Julie Ahern: On Building Worlds and Publishing Games

Julie Ahern, COO and VP of Greenbriar Games, shares her insight on story, the many sides of the game community, and the business of making games.

What got you started playing board games? 

Oh, goodness– I was always playing games. My first game revision was Candyland, I was playing D&D by the fourth grade, and I can remember when Agricola came outI Basically I can’t remember a time when board games weren’t a part of my life.

In addition to wearing a ton of hats at Greenbrier, you build stories for you game lines. What inspired you to start using your writing skills to create game worlds? 

It was my original role in the company! I was designing children’s games and teaching, when we started working on our first game, Zpocalypse. My initial task was to create the Survivors, both the back stories and the stats and abilities that reflected their narrative. I think that it was a direct crossover for me from the RPGs I have always played, paired with the playwriting I’ve done. I cannot write The Great American novel to save my life, but action text is my jam.

How do you think story drives a tabletop experience? 

At minimum, story can set a tone for the players to follow, with a few words in a rule book. A wonderful example of this for me was the gleefully sardonic tone of “Pixie Queen”. The game itself is worker placement, but the tone of the rules describes the capricious nature of the Queen, who wants to both torture and reward her subjects at every turn. The tone reinforces game play; a player may go into negative points down to -50, and use take-that actions which can be used to a player’s later advantage… it’s sympatico. 

Then, you have games like ours (“Folklore: The Affliction” or “Champions of Hara”) where you play to find out what happens next. In this style of game, the mechanisms serve to shift the plot and help reinforce the information the story is relaying, like the buggy robots in “Mechs vs. Minions”, or an increasingly stressed nurse in “Holding On; The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr”. In these cases, the game provides a scaffold of what kind of interactive experience you will likely have with your fellow players, whether it’s to lead a new gamer through that experience, or to allow someone who is well versed in role playing to layer in their interpretation. Moreover, the mechanisms are tweaked to reinforce the emotional response the game is trying to convey. In this way, players are allowed to test out what kind of boundaries they want to push while still sticking to a gaming objective and win condition.

At the other end of the spectrum, where the story is the heart of the game, you have some wonderful examples like “Before There Were Stars” or “The Wishing Sigil”. These games are devoted entirely to creating an emotional journey, with very little in the way of mechanisms otherwise. 

In going through all of these examples, the inclusion of story (or absence for that matter) works best if it reinforces the experience the gamer(s) are hoping to have. Putting solo game playing aside, (which we could also delve into with the process of the internal monologue) one of the integral parts of a game is what type of interaction you experience with the other players. Is it antagonistic, with a take that mechanism? Team building in a co-op? Are you forced to work around an alpha gamer playing “Pandemic”, or is it a more serene, mostly internal experience, with more indirect exchanges like “Tokaido” or “Azul”? In all of these games whether they are an abstract, a worker placement, or a narrative specific game, you are looking for the thing that was baked into the question — an experience. The choice to play a tabletop game over other forms of entertainment is deliberate in the expectation that the outcome will be a shared experience with active participants. Unlike a concert or the movies where the stimulus is more passive, you are helping shape the event. Story can play a huge part in shaping the emotional path, the duration, and the human interaction for the player.  

What do you like most about the game development process?

It depends on the game, and my role for it! While I still love the challenge of designing a game, and the new shininess that comes with the onset of game creation, I feel like my strength lies in the polish part of the game. I like refining rules, and getting play testers’ take on it. I like communicating with artists and writers to get those last pieces together.

Are you finding the community supportive? 

Interesting question. There are many facets to the gaming community. To break down the domains I interact with primarily (with overlaps of course) there is social media, Kickstarter, conventions, fellow professionals, design/playtesting, and retail. I would also say I have secondary communities that I spend time talking to with logistics and manufacturing, but those are far more compartmentalized and branch from my interactions with my peers. Supportive is a rather open ended word as well, isn’t it? In a big picture kind of way, the short answer is yes I find that my games, my company and me personally are generally welcomed in all facets of the board game world. To get more granular, I would have to look at it from which perspective we are addressing. As a company, we have a very specific style of game that is beloved by some, and ignored or disliked by others. I do not see that as unsupportive. We chose a specific type of game to focus on creating, and know that we have narrowed our target demographic by doing so. I am accepting of that, and do not see it as a lack of support. From our Kickstarter to our groups online that are highly involved, I receive all kinds of feedback. Some of it is kind and full of accolades, some is a wish list, and some is even more critical. All of those I also see as supportive. Yes I prefer hearing the nice words, but as Rudyard Kippling said in his poem, “…If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…” The point of all of the communication is that there is a dialogue and the gaming community we’ve built up around our games is invested enough to share how they feel. That to me is also supportive, even when I don’t agree with some of the ideas. This is similar to what we experience regarding our games at conventions as well. 

Now if you are talking about me personally, it becomes more nuanced still. I have become a more recognized person in the community, and that has afforded me more open doors than in previous years. I am highly cognizant that I have that privilege, and try to lend what clout I carry to help others as best I can. With that, I feel like I have nurtured support and consequently received it in return- from designers, other publishers, media, and the people who come play our games. I have also certainly experienced my share of bigotry and marginalization as well. My first convention that I worked alone was Origins 2012. We had a table at another publisher’s booth, and I was demoing Zpocalypse over and over all day, every day. At one point one of the old guard, someone who had worked with important publishers making big name IP games in his day asked about my game and I gave him my very best 5 minute pitch. He asked me detailed questions about gameplay, design, and my role in the company all of which I answered. Then he told me he was going to buy my game because I had a nice rack. I made a decision right then- I could focus my energies on reeducating a dinosaur, or I could focus it on running my company. I replied, “You can buy it for whatever reason you like. You’re going to play it because it’s a great game that I made.” My choice is to nurture the positive, and use my privilege to protect from the negative. 

What’s been your biggest challenge to date?

Taking on the role of Vice President of the company- no question. I wanted the role, I worked hard for it, and I put everything into it every day to keep us in the business of making board games. There is such deep satisfaction waking up every day with a drive to talk to designers, set up plans to develop, market, and manufacture games. I love running my own business and being my own boss. But never ever think that it isn’t a grind with moments of pure terror and blind amazement at any given minute. My father once told me he became a dentist because he wanted to make money and he couldn’t see himself taking orders from a boss. I got the second half at least! 

Where would you like to see the industry in 5 years?

I would like to see small businesses continue to flourish. That is my biggest concern. I think that the creativity and individuality of games happens when you have small groups with unique ideas. I would love to see a better resource in place for those small businesses that help them understand the nuts and bolts of running a company, so that they are able to do so successfully without hurting themselves, or adding to the misconceptions of the consumer in the marketplace. I have answered the same series of questions asked by newcomers so often that I know there is a desperate need, and that solid information and practical resources is a scarcity. Part of me hopes that GAMA will continue to evolve to serve this function as they already have the framework in place to add to. However, there is a part of me that would like to work on it myself, along with other like minded individuals. Either way, I hope that we continue to see games flourish, whether as small companies or conglomerates outside of the bigger companies that exist.

Do you have a favorite out of the games you’ve worked on?

I don’t! I mean I have a special place in my heart always for Zpocalypse since it was our first game at Greenbrier. But I loved the Oregon Trail RPG I and the Ellis Island LARP that I created as a teacher with the same rose colored nostalgia! Each game has taught me more about game design and about myself. So my favorite is the one I’m working on currently… at all times.

What are you working on next?

I am currently developing Tales from BarBEARia, the next game in our BarBEARians line, we’re in blind playtesting for that, as well as Lost Ones, the next game in the Of Dreams and Shadows Universe. That one will be more targeted playtesting to make sure the rule book and story is clean. I personally am working on a codesign with Alex Cutler on the most family friendly game I have done for Greenbrier. Stay tuned on that one… That’s this month’s work.

What would be your dream project?

I want to make an RPG with Banana Chan. Shhhh don’t tell her, I never said it… but she is my game design hero. 

What advice would you give someone trying to get into the board game industry?

I would never give it up, but I tell anyone coming in to do so with eyes wide open. It is still a business, and because it’s also many people’s hobby, they have a hard time separating the two. To be sustainable, you cannot give up your life, your career outside of games, your financial stability and expect it to fulfill you with gaming joy. Be creative, make amazing things, but also be smart about it. Ask questions, think critically about the answers you’re being given, and about who is answering them. I have had moments of surreal joy that I never experienced working in the corporate world… but don’t think for a minute it isn’t hard work.