On Funagain's old site they had a very lengthy interview with Reiner Knizia. For some reason, when they changed the site, they didn't put the interview back up. I've e-mailed them to inquire about it, but they don't seem to have it anymore.
Does anyone here have a copy of it that they could e-mail me, or know another place online that has it? I'd like to read it again, but I can't find it.
Try finding it via the...
Doesn't seem to work. It gave me a list of dates, and when I click on one it says that it's opening the kumquat.funagain address (which is what it used to be), but I just get a "Cannot open this page" message for all of them.
Lake Saint Louis
Here ya go
This interview was conducted in November 2002. Reiner Knizia had requested several days prior that we schedule time for a follow-up interview to the one I conducted for Funagain Games in the Fall of 1999. What you are about to read is a combination of that interview and the new one -- a 3 hour affair that took place between 1 - 4 a.m. my time, and 6 - 9 a.m. his time. This arrangement was deemed convenient to both of, seeing that I am a night owl, and he is an early bird.
SG: There is no doubt that you are one of the finest game designers in the world today. Anyone who knows anything about sophisticated family, strategy board games is well-acquainted with your name. I know that being prolific is difficult enough, but being prolific with such consistence in quality is the mark of a true master craftsman. Now, is it true that you began designing games as a young child?
RK: Yes, I have been interested in games as long as I've been able to think. It goes back a very long time.
SG: What were some of the games that you remember playing as a young child?
RK: I think the earliest game I remember playing was Monopoly. That one left a very strong impression, not because I thought it was a particularly good game, especially using today's criteria -- it had a different impact on me because we used to use the money from the game to play banking and do lots of other things with the money and create our own games around it -- free form games using the financial industry as a theme. Of course, later one of my careers was in the financial industry.
SG: Can you describe some of your early prototypes? Do you still have any of them?
RK: I still have some prototypes which I did when I was ten years old. These weren't of very high quality but that's how you start and that's how you learn. I grew up in a town of about 10,000 inhabitants and there weren't many game shops around. Since I didn't have many contacts to outside games, it was necessary for me to create my own.
SG: Tell us about that first prototype.
RK: It was what fascinated me at that time -- knights, castles and kingdoms. Essentially, the board showed a fantasy land of lots of little spaces and little pawns. It was a 2 player game. Each player had a castle, which was simply a group of spaces. On each space you placed one of your knights. You had knights on foot and on horseback and you rolled the dice, or several dice (depending upon the version of the game) allowing you to move your pieces forward. There was a mountain that you could hide behind. There was a river in the middle. There were one or two bridges. Essentially, you tried to knock out the other player's pieces and, if you could, occupy his territory and his castle. When you got a man into his castle you won the game. It was an exciting game at that time and it still plays well, but you had to be willing to make the game work.
SG: Explain what you mean by that.
RK: You had to move forward and get into the spirit of the game. It was very easy to break the game because you could choose to play defensively whereby there'd be no way for the other player to win. You could surround your castle and forego any interaction between the players. I think that taught me a lot about not designing a game for any individual group or type of player. You have to make it stable and robust for every potential player out there and for each possible approach the player can take. Some new game designers, or those who want to get into game design, say, "I have a wonderful, brilliant game. We play it every day." It turns out that he's been playing it with the same three or four people and it's the perfect game for them. But he's never tried it with other people who might approach it differently. All the optimization the designer put into the game for the original group might not work with other groups, and the game breaks.
SG: What was the name of the game?
RK: I don't think it even had a name. I don't think I even have the rules for that game. Many times I wouldn't even write the rules up.
SG: It sounds like what you had there was, essentially, a wargame.
RK: I didn't have access to published wargames at that time. I wasn't really even aware that they existed. At that time I played mostly in isolation. It wasn't my plan to become a game designer, at that time we just had fun and played. We didn't write out the rules because that wasn't fun.
SG: You say you weren't aware of the existence of wargames?
RK: Right. Germany is extremely critical towards war games. That comes from the history and the experiences of the 2nd World War. The majority of people, the family game culture, doesn't really like to play war games. It's modern fairy tales they want to play. In the early days, when I was 13 or 14 we used to play another one of my games. I used to play in my basement -- a big room where we played and I designed stuff. We used big boards -- sometimes maps of the world, sometimes maps of smaller countries. We used to have units where we tried to conquer the world. The units were needles with sticky labels applied to them. The flags indicated the unit type, not the nationality. It might be a plane or a vehicle. The flag would also indicate a radius, which was its movement potential. Each player used a compass, sticking one end of it into the unit's current position, to determine how far it could move. Of course, the board filled up rather quickly with tiny holes the more we played -- the more strategic points especially. This game was much more complex -- it involved lots of different units. As the game evolved for us we put in more sophisticated units. Units that could make one strike and disappear. Units that could be used and re-used. Units that were fast but not very powerful. Units that were slow but very powerful. We built up a rather rich world. In a way you could say I started out as a wargamer, even though I was not even conscious of it.
SG: What other types of games did you design and play during your youth?
RK: There was a very brief phase in my 20s when I self-published a play-by-mail magazine, called PostSpielion. It appeared, if I recall correctly, every two weeks. This was a time before the internet, so everyone sent in their moves and I would publish issues based on the moves.
SG: And these were games that you had designed?
RK: Yes. The postal games had to have two criteria. The first was that any number of people could play. One of the first was a motor racing game where we had 40-50 players. We had a business game, an election game, and these could all be (and were) populated by 50+ players. The other criteria regarded NMR (No Move Received), which is what happens when players don't hand in their turns. This can really break a game. So in my rules, techniques were developed to allow a game to continue when such things happened. Many of the games went on for years, and some never really ended -- there was no final ending point. Games could grow as well as different people left or entered.
SG: Were you ever inspired to produce boxed versions of your own games?
Goldrausch coverRK: During the time of the post magazine, I did do some small publications of my own games. These were, what I now refer to as "The Blue Boxes". I went out to a manufacturer and got special boxes produced for me in three sizes: small, medium and large. This was before modern desktop publishing. I made cover pages with little sticky letters and would copy and glue those pages onto the boxes. Some of my first published games came from this series. One you might recognize is Goldrausch, which was first published in Germany and also currently as Gold Digger, by Out of The Box Games, and as Wapi, by Nelostuote.
Gold Digger coverSG: What size was the typical production run?
RK: I produced them in editions of 30 or 40 because they were all hand made. Basically they all went to friends and family. I never tried to do it commercially in any way. It was quite clear to me that, while I wanted to design games, I didn't want to get into distribution and manufacturing. I was more focused on designing and playing, rather than organizing and building a company around it.
SG: What was your very first published design?
RK: I see publication on two levels. One is where you have a game published somewhere in printed press and then there are the boxed games. The box games have a higher level/value in my work. They stand by themselves. If you have a game that's part of a magazine, people then need to use their own pieces, cut things out, etc. If you have a real box it's a real game.
SG: Okay then, what was your first real game?
Digging coverRK: It was actually three things at the same time. I published two card games, Goldraush by Hans im Glück, and Digging by Hexagames. At the same time I published a book on tactical games with cards and dice. This was a collection of about 200 pages of my own games. That was a lucky coincidence. I also published a lot of games in magazines.
SG: Tell me more about those.
RK: I used to have a column in the big games magazine in Germany, and every issue I would have a new game in there and that would force me to have a new game every two months. It kept me quite busy. I used to enjoy that a lot when I had the time for it. Then I shifted towards approaching the publishers themselves and trying to place my designs. That meant that I not only had to work on my designs, but I had to put them in a presentable form. I went to trade shows, made contacts, and learned a great deal about what publishers needed. I also learned a lot from my experience with Hans im Glück. I didn't sell in big numbers at the first -- it was more about getting nice games done and building my reputation.
SG: How did it feel the first time you held a boxed game with your name on it?
RK: Absolutely marvelous. Overwhelming. That's what you're aiming for. You see all these games in the shops and you hear about these great publishers and suddenly you're part of that world -- it really fascinates me. There's always a celebration when I publish a game or a book, but now that I have 150 boxes it fades away a little bit. I still look forward to every new game because they are all my children and I put a lot of my heart into these games. I'm always anxious about the final product -- What does it look like? Will it all be nice? Is there anything which I don't like? And so on....
SG: How has your relationship with publishers evolved over the last ten years or so?
RK: I think I have moved onto a challenge of doing things which go beyond a single game. A Swedish publisher recently approached me and asked whether I was interested in doing a new line of children's games. They wanted three new games. They were in a bit of a hurry so I sat down and showed them 10-12 of them and they picked out three. It makes the process very simple because we know each other -- we can communicate. Or I might get a call from a publisher who needs a line of card games. They're under pressure and have no time and they know I have many card games. So they take them and select from them. This is of course a nice position and it's where I want to be, but it's also something that carries beyond one individual game. That's one angle you can explore. People approach me and say, "We would like to have a big game from you," or "You haven't done a game with us in a while -- why don't you show us some games?" Of course, it's definitely turned around for me -- from a situation where I was wanting anyone to publish one of my games. I was in a situation of having many ideas for games and not being able to find a publisher. Now I have so many opportunities to place good games and my bottleneck is really having time to create the products.
SG: What was the catalyst in your decision to make games design a career? Not as a hobby, but as your sole trade?
RK: I think the true answer is that I've never really made that career decision. I wanted to have more time to design and break the paradigm of never having enough time.
RK: I retired from my job in the financial industry just five days after my 40th birthday. I was very lucky in my career in the financial industry; I made enough money so that I no longer have to work for money. I consider myself very rich, but that has nothing to do with money. The main point was that, in my late thirties, I realized that I was working two full-time jobs -- supervising 300 people in a mortgage company, and trying to design games professionally, hopefully more than one a year. That essentially meant that I got up at 4:00 in the morning, which I still do because I'm an early-bird, worked on game design until 8:00, went to my regular job, stayed there until 6:00 or 7:00, then went out and we would play in the evening, and that would be the whole day -- nothing else. I was aware that that left out a lot of other things in life, so the decision was not to become a full-time game designer, but just to give myself a bit more free time. This hasn't worked out so far because I just put more and more time into game design. I still don't consider it any more than a hobby. I don't think of it as a full-time profession. I guess you could say I work full-time on my hobby. But I'm not unhappy about that. Every day when I get up I realize I'm doing exactly what I want to do. Sometimes it makes me sad because I miss out on so many things which I would also like to do. The saying goes, you can have anything in life, but you cannot have everything in life.
SG: That's wonderful that you still consider it a hobby.
RK: Essentially, I'm spending 70-80 hours a week on my designs, so it's not really something I do on the side. It's important to me that it not become a "job". I'm trying to stay ahead of my commitments.
SG: What is your day like?
RK: People are different and everyone finds different ways to accomplish the tasks they wish to accomplish. I usually awake between 4 and 5 o'clock in the morning. I'm very fresh in the morning and can take on larger tasks -- analytical work on systems. I close my eyes and look into the new worlds and live in these worlds and try to work on the game that plays in this world. You can't do that between telephone calls, which is another reason the early morning works best for me. I have the peace and the concentration to do that. I usually stay in the design mode until lunchtime when I feel I need a break -- either going for a walk or a run. There is also a lot of administrative work -- what I call non-productive work -- to be done. It is necessary and it is a very big factor to the game's success. But it's nevertheless not what I count as my core work. It's about communication with people, negotiating contracts. It's about looking through rules, approving final pre-runs of the print. It's looking after the royalties. It's looking after paperwork and through notes of what I offered to whom. There's a lot of stuff going on there and that typically occupies my afternoons. I think I'm least fit to design in the afternoon so I try to fill that time with administrative things. In the evening it's the game playing. My playtesters have jobs during the day so the evening is best for them. And it's a nice social event which usually works best for evenings anyway.
SG: Do you get many chances to play other designs?
RK: No, but there's an advantage to that. An advantage of not knowing what other designers are doing. If I have to solve a challenging game problem I need to be very creative. If my mind already knows of a solution from a different designer of course I don't want to use that. That gets into the way of creativity. Your mind concludes that that's the only way to get over this and it becomes much harder. Of course, I rely a lot on my playtesters who play a lot of different games. They tell me "this has been used there" or "you're too close to this" and in those cases we backtrack.
SG: You are a Doctor of Mathematics. A doctorate degree implies an extremely strong commitment -- what coaxed you into choosing this field?
RK: I was always strong in mathematics and I always liked it. I got a lot of recognition as a very young child for being very strong in elemental math, so I think that motivated me even more. But I did not set out to study mathematics. I started studying physics; I have a very strong favor towards the sciences. After six months I came to the conclusion that physics was a systemization of errors and not getting things absolutely correct, whereas in mathematics I saw the brilliant and absolute correctness I was looking for. Physics didn't motivate me nearly as much, so I wandered over to mathematics and have never regretted it.
SG: To what degree does your doctorate aid you in the development of your games?
RK: Well clearly you don't need to be a mathematician to design games. I studied the sciences because I have a very scientific mind. It's the analytical mind that helps you in designing games, but it can also get into the way of designing games.
SG: How so?
RK: Because in creating a good game, there are many factors to be considered and some of the factors are more analytical -- the game system needs to work, it needs to be balanced, etc. That is easier for an analytical mind. There are other things, like flavor, theme, and fun, which cannot be measured in abstract terms.
SG: Fun can mean different things to different people. How do you define fun?
RK: Fun is nothing you can prove or calculate. Fun is something you have to experience. That's where playtesting comes in. Of course, you have to think hard to develop a game, but there comes a time when you need to do a lot of playtesting to experience the fun and see how people react. And not only with one group. Something that works with gamers might not work with the general public. Fun can express itself in different ways. The fun of playing chess is the challenge and the struggle of two minds against each other. If you have a simple card game, the fun is more in the interaction and trying to do things quickly and changing the game around, etc. Even games that are wholly deterministic, where you have no influence, can be fun. Many traditional dice games are like this -- people are there and they shout at the dice. It's just a good atmosphere. It's on a level that you cannot read in the rules. It's a level which develops between the players and that's the secret of good games. They are a platform to have a good time with other players. They invite players to open them and create that good time.
SG: Have you ever made a design decision that made a game less balanced but more fun?
RK: It's very often a decision of how much luck to introduce. What opportunities do I give players to upset the normal course of the game? If you do a family-type game then I think it is important to give people enough influence and opportunity to be lucky. That brings fun and excitement. When I work on gamers' games, I think it's important to make players fight inch for inch for success -- very, very small movements where you have little increases in success. It's a very detailed and subtle approach, and the gamers would not like too much luck in this process. On the other hand, I think the general public doesn't appreciate sophisticated strategies, and they want faster movement in a fast-moving world. These decisions are related to the target group. Games evolve and once I know in which direction a game is going I can apply the appropriate criteria. If you look at traditional games, older games, you might note that they are much slower in their movement. Sometimes these games are not so appealing to us anymore because they have this degree of slowness in them. Of course, people had more time back then. Also, I think the level of education and mathematical understanding is higher now, therefore we want to be challenged a bit more. On the other hand we want things happening quickly. A modern game needs to be designed differently than a traditional game.
SG: Besides the design itself, what are some other things that must be considered when aiming for a specific target group?
RK: There are the game materials. There is the tactile experience with the game, which is of course very important for kids. There is also the graphical representation, which is a very different dimension of the game. The box may not seem that important for gameplay, but it is because the cover is the first thing that grabs your imagination and pulls you into the world. There are many different aspects to consider and a good game essentially comes out of having a harmony between the different aspects of the game.
SG: Do you personally feel like you have any weaknesses when it comes to any of these criteria?
RK: Everyone has strengths and everyone has weaknesses. I come from an analytical background but I think it is extremely important to understand that every strength a human being has can also be turned into a weakness. If I may paraphrase a famous psychologist, if all you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything you see will look like a nail. Sometimes we rely too heavily on our strengths and we attempt to apply them to the wrong things. I'm aware of my strengths as an analytical person who can balance a game and create interesting scoring systems, which are very important for a game. But I'm also aware that there are different aspects, like fun or communication. I need to hold back on the analytical part and just let go and experience it and be part of the playing. This is also very important to observe in playtesting. Different playtesters have different strengths and make different contributions so that the game evolves and I evolve and become a more balanced game designer.
SG: Your games are typically known for being rather abstract. Where do you come up with your themes?
RK: Sometimes I start with the game system, other times with the theme or the components. It is important to find ever new entry points into the design process to create innovation. Of course, a good design eventually encompasses all aspects into one balanced unity. The theme is an important part of the design. It inspires me and my work on the design. In some games, the publisher will make suggestions for the theme. Sometimes the theme they suggest actually works better. Other times I have rather ridiculous themes suggested. When that happens I just have to say no, even if the publisher ultimately decides not to publish. You have to be true to the game. You can't just let the marketing department take over and say, "This year Teddy Bears are popular so let's make this game about Teddy Bears." You have to resist that. The theme has to be right for the game. Essentially, I have the final decision.
SG: What about graphics?
RK: The publisher is responsible for the graphics, but of course I have some influence over it. I think by making the right suggestions and making the right layout and seeing how things are put together. That's why it's important to have the whole picture in your head. Sometimes the contributions by the publisher are better, but you have to create a starting point.
SG: From start to finish, about how long does it usually take to get a game published?
RK: Sometimes I'll take a design to a publisher and they get very enthusiastic about it and three weeks later the publisher says, "Yes, we'll do it -- here's the contract, don't ever show it to anyone else." Other games sit with a publisher for half a year before they decide they don't want to do it, so you send it to another one and they don't want to do it. I have games that I've shown to 3-4 publishers and for, whatever reasons, which might not have anything to do with the game (they have a similar game, they can't get the costs right, they don't have the right box size) they decide not to publish it. I only offer games to one publisher at a time, so it can take awhile. Eventually, most games do find a home, though. Lost Cities was a case where I was very convinced of the quality of the game and the publishers initially said it was too small and they didn't know how to place it. It was initially rejected by Kosmos. Then I went back to Kosmos and asked them to have another look and they finally decided to do it. I think we have been happy ever after because it's still going strongly and has been translated into many languages. Every now and then a new language is added and I add a new box to my wall here. It's a matter of luck as well -- finding the right publisher at the right time. And it usually doesn't say anything about the quality if it's turned down 2-3 times. Sometimes the publisher has a good remark and sometimes I do change a game based on those remarks. But those are very rare cases. Usually when I'm ready to submit a design I'm very happy with it. One of the reasons that I can sell all of my games is because I'm my own harshest critic. My playtesters are also very critical people. They have very high demands and they want an ideal game. And it's absolutely right for them to be this way. I sometimes have a weakness, as a perfectionist, that I stay with a game too long. I try to over-optimize it long after my testers have said, "it's done -- it's fine, publish it, we can't improve it." And yet there is still a little bit there that I'm not happy with. To be a perfectionist is good because it demands high quality from you. Unfortunately, sometimes you stay with something too long and don't let go because you're convinced that working on the last half-percent of the game will really make a difference. In the end it's about me being happy with the game. If I'm happy with the game then I can let it out there into the world. Afterwards, if the critics have a go at it, I can still sleep very nicely. You can't win them all and I'm convinced I've given my best and that's fine. If I do a job that I'm not convinced of then how can I face the critics? I want to do my best because my name is on the game and people will remember if they liked my last game when they see a new release of my games.
SG: How do you respond to negative criticism?
RK: What I experience is that people and different game cultures put you in boxes. People see you as a designer who creates a certain type of game. This is a very dangerous thing. I design a very big variety of games. It's sometimes difficult to communicate what kind of game is in the box. Africa cover Africa is a good example. Many people were disappointed with it. I think Africa is a brilliant game, but it is a family game -- an exploring game which has some luck factors in it. It's a family game to be enjoyed for 3/4 of an hour. Now I assume that people, when they opened the big box, expected an epic exploration of the dark continent -- a Euphrat & Tigris-like experience. Of course, these expectations were not met. That's where part of the confusion comes up. Africa photo People might think, "That's not the game I expected" and of course, some are more direct and say, "It's not a good game because it's not what I expected. That's not the type of game he usually does so he did a bad game."
SG: Reiner, if we could switch gears for a moment, let's talk about the difference between the European (particularly German) board game industry vs. the American board game industry. Tell me, what do Germans know that we don't? In America there is such a stigma attached to boardgaming. Except for gambling, or party/trivia, the average American just doesn't spend a lot of time playing non-electronic games.
RK: I think that's a very important point. You need to understand that playing games in Germany is synonymous with "family values". It is good to play games and games are quite frequently bought as presents. It's seen as a very valuable way of spending time together as a family. Children grow up with a natural learning of games and as they grow up they see more and more games and become fascinated with them. I think that's a culture which is very valuable in Germany and creates a big market for many designers and many game companies. If you went to a game convention in Germany, you would see average people coming in off the streets, buying games, and playing them on Sunday afternoon with their families. In America it's more of a hobby industry, where you have specific types of people -- students and younger people -- buying games. They are very nice people but they're not the average, everyday American. There are the mass market games, but they are on a much simpler level. Frequently when I tell people I'm a game designer, they assume I'm talking about computer games. That's the immediate association in America -- that if you do something "real" in games it must be in computer games. Then when I say I design board games they assume I'm referring to children's games. Of course I do children's games but I also do family games. I think the good news is that the American market is waking up to the European style of games. They are coming over from Europe and getting designed for America. Yes, they may be more on the hobby side but these are games that can catch the general public's attention. The hobbyist realizes that he can play the games with his family and friends which will lead to an increase and a better awareness of these games.
SG: Give an example of a game you think could catch on in the United States.
RK: Look at Lost Cities. A lot of people consider Lost Cities a spouse game -- a game someone can enjoy with his/her spouse. I think this is excellent. There are lots of good games for the right people out there.
SG: I think the biggest problem is the stigma we talked about. That, and the fact that the U.S. has such a determined mindset on what a boardgame actually is. The typical consumer has no reference beyond the standard Monopoly, Risk, Trivial Pursuit, etc.
RK: Right. People play the same 3-5 games which have made it in the market, even though the gamers know there are many exciting games around. There is a favorite game for everyone. But the average person doesn't know. The people know their 3-5 games and it's still fun for them to play those games. If the average person knew about the excellent games out there I think they would become very enthusiastic about them. We need to bridge the gap. It's the challenge we have that needs to be tackled in the United States.
SG: Aside from general perception, what other difference do you see between European games and American games?
RK: The view of the game is quite a bit different. In Germany a game is almost entirely associated with its system. There are a lot of critics in Germany and there is a lot of press coverage, even in the big national newspapers, about games and game reviews. They always focus on the game systems and the new challenges, opportunities and choices it offers the player. If I look at the American market, there is much more emphasis on theme. In Germany you differentiate games by system, in America by theme. The world and the story inspire the player so they go into this world and they take a role in this world. Schotten-Totten cover In America you're constantly looking for new themes and if you use the same underlying systems it doesn't really matter. Whereas in Germany if you take the same system in two different games it's a "crime" because you've published the same game. Battle Line cover That's a very strong difference. Take Schotten-Totten in Germany, which became Battle Line in America. The base game is the same except for the latter's tactical cards, which gave more of a wargame flavor and more possibilities to plunge into the theme. In Schotten-Totten the game is relatively abstract. That was very nice for the German market but I felt we needed more for the American market. Graphical presentation also makes a difference. I had an experience which really brought that home to me and I think it's very useful to illustrate this point. Some years ago I took a game to one of the fairs and showed it to an American publisher and it had an Egyptian theme. I took out the game and the publisher's reaction right away was that it was not right for them because they already had something in the Egyptian category. I tried to implore them to have a look at the game first but they were adamant that they did not need that game. By seeing the theme they already saw the game. A few weeks later I was with a large publisher in Germany and I took out the same game. The publisher's reaction was that the theme wasn't so good because they already had a theme in that category. Of course they were still very keen to look at the game because the theme could be easily changed later. Two very different approaches about how different people define a game or how they compare games.
SG: What are your thoughts on Collectible Card Games (CCGs)?
RK: I want to have short, principle-based rules which I read once and understand and then I can play the game forever. I want the rules to open a lot of opportunities between the players, but I don't want to have a thousand individual cases in the rules which I have to learn and constantly forget. That's how I approach it. That's one of the quality criteria for me. If you look at CCGs, in my understanding, what makes them so successful is that you're actually playing the meta game of the rules. You have an edition of the cards and they introduce certain rules and then you try to break the rules by applying the cards so that you use the rules to your best advantage. I jokingly say that a good collectible card game has to be broken because you have gaps in the gameplay which new editions "fix". And these editions introduce new holes. The enjoyment for people of CCGs, in my interpretation, is that they sit and analyze the rules and see if they can find holes in the rules and combine everything. There's a lot of preparation going on -- the metagame -- before you actually start playing. Playing is simply execution of all your thoughts and just the final bit of play. It's a very different approach in what makes a game. CCG players want to break the rules -- they want to work on the rules and the act of playing is only part of that game. So again, it's a very different approach.
SG: Is this an approach you've considered in recent designs?
Scarab Lords coverRK: There's a game called Scarab Lords, by Fantasy Flight, which is not a CCG, but something that is close to that. I worked on the system and I showed it to Fantasy Flight. They liked the game very much, but informed me that it was too balanced to be a CCG. I was rather taken aback by that but essentially that was a learning curve for me. After a time I came to realize what that meant. So we have now found a very nice form for it. It is an expandable card game where you have a deck in there and you can combine the cards in the base game. Scarab Lords photo There are no boosters, and so forth, so you have no extra cards coming in. We found something where you have a self-contained and balanced universe in which you can use the cards, but again it brought it home to me that people see games on very different levels. I do certain types of games but I need to learn about other types of games and explore paths there as well. It's not a static world. Games move on and people find different aspects of gaming over time. You either stay in your old world or you move with them.
SG: Speaking of developments in gaming, do you find things like BrettSpielWelt an exciting development -- that these games are now playable online by people all over the world?
RK: I do find it a very exciting development. It's how the world moves these days. I mean, who had expected that the internet would be so important to us? And today it's part of our normal life -- without e-mail we wouldn't be able to cope anymore. It changes the way we communicate with each other. When you communicate with someone you really don't even know where they live anymore -- you just have an e-mail address. So you're much more concerned with content than environment. And that reflects in the games as well. There are lots of people who find their play partners over the internet. It can be on a very anonymous level -- you sign on and find a partner and you don't know who it is, what it is, you just play. Or you have contact with them via chat and open the doors a little wider. It's interesting. It's still not the type of game I'm mainly looking for because I very much enjoy the social aspect of the game. That social aspect is stronger if the people are seated around the table and I can look the people in the eye when I beat them (or when they beat me). When you play face to face you can create a very nice atmosphere -- lots of side talk, psychological terror, things like that. We're always looking for new games and new experiences, but for me the really new thing in any given game is the people playing it.
SG: The video/computer game industry has sucked a great deal of life out of the board game industry in the United States. People, especially young people, are drawn in by the sound and fury of video games and have, more or less, abandoned board games. Why hasn't this happened in Germany?
RK: Well, of course, there is a strong influence of video games in Germany, and they're a big part of the market share. Of course, it does take money out of the board game market, however these are two very very different things which satisfy two very different needs. I'm not a very big video game player. It really doesn't have what I'm looking for in a game. For me, games offer a stage where I can have a good time with other people. I don't want to have a good time with the screen of my PC. It's the other people that make each board game experience fresh. It's not about winning. I mean, I want to win, but winning is not important. It's about measuring your wits with other people, seeing how you come out, and seeing the reactions of the others. For this, I prefer my human counterpart sitting across the table than my PC.
SG: I think some people see electronic gaming as, ultimately, a threat to traditional boardgaming.
RK: People are not afraid of their washing machines. What does that mean? Everybody uses their washing machines and there are electronics in there. We don't classify a washing machine as an electronic thing, but we still do that with games. I'm absolutely convinced that soon we will see a new type of game that still gives us the atmosphere and the feel of classic, traditional boardgames -- with players seated around a table, but that these games will be electronically supported. You won't really notice it, but you'll get a much richer experience and you can concentrate much more on the gameplay because everything else is very naturally taken over by the unit and supported by the unit. That's something I'm working on very strongly. There are some specific things to be seen this year and I hope that I will be part of that new development because I'm absolutely convinced that that's where we will end up.
SG: Any other information you can give us about this technology? Now my interest is piqued.
King Arthur coverRK: Yes, have a look at my new game King Arthur published by Ravensburger and you will see what I mean. New printing techniques connect the electronic unit with the standard gameboard. It looks like a normal boardgame, but the electronic is there and enriches the game. It is magic....
SG: Let's talk about some of your games. Has it been your intention to release games in "sets"? Many regard Modern Art, Medici and High Society as your bidding trilogy. Euphrat & Tigris, Durch die Wüste and Samurai are known as your tile-laying trilogy. Was that something you intentionally set out to do? Or are the ideas of trilogies something invented by the game community to give ourselves a sense of order?
Rheinländer photoRK: It is the latter. I mean, there was lots of talk and discussion about the "trilogy" even before the third game (Samuari) came out. That was never something I set out to do. People create stories around it, but there is usually a more natural explanation [of how games appear to arrive in sets]. You open a drawer and explore a new mechanism, so of course you don't just have one idea, but several ideas, and you may subconsciously try to develop them. You continue further in this drawer when you start designing new games. For example, it's quite natural that if you explore the "auction game" drawer, you'll have several ideas for auction games and without even noticing, you'll be drawn in this direction. Euphrat & Tigris, Durch die Wüste, and Samurai were all explorations into the same drawer. And some might even say the same about Rheinländer.
Euphrat & Tigris coverSG: Euphrat & Tigris. Now here is a game that, from almost the moment of its release, has been hailed as a modern classic. I believe at one point you actually had to stand and remove your hat whenever the game was mentioned, the game was so respected. I'm sure you always hope for your games to be received well, but were you expecting anything like this?
RK: No, I was not. It's a funny thing. Many times before the new releases the publishers will ask my opinion, "So how is this game going to do?", "Which one is going to be the top-seller?", "Which one is going to win all the awards or is most acclaimed by the people?" The truth is, I don't know. Of course, there are different types of games; if I release a small card game usually there is less reaction to it because it's seen as a smaller game. I expected something more from Euphrat & Tigris because it is my most complex game and my game-testers were very enthusiastic about it. There were lots of discussions about it even before the game was released -- people get curious about it and that is good and bad because expectations get very high. If you do lots of good games, the expectations raise dramatically. They get harder and harder to meet, but that, of course, keeps me on my toes.
Durch die Wüste coverSG: Moving on through the "trilogy", Durch die Wüste has been described as the "Modern Man's Go", due to its similarities to the classic, Asian territorial struggle. Was Go an inspiration, or was it just a happy coincidence?
RK: Similarities were noticed during the development of the game. One of my testers is a particularly good Go player and he pointed it out. That was coincidental and nothing I started off with. However, Through The Desert (Durch die Wüste) can be seen as an expression of my philosophy of life. If I may say so, life is a game, and there's so much to do and so few turns. I think there are so many great things to do in life, and one of the really exciting aspects is that you can't do them all and you have the rich choice of what you want to do next -- saying 'yes' to one thing means saying 'no' to another thing. I think that's really the essence of Through the Desert, where you know you want to do so many things, but you can't do them all and you have to choose. Durch die Wüste photo I find it very exciting because I have choices but I'm also very dependent on what other people do and that, for me, is such a rich interaction with the other players.
SG: Whose idea was the camel/desert theme? Where did that come from?
RK: That actually came from the publisher. The original working title for the game was 'Rockefeller'. I imagined it as an island where wealthy families had settled. My original subtitle to the game was 'Second to None.' Each individual family wanted to show that they had the best private golf courses, museums, houses, etc. That was my idea. The publisher came back and said that, from a marketing perspective, the camel/desert theme was more appropriate. I thought about it, decided it was something I could live with, and we went with it.
SG: Have you ever had serious conflicts with a publisher regarding the handling of one of your games?
RK: There aren't any remarkable cases. I see my relationship with a publisher very much as a cooperation. There are times when we would have very long discussions about what is better in any particular game and I see that as a very constructive part of the process. I'm actually looking for that in a publisher. I published many of my early games with Hans im Glück (Goldrausch, Quo Vadis?, Modern Art, Auf Heller und Pfennig). Historically, Hans im Glück has contributed a lot to my games, not only from a production point of view, but also suggesting changes, some quite significant. I think the world is currently paradise because there are so many opportunities to publish games. I can pick and choose the publishers I prefer. The sales figures are not the relevant part. What I prefer is a good corporation where I know the publisher will create a high-quality game of which I can really be proud.
Samurai photoSG: Explain the design process around Samurai.
RK: When I started out doing Samurai, I wanted to reflect some Eastern culture in the game. As much as I know the culture, the Eastern world is not direct, it is indirect. Forces are applied indirectly and they grow slowly but then finally they overwhelm you. You have to surround one piece to capture it, but if you do it all yourself in the impatient Western way, you run out of energy very quickly. If you concentrate on the Eastern fighting sports, they actually concentrate on redirecting the power and force of the opponent against himself. If a big guy comes and throws his fist at you, you just grab the hand and you turn it around and eventually his own momentum works against him. I think this philosophy is very much in Samurai. The scoring system clearly expresses that most is not best. In a way, this ambiguity is built in and is one of the challenges in there.
SG: On the other hand, a lot of players play this game without the screens because of that scoring system.
RK: For me as a game designer, of course rules are not cast in stone. They are there to be changed and to be adapted. That's what I do on a daily basis. I would encourage everyone to adapt the game towards what they want to do because every game lives from the people. People sometimes approach me and say, "Are we allowed to play it this way?" Of course! I'm not making laws, I'm making suggestions for the rules I think work best. But it's for entertainment. If you have a game and you want to play it differently, then do so. Get the most enjoyment out of it. Experiment with it. As you play with different people, play with different rules.
SG: So far we've focused primarily on your adult, or family strategy games. You also design games for children. Tell us about some of those.
RK: Many gamers know me mostly for my big, "epic" games. I actually did not start out designing these types of games, instead focusing on card games, and other smaller games. I've put more focus on children's games in recent years because I've found that they're very interesting and very challenging. I believe in Scandinavia I am mostly associated with children games. Flinke Flitzer cover The target group influences how the game is tested. Game testing is the main part of my design process. You have to play with people who are reflecting the target audience. Oh, I love it when small kids eat my prototypes....
SG: I assume you have an army of tots at your disposal?
RK: Usually it's the children of my friends or playtesters. And designing for children really widens your horizons. I find that doing a children's game and getting children's reactions to games actually makes me learn some more fundamental things about games again. And those fundamentals are things that I can put back in the family strategy games, so it is something that enriches my whole approach to game design.
Flotte Flosse coverSG: How, exactly, do you gauge a child's reactions to one of your games? How sophisticated do their responses usually get?
RK: I think children are the most honest people in the world. They are not nice to you; they don't feel like they have to be. And, if I have game testers who are not honest, then it doesn't work. With children, you just need to ask the right questions. Usually their enthusiasm to play a certain game is a good indicator. If they repeatedly ask for a certain game then you know you have a winner. And if they aren't especially excited to play it again, then the reverse is probably true. I think what I've learned over the years is how to moderate the test groups. You have to create an open atmosphere. There is no way that you can defend your prototype against the rest of the world. That is absolutely not the objective of playtesting. Playtesting is not about defending; playtesting is about taking the game apart and finding all the criticisms and having an open discussion about what people don't like. If people like everything then there is no progress. What do we not like? What do we need to change? ...because once the game is out in the world there is nobody to defend it, and if it hasn't gotten everything it needs through playtesting, then it will fail. Playtesting is a ripening process which is extremely important. The game needs to speak for itself. If it cannot do it, then it is not good.
Lost Cities coverSG: Let's talk about one of my favorite games, Lost Cities. This is an uncommonly simple game that has taken the gaming community by storm. Can you tell us a little about the development of this one?
RK: It started out as a two-player card game. I then tried to develop it into a larger game that would accommodate between two and four players. In the end, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to leave it as I originally had it [as a two player game]. When I start out with a game, it is usually unclear where I will end up with it. If you build up internal obstacles and say "this has to be a card game" or "this has to be a tile-laying game" then you restrict yourself. I think you need to do the game justice -- you need to let it develop. Lost Cities developed into a two-player game: it is clean, it is pure, it is simple, it is challenging, and it is fun.
Ra coverSG: Ra was another title which has seen some decent press. Any interesting development stories behind that?
RK: Ra actually has a good story behind it; it was the first game I did after my retirement. For some months I had played with the idea of doing an Egyptian game. I have Tutanchamun, but I thought that was a rather special kind of game, so I could probably do another Egyptian game. Two or three weeks after my retirement I said, okay, now let's get started. That's the time, when I do a big game, that the world around me stops. I concentrate on this game and nothing else. And since I had more time, this concentration became even more extreme. For four to six weeks I did nothing but work on this game. It started off as a two-and-a-half to three hour game. Ra photo The initial idea was to combine a card game with a board game. So you would play a card game, you would win certain cards, then you would use these cards and apply them on the board in many different rounds. But I couldn't get it together, so it evolved into a pure board game without any cards, then a pure card game without any board. In the end I came to the conclusion that I had to give up something, and what I essentially gave up was the board. Then I realized that I had to create a layout in front of me, and that I needed to go from the larger cards to the tiles. In this respect, it became a tile game, essentially with no board. The small layout board was added later to support the game structure but it has no topology.
SG: More of a record-keeping device, a la Modern Art.
RK: Yes. I think the game now is smaller and to the point and I like it very much. If you look at it, the key thing for me is that you have an auction process, but through that process you not only get the values, but through the Sun mechanism, you get the tile for a later auction. I think that is a very nice combination, which was in the game from the beginning. I tried to build that into the core of the game.
Taj Mahal coverSG: Your next Alea game was Taj Mahal, a game that won the German game prize in 2000, after winning with Modern Art in 1993 and Euphrat & Tigris in 1998. What's your response to those who compare Taj Mahal to Poker?
RK: I think I have a very fine network because I do games all the time. I see a lot of differences in the games. Just to give a different example, I'm not very educated in Biology. If you said "trees" I could maybe name two or three trees. If you said "flower" I might be able to identify a red flower as a rose, but I couldn't go much farther than that. Now, if you're talking to a biologist, he or she could name hundreds of different trees or flowers. It's similar for me as a game designer. People who take a broader, high-level view might wonder why there are so many card games. Taj Mahal photo They don't notice the details like I do. That's partially how parallels are discovered by people who take a fresh look and don't notice the finer differences. For me, there are many more differences between the games than the casual observer might recognize. In Taj Mahal it turns out there is a poker element, because more than anything, you do not want to come in second. Like in poker, either you want to quit right away or you want to commit your resources to win. If you commit your resources and don't win then it's bad because you've lost your resources but you haven't gained anything. Of course, that's potentially not so advantageous for a game but what we have here in Taj Mahal are five dimensions. Religious, social, policital, economic and military dimensions and you compete in all five. So essentially there is not one overall winner in each round, which would make it very unsatisfactory for a number of players. There are four or five players around the table and four or five things to be grabbed, so many players can at least get something. In principle, it's a multi-poker game. That's just one aspect of this game.
SG: Chris Dickson has told me that you've shown up at the Mind Sports Olympiad and only played in the cashless Poker tournaments. Any truth to this?
RK: Sure. I played poker as a kid amongst friends, but I always thought it was a game of luck. Recently one of my playtesters got quite serious into poker playing and only then I realized that I didn't know anything about poker. I learned about the background and insights and the qualities you must have as a poker player. I also learned that I am not a poker player from my personality. I am too risk averse -- at least when it gets serious. Nevertheless I got into it for awhile, especially tournament play where you have a limited amount of cash chips -- when you run out you're out of the game. So it really gives you goosebumps because this is what allows you to keep playing. When you're out, you go home! I once came in second in a big poker tournament in Las Vegas. But that was due very much to luck -- and this closes the circle....
Stephensons Rocket coverSG: Reiner, I know that you were very enthusiastic about the release of Stephensons Rocket a few years ago. Now it's gone. What happened?
RK: Pegasus Games wanted to publish one of my games for some time. They do more of the fantasy stuff but they wanted to branch out. Unfortunately, as soon as the game was published under them in Germany they felt the need to re-concentrate under their core business because the market wasn't that easy. They took their eyes off that game and they couldn't really do a lot for it. It wasn't very strongly promoted in Germany. Nevertheless it got published in the U.S. by Rio Grande Games and in Holland by 999 Games so it found its audience but it did not reach beyond the hobby market. It is too sophisticated for the general stores.
SG: What inspired you to go with the no-luck element?
RK: What inspired me here was the theme. There are all these 18xx players out there who play the long games. I don't play many outside games because of time reasons, and I particularly don't play the long games. But I liked the theme and thought it would be nice to have a game like this that played in about an hour. I soon decided that I wanted to focus on the origin of the railways, which was England and Stephenson's first locomotive. England is a nice island so it is very restricted as to where you can build so that all made sense. It developed out of the theme. The fact that is has no luck is essentially a coincidence. It was nothing deliberate. It just turned out that that was the system we settled on.
SG: I think, because of that, Stephenson's Rocket has a high learning curve.
RK: If you have to learn a game by the rules it is very challenging. If you get introduced to a game because you play with players who know it, it's a very different introduction. That's where the game becomes really successful -- when it has reached the critical mass. It lives from people playing it and learning it from other players. If a casual player plays this game once with at least one player who knows what he's doing, he can get up to speed right away. If a casual player has to take the rules from scratch with three other casual players, then it will be a challenge.
Clash of the Gladiators coverSG: A good example to showcase your range of design would be to segue here to Clash of the Gladiators, a game that is almost opposite from Stephensons Rocket in terms of its luck factor. It's been referred to as a dicefest, although many claim that that there are definite strategies that can be employed. Also, this seems to be one of the rare German games with direct combat. Were there any serious concerns in this department when the game was going through development?
RK: This game was published by Hans im Glück, and they are typically associated with gamer's games like Euphrat & Tigris and Modern Art. I think Clash of the Gladiators is an untypical game for Hans im Glück because it comes in the big box but it is not such an epic game. As with most dice games, there's more luck involved, more randomness involved and it's a faster-moving, not so strategic game. Clash of the Gladiators photo Yes, we placed it in Roman times and some people in Germany say that's too bloody for them -- rolling dice to eliminate people from the arena. Of course, you can do ridiculous things like claim that it's only training and we're not really fighting, but we decided not to go that route. No point. I see Clash of the Gladiators as more of a comic-style presentation. It is a critical theme because we are talking about the fighting of gladiators, but games are a mirror of the world. I would never put anything into my games that glorified the killing of people or animals. But by putting it into the Roman times, you see that this was what the Roman times were all about. If you look at a chess game, you'll note that it is also the simulation of a battle. It is a classical simulation and I don't think that anyone who plays chess then is motivated to go out and kill people. It's not an invitation to take that behavior out into the world, and I think it's the same for Clash of the Gladiators. It's a nice, easy dice game in the atmosphere of ancient Rome.
Traumfabrik coverSG: Moving right along, let's talk about Traumfabrik. Was that your original theme or was that a publisher's decision?
RK: That was mine. My original working title was "Hollywood". It's a nice, flavorful game. We could have done a fantasy filmmaking game, but that would not have been as satisfying. Fortunately, Hasbro was able to get the real actors and actresses from the golden age of Hollywood and that gives it such a rich flavor.
SG: How did this game not get published in the US considering that the subject matter was uniquely American and it was published by Hasbro?
RK: I don't know. I can only guess that Hasbro decided it was too sophisticated for an American audience. This is, of course, a tragedy in itself -- that mass distributors can only offer very simple primitive games to the public and don't trust them to be able to take on more challenging games. Of course, that's just a guess. The big companies are very much driven by sales figures and marketing.
SG: Speaking of sales figures, you've recently begun working on games with book and movie licenses. Can you tell us a bit on how that's going for you?
RK: One of my strategic directions these days is to be involved more in licenses. One of the big topics is, of course, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars and there are lots of local licenses in the different nations and countries. Of course, I can't just sit down and do a Lord of the Rings game. You need to secure the license. There are high guarantees involved. That means you need to have a publisher up front. It becomes a very, very different ballgame. I think currently I spend between 70-100% of my time on these bigger projects and on the projects which are pre-sold and pre-agreed. And it changes the work quite a bit. In a way it sometimes takes the fun out of it. If I were totally free I could have many ideas and work on the ones which fascinated me the most. If a game gets stuck a little bit I can leave it on the side because there are other games which push themselves to the front. The ones that show the most potential are worked on. There is a natural selection process. A game is finished when it is finished and then offered up to a publisher. The publisher takes it and your work is done.
SG: And now it is different...
RK: Yes, now it is different because now I talk to a publisher and we agree on a big license and with it there comes a deadline. There comes a briefing with it: It must be positioned for this target group because that's already dictated by the theme. It should go in this type of box. It should not cost more than this. We can only use these materials. We can't use plastic because we don't have time for the tooling. And so on. You're much more restricted. But I find the license world fascinating and I really enjoy working in it. But they give you a clear line. You need to be true to the spirit of the license. You can't get stuck because you are to deliver it at a certain time. Of course I wouldn't agree to any unrealistic thing but there are so many fascinating opportunities there so I need to be very careful with what I commit to so that I can really deliver. There is one over-riding principal. There can never be a compromise on quality, and therefore I always need to have enough time to work on any given project. I think that comes with experience. I don't think I could have worked this way ten years ago. I needed the freedom. If a game didn't work I could leave it on the side or I could change the theme or let it evolve in a totally different way. I can't do that with a licensed game. I must stay on track and therefore use my experience so that if a game doesn't work (and the game never works on the first try) I know enough things to keep the game on track.
SG: This makes me wonder if we're ever going to see another Euphrat & Tigris or Ra. These were games that had consumed you. Is anything like that possible now?
Amun-Re coverRK: I think my Lord of the Rings game is very much in that category. I'm still committed to work in all the different areas, but I don't have as much time and my output isn't as frequent in the different areas. My game, Amun-Re is a big, resource management game. And it's a game that plays in about 90 minutes. It has a board and an epic story behind it. It's a struggle in ancient Egypt. It's quite a challenging game -- not an easy family game. It should delight the gamers who like Euphrat & Tigris and Durch die Wüste and so on.
SG: Would you say that licensed games are fairly synonymous with family games?
RK: No, they can of course be children's games as well. You have to reach a wide audience -- that's the purpose of a license. A license is something that people say is "pre-sold". The markets have never been easy. Times have never been easy. Every time has its own challenge. Publishers try to find new entry points into the market and if they have a popular license it helps the differentiation of that game against all the other new releases. You are aiming at a wider market, and that means a children's or family market.
SG: What are some other licensed projects you're working on?
RK: I did the Star Wars card game that is only published in Europe, and it has English language rules.
Zirkus Flohcati coverSG: And that was previously Zirkus Flohcati.
RK: Yes, that's actually a good example. The film was out in May (2002) -- the 2nd Star Wars film. This game was for that film. The publisher, Ravensburger, could only secure the license at the end of January of that year. So we're looking at potential madness here -- we have a license and only four months to get the game in place. When we discussed it, I told them there was no way anybody could create a good, new design in that time frame. So we had to look at something which already existed which we could adapt to the new th
Wow! Thanks Chris!
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Lake Saint Louis
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SG: What are some other licensed projects you're working on?
RK: I did the Star Wars card game that is only published in Europe, and it has English language rules.
Zirkus Flohcati coverSG: And that was previously Zirkus Flohcati.
RK: Yes, that's actually a good example. The film was out in May (2002) -- the 2nd Star Wars film. This game was for that film. The publisher, Ravensburger, could only secure the license at the end of January of that year. So we're looking at potential madness here -- we have a license and only four months to get the game in place. When we discussed it, I told them there was no way anybody could create a good, new design in that time frame. So we had to look at something which already existed which we could adapt to the new theme. We came to the conclusion that Zirkus Flohcati was the right type of game. It was out-of-print, and people liked it very much. We thought we could reach a very different audience with it and so I looked at the thematic side. While working on it, I actually had a copy of the screenplay (under the threat of death if I passed it on). We looked at it and came up with missions. We actually added things to the game but we kept the core mechanics there just to be on the safe side. If you change too many things you could introduce problems. At the same time Ravensburger worked on getting the pictures together and getting the product schedules together so that everything could be done by May. This was a very challenging project from a time-frame point of view. And that's something I can only do now that I work full-time as a designer. It also shows that you need to be careful and be realistic in what you can achieve.
It's Mine! coverRK: Then there is the Simpsons game, based on It's Mine! (America) and Grab! (England) all done by Winning Moves. They picked up the Simpsons license and decided that they wanted to re-theme it. It's the same game -- the mood and the atmosphere of the license fits very nicely.
SG: The original game is a rather abstract collecting game. What are you collecting in the new game?
SG: That's wonderful! You could call it Lord of the Rings!
RK: Well, I'm afraid that's already taken.
SG: Right. And speaking of Lord of the Rings, it has been keeping you very busy I'm sure. Can you give us some history on how you came to be associated with one of the biggest marketing blitzes in recent memory.
Lord of the Rings coverRK: I think it was an ideal strike to get the book license for the game very much in advance of the film's release. Sophisticated Games approached me and asked me if I'd like to do a Lord of the Rings game -- Would I like to do a Lord of the Rings game? Yes! It was a lucky coincidence, but then again I think you make your own luck. Having the good relationships with the publishers opened these doors. It gave me enough time (15 months) to design the game, and I did actually need the time. I wanted to stay true to the spirit of the book. It was very clear to me that there are an enormous number of fans out there. Tolkien is the father of all fantasy. He has created a whole genre there and people have their own pictures in their heads and very strong feelings about how they want to see them presented. Since the book was written from the perspective of the good guys, I wanted to take the same approach in the game. We are the fellowship of the ring. We are the hobbits. The hobbits start out in Bag End and the other members of the fellowship join in later. I didn't want to create too many differences between the different players. I wanted to keep them on one level. Kissinger said (and I'm paraphrasing) "Politics is about leading or guiding the inevitable." And I think in licensed games it's the same thing. Little by little you simple realize the things that you must do. Of course this means that Pippin cannot ram his knife into Frodo's back to get the ring. Lord of the Rings photo It's just not true to the story. That means we really must play with each other and not against each other. Therefore I had no other choice than to look at cooperative mechanisms to reflect the spirit of Tolkien.
SG: Did this create any concern for you -- the reception of a cooperative game?
RK: People say, you can't play with each other -- you have to play against each other; otherwise there's nothing to do. Of course, that's not true. I actually believe that playing with each other and really facing a common opponent in the game makes a much richer playing experience. My challenge was to create an atmosphere in the game that pushed people together and made them naturally want to stay together. The opponent comes from the game system. I built all the nasty things into the game. It's me playing against the players. The players realize after the first few turns that they get hit so quickly with so many bad things that if they want to just go off by themselves they have no hope. The cooperative approach has a lot of advantages because it allows you to bring new players into the game very simply. A less experienced player/hobbit can come on the journey and learn from the fellow players along the way. It was very clear as well that I needed a point score system almost like a computer game, so that people could record their progress and try to do better each time. You want to win, but winning is not the important thing. It's getting better each time, trying out new things. Obviously we (playtesters) became very experienced because we played it a lot of times. We sometimes sat there for 20 minutes and discussed the next turn, but that's part of the game -- part of the excitement. What I particularly like about the game is that the more experience you have the more you can foresee the horrors of the game. If you play for the first time you're very innocent and it goes very well until you're about halfway through the game. Suddenly it hits you as you run out of resources and are easily captured by Sauron.
SG: How drastically did you have to alter your preconceptions of game design in order to pull it off?
RK: It took a lot of new thinking and giving up old conventions. The game was then published one year before the first movie came out. It was very successful! It was published in October and sold about 100,000 copies by Christmas. It's also a relatively high-priced game for those kind of numbers, so we had a little celebration just before Christmas. The base game is now published in 15 different languages. Kosmos very strongly signaled to me that they wanted to do a bit more on this. Of course, Kosmos has Settlers and knows how to expand a game. My reaction was that I was very happy to do something, but I didn't want to commit at that time. I wanted to see if I could get enough substance. What I did not want to was to add some inconsequential expansion that didn't add to the experience. I came up with 2 1/2 concepts over the Christmas break, one that became Friends and Foes and another that became the Sauron expansion, which introduced another player. The publisher agreed to both of these.
SG: What do gamers get in these two expansions?
Lord of the Rings: Friends & Foes coverRK: In the first expansion, Friends and Foes, people expected to get two more adventures -- two more boards -- and then play the same. What I wanted to do was surprise them by giving them more because the whole dimension of this extra deck of foes comes into the game quite organically. You have to address these extra foes and if you neglect them they will finally overrun you and you will lose the game. But if you concentrate too much on these foes then they succeed in distracting you from your final mission which is getting to Mt. Doom and destroying the ring. You have to address them but you also have to stay true to your mission of moving forward. This makes the original game richer and gives you more choices.
SG: And the Sauron expansion?
Lord of the Rings: Sauron coverRK: In Sauron I transferred the evil in the game to another player. There are two aspects here. There's one more player in the game who takes the role of Sauron. He does not take normal turns -- he gets activated when bad things happen. For example, you don't roll the bad die anymore, the Sauron player is activated and he plays cards. He can now take a strategic approach against the players. This changes the game's atmosphere a lot. It makes it even more terrorizing. Before, all the players could communicate and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. Now you cannot communicate so much because there is a player there listening. You become claustrophobic and don't know if you can or should talk about your weaknesses. It's really what the book is. The evil is everywhere and you don't know what you can communicate and you don't know where it is and you have to be careful. I think with both expansions, which can be combined in different ways, we now have a very rich universe. The games really have actually made me even more impressed by Tolkien's work.
SG: Are you planning any more expansions for the base game?
RK: As I said, I had 2 1/2 concepts. In recent months I've worked out another strong concept. We're pondering whether we should add it or not. From a commercial point of view I think it would be successful, and I think it adds more richness to the game. What we decided to do is to wait and see how the players react to the 2nd expansion. If there is a general feeling that people want to see one more, then we'll do it. If people seem to be happy with what's there and there's no particular urgency, then I'll focus my attention to other things. There's no point in pressing things onto the market. We have the license. I can do it. I have a good concept. I'm quite keen on doing it, but I'm doing it for the people. If they want it, that's great.
SG: Aside from the big game, you also have some smaller Lord of the Rings games.
Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation coverRK: Yes. I had the opportunity to do a game in Kosmos' 2-player series. We discussed that and I think I did a very nice challenging game. This time it plays over the whole adventure so you have middle earth as a metaphor in front of you. This time you're playing good vs. evil, so it's really a very different approach. Frodo tries to get through and Sauron tries to capture Frodo. Der Herr der Ringe: Die Gefährten: Das Kartenspiel cover I was also lucky to produce card game with Ravensburger for the individual movies.
SG: You received Spiel des Jahres recognition for Lord of the Rings. This is an award that has historically eluded you.
RK: Every award is a recognition, which is nice to win. But for your inner happiness you have to be aware of why you are doing things. I think I'm putting games in the center of my life because they are in the center of my heart, and they will keep me going for as long as I enjoy them. I feel I can make a real contribution and give something to many people. This I find very satisfying and it makes me very happy. Awards are nice, but you cannot make your happiness dependent upon awards: you win some and you lose some -- you get good reactions and not-so-good reactions. The ultimate motivation must come from inside. Every award is a group dynamic process and people apply different criteria. I'm not trying to read too much into it, people have different expectations, and if you look at it from different perspectives you come to different conclusions and you arrive at different results. The award is nothing absolute; it is created by people and there is always something personal in there. The essential statement is: Awards are important. They increase the awareness of games and help carrying our message to the people. They contribute to the growth of the one thing that is close to all our hearts -- games.
SG: What was the nature of this most recent Spiel des Jahres award?
RK: That was a special game of the year award for literature in games. That was a very nice recognition and they put one of the card games on the list. It wasn't always the case that you could place a licensed game with a licensed character into these awards -- they sort of shied away from nominating licensed, "presold" game. There are many aspects to that. Those that hand out awards like to share credit for making a game successful. With licenses you have to argue whether it was the license, the prize, the game, etc. But I think things change because in earlier times very often companies felt that since they were paying so much for a license that they couldn't really afford to have a good game design as well. So they just had a very simple, cheap, in-house game design. That means people who bought the game got very standard play. That's fine for children's games because children still love the pictures and the characters. But in the family level people got disappointed because they didn't really get a good game -- just a license. That is now changing and that's why I put a major focus into designing licensed games. This way, people can actually get really good game play in a world they love which is very popular.
SG: With all you're doing for the game community, I've often wondered if you ever get an opportunity to play games. Does Reiner Knizia have a game night?
RK: That's one of the strange effects that I regret and that I'll obviously have to change. But I have been saying this for a number of years now. I'm currently playing between three and five times a week, but these playings are focused on my own new developments. Unfortunately, with all this time going into these things, I very, very rarely play other designs. And this is a pity because I really enjoy playing games. The key thing here is that my new developments are always my favorite games, so if it comes down to a choice of playing this or that, I will always choose my new development. If I look around here, I have about 20 projects running concurrently. All these monkeys want to be fed. If I want to play a game that is not mine I have to leave one of these children behind.
SG: What is your personal game collection like?
RK: I am not a game collector, but even so, saying this, I have a large number of games. The whole house is filled with games -- the bedroom, the kitchen -- there are games everywhere. But I try not to hoard them. For instance, I own so many books which I have not read and so many games which I have never played, and there are several of my older games which I would love to have the chance to play and I'm not sure if I will ever have the time for it. But that's okay because I think life is great if you have too many choices.
SG: Absolutely. Now, you're a veritable hero among many individuals in the game industry... designers, would-be designers, and the like. Can you tell us -- who are some of your heroes in the game industry?
RK: That is a good question. I have never really thought about that. I don't think there is anyone in particular in the game industry or anywhere else who I could say was my idol, or that I wanted to be like him/her. It is different. I get inspired by situations where people grow beyond themselves -- I call them determining moments: a sportsman or sportswoman who achieves the extraordinary, a musician who brings great joy through their performance, a person who stands up for their believe against all resistance, somebody who overcomes true adversity. Those moments define us as a human beings. You are either ready or you are not -- and I am moved by those people who are ready and who know when their moment has come.
SG: The late, great Sid Sackson once told me that his all-time favorite game (not of his own design) was Bridge. What would yours be?
RK: My answer is a complicated one.
SG: I'm listening.
RK: People very often ask me "what is your favorite game?" and the answer for me is that there is no such thing as a favorite game. A game for me is nothing absolute. A game lives through the people who play it. Therefore, my favorite game depends upon which group of people I'm with, and what we prefer. For instance, I'd play different games with my parents than with a group of friends. With my parents I play a lot of traditional German card games. I have one friend from school with whom I play nothing but Speed Chess and it's only with him that I play Speed Chess because it works for us, and it's just enjoyable. What's enjoyable for me is the time spent with other people -- different people create different atmospheres. You need the right game for the right occasion.
SG: Okay then, give me a list of games you would take to a deserted island.
RK: Maybe you will expect this answer, maybe not. The answer is I would take a lot of blank cards, cardboard, markers and pens because the joy is always to design new games.
SG: You're simply not going to answer that question, are you?
RK: There is no reason to avoid the question, but that is really how I feel. If my temptation were to play the old games I would play the old games. I am already doing exactly what I want to do now. The island has players there, yes? What's the difference to where I am now? What I really enjoy is designing new games and playing the games and seeing them grow. I think that's my first preference. That's what gets me out of bed every morning. That is the case here and that would be the case there. Why should I be different just because I am somewhere else? I have already found my island....
Thanks again to Reiner Knizia from Stephen Glenn and all of us at Funagain Games!
Again, thank you very much.
Jeffrey D Myers
"Always rely upon a happy mind alone." Geshe Chekhawa.
What a wonderful interview! Reiner's laid back personality really comes through....
I thoroughly enjoyed reading that. It was great!
Loved this. Thank you.
Thank you very much
We love our pups!! Misu, RIP 28 Nov 2010. Tikka, RIP 11 Aug 2011.
That was very interesting ... thanks for putting it up here!
But wouldn't this have been better as a geeklist ?