You may love Settlers of Catan, but you definitely don't love it as much as the Gatsche family.
"When we go home, that's the family game. We don't play Monopoly, we don't play Risk or anything like that because nobody wants to play a game that lasts for four hours," says Teejay Gatsby, a core member of the family outfit that is Thinking Monk Studios. "That's really how it started."
Thinking Monk is custom tabletop game design company specializing in Settlers of Catan based out of California and Kentucky, where Teejay and his father, Max, are respectively based. While Max takes care of the majority of the physical creation of boards and delicately carved gaming pieces, Teejay handles the design and business sides, finding time to work in his makeshift studio when he can.
After all, Max is the one with the room in his Elizabethtown-based workshop for the extensive equipment needed to render their customers' aspiring designs into reality — a CNC (computer numerical control) machine, a laser cutter, planers, belt sanders, joiners, band and table saws, and any number of more delicate tools for the intricate carvings synonymous with Thinking Monk's work.
It started with an idea and a suggestion. While Teejay was doing a semester abroad in New Zealand about a year and a half ago, his dad asked if he could potentially draw up a Settlers of Catan board for him, something for him to try his new laser cutter out on. Even before the laser cutter, though, the pair had been showing off some designs and renderings at the University of Louisville. A potential customer told the pair they should consider turning their father-son activity into a legitimate business.
"'Well, maybe,'" they said. At that point, it was just a hobby. Max had taught Teejay woodworking since he was young, and their family's love for Catan seemed like a natural outlet for their skills. "We wanted this really nice-looking, contained, compatible board," Teejay says.
It wasn't until Teejay returned to the States in December 2016 that the pieces began falling into place. Teejay launched Thinking Monk Studios' first Kickstarter campaign in February 2017. Despite the success of the 62-person backed Kickstarter, Teejay and Max still weren't sure whether or not it was worth a full-time investment.
Teejay had originally planned to take a gig as a police officer in Boulder, Colorado, but when his wife got a great job offer out in Monterey, California, they up and moved. Suddenly, he found himself with some free time. And when Max was laid off from his previous job, the two began focusing all their time on the business. Dominic, Teejay's 15-year-old brother, and Diana, Max's wife, came on board, too, to put the finishing touches on boards, cases, and the various pieces they make. Teejay credits his attention to detail to his mother, who he says is the most focused one of them all. The only family member yet to join in, Teejay says, is his "adorable" little sister Filomena — but there's a chance it's only a matter of time.
Within a year of putting real effort into the endeavor, the Gatsche family is invested in a full-time business. Thinking Monk has a small but dedicated fanbase that truly appreciates its art and that grows with every convention the company attends. Right now, Teejay says he and his father try to hit up at least one con a month. In June, Thinking Monk traveled to RAGECON gaming expo in Reno, Nevada — it's small but passionate, and, as Teejay points out, a good way to network and build their brand.
July is dominated by San Diego Comic-Con in the nerd sphere, but Teejay says they're not yet big enough to get involved with something as enormous as Comic-Con International, though, they hope to be there in person soon. For now, a friend who's already attending SDCC 2018 will give away Thinking Monk-made prizes as part of a competition. The hope is to initiate gamers into the Thinking Monk church of quality, handcrafted, locally sourced gaming products.
It's the consequences monickers that present the most problems for Thinking Monk. People like the idea of American-made products, but the price tag for carefully crafted, custom pieces can easily scare customers away. There are those who have stuck around, though, Teejay says, and those who truly appreciate what the Gatsches have created.
"If people come to us and they ask, we'll do it — if they're willing to pay for our time, and that's a big one," Teejay says. The company's "heirloom quality game boards" cost approximately $265, but that's without further details or customized designs.
Most often, Thinking Monk makes customized desert hexagons for its customers. Those customizations are most often quotations or certain graphics, but things can get more complicated, and, if you're willing to pay, the Gastches will customize, essentially, whatever you want. Teejay says he recently encountered a man from Catania, Italy, supposedly one of the inspirations for the game (though the official book adaptation of the game describes Catan as being west of France). This customer's family had owned a pottery business in Catania for generations and sent Thinking Monk photos of the designs on the pottery. Those designs were laser engraved into custom Catan pieces and a box.
That kind of nostalgia fits in well with the Thinking Monk mission. The name of the company, which resulted from the father-son duo sitting back and drinking beers around the kitchen table, comes from Max and Teejay's desire to create innovative, thoughtful products. Max, Teejay says, is a religious man and wanted there to be a religious undertone. Plus, there's the added benefit that monks and other holy people are popular characters in tabletop RPGs. The name fit well.
"We wanted [the name] to embody the fact that we're not just about customer service and good quality products, but that we're innovative with well thought-out and well-designed products, as well," Teejay says.
Now, the Gatsches are gearing up for their second Kickstarter campaign to fund their Nomad's Army dice storage and tray concept. The campaign launches July 16. Thinking Monk will have its small presence at SDCC, but the hope is that Teejay and Max will be able to head that way in person sooner rather than later.
Thinking toward the future, Teejay aspires for their company to break into the European market, as he says he and his wife move on the regular. Plus, taking custom Catan boards to Catania, even building them there, has to be a Catan-loving family's dream come true.