Juliana Moreno-Patel and Ariel Ruben

#126 – Juliana Moreno-Patel and Ariel Ruben

Patrick: 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. I'm Patrick Rauland, and today I'll be talking with Juliana Moreno-Patel and Ariel Ruben, who run the Wild Optimists, and they designed Escape Room in a Box, which was massively popular back in 2016 on Kickstarter.

I'm sure it's still massively popular now, it has since been signed by Mattel, and you can find it in big box stores. I also saw them at Pax Unplugged last year. Now in this episode, we're going to chat about puzzles and puzzle design and how that overlaps with board games and board game design. So, Juliana and Ariel, welcome to the show.

Juliana: Hi.

Ariel: Thank you, I'm so happy to be here.


Patrick: I know you because I met you at Pax Unplugged, and we chatted just before we started recording. But the audience doesn't, so I'm going to do a little lightning round to introduce you to the audience. All right?

Juliana: Sure.

Ariel: Sounds good.

Patrick: All right. So we're starting with you, Juliana. Favorite escape room of all time?

Juliana: OK, I knew you were going to ask this. This is an incredibly hard thing to say because I don't have the one shining room that tops all others. There are so many incredible escape rooms out there. Among my favorites, I'm just going to pick one out of many, is The Vault at Sherlocked in Amsterdam. The thing that I love about it so much is it makes you feel like you are 100% in a heist movie.

Most escape rooms, you go, and you sign a waiver, you check in and all of that stuff. This one, they're like, “Go to the fifth floor of the parking garage and wait for further instructions.” Then they text you, and they're like, “Are you in place? OK. Good. Go find this car.” And just, you're in it. You're just in. You have to go. It was so elegantly done because at one point you pose as art collectors and you have to go into this gallery, and you get to the gallery, and they're like, “If you need the restroom in our gallery, it's over there.”

They seamlessly integrate all of the things that you need as a guest and in an experience, but they have it just completely in world, and it's so immersive and so incredible. It's actually in this ancient vault building in the middle of Amsterdam, it's wonderful. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Patrick: That was The Vault?

Juliana: The Vault at Sherlocked is the name of the company in Amsterdam, and if anyone is ever “Where in the world should I go, that's an amazing place that also has a super high concentration of phenomenal escape rooms?” It would be Amsterdam. They also have a catacombs game where you're playing an actual catacombs under a church. There's all kinds of ridiculously cool stuff happening.

Patrick: Now, I'm just learning the lingo for puzzles and puzzle design. Would that be mimetic? The Vault, where it feels more real world as opposed to game world?

Juliana: I think a lot of escape rooms always aim for that, where it just all feels like you're there in the world.

Patrick: Ariel, what about you? Favorite escape room?

Ariel: I am going to echo everything Juliana said about how it's just so hard to pick, but I think I'm going to choose to call out a company that's in New Orleans, Escape My Room. It's for similar reasons that Juliana mentioned The Vault, the entrance to the one location which is in New Orleans somewhere, and it's near a good restaurant. It's one of the most– It's completely immersive, it doesn't even seem like you're entering an escape room.

It seems like you're entering a perfume store, and I don't want to give anything away, but it's very cool. It is immersive from the moment you get there. The lobby has just as much puzzle content as any of the games, and you can just spend time there and play puzzles. All of the staff are completely in character, so having that level of immersion, I think, is so wonderful. You mentioned just the immersive world earlier, and I think that escape rooms and immersive theater are getting closer and closer.

The more we see them combine, the more exciting and innovative it is. That same company has done an escape room at the local aquarium, which I've never seen before, and is just super cool and has fun tech and is one of the few experiences that's meant for the whole family, which I think is awesome.

Patrick: Awesome. This is great, and you're giving me places to visit and things to do at those places.

Ariel: Oh, in the United States, I would say, if you're trying to travel to places in the states for escape rooms, the places to travel are Los Angeles, we have incredible escape rooms here and New Orleans where it's just–.

Juliana: Well, Louisiana, because you have to throw a Baton Rouge in there, make a full trip out to New Orleans and Baton Rouge, because they have some of the best escape rooms in the country by far.

Patrick: OK. I asked you the fun question, and now I have a less fun question. I'm going to start with you, Ariel. If you could never design a puzzle again for a specific sense, what sense would it be?

Ariel: I was thinking about that. I think I wouldn't to do any sound-specific puzzles. This is the most selfish of answers because I'm terrible at them. Anything where you have to match rhythm or recognize a song where solving the puzzle is entirely dependent on you being able to hear something, I'm awful. Now, I could design it, but I'm just so bad at them that I would be happy to never do one again.

Patrick: Awesome and you, Juliana?

Juliana: For me, as a designer, I would say it's flavor and taste because you're always trying to keep in mind your audience. We live in LA, where I can't even tell you, people are paleo, people are gluten free, people are keto, people are vegan. There's 8 billion different food things, so as fun as I think, taste sense puzzles could be and I've only encountered a few of them, and I've never put one in a game for this very specific reason, you just never know what people's dietary limitations are, and so it seems not better to just avoid.

Patrick: Makes sense. All right, last one here, last intro question. Let's say you're tired, it's the end of a con, but someone says “Hey, do you want to play blank?” and you just have to say yes, because it's your favorite game ever. What's the game you play with someone every single time at a con, Juliana?

Juliana: For me, I love Werewolf at a con, because it's about the only place in the world where the people are as intense about it as I am. I'm always creating excuses for my friends to play Werewolf, and they're like, “This girl is crazy.” At cons, you have people who are like, “It's 4:00 am, of course, we should start a game of Werewolf right now.” That's my go-to con game.

Patrick: Love it. Ariel?

Ariel: For me, by the end of a con, I'm so burned out that it's going to be a game like Scythe, where you can play your own game. Sure, you're playing with other people, and theoretically, you're being social, but you can be in your own head, do your own thing. Tokaido would be another great game that fits that category.

Patrick: Wow, Scythe. I have to get an energy bar before I play Scythe.

Ariel: You get to think so much, and it's all on the player mat. I don't have to look at the rulebook a million times. It's my go to, if I'm tired, game.

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

Patrick: I get it. I get it. All right, first real question. How did you get into board games and board game design? I don't know if you guys want to answer this together or separately, but we'll start with you, Juliana, if you want to.

Juliana: Sure. I was always completely obsessed with games, even when I was a kid. We would play, I have an older brother, my dad would also play with us. My mom she hated it, but we could occasionally get her into it. I just grew up playing games constantly. Even when I got married, at my bridal shower, it was all just games. They were like, “You're not a bridezilla, you're a gamezilla.” That became my nickname. I've always been completely obsessed with it and then got into board game design when Ariel and I had this idea to do an escape room in a box.

Because we were obsessed with escape rooms and we also had regular game nights at my house, and we're super into tabletop games. We just couldn't believe that there wasn't anything on the market where you could do an escape room at home. Because we knew the people who were excited and went to escape rooms would be the same people, probably in many ways, who have tabletop game nights. We couldn't believe that there wasn't a product for them, that's really what started this entire thing.

Patrick: OK. Yeah, we're definitely going to talk about your Escape Room in a Box, because it's a cool story. I don't want to skip Ariel here. Ariel, do you have a similar story? Have you always been into games, or is it something different?

Ariel: Yeah. Julianna and I often get accused of being the same person. I do not want to bore your listeners with just saying my version of exactly what she said.

Back in 2016 you launched your Kickstarter campaign and you had 2,000+ backers. Tell me about that.

Patrick: OK. All right. Let me talk about your campaign then. Back in 2016, which feels like 100 years ago now, it was only four, but it feels 100 years ago, you guys did launch this Escape Room in a Box. This is your first game design, as I just learned, that's amazing. There's so many things that are different about it.

Just to highlight a couple things here, it was over 2,000 backers, over $100,000, which was a lot back then. I think a couple more campaigns have come out since that get closer to the million dollar mark, but this back then was impressive. Obviously, it was a thing that hadn't existed before. For not having designed other games, how did you make this thing such a success?

Ariel: I think that one thing is that we haven't designed other games. We sat down, and we said, “OK, we love escape rooms. What are the puzzles that we've done? What puzzles could we do, and what would fit in the box?” That was how we went about the design. We were escaping enthusiasts who were trying to design a game that was as much like an escape route as possible. We will get to this, but manufacturing was not easy. What makes our game stand out because if you look at the other escape room games and I recommend everyone play them all.

You should just play as many puzzles as you can. There's some brilliant puzzles in the other games that are on the market as well. If you look at the other tabletop escape games that have come out since ours, they were designed by companies, or game designers to begin with. You can tell that they already knew what was difficult to manufacture. But what they lose, I think, is that sense of an escape room with the physical elements and the real locks and jump scares, which we did put into our game.

Juliana: Yeah, I think ours just came out of us saying, “What would we want in an at-home escape room? What would be the coolest things we could do and not giving a massive amount of thought to what would be the cheapest way to do something or the most efficient packaging way to do something?”

Ariel: Also, what would be the best way to manufacture this at a factory? Because we thought we were going to get our friends and pay them in pizza and beer and do it in the garage. So what is cheap to do in my garage is not necessarily what is cheap to do at a factory.

Escape Room in a Box is quite complex. How did you plan to manufacture the game affordably?

Patrick: Yes. Let me jump into that. I'm not going to share anything besides what's on the Kickstarter page. But just for all of you people who have thought about box sizes and you've thought about the number of cards and you've thought about wooden cubes vs. meeples vs. whatever. The pictures here, there are metal tins, there are jars, there are locks, there are keys. There's a picture of a test tube, and there's a hand-bound periodic table. There's plastic that has writing on it. This is not something that you see in other board games.

Juliana: We got turned down by multiple factories. Our first thought was, “We want this to be manufactured in America. That would be great. Let's hire American workers and all of that.” We went to American factories, and they were like, “Oh, no, this is all going to be items that are sourced from China. You have to make this in China.” Then we went to Panda and some of the really big manufacturers that a lot of people use when they're making Kickstarter board games and not Kickstarter board games.

They also were like, “No, no, this is too complicated.” We finally found a company called Product Greenhouse. They are essentially a middleman. They are an American company based in Chicago, and they work with factories in China. They will find the factory that can make the thing, so they'll go and be like “OK, we've got this test tube factory here and this lock factory here and this tin factory here. We'll put in the orders at all of those different factories, and then we'll put them all to the printer.” That's where they're going to do the manufacturing and the assembling. We found them, and we were like, “OK, fantastic.”

They were sending us the white sample, when you're manufacturing a game, one of the first things that you get is the white sample where nothing is printed. It's all just “OK. This is the box and the size the box will be, and this is all of the envelopes and everything like that.” We got that, and we were like, “OK, yeah, this is good, but this one paper needs to be in this other box, and this little clear plastic thing needs to be in this other envelope. We went back and forth twice with them, and then the factory quit. They were like, “No, this is too complicated.”

Patrick: What?

Juliana: Yeah. Credit to the Product Greenhouse, they were like, “We have already sent the bid out to multiple other factories now to see if we can find another factory that could do it.” Eventually, they got the factory that I think does Cranium and other games like that, where they're putting together disparate things all into the same box. They were able to do it, but it was so complex and so complicated, precisely because we were like, “We want hidden objects and little surprises that people will never expect.”

All of that takes a factory that will then hide those tiny objects in certain places and makes it quite tricky. We'll get to the Mattel thing, but when we spoke with Mattel, and they were manufacturing the game, Mattel said to us, “This is the most complicated game we have ever manufactured.” I felt so vindicated that we had managed to put 3,000 copies of this game out into the world, on our own, as an indie company with all of the tiny little things where they are. I think it's a beautiful game. Our artists did such gorgeous work. Our first editions are still so special to me.

Patrick: It looks very nice. I'm very impressed that you guys got this. I made a tiny card game last year that had 20 cards, or 40 cards, and a couple of wooden tokens. That took months of work. I can't imagine how much work you had to do to get this done.

Juliana: Yeah, everyone says, “Start with a card game.”

Ariel: It was a year of our lives that we didn't get to design anything. I think that was the saddest thing for me. It was so important, of course, to get the game out into the world. But that focused our attention to say, “What do we want to do?” I think a question I am sure every game designer asks themselves is, “I'm designing a game, and I have this game. It's done. Do I license it to a publisher, or do I become a publisher myself?” People make different choices, obviously.

But for us, we had that discussion, and what it came down to was, “Yeah, we're “giving away,” giving away in major quotes, most of the money for this game, because we are licensing it to somebody else, but we don't manufacture. We don't have to deal with meeting buyers or anything like that. We get to focus on design, which is what we love.

Patrick: Yeah, I hear you there. I launched the game last year, and I've been fulfilling it throughout– the Kickstarter was in February of last year, and I fulfilled it this summer. But I'm still wrapping that project up, and I can't take on another project until it's done. I'm realizing how much mental bandwidth that that open project is taking. I can totally understand how, if you ran this big, much more complicated game, Kickstarter campaign, and game, that I'm sure that would prevent you from doing the thing you love until you get all wrapped up.

Let me ask you this, for people who are listening, people who want to have one complicated component. From all the complicated stuff, what is something you'd be willing to do again and what's a component, if possible, you never want to work with again because it's so complicated to figure out?

Ariel: What's difficult about that– I'm going to jump in, and then you can do your answer, Juliana. What's difficult about that is it's almost the same thing, because the thing we had the most issues with was the lock. We have two different locks. At first, one was red, and one was black because we wanted to make sure that when they were in the factory and putting the different locks on the tins, they didn't put the wrong lock on the wrong tin. Because that would ruin the game. We kept getting the samples in, and for whatever reason, the black locks kept coming, and we were like, “You didn't set this right, or this isn't working.”

We finally figured out that somehow the black locks were unsetting in transport. No idea why, because we took the locks apart, and my husband is quite good at these things. They were identical. The factory, Product Greenhouse, was like, “These are identical, they're absolutely identical. There's no way they're different. It's a mystery. We should keep these locks, and it's a mystery.”

What we ended up doing was taking the locks. We took a bunch of the red locks, bunch of the black locks, and we simulated transporting them by putting them in the dryer. If we get them out and all but one of the black locks was broken, had reset itself and all the red locks were fine. To this day, no idea what was different about them. No idea. But there was something.

Patrick: I can tell you this, I've had over 100 episodes. I've talked to zero people who have had to put their components into a dryer to make sure they were working. That's amazing, also terrible. But really, I'm blown away.

Ariel: It's the most frustrating thing, but I still want locks in every game. There are multiple other games we are working on, and I think that we have found ways to put locks into all of them, of all different genres, and they are not all escape room games. Because it's just so satisfying when a lock clicks open. But now manufacturing going to be someone else's problem.

Patrick: Juliana, for you, is it the same answer then? Probably the locks?

Juliana: The locks were a definite thing. The other thing for me, this is a slight, maybe I can do it without doing a spoiler. There is a component that has a battery in our first game. It's a thing that you click to turn on. After the games got sent out, the locks were all good. We fixed the lock problem. But the number one issue that we had, and it wasn't a lot of games when you're sending out 3,000, you have to expect there's going to be some issues somewhere.

So it was a very tiny percentage, but I think it's the games that we're at the bottoms of the palettes. I think in the pressing of everything coming down was clicking on that electronic component, and the battery was getting exhausted. So I would shy away from doing things with batteries.

In the board game world replayability is a huge component of a game. In the puzzle world this isn’t a thing at all. Why do you think board game designers care so much about this?

Patrick: That makes a lot of sense. I'm just thinking, also, most board game designers don't have to worry about batteries in their games. So much complexity, I'm very impressed. Let me change gears a little bit here. I don't think there's that many different things about puzzles than from board games, but one of the biggest differences between those is that puzzles are usually you play one time, and board games are very replayable.

Then the board game world, people who review board games, will very often be like, “This game is not that replayable, or because it has all these extra decks and all this stuff, it's super replayable.” I've pitched my games to publishers, and publishers will say, “How replayable is it and all that stuff?” In the puzzle world, do you play at once, and you're done, and you're happy?

By the way, I appreciate in your campaign that you have at least, in the campaign, you have refill packs for your game. People can get the game, play through it, refill it, and then give it away to a friend, which is brilliant. But why are we so obsessed with replayability in the board game world? Because in the puzzle world, it's obviously not an issue.

Juliana: I feel like it's starting to change, though, with more and more legacy games coming out. I think that the board game world is starting to embrace, “This is an experience.” I think people are coming to terms with the fact that you might have bookshelves upon bookshelves full of games and how many of those games are you going to play 30 times, 40 times? If you have entire bookshelves full of games, you're probably only going to get a certain number of playthroughs.

I think people are starting to come around to “OK, now we can do legacy, where there's a lot more story coming out, or puzzles where we get to solve something and feel super accomplished. You look at it compared to the cost of going to an escape room or going to the movies for the night and what you paid for the game vs. what your group would pay for that many hours to play the game vs. going to the movies. It's still an incredible deal, and you get to do it at home. So if you have kids, you don't need to get a babysitter. So I think that is changing in the board game world.

Ariel: I also think that it's changing, and I think the shift has something to do with there's been studies that the current generation, particularly millennials, are more interested in spending money on experiences than items. This is where we are seeing the rise of escape rooms and immersive theater.

I think I just saw another article on how it's more important to get vacations for your kids than gifts than toys. In a culture where we are starting to value spending money on experiences vs. physical items. Yes, a game will always be a physical item, but there is less importance placed on having to play it again on that replayability. That being said, replayability was the first thing everyone asked us about when the game first came out.

Patrick: I guess, if you're the first in a genre, which you basically were, then people don't know, and you have to explain why. I think now there's other escape room-like games out there and some of them are destructible. You play through there once, and it's done, then some of them are you put it back together and then give it away. Since you did this so early in 2016, people probably didn't know how to handle that. You had to explain it, I'm sure.

Juliana: Yeah. We're putting so much work into getting all of these various physical components. We wanted to ensure that there were multiple ways to enjoy the game. We definitely have repack instructions where you can pack up the game and then pass it on to a friend. We've heard lots of stories of people doing that. Then we also have, for the first game, there is a host script where you get to become the evil mad scientist who's running the show, and you're essentially the DM for the game.

You can give hints, or make it a little easier, make it harder. There's some components that come out into the physical space because you're the host and getting to set it all up. It has this whole different world and way that you can play it. We also designed our second game for Mattel, the sequel Escape Room in a Box Flashback. When we were designing that, we were thinking a lot about replayability, because it was the number one question from everyone. That one does have three separate tracks in it.

If you want to, you can play just on your track, and they only come together at the very end of the game. Then you can have everyone who played each track reset that track, and then you can get together and play it again on a different track. So it has at least three different play-throughs if you want to be conscious of replayability. Then you can pack it up and pass it on to an entirely new group.

Patrick: I live in a little apartment here downtown, and I love it. But the one thing it's not good for is storage space and storing all my games. I did get, I think, about two years ago went a little crazy on Kickstarter and got a couple of really big games with 500 million miniatures which take up all the space. What's funny is I'm looking at games that are escape room-style games where you play through them once as a benefit.

I feel good buying an escape room game, playing through it and then giving it away to a friend, because I know someone else is going to enjoy it, I know someone else is going to appreciate it. I enjoy it. As you said, it's way cheaper than going to the movies or doing something else with it for the same amount of time for same amount of people. But it's funny that I almost view it as I have permission to [Inaudible].

Juliana: I think that's a great permission. In the age of minimalists and tiny homes and all of that, giving people permission to have this experience, enjoy this experience, and then gift this experience to other people. It's great all around.

What else do you do in the gaming world?

Patrick: Before we started recording, we were talking about how escape room-style games they can sometimes bring in new people into the board game world. What else do you want to do in the gaming world? We'll start with you, Ariel.

Ariel: Our company, after Escape Room in a Box sold to Mattel, we start a new company called The Wild Optimist. We still make tabletop games, and there's a number that we're working on right now, but we also create games for a wide variety of other platforms. That is everything from music festive, so we created a few puzzle quests for the Electric Force Music Festival this past year, which was amazing, life changing and incredible.

We work at historical sites, marketing campaigns, really anywhere where games can make it better, which is everywhere, we are trying to put games. What I love about doing that is that we are reaching a mass audience, so often when we play tested Escape Room in a Box, there would be somebody who said “I came with my friends, but I'm not good at puzzles.”

Then they would play the game, and by the end of the game, they would realize, “Oh, no, wait, they are good puzzles.” We have a new fan, a new fan of puzzles and games. The more places, unexpected places that we can put puzzles and games, the more that we can do that and give people this passion and love that we have.

Patrick: That brings up something interesting. I think you guys talked about this at Pax Unplugged, but you guys do a lot of consulting, and I think that might be a way for a lot of– because if you're just trying to make a living off of game sales where you get a dollar per unit, is your profit. It's really hard to make a living.

There's very few full-time game designers in the world. But if you're doing consulting for Electric Forest– weren't you guys talking about working on a history project for a town, if I'm remembering correctly?

Juliana: For the Santa Monica Pier, here in Los Angeles, we are creating their historical tour as a puzzle hunt.

Patrick: That's number one, super cool. Reading a plaque, not that interesting to me, but a puzzle hunt where I have to find information on the plaque. Now that's way more interesting.

Ariel: There's no finding information on a plaque. We're installing art pieces that are puzzles. People don't like to read, is something [INAUDIBLE]. Whenever we design things, even when they have learning, we try to get people to discover information on their own. Never just say, “Here's something, read it.”

Patrick: Yes. Makes a lot of sense. I have a hard time getting people to read more than two lines on the cards I print out.

Juliana: No, people just don't read.

What is it like signing to a mass market company like Mattel?

Patrick: One of things I thought was very cool is– I don't think I've talked to anyone who has signed a game to a mass-market publisher. Lots of people in the show have talked about signing games to hobby publishers, the hobby market. Signing a game to someone like Stonemaier Games.

That's obviously very different than signing a game to a mass-market company like Mattel. What is that like? I'm going to paint the picture of what I imagine it to be. You walk into a room, and there's 10 dudes in suits with dark glasses who are lawyers, and they hand you a thousand pieces of paper that you have to sign. Is that accurate?

Ariel: No.

Juliana: No.

Ariel: I will say, to even get in the building at Mattel, you do have to sign a bunch of NDAs.

Juliana: Particularly if you're Ariel, somehow the NDA is supposed to be good for two years, but somehow her NDA does not survive, ever. Yes, she has signed many an NDA.

Ariel: They don't even let you that far into the building. The difference between that first meeting with Mattel, which I'll talk about, and meeting Stonemaier Games, is not that big. Because at the end of the day, what you have in these two cases and really at all the companies we met with, you have people who are incredibly passionate and smart about games.

Jamey Stegmaier, we were big fan girls with him, he's just an incredible designer, and Brian [You], the head of game development at Mattel is same thing, we're just such big fans. He is an incredibly smart, awesome designer.

Juliana: You do get handed a contract that is very long, but we have a lawyer for that. Shout out to Zachary Strobeck, who is our games lawyer and awesome.

Patrick: Awesome. Great. With hobby publishers, it's usually you meet them at a publisher speed dating event, or you meet them at GenCon, or whatever. You talk about your game. They send you a three-page document, you sign it, and you're done. Was there more due diligence and that type of thing? Do they do a lot more playtesting, or did they do a lot more?

Juliana: We brought the game in for them to play, and they told us pretty much in the room that they wanted to sign it, which was incredible and which we did not believe until the contract showed up because we were like “Really? Mattel?” It wasn't that different where they played through it. They were like “Yup, this is great. We would like to sign this.”

Ariel: The difference that we have found, because we have signed games we can't talk about yet with some of the more indie publishers, is who you're talking to and the speed at which things happen. At Mattel, we deal with one department, which is the game development department, and I guess to Inventor Relations, we have an amazing woman in Inventor Relations named Naomi, who's just so cool.

But they are one department in a much larger company. So when they want to sign a game, they say they want to do it, and then it goes to the law department. It did take a long time from the moment they told us they want to sign the game, to when the contract is finally signed. With more indie publishers, you're going in, and you're meeting with the head of the company.

It's a lot faster to get that final signed contract. It's just a function, I think, of literally how many people are employed at the company. I think at the end of the day– because we've met people at Hasbro and Spin Master. The people that we have met in the games world are there because they're passionate about it. Wherever you sign, whoever you're working with, everyone we've met is just so cool and has the same passion as us, which is making great games.

Patrick: That's reassuring. Sometimes with corporations, it seems so inhuman, it seems so corporate. But it's nice to hear that people in those companies like games too. So it's nice to hear that it's not that different.

Juliana: Yeah, and I will say, I think people might also have this idea of “You're going to give your baby away to this giant corporation, and all those men in suits will be blocking it, and you'll never see it again.” They have been, in every step of the way, they brought us in, because they did all of their own artwork and they brought us in and showed us samples. They changed one puzzle, and they showed it all to us.

It was truly a discussion of us saying “This looks beautiful, but I can guarantee you, having play tested this game as much as we have, people are going to see that and think it's a red herring and spend a massive amount of time focusing on it, so we're going to have to change this artwork.” It's still, even though it is this giant corporation, felt very much like, “This is your game. Let's all work together to make the best product that we can.”

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

Patrick: Marvelous. I think both of you have a lot of information in your brains, but if someone can't run into you at a convention, what is a resource you recommend to another indie game designer? By resource, I mean a book, a blog, a website, a podcast, excluding this one, but something that is free, or cheap, or easily available. I'll start with you, Juliana.

Juliana: Sure. As I'm sure most of your listeners know, Jamey Stegmaier is a giant wealth of information. His blog has literally any question you might ever have as a game designer. In terms of running a Kickstarter. Or how to get free worldwide shipping.

What are some interesting things that different designers are doing? What mechanisms is he finding appealing in these different games? I am constantly blown away by the amount of useful content that man puts on a very regular basis. Jamey Stegmaier, his website gives you everything and everything.

Patrick: Anything different from you, Ariel?

Ariel: I would say that if you are thinking of designing a game, and we do this whatever genre we're working in. The best resource is playing a lot of those games. If it's social deduction, Werewolf, and Secret Hitler and the one that starts with an ‘R' that I am blanking on the name Juliana.

Juliana: Resistance?

Ariel: Thank you, Resistance and Avalon. There's a million more out there, every social deduction game. The way you can find this is, if you go on BoardGameGeek, they'll list games by categories. You can say, “I want to design a game in this category.” Then you can look up, on BoardGameGeek, other games in that category, and you can see what the highest rated ones are.

But once you start playing games in a specific category, you get a feel for “How many players is good for this type of game? What kind of mechanics have been used?” Then you can start thinking about “What did I like about that game and what did I not like? If I'm making a game this, how do I make it stand out? How do I make it different, and how do I make it better or what I want?”

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

Patrick: Yes, absolutely. For me, it's about recognizing themes and concepts and then also developing a language. When you have that language, obviously it makes all of your own games better. Perfect. Ariel, I'm going to go back to you now. What is the best money you've ever spent as a game designer? Just to qualify this, the best money means it's worth every single cent. What is the best money that you that you've ever spent as a game designer?

Ariel: I'm going to send that back to Juliana because she deals with all the money, I'm just the crazy artist.

Juliana: This is true. I think the best money that we ever spent was when we had a really good playable prototype, that people loved, for Kickstarter for Escape Room in a Box. We spent the money to make professional-looking prototypes to send out to reviewers. We were first-time designers, and we did not have a giant audience. Instead, what we did was leveraged the audience of all of these other far more well-known game reviewers and escape room reviewers.

We spent a good bit making those prototypes. You can get professionally made game boxes from China. We got 15 of them. I think they were $40 a box, it was ridiculous how expensive those boxes were, but it's the first impression. We had this wonderful artwork, and so we were able to use these game boxes to send out to reviewers.

Then when they're showing the game to their audience, it just really looks like a polished and professional product. Because we were first-time game designers, we needed that strong seal of approval from these well-known reviewers. Even though it hurt. I am so cheap, Ariel makes fun of me all the time for how cheap I am, but spending those boxes at $40 a pop, I think paid off.

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

Patrick: I love that. I've heard other designers say similar things about getting a nice prototype, so I totally hear you, makes perfect sense. My favorite question is always what does success in the boardgame world look like to you? Let's start off with Ariel.

Ariel: I would like more games on the shelf at Target. We already have two. If you look at Exploding Kittens, who has an entire shelf, that would be pretty cool. I think that that would make me feel successful.

Patrick: Great. Love it. We can call it the Wild Optimists aisle.

Ariel: No, seriously, though. If you go to Target and there's a full shelf. It's Exploding Kittens, and they have the crabs game, it's just their games. They have that many games that Target wants, and people can just come up. Then, opposite that, they have now Lego figures. They're making other toys that sell based on the characters from their games. It's incredible. I'm overawed by them.

Patrick: What about you, Juliana?

Juliana: I completely agree. Every single time we walk into Target, I drag my children over to go see our games. The more shelf space that we can take up at retail, I think that's the more successful I will feel.


Patrick: Lovely. I like to wrap up my show with a game called Overrated/Underrated. Have you heard about it?

Juliana: No.

Ariel: No.

Patrick: Excellent. I'm going to give you a word or phrase, and you have to tell me if you think it's overrated or underrated. If I said a laptop stand, you might say overrated because they don't save that much space. Something like that, cool? Overrated, underrated, and one sentence why you think that make sense?

Juliana: Sure.

Ariel: Yes.

Patrick: Directional locks, overrated or underrated?

Juliana: Underrated. This is an unpopular opinion among escape room enthusiasts who are a very vocal bunch, let me tell you. There are Facebook groups with thousands upon thousands of members who spend a lot of time talking about how much they hate directional locks because they're not intuitive because no one knows to double click at the front.

Ariel is going to tell you that one of the first escape rooms we ever played together, we didn't get out because I didn't know to double click to reset. As a designer, I am all for ways to have different inputs, where I love that there's so many things you can do with directions. I am a huge fan of directional locks.

Patrick: And Ariel?

Ariel: I agree with that answer.

Patrick: Oh, all right. I'm in the minority.

Juliana: You are actually in the majority of the escape room enthusiasts. You are vastly in the majority.

Ariel: Juliana is right, when you're designing puzzles, they can't all be numbers and letters. There's only so many words you can put into a letter lock. It's nicer to not have locks at all, but at least directional locks give you a choice.

Patrick: Yes, it is very cool. Especially the first time you to go to an escape room and they explain what a directional lock is. You're like, “What?” They just tend to break too much for me is my one– If they worked every time, I think I'd be down for it. I think I've had to call in a game master 3 out of 4 times I've seen a directional lock.

Juliana: Oh. Well, that's just a poor room maintenance on the owners part, I would say.

Patrick: There we go. All right. Ariel, leading off with you this time. Amazon.com, as in the website, to buy everything. Overrated, underrated?

Ariel: This gets into politics also. I guess, overrated because I am trying to be better about putting my money to places that are more respectful of their workers. Having said that, it is the best place to get a lot of stuff and particularly for games. I will try to buy things at my local game store, but I can always buy it on Amazon.

Patrick: Just to commiserate for a second. I totally hear you on not always wanting to buy on Amazon and then trying to buy at a local store and then going out to the store, coming back depressed, and then buying it on Amazon. I'm familiar. What about you, Juliana?

Juliana: Yeah, I have to agree. I wish there was more local businesses and healthy competition. But at the same time, it is incredibly useful to have things show up at my door tomorrow. Anytime I need them.

Patrick: I hear you. All right, so we're going to start off with you this time, Juliana. Werewolves, and I'm just talking about the concept. Just the concept of werewolves, so you can take it into movie, TV, or into your game, wherever you want to go. Overrated or underrated?

Juliana: Underrated. You can never have enough werewolves. There should be more werewolves everywhere.

Patrick: Ariel?

Ariel: Underrated. Team Jacob forever, I'm going to go back to Twilight here. I don't know why anyone would want Edward. Jacob was warm and fuzzy. Wolves are clearly better.

Patrick: I'm going to go up to nerd level 100 here and say that Jacob is not a werewolf, because he does not shift with the moon. He is a shapeshifter who happens to turn into a wolf.

Juliana: That's a fair point.

Ariel: We can go into other mythologies, though. We could do Vampire Diaries, where they do change with the moon in Vampire Diaries, right? It's been a while since I watched.

Patrick: Pretty sure in Vampire Diaries, they can change whenever they want to.

Ariel: Was it?

Patrick: I could be wrong.

Ariel: It's been a while, but in general, this whole debate between werewolves and vampires, which I feel comes up in a lot of mythologies. Always werewolves, always werewolves. I will say one person when we were sending out our original Kickstarter, who would not take it because they did not like werewolves, and this was ridiculous.

Patrick: Oh, interesting. Last one, I'm going to start with you, Ariel. Tablets, like iPads and stuff that. Overrated or underrated?

Ariel: Overrated. I had a tablet for a little while, but I haven't used one in years and years and years. I don't find them very useful. They're just a clunky thing that doesn't do as much as my laptop and isn't as small as my phone.

Patrick: Got it. Juliana?

Juliana: Yeah. People often say Ariel and I share a brain. I feel exactly the same way for exactly the same reason.

Wrap Up

Patrick: Perfect. Juliana and Ariel, thank you so much for being on the show.

Ariel: Thank you for having us, this was so much fun.

Patrick: Where can people find you and your games and all the other cool stuff you do?

Juliana: Sure. The best resource is our website, which is www.wildoptimists.com, that's plural, there are two of us. You can also check out Escape Room in a Box on escaperoominabox.com or Amazon or Target. There's two games out, there is The Werewolf Experiment and the sequel, Flashback.

You can find us on Twitter at @EscapeRoominBox. Then Instagram is probably the social where we're the most active, and that is @TheWildOptimists. We also have Facebook, and just, I think Facebook.com/WildOptimists and Facebook.com/EscapeRoominaBox.

Patrick: Perfect, very good. Listeners, if you like this podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. If you leave a review, Juliana and Ariel said they would help you get out of a corn maze if you ever happened to get lost. Then it has been a while since I've asked for feedback on my show, so I would love to hear your feedback on the different types of content and the length and guests and all that stuff.

You can go to IndieBoardGameDesigners.com/survey, and if you can give me feedback, it's great because podcasting is me talking into my closet in my room, and I don't know who listens. The more feedback you give me the better. You can visit the site at IndieBoardGameDesigners.com, you can follow me on Twitter and BoardGameGeek, I'm @BFTrick on both platforms. Until next time everyone, happy designing. Bye-bye.

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