by Kristen Mott
I’m Kristen Mott, a game designer and a homeschool mom of three. That’s about it. Those are the things that drive my life: a love of games, designing games, and guiding my kids in their educations.
Dinosaur Exhibit was my first (self-) published game, though it certainly wasn’t my first game concept. In its final form, it became a roll-and-write/tile-placement game for ages 6+. All players are museum curators trying to create the best dinosaur exhibit for their museum in hopes of receiving a keystone display — the newly discovered Spinosaurus skeleton.
Why I Started Designing Games
This is the first game that I designed and took all the way to market myself. This whole game designer endeavor started while playing games with my then-six-year-old during the pandemic. I rediscovered what games could be while playing with him, and I decided to try designing games that I thought all of my kids would enjoy more than what we were currently playing.
Thus began my journey as a designer. I was on a mission to create games that families enjoyed playing together, games that took kids seriously.
Night at the Museum
I had created other designs and prototypes before Dinosaur Exhibit, but this one seemed to have the most potential, especially with my kids, so I took that as a good sign. The concept was originally a card game about creating lots of exhibits in a museum, which came to mind after watching Night at the Museum. I couldn’t get that concept to work as it was, and around that time I played Lanterns Dice for the first time. It blew my mom brain to pieces. A tiny box game with a lot of decision space, dice, and polyomino tiles. I thought my museum game could become something similar, and if you’ve played both, you can see exactly where the inspiration came from.
At the time my three kids were (and still are) obsessed with dinosaurs, so I exchanged the general museum theme for just a dinosaur exhibit, with the Spinosaurus as the main attraction as it was my son’s favorite at the time.
And so the concept solidified…or maybe fossilized.
Creating a prototype for this game was quite an adventure, too. It was my first time trying to create and print components through online mediums instead of just blank cards and Sharpies. I learned so much about what is available to designers for all different stages of game development, but ultimately I ended up printing and laminating my own tiles and player sheets and putting my own stickers on blank dice — then I made multiple copies of that prototype. That was a lot of man hours.
Since I was trying to playtest this game in the middle of the pandemic, I couldn’t go anywhere or give it to groups of people, so I ended up mailing copies to families who were willing to blind test it and give me feedback. This was done over and over, and I played with my own family until they were sick of it.
So many changes were made during this phase. I listened to feedback from my playtesters, especially the kids.
Art I Cannot Create
I’m not much of an artist, and to give my game a fair shot in a saturated market, I wanted it to look professional, so I began the search for an artist. I contacted several and had some good interactions and a few samples sent my way, but most went silent after a while and I felt like my game would never see the light of day.
Eventually I found Jerry Padilla through a Facebook group, and I felt like I had hit the jackpot. He was fantastic to work with and knew exactly what he was doing. I would recommend him for just about any project.
The Kickstarter Route
I knew that I wanted to Kickstart the game and self-publish. I had several reasons for this:
1. An Investment in Myself — I saw the whole process as an investment in myself. I wanted to be a game designer, so I felt the need to prove that I could do it fully on my own, and to do so I needed to invest in myself. I went into it knowing full well I was probably (definitely) not going to make any money, and that was okay. It was about proving something to myself and putting my work out into the world so that I had something to show for it. There are a lot of games out there, and concepts and ideas are a dime a dozen, so I felt I needed to create something from start to finish.
2. Something to Show — I wanted to have a product that I could fall back on to show future publishers what I had already created on my own.
3. Discovering a Place in the Market — I also wanted to see whether there was a need for a game like this in the board game market: a very light game with children as the target audience, but that parents would be happy to play with their kids or as a light filler themselves. Like I said earlier, I want my games to be seen as games that take kids and families seriously. As it turns out, there seems to be a need for games like that.
My Life Post-Kickstarter
Since Dinosaur Exhibit funded on Kickstarter, I have been focusing strictly on designs, which is what I really love. I have pitched numerous concepts to lots of publishers, and just like all designers, have received much rejection and silence — but I have also had some good fortune.
I have since signed a preschool game with a children’s game publisher that will hopefully come out later in 2023. I also signed Dinosaur Exhibit itself and my newest game, Sharks!, with The Dietz Foundation. Sharks! funded on Kickstarter in March 2023 and will be available in late 2023. I continue to work every day, and I have lots of my own designs in various stages of development, as well as several co-design projects with another designer.
Who knows what the future will bring, whether that involves another Kickstarter project or not.
What’s Next for Dinosaur Exhibit
In March 2023, Dinosaur Exhibit received the Dice Tower Seal of Approval in a rapid review video with Camilla Cleghorn. That was some of the best unexpected news I have ever received. You can see the video here, with Dinosaur Exhibit coverage starting at 7:59:
Dinosaur Exhibit will be reprinted by The Dietz Foundation sometime in the future, though I don’t have a definite timeline yet.
Advice from Someone Who Maybe Shouldn’t be Giving Advice
I am by no means an expert on any of this, and I continue to learn as I go, but here are a few things that I have learned over the years that might help if you’re beginning a journey in game design:
• Always ask your questions. One thing I have learned is that most people in the board game industry — and especially game design — are kind, want to help you, and are happy to answer questions, even the questions you think are dumb. Ask them anyway. I have met some incredible people just by asking the questions my inquiring mind wanted to know and putting myself out there.
• Play as many games as you can. There are so many games out there right now that you can’t possibly play them all, but play as many as you can. You never know when a mechanism or a theme or even just a single card will strike the match of inspiration in your brain.
• Pitch as often as you can. This is hard advice for me to follow myself. I am a naturally quiet person and have a hard time pitching my ideas and essentially telling a publisher why them should buy my concept. The more I do it, the more confident and better I get at streamlining my thoughts and pitches.
I want to reiterate that I am no expert. I’m just trying to navigate the world of game design and put my ideas out into the world, but I would love to talk about any of this. I am most active on my Family.Boardgaming Instagram. Thanks for following along!
Image: Sebastian Ernst