Janice was kind enough to answer some interview questions for me. If you missed it, be sure to check out my review of Assembly, the first release coming up from Wren Games.
Check out the launch of their game, Assembly, on Kickstarter the 24th of May. This link will take you right to it: www.ks.wrengames.co.uk
Who we are
Wren Games consists of the wife and husband team Janice and Stu. They live in the UK with their 2 young daughters, lots of fish and Inca the cat.
- My first impression of Assembly happened before I ever cut a single component. It came in the form of the rulebook, and the fantastic flavor text sprinkled throughout. It was memorable enough to really hook me in to the game and the theme. Which came first: the game/mechanics or the theme? What challenges did you encounter when trying to tie them both together?
In Assembly, the mechanisms most definitely came first. I seem to dream up my games when I’m in a half-awake / half-asleep state at night. I already had The Maiden Voyage at a prototype stage and I love the clock-like layout and I wanted to re-use this in Assembly. That’s when the idea came of matching tokens to cards with a limited set of commands. I wrote everything down on my phone then promptly fell asleep. In the morning I woke early, excited to get my new design down on paper and started prototyping it. Before Stu was even out if bed I had the basic mechanisms sorted, which is pretty lucky given it was an entry into the BGG Mint Tin Design Contest where deadlines are strict.
But with regards to theme, Stu and I both have a soft spot for sci-fi so in some ways the theme came first; Assembly was always going to be a sci-fi game. However, the original story behind Assembly is somewhat different to the current one.
I work in engineering and requirements can change frequently – you have to be really firm about locking them down. Originally the story was that you were assembling spaceships at a factory but every now and again the customer requirements would change resulting in everything moving around. That was over a year ago and Assembly mostly laid dormant due to me trying to balance work full-time with being a mum to a 1 year old, leaving me with little time for game design. Then, in October last year, I went on maternity leave again. I was determined to finish the games we had started. Assembly was the simplest and closest to completion so we decided this would be our first one to finish. My first task was to re-write the story as I decided this was a bit too technical (and tongue in cheek) for your average gamer. After another half-asleep brainwave, I came up with the idea of a virus and building a ship to escape. The main challenge was getting the story short and to the point but with enough detail to tie every mechanic to a story element. It’s been through rewrites until it has evolved into what you read today.
Story in games is really important to me – so even though at its core, Assembly could be thought of as a simple abstract game, I wanted to tie everything together with story elements. Story helps you remember things, in this case we’re using it to help you remember the rules. We want to design games that are easy to learn and remember – story helps us do that.
- Assembly was an entry into the 2016 Mint Tin design contest on BGG. Did the idea for the game come about because of the contest, or was the contest a way to get this idea you had in your head into a prototype form? What were some of the challenges in designing a game to fit that footprint?
When I designed Assembly, I was still relatively new to game design. I had one partially completed game to my name and that was it. I was determined to do something else. I wanted to do something smaller that we could finish to give us more confidence in finishing our first, more ambitious, labour of love. I saw the BGG Design Contest as an opportunity to help me finish a game (I also entered a game into the Children’s PnP Contest in 2016).
The biggest challenge when designing a game with such a small foot print is the rulebook! There’s not much space to write the rules so you have to keep it simple and to the point. I was quite chuffed when Assembly was voted as the Best Written Rulebook but looking back, I think I perhaps ‘streamlined’ my it too much. It’s since grown in size but seems understandable which is the most important thing. Once again, the rulebook has been one of my biggest challenges as I didn’t want it driving the size of the box!
- I understand that you designed Assembly as a solo game first, and then added in a 2nd player option. Why did you choose to start with solo first?
As Assembly is essentially a puzzle, getting the puzzle working was key to the successful development of the game. The puzzle itself doesn’t change at higher player counts, just the parameters so refining as a solo game made my life easier – it’s so much easier to get a game working when playing solo! But why then also make it 2-player?
Stu and I both love Shadi Torbey’s Oniverse games. We love the fact that they work well both solo and cooperatively with 2-players with just a few tweaks. We wanted Assembly to be like that.
Once I was happy with Assembly’s solo game, I started working on how I could tweak it to work with 2 players, not only in terms of balance but also how the players could interact when playing and feel an involved part of the game. Limited communication adds an extra dimension to the puzzle (and reduces alpha player issues) so it seemed an obvious choice. But there’s a fine line between sitting in silence, each playing your own solo game, and playing together, engaged and cooperatively.
I realised from the playtesting that this ‘line’ is different for different people and that most people want to play strictly to the official rules. So we recently revised the communications rules to ‘give permission’ to include the option to talk openly about everything apart from what’s in your hand. Games are meant to be fun, and we want people to have fun playing. However, if restricting communication is what you like doing, then do that!
- What value did Assembly gain from the playtesting and feedback of the Mint Tin design contest? Would you enter another contest like that in the future?
I think the main advantage of participating in any BGG contest is the community atmosphere. You have willing playtesters at the ready. They help validate that you have something and in return you do the same for them. It’s also great to see other people’s design process – as I don’t get to many (read any) design groups – this really is the closest I get. The contests allowed me to ‘meet’ a number of helpful designers from around the world who each offered constructive and useful feedback. I also got to play some very cool PnP games and help other designers.
Would I enter another one? I’m not sure. I now have 2 young children and that makes working to the strict contest deadlines quite difficult, particularly when my kids often want mummy and only mummy will do! But I think the main issue isn’t the development of my own idea but helping others with theirs, especially playtesting them. In these contests you get out what you can put in and I don’t feel I can put enough in at this point in my life. I’m hoping to go back to work part-time rather than full-time in the autumn and my eldest will then be at pre-school during the mornings so perhaps I’ll then have some time. I have several ideas that I want to pursue and maybe one of these contests will be the right platform to get me to push one through quickly, so maybe I’ll enter one again.
- I understand that Assembly is the first, but not the only, game on the horizon from Wren Games. Tell us more about the next games in your queue!
We have 3 games that are at the advanced prototype stage, i.e. rules written, basic concept proven and at least 1 round of blind playtesting completed.
The first is Assembly, which is coming to Kickstarter on the 24th May. We’re pretty happy with it and have recently developed a mini-expansion called ‘Glitches’ which adds an extra layer of challenge. I’ve also an idea for another mini-expansion but that is a bit more complex and will need some additional development – we’ll just have to wait and see how that one goes but it’ll probably be released as a PnP for playtesting at some point.
The Maiden Voyage is technically our first game design, although we put it on hold in favour of Assembly as we knew we could finish Assembly more quickly as it’s a less complex game. The Maiden Voyage has a higher player count (1-5 players) and longer play time (60-90 minutes). It could be described as a thematic sci-fi strategy game that straddles both Ameritrash and Euro game types (including a diverse range of mechanisms such as a random event deck in parallel with resource and hand management). Once again, this game is cooperative and rich in story! I’m currently working with Cardboard Edison to help push this game forward as part of the Jellybean Scholarship for Game Designers and I’m hoping that The Maiden Voyage will be available for playtesting again in a few months’ time.
The final game is a children’s game called Inca the Tinker: Tales of a Mischievous Cat. This was an entry into the 2016 BGG Children’s PnP Contest and is a children’s (3+) story-telling and matching game with an introductory blocking mechanism. It was initially developed in less than 2 weeks, so it’s a bit rough around the edges but seems to work okay. I’m not sure what to do with this game yet as I’m not sure if it is good enough and I don’t know many kids of the right age group, although I’ll be able to playtest with my daughter in about 6 months! Anyway, I’m keen to get more people playtesting this one. Just go to our website and you’ll find a link to a form to request the PnP files.
We also have another 4 ideas at the concept phase. 3 of them have been tested but all need significant refinement. The basic concept works but they aren’t elegant. The theme for all of them is set, but the detailed story needs refinement. Of these 4, one is competitive and a variant on a traditional card game, another is a dice set matching / puzzle game (primarily solo but potential for a coop), the next is a medium-weight coop with an interesting dice mechanic and the final one is a solo game with a quite unique theme. Whether any of these get beyond the concept stage is still to be seen but we’re not developing them further until we’ve got Assembly finished! I’m working on a one in, one out method as it’s important to finish things!
- Where can people go to keep up with the progress of these next game designs? Any open playtesting opportunities?
If you want to find out more about our games and future playtesting opportunities, sign up to our mailing list as we always let our subscribes know of playtesting opportunities. You can also look at the ‘Playtesting’ link on our webpage for current opportunities.
- Mailing List: newsletter.wrengames.co.uk
- Web: wrengames.co.uk
- Facebook: facebook.com/themaidenvoyagebg
- Twitter: @Dravvin and @WrenGames
- Instagram: instagram.com/wrengames
- Finally, you are a husband/wife design team. Tell us about the process of designing games together, especially solo modes. Do you each have different tastes/styles in games? Do you have different strengths in testing and design that complement each other?
I am the main designer of the two of us but without Stu the games wouldn’t be as refined as they are. Our process is pretty simple and quite repetitive. I come up with the basic idea, prototype it up and make sure it works. I then talk it through with Stu who points out all the things I forgot to consider! We then work out how to fix it together before I prototype it up again. I do a lot of design iterations through solo playtesting. After each major change I test it out on Stu who once again points out everything I’ve forgotten, that’s confusing or could be simplified. And then the cycle continues.
Stu is the big solo gamer between us and it is him who drives the requirements for the solo game variants. His pet hate is when a game forces you to play multiple characters. He likes to immerse himself in the game and he feels he can only do this properly by being a single character. It was therefore important to us to have an independent solo version not one that is just a ‘play multiple characters’ copout!
In terms of games – we have many similar game tastes as well as many different ones. I sit slightly more on the Euro side of the scale whereas Stu is much more into his minis. Minis can actually put me off a game! However, where we both come together is that we both like our games to have a strong theme and we both prefer cooperative play. This is therefore the driving force behind most of our game designs.