Designing Women: Gwen Ruelle

Inspired by her love of cooperative games, Gwen Ruelle turned a childhood passion for design into Runaway Parade Games. She and her partner launched their first design, Fire Tower, to enormous success last year.

How did you begin your game journey?

When I was a kid, I was crazy about card games. My grandfather, who had immigrated from Estonia before World War II, was a quiet man with somewhat limited English. He didn’t run around and play with us, but he would play cards with us as much as we wanted, and that was my absolute favorite thing to do. I will never forget sitting in the dining room with him as he drank a martini and we played Cribbage or Casino (which, by the way, is how I learned addition). He was incredibly good at both games, and never let me win, so I got used to losing at an early age, but my love of games only grew from there. I played all the classics like Stratego, Clue, Sequence, Kill Doctor Lucky, etc. I loved them all, but once I discovered Carcassonne I was hooked for life.

What inspired you to try game design?

I’ve always wanted to be a game designer, and have been making up games since I was a kid. I would force my family to try out my latest creation, and I’m sure a lot of those early games were pretty terrible. I was thrilled to find out that Kickstarter had created a platform for indie designers to self publish, because it made the idea of inventing a game and getting it out into the world all that much more feasible. 

Are you finding the design/creative community supportive? 

Yes, absolutely! I have been continuously blown away by the game design community. We see designers regularly at playtests, game nights, and conventions year round, and they are incredibly welcoming and supportive, and are more than happy to offer advice about anything from components to freight forwarding. Many designers have become great friends to us, and I feel lucky to be part of such a community-centered industry.

What was the inspiration for Fire Tower?

My partner and I love cooperative games and the concept of playing against the game. We wanted to make a competitive game with that same idea in mind, so that you are playing against the game but also against each other. The natural movement of fire seemed to fit that concept perfectly. 

What are some things you think you learned along the way, from initial design through kickstarter?

There was quite a steep learning curve for me throughout the entire process, especially when it came to launching and fulfilling a Kickstarter. It seems like every time you start to understand how something works, there is another can of worms to deal with: attending conventions, figuring out a marketing plan, writing rules, manufacturing components, handling international shipping, etc.

But the most important thing I learned was this: Ask for help. People are ready and willing to offer feedback on your game, and also help with more concrete questions about self-publishing a game. You might be the sole designer of your board game, but you don’t need to be alone in this process. I asked TONS of questions, about every aspect of designing and publishing a game. Because of it, I have a lot more knowledge under my belt, I am part of a great community of designers and publishers, I learned who the audience is for my game, and I published a game I can be proud of. 

What are you working on right now? 

Fire Tower was the first game that my partner Sam and I created, and that’s been our main focus for over three years. Now that Kickstarter backers have their copies, we finally have a bit more time to focus on other designs. We are working on an expansion for Fire Tower, and have about a dozen other prototypes on our shelves that we are playing around with. It’s exciting to be in this part of the design stage again, where a game could still go in any direction. 

What do you like about the design process?

Designing a game is a lot like playing a game. I love that moment when you have the beginning of an idea—whether it is a theme, or a mechanic, or just a player experience—and now you have to strategize to make it into a playable game. So often we will talk about an idea for hours and then play it and realize it is not at all fun. But I love the puzzle aspect of that design stage. What do you with these leftover dice after you roll? How can players continue to make interesting choices when it is not their turn? What will make this bidding mechanic feel more tense?

And how about playtesting?

Playtesting games is an interesting process because you are asking one of the most subjective questions out there: Is this fun? How do I make it more fun? Of course, everyone has a different opinion, and it is hard for me not to try to incorporate every idea and piece of feedback into the game. One thing that has helped me is when playtesters ask me, “Who is your audience? What kind of experience do you want players to have?” In answering those questions, you can help gear your feedback to changes that are more in line with your vision. 

Any challenges as a woman in design? 

My main challenge as a woman game designer is that there really just aren’t enough of us, and it is easy to feel like you are pushing your way through a boys club. I have had incidents of people being surprised that I designed a game, or that my role in Runaway Parade Games isn’t more menial. People will occasionally address my (male) partner and ignore me. This is rare, but it does happen. The good news is that there is an amazing community of female designers who are ready and willing to support women without dismissing them or judging them (if you are a woman looking for that community, please feel free to contact me!). More than anything, I don’t want women to feel like they don’t have a place in this community, either as a designer or as a player. 

What advice would you give new designers?

Play to your strengths. The amazing thing about the tabletop gaming industry is that it embraces creativity and innovation so much more than other industries. You don’t have to do things a certain way. For example, my partner and I both love stop motion animation, so we decided to make our rules video in stop motion with our components. Did it take forever? Yes. Did anyone recommend that we do that? Absolutely not, it takes forever. But people seemed to enjoy it, and we loved making it!

In some cases, this means taking huge risks. We decided to go with an unusual art style for Fire Tower, because our artist, Kevin Ruelle, is known for his vivid and somewhat abstracted watercolors of nature. We loved the look and feel of it, but many people recommended we do something more realistic and more in line with mainstream board games. Even though I believed in our vision, I spent many nights doubting my decision. In the end, I think our art is one of the things that makes Fire Tower so unique, and we have received many compliments about our artwork from the game community.

Keep up with Gwen and Runaway Games on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!