The Art of Design: Interviews to game designers #4 – Martin Wallace

[As always, I’ve made a few edits to clean up the writing and make it a bit more readable.  Hopefully I have not put any words into the mouths of Liga or Martin!  Though, in this case, Martin’s words are his own as he is a native English speaker…. Dale]

Here I am again with “The Art of Design”.  Today, I’m managed to catch Martin Wallace, one of the most prolific game designers in the last years with a truly excellent portfolio – including award winners like Age of Industry and Age of Steam.  Martin’s games are well known not only for good mechanics but also for a strong connection with the theme. Martin says “the challenge of designing a game is how to capture some of the feel of the theme” and also “I try to match the mechanisms with the theme“. I think this could really give us an idea of Martin’s “sign”. We can start the interview now…

[Liga] Dear Martin. I’m happy to have the possibility to interview you for the Opinionated Gamers blog. I have already interviewed you for ILSA Magazine, but now we are talking about art. I really think designing games is an art and so I think we need some resources (web-site, magazines, …) dedicated to “opinion” and “criticism” about games. Most of our readers will know you really well: your game production is impressive with more than 60 games from 1993 to today. You are close to your 20th year of design, and you are one of the most prolific designers that I know. I’m a Age of Steam fan and it was the game that made me know Martin Wallace — but I also like most of your games. In this huge amount of games Is there a game you are particularly proud of? Why?

[Martin] I’m lucky to have had a few designs published, although a lot of these I had to do myself. From my older games the one I’m most pleased with is Age of Steam, due mainly to the way it has allowed so many people to develop their own maps. A lot of folks never get the chance to design their own game, so being able to design a map, and have it published, is a good second best. Of my more recent designs I’m particularly pleased with Automobile. You never really know how a design is going to turn out, and what surprised me how the game play can vary even though you are using the same series of card spaces. What I also like is the close correlation between the decisions a player has to make and those that a real car manufacturer would have to take.

[Liga] That’s true. I’m also very pleased with Automobile and with the IGA winners Brass/Age of Industry. Excluding few exceptions, like Runebound, you are used to design your games alone: really few titles are team-working? Why?

[Martin] I don’t think I’m cut out for co designing. Some games are designed in incremental steps, bits being added, others being taken away. Such a process could allow a couple of designers to co operate. However, very often I will redesign a game from scratch to solve a problem. This would annoy the hell out of any partner designer.

[Liga] I was lucky enough to work “close” to you for Moongha Invaders, the game you designed for PLAY: The Games Festival and I know you have “deleted” several designs before getting something you were happy about. In the special ILSA issue about you, I pointed out that most of your designs have strong mechanics but also a really strong connection with the theme. Do you think there is something common in your design? I think designing games is an art: what is Martin Wallace “sign”?

[Martin] As much as possible I try to match the mechanisms with the theme. I really don’t like pasted on themes. Even those games of mine that might seem a little abstract always started with a theme in mind. The challenge of designing a game is how to capture some of the feel of the theme. An example would be the Moongha game that I designed for the Modena show. I really struggled with the brief and it took longer to design than I would have liked. What I knew I wanted was something that felt like a B move, where there’s a monster out there but you don’t know about it yet. Only towards the end of the film does the monster appear and the shooting start. In Moongha monsters remain hidden while they build up their strength. It’s up to the hero to discover the monster before it is too strong.

[Liga] So “match the mechanisms with the theme” is really something common to all your designs and “The challenge of designing a game is how to capture some of the feel of the theme” is something close to what we can identify as Martin’s sign. Of course since the theme is the starting point your games are different. While researching your games, I also found that most of your designs have in common: an unstructured game turn … is that true ?

[Martin] If by unstructured game turn, you mean one where players simply take it in turns to perform an action (or usually two actions) then that is something I like to employ in a design. A simple game structure is easier to learn. However, it does not work for all games, such as Automobile or God’s Playground. It all depends what works best for the theme.
[Liga] I think sometimes a young designer will try to follow your steps, since you really have a solid track record in the game industry. All the great artists have a Master: who is your master? The person that taught you most about designing games?

[Martin] I admire the games of Francis Tresham. It’s difficult to criticise somebody who has created two separate genres of games, with Civilisation and 1825. What is interesting about his designs is that all of the chaos and complexity emerges from player interaction rather than the use of dice and cards. His Dutch Revolution is a wonderful example of this, with carefully controlled inputs and outputs to create a push-pull effect on players.

[Liga] It is really enlightening that you cited an “American” designer. Your games are something between the typical German “obsessive” research of the “right” mechanic and the American games. Is there a game designed by others you really liked to have designed yourself \?

[Martin] I would loved to have designed Puerto Rico. It packs a lot of well focused decision making into a relatively short period of playing time.

[Liga] Yes, I agreee. Cristian T. Pedersen also cited Puerto Rico in his posscript to his Twilight Imperium rules. To conlude this interview, If you have to describe Martin Wallace with 3 Martin Wallace games, which games and why?

[Martin] Choosing three games to describe myself with is a difficult one. Liberte is an example of taking a complex historical situation and boiling it down to a relatively small set of rules. Steam is an example of wanting to improve on an already good design. My next game, Ankh-Morpork is an indicator of the future. Up to now I have used historical themes for my designs. What I would like to do in the future is branch out into literary themes, as long as they are rich enough in detail.
[Liga] I was luck enough to play Ankh-Morpork at PLAY: The Games Festival and, if this is the future, I think it will be shining since literary themes are an huge jar to draw from.. Thank you

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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3 Responses to The Art of Design: Interviews to game designers #4 – Martin Wallace

  1. John Bohrer says:

    “Cristian T. Pedersen” is actually Christian T. Petersen, Andreas. See
    for verification.

  2. zoran says:

    A game based on the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks would be a dream come true.

  3. Larry Levy says:

    My dream game would be based on the Amber novels, but I think Zelazny’s estate wants a mint for the rights.

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