Interview: Rita Modl on Men at Work

Rita Modl joins Diagonal Move to discuss the development and publication of her hit dexterity game, Men at Work and her forthcoming game, King of 12.

Rita Modl
Rita Modl with Men at Work

Hi Rita, thank you for joining us. How did you get started in the games industry?

I played many games as a child and as a teenager, but as I grew up and started going to parties…  Eventually I just didn’t know anyone who played games, so I stopped playing too.

One day, it was about 4 years ago I think, I just felt in the ‘mood’ to create a game. A flash of inspiration after going to a child’s birthday party. Once I had a game in mind, I spoke to a friend who had contacts in the board game industry to find out how it ‘worked’. How to show prototypes to publishers and so on.

As a result of those contacts, I had my first rejection from a publisher. That was ok though – the game was not very good. After that, I began to watch YouTube videos about new board games, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were so many games that I didn’t know existed.

I began to play games again, and as I played, I had new ideas. As these ideas began to improve, I put more time and effort into creating my own games, one of which was an early version of the game that became Men at Work.

Boss Rita. Men at Work
Building instructions – probably not architect approved

Can you tell us more about Men at Work’s route to publication?

Men at Work had its origins in another ‘wooden stick’ game. I took that game to an agency in the hope that they would help me present it to publishers. The agency told me that the game didn’t work particularly well but, if I could improve it, I could present to them again.

I went home, sat at my desk and…didn’t know what to do. I got angry, threw the components on to the desk and…I looked at it and began to put figures on it and thought: “that looks…good?”

So, my disappointment at the rejection of the earlier game became the beginning of Men at Work

When I returned to the agency with what was now Men at Work, they thought it was a big improvement on the original game and they agreed to present it to publishers on my behalf. Three months later I had a contract signed with Pretzel Games.

Pretzel wanted to publish in time for the next major games fair. This meant that we had to work to a very tight schedule to ensure that Men at Work was ready.

Normally, it takes a year to find and agree a contract with a publisher and then your game is put in a publication queue. Once all the other games before yours are worked on, work will finally begin on publishing your game. This could take another year after the contract is signed, or even longer.

However, the time between signing with the agency and the release of Men at Work was only nine months. It was an intense experience!

Mid-game Men at Work
Men at Work in play

How did Men at Work change during the development process?

When I create a game, I start with one of three things – the theme, the mechanics, or the materials. All three of these changed during the development of Men at Work!

Once Men at Work was scheduled for release, I was given access to the large playtesting groups that the agency and publisher are involved with. The playtest groups would play the game, provide feedback, I would work on it, the playtest groups would play… the game changed a lot during that process.

The theme changed completely. In the beginning it was themed around balancing on tightropes in a circus but that restricted what we could do. Once the setting became a construction site, we were able to add in new ideas including cleaning up the mess the previous player has made, and the site safety certificates.

At the beginning the game was aimed more towards an adult audience. The wooden sticks were much thinner which meant it was quite difficult to build with them. When I playtested it with my nephews, the youngest was 6 at the time, it was difficult for them to use the components due to the size.

While it still isn’t a children’s game, it wasn’t until we made the components thicker that it was possible for a younger person to play and Men at Work became a true family game.

Men at Work

How has the success of Men at Work affected you?

It has been great! In Austria, Men at Work won the ‘Spiele Hit mit Freunden’ award and it was nominated in the Party Game Category at the Board Game Geek Awards. It has also been a big success in terms of sales – particularly so for a first game.

Thanks to these successes the process of demoing new games to publishers is much easier than it was, however, the games industry can still contain a lot of disappointment.

It takes effort to make a game. You spend an entire year making a game – you create it, then test it and test it until you are happy with it-  then you show it to a publisher and they say: “no, it’s not good enough”. Argh!  

Men at Work’s success has helped me keep the motivation to create games during those difficult moments.

Hoppytop Rita Modl
Hoppytop, Rita’s game for young children

Can you tell us more about your next game, King of 12?

King of 12 is my second game for an older audience but it’s actually my third published game in total.

My second game was Hoppytop, published by Beleduc. It is a roll and move game for young children about getting sheep to graze in a meadow. It’s obviously not as well-known to the wider hobby game community as Men at Work but I am very happy it exists.

King of 12 recently funded on Spiele Schmiede, a crowding platform in Germany, and is due to be released via Corax Games in October.

It is a dice-based trick taking game. All players have a D12 and play cards to manipulate the dice – reroll, change which die face is showing, and so on. Points are scored based on who has the highest unique number showing on their die at the end of a round. While it is a family game, the strategy is quite deep. To do well, players need to think ahead to the next round.

The artwork, by Robin Lagofun, is fantastic. It was his first board game art design project and he has done a fantastic job with the illustrations.

As with Men at Work, King of 12 changed considerably during development. The central idea of manipulating a D12 was there at the start. However, it was originally more of a roll and write game; I got rid of that. The round structure changed; the card effects changed. Sometimes you must reduce and reduce and reduce to keep a game on point.

Although I wasn’t working on it every day – I’m a freelancer photographer and fortunate to be able to move between that and game design when needed – it took over a year to develop in total. A lot longer than Men at Work.

King of 12 Rita Modl
The forthcoming King of 12

What advice do you have for designers trying to publish their first game?

Consider using an agency to help find a publisher.

It does depend on the game. It is perhaps not recommended as much if you have a ‘hobby’ game, but I would recommend considering an agency for a family game.

Not only does this give you people to contact (game design can get quite lonely), it will also help with any language barrier, particularly for international releases.

The publishing contract for Men at Work was written in English. I am from Germany and, although I can speak English as a second language, without the agency, I am sure I would have missed many details due to the language barrier.

I took both Hoppytop and King of 12 directly to the publishers myself. Both publishers are based in Germany, so there isn’t the same language barrier.  However, I have seven games currently under contract via an agency, plus another that is nearing publication…I just can’t talk about any of them at the moment.

Watch this space!