Game Designer Interview: Matthew Dunstan

HeadshotPublisher Days of Wonder has established a very particular reputation. For example, all of their games have components and artwork of the utmost quality. They’re also known for repeat publications by established designers. So I was quite surprised and excited to see that their next big adventure game, Relic Runners, was the first ever published design from Australian designer Matthew Dunstan. Want to know more about this mystery man? Read below!


Since you are a new designer, tell us a bit about yourself. What is the board game scene like in Australia, or the UK? What made you decide to start designing games? Have you completely given up on singing, drawing, and tap dancing? Why are you seeking a PhD in Chemistry? (I just finished a mathematics PhD, but I surely would have flunked out of a Chemistry program…) 

I would have to say the scene in Australia is quite a bit smaller than it is here in the UK – while you can still find a group to play games with in both places, the UK definitely has some bigger events, such as the UK Games Expo, and some specific groups/networks between like minded individuals that just don’t exist back in Australia. This is particularly evident in the relative number of people interested in game design – while there are some designers in Australia, they are certainly spread far apart, whereas there is a bit more of a critical mass in the UK. You have the Playtest network run by my good friend, Rob Harris, which is an amazing forum for new and upcoming designs to test their games with the public, whereas back in Australia when I started designing I had to set up a group like this for myself from scratch.

I don’t exactly know what made me start designing games, but perhaps it has something to do with some deep-seated desire within me to always be ‘behind the scenes’ in my hobbies and interests. For example, I am an avid tennis player, and that in turn lead to me being a linesperson at large tournaments (including one very memorable Australian Open). I suppose being a game designer allows me to be behind the scenes of playing games in a way. I also have a love of mechanics and systems, tied a lot to my love of science, and I am interested in how you can apply something that is not normally thought of being creative into this incredibly creative pursuit of game design.

You are reminding me that I should probably be a little bit more careful when I describe myself on the internet…in fact I am completely hopeless at the three pursuits you have listed. It was a bit more of a tongue-in-cheek comment than anything else – reflecting how surprised I am to have got this far in a seemingly creative endeavour, considering how few creative bones I believe I have in my body!

I’m studying for a PhD in Chemistry because science and mathematics have always been a very central part of my life (growing up with parents who are respectively science and mathematics teachers will do that to you!) – and if I had to choose two things that I am still doing in 50 years I would have to choose designing and doing science in some way. There are actually a lot of things that link the two fields – the idea that in both you are trying to observe some sort of system, and understand the rules and parameters that control it, by experimenting or designing in an iterative way.


relicrunnerscoverSince we don’t have the rules yet, can you tell us a bit about how Relic Runners is played? What does it feel like to play? By that I mean, is it tense or relaxing, simple or brain-burning, etc.

Relic Runners is a game where the players are archaeologists exploring temples in the jungle seeking the eponymous relics. There is a network of paths that connect these temples, and players need to navigate this network efficiently to get the most out of the actions you can take at the temples. Every turn, players must move to a new location, and it may be possible to move further along pathways that you have placed in previous turns, and then they get to take an action in the ruin or temple they now occupy. Every action the players take move them closer to discovering the relics, at which point they can change their game plans to try and claim these relics, which are worth a lot of points for their owner at the end of the game.

I think the game is actually a nice mix of a lot of the emotions you are describing. At the start of the game, things are very gentle as you move from place to place without a lot of worrying about what other players are doing, or having to think too many turns ahead. Your turn is quite straightforward: move and take an action. But as the landscape evolves, you start watching your opponents very carefully, as you can make some plans based on what you think they are going to do, and whether that will interfere with you. And near the end the game is actually quite tense, as you are trying outmanoeuvre each other to claim these relics. You can also gather tools which expand what you can do on your turn, and can lead to some powerful combinations, so there is also a sense of puzzle-solving in the game.


How was the experience in shopping for a publisher – is this your first design? Were you surprised to have a company like Days of Wonder, known for being slow-and-steady and releasing games from established designers, take a gamble on you?

I had a pretty unique experience I think. Relic Runners wasn’t my first game I had tried to design, but it is certainly the first one I designed to completion with the aim of submitting to publishers. I decided to enter it in a game design competition, Europa Ludi, in early 2012, and it ended up being selected as one of the ten finalists. While it didn’t win, the prototype was taken along to Essen later that year by a representative of the competition, Matthieu, who had arranged meetings with lots of publishers to show off our prototypes for us. He ended up showing Wandering Monks (the name of my prototype at the time) to Days of Wonder without me even knowing it actually, and the first I knew of it was a few weeks after Essen when I got a very surprising email from Days of Wonder asking me for some rule clarifications. They really liked the game, and things moved quickly from there!

I still have to pinch myself, that Days of Wonder took this chance on me, without even meeting me! It is still unbelievable in a way, I’ll probably finally allow myself to believe its not a dream once I’m holding a physical copy of the game in my hands.


How did you come up with the idea for Relic Runners? Have you studied the traveling salesman problem much? What differentiates Relic Runners from past attempts at making the problem a game, like for example Elfenland?

The origins of Relic Runners lie in my studies of mathematics in my undergraduate degree. In particular, I took a subject on discrete mathematics and graph theory one term, and in this class we studied a lot of these types of algorithms and problems such as the travelling salesman problem. So I would say that I’ve studied the problem more than most! The idea of having to travel efficiently around a board was tied in my mind to this idea of always having to loop back to a central point, to pick up supplies for your next journey. I think what differentiates Relic Runners from other games is that the travelling salesman problem was only the starting point for the game, a model for the underlying system. It is certainly not the overall goal of the game, and actually I think if you played the game without being told it is based on the travelling salesman problem, you wouldn’t realise it had these origins. The influences are much deeper in the structure of the game, if that makes any sense (and sorry if that was a bit of a ramble through the dark recesses of my mind!).


relicboardCan you talk about how the game developed over time? How did you assemble a playtest group? Was theme or mechanics more important for you?

Looking back, I’m surprised how quickly the game developed – from the first conception of the idea and the first prototype, to the time I submitted it to Europa Ludi, only about three months passed! I’m actually really lucky where I am (in Cambridge, UK), to know some designers in my own area (such as Brett Gilbert, designer of the recently Spiel des Jahres recommended game, Divinare) whom I can playtest with on a regular basis. There is also the Playtest group in London which I attend monthly, which allows me to get feedback from a wider group of players.

Mechanics are generally much more important for me when designing a game – I need to be able to get my head around how the main systems in the game work, and how they interact with each other. In particular with Relic Runners I was interested in this idea of an emergent game, in which the combined actions of the players created a unique state in the game, which they would then have to adapt to mid-game. Rather than have external events or chance influence the game, it comes more from the many tiny moves and decisions from the players creating large influences on the game (a bit like chaos theory, really). Of course, the game went through a number of iterations, but the core structure of moving and acting on your turn was there from very early on.

The original theme was actually based on you being a monk wandering through the mountains in ancient China, and you would drop off your disciples in towns along the way. Once there were enough disciples in a town, they would all get together to build a shrine, which would change how you would interact with that location. Relic Runners now actually works in the same way but the opposite direction – as you visit a location, you take parts away from that location until the Relic below is revealed.


Where do you see board gaming headed in the next five or ten years, both as a designer and a player, given recent trends such as Kickstarter, digital versions, and the huge influx of games into the market?

I’m actually very excited by the possibility that the style of games that were once the realm of a very niche audience could slowly cross the paths of more and more people in wider circles. Things like Tabletop have shown that if you can present games in an engaging way, there is a much wider audience of people out there who could enjoy playing these games they had never known existed. So as a designer, I think I’m trying to keep this in mind – games that appear simple to play, but lead to deep and engaging interactions will be good games to design for this audience (although this is not exactly a new thought among designers and publishers!).

I’m not so sure about Kickstarter – but then again I think you approach Kickstarter a little differently from outside the US, as it is still a (mainly) US-centric platform. I have no interest in publishing games – that would take up valuable designing time! – and I hope that ‘traditional’ publishers still have a place in this new world. The experience with Days of Wonder has been incredibly rewarding (even if I have nothing to compare it to), and working with a publisher without the pressures of running a Kickstarter is a nice luxury.


What have you been reading/watching/playing/enjoying lately? What games have really impressed you?

I have to admit that lately I haven’t had so much time for a lot of these other things – sometimes a PhD is a feat that expands rapidly to fill all your available time (or at least it feels like this!). I’ve been reading the new novel from Peter F. Hamilton, a British sci-fi writer who is a favourite of mine; enjoying re-watching Boston Legal (ah, how I miss you Denny Crane!); and seeing as many films as I can (Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing had some very funny and creative parts). As for games, I haven’t had as much time for playing non-prototypes lately, but I did finally get a chance to play my copy of In the Year of the Dragon that had been sitting unplayed on my shelf for almost a year, and I really enjoyed it. I honestly can’t believe how Stefan Feld does it – I wish I could learn German so I could talk to him about game design! I’ve also been playing a few small card games lately, Hanabi and Sushi Go, which I’ve enjoyed very much (Antoine Bauza is another designer I would very much like to meet).


What’s next for you in game design?

I’m working on a number of projects at the moment, with a number of collaborations actually. I’m working with Brett Gilbert on a trio of games: one set in Venice (which we conceived of before I had heard of Rialto), a custom dice and variable card game set in Rome, and another game that has just undergone a large change which looks like it will be now about crackpot inventors. I’ve also worked with Chris Marling, another fellow Cambridge designer, on a microgame The Empire Engine, which will hopefully by the time this is published have appeared on Brett’s Good Little Games website for new print-and-play microgames ( Hopefully I’ll have some ready to pitch to publishers in Essen in October.

I’m also trying to take a leaf out of the prolific Daniel Solis’s designer manual, and am trying to tweet as much about my new ideas as possible, and I’m interested in how this will progress. In one day I’d carved out the shell of a cooperative game where you are trying to keep dangerous animals in some sort of interstellar zoo – who knows what is next?


3 comments to Game Designer Interview: Matthew Dunstan

  • Wayne Cossens

    Congratulations Matthew, we look forward to seeing the game in Australia.

  • Anne O'Halloran

    Looks like a very intriguing game Matthew. Congrats. How did I hear about you and your game?
    You have a very proud aunt Beth and I know her pretty well.
    Anne O’Halloran

  • paul dunstan

    That’s my boy!!! is that what celebs say when one of thir children hit the world stage….I’m the mathematican father Matthew mentions in this interview. I very much enjoyed reading the whole interview in which I found out things parents would never know about through ordinary conversations with their sons

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