March is National Women's History Month! Here at Peaceable Kingdom we celebrate women every day. We are taking the opportunity to highlight our female game inventors and how proud we are to have them on our team! See for yourselves why these women are so great.
Susan McKinley Ross designs colorful, family-friendly board games including Hoot Owl Hoot!, Qwirkle, Skippity, Fish Stix, and Lucky Dogs. She grew up playing games with her family and she’s absolutely thrilled that she gets to design games for families to play together.
When did you know you were interested in games?
I was always interested in games! When I was 6 years old, my family taught me to play whist, a simplified version of bridge. We often played Password or Scrabble after dinner. In sixth grade, my best friend taught me to play chess and in junior high, we bought a Go board together – from a garage sale. My husband Chris introduced me to European board games and we host a monthly game night for friends.
When did you begin designing games?
I was a toy designer when I came up with the idea for Qwirkle in 2005. I was also a gamer, and when I started working on Qwirkle, it was an intuitive leap from toy designer to game designer. That’s probably why a lot of my games have a very tactile, toy-like feel to them.
What Peaceable Kingdom games have you designed?
I designed some of Peaceable Kingdom’s first games including Monster Madness, Milk and Cookies, Spunky Monkey, and Flippity Frogs. I also designed Fish Stix and This or That. Hoot Owl Hoot! is my favorite of the games that I’ve designed for Peaceable Kingdom – although This or That is a close second. My most recent Peaceable Kingdom game is Lucky Dogs.
What do you like best about working with Peaceable Kingdom?
I love working with Peaceable Kingdom! Every visit to their office makes me happy. I love that Peaceable Kingdom does extensive play testing with families. And I love the amazing art that they add to my games.
How did the concept of Hoot Owl Hoot! begin?
Peaceable Kingdom asked me to design a cooperative game. I was excited that they were bringing cooperative games to a wider market. I wanted to design something where it really felt like everyone was working together on the same goal.
Was the game always themed for owls?
Originally, it was going to be ladybugs. But Donna Jaffe (the president of Peaceable Kingdom) asked me to re-theme it because there was already a very successful ladybug game on the market. I tried a bunch of different animals, including frogs because I thought it would be fun to have them hopping over each other. But as soon as I tried owls, it felt right. I really liked the idea of kids helping the owls get home safely. There’s something cozy and comforting about a family of owls all nested together. I also like that the owls feel safe in the forest at night because little kids are often scared of the dark, and this game is a reminder that the dark doesn’t have to be scary.
My favorite part of the game is that when the owls fly over each other, the players are supposed to say, “Hoot! Hoot!” I think this is a fun addition to the game and it reinforces the strategy of having the owls fly over each other as much as possible to get them back home quickly.
How did you feel the first time that you saw Hoot Owl Hoot! on Target shelves?
Amazed. I think the Hoot Owl Hoot! box is absolutely beautiful because of Betsy Snyder’s wonderful art. And seeing those sweet owls pop off the shelf in Target made me happy.
I did not know that Hoot Owl Hoot! would become so popular and be available in so many countries. I love the idea of families working together to get the owls home in Russia, China, Germany, and elsewhere. Peaceable Kingdom has done an amazing job of expanding the awareness of cooperative games and they’re doing it globally, not just here in the US.
If you had advice to give to young game designers what would it be?
Follow your inspiration. Work hard on your prototypes. Always try to improve your game. If you’re trying to improve your game and it doesn’t work, it is easy to go back to what you had before.
When do you find you have your best ideas?
I have had some really good ideas come from dreams and from the sleepy stage right after you wake up. I tend to worry about game design issues, and sometimes if I take a nap, I’ll come up with a new solution to try.
Can you share a bit about your game development process?
Every game inspiration has been a little different for me – I never know what will inspire me. But once I’m working on a game, I like to make a prototype right away and play it with myself a lot. And then when I think it’s interesting, I’ll play it with my mom. She has good game instincts and she’s always looking for the fun part of the game. After I play a game with her, I’ll go back to playing against myself. And eventually I’ll play it with my husband Chris. He’s a game designer, too and he’s good at spotting problems in a game. Eventually, I’ll play with my niece and nephews. And then I’ll go back to testing the game with myself, and then back to a wider circle of playtesters. Obviously, playtesting is the core of the process.
What new Peaceable Kingdom game are you most excited about?
Mole Rats in Space! I got to play a prototype of this game and I really enjoyed it. I’m a huge fan of Matt Leacock’s cooperative games. I’m really looking forward to playing the final version of the game.