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Interviews by an Optimist - # 73 - Wolfgang Kramer

Wolfgang Kramer is one of the most well known board game designers of our times. He has designed some of the most popular German games, such as Tikal, El Grande, and the Princes of Florence. He's won several gaming awards with his games, even winning the Spiel des Jahres, the most prestigious award in board gaming, more times than any other designer. He's a prolific designer, having produced scores of games, and has often worked with other authors, most notably Richard Ulrich and Micheal Kiesling. He is the first full-time German game designer and is successfully designing games still today.

Tom Vasel: Many of your games are designed in conjunction with someone else. What is it like to work with another person when designing a game?

Wolfgang Kramer: I have developed games for 30 years. For many years I developed games alone. This is necessary, if game designing is the only income. Working with co-authors has a big disadvantage: you have to share the royalties! But now, for about 10 years I have been able to afford to work with co-authors. The big advantages of working with co-authors are:
- more liveliness when developing games, more discussion, more ideas
- more tests, more versatility, more flexibility, more games
- new ideas, no routine-blinded
I like to work with partners. I appreciate the discussions about a game, the arguments and also the conflicts when we have different opinions. The common seek for the best result, for the best version.

We agreed on a partnership. We try to share all, developing, testing, drawing, doing handicrafts, building prototypes, writing the rules and so on. Whoever can do it best does it.
We have no special agreements. My partners have usually the same rights as I. All my co-authors can develop their own games, if they want.

Tom Vasel: There are few who can compare to you in terms of sheer gaming volume. Your games have a “deep” feel to them, offering a lot of choices. Do you prefer “meatier” games, ones with a lot of depth?

Wolfgang Kramer: Yes, I like games with a lot of depth. I like games in which you can dive in; games in which you can discover something (for example a new world); games in which you can try out different strategies; games which surprise you even though you have played them several times.

But I like also funny, easy games (like Verflixxt, Take 6, Midnight Party, Tanz der Hornochsen …) and I like communication games, which entertain you and your other players.

Tom Vasel: Of all your games, which do you think was your best work?

Wolfgang Kramer: I try always to do my very best, when I develop a new game. But not always is the result as good as I have imagined. I think “EL GRANDE” and “6 nimmt!” (Take 6) belong to my best games.

Tom Vasel: Can you tell us about any upcoming games?

Wolfgang Kramer: A new game with the title “Hacienda” will be published by “Hans im Glück” on the toy fair in Essen (October 2005). It is a strategy game for 2 -5 players with relatively easy rules and many possibilities to try out by playing.

Two other new games will come out on the toy fair in Nürnberg (February 2006). One is an easy family game with luck and tactic. The other is a strategy game with a lot of depth. It has some unusual rules so it needs time to learn and use them very well. Both games I have designed with Michael Kiesling.

Tom Vasel: You've won several awards in your time. What do you think about awards; and when designing, do you try to win them?

Wolfgang Kramer: I am happy, when I win an award, because it is a confirmation and a reputation. The award “Game of the Year” in Germany is very important, because all newspapers report about it and many people buy the game, which have received this award.
When I design a game, I don’t think about an award. I design no games, in order to win awards; I design games, because I like them and because I am happy, if other people like to play my games.

Tom Vasel: Your games really have few problems, once they've been released. How often do you playtest them, and with whom?

Wolfgang Kramer: I need much time for a new game: a third for theme and title, a third for developing and a third for playtesting. I have tested the new game which will be published in autumn more than sixty times.

I have tested more than 30 versions and more than 20 game boards. I document each test in a detailed manner. I test with many and different people, so I can get to know my own game better. First I test a game with my wife, then with my brother and his family, then with friends and other relatives. In the area where I live there are five game clubs, in which I can test a new game.

Tom Vasel: Have there been games that, after playtesting, you've discarded? Have there been games that have taken over a year to design?

Wolfgang Kramer: Yes, unfortunately there have been games which I have to discard after I have played them, and there will be games which nobody wants. I have to try to make that number of such games not so high.

Yes, many of my games have taken more than a year to design, f. e. El Grande, Princes of Florence, Tikal, Torres…. The ordinary developing time for a game from the first idea 'til the time you can buy it in shop can amount to three years. This means, for the work which I do now, I will get money in three years, if an editor is willing to publish the game.

Tom Vasel: Is being a game designer financially profitable? Or is it more of a hobby?

Wolfgang Kramer: Game designing is at first a hobby. There are only very few designers in the world which can earn enough with their hobby in order to live from it. I am lucky that I am one of them.

Tom Vasel: What did you do differently from other game designers to achieve this?

Wolfgang Kramer: My first game was published 1974. In the following years 'til 1988 I developed games as a hobby besides my job as a computer specialist. In the middle of the eighties I had big successes, and I got the feeling that I could make my hobby my main profession. I quit my job and started in 1989 my career as a game designer. In the first years it was very important to develop games for the main stream of the game market. Besides, I developed games for promotions by order of different companies.

Tom Vasel: How does the internet affect your designs? Do you read the feedback about your games online?

Wolfgang Kramer: The internet has no or only an insignificant influence on my work. I read the reviews in German game magazines about my games but seldom online reviews.

Tom Vasel: What do you think about the future of the board gaming hobby?

Wolfgang Kramer: I expect no big changes. We have had in Germany from 1980 to 1995 a big growth in the game market. Since 1996 we have stayed nearly on the same level. I think that in the USA the hobby scene is growing slowly, but this will have no big influence in the game market. We need innovations, new impulses and new kind of games.

Tom Vasel: What advice would you have for prospective board game designers?

Wolfgang Kramer: I have four tips for them:
1. Imagine the game-world which your game should have.
Is this world interesting and exciting for many people? Is the theme new?
If yes, go ahead. If not, chose a better theme.
2. Do you have new and original mechanisms in your game (the more the better)?
If yes, go ahead. If not, stop the developing.
3. Test, test, test your game (the more the better) with many and with different people and watch them when they play your game. Do they want to play once more? If yes, go ahead. If not, improve your game.
4. When you think your game is good, then make it very good.
When you think your game is very good, then try to improve it!

Tom Vasel: You talked about innovative mechanics - what mechanic have you put in a game that's unique, and you're most proud of?

Wolfgang Kramer: I think I have developed many new game mechanisms that you can find in each of my games new mechanisms.
For instance:

Moving systems:
Tikal with the boards and the steps on them; the moving system from camp to camp.
Torres: Free moving through the castles.
Java: Moving from colour to colour; free moving in a colour.
Mexica: Moving from bridge to bridge; free moving in the sea.
And so on.

Scoring systems:
Tikal: Each player has an own scoring turn.
Torres: spaces (of surface area) multiply with the height.
El Grande scoring system.
Wildlife scoring system.
Take 6 scoring system
Verflixxt / That’s Life scoring system
Pueblo scoring system
Maharaja scoring system
The scoring scale around the playing board.
And so on.

Put playing figures in the game:
Tikal: At a camp
El Grande: Around the king
Toores: Beside your own figure.
Java: On each space outer space
And so on.

Sequence of moving
El Grande system
Take 6 system
Maharaja system
And so on.

I am most proud of the new systems in El Grande, in Take 6 and in Verflixxt / That’s Life.

Tom Vasel: You are one of the most respected game designers there is. What games and/or game designers have had the most influence on you?

Wolfgang Kramer: When I start to develop games Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph have been my shining examples. Later, in the nineties I liked most of the games of Klaus Teuber and Reiner Knizia. Now, each good, exceptional game can have an influence on my work.

Tom Vasel: Once you give a game to a company, do they ever develop the game past your original design? Are you always happy with such development?

Wolfgang Kramer: No, such a case never happened. But it happens often, that a company is not yet satisfied with the game (too many tiles, to much time spent for playing, too complex or too complicated and so on. In this case I try to improve the game. I am also open, when the company has its own idea. In this case I check the idea. If I find the idea good, I integrate it in the game. Sometimes the company changes the theme. There are two cases in which I was angry about the change, because the new themes didn’t fit. The titles of these two games are: “Evergreen” and “Hände weg”. There are some other cases, in which I was not happy about the new theme and the artwork.

Tom Vasel: Do you have games that no company would accept - games you thought were pretty good?

Wolfgang Kramer: Yes, I have such games, not much but some. One of them is too complex, another one is too complicated and probably the others are not as good as I thought.

Tom Vasel: What do you think about playing board games online?

Wolfgang Kramer: Playing board games online is a very good alternative if you have no partners for playing. I haven’t played boards games online until now, because I like to see my partners, to see their emotions and to look in their eyes, when I have done a very good move.

Tom Vasel: What are your favourite games by other designers?

Wolfgang Kramer: I play each year all the new, important games; altogether round about 90 new games, and I buy each year about 60 new games. I play them not very often, most of them only once or twice. I like many games of other designers very much, and there are many games which are so well done that I would wish I had developed them! I like all good games, but I have no favourite game.

Tom Vasel: What do you see in the future of board games?

Wolfgang Kramer: Playing is older than reading or writing. Playing is as old as mankind. Therefore, I am sure people will also play in future, but which kind of games? I think and hope people will also play such games we like. Board games have their own charm; they have qualities which Computer games never will have. For instance: I will look in the eyes of my partner when I make a good move, and he will see how I suffer when he wins. Board games have much more to do with emotions than computer games. Board games are very old, much more than 5,000 years. Things which could survive thousands of years will also survive the next hundred years. No, I am not worried about the future!

Nevertheless we may not shut our eyes. We have lost the youth (9 - 19 years) to the computer games. Therefore we have to make all efforts in order to win some of them back. Competition is better than no competition. Competition is the oldest game! I do not know the US game market, but I think the US market has big potential. The German game market had a boom in the eighties. The reasons were at first the "game of the year". Then we had many game parties, fairs, performances in many cities. The media writes and reports much more about games than in earlier times. We have many game clubs in Germany, where people come together in order to play board games. In the beginning of the nineties we had the reunion - which meant an additional new, small market. From the middle of the nineties 'til now we have had stagnation, sometimes an easy decline, sometimes a small growth. I think this will continue in the next few years.

Tom Vasel: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Wolfgang Kramer: Thank you for this interview. Board games are a bridge which brings people together. Playing games is jogging for our mind; it is freedom, event, adventure, discovery, fun and challenge. Board games are like real life, but they have nothing to do with real life, because all that does happen happens only in the game. Reality is serious; playing is the opposite of it; it is pleasure. I greet all board gamers in the whole world and wish them great fun with board games.

Tom Vasel
October 13, 2005
"Real men play board games"
www.tomvasel.com

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(ron lee)
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Re: Interviews by an Optimist # 73 - Wolfgang Kramer (El Gra
Great interview Tom! I've always thought that Kramer games have a special something to them--many make my 'vibrating tubs of jello' geeklist, because they're so packed with so much activity. I like the way Kramer's closing remarks are a greeting to other gamers--a sort of understanding that the social interaction is what makes board games special:

"Board games are a bridge which brings people together. Playing games is jogging for our mind; it is freedom, event, adventure, discovery, fun and challenge...I greet all board gamers in the whole world and wish them great fun with board games."
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