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Interviews by an Optimist - # 81 - Mikko Saari

Mikko says this about himself…

I was born in 1980, which makes me younger than most people seem to think. I live in Tampere, Finland - Tampere is, by the way, a twin city of Essen, Germany - with my wife. We've been married for a year now, it's been pretty sweet.

I'm finishing up my studies at the University. I'm getting a master's degree on information studies, which is basically library science. Right now I'm working as an intern at the department. I also work as a freelance journalist. I have a game column in a Finnish home computer magazine (I was recruited because I write a blog on the topic). In addition to that, I translate board games for the flourishing Finnish board game industry.

My gaming biography includes 20 years of video games (mostly computers, starting from Commodore 64, but now I'm mostly a console gamer), roleplaying games, live-action roleplaying (certainly not my thing) and collectible card games. I've also played a ton of board games in my childhood, and then got back at them through Catan in 1998 or 1999.

Right now most people would probably know me from Gameblog, which is a board game blog I've run for about three years now. It's been fun. In Finland, I'm better known as the guy behind Lautapelaaja.net (that's "boardgamer" in Finnish), the foremost Finnish board game site. I've been working on that for almost five years now.

I've been doing this and that for the Finnish Diplomacy Association, which then turned into Finnish Boardgame Society and I'm still active there, bringing up the new Finnish board game culture. At least we're trying, and it certainly looks good!


Tom: What first got you interested in board games?

Mikko: I've always been interested in games, just about any kind of games. As a kid, there was really no question about it: board games were naturally cool. I think computer games were the basic thing to do back then, board games were something special and exciting. Why, I don't know, but I think it has something to do with the excitement of setting the game up and social dimension of playing board games.

So, when I came across the English RPG magazine Arcane, read their glowing 10/10 review of Settlers of Catan (first 10/10 they had given) and saw the game at the local Magic: The Gathering store, I bought it, gave it a go and that's it, I was sold.

Next important step was getting into the Diplomacy hobby, which got me involved with the organised board gaming and was an important portal to other games. Then I got on the Internet board game hobby, found Geek and Spielfrieks and... well, here I am now. It's obvious that board games have always had something special for me.

Tom: You said that Settlers hooked you. Do you still consider it to be a great game, and have board games evolved since then?

Mikko: At some point I almost hated the game. That's pretty harsh, because after all, it's a pretty good game in the end. I played it when the Finnish version (my first game translation!) came out, which was after a break of a year or two from playing the game, and it was fun. It's just that the dice seem loaded against me most times...

So yeah, I still think it's pretty good. It's not great, though, and I wouldn't probably recommend Catan to newcomers to the hobby as I think there are better games - Ticket to Ride is probably the starting-point I'd suggest now, as that's also available in Finnish (and actually won the Finnish game of the year award).

What comes to evolution, well, Catan is ten years old now, but it sure doesn't feel that old to me. I mean, sure, the mechanism has been pumped pretty dry with all the expansions and stuff, but I never played any of that. I still think the basic game is pretty fresh.

Tom: What games do you think have revolutionized board games over the past twenty years?

Mikko: For the past twenty years, I've played the Finnish mass market games and now these new euro games. I see a huge leap in quality, but I don't see a revolution.

I think board games are by nature very evolutionary. It's rare to see something completely new; most of the games have some new mechanic over a foundation of well-known mechanics, or just a new twist on an old mechanic.

I have little experience on older games, but I think there has always been an undercurrent on interesting games beneath the mainstream. Think 1960's and Acquire, 1970's and Cosmic Encounter and so on. The mechanics that characterise the new super board games are quite old. Even Monopoly had auctions, for example. Sure, there are new twists, but genuinely new mechanics (and especially revolutionary neat mechanisms) are rare.

So, if you're looking for revolutions, you have to take another angle than mechanics. I think Settlers of Catan - once again we're back at Catan - is a true milestone, as many more people got exposed to these games because of it. Carcassonne is another one; I can see it here in Finland, that's all the rage now.

For me, personally, Catan was one thing, but Diplomacy might've been even bigger revolution. When I found this world of Internet Diplomacy hobby, now that was something! From that, I found my way to the board game scene (Finnish board game scene was pretty much born from the Diplomacy activity) and that has been the biggest revolution for, when you're not just playing the game with your friends, but sharing the experience with the whole world.

Tom: What's the current state of gaming in Finland?

Mikko: Rising! Last year was good, this year has been great. Last year we had both Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan released in Finnish and competing for the Finnish Game of the year -award. Carcassonne won, and Catan has been surprisingly quiet since. Carcassonne, in the other hand, is selling like bread, I suppose, since we've already seen three expansions in Finnish, as well.

This year the Game of the Year -awards were full of German games: Metro, Alhambra, Ticket to Ride, Niagara, Bohnanza, DaVinci Code, Lost Cities, Australia, Einfach Genial, Around the World in 80 Days, Verflixxt, Dawn Under... Winners were Alhambra (best game for adults) and Ticket to Ride (best game for families).

Last year we set up the Finnish Boardgame Society, which has about 90 members right now. That's small, but our best achievement has definitely been a message board, which has increased the sense of community between Finnish board gamers. The active membership there is small, too, but it's getting wider.

So, I'd say everything is pretty good right now - the mass market stuff is getting some competition from good games. What I'd like to see next (and what the industry wants as well, actually) is board game reviews in magazines. The leading video game magazine in Finland just gave five pages for new board games (one of their editors was in the Game of the year jury and wrote about that), which was great, but regular board game reviews just aren't there yet.

Of course, there's always Inkan aarre, a sequel to the best-selling Finnish board game ever, Afrikan tähti (Star of Africa). You can find Afrikan tähti in every Finnish household, as it's been selling a lot during the last 50 years. The designer Kari Mannerla is pretty much the only Finnish game designer anybody knows. This year, finally, he came up with a sequel - too bad it's 99% identical to the original, it just moved from Africa to South America.

Tom: What games are popular in the mass market?

Mikko: Afrikan tähti is ever popular, as I said... There's 60.000 new kids born every year, who haven't played it yet, so I guess it's always in fashion. Another is Kimble (a Parcheesi variant known also as Trouble or Frustration; the last one is a very fitting name), which is another everlasting, they're always coming up with new themes, whatever is the favourite cartoon.

One Finnish specialty is Alias, which is the most popular game for adults, I think. It's a word-explanation game, kind of like Taboo without the forbidden words, terribly popular. The latest version has a DVD included and the game is hosted by one of Finland's more popular (and colourful) TV personalities.

Then there's Monopoly, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Trivial Pursuit, other trivia games... Those are the big hits, and those are mostly the same games as everywhere else.

We do have one bright spot, however, and that is Tactic. They are a Finnish company, and they publish some pretty good family games. They've even done some Knizia games (Wapi, for example, is a redevelopment of Goldrausch).

In general it seems that the market for children's games has enough good games available already. For family games there is still room for improvement and for adults there's lots of room. With games like Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride, things look optimistic.

Tom: Tell us a bit about your blog and your reviews, and how you fit into the board gaming scene in Finland.

Mikko: I had started my new web site (www.melankolia.net) in May 2000. Back then it mostly had my PBEM Diplomacy games and music reviews. However, when I started to get more into this whole board game thing, I started to think about writing board game reviews online. Back then, there was just one site offering that in Finnish, so I thought that's the way I should do it, writing them in English wouldn't be so special.

So, I started. I don't remember exactly, but Internet Archive has a version of my site from January 2001 when it already had thirteen reviews. So, I've been kind of celebrating my fifth anniversary as a board game reviewer. Right now I have a domain for my reviews, I've written over a hundred of them and my site is also hosting a small, but
useful collection of rules in Finnish.

It's been great, the whole five years. Running the site has certainly made me a household name in Finnish board game scene, I think. After all - it's pretty hard to browse the Internet for Finnish board game content and not hit me. There have been other Finnish board game review sites, but few of them have lived long.

I also started a Finnish version of Spielfrieks, but that didn't quite work. The list never had much of a discussion; and it finally died about a year ago, when the Boardgame Society forum came online, which was immediately more active. I've been active there, as well, setting that up.

I started my blog in August 2002; blogging was a new thing back then, and I wanted to try it out. I thought about a subject and decided that board games would be something I'd have a lot to talk about, so I wouldn't run out of things to say. And hey, here I am, three years later, still writing.

That's been fun, and I really reaped in the benefits in Essen. When I introduced myself to someone, my name didn't ring many bells, but mentioning the blog was much better. So I guess somebody's been reading my blog all these years...

Being the most Internet-visible Finnish board gamer has got me one TV appearance (Sunday morning TV, talking about Diplomacy), three radio appearances and many interviews for magazines and newspapers. Those have all been fun. I've also scored several review copies of games thanks to my activities. Having the blog and the website also got me my job as a board game translator. If I count all that on the positive side, running the web sites has been a very good deal in the end.

My recommendation is, after all I've been through, to start blogging and writing reviews in one's own language, if it's not English. The world is full of English stuff, but unless you speak French or German, there's lots of room. Another important thing is make search-engine friendly sites - Google has been a dear friend of mine all these years, bringing in journalists and new readers.

Tom: What internet sites besides your own would you recommend?

Mikko: BoardGameGeek is definitely the number one. It's grown to a bit of a monster, really, but it's easy to skip the parts you're not interested in. Finding the signal among the noise is still possible. It's one of the few websites I've actually paid to use.

Finnish Boardgame Society forum (http://www.lautapeliseura.fi/foorumi/) has become a regular haunt for me, and I'll be sure to check the new reviews at Kumpulan pelikerho (http://www.kystas.net/lautapelit/) - these are of course of little use, unless you speak Finnish.

There used to be The Games Journal; it's sad to see it go and I definitely recommend checking out the archives, if one is unfamiliar with TGJ.

Then there are the blogs. I think I read most of the popular ones; it's all very easy, thanks to Bloglines (http://www.bloglines.com/) which is the best RSS reader I've used. I'll pick out some of my favourites:

Gone Gaming (http://boredgamegeeks.blogspot.com/) is one of the best, thanks to it's many authors and constant updates. Shannon Appelcline, sodaklady and DWTripp are particularly my favourites.

Brian Bankler's Tao of Gaming (http://gaming.powerblogs.com/) is also a fine blog. Brian has interesting opinions.

Musings, Ramblings, and Things Left Unsaid (http://tajmahalfred.blogspot.com/) is an A-class read, despite the occasional baseball content. I especially enjoy Alfred's Best of the
Blogosphere reports, which attempt to highlight the best articles that have appeared in different blogs. I've found few new blogs that way!

I've got about 50 game-related blogs on my watchlist, so there are plenty of others that are good, but I think these three are quite enough for now. But be sure to check the others, too! With a good reader like Bloglines, following dozens of feeds (I've got 154 right now) is easy.

Tom: How have gaming blogs affected the board game world?

Mikko: I believe the effect has been positive. There's more discussion (well, perhaps not discussion, but monologue, and sometimes even information) about board games in the Internet and it's easy to follow using aggregators. Most of the blogs aren't constantly impressive, but there's enough good stuff to make reading them worthwhile. It's also very easy to filter out the blogs that don't reach a satisfactory quality.

Because blogs are very easy to set up, they make a good tool for game groups. Those blogs tend to be of little interest, usually (though session report blogs can be quite good, if they play interesting games and the reports are well written), but are of great value to the members of the groups.

Of course, at the same time the new information is being distributed wider, it's all less focused and central than before. That's the nature of the Internet, I'd say - Internet is distributed, not centralised, so that's going to happen to board game information as well. Law of nature, so no reason to whine about it!

What we really need is a good aggregator blog, which would compile the best stuff in different blogs on one place. You can't stop the distribution of information sources, but information is very malleable and easy to manipulate to benefit the end users. Alfred's Best of Blogosphere is definitely a step in the right direction.

One thing they could do in the Geek is to take TrackBacks from blogs, or use some other mechanisms that would make it easy for bloggers to note that they've written about a game or so. That way Geek could work as a gateway to the blogs, when one's looking for information on a certain game - because that's what Geek is really good at, being an encyclopedia of sorts. It would be great to see links to blog entries about a game
when I check a game on Geek.

Tom: Do you think that the online board gaming world is too fractured?

Mikko: No, not really. I don't feel like I'm missing anything. It's just all so big now that it's bound to fracture a bit. Imagine Spielfrieks with a few thousand subscribers participating in discussion on obscure topics focused on single games and you'll get the idea why it's a good thing that everything's a bit split up.

I think Geek is a wonderful centerpiece, you can always go there. From there, you'll find lots of discussion (and I think it's really good that every game has its own forums, which you can follow, if you're into that particular game) and pointers to other resources outside the Geek.

So, as long as Geek remains, we'll have no trouble. Without Geek things wouldn't be as good, then it would probably be a bit too chaotic.

Tom: Tell us about your favorite games and designers...

Mikko: I usually like system optimization games, like Puerto Rico, St. Petersburg, San Juan or Industrial Waste. Not too much interaction; I'm not keen on "take that!" or diplomacy, unless that's the main mechanic of the game. That means I'll play Intrige, but won't enjoy that kind of negotiating in serious, strategic games.

In general I prefer my games fast and focused. However, if I'm in the mood for a longer game, I have many favourites to choose from. I really enjoy Age of Steam, so much I've collected many of the expansions - I usually avoid expansions (I don't have a single Carcassonne expansion, for example). I also like the big Splotter games: Roads & Boats,
Antiquity and Indonesia. I even own the last two (and kind of wish I had R&B).

I'm a sucker for clever trick-taking games. After playing several, I think I prefer Cosmic Eidex for three and Sieben Siegel for more. In both, there are no bad hands - there's a hand, and a way to play it so you do well. Another favourite genre of mine is the fast card game filler: High Society, For Sale, Mogul, Geschenkt, Fettnapf and so on.

I don't have any particular favourite designers. Few have enough consistency! Knizia has made a huge number of good games, but that's mostly because he has made so many games overall. Not all his designs are gems, but I must say he's pretty good at creating games I like.

Friedemann Friese has a few quite good hits (Power Grid, Finstere Flure and Fresh Fish). Wolfgang Kramer has many good games, but like Knizia, his hit percentage is fairly low in the end (and even more so than with Knizia). Stefan Dorra is surprisingly good; Michael Schacht is the master of the small and simple... Many designers have some good games, but there are no designers where all of their creations are a must-buy for me; Doumen and Wiersinga of Splotter come closest with their big games.

Even though his games don't quite fit my taste, I'll list Bruno Faidutti as one of my favourite designers, as he's such a nice guy - it was great to actually meet him at Essen - and his Ideal Game Library has been such a great resource throughout the years.

Tom: Tell us more about your trip to Essen? Would you go again? What were the highlights?

Mikko: Essen was pretty neat. I had planned for the trip for a long time; I reserved my room in October or early November last year. That got me a room in hotel An der Gruga, where Rick Thornquist, Knut-Michael Wolf and Reiner Knizia resided as well.

It was my first time and it was something quite special. I've seen people enthusiastic about board games, but not so many at the same place at the same time! The whole atmosphere was almost surreal. It was fun to see all the designers, all the years of looking at pictures of designers paid off.

I had a good time: I bought some games but avoided buying mediocre games just because they were cheap. I played some interesting new games and met many interesting people, designers and board game enthusiasts. It would've been great to actually play games with these people, but with my social skills that simply didn't happen.

Now that I've actually played all the games I bought, I'm quite satisfied: not a bad game in the bunch, and some potential for really good and lasting games.

Would I go again? Why not? Unlike some of my friends, I didn't develop a really bad craving, almost an addiction, to go again, but sure, I'd go. I know what I would do differently next time (put more effort on getting a group of people to travel with is number one).

However, and here starts the heresy, I'm quite satisfied even if I'm not going. I mean, you can get most of the games without going there (especially now as someone from the Finnish Boardgame Society is always going), I'm not that interested in hunting for cheap copies of older games, and the fair isn't really the best place to actually play the games.

Finnish Boardgame Society organises Helcon every year after Essen, and the most interesting Essen releases are there, too - so, instead of paying a lot to go to Essen, I can pay considerably less to go to Helsinki and still get to play all the latest and the greatest Essen games.

So, yeah, sure I'd go if I had that extra money or someone else paid my trip, but considering the price tag, I'm probably not going again any time soon.

Tom: What boardgames did you see this time that impressed you?

At the fair, the biggest hits were Caylus, Havoc and Fettnapf, which are three very different games... Caylus is a big and heavy gamer's game, which we played twice at the hotel and enjoyed it a lot both times. Havoc I tried at the Sunriver stand and later we played it at the hotel, it got a warm welcome.

And of course Fettnapf - we tried it at the Amigo stand with the cool dedicated table (which had marked spots for all the cards), after which we immediately bought it and played it at the hotel - then on later days, I brought two different groups of people at the Amigo stand to try the game.

I've since tried Antike, Indonesia and Phantom Rummy, and of those three Antike has very high hopes. Indonesia is good, but it's also very heavy, so I won't be playing it a lot. However, Antike is very fast (about one hour), so it might be one of the biggest hits this year.

I had made my research, so few games surprised me, really. Most of the games I tried that I hadn't flagged as interesting failed to impress me, like Angkor (not my kind of game), Hazienda (nice, but not impressive) or Raubritter (really bad game).

I was quite impressed by the giant versions of the different games, gargantuan Abalone looked better than the game probably is and I'd sure like to get a Giant Jenga. Too bad those aren't for sale, or the price is way too high...

Tom: Looking back at board games over the past several years, what games do you think have had the biggest impact?

Mikko: For me personally, it's easy to say: Go, Puerto Rico, St. Petersburg. That's the top three that have really made an impact on me. Well, actually, you can remove St. Petersburg, too. Puerto Rico got me hooked on the games St. Petersburg also represents (Industrial Waste would be another example I've enjoyed a lot, and San Juan, too).

On a more general level, BoardGameGeek offers us tools to approach this question. For example, check the list of games that have been GeekListed the most. I'd say that's a pretty good list of games that have made an impact: Puerto Rico, Catan, Carcassonne, Euphrat & Tigris, Ticket to Ride, Citadels, Acquire, El Grande, Power Grid... All pretty good games that have made many gamers happy. Interesting list, that.

What else... Memoir '44 is something I should probably mention here. It has definitely made a big impact. Good theme, strong mechanics, why not? Ticket to Ride seems fairly important as well, it certainly made a big leap on the Finnish board game popularity contest I run every year.

Tom: Tell us more about this board game popularity contest, and the winners from the past years...

Mikko: I wanted to find out the favourite games of the Finnish gamers. I had a popular website, so it was easy to create a poll. I asked everybody to list five to seven of their favourite games that year. Not best games ever, but the best games they've played during the last year or so.

That way I could find out which are the most popular games people play and also, thanks to the minimum of five games listed, lots of other games people like to play.

The first round of voting was two years ago, and I've done it twice since. It's become an annual thing, every September is voting time. The first time I was really surprised to get as many as 125 voters. This year we had already 142 voters, and that without giving random game prizes (like I had on previous years).

For the first two years, the top three were the same: Puerto Rico, Carcassonne, Catan. This year was different: Carcassonne passed Puerto Rico (that I did guess), Ticket to Ride took the third place and Catan dropped to 8th spot. Memoir '44 jumped from 18th place last year to 4th.

I've got the results posted on my web site. The page is in Finnish, but you can understand the game names, years and vote counts: http://www.lautapelaaja.net/aanestystulokset.html.

Next year, Carcassonne is still probably number one, but the fight for the top spot will be between Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne, not Puerto Rico - that's my guess, at least.

I'm also quite interested to see how Caylus will hit the list, since it's being published in Finnish for this Christmas (that's a fast schedule!). It might show up on the list, as the voters are mostly pretty serious gamers (though there's a bunch of voters who voted for
Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Uno, too).

Tom: What's your opinion on the major awards in the gaming industry (Spiel des Jahres, etc.)?

Mikko: I think Spiel des Jahres has been very important for the development of the industry and it continues to reward good family board games. Emphasis on family; it's not a gamer award and shouldn't be judged as one. Even if their choices haven't always been to my liking, I think they've done a pretty good job.

Deutsche Spielepreis is a better award for gamers. However, it has this popularity effect, especially now as everyone can vote on the Internet (it only takes little German skills or Mik Svellov's excellent guide to do so) - the Spiel des Jahres winner and other popular games will do well, no matter what. Still, it has picked some pretty good games recently.

Third award on my checklist is the International Gamers Award. That's probably the best award for gamers. The jury process is kind of interesting (the way the winners are chosen as a kind of a compromise), but I think it is much better than open polling. It's definitely an award to watch.

However, I'm not that sure about the significance of the awards, in the end. I mean SdJ is of course very important, as it means lots of sales for the winner and it has huge recognition amongst German consumers. That's important. DSP has probably some of that. But the IGAs... I mean, who cares, in the end? What does it matter, which game wins the IGA? Most gamers have a pretty good idea of what's good and what's not,
anyway, thanks to resources like Geek.

You can't tell, which game wins the award (my bet: Caylus), but you can figure out the potential winners from the ranking lists. That kind of lessens the potential usability for the award - it's not like you're getting any new ideas of games to get. That's the problem with the awards targeted at gamers; gamers already know the good games. If the award was recognised more widely, then I wouldn't question its significance (and I do hope it gets there).

Tom: Do you think there needs to be a new game award - one that is more accurate than the ones currently on the market?

Mikko: No. Well, I should say yes, as I just today started a discussion about a new award... But I don't think there's really need for general game awards. More specific awards, maybe, but those tend to be fairly pointless, too.

But something, yes. We have our equivalent of Spiel des Jahres in Finland, but we're lacking DSP. So, Finnish Boardgame Society is kicking up an award for the best gamer's game published in Finland. That's a useful award, I think, and I believe we'll have some potential to actually create an award that matters, to someone.

But more general awards? No, I'd rather see IGA get better-known. That's accurate enough for me. Better to have fewer, but more important awards than a bunch of different awards only few people care about.

Tom: In what way can the IGA become better known? Or, how can an industry award attract people who aren't involved with board games?

Mikko: Think Spiel des Jahres: many people recognise the logo and when they see it on the side of the box, it says "this game is good." That's where IGA should be. Of course it's hard to get that recognition (I believe SdJ logo is pretty well known among German public, at least by those who buy board games at least occasionally), but at least most gamers should recognise the logo and know that it means quality.

Attracting people who aren't involved is, of course, hard, especially for a hobby award which lacks mass media presence. I suppose a lot depends on the retailers, as well - they should probably promote the award as well, use it to recommend games to their customers. That would reach lots of people.

Of course, that too reaches only people who actually buy board games, but that's quite enough - if someone isn't interested in board games, chances are it'll remain that way even if they know about the award. Some people might be converted, but I don't think that's the most efficient approach.

Tom: Mikko, thanks for all your answers! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Mikko: Thanks to you too, it's been a pleasure.

For readers... well, keep on reading! Reading is good. Read the blogs, the Geek, Boardgame News, read them all! And yeah, play a game or two while you're at it, too!

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"
www.tomvasel.com

 
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