Interview: Talking Terrifying Tabletop with Bright Light Media
Here at ye ‘ole Rely on Horror, we love a good asymmetrical multiplayer horror game. Playing the hulking serial killer while friends and strangers run for cover is always a delight. We love the sound of screams. That’s normal right? That’s normal. We’ve very normal here and very okay with our choices. While we don’t often cover the murder sims of the board game variety, there’s one tabletop experience that we’re always thrilled to pull out because it fits squarely within our purview: Mixtape Massacre.
Set in the most 80s version of the 80s imaginable, the game casts all the players as non-copyright infringing versions of classic slashers. Your goal is to be the first serial killer to rack up ten victims or to be the last (supernatural) man standing. Along the way, there are various mixtapes that randomize the situations. There’s also a mechanic dedicated to deciding what body parts you keep as trophies from your victims. It’s much more silly and fun than this summary makes it out to be.
The folks behind Mixtape Massacre released a new stand-alone game slash co-operative expansion called Escape from Tall Oaks that recasts the players as teen survivors, attempting to rescue other characters and escape from a mall. In the wake of the tremendous success of the Kickstarter for that game, we sat down with Freddie Carlini and Merrijoy Vicente from Bright Light Media to discuss the creation and evolution of their slasher slash horror survival adventure.
Here is our interview with Freddie Carlini and Merrijoy Vicente.
Rely On Horror: Who are you and what are your bona fides?
Freddie Carlini: I’m Freddie Carlini, I’m owner of Bright Light Media.
Merrijoy Vicente: I’m Merrijoy Vicente, and I work for Bright Light Media.
Rely On Horror: What’s your background? What did you guys do before you got here?
Carlini: I grew up in Maryland. I went to school around this area in Washington D.C., then came out of college, worked at a bunch of places that I didn’t like and started a design company with my partner Matt Corrado, who’s also part of the team.
Vicente: Yeah, who is not here right now.
Carlini. He can’t make the call.
Rely On Horror: What were you doing that you disliked so much?
Vicente: Corporate jobs. [Laughter]
Carlini: Yeah, very corporate jobs. I worked for a TV station. I didn’t like that. I worked for a lot of tech companies. I didn’t like that.
Vicente: I have a corporate communications background. I went out to college in Baltimore after trying to figure out whether to be a nurse or not. That definitely didn’t work out. Right out of college, I think my last semester, I was looking for places to intern. I interned with Matt at first, for this music blog called Pickup Productions. From there, I started working with them, and another part of that company was Bright Light. I’ve been with them ever since.
Carlini: Yeah, we kind of just sucked you in and got rid of Pickup Productions.
Rely On Horror: When you guys sit down to do a tabletop at this point, what ideas do you use as a cornerstone that set you apart from what other people are doing in this space?
Carlini: Well, I think our first mission was to not be something like a D&D– something not complicated. As much as the game is driven by nostalgia that we made, we wanted it to kind of feel retro. What are some of the things that we could implement into the game that made it feel approachable? Part of that thinking amongst the group was, “Well, why don’t we make it a roll-to-move game?” We get a lot of hate for it from certain parties, but other parties welcome it. It’s funny, because we hear from a lot of people who are like, “Yeah, I haven’t played a lot of board games until I found your game, and it was really easy to pick up. Now I love board games again.” That’s great to hear.
Vicente: Also, at the time, I think there weren’t many board games in that genre.
Carlini: For sure, yeah.
Vicente: It was something different. We hadn’t seen a lot of it.
Carlini: Yeah, I think the only other game that touched on the slasher genre at that time was Camp Grizzly. Again, you’re playing as the victims in that, and you’re trying to escape. We wanted to make it like everyone’s a bad guy, and everyone’s out to kill.
Vicente: It’s always fun to be the bad guy.
Rely On Horror: Are there games that you’ve come to think of as encroaching on your territory? Not even just in the board games world; there’s a burst of asymmetrical horror games out there. It’s suddenly a somewhat crowded field, how do you guys feel about it? When you saw Mondo doing The Thing, was that like, “Oh shit”?
Carlini: I bought it immediately. I was like, “Hell yeah! They’re doing The Thing!” No, because they’re working with actual IPs and we’re doing a parody. As much as it’s a slasher game, it’s a comedy.
Vicente: But at the same time, there have been some games that have popped up every now and then–
Vicente: –that we’re like, “Oh, no.”
Carlini: Yeah, there’s one game we saw–
Vicente: I can’t remember it.
Carlini: It was like a year or two after our Kickstarter. Monster Slaughter. It was interesting. It plays differently than our game, but it’s basically the exact idea. The logo, for some reason, is incredibly similar. It was a little weird.
Vicente: There’s also a soundtrack. [laughter]
Carlini: Oh yeah, there’s also a playlist, which was interesting. We launched the game early 2015 on Kickstarter. Then like you said, the Friday The 13th game came out on Kickstarter later that year.
Vicente: There came a surge after that.
Carlini: Yeah, Dead By Daylight came out…there was a lot of cool– I mean, I won’t lie, I play all those games. That’s the thing about horror, you know– The Town That Dreaded Sundown would be one of the original slashers in my mind, and then you had Halloween and Friday The 13th, which all are kind of similar, but people put their own spin on it. I’m open to more people doing it. Again, I don’t think anything plays like ours because we definitely hold onto that retro feel. But the more, the merrier, in my opinion.
Rely On Horror: I remember that I backed on Kickstarter, a game that came out a few weeks before Mondo announced The Thing. This Kickerstarter game was Who Goes There?, which was an adaptation of The Thing‘s original short story.
Carlini: I backed it. [laughter]
Rely On Horror: Yeah, when I talked to the Mondo team, I was like, “What do you think?” They’re like, “We pre-ordered it too, it’s a very Euro game, very different from what we’re doing.” It is the exact same source material with the same character names, so it’s a weird thing, I guess. The question is: how do you set yourself apart in what has become an increasingly crowded Kickstarter field?
Carlini: I think part of that has to do with building an audience. I think with the original Kickstarter, we built a small audience and then certain parties in the industry found us, people who worked for different press outlets found us, and then they sort of became fans of the game. I think that’s helped us build an even bigger audience. Every time we do a Kickstarter, they become more devoted to the product because they know it’s like– we’re not a big company, we’re three people. So we’re the underdogs/the indie guys, which we love being. I think people know what sets us apart is that the game’s not serious, which was important to us. It’s a joke, everything is a joke, making fun of the genre in a loving way. There is a point where you have to address that these movies are kind of ridiculous.
Rely On Horror: It would be a different board game if the game was about collecting teeth, but it was fucking serious, you know?
Carlini: [Laughter] That was important, because I think we agree that the whole team was very adamant about making it so you could collect hearts, heads, and hands. We need to add levity to this, otherwise we’re just going to breed a bunch of serial killers. I’ll be the first to say I don’t condone violence, obviously. But I’m sure our game has people saying, “What the hell is wrong with these people?” So we definitely want to make it lighthearted and funny at the same time.
Rely On Horror: How much of the development process was that? Finding the balance between what is funny and what is still horror? Because horror is tricky. One of my big questions when I first pulled the game out, was like, “How do you find the right mix between everyone knowing exactly what classic serial killer you’re playing without tipping over into putting yourselves into legal danger for clearly using Chucky and stuff like that?
Vicente: That was huge for us. It took a lot of time just trying to– this might be a little too much, how much do we want to change here?
Carlini: IT was also making amalgamates.
Vicente: Yeah, exactly. Not just one character, but a mix of several different ones.
Carlini: Yeah, we wanted them to be hodgepodge. We have a character in the game called Buddy, which is funny because now there’s a new Child’s Play coming out and the character’s name is Buddy. We really wanted to tackle the killer doll trope, so we did references to Chucky, Garbage Pail Kids, Cabbage Patch Kids– we were basically trying to make every character not just a hodgepodge, but also things from the 80s that people would recognize. That was really important for legal reasons, but also for making each character something unique.
Vicente: Even going into the killer scenes and the references, we definitely needed to think, “How far can we go without crossing too much territory?”
Rely On Horror: Have you considered suing the new Child’s Play movie?
Carlini: [Laughter] Not a chance. But yeah, we had a lot of fun with it. We also did the same thing with the first character we came up with, The Legend. The important thing with The Legend was to make it a lot of things. People first see him, they’re like, “Oh, it’s Jason.” But his entire outfit and look is based upon the Night Slasher in Cobra, with Sylvester Stallone, which was a movie I loved when I was younger. The mask is very Casey Jones in Ninja Turtles. That was kind of the fun of making the game.
Rely On Horror: Maybe I should’ve started with this, but can you walk me through the development process, what the timeline was? How many drafts of the game you guys went through, things like that?
Carlini: Yeah, so it was in 2014. I was at a game night with friends, and we were playing a bunch of games, but people were getting really bogged down by how long it takes to get into a board game. I’m sure you’ve played a lot, so you know it can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour and a half to teach people how to play before you actually play. I was getting annoyed with that, as well because I just wanted to play games but people were having a hard time grasping it. Then the other thing I noticed was that we had a stack of games and nothing was horror-related except for a zombie game. I went home after that and started writing down some ideas. I think over a month, I put together a small wire-frame of the game and cards, and I brought it to the team. I told Matt about it, and he thought I was fucking crazy. Matt, M.J. and I sat down for lunch, and started to I give my first pitch of it. Everyone started feeding into it with ideas. I would say within that first meeting, we started to get the first ideas like collecting knives, the chance cards being tapes–
Vicente: Kind of the design of it, too. I think that was a lot of fun.
Carlini: As much as it’s a cool game, we also just want to make it something like– if you go to a friend’s house, you’re like, “Oh, that’s really cool-looking.” We’re designers, so we wanted a cool product, not just a fun product.
Vicente: It has to look good. We’re not doing our job if it doesn’t.
Rely On Horror: It’s definitely had that effect at my house, it stands out on the shelf. Incredible job on that.
Carlini: Then I would say we started having demo nights with friends, I think the board went through six or seven revisions.
Vicente: Yeah, from then on, we kept figuring out ways to tweak what works and what wasn’t.
Carlini: The game nights at local game shops, we got a lot of feedback from people who play a lot of games and things like that. It’s funny, because we went to these game shops and I was terrified. Like, these people are going to hate our game because it’s not like a zombie game or something like that. But they were really into it. They were like, “Oh man, I can get my friends to play this.” So it was cool to hear from people who play a lot of games, that this was something they could bring into the house and have an instant game night with. That was exciting.
Rely On Horror: “They’re going to know I’m a fraud, they’re going to look at this and know I’ve never played a D&D before!”
Carlini: The funny thing is, I play those games. Of the members of the team, I’m probably the one who likes to play those nerdy games, but at the same time that’s something the team makes me dull down. It’s good, because we don’t want to be like those other games. We want something that a lot of people can play and not just hardcore gamers.
Vicente: Again, finding that balance.
Carlini: Yeah, exactly. It’s all about balance.
Rely On Horror: That balance seems to help– I want to know what the difficulty is in finding a game that scales the number of players in the way that yours does. I’ve played the game with different-sized groups, and I think there’s a trend where, especially in the original base game, with six players it’s more fun than it is with less. Is that something you guys recognize or disagree with? What sort of work goes into making a game that balances on that scale, at those levels?
Carlini: We always say that it is two to six players, but up front, we’re like, “With two players it will play, but it’s not the most fun it can be.” We usually say the sweet number is 3+. If you have that odd person, it definitely can lead to brawls and stuff like that. It’s a party game so obviously, the more, the merrier. We do hear from married couples that it’s a game they’ll bust out and, because it’s so easy, they can play it by themselves, which is cool.
Vicente: We get nervous when two people play it, because we know it’s just more fun with more people. But we had recently gone to a convention where a couple had bought it and said that they had played it the night before, and loved it. I was like, “Oh, thank God. This is great.”
Carlini: Yeah, and we definitely recognize that as much as it can play with two players, more people is always better.
Vicente: Yeah. We’ve noticed that from a lot of the demos. To see a group of people playing it and having fun, I’m like, “Yep, that’s how it works.”
Rely On Horror: If this gives you anxiety, why didn’t you just throw a 3+ on the box and scrap the two-player option?
Carlini: Probably because we knew it played with two, so we just allowed people. People will always write, “Can it really play with two?” We’ll be like, “It can play with two, but we recommend more.”
Rely On Horror: Right. What were some of the weirdest surprises along the way when you were testing the game?
Carlini: How much people would skip doing everything else and just fight with each other.
Carlini: It’s pretty funny how much, during game nights, it would be like, “Wait. I don’t have to collect the pieces? I can just kill everyone?” We’d have literally two of every six groups–
Vicente: That was their mission. “Screw the tokens, we’re just going to kill everyone.”
Carlini: That was their mission. It’s funny, because watching people play the original game and seeing that occur with it, it’s what gave us ideas for the second game. So that was really fun. It’s like any game: you see how people react to the first, and you make a sequel that improves upon those things that people want to see in the game.
Rely On Horror: When do you know it’s time to make a next game or an expansion? When does that feel right?
Carlini: When you constantly get emails from people asking for a new game.
Carlini: We get a lot of Facebook messages, we get a lot of Instagram messages. That’s the thing about social media, in the old days, you’d be like, “Okay, we’re doing a two to three year gap for everything we’re making.” But nowadays people play for four months and want to know when the next one comes. We released the original in 2016, 2019 is when the new one will come out.
Vicente: We have the ideas.
Rely On Horror: What’s your dream IP? If you guys could get one to adapt into a game, what would it be? Horror or otherwise?
Rely On Horror: Oh my God, I would play the shit out of some Robocop.
Carlini: If we could do Robocop, I would actually not want you to play as Robocop. I would want you to play as bad guys trying to get one over on Robocop. You work as teams robbing banks and stuff like that, and ED-209 and Robocop would get called in, and you’d have to fight against them.
Rely On Horror: I like that you made Robocop into an asymmetrical horror game. It seems like you have a gameplay style.
Carlini: The truth is, we have two games: one’s already developed and one’s in development. They’re not IPs. I’d say one is more adventure-focused, somewhat horror, and the other is definitely a horror film. But it’s like a gross, nasty horror film and it’s more serious than Mixtape. I think Robocop was definitely one where, God, if we could do that–what was the other one? Oh, Halloween. That would be amazing.
Rely On Horror: Do you have any advice that you would give to anyone that’s just getting started in game design for the first time? Something that you wish somebody had told you back at the start?
Carlini: Have thick skin, because everyone’s going to shit all over your game. In this day and age, someone’s always going to be saying horrible things about you. It’s like making a movie or anything else.
Vicente: Lots of demo nights. Lots of demo nights.
Carlini: You would be amazed. Just that one extra demo night will catch something you didn’t catch in the last ten you did. For us, we always say (to) go more the simple route. It’ll set you apart. I understand that a lot of my friends will never play Mansions of Madness with me, because it’s going to take five hours.
Vicente: Me included. [Laughter]
Carlini: I guess it’s better to identify who you want your audience to be.