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Merrymakers: Joyce Johnson, Game Designer

We love games here at Everybody’s Invited!, so when I had the chance to interview Joyce Johnson, the mastermind behind games like In a Pickle (a party favorite amongst my friends), I jumped at the opportunity. Joyce is living her dream—creating innovative games that bring families and friends together—so I wanted to know some of the secrets of her success. Read on to find out the tricks of the gamemaker’s trade.

Joyce with her assistant, Mister Mistoffolees

Joyce with her assistant, Mister Mistoffolees

Everybody’s Invited!: How did you get into this business?

Joyce Johnson: That’s a long story, so I’ll give you the shorter version! While working in my parents’ real estate development business during the 1990s, my heart kept telling me to pursue a creative direction. Skilled as a cartoonist, I started a greeting card company, which grew to 100 cards over a 10-year period. Adults were my customer base and I knew I wanted to create something for kids. With no knowledge of the toy industry, I invented a toy and got a patent, which taught me a lot. Then in 2002, I enrolled in an adult education class here in Santa Barbara called Game Design for Fun & Profit.  I knew instantly that inventing games was my destiny and the rest is history!

EI!: What kind of games do you love to make, and why?

JJ: To date, I have 38 published games, spanning all ages and kinds of games so this is a hard question to answer! I have a sweet spot for kids’ games!  In my childhood, I didn’t get to play much so creating games for kids lets me play and I get to watch kids play!  This makes my heart happy on many levels.

EI!: Do you have a process for the work you do that you can describe?

JJ: Great question! I have a super fun office full of inspiration—toys, dolls, and knickknacks, too!  My creative process is free flowing. Ideas for me are constant so I store a lot of thoughts in my mind at all times. Some ideas I write down, others I choose to hold in my mind and let them develop there.

When a particular game idea rises to the top, I will usually develop a prototype first (rough game board, cards, etc.) and then test the game myself, along with my husband Tim (my greatest supporter and a smart and skilled gamer). When the game passes that preliminary test, I go on to play the game with the intended age group, often in the schools, with the neighborhood kids, or through play tests I put together.

After multiple revisions and more testing, I create final rules and then submit the game (by pitching in person or in written form through email) to game publishers in the industry. Publishers, if interested, will request a prototype to play test and cost out, and then the waiting process for a licensing contract (or not) begins. I move on to the next project while the time passes!

EI!: Are there trade shows for game designers?

JJ: Yes, there are many shows throughout the year for the toy industry.

I attend the New York Toy Fair every February where I present to many game publishers and also during industry events at ChiTAG in November. ChiTAG is the largest toy and game fair in the United States, and it’s open to the public! It’s a blast and anyone who loves to play games or invent games should check it out! There are many events during the week of ChiTAG—something for everyone!

EI!: What keeps you motivated when designing games?

JJ: I love bringing joy and laughter to the world through my work! Creating card and board games completely fulfills my purpose. The industry can be challenging because of the rejection part of the process, but when one door closes, it’s fun to go searching for another door to open! I’m a big kid at heart so it is very easy for me to stay motivated in my career.

EI!: What skills and qualities do you think are most necessary for someone who wants to be a game inventor?

JJ: The ability to invent and execute clever ideas is super important!  Knowing how to make a prototype, whether by hand or on the computer, is necessary.  I am fortunate to have a business background too, so the combination of creative and business skills is greatly appreciated in the toy industry.

I believe a game designer needs the qualities of flexibility and persistence.  The industry is constantly changing and publishers often tweak your game to make it even better (hopefully!) When those changes happen, it’s important to understand those decisions and not be a control freak. If you have stick-to-itiveness, that quality will keep you going when the going gets tough. The rejection process requires a tough skin and a constant moving forward in order to succeed.

EI!: What surprises you most about designing games?

JJ: To this day, when my game samples arrive from a publisher, I open the box and cry tears of joy. I’m like a little kid surprised with a present! I feel the same way when I see my game on a store shelf or in someone’s game room!  It hits me that I’ve made a difference in the world!

EI!: What is your most popular game?

JJ: In A Pickle, published by Gamewright, is my biggest seller.  It is a co-invention with a colleague of mine. I originated the idea for the card game while in the Game Design class I mentioned earlier. I made the first prototype on 3” x 5” cards. I knew I wanted to create a game about fitting things inside of things! I thought it sounded like fun and it is definitely fun to play!

Be sure to check out Joyce’s games at JoyceJohnsonDesigns.com. Also, today is her birthday!

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Game On: An Interview with James Brady of Cloud Cap Games

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About a month ago, while I was visiting Portland, OR, my friend Russ invited me to a game night at Cloud Cap Games, a well-stocked local game shop that can be rented out for parties. It was hard choosing which games to play, but in the end I had a blast playing Reverse Charades7 Wonders, and Word on the Street. The staff at Cloud Cap are awesome (and demonstrated a great deal of patience as we tried to understand the somewhat complicated rules of 7 Wonders), and the shop itself is like a candy store for your brain!

James Brady is the owner of Cloud Cap, and he generously agreed to answer my questions about the shop, what makes a good game night, and how to use games to get out of a bad mood.

Everybody’s Invited!: Why did you open Cloud Cap Games? What was the inspiration?

James Brady: I opened Cloud Cap because I love games and game stores, but I did not like any of the game stores in the Portland area. I have fond memories of a few different game/toy stores in the neighborhoods where I grew up. The game stores in Portland are very good at what they do, which is cater to customers whose primary hobby is playing games. Unfortunately this creates stores that scare off more casual gamer players and families. I wanted a game store that felt like a toy store, with comfortable play space and a focus on games for a wide variety of interests and ages. [Editor's note: This is exactly what I loved about the store!]

EI!: When you host groups of people in your play space, you provide a selection of games to choose from. What’s the thought process that goes into selecting that group of games? What advice would you give to someone who is planning a game night?

JB: Choosing games for different groups is never easy. Age is of course our first consideration. After that, play time, complexity, and player interaction are major factors. Shorter games with significant player interaction and limited choices are best for most groups. For groups that prefer games with more complexity, we consider the number of options a player might have on a given turn, and try to match that with the group’s level of game play experience. Some games provide lots of choices and can be a bit overwhelming for many.

As far as advice to someone planning a game night, I guess I would advise to start by first identifying whether the group is at all interested in playing strategy games. If even one person is not interested in strategy games, attempting to play one could ruin the evening for that person. In this case I recommend playing some party games (like Apples to ApplesDixit, or Telestrations) or some short card games, especially ones with a sense of humor (like Guillotine or Killer Bunnies). For a group that is interested in strategy games, I recommend getting a sense of the types of games they have played before and choosing a game to play based on that. Pay very close attention to the game duration, more than 90 minutes is not enjoyable for many.

EI!: You specialize in board games, card games, and puzzles. How do you feel about video games?

JB: I really enjoy video games, but I also feel that they can be dangerous for some. They provide a level of stimulation unmatched by any other form of entertainment, they are very passive, and they provide no valuable social interaction. Having said that, they are a blast to play. But given the choice, I’d rather play a tabletop game with friends than stare at a screen all night.

EI!: What has been most surprising to you about running Cloud Cap?

JB: I think the most surprising thing about running the shop is the immediate and overwhelming positive response. The community has been extremely supportive and we have actually had to pace our growth. Despite the novelty of our products, many are willing to give them a try, many more than we expected at this point.

EI!: What’s the best game for getting out of a bad mood? Best game to play while taking a break from studying? Best first date game?

JB: Hmmm, currently the best game for getting out of a bad mood is probably Telestrations because it can create some hilarious situations, especially when people try to crash the game. For taking a break from studying, Dominion is hard to beat, its plays quick and requires a good amount of thought to pull off a win, just enough concentration to get your mind off the studies, but not so much as to be exhausting. For a first date, I would highly recommend Yikerz, which is a fairly new game for us, but its a fast physical game using magnets that easily creates laughs and screams.

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Interview Interview with Metro Metro

Remember when I wrote about the Board Game Olympics, and how my team came in second place because another team cheated?*

I recently had the chance to sit down with Ed, Will, and Brady of Metro Metro,** the guys behind not only the Board Game Olympics, but also a slew of other NYC events including the annual Metropolitan Odyssey scavenger hunt. The interview was funny, but please don’t expect to learn anything useful.

Everybody’s Invited!: What is the overarching philosophy of Metro Metro?

Will: The official tagline of Metro Metro is “Playing is better than working.”  People in NYC spend a lot of time working, but you need to get out and explore the city and have some fun once in a while.  A common theme with our events is that individuals and teams often need to interact with one another or with strangers, so it’s a great way to meet people.

Brady: Personally, I’d say our philosophy is 30% Feuerbach, 10% Epicurus, 49% Carl Sagan.  We pass the remaining 11% savings on to the people.

These people are having fun at a Metro Metro event. Too bad they hate America

These people are having fun at a Metro Metro event. Too bad they hate America

EI!: <GooglesFeuerbach. Learns something.> You guys are friendsand business partners. What will be the title of your tell-all book that documents the highs and lows of this journey you’ve taken together?

Ed: The title of our book will be “The Obama Wars” and Bob Woodward is already slated to write it.

Will: Actually, the book is not going to be a book, but more of a flow diagram explaining how we all know each other.

EI!: Interesting. My blog has a strong social justice bent,*** so I’m sure my readers will be curious to know how Metro Metro events contribute to a better society. Do the events in any way right historical wrongs, or inspire participants to take a moral stand?

Brady: We build community, reveal history (some of it even true), and expose spelling errors in public spaces.  Some of our events involve charities, whether it’s fundraising or donating leftover goods.  Also, we reduce, reuse, and recycle a lot of our old jokes.

Ed: And, while it may be a somewhat controversial stance, all of Metro Metro’s proceeds have always gone directly to paying reparations to African Americans for years of slavery and injustice. Our calculations put that bill at a few trillion, so we’re about halfway there.

EI!: That’s fascinating. Do you have a vision for Metro Metro’s future? Does it involve hovercraft?

Will: I think it would be good to explain how Metro Metro really operates.  We think of lots of ideas for events and develop less than 1% of those ideas.  We do events when we have the time.  We drink a lot of beer.  I would say the future consists of us trying to keep this going without upsetting the delicate balance of this finely tuned machinery.

Ed: Metro Metro’s future has always involved hovercraft. But so does Metro Metro’s past. In our incorporating documents the word “hovercraft” was used 18 times. Those papers were then signed on a hovercraft and notarized by a hovercraft.

EI!: Any upcoming events? What are the prizes?

Ed: Each holiday season we throw our annual Holiday Office Party. Guests are encouraged to dress as their favorite office stereotype or character and we party the night away with prizes for Employee of the Year and Twenty Years of Service. Last year’s Celebrity Death Bag prize featured Patrick Swayze. In addition to that, we are always busy with our monthly Board Game Olympics. We also work all year round on our Metropolitan Odyssey, which takes place each Spring. Aside from that, we keep busy with corporate events and developing any new ideas that strike our fancy.

Brady: Other events appear as we think of them, or as someone writes in and says, “You know what would be really cool to do (and theoretically easy to organize): This!” and then we do whatever “This” is.  Prizes appear as we think of them, or as someone writes in and says, “Here is a fantastic prize for you to give out,” and then we give out whatever “Here” is.  So, it varies event to event.  Each prize is guaranteed to be life-changing, though, and often death-defying.

* Not true. We were really bad at Memory, but, in our defense, Memory is not a board game.

** Also not true. This interview was conducted via email.

*** False. It actually has a strong robot bent

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