The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #16 – Uwe Rosenberg

Hi gamers – here I am with another interview after a long, long stop. This interview with Uwe took me a lot of time since I needed the great help of my “colleague” Patrick Korner to translate Uwe’s answers from German to English. Of course Uwe is a designer that doesn’t need any presentation with 2 games (Agricola and Le Havre) in the BGG top 10 and also the top seller Bohnanza. With his games (at least from Agricola) Uwe tells us stories, usually little stories of work and duties – the life of the common man. Also Uwe shows us how the mechanics of his games are being developed from game to game and took a lot of time for developing and testing.

Uwe says: “I try and design games as a thematic whole. Over my entire career, you could say that I am fascinated by hermetically sealed completeness.” That really offers a great shot of Uwe’s designing style.

[Liga] Dear Uwe, 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 or 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 Agricola is the game that brings Uwe Rosenberg and Lookout Games to the wide attention, being able to win IGA and DSP award and a special mention also from SDJ and climb the BGG ranks up to 1st place. Now Agricola is 4th and Le Havre 6th and you are the only designer to have 2 games in the BGG Top 10.  According to BGG you got published more than 50 games (including expansions) in 20 years of career, starting from 1992 releases. Your most known title before the Agricola/Lookout Era were Bohnanza and Mamma Mia.

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

[Uwe] I am proud when my games accomplish something. When teenagers suggest playing Agricola with their parents on a Sunday afternoon instead of sitting in front of the TV, for example. Or that my game Bohnanza has become THE game for the juggling scene. Those kinds of things make me proud. I’m naturally also happy about successes, since being successful with games means that people are enjoying themselves. I’d like to answer “Times” to your last question. It is until today one of the few tactical quiz games in existence. A game that lets you cleverly conceal that you don’t now the answer to a question. (And a game that was published in Italian in 1994.)

[Liga] You catch me by surprise! I was unaware of Times (of course now I have to rush to buy it) and also you are one of the first designers to give an answer to this question! From outside it seems that the theme really has a lot of relevance in your design: is it true? How is the weight of theme and mechanics in your designs?

[Uwe] First, an idea for a mechanism comes to be, such as the production wheel with Ora et Labora, for example, which is a refinement of the round by round addition of resources in Agricola. Then I choose a theme. And then ensure that everything else that comes is fitted to the theme. Yes, theme plays a large role for me. And I favour smaller themes – manual labour instead of heavy industry. Living in poverty instead of swimming in luxury. In this respect, my work is similar to that of a book author. I have certain “stories” to tell. I am not interested in wars, power and glory. I’m also not interested in the life of a king; I’m interested in the life of the common man.

[Liga] Really interesting perspective: I’ll be back on this later in the interview. 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?

[Uwe] With respect to the development of a game, I’d like to suggest reading my reports on Report on Agricola or Report on Le Havre.

Mechanisms don’t just get developed within a project, but also from game to game. They build on each other. Loyang, for example, had the Improvement mechanism for Agricola (I had developed Loyang 6 months before Agricola). For themes, I don’t look too far into the future. I simply look at life in the past. I take a long time to develop games – I worked on Ora et Labora for three years. Testing a nearly-finished game I find more enjoyable than testing unrefined ideas. That might be the main reason why I allow myself such long development periods and playtesting lists.

[Liga] Great! A lot of designers are really challenged with the first part of games development but feel less gratified by the fine-tuning and play-test process needed to have a really balanced game, usually looking outside for testers groups. You have developed almost all your games alone: what do you think about team-working in designing games?

[Uwe] You asked about games I was proud of. In addition to Times I’d also choose Babel. The emigration mechanism is one of the nicest that I’ve ever come up with. And that came as a direct result of conversations with my friend Hagen Dorgathen. Teamwork is a wonderful thing when both sides provide ideas to the other. I’m certain that Hagen first led me to that idea. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to continuously change ideas during the early development process. That is something that I only reluctantly wish on others (including maybe Hagen).

[Liga] I really liked Babel and I’m still playing it sometimes with my daughter. A really nice 2-players game. Do you think is there a common sign/mark recurrent in your game? Looking at your production it seems there is a pre-Agricola Uwe and a post-Agricola Uwe. Do you agree? What Agricola taught you and how has great success affected your design?

[Uwe] Before Agricola, I only thought about mechanisms. After Agricola, I adjust mechanisms to suit farming. This has become a small universe for me, much the way that card games were at the end of the 1990’s. I’m always reading about the theme and try to make the games easier to handle while maintaining the same gaming and narrative depth. I try to tell grand stories. Partly because those are the kinds of games that I find the most fun, but also because I set myself apart from other authors. In the time before Agricola I experimented a lot and tried to invent all the kinds of games that game designers invent. I had a signature style back then too, but a different one. I tried to design card games that played as a single entity instead of having to be replayed over several rounds. Today, I try to design games as a thematic whole. Over my entire career, you could say that I am fascinated by hermetically sealed completeness. What Agatha Christie said about her books I’d like to claim for my games.

[Liga] I really like this self-picture of yourself! Another great cue for going deep in the design style matter later. How much do you think other people in the Lookout team affect this?

[Uwe] I tend to improve for the worse shortly before a game is released. Then I need people who keep me from doing it. As a father of (just recently) two children I find it is no longer possible to spend 5 to 7 evenings visiting gamers and showing them my latest effort, as with Le Havre – although I did enjoy it very much! I am thankful to a very strong gaming group in Duisburg which spent a long time testing my newest game, Ora et Labora, filing away the final issues. Since I am at home with family more and more, there are currently a lot of ideas in my drawer. In the future, I expect I will more and more work out the ideas and then send the games out for extended testing. As a result, I think that my/our team will get larger in the near future and will become ever more important to me.

[Liga] Two times you made a strong parallelism between your work and writers work. First “I have certain ‘stories’ to tell. I am not interested in wars, power and glory. I’m also not interested in the life of a king, I’m interested in the life of the common man” and than, using Agatha Christie words “I try to design games as a thematic whole. Over my entire career, you could say that I am fascinated by hermetically sealed completeness”. Do you think designing games is a form of art, like writing books or casting movies? Designing games do you feel like an artist creating a new work of art or more like an expert and skilled craftsman?

[Uwe] I feel different during the different phases of game development. The first ideas often come to me in the shower. The first attempts get made lying down, eyes closed, almost in darkness. I try to make sure I’m wide awake when I then bring ideas to paper – partly because I don’t want to miss anything, but mostly because I don’t want to have too many rules in the game. In those cases I feel more like an artist, more composer than interpreter. When playtesting by myself I’m more of a labourer but also mostly a gamer. I don’t like it when a playtest gets corrupted with rules changes, which is why I start a new game with each change. With Agricola, for example, I didn’t get further than four rounds for the entire first week. When writing the rules I’m a lawyer who is trying to make sure that no special case gets forgotten.

[Liga] Artist-labourer-lawyer … from the stars down to the earth! I think something similar happens to composers and movie directors … from the initial creative part of the work down to the details. Reiner Knizia says “I believe that there are many undiscovered games in the universe that are still waiting for me to design them.” Friedemann Friese says “The design process begins with this special moment of inspiration. These inspirations can be very different from each other,” and Ignacy Trzewiczek says “It takes a few months of gathering pictures, ideas and emotions.” All these designers, with different approaches, consider the design process a creative moment. What is Uwe’s perspective?

[Uwe] I’d rather improve and add variety to mechanisms than come up with brand new ones. In the 1990’s I tested over 100 card games and realised that the mechanisms, while new, were mostly boring. For me, good ideas don’t just fall from the sky; I create room for possibilities (referring to Robert Musil’s book “The Man Without Qualities”) in which new mechanisms can grow.

[Liga] Wow! You are talking-back to me quotes by quotes! Going back to what you are telling me in the beginning, I agree with you that games are really a great way to tell stories and nowadays it happens to me more often than before, reading rules and playing games, to have emotions really close to the ones I get reading novels. Now we enter the second part of this interview with some questions I’m used to asking of all the designers.

Almost all artists are used to have a Master. Who is Uwe Rosenberg’s master? The person that taught you most about game design?

[Uwe] I didn’t have a master for inventing, but certainly for marketing. Peter Gehrmann taught me a lot in the 1990’s. He got me interested in trading card game mechanisms, for example, which led to games like “Bohnanza.” My masters in game design were the games themselves. Some of them were Racko, Civilization, 1830, Freight Train, Lowenherz, Antiquity, and Caylus.

[Liga] And, do you think Uwe could be someone else master? Do you think this approach to design is (or could be) followed by other designers?

[Uwe] As a composer working in the darkness certainly nobody will follow me. But as a labourer I could certainly be something that others could call a master. I prefer games that elicit positive emotions and also talk a lot about (mostly my) feelings while playing. Many of my gaming friends now also discuss and critique games in terms of feelings.

[Liga] Great, really the idea of a “school.” In this final part of the interview, some questions I’m used to asking of all designers. Is there a game from another designer you would have really liked to design?

[Uwe] Treshams’ Civilization and 1830 are for me the best games of all time. I’d have been proud to invent Puerto Rico or Power Grid, but also Vegas Showdown and Homesteaders.

[Liga] Some old classics but also something not so “classic.” If you have to describe Uwe Rosenberg with just 3 Uwe games: which and why?

[Uwe] I probably can’t avoid “Bohnanza” and “Agricola”. Those two games make the life I lead today possible. Both are also games that many of my more recent games build upon. To give the “Researching” part of my career some credit, I’d like to list “Times” as the third game. I hope that my database can get used again someday. I would be happiest seeing Times reissued in a version for up to 8 players.

[Liga] Why did you start designing games and why are you still designing?

[Uwe] I started when I was 12 years old with a soccer game but only imitated what a neighbouring boy had done. Without thinking about it myself. And the game was probably not that great because of it. But it was long. I always had perseverance and liked nothing better than coming up with and doing the final tweaking of games. The part in the middle, the playtesting, I still have issues with. I ask myself how can I avoid the frustration.

[Liga] Is there something you would like to tell to new designers approaching this work?

[Uwe] Play as often as you can, just by yourself. Try everything. Learn to understand why something doesn’t work. This learning is more important than the game. Come up with up to five ideas for a single game. The rule is: Always come up with something new! Only start the endless playtesting once you’ve tried everything and are truly convinced. You won’t learn anything about game design during playtesting.

[Liga] Thank you Uwe for this great interview and I’m trilled about “playing” your next story!

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 #16 – Uwe Rosenberg

  1. Lacxox says:

    FYI his name is Rosenberg, not Rosemberg.

  2. Tom Rosen says:

    Fantastic interview Liga! These just keep getting better and better.

  3. Thank you Tom. I’m getting experience from early interviews (using questions and answers from early interviews as starting points) and designers are fantastic and seems really interested in talking about designing style and the artistic part of their works.

    I’m almost ready also with Antoine Bauza interview that I hope will be the next one.
    I’m getting really busy with the organisation of PLAY: The Games Festival (24-25 March) but I hope to be able to post some interviews before …

    Good play and best wishes and, of course, point me out if there are designers you are really interested to read about.

  4. Jacob says:

    I learned a lot from this interview. Thank you!

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