The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #18 – Andrea Chiarvesio

This time it was less than a month from my last interview and I’m also working on 3-4 more interviews. Of course the number of designers working on the game market since long time willing to be interviewed is not so huge and I’m starting to have problems finding new victims for my pencil. Of course Italians are much more easy for me to find and they have less possibility to avoid my long-winded curiosity. So, today I’m going to present you Andrea Chiarvesio, a really talented Italian designer that captured world-wide attention in 2007 with Kingsburg release but that was working in the game world long time before.

Chiarvesio is not a real pure German designer but he told us that usually the mechanic is his starting point. He also told us he puts a lot of effort in “schematizing” and “streamlining” finally stating his ambitious motto: “Easy to learn, difficult to master”.

I hope you got enough to be interested in the proceding of this interview. Have a nice read.

[Liga] Dear Andrea, as you know 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 but your games are getting really good response and they share; I think, many common traits. So, probably, we can be able to find your style and sign.
According to BGG you have so far designed something close to 10 games, in 5 years of production, starting from a light children games like Quack Cards, passing through some collectable card game like Wizards of Mickey, Kingsburg, of course and this year Arcanum. According to BGG your best game is Kingsburg, that is actually in 151 position.
Do you think really Kingsburg is your best design or is there any game you are particularly proud of and why?

[ANDREA] First of all, thanks for the “young” designer. It’s true that in Italy you’re still “young” in your 40ties, but I am not being called “young” so often anymore, lately.
Coming to the question, Kingsburg is by far my most popular design, and that’s of course a good indication that – together with Luca Iennaco – we did a reasonably good job with it.
I believe that’s partially also because Kingsburg is my only game that has been published by a worldwide well known company, as Fantasy Flight Games. This explains why, according to BBG users, it’s the highest ranked among my games: it’s the one that got the chance to be played by the biggest number of players. The free java version and now the iphone app for sure have some merit to claim, too.
Probably, my most aspiring game was Wizards of Mickey, since usually trading card games are developed by a whole research team, while WoM was mostly a solitaire design (at least the main game engine and the first two sets of cards, after which I really needed the precious help of Gianluca Santopietro and his E-nigma group). So, I am proud of the effort and the results in terms of designs of WoM.
I am also very proud of Olympus, a real “gamers game” with no luck factor at all and huge replayability. We’ll soon see if the upcoming release by Fantasy Flight and Heidelberger (English and German editions) will help the game in reaching the diffusion and success that in my opinion deserves.
Of course, Kingsburg will always have a special place among my games, since it’s the one that gave me the opportunity to be acknowledged internationally as a game designer.
So, at the very end, I am proud of almost all my “kids”, and I love them all the same way.

[Liga] II really love Kingsburg and the fact it is playable both with gamers and occasional players, adults and kids (of course 8 years old or higher). I also like a lot Olympus but I found the cards a big problem: something like the Kingsburg building board will be really much more better. I hope FFG edition will consider this problem.

[ANDREA] FFG edition is going to be quite identical (as long as I know) to the Italian ones. What can I say? A lot has been told an written about the choice to go with cards instead of a building board. Cards can be not that handy at first, you’re right about that. After three-four games, however, you realize that cards may even be better, since you go an pick just what you need and since you don’t need a huge table (just imagine adding to the table five building boards big one and a half times the Kingsburg board… it would have become bigger than Twilight Imperium.
I admit that nowadays not many people play three or even two games at the same game, if they were disappointed by something on their first game. Thanks to the Internet, there are good building boards that you can easily download and print, if you feel that improves the playing experience.

[Liga] I have already done and, yes, for they really improve! In some of your design the theme is important but my impression is that you are working much more on the mechanics. In that way your style, especially with Olympus and Arcanum, is much close to German School. Which is the weight of theme and mechanics in your designs?

[ANDREA] I can’t deny that most of my games start with designing the main mechanic and proceeding from there. Still, I really try hard so that everything in the game kind of “makes sense”. Even if my design can look closer to the German School, especially in terms of “few pages rulebook, linear and easy to follow rules, no exceptions if they are avoidable”, I don’t feel the theme as “pasted” over my games. A lot of mechanics in Olympus, for instance, that may seem the most German of my games do make sense only if you look at the theme. I don’t feel you could give a different theme or setting to Olympus and still play the game as it is, unchanged, in other words the same game with Indian or Nordic Gods would have been really different in terms of gameplay.
But I understand that I am not much into putting in a game hundreds of unbalanced cards or a lot of weird sub-rules just to keep the game consistent with reality. My real opinion is that computer games are so much better in creating a believable simulation of reality that board games should focus more on schematizing and streamlining.

[Liga] That’s a nice point of view. So “schematizing” and “streamlining” are our first two marks of Chiarvesio’s style. How much do you think playing games is important in designing games ? How much time do you spend designing games and how much playing other designers games ?

[ANDREA] As important as reading books is essential to writing ones, at least if you don’t want to only write a single book: your own autobiography (there is nothing wrong in writing autobiographies, and there are writers that become famous just writing about themselves and nothing else).

[Liga] And there are self-publishers building a real career around a single well-designed, polished, expanded and loved game! I think kickstarter could offer a real opportunity for these kind of games and designers.

[ANDREA] You aren’t actually supposed to explain my metaphors so plainly, you know?
Kickstarter is many things: a great opportunity for people very good at selling their project, and it’s a great way to found innovative projects that are having problems with founding a publisher willing to risk their company on an innovative but risky game. Sometimes, as the case of the Order of the Stick books reprint demonstrates, it’s also a great way to show to the world how popular a great existing game or comic can become thanks to the Internet (btw I am a big OoTS fan but this is way off topic here).
Back on topic, I actually spend most of my free time playing other designers games. This is likely why in my own designs you can feel and recognise debts I have towards other game designers (if I have to give you at least one name here of a designer I admire and envy a lot: Stefan Feld. Ok, let’s make it two with Vlaada Chvaatil. Among Italian game designers, I am so envious of Paolo Mori’s creativity and style).
Of course, the risk is that playing so often other designers games it’s not always easy to let fresh and new, original, ideas to make their way through your mind. On the other hand, learning from other designers is the master key to become a better designer yourself (and also to avoid to reinvent the wheel every time).
Only during the crucial stages of development of one of my games I almost totally give up playing other people games and I focus on my prototype.

[Liga] That’s great. I think that “progressive” designers “reinventing the wheel” is one of greatest problem in games market. 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?

[ANDREA] The starting idea can really come from anywhere. Sometimes it’s “I would love to play a game that works like this and like that… hey, maybe it can be done! I can do it!”; sometimes I give myself a challenge “I want to create a no-luck game with deep strategies and huge replayability”, sometimes the idea just crosses your mind in the most unlikely time and place, and sometimes of course you are given a theme (like with Wizards of Mickey) and you must ‘extract’ the best possible game from there.
Unless the theme was already there from the start, the second step to me is always to find a theme that may match the core mechanic. From there, I make an early draft (sometimes with Powerpoint, some other times just with paper and pencils) and I run some early playtests with friends. I know that many designers play the games on their own to see if they work. I found that so boring that I usually don’t do that at all… if I can, and the game is not too complex, I try to play mental games and see if it works “in theory”. Then I try it with real people and most of the times I have to say that it stands the trial of the first game.
From those first, early, two or three games you immediately perceive if the idea is worth to be developed or if it’s not good enough. If the game looks promising, I write some draft rules and I make the first changes to the game thanks to the feedback received after the first plays.
At that point I usually involve developers (like my good friend Luca Iennaco) and wider playtesting groups. The average board game takes 6-8 months of playtesting, if everything goes according to the plans.
Somewhere along this process there is a stage where I feel the game is good enough to be shown to potential publishers, yet not totally finished, so that if the publisher ask for some small change (they almost always do that), there is still some room for adjustments.
The very last thing is writing the final rules, and that almost always happens only once I have a signed contract with a publisher.

[Liga] 6-8 months of play-testing before going to the publisher and then I think, some more months. I was lucky to have in hands both Kingsburg and Olympus in play-test stage and also your new project and I have to admit the games were already there! You have developed games together with other designers: what do you think about team-working in designing games?

[ANDREA] It’s an invaluable resource, of course, but also a danger and it has its drawbacks.
Every one of us has his own strength and weakness, and game design makes no exception. As of myself, I believe I have quite a good skills in creating the main mechanic of the game, and to know the direction I want to develop the game towards. When I find people with great skills I personally miss (like the eye for details and game balancing of Luca Iennaco, or the seemingly endless creativity and enthusiasm of Pierluca Zizzi) I feel that giving each one’s best contribution to the game makes it a much better game, at the end, proving that everything goes well.
Of course, the difficult part is trying to find a way of working together, respecting the others idea and opinions and always looking to the main goal, that is to make a better game together.
It really helps when you and your co-designers have different and well separated skills. Usually the problems arise when more than one person feels to have the right to say the last word on some kind of topic, and some games can even end in a stalemate. In that case, it’s maybe better to split and design two different games!

[Liga] It is happened to some of your design ? Which ?

[Andrea] Yes it did, but we really stopped at the very first stage when we saw that it was not possible to put together different views (or just that sometimes it’s really difficult to develop a game when you live too far away, even in the world of skype and cell phones). It’s not that I don’t want to make names, it’s just that we stopped so early that any game that was later born from either doesn’t have likely more than a very vague similarity with the starting project.

[Liga] Ok. You have talked about “streamlining” and “schematizing”. Do you think are there other common signs/marks recurrent in your games?

[ANDREA] I like to think that my games are really easy to learn, since they usually have a very linear turn sequence, but that there is more strategy and deepness that may seem at a first glance. “Easy to learn, difficult to master” is an ambitious motto, and more a goal that I give to myself than something I was already able to achieve with my games published so far.
Maybe “less is more”, since one of my basic guidelines when designing a game is “does this rule really add something to the game experience?” and if the answer is “no”, then I prefer to remove the rule, maybe at the cost of losing some adherence to the theme, but gaining in accessibility and, I hope, elegance. And I believe that if you can teach someone the rules of chess, poker, go and other gaming masterpieces in ten minutes to anyone, there is no reason why a real good game should require one hour of detailed rules explanations.
And also maybe eclecticism, since I believe I proved to be able to design games belonging to very different categories.

[Liga] “less is more” and “easy to learn, difficult to master”. Someone else talked me about “hidden complexity”, that I think is something close. Of course, as you says, these are your goals, something you are looking for. Do you think you are improving along this path from design to design ? Do you think we can find a sort of “elegance” path from Kingsburg to Olympus and then to Arcanum ?

[ANDREA] Hidden complexity, yes I agree. I am trying to follow this path, and almost all my games do aim to this goal. It’s possible that the closest to the goal was Wizards of Mickey, actually. A deep trading card game with very few rules and a lot of gameplay… too bad Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck aren’t exactly the most popular characters for teenagers playing Trading Card Games…

[Liga] Yes, I was quite surprised about it. The idea was to make a trading card games for 6-10 years old to compete with Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh, I think. Actually I was not so sure the kids in that range could really support a game with a theme not appealing after 11-12. Do you think designing games could be someway considered a sort of art? Why?

[ANDREA] Designing games it’s a way to tell stories, to express something of yourself, so in this meaning yes, designing games is not different from writing, composing, painting, dancing, etc…
But I like to remember that “art”, after all, is at the root of both “artisan” and “artist” words. I feel game designers should mostly be artisans, working on games that are supposed to be played by people, just like the first thought of a carpenter when making a table should be “will it fall or will it be nice and comfortable to seat around it?”.
Sometimes I feel that instead some designers out there think to themselves more as “fashion” designers, so their main thought is “is it innovative?” “does it looks cool?” “does it looks Avant-garde?”, while myself I prefer to mainly worry about things like “is it comfortable?” “Is it easy to wear (to play)?”.

[Liga] OK, I have understand. Like other designers you feel more a good craftman than an artist. Of course the idea that games are there to be played is something we can agree on but, of course, sometimes I think the boost toward innovative games, sometimes loosing playability, could also deserve to the market.

[ANDREA] Absolutely. A true gaming masterpiece is, indeed, both playable and innovative. Really innovative ideas don’t spring everyday however (not for me, at least), and we publish games in an overcrowded market with hundreds of new games being published every year. If I can spend another metaphor here, I would compare designer games to artistic movies. There is always need and space for great innovative artists, and it’s Kubrick, Tarantino, Lynch, Hitchcock, Besson, Welles whose movies will stand the test of time and be remembered. In the gaming world, you have Wallace, Chvaatil, Rosemberg, etc… great designers that can combine innovation with successful games (and still sell quite a lot). And you have directors like Lucas, Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron: they make blockbusters that strike the imagination of a huge number of viewers. You can compare them – with the due proportion – to Teuber, Knizia, Wrede, Alan R. Moon, Vaccarino, Bauza, Faidutti, ecc… As of myself, I would never dare to make such a comparison… maybe a good matching director would be Robert Zemekis: light, easy entertainment that tries to not being stupid and to leave a trace. I hope this metaphor did not sound a blasphemy to movie addicted, it’s just to explain my point of view and my approach to game design.

[Liga] Really nice. You talk about Donals X. Vaccarino i’m actually interviewing now too. He offers me a new way to looks at games: not only mechanic and theme but mechanic, flavour and data. I agree with him: a game could have mechanic (the main idea behind a games, like the recruiting part in Kingsburg), a flavour (thene) and also data, that are the things that make the flavour and theme stay together. What do you think about ?

[ANDREA] Vaccarino is one of the designers whose mindset I feel is closer to mine when approaching game design. If with “data” you means consistency between mechanic and theme I agree it’s important.
I sometimes think of games as cars: they need to have an engine (the core mechanic), a steering wheel, gear shift and gas pedal (ways for the players to set their speed and direction), and the car body (flavor and theme). Also, if possible, a destination. The perfect game like a great car has all the parts fitting well together, and that’s what hopefully we are all trying to achieve. But if I do really have to choose, I would rather have a not that fancy external body but a working engine, over an exceptional designed body and a car that goes right when I steer to the left.

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

[ANDREA] Having spent years working at Wizards of the Coast, Richard Garfield has always been a mythical and inspirational figure to myself (it may look weird, since my games don’t look that American style). In more than one of my games there is some subtle homage to Garfield games. Among the greatest German style game designers, I really admire as I mentioned Stephan Feld and I really envy Vlada Chvàtil for being even more eclectic than I am and such a skilled designer.
Unfortunately, I did not had the chance to have any mentor, which is something I feel I miss even today.

[Liga] Some Italians were lucky enough to be in strict contact with Alex Randolph … but, you are so young. If you have to describe Andrea Chiarvesio with just 3 Andrea games, which and why?

[ANDREA] Of course Kingsburg (middle weight gateway game that is probably the kind of design where I give my best), Olympus (yes I can create gamers games too) and Wizards of Mickey (easy and linear rules, endless strategic possibilities). If I have to stick to board games, then I would replace Wizards of Mickey with the 2012 project Hyperborea, keeping the same reason.

[Liga] I really like Hyperborea! I really hope to see the game published soon. It is solid, innovative and fun. Of course I hope the final part of design, working on materials and theme, could really boost a game I think will be a great success. Why did you started designing games and why do you continue designing?

[ANDREA] Because after many years working behind the scenes, to the localisation of games, I felt I learned enough to try to make something on my own. And also to design games I would have liked to play myself. This second reason is still valid today, and I continue designing because it’s one of the things I love most in my life and that makes me really happy.
I believe one of the best feelings you may experience in your life is to watch people having fun while playing a game that you contributed to create, and this alone is a great reason to design games.

[Liga] So Andrea “core” inspiration is to finally be able to design THE GAME he really likes to play ?

[ANDREA] I’ll be actually happy enough if someone else designs it so I can play it without having to work so hard to design it! Actually after having almost finished Hyperborea and having a couple of games under development (some of them may be Kingsburg related, but I really can’t say more at this stage…), I am actually not really working on new designs, which is somehow also due to the so many good games recently released I am busy playing (Eclipse above all, but also Trajan and Strasbourg, and I am looking forward to try Mage Knight and for Damasco and Al-Rasheed to be released), so I don’t feel a strong need to create games on my own, right now!

[Liga] You cited two games I really think will get a main part in the next year: Eclipse and Mage Knight. My impression is that there was time when the gap between “American games” (deep themed and someway complex rules) and “German games” (easy rules with a just post-it theme) was huge … now games like Eclipse and Mage Knight are somewhere between. What do you think about ? Where do you would like your games will be settled between this two stereotypes ?

[ANDREA] The way I see my games, they may fall somewhere in the middle. Probably people sees them as German than American, because of the easy rules and my always choosing function over flavor. With Olympus and Arcanum being more German, and Kingsburg and now Hyperborea a bit more on the “American” side (especially Hyperborea, even if it doesn’t have dice inside). But, as you pointed out, they’re just stereotypes. Some games I really like can be either American or German, or be an ideal bridge between the two. Maybe the first I can think of is one of my all-time preferred games, Age of Empire III.

[Liga] Age of Empire III! Really a great design! Is there some suggestions you would like to offer to new designers?

[ANDREA] Play, play, play, play a lot of other designers games. Don’t make it complicated if you can keep it simple (even if, if you want to be really appreciated by hard core gamers, you must make it a lot more complicated that it should be ). Nine ideas out of ten will never be published, and not all your ideas are that good (even if they all seem to be good at the beginning), so never give up, listen to the publisher’s advices (after all, they have many years of experience and their goal – in most of the cases – is the same as your, to make good games and if possible to make better games). Have fun, that’s the most important part of it all.

[Liga] Thank you Andrea. Best wishes and good play and good luck both for the Olympus FFG’s edition and for the Hyperborea release!

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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