The Art of Design: Interviews to game designers #8 – Bruno Cathala

Today I’m going to interview Bruno Cathala, one of the most prominent designers of the so called “French School”. Bruno is most known for games like Shadows over Camelot or Mr. Jack but has a lot of other great designs in his portfolio. During this interview, as usual, I have tried to emphasize Bruno’s style and sign. It is interesting to discover how Bruno approaches the design: “The only rule I apply to me is to design a game I would like to play myself.” Talking about team-working, Bruno tells us “Creating means doubting. And it’s more comfortable to share his doubts with a colleague than to doubt alone at home.” That is a really interesting point of view. We touch the heart of the interview when Bruno asserts “a player has to face small but crucial choices” that is really a common trait in all his design. But now we can proceed with the interview.

Dear Bruno, I’m really happy to have the possibility to interview you for the Opinionated Gamers Web site. Assuming that designing games is a form of art, no more or less than writing books or casting movies, we will try to find out Bruno Cathala’s style, going through your production. Assuming what BGG displays, you have designed more than 40 games/expansions starting from 2002. A real great score for something less than 10 years of your career. I think that Shadows over Camelot and Mr. Jack are two games that made you famous, but is there in your production a game you are particularly proud of?

I’m really a lucky guy… It’s really incredible to have been published so many times. Just hope it will go on this way…

You’re right, Shadows over Camelot and Mr Jack are probably the most famous of my games.
But I’m  also really proud of Cyclades, Dice Town, Jamaica and Kamon (which is probably the least known of my games, and now available on appstore ;-)

I’m still playing this games quite each week, without any boring aspect. No more thinking about their game design, just as a player. It’s exactly the kind of game I like to play.
One last game I’m  really proud is “Sans FoI NI Loi” which is the first game I designed. I really would happy to find someone wanted to publish it again !

As most of the designers you have difficulty to point out just one game! Can you tell us how usually you design a game? Where do the ideas come from? How much does it take?

The only rule I apply to me is to design a game that I would like to play myself.

Then, there are 3 starting situations:

  • starting with the theme, the story you want to tell, and then trying to find mechanisms according to that.
  • starting with mechanisms: first idea is then something more “mathematical”. And then searching which story could be connected with this kind of mechanisms
  • starting with the components: for example making a game with phosphorescent cards

With my friends and colleagues Bruno Faidutti, Serge Laget, Antoine Bauza and Ludovic Maublanc, we tried to explained the origin of the first spark in our games: (but it’s in french, sorry)

On my side, original idea is coming half from the theme and half from the mechanisms.

Then, how much time it takes…

It really depends of the game!
For example, for Shadows aver Camelot and Cyclades, it took… many years to reach the final balance with were looking for.
For some games, it can go really faster: for example, MOW was made in 5 minutes!
But these are extreme situations. For a middle game, I think that it needs only one or two testing sessions to know if there is really something to do with the idea, and between 6 and 12 months to reach the final balance.

You have designed many games together with other designers. Can you please tell us if you like team working or not and why?

Of course I like team work ! I wouldn’t have made so many games that way if it wasn’t the case ;-)

I like to work this way for many reasons:
Creating means doubting. And it’s more comfortable to share his doubts with a colleague than to doubt alone at home.
And when a game becomes successful, I have more pleasure to share this success with a friend, than to be happy alone at home!

An other aspect if this team work, is of course brain storming. Confronting you ideas with an other game designer “shakes your head” and leads to new ideas that any of the two partners would have if they have stayed alone.

But this working way has some constraints: you must accept to sometime give up some of your ideas to go in on other direction!

I really like your assertion: “creating is doubting”. It is a really interesting point of view. Before going into the rest of the interview, I would like to ask you if there is a designer you really like working with and why. And also if there is something in “team-design” you are particularly skilled (something like “initial idea”, “working with the theme”, …)

Frankly speaking, each time, it’s really a pleasure to work with my partners (depending of the game: Bruno Faidutti, Serge laget, Ludovic Maublanc, Antoine Bauza, Sebastien Pauchon and Malcolm Braff). And… with each time, it’s a different experience !

Each duo (or trio when working with the Gameworks team) has created its own way of working. I have my own input in all these partnerships. Hard for me to tell what is my main input in all these different associations. I have to say that, before working on games, I’ve been working for 18 years in Research and development in Material sciences (creating and developing new Tungsten alloys). And… creating games needs exactly the same methodology. That means that my brain has been formatted by all these years of scientific research and development. This experience and methodology in R&D team work is probably one of my strengths. I’ve been trained to find a solution when it seems to be no solution, to think differently, to use experimental plans to converge to the finest tuning, and so on… But you should ask them !!! it could be interesting to have their point of view in this discussion…

It could be a good idea. Now, going deep into the art of design. Do you think is there something common in your designs?

It’s hard to say for me.. I think that you are in a better position than me to give this answer.
I can only explain what I like to create in most of my games:
I try to create a lot of situation in which the player has to face small but crucial choices. My “device” is “one good for one evil”.. What I mean is that, if the player can choose something really good for him now, this must create a weakness for him on an other aspect of the game. And vice versa.

I try to find the best balance between information known by all the players, and some staying hidden. I like to make games in which there is enough known information to take strategical or tactical decisions, but in which there stays some hidden information to create surprise, bluffing and risk management.

Each time it’s possible, I also like to connect my mechanisms the closest as possible with the theme.  I don’t know if players clearly identify these things when thinking about my games, but it’s what I’m trying to do !

Of course the theme looks like something important for you, like for most of French designers. You told us sometimes you start from it or sometimes it comes later but always with some weight in the final design. I would like to ask you if, designing games, your are looking for synthesis, trying to keep the rules as much simple as possible, or for completeness, trying to add small rules able to give the feeling of the setting ?

Since my first game in 2002, I can notice an evolution in my work.
As a “newbie” designer, it was as if I had something to prove to myself and to all the world..
And the result was probably to put much more than necessary in these first games. (I think that this is a common default for all new designers.. the more often, you can identify 2 or 3 different interesting games into their first design)

Now, I always try to keep the rules the simpliest as possible. Or more precisely to find the good balance between richness and simplicity. (in my opinion simplicity is a good thing, except if it leads to a flat game)
And for such a “big” game as Cyclades, it took Ludovic and me more than 2 years to reach the good compromise. I’m sure we could have found a publisher with our initial work, which included much more small rules, but I’m happy we have make this effort, because I’m quite sure that it’s part of the success of this game!

I like a “good balance between richness and simplicity”, something that take you apart from the so called “German style”. Actually is there something common, a sort of “school”, in the French designers you are working with. We are used to think that the artistic part of the work is just the first one, when the ideas pop up one after other, but I think that also the “search of good compromise” and the fine work of tuning is something close to the last brushwork or the last hit from the chisel. What do you think about that?

Good compromise between richness and simplicity is sufficient to make a good game. But it’s not enough to make a game I would like to play. Three more things are really important for me:

  1. coherence between theme and mechanisms: It’s important to me that I could feel to be a pirate, or a cowboy, and not only being the best mathematical expert around the table.
  2. Interaction: I don’t like much games with only indirect interaction, where each player is playing on his own personal board. Some of these games are really good, but there is something missing for me. I prefer something more direct.
  3. Artwork: is something of great importance, because it helps to immerge players into the story

I think that these points have a great importance for Francophones designers, and publishers (I would include Switzerland, Belgium and Quebec).  Maybe that’s this global compromise that you are calling “french style”

Yes, I really think this attention to interaction and artwork over all is really a common trait in Francophone designers and publishers: something we can have the pomposity to claim “French Style”.
Almost all the artists have a master. Is there some one Bruno Cathala can point out as a master ? Someone teached you most about the art of designing games ?

Well.. probably Alex Randoph. His work has been so incredible. And I think it’s maybe the first game designer who identified the importance of the design of the components. And who worked on it !!

And I have to make a “big up” to Richard Garfield. The impact of Magic the gathering on modern games is fantastic!
Just 2 examples:
Mr Jack and 7 wonders. Do you know what these games have in common ?
Both are based on a drafting system coming from M:tG!
In Mr Jack, the way players choose which character to play each round is the drafting way used to share Magic cards when only one of the players owns them !!

In 7 wonders, the drafting is the same than in booster draft competitions.
What we have made with these systems is completely different, but the influence is evident.
And I could find a lot of other examples in a lot of modern games.
So. Richard, if you read this article, I just want to say thank you for your work and for having opening the doors to a a new field for modern games!

Wow! Randolph and Garfield together! That’s great! Of course Richard Garfield is known worldwide for Magic, but I’m a big RoboRally fan. Another clever design that inspired a lot of games. Is there a game designed by others you really would like to have designed yourself?

Oh yes!!!!!  Ricochet Robot!!!

I prefer RoboRally. But why do you like Ricochet Robot so much?  I think it is quite far from the things you were asserting needed for good games (artwork, interaction and coherence between theme and mechanics)… isn’t it?

You’re completely right!! The only thing which fits with my list is “Interaction” (like in all games where players are playing at the same time).  But Ricochet Robot is something special. Is it really a game.. I don’t know. In my mind it’s more like “finding a solution”, “solving an equation”, like in chess diagrams when you have to find, for example, checkmate in 3 rounds.

For me, as a student, mathematics and equation solving has always been a game. And I have quite the same feeling when playing Ricochet Robot. I’m also a competitor. And trying to find the solution before the others is the kind of challenge I like.
More over, there is an aesthetic dimension in Ricochet Robot. What I mean is that very often, there are many solutions in front of a situation, but when many of them are “trivial”, and some other ones are more subtle, and I like this kind of “beauty”… the same than in mathematics problems, one more time.
So… I really love this game… but as you can see, the reasons why I love it are the same that make a lot of people hating it !!
And I’m not sure that there is a wide public for this king of game now.

Do you think playing games is important to be a good game designer ? Are you used to play a lot and keep update about the new releases ?

I think that it’s impossible to become a game designer if you don’t know anything about modern games. You must have a minimum knowledge about the main games on the market.
But you don’t need to know all the games !

On my side, I don’t have time enough to play all the new releases. I play only few of them.
I keep my playing time to work on my own prototypes (and on the one of my friends).
Ans time to time, I take time to play one new release… if someone explains me the rules !!
(I’m  always the one who teaches the rules, and time to time, it’s comfortable to be the one who has just to listen..)

On an other hand, I keep informed of what happens on the market: Each day, I begin my work by reading the two main french websites dedicated to boardgames (Trictrac and jeuxsurunplateau).
With these detailed news, I don’t really need to play each new game to know the tendencies and to evaluate the ones are really good.

I think reading about games is really important if you have no time to play all the games (that actually is a problem for everyone). Now a question I’m used to make to all the designers: try to describe Bruno Cathala with just 3 Bruno Cathala games: which and why?

Well.. not so easy..
I would say…

  • “Shadow over Camelot” for the traitor inside
  • “Tony & Tino” for Mafia
  • “Sobek” for corruption

Yes.. now.. everyone will know it: I’M BAD !!!

Before conluding our interview, a last question that Wolfgang Kramer suggested to me in his interview … why do you design games ?

Well.. this is a really good question. But I can’t answer it in a short way !
There are 3 main reasons leading me to design games:

1- boring…
Since I’m  a child, I get bored very easily. Deeply. Of course when I’m  alone, but even in company of friends or family. That was true when I was student, even later at work. As far as I remember, to avoid this, I’ve always invented stories just for me. In these stories, I am often the improbable hero (often unfortunable), or I’m  just a neutral spectator. This auto-boring ability have finally helped me to create stories that, now, the game allows me to share with players all around the world.

2- timidity / need to be loved
I like the child I was, and the adult I’ve become. But I’ve always been doubting about my capacity to be loved. This doubt explains my need to expose myself to a public: When I’m  comedian in theater, or when one of my games is released in stores, the feedback of dozens of people who don’t know me personally allows is something very important for me. Either through the reactions of spectators in the theater, or through gamers’ comments on specialised websites. And as far as I’m  deeply a timid guy, creating games becomes a good way for me to meet and discuss with people I would never have dared to contact otherwise.

3- fear of death
Knowing that life is transitory is something unbearable for me. There is not one day without thinking about that. Create is for me a way to try to leave something surviving to me. I know that this is ridiculous. Too ephemeral. But when I imagine that some years after my death, people will still have fun with my games, that two or three generations later, descendants will have some clues of the life of this great-grandfather they have not known, well, that comforts me at least a little ! And then.. creating yourself the rules of a game.. it’s also denying those imposed by the game of life !

In the end.. Creating games is not just only for me a hobby where I’ve had some success. It’s a way of life, combining the answers to my fears and my need to communicate with others. Need to be loved, simply.

Finally is there something you would like to suggest to new designers trying the hard way to become “games artist” ?

Well… I think that every one has to find is own way.
But the only thing that is really important, in my opinion, is to try to do what you believe in, and not to try to do what people think the market is waiting for.

Thank you for your time. good play

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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4 Responses to The Art of Design: Interviews to game designers #8 – Bruno Cathala

  1. Tom Rosen says:

    Another great interview! Thanks for doing these. They’re really enlightening and entertaining.

  2. Thank you Tom … I hope to be able to continue the series … first of all is fun and I think could be also someway useful for the games world to start talking about games also with a different perspective … when I’ll hit number 10 I’ll try to write a recap!

    good play

  3. Haim Shafir says:

    Dear Andrea and dear Bruno,
    I don’t know either of you but but throughout the reading I got the impression that I do. As a game inventor for 30 years with almost 100 published games (Halli Galli is my most famous), I rarely find an interview with one of my the guys from the industry which is so intelligent, honest and inspiring as this interview. I found myself nodding my head with agreement almost throughout the whole text. Probably board game inventors are very like mind people. Keep enjoying your work and keep being creative.
    Haim Shafir
    Game Inventor