Designing Women: Emma Larkins

“Everyone is a storyteller, and I love unlocking that for people.”

Emma Larkins is the rock star designer of …and then we died, Abandon All Artichokes, and Heartcatchers, in addition to having several other works in progress. She writes about her design practice (#gamedesigndaily) on Twitter and Instagram, and runs a weekly playtest event for the Seattle Tabletop Game Designers.

Emma has spoken about game design and community building on podcasts and panels at PAX West, SHUX, DreamHack Austin, and Twitch Con. She’s a co-host of both the weekly board game news show TableTakes on the GenCon Twitch channel and of the upcoming Ludology podcast with Gil Hova. When not toying with mechanics or organizing community events, you’ll find her immersed in the retail side of board games at Mox Boarding House.

What got you started playing board games?

My journey into gaming started with playing video games. My family had a computer when I was very young – I enjoyed titles ranging from Commander Keen to SimAnt to Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventures, then later WarCraft and StarCraft. On the more physical side, I would play (and create) playground games, Lego games, forest games, anything that involved building, cooperation or competition, physical movement.

Like many people, my first experience with modern board games (as opposed to games like Monopoly or Life) was playing Settlers of Catan in college. I was impressed and excited by this board game, so different from the ones I had grown up with. However, video games continued to dominate my gaming time. It wasn’t until I met my boyfriend (now fiancee) about five years ago that I really started to dig into what modern board games had to offer. I started off light with Fluxx, Munchkin, and Love Letter, than delved farther into the hobby with titles like Lords of Waterdeep and City of Iron. This was around the time I started designing my own games, so it was exciting to journey into playing and designing tabletop at the same time.

What inspired and then we died…?

The idea originally came from a dream. I woke up wanting to create a spooky experience from seeing visions in a game. At first I tried making the game with pictures, but couldn’t quite figure out how to mechanize it. Then I switched over to letters and it worked great – turns out people naturally seek out words when presented with word fragments. I wanted to embrace a Ouija/Tarot/ghost stories vibe, create a unique magic circle for players to explore in a way that encouraged creativity and shared experience.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m in an interesting place now design-wise. The two games I’ve been focusing on the most for the past year – …and then we died (which used to be called Confabula Rasa) has just been published, with copies available at Essen and PAX Unplugged, and Abandon All Artichokes is drawing to a close in terms of development. I’m excited about prototyping variants for …and then we died, and also working on a journal project based on my daily game design practice (#gamedesigndaily) that will use game design principles to help designers jumpstart their creativity in a few minutes a day.

I have many games on my ideas list and quite a few prototypes in different stages of development that I COULD be working on, but it’s important to me right now to start to shape what I want my game design career to look like. I’m being more thoughtful about systematizing my process to make my design efforts more sustainable. 

What do you think about the design/playtesting process?

It’s a very procedural, systematic thing for me. I think people look at making games and think, “that looks fun!” There are definitely fun/exciting parts to it – I like the brainstorming, and it’s incredibly exhilarating when an idea first starts coming together. A lot of it though – playtesting a game, tweaking, reprinting and re-cutting the cards, mathing out how to make balance changes, etc. – starts to feel a lot like “work.” It’s like with any creative process – there will always be some parts that take energy, and some parts that give energy. One of the coolest parts about the industry is that it’s incredibly collaborative, and as I progress I’m starting to partner with people so I can do more of the stuff that energizes me.

Do you the community supportive? 

Yes! I’m very fortunate for the supportive community I’ve been able to build right near where I live in Seattle. About a year ago, I decided I wanted to meet with other designers weekly so we could keep each other motivated, so I started hosting weekly events through an existing Facebook page. At first we’d get two or three attendees per week, but over time we’ve grown exponentially, and now regularly have 15-20 people. Turns out there was a great need for a local community, and as soon as I started organizing, people came out of the woodwork! My designer group has become fast friends, we’ve established incredibly tight bonds within a short amount of time. And that’s just a small slice of the greater board game designer community. I’ve had equally positive experiences with designers I’ve met through frequent attendance at local and national conventions, as well as with designers I’ve met through board game Twitter.

Any challenges as a woman designer? 

There’s the usual challenge of often being in groups or environments with people different than me (a challenge that many sub-groups face in the industry). It’s hard to explain sometimes to people who are usually in the majority, especially since everyone sees themselves as “different” in one way or another. I’ve had some backhanded compliments, gotten called a “unicorn,” been told that I’m “not like other [angry, opinionated, dominant] women” in the games industry. I’ve often gravitated towards listening rather than speaking when I’m in new situations, I don’t always express my opinions, and it’s difficult when I’ve been told that to do so will make me less appealing. It’s something that I’m working on.

I’ve had generally good experiences in part because I haven’t always spoken up for myself and other women out of fear of repercussions, and I’m hoping to change that in the future. I’m excited to make more space for women in the industry, to encourage young women who want to be game designers, to be more vocal and provide visible examples of people like us moving and shaking at the top echelons. 

You’re known as a community organizing guru – any tips for folks trying to find their people or put together a group?

Consistency is so important. It’s hard, especially in the beginning, because people are busy and you might only get one or two to come out. It’s easy to lose motivation and think that no one is interested in what you’re doing. I’ve found though that if you build it, they will come. If you have events and meetings as frequently as possible, it gives people the opportunity to attend the ones that work with their schedule. You’ll naturally build up a core group of people who make it out almost every time. It’s also important to not be afraid to lean on your core group for support – Chris Glein, one of my group co-organizers, has been essential in preserving the consistency of our meetings.

Whats your favorite game?

This week!? Working at a board game store I’m often seeing and playing the “new hotness,” so it’s hard to have one evergreen favorite. I’d say Azul is pretty high up there as far as an accessible game that’s fun for just about anyone. Rising Sun is always good times, there’s a depth to strategy along with really interesting, mechanized alliances. And I’ve been having a lot of fun with KeyForge lately, love how it’s shaking up the way people think about collectible(ish) card games.

However, I have to put Fantasy Realms at the top of my list at this moment in time. I’ve been playing a bunch with Phil (my husband) – there’s a variant that works great at two players. Every time we play there are new evolving strategies, and you really have to work with what you get. It’s similar to a Magic the Gathering draft but with a much smaller card pool, and you don’t have to the battle part at the end. It fascinates me just how much game play you can get out of such a small package.

What do you hope players get out of your games?

My hope is that players discover something about themselves after playing my games. …and then we died is great for this. A lot of people come to the game saying “I’m not a storyteller!” They’re usually the ones hanging back and not jumping into the action. But inevitably at some point they’ll add a little piece to the evolving story, something exciting and unexpected, and everyone will laugh. People sit back after the game with thoughtful looks on their faces. Everyone is a storyteller, and I love unlocking that for people. It doesn’t even have to be a huge, earth-shattering discovery. Just seeing people have an “ah ha!” moment when they figure out the evolving strategies in Heartcatchers, when they understand how cards synergize in Abandon All Artichokes… It’s a beautiful thing.

What advice would you give new designers?

Taking a game from concept to finished product is a big commitment. It’s easy to get frustrated if you focus too much on the end goal. I encourage new designers to be flexible and have fun with the process. Make quick prototypes for a couple of ideas – don’t get too hung up on The Big One. Play around with game bits without worrying about where exactly the game is going to go.. Do general exploratory things to get your creative juices flowing, as often as you can – doodle, daydream, brainstorm, etc. Bounce your ideas off of other people. And play as many games as you can!

What do you enjoy most about the industry and community?

My favorite part about this industry and community is how everyone is continually striving to learn, to explore, and to grow. They’re my kind of people! I find it almost impossible not to talk about my ideas, my projects, and my plans, so it’s great to be part of a group that shares that natural inclination. We’re all about innovation and building a better future. Sure, our focus in on board games, but I think there are a lot of ways in which the work we’re doing now can grow and spread and eventually have effects on other industries as well. I’m always excited for what comes next!

You can keep up with Emma on Twitter and Instagram.