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 Cassie Elle who designed Wizard Shelf, an 18-card set collection game which is coming out via Concrete Canoe on their Kickstarter, which I will link to in the show notes. This episode should come out when that Kickstarter is live. Cassie is also a content creator and a board game reviewer, and she's also considering publishing other people's games, so she's also considering becoming a traditional publisher. Cassie, welcome to the show.

Cassie Elle: Thank you for having me on the show.

Introduction

Patrick: So I'd like to start with a little game to introduce you to the audience, the lightning round. OK?

Cassie: Boy, OK.

Patrick: I know you live in Florida, so I need to know what is the best– and I know Florida has these. What is the best theme park in Florida?

Cassie: The best theme park in Florida. Universal, because Hogwarts is there.

Patrick: OK. Have you been to the new Hogwarts stuff?

Cassie: Definitely, not when it opened right away because that's just ridiculous, but yes.

Patrick: Very cool. What is the favorite game that you've reviewed?

Cassie: The reason this is one of my favorites is because it was one of the first games I reviewed and I was attracted to it, it's called Underlings of Underwing, and it's a Game by Alicia Volkman where you are collecting gems to hatch dragon eggs and turn them into dragons. It's just a very beautiful game. It was one of the first games that I was into when I started getting into indie games, and I reviewed it, and it was one of my favorites.

Patrick: Very cool, I'll have to check that out. Alicia Volkman does awesome illustrations, so I'm sure it looks really good. Then, I just realized, Cassie, because of the first question with Hogwarts, now I have to know what is your Harry Potter house?

Cassie: Raven Claw.

Patrick: Raven Claw, got it. That makes sense. Lastly, what is a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?

Cassie: OK. So I had a little bit of difficulty deciding a game for this because it's convention specific. I think it would be best for games that need larger groups of people, a larger amount of people. I went with Shadow Hunters because Shadow Hunters is one of the games where you have to figure out who is who, but you also get to be on teams. It's also co-op, competitive co-op, I don't know the best way to explain it, but that's a great game to play with four-plus players. Conventions are the easiest way for me to find four-plus players who are willing to play this game with me.

Patrick: Very cool, yeah. I'll have to look into it. I'm looking at it right now. I'd say, is semi co-op the right technical word?

Cassie: Yeah. It depends on how many players you have, how many people can be on a team. Some people might be the only member of their team, but teams are against each other. Yeah, I guess semi coop is a good way to put it.

How Did You Get Into Board Games and Board Game Design?

Patrick: So first real question, how do you get to board games and board game design?

Cassie: Star Trek is how I got into board games. It's because I was getting into Star Trek and I saw Wil Wheaton on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was wondering, now he's all grown up, what is he up to? I found out he had a show called Tabletop on YouTube. I started watching tabletop, and I was like “Wow, these games look amazing. I want to check these out.” I've always been into board games. I was always into Clue and Monopoly and Life. So seeing all these other kinds of neat games out there, I had to check them out. There was International Tabletop Day. 

I went to my local game store for International Tabletop Day, and I made some new friends that were like “Come sit down and play this game.” They introduced me to Ticket to Ride, which I got to see on tabletop. Seeing it in real life was a very exciting experience for someone who's getting into new games. Ticket to Ride was one of the– Or maybe it was my first modern game? Just went from there and I kept going back to the game store and playing more games with friends and yeah, that's how I got into it.

Patrick: That's very cool. Basically, a TV show and you liked an actor in a TV show, and you wanted to see what the actor is doing. I have seen his tabletop show I think years ago. I remember watching him play, maybe Small World, or something. But yeah, that was a great show. Then from that, you went to your board game store. There's a lot of pieces in that. I wonder if one of those things didn't happen, if Wil Wheaton loved board games but didn't love tabletop, maybe you never would have gotten in?

Cassie: Definitely. I think there's a lot of different things in my life that would be different if I hadn't gotten interested in gaming.

What About Board Game Design Specifically?

Patrick: Oh, wow. Then what about board game design, specifically?

Cassie: Board game design just developed from my interests in– so I like to have my hands get involved in a lot of different things. As you'll learn, I have my hands on a lot of different things in the game industry, but it's because I just like little pieces of each position. In reviewing, I like taking a game and breaking it down and figuring out what's fun, what's not, and then that led into I want to– now that I've learned how to break it down, I want to do something else with this information. What else can I do with this information? Maybe I can do the reverse, build something up which is design a game. So that's how I just decided to, I guess, follow my nose.

Patrick: Was it like a challenge? Like, “I wonder if I can do this?”

Cassie: No, it was more like, “I know I can do this, but I don't know what direction I want to take what I know.” The reason that I was able to design something is because I did it for a contest. I don't know if you can hear, I have a thunderstorm going on outside. The reason I was able to design a game is because there was a contest, and I was given constraints. With game design, I was having a really hard time coming up with an idea without constraints and so here comes a contest with constraints and that's exactly what I needed.

Patrick: Very cool. I love it. Just curious, because I know your game, The Wizard Shelf is like an 18 card game. Was that the 18 card game challenge on The Game Crafter?

Cassie: It wasn't the one on The Game Crafter, but it was an 18 card game contest, that was the constraint. It was for GenCant. There's Gen Con. And then there is an online community that celebrates those that cannot attend Gen Con called GentCant. So they had a contest for an 18 card game, and I was like “You know what? I'm going to do it. I'm going to build something around these constraints.” And I went for it.

How Did You Capture The Attention of Your Publisher?

Patrick: Very cool. Obviously, the publisher saw it. Why don't you tell us that story? Because you're not publishing it, Concrete Canoe– Who, by the way, is Dan Grech. I want to say he– I'll look up the episode number in a second, but he was on a previous episode. How did he find out about your game? Did you pitch it to him? Did he see it? What was the story there?

Cassie: When I made my video for my game, I shared it widely, because I wanted to get feedback from people, and I wanted publishers to see it as well. It wasn't my goal, necessarily, to get it signed. I just wanted to get it in the contest and see how well it did with feedback. It, being Wizard Shelf, my game. When I was sharing it around, I was already friends with Dan Grech just from around. He saw my video, and he reached out to me, and he's working on lines of 18 card games that have little hook boxes around them. He reached out to me and said, “Can I get a print and play and the rules?” and just wanted to check it out. He checked it out, and he said he liked it enough to send me a contract.

Patrick: That's very cool.

Cassie: Yeah. So it just happened from people seeing it. I think there's something to be said, not necessarily about who you know, but about being willing to let go of the fear of spreading yourself out there. If you hold back on your designs and you don't let anyone see them, then no one's going to see them. I think that's a big thing in how I got signed, is I shared it, and people saw it.

What About Social Media and Content Engagement?

Patrick: On the topic of sharing, I think I probably first met you on Twitter before anywhere else?

Cassie: I would say, yeah, I think that's right.

Patrick: Because you share a lot of stuff on Twitter, you also have a pretty big following. I mean that in a good way, that you share a lot of things but you also have a lot of engagements. People follow you because they like chatting with you, because you share so much and are very– I think, as vulnerable as people want to get on Twitter.

Cassie: Yeah. I've recently locked my Twitter account because I've just been a little– I don't know what the word– I guess I've just been feeling anxious. I have general anxiety, and I share that information about that on my Twitter. Lately, I've just been feeling anxious, and I don't know what it is. I've had lots of stuff going on in my life. I have new projects, and I'm just like “I'm going to just settle down for a bit.” So if anyone's trying to find me and you can't figure that out, I've been letting people follow me. I've been accepting all of the requests, but I like– I don't know, it's something about, like you said, how you can be so open to Twitter. I'm closing down how open I've been lately.

Patrick: I think there's a—“Cost” isn't the right word, but there is like you don't want to share everything on Twitter. I do think you have a ton of followers, and I assume they came to you because you shared so many cool things. I think there's probably the right balance for everyone of sharing the right amount of stuff.

Cassie: It's true.

Patrick: Yeah. So you probably can get your game ideas out there, but not share every single thing.

Cassie: You're right, and I'm probably not going to keep my account locked for that much longer. It's just as my anxiety goes up and down like I said, I have generalized anxiety. I see a therapist for it, and I take medication for it. It comes and goes, and when it comes, I put myself on a lockdown, I bury my head in a book, and then I watch a lot of Star Trek, and I put my Twitter on private.

Tell Me About A Wizard’s Shelf

Patrick: That sounds great. That sounds fun. Changing gears a little bit, tell me a little bit about your game, Wizard Shelf, sorry, is it– No, it's just Wizard Shelf, not A Wizard Shelf. Wizard Shelf. There we go. Where did the idea come from? Was there any design challenges you ran into? How did the game come to be?

Cassie: Yes. The restrictions were 18 cards, and so what I did was I looked at games that I have played, that I've enjoyed that were 18 card games. One of the ones I enjoyed was Circle the Wagons by Stephen Aramini. One of the things that his cards have are– that I've noticed in a lot of his 18 card games are quadrants. I was like “OK, and I'm going to build an 18 card game about quadrants.” 

I didn't really know exactly what I wanted to do from there, but I really like magical-themed games and things that are about wizards and casting spells, and so I was like “OK, what can I do with 18 cards? Something with quadrants and something with magic?” I was sitting on those ideas for a little while before I came up with Wizard Shelf. I don't know, is it “A Wizard Shelf” or “Wizard Shelf”? I think it's “A Wizard Shelf” on the box. Is it terrible that I go back and forth between “A Wizard Shelf” and “Wizard Shelf.” I honestly don't care if the A is there or not. I think it matters for Board Game Geek and things like that.

Patrick: OK. For accuracy purposes, I just looked up the image, which theoretically could change before the Kickstarter, because we're recording this before the Kickstarter. The current box has “A Wizard Shelf.” Lookup for “Wizard Shelf” or “A Wizard Shelf.”

Cassie: It's going to show up either way because there's nothing else that's Wizard Shelf out there, I'm pretty sure. Also, there's just like some 18 card games, and there's not that many of those out there either. If someone's having a problem finding it, just let me know. I will help you. This won't be a problem.

What Design Challenges Did You Run Into?

Patrick: Was there any design challenge– Was there something– Did the design basically work on the first try? Obviously, there's refining and balancing. Did the game work on the first try, or were there things that had to be ironed out?

Cassie: So, no, it did not. The game I submitted to the GenCant contest is different, for sure than the one I ended up submitting. It was nice because I am friends with a couple of different designers and publishers, and I was able to send them copies, and they were able to give me feedback. One of the things that I received feedback on and I changed, is the game originally had almost all of the cards laid out on the table face down. I guess the cards are double-sided, but the shelf side face up. On the other side of the cards is a spell. Spell side face down. It was like a market, and it was too much. There was too many options, having all of these cards and all of these options.

 That was one thing that I encountered is analysis paralysis. So I reduced the market down quite a bit to make decks of cards and then have only a few cards out from the deck at a time, to make the market. That was one example of something that I needed to change. Another thing that we've needed to change is figuring out– on the backside of the card, the spell– let me back up and explain. In the game, you are a wizard, and you are collecting shelves with items on them and to your player area. You are placing them in such a way that you want items that are the same type next to each other like you want all of your books and all of your wands to be on the shelf next to each other. 

But you don't want the same color of things to be next to each other. You want all your books next to each other, but you don't want a blue book to be next to a blue wand to be next to a blue hat. But you want all of the hats near each other. It's like figuring out your correct placement. So you get points at the end of the game based off of how your groupings are, you're collecting sets of different things from the shelves. But you also get points by drafting the shelves for the other side of the card, which is a spell. 

The spell, if you get certain items adjacent to each other, based off of the spells requirements, you get a special bonus that you earn points for. Maybe you get an extra couple of points for wands, or you get extra points for pairs of hat and books. There's those two ways to earn points. One of the difficult things that I was trying to figure out is the balance of how many items you need adjacent to each other and what items you need adjacent to each other, to be successful at casting spells. For a while, it was too difficult, and nobody wanted to do anything with spells, they just wanted to get items on their shelves, and that's all the points that were happening. 

I wanted people to get points for spells, too. I wanted both point systems to be used, and only one point system was being used. So I had to make it easier for the other point system to be used and also to make the value of the other points system to increase. So it was a little bit of balancing, figuring out what items like I said “How many should be part of a spell? How many points certain parts of the spell should be worth.” Stuff like that.

Patrick: No. I think anything with points will need lots of tweaking, but it sounds like most of your game worked. There was a little bit of too much analysis paralysis, but it sounds like you basically simplified your game and it got a lot better.

Cassie: Yes, there was. It needed a little bit more as well. I felt like there was– It was like “You do 1 or you do 2, you do 1, or you do 2.” I needed to make it more entertaining as well. Like I said, there was a few tweaks, but like you said, the core was there. I just needed to polish it up around the edges.

How Did You Create the Artwork?

Patrick: Awesome. Then a very serious question about your game, Cassie, are you on the front cover?

Cassie: Yes, it's supposed to be me. The illustrator, what is her name? She's not on Twitter. She's not on Facebook. It's [Faron]. Gosh, what is [Faron's] last name? I'll link it to you, and you can put it in the show notes [Faron]. She was given a picture of me and was basically said to illustrate the wizard on the cover to be like me. So it is a little bit of me.

Patrick: That's awesome. I should have requested that for Fry Thief, but I did not. I'll have to do that for my next game. Somehow sneak me in as a little Easter egg.

Cassie: I think that would be a lot of fun. You should totally have yourself drawn into one of the cards.

Does Reviewing Games Help You with Game Design?

Patrick: I did do that for Fry Thief. I did add myself to one of the cards. We'll have to see if you can recognize that or something. Anyway, back to your games. One of the things I wanted to talk to you about, is you've reviewed– one of the things I think is cool is that you've reviewed a lot of games. Have you learned anything from reviewing all these games? Let me ask you the underlying question, the sub-question, the thing I'm getting at, does reviewing games make you a better game designer? Is there something you learned from reviewing games that helps you?

Cassie: Gosh, I don't know. Heavy question. There's also this crazy thunderstorm going on. I mentioned earlier I'm in Florida, and we're on the cusp of a hurricane coming so there's just crazy stuff going on outside right now and I keep getting distracted by it. Anyway, so things I've learned from reviewing that helped me with designing. I think it's being able to– One, I have been exposed to so much. I've been exposed to so many mechanics and so many ways of calculating points, so many ways of making a game, a solo game. 

I've just been exposed to so many different games and themes and mechanics and components that I really feel like if I need to past a hump or I'm having a problem with– I'm actually working on another prototype at the moment, and there was something that I was– It's a co-operative game, but it just didn't have this urgency that I'm like “There's something missing. It needs an urgency.” I couldn't pinpoint it. I'm thinking about the different co-operative games I'm playing. I watch a couple of videos of people who've made prototypes that are co-operative. After getting exposed to so much, I'm like, “Let me try one of these different ideas from a couple of these other different games.” 

One of them worked, and I playtested it with this new idea that I have found in another game. If I hadn't been exposed to these games and then be able to go back and look at these games and say “Hey, that was a co-operative game, that was fun. Let me see what it was about that game that I enjoyed.” I think I would be struggling a lot more with designing because I don't have a good design group here that I see regularly. I have a good playtest group, but they're not all designers. So finding people to ask regularly, or people that I can pick their brain about game-specific things like mechanics and fancy components or talking to people about “Can something be made? Can something be shipped from China?” Just having been exposed to all of this stuff, I think has given me a step up.

Patrick: Cassie, what's cool is the thing I just pulled out of there. The thing that I think is making a lot of sense to me is a lot of guests talk about, and I've been echoing the need for, a really good design group. Even if you have playtesters, that's different than designers, as you made that distinction. I can get lots of my friends to playtest my games, but they give me different feedback than a game designer would.

Cassie: Definitely. I've playtested with a designer, and they'll break it down and say, “This part was fun, but this part wasn't, and this part was repetitive, and this part wasn't.” That's not maybe the most specific example, but they'll say more than “It was fun or it wasn't.”

Patrick: Yeah. Then I wonder if you could almost solve your own problems by reviewing games. If you are in a very rural area, there's no big cities around you, and there's no game design groups around you, maybe then it might be a wise choice to become a board game reviewer. Just so you are constantly exposed to those new mechanisms because the group can't do it for you, you have to do it for yourself, that might be a good way of doing it. Cassie, that's cool.

Cassie: Yeah. It's not a bad idea. You don't have to do it for content's sake. You can do it for your own sake. Have a journal and play games and review them. What about the components, what about the mechanics, what about the scoring did you enjoy? And why didn't you enjoy it? How far ahead was somebody? Was that fun, how far ahead they were? Like you said, you can review, and it forces you to break it down.

What Appeals To You About Publishing?

Patrick: It forces you to break it down and think about it. Love it. Very cool. That's a great answer. Something else I wanted to chat to you about is, I know from our chats– We met at Origins for the first time, we met at Gen Con, and we've chatted online for a little bit. Also, you reviewed Fry Thief, so we've been chatting for a while. I know that you are thinking about publishing other people's games. I guess my question for you is, “Why go down that route?” Because I think a lot of people publish their own games, but not a lot of other people are like “I want to be a publisher and publish other people's games.” What is the desire there? What is the thing you're trying to do?

Cassie: I'll admit that not everybody can do everything, and I don't think that I make the best designer. I think I make an OK designer like I'm a good designer. I think I can make a game and it's a fun game. But I feel like my strength comes in my ability to manage and organize and orchestrate. I just got to experience that by helping publish a game, Matryoshka, from Letiman Games. I managed the publishing project and I have to say it was a really cool experience to be the one in charge of everything and to be the one who has to do all of the research, who's doing all of the direction and the guidance for the art direction or even the hiring of someone to do the art direction. 

Being able to, like I said, my strengths come with my organizing and my managing, and I get to use my strengths, and it was really enjoyable. That's one of the things, I don't think I'm the strongest designer, but I think I make a stronger publisher. The other thing is I have encountered games that I want to play them over and over and over again, and I enjoy them, and I'm like “If I was a publisher, I would publish this right now.” Then I think, “Why don't I, though?” So it's been a little bit of both of those, of my desire to see my skills in the board game industry in a way that I think is most effective, and my desire to put really good games out there that I think deserve to be out in people's hands.

Patrick: Very cool. This is going to sound silly. I love that you love indie game designers, you love sharing the message of these little games. It's pretty cool.

Cassie: I do, and I didn't touch much on it, but I started a website many years, many years ago was probably like three or four years ago, a website called the Indie Game Report. All we focus on is indies, indie publishers, indie designers, indie games, and I've always been the one to enjoy those hidden gems. If I can find a hidden gem and I get to share that with the world, that is cool.

Patrick: I like that. Just for people who– is that the type of thing they could reach out and say “Hey, will you review my game for my Kickstarter?” Or is that not what they do?

Cassie: I'm not taking any requests right now for reviews, because I have a crazy long queue. I have a website, and you could go onto the website, submit a request and honestly, the only ones that I've said ‘no' to, were games that I wouldn't be able to get to the table to give it a playtest, like a party game. It's really hard for me to get a big group, party games to the table. I also wouldn't enjoy games that are like Cards Against Humanity-type games, those kinds of party games, and I say ‘no' to cause I'm not going to enjoy it. Save your money, don't send me the game. That's usually how I would do it is I would have an indie publisher designer send me an e-mail.

What's a Resource You'd Recommend?

Patrick: Very cool. I do want to move towards the end here, and one my favorite questions and I am excited to hear what you say here because you've such a wide breadth of experience, but what is a resource you'd recommend to another indie game designer?

Cassie: Oh, gosh. A resource that I would recommend. There is a book that Geoff Englestein just put out. That's like The Encyclopedia of Board Game Mechanisms. I don't have it, but I am going to get it because I have this little book– there is a game that came out– real quick, there was a game that came out last summer, spring called Mechanisms, and it's 52 cards, and each card is a different mechanism and is a party game. 

I got two copies, one for the game to play with and one to use as a reference guide because it's a whole slew of mechanisms. But now there's this huge book out there of mechanisms, and it's great when you're in a bind, and you're like “What is it that I'm trying to figure out?” You could flip through it and think, “Oh, what if I tried this mechanism? What if I tried this mechanic?” So I would recommend that book, for sure.

What's the Best Money You've Spent?

Patrick: Oh, cool. Love it. I'm a frugal person, and I try not to spend money if I don't have to. What is something that was the best money you've spent in the game design world?

Cassie: I think it would be going to my first prototype event, it was Protospiel, or it's not a Protospiel, Proto Atlanta. Specific Proto Atlanta, not Protospiel. Go to Protospiels, go to Unpubs. That's what I would recommend doing is saving your money up. Don't spend it on stuff because you can make everything by hand with pieces of paper and scrap stuff you've got lying around. Use your coins out of your penny jar. You can't replace being around other designers and getting this kind of feedback and experience.

Patrick: Cool. I love that. Not a lot of people recommend prototyping events. So it's cool to hear that. Let me ask one clarifying question there. Why would you recommend a prototyping event as opposed to like a GenCon, or an Origins, or something like that?

Cassie: I guess it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to design, you're going to have the focus be on designing, so you're going to get a lot of things done, I think, on your designing to-do list, that you're looking to get done at an event such as that. If you go to a GenCon, or an Origins, it's going to be very restricted in the time that you have to devote to what you're working on, I think. It's such a large event that you feel spread thin trying to do multiple things, and it can be distracting. So if you're focused on getting design work done and if you're focused on getting found by publishers, I think getting your game in front of a lot of people at these Unpubs and these Protospiels and the other ones that are just prototyping events, they're definitely worthwhile.

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: Very cool. Love it. Then my favorite question is, what does success look like to you in the board game world?

Cassie: That's such a hard question to answer. Success is if I'm happy with what I've done.

Patrick: OK. Give me a little more there.

Cassie: If I wake up in the morning and I think “Yeah, I did good work yesterday” and I'm happy with what I did, then I was successful. Whether I was trying to get published or not. If I woke up and I was happy that I wasn't published, if I woke up and I'm just happy that my design is good, then I think that's a success because I'm happy.

Patrick: Great. So it's about a feeling?

Cassie: It's definitely about feeling. If you're happy, like everybody says, it's about the journey, not the destination. So if you're enjoying your journey of designing and you're waking up every day, and you're like “Yeah, I did good work yesterday” then I think that's a success. If you're waking up, and you're like “Man, I really should have worked hard on my game yesterday.” Do that today, because then tomorrow when you wake up, you're going to feel happy.

Overrated / Underrated

Patrick: Love it. Very cool. I like to end with a game called Overrated/Underrated. You've heard about it, right?

Cassie: Yes.

Patrick: Great. So I'm going to give you a word or phrase, something like, oh boy, I got to get a new one today. You know what? I'm going to go with La-Z-Boys, are they overrated/underrated? You have to say La-Z-Boys are obviously underrated. They're so comfy. Something like that. Cool? Great. All right. So first one, GenCon the conference, overrated or underrated?

Cassie: Overrated. Way too many people.

Patrick: It's a lot of people.

Cassie: Too many.

Patrick: Got it. OK, noise-canceling headphones. Overrated or underrated?

Cassie: I'm going to guess underrated because I don't have any. People love them for some reason, so I'm going to say they're underrated.

Patrick: Oh, Cassie, you got to. Because I know you flew to GenCon. You got to get noise-canceling headphones for your next flight. They are fantastic.

Cassie: I'll look into it.

Patrick: Bundles of games on Kickstarter, and by that I mean, for example, like what Dan Grek is doing with Concrete Canoe games, like “Here's a Kickstarter for three games.” Stuff like that. Is that overrated or underrated?

Cassie: I think it depends on the game and the value. I think it can be underrated, but I think it can also be overrated. I think it just depends. You have to do your research on the value of what you're getting in the bundle.

Patrick: OK, cool. Got it. Very cool. Then, the last one. We're very quickly, approaching fall. And by Fall, I mean the season. Is that overrated or underrated rated?

Cassie: It's underrated. Fall is so great.

Patrick: What? All right. You got to give me a reason why here.

Cassie: OK, so everyone goes out for a Fall, but we could go out, even more, is what I'm thinking. I think everyone should dress up as leaves and we should all drink pumpkin spice every day. No, I'm just kidding, but I do love the fall. Anything fall makes me happy.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Very cool. Cassie, thank you so much for being on the show.

Cassie: Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.

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

Cassie: I know I mentioned earlier that my Twitter is private, but like I said, I probably won't keep it private for long. So you can find me on Twitter @FriedmanCassie. You can find me on my website, CassieElle.com. I'm also on Facebook, Cassie Elle.

Patrick: Very cool. Again listeners, her game Wizard Shelf– Sorry, A Wizard Shelf, will be on Kickstarter when this episode airs. I will make sure to include a link in the show notes. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you leave a review, Cassie said she would review your game tagline and give you some feedback on it, so that's pretty great. You can visit the site, IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, and you can follow me on Twitter, I am @BFTrick. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye

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 the experience they gained along the way and the lessons they've learned. My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I'll be talking with Brigette Indelicato, who designed The Plot Thickens, which is a storytelling game that she co-designed with a few different people. I have had too much coffee, but Bridget, welcome to the show.

Brigette Indelicato: Thanks so much.

Introduction

Patrick: OK, so I like to start with a lightning round game to introduce you to the guests. Cool?

Brigette: Yeah.

Patrick: All right. What is your favorite fiction book of all time?

Brigette: The first thing that comes to mind is Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Sci-Fi novels are some of my favorites and that one's just so fun and silly.

Patrick: Yes, absolutely, it's really good. Now, you're a graphic designer, and I have experience designing software. So I always think about software that fails. So in the graphic design world, what is the most recent graphic design failure that you've seen or experienced?

Brigette: I've definitely had my share of them over the last decade or so, graphic designing. The first thing that comes to mind is board game related. I did the graphic design for War Chest, the game from AEG and a pet peeve that a few people have taken and mentioned on BGG is that the hexes that you're supposed to take over, the graphic that delineates that they're supposed to be taken over doesn't go all the way past where the tokens are, which is just such a dumb. It changed so many times that I didn't test the last version to see how it all overlaid. Seeing those comments and people taking a Sharpie marker to their board were a little painful. But it was a good lesson.

Patrick: It's also nice that you brought up your own example because when I think of software design fails, I think of other people's software. I don't think about my own, and my own is obviously perfect. The third question is, “What is a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?”

Brigette: Recently, I've been playing a lot of Just One with friends at conventions. Just because my brain is usually shot by the end of the day of talking to people and looking at prototypes and all that stuff, that or Telestrations is used to be one that would always come out at conventions. It's just like a fun, social one to play with the new people that you just met.

Patrick: Is Just One the one where you have to give people clues, and if two people have the same clue, they have to erase them?

Brigette: Yeah.

Patrick: I've played that one time, I like that game.

Brigette: Yeah, it's a really good one.

Tell Me About The Plot Thickens

Patrick: So you made a game about storytelling, called The Plot Thickens. I think to start, where did a storytelling game come from? Maybe to start, what is The Plot Thickens and then where did it come from?

Brigette: Sure. So The Plot Thickens is a collaborative storytelling card game. There are three decks of cards. There are people, places, and things. On your turn, you have a hand of five of those cards, and then you improvise a story with your turn. Throughout the game, other people use these people, places, and things. The object of the game is to interconnect the stories, as much as possible. At the end of the game, the person who connected the most gets to say how the story ends. The person who is connected to, the person who contributed fun things to interact with, they get to name the story. 

It's more collaborative and about having a fun experience. The idea came from– we were playing, me and my co-designers, Tom and Mike, we played some other storytelling games, and we realized all of the ones that we had played were competitive. You didn't ever really tell a good story, because the mechanic was normally “OK, I'm taking it over. I'm interrupting you.” Also, quiet people would have a hard time playing those types of stories. That's what inspired us like, “What would a collaborative storytelling game look like?” Then it went from there.

Patrick: Very cool. I've played a couple of those. Played a storytelling game just like that where there are interrupt cards, and then you take control of the story. You're playing cards to continue telling the story, but you're just trying to shed your cards as fast as possible. You do that basically until someone interrupts area. Interesting.

Brigette: Which can be fun with the right group, but we found there were people in our group that never jump in because they don't have that type of personality that I'm going to interrupt someone else. That was definitely something that we wanted, especially with that end game result. Even if you don't connect to other people's as much, even if you contribute one fun idea, you might get to name the story in the end.

Patrick: The other thing– I am just thinking about those types of games, is there's also a moment of I'm just going to call it “Feel-Badsies” where I've played a couple of storytelling games like this, where someone interrupts and then someone else interrupts the interrupter immediately. So they get out one card, instead of five cards and then through bad timing, you might only be able to play one card in the entire game, which is not great. So anyway, it's very cool that you tried to solve that problem, I like it.

Brigette: Yeah, thanks.

Why Did You Decide to Create Three Genres?

Patrick: One of the things that I like is you– Basically, I don't know if I should call them expansions or modules, but you have basically three different genres, Romance, Sci-Fi, and Detective. Why did you decide to create those three, right out of the get-go?

Brigette: Sure. When we very first developed the game, we came up with the Noir theme first, which is where The Plot Thickens title comes from as well. Then, as we were developing it, we thought that's not necessarily going to resonate with every type of player. As a big Sci-Fi fan, that was the next one that we thought of because improvising a Star Trek inspired a story, or something, would be easier for someone who's really into those types of things, as opposed to a detective story. 

Then we came up with the Romance idea. I think the three were, “What are those classic pulp paperback novels?” They're either a Mystery, a Sci-Fi or a Romance. That's what brought those three, and we developed the three together as we were working on it because we also say that you can mix and match. If you want to play a Sci-Fi Noir, you use half of each deck of the two sets. The most silly one is a Romance Sci-Fi which can get pretty hysterical.

Patrick: Yeah, I bet. Very cool. One of the things I think about for people who want to make their own game, and maybe they want to become a publisher and make money off of it and do this full time, I wonder if having– Because it sounds like you basically have four different versions of the game. I think it gives people who like the game the opportunity to buy a lot of your product. Do you see a lot of people– I don't know how people buy this, but do people buy all four or do they only buy one?

Brigette: Long answer to this question, the game was part of Hasbro's Next Great Game challenge. That was how we put it out there. Through that, we had to run a crowdfunding campaign to show the market viability of the game. Through that, the majority of people bought the three games together, as a set. We offered it as a set, and then each of the individual ones and almost everyone who backed did the set of three. I think there were a few people who did only one. 

I think there were a few people who just wanted Romance. We did find that, through playtesting, that was the one that people thought was the most fun, I think because it's the silliest. Also, a genre that maybe not as many other games are a romance paperback novel kind of theme. I think people do treat it as a set. We definitely have framed it that way, too. It's not available, and we don't have it for sale right now. We're in the process of trying to find a publisher for it, so we've pitched to a number different companies over the years, so fingers crossed that that go somewhere at some point.

Do You Have Ideas for Other Genres?

Patrick: So I guess that means it's on hold. Did you have ideas for other genres? Maybe you learned through the Kickstarter– Or sorry, through IndieGoGo, that people also really want a fantasy genre or something like that?

Brigette: Yeah, definitely. We had been– Horror and fantasy were the next two that we are thinking about, just because they're also really popular and also mixing horror with some of the other ones could be a fun way to twist some of the genres. So we did develop and playtest some of the horror words. It does make it easy that we can just– essentially when we're creating a new version, we have to come up with the new words and then try them out to see “All right. No one uses this one, or this is a weird thing within the context of the other words.” So it is easy to try out different ones. 

Throughout playtesting too, we got a lot of feedback about the idea of teachers being able to use it or people learning English as a second language, because you're looking at these different words and trying to use them in sentences and in stories. We thought about like what a kid's version would be as well, and maybe it's just an adventure, or– That's something that has been in the back of our minds as well.

Patrick: Very cool. I love how infinitely expandable and flexible that is. I think a lot of game designers when they come up with an expansion, is usually a whole set of extra mechanics that you layer on the game. What's cool for yours is it's extra content. The core game is the same, and you're just adding extra content, which is maybe easier to do. So anyway, I hope you find a publisher for it because it sounds cool.

Brigette: Thank you.

When Is The Right Time to Begin Working on the Graphic Design for a Game?

Patrick: You have experience as a graphic designer. You've worked on your own games, and you have designed games for other people, as you mentioned, War Chest by AEG. Having done graphic design for different people– Here's a problem I have. When is the right time to start working on the graphic design for a game? I basically go from note cards with scribblings on them, and I playtest a couple of times that way, to wanting to have fully done cards. I know there's probably some in-between stage, but I don't know where that is.

Brigette: Yeah, definitely. I think that is a challenge for a lot of people because you don't want to be doing a ton of graphic design at the very beginning because when you're prototyping, you want to be able to iterate quickly and try something out and then trash it. You don't want to get married to different things, just because you already put all this time into laying out. I think that has been an advantage I've had as a graphic designer and a game designer, is that it's pretty easy for me to like throw a couple things together so that it looks a little bit nicer than if I hand-drew it, or something. 

I think in the beginning, as rough as possible to get your prototype quickly and easily. That's the focus when you're first starting out. But I do think there is a medium place, where maybe you use PowerPoint or some quick way to make it very clean and say “OK, it does work best if the icon is over here.” Because the graphic design does have a lot to do with how a player interacts with the game or how easy it is to learn or use the different functions of cards and boards and things like that. I do think it makes sense to think about halfway through and not just at the very end when you hand it off to someone to do some graphic design.

Patrick: Yeah, I'm working on a game right now, and one of the things in the game is there's the front side of cards and the backside of cards, and the one of the sides is better than the other side, and you have to know that information. From the table, I now realize the two sides of cards have to be very different. One has to be a white background, one has to be a red background or something like that because it's important information, but I don't think I would have learned that if I didn't start playing with graphic design. 

I do think you need to start somewhere and start working on your icons, and start working on the layout and “How are things going to going to work?” I wonder if it's more like every time you do a playtest, add a little bit more graphic design or spend a little bit more time on it? Do you think that's probably a good idea?

Brigette: Yeah, perhaps. I think it probably depends, too, what type of game you're working on, how many elements are changing each time that you make a prototype? If you're balancing with numbers, then you can probably get further and further along with graphic design.

Advice on Self-Publishing and Working with a Graphic Designer

Patrick: Very cool. I mentioned before, you work on other people's games doing the graphic design, so you're a freelancer helping people with graphic design. I've worked with graphic designers in the past. I've only worked with one graphic designer in the board game world, I've worked with illustrators before. So tell me, what do I need to know about working with a graphic designer in the board game world? Specifically, as someone– Let's say I want to self-publish, what information do I need to give you about my game so you can do a really good job with the graphic design?

Brigette: Sure. These are all my personal preferences, I think. But in general, I think they work well. I would always recommend bringing on a graphic designer and illustrators at the same time. I think a lot of companies or people like to do “Alright, I'm going to just hire this illustrator and then I'm going to take these illustrations and give them to the graphic designer.” But I think for me, the projects that I've worked on, where we've been able to work in tandem, have been great because you want it to feel cohesive and like it's all part of the same style and the same art direction. 

Some graphic designers do art direction as well. Some of the projects that I work on, I'm doing the graphic design and then doing the art direction and hiring of the illustrators and all that, so it's one cohesive package. I think that's a good idea, starting out, is said to have them both on the same wavelength, so that it doesn't look like you just stuck one style on top of another. Like you were talking about, with the two different sides of your cards, I think any information like that is great because you've spent a ton of time prototyping it. 

You know how people interact with the cards. One of the things with The Plot Thickens is we had a way that we thought was the best way to set it up on the table so that the cards wouldn't get mixed up. For whatever reason, that wasn't very intuitive, and people always wanted to set them up one way or thought that the colors needed to match, or something like that. Knowing that was part of the way that I laid them out, graphic design-wise, to make it more intuitive that you lay them out horizontally. 

If there was some challenge like that through prototyping, you could let your graphic designer know “Hey, I always run into this problem with the interface. What do you think you can do about that?” Because I think the graphic design can have a really big impact on those types of usability issues.

What is Art Direction?

Patrick: At the beginning of this, you mentioned art direction. Can you talk about that, and what that is?

Brigette: Sure. For me, it means that– or I guess in general, the art director can be in charge of the look and the feel of everything. Sometimes as a graphic designer, a client will tell me, “OK. It looks like this. This is the style. This is the direction that we're going.” But as an art director, I get to decide that, prototype that, come up with a couple of different concepts. 

For War Chest for AEG, that was a really fun project, because even in the beginning there were a couple different, almost theme variations, that they were thinking about. I created different mood boards and explored what the whole style could be, which I think is fun and can result in a better end product when you think about it, from the beginning to the end product.

Patrick: So could someone come to you before they even have a theme? If they have an amazing set of mechanisms and they want to “Hey, I think this could be a pirate game. I think it could be a zombie game or I think it could be a Sci-Fi game. Here's how it works, here's this, I need some cards and some tokens. Could you create some mood boards for me?” Would that be something that a graphic designer could do?

Brigette: Yeah. Absolutely.

Patrick: Cool. I think I do my own art direction. I always create what I always call “a creative brief,” which is “I want it like this, not this. I want it to feel like this, not this.” Then I give that to my graphic designer or my illustrator. I guess I do my own art direction, probably not as well as you. Cool. It's cool to know you can basically find a graphic designer to help you all the way through if you need it.

Brigette: Yeah, absolutely. I've done, for AEG also, done prototype early on in their testing phase of it of a game design, created that bare-bones, but figuring out where everything lays, so that they can do prototyping with that first pass at the graphic design and then the next phase of polishing it for the final product. So yeah, I think it can be part of your process throughout if that's what you want.

Are There Parts of Graphic Design You Can Do On Your Own?

Patrick: Very cool. So I'm a frugal person, so I try to save money where I can. Is there a part of graphic design that people can do on their own, and they don't realize they can do it on their own? Does that make sense?

Brigette: Sure. Yeah, I do think it seems like everyone has a different– game designers that I've talked to, different ways of mocking up their prototypes and I do think there are a lot of different ways that you can make that easier. If you have Adobe Creative Suite, InDesign has a great– it's called Data Merge so that you can take an Excel sheet of all of your card information and automatically populate all of your cards so that you don't have to be individually tweaking every little thing. 

Daniel Solis has a great– I believe it's on his blog, I think he also has a skillshare class, but he has a bunch of great resources about how to use those types of tools to make prototyping easier and making card sheets and things. I learned that stuff from him, actually, the data merge thing. I think there are tools like that, that maybe people don't know about and they haven't found the thing that they like. 

I also feel like I've seen on Twitter that Elizabeth Hargrave uses some programming thing to populate her cards. I think everyone can find the tool that works best for you, but when you're working on something that has a ton of cards and components, definitely makes it worth it to figure out a system, so that you're not tweaking every little thing by hand.

Advice For Unpublished Board Game Designers 

Patrick: Very cool. One of the things we talked about, right before we started recording, is that basically you are doing graphic design work in the board game– Or, designing your game and then doing some graphic design work in the board game world, opens you up to new experiences. I want to go into that. I think here's the question I want to ask, if someone is trying to make a game, maybe they've made it, but they haven't signed it to a publisher, or they don't know if they want to run their own Kickstarter, and they feel like their wheels are spinning. What is advice you would give to that person?

Brigette: Sure. I feel like the board game community, and the connections that I've made in the industry are definitely more valuable than the game design itself, that I've created. Especially since we haven't had it completely picked up yet, but through prototyping, The Plot Thickens, it was the first game that I did. I did the graphic design for it since it made sense for me to do it, but it also made me realize “Hey, people need graphic design for board games, and that would be cool to do.” I'm based out of Philadelphia, we have a game makers guild, in Philly, of different game designers who are prototyping and working on things. 

I met a ton of amazing people, including Nicole and Anthony Amato, who helped me get connected with a bunch of other people. Through that is how I got the majority of the clients that I have in the board game industry, just through word of mouth. “I met this person at a convention. This person recommended me to them.” I think, the time that I spent on the plot thickens and game design, in general, has opened up so many doors and opportunities that weren't even related to game design in and of itself. 

Even if your game isn't getting where you necessarily expected it to be, or thought that it would be, because that's, a lot of times, based on outside things, like the companies that you can get it in front of, how many things are getting published at any given time, you can still be moving forward with the skills that you have and the connections that you're making, because those are going to continue to be valuable.

Patrick: Yeah, totally. I've heard this numerous times on the podcast, basically, if you invest in your community, new opportunities you couldn't have even imagined will appear in front of you. Is that kind of– ?

Brigette: Absolutely.

Patrick: Yeah. Awesome.

Brigette: Yeah. That's a great way to put it.

Patrick: I've had Nicole and Anthony Amato on, looks like episode 36 if you want to listen to them. They seem like they're awesome. I haven't met them in person yet, but they seem like they're fantastic.

Brigette: They are the most awesome. They are also based in Philly, and they're good friends of ours. They helped a ton with The Plot Thickens and connecting us to people, so I'm grateful for that.

Tell Me About Your Design Process

Patrick: Sometimes, I think you need the connection. Maybe they'll make the connection to the small publisher you didn't know existed, that makes exactly your type of game. I totally agree with you. Basically, if you feel like your wheels are spinning, spend a little bit more time making connections and helping other people, and an opportunity might present itself. I love it that advice, cool. Tell me a little bit about your design process. How long do you spend time working on games? Are you constantly coming up with new game ideas? Do you spend time designing stuff? How do you do design?

Brigette: Sure. With The Plot Thickens specifically, we designed that over two or three years, before we entered it into that Hasbro contest. That was on an off and on– we came up with the idea, we made some prototypes. It was once we got into going to events and things, that it really went quickly because getting all that feedback got us energized to keep moving with it. I just recently went full time with my freelance graphic design and art direction business. 

Part of my inspiration for that, was to have some time to game design as well because before I was working full time and freelance graphic designing, there wasn't enough space for that game design slot in the schedule. I have one prototype of a party-type game that I'm working on now, that I'm hoping to have a prototype. We try to go to METATOPIA every year, that's a great playtesting event. I'm hoping to have something that I playtested with local people before I bring it there. 

A lot of times, I try to use that as a deadline. I'm like “OK, I need to bring a prototype to this event, so going to have to work on that sometime soon.” Right now, it is that extra thing, but I'm glad to have that wiggle room in my schedule now so that I can be working on design as well. I'm constantly– I have a word document, a Google Doc, of all the random “Oh, that would be a cool theme for a game.” Or some random mechanism, or whatever, pops in my head. I've got a running list of a bunch of nonsense ideas that hopefully something cool will coalesce from, again in the future.

Patrick: Yes, I 100% have that. I have an Evernote folder of game design ideas, and some of them are very bad. Very bad. It's still fun to write them down.

Brigette: Yeah, definitely. I feel like it's good to write it all down because you never know. That first idea or that first iteration of whatever it is may seem bad, but it could inspire some new thing off shooting off that. I always feel like it's better to write it all down because you never know what it will spark.

Tell Me About Your Experience with Crowdfunding

Patrick: So you made this game with a couple of co-designers. You were part of this challenge, you launched it on IndieGoGo. I didn’t look up the exact campaign, but I imagine it sounds like lots of people got copies and it's at least moderately successful. Has that changed your process at all? When you launch another game on some crowdfunding site, either IndieGoGo, Kickstarter or some new one, would you do it the same way? Would you change anything about your process?

Brigette: The only reason we did do a crowdfunding campaign for the game was that it was required as part of the challenge. I think had we not done the challenge, and actually, I think prior to being part of the contest, we were pitching the publishers. Running a crowdfunding campaign is exhausting. For that one month and even the month running up to it. It's not even like we ran a huge campaign or anything. But doing all that social media and doing all the updates and getting to events to promote it and stuff. 

It's a ton of work, so I think I would rather pitch to publishers and have them pick things up and be able to– I think for me, as a game designer, it's less about being able to treat it as a product, or something that I could be having a certain income flow from and more, just like “Here's this cool thing I made, that I want people to enjoy.” To me, finding a publisher to pick it up, means that it's going to get distributed more widely. I think that that's what I'll likely, and what we'll likely try to focus on moving forward. I don't know, Kickstarters can be a lot of fun though, too.

Patrick: Let me rephrase the question. Is there something you'd change in your game design process? About the way you made the last game, vs. the next game you make. Would you prototype earlier? Would you do more blind playtesting? Would you have more reviewers? That's for Kickstarter. Would you make a game that plays two to three players, instead of four-plus? Something like that.

Brigette: I don't know if there's anything specific that we didn't do, or that we did, that I think that we shouldn't. I feel like we did do a ton of testing and I do feel like that is very important and that I won't try to rush it. I think it was a good call to test it a lot and get lots of feedback.

What's a Resource You'd Recommend?

Patrick: Moving towards the end here, I always like to ask people, is there a resource you would recommend to another indie game designer? Usually something free or cheap, like a book, audiobook, blog, podcast, excluding this one. That's something like that people can dig into.

Brigette: Sure. I think I already mentioned Daniel Solis' blog about game design and game graphic design. I definitely recommend checking that out. I'm pretty sure he has stuff on his blog, and then he also has a Patreon with some extra content, but he makes a lot of awesome stuff, and he's designed some really cool games too, Junk Orbit is one of my favorites of his, from Renegade, if you've ever played that one?

Patrick: I haven't.

Brigette: It's cool and space themed. I am a sucker for a space theme. Other than that, just getting involved with a community. Philadelphia has the Game Makers Guild. I know pretty much any city has a game organization that you can be a part of. There's Slack channels, and there's Facebook groups. I think that connecting with other people– Game design can take a lot of time and it feels very personal because you're investing a lot of creative energy in something for a long time and having other people.

I think it's easy to get tunnel vision, those types of projects. Getting outside opinions and perspectives is important. Even if you have to do it virtually, connecting with people in the industry who are also making cool stuff is the biggest thing, I think, resource-wise.

What's the Best Money You've Spent?

Patrick: Now, I always like to ask people, I usually frame this as “I'm a frugal person. I try not to spend money when I don't have to.” What is something that is definitely worth every single cent that you paid for it? A piece of software, components, just whatever.

Brigette: The first thing that comes to mind, is using The Game Crafter to make prototypes because they make awesome stuff and it's great to be able to do just a couple of copies to bring to an event or something like that. I think that was money well spent for those things. I also have a paper cutter that's good for cards. Those are the first two things that come to my mind.

Patrick: You know what's funny, is the paper cutter comes up quite often. If you make a game with lots of cards, the paper cutter moves very quickly up your priority list.

Brigette: Yeah, definitely.

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: Very cool. Awesome. My last real question is, what does success in the board game world look like to you?

Brigette: I think as a board game graphic designer, my goal was to be able to make it my full-time thing. I feel excited about reaching that goal, that definitely feels like a success. My next big goal is to be able to offer even more. I've wanted to get into doing some illustration type work. I've just recently branched off into the art direction stuff. I think success in the board game world, for me, is to continue expanding my skills and being able to offer creative services to people who are making cool games and working with lots of different companies. Yeah, being able to keep doing that.

Patrick: Awesome. Love that. I've been working for myself for I think right about 3 years now. Congrats on that. That's very cool to be your own boss.

Brigette: Thank you. Yeah, it's a little scary, but it was worth the leap I think.

Overrated / Underrated

Patrick: When friends ask me, especially the first year or two when like “Hey, how's your business going?” I would always respond, “I can still feed myself and pay my mortgage.” My level of success was like “Feed self, pay mortgage, good to go.” After the first year or two, I think you get less paranoid and then you set higher goals. I like to end with a silly game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Brigette: I have not.

Patrick: So basically, I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you need to tell me if it is underrated or overrated. If I said “tree houses,” you'd be like “Underrated. They're clearly the best fun time activity to do ever.” Something like that. Make sense?

Brigette: OK.

Patrick: First one is games you can fit in your pocket. Overrated or underrated?

Patrick: I think that they're underrated. I do like some of the wallet games from Button Shy. I just recently went on vacation and had to figure out how to fit all of the different card games that I wanted to bring, in my suitcase. I'm going to say underrated.

Patrick: Love it. How about, I'm assuming what this is, slash fiction, overrated or underrated? I will not explain that, if people don't know what that is, you can look it up.

Brigette: I can't say I have a ton of experience, so I can't say either way.

Patrick: I just made an assumption with the writing, or the storytelling game, that might have come up in some of your playtesting.

Brigette: Sure. Sure.

Patrick: OK, so how about this cardboard inserts for games, overrated or underrated?

Brigette: I might say “properly rated” because I think most people feel strongly about the inserts. I think that's the right way to feel. My husband calls it the canyon of bull- when there's just two edges and just everything's floating around in there. I think a good insert is totally worth getting excited about.

Patrick: Last one, choose your own adventure books. Overrated or underrated?

Brigette: Oh, I think underrated. I think those are a ton of fun. I was excited when they had a little resurgence recently. There were a couple of games that were inspired by those.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Yeah. Awesome. Great answers. Bridget, thank you so much for being on the show.

Brigette: Thank you so much for having me.

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

Brigette: People can find me at brigetteidesign.com. That's a portfolio of my game design and graphic design work. Then I'm also on Twitter at the same, @brigetteidesign. Feel free to say hello.

Patrick: Very cool. Listeners, if you like this podcast please leave us a review on iTunes. If you do, Bridget said she that she would review the plot for a story you're writing. So that's pretty cool. That's all that I got. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com. You can follow me on Twitter, and I'm @BFTrick. I'm out of here. Bye-bye. Oh, and until next time, happy designing. Can't forget my sign-off line.

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 to 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 Sarah Rowan, who currently is working on a game called Soothsayer, which is a storytelling game where everyone plays oracles, and you use the stars to predict the future. It should be on Kickstarter when this episode airs, assuming I don't mess up the schedule or something like that. But it should be on Kickstarter. Sarah, welcome to the show.

Sarah Rowan: Hi, welcome to you too.

Introduction

Patrick: Great. Thank you for welcoming me. I appreciate it. I like to start with a lightning round to introduce you to the listeners. All right?

Sarah: Awesome.

Patrick: All right. In pop culture, there is a ton of ways to tell the future. You can throw runes, and there's substances you can ingest and magical dreams, and reading the stars, and touching an object to see the future. 

Or you literally go to the future, and then you go back to the present moment to change it. I know Soothsayer is about telling the future, so if you could tell the future, what would be your preferred way of telling the future?

Sarah: I would definitely want it to be voluntary. I know in pop culture, there are some characters who are afflicted with constant visions of the future, and that sounds not so fun. 

Probably I would go for one of the cool, magical ritual types of telling the future just so that there's a little more control over it. Then also you get to perform a cool fancy ritual, you'll probably get your own cut scene. It sounds fun.

Patrick: Cool. I like that. I was thinking about this when I was writing the question, and I think I agree with you, that some characters are afflicted by seeing the future and they go crazy, or they're depressed, or all sorts of bad things happen. I think generally I'd want to be able to control when I see the future, but wouldn't you on occasion want push notifications for like–

Sarah: Like a spider-sense?

Patrick: Like, “I'm about to be hit by a bus.” I want there to be a threshold for bad stuff that can then interrupt my– Does that make sense?

Sarah: It does make sense, but to a certain degree, I don't know. I already have a little bit of anxiety, and I don't know if I want to be constantly afflicted with anxiety notifications. Like, “You're about to stub your toe.” “I'm about to what?” Whack, ow.

Patrick: Yeah, I think I want future notifications, and I only want to be told about the worst ones as a push notification. If I'm about to be hit by a bus, interrupt me, that's fine. If I'm not going to get hit by a bus, then let me choose when to do it.

Sarah: I don't know, I guess it depends on whether you believe that the future is predetermined or malleable. Because if it's predetermined, then knowing about it makes it worse because it's going to happen no matter what. But if it's malleable, then, of course, being notified would probably be helpful.

Patrick: Yes. I think my assumption here is that it's malleable. OK, anyways. Very long lightning round question. Second one, when you go to game night, how many games do you bring?

Sarah: How many? I usually bring just one or two, because usually everyone else I'm going to game night with will bring one or two. I'll try to keep it to the thing that I'm hoping to get everyone to play.

Patrick: Cool, I like that. Then what is a game you play with someone every single time at a con?

Sarah: Probably something that's quick and easy to learn. Honestly, Skulls or Love Letter are some of my favorite games in that genre. They're just really fun, easy concepts to pick up, and don't—

There's plenty of room in them to talk to the people you're playing with without having to talk about the game. You could talk about lots of things and get to know them a little better.

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

Patrick: Yeah, love it. I think I totally agree with you on how it's nice to have those small, quick, easy to play games. Then first real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Sarah: I was definitely gifted a heritage of board games from my parents. They have been backing Kickstarters for board games since it was a thing that you could do that. 

They've been playing board games with me and my siblings since we were really little, and I had a big love of it, and I went into game design, and then it was a natural from video games back to board games.

You have a degree in game design. How would you say that degree has helped?

Patrick: OK, you have– We mentioned, or we were chatting before the show, and you have a degree in game design. When I was going to university, I wish I knew that was a thing. 

Because it probably was, it just probably wasn't at my school, but I haven't had too many people who have degrees in game design on the show. How would you say your degree in game design has helped you design games?

Sarah: The ways it's helped me design games? Definitely being able to go to a school with a bunch of other game designers and talk to them and get that experience. 

The most helpful things we learned were mostly just the space to sit and do game design as classwork, to have the time to work things out for yourself, because there's not that many textbooks on the subject yet. If you read the one textbook that exists, and then you spend the rest of your time doing it, that's definitely the most helpful thing that came out of there.

Patrick: Very cool. Then the way you phrase that, is this a school for game design? Or was it just a program in the school and there's a million other programs?

Sarah: It was one of the many programs at the school. We were actually under the computer science college because we learned programming primarily and also design.

Patrick: Do you now have a career in video games, and you make a million bajillion dollars out in California somewhere? That's the laugh of a “Yes,” I can tell.

Sarah: No, it's the laugh of a “No.” The thing is that you will come out of the degree with lots of solid programming skills that you can use to get solid programming jobs that you can use to fund your game design proclivity, but the truth of the matter is that there are not nearly as many game development or design jobs as there are people who want them. 

You can certainly get them, you can certainly put in the work to get them, but it just depends on what path you want to take and whether you want to try to get into one of those bigger companies or you want to try to start up your own and work for yourself. You do come out of it with a lot of options.

Patrick: What did you try?

Sarah: What did I try? For a while, I was working at an educational games company where we were making reading literacy apps for children, which was cool but not what I wanted to be doing in the long term. 

The cool thing about it is that programming work will pay you very well, and you can use it to try to churn through your student loans you accrued from going to college to then set yourself up better to try to do the thing that you do want to do. Which for me, obviously, I would rather be designing board games.

What does it mean to design a game for a specific group of people?

Patrick: You designed Soothsayer, and I'm going to quote this from your website

“A game dedicated to storytelling, good-spirited competition and centering the lives of women and LGBT people.”

Which I think is a cool idea, and I want to ask you, what is it like when you design a game for a specific group of people? How is it different from just designing a game for you? I think most people design a game for everyone if that makes sense, so how is it different to design a game for a group of people?

Sarah: The truth of the matter is that whenever you design a game, you're always designing for a group of people, and if you don't keep in mind ahead of time who those people are going to be, it's going to happen implicitly instead of explicitly. For example, most board games are not designed with blind people in mind. 

Unless your game is Nyctophobia, blind people probably were not the group of people you were designing for. It goes on to other things like if you're designing a dexterity game, there's a particular assumption about the manual dexterity abilities of the people who are going to be playing the game. So, that will happen. You'll never think about what people are going to be playing your game unless you sit down and think about it.

Patrick: OK, then what do you do? You think about it, and you're like “Cool. I'm going to design it for this group of people.” Then what choices do you make to make that happen?

Sarah: You want to think about what those people want, need and like, and make decisions that go towards that. It's no more or less complicated than that, and the most important thing is you work with people that are in the group you're designing for at every step of the design process. 

If it's a group of people that includes people who are different than you, which ideally it should, so we're not designing totally homogenous games. You really– There's no way to do it without actually interfacing with them, working with them on your team, play testing with them at every step.

Building your design team: Co-designer, illustrator, play testers

Patrick: OK, so you got to get the people on your team, which I like. You've got to involve them. Does “On your team” mean they're play testers? Does that mean you have to have a co-designer? Does that mean they're an illustrator? What does that mean to have them on your team?

Sarah: It means they should be on your team in as many places as possible, especially if you're designing for minority groups. The real putting your money where your mouth is thing that you can do is hire them. Hire them for real money and put them on your team. 

In my game, I am an LGBT person, and I was designing it with LGBT people in mind, and then I also reached out to my artist, who is a non-binary Jewish person. 

I reached out to them to help me instead of any other random person I could have picked to do it. Not to say that they're not extremely talented and the best pick for the artwork, but also that it's a real financial, physical thing I could do was to pay a member of the community to help me with this.

Patrick: Yeah, I do generally like that. Just for listeners out there, I think there's a couple days a year where it's like women who draw or illustrators month and on Twitter there's a whole bunch of women who say, “I'm a woman who does illustrations,” and you can find this hashtag and find a whole bunch of women illustrators. 

They'll share all the things they want to share, all their identities. So there are ways of finding those people, and it can be a little bit tricky, but there are ways of finding them. I like that you include them in certain parts– On your team in some way.

Sarah: Yeah, definitely. Cruising around on Twitter was how I managed to start finding these people and start forming these relationships outside of my immediate circle of people I know, like from the real life.

Using Twitter to build your design team

Patrick: Can I ask you about that quickly? Because I did an episode on finding an illustrator months and months ago, but I'm curious on how long–? Did you, like, was this like, “I spent one week looking for illustrators, and I spent eight hours on a Sunday and two hours on a Monday.” 

Was it an intense process, or is this just like you're hanging out on Twitter, and over the course of a couple of months, you randomly discover people in your–? Tell me about the process of finding someone on Twitter.

Sarah: Sure. For me, I've run other projects. This is my first one that I'm going to take all the way to publication, but I have run other projects, so I had a little bit of experience with what trying to find team members out of the blue is like. If you are intensely scrambling, like “This week, I shall find an artist,” you're going to make yourself real upset. 

You definitely can do it, and definitely good ways to do it are searching things like those. I think it's visible women hashtag will have a lot of women artists, and then as soon as you find one, you can cruise and find they're often connected. 

There's often communities, you can even ask into the abyss and stick a bunch of hashtags on it like “Art” or something, and people will start pointing you in the right direction. Which is less reliable depending on how many people you're already connected to, but it's definitely—

You want to start keeping your eyes open well before you actually need to sign them, because you also don't know if the perfect artist is actually in your price range or if they actually even want to work with you, or anything like that. You have to have the wiggle room to spend the time you need to because you're making a human connection. 

If you are a small team, you have the opportunity to be kind in a way that corporations aren't, to reach out to people, and talk to them instead of feeling like “Here's the proposed contract. Take it or leave it. Work for me, iron fist.” That's not how I want to do things. 

You definitely want to keep your eyes open and start looking and start recording interesting art that comes across your dash whenever you can, because even if it's not right for this project, it might be right for one in the future.

Audience Specific Marketing Decisions

Patrick: Love all that. Were there any game decisions, like did the content of the game change based on who you're marketing to?

Sarah: Based on who I'm marketing to?

Patrick: Who the game is designed for.

Sarah: Yes, distinctly. I knew from the beginning who this game was designed for. It was designed specifically in mind to be a game that would be appealing to women and LGBT people to play. That's what I wanted to make. I am those things.

I made it originally as something I wanted to show to my wife because I thought they would like it. From the beginning, I had that in mind, which was able to shape decisions made throughout gameplay. Already, you're playing as oracles in the game, and oracles historically are women. 

It's historically a female-led profession, so that's already like a signifier that the main characters in the game are women, and they're doing interesting things. They're in control of the situation, and they're not side characters or anything else. That's who you are playing as, which is another thing. 

Just adding those characters into the background would be nowhere near as impactful as having them like “Actually, these are the characters you're playing,” if that makes sense. Then from there, you do have to make sure that the whole rest of the piece that you're creating supports that. 

Every single decision needs to support your core ideas, which is just a principle of design always, like always you want to make sure that what you're going for from the beginning or you're going to end up drifting throughout the process.

Advice for avoiding appropriation in game design

Patrick: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. I also think– Didn't you put some effort into making sure the artwork in the game is representative and that, I think you even mentioned the box cover, right?

Sarah: Yes. The box cover. That's the thing that people see. You look at a game, what does it look like? It looks like the box cover, and only after you look at the box cover and judge a book by its cover do you look inside and see what else is there.

One of the early things that I knew I wanted and I talked to my artist, and they agreed, was that we would have a woman's face as one of– Part of the central box art, so it's very obvious, and then you might look closer and see that the game is designed by a woman and a non-binary person. 

You might look closer after that and see that there's more signs that this is for you, and this is all something that if you overlook, then, your target audience might overlook you in return. They might not know that you made it for them, even if everything else inside is for them. 

Every single piece has to reinforce what you're going for, so obviously, just sticking a face on the box is in itself diversity. [Inaudible]. But it's an important signal, how would people know that you focus diversity in your game if you can't even make it onto the box? 

Then all the other art in the game, there's not a lot of other places where the characters have art right now because it's designed to look like a ritual object. There aren't playing cards with faces on them so much, which is why it was really important to put it in places where we could. 

Then there are characters other than the oracles you play, there are supplicants that come and ask you questions, and you get to hear about their lives. 

Through there the text makes it very clear that this woman is a hunter and she has a wife, she has a job, and she's got like a lot of interesting things going on in her life, and that's why she's here asking you questions right now instead of just a background character.

Patrick: I like all that. It's cool, all the little ways you incorporate it into your game. I think the thing I want to follow up on is I'm working on a game which is called Mintsugi because it's in a mint tin and I like puns, but it's based off of this Japanese practice called Kintsugi, which is—

I'm going to butcher this, but it's like you're honoring and item's history. So if you have a beautiful jug, vase, or cup that breaks, instead of throwing it away and buying a new one, you fix this pottery with gold. People who are listening, you might have seen this in various places, but it's originally a Japanese philosophy, and I came across this a couple months ago. 

I think it's an idea that my culture, more Americans, need to learn about. Because I think we're a very disposable consumer culture and it's like as soon as– Actually, good point. I just had a pair of sunglasses that broke, and I threw them away and got a new pair of sunglasses when I probably—

If I was practicing Kintsugi, I would've just fixed them with tape, and it would be a cool story. Not tape, maybe super glue, but fix them and then I'd have a cool story that I can add into the item's history. Anyway, so I'm making this game about Kintsugi, and I'm just wondering how do I share this respectfully? 

Because I really do believe it's something more people in the culture need to hear, but also it feels intrinsically Japanese, so do I have to throw up my hands and wait for someone else to design that game or how do I do this?

Sarah: I'll reiterate to start with my previous assertion that if you are designing for a specific group of people, they need to be included. At the very least, if you feel that this is– I don't want to say, “If you feel that this is,” what I'm revealing is that I don't know much about what this is. 

So if it is inherently Japanese culture, Japanese people should be involved. You should have them play test the game, and you should have them help with the design materially, something along those lines. But I also feel like there are layers, and using somebody else's religion is a lot more “No” than using a bit of philosophy. Because philosophy is inherently something written to share. It's a bit– What do I want to say? 

What I want to say is that in this particular case, think again about why. Why did you want to make it? What you said was you want to make it because you want to bring it to an American audience, so I think that's a valuable contribution. What you are providing is the overlap with American heritage, so make sure you do your research and talk to people who have the other side. The overlap with Japanese heritage.

Patrick: Cool. I like hearing that. I think I worry about someone just assuming I'm ripping off a culture and stealing, and I don't know. Just not being careful or thoughtful or considerate when I'm trying to be all those things. 

But it's not always apparent if you have a game on a shelf, you don't know what work went into that game. I think I'm worried about vengeance, or I don't know. People being angry about it.

Sarah: I would think about why. Think about why they would be angry. People aren't angry for no reason. If there's something about it that makes them angry, think about that and address it. 

Address it before it happens and not after, and if it's something you can't address, if they're angry because they believe you shouldn't be making it, then that's your sign to stop. 

That's your sign to maybe try to find somebody who is a more appropriate person to be making it and ask if they wouldn't allow you to work with them on it, rather than just doing it anyway.

Patrick: That's– I think the word I want to use here is “Heavy.” So if I think someone will be upset by this, I shouldn't work on it? I struggle with that. Because I think I struggle with that because no matter what I work on, there will be at least one person who hates it. 

No matter what you create in the world, there's always going to be people who dislike that. Just what you're doing, why you're doing it, the price, the marketing, the this and the– For lack of a better word, the cultural appropriation. 

It's like, is there a threshold? I don't know what I'm asking here, but– Because I imagine there's always at least one person who's going to hate whatever you make in the world.

Sarah: True. The answer to that is, I think, empathy. This isn't a black and white, “Here's a rule, and if you follow it, you'll always be right.” It's empathy. At the end of the day, no one can stop you from doing this except for you, only you can stop you from doing something that is a mistake, or that is cultural appropriation, or that is cruel. 

Not to say that making a Mintsugi game is inherently cruel. That's not what I'm saying. What I am saying is that we're game designers, so you run play tests, and not every bit of play test advice you get is useful. 

But what I'm saying is that the advice of the people that are in the culture you are talking about is more equal than others, not less. They have– [inaudible].

Patrick: OK. I don't quite get the second part, but I think I hear you. I like the analogy to play testing advice because whenever I do a play test, I listen to every single piece of advice. Sometimes I don't always take it, but I'm at least always listening.

Sarah: Yes, exactly.

Patrick: Cool, OK. That's helpful. This has given me a lot to think about, and I still don't understand the many intricacies of when you're stealing from a culture or when you're trying to share it and make it better. 

I don't know, but I'm happy that we had this chat because I think I understand it a little bit better.

Sarah: I'm not exactly an expert, but what I can say is that it's definitely a learning process and that everyone will make mistakes. The really important thing is how you respond to that. 

Try to avoid the mistake upfront, try to be open and honest with what you're making, and if you do make a mistake instead of doubling down on it, apologize. Try to make it better and do what you can that will get you a lot farther than trying to guarantee you never make a mistake because it's just not going to happen.

What have you been doing marketing-wise for your Kickstarter campaign?

Patrick: Excellent advice. Thank you. OK, your Kickstarter campaign. We're recording obviously ahead of time, and this episode should come out when your campaign is live. 

But it's a couple weeks away at this point, and I like this marketing question because a couple weeks before the campaign you don't know what's working. Or, you don't have a perfect idea of what's working. 

With your best guess, what have you been doing marketing-wise to promote your game, and what do you think is work–? What do you think will work the best for promoting your game?

Sarah: I've been reaching out to people who know more than me and trying to get advice, but the fact of the matter is that when you're trying to get up and running off of the ground, you don't have the raw capital to spend on actual advertising for your game. What I've been trying to do is a lot more grassroots type advertising. 

There's a local board game store that I've been going to since I was a child, and I've been reaching out to them. There are other places where I can play testing my game a lot, reaching out to them. I worked directly with Kickstarter for a little while, so I have a few contacts there that have given me advice. 

I'm not great at social media and marketing myself on there, but I do have a Twitter, which is where all the cool board game people hang out as far as I can tell. So really just the grassroots of reaching out to the people you know care, and don't waste your money on Facebook ads or things if you don't have enough money to make a lot of them.

Patrick: OK, so it sounds like you're not going the advertising route, you're on social media a little bit, and then a pretty grassroots you're at your local board game store or designer meet up, and you're saying “Here's the thing I'm working on.”

Sarah: Yeah, that's what I'm trying. I'll let you know if it works out.

Experience from working with Kickstarter

Patrick: Yeah. I want to go back to one thing, you said you were working with Kickstarter. What was that like? Does that mean you were working with them on this project, or does that mean you're working with them on previous projects?

Sarah: They had what is called a creators in residence program where they would bring people in, and ideally, they would mentor them about the ins and outs of running a specific campaign that you're planning to run with.

Patrick: It sounds like you're– Are you in New York then, and you're working with the– Or, you have worked with the people in the Kickstarter office?

Sarah: Yes. I currently live in Brooklyn, so this program is only open to people who can get reliably to the Kickstarter office in Brooklyn. It's a very specific thing that I wouldn't recommend as a general.

Patrick: So you said you got some piece of advice from them, and since not all of us happen to know all the cool people at Kickstarter, what are some of the tidbits that they gave you that you are going to implement?

Sarah: I got some interesting advice. Let's see, what actually general advice and not specific to me? One thing I got from Luke Crane that was very helpful was the advice to not rush yourself into launching the campaign, that you should when you first start thinking about launching the campaign that's when you're setting months out as the earliest you could possibly launch it. 

Because there's all kinds of work that goes in between when you first have the thought in your head and when it's going to happen. Don't try to slam the campaign together at the last minute because you're just going to cripple your chances.

Patrick: Right, I think it makes a lot of sense, “Launch when you're ready” is the advice I've heard.

Sarah: You launch when you're ready and not before, and not after either. Just don't get too anxious about it.

Patrick: Cool.

Sarah: You've got to feel it out. Other interesting advice I got was about stretch goals.

Patrick: Go on.

Sarah: Stretch goals and shipping are like the things that you will do to yourself that will make you fail. Shipping is a little more obvious and known, but stretch goals if you're not very careful with them will capsize your ship right quick. 

The advice I got was that you can maybe tease that you'll have stretch goals, but you should be very careful with committing to them outright on day one of the campaign, because there might be things that happen that make you want to tweak them or adjust them, but once you've said out loud that they're going to happen you're locked in. 

Even if they were not a great idea and you find that out later, so that's the most general bit of advice that I got that I could share.

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

Patrick: Yeah, and I think that's a very good piece of advice because I think you should just before you start throwing things in the game you should have costs for everything, including all of your stretch goals. If you don't, I think that you're opening yourself up to killing your own project. 

So, very good advice. I want to go down towards to start wrapping this up, and I like to ask the same three questions near the end of every single interview. I would love to know what is a resource that you would recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?

Sarah: A resource I would recommend? Honestly, I would recommend your local game store if you have one. Go there, and the people who staff that store know all about games. They know so much about games. 

There's often going to be events or other things so that if you don't necessarily have the cash to shell out for every new game, sometimes you can go there, and you can play during events, or you can meet other people and talk to them. It's definitely that you'll get community, you'll get experience, you'll get to ask people who know lots of interesting tidbits about games, and it's all relatively easily accessible.

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

Patrick: I think that makes a lot of sense. Then I know for me, I'm a frugal person, so I try not to spend money when I don't have to. What is something that was worth every single cent that you paid?

Sarah: As a designer? Let's see. Recently I moved, and when we moved we set up– We bought a nice big desk for me and put it in a room with sunlight and set it all up. That's been immeasurably helpful in my productivity to have a space that is dedicated to working on games.

Patrick: Is that just for games, or is it like all work that you do at home?

Sarah: I try to keep it just to games. I try to keep my other work in other parts of the home and have this space where I can pull out all my games and spread them across the desk if I have to, and not have to worry about like balancing with other distractions while I'm at this space.

Patrick: That is very cool. I don't think anyone's mentioned having a dedicated game space before. That is a very cool thing to hear.

Sarah: If you can get it, I recommend it.

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

Patrick: You got it in New York City, so if you could make space for it, then I'm sure other people can. It's cool, and I'm excited to ask this question a couple of weeks before a Kickstarter campaign. But what is success in the board game world look like to you?

Sarah: Let's see. I think there's definitely layers to it. The all-time dream would be to have my own studio and be able to help other designers through some of these early hurdles that I'm jumping through on my own. That's the all-time goal. 

I remember being a student, and I remember desperately trying to get internships and figure out what to do with my life, all of that. Being able to reach out to new developers as a developer who has some clout, and some experience would definitely be a goal for me.

Patrick: make sure I heard that right, you want to be a resource for other people?

Sarah: Yeah. I want to be cool enough to be a resource for other people. That's definitely a goal.

Patrick: Cool. What about your Kickstarter? Do you have–? Do you want to sell 100,000 copies, or just 100? Or do you have goal in that regard?

Sarah: Really, the goal for this is to get a single print run. If we raise enough money to print the game, the minimum print run, I will be happy. That's all I want to do. Get my foot in the door, get it published, and have people play it. Games are made to be played.

Patrick: Yes. I hope people aren't making games just put them on their shelf.

Sarah: They do look pretty.

Overrated/Underrated

Patrick: They do look pretty. All right, so we're going to move on to Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Sarah: I have now.

Patrick: Yes. So, listeners, you get to hear a fun fact. We had technical difficulties, so we are re-recording overrated, underrated. For listeners who have never heard of it, I'm going to give her a word or phrase, and then she has to say if it's overrated or underrated. 

If I said, “The cool stickers you see on the back of laptops,” she would obviously say, “Underrated. There are cute Pikachu stickers and Totoro stickers and all the good things in the world. So, they're awesome.” The first of one of these, micro games. I'm going to define micro games as 18 cards or less and maybe a couple of tokens. Are those overrated or underrated?

Sarah: I'm going to say underrated, and I think I tip my hand a little bit earlier in our interview here by saying that I love to bring small games with me.

Patrick: No, they are super fun. I was going to ask you about the butterfly effect, but now I know from us having done this in the past that you have not seen it. I'm just going to go with time travel, movies, and movies and TV shows in general. Overrated or underrated?

Sarah: I have to say overrated, I'm not a big fan of time travel as a device in storytelling.

Patrick: Are there–? How about this, because I generally agree with you, are there any time travel shows where you are like “That one was well done.” Or movies?

Sarah: I know there is because I feel like I had this discussion with someone recently. What was it? I'll get back to you if I think of what it was. But the answer is, “Yes, it has been done well at least once.”

Patrick: OK, third one, and this is a genuine question because I've been thinking about this. The guild system or the guild whatever on BoardGameGeek. Are those overrated, underrated, or “I don't even know what you're talking about?”

Sarah: I have to go again with “I don't even know what you're talking about.”

Patrick: So I– Yeah, you could have guilds around certain topics so I could have a guild around this podcast. But I don't know what people would chat about, other than dumb things that I said on the show. 

But anyway listeners, if you know why people join BGG Guilds, let me know. But for now, we'll leave that as unanswered, and the last one here, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which is an awesome– I tipped my hand there. Which is a show on Netflix. Overrated or underrated?

Sarah: That's not a leading question at all.

Patrick: No, not at all.

Sarah: I'm going to sound lame because I'm just going to say I haven't seen it, and I'm not going to rate something I haven't seen. That sounds like cruising for trouble.

Patrick: I feel like you, and I are going to, at the next con instead of playing Love Letter I'm going to have to make you sit down and watch some TV and movies. Sound good?

Sarah: I've been watching Battlestar Galactica. It's been chewing up all of my time.

Patrick: That is. This is your first time through?

Sarah: Yeah.

Patrick: Exciting stuff. All right, I will not spoil it.

Sarah: If there is time travel though, I'm going to be mad.

Patrick: I will not say anything and leave you in suspense.

Sarah: No. All right.

Wrap up

Patrick: Sarah, thank you so much for being on the show.

Sarah: Thank you for having me. It was great.

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

Sarah: Online, you can find them at SarahRowan.games, and I'm on Twitter @echoinglaughter. I don't do a lot of social media outside of that, but when the Kickstarter is live, you'll also be able to find it on Kickstarter, ideally under “Soothsayer.”

Patrick: Yeah, hopefully. Listeners, this should come out probably a little bit after Soothsayer launches on Kickstarter. If you're listening to this, there's a very good chance you can find it on Kickstarter. 

Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you leave a review, Sarah said that she'd be able to read 10 minutes ahead into your future, so could be super useful. 

I also want to share that the very first Protospiel in Denver will be happening March of 2020. I'll be attending, and I'd love to play your games if you're anywhere nearby, so please stop by, and let's play a game. 

I will have a link to that in the show notes, but the short version is you can go to Tabletop.events, and you should be able to find it there. You can also visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, and you can follow me on Twitter, I am @BFTrick. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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 Ryan Hoye, who designed Icy Dice.

Which is a two-player semi co-op worker allocation/route builder, which we are definitely going to talk about– Also, roll and write, which we're definitely going to talk about today. It's also part of a roll and write anthology, Dice & Ink by Inkwell Games, which is coming up on Kickstarter soon. We are going to try to get this episode posted during the campaign, but it might just have ended. I'm going to do everything I can to get it posted during the campaign. So it will either have just finished or be live right now. Ryan, welcome to the show.

Ryan Hoye: Thanks for having me on.

Introduction

Patrick: I like to start everyone with a lightning round, to introduce you to the audience. Cool?

Ryan: Yeah, let's go.

Patrick: All right. You are trapped in a remote Alaskan village, and you have to travel either by ice skate or snowboard. Which do you choose?

Ryan: I'm going to go snowboard. I don't know how to snowboard, but I feel like it's more efficient than ice skating. So, eventually, I'd figure it out and be on my way.

Patrick: Love it. Let's say you know you're going to be stuck in a blizzard for one to two days. What is the game you bring with you?

Ryan: I would probably bring either Firefly or Deep Space D6, just because there's quite a bit of an expansive nature to them. Deep Space D6 is a small package, Firefly is a much larger package, but those are two of my favorite games right now.

Patrick: Is that the– Is Firefly the pick-up and deliver one where you're doing jobs, and you have your own crew, and all of your own Firefly ships?

Ryan: That's the one.

Patrick: OK, very cool. And then what is a game you play with someone every single time at a con?

Ryan: The game I end up doing every time at a con is Firefly because I always end up running a game of it. But beyond that, it would probably be Camel Up. That is my favorite 10 PM– The game you play at the end of a busy day of brain burners.

How Did You Get Into Board Games and Board Game Design?

Patrick: Very cool. First real question, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Ryan: I got into board games, actually, through Will Wheaton's Tabletop. I worked with a guy at RadioShack who showed me the video of them playing Munchkin, and I thought, “That's neat.” Then from that, I met other people who were in the board games and they introduced me more to the hobby, and moved on to Catan and then slowly got deeper and deeper into the hobby.

Patrick: I like that you referred to it as “I slid,” not like “I was getting excited, I took another step.” It's no, and it's like “I slid. I'm going downhill.” But you are the second person to recently mention tabletop with Will Wheaton, so it's cool to hear that had such a big impact. What about game design? How did you get into that?

Ryan: Within officially designing board games, it was a friend of mine who approached me because he had an idea for a board game. This friend was my creative partner, we hosted a podcast together about English idioms, and we were looking for another project to do together. He wanted to design a merchant trading game. 

I like pick up and deliver games, and he liked deck builders, so we tried to merge them. We ended up getting involved with the Kansas City Game Designers, which had just started up their local group. He fell out of the hobby, but I liked it and stuck with it.

Patrick: Very cool. Did you ever make that game?

Ryan: No. It's one I would like to pick up again some time, but it's not high on my priority list.

Patrick: Very cool. And what were you going for? Was it supposed to be set in the Mediterranean? I have to ask.

Ryan: It was. Of course, it was.

Patrick: Love it. Sometimes it's fun to play into those tropes.

Ryan: Yeah.

Tell Me About Icy Dice

Patrick: Cool. So I do want to talk about your game, Icy Dice because there's a couple of things that sound unique about it. One of which is that it is a roll and write semi co-op, and I don't think we've talked about semi co-ops a ton on the show. But to give the listeners a very quick overview, it's not a cooperative– Or, semi co-ops are sometimes cooperative games, but sometimes you can win on your own, and sometimes everyone can lose.

So there's a weird dynamic, and I don't think I've ever seen a semi co-op roll and write. Why did you decide to–? I think, and one more thing, usually roll, and writes are very– I want to say they're very solo games, you can't– Very rarely do you get to write on someone else's board or affect other players in a direct way. So why did you decide to combine these two things, and how?

Ryan: It definitely came about accidentally. Initially, this game was a straight-up trading game. You grow your crops, you cross this frozen ocean of acid to trade your goods, and then you come back and hoard your money. But after about a month of designing it, I was going through this phase where I think I probably read an article somewhere that just made me very upset, about a runaway capitalist enterprise.

I was like, “When you're designing a game you have to live in this world that you're designing.” In this world I had in my head, I'm going to spend the next several months working on this game. I don't want to be living in that world. I want to live in a much kinder world, one where it's not based on greed. That's when I went with design– With a survival approach. You're trading, and you're harvesting for the survival of your village, and so from there, it went into this idea that these two villages need to survive.

You can either play it where you're competing against each other if you want to, but initially, I set up the points system where it was a graded system. Where the main thing was if both people survived and met their goals, then both people could win the game and then you would score it. And then your score would get worse if the other player didn't do well. Now for the final version, what I ended up doing was I did something similar.

I made it staged where both people have to meet a certain quota, they have to harvest a certain number of crops, and they have to trade a certain– They have to get a certain amount of medicine through trade. That's called the “Survive” stage. If both players meet the “Survive” stage– Or, the “Survive” state, that means they're fine, and they're going to survive through the next year. Then they can move on to the “Thrive,” and that's where you play for points. You can be as cutthroat as you want after that.

Patrick: It sounds like there are two very distinct phases, and then you can do whatever you want?

Ryan: Yes.

What Is Semi Co-Op?

Patrick: OK, cool. So let me define this “Semi co-op,” can everyone win together, or no? Is it just the first part basically cooperative, and the second part is everyone for themselves? Or can you still win together, or is that not possible?

Ryan: You can totally win together. The “Thrive,” the second stage, it's not clear cut in the game of “OK. Now we're in the ‘Thrive' stage.” It's, “We both met our quotas. We can keep playing to see how well we do and see who wins, count up points at the end, or we've survived, and we can end now.”

Patrick: OK. Very cool. Then I think the thing that's been intriguing me about your design is normally in roll and writes I can almost stare at my own board and focus on “OK. On my next turn, I need to roll a six, and I need to roll a yellow die, I need to get this resource,” whatever. But if you're trading, then you have to look at everyone's sheets to know what they have and what they have too much of, because then you can get less of that. Is that public information? Is it hard to read someone's sheet across the table? Did you come into any problems with that?

Ryan: Initially, actually up until about a month ago, this was all played on a single sheet of paper. Because that was the original design criteria, was that it needs to be on one piece of paper. Recently the graphic designer on it said, “We're going to split this up into a player sheet, and then the map sheet,” essentially. So there's two player sheets, and that information is publicly available now. It's publicly available, so you can look at another player's sheet to see how they're doing. But then once a person has reached the “Survive” stage, everyone has to know that.

What Design Challenges Did You Run Into?

Patrick: Interesting. So did you run into any other design–? Did you run into any other design challenges with your game? Were there any things that you stumbled on that you eventually figured out?

Ryan: Yeah, so much. A lot of it comes from the fact that it was a roll and write game, just from the get-go. When I first saw the– The way I started doing this was Oden Pong, who was one of the two people that Inkwell Games put out a call for designers. Saying, “We want you to stretch the bounds of what a roll and write can be. Pitch us an idea.” AI love pick up and deliver games, so that was my initial thought, was “I want to do a pick-up and deliver game.” So with a pick-up and deliver game it's a route building, but because you're writing everything down I can't assume you're going to have an eraser as the game player, so I had to come up with some reason why you wouldn't be able to backtrack.

Just go back and forth along the same route, and that's why I came with the ice. I was like, “Why don't you just take a boat?” “OK. It's acid. You can't take a boat because it's acid.” It's like arguing with the three-year-old in my brain. The fact that everything, that you can't erase things has led to– That's where a lot of my design struggle has come from, issues of object permanence in the game. So, I don't– I wanted to try to– A sled, ideally, you can use it multiple times. If the sled is made up of little grids where you draw the crops in it to show that you're carrying a crop, you can only draw it in once. I wanted to get at least two rides out of it, but I'm constrained by space so let ‘s– How do I design the sled so that I can do multiple trips? That's a lot of it. How do I–?

I should also say the workers in the game when you drive a sled across the ice, and you have to have drivers for it. It's a work replacement game, and you can place drivers on the sled. If you're coming back, if you've traded or if you've received too much medicine and you don't have room on your sled for your drivers, one of those drivers has to stay behind. So figuring out, “OK. How do I show that there's a driver staying at the inn in this other island?”

A lot of the solution came from just constant iteration of the game. I would take it, I would take it to play it by myself or take it to game design nights and ask people, “Does that feel OK, crossing that off? Did you ever get confused by it? Even just taking direct feedback of “How do you think this can be improved?” That honestly has been the major design challenge that I've had on the game.

Tell Me About The Anthology Experience

Patrick: Yeah. So I know this is part of an anthology, it's basically if I remember correctly, ten to twelve games? Somewhere in there?

Ryan: There are 10 games.

Patrick: So there's 10 games in this anthology, I assume you have to have some shared components. They're like, “You have to only use D6s, you can't use D8s. And we're only going to include this many colors.” Did that also restrict you and refine your game in some way?

Ryan: We didn't necessarily have that.

Patrick: Cool.

Ryan: Sort of. They said, “Use polyhedral dies. Don't go insane, and this requires 36 D20s. Don't go off the rails.” But I did put a restriction upon myself that you could play the game with a single marker. So, just one color. It's not ideal, but it works.

Patrick: Very cool. I like that you did that. I was wondering if with an anthology if that would– You'd be very heavily restricted in terms of your components, but it sounds like it wasn't that big of a deal. Which is good.

Ryan: Yeah, no. I like the idea that– I think all the games in the series, in this anthology, are like that. Where if you have a single pen and maybe a dice app on your phone, you can play the games.

Did You Work With The Other Designers?

Patrick: That's pretty darn cool. Was there any– Did the designers work together at all? Did you guys chat? Did you guys playtest each other's games? Did you work together in any way?

Ryan: We did, a little bit. Early in the– We have a Discord server that we all log into, and we post updates on our games, and early on there was a lot of trading back and forth. But I think most of us are super busy, so there was a lot of early inputs. I know I've snuck a peek at some the other designers games to see how they're coming along, trying to pace myself because I'm with some really good designers.

I'm like, “I wonder. Let's see how mine compares to theirs.” So it's neat to get to see other people's designs, and there was a bit of playtesting, and there has been some back and forth between the other designers.

What Types of Games Do You Like to Design?

Patrick: Very cool. I don't think I've ever worked with other designers probably to that level, so it's pretty cool you got to do that. Have you worked on other games? Do you love roll and writes? What type of games do you like to design?

Ryan: I'm a solo gamer at heart. I love solo games, specifically games that are designed for solo play. A game I designed for The Game Crafter's solitaire game challenge, that was called Homebound, and that was– So far that's been one of my favorite games because it's very theme-heavy. It's designed specifically to be a solo game and the process of making it reveal a lot of my own personal fears. It's a very personal game.

You're essentially a Homebound older adult who has to manage your emotional and physical needs without leaving the house. You do that through interacting with people that come to your door. They may be missionaries, and they may be salespeople, they may be neighbors, stray animals, and how you choose to interact with those people.

How Do Design Groups Fit Into Solo Gaming?

Patrick: I'm going back to the solo game design thing because that's a little bit– For me, I think one of the main reasons I play games is to spend time with friends. I don't play a ton of solo games, and I'm wondering how that changes your testing process? Do you–? Because I need extra people to test, whereas you don't. I'm wondering if you have like 100 playtests in of your game, which is probably very easy– Or, it might be much easier for solo. Then how does a design group fit into solo gaming? Is it still as useful?

Ryan: It is actually, very much. With Homebound what I did was, I would take it to conventions or the KC Game Designers design nights, and I would have three copies of the game available for playtesting. So I'd be running multiple games at a time, and it was fun because you would watch people– Because people would watch each other play, and it was so much fun to get to play it like that.

That's one of the things someone suggested recently, was creating some type of an interactive expansion so that you can still play your own game with another person next to you playing their own game, and figure out some way to communicate between the two. Either a pen pal program or send– You have an annoying salesperson that keeps coming to your house, send them over to your neighbor.

Patrick: That sounds super cool. I don't think I've ever– This is going to sound silly, I never considered concurrent playtests. That's cool that you can go to a game design night and get in three playtests.

Ryan: It's hard to manage sometimes because at the beginning everyone has questions, but once they get the feel of the game, it goes along pretty smoothly.

Patrick: Very cool. So, then this is your first– Is this your first published design?

Ryan: It is.

Is There Anything You Would Change About Your Process?

Patrick: This is your first public– It's going to be on Kickstarter probably about a week after we record, something like that. Now that you've gone through this process, would you want to publish yourself? Would you want to work with publishers in the future? Would you–? And then also, would you change anything about your process?

Ryan: I don't know if I self-published it would probably just be something through The Game Crafter. I don't know, right now with two young kids and a full-time job I don't know if I have it in me to go through the whole rigmarole of a Kickstarter. But going through a publisher, I would definitely be interested in that. This experience is a little different than most publishers, so I'm told because Inkwell Games has been very designer-friendly.

Most of the time, if you go to a publisher, you can expect your theme to be stripped out and re-themed. For me, I'm a very thematic designer. I'm a theme-first designer, and I might have a hard time letting a publisher strip out a theme that I've worked so hard on, so depending on the game I would definitely be willing to work with a publisher. It may be difficult for me, but I'd be interested in it.

Patrick: It's cool to hear that, that you know for you that design is important. Some publishers are fine with that. Or, not– Did I say, “Design is important?” That theme is important. It's cool that you know that, and then with some publishers, you have to have that conversation before you sign the contract or anything like that.

Ryan: Yeah.

Are There Any Games That Inspire Your Creativity?

Patrick: Are there any games out there that inspire you, that make you want to make cooler things?

Ryan: The most inspiring event recently was a video game. It was a game called Doki Doki Literature Club! I'd heard–

Patrick: OK. What is that?

Ryan: All right, so I'd heard someone on a podcast talking about it otherwise I would not– This wouldn't even have been on my radar. It's a game that portrays itself as a dating SIM, but it ‘s– It's only four hours long, and it's free. I'm like, “I'm just going to go ahead and do it.” It's so weird. It delves into the subject of depression, and it does all these crazy meta things. It messes with your save files, and it tells you how to go in and remove files to remove characters from the game.

It was such an experience playing it because I'd never seen anything like it before. It was very– It started getting the wheels turning in my head of, “OK. What are some meta things I can do in a game that don't seem contrived?” I know there's the deck builder game where you build decks, which is a tongue in cheek way to be meta. I've been trying to figure out a way that I can incorporate something like that into the design of a board game.

Patrick: Yeah. Correct me if I'm wrong, there is something about not knowing that that's the thing, right? I assume the Doki Doki Literature Club! Someone says, “It's a dating simulation.” You're like, “Cool. Got it.” Then there's unexpected things, and then when unexpected things happen in the game, it's like extra special. Versus “Play this game. It's a meta game.” Right? Like there's some–?

Ryan: Exactly. There's something– It does list “Horror” as one of the genres, but you look at all the pictures and everything, and you're like, “This isn't horror. What's going on here?” It pulls you into it.

Patrick: Because I've wanted to talk about– I wanted to make a productivity game at some point based on some– I read a lot of productivity books, which is super nerdy. But I didn't know, I wanted to bring it up, but it's almost too on the nose. I don't have a game called “Productivity” Where you're just trying to get stuff done, that sounds super boring.

Or maybe if I did, I should call it “Cubes” and you try to make as many cubes as possible. But I almost want to have a different game, and then have people learn about productivity through the game. There's something about, and I don't know, something like if you wanted to tackle the issue of depression, I don't think I'd want to have a game called “Depression.” I think I'd want to have depression be a part of the game, and then people talk about it afterwards.

Ryan: Yes. That would be– That's a great way to do it, is you have the theme be about something different but have it engaging enough that there's conversation about the theme afterwards. That's how you seed that conversation through your game design.

Patrick: Very cool. That's a great inspiration, so I will check that out afterwards, and I hope a couple of the listeners do too because it looks cool. Also, what a great name. Listeners, I will have a link to that. I found it on Google, so I'll have a link to that.

Ryan: Cool.

What Is Your White Whale of Game Design?

Patrick: Then another question I would like to ask, is there a mechanic or a mechanism or whatever that you've been working on that you haven't been able to get? Is there a white whale of game design that you're like “I want to do this thing,” and you just haven't done it yet?

Ryan: I have a game that I don't know how to fix. I think I've reached the point where I have to re-theme it because the game is based around the mating habits of the Tobi Antelope.

Patrick: OK.

Ryan: I watched documentary about them, and the way they do their mate selection process is the men all– Or, the stags all get in this big kilometer wide circle, and they each call out their own little areas and then they fight to be closest to the center of the circle, which is called a “Lek,” or if they're by a water source they'll get higher priority when the does come around looking for a mate.

They do things like sometimes they'll make a little hill out of their own dung so that they're slightly higher than the others. So I saw this, I saw it on a documentary, and I'm like “That's an area control game. Let's see if I can make that.” But I ended up creating that as the main game, and then all these– I made like 20 microgames that are duels, to get the players to duel each other. The downside is that when you have a game that's about stags trying to mate with does, and you have humans playing it, the game becomes very problematic.

Patrick: As in, people make rude and crude comments all the time or something?

Ryan: It is, and in a close-knit circle of friends where you know each other's comfort level, and you know each other well enough, you can joke around like that with each other. But this game is going to be played in the board game community. It would get pulled out at conventions, and people would be uncomfortable. I don't want to make that. So I'm trying to figure out, “How do I fix it? Can I fix it while keeping the theme? If I can't, then what do I do with all these mini-games I made?” Try to figure out how to reuse those.

Thoughts on Gender Roles as a Game Mechanic

Patrick: OK, great. Then I have a genuine question for you because I have my own problem with this. Or, I have a similar problem. Let me first share, and my similar problem is there's a trope in the videogame world of the standard dude character, let's say Mario, has to save the pretty princess. Princess Peach. That's just overused and overdone, and as female gamers, you're like, “It'd be nice sometimes if we don't always have to be saved.” Is there something about just switching the genders?

So if you have a princess saving the plumber, would that get rid of some of those problems? I wonder if in your case if it was the does competing for the males, whatever they're called, would that solve some of those problems? Do you think people–? I'd be very curious if people would behave differently if you just switched the genders and kept the game exactly the same.

Ryan: I don't know. That would be interesting. In the end, it all comes down to trying to mate with someone. That alone makes people uncomfortable. So, I don't know. It'd be interesting. I did try a variant where one round you play as the stags, the other round you play as the does. Trying to make sure that the does had as much agency as possible, and so players had to play as a doe and a stag. You had to play as both genders regardless of what gender you identify with. It was clunky, and it didn't work.

What's a Resource You'd Recommend?

Patrick: Very cool. Good luck with that. That sounds like a really interesting problem, basically the culture of a certain type of game is problematic. Very cool. I will have to think on that, but moving towards the end here, now that you've basically gone through this process, your first game is going to be part of this anthology on Kickstarter in about a week or so. Listeners, that should be now. What is a resource you'd recommend to another indie game designer? What is a–? Usually something free, or pretty affordable.

Ryan: Find a local game design group. Because that has honestly been the best thing for me, I am very active in the Kansas City Game Designers, and I run their social media accounts. When you don't see posts, it's probably because I'm slacking off on the job. But it's fantastic because I know every two weeks I'm going to get to go and sit down with other designers, we playtest each other's games, we talk about design, and they're the ones that exposed me to game design theories.

No matter how good a designer you are, you're going to meet people who are better than you and who know things that you don't, and you're going to meet people who will inspire you also because you'll see them do things. Like, “Why didn't I think of that?” And that may inspire you to do something else, so find a local game design group. I think Cardboard Edison has a list of game design groups on their website.

What's the Best Money You've Spent?

Patrick: I know they do. A while ago I checked to make sure my game design group was on there, and it was. There's just a ton of them on there. Check it out, because they're very cool and super useful. Then how about, I'm a pretty frugal person, is there something that is worth every single cent that you spent? What's the best money you've spent in the game design world?

Ryan: I think it was probably when I was working on Homebound, I got a one-month subscription to a vector art site because I needed art for it just to be able to display. I knew it wasn't going to be the final art, but I needed something there just to set the mood, and that was fantastic. It was cheap, $10 bucks for one month and you get a certain number of images you can download. You don't have to attribute the website because you paid for them. I would say that's a fantastic tool.

Patrick: I know in the past, other people have recommended The Noun Project. Is that the one you're talking about, or was it a different one?

Ryan: No. This one was Vecteezy.

Patrick: Cool. Yeah, I've seen that.

Ryan: The Noun Project, I've tried it. They didn't have anything that fit with the older adults living at home alone. A lot of dungeon crawler stuff on The Noun Project, but nothing that suited my needs.

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: Cool. Listeners, that is– I'm looking at it right now, that is “Vecteezy,” and I will have a link to that in the show notes. Cool. That's very helpful. So your game is coming up on Kickstarter, what does success look like to you in the board game world?

Ryan: That's a tough question. I know that board game design for me is a creative outlet, so I think success in the board game world would be knowing that people are playing my game and getting the desired experience out of it. I have an idea of what I want players to experience when they play my games, and knowing they're getting that positive experience is really what I would consider a success.

Patrick: When people play your game, they should definitely Tweet you?

Ryan: Of course.

Overrated / Underrated

Patrick: Very cool. Awesome, I like to end with a game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Ryan: Yes.

Patrick: Fantastic. Basically, I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you have to say if it's overrated or underrated. If I said “Smartphones,” you'd say– Boy, you could go either way with that one. You'd give me a one-sentence reason why. I'm going to go with– So, this is still on my mind because I've been on BGG a lot in the last week or two for various reasons. I'm going to go with the BGG logo redesign. Overrated or underrated?

Ryan: I would say the redesign is somewhat underrated. The fussing about it is overrated.

Patrick: I like that. It's amazing how much people don't like change. I just saw an announcement on the BGG home page that was like, “We have more mobile visitors than desktop visitors, so we're changing things around. We know you don't like change, but deal with it.” You said it slightly nicer than that, but that's just interesting. Cool, so just because I like the frozen lake thing, I thought of the Iditarod. Which is, for listeners who can't look this up right now, that is that super long famous dog sledding race. Overrated or underrated?

Ryan: I'm going to go say overrated, just cause I think it's one of those things that has– Every year there's a lot of buzz about it, and I like the idea of a race like that not getting a lot of publicity.

Patrick: OK. I think we might be in different circles because I don't see that much publicity about the Iditarod. But cool, it's good to hear they get publicity in other circles. All right, so this one– I will mention this at the end, but work in progress threads of your game either on Facebook, BGG or anywhere.

Ryan: I would probably say underrated because it's not something I do. Within my board game design group, we don't talk about it much. But that does seem like a very underutilized resource and a good way to get feedback on a design.

Patrick: Very cool. Last thing and I don't know if you know about– Or, I don't know if you've seen the trailers for this but the upcoming movie Frozen 2, which so far is basically just your perception of it based on trailers, overrated or underrated?

Ryan: It's a trailer, so I'm going to go ahead and say overrated.

Patrick: Yeah. I think there's also a big hype to live up to.

Ryan: It is.

Patrick: They have a massive hype that they have to live up to. So, we'll see what happens. Cool.

Ryan: Do you want to hear my pet theory on that one?

Patrick: Yes.

Ryan: OK. I think they cross the Atlantic Ocean and go to Canada. That is my guess, just with all the maple leaves that are bandied about throughout that.

Wrap Up

Patrick: I didn't see– OK, see, I've seen the trailer one time. I didn't notice any maple leaves. Look at this, and you are educating me and the listeners. Great, love the fan theory. Cool. So Ryan, thank you so much for being on the show.

Ryan: Yeah, I had a great time. Thanks for having me.

Patrick: Where can people find you online, and where– And also, I definitely want to say, where can people Tweet you?

Ryan: My Twitter handle is @hoyeboyee. There are two “E's” at the end there because someone got the one with one “E.” That's social media-wise, that's the main place I'm at. I am also on BoardGameGeek. Just the username “hoyeboye.” Pretty much anywhere online that you see “hoyeboye,” that's me.

Patrick: That's very cool. And then, do you have your own game design website? Or is it pretty much just Twitter and stuff like that?

Ryan: Yeah, pretty much, just Twitter.

Patrick: Very cool. Listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Ryan said he would help you build a sled in the event of a snowpocalypse. So, that's pretty fantastic.

Ryan: I'm looking forward to it.

Patrick: Then I did want to mention, I just started a work in progress thread for my game [Mintsugi], which is for The Game Crafter mint tin contest. So I will link to that work in progress thread on BGG in these show notes. I personally don't know what to expect from this work in progress thread, so who knows? It might be great, might be terrible, but I've at least posted a couple times, and we'll see. So, it's an experiment. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter, I'm @BFTrick. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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 Len Kendall, who works for a large video game company that you definitely know. He designed Western Tropic, which combines poker and deck building and area control and will be available on Kickstarter when this episode airs, and Devil's Advocate, which is a party game that launched a few years ago on Kickstarter. Len, welcome to the show.

Len Kendall: Thank you very much, Patrick.

Introduction

Patrick: I like to start with a lightning round, to introduce you to the audience. This make sense?

Len: Yeah, it does. Let's do it.

Patrick: All right. What is your favorite traditional card game, except poker?

Len: My favorite card game would be one called Durak, which is most well known in Russia and Ukraine. It's the first card game I learned to play with my grandma who is from there, and it's trick– Reverse trick-taking, where you're basically trying to get rid of all of your cards before the end of the game.

Patrick: Very cool. I've never heard of it, but it uses a standard 52 card deck?

Len: It does. You ditch a few of the lower ones, so it's six through tens.

Patrick: Very cool, I'll have to check it out. What is your favorite Western movie?

Len: I like True Grit. There's the classic version and then the modern one, and I think it's really funny where you have this young woman/girl who is basically the boss and telling all these gruff old men what to do, and kicking ass and taking names. It's just very– It puts a character that doesn't belong in a place that you don't normally see them, so I always enjoyed that.

Patrick: Awesome. What is a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?

Len: I can't help myself, but I like Patchwork. I grew up playing Tetris, and because that game uses shapes and combining shapes and putting them together, I love the strategy of that. I always find that to be the game I play, especially if I'm looking for a two-person game.

Patrick: I think I would love Patchwork. I've yet to play it, so it is on my to-do list because it's been mentioned in a million different videos and podcasts and books.

Len: The theme is very unappealing, and I totally get that, and that's why I didn't play it. But once I did, the mechanics, I just fell in love with. Just get over the theme and play it and I think you'll enjoy it too.

Patrick: I don't know if I've shared this story on the podcast before, but I refused to play Love Letter for six months, and then I played it, and I'm like “This is a great game!” But I think I just assumed it was like a love-letter writing competition or something, which didn't sound great. Sometimes a theme can throw you off, but then sometimes the gameplay is excellent underneath that.

Len: Yeah, exactly. I haven't played Love Letter, so we'll trade games and report back.

How Did You Get Into Board Games and Board Game Design?

Patrick: There we go. OK, so first real question. How did you get into board games and board game design?

Len: Everyone obviously knows about Cards Against Humanity, and it's a big worldwide sensation, but not many people know that when it launched originally on Kickstarter in 2011, it only raised $15,000 dollars and from less than 1,000 people. I'm happy to say I was one of those people, I lived in Chicago at the time, and I knew the guys who started that game, so I backed them. I went to their launch party, got to play with them, and that was quite a trip to see the sick and hilarious minds of the ones who wrote that game. But I think to answer your question, like many people, I came to the brilliant conclusion that “I can create a party game with cards, too. 

That seems easy and fun.” So I did, and I'm one of many people who has done that with Devil's Advocate. I launched Devil's Advocate five years ago, and it was really about trying to guess how your friends would feel about certain topics and try to change their opinion on those topics, hence the name. I ended up raising $30,000 dollars on Kickstarter. I was very happy with it, but I just did that initial run and ended it there, so I didn't have the long term success of a Cards Against Humanity. But it did introduce me to the very basic elements of game design, and it's one of those games that I don't consider to be a game. I consider it to be a conversation starter at a party, so I'm half proud of it. But it taught me a lot, so I'm glad I did it.

Patrick: Yeah. It's interesting, and I still don't know where to put Cards Against Humanity. Yeah it's a game, but it also sometimes feels a little bit more like an activity like Telestrations, or–

Len: Exactly.

Tell Me About Western Tropic

Patrick: So, let's talk about your new game. Western Tropic is– I'll go back up to the description here. It combines poker with deck building, area control, and some other game elements. Why did you change from party games to this other type of game?

Len: I really wanted to create a game which I actually call a game, and I started studying board game mechanics and then looking at the different types of games I've played in the past, and I thought about what card game or board game or otherwise have I spent the most time playing, and that ended up being poker. However, I always found that even though I wanted to play poker a lot, it was hard to play it because, A) money is involved which really turns off a lot of people, and B) it's just something that requires a lot of manipulation and for lack of a better term, lying. I wanted it to be a bit more accessible. 

So I decided to use the language of poker with the game, but create a whole new game out of it. For people who know poker, and that's a very large majority of people who understand the basics of poker, I figured I could save a little bit of time in teaching people how to play my game if they already knew the basics of poker. But then I expanded upon it with things like deck building and area control and trick-taking and turned it into something that I think feels more like a tabletop game versus what poker is.

Patrick: Did you–? I've heard this a couple times in the game design world where if you try to introduce too much craziness at once, people won't get it. But if you take what someone knows and then change one little thing about it, people can grasp that. Like, if people are at step 10 and you have a game that's 11, they'll get it. But if they're at step 10, you have a game that's step 20, and they won't get it. It seems like building on a popular game like poker might solve a lot of those problems. “It's like poker, except you do this and this,” sounds like a really easy way to teach someone a game. Has that been easy to teach, and do people grok it right away?

Len: I think that the concept makes a lot of sense. I think with video games you'll see that a lot, where it evolves from one basic thing people know to another. In this particular case, I look at a game like Dominion or other deck builders, and when I first started playing those types of games, I found it to be pretty confusing. I enjoyed them once I understood them, but the overall concept is hard to get if you've never played that type of game. 

What I've tried to do is take something that people know, which is poker, introduce deck building elements into it to act as a bridge to get them to a game like Dominion. It's not going to be as advanced, not even close as advanced or varied as that type of game. But I do think it's going to introduce people to the genre, and that's a big goal for me is getting people to play those types of variable card games.

What Design Challenges Did You Run Into?

Patrick: Yeah. No, I totally hear you on that. So did you have any–? It sounds like we've talked about how people grok it immediately, but did you have any design challenges with the game? Was there something that didn't work and took you a while to figure out?

Len: Yeah. My biggest challenge with this game was I fell in love with the theme before I had the game complete. The current version of Western Tropic is the 44th version that I've designed. The original one started off as a roll and move and attack, and I landed on the poker tweak about halfway through. But I was watching the show West World quite a bit, and I fell in love with that theme, especially because it took place in a modern-day and you had people in that show that didn't look like the people you normally see in a Western show. People of all looks and backgrounds, and I thought that was cool. 

At the same time, I also really like tiki culture. Tiki bars, tiki drinks, all that. So those two interesting themes were merged together, and that's where I landed on this theme of Western Tropic, which basically is this island that a crazy billionaire has taken over and rebuilt into a Wild West town. [Inaudible], and so it's a pretty loose story, but it's one that I have a lot of fun with in terms of the art. But that was my challenge, I couldn't let go of this theme, and so I had to keep changing my game until I landed on one that I had fun playing. Because the original versions of this game were not fun to me, I just liked the theme. Now I finally have a theme that I like and a game that I enjoy playing.

Thoughts on Theme-First Game Design

Patrick: Would you say you are a theme-first type of designer or is it just this one time?

Len: I think I am. I'm a marketing and branding guy, so I understand that there are going to be 100 people who sell the exact same thing as you and sometimes packaging matters a lot. I definitely buy games because they are pretty, and then I'll never play them again. So I think there's a lot of people like me now. 

Obviously, I want my game to be very fun, and I want people to play it, and I think that they will. But I'm definitely a theme first person because I think people play games to experience a different world and imagine a little bit. Even if a game mechanic is fun, you do have to have that look and feel that that resonates and stands out.

Patrick: I'm curious if you found a mechanism that was fun, but didn't work for the theme? Where the game works on a game level, but didn't work with the theme. Or was it just the mechanisms you were combining didn't work at all?

Len: Yeah. I think, especially in early versions of the game, it was very heavy on attacking people. In fact, it was almost like I was trying to create a battle royale style game with cards where there was only one person left. I think that the theme, hopefully for me, is meant to be a game of inclusivity and people were working together and playing together and having fun together. 

I think the more games I played that were one person takes all, the less fun I've had. Even though I like the idea of doing a battle royale in a board game setting, it just didn't work. So I'm much happier now that the game is more about earning as many points as you can and doing the best possible job you can to win the game. It's much like Catan and others if you play three games you might not win them all, but you're still racking up points, and you're feeling good about that progress.

Patrick: Yeah, and you're feeling good about the little town you've built and all the roads you connected.

Len: Exactly.

What’s Your Favorite Game That You’ve Designed?

Patrick: Changing gears a little bit, you've designed a couple games, and I'm sure you've designed games that weren't launched on Kickstarter, what is the favorite game you designed?

Len: My favorite game that I've designed to this day is one that five-year-old Len designed called Army Men Marble Wars. Basically, that was me getting into game design. What I did was I would play with a friend, we would sit across from each other on the floor, on the carpet, and we would set up little green army men in a row. 

Then we would use Legos and other types of construction toys to build catapults and other types of weapons that basically launched marbles, and so we would keep launching marbles one at a time as a tactical strategy turn-based game until we had knocked over all of the other person's army men. It was a little bit of strategy, it was a little bit of building your own tools, and a little bit of reflexes and dexterity. I didn't know it at the time, but I guess I was starting my game design journey back then.

Patrick: You've been a lifelong game designer?

Len: Indeed.

Patrick: That's very cool. It's funny, and I'm following someone right now who has a game about catapults and knocking down– You have your little castles, and I think you have your little guards that are in your castles, and as soon as you knock out all the guards I think you win. But it's funny, that's not that different than the game that you designed when you were five. So, pretty cool.

Len: Yeah. I think my favorite video game version of that idea is Worms, where you're just going back and forth with all these weapons. It's clever and simple. I love that.

What Types of Games Do You Like to Design?

Patrick: I was never any good at that game. But yes, lots of fun. Speaking of games that we like or don't like, what type of games do you like to design? Like, what is something that interests you?

Len: My favorite board game is one that doesn't need a board. I like things that are smaller in nature, in terms of you could fit in your pocket, or you can throw it in your backpack. I think I gravitate mostly towards designing card games just because that's the natural alternative to having a board and pieces and rolling dice and all that. 

I think I do spend a lot of time thinking about that constraint and trying to apply that idea of boardless games in other formats, and I haven't quite nailed that down yet. I think for the foreseeable future I'm focusing on cards, but that is a self– Or, a constraint that I've given myself that I want to stick to through my board game design career.

Patrick: I love that. I'm a huge fan of Button Shy's Wallet Games. I'm working on a game for The Game Crafter mint tin challenge because I love small, tiny games. Now, I have a question for you. I've been wondering if it's possible to make– Have you played the game Palm Island, by any chance?

Len: I have not, no.

Patrick: It's a cool solo game where you're trying to get as many points as possible, but what's cool about it is it's a card game that literally fits in one hand and the other hand helps move around the cards. The way you want to hold cards is in a slightly weird way, but you literally don't need to put the cards down. 

All the cards are in your hand, and they're just fanned out in this special format, and you can move them or rotate them or turn them around and do all this stuff. I love that. I want to do that, and I want to have a game where you– I don't want to say “You don't have a board,” but you don't have anything. I want to make a game that you can play while standing in line. So, I don't know how that works.

Len: Yeah. I think that's so great. I think back to a bygone era when people would take cards on an airplane and play solitaire in front of their seat or their tray. I think that's cool to have to come up with a fun game with little to work with. Like, if you put a lot of constraints on yourself that makes things hard. 

But I think that is interesting, and then I think from a cost perspective or getting your game out to a lot of people perspective, if you can produce a small game, and it costs you $5 dollars a unit to produce, and you can sell it for $10 that means more people are enjoying your game versus something that cost $100 or $150 and not as many people will enjoy. So I think that if you're willing to think about building small games, you will have a larger audience.

Any New Ideas or Mechanisms for Future Games or Expansions?

Patrick: Very cool. So, is there something–? Are there some fun ideas or mechanisms you're looking into for a future game, or for expansions, or anything like that?

Len: I have a technology that I'm looking at that I think could turn into an interesting mechanism. For about two years now I've been investigating this stuff called thermal ink, and basically, what that is it's ink that changes color when it's at different temperature. For example, if you imagine a card and you put your finger on it, and you hold it for a few seconds, the color on the card starts to change and might reveal a message underneath or it might change to mean something completely different. 

I haven't quite cracked “What is the game mechanic that could benefit from this?” But I think it's super cool. I think that the challenge is it wouldn't work if you're playing outside in the cold, so there are all these variables that would make it a little tricky. But I think it's a unique idea and I would love to apply it somehow, even if it's for marketing materials or something like that. I haven't personally seen it used yet, so perhaps I'll be the first to try that out.

Patrick: I could totally see that in– The first thing that pops into my mind is an escape room game. I think something like that where there's literally– In escape room games there's lots of hidden information, and I love the idea of a card that looks like there's nothing on it and you maybe throw it away in the box for someone and someone else picks it up and they hold it for a couple of seconds, and then extra things appear on the card. That sounds amazing.

Len: Yeah, I like that. If there's information you don't want anyone else to see, you put your fingers on it, and you can see it, but nobody else can, or everyone else has to play wearing gloves until they are allowed to take their gloves off and they can reveal what's on the card. Something like that.

Patrick: But you brought up a really interesting points that you would either have to put on the box, “Must play in a room that's 70 degrees,” which gives away some information. Or you have to hope that– I don't know, there would have to be lots of testing of different thermal inks to make sure that–

Len: Yeah, I got samples of it and tried it in different climates.

Patrick: What?

Len: Like if it's a really hot day and the sun's beating on it, it messes it up. I think that's part of the reason I haven't pursued this is it's just too variable in terms of how it reacts to heat. But it's getting better and better every year, so I would definitely investigate it. It's pretty cool to see how it works.

Patrick: Is that something you can print at home? Was it just a different printer cartridge, or do you have to send out for that type of thing?

Len: They do have ones you can use with a printer, but honestly the better quality stuff you need to send out.

Patrick: That is very cool. Normally people talk about “I want to do work replacement, a mechanism,” but it's cool that you're looking at a technology that you want to use.

Len: Yeah, I figure I want to share stuff with people that they may not have heard about. I'm thinking thermal ink is one of those things.

Is There A Game That You Wish You Could Change?

Patrick: Is there a game out there that you wish you could change? Maybe you'd add something to it or take something away from it?

Len: This is not considered a hardcore tabletop game, but in line with my game being about poker, I always thought it would be fun to have Scrabble, but with betting. You would apply money, so if you're using tiles that have a higher points like a Q has 10 points, maybe that's 10 cents. 

I think you can basically play this game with money essentially, but I think it'd be pretty fun to have competitive Scrabble tournaments where money was actually at stake. It would definitely change the game. I think that the challenge is that people constantly bicker about what is or is not a word, so there's not hard and steadfast rules and you definitely want that when money is involved. But yeah, that's my quick brainstorm for a modification to a game.

Patrick: I can imagine those people fighting over something is a word or not getting old, like two times as intense.

Len: Absolutely.

Are There Any Games That Inspire Your Creativity?

Patrick: So are there any games out there that inspire you, inspire you to make a new game or something like that?

Len: Yeah, I recently have been inspired by a game called Pixel Tactics. It's back to our conversation about small games, it's made by Level 99 and much like my game Western Tropic it uses a grid-like format, and I think it's clever. Because again it uses a small amount of real estate on a card to give you a lot of information. There's three or four different pieces of information on each card, and you have to look at different pieces of information depending on what turn it is. 

So again, I think that's my inspiration as I'm going into this realm of card games and trying to fit as much information as I can on my own game components. That's a great one. Another one I want to quickly mention is Hero Realms. I know a lot of people know Star Realms, but Hero Realms to me is a great deck builder that takes all the fun of Dominion but is very compact and tight and simple to learn. I think that's a great one for people to try out if they haven't played a lot of deck-building games.

Patrick: I love it. I'm just looking that up, and I don't think I've played Hero Realms at all.

Len: I've given you a nice Amazon wish list to fill out here.

Patrick: There's never enough time to play all these awesome games.

Len: I know.

What Research Do You Do Before Starting a New Game?

Patrick: Cool. So, what research do you do before you start making a new game? Do you look at and read books? Do you watch movies? What do you do before you make a game?

Len: My standard process is usually buying a lot of books and then putting them on my shelf and then never reading them, so that's step one. Step two is I switch to more audio-based learning, and I like podcasts including yours of course, and audiobooks as well. My go-to approach is to take a walk, so I save all of my– I hoard all of my podcasts during the week. I don't listen to them at work or driving, so I listen to them on one or two hour-long walks, and I take my notebook with me. 

I'll listen to podcasts, and I'll learn about different topics, if I think of something that is valuable that I want to think through later, I'll pull out my notebook and I'll write it down. But just the act of walking is really important for me, and I know other people talk about this quite a bit, to have that mental space of not being distracted. Podcast prompts my brain to start working, the exercise and the walking continues that process, and then I usually come back with lots of great ideas and then I jump on my computer and start cranking them out. 

Just one other resource that I highly recommend would be watching videos from GDC, which is the Game Developers Conference. They talk about both tabletop board games and then also video game, but I think a lot of the lessons they teach are applicable. Those are like college lecture style videos that are great ways to absorb a lot of great information without reading if you're not into that like me.

Patrick: You're totally skipping ahead here to the “What one resource would you recommend?” But I like it. Let me go back to the walking and podcasting thing because I do sometimes do that, but not often. I talked with someone recently, I don't know if that episode aired, but I talked to someone recently about basically scheduling unconstructive time, or almost like scheduling unscheduled time if that makes sense. I think scheduling unstructured, and I think that's what I said. I'm wondering if that's what your walks are, it's basically like this is literally– Like you're basically– Are you basically scheduling brainstorming time?

Len: Yeah. I believe that was in the last episode of yours that I listened to, so I'm being a good listener. I think for me it it's become a habit for me basically after work. I wouldn't say necessarily schedule it, but for me, it acts as the line in the day. I go to work, I do my thing, I'm in that headspace, and then I go on a walk, and that separates my workday from my personal day and my personal projects day. It puts me in a new environment, and I think even when you get home, you're still connected to work sometimes because you've got your email and you've got things that you have to do in terms of chores, so this forces that division in the day. 

I walk outside for an hour almost every single day if possible. And then if I can't, I will try to do other exercise. But it's a great thing for people to get in the habit of, and if you are working on creative projects, I think it's one of the very few things you can do that forces you away from technology. The other one for me is riding my motorcycle. You literally cannot be on a computer or on your phone if you want to stay alive. So, although I don't do as much thinking it does turn my brain off for a little bit of time, and I think that's important to spur creativity whether it's in that moment or later in the day.

Patrick: I love that answer. I just had a follow up on the walking thing. Come on, thought. Where did you go, thought? Anyway–

Len: You should take a walk. It'll come up.

Taking Inspiration From Someone Without Taking Their Idea

Patrick: Yeah, I'm sure if we just– If I got for a walk, yeah. I absolutely love that. Oh, here's what it was. So sometimes I get inspired, and I have this similar thing where sometimes I go for walks, and people get inspired and go, “Wow, it's a cool idea. I want to do this.” I guess a question I've recently been struggling with is let's say someone shares a cool idea in a podcast and you want to use that, but you don't want to copy them. 

How do you do–? Because, how about this. You literally know you're inspired from them because you stopped your walk to write down notes, and I've done this. Like, “I want to do this thing but slightly different.” How do you get inspired by someone without ripping off their idea?

Len: Yeah, that's a real thing. I struggle with it too. I think in situations where I have felt like that has happened and have then gone back and told myself, “I'm going to only come up with original ideas, and I'm not going to use any reference materials or listen to other people. That'll be the way to go.” Even when I've gone that route, hours later or days later I'll find out that whatever I came up with in my head someone's already thought of. So pretty much every idea has been thought of already, and it's really about telling the story in a different way and adding to it, remixing it. 

I'm not somebody who likes just straight up taking ideas, and I think there's a lot of people online who they steal content and make a life out of “Curation.” I don't believe in that. But I do think that most artists are basically just connecting the dots of different ideas from different people and showcasing in a new way, so I think if you're doing that and if you're packaging something in a completely new way or adding on to something that someone else has created, I think you should be OK with that and feel good about it.

Patrick: Cool. I like that, and I definitely generally agree that every idea has been thought of at some point. It's just such a blurry ground.

Len: Yeah, this is the reason you can't patent a game mechanic or a game idea, you can only rebuild it. I guess that stinks for people who come up with something original, and it gets copied over and over, but yeah, that is the world we live in. Unfortunately, you have to stand out through, again, the storytelling and the community that you build or that one unique element that makes you a little bit different than the 100 other people who have a similar idea.

What's a (Video) Resource You'd Recommend?

Patrick: Love it. OK, so we've answered, “What one resource would you recommend?” And you mentioned GDC videos. Just as a starting place, is there one video that you'd recommend as a really good intro to this type of content?

Len: I think honestly, for me, he's got a ton of content but Geoff Englestein is a great resource. He's got some great videos from GDC, just the basic introductory mechanics of game design. He has a lot of different topics, but he's got a podcast, and he has books, but I've watched a lot of his stuff. 

The other genre of videos that would help people from a GDC perspective, especially if you're into card games, would be to look up information about Hearthstone. Hearthstone is a digital card game riffing off of magic, but I think a lot of the lessons that can be learned from Hearthstone apply to physical games as well. So, that's a good area to investigate.

What's the Best Money You've Spent?

Patrick: Very cool. Then the following– The question that always comes after that is, what is the best money that you've spent as a game designer?

Len: You will hear this from many other people, but it's definitely a cutting mat. I spent a lot of time using scissors and carefully trying to cut out cards and do all that. But when you get one of these self-healing cutting mats, and then you can start to use razors to make straight lines, A) it's very therapeutic, much like walking. And B) I think you produce a nice prototype with it, and faster. So it's like $30 or $40 dollars on Amazon and will save literally hundreds of hours if you're making lots of prototypes. So, good money spent there.

Patrick: Several other people have recommended card cutters or the guillotine arm cutting thing, but I don't think anyone has mentioned the mat before. Does the mat–? Because you have to use an Exacto blade then, right?

Len: Yeah, I'm basically using a box cutter type blade and a ruler. So I'll place the ruler against the card, and then the razor goes against the ruler for a straight line. I've seen the guillotine as well, and I think that can be slower because you have to take the paper, feed it in, cut it. For me, this is a better system. 

But the invention that I want to exist that doesn't yet is basically a pen that has ink in it that burns away after a few seconds, so you can draw a shape around a card and then after it's exposed to air for a minute, it would dissolve, and that would come out. It doesn't exist, and I want it to exist. I'm not sure if it can technically exist, but there is an invention that I would love for someone to [inaudible] if they're listening, and do something with that.

Patrick: That is a super cool idea. Because that would save all of us so much time, to circle our cards and they all fall out.

Len: Exactly. In theory, it's a great idea.

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: Very cool. Then my last real question is, what does success in the board game world look like to you?

Len: Not to toot my own horn, but I do think I've achieved it as an indie designer who does this on the side, but when I get random messages from friends or people that I don't know years later after I've launched games like Devil's Advocate, saying “We're playing this.” They took a photo of them playing it, and they sent it to me, that's a huge win. I think that whenever you produce something, after a bunch of time you forget about it and it's not as important to you. 

But when somebody reminds you that you made something and you put it into the world, and they're still enjoying it, that's cool. That's meaningful to me. So with this upcoming game, I never go into this endeavor looking to make a lot of money. Of course, I want to break even. But for me if I can get several hundred people to enjoy something that I've made, that'll make me very happy, so that's leaving my mark on the world in a small way.

Patrick: I love that. I like that you said you've already hit it. People so often, you achieve a goal, and then you add a new goal that's farther in the distance, and you never feel like you made it. It's nice that you feel that way, that's good.

Len: Yeah, it's a scalable goal. Maybe with Devil's Advocate, I get one or two of those messages years later, and maybe with Western Tropic, it's going to be hundreds or thousands. I think it's a goal that you can always increase and improve on.

Overrated / Underrated

Patrick: Very cool. I want to end with Overrated/Underrated, which I think you've heard of before.

Len: Yes.

Patrick: Excellent. So let's– You know what? Normally I explain it just in case someone has never heard of this game before. But listeners, if you've never heard of this game before you're just going to have to figure out how this game works. Let's go with trick-taking games, are they overrated or underrated?

Len: I think that they are overrated. I don't love the idea that only one person wins in each round. We talked a little bit about this earlier, but I think it's cool when everybody can win something. I understand that there's going to ultimately be one winner, but if everyone's getting points or earning something each round, I think that's a lot more satisfying versus one winner takes all.

Patrick: Interesting. I like that. That's got my brain spinning on “Who could win with a trump card, or with a trump suit, and who can win with a non-trump suit.” Something like that would be super interesting. Cool, let's go with Deadwood the TV show. Overrated or underrated?

Len: You would think I would love this show because of the Western theme, but I watched one episode, and I just quit. I know it's a great show, everyone says it's a great show, I'm going to say it's overrated only because I couldn't stick with it. I'm going to come back to it, I swear, and watch it again someday. But right now it's in the overrated pile.

Patrick: And you like West World?

Len: Yeah, love it.

Patrick: OK, interesting. I'm just going to go with variable player powers, overrated or underrated?

Len: I think it's underrated when done well, which is very rare. I think it's incredibly difficult to have variable player powers. I thought about doing that for Western Tropic, but I don't think I'm skilled enough as a game designer to get that done. I think about video games like fighting games, for example, where you have 30, 40, 50 different players with different moves and how they balance all those characters. It's incredible, and it's an incredible feat. I think it's super underrated, I don't think most game players appreciate the work that goes into variable player powers, and I'd love to be somebody who can design that someday, but I'm not there yet.

Patrick: Is it just a balance issue? Is it just that, “This one's a little bit too strong against this one, and if this one matches up against this one they're probably gonna win.” Is it balance, or is it–? How else can it be? Because you've mentioned “If it's done well,” can be done poorly in other ways?

Len: I think it ultimately comes down to balance. When you have a game, and I've played those games where one character is particularly strong, and everybody who's played that game now knows that you feel like the game's ruined and whoever gets that player is who is going to win. It's not like a video game where you can patch it, you can release new versions later, but I think that is definitely the issue. It's the balance part, and I do think nailing that is super underrated.

Patrick: Very cool. Last one. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which is a movie. Is that overrated or underrated?

Len: Underrated. A lot of people know Guy Ritchie's movies like Snatch and others, but I think this is a very quotable movie. It's the movie that made me start watching all movies with subtitles because I couldn't understand all the slang and the British accents at the time. So it's fantastic, great dialogue, very funny. I also like that Jason Statham is in it and he does a good job representing sexy bald guys, so he's representing all of us, and I appreciate it.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Very cool. Len, thank you so much for being on the show.

Len: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Patrick: Where can people find you online?

Len: I am @lenkendall pretty much on all social platforms like Twitter and Instagram, and my game's website is WesternTropic.com.

Patrick: It should be live on Kickstarter when this episode airs, so you can also find it on Kickstarter. Listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave your review, Len said he would tell you whether to hit or stay in any future game of blackjack, so if you need future blackjack advice, he's the guy to talk to. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, and you can follow me on Twitter, I'm @BFTrick. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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 to Liberty Kifer, who designed Crystallo, which is a Solitaire puzzle game. Now we're going to talk about that game Crystallo, and how much money it raised and how well it's done on Kickstarter, then we're also going to talk about what happens after you have an initial success on Kickstarter or with your game, so stick around for that because I'm really excited to chat about a different topic after that. Liberty, welcome to the show.

Liberty Kifer: Hi. Nice to talk to you, Patrick.

Introduction

Patrick: I'd like to start with a lightning round game to introduce you to the audience. Cool?

Liberty: Yeah, totally cool.

Patrick: All right. What is your favorite mythical creature?

Liberty: I was obsessed with dragons growing up, so that would have to be– Am I supposed to be fast?

Patrick: No, not that fast.

Liberty: OK yeah, dragons. But I also really loved the jackalope. I'm from Montana, so got to love the jackalope.

Patrick: You got to love those made-up animals, yeah. Now I got to ask you an important question about dragons. Do dragons have four arms and two wings, or do they have two legs and then two arm wings?

Liberty: I'm going to have to go with four legs and two wings because I find the other ones creepy.

Patrick: Yes, great. I feel like the other dragons are somehow inferior. So, great. I'm glad you like the cool type of dragon.

Liberty: Yes.

Patrick: So in lots of games– Your game, Crystallo, has lots of gems and we're going to be talking about those. In lots of games, gems have magical properties, so what is a magical property you would want from a gem?

Liberty: I guess this is weird, but I would want one that you could plant it and then it would make a tree that would grow more gems.

Patrick: Great.

Liberty: [First thing I'd want].

Patrick: Like a money tree gem, I like it.

Liberty: Yeah.

Patrick: Very cool. Then what is a game you would play with someone every single time at a convention?

Liberty: I will always play Texas Hold 'em if it's available. That's the one game I'm truly competitive about, so I would probably always go for that. But I hope that I'll get to play a bunch of games that I haven't played.

How Did You Get Into Board Games and Board Game Design?

Patrick: Great. Yeah, that makes sense. I have played Texas Hold 'em I think one time, and I was easily the first person out. I did very badly. So, I don't know what skills you have, but they're not the skills that I have. All right. So first real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Liberty: I had never really thought about it, and then my kids and I made up a car game. I'm saying, “Car game,” not “Card game.” But when we got home from this trip, we were talking about how fun that was, and we decided we wanted to try to make a card game out of it so that we could play it with other people. So we started working on that, and I still have that game pretty much complete, but it's been on the back burner since I ended up working on Crystallo and that took me in a different direction. But yeah, my kids are the reason I got into it, for sure.

Patrick: That's very cool. I think you are the first person to have that reason on the show, to where your kids got you into it, and it wasn't something you did on your own.

Liberty: Really? That's cool.

Tell Me About Crystallo

Patrick: Yeah, it's very cool. OK, so tell me about Crystallo. Just give us the 2-3 sentence description of the game, and then where did it–? Tell us where did it come from, where did the idea come from?

Liberty: OK. Crystallo is a Solitaire puzzle-y card game. It's played with a little 54 card deck and some pretty gems. It uses site collection and pattern building. You're matching up these crystals in certain ways to build out patterns in order to free these mythical creatures that have been trapped by a wicked black dragon, and then if you free all the creatures, you get to go ahead and try to trap the black dragon in his lair. So, that's Crystallo.

Crystallo components

Liberty: As far as how it came about, I was spending time on BoardGameGeek working on this other game I was telling you about, I was working on with my kids, and I saw the contests. The solo Print & Play contests and I was immediately really fascinated by that because I didn't know that there was such a thing as solo board games. That was totally new to me, and I really couldn't imagine what game I would play by myself, so I just wanted to get involved on the level of understanding what the contests are like and getting to know more people. But I kept thinking about it and kept thinking about it, and finally one day I just got a deck of cards out and started fiddling with an idea. Crystallo happened pretty quickly after I started playing around with it.

Patrick: OK, so you have– So you're randomly on BoardGameGeek, and you randomly see a design contest challenge thing about a Solitaire game, you go “That's cool. I didn't even know you can make one of those.” Presumably, you've never played one with the exception of maybe Solitaire itself.

Liberty: I played a lot of puzzle-y apps online, like Solo, but I had never played one physically, I guess except for Solitaire.

What Inspired You?

Patrick: Interesting. I don't play many puzzle games on my phone, was that an inspiration for you? The puzzle-y game on your phone that helped you make a good–?

Liberty: Definitely.

Patrick: Very cool.

Liberty: Definitely. I feel like that was probably– That and I had just played SET for the first time, which I fell in love with immediately. The spatial aspect puzzle part of it was just really, and I don't know, the pattern stuff just really caught my attention and my imagination. So that was a big inspiration for how the mechanics worked, but as far as the feel of playing it I wanted it to have that yummy, sparkly app feel to it. I think I was a big inspiration for the look in the gems.

Patrick: Yeah. It is very sparkly.

Liberty: Definitely. It's very girly. I didn't realize that people were going to– That so many people would go for it. I was making something that I would like and thought my girls would like.

Patrick: So I normally do– I have a couple of follow up questions on Crystallo, but I want to take a little detour here. Were you surprised–? When you say it was “Girly,” did you think that guys would never buy it? Or did you think– Is that right?

Liberty: Honestly, I when I was first designing it I wasn't even thinking beyond just putting something in the contest. I just designed it basically– Like, my kids love the fantasy creatures, and they helped me pick out what was going to be in it. I was doing the drawings for something that they would enjoy, and then because I was thinking about them while I was doing it I thought that there would be a lot of these male game designers in the contest who would look at that and think “That's for kids,” or “That's too girly,” or I don't know. I was just really surprised that people responded to it the way they did.

Patrick: Very cool. It's nice to have your expectations exceeded.

Liberty: For sure, yeah. It was a great surprise.

What Design Challenges Did You Run Into?

Patrick: Did you have any design challenges with the game? Was there something that took you a while to figure out?

Liberty: I can say that the first iteration of the game that I put together, it was all played in the hand. It was a fairly different game at that point, but I ran it by my oldest daughter who is 12, and she said “It feels boring and predictable.” So yeah, I had to go back to the drawing board a little bit and see where it was wrong. I ended up going on BoardGameGeek and asking, and I think the one player guild “What are you looking for when you when you play a solo game?” Because I didn't know, I didn't know what people expected from them. I had never played a solo board game, so then I was able to take that feedback and rework it pretty quickly into basically what it ended up being.

Patrick: One of things I think we were talking about ahead of time is basically the core of the game was developed in two days. Is that right?

Liberty: Yeah, as far as having a playable prototype that worked like Crystallo works. Yeah, I had like a throwaway theme, but the game was built basically in two days.

Patrick: That's pretty amazing. I think we were talking and chatting about this just a little bit right before the show, but it seems like maybe, I don't know, 20-30% of my guests have a game that works in a couple of days or a week, or the first playtester or something like that. Then maybe 60% of people don't. It's a struggle, but they work on their game design for a year or two. So it's pretty cool that you're in that 20-30% that finds something super interesting right off the hook.

Liberty: Yeah. I'm still definitely feeling fortunate that it came together that quickly, and although I think it does– We'll talk about it more on this podcast, but it does give me that little bit of doubt, like “What if lightning only strikes once?”

How Did You Create the Artwork?

Patrick: Yes, we are going to get there in just a minute. The other thing I want to point out about Crystallo. You made the art, and not only did you make the art, I believe you also learned Illustrator to make the art. Why would you do such a crazy thing? I say that in a good way. What is the word I'm looking for? “Crazy” is the wrong word. Why would you do such an audacious thing? That's a lot of work. I think it's remarkable, in a good way.

Liberty: I had been playing with Illustrator on a casual basis up until that point, and then I had used it a little bit on this other game I was working on, but in a really simple way. The artwork for that was a lot simpler, so I had to teach myself a lot during the process of making the art for Crystallo and, I don't know. I guess I like that challenge. I am stubborn, a lot of people would go online and find tutorials, and they would learn how to do things from watching other people who know how to do them. I'm just not that way. I have to get in there and start pushing buttons. I don't know why that is. It's a little masochistic.

Patrick: Did that also only take you two days, or are–? Do you–?

Liberty: No, but I did bust the artwork out fast because I didn't have my idea for the solo game until we were just a couple of weeks out from the deadline. I think I entered two days before the contest deadline, but I had spent about two weeks on the artwork before that.

Patrick: You learned Illustrator and made all the illustrations in two weeks?

Liberty: Like I said, I had some background with Illustrator, but it was– I had to learn a lot, for sure.

Patrick: That is super impressive. That is very impressive. I give you kudos..

Liberty: Thank you.

What Happened After Your Success on Kickstarter?

Patrick: OK, so the thing I am actually– The reason I reached out to you is you had this post on a Facebook group. By the way listeners, I will share a screenshot of the post in the show notes, so if you want to see the whole post, it's in the show notes.

Post on Imposter Syndrome

Patrick: But you basically said, “I'm [inaudible]. I had a great time at the designing game-winning contest, running a successful Kickstarter campaign.” Which by the way, we haven't mentioned yet. I think you raised $40,000 dollars for your game, which is very impressive and lucky. Then you talk about how you're working on the next game, and you feel all this doubt, you feel a bit anxious. I think the thing that people usually call that is imposter syndrome, and I'd like to know, could you talk about–? Maybe talk about what exactly you were feeling and what happened when you posted this and that whole story.

Liberty: Yeah. I'd had this building feeling of, I don't know, I was avoiding working on the new project, and I was feeling stressed out. I was trying to figure out why, because I was excited about this new game I was working on, and then I just stopped, and I couldn't get myself going again.

Liberty: I'm just one of those types that it's all or nothing. I can't do a little bit. I have to– When I start working, I'll work for five days straight and then take a break, which is OK. I'm learning how to deal with that, but it had been a long time that I hadn't wanted to work on it and I realized that I was having a lot of self-doubt and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself because I had this successful– Way beyond my expectations successful game my first time, and all of a sudden I had people asking me advice, and I got invited to speak on a couple of panels at the convention that I'm doing in October, and it's all really exciting, and I was thrilled. But at the same time, it was like, “I don't know if anyone should be asking me advice. I don't know that I know anything.” I started feeling this pressure of, “What if this next game I'm working on ends up being garbage and what if nobody likes it, and that's the end?” So that's where I was at, and when I feel that way I have to get it off my chest so I can move on.

Patrick: There's 127 comments at the time of this recording, but what was the response there?

Liberty: It was way beyond what I expected. I thought that I'd get a couple of half-hearted “We all go through it, don't worry about it” kind of thing. But there was so many people pouring their hearts out, saying “I've been through this, I know what it's like, I'm so sorry that you're dealing with it, but it's such a normal part of the process. We believe in you, and you're going to do great.” It was touching, and it made me realize what a common experience it is for people in this industry and probably in every creative industry.

Advice for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Patrick: For someone who may be going through this, just some self-doubt, they don't think they can do it. Maybe they want to think, or maybe they didn't, but what would you recommend to someone who's going through that?

Liberty: The best thing that I can recommend is talking to people about it because that was the thing that has taken a weight off of me a little bit. I still have those feelings, but now it's not this secret feeling that I'm carrying around of “I'm not good enough. I don't belong,” or “I don't deserve this.” When you're carrying that around by yourself it magnifies, and it becomes this big real thing that you're hiding, and then you wonder if other people can tell, and that's the imposter syndrome thing. But if you talk about it, and you're like, “I just feel like I don't know what I'm doing.” Then you feel like you can look at that and laugh at it and be like, “OK. This is just a part of life.”

Patrick: Listeners, if you think I know what I'm doing with the podcast, I don't.

Liberty: See, don't you feel better?

Patrick: I feel better. I think it's really good advice, and I think sometimes maybe there's a bunch of contests that I like to participate in. I did good in one of them recently, and I got second place in one contest. In a different contest, I didn't even make the first cut, I was probably the bottom half, and now I'm like, “God. Did I have one good game?”

Liberty: Right?

Patrick: I don't know what the real answer is. I do think talking about it is step one, but I wish there was more steps. I wish there was other than “Just keep going,” and I don't mean in a bad way, but it's like you keep creating and eventually you'll make something else that's worthwhile. That's not a great word, but something like that.

Liberty: Yeah. I think something like the contest thing is also sometimes you're going to have something that resonates with the people who are running in the contest, and sometimes you're not. Maybe you're just a little bit earlier in the process, and you could still have a killer game, you need to spend more time. So I definitely get that with the contests. I've actually, I started entering something in the solo Print & Play contests for this year. That's the game that I want to get back to working on, but yeah I think that definitely added to my own internalized pressure too. Like, “I won it last year. If I don't do OK this year, I'm going to feel terrible.”

Patrick: Yeah. Do worry about being–? What's the term in music? A “One hit wonder.” Do you worry about being one?

Liberty: Yes, absolutely. And that's so silly because when I entered the contest with Crystallo I had no expectations at all. I thought I had put a lot of time into the artwork, so I thought maybe I would take one of the little artwork awards. I did not expect remotely to place for the whole thing, much less win it. So that was a wonderful experience because it was like “No pressure. Just having fun,” and then I realized that it's really hard to go into it that way again after something like that. I don't know what the secret is to finding that.

Patrick: I think we have the first step, and the first step is to chat about it, and then we can figure out the next step after that. But at least the very first step is to be all open and honest about it, so I think it's helpful to hear that. Thank you for sharing.

Liberty: Yeah.

What Is Your White Whale of Game Design?

Patrick: So, I'm changing gears a little bit. Do you have–? What are other mechanisms you're looking into? What's a white whale, or what's something you've tried to get into a game that you just haven't been able to figure out yet?

Liberty: Yeah, I have– This is a broad thing, I don't know of that is OK.

Patrick: It's fine.

Liberty: But I've had this idea in my head for a long time of a game that rewards creativity and novel thinking, so that's something that is my white whale. I would love to find a way to do that. I always think of that scene in Apollo 13, the one that had all those problems. Anyway, there's a scene in that movie where the people at ground control have to figure out how to make something out of the pieces that are up on the space station. So they are on the shuttle thing, and they have to figure out how to make these two pieces of the ship fit together using what they've got on board, and that's the thinking and the kind of puzzle that I find exciting. If I could find a way to do a cooperative, creative, come up with a solution together in a short timeframe, that kind of a game. If I could figure that out, that would be my white whale.

Patrick: Very cool. Then just randomly, have you seen the movie The Martian?

Liberty: I have, yes.

Patrick: I imagine it ‘s– I don't remember Apollo 13, apparently I watched it too long ago, but is it like that? Where they're like, “OK. He has the rover, so we can take the rover, and we can cut a hole in it. We can do this.” Something like that?

Liberty: Yes. Yeah, exactly. That kind of thinking where it would be different every time, and it would be– Yeah, cooperative. Putting your heads together and brainstorming, it's probably my favorite. It's like the time when I feel most alive is when I'm brainstorming for something, so if I can capture that in a game that would be a big deal.

What Is Holding You Back?

Patrick: For lack of a better word, what's holding you back? That's what I think I want to ask you, are you just waiting for the right design contest? Are you going to wait for this design contest to be done, just so you can focus on that and submit something, then work on something new? Or, what's preventing you from working on it?

Liberty: No, I think with that it's more just one of those ideas that is percolating. I feel like as far as what that looks like mechanically, I'm so far from having an idea that it's just an “In the distance” thing.

Patrick: Cool.

Liberty: But it's something that I feel like once I have more experience, and I have more– Or maybe it will just happen that I'll be in the shower one day and I'll have this idea, and this is how we're going to do it. So I'm patient with it, but that's definitely in the back of my mind.

Does Game Design Energize or Exhaust You?

Patrick: Awesome. Then I'm happy we– Listeners, in case you don't know I always chat with my guests about the questions that they want to chat about on the show. One of the ones that you wanted to talk about was, “Does game design energize or exhaust you?”

Liberty: Yeah, I thought that was a really interesting question because I feel like it's both. The way I was explaining that earlier, the way my mind works is that when I'm engaged in something some people call it hyper-focus. I only want to do that thing for days. So when I was working on the artwork for Castello, it was 12 or 14 hour days, and I don't even feel that. It doesn't bother me, I'm barely hungry, and I'm just focused.

Liberty: Then I have to take a week off, like completely off and do nothing because that's just the way I operate. So it makes it hard sometimes because it does energize me at the time, and then it exhausts me after. So it's both, and I have to learn to work with that because if I can't, that's also part of my problem. Though I've had so much going on this summer, it's just little personal stuff. We're renovating, and we've got neighborhood kids here all the time, and it's just been busy. So if I know that I can't devote several days in a row to something, it's hard for me to even want to put any time in on it because I know that's what's going to happen. I know I'm going to dive in.

Patrick: So it's almost like it's energizing, however, you need to have certain requirements to get started.

Liberty: Yeah, I have to be able to know that I can set that time aside and that I'm not going to be constantly interrupted, and I need to be able to work because I get cranky.

What's a Resource You'd Recommend?

Patrick: Very cool. OK, so I like to ask people these similar three questions. One of which is, what is a resource you'd recommend to another indie game designer? Usually something free, usually something free like a book or something cheap like a book, an audio book, blog post, a podcast other than this one, stuff like that.

Liberty: I think BoardGameGeek, the design forums are underrated. I feel bad because I have spent so little time there recently because I've been– I've gotten in all these Facebook groups now which are very convenient. But I think that I would not have been able to be where I am right now if I hadn't started on BoardGameGeek and just spent time on the forums reading questions and answering questions when I could. Reading other people's rulebooks, there's so much going on there all the time, as far as problems that people are working on. It's a really helpful community, the website is terrible, but I hear they're working on it.

Patrick: Is there a specific forum? Because– I have a web design background, so every time I look at it, my eyes bleed.

Liberty: Yes, I understand.

Patrick: So is there a specific forum that you can point me to so I don't have to browse for it? Like, is there a specific game design forum? Or is it–?

Liberty: Yeah, there's a game design section. There's a few forums within that, there's board game design, and then there's art, I know there was– And then there's the contest threads and the work in progress. The work in progress thing is super useful.

Patrick: Really?

Liberty: Yeah. You make a work in progress thread on there, and I've had to do it for contests, so that's why I know about it, but if you make a work in progress thread, you can catalog your process of making the game and people will help you with that. I got an incredible amount of help and feedback from people there. I had a girl put my Print & Play together for me.

Patrick: Wow.

Liberty: She's good with– She's a professional Print & Play maker. She does amazing work. But I had no idea what format to put that in, so if you ask for help people are so willing to help, which is amazing.

What's the Best Money You've Spent?

Patrick: Very cool. I've considered a work in progress thread for a while, and I just have never pulled the trigger, but I might have to do that after your advice. So, thank you. Then I'm a frugal person, and I try not to spend money when I don't have to. What is something that you spent money on for game design that was worth every single cent?

Liberty: Definitely, prototypes. I think getting a nice prototype to play with was worth it. I can't recommend DriveThruCards enough.

Liberty: I have not used a bunch of services, but I like them, and their customer service is amazing. But also, spending money on getting a lot of prototypes to send out to reviewers. The nice thing about Crystallo is that it's not very expensive and it's not expensive to ship because it's so small. But yeah, I sent out 20 copies prior to my Kickstarter, and that was definitely the best money I spent because I didn't spend anything on advertising and I still had my game popping up everywhere because I had sent out a bunch of copies. So, I definitely think that was my best investment.

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: Awesome. Very good to hear that. Then I think my favorite wrap up question is, what does success in the board game world look like to you?

Liberty: Gosh, that's a good one. I think what I would like to see is I'd like to look back and see a catalog of games that has a common thread that people would recognize, where they're like, “That's a Liberty Kifer game.” Where like, if they knew one of my games they would know what my other games are because there's something– Because that would make me feel like there was something that I brought to the table that was unique to me, and I don't know, maybe that's egotistical. But you want to feel like you're contributing something that only you could have, that's unique.

Patrick: Very cool. I love that. I'm trying to think– I'm so sorry. I was off in daydream land. I was like, “Would I want to be recognized for artwork, or would I want to be recognized for mechanisms or packaging? I don't know.” Which one would you like? Would you want to be recognized for maybe your illustration style, or mechanics, or the size of the game, or Solitaire games? Or what?

Liberty: The artwork is a big part of it for me, obviously. If people– I actually would love at some point to do artwork for other people's games too. Just throwing that out there. But yeah, I think also just the feel of it, like “How does it make you feel when you play it?” I think if I could create something that is consistent like that, like some of these other game designers that you hear about where it's one of their games. You know because it feels like one of their games. That's very amorphous, and I don't know how I'll know if I've achieved that.

Patrick: No, that's great, and you can figure out the details later. That sounds awesome.

Liberty: Yeah.

Overrated / Underrated

Patrick: So the actual ending, sorry listeners if it's your first time. The real ending is this silly little game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Liberty: I don't know.

Patrick: Excellent. You kind of already played it in this episode where you said the BGG forms are underrated, so I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you have to tell me if you think it is over or underrated. Make sense?

Liberty: Should I give a reason?

Patrick: Yes, a one or two-sentence reason why. So if I said “Peanut butter and jelly,” you're going to say “Underrated because they're delicious,” something like that.

Liberty: OK.

Patrick: So I'm going to go with the original Solitaire card game that you can play with a regular deck of cards, overrated or underrated?

Liberty: I'm already going to break the game. I'm going to say it's appropriately rated. I feel like it's as popular as it should be, which is to say it's OK.

Patrick: What I find great about this is a lot of guests go, “Can I say appropriately rated?” And then I say, “No.” Then you just did it. That is great, and I love it. We're going to stick with it. I'm going to go with the archetypical Philosopher's Stone, overrated or underrated? Just for listeners who don't know, that's a thing that can turn metal into gold.

Liberty: I'm going to say overrated.

Patrick: You think turning random metal into gold is overrated?

Liberty: You know what? I feel like when you said it the second time it sunk in. I'm going to say underrated. Because gold prices are good right now.

Patrick: OK, cool. I have an opinion, but it's not necessarily– It doesn't have to line up. We can have disagreeing opinions.

Liberty: I was looking at it from a spiritual angle. I'm like, “Wealth. I could use it.”

Patrick: Interesting? Let's go with the third one here, how about just all BGG contests in general? Are they overrated or underrated?

Liberty: Way, underrated. Great experience.

Patrick: The last one, just because I thought of the Philosopher's Stone. How about Harry Potter? Overrated or underrated?

Liberty: I'm going to lose friends. Highly overrated.

Patrick: Wow. Not just overrated, but highly overrated?

Liberty: Yeah, I apologize, but I got to be honest.

Patrick: You've got to give me at least one sentence why.

Liberty: I don't know. I think they're good, I don't think– I think there's series of books, and there's a lot of better stuff out there. That's all, I think.

Wrap Up

Patrick: OK. Very cool. Liberty, thank you so much for being on the show.

Liberty: Thank you for having me, it was a lot of fun.

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

Liberty: Anywhere that ‘s– I'm Light Heart Games everywhere. So you can e-mail me at Liberty@LightHeartGames.com. You can find me on Facebook as Light Heart Games. TwitterInstagram, everywhere. Light Heart Games, super easy to remember.

Patrick: Very cool. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you leave a review, Liberty said she would help you find your spirit animal, which sounds fantastic to me. You got to take her up on that. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter, I'm @BFTrick. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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 Chris Rossetti, who designed Brace for Impact! and 11:59. He also runs Rampage Games. Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris Rosetti: Thank you for having me. I'm excited.

Continue reading “#90 – Chris Rossetti”

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 to 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 to Jessica Creane who designed a destructible tabletop game called Schrodinger's Cat, a game theater piece running in New York City called Chaos Theory, a gamified philosophy salon called Know Thyself, and a collaboration with the National Park Service that includes conversation games about climate change. I don't even know what a game theater piece is, nor a gamified philosophy salon, so we will get into all that in the show. Jessica, welcome to the show.

Jessica Creane: Hi, Patrick.

Continue reading “#89 – Jessica Creane”

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 to Michael and Christina Pittre, who designed On The Rocks, which is a game about making drinks. It's on Kickstarter as we're recording and will likely be done when this episode is released. Michael, Christina, welcome to the show.

Christina Pittre: Hi, thank you for having us.

Michael Pittre: Thank you.

Continue reading “#88 – Michael & Christina Pittre”

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.

Patrick: My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I'll be talking with Zach Horton, who designed Mehen, which is a game played in ancient Egypt over 4,500 years ago. I played a prototype of this at Origins on an insanely gorgeous board, and I have a couple of photos that I took, which I will include in the show notes. In the meantime, Zach, welcome to the show.

Zach Horton: Thank you so much.

Introduction

Patrick: I have a very quick lightning-round introduction thing so that the audience gets to know you, answer these however you can. What is a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?

Zach: I'll answer this by saying a game that I would play with anyone, anywhere is Carcassonne. That's for me, a perfect balance between utter simplicity of play and complex emergent strategy.

Patrick: I love it. It's such a good intro game too, so I like that answer. Now besides Mehen, are there any other ancient games that you like?

Zach: Yes. I have to admit that I am not a huge player of ancient games, but as an academic, I'm very interested in the history of games. I study these games often, and there are some that I quite like. The Royal Game of Ur is a fantastic ancient game, sometimes called The Game of 20 Squares. Senet, which is another ancient Egyptian game, roughly contemporary to Mehen and much better known, but also a fantastic game. I enjoy playing it. Maybe Go is another ancient game that I think is brilliant. I am far from a great player of Go, in fact, it's embarrassing to me how bad of a Go player I am, but I think that is an amazing game.

Patrick: I've yet to play Go, but it looks absolutely, fabulously, deep in terms of gameplay. If you had– So, I have a silly question. If you have to choose between taking care of giant snakes or a lion, which would you choose?

Zach: I have to say a lion, partly because I am a fan of Tippi Hedren. If you know the actress from The Birds who lived with lions for years and years of her life with her husband in the 70s, I believe. Literally, lions roaming around the house. Pretty amazing. She's a big fan of lions and then later created a little more sustainable wilderness refuge for lions that she runs today. I've been there and met her and seen her lions. She made a film in the 70s called Roar, it's a narrative film, but it's with her pet lions and a similar story. I recommend that. I don't know what my giant snake would be eating, I don't know what a giant lion would be eating either, but I think I have to go with the lion.

How Did You Get Into Board Games & Board Game Design?

Patrick: I think that makes a lot of sense to me. I like it. So first real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Zach: I've been designing board games since I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. I would say that began– I had no sophisticated introduction to board games. They just showed up from– Picked up at garage sales, or whatever. This would have been in the very early 90s, it was before the current boom in board games and before euro games, except for very early ones.

Zach: I remember Scotland Yard and getting a copy of Scotland Yard, which I still think is a great game. I just felt the desire to modify this thing, and it was such a cool system. All of these networks of roads and bus lines and metro lines all over the board, and these numbered squares, it had so much potential. You could do so much moving around London through all these networks, and I thought, “I could make a cool game out of this.” I started drawing my own lines and creating even more sophisticated of a game, and at some point, I gave that away, unfortunately. It was a one-off copy, and I'll never play it again, but I do still play Scotland Yard.

Zach: Also at that time, there were Avalon Hill games around, they're war games. I was also inspired by these hexagonal boards with all this beautiful terrain on them. It was a similar thing about potential, the potential of this landscape, and this board. I was less interested in actually playing the wargames themselves in their specificity, and more interested in this open-ended possibility of the board, so I just started creating my own systems. I should say, though, that I didn't design games for about two decades after that. I had a period early on, and only in recent years am I now getting back to that. Otherwise, I would probably have a huge string of games made. It was an early obsession, and now a new obsession again.

Tell Me About Mehen

Patrick: That's great. I really want to talk about your game Mehen, because it's this ancient game from roughly 5,000 years ago. No one knows the exact rules. The question is, why did you decide to explore this game and flesh out the rules? Or I should say, take your best guess? Correct me if I'm wrong, but work on the rules and make them more impressive, and you hinted at it in your intro or in the lightning round section. Professionally, what do you do and why is this related? That's a giant question for you.

Zach: Great. I'm happy to take on a giant question. First of all, I'll address this question of how to pronounce this game, because it's a strange one. This being a podcast is the perfect medium for this. The game– In ancient Egyptian, there are no vowels as such or not vowels as we have them in English. Transliterated the game actually would be spelled “M-H-N.” You don't pronounce the “H,” It's more of a slight pause, so it's pronounced “Men” like the word “M-E-N.”

Zach: That's an interesting aside right there, that is difficult for most people because you don't usually hear it pronounced. Most people probably don't even see it written, because the game is a bit more obscure than Senet, which is the most famous Egyptian game.

Zach: But at some point in just looking at ancient games, I came across this board, and the Mehen board is so beautiful. It's this huge, round board. It's one of the only prolific– Let's say, widely-played ancient game that I know of that uses a round board.

Zach: More importantly than that, it's a spiral. This is exciting. This is rare, even in modern times as well as ancient times in board game design, that you'd have a spiral as your area of play. The idea that there was something here– It's very unlike other ancient games, for instance, which often are played on grids. Those are the most common games of that period, of 5,000 years ago.

Zach: The Sumerian games and the Egyptian games of that time are almost exclusively played on grids, so the idea that you would have this strange spiral intrigued me. The board is just beautiful. There are only about 15 copies that exist that archaeologists have found from that time period, but they're stunning to look at, and that was what attracted me to the game. I thought, “How do you play a game that's so radically different from the way we think of ancient games, especially at that time? How do you play a game that's not on a grid, that's on a spiral, that's a snake?”

Zach: It also seemed like it had a really interesting theme, and to tie that into the other part of your question, I'm a university professor of literature, media studies, and game studies at the University of Pittsburgh. As a kind of media, as a form of mediation, a way of mediating dynamics between people and of course historically, as a form of media that develops over time. Over thousands of years, actually.

Zach: I'm very interested in contemporary board games, contemporary video games, and older board games stretching back a long time. This game is an anomaly actually, in the history of board games for a number of reasons, and that anomaly attracted me. I thought, “There is a mystery to this game. People don't know exactly how it was played.”

Zach: So, you're right. It is in some ways taking a guess, but there is evidence as well. In terms of regarding how the game was played, the game shows up and is referenced a lot in literature and poems. In some of the surviving texts we have, it's mentioned as being played a lot. There are images of it on pottery, and there's a famous tomb painting, an actual painting that was well preserved with all of its color and everything in a tomb of the game.

Zach: Of course, we have a number of boards and some pieces that have been recovered archaeologically. There is a fair amount of evidence about the game itself, but no rules. There's no writing and no explanation of the rules of the game that have ever survived to modern times. The game isn't played, it was only played for about a thousand years from about 3000 BC to 2000 BC. So there is a break, and we don't know how it was played, and that mystery excited me, so that's how I came to it and indeed had to figure out how it could be played.

Patrick: I love that answer. I also find it funny that you say the game was only played for a thousand years. What percent of the games that are being made now are going to last for a thousand years?

Zach: Absolutely, yeah.

How Do You Revive Such an Old Game?

Patrick: I wanted to comment on the board. I was walking down the hall of Origins, and I saw this cool wooden snake board, and I walked over, and I was like “What is this awesome thing? Tell me about it.” That's how this whole thing got started. It is stunning, so I am definitely including photos in the show notes to show people. I am really curious, there's hints, there's rules, and things of how the game might have been made or might've been played, but can you go into detail? How do you revive a game that hasn't been played in 3,000 years? How do you put together the rules? Did you–? Some sub-questions are, did you come up with a whole bunch of possible rules, and then you play tested them, and then you're like “No, those can't be it?” Or did you–? What is the whole process of recreating rules from three thousand years ago?

Mehen Board at Origins
Playing Mehen at Origins

Zach: Right. Great question. There are scholars who exclusively focus on ancient games, and some of them have speculated, a number of them have speculated about how the game might be played based on the evidence. I did my scholarly research there, so I know what other people have, in the past, thought about how the game might be played.

Zach: The game isn't played now, so in some ways, these are academic guesses. Let's say that academics aren't always necessarily the same or have the same minds as game designers. I happen to be quite interested in both, but not everyone is. The rules that have been suggested are not necessarily very playable. That might be one reason that the game has not been successfully revived, whereas Senet has.

Zach: People do– It might not be super common, but people do play Senet, a contemporary game that was roughly as contemporary to this one in ancient Egypt. But I looked at those rules, and I said, “This is not fun. This would not be a fun game as people are suggesting how it would be played, and it's also not very necessarily imaginative how people were suggesting it would be played.”

Zach: In other words, they were extrapolating from other games like Senet, games that were more grid-based games. Grid-based race games, I'll say, where you're trying to race from point A to point B. I think this is a race game, was a race game, but I think a far more interesting one and a non-linear one. That's the only thing that makes sense to me, otherwise, it would be designed like other race games of the time.

Zach: That was my first clue and divergence, is to say, “I'm going to take my inspiration from the boards that exist.” I looked at the existing boards, the archeological examples of boards. There's no standardization in this game on the board, unlike, for instance, Senet or The Royal Game of Ur, which generally have the same number of squares and the same orientation with only small variations.

Zach: This game, they're wildly different. Each board is different, so that's a clue. I was looking for clues like that. How could each board be a little different? Some are huge and have hundreds of spaces, some are small and have less than 100 spaces, but they all have this spiral shape.

Zach: We also know a few other clues, which are that up to six people could play. We know that from examples, images, that there were up to six sets of pieces. It's the only ancient game– every other ancient game we know of is a two-player game, as far as we know. This one could play, who knows how many? Up to six. That was interesting. We know that the pieces, each person has six pieces from this beautiful painting that show six of each color.

Zach: These are sometimes by scholars called “Marbles,” because in early versions of the game, the oldest versions, they were indeed marbles. Later they were not necessarily marbles. In our version, they're not marbles because we're going with a late game design from the 2000 to 2500 BC era. Later in the game's history, that's the era that we're– The game went through an evolution. But anyway, what I did is I said “OK. Look, we have this board, it's a spiral, it works a certain way. It's about God.

Zach: Mehen is a God to the Egyptians, and it's a Snake God, and the Snake God is a protector of Ra. I assume everyone knows that Ra is the Sun God, the most powerful and important God to the ancient Egyptians. Ra, of course, is all-powerful during the day but at night Ra goes below the earth. The sun goes below the earth and into the nether world, and then will rise again the next day. Ra is vulnerable during that period of time, and Mehen is the God that protects Ra during the nighttime.

Zach: Mehen, as a giant snake, is often thought of as wrapping its coils around Ra, forming this protective barrier against all of the evil spirits and things that will assail Ra at night. So, this is interesting. This is a fantastic story, and this is a fantastic theme for a game. We know from the surviving examples that this played out in a really interesting geometry. The spiral geometry of the board, which represents the coiled snake, or Mehen, and you move from the tail to the head. The object is to reach the head. Then there's some disagreement whether or not you're meant to also then get back to the tail or not. In my version, you don't go back to the tail.

Zach: But this is what we know, we know the story of Mehen, what role this God played in Egyptian mythology and religion, and we also know how the game looks, and we know the pieces. With a wealth of evidence, I could say, “That still leaves a number of possibilities, in terms of how this could be played.” That's why it was a creative process at that point, and it becomes a game design exercise at that point. Say, “OK, these are my constraints.” I kept to these pretty heavy constraints, in terms of how the game I think really could have been played, but within those constraints I played around with different mechanics, different possibilities, to say “What would make this a fun game?” “How do I approach this as a game designer?”

Zach: I can't say with any authority “This is how it was played,” but neither can anyone else. No one knows how it was played. We only have the evidence we have. I'll say that one other interesting piece of evidence, that a few revivals of this game in the 90s, there was a museum book published by the British Museum that included this game in a cardboard fold-out version. Irving Finkel, great scholar there, recently more also a YouTube phenomenon for his explanation and play of The Royal Game of Ur. But his suggested rules for Mehen were boring, no offense to Dr. Finkel, but I don't think that's the best way to play the game.

Zach: What was interesting is, ignored by him and other people who have tried to create little versions of the game in the past is the fact that there are lions in this game. There are regular pawns, and there are lions, which you alluded to earlier in your question. The Lions, very interestingly, are not in the evidence we have color-coded like the pawns. It's not like you have a set of pawns and then you also have a lion or a set of lions, or something like that. The lions are a neutral color, and the pawns are color-coded to the different players. This is a key piece of evidence that mostly people ignore, if they try to figure out how to play the game because they say “That doesn't make sense to our modern sensibility” Truly, there are two types of pieces that have different moves on the board, and you use them strategically with each other.”

Zach: There are scholars who have correctly said, “That can't be the case because you wouldn't be able to keep track of which one is your lion. They would simply be color-coded if that were the case.” The lions have to play a different role in the game. A previous suggestion was that “Maybe the first player who gets all of their pawns to the center and then back again, changes them out for lions?” Because we know that there were six in a full set of this game. There were six sets of six pawns and one set of six lions. That's suggests maybe that the pawns swap out for lions at some point, but only one player would do that. Then you would have one player who becomes lions late in the game and devours the other players, but at that point, that player would have already won the game. From a game design standpoint, that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Zach: The game only gets exciting when the lions appear, and that only happens after one player has won and then people are just vying for second, third place, etc. That doesn't seem likely, or if that was how it was played, it certainly wouldn't be the most interesting version. That key piece of information led me to think on this problem. “How do you–? how does this work? No other game does this. How would this mechanic work?”

Zach: Finally, I hit upon this idea that the lions are in play during the game, not just in a later stage of the game, but the Lions can be controlled by anyone. Any player can move the lions. That seems to be a solution that both makes the game work and fits the existing evidence. That is indeed how it makes sense in terms of how these are color-coded, that perhaps the lions could be moved by any player. That also makes sense thematically in terms of the story I just told you.

Zach: This spiritual story of Mehen, the God, which is to say that lions were protectors of Ra, as well. Allied with Mehen, in that sense. Lions were thought of as the warriors of Ra. It would make sense if perhaps pawns, which would represent people, regular people or humans, at some point become lions as they achieve a union with Ra or with Mehen and thus through Mehen with Ra.

Zach: In this game, we call it “Enlightenment,” it is a bit of an anachronistic term, but “Enlightenment” in this sense means “Union with Ra, the God of light and the sun.” It makes sense literally. In my version, pawns can, at some point, become lions when they achieve enlightenment, which means reaching Mehen, the center of the spiral. Once they become transformed into lions, anyone can move those lions and lions become hazards to all of the other pawns trying to reach the center.

Zach: The lions move in the exact opposite direction of the pawns. The pawns are moving along this spiral toward the center, and lions are moving from the center on a spiral outward and devouring, trying to land on and devour the pawns. When you combine these together with a couple of other mechanics that allow a lion to come out early so that they don't come up too late in the game, it becomes an incredibly fun game. That was the big eureka moment for me in playtesting, was “Oh my God, this works.” The game suddenly becomes far more than just a roll and move with a little bit of strategy, in terms of which piece you move at a time. Suddenly it becomes this cat and mouse game where you're trying to race to the center, but the center is dangerous.

Zach: Anyone can be moving these lions out, killing the pawns, eating the pawns. At that point, you have to create certain formations, move very strategically, and think about whether you're moving lions or pawns. There's an offensive strategy or defensive strategy. All of a sudden, there are many different strategies. We don't think of race games as often having allowing for that complex strategy, and this is exactly what emerges in this gameplay. We hit upon what is now my favorite ancient game, and it is incredibly fun to play. I'll be honest and say that when I started this process, I didn't know how fun it would be to play. I wanted to make it as fun as possible, but my goal was to revive this game. When it turned out to be an incredible blast to play, that was a surprise to me and a great delight.

Patrick: Yeah. This is such a great story. I didn't play the whole game, I think I maybe sat down for a half-hour because I had to go to a different event, but I got to play for a half-hour. The lions came out early, and it was such a fun– Like, “I want to get closer to the center, but if we get too close then my opponents can move the lion and eat my pawn.”

Patrick: It was this really fun– I forgot what I did, there's certain rolls– I should say not rolls, they're throwing sticks, but certain combinations of throwing sticks where you can jump into an inner ring of the spiral. That was how I was trying to avoid the lions. Oh my gosh, that was definitely really fun. I love your thought process on– There's six groups of six pawns or whatever, and each group of six has their own unique color.

Patrick: The lions are their own color, or a separate color, a neutral color. Clearly, it's not like chess where there's one special piece. That's pretty obvious when you look at it in hindsight, or when I've played a game, and I go, “Of course not.” I wonder if other academics or other professors didn't playtest the game? Or didn't sit down with the pieces and try to make the game work, because I feel like if they did, they might have discovered “We can't tell whose lion is whose, so that's probably not how that works.”

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: I love that very simple deductive reasoning. That's really cool. I normally ask a question near the end called “What does success looks like to you?” But I want to move this question up to the beginning and change it a little bit. What is your goal with the Kickstarter? The reason I'm asking this is– I'm not saying monetary goal, not what is your target goal, but why are you running a Kickstarter campaign? Because I think many people do it because they love games, they want to get their game out into the world, or they want to make lots of money, or they want to become a full-time game designer. What is your goal as a Kickstarter? Because I feel like you might have a different take on this than other game designers and publishers.

Zach: Great. Yeah, that's definitely true. It's partly because I am a professor and I have an academic interest in these things. My goal with this particular game is really to revive it. It's a game that no one plays, that hasn't been played really in thousands of years. I think it's an amazing game, whether you play with my set of rules or whether you invent a different one, or try to play with other speculated sets of rules. Which I don't think would be very much fun, but you could do it.

My goal with this particular game is really to revive it.

Zach: The game is incredible. Visually, it was an amazing game. It would take artisans– Clearly, the few boards we have in existence from that time. It's just this gorgeous work. Artisans would have to carve out of stone. Probably most of them were carved out of wood, that's the medium we chose. Those didn't survive because wood only survives so many thousands of years before it rots away, whereas the stone ones were the ones, of course, that did survive for thousands of years. They're incredible, and they look amazing, I've seen at least one in-person in a museum.

Zach: In some ways, it's a crying shame that this game isn't played. My greatest goal is to get people to learn about this game. Even if they learn about it, that would be some satisfaction for me. This is a forgotten game, I would love for people to see it and I would love people to play it.

Zach: That said, we're making a high-end version of the game. I mean, it has to be said that this is not a cardboard, mass-market version. I don't think the game would appeal to the mass-market anyway. I thought that if we want to reintroduce this game, a game that is so stunning visually, a game that is so interesting and unique visually, and such an artisanal game– For instance, many other games like Senet, there were fancy boards that artisans would create in ancient Egypt for rich people.

Zach: There were also soldiers or common folks who would scratch it into a stone, and you could scratch the rectangle with some lines to create squares. You can use rocks an just scratch it on to the street, or scratch it onto a monument which was often done, which we are horrified by now but it was common practice. Or draw it in dirt, anybody can do it and play it.

Zach: Mehen is a bit different. You could do that, but it'd be far more difficult to scratch spirals into a stone. In some ways, this was a higher end game, a more artisanal game. A game that was a challenge for artisans at that time to carve and make a beautiful set out of. It was important for me to capture that element of the game. There's the gameplay element, and there's the historic element, there is the thematic element.

Zach: All those are also really important, but the aesthetic element was also key for me. My attempt with the Kickstarter was to do something– I teamed up with an artist, Jeremy Boyle, who is capable of realizing this goal. My goal here was to create a version of the game that did justice to all of those different aspects of this ancient game — released it in its proper way.

Zach: Maybe in the future, we could do another less expensive version or something with different methods, but this is a three-dimensional carved board out of wood that does justice, I think, to the original game. It was really important for me. That really can only be a Kickstarter thing, and I wanted to get– Kickstarter helps get the word out to a lot of people. Get the word out to a lot of people even who maybe can't afford it, or can't pay $150 for a game, but they'll learn about it, and they could make their own version.

Zach: I want to get the word out there. Then I also want that first experience people have of the game, whether it's just seeing it online or getting a copy, to be one of craftsmanship that recreates the game and all of its artisanal richness. That's why we use these methods. It's not going through a factory, and we're producing it all ourselves in a studio, not cutting any corners at all. It's all hardwood. There's no veneer, no fake stuff, no particle board and there's no laser etching. It's all cut into the wood. That's how the game was made in ancient Egypt, so we wanted to make sure that people experience it that way.

What is the Audience for Mehen?

Patrick: I love it. Now I have to ask, and I love talking about marketing. I do that as part of my day job. Who do you imagine is going to buy this? Is this history buffs? Is this Egypt buffs? Is this people who like ancient game buffs? Is this, maybe not like your average gamer, but the gamers who are more collectors and they want to have all the cool games? Or, some other group of people? Who are you targeting with this campaign? Who do you think is going to buy this?

Zach: Egyptologists. Scholars of ancient Egypt. I figure there are about 15 of them out there who would be interested in the game, and that's our audience. No, I hope that they are interested, but I also hope that there are other people interested as well.

Zach: But History buffs, anyone interested in ancient games. For me, anyone interested in games as an artisanal experience, for instance, I think will be interested in this. Because I think the game is fun enough to play that no one will be disappointed, anyone who is interested in it as an artisanal thing would not turn it down because “It's not an interesting game. It just looks good.” It looks good, and it's a great game, so I think anyone interested in that. That's a kind of split.

Zach: We're used to board games costing $50 and maybe sometimes you can get someone to pay $100 or $150 for Gloomhaven or something that has lots of miniatures or whatever in it, but this is a little bit different in the sense that we're asking people, because we're not trying to make money, I'll say that right now. It costs us a lot to make these, and our margin is very thin, but our methods are high end, so the games are going to be more expensive.

Zach: Anyway, I think that this is a game, for instance, that I think any family would love playing. Anyone who can afford and wants a beautiful table piece game that is also great to play, I would love to see normal, just average people, casual, board gamers play this. It's great family game because you can play– Unlike most ancient games, you can play with four players easily. In fact, the game gets spiced up and is more fun, the more players you add, up to six. Anyway, I do hope to reach some normal people who have the budget for and are interested in a game that– Or let's say a table piece. If you're not playing this game, you could put it on your coffee table, and it would be an amazing coffee table piece. I'll tell you one other thing that you probably don't know is that we are cutting a keyhole into the backside of the board, so it can be hung on a wall.

I'll tell you one other thing that you probably don't know is that we are cutting a keyhole into the backside of the board, so it can be hung on a wall.

Patrick: Oh, that's cool.

Zach: It actually can be hung up as a piece of art. I think that as a piece of art, it's very inexpensive compared to what people normally pay for high end, hardwood, handcrafted wooden art. It fits in between, as a marketing standpoint, it's everybody's marketing nightmare because it fits in between existing categories. It's partly for gamers who have an interest or a budget for that high-end stuff, it's partly for people who are interested in high-end wooden art, but have an interest in games and it's partly for people who are passionate or excited about the history of games or ancient games, or etc.. Somewhere in between all of those. We don't reach a million people, and we don't have to reach that many people for it to be a success. I want a lot of people to see it and learn about it.

What Resources Would You Recommend?

Patrick: Very cool. In your game design journey, you must have come across some resources. Do you have any resources that you'd recommend to another indie game designer? A blog, a podcast– Not this one. A blog, a podcast, a book. Something like that?

Zach: Yes. I'll tell you that I'm a little skeptic– Personally, not to say it's not useful for some people, but I'm a little skeptical of the game design literature and books and stuff out there. I think that in some ways, game design is something that there aren't really that many secrets to it. You can't learn it.

Zach: As a professor, I teach games. I teach board games, even. I can't teach someone how to design a game. In my classes, sometimes we do have game design assignments, but I can't teach someone secrets to design a game. I don't think really anyone else can either. I will say that I think the greatest resources for game designers, especially game designers just starting out or thinking about why they might want to design a game or what's possible, is actually to play games.

Zach: Not to play the most popular games, but of course, you should do that too, and those are great. But it's exciting to think about “What are experiments people have done in game design, and does that spark something?” A very simple resource I would recommend is Sid Sackson's book called A Gamut of Games. Sid Sackson was a great game designer and designed Can't Stop. I mentioned another Sid Sackson game earlier, I can't remember now, but he produced a book in 1969 called A Gamut of Games. They're mostly abstract games, but they're games he designed himself, or they're games that he in his journey meeting game designers would meet them and learn about their games and their games and thereby by monks who had designed a game and Sid Sackson learned about the game and put it in the book, all kinds of things like that.

Zach: What's exciting about this is these are fairly abstract games. This is, of course, before the modern era of board games and certainly before euro games and etc. So it's somewhat different, but that's why it's exciting. You look back and say, “Here's somebody who's just thought about games his entire life, put together all of these games.” There's I don't know how many, but there are score dozens and dozens and dozens of games in there, most of which can be played with a pen and paper, or you make checkers pieces or a checker board and some pieces, or you make some pieces or play a deck of cards.

Zach: That, to me, is a playground for game designers. You look, and they say, “What can be done with very little?” That's where a game designer should start. “How much complexity can you create from something very simple? Instead of buying billions of little pieces and starting to create complex systems, how cow can you create a simple system that ends in or produces complex interactions?” That's my number one example. [Inaudible] copy of a Gamut of Games.

What's Worth the Money?

Patrick: Awesome. I will link to that in the show notes. I'm looking over at the Wikipedia page on it right now, and there's a lot of cool-looking games. Just in the description, there's a lot of cool-looking games in there. So, I'll definitely link to that. Is there something that's worth spending money on besides maybe that book? Is there something in the game design world that–? Because I'm a frugal person, so I try– If at all possible, I don't spend money. But is there something that you're like, “If you have this thing, this opportunity, this challenge– Definitely spend money on this? It's worth it?”

Zach: In my experience, there's almost– You don't need to spend any money at all. In fact, as soon as you're spending money on something, it's probably precious to you, and you're taking it too seriously or relying on it too heavily. So besides a good computer and you don't even have to spend money on software. Get Inkscape and design anything with Inkscape or Gimp or Photoshop if you get it. But honestly, I don't think you have to spend money on anything. You can go outside and scratch a game board into the dirt. As I mentioned that many of the ancient Egyptians did when they were passing time, and that's a great place to find inspiration. So, that's my answer there. You don't need to spend any money at all.

Overrated / Underrated Game

Patrick: Love it. So then the last thing I like to do is this silly little game called Overrated/Underrated, where basically I'm going to give you a word or phrase and then I'm going to ask you if you think it is overrated or underrated. If I said “The Women's World Cup soccer team,” you would say “Underrated. They are the best soccer team of all time.” Something like that. Got it?

Zach: Got it

Patrick: All right. The first one is throwing sticks. Are they overrated or underrated?

Zach: Definitely, underrated. Throwing sticks are amazing, and even in ancient times they coexisted with dice, and dice won out over time because they're simpler in some ways, but throwing sticks are definitely underrated. They seem like maybe they're too fiddly or complex of dice, but they are not. The probability distribution of throwing sticks is radically different than dice, so you might only have the same number of possible outcomes. For instance, if you have four throwing sticks but the probability distribution is non-linear, you have certain combinations that are really common and certain combinations that are radically uncommon, and that makes for really exciting– As a game designer playing and working with men, for instance. That's exciting because all of a sudden you can think about probability, whereas at dice are the same probability for each number that comes up. So, definitely underrated.

Patrick: Great answer. Love it. What about just snakes in general, overrated or underrated?

Zach: I have to admit that I find snakes– I've had some encounters with snakes in the wilderness in my life, rattlesnakes in particular, that make them a little terrifying to me, I have to admit. However, I think there's– I do think that they are underrated because most people are terrified of snakes and snakes are interesting. The way that snakes interact with other snakes is to coil around them, like when they're mating, for instance. That's really weird and exciting. It's a different way of being when the possibility of a snake, the idea of the coil, the line, the curve– It's a different way of being. I think that we could pay more attention to that.

Patrick: How about Origins, as in the convention where we almost met, but I met one of your associates who showed me the game? Is that overrated or underrated?

Zach: I don't want to make any enemies here, and I don't– I like Origins, so it's nothing against Origins. But I would say Origins, like all conventions, in my opinion, is a little overrated. But that's really to say that conventions are a bit overrated, because in some ways they– They're fun, they're great. You get to see new games. But they're also a very commercial outlet, and I know that's not– They're not only commercial, but it's really– They're commercial enterprises, and they're big advertisement. In that sense, I don't think we– I don't think they're as necessary to board gaming culture as maybe the role that they often seem to have. So, that's what I think.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Got it. Zack, thank you so much for being on the show. Where can people find you online?

Zach: The best place is probably to go to our website, which is Pandora-Games.com. There's contact information there, that's the best play way to get a hold of me and learn more about this game or anything else we're doing.

Patrick: Listeners, this episode should be coming out when their game is on Kickstarter. It might have been out like a week, or so, we'll get the exact timing down, but this episode should launch when the game is on Kickstarter. So, you can also look for Mehen on Kickstarter and– Any other tips on how to find it? I think just that the title should be fine, right?

Zach: Yeah, I think it'll be very clear. It's the only spiral snake board game on Kickstarter.

Patrick: There we go. Love it. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave your review, Zach said he would throw some throwing six at you. So, that sounds fantastic. You can find the site IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter, I am @BFTrick. That's all, everyone. Have a good one and happy designing, bye-bye.