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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Oracle Pathway WINS the 5th City of Granollers Game Design Contest!

Oracle Pathway in play

Regular readers may remember my game Oracle Pathway. In February I polished up the prototype and rules and entered it into the City of Granollers game design contest. Last week I got the news that the game had been selected as one of the 10 finalists that the jury would meet to play in Granollers over the weekend, and on Monday the winner was announced: Oracle Pathway had won!

For non-Catalan readers Google translate offers the following faltering translations of those two pages: the 10 finalists and the announcement of the winner.

The contest is organised as part of the jugarXjugar games fair, which takes place this year in Granollers from 2nd–5th June: the very same weekend as the UK Game Expo in Birmingham. I shall be at the UK Games Expo, and will bring a prototype copy of Oracle Pathway with me: if you’re reading this, are going to be there and fancy a quick game do get in touch!

The photo above, taken from the jugarXjugar blog, shows some of the jury members hard at work, and it is thrilling to imagine the game being played and enjoyed by new people in far away lands — what more could a designer wish for?

So, I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to all the jury members, to Oriol Comas i Coma and everyone else involved in organizing the contest, and to the City of Granollers itself for sponsoring the contest. Moltes gràcies!

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Prototype Snapshot: Amongst Thieves

Amongst Thieves is a design that I originally conceived 5 or 6 years ago, and that was placed a very creditable 9th in the 2008 Premio Archimede game design contest in Venice, Italy. As my report on my Italian adventure (part 1, part 2) explains, Leo Colovini liked the game and hoped to find it a publisher. So far, however, no dice (or cards, for that matter).

The feedback from prospective publishers was both limited and muted: clearly the game, at least in the form which seemed to serve it so well at the Premio Archimede, was simply not making the right impression with the right people. The prototype had lain largely untouched, but I have recently been re-enthused to revisit and rework it.

Prototype snapshot: Amongst Thieves

First, a point of order: I have shamelessly lifted the lovely character artwork from the Days of Wonder title Queen’s Necklace, so thanks to the talented artist Pierre-Alain Chartier for that!

Second: I have already discussed one key aspect of the new prototype design in my needlessly cryptically entitled post One Balm for Many Fevers Found (perhaps I should rein in the poetic allusions just a little?) — namely the structure of the game deck. A big part of the game’s renewal is the cognitive shift from 2–6 players to 3–7 and the reformed deck now made up of 6 unequal suits.

However, there is another big change which I think does more to refocus the game and (one hopes) make it more commercially viable. The original game had a novel memory element: there is important information on both sides of the cards, but a card played face-up hid the information on the reverse, and there was no repeat of information from one side on the other.

I actually rather liked this part of the game: information was first revealed and then concealed, and this allowed the players to make mistakes. However it was this ‘feature’, along with the burden the split of information over the two card faces put on players handling and choosing cards, that most put off prospective publishers, who were rather more likely to think of it as something of a ‘bug’. So, whatever you think of the memory aspect, the physical handling of the cards would always have been a barrier to some players. In the final analysis it was just a gimmick that got in the way.

The new prototype does away with this element of the gameplay completely, and so benefits from simply being more literal. Creating, just for the sake of it, gameplay that is intrinsically opaque has to be a bad thing, and the casual introduction of a memory-based mechanism into what was a crucial part of the game was, on sober reflection, folly.

Not least because, when taken to extremes, it’s exactly the sort of thing that annoys me in other games — Ticket to Ride: The Card Game, anyone? — so I can can hardly blame others for a cool response to it in my own designs! The important realization is that this is simply not what the game was designed to be about.

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Game Design Sketchbook: Rumba

Game design sketchbook: Rumba

“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, ever to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

Alice, after reading ‘Jabberwocky’, in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

A few week ago I mentioned my prototype Rumba, and during April I got a chance to playtest it at one of the regular game designer get-togethers organised by Charlie and Alan Paull of Surprised Stare Games. The value of being able to get prototypes played and discussed by other game designers is incalculable: their insight is a notch above; their honesty never less than brutal!

I took my reimagined prototype (well, most of it at least, my printer ink ran out before I could print a new board) and quickly discovered that where I had claimed to have “‘designed out’ the imbalances” I had also failed to notice that I had so far failed to ‘design in’ enough meat, and the experience did fall a little flat, both for me and my compatriots: nice bread, shame about the filling.

Overall the game has a nice shape to it, and people liked the board and the simple core mechanisms. But, as Charlie opined: “I want more choices.”

Good point, well made. The game is all about controlling the positions of pawns on the circular track through card play. The trouble for Charlie was that individual cards were essentially too specific: each card represents one or more pawns plus a fixed movement, but if the few cards in your hand don’t link to your goals, what positive choices can you make?

This key observation got me thinking about ways in which the number of possible choices could be upped without sacrificing the game’s relative simplicity. (Note, complexity fans, that I am not anti-complexity in general, I just don’t want to add needless complexity to a game that can otherwise survive without it.)

I don’t know how the brains of other game designers work, but when I explore new ideas I do so visually in my trusty sketchbook, and it occurred to me, dear readers, that you might enjoy seeing what this process looked like!

Game design sketchbook: Rumba

I find it hard to think about game design completely in the abstract; I want to able to see how the game looks as a result of possible design choices I might make. But I don’t mean ‘see’ in an entirely literal sense, although I am exploring elements of the graphic language of the game on the page above, I mean ‘see’ in a broader, more holistic sense, encompassing not only the physicality of the game components but the conceptual shape of the game itself.

Now, you can’t necessarily see the latter on the page, but my sketchbook helps me to visualize and play with it, trying out and rejecting ideas, forming and reforming the whole as I go along. The process is not linear — I tend to start at the top of the page but then jump around, eventually returning to fill gaps and overlay new ideas on top of earlier ones — and nor does it occurs in discrete, precisely iterative steps.

I consider my sketchbook a mechanism for accessing those crucial revelatory leaps of understanding that might otherwise never be given an opportunity to emerge. The experience is one of discovery, not creativity. It seems as though all the really good ideas already exist, and are just waiting to be found — to be seen, at last, from the corner of the eye.

My sketchbook, then, is my looking glass. What’s yours?

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Günther Burkhardt’s Insel Expedition: Prototype Artwork by Markus Günther

Günter Burkhardt: Insel Expedition

I spend a lot of time stumbling around the internet, and every now and again I find something interesting hiding in plain sight. Designer Markus Günther posted these shots (and more) on creative portfolio website Behance Network, and illustrate his prototype artwork for a new game by Günther Burkhardt called Insel Expedition.

The isometric view of the island is reminiscent of computer game visuals; I like it, and it’s a technique I haven’t seen in other board games. There may be, sadly, no current plans by any publisher to bring this game to market, but if there is let’s hope it turns out looking even half as good as these designs!

Günter Burkhardt: Insel Expedition
Günter Burkhardt: Insel Expedition
Günter Burkhardt: Insel Expedition
Günter Burkhardt: Insel Expedition

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