The Art of Design: Interviews to Game Designers #10 – Stefan Feld

Here I’m with my 10th interview: when I started the series back in February I was not sure about the results of this project. Now I can see I’m really happy about it and probably it will be time to have a sort of wrap-up article. Today I’m going to interview Stefan Feld, probably one of the designers of the year with 3 titles in the final list of DSP, one game nominated for the Kennerspiele des Jahres and two reccomended and also one game in the International Gamers Awards final list. This interview was not easy at all because Stefan answered me in German and only thanks to Patrick Korner’s translation was I able to bring it to an end.

[Liga] Hi Stefan, it is really nice to have the chance to interview you for Opinionated Gamers. As 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”. Can we just start with something you can suggest as your “style” ?

[Stefan] I think my “style” includes that players have real decisions to make on almost every turn. The second requirement I have for my games is that they should include at least one innovative mechanism. Incidentally, I usually start start with the mechanism while designing, with the theme coming later. Apparently this has been noted in the gaming scene.

[Liga] You are still a “young” designer, since your career started in 2005, but your fame comes from designing 4 games for the prestigious Alea Series as well as some really good titles for Queen. This year you got 3 titles in the DSP final list, a game running in the final rush for the Kennerspiele des Jahres and one game nominated in the final IGA list. There any game you are particularly proud of?

[Stefan] Each game includes something that I fully stand behind and like even today. So, in that light, I can’t really speak of a ‘favourite’ game.

[Liga] OK, you like all your games equally ? So, is there a game you got more from ? In the Year of Dragon and Notre Dame are actually the two games best ranked on BGG (both in the top 100!) but Luna is doing really well too and Die Burgen von Burgund is a first class horse. Why do you think Notre Dame and In the Year of Dragon were much more appreciated than the other games ?

[Stefan] That has different reasons. I think that my games often take some time before players recognize which qualities they have. Often, opinions get better with time. Also, Notre Dame and In the Year of the Dragon are both not too long. These days, that is an important criterion for a game’s success.

[Liga] How do you create a game: where do the ideas come from and what is the design process (usually taking one or more games as examples)?

[Stefan] To start, I have a rough idea for a mechanism. I then try and find a matching game environment for it. Most of that takes place in my head, with only a few notes. I then sit down at my computer and design a prototype that I subsequently put together. At first, I play by myself, taking on the roles of all the players. It’s easy to tell when doing so if the idea is fundamentally sound or not. If yes, then I refine the whole thing and bring it to my testing groups. If it’s well received there and I could get some additional opinions, then I send it to a publisher.

[Liga] You talk about testing groups. Do you have a fixed group of friends/tester? Usually how long is the testing phase before sending the prototype to publishers?

[Stefan] Yes, I am a member of the Offenburger-Spiele-Freunden. That is a game club in my area. Most of the playtests take place there. I sometimes also invite my friends to test the games. The length of the testing phase naturally depends on how complex the game is. With the more involved games, testing lasts for 1-2 years.

[Liga] How do you feel about team-work? Like, dislike, and why or why not?

[Stefan] In principle, I would like to design games as a team, something that already happened once previously with “Dribbelfieber”. But I’ve noticed that it’s very hard for me to coordinate schedules. I have certain times during the year when I can work on games a lot, and others when nothing will happen for weeks. That makes it relatively difficult to work in a partnership.

[Liga] What do you think of the importance of theme and settings?

[Stefan] As already mentioned above, the theme is added fairly late. For me, it’s important that the theme supports the gameplay, but never at the expense of a clear mechanism. That means that I will never include a detailed rule just to be closer to the theme.

[Liga] All the artist are used to have a master, a person who leaded the first steps in the game world. Tell us something about your “Master”?

[Stefan] I think this question is about Stefan Brück from alea? All I can really say here is that he’s greatly influenced my work. For one thing, I’ve learned a lot from him about what you need to pay attention to while designing games. Additionally, we understand each other on a personal level very well, which means that working together in developing a game is always a lot of fun.

[Liga] So now we can really go in details, talking about your style. Actually you tell us that the starting point is the mechanic and that no new rules are introduced to be in line with the theme. You also point out the interest of having a new mechanism and the importance of letting players having their own decision. That’s fine but it is not enough for me to have a clear idea of Stefan Feld style. Of course we have to focus on the mechanic: what do you think about the weight of luck in your games ? What about the structure of the turn? What do you really think when you talk about an innovative mechanic?

[Stefan] I always think of the game’s ‘motor’ first, which keeps the game moving. Like the windrose in Macao or the dice in Die Burgen von Burgund. This should preferably be something new that hasn’t appeared in that form in other games. If it feels right, then other components get added. In doing so I pay the most attention to making sure that players have a manageable number of options to decide from. Additionally, replay value is very important to me. For that, I make sure to include elements that lead to differences in each game. It is a difficult process that sometimes goes awry. Of course some element of chance is involved, which adds a little luck to the design. I then package the whole thing in an overseeable structure, because that makes things easier on the players. Finally, fine tuning makes sure that victory points are distributed in a balanced manner.

[Liga] And do you think the designer is an artist, a working with creativity or, actually, more close to a craftsman with special skills?

[Stefan] That is a difficult question. For me it is mostly working with creativity. Artist I think is laying it on a bit thick, since ‘feelings’ don’t affect the development process. Hopefully those come out more while playing.

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

[Stefan] Taj Mahal. The auction mechanism in this game is world championship caliber.

[Liga] Try to describe Stefan Feld with just 3 Stefan Feld games: which and why?

[Stefan] In the Year of the Dragon: Work under pressure but still aim for good results.
Roma: All of life is risk management.
Rum & Pirates: One shouldn’t always take everything too seriously.

[Liga] Thank you Stefan for your time and for this nice interview!

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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