Designing Women: Lindsey Rode

“… trust me, good games (and designers) will always get the credit they deserve eventually, so no matter who you are get out there and make some games.” ~ Lindsey Rode

Creative designer at Dog Might Games, trail runner, game designer, and self professed foodie – jack-of-all-trades Lindsey Rode shares her thoughts on design and how a hobby outside board games can help you look at things from a different angle.

What got you started playing board games?

My love of tabletop games began at the age of 10 during a junior league soccer tournament. Two of the kids on our team showed up with a deck of Magic cards and started playing in-between matches. Within a few weeks the entire soccer team had become a full-fledged Magic meet up and I think we lost most of our games because of it. Still nobody cared, and I’ve probably played some sort of tabletop game almost every week since then.

Design and playtesting – what are your favorite most challenging parts?

Whew I’ve always had a hard time answering this question. What I’ve learned most about the design process over time is that it’s completely different for each designer. And yes, I know that probably isn’t the most helpful answer to those just starting out, but I think it’s something important that isn’t really talked about. When you first start making games, you mimic the processes of your mentor, teacher, or whatever resource you first learned from. A lot of game design resources will say “don’t write rules until after the prototype is done” or “design from a mechanic first then add theme” or even “pick your theme first and find the mechanics that make that theme come to life”. A lot of designers, myself included, tend to cling to these rules like they are laws of nature. But they are just suggestions that work for some people and not for others. When I finally let myself design in a different way than those I learned from, that’s when my games really started to take off.

Playtesting is probably the most important and least fun part of the design process. To be a good designer you have to be good at playtesting, which means you have to be good at taking negative feedback. Every game struggles during its early playtesting and it’s the job of the playtesters to show you all the reasons why your game is broken or won’t do well in market. It can be surprisingly stressful when it’s happening because people are showing you things that are broken, and you may have no idea what you’re going to do to fix it. But it’s important to take a deep breath and remember that it’s way better to find a problem before it goes to print and to thank each person that is helping you. I think it’s something that new designers struggle with the most, but I don’t know any designer that loves it. If you’re interested in designing board games I always suggest signing up for as many playtests as you can, so you can not only learn about the design process but learn how good designers take feedback and apply it.

Are you finding the community supportive?

Yes! The community has had such an amazing transformation since I was in my early teens (the 90s) and it is all around just a better and more fun environment now. The few people that try to force us back to the past when kidnapped bikini babes were on every fantasy cover have been pushed to the fringes of the hobby. I think the healthy growth of the hobby shows that we are headed in the right direction.

Any challenges?

Being a game designer is challenging no matter who you are, but I have noticed women have had a few unique hurdles that my male designer friends haven’t. The biggest is that you struggle more to get credit for your work. This usually comes in two different forms: – If you are a female designer and you work with male designers on a game people sometimes will discredit you from being a “true female designer”. This can be crazy frustrating since it seems like it’s on you to prove you didn’t just let all the guys do the work. Just as frustrating is this idea that female designers can’t work with the “enemy male designers” to make amazing games. This has been a strange side effect from the industry’s growth lately and I hope we can nip it in the bud, so everyone can feel free to design with anyone they want judgment free. – There have been some people that have tried to discredit up-and-coming female designers by claiming that being a woman has given them an unfair advantage in the industry. That when the games they create are popular or receive high praise it’s only because everyone wants to be seen supporting women and the game’s quality is overlooked. These people are idiots of the highest degree. Don’t listen to these people and don’t waste your time arguing with them.

This may seem a bit depressing, but I can’t describe in words how far we’ve come. And trust me, good games (and designers) will always get the credit they deserve eventually, so no matter who you are get out there and make some games.

Can you give us an elevator pitch for your latest game, Labyrinthos?

Labyrinthos is an innovative strategic exploration game inspired by the ancient Greek legend of the Minotaur. Players take on the roles of Athenian sacrifices that have been forced into the Labyrinth to feed the monstrous son of Minos. Each player must explore the maze to uncover its secrets and outsmart the other sacrifices trying to escape. 

Labyrinthos has been play tested by our largest forum team ever for over a year. With the help of so many enthusiastic players and hundreds of game plays, Labyrinthos became a game that is easy to learn, quick to play, and offers tons of interesting player choices! 

And how has development for Labrinthos changed as you’ve gotten more design experience under your belt?

I wish I could have somehow recorded Labyrinthos’ design journey because it’s such a good example of how my creative process works and why game designers need a level of stubbornness. I came up with the idea for a tile game based on the Labyrinth around four years ago. It was my first game design, so I didn’t really know what I was doing. The original version was a sort of memory game where players used coins to look under tiles and then swap them around to keep the keys from other players. Like many people’s first designs, it was terrible….and by terrible, I mean horrendously bad. Really bad. I think the only thing that survived from that initial concept to the game on Kickstarter today, is that players need to find four keys to win the game. There wasn’t even a Minotaur in it, and I had no idea how to fix any of the other glaring issues. I ended up getting discouraged and shelving the idea as I became busy working on other projects. 

Fast forward three years and I have a lot more game design experience under my belt. Countdown: Action Edition was getting close to launching, and I was struggling to figure out what I was going to do next. I had a bunch of game concepts, but I didn’t feel motivated by any of them. Then, while cleaning my office, I stumbled on my old prototype for the Labyrinth game. I sat down in my partially cleaned office and spent the rest of the day taking the game apart, throwing away almost everything, and rebuilding it from the ground up. Since then I’ve taken that prototype with me everywhere. Once I had gotten all the major issues out with the help of friends and family, I opened the design to my forum playtest team. They are the best testing team I’ve ever had, and they’ve all helped me immensely in polishing the game to where it is now. Since the very first version I’ve re-written the rules twenty-one times and will probably go through another five updates before publishing. I think Labyrinthos will always be a special design to me because of how it has grown and evolved alongside of me in my career. 

I do want to point out one of the coolest things that happened during Labyrinthos’ development. As we moved into the graphic development phase I started scouting for a graphic artist and illustrator that would fit the vision I had for the game. I had known I wanted Alyssa Menold to do the art early on and thankfully she said yes right away. Finding the right graphic designer proved trickier but I was finally put in touch with an amazing GD named Ali Prater. She had never done a board game before but enthusiastically agreed to join our creative team. It wasn’t until I was turning in all the signed contracts to my boss that they pointed out I had a completely female development team. I had chosen everyone because of their ability to understand my vision for the game and because they had the confidence to build on that in ways I couldn’t foresee. But I’m very proud to say the Labyrinthos was designed by a woman, illustrated by a woman, and turned into it’s final product form by a woman! 

How do you approach playtesting? Local group? Unpub events?

When I playtest I have two methods that I always utilize, forum testing and in-house testing. In-house testing is when you play the game with a local group or bring prototypes to a convention. I love in-house testing because it allows me to gauge the emotions of the players at the table while they play. Are they frustrated, excited, laughing, or bored? It also allows me to improvise new rules and change things on the fly in the middle of the playtest. Before a game goes on to forum testing it usually endures months of in-house testing first.

After a game is performing well with the in-house testers it moves on to forum testing. Our forums testers are from all over the world and each have their own dedicated testing group. These are the amazing playtesters that polish each game into the final gem it was meant to be. They pour over every rule, try to break the game’s combos, and even help to translate the game into different languages. Since I’m not there to explain things, just like in real life when the game releases, I can see if the rules make sense and what clarifications are needed. These testers are the real heroes of Dog Might Games and we are currently looking to add some new players to this team!

Whats your favorite game? Why?

My favorite game is Dead of Winter. This game has had a massive impact on my life and started me down the path of a career in game design. When I first played it, I was blown away by the emotions players were feeling at the table. I watched my friends agonize, betray, and mourn over their dead characters. It totally changed my mind on what a board game could be and helped me realize I wanted to be a part of this art form. Soon after I volunteered to teach it at my first gaming convention and within a few years I was designing games full time.

What are your hobbies? And do you think they tie into your design and/or game themes?

Most of my hobbies revolve around gaming in one way or another and they all contribute to my knowledge of games and game design. My only non-gaming hobby is trail running and it’s surprising how often it effects my creativity in unexpected ways. For anyone who isn’t familiar with trail running, it’s when you go jogging on unpaved trails through stretches of wilderness. It has an incredibly fun and eccentric community that often consist of a bunch of idiots running down (or up) a mountainside as fast as possible. I’ve been participating in the hobby for around 10 years and it’s shocking how much it impacts how I see the world on a daily basis. I find it a bit tricky to explain how running outdoors can change the way you see the world, but I’ll give it a quick try.

We normally see the outside world most often from our cars, so our perspective of distance, temperature, and weather can become very skewed. When you’re running (or walking) outside on a regular basis you get exposed to what it actually feels like to experience these things. With trail running this effect is magnified even more. I’ve been lost, chased by deer, caught in storms, stumbled upon forgotten gravestones, raced a donkey, and once accidently wandered into one of those haunted woods they set up during Halloween (I was terrified, but the workers who helped me get back to the trail are probably still laughing about it). At the end of each run I make a few notes about what I experienced and what emotions I felt in that moment. I’ve gone back over these notes countless times when designing to try and figure out how to pull the emotions I want from my players. These notes have also inspired many of my flavor texts for cards and a few full-fledged designs on their own.

What have you been up to outside game design lately?

Working full time in the tabletop industry means my life mostly consist of conventions, game nights, and squeezing in design time for my personal projects. Outside of the board game obsession I’ve had a great time learning to play tennis at my local community center and joining a quilting group (we mostly drink wine while looking at fabric). I’m still trail running to keep myself sane and spoiling my dog, Sawdust, most days.  

Whats one take away you hope a player gets from your games?

I hope that after someone plays one of my games they feel like they had a new experience. When I design I always try to take my players into a new place thematically, mechanically, or emotionally. Even if they didn’t love it, if they walked away with a broader idea of what experiences board games can give, I count that as something wonderful for the industry as a whole.

And whats next for you?

Labyrinthos will be done and heading to the printer in the next couple of months so I’m back to figuring out what I want to do next. I’ve got two designs that seem like good candidates; an RPG system code named: Furry Vikings and a scary co-op game code named: Red Filter. I’ll also be working on an expansion to Labyrinthos that will hopefully come out next year!

Follow Lindsay on Twitter. And if you missed Labyrinthos, there’s still a chance to pre-order here!