Matt Tolman designed board games and crowdfunded projects, before finding himself at the ground floor of a Calgary tech startup. However, he left that all behind to find community and contentment as a local artisan woodworker.
Tolman first encountered game design when a neighbour asked for his opinion on a board game they were making.
“He was like, ‘That’s like the best feedback I’ve ever had. You’re really good at this. You should make a game.’ I was like, ‘Well, why not?’”
Tolman worked on several games in the following years, including Brass: Birmingham, a game about the Industrial Revolution, which raised nearly $2-million dollars on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
However, Tolman felt isolated by this new line of work.
“Early on, game design was so solitary; it was like being in the dungeon, my basement, sitting at my computer, night after night, alone.”
In response, Tolman gathered with other Calgary designers and founded the Game Artisans of Canada in 2008.
At the first gathering of the Artisans, Tolman met his long-term collaborator and friend Gavan Brown, where they playtested each other’s first designs.
“Most board game designers do like to work with others by nature because that’s literally the hobby, the passion they have as board gamers, which is not a solo activity,” Brown explains.
“The Game Artisans of Canada was unique in that it was the first time that game designers in Canada got together and created an organization of other designers where they could playtest each other’s games.”
Tolman and Brown continued to collaborate. Eventually, they worked under the same roof of Roxley Game Laboratory, a company Brown started in 2011. There, they created games such as Brass: Birmingham and Super Motherload, a game about mining on Mars.
Despite his success in board game design, Tolman struggled to achieve financial stability. This led him to pursue computer programming at the University of Calgary. But after a year, he left to join Bootkik, a Calgary tech start-up.
“It was a crime of opportunity. I was just pursuing what was in front of me. That’s what I always do.” Tolman said.
Tolman planned to build his own workshop before discovering Fuse33. The site provides equipment, space and community to avoid the high risk of starting a new business. Photo by Jordan Constantine.
At Bootkik, Tolman blended game design and programming to create a digital app for entrepreneurial training. But he struggled to stay passionate at a desk job.
“I just really did an inventory of all my previous experiences and said, ‘When was I the happiest and when was I the most productive?’ And it seems like I’m the happiest when I’m creating and not alone and working with my hands and so I wanted to start making something physical again.”
So Tolman revisited the skills he gained from running a construction company before entering game design. In September 2019, he joined Fuse33 Makerspace, a community woodshop, metal shop and workspace.
Shannon Hoover, the managing director at Fuse33, recalls Tolman’s first day.
“He kind of walked in and had some crazy ideas and I like people with crazy ideas.”
Working out of Fuse33, Tolman started Obsession Workworking, crafting workbenches, artisan boxes, cutting boards and more for friends, family and clients. He hopes to expand into board games by creating “outrageously high-end” handmade editions.
Hoover says that Tolman embodies the mentality of the Fuse33 community.
“Fuse attracts a certain type of person; they’re focused and obsessed about what they do and Matt definitely fits that bill. If you see his work, it’s stunning. That focus and obsession lends itself to inspiring other people, showing them what’s possible.”
Tolman now mentors at the site, teaching classes and helping to grow the community.
“When you live in a society where everything is engineered and IKEA furniture is so complicated and precise, we think our creativity is useless in a lot of ways. But no, come down, think of what you want to make and try and make it.”
Far from his basement dungeon, Tolman is at home among the collective of makers at Fuse33, which includes jewelers, sculptors and even social workers who teach kids how to make skateboards.
“I love being here. I love helping other people learn. And I love learning. And I love making things. It’s just like I’m almost too happy everyday…except for the amount of money I’m making.”
But the money doesn’t seem to bother him as he returns to his workbench — his first project — and returns to his latest, a wooden box for a friend.
You can follow Matt Tolman on Instagram at: @obessionwoodworking.