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Dr Reiner Knizia - Board-at-Home Designer Interview Series #4

This week, we’re chatting with the delightful Dr Reiner Knizia, a prolific German game designer who has published more than 600 board games since the 1990s! His many game designs include Tigris & Euphrates, Modern Art, Battle Line, The Quest for El Dorado, and Yellow & Yangtze.  Dr Reiner Knizia also holds a Phd. in Mathematics, and previously worked in the banking industry, before becoming a full-time game designer.

Interview with Dr Reiner Knizia

For more details, please read our interview transcript below!

You’ve designed so many games over the years! Where do you get inspiration for the design of your games?

Initially, when I was an amateur designer, I was always inspired by themes. I saw motor racing, and I thought that it would make a good game. The stock exchange too. I wanted to feel the fascination of the themes in the board games. Of course now, as I do it professionally, I’m trying not to have a fixed method by which I get inspiration from, as I want to be innovative. The most important thing is to keep your eyes open and see what new opportunities arise, may it be movies, books, new materials, new mechanisms. Anything which is new is a good starting point! Because if you start with something old, it’s much harder to get something new in the process. I think Hemingway said it very well - in order to write, you need to live, and I think you need to keep your eyes open for what is relevant to people and see how that helps you to create a game.

That doesn’t just refer to playing a lot of games but also experiencing life in general?

I actually do not play a lot of other games, because the mind is very strange. When I design games, you have to make (many) decisions and find (many) solutions. How do I do this, how do I distribute that, how do I bring this forward, how do I break ties? When the mind already knows the solution, then you become fixated on the solution. When the mind doesn’t know a solution, it’s much easier to come up with your own (unique) solution. I actually try to avoid other games, so then they don’t restrict me so much. Of course, I’m not completely locking myself away from the world, and I still know what the trends in board games are, and we play a lot, but we are also mostly playing my prototypes.

How do you think your game design has changed since you first started designing games in the 90s?

There are two answers. One, the market has changed. When you look at the 70s and 80s, those were different times. The speed of those times was not so quick, so game dynamics were slower, and games were simpler and more children driven. But over time, the market got much bigger with many more new games. Today, people’s attention spans are very short – they look for quicker endings to the game and they want to have many more things happening (at the same time). It’s the same as (the evolution of) movies. The old movies start very slowly, they develop a scene, but in modern movies, if you don’t have three people in the scene in the first minute, its boring. People expect something similar from games because times have changed, and there’s much more competition and many more games out there now, so it’s much harder to stand out.

Two, (I feel that) for me as a designer, in order to be relevant, I need to see what happens in the world. I developed my classic tiling games and auction games in the nineties, such as Modern Art, which is very popular in Asia. (However), I cannot rest on the 90s and say these are all my classics (and I have won some awards for them), as people want to see other things. It doesn’t mean that these games are not played anymore, but I would not design them today because I have other ambitions now. I don’t want to keeping doing the same thing, I want to see how I can set new trends. Co-operative games like Lord of the Rings was probably (one of these) new trends.

What’s next for you? What is the next trend that you want to start?

Of course I would like to set the next trend! But setting trends is not so easy. Very often a trend (starts) due to luck and accident. As you create games, you never quite know if the game is going to be successful. I had a game, Pickomino, a dice game with birds, which no publisher wanted. But I believed in the game, so it took me quite a while to bring it to market. But it suddenly became a cult favourite, and today it has sold more than a million copies. Last year, I also had a card game called L.L.A.M.A - I knew that it was a good game, but suddenly it exploded on the scene and gets nominated for game of the year, while other card games get published and forgotten quickly. So, it’s luck, you need a good game, but it’s also finding the right timing for people to be fascinated by it.

I can’t always create a new trend, so I sometimes look at existing trends, and see if I can contribute more (to it). The Quest for El Dorado, for example. Dominion had created the deck building game (genre), it was a fantastic ground-breaking game, but when I played it, I had problems understanding the game. It was very abstract - I have cards, I get rid of some cards, I get other cards in, and I build up an engine. (I thought that), if I had difficulties, maybe other people also had difficulties. So with El Dorado, I made it a race, included a theme that people could associate with, a board with a map, and a little starter deck. So in that game, when I play my cards, things move on the board - I go through the jungle and I have a machete, and I move on and reach a river where I need a boat (card). And so it becomes clear (intuitively) that I need the relevant cards to do what I need to do. And so, you don’t have to explain to people what they’re doing, but intuitively the players will understand the why they are doing something. So it becomes very harmonious and consistent, and that’s what I like about design, and that’s what I did for deck-building.

With legacy games, there are also many complex big legacy games out there. But with My City, again I said, can I not make one that just lasts 20 minutes and is easy to approach. (In My City), each player builds his own city, and the city goes through different periods of time, and you can enjoy it with your family.

I have 50 drawers (in this room), and in each of the drawers, there is a game that is under development. In each drawer, I have one or two concepts in there that I think are very promising and could actually become a new trend, but again, they take a lot of time and dedication. In this respect, the virus actually has its advantages, as there’s much less business happening at the moment, and while we cannot playtest, I can do more conceptual work. These new concepts need a lot of time, and I find that now, more than in normal times. As we cannot playtest currently, everything plays very well in my head, and when people come back again, we’ll see what stands and what really makes a great design.

What else have you been doing during the lockdown, apart from designing?

There isn’t that much to be done, I get up very early at about 4am in the morning. My wife doesn’t get up that early. But we have decided to get up early and do some sports every morning, so we go out and we run. We go out at 5-5.30am for a run, it’s quiet. Otherwise, I love games, and I spend a lot of time reading and researching about games. My big hobby is games, and I made my hobby my profession now, so I’m quite happy locking myself in my studio for long periods just to design.

Any games that you have worked on these two months that you would like to share with us?

I have actually ordered another 30 drawers (for my games under development)! They fill up slowly. I have a lot of new games which need to be tested. I can’t tell you about the specific games, but I’ve done lots of Egyptian games, so I can’t do another one because I still have tons unpublished. I also went back into the Mesopotamian era (Babylonia), etc. I think that it’s such a rich epoch – I like history because history gives you such a clear understanding of where you are and what you do in the game. And usually I read a lot about the period, so I have been reading a lot about this time.

How do you keep track of what’s in each drawer!

They have all their little coloured tags on them, in which stage they are. Some are in early stages. I have been working intensively on one of the old sagas, because there are such rich stories, and it’s a big two hour game with lots of stories in there. There’s so much to do even with a lockdown there’s never enough time to do all these, which is good!

Is there one game that you have designed and you keep coming back to it over the years or you enjoy playing the most?

I have to confess that I hardly play my own games! When I work on a game, if it’s a very fast small game it takes 3-6 months, but some take 6-12 months to finish, and some others take much longer. It takes its time. When the game is finished, I go to the publisher, which then takes a few months. And when the publisher decides to take the game, it still takes about 9 months or a year to get to market. So by the time the game comes out, it’s already old for me. Also, there’s limited time to play – we play almost every day, because designing games is also experiencing the games, living the games, you cannot do that abstractly. But whenever people come, there are 50 drawers to play! (now 80 drawers!), and so I always want to play this game and that game, and the old games never really get to the table. Unless I’m trying to make a new version (of an old game) – like the Modern Art card game version that was just released. To me, I have 700 children, and I have a copy of all my children in the archive, but I don’t really have a favourite one. With different people, I play different things….. There’s never one absolute best game or absolute favourite game. I’m not a chess player who dedicates his whole life to one game – I like variety, and to see what different possibilities are, so I’m never really stuck on a single game.

What makes you think that a game is ready to be published?

I am a perfectionist. You need to be a perfectionist but you also need to be very critical. And that’s a function which the publisher takes. I don’t have my own publishing company because otherwise it’s too easy to say, ok I’ll do it, and you don’t have somebody else looking at it and evaluating it. The publisher has a very important function. But when I bring a game to a publisher, they know that it’s well-tested and it works, although it may not fit their program. The question is, how do I get there? We playtest a lot, and I am always playing, but I am also watching other people, and we’re very hard on the game. Because when the game is published, I cannot be there to explain (to the players) that you have to do something this way. So, I play with many different people, which makes the game robust. The first thing you do as a designer is always to play with the same group, and develop conventions till the game plays wonderfully. And then you test it with a different group. That gives a good understanding of how a game will stand by itself. When I get to a stage where I do not know what I should change (about the game), that’s a good sign. Then I usually leave it for 6-8 weeks during which I don’t play it. Then I come back and have a fresh look at it, to see if it really works. Very often I’ll see if it’s perfect then, or if there’s still something else that’s not quite right yet. The important thing is to always check that you’re on the right track. The worse thing you can do is to fall in love with a design that is not working, and spend more and more time on it.

What has been the most surprising moment in your game design career?

The largest surprise is that I became a full time game designer, as I was always interested in games, but I never thought it would become my profession. For awhile I worked at a university and I really enjoyed research and teaching, then I went into banking. In the end I managed a 300 person mortgage company in England, and I came to the insight that there’s not enough time to do everything in life, and I had to decide if I want to do games or go on in a management role. I decided to follow my heart and do what I really love. So from the outset, that was the biggest surprise, but it developed there and it was a very natural process.

Which are some other games that you’ve designed that you think would be suitable for a board game café?

I would recommend L.L.A.M.A. and Pickomino. It’s very difficult to ask a designer which of his games he would recommend….

Could you tell us something about yourself that you think people in Singapore or Asia wouldn’t know?

Not sure if I have any secrets people would not know… um… I’m a THIEF! I don’t know why I did this, but I used to fly to a lot of different conventions and talks, and so I started collecting airline spoons. I have a nice one from Singapore Airlines! It actually started when I wanted to eat a bit in my hotel room and so I took a spoon (from the plane). And then I made a hobby out of it, and so whenever I took a new airline, I stole a spoon. And later, I thought that maybe it was not correct to steal it, so I actually asked the airlines for a spoon. And then I organised my crime, and told other people flying other airlines to get me spoons! And I now have more than 300 different spoons. Only spoons, I don’t want any forks or knives or anything else (chuckles). It’s not just different airlines…sometimes I also have different spoons from the same airline – their spoons change over time too! Now that’s a story I usually don’t tell.

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