R.I.P. Matthew Frederick, One Of The Great Unpublished Game Designers

Some time ago -- almost 2 decades now -- I stumbled across a website called the Board Game Designers Forum. At the time I had recently graduated college and gotten a job, many of my friends had moved away, and I was looking for something to fill my time. It was a perfect storm that led to my eventual career in game design, development, and publishing, and it all started on that fateful forum.

In the early days of BGDF, I read a lot of posts, I wrote a lot of posts, and I spent a lot of time in the IRC chat room with some of the forum regulars. Several of those regulars have gone on to see great success in the game industry as designers, artists, or publishers (or all three)!

One of those regulars, an admin in fact, went by the handle FastLearner. His name was Matthew Frederick. Matthew was ever-present, always insightful, and always made sure the forums were going strong. He's the one that created this BGDF logo:

A logo I placed on the back of the box for both Terra Prime and Eminent Domain, as a nod to the role the forums played in the design of those games.

One of my favorite aspects of the site was something called the Game Design Showdown, which turned into a monthly design challenge where, given a week and a theme, component restriction, or other guidelines, you could submit an entry. Entries were posted anonymously, and then voted on. There was no prize, and the submissions were not intended to be finished, tested games anyway, but the challenge was a good way to exercise the design muscles, and I know of several ideas from the GDS that went on to become fully fleshed out (and in some cases published) games. I say that's what the GDS turned into, but it started as a sort of real time challenge in the chat room, run by FastLearner, where instead of a week to come up with a game idea, you had just minutes! We only did that a couple of times, but it was great fun, and it opened the door to the larger Game Design Showdown, which still runs today if I'm not mistaken.

As it happens, Matthew lived in Phoenix, AZ -- just up the street from my hometown of Tucson. A couple of times I drove up and got together with Matthew... we talked about our game designs, even played each other's games. Matthew was one of the players who I wrangled into may first two playtests of UK designer David Brain's prototype: All For One, and we did a prototype swap (I left 8/7 Central with him, and brought home his mountain climbing themed game: Everest). I recall several of Matthew's games that I played, and they were all very good:

Everest was a middle-weight euro-style game about drafting a team of climbers (with sponsorship from various countries), and climbing Mount Everest. There were different terrain types to navigate, and your climbers were better at some than others. You could set up camps along the way where you could rest your team. There were rewards for reaching certain elevations first, including a large reward for reaching the top of the mountain. It was a real, honest to goodness game, on par with a lot of the stuff I've played off store shelves.

Velociracers was a card driven game where you, a Velociraptor, raced around an island grabbing up eggs and trying to keep ahead of the T-rex that was hot on your heels. Each turn you would play one of your cards, and you wouldn't get them back until you did a special "rest" action. There were mechanisms in place to keep the dinos bunched in a pack -- a headwind to keep the front runners from getting too far ahead, and cards that let you advance more the farther back in the pack you were. Fall too far behind and the T-rex will hurt you, much like taking damage in Snow Tails. Like all of Matthew's games, this felt fully fleshed out, even if he wasn't happy with it.

Elvencraft was another excellent design, where you would move around an Elven village in the trees, connected by bridges (which I think you would build, if I remember correctly), collecting items and crafting them into better items. I don't remember all the details of this one, but I do recall it feeling like a real game as well.

Cow Tipping was a small, Rummy-style card game that a nascent TMG considered publishing. It had adorable art and a cute theme of gangs of cows taking revenge on people by tipping over vehicles stopped in traffic. Motorcycles required a smaller gang (set or run) of cows to tip, but are worth fewer points. Buses were the most valuable, but of course required the largest gangs to tip. I recently re-read my email threads with Matthew about this game.

As a neophyte developer, I was perhaps overzealous about wanting to change Cow Tipping a lot. In the end, TMG did not publish that game, but Matthew gave me some important feedback that I still need to take to heart at times- he said something to the effect of "with all those changes, what exactly are you licencing from me?" That is a significant question for a few reasons. Not only was it a wake up call to me as I stepped into the game industry as a professional developer, but it also stands in stark contrast to some of the sentiments I've seen in modern designers who might submit an unfinished game with the expectation that the publisher will finish it for them. In contrast, all of Matthew's games were fully fleshed out, thoroughly tested, and more complete than many submissions I've received over the years.

About a decade ago, I lost touch with Matthew. I wasn't hanging out in the BGDF forums anymore, and I didn't travel to Phoenix very often. I didn't have much occasion to reach out to him, and from what I could gather, he had a very busy life, sometimes plagued with additional hardships outside his own control. I did follow Matthew on Twitter, and occasionally saw some snippet of his life scroll through my timeline, and every time it made me wonder "what ever happened to that guy?"

Back in October, just a few months ago, Matthew sent me a Twitter DM, seemingly out of the blue. It was a very complimentary message, just saying that he was pleased and impressed to hear how well I'm respected in the industry. Apparently Matthew had followed my career, or was at least aware of it. He followed that with another message:

Perhaps one day we'll get together again and reminisce about the old days and talk about what's happened in the intervening years.
Two months later, I was sad to hear that Matthew was gone. I had gathered from tweets I'd seen that Matthew was sick -- fighting some kind of cancer. I know now that his message to me was something of a "goodbye," and I'm sorry I didn't drop everything right then and there and drive up to Phoenix to see him one last time, maybe play a game, or do that reminiscing he mentioned.

Matthew, I'd like to thank you for being the man that you were. The pillar of the game design community which brought me from a casual Magic player to a professional game designer. You are far and away the best designer I know, and the gaming world is poorer now that you're gone.

You will be missed.

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