Welcome to Unscripted – a lighthearted and unrehearsed Q&A series with Rose Gauntlet Entertainment founders and tabletop game designers Isaac Vega and Lindsey Rode. Perfect with a side of tea or coffee.
In this edition of Unscripted, we touch on approaches to game design, important lessons when starting out, and impractical dream game designs.
What is your process when it comes to designing a new game?
Isaac: So, I think this question is funny because I don't think that I've ever had a specific process to my method. It usually comes from whatever I'm inspired by in the moment, whether it be other fantastic games that I've played, a theme that I'm really passionate about or want to explore, or a mechanism that I've been tinkering around with that I think can work well with a random theme. There is no perfect equation or sauce. It's just really about what makes me feel inspired to sit down and scribble some things and put things together to make it all work. Usually, it starts with a story I want to tell or a world I want to build, but sometimes it's just something mechanically interesting or unexplored.
Lindsey: I agree with Isaac, and what he said kind of reminded me of a quote that I love from Neil Gaiman. Gaiman said that he doesn't learn how to write books, he just learns how to write that one particular book. And I feel like designing is really similar. Like you don't learn how to design all the games, you just learn how to design that one game because it keeps changing. That being said, I almost always start from a place of theme because it helps my brain understand the goals I have in the design process. But once you've come up with the initial concept, it's like a trail. You have no idea where you're headed; you're just wandering through the forest, hoping to find your way out to the other side. And it's actually a pretty fun process.
You mentioned inspiration, so where do you turn to when you're seeking inspiration for designs?
Isaac: For me, I turn to other artists. I love watching other forms of art or media, even other board games. I enjoy seeing movies with great aesthetics, watching music videos with interesting styles, or exploring cartoons and artists who bring their own little worlds to life in unique ways. They spin up stories in my mind, and I find inspiration from them. So, I pretty much turn to other creatives in every way I can to get my brain moving because there are so many people out there doing cool things, and not being inspired by their work would be a missed opportunity.
Lindsey: Yeah, I think you can get inspiration from almost anywhere. Some of the most original ideas come from unexpected places. But for me, especially early on in the process, it's crucial to disconnect and go for a walk or get away from everything to let my mind wander. Some of my best designs have come from simply letting my mind wander without electronics, allowing it to touch on weird connection points. It's been an essential part of my process.
Isaac: Yeah, I love that. Even just yesterday, I was at the farmer's market and asked a friend if there were any prominent farmer's market games or games related to setting up a kiosk. Neither of us could think of any, and that got my brain working. It made me wonder how to put such a game together. I don't know if I'll pursue it, but it's an idea lingering in the back of my head. Perhaps one day it'll turn into something. Who knows?
Is there a nugget of wisdom you wish you had when you were first starting out as a game designer?
Lindsey: I can answer this one right away! I wish I had seen other people's design processes because then I wouldn't have worried so much about my own process. Early on, I felt like my design process was chaotic and disorganized. My game would wander in weird directions and turn into something different from the initial concept. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the first concept the right one. But as I got to know other designers and worked more with Isaac, I realized that everyone goes through that. We're all just wandering around, trying to figure out what works and what doesn't. You can give yourself the freedom to be wrong and understand that you don't have to get it right the first, second, or even fourth time. You'll get there eventually. I wish I had known that earlier or had the opportunity to watch other designers work because I would've been kinder to myself.
Isaac: I think there are many things I wish I had known. One piece of advice I often give to enthusiastic newcomers who want to get their work out there is not to intimidate themselves by striving for perfection. Similar to what Lindsey said, many people invest too much love in the first prototype. They want it to look perfect, add graphic design and art, and make it look fantastic. But all that extra work can take away from the core of the design. You need to figure out the core system first before you make it visually appealing or add all the other elements that make up the world. It's worth thinking about all those additional aspects, but getting the bare-bones version of your game to the table as quickly as possible, using just pen and paper or whatever materials you have, will help you understand how to make a great game faster. Spending excessive time on making it look nice can lead to frustration and giving up on the whole process.
Final question: Putting practicality aside, what's one game design you want to see happen?
Lindsey: I came up with a game design where players had to guide an astronaut through zero gravity into a space dock. It was a race where everyone was given straws and had to blow air through the straws to propel their spaceman through water and be the first to dock. It also had this idea for a completely sealed water box that had straws where you could blow air in, but nothing could come out. I don't know how scientifically that would've worked, but I always thought it would be a really silly and fun party game. However, I realized it might not be practical or hygienic, especially with the spread of COVID-19.
Isaac: One thing I'd love to see, but I don't think it's possible, is a CCG (collectible card game) that made people feel like their cards are truly unique to them based on who you are and how you play the game, like with unique art or something. Keyforge did some of this with their unique decks put together algorithmically. Star Wars Destiny had an element of this too with those fun unique dice that you’d open up as part of your character pack.
But taking it a step farther, it would be bringing games into some sort of weird digital but physical space. I’m imagining every card being as powerful as your phone, like in real life. So maybe we'll get to a point in technology one day where things can start physically moving on pieces of paper in weird ways that could change and adjust based on the way that you play the game. However, it's a ridiculous idea that would likely only work in the digital space, and even then, it would require a tremendous amount of work from artists and other contributors.