Meeting of Minds – Yay Games

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.

I think I’ve been aware of YAY games for almost as long as I’ve been doing tabletop criticism. I have distinct memories of seeing Frankenstein’s Bodies at Conpulsion in Edinburgh many moons ago.

Since those times the company has gone from strength to strength, producing accessible games for big franchises like Thunderbirds and The Gruffalo as well as their own unique titles. Andrew Harman is the main person behind the company and he was good enough to chat with me about running the company, working with license holders, and the nature of Gateway games. 

How have the last couple of years been for Yay Games?

I’m almost certainly not the only one who has found the last few years very strange and challenging. Lockdown meant, of course, that testing out games became very difficult beyond our front door. And all the other major publishers were having the same problems, so games of mine they were looking at just stopped moving forward. And games that were scheduled to be released were messed up with supply chain issues. In a word it was all just a bit constipated. Who would have thought that my world of board games could be so affected by world wide viruses and ships getting trapped in the Suez canal? Hmmm, is there a game there?

On the brighter side, it all meant I had the chance to look at some ideas I was working on and push them forward. So now I’ve got around 35 games in various states of development.

I think the project that I have most enjoyed recently, and probably helped keep me the most sane, was developing ‘Thunderbirds: Danger Zone’ – a co-operative card game based on the original classic TV shows. It meant I had a genuine excuse to geek out on all 32 episodes. It really is great stuff. Gerry Anderson totally got it right with Thunderbirds.

How big is the Yay Games operation?

How big is YAY Games? That’s a very good question and it depends on how you look at it.

The core is just two of us – me and my wife Jenny. She does an amazing job of keeping me on track and sorting out all the stuff I don’t like, you know the accounts and tax returns and such. So, I do all the game invention, design and development work which makes us officially about 1.2 FTE. Yes, we are punching way above our weight.

But we also have our extended family of demonstrators who do an amazing job helping us out at conventions…. and then there are the play testers… and of course a growing band of people who support us by buying and enjoying our games….and people like yourself who are interested and want to talk about what we do. Much appreciated Iain.

Do you have a design philosophy that drives your games?

Er, if I say ‘Yes, I have a design philosophy’’ does that make me sound pretentious?

I think it is probably more a ‘design ethos’. I’m not sure if that’s any less pretentious.

Let’s say ‘design approach’ – that’s a bit more down to earth.

First and foremost my games have to be simple. For me the core mechanic and the way the game plays has to be as invisible as possible, so you are playing a game rather than remembering a set of rules of how to play the game. I want my games to be as intuitive as possible.

But being simple doesn’t mean that the game should be too easy, so I want to build in as many choices and crunchy decisions for the players as I can.

Take ‘Ominoes’ – it couldn’t be much simpler. Roll a die, move a die, then put a die on the board. Simple, right? But the movement of a die ( 3 spaces in any direction) suddenly opens up a whole bunch of choices – the first of which is almost always ‘should I be mean, or not?’ It’s great watching that play out in a game. When anything happens you almost always get half the players being delighted and the other half looking terrified.

One of the other things I think is important is what I call the 10% rule. If a game lasts 20 minutes I want everyone to be engaged within 2 minutes (or 10%) of that time – including rules explanation.

Oh, and colour blind friendly. I always make sure to use a combination of colour and shape. We have done this right from our first game ‘Frankenstein’s Bodies’. There has only been once I haven’t managed to do this as well as I would like and that was on ‘Connecting London’ where we made a jigsaw puzzle race game out of Zone 1 on the Underground. With such an iconic map we couldn’t mess about putting different shapes on the lines. But, I am working on another game which ever so very sneakily does use different shapes from Zone 1.  

Making games more accessible has become a big movement in the last few years. That said some publishers still ignore something as simple as colourblind considerations. What are the benefits, and challenges, for designing a game to be as widely accessible as possible?

The benefits of accessibility are clear and easy to see and in my opinion essential for every publisher/designer to be at the forefront of their game. The more you make a game accessible the more players your game will attract so the wider your audience becomes. Simple.

And strangely the game-playing audience is very interesting. In the wider population there are about 8% of males affected by colour blindness. I heard that the board game community has around 15%. So if you are looking at the most common red/green colourblindness and you are giving player red and green cubes with no other distinguishing features, well…you can see this is not as helpful as it could be. And there is an interesting knock-on effect. How many times have you played games in a dark room or pub? The lower the light the more the colours merge. Colour accessible games can be played in darker rooms.

There are other accessibility issues too, especially in gateway gaming where a larger percentage of our players are less familiar with the gaming ‘lingo’. A great example – we were at an artisan craft fair showing our games and we were showing a man, probably in his 60’s, ‘Connecting London’. We quickly realised that terms like ‘tile-laying game’ and ‘hand of tiles’ were completely new to him. So, we changed the terminology. It became a ‘jigsaw puzzle race’ and ‘your tiles’. He immediately got it and loved it so much he bought a copy. So the lesson for me is just be aware of how we present games and look to open doors to everyone wanting to join in. 

Accessibility goes way beyond this too and I’m sure there’s a PhD to be written just on breaking down barriers to enjoyment. If there’s anyone out there doing this I’m happy to help out!

I’ve seen you attending many conventions, some outside of what folk might expect a board game publisher to go to. What value do you see in showing off your games at events that aren’t traditionally games focused?

The value is spreading the word! My games sit very happily in the ‘gateway’ side of things and you don’t have to be ‘games savvy’ to get playing them. So, this means they should be interesting to people who don’t consider themselves gamers. Heading out to events outside the hobby convention world really is useful. Last weekend we went to a local artisan fair in Luton and set up next to a whole bunch of people selling scented candles and home baked cakes and jewellery and the like. In the whole day we met one couple who called themselves gamers. Everyone else, and there were hundreds of them, was just really interested in what we had. A few 30 second demos of our games and we end up with a really successful day. Yes, push your comfort zone and see what happens.

The term “Gateway game” is sometimes used in a derogatory fashion to dismiss games that more ‘hardcore’ gamers see as merely a stepping stone to the wider hobby. What do you think of that attitude and how can we as more experienced gamers help bring folk into the hobby?

I’m not sure I agree that ‘Gateway’ is used as dismissively now as it once might have been. I think quite a lot of that is due to ‘entry level’ games becoming so much more sophisticated and subtle in recent years. Once you start taking a really simple mechanic and then giving players clear and interesting choices around that, you get a very accessible and engaging game experience that can be enjoyed on so many levels. Just look at ‘Carcassonne’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’ and even ‘Dobble’ and ‘Rhino Hero’. These and many, many other ‘gateway’ games offer people who are unfamiliar with the joys of gaming a chance to experience what it is all about. And this, I think, is massively beneficial to growing the gaming community. The more people who want to play games means we all have more people to play with and more people who might well head on up to become ‘hardcore’ gamers. It’s a kind of ‘trickle-up’ effect.

As experienced games we can use ‘gateway’ games intelligently to engage new gamers. A few simple questions and we can choose, hopefully, the right game(s) to whet their appetite. If we have to play a few ‘light’ games to gain a new gaming fan then that’s a small price to pay. But ‘light and simple’ doesn’t have to be bad. I think of ‘gateway’ games as yummy little snacks to tempt people in or start the evening off nicely. After that we can step up to a main course of heavier games….but who doesn’t love a light little ‘amuse bouche’ of a game between courses.

Oh, and the other nice thing is that you can often scratch that gaming itch while the pasta cooks with a quick gateway.

You’ve made some games involving popular franchises. What is it like working with franchise holders and how involved do they want to be?

Yes, it’s been a great set of IP’s to work on – and quite eclectic too. There aren’t many people who have designed games inspired by The Gruffalo, Transport for London and Thunderbirds!

Each one is different and I find that the licence holders trust me to do my part of the job and come up with game designs that fit closely with the IP. Then we work together on keeping it ‘on brand’ for the look and feel. So, for ‘Games from the deep, dark wood’  the games had to be completely inspired by The Gruffalo and be suitable for 4 year old and up. Then just add Axel Scheffler’s fabulous art and it all worked.  

‘Connecting London’ was developed with Gibsons Games and so I didn’t interact much with Transport for London as Gibsons have the licence for that. Gibsons knew it had to be the real map and to fit with their approach to games so I knew how the game had to feel.  And then add in Harry Beck’s iconic map design and boom…it’s all good.

Then with ‘Thunderbirds: Danger Zone’ I had many in-depth talks with Jamie Anderson about what was wanted from the game and the audience it needed to reach out to. We had a graphic designer who works with Anderson Entertainment and he had access to all the screen grabs from the original 1960’s shows. The game is based on seven original episodes so he pulled out some great shots from the original footage to add a great feel and flavour. As soon as I saw Virgil on the card where he is landing Fireflash on the elevator trucks I got a shiver of excitement.

Each game project is different. Who knows what the next collaboration will bring.

What advice would you give to those looking to publish their own games?

Feel the love.

You have to love your game because it will be with you for years. And it’s a long journey from sparking that idea to pushing into publishing.

I still get a thrill explaining ‘Frankenstein’s Bodies’ to people and that was published in 2014. And I love all of the games I have had published. Seeing people switching on and getting excited by one of my designs is such a buzz.

But it is a long hard road and the market seems to be getting more crowded every year.

And of course, there’s the classic ignore-at-your-peril advice ‘Playtest, playtest, then playtest some more’.

What does the future hold for Yay Games? 

Well, world domination is just around the corner.All I need to do is just find the right corner it is hiding behind – at the right time – wearing the right pair of trousers.

Actually, it’s not really a very exciting answer – I’m aiming to do more of the same that I have been doing since 2014.

YAY Games will be bringing out new games and Andrew Harman will be designing games to work and place with other publishers. I’m in this for the long haul and I have a lot of interest from other publishers to get more of my games to market.

And there is a VERY exciting book project I’m working on with the excellent artist Andree Schneider. It’s a strange and interesting fantasy and I’m loving it – really enjoying writing again. I’m aiming to get a cracking game designed to tie in with the book and hopefully we’ll be able to reveal more at UK Games Expo this year.

What game, or games, from a UK publisher are you most excited about right now? (can be forthcoming)

I’m really pleased with what Bright Eye are doing. Such a delight that they published ‘Waggle Dance’ recently which is one of my favourite worker placement games.

I’m also very happy to see ‘Kingmaker’ working out so well. I’ve known Alan Paull a long time now and I’ve been getting sneaky peeks of his reworking of this classic and the work he and Gibsons have put in – now it’s all come together really nicely after a cracking Kickstarter campaign. It’s great.

I think UK game development is really strong right now. There’s such a great range of games coming out from both publishers and designers based in the UK.

So the message is simple – ignore politics and the bad bits of the world and get some UK games on your table. You know it make sense.


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Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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