Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Jessica Chu and Katie Khau
'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 guests this week are Jessica Chu and Katie Khau, the co-designers of Windup War and Heifer Heist. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
I see you both went to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Is that where you first met?
We actually met in high school! It just so happened that we also went to the same college, so we became roommates and now we’re inseparable!
When did you decide to design games together? And how did you decide on Cow and Duck Studios as the name of your company?
We took a game design course in college which focused on learning design through board games. We brought one of the projects from the course to a local board game design competition together as a team and life has never been the same since!
Katie’s last name is pronounced as “cow”, and our first game Heifer Heist is all about heisting some heifers! Jess just like ducks a lot.
Being co-designers, I am very curious to hear what your design process is like. How often do you disagree on the direction of a design? How do you resolve differences of opinion?
We collaborate on all aspects of our design, even the parts that each of us specialize in (art and writing). Sometimes we do disagree on stuff but for the most part we have the same mindset, outlook, and work ethic, so our thoughts and efforts line up. When we do have differences we usually talk about our thoughts on the design and test both ideas to find out what option works the best. Communication is key!
Your first game design, back in 2014, was Heifer Heist, which was put on Kickstarter but did not successfully fund. Do you look back on that game fondly? Did you learn a lot from the failed campaign?
We still look at the game now! We’re still working on it and we’re currently looking for a publisher for Heifer Heist!
The campaign turned out to be, for us, a crash course of what we loved about the industry, and what we weren’t prepared for. When we started the campaign, we weren’t as connected as we are now -- we had a small and very local fan base but we needed the additional audience from the general board game community. We also learned a lot about the general business-ness of running a campaign as well as the ins and outs of how to make a board game campaign work!
Your second design, Windup War, was picked up by Bellwether Games. How long had you been developing Windup War before they picked it up? How did your relationship with Bellwether start?
Windup War came out of the DFW Nerd Night Game Design Competition! We had only developed it for a few months, and we took it to Stonemaier Games’ Design Day for further playtesting, which is where Dennis of Bellwether Games found us. He took an interest in the game and we kept in touch, and eventually we began our business relationship. It’s been great!
Give us the elevator pitch for Windup War.
When the kids are away, the toys come out to play... and FIGHT! Welcome to Windup War! Turn the keys and spring into battle! Assemble your toy army and command them in combat to be the last army standing! Ready? WINDUP THE WAR!
In Windup War, you plan your army’s orders to take down the armies surrounding you! Program your units’ actions and strategically snipe your targets! Be the last toy army standing or score 3 points to win!
Windup War is a simultaneous programmable action game where two to six players play as generals of a toy army! Each general selects three units to represent them in the war and program five actions at a time to try and take down the other players! Each unit has a different combination of actions they can take and everyone takes their actions at the same time, so generals must consider their unit and action orders carefully!
There are two ways to win the war: be the last army standing or score 3 points! Points can be scored if you play a charge action while no one else is charging. Successfully charge three points and you can win the war early!
Did you design Windup War with the theme in mind first, or the mechanisms?
We take a holistic approach to our designs. We tend to design with both mechanics and theme at the same time. The mechanics are influenced by the theme, and vice versa. In Windup War, we began with the idea of a tiny toy war with windup soldiers, which then brought about the programming mechanic of “winding up” actions!
Windup War was successfully funded through Kickstarter. Was it easier or harder to see the campaign be run by another publisher instead of yourselves?
Quite honestly, it was a relief! Both of us have full-time jobs to pay the bills and game design occupies our free time. Publishers, on the other hand, are dedicated to bringing a game from concept to actualized product, and they have the time and resources that we wouldn’t normally have to tie it all together. With the exception of the art, which Katie of course drew and designed, having a publisher run the campaign was a weight off our shoulders. Dennis of Bellwether Games has been incredibly supportive and helped us bring Windup War to reality! He kept us in the loop during the entire process, which is still ongoing -- Windup War has cleared customs and should be fulfilling soon!
Katie, not only are you the co-designer for Cow and Duck Studios, you are also the artist. Tell us a bit about how your artistic process.
Most of my work is vector art because I like clean, crisp lines, but I usually physically sketch out as many different thumbnails as I can before beginning to digitize it. I pick out an idea that works the best and then clean it up in Adobe Illustrator. I use Adobe InDesign for any graphic design work.
What's next for you both? Are you working on another design together? Any side projects either of you are working on solo?
We’re working on a few designs at the moment! We’re hoping to find publishers for them too!
We’re also looking into expanding the cow&duck book of business. As Katie does art and Jess knows her way around words a little bit, we want to offer our services for artistic and writing/editing endeavors. Hit us up if you need some help with your designs!
We also help run a board game design competition in Champaign-Urbana, IL, called CUDO Plays! Any time that isn’t devoted to cow&duck goes straight to CUDO Plays. Heifer Heist came out of this competition, so it’s near and dear to our hearts.
Is there anything else we should know about you? Any hobbies, interests, or other passions?
Katie now owns a laser cutter! She also loves to help others bring their game to life by creating art for them. Visit her website at katiekhau.com to see her portfolio!
Jess enjoys video games and photography and occasionally plays an instrument. Currently she is attempting to fight off withdrawal symptoms from lacking the time to play Stardew Valley. It’s not working - she’s bought and is cultivating a blueberry bush to fill the void.
Windup War will be available at retail at the beginning of August, and can be pre-ordered from the Bellwether Games website.