Spotlight on Games > Interviews
Günter Cornett Creates and Plays Board Games in Berlin, Germany

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Although this interview series has been about "ordinary" board game players, it struck me that for Germany, the source of so many good games, we need more. So over the next three weeks in a tripartite interview we'll hear from game inventor, publisher and sometime-artist Günter Cornett. Unlike many, his games always seem very interested in embracing their theme so we'll find out about that. In addition, we'll talk about his activities as an officer of the SAZ game designers guild. By the way he also plays games. :)
August 21, 2004

Note: all links cited are repeated at the end of the interview for handy reference.

1. When and how did you first begin creating games?

Guenter Cornett head shot
Günter Cornett
There is no exact date for the step from gaming to game designing. I guess it was between 1987 and 1989 that I remember creating a variant for Risk. Instead of getting more and more armies for a set of three cards, players were able to place and move neutral armies via cards. In 1989 I started my Landgang – as of now it's not finished. ;-) A bit later, 1990 (or 1991?) I made Schlangennest and in 1992 published the rules in Spiel&Autor [Game and Designer]. Then there was Autoscooter which won 4th place at the 1992 Hippodice game contest. In the years immediately following I got a little money for not publishing my games. By 1995 Canaletto was published by Hans im Glück and Bambus Spieleverlag [Bamboo Game Publishers] was founded.

2. Is getting money for not publishing games something like the US government paying you not to grow wheat? How does this work and where can one sign up?

:) First a company took an option on a tactical game of mine. The company paid a small sum for the rights, but later they decided not to publish the game.

Then in 1992 I got a contract for Schlangennest. It's a tile-laying game which was slated to be published in February of 1993, or at the latest December of 1993. A guarantee sum [in case the publisher did not follow through] was arranged. A few weeks after signing the contract the company told me that now they wanted to publish it in February of 1994 [i.e., a whole year's delay from the original promise] and asked to delay the publication date to December 1994. I accepted February 1994, but not December 1994 and asked for a guarantee that the game would be published in early 1994 and for payment of the guarantee sum. But the publisher told me that he don't know whether his company would still exist in 1994 and that the guarantee sum would be paid only if the game is published, not if it's not published ... [This is the opposite of the way a guarantee is supposed to work.]

For several weeks I got different responses: one representative told me they would pay, another refused to do so. Two weeks before the Nürnberg toy fair I left them a message indicating I planned to demand the money at the toy fair. Next day the called me back and told me that they had just remitted the money.

3. You brought out Schlangennest (Nest of Snakes) in 1995, just a year after Die Schlangen von Delhi (The Snakes of Delhi) by Manfred Franz/Blatz. Both are tile-laying games in which snakes grow ever longer. At first glance it looks like you borrowed an idea from another designer. Is that the case? What’s the rest of the story?

Of course not, although we used nearly the same tiles and both live in Berlin (but didn't know one another). In 1992 I published Schlangennest in Spiel&Autor and got a contract. Manfred Franz published a description of Die Schlangen von Delhi about a year before in Spiel&Autor. But at that time I didn't know Spiel&Autor, especially the earlier issues, because I was new to the business. At the annual game designer meeting at Göttingen, Manfred came to my table where I explained my game to him, but he refused to explain his game to me. At the time I wondered if he wanted to spy on me.

Much later I recognized that Die Schlangen von Delhi was very different from Schlangennest. Schlangennest is a tactical game without luck. Each player has his own snake. Die Schlangen von Delhi is a family game. Each player can lengthens any snake to get points, the same sort of game as
2 interlocking snake heads from a game counter
The snakes of
Schlangennest
Cafe International.

So what can be learned is

  1. Different designers make different games even if the basic system is similar.
  2. It's better to talk with one another than to suspect each other.

4. What games did you play as a child?

As a young child: Mensch-ärgere-dich nicht, Spitz pass auf, Mikado, Fang den Hut, Maumau (Uno with standard cards). Later: Monopoly, Öl für uns alle, Schiffsquartett, 66, Skat, Vermögensbildung, Goldgräber, Expedition

Most of these games I won't play today. But at that time I liked them very much.

Flaschenteufel 2nd edition box cover, imp inside a bottle
Flaschenteufel
5. Der Flaschenteufel is one of our favorite card games. Whatever possessed you to create a trick-taking game from a short story ("The Bottle Imp") and one by an English author (Robert Louis Stevenson) to boot?

When I started to create Der Flaschenteufel, there was no thought about Stevenson. I remembered a TV film about the story, which I had seen as child. I was the first to come into contact with the story by playing this card game when it was a prototype. Der Flaschenteufel was created in the summer of 1995, when Gerhard Schech and I founded Bambus Spieleverlag to publish Schlangennest. So we additionally published this small card game in October.

6. Unlike many, your games always seem very interested in embracing their theme. You are also clearly interested in the written word, for example, including separate background material on the life of the Inuit in your game Nanuuk! (1998). Where does theme come in during your design process? Are you ever able to start with theme? What should the role of theme be in a game?

The theme can support, but also disturb creating a game. It's a support when it leads into new ideas. It disturbs when you think too much about simulation. It's hard to make a game which is both a simulation and also fun to play.

Best is a balance of both, theme and system. Often it's good to use a picture instead of a theme. For example, with Kahuna: connected circles are the system, islands and bridges are the picture which supports the system. But fighting kahunas would be a little too much theme; I always say "bridges" never "Kahuna sticks".

With Flaschenteufel, the theme was just an idea. So there were only two games for which I first thought intensively about the theme: Kanaloa (Bambus) and Fleetboard (Mercedes-Benz). Kanaloa was a try at making a theme-based Kahuna-for-four. But it's too much thematic for that purpose. With Fleetboard I won a competition of 8 designers because of a good combination of theme and system. But I didn't feel free in the design of Fleetboard. It's less creative and harder work to follow the theme.

In Nanuuk I first had a system, then found the theme, then read more about it, and got ideas from the theme. I learned about the theme during the creation of the game. That's what I like: taking from the theme what is good for the system.

That's a designer's viewpoint. From the view of a gamer a theme can also do both: support understanding and enjoyment the game or disturb it. There are people who don't like themes while others need themes. So it [satisfaction] depends not only on the game. I like themes, but only if they don't disturb [the player] with too many details having no real function. But other gamers may enjoy this.

7. Your third game of 1995 was Canaletto, your first licensed title (by Hans im Glück), at least to actually appear. How did this come about? It has since appeared in two other guises: Le Jardin (Bambus) and Der Garten des Sonnenkönigs (Noris). Do you have a favorite realization? Were you trying to achieve different objectives in each?

At Essen Spiel 1994 I offered Bernd Brunnhofer, president of Hans im Glück, a prototype called Bakschisch im Garten des Sultans. First he said that he didn't want a bidding game, but at length he took it. A few weeks later I read in the games magazine Pöppel-revue that Hans im Glück was searching for the game designer of Bakschisch im Garten des Sultans. I had forgotten to write my name in the rules...

box cover showing the Louis Quatorze
Der Garten des Sonnenkönigs
[Garden of the Sun King]
Canaletto was published in February of 1995. In that short time the company changed a few rules. My prototype was similar to Le Jardin, but instead of glass stones I used a schedule to track the income. This was a bit confusing, because it was hard to get an overview and often the players forgot to move the marker. Hans im Glück eliminated the income schedule and made the game easier to play, but also less tactical.

Of course, they asked my opinion on the changes. I playtested it with several gamers. I preferred and still prefer the original version because it allows better calculating of the bidding. The playtesters liked the new version better because of it's more a family game. So I had no problem accepting this version. Later I published Le Jardin with the permission of Hans im Glück in a small edition of 100 games. In 2000 it was re-published by Noris as Der Garten des Sonnenkönigs with the Le Jardin rules, but it wasn't very successful.

Hans im Glück never claimed copyrights for their changes and never blocked me from publishing the other version. That's not always the case for other game companies. It's a point that game designers should notice that they keep their Urheberrecht (author's rights – different from copyright) if the company wants rules changes.

8. Noris seems to have dropped out of game publishing. Do you have any idea what happened to them? Your company name, Bambus (bamboo) with an Oriental-looking logo is an unusual name for a German game company. How was it chosen?

logo of 2 fu manchu pawns under a bamboo A-frame
Bambus Spielverlag logo
Goldsieber bought Noris. If you go to http://www.goldsieber.de you can see the logo of Noris pricking the Goldsieber logo.

Bamboo was chosen because this plant is outwardly simple, but offers a wide variety of possible uses.

The Bambus Spieleverlag logo stands for good, original game ideas. In those days less importance was placed on colorful artwork ... After I got tough criticisms for the art on Flaschenteufel (and even Schlangennest), we changed this point of view. For more background on this, see also this page at the Bambus Spielverlag site.

9. Schmetterlingsflug (Flight of the Butterfly) is one of your least known works. What inspired this game?

I tried a variant of Schlangennest with tiles in the form of a kite and noticed the following:
Put three together and you'll get a triangle.
Put six together and you'll get a hexagon.
Put four together and you'll get ... hmmm ... looks like a butterfly.
I cut the wings a little, so that I got a circle when three butterflies formed a hex (=flower) with one of their half bodies. I made a children's game with these butterflies forming hex flowers, but no company was interested in that. Later I made Schmetterlingsflug, a racing domino butterfly game and published 100 of them as a cheap, self constructing set. It didn't sell much and I used the material to build other prototypes. I don't know if it's ever played. ;-)

10. Can you talk about the game designer experience in Germany? There seem to be a great many game designer events.

I'm just back from the Göttingen game designer convention. One weekend in May or June 100-120 designers meet there. It's organized by game designer and artist Reinhold Wittig – www.perlhuhn.de -- and Wieland Herold – www.spiel-und-autor.de a member of the Spiel des Jahres [Game of the Year] jury – and supported by the local township.

11. What goes on at these? Are there interchanges and playtesting among the designers or is it only a place to pitch proposals at potential publishers?

For newcomers, hiring a table and contacting publishers seems to be the most important point, one that may lead to disappointment because the publishers don't have enough time to visit them all.

stylized letters SAZ
But it's all combined together there: information, discussion, playtesting, contacting publishers, annual general meeting of the SAZ [Game Designer's Guild]. Two years ago our vice-chairwoman, Andrea Meyer, successfully initiated improved support for new SAZ members. Many SAZ members wear a 'SAZ-tutor' badge to demonstrate that they are willing to provide advice.

There are also workshops. At one workshop publishers present themselves and explain the kinds of game they want and how to contact the company.

12. Is the general public included?

Saturday is for designers, reviewers, publishers, etc. – the Fachpublikum [specialist audience]. Sunday is open for all, but there isn't a big interest.

There is a similar, but smaller, convention in November in München [Munich], mainly for southern Germany, Austria amd Switzerland. And there are many smaller (local or themed) conventions of about 10-15 designers. I guess you can find designers in every large town. In Berlin we meet two times a year in a 'Jugendzentrum' [youth center].

Part 2 of the interview with Günter Cornett
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