A lot of stuff has happened to Wonmin Lee in the last five years.
Wonmin (it is pronounced, he tells everyone, as “1 min,” the “min” like “minute”) didn’t plan any of it, and once you know his story, you’ll understand why it would have been impossible (and in some ways undesirable) to do so.
He starts ticking off the list, casually, almost as if all these events had occurred to someone else:
I quit my job as a corporate slave,
founded a startup with my brother and sold it to a competitor,
had brain surgery,
fell in love twice and broke up twice,
met my current, super-supportive and amazing girlfriend,
learned Japanese well enough to pass two standard proficiency tests,
created a New York City “Terrace House” watch group that has nearly 200 members,
got a rescue cat named Lou,
logged over 400 hours of Animal Crossing and probably the same amount on Genshin Impact and many, many more on Dota 2,
and just launched my first board game, Welcome to Sysifus Corp., financing it with $18,000 I raised on Kickstarter.
It’s more than enough events for nine lives.
Especially when you’re only 30.
Tall and lanky with wispy black hair brushed forward so it almost touches his eyebrows, he looks like a teenager.
He opens an Apple-white box and unfolds a game board, populating it with colorful, faceless robo-style players and placing a card in each corner “office,” one of which is labeled, in all-caps, “BOSS.”
This is, Wonmin says, the only corporate game he will ever play again.
To understand how all this came about, you have to start at the beginning.
That means going to Seoul, South Korea, where Wonmin was born and lived until he was 8 years old and his family came to America.
“It was really hard,” he says, adding that they settled in College Point. “I didn’t know any English, I didn’t have any friends, I was a little kid, so I cried a lot.”
He mastered the language quickly and progressed through the public school system, graduating from Stuyvesant High.
At Brown University, he majored in economics but didn’t enjoy it and has never used it in any of his career endeavors.
He got caught up in the corporate world early – he was hired as a full-time tech consultant by a major company right after college.
After training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Wonmin worked for a year in San Francisco then in New York City.
He called it quits in 2016.
“I didn’t like the feeling of working for other people, and I didn’t enjoy the corporate culture or reporting to the boss or meeting deadlines,” he says.
While he was figuring out his next move, he moved around a lot – Williamsburg, Roslyn (to live with his parents to save money), Manhattan, Far Rockaway and finally to Astoria in August 2021.
“It felt like coming home,” he says, adding that he has a lot of friends in the area.
As his list indicates, he was anything but idle during this time.
He started his first startup, a domain portfolio management company called DomaHub Domains, with his younger brother.
“We were learning coding together,” he says. “We sat side by side working all day and playing computer games at night.”
Burned out after two years, the brothers sold DomaHub to Efty, a competitor, and Wonmin started working on Welcome to Sysifus Corp., a cutthroat board game that pits player against player to win a promotion.
“The players screw each other,” he says, smiling knowingly. “That’s called office politics.”
Leaving the real corporate world gave Wonmin time to create his fictional one.
“I saw a post in Reddit from a couple who had quit their jobs and were making a living making board games, and that inspired me,” he says.
Welcome to Sysifus Corp. – the name refers to the Sisyphus of Greek mythology who was forced, for eternity, to push a boulder uphill – represents Wonmin’s view of the corporate world.
“It never ends – you’re always chasing the next thing,” he says.
The migraines – two in a single week — came out of nowhere in July 2020.
“I had gotten them in high school, but they went away and I hadn’t had one in years,” he says. “I only ever had them about once a month. I was scared.”
A trip to the emergency room yielded a diagnosis: moyamoya, a rare disorder in which the carotid artery in the skull becomes blocked or narrowed.
“The neurosurgeons told me I was a ticking time bomb,” he says. “I believe my uncle also may have had moyamoya but was undiagnosed and passed away from it.”
In April 2021, a month after he raised $18,000 on Kickstarter for Sysifus, Wonmin had what he calls “painful” – and successful – surgery that rerouted an artery outside the left side of his head to the interior of his skull.
He doesn’t feel smarter – “my family joked that I’d emerge with superpowers” – but he does feel better.
Of course, he has to get checked out every year; there’s a possibility the same thing could happen to the right side of his brain.
He doesn’t know how things will play out, but what he does know is that he’s much happier creating games than playing the corporate game.
Wonmin’s second game, Love, Career & Magic, will be released this year.
Based on an unreal Japanese reality TV show, it’s a card game set in a fantasy world filled with elves, dragons, dwarfs and other fictitious creatures.
“I’m ready to make the transition to video games,” he says as he packs Sysifus back in its elegant box. “I’m looking forward to making a really complicated one.”
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling