[As always, I have tried to clean up the language a little bit without putting words in anyone’s mouths! Dale]
Today I have had the opportunity to interview Michael Schacht, one of the big names in the games world with more than 100 games designed. Michael, like Knizia and Colovini, is part of the “german style” school and the mechanics, more than the theme, are his principal focus: “short rules but maximum of gameplay” is a common “sign” in his designs. Michael is really great in developing gateway games (like the SDJ winner Zooloretto) and he always aims to “make the game as easy as possibe without losing the fun“. Now we can start with the interview…
[Liga] Hi Michael, it is really nice to have the possibility to interview you for Opinionated Gamers. Like Emiliano Sciarra wrote in the book “L’Arte del Gioco” (The Art of Game), designing a game is a form of art not less than writing books or directing movies. The ambitious aim of this series of interviews is to point out the “style” of each designers, going through his production, trying to find a sort of personal “sign”.
You designed more than 100 games starting from 1992 and you are still an active artist with several titles scheduled for 2011. Of course most of gamers will know you for the fantastic Coloretto – Zooloretto series but is there any game you are particularly proud of?
[Michael] At first, thank you for the interest and the possibility to talk about game designs. Well, for me it is the same like with the others: the newest designs are usually the ones that you are very proud of. In “Mondo”, I am happy to have again a strong and easy to learn family boardgame. I am also looking forward to the reactions on the new version of “Dschunke” which hopefully will be released soon. Here I started with some improvements in balancing that lead to a really interesting change in the gameplay.
From the older designs, I personally like especially the simple but capturing bidding mechanism of “Mogul” or the later here mentioned “Web of Power”.
[Liga] Now we will try to understand how you create a game: where do the ideas come from? How the designing process actually is?
[Michael] My ideas have different roots. Some come from my day to day life. An example for that is the kids game “Socken zocken” (Lucky sock dip). There you have to sort socks to find matching pairs. Sometimes you try to find a new twist in a category for example in auction games: the idea that the just auctioned things have effect on the future biddings (in “Don”). Sometimes you don‘t have an idea where something just came from, it just happens.
[Liga] And how you develop a game from this starting idea? Are you used to involving other gamers/players right from the beginning or is there an early phase of designing you make alone?
[Michael] I begin working on new designs for myself. Over the years this phase has become longer and longer. The advantage is that the first “real” tests work quite well because all a lot of the details are already set and solved. But if the first games with players show that the idea is too weak, the diadvantage is that you have spent far too much time.
[Liga] You have designed many games together with other designers. Can you please tell us if you like team working or not and why?
[Michael] I like teamwork for example the games I made with Bruno Faidutti. In my job before in advertising you usually work as teams, that is always inspiring but costs also more time. Anyway the result can be stronger if you‘re straight enough in judging the work. On the other side there is no designer I am working with living close to my hometown and so cooperations are only possible by email. That is a restriction because the pressure is sometimes not high enough to continue on a project. Another thing is the limited time that offers just rarely a slot for a cooperation.
[Liga] Working in teams is not always easy, that’s true. Are you more interested in developing the theme or the mechanics? Do you think you are better in the early phase of design, when there is more need of ideas, or in the later phase when balancing and playtesting is prevalent?
[Michael] Balancing as the last phase is kind of a routine that you learn as a designer over the years. Usually it is then not too complicated but a little bit “boring”. Perhaps I like most the very first phase when the idea is fresh and you enthusiastically “puzzle” all the mechanics as a kind of vision of the game just in your head. Unfortunately this one is the shortest :-). The second phase is the hardest when you try to realize all these different parts. Preparing then the first prototype is ok again. I don‘t think I have an advantage for a specific phase. Maybe I am good in project management and judging ideas.
[Liga] Now, going deep into the art of design. Do you think is there something common in your designs?
[Michael] Family games are my main goal. So, short rules but maximum of gameplay is something I am always looking for. My most important subject for myself is: making the game as easy as possible without losing the fun. But often I don‘t reach this and the game gets more complicated. Some people see the main focus in my work in gateway games.
[Liga] I agree with you. I noticed that most of your games have really “clean” design and rules. Usually a “core” with a solid mechanic/idea (like in Coloretto or Zooloretto) with a game built around it. Do you think theme and settings are important in a game or the core is the mechanic?
[Michael] Nowadays i rarely start with a theme. But as early as possible, I try to find a fitting theme, usually when the main mechanism is basically set. Then it is still possible to develop the game close to the theme. Also very interesting for designing is the fact that the theme offers input for further mechanisms.
[Liga] That’s really interesting. You tell us you design the core mechanic, than fit it into a theme and take from the theme new ideas. Can you show this process in details taking as an example one of your games?
[Michael] When I was in the middle of creating the game “Paris Paris”, it was provisionally Hanseatic themed. The tiles you had to get were trading posts – quite static. But the gameplay was light at that time and thus I had a little concern against the theme, which sounded more like a gamers game. So, I chose a tourtistic theme which is ususally more open for all kind of players. The bus idea driving along the roads “picking up” all the tourists at the business houses then came from the new theme. As tourists are usually moving about the locations in the city that influenced the game getting a little bit more dynamic.
[Liga] Is common for an artist have a Master, a person who “teached” him the arts or just a source of inspiration.
[Michael] Well, I had no master in person as I am an autodidact. But I always had a close look on what the other designers created and try to learn from their conceptions.
[Liga] Is there one designer you “looked” more than others or games that triggered you more than others?
[Michael] Yes, but that is more personal as some of the designers are friends of mine. Their new games usually interest me. Besides that I am more focused on the specific games themselves.
[Liga] Is there a game designed by others you really would like to have designed yourself?
[Michael] Of course the games that are very unique and maybe set up a category like eg. Caylus (worker placement). That is most honorable for a designer. As a gamer, I would prefer my favourite games to be from other designers because Ii rarely play my own designs at home. When playing own games it is hard to forget where they are from. I am mostly thinking about the design instead of just playing it and having fun.
[Liga] I think this is common in most of the designers. Are you still able to preserve time to play games with other gamers outside the designing works? I think it is really important to be updated and play a lot, but I’m aware it is not always easy.
[Michael] That‘s absolutely true. There are some conventions where I have the chance to play some of the more important new games. On the other hand, I don‘t want to play that often that I lose the fun. That would be an even bigger problem for the ability to judge the quality of ideas.
[Liga] Now a question I’m used to make to all the designers: try to describe Michael Schacht with just 3 Michael Schacht games: which and why?
[Michael] My first boardgame “Charts” wasn‘t a great game because of my limited abilities at that time (but very important for the start). Later “Web of Power” was a much better game also because I was able to implement most of my gathered abilities and my visions of that time. With every new game, like at the moment “Mondo”, I try to improve my abilities and I have the feeling that I still making steps forward. Learning never ends for me.
[Liga] I not played Charts but I really love “Web of Power” and I think it really well represents your style: short rules but maximum of gameplay. Thank you for your time and I hope to see you in Italy. I’ll be happy if you in the next year could attend PLAY: The Games Festival, our greatest gamers event.
[Michael] Thank you for the interview.