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Daily Inspiration: Meet Mike Trias

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mike Trias.

Hi Mike, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstory with our readers?
Though my day job currently involves being a physician assistant at an urgent care, I’ve always had a creative side that needs nurturing. So for the other half of my week I run Koalatie Games, a board game company that I also serve as the lead designer for. Our mission is to create board games that resonate with those who are unfamiliar with the new age of board games. Ones that appeal to audiences that, traditionally, board games have not catered to. Thus, our company motto: “We Create Boardgamers.” Being a physician assistant and being a board game company executive and designer are two diametrically opposed jobs. One involves long hours being face-to-face with patients, some of whom are in dire need of help. The other involves running a business while still trying to get your fun, creative juices flowing. The only real crossover these jobs have is you need analytical foresight into possibilities that may arise in the future and you have to account for those possibilities before another problem arises.

Since our focus today is on the creative, I’ll talk more about board games. I’ve loved playing board games since I was a child. I even tried my hand at designing one as a preteen. I never played it with anyone because I was kind of shy. That, and I got caught up in the artwork of it all (I’m not much of a visual medium artist, but when push comes to shove I’ll do whatever is necessary to bring my ideas to life).

After college, my friends and I would have game nights and we would “house rule” a lot of games to fit our playing styles and how we wanted to interact with each other during games. Eventually, that evolved into creating my own board game.

Can you tell us more about how creating a board game led to the creation of your company, Koalatie Games? And what do you mean by “We Create Boardgamers?”
Well, up until very recently there have not been many board games that generally appeal to people of color, women, or in a sense, the public at large. In the hobby market, most of the audience consists of Caucasian, middle-aged males. We’re looking to change that through Koalatie Games. We want to create game experiences for audiences that traditionally are not catered to. At the same time, we don’t want to ostracize anyone. As a result, most of our artwork to date has been silhouettes. That way you can imagine whoever you want in that space without the limitations of race or gender. As you’ve probably guessed, our games have almost no commonalities with traditional board games that people think of such as Monopoly, Life, or Trivial Pursuit. Our games are more in line with the new wave of hobby board games that have come out in the past 20 years or so such as Catan and Ticket to Ride. These games are more complex than their predecessors but they’re not difficult. That being said, they can seem intimidating because they are unfamiliar. Therefore, Koalatie Games exists to bridge the gap of the unfamiliar and introduce people to the connection you can create with other people when you play games. We create boardgamers.

Our brand consists of fun, social games that can transform into a hobby level game. We start with simple mechanics and simple rules. The depth and complexity comes from slight variations and rules that we introduce after playing your first game. These variations can be enacted by simply flipping certain components to create “harder” versions, adding a mechanic, or any number of ways. Basically, we introduce the core game to you, then we give you options to tailor your game to your liking. If you’re already an avid hobby board gamer, think of it this way. We aim to give you the tools to mix and match variations to tailor an experience that fits your current audience. That way, it helps you take away the intimidation and unfamiliarity for non-board gamers. Also, we give you variations to create more social interaction for those who you think would do well with more of a party game vibe first. But don’t worry. We also offer variations in our rules to create more strategic, “thinky” gameplay. Ultimately, you as a seasoned gamemaster can choose to combine these variations to either help create new board gamers or keep your board game group happy with varied, fresh and exciting gameplay. Overall, our hope is that we can create products that allow people to focus on why we think people want to play board games in the first place; to have fun, engaging, social interactions.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe your time in the board game industry as a relatively smooth road? And how has Covid created bumps in this road?
To me, the industry seemed to be at a turning point even before Covid, so it has never really felt like a smooth road. For years people were talking about a bubble in the industry that would soon create a glut of games. Now, the pandemic has in some ways accelerated some of the current changes and created many more that we never saw coming. It’s been reported and assumed widely that people are playing more board games than ever during the pandemic. Perhaps that will compensate for a coming over-abundance of board games in the market. It may be true that people are playing some of the more traditional games like Monopoly. Maybe even Cards Against Humanity if they could get enough of a group going. However, when I peruse the board game aisles at stores, it’s rare that I see anyone else pick up even a well-known strategy game from the hobby side of the industry such as Catan, much less titles like Azul or Splendor. It still seems to be a big struggle to reach the masses with hobby games these days. That is unless you had enough word of mouth before Covid, you’re associated with an intellectual property such as Disney, a movie, or TV franchise, or your game is literally Pandemic.

Hopefully I’m just speaking mainly for Koalatie Games, but on the indie side — the indie hobby game side — it’s more touch and go and many of us are experiencing a huge downturn in sales. One reason for this is there are no longer any big in-person conventions for board games. Those conventions were the bread and butter for many publishers such as ourselves to promote and sell our games. More importantly, we’d be able to demo our games in person with the community, growing our fan bases and creating a buzz. It’s much, much harder to do that online. On top of that, the variety of titles on the market has become more robust. Covid has created a situation where many more board game creators are coming up with awesome ideas, and many more self-publishers such as ourselves seem to be coming out of the woodwork. Overall, it’s looking great for hobby gamers, provided they can navigate the expanding marketplace and find the games that fit for them. However, for publishers it could become unbelievably challenging to stand out in the market. Regardless, I have faith that Koalatie Games will not only survive but eventually thrive. If anything, I believe with our mission, themes, and innovative gameplay, there’s a chance we may even still be ahead of our time in terms of trying to create new board gamers.

As for personal bumps in the road, I’m sure you can imagine that running a company is no easy task, not to mention also being the creative side of that company. Then throw in the stress of being a physician assistant. Nowadays, my role as a medical professional involves actually diagnosing Covid, examining the patient and initiating their care when possible. It’s pretty stressful. There are days where I have to wear a battery powered respirator for 12 hours. Strangely enough, though I’m burning the candle at both ends of the stick, it creates a balance that otherwise would not be there. I almost look at each job as a break from my other job. That in turn helps me appreciate the job that I am currently doing that much more and helps me cope. But most of all, doing so much professionally helps me appreciate the absolute best part of each of my days — spending time with my wife and just watching TV shows with her. Before Covid, I never really watched TV, much less the same thing as my wife. So yeah. Balance has been key in finding the strength to overcome the daily challenges that come my way.

Can you tell our readers more about your games and what you think sets them apart from others?
DJ Icon is our upcoming project at Koalatie Games. You are a DJ, competing competing to become the best in the land by battling other DJ’s at a nightly competition. The action takes place on a game board with an actual spinning replica of a vinyl record as its centerpiece. So it’s unique even in the board game hobby market. Your goal is to earn the love of fans, and those fans score you points. Having certain sets of fans gets you more points. The person who has the most points at the end of the game wins.

I chose the theme of DJ Icon for several reasons. While I am not a DJ myself, I grew up around a few DJs. Being Filipino-American, music and, in particular, hip-hop and R&B were dominant forces in my community growing up in the ’90s. Also, I am an avid musician and songwriter who ran an independent record label in the late ‘90’s and a writer and editor for a prominent music industry magazine in the early-to-mid 2000’s. So music is and has always been a huge part of my identity.

Due to the current Covid crisis and how it has changed our industry, now more than ever before we are depending on a successful Kickstarter campaign for DJ Icon. We’ve slated a summer 2021 launch date for the game, and if we raise enough money we will be able to bring it to the masses by the summer of 2022. Yes, it does take that long to make a board game. And it’s hard to playtest a game without being able to do it in person with hundreds of people across the country, which is what we usually do during conventions.

However, the game actually translates pretty well to online platforms. So if you want to try it out or even help develop it by playtesting, visit us at koalatie.com and sign up to be a playtester.

DJ icon is not our first game. In 2019, we came out with Upstaged via Kickstarter. In Upstaged, you are a musician in the twilight of your career looking to form the next big musical trio. What better way to do that than becoming a judge on the television show “Upstaged.” No, you do not need to sing in order to play the game. Strangely, that is a big fear for people, especially hobby board gamers it seems, when they see the game. But you do have to be sneaky sometimes to get the artist you want. And in keeping with the theme of the game, every cue card that you use to play the game features flavor text in the form of backhanded compliments that you could say aloud to get into the theme. Or, better yet, you can make up your own for fun. But all that craziness I just mentioned is part of the “Outspoken” variation with its own set of rules. Like I’ve said before, Koalatie Games will help you tailor your experiences to your playgroup, so if you want to just play the game without the crazy commentary banter, that’s perfectly fine. Just have fun.

The crisis has affected us all in different ways. How has it affected you and what important lessons or epiphanies you can share with us?
The biggest thing I’ve re-learned from this crisis is that you always need to be ready for a curveball. You may or may not want to swing at it. But yeah. You’ve got to complete the at-bat. And what better way to do that than analyze the situation, adapt and convert it to play to your strengths.

For example, in 2019 we were thinking about what our second game should be. As you can tell, I design games with themes that are consistent with my passions. Given my Masters in Physician Assistant Studies and Masters in Public Health, I was working on a game called Nerd Immunity. In the game, you play the role of a community member trying to get enough people vaccinated before a pandemic goes out of control. In other words, educating the public about the concept of herd immunity and how it actually works. Imagine that. After many months I had finally come up with a fairly accurate, unique game mechanic to show how a disease spreads and it seemed affordable to produce as well. We were even starting to develop the events and scenarios for different diseases. It was almost too good. Early testing of the disease-spread mechanic showed how quickly a virus could spread exponentially, like real life.

However, when we found out in January about a potential pandemic looming, I realized we needed to switch gears. At first I was like, “let’s finish this quickly and make it super affordable for medical professionals to pick up, teach, and educate their patients with so we can all fend off a pandemic.” However, just like diseases in the game, Covid accelerated so fast. Ironically, I was also having trouble coming up with a good game mechanics and balance so you’d have a fighting chance to stop the exponential expansion of disease in the game. Also, it became clear the game’s theme was too soon and too raw emotionally for the moment. So there was that, and also the feeling that despite my actual Master’s degrees in the subjects at hand and the fact that I’m immersed in medical practice half the week, these days everyone thinks they’re an expert. So then we thought about the pushback we may get from that standpoint. “Why didn’t you put this in the game?” is what we anticipated we would hear a lot, or “that’s too simple of a solution,” or “that’s not accurate.” In other words, trying to gamify the concept of herd immunity and encouraging people to get immunizations by experiencing the public health struggle by proxy was an enormous Pandora’s Box that we didn’t want to touch with a 20-foot pole.

True, there are people and game makers that have profited from pandemic-themed games. And people have free will and can do what they want — I’m not here to judge. But ultimately, I felt my responsibility as a medical professional in regards to creating a game like Nerd Immunity meant my real mission was not profit but education and public well-being. As proven in today’s current political climate and ongoing contentious discussions with respect to vaccines, that would have been an extremely crazy endeavor, and any misrepresentation or inaccuracy — by style choice or mistake — within our game could actually have the opposite effect of promoting responsible decision making regarding the use of vaccines. So we shelved that idea for the meantime and moved on to DJ Icon.

That being the case, testing DJ Icon is a good example of another big lesson I’ve learned during Covid — adapt and flourish. Prepping for our product launch does not happen in person, rather online now. The only real testing that we do in person is between myself and my wife. However, there are various online platforms such as Tabletop Simulator, Vorpal Board and Tabletopia that we’ve been able to get our games onto and share with the rest of the world.

So we’ve learned to not only adapt but take advantage of being able to test with people across the country and the world. In many ways, online playtesting has actually sped up the development of DJ Icon.

All that being said, I feel the lesson that I have been taught once again is to find your silver linings. Life today is so intense. I’ve learned to really appreciate being able to slow down each day and be thankful for the silver linings that I do have such as my health and my family. On the Koalatie Games side, we’ve been able to put together a much more efficient, economical and grander vision for our next project through online communication and digital platforms. And as far as the social aspect goes, through online testing I’ve met so many more people from many more places than I would have in real life because of our mutual love of board games.

Mike, thank you for your time. Before we go, is there a way our readers can find out more about your company and its games?
Well, if your readers are interested in helping out Koalatie Games, come find us at koalatie.com. In fact, sign up to be a playtester! No experience in board gaming or online platforms for board gaming is necessary. We’ll adjust and teach you along the way. All you really need to bring is a good attitude and a willingness to try. We could certainly use your help. And we could all use a little bit more fun social interaction in these challenging times. See you soon!

Contact Info:


Image Credits:

DJIconHand – Image by Adri-Anne Nibut DJ_Icon_logo2 – logo trademark by Koalatie Games

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