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Interviews by an Optimist # 21 - Cyril Demaegd
Cyril says this about himself...
“My name is Cyril Demaegd; I was born in 1971. I was introduced to the wonderful world of board games through classics like Monopoly, Clue and Risk. Then, around 1981, I discovered role-playing games (mainly Call of Cthulhu - my all-time favorite - but also D&D, L5R, Star Wars...). As a role-player, I began to buy Citadel Miniatures and also board games produced by Games Workshop (Kings & Things, Warrior Knight, and the fabulous Blood Royale). Then, French publisher Jeux Descartes published great classics like Dune, Civilization and later Settlers of Catan, which haunted many of my nights and introduced me to the world of German games. About seven ago, I started to think about developing my own games. The first thing that came into my mind was to create something around the Discworld universe with a round board. It was the first step of Ys, which is my first publication as an author and an editor.”
Tom: Can you tell us how YS came into being?
Cyril: Ys came into form about three years ago. I left this Discworld theme aside and began to think about a less-chaotic universe, more influenced by Kramer and Knizia's elegant mechanism. At this time I themed the game around the city of Atlantis, and a great flood ended the game. I had these "double impact" zones (you put your brokers in a quarter but also in a specific zone) and a lot of complicated stuff (multi-purpose valued-cards and personal boards for each player, for example). Then I began to simplify everything in order to fit the German standards (and unfortunately, the theme vanished a bit during this process). So I decided that a player should only put two pawns on the board at his turn. The face up / face down idea (along with the value of the brokers,
from 0 to 4) came really easily, as I wanted a game with not too much chaos (everything face down), and not too much calculus (everything face up).
The final touch was brought by the Market. One night (I guess I was playtesting to much at this time!) I dreamed about this row/column system that would affect the value of the gems. The game was ready (if you except dozens of test to make some fine-tuning, of course!). Being French, I located the game in a French mythical city, which is a transposition of Atlantis: Ys (when I took this decision, I wasn't aware that this name was difficult to pronounce in English! Sorry for that!)
Then, I showed the game to some publishers. Some of them were interested, but around the same time I began to think about producing the game by myself, in order to understand (and possibly master!) every step of the production process of a game. My brother is an artist, and he made the board and the cover of the game for me. That's how I did my first steps in the curious world of game publishing...
Tom: What were some of the most difficult things about publishing your own game?
Cyril: Logistics. I would say the most difficult part was to assemble the different parts. As a small publisher I couldn't produce too many copies at a time. So, in order to lower the cost I had to find many solutions for the components (board, cards, pawns, gems) for a decent price. These parts came from all over Europe, and I had to ensure that they would be available at the factory at the right time (and in good shape), for the assembling process. Also, gems were a nightmare! We had to hand-pack 500 kgs of small ceramic gems! Fortunately, my friends helped me a lot (but I had to promise them to find a better solution next time!)...
Tom: YS was dubbed by many people as the surprise hit of Essen '04. What did you think about the overwhelming praise towards the game?
Cyril: I was really surprised (and pleased) by such praise (especially this year, because there were many new games in Essen '05)! I think it's really hard to predict the success or the failure of a game for an author. The connections between the creator and his creation are too strong to evaluate the real value of a game with total objectivity (maybe that's the job of the editor, but unfortunately I play both roles in this case!). I lived with Ys in part of my mind for maybe 3 years, and I tried to make it a well-balanced game with the kind of stuff I like to find in German games, but from the beginning I knew that I would never feel the sheer pleasure of the first discovery with it. Now, I’ve read a few session reports, and I have begun to understand what it's like to play Ys for the first time! Reviews (even bad reviews) are extremely helpful for me, as a source of objective information. People are not writing reviews because I’m cool (or uncool), but because they like (or dislike) the game. I intend to use these reviews to improve my skills as an author and an editor...
Tom: There have been many comparisons of your game to Aladdin's Dragons by Richard Breese. Did you get any inspiration from that game?
Cyril: First I must say that I greatly respect Richard Breese. This guy did a bunch of great games, including Aladdin's Dragons, which I really like (even if some spells are a bit too powerful). Now, to answer your question, I’m really pleased with this comparison; but, in fact, when I began to work on Ys I wasn't aware of Aladdin's dragons. If I must find an ancestor for Ys, I would rather name Doge from Leo Colovini, as it was the only blind bidding game I owned at this time (and IMHO, I must say this game is a bit underrated). I guess Doge had a strong influence on the 0 valued brokers...
Tom: Are there any other games that have influenced you as a designer?
Cyril: Many of them! I own about 350 games, and I suppose that each one is a source of knowledge for me. My favorite games are Princes of Florence, Tigris & Euphrates, Torres, El Grande, Puerto Rico, Ra, Serenissima and a few recent things including Game of Throne, Industria and St. Petersburg. Nothing original in this list, but these games are (mostly) simple to learn, difficult to master and loaded with tension. You can play them 100 times and each time you'll learn something new. Also, most of them brought some new gameplay ideas. My goal as a designer would be to produce games that fit this model...
Tom: Are you working on any games to be released in the future?
Cyril: Yes, I’m working on several games with my friends. The first one is called Amyitis (working title). It's an economic game located in Babylon, but it's too early to speak about it, because the testing phase has not begun (I probably won't release it before 2006)! Another one is Provins (working title), it's a very promising medieval city building game developed by William Attia. We're also testing a great negotiation game by Adrien Martinot: The Emperor and the Assassin (working title). I can't reveal too much about these games but, being an "objective playtester", I can assure you they've got strong potential! We're working to release something for the next Essen fair...
Tom: Will you continue to produce YS, or will you look to see if a bigger publisher might pick it up?
Cyril: Right now, I’m not 100% sure about that. A reprint (including the 2-player rules available on the website) would be great (right now, the first print is sold-out); but if I receive a good proposition from one big German publisher, I will definitely consider it! My goal as a publisher is to propose new games to the public each year, and it's pretty hard to manage a reprint and a new game at the same time. We'll see about that in a few weeks...
PS: I forgot to mention one thing about my projects for the upcoming year. I will probably release a small expansion for Ys, including pawns and screens for 5/6 players, and 20 new character cards.
Tom: Often, "designer" games are referred to as "German" games. But what about France? What's the state of boardgaming there?
Cyril: Boardgaming in France is still an emerging (but promising) market. There are not many authors and designers whose game are only sold in a few specialized shops. People in France generally play classic board games (Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly,...) and classic card games. But things are beginning to change slowly. Now, we can see more and more games translated from German and from English. Also, new companies and new authors are trying to produce quality games, and veteran designers are in good shape too! I hope in the next few years we will see some mentions about a "French school"...
Tom: Are there any companies in France (aside from yourself) who are producing quality board games?
Cyril: Definitely (even if we're not exactly on the same market)! Tilsit, for example, as a great catalog, with a lot of translations (from Catan to Finstere Flure). Also, their last two releases (Himalaya ans Skaal) are great "German" games by talented French designers. In a different way, Asmodée is producing small board games (like Meine Schaffe, Deine Schaffe, which won the French Game of the Year a few years ago) and also products oriented for the role-players (I think you heard about Dungeon Twister, which is a hit in France). They recently acquired the now deceased historic French publisher Jeux Descartes, which has great French games on its catalog (including Serenissima, one of my favorite games). Finally, I consider Days of Wonder as half of a French company (and we all know the quality of their games)... The problem for those companies (except for DoW and maybe Tilsit) is that they don't really export their games. The French authors generally prefer to keep their rights with the German and the US market and find an agreement with local companies, because the size of the French market doesn't guarantee a good worldwide distribution for their game. But, as I said before, things are starting to change. I think in the next few years, many companies will try to release their games in Germany and in the USA.
Tom: So are there some good games in French that the rest of the world has never seen?
Cyril: With the development of the internet and the existence of BGG it's really difficult to "conceal hidden treasures" for a long time. So, there is almost no unseen good French games... I think that games like Dungeon Twister and Sharur: Evolution will probably be big hits when they are distributed "normally" in the US. There are also a lot of good party games from Cocktail Games (Contrario, Unanimo,..) and rarities like Full Metal Planet, Super Gang and Footmania from the now deceased Ludodélire. The list is probably not endless, and it will shrink a bit when the French market is strong enough to permit a wide distribution of the games outside our frontiers...
Tom: What upcoming board games are you excited about?
Cyril: I’ve seen the previews of Nuremberg and I want almost everything! First, China. I’ve already got K&K, but I really like this new theme, and I really would like to try the new rules.
There's also Louis XIV and Palazzo from Alea. I didn't managed to try Louis XIV in Essen, but rumors were really good (after all, it's an Alea game)! Palazzo looks promising too, as every Knizia Game. Speaking of Knizia there's also der Turmbau zum Babel (The theme looks really great, and its last Hans im Glück release, Amun Re, was really awesome).
Days of Wonder has a few hits to release too: First, Ticket to Ride Europe, which seems to be a gamers version of their previous hit but also Shadows over Camelot. I was lucky enough to test it a few months ago, and I can assure you this game is a great collaborative game! I really would like to see what the guys from Dow did with the game's design. I’m sure it will be gorgeous!
With the new Dorra (Kreta), the new Kramer/Kiesling (Australia), the new Queen Games line (including games from Friedemann Friese and Michael Schacht) and Alexander the Great (from Phalanx), that's a lot of games! With all these playing sessions ahead, I hope I will have enough time to publish something next year
Tom: Do you make much money from producing games, such as YS; or is it a labor of love?
Cyril: Ys was a fairly good success, and I made a little bit of money: just enough to produce a new game. So, I guess it's a labor of love for now! But I hope to develop enough in the following year to become a small full-time publisher. The process of a game publication is really wonderful (well, except for the logistics of course)! You've got to make clever choices (regarding its mechanism, theme, art and material) to make sure you're producing a good game for a reasonable price*. It's pretty difficult, and I don't have the right to publish the wrong game, or the whole structure will collapse. It's just the beginning of the adventure, and for now I’m confident regarding my chances: we've got a few great games to show, and an enthusiastic testing team. But in the end, it’s all in the hands of the public!
* Regarding this price question, I must say that Ys is really expensive in the USA for now (although I’m selling the game the same price in Europe and in the USA). In Germany, you can find Ys for maybe 35 €, but in the USA, it's more like $49! It's mainly due to the € / $ ratio, which is 1.32 right now (ouch)! If you add the shipping cost, the difference is explained. That's a big problem, because it prevents many US customers from buying the game. Unfortunately, all I can do about that is to wait for better times, and maybe find new arrangements for shipping the game.
Tom: If there were anything you could have done differently when designing the game, what would you have done?
Cyril: Nothing for the mechanism of the game. We tested Ys a lot to ensure a good balance, and I’m quite happy with the result. I would have added the 2-player rules (but they were not ready when we released the game, so I had to wait to be sure these rules were well balanced). There's also this forgotten sentence for 3 players (you can play with 3 or 4 neighborhoods). But everything is repaired on the website. For the components, colors of the brokers weren't exactly like I wanted them, and I would have loved to put glass stones in instead of the ceramic gems, but it was way too expensive!
Tom: Have you ever designed home-grown variants for other commercially published games?
Cyril: No, in fact I don't like that. When a game is finished, it is finished. You may add an expansion to expand (more players, more effects) or modify it (like Sailors of Catan or the expansions of El Grande did), but changing the rules of a game is a different thing. Hopefully, the author did many tests to develop the game in a certain direction. Of course, the game could have been driven elsewhere (maybe with equal success), but that's the author’s choice, and he took this choice with the experience of many tests behind him. So, I don't like these "what if" situations. There's certainly many ways to do a good game, but I respect the author's choice. If I don't like the game, I prefer not to play it anymore than to tweak it. If I like the game, I prefer not to think about that in order to preserve some kind of magic. Furthermore, I can hardly imagine modifying perfectly pure mechanisms like E&T or Princes of Florence.
Of course, it's only my opinion, and I don't blame people who like to make some mods with published games (I’m sure there's really good modders). It's certainly better to make the game fit your taste than to leave it aside, but, as I said, I don't have enough time and motivation to do that properly (with a lot of tests).
Tom: You mentioned expansions. What are your opinions of expansions as a whole - do most of them add to the game, or are they simply money-making opportunities for the companies involved?
Cyril: I think it depends. Some expansions, like Sailors of Catan, Elfengold or the expansions of El Grande are really great. When you play them, the game is really different and interesting. They were certainly produced to capitalize on the success of the game, but their quality is not questionable.
Some others expansions are justified by the game: for example, Age of Steam is clearly an open game. It needs some expansions to reveal its full potential. I can also understand the will to expand the number of players (5 or 6 players is not the optimum number to play Catan, but at least, you can do it if you like or if a fifth guy is knocking at the door). On the other hand, when a game grabs some prizes, there are always a lot of sequels, some good but also some bad. Look at Carcassonne, Alhambra, Catan. Is it useful to produce 2 or 3 expansions a year for these games? I think this kind of strategy may be good on the short term; but if the customers are deceived by the sequels, the publisher will loose some credit. Of course, there are always some exceptions: IMHO Carcassonne die Stadt is certainly the best version of the game, and the new Ticket to ride is a great version for gamers. But you certainly can't produce 2 or 3 quality expansions a year on demand...
Tom: Do you enjoy playing board games online? And will we ever see YS online?
Cyril: Sometimes. I played a lot (mainly Medina and Durch die Wüste) on ludagora.net, which is a Play by Mail. I play from time to time on BSW (Princes of Florence, Ra and Puerto Rico...). There are a lot of good games there, and a lot of nice players too. But I’m lucky enough to get many opportunities to play around a table, so I’m not a regular online player.
About Ys, there are some plans to release an online version in the future. The PBM version is almost ready, and I also would like to release a java version, but I don't know when (another time consuming activity)!
Tom: What benefits do you see coming from playing board games?
Cyril: Joy! One of the things I like the best in life is to share some good moments with my friends. Board games offer a perfect setting to communicate, negotiate, laugh and even lie (?!) with your friends. A small box can be the catalyst for a great mix of emotions. Nowadays, with the internet, people are closer than ever (and that's a good thing), but there are many emotions you can't share through the web (even humor can easily be misunderstood). Playing around a table, you can really share many positive things. Playing board games definitely improves your social skills!
Besides that, I think that playing dozens of Puerto Rico or Princes of Florence games certainly helps you to organize a bit of your brain activity (a helpful skill if you're a wannabe publisher with many components from all over Europe to assemble in a tiny box)!
Tom: So you think it's a good thing to play the same game over and over again, rather than play a variety of different games?
Cyril: Not really. I test almost every new game (at least for the big ones), but I’ve got my favorites too! I love to discover new mechanisms, but - you know - there's unfortunately not a new Princes of Florence each year! I’ve got a lot of games in my collection and, of course, it's impossible to treat all of them equally. Some games give me more pleasure, so I play them more often... Sometimes, my friends and I can discuss a very long time in order to choose a game, and that's a good point: I guess this kind of discussion prevents me from becoming monomaniac! When some great new games hit the table (like Saint Petersburg or Goa did last year), it's really hard for me to stop playing them! Luckily, I don't play alone. When you're in a group, you've got to consider all advice. That's the best way to play many different things (but who dislikes Puerto Rico? )
Tom: Actually, some in my gaming group actually DO dislike Puerto Rico. But that's what I like about gaming - the sheer variety of it. I hope that we will continue to see a variety of games from you! Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Cyril. Any last words for our readers?
Cyril: It was a pleasure to answer your questions, Tom. I hope your readers will like the next games Ystari games will release. We're working hard on them! See you all in Essen '05!!!
“Real men play board games.”
Tom "Snicker Daddy" Pancoast
Hey! How did I miss this one? I never saw it.