PAX AUS INDIE SHOWCASE 2023 – Saltfish & Almanacs
The PAX AUS Indie Showcase is a chance to see some of the best new and upcoming titles from the ANZ digital and tabletop development scene, with past winners including such celebrated games as Unpacking, Hollow Knight, Yum Cha and many more. The 2023 Indie Showcase is shaping up to be another highlight of the event and Player2 encourages visitors to PAX AUS to make their way to the PAX Rising area and check out the following title, as well as the many other excellent indies on display.
Saltfish & Almanacs is the fourth in the Littlebox line from Australian indie tabletop roleplaying company Storybrewers Roleplaying. Designed by company founders Hayley Gordon and Vee Hendro, this married design duo specialise in collaborative and emotive designs which also seek to entice newcomers into the roleplaying space. Player2 spoke to Hayley about their Indie Showcase win and the joys and challenges of design.
Player2: Hi Hayley & Vee, congratulations and thanks for speaking to Player 2! What was your reaction when being told Saltfish & Almanacs had won a spot in the Indie Showcase?
Vee: We were stoked! It was a double whammy for us as that same week Saltfish & Almanacs won Best Rules at IGDN’s Indie Groundbreaker Awards. I remember feeling so proud of the work and love we’d put into it.
Hayley: We’re very honoured to be a part of PAX’s Indie Showcase and very excited for the opportunity to present our game to a wider audience.
Player2: Where did the idea for Saltfish & Almanacs spring from – was it a mechanics or theme first situation? What does your design and development process look like?
Hayley: Definitely theme first. We’d been wanting to make a merchant game for a while after being inspired by the show Spice and Wolf. However, even when you have the idea for a game, it’s not always clear what kind of game it wants to be until you start to dream of a mechanical implementation of it. If we have the general idea for a game, we’ll start casually, here and there in our lives, bringing it up and start tossing around some ideas of how we might go about it. For example, for Saltfish we might consider “For that merchant game, do we really want to model the money part of it, or do we want it to be more about the experience of travelling?”
Vee: That part is so fun. We’ll have hours long walk and talks where we follow random trains of thought, and come up with a million ideas that will definitely not work until we hit the ones that do. After a long period of this, the idea matures into something more concrete. That’s when it transitions from being “that merchant game” to “Saltfish & Almanacs” and the more ‘formal’ development process starts, with targeted brainstorming, decisions being made, playtests run, etc. (If you’re interested in that we did a short talk on the topic available here) But a lot of the earlier part looks a lot more like daydreaming.
Player2: Kramer & Kiesling, Tascini & Luciani, The Brands – it’s not uncommon in the gaming world for co-designs to be some of the most acclaimed titles around. What are the benefits and challenges for you both when working in such a design partnership and do you have a favourite design duo?
Vee: It’s no surprise that co-designs can lead to really quality games. I love the work of Kate Hymes and Hakan Seyalıoğlu of Thorny Games. Having a design partner can help you think more creatively, keep you motivated and on track, and be a reliable sounding board to new approaches and ideas. Hayley and I have been partners in many things, for many years. We’re friends, we’re married, now we work together as business partners, and we manage a creative partnership designing games too. These are all so different but so intertwined, and for me, it can be a challenge to keep things in balance! But I think we’re pretty good at it now. My biggest tip is to learn to communicate well with your partner. Nothing else compares to honest, open, and respectful dialogue! It feels good to have someone else as invested in a creative work as you are, and while it can be frustrating when your ideas clash, overcoming those differences will enrich the game, and it is so rewarding to make something together. That’s a big part of the draw of roleplaying games too – that different voices enrich the story, and coming together to tell a story together is the best part.
Player2: Tabletop RPG’s aren’t something I have much experience in, but a lot of what the Storybrewers are putting out, especially in the Littlebox line, somewhat defies my expectations in the most positive way. What is it that draws you to this particular medium?
Hayley: In my mind everyone has the ability to tell a great story no matter their familiarity with the rules or setting. The Littlebox format breaks down the barrier of preparation and pre-reading and puts everyone on an equal footing as they play. It also breaks down the division between “GM” and player, which I like for a short game because it means everyone can enjoy really flexing their story muscles. I really love reducing barriers to play. This kind of format lets me make game designs that can cater to that as its primary focus.
Vee: As well as graphic design, I really love product design and user design and really, all design. I think that the Littlebox format allows me to fulfil that itch creatively as well as delivering an approachable play experience I think is often lacking in roleplaying: the ability to crack open a box and play out a game in a couple of hours. Sometimes having limitations helps you to be more creative in your design and I think in some ways defining the Littlebox line as one-shot, out-of-the-box experiences was a useful limitation that allowed us to explore more creative game designs that stretch what tabletop RPGs can be.
Player2: Your previous co-design in the Littlebox series, Our Mundane Supernatural Life, seems to be a far more intimate experience at just two players with a very reasonable playtime. Do you think that these sorts of RPG’s are perhaps an underappreciated couple’s activity?
Vee: Definitely underrated! But you hit the nail on the head there in that Our Mundane Supernatural Life was built with that intimate duo experience in mind. It definitely made it easy and fun for us to playtest ourselves. (Look, I just wanted a break from trying to schedule 5 person tables!) If you’ve never tried roleplaying as a couple, it’s a fun thing to do! You discover so much about yourself and each other through storytelling together. And if you put real oomph and emotions into it, it’ll feel vulnerable but hopefully in a good way! I always joke that two-player only roleplaying is the best way to find out if you vibe with someone or not, it’d be my speed dating activity of choice for sure.
Hayley: That’s true – although I think two player games are underrated as a whole – it doesn’t have to be your partner. There’s a gentle fun in telling a story with one other person, you can craft a whole world together, or in this case a whole fictional life, and give each other the space for your storytelling styles to really blossom. It’s not that scary, as you have control over the experience together!
Player2: Where would you recommend newcomers to this sort of game start – is Saltfish & Almanacs well suited to first timers, or is there another Storybrewers title you think would be a great jumping in point?
Vee: If you’re a newcomer to roleplaying because you’re interested in a specific kind of story, I’d say jump into whatever does that thing! We get a lot of first-time roleplayers for our game Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG, and it often works out because their interest and passion is in regency tales.
Hayley: I do think if you’re more generally wondering if roleplaying is for you, the Littlebox games are a really good starting point that provide different standalone experiences in different genres and setting, all in a small package. We sell them together as a discounted bundle, so you can try games that drive into a range of themes and styles. If you’re giving RPGs a go for the first time, it’s worth trying more than one game and game group too – it can take a moment to find what’s right for you.
Player2: Watching the playthrough video for Our Mundane Supernatural Life, you have some absolute bangers on the game shelf behind you – what are some of your favourite tabletop games in any genre?
Vee: Why thank you, we do love our boardgaming! We actually started our tabletop hobby with boardgames, back in 2012. But gosh, I’m always so bad at picking favourites – I have a pretty wide taste and it’s hard to compare wildly different things. I played a lot of Android: Netrunner which still remains a really unique and awesome card game. I like streamlined euros and heavy strategy games when I have the brain space for them. But I also love how gaming can bring people together, one time I got three generations of my family into a game of Dixit and my mum still mentions how much she likes it whenever the topic of board games comes up.
Hayley: It really is hard, as you want different games for different moods. But if truly pressed, I will rep Spirit Island, Nations, and Concordia – none of which are underrated, they’re all classics!
Player2: How important has crowdfunding been in enabling Storybrewers to achieve your design and publishing goals?
Hayley: Without crowdfunding, we wouldn’t be able to make the games we make. We’re so grateful to the people who support our projects because without that support – whether it be backing our projects, playing our games, or sharing our work – our games might not be out there at all.
Player2: What can PAX AUS attendees look forward at the Saltfish & Almanacs booth? Will it be possible to purchase the game at the show?
Vee: Yes! We will be selling and running short demos of Saltfish, come down and give it a whirl! All the other games in our range will also be there, including our most recent release, Fight With Spirit: A Sports Drama RPG. We’re pretty friendly so we’re happy to chat about anything roleplaying. If you want to ask us specific questions about designing or running games, feel free to drop by in the quieter hours of the day as well and we’d be more than happy to answer them.
Player2: Hayley, Vee – thanks so much for talking to Player2! Congratulations again, on the win, I’m looking forward to checking out Saltfish & Almanacs at your booth!
PAX AUS Attendees can find the Saltfish & Almanacs booth in the PAX AUS Tabletop Indie Showcase section of PAX AUS from October 6-8. It can also be purchased right now from the Storybrewers online store.