Designing Women: Heather O’Neill

Catching back up with the CEO of 9th Level Games, Heather O’Neill, as we head into another Pax Unplugged – the convention we first met up at two years ago!

What got you started playing board games? 

I was into the standard games from childhood (Monopoly, Scrabble, Uno) but my family was not really into games. My boyfriend’s (now husband) family was really into games so at about 18 years old I learned Settlers of Catan, Risk and Pinochle. After that I was into it and wanted to play more games! Playing games is now a regular thing at family and friend events alike!

Whats your favorite game?

It’s really hard to pick a favorite but I will give you a few games that I will play any time an never get bored with: Splendor, Las Vegas and Bohnanza.

Whats new on the design front?  

Pavlov’s Dogs is in the final stages and will be going to Kickstarter in January. After Schrodinger’s Cats I’ve been wanted to do this one and I’m so glad it’s almost out in the world!!  It’s a family co-op for 2-8 players where you are dogs taking tests from famous DOGTORS like Sigmund Fetch, Collie Jung and Bark F. Skinner. It tests math and memory skills and so far has been fun for all ages. Adults like the challenge as each test adds more rules making it harder and harder to remember everything!

Wedding Party (working title) is my newest design. It started as a skin of Meeple Party where 2 players plan their wedding but has since evolved into a card game. Maybe it will go back to a board game but right now the card game is working well. The game is a 2 player co-op where 2 partners plan their upcoming wedding. They start by spending their budget to get wedding features like a DJ, Cake, Photo Booth, Ice Sculpture, etc. Then they set up their venue and add the features. The features have  actions to help partners during the game or to score points. Each round the partners draw from their RSVP pile and seat guests trying to meet each guest’s LIKES while avoiding their DISLIKES.   By the end of the game hopefully the partners have earned effort happiness points to actually have the wedding and not just elope 🙂 

What are your thoughts on the design/playtesting process? 

I really love the design process. I find it quite interesting to take a concept and try to translate it to a game. Does gameplay evoke the feeling of the actions players are taking thematically? Would a different theme work better? Is the mechanic not right for the theme or level of game? Is it fun? Sometimes I actually find it hard to settle on the final design because of all the possibilities.
That’s where playtesting comes in. I think it’s critical to playtest early and often for a good design. I’m a member of the Game Maker’s Guild of Philadelphia which meets a few times a month specifically to playtest games by local designers. Over the last few years of being in the group it has really shown me the value of playtesting and feedback.
Best parts of playtesting: Unbiased feedback, different points of view, suggestions for improvement, and makes you think as a designer.

What game (if any) have you played recently that made you think about design in a different way?

Ninja Academy was one I played a few months ago. It made me think that a “board game” may not have to just be what we traditionally think in order to be a viable product in the marketplace. I made me realize I should see fun ideas through even though I may not see it “doing well”. My company, 9th Level Games, is ALL about the weird stuff and the fact that something like is coming out from Iello makes me have hope for the state of those non-standard games. Many times we shelf an early idea because we literally can not see a large enough audience for it.  

Favorite game of 2019? 


Do you find the community supportive? 

For me personally I would say yes for the most part. I personally have not had any targeted negativity towards me as a female designer (that I’m aware of anyway). Women in the game community have been extremely supportive. However, there is a lot of NON-SUPPORTIVE behavior in the gaming industry right now and it is NOT okay. Gaming is supposed to be a FUN and inclusive thing for people but I guess we can’t have nice things!!!

Any challenges? 

The number one frustrating thing is being taken seriously as a designer. I have had players at cons say things like, “Wow! You designed this all by yourself” kind of stuff. Um, yeah!? And I’ve definitely been ‘splained to while I’m running one of my own games!

The board game market is growing, and the number of women designers is as well. But remember that there are SO few women board game designers that we are still just a tiny portion of all board game design. While I don’t have hard data, it seems to me that only less than 10% of new games coming to market (either through large publishers or Kickstarter) are designed by women.

I know many women board game designers who are working on awesome stuff so I’m hoping that percentage will continue to increase!!

What are you hobbies besides gaming?

I’m an avid tennis player.  It’s good exercise and the strategy of doubles is also really interesting.  

What advice would you give new designers?

Even though it seems scary show your game to people and hear their feedback as soon as you can.  I know that I was really nervous to start showing my designs even to good friends. Once I broke through that barrier I found that my designs took on a more polished form earlier and earlier in the design process.  Secondly I would suggest that a new designer be familiar with many of the “core” games out there for different game mechanics. Example, if they are making a drafting game, have they played Sushi go, 7 wonders or Magic the gathering??

Where would you like to see the industry and community in five years?  

I would absolutely LOVE to see the industry grow by leaps and bounds in the next 5 years. I really see it as a possibility since the love of games of all types has been embraced by younger generations. The fact that escape rooms and board game cafes are not yet a passing fad makes me think that they will stick around and become as mainstream as going to the movies. 

As for the community, I would LOVE to see more diversity in both game players and designers. It has gotten much better in the last 5 years and I hope it continues. The tabletop gaming industry is not just BGG strategy board games. It is RPG’s, card games, CCG’s, wargames, storytelling games, family games, party games, solo games, co-ops, roll & writes, dice games, etc. Many potential players may not even realize the scope of what’s out there and what MAY be for them. As our industry grows and hopefully becomes accessible new gamers will find their niche genre of gaming.  As a female tabletop designer I know that the number of women and non-CWM designers has grown and we need that to continue. 

You can follow Heather on Twitter and Instagram and 9th Level Games on Facebook and Twitter.