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.
With a background in education and classroom behaviour management Ellie Dix brings a wealth of knowledge to the world of game design. Setting up her own imprint, The Dark Imp, she has designed a load of games in the last few years with all sorts of themes from gardening to the depths of space. On top of this prolific output she has worked with a variety of publishers, written a book on the benefits of board games to family life and hosts a radio show.
Way back in mid 2020 Ellie was good enough to send me one of her Buzzle Boxes for review. These are a collection of puzzles and games which I have finally gotten around to getting to my table and reviews of the content of these boxes are incoming. I’d like to thank Ellie for her patience.
While I beaver away on those I reached out to Ellie for an interview. We cover her background in education, the use of tabletop games in the classroom, her move into game design, designing with limited components, and the integration of boardgames into family life.
Your previous job involved training teachers to manage behaviour in classrooms. Before that you were a teacher in a Secondary School. Do you think that boardgames have a place in the classroom, and if so how do you see them being used to assist with education?
Yes, without a doubt. Games are a brilliant teaching and learning tool primarily because they are so engaging. When you’re playing a game, you’re only really thinking about the game. You’re focused on the victory conditions and the gameplay. Because of this, there’s a huge opportunity to sneak in learning! You can gamify pretty much any part of the curriculum in any subject, if you want to. For example, I’m working on a party game with another designer at the moment that requires players to answer questions in character and indirectly lead the other players towards certain adjectives according to how they answer. This is a lovely ‘speaking and listening’ activity for an English class, because it requires learners to define and describe without using set words and to structure language in order to give clues that aren’t too obvious.
Not only can we reinforce learning through playing games, but we can use games that introduce learners to topics and concepts. The concept of probability is not new to us when we first encounter it in the classroom, because we already have an understanding of our chances of throwing double sixes or drawing an ace through playing games. When we’re given the opportunity to play we have the joy of making discoveries for ourselves. Play a game about the suffragettes before you ever pick up a book and you’ll have already developed some knowledge and understanding of the situation.
But it’s not just about knowledge and application of knowledge. Games have so many more learning benefits. Playing games improves memory formation and cognitive skills, increases processing speed, develops logic and reasoning skills, improves critical thinking, boosts spatial reasoning, improves verbal and communication skills, increases attention and concentration, teaches problem-solving, develops confidence and improves decision-making.
Board games also give children an opportunity to learn how to take turns, practise patience, work as part of a team, negotiate with others, compromise, communicate ideas, take risks, follow rules and directions and manage restrictions. Players have to sharpen up social skills to be successful at playing games. These transferable skills will take learners far, both in the classroom and beyond.
In addition, Board games provide a platform for us to fail, over and over again. Here the stakes are low; it doesn’t matter if we lose. Odds are that most people playing games will lose. It is normal, and that is liberating. As children become more comfortable with failing, they start to learn from it. Board games provide immediate feedback: a player can analyse what brought about their demise and why another player triumphed. Children start to learn about the impact of their own decisions, but in a very safe and friendly environment.
I’m really just touching on the impact that games can have within learning environments here. I could (and do) talk about it a lot! I have a show called The Game School on Teacher Hug Radio which looks at tabletop games and how to use them for teaching and learning. I have lots of amazing guests on the show including teachers who play lots of games in the classroom and/or run games clubs, people who teach game design in school or college, publishers and designers of educational games. So if you’re interested in games in education, it’s worth a listen (plug over!)
What brought you to the path of designing your own games?
Well, I’ve been designing games informally for a really long time. When I was a child, my Mum was a senior lecturer in primary education at Homerton in Cambridge. One of the tasks she always set her trainee teachers to do was to make a maths game. My sister and I would playtest them all and give feedback, sometimes in front of the whole group. This, combined with the fact that my Dad would gamify anything he possibly could, introduced me to the idea of game design. I started by modifying games we already had as a child, and making simple games of my own.
When I was teaching, I was always creating games for the classroom and sharing them with others on a blog and through teacher training. When my husband and I sold our education company (in 2017) and I was able to leave 2 years later, I knew that the time had come to jump into game design with two feet. “Work” is now a total delight. There’s something totally joyous about having an idea (often a pretty silly one) and being able to invent and iterate until it’s a great gaming experience.
According to Boardgamegeek you have designed 15 games since 2019, which is a pretty decent output. What keeps you motivated to design games? Do you have any advice for aspiring designers?
I’ve not put all the games I’ve created on BGG. Plus it really depends how you count them. I’ve created several sets of games. For example, the Cracker Games include 6 different games that can be played with the same components and the Pack of Coaster Games includes six games. My latest pack is a set of 6 games on Greetings Cards, which are currently on Kickstarter. In the last year, I’ve been focusing mainly on designing games for other publishers (which are yet to be published), as I’ve decided to limit my own publishing to small format games.
Almost all of the games I create are light or family weight, these are usually quicker to conceive and design than heavier games! This certainly helps motivation! You can go from an idea to a ready-to-pitch prototype in very little time really. I’m lucky, at the moment I always seem to have a new idea that pops up from somewhere, in fact I have notepads full of them. I have to choose which ones to make into games and which to shelve.
I think the best advice for an aspiring designer is to just get on and make a physical copy of whatever is in your head and then test it outside your friends and family group (ideally with other game designers) as early as possible. It’s tempting to spend time making everything beautiful or balanced, but it could well be time wasted. Turn up to a Playtest UK session with the bare bones of an idea and an open mind and subsequent time you spend developing and iterating is far more likely to be well spent. Playtesting really helps you find the fun in your game and also throws a light on major issues. You learn so very much from surrounding yourself with other designers and by testing their games in development – you just can’t replicate that from tinkering at home and testing with friends.
Your designs often use very few components, shown most recently by your current Kickstarter where the games are about the size of a large birthday card. What has driven you to keep your component count small? Do you think we will see a trend towards more compact games as the community concerns about environmental impact grow?
My main aim is to get more families playing games together. I think there are two big barriers to doing this.
1) People who don’t play lots of games don’t realise what an impact playing games as a family might have on them – so they aren’t really in the market for buying games (unless it’s Christmas).
2) People are really put off by long rules. I’ve realised that most adult’s tolerance for reading rules is far less than we (as board gamers) might realise. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that children (even young ones) can cope with surprising complexity in games, but the adults can’t get through the rulebook to teach it to them.
Small format games tackle both of these problems. Having games in unusual formats means that more people can be exposed to them. My hope is that gamers will send the games on greeting cards to lots of their non-gaming friends. A game will just appear before them! As it’s a small format, the rules aren’t too long, so it feels achievable to learn it. We know that people who get hooked into tabletop games can often remember their first experience of the hobby. I want to draw people into interesting mechanics and concepts (and away from the mainstream roll & move) through these little games.
From a commercial point of view, it’s very very difficult for small independent publishing companies, like mine, to publish big games (and it’s only getting more difficult). Shipping costs, minimum order quantities, storage and long lead times can make publishing prohibitive. But we don’t just have to publish games in boxes. There are things that can be manufactured here in the UK, in smaller quantities. That’s been another key factor in my development of small format games.
You mentioned working with other publishers on some titles. Do you find that those publishers are also looking to reduce the size of their games, to find ways around the issues that are plaguing the industry?
Yes, to different extents. It depends who their games are aimed at, how big they are and how developed their manufacturing processes and distribution channels are, I expect. I’m sure many publishers are really thinking about component count, box size, production cost and shipping weight. Small boxes are easier to ship and store and cheaper to produce, so small games will naturally be more viable to produce. This has always been the case, of course, but with the current issues, this is more at the forefront of people’s minds.
You have written a book, The Board Game Family, giving advice on how to integrate board games into family life. What benefits do you think that boardgames bring to a healthy family life?
Well that’s a big question and a long answer (book length!) but in brief…
Playing games sparks conversation. Ordinarily (and particularly as they become teenagers) our children often don’t listen because we don’t say anything interesting. Our adult day is of no real source of intrigue to them. But carving out moments for doing things together, like playing board games, gives families a natural focus for conversation. Tabletop chatter spills over into post-game analysis. Great experiences act as bookmarks in our mind, giving us memories to chat about time and time again. Playing as a family brings people closer and improves relationships. When playing games, players focus on one another, but within the comfort and safety of the structure of the game. Interaction is increased.
Within games, children and adults are equal. Families have inbuilt hierarchies. Parents mostly make the decisions for the rest of the family to follow. But all players are equal in a board game. A temporary balance is achieved and this can be liberating and exciting for children. Children also have the opportunity to see their parents play. Many interactions parents have with their children are functional or transactional. It is all too easy for parents to get caught up with what needs to be done (homework, tidying, chores) and forget about stealing moments to have fun together. It’s important for children to see their parents play. Playing should be a normal part of life: for adults and children. By playing games, you’re modelling that.
Of course, all the social and learning benefits (that I mentioned in regards to the place of games in schools) are applicable here too. Parents, like teachers, are constantly teaching children, not just subject-related content, but how to interact with others, how to work on a team…etc.
Finally, game playing has proven health benefits as it induces laughter and reduces stress, boosting the immune system and lowering blood pressure. Board games help us to escape from our daily worries and focus on something else for a while. They bring us balance and help us to relax. Teenagers may seem to want to spend a lot of time on their own in their room, but it’s not usually in the best interests of their mental health. Taking time to play together reduces isolation. It’s good for adults too – studies show that people who play board games are less at risk of cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
There has been a rise in the use of digital platforms to play and prototype games over the last two years. Have you used these platforms and do you think they have a place in the future of tabletop games?
When the pandemic hit, my regular playtesting group continued online via Zoom. We designed new games that fit this format and it helped us to share games that other people could play similarly. I developed most of my print & play roll and write games during this period. Personally, I’ve not uploaded any of my games onto TTS or similar, primarily because of the time it takes to do so.
But I think these online platforms have been incredibly useful for designers creating heavier games, ones that need lots of balancing and many hundreds of hours of playtesting. It’s worth the time investment to upload a heavier game to an online platform. Many designers really swear by these and have had far more opportunity to playtest than they ever did before. I’m very fortunate as I live near though to attend a very active weekly platest group, most designers aren’t so lucky. The ability to test games online has enabled many designers to iterate much more quickly and test far more widely. The platforms are certainly here to stay. Though of course, nothing is as good as testing the game in the environment for which it is primarily designed. A game is more than its mechanics. One of the most important things I’m looking for in a playtest is if players are having the kind of experience I want them to have when playing. It’s far easier to pick up on nuances of behaviour if you’re in the same room.
I have to ask, why did you choose The Dark Imp as a brand name and your mischievous imp icon?
The Dark Imp character is supposed to represent a slightly subversive but ultimately lovely teenager. As parents of teenagers know, it’s challenging to manage this child who is full of hormones and bouncing off the walls. They crave independence, but can’t yet have it. There are bound to be fireworks, whether low and rumbling or dramatic and noisy. For parents, it’s so important that we remember the child underneath. When I create games, I’m creating games that I think teenagers will want to play with their families and the branding has to echo that. Everyone seems to love the Dark Imp character.
What game, that you aren’t designing, are you most excited about right now?
I missed Essen this year (due to being on crutches) and my son took his friend in my place, which was really annoying! So I’ve not been quite as exposed to the hotness as normal. Now recovered, I can’t wait to get back to conventions. I get sent games to review by Tabletop Gaming Magazine and I’m most looking forward to trying Art Decko from that stack. I also really want to get my hands on a copy of Cryo. I loved Luke Laurie’s Whistle Mountain and Cryo looks like it’s right up my street. In terms of games that I have in my collection… I’m enjoying Project L, which landed a couple of weeks ago.
Find Ellie on the internet
If you’ve enjoyed this interview then come and visit our Discord and have a chat about it. We also have regular live interviews with folk from across the UK gaming scene where you can ask questions of some of the big names in the industry. We hope to see you there.