Interview Sep 21, 2013

Wrangled! is the cowboy cattle-driving card game currently on Kickstarter (for 2 more days as of the time of this post!). Designer and owner of Harpy Games Jessica Nida joins us today to talk about her game design experiences.

GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.

Jessica: Wrangled! can be played with 2, 3, or 4 players. Everyone picks their color, gets 5 cards, and then play begins with the youngest. The meat of the game is picking your actions- you can draw, trade your hand, build on the Cattledrive that forms on the table, or use Cowboy cards to Wrangle Cows and Cowboys on the Cattledrive to your benefit. The Cattledrive is pretty fluid- players are constantly adding and removing cards from play as the game progresses.

GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?

Jessica: Cows! I started with a mechanic that was relatively novel to me and tried to also find something a little different for a theme. Westerns seemed in short supply, and usually focused on the lifestyle- not what was actually the commodity driving the local economies at the time. It didn’t hurt a bit that the Cows are cute!

Its really been a great inspiration for future games I want to make. I’ve got a few more complex games in the works that further explore building the field as you go, some other lighter card games that focus on interacting with the other players, plus the first expansion for Wrangled! is already in development. In return for their early support, backers for Wrangled! will get to help decide which they’d like to see first and also get first crack at any news or discounts on these future games.

GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.

Jessica: We have a big bin of my daughter’s brick-blocks with some farm animal blocks in there. We tipped them out to play and suddenly lightning struck. I jumped up for pen and paper and drafted out both base game and the first expansion right there. I’d been working on some other designs with the idea of eventually developing them out to full games, but I lacked something approachable to start with and Wrangled! was the perfect fit.

GDC: Let’s talk about the design process. Tell us a bit about the iterations the game has gone through and the refinements you’ve made along the way.

Jessica: The very first version was the whole thing- way too confusing when you’re also trying to teach a different kind of mechanic to players and potentially very expensive leap of faith in a new designer on their part too. It lasted all of an hour before I broke it out into Wrangled! and the later expansion, and it also made playtesting much more straightforward. I did try to keep one mechanic past that initial culling but my brother-in-law managed to quickly reveal how unbalanced it was without the checks I’d already removed. It’ll return someday, but I’ll be able to add in more risk to mitigate it’s power. After that it was just a matter of finding the right ratio of cards and boom- the game was ready. I still ran it through about twice the amount of playtesting I probably needed to just to make sure.

GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?

Jessica: Letting fear get in my way. One on one its easy to be confident in what I do, but it’s hard to go up to a table of strangers waiting on the rest of their group and ask if they’d playtest until the rest arrive, to expose this idea you’ve been working on to random folks on the Internet, to not just receive critiques but to actively seek them out. If I was better at it, Wrangled! would’ve been out much sooner, and I’d had the guts to talk it up on places like the BGG forums to get more feedback and exposure for it early on.

GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?

Jessica: Honestly, I never intended to be a designer- I got into game art long before I got into design. I’ve been playing tabletop games since before I could remember. Growing up, there were no video games allowed in the house except my Gameboy, but there was always a deck of cards. Later I learned how to make art for video games at the Guildhall at SMU where before we ever made a digital game, we make some tabletops to learn the fundamental principles of design. When you play enough games and even just making the art, you learn how to break them down to the mechanics, and from there how to construct your own. Plus I tend to hang out with lots of designers and we’d play board games every evening on weekends. I also had a couple of classes and lectures from Sandy Peterson about game design plus a great many other very smart industry vets. Designing my own games- the ones I want to buy and with the stories I want to tell just ended up being the next step.

GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?

Jessica: It’s the one that’s happening right now- when you are seeing the culmination of your idea and all your friends, family, and total strangers are supporting it. If you talk to me, I’m annoyingly giddy about it. Any time you set a game free in the wild like this your heart is in your mouth- are people going to like it? Sometimes a friend of a friend of a friend said something was bad so they form a negative opinion before ever even trying it themselves, but when you hear from people who play your game and like it? You just can’t contain your excitement!

GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?

Jessica: I’ve got a 2 year old daughter and an amazing husband who also works in games as a Level Designer at Gearbox Software.
By day I work as a Senior Artist -slash- FX Lead over at Nerd Kingdom on TUG (The Untitled Game). Sometimes I go teach over at SMU to other aspiring game developers.
As for hobbies, I like to play games of course! Both video games and tabletops take up an unhealthy amount of my time. I also read voraciously, occasionally garden, and cook.

GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?

Jessica: Well, I already spilled the beans about the expansion. I’d like to have some time to get that fully balanced though- there’s lots of moving parts and ideas floating around – its a bit unruly at the moment.
Next up will be one of two projects I’m having trouble deciding between. The one that’s probably going to happen soonest is another light 2-4 player card game about Hollywood movies. It’s been lots of fun to plan out, and the mechanic is a bit in memory of my grandparents and a very old card game we always used to play. The other one is quite complex and will need loads of testing to balance but I’m super excited- there’s co-op, characters, crafting, exploration, dungeon delving, and a theme I’ve not seen used nearly enough. Shh, spoilers! But like I said earlier, my backers will have the biggest say in which comes out soonest.

GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?

Jessica: My friend brought in his copy of Quarriors and I really liked it. I’m the button-masher equivalent when it comes to a deck builder game. I can win to a certain extent but I can’t really compete with those who can keep entire libraries in their heads. Qwarriors gives me that building aspect but with the tactile nature of dice (mmmmm, dice). I can see my team- I don’t have to reread card descriptions or feel like I’m rules lawyering all the time. There were a few cards I felt were not as awesome as the cost should have them be and my dragons obeyed Murphy’s Law being generally useless and rolling the lowest value all but once- but them’s the breaks.

GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?

Jessica: Ascension – infinitely replayable, especially on the iPad and they’re constantly adding expansions. There’s so many layers to the game, it feels different every time I play.

GDC: One word of advice to your fellow game designers?

Jessica: Make it real! I have a friend who has been sitting on a design (I haven’t even seen it) and where exactly is that getting him? We have this incredible opportunity right now with Kickstarter and tabletop forums to get our ideas out there in front of people- let them decide on your game instead of making that decision for them. You can get amazing feedback and support, but you have to put your idea and yourself out there.
Take it to the end and at least make a copy for yourself. PnP is so easy (I like The Game Crafter), and you can get free art from The Noun Project if your skills suck. Don’t you deserve to own a real copy of your game? You would not believe how gratifying it is to have a quality final version on your own game shelf. It’s also pretty impressive to others that you believed in yourself enough to complete it. No one’s going to make it happen but you!

GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)

Jessica: Thank you to all my backers of course! My super patient husband and daughter, friends who have joined me in my madness, and the uncountable people who have been kind enough to share their game designer and kickstarter tips.

GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).

Jessica: Harpygames.com is where I keep my development blog- between that and the Facebook@harpygames page you can find the latest updates on Wrangled! and future games I’m working on. I’ll be running promos and contests through the Facebook page and on twitter. @geekthumb is my personal twitter – I’ll post about unofficial mini updates, other stuff I’m doing or playing, and stuff related to video game development either from my own projects or my friends’. I use Harpy_Games on BGG, and I’ll be going to BGG.CON this year and Roll2Play’s T.A.B.L.E. next spring. I’ll be carrying around copies of Wrangled! and some other swag so be sure to come find me!

GDC: Thanks so much Jessica! Be sure to check out Wrangled on Kickstarter, though hurry as there isn’t much time left! Wrangled recently won one of the tables at the Big Design Conference – so you don’t want to miss it.

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