Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Nikki Valens
'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 Nikki Valens, the designer of Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness Second Edition, and Legacy of Dragonholt. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Nikki, before we delve into your career as a designer, what kind of games do you gravitate to as a player? What are some of your all-time favorite tabletop games? How about some new-to-you games that have really impressed you?
My personal tastes are pretty diverse. I love story driven stuff and roleplaying a lot. I love telling stories and hearing stories. But I also enjoy strategy even if it's devoid of storytelling. The social aspect of gaming is what's most important to me, so social deduction games are very fun for me, but I can't play too many of them that pit me against my friends because I will get too lonely when it feels like my goals are contrary to my friends' goals. As a result I gravitate toward cooperative games far more than competitive games. The only other big thing shared among the games I enjoy is that they're all quite light. I prefer games that are a fair bit lighter than the Eldritch Horror and Mansions of Madness I'm known for.
As far as standout games that really get me thinking, I was introduced to Broom Service a while back and absolutely adore it. The theme is very cool, the bluffing and social aspects are very fun, and although it's competitive, it's not cut throat (at least not how I play it). The first time I played it, I praised it for having nothing that I would change about it's design. So from a design perspective, it gets top marks from me. I also recently tried out The Mind. I have to say, this game blew my mind. It's so incredibly simple and ingenious and it perfectly hits the sweet spot of all my interests in games. It's light, it's cooperative, there's strategy and social elements, and it's just so quick and fun to play.
You studied video game design in college. What made you transition into board game design from video games? Do you think your video game background has been an influence in your board game design?
I've been interested in games of all kinds since I was young. Video games caught my interest as a fun thing to do with my friends. When I started my video game design studies, video games were still in the era of couch multiplayer games which are what I enjoyed most. But by the time I graduated, the industry had moved toward the single player online experience. To me, games are a social experience and they were one I wanted to share with my friends together more so than by myself or with strangers online. That difference of what I wanted to create and what the industry at the time was focused on was the biggest push toward tabletop games for me. My time studying the design of video games has certainly had an effect on my style. All games regardless of medium share many aspects, but video games are frequently more accessible than board games of similar complexity. There are many reasons why that is the case, but it opened my eyes to exploring those differences and seeing what ways video games are accessible that could be used in tabletop games to make them more accessible as well.
Until very recently, you worked at Fantasy Flight. How did you get your start there? How was your experience working for such a well known company in the industry?
There's not much to the story of me getting hired. I saw the opening and applied. They must have liked the work I'd done on RPGs up to that point and liked me in my interview and then I was there making Eldritch a few weeks later. I didn't know a ton about the hobby games industry before starting at FFG. The only FFG game I had played at that point was Arkham Horror (which I really didn't like). I didn't even realize how big a name FFG was in the industry. In my time there I came to realize how much presence they have in the industry but I'm happy to see so many smaller companies also producing great games. There's so much diversity in the player base that can only be satisfied by an equal diversity of designers and publishers creating unique games.
Your first design at Fantasy Flight was Eldritch Horror, which you co-designed with Corey Konieczka. What was your co-design process on the game like?
So I jumped straight into Eldritch as soon as I started. Day one sat down to play the early concept and talked about the project's goals. And then I just started making stuff. Designing new bits and bobs, removing pieces that weren't working as intended, etc. Within the first week, Corey saw I had things under control and pretty much just handed me the reins and let me do my thing. We would discuss things and collaborate on major design decisions, but for the most part it was just me chugging along refining the system and mechanics. There were some bumps here and there, but we faced each challenge and the game became better for it each time.
You then reimplemented Mansions of Madness with Mansions of Madness Second Edition. How did you decide which elements to bring to the updated version? Was it hard cutting things from the original game? Were you worried about fan backlash when updating such a popular title?
One of the first things we knew we wanted from second edition was to be backward compatible with first edition. As a result, I knew the map tiles, the monster figures, and the investigator figures needed to remain consistent with what came before. But everything else was fair game. Of course, I wanted the theme and the cast of investigators and the genre of game to stay the same; it couldn't really hold onto the Mansions name without those. But I also wanted to slim down the system and mechanics and inject as much story and tension into the game as possible. I wanted players to be able to focus on playing the game and solving the mystery we present rather than fiddling with tokens and flipping cards. More so than other changes, we knew the inclusion of the digital companion would cause some player backlash. We had already experimented with digital components with XCOM, and I knew I could use a digital companion app to great effect while trying to tell horror mystery stories. I think the game I created is better with the app than it could have been without it, even if that means needing to play near an outlet for the longer scenarios.
Mansions of Madness Second Edition uses a digital app to help manage the game. What was it like designing a game that integrates with an app so closely? Do you think it was easier for you considering your video game background? How has the reaction been to the game's app integration?
So my video game experience certainly played a part. Before Mansions had an app, we made XCOM the board game which also features a digital component. The app for that was also designed by me specifically because I had the most experience with both co-op games and video games (though there are a few other students of video game design in FFG's ranks). I took everything I learned from XCOM's app and the reception that got to improve the idea of digital components in Mansions. The Mansions app does much more than the XCOM app does in many ways, but a bit less in some other ways. Overall, I think both apps are integrated very well into the games. Striking the right balance between board game and digital game is a challenge for sure; Mansions struck that balance just a bit better I feel. As would be expected, there were many players early on who vowed to never play second edition because it had an app, but for the most part I think it was a great success. Those who try it mostly like it and they see the potential that it has.
Your most recently published game, Legacy of Dragonholt, blends board gaming, role playing, and choose-your-own-adventure storytelling. How did the idea for it come about? Was it difficult to execute something that blended so many elements?
The concept of what Legacy of Dragonholt is is something I had been wanting to create for a long time. Even in the first few weeks at FFG I had made it known that I'd like to create a choose your own adventure like experience someday. Blending together so many different elements felt very natural to me because I just took the things I like most about books, interactive narratives, roleplaying, and board games and fit them together to create my ideal story telling experience. The system itself is so light, that it only took a few days and a couple tests to know I had landed on something I liked. But the sheer amount of narrative that exists in the game took a long while to produce.
In a recent guest post on Story Board, Legacy of Dragonholt was praised for its transgender representation in board games, with the article noting, "When it comes to inclusive writing and design Legacy of Dragonholt sets the standard." Do you have any advice for other designers about how they can make their designs more inclusive?
That's good to hear. I'm very happy that my story is touching people and making them feel included. Creating inclusive games to me is less about how to do it and more about giving yourself the freedom to do it. The first step isn't about design or storytelling, it's about expanding your world view to include those who don't feel included. For the queer and gender queer representation, it comes naturally to me as a queer and gender queer person myself. I wanted to be able to see myself in the story I was creating and I wanted others like me to be able to see themselves in it. And I wanted to do the same for others as well. The best advise I can give to designers who are trying to be inclusive is to do research, talk to people, hear their experiences. Even I with a lifetime of experience being queer and gender queer reached out to others to hear their experiences. In order for representation to feel real and genuine, it needs to come from real experiences.
In May, you announced on Twitter that you were stepping away from Fantasy Flight Games after over five years there. So what's next?
Well, I have some a ton of game ideas that I'd like to make into real things eventually and an equally staggering number of stories that I'd love to be able to tell. For now, I'm toying around with a few smaller ideas to try my hand at being a freelance designer. For all it's popularity and global reach, FFG has a very specific brand that it maintains and the game I want to create would often fall outside of their catalog. I'm in contact with some other publishers and I'm also learning about crowd funding. Hopefully there won't be much longer before I can announce a new game or two.
One similarity in all of your work is games that have a strong narrative element. Have you ever thought of designing a role playing game?
In a very real way, I started with roleplaying. Making homebrew content for existing systems. Toying around with those same systems and tweaking things I didn't like. And eventually pulling many of my earlier designs into a source book for my own system. None of this has been published, and after so many other game designs coming and going through my head, I'm sure I would be embarrassed to look at my old designs. As far as the future goes... maybe. Dragonholt was in a very real way, me creating a roleplaying campaign and GMing it for everyone who plays it. As much as I love roleplaying, I prefer to create fully cooperative experiences. After seeing the success of Dragonholt, I would rather write another campaign or one-shot for that type of system than come up with a whole new roleplaying system. But time will tell.
You also teased on Twitter that you had one more big release from FFG that you designed that will be released in Q4. Can you give us any hints about what it is?
At this time my lips are sealed. I don't know for sure, so don't take this as any kind of for real marketing, but I suspect FFG might be planning to announce it at GenCon.
Is there anything else we should know about you before we wrap this up? Any other hobbies, passions, or interests?
I'm on Twitter @valens116. Feel free to send me memes or ask questions (though I can't answer any rules questions about FFG products). If I've made something that's moved you and you want to support my future endeavors, please consider donating at ko-fi.com/nikkivalens.