Decoding the Riddles: A 2023 Interview with Smug Owls’ Creators
For the next of our Gen Con 2023 Interview Series we meet Grace Kendall & Mike Belsole, the minds behind the game Smug Owls.
Get ready to dive into the world of “Smug Owls,” a riddle-solving card game that’s capturing hearts and minds across the gaming community. We caught up with creators Mike Belsole and Grace Kendall at Gen Con 2023 to discuss the game’s inception, its unique features, and why it’s a hit among both new and seasoned gamers. Whether you’re a curious player or an ambitious game designer, this interview gives you a peek behind the curtain of what it takes to create a standout game.
GeekPost: We met you at Gen Con 2023. How did the convention go for you?
Mike: It was great! I got to catch up with people I haven’t seen in a long while. It was exciting to demo Smug Owls for people who loved it. I heard later that it was some people’s favorite game of the con. That was really gratifying.
Grace: It was actually my first time at Gen Con, and I had a really fun time with our crew!
GeekPost: How did the concept of “Smug Owls” come about? What inspired the theme and game play?
Mike: So Smug Owls is a game about coming up with answers to magically generated riddles. The game came from this gift exchange we were doing at a convention. We had to make ten identical gifts for everyone in the exchange. We thought it would be really cool to design games specifically for this. Initially, we were trying to come up with a game where players would have to answer riddles to get past a portal of some kind. We knew we wanted to randomly generate the riddles so players could come up with their own answers instead of having prewritten riddles and answers. The structure of the deck and how it generates riddles now is identical to our first attempt. We made a deck of riddle parts that were verbs like “flies” and “is green” and a deck of conjunctions like “and”, “while it”, and “as soon as it”. The idea was that we could make a three-card riddle out of this deck. After quickly mocking it up, we discovered that this structure of “What – RIDDLE PART – CONJUNCTION – RIDDLE PART – ?” created a riddle every time! It was exhilarating to know that it worked exactly as we imagined.
Grace: The theme was inspired by our friends Gwen and Sam at Runaway Parade Games. Initially, the game had no real theme, but they wanted to give it something to make it stand out. Their games are very nature-focused, and so somewhere along the way we tossed out “Smug Owls” as a potential theme. The idea is that owls are seen as wise and would be good at solving riddles, but they could also be smug and think their answer was the best. It’s silly and really lends itself to the whole judging nature of the game.
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GeekPost: What makes “Smug Owls” stand out from other games in the market? Can you highlight some unique features?
Mike: That’s a good question. At first glance, you could write off Smug Owls as “just another judge game.” But from what players and designer friends of ours have said, it really is greater than the sum of its parts. The most obvious thing is that the game does not provide the answers. The players have to come up with answers to the riddles on their own, and the nature of solving riddles is really appealing to human beings. The game also doesn’t rotate the judge each round. The judge (Smug Owl in our game) is always the only person who couldn’t think of an answer. So, when four out of five players have answers, the fifth person is the Smug Owl. This is a really simple twist that forces players to come up with the best answer to the riddle, not just the answer that will please the judge the most. It gets you out of your head. The last thing that players really appreciate is that the Smug Owl distributes three points each round instead of just one. The three cards that made the riddle become points that they can distribute however they want among their favorite answers, giving multiple people and a chance to feel good and taking off the pressure of having to pick just one “best” answer. And by the way, the game purposely doesn’t encourage family friendly or NSFW gameplay. The riddles can be interpreted however you want, and playing with your friends or family will change which answers get told. Answers to “what has a hole and runs?” could be way different depending on the group that’s playing. All of that combines into a pretty unique and fun experience that adapts to any group vibe.
GeekPost: How did you approach making the game accessible to different types of players?
Mike: We really did want this game to be approachable to all kinds of players, especially all ages. What we found is that you don’t need to be able to read or hold a hand of cards to play. If you can read or have the riddle read to you, you can play. One of my favorite memories was playing the prototype with four generations of a single family, from four years old to ninety-four years old, and each person had a valid answer. The entire family could play this one game. We frequently hear that it’s a favorite among the “I don’t play games” family members.
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GeekPost: How different was designing Smug Owls for you, compared to “Trick or Treat: The Aftermath”?
Mike: Trick or Treat: The Aftermath was made as part of a design jam with very specific restrictions, an autumnal roll and write. Now that I think about it, Smug Owls was also made as part of a prompt (the gift exchange). Smug Owls came together very quickly with little iterating on the core gameplay. Trick or Treat was iterated on a lot and very quickly since the game jam was only a week long. But in both cases, we worked together very well. Our goal was clearly defined in both cases, which made it easy to find the fun.
Grace: Smug Owls came together a lot more quickly, as there was less of a puzzle to put together. There was a lot more number-crunching to make Trick or Treat: The Aftermath work out, and I’m more of a word person so coming up with potential riddle parts for Smug Owls was more immediately satisfying to design. Plus, it was a treat to not have to develop and self-publish Smug Owls! It was a joy to get to pass it off to a publisher.
GeekPost: What were some challenges that you faced during the process?
Mike: “Is this good enough?” This was my fear for 90% of its development. Because the mechanics of the game are so simple, I went on an almost spiritual journey to find better, cleverer, more innovative mechanics. I eliminated the judge, added a drawing element, implemented a timer, added tokens, told players to vote, etc. I did everything I could think of to not make it “another judging game”. What I eventually realized is that the game we made in our first draft was the best version of the game. But I needed to try everything else to be sure. Grace knew all this from the beginning.
Grace: My challenge was letting Mike make all those changes to see how they would play out. I am very quick to be satisfied with a design – but that’s what great developers are there for, to see things I can’t!
GeekPost: Do you consider yourself a geek, and what does that mean to you?
Grace: I’m definitely a geek, and I always think of it as being passionate about something you love. I’m a big fan of niche nerd communities and have written a lot of nerdy music and met so many cool people through geeky spaces!
Mike: I like being in a community that values smart silly stuff. By that I mean, all games are inherently silly, but there are real brains behind all of them.
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GeekPost: Besides games, are there other hobbies that you enjoy?
Grace: I love making music and musical theater! That’s my current non-gaming passion right now.
Mike: I like comics quite a bit. I have been collecting them since I was a kid. Fantastic Four is my favorite. I used to write and perform music, but my interest in that faded when our band broke up.
GeekPost: What inspired you to want to design games? What do you hope the gaming community takes from them?
Mike: Grace and I designed a game about our experience attempting a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. As first-time designers, we made this incredible and detailed system and perfect rules before ever playing. Once we tried to play that first game, we realized that it would have been faster to hike the actual trail than to finish this game. It was so broken, and I couldn’t accept it. I didn’t know why it had failed so hard after we put so much work into it. That led me to Facebook groups and design blogs. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Grace: Mike inspired me to make games because we have so much fun creating things together. I am always more interested in making games for fun rather than designing them to be commercially successful, so I hope the gaming community takes the sense of fun and creativity and silliness that we poured into the game and runs with it. To me, playing games (and making them) is all about having a good time!
GeekPost: What advice would you give to aspiring game designers for those looking to enter the gaming industry?
Mike: First of all, take out the word “aspiring.” If you design games, you’re a game designer – no matter if you intend to pitch it to a publisher or only make games for your family. If you’re looking to enter the gaming industry, get to know a lot of people. Like most industries, so much of it is networking. Go to big and small conventions, sign up for playtesting events, talk to other designers, look into Unpub and Protospiel, and check out Break My Game. Meet as many people as you can. The more people you can meet the better your odds are of finding that one meeting or event in which a publisher can look at your game and tell you it’s perfect for them. Don’t expect anything to happen overnight. Give yourself every advantage.
Grace: Define success for yourself – don’t let others define it for you! And make stuff that makes you happy. When you are excited about what you’re making, others will notice that enthusiasm. I think good energy goes a long way in this industry.
A huge thank you to Mike and Grace for taking the time to chat with us. Your insights into the world of game design, and the passion and hard work behind ‘Smug Owls’, have been incredibly enlightening.
Have you tried Smug Owls? Let us know what you think in the comments at the bottom of the page.