This is a fairly unusual slice from the Contrarian. In that there isn’t one specific event, comment or outburst that prompted this response. Instead it is more of a general observation on one particular movement within the hobby.
Namely the ever-present belief that smartiness or cleverity drives the majority of this hobby. Why is that? And if it’s true. who do we really hurt by that?
Thanks to the ample generosity of our Patreon backers we proudly bring you the first of hopefully many installments of our very own RPG-show.
But instead of accosting your ears with fake accents, ludicrous plots or pointless tangents, we talk about roleplaying games in a more general sense. An introduction to the topic itself, our own history with the genre… and a few pieces of knowledge (half or false) on it.
This interview was originally recorded at Spiel 2016 and assumed lost. Luckily thanks to some ingenuity and the magic of data recovery software, the recorded audio could be salvaged and was transcribed and translated for your reading convenience.
GEORGIOS: You are at Spiel this year with A Feast for Odin. Can you tell me a little bit about how the game came about? What was the moment when you realised, this here is the core of a game that I want to work on?
UWE: I’ve been fascinated by the Viking theme for some time, because it has so many layers. You can focus on life on the mainland or what’s happening at sea. Which makes it quite compatible with a lot of different ideas. But that’s not where I started from. The original seed was somewhat unusual, and maybe one people don’t expect. I was once again thinking about Agricola, which is how a lot of games got started. I was thinking about a small detail of it. What could be changed about it.
In Agricola you have a harvest, which is where you pay for things. But there’s no money in Agricola. Instead there’s goods that have a nutritional value. Sheep are worth two, boars are worth three. What got me thinking was how to make this more tangible. Because there it’s just a payment transaction. “Right, I have sheep. I need to reach a total of six nutrition.” But if you turn a sheep into a 1×2 tile, a boar into a 1×3 tile, you just line them up on a track that goes up to ten and you can easily read when you’ve reached what you need. You put the sheep on the track, then the boar and you can see how many you can feed. Great, I thought. Mission accomplished. It’s more tangible, more immersive. You draw a large table, and you can see how the food gets eaten. That was the original idea. But that is far from being a game. That’s not a mechanism. It’s nothing. But then I expanded that thought. If you want to use a second tile of the same type, you need to place it upright. So the second time your valuable 5×1 tile only covers 1 spot. So you really only want to use your 5×1 tile once per turn to contribute to your feast. That’s when I realised what a 3×5 tile could be. When you grow it or breed it – whatever it ends up being – it’s really useful. That’s when I had finished the puzzle idea. I had a bunch of puzzle tiles and now it was just about filling them with content. And that’s how I came back around to the Viking theme and their different goods. That gave me a general idea what the game would look like. But that is still only about feeding. That still wasn’t a game. So what else can you do with a tile? The answer is obvious. If you have that many tiles, you put them on a grid. So it went from one dimension to two dimensions. And that’s how I ended up with a puzzle game. So Patchwork, Cottage Garden, Odin (and 2 more prototypes in my backpack) all started with that moment, when I realised I should put them on a board. That’s when it slowly became a game, because I was working on ways to make it a puzzle, to make it appealing. If I cover something up, I get something in return. I can place it this way or that to fill up the grid. There were numerous approaches. Two of which I liked. One was that the cost would be printed on the tile itself, and the other was the income diagonal that ended up in Odin. Those didn’t go together at all, so the printed cost tiles went into Patchwork. But both grew out of this idea. The income diagonal for Odin is where you start to piece together a puzzle, and that’s when I knew.. this is going to be a game.
The usual approach is a little more abstract, in that I spend more time thinking about mechanisms that encourage play. Once I have a mechanism that gets players going, I quickly start looking for a theme. So that all the complementary mechanisms, that have to do with handling, make sense in connection to the theme. So that you feel this isn’t just any old eurogame, with its theme slapped onto it. That tangible theme matters to me, which is why I look for a theme early on. I did the same with Feast for Odin, only that the mechanisms that encourage play were developed afterwards. That’s unusual for me.
GEORGIOS: You mentioned, that you returned to Agricola. Is that something that is part of your design style? You return to an older idea and play it out differently?
UWE: Ideas don’t simply fall into my lap. I’m always thinking about something, picking up some detail and try to do it differently. Change it around a little, and see what the benefit of this change might be. The other approach would be playing a new game and there’s something about it I don’t like. Something I would have done differently. So then I change it and that becomes a new game. But that approach is in the past, when I played a lot more, discovered more games. I have four children now, and hardly learn from other designers’ games. So I end up thinking more about my own games, tweak them here and there. To really explore those mechanisms, know them inside out and how every detail in them works.
GEORGIOS: On our podcast we’ve kind of split into two camps. I have a pretty good handle on lighter, smaller games. Ben is more taken with the bigger games like Arler Erde. Are those by the same Rosenberg who just happens to express himself differently or are you addressing two different approaches to gaming?
UWE: People have been saying that about Reiner Knizia’s games. That there are Knizia games and there are Reiner games. It hasn’t quite come to that with me, even though I think there’s some justification for it. I’d generally say that I am not that skilled at making smaller games. My strength lies in big box games. What it is, though, is that I work a lot on my mechanisms and know them pretty well. So when I take a variation of the mechanism, I have a pretty good handle on it; and when I add something to that I
have a good idea of how much fun the game will be. If I were to try a family game, that wouldn’t work so well, because I don’t have that sensibility to find the fun in those. But when simpler games are build from the core mechanisms of more complex games – those have few core mechanisms anyway, few tangible core ideas – I can draw a comparison. Maybe that is the special appeal of the simpler game. I can’t really compare those smaller games to other smaller games, because I never play those. But then again, I don’t get to play any complex games now, either. That was years ago.
GEORGIOS: You spoke of mechanisms that encourage play. I’m curious what’s the moment when you see or experience: This is fun, I’m captivated and so are the other players?
UWE: I remember feeling that way the first time I played Saint Petersburg. After 10 minutes of play I thought, I’m going to buy this game. I know that “whoa” moment. But I never have that when I design. I think about mechanisms that encourage play, I stumble over that “whoa” for a fleeting moment, because there’s no game there yet. Once I add a theme, I’ve grown accustomed to those mechanisms. There’s no explosion there. No intense experience. It’s just a process. Odin might be a little different, since those mechanisms came in later. You’ve caught me off-guard, actually. I’m not entirely sure, but I might have had such an experience then.
GEORGIOS: Is game design something like alchemy, then? You’re throwing things together and hope they’ll turn into gold?
UWE: I think it’s a craft. The more experience you have, the better your instincts become. One of my strengths as a game designer is that I can quickly recognise a bad idea. I’m extraordinarily talented in coming up with bad ideas, but I can also throw them away quickly. I just power through them until I hit a good one. So I wouldn’t call myself a great idea maker. That would be weird. I don’t know how you could be one. If you can run these ideas through your head, sort them and maybe make the deciding tweak.. that’s a good combination. That’s the necessary set of skills you need.
GEORGIOS: You mentioned that you share the fate of many gamers with a family, in that your gaming time is constantly shrinking. But still you came to Spiel. Have you seen any games that have impressed or excited you?
UWE: Yes. I’ve experienced that. A game played in Essen that excited me. That was 15 years ago. Since then I haven’t played a game at a fair again. That’s all in the past. Back when I was a gamer. A lot of people in the industry at Spiel will tell you that. If you play at all, you do it at a hotel in the evening. But I need that time to recharge. In fact, I’m more likely to meet friends and spend time with them, instead of playing a game, since I’m in the area. But nowadays I am more informed about new games than I used to be. There are so many podcasts, video on youtube of people talking about their expectations of games coming out and what they know about them. Those help me figure out if I’d be interested in those game or not. I could actually give you a list of 10 games I’m interested in off the top of my head, but if they will excite me or frustrate me I will only know after the fair.
GEORGIOS: One last question. You’re here as a publisher with Feuerland. So you know the gamer side, the designer side and the publisher side. Do you think that Spiel has changed over the years? Has it become more professional or has the influx of new visitors led to an emphasis on gamers?
UWE: As a publisher I’ve noticed some changes. But those are the logical consequence of more and more designers being around for years. They learn and evolve over time, and create better games. Each slightly improved game helped somebody else make an improvement with their game. If there is any clear direction is that we as a community of game designers are making better and better games each year. I am only interested in the really great games. I don’t care about the awful or just okay games. In two years time people will lump them together anyway. It’s all about the really big games. What makes them stand out? That’s what I try to understand and how can we improve on them. I like to philosophise about game. Quite a few designers do that. I predict that we will continue to improve each year. That games will be more finely designed and constructed. That’s also due to playtestery becoming better and better. Brilliant analysts who know these types of games inside and out, so that those games are already improving during the development phase.
GEORGIOS: Would you say that the art of game design is entering a golden age? As games will continually get better?
UWE: The start of a golden age tends to be hard to recognise while you’re in it. I can’t see it, but I have a hunch. But five years from now, if it does happen, I will be first to say “I told you so”.
GEORGIOS: Thank you so much for the interview and I hope you do find some time to play a few games. I noticed earlier, some people recognised you and asked for an autograph. I think a lot of people will be happy to have you around the next few days.
UWE: To be honest. Wednesday and Thursday were the busiest days for me this year. The fair is basically over for me, and I’m just wandering around the halls now and try not to smile too broadly, so that people don’t notice how excited I am. It’s great to be recognised. To be greeted with a smile, to receive compliments. A fair like this is overwhelming. You soak up those moments. And then, when you’re home, and stuck working on a game, thinking “crap, I should throw all of this out” because something is off and you’re convinced you’ll never get it to work. When you feel stupid, because you can’t get something to work right, you can draw a lot of strength from remembering those interactions at the fair. It’s interesting how overwhelming a fair is for me. I need to ignore my feelings for a bit, because otherwise it’d be too much for me.
When you fall in love you know it. That heady mixture of anxiety, hypoglycemia and indigestion. The mind and body locked in a struggle to see which part of you can exhibit the greatest regression to a less evolved state(unless you’re not a dualist, which I’m not, then the previous sentence is a load of bollocks). Puffs of invisible fragrance on the air fire off a cryptomnesiac reaction that increases your pulse and leaves your skin tingling. Your mood swings between euphoria and debilitating self doubt. When you’re in love you’re alive. Ecstatically, cripplingly alive!
When it is good, love is the simple reason to live. The thing that powers us through that assault course of reek and noise that we euphemistically refer to as a ‘commute’. The thing that justifies all of those shitty hours at that drudge of a job. The thing that drenches all of the grey and dirty brown of life in rich and vibrant colour. Love is the simple affirmation and acme of all that we can be.
This is a piece about love. A love that has lasted. A love that no longer boils in the head swimming confusion of its early life, but a love that has aged and, like the sun in autumn, bathes me in a nourishing, gentle warmth. This is a piece about the Paulo Mori masterpiece Libertalia.
There are games that just click. The hieroglyphs in the rule book coalesce in the brain into electrical signals that move limbs in a way that generates enjoyment. Electricity crackles between the players and waves of hilarity and shock smash up against the cliffs of your mind in exhilarating regularity. There are games that don’t fail. There are games that just work.
Libertalia is one of those games.
We all play itinerant pirate captains that have made a brief stop in the anarchist paradise of Libertalia and, through a mixture of animal wrangling, arm twisting and outright murder we are trying to leave Madagascar with the most booty stuffed into our holds.
We do this by the astute deployment of members of our crew and local dignitaries who show no compunction in getting their beaks wet. Each notable is represented by a card with a special power and a ranking, sitting in a series of decks that are the same for all of the players.
One player shuffles their deck and draws nine cards. Then the rest of the players draw the same nine cards and the game begins.
Cards do a variety of game-breaking actions. You can knock the highest ranking card out of the round. You can play cards that sit in front of you for the round and pull in money every turn. There are cards that pay out immediately but carry a stern round end penalty if you don’t manage to bump them off before that. Cards effects combine and bounce off each other in cascades of unintended consequences that that can make your day or piss on your bonfire. What is so clever is that we know what everyone is holding in their hands and from that proceeds a game of bluff and counter bluff in an attempt to play that right card at that right time.
Great games are not just distractions or ways to kill time. Great games are compulsions, they are obsessions. Great games make you impatient for your turn because great games transmute the simple act of laying a card or taking a piece into a reverie. Great games make you feel exceptionally clever or hilariously stupid and great games leave a feeling of wellbeing that bleeds into all other aspects of your life. Great games do all of these things and Libertalia is a great game.
The real joy in Libertalia lies in timing. When you make a devastating blow or a combination that yields a waterfall of gold. There is also the ever present fear that your beautifully constructed plan could be destroyed by the machinations of those around the table and it is the anticipation of success or failure that accompanies every card play that propels you through the game. Success makes you want to emulate that success in a subsequent play and failure fills you with the determination to get it right the next time. Great games demand to played regularly and the greatest never fall out of your rotation and as long as I game I will play Libertalia.
Youthful passions can be intense but fleeting but nothing feeds the soul like a deep and resonant love. Although I may wander I will always come back to Libertalia.