POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #47: Air Time for Game Design

Mainstream journalists can have a difficult time covering modern boardgames and the gaming culture. In fact, their experiences are usually so limited that they are probably tempted to relegate their pieces to the “foreign news” section. But the curious existence of a thriving boardgame culture alongside a more lucrative computer game market still garners plenty of press.

Lately, it seems, we’ve had as many journalists as playtesters visiting our game designers’ sessions at Berlin’s gaming café, the Spielwiese. And some of our games are even turning up on television on the other side of the ocean, most notably CBS Sunday Morning’s recent program, “Board Games Through the Ages.” Today, the German cultural station ARTE aired their own take on the international gaming culture and the place of games in society throughout history. Made for the daily program X:enius (available in German and French), it is entitled “Warum wir spielen, und was wir dadurch lernen (Why we play and what we learn from it)” and is also viewable online until next Tuesday.

(EDIT: unfortunately, I found out after posting this, that the program on ARTE cannot be viewed online by anyone outside of Germany, although I assume the French version could be viewed in France.)

Late last year, a documentary filmmaker contacted me about participating in the project. She was particularly interested in the process of game design, and she was intrigued by the number of freelance designers on whom publishers rely for their products. Herself a freelance producer, she wanted to make a program that also showed the design process for one of my yet-unpublished games.

I’ve always been very interested in both journalism and film. Just as she was interested in learning more about the game design process, I was excited to learn more about the filmmaking process. I must admit, however, that I was also humbled, as I don’t design games for a living, and there are many German designers who are much more established and successful than I am. “I think your background in architecture also makes the story interesting, as well as the fact that you discovered German games here as a foreigner,” the producer assured me.

I’ve done interviews in the past, as the Spielwiese gets plenty of press for it’s unique business plan as a gaming cafe and rental shop. In fact, I’d even done an interview once for a Japanese TV program which was filming a feature on German boardgames. The show was meant to help people in that country learn German, and I apologized after the interview for the many Japanese who would now be speaking the language with an American accent.

But this would be different–a program which detailed the process I go through to get a game idea out of my head, onto paper, then onto the screen, and finally, back onto paper (and cardboard) as a prototype, ready to play-test in my Monday-night group. What would I say? What would I wear–artsy black, geeky t-shirt, or gamy Hawaiian print? And, most importantly, which unpublished prototype would I feature?

I finally decided on Würfelburg (Dice Castle), a game I’d been working on for some time and had just “finished.” It’s a 3-dimensional dexterity game, and I decided that would probably look the best on TV and would provide a bit more action that simply drawing cards and moving pieces on a board. The producer agreed.

Since the prototype was already finished, however, I had to do some preparation for the shoot. This meant a kind of “reverse game design,” as I had to erase some of my computer graphics so that I could redraw them in front of the camera, then print them out, etc. And I gathered all of my materials together in one corner of the living room to make it easier to film: computer, printer, laminating machine, and drawers of wooden gaming bits, dice and plastic chips.

Then one morning, the doorbell rang and writer/producer Fredérique Veith strolled in with her cameraman and another who did the sound & lighting. They had just a few pieces of equipment to carry, and set up quickly. All were very friendly, and before long, we were shooting in my living room.

It was fun to be able to hit the main points of the design process, recording each one in front of the camera, interjecting brief interviews on subjects such as the inspiration behind a game idea and the different elements that make up a good game. They filmed me paging through one of my son’s books on medieval castles, for example, as I pondered the design of Würfelburg. I also showed them a reconstructed “first prototype” that I made with my sons, using their wooden blocks and a standard square game box (the game was always meant to use both sides of the game box, the way many Zoch games do).

Many of the shots were quite repetitive, as they wanted multiple camera angles for each scene. At one point, for example, I was instructed to enter the room, move my hand along the games stacked in the bookshelf, pull one out to take a closer look, slip it back into place, pull out another one, slip it back, repeat again and again and again. Another time, they filmed me opening one of the drawers of wooden bits I keep for prototypes, searching through with my hands, then closing it again. Then I opened another, and another, until I came to the dice drawer, where I reached in to grab the correct colors of dice I needed. I supposed that there would be quite a few close-ups of my hands in the finished production.

They filmed me creating the graphics for the prototype on my laptop, but carefully avoided getting a shot of the obvious lighted brand symbol on the back of my computer. The camera then captured the action of graphics being printed out onto sticky-back paper and being laminated. Finally, it zoomed in on my scissors, as I cut out the glossy graphics and carefully peeled off the backs, sticking them to the dice and the cardboard. I could only imagine what kind of theme music they would use when this was all spliced together.

Towards the end, I brought out the finished prototype to demonstrate my first play-tests with it. Again, it was repetitive, as I flicked one die after the other. “Flick another one to exactly the same place,” I was often told. “If the game were that easy, I wouldn’t have designed it!” I wanted to say.

One angle Fredérique wanted to pursue was my background in architecture, and I dusted off my portfolio to show some of my work in that area. My design process with games is actually very similar to what it was with architecture. Back then, I would design through building models—sometimes using all sorts of materials, even wire and plaster. As a game designer, I prefer to design through prototyping, “building” many different versions until I finally feel comfortable taking it to my group for play-testing. Some designers prefer to have the game all worked out in their head, but I think better while I’m working with my hands and working on visual elements.

A few hours after the crew arrived, they were packed and out the door again. We met later that evening in the Spielwiese to film the most critical part of the design process: the play-testing session. Designer Bernd Eisenstein along with regular play-testers Rolf and Alfred were there. Jerome, a new designer to our group, who recently moved to Berlin from Canada, also joined us. Most of them were already familiar with my game, and we flicked dice under the bright lights as the camera moved about, capturing every angle imaginable. After filming a few minutes of the start, we moved the victory point markers ahead to jump to the end of the game. Then my play-testers were asked to give their impressions. Fredérique was excited to have Jerome there, as he came from Quebec and could answer in French, as X:enius is produced in two languages. Accordingly, I made an official request for a deep French voice for my overdub.

As I took a break to chat with Michael, they had the guys play some other games like Chess in front of the camera. That was probably the first time I’d ever seen that game come out in the Spielwiese!

The next and final step in the “Game-umentory” was on the following week, when the two moderators of the show came to the Spielwiese to interview owner Michael Schmitt, have a go with my prototype, and ask some more questions.

There were already “parking reserved” signs on the street in front of the Spielwiese early that week. These are usually reserved for moving trucks, and dreaded by most Berliners, as they take up valuable spaces and it’s not always easy to remember the dates scribbled on them. When the day usually arrives, in fact, the first order of business is for the police and towing service to remove the many cars that are still parked there, in order for the moving trucks to drive in. Bernd and I were even towed once during a game night there.

As far as I know, no cars were forcibly removed this time, and instead of moving trucks, a large van with the X:enius logo drove in and parked outside, as show moderators Dörthe Eikelberg und Pierre Girard popped out. Fredérique and the moderators’ camera/lighting/makeup team were there, too, ready to put the finishing touches on their show’s segment about the German boardgame scene and how a game idea is developed, published and entered into this competitive market. The Spielwiese is a good picture of how crowded that market is: the walls are crammed full of game boxes of every size and shape, and anyone unfamiliar with the popularity of the hobby here is immediately taken aback by the sight.

The moderators and team were no different, amazed by the height and breadth of it all. They began by interviewing Michael, at home behind his coffee bar. They asked him typical questions about the gaming hobby and the concept of his gaming cafe/store/rental service. Meanwhile, Fredérique asked me to set my game up in another corner–one in which they had not yet filmed. Apparently, they were trying to record each scene or interview in a different corner of the room in order to change up everything a bit.

Then the woman in charge of make-up came over to me with a tiny white tube. “Do you mind if I put a little bit of this cream on your nose and forehead to take some of the shine away?” she asked politely. She demonstrated on her hand how it would turn the “glossy” into a “matte” finish, then added, “Most men in particular feel uncomfortable if I come at them with powder, but this cream works just as well.”

During a break in the shooting, I joked with Fredérique that it was a good thing the shooting hadn’t been scheduled for two days earlier. During that time, this whole district of the city had been taken over by left-wing protestors, sometimes instigating violent clashes with police in riot gear. The reason: nine squatters were being forcibly evicted from a run-down six-storey apartment building so that the owner of the building could finally renovate it and charge rent for the place. The event attracted just about anyone who was anti-establishment (and there are quite a few of those in Berlin), or any other person who fantasized about throwing a rock at the police or setting an Audi on fire. Thankfully, everything was in order again, just in time for the filming, although it would have made for an interesting backdrop.

Then it came time to play the prototype of Würfelburg with Dörthe und Pierre, both of whom were very enthusiastic. Without the benefit of practice–or any experience with flicking games, for that matter–Dörthe unfortunately used too much strength, and the dice flew off of the table each time.

After a couple of brief rounds, we sat down around the table and they asked questions about how a designer gets games like Würfelburg published. After the interview finished, they continued to ask questions, demonstrating that theirs was more than a “professional” curiosity. Looking at their shows online, I think I would enjoy having their adventurous jobs, learning about so many different things and participating in such a variety of activities.

This adventure into boardgame development was over, however, and they moved outside to shoot a couple of closing scenes.

Now, the Game-umentory is on German and French TV, and, for the next week, also available for online viewing here. Following is a brief description of the program:

“Warum wir spielen, und was wir dadurch lernen (Why we play and what we learn from it)”

The program opens with the moderators, Dörthe und Pierre playing a large-scale game of Scotland Yard in the streets of Berlin with the help of an iPhone App. They discuss the enormity of the computer game market which transitions to a segment on South Korea, where professional gamers, earning 6-figure salaries, compete in the computer game Starcraft live, in front of 120,000 fans.

A surreal shot includes a gaming club “training” in a room full of computers. One young professional gamer admits, “We don’t have any time to meet with friends. Sure, we’re at an age when we could be discovering the world, but that doesn’t interest us. We just want to play (computer games).” Understandably, there are treatment centers in South Korea specifically dealing with computer gaming addictions.

Back in Berlin, Dörthe und Pierre reflect on their favorite childhood games. Predictably, Pierre picks the French classic card game, Milles Bornes, and Dörthe chooses the German Parcheesi variant and best-seller Mensch ärgere dich nicht.

Then, another monologue about the history of games: “Before people could write, they played. The world changes, but the urge to play remains.”
Four types of games are described: dexterity, chance, strategy, and a synthesis of several of these. Most games today, claims the narrator, are in this latter category, whether traditional or computer games. They interview someone from the Computer Game Museum in Berlin, something I had never heard of. They then film at Potsdam’s Center for Computer Game Research, demonstrating computer games which sense body motions (like the Wii games) and are also a synthesis of dexterity, strategy and chance.

At the 14:00 minute mark, Dörthe und Pierre visit the Spielwiese and interview Michael. “Are computer games a danger [to boardgame popularity]?” he is asked by Pierre. Michael: “No, boardgames were here before, computer games came later, both are developing further side by side.”
Dörthe: “…you could probably make more money selling computer games.”
Michael: “That may very well be true…but who wants to sit across from a monitor…It’s much nicer to sit together with other people…”
Both are astounded when Michael tells them that over 700 new boardgames are released every year.

Dörthe then introduces the boardgame design segment, “And behind each one of these games is a game idea and an inventor…” I am shown walking down my street, entering my house, looking through a bookshelf of games in our living room, etc. The editing is well-done, and set to a nice, guitar-driven soundtrack and monologue.

The narrator points out how playtime with my sons also inspired the first prototype of Würfelburg. They also show me playing my prototype for a wooden dexterity-based street-basketball game, which I built mainly for myself and my family. They show my published games and include my explanation for my best-seller, Aber bitte mit Sahne (Piece o’ Cake). Then comes the montage of scenes we filmed as I draw and construct the final prototype for Würfelburg, interspersed with interviews on how I happened upon my first game designers’ playtesting group in Berlin. As I pack up Würfelburg to take to my playtesting group at the Spielwiese, the narrator points out that the game is a synthesis of dexterity, strategy and chance, tying in with the thesis presented earlier that most modern games fall into this category.

Dörthe asks me later in the Spielwiese why I don’t invent computer games, since there is more money to be made. I think it was clear from Michael’s and my answers that we are doing this because we enjoy it, not because we are trying to fill our respective pockets.

At the end of my interview, they use my nationality as a transition to the final segment of the program, a historical look at American-made and international bestseller Monopoly. Interesting to note was its popularity in the former East Germany, as residents made do-it-yourself copies of the banned game, including some very original and culturally fitting “Chance” and “Community Chest” cards.

The show ends as it began, with Dörthe und Pierre playing another game. This time, it’s a round of Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine who will drive the X:enius van. Pierre wins, and they drive off.

About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
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