Interview with Julia Schiller, Director of Cheeky Parrot Games
This is an email interview I did with Julia Schiller, the director at Cheeky Parrot Games. Cheeky Parrot specializes in affordable Family games. Read on to see what Julia thinks about inclusivity in board gaming, why board games are still relevant in our increasingly technologically inundated world, and her advice to up and coming designers and publishers.
Please give a little background about yourself.
Fair to say I’ve had a diverse and interesting life. I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland and studied anthropology and French at Washington University in St Louis. Married young and spent five years in Denver, where my son was born, then we lived in Southern California (Carlsbad) for a few years. While living there, I was (finally) diagnosed with manic depression, which started affecting me in my teenage years.
In 2000 we decided to immigrate to New Zealand; we thought it might be a better place to raise our son. I’ve never been much of a career person, but I’ve had some interesting jobs, such as personal assistant to an orthodox rabbi and teaching English as a second language and I’m a bit of a political activist. Now my son is all grown up, I’ve divorced and remarried, and I’ve been involved in the board gaming industry for seven years as a designer, publisher, and distributor.
What got you into gaming and game design?
A year or two after arriving in New Zealand, a friend introduced us to Carcassonne. I’d never seen anything like it and was blown away. After my divorce, I began attending games nights, where I discovered other Euro games. In 2011, I started hanging out more with my friend Amanda Milne and one day I challenged her, “Mandy, we like games so much, why don’t we invent some?” The naivete! But soon enough we had workable prototypes for two games, Komodo and Raid the Pantry, and people beyond our personal circles seemed to like them, so we decided to start a company and get them published, which meant working with Chinese manufacturers. In my twenties, I never would have thought there’d be days when I literally wait for my ship to come in!
What sort of games do you play?
I enjoy 30-60 minute Euros with great aesthetics. Mechanics-wise I like worker placement, hand management/set collection, deck-building… Some of my favorites are Stone Age, Tobago, Takenoko, and Citadels.
What is some of your experience in the gaming hobby and industry?
Picking up from above, after Mandy and I published our first two games, we had to sell them, so we started building a network of about 30 retailers across New Zealand. We also went on to publish three more titles together: Kenakalan, Granny Wars, and Manifest, though I decided to break away and form Cheeky Parrot while Manifest was under production. By that point it was clear that she and I wanted to design and produce different sorts of games.
“I think those of us who are really into the hobby might forget that a giant box with 470 bits can be quite intimidating for newcomers…”Julia Schiller
Tell us a bit about Cheeky Parrot Games.
Cheeky Parrot is now four years old. I wanted to continue using the skills I’d acquired with SchilMil but to build a company that caters more to the family and casual markets, publishing games that are accessible, both financially and in terms of complexity. You see your games as a way for newer players to enter the hobby. A way to bridge the gap between the more traditional board games, such as Monopoly and UNO, and more contemporary titles like King of Tokyo and Catan. What makes Cheeky Parrot’s Games a good introduction to the hobby?
I think those of us who are really into the hobby might forget that a giant box with 470 bits can be quite intimidating for newcomers, so first of all, my titles are priced between $20-30 ($14-21 US), take no more than 30 minutes to play, and are compactly packaged–this equates to being a fairly
Tell us about a few of your titles.
The one I consider my baby is Raid the Pantry, for which I was the lead designer, and then after I started Cheeky, I was able to publish a second edition with some tweaks and much improved box art. I grew up playing a lot of traditional card games like Pinochle, Hearts and rummy and with Raid the Pantry, I was trying to overcome the flaw of those games, namely that you can often predict your success based on the cards you are initially dealt. Raid is far more dynamic: you get six ingredients and three dishes to make at the beginning, which may or may not be terribly compatible, but each turn you draw an action card that can really shake things up. One of the most powerful is the Raid the Pantry card which allows you to search the entire deck of leftover ingredient cards looking for one you’ve announced (which is where probability comes into play because some ingredients are more common than others). I also wanted to make a food-themed game which brings together familiar kid-friendly foods like pizza, spaghetti, and macaroni and cheese with more exotic fare that perhaps kids haven’t heard of. Maybe playing the game will make them more receptive to trying something new. Inventing Raid has pretty much satisfied the designer in me; the games I’ve produced under the Cheeky label have been collaborations.
With Hoard, I got really lucky: a pair of Weta Digital artists had designed this little card game and self-published a few dozen copies. I happened to be visiting one of my retailers in Wellington and bought the last one. I immediately thought “this has potential” and got in touch with Tim and Beck to ask if I could tweak the gameplay and work with them to publish it under my label. Fortunately they were receptive and Hoard has gone on to be one of my best sellers, following a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016.
One of the things you are passionate about is inclusivity in Board gaming. For those who do not know what this is, what does inclusivity mean? Why is it important?
Board gaming should be something which can bring people from all walks of life together to have fun. So where there are games with characters, players who aren’t younger, physically able, straight white males should see characters depicted that could be them. Hoard was the first game where we deliberately went to town with this idea: four of the seven characters are female, two have appreciably darker skin, two are grey-haired. When I reprinted Granny Wars most recently, I retired four of the main grannies in order to replace them with women of colour–it had always bothered me that the eight main grannies were all white, but we’d crowdfunded that one on PledgeMe and those were the women submitted for the “Get your Granny in the Game” reward. We also make sure to caption all of our videos. This has gotten much easier just in the past year or so with YouTube’s captioning feature (and did you know you can download the captions you create on there? Handy to know for Kickstarter creators.) Finally, we incorporate colourblind-friendly features where we can. Not only is all of this good ethics, it seems good business sense for as many people as possible to feel good about buying and playing Cheeky Parrot games.
What are some of the issues you are addressing with Cheeky Parrot?
Probably already covered but I would like to say I believe I’m the only person in New Zealand doing what I do: working with new designers to turn their idea into a marketable product, a product which I’m then able to sell via my retailer network (and in some cases through distributors in Australia too.) I think Kiwis are especially innovative; it seems every other board gamer is working on something, but they aren’t usually aware of the practicalities involved in actually publishing a game. I’m always happy to meet and let my brain be picked and who knows? It might be the way I find my next project.
Cheeky Parrot specializes in family type games. What are some of the challenges that this sort of game brings to the design process?
I can’t really answer that one. For me it would be challenging to develop a one-hour Euro, but I seem to have a knack for fine-tuning simpler, card-based games. Some of the people I know think board games are old fashioned, and less entertaining than newer forms of gaming, specifically computer and console games. They like the automation and that they don’t have to keep track of things as closely. What would you say to those who believe board games are passé? We’re starting to learn how important it is, for example as a hedge against dementia, to engage the brain and not over-rely on technology. At the same time, there is visual and tactile pleasure to be gained in unpacking and playing with familiar components, like the moai in Tobago: it reminds me of rediscovering all our Christmas ornaments as they came out of their boxes every year. Many of us want to get away from our screens and devices and interract with each other. Board-gaming, since it provides structure, is a great way to do that, especially for shyer people. And there is such a plethora of games to choose from, I would say that people who don’t like board gaming simply haven’t found ones that click with them yet.
What is your view of board games using digital technology to “enhance” or simplify the experience?
I haven’t seen much of this but I can say I do play a few different games on BoardGameArena (handle: Schil) and it is very relaxing for the computer to show me where my legal moves are, etc. But personally, I can’t learn a new game of any complexity on there; I prefer to be taught by a human.
What sort of things should a new designer or publisher keep in mind when working on a new title?
Make sure to test it with as many people as possible and ask them to fill out a quick feedback form with specific metrics you can track as the game develops so you can see if you’re heading in the right direction.A place for written comments is obviously helpful too and it’s best to collect the folded forms in a box and look at them after the event so people feel free to be candid. Blind test toward the end to make sure your written directions are clear. Make sure your prototype is reasonably attractive or your testers will fixate on that! Do bear in mind, you can’t please all the people all the time so you need a sense of “it’s good enough”. There’s a learning curve and few designers’ first games are likely to be their best. At some point you have to go for it or move on. Unless you plan to crowdfund (and even then, you’re likely to have leftover units you’ll need to shift) do get a rough idea of what the production cost would be plus shipping to a distribution point. Multiply this landed cost by five to derive the MSRP and compare that with products of similar size and componentry. Cost constriction isn’t a bad thing; it can lead to sleeker designs and remember that too many parts can be off-putting to some potential players. With Cat Capers, James and Claire originally had a very pretty ‘move the sun across the sky’ feature to keep track of rounds; instead I killed that and simply have players load a pile of six facedown cards on each house board. They won’t forget to turn them over at the beginning of each round because they need to see what treats their cats are contending for.
What advice would you give aspiring designers and publishers?
We’re starting to see the industry consolidate around a few large players which will make it even harder for the little guy to make a go of it. I’m lucky in that I have a supportive (in every definition of the word) husband and that New Zealand is a place where it is possible to rise to the top of a field and reap the rewards. When I started Cheeky Parrot, my theory was that I needed about ten “enduring favorites” in my stable to have a viable Kiwi business but it will take many years to develop these and a bit of hit or miss on the way. In the meantime, I’ve brought in some titles by small overseas publishers to distribute–it keeps my retailers happy for me to have a good range and something new every year–but of course that’s hit or miss as well and ties up resources. I’m still working on breaking into bigger markets. I have sold three of my games through distributors in Australia, making very little money in the process, and with the help of a company called Double Exposure, we’re trying to get Hoard to take off in North America. So I’m not sure I’ve answered the question, but I’d say go in with your eyes open. Also, it’s a bit like other art forms, some designers may be one hit wonders who would be best served to sell their idea to a publisher, let them handle the logistical puzzles, and simply collect a royalty and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing their name on a box.
Do you have any advice for new gamers in general?
Be open to trying anything once. Some games might have a theme or mechanics that you’d find off-putting yet they’ll still work for you. Piece of Cake has quite a girly presentation, but it’s really rigorous and challenging, I love that one. And I enjoy For Sale even though a theme of buying and selling real estate ranging from a cardboard box to a mansion to a space station is borderline offensive to me (and makes me wonder if any other theme could have worked….) Go to board gaming events and groups so you can try before you buy or it can get expensive fast. Check out comments on a prospective game on BoardGameGeek. Work out the way you best learn how to play games: being taught (in which case you’re best served by joining a board-gaming group as they’ll always have a member or two who love teaching others), from the written directions, from videos.
What games would you suggest for a new gamer to cut their teeth on, so to speak?
Fast + Simple + Attractive is the formula I think about when I’ve run introductory sessions. So I’ll usually take along, in addition to my own titles, Tsuro, Piece of Cake, Splendor, and Gamewright titles like Sleeping Queens and Wig Out. I also have to sing the praises of Citadels: it seems to work with all sorts of groups, I think the fact that you have a fresh start with a new character each round helps.
Tell us about Flaming Pyramids.
The creator of Flaming Pyramids showed it to me at a board gaming event last year and I liked it right away. He’d been working on it on and off since he was a boy and just as Raid the Pantry is my answer to Pinochle and Hearts, Flaming Pyramids is Norbert’s answer to UNO.
What is the theme?
Players are building one pyramid together out of mainly three little pigs materials (straw, wood, stone), with a few flammable materials thrown in. However, each player is trying to get rid of their materials (tiles) first. Mayhem (collapses, fires, explosions) inevitably occurs when the placement rules are broken and a mismatched or overweight tile is placed. Crushed, burned and exploded tiles wind up back in the instigator’s pile, making it harder for them to win. Since it’s very unlikely to get through a game without any trouble, the challenge lies in taking as little damage as possible but also in taking advantage of opportunities to make it harder for your next opponent to play a legal tile.
What is the gameplay like?
It’s one of those games where you can have your perfect plan but then an opponent does something unexpected and you have to adapt. It gets more chaotic and silly with more players. I quite like it with two or three: as more turns pass uneventfully, you know the likelihood of mayhem is increasing and you just have to hope it won’t be you causing it. To harken back to Hearts, the problem tiles remind me a bit of the Queen of Spades except they can appear in your hand at any time since you only draw up and then replenish to five of your tiles. You can be sailing along smoothly, then suddenly pick up a blowtorch, which has the potential to ignite a huge part of the pyramid, so then you have to work out a way to get it down without starting a fire, or even better, to place it so your opponent might have to put something flammable next to it!
Why are you excited about this title?
I’ve only grown more excited about it since my first game with Norbert, as I see how other people are reacting to it. Compared to my other titles, on the surface it is a bit of a harder sell, since it’s basically abstract and there isn’t lots of eye-catching artwork, but I know it will fit in beautifully with my range while also increasing its diversity (it will be the first “shedding” game we publish, or “moulting” as I prefer to say, LOL.)
When is it coming to Kickstarter?
We tried Kickstarting it earlier this year but