Congratulations on winning the Norwegian game of the year (Årets spill) in the family category last year, Alan! "Ticket to ride: Europe" won a close call in front of "Elasund" and "Gipf". To you this seems to have become a weekly affair, but hopefully it will also have some meaning for you, the game and Days of Wonder in this market. The award was established as a partnership between the business and BrettSpillGuiden.no in 2005, and last year the media interest was good– even national commercial TV! To most Norwegians, your name would not ring a bell, but you are one of the few both well respected and successful current board game designers. How come you chose to start designing board games?
I didn’t really choose to be a game designer at first. When I was in college, I joined a game club and shortly after starting running the club. I played mostly Avalon Hill wargames. Then I started writing articles for the AH magazine The General. After a few of my articles were published, I started thinking about working for AH and started bugging Don Greenwood who was the editor of The General about hiring me as his assistant. Amazingly it worked and I was hired to be the assistant editor of The General, with the hope that I would become the editor after some experience.
When I got to AH, I found that there were hundreds of prototypes lying around everywhere. I asked Don about them and he said no one had the time to look at them. I asked if I could and he said yes. I spent the next couple of weeks reading the rules to all of them. At that point I wasn’t sure what to do next so I asked Don. He said to do whatever I wanted. I couldn’t believe it. So much power.
I sent most of the prototypes back and played the rest. Several of the best ones I played were published over the next few years. On some of these, I became the developer in charge of the production. As soon as I started working on games, I knew I didn’t really want to be the editor of The General. Working on games was fun. Editing a magazine was not. From that point, it was only a short road to designing my own games. And in 1981, AH published my first game "Black Spy", later republished in Europe as "Gespenster" by Hexagames.
Getting hired for AH must have been a thrill for anybody interested in board games in the late 70’s, early 80’s. They were THE brand of the era, with lots of intriguing and legendary titles that really made an impact in a newbie’s allowance. Not difficult to understand you got inspired. To what I understand you went from AH to Parker and then set up a publishing company to release your games on you own. Interestingly, you have later discouraged others to follow that strategy, could you explain?
What I really said was that people shouldn’t spend their own money to produce their own games. If they wanted to publish their own games, they should get investors who would then carry the financial risk. That was back in the 1990s. But things have actually changed a lot in the last 5-10 years. Now, the Internet, computer graphic programs, and higher-tech production facilities allow small publishers to both produce a quality product and to easily market that product to their intended audience. Companies like Bewitched, 2F Spiele, EggertSpiele, Fragor, and Sunriver are just a few examples of small companies that have been successful in the last 10 years. Game sites like BoardgameGeek and BoardgameNews and many others generate interest in games and allow small publishers to get the word out about their new games. The overall awareness of games has been steadily growing for the last 10 years and will continue to do so and even accelerate in the years to come.
That was quite different outlook, and that was the reason I asked, to me it looks like the interest in board games is steadily increasing. Especially with a new platform, like the internet, to communicate, find information and like minded people throughout the world. What are your views on the “new” markets that seem to be opening up to board games? Italy, Czech Republic and Japan seem to be interesting for both gamers and publishers. New designers with fresh and stimulating designs and possibly a growing market must be brightening the future while the German market is stalling?
Let me answer the last part first. While the German market does seem to be stalling, I think this is just temporary. All things in life seem to go in cycles. The German game market was on the rise for many years and hit a peak a few years ago. It’s a little disappointing, but I don’t find it too surprising that it is now on a downswing. I fully expect it to reach bottom soon and then start to rebound. And since the market is so strong, even the bottom won’t be that bad.
I don’t know anything about the Czech market. The Italian market has never been a big market for games. When I worked at Ravensburger, sales of individual Ravensuburger games in Italy were only in the hundreds. I’ve heard that is slowly changing now though. It will be interesting to see how fast it grows and how much it grows over the next few years. I’m sure all the new Italian game companies like DaVinci are making Italians more aware of board games than they have been in the past.
I’m much more in touch with the sudden opportunities in Japan. In the last year, I’ve been contacted by three companies who are creating games for cell phones, I’ve sold a game called "Happy Dog" too to the Japanese company Chronos, "Ticket to Ride" has come out in Japanese from Bandai, and I’ve had inquiries from several other Japanese companies about my games. There are 180 million in Japan (compared to 80 million in Germany), so the potential market is huge. I expect to see more and more opportunities opening up for game designers and game companies in the next few years.
I agree about Germany. Markets go up and down, and Germany has had a nice and steady growth for a long time. The interesting thing though is that they have also been able to set their mark on lots of “new” markets, and that may very well secure an income even through a downward spiral in their home market. Anyway, the Japanese and other Asian markets may become a totally fresh market for board games. I am currently also doing an interview with a Japanese company and they seem very positive. But what do you think of the market in the States? You are not the typical Hasbro designer, so is the market penetration for euro-style games widening?
The game market in the United States is definitely expanding slowly. I think the rate of that expansion will increase each year, until eventually we will have a minor explosion of interest. There are many reasons for this, but the number one reason has to be the Internet and the ease with which people can find information about games, as well as find places to buy them.
At the moment, I’m in Ashland, Oregon working at Funagain (funagain.com) for the Christmas season. I’m picking the majority of the orders going out the door (300-700 orders a day), and it’s been an amazing few weeks. Games like "Carcassonne" and "Settlers" and "Blokus" and "Ticket to Ride", to name but a few, are still selling and seem to have become staples. It’s been hard work, but it’s been fun too. It makes me smile to think so many people will be getting games as Christmas presents this year.
But to return to a part of my former question; what about new aspiring designers from these new markets? It looks like the Italians are coming strong, and at last year’s Essen the Czechs got lots of attention. Personally, I’m really looking forward to see the Japanese may contribute something completely different in mechanics.
There certainly do seem to be more Italian designers these days. Then again, it seems like every gamer is also designing his own games now. But I guess this is just one more sign of how many more people are becoming aware of games, and that’s all good.
What is your position on the discussion of American vs European style game design? Disregarding the war games, which are basically American, the discussion seems to focus on the relationship between mechanics and theme. How do you go about develop a new idea? Does it start with a new and interesting mechanic or do you find an interesting theme?
I think American games have caught up a lot in the last 10-15 years, in terms of both theme and mechanics. One of the big differences I see in gaming philosophy is that in general Europeans like to have as much open information as possible, while Americans tend to want to keep everything secret. I’m always telling my friends that they are hiding things they can’t hide.
I don’t have one set way of starting a game. Sometimes, a new idea comes from a theme, sometimes from a mechanic, and sometimes from interesting parts or "bits." I also get ideas from other games. Often, after playing games, I’m thinking about one of the games I played for the first time, wondering if I can use something from the game to make a better game. Even games I don’t enjoy sometimes have wonderful little ideas in them. There is one ingredient that every game needs though, and that is the part of the design process I can’t really explain. It’s what I’ve always known as the "aha experience." All of a sudden, you’ve got the idea. Sometimes you can figure out the inspiration for your idea. But even then, how you got from A to B is a mystery. I think it’s better that way. It’s sort of like magic. If you know how the trick works, it’s not nearly as much fun.
In many ways, I think this is a mutual experience for all creative processes. And due to my work in the music industry, I recognize the same from songwriters; although some proceed as regular work sessions, they usually vary when it comes to if it all starts with a lyrical or musical inspiration. Anyway, would you shed some light on what games you might have gotten some inspiration from? What recent games have you played and found interesting, mechanics wise?
Well, early on I was inspired by "Hearts", "Oh Hell", and "Acquire" to name the three I remember the best. My first game "Black Spy" from Avalon Hill (later republished as "Gespenster" by Hexagames in Germany, is a variant of the traditional card game "Hearts". My first game published in Europe was "Wer hat Mehr?" by Piatnik (later republished as "Where’s Bob’s Hat?" by Rio Grande). "Wer hat mehr?" is a variant of "Oh Hell". My game "Airlines" from Abacus (which later became "Union Pacific" from Amigo) started out as a stock game quite similar to "Acquire", but it evolved into a quite different game in development and playtesting.
I really enjoy clever card and dice mechanics, as well as mechanics using tiles. For me, "Carcassonne" is the ultimate tile game. It’s so elegantly simple. Each turn, you just draw one tile and play it. It’s perfect. I always marvel at ideas like this, and mentally shake my head that I didn’t think of it. But I guess it’s true that someone does something well, it always looks easy.
Recent games I’ve been most impressed with are "Twilight Struggle", "Descent: Journeys in the Dark", "Thurn&Taxis", and "Magic: the Gathering 9th Edition". "Twilight Struggle" takes the card-driven wargame system that debuted in "We the People" many years ago and adds some great twists. It’s my favorite boardgame at the moment. "Descent" is the best dungeon crawl game ever designed and is full of excitement. The mechanics used for the Dungeon Master are absolutely brilliant. "Thurn&Taxis" is a very clever connection and card set game, and has everything I enjoy most in games. I’m amazed how the designers and developers at Wizards Of The Coast manage to keep coming up with new ideas for MTG cards. The 9th Edition is even more impressive though. It’s more of a renovation, like an old friend restored to perfect health. It takes the basic set of MTG cards that most players are familiar with and completely balances it. I recently posted a GeekList of My Favorite Games of 2006 on BoardgameGeek (boardgamegeek.com) about these four and more.
So you played card games when you were young. "Hearts" is a good trick taking game, but "Oh Hell" never made it to these shores. I bought a copy a couple of years back, but was not that intrigued – it is very similar to another regular card game we used to play as children. Getting inspiration from "Acquire" I totally understand – that is one of the best stock/financial games ever made! "Carcassonne" is a really good game, but have you tried "Gheos" (Z-man)?
I have played "Gheos". It didn’t work for me though. I love the simple elegance of "Carcassonne", and particularly "Hunters & Gatherers" which is even simpler without the farmer rules. I can understand how gamers like the extra "meat" in "Gheos", but for me it’s sort of like add a racing wing to the back of my basic Honda Accord.
It’s one of my gaming group’s favourite for 2006 – mentioned by one of the gamers as “Carcassonne with teeth” 🙂 Apart from that, I see you still have a hang towards “meaty” games (as any good ol’ AH fan), thanks for the tips.
Going through your catalogue, you seem to be fascinated by transportation; "Airlines", "Canal Grande", "Elfenland", "Elfenroads", "Freight train", "Pony Express", "Santa Fe", "Santa Fe Rails", "Slow freight", "Ticket to ride" and "Union Pacific". Is this coincidental or are you looking for new ideas to fit these themes?
That’s a tough question to answer. For many years, it seemed like lots of my prototypes started out as railroad games. But many of them changed into something else, some into other types of transportation, during development and testing. I do love trains. One of my dreams, which may never be realized, is to have a huge model railroad. I also enjoy riding on trains and hope to do more of this in the future. In the late 90s, I started getting away from transportation and into lots of other themes, as seen in games like "Capitol", "San Marco", "Das Amulett", "New England", the "10 days" series, etc. Of course, these days "Ticket to ride" is a huge part of my work as a game designer, so it’s hard to get away from them. But I am not working on any totally new prototypes with transportation themes at the moment. My current fascination is castles and kings and knights and other medieval things.
Will there be any new additions to the "Ticket to ride" series? A lot of Scandinavians are awaiting 🙂 And some has already made an attempt.
I certainly hope there will continue to be additions to the "Ticket to ride" Series. There is one map that has been done for several years. It was actually the third map I finished, before Switzerland. I have two other maps, one expansion, and one other T2R product in various stages of development/testing at the moment. In fact, one of these could be a Scandinavia map. But Days of Wonder doesn’t want me to talk about things in the works, and they have not made plans to publish any of these products at the moment.
I totally understand Alan, about mentioning new projects. Nice to hear that I wasn’t too far off on your transportation interest. And I was not trying to limit you to them, it has just kind of been a trait of yours. One of the games that still seem to fascinate new gamers in Norway is "Elfenland", which usually gives a tight fight and has a very playful feel to it. How did you come up with an idea like that? To what I have seen, you haven’t released many other games with that kind of feel.
Well, speaking of transportation themes, the original theme for "Elfenroads" which was the original version of "Elefenland", was travelling around the world using different types of transportation. But I just couldn’t get it to work right. Then I started thinking about it in terms of a fantasyland setting, and all of a sudden it was easier because I could invent types of transportation to fit the movement mechanics. The game quickly developed from there into the final version.
I’m actually testing "Elfenland 2008" right now. Amigo wants to publish a tenth anniversary edition. The version I’m testing has a totally new map and some new rules including the "Elfenwizard". My prototype has some fantasy figures too, but I don’t know whether Amigo will include them or not. The bottom of the prototype map is the same as the top of the existing map. I’m not going to test it, but if it were produced this way, people could combine the two maps for a megagame.
Wow! That’s brilliant news! I guess an anniversary edition with a new map for "Elfenland" would be a really nice treat to all the fans, me included. It was a nice twist to exchange the world for a fantasyland. And the means of transportation is absolutely original and brings that playful flare to the game. But, to get back to something else you said earlier; a fascination with medieval kings and castles. Can you reveal anything here? I’m lacking a good siege game…
I’ve actually been working on several games with a Medieval theme. One is a game where players control different characters like the King, Queen, General, etc. This type of game has been done quite a few times before though, so unless mine turns out to be really good, I won’t show it to anyone. Another game is about building castles. Again, this has been done before, but I think my game is quite different from the others.
A game with characters? May this be negotiations or do you have something completely different in mind? Enough prying 😉 Going through your catalogue you seemed to be good at finding partners in designing games. How come you choose this way of designing? Isn’t it difficult to find common ground in this work?
It’s hard to talk about prototypes. Some of them change so much during development. Of course, some of them don’t change that much. But all of the new games I’m working on now are early in the development phase, so the final products, if there are final products, will almost certainly be quite different from the current versions. I don’t really like negotiation games so none of the games I’m working on have that type of play. The characters have specific advantages and abilities that helps the players who control them.
I enjoy working with other designers. I’ve tried to work with as many as 20 people over the years. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t though. For a few years starting in the late 90s, I worked almost exclusively with other designers. I really enjoyed this a lot and I got a lot of benefit out of the experience. I learned a lot of new ways to do things, especially involving the actual making of prototypes, and broadened my way of working in general. In the last few years, I’ve worked mostly on my own again. The one big exception is that I am continuing to work with Bruno Faidutti. Bruno and I work entirely by email, except that we usually meet for a few hours over dinner in Essen. Bruno’s style is so different from mine but it’s very fun to work with him. He’s full of energy and is endlessly enthusiastic and positive. I will probably work with Richard Borg again at sometime in the future, but he’s so busy with his "Commands & Colors" games, "Battlelore" in particular, that he doesn’t have the time right now.
One of the big advantages of working with another designer is that you can go back and forth and often talk your way through obstacles. When I’m working on my own, when I get stuck I usually have to just take a break and come back to the problem at a later time. Working with someone else involves a lot of compromise. As someone who is know to be rather anal and fussy, I can probably never get enough experience in compromising.
I see, you used to work a lot with Aaron Weissblum, but I guess that was centred round your business arrangement. One might say that was a fruitful collaboration with titles like "Capitol", "Amulet", "San Marco", "Oasis" and "Mammoth Hunters"! So far I have only tried "Diamant" as an example of your work with Faidutti. As an outsider your collaboration looks strange 🙂 Your designs seemed to be so structured and orderly, while Faidutti (which I really enjoy) always seem to find room for some chaotic twists and turns! Over the last two gaming nights I have been testing "Wongar", which I find intriguing. Richard Borg’s "Memoir" and "C&C" series are amazing; making a good war game playable in 45 min (if you just play one side).
I really enjoy working with Bruno, partly because his design approach and mine are so different. We’ve worked on several games together. Only two of them have been published so far, but I count "Diamant/Incan Gold" as one my of the best games I’ve designed or co-designed. But I’m hoping Bruno and I have even bigger games to come.
I always enjoy working with Richard. It’s hard to compare Richard and Bruno, but they are both incredibly enthusiastic and enjoy designing so much, it almost always guarantees the process will be fun. "Wongar" is perhaps the most underrated game I’ve ever designed or co-designed. The artwork is beautiful, but it’s a terrible theme for a game. The original game was about Samurai in Japan. Richard and I have talked about reworking the game and going back to that theme, and maybe someday we will.
Are there any other designers you would like to co-design with? Or do you have any designers that you admire, or maybe rather get inspiration from?
I consider so many designers my friends, so it would be fun to try and design a game with almost all of them. But the guy who first pops into my mind is Karl-Heinz Schmiel. When I was struggling to have some success as a game designer in the 1990s, Karl was one of my heroes. Every year, he’d have a new game that was completely different from anything else he’d done and many of them had wonderfully innovative mechanics.
I don’t know Klaus Teuber, as I think the only words we’ve ever exchanged are hello, but he is another designer that impresses me. He’s won the Spiel Des Jahres for four totally different kinds of games with "Barbarossa", "Drunter & Drüber", "Adel Verpflichtet" (one of my all-time favorite games), and of course "Settlers of Catan", which has helped expand gaming to so many new people.
Francis Tresham also comes to mind, as he’s designed two of the greatest games ever in "Civilization" and "1829".
In general, I’m inspired by specific ideas or individual games more than designers, although it can often be inspiring to talk with other designers about games and ideas. One man who I am constantly impressed by and look up to is Bernd Brunnhofer, the owner of Hans im Glueck. I remember seeing and talking to him at his stand in Essen in the early 1990s before he had his big success, and he seems exactly the same now as he did then. He’s a great example of a nice guy who has finished first. When I won the SdJ for "Elfenland" in 1998, Bernd gave me a huge hug and congratulated me. He was so genuinely pleased for me. Thinking about that still makes me swell with emotion.
I guess a lot of us owe Klaus Teuber a huge thank you for bringing so many new people into gaming. I have had a brief meeting with Brunnhofer, and he is a really nice guy with so much knowledge of board games. He has also built up, to me, one of the most prestigious brands. Impressive. What I find more interesting is Schmiel. I have not yet played that many of his games, but Attila is a game I really enjoy and Die Macher has become a modern classic. In recent years he seems to have been laying low, though.
A genre of board games that gets less buzz is abstracts, although one may argue that several “normal” board games basically is abstract. Where do you stand in regard to this genre? Kris Burm seem to be one of the few who have both made some commercial success as well as acclaim in recent years. Will there ever be an Alan R. Moon abstract in the stores?
I am not a fan of abtract games, simply because I don’t enjoy them. They always remind of me of Chess, which I played a lot of as a child but don’t enjoy anymore. I need a theme, even if the theme is somewhat pasted on to an abstract mechanic. I understand that there are wonderful abstract games out there and that some people enjoy them very much, but they just aren’t fun for me. So no, I will almost certainly never design an abstract game.
Ok, then Alan. Abstracts are not your cup of tea. Let’s hope for a Moon/Schmiel game at some point instead then 🙂 We truly appreciate the time and effort you have given us, and look forward to seeing a new version of Elfenland next year and maybe bumping into you at Essen!
Since the interview was done, the news got out that there actually will be a "Ticket to Ride: Nordic" launched this October, and here is Alan’s comments on the game:
"Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries" follows in the footsteps of "Ticket to Ride Switzerland". It is only for 2 or 3 players and each player only receives 40 trains instead of 45 in the other games. The Bonus Card is the Globetrotter for Most Completed Tickets.
The game has Tunnels and Ferries that function like the ones on the Europe map with one small addition. Wild Cards can only be used on Tunnel and Ferry routes. The additional rule is that a player may use any three cards as a Wild Card on a Ferry route. For example, to Claim a Ferry route that would normally require 3 Black Cards and 2 Wild Cards, a player could use 3 Black Cards, 1 Wild Card, and any three other cards to act as the second Ferry.
The board has the longest route in any "Ticket to Ride" game, Murmansk-Lieksa, which is a 9. It can be claimed with any color and is worth 27 Points. On this route, and this route only, a player can use any four cards as any other color card. So for example, you could claim this route with 9 red cards, or you could use 8 red cards and any four other cards, or you could use 7 red cards and any eight other cards.
There are 46 Tickets. Twenty-six of the Tickets connect one (or both) of the five major cities on the board: Bergen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Copenhagen. There is a double route that runs Bergen-Oslo-Stockholm-Helsinki (and Stockholm-Copenhagen) and this route is key. With only two players, only one of them will be able to claim each of the parts of this route. With three players, only two of them will be able to claim each part. This makes the game very tense right from the start and makes hoarding cards a tough strategy. In this game, you want to build your network as quickly as possible or you may find yourself taking some very long detours or not being able to reach some of your destinations at all.