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Subject: Interview with Michael Schacht about Game Design rss

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Corin A. Friesen
United States
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This interview was conducted in August of 2009.

First round:
#1/2: First of all, thank you, Michael, for participating in this interview! Are there any games you are currently working on that you would feel good about giving us a hint or a sneak peak?

Scheduled is an expansion for "Valdora" and a re-worked rerelease of "Industria" (i’m strongly looking forward on this one).
At the moment i am working on "Dschunke" - a rerelease is possible as well.
There will be releases of smaller children games soon, one will be a game mainly for girls: "Winx club" at Kosmos.
And of course there is something planned for Zooloretto. In Essen there might be a little goodie again.
I‘m working on another expansion for Zooloretto scheduled for the coming spring.
And last but not least i hope to complete a big boardgame for Essen fair to present to publishers.

#1: What motivates you to design games?

I always loved to try making things by myself: music, computer games, drawing, whatever ...
After creating games for a long time it is always a strong competition to create new ideas (not doing always the same stuff).
That motivates me.

#2: What are your gaming preferences? What types of mechanics and themes and such are your favorite? Do you experiment a lot with game mechanics? And how much luck are you comfortable with?

I like cards and tile placement and i prefer historical themes. Anyway, i always try to be open for different or new things.
Experimenting with game mechanisms is part of my job, just using what is already available is boring.
Luck is no problem for me. But i don’t like to play two hour games and then just the luck decides. There must be a senseful amount or balance.

#3: How do you get an idea or the concept for a completely new game?

Very different:
Some starting ideas are left-overs of older developments (often you have to kill parts although they are interesting because of not fitting in the system)
Often i am thinking of new ways of a specific mechanism theme, f. e. an new auction mechanism. Then i am "experimenting" in brain with different possibilities: trial and error, what happens if do that, a. s. o.
Some ideas are just from observing something in real life and you say to yourself, that’s intersting, that can be a game.
When creating with another designer of course discussion and brainstorming are common.
My experiences when working in advertising before helps me creating ideas. Or controll a project.

#4: I know some people start designing a game with the theme, some start with the mechanics, and some start with the scoring. What do you do?

When you start creating games you mostly come from the theme (same with me). It makes it a bit easier to find mechanism out of the theme.
Very typical are games with themes you were confrontated in holidays, f. e. visiting Greece and want to make a game with temples and stuff like that ...
Later your start more often with the mechanism idea (same with me). If you have something interesting then you have a better chance to come to a good end -
mechanism drives the game, theme rarely. Anyway i try to find the theme very early in the development to make the connection between mechanism and theme as harmonical as possible.
Scoring comes last. At first i‘m looking for a motor for the game which generates fun (hmm, sounds all very technical :-))

#5: How do you go from a very vague idea to something more substantial? In other words, how do you actually start to make the game?

I usually need something more substantial. So, i collect little ideas, make a short exploration and judge the potential.
The strongest i choose to work with. Anyway this leads often to nothing useful.

#6: How do you start materializing the very first ideas into a playable prototype?


#7: What types of materials do you use for your first prototypes?

I have some sets of standard material i’m always starting with.
A lot of details i do keep in mind, therefore i don’t have to modify the material. That works well for the first simulations.
When making tests with "real" people i have of course to create a real prototype with my Mac or with some blank cards with f. e. handwritten numbers on.
The funny thing is, i have a set of blank cards just with different colours that i created a lot of games with.

#8: How do you go about testing a game?

The first tests are just in my brain. Simulating with myself is second. Then my wife has to join (hard critic!).
Afterwards my friends have to suffer and finally the neutral test groups.
In the later tests it iabsoulutely forbidden for me to join the game.

#9: How do you balance a game?

Very standard: A lot of simulations and calcualting the statistics.
Psychology is also very important (sometimes it looks unbalanced but it isn’t. Then you better change it anyway).

#10: How do you deal with problems in the game? Do you like to keep close to the original idea, or do you change the game in major ways?

Both :-) I have something like a master plan. If parts are interesting but too far away i will keep them out anyway (for another concept).
But i have no problems to make major changes if i think there can be more to find in the idea. Creating sometimes overnight a totally different version of the game.

#11: Do you try to make your games fit the player range you would like, or do you see how it will come out?

I try to fit the range. My focus is on family games. So, if ideas are getting too complex i just discard them. Perhaps keeping them for something different.
In earlier days i sometimes created some games which didn’t test well in my test groups. Later i recognized that the reason was, that these were children games.
Today i am sure where to go and for whom to create.

#12: Do you design games intuitively, or do you have to think about them a lot?

Sometimes you create (smaller) games in a minute. Unfortunately that’s quite rare.
Usually It takes a long time of thinking until the first prototype.
That is one reason that i collect a lot of (more or less good) ideas which i probably never will finish with a prototype.
I mean some ideas lead to a point where i have the feeling there is not enough meat at the moment. So i skip (and hopefully remember it when i need to).

#13: Do you use a "take it as it comes" approach to the design process, or do you try to guide it in the way you want?

Again both. You can‘t always wait until something might happen. So, you need to have some techniques to move the process forward.
But sometimes fortunately things just happen and you don’t need that.

#14: Do you try to be as original as possible, or does originality flow from your work naturally?

I definetely do. Often original parts of a design unfortunately gets lost during development because of not fitting.
But i always keep these in mind and these are often good starting points for the next design.
In the starting phase i "let it flow" the most in the process. A next day it might get concrete enough for a first rule or prototype.

#15: Do you just try to design a good and fun game, or do you try to please yourself and/or others?

Fun is always a major point. Just an elegant, intelectual design is not enough in my eyes.
And I don’t neccessarily need to like my game myself. Otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to f. e. create a children game

#16: Do you think you could design a game containing only wooden pieces within a deadline, like Martin Wallace can, or do you not design well with such pressure and restriction?

I don’t think this is very unusal for game designers who work frequently on games.
Otherwise there wouldn’t be f. e. so many expansions shortly after the releases.
These have to be produced in time under stong guidelines.

#17: Thank you again, Michael!

Thank you for you interest.

Second round based on the first:
#18: So, do you have the whole game in your head before you actually try to play it? Or do you play to see if you can fill in holes at the time?

Not the whole game but something like 60-70% of it before the first play.
But often i change a lot. It can happen that nearly the complete starting idea gets lost and "just" the spirit remains.

#19: Do you have any favorite games from other designers?

Brass from Martin Wallace, Puerto Rico from Andreas Seyfarth and Caylus von Cyril Demaegd.
The last two are very influential for modern boardgames.

#20: Do you have any favorite designers, or ones you greatly appreciate and respect? Please explain why you like them.

There is not "the one" that i prefer. More fascinating for me is that there always new designer that bring fresh ideas to the game scene. Unfortunately this hits mostly just the more complex game, for classical family games we are missing these. Therefore the number of good family games decreases. But these are important for the survuval of the boardgame industry.
And also a little bit more female designers would also make a bigger variance.

#21: Could you take us through a little bit of a detailed history of how you designed Valdora?

The concept at the beginning of the development was to create a complex game but as simple as possible.
So, that perhaps even families can play it.
Over the whole process this was the quideline for judging the different elements.
One thing i personally like about game designs, is to have a system that doesn’t force you to play good.
So, i like open systems where you have to "do" something to win, another general condition for the development.
The book idea was one of the very first things and i was happy that this could be realized in that way.
Originally the Valdora release was planned right after Zooloretto. But because of the workload of the publisher and me we rescheduled it two times.
That let me time to rework it again.
Let’s say i changed 60% of the game without really changing it. Just optimizing, looking for simpler solutions and scoring, creating more strategical options. In total this one was perhaps the most costly game i made so far.

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Michael Schacht
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Re: Interview with Michael Shacht about Game Design
Just a small comment: The interview was made several month ago. So, some infos like the coming projects are not preview status anymore.
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