Bruno Cathala - Board-at-Home Designer Interview Series #2
This week, we’re chatting with Bruno Cathala, the renowned French board game designer of Kingdomino (Winner of Spiel Des Jahres 2017), Five Tribes, Seven Wonders Duel, Raptor, Mission Red Planet, and more than 100 other games. Bruno is based in Haute-Savoie in the French Alps and loves collecting mushrooms, fly-fishing, and being close to nature. Find out more about Bruno's journey to being a full-time board game designer, and how board games helped to bring about a reconciliation with his son.
If you need more... also see below for full details of our interview!
Interview with Bruno Cathala
Have you been playing a lot of games, all cooped up at home?
Yeah, I have a lot of games, can you see? They are all my games. I always keep one sample of each of my games. Just one copy because when a game is released, the publisher gives me 10 copies, but I keep only 1 because the rest of the 9 I will dedicate to my playtesters.
Do you have a fixed group of playtesters?
I have 3 different groups. The first is a group that lives close to me, who are all very involved in games. There are 3 gamers and some of them are in the game industry now as they have published a game called Celestial. We meet once each week. The second group are family and friends who are not in the game industry and are not regular board game players. It's very interesting for me to see the behaviour of different groups playing the same game. The 3rd group is comprised of professionals (board game designers). One time each month, I meet with a few designers including Antoine Bauza, Ludwig Maublanc, Théo Rivière. We don’t live far from each other and we spend a weekend together each month to playtest all our games.
What else did you do during the quarantine?
During the quarantine, I was at home and I worked a lot on projects. Some of them were shared with Print-n-Play, like Seven Wonders Duel Solo, and Kingdomino The Court, a small expansion for Kingdomino. I also worked on completely new projects and created 3 games during the quarantine! I was at home with my girlfriend and her daughter who is 10, and we play (games) every day. Mainly my prototypes, and sometimes games like Krass Kariert. It's very good! Her daughter is 10 and she really likes this game.
What made you want to design games instead of just playing games like a lot of us?
When I was 20 it was not clear in my head, but I needed to create things. I needed something that was artistic. I was at that time a mathematics and material sciences student, studying to become an engineer. At the same time I was dreaming of becoming an artist, to write and to make comics. For me, that was cool, but mathematics and sciences were easy so everyone pushed me in that direction. With parents, they tend to be worried that being in an artistic profession, you may never be able to get enough money. When I began to work, it was not surprising that I was working in research (engineering), not production, so I was always thinking of creating new lines, new things etc.
At that time, I discovered a magazine about board games. (Prior to that), I only knew games like Clue, Monopoly, and Risk, which were nice when I was a child but they were boring when I was 20. And (the magazine led me to) discover a new world, which was a very passionate interest for me. And I discovered that there were people designing games, which I had never imagined before. The game which impressed me at that time was a game for which a game designer won a game design contest. I promised myself that one day I would participate and win a game design contest! But I was only 20 and had absolutely no idea what to do, and how to do it. The only small ideas that came to me then were based off chess because I was a chess player. It was clear to me that there was no interest in that (games like chess), so I didn’t try at all. But concurrent to my profession in subsequent years, I was always playing games, loving them, teaching them to my friends. In 1999, when I was 36, my life changed. At that time I was very involved in sports - I was playing rugby with 3 training (sessions) each week and 1 competition each weekend. In 1999, I broke my knee and got divorced in the same year. So on weekends, as I was only seeing my kids every other weekend, and I wasn’t playing rugby, I was alone at home alot and I thought that it was a good time for me to try and realise my dream. I began to work on my first game, and I managed to find a publisher to publish it. Two years later I participated in a game contest with a game named Du Balai! which won the L’As d’Or award in 2007 (Game of the Year in France)!
Is the game still in print now
No, it was published in 2006 and no longer in print.
What would you say is the most exciting thing that happened throughout your game design career?
It’s hard to answer because all my games are very connected to my heart. It's not easy to name one thing - there are a few things which have been really nice throughout this whole period. People I met who are now my friends, and who I have very strong relationships with - Serge Laget, Bruno Faidutti, and Antoine Bauza. These connections are very precious to me - they're not exciting but they're with me always. It’s a very nice part of my life.
Two moments which have been very special – the first is the creation of Five Tribes. At that time, I had only been a game designer for awhile, and it was difficult for me to earm money (for living expenses). In addition to designing games, I was also working for a publisher, helping with developing games, and working in a game shop presenting and selling games. When I was working for the publisher, I was helping to develop games which were not mine. That took some energy, and (because of that), I felt that I didn't have enough energy to create my own big games. Eventually, it became unbearable for me not to have time for myself, so I decided to stop working for the publisher, and to focus on creating my own big game, which was Five Tribes! Five Tribes came suddenly and just in a few days, and it was all finished very fast, so it was very special to me. During that time, my son was around twenty years old. When he was between 18 and 20 years of age, he actually didn’t speak to me at all because he was sad about the situation. Our reconciliation began with the first playtest of Five Tribes - he was my first and best playtester ever. And now we have a very good connection, which meant that there was something very special about this game.
And the second time which was also very special to me was winning the Spiel de Jahres award for Kingdomino. When Kingdomino was shortlisted as one of the 3 games nominated, I had been a game designer for 15 years. I had the feeling that it would be now or never (winning the Spiel de Jahres). (When we won...) I was completely… uh, it was impossible for me to breathe! The whole team was crying AHHHH.. and it probably took me 1 minute before I was able to say something and collect my prize.
We love teaching Kingdomino in the café, it's very simple but still playable. It’s a very good introduction for families, even for couples. We've even taught it to kids as young as 8 years old, but haven't had success with younger kids.
It’s too long for younger kids. I recently worked with Marie Fort and Wilfred Fort who are also game designers, and we created Dragomino , which we will publish in a few weeks. Dragomino is a Kingdomino game which is for 4-5 year olds.
When you’re designing a game, do you decide on the theme or mechanics first?
In fact, to create a game, you have 3 different ways to begin. You have the mechanics (sometimes just a mathematical idea), the theme, and also the components. Sometimes you just create a game because you want to play with a specific kind of component. For example, when I created Kingdomino, my first idea was just to use dominoes. I had no idea what to do with them but I wanted to play with that component. But that's just an entry point. The only thing which matters at the end of the day is the game experience that you want to create. (When I have a starting point), I start to imagine how to connect the three factors to create a game experience that I want. I imagine it as a pyramid, the base comprises the three factors, and the summit of the pyramid is the game experience.
How long do you usually playtest your games before you’re happy with it?
There is no rule. For as long as it is necessary. For games like Okiya, I had an idea, I made the prototype, I played it 2 times, and I knew that it was finished. But it’s an exception. For a game like Knights of the Round Table, it took us months and hundreds of playtesting sessions. For a game like Clyclades, for example, it took us 3 years (not full time) to balance the game exactly the way we wanted to. Usually, from the time of the initial idea, it takes 2 and a half years for a game to go to market. (This roughly includes) approximately 6 months to 1 year to balance the game, 6 months to find a publisher, and then 1 year to realise the game for the publisher.
What do you think about online board gaming, especially now that everyone is stuck at home?
I think that it depends on the game. For some of them, it works and it works really well. For example, there is a website called Board Game Arena where you can play Kingdomino, and it works (well). For me, I like it, but it’s not the same game experience as being in front of someone and being able to chat and mingle at the same time. For me, it’s just another way (to play games), and there is no comparison, both ways are very good ways.
If we were playing Just One, what clue word would you use to describe yourself?
Oh! Ompfth! That means that I have to find a word that anybody else would (not) write. Ummm.. Maybe… I have an idea but I think other people would say the same thing, so it’s not a good idea. If I say Kingdomino, someone else will definitely write that. It’s not that easy to describe myself! Bold? Haha!
What word do you think other people would write but get cancelled out because its too common?
I think Kingdomino or Five Tribes. If we are friends they would say bicycle.
Apart from your own games, what are some of your favourite board games of all time and favourite games that have been published in the last year?
Haha, I’m a very big fan of Santorini. I like 2-player games, and Santorini you have to play it only at 2 players. I like 2-player games and abstract games and Santorini is a 2-player abstract game with very nice components. I also like Just One, it’s so easy to teach, you can play with anybody, your parents, your children, expert players or occasional players, it always works. I enjoy Wingspan, it’s not my favourite game but it's one of the games for which I really like the game experience. Also Krass Kariert, a small card game from Amigo. If I go further back, I like Lost Cities, Carcasonne, the Great Dalmuti, I’m also a big fan of Key Forge. For abstract games, also Gyges by Claude Leroy. It’s a fantastic abstract game but it’s not really well known. So many games!
What do you think of how the industry is evolving? There seem to be an exponential increase in how many games are coming out!
I’m not really sure that it’s exponential, but what's really changed is that everything is now available worldwide. 20 years ago, you had French games on the French market, American games on the American market, German games on the German market etc and (only) some of these games go abroad. Today, when you work with a publisher, the games immediately go worldwide. It creates difficulties as the game shops cannot buy all of the new games they are seeing (locally and from abroad), and they have to make a choice. That means that even if the publisher says yes to publishing your game, it may still never reach the local game shop if the local game shop doesn’t stock it. This means that the market has become more challenging and (as board game designers), we have to be creative and communicate more around our work to avoid shops not taking our games. Nowadays, part of my job is is also taking charge of the marketing for my own games.
Have you ever considered going on Kickstarter?
There are very good things on Kickstarter for sure, but it’s not really my cup of tea. I think that you buy things that you don’t need (on Kickstarter). If you want to attract people on Kickstarter, you need to give more and more (perks). As a game designer, I want people to play my games, and it’s not a question of making money. I want to share my games with people and I’m happy when they play my games. I think that people that buy games on Kickstarter – many never play the games. When they receive it 1 year later or 2 years later, they are distracted with something else, sometimes they don't even open the box. And you give too much (in terms of ancilliary components). For me when you create a game, you only include what's needed to create a good game experience. If the game is successful, you can then build expansions at a later stage. On Kickstarter, you sell the game immediately with 5 expansions. For me that's too much, and I’m not really comfortable with that, but it also doesn’t mean I will never go on Kickstarter. Some months ago, I had a rendition of Cleopatra on Kickstarter but I do consider that an exception.
Could you tell us something about yourself that you think we probably wouldn’t know?
I'm a guitar player, I like playing music. I'm also passionate about fly fishing. I also like to go searching for mushrooms in the afternoons and cook them at night – my life is contact with nature. I’ve been like that since I was a child. Even when I had a real job in the industry, I decided not to go to the big cities and to stay near the company of nature to have a nice life. I would not be happy living in a big city.