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Breakout Con 2023: Board Game Designing Secrets with Canadian Designer Connor McGoey

From March 17th to 19th, Toronto hosted its largest Tabletop and RPG convention, Breakout Con. Attendees from all over Canada spilled into the venue halls to try out new releases, participate in tabletop tournaments, and play casual sessions with other hobby enthusiasts. I chatted with a Thunder Bay based designer from company Inside Up games about the process of designing board games from scratch, running tabletop company, and what connection music has with the world of Board Gaming.

Shawn Gouralnik: Tell me a bit about yourself and your company

Connor McGoey: Yeah, for sure. So I'm Connor McGoey, head of Inside Up Games, a company I started in 2016. At the time, I was doing my first game, which is called Summit the Board Game that we Kickstarted in 2016 and came out in 2017. Then after I just kept going so we are now up to 14 titles, we've grown to have an office with three Canadian employees and then we have 2 American employees. Now we're in Toronto finally supporting the local scene and showcasing Sean’s game Terminus which is a game we designed and created and has been played by a lot of people in the Toronto board game community over the years. We are also here for Block and Key, a game which came out last year.

SG: I know there are a lot of publishers that stick to one theme and are experts in one type of game, for example Euro games or RPGs. What would you say that your company is known for?

CM: That's a good question. Actually, one of the things that's specific to when I started the company was not focusing on one thing, I don't just like one type of game I literally will play any game which I think is fun. So as dumb as it might sound, I’m literally just searching for “Fun”. There isn’t just one thing that I look for, and I actually look for diversifying our company’s games. The idea that someone comes into the room [at a convention] and sees all the variety of the games we offer might increase the chance that a game will grab their attention

SG: With such a wide variety of board game designs (Aztec, Gladiator) available, is it hard to keep track of all of the different ideas you want to incorporate as a designer?

CM: There are two answers. When I design a game personally, which is happening less often as I turn towards the publishing aspect of the business, I am really trying to find a good marriage between the mechanics of the game and the theme. It’s not always a necessity, like when I’m playing Chess, I’m not worried about the theming of war and Kings and Queens. Whereas when I’m playing a board game, especially when the game is incorporating a theme into it’s gameplay, it has to feel like what you’re doing is actually what you’re trying to do. So when it comes from my design point, I try to make those things come together. So when another game is being pitched to me, it either needs to attract me right away with the mechanics of the game, otherwise the first thing my brain is saying is “Man, I don’t like the way they’ve done this, but if the mechanics are good, let’s try to do it with another theme that makes sense”.

SG: One aspect of board game design which immediately strikes me is the tactile element, and that board games which stick out tend to pop right off the surface of the table

CM: That’s right, something we call table presence

SG: Right, so how do you make your game stick out in the slew of games available here at the Con?

CM: One of the things we try to do is something you already mentioned which is the look of our games. We try to make our games attention grabbing. I have to give credit to the designer of Block and Key. I met (WHO) at a convention in the states and he explained the concept to me and in 30 seconds my brain latched onto it and I was hooked. And while we were running the game at the convention I noticed the reaction of people walking by, the number of people walking by and rubbernecking, asking “Woah, what are you guys playing”. So when we actually go to other conventions, running booths with thousands of other people, we actually take the game and place it on the far end of the table so when people walk by we create the same effect. Because, you’re right, board games are 3d, you’re rolling dice, you’re sitting around the table, you’re creating that atmosphere and environment, but [David Van Drunen] takes it to the next level.

SG: To circle back to games you’ve developed yourself, do you prefer working with games that are language independent?

CM: If you would’ve asked me back in the day, outside of Summit, as Summit was the first game I did, and it’s a beast of a game, I designed Summit purely around the game itself. As a board game player, around things I knew I enjoyed and wanted to improve upon, and without any knowledge of how to put together a game at the factory. This includes the number of cards needed in a sheet in a standard order depending on the type of card, the size of the dice, and other little things I’ve learned over the years. Summit was purely done from a purely “what do I think is good for the game”, and not from a cost standpoint.

Unfortunately, because I became a publisher from now on, everything I learned since publishing Summit makes me ask, what’s that gonna cost… so things can change a lot from the initial design, what you see, what you want to do with the game, and where the game is gonna go. The reason I bring that up is that after I did Summit, I wanted my games to be more accessible. And my whole time I’ve aimed at creating games which are language independent, and they just have a multilingual rulebook. That seemed like a good thing, but what I’ve learned over the years is that it's actually not that helpful, because as a small company, especially years ago, our penetration into small markets was minimal, so I didn’t have a good reach into the German or French markets. So it didn’t make sense for me to be doing [multilingual rulebooks] in-house. I now work with localization partners, so that other publishing companies around the world reach out and let us know they’d like to make the game in their language. It’s more cost effective this way.

SG: As I mentioned before, we’re from the campus Radio Station is always looking for a way to connect music and other forms of art. I’m not sure if this thought process goes through during your design phase, but do you ever have music in mind as you design a board game?

CM: If you go to, it’s a music board game platform with curated playlists that match the theme of the game you’re playing. There are a couple of companies that have also included soundtrack digital downloads with their games. In terms of the games we published, and this part might make you as sad as it made me, last year we published a game called Draft and Write Records, a music based game where you are tasked with, well, writing records. And it was by a designer from Portugal, Bruno Masiello, and he pitched it to me originally with a different theme. We played it and loved it, but thought to change the theme to dressing a full band, with a lead singer, guitarists, organizing tours, etc. But it didn’t blow up the way we wanted to, and our localization partners told that that music games don’t sell. And we still tried to push the game through because the mechanics were great, like when you are trying to build harmony between your band members for bonus points, people love the dopamine hits you get from synergies like that. We just weren’t sure where the thought process that music games don't sell comes from seeing as though there aren’t many on the market at all.

SG: As an outsider, there are some obvious themes that sell well, Space for instance, fantasy games. Are there any themes that sell well that an outsider wouldn’t realize?

CM: You basically nailed the main themes. It’s a lot easier to theme a game in space or fantasy when the goal is to wipe out your opponent’s species, for instance, and for good reason. However, at the con, we’re playtesting a mass multiplayer game called Shank, which is set in Prison. There are groups of saboteurs, gaurds, prisoners, and others. There are search guards that allow me to reveal your inventory to me, for instance. Last week we got it up to 38 players, and today it’s looking like we have 50 players. But what we found is that this is an incredibly hard theme to sell. It’s hard to convince people that they want to be prisoners trying to eliminate each other… It’s not exactly widely accepted in the market. It’s something to think about, how much easier would it be to sell this game if it’s set in a space prison?

SG: You reminded me about a story of Martin Scorcese finishing Taxi Driver and finding out that it was rated X. He’s starting to really lose his mind as he feels this is his magnum opus, and someone randomly suggests that they just tone down the shade of the blood by a couple of notes darker in the post edit. That single edit brought Taxi Driver an R rating. So thanks a lot for taking to us, I appreciate all the connections we’ve made over the course of this interview learning about the nuances of game design!

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