Serial game inventor Ellie Dix shares her pitching secrets – and discusses Ginger Fox’s Spare, Strike, Steal
Ellie Dix, welcome… This is your first Mojo Nation interview so let’s start in the obvious place: what’s your background? And what got you interested in the toy and game industry?
I had quite a weird game-playing family. My mum taught on teacher-training courses and used a lot of games in the teaching of maths. Each year, she’d set her students an assignment to create a maths game… As the target audience, my sister and I would test all the games and give development feedback. So I had an early intro into game design and playtesting.
What a great start! And was your dad part of this mix?
Yes… My dad gets bored easily, so he’s gamified many aspects of his life – cleaning, shopping, what music to listen to, who to phone. We used to go on day trips to randomly generated six-figure grid references. The whole point of the day would just be to get to the grid reference and see what we see on the way. He even once took my mum on a holiday based on random numbers in the index of the Gazetteer…
Of the Gazetteer! Brilliant. For those not in the know, that’s like – what’s the best way to describe that? A listing of British place names, I suppose…
Right! So as you might imagine, we had very few classic games at home – but several sort-of-hobby games. ‘Railway Rivals’ was ‘the family game’… Between us, my siblings and I have 37 maps! When I think back on all this now, a career in games was an obvious choice. But that’s not where I started.
I did loads of work with young people – I ran drama groups, theatre schools and the teen activity programme on a cruise ship. Then I trained as a teacher. Games were a teaching staple for me and that’s where I started designing my own games. I’m still very proud of Number Police – which is a dramatic maths game!
After teaching, I ran an education company for 15 years – specialising in managing behaviour. When we sold the company in 2017, I knew it was time to dive headfirst into game design. As I was designing my early Dark Imp games, I also wrote a book – The Board Game Family. It’s a book for parents about why you might want to play board games at home, and where to start. It also looks at how you manage difficult behaviour from your kids at the game table.
So you’ve already got a number of games under your belt?
Yes. I’ve self published a load of games – you can see them here. I’ve had three successful kickstarters, and a made a load of other games that didn’t need to be funded that way. And I love making games in unusual formats… Coasters, crackers, placemats and notepads, as well as in more traditional boxes.
In a moment, we’re going to talk about your new game with Ginger Fox. Why did you want to license that one?
I just decided I’d rather work with other publishers than continue to publish myself. My heart’s in the design and, as you know, there’s so much more to publishing. I just couldn’t be bothered with the marketing! I wanted to be able to concentrate on design and leave the other stuff to people who can do it really well.
Since then, I’ve signed several games. The Shakespeare Game, published by Laurence King is out already. I have two more games coming with Laurence King, one with Clarendon Games and one with Indie Boards and Cards. There’s a few juicy things in the pipeline too. I’ve also done a lot of consultancy work – doing development on other designers’ games, or design commissions from scratch.
Sounds like it’s all going on! So when we bumped into each other at London Toy Fair, you told me one of the games you pitched at a Mojo event got across the line. Tell us a little about that…
It’s called Spare, Strike, Steal. It’s a fast, real-time card game with a tenpin bowling theme… Every card has a number of bowling pins on it, between one and ten. You’re allowed to hold up to five cards in your hand, and you draw and discard cards from different piles. You’re aiming to collect a set of pins that adds up to ten…
But presumably there’s a way other players can stop that?!
Yes! If another player has a steal card, they can stop you… To protect your face-up sets of ten, you have to ‘lock them in’ with a facedown set of ten on top. The game ends when all the cards run out. Only your face-up sets give you points, so you’re incentivised to push your luck and grow your scoring pile high – but it’s a risky strategy because others might steal it.
Got it! Sounds great! And I’ll be sure to use a lot of images here because I think it looks great! In terms of how you pitched it, what did you do? The live event? The virtual?
It was the 2021 Mojo Pitch, so it was all virtual that year. We followed up with a second virtual pitch a couple of months later – and that’s when they showed an interest in Spare, Strike, Steal.
That being the case, how did you structure your pitch? Did you have a sales sheet? A sizzle? A prototype? Walk us through the experience!
Most mass-market publishers seem to want a sizzle and a sell sheet. So I now create those for every game before I pitch anything. When I think a game’s pitch-ready, I create the sell sheet – making sure it’s got lots of good visuals.
Interesting. I know some people keep saying that sell sheets are old-fashioned, and that inventors shouldn’t use them… But actually, a lot of publishers like to write on those things, shuffle them around… You make these sell sheets yourself, presumably?
Yes, I have a home photo box, so I can take photos and video of my prototype on a totally white, well-lit background. Along with my laminator, it’s one of the best things I’ve bought.
And the sizzles?
I write a script for the sizzle reel, just mapping out which sections will be me to camera and which will be a view of the components on the table. If it’s a very interactive game, I may get some footage of friends playing it and add a few snippets. I edit the whole thing and try to keep it all under three minutes. Also, I very rarely use any of these things in the pitch itself. Time is precious – particularly at Mojo – and I want to make sure that I do what I can to build a rapport with the publisher in the time available. So I want to explain the game live – rather than show them a video of me.
Understood. But they’re useful, presumably, for follow up?
Exactly. I send all these resources a few days after pitching. Publishers need these to remember the game and to share with others. Even if you do the most amazing pitch ever, you can’t expect the publisher to remember it. For Mojo Pitch, which is around 20 minute slots, I can usually pitch five or six games in that time. If it’s virtual, I have different games set up on different tables and I walk the camera around to what I want to show.
Oh, I like that; that’s excellent! What about when you’re pitching live? How do you cope then?
If it’s live, I create massive, A2 portfolio boards with the game stuck to it. They show what a game looks like in progress. That means I can just whip out a board, rather than having to worry about setting up and packing away. It means I have time to pitch twice as many games!
They’re fantastic tips, Ellie! Top of the class; take the rest of the day off! And once Ginger Fox got involved, how did the game develop? Were there any major changes to the gameplay? Or styling?
Actually, the theme changed! I had a loose theme of the Knave of Hearts stealing some jam tarts, but when I pitched it, I said the theme could be anything they wanted. That’s one of the things they really liked – they could choose the world for the whole game. So it became a game about ten-pin bowling rather than trays of jam tarts, which makes more sense and is a really good fit. We also made the game slightly more chaotic by removing the numbers from the cards, so it’s easier to make a mistake when you’re creating sets of ten.
Excellent. And as we’ve learned from your fantastic tips, you pitched a good number of things at the last Mojo event! Are there things in the pipeline from that?
At Mojo 2022, I did 82 separate pitches in a single day! That was 16 different publishers and 20 different games – obviously, some games I pitched to multiple publishers. There are some exciting things that look like they’re close to getting over the line, but I can’t talk about them yet! But I really don’t think that Mojo Pitch is about getting games signed up on the day…
For me, it’s about creating relationships with publishers. I’ve met some of the publishers I first met at Mojo loads of times since. I keep in touch with the Inventor Relations people and I keep a very close eye on wishlists. I often create games specifically because I know publishers are looking for that type of game. The more you speak to a publisher, the more likely you are to create stuff that works for them.
Agreed. I think that’s exactly the way to do it… Pitch ideas if you’ve got ideas; put yourself in front of new people; find out what publishers are after… Brilliant. Alright, thank you for telling us all about this, Ellie. I think you’ve given some really practical advice there. Final question, then: what’s the most interesting object in your office or on your desk?
Ooh, that’s a hard one. I have lots of interesting things that I’m trying to make games with…
Like needlepoint hoops and percussion instruments! But I think the most brilliant object is my teapot hot plate. It was the best birthday present I ever received! It’s like the hot plate you might find at the bottom of a filter coffee machine… I make a pot of chai tea first thing in the morning and it’s still hot mid afternoon – it’s not stewing! It keeps remarkably well and it continues to be a delight every day.
Great answer! Ellie, this has also been a delight. Thank you for your time.
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