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We caught up with Omari to find out more about his approach to game design – and delve into how he translated a smash hit song into an engaging tabletop experience.
Omari Akil is a game designer and co-founder of Colorway Game Labs, a design studio and publisher focused on producing games that represent and celebrate black culture.
Following self-published titles like Rap Godz and Hoop Godz, Omari’s most recent game is Summertime, published by WizKids and based on the song by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
We caught up with Omari to find out more about his approach to game design – and delve into how he translated a hit song into an engaging tabletop experience.
Hi Omari, great to connect. To kick us off, how did you get started in the world of game design?
When I was a little kid, I cared about games more than anything else. It was hard to pull me away from them, both board games and video games. Because of my connection to video gaming, that’s where I decided I wanted to work, so I studied computer science. I ended up working in tech, but I never found a path to the video gaming jobs I was most interested in.
So how did the board game design path present itself?
I’d been playing board games again and was watching things like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, then my brother came to me with an idea he had for a hip-hop board game. I had to seriously think about it… Can we actually create a game? That’s how I got started in this space and how Rap Godz was born.
Talk us through the development of the game, because hip-hop is quite a refreshing theme for a tabletop game.
We 100% knew it was a special opportunity. The difficulty was that there were some very unique expectations we had to manage with regards to translating this topic into a board game experience. As an example, when we tell someone that we made a hip-hop board game, there’s usually an assumption that you have to perform a rap as part of the game! In our marketing, we made sure to let people know there’s no rapping required. It’s more about telling a hip-hop story.
To help deal with those expectations, we intentionally combined a lot of simple, familiar mechanics to make the game approachable for both new and seasoned gamers. We wanted to ensure that when someone sits down to play Rap Godz, it felt mechanically comfortable – so then the hip-hop element added a fun flavour on top of everything. We focused on integrating the theme and mechanics as often as possible, while also making the game feel approachable, even for players who were unfamiliar with the theme.
You self-published Rap Godz, but did you ever toy with the idea of licensing it to a publisher?
We made this decision twice! The first time we were thinking about this, I was working in tech and my brother was a full-time dad, so we thought we should probably have a publisher take this game. We didn’t know if we’d have the time or interest to become a publisher… We just wanted to design games!
That was our first decision, but as we further defined what the game was, we started to doubt that we’d find a company that could create the vision we had for it. That started to sink in and so we had the big conversation and decided to do this ourselves. We also knew that by starting a company, we could further our vision for more black culture to be represented in the industry. It felt like we’d have more impact pushing for that as a publisher, rather than as designers.
Amazing. For anyone new to Colorway Game Labs – formally Board Game Brothas – what sorts of games are you passionate about creating?
We’re creating games that we hope will be more holistic expressions of black culture. Our target market is likely going to be new to this type of gaming and we don’t have a passion for creating party games, so we’re effectively a gateway games company. All of our games have to be easy enough to grasp for someone that has never seen or played a hobby game before. We can’t just present these themes; we have to have accessible gameplay.
Did having this strategy in place helped steer where you wanted to go with your follow-up game, Hoop Godz?
Absolutely, although we had to take a slightly different approach because it’s a sports game. People had to relate to it from a sports perspective. It was a little more complex, but that was necessary to really ensure it had a basketball feel. That was the most important piece of that, because we’ve all played sports games that are great games, but don’t particularly feel like the sport. That’s what we wanted to avoid. We wanted basketball fans to feel intensely connected to what’s happening in the game.
Your latest game is Summertime, the official game of the hit song by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. It’s not a brand that I imagine many people would’ve expected to make the leap into board games, so how did it come about?
The brand came to us. I’d been in the gaming community for a while, and WizKids saw that we were creating some pretty unique games. They got access to that licence and reached out to us to see if we had a design that would match with the DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince brand.
We had a few ideas, and the one that became Summertime was originally called Graffiti Knights. That game struggled because it never felt like the experience we wanted people to have. We put it on the shelf and said we’ll come back to it, and we did exactly that when this licence came up.
What was the process like translating Graffiti Knights into Summertime? Lots of listening to the song I imagine!
We listened to all of the songs they put out, and there were a few key ones that we knew would connect with people; Summertime being one of them. We also actually had a version for Parents Just Don’t Understand.
Oh really! Was it radically different to where you got to with Summertime?
It had similar mechanics, but it was a very weird pitch for a game, so we moved away from Parents Just Don’t Understand and towards Summertime. It was a great fit – it was almost obvious. Graffiti Knights was about a group of artists going to different spots and you’d see who could tag a spot based on the strength of their graffiti crew. In Summertime, they’re also going around to various spots and in each spot they have something to prove. It fit way better than we ever could have imagined.
From there, it was about taking the mechanics and make them work better for what Summertime is all about. That process actually streamlined and simplified the game, which was great.
Was it a case of trying to capture the vibe and feel of the song, or was it important that the story and the lyrics were present in the game?
It was both. At first, it was about the vibe, and I must’ve listened to Summertime about a thousand times over the course of designing the game! It was about understanding what the song was about, and that involved putting myself back in that time. The party scene back then was different… No cell phones!
Understanding the song actually helped us come up with the win condition. The song is not just about DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince; they have an entourage. If you watch the video, there is a community of people joining in the day they’re having, so we had players be part of that community, following them around. That became the premise of the game. You want to be part of their crew.
And to your question, we did dig through the lyrics and found all the words that are evocative from that song. We wanted to use as much language in the game itself.
Can you still enjoy the song Summertime or have you exhausted that one?
Ha! It’s been six months since I last listened to it so I’m totally ready to listen to it again!
That’s a relief! Do you think Summertime has the potential to bring new audiences into board games? And do you think we’ll see more brands with audiences that haven’t been catered for in gaming embrace the tabletop space?
It’s a really interesting question. With Summertime, WizKids certainly understood the number of untapped potential customers out there. They knew it was an opportunity to broaden their audience and have inclusivity be a part of that.
That said, it’s very difficult to say whether or not one brand or licence will have the power to pull people into the hobby side of the industry. When we introduced Rap Godz to new tabletop gamers, there were a lot of people who loved the game, but they may continue to be casual gamers who likely only buy a few games in their gaming lifetime. There’s potential to bring in a lot of those types of customers, but whether you can get them more ingrained in the hobby market, that’s still a big question mark for me.
I don’t know how to do that and a part of my hesitation to try and do that is that I mostly want to meet people where they are. We’ve had conversations about Rap Godz, in terms of if it’s the only game that someone owns and plays for the next five years, do we feel good about that? And in hobby, people buy a lot of games, but we don’t tend to spend a lot of time replaying games. For me, it’s about making games for a variety of consumers, no matter where they’re at.
Are there other brands that you think could be ripe for a board game adaption?
There are so many brands and so many opportunities. Look at Octavia Butler’s Patternist series of books… I was reading Wild Seed and the entire time I was thinking that there was so much content there that would work in a board game. There are so many opportunities like that; people with passionate fanbases and incredibly creative products that board games can tap into.
If Heinz Tomato Ketchup can get its own board game, then there’s hope for other brands! On that, are you open to designing more licensed games?
I think we’ll continue to do both. Our focus on creating our own IPs has been important for us, in terms of establishing our own brand that can create worlds. We want to be known as being capable of doing that, but we also see the value of working with brands.
Getting to tap into things that you already love is special, so we’ll try to always work with brands that we already care about. We got to spend a lot of time delving into the library of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and understand more about what they were doing as artists. It’s so much fun digging into a brand that you love and you can create great games in that space.
Amazing. This has been great Omari. My last question before I let you is how do you fuel your creativity?
Lockdown has made things tougher, but what has helped is music. Music has continuously inspired me to go in different directions. There’ll be a line in a song that will trigger a game-related thought. I’ve been listening to a lot of different kinds of music too, like K-pop. If there’s so many unique and fun ways to create music, there’s likely just as many fun ways to create games.
Great point to end on. A huge thanks again Omari – I’m looking forward to catching up again soon. And for anyone interested in learning more about Colorway Game Labs, you can do so via the links below:
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