How They Remembered Their First Times

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06 August 2022
Dan Jolin looks back on five years of interviewing designers about their debuts, and finds a lesson in there for anyone keen to create their own game one day

Words by Dan Jolin Photograph by Marco Vittur

There’s a good reason why origin stories continue to be so popular. We’re all fascinated by what makes people who they are, and what specific circumstances led them to their current vocation, whether they’re Average Joes/Janes imbued with improbable super-abilities in the latest Marvel blockbuster, Dungeons & Dragons characters arriving fresh at the table, or just someone you’ve met who has a really cool job… Like being a tabletop game designer.

That’s why I started this magazine’s First Turn feature all the way back in Issue 8. I wanted to dig into the creative process that transforms somebody from, say, a banker (Reiner Knizia), chemistry teacher (Jacob Fryxelius) or hotel receptionist (Inka Brand) into a professional game creator. And along the way, of course, discover what kinds of games – both great (like Jamey Stegmaier’s Viticulture) and not-so-good (like Rob Daviau’s Atlantis: Pathways of the Deep) – they made their debut with.

Over the past five-and-a-half years, I’ve had no fewer than 59 conversations with designers from all across the globe, in which I asked each of them the same set of questions, more or less. You might think that would become repetitive, but one of the biggest surprises and joys of doing First Turn was hearing very different answers to those same few questions from everybody I spoke to.

Now the feature has finally retired (no one could accuse it of not going the distance), this realisation dominates my reflections on what writing it has taught me about the mysterious art – and science – of tabletop game design. If you want to create and publish a board game, you need a certain kind of talent, for sure (and maths is more involved than many of us would hope). But there aren’t really any specific strings that must be pulled, or a secret formula to be followed. You don’t have to worry about being able to replicate any single designer’s choices or skill sets. Each has their own unique story, with its own challenges and triumphs, whether they’re Donald X. Vaccarino birthing a whole new genre with his astonishing debut Dominion, or Bez getting her party card-game In A Bind picked up by publisher Gigamic and rebranded as the 2017 hit Yogi. As Eric M. Lang told me in that very first First Turn (discussing his self-published Tarot battle game Mystik Domination), “Game design is way more democratic than any other art form.”

While I harbour no serious desire to become a designer myself, I think I can say with some confidence that if you’ve got a great idea and the passion and focus to develop, prototype and playtest it (again and again and again), there’s no reason why you couldn’t be the next Cole Wehrle, Emerson Matsuuchi or Nikki Valens. Especially if you listen to the advice they give. Here’s a few choice ‘Strategy Tips’ I extracted from designers over the years:

“Make a physical version of your game and then relentlessly modify it based on playtesting. Just make something. Get some cards, write on them. Draw a board.”
(Sandy Petersen).

“Think carefully about the story you’re trying to tell and try and reflect that in the mechanisms that you use” (Martin Wallace).

“If you design a game, you should really do it for fun. Because then your passion will be in it, and that’ll give you a higher chance of success” (Jacob Fryxelius).

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“Do whatever you want. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries. Don’t be afraid to be the craziest, boldest, most out-there version of yourself that you can be” (Bez).

Perhaps one day a game designer will be telling the story of their own debut, and they’ll reveal they got started after being inspired by something they read in First Turn. Of course, I’m totally biased, but I think that would be a really cool origin story…

Read one such an interview here, with the creator of Castle Panic


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