Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Suzanne Zinsli
'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 Suzanne Zinsli, the co-designer of Tessen, Cobras, Dubai and the upcoming Ceylon, and co-creator of the Cardboard Edison website. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Thanks for joining us! Before we get into your work on the Cardboard Edison website and your game designs, let's talk about what kind of games you like to play. Any favorite designers? All-time favorite games? Any recent games you've fallen in love with?
Wow, this is a tough question... there are so many great games and designers out there. I think my current favorite designer is Vital Lacerda. He is brilliant and his games are super intense. He is also a really great guy also.
I tend to like more heavy euros and crunchy games, but my husband and business partner, Chris, prefers lighter games. We often find a happy medium in two-player elegantly designed games. The one that has been hitting our table most often lately is Pyramids, designed by Matthew Dunstan and Brett J. Gilbert and published by Iello.
My all-time top three games are Panic Station (designed by David Ausloos and published by Stronghold Games), Ladies and Gentlemen (designed by Loic Lamy and published by Libellud) and A Feast for Odin (designed by Uwe Rosenberg and published by Z-Man Games).
Tell us all about the Cardboard Edison website. What made you create it? How did you choose the name for it? How has it evolved since you launched it?
Cardboard Edison was created when Chris and I really started to get into board game design. We were amazed at the amount of content out there and also a bit overwhelmed by it. We started the website to help other designers in the same place we were. When we created the name, we wanted to honor three things: the industry, the designers/inventors and something personal - our New Jersey roots. We chose Cardboard to reflect the industry and Edison to reflect the inventors/designers and our NJ roots. Thomas Edison lived and had a research lab in this state.
Our company has grown so much since its inception. We are completely humbled by all the support we receive from the community. What started out as a simple blog has turned into a company that offers feature stories/interviews, an annual international design award, professional playtesting and rules editing, and a publisher directory that is maintained and updated regularly.
We also have started to publish games and have several other projects in the works, including a podcast.
Cardboard Edison has an annual award to "recognize great unpublished board games." How long have you been giving out this award? How many entries did you get last year? How did you judge so many entries?
This will be our third year running the contest. Last year we received about 165 submissions. Either Chris or I view each one and then we also have a panel of judges that review them. We try to make sure each game is judged by five people and the judges include at least one publisher, one designer and one other kind of industry professional. We have a really prestigious list of judges who offer detailed feedback.
You must be doing something right, because the 2017 Cardboard Edison winner Castell was just picked up by Renegade Game Studios to be published early next year. Are there other games that have been entered in the contest that have gone on to be published?
Yes, the winner from 2016, The Blood of an Englishman by Dan Cassar, was also picked up by Renegade. There have been multiple contracts signed and some games are still in development. I know many entrants have been approached by publishers after they entered our contest.
You must be gearing up for next year's Cardboard Edison Award. How do you prepare to run it?
The overall structure will remain the same, but this year we are also offering sponsorship packages. It takes a lot of time and resources to organize and run the competition, and we hope the sponsorships will help us offset that cost. We are in the process now of securing our judges and getting the surveys set up. It is a very exciting time for us! I love this contest and seeing all the cool designs people are working on!
Switching gears a bit, you are also a board game designer. You co-design games with your husband Chris Zinsli. Tell us a bit about your co-design process.
It has peaks, valleys and plateaus... lol. A lot of our marriage goes into our designs. We are very different people, with opposite tastes, style and preferences. However, the happy medium we find seems to work for us. We try to block out four hours a week to work on game design, but that rarely happens. Chris works a full-time job and we have two young daughters that keep us quite busy.
When we do get to work on designs, we take turns leading the design process. One of us will suggest a game to work on. We will brainstorm, prototype, play it, whatever needs to be done for that specific design for an hour. At the end of the hour, it is up to the other person to decide whether they want to continue this project or table it for now and work on something else. We found this method works great for us and it also makes sure we are each working on the projects we are most passionate about.
Your first design, Tessen, was published by Van Ryder Games back in 2013. What made you decide to design a game? How did that initial idea turn into Tessen? How did you get it signed?
Tessen was our first published game, but not our first design.... our first ones were pretty rough around the edges. Tessen was about the 3rd game we dedicated a lot of time to. Tessen was actually a follow-up to another game we were working on called Elf Rage and yes it was as terrible as the name would suggest.
The game of Tessen came about very organically and quickly. After just a few playtests it was done.
Tessen was signed by AJ from Van Ryder Games at an Unpub back when they were held in Delaware. We knew him from online and had playtested his designs. It was great to meet in person. While chatting with him, he took note of the enthusiasm from several playtesters that were playing Tessen. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
We were thrilled to work with him also. It was a really great first publishing experience.
Your second published game, Cobras, you self published under the Cardboard Edison brand. How different was it self publishing a game as opposed to signing it with a publisher? What made you decide to go that route?
Going with a publisher is MUCH easier! We decided to self publish for several reasons. First, we wanted to know the process. It's one thing to read about it, but a whole other world to experience it. It is was exciting, scary and stressful. Luckily, we brought Eric Alvarado on board to be the project manager for it. We knew Eric from our local playtest/gaming group. I had always been impressed by his development and design skills and when the opportunity arose to work with him, I jumped at it. He was amazing during the whole process!
Second, we are interested in getting into the world of publishing. We think a good relationship between designer and publisher is what makes good games great. We wanted our first game to be one of our designs in case there were any problems. We did not want an outside designer to suffer because of our lack of experience. We are now working on other games to publish from outside designers and have our own designs with other publishers.
There seems to be a recent resurgence in trick-taking games. What drew you to design a game of that type, and what sets Cobras apart from other trick-taking games?
The game Cobras is based on the Cobra Effect. The Cobra Effect is a term used to describe situations where a solution makes the problem worse. It is based on an anecdote from the time of British rule over colonial India. The British officials were concerned about the number of cobras in Delhi, so they offered a bounty for every dead cobra brought to them. Some very entrepreneurial citizens began breeding cobras to hand in for the bounty. When the officials realized what was going on, they canceled the bounty. Once the bounty was canceled, there was no need for the entrepreneurs to keep their stock of cobras, so they released them. There were now more cobras roaming the streets of Delhi than before.
We loved this story and thought it would make a really cool and fun economic game. Once we started discussing it, the mechanics just flowed into it. It was a really enjoyable experience designing this game.
Trick-taking games are known for having something special in the game to make it unique. With our game, we wanted a push-your-luck element. There are optimal times to win and optimal times to lose your hand. As a player, you have to manage your hand and the cobras, and keep an eye on what all the other players are doing. We think the choice of when to win or lose is what really makes our game stand out from the crowd.
You also had another game, Dubai, that was signed by Greater Than Games, but failed to fund on Kickstarter earlier this year. What do you think happened that caused the project to be cancelled? Do you have future plans with Dubai going forward, to try to bring it to market again?
Oh, Dubai... it has been a long love story with this design. We have been working on it for years. It started out as Cottage Industry and in addition the base mechanic also included a choose-your-own-adventure mechanic. There was a lot going on in the game... lol. We trimmed it down and rethemed it to Dubai. It was put up on Kickstarter in early 2017 and failed. It was heart-breaking to watch. I am not sure why it failed. There have been lots of comments and threads which discuss some reasons, but it is really all speculation at this point, I think.
It was amazing to work with the team from Greater Than Games, and I know they poured their heart and soul into this project. That is the weird (sometimes good, sometimes bad) thing about Kickstarter...you can not predict how a project is going to do. I think we all learned a lot from this project.
I also am happy it failed in a weird way. Though no one likes to fail, I think it made me grow as a person, and it is something that we have gone through that maybe we can use to help other people in the same position. We have been there, we know your pain. A failed Kickstarter is not always about the game, keep on going!
With all that said, we do believe Dubai will see the light of day. It has a very unique and cool mechanic for each player's turn. There is lots of strategy and fun in that design. We are eager to get it out and onto tables!
Next year, you have a new game that you and Chris designed, called Ceylon, coming out. Tell us about it. What kind of game is it? What is the theme? Main mechanisms? Who is publishing it?
Ceylon is being published by Ludonova and is expected to hit the market in Spring 2018. The island of Ceylon was transformed by the tea trade in the 1800s, and in this medium-weight euro-style game your goal is to plant, harvest, and sell tea to become the best tea company on the island. The game features a unique action-sharing mechanism that keeps you involved during every turn of the game.
It has been amazing to work with the team from Ludonova. They have pushed us to become better designers and have helped us develop this game to the next level. We are really excited about the release!!!
Before we wrap up, is there anything else you'd like us to know about you? Any hobbies, passions, or other interests?
I love reading, and if anyone has any books to recommend I am always on the lookout. I am also a Girl Scouts leader (we start selling cookies in January... hint, hint). Besides that, all the rest of my time is taken up by our two amazing daughters, LilyAnne and Hana.