Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Stephanie Kwok
'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 Stephanie Kwok, the co-designer of Get Off My Land! and co-owner of First Fish Games. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Stephanie, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Before we get into your game designs, tell me about your tastes as a board gamer. What are your all-time favorite board games? What have you been playing recently? Did you get to play anything exciting while at Origins?
I enjoy games with heavy strategy. I like to think ahead and pay attention to what my opponent's are doing and use my observations to better my decisions. My favourite board game is Lords of Xidit because of the pre-programmed movement. It really makes you pay attention to what others are doing or you could potentially waste your actions.
Unfortunately I haven't been playing much recently as we were gearing up for convention season and also preparing for our next Kickstarter. I didn't get to see much of Origins as it was our first year with a booth, and with only two of us running the booth, we didn't get to step away to wander the halls.
Your first published game is Get Off My Land! What was your inspiration for creating it? Did you design the mechanisms first, or think of the theme first? How long did it take to develop? How does it play?
The mechanisms definitely came first. We wanted something similar to the roads in Catan and we really liked how you could cut other players off so we took that and said what theme could we possibly put on that and the idea of farmers fighting over land came about. Get Off My Land! was in development for about 2 years before we hit Kickstarter. We call the game "Close Quarters Farming" as you start with a small plot of land and you need to clear forest to gain cards in order to build fences to expand your farm. Then you can go to the market and start building up your economy while defending yourself against your neighbours encroaching on your land. The player with the most money at the end of the game is the winner.
You co-designed Get Off My Land! with Gordon Oscar and Liam Smith. How often did you disagree on the direction of the design? How did you resolve differences of opinion?
Luckily we were all quite open to different opinions and changes. I don't really remember butting heads on anything in particular.
Did you play a lot of other area control games when you were designing Get Off My Land! to research how other designers handled the mechanism?
We play all sorts of games and I can't pinpoint what games we drew inspiration from for the area control portion of the game. But like I said, using fences to cut off your neighbours was inspired by the roads in Catan. The double sided tiles were inspired by Agricola but our tiles are used quite differently than that in Agricola.
You Kickstarted Get Off My Land! through your own company, First Fish Games. What made you decide to self publish instead of pitching your game to other publishers?
Truth is we are control freaks, haha. We like to do things our way and have complete control over everything. Joking aside, we really wanted to be our own publishing company. We knew it would be a long and hard road, with lots of learning curves, but it's been a fun journey so far and we are only getting started.
Get Off My Land! did not successfully fund until your second attempt. What did you do differently the second time you put it on Kickstarter?
The truth is that we messed up our numbers during our conversion rates when we were calculating from USD to CAD and vice versa. This put our first Kickstarter attempt at too high of a price point and we knew we had to cancel and relaunch with corrected numbers. Although we didn't do too poorly on our first attempt and probably could have squeaked by, we didn't want to make our backers pay more for our mistake. Our backers were so loyal that we had a very high percentage of return backers when we relaunched, and also the lower price drew in more attention too, helping us fund within 21 hours of relaunch.
You work as a matte painter in the VFX industry. How does that skillset help you with board game art and design?
It definitely helps. Gordon is also a matte painter in VFX and with both of us as artists, we can make sure our games look the best that they can. Nowadays, artwork is a key factor in how well a game can do in the market.
What do you have planned for the future with First Fish Games? Any new game designs?
We have so many design ideas and huge worlds we want to build but not enough time to bring them to the table. As we all work full time jobs, it's hard to sit down together with enough time to do some heavy design sessions. That's why our next game will not be our own design.
Our next game is called Town Builder: Coevorden (*coo-fooor-den) designed by Eric Raué who is a member of the Game Artisans of Canada. We tossed the idea to him about publishing his game for him since he was deciding whether or not he wanted to self publish or pitch to other publishers. He chose us because we would allow him to stay quite involved with the whole process as he didn't want to lose control of his game and his ideal gameplay and look for the game. We're excited to work with Eric as we all believe the game is very solid and have high hopes it will do quite well.
Town Builder: Coevorden is loosely based on the Dutch city of Coevorden in the 1600s although it’s not meant to be a Dutch themed game. The city’s most distinct trait is the double moated star fortification surrounding the city.
Thematically the game is a town building contest where players compete to build the most beautiful district. There is a panel of judges and awards players compete for in addition to scoring points for completed buildings.
Mechanically you draft cards from a central card row into your tableau. Cards can be taken as foundations (which become buildings) or as a resource. It’s about 15 minutes per player and plays 2-4 and also has a solitaire variant.
We plan to hit Kickstarter with this game in Fall 2018 but we haven't set an exact date yet because we want to make sure everything is perfect and not rush ourselves. If this game interests you, follow us on Facebook to get updates on our progress as we gear up for our Kickstarter campaign.
How did you come up with the name First Fish Games?
I wish I had some elaborate story of how we came up with First Fish Games but sadly I don't. We were just trying different words together and it just happens we didn't mind the sound of First Fish.
Are you working on a Get Off My Land! expansion?
We have been playing with ideas for an expansion for Get Off My Land! but the decision lies in how well sales are for the game and if we plan a reprint or not, otherwise there might not be enough interest in an expansion.
You are part of a Canadian design group. Tell us more about them and how they help you playtest and develop your designs.
The Game Artisans of Canada is a collection of professional board game designers from all across Canada. The goal is to elevate the game designs of our members so that they are publisher ready, and to build a recognized game design brand. Games that come from GAC are thoroughly playtested and must go through a process of approval by other chapters before you can take it to publishers.
Get Off My Land! was already published by the time we joined GAC so it did not go through the approval process but it was playtested by many members of the Vancouver chapter and many changes were made for the better due to their feedback.
First Fish had a booth at Origins this year. What were some highlights from the convention? Was it as successful as you hoped? Do you plan to have a booth at any upcoming conventions?
Yes it was our first time having a booth. The best feeling is when someone walks up to you and says that the game on the table caught their eye. We also had giant cardboard cutouts that attendees could put their face in the holes and take photos so that helped us gain a lot of attention too. We did not make profit on this trip but that was not our intention. We are working hard to grow our brand and make new friends and in that regard I would say we were successful.
We will be attending Gencon but we will not have a booth there. We will be demoing our next game in the First Exposure Playtest Hall. The next convention we will have a booth is SHUX in Vancouver, Canada hosted by the Shut Up and Sit Down team.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about yourself? Any hobbies, interests, or other passions?
I race my border collie in the dog sport of Flyball. It's like a dog relay race with a team of 4 dogs. Our region consists of BC, WA, and OR so we travel quite a bit for tournaments.
I also pole dance as my fitness and I mostly keep it on a private status as it has nothing to do with the game industry. But I want people to know that it's a growing sport and in the running to become a part of the Olympics so the stigma of exotic dancing that is associated with pole dancing is a thing of the past. There is still a sexy side of pole dancing but that's not all the sport is about. I want people to know it's an extremely hard workout and if you have any doubts, go try a class. The pole community is very open and inviting for people of all shapes, sizes, gender and colour, there is no tolerance for discrimination.