• Thomas Cardwell

Designer Interview: Courtney Shernan

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Hi all; as a way to meet folks working on games, I decided to do some interviews of people I've met via playtesting. The first is with Courtney Shernan (@CourtneyShernan), a board game designer in Seattle, WA working on her debut game, “Treat, Please!”, a game where players take up the role of a spoiled dog that knows how to get their human to give them anything they want by being cute.


Game designer Courtney Shernan with her dog, Trixie.


We chat about what it was like designing games during the pandemic, desert island games, Courtney's process for pitching her game to publishers, and more.


The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. If you'd like an audio version, scroll to the end of this article, or check out TomCardGames on Spotify, or Apple Podcasts,

 
Intro

What games did you play with family or friends growing up?

Courtney: I played a lot of games with my family growing up. We were really tight and we were particularly into a lot of card games, like trick-taking games. For most of my childhood, we’d play Hearts a couple times a week; so after dinner we’d get in a game of hearts. We also got into a lot of word games, your classic Scrabble and a game called Quiddler. But really the trick-taking games, word games, and some other classic card games like cribbage and rummy.


Did you play video games?

Courtney: Not a lot of video games. I played Pokemon and some Hamtaro games.

Thomas: What was your favorite Pokemon?

Courtney: Oh geez… I really liked Vulpix. I lean towards the fire Pokemon.


So lots of card games, trick-taking games. Where did your game journey go from there?

Courtney: When I got into college was when I started playing board games with friends more. I was introduced to Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride and that’s what opened the door and it was “oh my gosh, there’s this whole world of board games and you want to play them all.”

Thomas: The gateway to indie…

Courtney: Yeah exactly, and then I would bring those back to my family and be like “Okay, y’all can play Scythe with me; I know you can do this.”

Thomas: That’s awesome. You can take Scythe home and get family onboard with it?

Courtney: Yeah, even those heavier games. They’re all gamers in that household.


If you had to pick two desert-island games, what would they be?

Courtney: I’m going with two that are fairly light but I’ve played so many times and I still enjoy them and that’s the benchmark that I’m using. The first one is Patchwork. I feel like I’ve played it with so many different people and just love how puzzly it is. It always feels like a new challenge every time you play to fill up your quilt. I have my own personal best in my head of “oh I had four slots left this one time…”

Thomas: Oh wow.

Courtney: …and it’s never enough! The other one I have is The Game. Super simple co-op card game. It’s just a classic I’ll always return to for a quick game. I have a lot of others that I would call my favorite games that are a bit heavier, but I’m like “agh, could I play those over and over again?”


What is one of your favorite games?

Courtney: One of my favorites is Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Also a bit puzzly, but it’s very much an optimization problem of tile placement. You are building a castle and you have all these different types of rooms, and depending on how you place your rooms, you score points based on their types and the criteria they meet. It’s also super fun to have that physical element of building out your castle.


What is your favorite genre of game?

Courtney: I would say generally engine-builders. I love doing that future planning of “How can I get the most out of this thing? How can I generate the most by optimizing my turn and going into future turns to make them the most optimized?” I have an engineering background and I feel like engine builders are really suited for that (laughs) and are really fun for me in that way. I mentioned Scythe earlier—really enjoy Scythe. The first time I played it I was like “oh yes, this is my type of game”. I’ve got to build out all of these things to start generating resources and I only have so many things to do on a turn. I love that element of action selection too, like when does it make the most sense for me to do this action if it limits my ability to do other actions in the future?

Thomas: So Scythe is up there as an example of the engine-building for you?

Courtney: Yeah, but even the more basic ones like Splendor. ‘Love Splendor; I could play that over and over and over again.


How did you get into game design?

Courtney: Moving out to Seattle was when I was really immersed in the board game culture in this area, discovering places like Mox within weeks of moving out here. Beyond the world of what I thought I discovered in college, there was this other massive world of the hobby board game industry. Over the last six years, I’ve gotten really into games; I have my little board game shelf at home. One day I was like, “I think I could do that!”. It was the summer of 2019; I was at a point where I wasn’t very happy with my job and wanted a bit of a distraction. I started brainstorming some ideas, and some of the initial ideas that became “Treat, Please!” were part of that brainstorm. Maybe two days after starting I was like “What am I doing? I can’t make a board game!” and I shelved it for a year, and then it wasn’t until the summer of 2020 when I was like, well now I–

Thomas: Have time (laughs).

Courtney: Yeah, I thought, “maybe I could give this a shot again.” Last July (2020) is when I started getting serious about the design. It was something that was like “I have ideas that I thought would be fun,” and waiting for the right moment for when I could act on that. I think the timing of waiting until the summer of 2020 when I had the space to work on it really helped keep ideas flowing and keep things productive.



Treat, Please!

Treat, Please!

What was the inspiration for the game?

Courtney: “Treat, Please!” is a game that was inspired by my dog, Trixie. The premise of this game is, you get to play the role of a spoiled dog that knows they can get their human to give them anything they want by being cute and doing fun dog things to get their attention. Throughout the game you get to play different dog behavior cards to gain attention as a resource and then use it to complete objectives like “get belly rubs” or “go to the park.” It really just embodies the amazing times I’ve had with my dog and all of the silly things she does to get my attention and to make me do things that she wants me to.

Thomas: I’ve played it a few times now and it’s lots of fun. I am very appreciative of the design with the theme because I get the motivation and just want to do the “dog things” to get all the attention.

Courtney: Thanks! I am definitely one of those obsessed dog parents. My husband and I have had Trixie for a little over 6 years now. The relationship I have with her—she does feel like my little dog-child—is really the full inspiration for the game. There are so many times where I’m just sitting on the couch and Trixie will come over and start licking my hand, and without even thinking about it, I will pet her head. She must think she’s so smart and just has to force me to do everything for her. She knows how to get what she wants; she is the best.

Thomas: May we all aspire to be Trixie.


When brainstorming, did you start with game mechanics or themes?

Courtney: The brainstorm was the theme. I had the idea to make a game about being a spoiled dog in 2019. At that time, I wanted to make it a more traditional deck-builder. I really like deck-building games, but I feel like a lot of them come across as intimidating. I wanted to make a deck-builder that was a little more inviting, a little more approachable to new players. That’s where I started my brainstorming, but after a few days I decided it wasn’t working. That’s part of why I shelved it, because the mechanical inspiration wasn’t working. In addition to the time, what really helped me get going was, I started playing Gloomhaven.

Thomas: ...This is an interesting segue.

Courtney: (Laughs) The mechanics in Gloomhaven triggered the inspiration for the core mechanics in “Treat, Please!”. I love Gloomhaven and I absolutely love that hand-dwindling mechanic. You have a set number of cards in your hand and you have to choose when to play them because they will go to your discard pile, and then you have to strategically choose when to get them back, but you also lose cards when you do that. I thought, “that could be interesting to build into this dog game,” and that’s really what the mechanics became.

Thomas: I never expected you to say “So I was playing Gloomhaven…”, but now that I’m thinking about it further, it makes a lot of sense. You exhaust yourself over time with cards.

Courtney: Yup, it was Gloomhaven—that’s where it all clicked. Once that started working that’s when I really got rolling on it. You get to choose when to play the right cards, and you lose a small thing by resting, but then you get your cards back.


How many playtests have you done?

Courtney: Outside of playtesting solo, I’ve done about seventy. I was probably around forty or fifty when I started pitching, so now there’s been a decent chunk that’s just fine-tuning things and trying to give it that polish.


What was the most broken playtesting interaction you’ve had?

Courtney: There were definitely times where I got very critical feedback that was fantastic and needed to be said. My “take a nap” mechanic in the game is the key piece for getting your cards back; it’s kind of that Gloomhaven rest mechanic. In its current iteration, it’s not super punishing. You lose a small part of your turn but you can still do things on your turn, even if you take that nap. In early iterations of the game, you lost a whole turn. I was really into that because I was like, “It’s a big decision. You gotta choose wisely, otherwise you’ll lose your whole turn.” It was also paired with a rotating first player at that time. I had a four player playtest, and because of the timing of things going from first to fourth player—with taking a nap in there—a player didn’t take a turn for like 30 minutes. That was one of those things that was a critical issue that needed to be addressed ASAP. I ended up scrapping the rotation and just doing a standard clockwise rotation and making significant changes to the “take a nap” mechanic.


I have received a lot of great feedback from PlaytestNW virtually and am grateful for that. What was your playtesting journey like?

Courtney: I started out with a paper prototype. Printing cards in Word and handwriting stuff. I started off solo playtesting and then playtesting with my husband and got great feedback from him and things that made radical changes to the game, but it becomes apparent pretty early on that you need other opinions.

Thomas: *general agreement noises*

Courtney: We switched to tabletop simulator for my D&D campaign and I figured out how to use tabletop simulator to play with friends digitally. One of those friends mentioned PlaytestNW and I was super nervous about it initially. I joined and it was so much fun and such a welcoming community. I was like—”I’ll build up some confidence and bring my game here.”

When I came into it I had this assumption that everyone was an expert and these games were so amazing. I had the perception that I was not a designer but these other people were. So I playtested with PlaytestNW for a while and then joined the Break My Game discord which does online playtesting every day of the week. Being a part of those two things helped me discover what opportunities were out there and made the connections that helped me get “Treat, Please!” where it is now. I took the two-pronged approach of wanting to continue to refine my game but needing to network, and one of the best ways to do that is by playtesting other people’s games and learning more about game design that way.


I think your weekend mechanic is fantastic. Can you describe what it is and talk about the point in development when you added it?

Courtney: The weekend mechanic: the game is a seven-round game and each round has an event card that gets flipped. The first five are weekdays and the last two are weekends. The weekends give you the opportunity to play more behaviors as a dog and to accomplish more things so it really ramps up those final two rounds. It was about four months into working on “Treat, Please!”. [The weekend mechanic] was a pure suggestion from a playtester, they just had this idea on a plate. They told me to cut it down to seven rounds with weekdays and weekends and do more on the weekends. I was just like “yes, I want to implement this immediately.” All the credit goes to that playtester. It made a dramatic difference immediately, and only in a positive way. I will appreciate that playtest forever.

Thomas: I love the way you implemented it too, where the different event cards are randomized, which adds to the replay-ability. It’s just “What’s coming up for the weekend?—Little puppy’s gonna go on two walks.”

Courtney: (Laughs) Exactly.



Publishing

How did you get into pitching your game?

Courtney: When I started out, my intention was to self-publish, and eventually run a Kickstarter. Part of the networking I was doing was sort of in service of that, making sure the word was out there about the game and I had connections to people in the industry.

Eventually, I was at a virtual convention called NonePub. They didn’t have enough people sign up for a pitch practice event called Feedback Frenzy, so I got an email from one of the organizers that asked if I wanted to join a live-streamed pitch to a panel of publishers, where they give you feedback on your pitch immediately. I ended up signing up for the event and planned out my first pitch. It was comical because it was a “Shark Tank”-esque feel for their convention audience. Afterwards, I got an email follow-up from one of the publishers that said they wanted to playtest my game with their team. I was like… yeah! I hadn’t given [the publisher route] the proper consideration before. I decided I would see how I felt when I got a response. The publisher ended up passing on it, but the feeling I had when I got that [response] was sadness, and that ultimately changed my mind about my plan to self-publish.

I decided to keep taking the same approach that ended up getting me that first interest at NonePub. I continued to scope out virtual (but live) pitching events. I tried to sign up for whatever I could, whether it be an official pitching event or a pitch practice.


What were the various forums that you ended up pitching in?

Courtney: Various virtual conventions, and there’s a discord that’s called Weird Raptor Games run by Carla Kopp. At the time they were having pitch practice events where you could get feedback from a panel of publishers. I also took part in a speed pitching event through the Tabletop Mentorship Program. That was intense, but a fantastic experience. It was a speed-dating type of environment where you are in a room in discord and a publisher pops into your room and you have only a short amount of time to make your pitch. [I had] six or seven pitches back-to-back over the span of an hour.

Thomas: That sounds exhausting.

Courtney: It was, but it was really thrilling too. Huge shoutout to Tabletop Mentorship Program as well. It’s a really fantastic program where you can get paired with a mentor or a mentee, and meet bimonthly to help you reach your goals in the board game industry. They have lots of workshops and presentations from experts in the industry. I can’t recommend it enough.

How did you decide to go with a publisher?

Courtney: My goal for this game is just to make it the best game it can be. There are so many things you can gain from a publisher that—at least in my case—would make this a better game.


Do you have a timeline for wrapping up playtesting or polishing on “Treat, Please!”?

Courtney: I’m hoping within a few months that I’ve polished to the point that I would be happy with it being printed the way it is. I’ve got some exciting events coming up like Emerald City Comic Con and OrcaCon and hoping to get some in-person playtesting in. That’s been one of the key changes in this late phase of my playtesting journey; I haven’t had that opportunity as much to see people physically interact with the game and see those responses you can’t really gauge over Discord, so I’m excited for those opportunities coming up.


Is there anything else you want to say about “Treat, Please!”?

Courtney: I don’t think so, but generally, if anyone out there doesn’t think they can make a game—you can do it! You can make it about whatever you want to. You can make a silly game that’s just inspired by your dog. It’s been such a fun, rewarding journey to make this game and I feel really proud of what I’ve done, but I also just feel very blessed by the people I’ve met; I’ve made so many great relationships in the board game industry, and I could not have gotten here without them. Huge shout outs again to PlaytestNW, Break My Game, Protospiel Online—so many different groups. Hearing that feedback is how the game gets made.



Wrap-up

What is your favorite pie?

Courtney: I’m going to go with apple pie. I love pies in general. That’s a tough question, but I’m going to go with apple.

Thomas: It’s a classic for a reason. Do you do the lattice on top?

Courtney: Yup! I’m going to make one next week. It’s just so fitting for Washington state. When I’ve gone apple-picking out here and then made a pie, it’s just been the most amazing pie.


Any other projects on the horizon?

Courtney: Not really. I think there’s a good chance that “Treat, Please!” is the only game I ever make, but I have noodled on an idea—maybe it will be a similar thing where I have the idea, shelve it, and then I’ll play Gloomhaven and it inspires me—of wanting to make a game around goats. I love goats, and I feel like there’s a lot you could do with a push your luck game with fainting goats or screaming goats.

Thomas: So untitled goat game coming soon (laughs).

Courtney: Yes, yes.


What is your game of the week?

Courtney: Stardew Valley, the video game. [Though we did discuss that there is a Stardew Valley board game as well.]


 
Podcast

Check out TomCardGames on Spotify, or Apple Podcasts! Expect more interviews, etc. in the future.

Podcast audio timing

0:00 Intro

0:20 Games with family

1:40 College

2:40 Desert island games: Patchwork and The Game

4:10 Further Patchwork discussion

6:07 Favorite game - Castles of Mad King Ludwig

8:01 Favorite genre - engine builders

11:42 Among Us

13:24 Take that with strategy

15:07 How did you get into design?

18:42 Treat, Please!

21:12 Design strategy: mechanics or theme?

27:07 Playtesting

29:08 Critical feedback foments

33:03 Playtesting journey

35:06 First time playtesting nerves

37:34 Other playtesting avenues

39:56 Weekend mechanic

43:17 Pitching

49:25 Tabletop Mentorship Program

51:59 Virtual playtesting

59:25 Favorite pie

60:26 Future projects

61:59 Courtney’s game of the week: Stardew Valley

63:34 Outro


 

I had a blast interviewing Courtney, chatting about games and how she got into designing "Treat, Please!". Be on the lookout for this great game and follow along at Courtney's Twitter!


-t


Fun Games of the Week: I got to play Gaia Project for the first time and lost quite badly, but it was still a great time!

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