The Art of Design: Interviews to game designers #24 – Jeffrey D. Allers

JeffreyAllersDear gamers, after a long silence here again with some new interviews to game designers. In the meanwhile I have to say that I used some pieces of my past interviews as important designers notes on an upcoming book about game design some friends wrote. As soon as I have the full title and the publishing date I’ll write a note. Unluckily it will be an Italian book.

I’m also thinking about riarrange all the interviews in a book, with some comments and considerations about game design and a short presentation of all the designers: but i’m not sure it could be interesting for someone and it will take me an huge amount of time.

Jeffery D. Allers is one of the new generation designers and he is also one of the Opinionated Gamers contributors. The first Jeff’s game was published back in 2008 and the last one last year. I want to highlight this nice sentence Innovation takes practice, and it often begins with “plagiarism.”

[Liga] Dear Jeff, 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 are “colleagues” on Opinionatedgamers so I hope you really know well what I’m going to ask you.

What we try to do together is, looking through your production, to find your style, your special sign or some common traits in your games.According to BGG your career started in 2008 with the publication of Piece o’ Cake, a game I was lucky to play and I really appreciated.

Actually you have designed some 10 games with very interesting releases including Alea Iacta Est (one of the dice games I like most) and New Amsterdam, that got a nomination in the International Gamers Award this year.

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

[Jeff] I’m probably most proud of Piece o’ Cake/Aber bitte mit Sahne because of the amount of game that is packed into those simple rules, 55 tiles and deceptively cute theme. Alea Iacta Est and Artifact are also both important to me, as I enjoyed very much the collaboration with friend Bernd Eisenstein. And I’m naturally very proud of my most ambitious design, New Amsterdam. But the development of every published game was a very rewarding process.

[Liga] According to the nomenclature we are defining in these interviews, games have mechanics, theme and data that, according to Donald X. Vaccarino, are all the details/rules, connection to the core mechanic and the theme. When you design a game are used to starting from theme or mechanics?

[Jeff] As a former architect, I think of game design as architecture. The first-century Roman architect, Vitruvius, wrote that every building could be evaluated according to its Utilitas, Firmitas and Venustas, or commodity (function), firmness (physical structure) and delight (beauty). For board game design, I believe that “Vitruvian triangle” is made up of rules, components and experience.

The rules include the goals, mechanics, and limits of the game. The components are the visual and tactile elements. And the experience encompasses—but is not limited to—the theme of the game, if there is one.

Each of my game designs can begin primarily with any of these three elements or in combination. Similar to most designers I know, I can begin either with an interesting theme or an original mechanism, although I do like to bring an interesting theme into the design as early as possible. But I can also begin with a vision for the physical look and feel of a design, the Firmitas of the game. Materiality is important to me, even in the prototyping process, and I like to be involved with publishers on this level as well, when they allow me to be.

With New Amsterdam, for example, laying out the game board was an integral part of the design process, and part of the original concept was to have all the rules represented there in some form so that it would not be necessary to refer to the rule book during the game. Artist Josh Cappel stayed true to this vision with the final graphic design.

With some prototypes, I have even started with a vision of certain components, envisioned the experience with those components, and then designed rules that define the ways in which players interact with them.

[Liga] I really like this connection with Vitruvius “Utilitas, Firmitas and Venustas” . I know you are not only a designer but also a really active gamer. 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?

[Jeff] .. It is important for any game designer to have played a wide range of games. We have a playtesting session at the Spielweise gaming cafe in Berlin that is open to anyone, and first-time designers often show us highly derivative prototypes. And usually, these are derivatives of games that are at least 50 years old! My litmus test for them is to point to the floor-to-ceiling shelves full of games at the cafe and ask them how many of those games they are familiar with. Oftentimes they will recognize very few of them, if any. They simply don’t know what is possible with the medium, and that keeps them from pushing the boundaries.

Of course, one can make the argument that designers who play lots of games are simply making derivatives of newer games, but that’s no reason to avoid playing those games. In those cases, it is more of an issue of a designer exercising discipline and challenging him or herself to try new things. Conventions in game design establish themselves very quickly because designers and publishers are content to duplicate something that works without varying the formula much. And that can even include duplicating a designer’s own formulas from previous successes, so it truly is more about personal discipline than about the games to which a designer “exposes” him or herself.

But I admit that, once I began to design games in ernest, more time has been required for playtesting, and it has become increasingly difficult to get other designers’ games to the table. I do host game nights, but I don’t have the money to buy many new games and I don’t have the time to read new rules as I used to do. This is still a hobby for me—not a full-time job—so work and family take priority. Instead I rely on others bringing new games to the group and teaching them to me. And I get a “sneak preview” of all the games released by Berlin designers when I test their prototypes.

[Liga] So, it is important to play other designers games. It will be something a professional designer have to do and something a “casual” designer will like to have time to.

[Jeff] That’s not quite what I meant. Full-time game designers probably have less time to play other games because they need to focus on their own prototypes even more, and sell lots of them. But to avoid playing other people’s games because it would somehow corrupt their own designs is nonsense, especially if they have the discipline to be professionals.

[Liga] Can you please select one or more of your games and show us the design process: where did the idea come from? How did it develop to the final stage? How long did it take to play-test the game?

[Jeff] I’ll pick two games at opposite extremes of the spectrum. Piece o’ Cake originated from the goal of making a game about pie division that was playable for up to 5 players with simple rules and few components, but still needed to offer interesting choices and tension. For years, I tossed it around in my mind from time to time until it finally occurred to me to use the actual dividing of a pie as a thematic basis for the game. Once I established the two options for each slice of pie—either competing for majorities or collecting slices for guaranteed points—the game worked great from the very first playtest. It’s no longer in print but remains my best-selling game, and I’m looking for new publishers to give it a wider release.

[Liga] I agree. It is a great game that deserve a new edition. I really like games that take a simple but challenging idea and are built around it.

[Jeff] New Amsterdam, on the other hand, began with an original dice mechanism that I developed independently of any theme. I wanted to use it as the core of a “snowball” engine-building game and remembered a fascinating book from elementary school that showed the development of the colony through pictures (much like the “Story of a Street” books my sons enjoy). The mechanisms and different paths to victory developed around that theme. Since it was a complex game, however, each new prototype changed quite dramatically from the last until I finally had something that was more streamlined that I could fine-tune. The dice were even replaced by action tokens. The whole process took about 5 years after the first prototype was tested. It was a very long and excruciating process (but in a good way), and I bribed friends many times with food and drink to come to my home to playtest the game. Josh, who did a fantastic job with the graphic design and the rules editing, was also very patient with me as I continued to make small tweaks up until the last deadline. It has been very satisfying to see how well it has been received after all that work and perseverance.

[Liga] Concerning play-testing, it seems that both kickstarter and Essen’s race are pushing designers and publishers to release games that are not really tested in-depth. Actually in our market are still missing professional testers and, excluding the big companies, most of this important part is left to friends or other enthusiastic gamers. What do you think about this?

[Jeff] One thing that Kickstarter has demonstrated is that many gamers enjoy having a sense of ownership of a new game—in actually being responsible for bringing a game to market. I think playtesters feel the same way. I certainly try to encourage that feeling of camaraderie, whether it be with the other game designers that meet with me at the Spielweise or the youth from my church gaming group. They are all partners in the design process. I give them copies of the published games and try to get their names mentioned in the rules. I have a “wall” dedicated to playtesters on my blog, Berlin Game Design, because I couldn’t develop the games without them.

Because of that willingness to be a part of the process, and because of the internet, it’s not difficult to find “blind” playtesting groups for prototypes either. Sites such as BoardgameGeek and Boardgame Designers Forum are great resources for game designers, whether they are already published or just making games as a hobby for their own enjoyment. I’ve assembled a great group of playtesters for my New Amsterdam Expansion prototype, for example, by enlisting fans of the base game on BoardgameGeek. I’ve never met any of them, yet they are all enthusiastic about being part of the process, and I’m excited to have such a diverse team.

I also pitch my prototypes primarily to established German publishers who playtest them extensively themselves. For example, even after years of playtesting Alea Iacta Est, Stefan Brück of alea drove up to Berlin and we had a 2-day marathon with the game over the weekend to make sure everything was smooth and balanced.However, unless a designer is releasing dozens of new games every year or working full-time for a particular publisher, it’s just not financially feasible to hire his or her own playtesters. From my experience, it has also not been necessary.

[Liga] That’s a point. Gamers are the market for most of the games and they could be also the testers.You have developed most of your games alone. What do you think about team-working in designing games?

[Jeff] As I said above, teamwork is always involved in game design at some level, especially when the publisher has hands-on developers like Stefan, Reiner Stockhausen from dlp-spiele, Rob Seater from Cambridge Games Factory and Andre Bronswijk from Pegasus Spiele.

As for the “official” co-designs, I’ve also enjoyed my two published collaborations with Bernd Eisenstein. On those projects, we complimented each other very well, and when one of us hit a wall, the other always seemed to find the right solution. I’ve tried other partnerships with other friends as well, but it doesn’t always “click” and we come to a barrier that neither designer can get past, or we have completely different ideas of where to take the design. There are many advantages to working together with someone else, however, if the chemistry is right. I continue to try it, and I’m even trying it right now with a couple of designers I’ve never met in person! The real sign that I’m a bona fide collaborator, however, will be if I can ever co-design with Bruno Faidutti:-) He must be a pretty laid-back guy to have had so many successes with so many different designers!

[Liga] I think you can really try with Bruno. According to my interview he asserts that he likes team-working because It is extremely efficient, because he is lazy and finally because it is fun! Is there a single game from another designer you would really like to have designed yourself?

[Jeff] Since I organize and host open gaming nights, I do play a variety of games but I do not really have a favorite. I would have gladly taken credit for any of those games that continue to be played night after night at my events such as Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Ave Caesar, King of Tokyo, The Resistance, Pickomino, Small World, San Juan and many others (of course, Piece o’ Cake does get played there often, too, so that is some consolation:-). That’s really the most rewarding part of being a game designer: seeing people enjoy your work so much that they return to it over and over again.

[Liga] Now going into the main part of the interview. Do you think designing games could be considered a form of art or is it something closer to craftsmanship? How much of your design process involves creativity and how much maths, testing and tuning?

[Jeff] Just as with architecture, it’s both a craft and an art form. There is probably a spectrum where some games may be considered more craft than art, or vis versa, just as some buildings are more utilitarian or more artful than others. But there really isn’t a recipe for game design that can specify how much of each ingredient is necessary. It is difficult to separate math from creativity. And even while I am testing and tuning the mechanics of a game, the creative vision remains in the forefront. But game design also takes you on an interesting journey, and sometimes you have to be flexible and follow where it leads you.

[Liga] A real mix of craft and art. After more than 20 interviews I’m thinking that this is the real answer. Almost all the artists are used to having a master. Who is Jeff’s master? The person that taught you the most about games?

[Jeff] One of my first regular gaming groups in Berlin included game designers Hartmut Kommerell, Martina Hellmich, Andrea Meyer, and Thorsten Gimmler. After playing their prototypes, I began working on my own, and they gave me positive feedback and encouraged me to present the games to publishers. Bernd joined us after he moved to Berlin, and we later started our own group that included Günter Cornett, and Peer Sylvester. The community of published and unpublished designers in Berlin have all helped me learn and grow. But my true “master” is the collective of gamers from the various groups I’ve organized. Whether they are from my youth ministry or the international groups at the Spielwiese and Family Center game nights, they have all had the most impact on my designs. After all, they are representative of the people for whom I design games.

[Liga] Learning from the people you are designing for: great! Have you some knowledge about games design theory? Do you think it can help your work? Do you spend part of your time studying/researching about games?

[Jeff] I’m definitely interested in game theory and I’ve read some good recent books about modern games and game design. I also enjoy studying the history of board games, their evolution, and what people still find appealing about them.

[Liga] What skills/competences do you think are most useful for a game designer ?

[Jeff] Creative problem-solving skills are important, as well as flexibility and perseverance. Too many first-time game designers want immediate results and give up when their designs don’t work. Discipline is important, as I mentioned earlier, in order to push the boundaries of the medium rather than be content to rely too much on established conventions. Relational skills are also very important. After all, you are not only designing for yourself. You are also creating an interactive, social experience for others. Then you have to convince those people to test your game, and finally, you must convince a publisher to manufacture and sell it. Although it is possible to communicate with publishers through email, it is still a very relational industry, especially in Germany. I enjoy that aspect very much and prefer to meet publishers face-to-face.

[Liga] So you think it is important for a designer to attend conventions/events and meet publishers and other designers face to face. Is there a common sign/mark in your design? I’ve really not been able to find a real common trait in your production.

[Jeff] I like variety in the games I play, so it is not surprising that I like to design different types of games. It is important to me that every game provides “beautiful dilemmas,” or tension caused by simple but important decisions that determine each player’s path. Whether a game is simple or complex, theme-driven or mechanic-driven, I am always looking for the right balance of freedom and limits for the players, so that they will not feel overwhelmed nor too constrained.

[Liga] The link between choice and game is so strong that sometimes, on games studies, there are definition of what is a game connected to the possibility to have choices. If you have to describe yourself with just 3 Jeffrey D. Allers games, what are they and why?

[Jeff] I will instead use my two newest releases as a “self-portrait”:Artifact and Citrus were both collaborative projects, as I mentioned before, and that describes perfectly why I enjoy gaming and game design. It really isn’t about the games, it’s about the people. I enjoy working together with others on creative projects, whether it be with co-designers, playtesters, or developers/publishers. When a game is finally released, it represents more to me than simply what’s in the box. It also serves as a kind of memorabilia that reminds me of the experiences and relationships formed through the game’s development. And the feedback I receive from people—both in person and around the world—who enjoy the game is very rewarding.

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

[Jeff] I have creative energy I just can’t shut off. When I switched careers 13 years ago in Berlin from working as an architect to serving as a youth pastor, games were a great way to build community, and designing my own games was a creative outlet. I still bring sketchbooks and notebooks with me wherever I go, and I’m always writing things down—not just about game design, but about art, life, and God. It’s all interconnected, as I believe it is unhealthy to compartmentalize one’s life.I continue to design games because of the fun we have in our playtesting groups and the relationships formed through them. The positive feedback from other designers, playtesters, publishers, and gamers is also a motivating factor. As long as people are enjoying my games, I will continue to make them. And if I stop, I will still continue to encourage others who show a talent for it and need that positive feedback. Game design is also an exciting teaching tool, and I have enjoyed leading workshops in Berlin for students in elementary school, high school, and even at the university level.

[Liga] Are there some suggestions you would like to offer to new designers?

[Jeff] I won’t repeat the good advice that others have already given in this series, or what I have already mentioned in this interview. This might be something new, however:When you begin designing, it’s perfectly acceptable to use existing game mechanics as a starting point. There is a scene in the film “Finding Forester,” in which a writing prodigy is allowed to copy the first lines of another writers’ work until he can overcome his initial writer’s block and his own words start flowing. This is not unlike the classical education of painters and architects, who learned first by copying the masters until they could become masters themselves. Similarly, most of my earliest designs were highly derivative, but the exercise of making those games—which will never be published—helped me find my own “words.” Innovation takes practice, and it often begins with “plagiarism.”

[Liga] Thank you for this nice interview and happy design!

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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1 Response to The Art of Design: Interviews to game designers #24 – Jeffrey D. Allers

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    Thanks, Liga!

    Just to make sure that last line is understood in the context of the whole interview: none of those “practice” prototypes were ever published or shown to a publisher, and many were only play tested by myself. They were only helpful in seeing if I could put together a functioning game by altering a few elements. After that, I was able to say, “OK, now how can I design elements I HAVEN’T seen before?”
    I don’t condone plagiarism in the marketplace in any way, and avoiding inadvertent plagiarism is yet another reason to be aware of other designer’s games. But how original a game must be is a topic for another article…

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