[As usual, I have tried to clean up the English from Liga! Herr Kramer’s English is quite good, and as a result, I did not edit his words at all. DY]
This interview with Wolfgang Kramer was a really nice surprise and I got a lot of new inputs for the series. We flied across most of the aspects of designing games, and Wolfgang highlighted many interesting aspects with his maxims. From teamworking “Discussions add life to the development process and make the work more varied.” to final design “A game must be exciting, it must arise emotions.”. Wolfgang told us that “when a game is good try to improve it”, that could be really helpful for new designers that usually are content with a good idea without deserving the right-time to test and tune. The interview closes with this fantastic assertion “I have to invent games; I am compelled to invent games” that show us how games belong to Kramer’s life.
Now we can start …
Liga: Hi Wolfgang, 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”.
According to BGG (that is not always perfect but a good point to start from), you have designed more than 150 games starting from 1974 with Tempo and Legemax and you are still active with 2010 releases and already some games scheduled for 2011. I’ve been really impressed by Asara, for me the title best suited for SDJ 2011 (actually is one of three games nominated for the title). Gamers will know you mostly for titles like El Grande, Princes of Florence or Tikal (actually the only game able to win SDJ, DSP and IGA), but your production is huge and impressive both in quantity and quality, with more than 35 years in the game market! Is there any game you are particularly proud of?
Wolfgang Kramer: There are some games which I am proud of. “El Grande” belongs to these games, but also “6 nimmt” (Take 6), “the trilogy Tikal, Java, Mexica”, “Torres”, “Verflixxt”, “Asara”, “Heimlich & Co.”, “Hacienda” and “Big Boss / The new Big Boss” and “Top Race” and there are some more.
- EL Grande because it has some very interesting new mechanisms and it was beside “The settlers of Catan” the beginning of the area of the German games, the new complex games. El Grande has released a lot of majority games.
- 6 nimmt! because it is so easy and nevertheless very demanding, if you play the professional rules. It has released a trend of new card games and it was the start of a game family: 6nimmt!, Hornochsen, Tanz der Hornochsen, 6 nimmt Junior, 11 nimmt! and new games in the future. The next will come 2012. Sold copies of 6 nimmt! are more than 2 millions.
- Tikal with the trilogy and Torres have beside some very interesting movement mechanisms some other new elements which you can find in games which were published later. These are the games with the action points.
- Verflixxt is a very easy game with a very interesting new mechanism which can be a basic mechanism in other games.
- Asara is a game which can be a bridge between very experienced and inexperienced players. The rules are simple and easy and nevertheless the game has an interesting depth and lasts not more than 60 minutes.
- Heimlich & Co (Top Secret Spies, Under Cover) was sold more than 1 million copies and it has the scoring track (“Kramer-Leiste”), which you can find in many games.
- Hacienda and Big Boss have the same roots and I like both very much.
- “Top Race” is the game with the most editions: “Tempo” (ASS, 1974, my first game), “Niki Laudas Formel 1 (ASS, 1980), “Formel 1 Nürburgring” (ASS, 1985, it was not authorized by me), “Daytona 500” (Hasbro, 1991), “Top Race” (ASS, 1996), “Race” (Alga, 1998), “Detroit-Cleveland-Grand-Prix” (Mayfair, 1998), “Top Race” (Aldi, 2002), “Top Race” (Pegasus, 2008) “Top Race” (Volkanik, Kanada, 2008). The biggest and most complex edition is from Pegasus.
You see I have no favourite and no such a successful game like “The settlers of Catan” or like “Carcassonne” or “Magic” or other top sellers but I have a row of very interesting games which I like very much. If I have to name only one game I name “El Grande”.
Liga: Yes, a really impressive row of top-level games that makes you one of the best game designers. As you told us, many games designed by you actually introduced new elements and mechanics used later by other designers. I’m sure Wolfgang Kramer is one of the “master” of several designers but is there someone you could says was your Master? The person that teached you most about game design or the person that helped you starting this great career ?
WK: I was very impressed and influenced by the games of Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph. One of my games I have dedicated Sid Sackson: Big Boss. I have sent him a prototype and asked him whether he would accept my dedication and he did. Later I was influenced by the games of Klaus Teuber and Reiner Knizia.
I get and got the most help of my wife Ursula. She tests all my games first, she give me tips, helps to built the prototypes. Short said: She helps me in all parts of the game designing.
Other help I get and got from many game testers. Game testing is very important and I animate my testers to say all critics they feel during playing the prototype – the stronger the better. Only critics help me to improve a game.
Liga: Apart from the great and continuous help of Ursula, you have designed a lot of games together with other designers. It seems you really like team-working. Do you think team-working could really improve the final results? There is a part of the design process you like most?
WK: The first 15 years I developed my games alone. Team-working was not planned. I tested my games with my friends and suddenly some of my friends have had ideas for new games (Jürgen Grunau, Hans Raggan, Rainer Rösner). And so it happened that we worked together at new games.
The cooperation with Richard Ulrich was arranged by Ravensburger. Richard Ulrich had a prototype at Ravensburger. Ravensburger liked the theme very much, but was not content with the game mechanism. Therefore they asked to work together with Richard Ulrich. So a successful team was born.
Michael Kiesling has founded an own company and has published two new games. But the games have had no success, so Michael asked me what he should do. We phoned and discussed more than two hours and suddenly we have had the idea for a new game “Haste Worte” (Have you words). FX Schmid published the game 1997 and it was successful. It is still on the market, now at HUCH.
So the successful team “Kramer & Kiesling” was born.
The cooperative development of a game with a co-author is much livelier, more active and is a lot more fun than developing a game on your own. Two heads think more than one. It’s possible to change your ideas in a short time. The games get tested more. The best idea out of several comes to the fore. Discussions add life to the development process and make the work more varied. You get confronted with new, interesting ideas. These are all advantages but there is also a big disadvantage: You get only the half of the royalties.
Liga: OK. So we can say that “two good games in cooperative development are better than a single game developed on your own in all!” Now it is time to go deep trying to disclose your style. Is there something that you think is common to all/most your design? Something you try to get in the final design of your games?
WK: What are the common characteristics of the following games:
Tikal, Mexica, Java, Colosseum, Auf Achse, Raja, Die Händler, The Princes of Florence, Asara, Master Builder, Celtica, El Capitan, Midnightparty, El Grande, Tikal II, Top Race, Heimlich & Co., Take 6! (6 nimmt!)?
1. They are developed very carefully and tested very often. My test partners are often astonished, when they say the game is really good and I do not finish the designing. Good is not enough for me. A game should be very good, better it should be excellent. One of my maxims is: when a game is good, try to improve it.
2. They have all an own atmosphere, an own charisma.
A game is for me an own, new, little world. When I develop a game I go into this world, I explore this world not knowing what will happen.
One of my maxims is: I don’t start with developing, if I don’t see an atmosphere in the world (in the game), if I can’t imagine the illustrations of the final result, if I am not excited, and if I don’t feel an inner desire to explore this new world.
The game should look mysterious and adventurous. It should have an atmosphere, which people like and make them curious, so they want know more about the game and they want to play it.
Therefore I do not start with the designing, if I do not see in my imagination such a game.
3. They all are a unit.
One of my maxims is: The theme, the title, the illustration, the game system, the mechanisms, the rules must be a unity.
4. They are all exciting, they are all arise emotions.
One of my maxims is: A game must be exciting, it must arise emotions. The thrill must be so high, that you will play the game very often.
5. Most of them are very different.
One of my maxims is to develop very different games: funny simple games, sophisticated games, strategy games, children games, family games, adult games, communication games, reaction games, skill games, memory games and so on.
6. They are all constructive and not aggressive.
One of my maxims is: The players act constructive in order to improve their own results. They do not act destructive and destroy the playing of their opponents. In my games a player damages another player only then, when he makes a good move for himself. The sense of his move is to help himself and not to damage the game of the other player.
7. They have all at least one new mechanism.
Some of them have influenced the developing of games of other designers.
8. I like the playing with more than four players. Therefore I have developed many games for six and more players, for example: 6 nimmt! (2-10), Ochs & Esel (3-12). Personality (3-8), Haste Worte (3-8), Mitternachtsparty (2-8), Tanz der Hornochsen (2-8), Heimlich & Co. (2-7), 11 nimmt! (2-7), Verflixxt (2-6 / 2-8), Expedition (2-6), Auf Achse (2-6), In 80 Tagen um die Erde (2-6), Forum Romanum, (2-6), Big Boss (2-6), Wildlife (2-6) and so on.
Liga: Great answer! I think with this 8 points and the maxims you are really been able to show us how and where your games came from. I really like ‘when a game is good try to improve it“, that show the importance to well test and develop a game. Nowadays too many news designers are publishing games that are nothing more than good ideas with some design … as you say designing a game is something more.
Also: “The players act constructive in order to improve their own results. They do not act destructive and destroy the playing of their opponents” is really a common trait in your design and is something many “German” designers are looking for.
I really like also the fact that all the games have at least one new mechanism.
If we want to try to condense Kramer’s style into a short paragraph we can say something like “Creating a new game Kramer is looking for something able to arise emotions; the game must have something new with all the part of the game making an unit. The game must me something more than good and has to encourage a constructive play”
Reading your answers it looks like “theme” is something really important in your design process, isn’t it?
WK: Yes, that is right. I prefer games with themes and I spend a lot of time searching for interesting themes and if I work on a game with a theme (not an abstract game) the theme has a part of about 20% of the development. Nevertheless I have also developed abstract games; especially my first games were abstract. If I work now on an abstract game I try to find a “half theme”, for instance the “Hornochsen” (the cows and bulls) are a “half theme” for “6 nimmt!”
Liga: Now we are going to the end of the interview with some questions I’m used to make to all the designers. Is there a game designed by others you really would like to have designed yourself?
WK: Sure, there are a lot of games which I would like to have designed by myself. All the great famous games would be in my big list: “Carcassonne”, “Dominion”, “7 Wonders”, “Magic, “Siedler von Catan”, “Puerto Rico, “Stone Age”, “Caylus” and so on, and so on.
Liga: 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.
WK: Near Stuttgart there are more than six games clubs. I go there to play the new games and to test my prototypes. In the eighties, and nineties I bought and played all the important new games of year, this was about 70 games in a year. Now, in the last five years we have so much excellent new games that I find not enough time to play them all.
Liga: Try to describe Wolfgang Kramer with just 4 Wolfgang Kramer games: which and why?
- “Heimlich & Co” (1984), because it was my first game of the year and my first big success and it was the first game where I have used the “Kramer Leiste” (the scale for the winning points around the board).
- “6 nimmt!” (1994) because it is the most sold game of my games and the starter of the
“6 nimmt! family” and it is translated and published in the most foreign countries and it has produced a trend in card games.
- “El Grande” (1995), together with “Richard Ulrich”, because it has the most new game mechanisms of my games and it has produced a trend in majority games and together with “The Settlers of Catan” the trend of complex strategy games which keeps till today and I think it has set up together with other great games of my designer colleagues the title “German Games”.
- “Tikal” (1999), because it was my first Game of the Year together with “Michael Kiesling”. It was the first of many complex games with Michael. “Tikal” has also some interesting new game mechanisms and the players have to use “action points”.
Liga: And of course Tikal is actually the only game in the history able to win Spiele des Jahres, DSP and International Gamers Awards.
I know you are really involved in many activities related to games so, what have you to do with games besides designing games?
WK: I do a lot for games. I am teaching playing games and teaching developing games,
I founded several games clubs, I lecture about games; I report and write about games. Together with some colleagues I have founded the game-designer-association and was many years in leading positions in this union. Games belong to my life.
Liga: Games belong to your life and Kramers belong to games world. My last question is: why do you invent games?
WK: I think games are important for human beings. Playing games is older than writing and reading. Playing belongs to our life as sleeping, eating, drinking, working and praying. I will bring new good games to the people and I try to make playing games more popular. Games are bridges which bring people together over nations and generations. Each game is a little own world and helps kids to learn a lot about our social life and helps to understand better the real life.
These are enough reasons to invent games, but the true reason is that I have to invent games; I am compelled to invent games.
Liga: Thank you Wolfgang for your time. Really a great interview! A lot of things to think about and really a lot of cues for this series. Good play and best wishes