The Art of Design: interviews to game designers #25 – Paolo Mori

PaoloMoriHere I’m again after a long stop. Organizing PLAY: The Games Festival becomes years after years more time demanding and dry up all my free time.

I hope to be able to start post again with regularity on Opinionated Gamers. Here my interview to Paolo Mori, a friend and on of the most interesting Italian designers. Paolo ha designed more than 10 games starting with UR in 2006. The three best rated Mori’s games are Vasco da Gama, Libertalia and Augustus, that got a nomination in the 2013 Spiele de Jahres.

Paolo is an Italian designer colleccting ispiration both from German and American designing school. I’m not sure hot to collocate Paolo, he told me “while a great mechanic can stand and live without a good theme, the opposite is not true” but also “there are several themes I really like, so as soon as I have a mechanic in mind, I try to match it with one of these themes I would love to dive into“.

Here my interview to discover Paolo Mori’s designing style!

[Liga] Dear Paolo, 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 … and it won’t be easy since you are a real eclectic designer spacing in different genres.
You are not part of any of the main designing school (German or American) and not part also of one of the “minor” ones, like French or Italian. It will be nice to try to dig in your style.
You are a young designer with something close to 10 releases but with some title of great success like Vasco da Gama that got a nomination for the IGA and the second place in the DSP and, of course, Augustus, just nominated for the SDJ 2013.
Is there any game you are particularly proud of and why?

[Paolo] Hi Liga, and thanks for your interest in my ‘production’. Regarding your question, I don’t want to be evasive… but in different ways, I am ‘differently’ proud of all games of mine. Each game has its own history, and I’m not repudiating any of them. If I have to choose one, let me just choose Augustus, since it’s the one that has been better welcomed by a wider audience, made both of gamers and casual players.

[Liga] Wow! You are one of the few designers able to make a choice. I really liked Augustus and I think you really can be proud of it. All your games seems to have refined mechanics. 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?

[Paolo] Maybe I don’t really get what Mr Vaccarino intended referring to ‘data’, or that is not simply part of my approach to game design. My opinion is that while a great mechanic can stand and live without a good theme, the opposite is not true. So when I design as a free lance I prefer to focus on mechanics, rather than theme. Several designs of mine have been ‘re-themed’ by the publishers (Libertalia, partly Augustus, the incoming Dogs of War..), and I didn’t care much about this. Nonetheless, there are several themes I really like, so as soon as I have a mechanic in mind, I try to match it with one of these themes I would love to dive into. Then these two aspects start to merge and ‘interpenetrate’, until I get the final concept. The process is of course different when I’m working on a specific request by a publisher, for a given theme or license. In these cases I need to gather as many informations as I can, before I ask myself “who should the players be?”, and start designing the game accordingly.

[Liga] I can understand your point of view. Some designers want to tell histories with their games, others focusing on designing solid products. I know you are a gamer, used to play a lot other designers release and also helping other designers in testing their games. 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 ?

[Paolo] The scarcest resource for a game designer (other than money!) is time, and this is what prevents me from playing as many games from other designers as I would wish. But I definitely think that this is as important as reading books for a novel writer. If you don’t play – and you don’t feel pleasure in playing – games from other designers, I think it’s difficult you can seriously design new games and innovate your designs.

[Liga] Which are the games you played in the last year that entertained you most and you found really well designed ?

[Paolo] A design from the last year that I really appreciate is the card game Koryo, by Gun-Hee Kim. A really clean and elegant design. I also appreciated Lewis and Clark by Cédrik Chaboussit, even if I find it a bit ‘overwhelming’ for the too many things in it. Finally, I’ve just started campaign of Risk Legacy, a really fascinating concept by Rob Daviau, that I’d like to exploit in one of my designs in the future.

[Liga] 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?

[Paolo] Well, the history of my games are all different, so it’s not easy to choose a game as ‘example’ of my design process. So let’s talk Augustus. The idea came – and I think it’s no secret or hard to imagine – playing Bingo for I don’t remember what kind of charity event. And although I wasn’t really having ‘fun’, I felt that there was some ‘tension’ implied in the game that was nice to feel, and that could perhaps be saved and used as a part of a ‘real’ game (that is: a game where ‘meaningful choices’ are made by the players). So I developed the idea of having different cards with different powers, so that the choice of what completing first could be important. The rest of the game came out quite spontaneously, even if several months of playtest were needed to refine the gameplay. I know it’s not an interesting story, but it’s not place for a ‘designer’s diary’, probably.

[Liga] It is a great story indeed. Richard Garfield suggest to play classical games because are part of our history and also, probably, have some to teach us. I think was a great idea to extract the fun of Bingo and put it in a standard boardgame.
You have developed some games together with other designers: what do you think about team-working in designing games?

[Paolo] I think it must be terribly hard to design a game with me. Sometimes I have a precise idea of what the final game should be (but not of how it should work or play), and it’s almost impossible for co-authors to make me change my mind. Another of my flaws is that I’m quite ‘lunatic’ when designing games, so I have moments of great enthusiasm where I have lots of ideas, and then other moments of great disappointment, especially after unsatisfying playtests, when I think that it’s not worth to develop these games further. And if it’s ok when I design games alone, I know that could be a really frustrating experiences for people that try to collaborate with me. But with co-authors that prove themselves indulgent toward these flaws of mine (I’m thinking of Francesco Sirocchi and Simone Luciani), it can be a great experience.

[Liga] In co-designing games you have a role (something like “the one that think on the mechanics” or “the one that make the fine-tuning” or “the one with the brilliant ideas”) or it is a real co-design ?

[Paolo] It’s simple: I am the one who is always right! Joking aside, I know designing games with me has been a nightmare for more than an author in the past years, and we seldom succeeded in getting the game to a final form we were both satisfied with. This is mainly because I’m often lunatic in my designing process, so I alternate moments of great enthusiasm and maybe good ideas, with moments where I completely lack motivations to go on, and all the ideas looks lame to me.

[Liga] You are the founders of the web sites of the community of games designers. How important do you think in designing games is important the interaction and debate with other designers ?

[Paolo] It’s really important not to be jealous of your ideas, and to share them with other designers, and I feel that this ‘italian approach’ has been really fundamental for my game design ‘career’. This could not be true for other designers, but I feel that the national or regional meetings of game authors and the debate on dedicated web forums has greatly improved the scene of italian game designers in the last 10 years.

[Liga] I think so. It happened to me many many times to meet a new designer totally unaware of games market and jealous of his ideas that are, more or less, a new monopoly edition or something already on the market from several years.
All the artist seems to have a master. Who is the person that teached you most about game design ? Who is Paolo Mori’s master ?

[Paolo] First, I would object that I don’t really feel game design as an ‘art’. Surely, imagination and inspiration play a key role in the job, but the same is true for other skills like problem-solving, or maths, or a sort of ‘pattern recognition’ that brings designers to adopt a defined set of solutions to the bugs or flaws that could emerge in the development or playtesting of a game. So don’t blame me as snobbish if I say that I don’t really have ‘masters’. Of course there are great game designers around that I keep in great esteem, and that are much better than me: I would love to design games like those of Schacht, Moon, Bauza, Cathala or Dorn… but none of these could be actually defined as a master to ‘follow’.

[Liga] Now we really try to go deep and we enter the central part of the interview. So do you think designing games could be someway considered a sort of art? Or is something closer to good craftmanship ? Why?

[Paolo] I already answered part of your question. There are both aspects in game design, and this why I think it’s one of the best jobs around. It requires lots of different skills.

[Liga] Which skills do you think are most usefull in your designer’s job ? Do you really think the first part of the design, the creative one, is so far from what books’ writers are experiencing ?

[Paolo] Sincerely, I don’t know, since I never wrote any book! Probably there are similarities, for both experiences need both creativity and skills… but the toolbox used to design a game is very different from the one required when you’re writing a novel. If I need to point out a specific skill that I find very important in game designing, this is probably ‘problem solving’. Recognizing the type of bug or issue you’re facing, and being able to find in your experience as a designer or as a gamer the tools needed to solve it, it’s probably the most helpful skill for a game author.

[Liga] Have you read books about games design theory or do you think for the creative part of the design is much more better an instinctive approach ?

[Paolo] I have read ‘pieces’ of books, and often read articles on game design, and alway feel this stimulating. But I confess I prefer a ‘practical’ (more than instinctive) approach to designing games. Theory is certainly part of my game design, but at a deeper level, that often doesn’t emerge explicitly.

[Liga] Do you think is there a common sign/mark in your design ? I’m really not been able to find a real common trait in your production.

[Paolo] Not really. But I think a recurrent element in my games is the presence of ‘small rules’ that combine and interlock to tweak and give variety to a very simple set of basic rules. Often this appears in the form of ‘special powers’ (think about the characters in Libertalia, or the traits of the units in Pocket Battles, or again the effects of the cards in Augustus), while sometimes it’s the core mechanic of the game itself (the five actions in Ur, the different sports in Olympicards, or the scoring cards in Memento).

[Liga] “small rules’ that combine and interlock to tweak and give variety to a very simple set of basic rules.” … I agree. When designing a game usually you start with a lot of rules and go reducing or the other way round ?

[Paolo] I usually start with a ‘naked’ game engine, and try to add in the development everything is needed to make the game interesting to play, and to give it variety. It’s uncommon for me to design a complex game, and that I’m asked to simplify it afterwards.

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

[Paolo] Ur: my first design, and – even if it suffers from some ‘early design flaws’ – still my most original game. One of a kind.
Pocket Battles: it turned out exactly as the concept I had in mind when I started designing it, and still love to play it every time.
Augustus: my most ‘brilliant’ idea, for it uses and implements a mechanic that has been for decades under the eyes of everyone.

[Liga] Augustus got both a nomination for the SDJ and won the first “Gioco dell’anno” edition. Do you think this can help your career ? How this will change Paolo Mori’s life ?

[Paolo] It won’t change my life at all. For sure the game, and maybe the awards, gave me some visibility among the publishers. So now it happens that I get emails directly from publishers asking me if I have some interesting design to show them, while prior to Augustus it was always the other way round, of course. But that’s all. I didn’t get rich, I won’t quit my ‘real job’, and publishers won’t publish a crappy game by me only because it’s by Paolo Mori (fortunately).

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

[Paolo] I started designing a game cause I got an idea for a game, and I continue designing for the very same reason!

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

[Paolo] Everyone says ‘keep on and never give up’, while I’m saying something more ‘unpopular’: game design is not only a passion. It’s a job. And as a job it requires skills, experience and preferably some talent. No one would ever ‘act as a physician, or as a lawyer, without the needed formation, while on the contrary the general opinion is that everyone could design a great game. But that’s simply not true. So my suggestion is: “Yes, keep on designing games, if you feel pleasure in doing so. But also be aware that it’s not easy, nor it’s just matter of luck, or time. So be also ready to give up without regrets, if you think the frustration is prevailing over the joy”. Oh, and another suggestion that I have learnt from the development of Augustus: don’t be snob or ‘picky’. There is something to enjoy and to save in (almost) every game, even in bingo.

[Liga] Thank you for this nice interview! Can you finish this one talking about some of your projects for the near and far future ?

[Paolo] I hope to keep up designing games of course, even if I’m not facing the best moment by a purely game design point of view. Life is getting more ‘complex’, and recently it’s getting more and more difficult for me to find time, spaces and attention to dedicate to develop new games. Nonetheless, there should be 2 or 3 new games of me that should be published in 2014, even I’d rather not talk about them. You know, I’ve just got a couple of unexpected ‘delusions’ by publishers, so I prefer to wait for the games to be announced to spend more words on them.

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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