Designing Women: Rita Orlov

I LOVE a good puzzle. And Rita Orlov’s Tale of Ord is hands down the best puzzle game I’ve ever played – its the only game I’ve ever given a five star review. But don’t just take my word for it, The Tale of Ord is an Indiecade festival nominee as well. It was a real thrill to get to do an escape room together at PaxU last year (2nd fastest time ever at Old City Escape Room, no surprise) and even more to talk to her about design and puzzles.

What got you started playing and designing games?

The first board game I remember playing was chess, when I was very young, followed by many nights of Russian card games, checkers, and battleship on graph paper. For a long time my board game exposure was mostly confined to “classic” games like Scrabble, Clue, Monopoly, etc. and when computer access became available I was excited to be able to play games solo, quickly diving into platformers and early puzzle games like Chip’s Challenge and The Incredible Machine, which brought me to realize that the core of what I loved about games was solving problems.

From there I took a big detour from tabletop gaming and got into a lot of resource management and simulation games (I’ve played more Roller Coaster Tycoon than I care to admit) but a very formative series that stands out in my mind was the PC game Syberia, which dovetailed storytelling with puzzles in such an elegant way, and remains an inspiration for the type of games I am now designing. A few years ago, when escape rooms were still thought of as just a browser Flash game, I had the opportunity to be on the forefront of the industry by working in one of the first rooms to open in the U.S. This took me into a whole new world of designing immersive entertainment, which is different for many reasons but ultimately circles back to any type of gaming, because no matter what the medium is, a game is an experience you are designing for the player.

Two years ago I decided to design a more immersive type of tabletop game, which became The Tale of Ord, incorporating an interactive narrative and the kind of tactile puzzles one might find in an escape room. It was only around then that I discovered just how much more there was to the board game world, when a friend introduced me to games like Spirit Island, 7 Wonders, and Mysterium. Since then the list of games I want to play is only growing longer as I watch my empty shelf space keep shrinking!

What are you working on right now?

Currently the main thing occupying my time is still The Tale of Ord, as I continue assembling parts and fulfilling orders, although I have started doing some work on a new game as well. I like to do more than cursory research on my subject matter so I can get to know it better and understand how to convey its nuances, but also because I tend to get inspired by the weird little details in the corners, and those can sometimes end up as great jumping points for larger parts of the narrative or for individual puzzles. I can’t say too much else about it at the moment other than it will probably have a fairly similar style and structure to The Tale of Ord, but I’ve learned so much through the design of that game and I’m really excited to put all that into practice for this next project.

How do you feel about the design and playtesting process?

Playtesting is such a crucial part of the game design process that I imagine it’s near impossible to make a good game without it. The goal of design is to create an experience for an audience, but without getting unbiased feedback, you won’t know how your design will be received in the real world. I have an art and design background so I am used to the critique process, and it is very similar. You’re not going to hit the nail on the head with your first prototype, so you make another prototype, get a critique, make another, better, prototype, have another critique, and keep iterating until your design is communicating what you want it to. As a creator you see your project from a certain perspective, but that’s not going to be how other people interpret it. They might not interact with it the way you think they should, and certain things that may seem obvious to you may not make any sense to your players. That doesn’t necessarily mean your ideas are bad, it just means they’re not user friendly yet, and that’s why feedback is so valuable for clarifying those points of frustration. When you’re just starting out it may be hard not to take it personally or get defensive of your work, but you have to push past that and really listen, because the ultimate goal is to improve your game and grow as a designer.

There is a particular challenge that comes with play testing puzzles, because you can’t test them out on yourself, and you only have one chance with every test group because they will already know the answers after the first run. The Tale of Ord is also a rather long game so it was difficult logistically, and ultimately I realized that I have to get as much information as I could from every play testing session because I couldn’t have as many of them as I would have liked. The best decision I made throughout the testing process though was to watch entire play-throughs of a few groups rather than only doing blind testing. There is so much insight to be gained from observing players that you will never get from a questionnaire or a debrief. It allowed me to pinpoint specific problematic areas, some of which I was able to improve dramatically just by changing a small detail or two. This is something I definitely recommend doing, both early and late in the design process.

How did you come up with a game so well steeped in norse lore?

When I first started working on this game I was trying to think of a theme, and one of my main goals was to avoid the typical murder mystery, and other common escape room tropes. I wanted to explore a theme I hadn’t seen used in this context before, and once I thought of it, Norse Mythology just clicked. There was so much rich material to work with, both narratively and aesthetically, and although I’m still no Norse Mythology expert, I certainly knew a lot less when I started, and it’s been a fun journey getting to know the characters and stories. The interesting thing is that in many cases the myths are a bit more fluid and details would change from one interpretation to another, so I took advantage of those fuzzy details by also introducing some newly invented lore into the game.

What are your hobbies outside of games? Do they tie back in to your design process?

My first instinct was to say “Well, I play a lot of escape rooms,” but that’s not really outside of games, is it?
I really love to travel, whenever I get the opportunity to. Going abroad especially always sparks open new lines of thought for me. I find a lot of visual inspiration when I travel and tend to reimagine everyday things as puzzles, so I take tons of reference photos and just generally try to absorb my surroundings as much as I can. Someone once said to me that they collect objects and I collect experiences, but thinking about that, I realized those experiences are integral to my personal growth. I love learning about local culture, food, language, and seeking out the hidden gems in every city. Every place has something special to offer, and finding those things is usually very rewarding. I am always thinking, “What are our differences, how are they beautiful, and how can I convey that to someone?” and I hope that comes across in my work.

I also mentioned I come from an art background, specifically illustration and furniture design. I haven’t had as much time to do any woodworking lately, but I particularly enjoy making boxes, and most recently I’ve started to try and make puzzle boxes as well. The 3D design skills I gained from that experience definitely influence the interactive objects I make, but as I focused on 3D objects in recent years I sort of dropped drawing for a long while and just recently started up again. It’s been great experimenting with different media and salvaging my paints from drying out! I’ve been trying to narrow my focus more on particular subject matter as I slowly gear up to do the art for my next game, in which I hope to include more illustrations and visual material.

What about puzzles and cryptology do you think appeals to gamers?

I think it is a mix of curiosity, the desire to solve a problem, and the feeling of satisfaction from deriving a solution. After watching so many people play escape rooms and doing many myself, I’ve come to notice that the most excitement often comes from more challenging puzzles, if the team can solve them on their own. When it comes to help though – this is why I think it’s especially important to give incremental hints – giving away too much too quickly or revealing the answer can rob the players of feeling like they earned the win, rather than allowing them to feel smart and accomplished.
Along the same lines, there is the coveted “aha” moment, which usually comes with puzzles in which part of the puzzle is actually figuring out what to do with the items given to you, rather than task-based puzzles (often referred to as “process puzzles”), like deciphering for example. In the video game The Witness, which I cannot recommend enough, every puzzle is based off of the same premise of guiding a line from point A to point B, but the various areas of the island you are exploring employ different rules as to how the line can be drawn.

Each time the player reaches another area and figures out a new rule they get to enjoy that “aha” moment, which I think is a great strength of the game and keeps things from getting tedious. The other thing I mentioned is curiosity, and that comes into play if solving something involves a reveal. What draws people to a cipher is not that they want to sit down and translate it letter by letter, but they do want to know what it says! It’s essentially like giving someone a box – they’re going to want to open it, even if it’s just to see what’s inside, and piquing that curiosity is my favorite.

Whats next for you?

Currently I am designing the next game for PostCurious, which will have a similar structure to The Tale of Ord, but with shorter play time and focused on a different theme. Just started working on a board game in collaboration with Jonathan Weaver of Weaver Games. I am also working on a local outdoor puzzle game in collaboration with Crux Club, an immersive outdoor game company in NYC. 

What do you hope players get out of Tale of Ord?

I hope The Tale of Ord gives players a sense of discovery, both from the physical items and from the online components that blur the real with the fantastical. I want it to expand the context for what a tabletop game can be by not confining it to your table, and I hope players get a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from slowly unfolding the story by learning the language of these puzzles and solving them.

Think you have what it takes? Try out a free puzzle postcard via Post Curious. You can follow Rita’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.