Amanda Birkinshaw and Jim Harrison on the origins of their ‘flip and write’ word game, Qwaffle
Guys, it’s great to catch up. Before we explore the origins of Qwaffle, what does your collaborative design process look like?
Amanda Birkinshaw: It centres around coffee and a pain aux raisins normally.
Jim Harrison: Exactly that – and then Amanda does all the clever stuff and I fill in the bits in-between.
The brains of the operation; not a bad role to have Amanda!
AB: Well, Jim’s very good at the chatty, hand-shaky, meeting people bit. That scares the bejeebers out of me!
Ha! A good match in that sense then! Is there a knack to successful inventor collaborations?
AB: You have to enjoy playing games together. And not be afraid of putting the numptiest thing on the table. “I had this idea, now bear with me…”
JH: A lot of our conversations start that way! We work on the basis that there’s no such thing as a bad idea, at least most of the time. Some of them can be a bit shit but we can usually find a way to improve them. The pain aux raisins usually help!
You’ll be shocked to discover this is the most pain aux raisins-heavy interview we’ve ever done and we’re only a few minutes in.
JH: Ha! Well away from that, you’ve got to be open-minded, understanding and work on the basis that the other person will usually have something good to work with.
Now, for anyone yet to see Qwaffle, how would you pitch it?
JH: We call it a ‘flip and write’ game. It’s a category word game. You have a deck of cards with a letter on one side of the card and a category on the other. Each time you flip a card it reveals a new combination of letter and category. The aim is to come up with a word starting with that letter that fits the category.
Then you have to position your word on a scoresheet along the lines of Yahtzee. You have to fill words of different lengths and if you can’t come up with a word, you have to put a line through that particular option. Once your sheet is full, the game is over and you score a point per letter – highest score wins.
Lovely! The roll and write category has really taken off in the tabletop space in recent years. Were you following that and did it help this idea come about?
AB: One element of it was about the portability of games. This was developed pre-Covid as something small could chuck in your car or take to the pub in your pocket. You don’t need a table.
One of the things that struck me was that you could have a word that means so many different things and fits in so many categories. ‘Bolt’ could be a screw, or a lightning bolt, or mean to run. And because you’re taking out options as you play, when you get to the last turn, crikey! You might be faced with a six-letter word beginning with ‘Y’ that’s a kitchen utensil!
JH: You box yourself into a corner! We started with the idea of portable games and the efficiency of using both sides of a pack of cards.
AB: It also means that with a shuffle, the game changes every time you play. There are so many combinations… I can work it out for you!
JH: I told you she does the clever stuff!
Ha, I won’t put you through that Amanda! I’m happy with the answer being ‘a lot’!
JH: And to your earlier point Billy, I’m a fan of a lot of the newer generation roll and writes… Games like Ganz Schön Clever and Qwixx. The idea of doing something with words along those lines appealed to both of us.
And the waffle theme, how did that surface?
JH: Well, we showed it to quite a lot of people and it always went down well but we’d never been able to get it over the line. During lockdown, Amanda came up with the idea of the waffle. The inspiration of the griddle on the waffle resembling the squares where the letters can go – and obviously the wordplay of waffling and food. It felt like an immediately good fit!
AB: Our initial presentation had those square waffles but actually, the circular American one that John Adams went with works really well.
What made John Adams a good home for the game?
JH: As people and as a company, they have a real passion for games. They have an involvement in a wide range of games, from Soggy Doggy to Othello, so they’re able to talk about games with knowledge, experience and enthusiasm. They’re a great fit.
Looking at the wider word game space post-Wordle, is it in a good place creatively at the moment?
JH: Word games have always been a tough segment. For an inventor, it’s always been a challenge. I know some companies who’ll hear “I’ve got a word game!” and say “Next!” Some don’t want to know. They’re a bit like the marmite of the games industry. The space is dominated by one brand and a few others have made a home there, but beyond that, launching a new word game is a real challenge.
You mention Wordle and that has helped things. It’s been a comfortable introduction to the word puzzle for a lot of people.
AB: With Wordle, you can be wrong on your own, so it’s a safe space to play with words. It’s ultimately a solo pursuit. If you think about Scrabble and other word games, you’re laying out your ‘intelligence’ right in front of you on the board. That’s one of the barriers to entry – this type of game has an intellectual component, and some people don’t like to be put in that situation.
JH: That said, with Qwaffle, we’ve tried to make it about fast, fun play with words rather than the thoughtful approach taken by other word games. It’s the word equivalent of Pictionary – if you’re a good artist, you’re at a disadvantage with Pictionary because you tend to take time at it.
Was there any science behind the categories you picked for the game?
AB: There was to some extent. For some categories, we cross referenced categories with crossword dictionaries to check that most letters of the alphabet are covered by three or four answers.
JH: We wanted a range of categories. Some are very broad and other are a bit narrower. We had fun playing with categories that have multiple meanings, like ‘Comes with Chips’. You could answer ‘Fish’ or ‘Computer’ for that one.
Before we wrap up, I forgot to ask if this was your first collaboration?
JH: No – the first game we invented together was a little kids’ dice game called Kuh & Co, published by Ravensburger. It’s still in the line 20 years later! We also did some stuff for Funrise with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and other games with European publishers like Schmidt Spiele, Tactic and Piatnik.
I dread to think how many pain aux raisins fuelled all of those! Guys, a huge thanks again. Let’s catch up again soon.
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