Theme, mechanics or ‘feel’? Wise Wizard’s Danielle Reynolds on what steers her approach to game design
Danielle, it’s great to connect. To kick us off, what was your route into game design? Was it always on the cards?
I learned being a game designer was a thing back in 2018 when I met Ryan Costello from Blind Ferret Entertainment at a Comic-Con in Chicago. We quickly became friends and I went to Gen Con for the first time that year – I was immediately inspired.
I joined design meet-ups and taught myself how to design through interacting with different designers, playtesting and playing published games. In 2019, I really started to try to design and got my first game signed in November of 2020 thanks to a speed pitching event hosted by Unpub.
I got my first job at a game manufacturing company in January 2021 and have been full-time at various companies ever since, designing and developing games in and out of my day job. Currently, I am the Project Manager for Wise Wizard Games mostly working on developing other designer’s games.
Outside of Wise Wizard, I work on various design projects, as well as host my podcast Game Design Unboxed and help with various non-profits – including Tabletop Gaymers, Unpub, Tabletop Game Designers Association and the Young Inventor Challenge.
Game design quickly became a dream job for me that I put all of my waking free time into pursuing since 2019.
And how would you sum up your approach to game design?
My approach is all over the place – but I typically start by sketching out my ideas into a design journal. From there, I make graphics and create a digital prototype to add to Tabletop Simulator. I do a lot of online playtesting. I can quickly test the idea and adjust it before making a physical prototype to test in-person. Granted, with the more toyetic or physical games I will print the prototype and play with friends first. I am very fast in what I do. If I like the idea, I will test it a ton to fine-tune the rules early on.
And is there a throughline to the types of games you create?
I create light-strategy, dexterity, two-player abstracts and party games the most. Sometimes I’m hired to design something with constraints and other times I have a random idea pop into my head and just go with it. Those games I pitch to publishers in the hopes that they will get signed. I think I’ve found that I can design party games the quickest because content has never been an issue for me, versus balancing out a heavier weighted strategy game takes much longer.
Fab. Let’s dive into a few recent launches from you. Last year saw the launch of Underdog Games’ HerStory, which centres on telling the stories of remarkable women through history. It’s a refreshing theme and the game looks beautiful – what appealed about the project?
I was added to the project because they wanted a female designer to work on a game about women through history. I interviewed and wanted the job because the theme wasn’t overdone, and people needed to learn about these women and what they did to form history.
I worked with Nick Bentley to create the different engine building powers, library cards and generally what you can do on your turns. I updated the game after every playtest, which sped the process up from when they had been stuck previously before they hired me. We playtested 13 times a week for a few months before we got to see our game mechanics paired with the beautiful art and content.
I think we succeeded in making an approachable engine-building set-collection game that has lovingly been called ‘Splendor Plus’ by some gamers.
High praise! Congrats to you and the team on that. You’ve also designed games based on brands. Does your design process change much when dealing with an IP?
I find it super fun! I get to research a topic and try to capture the fans’ love for it into a game. Like in eBay Buy It Now, I worked to capture what an eBay user’s experience is… From finding things in Grandma’s attic to sell, to flooding the market so the price will be lower, to competing in a bid to set collect nerdy things like toys, games and trading cards. I enjoy analysing what mechanics make sense for different IPs and trying to inject as much as I can of it into the game.
Alongside your career in design, you also host the Game Design Unboxed podcast. Have you found that interviewing other designers shapes your own approach to game creation?
It has 100% helped me become a better designer. Learning from other designer’s approaches has given me new ideas – as well as connections. I’ve tried to make the games and the designers as diverse as possible. It’s important for people to see it’s not just straight white guys out there designing games.
It’s been interesting learning how people think and prototype their games. There are a lot of similarities in approaches, but designers seem to either focus on the theme, mechanics or feel when designing. I’m a mixture, but I gravitate towards the feel the most. I like to imagine what I want the ideal player experience to be. Like in a party game, I want laughter and photographable moments. Whereas in a strategy game, I might want a player to have a turn where they feel really clever and that’s the big moment.
We’ll put a link to the podcast here so people can check that out. Now, what fuels your creativity? And what kills it?
Travel, other games and experiences in my life fuel my creativity. I get inspiration from conversations with friends, things I’ve seen while traveling and have even designed games in my sleep that basically worked when I prototyped it! On the flip side, I feel like my creativity is always worse when dealing with emotional weight. Thankfully I’m a happy person because it’s hard to be creative when you have a sad day.
Danielle, a huge thanks for this. I have one last question! What do you think is the most underrated game you’ve worked on? We can give it some love here?
My underrated game would be my prototype Don’t Squish the Froggies. It’s a two-player abstract game that has come so close so many times to getting signed… It’s easily one of the best games I’ve made, with its fun leapfrog mechanic of the larger frogs not wanting to squish the little ones, causing them to leap back and forth until they can safely land.
I’m sold! Thanks again Danielle – let’s tie in again soon.
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