The Art of Design: Interviews to Game Designers #12 – Friedemann Friese

In this interview I’m going to ask about art and design to Friedemann Friese, a designer that absolutely is trying to characterize his games with a common style and mark. Green and F are not the only things common in his designs. Friedemann told me “One of my main parts in designing games was, that I really enjoyed the ameritrash games for their themes and the euros for their mechanics and I always tried to combine this, to take the best of two worlds.” and also, “Art is coming from a strong energy inside of you and has do be done, because it has to be done, for no other reason.“. Friedeman Friese is another designer that work in the great creative space that lies between “Ameritrash” and “Euros”, trying to cathc the best from both. Here my interview:

[Liga] Dear Friedemann, with this series of interviews I’m trying to explore the world of game designers with the idea that designing games is a form of art, no more ore less than writing books or casting movies. What we try to do together is, looking through your production, to find your style, your special sign, common traits in your games, of course something beyond the green
Of course Power Grid is probably your most popular game, ranked 5 in BGG and also supported by several expansions.
According to BGG you got published more than 50 games (including expansions) in something close to 20 years of career, starting from Landlord, a 1992 releases. You also got good response from Fauna, Fearsome Floors and Funny Friends. Is there any game you are particularly proud of and why ?

[Friedemann] All, because they are all my games. This is absolute true before I publish a game. Later this can be influenced by the (commercial) success. I do not make my games for the success, but success gives me good energy to work on.

[Liga] OK. It seems is it impossible to have an answer to this question from designers, but I’ll continue trying. It seems that the theme has really a lot of relevance in your design: is it true ? Which is the weight of theme and mechanics in your designs ?

[Friedemann] The theme should be very important for every game. I always try to have a theme that matches the feel of the game, it is not enough just to name all persons and/or actions in the game with something matching the game theme. The player will feel that this is artificial. If I have to make something artificial like Fiji, where the theme has not really a lot to do with the game, I try to find a weird unexpected theme to deal with this.

[Liga] So, now we know, what we have to await when we see really unexpected themes. Can you please select one or more of your games and show us the design process: where the idea came from ? How long does it take to play-test a game ? Of course apart from the Freitag-project games we know are driving on different routes

[Friedemann] The design process begins with this special moment of inspiration. These inspirations can be very different from each other. For Landlord it came from the idea to use both sides of playing cards and the inspiration was to use them as building material. In fresh fish I was detoured with my bike because of a new house built in my way, so the game started.

The time I need for play testing depends first on the length of the game. A 10 minute filler is easier to test, than a 3 hour strategy game. But on the other hand, sometimes the flow is good and I can finish a long game faster. Of course I’m getting faster from year to year, because I become more experienced.

[Liga] You say that “The design process begins with this special moment of inspiration” and that is really great, at least for me, because I’m trying to demonstrate that games design is a form of art. You have developed almost all your games alone: why ? what do you think about team-working in designing games ?

[Friedemann] It is not easy to work with me, because if I have an idea (moment of inspiration) I do think this is the greatest and best idea I ever had and then I try to become the dictator of the team to get my idea done. It is possible for others to convince me with their idea, but it is always a fight.
But on the other hand I worked a lot together with other authors, like: Paparazzoooo, Funny Friends, Schwarzarbeit, Ludoviel, Three Commandments, Ludoviel, Rummelplatz.
If the other authors can accept that I am stubborn and try to be the dictator in the project, it works out. It is important that all authors in a project accept their strength and weaknesses in such a project and if another person shows me that he/she has good ideas, too, then there is a creative fight going on which leads to interesting games.

[Liga] It is OK. You say that everything start from a special moment of inspiration and, of course, is something difficult to share. Probably you are the designer that, above all, is trying to give a common sign/mark to all your games. Apart the preponderance of the green, the common graphic and the F in the name, do you think is there a common sign/mark recurrent in your games ?

[Friedemann] I’m happy that I can influence the look of the game (color, name, artwork, theme), because this is what the people see first, but of course I do have my own style:
1. I like controlled randomness: Stack management, drawing from a bag, mixtures from sorting and shuffling. Not so much die rolls.
2. I like snowball systems. Is it very challenging as an author to control the wild unfair mechanism to make it playable.
3. I like racing games and not only racing on a track. Power Grid is a racing game, because there is a goal which ends the game. I’m not much a fan of optimizing game, where the game ends after a number of turns and then everybody is adding up the victory points. (Victory points is an overused mechanism nowadays.)
4. I like to add the random as another player. It is like fearsome floors where a non-player-character is acting and is powered by random. In Power Grid random is acting as a market for power plants.
5. My decisions in my game should not only influence me, they should also influence others. If this influence is not too much “take that” but more indirect I’m very happy with the game.

[Liga] Really interesting list. I was able to find 4 of the 5 points in your games but I have not really well understand what you means with “snowball systems”. Can you explain better (showing some snowballs in your games) ?

[Friedemann] Snowball systems are found very often in business games. It is the structure, where you get some money and invest it to get more money. Now you have more money to invest to make even more money, It is snowballing like in Landlord, Falsche FuFFziger, Friesematenten, Factory Manager, Power Grid

[Liga] OK, now is it clear. Looking your production it seems there is a Power Grid group of designs (the game, the new maps, the new plants, the 2011 releases), a light games series (Felix, Fauna, Famiglia) and the other games. Do you agree ?

[Friedemann] I do not see these groups. Yes there is a Power Grid product family (including first sparks and factory manager), but I also made some other business (snowball) games, like Landlord, Falsche FuFFziger, Friesematenten, Black Friday, FÙrstenfeld. I believe I do a lot of business games.
But on the other hand I see games with a strong theme, like Funny Friends, Fearsome Floors, Power Grid etc. or games with a strong mechanism, like Famiglia, Fresh Fish, Felix. This is mixed up, too. To tell the truth: I’m very happy not to have this strong line up and I still try to make a game in every genre existing. In my Friday project I’m working on my first worker placement game now.

[Liga] Green workers I hope! I know you are used often to work side by side with Maura Kalusky. How do you think his style affected your games, both in the design process and in the final results ?

[Friedemann] Maura is responsible for the style of most of my games and we share a similar sort of humor, but I do the game and he is doing the artwork, there is not so much influence on each other.

[Liga] So when you think a game you are not already thinking it in Maura style, isn’t it ?

[Friedemann] No I do not have so much in mind. I feel as an artist on my work and can accept that a person doing the artwork is an artist, too. So he should know much better than me how to do it.

[Liga] Do you think designing games could be someway considerated a sort of art ? Why ?

[Friedemann] YES it should be considerated as art. If I would play in a band to make music or be an author of books I would create art. But musicians and book writers can also produce creative crafted work which I would not consider as art.
For me it is the way you do your work, if this will be art or not. If you would think the reason to make art is getting money I think you are on the wrong track. If you believe to make the best creative work you can do and see money as an additional benefit for your work, then there is a good chance that you create art. Art is coming from a strong energy inside of you and has do be done, because it has to be done, for no other reason.

[Liga] It seems you was able to design something like 1 game every year. Nowadays your production is bigger! it is only the effect of a better process or you are experiencing a sort of Golden Age of creativity ?

[Friedemann] The main reason is Henning. Henning started to work in my company to do all the day-work that has to be done and he is doing all the stuff which distracted me in the past from being creative. I now have just more time for my creativity.

[Liga] Almost all the artist are used to have a master. Who is Friedemann Friese master ? The person that taught you most about games ?

[Friedemann] In 1991 I visited the first time Essen and saw so many small companies showing their games and I was impressed most by Karl-Heinz Schmielïs and Doris & Frankïs work as game designers and companies. Two other authors had great influence on me: Francis Tresham and Tom Wham.

[Liga] Great! Four Tom Wham games was also in my evergreen list (games I’m used to play since many years ago) … and, of course, the first “green” game was the fantastic “The Awful Green Things from the other space” (now that you talk to me about that I remember we talk about this games years ago during a Digers dinner in Essen!).

The Freitag-project, started most as a joke, seems to be able to offer really good design. What do you think about ? Could it be a new form of design ?

[Friedemann] What do say: !as a joke!. It is an art project. I’m not happy to hear something like that from you. It feels like I see very often in the gaming scene, that we take our own work not as serious as we should. No, Friday is an experiment for me as an artist in game design. Of course this project creates really good game design and I do think restriction (like Dogma in movie industry) on your creative process is a very good source for designing a game (or in music to make a concept album etc.)

[Liga] Of course was not my intention to show disrespect to you and your designing work: actually I was stinging you since we have not talked about this before and I was not really sure what really Freitag-project was for you. Of course I was hoping there was something “heavy” behind this project: something like “Dogme 95” manifest and I totally agree with you that “restrictions” could be also valued source. Actually I’m really happy about the results of this project and I hope could be also an inspiration for other designers.

Is there a game you really would like to have designed ?

[Friedemann] Outpost had a very big influence on me and I would have been happy to have designed this, but I still do not understand why the last good cards in Outpost are not only victory points. They are the best factories in the whole game, which creates a big runaway leader problem, I would have changed this.

[Liga] We see in past interviews of this series that there are some main-course in designing and also many sub-course. Of course, as told before, your design are usually really thematic but the mechanic are typical of German design, Do you feel your style is much more close to American (strong themes with mechanics trying to best fit the theme) or German (strong mechanic and themes trying to fit the mechanic) ?

[Friedemann] One of my main parts in designing games was, that I really enjoyed the Ameritrash games for their themes and the Euros for their mechanics and I always tried to combine this, to take the best of two worlds. Sometimes this creates the problem that both worlds are not interested in this game, sometimes the other way round.
I like the strong mechanisms of the Euros, but dislike to balance the game with the victory points, which almost always means the game looses any connection to the theme (and any interest of me playing it, because I want to play a new mechanism and not a new mechanism buried under 5 million ways of scoring).
I like the strong themes of Ameritrash, but dislike the absolute will to simulate the theme, which often leads to unbalanced games. Having a typical themed card game. A lot of theme on the cards but the mechanism of playing the game is: Play as many cards you like and draw back to 5 cards. I’ve seen this soooo many times, I’m bored, because the only thing you can do is to play as many cards as fast as possible, because you will draw back to 5. No strategy, no decisions.

[Liga] Great. If your aim was to try to mix Ameritrash and Euros you are doing it really well: of course balancing theme and mechanics is not so simple, especially avoiding the temptation of victory points systems. So, actually, we can say you are walking in the middle of the two great schools trying to create a new way of designing games.
If you have to describe Friedemann Friese with just 3 Friedemann games, which and why ?

[Friedemann] Funny Friends, because life is not as linear as it is shown in “The game of life”
Power Grid, because it gives me the money to let me design and publish games I like, instead of thinking what game will probably give the biggest payout.
Unpublished Prototype, because my favorite game is always the game I’m just working on.

[Liga] This is also a good indicator of artistic production! Why you start to design games and why you continuing designing ?

[Friedemann] I started because it was possible and I continue because I cannot stop.

[Liga] Is there some suggestions you would like to offer to new designers ?

[Friedemann] Design the game you like and make this best!

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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