Jennifer Burkhart

#79 – Jennifer Burkhart

Patrick Rauland: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Indie Board Game Designers podcast, where I sit down with a different independent game designer every single week, and we talk about their experience in game design and the lessons they've learned along the way. My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I'll be talking with Jennifer Burkhart who designed Panic Mode! Jennifer, welcome to the show.

Jennifer Burkhart: Why thank you. Happy to be here.


Patrick: Great. I've done some research, and we chatted before the episode, but the audience hasn't, so I like to play a lightning round game in the beginning. Sound good?

Jennifer: Yes, I'm ready.

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

Jennifer: I have a weakness for vintage cheesy games, so I could see myself sitting down to a Heartthrob or Loopin' Louie at any game convention.

Patrick: I don't know either of those games. At some point whenever we meet up in real life, you'll have to show me them, because I don't even think I've heard of them.

Jennifer: They're terribly good.

Patrick: Terribly good, OK. In your game, there's lots of roles like CEO, Project Manager, Customer Support engineer, etc. In your game you're trying to prevent– You're in panic mode, and you're trying to prevent disaster. Is there one of those jobs that you would hate doing in real life?

Jennifer: I'm sure all of them. I think the toughest job is probably the customer-facing job, in the roles that are in my game. I would say that the call center lead is probably the toughest for me, personally. I think waitressing was probably the closest I got to customer-facing, and I was pretty terrible at it.

Patrick: I did customer support years back for a software company, and it was tricky, but at least that was email support. I can't imagine phone support, that sounds even harder. At least with email support, you can log off, or forward an email, or come back to it later. It's got to be tough to work the phones. Your game seems a little bit like it's about dysfunctional companies, what is your favorite movie about companies going off the rails?

Jennifer: I'm not going to blow anyone away with this answer, but it's got to be Office Space. That movie is masterful.

Patrick: Yes, it is really good. That's one those movies I should probably watch that every couple of years because it is fantastic. Surprisingly not much has changed in the office world.

Jennifer: Yes, it's pretty scary. I watched it recently again, and it definitely holds up.

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

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

Jennifer: I stumbled into board game design. I am one of those people, like probably a lot of people on your podcast, that have gamed a lot in their lives. I grew up with games, some of the more standard games. I've been part of weekly game nights for most of my life. I did my share, certainly, of Magic the Gathering and tooling with the decks and all of that. I like all the games. I'm one of those people that– Except trivia, I don't love that, but I do have a very wide and broad appreciation for a lot of different types of games. Game design was something that I feel like, happened to me. It wasn't something that I planned out.

Where Did Panic Mode! Come From?

Patrick: So how did that–? Did something inspire you? Were you doodling on a note or a piece of paper and it just happened to come into being? How did that happen?

Jennifer: There's a clear story around the birth of my game, Panic Mode! It was made for a meetup. There's a computer club at a nearby town where I live, and we used to meet a lot more frequently than we do now, but it's still around. At the time, we were about to meet on the topic of disaster recovery, and the meetup was called Panic Mode! In our Slack channel, some of us were thinking about ways we could bring gaming into it and maybe make it a little more fun, demonstrate different things, and we talked about different things.

Jennifer: Maybe an unfolding DnD-like scenario, which I think is common when you're looking at disaster recovery. I don't know, for whatever reason we were spit-balling different ideas, and none of them felt right to me. None of them were quite– They were more like re-skinning games that were around, and they didn't feel like disaster recovery to me, which would have been fine, and they would have been fun that night. But for whatever reason, I didn't let it go, and I thought about it and thought about it. Then, when I finally got it, it just clicked for me.

Jennifer: It's a simple game, but it was fully formed in my head when I finally felt like “OK, that's disaster recovery.” That first night that we played at the meetup, I made it for the meetup. We had about 50 cards and six roles, I think. Then the tracking cards that I still have, most or all of those cards are still in the deck with just minor wording– I had to edit myself quite a bit. We play the game, and it was a lot of fun. At the time, it was 20 minutes long, and there were these huge swings in the tracking. Big highs and lows, and it was a lot of fun, and it was like a roller coaster. It's hard to describe.

Jennifer: It almost felt like a movie to me, where I could hear people's laughter in my head for the rest of the night. After we played, a couple of people came up to me and complimented me on the game and on particularly the writing– Which was nice. A few people stayed behind, and they were like, “Let's make this game for real.” At the time, I had no idea how much work that would be, but here we are.

Patrick: That's cool. A previous guest had a game about Passing the Buck, and I think episode five twelve.

Jennifer: I have that game. Yeah.

Patrick: Really? Cool. I know in their case they talked about– It came out of their real life. It came out of them working with other companies and people passing the buck. I was wondering if Panic Mode! came out of a terrible day at the office where everything is on fire. I'm happy to hear that it came out of a meetup, not out of “I just had the worst day ever. I need to make a game about it.”

Jennifer: It's a fair question, and it would be fair if it was my venting resulted in this two-year long process. I think it's just some of the cards, especially that first night those 50 cards or so, they poured out of me. That's coming from somewhere for sure, but I feel like it's definitely more snarkiness. I definitely crack myself up, and that was a huge part of this whole process for me. I've worked in IT, or I had worked in IT for so long, and I've been gaming for so long. This was a fun intersection of those two worlds. I'm not changing the world with it or anything like that, but I thought it was fun to provide a light meaningful way for people to learn more about what is a dry topic.

Patrick: I like that. I think that's– Podcast listeners if you go back in the feed, I think that's Episode 12 with Carol Mertz. She did Pass the Buck. That was a super fun game to chat about.

Where Did The Time Limit Come From?

Patrick: In your game, I like talking about just a few of the mechanics. Obviously this a podcast, it's hard to talk about this stuff, but it seems pretty simple. On your turn, you draw two cards and choose one to play, and what I find interesting is that you have a real-time element where you have to beat it in 25 minutes, or else you lose. It seems like there's also turns. I thought that was an interesting combination of things because usually with real-time it is like “Go as fast as you can, you don't need turns.” I want to know where did that design decision come from? Was there a playtest, or something that happened, that made you add in that time limit?

Jennifer: Yeah. The time limit comes from the same place that the simplicity comes from. It's all about the audience and the theme. The game is very simple. It's not trying to be anything else. It's all about being played in the office, a lot of times. Twenty-five minutes is a nice time limit for an office. Five minutes to learn it, twenty-five minutes to play it. There's other things that are interesting too about the time limit. Twenty-five minutes, you use about 85 cards, give or take only a few, in an almost all playtesting. That becomes interesting, so it's like being turn-based, but without having to track it.

Patrick: Nice.

Jennifer: The other reason, obviously the time limit works goes back to the theme where a time limit is uncomfortable. You're supposed to be in panic mode, and when you look down, and you see you have six or seven minutes left and you can maybe win it if you hurry up. That's uncomfortable. In playtesting, you can see dynamics shift as some of the players have a lot more urgency when they have that ‘Oh no' moment. The last thing I would say about the time limit, at some point what I would like to do is make a 25 minute YouTube video that counts it down for you and throws new things into the mix. I don't know if you've ever played the old VHS game Nightmare?

Patrick: No. I know of it.

Jennifer: It's terribly good. I think that would be a lot of fun. We can be cheeky with it and make it fun.

Patrick: That sounds fantastic. I'm a big fan of extra goodies like that. That come with the game but are digital, and they don't cost you a lot of extra money to make and all that stuff. Stuff like that's cool. It's funny, last Christmas, maybe the year before, Marvel released these superhero fire theme settings that were on YouTube.

Patrick: Do you know what I'm talking about? You put on your TV, and it's a fireplace, but there was Thor's fireplace and Iron Man's fireplace. They're great, and there's like four of them. I know it sounds so silly, but I'm like, “Thank you, Marvel.” I put them on all Christmas time, It was great. I had all these different superhero fireplaces with the roaring fire on my TV when I wasn't watching anything else. Stuff like that sounds good. I love the idea of a different 25-minute videos, or even just one with a couple extra things going on would be fun.

Jennifer: Yeah.

What Happens After a “Failed” Kickstarter?

Patrick: Cool. What's interesting is– I got your game through a mutual friend. You have this game, and it's a physical game. You ran a Kickstarter last year, and it didn't raise enough money. I talked to a few people, what happens after Kickstarter. I don't think I've talked to many people a year after their Kickstarter. What are you doing now? Do you let the game, I don't want to say die, that sounds so sad. Do you just let the game exist on BGG, and maybe there's a print and play? Do you give it a second go? What do you what are you doing with a game a year after a Kickstarter?

Jennifer: Yeah, it's a good question. I did a Kickstarter campaign, and it failed utterly. I hit the launch button, and I disappeared from it. I'm not really sure why, but I wasn't sure what to expect, and I made a really simple mistake where I had a lot of interest from people. I had a lot of people almost knocking my door down asking to buy it. Most of those people are in professional roles, and most of them specifically related to disaster recovery.

Jennifer: In fact, most of the interest I got was from this giant LinkedIn group of 20,000 people. They loved it. They're not in the business of speculating on a game, on giving you money and they get a game maybe 6 or 8 months down the road. I had a huge amount of interest, but it didn't translate. I should have known that I probably did know it somewhere. I definitely found a lot of great advocates in that group.

Jennifer: What I ultimately ended up doing was getting the game printed with my own money, which is something that I could afford to do. That lets me lean into my audience. I think that people might wonder if I could afford to print it the whole time, why did I go to Kickstarter in the first place? It's a fair question, but I think there are some really important things that Kickstarter brought for me that I wouldn't have had another way.

Jennifer: For one thing, there's so many resources available to teach you about how to kickstart specifically a tabletop game. I was coming from nowhere. From a meetup and knowing nothing about publishing games and knowing very little of the pitfalls of game design. I found this wealth of information in the Facebook groups, and that led me to the blogs, and that led me to asking the right questions, knowing how to formulate my problems and what I needed to know. Then finding the designer diaries, and everything else. The other benefit from Kickstarter is, for me, I've found fans there. I did. I found people that made me decide to show that I believed in my game as much as they did. I don't think that Panic Mode! would exist today– Which it does, I have a printing– If not for my backers. They did not let me drop it, and they're awesome.

Patrick: Wow. That's amazing, and I want to give you kudos. It sounds like, without a ton of prep, you still got 95 backers. I think a lot of people struggle to get close to 100 customers, that's hard to do.

Jennifer: So many of them are new, too. It was humbling.

Do You Have a Garage Full of Games?

Patrick: That's cool. Do you have a garage full of games right now that you're slowly trying to get rid of?

Jennifer: Perhaps. Sales are picking up, and I'm pretty happy with it. I am not great at marketing, and it's something that I need to force myself to create goals for. I'm really happy with how it's going so far.

Why Not List Yourself as a Publisher or Designer?

Patrick: Very cool. There was something peculiar, our mutual friend sent me this game, and I'm looking at it. One of the things I realized is there is no publisher on the box, there's no publisher listed on it, there is no illustrator listed on it, and there's no game designer listed on it. I think a couple days before I got the game, I saw this Twitter thread about women designers not putting their names on games. For whatever reason, there's a couple well-known board games in the board game world that are made by women designers, and they don't even have their names on it. Why not put your name on the box?

Jennifer: I didn't know about that as a thing, so that's definitely something that I would like to read up on. If I personally were to do it over, I would put my company name on the box. I'm not sure why I didn't, even though it's just Panic Mode! LLC. I never intended to add my own name to the box, because I honestly don't see the value. It was a practical decision too, I'm a private person, and I work at a large company. I don't work in a role related to disaster recovery or business continuity planning exactly, although you could argue that all roles tied to it. None of the game is based on the company I work for, but whenever I can make a choice to keep them separate, I definitely do that. If female designers choose not to add their names to game boxes because they expect to or do experience a different outcome. That's sad.

Patrick: I don't know how widespread it is. I just saw a Twitter thread, and I haven't done research. There are some games, I'm looking at my collection right now, and typically really big companies that have a whole team of designers and a whole team of developers they don't put a designer's name on the box. A lot of the hobby games that you and I know, they very often have a name on the box. It's just interesting. Let me ask the question in a slightly different way, were you intentionally hiding your name or were you not putting it on the box? Does that make sense? It's almost like if you were to write a novel, would you put your name inside the front cover or would you use a pen name? Does that make sense?

Jennifer: I think the novel comparison is a great one. I asked a friend of mine once, “If you were writing a novel, and you put it out there, would you put your real name on it?” They said what I think is a great answer, “I would never do it any other way.” It's not that I'm not proud of my game, and it was an intentional, deliberate decision to keep it separate from my work. I also don't think that games are novels, and as a first-time designer, it seemed unnecessary. I see no upside to it.

Patrick: Got it. It's more like you didn't know it was a thing?

Jennifer: I know it's a thing, I have a lot of games. I think that it is an important thing if you're starting a game design company or a game publishing company, or if you want to continue to do this. That's not really what I was up to. I just made a game. I'm not intending to make another game. If all goes well, I can do expansions to this game. I have some in the back of my mind, but, I don't think name recognition is important for my specific situation.

Do You Have a Resource You'd Recommend to Another Indie Game Designer?

Patrick: Got it. It sounds like you did a lot of research. It sounds like a lot of research before you launched your Kickstarter campaign. Joined Facebook groups and read the blogs. Is there a particular resource that you would like to recommend to like a new designer?

Jennifer: Yeah. I listen to the podcast. I knew this question was coming, and it's still a tough one for me. What I decided to do is go full on cheesy with my answer and say I think it's important for indie and aspiring game designers to rely heavily on themselves and their own perspectives. I'll tell you why I think that.

Jennifer: Everyone has a unique perspective, and there's a certain amount of game design that I feel is mechanics, it's mathematical sure. I'm a fan of themes, true. I'm also a huge fan of the experience of gameplay, rather than just the statistics and whether or not I win. I think there's a lot of really helpful voices in the industry and sometimes they're loud and for the most part that's great and it's helpful. For the wrong personality, I think, like me– I constantly felt making a niche game that I was reading all this stuff for this mold that I didn't fit into. I think that can have a flattening effect on creativity in its worst cases. A lot of cases not, in a lot of cases, people should listen to those voices a lot more. It's noisy out there and make sure you don't lose your own voice in the noise.

I was reading all this stuff for this mold that I didn't fit into. I think that can have a flattening effect on creativity in its worst cases… It's noisy out there and make sure you don't lose your own voice in the noise.

Patrick: I've never had someone, I don't want to say refute the question, but intellectually tell me that the question is the wrong question. That was awesome. That was cool.

Jennifer: That was not my intention at all.

Patrick: I'm taking this in a good way, “Another way to look at this, Patrick, is to believe in yourself and you don't always need to look outside for the best tools and whatnot.” Very great. Love it. I like being inspired.

Jennifer: You're too kind, Patrick.

Whats The Best Money You've Spent?

Patrick: My next question and I don't know if I'm going to let you off the hook with this one, what is the best money you've spent as a game designer? Because surely you spend money somewhere.

Jennifer: I spent plenty of money, let me tell you. Specific to game design though, I think the one thing that I came up with was finally buying a laser printer. That was important for me because it let me set out print and play copies with relative ease. I have a huge deck in my game, and they still took an hour to make, it was terrible, but they look decent. It's some Canon. I went off the recommendation in one of the Facebook groups, and that's been helpful. I don't know if that's cheating, but that's the answer I have.

Who Tested Your Game?

Patrick: No, that's great. I'm curious, one of the things I don't think I saw reviewers on Kickstarter, so I'm curious. Were these reviewers playtesting? Was it blind playtesting, or something like that, that they helped you with?

Jennifer: There are groups for those kinds of things. I didn't have a lot of interest in my game for, I think, obvious reasons. It doesn't always appeal to the gamer and the people that work in IT, lot of them are like “I don't want to think about IT when I'm gaming.” It's fair. I sent them out to a few different people, and I never actually got reviews. I never actually sought them more than sending the game out there, because to me it wasn't super important. Even going into the Kickstarter campaign, I knew that my audience wasn't already signed up for a Kickstarter. It was less important to me, but it is important if you're going into Kickstarter with a tabletop game to have those reviews. Are paid reviews the right way to go? I don't know. I back a lot of games and I don't pay much attention to them, but that's me. I'm one person. Doesn't matter.

Patrick: It's so good to know that. That's maybe a question I should ask in the post-interview show or something like that. Because I know some people only watch videos, and some people only watch the little gifs. Some people only read the stuff, and some people only read written reviews. It's fascinating how for one person, written or video reviews do nothing. I guess you learn that as you go.

Jennifer: Part of it is I'm not a YouTube person. I don't watch a ton of videos on YouTube, and so I haven't found the reviewer that I identify with that makes their review meaningful to me. You see the same things over and over, and how beneficial is that?

What Does Success Look Like?

Patrick: Yeah. Very cool. OK, one of my favorite questions is, this is interesting with you, what does success look like? Where do you want to go?

Jennifer: So for my game, I'm basically an energy vampire, so every little thing that happened to me that was positive was something that kept me going forward. I've been tagged on social media with people playing my print and play across the world. That was a big one. My first BGG rating especially because I don't think a lot of my audience is in BGG. There is a lot of stuff like that. I talked about how my audience was a lot of people in a specific professional role.

Jennifer: I had someone reach out to me and ask me if they could print my game, put their logo on it, and give it away at conventions. That was flattering. It's not allowed, but that was cool. I think one of the biggest ones that I didn't see coming that's maybe worth mentioning is I got a work offer to create a game for freelance work time and materials to make a game for a disaster recovery company. That was super interesting to me. Yeah, it was something that I didn't see coming. They appreciated the game, but they had more of like a physical disaster recovery thing going on, and they wanted that same levity brought to what's a serious topic. They wanted to give it away to their clients and their prospective clients, and that was a surprising point. It was cool.

Patrick: That's amazing. Did you take them up on the offer?

Jennifer: I did not. When I got to my Kickstarter campaign, I was so tired. The last thing I wanted to do is start a new game from the beginning. I think the real lesson there is that if making a living making games is important to you, there are people that will pay you for bringing gaming to topics were gaming isn't there yet. So, that was cool. If I had to pick an ultimate success and I want to get this in there, it would be seeing the characters on Silicon Valley casually playing Panic Mode! in scene. So Mike Judge, if you're listening, call me.

If I had to pick an ultimate success and I want to get this in there, it would be seeing the characters on Silicon Valley casually playing Panic Mode! in scene.

Patrick: That's fantastic. That's amazing. A friend of a friend of mine, he has a couple of indie video games. Some of his games have shown up on Netflix shows. What's cool is they don't have to ask permission. You buy the product and use it. I think he got a phone call the night before the show was going to air, they were like “Just so you know, in tonight's episode of the show, we're going to be playing your game.” He was like, “Oh my God.”

Jennifer: That's awesome. That's a good phone call.

Patrick: Maybe you get a night before the new season of Silicon Valley shows, you'll get a phone call.

Jennifer: Yeah. We'll see.

Overrated / Underrated Game

Patrick: Very cool. I like to end with a silly little game called Overrated/Underrated. Since you've heard the podcast before, you've heard of it. Yes?

Jennifer: I have.

Patrick: Excellent. Basically, I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and then you tell me if it is overrated or underrated. If I said grape soda, you're clearly going to say, as a child it is underrated, as an adult it is overrated. Something like that. Got it?

Jennifer: Got it. Ready.

Patrick: All right. So indented player boards. I'm specifically talking games like Scythe, Sagrada or the upgrade for Terraforming Mars. Overrated or underrated?

Jennifer: Hmm. I'm going to say underrated because I love vintage board games. I love a gimmick, and they're very often not convenient. I appreciate that those are also convenient.

Patrick: Awesome. Let me ask you this because I've been thinking about this. If there was a $20 game that you have to place cubes on giant cards and it didn't have indented player boards would you rather pay $30 for the same– would you pay an extra $10 to have these indented player boards?

Jennifer: No.

Patrick: No?

Jennifer: No. Yeah. Easier to cheat. Ten dollars less. Perfect.

Patrick: All right. Got it. I should have had a question about cheating earlier on, this is great. I know you're in Wisconsin, so I have to ask you. Packers. Overrated or underrated?

Jennifer: They're the ones that play with the brown ball, right?

Patrick: OK. Got it.

Jennifer: It's funny because I moved to Wisconsin from Minnesota 6 or 7 years ago now and I swear until I got my Wisconsin driver's license plates, I got honked at and cut off all the time. For no other reason than those people, I'm going to say underrated. I said it. Packers are underrated.

Patrick: Got it. So, sorry– “Underrated” as in, I always have a hard time explaining this. “Underrated” as in the people should think more highly of them?

Jennifer: How can something be overrated if their fans are that that vehement?

Patrick: OK. I see where you're going. Got it, OK. Third one, puzzley games. By puzzley games, I mean not Sudoku. Because I think I'd classify that as a puzzle itself, but just games where there's moving things around, getting things just right. Are those overrated or underrated?

Jennifer: Those are going to get an underrated from me. I love a puzzle. I own at least two board games that have jigsaw puzzles in them. I'm the wrong person to ask that question to maybe.

Patrick: The last one, we're recording this after Mother's Day, I have to ask. Mother's Day, overrated or underrated?

Jennifer: I'm going to say underrated. I don't always love things that take over my social media feeds but I'm also a huge Game of Thrones fan, so I can't complain about that right now. Celebrating mothers one day a year seems very reasonable to me.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Yes. You get one day. That makes sense. Jennifer, thank you so much for being on the show.

Jennifer: Thank you for having me.

Patrick: Where can people find you online if you want them to find you online?

Jennifer: Yeah. Panic Mode! is available to purchase, or you can download a free print and play at and that will link you to my social media accounts as well. Then I also wrote about my experience making Panic Mode! in a post on my blog, where I review vintage board games, and that's

Patrick: I will try to link to that in the show notes. I love designer diaries, and those are very helpful. Yeah, check those out. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you're listening to this. If you leave a review– Shoot. Jennifer, I forgot to ask you this ahead of time. Hopefully, this will be fine with you. Jennifer will spend 25 minutes helping you restore your mainframe in case it crashes. Does that sound good, Jennifer?

Jennifer: Easy. So easy.

Patrick: Great. Yeah, I'm sure a crashing mainframe can be fixed in 25 minutes. No problem. You can visit the site at You can follow me on Twitter, and I am @BFTrick. That is all I've got today. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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