Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Emma Larkins
'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Emma Larkins, designer of Heartcatchers, creator of #gamedesigndaily, and sales specialist at Mox Boarding House game store. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Before we get into your designs and your workplace, Emma, let's talk about what kind of games you like to play. What would you say are your favorite board games to play? Any favorite styles of games? Any favorite designers?
This question gets harder the more games I play, and I've been playing a lot of games lately. In the past I would have said accessible games hands-down, games that don't intimidate people and make it easy for anyone to hop in (Sushi Go, Go Nuts for Donuts, The Resistance, Superfight, etc). Recently, however, I've been having a lot of fun with medium+ weight games like Viticulture, Scythe, Gloomhaven, and Kemet. They look intense up front with a lot of rules and setup, but end up being pretty straightforward once you get a few rounds in. As far as favorite designers go, I really dig pretty much everything by Ryan Laukat/Red Raven Games -- Klondike Rush, Eight Minute Empire, City of Iron, Islebound. Ryan's art is amazing, the games have really interesting themes, and the mechanics are a unique and fresh take on things like bidding and worker placement.
What catalyzed your transition from being a board game player to a board game designer?
I was working as a community manager for Playcrafting, an NYC based organization of game designers, surrounded by incredibly talented people making games (mostly digital, some tabletop). I'd dabbled with interactive design before, making up playground games as a kid, telling choose-your-own-adventure/RPG style stories, modding Starcraft, that kind of thing. Seeing people actively succeeding at doing the thing I wanted to do inspired me to get serious.
What is your playtesting process like? What feedback are you looking for? How does it help shape your designs?
I organize a group that meets for playtesting every week here in Seattle (link). Our group encourages people to test early and often - I can get valuable feedback on anything from a rough idea for a game to a polished, near-publication prototype. For early prototypes, I mostly just want to get a sense of whether I've "found the fun" yet. As my design progresses, I focus more on balance, how easy the mechanics are for people to understand, whether there's enough accessible, interesting strategy in the gameplay. I rely heavily on my tests to shape the final product - my testers are essential to a great finished game!
Your first published design is Heartcatchers. How did the idea for that game come about? What kind of game is it? How did you get it published through Brooklyn Indie Games?
Heartcatchers was originally created as a Valentine's Day present for my boyfriend Phil. He's a game designer as well, and we'd gotten to know each other in part by going to game design meetups. I had this idea for a silly game - like Magic the Gathering or Hearthstone, but simpler, focusing only on the power and toughness of the creatures without any special abilities. When I presented it to Phil, he told me that it was actually a good game (and he wasn't just saying that to preserve the relationship). It evolved from there into the small, light, two-player game of secrets and deception that it is today. Getting it published was also surprisingly serendipitous. I met one of my designer friends, Tim Rodriguez, over coffee to get advice about my game. He gave some great suggestions and then, very gently, asked if I was interested in publication. I was blown away, speechless, grinning ear-to-ear - it wasn't something I expected to hear so early in my design career. It turned out to be a great fit - we developed and Kickstarted the game, and it came out a couple of years later. You can even buy it in stores, including Mox!
You are now working on a game called Confabula Rasa. How does this game play? What are your goals with it going forward?
Confabula Rasa is a cooperative story game where you play as ghosts trying to figure out how you died so you can pass on to the other side. Each player has a word fragment card they can use to create a word with the cards already on the table. After that, they point to someone to start or continue the story. It's very fun and chaotic and weird, leading to fantastic stories and player experiences. I've had many interesting conversations about the future of the game - currently deciding whether to self-publish or work with a publisher.
You recently demoed Confabula Rasa at the Indie Megabooth at PAX East. What was the Indie Megabooth like? How was your experience at PAX East overall?
I love the Indie Megabooth. This is the second time I've demoed there (first was for a digital game, Blade Ballet). The community is great, you meet so many awesome people who are excited about your work. I sold Early Access copies of my game through their merch booth, which people loved. The traffic was unbelievable, I could barely take a bite of my sandwich between demos (I will definitely have helpers next time!) PAX (East, West, Unplugged, you name it) is always a good time for me. I've built up a community of industry friends so every show is like a mini-reunion.
How big is the board gaming presence at PAX East these days? Do you think it has been influenced by the creation of PAX Unplugged in any way?
The board gaming presence at PAX East was really fantastic. I remember hearing a couple years back that they might move away from board games to focus on digital games, but that definitely wasn't the case this year. People were excited to play board games in the Indie Megabooth, even with the flashing lights and energetic sounds of video games all around. The back of the convention center contained a huge freeplay area where people could check out games. Unpub was there, showcasing great new prototypes as always. There were a bunch of busy tabletop booths and an area to try out new and upcoming games (for example, Rob Daviau was there showing off his Fireball Island reboot, which is currently on Kickstarter). I think the creation of PAX Unplugged will only further fuel the hunger of gamers for new and interesting tabletop games as their popularity continues to surge.
As the creator of the hashtag #gamedesigndaily, tell us a bit about its origin, and what you hope to encourage with it.
When I moved from New York City to Seattle a little over a year ago, I was feeling unmoored. I'd had a bunch of jobs up until that point - video game marketing manager, event sales for a billiards parlor, community management, freelance writing - but none of them had felt right to me. In my desperation to find my life path, while looking for a job in my new city, I committed to a bunch of daily practices. The usual stuff they suggest when you're trying to live your best life: meditation, exercise, journaling, etc. A few months into this, I decided to commit to a daily practice related to game design, and #gamedesigndaily was born. I still wasn't sure that this was what I wanted to "do with my life" but I knew the only way to find out was to, well, stop thinking about it and just do it. And it worked! Working a little bit towards my goal of becoming a better game designer every day helped me overcome my "designer's block" and eventually lead to me pushing multiple games towards completion, setting up publisher meetings, submitting to the Megabooth, and more. Now other people are using the hashtag too, and they're accomplishing amazing things. I want to take away the stigma that you can only create things if you have hours every day to dedicate to your craft. People can make cool things, even with little scraps of time, and I want to help them do that.
Pulling back from individual projects to the bigger picture as a designer -- how are you working to market yourself and build your own brand?
I've been in marketing in one way or another for my entire career, so I actually find it difficult NOT to market myself! It's become second nature. It helps that most of my marketing and branding activities boil down to "hang out with cool people, have awesome conversations about what we're working on, get really excited about what other people are doing and creating." I've had Twitter for almost a decade now (eep!), and having interesting, fun conversations on there has been a big part of connecting with people in the industry. I do traditional marketing stuff as well - blogging, email newsletters, event marketing (demoing at conventions), etc. I think people get hung up on not wanting to annoy or bother anyone with their message, but the thing is - someone WANTS what you're working on, and WANTS you to make a living so you can afford to make more stuff. How are they going to know about this awesome thing that they'll love unless someone tells them?! As long as you find the people who want what you're making (a.k.a. stay away from spamming), you'll have a fun time selling whatever it is you create.
You work at Mox Boarding House, a tabletop game store in the Seattle area. What do you do there? A lot of people in the hobby probably think its a dream job. Is it fun, or is it still work like anything else? Do you feel working at a board game store helps you in any way as a board game designer?
I'm a sales specialist - fancy name for person who knows about everything in the store and directs you to whatever it is you most want to buy, borrow, or play. I've heard people call it a dream job; I think a lot of them don't know how much work goes into it. First of all, you have to be ready to quickly task switch and think on your toes - for example, answering a detailed question about the size of Battle Foam kits in stock while ringing someone up for a Legacy tournament and grabbing another person a Pokemon deck to borrow from the drawer. You have to be friendly and want to talk to people all day long. You need to perform in-person sales. You need to develop incredibly deep product knowledge. You're on your feet all day. It's the most challenging job I've ever had - and the most fulfilling. All of those skills directly translate to what I do as a board game designer. My product knowledge helps me make games better, my sales knowledge helps me sell games better. And being ready to stand for eight hours at a time comes in handy when you're doing conventions!
In addition to being a game designer, you are also an author, having self-published a sci-fi novel titled Mechalarum with the help of a Kickstarter campaign back in 2013. Writing and game design are both creative pursuits. What do you find similar about them? Different? Do you plan to write more in the future, either in that sci-fi world or in a new setting?
Writing and game design are similar in that they both require heads-down, butt-in-chair time. The secret to finishing a book or a game is to just put in the time. The other secret for both is to know when your work is flowing and when it's stalling - people can rewrite the same page or redesign the same mechanic over and over and over again without actually making forward progress. The other (other) secret is to get your stuff out in front of people as early and as often as possible. With games, that's playtesting, and with books, that's beta reading. The big difference is that writing a book is a much more solitary process - even if you have a writers group that you regularly get feedback from, a lot of your development time as a writer is going to be solitary. Especially once you get to editing - there's a lot of grindy, heads-down time you have to put in. I definitely want to get back to writing at some point. I've promised a sequel to Mechalarum, and I also want to collect my thoughts on game design in one place for people to consume at their leisure.
Before we wrap this up, how can people reach you if they want to know more about you?