BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Q&A with Ludo, the Spanish Boardgame Designers’ Association

Last week Haritz Solana from Ludo, the Spanish boardgame designers’ association, interviewed me following the success of my game Oracle Pathway in the Granollers game design contest.

He has now posted the interview (in Spanish) on the association’s website, but here are my unexpurgated responses in English. Haritz asked some good questions — I hope my answers lived up to them!

Who is Brett J. Gilbert?

You begin with the most difficult question! I have always played games, and always made things, but it is only as an adult and over the past decade that I began to successfully put these two activities together! Educationally speaking, I am a mathematician and physical scientist, but my professional career has guided me in a different direction; if people ask me now what I do, I say “I am a designer.” I don’t say “I am a game designer,” but perhaps one day?

As we have seen in your blog, Oracle Pathway did not get through to the final round of the Hippodice contest, and it was a shock for you. What feelings did you have with the Granollers’ contest?

Perhaps ‘shock’ is too strong a word(!), but my disappointment was based on my experience in other years, and I had hoped that Oracle Pathway might be as well received as some of my other prototypes. Indeed, I hoped that it might do better, since I believed Oracle Pathway was a stronger game than any of my previous entries.

What’s interesting about the game design contests in Europe — Hippodice in Germany, Boulogne-Billancourt in France, Premio Archimede in Italy, Granollers in Spain — is how different the winners are and have been over the years, and it’s fantastic that all the contests attract entrants from all over the world. The internationalism and openness of the board game community is part of its strength, but so is its diversity. Games are cultural artefacts and so it is entirely proper that the nature of the games that often do well in the individual contests should be different, and should reflect, in some sense, the cultural sensibilities of the host country. And this is a good thing!

Could you tell us something more about the game?

Oracle Pathway is a direct result of some late-night ‘doodling’ in my notebook. The next morning I had completely forgotten about the idea, and was genuinely surprised to rediscover it the next night already sketched out! I was able to playtest it with some other game designers very shortly after that, and this immediately gave me confidence in the idea and the enthusiasm to pursue it further. In many ways Oracle Pathway is a truer expression of the things that I enjoy in games — clarity, wit, surprise — than any other of my designs, but I had to design 25 other games to discover this!

What does this award mean for you?

I am thrilled to have won, but the greater meaning is one of satisfaction in knowing that a game I created has been played and enjoyed by people I have never met, and who are under no obligation to be kind to me about my design. The positive reaction gives me confidence that I have been doing something right: that the specific things I enjoy about games are enjoyed by others, and that I have — somehow! — successfully translated those things into a playable game.

Do you expect to see Oracle Pathway published in the future?

I would love to see the game published, and hopefully my ‘winner’s medal’ from Granollers will help that to happen.

We have also seen on your blog that you give a great value to the final look of your prototypes. Do you think that the design of the game affects to the global evaluation of the prototype?

I do put a lot of effort into crafting well-made prototypes — I enjoy the details of a design and of course want to present my prototypes as well as I am able. But I know that these concerns are and should be secondary to any judgement about the success of the game itself, and am sure that game publishers — and juries of game design contests! — are smart enough to know the difference.

However, I do think that games are experiential activities and that game design is therefore an holistic process. This means that, for me, considering the physicality of a game’s components is as much part of the design process as anything else. I don’t draw a line between the lower level, abstract considerations of the formalised game ‘system’ and the higher level, material considerations of ‘look and feel’ that may seem more ephemeral. When I am designing, everything is part of the game; no part is secondary.

Can you tell us the steps that you follow to create a game?

The most important step must be the very first, in which the idea for a game arrives; unfortunately this step seems impossible to explain! Branch Rickey, a famous American baseball coach, once said: “Luck is the residue of opportunity and design.” What he meant was that he believed it possible to ‘make your own luck’ — and it’s certainly true that a designer needs to be lucky!

Now, I don’t think you can directly engineer moments of creative insight, but you can at least engineer the circumstances in which, assuming those moments arrive at all, you have the best chance of capturing them. This means giving yourself the mental space and the physical tools to allow design to happen. For me I have found most of my inspiration away from home — in coffee shops, on train journeys — and never travel without my spiral-bound notebook and favourite brand of pen!

You have a great list of games designed by you on your blog. What recommendations would you give to those who are starting as game designers?

I think it’s very easy for new designers to believe that the first game they design is the very best they can do, or that their first solution to a design problem is the only possible one. (How do I know this? Because that’s exactly how I used to think!) My advice, then, is “Never stop looking”. No matter how good your idea, I assure you that you will eventually have a better one — but you’ll only discover it if you keep going. As with most things, success is mostly about perseverance.

Which is your favorite game?

The game that I have played most and that I have consistently derived a great deal of pleasure from is Carcassonne. It was one of the first Eurogames that I encountered (the very first was, predictably, Settlers!) and, for me, Carcassonne has everything, and is very much the embodiment of the clarity, wit and surprise that I have already spoken of.

I have always enjoyed maps — my brain is hardwired to ‘see’ in plan view, I think — and so enjoy any game which involves the physical creation of a map or landscape. But Carcassonne is also incredibly smart and fun, and as a 2-player game is unbeatable. The mixture of incremental and end-game scoring — those infamous game-winning farms! — keeps the game alive throughout and delivers a great story, with lots of little battles but also a larger war. If I were ever to design a game that was as inventive, as charming and as effortlessly engaging as Carcassonne, then I would be a very happy designer indeed!

Which of your own designs is your favorite, and why?

This is a more difficult question to answer, but I think my current favourite is a prototype called Runaway Rabbits. It’s a design I created last year and it is a neat little dice-based chase game that I have really enjoyed playing with my family.

I had never used dice in a design before, and was inspired to do so after playing Knizia’s excellent Pickomino/Heckmeck, which I think is a really clever design. I also wanted to create, if I could, something as portable and as immediate as Pickomino, so deliberately constrained the game’s size and complexity. And speaking of constraints, here’s another quote for you, this time from Stravinsky: “A mode of composition that does not assign itself limits becomes pure fantasy.”

As a designer I very much enjoyed the process of creating Runaway Rabbits: there were some revelatory twists and turns — plus some entertaining maths! But the greater thrill was discovering that the game had a real life of its own, a spring in its step and a little song to be sung.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I just want to thank Ludo for asking me to share my some of my thoughts about Oracle Pathway and my approach to game design — it’s a good discipline for a designer to try and put your thoughts on paper! I would also again like to express my thanks to the jury and organizers, and to the City of Granollers for sponsoring the contest. I cannot come to Granollers for the 2011 jugarXjugar game fair because the UK Games Expo is running over the same weekend — but perhaps next year!

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