The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #20 – Richard Garfield

Here I’m! Finally I reached the interview #20. For this special recurrence I gone to interview one of the designers that most influenced the games world in the last century: Richard Garfield. Probably Magic: The Gathering release shaked the design scene in a way comparable only to the uproar following Gary Gygax Dungeons & Dragons release.

It is not a surprise that several designers, including Donald X. Vaccarino, Andrea Chiarvesio, Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala, cited Richard work in their interviews.

I’m also really thrilled interviewing Richard since I consider RoboRally one of the 3 greatest games of ever!

What we are goiing to discover in this interview is how Richard designs greatly combine luck and skills with a solid mechanic and a strong theme and a particular attention to players interactions.

Finally Richard suggest me to consider also publishers and their impact/influence in the final design … probably something I’ll go to explore in the future … you are a publisher ? Attention, you can find an email from me in your mail-box soon or later!

[Liga] Hi Richard, is really nice to have the possibility to interview you for Opinionated Gamers. I think designing games is a form of art not less than writing books or casting movies and this series of interview is enforcing my opinion. The ambitious aim of this series of interviews is to point out the “style” of each designer, going through his production, trying to find a sort of personal “sign”.

According to BGG you have designed more than 20 games. Of course for the “world” your are the designer of Magic the Gathering, your first release back in 1993 but I really liked many of your designs: starting from RoboRally (one of my top3 games ever!) and The Great Dalmuti (the best filler ever). Also last year King of Tokyo is doing really well. Is there any game you designed you are particularly proud of ?

[Richard] It would be disingenuous to not begin with Magic, it is the most innovative game I will ever design. Magic has reached so many people and affected so much of game design, and every time I play it I am amazed at how fresh it feels. However, I have been well recognized for Magic so I will put forth a game I wasn’t recognized for which I am proud of – and that is What were you Thinking a party game that fizzled out completely. There are a number of games that are kind of similar to this design now, but I still love concept. The basic idea (which can be played with paper and pencil) is players ask questions and all players write down answers. Players score one point for each person that shared the same answer as they wrote. The person with the lowest score gets a strike –and three strikes ends the game with a loser. On the surface it looks like Family Feud since it is a polling game, but it is much more interesting than that because you are trying to get in the heads of your friends and family – not some nameless television audience.

[Liga] I’m surprised you pointed out this game. Apart for The Great Dalmuti I was indeed unaware you are really interested in party-games.

[Richard] Yes, I am drawn to games that can handle a large number of people who are of disparate levels of game play. This is one of the reasons I am so fascinated by the Werewolf/Mafia family of games. I have been watching with interest as people have attempted to improve on the basic games with packaged versions – which is of course exactly what I attempted to do with Great Dalmuti since the basic game play there is not original, it is the treatment which is original. I have yet to design my own game in this category however.

Another – unpublished – game I have made is a trivia game. Ken Jennings wrote a fun book on trivia and it really reminded me of the best parts of the trivia games I had participated in; trivia when done well should be broadly appealing because everyone has specialized areas of knowledge, and good trivia can often allow outside reasoning even when that knowledge is wanting. It also makes a great team challenge, where working with other people is natural and fun. Unfortunately it is often perceived (and designed to be) as something much more specialized and less fun. To date I have had difficulty getting a publisher interested because it is trivia, despite the fact that I have several ideas of how to make it broadly more fun. Perhaps I will publish it myself…

[Liga] I grab this “I will publish myself …” to ask you about two things always heavily discussed by gamers: self-publishing and kickstarter. What do you think about ? Do you think are a good opportunity for the game scene or something wrong ? How much can be a designer influenced in his creation by the need to find a publisher and what self-publishing and kickstarter offer in this direction ?

[Richard] I have been fairly disappointed with most of the games I have played which have been spawned by Kickstarter. I think it is exciting that players have another avenue for publishing, but that the publishers touch is not something that can dropped lightly. The games have sounded great, and had some cool mechanics – but ultimately not stood up to repeated plays. I think if the designers had worked with publishers there is a good chance they would have been more polished.

That said – I usually encourage beginning designers to self publish, not with the eye to making an ongoing business, but to understand the market as a whole, and get a publisher to take you seriously. Many designers think that doing the work associated with publishing a game won’t be a problem, but most designers would rather design and don’t realize how much time it takes to do it themselves. I have known a lot of small game company owners that have complained that they can’t remember the last time they had a chance to design.

So I guess I celebrate making publishing easier – but am wary of Kickstarter because with Kickstarter you are often selling a cool concept, making it about flash and not substance. When you actually have to do all the work up front then interest people you take it a lot more seriously.

[Liga] Yes. I totally agree with you. I think that many games will benefit from expert publishes opinions and most structured testing. How do you think the worldwide success of Magic the Gathering influenced your design career ? Do you think it helped you or, someway, limited your creative having a so great success to confront with ?

[Richard] Magic has profoundly affected my career, and it has helped it enormously. I doubt I would have been a professional game designer without that success, but would have remained in Math Academics, probably publishing games on the side. Of course, great successes do limit you in some ways also, my interest in games is broad, and when I do a party game or light family game – my existing audience doesn’t necessarily want that, which limits the value of these games to my publisher who wants to leverage my name. I design many games which I have trouble interesting a publisher in part because of this. This doesn’t break my heart because I always have and always will design games for fun and if I create something I enjoy and which brings something to my friends and family I am happy – being published is a bonus.

[Liga] Great! I noted “always have and always will design games for fun and if I create something I enjoy and which brings something to my friends and family I am happy” and I’ll be back on this later because it is really attractive for the main part of the interview. Almost all your games are really themed. You are, beyond a doubt, an “American” designer. How much really the theme is important for you in the design process ? Are you used to start from theme or from the mechanics thinking about a new game ?

[Richard] Because of my themes it may surprise you to learn I generally design abstractly to a mechanic and then fit the theme to the game.

[Liga] Ooooh! (really surprised!)

[Richard] One difference between me and many designers who work this way is that I almost completely redesign the game to the theme after I have chosen it, because I don’t like the dry link that often exists between a good mechanic and an almost arbitrary theme. I do work both ways, however, and often I believe it would be difficult to tell which came first – theme or mechanic:
Magic – Mechanic
What Were You Thinking – Mechanic
Pecking Order – Theme
King of Tokyo – Mechanic
RoboRally – Theme

[Liga] OK. So you are not a “pure” American designer but, for sure, you are not part of the German school. I really like the idea that also starting from a mechanic, after choosing the theme, the game got a full redevelopment. I’m sure Magic and King of Tokyo are not dry games! Can you please go in the details with your design process ? How long usually does it takes to full design a game ? How much time do you spend in fine-tuning and testing ? You are a mathematicians: how much this affects your designs ?

[Richard] I am a very slow designer. I know designers who can whip out a game in no time, I seek inspiration and am very picky – I make many prototypes that never get played by anyone and many more than only get played a few times. I design often from intuition but am never satisfied until I understand the roots of the intuition. I would guess that over half my designs are shelved, and in time about half those designs at some point get taken off the shelf and perfected – or incorporated into another game. I spend an enormous amount of time tinkering with the general structure of the game.

Mathematic only affects my designs in the loosest sense. I will often take a step back and consider the game as a whole as a mathematical system and ask myself what sort of behavior I want to see in that system. The actual mathematics I apply to a game is much less important than my experience getting my hands dirty with actual testing and design.

[Liga] “I design often from intuition but am never satisfied until I understand the roots of the intuition” is something we will go back later. It seems you are not used to co-design games. What do you think about team-working and why you are used to design games alone ?

[Richard] Very true – and a good observation. I work very well with other people in terms of respecting their input and being flexible on design. One of the reasons Magic has done so well is because I worked with so many people to launch the right game and develop it afterwards – people that often went against my wishes with the design and development but always respected and listened to my input. However, in the design process I find it very hard to work with other people because I am such a slow and intuitive designer – collaborating with people is frustrating for them and me – I can’t follow my thoughts with someone else talking and they can’t understand why I want to go in certain directions – because I don’t understand it myself.

[Liga] It looks like a really creative and “artistic” matter …

[Richard] That said I collaborate a lot with Skaff Elias, who is generally credited with development but often has important impact on the design itself – he has known me a long time and has learned to give me the time I need to follow my thoughts. And I have had occasional successful collaborations, like that with Alexey Stankevich with whom I designed Spectromancer.

In the end I think I work best by myself for the base structure – but then I work very well with developers once that structure is set.

[Liga] Ok. So it looks like you prefer to be alone in the creative part of the process but like team-working when it is time to fine tuning. Your games are really different as genre, complexity and duration. Do you think we could find a common sign/trait in your games ?

[Richard] My interest in games is broad – so part of my design style is working in a new area, which I believe makes it hard to pin me down. When I find a game form that I don’t like I often try to understand what it is that makes it fun to its fans – since the people who like the game aren’t wrong – they just see a value I don’t and perhaps don’t care about something I dislike.

The most common element to my games, I think, would be a desire to have a reasonable amount of both luck and skill in a game. Most people think of Luck and Skill in games as being opposites – but games like poker show otherwise, you can have a lot of both – and that is what I strive for. I do also like a fun theme with a sense of humor.

[Liga] “Luck and Skill” … something to note for later questions! Almost all the artist had a master: who is Richard Garfield Master ? The person that taught you most about games design ?

[Richard] There is no ‘master’ but there are many influences. Even though I didn’t go into role playing games I have to start with Gary Gygax and Dave ArnesonDungeons and Dragons is possibly the most innovative game design of all time, and it really is responsible for starting my career in game design – not because of the game itself but because it showed me that games was a category that could include so much. I followed <Steve Jackson’s games with interest. I was heavily influenced by Sid Sackson’s many games and books – as in fact most designers these days are whether they are aware of it or not. I was excited by Robert Abbott’s games and there was an excellent book by Wayne Shmittberger called new rules for classic games.

[Liga] Sid Sackson was also indicated by Wolfgang Kramer, one of the most eminent representative of the so called “German School”. Gygax and Arneson work really deep influenced the hisotry of the games: actually the only comparable perturbation was Magic: The Gathering. Do you think designing games is actually a form of art or you think yourself like a skilled craftsman ?

[Richard] I think it is both. I get irritated by designers who are so hung up on the ‘art’ that they are inflexible and unwilling to learn. Games are like architecture, there is absolutely art there – but if your engineers recommend you change your design you had better know what you are doing when you ignore them – that is quite different than the art in Music or Painting.

[Liga] Great comparison! I really like. The game designer like an architect that has also to do with solidity” and “functionality”. Now I go back to something I noted during the first part of this interview to try to understand better. You told me “I design often from intuition but am never satisfied until I understand the roots of the intuition”: that actually means that the first part of your design is something creative. Where do you take the inspiration for subject/mechanics of your games ?

[Richard] Where don’t I take inspiration? I have told prospective designers who are looking for good subjects to study to take classes in lots of different things because inspiration can come from anywhere. I get inspiration from systems and how they behave, so economics, evolution, and social dynamics would be included.

I also tell them to play many different games especially ones that are popular which they don’t like, because understanding what the fans of that game like will give you ideas and make you a stronger designer. I get inspiration from the study of games, even when I meet a game I don’t like I learn to like it, then take the nugget there and apply it to other games.

[Liga] So, actually, it looks like you are interested/attracted by the evolution of game design and other designers work. Do you think is important to continue play other designers games to be able to make good design ? How many sessions/hours you dedicate during the week to actually playing games ?

[Richard] It is very important to me. I know other designers differ and usually I simply acknowledge differences in style – but in this case I actually think they are wrong not to explore, appreciate and understand other designer’s games. They usually say they don’t want to be influenced by the designs, but to me that is like a writer saying they don’t like to read or a scientist that says they don’t want to study other peoples work. There are designers that are very good and can get away with that but I think their designs would be even better if they studied their peers, and declining to do so makes the designs about themselves rather than about the games.

I probably spend an average of 8 hours a week exploring other people’s games and classic games as well.

[Liga] Great. I was also (for more than 8 years) in the research and I’m sure that any good result can be easily reached studying other peoples work. I would like now to go back to you assertion about “Luck and Skill”. As you told many gamers seems to see a conflict. Can you please explain me better how to you try to include luck in your design and how can you manage it to get a final result that is not a “random driven” design ?

[Richard] There are many tools one can use to balance the amount of luck in a game, and the perception of luck, which is often just as important. Luck can obviously be introduced with dice and cards, but also one can look to simultaneous decision making (like Robo Rally or Rock Paper Scissors), vaguarities in physical performance such as decterity and perception, and complexity beyond casual understanding. I can demonstrate the last point by asking you what you think the 30,000,00th digit of pi is. Unless you have very unusual talents your chance of being correct is probably 1/10. But there is no overt luck in this ‘game’. Similarly many games with no apparent luck actually do have some luck in practice.

[Liga] Really good point. I also like the idea that sometimes is important not the real luck in a game but the perception of luck!

[Richard] When working with these techniques it takes a lot of experience to sense how much luck is actually being introduced – and even a lot of experience and mathematical training is often inadequate since the answer will vary with the players. The key goal for me is to make decision points that the best answer is unknown but players can develop cognitive tools to help them decide – and there is enough randomeness or complexity that they can’t be sure of their answer.

[Liga] I like that. I’m also not too much happy about games with a sort of “solution”.

[Richard] I will mention one quite tactical consideration – I think it tends to be better to have randomness come from different choices rather than just random success or failure. So for example, when drawing cards in Magic there is luck involved as to which options will become available – and the game is at its best when this is happening. When a player is waiting for one particular card, say, a land, then the game is in a fail/success state – which players tend to dislike. One of the most common dice mechanics is fail/success states – and I believe this is why dice are often disliked by serious game players. Linear ranking of the results is also often a bad thing. For this reason I am on my guard if I am dealing with a system that, for instance, has roll to hit (success/fail) followed by roll for damage (ranked result). Dice don’t have to work that way though, King of Tokyo has a lot of things that can be done with the rolls – and many many rolls are difficult to rank against one another. There are success/fail points in the game but much of the dice rolling is about options.

[Liga] This remeber me an old discussion with Andrea Chiarvesio about Kingsburg. Andrea told me that the dice are a sort of “random resources” element setting the initial condition players have to optimize to get the best result. And actually a computer mathematical simulation of thousands Kingsburg sessions made by a friend of my shows that actually the winning/loosing is not real connected to good/bad average rolls.

[Richard] Yes, dice often carry a high perceived luck which is sometimes inaccurate. The two ways to reduce the influence of luck from dice is to make more rolls that are hard to rank, and to simply make more rolls. A game like Titan has an enormous amount of dice rolling, so much that the rolls will add a wildness to the game locally – but globally the better player very often wins.

[Liga] You told me that you are also interested in understanding why peoples like some games. How much the “audience” and the “target” influence your design process ? Are you designing a game for specific target ?

[Richard] I try to make myself into the audience and design for myself. Or I design the game I want to play with the audience. When my tastes really differ from my audiences I typically find that I can design to satisfy both even in the face of apparently intractable problems. For example, hobbyists I have designed for have claimed to like more politics in their games than me. Typically what that actually means is that the hobby games they play are very political, but when I introduce a game with less politics but still, a reasonable amount of overt interaction – they are happy. So it is not the high politics they like but the high interactivity.

[Liga] Nice. It looks like something Eric Lang is talking about (in the interview I’m conducing) that an important skill for a game designer is a knowledge in psychology. I see a lot of kids playing Magic starting from 10-12 years. You was aware it could be a so great success also for young players ?

[Richard] That is a bit younger than I would have predicted – I would have predicted 12+. Pretty much there is no game that a 12 year old can’t play so I think a game that is super complicated can still say 12+ as long as the content isn’t inappropriate. It is probably also try that 10+ can learn any game provided the child has had a lot of exposure to games or is pretty bright.

[Liga] I agree. Of course there are differences between playing a game and mastering a game. But this also apply for adult players: I know many adults able to play a game but not really to master it! Is there a game you really like to have designed yourself ?

[Richard] Not really. There are many games that I respect the design of and would have been proud to have designed, but that is also a lot of work. So I can have the pleasure of cooking a great meal or being treated to one – I like to cook and that will always make it special but I will never turn down a good meal by someone else or be jealous of it. I get immense pleasure and appreciation from sitting down to someone else’s well designed game and thinking of all the work I don’t have to do to make this a reality.

[Liga] If you have to describe Richard Garfield with just 3 Richard Garfield games: which and why ?

[Richard] I have to put Magic at the head of the list. As mentioned before I will never design a game that has more influence or is more original than that game. It really defines a lot of my values in games as well – the vast amount of variety and customization of strategies is something I love in games.

Next I would use Robo Rally, not my first published game but my first publishable game. It has a sense of humor and world view that integrates well with the mechanics. It has what I look for in many games – a lot of luck and a lot of possibility for skill.

Finally I would use King of Tokyo. This is my most recent game and reflects a lot of the design sensibilities I have been refining over the last 20 years. I often have a problem with many hobbyist designs in that they allow players to pick on one another which can make the game political. I have problems with many Euro designs that avoid that by making the interaction either very low, or making it feel passive aggressive – where I can’t attack you but I can take the resource you want. In King of Tokyo I set out to make it highly interactive but not super political and I think it was a success in that regard. And of course the theme of giant monsters attacking Tokyo has the sense of humor I look for in games.

[Liga] You reported 3 games with high interaction. Actually, thinking about your designs, really seems that a common trait could be “interaction”, explored in many ways. If we want to summarize Richard Garfield style can we say “Designs that greatly combine luck and skills with a solid mechanic and a strong theme and a particular attention to players interactions” … do you agree ?

[Richard] That seems fair – it is a constant battle with me to keep overt interactions between the players while not having politics be a large factor. The way I use politics, by the way – is the capability of one player to pick on another.

[Liga] Why you started to design games and why you are still happy to continue design games ?

[Richard] I started designing games because Dungeons and Dragons put me in awe over what the possibilities were – that and the fact that there was so little written on games made it feel vast unexplored and exciting. I still feel that way – the prominence of games has risen greatly with electronic games and the European game movement, but it still feels like the wild west as far as design goes – unlike something like Film which has been seriously studied for decades or Music which has been seriously studied for Millenia.

[Liga] Yes, I agree. One of the reason I started this series of interview was to try to encourage the thinking and discussion about games with a different perspective from the player, interested only in how the game work and how fun it is to play. What do you think about Opinionated Gamers mission: a web site where talk about games giving opinion and doing things like interviews, articles … do you think is important to talk about games world (designers, market, companies, ideas) or it is better to write just about the games ?

[Richard] I think all these things should be talked about. Of course designers should be talked about – just like Directors of movies or authors of books. This is not merely for giving credit to the creator it is also, perhaps more importantly, for making sure the best games get designed. Anonymous games are going to, in general, be less lovingly crafted than ones with people’s names on them. Twenty years ago I would have considered it less important to talk to the publishers – I would have carried my film or book analogy further and reasoned “why should I be interested in what Tri-Star thinks?” Maybe it is because the game industry is different or maybe it is because I am naïve about movies and books – but the publishers have enormous knowledge about their nitch of game design and their audience – and they influence their designers. This in turn molds the way design is done in general, making their attitudes and standards very important to understanding where games are and where they are going.

I guess the short answer is that if we want games to be as well understood as movies or books we need to talk about all aspects of the industry.

[Liga] So, actually, you suggest me also to try to interview publishers asking about where they think the games market has to go and which kind of design and designers they are looking for ?

[Richard] Yes. The publishers are a very important and knowledgeable piece of the puzzle. My best publishing relationships are quite collaborative, and getting the game correct for their audience while keeping what makes the game interesting alive can be a group effort. The best publishers respect the designer’s intent, I think designers generally do well respecting the publishers feedback and trying to work with it.

[Liga] I also think a better respect/interaction between publishers and designers could help to improve the overall level of the games released. What can you suggest to young designer starting their careers ?

[Richard] As far as learning their craft, play lots of games. Play games you aren’t naturally drawn toward, and find out why they are loved by their fans. Play classic games like chess and dominoes, these are a very important part of our game heritage. Play critically, but don’t lose your sense of fun. Pay attention to the parts of a game people complain about – can the games be changed to make those people happy without taking the soul out?

As far as getting an education, study broadly. I don’t feel like any aspect of my education has been wasted in games.

As far as getting published, make sure your game is tested by people who aren’t your friends or family. Often finding the best design demands you separate the fun of playing your game with the fun of playing, and this will be harder to separate with your friends and family – who will have fun just being together.

[Liga] Thank you very much for this great interview, hoping to have the possibility to meet each other someday, perhaps in Italy!

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.
This entry was posted in Interviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #20 – Richard Garfield

  1. Fraser says:

    Thanks Andrea and Richard. Very interesting.

  2. Ben (chally) says:

    These interviews are some of my favorite content on this site. Keep up the great work!

  3. thomasokeefe says:

    Unbelievably good interview, this article is the best thing I’ve read about games in a very long time. Incredibly interesting.

  4. Thank you. Designers are really kind to take rime to answer my question also if that are busy designino Games. Every new interview i learn something usefull for the next One. I think i’ll really consider The idea about interviewing also publushers in The future. To The next One.

    Good play

  5. gamingleet says:

    Liga, again you find a way to ask questions that get us “off the beaten path”. An excellent interview. And of course, a huge thanks to Richard Garfield for participating and the many thoughtful and thought provoking responses.

  6. Michael Hall says:

    Thanks Liga and Richard for an excellent interview. Great Read!

Leave a Reply to Michael HallCancel reply