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Tips from the top: Board-game designer Ellie Dix

The games inventor, 44, talks devising new games in her sleep and how to stop getting board (sorry) during lockdown

Why do you love games so much?

My dad was a headmaster who turned everything into a game or a quiz. He’d generate six-digit numbers, then we’d follow the grid references for random days out. One grid reference turned out to be inside RAF Mildenhall, so we all had to walk around the perimeter fence. He once took my mother on a week’s holiday in Swepstone, Leicestershire, based on a grid reference. Meanwhile, my mother taught maths to trainee teachers and would get them to invent games, which she brought home for us kids to try – 25 at a time.

When did you start inventing games?

When I worked as a drama and maths teacher I’d invent games for my class to teach them maths. Designing games was my hobby but in 2017 I turned professional. Most board-game designers have a second, full-time job and design as a hobby. I’ve two games published, two games at the printers and, apart from producing games on place mats, I also produce a BuzzleBox, which is a selection of games that are posted every three months in a box.

How do you get inspiration?

Often when I’ve just woken up. Suddenly I’ll sit bolt upright, grab a pen and write out the idea. Often, I dream a game. The first game I produced, Don’t Count Your Chickens, was the result of a dream. It was so vivid – I played the entire game in my sleep, woke up and made the whole game that very day.

Loser: Dix isn’t keen on Monopoly

Is there a game you don’t like?

Monopoly is very ruthless and player elimination means you could be out three hours before the rest have finished, or you can be losing for a long time. If you’ve had a bad first round, it’s no fun playing a game you know you’re going to lose.

Can you play online with others during lockdown?

I am running online board games every Tuesday at 4pm that anybody can register for. I have a link that allows you to teach yourself the game. You can print out two pieces of paper, then we have online virtual dice, and I roll them and everyone plays. My first session with ten families from all over the country lasted 45 minutes, and everyone was calling out the keywords at the end. I’m doing that every week during lockdown because board games are a great way for families to be together and to wind down.

But how do you get teenagers to play board games?

You don’t shout, ‘Hey everyone, let’s play a game together.’ Instead, quietly set up and start playing the game, and your teenagers will be magically drawn to you.

What was the toughest thing about setting up as a games designer?

Creating games for fun and playing with your family, who think the same way and like the same things, is different to making it commercial, where you need to make sure the games work for different people. A mistake many people make is to just ask friends and family to play the game and give them feedback – but that way you’ll never get the harsh criticism you need. It’s so important to do lots of testing and I joined Playtest UK, which has meetings all over the country. Before lockdown there was one at London’s Royal Festival Hall every Friday and I’d go there with all my games – which now go through around 15 iterations before they come out.

What was your lowest point?

When you’ve taken a game you’ve spent a long time designing to a play test and within three minutes someone says, ‘This game is broken’, meaning it doesn’t work because you’ve got the economy wrong or it’s too easy. I had this with a game called Throw Down Your Coats, which was based in medieval times and had lords and peasants, coats being thrown but also fields of cows and crops and lots of other things happening. In a particularly crushing play session someone said, ‘You need to get rid of everything except the movement around the board – all the rest is rubbish.’ I went home feeling low, especially because of the time I’d spent on the game. But when I woke the next day I started thinking about the comment and I simplified the game – and it’s coming out later this year.

Mistakes, you’ve made a few?

Proofreading! The rule book is a complicated beast. It’s like a recipe book, and you need icons and instructions, which are tested on players and then rewritten and rearranged up to 30 times before I’ve sent them to printers. So it’s easy to make a mistake and have a typo in a word or an icon in the wrong place, and I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t proofread enough.

What’s the best way to start designing a board game?

The best way is pimping games you’ve already got. Make new cards, take a board from one game and components from another and mash them up. If you are on lockdown with the children, setting board-game design challenges is good. If they’re doing Vikings at school, get them to design a Viking game. Better still, it’s a great time for children to design a game to play with granny and grandpa on Skype.

And to launch a game?

A common way is self-publishing either using your own website or retail channels, or to launch games through Kickstarter. Watch videos, listen to podcasts and read reviews to see what’s out there, and look at Boardgamegeek, a huge database that ranks games.

Top tip

‘To sell a game to a publisher, research what sort of games they’re looking for — a bit like you would with a book agent’

The facts

Salary: A designer gets one or two per cent of the recommended retail price, which could mean 50p per game. Average earnings vary from £3,000 to £25,000 a year, with big-name designers commanding more.

Regular hours? No — most designers have day jobs and, usually, play-testing sessions are in the evenings.

Short and sweet advice: Explore an idea but always grab people to try it out.