The Art of Design: Interviews of game designers #23 – Bernd Eisenstein

Dear Gamers, here again after a long silence to continue my series of interviews.  Please, write me if you are interested in some particular designer or, if you are a designer interested in being interviewed.  In the meanwhile I have read several books about design and game design and so in the next interviews I’ll be much more demanding.

After the last interview of Rudiger Dorn, I’m continuing with “German” designers but I’m also getting close to starting with someone else with a real different approach and point-of-view.  Bernd’s preferred title is Rudiger Dorn’s Goa, and that is something that can help us to have an idea of Bernd’s designing style.

Bernd is a designer that, with his own label Irongames, floats in the vast area of small-publishers, living between self-publishing and real publishers, that thanks to Kickstarter are growing in number and capacity.  In the first part of interview Bernd says “I’m more a gamer than a designer,” something I really like.  Since designing games is about making players get a good experience, those who are able to play a lot can really have more shots in his gun. Concerning the core question he says “[I] think you need a good balance of Art and Craftsmanship” and then “You need a minimum of Art to design games, otherwise you would almost copy existing games. But you also need a lot of Craftsmanship.”  Asked about language independency in games he told me: “I wanna read, I take a book, not a board game,” a nice answer!

Here is the full interview:

[Liga] Dear Bernd, 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 or less than writing books or casting movies. We will try to look through your production, to find your style, your special sign.

You can probably be part of the so called “German School” but all your games have also a good connection with the theme and history.  According to BGG you have designed something close to 10 games starting from Maya released in 2003, but Irongames titles, the ones you are most know for, started in 2009 with Peloponnes’ success, still your title best ranked on BGG.  Is there any game you are particularly proud of and why?

[Bernd] Sure, Peloponnes has still a very good reputation and I still love that game for its variance. PAX goes in the same vein – it’s very smooth and tricky with not that much rules. In general I’m proud of all my games, because there is so much work in them, but Pack&Stack is the game that I’m most proud of, because it’s a really atypical game for me: I personally hate hectic games and in core Pack&Stack is a hectic game. Also this game had a good success and good sales with which I could manage to start Irongames.

[Liga] So I need to get a copy of Pack&Stack since I started to buy your games under the Irongames label.  As mentioned before, your games are quite German but also with deep connections with the theme.  How much do you think theme and mechanics weigh in your design process? And do you think, like Donald X. Vaccarino said in his interview, that also important are data, actually the rules and flavour that link theme and mechanics?

[Bernd] Some of my playtesters told me that I have not that much theme in my games. Most of my games come first with the mechanics and then I try to fix it into the theme.  A good game with a bad theme is much better than a bad game with great thematic flair. Porto Carthago comes totally from the theme after I saw a documentary of the great harbour of Carthage.

[Liga] So not fixed rules of development.  Some designers consider an important part of their work playing other designers’ games, others are used to spending all their playing time on their own designs. How much do you think playing games is important in designing games? Are you just a designer or also a gamer?

[Bernd] I think I’m more a gamer than a designer. I try to play all important new games to have an overview over the actual market. This also helps me designing games, I have some problems with.

[Liga] Great. I really like designers that are gamers too. And are you also used to reading books about designing games?

[Bernd] I’m not a big “reader.”  I read some historical stuff about Roman Empire and ancient Greece.  I’m more addicted to cinema and movies.

[Liga] So you are focused in “studying” the theme.  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 the final stage?  How long does it take to play-test a game?

[Bernd] A very underrated game (in my opinion) is Pergamemnon, which had not the best English (and French) rulebook.  In 2008 I played some browser games and my favourite was Grepolis, because I really die for the ancient setting.  I thought about a little war/cardgame with the 3 types of weapon and the 3 types of defense.  Deck-building games are not my favourite games, but I wanted to use the major mechanism without shuffling that much.  The first tests were not very good.  The rules were too complicated especially with special rules for bow and shield. In the early phase some creatures had “hitpoints” and could get wounded, but also this was too much for a small game.  After I found the final mechanisms and general rules I had very, very much work with the strength of the different nations. It was clear, that it is never possible to make them all the same. The strength of a nation also depends to which other nations are in the game and which creatures are available to hire. I worked very hard for this game to get it ready for Essen 2011 (along with PAX). I know that Pergamemnon is a bit “special” and not for all types of players, but if you go familiar with the rules you could play it very fast and that’s what makes the game really fun. In 2012 I had an expansion for Pergamemnon (along with PAX) that fixes some unbalancing problems very clever. I hope that some more people will give this game a try.

[Liga] Maybe after reading this interview.  Is usually important to know what a designer thinks about a particular game.  You have developed almost all of your games alone, why?  What do you think about team-working in designing games?

[Bernd] Team work is also very good.  Alea Iacta Est I did with Jeffrey D. Allers and another game will see the daylight (hopefully) very soon which is also a cooperation of both of us.  Besides this I also have 2 games in cooperation with Peer Sylvester, but at the moment we have no time to work for them – they are still alive and we are looking for some good ideas to solve the problems.  In general I like both: teamwork and work of myself.

[Liga] It looks like team working games takes longer?  Isn’t it

[Bernd] I think so, yes. Because you have different testing-rounds with different feedback and you have to discuss everything with your partner. That means you have many different choices in which direction a game will be developed.

[Liga] You are close to self-publishing.  You have your own company.  How do the publishers influence the design process and the final results?  Have you some positive and/or negative experience to show us? Why did you decide to found your own company?

[Bernd] The thing is not that I have bad experiences with other companies. Most of them changed not that much. Maya and Pack&Stack stood their theme, only the titles were changed into a catchier one and material was reduced. Alea Iacta Est moved from middle Age to Ancient Rome with a “comic”-note.

The final trigger was as Peloponnes was rejected 2 times from well known publisher and I was totally convinced of this game. I asked some other self publishers here in Berlin (Richard “Histogame” and Günter “Bambus”) and they helped me a lot. They had ideas to reduce material and they had the contacts that I need. I tried everything at my own risk and it was a big success.

[Liga] Is there a single game from another designer you really like to have designed yourself?

[Bernd] Oh – I think this will go to my all-time favourite game: Goa.

[Liga] Great. What do you think about the second edition of Goa? Is it better? Do you think that great games could deserve from a new edition years later?

[Bernd] Oh, up today I haven’t played the new edition yet. I heard about the changes and need to play them very soon.

[Liga] If you had the possibility to reedit some of your early games would you change them?

[Bernd] I think the game Maya is no game, that can keep up with actual games. In 2013 I would never show this to a publisher to release it. Pack&Stack is perfect for what it is and my other games are not that old.

[Liga] Now, going in the deep. Do you think designing games could be someway considered a sort of art? Or is something closer to good craftsmanship? Why?

[Bernd] You need a minimum of Art to design games, otherwise you would almost copy existing games. But you also need a lot of “craftsmanship” starting with creating a prototype, writing rules, playtest with yourself and then with other groups and stay open minded for other ideas and critics. I think you need a good balance of Art and Craftsmanship.

[Liga] So, the “artist” will give the light to the project and the “craftsman” will do it in the final game.  Almost all the artists are used to having a master.  Who is Bernd’s master? The person that taught you most about games?

[Bernd] I have no special person. As I joined a real gaming group called “gamebusters” back in ’93-’94 was the initial engine. The years before I loved to play games, but most of my friends were not that much into playing games. With the start of this gaming group I had the chance to learn so many new games that I had never heard about.  This helped me a lot starting my designer “career.”

[Liga] I agree that being part of a big and structured gaming group could be really helpful. Why did you start designing games and why do you continue designing?

[Bernd] I started back in 2000/2001. Years before I changed some rules of existing games and played them with my friends, but this was nothing really serious. In 2000 I had a great Idea for an almost abstract game with a setting in historical Italy. This was my first game with a real prototype and printed rules. The game called “Ravenna” which is a partner city of my hometown Speyer. It still exists, but it’s not up to date now. After that I had more Ideas and started designing another game. I heard about the “hippodice” designer’s competition and sent it to them. I was a lucky guy because I won the 2001 competition with this game and in 2003 it was released as Maya.

[Liga] It looks like most of your games are using “cheap” materials, like cards, no boards.  Is that just a choice due to your self-publishing company or is it part of your style/choice?

[Bernd] Porto Carthago has a board! For the other games: to have no fix board offers more flexibility in my opinion. With my self produced games I did, what I actual had ready and so these games doesn’t need a gameboard.

[Liga] Most of your games are language independent. Do you think this thing, typical of now-days open market, is something that helps designers or someway can limit imagination/creativity?

[Bernd] For me as a small publisher it is very important to have no language text in the game. I have more than 70% foreign customers, so I don’t really need a “german-only” game. OK, maybe you have more options with many card text, but if I wanna read, I take a book, not a boardgame.

[Liga] That’s is an interesting point of view. It looks like games can tell story but, probably, using other languages.  Are there some suggestions you would like to offer to new designers?

[Bernd] Never start designing games with the major idea to make much money.  Don’t give up after you were rejected by a publisher.  Work hard and ask many people about their opinion about your game(s).  Take all proposals you could get, but never pack all of them into your game… try to choose the best ones. Sometimes less is more!

[Liga] Thank you and see you in Essen!

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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11 Responses to The Art of Design: Interviews of game designers #23 – Bernd Eisenstein

  1. Tom Rosen says:

    Great interview. Thanks Liga and Bernd!

  2. Enjoyed that! Thanks.

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    Great interview! I’ll have to use that line the next time anyone tries to talk me into a CCG or CCG-inspired game that has a ton of unique cards with lots of text: “If I wanna read, I’ll grab a book!” Sounds like something Joey Pesci would say. Maybe Bernd has been watching too many gangster movies:-)

  4. Thanks for the nice responses.
    Hope to hit the “stage” in Essen 2013 with a new Irongame again after one year of nearly absinence.

  5. Manu says:

    I love Bernds humor. Great! Nice Interview with good question. Thank you

  6. If you have suggestions about other questions to ask designers in this series of interview please drop me an email at

    good play

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