Designing Women: Janice Turner

I don’t like the idea of having an idol; I want to be myself and do things to my own moral code living up to my own aspirations, not another’s.” ~ Dr. Janice Turner

What do you get when you cross board games with a doctorate in engineering? Innovative design and a whole lot of fun! Wren Games‘ Janice Turner is now currently the middle of their second kickstarter launch, the sequel to Assembly. The Jelly Bean design scholarship winner chatted with us about designing around the demands of a family and her latest project, Ghost Sensor.

What got you into board games?

My hubby and I started playing board games about 5 years ago. I’d been hearing people talk about it at work and unbeknownst to me Stu had been following board game related discussions online. One day I came home and asked what all this stuff about board games was and Stu responded that he’d just bought one! The next day Pandemic arrived and we excitedly opened it and played it, and then again and then again by which point it was way past our normal bedtime! The following night we did the same and here began our love of board games! A month later we got our second and third games, both Pandemic expansions which are all still in our collection today, which consists of almost exclusively cooperative games.

Why did you start designing board games?

Since leaving University, I never really had any hobbies. I put my all into work and then just enjoyed relaxing in the evenings with Stu, watching TV, eating out, going to the movies. And during holidays we went away and traveled – I actually wrote a blog about some of our trips. I also studied for an engineering doctorate whilst working full-time so there wasn’t really any time for hobbies either. And then, in 2015 we had our first child, Amelie. One sleep deprived night I started dreaming about my own board game design. I wrote everything down on my phone and then continued to dream about it. A few weeks later I told Stu and he encouraged me to try, pointing out I should have a hobby of my own! That half dream became The Maiden Voyage, although it’s now quite different to how I initially imagined it!

What are you up to right now?

Right now is a busy time. We just exhibited for the second time at the UK Games Expo (this time planned!) which was an amazing experience – we heard lots of stories from gamers who’ve played Assembly which was a real boost for us.
We also launched our second Kickstarter a couple of weeks ago for our new game Sensor Ghosts and combined it with a new expansion for Assembly called Re-Sequence & Override. We funded after 5 days which was amazing as it took us 10 days last time with a lower goal! We’ve still got a couple of weeks left and are fast heading towards stretch goal territory.
However, personally I’m still trying to recover from the pre-KS preparation, KS launch, UKGE and having 2 young children wanting my full attention whenever I’m in the same room as them! It’s quite a different experience to last time (also throw my day job into the mix as last time I was on maternity leave). Anyway, all in all it’s been an exhausting few weeks! (months?)  

Space themes – is this your passion? 

Yes I love space. As a kid my first major purchase with my own money was a telescope. I still have it in the loft today although no idea if it’s usable or not (nowhere to put it up in our current house 🙁 ). 

I studied Astronomy GCSE as an evening class during my A-levels, took the space options through self-study for my Physics A-level and studied Physics with Space Studies at university, defecting to the Aerospace department so I could do my final year project on space craft engineering. I also almost went to work for the European Space Agency but arrangements in my personal life didn’t line up so I had to turn away that opportunity (no regrets – I’ve had an amazing time doing other stuff). 

All in all I love space and I love sci-fi (and so does Stu!). It really caught my imagination as a child and has always stayed with me and something I hope to impart onto my two young daughters – my eldest can already name and recognise many of the planets in our solar system. Rolling dice and naming planets are important learning milestones for us!

Will this be a regular series – pre and post Assembly? Its own world and IP? 

I think I’d like to do a series of 3. That feels like the right number and we have 2 more ideas for the 3rd option (or maybe we’ll extend it to 4?!). We didn’t originally plan it this way but it’s great to design within boundaries and we love story in our games so it makes sense to have a self-standing but continuing story. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post about including stories within games and the, perhaps, unexpected benefits for doing so even in an abstract game like Assembly. Although I probably miss out the hook story has: it makes explaining our games so much easier at cons and immediately catches peoples imagination!

Whether all our designs include something from the Assembly world, I don’t know we’ll have to see what happens, we haven’t planned that far ahead, although we are considering ‘killing’ the computer off in the 3rd game in the series…

I know its a sequel in story, but you’ve mentioned the mechanics are different in the two games. Why make that choice?

Assembly has an interesting layout and, I’m told, unique mechanics (they don’t feel unique to me but probably because I’ve been working with them for so long). We decided to continue the Assembly mechanics on with an expansion as we didn’t want to just re-skin the game and sell it as something new. Plus how can you use the same mechanic for the journey home compared to building a space ship? A grid layout felt much more thematic for Sensor Ghosts. 
Ultimately although the mechanisms between the two games are different their profiles are the same: 

  • Designed first as a solo game, then extended to 2 player and now extended to 3-4 players too.
  • Small box
  • Rich content (e.g. variants, ways to make it easier/harder)
  • Solo or cooperative
  • Core ‘mechanism’ is a puzzle
  • Takes less than 30 minutes to play (at all player counts)
  • Starts with a very simple concept and then has complexity layered on top.

This plus the story is what confined our thinking and we wanted to try and come up with another mechanic to make things interesting rather than just more Assembly by a different name. 
So although the profiles of the games are the same, the key objective is different: in Assembly you are simply matching the right token to the right card and in Sensor Ghosts you are moving a token through a maze from A to B. 

What do you think about the design process?

I like the logical and methodical nature of the process. Given that I’m used to developing high-tech niche products, the process seems pretty similar but rather than ‘Type Tests’ you instead do playtesting. I find playesting the hardest part of designing games. Playtesting on your own (when you have time!) isn’t too bad but we find playtesting with others is much more challenging, especially with a young family! This means we don’t go to board game groups and meet-ups (other than the UK Games Expo) as it’s just too hard for us to organise childcare. We therefore rely on the online community to help playtest and validate what we have done but this can often be a bit hit and miss. Being ‘social’ is a key part of getting games tested (and getting feedback!) and, as you may guess by the fact I’m a physicist/engineer, being social doesn’t come naturally to me, even when using social media – I find it hard work and quite draining, but we’re getting there.

Any challenges in the field?

I think the main challenge generally affects more women than men. I am currently the primary carer of our 2 young children, which is knackering and doesn’t leave much time for game design and publishing. Even when I wasn’t the primary carer (Stu was a stay-at-home-dad for 2 years), young children want their mummy (or at least mine did!), so whenever I wasn’t at work all she wanted was “mummy”. However, when working it did give me a good chance to listen to a load of game design related podcasts – The Game Design Round Table is my favorite. And as to being a female in a male dominated business – I work in Engineering. I’ve worked with the military and in the Oil & Gas sector – I think these are slightly more male dominated than board gaming! It was tough to start with, but I’m used to it now.

Do you find the community supportive?

Yes! Very much so. Over the past couple of years, we have had some fantastic playtest volunteers and more recently, many lovely people offering to help promote Assembly ahead of our Kickstarter. The board game community is great! I’m not sure I can say thank-you enough to the people that have helped us – I try by acknowledging everyone who has helped by crediting them in the relevant rulebook and I always try to do a personal thank-you rather than a mass message. Where I can, I also try to help others with advice and feedback but I never feel I’m giving enough back given how generous the community has been to us. Perhaps in September when I go back to work part-time and my eldest is at pre-school I’ll have a bit more time to give back to the community.

Keep up with Sensor Ghosts’s progress on kickstarter and all the latest Wren Games news (as well as the MOST adorable baby pictures) on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.