Alisha Volkman

#112 – Alisha Volkman

Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer every single week, and we talk about their experience in game design and the lessons they've learned along the way. 

My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I'll be talking with Alisha Volkman, who designed War Torn, which I played at Protospiel Madison back in 2018, and Duanwu, which got first place in a Holiday Design Contest. She also works at The Game Crafter, and she also does illustrations for lots of board game designers. We are going to talk about all of these topics. Alisha, welcome to the show.

Alisha Volkman: Thank you, Patrick. I am excited to be here. It's going to be a blast, I think.

Introduction

Patrick: I like to start with a quick game, a lightning round just to introduce you to the guests. First question, you've created a lot of illustrations for board games. What's the most unique crazy thing that you've drawn for someone, or for yourself?

Alisha: This one's a little tough because I've drawn a lot of weird things, but after digging through a lot of my files, I think the weirdest thing I've drawn was a T-rex standing in a tree in a game called Beasts.

Patrick: Why was it in the tree?

Alisha: It was adapting to its surroundings.

Patrick: Awesome. Love it. That's great. You entered Duanwu into the Holiday Design Contest, what other holidays did you consider for that contest?

Alisha: I think I thought about what everybody else was thinking about. Halloween, Christmas, the big ones. But I couldn't help it. I'm just like, “What's a cool out-of-the-box one?” I fell on Duanwu because dragons.

Patrick: “Because dragons,” that is a great reason. Love it. Then the last one is what is a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?

Alisha: This one's a little weird, it's Zombicide. I don't know what it is about the game, and I think it's because there's fun player interaction. It's a mix of teamwork, but it's also puzzle-y. I get to kill a bunch of stuff, which is always a plus.

How did you get into board games and board game design?

Patrick: Sounds great. I haven't played it, but I will trust you that it is puzzle-y and wonderful. First real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Alisha: I think I got into it the way a lot of people got into it, a friend pulled out Catan and then you're instantly hooked on board games. That's everybody's intro board game. But I didn't get into game design, specifically, until much later. I was hired. Me and several other illustrators were hired to do illustrations for a game on a game design show, and it was a bunch of puns on TV shows. I got to draw punny things, and it was all older TV shows, but also puns. 

It was [inaudible] drawing puns. But I was only 20 at the time, so I was still finding myself, and the game turned out to be a flop. It didn't do well on Kickstarter, and it didn't go anywhere from there, but I'm like, “I can design my own game that's a flop.” That's what I did. I was just like, “I'm going to design a game and do the art for it,” and it just went from there.

Patrick: I love that you came into it, number one, just from illustrations. That's a new angle that not a lot of people get into game design from. Number two, I love that you were basically inspired by failure. Because I think a lot of people go, “You could fail, and it would all be wasted.” But in your case, you're like, “I can do the same thing and maybe even do it better.”

Alisha: Yeah, or fail. I was like, “I could fail, but I don't care.”

Patrick: That's awesome. Let me first– I want to talk to you about Duanwu for multiple reasons. Number one, because you got first place in a game design contest. Number two, because I've played it with you at Protospiel Madison last year, or this year. Number three, because it beat my game Samhain by one point. I got second, and you got first.

Alisha: I know, I'm so sorry.

Where did Duanwu come from?

Patrick: No, it was great. When I played your game at Protospiel Madison this year, I was like, “It's never great to lose, but I'm very happy I lost to that game.” You know what I mean? That is a game– It's a really good game. Let me ask you, where did Duanwu come from? Maybe, give us the history of it. How did it come into being?

Alisha: Absolutely. As I said a little earlier, I love dragons, but I also love color, so they both show up in a lot of my games. Weirdly enough, not on purpose, it just happens. But when [Cassie published] the contest, she posted a link to a Wiki page with a ton of holidays. The first thing I did was hit Ctrl + F and started searching for keywords of things I liked. All of a sudden, I'm like, “What's this? Dragon Boat Festival?” I was like, “OK, I'm researching this.” 

Then suddenly, I was researching how is it celebrated in China, how is it celebrated in the United States. I found out it actually celebrates a ton of things, and oddly enough, liquor. It's also a very dark history on the whole thing. I'm like, “Let's go a different route than that,” so I went with “You're manufacturing kites for the Dragon Boat Festival.” I also found out while I was doing some research that it's celebrated at a lake maybe two minutes from my house, where they do dragon boat races in freezing Minnesota. Who knew? That was kind of it, and it was just like “OK. Dragons, colors, kites. I can do this.” I've always wanted to make a tile-laying, selecting game. I had just recently purchased SwordCrafter, where you're selecting tiles to build a sword. I'm like, “I want to select tiles to build kites.” That's how it just came to be in maybe three weeks.

Were there any design challenges?

Patrick: That's great. We started at the same place, and I think both of us clicked that link posted by the head judge, which was a list of all the holidays. I think I just looked through them randomly, but I love that you were looking for keywords. That's a much smarter way of doing it. I just kind of looked through each one, so I love hearing that. 

Let me ask you, with Duanwu, were there any design challenges? Did anything come up that made you change your vision of Duanwu? Did anything not work, and then you ripped out one system, put in a different system?

Alisha: I'm still even fidgeting with it now, and it's a mix between the drafting system and trying to explain how kites are collected. Part of it was mechanic-wise, where I didn't think there's enough player interaction, which is probably my weakest point in game design. 

But it was also that functionally when players are playing the game, making the colors colorblind-friendly, because there's not good symbols I can use for the colors. As well as making sure that people understood the symbols on the kites, and it originally was just patterns, but I ended up adding symbols. Because I don't know, “Feasibility,” is that a word?

Patrick: Cool, yeah. What version did I play at Protospiel Madison? Because I want to say there were little patterns, and there were little symbols in the corner of the cards.

Alisha: You probably played the most recent version, which is the one that I'm hoping won't get any more graphical changes.

Patrick: You and I are in different boats here. If I dislike an illustration, I'll send it back to my illustrator and have them redo it. In your case, it's “I have to redo this.”

Alisha: Exactly.

What is it like illustrating & designing games at the same time?

Patrick: You have a pretty different background, where you illustrate and design the games at the same time. I would love to know what is it like designing and illustrating your own games at the same time?

Alisha: For sure. It's a little bit crazy, and I often find myself making the art before the game. It's not even a game yet, but I have cards, or I've done a print and play. But it's not even a game, and there's nothing there. I've been trying to get used to designing the mechanics and the interactions and the options and choices before. I think I've heard people call it the ‘Ugly prototype' stage, and I've never had that stage, and I think I need it. 

That's a hurdle I've had with designing games and illustrating at the same time, and I have to get used to the whole “Don't illustrate until you have a game, Alisha. Or at least until you get to the table a couple times.” But I do have a huge advantage, and there is a big advantage when you can illustrate and design games, which is that I don't just help myself I help my clients because I have that unique insight. I know when a card needs to be held by players, and I know that I don't want to hide information, that you need information on the side column.

 These are things that not many graphic designers or artists who don't work in games would know. They wouldn't know that you have to make sure stuff isn't there, or they wouldn't know where stuff has to be on a tile, or something's across the table and needs to be read upside down. You learn things that not everyone is going to think about. But when you design games, some people are like, “I can just go to my client and say ‘Have your playtesters had any issues with this, or do you think they might need this?' Or I can even give them a sketch and have the playtesters be like ‘How would this work?' And see if it would even work.” I think it's a unique benefit to be able to do both.

Do any of your designs go unused?

Patrick: Sure, absolutely. I think there's a huge advantage. If you understand the process of “Here's the handwritten cards on index cards,” all the way through to the final manufacturing. If you have an idea of how that works, then I think it saves you a lot of time on the back end, although I guess, here's the thing you may have hinted at earlier. Have you ever made illustrations for a game and then just had to completely throw them out because they weren't used, or something like that?

Alisha: Yes, all the time. Not even always for my own games, but sometimes for other people's games. I worked on a project, and I don't remember the exact name of it. I want to say it was [Meister's and Monsters], or something like that. It was a long time ago, and it was a huge project, I was working with a gentleman in Japan who was making a game for a company he worked for, a big corporate company. I designed, I did all the art, I did all these characters. 

Then it was a month later, and he got back to me saying that apparently, he had hired multiple illustrators, and we were all doing different parts of the game, but none of us knew the other existed, so nothing matched. Everything in the game was completely different, different styles, different everything. So he decided he was going to hire one person to do everything– And it was a huge project. 

One person designed everything, which is the smart thing to do if you're not going to match artist's styles together, and I ended up asking him, “If you're not using any of my stuff, can I have all the rights back?” He goes, “Yeah, go for it.” I took all the rights back, and that's how my free assets started on my website. I'm like, “I have all this stuff. I'm not using it.”

Patrick: That's very cool to hear that. An origin story for game assets. Let me give you a plug here, Alisha. I subscribe to your Patreon, number one, because I met you in person, and I want to support what you're doing. But number two, you give away free assets every month. Sorry, not free– For being a patron, you get assets every month, like “Here's ten useful items that you'd find in a dungeon.” And “Here's ten oozes.” 

I think the most recent one is fantasy banners. What is great, Alisha, is I have no idea when I'm going to use those assets, but I know I'm going to use them at some point, so it feels like an incredible deal for me. I love what you're doing there.

Alisha: Thank you. I try to keep my free assets. Any time I either come into assets, or I've designed something that is no longer needed, or I have free time, I try to put free ones out there. But if you're a patron, you could also get access to all those cool premium ones that I spend probably way too much time on. 

But I enjoy them, it's good and keeps me active, keeps me fresh on designs. I get to try cool stuff, so I appreciate everybody who's on my Patreon, but I also love giving back to the community like “Here, have a bunch of free stuff. Use it for whatever you need.”

When is the right time to start thinking about illustrations or graphic design?

Patrick: I think there's something also really smart about how you're giving away, first of all, super useful stuff. I have no doubt I'll use lots of those assets at some point. But what's great is I also think it's a way of promoting yourself and your business because let's say I have a dungeon item collecting game and I have 20 of your existing art assets, but I want to have 30 in the game. 

I'm totally– Alisha, you're going to be the first person I call to draw the remaining ten items. Because obviously, your style will match your style. I think it's a cool little thing, and it's nice to hear that history. Let me go back to illustrating and designing quickly. Are there any takeaways, maybe– Now that you've maybe done too much of the illustrating before getting started, when is the right time to start coming up with illustrations and think about the graphic design for your game?

Alisha: I think the best time– I think you should have your game to the table several times. 10-20 times and in front of other people before you get art or illustration done, and I think there's nothing wrong with using placeholder stuff and using free stuff online for your prototype. Once you hit a couple, once you think things aren't going to change too much– But I would wait until 100 playtests, 200 playtests until you have a game that you're– Let's say you've played it a couple of times and you're like “I haven't made changes in the last couple playtests and people like it, maybe I should start putting art in it.” 

I think that's a good time. That might be a lot, and I know not everybody– I play my games way too much, I'm sure. But get some good plays in there and make sure that you're not changing anything a ton because if you have to make changes, you're going to be paying your artist or your graphic designers money and money and money. And who wants to just throw away money? You don't want to throw money at people. You can throw money at me if you want, but you can't always do that. Just make sure that you're not going to make any major changes before you get art and illustration or graphic design. 

Small changes are fine because they're usually– It takes five minutes to change an icon out, but major things, make sure you've got a game there that's not going to change drastically because then you're wasting money. Money is important when you're a game designer, and we don't have a ton of it.

How did you start designing games for companies, and what is it like?

Patrick: Yeah. I totally hear you. Boy, 100-200. I'm trying to think of where I was with my game Fry Thief, and I think I was probably around playtest 60 or 70 before I started doing art, and that felt pretty good to me. Your numbers might not be that far off, so it's good to hear that. 

Going back to the questions– One thing that you pointed out before we started recording is you do illustrations for other people, you do illustrations for yourself, you design your own games which are good, and then you also design games for companies. First of all, tell us what that is and also how did that start? How do you design games for companies?

Alisha: For sure. It's a little weird because a lot of them have just been dropped in my lap, they just showed up. It comes down to– Apparently, a lot of corporate companies like to use board games to train their employees. Teamwork, team building, flashcard type stuff. That's not always fun when you're just an employee, and you have to read a document, then they quiz you on it. They make the games, so it's more fun, you learn more. 

I've had a couple of clients approach me like “I work for so-and-so, I need to help doing the graphics.” Sometimes they need help creating all the files and even uploading them to websites or working with manufacturers. They're like, “I need this. Can you make it a game, or can you do all this for me?” I'm like, “Yeah, I can do that. I do it already.” Oddly, this is probably the weirdest request I've had, and I made it for a bed manufacturing company in Canada. It was almost like Life, the game, but it was for beds, and it had to do with all of their different departments. It was really weird. It was cool, but it was really weird.

Patrick: I'm just curious how much testing do those games take? It's not like where you playtest it only two to three times. You know what I mean? Does it have to be as refined as board game enthusiasts want it to be refined, or is it a different type of product?

Alisha: It's very much a different type of product because generally it's– I think I've heard this thrown around a couple times, “It's less of a game and more of an activity.” There's not always a winner. Sometimes it's just “We learned stuff,” or that kind of thing. There's not always a winner, but sometimes there's an end goal, or sometimes it just goes until the game ends. Sometimes they don't take any playtesting at all. I believe, if I remember right, the bed one was where you roll a die, you move around the board, you land on something, and you collect the card almost like Candy Land in a way. 

As you collect cards, you gain stuff. So that one doesn't take a ton of playtesting, because it's more of an activity. It's like Candy Land or Life, but then there was one I did, it was a dungeon crawl. I don't know how this always happens, but it was a dungeon crawl where it was team building. You had a five-minute timer, and you marched your people along the map, and you opened up the map, and you fought monsters. The monsters had a number of players, like “I need three players.” You have to get three players there, and then you have to fold a paper airplane and give it to somebody, and they have to throw it 10 feet.

 If it doesn't go, you have to remake the airplane, or you have to solve a math problem together. It's all about team building. If you beat enough monsters, you have to go turn it in at the shop, and then whoever has the highest trophies at the end– They're very simple games, but they are corporate. They're not necessarily what you would see in a board game on a shelf in a store, because they're meant for specific things like team building or learning internal departments, and stuff.

Patrick: I guess I'm curious, what sort of requirements do they give you? Do they say, “Have a game with beds,” and you make Life? Or do they say, “We want it to look like Life, and we want it to have these features, but not this, and this but not this?”

Alisha: It depends on the company. Some companies have– They're like “We have this game that we've had for 20 years. Can you make it better?” Or “Can you just give it an overhaul?” They're like “I want this, I want the same rules and I don't want it to be any longer. I just want it to either look better, or I want it to play a little better.” Then it's usually just a little overhaul. It's nothing drastic because a lot of companies– For the dungeon crawl one, that one I had almost free reign on. They were like, “This is what we need, you just give us whatever's best.” Then they had small tweaks.

What games inspire you?

Patrick: Very cool. I don't think I've heard of too many people doing something similar, so it's cool to hear that. Let me jump down towards the bottom. What other games out there inspire you? What games, in the board game world, make you want to create new things?

Alisha: That's a hard one because I have multiple game groups that I play with, and they're all at different levels. I'm trying to think. I have a game group that does a lot of party games, and I have a game group that's party games to low-medium, maybe casual-ish. Then I've got a medium to high. These three groups, I have probably two or three-game nights a month, and I get to experience so many games that it's hard to picture just one type or just one thing in particular because I get to experience all of them. 

I think things that– At least, game types that help me are games that are theme-heavy and tell a story. I love that in games. If you can play a game, even if it's euro, but it tells a story, I feel like that makes you connect to it better. Those always inspire me to make games that tell a story, even if they're not story games.

Patrick: Let me ask you about that because I think telling a story could mean a lot of different things. Are you talking about games that literally tell you a story? Every single time you land in a new space, you read a paragraph of text? Or they're just games that are so thematic that you're imagining every single thing of what's happening, as it's happening?

Alisha: It's a little bit of both, almost. There's two games that I think of, Seven Continent, which is you build the map as you go, you're exploring, you're solving little puzzles. It's just this giant, exploring game. There's not necessarily a story there. There's occasionally a card that tells you stuff, but you're almost making the story as you go, which I like because the game doesn't tell me what's going on. 

I can assume what's going on by all the tiles I'm on. “Oh my God, I'm in a jungle. Oh my God, it's snowing.” I like that. Then there's also games like Time Stories, which are stories that you're puzzling your way through. I love that. I love anything that gives me an experience. I guess maybe I'm thinking more of the word “Experience” and less of storytelling. Something where I feel the game, I understand the game, like I'm in the game, which I love.

What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?

Patrick: Love it. Let me move towards the ending questions, here. You do a lot of different things. What's a resource you'd recommend to another indie game designer?

Alisha: Absolutely. If people haven't gotten there already, James Mathe's blog posts on James Mathe's website. He is a treasure to game designers. He has a blog that has everything from design, to Kickstarters, marketing, manufacturers. Everything you ever didn't know you needed to know about game design is there, it's free, and anybody can read it. It's probably the best resource I've had since I've started. It's got everything. It's the best.

Patrick: Fantastic. Anything illustration or graphic design-wise, since you know a lot about that and most game designers don't know nearly as much as you do?

Alisha: If you're looking for artists, which sometimes you need to look for artists or if you're teaming up with somebody, the normal sites are DeviantArt, ConceptArt.org. But don't be afraid to look at other board games and find those artists as well, because they have the experience. If you're looking for free art, there's so many sites out there with free stuff. Just be careful of Google. 

You've got my website, you've got– What is it called? Pixel– My list vanished. There it is, “Unsplash” is a site I love. They've got high-resolution photos that you can use for basically anything. I love them for reference. I love them for backgrounds. I love them for basically anything. That's a huge one. If people who don't know what Unsplash is, just imagine high-resolution photos of anything you can think of. They have pictures of it, and you can just use them for anything. That one's huge. 

If you're looking for free icons, Game-Icons.net, probably my favorite place to find very basic, very simple icons. Either for inspiration or just for use in your game. It's huge. Then there is OpenGameArt, which I think is more video game based, but it still can be used for board games. Which is also a nice one, and that's all free stuff. Paid stuff, The Game Crafter has a design asset store with tons of– Some free, but also tons of paid stuff. You get packs of stuff, and you take what you need. Pick and choose. Those are probably my recommended sources for art and graphic design.

What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?

Patrick: Awesome. I'm familiar with Unsplash and Game-Icons, but I was not familiar with OpenGameArt, so thank you for sharing that. That looks interesting. I'll have to take a little bit of a better look a little bit later, just to see what sort of stuff they have. 

My other question I like to ask people is– You probably know this about me, but I'm a pretty frugal person, so I try not to spend money if I don't have to. What is something that was worth every single dollar, or every single cent you spent on it, in the game design world? What's your best purchase of all time?

Alisha: That's got to be my prototypes. I don't buy very much stuff, because when you go to Protospiels, you get so many open, free, blank assets or poker cards and tiles and stuff. So I've got more than that than I need, but when you get your first printed prototype of your game, that is priceless. 

They're not always cheap, but when you get someone to sit down and play your game, fully arted, graphic design, it has everything. They can look past the ugly prototype stage and start giving you feedback past what it looks like, which I think is huge. For me, that's always– I don't know, mind-blowing. When it's just like, “You've had a great game. Let's play it like it's a game and not like it's a prototype.” I think the printed prototypes, for me, have always been the best money I've ever spent.

Patrick: I completely agree. It is magical when you see your game come– To me, it's almost like it's coming to life. It's like, “Here's this abstract thing, and now it's a real thing.” I hear you. Cool.

Alisha: Absolutely.

What does success in the board game world look like to you?

Patrick: Then, what does success in the board game world look like to you?

Alisha: Let's see. I've always thought– I think a lot of us in this, you make a ton of money, and your game is in all the big stores, and that might be true for some people. But I think over the last couple of years I've come to realize that even getting your game in a couple people's hands is success. 

You made a game, people like it, they wanted it, and they have it. I think that's the success. Sure, maybe making a million dollars is more gratifying. But I don't know, and I like the idea of just getting my game in people's hands. For me, that's just success. Like “You did it. You did a thing. Be proud of yourself.”

Overrated/Underrated

Patrick: I love hearing stuff like that. Having gone through the whole thing, there's something simple about just “If someone wants to play my game, I just want them to play it. I don't need to make a million bucks.” OK, I like to end with a game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Alisha: I have not.

Patrick: Excellent. I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you're going to tell me if you think it is overrated or underrated. If I said, “Madison, Wisconsin,” you're going to be like “Underrated because the convention center where The Game Crafter has CrafterCon is awesome.” Something like that, cool?

Alisha: OK.

Patrick: Cool. So first one, tile-laying games. Are they overrated or underrated?

Alisha: I think they're underrated. I don't feel like I play very many, and every time I play them, they're great, but I don't hear people talking about them very often. I think the big thing right now is roll and writes.

Patrick: That is the big thing. OK, how about– I made an assumption that you're from Wisconsin, so this might change your answer. Cheese curds, overrated or underrated?

Alisha: Underrated, because cheese curds are the best thing ever created, ever. They can never be better. So they're always underrated, never overrated.

Patrick: Great answer. I'm from Wisconsin originally, so I have a fondness for cheese curds. Then I'm curious if you know this, how do you know if a cheese curd is good?

Alisha: It squeaks.

Patrick: There, we go great. For people who are not from Wisconsin, you're just going to have to go to Wisconsin and ask for cheese curds and find out. I'll just leave it alone. Then I'm going to go with a specific type of randomize and write game, and I'm going to go with a flip and write game. Meaning, cards specifically. Are those overrated, underrated, or “Patrick, this is way too niche?”

Alisha: That might be a little too niche. I've never heard of a flip and write game before.

Patrick: I think the biggest one is probably Welcome To. Anyways, it's just a category of roll and writes, but instead of dice, it's a deck of cards.

Alisha: That sounds cool. Is it underrated because no one talks about it?

Patrick: You can totally say that. I like it. Then the last one is just food trucks. Overrated, underrated?

Alisha: I think they're a little overrated. I think there's something nice about sitting down and eating food at a restaurant or at home. I don't know if I want to walk to a truck and eat food and then eat it or have it get cold by the time I get back to my office.

Wrap up

Patrick: Yes. I'd definitely say they're situational, for sure. Cool. Alisha, thank you so much for being on the show.

Alisha: You're very welcome. I've had a blast. It's been great.

Patrick: Where can people find you, your games, and your art online?

Alisha: For sure. You can find me on Twitter, and it's @AlishaVolkmann. You can also find me on my Patreon, which is Patreon.com/AlishaVolkmann. Then you can also find me on my website, AlishaDoesArt.com.

Patrick: Awesome. Listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes, or wherever you listen to this. If you leave a review, Alisha said she would make a dragon balloon for you.

Alisha: Totally.

Patrick: Cool. Again, at the time of this recording, I don't have any sort of publishing deal for Mintsugi. I'm just thinking about what I want to do with that game, so I might self-publish. If so, I started an email list for the game. I will have a link to that in the show notes where you can sign up if you want to follow along. 

Then the first Protospiel Denver will be March of 2020, I'll be attending, and I would love to play your game. If you're anywhere nearby, just stop on by. We'll play a game, and it'll be fun. I'll try to have a link to that in the show notes. You can generally find board game stuff on tabletop.events, and you can also just find it manually that way. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek. I am @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

Alisha: Bye.

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