Work performed by owner

I’m always looking to connect aspects of my creative profession with what other professionals do. Take commercial (or residential) painters for instance.

Driving down the highway the other day I saw a work van with the words: “Work performed by owner” on the side. At first, I wondered what that meant. Why would a small business owner want to shout this to the world?

Then it came to me. This painter wants others to know he takes personal responsibility for the work he does. When you hire him, he does the work, not a crew of minions who may or may not know what they’re doing. At least that’s the message I took away. It’s a message that inspires trust.

Instantly, I drew a connection. When customers contact my studio, I answer their questions. When I get orders on my Etsy shop, I pack and ship them. And when it’s time for client commissions or to make new things from scratch, I take them from ideas to done. I take full responsibility for the work I do. There’s no one else who gets the credit when I succeed and if I make a mistake, I own it and I fix it.

The point is, my company runs because I do the work. I don’t buy clip art to cut corners on illustrations. I don’t hire out design or production work when I have a client project. And if I need a hand-drawn font for a project, I look for ways to make it before I’ll buy it. Whether I’m working on a commission or just making things for fun, it’s all me.

You might be the same in your own ways. Your work is performed by you. We need to shout this to the world, letting others know we give our supporters personalized attention while delivering our best work.

Thoughts? Have you found being a one-person business to be a competitive advantage? In what way?

–E


Heads Up – Iconica Changes Coming Soon

At the very end of 2007, I self-published my first game – Iconica. This strategy game features character archetypes from a fictional world setting I’ve created called Rynaga. Well, Iconica is coming to an end. Sort of. Read on.

Iconica characters with Iconica Travels deck

Iconica characters with Iconica Travels deck

At some point in 2019, current (or first edition) Iconica and Iconica Travels sets will no longer be available on my Etsy Shop. These sets will go out of print, making them kinda rare from a collection standpoint.

This is for a few main reasons:

  1. We make everything in small batches and we’re nearing the end of a print cycle.

  2. We’ll be putting the majority of upcoming investments into some new projects.

  3. We’re laying the groundwork for the next “phase” of World of Rynaga content.

I started Iconica as a game design project. An experiment really. It turned into so much more. It’s provided me with a practical education in tabletop game development. Iconica is a way for me to connect with the local gaming scene in Phoenix. It opens opportunities for me to share experiences on the business of creativity. This project has led to so many awesome experiences, which I’ve shared in person with students, peers, and employers through a presentation called Making the Game.

So, what’s the bottom line here? First, a big Thank You if you’ve supported this project over the years!

And second, if you’ve been on the fence about getting an Iconica set or two, you might want to consider picking them up. If you know anyone who’s interested in indie games, tell them about Iconica. Even though this chapter of Iconica will end, as long as I’m alive and kicking it’s not the end of the story!

Questions? Feel free to email me or post a comment below.

:D

–E

Kickstarter Backer Journal – Western Legends

I definitely try not to romanticize the wild west too much. I mean the toothaches, the tuberculosis, the scary surgical procedures. Yikes! But hey, I can totally appreciate the larger than life characters, the adventures, and having a trusty steed to get me where I’m going.

On Saturday, January 27th 2018 I backed Western Legends on Kickstarter. This was the western sandbox board game I’d been waiting for! I received the game in September. Since then I’ve had a chance to catch several games with friends and I can say I truly enjoy this one.

Pretty sure the typography was at least 40% of the reason I backed this one.

Pretty sure the typography was at least 40% of the reason I backed this one.

I’m not really in the practice of doing game reviews, but I can share a few things I like about this game here:

  1. Poker – The designers employ a very satisfying take on poker to resolve confrontations during the game. Reserve those high cards in hand for use in such conflicts OR play them to gain instant benefits and actions.

  2. Replayability – I dig games that give players ways to customize their experience. Lots to explore here, like shopping for gear and accomplishing story-based achievements which change the direction of the game.

  3. Immersion – Once the game is set up, you cannot help but feel surrounded by the experience. The art, the lore, and the sense of adventure is great.

You can achieve points on the the Marshal Track or the Wanted Track. Do good, or ill. Your choice. Either way Legendary status is possible.

You can achieve points on the the Marshal Track or the Wanted Track. Do good, or ill. Your choice. Either way Legendary status is possible.

Did I mention you can mine for gold in this game? Yup.

Did I mention you can mine for gold in this game? Yup.

There are tons of reviews online for Western Legends by folks who’ve analyzed the game’s many details. For me, I tend to focus on how I “feel” when playing games.

To grow up in Arizona is to grow up somewhere where history happened. There are so many stories of legends who lived and died here. There are stories about unknown legends too. And probably so many mysteries and secrets the desert will never reveal. But playing this game feels like being there, even if for just 60-90 minutes. Without the fear of tuberculosis.

What about you? What game(s) have you been playing lately?

–E

Designing Tabletop Games #4: Have A Routine

The title of this post is a reminder. Mostly to myself. Have a routine. Routines don’t come easy to me. I’m a non-linear thinker and doer. And I’m often distracted by other ideas or videos or fun things.

Having a daily routine is critical in game design. The main reason is that game design is a time intensive discipline. Every part of the process takes a lot of time – conceptualization, prototyping, play-testing, designing, illustrating, more play-testing. To keep things on track, you’ll need a schedule.

Here’s the schedule I try to keep, which may not work for you. But I’d encourage you to get a routine of some sort going and stick to it as closely as possible. As you develop your own game design projects, or any other for that matter, a routine will help you get where you’re wanting to be.

Having a routine keeps procrastination at bay. Procrastination is the enemy.

Having a routine keeps procrastination at bay. Procrastination is the enemy.

What’s on tap

In my office I have an “On Tap” wall. (I like beer references I guess.) It’s basically a wall with a giant sticky note which has super sticky post-it notes placed on it. Each note is a task. I line that task up with which day it needs to happen.

Yes, this can be done on my phone or in some other calendar. But this method means the schedule is always within sight. Even when I’ve put my phone down for a while. There’s something about writing each task out, placing it on the day it will happen, and then being able to see everything at a high level that’s really effective for me. I can’t wait to complete tasks so that I can experience removing those notes from the wall.

It may sound strange, but rituals like this are methods that work for me. Writing tasks out. Giving them a sense of place or staging them. And then executing with focus on those tasks. Rinse and repeat on a weekly basis.

A day in the life

I set my alarm for 5:00am. I’m up by 5:30. Right away I try to drink a glass of water and stretch and do some push ups. Hey, don’t laugh. I can do a few pushups!

During weekdays between 6:00am and 9:00 I’m sprinting on dayjob work. I tackle emails from my inbox then I move on to other tasks. Starting the day early means I’m able to get things done with minimal interruptions. I abhor “multi-tasking” so I really strive to stay focused. But hey, it’s a multi-tasker’s world, so I do my best.

Around 9:00am it’s time for breakfast. These days I’m keeping it light. After this I’m back at it. It’s meetings, and tasks and phone calls until 11:00am or 12:00pm.

I stay available for work through lunch. However, I try to focus for a bit on the rest of my day and how things are shaping up. Sometimes (a lot of times) the day doesn’t go as planned. Despite this, I’m still trying to land in a place where I can mark off the things on my “On Tap” chart.

By 4:00pm I’m wrapping up a 10 hour day on the job. If I’m working late, I’m thinking: How can I get done what I need to get done at a high level, but quickly? By 5:00pm I try to be done with day job tasks and take a walk/stretch some more.

On weekends I wake up at the same time and apply this routine to my personal projects. Downtime, family commitments, and other responsibilities are accounted for first though. (People first, things second.)

The night life

By 7:00pm my wife and I have already eaten dinner and are on to personal things. Sure I like a nice speak easy or tiki bar now and then, but most of the time we’re hanging out at home watching a show or maybe running errands. On days when we’re doing our own thing, I’m spending my evenings writing, drawing, or designing for personal projects.

10:00pm is when I try to be in bed. Sometimes my brain won’t shut off and other times I’m wiped and asleep by 9:00. In recent years I’ve found I’m more of a morning person. That’s when my brain is most active and wanting to be in creative gear.

One thing about getting older is you learn not to view solitary time as expendable. Time becomes more valuable. Growing up, being creative was entertainment for me, so it’s no different now. If you’re a parent, this is one way to ensure your children value their own creativity later in life. While they’re little, help them balance all that screen time with opportunities to express their own inborn artistry. If you do this, they’ll thank you later.

The point of all this is I try to have some kind of daily routine. This allows me to control more of how my time is used rather than just reacting to things all day. Surprises and urgent matters come up, but when they do I’m able to shift to them knowing I’ve been being proactive on other tasks.

So how do you organize yourself? What tricks and tips would you offer for staying on track and focused throughout the day?

–E

Designing Tabletop Games #3: It's All Storytelling

We're experiencing stories differently now. In fact, many of us want to participate in stories. This is happening across many forms of media – mobile games, console games, VR experiences, RPGs, tabletop games, podcasts, and yes, sometimes still books too!

If you're like me, you enjoy elements of story in the tabletop games you play. You like being immersed in a setting and escaping the mundanity of reality for a while. Sure, not every game needs to be story-driven to be enjoyable. But I think my favorite games have a backstory to them, even if its not too deep or critical to understand when playing the game.

Games like Charterstone, Scythe, and Root are examples of games with varying degrees of rich story elements. In Charterstone, you're actually telling the story of your experience as you play. In Scythe, knowing the story helps but it's not critical to understanding the gameplay. And in Root, the backstory is there to help contrast the game's whimsical art with undertones of factional conflict.

Some classic games that have more surface level story elements are Clue, Scotland Yard, and Risk. Most of us know the plot of Clue, find the murderer. In Scotland Yard, the city of London is the backdrop for a cat and mouse game between Mr X and the police. And in Risk, depending on the version, the story is about world conflict in an alternate Earth setting.

So, here are some things I try to consider in all the games I create – no matter if the goal is deep story OR surface level.

Character – This could be a person or a creature. Characterization can be something more abstract too, like a tree, a building, or a machine.

Plot – Defeating a monster. Conquering a mountain climb. Finding a missing person. Thinking about who the characters are and what their motivations are, reveals plotlines to explore.

Setting – Where does the story take place? This is always a subject I get distracted on. So many possibilities!

Conflict – What are the challenges and problems your characters are faced with? 

Resolution – How will your characters resolve those conflicts?

In the end, designing tabletop games means writing. The writing you do will inform your creative process and ultimately lead to more immersion for players.

What do you think? Do you prefer tabletop games with rich story elements or more surface level ones?

–E

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Kickstarter Backer Journal – Orbital Primeval

In the summer of 2016, I started using Kickstarter as a way to learn about independently produced projects that I might want to support. I'd heard about Kickstarter for a while but I guess I was just a bit late to the game! So I'm starting a series of Kickstarter Backer Journal posts that highlight projects I've backed, why I backed them, and what I learned from them.

The first project I supported was Nathan Smith's Orbital Primeval playing cards. The project was a standard deck of cards with standard suits illustrated by hand and with an added game variant. Nathan's been a artist/designer friend of mine for years, so when I learned about his Kickstarter project I knew I'd support it.

Orbital Primeval  playing cards by Nathan Smith

Orbital Primeval playing cards by Nathan Smith

Each card in the deck is illustrated with a character from the Orbital Primeval universe, a dimension of impossible characters with quirky abilities, personalities, and backstories. Players can use the cards to play standard card games (Spades, rummy, etc.) or use the iconography on each card to play a game Nathan designed called Cabal. To me, Cabal resembles a trick-taking game, with high cards contributing to winning hands and points at endgame.

I appreciate how all of Nathan's work has a hand drawn aesthetic. It contributes to a garage-made feel, which if you know Nathan, compliments his DIY-tuned values as an artist. His creations are always imaginative and exude an authenticity I really respect. You can see / keep up with Nathan's work here.

So how about you? What was the first Kickstarter project you backed? Did you learn anything from the experience?

–E

Designing Tabletop Games #2: What Design Is

Design is about doing things with planning, purpose, and intent. It involves building meaning into what we create. It also involves fun things like psychology, aesthetic appeal, and in general doing good for your audience.

Game design – tabletop or digital – is like any other design practice. It involves using rules, principles, and objectives to achieve a desired outcome. For instance, when creating environmental signage, the goal is to provide clear way-finding directions for the public. With tabletop games our goal is making a fun and satisfying experience for our intended audience.

Here are some ways to look at the different aspects of game design.

Planning

In design, planning is about building a framework or structure for how we'll build a project. When I'm starting a game design project, there are three things I want to understand.

  1. What is the project?
  2. How much will this project cost in terms of resources – time, money, energy?
  3. How will this project impact current commitments?

The answers to these questions can be complex. But I start by answering each question in a brief one or two paragraph statement. For instance, on question number one I might write something like:

This project is about creating a game mechanic for a card drafting game. It'll take 10 to 12 months to finish. It'll involve writing down all my ideas, refining prototypes based on those ideas, and developing a solid prototype to play test with many different groups.

In my view, planning isn't about solving creative problems or trying to account for every possible variable in my life. It's about getting clear about what we're talking about and what is actually being committed to. After this is done, then we can start setting deadlines.

Purpose

Purpose in design is about asking "why". A lot. For example: Why are we doing this, this way? Why are we building something small instead of something big? Why have we chosen to keep production costs low versus high?

So purpose involves understanding the reasons for which something is created. We can't really benefit from how something looks, or how it works, or how much it costs until we ask why.

I learned this lesson creating Iconica. The game started with six characters and grew to 106 over 10 years. I kept having ideas for characters and wanted to see them brought to life. I mean, people want more of them, they help expand the world setting, I enjoy making them. Why would I not make more?

However, the other question I would have benefited from considering is: Why not streamline the character count? Rather than going broad, go deeper into each character, perhaps with modifications, customizations, or variants of archetypes. This held potential to make each existing character more rich and alive.

Things to think about as I consider new projects.

Intent

For me, this is about keeping my end goal front and center at all times throughout a project. It's easier said than done. As projects go on, the chances for distraction rise.

This is where things like determination and dedication come in. When we're able to keep our main objective in front of us and stay focused on it, it's more likely we'll achieve our goals. Some ways I do this:

  1. Writing things down and putting them up on the wall.
  2. Putting calendar reminders in my phone.
  3. Telling someone I respect what I intend to do and asking them to hold me to it.
  4. Little rewards for myself when I achieve milestones.
  5. Setting realistic deadlines.

Maintaining a practical mindset with regard to design means I'm less inclined to be distracted with all the ways something may look and feel OR what color something is. Those things are just icing on the cake. Substance is built with planning, purpose, and intent. Refining the way we design can only improve our results.

What about you? Do you have thoughts on what design is or what it means to you?

–E

 

 

What I Look for in Tabletop Games

You can't create tabletop games without playing them. Lots of them. Currently I have a nice little curated collection, around 25 or so. Not so many that I'll never play some of them, but enough to make our choice of what to play on Friday nights a bit challenging sometimes!

There are specific things I'm looking for in the games I play. What I've noticed is that I'm drawn to games with these characteristics and gameplay mechanics:

Differentiated Art

As a designer and illustrator I have an appreciation for the effort which drives creative work. But I'm also a consumer just like everyone else. Artwork is a hook. It charms us and draws us in to look at something closer. 

The games I'm drawn to differentiate themselves from others with their art and style. Ryan Laukat's Islebound is a great example of this. Personally, I enjoy a sense of immersion in games and the art is a big factor. When a game's visuals feel fresh and not copied from the latest trends, I'm much more excited to find out more.

Story and Lore

While I've played party games like Apples to Apples, they're less enjoyable for me. Games with story are my favorite. I'm looking for a story to enter through gameplay. Being able to make decisions within the context of a story, even if it's surface level and not really deep, satisfies my desire for adventure and exploration.

Most of the games in my collection are rooted in stories. Then there's lore. To me, lore is deeper than story. It's about broad narratives involving the histories of peoples and the telling of legends. I have games that offer a sense of this as well, such as Legends of Andor and Lords of Waterdeep. When I play games like this, I experience a more complete sense of immersion.

Signature Game Mechanics

It's impossible for every experience in tabletop gaming to be original. However, games that feature signature game mechanics which become part of their identity, win me over. I remember playing Potion Explosion for the first time and thinking, "Now this is different"! In a similar way, Scythe struck me as unique when it comes to worker placement and resource management. 

As a small indie example, I'm really proud of the work done on Iconica in this regard. Making use of our meter system to track character health contributes to the game's signature mechanic, which differentiates it from other character driven games such TCGs and CCGs.

So those are some things I look for in the games I play (and make). What are your favorites? Do you have games in your collection you'd recommend?

–E

 

Designing Tabletop Games #1: Catching Ideas

Ideas. They're out there. They come to us at all hours of the day. But you know what I've noticed? We're often too busy to remember our ideas!

Perhaps you already have ideas for a game you'd like to create or any other type of project you're passionate about. How do you capture your ideas? How do you organize yourself? And how do you know which ideas to "let go" of? These three things can help.

A Paper Vault

Get a small 3 x 5" note card box at the office supply store. Fill it with blank note cards. When an idea strikes you at home or around the office, use a notecard to capture your idea in words or sketches. Resist the urge to write down every detail. Let the idea arrive in its most basic form.

Paper notes may not always seem useful. But there's something to be said for seeing, touching, and holding an idea on paper. It makes it seem more real and gives that idea a place to exist in real space and in your mind. Words paired with small sketches are even better than writing alone.

A Digital Stash

When you're on the move, use an app on your phone like Apple Notes or Google Keep to store notes. When an idea strikes you, catch it as quickly as possible. I like to use a method where I use three words to describe the idea.

An example: Bug / combinations / cards.

This snapshot of an idea led me to start a game design project called Bugruckus. The quick-capture of such ideas, or words that describe your idea, can lead to fun things. But the trick is to be fast about it. When we make creativity more snappy and easy we're more likely to keep doing it. Keeping track of your thoughts is part of the creative process.

A Trashcan

From time to time, thumb/scroll through your ideas. Delete ones that no longer excite you. Remove ideas that are not practical to pursue. Share your ideas with trusted inputters and listen to their feedback. The ideas that continually make the cut are the ones you should consider for execution. The goal is to capture lots of ideas but constantly be thinking about what makes sense to act on.

Speaking of execution and getting things done, there are lots of factors to consider, such as the upfront investments of time or money or energy. More on this another time!

What tips do you have for creatives looking to stay organized? What works for you?

–E

 

Bloggy Things

One of my great fears about blogging is that I'll spend lots of time writing, but it won't really matter in terms of connecting with others. Besides this, questions such as what platform to use or what analytics to worry about overwhelm me. I already tend to overanalyze such things.

So, I'm working on changing my approach. I'm going to commit to writing 2-3 blog posts a week. Here are some topics I'm passionate about.

  1. Design – Game design / general design principles.
  2. Illustration – Drawing, on paper or digitally.
  3. Writing – Storytelling and plot development.
  4. World building – Backdrops for stories, imagery, and characters.
  5. Inspiration – Satisfaction through creativity.
  6. Randomness – Other artists, games, events, travel, etc.

There are lots of things I'm excited about this year and developing this blog into a useful resource is one of them. I hope you'll subscribe!

So hey, what are some other blogs you enjoy reading and why?

-E

 

Concerning Happiness

Being happy internally is in sharp contrast to appearing to be happy. Being happy internally implies there is work going on. It means one is desirous of contentment. Contentment is hard to measure in smiles and superficial words. Here's why I say this.

It could be argued that all emotions are valid, even if they're not always constructive. We're human. But the act of creation, on any small or large scale, is evidence of a person's measure of happiness. The cynical, bitter, and angry person does not find satisfaction in creating. Nor do those who merely see making things as a way to get money. It's one's creative spark or inner well-spring of creative energy which powers the act of bringing good, or beauty, or meaning into our world. 

The modern day creative entrepreneur or professional entertains a wide range of emotions related to the act of creation. FearAm I ready to take on this project? AnxietyWill my creations be good enough? DoubtI'm not sure I have the credibility to do this. There are other factors such as comparing ourselves to others, dealing with our life realities, and accepting personal limitations. Consequently, there are times when the creative may appear to be anxious or troubled due to adversity, but on the inside he or she is working hard.

This is why I say happiness is less of an outward expression and more of an inner quality of being. Sure, most of us like to smile and laugh. But these expressions are not proof of a person's happiness. Happiness is a commitment to how one copes with challenges, perceives social injustices, and bends to the pressures of everyday life. It's a mindset.

In the end, the effort to cultivate happiness is an investment towards an individual's road to contentment. For instance, I see each project I finish is an intentionally placed stone on that road. And, if I live to be an old man, what waits at the end of this road is something more than happiness. It'll be satisfaction, purpose, and meaning.

In short, if we view our happiness as largely a result of what we do with our time, rather than what happens to us or what we get in life, I have to believe contentment awaits.

-E