Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Comedy of Errors

German Board Game Designer Reiner Knizia Visited Ludorati Cafe

9 November 16 words: Gav Squires

He’s had over 600 games published, won several 'Game of the Year' awards, and has made some of the best-selling games of the last twenty years. Modern board games are all a bit different from playing Monopoly with your nan at Christmas, so when Reiner Knizia visited Ludorati, the board game café on Maid Marian Way, Gav Squires sat down with him to talk about all things board game...

When you're designing games where do you get your inspiration from?
It's an easy question and it's a not so easy question. There is a very nice quote, which I love a lot, from Hemmingway, "If you want to write, when you write, you need to live". I believe that games are really a mirror of our times and of our culture and they develop with our culture. So, essentially you need to keep your eyes open to see what developments are exciting for the people and take this as the starting point for a new idea.

Of course, as a game designer I want to be innovative and to do something new. So starting with something innovative, something new, new materials, new production technology, new licensed characters, new movie, book, anything can be a good starting point. But the idea is the fun part. Game designing is of course fun.

I think that the biggest challenge these days is to develop this idea into a really perfect product. There are hundreds of new games coming out every year and it is important to stand out from the crowd. You can have a fantastically good game but if nobody sees you, nobody plays. So, it's really testing it, understanding the psychology, which emotions do I want to create in that game. Then trying to build this in.

Also, I'm an entertainer, I'm working in the entertainment industry but I'm not standing in front of people, I'm not interacting with people. I put my entertainment into these boxes. People expect when they open these boxes that entertainment comes out and that takes a lot of work, a lot of testing and a lot of preparing to make the game robust enough so that it really happens. If I'm interacting with people, it's easy for me to make a game fun, to direct it and to change it, to facilitate things. But that's a training situation. When people open the box, it needs to come out.

With so many new games coming out every year, how do you develop your game mechanics to make them different?
That’s the ambition – to do something different, to have that idea that really stands out. If you look, for example, at Pickomino, it's a dice game. That was really the ambition behind it - can I make a different mechanism of dice that isn't just like Yahtzee where I want lots of fives then I want lots of fours. You decide and then you always roll for it.

In Pickomino, we have done it differently because in every roll you need all the numbers but you can use each number only once. So, if I have two fives, do I take two fives? Two fives is ten so maybe I should just take the one three because then I have one more die for the next roll. Maybe then I could make three fives and I have fifteen. So it's trying to optimise but then it's not just the dice rolling, you then make a game around it with the tiles and the chickens and the worms. There are lots of different components there, it's not just the one single thing. You cannot just take the same mechanics from a different game and build something else around it, you need to have a starting point.

In Europe, the focus is much more on the mechanics whereas if you go to the United States, the archetype is Dungeons and Dragons, so it's essentially always the same mechanism. They will kill me for saying that! But it's the world and it's the experience and it's often facilitated, where people actually lead through it. So, there's  different approach to games but it's the mechanics that draws people in. For me, there are two type of people. There are the storytellers who create lots of redundancies, write thousands of pages of fiction. I'm not one of these people.

Of course I tell stories, but I'm more of a scientist. That means I reduce redundancy, I bring it back to a few principles but within these principles. I still want to create the emotions, I want to put the people into it. On the basis of these few principles, I want to give the platform to unfold – every game is different because every player is different. People call it more abstract because it has fewer rules but it has much easier access to it. Lots of different designers approach games in lots of different ways. Everybody has their own handwriting and that makes a wonderful variety of different games and then people find something that they like.

You mentioned testing earlier, how do you actually playtest your games?
It doesn't matter how much experience you have, the games always work very nice in my head, until they come into prototype and then sometimes you see that they don't work. Testing is a very iterative process. So, we play it, we discuss it, I will analyse it and I will change the game. When it comes to the next playgroup, we play it, we discuss it, we change the game again. Always from the beginning, we are trying to play with lots of different people.

One of the very big dangers for inexperienced game designers is that they play with an in-crowd, it's the same crowd and you develop conventions and think that the game is wonderful. Then some other group plays it and it just doesn't work. This is part of the robustness I was talking about earlier. So it is a lot of playtesting – playing, playing, playing, playing – and really focussing on the individual aspects so the game can meander a lot until it either becomes something or it doesn't.

And how much do the games change and evolve during playtesting? How different is it from the original idea after those iterative processes?
Some games are, luckily, straightforward – you're working on a card game and it becomes a card game. We work on a board game, and of course lots of things change on the board game, but it's a board game. But there are other examples, the Ra game started out as a card game but when you had played through the card game, the results of the cards that I had won, you could apply on a big board in Egypt.

So, I say, this time I want to play a pyramid and I need a little bit of a temple so I need to try and get these cards. Next time, I need to look at irrigation, so now I need to try and win these cards. I see someone else is trying that so I do not want to give them these cards. I was trying to do this and when we started out the game took about four hours and it was far too long. I couldn’t condense it down so I said, "What is the really interesting aspect of it?" and it is actually the card game.

So, we stuck with the card game and the we said, “Okay, so I build my empire, my structures with this river and these monuments and as the pharaoh I build them.” So, we're trying to get the cards and it's a card game more like an auction. Then we saw that if you built a structure, in front of me the cards are too many and too big, so we changed the cards into tiles and did the whole loop. Now we have a tile game and we even added a little board because we decided that you need to lay out the board to give the tiles the proper structure. So, there's a central board but it's not really a board game.

If you ask “What is the core idea in Ra? What is the core mechanism? What is different?” you are acquiring these tiles with the tiles showing the river, the monuments, the peasants, the farming, everything. But you do not only get the tiles for your kingdom, you also acquire power for the future of your auctions.

So, these are the suns from the sun god Ra and you have to give the sun to get the tiles – the person who gives the highest sun gets the tiles but then the sun you are giving stays in the middle. Then new tiles are added and then the next player who goes for the tiles not only gives the sun but he gets the sun from the middle. It makes a very big difference if there is a small sun in the middle, which when you have it back, you know that you will have very little power.

Or if I have a very big sun, but of course with a very big sun, you will get very few tiles with it because people will say, “Oh, there's a big sun, they will be very powerful in the future, so I'm quite happy to take very little now.” So, you're not only competing for the good stuff, but you're also competing for power in the future. It's a balance between, “Do I take all the good stuff now but be very powerless in the future?” Or I might be quite humble with little things but build up my future power. This is, I think, a very novel aspect to this game that combines the bidding power with the actual values that you bid for.

How long does it take to develop a game? How long is it from when you first have an idea until it's ready to be put into production?
A good average time is a year. Unlike Ra, a small children's game or a small card game where it goes straightforward can be four or five months. Bigger games can take two years but we are not working on one game alone so when I say two years, it's not two years full time.


Your background is in mathematics, has that helped you with designing board games?
This is a tricky question. As I said, each game designer, each artist, has their own handwriting and, of course, the experience you have is more subconscious. So clearly, I'm a scientist so that subconsciously affects how I see things and how I put things in pattern in my whole life and also in the gaming side. There is a danger, and I think that Maslow is one of the psychologists that said it very clearly, if all you have is a hammer then soon everything in the world will look like a nail. The point here is that mathematics, as any other ability, is a strength but if you just rely on this one strength then it becomes very quickly a weakness because games are not about exact calculations. Games are about models so the abstract thinking and how do I model out of the reality thinking counts but then there's the soft situation – it's all about fun, it's not about mathematics. So, it influences me subconsciously but I'm well aware that people do not want to play mathematical games, they want to have fun.

Was there a specific game that got you interested in board games?
I've actually played games as long as I can think. Two things I have in mind, one is Monopoly but we never played Monopoly, I just took the money and we had piles of money and we made ourselves bank robberies and games around them. That's probably why I became a banker in the first place. The other one was lots of little cars, Matchbox cars, and we had tubes and they'd run through and each car I had long statistical lists for of how far do they go and I'd have betting quotes and could this one overtake the other one. So, that's why I became a mathematician. So, it all comes together, I've done all these things and now I'm a game designer.

The biggest explosion in gaming over the last thirty years has probably been video games. What can board games learn from video games and what can video games learn from board games?
Surprisingly, these two aspects of gaming are in very different worlds from producing and publishing, which has historically grown, which is surprising because we are still talking about the same activity. Of course today we have mobile games, the successful games you'll find everywhere, Angry Birds started on the electronic side and now you have board games and Angry Birds Star Wars games and all these things.

Then, of course, you have board games which become apps and become electronic games. Of course something like the very big World of Warcraft is very different from an app, which I might play for ten minutes. I think, if you look at the electronic games, they very often do not put such emphasis on mechanisms. It's more the stories, the first-person shooters, the abilities there. I think with all the attractiveness of the screen, what's going on there and with the big power of the engines in the background, you might not need it, but still you can make very fascinating games if you built this in as well.

For me, learning from the electronics was when I started to do my apps and you see I have this little screen and I have no ability to explain to people the rules. So, how do I bring the fun factor and the attractiveness and the addiction? How do I boil this down to this one little screen? So, once again it is one step more, how it emphasises what is the core of it, how can I condense, particularly me, with the scientific principles, how do I condense a game to the very, very core principles? Once I understand these, how can I build on them and make a fantastic game around them? Because we have, estimates say, two billion people in the world who have a smartphone in their pocket and each of them has games on there. So, the reach we have through the electronics is fantastic.

One final question and it's probably quite tricky, do you have a favourite from all of the games that you've designed?
I don't. I truly have not. It's not a political answer, I can't take one of my children and say that this is my favourite. The answer is really, particularly as a game designer, is that I don't see the games as something absolute. Games are always with me, linked with me and there are different games for different groups of people and different moods and different situations. So, it is impossible, I think, for anybody to determine a favourite game, which is the absolute best, it is not.

I am sometimes quite focused on my new designs, and they become my favourite designs, but that's much more that they fascinate me, I want to bring them forward. Otherwise, I think I would not do them justice if I picked one and I couldn't. If you look at Pickomino, I really like the dice mechanism. If you look at Through The Dessert, I really like this dilemma that there's so many things to do but I can only do two of them. That's what I expect really from a game rather than, “Hmm, there's nothing really to do.”

Life is great, there are too many things to do, that I can do, and I expect that from a game as well. So, if I look at these games here, it sparkles out, I see the options of how you do this and there's a new one here and Lost Cities, this spouse game, where you play two players against another and I never really want to commit but I have to commit. So each of them gives me a certain, here, the kingdoms which grow up in Euphrates & Tigris and then collapse again, like reality was. So, when I look at it, each one gives me their characteristics. If you have 600 children, you love them all because they all have their own personalities.

With that, I let Reiner go so that he can playtest one of his new games with some of the customers in Ludorati. It was an absolute pleasure to speak with someone who has such passion for what he does, it's easy to see why he produces such well-loved games.

You can find many of Reiner’s board games among the 750 on offer at Ludorati, 72 Maid Marian Way, Nottingham, NG1 6BJ

Reiner Knizia website
Ludorati Cafe website

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now

You might like this too...

Sleaford Mods

You might like this too...