Bubblegum Stuff’s Matt Ludlow discusses their latest Kickstarter project, Death by Coconuts

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
Matt, you’re one of the vital cogs that keeps the wheels turning at Bubblegum Stuff…

That’s very kind of you to say…

Not at all! From what I’ve seen, you’re responsible for many things. What do they include?
We’ve all got our specialisms but, as is the case with many outfits of our size, we all chip in to get stuff done. In the day-to-day, I mainly work with the designers to create content for our games. That and general marketing copy. I’m definitely still learning my craft, and the numerous and varied daily challenges of working with a dynamic company like Bubblegum have definitely added strings to my bow.

What’s your background, then, Matt?
It’s a bit of a running joke that I’ve turned my hand to many jobs over the years. I’m a keen advocate for having a go at anything you can before choosing a lane in which to move forward.

Alright… What kinds of thing have you done?
Before I started working with Bubblegum Stuff I was an English teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Before that, I worked in mental health. And prior to that, I worked in vocational training and employment for two different learning-disability charities. I even spent eight months working as a tour guide at a brewery. That job was quite literally a pissup in a brewery. Not the sort of job you could do in the long term, though…

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
Ha! And – well, okay! So how did you come to be in gifts and games?

I came back to the UK from Vietnam at the end of 2018. I met up Bubblegum Stuff’s director, Courtney Wood, for a drink on New Year’s Day 2019…

Oh! You already knew him?
Yes. We’re old school friends; we’ve known each other for over 20 years. But on that occasion, I pitched a few product ideas. These had been rolling around in my head for a while, but it wasn’t planned; the conversation just happened to move in that direction.

Courtney liked the ideas and invited me to come into the office and help make them a reality. Sadly those ideas didn’t quite achieve blockbuster-level success. One even resulted in a lawsuit. But my working relationship with Bubblegum Stuff had begun. And now I’m a regular fixture.

One even resulted in a lawsuit! My God! I love how you raised that… Confident enough for me to pick up on, casual enough for me to draw a veil over! So look, I haven’t asked anyone this in ages, but with which toys did you play when you were younger?
I guess the vast majority of my birthday and Christmas presents were LEGO. I remember getting a pirate ship one year – that thing was amazing. It would blow my mind the things you could construct out of those tiny bricks. I could never build them myself, of course; that was my dad’s job. He’d spend hours putting these things together, with me in his ear constantly asking when they’d be ready to play with.

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
And do you still look at LEGO with an optimistic eye?

Yes, secretly. Nowadays, as a Star Wars fan, I’m pretty impressed by the LEGO AT-AT and the Millennium Falcon. I’d treat myself to one but I’d have to get my dad round to build it. Not sure he’d be that keen after all these years.

Oh, I’d ask him… I suspect he’d welcome the excuse! And how about games?
It was always Cluedo and Monopoly. We had a rich family tradition of spending Christmas Day, Boxing Day and days during the school holidays playing these classics. My nan would always run out of money playing Monopoly and need a bailout from the bank – also my dad’s job. Nothing brings the family together better than laughing at your poor nan when her house on the Old Kent Road gets repossessed. It’s a cruel game, Monopoly.

Ha! Your poor nan. A figure of fun in the gutters of Southwark… So now, one of the new Bubblegum games that’s caught my eye is the Death by Coconuts. What’s the gist?
Death By Coconuts is a race-to-the-finish board game where you move by betting chips on – wait for it… Death statistics. It’s got elements of classic games from our youth like Snakes and Ladders and more contemporary games like What Came First? and Camel Up.

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
Tell me more!

Instead of using dice or a spinner to move, you bet on which one of three causes of death is the most deadly. These could be, for example, sharks, lightning strikes and falling coconuts. Each option has time and geographical parameters to help you. You can bet up to three chips on your chosen answer. The number of chips you bet is the number of places you move forward, but only if you get it right. If you don’t, you’ll be going backwards instead.

I like it! Presumably I don’t need to have any actual knowledge of how people died? The fun is in the guessing?
Right! It’s unlikely you’ll know the correct answer outright, so it’s a question of applying your knowledge of other factors to deduce the answer. You could also utilise another tried and tested technique: betting the same way as your opponents. That way you’re never likely to lose ground. But you are likely to lose friends… You’ve been warned! Whatever strategy you adopt, you’ve got a one-in-three chance of getting the answer correct. That doesn’t change throughout the game.

Got it!
Ultimately, Death by Coconuts is a classic game of risk and reward, where betting big or small dictates how quickly you move across the board. You also need to navigate shortcuts and lava flows – you know, the usual features of a deserted tropical island. And the buried treasure cards can also help you along the way to Eternal Paradise, which is the end of the game. If you get there before anyone else, you win!

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
How did the idea come about?

I was once told about a creative process that involves taking ideas to their most unusable, often most ludicrous extreme so that you can push back against them. That’s certainly what we did with Death By Coconuts. It started life as May Cause Cancer…

May Cause Cancer?!
That was never a title for the mass market! But it was loosely based around a “Which is most deadly?“ trivia format. We had the idea of packaging it in a cigarette box. Needless to say, this was the idea at its most unusable.

Yes. And if any readers have been affected by issues raised in this interview… I guess we’ll put some resources at the end of the piece. Might just be Bubblegum’s number! So it started outrageous?
Right. Then various iterations followed before we came across a statistic that was widely repeated on the internet: “Falling coconuts are responsible for more deaths than sharks”. And that’s where the name Death By Coconuts was born. Back then, though, the game was as much an ‘outrun the chaser’ as it was a ‘race to the finish’. Naturally, we took inspiration from The Chase on ITV, only the chaser was the Grim Reaper’s scythe! And if it caught up with you, in real-world terms you were out of the game. In game terms, you were dead.

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
Nicely morbid. Why did that not happen?

I think we realised it was perhaps more fun to race against your mates than it was to outrun a mythical tool used to reap the souls of sinners. Although saying it like that, it does sound like a lively prospect. That being said, we’re all about creating entertaining, sometimes competitive and even borderline adversarial experiences for friends to enjoy, where human interaction is the driving force for fun. So the scythe was ditched.

We also felt that a straightforward linear board was a bit too restrictive in terms of design. We really liked the idea of a board that functioned as a piece of graphic art in its own right. We’ve got some hugely talented designers, so we wanted to unleash their creative genius. The final nail in the coffin of the initial idea came with the packaging. As clever as it first seemed to wrap a game about death in a ciggy box, it ultimately felt a bit vulgar – so we binned it. Or, to put it more professionally, it was developed into something more tasteful…

It developed into Death by Coconuts… Listening to that then, Matt, it’s fair to say this is more involved than some of Bubblegum’s gift-style games. Why go in that direction?
Our bread and butter is creating simple card games, often in response to celebrity or pop-culture trends. The idea is they take very little time to learn, meaning people can get to the fun bit as quickly as possible.

While it’s fair to say Death By Coconuts is a departure from this, we’ve managed to retain the simplicity that’s signature Bubblegum Stuff. Last year, we released a far more complex game via Kickstarter called Plant-Based Riot. Designing and developing the mechanic was a challenge. And while that was fully funded and well-received by backers and customers, it felt like we weren’t playing to our strengths if we continued in this direction.

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts

Death by Coconuts represents a happy medium between the two. It bridges the gap; it’s the Goldilocks game. It features a unique mechanic and the learning-to-fun-time ratio is stacked heavily in favour of the latter. We aim to continue to create games like Death By Coconuts alongside our simpler gift-style games – probably one a year – as it provides greater scope for our design team to spread their wings.

I’m also interested to hear you’re funding this on Kickstarter. Why’s that?
The decision to fund games on Kickstarter initially came in response to both internal and external forces. Bubblegum Stuff has always predominantly sold to retailers – our website only made up a very small percentage of sales… When Covid struck, though, it became clear that many of our retail partners wouldn’t make it through, sadly. So – in early 2020 – we decided to change. We got a more user-friendly website, for example, and began a Kickstarter campaign to give us unprecedented access to our target audience and vice versa.

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
You make Kickstarter sound easy…

Well… No. Running a successful crowdfunding campaign is not as simple as just uploading it and waiting for the money to roll in. In preparation, we spent hours learning the ropes in terms of how to engage with people, the dos and don’ts, when to launch, how to launch – it’s an absolute minefield. In light of that, I don’t think companies ever turn to Kickstarter or any other crowdfunding site for ‘easy money’. You’ve got to invest a lot of time and funds before you even get to launch day. Going into our second campaign, that’s something we’re fully aware of going. But the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

And on that point, there’ll be some people that look at a project like this and say, “Where do you get off holding up a begging bowl for a board game? Fund it yourselves, you sponging vermin!” How do you respond to that?
It’s not the first time I’ve been called that! Well, turning to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter for investment is actually less about the money than you’d think. When you’re engaging with the Kickstarter community, you’re having a direct conversation with your community.

How so?
The people that back your project are people that believe in what you’re creating. And because of that, those people are an invaluable source of insight and opinion. They play an active role in making key design and gameplay decisions. A lot of them have loads of experience backing games on Kickstarter, so they know their onions.

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
So they’re more active, really, than the word ‘audience’ implies?

Much more active. You’re basically going to your target market with an idea and asking them how to make it better. The resulting game is custom-made for your audience, and they get first dibs on a copy before retailers get anywhere near it. Plus they often get extras that aren’t available with the retail version. I think a term like crowd-created is a better description of the process than crowdfunded.

I like that! Good answer.
I also think sites like Kickstarter are great because they facilitate interactions between creators and customers. We’d love to be able to do this more regularly, actually, and will do more moving forward. Speaking of which, we’ll be at UK Games Expo with Death By Coconuts and a load of our other games. So if you’re attending, make sure you come over, say hi and take Death By Coconuts for a spin.

And what if people want to do more than take it for a spin? Can they back it there and then?
Yes. We’ll be there with demos, and we’ll be taking pledges should you like the game and want to be part of the project. It’s the only place you’ll be able to try the game before you back it. The other way to back it is to pick a pledge via the Death By Coconuts Kickstarter page. The official launch date is 31st May; it goes live at 1pm UK time and runs through to June 27th.

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
Lovely. We’ll stick a link somewhere in there… What are some of the benefits for backers?

Backers can enjoy behind-the-scenes access to the campaign, as well as being involved in some of the key decisions on design and gameplay. They might even get the chance to have a piece of the board named after them.

Well, look we really need to start wrapping this up, Matt, but I did have one more big question… I should probably add that one of the things I love about the game is the contrast between the dark theme and the light execution. What was the design process?
Yeah, you don’t get much darker than this theme, do you? It must be said we’re not making light of death. But it’s as much a part of life as birth so maybe we do need to reassess the way we look at it… Anyway, we felt –delivered in the right way – this game could feel lighthearted. We initially went for what might be considered unusual or wacky causes of death. But it quickly became apparent there weren’t enough of those on the internet to make a game. So eventually we started to include others, which sadly meant the light execution couldn’t be guaranteed by the content.

Right. Because actually there are, in life, some terrible ways to die…
Right. So instead we looked at how the design could carry this off. And we plucked for a mid-century Americana/tiki-style theme where our little skeleton character – who needs a name, by the way – was trying to make their way to Eternal Paradise when their ship sank off the coast of Purgatory Island. As a frequent reminder of that theme and story, our character appears in numerous places around the board, trying to escape the various causes of death that are in the game.

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts
Finally, then, Matt what’s the most interesting object on your desk?

Now there’s a question… I don’t actually have a permanent desk at Bubblegum Stuff since I’m a lowly freelancer. And at home, I work from my kitchen worktop. So if we’re using that as my desk, I’d have to say my AnySharp knife sharpener. It claims to be the world’s best knife sharpener. I haven’t used enough sharpeners to know if that’s true, but it does keep your knives pretty sharp.

You take knife sharpening pretty seriously, do you?
Ha! Well, I love to cook so keeping knives in good working order is important. Saying I love to cook is an indirect way of saying I love to eat. That’s more accurate. Cooking is fun, but it’s a means to an end. Love of food is what led me to Vietnam and Asia in general…

Really? That was the motivation?
Yes, and I think that’s got to be the top reason for travelling anywhere, really. I was in Margate recently scoping out the best fish and chips in town! It’s Peter’s, if you’re wondering. But I do love Asian food the most. I know that encompasses a huge geographical area that contains possibly the most diverse range of cuisines on the planet, but do I love just about every single one I’ve tried. So, I guess the knife sharpener on its own isn’t interesting. But what it represents is… To me, at least.

Well, it certainly is to me, Matt, so thank you! Good answer.

Matt Ludlow, Bubblegum Stuff, Death by Coconuts

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