Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer, 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'm going to be talking with Bill Sunderland and Dani Siller, who are not typical board game designers.
Instead, they create audio-only escape rooms for their podcast, Escape This Podcast. I brought them onto the show because they are good at creating a game every two weeks. I know most board game designers spend months just on one game, or years just on one game. Even then, it still might not be close to done. So I think we can learn something from people who create a new game every two weeks, even if it's in a different format, even if it's an audio format instead of a cardboard format. With that introduction, Bill and Dani, welcome to the show.
Dani Siller: Hi.
Bill Sunderland: Thank you for having us.
Dani: Happy to be here, counting among the board game crowd. That's exciting.
Bill: It's something to be proud of.
Patrick: We've got some pretty big nerds over here, so I think you're going to like it. I know you– Number one, I've been listening to your podcast, but also we've been e-mailing back and forth a little bit. But my audience doesn't, so we're going to do a quick little lightning round to introduce you. All right?
Bill: OK. Let's go.
Patrick: All right. So let's start with you, Bill. Favorite role playing system?
Bill: My favorite role-playing system is the one that I started on when I first started playing role-playing games when I was 14 years old, which is completely defunct, not allowed to buy it, role-playing game called MERP. It was Middle-Earth Role-Playing. It was in the 80s, and it was wonderful.
It's just full of all this Tolkien stuff, but then they go “Don't worry about it. Let's also throw some more DND-ish fantasy in there.” It's full of look-up tables where your damage gets to a table that links you to another table that you reroll on to check how criticals work, and it's ridiculous. It's cumbersome, and I love it. It has such a soft spot in my heart. It's wonderful.
Patrick: Great. And what about you, Dani?
Dani: I also had the same start. Bill introduced me through MERP, and I feel like it was a combined MERP Rolemaster system in a way.
Bill: Maybe when I was transitioning to the actual system, you can buy from Iron Crown, which is Rolemaster.
Dani: The best part about that was, as you said, it's the crits. You combine this– You felt so excited every time you got a crit because the table of critical things that could happen to you whether you got a crit success or crit failure was just so exciting. It was phenomenal every time. They were so wildly specific.
Bill: I do know some people play DND now with one of those decks.
Bill: Whereas when you do a critical draw from the deck, and it tells you what weird fine thing it is, that was built into the MERP and Rolemaster system from the beginning. It was one of their key selling points that's an inherent part of those systems. It was really fun.
Dani: That's it. It is definitely cumbersome to get onto, in its way.
Bill: It's so cumbersome. It's been like 7– You have to play with a calculator, and I've never played a role playing game with a calculator in my hand.
Dani: If we're going for smoothness, I've got to go, Bill, with your homebrew designed Fallout system.
Bill: That's true.
Dani: I thought that was smooth. That was the easiest system to get into that I've ever played.
Bill: That is true, I have an unpublished roleplaying TTRPG system I designed from scratch to play in a Fallout setting. Which, that's fun. I forgot about that.
Dani: It worked. What are the odds?
Bill: It did work.
Patrick: That's so cool.
Bill: The odds are very high, thank you very much.
Patrick: That's cool. I will have to check out MERP, and I love crazy criticals, so if it's built into the game, I'm definitely for it. Dani, this time you, what is your favorite element in an escape room?
Dani: OK. This makes me feel a little bit bad about the fact that we do it as a podcast because my favorite thing in real world escape rooms is the physical puzzles. Because I like feeling like I'm on Survivor.
Patrick: I totally get that.
Dani: There is one that we did in London where it was just some huge, heavy pipes, and we needed to connect them from one end of the room to their corresponding entrances in another room. Just lifting up these heavy pipes and racing across the room made me feel really special.
Patrick: That's awesome, great. What about you, Bill?
Bill: Again, it's something that is harder to do in an audio context. I suppose that's part of the point, right? We do so much of escape room stuff in audio that the stuff that is still really exciting to me is physical.
Dani: That's a good way of putting it.
Bill: So for me, it's always room transitions. I love a good transition. The moment where if you're in an escape room that has multiple rooms, and that moment of something opening– Especially if it wasn't just a normal door. If it's just some kind of weird cool mechanism going through a fireplace that had a face, or a false back or things like that.
Entering this new space is always such a wonderful moment of discovery. There's a room in Sydney that has, I think, some of the best transitions from room to room I've ever done. Stuff that you would not expect. Literally, stuff where you physically take the room you are in and move the room that you're in so that the door now goes to a different place. It was just phenomenal. I loved that aspect, and it's still really exciting. It's something we can do in audio as well, which we occasionally do.
Dani: Yeah, but it's less satisfying.
Bill: But it's not as viscerally wonderful.
Patrick: Yeah. Makes sense. So this question is, let's say now that you're coming into the board game world, let's say you're at a board game convention and you've played games all day, you're tired, you want to go home. Then someone says, “Wait. Just one more game of–” and you go and play that game. What is that game, Bill?
Bill: That's tough, especially because I've never been to a board game convention. I don't know how much time I have on my hands, but I do say though that it is my favorite system, so I would always play MERP with people. Just because it's weird and it's fun.
Dani: You're going to be there for 10 hours.
Bill: I'm going to be there for ten hours trying to do one attack, but that's fine. I don't know. I would love to play more of those weird one-page style RPGs that I've never really played that have been on my wish list. I think if I was at a convention and people were like “We're going to play Everyone Is John,” I would always jump into that game. Purely because it's been on my list of “That's a cool idea for a game that I want to play,” and I've never played it. I think that'd be the sort of stuff.
Patrick: Cool. What about you, Dani? Do you have any games?
Dani: I went with board games rather than RPG ones.
Bill: That's fair. That makes perfect sense.
Dani: I've got a few to choose from, so Betrayal at House on the Hill. Always. If I need a cool down, then playing a nice game of Tsuro would be good. But I think the one that I can never turn down because I'm always the one to insist that we play it–
Bill: It's true.
Dani: No one else ever suggests it is Clue or Cluedo. I always want to play that.
Bill: If you ever want to get Dani– If you right now want to meet Dani and you're across the world, if you're living in the Netherlands right now and you just want to meet Dani, send us an email and say “If you come over here we can play a game of Clue,” and Dani will be there.
Dani: People just think of it as this game that they played when they were a kid. They don't appreciate it.
Patrick: There is– Dani, so there's one game. I'm totally getting this wrong, where it's vaguely based on Clue, and you're walking around, and you're trying to murder someone, but no one knows who the murderer is or who you're trying to murder.
But you need to be aware of where everyone's vision is. So if someone's in the kitchen and they can see into the living room, but they can't see into the garden. So you're walking around the board in a specific way so that hopefully you're following your target and you can murder them just at the right time when no one is looking at you.
Dani: That sounds hilarious and terrifying.
Patrick: You might like it, as just being the opposite side of the coin.
Dani: I very well may. It's just like one of those real-world classroom games of murder and detective, those sorts of ones.
Patrick: Is that a thing in Australia?
Bill: Yeah, we call it Murder Winks.
Patrick: I don't think we have murder games– Oh, Mafia. Yes.
Bill: Here we have a game called Murder Winks, which is exactly the same thing. It's just that you wink at someone, and they die.
Dani: You know, normal stuff.
Bill: It's what Australia's about.
How did you get into escape rooms and puzzle design?
Patrick: So let's go into the first real question, which is normally, “How did you get into board games and board games design?” I'll change it a little bit for both of you. How did you get into escape rooms and puzzle design?
Dani: For you, Bill, getting into a board game design was a big part of this whole thing. Because you've been doing that forever, haven't you?
Bill: I've been doing bad game design forever. I've been doing game design that doesn't go anywhere my entire life. But no, I think in terms of getting into escape rooms, we just–
Dani: It feels like a very boring story. I just found out– My family just told me that they had done this thing and I was a little bit outraged that they'd done it before I had because that was clearly my sort of thing. And just hearing, “Wait. This is a real thing that exists? Just a place that you pay money to do puzzles for them?”
Bill: Do we actually–? Do we need to do a quick sidebar for your audience who might not have done an escape room? I know it's probably unlikely, given your audience. Should I do a quick–?
Patrick: You know what, Bill? Let's do it.
Bill: OK, escape room. If you haven't done an escape room, go do an escape room. Effectively it's just a physical space that you get “Locked into–” Inverted commas because of fire hazards. You have to solve puzzles and find clues and go through this narrative, ideally, to escape. Some of them don't end with escape, they have transcended that part of the genre, and they end with various missions that you want to accomplish.
Dani: Like if it's a bank heist and you're the robber, you'll end with finding the diamonds.
Bill: You want to take some money or that sort of thing. Where you have to catch a killer or things like that. The rooms are just going place to place connecting various objects in the room that turn into puzzles that turn into physical tasks that you have to do to escape and get out. We do the same thing in audio form, so it plays like an escape room but more like a text-based adventure version of an escape room. Where you talk about what you want to do, and we walk you through the whole thing, like a tabletop role playing game version.
Just as a quick– If we've said “Escape room” too many times and you're sitting there going, “I don't know what this is,” that's what we're talking about. So I went with you, Dani, to the same place that you went with your parents the next time. So you have officially done one room more than me because the other room we've done together. It's just such a compelling idea. Bringing the joy of stuff that is usually associated with board games and video games and–
Bill: It's some level abstraction from the actual action, and then you get to do it yourself. It's really exciting.
Dani: That's why I said I like the stuff that makes me feel like I'm on Survivor because that's what I'm doing. You're doing it to feel cool and the physical coolness.
Bill: In terms of getting into the design, we just wanted to do a podcast, and we had the idea to do something. We didn't know what it was, I was more insistent to do something, and Dani was more insistent to have a good idea first.
Dani: I didn't want to just be reading Wikipedia articles.
Bill: Yes. But because we both had game mastering experience and tabletop roleplaying experience, I think Dani just suggested, “We've been loving doing escape rooms. I wonder if you could game master an escape room like an RPG game?”
Dani: I felt like it was pretty reasonable for me to come up with the idea and be the one running this sort of thing because everyone has different GMing styles. My GMing style is I hate improvising, so I come up with a contingency plan for every action that I could think the players might do. Everything from shaking hands to blowing up the building.
Bill: That is true. Dani has a very design-heavy approach to any game that she runs.
Dani: That's what this felt like it needed.
Bill: It does. Because you can't improv an escape room like that.
Dani: Yeah. It's hard to improvise a puzzle.
Bill: So Dani designed a five minute version just off the cuff, and we played with the idea. We thought, “This sounds great.” From day one, I could very much picture people yelling at their podcast player, “Oh my gosh, you're all idiots. Why don't you just look in the corner? Oh, my God. How have you not solved this yet?” That's the exact image you want for an audience member. Then we played with that, and it worked out. It felt good.
Patrick: I'm glad you transitioned– I'm very happy you transitioned to “How did you start the podcast?” Because I think there's, with game design, I think there's almost audacity that you can create something that you enjoy doing. I don't think that exists in the RPG world, because everyone takes turns being a game master or many people do, whereas I think in the board game world it's an act of audacity to just go “I can make one of these,” but it's cool to hear your story there.
Dani: It's a very different environment to jump into based on the level of control, that's the biggest thing that varies between regular RPGs– What we do, and board games. Board games obviously are the least level of creative control.
Can you tell me about your process? How do you design & playtest a room every 2 weeks?
Patrick: So let me go into your podcast here, I think I want to start with you, Dani, and I want to talk to you about your process. Then I definitely want to talk about play testing in just a bit, but how do you–? Because this is the main thing, how do you design and play test a room basically every two weeks? I know you have the occasional guest room that comes on your show, so it's not like you literally do it every two weeks.
Dani: Yeah, it's a nice break.
Patrick: But I have in my notes that you've made over 50 rooms, and I'm guessing most board game designers have prototyped maybe 5-10. I think many board game designers are probably under that. People who have been doing it for years probably have more than that, but how do you pump out–? How do you make 50, in your case they are hour long escape rooms. But how do you do them every two weeks? How? It's crazy to me.
Dani: I've never thought of myself as a prolific person, so it's very interesting to feel like that. Now obviously there are some shortcuts, I'm doing things the easy way. I just have to write things up, I don't have to physically create things, and that's much less pressure. But I think that one of the big things– Now, I haven't tried to do board game design like you have, Bill. So you'd have more of an idea of how this goes, but if I try to picture a board game design, I feel like coming up with your key mechanics are important.
But for an escape room sort of thing, that's already inbuilt. You know that the mechanic is there are going to be some puzzles that connect the objects to each other, and that doesn't change. To an extent, there's a formula behind it, and that's how people crack out romance novels regularly, isn't it? They just get a feel for that sort of thing and their characters and settings, and everything can change every time, and it doesn't feel like the same book if you read a bunch in a row.
But there is definitely some commonality to them. But because of that, because I don't have to focus too hard on the mechanics, the actual puzzles are absolutely last. They're the last thing I think about, so I get to spend time at the start just thinking about a fun story and a room that has fun objects in it that I can use for that. Whereas a board game, they obviously have to worry about their setting and the board game narrative. I don't know the best order that people usually do those things in. But for me, being able to essentially come up with a story every two weeks is a lot easier than creating a game every two weeks.
Patrick: Totally, I think you're totally right. I think you're totally right, and especially when you're literally– I know from listening to the show you have lots of notes like you might have multiple pages of notes, but you don't have to physically cut out cards and make a board. Then people give you feedback, and you don't have to remake everything, stuff like that. So that's definitely a part of it. But how about this, do you think part of it–? And maybe this will bring you in, Bill, is letting go of trying to be perfect?
Because I think board game designers, they will listen to every single piece of feedback and they will try to make the perfect game as opposed to making a really good game and then moving on to the next one and making another really good game and moving on to the next one. I think board game designers tend to be perfectionists.
Dani: It's definitely a tricky thing because, in my other creative works, I am absolutely a perfectionist like that. I think the fact that, again, back to the control thing that I mentioned, I feel like that's a factor. Because I know that I am the one running these games for the most part.
We make our notes available for other people to play at home, but that's just an optional thing because I get to maintain control when we record and release these games as episodes. It doesn't feel like I have to hit that “Perfect” because I don't have to just let go and be letting someone else take full control of this like you do with a board game.
Bill: It's not even that you need to avoid– You're not trying for perfection. It's that perfection is so much more easily attainable, because if something goes wrong or something isn't satisfying during gameplay because it's controlled, because all of the truth is controlled by you during the recording or by anyone else–
Dani: I can warp reality however, I want in the moment.
Bill: That does sound better. Let's just make that true for the moment.
Dani: It's just tough on the “I hate improvising” side, but it can happen.
Bill: But it lets you get closer to that great experience every time. That being said, there's definitely stuff in old rooms that is not so good. We went back, and we completely redesigned some of the old season one rooms. Part of it is knowing that you have to get it done in two weeks that you can let go of– Even now there are rooms that we are running today that we probably if we had like a month, might tweak some stuff and play with some things. Sometimes we're redesigning puzzles day-of, like “This puzzle still doesn't work, and the recording is in four hours. Let's just really get it right.”
Dani: Those are the dark weeks.
Bill: That's a tough one, but the fact that we have that deadline that “This episode must be recorded on this day. We can't push back because we're going to ruin our release schedule,” it means that there is sometimes where you just have to say, “Look. This is as good as it's going to be.”
Every single time the people playing it, the people listening, say, “That was wonderful, that was great.” Because they don't have the same brain as you. They're not looking at all of the fault, and they're not looking at how it could be better, they're just looking at what it is. They're much more accepting.
Dani: I suppose there's also just a little bit of freedom in that even if the early episodes from a design perspective were awful because I didn't have a very good handle on what I was doing yet, and my notes are definitely all over the place, the episodes are done.
But the notes? I could technically go back and fix them at any time. That's still in my power. Again, unlike a game that is sold and out there for people to have, as is all the time. It's harder to create a new addition of a board game to replace the old one in people's minds.
Patrick: I think one of things that makes board games a little challenging and different is players are playing usually against each other. They are orthogonal games, I forget what the term is, but lots of games are competitive. I wonder if that's why sometimes you need to have so many rules written down, whereas in an escape room or with a GM when something unexpected comes out or something unclear comes up you can make—
Like, a good GM will help the players achieve their goals. So when something– Let's say, Dani, you mess something up, or you leave out an important detail about a puzzle, and someone asks about it. You can make it up, or you can bend the rules to be, “That isn't the way I thought you'd solve the puzzle, but it'll totally work for X, Y, and Z.” But if it's a game where players play against each other, then I think maybe you just need rules to be ironed out a little bit because there is no GM who knows–
Dani: We have a lot more fail safes than it's possible to have. For a board game designer, you have to come up with all of the possibilities well before you play. Which is what I'd like to try to do when I design things, again that's just how I GM, but it's not always going to be possible to do it.
Not only do we have the failsafe of me being here, me being able to make things up to fix things, me being able to straight up say “No,” if someone does what I don't want them to. We're also a podcast, so we can edit out the terrible bits.
Bill: That's true.
Dani: We have so many options.
Bill: But you're right, there is also that attitude of player– Like their approach to it. They're not competitive, so they're not trying to find sneaky ways to get one up on each other. They want to work together to make this thing happen. There's something about understanding that you're all there to solve these puzzles in a certain way that people also– The general approach isn't to try and break that, the goal isn't “Get out of this room as quickly as you can.” The goal is, “Do a bunch of puzzles so that the story continues.”
Because of that, you don't have people being like, “Wait. Technically, I could take that axe in the corner, and I can break a hole in the wall. Because you said it was plaster, didn't you? Ha, plaster is not that thick. I can break a hole, and I can leave, and I've escaped.” But that's not the goal, so people are less likely to try and pursue these breaks. Whereas in a board game where the goal is victory and often victory over the other people at the table, if you're playing Settlers of Catan and you suddenly read that there's a misprint in the rules that says that if you go to a city and then turn it back into a village, you get 10 points, you'd be like “That's a mistake, but I'm going to do it, and I win.”
Because your goal was to get 10 points, not to go through the narrative story of building settlements on an island. Because there's much more story focus and people are more on board with what they want to do, they're also less likely to take advantage of small errors that they might find.
Patrick: I've played one or two either improv or storytelling based– I don't know if I want to call them board games, but I'll just do it now. They're great. There's one that's a little 18 card storytelling game where you're coming up with a plot of a movie, and then there's much bigger ones.
I can't remember the names right now, and I wonder if those are similar. Because you're all trying to tell a story together, no one's trying to– No one's trying to play all their cards, and they win. You're just trying to tell a story together. I wonder if then it takes it more closer to your world where everyone is just trying to work together to accomplish a goal, and then you don't have these weird gotchas. You're right.
Bill: It makes a big difference in having an understanding of player attitude.
Patrick: But for the people who are listening here for how to design a board game, I still heard “Deadlines help.” Is that correct?
Bill: Deadlines help a huge amount. Knowing you have to get something done by– If we're talking about anti-perfectionism stuff, knowing it has to be done by a certain date, and you can self-impose those if you need to.
Dani: If you're the sort of person that works for.
Bill: It makes a big difference, because if you're the designer of something, you know all of the faults and what it was and what it could be. But if you're playing, you don't have that attitude. We've had that before, we've had stuff that we've kept in rooms that we weren't happy with that at the end, people said “That was so fun. I loved that part of the room, and it was absolutely spectacular.”
Because they don't have those creative goggles off, “But I saw what it was and I saw what it could be and it's not there yet,” they just think “Cool puzzle.” So I think a lot of the times understanding that is a really important thing to try and not be so perfectionist.
What are some advantages of working with a regular playtester?
Patrick: So, moving on. One of things I wanted to have you on the show for, Bill, is that bored gamers generally are a fan of having a very wide play testing audience. Just as an example, I got this cool board game play testing journal a couple of weeks ago, and you get points for testing with more people. You get points for this, you get points for that, but also get points for testing for unique play testers. It's codified in this silly game design journal to get as many unique play testers as possible.
Dani: How about that? OK.
Patrick: I think that makes and there's value to that, but with your podcast, I know that Bill is your main play tester. I think, Bill, you play test most of Danny's rooms. I'm wondering, are there some advantages to intentionally working with a regular play tester?
Dani: Yes. Obviously, it depends on what you're doing, and again the whole control thing. For a board game, because you are trying to put it out into the world, you need lots of different play testers to see who can break it and who can manipulate the system and see what flaws there are in that sort of way. Having a consistent play tester is a trust thing, having someone whose opinion you know you can trust.
Because while having a huge variety of play testers is super valuable for finding out things about your game that you didn't know were there, it can make you– I think you mentioned this before, but it makes you want to please everyone, and you can lose a bit of perspective on “What are the opinions that you do take on board?” Nothing against the person, but because some things that people give as critique just aren't the things that necessarily work with your game.
You have to be able to filter out which ones are the critiques that are useful to you right now and the ones that can't be and having someone like Bill here who is my consistent play tester, who knows me, who knows my writing and thinking style. It means that he can find my formula a little bit easier than some other people, but it means that I know that I can trust his ideas, and he wants this to work as much as I do.
Bill: It is tough sometimes, though, because I can learn how you do stuff, and I'm going to miss things that other people aren't going to bring in. When people come into the room, they're going to– There's a chance they'll get stuck on stuff or find problems that I missed because I just have this assumption that I know how the game is run. There's the danger there that you don't– When we're play testing with me, we're not play testing the concept of doing an escape room in audio because I've done that now 50 something times.
Part of that, I think, is hard if you are the play tester, so in my case, trying to get rid of that and try and think in a way that isn't your usual style just to play with stuff. Part of it is that there is play testing in terms of actually just playing the game and seeing what happens, and there's play testing in that video game QA “I'm going to try and run into every corner to make sure I don't clip out of the world” sort of play testing, and I need to do both at once.
So sometimes I'll just be like, “OK. Then I pick that up, and I smash it against the wall. How are you going to stop me? All right, cool. Then I kick everything, and I set it on fire. How are you going to stop me? All right. Then I just go to the door, and I try and do it by eye instead of solving a puzzle, how are you going to stop me?” So trying to play with that style of QA bug-finding style of play testing.
Dani: Which isn't what a lot of regular play testers want to do, because it's their first time seeing it. They just want to play through it as normal.
Bill: Just see how it goes.
Dani: They might accidentally find things like that as opposed to intentionally breaking things.
Bill: I have to do that, just purely because we're not going to find those things, they aren't going to just be discovered in the process of doing a whole bunch of play tests. They'll just happen naturally. I'm trying to deliberately find little ways to break it if I can.
Dani: There is also the very personal side of this, who is play testing your things? I've come from a writing background, so there's all sorts of things about getting beta readers as well to give out critique for your stories and things like that. There is a huge recommendation of “Don't let it be your friends and family, make it strangers,” because there can be hurt feelings involved with getting critiqued.
Bill: That's true.
Dani: It can be good to make a mix of things like that, and I've found that you, Bill, are a good level of “I don't get hurt feelings from your critique.” Because you manage to deliver it in a way that I know is tolerable to me.
Bill: It's an art form. I think from a board game perspective, and I think having a regular play tester is a very good idea. I just think because you have to sacrifice more control in your final product, obviously, it can't be the only thing.
But early on, especially when you're in a design context and when you're during the design process, having someone who can just sit and be like “Yeah. Let me play that again,” and try and poke holes and mess with it. Also, we have a lot of design back and forth. We can redesign puzzles during play tests, and we can sometimes redesign flow.
Dani: Absolutely. You're a big part of the creation process.
Bill: In that process, it's a brilliant thing to have because it gets you out of your own head as well. It lets you see more often the thing we talked about before, which is how somebody else responds to the basic structure of your game. Not having known all of the “Where it could be or what it's like,” I think, as part of the design process, if not the final publication process, it's a really good thing to have.
Dani: I have one last one on that.
Patrick: Yeah, go ahead.
Bill: You never ask another question.
Dani: No, this is it. There are lots of games out there because there are heaps of strategy based games, I would say the vast majority of games have some level of strategy in them. If someone is playing the same game over and over again, that changes. They can start to adapt and figure out what the “best” strategies are.
If you have the same play tester be a regular person, you'll definitely find out things that you would not find out from first timers in terms of where the easy paths might be. Is it balanced, or do you find out that there is one way to win in the end that just trumps all of the rest?
Bill: That's true.
Patrick: So, in the game world– And I'm curious what you think of that because I don't know if you guys are familiar with this language. In the board game design world, there's a difference between game design and game development, and generally game design is like, “We're going to have a resource market over here, you're going to get resources. Then you're going to have a card drafting thing here, and then on your personal player mat, you're going to use the resources to buy the cards, and you put them on your board for scoring.” That would be the design phase, and the development phase might be “OK. The banana cards are too good. You need to increase the price.”
Dani: That makes sense.
Patrick: I wonder if a regular play tester is probably really good for that initial design because they know how you think, and they know how to give you feedback in a way you want it. Then maybe a wide array of play testers is maybe good for that development phase because then people can try a million different strategies, and you can keep tweaking points and maybe adjust the design a little bit, but you have your core creative vision protected if that makes sense.
Dani: It very well could be.
Bill: I think that makes perfect sense. I think having lots and lots of different play testers make sense for development, and especially it makes sense for “Does everything translate to other people when my hands are completely off the chess piece.”
Patrick: Yes. Cool.
Bill: Which again, is something that is easy to manage, so therefore most of our play testing exists more in a design context than in a development context.
What’s something you learned recently that you wouldn’t have otherwise learned from just creating a handful of rooms?
Patrick: Perfect. Awesome, so one of things that you brought this up very quickly, Bill. You were reading ahead. One of the things I said is, “How dare you read?” No, that's great. You've made fifty rooms, or over 50 rooms, Dani. One of things I'm really curious about is I think there is something valuable to creating lots of things because you automatically learn things in the process. What is something that you learned just by creating 50 or more rooms that you wouldn't have learned if you just created one or two rooms? Is there a thing you can point to?
Dani: What do you think, Bill?
Bill: There's definitely a change in your approach to puzzle design as it's gone through. If you look back on a lot of early stuff, there's logic puzzles and maths puzzles, and all the sort of stuff that bogs people down.
Dani: I think it's that you get better at embracing the medium that you're in, and the possibilities or the things that even though they seem fun, aren't right for this one right now. I think you just get better at adapting to exactly what you've got in front of you.
Patrick: Maybe get better at cutting things out when you need to?
Dani: It still hurts, but yes. For sure. Being able to accept it as a process of some of the ideas you can store for later, not every idea that you have, even if it is a great idea, is a great idea right now.
Patrick: Cool. Do you have unfinished, unpublished rooms or other games?
Dani: This is interesting. You remember when I said that I come up with puzzles last and story first? I do have a couple of ones that I half wrote, half designed, and then they just never felt like they fully clicked, so I shelved them for a while. Those invariably were the ones where I tried to come up with a room mechanical gimmick first, and then wasn't coming up with the story. The story felt like it was secondary to the thing that's going on. For example, the very first one that I threw out completely was my time-travel attempted room. Because all I had was “Cool, it's going to be time-travel.”
The first time I tried to do a single room that had going back and forth between times in it because that was where I started. Apparently, starting with a mechanic isn't how my brain works, which is why I'm interested to know how board game designers do it because I again feel like the mechanic that you deal with tends to be quite important for board games. I just don't think that I am able to do that because it just means that narratively I end up feeling stuck and trapped by it.
Like I said, with the designing lots of rooms, you get good at knowing what to shelve and what not to shelve. It would be awfully hard for me to come up with a room where time travel is the starting point, that's what I know has to be in it, and then I come up with a story and then I go, “But narratively the time travel doesn't fit, does it?” Then it just suddenly feels like a whole mess. Apparently, the ones where I discard it's because I started in a different place to what works for me.
How many unpublished and half-finished games do you have?
Patrick: So, Bill. When we scheduled this, I didn't realize you made board games, so I got to know, Bill, how many unfinished or half-finished unpublished games do you have?
Bill: The reason you don't know that I design these things is because 100% of them I've always been doing–
Dani: You've been doing it since you were a tiny child.
Bill: Since I was a kid, my thing that I loved as a kid was taking existing stuff that was there and designing new games around it, so designing new games on a chessboard that I would play with friends. Or designing new games with dominoes that you'd then– Designing new games with dominoes is hard because dominoes are so intrinsically just dominoes. It's like, “The numbers come together, and they equal– Damn, that's just dominoes.”
I've designed a few RPG systems and things like that, which again mostly we've just played at home with friends. We did design that Fallout RPG system that we ran a campaign in, which is good fun. I liked that. Lots of interesting mechanics. There's a few, I was just talking with some other people on a Twitch stream, and we are trying to refine some ideas for a series of little one-page RPGs that I'm working on at the moment.
Dani: We were going for almost a dread perspective, where they use a Jenga tower as their main thing. We were going, “What else could you do?”
Bill: There's been one idea that's been in my head for ages. In that same vein of taking existing toys and being like, “You could build an RPG out of this. They could be a mechanic.”
Dani: I think one of the suggestions that we got on the stream was, “Could you do it with a Rubik's Cube?”
Bill: I'm so excited for a Rubik's Cube not to be solved, you'd never play it like a Rubik's Cube. Purely using a Rubik's Cube faces as sources of randomization could be interesting.
Patrick: That sounds super cool.
Bill: It sounds so cool I almost want you to cut it from the episode. Can you just–? Here, just go back and do some editing. Put in a big “Beep” over that entire idea, because it's cool. Just leave your reaction. So there's a few things of that floating around, but I'm interested in a few boardgame ideas that I've had in my head for a while that I've never really had a good path to publication, so I think I might just be going back and listening to your back catalogue to get some ideas from the game designers you've had on about that process.
Dani: I think your ones are more unfinished because you enjoy working on mechanics too much, so you don't want to leave that stage and focus on the other practical thoughts and ideas, you just want to delve into the maths.
Bill: I do. I do like it.
What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Patrick: I will give you some recommendations after the show because I think I've got some answers for you. Let me move on a little bit here, I'm curious. So since you've made so many things, do you have a resource that you would recommend to a game designer or puzzle designer? By resource, I mean a website, a book, a blog, a podcast excluding this one? Just something that would help them out maybe with the creative process and this goes to both of you.
Dani: We did pretty early on, we had a couple of episodes telling our listeners how they might like to create things similar to ours. One of the things that I recommended was just the Penguin Book of Puzzles, because it just has a variety of things, and it categorizes them. Here are your number puzzles, here are your letter puzzles, here are your pictorial puzzles.
Bill: Pictorial puzzles.
Dani: Yeah, and here are just some straight up logic puzzles. The one problem it has is it is mega British. There are some things like they like money puzzles. I just go, “I'm sorry. I don't understand how the old British currency works.”
Patrick: What are money puzzles?
Dani: Just things like, “You have these numbers of coins and how you make–?”
Bill: “How many shillings to a guinea?”
Dani: Yeah, that sort of stuff. It was not written 100 years ago, so I am still baffled.
Bill: I've got this book right in my hand right now, the Penguin Book of Puzzles. The categories it has in the contents page were early puzzles, mathematical puzzles, geometrical puzzles, logic and lateral thinking puzzles, word puzzles, and modern puzzles. It's just a really good thing not to take straight from, but to have this resource for the structure of basic puzzles. Then you can use those as building blocks to piece new puzzles together, and things like that.
Dani: It also helps you make sure that your brain isn't stuck in one type of puzzle too much, that can be very easy if you're a number person to think of number patterns constantly. It helps you be able to figure out different things and be able to go through for us this different puzzles and figure out what works in a different medium. Because obviously, not every puzzle that you see in a book is going to work for audio.
Patrick: Sure, and I'm just Googling this right now. Is it the Penguin Book of Curious and Interesting Puzzles? Or are there multiple “The Penguin Book of Puzzles?”
Dani: Ours is just called “Penguin Book of Puzzles.” So, there might be many,
Bill: It's edited by [Garrett Moore].
Patrick: There might be a few. Cool, I will try to find the right one and link to that in the show notes so we can figure that out afterwards.
Dani: If we're talking about resources for more general things, I feel like this is going to be– Just some sort of communication website with enthusiasts in a very specific area, like Escape Room Enthusiasts for us. They are a lovely niche group.
Bill: Facebook groups for Escape Room Enthusiasts has been such a resource, even if you don't partake in it, even if you just sit and watch it existing, to see people just talking about that sort of stuff and consistently throwing out those new ideas is a great way to break you out of whatever you're thinking.
Dani: Obviously board game designing people can be exactly like that, you can have your own community where you discuss these sorts of things. I always wonder if every individual game designer should also have the community based around their thing, like I don't know, maybe Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Maybe they specifically were into the haunted house community, and Photosynthesis were into the arboreal community. Being able to get that unique perspective from the small niche group and being able to hear what they have to say.
What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?
Patrick: Perfect. Then my next question after this is always, “What's the best money you've spent?” I know lots of game designers, they talk about cutting boards and stuff all the time. Do you have a thing that you spent money on that's been worth it?
Dani: Obviously, ours is a little bit different in terms of resources because I do just get to pen and paper everything. I don't have to go too much further. But for me, in terms of design, very simple. I'm not very good at it. But having an iPad–
Bill: That is true. I didn't think about that. So, originally–
Dani: Being able to draw things is lovely.
Bill: When I saw this question, my thought was, “Really? I don't think that we spent any money on anything that helps with game design. Our money has been– We've got podcasting equipment, and we've got all this stuff, but the game design is mostly just like you say, working with pen and paper.” But we do, once we got an iPad– Which we didn't buy for that necessarily.
Dani: It was a birthday present.
Bill: That's true. We didn't even spend money on that.
Dani: It was the best money that was spent.
Bill: The ability to just create more supplementary images to help make things– Adding a little bit of a visual component to the audio stuff that we were doing, which we're already trying to do. But it was hard on Paint. Having something like Procreate on an iPad helped a lot. We visualize.
Dani: It helps with clarity, and I'm always getting more and more notebooks. Doing things pen and paper– The more pen and paper you have, the better. But of course, most of our investment money has gone into things like our sound equipment.
What does success in the board game world look like to you?
Patrick: Sure, cool. So you guys already have your own season six of your podcast, it's already very successful, and I enjoy listening to it. I'm sure many others do as well, but what does success look like for you?
Bill: I think for us in terms of like what feels successful is when it extends outside of just us, so when we hear that there are people who are at conventions creating their own versions of our games and running them at conventions, that feels like “We've made it. People are doing it.”
Dani: You feel like a legit member of the community that people know about.
Bill: Just the idea that because what we've done is a new genre within the escape room.
Bill: Like, we've invented a new medium in which you can express these sorts of things. So just hearing it be normalized is successful for me. When people unrelated to us being like “Oh, Escape This Podcast style.” That's success, right? Because we're up there, but they're talking about some other thing. In fact, we had an interesting thing about play testing a while ago because we were talking– We were at a convention, and one of the people giving a talk became a friend of ours, and I think that was the first time we met them.
Dani: We'd talked to them
Bill: We'd had them on an episode, but it was the first time we met them in person.
Bill: But they were giving a talk on play testing for escape rooms, and they used Escape This Podcast as an example of the first– As one of the steps of play testing, “So then you do an Escape This Podcast style play test,” as just part of their multi-level multi-step approach to testing physical escape rooms. Just having that be a normalized part of the discussion of escape room design, like “Do it like this show,” was a cool moment.
Dani: I think especially because imposter syndrome is real, but compared to real escape rooms like real world physical escape rooms, people invest tens of thousands of dollars into those, and they are building something. They have to be business managers on top of everything else, but I 100% felt like I'm just sliding by and taking the easy and lazy route. But having people in the community not believe that's true is lovely. That makes me feel like we're part of it.
Bill: From this point on success will feel like–
Dani: Making enough money to live?
Bill: Bringing the earnings from this into a proper living wage. Because the podcast is free, the games are free. If we'd sold a game to every person who'd listened to the show, we'd have so much money, but that's not how it works for us. At this point, success is part of this year because we're doing this full time now of. Making it so that doing it full time is not a terrible idea. That'll be what would be success for us this year. It's food.
Patrick: What I think is interesting about that, just so you know, Bill and Dani, you guys make way more than the average– Just looking at your Patreon, you guys make way more than the average board game designer. The way it usually works in the board game design world, you get an advance for maybe– I'll just give a ballpark number here for $2,000 dollars to make your game, and then you get royalties which pay–
Patrick: Yes. It is an advance against future royalties, but many games never sell past that initial $2000. You might spend–
Dani: Of course.
Patrick: The vast majority of them don't, you have to have one of those– What are they called? Evergreen games. Then you get, then you can live on that income. Just to give you guys some perspective here, you guys probably make way more than the average board game designer already.
Bill: Then we're just successful, and we're what success looks like.
Dani: It's interesting, because obviously being in a more podcasting situation, it's easier to have community engagement than I feel with board games. Because, how many people get in contact with the board game designers for the games that they're playing? It's just a rarer thing to get on, and I feel like the more you can put a face on something, the easier it is to put money into something.
Bill: So Dani's advice is to change out your box art for a big picture of your face, and you'll do it. You'll make it.
Patrick: Fantastic. So let me move on to the Overrated/Underrated game. Have you two heard about this?
Dani: It's probably worth a double explanation.
Bill: Give us the run down.
Patrick: Great. I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you have to say if it's overrated or underrated and a one sentence reason why, and we'll do this separate so you guys can have separate answers, but I'll be like “Travel mugs for coffee,” and you guys might say “Overrated because I never use them.”
Bill: That's because none of them are good. They all spill, and they're terrible. People pretend that they're good, but they're not.
Dani: I feel like I have to defer, I don't drink hot drinks. I don't know.
Bill: They're bad. Any time you have a travel mug, it's because you're on something that's shaking, so when you try and drink it, it shakes so you get too much in your mouth, and it's too hot, and it's bad. It's a sad experience. Overrated. I like this game.
Patrick: Great. So, let's go with it. No, you're going to do fine at this game. So let's go with the first one, and we're going to start with you, Bill. I'm going to go with corn mazes, overrated or underrated?
Bill: Underrated. People don't use them for enough, people either think they are mazes or they are a source for– I don't know, to stick a scary person in that maze. But people need to use corn mazes to tell interesting stories. They are underrated because they have the capacity, and people don't do it enough. Underrated, corn mazes.
Patrick: OK. Dani?
Dani: Yes. Oh, same one? Absolutely underrated. Sorry, you said the word “Corn mazes,” and my face lit up. Just the fact that I have done two physical mazes in my life, and that is horribly upsetting. They're just fun. Again, you get a physical sense of accomplishment. You are moving through a thing, and people like that.
Patrick: Cool. How about this, Dani I'm going to go to you first. I'm going to go with a genre of movies here, how about horror movies. Overrated or underrated?
Dani: Underrated for the potential they have, horror movies is such a weird genre where it's acceptable to be bad, but oh my God, there's so much in there. Especially if you want to go even more underrated and underexplored, animated horror movies. That is a genre that I love, and that excites me. Look at Coraline, look at Monster House. Those are terrifying, and you have so much that you can do with animation because you don't have to worry about “Look at that. It looks so fake.”
Patrick: Cool. I was just Googling Coraline, which I have seen a trailer for, but I've not yet seen, so I need to catch up on my horror movies.
Patrick: But what about you, Bill?
Bill: They're just rated. They're exactly as rated as they are.
Bill: They're good.
Dani: You lose the game.
Patrick: OK. How about travel sized games? And by that, I mean a game that is shrunk down so that it is travel size. For example, travel size chess, which is magnetic and has a flip board. So, overrated or underrated? We'll start with you, Bill.
Bill: That's tough. I want to stay underrated because I think people view them as the worst version of those games because they're small. Like, “That's the bad version.” But generally, they have all the same mechanics, or if they are designed travel sized. Something like a card game with the princess and the– Love Letter.
Designed small, underrated. Because I think you can get a spectacular game experience out of two individual pieces of card, and people I think view them as the dumber– They view them like mobile games. Like, “That's not a real board game. It is a travel sized board game.” No, bad, underrated. They are great. You can take them wherever you want and play them on a long train trip.
Patrick: There we go. Dani?
Dani: So for those sorts, the ones that I've designed that way, yes. Underrated. They can be fantastic. But for the ones that are just like– The only one I've got in my head is travel Scrabble. Those are definitely overrated, because who are the people that play them? Those are parents who give them to their kids in the backseat of a car on a road trip, and half the pieces get lost, and it's a mess for everyone.
Patrick: I think I've had travel chess and travel checkers, but boy, travel Scrabble. That sounds very putzy? Last one, Dani. You get to lead off. Hot sauce, overrated or underrated?
Dani: Underrated. No one likes mouth pain.
Bill: I think you meant “Overrated.”
Dani: Overrated? Yeah.
Bill: You've ruined your fun moment. “Overrated. No one likes mouth pain.”
Patrick: What was yours, Bill?
Bill: Overrated. No one likes mouth pain.
Patrick: No? OK. All right.
Bill: Everyone's like, “I'm so cool. Look at how hot this sauce is.” “Get out of here.”
Dani: I like flavor, not hotness.
Bill: “Oi, but it hurts me. It hurts my mouth, though.”
Dani: It's fascinating because whenever I eat normal non-spicy food, boy do I crank up the heat on it. I will scald my mouth with actual heat, not spicy heat.
Patrick: Fantastic. Dani and Bill, thank you so much for being on the show.
Bill: Thanks so much for having us, it was very fun.
Dani: This was a great time.
Patrick: Where can people find you and your awesome escape rooms?
Bill: You can find us easily at EscapeThisPodcast.com, that's got all of the links and all of the episodes and all of that jazz. You can also find us on Twitter, and we're @EscThisPodcast. On Facebook as Escape This Podcast, on Instagram as @EscapeThisPodcast. Just Google Escape This Podcast, and you should find us, that's what success looks like to me. We'd love to have you come and hang out.
Bear in mind, and I think we mentioned a little bit, even if you don't care about the podcast and you don't want to listen to us talk ever again you can feel free to come in to the website. We have the entire escape rooms for free for anybody who wants to play them in the show notes of each episode, so you can download all of the notes that Dani uses, and you can run it for friends or family or have them run it for you. You can play all these escape rooms even if you're not interested in adding a new podcast to your listening schedule. We'd love if you wanted to do that as well.
Patrick: And you might as well, but you also have a Patreon. It's also on Patreon, and you can be found there.
Bill: Yes. We have a Patreon, Escape This Podcast, and there you can get a whole bunch of bonus episodes. If you're interested in play testing process, we released the audio of all of our play tests as bonus audio for $5 patrons.
Every fortnight they get a new play test audio episode released, so you can jump in there and have a listen to a few of those if you're interested in that aspect of our show. There's a whole bunch of other fun stuff, and badges and things like that. Just go to Patreon.com/EscapeThisPodcast and help us. Help make us successful.
Patrick: There we go. Listeners, if you liked his podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to this. If you leave a review, Bill and Dani said they'd be more than happy to write down the review and then lock it in an escape room. I don't know what that means, but I'm excited. I just want to give you guys an update on my game.
I'm planning on sharing the progress for all of my games on Patreon, and right now, I'm working on finding a publisher for my game Kintsugi. If you want to see how I'm trying to find and pitch publishers, I just literally this morning was working on an Excel file to track the status of all the different publishers I'm reaching out to.
If you're looking to find a publisher for your games, I hope it will be valuable. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I am @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.
Dani: Thanks again, see ya.