Photo: Adam Hnatkovich, a Brighton Heights resident, sits alongside a Tunnel Monster Collective banner and a copy of ‘Regenerate!’ Tunnel Monster Collective was co-founded by Hnatkovich. Photo by Sean P. Ray
By Sean P. Ray | Managing Editor
Tabletop games are going through something of a golden age currently. In recent years, more than 4,000 board games were published yearly by multiple smaller companies, according to a Dec. 17, 2022, article by National Public Radio (NPR).
And at least one Northsider is getting involved.
Brighton Heights resident Adam Hnatkovich is one of the co-founders of Tunnel Monster Collective, a Pittsburgh company that designs tabletop games. Hnatkovich founded the company alongside Dave Knee, Ian Darwin and Leo Kowalski.
The business was officially founded in 2019, and initially had an office in Brighton Heights, though it is currently located in Pittsburgh’s West End neighborhood. However, the origins of Tunnel Monster go much farther back.
Hnatkovich, Knee and Kowalski all grew up together in northern Cambria County, Pennsylvania, attending Cambria Heights High School.
“Dave and Leo have obnoxiously known each other their entire lives,” Hnatkovich joked in an interview with The Chronicle.
Hnatkovich came to know Knee and Kowalski through an online message board called Dragon World Federation where people would role-play as professional wrestlers.
Roleplaying is a type of entertainment where people create characters and, together with others, make a story. It is most commonly associated with the game “Dungeons & Dragons,” and there have been numerous other roleplaying games over the years such as “Call of Cthulhu” or “Vampire: The Masquerade.”
Hnatkovich was the photography editor for the student paper at the time, and decided to do a piece about the message board. This led him to meet Kowalski, who was one of the leaders of Dragon World Federation, and that eventually developed into a lasting friendship.
In college, the three friends began playing “Dungeons & Dragons” together, and later settled upon the idea of making their own roleplaying game called “CAST.”
“It was a very slow process,” Hnatkovich said of making the game. “Over the next 10 or 12 years, we slowly chewed away at this thing and it became its own roleplaying system.”
Kowalski told The Chronicle that work on CAST was not an everyday project for the friends or at least not initially. However, around 2017, when Darwin joined the team, it started to become “more serious” and developed into something that could “legitimately be released.”
As fate would have it, however, a new opportunity presented itself to the four. In the summer of 2020, after Tunnel Monster Collective officially became a company and expanded into board games as well as working on CAST, the group was approached by the non-profit Land Art Generator, which is based out of Seattle.
Land Art Generator is an organization focused on advancing renewable energies in the face of climate change, according to its website. The non-profit wanted Tunnel Monster Collective to design a board game based around that theme for its 2020 Land Art Generator initiative, also known as LAGi. The 2020 LAGi was based around Fly Ranch, an area in Nevada owned by the Burning Man Project as an agricultural site with regenerative cycles for food, water, air and other factors.
The four took to the task with gusto, and out of it came their first finished tabletop game “Regenerate!,” which tasks players with creating an ecologically-friendly city in the desert while dealing with negative effects caused by climate change.
Hnatkovich said the group was inspired by the board game “Pandemic,” which he called the “gold standard” for cooperative board games. As such, the game was based around “reinforcing the idea that to succeed if we want to build communities in these challenging places, like the desert, we need to cooperate together,” he said.
Knee echoed the sentiments, saying the intent of the game was to teach people that the way to overcome challenges presented by climate change is by coming together and utilizing everyone’s strengths.
“Regenerate!” had 500 copies printed, the majority of which were given away. Tunnel Monster Collective currently has around 30 copies, which they are offering to give away to any teachers or professors who request them as a way to teach students about climate change.
The group also made another educational game, currently being printed, called “Kleingarten,” which will be used for an event in Germany called BUGA 2023, which is a national garden show. “Kleingarten” focuses on sustainable horticulture, and Tunnel Monster Collective worked with the group Land Art Generator to make the game.
However, Tunnel Monster Collective isn’t all educational games, and the group has several projects in the works for eventual commercial release. In fact, they plan to have their first commercial board game come out this spring called “Chef’s Table,” which is also a cooperative game, though this time putting players in the role of restaurant chefs.
Tunnel Monster is hoping to print around 100 copies and have it available in March or April, both through their website and at Pittsburgh-area game stores like Games Unlimited and Game Masters.
“It’s a boutique game, it’s a very niche game,” Hnatkovich said. “Not everybody is going to want to pretend to be a line cook, so we might not sell 500 copies for the first couple years, but I think eventually it has enough legs we can get enough momentum to do something bigger.”
Another example of games the company is working on is “Petty Novelist.”
“The idea is that players are all struggling authors who essentially get duped into spending a few days in a haunted hotel to try and write a novel,” Knee said.
Hnatkovich said one of the strengths of Tunnel Monster Collective is that each member is interested in different types of games, giving them a varied set of tastes. In fact, their office is filled with shelves of many different games, and they have dedicated areas to play them in. Hnatkovich said his personal favorite game is “Hero Quest,” while Knee listed the games “Secret Hitler” and “That Time You Killed Me” as his favorites.
As for living on the Northside, Hnatkovich said he enjoys the neighborhood a lot, enjoying the relative quietness and the calm offered by nearby Riverview Park.
“I grew up in a small town,” he said. “So it feels like a small town, even though you’re part of a much larger city.”
Beyond just being where Tunnel Monster Collective is headquartered, Pittsburgh also contributed to the business in another way: Its name.
Originally the business was going to be called Trickshot Games, but the founders discovered quickly that there was a game in development with a very similar title. As such, they decided to switch, and go with something distinctly Pittsburgh.
Hnatkovich said Tunnel Monster refers to the tendency of people in Pittsburgh to slow down before entering a tunnel, as if they’re afraid of some kind of monster being inside.
He even said he sees the potential in making a game around the concept. He said he could see a dungeon adventure game, though one based around Pittsburgh tunnels rather than a medieval setting.
For more information on Tunnel Monster Collective, visit their website at tunnelmonster.games.