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 Fertessa Alyse, who designed theBook of Villainy. We're going to be talking about how she's working on the Book of Villainy, her awesome work in progress thread, and we're also going to chat about the Tabletop Network Event Conference, which is where we met. Fertessa, welcome to the show.
Fertessa Allyse: Hi. Thank you.
Patrick: I like to start my listeners off with a little game just to get to know you, so I'm going to ask you three quick questions. All right?
Patrick: Question 1, who is your favorite Disney villain of all time?
Fertessa: My favorite of all time is hands-down Scar.
Patrick: Scar, OK. Why Scar?
Fertessa: He is absolutely the best villain for a song. His songs stick out to me, and I love all of Scar's songs, so that's got to be it. And the character design, the black mane with the scar, I love it.
Patrick: Awesome. So, I don't remember that song. Wasn't it, “Be prepared?” His like, big song.
Fertessa: Yes. “Be Prepared” is his song. I say “His song,” but rather, the song from the sequel came from his son, so I just tie them in together. It's worth it, and the sequel is worth it to me. Most people won't say that.
Patrick: Cool, OK. Now follow up, if you could have your own evil animal familiar, what would it be? What animal would it be? Just as an example, I'm thinking of Ursula's eels or Jafar's parrot. Something like that.
Fertessa: It would be an evil sloth because nobody has an evil sloth.
Patrick: Sloth? I love that. Would it do anything, or would it just literally hang there?
Fertessa: It would hang there and just side-eye you from wherever it was hanging, so you just feel judged at all times. That's all it does.
Patrick: I like that a lot. What's a game you play with someone every single time at a convention?
Fertessa: I want to say– The funny thing is I would say it's a new game every time, but the game I would try to play at all times would be Splendor.
How did you get into board games and board game design?
Patrick: Great. I love that game. OK, so first real question is, how did you get into board games and board game design?
Fertessa: I always loved board games, but I didn't know about the hobby or games that weren't Monopoly and Risk until about 2-2.5 years ago. I had a small group of gamers that we all loved playing board games, but again they were the games you would see in Target. Every month we would get together and play, and one time one of my friends said that she was interested in designing a board game, and up until then, I didn't think that was a thing that you could just do, but it got me started.
It got me thinking about how I would make a board game if I did make one, and what it would be about. So that started my game design path, but at the same time, it also started my path down the hobby, because while I was researching how to create a game that led me to find that there were so many games, thousands of games that I never knew existed. That got me into the hobby. So, 2-2.5 years ago.
Tell me about Book of Villainy
Patrick: That's fantastic. Was Book of Villainy one of your first main ideas?
Fertessa: Yes, Book of Villainy is my very first idea.
Patrick: Just to give you some perspective, I don't think I talk to a lot of people who ever get their first game signed or published in any way. That's a pretty impressive feat.
Fertessa: That's awesome. It definitely changed in an extreme way from when I started to win, and I think what I ended up doing was how people to tell you to create a lot of small games and fail at them until you create your game that sticks. I did that all within the one game.
Patrick: Can you give me an example of that?
Fertessa: I said the only games I knew about were Monopoly and Risk and Catan, so my very first iteration of the board for Book of Villainy, it looked like a Monopoly board. All I knew was how to roll the dice and move, and I just changed what the board looked like, but essentially you're still using Monopoly mechanics because those were the only mechanics I knew.
As I started to play more games that evolved because after that one, I created a space-looking board, and I just drew circles everywhere because I didn't know what to do with that. Maybe I was thinking about Life. Life, the game, I mean. But I just had no idea how to move my pieces, so as I learned how to do different things, the board design continually changed. There used to be an element of my game where it was more improv, and people had to do some certain things like “Who could laugh the evilest the longest would be able to move forward and do X, Y, Z.”
There was so many different elements that moved and changed as I learned things, and for me, maybe it was a little bit easier to iterate like that because I looked at the elements of my game a bit like Legos. Even though I was breaking it entirely down, I was still using the same pieces to create some new structure, so I didn't feel as discouraged about doing that in making these entirely new games from scratch because they were still using the same Legos. But eventually, two years later, it came into the form that Book of Villainy is now.
You’ve been logging your progress on BGG since 2017. How helpful is that WIP thread?
Patrick: It obviously looks a lot different. One of things that I thought was cool is you started a work in progress thread on BGG, and a few guests (ex. Liberty Kifer) have done that. But yours is pretty detailed. There's nine pages of that thread, and it goes back over two years, so it's cool to see. I did see the Monopoly board, and then I think now you have a randomized grid, and you can move around to the different spaces from the upside-down, and stuff like that.
It's cool to– I love seeing a game evolve like that. Listeners, I will put a link to the work in progress thread in the show notes. I think it's cool to see a game evolve over two years. You get to learn a lot from you, and you shared– One of the things I loved is you shared “I went to this con for the very first time. I didn't know how this was going to go, but then I got–” Then you said “In playtest one, this happened. In playtest two, this happened. In playtest three, this happened.” It's super detailed. It's a great– I don't know if you know this, but it is a great resource for other people.
Fertessa: Thank you. I have a terrible memory myself, so I like to write as many details as I can at the time. So when I go back, I can put myself right back in that moment.
Patrick: Me too.
Fertessa: It's what I found that is helpful for me.
What is your note-taking process like?
Patrick: I always joke that my brain is– Like it's like a hard drive, but there is no storage. It's just processing power. If there's anything that anyone needs me to remember to do, it has to go to in my to-do list app or in Evernote or somewhere else, because it will never happen otherwise. I write down everything in Evernote, so it's cool that you did that with your work in progress thread.
Let me ask you a super quick follow up there, I want to ask you about the work in progress thread, but just while we're talking about if you're not remembering things, do you take notes? You go to these conventions, and you do some playtests, you get feedback. Are you taking notes? Or do you, at the end of the weekend, go back and pull it all back from memory?
Fertessa: For sure. I have notebooks full of notes from the time I've started. There's just notebooks all around because I could have 2-3 pages of notes from one playtest.
Fertessa: Yeah, I don't filter what people say, because something that may seem important to me then I might miss a smaller detail that's a clue to a bigger problem, so it also helps me if I want to go back and see if other people express the same thing. I can see that I listed it, but the part where I like to iterate a lot and to break down my design, a lot of that would come from playtesters.
Because as I figured out where I wanted to go with my design, I would see what they were saying. Sometimes if it disagreed with what I thought my game was trying to be at that moment, it's harder to hear it. But if I write it down and have a couple of hours to get back into my comfortable space, and then I go and read it and consider it, that's helped me make some huge leaps in my development. Because then I'll be like, “Actually, this scenario might work. This might be what my game needs to do.”
Patrick: So, am I hearing when you're doing a playtest, you're basically writing down everything? If a player does a thing, you write that down. If they say a thing, you write that down. You almost don't consider it, and then that evening or the next day, then you finally sit down and think about things. So, you almost–?
Because I think a lot of game designers, they do that all at the same time. They write stuff down, they consider it, and then they choose what to write down or what not to write down and all that stuff. But it sounds like you are like, “I need every single piece of data,” and then you process the data later.
Fertessa: Yeah, that's exactly what I do with just everyday life in general, but for playtesting notes, I find that if I respond in the moment more than past a “Thank you” and “I see what you're saying,” it could come off defensive. It might even be defensive because I'm not taking the time. I'm using the time to think of a way to defend it, rather than to use that time to listen. By writing it down and just letting it be what it is, then later, I can analyze it and disagree with it or agree with it at my leisure.
Fertessa: Because ultimately, they've already used their own time. There's no need for me to—
What do you think it was that finally made your game stand out so a publisher would sign it?
Patrick: So, you pitched your game to a bunch of different publishers. One of the things I also liked, this is in the same BGG thread. You're like, “I went to this, I saw a publisher at this con, and I pitched them.” Now, just in case I don't remember if I said this earlier, but the Book of Villainy is signed and should be coming out in 2021, I believe.
But what–? Because there were several publishers you approached before that, but it obviously didn't work out for one reason or another. What do you think finally made it stand out from the crowd? What do you think finally made it work with this publisher? Or was it just happenstance, and it just worked out?
Fertessa: I think it was where I chose to show my game. I never showed my game in person until a certain point of its development, I did the contests, and I did the pitching online or with a sell sheet. But it wasn't until, I think it was maybe 8 months ago, 6 months ago, that I went forward to a pitching event. A speed dating event, publisher speed dating event. Before that, I had only pitched to one person, one publisher in person. I think it wasn't their type of game.
Honestly, I think that you have to be at the event where publishers are actively seeking games to sign, and for me, the publisher speed dating event had been an excellent way to introduce myself to publishers. Because I was new to the hobby, I didn't have industry contacts, and I was still making my face known. While that's not going to hurt you when you're trying to playtest when it comes to pitching to publishers, it's a lot easier for them to sit down for a game with you if they know who you are, or they've been introduced to you.
Patrick: I think I even saw, in that work in progress thread, I think you even tried pitching by Skype a couple times. So, would you recommend that online stuff? Or now that you've had success with this are you all in on speed dating and in-person pitches like that for future games?
Fertessa: For sure. I think I half-answered your question because I'm now remembering the full thing. But with the Skype interview, I only had one Skype interview. That one, while it went well, I don't think that I was able to show off the full game because the publisher was not there to pick up the components and see for themselves how the game ran. It heavily depended on my ability to show the unique factor of my game, which I was still very much new to.
In person, for me, I would advocate that. I think that depends on the designer and how they're able to market their game. For me, it's better if people can see the game, because even if I'm fumbling through the words or even if I don't highlight the thing that would make the publisher know what makes it special if they pick up the components and see it for themselves, then they can ask further. Ideally, you would be able to say that, but it's just knowing your own personality. I'm introverted, so it's better if it's in person for me.
Patrick: Cool. That's helpful. I've had some pretty good experiences with speed dating, but none of the games have been signed. I've had several games that have been taken home, but then eventually returned. I've gotten so close to the finish line with speed dating, but it's never quite worked for me.
It's nice to hear that worked well for you. I want to chat about Tabletop Network because you and I met there. I think it was the last session of the day and we just sat next to each other during the– And that was fun. That was, what was that called? It wasn't speed dating, and it was like publisher pitching?
Fertessa: Shark Tank.
What are your thoughts on Tabletop Network?
Patrick: That was it, the Shark Tank. That was fun, by the way. It was really good to get, and I almost want to say harsh feedback. Maybe not harsh, but unfiltered feedback. They're not worried about your feelings, and they're literally giving you their thoughts on your game, which was great. But one thing that I thought was cool is I've been to a lot of events, and I love going to events in person, I like the energy.
This was my second time at Tabletop Network, I've been to a bunch of game cons, but I think you went as part of the New Voices scholarship. I had already posted my own thoughts on Tabletop Network in episode 103, which I will– That's episode 103, you can find on the podcast feed listeners. It's only a couple episodes before this, so you can scroll and find it. But what did you–? As a new person to the industry, what did you think of the Tabletop Network? What was that event like for you?
Fertessa: I was completely unaware of what Tabletop Network was until I saw the posting about the scholarship, and arriving there, I was impressed to find that it was a two day intensive class of college classes based around board game design, is what that felt like for me. I liked that you only had a certain range of classes you could go to and that they were group classes that everybody went to, but then it split off between A and B, so you could you had choices between what you wanted to sit in on.
Because it was a bit like seminars, and I thought that they were very interesting perspectives. It was really interesting to see how each designer or publisher, or just industry professional tackled certain things. Though, for me, the biggest impact was talking to these industry professionals. I can learn so much by sitting there and listening to somebody talk for an hour. But for me, I'm more of a kinetic learner. Getting in and doing something like the Game Jam or the Shark Tank, that leaves a super strong impression on me. It was afterwards—
After hours, I should say, when I got to talk with the designers and really play a game with them and then see what they were talking about put into practice. That's what made things hit home. Probably one of the greatest things was meeting Peter, and he designed Close Encounters, a game from the 70s. But he is a man in his 70s, and he came on his birthday, and he was so happy, just so happy about game design. Even at 70 years old, and I was just like, “I want to be that person.” That love for game design, I think that came to me.
Patrick: Are you thinking of–? Just to be clear, for the listers, Cosmic Encounter. Right?
Fertessa: Yes. Did I say Close Encounters?
Fertessa: Cosmic Encounter.
How did you decide that Tabletop Network was right for your game?
Patrick: Cosmic Encounter, that was such a cool story. Again, in his case, it felt like 5 years or 10 years. It seemed like he was trying to sell that game to a publisher forever, and it's funny that now it's one of those games that gets people into the hobby. It's cool that even the games that get people into the hobby were barely sold, you know what I mean? Or were hard to sell. So, I want to go back to Tabletop Network. I loved hearing what your thoughts are on how you like kinetic stuff and the feedback and the after-hours, I just try to give people good resources on this show.
Who do you think is right for this event? Specifically, if you haven't signed a game yet or you haven't Kickstarted your own, let's say you're just working on your first game that you think could be good. Is that the right time, or do you want to wait a little bit later? Do you want to go a little bit before? Is there something you should do before going to Tabletop Network? Like, how do you decide if this is the right event for you?
Fertessa: I think for me, it was good to push my game as far as I possibly could. Once I got to the point where it was past good, but I just honestly didn't know what I could do to make it better, that's when I think it's time to push it to another person. The first level would be maybe online, with BGG or other forums that will give you feedback.
If you feel like you've gotten as much as you can from there, try game designers, local game clubs, or gaming conventions if you still feel like your game is solid. Then I would push it to publishers, because to me, after the game has been polished as much as it can with those resources, the publisher's job would be to push it to its furthest point. I would only seek one when I was ready for it to go there.
Patrick: That's great. I think I just try to point people to the right places, but it sounds like you had a great time, so you'd probably recommend it to most people, assuming they think they're on the right track.
Fertessa: Yeah, I definitely recommend going to a publisher. But as far as an actual gauge, I think that's your personal level of satisfaction with it.
What games inspire you?
Patrick: Cool. Let me change gears a little bit here, what games out there inspire you and want to make you do other cool, awesome things?
Fertessa: I would say that Splendor has recently been on my mind, just because of the simplicity. It's one of those games that I didn't like it the first time that I played it, but I ended up playing it more and more until it became my favorite game. So, that's been on my mind. Trying to unlock the magic that is Splendor, because it is a very simple game, but it's also easy to catch on to.
Another game, Villainous, is a very beautiful game. It's elegantly designed, and I had gone a while without playing it, but probably 6 months ago, I was able to learn it, and I was blown away by how elegant that game was. I would say the components of that game, and just how much you were able to do with so little was inspiring to me design-wise.
Have you tried designing games around existing mechanisms that you like?
Patrick: Let me ask you a follow-up question here, I love Splendor. I was playing with my girlfriend at the time, and I don't know how this works, but I think we maybe played it only 10 games, but somehow always beat her by one turn. She would have won the next turn, but I won the turn before her. Then we never played the game again, because I just kept beating her by one turn and she got angry.
I do love the game, and there's another game– Dang it. Century Spice Road, which I just– It's so elegant, and I love them. I want to do something with Century Spice Road, but I can't. Have you ever tried to design a game based on something you love, but you just can't make it different enough? Every game that I try to make that's like Century Spice Road is basically Century Spice Road with a different theme. And I'm like, “There's got to be something different about it.” Have you gone down that road with Splendor? Have you tried designing things around that, or similar mechanisms?
Fertessa: I haven't with Splendor, I have with Spades, and I'm starting one that's using Othello as a base. Othello is the one that I am not successfully making into a prototype, and Spades is the one that I did successfully make into a prototype.
Patrick: So, give me the super quick– Just like, when you're inspired by another game, how do you–? Do you just add a mechanism to it, you add a layer to it? Or what do you do to make it your own?
Fertessa: When I'm inspired by a game, I usually break it down as to what I like about it, and what's the part that makes me want to utilize it anyway. Then I see if there's a way to take that part away from the game and make it a standalone, or by analyzing figure out what that part by itself is doing. That has allowed me to make things my own prototype-wise, at least with Spades.
As far as with Othello, however, I find that the way that Othello plays– Because for those who don't know, in Othello, you have black stones. They're black on one side, white on the other, and you're trying to dominate the field with whatever color you're playing. It's basically using a flipping mechanic to move throughout the board so that flipping a mechanic is what I enjoy. However, it's so crucial to Othello that there's the problem. So– I'm sorry, I slightly forgot the question.
What is your process for taking a game you are inspired by and doing something cool with it?
Patrick: It's just like, how do you–? So, you're inspired by any of these games. Splendor, Century Spice Road, Othello, whatever. How do you take a game you're inspired by and do something cool with it? Is the best way to add a mechanism, is it to re-theme it? Is it to take a mechanism away? I'm just curious about your process.
Fertessa: OK. Yes, so definitely adding a theme is excellent. But again, separating what the game is doing from the game has helped me, so you're not just looking at the game as a blanket statement. Then adding things as a combo that works so that you're not adding things to the base game, but you're taking parts from the base game and attaching it to something else.
Then every time that you do that, just look back at the base game and see how much they're different, or if they're still the same, then what needs to change to make yours stand alone? Like, why would you pick your game over the original that you do like?
What’s your favorite under-appreciated game?
Patrick: Are there any underappreciated games out there? Games that you just love, that maybe other game designers or even just the gaming community don't understand and don't get?
Fertessa: I wouldn't say it's underappreciated, but definitely it's very much hated, and that's going to be Monopoly. I still love Monopoly. Everyone will say, “That's not a game,” or “That's not a great game, it's just rolling the dice.” But honestly, I think every game has its purpose. As a social game and as a game that's permeated the mass markets, I think it has a very strong place.
Both as a nostalgic piece of people's childhoods, but also just as a very nice way for everyone to socialize. Because there are games that casual to non-gamers can play, but they won't do it because it's not familiar. Monopoly is one of those games that you can pull out, or you can expect a good majority of households to have.
What one resource would you recommend to another indie game designer or an aspiring game designer?
Patrick: Yeah, it is that. It's a cultural touchstone. Everyone knows how to play it, and everyone has played it. If you say or someone says, “Do you want to play Monopoly?” You know exactly what they mean. As opposed to “Do you want to play Splendor?” And the average person who isn't a board game enthusiast doesn't get it.
So, let me transition to my ending questions here. We talked about conferences, but besides conferences, is there a resource, something free or cheap that someone should– That you'd recommend to another indie game designer? It could be a book, a podcast excluding this one, a movie, whatever. Is there something that is a good resource for them?
Fertessa: I would say game-icons.net was very helpful, because some issues that I see new designers have is they want their prototype to have art, and it's recommended unless you yourself are good at creating art that you put a lot of time or money towards art for your game before it's reached its final stages. But with game-icons.net, you have all of these icons for free that you can just put in your games, and they're just put out there, and they're often updated.
You have all these icons that are similar, so if you want to use them for cards or for a board, you don't have one piece that looks like it's drawn from an entirely different artist. They're all going to look similar, and it helps the user interface, and it helps your playtesters. If that's something that's important to you.
What was the best money you ever spent as a game designer?
Patrick: They have a ton of– They are constantly putting out new items. They just put out a whole bunch of new icons in I think early December, so it's nice just to see that. I'm looking at it right now, and it looks like they put out about 20 new ones. Now there's a snake, and now there is a water gun, who knows why you need that?
There's a jumping rope like there is so many insane icons. It's fantastic. Cool, what about–? I'm a frugal person, so if there's anything that's worth spending money on in the board game world, what is that one thing that's just definitely worth spending money on?
Fertessa: I would definitely say a corner cutter, for me. A corner cutter, you can get an excellent one for like $10 bucks off of Amazon. But for me, that made me so happy because I have only printed maybe two fancy-looking prototypes. I always went to the local paper shop and printed off my prototypes and then hand-cut them out, and they looked fine because if you print it off on cardstock, then you've got a pretty good quality prototype.
However, those rounded corners just– They threw me off, but I found out. Carla Kopp told me that corner cutters exist and you could just buy them, and I bought one. It was life-changing. You just click on all your corners, and it just makes everything look smooth and polished, and it just makes me super happy. I'm also a geek, but I think it could also make other designers happy.
Patrick: Yeah, Carla Kopp was on in episode 35, I think it is. So go listen to our chat there. Cool, I like hearing that. Let me ask you a quick follow up there, is this something that you do only for publishers? Or even for your own prototypes at home, is it just nice to have that rounded corner?
Fertessa: That's for my prototypes. I just really like the rounded corners, I started just rounding the corners from other things that didn't need to.
Patrick: Like what?
Fertessa: It was just the player boards, and then little note sheets that we're going to be throwing away. I just really enjoy the rounded corners.
What does success in the board game world look like to you?
Patrick: That's great. You're getting your money's worth. What does success look like in the board game world? What do you want to have happen?
Fertessa: For me, I would be happy if I could just 15-20 years from now still have a game that people are playing. Even 30-40 years from now, I would love to have a game that outlives me.
Patrick: A game that outlives you, that is an audacious and fantastic goal.
Fertessa: Hopefully, I can reach it. But that would be success for me in game design.
Patrick: Love it. So, I like to end with a game called Overrated/Underrated. I'm basically going to give you a word or phrase, and you just have to tell me if you think it's overrated or underrated. If I said “Snow,” you're going to say, “Underrated because you can go snowboarding.” Something like that. Cool?
Patrick: OK, blind, playtesting. Is blind playtesting overrated or underrated?
Patrick: Underrated? Give me a one-sentence reason why.
Fertessa: I think that people don't put stock in other people being able to play their game without them being there, and it's super important.
Patrick: How about the Toy Story series? So not one particular movie, but just the whole series of Toy Story movies. Overrated or underrated?
Fertessa: I would say underrated.
Patrick: Lovely. Did you see the most recent one?
Fertessa: I did. I think that I would have been OK without the very last one, but it was still sweet. However, I think that in the general public, I don't hear people talking about Toy Story to the point where I'm sick of it.
Patrick: Yeah, I hear you. Game design contests, overrated or underrated?
Fertessa: Underrated. I think that there's still so many people not utilizing game design contests as a resource, and I think that they very much are a resource more than just a contest.
Patrick: Fantastic. And the last one, New Year's resolutions. Overrated or underrated?
Fertessa: Because if you want to do something, then you don't have to wait until the new year to do it.
Patrick: I like that, good answer. Fertessa, thank you so much for being on the show.
Fertessa: Thank you for having me.
Patrick: Where can people find you and your games online?
Fertessa: You can find me @Fertessa on Twitter, you can also find me on Facebook as Fertessa Allyse, that's my first name and then “Allyse,” but Fertessa will pull it up. You can also find me on Instagram at the Book of Villainy, or I started a new one @Fertessa. So, any of those. Find and follow.
Patrick: Where can people find your game when it comes out?
Fertessa: It will come out on Kickstarter, and I'm unsure of the details with that. I just know beyond on 2021, but I will be posting it online and on the BGG work in progress thread for the Book of Villainy.
Patrick: Perfect. Awesome. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to this. If you leave a review, Fertessa will give you a supervillain name, which sounds great. For some of my own updates, Mintsugi is a finalist in the mint tin competition. I'm super excited about that, that means people have to play the game and give me actual game mechanics feedback.
I might sign or self-publish down the line, so I have an email list for the game, and I'll have a link for that in the show notes where you can sign up if you want to take a look at what I'm doing. Protospiel Denver is going to be in March of 2020, I'll be attending, and as I've said before in several of these closing statements, I would love to play your game. If you're anywhere nearby Denver, please stop by.
Hit me up on Twitter or wherever, or through the contact form on the website. I'd love to schedule time to play your game to make sure I get them all. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I'm @BFTrick on platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.