Interview with Andreas Seyfarth

Brettspillguiden interviews Andreas SeyfarthThanks for taking the time to do this interview Andreas. Last time we met was in Essen a short while ago, and what do you think of this year’s games? Any interesting new titles?

This year’s games? Do we talk about all the 500 and more new games from Essen or should we include the 500 from Nürnberg this year? Just kidding… it has become a very hard job to learn all the new games.
Something you were able to do 10 or 15 years ago – but not today. So you have to rely on the hints from your friends to find something that grabs your attention.

Here are my first 5 personal hints from Essen:

  • Imperial 2030: played once, very good and with high similarity to Imperial (one of my Top 10 games)
  • Die Tore der Welt: played twice, good for players who liked "Die Säulen der Erde" 
  • Funkenschlag Fabrikmanager: Played once, good game from Friedeman Friese, but has nothing to do with Funkenschlag 
  • Die Werft (Shipyard): Played once, way better than recognized by the Fairplay scouts in Essen 
  •  A la carte (new edition): Played twice – to everyone who misses the first edition: this one is better, both in gameplay and components

Hahah! Yes, there seems to be an ever increasing amount of new games every year, but I was looking for exactly what you replied; what new games have caught your attention. Nice to see your taste is varied – I totally missed out on Shipyard and Imperial 2030, but was definitely intrigued by A la carte. But talking in relative terms of new games – Agricola brought you down from your hegemony at the top of the BGG ratings after quite some time.

Have you tried the game? Do you have any opinions you might share on it?

Agricola…. Andreas Seyfarth and Agricola

…I missed this game when it came out and had to wait two more months for my first play…and second…and third…and so on. It is definitely my personal favorite game. This one is so close to my expectations of the ‘perfect game’ – it will be hard to design one that is closer. Even 2-player games are very interesting by doing a rematch and switch the cards after the first play. I bought every expansion for Agricola – that’s for sure – but I still like to play the original setting, so I didn’t mention the "Moorbauern"-expansion on my short Essen-List, as I have not play it yet.

But what is the secret of Agricola and it’s success? Is it the game theme farming? (yes for me, but really not for everyone) Is it the game mechanic? (very good but not as standalone as it might be regarding what you expect for a #1 game) Is it the variation brought in by the cards?
(you nearly can’t deal with them in your first game – but you are convinced either). So it is something like a perfect blend of all these and what is more: This game has no, really no artificial rules.
Everything fits together without causing brain-damage. Everything you do is easily understandable. There are no walls that have to be torn down or jumped over. You sit down and you don’t play farming but you do farming, progress, surviving. And when everything works the game is over. The best cliffhanger I ever played.

Through our earlier conversations you mentioned that it would be extremely hard to make a better game than Agricola, and to your response I understand you enjoy it 🙂 But what do see as the major differences in Puerto Rico and Agricola? And why do you think Puerto Rico held its position on the BGG for so long?

The main differences in Puerto Rico and Agricola….well for me it’s the variation you get in Agricola through the cards you have to deal with – or not if you don’t like. I always want to deal with them and look, what’s happening in the game. In this regard, PR is a little bit more static (ok, there are different ways to expand in PR, but not as many as in Agricola). When you are a good player in PR, you know how to act and react. There is no longer a way for me to win a PR game against a professional. But in Agricola I lose because of the "bad cards" 😉

Puerto Rico on BGG, for seven years on the place #1…these voters are crazy, aren’t they? I don’t know why they like it that much and why a game like San Juan is lost in the vaults, because San Juan is way more playable – shuffle the cards and on we go. In terms of setting up Agricola – it is as bad as PR, I always like to find somebody to do this job…

To me personally, I must admit that PR and Agricola style games are not my favorites as I miss direct "conflict" and/or interaction. They both become too solitairish for me 🙂 But, I understand why people find them stimulating and fascinating. And that brings me to another issue; Airships. That to me was a big surprise, mainly because it involved dice 🙂 and secondly that it was released by Queen. How did this come about? And why do think fewer "gamers" gave it the thumbs up?

It’s good to see there are different tastes in the gaming world, but over the years, I think, the "solitarish" games increased their world-wide fan-base. I believe, in these games we still have a lot of interaction, but it does not follow the way of killing…There is more of doing things a little bit better than your opponents – they are permitted to live as well and see the end of the game – maybe not as successful as the more experienced gamer.

One of my main concepts in designing games is to avoid catastrophes that come over you – by game system or by another player. If you suffer from a catastrophe it should be always one, you made yourself….

Andreas Seyfarth and AirshipsSo let’s talk about Airships and rolling dice. The game system allows you to take the slow and more secure way or a highly risky one. If you don’t succeed, you don’t lose one complete turn, but only 2/3 of it. In this game, the dice are not as sharp as they seem to be on the first look. Now I have learned to understand, that people don’t like the combination of building up an economy on more or less fortune or hazard, as I – and some selected friends – do. And why Queen: All I can say is why not? From my point of view, Airships fits perfectly into their program, and the development process was quite good.

I totally agree. Gamers have really taken on the complexity of games like PR. And, like I said I don’t mean "war", but rather a more direct interaction than what I find in those games. Nevertheless; they are a big success, and I do enjoy and play them 🙂 No disregard of Queen intended – I really respect what they are aiming for, and they definitely have some great games. It is more like the game would end up somewhere else, due to your past "connections" – aka Alea/HiG. I do believe Airship suits Queen very well.
You mention avoiding catastrophes when designing a new game, but from where do you start? Theme or idea based?

Got you! Ahhh… you like those games more than I do…

But let’s leave this point and talk about intention and motivation designing games.

At the very start of game designing it is a theme that grabs me. Maybe postal coaches or airships, or skyscrapers, or something else that is really strange when you think about it for a longer time. The theme itself has to be strong or at least astonishing enough to do a game around it.

The game’s dynamics – to find them is sometimes a very long process – have to support the theme, not always completely – as we need some kind of abstraction – but in some particular way inseparable from the theme.
I give you some short examples:
The skyscrapers of Manhattan had to climb in 3rd dimension – no way to stay on the ground.
Thurn & Taxis is a game about being faster in an area than your opponent (you nearly can’t block them but you get the better victory points) Airships was inspired by the title of a German book about Graf Zeppelin
– "The Story of an unlikely success". Remembering the high amounts of accidents in the development of the airships in history – this is what you get in the game: if you fail, stand up and try again.

Yes, I see your points on the examples. As you seem to be focusing on abstractions of "real" life you must also be interested in mathematics, or?
What kind of angle to take on the themes in order to make sure the games become balanced?

Huh, I never wanted to have math in my games. If there is one, it was unavoidable 😉 For me, math has really no beauty, so I try not to focus on it. Airships may be a little exception, but most players recognize only the tumbling dice….

So, with no math in mind, how to balance games? The answer is: I don’t do it alone. For my designing process I need experienced playtesters.
Always. Trough playtesting we find out what is broken and what is not.
There are always lots of changes in the game dynamics until a game is published. In the beginning there is an idea and in the end it’s teamwork.

brettspillguiden interviews Andreas SeyfarthNo math in the games… hehehe… it looks to me these days game designing is more of a mathematical exercise than anything else. Do you have a given playtesting group or do you use many different persons/groups? Are there any new designs being playtested these days, that you may reveal something about?

Playtesting mostly takes this way:
1st self-testing until the game is worth to be shown to
2nd my wife. She’s a killer. But she recognizes potential hits. Then I present the prototype to
3rd the publisher of my choice (mostly Hans im Glück and Alea). One of their great advantages is – if they like the prototype – they will do everything to let it come true. And this includes endless playtesting and changing the game (but without changing the initial ideas).

For my new ideas: I will need some more time to come up with them. There is no playtesting at this time as I didn’t reach stage 1 yet.

Another side to game designing is collaboration. You have naturally shared credit for some games, but are there designers you would have liked to work with or are you strictly a solo developer? Are there any designers, you personally, find especially interesting?

I do like teamwork, when every part is clearly set. I come up with the initial idea and the prototype, and I’m open to every idea from outside in the process of development and playtesting – as long as the initial idea isn’t ruled out. Going this way, I have no experience with collaborations… but I would never exclude them. Maybe sometime….

In my opinion there are many interesting designers – with whom shall I start? But I want to mention 2 of them, everyone should know: Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph. What they did for the gaming society and game authors none can do again.

Agreed! They propelled the modern board game industry. But mentioning champion designers. Could you name some games that really made an impact in your life, and maybe why?

With a twinkle in my eye: I wanted you to ask me this question 😉

Let’s start with the basics: ludo and chess. In my kind of age – when I was young and wouldn’t have liked to play these two games with my family I’d never would have started gaming with later ones. Call these two "gateway games in the 70s".

Andreas Seyfarth and AcquireThe first games that told me, there is more, have been "Hase und Igel", "Sagaland" and "Acquire" – by the way still one of the best games ever designed. With these I learned, that games are made by real people.

The next step was entering the epic gaming with games like "Talisman", "Civilisation", "1830" and "Die Macher". One game one evening? Ok. We had more time those days…. And what was more: these games told a story, sometimes history – something I really like until today…

I see your development as a gamer took similar paths as a lot of gamers in our age 🙂 And I totally agree on Acquire. That is a modern classic.
Are there games that you wish you had come up with, apart from Agricola :-)?

I’m always blown away with new dynamics that fit the theme of a game. Look at "Vasco da Gama". The worker-placement is not really new, but the way to balance first come, most pay with a little risk-calculation is a very well themed mechanic.

Sometimes I’m a little bid annoyed when a game is published with a theme I’m still thinking about. But I have to agree, it’s my business to come to a point….

…And yes there is one game I wish I had come up with: Dominion. Why: Because of the unlimited world, that grows around the basic game. Hundreds of stories to tell….

Andreas Seyfarth and Vasco da GamaYes, I had my first go at Vasco the other day, in it was a very good theme/dynamic game, although our game dragged on for quite a bit. Mainly due to some chatting along the way. And Dominion is a brilliant, a more family friendly version of Magic the Gathering. Let’s just hope there’s not a new expansion every month…

But over to another subject; do you have any suggestions on why German games have made such an impact on the gaming scene throughout the world over the last couple of decades?

My suggestion is:

First: before the germans went crazy in designing games, there was a really impressive scene in the US and GB – in terms of freaky, never-ending and sometimes political incorrect games. (The correctness is meant for Germany, not for the anglo-american scene).

Second: We had some journalists with the big idea to choose a "game of the year" and a market which was open to this idea. Every year a new cash cow – why not.

Third: germans are willing to take opportunities serious. The market (very small compared to other entertainment industries, but existing), the publishers, the designers and the gamers in total contributed to the success.

Fourth (and coming from the first): The wide range from the freaky US/GB games to the successful family games (as a background of what is possible) allow lots of ways to go in games designing. And these ways have all been gone (as we are serious…;-)

Ok, Leo, thank you so much for you insights and let’s have a go at Agricola when we meet at Spillathon ’10!

Thank you too, Remo and looking forward to a visit to Norway!