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Interviews by an Optimist # 106 - William Attia

William said this about himself…
"I am 29 years old, and I am working as a software engineer in Paris, where I have now been living for 10 years, after having spent the beginning of my life in the south of France.

The first games I played were classics (chess, checkers and Scrabble) with my parents and grand-parents. Then I discovered role-playing games, classic card games (tarot, belote) and later CCGs, with an occasional game of Risk, Clue, or Mille Bornes. My first real contact with boardgaming occurred when I arrived in Paris, where I discovered Settlers of Catan, Civilization, Diplomacy... I have spent long evenings and nights playing these. Later I started attending Diplomacy tournaments, which allowed me to discover other games as well (among which new ones like Carcassonne and then Puerto Rico, but also older games like Kremlin).

A few friends and I started weekly meetings to play some board games. At first we kept playing the same games over and over, mainly Euphrat & Tigris then Puerto Rico, but now very few games get many repeated plays (although these two, as well as Age of Steam, remain favourites of ours during these sessions).

My first trip to the Essen fair took place in 2003, and I enjoyed it so much that it was soon obvious I would go back the year after. At this time, I did not know yet that my friend Cyril Demaegd would publish his game Ys then, but that made the 2004 fair even more exciting - and then, 2005 has been different once again, with the publication of Caylus.


Tom: What do you think about the massive critical praise that Caylus is receiving?

William: First, the sheer quantity of comments on Caylus shows that even games published by small companies (Ystari Games did not even exist two years ago, and Caylus is only the second game they publish) can get a wide exposure, thanks to the internet and reference websites (like BGG for the international hobby, or Tric Trac for the French-speaking one).

As for the comments themselves, I have been quite surprised by their enthusiasm - and obviously very happy. Of course, I never was and will never be able to see Caylus with the same eyes other people see it with.

Even if I knew from the beginning that it was a game I would have enjoyed playing myself, I was not sure how much it would be appreciated by players beyond the immediate circle of first playtesters, who have shown a lot of commitment in the creation of the game and whose opinion might be biased because of that. However, once the game had reached an almost final form and was being played by more and more people (including people who did not know me), most of the feedback was still very positive, and that made us more and more confident that the game could indeed be quite successful.

At the Essen fair, the game has been received exceptionally well (once again, partly because it had been talked about on the internet before), much better than I could have imagined or even hoped for, which is of course rather enjoyable from my point of view.

One of the reasons why Caylus has been received so well, however, is unrelated to the game itself. Games of this weight are not as common as lighter (middle-weight) ones, and if a game of a similar weight, but from a better-known designer or publisher had been released at the same time, Caylus would probably have had less exposure. For instance, if
Caylus and Goa had been released simultaneously, the players enjoying those kind of games would probably have had a large part of their attention and interest distracted away from Caylus, if only because of the names (both Hans im Glück and Rüdiger Dorn are well-known names in our hobby, and such a game is much more likely to get attention than the first game of an unknown designer, published by a small and recent French company). The same could probably be said about Funkenschlag. Even if these games and Caylus and not really similar, I think they are likely to appeal to the same kind of gamers, who enjoy heavier games than the German average.

But the main thing is that I enjoyed designing Caylus and being able to play it with my friends. It was very fortunate for me that it was published and could be played by others - and everything which happened afterwards has been (and still is) something extra for me to enjoy.

Tom: When you designed Caylus, what did you set out to do? Did it come to you in a dream; was it a slow process?

William Attia: The core idea of Caylus (that is, buildings activated along the road) had been in my mind for a while before I made a first prototype, and I think I got it after playing Amun-Re, which would mean late in 2003.

[I could explain more about Amun-Re / Caylus similarities, but that would probably be too technical at that point.]

I had been thinking for a while about game design, especially since several of the players I play with every week occasionally brought us prototypes of their own to playtest them, but I needed quite a while before I finally wrote a first set of very incomplete rules using
this mechanism. However, I did not go any further than that before a talk with Cyril, shortly after Essen 2004. I told him about these sketched rules and he suggested that I should finish them and bring the game for testing during one of our weekly evenings.

In order for the game to work, I needed to flesh out the existing rules. So far, they only dealt with the placement of workers and the activation of buildings, which allowed the players to collect and spend resources. I added enough temporary rules for the game to hold on its feet (basically, ways to convert resources into victory points, even if the values were rather improvised), made the first sketch of a board with Excel, collected wooden bits from Kardinal & König and Wallenstein, and the first prototype was done.

Even if we had to give up quite early during the first game, some ideas had been judged promising enough; and after the debriefing session, a few obvious flaws had been detected and interesting suggestions had been made to correct them. I worked on the rules
again and was able to propose a much improved version a few days after that first game.

During the following weeks, I played various versions of what would become Caylus (but did not have any proper name yet) several times a week, with the same core group of playtesters who brought lots of useful feedback and interesting ideas. Several rules changed after every game, to make it both better and shorter. The first few games lasted at least four hours each, which was much too long, even though playing was enjoyable - to reduce game length, the number of turns was reduced and the playing of each turn was streamlined to make the game run as smoothly as possible.

The whole process was quite demanding, and I had far less time to play other games while Caylus was designed, but it was overall very interesting and exciting.

Tom: Can you tell us about your future games? Do you have an expansion for Caylus planned?

William: There is not much to tell about yet. Even though I enjoyed the creation process and the whole Caylus experience very much, I have not gone very far in the design of any other game for now, and have no idea about which game, if any, will be completed next.

At the moment I have a few ideas - some of them are rejected mechanics which I tried using in Caylus at some point, but which did not fit there in the end. For some of them, I have found a possible theme already and a few even have some incomplete written
rules which might be worth testing some day.

My most advanced idea at the moment is a small card game (as different from Caylus as it could be), which is playable, but still lacks something to make it interesting to play. Apart from that one, I have several ideas for boardgames, but they are not advanced enough for me to know how heavy they will be in the end, if I manage to bring them anywhere.

However, most of my playtest sessions recently have been dealing with Cyril's future game, about which I am probably not allowed to say much.

As for an expansion for Caylus, nothing has been decided yet. If I manage to find enough interesting ideas for an expansion, there might be one some day, but I am not actively thinking about getting it done at the moment, and would rather think about different games.

Also, I think designing an interesting expansion for Caylus would actually be quite difficult. Some people have suggested adding a few buildings (and some such buildings have been proposed on BGG, for instance), but I am not sure that would be enough to make a Caylus expansion interesting.

Tom: Do you feel like every game you produce from here on out will be compared to Caylus?

William: I suspect that some people will be expecting my next game and hopefully it will not disappoint them. However, I cannot reasonably expect that all my games will be as successful and as much appreciated as Caylus, even if I certainly hope they will and I will do my best to make that happen. However, I feel like I have been very lucky with Caylus; and if there is a recipe to be that lucky again with my next games, I do not know it (yet).

Since I do not know yet what my next games will be (if there are any), I do not know how valid the comparison with Caylus may be. There might be a few common features; and if there have gone through the whole design and test process, it is likely that they will belong to a kind of games I appreciate playing myself. That does not mean, however, that they will be medium-heavy economic games like Caylus.

As a player, I am particularly interested in new releases by some designers (or publishers), because I like some or most of their previous games. It does not mean that I will like the new one as well, but the chances are usually above average. However, I would not say that I compare the new game to the old ones - especially as the types of
games can be quite different.

For instance, one of the recent Nürnberg games that I was most eager to try, because of the designer and publisher, was Thurn & Taxis. Now that I have played it once and quite liked it, I am looking forward to playing it again, but it cannot be compared to Puerto Rico or San Juan.

Tom: Do you use mechanics from other designers in your games?

William: Some games can be defined by core mechanics, which are really specific to them and would probably be used by most people to define the game. For instance, if someone talks about a game with a cube tower, they probably mean Wallenstein. I would be reluctant to use such a mechanic, which is almost unique to an existing game, in a game of mine.

On the other hand, some mechanics have been used in so many games that a majority of people probably have forgotten who has introduced them for the first time, and where. They are definitely not original, but they have been used so widely for a reason: they work.

For instance, drawing a card either among a set of visible cards or from a hidden draw pile. This system gives the players some control about what they draw, but they cannot just pick anything they want either - and they can hurt the next player by drawing a card which could be useful to him.

When we played Thurn und Taxis, which uses this system, for the first time, it was described to us as "you draw a card like in Ticket to Ride", and everyone perfectly understood what it meant. Other games have used it before, and I suspect that many other games will use it in the future as well. Sometimes as is, sometimes with a change (do you replace the cards you pick right now, or only once you have picked all the cards you are allowed to get, like in Web of Power) or a new idea added to this base system (like the different costs in Hazienda). I would not mind using such a system in one of my games. Of course, it could be better to find something original and clever, but not everything in a game has to be completely new to make it interesting to play.

One mechanic which I like very much but, as far as I know, is only used in one game, is the scoring system for monasteries in Web of Power (highest number scores total number, second highest number scores highest number, and so on). I have no precise idea about how and where I could use it in a game of mine, but even then, I would be quite reluctant to use it as is anyway.

Tom: What advice would you have for an aspiring designer?

William: I do not feel that I am an experienced game designer yet, and I am quite sure that lots of people would have better advice than mine. However, based on my own experience, here is my advice.

The design and testing process of Caylus has been done in several stages. The first few games have been played by the same core of test players (who I cannot thank enough for their patience and suggestions). I think it was quite important to keep the same players, as long as they were not bored with the game, since they knew what had been tried and rejected before (and why it had been rejected), what I wanted to do, and their suggestions could be more useful than the ones someone else could have given after a single game.

The first important step in the design process was the first game that we managed to play to the end. Of course, it was still horribly unbalanced, some parts lacked fluidity, and the overall design was still quite rough, but it felt like an achievement to get to the end of the game, rather than agree after three or four turns that we were wasting our time.

Once it was possible to finish a game consistently, it was easier to get other players to test the game. There were still some drastic changes after that first finished game, but it was also time to start working on details. Still, at this point, I was playing or closely watching all the test games, until we reached the second important step: the first two games we played without changing a single rule in between.

That was an achievement as well. Of course, there were still many changes to come, including some important ones, but at least nothing appeared broken or unbalanced enough to require immediate fixing.

At that time, the game underwent more and more tests. Even if the core testers and myself were still taking part to some of them, most of the time it was more useful for me to watch the games. Copies of the prototypes have been sent to other groups as well from which we knew it was possible to get honest, useful feedback.

That leads me to a second important point. After playing a game of what would become Caylus, even the very first, uncompleted games, we talked a lot, and this debriefing time has been much more important than the game itself. As a rule, we had decided not to comment on the design while we were playing (and we are still more or less sticking to this rule, even when playing published games).

After the games, however, debriefing sessions longer than one hour were common - sometimes to be continued by phone or email before the next test. We had long arguments over the game, but at least it meant something very important: whenever they told me they liked something, I could be quite confident it was the truth. And I think that is very important when designing a game and getting a friend's opinion.

A last advice I could give, but I do not know how relevant it would be for everyone, is the following one. Even before the first test game, I had typed the complete rules. At first it was supposed to be only a player aid listing the various phases, but I expanded it to describe all the phases completely, rather than rely on my memory to explain the rules. Doing this allowed me to answer a few rules questions even before the players got to ask them - some rules had just been overlooked when I had thought about the game.

Then, after every game, I modified the file to keep it up to date with the last changes in the rules. I am not exactly sure how helpful it has been during the design of the game, but it certainly was when it came to sending the rules to other testers far from Paris. And it might be nice, in a few years maybe, to browse back the old versions of the rules, and maybe gather there some forgotten, but still usable ideas.

Tom: What are your opinions of Essen? Is it a "must attend" event?

William: I attended Essen for the first time in 2003, with a group of friends, and friends of friends. It is not very far from Paris (about 5 to 6 hours by car) and we stayed there for the whole duration of the fair. Meeting with friends to spend a week-end playing games is a great experience by itself, but in Essen you also have the opportunity to discover brand new games and to buy games quite cheaper than in France. And since a lot of people interested in games are attending, you are quite likely to run across people you know from various sites such as BGG or BSW.

I had loved that first week-end there and was quite sure I would go back the following year. The experience there was even better - not only because my friend Cyril had a booth where he was selling Ys. Since I had been there before, I had prepared for the trip better (the Essen preview by Spielbox and its English version by Rick Thornquist have been invaluable tools). Rather than wandering a bit blindly through the halls, I knew where to check for which games and made sure I had seen everything I wanted to see in the end (as well as lots of other, unexpected stuff).

Of course, last year was even different since we had a booth and a few hundreds of copies of Caylus to sell. Still I also managed to spare some free time to enjoy the fair as a visitor - and once again, I knew at once that I would get back in 2006.

I cannot tell yet how important Essen is for a game designer. Maybe I will try and get some appointments with publishers and bring some prototypes next October if I have anything ready by then. But anyway, I know that even as a player, I am likely to enjoy staying there, discovering new games, expanding my collection and meeting old and
new friends.

Tom: When trying to get your game picked up by a publisher, what are the best things to do?

William: I cannot really answer from my experience from Caylus, since it has been an incredible coincidence and stroke of luck. I have known Cyril and he has been a friend of mine for a few years, and I play games with him about twice a week on average. Of course, I knew of his activity as a designer and publisher, and he had told me he was looking for a game to publish for Essen 2005, so it was quite natural for me to show him my first sketch of what would become Caylus. Once the first tests proved the game was quite promising, it was obvious that if Caylus was to be published some day, Ystari would publish it.

I am aware this is not a typical situation, and not every aspirant game designer happens to know a publisher who is looking for games to publish.

As for my next games, if I manage to complete any, it is quite likely I will propose them to Ystari first, if they are likely to fit their range of products. If they don't, or if Cyril does not want to publish them (which is quite possible, since our tastes do not match perfectly even though they are quite similar), I will try to get in touch with publishers who might be interested. Here as well, I suppose my situation may not be quite typical (if only because I have one published game already).

Another possibility would be to enter a boardgame design contest. There are several such contests in France every year (and probably in other countries as well), and they are said to be a good opportunity for designers to get some feedback on their games and to get the attention of publishers. Some festivals and conventions also allow designers to demonstrate their games.

It is a great way to have interested (and unbiased) playtesters; and if the game is any good, publishers will hear about it.

Tom: William, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

William: Thank you, Tom, for your great series of interviews and for having included me in it. I hope my answers will have been interesting to at least some of your readers.

My final thought should probably be that, even though I have designed a game and I am interested in trying to do that again, I still enjoy playing games - old favourites, new games and prototypes - and I hope it will continue that way.

Caylus has provided me with some extra opportunities to travel, meet other players, talk about games and play, and that is another reason why I appreciate it.

Edited by Tom and Laura Vasel
September 16, 2006
"Real men play board games"
www.thedicetower.com

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Allen Vailliencourt
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Another excellent interview. Thanks Tom & Laura!

~Allen
 
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Jonathan Takagi
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Great interview, Tom!

It's a very interesting read. William's thoughts are very informative and his humility is inspiring.
 
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