Meet the Creatives Behind Uk’otoa!
Here at Darrington Press, we have the pleasure to work with a wide variety of talented creators to bring our games to life. We’d love to share some of that gift with you!
Our very first game, Uk’otoa, features sailors aboard a sinking vessel, cooperating and competing to be the last standing in the face of the devastating sea leviathan, Uk’otoa. Pick up a copy at Critical Role shops (US, UK, CA, and AU) and friendly local game stores in the US, or take a virtual tour with our How to Play and Let’s Play videos.
Let’s meet several of the bright minds behind Uk’otoa!
Game Design—Jeb Havens has been professionally designing games and software since 2003, for companies such as Google, Disney, Marvel, and more. He also leads game design workshops and has given a variety of lectures about game design and cognitive science. His multiple award-winning board games include the GAMES-100-honored Burrows (Z-Man Games), Mother Sheep (Playroom Entertainment), and the crowd-funded party game You Don’t Know My Life!
Game Art—Hannah Friederichs is a freelance artist and graphic designer out of Phoenix. Her hobbies include history, design, typography, and Napoleonic Era war stories. She has studied at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and apprenticed as a jeweler. You may also recognize her work from the official character art of both Exandria Unlimited and Critical Role Campaign 3!
Additional Game Design—Gabriel Hicks is a game designer, cosplayer, and dungeon master. He’s worked on Pathfinder, Starfinder, Flames of Freedom, Arcadia, Kingdoms and Warfare, and plenty of other game projects, but that doesn’t stop his passion for creativity in costuming. “You can tell a story in a hundred ways so find the most fun way for you.”
Layout—Vee Hendro is a game and graphic designer specializing in roleplaying projects based in Sydney, Australia. When she’s not at her desk, you can catch her on a bouldering wall or a long bushwalk. Her portfolio is online at veerpgdesigns.com
And without further ado, let’s hear some words from these creatives!
Jeb, Uk’otoa has a storied past: tell us a little about the process of how Uk’otoa’s game design came to be!
Jeb: The core design for the game came to me about 10 years ago. I wanted to combine the accelerating tension of games like Forbidden Island with some new semi-cooperative mechanics I’d been experimenting with. For years, the design existed as an abstract paper prototype that I played with my family. One year, for Christmas, my brother got me a small plastic squid figure to use as the “monster”, and it instantly became known as “The Squid Game.” When I worked at Google, my team and I would do board game lunches and game nights, playing a lot of “The Squid Game.” Ivan Van Norman happened to come to one of those game nights and play. From there, the game design went dormant for a few years, until Ivan got the opportunity to head up Darrington Press and thought back to “The Squid Game,” realizing it was a perfect match for Uk’otoa. Needless to say, the design has taken a wild journey over the last decade, but I couldn’t be happier with the home it’s finally found.
Hannah, tell us about the process of bringing the creature Uk’otoa into its final visual form! How did you think about the realities and anatomies of an enormous, ominous, 9-eyed sea leviathan?
Hannah: We actually came to Uk’otoa very late in the process. We started with bits and pieces of it in the playing cards before I fully accepted that it would have to be conceptualized as a cohesive whole. At that point, I spent some time staring into the depths of the thalassophobia subreddit, followed by researching how real life terrifying sea creatures move through the water, all before I even started putting pen to paper on anatomy. I’d never really done any concept work before, so I’m sure my method was unorthodox, but I ended up making a sketch sheet with a few methods of tentacle organization, a few types of fins/frills, several eyes, and a couple suggestions for how Uk’otoa might move through the water. The creative team circled what they liked and the rest is history! Once there was Canon Uk’otoa, I was eager to show everyone, of course, so it eventually became the star of the box art, and the biggest, most complex piece I’d ever done.
Gabe, you’re a game designer as well as streamer, writer, and cosplayer. When you get into the mechanics of game design, are you also thinking about the narrative and story of the work?
Gabe: Absolutely! Narrative and mechanics should go hand in hand. They don’t have to be equally involved, but they need to exist together. I almost always start with narrative so I can build a scope of the world and experience. Then I’ll start pulling in mechanics that already exist and note whatever doesn’t complete the entire process. That is when I start to build new ones to fit the gaps. After the mechanics have been nailed down, I start covering the rest of the mechanic pie with narrative feeling in any empty spaces and a fun crust to layer it off. Mechanics are literally just storytelling tools, in so many ways, so whenever I’m designing I want to give people tools they can enjoy and use.
Vee, you work all over the tabletop space: you do game design, graphic design, layout, and more. You typically work in roleplaying games, so how was it to do layout art for the board game Uk’otoa? Can you tell us about principles that guide your work in this role?
Vee: Board games were my first love before I was fully immersed in roleplaying, so it was a real joy to work on Uk’otoa. It felt very satisfying to return to a familiar format with the added benefit of all the skills I’d accumulated in other areas. Uk’otoa in particular was a project rooted in both board games and RPGs, but I’ve always found that my layout designs pull from my experience with both. As a designer, I think having a lot of varied experience can be a real boon.
My guiding star as a designer is user experience. I’m always considering how players will interact with and experience the game. My job as a designer is to make that a smoother, more pleasant, more joyful experience. What information can I add on this card to make it easier to remember how it functions? How should the rulebook pages break up for better flow? What should be here that isn’t?
And a question for all of you—what are you playing these days? (Or wishing to play!)
- Jeb: I’m a huge fan of guessing games like Wavelength and Codenames. And during the pandemic, have been playing a lot of light 2-player games with my husband like Azul, MyCity, and Patchwork.
- Hannah: Nothing really beats favorites like Betrayal at House on the Hill or Gloomhaven. I also finally played Alice is Missing, and it was as good as they say.
- Gabe: I’ve been playing a bunch of Ironsworn, and living out my best Viking Age life. I just ended a game of Vampire The Masquerade for the first time and getting to delve into that dark world was so exciting! Digitally though, I’ve been all over No Man’s Sky because space is just a beautiful place to explore.
- Vee: I’m usually a fan of longer boardgames like Spirit Island, Nations, or Eclipse, but towards the end of the year I rarely fit them in! So I’m making do with casual runs of Slay the Spire or Hades until I can have a proper tabletop night.
Where can folks find you and your work?
- Jeb: People can find more about me and my work on my website. I do freelance design, consulting work, advising, and am always down for an exciting collaboration. This past year, my startup released a free tournament app called “TallyUP!” where you can win real money by beating other players in quick minigames that are like tiny little distilled 2-minute strategy games. Also, I co-created and crowd-funded You Don’t Know My Life!, a party game where you get to know a lot more about your friends and hear the stories you’ve never heard. And during the pandemic, we turned it into a virtual game show experience to help groups of friends, co-workers, and families connect and laugh with one another. You can learn more or book a game night at: www.youdontknowmylife.com
- Hannah: I’m mostly on Twitter @agarthanguide, where you can see the work I’ve been up to on Critical Role Campaign 3!
- Gabe: I’m across the internet @GabeJamesGames. You can find me through Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and pretty much anywhere else! I also have my website, where you can check out what I’m working on lately because there’s always something.
- Vee: For roleplaying games, you can find me as one half of Storybrewers Roleplaying. We’ve recently completed a reprint of Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG. If you’re into love and longing of the rather scandalous variety, you’ll love this collaborative storytelling game. There’s even an epistolary phase where you write in-character letters to each other! I’m also on Twitter @Rocketeer_Vee.
We are so grateful to all of these creatives for their work on Uk’otoa and their time for this interview! We hope you enjoyed meeting these creatives as much as we enjoyed working with them.