The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #15 – Vlaada Chvatil

Hi, here I’m with the 15th installation of this series. As the series is going on I’m becoming more and more demanding with the designers. Luckily Vlaada seems to be a real gamer and sustained my hits with a stoical patience. He told me that his satisfaction come from “how do the players like and enjoy them”, so, I think, he has to be really satisfied. Vlaada is absolutely not a German designer, as you can see from the rules of his games. He told “I always try to prefer the ways that seem to fit the theme best.” and that’s is, for me, great and also he told that he has “[…]a slight tendency to overcomplicated things” that is also true, but the final results are really good! In the end of the interview he also says “I am sure more a geek than an artist” … if you are interested enough you can go on with the interview!

[Liga] Hi Vlaada, 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 casting movies. The ambitious aim of this series of interviews is to point out the “style” of each designer, going through his production, trying to find a sort of personal “sign”.

You designed about 20 games starting from 1997 Arena: morituri te salutant. Of course most of gamers will know you for the last releases and for the fantastic Through the Ages, in the BGG top 10 despite the complexity but is there any game you are particularly proud of ?

[Vlaada] Well, it is not the way how I think about my games. My satisfaction does not come from “how good my games are”, it is rather “how do the players like and enjoy them”. So, I am happy every time I see or read some player or group really loves any of my games, regardless how good the game really is by some “objective” criteria. Of course, to some of my games this happens more often than to others… but the more pleases me when someone tells me some of my older half-forgotten games is his or her favorite :)

[Liga]: It seems rather impossible to have a designer pointing out single outstanding-game. Of course most gamers know you thanks to Through the Ages that now is 4th in BGG ranking and also was able to win the International Gamers Awards but is there one that was, at least, really important for your career ?

[Vlaada] Well, if you insist :). Of course, Through the Ages was very important, both for me and for Czech Games Edition. Not only its success let the world know there is a small country right next to Germany that can do games. CGE was founded by people who worked on the first Through the Ages release, because we all realized that this is what we want to do for living.

But in fact, maybe Through the Ages owes part of its success to another of my games published the same year: Graenaland. Although I know this game is not for anyone, there are people who really like it, and we were lucky that one of them was Rick Thornquist, head of Boardgamenews at that time. The very positive preview Rick wrote before Essen has surely drawn lots of attention to our booth, and thus also to Through the Ages.

[Liga] Actually I’m also really well impressed by Graenaland that was, somewhere, let in shadows by the great success of Through the Ages. And that also reveal how, especially for little or not yet know publishers, the previews before Essen are important. We we talk about that later, anyway.

[Vlaada] And then, there is Galaxy Trucker, my first game published by CGE. It did (and, in fact, it still does – we are finishing another expansion) pretty well; and you can imagine how important it is for a new company that is built from a scratch to start with a successful title.

And then, the success of Space Alert was a big surprise for me. I always knew I am doing games for geeks, and I was happy with that. I never expected any of my games to get any prize from Spiel des Jahres jury. And then, it came from the least expected side. I have to say, I very appreciated that. It ensured me the people behind SdJ are still as playful, as they should be, and can think out of the box.

And then… eh, damn, is this better, when instead of refusing to mention any of my games, I am naming almost every one of them? :)

[Liga] Yes … it is the same problem … anyway … was nice to hear from you Vlaada Chvatil designing game story! Almost all your games are really themed. How much the theme is important for you in the design process ? Are you used to start from theme or from the mechanics ?

[Vlaada] Of course theme is important for me, and although sometimes I start from mechanics or from game format, theme is the first thing that is fixed. I have never changed theme of the game during its development. You know, the game design is a road full of crossroads, every mechanic can be done by many ways, and it helps to have some fixed point – I always try to prefer the ways that seem to fit the theme best.

They said, with many euros you can change the theme after the game is finished, and no one would know. You would probably know if someone would do this with my game, as many small details and rules would be somewhat floating in void without the original theme that gave them a reason. I think, if starting with the same set of mechanics but different theme, I would probably end up with a very different game.

[Liga] Yes, this is actually a good point of your games and is it part of your style. This sentence “the game design is a road full of crossroads, every mechanic can be done by many ways, and it helps to have some fixed point – I always try to prefer the ways that seem to fit the theme best.” can really well depict some aspects of Vlaada style.
I know you worked for videogames company: how much computer and videogames influenced your design style and the results of your productions ?

[Vlaada] It might look my passion for thematic and more complex games is consequence of my computer game past, but it is rather opposite. I was creating very complex and heavily thematic board games for my friends even before starting to work in the videogame industry. I just welcomed computers as a good platform for implementing games.
I think my videogame past mostly influenced the methods I am using. Development of a bigger computer game is a long run, and it pays off to invest into tools. I am doing the same when developing more complex board games (although sometimes I doubt it is a reasonable approach :). Thus I usually start by creating game developing system rather than the game itself. It includes a computer prototype of the game and automatic data processing. The game starts in virtual form; all the data (card texts, values etc.) are in excel tables, and they are automatically converted (using prototype graphic elements I create) to a virtual prototype. I am playing it over and over on my computer screen, tweaking rules, balancing cards, and also improving the visual appearance. When I am happy, I use automatic export to create print sheets of the first prototype. This approach comes handy during the entire development: I maintain, tweak and balance all the data in excel, which keeps my virtual prototype and automatically created real prototypes synchronized. In some cases, the virtual prototype is turned to a fully automated online prototype later, for final balancing with testers over internet. Well, you would probably guess this is something that might be affected by my previous profession :)

[Liga] That’s great! I know many designers are starting to use computer simulation in the designing phases: Vassal Engine is becoming really a great tool in the hands of designers and testers.
Which is the main different between designing a videogame and designing a boardgame ?

[Vlaada] From my point of view, the big difference between computer games and board games is role of the design. Not that it is unimportant in computer game, but much bigger part of the game budget is the visual presentation, marketing etc. And that’s a problem, as you have to invest a lot to these items, and when you do, you want the money to return. Thus you have to target as wide audience as possible; you cannot do full budget videogames for geeks. Clever videogame design is about how to trick people to play the game, not about the game mechanic themselves, and fluent experience is more important than intriguing challenges.
And one more difference, maybe subtle, but important to me – I really like target audience for board games. Board game conventions have friendlier atmosphere than videogame conventions, and forums at websites like boardgamegeek are full of cultivated people that both love and understand board games; this surely wasn’t that common on videogames forums.

[Liga] Do you think there are not gamers willing to ask you if designing videogames could be considerated a form of Art ? It seems you are not used to co-design games. What do you think about team-working and why you are used to design games alone ?

[Vlaada] Well… this is in fact the only thing I am really missing from my videogame years; I loved the team work. Unfortunately, my design process is not very suitable for co-designs. It is not that I sit to the table and say “okay, now, I am going to invent a game”. I was thinking many weeks, months or even years about most of my games (at least the bigger ones) before actually creating the first version. I am thinking about the theme, considering different mechanics and their combinations, imagining the game flow and how the players will think and what they will experience during the game etc. When I start to really work on a game, I have usually very detailed idea how it should work. The problem with this design process is: vast majority of it is done in downtime – when traveling, when taking a shower, when going to buy milk and bread, before falling asleep or after I wake up (and I suspect sometimes also between it :). To fully join this process, the other person should be in my head :).

But… never say never. I still hope that sometimes in future, I will design a game or two together with my friends. I hope it will not necessarily require to commit some crime and then to share a prison cell :)

On the other hand, I am glad I am not only an author. As a part of CGE, I work on the games we publish to the very end. With Petr, Filip and other CGE people, we spend countless hours thinking about every rule detail, balancing every number, trying find the best way how to organize the game boards, how to make the symbols clear etc. I am pretty sure this significantly contributes to the final experience. And I am grateful for that, especially whenever I see a game that is very well designed but poorly done in these aspects.

[Liga] You started to describe also what’s happen to a game before its final version. How much time did it take to playtest and fine-tuning a game ?

[Vlaada] With most of my games, it is 9 to 18 months from the first playable prototype to the final version. I thought it will be less now, when I am considering board games my main job, but it is not. Games need their time.

[Liga] That’s great. I think many designers and companies seems to be afflicted by the “Essen release” syndrome that means they have to produce a game in just an year and that, sometimes, produces games that really could have had a great improvement with some more develop and test.

How much is the designing process and the final graphics related ? In strongly themed games I think it is important, isn’t it ?

[Vlaada] Well, these are two separate questions in fact. As for the designing process – yes, I believe the graphic is important for the impact of the game, and thus I spend many hours creating prototype graphics, although I know it will be thrown away later. I just want even the first playable prototype to look as good as possible, so the people feel the theme and atmosphere. Also – most of my playtesters are my friends, in local game clubs or gaming events. I am really grateful for the fact they are testing my games despite there are hundreds of finished nice looking games they could play instead, and thus it seems fair to do my best with the prototypes.

And if the theme and feeling of the game work good with the prototype graphic, it can be only better when we hire a professional artist later to create final art for it.

[Liga] I’m just starting playing Dungeon Petz, one of your Essen releases, and in the preamble you wrote “it is probably the first game I started designing with the artist in mind”. Of course it is a sort of “sequel” of Dungeon Lords and it will be really different without Imps and the same arts.

[Vlaada] Yes, but this one went farther. I mean, it was one of the reasons why I created the game this way, and also why I created it at all – to give more space to David Cochard’s creativity and cute style.

[Liga] Your production goes from deep hardcore gamers game like Through the Ages and Dungeon Lords to light party games like Travel Blog. Which is the common sign/trait in your games ?

[Vlaada] Eh, I do not know, you tell me :). Perhaps a slight tendency to overcomplicated things. Although I am doing games of different categories, my games usually are on the most complex end in that category. Sometimes even a bit beyond. I am kind of reluctant to do gameplay or theme compromises towards simplicity. Instead, I spend dozens of hours by finding way how to explain rather complex rules by the most accessible way in the rulebook. For my most complex games, I wrote special walkthrough with introductory scenarios. (Maybe another relic of my videogame days – I always believed a developer should invest in a good tutorial :). Fortunately, the rules are not hard to remember once you learn them, as they usually make sense within the game system and theme.

Anyway, the truth is, I just do the games the way I like them myself, and I hope there are enough players around the world as geeky as I am… Fortunately, it worked so far. Have I already said I love board game players? :)

[Liga] I’m just reading Mage Knight rules and I find the walkthrough excellent. I also like how you write the rules, starting from Galaxy Trucker, down to Space Alerts and Dungeon Lords/Petz. They looks like stories with great irony. Great. It really seems you are designing games and writing rules with gamers in your heads and the result is impressive!

[Vlaada] Thanks for kind words. I will print them and show to CGE guys whenever they are mad on me because I missed another rulebook deadline :) But again – it is a teamwork. Lots of credit goes to Jason Holt, my friend living in Montana, who does great job not only by translating the rules, but also by helping to systematize and improve them.

[Liga] You and CGE make evident to the game world Czech production: is there something we can call “Czech school” ? Can we point Vlaada Chvatil as master of this school ?

[Vlaada] Sorry, I think there is no “Czech school”. Every Czech designer has his or her own style. Even if you talk about “German school” or “American school”, I think it is given rather by the target audience than designers themselves. And since we have internet and online shops, borders do not matter anymore :)

[Liga] It could be. Anyway several designers shares style or common traits depending where they grew up as designers/gamers.

[Vlaada] Not having their own “school”, Czech players always played the best games of all types :). I know people who are in deep love with US style games, and people who are damn good at Euros, and for many both applies. (Btw: Czech teams were gold and bronze on Europemasters in Essen this year.)

[Liga] That’s good. I think that having strong gamers in the country could really help in having also good publishers and also the other way round. Almost all the artist had a master: who is Vlaada Master ? The person that taught you most about boardgame design ?

[Vlaada] Well, I am sorry. Perhaps I am not artist enough, but I have no particular master. If I see a perfect game, I do not have a tendency to say “Wow, I would like to create a game like this”. Instead, I am usually inspired by unused potential or gaps in the market. “This could be made better way” or “why no one did this yet” are more often the impulses that start my designs.

Of course, I do have favorite designers. If I had to name one, it would be probably Stefan Feld; I really like his designs – clever mechanics that fit the theme by a light, but very elegant way.

[Liga] It is really strange because Stefan (you can read the interview now online) has a really different approach to game design.

[Vlaada] That’s what I am saying. I like his games as they are, and thus I have no need to follow the same way. I do not think there is one optimal genre or style the game world should converge to. It is the vast variety of game universe I appreciate and admire, both as a player and as a designer.

[Liga] Now Vlaada, we are going close to the end of this really nice interview. Do you think designing games is actually a form of art or you think yourself like a skilled craftsman ?

[Vlaada] Well, it depends on how strictly you take the word ‘art’. I would rather say it is a creative craft. I am not a “true artist” who does Art with capital A, who needs to express himself or follow his inner voice. There is lots of enthusiasm, sudden ideas and extreme involvement, but also lots of analysis, evaluating, thinking, excel sheets and programming… I am sure more a geek than an artist :).

[Liga] Where do you take the inspiration for subject/mechanics of your games ?

[Vlaada] That differs game from game, but generally, I just spend lots of time thinking about games.
Sometimes I think about unusual formats and styles of gameplay: What about creating a game where you build something in real-time

Sometimes, I think about unusual formats and styles of gameplay: What about creating a game where you build something in real-time? How to create a cooperative game where time pressure does not allow one person to manage all? How about a game that causes people to look extremely weird and funny when playing it? How about a drawing game where you do not have to wait for your turn to draw? Etc.

I wish to translate some experience and feelings of my favourite PC games (like Civilization, Dungeon Keeper, or Heroes of Might and Magic) to a board game.

And sometimes, it is just coincidence. Like when I had to work with world map when designing some videogame, and realised that the map and connections between countries are very interesting on their own.

[Liga] Great to hear that. And, happy to say, you were able to well design “a cooperative game where time pressure does not allow one person to manage all “, a game “where you build something in real-time” and so on … Do you think is important to continue play other designers games to be able to make good design ? How many sessions/hours you dedicate during the week to actually playing games?

[Vlaada] For me, definitely yes. Although it is more matter of motivation than inspiration. When I am on a game event, playing games for several days and nights and seeing the other people enjoying games, when I see the vast variability of games and that incredible concentration of great ideas, intelligent fun and social interactions, I am always filled with new energy and want to add my part to all this.

Beside game events, I play one evening and night a week in Brno boardgame club. And, of course, at home with my wife and children.

[Liga] Is there a game you really like to have designed yourself ?

[Vlaada] There is none, sorry. I create the games because I want them to exist and to be played. If a great game already exists and is being played, it won’t improve anything to have my name on its box.

[Liga] If you have to describe Vlaada Chvatil with just 3 Vlaada Chvatil games: which and why ?

[Vlaada] I will probably take it over time:

15-25 years: Arena: Morituri the Salutant. Deeply involved but not analytic. Depends purely on your wits and skill, yet you can be never sure. Like my student years. Plus, I loved to do Gothic swordplay back then (I was in a historical fencing group).
25-35 years: Space Alert. It’s a team work, the reason why I loved to work in videogame industry.
35+ years: Dungeon Lords/Petz. It takes an epic theme not seriously but treats it with love. Like me as a family man :)

Sorry if you expected Though the Ages. It is way more sophisticated game, than me as a person :).

[Liga] I’m a Through the Ages fan but also really like Space Alerts, Dungeon Lords/Petz and now Mage Knight (but I’m still floating over the surface of a game I feel and hope has really much to offer … and an endless possibility of expansions!). Why you started to design games and why you are still happy to continue design games ?

[Vlaada] Most children invent their own games, don’t they? I just never stopped… First, I was creating games for myself, then for children clubs and camps (similar to scouts), then for my friends and colleagues, then for computer geeks and now for board game geeks. I love it. If I would stop, it would probably mean I became adult :).

[Liga] I hope not! What do you think about Opinionated Gamers mission: a web site where talk about games giving opinion and doing things like interviews, articles … do you think is important to talk about games world (designers, market, companies, ideas) or it is better to write just about the games ?

[Vlaada] It is not really important to talk about games world, neither to write about games, and in fact even to play or create them. But it is great that beside important things, we can do also the ones we enjoy. You clearly enjoy your mission, and there are many readers that appreciate that, so it is sure a great thing. By the way, Opinionated Gamers is currently the only website I allowed to send me notifications on new stuff by email.

[Liga] That’s good … probably to be sure not to miss the next Ted’s Board 2 Pieces strips. What can you suggest to young designer starting their careers ?

[Vlaada] Eh, sorry, I still kind of feel myself to be rather an enthusiast entering the “board game industry” by a chance, and I just recently realized that this is probably what is called a career. So, maybe rather some experienced publisher should give advices. As my main advice would be: do things the way you like. Which is more fun, but does not necessarily to lead to a career :)

[Liga] Thank you Vlaada and I hope to meet you at a game table playing a good game for real board games geek.

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About Andrea "Liga" Ligabue

Andrea "Liga" Ligabue is a game expert contributing to many games related international projects including Gamers Alliance Report, WIN, ILSA Magazine and Boardgamenews. Member of the International Gamers Awards Committee is coordinator of PLAY: The Games Festival and founder of the project Ludoteca Ideale.
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9 Responses to The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #15 – Vlaada Chvatil

  1. Graenaland IS a really good game. It fired Settlers for me. At least when playing with folks not afraid of “slightly overcomplicated” games, as Vlaada admits to. But sadly, it just needed another round or two of development. Like playing cooperating to build stuff just almost never happens, despite sounding like a great idea.

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    Nice interview. I’ve enjoyed Galaxy Trucker quite a bit, especially as there really is nothing else like it. True to the interview, it has a lot of rules, but because they are so tied to the game’s theme, I have been able to teach this game to children without any problems. And they always ask to play it again! It’s also a good game for teaching them not to give up, even when their space ship gets blown to bits the first time around.

    This reminded me that I have to try Space Alert sometime.

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    Oh–and I really envy you in your ability to create computer prototypes that easily “sync” with paper ones. Sounds like a useful and timesaving system!

  4. Tom Rosen says:

    Great interview Liga and Vlaada. Some interesting insights into the design process there. I definitely see that complexity, even in things like Bunny Bunny Moose Moose and Pictomania, which are probably Vlaada’s lightest games, but still a bit convoluted for the party game genre. It’ll be hard to ever top Galaxy Trucker and Through the Ages in my mind, but I’m still always eager to try Vlaada’s new stuff.

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