Interview: David Van Drunen - Creating Play as a Board Game Designer
"Most of my designs start with a feeling, and play is how people interact with that feeling. Physical things like rolling dice or stacking blocks, we play with them differently and they convey certain feelings. I try to guide players’ imagination as I connect theme to play, and play to feeling."
We were very pleased to sit down with David Van Drunen and talk about play, board game design and art. David lives and works in Toronto where he also studied Video Game Art and Design at the Art Institute of Toronto.
How did you move into working on board games?
I definitely couldn’t have predicted it. In college I worked in the art supply store and as a TA. After graduating, I worked 3 months at an educational games studio, until their government funding fell through. So, I started being an extra for TV and film, which meant I had lots of random days off, so I got back into painting, and started selling pieces. Being physical with my hands felt so much better than working digitally. In college the root of all our digital classes were fine art classes; drawing, painting, sketching. Going from video game to board game really agreed with me as good fit.
Can you tell us about your first board game?
My first published board game is “Gnomes at Midnight”, a quick, cute, little 2 player game. In it your gnomes come alive and scurry around the garden staying hidden out of the moonlight. You can win by claiming the mushrooms, knocking your opponent out of the garden, or by doing a ‘dance’.
What do you think about the term 'play' as it relates to adults and children?
‘Play’ to me is really either “improv” or “competition”. Most kids are better at improv because they don’t care; they are more in the moment of ‘now’. But adults can handle competition better. Competition is good because it let’s people compare and get better, it’s more about the ‘future’.
You're essentially creating play as a board game designer – how do you consider the different types of interests and thoughts of your players? How does creativity, and imagination come into play?
Most of my designs start with a feeling, and play is how people interact with that feeling. Physical things like rolling dice or stacking blocks, we play with them differently and they convey certain feelings. I try to guide players’ imagination as I connect theme to play, and play to feeling.
How does your background in art affect your board game design?
Having roots in abstract art really helps me take a feeling and make it into pawns and cards. One of my college teachers always made us ask, “Why” about our designs. ‘Why not more or less?’ ‘Why is it this colour or shape?’ In my paintings it helps guide my visual narratives, and in my games it helps refine the design down to only what makes the game fun.
Is there something that makes a board game special for people to play?
Great games are often different enough to feel ‘new’, but familiar enough to be intuitive. That way people can sit down and start playing as soon as possible, and are engaged because they’ve never seen it like this before.
How do you create a bad game that no one will want to play?
Too many rules, opening a box with 10,000 pieces, each their own rule will make it impossible to teach quickly, and push a lot of people away. Also, poorly written rules will kill any game. I tried to learn this sheep game but like every rule was a pun. It was like, “Ewe ready to play?” No, because I still don’t know what a ‘Sheep Shuffle’ is!
"Imagination is key for translating physical game actions into feelings. As a designer it’s my job to make that translation as easy as possible by designing theme into the mechanics and rules of the game."
What is the role of beautiful art and great themes in board game design?
Great art matters and good design is important. If you don’t afford good art you’re telling me your design isn’t worth it. To me though theme is like a nice hat, interchangeable and up to personal preference. Like I’d rather ‘slay a dragon’ than just ‘move blue square to red hex’, but I’m just as happy ‘unlocking an alien monument’.
How does a player's imagination come into play?
Imagination is key for translating physical game actions into feelings. As a designer it’s my job to make that translation as easy as possible by designing theme into the mechanics and rules of the game. An intuitive game will always help ‘play’ happen more. It’s the odd, unexpected rules that interfere with a player connecting with a game.
Tell us about your design process for creating a board game?
I capture lots of idea and pick the best based on is it different enough, and am I excited about it. Then I make a prototype and test it myself some ideas break here and get benched for later. If it feels like it’s working I get it play-tested with a group I work with. After a lot of play-testing and refining I finally pitch it to publishers at conventions or via email. If they like it, it gets signed and then we work together to really refine it, and eventually release it!
Can you give us a few links to your work, and info on your Kickstarter coming up.
If you want to check out my first game, “Gnomes at Midnight”... it is available here.
And I’m super excited about my second game, “Block and Key”. It’s a 3D Tetris block game, where each player builds into the same structure but can only view it from their perspective. It’s coming to Kickstarter in 2020 with Inside Up Games... coming soon.
I’m also occasionally on Twitter. Thanks so much, and happy gaming!