I’ve talked about the benefits and challenges of working alone in the board game industry. That’s how I do things. Yet I’m a bit of an odd beast in the board game development world since most people prefer to work in teams.
To give you a sense of what it’s like to work on a team, I’ve reached out to the three members of Undine Studios – Ben Haskett, Sarah Reed, and Will Reed. They made Oaxaca: Crafts of a Culture – one of the prettiest and most promising board game Kickstarters I’ve seen this year.
I initially reached out to Sarah, who I know through Twitter. After a little Twitter-fu, I got all members of the team in my Discord to have a group chat about team dynamics in the board game industry.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation over DMs in Discord. This interview is a long one, but I’ve left it mostly verbatim because I find it insightful. I’ve split it into five sections for your convenience:
- How Ben, Sarah, and Will Got Started
- How Working in a Team Feels
- The Downsides of Teamwork
- Communication in a Team
- Advice for New Game Devs
How Ben, Sarah, and Will Got Started
Brandon: Sarah, Ben, thank you both for agreeing to help me out on this post!
Ben: Yeah, thanks for having us!
Sarah: Looking forward to it! I’ll also be writing responses for Will. So you’ll be getting three perspectives.
Brandon: Excellent! Good to have you on as well, Will!
Brandon: If you please, go ahead and tell me a little about yourself and your company. How long have you been making games? What games have you worked on?
Sarah: We started off our board game life as role-players and Magic the Gathering players in college. I had been playing RPGs since high school and introduced them to Will when we met. We played mainly those and a few board games until spring of 2012 when we decided it was time to take a break from RPGs. We checked out a new local game store where we discovered Dominion.
Sarah: It was summer of 2012 that Will had the idea to make a board game for my birthday, but didn’t know how to go about it. We started designing games together. Early in 2013, our local game store owner mentioned that there were other designers in the area. We had our first game design meetings, which I continued to organize and have been running since.
Sarah: It was also in 2013 that we met Ben and were playtesters for his game Tower, which he launched on Kickstarter early in 2014. Will was also lead story writer for Tower. We worked on a few designs during this time, but ended up shelving them. It wasn’t until Project Dreamscape that we had a solid game and Ben liked it so much he became our business partner and ran a Kickstarter for it in early 2015. After that, we designed Oaxaca: Crafts of a Culture, for which Ben continued to be our business partner and ran a Kickstarter for it in June of 2017. Along with handling all the business, Ben has playtested and helped develop our designs. Will is the lead designer. I’m a designer, and I do development and social media outreach. Our next game is Haven’s Vault, which will hopefully be on Kickstarter early in 2018.
Ben: I think I was about 26 the first time I played a board game that wasn’t Monopoly, Sorry, or some other super ubiquitous game. It was Catan at a friend’s house, followed up by Carcassonne, and the two games really surprised me and got me interested in the hobby. I was, and still am today, mystified that you can take a box crammed full of little cardboard bits, sit down, look at a sheet of rules, spread out the pieces, interact with them, and not only have it make sense, but have it be fun, too. I was hooked.
Ben: It wasn’t long before I designed a small dungeon crawler of my own and pitched it to a small (now defunct) publisher. As Sarah and Will said, next up for me was Tower, which I self-published. Afterwards, I sort of naturally transitioned into the publishing side for three reasons. The first was that I really couldn’t get another design together that I liked. The second was that I really enjoyed the Kickstarter/publishing process. The third was that Sarah and Will were designing games that were compelling and fun to play. These days, as my young daughters get older and I have less time, I’m transitioning more and more of the fun to Sarah and Will–they’re going to help with a lot of the fulfillment for Oaxaca, and may even play the primary role in the next Kickstarter campaign.
Brandon: MTG, Dominion, Catan, Carcassonne…these are all really good intros into modern board games and I can totally see how they ignited your passion and curiosity.
Brandon: I’m particularly glad to see Oaxaca take off because you all ran a really good campaign.
Brandon: So is Undine Studios just the three of you?
Ben: Correct–in fact, Undine has been around for over ten years to represent whatever I’m doing. It used to be the name I used for Flash web design, if you can believe that. When I got into publishing, it was a natural transition for the name. Last year, I even self-published a book with the Undine name on it. With the setup that Sarah described, Undine is indeed just the three of us.
Brandon: Ah, so the organization has grown organically as you have!
How Working in a Team Feels
Brandon: Here’s a question for all of you.
Brandon: One of the odd things about my blog is that it’s written from the perspective of someone working alone. This is unusual for most game devs, I think. How would you characterize the experience of working as part of a team, compared to working alone?
Will: I know for me personally, projects are a big concept. A lot of skills are necessary to complete a project. I’m only interested in a portion of those. I know being interested in only one small portion and being good in that small portion is a strength, but it does mean the rest of the project will feel weaker if I’m not good at all aspects. Working with Sarah and Ben really eases my mind because they have strengths in areas I don’t.
Will: I trust and respect their opinions so much that it has allowed me to more easily take their feedback in and make any game I work on better for it. To give a good example, I suck at writing rules and they don’t really interest me. However, Sarah’s attention to details and Ben’s graphic design and formatting not only creates a really slick looking ruleset, but a highly functional one as well.
Sarah: Stuff actually gets done as a team. If it were up to me alone, it’d never get done. I am a terrible procrastinator and I have a high fear of failure, so much so that I sabotage myself. By working in a team, I feel a responsibility to Will and Ben to get my portion done and not drag things down. I like organizing and, as Will said, I pay attention to the details. So I can keep us moving forward in a way that I can’t do if it’s just me. So I prefer working on teams and really enjoy the collaborative process of everyone coming together with their strengths and overcoming individual weaknesses.
Ben: What I love about working as a team is that the result is everyone’s best ideas. Not only do we bring our best ideas to the table, but we also brainstorm and challenge each other to make things as nice as possible. When I start working on graphic design, I always swear to myself that my first attempt is the best I can do–but Sarah and Will always have suggestions, and the final design is usually after a dozen revisions. Similarly, even though Will is the primary designer, he’s always open revisions and the the final game design is always better for it. Every aspect of each game we get together on has input from all three of us, and the game is always better for it.
Brandon: Will, it makes a lot of sense to me that one of the big benefits of working in a team is that everybody can specialize in something they like or at least tolerate. You help balance out each others’ weaknesses.
Brandon: Sarah, it sounds like you see working in a team as a good way to stay motivated. Either through being accountable to or inspired by others, you find ways to stay productive.
Brandon: Ben, you make a keen point about everybody’s best ideas being able to surface when working in a team. More people, more ideas, more chances to get it right.
The Downsides of Teamwork
Brandon: What sort of challenges do you face working in a team? How do you overcome those?
Will: The biggest challenge for me is when I feel a little too strongly about a particular aspect of a game design because I’m dead set that that’s where the most interesting and fun part of the game is. It can be a bit hard when either Sarah or Ben tell me that it needs to be streamlined or taken out completely. Through working together, I’ve learned it’s really bad for me to throw my weight around and reject them outright, even in my area of expertise. But after mulling their suggestions over, I can see they’re right. Oaxaca was a very different game at the beginning and it changed drastically when Ben and Sarah pointed out certain aspects of it.
Will: I now tell myself that designing as a team means all of our opinions need to be reflected rather than just having a game that I’m personally happy with. It’s no surprise that the outcome often is much better than anything I could envision myself. Other than that, I’m pretty flexible on most other aspects of game design. I can’t really see so well, so art and graphic layout don’t bother me. I’m perfectly fine retheming anything I work on. I’ve learned to make their opinions as valuable as my own.
Sarah: I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen in our team is that everyone works at a different speed due to a variety of reasons. Will is the fastest at getting things done, partially because he hates procrastinating and he has more time. Ben and I switch off as to who’s the slowest depending on the phase we’re in. For me, I have a lot of health challenges and so I’m often too drained to work on game design when I get home.
Sarah: I’m the one who makes the early prototypes and I’m in charge of the playtesting. Ben has a full family life that leaves him little time except at night to get anything done. He takes care of the end product in terms of graphic design, working with manufacturers and shippers and running the Kickstarters. Will’s often told me how frustrated he’s been when I’m slow to get things done and, admittedly, I get frustrated when Ben is slow and doesn’t get things done. Heck, I get frustrated with myself for not getting things done!
Sarah: Will has already learned to let go. When he gets his part done, he just sits back and is patient with us. I can’t say I’ve overcome this challenge yet, but I’m working on it. I need to remind myself that we have no true deadlines. We’re doing this as a hobby, for fun. I shouldn’t be stressing about how quickly we do or don’t do something. It’ll happen when it happens.
Ben: A big challenge for me usually occurs early on in the design – I’m reminded when I talk to Sarah and Will sometimes that I have really thin skin, haha. I mentioned that we go through a lot a revisions, but I still expect each design revision I bring to them to not only be the final revision, but that it will literally blow their socks off. When it doesn’t work out that way, I have an embarrassing tendency to pout about it for a little while before getting my head back in the game. Thankfully, Sarah and Will are always constructive. 🙂
Ben: Then, as Sarah said, time is a big issue, especially lately. I got a new job late last year and it’s severely cut down on my free time. Further, and again echoing what Sarah said, my two daughters are getting older–it’s no longer a rush to get them home, fed baby food, and in bed. My oldest is starting school soon, meaning there will be homework, etc., and we’ll have to consider the time it takes to get her to and from school. Finding time not only to work on games, but work on games cheerily, can be a challenge.
Brandon: As for the challenges, it sounds like for all of you, it mostly centers around passions running high and scheduling. The former being something you deal with as you get to know each other in a working relationship. A lot of it comes down, as you pointed out, to knowing when to hold you ground and knowing when to let go.
Communication in a Team
Brandon: How do you coordinate your efforts?
Will: For the most part, we use Facebook Messenger to communicate. As for the game’s development, Sarah does most of the early playtesting coordination and then it switches to Ben for final production and running of the Kickstarter.
Sarah: In addition to Facebook Messenger, we call each sometimes so we actually can all meet at the same time. Some of our coordination is made easier since Will and I, well, live together. Two-thirds of the operation is in constant coordination. The good news is the way the process flows, this works pretty well. I personally use lists a lot to keep myself organized so I don’t forget anything. This often includes notes on who needs to be contacted about what. That’s about as complicated as our scheduling efforts get. Living together certainly helps!
Ben: I’ve pushed for Facebook Messenger a lot, because it’s just so dang convenient. There’s no programs to install on a computer to use it, and it came pre-installed on my phone. It’s like text-messaging, but for lengthy messages, you can sit down to a keyboard. On top of that, it’s super easy to send pictures, you can make calls, and even send videos.
Brandon: Sounds like you don’t plan too extensively, but rather work in the moment based on what needs to be done. Short phone calls and text-based messaging to keep in touch and check in with each other, then.
Advice for New Game Devs
Brandon: One last question. Is there anything you’d like to go back and time and tell yourselves before starting your projects?
Will: Yes. When designing the game itself, it’s more important to marry yourself to the experience than it is the mechanics of the game. Don’t be afraid to drop entire portions of the game if they don’t lead to the experience you want for players. So many times, I was dead set on having a mechanism in a game because I liked the idea of the mechanism, but it always made the experience suffer by making it too complex, too rigid, or just not fun at all.
Sarah: When making early prototypes, focus on function over form and don’t waste a lot of money printing it on high quality materials or through a professional service unless you need to see samples of products to know whether it’s what you want to design with. This also applies to not spending a lot of time on the art or graphic design. An early stage game needs to look the way it plays – unpolished. The time to do quality printing, like with The Game Crafter, is for late stage prototypes that need to look as good as the game finally is.
Ben: I mostly echo Sarah’s sentiment on focusing on function alone early on. Some prototypes I prepared (at The Game Crafter) were actually so nice that it worked against us. People sat down and felt like they were playing a finished game, and when “bugs in the programming” revealed themselves, play-testers had really adverse reactions. On the other side, when people sit down and play a game with cards that were printed out at someone’s home and painstakingly cut out, they know 100% that they’re playing a prototype.
Brandon: Will, I agree with that so much. Focusing on the experience over specific mechanics is really, really important.
Brandon: Sarah, Ben, I agree with this as well. In fact, the cost of early prototyping is why I push Tabletop Simulator so much.
Brandon: Thank you all for sharing your experiences! I look forward to sharing this online!
Do you work in a team? Would you like to? Please leave a comment below to share your experiences or ask questions 🙂