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Meet The Seattle Man Who Created 'Dice Masters' And Dozens Of Other Tabletop Games

Ashley Gross
Board game designer Mike Elliott in his home office in Seattle

As gamers roam the streets trying to catch Pokémon with their smart phones, we’re examining a counter-trend. These days, board games are also increasingly popular, and Seattle is a major epicenter for designers.

Many local board game designers have day jobs in the video game industry. Mike Elliott is one of the few who works full-time as a freelance board game designer. He’s created about 50 games, including the popular trading card game "Dice Masters" that he invented with his colleague Eric Lang.

But Elliott is the first to admit that most people have no idea who he is.

“Game design will not get you fame and recognition,” he said. “The best you can hope for is that other game designers sort of know who you are.”

But among certain crowds, he does enjoy a bit of fame. For example, he’s kind of a big shot to the folks gathered for the Monday night "Dice Masters" meet-up at the board game store Card Kingdom in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

"Dice Masters" is a game that combines trading cards and custom dice based on popular characters. For example, there’s a set based on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and other sets with Marvel and DC Comics superheroes.

At the meetup, people said Elliott sometimes drops in, and he helped introduce the game in the beginning.

“The day that the game came out, Mike Elliott demoed it for me and I’ve just been stuck on it ever since,” said Nicholas Funtanilla, who said he spends a couple hours a day playing "Dice Masters" and competes in tournaments.

“I sold all my other games and have been playing 'Dice Masters' ever since,” he said.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Nicholas Funtanilla (left) said he plays Dice Masters a couple hours a day and competes in tournaments.

Mike Elliott’s Lair

In Mike Elliott’s home office in Seattle, his shelves are stacked floor to ceiling with board games. There’s a section dedicated to his games, which include another dice game, "Quarriors," a card game called "Earthquake" and trading card games called "Dual Masters" and "Battle Spirits" that are popular in Japan.

There are also bags and boxes of components — everything he could ever possibly need for inventing a new game. There are thousands of plastic sleeves for card games, bags full of wooden cubes for making custom dice and lots of wooden people known as "meeples."

Elliott stumbled into this career by accident. In the 1990s, he was working in a hospital lab in Arizona and played the trading card game "Magic: The Gathering" as a hobby. One time he was playing "Magic" in a tournament.

“And I was talking with a couple of guys about what I thought was wrong with the game and they’re like, 'Well, we work for the company. Would you like to fly up to Seattle and apply?’” he said. “And I’m like, 'Sure.’”

In the tabletop game world, that company, Wizards of the Coast, is a big deal. It’s based in Renton and is now a division of Hasbro. Wizards of the Coast makes not just "Magic: The Gathering," but also "Dungeons & Dragons."  

Elliott joined the company and worked there for about a decade. He said Seattle is a hub for designers making what he calls "core-hobby games" because there’s so much technical talent here.

“There’s a really high correlation between tech people and core hobby board gaming – it’s almost like a straight line,” Elliott said.

Two ex-Microsoft guys created the board game "Cranium". A Boeing worker founded Wizards of the Coast. Elliott has mostly been freelancing since he left the company.

Big In Japan

His trading card games have caught on in Japan. His game "Battle Spirits" has its own TV show.

And here’s an example of the odd kind of fame Elliott has achieved. In the cartoon, there’s a character based on him — a balding American game designer named Mike Elliott wearing a gold-fringed jumpsuit who speaks heavily accented Japanese.

Here in the U.S., he said he mostly gets blank stares when he says he’s a game designer. People think he means video games. He said he’s learned to just kind of play along.

“For a while I was like, okay, I’m just going to roll with it,” he said. "It’s like, 'What do you do?’ - 'I’m a game designer.' - 'Oh, like Angry Birds?'- 'Yeah, you know the pig on level 4 to the far right? That was mine.’

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Nicole Davis playing 'Dice Masters' at the Monday night meetup at the board game store Card Kingdom.

Fame may be elusive, but Elliott can derive satisfaction knowing people are having fun playing games he introduced to the world.

At Card Kingdom, people playing "Dice Masters" said they like a lot of things about the game, including that you can battle one iconic set of characters against another, for example, "Dungeons & Dragons" versus Marvel superheroes.

“I hope they do a 'Star Trek' one,” said Nicole Davis. “That would be amazing.” 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.