As part of our December Spotlight on Ducks in Tow, we strive to inform readers of little extra tidbits surrounding the game. Games are made by people, and one of those tidbits we enjoy is learning a little bit more about the people behind them. Some designers shy away from the public stage, while others enjoy being front and center.
When it comes to designer Stephanie Kwok, she’s all for letting the results speak for themselves. As part of the small Vancouver based publishing group First Fish Games, her primary focus is always first and foremost wanting to ensure they’re making a game that people will enjoy. That remains true whether it was the company’s initial collaborative design or with Ducks in Tow itself, her first solo title. And she’s pretty happy with the results. Bolstered by its mix of appealing, approachable, family-weight pick-up-and-deliver style mechanics with her lifelong adoration for all things water fowl, there is a definite sense of pride – and relief – in finally being able to get the resulting game into people’s hands after trying to manufacture and fulfill a Kickstarter campaign during a pandemic. While she’s more than happy to talk about the group’s projects, at the end of the day, she wants people to enjoy themselves.
Luckily, with Ducks in Tow that’s not hard to do. With a game centered almost exclusively around feeding ducks in an effort to have them follow you around a park to various locations, accentuated by excellent visuals in the process, the game’s charm is self-evident from the start. It seemed clear from the first time we saw it that this seemed to be one of those titles with particular meaning to its designer. Hence why we sought a few minutes with Stephanie out in the middle of the holiday season to chat about how the premise behind this affable little title waddled into existence and the path it took to make it a reality. Though it took a little time to accomplish in December, thankfully due to the wonders of modern technology that didn’t involve us having to fly ourselves out there to do it (insert arms are tired joke here). We share part of that conversation with you today.
Round One Questions
CR: What was your Gateway Game?
That’s hard to decide – it’s between Catan and Dominion.
CR: What was the last game you really enjoyed playing (besides your own titles)?
QE was definitely a surprise. When it was mentioned to me, I wasn’t sure it would interest me but it was quite enjoyable!
CR: How big is your game collection?
At least 400, though it could easily be higher. I haven’t logged a bunch of new games that keep arriving.
CR: What is your favorite type of game to play?
Euro-style games mostly.
CR: How do you feel about Monopoly?
Haha, pretty indifferent! I definitely played it when I was a kid but probably wouldn’t play it now.
On Ducks in Tow
CR: First of all, yay ducks! The origins behind the game’s theme seem to emanate directly from you as its designer.What was the inspiration behind this game’s theme and setting?
I am a lover of all things ducks. I have collected duck related things since I was a baby. I think my aunt got me a stuffed duck when I was a baby and it just exploded from there. The theme itself is based off my experiences visiting a local bird sanctuary that has hundreds of ducks that you can feed. Some are more comfortable with humans than others and are willing to eat straight out of your hand.
CR: We know it’s the opposite coast from you, but have you ever by chance read Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey? Because that’s the first thing we think about every time we look at this game. Well, and grapes…
I haven’t heard of it actually, but I’ll take a look!
CR: Some of the game’s early remarks included highlighting it as a Euro-style game that’s propelled by its thematic underpinnings. When you play a game, do you tend to be drawn in more to the mechanics side first or to its theme? And how does that influence you as a designer?
I am a very theme first player and designer. I try really hard to have the theme heavily integrated with the gameplay. This isn’t always possible, but it’s definitely my highest priority. I’m also very attracted to amazing artwork – this has led me to purchase games based on artwork alone without knowing anything about the game itself.
CR: Ducks in Tow is a rather charming game about feeding ducks and getting them to follow you around. How important was it to you to get that flavor-to-gameplay balance just right, and how did you know when you had it right where you wanted it?
It’s always hard to design a game with enough strategy to be enticing to experienced players but still fit a lighthearted theme like feeding ducks. It’s something we always tend to do: start off overloading the game with all the mechanics we want to implement, but then we seem to enjoy more lighthearted themes so we have to shave the game down quite a bit to fit the theme. During the development of Ducks in Tow we definitely got stuck for a while. Luckily we had a few very experienced designers able to help us playtest and figure out what we needed to do to reach the finish line.
CR: To that end, how often do you make up stories about the ducks following you around during a game? Can you share what one of the more memorable anecdotes to that end would be?
When I watch people play they often enjoy coming up with stories or names for the ducks that they feed and lead around, which is amazing. I think the theme is a very comfortable and easy theme for people to really get in to.
CR: One of the more visually notable elements to the game is the inclusion of transparent overlay Formation cards. How did those come to be included in the game’s design, and has their inclusion changed at all throughout development?
This is a feature I’m actually quite proud of, but they weren’t really added until near the end of development. We were at a point in the development where we wanted just a little bit more strategy available for players. The formation cards add just that extra little bit to make the game more enticing to experienced players.
CR: We know that the Kickstarter version of the game came with a mini expansion called The Angry Goose. Was this done just because of the comparative nature of geese to ducks, or a more of a nod to that popular goose game whose name eludes us…
In earlier versions of the game, we had a goose that would move around the board and cause trouble for the ducks, but we didn’t want any bad feelings for players while they were playing so we removed it. But we really wanted to include a goose somehow since we are Canadian and therefore needed a Canadian Goose somewhere in the game. However, the base game itself was at such a good point where we didn’t want to mess with the design. We figured players would probably want more cards to add to the game, both for more replayability and also for an added layer of depth. The timing of that video game was just a happy coincidence.
CR: The delivery period for Ducks in Tow is a very different environment than when the campaign was originally run and comes in an environment markedly different than the first two First Fish titles. What sort of obstacles did you run into fulfilling Ducks in Tow during a pandemic, if any, and how did the overall project compare to your first two?
This was definitely an interesting year. We originally launched the Kickstarter at a time where we could get stock in time for the big summer conventions like Origins and Gen Con. But due to the pandemic, all conventions were cancelled and manufacturing ended up being delayed. Normally I would have been very upset that we didn’t get our stock in time to sell at the conventions – which would have been the first year we at First Fish would have actually made a real profit – but the pandemic had other plans for us all. Still, even though the manufacturing was delayed, it was sort of a blessing in disguise since the conventions were cancelled anyways.
CR: Finally, after finding some refreshing solace in these duck ponds, where does that take you next as a designer and publisher?
It’s been a tough year, to be honest. While many designers and publishers have been very motivated this year, since everyone is basically working from home, I haven’t really been that motivated to do much designing. With next year’s conventions being uncertain, I worry that without being present in person, it will be hard for us to grow. Since we are very small, we rely heavily on in-person exposure to be able to show people our products. Without the firm deadline of needing to show off “the next new thing” at conventions, I find it hard to be motivated. We do have projects planned with other designers, but as for my own designs, they are kind of at a standstill.
CR: We completely understand. After all, 2020 was, well, 2020. That’s all that really needs to be said there. And in the meantime we still have some ducks!
We recognize that for lots of us in the northern climates picking a game about strolling through a park feeding ducks is not exactly one that screams ‘winter season’. But beyond it featuring several elements that were worthy of its Spotlight selection, we also were really grateful to end 2020 on a positive note. The serendipity of these two factors coalescing around Ducks in Tow was simply too good to pass up. In this lightweight game, your main focus is luring ducks from one location to another on the board in order to fulfill various Location cards which will score you points, and its wonderful combination of simple concept with appealing artwork and too-adorable duck meeples is just lovely. It’s a lovely little game that’s inviting, calming, and fun. And we couldn’t think of a better way to end this year than with that combination of positive feelgoodery.
Naturally we tried to come up with a clever or silly premise to highlight the game, but at the end of a very long year, we’re more than happy to skip the puffery and let the game’s appeal speak for itself by raffling off a copy of the game in celebration. Which you can enter at the link below!