In the final part of our talk with game inventor and publisher Günter Cornett we talk about his more recent and upcoming work, game designing in general, his work for the game designer's guild and hopes and fears for the future of the board games industry.
September 4, 2004
Note: all links cited are repeated at the end of the interview for handy reference.
25. Now that you and Volker Schäfer are collaborating on games, how does that work in practice? I have some experience with it myself on our game Balmy Balloonists. Originally the game was designed much differently with every player planning their turn simultaneously and taking turns from back to front. But this proved unworkable so a change was needed, which led to another change, this to another and pretty soon the whole subsystem had been replaced. When one person has invented the system and it’s the other who sees the necessity to alter it, some tense moments can arise. Do you ever experience anything like this? How do you go about resolving creative differences?
At Bambus, Volker takes care of production and distribution; I'm responsible for our website and Internet communication. I also do a bit of graphic design.
Dismay at the game table: Günter Cornett
Photo courtesy of FAIRspielt.de
With the exception of So Ein Zirkus all of the games came from me or from designers who contacted me. That's not based on an agreement, but practice at Bambus.
Volker lives in Hannover, I'm in Berlin. So we very rarely playtest together. Sometimes it's hard, especially when Volker comes late into the discussion about a game. When I have thought about a few things alone or discussed with my group I present the results to Volker. This can lead to a total re-start and discussing 'alte Hüte' [old hats]. Sometimes I feel like presenting my idea to an editor of another company ...
For Capt'n W. Kidd, Volker had a very good idea, the game "Madagascar." First I told him: "this will never work", but it works great. Many playtesters like this variant the best and it's the only one that can be played with three players. It's the most fun variant I guess.
I also started several cooperations with game designers, mainly by e-mail and I don't know if all of them will be succesful. I know I'm good at criticizing, which may be not easy for my partners. Even if we don't come to an agreement, cooperation can also lead to different games.
Cooperation with Alvydas Jakeliunas was based on my comments when I refused his proposal. We decided to cooperate when the game Pingvinas was already finished. (Then he offered me co-designership).
Kanaloa box cover
26. Your next game, in a return to Hawai’i, was the sophisticated Kanaloa, which was very pleasing to many players who consider themselves connoisseurs of fine games. It’s rather unlike most anything else, yet returns to graph theory. Is it related to Kahuna in some way?Thanks, I'm a bit surprised by so much praise. Kanaloa was a 'failed' try to design a four player Kahuna. I read about Hawaii, culture and religion, and brought too much into the game – too much for a four player Kahuna. It became too different from what I wanted to create. But it was as interesting as when I designed Nanuuk! where I read about the Arctic life. If I go into a theme sometimes I don't have a control of the result. But that's not bad.
27. From an American perspective, you seem to have a fascination with the last two states to join the Union. I suppose you have enjoyed visiting Alaska and Hawai’i many times?No, sorry ;-). I have never left Europe. Fifteen years ago I visited Northern Scandinavia and saw snow in summer. From that time I like the cold zone. It was the first time I took a seat in a canoe and later I learned white water canoeing a bit. But that's not the reason for designing Nanuuk!
No, it was a special kind of luck: in our gaming group we had somebody who forced us to lay out the Settlers [of Catan] tiles first in reverse and then turn them over, so that nobody could get an advantage. Arrgghh! But there I saw the ice sheets. The sticks became cracks; the houses, Inuit; and the towns, polar bears. The introductory game was born. Then I read books about the arctic life to complete the game.
Seeing the ice in Nanuuk!
The kahuna theme came from Fritz Gruber. When he asked me to design a four player Kahuna I made the 'mistake' of reading books first and went to deeply into the theme. So I created Kanaloa (Bambus edition) which had nothing to do with Kahuna besides theme and islands.
28. Very interesting! I've looked at the reverse of the Settlers set-up many times, but never saw an ice sheet there!Hm, seems it's only in my mind. It's a big white area, with little spaces between the tiles.
29. Arabana-Opodopo, the four-player version of Kahuna didn’t come out under the Kosmos label as its predecessor did, but from Tilsit instead (as Kanaloa). How did Kosmos manage to miss their chance? Hmm, there was somebody who did a great deal to avoid a contract. I won't give the details in public, but SAZ members [referring to the Game Designer's Guild] can read the whole story in a back issue of the SAZ News.
Seeing the volcano:
30. Sam Mendes, the directory of plays and movies (American Beauty) was recently asked which is his favorite part of moviemaking. He couldn’t give a reason for his seemingly strange – because it seems so boring – answer: rehearsal! Between idea conception and public reception, there are many stages in the making of board games. Which is your favorite? Why?His answer is quite understandable. It's the point when he sees the first result of his work.
It's the moment I can say: it works well, it's fun to play. So you get the same boring answer from mine, sorry. ;-)
There is another moment which makes me feel good, sometimes, but it's so trappy: 'having a good idea'. Too often a good idea doesn't lead into a good game. So a good idea is nearly nothing.
Actually I'm working at a game about paintings. It's interesting and fun and I guess the game will be too. So I like this work, but actually I don't know whether this will become a really good game.
31. My own guess as to the reason Mendes loves rehearsal is that fundamentally he is a developer of material and it is in this period and not during actual filming that he is actually fashioning the work in its final form. Actually you have had both the role of a designer with editors at a publishing house developing your ideas (Canaletto, Der Garten des Sonnenkönigs, Kahuna, the second Kanaloa) as well as a developer helping to refine the designs of others (Bambus editions such as Twilight, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Pingvinas and no doubt more). Which do you prefer?Every part has positive and negative aspects. As a game designer you don't have to spend so much money and time on your project. As an editor you're independent of other companies, but not from the market.
I prefer to work as a game designer. That's more creative. But in my case, publishing at Bambus was necessary to become a bit successful as a game designer. Kahuna and Kanaloa.Tilsit (and maybe another game in the future) were (will be) published by other companies because we published them previously at Bambus.
32. Have you ever tried other types of games, e.g. RPG, CCG or WG (role-playing games, collectible-card games, war games)?
Yes, twice I played an RPG, but it was a bit boring: entering a labyrinth, fighting against creatures and taking their money (not really bad, but not good enough for so much time expended).
Although I don't play computer games I played Monkey Island and liked it very much.
I played Axies and Allies, turned every counter, but didn't find any fun. If this is an introduction into the world of "cosim" [short for "conflict simulation, this is what Germans call war games] I'll never enter. I don't like games where the variety comes from choosing this or that dice on this or that schedule. But I like 1830, Civilization (not a cosim, I guess) and the impressive Lieber bayerisch sterben. Maybe this game from Kalle Schmiel can be seen as a cosim (I don't know). The combat via cards is cleverly done.
33. Over the years I've wrestled with it many times, but finally decided that Civilisation is a war game, albeit a rather peculiar one, nice peculiarities in fact. As for Lieber Bairisch Sterben, it's too bad it's not more available as I suspect it would be popular in the Anglo-American world. I've never even had a chance to play it.
Anyway, moving on, in 2003 you brought out a new edition of Flaschenteufel with much improved presentation, a larger edition, a few rules improvements and not one but two two-player variants. Some people though still say they prefer the original graphics though. Do you ever feel you can’t win? :)War is one element of Civilization. There is also: trading (all people acting together) and development. There are rules to haul back the leader if he has too many units on the board. So it's also a game of balance. And you are not forced to make war. Your units grow better if they cooperate with other units. But of course, you can attack your neighbour whenever you want. If it's a war game, it's the most peaceful war game in the world.
art from the original Flaschenteufel
Regarding Flaschenteufel, on this question I can't lose. I'm happy when the players buy the new version, but it makes me proud when I get positive comments about my graphics.
34. How many different game titles do you keep in your personal collection?I assume about 250-300, not many for a gamer. Because my residence is very small, I rarely buy games and when I do I try to sell older games.
35. Your latest game is Capt’n W. Kidd which looks quite good. I find it interesting that you keep managing to find new game ideas in the world of "graph theory". Is there anything more you would like to tell us about this one?
Yes, it's in my mind and goes out. The first version of Captain W. Kidd was played on the water areas of Kanaloa with arrows instead of pirates. It was absolutely abstract.
Günter's latest broadside:
Capt'n W. Kidd
Hm, maybe there's something I should conceal because it's a bit blamable. But as a honest chatterbox I don't want to withold it:In contrast to another famous pirate, Captain William Kidd never reclaimed the 'W' in his name. We spent it to signify a comparable historical event: Capt'n W. sailed from New York to Red Sea to fight against pirates. So he said. But the real reason was that his investors (members of the British high society and even of government) wanted to make profits. When Capt'n W. reached the Red Sea his first action was piracy. The whole story is added to the game in a bit more detail.What's to blame in that? We told the graphic designer to paint Capt'n W. Kidd with the the facial features of another W. pirate. But instead of him many players recognized somebody else on the cover: me!
36. Do you hold a private game night in which you play others’ games or do you prefer to remain uncontaminated by others’ games?There are many gaming groups in Berlin. I try to play the good games and the new games, but there's not enough time. I guess it's good to be inspired by other games, if you don't copy it. I'm a grumbler (German: Nörgler) and one of my virtues (and a handicap as well) is criticizing.
37. You are high in the councils of the SAZ, the German Game Designer’s Guild. Why do you feel this is an important use of your time and an important organization for designers to join? I don't feel high by working in the SAZ ;-). I'm active (as other members) but not in a 'high position'. What's important is to be part of designers network. It's important to discuss different aspects of our work and help each other.
For example, I give my contracts to the contracts group [legal advisors] to get advice. I give back via my activities as editor of the SAZ news and site webmaster.
When designers think about joining the SAZ, they often think about what to get for 60 Euro/year. Getting information (SAZ publications), advice, mediation and contacts is worth much more than 60 Euro. So it would be better to think about what to do to support the network: take part in the AG Vertrag (working group on contracts), in translation jobs, in meetings, as members of the board or advisory council or at least give feedback if you were helped.
SAZ is only as strong and active as its members. The more active designers are represented by SAZ, the more SAZ becomes a partner of publishers, editors and journalists. Please read more about it at our SAZ-FAQ (PDF).
38. How do you see your future as a publisher? Do you prefer to stay small and lean, continuing to license designs to larger houses or would you be willing to grow the firm? It seems you must know an awful lot about publishing by now.I feel more a designer than a publisher. This latter work is mainly done by Volker Schäfer. It's hard as a designer to get a contract and even harder as a small publisher to sell games at a profit. I got contracts by publishing games in small editions. In the past this was my profit.
In the future I'll keep this way if possible. But I don't know which surprise the future will bring to me. Sometimes I do other jobs.
39. I go back and forth on this, but am tending to think we are in golden age of games right now, it having begun in the early 90's. I see the period of c. 1900-1960 as a Precursors period with an upturn between 1960-1980. The 80's themselves seemed a dark age for board games, even back then. But how do you see the future? Will the current age improve, decline or simply endure? One important factor is sales growth which I understand to have been flat for several years now, at least in Germany, with most growth coming from foreign markets.I don't have exact knowledge about but I guess sales in other countries (USA, Canada, Japan, Korea) will increase, but in Germany it will go down, because
Spiel des Jahres
- The market here may have reached its limits.
- The economical situation: with a new law millions of unemployed people lose financial support of many hundred Euros every month.
- Other hobbies may (!) be more attractive for the younger generation. So it's important to make good children's games, for example as Zoch does. And of course the Spiel des Jahres Award [Game of the Year] has been supporting this for a few years by establishing the Kinderspiel des Jahres [Children's Game of the Year].
40. The last big development seems to have been the CCG. Perhaps the industry needs something similarly revolutionary to bring in more players?I really don't know. CCG's were good for many publishers, but bad for those publishers who had no CCG. Revolutionary ideas brings profit to the company which publishes them. But that's life.
But I guess there must be another way to publish good games even without 'revolutionaey ideas'. A problem is that the customers are too unoriented when buying games. What's the difference between Goa and Indus? Do you see it by a short peep [blurb] on the box?
Because of the economic situation, board games may be too expensive for the poor and too 'cheap' (image) for the rich ones. So it's a chance for big companies with good distribution to displace their concurrents [i.e. competition]. And a good chance for small companies with very exclusive games, because: the money isn't gone – it's in another pocket.
Many thanks for your time and thoughts! We look forward to many more great games!
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