Designing Women: Nikki Valens

Portrait by @puckboum_pro

” Don’t be afraid to fail. The faster you fail, the faster you can learn from your mistakes and move forward.” ~ Nikki Valens

Nikki Valens is known for intense, story driven games like Legacy of Dragonholt and Eldrich Horror. Her passion for inclusivity in gaming combined with her talent for design make her an important advocate in our hobby.

What got you started playing board games?

I was raised on boardgames. My mother grew up playing boardgames with her siblings, and she raised my brother and me playing boardgames as well. I got into Magic the Gathering, roleplaying games, and Warhammer when I was very young, and I started branching out into other hobby games in high school. Betrayal in the House on the Hill was the first game that showed me theme and mechanics could work together.

Do you design with them in mind first or mechanic?

Depends on the game. I have tons of game ideas. Many start with just a mechanic that I want to build around. Some start with an idea for a story or even just a setting. In some cases, a theme and mechanic fit together so well that they start together and never separate. In any case, it’s the joining of theme and mechanics that really excites me. When I finally find the right theme for a mechanic I’m working with, it breathes new life into the project. Likewise, once the mechanics are established for a story I’m working on, it can really feel like the player is part of the story.

What are you working on right now?

A lot of different things. I recently finished working on an expansion for Fog of Love which will be available in Q2 of 2019. The expansion focuses on stories of self-discovery regarding gender identity and orientation. I’m also excitedly awaiting the announcement of a game I designed that should be making a splash at Gen Con this year. As for games I’m currently working on: there are a couple different card games that are in their final stages. One has some fun dexterity elements that playtesters have been enjoying. The other is a bit more niche and crunchy, but I’ve been very happy with how it plays. I’m working with Calvin Wong (of Crazy Rich Asians fame) on a new interactive story. A sort of novella length piece that will play similar to Legacy of Dragonholt. And just last week I’ve finally started putting ideas on paper for a tactical combat game that I’ve been thinking about for years.

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

I love almost everything about it. Game design is my greatest passion, and I pour my heart and soul into my work every day. I love the iterative process and seeing an idea grow over time. The excitement of the players. Seeing a game come together into what I had envisioned is very fulfilling. There are some parts that are less charming though. I tend to falter near the middle of the process. After the core concepts have been ironed out but the game needs more content to fill out the play time. But as long as I get to see people playtesting the new content, I can keep myself motivated to finish it.

Best experience in the industry/community?

I’ve had so many wonderful experiences in this industry and with this community. Whether it’s chatting with playtesters, meeting other designers, or speaking at conventions. But possibly the best experience so far was signing my first game as a freelance designer. I started my career at Fantasy Flight, and when I went freelance, I was afraid I might not be able to make it on my own. I didn’t think anyone would know who I was or care about what I had to say or what I had made. But signing my first game was such a reassuring experience that I’m now confident I can keep making great games for the community to enjoy. I hope to have many more incredible experiences in the future.

Do you find the community supportive?

I’m amazed and inspired everyday by the community’s love for boardgames. I’ve received many lovely comments and direct messages about how my games have touched players’ hearts and lives. The boardgame community might not be as large as the movie, comic, or even video game industry. But the players are passionate and vocal about their feelings.

Any challenges working in the game industry?

I struggle to know how similar my experiences are to other women in the industry. Between starting my career with Fantasy Flight and me being non-binary, I feel that I’ve been insulated in some ways from the challenges others have faced. It’s immediately obvious that this industry is dominated my men (and white men at that). There is certainly an undeniable ingrained misogyny that permeates the industry. I think women in the boardgame industry face many similar challenges to those of women in any male dominated industry. We get talked over in work meetings. Players assume we work in sales or marketing instead of design and development. When my name appears next to a man’s name in the credits, many assume I had a much smaller hand in the creation of the game than he did. I think the very fact I get asked this question on a regular basis is proof enough that there’s a problem in the industry.

Does the growth in the industry over the past few years surprise you?

The industry has grown so immensely in the last few years. It’s great to see the breadth of different games increase and the diversity of their designers as well. I’ve seen a similar boom with video games some years back and with esports in more recent years as well. I wouldn’t say the growth of the industry surprised me, but it is absolutely a welcome change. The more diversity of experiences and ideas that enter the industry, the better all games will become as a result. I think it’s important that we all learn from one another and strive to better ourselves and our creations. Every year, new and incredible games come out that I would have never expected. And it’s those gems than truly inspire me to try new things.

Toughest part of design for you?

The aspect of design that I’ve been struggling with the most recently, is that I just want to make so many different games. I want to make narrative games, and strategic games. I want to make games about romance, and technology, and fantasy, and the challenges faced by marginalized folks. I want to create mechanics that make player think and tell stories that make player feel. And as a result of all of this, I find my attention easily split between multiple projects or even trying to fit too much into the games I’m working on. I recently took a game idea I’ve been working on and split it into three completely separate games because there was just so much I was trying to do and those things were fighting with each other for spotlight. One of my strengths in design is the ability to look at the big picture and condense a game down to its purest form. And I’m only now realizing I’ve honed that skill because I have so many things I want to create and have to constantly be trimming back and reigning in my own excitement.

Whats your favorite thing you’ve played recently?

There are two stand out titles from 2018 for me. The Mind and Root. Both of these titles surprised me in big ways. The Mind taps into a type of game mechanics that games have barely scratched the surface of. I like to call it “empathic mechanics”. Mechanics that don’t rely on a player’s ability to think logically or strategically, but empathically. The Mind boils down to a single incredible mechanic of being able to read your fellow players and understand them on an intimate level. Playing the game opened my eyes to new ways of design and showed me once again, that a game can be incredibly simple and still be one of the best games out there.

On the other hand there is Root. The fact that I enjoy this game surprised my close friends. I usually shy away from complex games with lots of components. I fully admit that the aesthetics and art are what drew me in, but the assymetry of the factions and the dynamic around the table that is created while playing both captured me during my first play. I find myself wanting to replay the factions I have played to try to put what I learned previously to better use, but I also want to try out the factions I haven’t played yet to see what they’re all about. I wasn’t expecting

What advice would you give new designers?

Don’t be afraid to fail. The faster you fail, the faster you can learn from your mistakes and move forward. Game design is a process of iteration. Of trial and error. Even the best designers in the world don’t get it perfect on the first try. In fact, their games are likely as good as they are because they’ve failed more. They’ve seen and learned more from trying new things. Just get something on the table to try it. Even if you know it will fail spectacularly, you’ll learn from it and be able to improve your design.

You can follow Nikki on Twitter. And be on the lookout for her Fog of Love Expansion later this year!