Children's Toy & Media Reviews Since 1978

The Art of Making (and Playing) Games Featuring Game Inventor Susan McKinley Ross

Finding a good game is hard work. Though your family might own dozens of games, it’s likely that only a fraction of those get pulled off the shelf regularly. Designing a good game is even harder. The best games, the most playable and replayable, represent extensive design work and testing. Each game has an inventor, one who works carefully to get the mechanism and look of each new game right. One of those inventors is Susan McKinley Ross of game and toy development company Idea Duck. She is the woman behind such successful games as Parents’ Choice Gold Award winner Qwirkle and Parents’ Choice Silver Award winner Color Stix. A look through her toy and game portfolio reveals even more Parents’ Choice Award winners, including Hoot Owl Hoot, Fish Stix, and Skippity.

Susan McKinley Ross recently spoke to Parents’ Choice about how she became a game and toy developer, her process for inventing new games, and her tips for playing games with family and friends.

On inventing and designing games

Susan McKinley Ross
Susan McKinley Ross of Idea Duck

Susan wasn’t always a game and toy designer. While working in an administrative role at the toy catalog HearthSong, Susan heard about a call for toy ideas from within the company. No one had ever given her such an opportunity, and by the time she was finished brainstorming, she had two hundred product ideas to submit. Five became toys and, after being trained in product development, Susan became an in-house toy and game product developer at HearthSong.

Decorate a Snowman Kit
Decorate a Snowman Kit

When HearthSong was bought by another company and moved out of state, Susan stayed in California and began her successful freelance career. Susan brainstormed many names for her freelance product development company before choosing Idea Duck. It helped that her husband Chris Ross, who now works for Idea Duck too, liked the name. But mostly, Susan liked the cultural significance and cheerful nature of the rubber ducky, an absolutely classic toy.

At first Susan drew inspiration primarily from other products, and she browsed as many products as possible to see both what already existed and what had yet to be made. This worked well for her, and the first Idea Duck creation, a Decorate a Snowman Kit, won a Parents’ Choice Award. As she matured as a designer, Susan began to become saturated by what was already out there. She now finds herself feeling most inspired at times when she is least burdened.  On vacation, perhaps, or when she’s just completed a big project.

QwirkleWhen working on a new game, Susan is usually inspired by game mechanics. Though her husband Chris might design thematic games like Parents’ Choice Award winner Destination USA, her games are more abstract. Once the game mechanics are settled, Susan focuses on creating a prototype. She’s taken woodworking classes and studied design in order to be able to create good prototypes for her games. That’s her biggest advice to future game designers: Before pitching your game to publishers, create a prototype that looks as close as possible to how you imagine the final version will look. That way there will be “less confusion” and you’ll have more control over the final version of the product.

On playing games

Hoot Owl Hoot!Now that she designs games professionally, does Susan still play them for fun? Of course! She and Chris have hosted a monthly game night since 1998. Her favorite games are German-style games like Dominion or Puerto Rico. She also enjoys Pandemic which, like her game Hoot Owl Hoot, is a cooperative game. It’s “just as challenging working together” to win a game she says, and playing a cooperative game can be very refreshing.

We asked Susan whether she had any parting thoughts about playing and designing games. “Kids are really great about learning games. They’re used to it,” says Susan. Though parents may sometimes be intimidated by lengthy instruction sets for new games, kids won’t necessarily feel that way, since they are so used to learning new things every day. Susan said she admires parents who teach their kids new games. Working through the rules of a complex new game is a great bonding and learning experience.

And if a game’s rules are simply too complex or unclear to be practical, McKinley Ross would like to remind parents that rules are not carved in stone. “Parents and kids do well at adapting game rules to fit their needs,” she says. That process of game customization can be more creative, more fun, and more memorable than worrying about following written directions to a T.