Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Kathleen Mercury
'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 Kathleen Mercury, board game design teacher, board game designer, and one of the members of the planning board for Geekway to the West. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Let's start with the most important question, what kind of games to you like to play? Any favorite mechanisms, designers? What's been hitting your table recently?
A lot of the games that I tend to play often are older, ones that have withstood the new hotness and are just good solid games. I particularly love the Empire Builder series from Mayfair Games, and I'm really excited about Iron Dragon finally getting republished. But generally speaking, a lot of my favorite games are those that I want to play over and over and over again like Survive: Escape from Atlantis, Catan, Le Havre, Carcassonne (the Star Wars version is really fun), games like those. I really like Terraforming Mars, and I have a list of games I'm excited to try that probably everyone else already has played.
You teach game design to gifted middle school kids. How did that start? Was the program in place when you started, or did you create it?
When I started teaching gifted kids in my district, the program was centered around research, and many of the kids were unhappy. I saw so many really creative thinkers who just needed to have more interesting problems to solve. I went to a conference and one session in particular was about games for gifted kids, and I got some ideas about different games that I hadn't heard of. I began to research games and found out about this whole other world of board games that I now know and love so much. And after playing some games, I thought to myself I should have kids make games!, and that was about 10 years ago.
One of my big things that I say a lot is that I want my students to be creators not just consumers. They love to play games. So in my mind. if they love it so much they should learn how to make them, to become even more part of that world.
Tell us about some of your student's designs. Do they all start out as roll-and-move games? How do you help shape them?
I actually ban roll and move as a mechanic for students. Sometimes, they freak out a little bit at first because it's so easy and they know it it well. Right away, I have them play simple games with really inventive mechanics like Cthulhu in the House, Hey That's My Fish!, Deep Sea Adventure, Get Bit!, and PowerPuff Girls: Villains at Large. These are all games that kids can learn and play quickly, and they are great for having ideas that can be easily apply to student Game designs. So, when I say no roll and move, they've already played games that provide alternatives to it.
They play a lot of different games, because you have to be a gamer in order to be a game designer. After they play shorter games, I assign them each a longer, more substantial game and they teach them to members of their board game group, and then I remix the groups and they do it again. So they get experience reading rules, teaching games, and playing a lot of games. All important skills.
I also use UnPub: The Game to help them brainstorm how to apply mechanics to different themes, and sometimes they get the idea for their game project from that!
I base the process off the Stanford School's model of prototype development, which emphasizes empathy for the user. So one of the most important components of the project is feedback. When they playtest, we use what I call the WINQ: they say what Works, what needs Improvement, what New ideas they have, and what Questions they have. This prompts them to give feedback across a wide range of suggestions, and seeing their feedback and positive responses to feedback as they iterate their games is one of the best parts of this. So really, they help shape each other's games more than I do.
Each student creates their own game, so they can be selfish in the best possible way. They have to listen to feedback and I expect them to incorporate it, but they can choose what ideas they want want to change or implement. I want them to have total ownership over the final product. They will playtest with everyone in the class at least once, so it's definitely not a solitary experience.
Of your student's designs, do you have any favorites? Have any gotten published?
I love them all. It's actually really hard for me to name any in particular. One thing about their games' themes is that they are so widely varied. They don't have the same concerns that game designers do about thematic similarity or market saturation; they just make what they think is fun. So I'm constantly inspired by their creativity and freshness of ideas.
None have gotten published, but one was really really close. It was picked up by a publisher, but then the company was bought by another company, and the new company eventually passed on the game. That student is still working on games, even after my class.
In the real world, after design comes development, and we don't really have time to develop and really refine games. So they have to want to do that after the class ends, and some actually do. So, some kids get frustrated at the end that their games aren't "good," and I have to help them frame their expectations at the start that their games are like rough drafts of books, not ready to be published versions, and that helps.
In addition to teaching game design, you've designed some games. Tell us about Dirty Birdy (which is available on your website) and Crash Course, which has been signed by IDW.
First, Dirty Birdy has an interested publisher! I'm reworking it thematically and making some changes. I'm ridiculously excited about this. The published version will be similar to what happens in Dirty Birdy, so just to give you an idea of what happens:
Dirty Birdy is set in a city, and has three dimensional buildings with street tiles that have people, cars, and umbrellas. Each player controls a flock of pigeons that fly from building to building, and as they fly they drop poop cubes down onto those targets below for which they score points. There is a second dexterity element as players slide a falcon on a key ring down a rod to knock others' pigeons off their buildings too. Players get a point for each pigeon that they knock off a building, points for tiles that they've collected, and a point for each pigeon left on the board at the end of the game, which is of course determined when someone rungs out of poop. The game is ridiculous and funny and fun, and I'm excited about the new version which will have hopefully just as much humor as the original.
Crash Course is a race around a circular, modular board, almost like Mario Kart in space. You fly around, zapping the other players, dropping mines, using your cards to hopefully save yourself from annihilation. The different wedges get upgraded during the game to get more and more treacherous, and it has a strong push your luck element as well. My partner Mark Sellmeyer (Spin Monkeys, Rio Grande) and I have done most of the development of the game this summer with Daryl Andrews, and I've learned so much about games and game design by testing and refining so many ideas to get this crazy game right where we want it. It's what I like best in games: so much fun to play, you almost don't care who wins. I'm particularly proud of this one because we took a good game and really worked it into making something much more solid and fun to play.
In addition to teaching and designing games, you are also one of the organizers of Geekway to the West. What's your role there? What's it like bringing off a convention of that size? What special sauce makes Geekway different from other conventions?
I'm on the planning board of Geekway to the West, and I run the game design prototype and contest events. I'm really proud of the games that have come to market through both of these events over the years; seeing their booths at GenCon and buying their games is really gratifying. I know that my happiness comes from being able to create experiences for people that they wouldn't be able to have otherwise, and I'm so happy for them that they are achieving success.
Of course, my greatest contribution to gaming is fancy gaming or Game prom, as some call it. Gaming is fun, getting dressed is fun, so why not do fancy gaming or you can do both at the same time. We had some amazing costumes and ballgowns and a duck race in a fountain for charity and it's just been an absolute blast to do.
Geekway's growth has been explosive over the years. My first Geekway was about 75 people, in 2018 we'll be close to 3,000. One of the biggest challenges is anticipating the new problems that come with each step up in size, and everyone's committed to making it run as smoothly as possible so people can play games, games, games. One of our signature events is our Play & Win, with hundreds of hot titles available for players to play and enter to win.
Geekway is very laid-back, with a fun, friendly, open-gaming environment. Saint Louis has some really great places to see, fantastic restaurants, and I love seeing so many friends and making so many new ones each year. The gaming community is great here, and everyone should come. And bring something fancy to wear (we don't define fancy, and of course, you don't have to do it.)
You recently had your likeness turned into a character for the upcoming Heroes Wanted: Elements of Danger. How did that come about?
I had just met Nick Little and Travis Chance, who were both then with Action Phase Games as a standalone game company. I saw how there are a lot of different heroes in their games and I told them that I wanted to be one of the heroes. They told me no, they don't really do that, so I kicked over a giant stack of chairs in the corner of one of the big game rooms we had at Geekway. It went down on the floor with a huge crash that scared the snot out of everybody playing! Sorry not sorry, I guess, because I looked at Travis and Nick and said, "See?" and they said, "Done." Several years later, I am now a hero in Heroes Wanted called Boulder.
Anything else you'd like to share before we let you go?
I put all my game design resources on my website -- www.kathleenmercury.com -- so others can teach game design. I couldn't find much when I started, in terms of resources, so I put everything on there for free so others can use them too. Teachers of all levels, up to university, are using them, and I want others to use them as well!