Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Sydney Engelstein
'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 Sydney Engelstein, the co-designer of Space Cadets, Space Cadets: Dice Duel, Survive: Space Attack!, and The Dragon & Flagon. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Hey Sydney, thanks for taking some time to talk with us! Before we get into game design stuff, let's talk about what kind of games you most like to play. Play anything fun over the holidays? Get or give any board games as gifts?
Hi Eric! I love all kinds of games, and play them whenever I can find the time between college classes. I especially love Dungeons and Dragons, although I know many people don't consider it a board game, and other talking based role-playing games such as Avalon or Werewolf. Basically, I really enjoy lying to my friends and family. I played a few of the new Time Stories modules over the break, as well as Above and Below and I had a fun time playing all of those. My brother, dad, and I always play the Time Stories modules together, and so it has a nice, although new, traditional quality to it.
You come from a board gaming family -- with your co-designers being your dad and your brother. So what is game night like at the Engelstein household? Do you prefer playing competitive games or cooperative games together? Who gets the worst analysis paralysis?
Oh my brother, Brian, definitely. He can get really hung up on decisions. We tend towards the competitive at my house, which I think has made me a stronger person, but really we will play anything we hear good things about. Board game night for us is definitely 80% deciding on a game we all want to play, since we have so many. Usually we play something new that we've all never seen before, so we don't really get into the comfortable ruts of a favored or cherished game. Oh, and the last 20% of the night is convincing my mom to play with us, she likes games but she definitely is overwhelmed by the nerdiness quotient in the rest of her family.
Your first published board game was Space Cadets, back in 2012. Was this the first design you worked on? What originally sparked your desire to design games?
Space Cadets was my first game, but my brother and dad came out with Ares Project before that. I was pretty young when they were working on it, but it was years of helping them playtest and watching it come together and by the time it was published I was ready to join the team. They actually started Space Cadets without me, since the two of them had been designing together alone for a while, but came to me asking for ideas about some of the mechanics and I just never stopped helping after that. I never had a specific moment that I remember wanting to design games, but when I was faced with a mechanics question it was like a puzzle with the most satisfying conclusion. I love seeing an idea form into a finished product that just gets cleaner and cleaner the more you chip away at it.
In addition to Space Cadets, you've also co-designed Space Cadets: Dice Duel, Survive: Space Attack!, and The Dragon & Flagon. What was your co-design process with your father, Geoff Engelstein, and your brother, Brian Engelstein, with these games? Has it evolved as you've done more games together?
My family and I have a distinct advantage over most designers in that we all live together in the same house. It really makes game design more integrated into our lives. Occasionally we have sit down brainstorming sessions, but for the most part we are just doing our own work when an idea strikes us, and the co-designers are just a shout away. I have a lot of memories of ditching my homework to test out a Space Cadets station game and see if it worked. Our conversation on car trips flows in and out of "how was your day" and "what if everyone had two cards?". It just becomes a really natural part of your life. We have all grown so much over the course of designing all our games, at the beginning the process moved very slowly and it took us time to get in the right headspace. Nowadays we all understand each other much better, and are quicker to think of interesting mechanics. The tricky thing is, I left to go to college, so now I have to be emailed updated rule sets and it has slowed down the process immensely.
With Survive: Space Attack, how different was it adapting and updating someone else's design instead of working from a clean slate?
Working on Survive: Space Attack was really fun because I've been playing the original survive since I was really little. I have so many fond memories of it from my childhood, and it was an honor to get to continue that legacy. In some ways it was really daunting, because the original was so clean and well designed, but since we knew we didn't want to change any of the basic mechanics it ended up being a faster road than usual to getting ideas churned up. Survive is a well known game, so we just wanted to add more options, a few more moving parts. The hardest part of design, in my opinion, is getting the starting, base mechanic, so Survive: Space Attack for me was actually an easier game to work on.
All of those games were published by Stronghold Games. What has it been like working with Stephen Buonocore and Stronghold over the years?
Stephen Buonocore is great. He's been really fun to work with. I always feel comfortable joking around with him, and even when we aren't currently designing a board game for him we still go out of our way to see him at conventions and such, he's a good family friend. I love getting to give demos of our games at Gencon, it has never felt like we designed a game and it just went out into the void. Stronghold and Buonocore have always been a pleasure to work with, and he doesn't even get mad when I make jokes at his expense.
Do you have any designs you are currently working on that you can tell us anything about? Anything we should be looking out for from you?
There is an expansion for one of our existing games that is coming along at a nice pace, although I can't divulge any secrets as to what it contains or what it's for. I'm really excited about the new mechanics it contains and how it will bring a new sense of crazy fun to an already crazy fun game. If you don't mind me calling my own game crazy fun.
I understand you are also big into video games. What's your favorite video game right now? Do you prefer playing on a console or PC?
PC all the way! I never grew up with consoles, and so I am terrible with controllers. I love PC games though, especially really artsy indie ones that tell stories, though they're usually depressing or disturbing or both. I still devote a lot of my heart to League of Legends, although I haven't actually played the game in a while, and I love Hearthstone. There's something really endearing about its simplicity that draws me in.
How do you feel about the various attempts at using video game properties in board games, from Bioshock Infinite, to Dark Souls, to Mechs vs Minions, to Monopoly Gamer, etc.?
I love the attempt to turn video games into board games, although I think it has to be treated very carefully. The fast paced real time quality of a video game obviously can never be perfectly mimicked by a board game, and so I think any game attempting to do that will just be less fun than its video game counterpart. However, if a game finds a way to evoke the qualities or feeling of the video game without feeling tied down to exactly mimicking the mechanical playstyle, I think it will be a huge success.
You're currently a college student. What are you studying? Have any plans for after graduation?
I am an Anthropology major with a Japanese minor. After graduation I'd love to work in the game industry, but it's obviously a really hard thing to break into. I'm also looking at getting a desk job that uses my degree, and simply continuing to design with my family on my own time.
Anything else you'd like to share with us? Any other passions or interests?
Between board games and D&D and college and job applications, I'm too busy for other passions and interests. I think that's enough to keep me happy, though.