Fertessa Alyse designed Book of Villainy, Wicked and Wise, and Mansplaining, plus she’s a game producer at Funko Games (formerly known as Prospero Hall) and she was part of Girls’ Game Shelf.
Watch the live chat below (the video’s audio cuts out a bit in the middle, unfortunately):
Types of Design Blocks
There are two main types of design blocks: blocks based on a lack of inspiration and blocks based on a lack of motivation. For the lack of inspiration, the main issue is that you have a lack of content or direction to go with for your design. For the lack of motivation, that issue could be a variety of things: you could have too much going on in your head, you could have experienced some rough playtests, or you might know what to do but can’t bring yourself to actually do what needs to be done.
Each type of block is hard to get past and different people will struggle more with different blocks. For Fertessa, it’s getting past the demotivation blocks. Confronting anything mental can take a lot of power to even start to work on.
There are some quick fixes, depending on what your specific issue is.
If you find your mind is preoccupied with different things while trying to focus on designing games, you can try to put your mind into a creative space to fix that. Read books or watching movies are great ways to engage with fiction. Books and audiobooks are especially good for this as your mind has to create what a character looks like based on the description, allowing you to fill in the blanks.
You can also get your brain to step away from reality for a bit. If you have a job that allows it, you can do things like listening to audiobooks during the day, so you can dive into creativity as soon as your workday is over. Getting a library card is especially helpful by simplifying the process, often also granting access to free digital copies of books and audiobooks.
Media is also terrific for diving deeper into themes. For instance, if you’re making a game about villains, go watch a bunch of movies and TV shows with terrific villains. Think about why you love the subject that you’re working with and think about how to incorporate what you enjoy about it into your game design.
If you’re lacking information, try playing more games. When you’re new to the hobby, every game you play is an opportunity to explore a brand new game with new mechanics. Even if you have seen a mechanic before, you may see it utilized in an entirely new way. While playing, try to analyze exactly why you’re feeling each emotion. This is a terrific way to aim for those emotions in your own designs!
Regardless of the type of issue you have, you want to be able to take a guilt-free break from the problem. If you’re feeling guilty about taking the break, that’s a drain on your creative energy which will hinder the process of getting over the block. Here are some different ways to take breaks from your project:
Play other peoples’ games. Thinking about how to fix someone else’s problems can actually help you overcome your own problem as it gets your brain to think about things from a different angle. You’re also likely to discover new mechanisms, mechanics, or even strategies while playing games.
Answer other peoples’ questions. You can do this on the BGG forums, in Facebook groups, or on Twitter. Some Facebook groups that Fertessa recommends are Board Game Design Lab, Women in Board Gaming, and Publisher’s Speed Dating.
Give feedback on rules or sell sheets. There are always people who want feedback on their rules or sell sheets; reading and commenting on them is an excellent way to learn how someone else did something while helping them in the process. If you see something you liked, you can bring it back into your own rules or sell sheet!
Listen to a podcast. Breaking into Board Games is a podcast about how different people in the industry got where they are now. It’s a great podcast to get familiar with more designers and explore a specific designer’s journey and mindset and learn from them. Board Game Design Lab is a podcast that tackles a specific mechanism or subject on each podcast. You can typically find a subject that’s relevant to your current game’s design, and simply listening can get your brain to think about your game in a different way. This new mental lens can help you find solutions you didn’t even know you were looking for.
Giving your brain a break is important, especially when you can do things you enjoy and you can get back into game design more motivated than before. And remember, if you still feel guilty about taking a break, just remind yourself of one glorious word: “research.” And, as Marthe Troly-Curtin once said, “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
Sometimes your brain is just too occupied or things aren’t working. Maybe you experienced a bad playtest or there’s a lot going on with your personal life. What Fertessa does when this happens is to set a date. It has to be a rigid date that you don’t have control over, like a contest deadline, a convention, or even just a playtest session. Put this date on the calendar and consider it written in stone. If you don’t have a date, you might think that you’ll just take care of things when you’re in the mood to do them, but there are lots of reasons why you may not get something done. However, if you have to get your game ready by a specific date for a specific reason, it can be just what you need to light a fire under your feet and make progress on your game.
It’s important to put yourself into different situations, like going to conventions, entering contests, and participating in regular playtest nights. Not only is this motivational, but it should also give you more confidence and validation. It’s all about not letting you get too far into your own head about your game design and talking yourself out of whatever gains you’ve made.
Game Design Block Examples
Fertessa’s biggest block with Book of Villainy was lack of content. When she started designing it, she’d mostly experienced mass market games and couldn’t figure out a great way to make the pieces move. She’d ask questions and get answers like, “What about worker placement?” Then she’d go investigate and do some research. Worker placement was one of those things that everyone had a different answer about what it was, and it took her about 6 months to really figure it out, as it’s such a diverse mechanism.
Fertessa didn’t just play lots of different games, she also watched a ton of videos on YouTube to supplement her knowledge when she couldn’t get access to a specific game. It was all about immersing herself in a game’s design to solve the block. She made it a goal to comment on at least one thread on BGG and respond to one post on Twitter every day, as well as listen to a podcast at least every other day. This encouraged engagement and forced her to not lurk, which really helped her discover her game design identity.
The beginning of the pandemic was terrible and was definitely another mental block, but one thing that really helped Fertessa was to get back into audiobooks. Audiobooks really helped her completely forget everything else that was going on in her life and work on what she intended to work on.
The Board Game Design Workshop contest also helped her get out of one of her bigger slumps. It got her game in front of a slew of eyes, she got a bunch of feedback and ideas, and it took her mind places she didn’t expect.
You can’t design in a vacuum! It’s so important to get a variety of people to play your game and to get all sorts of different player types/counts to experience it. Their feedback is worth its weight in gold.
You can get feedback in so many ways. Contests, such as the monthly contests on BGG, the Pitch Project Contest, Cardboard Edison Contest, present feedback, a deadline, and an exciting challenge!
Some publishers run their own contests. Entering one of these enabled Fertessa to do some video interviews. It was very validating to be treated seriously as a game designer, and it gave her a moment of positivity and motivation to look back on.
Interacting with people and breaking out of your comfort zones will push your design skills forward. You want to talk with publishers, see the publishing process, and really feel like you belong. Imposter syndrome is common, but Fertessa found that, by embracing game design and accepting people as they accept her, the demotivation is repelled.
Number of Games to Work On
Fertessa was more of a “tunnel vision”-style game designer and worked on one game at a time for a long while. She had a notebook full of ideas that she wanted to come back to later, once her current focus was in a more polished state. Especially while working a day job, your time and memory are limited, so working on a single major game at a time worked out really well for her.
However, Fertessa now works at Funko, and working on four games at once is not as stressful as she thought it would be. Since she has a lot more time and energy to focus on design, progress is going well despite working on numerous designs.
You can follow Fertessa on the following: