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Patrick Rael
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Impressed with Todd’s submissions in Quick Print and Play Design Challenge, I thought I would learn more. Here is the interview that resulted.


Q: You seem to have burst on to the PnP design scene. What is your previous experience with games, and how did you find yourself here?

A: I've been on BGG for over 5 years now. I first found the site and stuck around mainly for the game reviews. I was in a big gaming group at the time and buying a lot, catching up with what had been going on for the last decade. The owners of my two local FLGS are both friends and I got to do a number of special orders through them as well as borrow a lot of demos. My collection of games is a modest one by BGG standards (only 250 or so) but BGG has provided a wealth of info to make informed decisions.

My previous background with games begins about 15 years ago. I was very interested in game theory for a time and out of that grew a collection of books on ancient and traditional games.


Some of my library's books on games, the history of games, and boardgame design

I am interested in how games reflect something of ancient cultures and how our modern games come from these more remote ancestors.

My degree is in architecture and while in school I started doing woodworking for my thesis models. After studying traditional games for some time I began constructing my own versions of these games and over the years have been able to be more creative and sculptural in my designs of them.


Some versions of traditional games I've built: Nyout, Kono, Chase the Girls, 2 versions of Senet

I've built 40 or so different ancient/traditional games over the last decade out of different domestic and exotic woods. I am lucky to have a full woodshop in my house now, so when I get interested in a new game, I can go downstairs and create a version of it.

You are clearly skilled in graphic design. Is this your trade? How do you think your training influences your game designs?

Yes I am a graphic designer as well a book designer and furniture maker. For me graphic design is all about integrating word and image into a user friendly and consistent visual form and this directly maps over into what I do when designing games. Game designing, the graphic end of it, is about using visual cues, colors and iconography to provide players with a road map to playing the game. This is coupled with my interest in a wide variety of artwork and imagery. I am not an illustrator, so my games tend to either be designed around existing images, most often 14-17thC woodcuts and etchings or they use fonts/clip art in interesting ways.

I only started designing my own games in August of 2010.

I mostly sponsored small contests on BGG using odds and ends dice and giving out Geek Gold prizes because I did not feel I could design my own games. Then I tried my hand at re-visioning some games. Mike Doyle has been a huge influence for me in combining graphic design and boardgames. I find his work extremely inspiring and am in awe of his talent. I am sorry he has moved on to other things now with his blog. Following his example, I began doing some small upgrades to some games I owned - Manhattan, Delve as two examples - and feeling a bit more comfortable I re-designed a version of Pocket Civ (my so-called Slim Card set which fans of Scott Slomiany’s work have enthusiastically embraced) and built a custom all wood set for myself, followed by other PnP/OP games: City of Guilds, ESNA, Dune Express, Farlander.

Notre Dame Express was the first time I tried re-working an existing game into the PnP Express format that so many of us are now familiar with. I mostly did this re-design so I could play a solo version of the game without having to set up the actual game and run it through an AI mod that a BGG user had created. From there I had a try at a real game all my own - Aether Captains, the first game in the series I've been working on since - that game then led to everything I've been doing these last 4 months.

A full list of my re-designs and my own games can be found here.


Most of your games are themed around your Aether Captains family of games. Where did the idea for Aether Captains come from?

Aether Captains comes out of my love of fantasy and science fiction and the current sub-movement of steampunk literature. I have an enormous collection of books and am an avid reader. Two authors, Karl Schroeder and Ben Rosenbaum have been major influences on the Aether Captains games. Ben's story -- ''A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes,'' by Benjamin Rosenbaum -- is the true genesis of the idea of the world of Aether Captains.

The idea of using rotating dice for the Zeppelins in Aether Captains comes from BGGer Nick Hayes (Black Canyon) who I am proud to say is one of my best friends on BGG these days. His game Chunky Fighters, which is lauded with good reason, used an idea I had not seen before of stacked dice creating the characters in the game and rotating their sides to show different powers, abilities and damage. I should also mention BGGer Kevin Smith (peakhope) who was instrumental in the first game by writing me a software app so we could run through hundreds of simulated games and balance the attack and defense numbers on the ships.



How do you design games? Do you have a playtesting group nearby?

My games usually start backward from most designers I suppose. I begin with an idea for a game, usually this is an image I run across somewhere in my library or on the web and begin just playing around with it graphically, seeing what sort of ideas it suggests to me. As I work on the graphic elements the game begins to come out of that, the mechanics that is. This was how Capek Golems and Pirates and Traders were both built. Some games like those in Triad or Ragnarok I worked out the basic setup, rules and mechanics in about 30 minutes late at night around 2am. This is why I now keep paper by my bedside.

From there I work up a prototype which is fully graphically designed because it just clicks better in my head. Magic marker on note cards has never been a good methodology for me. I am too visually oriented not to build fully realized versions. This does often lead to revisions though and a lot of shifting of elements as I discover what the game is about. Capek Golems, as an example, probably was about 60 hours of solid design work over a couple of weeks, sourcing images, building my own artwork and creating the look of the game. Contrast that to Ragnarok which was designed very quickly; about 30 minutes to come up with the basic idea and about 3 hours to do all the artwork and graphic design. Aether Captains: Pirates and Traders, as the BGG forum thread can attest to, was built over 8 intense days from start to finish.

I design a lot of solo games because I do not have many playtesters here locally (the BGG community has been a great help to a beginning designer in jumping in and testing games out though and I primarily use my BGG friends here now to test games out). You'll find most of my games are fairly uncomplicated with a small subset of mechanics and only a couple of pages of rules so I can often playtest them fairly easily playing myself in the games. Some family members have been great playtesters as well, because they like boardgames, but do not play them at the same frequency as I do so they'll often spot a flaw or rough point in the game. I am slowly working up to my own holy grail of a 4 player game with a lot of player interaction.


And how did you decide to create a family of games that you could market together?

Well, after the first Aether Captains was designed and so well received I began to see that I had some skill in designing games, using all I've learned studying games for so long and combining it with my interests in graphic design, literature, science fiction and so forth.

I am happy to say my games have an increasing level complexity as I understand better how a game is designed. The recent support of two of my games - Capek Golems and Ragnarok: Aesir and Jotunn, in the Quick PnP contest, caused me to think about producing a small print run and offering it for sale. My day job involves branding, signage and printing and I could bring these skills to bear in making some retail copies. In the last few week I've hit upon a solution of using 150ct plastic card boxes, since most of my recently games involve using decks of cards for the game, playing boards and rules. This has helped me make this idea of a line of games a reality. The games are all 1p/2p types so they do not need a huge number of components or expensive die cutting of tokens. Everything has been self made or off the shelf so far.

The 6 current Aether Captains games, as well as upcoming ones planned (like a sequel to Triad) all use the same symbols, icons and colors and it is my hope that for those who are playing them, this makes learning a new game faster. With now 1.5gig of artwork in my files I've built up a large library of self-made graphic components and source imagery to pull from to make the games consistent in the world of Arkady where the games are set. I've also written extensive notes and briefs for myself so that certain narrative decisions are made for me from the start. I make all of this available as well to the BGG community so if anyone wants to do their own Aether Captains game, they have some help in the design and theme/narrative. PnP is where my journey began so I am committed to continue producing games anyone can print and play for free. I do realize that my games can be intensive for home printers but I hope that is outweighed by the quality of everything and the game experience. Lately I have been working towards one standard set of components, 6d6, 1d12, 25 eurocubes in 2 colors, that all the games will use so PnPers need only gather/build/buy those items once to play any of the games.


You obviously enjoy designing games. Do you have plans to publish and sell your games professionally?

Well I have a book publishing company (I do translations of French surrealist poetry as well as publish my own writing) so I have offset printers, a distribution network, ISBN and other business pieces you need to publish games. Promoting and selling my books is enough of a sideline venture for me at this time. I am happy experimenting with these local small press runs that I put together myself of my games though, and who knows where that might take me.


In passing you’ve mentioned several ongoing, non-game related enterprises: translating French surrealist poetry, an upcoming gallery show, etc. Care to share any of these activities with BGGers?

http://www.aanpress.com/ - is my press, where I market my professionally printed books as well as my own hand-bound artist books and self printed broadsides.

http://www.locusgraphic.com/woodworking/ - is my studio for woodworking and furniture making. Woodworking makes for a nice change of pace from sitting in front of a computer all day.

http://spanglemakermidsummerfires.blogspot.com/ - is my blog where I can explore other interests: cooking, gardening and I run some contests now and then for homemade mead, games I've built and other things I make - jams, infused honeys and such. There is a contest I am running right now through May 1 to win a copy of Aether Captains: Triad in fact.

I do have an upcoming gallery show here in Pittsburgh May 3rd-28th, 2011 at Gallerie Chiz in Shadyside. I welcome local BGGers to come take a look. The opening is May 6th. I am showing my furniture, hand-made artist books, drawings and a couple of my more sculptural games.


What kind of games do you most like to play yourself? Do you go for mechanic or theme?

Well being a graphic designer I often like games with a great visual quality. As long as the theme or mechanics interests me, the rule are well written and the games lasts under an hour or so I am willing to buy it or PnP it and play it. I am also an avid collector of antique games and interesting things I find.


In no certain order but roughly clockwise from the top: 17th century ivory and ebony dominoes with brass spinners in a mahogany box, bison horn and bamboo Chinese dominoes in a hand-made box, modern Italian deck of cards in a matching tin, repro Marsailles tarot deck, self-crafted repro deck of 18th century engineering themed playing cards, a copy of type trumps, 16th century repro German card deck with printer’s items as suits, repro Persian As-Nas deck, repro early French and English card decks, modern illustrated deck, self-made Indian dicing sticks, Indian repro teetotum, new Chinese Tablut style miniature sized games, old Contack boardgame in original box and in the center a repro surrealist card deck, horse/jockey lead figures for a French racing board game and a set of French cards to mix and match people in various amusing ways.


Some of the odd bits in my collection clockwise from the upper left: repro set of 17th century Dutch dominoes, original 1950s edition of Malefiz with original paper dicing cup, Diamino, a French boardless letter tile game, and an early copy of Anagrams)


What do you think of the future of amateur game design and print and play -- particularly here on boardgamegeek?

I have not bought more than 2 or 3 professional games in the last year but I've PnP built probably 30 or so designed by other BGGers and that says a lot I think. We are a varied and talented community who can afford to try out new ideas and take risks that established companies may not be able to do financially. The recent trend to contests has been an extremely positive one. It is a great design crucible for games and I've been honored to find myself in the company of some very strong BGG gamemakers.

PnP holds a special place for me as well. Due to my woodworking and book making I've build up a good skill set for papercraft and such, and PnP games let me use those talents to create memorable personal copies of games.


Thanks Patrick for interviewing me. I appreciate your enthusiasm for my work.


Thank you, Todd, for sharing your skills and talents with this community.
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todd sanders
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i really appreciate you doing this interview Patrick.
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Nate K
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Translating French surrealist poetry sounds really difficult. I've read foreign language poetry before (both German and Russian), and while I can get the gist of if, I wouldn't even attempt translating it.
 
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Dashiell Pinar
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i guess translating anything french sounds difficult loool especially poetry !

nice old games collection todd !
 
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Dashiell Pinar
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I don't know Robert Desnos (but i've just read his wiki page).

Why did you translate Desnos and only him ?
 
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Brett
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Great interview. I have always liked Todd's revised artwork for the games he designs. Fun to see the other work he does.

Thanks Patrick and Todd!
 
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todd sanders
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thanks all. yes translating can be a tricky proposition at best. 'Calixto' by Desnos, there is one 6 page section that took me 6 months to translate actually. i found Desnos' work in college, he is little translated into english so after i ran out of things to read, i started translating on my own to continue my study of his work and my publishing house took off from that
 
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todd sanders
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for those who cannot make it to pittsburgh, i've posted a blog tour of my gallery show which opened today

http://spanglemakermidsummerfires.blogspot.com/2011/05/solo-...
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Patrick Rael
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beautiful! congrats
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Dashiell Pinar
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very nice artwork !
 
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