Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Erica Bouyouris

Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Erica Bouyouris

'In Focus: Women of Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights women in all facets of the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Erica Bouyouris, designer of Ink Monsters, Upsidedown, Roar: King of the Pride, Roar: Ambush of Tigers, and Sandstorms: Lost Vegas. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi. 

Hi Erica, and thanks for talking with us! You've designed quite a few games that we're looking forward to learning about, but before we do, let's start with your favorite games to play. What's been hitting your table recently? What are some of your all-time favorites? Any designers in particular you admire?

Hi Eric, thanks for talking with me. I have to say that it was definitely cards that got me into gaming. We were definitely a card game family. Mostly trick taking games I would say were the favourites. Even my very first attempted design was a card game. It really wasn't very good, but you've got to start somewhere. My current play group includes some reviewers so I am lucky enough to get to play a lot of newly released games these days. I feel like it has really caught me up on what is in the market, but I still feel like I have a lot of back catalogue to play through still! I have a lot of my games from when I was a kid, I think it makes people laugh when they see my collection sometimes. There were definitely some wacky and ridiculous concepts back in the day! I grew up in the 80s and I feel like the toy market was constantly being hit with games at the time. It was probably a good time to grow up to love games. I still have a game that now is played by my children all the time called Monster Mash. I got it when I was really young but I am seeing games coming out now that remind me of it so I guess everything is coming full circle. 

I really appreciate designers who have create things that I can get people into gaming with. The classics being Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Catan, Bohnanza, etc. In general, I notice two types of players; those that only like specific genres of games or those that likes specific games within genres. I fit into the latter. I really likes games in all categories, and enjoy when someone makes a great game for that genre. It's probably one the reasons that I try to design a new genre of game every time I design. I push myself to purposely try new mechanics and see what I would do with it. 

When did you decide to start designing games, and what led you to that decision?

As I said, I have always liked games. I used to make them up when I was a kid too. I remember a few of them being almost impossible to play/beat haha. I am a teacher by day so I gotten in the habit years ago to create fun ways to deliver material to my students. Usually that was through play or gaming. I even get them to create math games every year as a project. Kids love to play and make games. It started to inspire me to create things for myself instead of just my students. I always loved stories (I thought I might have become a writer one day) and am artistically inclined, so designing kind of became a great outlet for all of that. At least that is how I approach design. I love immersion in a game, strong theme, and when the mechanics tie in well to the story being told. So that is always my goal when designing. 

You have six signed games right now, and one that has been optioned, all with five different publishers. Tell us a bit about your design process, that you are able to juggle so many projects.

I have been lucky enough to find an amazing co-designer in Daryl Andrews. He's my mentor in the Game Artisans of Canada. We have a invite apprentice/mentor structure so he was a huge part of my jumping into the deep end of game design. My process is kind of like writing down story concepts, a paragraph about the general idea of the game and how it might play, but I really do think of them as mini stories. Sometimes I think of a mechanic first but I find that is more rare for me. I tend to have my mechanics come from the story/theme. I have created whole worlds in my head, haha, I'm not sure if they will ever see the light of day, but it's just how I think. I actually enjoy bringing the games to life through prototyping. I'm sure I am not alone, but I need to see and touch my designs to get a good idea of how they are working and coming across to the player. I have an idea of the feel of a game in my head when I design it, not just how it plays. People will say that my prototypes are often 'pretty' for this reason. I am trying to get the whole game design out of my head when I prototype, and look and feel are a big part of that for me. I also don't try to limit myself, meaning, if I see a 3D tower in my head for a game, I will create a 3D tower. It's a great way to experiment and see what is possible. It also explains a bit why my games are so visual, I actually picture them in my head, what they should look like, before I create them. 

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One of those games, Ink Monsters, which was co-designed with Daryl Andrews and is being published by Albino Dragon, just funded on Kickstarter. Congratulations! Tell us a bit about how it went from idea to reality, and what kind of game it is. Also, what's it like co-designing with Daryl Andrews?

Ink Monsters is a great example of how an idea evolves. It started out as a similar concept in terms of mechanics but was actually Monster Musical Chairs and we have monsters being removed from the circle as though chairs being removed from the game. Funny enough, people expected music when they played it, so we adjusted the idea. We played with the idea next of Closet Monsters, each monster was trying to go through the closet door or from under the bed to get out and scare. When we sold the game to Albino Dragon we continued to develop it with Erik Dahlman and it became a cuter idea of drawing the monsters that you were collecting, which was a great idea for more family friendly art. Ink Monsters is a set collection game. An extremely layered set collection game. Every character you collect has a set of attributes. Monsters each have a value to them but also will increase in value when you collect attributes that they are looking for. For example, a character might want other monsters that have multiple eyes, so one of your goals is to collect those types of monsters, but you can have many different monsters looking for different things so you can strategically layer the cards your collecting. It makes it kid friendly, they look for the easy to match attributes, and for gamers who want to see if they can create as many combos for scoring as possible. A fun part of the game for adults is also that there are a lot of joke names in the game. Almost all the names of the monsters are references to cartoons, comics, etc. Daryl and I are even cards in the game.  

Co-designing with Daryl is great. He has so much experience with different publishers that he has an idea of what they might comment on or question. He develops games as well as designs them so can often head off problems when we design before they become something more embedded in the game. He has been a great filter too for ideas. I'll often 'pitch' my story/game outlines to him and see what he thinks is most interesting. Or he'll have an idea of a theme he'd really like to do and then we see what ideas might fall out. This also means that we always start projects that we are both interested in. On the rare occasion, a design that we are working on will hit the wall and just not quite work out but for the most part we can adjust and redesign until it becomes what we want. I mentioned early, Daryl is my mentor in the Game Artisans, and he has been my introduction and teacher in this industry. I never realized that we might have a bit of a crazy pace when we design until I started to attend cons in order to pitch the games. We would always have multiple games we were pitching at a time. It is just the way that we happen to work. 

You also have a few games signed with IDW. One is a trick-taking game called Upsidedown. Tell us about Upsidedown, and what separates this trick-taking game from others and makes it special?

Upsidedown is an example of when I thought of a mechanic and really wanted to turn it into a game. In this case, having cards that reverse, kind of like tarrot cards do. Daryl and I took the idea and created a trick taking game out of it. What's fun and interesting about this game is that the tricks you are taking each round will alternate between high and low, which your cards do as well. One side of the card is the high value, the opposite side is the reversed low value. For example, a card could be 19 and 91 at the same time. As a player, you have to decide if you should use it to take a trick that is high with the 91 or low with the 19. You also bid on the number of tricks you need to take each game. So you have to make sure not to take too many or too few tricks as well or you'll have a lot of points to make up. 

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The other thing you have signed with IDW is a series of area control games called Roar, the first being Roar: King of the Pride and the second being Roar: Ambush of Tigers. I understand the boards to these can actually connect, does this mean they can be combined together? How will this work?

Roar King of the Pride is coming from IDW early in the new year. It is an area control game about lions in Africa, and the parts are looking amazing. Two words - LION MEEPLES! Roar Ambush of Tigers is a different version of the game with new terrain, different abilities, and a completely different distribution. There is a human element in both games and the lions and tigers will act in the game as they would in real life; the lions get pushed around by the humans and the humans get pushed around by the tigers. We had to set both games closer to the 1900s so that we can have 6 types of lions and 6 types of tigers for the games. Sadly, a lot of these cats are extinct today, especially the tigers because they were naturally more aggressive towards people. I definitely had to play with the maps a little bit when we were designing these games but we got both boards to line up and connect together. Just like the giant migrating cats would, you can move the tigers and lions between the two maps and have both playing at the same time. There is a really neat mechanic called Ancestral Strength in the game.For example, in King of the Pride, you can sacrifice male lions in order to increase the overall strength of all your lions but you will be eliminating them from the board by doing this. We are hoping this will satisfy the wants of an area control game lover but give a different way of achieving this. Lions and Tigers can perform actions like attack, stealth, breed, etc in order to spread and take over areas. The natural strengths and limitations of these animals has been designed into the game. I guess it is a good example of what I was talking about early, creating mechanics that fall out of the theme. 

You also have a game called Sandstorms: Lost Vegas signed with Grand Gamers Guild, where you are excavating parts of Las Vegas after it was swallowed by the desert. What was the inspiration for this game? How does it play?

The game started out as a similar game but almost a more generic version of it. The idea was a city you found in the desert that was constantly being ravaged by sandstorms that were making it disappear from the world. But you know that there is treasure under the sands so you are willing to fight the storms in order to claim your parts of the city. The mechanics were fine but the story needed more grounding so it was then set in Las Vegas, especially after we started down the route of a known city that was covered in the future. Since Las Vegas is already fighting the desert it would make sense to set the game in the Las Vegas of the future. People will recognize the treasures that they are uncovering. Everything you find will bring you money/vp and many of them when controlled will give additional abilities with it. You have to fight the storms at the end of each day though not to lose what you have uncovered. In this game you use action cards to dig in the sand, barricade against storms, use radar to predict storms, etc. There are three different kinds of things buried under the sand to undercover. Some are worth immediate money/vp, some are long game points and others work like set collection to increase in points. You can always try to bring back locations that you have found that have been covered again. Uncovering already dug locations can have benefits and disadvantages. The person that has the most vp at the end of a set number of days of excavating wins the game. 

You also have some unnamed games signed or optioned with other publishers. Anything you can tell us about these projects?

One of the things I am learning as a designer is that you just never know what is going to happen. Everything feels new to me, haha. I didn't know what an option was until this summer. I hope something comes from that game but a game isn't sold until the contract is signed and even then it doesn't see the light of day until it's been printed. You can't really expect or hope for anything until it actually happens. At least, this feels like an important lesson that I am learning. A kind of 'don't count your chickens before the hatch' idea. 

I can say that I am lucky enough that publishers are starting to approach me to work on material. I hopefully can share and announce some of those soon. I have games that are in evaluation with more people than I can keep track of sometimes, haha, but I don't honestly know how to approach this industry in any other way. 

You attended Gen Con 50 this summer. How was your experience? Was it your first Gen Con?

It was my first GenCon. Most people will find this crazy but this was really my first year of cons. GenCon was great. I would call it a 'working con'. What I mean by that is that as a designer this sort of con is meeting after meeting rather than really getting a lot played. A good example of this I have found is cons like NY Toy Fair, Origins and Gen Con. Then there are the playing cons, those are more relaxed like Breakout Con and Dice Tower Con. I'll still have meetings but it is more casual and I find you can make appointments on the spot at places like Dice Tower Con. These are great cons for playing prototypes, get things playtested and often seeing games that are just about to come out. This year I have attended NY Toy Fair, GAMA, Breakout Con, Gathering of Friends, Origins, Dice Tower Con, Gen Con and will be at BGG in November. I would go back to all but GAMA I think. GAMA was a great way for me to understand the industry better, but I don't think I would recommend it to designers for pitching games. 

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I understand there is a very active designer community where you live in the Toronto area. How has this community helped shape your designs? How have you helped shape others' designs?

I don't think I could finish games or have as many ideas for redesigns if I wasn't part of the amazing Toronto community. People travel here just to go to Snakes & Lattes, which is probably our most famous board game cafe, with two locations now. Toronto is full of board game cafes now, as well as pinball, ping pong, RPG, CCG, and just about any other kind of game you can think of in a bar, restaurant, or cafe setting. We have regular monthly designers nights at multiple places, most notably Snakes & Lattes and 401 games. This makes testing your games so much easier if you can't arrange for a play test group. I have young children at home so it's not always easy to have tests at my house so places like this are essential.  

Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you'd like everyone to know about you? Any other passions or hobbies, other than prolifically designing board games?

Hahaha, I don't know about prolific but I guess my pace is a bit crazy to some people (and might even be slow for others!). It suits my ADD brain though. I don't think I could only work on one game at a time if I tried! I am someone who loves to try new things all the time, especially artistically. I taught myself cake sculpting a few years back because it looked like a fun way to use my sculpting skills. Plus, it's fun to play with sugar. I love to scuba dive, that was definitely my driving force for years of travel. I also really like martial arts. I even met my husband when I was learning Kung Fu. We were each learning a different style at the same school. Not your typical story I find but I think it sums us up pretty well haha. My family is important to me and a big part of why I do this. I have started to use them as Easter Eggs in my game. They are characters in Ink Monsters named after them, they appear in rule books as the player examples, pretty much anywhere I can fit them into the design, not just the thank you section.

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