Dale Yu: Interview with Jeff Allers (and Bernd Eisenstein) – Designers of Order of the Gilded Compass

We have posted a review of the Order of the Gilded Compass today as well – here is an interview that I did with the designer discussing the development of this fun game!


Dale Yu: Jeff, thanks for taking the time to chat with me.  There have been a lot re-releases on the market lately (very similar to Hollywood…), and your new game is no exception.  The Order of the Gilded Compass is a remake of Alea Iacta Est, a game where the players use their “eight small cubic luck bringers” to score points amidst the poop of Ancient Rome!  How did this new version come about: were you and Bernd looking to improve the original? Or did Grey Fox contact you?


Jeff Allers: First, I think it’s a very different situation in the film industry, where you can actually see any movie that was ever made anytime. Remakes in the board game industry are really a consequence of the flood of new games being released every year.  Very few of these are sold (or promoted) beyond one or two years after initial publication, and many of them are quickly forgotten in favor of newer releases. But then some of the older, forgotten games that were quite good are rediscovered—possibly even reviewed online after they become out of print—and suddenly, there is a demand for the games again, except the supply is no longer there!


So there now seem to be two different signs of a successful game. The better one is still that the game sells enough year after year to remain in a publisher’s catalogue. In order to satisfy the “cult of the new”, they continually release expansions and spin-offs of the game.  The second is what has arisen out of the current market: the game sells out of its initial print run and is re-released after a few years, often with a new theme and some new variants or expansion modules.

Stefan Brück of Alea, the original developer and publisher of Alea Iacta Est in 2009, shared with me how frustrated he was that he cannot keep all of his games selling year after year, and that was unfortunately the case with our game. But now enough time has passed that we have the opportunity to re-release it with a different theme and some added features, which is also not a bad thing.


I always liked the dice allocation system that we created with AIE, and thought there were many ways we could expand it. I had been working on various spin-off games using the mechanism in different ways, and we also had some ideas that had been cut from the original game that I wanted to develop further to see if they could work better.


I actually approached Bernd one night at our playtesting session in the Spielweise gaming café in Berlin about re-releasing the game through his own publishing company, Irongames.  He only publishes his own designs, and since this was a co-design, I thought I might be able to sneak my way in as an outside designer.


Bernd surprised me by being very open to the idea, and we worked on alternative buildings for several months, using some of the outtakes from the original design as starting points. From the beginning, we wanted to improve the game by offering new things and also by streamlining the rules where possible.

During that time, a mutual acquaintance put me in touch with Greyfox Games about another game of mine that was not available, so I told them about our redesign of AIE, and they were willing to take over as the publisher.


DY: Oh yes, I know all about discarding ideas (or Dominion cards) which then suddenly feel right on a second take…  I’ve played the new version a few times, and frankly, I love the added variability in the buildings.  It just helps the game have a fresh feel — you’ll always have the battle for the specialists matching up to the maps, but the game really does play differently based on what B and C modules are included…  So, now to the hard question – I know that you certainly love all of your children equally… But is there a particular setup of the game that you prefer?
JA: I do still like the original set-up, but of the new “C” buildings,  I like the Illuminati special abilities you can get for later turns, as that adds quite a bit of variety and can give a player a big advantage if used at the right time.


DY: Interesting – the Illuminati was the one that I didn’t care for!  But to each his own… and I like the fact that the new components/setup rules give you all this flexibility in setting up the game and each group can play with the parts that they like!   I remember (when I first met you) that you had related a story of marathon weekend(s) playtesting and finishing up the original version with the Alea people.  Did you have the same intensive hands-on work this time around?  Though my play has been limited, it does feel as if the different modules complement each other well in every setup that we’ve tried so far…
JA: Bernd and I tested it quite a bit when we were working on it for Irongames, both at our game designers’ group and at my place. We tested it quite a bit with the 2 of us, but with each person playing as two players. No weekend marathons, though, since we don’t live too far apart.


When we signed with Greyfox, we gave them our finished version.  At that point, they took over, gave it the new theme, and developed it to suit their tastes and playtesters, and we are fine with letting go and trusting them with that. I haven’t even played the final version, so my comment about the Illuminati being my favorite might change, actually:-) I’m looking forward to finally getting my copies of the game, and am jealous that you already have one!


DY: Well, I guess that stymies my next set of questions about how you feel about the new theme and the new gameplay… you’ll just have to take my word for it that it looks great and plays well then…. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly a gilded compass is, but that’s another story entirely.   As a developer, I’m obviously very familiar with working on games and adding theme or changing a few bits here and there – can you comment at all how much of the design remains from “Feudal Dice” (I think that’s what you told me was the original game), and how much was changed by Bernd (and Stefan B. from Alea, and from the guys at Grey Fox)?  


JA: Yes, that is what the original prototype was called. I’m impressed by your memory. I designed the first version of the game with just dice and normal playing cards.  It was for a small game design competition for 2-player games. I had just met Bernd after he had moved to Berlin, and I thought it would be fun to challenge each other to enter the contest and test our entries together. I also designed an early version of what later became Citrus, and Bernd came up with a very original dice mechanism that he has finally developed into a cool multi-player game with card-combos and dudes-on-a-map elements. It’s called Phalanxx and will be released in Essen this year. That little design competition ended up getting cancelled, but I think we came out of it as winners!


After the 2-player games were finished, we both felt that the central mechanisms for all of them were good enough to try to make them multi-player. I did that with Feudal Dice and got some positive resonance with publishers. Stefan Brück was particularly impressed when I presented it to him at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 2008, but he wasn’t ready to offer me a contract yet, and I was also going to be in the U.S for the next 6 months.  Since Bernd had practically been a co-designer during the entire development of the game, I invited him to take on a more official role.  He was instrumental in getting the game to a point where Stefan was willing to put us under contract with Alea, and when I returned from the U.S., we had our marathon playtests with Stefan. Needless to say, I was rolling “tiny cubic luck-bringers” in my sleep after that.


I know Stefan mainly streamlined or cut out things from the game, although he did have the main idea for the Templum during that playtest session, as we needed another building, and our initial ideas were too complex and took too much away from the core buildings in the game.


Greyfox left the core of Alea Iacta Est and mainly focused on the theme change and developing the extra buildings to give the game variety. They used the ones Bernd and I created, and then added some of their own.


DY: That’s awesome to hear that your little contest turned out to produce at least three games – all of which I like (well, I assume I will like Phalanxx – I have already started to write up a preview about it for this year’s Essen coverage, and it looks right up my alley!).  It must be nice having such a tight group of experienced game designers that meet at Spielwiese…  Do you guys even play other produced games? Or is a constant playtest/tweak session there?  I’d love to be a wallflower there watching you guys work on your games!


JA: Monday nights, we only play prototypes at the large table, although there is a meetup.com group that is there at the same time playing published games. Some designers prefer closed playtest groups because they don’t want to waste time with bad prototypes from newbies, or they don’t want to compete with other designers to get their prototypes to the table.  These are both things we have to deal with, but it’s worth it for me, as I love the open atmosphere and the friendships with young unpublished designers who have moved to Berlin from around the world. And I also love seeing the creativity of others and being part of the process of critiquing and encouraging them. We’re well-known enough now that game designers—and playtesters—look us up when they move to Berlin or even when they are in town for a visit. The Spielwiese gaming cafe is celebrating its 10th year in business, so our designers’ group is also 10 years old!


Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjhXVrox_tk


DY: That sounds like a great situation to foster creativity – getting a constant source of feedback and advice from people who know what they are talking about!  Can you give us any hint at what you’re working on now?  Unlike many other designers, I feel like you are very flexible with your game mechanisms; Piece O Cake, Order of the Gilded Compass, Citrus and Heartland all feel very different!  I know that Skyways should be coming out soon from Eagle-Gryphon, but then what? 


JA: I’m actually working right this minute on another co-design at Bernd’s place.  He had a knee operation from a soccer injury and can’t get around as easy, so I’m paying a visit, and we’re using the opportunity to work together again on something new. I have yet another fairly abstract tile-laying game that works well as it is, but I thought it would be cooler with a little more “game”: variable player powers, card-combos, various resources to balance, etc., and Bernd has more experience with that, as well as providing a lot of other new ideas.


Since he is the co-designer of Gilded Compass, this might be a good time to bring him into the conversation!



DY: Excellent idea!  I’m sorry to hear that Bernd has suffered an injury.  Hopefully he will be better by SPIEL – it’s a long walk into the Messe, and his stand is smack in the middle of the largest hall!   To either of you (or both hopefully) – how is the co-designing experience working out?  Does the original creator of the game idea continue to steer the design process?  Or do both of you take an equal position in moving things along? 


Bernd Eisenstein: Thanks for your wishes. I think I can make it without many problems to the game fair. It is 4 weeks to go, and that’s a good time for more recovery.
I could add something here:

Jeff came along with this abstract game that works really good, but does not have much atmosphere and is full of “old school” mechanics. He had a good idea to transform it into the fantasy theme and I thought about changes and additions that’ll make it more attractive. I collected all my ideas and at our meeting, we talked a lot about everything. I showed Jeff all my ideas, which made him create more ideas and so the progress went on really good and fast.
The next step is to build a new prototype with the new elements and start playtesting. As some of my games have variable player powers, most of the work is to test and improve. You cannot solve everything with mathematics (only some basics). We’ll see, in which direction it’ll lead, but at the moment I look forward to continue straight on.


With the Gilded Compass, Jeff and I thought about new possible buildings and tested them a few times. Mine had a bit too many rules, and Grey Fox did it a bit smoother and added more elements that fit very good into the original design. It’s great to see this game alive again with a new, attractive theme.
First, I thought about putting it out with Irongames, but I don’t have the resources to put out 2 bigger games a year and don’t have the possibility of getting it distributed so well.


JA: Co-designing is similar to a relay race most of the time.  Occasionally we might work on something simultaneously to see who can find the best solution, but usually we are passing the baton whenever the other person has more time or a sudden inspiration.


It also helps that Bernd is more concerned with mechanics and balance, and I tend to focus more on streamlining the rules while maintaining strong connections to the theme, so we compliment each other well when we are both excited about a project. I think I would co-design every time, if I could, and that’s probably why I enjoy our game designers’ group so much, because every game we playtest there is, in essence, a collaborate effort.


BE: Sometimes this progress can take several years, as we both have other projects and with Irongames, I need a lot of time to have something good out for the game fair.
But for me, there are time periods in which I cannot do that much during the year and so I love to spend energy in a great project, and that worked very good for several times with Jeff. Mostly Jeff did the biggest part in this cooperation, but when he has less spare time, then I can do much more. Jeff holds the original artwork for his prototypes, so mostly he continues to work out the changes and he is much better in creating the physical material.
DY:  So, I think you might be the only designer that I’ve ever talked to who has told me that they definitely prefer the collaborative process.  Maybe you and I should team up to make a game?  I have only designed games in a group setting myself… J


JA: On one hand, it is very satisfying to design a good game from start to finish on my own, and I’m also proud of the parts I contribute to any co-design. But so many of the “good ideas” in my games also come from my playtesters and developers, and I often feel guilty that my name is the only one on the front of the box. I like it when publishers make enough room in the rulebooks to thank playtesters, and I make sure they get a copy of the finished game.


Reiner Knizia once talked about his sense of urgency because “I do not want other designers to steel my ideas before I have them.”  I have the same sense of urgency in that I have so many game design “ideas” in various stages of development that I will never find the time to develop them all, and I would prefer to work with someone else to finish these games before someone else “steels” them (which, of course, means “parallel development,” not plagiarism).  Although I can certainly hammer out the details of a design, I’m a visionary, and I just want to see my games reach their full potential, recognizing that I usually need other people to help me realize that vision. So co-designs are great, and I’m open to working with anyone who shares my vision for a particular design (or vice-versa). We should do some brainstorming in Essen over a Currywurst, Dale!


DY: Well, thanks for taking the time to chat for a bit — gotta get back to playing and writing games!


Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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