With the final twelfth of 2018 starting soon, I'm embarking on the annual challenge of voiding my inbox. Messages pile up in the weeks ahead of a con when I'm trying to push through whatever is most critical, then more messages hit while I'm away at the show, then I get back home and I'm on to whatever is next, with older email left to compost underneath whatever has been sent most recently. Each month I send myself dozens of notes about games that I see in passing, but since many of those games aren't time-sensitive or relevant to whatever convention is coming, I might not write about those games for months — or ever.
One such game I saw in passing was Rolnicy, with "rolnicy" being the Polish word for "farmers". Rolnicy is a card game version of Jeffrey D. Allers' 2009 board game Heartland, with this new game — released in Q3 2018 — existing solely in a Polish edition from Nasza Księgarnia, which until 2016 published only children's literature. Here's a summary of the gameplay:
In Rolnicy, you and your fellow farmers are cultivating five types of crops: potatoes, grain, lavender, sunflowers, and pumpkins. You use your cards to work in the collective farm shared by all, but you also have a private plot of land that no one else can touch. By harvesting crops from both fields (adding them together), you can win valuable production cards. You can score each crop only once during the game, so timing is important!
In more detail, each turn you must plant two domino-style land cards from your hand, then draw two cards from the deck to refill your hand. During your turn, you may also be able to harvest fields in order to take one production card. Plant the first card in front of you on your private plot so that it forms a grid of square fields. You can place it next to a previously placed card or cover one or two fields of any previously placed cards. However, your private plot can be a maximum of three fields in each direction (3x3). Plant the second card in the central collective farm, with exactly one field of this card covering a previously played field.
You may then harvest one of the crops on the card placed in the collective farm. To harvest a field, count the number of orthogonally connected fields of the same crop that are also connected with the crop you just planted.
When the deck is exhausted, play continues until all hand cards have been played. Alternatively, when a player takes their fifth production card — that is, has collect each type of crop once — the game ends at the end of the round. Each player then sums the points on the production cards in front of them, and the player with the most points wins!
I know little about the Polish game market beyond what I've seen from Polish publishers in the German and U.S. markets, so I asked Allers how this game made its way onto that market:
Q: What led you to contact Nasza Księgarnia? Did you show them other prototypes as well?
A: They actually contacted me. Nasza Księgarnia is the oldest children's book publisher in Poland, and a few years ago, they decided to begin publishing games as well. Naturally, they started out by licensing Polish editions of their favorite games from other countries.
One of the games they wanted was Piece o' Cake, but I had just signed with Bézier Games for the worldwide rights (and the new pizza-themed version, New York Slice). I told them they would have to talk to Bézier Games if they wanted that game, but I also mentioned that I had many other great prototypes that I would be happy to show them.
We met in Essen, and they tested several of my prototypes later and offered contracts for three games that had never been published by anyone else. The first was Jedzie pociąg z daleka ("The Train Travels from Afar"), which was published in 2017 and is already in its second printing, including a Japanese sublicense. Rolnicy is the second game, and in 2019 they will publish my first game aimed primarily at children.
Q: Does it strike you as odd to have a Heartland card game only in Polish when no Polish version of Heartland exists?
A: Not really as Rolnicy has become its own game and plays very differently than the board game. I worked on it shortly after Heartland was released to good reviews, thinking that original publisher Pegasus Spiele might want a follow-up game, but that never materialized.
Nevertheless, I continued to refine the card game version, which was an interesting challenge as I had to find an alternative to the barn point tracks that worked with cards. I wanted to maintain the interaction (some call it "nasty") of Heartland, but I also added a private farm for each player to cultivate that no opponent could mess with. The larger "communal farm" still has all the blocking and piggy-backing for points that Heartland does, but Rolnicy combines that with what we call a "sandbox game" in which everyone has their own "safe space" to puzzle their cards unhindered. This led to the theme of "Kolkhozes" (the name of my prototype), which were the collective farms that existed in the Soviet Union and in other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Players combined their harvest from these communal farms where everyone works together with the harvest from their private plots.
I also didn't want to have to write down points scored every turn, so in Rolnicy there are harvest cards for each crop, and players can score each crop only once during the game. This makes timing even more important than in the board game, and once you've scored a crop, you can try to block that for the other players — but only in the communal farm, of course!
Production cards up for grabs
Q: Given this success in an unexpected market, does it make sense for game designers to shake every bush, as it were?
A: It's been ten years now since my first game was published, so I suppose that makes me a "veteran" game designer now, and I've had many non-German publishers contact me, as Nasza Księgarnia did.
Although in the past I mostly focused on the German publishers that I have known from the beginning, I have naturally tried to expand my network of contacts when I can. I have a lot of prototypes, and just because the handful of publishers I have known for ten years are not interested in backing them, it does not mean that they are not good games. So it then becomes my task to find the right publisher for each game, and that means I have to make new contacts. This year in Essen I actually made quite a few appointments with publishers from outside Germany. This was my first time pitching to them, so yes, you could say that I have been "shaking more bushes" lately.
Q: We're in a "hungry" market for games right now. We are all looking around and wondering how many more titles can be released, then the next year we see even more games being published. You have to ask where did they all come from and what's going to happen to them?
A: I think a lot of designers who have been around at least ten years have been wondering the same thing. It does seem that many types of games are going on the clearance pile earlier than ever, especially the types of "family strategy" games I like to design. Perhaps the big, campaign-style games like Gloomhaven are able to avoid this as they require multiple plays in order to explore the story of the game. With the traditional German-style game, each play is a self-contained story, and it might not be as obvious to the players that they may need to have multiple sessions in order to explore all the game has to offer. They think that after one play, they are done with the game, and it's off to the next one.
I was thinking of "fast fashion" last week and wondering whether we are now experiencing a similar problem in the board game industry. I want people to see board games as cultural assets, not simply as products for quick consumption.
This is also a good reason to pitch to smaller publishers and publishers who focus on local markets. Companies like Nasza Księgarnia take the time to produce the games well, and they promote the games over a longer period of time. They've advertised Jedzie pociąg z daleka on electronic billboards in Warsaw two years in a row now! That kind of commitment is attractive to a game designer.
Q: How has the change in a game's life cycle affected you as a designer? You already mentioned above your effort to reach out to non-German publishers this SPIEL, so I guess that's part of the change.
A: I think things were already starting to move in this direction when my first games were published, so it does not feel like a big shift for me. I have always designed games first and then looked for the right publisher for each game, wherever that may be. Now that I've been doing this longer, I naturally developed a wider network and am continuing to do so intentionally, so that each game has a greater chance of finding the right publisher. Local (German) publishers are those I have known the longest, so I will always start with them as long as I live in Germany.
It is disappointing, though, when I put a lot of effort into a design and into finding a publisher for it, but then it is released alongside at least a half-dozen other games from that same publisher. Then they stop marketing it after a year or less, while they move on to the next half-dozen new titles. For those hobbyists getting their first game published, it might be exciting enough just to have their game finally on the market in some form, even if it's only a brief time, but I'm not willing to sell myself so cheaply anymore.
The biggest change for me, then, has been my own attitude when looking for the "right" publisher. I'm much more careful, and I look for publishers who can commit — preferably in writing — to supporting the game over a longer time span. I'm not afraid to negotiate contracts, as I was when I first started out. What the publisher is willing to offer in writing is a clear sign of how much they truly intend to support the games they publish.
Q: Are you also designing different types of games? Looking to revise or reprint older releases over designing new games? What do you think the changes today portend for you three or five years from now, if anything?
A: I design all types of games because I love to play different types of games and I enjoy new challenges. There are enough publishers that I don't feel constrained into a certain type, although I still prefer games that can be learned quickly, but have interesting choices.
That said, I'm sure I am sometimes influenced by other games that are popular. For example, one of my goals with Pandoria, my new game co-designed with Bernd Eisenstein, was to have a lot of variability, and we used some popular mechanisms such as engine-building, tableau-building, card combinations, and asymmetrical starting positions and powers. And, of course, Bernd liked it enough that he offered to publish it himself.
As far as my older games, I noticed that many of them were well-received, often after going out of print, so I have had a lot of success in getting many of those reprinted, and naturally, I've used it as an opportunity to tweak them and add some nice things to them. It does take a little time from designing new games, but it's worth it to work a bit more on something you know is already good.
I don't know what will happen in 3-5 years, but I think that if I relied on game design — or publishing — to support my family, I would definitely be looking for a second job.
As it is for me, though, game design has become what playing games was for me twelve years ago, when Bernd and I started our game designer's meet-up at the newly-opened Spielwiese board game cafe. I enjoy just playing prototypes with other designers and how that creative process builds community. I don't buy many games anymore, so if the bubble burst and it were next to impossible to get another game published, I think I would still meet every week with my friends and play the games we make together. And maybe events like Tokyo Game Market are the future, where lots of local designers each bring a hundred hand-made copies of a game to sell.
Eric, an interesting thought and question on which to close: While the Spiel des Jahres award has been instrumental in challenging publishers to come up with original designs instead of relying on games everyone has always known, has the SdJ also played a part in pushing publishers in Germany to rush out several "possible" candidates for the award, then dropping the ones that don't receive a mention from the jury? Possibly a downside to what you and I usually see as a big positive for the industry and hobby.
As of the end of September 2018, Tom Felber is stepping down from his role as chairman of the Spiel des Jahres jury, a position he's held since 2011. A press release on the SdJ website notes that during Felber's time as chairman, the jury introduced a third award (Kennerspiel des Jahres, or "Connoisseur's Game of the Year"), set up an annual sponsorship program that would support game-related activities and projects of individuals and institutions, and helped the jury establish the "Spiel des Jahres" brand beyond German-speaking countries. To quote from the press release, with any translation errors being my own:
The internationalization of the "Spiel des Jahres" brand was Tom Felber's hobby. He made numerous contacts around the world, initiated communication and co-operation with foreign-language players and groups, and became the face of the critics' panel internationally. Tom Felber was present at various fairs and other events worldwide for Spiel des Jahres. As a speaker and representative, he always sought direct contact.
Many projects would not have been possible — or at least not to the same extent — without the highly personal commitment of Tom Felber. Every year at the "Suisse Toy" event in Bern, he organized a huge game-of-the-year playing area for visitors, tirelessly explaining games one after another from morning to night. As co-initiator of the project "Spielend gesund werden" ["Health Through Play"], he visited hospitals and played with sick children. As part of a project with the Bundeswehr [Germany's unified armed forces], he took part in many playful foreign assignments.
Like no one else, Tom Felber has dedicated his life to promoting games, and like no one else, he has put himself in the service of the jury. Spiel des Jahres loses not only a big role model in terms of work ethic, but also a role model as a game critic. The name "Tom Felber" stands for critical, honest, unbiased game criticism. Felber's code of honor and his practiced morality guarantee that his texts are always concerned with the thing and criticism of it, not with the care of personal vanities. That's why even for criticized authors and editors, Felber remains a highly prestigious and respected authority. Despite his prominent position with the Spiel des Jahres, he always remained at eye level with everyone.
Tom Felber leaves the club at his own request because after years of responsibility and the limelight, he has the need to be responsible only for himself and to represent only himself — and because he wants time to play Gloomhaven.
We had received advance word of Felber's impending retirement from the Spiel des Jahres jury at Gen Con 2018, so once we ended our livestream game coverage at the event on Sunday, we convinced him to take a few questions in the BGG booth about his time with the jury, his view of what he had achieved, and what he plans to do next. I wish that I had had more advance notice so that I could have better prepared questions, but sometimes you get what you get, so here we go:
We're ready to start rolling out the videos from our coverage of day 2 of Tokyo Game Market in May 2018, but I wanted to highlight this video before any others — an interview with Zyun Kusaba (草場純), who founded Game Market in 2000 and who co-founded Japon Brand in 2006.
I confess to being ill-prepared for this interview, and unfortunately I often aimed my questions at Ken Shoda, our translator, rather than Mr. Kusaba himself. A lesson for me for next time.
That said, I'm glad that we got to speak with Mr. Kusaba on camera so that we can feature someone who has made great contributions to spreading awareness of Japanese games to the world at large.
Freedom came together from a number of different places. I am a certified elementary school teacher and school librarian. For the last nine years, I have worked supporting twenty-two school districts, across five counties in rural western New York. I have built up a library of modern board and card games that often directly support curriculum and student learning. I collaborate with classroom teachers and school librarians to bring games into the classroom and use them as way for students to explore curriculum. You can see the library here.
That work extended into game design, working with students to build and develop games to demonstrate their understanding and application of what they are learning in the classroom. So, the work I did using games, as well as helping students design games got me interested in design myself. I have also been a really big fan in historical, card-driven games like 1960: The Making of the President. The way that they bring in history and let students explore and understand how people and events relate and impact is a powerful tool.
That got me thinking about areas in history that do not get as much attention as they deserve in the classroom. The idea of the abolitionist movement came up, but I wasn't sure about tackling that as a subject. I had some early thoughts on what I wanted to see in the game: card-driven with people and events with a focus on the map. It also needed to be cooperative if it was going to work. But still, the topic was really daunting.
Then I had the opportunity to see Brenda Romero speak at the Strong Museum of Play here in Rochester, NY. She was there showing her game Train and talking about the work she does with games. She talked about how games do not have to be "fun", that they can explore more dark and serious topics. This, along with the growth of the serious game movement, gave me the courage to pursue the topic for a game.
Brenda Romero's Train
I think the time is really right for this growth. In talks and workshops I do, I help people newer to the hobby understand what is happening in the hobby by comparing it to where graphic novels were ten to fifteen years ago. They really started to gel into the medium they are now, but a lot of people had the reaction like: "Oh, those are comics and for kids. They can't really talk about deep topics in the same way as books." But we know that to be wrong. I really believe that games, especially if you take into that statement video games, are coming into their own as a medium for exploring the full spectrum of narrative.
Q: How did you seek to inject history into the game through particular mechanics?
With Freedom, I started with theme and began working through ways that helped bring that theme out and support it. My goal was to engage players with the narrative, with the people and events and the story that unfolded as you play the game, to get them to care about cards and cubes. I had to try to find balance between what was present and what was abstracted. For example, "lost" slaves are an abstraction of all the loss of life from conditions and brutal treatment on the plantations to the loss of life running for freedom. I also wanted to be sure that I balanced both the immediacy of helping people find their way northward to freedom with the larger goal of bringing about more institutional change. The latter took the form of the support tokens that not only control your progression through the game, but also your ability to impact the game. As you move forward, the tokens and cards get more powerful; this reflects a stronger, more organized and impactful movement.
The hardest mechanism to get right was the slave catchers. The idea of them has always been the same — that they needed to be this tense and ever-present threat throughout the game — but how to get that across was difficult and went through many iterations.
Q: Were there aspects of the historical experience that you hoped to incorporate into the game, but found challenging or impossible?
One of the many challenges with Freedom was picking a story to tell. By focusing on the story of the abolitionists, I wasn't able to give as much agency and voice as I would have liked to those who the players are working to help. I have played with expansion materials that might do that, but I haven't been satisfied that it does it in a way that I am comfortable with.
Q: What aspect(s) of fugitive slavery did you feel was most important to incorporate? Did you see yourself as making an argument or offering a historical interpretation of the subject?
I wanted to expose players to as many of the people who were a part of that history as possible, to introduce them to stories of sacrifice, courage, and loss about people they may not have known about. As far as interpretations, I really tried my best to avoid doing that. Players are abolitionist archetypes working to help people as they make their way towards freedom, while working to help raise the strength of the movement to bring about broader institutional change. These are broad goals and brushstrokes that players get behind. The game doesn't try to create scenarios or recreate history. My goal was to try to get people to connect in a more personal and meaningful way with this very important and dark time of our past, to shed light on people and events of the past that don't always get discovered.
Q: These days, historical tabletop games such as Freedom frequently use cards with historical flavor to impart a strong feeling for the past. What were your thoughts on this? In particular, are cards sufficient to make a game function as an historical argument or interpretation?
I definitely was inspired by previous historically driven card games and the power they have to give faces and images to people and events, while also providing context to how they work and the effects they have within a system. If that system is effective in capturing some of the essence of why that history is important and meaningful, I think those pieces can come together in a way that transcends the cardboard and bits. If this sounds like I am flirting with art, it is because that is where I think games are heading. As I mentioned earlier, games are really gelling into a form of expression that can have a lasting and even emotional impact on those playing.
Q: While many tabletop games are focused on light or fantasy themes, your game is about a dark and difficult period of American history. Have you encountered any concerns that the subject is inappropriate for treatment in a game? How do you respond to this?
Yes, this has come up. I can't assume to have definitive answers for these justified questions and concerns. I do think the fact that we are having conversations around them is encouraging. I think part of this comes from our expectations and definitions of what games are and what they can be. That is definitely shifting as more games help redefine what games and play can be, that they can be engaging while also being emotional and somber.
Q: Other attempts to create games around slavery have foundered. (CNN reported on one of these in August 2016.) Clearly, you must think it's possible to treat this topic in game form. What do you think is necessary in order for this challenging history to effectively meld with tabletop games? That is, if many efforts to represent slavery in games fail, what is necessary for success?
To be frank, I can't say that I handled the subject matter perfectly. I tried my best to present the material with as much respect to the people and events as I could in the design, but there were choices and decisions that will never have a right answer. For example, I specifically chose untreated wooden cubes rather than meeples or painted cubes. I also had to pick a narrative with Freedom, and I chose to focus on abolition giving up narrative and agency for those being held as slaves. It was an approach I took, but I could never claim it was the right one.
Underneath it all, my goal with the game was to try to engage players with the people and events that were a part of that struggle, and bring to light faces and actions that are often not covered in school. To tackle that, the game presents the forces for continuing the institution of slavery as elements within the game that the players are working against. It encapsulates the forces working against abolitionism within the mechanisms of the games, so that no players take on those choices or roles.
For me, the challenge to tackling a design of this type is to strive to present the details, the faces, the things that underlie the story as best you can.
Q: Freedom occupies an interesting space in the game world. On the one hand, it plays much like a "cooperative Euro", such as Pandemic or Shadows over Camelot. On the other, it is often discussed as an explicitly "educational" game, many of which (experienced gamers complain) are often not very effective examples of tabletop game technology (i.e., they are not very good games). Did you think explicitly about balancing these two values?
Because of my background, using modern games and design in education, that was very much in my mind from the beginning. I wanted to keep my feet in both spaces. Primarily, I was hoping to design a game that would resonate and be able to stand in the hobby market. But as a certified teacher and school librarian, I was also aware of the potential uses for the game in the educational space.
Well-designed games work well in educational spaces because there is an authenticity and level of engagement that comes from the experience. It is like comparing a good novel or short story to a leveled reader. Teachers use good literature because it engages students, and the teacher can explore how the text supports and relates to their curriculum. Other texts that are written with a specific pedagogical goal often fail to have the qualities of a good text and therefore do not engage students in the same way. In the end, they do not provide the same experience and students do not go out of their way to seek them out independently. So those targeted skills only get hit when being presented in a teacher-directed activity, and you lose the reinforcement and effect of student-sought engagement.
The same is true with bringing games into the classroom. By selecting games that are created to have strong gameplay and design, you have an opportunity to leverage that engagement while also using it to support connections to classroom curriculum. In both cases, the teacher needs to help to draw or highlight those connections as the resources were not created with specific pedagogy in mind, but doing so creates a powerful opportunity for learning and growth.
Thank you, Brian, for sharing your thoughts about this important game.
BGG recorded more than two hundred game demonstration videos at Spiel 2015, and while I'm glad that we were able to cover so many different titles in so little time — with dozens of videos still to be published, mind you! — I'm most satisfied that I was able to record the video below, a nearly hour-long interview with designer Reiner Knizia, who is celebrating his thirtieth year as a game designer in 2015.
We met in a hotel near the Messe in Essen, and while avoiding the hackneyed "theme vs. mechanism" question that seems to plague every designer interview, I tried to take a broader approach to the topic of game design, how Knizia's approach to it has changed over time, what constitutes failure in a design, and what might come from him in the future.
I've watched only part of the edited interview due to my aversion to watching myself, but that experience has already provided me learning material for future interviews. Ideally this video provides something worthwhile for you, too!
The link for this BGG Roundtable will go live shortly before the broadcast time of 10:00 p.m. EDT / 7:00 p.m. PDT / GMT+4, and I'll embed the broadcast in this post once it's complete. This is my first time trying something like this, so ideally things will all work out and no one will end up with egg on their face — unless they like an egged face, of course, but let's allow everyone to egg themselves or not as desired and oh, dear, this might already be going off the rails...
Come join us!
Updated: All done now! You can watch the video below, and since I accidentally left it marked private on YouTube until a fair distance through the presentation — newwwwwwwwb! — you might have missed some of the discussion. Sorry about that!
The current Flatlined Games range is made of four games: Dragon Rage, an old-school wargame for hobbyists; Rumble In the House and Rumble In The Dungeon, two simple and zany party-games with bluffing and deduction; and Twin Tin Bots, our robot programming game by Philippe Keyaerts. Flatlined Games is still a small publishing house. I am alone and cannot afford to release a big box game like Twin Tin Bots every year. I have therefore decided to publish a few smaller games in order to be able to make other big box games later on.
I met Fréderic Moyersoen several years ago before I even knew I would start a boardgame publishing business. He attended local events, always carrying a couple of prototypes. We had a few interesting discussions and ended up designing a game together, Batt'l Kha'os, that was published in 2009 by Z-Man Games. After I became a boardgame publisher we kept in touch, often meeting at local events, gaming weekends, Belgian boardgame clubs, and game fairs. The professional world of boardgaming is quite small, so most pros know each other and stay in regular contact.
I usually discover new prototypes during boardgame events, at gaming weekends, or by designers contacting me out of the blue via email. For this project, I took a different approach. Fréderic jokingly mentioned at a gaming weekend that we had known each other for a while but I hadn't yet published any of his games. I was actively looking for small games, so I browsed his catalogue of games. (Fréderic has an online catalogue of unpublished games that he makes accessible to publishers. The format is quite simple: one page per game with a small photograph of the game materials, a short description of the theme and game idea, and a technical summary with age, number of players, duration, and a list of the components. This makes it easy to browse the whole list of unpublished games and select a few for further evaluation.)
Over time, I have played a lot of Fréderic's prototypes, many of which were eventually published. I therefore had a good idea of most of the games in his catalog already. There were a few games matching the format I was looking for, some that I had played already, so I asked him to bring a few to an event we were both attending. I played each one once again and eventually selected one, which was named "Guilds" at the time.
Guilds is a card game with a small story of its own: Fréderic was commissioned to create a game by an insurance company. They wanted a game that modeled a healthcare insurance system to be distributed to employees of the company. The game was published as Porto Seguro by the client. After that, Fréderic decided to continue working on the game to take it further and rethemed it to medieval guilds.
At the heart of the game is a central track with one pawn for each player. Their position on the track dictates the income they will receive. They must then contribute to a common fund according to their income: If they receive much, they contribute more, and if they received nothing, they get an allocation from the common fund.
Income is made of cards, which are exchanged by the players during the course of the game. Cards belong to several types and the goal of the game is to gather a set of cards of the same type, as in the classic Happy Families game.
During exchanges, pawns are moved on the track according to the exchanged cards. This allows careful players to improve their income and reduce other players' income in order to be the first to collect a winning set.
The game system is therefore very simple and can be played with the whole family. The game is fun and quite interactive, and the exchange system keeps all players in the game each turn with little downtime. It is also important to keep track of who exchanges what in order to guess the sets that players are collecting and avoid giving them an easy victory.
Medieval guilds was working as a theme, but that was too plain for my tastes. Not only did it not fit well in Flatlined Games' editorial line as we privilege fantastic and popular culture themes, but it was also set in a very crowded setting. (Medieval commerce has been used in hundreds if not thousands of games already.) I asked Fréderic to explore other themes, and he was enthusiastic.
We needed a theme that matched the "mutual insurance fund" mechanism as it is central to the game and that fit naturally and didn't feel artificial or pasted-on. Transposing medieval guilds to a futuristic space opera setting with space guilds would have been too easy, of course, and pretty transparent.
We explored a few themes that could more or less fit the game engine and eventually decided for Robin Hood. The theme change felt natural and was coherent with the game engine: Instead of moving from floor to floor in the guildhouse, players would roam the road from Sherwood Forest to Nottingham Castle. Spaces near the castle would bring more rich passersby to rob but at a higher risk, and spaces near the forest would bring less or no loot but the merry men would compensate for the difference in income as you work to help at the camp. The whole Merry Men thing of stealing from the rich to give to the poor somehow works as a mutual insurance fund — only deposits are not always voluntarily made...
Part 2: Game Development and Playtesting
Once the contract for publication of Robin was signed, we started working on the game development. The game had already been published in limited quantities by an insurance company, but it's always a good thing to review all aspects of a game before publishing it: This allows you to find any remaining issues and to further polish the game before publication.
«A game is never really done; at some point of its life, it just gets published.» (Jim Dunnigan)
I started to get the Guilds prototype played at game nights, weekends and events, and it was overall well-received. The game engine ran smoothly and play was around 20 minutes. At some point, players found a problem in the game engine where it was possible to empty the community pool and to progressively empty all player's hands. Fréderic quickly found a solution to this and modified the game accordingly. Guilds was now more solid and polished.
Once the game had been re-themed to Robin, I put together a new prototype with that theme and proceeded to playtest it again. Even if you change nothing to the rules and the retheming is only cosmetic, each modification done must be checked. For instance, in Guilds players go up and down in the guild house on the game board, and in Robin they go from left to right on the road from Sherwood Forest to Nottingham Castle. I wanted to make sure the arrows were still clear for all players, even on a big table, and that the direction of the arrows could not be confused. Playtesting also allowed us to make sure that during rules explanation the new theme matched the game engine, helped rules comprehension, and made a coherent whole for the players. We quickly realized that the new theme worked very well, even better by some aspects than the guilds theme.
We playtest a lot, and it happens that other publishers and designers participate in these playtests. This usually is very interesting as they have different views on what a game should be like and offer constructive criticism during the playtesting debriefings. This happened also with Robin. During an event in Brussels, Sébastien Dujardin (from Pearl Games) suggested adding a small mechanism to the game to make player position on the road track more important. We tested that immediately and it was added to the core game as it worked really well with the rest.
Goodie or No Goodie?
Fréderic also had designed a small set of special cards for the game, which could be used as a promotional goodie upon the game release.
During playtests, we decided to add these to the main game. These added a few interesting effects to the game engine, and it would have been a bit sad to only allow the lucky few who could get ahold of the goodie set to benefit from these cards. As time goes by, I'm growing more and more convinced that goodies that change or add to the actual gameplay should not be limited to a select few players who just happened to be lucky enough to get them.
Over a year and a half, Robin was playtested dozens of time. Although the resulting changes were minor overall, they have allowed us to further polish the game and to make sure players would play it over and again before getting tired of it.
Part 3: An Interview With Fréderic Moyersoen
Fréderic Moyersoen agreed to a session of questions and answers, a good opportunity to learn more about this prolific but discreet designer.
Q: Robin started as a commissioned work for an insurance company. Is this a common occurrence, or is it the exception?
It is rather exceptional, but it happens. In 2004 I was hired to design a game for a magazine. I had one month to design the concept. It was eventually republished in 2009 under the name Van Helsing.
More recently, I was contacted by a publisher from the Netherlands for a very ambitious project. Unfortunately the whole project went tits up and the game was never published. The normal process is rather that I create games and then look for a publisher.
Q: Was the requirement set provided by the client very specific or rather large?
A business usually has little knowledge of board games, so it was rather large. The key aspect was that it had to be a small game, simple, and of course fun to play.
Q: Creating for a commission implies a set of constraints. Is this a difficulty, or do these constraints help kickstart creativity?
This is an interesting question. I'll say that all games are created around constraints. When you freely create, you set yourself arbitrary constraints because you want to fit the range of such or such publisher.
If you use too much material or it is too costly, the game will be difficult to sell. Also, a game that is too original, too different, can be tough to sell.
With a commission, constraints help to focus your imagination, not unlike the kind of canvas a painter uses will change the way he works. A smaller painting works differently than a big one. Watercolors will lead him to a different place than oils.
Q: What are the pros and cons of such a commission work ?
First, for a commission there is a deadline to meet. Time is scarce so you must quickly find a concept that works. It's a real challenge.
Then, you need to get a good grip of the client's decision process. For Porto Seguro, which was the name of the commissioned game, the contact person had no decision power. I had to also sell the idea to his superior, then I was summoned before a panel of about twenty people to defend the idea before a final decision. This was quite trying, but the game was strong enough to pass these obstacles.
The prototype for Porto Seguro, which later became Robin
Q: Have other paths been explored, or were the central mechanisms already set from the beginning ?
Time was too limited to explore various paths. From the start, the game engine has not been changed a lot; it was only development, tweaks and ameliorations to balance all aspects of the game.
Q: Porto Seguro was created a few years ago. Today, would you accept that kind of commission work ?
It depends. Now that there was this failed project I would be much more cautious before taking on such a new commission work.
Q: After the client for Porto Seguro printed the game and distributed it to its employees, what made you bring the design back to the drawing board and work on it for a new version?
With Porto Seguro, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of any distribution plan. The client company printed the game internally and had no plans to distribute it outside the company. There may very well still be stacks of unused boxes in their warehouse. A game is created to be played, so it's sad to see it gathering dust, unplayed. This was a very strong motivation to start working again on this game.
Q: It's a game built closely around a very specific theme. Was it difficult to change the theme from Porto Seguro to guilds?
All my games are built around the theme, but I was pleasantly surprised to see this game could easily be adapted to another theme such as medieval guilds or later on Robin hood.
The commissioned theme was social security, so I researched the origins of social welfare and ended up on medieval guilds. Robin Hood's Merry Men most probably had a similarly geared organization to support each other.
Q: Work on the game was completed and it was fully developed when Flatlined Games picked it up for publication, yet they wanted to bring it back to the drawing board, develop it yet further again, and re-test everything. Is this common for a publisher?
Most publishers want a game that is ready for publication. This allows them to invest less time for a maximum return over time invested, or so they seem to think. I am very happy that Flatlined Games wanted to push development further, well beyond the point I thought the game was completed. It is rather rare that a publisher will invest so much time, expertise and imagination to further polish a concept that is supposed to already be ready for publication.
Q: Was this third development phase not somehow redundant ?
No. Without hesitation I can say that the game was good, but Flatlined Games made it excellent.
Q: Flatlined Games kept you in the loop during the whole process: playtest reports, choice of materials and packaging, illustrations from the first sketches to the final rendered art... This requires a lot of implication whereas some publishers will just stay silent once the contract is signed until they come up with the finished product ready to be put on the shelves. Did you enjoy this level of implication?
This is by far the best way to see a project evolve. Creating a new game is a bit like parenthood. As the father, you want to be there when the mother delivers, and then see how the kid grows. With some games, I felt like a sailor that knocks up the mother, sets sail, and only comes back ashore to a kid he did not see grow up.
Q: What do you think of the final product that Robin is? (packaging, art, ...)
It's all excellent. The artist is talented and did a great job. The publisher made interesting choices and assessed all options to only retain the best ones.
3D rendering of the components; cards are 100% plastic
Q: Robin hosts 2-6 players, like many of your creations. Is it important for you to allow for more than two or four players, or is this a market-related constraint?
As a player, I often have to pick a game according to the number of players around the table. Even if most want to play a given game we sometimes have to pick another game because the numbers don't fit. By creating games for two to six players, I can avoid this dilemma.
Q: You are known for several games, but the most famous is Saboteur, which is nearing a million copies sold. Does this help your other games, or do they have to somehow live in the shadows of your best-seller?
Unlike writers, game designers are not well known and advertised. In a library, books are sorted according to writer name, not by publisher. With games it is different. Publishers put forward a range of games with a visible and recognizable brand. Having the designer's name on game boxes is by the way a recent trend. So all in all I think the Saboteur effect is minimal on my other games.
Q: From 1998, it's now sixteen years that designing board games has been your only profession. What are the big changes you've witnessed in the game industry over that time?
The number of new publishers never stopped growing, and neither did the number of new titles published. I witnessed a real boom in the boardgames market. If you take into account the fact that gamers represent only about 2-3% of the population, we could still be far from saturation. At the same time, I saw the shelf life of games diminish and that's something quite bad. Too many publishers release new games to then just forget about them and turn on something else. I am quite happy that Flatlined Games works on a longer scope and wants to keep their games available on the market for a long time.
Q: If you had to start over now, would it still be possible? Harder or easier than in 1998?
Well, in 1998 I wrote letters to contact publishers. Most of them never even bothered to reply, by the way. With the Internet and all the modern communication channels it's easier to get in touch with publishers. The quantity of designers also rose in the same proportion, so I guess it's about as hard today as it was in 1998 to get started in this business.
Q: What changes did you find the most promising these last few years?
I feel the world shrunk. Sixteen years ago each publisher was selling games in his local market: Germans in Germany, French in France. This has changed a lot, and top of the line publishers now all have a global market strategy.
Q: And which changes were the least positive?
I did not see notably bad changes happening.
Q: A few years back, the designer's name was not on the game box. Now, they are more and more placed in the spotlight and actively take part in promoting the games as in the book business: biography, signings, videos, interviews,... What do you think of this evolution?
It's positive and normal, and long term it is a requirement. This means the board game business becomes more mature and professional. There is a huge amount of games being released each year, and the publisher must find ways to stand out in this crowded marketplace. Using the designer as a star and putting him in the spotlight helps sell the games.
Q: You're one of the few full-time game designers. How many of your games have been published, and how many prototypes still sleep on your shelves?
Now about twenty titles have been published. About ten more are being worked on by publishers as we speak, and about a hundred are available for publication. As I create about eight new titles every year, my shelves fill up faster than I can sell my games to publishers.
Q: You create games for a wide audience, from children's games to historical wargames. Is this a professional approach to cover various areas of the market, or has this grown over time according to your whims?
I hold a fondness for historical wargames, but these have become unsellable nowadays. Over time we also grow lazy and reading sixty pages of rules before starting a set-up session of over one hour does not attract me so much anymore. The market clearly evolves towards simpler and lighter games. As a professional, you must adapt to the market and follow the trend.
Q: The design process is quite different from designer to designer. What is your criteria to decide whether an idea is worth pursuing, to the point of making a prototype and starting to develop it?
The theme I chose must engage me enough to go all the way in the creative process. I often will read a book after I pick the theme to get some ideas and get my teeth into the theme.
Q: Some designers have started self-publishing, especially with platforms such as Kickstarter. Do you think this challenges the role of publishers and distributors, or do you see that as a new market, complimentary to the current one?
It's obvious that publishers and distributors must take into account this new phenomenon, which challenges their traditional work methods. Some publishers also use Kickstarter as a promotional platform, but where will that lead us in the long term? Will gamers eventually need to preorder all their games before they are released? I am convinced most players want to see and hold the game box before they open their wallet and consider making a purchase.
Q: Each year, hundreds of new games are released and it's harder and harder for a new game to get noticed. What do you make of this?
I try not to worry too much about it because it could block my creativity. On the other hand, I always check whether an idea has already been released in the recent past. There is no use creating a game that already exists. As a game designer, I try to get noticed by creating new concepts. A publisher once told me: We are looking for a game idea that will have us say "Wow!" This is obviously easier said than done.
Part 4: Graphic Design
During the whole development work, prototypes are usually quite ugly, using clip-art, hand drawn sketches, and pictures from the Internet. We need only enough elements to play and test the game engine. This is also where the rough layout of the game gels in place: board, tokens, cards, etc.
A card from the Robin prototype; the background illustration was a first sketch from artist Quentin Ghion
Once development work is done — or at least when it's far enough that the layout will not change anymore — a proper artist needs to step in and start graphic design for the game.
I started by discussing with Fréderic the overall style for the game's art. Once we agreed on the art style and tone we wanted, I wrote a graphical brief document that summarizes the game, explains the style we are looking for, and details all elements that need be illustrated. Such documents also have examples of images in the required style and sometimes a mood-board, a series of unrelated illustrations in different styles that's put together to help define the overall atmosphere for the project.
This graphical brief has several uses. First, I use it to confirm with the designer that we are on the same page with regard to the graphic design for the game. Then, I use it to contact artists, as a reference allowing them to assess the work required and provide a quotation. Then during the production of the art it will serve as a reference to make sure no item was forgotten and that we are still in line with what was commissioned.
I keep the portfolio addresses and contact info of artists I have been in contact with over time, and when I start a new project I browse these portfolios to find the artist best suited to the project. I then contact them with the graphical brief asking whether they are interested and available and what their fees would be.
For this project, I hesitated for a while between working with an established artist or with a newcomer. A few months ago, Quentin Ghion contacted me, fresh out of school. His portfolio, under the alias "LopSkull", had lots of potential, even though his style was different than what we were looking for — but that was also an opportunity as bringing an artist out of his comfort zone, to explore new territories, often brings interesting and original results. Furthermore constraints can springboard artistic talent and creativity.
A portfolio illustration from Quentin "Lopskull" Ghion
I was won over by his sense of light and details and eventually decided to trust him with illustrating Robin, and he luckily was still available. This was me taking a risk, as not only his style was different and he would need to be guided through the whole process, but also this is a card game with lots of illustrations to create. And to make it all even more fun the available time was short if we wanted to finish in time to have the game produced before October 2014. A big project on a limited time — what better challenge is there to get started with board game art?
Another portfolio illustration
Quentin lives in Belgium, so we could afford a rare luxury: We sat down together — designer, artist and publisher — and played the prototype for Robin before starting work on the art. This is quite rare as all parties usually live far from each other. This is, of course, a real plus for the game as it allows the artist to get a good grip of the game and easily understand which information is important and which is secondary.
We followed a stepped path to manage the amount of work to be done: first pencil sketches and doodles to quickly define each illustration and allow for easy changes or variations. Then roughs, quick sketches to define the color palette and overall placement of light. Only then was each illustration rendered in full color and detail. This breakdown makes it easy to do changes if an illustration doesn't work well or doesn't match our expectations.
It is usually the publisher that is in charge with regards to the graphic design and marketing of a game, and the designer for all matters that relate to gameplay. I, however, kept Fréderic in the loop at each stage, asking his feedback and sometimes asking changes of Quentin based on it. I also included the team at IELLO and some retailers I know well in the loop for more feedback. They really helped me make Robin a better game.
As soon as I saw the first sketches, I knew that hiring Quentin was a good decision. He was able to fit the style we wanted while bringing his own style to it and made the game a homogenous whole. He was also very quick, creating most of the art for the game in under a month, which is no small feat. I would not be surprised to see his name on more game boxes in the future.
Part 5: Quentin "LopSkull" Ghion in His Own Words
The English lop is a breed of domestic rabbit with long hair and long lop ears, so my artist name is the skull of a lop-eared rabbit, which defines me quite well as I like dark settings, humor, and of course rabbits.
So where are the blue skies, chlorophyll, and warm smiles ?
They are quite rare in my portfolio where I rather travel in dark places with brutes and ugly monsters, which I have a lot of sympathy for — and it works quite well when you have to create art for video games.
It doesn't come very handy, however, when you want to take on a family theme such as Robin Hood and his Merry Men, with their bright smiles. That is the challenge that Eric and Fréderic brought to me with their new game Robin.
And I gladly took them on, even if they had to put me back every now and then on the path to joy and colors, to fight some entrenched habits. I kind of had forgotten that a sky is blue, and when I checked through the window it was indeed bright blue. I was eventually quick at home with the characters, giving them each a personality of their own. Taking on a classic theme is interesting as you easily reach people, while still being able to integrate your personal touch to it.
The most difficult aspect may have been the background for each series. We needed each family to be easy to recognize, while still integrating well with the illustration. Eric trusted me on my approach, and I am glad of the results we got.
The experience was overall very positive, with an efficient production workflow, a great first experience with boardgame illustration.
The most difficult series was the places. They had to be part of a whole, while having very different settings and moods. The common trait of the places is a bright blue sky, but how should I integrate the castle's jail or the farm in that series? Eventually, the compositions were enough to link the series together, and the pictograms would further help.
Production was quite efficient, starting with doodles and sketches, a few changes, then rough light and color placement, and a last step with details and rendering. I also had to correct some anachronistic details as Robin Hood is set in a well-defined historical context.
Most of the work was to create the cards, but the box cover, board and box itself were also quite a challenge. I designed several covers, including one I liked a lot as it was more dynamic, but which was deemed too aggressive in the end.
Using the game box as game board was an interesting idea, but playtest showed us that players didn't like it during play as it got in the way, so it was dropped. The box will be a very nice object, however, which I am impatient to hold in my hands.
As for all parts of the game, actually. It's quite a thing to see your work made into a real object, to hold the cards in hand, move on the board, and win the game, of course.
Thanks to Eric and Fréderic for their trust, and for offering me a first opportunity in the magical world of boardgame illustration.
Become a product designer and invent wildly imaginative objects for the Extraordinaires. Each Extraordinaire is a larger-than-life character with extraordinary needs. They live in a unique environment, have different physical needs or have an unusual job. It's your job to design the ultimate objects to fit their worlds.
Piotr Siłka: Can you please introduce yourself in a couple of sentences?
Sheila and James Davis: Both of us are originally from Utah, with James growing up in Moab and Sheila in Salt Lake City. We first met at the gaming and science fiction club at the University of Utah. We were later married and have now been together eighteen years. We live in Fort Collins, Colorado, and both of us work at Colorado State University, James as the webmaster for the College of Engineering and Sheila as administrative director of the Extreme Ultraviolet Engineering Research Center. We game with different groups 2-3 times a week and regularly attend the local conventions in Denver. We feel lucky to count among our friends a number of game reviewers, designers, and publishers, and we enjoy being part of the community.
PS: How many games do you now have in your collection? How often do you do an inventory?
SJD: Based on how many we have inventoried so far and an estimate of those we haven't yet inventoried, we think the total is around 12,500 or so. Given that we both work full time and our lives have gotten more and more busy over time, keeping up with the total is no longer a high priority for us.
PS: Have you ever thought of reporting your collection to the Guinness World Records? Currently the biggest reported collection doesn't even have 2,000 board games?
SJD: We are aware of the Guinness World Record, and when it was first published, a number of friends and acquaintances suggested that we should contact Guinness since our collection is bigger. We don't do so for several reasons:
-----1) Guinness World Records is a business, and in order to get in the book, you must pay a fee to have them come look at your record. We don't wish to pay that fee.
-----2) We don't look at our collection as being in competition with anyone. We like games and like to collect games, but it's unimportant whether someone else has more or claims they have more.
-----3) Our collection is not the biggest in the world either – I believe a collector in Austria has the largest collection, but I may be wrong – so it would be just as inaccurate to have our collection listed as the World Record as it would for the current holder of the title.
PS: How did your adventures with board games start? Who was first, or did you meet before collecting games and your adventure started together?
SJD: We are both lifelong gamer geeks. While growing up, we both played all the standard kid's games, then got into wargaming as young teens and role-playing when D&D was first released. Though we both like all flavors of games, James leans more towards the in-depth and complex Eurostyle and wargames, while Sheila mostly enjoys RPGs and heavily-themed games.
PS: When did game collecting become your hobby? Did you come to this idea together or did one of you have to persuade the other half?
SJD: We both had small game collections – a few dozen titles – when we met, but it was when Sheila first moved to Colorado that the collection really took off as she discovered that there really was such a thing as game collecting and she started to actively build the collection. After we married, Sheila kept collecting, while James is most interested in playing. It's a perfect marriage.
PS: I know that everyone has probably asked you the same question over the years, so please forgive me for doing the same: Why do you collect games?
SJD: Sheila's family has always collected things – she still has baseball cards from when she was a child – so the collecting bug comes naturally. As we've joked before, sometimes collecting games is the best game of all. Seeking out hard-to-find treasures can be quite an adventure, and it's always a thrill to discover something unexpected in a thrift store or such. Collecting games has an added advantage over some other collections in that not only do you get to find neat things, you can play with your collection.
PS: Do have some special system of choosing which games will be added to the collection? You have to buy a game almost each day, right?
SJD: The numbers average to one a day, but that's not how we buy them. James' weekly boardgaming group meets at the local game shop, so we usually buy interesting new releases there. When we attend conventions, Sheila visits the auctions and flea markets to pick up a lot of older titles. And when we happen to be near thrift stores or antique stores, we'll often stop in looking for games. So the purchases come in bunches.
It used to be the case that if a game looked interesting enough to play and we didn't own it, we’d buy it. While we wouldn't purchase all the dozens of variants of Monopoly or most children's games, almost any new board or card game at the hobby store found its way into our collection. But with so many new releases now available, we have to be much more selective. Now the game must be somewhat new and innovative to make it worth the purchase.
PS: How often do you play your games and do you know how many of yours still wait to be played? Do you create lists of the best games played each year or the best new games in your collection?
SJD: With only a handful of exceptions – for example, our pristine copy of SPI's War in Europe – all of our games are available to be played. But with so many, and a large portion of those being roleplaying or wargames, there is no possibility of playing all or even most of them, so we've probably played only 10% or so of the collection. We don't track what's been played or try to rotate games to be played or such. We just play whatever sounds like fun, when it sounds fun.
PS: How do you find games in such a large collection? Do you have a special way of storing them?
SJD: For the most part, Sheila remembers where they are. We have the games stored by type, and then by manufacturer wherever possible, so the Eurogames are in one section, the wargames in another, etc. But sometimes we need to go searching if someone asks for something that is particularly obscure.
PS: Which games in the collection are you most proud of?
SJD: Proud isn't really the right word as we just enjoy collecting. It's a game, but not a competition. That said, we're excited to have one of the few copies of 3M's Jati, and a few rare wargames like the above mentioned War in Europe.
PS: Are there games that you want to add to your collection, but which have been too hard to get?
SJD: There are a few super rare games that would be nice to own, but we don't realistically expect to ever see a copy as they are far too expensive. 3M's Thinking Man's Basketball would be one such game. Other than that, we just keep our eyes open for new things that might come up.
PS: How do you catalogue the games? I searched for your collection on BoardGameGeek, but could not find it.
SJD: We started to enter our collection on BGG, but found we got inundated with emails asking "Will you sell this game to me?" The games are not for sale; that's why they were listed as a collection, not in the marketplace. We finally got tired of it and just deleted it all.
Our catalog consists of the inventory we've made of most games, although some still need to be added.
PS: Do you know how many games you have from Poland, and do you have a favorite among these?
SJD: It's only been relatively recent that games from Poland have started being made available in English, and it's still tricky to obtain many, so we have only four or five (although some of our Eurogames may be Polish, and we just don't realize it). Of the ones we have, Neuroshima Hex! is probably the favorite.
PS: How many rooms does the collection take? Is it insured?
SJD: Most of the games are stored in our large basement. We have shelves built along the walls and plan to add them in stacks as in a library. The games are insured through our homeowner's insurance.
PS: Is there any number at which you would consider the collection finished, or is the collecting part of your life and something you can't imagine not doing?
SJD: There's not a particular number, but since we are running out of space in our basement, we've had to slow down purchasing. It's still fun to collect, though, so we will probably continue to do so for many years to come.
Editor's note: This interview originally appeared in Polish in Świat Gier Planszowych. To see more of Shiela and James Davis, you can check out Lorien Green's documentary Going Cardboard.
The happy designer in 2010 with then-new games Aether and Arvuutin
Piotr Siłka: Are board games very popular in Finland? What does the board game scene look like? Are there many convents and designers?
Touko Tahkokallio: While the scene is not huge here, I think it is relatively strong and there are many interesting conventions arranged in Finland. There are also many active board game clubs around the country. A lot of this activity is due to the Finnish Board Game Society and its active members. Also, there has been some activity towards game designing for some time now, and I hope we will see more published games from Finnish designers in the future.
So overall, while the board games are not as visible in Finland as they are in Germany, for example, I think the situation is relatively good when compared to some other neighboring countries. We have few companies that bring modern quality games to the reach of ordinary consumers. Some of these new generation games can be even found on the shelves of the bigger markets.
PS: How did your adventure with board games start, and when did it transform to include game designing?
TT: Well, I have been playing all sorts of games since my childhood (RPGs, computer games, board games, etc.), but I found modern boardgaming in early 2000 after discovering The Settlers of Catan. For a long time, we just played that game with my friends. It had a huge impact on me and for the first time I realized that board games could be something very different than what I was used to. At some point we moved to Puerto Rico and I found my board game collection slowly growing. I just checked and saw that I created my BoardGameGeek account in February 2005, so I guess that's the point when my hobby got more serious!
At some level I started thinking of designing games pretty much immediately after playing my first game of Settlers. The possibilities seemed endless to me – and they still do. But at first, game designing was just something quite occasional. However, the time I used to work on my games gradually grew and at some point it become a bit more serious hobby for me.
PS: How long did it take you to do your first game, which was about politics? That is, how long did it take you to start creating games that worked?
TT: It really depends on the game. For example, Politix was developed roughly in a year, I think – but of course it was very much a hobby then. Basically game design can take anything between a few weeks and a few years.
PS:Your first three games were published by yourself and two others as Onni Games. What made you to start this company?
TT: It all started with Politix, which is a bit of a silly card game about Finnish politics. First, there weren't that many possibilities of finding a publisher for this kind of a niche game. Second, I had two friends – Jussi Kurki and Ossi Lehtinen – who were interested in game publishing, so we decided to found Onni Games and we worked jointly to get the games out. Jussi made the illustrations and Ossi did the graphical design, among other things.
After our first game came out, it was natural to do some others. The following year in 2010, we published Aether and Arvuutin, with the latter only in Finland. But as there's a lot of work on the publishing side and the risks are quite big, at least for now I think I will mainly work as a freelance designer.
PS: Are you now a full-time designer, and if not, what do you do for a living and how much time do you devote to designing?
TT: I've had a few short periods in which I was mainly focused on working with board games designs. However, at the moment my day job is at the digital game company Supercell, which publishes digital games mainly for cell phones and tablets. So at the moment, designing board games is more of a hobby again. While I love board games the most, I also see mobile devices, especially tablets, as really interesting platforms for games.
PS: When did you visit Spiel, the annual game convention in Essen Germany for the first time? Was it with your next game Aether? This game hasn't proved very popular, but it seems interesting. Can you describe it a little more?
TT: I visited Spiel for the first time in 2009, but the first time I was there selling my own game (and the only time so far) was in 2010 with Aether.
Aether is a somewhat brainburning abstract game, with some similarities to Samurai. You can actually play it for free on the Onni Games website. Aether has since been republished as Matter by SimplyFun in the USA.
PS: The year 2011 was very good for you, with three of your designs published. How long did you work for the success of that year?
TT: I think I first started to work on Principato during the summer of 2008 and pretty much finished the design during 2009. The first ideas for Eclipse originated in Spring 2009, but I really started to work on the design at the end of 2009. Sampo Sikiö joined the team in early 2010, and we started intensively developing the game further. The development process for Walnut Grove was the most rapid one, but very intense. Paul Laane and I started working on it in late Summer 2010, and we submitted the prototype to Lookout Games before the end of the year.
PS:Principato looks like a nice family game, but weren't you afraid to create another game about building your kingdom when this theme is so popular?
TT: Well, I did not think about it that much when I started to work on the game. I personally like the Renaissance theme a lot, and I had not worked on that kind of game before. In this case, I wanted to find the best theme for the game mechanisms I had, and somehow the game just worked the best in the Renaissance setting.
PS:Walnut Grove had a very good welcome at Spiel (and also in Poland). Was it hard to get the game published by Lookout Games? And did the idea really come from mixing Agricola and Carcassonne, or was that story just a marketing gimmick?
TT: One of the initial ideas behind Walnut Grove was the tile-placement mechanism for the field-tiles and the way you activate them by placing workers. Although the tile-placement aspect is a bit different than in Carcassonne, I think in both games it is an important aspect of the game. Both games also have a little bit of a "puzzle" feel to them.
Originally we wanted to make a game about farming. Agricola was the natural inspiration for us, and we even started to call the prototype "Agricola-lite". The game evolved in different directions, and although it does not mechanically resemble Agricola that much, it has a bit of a similar feel to it. In both games you need to feed your folks, survive the rough years, and try to score points while doing it.
If possible, I try to have a potential publisher already in mind when I start to design a game. Even if the game eventually ends up published by someone else, it helps keep me focused. In the case of Walnut Grove, we actually had Lookout Games in our mind from the start. I had met owner Hanno Girke at Spiel 2009, and he seemed like a nice guy – and he liked another prototype I showed him back then – so it was a natural place for us to offer the game first.
Eclipse designers playing the game in Lautapelaamaan 2011 (Image: Mikko Saari)
PS: When did you start working on Eclipse and weren't you afraid to take on such a big project?
TT: Sure, I was a bit afraid when starting the project. With heavier games like this one, you can end up wasting a lot of time thinking about it and creating the first playable prototype, only to find that the main idea does not work well enough. (Yes, this has happened to me a few times.) With Eclipse, Sampo and I used a lot of time just to iterate the rules before creating the first fully playable prototype. I think it was definitely worth the trouble as the first playtest was a big success. Already after the first playtest, we had a pretty solid core that needed only some small (although numerous) tweakings.
PS: Did you use something special to design so complex a system, or just paper and pencil?
TT: In the development process, we used simple softwares, like Excel and Google docs. Programming complicated tools is rarely worth the trouble in my experience. Nothing beats the good old-fashioned human mind and intuition.
PS: Right now in March 2013, Eclipse is ranked fifth on BGG in terms of its rating. Did you expect it to be that popular?
TT: During the development process, we got amazingly good feedback from our playtesters. Also we really, really enjoyed the game ourselves – but of course, you never can be sure what the big audience will think, or whether the game will even find its right audience? Eclipse is a hybrid game in many ways, which made it even harder to predict the response from the community. Also, it is a game that rewards commitment and experience; it can be brutal to new players, and it is easy to dismiss it as a luck-driven game – which it really is not.
So although I was hopeful that the game could be well-received, it's been amazing to see it happen and with such force!
PS: How did it come about that Eclipse will be prepared for the iOS platform by Polish company Big Daddy's Creations? Has any work been started?
TT: Big Daddy's Creations contacted us to say that they were interested in the game. Soon we agreed on terms. We are excited to see the final result as the company is known for high-quality iOS games!
PS: In 2012 the first big expansion to Eclipse, Rise of the Ancients, was published. What were the main ideas when you started working on this expansion. Are you already planning the next big expansion?
TT: During and after development of the base game, we came up with a lot of interesting ideas as to how the base game could be naturally expanded. After the game went to print, we started to develop these ideas further. Initially this was just to amuse ourselves, but happily the publisher also thought there would be room for an expansion. Rise of the Ancients expands the game space in many ways and brings more variety for players. The expansion is modular, and you can choose which elements you want to use in a given game. As the name suggests, some of the new elements are related to Ancients, the mysterious old species which inhabits the Galaxy.
As for making another expansion, I still see unexplored territories, and we actually have some ideas for this already, so it's possible that there will be a second expansion at some point – but let's wait and see.
Tahkokallio playing Enigma and losing, as a good designer always should (Image: Antti Koskinen)
PS: One of your newest games, released in 2012, is Enigma. Each player tries to simultaneously solve different problems to expand their temple. Can you tell us a few words about it, as well as when it will be available?
TT: In Enigma, players control a group of archeologists exploring an ancient temple. To explore the temple and unlock new pathways, players need to solve different type of puzzles. The solving is done simultaneously. The players who succeed at the puzzle-solving get to place a new temple tile on the game board. In this way players uncover new areas of the temple. Players lay archeologists in rooms on these newly discovered areas. Later players score points if they succeed in closing the network where the room is located. The game ends after one player has gathered 15 points.
The game has four different types of puzzles, totaling 120 unique puzzles. I tried to choose a varied type of logical and visual puzzles for the game so that players with different tastes could enjoy the game.
Enigma came out in Scandinavia from Competo near the end of 2012 and is unavailable elsewhere at the moment. I know there has been some interest towards it, and I'm hoping that it could be more widely available soon!
PS: Another game released in 2012 was Voll ins Schwarze, which is a new editon of Arvuutin. Are there any differences between them beyond a smaller number of maximum players?
TT: Yes, there are real differences between these versions. Both Arvuutin and Voll ins Schwarze are games about making a good numerical estimation about tricky questions. The players give their answers by playing cards from their hands. In addition to simply making good guesses, players also need to do hand and risk management in the game.
One big change from Arvuutin is that Voll ins Schwarze uses a different scoring scheme. Also, the game is now played using four categories in one game (instead of five). The physical realization is also quite different – much better, in fact – as the questions are placed in the slots of the game board instead of small boxes. The original boxes used in Arvuutin were quite expensive to produce, and they easily fell down.
PS: Can you say anything about your current game design projects. What we can expect from you in the future?
TT: I'm currently pretty involved in working on digital games, so unfortunately I have less time for board game design. Nevertheless, I have some smaller and bigger board game projects in the works, but cannot say too much about them yet!