to do an expansion for Unbroken, so if that ends up coming together – that’s at least one more piece that I will be designing working with GBS. As for any collaborations past that – I am not making any plans now (as I mention, I’m not really in a state to think new projects right now). I will evaluate future options once Unbroken is delivered.
Have you begun any work on the expansion? How are you managing to work through the design while this controversy is going on?
I am not. The negativity associated with the controversy and the managing of many disillusioned messages I get daily do not leave much mind space for design. I do have a fair bit of design notes from before (including a co-op mode) that will need to be revisited, but at this time the design is on a bit of a hold. Given the uncertain financial future of Unbroken I am not even confident that the expansion will ever see the light of day as a physical product. The content will be there either way and we’ll find a way to release it to engaged Unbroken players one way or another.
To what extent has all this drama impacted you and your family? In what ways have you been getting support from your family and fans throughout all of this?
It impacted me to a significant extent and unfortunately almost entirely negatively. I’m not going to go into details of personal stories here, but needless to say – managing of online controversies require time and attention and that’s time and attention that I was not dedicating to my wife, children, parents and friends.
All negativity that gets imprinted on me through the online interactions I carry with me and try my best to not let it come through, but it’s difficult and sometimes it does get out and it feels terrible.
My wife has been an absolute rock of support throughout all this, as understanding and patient as a human being could possibly be, and extended family really stepped in to help too, which made me really appreciate all the amazing people I have in my life.
Moreover, I’ve been extremely grateful to receive supportive message from many folks online through social media, BGG and other channel. Some of it comes from my close online friends that I interact with regularly (and whose support continues to humble me). Some of it comes from complete strangers and these random kind messages are a huge help in getting through some of the tougher periods.
It is a good reminder that we as people have an active role to play in the kind of discourse we want to see both online and in the real world. Kindness breeds kindness.
What do you think is the next step for you to get past this hurdle and turn it all around?
Next step? Understanding that this is not my project to turn around anymore and being comfortable with it. I will continue to do what I can to support GBS in the work they do, but without direct control over the progress and decisions – continuing to obsess over it will only damage my mental health and that’s not a direction I’m interested in exploring.
The only thing that will see the project get some much-needed closure and positivity is the ability to get games to backers across the world. It will take time, but I am confident that once backers will start seeing the games on the move and make it into the hands of gamers in Europe, Asia and other regions – their trust and comfort level will grow. I understand that this will not erase all the negative experiences people had with the campaign, but at this point closure is the best goal to work towards for all involved.
As for me – I intend to distance myself from the details of the delivery process and dedicate the time and attention that frees up to my family, who have been deprived of it over the past year.
There have been people sharing their positive experience with the game in an effort to give Unbroken a fair assessment. Could we hope to see you stick around in this industry to create more fantastic games like Unbroken?
It has been very rewarding for me to see that in cases where the game does get to people – majority seem to be really enjoying Unbroken. Ultimately – seeing my work bring people joy and engage them in a fun and meaningful way was always my number one goal.
Having said that – this experience in its entirety has taken a heavy toll on me and I will definitely be taking a long break from designing more games. There are still ideas I want to pursue as a designer, but at this point it’s far from a priority for me.
Lastly, what do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
I think given where the Unbroken campaign is now the only mark of success that matters is every backer having their game(s) in their hand.
Oh, and I suppose having Unbroken ranking come up to a 7 on BGG would also be pretty sweet. Lots of people have been using the “1” ranking as a way to express their frustration and seeing that number (currently at an awesome 5.3!) come up would be a good metric of public opinion of Unbroken and everything associated with it.
Thank you for the opportunity to share some of this stuff, Phil, it’s been an interesting experience reflecting on some of these questions. You feature some amazing board game personalities on your website – I feel humbled to be in such fine company. I hope the future holds bright and exciting things for the Atlas!
Thank you Artem for making your time and continuing to do what you can for the rest of the backers! What a headache it must be... but I'm glad you have great people around you and hope that you'll bounce back fast with another great title in the future.
Thanks for the read as always and you can find more of my interviews below. It's a random selection of 3-4 of my past interviews: