The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #13 – Sebastièn Pauchon

Here I’m again after the Essen madness with my series of interviews to game designers. In the last two interviews I’m gone to catch two designers really atypical. Friedeman Friese, a German designer that is trying to combine his passion for Ameritrash and Euro mechanics and Ignacy Trzewiczek from Poland.

Sebastièn Pauchon is a Swiss designer and, at least geographically, collocated close to both German and French. Talking about his games Sebastièn says “I guess they are more “German games” than anything else, maybe because as stated I start with the mechanics…” and than again “Nah, I honestly think my games are German all the way“. Actually the only French reminescence is in the look and in the artworks.

So, Sebastièn looks like a real German designer with strong interest in the developing of the mechanics.

Asking if the designing games could be considerated a form of art Sebastièn said me “The real question is why wouldn’t it be considered as a sort of art? What makes it so different from writing a song or a book? I don’t see much difference, so yes I guess it could be defined as an art.”. I agree with him!

We can start with the interivew:

[Liga] Dear Sebastien, 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.
You are a “young” designer, so it could be strange I’m going to interview you for this series but I think your design have a “strong” style and personality, so it could be interesting to talk with you. Also you have worked together with Bruno Cathala, but I’m not so sure you can be identified as one of the members of the so called “french school”.
According to BGG you have so far designed something close to 10 games, in 5 years of production, starting from Yspahan, 2006 release, ranked 160 in BGG with a SDJ nomination in 2006. Also Jaipur, I game I really love, got some attention with the IGA nomination last year.
Do you think Yspahan is your best design or is there any game you are particularly proud of and why?

[Sebastien] I honestly don’t know which is my best design… I’m actually rather happy with all of them. Plus, they are quite different from one another. It’s hard for me to compare Metropolys with Jamaica or Jaipur, for instance…
Even though pride isn’t exactly what I feel, let’s say I’m “proud” of them all, maybe for different reasons. On top of that, some we also published as GameWorks, and since there is also a lot of creativity and work in the production, it tends to biase one’s opinion on his game.
Jamaica does have a special flavour, as it is the first “big” game we published, and it turned out so well. We’ve had several nominations and awards for it, and it sure is rewarding, as we were involved both in the design and the publishing.
The same applies to Jaipur, Fairplay’s Best Card Game 2010. But still, more than pride, it is the satisfaction of something well done.

[Liga] OK. Another designer that is not able to give me an answer to this question! But I’ll go on! You are a “French” designer but, from outside, it seems that the theme has not really so much relevance in your designs: is it true?

[Sebastien] Hmm, it has to be true, as I’m Swiss and not French :-D

[Liga] OK, I know you are Swiss but you are most working close with French designers: that was why I wrote “French” … anyway, which is the weight of theme and mechanics in your designs?

[Sebastien] As you might have read in previous interviews, the theme usually comes last to me. Except for Kimaloé and Helvetiq (and soon to be released Cantuun), which are contract games that were designed with specific requests from our customers. For the others, it always started with a gameplay. One reason I see for that is quite simple: I really suck at Geography and History, and I just never start with some historical fact that could be a nice setting for a game, because such facts just don’t occur to me.
My ideas usually come while playing other games or working on one specific “topic” (like how do you produce goods without dice…). Sometimes they also come out of the blue (I suspect a designer’s brain is just constantly working in the background…), but with me it’s always mechanics.

[Liga] You told be your ideas usually come playing other games. This is not really common: there are many designers that are so busy inventing games that have no more time to play other designers games. How much do you think playing games is important in designing games ? How much time do you spend designing games ?

[Sebastien] Playing games is essential to designing games… to me. By what I mean it doesn’t necessarily work that way for everybody. I’ve heard rumors of designers playing only their own prototypes. Why not, that probably is another way to attain the same goal.
As for me, I just need to play “finished” and balanced (and if possible nicely edited) games on a regular basis, for the sheer fun and pleasure of it, and also to get amazed by other designers’ ideas, something that often gives me a push in the motivation department.
I don’t spend much time designing at the moment, publishing is the main activity, so I can’t really quantify it. But on the other hand, I’m constantly thinking about game mechanics so, all in all a couple of hours a day, but mostly in the back of my mind.

[Liga] I like this idea of perpetual developing in the background “I’m constantly thinking about game mechanics “. 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?

[Sebastien] The 9 dice in Yspahan came from my trying to produce goods with dice while avoiding the Catan system, which I actually find difficult, because it is both so simple and obvious. So I was rolling 2 dice at first, trying out additions and subtractions, combining colors, and such. The number of dice eventually increased, and when I had the idea of the tower, it quickly jumped to 9, which is still the number in Yspahan today.
Then comes the usual question: now that you have a production engine, what do you do with it? I don’t remember how the 4 souks came to be, I just knew that 4 was good, because that let the lowest and highest levels of the tower free for a steady production of goods/currencies (gold and camels). The fact that you can chose to use the dice number or the number of dice gave a choice that was there from the beginning, because it adds dilemma.
Eventually, it became a majority game, because I believe it is the first thing that comes to mind to a rookie when producing goods in different areas…
The whole process took about 18 months, until Cyril (from Ystari) played the prototype, which he really liked. But he didn’t want a majority game, being a bit tired of the concept at that time. So I went back to an earlier scoring idea, fine-tuned it, and that was the key to having it published.
All in all, the game was out in 2 years from the very first draft to the release, which is quite standard.

The Idea for the Jaipur market was again because of (or thanks to) Catan: I wanted a game where you could trade (which I find great in Catan), but that wouldn’t drag because of that. Hence an automatic and neutral market, where there is no negotiation, just a player’s choice.
The first try was during a train journey, with poker cards. The idea was to make poker combos. It kind of worked… I later switched to the Mare Nostrum cards (I’ve always had a crush on those cards), and the Tax cards actually led to having a currency (camels) besides the goods.
Then came different scales for each good, which led to the bonuses, or else the game would only be about selling the first chips.
Jaipur first had a little board to keep track of both the scores and to show when a good was depleted. But that made for constant math, with no game rythm. Also, with a 100% open score, you tended to forfeit rounds as there was no way you could get back. Which is why the bonuses ended up and of different values within the same category. In the final version, all chips are stacked to lose track of the score.
I’ve read several reviews where the game set-up is describes as waaaaay too long. Well, when both players set it up, it actually takes about 45-60 seconds, which I find quite reasonable. Most of all, if that’s what it takes to not spend I don’t know how long on each turn adding up scores and values, then the trade-off is definitely worth it.
We tried several other ways to represent your score… In one you even ended up weighting chips of different sizes, but the production of cardboard (or wood for that matter) isn’t reliable enough to ensure constant weight, which would have been a problem for close scores.

The bidding mechanism in Metropolys, as described in the rules, comes from a misinterpretation of a picture in the Goa rules, while I was flipping through the leaflet for the first time… I tell you, anything can happen…
The list goes on, but as you can notice, there isn’t much theme when I start on a design…

[Liga] Yes, absolutely. It is clear how your ideas and designs start from the rules and mechanics! You have developed games together with other designers: what do you think about team-working in designing games?

[Sebastien] I think it’s great for contract games. (Keep in mind I’ve only designed in teams of 3, though, so my field of “expertise” is a rather restricted one.) So why is it great? Since we assume you’re in a team with people you like and have fun with, the whole process should be fun indeed. With Bruno and Malcolm, we’ve had quite intensive sessions over the years, some 2 or 3 days long, always well-fed but also very sleep-deprived, and that sure does explain a lot of laughing and giggling.
On a more serious note, 3 seems to works well for us (Kimaloé was designed with Dominique Ehrhard, again a team of 3). There is always someone who has a suggestion, and in case two start arguing on a specific topic, it is often the third who finds either a new idea or a compromise.
The reason I said it works well for contract games is because you have a schedule and dead-lines to respect. So you’d better be on time. For me it’s nice to know I can rely on the others if I’m stuck. Also, since the frame is often given by a customer, it is relatively easy to let some ideas go because they don’t fit, or to convince one of the team that a particular ideas is “objectively” not good for that particular design.
For a “normal” game, objectivity gives way to subjectivity and personal tastes, and I’m not sure it is as easy to manage. But as I said, I’ve had no such experience up to now.

[Liga] Nice. Do you think is there a common sign/mark recurrent in your games?

[Sebastien] I design games I like, I try to streamline them as much as possible to keep what I think is the essence of each, and up to now they all have a small luck component. The same applies for the games we publish. Apart from that, I don’t know… Actually you might be in a better position to dissect them than I :-)
I guess they are more “German games” than anything else, maybe because as stated I start with the mechanics…

[Liga] Yes, I agree with you. Most of your design seems to have French graphics/mood but, in the end, are much more close to German games. Also Yspahan, that use dice, is a German design: I think it is the reason it got a SDJ nomination in years where still SDJ was a German Affair. Do you think designing games could be someway considered a sort of art? Why?

[Sebastien] The real question is why wouldn’t it be considered as a sort of art? What makes it so different from writing a song or a book? I don’t see much difference, so yes I guess it could be defined as an art.

[Liga] That’s true, but unfortunately a lot of people are not really used to consider game design as an art. There are still publishers not used to putting the designers names on the boxes. I think we have still a long road to walk: starting from articles/interviews like that, I hope, will make this evident at least in the gamers community.
Animalia was a commissioned game. How do you think that could interfere with the design process? How much the customer intent weight in the final design ? Do you think make games for commission is challenging?

[Sebastien] Since you have a frame you must take in account from the start (for Animalia it was 2-6 players, cards, family-oriented, short), the interference is major, but once you acknowledge this frame, everything should run smoothly, because you design with these elements in mind. Of course, you could have a very difficult client, who happens to counter any decision you take, but I don’t think it’s likely to happen, because then why would he have hired you in the first place?
I think it is challenging, yes, because of the said frame, but on the other hand it’s also easier in a way, because some ideas objectively won’t fit and you can easily discard them.

[Liga] Friedemann Friese told me, in his interview, that limit are a way to stimulate a different artistic production: the exact world he used are “I do think restriction (like Dogma in movie industry) on your creative process is a very good source for designing a game“. Do you agree ?

[Sebastien] Yes indeed. Restriction is exactly what you encounter when dealing with a contract game, and I do think it helps funneling your thoughts. You sometimes have too many ideas and you mind jumps from one to the other.
If you happened to say “ok I will now design a game with only 5 dice, 3 cards and nothing else” you kind of pinpoint your concentration on one specific topic, and avoid many outside disturbances.

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

[Sebastien] I’m afraid nobody or, rather, everybody. I stepped into this “business” while Internet was already going full throttle, so I acquired a vast knowledge on games in a very, very short time, which wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. I guess it was easier then to have one master, whose game(s) you played over and over, and whose 3-4 games represented maybe 10% percent of your collection.
Today, any fervent gamer/designer seems to possess 3-400 games (I have about 1’000 myself), and has played probably twice as many. So who’s who and what’s what tends to become a blur in favour of a generic gaming experience. I think all designers who’s games I have played and enjoyed end up being my masters in a certain way.

[Liga] Interesting point of view. I’m not a designer but I have also more than 1’000 games and it will be difficult to me to find games/designers that inspired me more than others, but since I started playing games back in 1986, when internet was no there, I grew up with few “classic” games like Battletech, Britannia ad Bloch Mania. So, you introduce my next question: is there a game you really would like to have designed?

[Sebastien] Without any hesitation, I’d put on the top of my list: Settlers of Catan with the Cities and Knight expansion, Ricochet Robots, Puerto Rico, Blokus, Time’s Up! and Lost Cities. After which come many others, but that list would be too long :-)

[Liga] Actually all German games with solid/innovative (when they were published) mechanics. We see in past interviews of this series that there are some main-course in designing and also many sub-course. I’m quite sure you are not really part of the French school well-depicted by Brunos (Faidutti and Cathala) designs. Reading you answer it is obvious that your style is close to German (strong mechanic and themes trying to fit the mechanic).

[Sebatien] Yes, from what I answered above the answer is obvious: German style it is…
Again, it’s not really a matter of choice, much more how things have worked for me up to now, and probably with my next games. But who knows what the future is holding?

[Liga] Do you really think you could start to change you style/design process putting the theme at the top ?

[Sebastien] It would certainly change the process, but probably not the style, as I will always end up with a game I like, and I don’t think the theme interferes with that aspect of designing.
Kimaloé (a contract game on Children’s Rights) started with the theme and ended up being a game I might have (co)created starting with mechanics.

[Liga] If you have to describe Sebastien Pauchon with just 3 Sebastien games, which and why?

[Sebastien] Yspahan, Metropolys and Jaipur, because these are the only 3 games I designed alone. So I guess they do reflect my “style” the most. Even though 3 games is a bit thin to call it a style…
Metropolys kind of stands out when compared to my designed or co-designed games, because it’s the only one with close to no luck factor. One could argue about getting this or that secret objective, but apart from that, it’s all on the board and in the buildings one has remaining in front of him.

[Liga] Yes, the luck factor is almost present in all your design and that was the reason I have had some problem in collocating you in German school since the beginning. So, not really German, not American at all … not French … can we say Sebastien Pauchon is one of the pioneer of the Swiss School of design ?

[Sebastien] Ha ha, now that’s what you could call a niche! ;-) Nah, I honestly think my games are German all the way. Most German games do have a luck factor, if ever so slight.

[Liga] Ok. No Swiss school this time. Why did you start designing games and why do you continue designing?

[Sebasten] I don’t really know. I’ve always been a player; I played Chess with my dad as a kid, Stratego and Risk with my cousins, a lot of cards during High School. Shogi, Xiang Qi and Mah Jong during two years of College, and eventually tried out a career as a professional pool player for 6 years until 2001.
I got to know the “modern” boardgames by randomly buying Carcassonne, and after that by spending the better part of a year searching the web for all those thousands of new-to-me games.
I’ve done a lot of work as a graphic designer over the years, I’m rather the creative type, I enjoy nice artwork, and I love playing. Game designing and now also publishing is actually at a crossroad of all these activities, so I guess there is no surprise in finding me there.
Also, designing a game that ends up being played by thousands is something very pleasing and, let’s admit it, flattering.
So all in all a blend of ego, creativity, plain enjoyment with and love of games.

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

[Sebatien] Hmm, if you allow me this lazyness, may I redirect you to the following link, where Clive asked me the same question, which I answered at length.

[Liga] Yes, I think you answered the question perfectly. Thank you for your time and 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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2 Responses to The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #13 – Sebastièn Pauchon

  1. Thanks for doing these interviews! The whole series is pretty cool.

    One bit of constructive criticism: The standard is to put the interviewer’s lines in italics, and the subject’s lines in regular text. You have it the other way around, and it’s quite distracting. It reads like Sebastien is interviewing Liga, and I know that’s not what you’re going for!

  2. Thank you Gil. I have done the change (now I’m in Italics … that’s pretty good, since I’m Italian … and Sebastien, that is Swiss, not in Italiacs …).
    Thank you and good play!

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