Friday, March 13, 2009

Censored interview with Reiner Knizia from 1993

Warning: if you are not a euro-game/german-game/designer-game boardgaming fan, the following will make little to no sense to you. If you are, then you know who Reiner is, and it might.

The interview that could not be published! The words that triggered a maelstorm of international politics! The article that led to the death of three reporters! Reiner Knizia bares it all! Read how he handled the secret relations with the Stasi before the fall of the Berlin wall; his dual-life across the border, and his explanation of the mysterious disappearance of his east-european wife; how his work led to the development of a huge underground arsenal of nuclear weapons still hidden underground in Finland; and the development of Quo Vadis.

Well, OK, only one item in the last paragraph is true. But it was fun to write. In any case, since like many other Knizia fans I grew extremely curious about this interview following its attempted removal from all sources, I dug around, found it, and am posting the text of the infamous interview here. Honestly, I have no idea what the big deal is about.

Disclaimer: I am a big Knizia fan and have quite a number of his games. I think the interview is a lot of fun and gives some really great insights into the way the mind of a great developer works.

Note: 16 years after this interview and Herr Knizia is a full time game designer, arguably the most successful and celebrated in the field, with hundreds of published games to his credit, including such gems as Ra, Taj Mahal, Lost Cities, Tigris & Euphrates, and my personal top favorite game, Amun Re. I like the perspective this interview offers, a sort of voice from the past.

Reiner Knizia 1993 Interview with Dave Farquhar

DF: Reiner, may I begin by asking you for some personal background?

RK: I am 35 years old, married to Manuela, and my home is in Munich. I am employed by a large German bank, but am currently working in England for a year, heading up a project for a subsidiary company.

DF: What are your other interests?

RK: I enjoy running, and used to take part in track and field athletics, particularly the 400m and pentathlon. I also like buying non-fiction books, particularly history, science and management, but have little time to read them.

DF: What do you think of as your main job?

RK: I am probably seen by others as a mathematician, but there is really no such job (Reiner is a Doctor of Mathematics). I see myself as a project manager.

DF: How did you begin designing games?

RK: I have been designing games for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Bavaria, near Ulm, and at the age of about ten I used to see games in shop windows, but could not afford to buy them. Instead I decided to make my own. I began by having two castles and some pawns and rolling dice to try and take the opponent's castle. I started to learn the basics of what was good and bad in games, and which mechanisms did or did not work. Later, when able to afford to buy the games, I found that the ones I wanted did not exist, and so continued to design my own. As I progressed through school and university my games became longer, and more complex, almost becoming simulations, until I found I no longer had the time to play them. I then began to simplify, a trend which I have continued to such an extent that some publishers now refer to me as a purist, and add the parts they want to my submitted design.

DF: From where do you get your ideas?

RK: My ideas come from reality. I see fascinating topics in television programmes, museum maps, anything.

DF: Which comes first, a mechanism or a theme, and do the ideas arrive as finished products?

RK: I usually start with a topic, and try to find a mechanism or algorithm to give a simple image of the subject. I then bring in additional ideas from reality. The game often ends up without a board, as this would not be new, and my ideas might be stifled by tradition. Some of my designs can be too straightforward, so I then add things. You do not need a lot of material for a good game, and I try to use pieces for multiple functions. For example, cards are a wonderful tool for driving a system. They can be used for so many purposes, even to create a board. The development is highly analytical, which saves testing time, and I carry it out in my head, visualising how things move and fit together. It is then physically tested at a later stage. The whole process doesn't feel very creative. My mind takes a hundred possibilities, tries them, and finds a method that works. It sometimes ends up that the initial subject no longer fits, and the identification of a new topic is unfortunately my main weakness. My Professor used to say that when you have found oil, drill in this neighbourhood. Often I can be working on one design, and this can lead to ten more. Each of these may also then lead to another ten, causing an explosion of ideas. I am at my most creative when writing books of games. Experience has brought a higher proportion of successful games; say one in three, instead of one in ten.

DF: In what form do you see your games pictorially, mathematically, diagrammatically etc?

RK: I see myself actually playing the games, handling the pieces.

DF: How do you develop a game?

RK: Tutanchamun was not typical, as it took little more than a year from first thoughts to final production, which was very quick. I went with my wife, Manuela, to visit the Egyptian Museum in Munich. I looked at a map of Ancient Egypt on the wall, and immediately saw the game. I saw lots of desert, with the Nile flowing through, winding past all the places and objects the tourists wished to visit, culminating at the Great Pyramid in the Valley of the Kings. The development work was finished in just three months, and I was excited from the very beginning, believing it to be a stimulating family game. I then took Tutanchamun to two major publishers. The first did not want to look at it, remarking that too much thinking was required. The second kept it for a while, before rejecting it. Bernd Brunnhofer, at Hans Im Gluck, was fascinated, but already had Modern Art. He put the word around, the game went to Amigo, and was accepted. The original two later came back to say they might have been wrong to reject it.

Modern Art started life as a completely new game, but during development I realised it had acquired the base mechanism of a greyhound game that was also under development (when the fifth card is played the leading greyhound wins). My original version comprised one round, played with a deck of just twenty five cards. I offered it to companies as a small game, but it was returned with the comment that there was 'not enough in it'. The number of cards was then increased, and the game extended to four rounds, which added tension. Hans Im Gluck added a lot to the development, and finally accepted the game after nine months. The whole process took about five years.

Quo Vadis began in the late seventies as 'Civil Servant', a board game with a couple of pieces which you tried to move into the middle, by committee decision. This was a simple purist version, which had the problems of being too long and too static, with over-complicated scoring. The board then became smaller, with different values applied to fields. The topic was inappropriate, and unlikely to sell, so I tried the Media, with a Robert Maxwell figure. This then became an Arthurian game, with the knights deciding who would progress around the Round Table. This worked quite well, but knights did not negotiate, they fought! Finally I followed my motto 'if desperate look into history', and travelled back to Rome. This was the place here it was good to negotiate. I thought of calling it 'Cicero', but this was a poor title, and the publisher came up with 'Quo Vadis!' The next major change was to move from a static printed board, which enabled players to calculate the winner. I tried a 'pay as you go' system, but cash chips were alien to the game, therefore it was better to make them an integral part of the board. Now the values on the board constantly change, bringing extra excitement to the game. The final problem was that players' progress could be blocked indefinitely if co-operation did not occur, so Caesar was introduced as a statesman who could promote a player without the consent of others. Quo Vadis took about ten years in all.

En Garde began life as an idea for my current project 'New Games In Old Rome', as a Gladiator game. It then became 'Musketeers', until I realised that I could use it for a modern subject. I approached the Vice President of the German Fencing Federation, who was already a friend, and asked whether his organisation would be interested in being associated with it. This idea was accepted, and few changes were necessary to produce the final version. I was very happy with the design, as it was streamlined enough for the purist in me, involved tactics and risk, utilised memory and required adjustment to the actions of others.

DF: What playtesting of your games is carried out?

RK: This comes late, because most of the testing is done in my head. I don't playtest blind, as being present enables me to evaluate peoples' reactions. I often keep quiet during the game so as not to influence the players, and test with both gamers and non-gamers.

DF: Do you design to order?

RK: I have never designed to order, and would only do so if it satisfied my standards. I design games for pleasure rather than money, and therefore would not want to waste my time on something I do not believe in. I was once asked to produce a game on 'Hagar the Horrible', but the publisher's requirements left me too little flexibility. I believe that companies requiring a game for promotion purposes would often be put off by a good game, as they require a simple carrier of their product, which would not distract consumers from their message.

DF: How do you decide which publisher to go to?

RK: This could be a very big chapter. There are two steps to being successful; firstly designing good games, and secondly finding the right approach to the market. You have to decide why you wish to design games to invent a game on a subject that really interests you, or to become successfully published. If the latter, there is little point in going ahead with a project for which there is no demand. For instance there appears to be no large market for sports games, or two player tactical games. It is easier once you are known, which makes it difficult for first-time designers. It also helps to know the company processes when do they have their conferences, are they desperate for any title? I constantly telephone companies to keep abreast of what they are doing. You need to know what markets they cover and whether they like a particular size of box, plastic games, card games, or specific subjects. I usually approach a publisher with about ten games for initial feedback, and leave some with him for about six months. I always offer a game to just one company at a time, as although this slows down the process it saves them wasted time and expense, and adds to my reputation. Think what would happen if I went back to companies 'A' and 'B', both of which had invested time and money into putting the game through their evaluation cycle, and told them I had sold it to company 'C'. Once a submission has been accepted, the actual negotiations are not difficult, as terms are fairly standard. My first published titles, apart from a book, were Digging and Goldrush. Bernd Brunnhofer at Hans Im Gluck helped a lot. He made prototypes of both, took one, and the other was taken up by Hexagames. The gaming industry is unusual in that it is a microcosm, with a small number of firms employing few people. It is therefore possible to see the whole product cycle.

DF: Who decides on the standard and quality of components?

RK: The publisher sells three things: the box, the title and the picture. They decide on the components name, graphics, size, price and distribution, but are usually consultative. For Modern Art I suggested a simple set of cards to hold down the price of the game. Bernd, however, felt that this would not be appropriate for the subject, and went for higher quality at a higher price.

DF: How important is the graphical presentation compared to the system?

RK: In the long run the product is more important than the presentation, as the game is unlikely to get a good reputation if it is not well designed. However, the graphics often provide the initial attraction to buy the game, and therefore a balance needs to be struck between the two. Modern Art has been criticised for its box-cover art. Therefore I think we got as close to reflecting 'modern art' as we could, in that a picture should not automatically be accepted by everyone, but become a topic for discussion. A new edition is being produced, with a different lid, and the base showing more description, in several languages, with a photograph of the game set up for play.

DF: Do you work in partnership, eg with an artist, or are you told who will do it?

RK: Once a game has gone to the publisher I usually don't see it again until it has become a finished product. Bernd though is a good friend, and I was interested to learn about the processes a game goes through. I therefore became more closely involved in the production of Modern Art, and am working with the same artist on a new project.

DF: With a full time job, and frequent commuting back to Germany, when do you find time to do the designing?

RK: I get up at about 5.30am and do the design work before leaving home. I like the peace and quiet that I can find at this time, and enjoy it. I also of course utilise any other spare moments I may have to think about my designs, and come up with new ideas. In this way I generally manage twenty plus hours a week.

DF: How many hours do you spend designing compared to playing?

RK: I spend most of my spare time either designing or testing, and have little left to try others' games. Because I feel time is precious to me I do not play games that take longer than an hour to play, and set this limit on my own designs. I do try to play most new games that fit into this category once, just to see how they work.

DF: Why do you design games?

RK: It is an exciting moment for me when I see the finished product for the first time, and it is a nice feeling to go into a shop and see my games on the shelf. I only design games for enjoyment.

DF: What do people think of your being a games designer?

RK: Some can't grasp it, some think it odd, while others are interested.

DF: What does your wife think about it?

RK: I don't know really. She is a normal player, who gives me some useful comments, but is not a hardened gamer. I think Manuela realises that if I was not doing that I would need to be doing something else. It does have some interesting aspects for her, such as visiting Games Fairs, and most importantly meeting a lot of people.

DF: You made the comment that there are three types of people in the games world: those who invent, those who publish, and those who criticise. What did you mean by this?

RK: I think that it is difficult for anyone to try to be more than one of these at any one time. Printing one's own games might work, but I believe that otherwise there would always be a conflict between the roles.

DF: What do you think are the prime requirements of a good games designer?

RK: I have never been asked this need experience to be efficient, need to feel how a game will be and how changes might affect it. You maybe have to be a little bit mad. Games are never out of my head. I am constantly thinking 'is this a topic for a game?'

DF: How do you feel if your games are criticised?

RK: I accept the criticism as long as I believe it to be fair. Things written in the press are often far from reality, but it doesn't really matter, it's what people want to read. I have been lucky so far that most criticism has been good.

DF: How many designs do you have on the go at once?

RK: I have about twenty to offer at present, plus about a hundred ideas to work on.

DF: Are there any of your games that you wish you had done differently, or had not done at all?

RK: No. I think probably because I develop them so far before delivering them, and since my work has only been published for about four years it has not had the chance to become dated.

DF: Is there a game you really want to design, but can't?

RK: No, I have not come across that problem yet.

DF: What makes a good game?

RK: This is my favourite answer. In a good game the losers also win (Equally in a bad game the winner also loses).

DF: What sort of games do you play?

RK: I have little opportunity to play the games of others. It can be dangerous, for instance Klaus Teuber mentioned to me that he intentionally does not look at my books, in case the ideas contained in them 'get in the way' of his own.

DF: What is the size of your collection?

RK: I own about two hundred games of other designers, plus some early ones where I discarded the boxes.

What do you feel is the current state of the games industry, and what do you believe the future holds for gaming?

RK: The German market has problems, with sales down from previous years. I think though that the market had been growing rapidly, and has now become closer to normal. I am concerned about some of the big publishers going into production of light games that have no substance. I think that they are just moving with the market, but could end up destroying it as the consumers will move away. Germany still has a wonderful gaming environment, with small publishers producing some very high quality games. I think there will be a shift towards computer games, but classical board gaming has a cultural value which will remain.

DF: What do you feel is the appeal of games?

RK: Playing games is one of the best ways of spending time with other people. The new and interesting part of any game is the other player. That is why I don't like computer games. Games involve having a good time with somebody else. They also give you the chance to try out new roles not offered in real life. Games also have an educational value for the family. They help children to learn to lose, that you cannot do everything on your own, and the benefits of being a team player.


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