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Subject: An interview with Michael Rieneck - Part One rss

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Arne Thomi
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Hi folks,

recently I had the chance to interview game designer Michael Rieneck for a magazine I write for. Great guy and the first one of my interview partners to offer dropping by at my place. Since the article will be a very much cut-down version of the interview and the fact, that Michael was fine with me posting the interview online, I thought this is a good place for this kind of information. When I get the time I'll translate the rest of the interview, but my English has seen better days, so this will take a while. If phrases sound funny or odd, just let me know!

For a start I’d like your particulars!

My name is Michael Rieneck, 40 years of age, still that is. In January it’ll be my 41st. I was born, raised and lived in Kiel (Northern Germany) all my life.

What are your hobbies (besides the obvious)?
I am in a chess club, I like going to the movies, sports both watching (American Football) and doing (golf, skiing)

What did you learn or study?
I studied economics at the university of Kiel and finished with a degree. After graduation, I worked as an assistant to the manager of the CinemaxX Kiel (which is the huge movie-theatre of Kiel), but only for a brief period. For now, I concentrate on developing games. Besides, I occasionally work as a freelance writer, doing press statements, advertisement flyers. Nothing special!

How many games did you play all in all?
Tough call! To be honest I don’t even have a clue. Whenever I see the opportunity I’m gone gaming, and in over 40 years a lot of games have been accumulated (in terms of playing)

Do you have a favourite game or genre?
No, not really. What games I like to play very much depends on who I am playing with.
For one I like games which mutate into heavy mental exercise like Caylus, but games with lots of dice-rolling are fine with me as well. Something like Pickomino entertains me very well. Then of course there’s St. Petersburg which I am a big fan of. Let it be cooperative games (Lord of the rings), sophisticated games like Puerto Rico or funny stuff like Hart an der Grenze. If the games fit to the group of people you’re playing with, then you’ll have fun and that can cover all bandwidths.

Any particular author you are fond of?

There are many colleagues I think highly of. When taking a glance at the better known ones, there is Knizia and his mathematical precision and scoring, the Dorra-esque feel of a Dorra game. I’m talking games like Marracash, Linie 1and Medina here. Jambo by Dorn is a great game as well as Settlers – The card game by Teuber. And then of course there’s freaky Friedemann Friese.

Did anything from your former studies or work help you in creating boardgames (skills,knowledge)?
No. I am developing games since my time as a student. But mostly for private use back then, as gifts for friends for example.

When did you create your first game and what was it about?
It’s hard to tell. It has been a smooth transition. I guess it’s the same with many other authors. I played games, that I liked, but at some point gaming was not enough anymore. I felt the urge to adjust those games, improve them and suddenly I noticed that I grappled with things like the gaming material. I started developing ideas and my senses were sharpened as towards the context of a games’ mechanism and its theme. Then I started realizing my first boardgame ideas. I think, the first one was a fantasy-adventure where players had to find ingredients for making spells. I never did propose that game to a company though.

Was that the moment you thought of doing this mainly for a living?
Well, once you start to get involved with thinking about it, one bumps into barriers and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The publishers drown in work and there’s tons of people with gaming ideas out there, so it’s really hard to gain ground and you’re doing a lot of mistakes to begin with. But there’s the Spieleautorenzunft (SAZ, guild of gaming authors?), which I joined and almost all authors are member of (probably concerning Germany).

What is that guild doing?
They supply newbies with informations, they try to internationalize things. They have events, organize workshops at the fairs. At Nuremberg they have a big party and they get engaged in matters of copyrights. To many starters, it is unclear that you cannot protect your ideas by copyright in Germany. That is possible only for technical patents (protection of utility patents). So they are taking care of everything in that gray area.

And anybody can join in?
Yep, as of now there are several hundred members. And there’s the well accredited Knizia as well as unknown authors without any publications so far

You mentioned mistakes, which are those typically?
I don’t know, if they are typical, but what you can do wrong of course is a lack of playtesting or that you are playtesting with friends only. That way you don’t notice mistakes in a way you were if the game were handled in a more critical way due to being neutral about it. Then there’s bad tinkering when it comes to prototypes. Badly written cards, stuff like that, anything that makes it harder for the editor. Also important is how to approach a boardgame company. It doesn’t make any sense to just send a game somewhere. You have to go to great lengths for the people, and have to try to get the contacts. Best way to do that is at the fairs. With a personal contact it is much easier to place your idea than it would be out of the anonymous mass. But the most crucial part is the playtesting part.

How long does it take?
It depends. Sometimes you have an idea and you think “Wow, this has just got to be thrilling,” and you play it through in your mind. Then you’ll tinker the prototype which lets you see fast, whether the same feel appears you had imagined before. Sometimes it comes quite close, which is a huge step, but on the other hand, you have games in which only the core is good. And then it is up to you to either filter out which is good and make something else up around it or, at the worst, you have to admit that you got on the wrong track. That process can take weeks, months, even years.
Taking The pillars of the earth as an example it took over two years from the day when we proposed it to Kosmos and the day it was finally released. Two years in which we didn’t change a lot about the basic mechanisms of the game, but put a lot of effort into the finishing touches. You often have boardgame companies say “This or that game is one we’d like to work with, there’s something in it”, but that is not the form in which the game is released later on.

Dracula, Pillars of the earth, In 80 days around the world – you’ve made yourself a name with the adaptations of literature. Did you think about how to transfer these works into boardgames firsthand or did Kosmos come up to you and ask you to somehow adapt this into a boardgame?
See, you often have ideas for mechanisms and start working on those games. But then there’s the problem what is supposed to happen with these games, what’s the story? Often games with good mechanisms feel like their themes are replaceable and pasted on. That’s when I noticed, it is much easier if you have a specific theme given and know, this and that happens in the story. You don’t have a blank sheet to begin with but you know, there already is a story people thought of. Stories from people who are way better at telling them than you are. So once I saw a Dracula-movie and thought, that the rivalry between Van Helsing and Dracula is so atmospherically dense, why not take this suspenseful duel and convert it into a boardgame? When I proposed the game to Kosmos, they were really taken with it. And that was before their line of games with a literary basis. Same with In 80 day around the world. I watched the movie (older one with Pierce Brosnan) and thought “Well, this a great theme for a game.” Nearly everyone knows either the book or the movie. And you have an adventurous world trip with means of transportation, which are more interesting than the ones we have today in a wild-romantic sense. Another advantage was that the aim of the game is already given in the title. You want to go around the world the fastest possible and not use more than 80 days. That was when Kosmos realized the advantage of being recognised within an ever growing market and address those, who are not hardcore gamers but people who buy a game every now and then. With more and more games on the market, they hardly know what to choose. But then they see the box of Drac/In 80/Pillars and go “Ah, I’ve seen the movie/read the book, let’s see how the game is”.

Pillars of the earth, by the way, is a project of my good pal Stefan (Stadler) and me. He originally is from the south and was one of my most important playtesters. Before he moved back I said “You helped me so much, let’s do a game together from beginning to end”. Since he was a bookseller we soon had our theme. I told Kosmos early about it and again they were very taken with the idea.
When the game was all set, a prototype was tinkered, in parts with professional graphics from Michael Menzel and the editor Wolfgang Lüdtke from Kosmos flew to London with a translated version of the game. There he played it with Ken Follet and his son. He liked it right away and felt his work recognised. Ken was a nice guy, showing a lot of interest for that matter and helped out presenting the game at the Frankfurt bookfair.

Now with Asterix & Obelix, that was when Kosmos addressed me. They told me that they wanted to make a game out of it and asked me, if I had something for them.

How do you get paid? Is your idea bought once or are you involved in the success of a game?
At Kosmos I’m getting paid a licence fee which orients at the quantities. From what I hear it is the same with other companies.

And do board games really sell in numbers of 5.000 to 20.000 and once they are “Spiel des Jahres” skyrocket to sales in the millions?
Extremely put, but basically true. I’d say, a game which sells from 15.000 to 20.000 copies is quite successful. Then there’s games which break ranks and sell about 50.000 times, but still the scissor between the “Spiel des Jahres” and other ones is enormous. It attracts those people who don’t buy ten+ games a year but rather one and who rely on the judgement of that jury. When meeting people who haven’t got much to do with games, you’ll notice that maybe 11 of 12 games in their collection are “Spiel des Jahres.” I don’t know exact numbers, but rumour has it, that a “Spiel des Jahres” is assured salesnumbers of at least a quarter million (empirical value). And if it is an outstanding one, which activates enthusiasm among the customers, sales are even higher. Carcassonne probably scrapes the million mark and Settlers has sold several million times.

The Pillars of the earth seems to be a major success as well …
Yes, again I don’t know exact numbers, but I know that the publisher is quite content. It sells well, they had to reproduce it before Christmas and I heard that even at the Spiel it was not in stock (partly). And here's thanks to Ken again. There's probably been quite a few people buying the game, because it has "Pillars of the earth" on the box.

End of Part One
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