Well – SPIEL is almost upon us. Well, actually, by the time you’re reading this, we’ll already be walking around the halls checking out some of the stands as they are setting up, and come tomorrow at 12 noon German time, the press room will be open for the first real look at some of the new games!
Two of the games I expect to see there are Gunkimono and Pandoria – both designed by one of our own writers, Jeff Allers! I took the time last week to do a quick interview with him.
Dale Yu: Gunkimono is a game that is almost like a cat – working its way thru it’s nine lives! Can you tell us anything about how this great game got another reprint?
Jeff Allers : I’m repeating what I’ve said many times before, but the way the market is right now, there are only a handful of boardgames that sell enough year after year to stay in a publisher’s catalogue longer than 2 years. Part of that is the demand for new games every year, and part of that is because many publishers would rather release lots of new games at one time instead of having supporting one or two over a longer period of time. Because of this short attention span in the industry, there are many good games that are quickly forgotten. On one hand, it is sad to see a good game go out of print so soon, but on the other hand, if a new publisher reprints it 5-10 years later, it becomes new again to a part of the hobby that never knew the original version, and it is still remembered fondly by those of us who enjoyed it the first time around. I think that is why we are seeing a lot of reprints these days.
The original game, Eine Frage der Ähre (a German wordplay on “A Question of Honor/Ears”), was my first ever game contract back in 2006, although it was not the first one published. I was well-received and even selected for the German Boardgame Championships. Pegasus Verlag sent some copies to the U.S. with an English title of my original prototype, Heartland, where it received a few good reviews, but remained largely unknown. After it went out of print, the Dice Tower produced a glowing review, and at one point, I saw copies on Amazon on sale for $100 (I contemplated selling some of my extra copies online, but I was more interested in getting the game published again so that more people would have a chance to play it.
Later on, another reviewer, Dan King, told me he was a fan of the game and hoped it would be back in print. When I told him I was looking for a publisher, he connected me with Scott Gaeta and Renegade Games Studios, and they agreed to publish it.
DY: Many games change with the times; did you have to make any changes to the game from its original form? Did you feel like the game needed anything different?
JA: Obviously, we changed the theme, as that was probably the main criticism from people who had played Heartland. I had also tried changes in the mechanics, based on comments from fans and my own ideas over the years. For example, I reduced the luck factor by removing the tiles that had the same color on both sides, which also took out the special cases in the rules for those tiles, making them even more streamlined. I had actually used the tiles from one of my designer copies to replace these double-tiles in my other copies long ago!
There are also now 3 face-up tiles to choose from, mitigating the “luck of the draw.” And finally, the developers at Renegade analyzed the honor track for each number of players and made some adjustments, changing how many honor points it takes for a player to reach build a fortress or earn a war banner tile.
I always have other ideas that could potentially be included in an expansion, should there ever be demand for one, but I think that most people who enjoy the game are fans of its accessibility, and with the double-tiles gone, it makes the game even easier to teach and play.
DY: Will you be at Essen to sign copies of your game?
JA: Yes, I will be there, and am always happy to meet fans of my games. I don’t have my schedule set yet, but I will definitely be at the Renegade booth every day (Thurs-Sat) at some point. I will be at the Irongames booth most of Saturday to teach Pandoria and enjoy chatting with anyone who wants to come by! I head back that night so that I can enjoy the second week of the Fall school break with my family.
DY: Ooh. another Jeff Allers release? Sure, it’s easy to be a fanboy as I consider us to be friends, and we’re on the Opinionated Gamers together. But, your designs have always intrigued me – and I’ve always felt that some of your games maybe haven’t had as much notice as I think they deserve… Citrus and Eine Frage der Ahre to be sure. (I think Piece of Cake did just fine!). Are you able to tell us anything about your other release?
JA: It’s called Pandoria, designed together with BGF (best gaming friend) Bernd Eisenstein, and it’s yet another tile-laying game (somehow, I keep coming back to these!).
DY: It appears that you have been more successful getting your games to the market. Any chance you will ever go full-time in the industry?
I think I’ve averaged 1-2 published games per year, which isn’t enough to go full-time. On one hand, I have many many more game ideas than I have time to develop, and I love the creative process and collaboration with others, but I also love my day job as a youth pastor with the evangelical church and I also have many opportunities to use games and art and design with young people. Besides, I’m not sure I could handle the pressure and rejection in the gaming industry if my family was depending on it!
DY: So can you tell me about how Pandoria came about? :p
JA: Three years ago, we came back to our ground-floor apartment to 75% of it flooded…with sewage. It was basically due to a problem that had not been fixed despite our repeated warnings to our landlord that something was wrong, and we even had to go to court to get him to pay for some of our personal damages, though not all of them (I did not find it amusing when the judge turned to me and actually said, “Shit happens”). So, we had to move out immediately and it took about 5 months before our apartment was ready for us to move back. The bright side to the story is that we were reminded again that we have some of the most wonderful friends and neighbors, many of whom helped us salvage some of our things, throw away the others, and allow us to stay in their apartments when they were away on vacation.
I dealt with the stress the way I often do: creatively. While spending time in a friend’s apartment, I started playing with double-sided hex tiles, and a mechanism of surrounding certain areas of the same color. I immediately saw the potential of using figure placement to score those surrounded regions where more than one player would score, but some might score more than others. Then I came up with the mechanism that booted the figures out of those closed regions, so that they could not score another others, and I knew I had something fun: very interactive, that sometimes felt like a semi-coop games (building a region that everyone scores) but sometimes could be deliciously nasty (booting someone out by surrounding them before they could score as much on a larger region).
My prototype was called Pride of the Serengeti, and it involved lions (the figures) hunting their prey (the different colors on the tiles). After a few adjustments were made thanks to the excellent feedback of my playtest groups, the game was ready! I felt it was one of my best designs, a game with rules that could be explained in 2 minutes, yet it had an enormous amount of interaction and strategic depth. I was excited to bring it to Essen that year!
Unfortunately, however, I could not get the family game publishers interested in it. So I thought about going another route: using Pride’s solid mechanisms as a base for a more complex game. I’m always looking for opportunities to collaborate with Bernd, and I thought that his experience with special player powers and card combinations would benefit the game, so I asked him to join me in building a new game round this mechanism. Bernd immediately had several ideas that took the game in a beautiful new direction, and from then on, every idea from one of us inspired new ideas from the other. For the past 2 years, we’ve had a blast constructing and deconstructing this game many times over, and I looked forward to every playtest.
It was never understood that Bernd would publish the game himself, but at one point, he gave me the ultimate vote of confidence in the design when he suggested it could be the next Irongames release.
DY: Any chance that you will try to get the original, more abstract game published in the future?
JA: I definitely want to leave that option open in the future, because I still love the simplicity of it, and I think it could reach a wider audience. But you can also play with those original rules—and without all the cards, tableaus and resource management—with the Pandoria components. So I wrote additional rules for a “Family Game” version of Pandoria that is very close to the rules for Pride of the Serengeti. Bernd will have those posted on Boardgamegeek and also provided with the game at the Essen fair. If you don’t have time for the full game, or you want to play with more casual gamers or children, you can play this version of the game in under an hour!
DY: I know that i’ve touched on this in previous conversations with you – but how does the creative process work amongst the designers who meet up at the Spielwiese shop in Berlin? It seems like an awesome way to get immediate and expert advice on games at every stage of the process…
JA: The main concept is that it is an open playtesting evening. One of my first game groups in Berlin had a group-within-the-group of game designers that playtested their prototypes every Monday night in a cafe, and because it was an open group, I was easily able to join in with them. That’s how I got my start as a game designer, and that’s where I met Bernd when he moved to Berlin. When the cafe closed, the other designers wanted to meet privately, but Bernd and I wanted to continue in an open, visible setting where anyone could join in spontaneously. I then heard about the Spielwiese opening, and I immediately marched down there to meet Michael Schmitt and ask him if we could have our regular Monday night meeting there. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been doing it there for 12 years!
I still love the openness of the group, and it’s become very international, with designers and playtesters from Greece, France, Croatia, Taiwan, Italy, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, the U.S.A, and many other places. Designers and gamers visiting Berlin often make our group part of their itinerary. And there is a gaming meetup for “finished” games at the Spielwiese the same night, so the place is always bustling. Some gamers from the other group join us in playtesting and, eventually, design games themselves.
There are a few disadvantages to having an open group. I’ve played some pretty horrendous prototypes, of course, but our group is very gracious, as we’re all capable of making a stinker now and then. The most frustrating thing is when designers come with the intention of only testing their own prototypes, and not playtesting the others in the group. Fortunately, that does not happen often, and we’ve become less shy in explaining the give-and-take expectation we have in our community.
And it really has become a community. This summer, I invited everyone from the group to my apartment for 4 days of playtesting, designing, and cooking and eating together, and it was so much fun! There have been many plans to try to collaborate more in our game designs since then.
A year ago, I made a poster of 40 published games from our Monday night group. And now we have the added dimension that the Spielwiese has become a publishing house which has published four first-time designers from our group. This is great motivation for new designers, and ads to the creative excitement on Monday nights!
DY: so, the game started out with a Serengeti theme; and somehow it has morphed into a fantasy-like setting. How did that development happen? Was it an organic process? Did you playtest with the Lord of the Rings movies in the background? Or, have you been watching the theme trends in gaming and decided that the fantasy route was the way to go as Pirates, Romans and/or Medieval Farming are not longer in vogue?
JA: I had suggested a fantasy theme to Bernd, as I thought it lent itself to enough creative freedom to expand the mechanics of the game. And I have never done that sort of theme before. Bernd liked the idea of different realms that worked together some, but had strong rivalries, and I came up with the backstory that those rivalries were there undoing and forced them to start again in a new land. But they still haven’t learned from the past, of course:-)
DY: Did you find that the theme change really led to changes in the design process? I know that some designers feel that they can create a game in the abstract sense and then mold a theme to the game while others feel that the starting with the theme is integral to the design process…
JA: It probably inspired us at points, although there was a lot of freedom with the fantasy setting. The balance, mechanisms and story arc in the game play took precedence, and we would never sacrifice any of these for thematic reasons. On the other hand, we had no problem living with inconsistencies in the theme in order to maintain tension, balance and streamlined rules.
Still, the theme is fun and helps make the rules more intuitive and easier to remember. It makes sense, for example, that the spells are one-time effects, while the buildings give a player benefits for the rest of the game.
DY: so you’ve got two tile-laying games. Themes are now different: Feudal Japan and Fantasyland. Are they similar? Did Gunkimono inspire Pandoria any?
JA: Not really. Sure, I seem to like tile-laying games that have domino-style tiles with two sides to them. And in both games, you are building up regions of the same color, but that is where the similarities end. With Gunkimono, you score every time you place a tile. With Pandoria, it’s a much different mechanism, because you are placing both tiles and figures every turn, and positional play is much more important. Even if you compare Gunkimono to my original, streamlined prototype, Pride, the latter is quite a bit more thinky and interactive.
I know I had toyed with the idea of remaking Heartland with double-hex tiles instead of rectangular, and perhaps that’s how I started thinking about other mechanisms with double-hex tiles, but I can’t remember exactly anymore.
DY: well, since you’re working on all these new tiles games, maybe you’ll work together with me to refine an idea i’ve been tossing around for years – but this one uses the hexagon/pentagon polyhedron pattern seen on a soccerball. Of course, it only works on a ball because it doesn’t line up when flattened out… But, before you get sidetracked on my crazy idea, can you shed any light on your upcoming projects for 2019 and beyond?
JA: Sounds like a cool idea! I can hear publishers already telling me that it is too expensive to produce. Also, each player would only be able to see part of it at any time, which would have to be part of the game. Perhaps they each have their own “globe” that rotates around, like a 3-D sandbox to play in:-)
I like collaborating, although I’ve found it’s harder than it looks, especially when the designers don’t see each other regularly. I think I’m too hands-on for long distance relationships:-) I would like to collaborate more with my friends at the Spielwiese, so that’s one of my goals this coming year. One friend and I are trying to tackle a different kind of cooperative game, which would be a first for me.
I’ve also developed a great relationship with Polish publisher Nasza Księgarnia. They did a fantastic job producing a puzzle game of mine themed around trains (called Jedzie pociąg z daleka), and they are releasing yet another one of my domino-style tile-laying games (this time, with cards) called Rolnicy (Farmers). It actually started many years ago as the Heartland Card Game, but because of the restrictions of only using cards, it changed to something else. Players now have their own 3×3 “sandbox” or “private garden” to plant their crops, but they also have to keep expanding the central “communal” farm, w here more interaction takes place. The goal is to sync crops from both places to earn the best scoring cards. It was originally titled Kolkhozes, the name for the soviet communal farms, since players work on the larger communal farm but have control over their own private plot. NK has done a great job with the art again, and I hope to find other publishers for both of these games. Next year they will even produce my first children’s game, something I have been designing more of recently.
Aside from lots of new ideas, I’m also trying to get revised versions of a few older games back in print, like Pala and New Amsterdam (which is already in the process of being reprinted in Brazil).
DY: Best of luck on getting reprinted. As I have said before, I definitely think some of your older designs would benefit from a reprint now with a bigger partner! Maybe you’ll find some interested parties at Essen this year! How will you manage to split your time this year between promoting your two new releases as well as meetings for the future? Do you sleep much?
JA: So far I have 17 meetings planned with publishers Thursday and Friday, and I’m planning on hanging out at the Irongames booth on Saturday. In the evenings, I’m going to try to find some places to play some games! If anyone who is reading this wants to meet up and play Pandoria or any other new Essen game, I’d love to do that. I’m heading home Saturday night, since it’s the Fall Holidays in Germany and I want to have a week’s vacation with my family.
DY: Enjoy your fair – I hope your games do well! Let’s shared a fried spiral potato on a stick!