Mention Reiner Knizia’s name to a fellow gamer and you will usually get one of two responses. First, that he is an amazing game designer – this is the camp that I fall into. Second, that his games are too mathy, abstract and have no theme. No matter which side of the Knizia fence you stand, there is no doubt that he is a prolific game designer, has has a huge impact on the gaming industry and on people’s exposure to and enjoyment of board games.
My current favourite cooperative game, Lord of the Rings, was designed by Reiner Knizia and other games I own and have played by Reiner Knizia include: Abandon Ship, Attention Pirates, Battle Line, Blue Moon, Dead Man’s Treasure, Hollywood Blockbuster, En Garde, Excape, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, Lost Cities, Modern Art, Penguin, Pickomino, Priests of Ra, Razzia, Queen of the Cupcakes, Scary Tales: Little Red vs Pinnochio, Taj Mahal, Tigris and Euphrates, Too Many Cooks, Tor and probably a few others I have forgotten about! These are more games than by any other designer. Gamers are going to ask where are some of his other games like Through the Desert and Keltis? And I can only answer that I will play them sometime soon.
As with other established game designers, I sent Reiner an email asking for three pieces of advice for aspiring game designers and received a prompt reply asking if I would like to talk over the phone with him. Wow – the ‘great’ Reiner Knizia wants to talk to me? Of course we are both just regular guys but when someone you admire and hold in esteem wishes to converse with you it is a great honour. It didn’t take me long to reply with a YES and a date was fixed for our conversation. This morning at 7:00am PST. I awoke had my obigatory cup of tea and phoned Reiner. Here is our conversation (I have tried not to edit the conversation as I want the natural flow to be evident. I have added some explanations/clarifications in parentheses and also removed or added a word when needed to make the text easier to read. It is hard to transcribe a conversation as a lot of repetition and pausing and ummm and ahhs occur. I am sure you will be able to follow our conversation and hopefully you will find it as interesting and informative as I have.)
The direction I am coming from is that of an aspiring game designer, like thousands of other people in the world. I have a blog and am interested in your early days and what your obstacles were, so my questions will be related around that if you don’t mind.
That’s perfectly fine. There are millions of people who have these questions.
So, to start with, why game designing? What attracted you to game designing?
Everyone becomes a game designer because they enjoy playing games. You come a bit more ambitious and start making variants of games and then more ambitious and you start designing your own games and once you have done this for a while you become even more ambitious and try to sell them and place them and publish them. And if you are not so ambitious but very brave you start your own publishing, which I do not recommend.
So, what were the first games you remember playing that excited you about game designing?
I have actually game designed for almost as long as I could think. I have game designs from when I was 10 years old that have never been published and should never be published but it was a subject that has always interested me and has always been with me.
Do you remember one of those first game designs?
Oh yes, initially it was always about knights and armies and castles and fortresses and rivers and bridges and you had to play very willingly so that the game worked. You couldn’t just sit in your own castle and not do anything. But if you played willingly it was an interesting game, at least for us boys there.
So that was a game you just played amongst your friends?
Yes, absolutely. Initially for many, many years I just played for fun. I never had any intention to publish. It was just, I like it let’s try this out – I like designing stuff and that was it.
What was the spark that decided that you would try and publish a game?
It was only in my 20s when I…when I started working for a large German bank, who I worked with for quite a while. And when I was in the credit department for a while then I saw those people who go there and say, “if you gave me the money then I would do this and I would make a nice business plan and so and so on” and these people never got the money. And there is the other type of people that said, “here is the business plan and I know exactly what to do and you just need to give me the money and then I can get going” and they assumed that they would get the money and they did get the money. So, what I learned from this was that if you want to be successful you have to be serious you need to essentially assume that you will be successful and put everything in place and not hesitate and not try to do one step and see how it goes…half-heartedly…and then try another step half-heartedly and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t work. I think I learned very clearly from that point that if I want to make something work then I decide I will make it work and whatever comes up I’ll make it work. At that time I said okay now I know what I need to do. I need to add more aspects than just playing some nice games and maybe writing up the rules for myself. I knew that it takes much more to have a presentable prototype. It takes much more to talk to the publisher to understand them and the whole world of publishing. So, I decided to do that and really go for it and it wasn’t a bad decision I think.
What do you think the ratio was from ideas to successes at that point?
That’s very difficult to say. I am not even sure if this is answerable in this way because the question is when do you call an idea a game? It was a challenge at that time as it is a challenge today because I have no problem when we work on for half an hour on a game and decide not to pursue it any further. This happens on a daily basis, so to speak, but I would not call these unsuccessful games. I would just call these the process of creativity. I think, where thing become more serious is when we spend a lot of time, 10, 20, 30, 50, 100, 200 hours on a game – then it is a game – play test it – and then we come to the conclusion that it is not working. Again, I would then say that this is still the design process and some of the designs work and some of the designs don’t work. And if you don’t catch it early and it doesn’t work then you suffer for all the wasted time. I think when you really ask what games are successful or not then I count them when they take my own hurdle [meet his expectations] – I now have a finished game. I think it is perfect. I think this is publishable. I now want to publish it. My success rate is from this point of time because everything else is design process. The marketing process, the selling process starts from when I have a product. I have actually got only a handful of games which I think have become a game and which were not published. You see how big the answer is? From thousands of ideas I have until I have a few games to almost all of them [being published].
I understand and realize that my last question was a broad question and you actually answered my next question within that answer. So, moving on, what were the biggest obstacles for you when you decided to become a game designer?
Well, firstly, I assume when you become a game designer…I am talking in more general terms because I think my obstacles are no different from anyone else’s obstacles…I assume when you become a game designer or when you start designing games then you have the love and drive for the games and you want to do it and I also assume you have a certain degree of ability and experience to do it…so this is the prerequisite or you are not a game designer. If you have all these internal components – with gathering experience over the years – then the main obstacle is really to find a publisher: to find a good publisher. I think a lot or people make the mistake and this is actually my biggest advice…a lot of people make the mistake that they try to go to bigger, well known publishers and they [the big publishers] receive an enormous stream of offers that they don’t take all seriously. The big publishers are looking for specific things and sometimes you can’t even talk to them directly – you need to go through an agency. I think that does not work. I have more by accident taken what I think is the right route. I talk to some small publishers and the small publishers, they are open and I had some designs that they wanted. And through the small publishing I learned much more. First of all you have a much closer access to small publishers, you learn much more from them and the small publishers take the game much more to their heart because they cannot afford to have a flop. So, they will…once they have decided to go for it…will really accompany the game and because you are so close to them you can learn a lot. I still believe that is the right strategy. I have taken that strategy – more accidently when I started to publish my games – and I have very deliberately taken that strategy again when I moved into the smart phone market where I work with lots of small publishers and still look for lots of small publishers because it just gives me a certain access to the different market and lets me learn things. Then I know how the market works and I can think again.
That is very interesting. There are a lot of small publishers out there that I believe are underappreciated. So, you have designed hundreds of games. From my perspective being a designer – that has never had anything published – when I think about game ideas it often comes from a theme that I enjoy or I think up a mechanic and wonder how that mechanic can fit. How do you keep that motivation…where do you get ideas for new games? Is it a new mechanic you think of or is it more of a theme or something you notice?
Initially when I started it was always a fascinating theme that brought me into a game design. It’s kind of funny because people call my games more the abstract side but not the richly thematic. I think what comes together here is that my starting point of the theme and me being a scientist and trying to make the rules very simple and to bring everything down to a few general rules and principles…as a scientist to reduce information and to reduce redundancy. I am not a big storyteller in this way. I am not inventing big worlds or inventing thousands of detailed rules which I believe make the game less accessible but which of course is then perceived to be very rich. These people that do that are so to speak the people who create redundancy and I am more a reducer of redundancy. So, originally it was always inspiration from the theme but over the years, now that I am doing this full time and professionally and design a lot of games, I have learned that a scientific approach to game design is actually, ultimately not working. I strongly believe that game design is an art not a science and the ambition is always to create something new and I think if you have a scientific method and have a methodology on how to do it you always start in the same corner, you always take the same steps, and you move along- trundle along – the same path, and why should you be surprised when you always come out at the same end. So, my conclusion from this…I always try to start with a new entry point and that can come from a new character during a book or from a new film or it can come from a new game mechanic which I see…or very well, it can come from new production possibilities or new technologies which are now available or affordable for games… (unclear what was said here) …like mobile phones. So I try to take these new inspirations and these new things because they challenge me to think new, to take new approaches and that for me is the safest way. Not the guaranteed way but the safest way to come up with a design which that is very new and publishable. But this approach may be different for a designer who only designs one or two games a year because he may have a methodology.
If you don’t mind I have another question for you. This one – and I am sure you have included the answer in your responses – I have been asking of other game designers and was in my original message to you. What three pieces of wisdom or advice would you pass on to aspiring game designers like myself?
I have already given you one of my biggest recommendations. I give you two more biggest recommendations because biggest doesn’t mean there can be several ones. I think the first recommendation is to follow your heart. Don’t do it for the money and don’t expect to earn money with it. If you look at the money you will see it as work and it will never work. Number two, you will only be successful as a game designer if you have good product. A good product is not a product which you like to play with your grandmother under the Christmas tree and it is always brilliant. A good product is a robust product that is liked by a target group and which has many criteria to satisfy…from a game play point of view, from a material point of view, from a production point of view; from a marketing point of view, and the work from just designing game play is not the product. So, a game designer lives and dies with having good product. If you have good product then the next thing [that you need to know is] how do you access it [the market place]. That is my third biggest recommendation which I already said. Then the questions is, how do I place the product and I believe if you think long term then go with small publishers and then learn and build the momentum. Don’t shoot for the big lottery. It may happen but it’s very unlikely.
Thank you. I appreciate your time.
Well, I appreciate your interest in contacting us and I hope you got some interesting answers and that you have fun using the material and that you are successful with whatever you want to do with it.
Good luck in your future endeavours and I am looking forward to getting my hands on Star Trek: Expeditions some time soon.
Oh yes! Interesting and I hope you will enjoy the game.
Thank you and if you could thank Karen too for me, have a great day.
Good to talk to you and good luck.