025: Lonely Hero Games

Narrowly escaping the asteroid field, our heroes are joined by space adventurers Christopher Kincaid and Jared Kaplan of Lonely Hero Games. The four explore designing games and starting a game design studio.

Games mentioned in this episode with Lonely Hero Games:

  • 17:44 Codenames
  • 17:48 5 Minute Mystery
  • 18:21 Bank Heist
  • 18:45 Hungry for Humans

Introductory Guy  

Welcome to design thinking games, a gaming and User Experience podcast. Card-carrying UXers Tim Broadwater and Michael Scofield examine the player experience of board games, pen and paper role-playing games, live-action games and video games. Play through the backlog on your podcatcher of choice and on the web at design thinking games.com.

Jared Kaplan  

I’m Jared Kaplan. And so, I am one half of Lonely Hero Games. And my day job is in marketing. And I have a marketing business with a business partner where we do web design and social media marketing, those sorts of things. And I also work for a resort where I do all of the web and marketing stuff there.

Chris Kincaid  

Well, I’m Chris Kincaid. I’m the other half of Lonely Hero Games. I’m from Beckley, West Virginia, but currently live and work in Morgantown, West Virginia; my wife’s family’s from here. My day job, I’m a family medicine physician. I currently work for WVU and am an associate professor there. Let’s see. That’s pretty much straightforward. I mean, that’s my day job. And every other minute is babies and board games. 

Tim Broadwater  

I guess the first thing I would kind of want to know is how did you come up with like Lonely Hero Games. It’s a very unique name. 

Chris Kincaid  

Lonely Hero Games, kind of; we tossed around a few names, but we kind of landed on that one a little bit early. I’ll let Jared chime in with any additions here, but pretty much we’re kind of always the way it was presented with me was, whenever you’re playing a game, even if it’s a co-op game, or a team game, or even a video game, it doesn’t really matter. Who else is there? You’re always like, you’re the center of your own movie, you know, you’re always the lonely hero of your own story, regardless of whatever things are going on. And that just kinda kind of fit because also you think about, like, the gamer person is often or at least historically, kind of the nerd or sometimes the outcast. And, and yet, you know, we’d like to create situations where they get to be the hero they get to when they get to be the champion. That’s how it always ranked rang in my head anyway,

Jared Kaplan  

we just needed a name, you know, and then this name, I can’t remember like, how it was first set, or whatever, but it was just like, this kind of, is weirdly perfect. You know?

Tim Broadwater  

How did you like backstory-wise? How did you two ever meet each other?

Jared Kaplan  

Yeah, so we have mutual friends who a close friends of mine and a close friend of Chris’s. They became friends. And then for through them, then we all started getting together as a group to you know, whether it was to watch movies or play games, mostly play games. We all started getting together. And then Chris and I, there was just a couple of times, you know, we just sort of hung out later than the rest of the group, you know, and hit it off and just really formed a nice friendship. And one night, we were having a board game night, and no one showed up but us. And so yeah, we just started talking about a game that I had an idea for. And Chris, you know, was excited about it, and just like, wanted to dig in, and it was just like, okay, cool. And it was just sort of born that night. Not all came together.

Michael Schofield  

Did you guys work from any kind of like, playbook or any kind of like blog about how to even start making a game? Or did you just wing it?

Jared Kaplan  

Really, I would say no, at least from the beginning. So like, at the very start, it was more of like, Oh, here’s an idea for a game. And I think most people at some point have had an idea for something a lot of people games, a lot of people Wouldn’t this make a cool movie, or a cool book or whatever. And you know, a lot of times I know myself, I’ve had those thoughts. I’ve probably thought of 7000 movies in my head. But this time, you know, when you get together with a person, and you start talking about it, it’s like well, this is like real, we’re putting stuff on paper. And from there, it was just sort of like writing down ideas and how they could work. We didn’t really get into the like how-tos of anything until it came to more of things like production and running a Kickstarter and those sorts of things, but in terms of like designing the game itself, Um, this might be a bad way to do it. But for our first game, we just sort of did it. I mean, I don’t know if Chris remembers that any different. Maybe he can provide some more input on that?

Chris Kincaid  

No, I agree we didn’t really take it from, well, let’s research how to make a game point of view, we just said, Well, we play a lot of games, we’re both smart guys, we both have a certain skill set. Let’s, let’s just make one. And that we already had a pool of friends so we could try it out. So as soon as we put together a little rough cut, which was very rough, I’m talking like glued to the backup playing cards, caught two pieces of like eight by 11 printer paper tape together with a board drawn on it, which evolved into a dry erase board. And again, it’s fun because now I got this drawer that has all the evolutions of the game as it came about. But literally, we just played and luckily, like the first two playthroughs, people are like, well, it’s not perfect, but this is a lot of fun. And then you just tweak it till you get it right. And honestly, we were just kind of Blessed there in the beginning, because some of the stuff it’s very hard, you know, in hindsight, trying to make new games and trying to work out the bugs. It just sort of gently happened for that first game. It just worked. And we got it right early. And things just fit. And then all we had to do was show it to people. And that’s where he said, you know, we kind of researched. Okay, well, we should show it to friends, and they like it. Now let’s show it to strangers. And okay, they liked it too. And one of the great things about our first game was that everybody enjoyed playing it, even if it’s not your type of game.

Tim Broadwater  

I love the fact that you’re like, hey, we kept it to friends. And your metric was they enjoyed it. And so when you started showing it to strangers, what was how did you show it to strangers? What strangers?

Chris Kincaid  

Well, there’s a game store in Beckley that’s, we kind of knew the owner of, and we asked him if we could demo it there. And that was our first one with real strangers, like, we demoed it earlier than that with people who don’t necessarily play games, but we knew so they’re always nice to us, you know. But when we sat down and explained it with strangers, which was really more of a test of the rulebook, because we were confident in the game for a lot of it, but they liked it, they were having fun. And the best part of watching that is when the game when we’re no longer involved in the game takes over. Like, they’re laughing and joking. And in our game, it’s a social deception game. So they’re like calling each other out. And it’s getting a little heated in places, but people are laughing. We actually also got a few play tests, like books, a million and a few other just random places you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

Tim Broadwater  

What other places apart from Books a Million?

Chris Kincaid  

some random people invited us. I had a teacher friend who really liked that we were doing anything like that. And she invited us over and had a whole bunch of hurt while invited us over to show the game and had a whole bunch of her teacher people over. I knew none of them but her. And some of them were in the games, and some of them were just friends. And they kind of took it and ran with it. That was at my personal home. So just a bunch of stuff kind of like that occurred that there might be others that Jared can think of.

Jared Kaplan  

Yeah, I would say the only other one that comes to mind initially would be a convention that a convention is normally a good place to do this kind of thing. But it was what’s called casa con, and it’s in Beckley. And it’s not a board game convention by any means. They do have a small tabletop gaming room. But we were the only game, you know, aspiring game designers at the convention. But that was like our first like, setting it down in front of just like the masses, so to speak. When I say the masses, we’re talking like several 100 People, not like 1000s and 1000s, but anywho just random people who would approach us and ask about it. And then we did some demos in that gaming room. And that was like the first realization of I think of how to present ourselves to the general public if that’s if that makes sense how to market ourselves in our game and, and get feedback. And, you know, I mean, it’s not like every person that sat down with us had the time of their life. And those experiences are the first time where you learn the first part of okay, who is our audience? And then you sort of have to break it down. We’ll further and understand like, Okay, who do we think is actually, yes, they are our audience, but they’re not having a good time, because there’s going to be those people who are never going to have a good time, no matter how good your game is. And then there’s going to be those people that should be in there or not. And so those are the ones to focus on in terms of what can we be doing better. And that was like the first learning experience with that kind of thing.

Tim Broadwater  

So like, you listen to stuff that user says, or the player says, and you have to, can you speak to like, Well, I think you spoke to a, but it’s like, some stuff, you’re very focused on the people like, they want to like the game. But that’s your improvement metrics right there. And then there are other people who are, I’m assuming if you’re talking about hundreds of people like you’re showing it to and demoing at a con, there’s just people were like me, and kind of keep walking by or may say something. And you have to know how to say that. That’s not really; we’ll take that suggestion and put it in file 13 or whatever.

Jared Kaplan  

 So like before, before getting into all of this, like, you know, by personally, you know, I liked games. And I like playing. I wasn’t super deep into the community, so to speak. And so I didn’t realize that it was kind of those, you know, different factions of the community that like different types of games would just like, oh, everyone loves all games, no, people are not gonna lose, you know, some, I might like, heavy, you know, this type of game worker placement area control, they’re not going to like social production. I was calling our game a party game for a long time when we were first getting into it. And I learned fast to just remove that word because so many people that did end up liking our game. They did not like the genre of party games. It’s sort of a turn-off. But to me, I just thought of it as a party game because people are laughing and having fun. But it really just, we needed to focus it down into this is a social deduction game. And so, a lot of times, we don’t want to waste someone’s time. And our time is valuable, too. So it’s better for us to be upfront about the type of game. Well, this is a social deduction game. Do you like those types of games? And if they’re just sort of like, I’m not really, or, you know, then we kind of let them go. Or if they mentioned one that they liked, and we can kind of build from there?

Michael Schofield  

Have you done any kind of like, like, the purity of just being able to say, like, this is the type of game it is, and go find those people? Is feel foreign? To me, in my line of work? And like, like, did you ever do any? Did you ever have to do with any of your games, any kind of like, product-market fit? So it’s this type of game, but we noticed that there just aren’t enough people in that niche. So we’re going to change it into a different type of game. Where have you been, unencumbered from that?

Tim Broadwater  

Figure these like an elevator pitch, right? Like, you have to be able to deliver it in a small time as well.

Chris Kincaid  

Yeah, boy, we’ve gotten good at that. At cons, because you have people walking by the table, and you just give them like the, there are definitely people you look at and who kind of walked by the table, they only need the 32nd pitch. But there are other people you’re like, Okay, this guy is definitely really on board. He gets a four-minute pitch, you know. But, so two things with what you asked there first, you can’t please everybody with every game. So if you sit down to it’s better to make a good social deduction game and sell it to people who want to play social deduction games than to try to make it broader. And hey, this is a sort of a social deduction game with this because a lot of times, you compromise what you set out to do if you try to please everybody. So kind of like you’d said, you just target your audience, which is why we demo this game in the deception room at origins. So that’s a rim, basically a floor essentially, a big ballroom where all they play in their social deduction games. So people go around from table to table every few hours playing a different one. And all those people love those. That’s the core audience. There’s no playing with them. It’s very different than playing with strangers because they’re there for that. Whereas when you’re at a different type of con or an open gaming area, and kind of got to sell it a little different, and a lot of people because the social deduction is not a huge genre. A lot of people like that. They’ve just never experienced it before. And some people do, I mean, there’s been people who’ve sat down, and obviously, you can tell, this isn’t going to be the game for their Thanksgiving. But there are others who we, you know, we’ve been going to these cons now for a few years, and they’ll come back and be like, Hey, I love you guys. We bought this game two years ago. It’s our Thanksgiving game. It’s our Christmas game. Our whole family loves it. You know, my my, my aunt chloroformed my grandfather last time we played it. We all thought it was hilarious. With that, so yeah, I think it’s better to make the game you’re trying to make and make it good as opposed to trying to fit everybody’s needs niche.

Tim Broadwater  

yeah, I can see how understanding the terminology and being able to say, because I mean, I feel like gamers are pretty sharp, especially if you can say this is a social deduction game. It’s also a card drafting game, or this is a social deduction. And if you’re calling it a party game, everyone’s like, spit on that. I love this negative connotation for party games. And like, I think games like code names, or like, even I’m not sure if you’ve played like, five-minute mystery, which is kind of the after five-minute dungeon. Very cool. But I think the negative connotation there is that it’s just like, oh, this is for clubs, like party games or for clubs. Okay, what games have you published? What do you got out there currently?

Jared Kaplan  

So we do have two games. So we’re relatively new. We just started doing this in 2019. Our first game, which we’ve been talking about for a while here, was Bank Heist, which is out in the world. It’s in some stores in some neighboring states to us. And it’s available for order online. We had a Kickstarter for it back in 2019. And that is a social deduction game. The second game we just funded last fall. It’s called Hungry for Humans. That’s a totally different genre of game. That one’s more of a push-your-luck, two to five-player game versus the five to eight-player in Bank Heist. But in this game, it’s more of a take that / push your luck kind of thing. That involves cryptids and food from West Virginia, and it kind of honors our home state that way; we had a really great artist named Liz Pavelavec, who did all the artwork for it. She does a lot of things around the state. So we were lucky to work with her on that. And that one is going to be actually it’s on a boat and just went through the Panama Canal. So we should have those games with us. We hope within the next three weeks or so. To get stuck in a port, but we feel pretty good about getting those sent. But yeah, so those are the two games Bank Heist, a social deduction game, and Hungry for Humans. Which is a push your luck, take that style card game.

Tim Broadwater  

I’m excited about it. I backed it on Kickstarter. It looks amazing. 

Jared Kaplan  

Thank you. Thank you so much.

Tim Broadwater  

And then you’re saying anyone can order Bank Heist, like from the web or is it on a throughput?

Jared Kaplan  

On our website, lonely hero games.com, you can actually order both games, Bank Heist would ship, you know, within a day, and then the Hungry for Humans will ship as soon as we get them in. And we think that’s like set here in the next three weeks or so. 

Tim Broadwater  

I’m kind of curious about that distribution. When you said okay, to the state versus like surrounding states, any rationale for that specifically?

Chris Kincaid  

it’s just the whole point of having this company. We could approach other companies and pitch our games to them and have them publish them. But, my partner’s always been really good to kind of keeping our focus in that we’re not just trying to create games, we’re trying to create something larger. And though it’s not going to be super fast and super huge. But if we keep putting out quality games, one right after another, eventually we’re gonna have a large catalog and a company to be proud of. Literally, we were door-to-door salesmen when it came to the brick-and-mortar stores. I take a bag of games and go into a store and say, Hey, I pitch it to them. A lot of them were bought, so we have them in Pennsylvania has three or four locations. Pittsburgh, Morgantown, Maryland, and Northern Virginia, there’s there was a store in New York that bought a few games. So it’s just kind of nice. And then what we do is we always try to be good business people as well. So we’ll advertise their store on our website and try to promote them on our social media. And Jared is a marketing wizard. Just like with Hungry for Humans, you know, getting local restaurants involved, and then their food item is on our card. And it’s like, you know, it’s West Virginia pictures on the box, West Virginia cryptids in the game, and then West Virginia restaurants with West Virginia Food. When you’re from West Virginia, it’s easy because, like, you know, we don’t have a major sports team. We don’t have a whole lot of national something to be the, you know, super proud of sometimes, so literally will say, oh, we hear all the time, “Oh, you guys make board games, and you’re from here? Well, that’s cool.” And then people are just excited to interview us or show our stuff off, and then We try to always return the favor for small businesses and such.

Jared Kaplan  

And I would say on the whole like distribution side of it. The other thing that is kind of key for us is just the size of our business and, and the number of games like Bank Heist, our initial run on that’s 1000 games. And so if we’re throwing that on Amazon, like, it’s possible that we’d sell them, but it’s like, what, at what margin and that kind of thing. And it’s, it’s almost better too, because we know we’ll get through these games at some point. But this is gonna sound kind of strange, maybe, but there’s also there’s like the quality of sale. And like, if you sell someone in person when you don’t have that many. And they remember you, they remember your company, they remember the experience, selling them in person and that sort of thing. It goes a long way towards building our brand long term. And, and like I said, you when you don’t have that many games, and you’re dealing with board games, you’re already dealing with like razor-thin margins. It’s just better if you’re able to, but if you go through a distributor, and then when it goes to wholesale, and all those things, like there, are percentages that just keep getting cut down further and further. And this is not something that’s making us money already. So we definitely didn’t want to put ourselves in a position where we’re losing money doing it.

Tim Broadwater  

A lot of people would love to get into hame and game designs, right. And then a lot of people have, like, I don’t even know where to start. Or I can understand how to get playtesters online, or I can connect with communities. And I can build a version of it in Tabletop Simulator. And I’m sure you’ve heard kind of all these things. But more so, I want to focus on. If you had to give one piece of advice, or, you know, to anyone who’s wanting to get in kind of game design, anyone who’s where you were X amount of years ago, what’s the advice that you would share with people who are wanting to design their own games?

Jared Kaplan  

the first thing is just sort of like an inner belief. Like, it’s, firstly, I think you just need to understand that it’s possible. And it’s not like, you know, it’s easy to get into that mindset that like making games or making anything for that matter, is like a world reserved for a special few. It’s not. It’s something that is possible if you’re willing to put the time in. And frankly, like, it’s not the kind of time where you have to like drop everything and like give up your job and like neglect your family and that sort of thing. It’s, it’s just, you know, those new hours a week even. So, it’s just first understanding, it’s possible being willing to put some time into it in keeping up with the time and not just like a few hours every six months, but like, you know, weekly, you know, you’re putting something into it. But then more of like an actual action outside of like the belief part of it is connecting. We’re blessed in this day and age to have these online communities in places where people are willing to share their knowledge for free. It’s, it was the most amazing thing to me to find these groups when we first got into this, especially for like the Kickstarter side of it, where I could go in and drop a question about how to approach something on Kickstarter. And within an hour, I had seven to eight people telling me seven to eight good things, you know, so I think it is finding your community. And then be willing to ask questions and not be afraid to look like you don’t know because you don’t, and people don’t care that you don’t know. That’s why they’re there to tell you, you know, give you the information you seek. So, yes, I would say join a community, an online community, a Facebook group, or, you know, Reddit, whatever it is that you use. There are people out there that are willing to help and use that help.

Chris Kincaid  

Obviously, anything that’s going to be good requires hard work. And like you said, we both have the chair that’s like three jobs. I have a job I have a busy family. But you know, just take that time, that extra hour here that three or four hours you can squeeze out on the weekend and work on it. And then the nice thing about a game Making a game as you can play with it. So you go have a get-together or family function. And if your family your worksite way I, we play my games, every time there’s a holiday, my family actually really likes them. This is nice because they can find it in for the first year and then be like, alright, we want to play what we want to play, but they actually request to. The other thing is, and it’s very easy to say but very hard to do, is to learn to take criticism that people will give criticism in less than soft ways sometimes, and you don’t have to necessarily digest every little nugget of criticism thrown your way. Because sometimes people just give an opinion, as opposed to constructive criticism. But I know even with Jared, he and I will work together on something, and he’ll say something that I gotta, you know, take a couple deep breaths and the oh, man, I just don’t know if that makes any sense. And then it will. And I know I’ve probably said some things to him when we’re kind of fine-tuning a game where he’s, he’s kind of got to chew on it for a little while before we agree, but But yeah, just taking criticism from people who you know, are there to help. And for people who you don’t know, and just not being in a hurry with that, you know, doesn’t mean you got to change something every time somebody says they don’t like this, or they think this is a little clunky. But that’s a skill that I think maybe it’s sometimes lost.

Michael Schofield  

I love what you said about like the hard work, though, because, you know, so I don’t make games, but I on the side I make audio dramas that have like, you know, soundscapes, and they take forever to edit. And I’m one of the cool things about like being part of like this kind of community or you know, and because of design thinking games, and us being DMs and stuff that TTRPG community is that what you actually get to see is like a ton of people putting out a ton of work constantly. And it’s all good. And you don’t have anything because you have a family and a 40-hour job, right? But it’s really, like, I have to remind myself that, you know, a half-hour a day, 30 minutes a day will become something, well, you know, the episode will be great in the end or something like that. And it’s just that constant reminder that it doesn’t matter if you’re a fast worker. It’s just that you work, right. It’s just that you do it and it’s deliberate, deliberately timed. It’s a consistent downward sustainable pressure. Because you can burn out, and then you’re not going to ever do it again. But I always think like, just the fact that like, Hey, this is work and, and managing that work and being okay with the fact that the pace is variable helps a lot. So you just need to hear it. Sometimes I need to hear it, you know?

Chris Kincaid  

Well, and sometimes it’s perspective, like, my day job is very real life and very, just very real life. And, but it’s also, you know, I have to be type A in that day job. So I get a phone call, I’m answering it within 20 minutes usually, or calling somebody back and um, you know, shuffling through so many people coming to see me every hour. And then sometimes, like, I’ll slip into that with the game making, and it’ll make me crazy, because like, oh, no, it’s not fun like that. That’s not my fun job. But then you got to think, okay, if this comes out in three days or three months, who cares? You know, like it’s not going to change anything major, there’s not a deadline except for what I put on myself. Let’s just keep trying to make quality stuff as opposed to cutting corners and rushing it or getting burned out with it, like you said, and again, this is like a passion project for me. This is I relaxed, and I enjoy it, and honestly, like selling a few copies of Bank Heist is having that little tiny balance and are Lonely Hero Games account means more sometimes on some days. It’s just I’m prouder of that than I am some of the whole the other stuff, you know,

Tim Broadwater  

how do you want to tell or communicate to people how to connect with you or support you?

Jared Kaplan  

We try to be fairly active on social media, especially I would say our Instagram is where you know I spend the most time sort of posting on our behalf, and Chris gets on there and occasion as well. And we’re Lonely Hero Games on everything. I think at this point, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, we have a TikTok, but we’re not active on that, really. But yeah, lonely euro games.com, people can contact us through the website. There’s a contact form. That yeah, if people want to reach out in any way they want to, they can DM us on anything like we want to talk to people, we want to engage with people that like our games or just curious about our games or whatever it might be. We sort of doing this not to be like that’s the best part about doing this is getting together with people and seeing people and meeting people. And, like, I have people that I consider actual friends now that I’ve met in the past three years, going to conventions, they don’t live anywhere near me. But it’s like, I know him from online. And I know I get to see him twice a year at Gen Con and Origins and but yeah, so people want to reach out to us like lonelyherogames.com Lonely Hero Games on most social media platforms.

Chris Kincaid  

The only other thing I would plug is we do have events running at Gen Con, and in Origins this year, there are still tickets available. So if you guys want to come to play, we’re playing Bank Heist at Origins. I think there are like five-hour blocks on Friday and Saturday, four-hour blocks, maybe. And then Gen Con this year, we have Bank Heist, I believe, on Friday for Turin and two tables three or four hours apiece and then Hungry for Humans on Saturday. The same thing, you can look us up on their event calendar, and there are still tickets available for all that.

Michael Schofield  

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Introductory Guy  

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