Designing Women: Donna Fasano

“Word Games” the banner read, and I gleefully entered the brightly festooned Ren Faire tent. As it turned out, my ability to spell was somewhat hampered by too much mead on a sunny day, BUT the game’s handy creator, Donna Fasano, was happy to talk about game making and show off some of her fiendishly clever puzzles.

What got you started making wooden board games?

Often, I see a component or a piece and my mind starts noodling on how to play with it, build off of it. I was walking through a retail chain which prides itself on having a vast array of containers when I spied a box of wooden push pins. Modular, relatively similar in shape but having an immediate tactile understanding that they are to be picked up and moved around, I knew this was something with which I wanted to experiment. So I bought a bunch, devised a jig to place the pins in such a way as to engrave on the wooden head of the pin with my laser, and worked on how that would be a game.

Word games appeal to me because of the vast amount of options, yet each would have a quantifiable number of letter pins. Since the prototyping phase over 8 years ago, I’ve invested a lot of research and development in creating a collectible limited edition word game which is also an art box. I hand draw a portrait of the author, scan it, format it as a vector graphic, and include the portrait as the engraved front of the game box. The game is often described by patrons as Wheel of Fortune meets crypto-quote meets hangman meets art box.

How does the playtest process work for you you?

Playtesting has several components which need to be considered in order for the information that makes total sense in my brain to be clear to other types of thinkers and players. I find it very helpful to try and look at a game from the perspective if I had no rules whatsoever, how would I even begin?

Notice the pieces I have, what are any likely first steps, note the first steps in simple language. I’m constantly refining the rules for clarity. I rely on a group of friends who are avid gamers to poke at the written copy as well as the game, itself. I know that any game I have developed will go through a minimum of 3 iterations in design before being at what I consider to be a fairly stable design. Consequently, keeping an open mind about how the game needs to adapt as it is actually played instead of forcing play through original concept is critical for game refinements. I keep hold of comments I hear from patrons playing demo games during the renaissance festivals I attend and have integrated suggestions for a better game experience. At some point, the game play must settle and become a finished product.

How do you design new games?

Often a new game finds its beginnings in a design challenge that another game cannot resolve as it would fundamentally change that other game. For example, I make limited edition word games based on the quotation of a person, but once solved, it is a collector’s piece. Lots-O-Letter Word Game™ is my perpetual word game wherein a player has many quotations that may be solved with a finite set of letters. I had to solve several requirements to differentiate the games: number of letters (letter frequency for quotations being vastly different than for words), game sheet design, physical box, rules, and game sheet delivery (opting for a monthly newsletter with new games for game owners). I’ve been considering feedback from folks with arthritis and limited eyesight to make my games more accessible and think about those aspects when designing new games.

Do you find the games community supportive?

I feel a distinction should be made between those who are game creators and game players when discussing the community. I have had very little exposure to other game creators. The player community is where I interact the most, and they are beyond supportive and enter the realm of inspiring. My patrons are widely varied in the types of games they enjoy; some are word game purists, others enjoy the art box and limited edition collectibility of the game, all are excited to share tales of the games they enjoy.

Your games are limited edition – why did you choose to go that route?  

The limited edition word games are meant to be collectible as only 25 of a certain quotation will ever be made. That means that some games sell out quickly in the course of a year, allowing my catalog of available titles to be ever changing. Curating a catalog of available quotations also means I can be very conscious of the balance in occupation, time period, gender, ethnicity, theme, and difficulty.  I need to challenge myself and keep refining what I offer patrons in order to balance good game play with opportunity for a diverse patronage to find something which is worth collecting.

There are parts of my personality which informed how I went about making the word games. Three main geeks of mine: limited editions and collectibility, research and discovery of details which provide context and appreciation, materials and the tactile attributes they provide in handling the game.

I love collectible, limited edition items because it supports the value of an item, sure, but it also means that the item is not made in endless abandon. I do original research into letters, memoirs, interviews of authors, poets, theoretical cosmologists, astronauts, engineers, painters, chefs, architects, on and on so that even if someone is familiar with the person whose portrait I have hand drawn and then integrated as an engraving on the box front, the quotation will not be familiar or at the very least rarely quoted. The hardwoods used to make the boxes affect the patina of the game box over time, deepening in color. Having a laser engraver means I could make innumerable copies of each game, but choosing I make certain that limited edition games and games with original research is unique to my games.

Any challenges as a woman designer?

My original business name under which I operated for 8 years was “Donna Diddit”, a tongue in cheek response when someone made astonished noises about “who did this? YOU did this?!?” Yup. I did it. Often it would get a laugh and I loved that because regardless of gender, the design and craftsmanship of a game must represent itself without a creator explaining every detail of what makes it so unique. I only changed the name of the business to The Owl and The Hourglass to better support the game and marketing of the business.

Most people who buy the game meet me in person at art markets and renaissance festivals and may spend a fraction of a moment noticing I am female and most of the rest of our time geeking out about game play. I get a lot of appreciation for the difficulty of the game, the art and craftsmanship. Even if someone initially is surprised that I research, design and fabricate the game, there has always been a sort of camaraderie of gaming which makes them happy that they got to meet the maker and share their own take on games. That being said, I think it’s important to acknowledge that access to materials and game theory is something which is not universal. The time and resources available to me to experiment, refine and develop games is part of the privilege which I feel beholden to make the most of in directing my efforts.

What are you working on right now?

Wintertime is research and development time for the coming year. Throughout the year, patrons have given me all kinds of suggestions that I sock away on a spreadsheet and will dive into for new quotations. Researching word games is a geektastic scavenger hunt, delving into libraries, book stores, digital archives, films, and digging up obscure things along the way and making note of them and whether these could be developed into something as a game or a unique item for the shop, such as my line of Book Curses and Benedictions. I am definitely researching more riddles and enigmas for the riddle packs I sell, as these are fun games for all ages and allow me to provide lower cost games in my shop.

As most of my research is done in libraries, contact with books has led me to take classes each winter to learn something new about the processes and materials involved in printing and book making, such as letter press and wood cut printing. This year’s experiments will be in using paper marbling techniques and applying them to wood. What will be made of it is yet to be determined! Winter is for playing around a bit before I am cochlea deep in production come spring time.

You can keep up with Donna on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.