This week, we’re chatting with Fréderic Moyersoen, a Belgian game designer with more than 50 board games under his belt, including the all-time favourite Saboteur. Fréderic had originally pursued a career in sales, and when he was 40, made a career switch to board game design in 1998. He has since published more than 50 games, including Saboteur, Jolly Roger, Nuns on the Run, and Gouda Gouda!
Interview with Fréderic Moyersoen
What made you want to be a game designer?
As a kid, I loved playing games and I started copying some games with paper, color pencils & cardboard. Stratego, for example, was made with illustrated empty matchboxes. The problem was only that the boxes easily toppled, even if you just coughed a little. Soon, I started to create house rules and design my own game concepts. My main problem was finding players (to play with me) as my 5 brothers preferred playing football in the garden. Later when I became an adult, it remained my secret wish to make hobby a career, but I didn’t know where to start. It was only after being fired from a well-paid job that I took the risk to invest in my own career. Nearly 20 years later, I can affirm that, with a lot of luck, I managed to make my dream come true.
Even though it is over 15 years old, Saboteur remains one of the most popular games in the café today. What was the inspiration behind Saboteur and what do you think made it such a breakout hit?
The inspiration was rather casual - everyone knows that in each group there are always some people taking the lead while others are just following, and some are slowing the group down. This idea was used in a popular Belgian TV series and my original plan was to make a game with the same idea in order to sell it to that TV producer. However, the TV series was aborted when my prototype was ready. Therefore, I contacted game publishers like Amigo to get the game on the market.
It’s very difficult to know the secret of Saboteur's success. If the answer was obvious, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. Nevertheless, I think that a theme that anyone recognizes combined with nice & easy game mechanics counts for alot. The game is also very visual as players build paths together towards a common goal. The game allows a wide range of players to play together - 3 to 10 players. Finally, a key element in the success of Saboteur is the commercial support of the German publisher Amigo. They managed to find local distribution partners in nearly every country.
If you could change something in the original Saboteur game today, what would it be?
The game balance isn’t completely right in the game. Especially with experienced players, saboteurs can’t afford to make any mistake. Later, I tried to correct this in the expansion. In addition, I also introduced the Selfish Dwarf concept for the Saboteur World Championship in order to rebalance the game. In short, if you are the Selfish Dwarf, you must discover the gold yourself to win 4 Gold points. Otherwise, you get nothing.
What is your creative process for game design? Where do you draw inspiration from and how do you then transform a game from idea to reality?
Mostly, I start from a theme and try to develop game mechanics which fit with the theme. Inspiration is very easy to find: you just need to look around, to read books and newspapers. After having chosen a theme, you need to answer the following questions - for what kind of players will this game be, how complex would it be, what box size would it fit in, … In fact, as a designer, you have to set some boundaries and you try to fit your concept within the limits that you have chosen. For example, if you want to make a boardgame, it’s best to imagine a board that fits on a standard table. The number of components should vary based on the size of the game boxes - a large box can contain more components and is more suited for complex games whereas a small cardgame box should contain only a limited number of cards.
After making a quick prototype with the basic game mechanics, I start playtesting. Based on feedback from playtesters, I then start adding or removing ideas, changing rules and finetuning the game concept. When I have a good working prototype, the most difficult task begins - I start to contact game publishers to gauge their level of interest in the game. The whole process from having an idea for a game to getting one published easily takes several years.
What would you say is the most memorable experience during the span of your design career?
In 2009, my game Nicht zu fassen was nominated for the Kinderspiel des Jahres and in 2010, I won the prize for best children’s game with the same game Cache-Moutons in France.
Which of your game designs are you most proud of?
Saboteur, of course, because it changed my life. It’s hard to conceive that a small game, conceived out of your own imagination, has brought fun to millions of people all over the world for the last 15 years.
What would a typical working day in your life be like?
After answering some emails, I try to improve the rules in one or two of my game concepts. In the afternoon, I print some new components and I check if the ideas work by playing the game on my own. Later in the evening, I go to a gaming club where I test the game concept (or any changes) with real people.
How do you think board games have evolved over the last 10-15 years (e.g. in terms of mechanics, themes, components, etc)? What trends do you like and/or dislike?
Since the decline of wargames approximately 20 years ago, the board game community has expanded. First, we got a PC, then the internet and now social media. So, nowadays, a lot of interaction is possible between players and publishers. Games have improved a lot with regard to smoother game mechanics, cooler illustrations and neat components.
More games tend to be published for a specific target group which likes to buy new games, whereas the mass market still prefers to buy games that they know and like. Classic games will not dissappear as they are necessary to attract casual gamers. New games are being made for a more demanding public audience, but (the scene is competitive and ) it is a rat race with many losers and few winners. The number of new games have been exploding since in the last few years, although this might have come to an abrupt halt due to the Corona-crisis. It’s my impression that publishers will become more cautious about what they choose to publish in future. People might also rediscover games that they have bought previously but not played much.
What do you think of the overall trend of publishing games on Kickstarter?
Kickstarter publishers raise money from backers in order to publish a game. To attract backers to contribute financially, a lot of special extras are usually included. This doesn’t result in one product, but in several different products linked to one game. If you want the complete edition, you usually need to pay far more than that you are prepared to pay for a similar game in a shop. So, this is a strange phenomenon. Kickstarter backers aren’t paying for a finished product, but for making it possible for the product to be published. This is a big difference. They are paying for a dream rather than for a box with components. What I don’t like as a designer, is that the Kickstarter project is mostly forgotten when the game is finally published. The money raised has been spent to get the game published, but not to sell the game when the game is launched. So, in the end, the Kickstarter trend shortens the already short life of a game. With Kickstarter, the lifespan of the game ends before it’s even published. I’m not a big fan of such a trend.
What were your favourite games of 2019/2020? With the sheer number of games that are published nowadays, how do you pick which games to play or buy?
At least 80 % of my playing time is spent playtesting the games that I’m designing myself. I follow newly published games, but merely to keep myself up-to-date. Typically, I will play a new game only once. My objective is more to find out which new game mechanics were used and which elements made the game fun.
From all new recent games, I mainly remember having played Secret Hitler, Wingspan and Azul. I played many others, but it’s not a good sign that I’ve already forgotten those titles.
How large is your personal board game collection, and what are the most-played games in your collection?
Probably, I have about 300 games in my collection, but the most-played are old wargames like Ambush or Cry Havoc. The game that I liked most when I was young, was Risk. We played it as a diplomacy game with alliances, treachery and some luck.
During this time of Covid-19 lockdowns, many people are stuck at home with their families perhaps unable to meet up with their friends or gaming groups. What games would you recommend for introducing families to the hobby?
It could be interesting to have a look at the games that you have on your shelves at home and to play one of those games again.
Alternatively, I would like to propose the following 3 games that I have designed:
For families with young kids, I would recommend Save the Dragon, published by Blue Orange Games, a game in which players race to save the dragon while dodging falling boulders.
For families with older kids, I would recommend Saboteur – the Lost Mines.
For singles and couples, I would recommend Saboteur – the Duel.
How did the lockdown affect your design routine?
It was not difficult to continue developing current projects, but to playtest them properly was a big issue. In the beginning, I played a bit with my wife and my son who was also locked at home. I also started online playtesting. I selected some games which were suitable for this purpose and I shared the rules with some volunteers. All files required to play the game were digitalized and shared via email and other software. Players send me their instructions and I implement their move, resolve the turn and send back the result. It’s a little bit cumbersome and slow (ca. 1 turn per week), but highly enjoyable and very instructive.