Q&A with Nikki Valens

This is an archive of the live Q&A with Nikki Valens hosted on the Tabletop Mentorship Program Discord channel after the release of Nikki's talk, "Creating Representation for Marginalized Groups." It has been edited for clarity.

Mike Belsole: Hi, Nikki! Thanks for doing this Q&A! To get the ball rolling, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Nikki Valens: Hey folks! I'm Nikki Valens (they/them). Designer of Quirky Circuits, Legacy Dragonholt, Mansions of Madness Second Edition, and others. I'm a non-binary trans woman and I'm autistic. You can follow me on Twitter (@valens116). Happy to answer your questions today!

Brian Nygaard: Hi Nikki! I was recently diagnosed with autism as a 32 year old, around the same time I decided to start work on representation and accessibility. I've been wondering what steps I can take to create accountability now, at the foundational stages of my development. What can you build into a mission or vision statement that makes it clear that representation is a goal from the start, and not just for show? (Mansions of Madness 2nd ed was a big influence for me, by the way!)

Nikki Valens: Hi Brian. Gratz on your diagnosis. I hope it's helped you learn about yourself. I know it really helped me to understand my needs and limits once I was diagnosed.

Regarding representation being genuine or performative, I think they best we can all do is to be open and honest. The reality is we're all learning and growing as people every day. It's important to do what you can, but just as important to acknowledge if you've made mistakes and learn from them.

Saying the words is important to show others your values. And following through and making sure your creation benefits the marginalized groups your focusing on is what makes it real.

Brian Nygaard: When designing a TTRPG where identity, narrative agency, and consent are often at play, do you think a behavioral model could test for potentially harmful content? Do you think you can test mechanics for points that require a safety tool?

Nikki Valens: I don't think I understand what you're asking. In general, I think safety tools are very important for TTRPG where social dynamics can be strained more. I personally view TTRPGs as a way to examine myself and social structures. I've learn much about my gender and autism through experimentation within a game. And I'm glad I've been able to play with players i trust and those safety tools were available for myself and others to use.

Breeze G: What are your favorite mechanics / genres to design?

Nikki Valens: Hi Breeze, It's pretty hard for me to pick a favorite of anything. I like what I like and my interests shift day to day. (I imagine that's true for all of us in some capacity.)

I tend to enjoy mechanical systems that have enough depth that they have more than a surface level of learning. Playing a game and part way through realizing a strategy I hadn't thought of at the outset is a very good emotional stimulation and what I enjoy about games most other than the social dynamics.

Breeze G: Neat! What'd you do on mansions of madness? I'm a hired dev on a big box app-tied campaign game rn and it's pretty daunting.

Nikki Valens: Big games are very daunting, especially those with digital components. I was the lead designer and vision holder for Mansions. So everything from the earliest concept to the technical language of the rules was under my focus. Naturally such a large project had others involved, there were writers, other devs, and the digital devs working on the project. I also programmed the initial version of the app. (for the base game. i wasn't directly involved with the expansions)

Breeze G: What big lessons did you learn from tying an app to the game?  Any weird logistical things? Both me and the publisher have never made one of these before.

Nikki Valens: Yeah, digital is an odd realm for board games in that it has to be used a bit differently than other components. But that's my biggest take away: a digital component is just that, a component. Just as your game can use cards, tokens, dice, etc. it can use a digital component. Not all games need each of these different types of components, and a design should strive to only use what it needs.

One specific challenge for digital components is watching input and output very carefully. In a board game, moving a mini/meeple/pawn is both input and output. (You input a new location, and all players now see the new location as output.) But with a digital component, you need to some how make sure the app has the game information it needs. When this results in needing to input information twice (once to move the physical piece, and once to tell the app where it is) the component becomes tiresome to use. Players don't like repeating themselves.

Breeze G: This is really insightful, thank you. In regards to making a campaign-style games, one of the biggest challenges I've found is keeping the game fresh enough to come back to after a few sessions. What are your thoughts on what a multi-session game needs?

Nikki Valens: This is a pretty hard question for me personally. Whenever players have requested campaigns of my game designs, I've struggled to understand what they're asking for.

I think of the campaign style games that keep me invested, they all have very engaging core game loops that I actively want to engage with. I'm happy to keep playing Gloomhaven for instance, because I really enjoy the hand management aspects of its core game loop (even if I have many criticisms of the game's other mechanics).

Pearl: How did you first get into designing games, and in your experience, how has the industry changed with wider society e.g. covid, social movements etc.?

Nikki Valens: Hi Pearl. I've been fascinated by games for as long as I can remember. I played video games, board games, and card games from a very young age and in my alone time I would often design my own fan content for the games I liked. (things like drawing Mario levels on graph paper)

I continued making my own game designs into middle school where I started making RPG systems to play with my friends and then into high school learning programming and making games for computers. I graduated with a BS in Game Design and worked with some start up companies in the video game industry before getting hired at FFG as a board and card game designer.

As far as social movements, I've seen the industry improve in both the player base and the professional industry, but we certainly have a long way to go still. Many people on both sides of the creator/player divide still don't believe there is a problem, in part because there's just not enough representation and opportunities for marginalized creators and players.

Angelo Nikolaou: Nikki, do you generally design theme first or mechanics first? How important do you think the distinction is?

Nikki Valens: Hi Angelo. This is a really common question and it's almost become a meme when designers respond with "i design experience first", but that's really just an easy way to say, they're all related.

Different designs have different needs and focuses at vision. But ultimately, how they all fit together it what creates the "Experience" of the game. Game moments and player reactions tend to be what I focus on most.

Robyn Unfred: Nikki, you and I have a lot of surface-level things in common (except you might be a lot more talented than me). I know a little bit of programming, and sometimes I think of board game rules as very simple code that is executed manually by the players. Do you think this is a useful comparison? Or will it only hinder the creation of player-friendly rules?

Nikki Valens: Hi Robyn. Thank you for the compliment, but I like to believe there's no such thing as talent, only experience and training. We're all capable of greatness.

I think your assessment is very accurate. Game rules are essentially simplistic computer code and game loops. On one hand, that "game code" needs to be frugal with computations (grindy mathy stuff) because most players don't enjoy that and doing it can grind the game play to a halt. But humans are incredible at a lot of things that computers can't do. Finding those places where the "human computers" that compile your game code can resolve things faster than a computer will lead to some great game moments and designs.

Robyn Unfred: Thanks! Sorry about the self-deprecation; it was just a joke to keep myself humble despite comparing myself to a successful designer. :)

Nikki Valens: Haha, no worries. I understand many people use self-deprecation as a coping mechanism. I just also like to remind people that they too can succeed.

Robyn Unfred: Yeah, I just need to remind myself and others that I don't really mean it. I know some people talk themselves down and really mean it, and I know that's not healthy! So I should be careful not to fall into that trap. :)

Okay, a follow-up question: In my game you draw dice from a bag, roll them, and then place then on specific spots on the board. Procedurally, this restocking mechanism is starting to feel like a daunting process. I'm thinking of simplifying it by introducing a component: a dice tower that lines the dice up when they come out. Does this sound like a clever solution, or a needless one?

Nikki Valens: It's interesting for sure. I think a bit advantage of placing them on specific spots of the board is being able to keep them positionally with the effects they relate too. But if that aspect isn't that important, using a components like a dice tower where the dice just naturally line up is very convenient and helps keep the game moving.

If you could find a way that the tower can release the correct number of dice, you also eliminate the need (and time) to dig into a bag for dice. Aside from the physical challenges, that also might have other consequences though, like dice tend to come out in the same order (if there different kinds of dice)

Robyn Unfred: I should clarify that I'm not removing the spots on the board; just wanting to do away with some minor player decisions that aren't fun. :) Your suggestion sounds difficult but I've seen Potion Explosion accomplish it. Maybe if I pitch this successfully the publisher will have suggestions about creating a unique component with cardboard. I am eager to follow your Twitter!

Nikki Valens: If you end up making something like that, tell me about it. I love physical mechanism stuff like that.

Robyn Unfred: Haha, sure! I do some hobby stuff with foam core but I'm not sure how to translate it to tabletop-grade cardboard. I'm going to follow you now so I'll know where to find you!

Mike Belsole: And that's it folks! Thank you so much for doing this Q&A, Nikki! It was wonderful to have you here.

Nikki Valens: Of course! Thanks y'all. I hope I could help. Feel free to follow my on Twitter (@valens116). I'm happy to respond to questions now and then on Twitter. And I just tweet about my design thoughts from time to time unprompted.

Brian Nygaard: Thank you so much!

Pearl: Thanks for your time Nikki!