Designing Women: Sophie Williams

Write more games! Play more games! Repeat!” ~ Sophie Williams

With almost a dozen years in the industry under her belt, multi-faceted Sophie Williams branched out last year with her partner to form Needy Cat Games. Formerly a jack-of-all-trades with Games Workshop, she uses her experience in licensing, art coordination, management, marketing, and organization to help other game designers and businesses as well as work on their own designs. When asked, she’s quick to recommend Pandemic Legacy and “interesting games with quirky mechanics” like Photosynthesis and Fog of Love. In her spare time she like gardening and printmaking (check out her GORGEOUS work on Instagram.)

What got you started playing board games? 

I’ve always played board games – my family played the usual; Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, Scrabble, The Game Of Life and so on and some of my earliest memories are playing board games. I didn’t realise at the time, but my parents must have picked up on it too because they bought me board games like Enchanted Forest and Market Day by Ravenburger and the incredible Scoop! I don’t know why I stopped playing them, but they were a really strong part of my early child hood and then suddenly, they just weren’t. I got back into board games after leaving university and finding a group of friends who were equally passionate about gaming, rekindling my love affair with all games in general, but specifically Last Night on Earth by Flying Frog. The game is responsible for the ever growing collection and about a decade of working in the industry. If you’re reading this, thank you! 

What inspired the Bonefields theme? (Those minis are hella-cute)

Ancient Grudges: Bonefields is the brain-child of Chris from Macrocosm Miniatures. The Needy Cat Team have known Chris from attending various gaming shows and conventions over the years. When we saw him at a show at the start of the year, Chris was a bit of a wreck as he had written a basic games system to go with the mad-cap mini-skeletons of Bonefields and was ready to launch a Kickstarter, when he promptly dropped his laptop and lost everything (back-up your files folks). So, I stepped into the breach and created the Bonefields rules set. It’s been a really interesting journey. You can read about the design challenges and development of Bonefields on our Blog!

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

I have a love/hate relationship with playtesting. It is absolutely necessary and feedback should be embraced. However, in the moment it’ can be difficult and painful. I actually find the hardest part trying to explain rules you know intimately to someone who has no idea how to play as well as explaining rules while trying to stop previous iterations of a game blending together and accidentally teaching it wrong. I have also discovered that even if you provide a written rule book, people will always ask questions rather than look it up, so the rule book really is for my benefit. That can often make me question my own ability to do the job. If I need to look up the rules, do I really know what I’m doing? But then I come out of those pizza and fanta fuelled sessions filled with impostor syndrome and constant questions, I realise it was all really useful and it always give me renewed focus and vigour. I really love my playtesters and their patience when I explain a rule wrong and then immediately realise that was the old, old old version of the game.

Do you find the community supportive?

Yes I really do. It’s not always been that way, when I started to work in the industry I was often greeted with fear and mistrust. I remember sitting in meetings and no one would sit next to me, so I’d have a one-chair exclusion zone around me. Or when certain gamers wouldn’t even come into the same room with me for fear of not knowing what to say to me. BUT it is changing and is getting better. There’s still terrible people, often on the internet but my personal experiences have largely been convincing people that I’m just like them and then forming amazing bonds over our shared passion. I still go to gaming shows and say hello to people from those early days. We’ve been working really hard to get the community in Nottingham (UK) to physically meet and the results have been amazing. There are loads of small gaming companies in the area and we started the Nottingham Tabletop Industry Collective on FaceBook as a place where people can gain support from one another face to face and online. We’ve had nearly 200 members join in less than six months and the membership is growing exponentially. I have a feeling we may need to rename it soon..

Tell us about THE Needy cat 🙂

Helo is our gigantic Needy Cat. He is a massive creature who does not take kindly to being ignored. He’s also clumsy. I’m not entirely convinced he’s not a small dog in a cat suit. I’m sure cats are supposed to be svelte and agile. Not Helo. He clambers up to the tabletop surface on his second or third try. Knocks cups of tea, books and gaming pieces alike flying, and then plonks himself down in front of you, stares into your eyes and then whines. He doesn’t really meow. It’s more of a solid whiny sound. Like you’d expect a teenager to make. We love him dearly,but he is a lump of a creature and he is NEVER far away from you. ESPECIALLY when you’re playing a game. His size is directly proportional to his destructive capabilities, so he’s able to pretty quickly destroy any decent sized board gae. Despite him being on a diet for the last two years. I think he’s managed to convince someone else to feed him, such is the power of his neediness.

What sort of challenges do you face as a woman game designer?

Largely that people forget you. My partner in crime James Hewitt, who is the other half of Needy Cat Games is the more famous of the two of us anyway (having written the recent massively over-funded Hellboy Board Game on Kickstarter after a string of well known games). So the impact doubles, he’s better known and then there comes the assumption that I’m probably his secretary. Anyone who knows me personally or professionally knows what I’m about and to be honest social media really helps with building those personal connections. 

What do you hope people get out of your games?

I really believe that the worst experience anyone can have is when you feel a bit frustrated, have no energy, you don’t have many options and you let out that ‘uuggghhhhhhh’ noise. That is the opposite of what I try to inject into my games. Games are essentially about interesting choices. So I try to make sure that there are decisions that produce cool results for every decision. I’m also a big fan of silliness. Not if it infringes on game play or makes things frustrating in another aspect (like snarling up the game with some tacked on whimsy), but if something makes you laugh AND has a function in the game, why not? I also make an active effort to strip out needless complexity and layers of admin. If you have to do a simultaneous equation to work out how many dice to roll, are you going to be having fun? I really hope people have fun while playing games, so I try to write games I will have fun playing.

What’s the latest with Needy Cat?

Hellboy The Board Game has been completely written in it’s entirety and I believe the first copies are due to hit Kickstarter backers in Europe in March. Which is super exciting! You can see us doing an unboxing with Andy from Blackjack Legacy Hellboy was an enormous effort due to it’s success at Kickstarter and I’ve been writing all of the expansions and KS exclusives ever since. I’m so excited to receive my copy and me able to play with the actual pieces (as opposed to my dodgy prototypes).

Bonefields is now out on general release from Macrocosm Miniatures. I’m really pleased to see this product in the flesh and it’s a fun little quick-fire skirmish game for anyone interested in miniatures gaming. 

I’m also working on a very exciting project which we’ll be announcing next week. It’s going to be a really intriguing game with cooperative play, set in a fascinating universe. There’s some more work in the pipeline, but as usual, I can’t say until it’s been announced – but keep your eyes peeled! 2019 is the year of the Needy Cat, at least for us. 

What would be the biggest advice you’d give to a new designer?

Write more games! Play more games! Repeat! People often tell me they are an aspiring games designer and when I ask about what games they’ve written, they’ll tell me about an unfinished RPG they started 10 years ago. Stop trying to make the perfect game. You’ll learn so much more by making 100 imperfect games. Plus, perfection isn’t attainable, so all you’ll have is one unfinished game, forever. If you’re stuck, play more games. Play games from different genres and styles. Play kids games and card games and app games and computer games and euro games and strategy games and party games and on and on. The industry is evolving at such a rate and what is even considered a game is evolving all the time. Take the incredible Fog of Love – it’s cooperative, but not really, it’s not adversarial at any point, but what you do affects the other player (for good or ill). I’m certain it will spark off a whole new generation of similarly styled games and that’s really exciting! You can only be part of it by actively taking part.  Write more games! Play more games! Repeat!

Needy Cat hosts monthly live hangouts (maybe even joined some special guests occasionally) and exclusive content on their Patreon.  Also, check the out the Needy Cat Games Social Media channels, but especially their blog. You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as well!