Gemma Newton, designer of Plotalot and founder of Moonstone Games, joins Diagonal Move to discuss eco-conscious gaming and drawing inspiration from the natural world.
DM: Hi Gemma, thank you for joining us. Please can you tell us a bit about yourself?
GN: Hi Neil – thanks for having me. I’m Gemma, the founder of Moonstone Games and designer behind a little game called Plotalot. I live in quaint village in Berkshire in the UK, it’s pretty idyllic, lots of walks and green space which I love, with my husband and cat. Besides making games, I am a freelance copywriter, writing for technology, food and nutrition industries mainly.
I grew up five minutes from my current home on a farm, where my parents worked with horses. I moved away to the bright lights of London for a while to study and start my career in marketing but inevitably returned to my countryside roots to live and work. Growing up in such an agricultural environment has fuelled my love of nature and being in nature, meaning I now spend a lot of time walking, climbing and gardening as hobbies. I find the natural world my biggest inspiration for ideas and that shows in the first game I’ve published.
DM: Your first published game, Plotalot, has a horticultural theme. What do you think it is about that theme, and themes involving the natural world in general, that makes them perennially appealing to gamers?
GN: I think we’re all drawn to the natural world – after all in the grand scheme of things we haven’t been living in urban spaces for that long. It’s in our DNA to want to experience and to some extent maybe even control the wildness of nature and this makes for some compelling mechanics and gameplay when it comes to designing a new game. Nature is also beautiful – the most beautiful place you can be in my opinion. Since the start of civilisation is has inspired art, literature and science as we try to mimic, capture and now protect it – so it makes sense that designers and players feel comfortable working with this broad theme.
DM: Despite the ‘gentle’ appearance, Plotalot, does contain a significant take that element. What inspired this combination of theme and mechanics?
GN: Plotalot was created out of a desire to build a game which my family would play. I had started to get into gaming myself but my family just didn’t get the bug. I was desperate to find something other than Monopoly to play with them and so out of my brain came this vegetable themed game. At the time of developing a theme, I had just planted my first vegetable patch and my Mum was a keen gardener so I knew it was something she would like. As I watched my vegetables fail and succeed, I took inspiration from the real-life pests I faced such as aphids and caterpillars. I learned about the benefits of a polytunnel and decent fertiliser and weaved those lessons into the mechanics. Struggling with such a small patch really informed the main mechanism of managing space.
I didn’t intend for Plotalot to be so ‘take that’ but as I started testing different actions, it was the more interactive cards that made the gameplay between players so fun and special. Over the years, I’ve balanced the decks carefully so while you can be attacked and take a hit, you also have plenty of opportunities to turn the game back in your favour quickly too.
DM: Plotalot remains a family-friendly game. Was that an intentional design choice and how did you achieve it given the take-that aspect?
GN:I wanted a game which a group of adults could play but the kids could also get involved with too. I tested it with children as young as eight and while they might not have the deeper tactics nailed, they loved the fact that they could play a ‘take that’ action on their parents…. Children tend to play the game harsher than adults I find – they’ll choose to cause havoc over scoring points any day.
Not only that, the theme also lends itself to families and I had fun creating family-friendly artwork which would appeal to all ages. I wanted to create a game which, while not deeply educational, could get families interested in having a go at growing their own, knowing from their plays of the game that aphids are bad and bees are good for example.
DM: Plotalot features bright, colourful art. How important do you feel artwork is to the overall experience of playing board games.
GN: For me, it’s so important. I love good board game artwork, it enhances the experience of playing a game and is a real testament to why modern board games have made the hobby so popular. No matter the style, I believe the artwork should be just that; a piece of art, which helps tell the story of the game and immerse players in the experience.
In Plotalot, I was lucky enough to find an incredible illustrator who characterised my horticultural heroes and villains in a way I could never have imagined. I went through several artists before we met – some so bad that the game nearly never came to life – but Miriam Hull took it to a new level. The style she went with can be appreciated by adults but appeals to children too, making it a more universal experience.
DM: You decided to publish Plotalot yourself via your company, Moonstone Games. What prompted this decision over seeking out an established publisher and how has the experience been so far?
GN: I pitched Plotalot to a few publishers but nothing stuck. At the time, the game was still in its early stages and the rejections were important lessons in how developed games need to be to hit the mark. I was naturally hesitant to go it alone, after all, it’s a big ask for one person who already has a full-time career – but I wanted to prove to myself and my family that this idea could be something more. There was also a large part of me, the artistic and eco-conscious part, that saw this as an opportunity to express myself in areas such as sustainability and design which appealed.
So, I went it alone and started properly testing and refining the concept to what it is now. Taking it on myself meant taking on the expense but it allowed for ultimate freedom as well. With this, I was able to control the look and feel, as well as the single-use plastic used in the game which was important to me.
Right now, I would say the experience has been one of steep learning, challenging myself in both a creative and business capacity. It’s certainly giving me more confidence in what I can do now and in the future.
DM: The Kickstarter Campaign for Plotalot was successful, and you are now releasing to retail. Can you describe the differences between the two sales outlets? Are there unique challenges to each outlet?
GN: Kickstarter is a scary prospect for a newbie such as myself. It used to be a space for small designers to put their ideas out there, whether fully formed or just as a concept. Nowadays, everything is very polished with huge amounts spent on graphics, videos and photography – it’s a hard place to stand out on a small budget. Despite this, if you produce an honest product that is genuinely unique, it is a fantastic platform for getting your idea to as many people around the world as possible – a truly supportive community of new ideas which is fantastic.
Getting a retailer onboard has been a challenge. I am an unproven designer up against some big names and budgets in the industry. I found it tough to work out the margins so everyone gets a good deal but this is the nature of selling any product, not just a game. When it comes to Plotalot and getting retailers on board, I have managed to find a compelling price point. Not only that, gamers are charmed by the visual appeal of the game which really helps a retailer get behind it as they know people will pick up or click on the box. Behind the artwork is a lovely little game which is easy to explain and sell, but first impressions are important in piquing that initial interest.
DM: Moonstone aims to publish board games using eco-friendly manufacturing methods. How are you achieving this and is achieving it bringing its own set of challenges?
GN: I’ve always been passionate about creating something which doesn’t impact the environment. Growing up on a farm, I learnt the value of the land and nature from a young age and this has stuck with me throughout my life.
My initial plan was to product Plotalot 100% plastic-free but when I went into mass manufacturing, this didn’t turn out quite as planned. I was set back in my quest to source plastic-free laminate, which while in existence, just isn’t durable enough to last the length of time people keep board games. It biodegrades after just a few years, which is fantastic news for some products but means my beautiful game, designed to play again and again, would deteriorate and only add to the waste problems we face.
In the end, I settled for no single-use plastic, so whilst the cards and box are laminated for long-term durability, there are no components or shipping materials made from plastic anywhere. This leads to a more expensive product to produce and smaller profit margins, but it’s something I feel is hugely important. It has also lead to a tighter specification which in the end has made me more creative with how I get around plastic usage.
To keep the game even less impactful on the planet, I have also worked hard to source UK suppliers and manufacturers, rather than defaulting to larger companies in China or Europe. I want to support British business where possible and limit the miles my products travel before they hit people’s tables. To top it all off Moonstone Games also works with Ecologi, offsetting business activities by supporting reforestation projects across the world. As you can tell, being eco-conscious is pretty important to me!
DM: Although you are still relatively new to the industry, is there anything you wish you had known at the start?
GN: There are so many things I wish I knew then that I know now and I’m sure this pattern will continue – you are constantly learning. One of the key things I wish I’d done earlier was to integrate a pledge manager into my Kickstarter planning. Right before I submitted the campaign, I decided to go with Backerkit but I should have done it earlier as it would have helped me with managing my shipping costs more efficiently. This was a huge learning curve and next time, I’ll get them involved much earlier.
I think the other thing I wish I’d known at the start was just how supportive and generous the board gaming community can be. As a creator, I obsess over the details but the board game community just love games no matter their shape, size or theme and avidly support new ideas. Whether you’re a big name publisher or a one-woman band there is a huge amount of support for everyone releasing games at the moment.
DM: What’s next for Moonstone Games?
GN: I can’t wait to see Plotalot being played around the world by my backers and buyers. From here I have plans to develop an expansion for the game if there’s demand for it, which add new mechanics and components to expand the gameplay.
I also want to develop more games beyond Plotalot and have some concepts already in prototype form for testing. Wherever I go, I observe real-world situations and twist them into game mechanics which I’ve not seen before, it’s becoming quite an obsession. One thing that I know for sure if that my style is very much themed around nature, animals and farming as it’s where I’m most inspired, so you can look forward to some more games along these lines.