Interview with Danielle Lewon, designer of Kagematsu

Say hi, and tell everyone a little about yourself.

Hi Contessa, my name is Danielle Lewon and I have been a longtime resident of Michigan in the Detroit area. Professionally, I am a historic preservationist. I have worked in downtown Detroit, and went to school in Michigan and Missouri. Gaming-wise, I was fortunate to be in on the indie scene fairly early. I helped in the second year of the Adept Press GenCon booth, which featured a number of early indie RPGs, like Dust Devils and Universalis, and then expanded the next year into the Forge booth. A lot has grown out of that early group of people.

I hear great things about Kagematsu, but I haven’t played it yet. Tell me all about it.

Then we’ll have to play it sometime! In Kagematsu, the players are women in a village undergoing a terrible threat. It is a time of civil war and all able-bodied men of the village are away. Because of this the women attempt to persuade a wandering samurai, Kagematsu, to save them from the threat. They do it by ways of, oh shall we say “persuasion” and getting Kagematsu's affection. I think what's really interesting about the game is that it challenges players, who would typically be men, with only limited ways of interacting with Kagematsu. It's very restrictive and it is an example of how women in periods of history have had to live in their society.

What inspired you?

This is an unusual part of the story. My gaming group included early gamers in the indie scene, including Paul Czege, my boyfriend then and husband now. Within that group, three players produced games and one of them was Kagematsu. As the only woman in our group at the time, I played it many, many times.  Renee, the original designer of the game, had not had very good results with the ongoing iterations and went on to other projects. Then a few years later, Paul was doing the Ashcan Front booth at GenCon for the second year and I had an epiphany to take Kagematsu and try an ashcan for the booth. Renee was very supportive of me taking the game and making it my own.. Much of the mechanics remain the same, but the  ending mechanic just wasn't working. So that was a primary goal of the ashcan. The next year at GenCon I was extremely fortunate to be a part of Pirate Jenny, which was a booth of all games with women as primary designers. (The published game tells this same story of how I came to be the publisher of Kagematsu in an appendix manga.)

What are the steps you take to start designing a game?

Besides Kagematsu, I have a few very small, quick games and I have to say the primary inspiration is always just an idea.  One or two are from gaming contests. One is a hack of a game that Paul had created (maybe hack is not the right word, but it's a certainly the third in the trilogy) that I still want to finish. Paul and I have a lot of conversations about games and what can make a good game and inspiration can be anywhere. You just have to pick it apart a bit and figure out how a game can be played so that it’s fun and tells a good story and is something that people want to play.

Is there a new project on the horizon?

I am working with a game designer in Poland to take my micro game of competitive complaining to a new level. It would be in multiple languages and feature twice as many options. I'm excited about that, it's great to collaborate with a someone new. That's really it for me. I'm a stay-at-home mom with three-and-a-half year old and he takes up a lot of my time. I'm always interested in trying new games, but it takes a good chunk of inspiration for me to get to writing. Kagematsu was a fortunate inspiration for me to fall into.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to make their own game?

Go for it! It can be small and short. No reason to write a novel on your first try. There is such an active scene, online for sure and hopefully locally, that welcome new games or new ideas. It seems like a daunting task, and it is a lot of work, but don’t let that stop you.

Start with an idea and some mechanics. And expand the idea with other rules and examples of play. Decide how much background ‘history’ you want to include. For example, Kagematsu has a short history set up, and appendices with more specific information Then comes the long part - playtesting and editing. You have to get the playtesting in, listen to what people say, and use it to get the game as fun as it can be. I would caution to not use every piece of advice, doing that can make your game unrecognizable. Go to conventions, connect with folks to play your game, and play other games in the works.  

It's absolutely necessary to talk online, to interact in person, even to ask others to help with playtesting. That helps get people excited about your game and play it. I know from the people who are doing independent games how devoted they are to their online presence, and how important it is for not only their games’ sales but the camaraderie of the gaming community in general. Be a good person online and in person. Participate with your peers, and they will respond in kind.

Once you have it set then it's time to look at artwork, editing, and printing.  There are so many people who are editing, doing artwork, etc, all the ingredients to publish a game. Set up an online store, there are free options for hosting. Finally, there are many independent publishers now at game conventions. Use the connections you made to partner up with someone if you want to sell at conventions.

You can learn more about Kagematsu and purchase it at Cream Alien Games.