Words by David C. Obenour
Anyone who’s sat through Marvel’s credits for the mid-sequence ending and the after-sequence ending can attest to the number of people it takes to make a movie. Rows and rows of names scroll by, each representing the time, talents and personalities of the workers who contributed to the movie you just saw… that maybe wasn’t even all that good. Was it their fault? Did the budget run out? Did production time get cut short? Did any number of other extenuating circumstances come into play? Did they ever think, “What if we, you know, just leaned into how bad this movie is turning out to be?”
Now you’re in the director’s chair, or the producer’s office, or maybe the star’s dressing room, for Roll Camera! a cooperative movie making board game where you have to make the best – or worst – from what you’ve been given. Utilizing clever and theme heavy mechanics, you may even feel inspired afterward to give it a go for real and submit to win your own Roll Camera! Award!
Off Shelf: I’m always interested in the “chicken or the egg” with games and their theme and central playing mechanics. What aspects of Roll Camera! came first to you?
Malachi Ray Rempen: I’m 100% a theme-first designer. I have a scrap heap of interesting mechanisms that were discarded during development of various games and although I think they would be pretty neat and even in some case innovative in the right games, I just can’t bring myself to wrap a theme around them. Doesn’t interest me.
I used to say I was “experience-first” but what interests me about experiences, currently anyway, is how they engage players in a specific role or interaction that you’d expect to find in the real world, and so that turns into theme in game design, I’ve found.
All that to say that the filmmaking theme came first! I was a filmmaker before I was a game designer, and I saw that the specific interactions involved in on-set shooting had not been captured in a game yet – so I set out to do it myself.
OS: In addition to designing Roll Camera! you also illustrated your game. I know you’ve used them for your travel blog, Itchy Feet but can you talk about your inspiration in using beans as characters?
MRR: When I was in high school I tuned out a lot of teachers by doodling comics with stick figures and, eventually, more fleshed out people. But one time I did this one comic called “Bad Luck Spleen” which had a little spleen walking around and bad things would happen to everyone that saw them. It was just another excuse to kill stick figures in gruesome ways, which as a 14 year old I found very funny indeed. Ten years later I found myself living in France and wanted to keep a record of my experiences, so I made a web comic which eventually became Itchy Feet, but at first was called Le Spleen en France. I don’t know why but that spleen character came back for some reason. Eventually it just evolved into a shapeless sort of blob and people started calling it a bean so – now it’s a bean! Hence, Keen Bean Studio and my “bean people.” You’ll notice they don’t look anything like beans.
OS: While presented in a humorous manner, Roll Camera! obviously contains a good amount of real industry details. What is your background with the behind the scenes of filmmaking?
MRR: Since I was ten years old I’ve been a filmmaker. I made films all through high school, went to film school, worked in the film industry for many years in Los Angeles and later here in Berlin, and then taught filmmaking and eventually ran the film school itself at a private university here. So – it’s pretty much been my life until very recently! I’ve done a little of everything but my main areas of interest were writing, directing and editing.
OS: Do you have a favorite mechanic or rule in Roll Camera! – something you were particularly happy with how the theme translated to play?
MRR: The game of course went through many different iterations but the storyboard scenes on cards was something I knew I wanted from the very moment the idea to make a filmmaking game popped into my head. I think that works really well – flipping them to the “cinematic” side didn’t occur to me until later, but I think the scene cards with the setup “recipe” on them works really well and is actually not all that different from how you really make a film. And it’s not really part of the gameplay per se, but I love that the scene cards create a little story. I am fascinated by what’s called the Kuleschov Effect in filmmaking, where basically two images with no inherent connection, when run sequentially together in time, create meaning in the mind of the viewer just by their juxtaposition. I took a lot of inspiration from that concept when creating the scene cards and what went on them.
OS: On the flip side of that, was there any element of filmmaking that you hoped to incorporate in Roll Camera! but weren’t able to make work out?
MRR: In early designs I had a concept called the Crew Mood, which was literally a big chunky dice you’d throw that had faces on it. If the crew was happy, you could play idea cards to help and if not, you drew problem cards which get in the way. Turns out just randomly determining whether it’s going to be a hard or easy turn is not so much fun! But I really liked the idea of incorporating the mood of the crew into the game systems because it’s such an important part of actual film production, and there are lots of limitations and systems in place meant to keep everyone working well together. It pained me to take it out, but it had to go.
OS: Cooperative games can be tricky when it comes to groups with an “alpha players” – did you consider this when planning out the rules and play or is there only so much “reining in” that can be introduced through the rules?
MRR: I see the buck getting passed around a lot with regard to the alpha player problem – some people argue you should just play with people who don’t do that. But I personally think that if a game creates a space for bad behavior in its players then it is responsible for that behavior. So although I don’t think Roll Camera! addresses it entirely, and perhaps you’re right in implying that it can never be entirely removed from a cooperative experience, I’m not sure – I did try to design the Idea card and the Production Meeting mechanic with that in mind. I want all players to feel involved, but not tread on, either.
Hmm… this is making me think! Leadership is such an important part of cooperation in the real world, I wonder if a coop game could be made that actually intentionally encourages alpha playing and still be fun… *gears turning*
OS: Beyond just player’s tables, you also invite them in the rules to make a video of their film. Can you share one or two of your favorite submissions?
MRR: The winners of the Roll Camera! Awards are posted on our official site every month – I love the ones where people actually recreate the scenes with themselves and/or friends. If this game actually encourages real filmmaking, how great is that?! It’s not often that a game is thematic enough to encourage doing the actual thing. Who plays Agricola and decides to become a farmer??
OS: In addition to a reprint, you recently successfully funded The B-Movie Expansion. What new twists does it add to the core game?
MRR: The base game’s scene cards are what I call “thematically agnostic” in that they are generic enough that they don’t refer to a specific genre or any specific real-life movie scenes. Also, there are only 25 of them. The B-Movie Expansion adds an additional 75 scene cards, most of which are genre-based, like western, sci-fi, horror, etc. We also developed a genre mechanic to accompany them, so it’s not just more artwork – there’s a whole new layer of gameplay to increase the challenge.
OS: Do you have other expansions you could see introducing for Roll Camera!? Any thoughts on what those might look like?
MRR: I do have a list of potential ideas, like expanding the set area grid possibilities, or making some kind of campaign structure where you have to shoot a whole series, each episode a different game with different challenges – but I haven’t developed any of them past just broad concepts. Right now I’m focusing on developing some new games that stretch me as a designer a bit more.
OS: When you’re playing Roll Camera! do you find yourself creating more Cinematic Masterpieces or So Bad It’s Great films?
MRR: Hmm… good question! Making films So Bad It’s Great can be a real challenge in Roll Camera! unless the conditions are right. I’ve probably made more “not bad” films than anything, to be honest!
OS: From your own collection, what’s your favorite cinematic masterpiece and misstep?
MRR: Asking a filmmaker to name a single favorite film is like asking a hobby gamer to name a single favorite board game – a lot depends on what kind of evening you want to have! The most recent cinematic masterpiece I’ve seen is probably Dune. I love the “medieval sci fi” aesthetic that he went for in the design, and I think the story is really engaging even though it’s just half a story, which can be weird. As for misstep, I hated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and I love Tarantino. I felt it was incredibly self-indulgent and for 90% of it, very boring. Definitely my least favorite of his films.