Behind The Board Games: Isaac Vega Of Plaid Hat Games

January 17, 2019 by cassn

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Isaac Vega entered the games industry back in 2010 and immediately began making waves. His first game City of Remnants was met with critical praise and since then he has gone from strength to strength, designing some of the biggest games in the industry today, including Dead of WinterAshes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, and Starship Samurai.

He has worked tirelessly to promote LGBT representation in gaming, and has included gay and transgender characters in his narratives. In this interview, Cass sits down with the designer to discuss innovation, inspiration, and LGBT inclusion.

Cass: When did you first know you wanted to be a games designer?

Isaac: It really hit me after I signed my first game City of Remnants. Once that contract was in my hands the idea of becoming a game designer professionally became real. There were still some doubts along the way but every day that I put into helping Plaid Hat Games grow it made the dream more real.

C: Tell us a bit about your design process. Where do you start when coming up with a game like Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn or Dead of Winter?

I: I tend to get inspired by playing other games and absorbing other forms of entertainment. The more I see others do, the more it pumps me up to do the same. I usually start by getting right into it and building a prototype. I try to make the idea a reality as quickly as possible so that it can start becoming something that I can play around with and get other people excited about.

C: What are you currently playing?

I: Scythe: Rise of Fenris, Azul, Codenames, and prototypes, prototypes, prototypes!

C: You have been a trailblazer for LGBT inclusion in the gaming industry and many budding designers look up to you, but who do you regard as your inspiration?

I: To be honest, when I first started off I didn’t really know much about the industry, so I didn’t have many people on my radar to take great inspiration from. As I have grown, the people that have grown alongside me have been my greatest inspiration. It’s why I think that people I draw the most inspiration from today are the people that are new in the industry. The fire and excitement that they have inspire me. I appreciate those that came before me, and the opportunities and advice they have given me, but the truth is the ones that give me the most drive are the people who are just discovering the magic of tabletop games.

C: As an openly gay man growing up with an interest in games, how did you feel about the absence of relatable characters and narratives?

I: It’s hard to say. I couldn't really be myself when I was young. I didn’t really come out to everyone until I was 26. I felt alone in the world when I was young like I didn’t belong. The absence of relatable characters just reinforced the world I was living in at the time. I know that some part of me craved it.

I remember when the video game Fable came out, it was the first game that I played where I could choose to be gay. When my brother found out I had married a man in the game I remember I lied and said it was because I could get better equipment. I didn’t want him to find out it was because I was gay. That I wanted to marry a man. That it made me happy to be able to at least pretend that I could.

It’s not until now as an adult that I can see the power of it. How much I would have benefited from having more examples of characters I could look up to and play as. Seeing more stories of people like me would have made me feel less alone. Seeing others who weren't like me play as characters who where would have made me feel like I was good. Like I was a character worth being. Like I was normal. Like I could be part of a good story. I wish I would have had that when I was young.

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C: Dead of Winter (which includes in-game homosexual relationships) and the expansion The Long Night (which features a transgender character) have, quite literally, become game-changers for the industry. Your conscious decision to include diverse sexualities have greatly advanced LGBT inclusion in gaming. Were you ever met with any resistance during development? 

I: I have been lucky that I work with people that support my vision on my projects and encourage the inclusion of diversity in my designs. However there has been resistance, and representation doesn’t just happen. It is a constant, conscious effort to make sure it takes place. There is still work to be done, internally and externally to ensure a greater amount of representation. As long as we live in a world where there is an imbalance of power, diversity will always be met with resistance, but it is a fight worth fighting and I am lucky enough to have people battling alongside me most of the time.

C: Of course, when it comes to your games, you’re not only a board game designer - you’re also a talented art director. You’ve worked closely with Fernanda Suarez on illustrations for Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn and Dead of Winter, but how essential do you think quality artwork is for game design?

I: Incredibly essential. Especially in the market that we are in now. In many cases, art is the way that we can tell our stories in games. Having good art only assists in telling that story and connecting our games and characters to wider audiences.

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C: What would you like to see in the future to further advance LGBT inclusion in gaming?

I: I would like to see more LGBTQ designers, content creators, social media managers, CEOs, and reviewers being part of the industry. I think that the more people that are front facing, telling their stories, creating, and sharing the love for this hobby will do wonders for making it a more inclusive experience for everyone who is LGBTQ that is interested in being a part of it.

C: Do you have any advice for other game designers aspiring to break into the industry?

I: Be yourself, work hard, and never forget that games are awesome and are meant to bring people together.

C: What are you currently working on, and what can we expect from you in 2019?

I: You won't see anything new from me in 2019. My focus is on 2020 projects that I can't talk about, unfortunately. But don't worry, I promise it will be worth the wait. Arrr!

Do you think the industry has become more inclusive?

"Be yourself, work hard, and never forget that games are awesome and are meant to bring people together!"

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