Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Sarah Reed (Part 1)
‘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 first guest is Sarah Reed, designer of Project Dreamscape and Oaxaca: Crafts of a Culture, who shares insights into her design process. The interview, which will be published in two parts, was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Before we get into your designs, let's talk about what kind of games you like to play -- and spoiler alert, I know your Twitter handle is @EuroGamerGirl. But what would you say are your favorite board games to play? Any favorite designers?
Haha, yeah, I do tend to like “Eurogames” because I like games with strategy, meaningful choices and I love to build! So I really love deckbuilders and citybuilders. My favorites are Dominion, Villagers & Villains, Seasons and Suburbia. I also really enjoy co-ops because my gaming life really started with role-playing games in high school. My favorite co-ops are Sentinels of the Multiverse and Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game. Over the last year, I’ve been playing a lot of games at work with my coworkers so I’m enjoying a lot of the lighter fare too like Sushi Go, Captain Carcass, Qwixx, and Cardline/Timeline. As for designers, so far, I think the only one that I can say is my favorite is Ted Alspach with his building series. Suburbia is my all-time favorite, but we enjoy Castles of Mad King Ludwig and Colony as well. Really looking forward to Palaces of Mad King Ludwig!
So what catalyzed the transition from being a board gamer to designing games?
This is a funny story and it all starts with my husband Will. Will loves to surprise me for my birthday. I’m terrible at surprises, both doing them and receiving them, but I let him do his thing because it makes him so happy.
In 2012, we really got into the board gaming scene. We were burnt out on role-playing games and so we got the Big Box of Dominion in the spring and that launched us head first into the deep end. I got a lot of euro-style games like Puerto Rico, Agricola, etc, and we played them a lot!
As it came closer to my birthday in August, one day Will came to me looking very forlorn. He was upset because he couldn’t do the surprise gift for me all on his own. He wanted to make a board game for me, but due to his vision disabilities, he couldn’t make a prototype. I gave him a big hug and a smile, and let him know that I loved the surprise, and we could do it together.
The concept delighted me. It was so sweet of him and I loved the idea of trying make a board game together so I put on my research hat. I found posts online that talked about board game design, Will found The Game Crafter, and from there we made a terrible, terrible game, but it was the beginning. And without that, we wouldn’t be designing today.
When designing a game, do you have a preconceived weight in mind? Or a time the game should take to play? A specific player count? Or do you let the game naturally define these aspects as it develops?
First, I need to explain how Will and I design as a team. Alone, neither of us would ever make games. But together, we can. He’s the one with the seeds of ideas. I’m the developer, I help grow those ideas into full-fledged game concepts. It’s often a very back and forth process at the beginning as Will does all his designing in his head. So he’ll think, ask me questions, take in my feedback, think some more, ask me more questions, consider my suggestions and think more.
This process goes on for a while until he feels it’s solid and he writes his notes down. Once he’s satisfied that it has the general concepts of the game and any text needed for printed components, I take those files and do my thing. I rewrite the notes into the first draft of the rules. I take the component text and start mocking up the first versions of the cards and mats, whatever needs printing. I do very basic graphic design in Photoshop using the templates from The Game Crafter and icons from Game-Icons.net. We review the files together before I print everything, cut and sleeve cards as necessary, so we can sit down and do our first playtests. We playtest just the two of us several times, revising as needed, before we go outside our team (Will and I) for playtesting.
So now that I’ve gone over how we design as team, I can actually answer your questions. Most of the time, Will thinks of player count first. Designing for 2-4 is different than designing for 1 which is different than designing for 3-6 players. Player count often dictate your design goals because the more players you have, the harder it is to design a good game and every player adds time to the game. For example, for the first edition of Dominion, you could combine the base and Intrigue to play up to 6 players. However, that was not an enjoyable experience as it takes too much to get to each player’s turn. So in the second edition, they removed the option to play 5 and 6 players. As I’ve often heard, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
I'm told a critical part of the design process is playtesting. Can you tell me what your playtesting process is like? What feedback are you looking for? How does it help shape your designs?
We really focus on the experience of the game, which is tied to theme and mechanisms. So when we playtest, we’re looking for how people feel about the game, what they do in the game and what the game represents. As I said, our first playtests are just us and we are looking at balance, experience, and streamlining. Once we’ve got it as good as we can, we take it to our local design group, which I run. There, we get feedback on the same kinds of things, but also looking for their suggestions on improvements. A lot of the streamlining of our games comes from our design group as they can see different perspectives and have new ideas for us to consider.
Like all playtest feedback, we have to take it back and determine what works for us and what doesn’t. Often, if a direct suggestion doesn’t work, there is some essence behind it that we can still utilize. A lot of game design is cutting, cutting, cutting until there’s nothing left to cut.
We also get together with friends who are hardcore gamers and have a variety of play styles to test out our games. They provide a good gauge on whether the experience we crafted is fun or engaging. We take this feedback and compare it to our design goals to see if we made it. If not, then we may need to overhaul some aspects and go back to our design group to work on it.
At some point, we post a print and play of our game to get feedback from people we don’t know and aren’t near. This is invaluable for testing the rules, which is the hardest part of game design. The feedback from here is more about how to improve the clarity of the rules than necessarily any gameplay changes. Unless we post a print and play really early in the playtesting process, then we do end up with a lot of feedback on gameplay.
Your first published design, Project Dreamscape, and your upcoming design, Oaxaca: Crafts of a Culture, both have very unique themes. Do you design with the theme in mind first, or start with mechanisms and integrate theme later?
Will is always thinking of mechanisms in his head. Kind of like how some us daydream about being on the beach. So concepts are always floating around in his head, in very rough forms. One mechanism may float to the surface and he thinks about how he could use it in a game and how it could be done differently than the norm, but before he starts any designing with the mechanism, he thinks about theme because that ultimately guides the game design for us since we like experiences.
For Project Dreamscape, he thought about how he didn’t really like any of the set collection games he’d seen. So he wondered what he could do differently and he thought of chaining – set sequencing. Before moving forward on that, he thought about what theme would work. Something accessible that everyone did. Since it was late at night and he was getting ready for bed, he hit upon sleep, more specifically dreaming.
For Oaxaca (which was originally called In The Ruins), he had theme and mechanisms together from the start. He wanted an archaeology game that had real world aspects in, not generic as he didn’t like all the generic archaeology games he’d seen. He wanted the player actions to be about digging in the ruins and researching the finds. Lastly, he wanted to use dice, but not in the normal way with values. He wanted custom dice which symbols.
Now, our next game, which is currently called Reaching Haven’s Vault, he just had the mechanism of taking one card from a row and leaving the rest as resources gained. But he couldn’t think of a theme or what else to do with it so he brought it to me. I thought about it for a while and for the mechanism, I thought it would work well to have a grid that the resources go on. Then the strongest theme that came to mind was steampunk airships. The grid would be the cargo holds of airships that had limited space. From there we worked out together how the resources would be used.
Speaking of Oaxaca, which I am told is pronounced wah-HA-kah, your Kickstarter campaign goes live on June 12. Pitch the game to us. Who is the intended audience, what kind of experience is it?
Let’s face it, we want to play a game that has meaningful choices, engaging actions, differing strategies, and a rather unique theme to boot. Problem is, your options for this tend to be large bulky games that take more time than you have to play. Plus, your more casual friends may not be up to the task of playing, much less learning, games of this caliber. Oaxaca attempts to solve these issues.
Games of Oaxaca typically take less than 45 minutes to play. The five major play styles are represented in the five different craft types. Mixing these play styles in the game will produce very diverse experiences each time its play. With the emerging complexity of the gameplay, even the most casual player will feel comfortable playing it. This is all packaged in a beautifully different art style, done by Derek Bacon, that is steeped in a culture that doesn’t see much game time.
This is hopefully that “go to” game for when you need a thoughtful filler or want to play one game multiple times to be the meat of your game night. It is also that gateway game that can initiate you and your friends into the more complex side of gaming. In short, it is a robust design that tries not to waste your time.
For those looking for an elevator pitch of Oaxaca: Thematically, market day is soon approaching and all the crafting families in Oaxaca, Mexico are gathering materials, making their crafts, and setting up their market stall displays. Mechanically, Oaxaca is a fast game of engine-building and dice manipulation that is easy to learn, but has emerging complexity and meaningful choices.
How do you feel your design process has evolved from Project Dreamscape through Oaxaca?
The main thing that has changed is the length of development. How we operate as a team has stayed the same. You see, Project Dreamscape was born from the frustrations concerning a design we had been working on for almost 2 years. This was not the really terrible first game we made, but it was born from the very first terrible game that we made. We learned a lot from working on a design for 2 years and really grew as designers, but we both realized it was going in circles so we took a break. To refresh his palate, Will came up with Project Dreamscape. His goal was to make a small, tight game that challenged him. When he showed it to me, I only had a few changes to suggest, mostly speeding up the game. Then we took it to the design group and they only had a few tweaks to suggest, mostly balancing the abilities. So in total, Project Dreamscape took from about November 2014 to February 2015, 4 months, to develop and be ready for Kickstarter.
Which is completely different from Oaxaca. We have been working on it since March 2015 and are still tweaking solo play up to the launch of the Kickstarter on June 12th, 2017. So that’s almost a year and half of development. And Oaxaca took a lot of twists and turns that we would never have expected. Part of that is due to it being a bigger game. Project Dreamscape was originally a 54 card game and was expanded to 108 cards. Oaxaca has more than 120 cards, and then dice and cubes. Oaxaca has much more complexity of gameplay. So there are a lot more kinks to work out and streamlining to do. If anything, what changed is that we had to work harder to make Oaxaca a good game. I certainly feel that we got lucky with Project Dreamscape coming out of Will’s brain pretty much ready to go, which was a nice change from the designs we had attempted up to that point.
This was part one of Punchboard Media's ‘In Focus: Women of Board Gaming’ two-part interview with Sarah Reed. The second part of the interview can be found here.