Harrison Brooks

#159 – Harrison Brooks

Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. And welcome to the Indie Board Game Designer 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 Rollins, and today I'm going to be talking with Harrison Brook who designed ElevatorUp. So Harrison, welcome to the show.

Harrison Brooks: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

Introduction

Patrick: Great. So I have a lightning round of questions, just to sort of introduce you to the audience, so they know who you are. Got it?

Harrison: Yes.

Patrick: All right. Are you a dog person or a cat person?

Harrison: I am just a general pet person. I love both dogs and cats.

Patrick: Ooh. All right. All pets. Got it. Then I'll change this a little bit. In addition to dogs and cats, what's the extra pet that you would like to throw in there as one of your favorites?

Harrison: I've always wanted a bunny. I've never had one, but I think I would really like to have a bunny.

Patrick: Sweet. Besides cards, what is your favorite game design component?

Harrison: I think I'd have to say, it's a little obscure, but I really enjoy parts that spin, sort of like the wheel in the game of Life.

Patrick: Yeah. I was just thinking that. Great. And then, what is a game you play with someone every single time at a con? You know, you're tired, it's the end of the day, but someone says one more game of this and you just, you have to say yes.

Harrison: I've never actually been able to go to a con yet, but I think it would probably either be Codenames or Ticket to Ride. I've liked those games a lot recently.

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

Patrick: Fantastic. So, Harrison, how did you get into board games and board game design?

Harrison: My whole life, I've been playing with games and toys. My mom, when I was very young, she actually worked at a toy store. And that, growing up after school going there, it was just so much fun. And she was also a teacher and being able to learn through playing games and toys was a big part of my early childhood. And ever since then, I've just loved games.

And then along with that love of play, comes with a love of creating and inventing. And so then being able to combine both games and inventing felt like it just happened naturally. And I think that's where it started.

You are 17 years old. In addition to the regular challenges of game design, were there any extra hurdles or any extra benefits associated with your age?

Patrick: Fantastic. I love hearing that. So the reason I really wanted to have you on my show, and you reached out, which I always appreciate by the way, is that you are 17 years old. And you have made and launched your own game called ElevatorUp, which I'm sure we'll talk about a little bit later. But before we talk about the game, I was curious about… So just for reference, I'm in my early thirties and your 17, so you have about half as much time on this planet as I've had. And I imagine there's extra challenges in game design, and maybe also some extra benefits, being 17. So, what are those extra challenges and benefits?

Harrison: Yes, there certainly are a bunch of extra challenges and benefits. I think primarily the challenges are just inexperience and also sometimes not being taken fully seriously. A lot of the times when I'm pitching to stores or talking about the game, I imagine I'm not getting the same attention or looked at in the same way that adult designers or professional designers do.

But then it also comes with, I think, a good set of benefits. I think it makes my game, it adds a little, a more interesting element and helps it stand out from some other games. And then it also, I think does open some ears because it's a different story. And I think that has allowed me to share it and talk about it. And a lot of places sort of like this.

Patrick: Yeah. Cool. Okay. So maybe people don't always take you as seriously. Does that mean, does this apply to when you're trying to sell your game to a publisher, or does it also apply when you're trying to hire an illustrator for your game?

Harrison: I haven't yet tried to sell it to a publisher. But when I go to a store and I just, I try to, I talk to them and try to see if they want to carry it. I get the feeling that they think it's more of a hobby or just a little thing that I've done. And less of something that I've spent a ton of time and a lot of energy and put a lot of care into. And I'm very dedicated to it. And I think, I did the illustrations myself, but-

Patrick: Nice.

Harrison: I think it also makes it sort of awkward to work with people, especially if I'm asking someone else to do something for me, when they're much older than I am.

Patrick: Hmm. Sure. So I guess one of the things there is, so if I hire someone to do a job, let's say, I want someone to review my rule book. You'll edit my rules before I publish them. You are ultimately the boss, and age is a weird thing where it doesn't… If you're 17 and the rules editor is 34, there might be some weird, just weird hierarchy issues there.

Harrison: Yes, exactly.

Patrick: Got it. Okay. So I want to talk about one other thing, but before I get to the other thing, I actually want to talk to you about ElevatorUp. It's a cute little game and one of the things about it that I like, and I'm curious if it's working for you, is your marketing here.

So the first line of BGG is, ElevatorUp is the brand new kid created, kid designed, kid marketed and kid shipped; yes, they're all me, card game. And I'm curious if that, does that marketing work for people? Right? Do you think people find you and buy your game just because it is all kid created?

Harrison: I don't think that that's necessarily the only reason. But I think it certainly helps. As a kid, I feel like I know other kids. And so I think that gives parents who are buying ElevatorUp to play for their family, a sense of confidence in the game.

And it also, I think it appeals to, the same way that it's… People might be drawn… This is one of the benefits of being young, that people might be drawn to support a kid and just go out on a limb to just give it a try, more than another random card game.

Patrick: Sure. That makes sense. Where did ElevatorUp come from?

Harrison: I actually created the rules of the game, before I paired it with the theme of elevators, when I was around 12. The game was different then, a lot simpler and it wasn't as smooth. But over the years, I'd change the rules and tweak it as I played with friends and family. And it then evolved into a game I really loved. And I felt it needed a theme and elevators worked well with it. And I'm a city kid, so that felt close to home. And then I started working on the designs, and it slowly turned into a real game. And it's been a great process creating it. And I definitely want to continue creating games and continue working on ElevatorUp.

Why is screen-free time important?

Patrick: Awesome. Love it. So the other thing that we talked about in, via email before this, was about testing games online and screen-free time. And so I guess I'd love to hear input from those. And I think if I can summarize the intent or what I read earlier, it's that testing online has some challenges. Is that a fair way to put it?

Harrison: Yes. Certainly. I think, when I was creating ElevatorUp and preparing for my launch, I was planning on launching right around when the pandemic first hit. And my biggest, my core plan was going to mom-and-pop bookstores, game stores, toy stores, and hoping out of their good will, they'd let me set up a table and do some live demos. But with stores being closed, or doing curbside pickup only, that wasn't possible or necessarily safe.

And so I had to take a step back and reconsider how I was going to launch, and how I was going to carry it out. And so I had to turn to online. So I put it up on Amazon, and I am in a very few retail stores. So I sell it mainly just through Amazon.

But I am conflicted because a big part of my goal, and how I feel about ElevatorUp, is it being a screen-free option and a source of screen-free fun. Especially with the pandemic forcing us all to spend so much time behind a screen doing school, or work, or whatever it is through a screen.

And then you're on your phone after, and you just watched TV and it's a cycle of just screen after screen. And I think physical play, of having that tangible sensation, is very important. And it also allows for a lot of interpersonal connection. Playing a game with someone else, you get a connection. You laugh together, you're competitive, you're having fun. And I think that's very important.

Patrick: Yeah, of course. Boy, I don't know if I have any follow-ups there. I agree with everything. Screen free time is amazing. And games are one of the things that let us do that. Boy. It's so hard, though, to test right now.

Patrick: So, some news on my podcast that will be coming out shortly, is I did sign a game to a publisher, which I'm very excited about. And I'll be talking about it in an upcoming episode. But right now, we're testing via tabletop simulator. And even though I hate testing that way, it's sort of the only way to test. And I look forward to when we can get back to testing in person.

Harrison: Oh, well, congratulations on your new game. And yes, I'm glad I did, I was able to test it before the pandemic hit. And I haven't started testing any new games since.

Patrick: Yeah. Did the pandemic slow down your plan- Did it make you even question your plan? Right? Did you go, “Hmm, should I even release it now?” Or did you just sort of push through?

Harrison: I did question it, certainly. My initial plan was to launch January 2020, and I had a printer lined up in China and that's when they didn't have as much information on how it spread. And I was worried that it could spread over surfaces. And I didn't want to be responsible. And my backup printer was in Italy, where it was also-

Patrick: Terrible.

Harrison: That. And so I waited it out until we learned more about the pandemic. And then, I was questioning about whether to launch or not. I definitely completely lost interest at times, and wasn't motivated. And then other times, I was even more motivated than before.

And once I pushed through and just committed and did the first print run, that re-energized me. And getting to see boxes of my game, after just getting one or two prototypes, was really exciting and definitely motivated me to then push through and make it work in the pandemic.

Why did you decide to sell on Amazon instead of through your own website? Do you know where your Amazon customers come from?

Patrick: Hmm. Love it. Let me change and talk a little bit about people ordering your game. So I love that you said you decided to sell on Amazon. Was there any thought in terms of, “Boy, do I want to sell on Amazon, or do I want to run my own e-commerce website?” Did you spend time thinking about that?

Harrison: Yes, I did. I definitely made a big pros and cons list, compared the costs and the benefits, and I ended up settling on Amazon. So many people use Amazon and they offer lots of… I can advertise through it. And I have… It seemed like it would be an easier place to launch this sort of thing than setting up my own website and having to compete with search engines and figure out all of that stuff.

Patrick: Sure. I get that. Do you know where your Amazon customers come from? If you get an order, do you go, “Oh, it's because I showed my game to this person and they probably went on Amazon the next day and ordered it.” Or are they just total random people ordering your game, and you have no idea where they come from.

Harrison: It's mainly total random people at this point. I still remember when I first launched, calling people up and asking them individually to see if they were interested in ordering my game. And then now, it's mainly a lot of random people. After if an article was written or if it was reviewed recently, and then there's a small spike, I know that that's where the spike came from. But other than that, just random orders on a day-to-day basis. I don't usually know. I hope it's spreading word of mouth. And, yeah.

Patrick: That's awesome. So, how long does it take you to make a game? Did you say you started ElevatorUp, or the core concept, when you were 12? So is that five years?

Harrison: Yes. It wasn't five years of true working on it. It was five years of a little bit here, a little bit there, big periods of lost interest, just because it wasn't a priority back then.

But I have created other games similar to how I originally created ElevatorUp on just pieces of printer paper. I've created some board games just to play at home and other things like that. Most of those, I decided not to pursue because I… ElevatorUp was my best concept so far.

But I definitely love creating games. I drift off in the middle of class, and just start thinking about new game ideas and themes and names. Sometimes I come up with a name, and I fall in love with a name before I have any idea for rules or how it'll even work. And then sometimes, it's the other way around. But I just like to think about it and to play around with the different ideas in my head.

Do you have a white whale of game design?

Patrick: Yeah. Do you have a white whale of game design, an idea, a mechanical concept or a theme that you're trying to figure out how to get into a game, you just haven't cracked it yet?

Harrison: There are definitely a few, or plenty. I think it would be figuring out… I haven't cracked getting the designs necessarily right for the age range.

Patrick: Hmm.

Harrison: I think ElevatorUp, I am planning on doing a redesign in my next print run because I think the designs, to me at least, I feel that they're a little juvenile and I'd like them to be a little bit more mature. And I don't have a great sense… I struggle with coming up with age ranges, knowing when, what the cutoff is, and where it's better to cut them off. I think that would be it.

What games inspire you?

Patrick: Hmm. Got it. Are there games out there that inspire you, games that you want to emulate, or take inspiration from and make something new?

Harrison: Yes, certainly, a lot of games. I think the ones that I really am inspired by are the true classics. The ones, some of them played with a 52 card deck that have been played for tons and tons of years. I think Gin Rummy was invented over a hundred years ago, and people still play it and love it. And games like that, I think, that they're so timeless and can be fun, no matter how much the world can change. Definitely piques my interest and wants me to see what more can be done with them, and how games like those can be combined and even innovated.

Patrick: Yeah. Love it. There's a lot of just great classic games and I would love to, I guess I want to use the word modernize them. I don't know if that's the right word. But there's a lot of good mechanical base to begin with. I totally thinks that people can do some more, more, more cool stuff with traditional games.

Harrison: Yeah. That's a good question. I think the game Blokus. I love the game Blokus, but I think that there could be a lot more done with it. I think, maybe if it were combined with a Scrabble style games, adding some word components. Or even like a trivia element. Or adding some extra element to it, so it requires the same spatial awareness and also an extra… It challenges an extra part of the brain.

Does game design energize or exhaust you?

Patrick: Yeah. Huh. Well, love all this. So in general, does game design energize or exhaust you?

Harrison: Certainly energize. As I was saying earlier, drifting off into class into designing games. I very much prefer just thinking about different games and things like that than just taking notes. And, once the gears start moving and I start thinking about games, I just take notes frantically, trying to capture my ideas.

And I like that, I feel that I get many ideas quickly. And then I can then come back with fresh eyes onto them and sort of sort through them and realize, no that's not a great idea, or that's been done before, or try to flesh out other ideas and just sort through them and see what really sticks.

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

Patrick: Yeah. Love it. I love all this. Love hearing your thoughts here. So let me move into some of the ending questions here. What is a resource that you'd recommend to another Indie game designer?

Harrison: Hmm. I think a resource that I have found to be super helpful is the Chicago Toy and Game Group, which was recently rebranded to People of Play. Mary Couzin, the founder, reached out to me after reading an article about ElevatorUp after it launched.

And then, after that, I started working with them. And it has been so helpful to get to know the industry, and to learn about how things are typically done. Because when I launched ElevatorUp, I knew nothing about the toy and game industry besides what the average consumer knows.

And so it's been really nice to learn about all of the different people and departments required in creating each toy and game. And getting advice from a bunch of people. And reading the stories of other inventors has been very inspiring.

Patrick: And let me just pause you for a second. So I found a website it's ChiTAG.com, which I think it was Chicago Toy and Games, and is now People of Play or POP. Does that sound like the right… Is that… Did I find the right place?

Harrison: Yes, that's exactly it.

Patrick: Okay, great. I will… I'm adding that to the show notes now. Cool. Yeah. I didn't want to point people in the wrong direction. But that's a great resource. And actually I did have a snarky version of this question, which is, is there a resource that old, compared to yourself, old fogies like me are missing and are not paying enough attention to, besides this group?

Harrison: Not that I can think of. I think…

Patrick: So, the old fogies are on the ball? We've got it.

Harrison: Yes, I think so. I think, if anything, going further back is what I'm intrigued of doing, of looking at marketing strategies from, that are now considered out-of-date and trying to bring them back. Because I think everyone is using the same strategies and I think going back to previous strategies is something I'm interested in.

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

Patrick: There's something there. So one other question here. What's the best money you've spent as a game designer?

Harrison: I think it would be Amazon ads. I found them not to be super expensive, and I think they've been very successful. I think that's where a lot of my… I know from the data that that's where a lot of my random person orders come from. And it's definitely been very nice because they're affordable, because you can just set however much you're interested in spending, and then they take care of themselves, once you set it up.

Patrick: Great. So we don't normally talk about ad strategy, but actually I'd love to take a little detour there, for people who haven't really done this before. So with Amazon, it's like a keyword search, right? So it's, if someone searches for this keyword and this keyword and this keyword, then show them my ad. Is it that type of thing?

Harrison: Yes, that's exactly it. It's… You pay per click. So, you set your keywords, or you can target specific products and then if someone clicks on your ad, then you have to pay. And you set your own bids. So I set the prices I want to pay per keyword, that I'm willing to pay. And then if someone outbids me, then their ad is shown over mine. And then if I outbid someone else, then my ad is shown over theirs.

Patrick: Sure. And, can you give us… Are you, for ElevatorUp, are you typing… Are the keywords like elevator or are they like card game?

Harrison: It's more card game. I've found that when someone's searching for elevator on Amazon, there are not a lot of elevator products. So I come up pretty easily, but in trying to break through in terms of card games, family games, and that area, that's more where I'm targeting.

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

Patrick: Awesome. Love to hear it. So another, this is one of my favorite question here is, Harrison, what does success in the board game world look like to you?

Harrison: I think it's spreading smiles, memories and fun. That's what games are to me. It's a source of play and fun and laughter and community. And I think being able to provide that to someone else, no matter how much money you make, or how many units you sell. I think being able to allow someone else to make a memory with their family or with their friends and laugh sitting around the table, is at least what toys and games are about for me. And I think that is, at least what I feel, would be success. If ElevatorUp can do that, then I think my goal is reached.

Overrated/Underrated

Patrick: Love it. Perfect. So I like to end with a game called Overrated, Underrated. So for new listeners here, I would say something like Starbucks coffee. And then you might say that is overrated because, and give me a one sentence reason why. Does that sound cool, Harrison?

Harrison: Yes. That sounds like a lot of fun.

Patrick: All right. First one here. Are Legos overrated or underrated?

Harrison: Oh, I am a big-time Lego lover, but I think I'm going to say that it's both. The instructions are overrated, but the bricks, of just going free and wild with just playing with the bricks, that's underrated.

Patrick: Wow. That's a nuanced answer. I love it. How about this? Elevator operator as a job? Is that overrated or underrated?

Harrison: I'm going to go with underrated. I think it's an underrated job that I think a lot of people overlook. But it is important to allow people to get where they need to go.

Patrick: You know, someday, in the robot apocalypse, when you know, AI take over all the world and humans have to do dumb jobs, I would be okay being an elevator operator. I would be okay with that as a… when we're all controlled by robot overlords, it seems nice. Right? You can just greet people in the elevator and say hi for them for two minutes. It'll be great.

Harrison: Yes, I think so, too.

Patrick: Great. So, here's a tricky one. The game Pandemic, now that we've actually had a real life pandemic, has that changed your… Is it more overrated now or more underrated now, if that makes sense?

Harrison: Hmm. That's a good question. I think I'm going to say it's fairly rated. That people's opinions are fair. Maybe it's a little underrated because it's so topical.

Patrick: Got it. Love it. That's a tough question. And the last one here is, as we're recording this, a lot of the U.S. is going through some severe winter weather. So blizzards. Overrated or underrated?

Harrison: Ooh, I like winter weather, so I'm going to go with underrated because if you love the snow, then it's snow overload. But also if you don't like the snow, blizzards are a great reason to just stay at home, wrapped in a blanket and drinking hot chocolate.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Fantastic. Thank you so much for being on the show, Harrison.

Harrison: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

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

Harrison: So if you go to my website, playelevatorup.com, there's a link that'll take you right to the Amazon page. Or on Amazon, you can search for ElevatorUp or ElevatorUp card game, and it should show up.

Patrick: Fantastic. And any social media, or are those the two main places for you?

Harrison: Yes. Mainly Instagram; I focus mainly on Instagram, and I'd love a follow @playelevatorup.

Patrick: Fantastic. Listeners, if you liked this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you hear this. If you leave a review, Harrison will press the elevator buttons for you whenever you're in the same elevator. So you get a free elevator operator whenever you happen to be in the same elevator. Pretty great deal.

And then as I mentioned, I will be talking about a publishing deal coming up soon. And if you want to hear more about that, if you want to help me pay for hosting for this podcast, I have a Patreon where I have some sort of behind-the-scenes content and there are some other benefits there. So check out my Patreon and also visit indieboardgamedesigners.com, and you can follow me on Twitter and Board Game Geek. I'm @bftrick on both platforms. That's B as in board game, F as in fun, and trick as in trick-taking games. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

Harrison: Bye-bye.

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