Nathan’s Passion: Designing board games that create moments
By day, Nathan Thornton is a writer and an executive creative director at Ologie. By night (and sometimes also by day), Nathan Thornton is a board game designer. He and his business partner, Danielle Deley, are the creators behind Storm Chaser Games.
Together with a former colleague, they spent two years ideating, designing, testing, and doing that whole process repeatedly until their first board game, called Medium, was published in fall 2019. How does someone even get into designing board games? Here’s Nathan to tell you how.
Raina: What inspired you guys to create Storm Chaser Games?
Nathan: It started off by playing games just like I did as a kid. And when my own kids got old enough to start playing games, it was something that we could do as a family. Because I feel like most people are looking for ways to get their kids off of screens and to be off screens themselves — games are something that you can do together and stay focused on. Then at the same time, when I was traveling for Ologie, I would pack games with me. The team would play them at the hotel, in the bar, or whenever we had downtime in the evenings.
I’ve always been a person who believes that the process of work should have as much fun and enjoyment in it as possible. And I definitely feel like there’s a lot of crossover between the ways that people interact during games, during improv, and during the creative process. Those are all closely related. It’s about establishing trust. It’s about setting up guidelines and rules (to the extent that there are rules), and then seeing what can happen once you’ve created that space.
So how was Medium conceptualized?
Occasionally during lunchtime at Ologie, we would play games, and sometimes we would have three or four of us playing a board game together. The other activity that we would do during those lunchtime game sessions would be an improv exercise that I learned when I was in college. I think we called it “mind meld” or “say what I say.” I would go up to Danielle, or to anybody, and ask, “Hey, do you have a word? Do you have a word?”
We would count down — “three, two, one” — and then we’d each say a word. Maybe I would say “canoe.” She would say “ribbon.” The purpose of the exercise was then to take the two words that you said, and then try to figure out a word that connects the two.
Then you repeat the same process again and again until you both say the same word. Sometimes it would take 15 attempts to match a word. Sometimes you never would. One day I was playing soccer with my son and it occurred to me: what if that was the game?
“I’ve always been a person who believes that the process of work should have as much fun and enjoyment in it as possible.”
What if you only had a certain number of words to choose from? And the cards in your hand became the game? I texted Danielle, and she said that sounded cool to her. Then we started prototyping.
The biggest part of turning it into a game was figuring out what the rules were, and how to take that fun moment of when we both count down from three and end up saying the same word — how to take the joy that comes from there. How do you turn that into something you put in a box so virtual strangers can have that same experience?
How long did it take to design Medium, and what’s the feedback been like?
It’s such a simple game. It would seem like it would take little to no time, but it really did take a long time. A lot of board games are launched via Kickstarter, and that was originally our plan as well — we made a prototype, and we tried to get the word out. We took it to different board game events, to conventions and things like that.
There’s a big convention in Columbus each June called Origins. We took it there, and they have a room called the “unpub room” for unpublished games, where you can have others play and give you feedback. We were playing Medium with some people, and afterwards, one of them came up to us and said, “Hey, I know that you were planning to do this as a Kickstarter and self-publish it, but I work for a board game publisher, and we would love to publish Medium.”
Our first reaction? Wow. That ended up being a huge relief, because I didn’t realize that so much of making a board game is not the creative part — figuring out what the art is going to look like, or what the rules are. It’s about figuring out how to get something produced in a factory and shipped. It’s a logistics issue more than it is a creative one.
Pretty soon we realized this was the way to go. We started talking to a board game publisher in St. Louis called Greater Than Games, and that’s what launched Medium into the world. They published it, and it premiered at Gen Con in Indianapolis. From there, they got it into Barnes & Noble, Target, Amazon, and all kinds of other places where you can buy games. We’ve heard from publishers in other countries who want to do versions in other languages. There’s a Portuguese version that’s going to be in Brazil soon, and there’s a Polish version that’s on the way.
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Medium doesn’t feel like this great work of art, to me. It seems like a fun idea that it was time for. It’s such a simple game. So many people, when they play it, are like, “Gosh, it’s such a simple game, I can’t believe someone else didn’t think of this already. I can’t believe that I didn’t think of this already.”
That’s something we talk about often. Sometimes doing the simplest things really well can be a challenge. And I think that’s why people really appreciate it. It’s simple, and it’s easy to pick up, but it’s not necessarily easy to make something that simple.
I also think that ideas are the cheapest currency. I mean, everybody has a million ideas, but to actually take an idea and turn it into a real thing? That’s the real work. In any creative pursuit — and board games are no exception — people can be really precious about their idea, worried that someone’s going to run off with it. I’m all for putting your ideas out there. They’re only going to get better when people hear about them, add to them, talk to you about them, show you the flaws in them, and so on. I think that that has definitely helped us.
“Like that moment in Medium when you and your partner say the same word. Or that moment when you say the perfect answer and your partner says the perfectly stupid answer. I try to recreate those.”
From the minute we started concepting Medium, we told everybody about it that we could. People offered ideas for special power cards in the game. Other people who played it at events gave us suggestions for streamlining it, and it just improved with every person that we told about it or played it with.
Speaking of ideas, it looks like you two have a ton of different games in development. How did you decide to start working on all of them? And what’s next for you and Danielle and Storm Chaser Games?
Some of the ideas come from trying to take things that are fun to do anyway and turning them into a game. In total, I have four games that are either signed or currently in development.
One of them is called Everything Ever, which is signed with Floodgate Games and comes out in 2023. And it really is about everything ever: It’s a game where you list things that fit in a category, like things with wheels or Tom Hanks movies or sports teams that have red in their uniform. It’s something I used to play with my friends — on road trips, while standing in line for things, so we decided to turn that into an actual experience. I turned that into a game, and Danielle is signed on to do the art.
I have two other games coming out this summer. I developed Green Team Wins, and it’s being published by 25th Century Games, hopefully in June. That Old Wallpaper is a game that Danielle and I designed together, and it should be available in August, from AEG.
Designing board games is about generating moments. Like that moment in Medium when you and your partner say the same word. Or that moment when you say the perfect answer and your partner says the perfectly stupid answer. I try to recreate those. In general, each game that I develop is about finding something that’s unique. I feel like there are a lot of games that are really derivative, so I really want to make sure that there’s a unique hook in each one.