Andrew Harman, games designer and owner of Yay Games, joins blogger, Neil Bunker, for a chat about winning awards, listening to playtesters and riding the Gruffalo at Chessington.
Thanks for joining. You are the owner and lead designer for Yay Games. How did you get started in the industry?
Before I became a game designer, I was an author. My books included ‘The Sorcerer’s Appendix’ and ‘Frogs of War’ – light-hearted comedic fantasy stories. The publicity trail for these books included attending many conventions. At one of these conventions I met Iain Lowson, author of the ‘Dark Harvest’ series of Frankenstein inspired role-playing games.
The series had been very successful, and Iain was looking to expand the Dark Harvest world further. He knew that my wife, Jenny, and I were keen board gamers. One day he said to me “We need a boardgame and I’d like you to design it”. I had no experience with board game design, but I said “ok”.
I had this vague and gruesome idea that players should have a set of cards representing different body parts and that players would be surgeons trying to make to make a new monster. We took a design to Dragonmeet in 2012 and it received some good feedback. From that idea came the game ‘Dark Harvest: Frankenstein’s Bodies’.
I remember the art being particularly challenging to create. The artists that had done some great work with Iain on the RPG struggled to make sense of what I wanted because the idea was too vague. Some cards had to be landscape, some had to be portrait, each body part had to look good on its own and fit together with other cards. It took ages to figure out what I wanted. It wasn’t until I saw a picture of Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ that it clicked.
I started by drawing bones on a single piece of A4. As I got more into the process, I had to learn how to use Photoshop. When I asked Iain whether he thought his artists would be do something with what I had done he just said: “carry on”. I was sort of ‘sucked in’ to creating all the art for the game.
Once the game was finished, we approached Iain’s publisher who initially seemed interested but unfortunately, decided against it in the end. So, in 2014, we took Frankenstein’s Bodies to Kickstarter.
I realised that I loved the experienced of designing games and the people in the industry. Jenny and I had set up Yay! Games for the Kickstarter and we wanted to do it again. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ominoes won the UK Games Expo abstract game of the year award in 2017. What effect has winning this award had on your design career and on Yay games?
It’s given me a great deal of confidence. UKGE is effectively the third biggest convention. To be able to say that I have won an award voted for by the board game fans that attended is incredible.
The only slight downside is that when I say “I have this dice tactics game that won an award for best abstract game” people think that abstract is all I do. There is an element of pigeon-holing and I have to explain that I’ve also designed all these other games.
I’m not negative about it though. The award has done wonders for Ominoes and it’s very powerful at opening doors when talking to others in the industry. It’s been brilliant.
Continuing with the literary theme, you’ve recently published “The Gruffalo: Games from the Deep Dark Wood”. How did you manage, as a small independent publisher, to become part of such a huge brand?
It was approaching the 20th anniversary of the Gruffalo books and the 10th anniversary of the Gruffalo animation. Magic Light Productions and Mojo Nation jointly held an event looking for new ideas as part of the anniversary year plans.
It was held at Chessington World of Adventures – attendees got to ride on the Gruffalo ride which was great fun. My friend Brett Gilbert was also there. Neither of us realised that the other was going to be there and we ended up pitching games with the same name! Different games but the same title.
Magic Light said “thanks very much” we will think about it and let you know. Brett and I went away and when Magic Light got back to us, they said “we like your game, we like Brett’s game and we want Yay! Games to publish them…but…we want a pack of three games”.
It was absolutely brilliant but really quite scary at the same time. Along with Tony Boydell, Brett and I eventually designed four games that were released as part of Games from the Deep Dark Wood set late last year.
Is the process for designing a licensed game different from designing something entirely your own?
There is a couple of different sides to that question. The first is the design.
Designing games in keeping with a brand wasn’t new. I had done it previously with Frankenstein’s Bodies.
Personally I design games from the end backwards. I envisage what I want the final game to look like and the experience I want people to have playing it. Then I try to make it work.
The Gruffalo had to be very easy to play and absolutely reflective of the original story. I asked myself “what is the critical element that makes the Gruffalo work”. For me it was the encounters with the fox, the owl and the snake.
In the story the mouse meets these scary creatures and repeats their features back to them – the owl’s ‘knobbly knees and turned out toes’. Then one ups them with ‘a poisonous wart on the end of his nose’.
I used that idea for a simple set collection game. Each time a player collects a set of features they score a mouse point and the first to five points wins. It was both a design suitable for young children and totally in line with The Gruffalo as a brand.
The other aspect is production. This was quite different. Even on Frankenstein’s Bodies I had had complete control over the game, the art, everything. For ‘The Gruffalo’ I had to work as part of a team with Magic Light.
I noticed it most in relation to the artwork. Everything we did required approval to ensure it was ‘on brand’. It surprised just how deep the attention to detail was regarding this. A simple question like “what goes on the back of the card?” left me staring at all this fantastic artwork thinking, ‘What can I change? Can I change anything?”.
I found the box particularly challenging. There were strict guidelines to follow relating to The Gruffalo logo. It had to be a certain colour and a certain proportion relative to other art. The Gruffalo itself is a specific size. Even the contents picture on the back of the box had guidelines. This attention to detail ensures that when a potential buyer looks at the game, they immediately know that it’s part of the Gruffalo brand.
The team at Magic Light were brilliant. They were very, very patient. This was entirely new to me. We were moving away from the hobby games I was familiar with towards gift games. The type of game that someone might buy for their grandchildren.
Your earlier games were originally published via Kickstarter. How have you found using this platform over the years? How has it changed? And will you go back to it?
Kickstarter has changed a lot in the six years since publishing Frankenstein’s Bodies. When I first used the platform, it was very much a tool for independent companies to source some extra cash in order to get a finished product made. For the little guys it was perfect.
Now a significant number of campaigns are run by larger companies that perhaps don’t need to be on there. They have sizeable advertising and marketing budgets and they are putting the full weight of these into their campaigns. It’s almost a become a pre-order system that hoovers up a good proportion of the money that backers have available to pledge.
This has knock on effects for the success of everyone’s campaigns. The larger companies are hugely successful while it’s becoming increasingly difficult for smaller companies to get noticed. Three games are released to retail outlets every day of every year. Kickstarter outnumbers this. Not all are funded but it’s terrifying to think of the sheer volume of games available.
What I’ve started to do is release a limited edition print run to start with. For example, Ominoes and Ominoes: Hieroglyphs had a small print run sold directly via Yay Games and at conventions. This meant that, when the time came for the Kickstarter, we only needed a small campaign goal to generate enough money for a wider release. It worked well, the first edition sold out, and we repeated this concept for Snaggit.
What plans do you have? Any games in the pipeline?
There are many games in the pipeline and Yay Games is growing. When Jenny and I first started it was a vehicle to publish my games. While I like the creative control that Yay Games gives me it is time consuming and we publish one game a year for that reason.
Now we have Brett Gilbert and Tony Boydell working with us on the Gruffalo. Ominoes and Sandcastles are licenced to other companies for sale internationally. We are also seeking to publish games from other designers for publication by Yay Games.
Our next step is to work with other companies to release games in collaboration with them. As a small company, we have certain budget restrictions that larger companies don’t. For example, one of my bigger prototypes, Neolithia, is a Euro style game and it needs a big board and lots of components. Things that a larger company are more able to provide.
My first non-Yay game is with Gibsons Games. Hopefully this will be released in the summer, however, there may be delays due to Covid-19
Do you have any advice for people looking to get started in the games industry?
Do it. Just try and see what happens but keep it simple. Try to avoid rules caveats like ‘unless’ or ‘until’ or ‘if’. If you need to make exceptions to a rule, is the rule doing what it needs to?
For example, Frankenstein’s Bodies at one point was fine mechanically. It played well but the playtest feedback was that it was quite slow. We had big discussions about changing the central ‘pick a card, play card’ mechanic game but eventually we said: ‘let’s just try it’. We found that by changing that mechanic to ‘pick two, play two’ the game was transformed.
Listen to your playtesters. It’s amazing what can happen when you put some cardboard in front of another person.
For more information about all of YAY Games head to www.yaygames.uk.