The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #21 – Eric M. Lang

Dear Gamers, after reaching the interview #20 I’m continuing the series: today I’m gone to interview Eric M. Lang, one of the greatest designer in the outstanding Fantasy Flight Games team (Eric is the first of the FFG’s designers I was able to interview and I hope someday to be able to interview also other members). Eric is one of the inventor of the LCG games and many other great designs like Chaos in the old World. Eric interview start with an impressive “a game begins with a vision, inspiration or an intended audience. […] The design process is crafting the game to meet those needs.” than he also told me “I think it’s essential to have a rock solid grasp of mechanics, game theory and behavioral psychology”. All along the interview we will discover how Eric built his design style and techniques year after year thinking about it and the things needed to better design.

Now we can start with the interview:

[Liga] Dear Eric, 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.
Until now I have interviewed mostly German designers, french or Italian designers. You are one of the first of the real “American” style and, so far, the first of the great FFG staff, that is the “flagship” of this style (yes, I know you are from Canada and not from US).
You are a young designer but you have designed an impressive amount of games, from Mystik in 2000 (I really have to admit I don’t know nothing about) to Quarriors and all the Living Card Games. You have designed great boardgames like World of Warcraft: The Boardgame and Chaos in the Old World and an huge amount of LCG expansions. Actually, together with Nate French, you are the “LCG” father.
Is there any game you are particularly proud of and why?

[Eric] Chaos in the Old World.

[Liga] Great. Before going in the detail of this great design some more introductory question. As told in the preamble I think you are one the spokesman of what we can call “The American Style” and it looks like the theme has really a deep impact in your design. Which is the weight of theme and mechanics in your designs? Donald X. Vaccarino point me out also that flavor (data) is another important part in the design. How data, that actually are all the small rules used to fix theme and mechanics, wight in your design ?

[Eric] I don’t pay that much attention to design styles or schools. To me, a game begins with a vision, inspiration or an intended audience. That foundation creates a specific set of needs. The design process is crafting the game to meet those needs.
Most of my games are inspiration-driven, and I tend to be inspired by metaphors. I rarely think “this mechanic is great, let’s make a game out of it.” So in that respect, I guess you could say that I’m primarily a top-down, or “thematic” designer. Having said that, I think it’s essential to have a rock solid grasp of mechanics, game theory and behavioral psychology. They are the language of game design; they connect your ideas and the player experience.
If you look at game design as a duality of “theme and mechanics,” I think both are fundamentally important, with a slight edge to mechanics. Games don’t function without cohesive, working mechanics, and in the modern marketplace, they generally don’t resonate without a metaphor. The best games, to borrow a cliché, are a happy marriage of form and function.

[Liga] Wow! We are just in the beginning and you hit me with heavy milestones: “a game begins with a vision, inspiration or an intended audience “ looks really great and also “ I think it’s essential to have a rock solid grasp of mechanics, game theory and behavioral psychology” introduce something new for this series: “behavioral psychology” and, a sort of base knowledge in the language of game design. Something I’ll go to ask you in the central part of the interview. Some designers consider an important part of their work play other designer’s games, others are used to spend all the playing time on their own designs. 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 ?

[Eric] I think it’s very important to play other games often, be it designer games, parlor games, digital games, sports, party games, even just plain bad games. I play other games once a week at bare minimum. Because I work at home and not an office, I consider getting out and playing other games both necessary education and discipline. I never want to lose the fan’s perspective, to become out of touch or forget how to simply enjoy playing.

[Liga] Yes, I agree. Sometimes designers seems to lose the fa’0s perspective and that’s bad. Having an idea of what’s happening around, I think, is essential to be able to produce something nice! Can you please select one or more of your games and show us the design process: where the idea came from ? How it develops to final stage ? How long does it take to play-test a game?

[Eric] I’ll pick Warhammer: Invasion, as it has one of the more interesting design and development histories.

[Liga] Good. I really like Warhammer: Invasion. I’m not a LCG expert but I play it enough often to, I hope, be able to follow you …

[Eric] Invasion meshes theme and mechanics in a way that I’m very proud of, but the game was not originally for Warhammer. I had originally designed it (over the course of about a week) to be a real-time strategy (RTS) simulator, possibly angling for a major commercial RTS we all know :). I developed my own IP for it, and submitted it to a major European publisher. Eventually, they decided there was too much direct conflict in the system, and rather than change it too much, I put it on the shelf.
Two years later, FFG wanted a game for Warhammer Fantasy, and I got really excited, as this game was absolutely perfect for it. I had to throw out my original IP, which was not nearly as good as Warhammer anyway, and redesign the card base to match the Warhammer races. That took very little time, as the fit was so natural. I was also a fan of the setting, and FFG has some lore experts that put me to shame.

[Liga] I agree. I was unaware of this history and the game was fitting the theme so well I was sure it was designed with Warhammer word and races in mind!

[Eric] The original idea for the game remained throughout the entire process: I wanted to do a “warfare management” game with the simple goal of destroying your opponent’s capital but many different ways to achieve it. The flavor of the different races really put the game over the top and led to a gaming experience greater than the sum of its parts.
The full design and development process took about thirty days, working with the FFG staff, which included internal playtesting. One fundamental aspect of the game needed to change (the combat system – the original game was too elegant, and did not provide enough tactical depth), and then I handed it off to the capable FFG development team led by Nate French, to test externally and roll it through the production process.
I cannot stress enough how awesome it is to have a good support system. Game design, in my opinion, need not be a solitaire exercise. While I do believe it is important for the designer to lead and hold the vision crystal clear throughout the process, I personally work best when surrounded by smart, talented people.

[Liga] I was sure you are right. I think being part of the FFG team is the dream of many (most ??) designers … at least I would be totally excited to be a FFG crew-mate if it doesn’t mean to left Italy! You have developed several games together with other designers: what do you think about team-working in designing games?

[Eric] I think collaboration is a wonderful thing, although I suspect I’m not easy to work with. My design style often traverses the path of greatest resistance, which results in a lot of discarded designs I’m sure are perfectly serviceable but I don’t find “special” enough, and a lot of dead ends. I’m happiest when a game I’m working on challenges something fundamental either in my own thinking, or current game design zeitgeist, and that is understandably frustrating for many.

[Liga] It looks like an hard job!

[Eric] In a team setting, I think of myself as either a contributor or a heavy lifter. Contributors often bring small but fundamentally important elements to a game, and the heavy lifter takes it to the finish line. On the World of Warcraft board game, for example, I was a contributor. On the Game of Thrones card game, I was the heavy lifter.
Quarriors was the closest I’ve come to truly equal collaboration, but at the end of the day I would say Mike Elliott was the heavy lifter. I designed a lot of the core mechanics, and about half of the dice, but it was Mike who took the game to the finish line, sculpted and balanced the entire thing (his first guesses are scary accurate), and ultimately had final say on the small number of details on which we would disagree.
There are many designers I would love to collaborate with, however. We’ll see what the next few years bring.

[Liga] You are a designer with great experience and great ideas … I think it is only the matter to find something so share! From outside it looks like FFG’s team of designers is really a sort of “school” with several talented authors inspiring each other: the “Google” of boardgames developing. Is it true?

[Eric] That’s an interesting perspective. I think FFG is closer to Apple than Google; a visionary-led company that employs many smart, talented designers who wholly buy into this vision.
Many of the designers and developers working at FFG started as fans of the company’s games, and are strongly influenced by them. The entire culture is built around the creators being fans, and connecting with the public based on this shared taste.
Does FFG have a collective design style? I would say yes, but honestly I don’t believe I have the perspective to give a good breakdown of what that style is.

[Liga] I’m not really sure FFG has a real collective design style. Looking the huge production of the company brings out many different styles and currents. Actually what it looks like is a strong company “style” in the arts, graphics, materials and in what the games are bringing to the fans: “fantasy flights”. Is there a single game from another designer you really like to have designed yourself?

[Eric] Magic: The Gathering. Discounting the obvious financial success, Magic profoundly advanced modern game design as a whole … in my opinion, of course.

[Liga] Yes, Magic is a milestone, like Warhammer and Dungeon & Dragons. You are not the first pointing out Magic, and Richard Garfield production, as source of inspiration: Donald X. Vaccarino, told the same. Going through Richard Garfield interview there are really a lot of things to learn. Almost all the artist are used to have a master. Who is Eric Lang master? The person that taught you most about games ?

[Eric] I’m self-educated about design, but there are a few designers I consider to be strong influences.
Richard Garfield, who I consider to be the top designer in the world, is one of the reasons I got into this field in the first place. From his designs and writings I surmised that game design is neither art nor science; it is rather a philosophy, a way of looking at the world through the lens of structured interaction.

[Liga] You talk about Richard’s writings: is there something you can suggest to me and other interested in the designing scene in particular ?

[Eric] Richard used to write a monthly column in Duelist Magazine (the original official print magazine for Magic) called “Lost in the Shuffle.” I highly recommend any new designer to read and reread every single such column. They contain such density and depth without being dry, which is a rarity.
Additionally, you can read his blog (Games with Garfield) where he writes and podcasts some modern thoughts about design.

[Liga] Great! I’ll try to find Richard’s columns. Thank you. Any other designer influenced you ?

[Eric] Sid Sackson, who I consider to be the grandfather of Eurogames, was so far ahead of his time it’s unreal. From his games and writing I decided that psychology is the most important field a designer can master. His best games leap out of the box; players never feel imprisoned by the rules, but rather empowered to create and resolve deep, textured conflicts. From Sid I learned that the best designs don’t dictate interaction, they inspire it. They don’t challenge the player to solve them, they inspire the player to leap beyond them (and possibly his own abilities) and create awesomeness for themselves and their friends.
Christian Petersen, from whom I absorbed a profound appreciation for trust in the designer’s instinct. A lot of game design is highly technical, logical and precise (which I love), but on some level you either “get” fun or you don’t. You either connect with your players or you don’t. Inspired by his insight and success, I have adopted an overall discipline of devouring information from many of different sources, and then working from my gut. Just being a fan.

[Liga] You touched several interesting topics: first of all is “fun”. Games needs to be funny and is something very difficult to define: there are great design that simply doesn’t work and not so great or innovative games that are just so fun. I would like to go in the detail about that and many other things you told me here later. Do you think designing games could be someway considered a sort of art? Or is something closer to good craftsmanship ? Why?

[Eric] As I talked about above, I don’t generally view game design as a duality of art and science/craftsmanship. It’s a perfectly valid view; I just don’t share it.
I think that games can certainly pursue artistic goals – to existentially challenge the user or deliver a message. It’s not something I’m particularly interested in, however. I believe that the medium is ultimately democratic; the designer and players work together to create an experience that makes players feel awesome in very specific ways.

[Liga] That’s a point I have to note. The role of the players. You are the first one putting the players in a central position in the design point: you make a risky parallel it looks like the role of the observer in the quantistic formulation of the mechanic. But, please, go on …

[Eric] At the end of the day, I believe game design is a filter through which you view the world. How do we codify interaction between people in a multitude of settings? How do we align motivation, competition, cooperation and perception into play patterns? Those who design must be mulch-disciplinarians: adept at psychology, economics, communication, math, marketing, sociology … arguably even history. We must be at once blindly creative and shrewdly analytical. We must take our influences from life and translate them into play.

[Liga] We have rushed in the core part of the interview with really a lot of nodes to loose. I go back with all the questions I held until now. First of all I would like to examine what are you really thinking when you tell “a game begins with a vision, inspiration or an intended audience “. With vision do you mean something more close to a plan or to a dream ?

[Eric] I find there are generally three beginnings to a new game, each a guide post to be consulted all throughout the design process.
Inspiration – you wake up in the middle of the night possessed by an idea that just won’t let go. This idea compels you on some level: emotionally, intellectually, or artistically. Very often my inspiration-based designs begin with the classic “what if…?” statement (I am currently working on a big game for FFG that was inspired by a big epiphany that challenged every assumption I had about customizable games).
Vision – An articulation of the game’s compelling qualities. It’s different with every designer, but when I construct a vision document, I tend to place myself in the role of the players without thinking about too much mechanical detail. What are they doing at the table? What bits are they playing with; how and why? What are they talking about? What are some key moments that make them feel awesome?
Intended Audience – A carefully thought out summary of who this game is made for. What demographic(s) do they fit in? What do they want out of this game? This is a more marketing-oriented approach, but I strongly believe in it. Some games, especially more mass market digital games I work on, begin with demographic questions before any ideas take shape at all.

[Liga] Great! You also talked about game theory. Do you intend a designer needs (or just it is better if) a base knowledge of what mathematicians call “game theory” or something else ?

[Eric] Yes, the math and science behind rational decision-making. It’s a broad field, and nobody needs to be an expert (I’m certainly not!), but at the very least a designer should understand decision trees, zero-sum (or non-zero sum) games, finite/infinite games, basic theoretical problems like the prisoner’s dilemma or tragedy of the commons, etc. This helps you to understand how and why many mechanics work the way they do, what interactions they produce, and should provide fertile ground for new designs.
The Wikipedia entry for “game theory” is a decent starting point.

[Liga] I agree. I think that a base knowledge of the math and science behind rational decision-making could really improve a lot the final result of a design. Finally, two times you talked about the importance of psychology; are you thinking something (or someone) in particular?

[Eric] Start with the fundamentals. Psych 101, as taught by most (North American) colleges, should be a good baseline. You learn the basics such as learning and development, nonverbal communication, motivation and behavior, nature/nurture, perception and sensation, even a bit of neuroscience. I don’t want to recommend anything specific beyond the basics, as I believe a designer’s chosen path of psychological education informs a lot of his design … and everyone is different.

[Liga] Many different things a “good” designer has to read. It looks like to be a good designer you need to study: that is something new for this series but something I think really important. You can find arts schools for several disciplines: it will be not bad to have a real school of games design. I’m not sure the market is still ready to support this but is a nice idea. If you have to be the director of a school of games design, which lessons and which teachers ?

[Eric] Wow, that’s an entire book’s worth of question :)
I have been thinking about this topic in the background for the last few years, although progress has been a bit slow (turns out I enjoy making games a lot more than teaching it).
In brief, I would focus a game design curriculum on: Game history, Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, Contemporary World History, Applied Mathematics (focused on statistics, probability and algebra), Architecture, Linguistics and Marketing. Most importantly, I would also make sure that the entire academic framework is wrapped around constant game prototyping, workshops and professional designer speakers. As far as who teaches, I must admit I haven’t thought about that at all.

[Liga] It will be great if a company, or a well-known designer, really find the money/energy to set-up a such school. Something is going in this direction in the video-games market that, unluckily, is much more richer than the boardgames scene. I really like to find Architecture and Marketing also included in that list. I think base marketing knowledge could really help developing games mechanic but also could be useful having an idea of the games market problems and mechanism.
I would like also to go in the details about the role of the players in the design: are players simply “something you have to consider” during the design process or do you think a real interaction with players, during the design process, could be important ?

[Eric] To me, the player is everything. Every decision throughout the design process should at least be partially informed by what the player is going to feel, think about, be challenged by, or simply perceive. One of the reasons I make such a discipline about playing games simply for fun is that I consider that to be my edge; as a player, I am ultimately selfish. I don’t care how elegant or clever the designer’s work is, I care about what the game is doing for me. How does this game make me feel awesome? How is it helping me to create a fun experience for my friends at the table?
I can only assume that most players are the same, and so this informs every facet of my design. I often play very raw designs with players, test some assumptions, then continue and refine (or just scrap) the design from there. This is a very agile method that can drive a designer insane with feedback overload, but I thrive on it.

[Liga] Yes. I think the success of a game is most about how much the game is, in the end, fun ti play. And fun is not really well and univocally defined. Is there a common sign/mark in your design ? I’m really not been able to find a real common trait in your production.

[Eric] Honestly, I don’t know, nor do I really pay it much heed. I’m still learning, still (hopefully) getting better over time. I don’t consider myself a valid judge or analyst of my own body of work. That’s for other designers, academics, pundits and the market to decide.

[Liga] If you have to describe yourself with just 3 Eric Lang’s games, which and why?

[Eric] I like the way Vlaada answered to this question, so I’m going to steal his “era”-based format.

Mystick ・ my first published design, and one I知 still quite proud of. It’s essentially a Euro resource management card game, something I only discovered in retrospect. Thinking about it now, I think the game cements where my strength lies: in complex interactions from simple pieces, and a design sculpted to feel scary and open-ended, even within a tight rules set.

Chaos in the Old World – an unsurprising example, I’m sure, but I think it’s clear that this game was a labor of love. The core design came together in about two days, leaving the remaining three months for glorious development and refinement. I love the way the game rewards players for embracing chaos, and the psychograph of their chosen god. Even more than Mystick, this game uses a fairly rudimentary rules base to encourage players to step outside the “script” and find their own creative ways to win, without putting all of the pressure on them. The element of luck in the game forces variance and adaptability without (usually) simply smashing anyone out of contention.

The Hobbit ・ this may be an unfair example, as the game isn’t even available yet. But on some level I still feel like something of a journeyman designer, and every big board game I do represents either a big revelation or continuing exploration. With this game I followed a well-trodden path thematically, but wanted to try a different approach. This game is essentially a love letter to my favorite fable of all time, and I wanted to craft an intense asymmetrical experience that really put players into the roles of Bilbo and his enemies. This is no clean, elegant mass market design; it痴 complex and baroque. But it痴 the Hobbit experience I want to play, and I can only hope it resonates!

[Liga] It is unfair. You are bringing out some “style” and “design traits” just in the conclusion. “Complex interactions from simple pieces” looks like a new paradigm. “Encourage players to step outside the “script” and find their own creative ways to win” seems to go in the direction of offers players a role in the design. Can you explain better this sentences ?

[Eric] Sure. “complex interactions from simple pieces” is nothing new, it’s just how I’ve chosen to articulate my favorite design style. I design a lot of exceptions-based games where the rules are essentially a toolkit to create exciting interactions between components with abilities. I like it best when most of the complexity from these pieces is emergent rather than spelled out (ie. In a customizable card game, where most of the fun is finding combos and synergy between cards, I do my best to design card abilities with a firm logical framework, but open-ended enough where I as designer cannot possibly see all ends. If I can be surprised by player discoveries in the game, then I believe I have succeeded).

Stepping outside the script” is just another riff on the same idea. One of my favorite games to teach is Sid Sackson’s “I’m the Boss,” a free-wheeling negotiation game where the design is tight as a drum. Players make deals as their primary interaction, but the open framework and limited components make it necessary to be somewhat creative in your deal making to gain an edge, but because the game is so limited in scope players don’t become hypnotized by the endless possibilities. True, the game demands a lot of player input to be at its best, but the design expertly leads players down that creative path.

I do appreciate games where the decision tree is tightly mapped and controlled, where the design often comes from the endgame (scoring system) and reverse-engineered to create the mechanics, but they are seldom my favorites. I generally prefer more open-ended games, where I as the player feel enabled by the game to architect my own the success, and feel empowered by my own cleverness rather than celebrate the designer’s. So I try to design my games to offer the same to players.

[Liga] Why did you started designing games and why do you continue designing?

[Eric] I’ve been designing games since I was ten years old, modifying games to play with my grandmother in Germany or my friends at school. I honestly couldn’t tell you “why” I design games; it’s just what I do. I can’t fathom doing anything else. Every job I’ve had that did not involve the creation or play of games always felt unnatural and wrong; something I had to get away from.
On some level, I believe creative people do what they do to resolve some dissatisfaction with the current state of the world. Looking at it from this point of view, I guess I continue making games because I feel as though play should be a much bigger and meaningful part of our lives, and as long as I keep making games, I’m contributing toward giving us more options to move in that direction.

[Liga] I totally agree with you. I think a more diffuse and more radicalized use to play games could really make the world better. Is something I’m trying to do going in the schools, writing articles also for parents and kids sites/magazines. Is there some suggestions you would like to offer to new designers?

[Eric] Make sure you understand your core motivation. Do you want to make a living designing games, are you simply a creative person who likes to entertain his or her friends, or are you an artist that needs to prove or communicate something? I find most people are a mix of the three, but there’s always a priority order.
This ultimately informs your level of satisfaction with the game design process. If you are an artist at heart, for example, I would not recommend the traditional career path of the commercial game designer. You will end up unhappy at the level of compromise required to keep your job or client. Alternatively, if game design is your desired path to fame and/or fortune (there is nothing wrong with that, by the way), then you better break yourself out of an insular game group early and start working on your social and marketing skills. If the idea of that repulses you on any level, reconsider your methods and try to align them with your core motivation. The clearer you are about this, the happier you will be.
And at the end of the day, that’s really what matters.

[Liga] Thank you Eric for this great interview. Really a lot of interesting prospective and something I have to think a lot about. Best wishes 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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