We’ve talked at length about Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition, praising it so highly that we called it one of the best games of 2016. What gamers may not know about this incredible and beloved game is that among the incredible people who designed it are three incredible female designers. I was lucky enough to speak to game designer Nikki Valens, as well as Kara Centell-Dunk and Grace Holdinghaus (designers of the Beyond the Threshold expansion) about working on the game, the industry, and how they mindfully design and influence games to be inclusive.
It should be no surprise that Nikki Valens has a background in both the video gaming and tabletop gaming world, given the integrated and hybrid nature of Mansions. Beyond playing video games with family, she grew up in a household where Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons were also played. After high school, she completed from the Video Game Design & Development course at Brown College in Minnesota, but when she looked at opportunities that she was excited about, it became clear to her that the kinds of games she wanted to make weren’t in the video game realm. As she puts it, “The video game market had moved solidly toward online multiplayer and away from couch multiplayer. After considering my options, I decided that the hobby tabletop games market was more my speed. Fantasy Flight Games publishes not only cooperative games but also narrative and roleplaying games, all of the types of games I enjoy most and had the most experience with.”
Within the company, she worked on a number of successful projects. She co-designed Eldritch Horror and subsequently designed each of the game’s expansions. From there, as she describes, “I leaned on my experience creating video games to create the initial design and prototypes for the XCOM: The Board Game companion app which was a first step into the hybrid analogue/digital board game market for FFG. With that experience, I moved on to design Mansions of Madness Second Edition, making full use of a companion app to bring new design elements to the game that couldn’t be accomplished without it.” The innovative and thoughtful design is a hallmark of Mansions and its influence on games to come is a legacy Nikki has created.
Kara Centell-Dunk, whose design credits include designing the Beyond The Threshold expansion, as well as scenario design for Rising Tide (for the base game), as well as the What Lies Within scenario DLC, and the Dearly Departed scenario. As she put it, “I didn’t think I’d ever work in the gaming industry.” She saw a job posting from FFG for a Creative Content Developer and applied. “Now I get to work on making the things I love to play.”
Grace Holdinghaus, a Mansions team’s more recent addition, started as an FFG intern, having been a fan of many of the company’s games prior to applying. She was a solid hobby champion, having been the president of a very large and active club, The Beloit Science Fiction and Fantasy Association (BSFFA), which ran around 12 events per week including board games, LARPs and RPG pickup games. That love of hobby lead her to apply for an internship with FFG, where she did development work for Descent: Journeys in the Dark’s Bonds of the Wild expansion, which in turn lead to her being specifically hired to the Mansions team, and devloping the Beyond the Threshold expansion with Kara.
Both Kara and Grace had some interesting insights about how they thoughtfully design for diversity within the games they work on. Kara, whom Grace describes as a mentor, approaches the inclusion of women within games as important. “Often when I work on games I become very cognizant of the folks I’m putting into the games. I try to write the women I want to see in games into my games. I also, when asked to review the work of others, make a point of noting unnecessarily gendered language or a lack of representation.” She continued, “Sometimes the way a game chooses to cast a woman in it can play into tropes we see over and over again and I also attempt to point out places where the characterizations feel stronger and more original if we move away from those tropes. These kinds of notes allow for games to have characters that feel more real and well-rounded rather than a caricature gamers have seen over and over again.”
Grace talked about how narrative and story-based games lay a foundation that allows for characters variation that reflects inclusivity. There’s an intention for the creation and inclusion of specific characters: “The only NPC in Gates of Silverwood Manor (the scenario I wrote in Beyond the Threshold) is Tetsuo Mori, an Asian-American police officer, and while I didn’t specifically highlight his race within the scenario, it does help the overall representation in the line.” She reflected on influence as a designer thoughtfully including women and visible minorities in games as, “There’s more room to explore diversity than in a less thematic, abstract game.” Her commitment to diversity, as a self-identified queer female, is one that also is reflected in her aspirations for future projects: “I’d like to continue working on story-rich games.”
The truth is, we need more diverse designers thoughtfully designing games so gamers of diverse backgrounds can see themselves in the games they’re playing. The work Nikki, Kara, and Grace have done for Mansions of Madness Second Edition and the work they continue to do in their projects benefits us all as a gaming community.
Do you know game designers who thoughtfully design for diversity, accessibility and inclusivity should we feature next? Tell us in the comments.
Featured Image Credits: Fantasy Flight Games
Teri Litorco is a tabletop gaming fangirl, who happens to be female, queer, and ethnic, and loves being able to see herself in the games she plays. She has written The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming. She’s also a social media oversharer.