She Writes the Recipes. You Play the Games
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Jenn Sandercock is on a mission to feed and entertain the world at the same time.
By Fiona Zublin
Jenn Sandercock, a game designer, estimates that she first had the kernel of her million-dollar idea nine years ago. What if she created an edible game, one that you could create in the kitchen and then eat as you play?
For years, the idea sat in the back of her mind. It was a display three years ago at IndieCade — basically the Sundance Film Festival for games — where she saw an escape game set in a café and imagined instead a café that itself was a game. “I had this vision of me opening up a café and you order from the menu and a game gets put down in front of you and it’s your food but it’s a game.” The overhead of opening an actual physical space would have been prohibitive, but, she says, it got her thinking: “Cookbooks are a lot more scalable.”
Kickstarter agreed. Sandercock hoped to raise $80,000 to produce the games. She ended up topping $100,000, with more than 1,600 backers (the average number of individual backers for successful Kickstarter projects was 255 as of 2017). She now has 140 volunteer “playtasters” checking the recipes in advance of the Edible Games Cookbook release this spring.
Sandercock’s recipes are modulated and varied for many levels of skill. Some involve patisserie, for those determined to show off choux pastry skills, while others (like one might try while reporting on a story about edible games) can be achieved with a packet of cookies, a jar of Nutella and a bag of M&M’s. That’s Flip ’n’ Stick, which takes about five minutes to set up and uses a game mechanic that’s sort of a cross between beer pong and squash. One can imagine setting these games up for a child’s birthday party, as part of an elaborate adult dinner event or maybe just if you’re alone and bored with one friend and some spare cookies and Nutella.
Sandercock has a decade of experience in the gaming industry but has never baked professionally before. She took to Twitter last year to describe another intersection of cake and gaming. While working for large Australian gaming developer Team Bondi, she brought in homemade cakes every week for an informal Cake Day — 30 minutes of coworkers from across the company chatting with each other. This continued until, she writes, her boss pulled her aside. “I was told that I was jeopardizing my career by continuing to make cakes for the office.” Higher-ups thought the cake was an indication that people weren’t working hard enough. Cake Day stopped, but it permanently shaped Sandercock’s ideas about a healthy working environment.
Today, in an industry known for crunch time and overwork, Sandercock focuses on her passion projects and works 40 hours a week. Her parents — a lawyer and a university lecturer — were workaholics, she says, and she learned from them that too much focus on your job isn’t healthy. Born in Melbourne, she lives in Seattle, working from a coworking space and also from her own kitchen, then taking time to snowboard on Wednesdays when the crowds tend to be thinnest.
Sandercock’s experience as a game designer has spanned many types and platforms. She started her own indie gaming studio, Inquisiment, and released a photo-sharing game called aglimpse: friends. She was also a coder on award-winning adventure game Thimbleweed Park and recently helped develop an Alexa-based game. But she says working on her own has helped her to distill three guiding principles. “I want to make games that are about friendship, curiosity and challenge,” she explains. So if a game is challenging but forces friends to turn on each other or lie to win, or if a game penalizes creative players who want to experiment with new tactics, she might change it.
One of the cookbook games is Patisserie Code, an escape game based on French pastry and a resistance scenario. It got an early playtest at Thirsty Dice, Philadelphia’s first board-game café, which opened in October. “A big part of the business plan for Thirsty Dice is to have these unique experience events,” explains Matt Hendricks, who runs the café. “With this, we wanted to create something really different, that nobody’s seen before.” Hendricks collaborated with his in-house pastry chef and Sandercock on the decor and pastries, with French flags on the tables and a specially designed pin attendees were awarded after they completed the game. While some groups struggled more than others, he says even those who had trouble with the puzzles “very much bought into the narrative … and I hope they thought the cream puffs were tasty.”
“I think people are interested,” says Simon Niedenthal, a lecturer at Malmö University in Sweden, who specializes in sensory games. “But at the moment they are outliers and they’re very niche.” For sensory games, he says, the challenge is to invent gameplay mechanics that put sensory experiences in the foreground. “With [Sandercock’s] games, it’s not just about the mouth experience. It’s about preparation. It’s about fellowship.” Her work, he says, is bringing sensory games forward, in a way that could make people think more deeply about how taste and eating play into the game rather than just using food as a gimmick or scene-setter for a more conventional game.
Sandercock’s games are more intense experiences than most board games. Some of her projects are complex to prepare, though she offers simpler variations, and could easily be presented as the centerpiece of a dinner party or prepared as a group as part of a comradely precursor to the game itself. But the gameplay is different too. Some of the factors you consider when playing her games almost never come up in traditional games. For example, you almost never have to consider when taking a piece whether you actually want to then eat that piece. Maybe you’re full. Maybe you wanted a different flavor. It changes the way you play — and likely helps stave off low blood sugar-fueled tantrums at game night.
Read more: How live action Mario Karting is going full throttle.