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How Dave Neale Makes Games


Tell us about yourself – Who are you? What do you do?
I am a writer, thinker and storyteller. I currently work practically full-time designing storytelling and mystery games, and also do some research work with the Centre for Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) at the University of Cambridge.

If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try? 
When it is released, in June 2020, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars would be a good place to start. It was the first game contract I ever got.

One fact that we probably don’t know about you:
In addition to game design I write songs, poems, and once wrote a one-act play that’s been performed worldwide.

What games are you playing most right now?
Right now is the middle of our coronavirus lockdown in the UK, which limits the possibilities! I recently managed to set up Letters from Whitechapel in such a way that it could be played over Zoom, and it worked very well. I’ve also begun dabbling in roleplaying games again recently, after a long hiatus.

What are your all-time favorite games?
Well, an obvious one is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which is what drew me into the whole modern gaming scene, and created my career as a designer when I created new cases for it. So that’s got a pretty special place in my affections. Other than that I enjoy hidden movement games (particularly Letters from Whitechapel as I mentioned earlier), games with good theme integration like Village and Alchemists, and anything with a good story.

What draws you to make games?
I find them a fascinating and versatile medium for creative expression and social interaction. I think there is still a great deal of unrealised potential in board games, and I want to explore that.

How did you get started making games? Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product?
I’ve designed games since I was a child, probably from around age 8 onwards. I didn’t take it up seriously until 2011 when I discovered an old 1980s copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and played through it all in a few months. I made some of my own cases, just for my own enjoyment, but then when I heard it was being republished I sent them to the publisher. Around a year later, they asked me to write a whole set of 10 cases, that added some new mechanisms and served as a good introduction to new players. That set is coming out in June – 8 years after I began creating it! 

 My process when making a game is normally (though not always) to start with a setting and characters, and then work out story and mechanics in tandem, as a combined unit. And sometimes I just start writing a short story in the appropriate style and in the setting, and see what comes out, then work out how that could be reflected in board game mechanisms.

How do you market your games?
By doing interviews like this .I’ve written Designer Diaries, and for my Consulting Detective set I created a letter from Holmes to Watson in 1920, which I posted online. The rest is done by the publishers.

What game-related or game business-related media do you consume on a regular basis?
I regularly browse the BGG website and sometimes Shut Up & Sit Down or Rahdo’s videos.

What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without?
A printer, a laptop, paper and pens. That’s essentially all I need. I don’t use any particularly fancy software or anything for creating prototypes – just the basic Office programs – and I often draw things by hand.

What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest? How do you find playtesters?
I playtest as soon as I have something that can be playtested and generate useful feedback. I think for most games the earlier the better, to get a good idea of what is working in general before putting in more effort. However, playtesting does have some differences with storytelling games, one being I sometimes delay playtesting because normally I can only test something once with each group – then they will know the story or solution to the mystery, so they can’t play again. That means I want it to be as close to the final storyline and experience as I can make it.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them?Plotting incredibly complex interactive narratives. I tried using software to help with this (Twine) but it can’t cope with the level of variability and multiple-state storylines I’m dealing with in some projects. So for these projects, I tackle the problem by lots of record-keeping and playing the game solo and running through different storylines myself, looking for holes and inconsistencies.

How do you handle life/family/work balance?
I don’t particularly… I mix everything up into “life”. Not sure if that’s healthy but I’m surviving so far.

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers?
Playtest as soon as possible and as much as possible.

Who would you like to see answer these questions?
Probably one of the other designers from my playtesting circle: Matt Dunstan, Brett Gilbert, David Thompson, Trevor Benjamin or Antony Proietti

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received?
Being rich means having more than you need, so there are two ways to become rich: one is to get more, the other is to need less.

Thank you so much for your insight, Dave! You can find his complete profile on Board Game Geek, check out his website, or follow him on Twitter.

If you’re interested in how video games are made as well, check out our designer interviews at Doubtful Games!

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