Joe Slack on Board Game Design

Joe Slack is a board game designer, member of the Game Artisans of Canada, and now author of The Board Game Designer’s Guide. His passion for games is made clear by the moniker he uses, “The Crazy Board Game Guy.” He is crazy about board games. Full disclosure, I know Joe personally and am acknowledged in his book (although, I’m not sure what I did to deserve that). I first met Joe in 2016 at a ProtoTO event and have since playtested countless prototypes he designed. Joe gave me the chance to read an advance copy of his book and I happily obliged.

The Board Game Designer’s Guide features a foreword by Jamey Stegmaier, designer of Scythe and Charterstone, and author of A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide. The book serves as a good collection of advice and experience on every stage of the board game design process. It will be a good reference for designers to consult and hopefully provide inspiration for would-be game creators. Joe and I chatted via email about his perspective on board game design and the process of writing The Board Game Designer’s Guide.

Before we get into your new book, I’d like to talk about your first game, Cunning Linguistics. Can you tell me a little bit about the game? And how long it took to design, from conception to the final published version?

Sure. Cunning Linguistics is a word-based party game that I came up with after playing way too many rounds of Cards Against Humanity (CAH) with friends. At first, CAH was shocking and fun, but over time it lost its appeal. One of the downfalls I saw was there was little creativity involved. I had played Balderdash along with Wise and Otherwise‎ many times growing up, and loved the ability to create your own crazy answers. So, I set out to create a game that had a similar appeal, but with a lot more creativity and replayability.

cunning-linguistics-cards.jpg

In Cunning Linguistics, you get nine cards, each with five words on them, along with a free words card.‎ One player reads a topic card, then everyone, including the reader, comes up with their own unique answer. The words themselves are clean, but can also create some pretty funny innuendos. This allows the game to be played clean or with a good dose of adult humour.

cunning-linguistics-answers.jpg

All in all, it took me about two years from idea to a finished game. Mind you, I was only working on this here and there, and only started dedicating serious time on this, along with starting to learn all about Kickstarter and the board game industry in the second year. We’re looking at self-publishing this early in 2018, most likely through Kickstarter.

And that was co-designed by Matthew Guillemette. I know you touch on the pros and cons of designing with partners in your book, but I’m curious about how you find and approach people to partner with in a design.

Cunning Linguistics was my first game, and I didn’t know a whole lot about the board game industry at that point. But I had a good friend, Matthew, who was really into the hobby. So, I asked him if he would be interested in working on the game with me and helping me to self-publish it. Thankfully, he agreed, and he made a lot of great contributions to make Cunning Linguistics even better.

Since then, I’ve been working mostly on my own, as I find I always have so many ideas bouncing around in my head, and it’s just easier for me to work on them whenever I have the time. However, I have met a lot of other designers through game design nights at local board game cafes and board game stores, and have discussed ideas that I might collaborate on in the near future.

If you get to know another designer, including the types of games they create, and their work ethic, you can get a good sense of whether you might work well together.‎ Just make sure you know what each other’s strengths are and set expectations up front. I’ve also heard the suggestion to have one person as the lead designer (the one with the original concept typically), so that if there’s something that can’t be decided on, the lead designer will make the decision. That sounds like a good potential approach.

BGGuide CoverThe first few sections in your book have an emphasis on getting your first game completed. Is The Board Game Designer’s Guide just for new designers?

I wrote The Board Game Designer’s Guide from the perspective of what I wish I knew when I started creating games 4 years ago. It’s intended for new and aspiring game designers, as well as those who are facing challenges getting their game finished or published. However,‎ I’ve also had some experienced designers who read an early manuscript say they found it really helpful as well.

Something else you suggest a couple times in the book is to “play more games,” as Wil Wheaton says. What game (or games) triggered the most inspiration for your many prototype designs?

Well, I’d have to say that Cards Against Humanity and Balderdash had the most influence in my first game, Cunning Linguistics. The mechanics in 7 Wonders also influenced the game play in another game I was working on called Isle of Rock and Roll, however this one is still going through major changes and may or may not continue to use this mechanic. I like to think of most of my ideas as fairly original, but I think all designers are influenced to some extent by what they play and other games they’ve seen.

For someone like myself, who has played tons of games (although there are always more to play) and has the occasional idea for a neat mechanic, where would you recommend them start to flush out a prototype?

Just take that idea and get it to the table as quickly as possible. Don’t over think it. I feel that a lot of people get an idea and keep thinking about all the different nuances of it, but fail to create something out of it. Don’t let it get stuck in your head. You’ve got to get it to the table. Don’t worry if it’s not complete or if it doesn’t work the first time. Just try it out to see if it works. From there you can work to improve it, one step at a time.

Also, be prepared for failure. You have to accept that your game will never be perfect, as there’s no such thing as the perfect game. Just keep working on it and making it better with every iteration.

There are a lot of topics covered in the book, a lot for one person to be an expert at. Can you speak to the research that went into this book and other experts you consulted with?

Absolutely. As I say in the book, when I’m really into something, ‎I research the heck out of it. I love designing games and it’s become a real passion for me. So, I wanted to get to know everything I could about board game design, along with all the business aspects related to getting a game published.

I’ve read every book I could find on the subject along with tons of blogs, completed an online course, and listened to every single episode from the Board Game Design Lab‎ (a fantastic series by the way), along with many other podcasts. I’ve also spent years researching and understanding what goes into a successful Kickstarter, along with all the steps involved with self-publishing, and working with a traditional publisher.

I’ve also learned so much over the past four years, designing over a dozen games myself, and playtesting them along with tons of other designer’s games. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with lots of other designers about their experiences designing games, running Kickstarter campaigns, and working with publishers. I’ve learned so much from these other designers, along with my own experiences, and I’m just glad to have the opportunity to share this knowledge back with the board game community.  My aim is to help new designers understand all the ins and outs they’ll need to know as they go through the process of creating their own amazing game.

What was the most difficult chapter for you to write about?

Once I started writing, it all came out fairly easily. I tried to take myself back a few years to when I was in the early stages with my first game, and think about what I know now that I wish I’d known then.

If I had to pick one chapter, it would probably be the one on self-publishing. It took the longest and is the most extensive, as there’s so much that a designer needs to know if they choose to go this route. I wanted to be really sure that readers would understand just how much work goes into a crowdfunding campaign, and that it really does mean you’re now running a business. I didn’t want new designers to underestimate the importance of this.

Sounds like this is going to be a useful resource for many designers. When and where will the book be available?

The Board Game Designer’s Guide is available on Amazon right now, and the Kindle eBook can be downloaded for $0.99 for a very limited time before it goes up to regular price.

It will also be available in paperback and as an audio book. You can actually get a free audio book version when you purchase either the eBook or paperback version as well. So, if you’re even thinking about making a game of your own, this is the perfect chance to get both the eBook and the audio book for under a buck.

Before we finish, I have to ask, when can we expect the next game from you?

As I mentioned, I’m looking to self-publish Cunning Linguistics early in 2018, so that will likely be the first one you see. I’m also in talks with publishers about three of my other games, so fingers crossed, at least a couple of these will be in store sometime in the near future.

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