Designing Women: Emma May

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.” ~ Emma May

What do table tennis, Tough Mudder, and quirky little set collection games have in common? They’re all part of designer Emma May’s strong suits. Her first game, Quirk!, has become a smash in the UK; it was featured at UKGE and is a hot best-seller on Amazon UK. The Southhampton designer and Emmerse Studios CEO shared some fantastic advice for new designers, as well as the history of Quirk!.

What got you started playing board games?

It’s not something I’ve thought too about much but I keep getting asked this very question. When I was younger I really enjoyed playing Scrabble or Monopoly with my grandparents. The strange thing is my sister owned most of these board games, Boggle, Pictionary etc and we’d play them together. Then there were Pogs and Rubix cubes but the one game I would play a lot when I was younger was Chess. I used to play weekly against my dad and he even bought me a beautiful metal set when he went to Greece one summer.

In recent years, I’ve been more into video games, having also grown up with the Sega, CDI, SNES, Game Cube, PS1, PS2, Wii, XBOX 360, Steam and of course all the handheld gaming devices that came and went. Now, I find myself a lot more in the board game scene because I’ve designed my own card game and I’m spending a lot of my focus here. I’m meeting more and more creative, imaginative and incredible people in this space and playing more games I never thought I’d try. I am absolutely fascinated by the different kinds of games and over the last 18 months my own collection has started to grow. I would say I’m more of a light-hearted card game player, I love card games, but I’m starting to find my ideal games in bigger, more challenging board games and it’s nice to diversify my taste and try a bit of everything (Even if I’m not 100% sure what I’m doing).

What do you like most about the game making process?

So I’m a product developer before I’m a games designer and I have spoken on this topic in front of students at universities who are thinking about developing products because testing is always the element that is missing (not just with students but with entrepreneurs also). I would never have the guts to release a commercial game to an audience and stand behind it if I never product tested/play tested first. Quirk! was designed in around 2 weeks but tested over 5 months with different audiences. I tested the game mechanics, artwork, print quality and price point. The one thing I know is that I’m not the person who is going to be constantly playing Quirk! but my audience are, so I always listen to what they have to say, take on their feedback and make the relevant changes that fit the quality of the game I want to produce. Over the last year, Quirk! has become a game my audience has developed.

So I really like testing the games I design, if it’s crap I’d prefer if someone were to tell me in the testing phase because I can make changes at that point and develop something that would really be enjoyed instead. The most enlightening thing about testing is coming up with some really “genius” ideas, at least in your own head, and thinking it’s so good and actually watching people’s reactions for that moment, then finding out that your audience doesn’t relate to it at all. I’ve cut cards out of my game because I never want to confuse my audience, even if I’ve loved the idea and it makes sense to me.

The one thing I would suggest to others who are new to designing and testing their games is to understand when someone is giving you constructive feedback to aid your game design or when someone is giving you their opinion of your game design. The two things are very different, one is to do with helping you develop a better game and the other is down to personal taste. So always have a core aim for your game design which will allow you to always adjust to the correct feedback for your ideal audience.

What was the catalyst for Quirk!?

I get asked quite a bit about how to design board games/card games, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever created one. At least not one with complicated mechanics. Quirk! came from another card game I invented which came from a book I created. The book was called 365 Days of Getting into Character, it gave you a character to become every day with a little statement of what you needed to do to complete that task. It had things like, today you are a pirate, talk like a pirate to everyone you meet or today you are a pig, oink to say hello. That was in 2013.

Shortly after, a friend told me the book was too difficult so I then thought the premise was a great idea for a drinking game. Creatively titled, Cards with Character, I actually Kickstarted it in 2013 but to create an app because I didn’t really know how Kickstarter worked at the time and I had already printed a few cards so thought I couldn’t Kickstart the card game. I funded for £730 and sold the book as a reward along with the card game. The aim of the game was to become a character or do what it said on the card until someone else picked up the same card, if you stopped for any reason, you had to drink. It was a mix of Ring of Fire, Two Truths and a Lie and Wink Murder. Basically, it had a lot going on between single play and group play, either everyone was too drunk to understand or too lost in where they were and felt drunk even though they were sober. I didn’t fully release Cards with Character though because I never saw it in my head as a final product, there were too many bugs in it and I had no passion for it.

A few years later, when I started Emmerse Studios in November 2016, a few people were asking me about Cards with Character and whether I could make it into a 2 player game. I believe anything is possible so I got to work on developing an entirely new game from it. I sat down with my sister and bounced ideas around, to be honest it was quite a quick session of her telling me nothing would work and it couldn’t be done, but I was persistent and told her it could. She went through all the cards and told me what could work and what definitely wouldn’t. We had always enjoyed playing Go Fish on caravan holidays when we were younger, so taking the core concept of Cards with Character where you had to become a character and the mechanics of Go Fish of trying to make sets of cards, Quirk! was born. We then tested, I didn’t want it to be just “Go Fish” though, there was always the Ninja card, which in the previous game allowed you to steal a sip from someone else’s drink, I took that mechanic and placed it into being able to steal a Quirk! from someone (which is a set of 3 characters) and later through play testing defence cards were introduced.

When board game reviewers started to review Quirk! there was still more feedback coming out of the game play and optimum strategies were revealed. All of this feedback helped me to adapt the rules, make the core game solid and define a lot of content within the game over the 10 months before it was officially launched in October 2017 to the public. I’m not the only one passionate about making a good game and I think that’s the reason it’s done so well in the market.

Do you find the game community supportive?

From a designer’s perspective: the games community are hugely supportive people. A lot of us spend our time on Twitter, discussing games, live streams and supporting each other’s Kickstarter Campaigns. Having a collaborative community like that helps to get everyone funded when they take on the daunting task of crowdfunding. Also a lot of designers that are in my circles will have been on the same podcasts, live streams or retail in the same shops because we’re all recommending each other. I’ve definitely found my people in the board game industry, I always recommend people to get involved in our crazy conversations because they just boost everyone’s morale and create better friendships.

Personally, I will always try and help others out because I know how hard it is! I’ve even been through legal battles with massive companies in the short time of starting up and come out the other side. However, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind and not answer the lists of questions you get asked. When I was first starting out, I asked an accomplished board game designer a bunch of questions and got no response, in the end I learnt everything on my own, and now people come to me and ask those questions. I understand now why I got no response and I believe that has made me more successful.

Whats new on the design front?

I’d love to have a million ideas to share with you but as I’m still operating as solo business woman, I struggle to bring new ideas to the table. I’m working on new ways to run my business to stop wearing all the hats and then I can spend more time designing. It’s been really important to me to get one game into the market and learn the steps on the commercial retail side before I ventured into a new project. I’m now toying with a new idea for a family/party game but it’s still having to sit in the side project category while I’m still manage the entire company with the first game series.

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

I’m always learning new terminology about games and the way they are played. As a designer and business owner, I don’t get to play as many games as I’d like to or have regular games nights. There are 2 games that have made a huge impression on me; Stuff Fables and the way they activate the enemies in the game and when you replenish the bag. It means the event always happens in the game even if the players are really lucky with picking their dice. It’s one we desperately want to get back to the table when we have our next games night. The second game is The Mind. I’m not one for tense games usually but I love the interaction you get between friends when you try to make your best effort to place the numbers in the correct order.

What are your favorite games?
One of my all time favourite games is Black and White by Lionhead Studios, I was obsessed with it when I was in my teens and if I had it installed now I would still be addicted to it. I’ve always been fascinated with the way Peter Molyneux made games and it has a big influence on the games I want to make when I step into the digital side of my business. Board games are a new territory for me and my collection is growing, I love Unlock, I love solving problems and thinking differently and it’s a great puzzler even with a team of people playing and working together.

I love a game that really makes me think, has a great story and I can really sink my teeth into, I guess I’m more of a solo gamer in that capacity which is why I’m more prone to video games being in my favourite lists, Portal is fantastic, along with Half Life 2. If I play board game it’s usually for the social aspect, one I’ve sort of enjoyed which is still a video game/tabletop experience is Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, where one person can see a bomb and has to defuse it but the rest of the team have the manual and need to work out the codes from what the first player is saying. It’s all about asking the right questions, effectively and communicating so nobody explodes. It’s an awesome game.

What do you like about the industry/community?

I like that the industry is very supportive in the right circles. Definitely the game designers that hang out on Twitter, we have great conversations and I feel that when I’m going through tough times, there’s someone there that can understand the journey I’m on and can support me emotionally. You can find a lot of people who are on the same journey, it’s much easier to relate to each other and of course, we mostly enjoy the same movies or games so when you’re making obscure references, someone usually understands what you’re saying. That’s really cool to be understood in that way.

Favorite game of 2019?
I feel like I haven’t played this game yet, but I’m really excited to get Fantastic Factories to the table soon.

What are your hobbies besides gaming? Do they play into your design?
I love to play guitar and write songs, go running and do fitness events like Tough Mudder. I really like physical activities and going on adventures or playing a sport. I used to be very good at table-tennis, I was scouted for a few teams when I was younger. Also roller-blading and skateboarding I would love to do properly, it’s just so much fun! I’ve slowed down a lot on these at the moment as I’ve been working solidly on the games growth in the UK. Although I still manage to play guitar when I can and learn new songs as it helps me to switch off from work mode.

What advice would you give a new designer?

I’ve recently been helping a new designer come up with game ideas and flesh out what could work and how to get it to work. Start with a simple idea and playtest it as soon as possible, not with anyone else, just by yourself and with close friends and really work out the bugs. Once it works, add a layer of complexity to it and bug test again but have an idea of what you essentially want to create so you know what you’re aiming for when you get there. Once you feel it’s ready for a wider audience test again and keep doing so until the mechanics are tight.

There’s a quote that’s really stuck with me “It’s not that the baby is ugly, it just gets better in time with iterations” I can’t remember who said it or where I read it but it fundamentally talks about how bad ideas become good ideas and then great ideas. You can always iterate on a concept, but if you go in guns blazing, think your ideas amazing from the start, never test it with a real audience then it will flop when it reaches the market.

Design your games how you want them to be played but with the end user in mind. If you get the product testing right and you create an awesome game and you build a following with your early adopters. When it gets to the early majority and you’re not physically able to represent your game anymore and it has to do it on it’s own. You’ll be mostly able to guarantee that the people buying your game from a shop shelf, will have the same experience as one of your first testers who you listened to, to get the game right. The only time this won’t happen is if the wrong audience picks up your game but that’s part of your product development knowing your core audience from the start. It’s not all plain sailing though and you can expect some controversy somewhere, especially if it becomes quite popular.

If I could give advice to other game designers, it’s always move forward in creating the idea that’s in your head, test it out with your ideal audience and only take constructive feedback on board. Then be so good they can’t ignore you. It’s going to be difficult but if you genuinely enjoy what you do and you’ve validated your ideas, your challenges just become problems to solve… and hey! If you enjoy games, you’ll get a kick out of overcoming the odds too.

Where would you like to see the industry and community in five years? 
I like to see a lot more official board game groups across the UK that aren’t meet ups in a strangers house. In Southampton, UK, I feel we lack a monthly board game group that I could regularly be a part of without having to go into the town centre where I wouldn’t feel safe leaving late at night on my own or have to travel to different cities to get this experience. We used to have an event happen relatively close to me but the host left Southampton and was person who bought the games with them. The amount of board game cafes appearing make this more accessible, but I also like the idea of “players wanted” flags that you see at board gaming events, so even if you were on your own you could join in with someone’s game. Otherwise you just feel like you’re imposing yourself on someone else’s conversation and time, so in five years time, I’d like to see the idea of regular board gaming groups spread across more cities and allow more people to show up on a whim to play games when their friends might not be available or even rids the feeling of having to host your friends all the time.

Follow Emma at Emmerse Studios and Facebook and Twitter.