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Designer Diary: Tonari

(An earlier version of this diary was first published on my website on March 18, 2019.)

From gallery of faidutti
Games by Alex Randolph in my collection

I became really interested in board game design in the early 1980s. At that time, we had a handful of games and didn't know much, if anything, about their designers. There were only a handful of names: David Parlett, the designer of Hare and Tortoise, was British; the other ones — Sid Sackson, Peter Olotka, and the Future Pastimes team — were Americans. We vaguely knew something was beginning in Germany, but no names were famous yet.

The polyglot and cosmopolitan Alex Randolph was the most fascinating character. We know that after a golden childhood in very expensive Swiss boarding schools, this scion of a rich American family, whose parents were ambassadors, had studied philosophy; had worked as a secret agent; had brought a cute card game, Raj, from India; had lived in Japan and become a first rate Shogi player; then had settled in Venice where, with friends Leo Colovini and Dario de Toffoli, he had designed Inkognito, a secret agent game during the carnival of Venice. Alex Randolph was a character just out of a European novel, and I deeply regret having never met him.

From gallery of faidutti

From gallery of faidutti
Alex Randolph playing Shogi

Most of Alex Randolph's designs are abstract, if not mathy. Twixt and Ricochet Robots are often said to be his masterworks, but I've never been much fond of them — too cold for me. I have played many more games of Inkognito (Intrigues à Venise in French), a deduction game in which one must first find out one's partner before discreetly communicating with them about our common mission. Gorgeously edited, it revisits Clue with humor and subtleness. This game showed me that there was something more to do with Clue and probably motivated me to design Mystery of the Abbey.

There are many other Alex Randolph designs I played a lot and still occasionally play. Raj / Hol's der Geier is inspired by a traditional Indian game about which I'd like to know more. Ghosts is a deceptively simple tactical and bluffing game. Camel Go is one of the most original racing games. Big Shot, which just got republished by Korean company OPEN'N PLAY, is a gem of an auction game.

From gallery of faidutti

From gallery of faidutti
Alex Randolph in Venice, with a copy of Veleno at lower right

In the late 1980s, I incidentally played a lesser know Randolph design, Veleno, an abstract with very simple mechanisms. Each player in turn moves a common pawn on a board, capturing a token on a neighboring space. Those who follow my creations know that, while I am wary of co-operation games, I have always been interested in games with a single pawn moved by all players, an idea I have already used in Silk Road and Isla Dorada.

The other fascinating aspect of Veleno is its perverted three- and four-player scoring system in which each player adds their left neighbor's score to their own. This clever rule gave its name to the German edition of the game: Gute Nachbarn, the nice neighbor. In Veleno, you have a good neighbor on your left and a bad one on your right, and you're the good neighbor of your bad neighbor.

From gallery of faidutti

From gallery of faidutti
Italian and German editions of Veleno

For years, I had this game in my thoughts. The simple and elegant system was fascinating, the actual game play a bit lacking. The small playing board and the unbalanced values of the colored tokens often made for scripted games in which movements were obvious and the winner determined in two or three turns.

Then two years ago, on a whim, I dig up my old copy of Veleno and started to think of this game as I would like it, with a bigger board, more variety in the tokens and the scoring, and more interaction between players. I soon named my game Tonari, which means "neighbor" in Japanese, because it sounded nice for an abstract, because Alex Randolph had had a Japanese life, because it was reminiscent of the German name Gute Nachbarn and the central idea of the game, and because at that time I was trying, with little success, to learn some Japanese.

From gallery of faidutti

From gallery of faidutti
First and near final prototypes of Tonari

Like a novel or a piece of music, a board game never comes out of nowhere, is never entirely new and original, and it's for the best. All my designs have been more or less influenced by other games, games I had liked or disliked, and an attempt to generate similar or dissimilar experiences. The truth is nevertheless that some games are more original than other ones, and Tonari belongs to the least innovative ones. It is not always easy, even for a seasoned game designer like me, to trace the line between minor development of an existing system and a really new game. The line is often blurred (an idea I discussed at more length here).

While I was working on what would become Tonari, I was also designing a light card game inspired by another Alex Randolph design, Raj. This game, featuring an old lady giving breadcrumbs to pigeons, was finally published as Miaui. It is after both games were nearly finalized, when playing them with friends, that I decided the pigeon game was original enough to be considered a new creation, while Tonari was only a variation on Veleno/Gute Nachbarn because while it added new pieces, it kept all the original elements in the game. Through his agent Smart Cookie Games, I contacted Michael Katz, Alex Randolph's nephew and heir, who kindly accepted that I could look for a publisher for Tonari, and that if I found one, royalties would be shared half and half.

From gallery of faidutti

Publishers are a bit wary nowadays of publishing abstract games. I proposed Tonari unsuccessfully to several of them, and in the end it's finally IDW Games which, probably encouraged by the success of Matt Loomis and Isaac Shalev's Seikatsu, decided to publish it. They didn't want to go full abstract, but finding the right setting wasn't easy. There were too many recent games about witch cauldrons, including Wolfgang Warsch's outstanding The Quacks of Quedlinburg.

They finally settled on fishing, with the common pawn being a trawler and the tokens of different colors different varieties of fish. Placing the action in Japan even allows us to keep the name I had chosen for my prototype, Tonari. Even though it was an afterthought, the fishing theme works surprisingly well and is well-rendered by the art of Kwanchai Moriya, an artist with a very specific style with whom I had not worked before. I am particularly fond of the cover art.

Bruno Faidutti

Board Game: Tonari
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