Designing Women: Roberta Taylor

Sometimes I meet designers at events, sometimes we start chatting in online groups, and this one time, it was because of an octopus…

I first saw Roberta Taylor’s name on a game box. Specifically, a game entitled Octopus’ Garden (cephalopods AND gardens? I mean, throw in some toffee and it might have just said “Take me home please”). In the funny way that the twisting tentacles of the internet work, less than two weeks later another friend in the industry told me that if I was looking for woman designers to talk to I HAD to contact Roberta. We talked about support in the gaming community as well as the trials and travails of design.

What got you started playing board games?

I’ve always enjoyed games, and I grew up on a steady diet of Scrabble and Cribbage. In seventh grade I saved up and bought Scotland Yard, and badgered everyone I knew to play, but no one in my circles was as interested as I, so games were largely forgotten until my kids were old enough to play, and a friend taught us Settlers. I loved the opportunity to sit down and spend time with my kids, and as my eldest went through adolescence, a lot of games were played halfway through, then we’d just get talking. I think that the game created a safe space to talk and let my kids know I was there and focused on them. While they both still enjoy games from time to time, I’m really the only gamer in the family! Now that they’re grown, I often get asked to recommend games. 

What are you working on right now?

Right now I have a few finished or nearly finished games that I’m mucking about with – one is in development with an agent, which is a new experience for me, that I’m quite enjoying. I have a contract on the near horizon, but I don’t have enough info to begin actually working on the game, and I’m very eager to get started. I like to have several games in various stages of development on the go at a time, but the past few years have been full of disruptive, life-changing things, and I have only recently begun to be able to create time and space again for game design in any meaningful way. A project that I’m having a lot of fun with is actually re-designing a game that was published about 7 years ago. Octopus’ Garden is being re-released by a new publisher, possibly under a new name, and I have the exciting opportunity to revisit a design. It’s been really neat, to take it apart and re-build it, keeping the best bits, adjusting the bits that didn’t work as well, and playing with new content and ideas in the same framework. 

Why the revamps for Octopus’ Garden?

Well, it’s been picked up by a new company, and who wouldn’t love the chance to apply what they’ve learned over the past 7 years to a design they love? We’re having a lot of fun refreshing the game with the goal of keeping what its fans have loved about it intact while adding in a new layer of strategic possibility. There a some tiles that are just more fun than others, and I want players to be able to get excited about all of the tiles!

How would you recommend someone new to game design get their feet wet?

Make a game. Make it ugly, make it with cardstock and markers and bits you stole from games on your shelf. Play it. Tweak it. Look for the fun things, the things that draw players in, the things that they want to do more of. Then make another game. Because it’s so easy to get tunnel vision, and having several projects on the go at once can really help you- you can go work on something else and before you know it the thing that you were stuck on is unstuck. And play your games with as many different people as you can, write down their comments and then ignore all the ones that don’t move the game closer to your vision for it. Don’t be intimidated by pretty prototypes or feel that you have to have custom cards printed- until you’re game is essentially finished and you’re ready for next steps like selling it or moving to kickstarter, there’s not only no value in it, but you may hesitate to make changes that would make your game better, because those pretty custom cards cost so much. 

What do you think about the design/playtesting process? What do you like/dislike?

I love the problem-solving part of game design, and really it’s mostly all problem solving. I like to envision the game I’m trying to create- who is playing it, what kind of experience is it, what story is being told, all those type of things, and then build something that accomplishes those things. I did a design contract a few years ago for an ad agency working for our provincial health ministry, and they wanted a very specific things- a game for grades 4-7, max 108 cards, plays in 15 minutes or less, up to 4 players, cooperative, and it had to incorporate all this tobacco-prevention research. I had a blast, and I think that a good part of what made is such fun for me is that it asked me for the very thing I love the most about game design.  I am a fairly laid back designer- I will happily keep working on something for as long as it takes to get it to the right place. I think that’s a strength, though it can be hard, because life does interfere as well, and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever finish certain games! I do have to be careful not to compare myself to some prolific designers who seem to not take 8 years to finish a game. And I really really dislike trying to sell my games. I am getting better at this part, largely because I’m very fortunate to have come to know a lot of good people in the industry, and so I have opportunity to show my games in a fairly casual way, but I still hate it. I’m working with an agent on one of my games for this very reason. It’s an amazing game and I’m tired of trying to find it a good home, but they exist for just that. 

Do you find the community supportive?

I have been very fortunate, as I was encouraged into designing by the Game Artisans of Canada, a great group of designers formed over 10 years ago in Canada. They decided to be open and transparent about their processes and experiences so that members could all learn from each other, and it was a hugely successful idea- some very talented designers have been mentored through this group, and I am grateful for them. The group is now more a loosely connected group of local chapters with a common vision and standards, and currently Edmonton’s GAC chapter is basically non-existent (real life interfering again), though there’s a growing game design community here, loosely joined by Facebook.   Over the past years I’ve met so many amazing people from around the world through game design, and I have to say that I’ve been blown away by the kindness of so many of them. It’s fun meeting designers I admire and playing games with them, and if I have a problem I’m having trouble figuring out, I can ask and get amazing insight, and if I need other kinds of support, they’re there for that too. It’s amazing. 

Any challenges as a woman in design?

Yes and no. There is a lot of support for women designers out there, in so many ways, and there are a lot of people working hard to bring more diverse designers to the forefront. And yet I can’t get my local design group to meet in a place that I can access via transit, and more frustratingly, to understand why this might be important to a single woman who doesn’t own a car.  I’ve had long conversations with guys about why there aren’t more women making games, and many of them have ended with the guy saying he “wants to help but…” And I don’t have the time to make these guys understand that it’s really on them, and they can’t just look at the few women trying and expect us to fix things. When I walk into a con or design event and I’m one of the only woman again, I sometimes just want to cry. Because if I don’t feel particularly comfortable, what about queer or trans women, and women of colour? I keep reminding myself that I have to take baby steps. 

What do you hope a player gets out of your games?

I always hope that my games help create good memories. I want players to have fun of course, but what really makes me excited is when people tell me how they enjoy one of my games with their kids, or their mother, with specific people they care about. I love that I can be a part of that in some small way!

What’s next?

I’ve been focusing on working in the area of meaningful games more deliberately, and have just begun a new contract in this area that I’m very excited about. I’m also looking forward to seeing Octopus’ Garden reborn this summer as Starfish Kingdoms. Watch for the kickstarter from Maple games later this year!  And my new pet project is a cozy boardgame that’s been a lot of fun to work on, and that I’ve learned to use a digital pen and tablet to prototype. 

Follow Roberta on Twitter and Instagram.