I met a lot of wonderful people at Playcrafting’s Fall Expo. One of the first people I spoke with—the first person I saw through the door, in fact—was a lovely woman named Emma Larkins. Emma was showing off her upcoming casual card game Heartcatcher, and I wanted to interview her about it. She was kind enough to give me some of her time, explain the game, and let me take some pictures.
And then disaster struck. For one reason or another, the recording of our interview was a complete mess. I still don’t quite understand it—we were in a relatively quiet area and there shouldn’t have been any problems with the microphone pickup—but most of the conversation was unfortunately lost to the digital aether.
When I explained the situation to Emma and asked if she would be willing to have a do-over she very graciously agreed. We had a really enjoyable conversation about her game, Playcrafting, and what it’s like to be a tabletop game developer in New York City.
TechRaptor: Okay, so let’s start with your name, the company you work for, and what you were showcasing at Playcrafting.
Emma Larkins: My name is Emma Larkins. I work for myself, don’t have a company yet. The game that I was showcasing is Heartcatcher.
As an aside, Emma asked me to note that in the time between when this interview took place and the time of publication she started a job as Community Manager and PR of Dreamsail Games.
TR: So your game Heartcatcher. Run me through the basics. What’s the goal of the game, how does it play? Give me the conversation you probably gave about 500 times at Playcrafting.
EL: Ah, the spiel. So Heartcatcher is a casual competitive two person bluffing game. There are twenty cards in the deck. It’s really quick to play. Usually at most ten minutes. You can get it down to five although some people think a lot about the details so it can take longer as well. You have a set of cards with different colored hearts on them and they catch each other in a rock-paper-scissors mechanic. The cards are layed out in a field of six, all face up, three on each side. There’s two players. Each person gets to own three cards on one side. At the end of the game they’ll be scored on the three face-up stacks on their side but during the game they can play with cards across the field. They also have a hand of three cards and they’ll play from that hand. They can choose to put a card down on their side of the field and at the end of the game they get a point for every face-up card on their side of the field. They can also choose to steal any of the stacks on their opponent’s side.
That’s basically it except there are some cards that have special abilities. So, at any time you can choose to play a card from your hand face down and perpendicular to any stack on the field and it’s a Secret. At the end of the game all the Secrets are revealed. Some of the special effects include Ultimate Love (which will add three points), Heartbreaker (which subtracts three points), and Change of Heart (which will swap two decks directly across from each other. A lot of little devious things you can do in there. It’s a very tricky game. I like it when people cackle for the Secret plays that they have done to trick their opponents.
TR: Now when you say a very tricky game was that like a Bridge/Spades pun or was that entirely unintentional?
EL: Oh, I don’t know those games well enough. Like trick-taking. I wouldn’t call it a trick-taking game. I don’t know if that’s what you’re referring to.
EL: I think “tricksy” is actually the word I’m thinking, like Gollum. Like tricksy and false.
TR: Tricksy hobbitses.
EL: Yes, “deceptive.”
TR: Three cards on the field on each side—so six on the field—and three in each player’s hand. So that’s twelve cards total if I did my math right (which I think I did) and also (if I did my math right) that’s eight cards that are completely out of play. When that hand completes is that like the entire game right there? Is it a one hand game or do you play in rounds? How does it work?
EL: You do one action per turn. You can either place the card on the correct color in front of yourself (giving yourself a point). You can steal one of the stacks your opponent has and swap it with any of the stacks on your side. Or you can play a face-down card as a Secret. Once you have done that you draw back up to three [cards in your hand] and you play until the cards in your hand and the pile are exhausted.
TR: Hm. So it is more than just the one hand.
TR: And roughly how long does it take to complete a game of Heartcatcher from start to finish?
EL: I say ten minutes. Usually that’s when I’m first teaching people—it takes a little longer—but you can finish a game in five minutes or less if you’re really speeding through it.
TR: So as [I] said in the original [lost] interview [it’s] the perfect kind of game for sitting around in a line at a convention or something like that. Just plop on the floor and play a hand real quick.
EL: Yeah, absolutely.
TR: I’ve spent my fair share of time sitting around in the same spot in line for an hour and change on end. And those lines—anyone who’s ever been to any kind of anime convention or gaming convention—they don’t do the whole “one person in at a time, line moving” kind of thing when you’re waiting to get into a room. Everybody just gets in line and just waits for like an hour. Then they open the doors [and] then they filter people into the room. So you’ve got an hour to kill and you can’t move.
EL: And it’s great, too, ’cause it’s a two-player game and it’s actually surprisingly social. So you start getting people kinda watching you and then you can switch it up. Play another round with someone else. You can kind of start having conversations with people as the game is going.
TR: Yeah and it doesn’t seem … I’ve met more than a few developers who had games that were very simple. Your game, too, is a simple game. There’s elegance in simplicity, [especially] if one of the things you’re going for is a game that’s easy to pick up and can be played really quickly. Simplicity is essential. That’s a big credit towards [Heartcatcher]—it’s just so easy to figure out all the basics of the game and just get a game done real quick.
EL: I like to say that it has emerging complexity. People have actually likened it to poker in some cases. You start getting into this, like … mind meld? Where you’re trying to see into the mind’s eye of your opponent.
TR: The meta-game. The game outside of the game. Every game has some element of that, but your game is specifically one of those games where it’s really important.
TR: Are you currently in the prototype phase? Are you in the production phase? Where’s the game currently at in terms of when it’s gonna be available for people to buy?
EL: I’m about halfway between prototype and production. I’m working with a publisher, Brooklyn Indie Games, so we’re all set to move forward. The mechanics are all set. I’m gonna be working with an artist who [the publisher is] going to be picking. At this point [I’m] just waiting to get some finalized art and get the cards produced. It should hopefully be releasing [at the] beginning of next year.
TR: Okay, so I have to ask—so you’re saying the art that’s on the cards that’s in your press kit and that I saw at Playcrafting? That’s not the final art?
EL: No. We’re gonna be working with an artist to make it. I’m not going to discuss the theme just yet but my publisher had a really cool idea for a theme that I’m totally behind so we’re gonna get some exciting stuff.
TR: Who was it that did the art that you’re using in your demo version of Heartcatcher.
EL: [I designed] the original art.
TR: I have to say, aesthetically speaking it looks really nice. I thought that was your “pretty much ready for production” prototype ’cause it looks really good. It looks like something you’d pick up off a store [shelf]. I wouldn’t think, “Oh, this is something somebody [cranked] out in [Microsoft] Paint in 15 minutes. It looks really nice, so I’m thinking, “Why are you hiring an artist? The art’s done!” At least, to me.
EL: Thank you! I do have a little bit of background in design. I studied design in school and took a lot of Photoshop classes. I don’t do it on a regular basis so it took me a long time to actually get it to where I was even a little bit happy with it. And then I – I agree but I’m also kind of a perfectionist.
TR: Oh, preaching to the choir here.
EL: [laughs] So I feel like with a theme and with a professional artist it will just “pop” that little bit more. It’s so cutthroat that every little bit of edge can help.
TR: Absolutely. I think the board game and/or card game that you can fit in your pocket and play in under ten minutes … that element of tabletop is actually (from the little bit that I know about it)—I mean, I’m not a huge tabletop nerd but I know more than [stuff like] Monopoly—that section of the market for well-designed games is generally not huge compared to the rest of it. Tabletop tends to skew towards more, like, “This game takes seventeen hours to play! People will die!” Not like “Eh, it’ll be done in a couple of minutes.” Most [tabletop] games are on the heavier end just because tabletop and card games are usually such a huge investment in time and money. So they usually go big and you’re coming at it from the other direction. You’re going small.
EL: Yeah. It’s absolutely true. There aren’t a ton of small games. There are some developers who are doing some interesting stuff in the genre. There especially aren’t a lot of two player games because publishers almost always want-
TR: “Two to four players!”
EL: “Two to four players,” yeah! Because it’s easier to spread and get more people to play. I was really lucky that my publisher was particularly looking for a two player game. [They were] very much behind that. [They] didn’t say, “Hey, is there a way that you make it expand to four players?” It’s a niche and we’re kind of exploring it. So it’s gonna be interesting to see.
TR: I suppose the next thing I have to ask—would this happen to be the first game that you’ve created or are you one of those people that has always made games and stuff while you were coming up? ’cause a lot of board game designers talked about stuff where they’ll get piecemeal little dolls and they’ll draw out a game board on notebook paper. Most people that make games—any kind of games, board games, digital games, whatever—their first commercial game is rarely actually their first game. They’ve tried their hand at it before in a really sloppy way. Nobody’s first painting is hanging in a museum. Since you’re a perfecionist I’m sure you must have a pile of stuff you’ve worked on buried in a closet somewhere that you be horrified if you ever went through it. ’cause I have that.
EL: I definitely fit that mold. For me it was mostly as a kid [stuff like] playground games and make-believe games. I was the oldest sibling and I would always be like, “Oh, you know, we’re not just gonna play tag, we’re gonna play, like, “super jungle gym lava monster tag”. And I’d come up with all these new rules to add to the game and make it more interesting. So, um… kind of an early introduction to…
TR: Well, if you look at it in terms of video games, that’s game modding and that’s how a lot of developers start out.
EL: Yeah, absolutely! And I did a little bit of digital stuff as well when I was younger. When I was younger I played with the Logo stuff. Little turtle programming language. And also in college I did a little bit of that stuff. Modding as well. I worked a bit in Starcraft mods. Like a very, very little bit. Yeah, so I’ve always pretty much been working on games.
TR: Generally speaking, in the gaming world just as players women tend to be the minority [when you exclude mobile and social network gaming]. Now on the designer side I would argue it’s an even greater minority [of women]. What got you into designing games [which appears to be] generally outside the norm for your gender? And I feel really crappy asking this-
TR: -but [as a journalist] I’d be remiss if I didn’t. It’s interesting to me when you were saying before, “Oh yeah, I did Starcraft mods and [I designed a card game and this and that]” the only thing that was popping through my head was, “I know no women like this and I know an awful lot of women that weren’t remotely interested in any of this stuff.” So please explain to me what your legacy was like—what got you not only into gaming but into designing games?
EL: Yeah, sure. I think the reason why you do see things like that is because people share interests and, oh man, I could go into a half hour spiel about why the [gender] segregation exists [in gaming]. But you know, in general when we were younger guys tended to play with guys [and] girls [tended to] play with girls. That is a combination of culture and marketing. Games were marketed towards guys. You know, honestly I follow that mold. My dad was a computer programmer so he brought a computer home when I was very young and he put games on it. And later on my brother would buy games. He started with all the Blizzard games, early Warcraft, Starcraft, and I just glommed onto those. The strategy involved in those games was just fascinating to me.
TR: So [it wasn’t an absurd situation like] you tripped and hit your head and all of a sudden you loved video games?
TR: You saw something that interested you and you got into it.
EL: Yeah. It was weird. I didn’t feel like I could purchase the games. And a lot of that had to do with marketing and it’s sad that games were marketed like that back in the day. But as soon as they were in my home, you know – my brother had two sisters.
TR: That’s something that popped out to me—why did you feel that you couldn’t purchase games? Was it just, like, “This is a toy for boys” and you just didn’t feel comfortable buying it? Incidentally, how old were you when you were feeling like this?
EL: It was weird because it was so unconscious. It’s only now looking back that I have realized it.
TR: You realized that you didn’t buy it because it just wasn’t marketed to you?
EL: I feel like the cultural programming was just so powerful. I would play Warcraft and I loved it [but] I wasn’t consuming the media where the next game was talked about. I never looked at a magazine and [said], “Oh, I feel like this magazine is for me.” In the magazines back in the day, that’s [where they talked about upcoming video games].
TR: Yeah, I’m sure [back then] they weren’t talking about World of Warcraft in the sort of magazines young women would have been reading at that time. You know, saying that … it’s the first time I’m thinking about, like … traditionally, the women’s spaces and the things that most women would probably end up reading … I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything video game or technology-related flat-out ever advertised in any of [them].
EL: Mm-hmm. And to be fair, I would conisder myself a tomboy growing up. I wasn’t reading Cosmopolitan or Seventeen or whatever the girly magazines back in the day were. I would read like the Disney Adventures one with the comics in it. But there was that certain boundary where it was like… I love the games, I was happy when my brother brought home Warcraft II, but there was just something where it didn’t come into my sphere.
TR: I read [Disney Adventures] too, by the way. Those were awesome.
EL: I know, right? Oh, and like the science magazines like Ranger Rick and that kind of stuff.
TR: I, hm … I’ve got about half a dozen follow-up questions in my mind and I’m struggling to figure out which one to go with so I guess I’ll go with an easy one. How much money do you figure game developers have left at the table [over the years] because they just didn’t even think to spend a little money advertising to [girls and women].
EL: Honestly, I’ve done a lot of research and started to write some articles on the subject. The traditional marketing wisdom is that you throw up some ads and you find the response. [You might find out] 60% of males responded to [your ad] and only 40% of females and it’s capitalism, right? So you’re focusing your marketing dollars. And you play up the aspects that tend to appeal more to the more profitable demographic.
TR: So it’s not even that [girls and women] didn’t respond to it at all in the research that you’ve done, it’s just that they were a smaller amount as opposed to [boys and men] so they just put the money where it would be most effective.
EL: Yeah it’s a reinforcing cycle. The way the market segmentation work. Okay, we start to tell these groups they’re different from each other. So we want to make the guys feel special and important and separate and different for all these traits that we’re trying to [associate with masculinity] like being brave and being soldiers. So they’re playing all that up and it reinforces the cycle. It’s a marketing trick. You make a lot of money that way, [but] now we’re seeing the different problems – Wii tends to market a little more heavily towards women – and it is profitable. But it’s hard to say. It’s hard to go back in time and say, like “Oh, if [they had just spent the money] totally equal this whole time…” Marketing is just so much about building that desire, right?
EL: Unfortunately the tactics they use suck, but they work.
TR: How did you get involved with Playcrafting?
EL: So, I moved to New York a few years ago and I started going to a ton of meetup events as a way to get to know people because I knew absolutely nobody in the city. I always enjoyed games so I started attending the events. And then when I did a Kickstarter for my science fiction book [Mechalarum] I approached them and I’m like, “Hey, can I do a Crowdfunding for Games panel?” kind of tangential marketing. They said yeah and then eventually I was the community manager for the group for a few months in 2014.
TR: Community manager for one of the independent groups or community manager for Playcrafting?
EL: For Playcrafting. It was called The Games Forum back then.
TR: How did you find [these] independent gaming groups? [I’ve been looking for groups like this for a while and I’ve had a difficult time finding them.]
EL: Yeah, well, New York City is sadly a little bit of a wasteland compared to other places [in terms of gaming communities]. I feel Boston has a little bit more of a tabletop community. A lot of the midwest have just really awesome tabletop communities. And then of course California for the digital stuff.
TR: Okay, let’s fast forward a year or two. Heartcatcher comes out, smash success, and you retire to a nice mansion in [upstate] New York. What’s the next step for you? What are you gonna do after Heartcatcher is completed and [on the market]?
EL: Oh man, I have all sorts of projects I’m working on. Game-wise I already have two prototypes I’m working. One [of them] I just came up with a couple weeks ago that was surprisingly successful. Another one I’ve been working on with my boyfriend who’s also a game designer. The good and bad thing about being a game designer is that you need to really pump stuff out if you want to make any sort of a living off of it or hope to have any sort of success with it.
I’d like to thank Emma for taking the time to talk with me. Our first interview at Playcrafting was fantastic, and she took the time to do it all over again after the audio turned out to be unusable. I had a great time speaking with her and I’m looking forward to her game coming out!
What’s your favorite casual tabletop or card game to kill time with? Have you ever made a board game of your own? Let us know in the comments below!