A lot of great people have worked hard to make the second season of Tabletop Deathmatch what it is, from the creators of the games to the artists and designers who helped those games become their very best, and we've already shared most of their stories. But to complete this oral history, we had to learn more about the creation of the competition itself. So we spoke with one of the brains behind the whole operation, Cards Against Humanity co-creator and Tabletop Deathmatch judge/host Max Temkin, about bringing this deathmatch to life.
"Cards Against Humanity has been to Gen Con for many years now, but we never fit in just in terms of being a self-published indie game," said Temkin. "It's just not cool to be an indie developer at Gen Con. There's no Indie Megabooth or cool spotlight."
So Temkin and CAH began thinking of ways to be change they wanted to see.
"We feel very strongly that independent games are the future of probably all games, but definitely tabletop, and it just got to the point where we were like if no one else is going to be the person who puts a spotlight on independent games and makes it really exciting for indie games to be at Gen Con, we want to try and come up with something," said Temkin. "And that's what Tabletop Deathmatch came out of."
Conceived at that start of 2013, the only thing initially planned was the contest portion. Famous game designers would gather to judge entries and CAH would pay for the winner's initial printing. However, when a producer suggested filming the competition and turning it a web series, Temkin and CAH got to experience the joy of pulling off a reality show in two weeks.
"We didn't have a camera crew or anything. We asked our friends at LoadingReadyRun to film it," said Temkin. "Considering the time and the resources we had they did a great job with it. But we kind of filmed it in like a very ramshackle way and then just put it up on YouTube. That was the first year of Tabletop Deathmatch."
Frustrated with the perceived shortcomings of this first season, Temkin and CAH began brainstorming ways to improve a then-theoretical second run.
"We put ourselves in this situation were we wanted to make this web series, but it didn't hit our own standards of excellence," said Temkin. "So this season we really pushed ourselves to improve the content itself and how we filmed it."
The total number of entries decreased, as did the total number of finalists, but Temkin felt the games increased in quality, which complemented the revamped scope of the show.
"We had multiple camera crews. We visited the games at home. We made sure that all the judges got time on camera to play the games," said Temkin. "This year was about hitting that production value and making it easier and more exciting to watch. It can be boring to look at board games since they're static and there's not much movement. So we wanted to push the format and be livelier as a series. We try to do justice to these games that we really like."
While Temkin and CAH learned plenty over the course of making two seasons of Tabletop Deathmatch, like plenty of great game design tips from a roomful of masters along with a crash course in just how much work goes into video, they also hoped the show itself could act as a teaching tool, and not just for board game jargon like "meeple" and "Ameritrash."
"The show communicates that tabletop games are a very democratic medium. They're very hard to make well but they are easier to make," said Temkin. "There's not a huge barrier to entry, no prohibitive technology, to come up with an idea for a tabletop game and prototype it. There's still a lot of artistry involved in making something great, but anyone can do it. It reminds me of Twine in the world of video games."
And Temkin pushes for that democracy to pull in a more expansive range of creators than the medium currently does.
"Tabletop games should be open to a much more diverse group of people. You should see all this amazing art coming out of an indie scene, but you don't. Tabletop gaming is a very old industry really controlled by these big publishers and distributors and business people that don't have an interest in new voices," said Temkin. "They don't have an interest in making new kinds of art and challenging people. They want to make safe bets that sell a million copies in retails. If we can be part of disrupting that system and opening up tabletop games to a wider variety of game designers, that's a good service I would be very proud to contribute to."
Tabletop Deathmatch itself is proof that this disruption is already happening.
"We do blind judging. All we look at is the game descriptions, and we never see people's names or faces. We're not trying to find human drama," said Temkin. "We just pick the games that are most interesting and creative, and then we ask those creators to be part of the series to share cool games with others. We've been very lucky. We've gotten just incredible games this way."
But beyond creating a consistent crop of quality contestants, one result of this method has been damning evidence against the insidious myth that the current games industry is an unbiased meritocracy, a place where only certain kinds of people unvaryingly succeed simply because of sheer coincidence.
"It's been very interesting that both years we've done it, we've had a very diverse group of people, especially as compared to the larger board game industry. I think that tells you people want new and different ideas in games," said Temkin. "It's very encouraging to find those voices from those who aren't the same people who've been making games for fifty years, who don't look like the rest of the industry. It's a positive step showing all these new and exciting ideas in games and then showing how they come from people's different life experiences."
Enough about the past and the present, though. Like the dice rolls of the board games it features, the future of Tabletop Deathmatch is still up to chance. And like the changes from season one to season two, there are issues Temkin would like to address if he and CAH chose to produce a season three.
"I definitely want to keep doing some sort of project, but I don't know if it's going to be this exact series. We might change the format," said Temkin. "I don't ever want someone to think that you have to win a contest in order to make a game. I fear that Tabletop Deathmatch could become this institution that decides what games get made and don't get made. It's only good if it exists to give people the feeling that they can participate in making games."
It all ties back to the ethos that has driven Cards Against Humanity ever since the "card game for horrible people" reached a level of success and popularity Temkin and his fellow co-creators never dreamed of. Many in the mainstream don't even consider it a tabletop game at all, just that funny thing about "Rush Limbaugh's soft, shitty body" people won't shut up about. And if you look at the signs, the game's constant sold out status on Amazon, costly stunts like purchasing the private island Hawaii 2, and more noble endeavours like giving to DonorsChoose and other charities, it's pretty obvious the company is doing pretty well for itself.
"None of us thought we'd make real money off of Cards Against Humanity. We always thought it would just be this free thing online and maybe we'd do a Kickstarter for a print version for fun. And we all have other things going on in our lives," said Temkin. "Cards Against Humanity just feels like this incredibly lucky, right place, right time thing. And we're very aware of how we've benefitted from a lot of factors going into this. We had the advantage of this very supporting independent community. We feel very indebted and want to leave all of those institutions better than we found them."
Therefore, the underlying goal behind so much of what they do is to use what they have achieved to give back. So with Tabletop Deathmatch, Temkin and CAH are just returning the favor by helping rising independent developers find their own success.
"For the people who make it to the contest, I hope that they get a huge amount of exposure for their game, a huge kickstart towards being able to make a living being a game designer," said Temkin. "For the people who watch the series, I hope it gives them the impression that nothing is stopping them from making games, from being in this hobby they might enjoy,"
Tabletop Deathmatch is about showcasing the best of what undiscovered, independent tabletop games have to offer and rewarding their diverse and deserving creators. But whether it's revealing how these games got made, explaining how they work, providing artists to make them shine, and handling their mass manufacturing, in the larger sense, the show is really about showcasing game design at its most accessible. In the end, that's its true value.
"We are idiots and we figured this stuff out. I just hope that we can show people that the hard thing is coming up with a great idea, telling a great story, and having something to say with your game," said Temkin. "The easy part is all the bureaucracy that comes afterwards."
Thank you to the consistently brilliant Jordan Minor for all his hard work on Tabletop Deathmatch.