Meeting of Minds – Anna Blackwell

One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry, and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.

Anna Blackwell is a freelance critic, writer, and game developer. After spending time studying computer games development, Anna found that she didn’t exactly love the idea of programming games for a career and instead turned down a different path.

During her time at University she started writing for CriticalIndieGamer and enjoyed the experience so much that she started freelancing for a wide variety of publications. When a Kickstarter campaign called Zinequest 2 came around, asking creators to launch short campaigns for RPG products, Anna jumped at the chance launching the first of her solo RPG games, Delve. Now on the cusp of launching more games in the solo RPG genre, Anna was good enough to take some time to chat to us about solo games, publishing games, and itch.io.

Solo games have seen a huge uptick in popularity in the last couple of years, and even more so in this most strange of years. What do you think has led to this rise, and do you think it is likely to be a feature of tabletop games for the foreseeable future?

I think the rise of solo games is partly due to designers and players discovering one game and realising they enjoy the experience and want more. What kicked it off for me was Artefact, Mousehole Press’ solo sentient object RPG. The story it made was something that was inherently unique and personal and I didn’t have to get a group together to do it. I think that’s a real strength for any game but especially RPGs as it presents a whole new frontier. And as a forever-DM it’s been a way for me to explore ideas that my group wouldn’t play.

I think as more people play solo games, more designers are going to see the opportunities in the format and more games are going to get made. I only really discovered solo games in 2019 and have already gathered tonnes of memorable moments like how in Ironsworn [… Anna continued to ramble on about her character for sixteen pages, we have cut this to save you from the horror].

In the wider world of tabletop games, I can definitely see this year being a catalyst for more solo modes and solo games being created. Heck, I’ve released three and have another six or so in the pipeline thanks to this year.

What can you tell us anything about those forthcoming projects?

Loads but nothing is really concrete at the moment. Right now people are helping to fund a fourth game in the DELVE series called WASTE: A Solo Game of Survival which takes the format to the post-apocalypse. Right now I’m trying to work out the balance between individual survival and town building. In the same vein, I’m kicking around ideas for a post-apocalyptic hack of Thousand Year Old Vampire (with Tim’s permission of course).

Apart from that, I’m working on a more freeform map drawing game that’s inspired by Animal Crossing. No management or combat, just chilling in the forest with spirit friends and drawing things.

And of course, I’ve got plans for expansions for DELVE, RISE, and UMBRA. Things like farming, trading, royalty, and big thematic expansions like the Undersea which introduces a wyrd ocean with unique rooms and discoveries or Conquest which adds a post-surfacing challenge to RISE.

You sell products through itch.io. How have you found the site as a way to share tabletop content? Do you have any tips for other publishers looking to use the site to sell their product?

Itch.io has been a great storefront for the digital side of things. Putting games up has been incredibly easy compared to say DriveThruRPG and tracking sales, followers, and downloads is so streamlined that moving to other sites is often a genuine shock. Like, to put them side by side, Itch.io gives you a bar graph for every metric you’d want and just puts it on your analytics page for you to look at. DriveThruRPG makes you generate a report in which you have to define the dates.

So far, I’m not sure how it will handle the physical side of things. Tim Hutchings (Thousand Year Old Vampire) sells physical games through the site and from what he’s said it sounds like you just check for new sales, get their address from them, and post it out which sounds easy enough as long as your game doesn’t sell hundreds of copies a week.

Tips for other publishers, letting your Kickstarter backers know as soon as you’ve put the game up will help it to reach the top of the Itch.io ‘popular and new’ category but you need ratings and consistent downloads to stay up there. And from what I’ve heard, though I’m not sure if this is still the case, Itch heavily weights favour on games with all 5 star reviews. Anything less it treats as a bad review.

Discoverability, I hate that word personally, can be very hard for small publishers. What do you think platforms like itch.io and DriveThruRPG could do to help lift up smaller publishers?

I don’t really know enough about DriveThruRPG to say anything about it, something about the UI never gelled with me so I don’t really go there. But as far as itch.io is concerned, I think they do pretty well. I might have a bit of the lottery bias as I came to the platform after having a successful Kickstarter but all 3 of my games hit the top spot but even they got bumped out of the way for new things like the Sonic the Hedgehog PbtA. I think the main advantage to itch though is that Wizards of the Coast, Modiphius, and all the other big names aren’t there. For the time being, itch.io is for small publishers and solo creators.

2020 has been a strange year for the tabletop world. How have you found it has affected sales of your products?

I think I kind of lucked out this year, with lockdown keeping everyone at home and self-isolating it’s really been the perfect environment for solo games. Even with no marketing budget, just the occasional post on Reddit and Twitter I’ve been selling at least one copy a day, more since I released the discounted bundle and have made nearly $2000 in sales through itch.io and Backerkit.

You’ve reviewed computer games from time to time. What do you think tabletop games can learn from the world of computer games?

Hopefully not too much considering the route AAA games have gone in the last five years.

Looking at the indie video game world, it would be nice to see designers being aware that creativity isn’t as much of a risk as it was once painted as. We have the ability to create anything and a disappointing number of games seem content with just being D&D. There are loads of creative indie designers on itch that are putting out some weird and wonderful games but it would be nice to see the bigger companies just explore what can be done in the medium.

(You can read Iain’s playthrough of ‘Have I been Good?’ a game you play with your dog, as an example of the creativity that is present on itch.)

What do you think of the current state of tabletop game criticism?

I think we’re in a pretty great place. We have national magazines (with more coming each year), we’ve got hundreds of Youtubers, podcasts, and blogs from so many diverse voices and even the littlest game gets coverage somewhere.

What game from a UK publisher are you most excited about right now?

Either Orbital from Mousehole Press or the print version of The Wretched by Chris Bissette, both games from solo designers because I’m apparently one step away from getting ‘indie or death’ tattooed on my chest.

You can find all of Anna’s work at this link.

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Author: Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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