this guide in December 2014, but the BGG layout and UI has changed since then, so I've updated this guide with new images and clarified directions. —WEM]
Some articles in my "Advice for Designers and Publishers" series will be relevant whether or not these people are active on BGG, such as the introductory article on how to write a press release; other articles, however, pertain solely to the ins-and-outs of BGG, but a side benefit of such omphaloskepsic posts is that they will be useful to BGG users at large, such as today's article about how to submit items to the BGG database.
I've heard from more than one user that they found the submission process confusing. I can't argue with that. As with many parts of BGG, the submission process has changed over time, with bits being added or removed as the needs of the site and requests of the users change over time. If this submission process changes greatly in the future, I'll write another article to address those changes; for now, though, this should cover what you need to know. If it doesn't, ask questions in the comments section and I'll answer them and update this article.
Before we get to the how, let's start with the what?•••What's the mission of BoardGameGeek? And what is this database I'm referencing?
The short answer: "BoardGameGeek is a database and social community that's centered around board games, and its mission is to be the definitive resource on every board game ever created."
For now, when you look at the BGG front page, you see tons of posts and reviews and questions about this-or-that game, and by clicking around you'll find yourself on some part of the database: a game listing, a video highlighting how to play a game, etc.
To get a sense of the entire database, click "Browse" in the upper menu bar, then click on "All Boardgames" (circled in the image above); doing so brings up a list of the 117,000+ items in the BGG database as of June 4, 2020, with these games being organized by rank with Gloomhaven at #1 and Tic-Tac-Toe at #19010, followed by nearly one thousand pages of unranked games. (A game needs at least thirty ratings to become ranked. To rate a game, click on the star of your choice in the black info box at the top of a game page, as demonstrated in the image below. You'll then be invited to leave a comment to accompany your rating. You must be logged in to rate a game.)Quote:Fun sidenote: When I first posted this article in Dec. 2014, Tic-Tac-Toe was ranked last at #10453, and it was followed by more than six hundred pages of unranked games. Thus, in five-and-a-half years, more than 8,500 games have become ranked and more than 35,000 unranked items have been added to the database. In other words, the BGG database is averaging more than six thousand new entries annually.So is BGG the "definitive resource"? We're not 100% there since new games are being published every day and thousands of older games remain uncatalogued, but with sites like Luding.org listing 31k games (25k in 2014) and TricTrac.net listing 18k (16k in 2014), BGG might have a better claim to that title than anyone else.
To keep that database growing and to try to reach the (unobtainable) 100% completeness bar, we input some game information ourselves — primarily through me adding titles in advance of game conventions such as Spielwarenmesse, FIJ, Origins, Gen Con, and SPIEL — while getting most of that information via user submissions, which leads us to the following question and our true starting point:•••How does one submit items to the BGG database?
To start, you need to click on another term in the upper menu bar: "Community".
This section has a variety of interesting things to explore, while also highlighting material submitted by your fellow BGG users (images, blogs, podcasts, etc.) and links to submit games, publishers, and people (i.e., designers and artists) to the database. I'll skip how to submit accessories, podcasts and families (with a family being a group of games related in some manner) to focus on these other things.
Clicking on "Board Game" brings up this crazy-long form:
Whoa. Lots to absorb there, but thankfully we can start with something simpler, namely how to add people and publishers to the database. What's more, if a designer or artist or publisher isn't already in the database, we suggest that you submit listings for them first. In practice, you can submit games first and the other stuff later or vice versa, but by submitting people and publishers first, you should ideally then be able to submit a more complete game listing — and since game listings are the raison d'être of the database, better to have them be as polished as possible.
Before you submit anything, though, I'll point out the following pages that you might find of interest:
• Pending game submissions
• Pending people submissions
• Pending publisher submissions
These pages show the pending submissions that BGG users have already submitted. If you search these lists and find the game, person or publisher that you had planned to submit, you can relax as someone else has already done the job for you. If, however, you are the publisher or designer in question, feel free to continue with this process and point out in the "Note to Admin" section on each page that you are the publisher or designer in question, or you are responsible for the game in question.
With that out of the way, we'll now jump to...•••How to submit a publisher listing
Click on "Publisher" under "Community", and you'll see the following screen (but without the red numbers in place):
You didn't realize it was that easy to create a publisher, did you? Fill out this form, and *poof* you've got yourself a publisher! Well, okay, to be technical you have created a submission for a publisher listing in the approval queue, but it's something.
To complete this form, add the following information:
"About us" page reveals that the name is "Funforge", which is how we list it in our database.
In some cases, as with Chinese, Japanese and Korean publishers, a publisher has more than one name, say a name in its original language ("カナイ製作所") and a translated name in English ("Kanai Factory"). Please submit the English name as the primary name since that is easier for the majority of BGG users to search for and to type on their keyboards; in the "Note to Admin" section, write something like "Alternate name: カナイ製作所" and whichever admin approves the submission will ideally add this alternate name to the publisher listing.
If a publisher's name includes characters from multiple languages, such as "Nukenin合同会社", then submit that as the name of the publisher and note the combined nature of the name in the "Note to Admin". If a publisher doesn't have a name in Roman characters, such as Japanese publisher ビストロ怪談倶楽部 , then please submit the name as follows with a translation in parentheses: "ビストロ怪談倶楽部 (Bistro Kaidan Club)", which is what we have listed on that publisher's page. This format preserves the original name, but also provides a more searchable name for general use.
2. Description: Feel free in this section to quote from the publisher's "About us" — preferably finishing this section by writing "—description from the publisher" — but if you know something about the publisher firsthand, write the description in your own words. If you know nothing else about the publisher, simply write "Japanese publisher" or something similar and cross your fingers that someone else will fill in the details later.
3. Board Game Credits: Given that the publisher is not listed in the database — and it's not listed, is it? you did search for it first before heading to this form? — the name of any games published by this entity will likely not be listed in the database either.
Or will they? New publishers sometimes come into being in order to release a new version of an out-of-print game or a game published only in some other part of the world. Stronghold Games was one such example of this, with its first release being a new version of Robert Abbott's Confusion, which had appeared only in a short-run edition from German publisher franjos in 1992. Thus, if you're submitting a listing for a publisher releasing a new edition of a published game, click "Add Board Game Credits", enter the game's name, then click on that name. When this publisher listing is approved, the publisher's name will then appear on that game listing and the publisher listing will show a credit for that game.
If the game's name doesn't come up when you search for it (or a matching name is for a different game), leave this section blank as you'll submit the game listing later.
4. Note to Admin: Use this section to include information about alternate names, to list the URL of the publisher's website or its Facebook page (to provide proof of its existence), to note that you represent this company (if you are), or to tell us whatever else seems relevant to this submission.
5. Click the "Save" button.
Okay, that was relatively easy, so let's move on to...•••How to submit a designer or artist listing
Click on "Person" under "Community", and you'll see the following screen (but without the red numbers in place):
Create person?! Why that sounds like a great idea!
Anyway, this form allows you to submit the name of either a designer or artist to the database, and it works much like the publisher submission form:
1. Name: As with the publisher listing, you want to submit a name that represents how that designer or artist wants it to appear in print. "Eric M. Lang", for example, is how that designer's name appears on games, so that's how it should be listed in the BGG database.
Also as with publisher listings, if a person uses both a Roman-letter name and a character-based name, please use the English transliteration of a person's name as the primary name ("Seiji Kanai") while adding in the "Note to Admin" box something like "Alternate name: カナイセイジ". Please submit names in the order of (given name) (family name) to ensure consistency across the database. With Kanai's name, for example, his name in Japanese is in the order used by that country — (family name) (given name) — but for his primary name we use (given name) (family name), which is also how it appears on most game boxes.
And to repeat another note from publisher listings, if a person uses only a character-based name, such as "わけん", then please submit the name in this format — "わけん (Reason)" — with an English-language translation in parentheses following the name.
2. Description: As with publisher listings, you might be able to pull a biography of the person from a personal website, but you might be limited to "Japanese designer", "French artist", or something similarly lame. So it goes.
3. Board Game Designer (Artist) Credits: As with publisher listings, the game which this person has created (or illustrated) may or may not already be in the BGG database. Sometimes a user finds out about a game without knowing the creator or artist and submits it. Thus, you can search for the game name and click it if the game is already in the system; if not, don't click anything and move on.
4. Note to Admin: Feel free to include alternate names, links to personal websites, the fact that you are the person in question, and other details that help prove your case that the person in the submission is the correct person. Proof is always better than your say-so, but often your say-so is good enough for us until proven otherwise.
5. Click the "Save" button.
That was also simple, yes? Once you've submitted listings for the designer, artist, and publisher, feel free to get yourself a fresh cup of coffee in order for the BGG cache to record your submissions. From experience, I'd guess this takes one to several minutes, after which you'll be able to choose this designer or publisher when submitting a game listing — even though these earlier submissions have not yet been approved.
Okay, now it's time to move to the big challenge:•••How to submit a game listing
Click on "Board Game" under "Community", and you'll see the following screen (but without the red numbers in place):
Note that I've broken the game submission page into three pieces in order to provide interludes and cover stuff in related groups. With that said, let's get started, examining each of the numbered sections in turn:
0. Guide to Game Submissions: Note that BGG already has a "Guide to Game Submissions" in its wiki, and to some degree I'm duplicating that effort through this post. Perhaps I should have merely updated and expanded that page, but it's been there forever and is somewhat invisible, whereas people can comment on this post, ask questions, and perhaps better figure out all of the details to this process. Perhaps in the future, I can transfer this material to that wiki. Duplication of effort — it's the American way!
1. Primary Name: This is the title of the game, with the ideal format being "Title: Subtitle – Additional Subtitle", with a colon separating the title from subtitle and an en dash separating the subtitle from additional subtitle. (We have a program that automatically compiles titles not in this format so that we can standardize them, but if you want to do that up front, we'd love you just a little bit more.)
One note about subtitles: We are now leaning toward not including additional subtitles — or even subtitles — unless they differentiate the game from other games with similar names or the publisher uses the subtitle consistently as a critical part of the game's title. We'll have more to say about this topic once we officially change the submission guidelines.
Once again, as with publisher and person submissions, we prefer to have a title in English for games released with non-Roman letter titles. If the title is in, say, German, then leave it in German and don't use an English title because most BGG users can type "Die enorme Fuß und die winzigen Toe" without much trouble. Typing "あ～した天気にニャ～れ!!", on the other hand, is more challenging, so rather than require almost everyone to cut and paste, we ask that an English translation of the title be included in parentheses following the original title if no version of the game with a Romanized title exists — in this case, the game is listed in the BGG database as "あ～した天気にニャ～れ!! (Wishing for Fine Weather!!)".
2. Description: Ideally in this section you can submit a 1-4 paragraph description of the game written in a neutral voice that covers the game's setting, goal, and gameplay.
In general, your goal is to describe the game in enough detail that the description wouldn't fit another game while not going into so much detail that you're describing the entirety of the game. By covering the setting, you tell us our role in the game world; by explaining the goal, you tell us what we're trying to do in this world; and by describing the gameplay, you tell us how to move toward achieving that goal. That sounds abstract and clinical, but your description doesn't have to come across that way. Feel free to include personality in the description, but keep away from marketing talk — "a minute to learn, a lifetime to master", "fun for the whole family" — and other nonsense like that.
If nothing else is handy, go ahead and use the description from the publisher, but please include a "''—description from the publisher''" footer (with the double apostrophes creating italic text in the wiki) and remove fluff sentences that relate more to selling the game than describing it.
3. Short description: BGG introduced this feature in May 2020, and the short take on short descriptions is that you should submit a sentence of at most 85 characters that attempts to convey the essence of this game. I wrote much more on this topic with many examples here.
4. Year released: In which year was the game first available for purchase through retail outlets? That year counts as the game's debut, so that's what we want to list. (Note that we previously used this field to record the first availability of a game to people not involved with its creation. This description is subtly different from the current guideline and affects primarily Kickstarted games delivered at the end of one year but released at retail in the subsequent year. As with the change to the primary name, we'll have more to say on this topic later.)
5. Minimum and maximum players: In general, these fields are easy to complete because you can look at the box or publisher's website or retailer listing and see this information.
For Sale, it added more components so that up to six people could play whereas the original edition maxed out at five players. Some versions of Puerto Rico include rules for playing with two, whereas the earliest editions allowed for only 3-5 players. What to do, what to do? We tend to allow for the widest range of players possible because even if your particular copy of PR doesn't have two-player rules, you can probably find rules to make it happen. Perhaps we should list a player count for each version of the game, but that way lies madness.
6. Minimum age: Again, this field seems easy, but different publishers have different standards. Many publishers in the U.S., for example, adopt a minimum age of 13+ or 14+ so that they don't have to undergo expensive CPSIA tests required for children's products even though a game labeled for ages 10+ is by no means a children's product! In these cases, we again tend to go for whatever the widest range is, working under the assumption that kids in Europe and Asia aren't that much smarter than kids in the U.S.
7. Minimum and maximum playing time: Once again, look to the box for such numbers. If only one value is given for a playing time, please place that number in both fields since the advanced search function lets you specify only one of them when conducting a search.Quote:I'll note that in 2014, "playing time" was only a single field. Here's what I had written at that time: "When BGG was set up, someone decided to make this field accept only a single numeral instead of a range of numerals, so when confronted with a playing time of 30-60 minutes, we tend to split the difference and list the playing time as 45 minutes. Ideally we could split this into two fields so that games at the extreme such as Caverna (for 1-7 players and playing in 30-210 minutes) would be more accurately represented, but I'm not a tech guy and have been warned that it would be hard to do this now, especially since such a change could invite 70,000 game corrections, with different versions of games having different playing times in addition to different suggested ages. Fun!"8. Category and mechanism: For these two areas, you click on the link and choose whatever is appropriate on the lists presented to you. I understand the arguments that BGG sometimes blurs categories and mechanisms in these lists, but righting these "wrongs" is outside my area of expertise. (BGG vastly expanded the mechanisms it catalogs in 2019 as explained here and here.)
Well, we did it, by George, and 70,000+ corrections later, we're still standing!
9. Family: I mentioned families above when I talked about submission types that I won't cover. For many games you can search for reasonable sounding families and often find ones that already exist in the database: families related to countries and cities, families related to animals and professions, families related to media properties and authors, and on and on and on.
10. Expands: Use this field if the item you're submitting is an expansion for an existing game and not itself a standalone game. This last bit is important because when something is categorized as an expansion, then it cannot be ranked in the BGG system, no matter how many ratings it has. (We removed expansions from the rankings some years ago because expansions are nearly always rated higher than the base games. After all, if you hate the base game or are even indifferent to it, you'll likely avoid the expansion, which means that it's played mostly by those who are more prone to like it.)
And hey, check out how this section continued in 2014:Quote:Thus, for items like the next Ascension set (which is both a standalone item and an expansion for all other Ascension sets) or a Smash Up set that functions in the same way, please don't use the "expands" link because the item can also function as a standalone game and we want to classify it in that manner. For now we use an "Integrates with:" list to get around this pothole, as can be seen in the description of this Ascension game, but I'd like to see a dedicated "Integrates with:" two-way linking system added to a game's main info box in the future. I've lobbied for this, but as I mentioned earlier, I'm not the tech guy, so I ask for all sorts of things without having any idea of how complicated they'd be to implement.Turns out that we could indeed add this field, so we did:
11. Integrates with: If a game is a standalone game, yet also serves as an expansion for another game (with that game likewise serving as an expansion for the title being added, as with the Ascension and Smash Up families mentioned above), then link to those integrable titles here.
12. Contains: This field is for items such as Puerto Rico: Limited Anniversary Edition, which differs from the Puerto Rico base game in that it includes some of the existing expansions and tons of juicy components and would likely be bought and rated by folks who already love the base game, thus skewing it higher in the rankings and giving PR two spots in the BGG ranking list even though at heart it's the same thing. If you're submitting something like a thirtieth anniversary edition of Bohnanza (coming in 2027!) that includes multiple expansions, then you'd use this field to link to all of the items already listed in the database that it contains.
Lords of Xidit is packaged with two bonus cards for Seasons, a separate game set in the same world. Technically Lords of Xidit contains these expansion cards for Seasons, but if we use that "contains" link, then Xidit won't be ranked, even though it should be. We know about the problem, but lack a solution. It's such a corner case that we'll probably see something like this at most a half-dozen times a year, yet you still want a way to list this cleanly. Well, at least I do anyway...
13. Reimplements: Is the game that you're submitting a new version of a previously released game and (this is the important part) the designer or publisher has stated this directly? The 2014 release Rattlebones plays very much like a Dominion with dice, and Rattlebones designer Stephen Glenn has stated that he was inspired by Dominion for this design, but in no way would we list Rattlebones as a reimplementation of Dominion.
More recently, the 2019 title Nova Luna is based on the 2016 title Habitats, with Habitats designer Corné van Moorsel bearing a co-designer credit on Nova Luna and the link between the two games being described in the Nova Luna rulebook, so the reimplementation link connects these two designs to show their relationship.
14. Designer/Artist: Click on the links in these fields, find the appropriate people, then click on those names to add them to this game listing. You did add them to the BGG database earlier, yes?
15. Publisher: As with the above section, search for the publisher or publishers responsible for this game and click on them.
16. Version Information: Versions were added to the BGG database in 2009, and the goal behind listing them was to allow people to track exactly which version of a game they own, to indicate which version you're selling in the marketplace (although doing so is optional), and to compare the images for this or that version that's been released over the years.
What's the difference between a version and a new game? It's a fine line, and something that's tough to define, although some BGG admins have tried to do so in lengthy detail. As I mentioned earlier, Uberplay's For Sale that allows up to six players is listed as a new version of the original Ravensburger For Sale, even though the component counts differ, but Game of Thrones: Westeros Intrigue is listed as a separate game than Penguin even though they're arguably more similar than the two For Sales. I'll accept that we're inconsistent — and will stay that way, as I noted in a February 2014 BGGN post — but I also apologize for the confusion. We do what we can.
That said, sometimes multiple versions of a game are announced at the same time, say, a German version from Hans im Glück and an English one from Z-Man Games. That's where the "Clone This" link comes in. You can first add whatever information is the same for both versions of the game (box size, year of release, artist, etc.), then click "Clone This" to create a second version listing with all the info that you've already entered, then you can finish off the version listings with the unique information for each version (publisher, language, release date, etc.) "Add Another" works similarly, but copies none of the information that you've entered.
17. Version nickname: We have guidelines for how to name versions (and do many other things), but nicknames tend to be all over the place.
In general, we prefer a format of "(language) edition" or "(language)/(second language) edition" or (when more than two languages are involved) "(abbreviated language)/(abbreviated language)/(abbreviated language) edition", e.g. "EN/FR/GE edition", but many other combinations exist, so I'll refer you to the linked version guidelines, which I need to clean up and revise yet again.
18. & 19. Version publisher and Version artist: Search for and click on the appropriate names for these fields based on whatever version you are currently entering.
20. Year published: This field is meant to be the year in which this version of the game can be acquired by someone not involved with its creation, whether from the publisher directly, a print-and-play copy through the designer's website (in which case this is a "Print-and-play edition"), at a convention, or through a retail outlet. The "year published" field might not match the "year released" field as sometimes games are available to people prior to them being officially released through retail outlets. This is okay; the version info records the first time this particular version could be acquired, whereas the game's "year released" field records the publisher's official street date, assuming one is given.
21. Product code: Most publishers use a code — a series of numbers or letters or combination of both — to designate each title they release. They do this because manufacturers, distributors and retailers want to use standardized codes to prefer to product instead of names that sometimes have to be parsed to determine exactly what one is talking about. Do you mean Risk: The Lord of the Rings or Risk: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition? Which chapter pack for A Game of Thrones: The Card Game did a customer order: A Time of Trials or A Time for Wolves?
22. Dimensions: Some people like to know this information, especially if they plan to ship the game or have someone else ship it to them. How much will will USPS soak me for? We have a few preset sizes that are commonly used by publishers, but if you have the exact dimensions feel free to enter them, with the largest dimension as the length, the next largest as the width, and the smallest dimension being the depth. Yes, one box might have a portrait view and another a landscape view, but (1) you can see how the art looks from the box cover image and (2) if you consistently list dimensions from large to small, you can more easily imagine how one box size compares to another.
Additionally, note that the default for this field is inches. To submit lengths in centimeters, choose this option from the pulldown menu.
23. Weight: Not sure what to say here. Some folks want to know this stat so that they can build their bookshelves accordingly or plan mailing costs to the dime. Note that the default weight is pounds; use the pulldown menu to choose kilograms.
24. Languages: Click on the languages to match the rules to be included in the game. Don't see the language you need? Include a note to the admin with your suggestion. We've added Bulgarian, Vietnamese, Esperanto, and many other languages to the database to accommodate game submissions.
25. Release date: The idea behind the release date is that we want to list the date when this game was or will be first available to the public at large and not available to a select few who receive a game via Kickstarter show up at a convention months before the game is available to everyone else. Yes, Five Tribes debuted at Gen Con 2014, but does the availability of two hundred copies count as a release? Not in our eyes, which is why we list the release date as September 2014.
For the release date, if you have only the year, use the pulldown menu to put in the proper year; if you know the month as well, use that pulldown menu; if you know the precise day, add that detail, too. If instead you know only a range of months — say, "Jul/Aug 2015" — or the quarter — e.g., "Q3 2015" — that a game is due out, then use the "custom override" box and put that date information in place.
One thing you shouldn't do — and I'm surprised that publishers still do this — is use a season in the release date, such as "Spring 2020". For me, that term means sometime between late March and late June 2020; for someone in the southern hemisphere, however, that term means late September to late December 2020 — which is probably not what the publisher had in mind. If I've learned one thing in the fourteen years that I've been doing this, it's that if a gamer knows of a game that sounds interesting, that gamer will often make an effort to acquire, no matter where that game originates. Thus, publishers should make clear to all of their potential customers — that is, everyone on Earth — when their games will be available, and that means avoiding release dates based on seasons.
26. Release comment: Use this section to note extra details about a game's release, such as "Debuting at Gen Con 2015" or "Releasing in Europe in Aug 2015 & in North America in Oct 2015", to help other users know when they might be able to play the game in question or get their hands on it.
27. Release status: Is a game available to the public at large? If so, it's "released"; if not, it's "unreleased". A game sold via Kickstarter or at a convention is not considered released unless the game won't have a retail release.
28. Pre-order type: Typically this section is for a publisher that is running a crowdfunding campaign or taking pre-orders through its own website prior to a game's release. If someone completes this field and the next three pre-order fields, then a pre-order link will show in the "Official Links" section below the game's description; if one of these fields is left incomplete, then no such link will appear.
29. Pre-order URL: This is the URL of the crowdfunding project or the publisher's website where pre-orders are being taken. (We treat crowdfunding projects the same as pre-orders because from our point of view they function the same way: You pay money in advance of the game being available with the expectation of receiving the game at a later date.)
30. Pre-order start date and Pre-order end date: As I just mentioned, both of these fields need to be completed — all six pulldown menus — in order for the pre-order link to appear on the game page itself. No, six pulldown menus is not ideal, but that's what we have.
31. Note to admin: So much stuff could go in this space: URLs to an announcement on a publisher's website or a designer's Twitter feed or a retailer's game page, alternate names in different languages since you can submit only one name for the game, additional details about the release date, notes that you've submitted the designer or publisher details separately, clarification that you're the designer or publisher so you know what you're talking about, and so on.
32. Click the "Save" button. Yes, we're finally there. Click that button already.•••What next?
So are we done yet? Well, you're done — or at least you might be done. Once you submit something, the name of that submission will appear in one of the "item pending" queues that I linked to earlier. At some point a BGG admin will review the submission, then ask questions of you to clarify information that's unclear; approve the submission as is; skip over the submission because they have only a few minutes between other tasks and isn't clear whether they can approve this or not; add information based on what they've seen somewhere; or some combination of these.
In most cases, the game listing is approved first, then the designer/artist/publisher listings are approved later by a separate admin who has handled these things for a while and has kind of adopted these sections of the site. Once a game listing is approved, users can then submit images, files, web links, forum posts, and so on. (Here's an overview from Feb. 2019 of how to submit images, then propose them for the representative image slot on game pages and version listings.)
That listing will join more than 117,000 others in the database, and in most cases it will barely be seen again, at least by the majority of the people who use the site. For some users, though, they will carefully monitor the page, possibly even subscribing to it so that they can answer rules questions or see what reviewers have to say. Every game is somebody's baby...
Archive for Interviews
Advice for Designers and Publishers: How to Submit Listings for Games, People and Publishers to the BGG Database
- [+] Dice rolls
Neil BunkerUnited Kingdom
first published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]
Survive: Escape from Atlantis! designer Julian Courtland-Smith joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his remarkable forty-year career designing board games:
DM: Hi, Julian, thank you for joining us. Please can you tell us how you got started in game design?
JCS: When I was a child I loved playing board games. After I left school, I went into catering. Didn't care for it so went on to art college. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, probably architecture. In 1965, whilst I was making up my mind as to what direction to go in, I read an article in a magazine about games. It was by Waddingtons, publicizing their new product Mine A Million. That was the moment I thought I can do that and become rich and famous! Ha! Easier said than done!
My first design was a world domination game, akin to Risk. Looking back, it was rubbish. Well, you have to start somewhere. I worked in retail management and spent my nights and weekends inventing numerous games. However, it was 17 years before I had a game accepted.An early press photo
DM: Survive: Escape from Atlantis! is your most well-known game. Where did you draw inspiration for the game from?
JCS: After I'd invented Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs I was looking around for another strong theme when I chanced upon a row of books in my local library all about the island of Atlantis. These inspired me to devise a game with a sinking island.
DM: Can you elaborate on the design process?
JCS: My first attempts at devising "Escape from Atlantis" didn't really work as I drew the island on the board. During play, the island was slowly covered by sea tiles to effect sinking. When tokens were moved across these tiles, they all shifted and knocked down other meeples like men in boats. It was two years later before it dawned on me to change the sea tiles to land tiles. That way the island could be removed piece by piece from the board during play to simulate it sinking. I called the game "Escape from Atlantis" as the title summed up the game's objective.
DM: How did you get "Escape from Atlantis" to market?
JCS: I took my 2D prototype to Graeme Levin, owner of Games & Puzzles magazine. He became my agent and showed it to Parker Brothers. They liked it and made it their lead game in 1982 in America. They changed the name to Survive! and altered the game in a number of ways. It was advertised coast to coast in the States and sold very well. At the time Survive! was selling 14,000 copies a week compared to Monopoly's 12,000.
Unfortunately, computer games came out and the winter of '83 saw a massive 80% drop in the board game industry as people were buying the new computer games. Board games bounced back a couple of years later but never recovered their dominance in the market. Parker Brothers dropped the game, and it dragged on until closeout a few years later. In 1986 Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was launched in the UK. It did very well, coming in at #2 to Trivial Pursuit in the bestsellers list. I remember saying it would never catch on. What do I know!
Waddingtons phoned and asked if I had another 3D game. I confidently said yes! I had two weeks to turn Survive! (2D) into a 3D game. I remember sawing up a wooden hoe handle to make the island's land-tiles. Waddingtons launched their 3D version of Survive! and agreed to call it Escape from Atlantis!An early photo of Survive!
DM: Survive! has been an incredible success and is still available 38 years after its original release. What do you attribute this success to?
JCS: When Survive! was launched there was nothing like it on the market. Starting off in the mass market gave it great impetus. The turbulent years of the 1980s/90s when companies were either going under or being taken over meant I was constantly taking my prototypes from one company or another. I knew to be financially successful that I needed a major manufacturer to market the game, hence I only dealt with the top five companies in the world. I had many offers from smaller companies but decided to hold out for the big one. When Hasbro took over Waddingtons in the 1990s, I submitted my game to them and they relaunched Escape from Atlantis into Europe in 1996 under the Waddingtons brand.
The game ran until 2002 and was off the market for a number of years. Meanwhile, Survive! reached #1 in the secondhand board game market. Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games in the USA was looking to relaunch popular retro games. He saw copies of Survive! trading on eBay for up to $100. He thought if there was that much demand for this game secondhand, perhaps there's a market for a new product. He became my new agent, and in April 2010 announced that Stronghold Games would be reprinting a new version of the game called Survive: Escape from Atlantis!
The game was launched on October 10, 2010. In June 2012, Stronghold Games relaunched a new edition, Survive: Escape From Atlantis! – 30th Anniversary Edition, which is still on sale today. It included refreshed artwork and a slightly revised theme. Simultaneously, French publisher Asmodee licensed the EU languages and launched The Island, which is the same game as Stronghold's version but with a rebranded name for EU trademark purposes only.
Yes, my game has done the rounds with a lot of publishers. End of the day, it's the public who decide. I'm pleased and grateful that games players today enjoy playing Survive! I get messages from fans who say they enjoyed the game in their childhood and are now playing it with their children and grandchildren. I'm pleased Survive! has lived up to its name.
DM: What influence do you think the success of Survive! has had on the games industry?
JCS: Games evolve just as art, music and literature do. Each new artist, author, or designer is influenced by preceding works. Good games, popular games have always been copied.
There are a number of games out there which appear to be influenced by Survive! Catan (1995) comes to mind as does Forbidden Island (2010). I think the biggest change Survive! brought to the market was hexagonal spaces on the board, thus allowing tokens more efficient movement. Before then, you saw hexagonal spaces only in war games.
Prior to my games, there were countless Monopoly-style variants where you commenced play from one corner and went round the edge of the board or track rolling dice. This trend had continued from Victorian days. I wanted to break out of that niche and use the whole board in play.
I do believe the same level success can be repeated despite market saturation that has occurred following the advent of Kickstarter. Survive! has remained successful because the play mechanism hasn't dated. Being the first such game, this style of board game has endured. Someone will come along one day with fresh ideas and usurp the market, then we'll see a whole new trend emerge.A cover star in 1986
DM: Did the success of Survive! change your life?
JCS: Guess so. It was literally a rags-to-riches story. Prior to the success of Survive!, I was broke and unemployed, scratching a living doing odd jobs, but I persisted with my dream. Following the success of Survive!, I became a full-time designer and moved with my family from a three-bedroom council house to our five-bedroom country house. Whilst there, Waddingtons launched Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs, followed by Escape from Atlantis. The government wanted to tax me at 60% which was crippling, so we emigrated to Eire. We stayed there awhile, and in 1987 moved to the beautiful Isle of Man.
DM: You designed Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs before Escape from Atlantis. Can you tell us more about that game?
JCS: I invented Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs in 1979. I got the idea whilst standing on a London Underground station waiting for a train. On the wall was a poster advertising a dinosaur exhibition at the Natural History Museum. That was my eureka moment. I thought great idea for a game! I was highly influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 book The Lost World.
Inspired, it took me just two weeks to invent the game, six weeks to write the rules, and six years to get it to market. Before Waddingtons took the game I approached a number of manufacturers. I remember a Dutch company turning it down as it was "racist". At that time the men in the jungle were represented by small black Halma pieces, so I changed them to small white Halma pieces and called them Incas. Initially, the pteranodon in the game was a picture on a card. One day, I chanced upon a retailer selling small plastic pteranodons. I introduced that to the game as a playing piece. Waddingtons turned this bird into a moving toy, and it became a big hit with the kids.
DM: How was the design process for Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs different from that of Survive!?
JCS: I was six years trying to market Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs. During that time the game was extensively playtested by my family and friends until it worked perfectly. There was no pressure back then to deliver another game as games contracts were always one-offs, unlike books. When new authors get their first book launched they will normally sign a contract to produce more. With games you're only as good as your last but your reputation does get you interviews.
Games manufacturers of old retained artistic control. You were lucky if you got your name on the box! The first print runs of Waddingtons' Escape from Atlantis, which were 25,000 copies, did not give me any accreditation, even though it was written into my contract. Later, after a fuss, they agreed to mention me in the rules. Companies would, if they so chose, alter the rules or change components. The swirler dice in the Waddingtons Escape from Atlantis game was included by them, but to be fair, it proved popular with children.
By and large, Waddingtons' Escape from Atlantis didn't differ too much from my prototype, but Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was radically altered. I was trying to break with tradition and designed the game with no dice. Waddingtons decided to include dice as they reasoned children like to roll dice. They also made a number of other changes, which is why I always say Waddingtons' Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs is their version of my game.
DM: Are there plans for a Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs re-release?
JCS: I have been approached many times over the years by companies wanting to market Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs (LVD). In 1987 I divorced. My wife and I agreed to split ownership of all the games I'd devised during marriage. Hence, she retains copyright to LVD whilst I own EFA. My ex-wife has indicated that she would be open to offers, but that she wants the game marketed as it was originally designed.
Publishers always want to input their creativity which can be an improvement or not. As I said, Waddingtons' Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was nothing like the original. I tend to agree with her. Had LVD been marketed as invented, I believe it would still be around today as in its original form, it's better suited to the hobby gaming market.
DM: What other games have you designed, and do you have plans to release any others?
JCS: Too many to list here. I've designed well over fifty games to date.
I did produce a third game in my adventure trilogy called "Mammoth Mountain". The game has a strong theme which includes prehistoric animals of the period like woolly mammoth, sabre-toothed tiger, and so on. The game involves armed conflict between tribes fighting for survival whilst the world is slowly freezing over. When I presented it to Waddingtons, the games industry was in turmoil. Waddingtons were facing extinction therefore weren't prepared to launch "Mammoth Mountain" or any other games."Mammoth Mountain" prototype
In the intervening years I devised a number of products, including a debating game called "Controversy". I was turned down because it was considered too controversial.
Late 90's, I devised a range of 3D hand-held magnetic puzzles. Hasbro turned them down due to production costs. The magnets in my design precede today's neodymium magnets! Had I been able to acquire cheaper components, I believe they would have got to market.
When I took Escape from Atlantis to Waddingtons, I also produced a space theme of the game in case they preferred that. Years later Stronghold Games told me they were interested in marketing a space version of Survive! It was "re-imagined" by American designers Brian, Sydney and Geoff Engelstein and called Survive: Space Attack! I had very little input into the product; any co-developing by me was done via Stronghold Games CEO, Stephen Buonocore.
In recent times I have invented games for a younger market, for example, "Diamond Quest", a ludo-style game based in India of old which is enjoyed by my grandchildren.
Regards Survive!, a new Japanese version of the game was launched in 2020 and is doing well. Also, there are plans in the pipeline for another version of Survive!, hopefully in 2021. Watch this space!
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?
JCS: Start with a good, strong theme. Once you have that, try to match the theme with a major mechanism as in the island of Atlantis sinking in Survive! From there have some rough ideas about minor mechanisms like meeple movement, die rolls, cards.
Maths must come into the game straight away. How many players? How many spaces on the board? How many tokens, cards, etc. All these need to "balance" so that play runs smoothly. Size of spaces and tokens is important. Make your game appeal to as wide an age group as you can. The greater the age group, the wider the audience, the bigger the market. 8-80 is perfect.
Make rules concise, to the point. Easy to read. Don't make the game difficult to play. It's easy to add a new rule to solve a problem in play. Much better to concentrate on getting the game play working smoothly.
The days of games lasting all day and night, like Risk, are long gone. Time each player's move, ideally making the game last up to an hour and a half. Try to build into the game a natural ending. Last, but not least, playtest, playtest and playtest. To give you an idea, Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was playtested over two hundred times.
Finally, can you think of a new way of playing a game? Hard ask I know, but try to break out of the mold. Break with tradition, start a new trend and with luck your game will be around for the next fifty years!
- [+] Dice rolls
On July 8, 2019, designer Reiner Knizia caused a stir in the game industry when he tweeted the following:
THE QUEST FOR EL DORADO – I am proud to announce our upcoming international edition with all new graphics by Vincent Dutrait. Available in many countries and languages later this year… Large format cards… Many expansions waiting… pic.twitter.com/4a0JcYknDq— Reiner Knizia (@ReinerKnizia) July 8, 2019
Wait a minute? A new edition of The Quest for El Dorado, for which Knizia and Ravensburger received a Spiel des Jahres nomination in 2017? It's being released with new artwork by Vincent Dutrait while the original version with Franz Vohwinkel's iconic artwork is still on print? Large format cards wouldn't match the original, which means that the existing Heroes & Hexes expansion wouldn't be compatible — and what about The Golden Temples standalone expansion that Ravensburger teased at Spielwarenmesse 2019 ahead of a late 2019 release? Is Knizia talking about those expansions — or something else?
People started speculating what this announcement might entail for the future compatibility of base games and expansions, not to mention their availability. After seeing this new version listed on the Lautapelit.fi website — a listing removed almost immediately — I contacted Toni Niittymäki from Lautapelit.fi, who suggested that I contact lead publisher 999 Games, the representative of which gave me additional information while also suggesting that I contact Reiner Knizia himself, which is perhaps what I should have done in the first place since he's the one who kicked off this hullabaloo, so I did.
In this article, I might not answer all of your questions about this new edition, but I will address them as best as I can. As you'll see, though, answers might not come for a year or more — and in many cases, the answers will depend on you.•••
an hour-long retrospective in 2015 of his thirty-year career as a game designer that remains my favorite interview to date. I've spoken of my love for Knizia designs many times, most recently in my video overview of LAMA, and aside from being a fan of his designs, I'm also a fan of his business practices. More than anyone else I've encountered, Knizia merges the art of design with the business of ensuring that those designs get into print and stay there, and that's where this story begins.
"The first challenge is to find a publisher interested in the game," says Knizia. "Ideally that would be a publisher who is willing and able to take the game and market it to its largest potential worldwide. No publisher can do that by themselves, but many publishers have built up networks that extend their reach. I would like to work with a publisher who can do that because I'd give the game to one publisher, deal only with them, then everyone would work from the same template, which leads to bigger co-publications, which is more cost effective."
Learning about a publisher's plans for a design before you sign a contract with them is crucial. After all, if a publisher doesn't have a network of licensees or doesn't plan to market your game to others, then you don't want to give away rights that you could sell to others — and even if a publisher does have such a network, Knizia says that his contracts for worldwide rights typically contain a clause that allows unused languages or territories to come back under his control. "Publishers might want to try to make something happen, and in two or three years, if it doesn't work, then we might want to give it a try ourselves."
Knizia and Ravensburger have worked together on dozens of releases over the past two decades, with their first such collaboration being in 1995 (as best as I can determine) on the classic auction game High Society. Regarding The Quest for El Dorado, Knizia says, "Ravensburger has contributed an enormous amount to the success of the game. They've put their heart into it, and the game wouldn't be where it is today without them. That is clear. There is no rift with Ravensburger."
Since the game's debut in 2017, Ravensburger has released versions of The Quest for El Dorado in German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian — and that was it as far as the company was concerned. Says Knizia, "Ravensburger did not want to cover the other territories, which meant that I had all the other territories to cover myself. This game is too close to my heart, and if they didn't want to cover it, then I wanted to do it myself."
There was one complication to this plan, however: Ravensburger didn't want to allow its graphics for the game to be used by other publishers. Publishing partnerships exist in many different formats, and while you might have a straight co-publication — with publisher B paying publisher A a licensing fee to be part of the same print run with only the text translated into a different language — you might instead have publisher B paying solely for the use of the artwork owned by publisher A and handling the manufacturing on its own.
Lato z Komarami, Egmont Polska's edition of LAMA, as an example of this, Knizia said that actually the Egmont version of that game matches his prototype as he had called the game "Mosquito" to highlight the annoying nature of them being left in your hand at the end of a round. "For AMIGO, the mosquito wasn't the most sympathetic character", says Knizia, so that publisher swapped the mosquito for a llama. Given the Spiel des Jahres nomination for that game, AMIGO might have made the right call...)
Knizia emphasizes that Ravensburger is perfectly within its rights not to license its art for whatever reasons it wants, but this decision made things difficult for his licensing efforts given that Ravensburger was already covering the largest markets — North America and much of Europe — on its own. "For smaller publishers with smaller markets, they might have a harder time paying for new art and graphics given how much is needed for this game," he says.
As a result, says Knizia, "For the first time in my career, I've financed and commissioned artwork for a game. I decided to step in and make sure that we would have unifying graphics. It cost me a lot of time, but that's what I had to invest to ensure that the game would exist in many countries." That said, Knizia knows that despite all of his years in the industry, his expertise is not in publishing and game production, so he went looking for someone who could handle all of the artwork, graphic design, and pre-production work.
He found Vincent Dutrait.
At this point, Knizia says they have the graphics, a working template of the game in the English language, and the ability to license the game in territories or language/territory combinations not covered by Ravensburger. When publishers want to join the project, they need only to replace the English in the master template with a translation of the text into the language(s) specified in their license with Knizia.
In a tweet on July 9, Knizia had stated that the game would appear in eleven languages not covered by Ravensburger, but following the publicity of his original announcement, a twelfth language edition has been signed. Those languages are Dutch (from 999 Games); Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish (from Lautapelit.fi); and (from publishers still to be announced) Chinese, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, and Russian. (The Lautapelit.fi edition will include components and rules in English, but it cannot be sold by the publisher outside of Finland and Scandinavia.)
Knizia declined to name the other publishers so that they could make announcements on their own schedule, although he chose to announce the existence of this edition himself in order to bring awareness of it to game markets worldwide because at this point he's still looking for a Baltic publisher, a publisher for a Portuguese edition, and a publisher able to cover New Zealand and Australia. During our call, he referenced a map with pins in countries around the world. Not every country has a pin, of course, so he's open to hearing from publishers in other areas as well...
In terms of the actual manufacturing of the game, that's another area outside of Knizia's expertise. Dutch publisher 999 Games is overseeing production of the base game — getting costs to licensees, ensuring that they submit translations for their part of the production line, etc. — for those publishers that want to sign up, which so far consists of 999 Games and Lautapelit.fi, as well as the publishers of the Hungarian, Japanese, and Korean versions. Eduard van Buggenum from 999 Games told me that "the coordinated production" of these games will allow for their release in early 2020.
Knizia notes that some of the licensees have their own production facilities, so they have decided to produce the game themselves with the new Dutrait graphics under the license with Knizia, and some of these versions will be on the market before the end of 2019.The large cards in this edition are intended to highlight Dutrait's artwork
As for the aforementioned expansions, Knizia says, "Being able to control doing the graphics, it gives me freedom to do expansions myself for different territories. There are lots of expansion opportunities in El Dorado, and the advantage now is that I don't have to convince an individual publisher. I discuss it with Vincent, and we do it."
That said, this doesn't mean that expansions for The Quest for El Dorado will appear for this version of the base game right away. "It's a bit too early for us to talk about those", says van Buggenum. "Speaking for 999 Games, usually a board game first has to 'prove itself' in our market before we print an expansion. For now, the currently planned production of the Vincent Dutrait version is for the base game only."
Knizia says that Dutrait has completed artwork for the cards in the promo pack for The Quest for El Dorado that was released in Spielbox and at Gen Con 2018. (The "Binoculars" card in the Twitter image at top is from the promo pack.) "Some publishers will include this in the box, and some will give it away as a promotional item."The hat serves as a first-player marker
"We have many ideas", continues Knizia. "They are in development, and it depends on individual publishers what we will do with them. For some publishers, it's important to have ideas of expansions, and others focus solely on the base game. The publishers will decide what they want to do. I will build the world, then the publishers can take one thing or another from it."
Admittedly, says Knizia, the situation is unusual compared to what existed before. "Now we have two arms, two different worlds: the Vohwinkel world and the Dutrait world. What is important to me is that Ravensburger has their market, their channels, and I'm now covering different channels, different markets. For many people in those markets, the game is brand new, which will create a drive for new expansions." Speaking of which, Knizia confirms that The Quest for El Dorado: The Golden Temples is on track for release from Ravensburger at SPIEL '19 in October.
As for what follows after that, it largely depends on the market — by which I mean "markets", specifically the seventeen language-based markets that currently exist or will exist within the next twelve months for The Quest for El Dorado. People might be frustrated that the new Dutrait version of the game won't be sold in their country or their language, but keep in mind that the Heroes & Hexes expansion from Ravensburger currently exists solely in a dual English/German edition. Perhaps French, Spanish, and Italian versions will exist in the future, and perhaps not.
Publishers produce games because they think they can sell them, so you can't be assured that a Dutrait version of Heroes & Hexes or The Golden Temples will ever exist until you see them announced — and if everyone holds off from buying the Dutrait base game because they want to know first whether they can get the "whole" line, then poor sales will doom any chances of that. That situation can be frustrating, yes, but the alternative would be for not even the base game to exist in these languages. Knizia thought he could do more with his creation, so he created his own opportunities to do more. As for what treasure we'll find next in this line of games, we'll all find out together in the years to come.
- [+] Dice rolls
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:Quote: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!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:
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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:Quote: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.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:
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.
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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.
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Brian Mayer is the designer of Freedom: The Underground Railroad and co-author of Libraries Got Game: Aligned Learning through Modern Board Games. This interview was conducted by Patrick Rael, Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Maine and was originally published on April 19, 2017, on Rael's Ludica blog.•••
Q: How did the idea for this game come to you?
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.
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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!
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Anne-Marie De Witt (Fireside Games), Brittanie Boe (GameWire/GTS Distribution), Stephanie Straw (personal account/Red Pants Games), Phoebe Wild (Cardboard Vault), and Andrew Christopher Enriquez (The Nerd Nighters).
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!
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The next title from Flatlined Games is Robin, by Fréderic Moyersoen. This series of articles will tell you the tale of making Robin from the initial idea to the finished product.
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.
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" prototype
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.
- [+] Dice rolls