Ann Jones (Cards or Die) – Meeting of Minds

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.

Ann Jones has been on my radar for a while and her latest project, the rule book tool kit gave me the impetus to reach out and chat to her about it. Ann’s company, Cards or Die, holds all sorts of boardgame events bringing people together over the joy of a shared game experience. She works in educational settings as well as the corporate world, delivering training through boardgames, going so far as to custom make games when her clients ask for it. Ann was good enough to join me for an interview, answering questions on her educational work, the rise of digital tabletops, and, of course, her work on the Rulebook Toolkit.

Your background is in education, and I’ve always been fascinated by projects that use board games in a teaching setting. What sort of games have you used for educational purposes and how do you use them in corporate settings?

I ran some sessions recently in an Autism specialist school. We focused mainly on cooperative games; working together as a team to problem solve and strategise, making sure that each member of the team had a say in the discussion and the decisions made. But we also played ‘Flux’ and ‘We didn’t playtest this at all’, as the frequent rule changes can be challenging and we wanted to build resilience around this.

In corporate settings I have used cooperative games as a starting point and explored how we adopt different roles within teams to achieve an end goal. By using Magic Maze we explored how the balance of power can shift within groups and gave the quieter members of the team a greater role. On other occasions I have run tournaments using a variety of retro games which contributes to team building in a less formal manner.

I’m looking forward to running some sessions for Leeds Libraries’ Games Jam in March. The theme of the Games Jam is storytelling and I will be exploring different mechanics that can be used in story based games. I’m really excited about this because as an ex- English teacher this combines two of my great loves – stories and games.

I imagine your business has been affected greatly by the lockdowns we have experienced in the UK. How have you adapted to the changing situation?

Lockdown has meant that live events have been cancelled. I had bookings for parties, weddings and a festival all cancelled. As well as all my regular pub and cafe events. At first I offered quite a lot of online events but as time has worn on and the lockdown drags on, people’s appetite for that seemed to decline. Instead I have been focussing on using my English teaching skills and my knowledge of rule books to do more proofreading and editing.

One of the services you offer is making bespoke board games for training purposes. Can you tell us about any of the companies that have engaged these services, and how you go about designing these games?

I created a game for Gateway Family Services in Birmingham. The game trained staff in social prescribing by exploring different cases that they may be faced with and mimics the dynamic nature of the changes people experience. Staff are challenged to match people up with the agencies that can help them. As it was my first game I had an extra copy made for me to keep. This came in really handy over lockdown as they had taken on new staff so I was able to run a couple of online training sessions for them using the board game. I’ve been delighted by how useful this has been for the charity and have had some fabulous feedback from them.

There has been a huge takeup in online tabletop platforms over the pandemic. Have you run events using these services, and can you see them being a more integral part of the tabletop scene in the coming years?

There has. I’m not keen on the online platforms – they just don’t work for me personally. I’ve tended to run events on Skype and Zoom using actual physical copies of games and I prefer to do that where I can. I’m sure they will become more important on the tabletop scene and I think they have a valuable place. I think like in all areas of our lives, people have adapted and tried new things and some of those will stick. I question the notion of going ‘back to normal’ – I’m not sure what that is, how we would get there and whether it’s even desirable. The online platforms have a lot to offer in terms of bringing people together no matter how far apart they are and in terms of game development and play testing that’s really exciting.

Your most recent project is one close to my heart, The Rulebook Toolkit. I really have a problem with bad rulebooks. Can you tell us a little about the project, and what made you want to tackle the issue of bad rules?

In normal times I am reading and learning new games all the time. One part of Cards or Die events is that you can turn up and be introduced to a new game without the hassle of learning all the rules yourself. It’s really frustrating when that process takes too long and involves googling answers. It struck me as well, how much work goes into a game and then there’s me guessing how the designer meant for elements of it to play. It just seems such a shame. So, I decided to create a tool kit that would take a games designer from a set of scribbled notes to a polished rule book that enables their customers to unpack the game and play it straight away: no guessing and no googling! Games with bad rule books end up discarded on the shelf and no designer wants that. I think my 17 years of English teaching experience not only made me want to tackle it but also provided me with the level of expertise to tackle it.

Writing rules is a somewhat mysterious art. How have you gone about breaking it down? What do you love to see in a rulebook and what are your pet hates?

Good writing all comes down to focussing on three key things: audience, purpose and consistency. I approached the rule book tool kit the same way I’ve approached teaching any form of writing over the years. We work through a process that starts with analysing your audience then I guide you through how you will adapt your writing to suit the purpose (in this case – writing a set of rules that will enable your audience to play your game easily). One way we do that by looking at WAGOLLs – I’ve never used much jargon or abbreviations but this is one I kept as it’s fun to say! It stands for What A Good One Looks Like. I prefer to focus on the positive and the best way to learn is to look at what a good example has and does and then use what you learn from that to inform your own writing. For me, a good rule book should be clearly set out with clear, accurate language that enables anyone to pick it up and learn the game. The final stages of the kit are all about checking your writing and I’ve provided checklists to help with that.

My pet hates are rule books that aren’t clear – you know the kind where you are part way through the game and someone plays something and another player objects. Then various people round the table take it in turn to read a section of the rule book aloud each putting emphasis on different words! You argue, someone googles it – eventually you reach a consensus. This is not the experience I want – I just want to play the game! And honestly, I want to play it right. Someone has designed it and spent a lot of time and energy getting it perfectly balanced – creating an amazing gaming experience. Why wouldn’t you want to experience that?!

My absolute pet hate is gendered pronouns – there is just no excuse for it. At all. I can’t even believe there is still a conversation about it!

I notice one of the sections of the rulebook toolkit deals with inclusivity. There is a big movement towards more inclusivity not only in game art, but in game companies, in the way rulebooks are written, and in fact across all aspects of the tabletop gaming hobby. What do you hope designers and publishers take away from this section of the Toolkit?

I’m glad that there is such a movement toward inclusivity. I embrace that at every level – whether it’s ability, level of experience of games, things like dyslexia or colour blindness. Gatekeeping is a massive issue in many hobbies, not least board gaming. It’s something that we all have to challenge and work towards eradicating. There is no space for it at the events I run.

I have reminded people in this section about the need to use ‘you’ or ‘they’ in the rulebook. That’s not up for debate – it’s just a reminder of what we must do. I’ve also put together a guide to other things to consider for instance – keeping the reading age low (and how to calculate the reading age); considering layout and use of colour and also things like first player conditions. I think sometimes people forget that some first player conditions can be exclusive. If the player who last rode a horse gets to go first then that’s always going to be someone who can afford that expensive hobby. This section explores things to consider as well as ways to adapt the rule book to make it as accessible as possible for as many people as possible. I hope it highlights things that people may not have thought of and helps them to address things they have considered but may not have thought of ways to adapt.

What game from a UK designer are you most excited by right now?

I am so excited to see CoraQuest’s journey. I’m loving clicking on the Kickstarter just to see what numbers it is on! It’s such a fantastic idea – I can imagine it being a massive hit in schools and with families. The ability to be able to design and add your own characters is just genius. The other game I’m super excited about is Arkosa from Toon Hammer Games. I played it at the last UKGE and it is nearing completion – I can’t wait! (We’ve played that as well and it’s a good one – Iain)

Come and join us on the Giant Brain Discord to discuss this or any of our other articles. We have regular game nights and a great community that will welcome you on board.

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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