The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #14 – Niek Neuwahl

Here I’m with the 14th interview. This time I gone to ask about the art of design to Nicolaas (Niek) Neuwahl. Niek is a long time designer with an huge amount of games produced, mainly abstract games. Niek has also a long militancy in the SAZ, the greatest world wide association for games designers, now with the role of management questions about Games Advertising.

Of course, since his main production is in abstract games, Niek works most on the mechanics but discovered how peoples approach differently if a game has also a “theme”.

You can have a nice idea of Niek ideas about designing reading what he says “I’m too stupid to design complicated games”. In fact. simplicity is one of the characteristics of my games. But to design simple games, that work well is not so simple….. and asking him about designing and art he told me “I think the meandering curve from first idea to different possible solutions to the definitive game is a process very similar to the birth of an art work, be it an object of design, of architecture, of literature, of painting”.

I think it is enough to make you interested in this interview. So, now, we can start

[Liga] Dear Niek, 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 … the common traits in your games. Something that could make the expert says “OK, another Niek Game”

According to BGG you got published something close to 30 games in 30 years of career, starting from 1980 releases. Actually I know that 102 editions of your games have been published by 35 different companies in 17 different countries. A number of those games have not been made for the traditional games business, but as promotional items and probably this is the reason why BGG only display some of your games.

Is there any game you are particularly proud of and why ?

[Niek] Yes, I’m always very proud of my next game to be published! Why? Because that shows that I’m still alive and that my games are still appreciated!

[Liga] OK: not one in particular but at least something. So, which is your next game now ?

[Niek] It has been released in Essen, with Rombol and it’s called IDDI. It is 2 persons placing game, each player his own colour. The pieces have 3 different heights. You cannot place a piece next to a piece of the SAME colour, if it has the SAME height, you cannot place a piece next to one of a DIFFERENT colour, if it has a DIFFERENT height. IDDI means: Identical/Different; Different/Identical. When on your turn you cannot place a piece any more, you lost. Seems banal but I assure you: it’s not!

[Liga] I’m sure it is not banal! Simple games, if well designed, usually need a lot of strategy. Most of your games are abstract games focused on the mechanic, isn’t it ?

[Niek] Yes that’s true. However recently I learned an important lesson. One of my last game, SEDICI, produced by Steffen Spiele, Germany, is one of those abstract games with 16 tiles, partly white, partly black, to be combined in a 4×4-grid. Now, one of the customers of Steffen Spiele has produced this game with a theme: the black became a deep blue sea with small boats, waves etc, the white became a very green landscape with many trees, rocks etc; the whole thing is called PARADISIO and during playing you create a landscape of isles and sea – and it is astonishing to see how differently people approach this second version – which has exactly the same mechanics and the same rules as the first one…

[Liga] Yes, it is true. Sometime also “attached” themes could make the difference. Sebastien Pauchon is a Swiss designer used to work most on mechanics but thanks to graphics and illustrations his games look much more thematic and, I admit, interesting. There are a lot of people loving pure abstract games but I think a bigger audience for “well dressed” abstract. 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 ?

[Niek] There is no standard procedure. I give you two examples. My game TA-YU took five years from the first prototype to publication – it needed many variations, hundreds of test-games (most against myself) alternative materials before it was finally published in 1999.

My game ULTIMUS has a fully different story. I designed the pieces (rather particular, three-dimensional triangular pieces in a scale of different heights), cut the from a yellow paper, liked them very much but did not know what to do with them. So they remained for many months nicely exposed in my studio – till one day I got the idea, which rules to apply to these beautiful pieces – and in a few days the game was born.

[Liga] It look really like an artistic inspiration. You have developed almost all your games alone: what do you think about team-working in designing games ?

[Niek] Observing my Venice-friends from Studiogiochi I see the great advantages of team-work in game designing – but it hardly happened to me, perhaps because of practical reasons like geographical distance or perhaps my type of games need it less…..

[Liga] Yes, I think so. Most of your games are full of mathematics and logic … not easy to share the developing. Do you think is there a common sign/mark recurrent in your game ?

[Niek] This question I answer usually with the following understatement: “I’m too stupid to design complicated games”. In fact. simplicity is one of the characteristics of my games. But to design simple games, that work well is not so simple…..

[Liga] In science we are used to say that only greatest scientist are able to look it simple. I know you have studied as Architect. Do you think designing games could be some-way considered a sort of art ? Why ?

[Niek] Definitely yes! I think the meandering curve from first idea to different possible solutions to the definitive game is a process very similar to the birth of an art work, be it an object of design, of architecture, of literature, of painting.

[Liga] Great. It is nice to hear that from you: sometimes people are used to think that abstract design are on the farest side of the art. Almost all the artist are used to have a master. Who is Niek Neuwahl master ? The person that taught you most about games ?

[Niek] No doubt, this was Alex Randolph, the “inventor of the profession of games-inventors” in the many meeting I had with him in Venice and elsewhere.

[Liga] It would be nice to have had the opportunity to interview Alex about art and design. Is there a game from another designer you really would like to have designed ?

[Niek] Sure, only that I do not know the name of the designer: it is the game Go!

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

[Niek] I will give you three of my favourites: TA-YU, being the best known, ULTIMUS, being the most “architectural” and INVERSE’ as the most “essential”.

[Liga] Why you start to design games and why you continuing designing ?

[Niek] It all started because in the 1970’s I worked with a company which produced and distributed elegant and expensive chess sets in metal and marble. Being a chess-player, I was attracted to this production and soon I asked myself, if it were not possible to join other games to this product-line. From there started my research for other existing games and not to long after, of designing my own games.

Why I continue? First, because it is one of the nicest creative professions I came along; second, because it is very satisfactory to see that my game ideas are still liked and third, because it is great to know, that in the very moment I’m writing these lines, somewhere in the world some people I don’t even know, are sitting around a table and enjoy playing one of my games!

[Liga] Yes, I think is something close what writers or musicians think about their productions. Game design is, for sure, a form of art. Is there some suggestions you would like to offer to new designers ?

[Niek] my suggestion is: inform yourself about games, about games and rules and mechanisms existing today and in the past; I think this is ESSENTIAL for a games designer – not to copy them, but to be DIFFERENT and BETTER!

[Liga] I also agree with you: too many designers are unaware of what is happening in the games world and are reinventing the wheel. I think documentation (reading rules, playing games) is something a good designer has to do. Thank you Niek for your time!

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 #14 – Niek Neuwahl

  1. Olav says:

    Nice interview!
    His name is unfortunately mentioned in different ways. The right way is “Neuwahl “.

  2. Thank you @Olav … I have fixed the interview now.
    good play!

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