Spotlight on Games > Interviews

Rick Heli plays board games in the San Francisco Bay Area

The second half of Moritz Eggert's valiant attempt to interview yours truly. If you missed it, you can find part 1 here and my interview of Moritz here. When we last left off, I was asking Moritz to elucidate more about what drives him to play games ...
April 16, 2005 (all links cited repeated at end)

Why am I playing games? I think I answered that question already in my interview, but recently I found a simpler solution. Even the most complicated games' rules are simpler than the myriad rules we have to follow in life. By adhering, for a short or longer time, to a "simpler" set of rules, one relishes "escapism" on one hand (from the more complicated rules of life), but one also has the possibility to try out "different" rules from the rules one usually encounters. This is therefore a learning process that also teaches us about life.

photo: Moritz head shot
Moritz (
I don't like the money business in real life, for example – pursuing personal wealth is not one of my goals in life. But when I play Acquire for a short time I slip into the role of a business man speculating with shares. This may give me enjoyment, as I only have to adhere to the rules for a short time, I know that there is a "finiteness" to it. I can play with numbers, strategies and ideas without ever being in danger of becoming a grey businessman myself, as soon as the game is over, I revert back to my (more sympathetic, I think) self. The true gamer doesn't play for winning, but he knows that trying to win creates the "plot" in a game. Therefore s/he adheres to the plot "everybody tries to win" easily, but can immediately forget the failure as the enjoyment of the game moved on by the plot is bigger than the disappointment of not winning.

Of course I talk about the "ideal" gamer here, we all know that we can become angry or frustrated when one of our strategies doesn't work, but we should never forget that winning is simply a mean to set an end to an otherwise endless process. Children for example often forget that there should be an end to gaming – I remember that I could go on with interesting activities forever as a kid, the finiteness had to be created artificially or resulted from simple exhaustion. Of course, gaming is an attractive regress to the days of our childhood, were we could immerse ourselves completely in a fantasy world, a time where things were less complicated. Of course history fascinates me as well, and it does fascinate many "American-style" gamers.

Why German games often don't have historical flair can only be explained with the fact that they have been streamlined for quick use – Germans are by nature very impatient, and want to get on with it immediately. On the other hand they feel dutifully complied to read the rules thoroughly. If a rule book had lots of historical notes it would simply overwhelm most players, as they would feel compelled to read it before actually playing it! Therefore game companies leave anything not related to the actual game mechanics away, as they basically want their rule books as slim as possible. The eponymous war gamer is the opposite – for him the rule book can't be full enough of historical detail and else!

But I think gaming looks pretty good compared to other pastimes. It is a hobby where social gatherings are easy and communication skills, imagination and intelligence are encouraged. I have seen some people get spoiled by role-playing games, but never through board or card games, only if they were playing for money.

One noticeable change is that gamers get older in average – as our population growth diminishes and the hobby becomes more and more respectable, the average gamer age rises. Once you make the transition to adulthood and haven't yet given up on gaming, it's a hobby that stays with you forever! Should therefore gaming still have the biggest boom ahead, as older and older players are amassing through life-prolonging medicine? A funny thought ...

But let's get to your tastes again ... What are your favourite game designers, and why? You have already mentioned Phil Eklund, who is one of the best DTP designers, certainly. But what about the commercial ones. Kramer or Knizia, Teuber or Merkle?

Schoko & Co. box cover
The chocolatey Schoko & Co.
is all business?
Well I'm sorry I re-asked an old question, but am pleased to have inspired the new answer! I wonder, if there were a game about your day job, if the game were about composing a bass line or a bridge, would you find it boring or frustrating? Along this line, I've heard a few business people say they dislike the chocolatey Schoko & Co. for this very reason ...

Speaking of the frustration line, isn't it an exceedingly thin drahtseilakt? So often players lose it by becoming over-competitive or, conversely, not competitive enough. It's a wonder sometimes for me, that any game ends happily ...

But I am happy to finally understand why German games = no background notes. I had wondered for a long time and your answer makes a lot of sense.

Relationship Tightrope box cover
Sometimes game players must
walk a narrow emotional line.
You're right that games seem to be a most "healthy" past time, nothing like what some have termed "EverCrack" (EverQuest). And they're incredibly cheap! We pay $10 for a movie, but only about twice that or so for a game, yet we can enjoy the latter over and over and over ...

Gaming should have a big boom if we keep buying them. One thing the marketeers have noticed is that as we grow older we do less discretionary spending. On the other hand, overall world population is still growing. Maybe game makers should start thinking about how to appeal to the Third World ...

Speaking of the third world, Sierra Madre Games is surely there in terms of a game company, but Phil Eklund is one of the most imaginative around. He comes up with the strangest ideas, yet manages to make them work in games. It really is a treat when one has been too long experiencing a certain sameness and ready for Something Completely Different. In terms of three K's, I've not written about them before, but to me they're 3 rather different types. Herr Kramer seems to me the establishment – he's "old school". He does auctions and action points well – all the logistics. If you're good with numbers you'll be good at his games. In America I notice that all the former war game players appreciate him best. Knizia, well, let's face it, everyone likes him. But he is really the mad scientist inventor atop the lonely mountain. His games are a bit dry and so especially beloved by puzzle solvers and math people, of which he is one. He's the intuitive, rational inventor. Klaus Teuber on the other hand is a true artist. He's clearly interested in strong flavor in his games and very much in their "haptic" factor. I think he has really tried the widest variety of ideas of the three and as such is probably preferred by those who like designing games themselves. But the downside of this is that he's probably also had a greater proportion of misses.

Mole in the Hole
The too-narrowly known
Mole in the Hole
As someone who likes designing games I guess I should prefer Teuber's games best – certainly Catan is a big favorite – but if I were to be a castaway with just one game from one of the three, I'd hope to find one of Knizia's in the FedEx box. First because I wouldn't have to worry that it would be unbalanced and second because there always seems to be some clever bit that I never would have thought of myself. In Drahtseilakt it's the genius of those 0 cards. In Mole in the Hole it's the special treatment of the center space. In Euphrat & Tigris there are a whole lot of things. How does he do it time after time, make that incredible leap? I'm sure I don't know.

As to Casasola-Merkle, I guess he's he wild card in the equation meant to trip me up? Clearly this young man has had a lot of good ideas, but isn't it too early to include him with so many Moons, Seyfarths, Frieses, Schachts, Cornetts and others standing in the way? :) But you're right in the sense that we haven't heard a great deal from the three K's lately and other names are making themselves felt.

So you basically love the "old-school" guys (I would consider Knizia as old school as well, although he is certainly likes to experiment). I personally would not take a "German" game to the island, I would probably take the biggest monster game there is (something like Magic Realm or World in Flames), so I would need several months just to learn the rules alone, and then I could spend eons refining the hundreds of bugs that you usually find in these games. An imperfect game would be best for the island. But the "island game" is a totally artificial situation. A "Euro" game would not work because they are intensely social, and one will be alone on the island. In real life I would of course prefer a social gathering, that's for sure. I have to admit that I still can't completely understand why Americans used to love ultra-complicated and detailed rules so much – what is the cultural difference here? You already said that of course "bigger is better", but that could be done away with by having huge boxes and lush game material (which the American commercial games usually have). But when everything in the US is about the "easy sell", why have complicated rules? And complicated sports, for that matter (American Football and Baseball still have a long way to go in Europe, they are simply too elaborate). The US-Americans are very quick in anything else, they usually act first and think second in most things, whereas the Europeans like to ponder and philosophize over everything, sometimes being paralyzed because of that. But perhaps this is the very reason they like it differently when gaming? As this still is an interview with you, perhaps you can give us some insight on this phenomenon?

By the way, I have the feeling that we will soon talk about the phenomenon of the "Asian" game, after being in Singapore for a couple of days I have the feeling that a new gaming scene might emerge in Asia, and it won't be long before we will have smashing games from China, Singapore, Japan, Korea ...

Now wait a minute – I think I'm being railroaded here and I don't mean a train game! Just because I commented on designers doesn't mean I really feel a bond with anyone's in totality, except perhaps for my own designs. What I like are good games and will take them wherever I can find them. After all, there is no shortage of games from the aforementioned "names" that I do not like as well. That said, I agree with you about the island metaphor – I only introduced it as a shorthand. Nihilistically, I find it amusing that you would like to constantly refine some game system because the natural questions are "with what?" and "for whom"? Wouldn't it all be rather pointless? Even though I would do just the same ...

Back to game monstrosities, I think the zeitgeist back then was just to keep adding more and more "gamey" stuff. Think about all the abbreviations that were invented like CRT's, BRP's (pronounced "burps") and CRP's ("crips") and on and on. Those all became part of the fun in and of themselves! Then there were endless optional rules, scenarios and other spaghetti. Endless embroidery, wouldn't you say? Returning back to the area of your artistic endeavor, would it be a similar question to ask why the late 19th century music with Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler became so heavy, long and large-orchestra'ed? (It amuses me to think that at the same time across the Rhine in France composers like Debussy were making lighter antidotes to all of this. Could Bruno Faidutti be a kind of analogous "composer" in the games world?)

But this time you have asked the question with a slightly different emphasis, i.e. what in the culture of that time and place *permitted* such games to be possible? I think you hit on something good there with sports, especially if we keep in mind that practically all the players back then were male. Unlike the beautiful game of soccer, our three main sports are extremely statistics laden, not to mention long. No doubt these more complicated games found a more ready audience because of it. But I think I need more of your help in identifying other reasons. Those who live within a culture are probably less able to see this forest for all those trees around them – it really requires an outside observer.

This seems like a good time to note too that these monster war games are actually easier to design than a "mere" simple German game. They're more a matter of adding information on an already well-established template – and then begin the arguments about how accurate it all is. But often their players don't even particularly care about things like balance, turn length, interaction, novelty, which can be damnably difficult to arrange in easy harmony with one another. I even tend to think that while war games are designed, German games are invented.

I think you're also right that these games have mostly been a counterculture thing here. Those who are thoughtful, precise and analytical have often been ignored in this country, which gave rise to science fiction, the literature of the smarter who long to have their due – see A.E. van Vogt's Slan which features big brain aliens secretly masquerading as ordinary humans. (But at least since the Kennedy administration they have actually found power in people like Robert McNamara or even today in a Dick Cheney, though only rarely the very top jobs.) Games have had the very same sort of appeal in many cases.

As to China, I don't know how fast we'll see new designs from there, but I'm pretty sure that a lot of production is going to be moving there. If there is no guarantee that prison labor has not been used in making the games, I wonder if there will be controversies as big or bigger than the ones which have surrounded Puerto Rico ...

Great and very insightful answer! I love your argument that monster games are "designed" and Euro games "invented". Although one gets the feeling, that there are more and more German "designer" games out there, who simply take already tried principles like area control/dominance and variable action cards and arrange them in a slightly new manner, hoping that nobody notices. At least the Jim Dunnigan's and Richard Berg's always did tons of historical research!

But then there are always geniuses and imitators, and I rather go with a game designer who takes risks and fails sometimes instead of the ones who endlessly regurgitate recycled ideas.

The point you bring up with Puerto Rico and the endless discussion about it's perceived "racism" is a very interesting one, as it shows that games have some social impact and CAN be the start of political debate, something that is very interesting for a medium which could otherwise easily be perceived as being a harmless hobby. There was always a revolutionary aspect to gaming – there is of course "gambling", the ugly cousin of gaming, who is always around to challenge any society as a concept, and which usually has to be kept in some sort of boundary so it doesn't get out of hand. There are of course sports, closely related to gaming (one might argue that sports are games with humans as pawns or vice versa) – football (soccer) is just now becoming a huge threat to the Iranian government, as the people of Iran find relief of their restrictive society in it: Teheran is overflowing with crazed female soccer fans for example!

Chess played an important role in the cold war, and there are many stories about dissident or spying Chess players traveling the globe. Now to Puerto Rico ("racist" because of the brown "pöppels"), or Africa ("racist because of it's exploitative view of the continent"). I feel that there is some kind of special awareness on German games in this respect, which has of course to do with our history. Many people think that Germany still is an incredibly racist country, which is far from the truth. We find racism everywhere in the world, I wouldn't say that Germany stands out in this respect, especially not compared to other close European countries (France, Britain and recently also the Netherlands), but of course we should remain critical of ourselves and wary.

When Dungeons & Dragons was introduced in Germany, people didn't get worried about possible demonic possession of youths like the bible-belters in the US, they were wary because there were "humanoid" characters in the rule book (the well-meaning politically-correct critics misinterpreted misinterpreted the word "humanoid" for something like "Untermensch", or "not-fully-human". The irony is of course that for fantasy fans humanoids are the real interesting ones- most of us love elves, dwarves, orcs or hobbits more than the human characters!). Wargaming was universally despised in the 80's in Germany for reasons we already talked about – a game like Fulda Gap was taken as an extreme example of "evil gaming" for example ...

So the argument that some German games were "racist" took me personally by surprise, but of course I try to understand where this thought comes from. I find some of Bruno Faidutti's remarks about German games make me wonder if he bears some kind of grudge against us and Martin Wallace has never been criticized for using things like slavery as much as the really innocent Puerto Rico (his new game, Struggle of Empires, has players achieve victory points through unmasked slavery for example, why is there fewer talk about that? The original title was even Birth of a Nation, for god's sake!).

DVD cover
The technically brilliant,
but fatally racist film
What do you, as Rick Heli, think of this discussion? Do you personally think the accusations of an underlying racism in German games are correct? Explain to me why there was never a racism discussion about a US game like Source of the Nile, which is much more "imperialist" in view than Africa for example ...(I never heard an African-American complain about the depiction of African people as rather simplistic and anonymous "tribes" that one gives gifts to to dupe them). Even more: Source of the Nile tries to be a simulation, whereas Africa is a very abstract game with no historical flair.

Really I think you're displaying more insights about America than I am, but I'll try to keep up! I like your suggestion that political controversy over a game can be a good thing as so often it has caused industry folks to wrinkle their brows in worry. I smile to remember that the San Francisco group at which your played when you were here delights in renaming the Puerto Rico pieces as "Freedom Fighters".

Regarding Teheran, I believe the main reason that young females are so excited about soccer is that they are completely forbidden to watch matches! This is a sad irony when one thinks of the Amazons, woman warrior-rulers who probably ruled over parts of the same area in Herodotus' day. But maybe there's a lesson for games there? If we want them to become more popular, all we have to do is ban them ...

What you write about Dungeons & Dragons' reception in Germany is new to me, but I can see how that must have happened. Did you know that even in my lifetime the comic book code forbade terms such as "zombie"? I remember that in one issue the superheroes went down to Louisiana and encountered creatures who acted just like zombies in every way, but because of this code they had to be called "zuvembies"! Sometimes names are too important ...

I don't think I have read the remarks from Faidutti that you mention so maybe you can give us a link if you have one? I think on the whole his comments about the US election were counterproductive to the side he professed to support because if there's anything Americans don't like it's being told by foreigners how to vote, even though considering America's leadership position in the world this is wrong. But I think there's a little secret to the public comments by Bruno: even if people disagree, he gets a bit of publicity for his games. Perhaps the more heat generated, the better, and it's no doubt becoming ever more necessary as there are more new games all the time in a crowded market where it's hard to get noticed.

In my researches I have not found that there really is no such a thing as race in a hard science sense. Once upon a time all humans looked more similar to one another than they do now, but climactic changes put impassable glaciers and bodies of water between us. Evolutionary pressures caused different survival patterns. In prehistoric northern Europe, all important sunlight was hard to absorb. So when life was lived on the edge of survivability, those who had less pigment in their hair and skin had a tiny edge which led the population to look more and more that way. In Africa it was the other way around: too much heat which encouraged dark pigment survival. It also encouraged extra height in some places as a long thin body is easier to cool off. Shorter bodies tended to prevail in areas of perpetual cold weather, and so on. But we are still all the same humanity. And if you go to Central Asian places, e.g. Kazahkstan, you can see people who really seem not just in the center of the world, but also in the notional center of different body and face types. Looking at them you can see that humanity is not a bunch of different groups, but a broad continuum of different looks through which it is really impossible to draw definite lines, even if differences are dramatic at the end points.

Racism then is really just fear. As humans evolved from stupid animals they were threatened by many things. Most of these, e.g. large animals, fire, floods, storms, etc. etc. etc., they were right to fear. I think probably those who did fear were mostly survivors. So we have a history and probably a trait of fearing what we don't know or understand. I think that's the start of it and it will be a hard one for humanity to overcome.

AH box cover
Source of the Nile
from 1979
Coming back to games, I don't think that in general German games are inherently racist, any more than American games are. There may be some hidden exceptions here and there and certainly some German games of the Nazi period, e.g. Juden Raus, exhibited that. But the several German designers and publishers I know don't seem racist at all. A game like Puerto Rico also doesn't bother me as a racist game. The things that happen in the game basically happened in real life and the game is not particularly saying that it was good so it's hard to see who is being hurt by it. What does bother me a bit is if the producers of a game try to deny the truth of its theme, particularly when they're exploiting that theme to sell the game. Instead, I feel they really ought to making use of the opportunity. For example, I have a game about the Old South. If it ever gets published, I will lobby for some background text which gives the buyer some information about the life and deplorable situation of slaves at that time, even though the game doesn't even have a depiction of slaves as palpable as that of Puerto Rico. Maybe some would find this false sanctimony, but in our modern world that no longer reads, I'm not even sure people even remember what the Civil War was all about.

I think too that the events in the Source of the Nile actually happened and since it was no one living today, there should not be anger over this. Actually, it may be that Africans don't care for Source of the Nile, but did they ever see it? If they saw it, did they ever get a chance to get the word out? Maybe Africans don't get much media or even Internet time. That is why one of my future interviews is with a sub-Saharan so I will try to remember to ask.

box cover
Players may struggle with
the troubling themes in
Struggle of Empires
Struggle of Empires which actually tends to reward the player who is the best slaver is a bit more troubling, but hasn't drawn any fire because of the "Tall Poppy Syndrome". Whereas not that many have played it yet, relatively speaking, Puerto Rico has become a big hit. It's only when something gets a lot of fame that folks really get serious about trying to take it down. Reason enough to suspect the motivations of some of the complainers.

But all of this is somewhat unpleasant and instead I would like to return once more to the theme of music, I think one of the great things about this art form is that even the uneducated listener can approach even serious art music in a very basic, yet powerful way. All he need do is ask, "how does this make me feel?" So I wonder, is it similar for games? Not long ago I heard that a reviewer had said that a particular game made him "throw up" (i.e. vomit), much to the consternation of the designer. I suppose this was meant as a kind of jest, but maybe, just suppose, it really did induce exactly that feeling. Wouldn't this be a compliment to the game in a way? Look at what an emotional impact it had! It seems this would be far better than being left bored! Someone has suggested that the groaning one hears in response to a bad pun – do Germans also groan in response to puns? – is really the customary response, and as such completely equivalent to the laugh that is the customary response to a joke. No doubt you see the analogy.

So do games induce feelings for you? I think there are the obvious ones: the anxiety of not knowing what to do, anger at feeling ill-used by an opponent, the disappointment of not finishing better. But what about other, subtler forms? For example, do you ever open a new game and have an feeling of being transported a different world? What about the game itself rather than the playing of it?

Well, opening a game box is a very interesting theme. If you read the descriptions or reviews the "opening" factor of a game seems to play an important role, and I also feel that the first look in a game box is always a very special moment. There are even semi-serious studies about the "fart factor" of a game (ratio of empty space to size to contents)! There is also the moment when you take the rules in your hand, and find out if they are as complicated or simple as you expected (there are certain games where I want the rule book to be full of detail and historical articles, others should be as simple as possible). For some time in the past solitaire game rules were very important to me (before I had a computer), and I can remember the great frustration that sometime overcame me when I found out that the "solitaire" rules mentioned on the box indeed were only two small paragraphs with some un-playtested suggestions!

cover page
Burros & Bandidos:
unplayable without its author?
I also remember the absolute amazement when I first looked through the rules of Burros and Bandidos (Phil Eklund, if I remember correctly) to be absolutely stunned by the small type and the amount of research and detail, then to find out that the game itself is absolutely unplayable :-) There are even mythical rule books like Magic Realm, which never seem to end when you read them, and which you never can hope to grasp in full, but which still hold so much fascination and detail!

It seems that Walter is ok with beer,
but please don't invite over any elves.
And every gamer knows the moment when you stand in front of your collection, get out all the games that you never will have time to play, and just look at them, imagining how it would be IF you played them. Sometimes this "ersatz" feeling can even be enough, there are certainly some war games which actually aren't MEANT to be played for sure! I imagine that a wine connoisseur feels similarly when he gets out all the wines he owns but which are much too expensive or valuable to just drink ... So games DO evoke feelings, and we play them because we DO wish to be transported into another world. Every board game is also a role-playing game (the concept of role-playing was always inherent in games when they started to become less abstract, perhaps Monopoly is truly the first role-playing game, not Dungeons & Dragons), so we are like characters in a play. And which play works without any display of emotions? Every gaming group knows certain in-jokes and quirks connected to the gaming persona of certain players. At the Westpark-Gamers, for example, a simple utterance of the words "I like it" can result in hysterical laughter, because there is a whole back story to a certain Backgammon game that Walter (one of the players) once experienced. Another strange custom is the repeated uttering of "Keep fully invested", and there are many others. The gaming persona can be very different from the real persona even – sometimes people who are very controlled and laid back can metamorph into chaotic monstrous personalities on the gaming board, and this is even part of the fun. We also know the situations when tempers rise TOO high and horrible quarrels result in badly ending evenings (at least I have experienced this). I have experienced all kinds of emotions in games, even love (when you find out that a game is much cooler than you expect). So games are like passion plays in a way – we live through certain emotions to overcome them (at least that's my theory). We can be somebody else because we know we will be ourselves again after the last chit is drawn, so to speak. Perhaps games have not yet tapped into this mystery fully yet – I could imagine that designing a game like a great novel could be possible, and that a game system could direct the various feelings of it's players not randomly but deliberately. I always found games with several totally different phases very interesting – a classic example would be "first explore, than build". Carcassonne for example keeps it's players on the edge with a simple twist: many strategies are equally valid, but once you have decided on one of them the turning over of new tiles can be nail-bitingly exciting. If you play it safe, you are less endangered by the tiles, but will never make big points. If you risk a lot you become dependent on some lucky draws (which you partly can foresee if you remembered what tiles were drawn). Very simple, and of course apparent in many other games.

box cover
At least it wasn't called
"Betrayal of Avalon Hill"
An interesting example of deliberate emotion control would be the new Betrayal at House On The Hill by Hasbro/Avalon Hill, not a deeply strategic game by any means, but what works well is the division into two very differently playing game phases: First the players explore the haunted mansion as lone wolves, with the usual event cards/tile laying shtick. Then suddenly the game becomes an unexpected war/mystery/teamwork/Cluedo game, depending on the encountered (of 50 different) scenarios, where the players have to defend against a traitor in their midst. I find this combination of elements satisfying, although nothing else in this game is in any way revolutionary, but it comes close to being a theatre play with a surprising twist. Perhaps we will see more of these games that play with our emotions in the future, I find it an interesting path ...

That's all fascinating, Moritz. One could almost say that games allow us to recover the happiness of our lost childhoods ...

I want to ask you about science fiction in Germany because you have expressed your dissatisfaction with the way it has been served in the games world. What general problems do you see and what do you think have been the best attempts?

I wonder if the weight of German history could have something to do with it? After all, going back to ancient times, you have Hermann and his triumph over the Romans, Charlemagne who only Germans know was really named Karl der Grosse, Friedrich Barbarossa still sleeping in a hillside should his people need him, the great medieval trading houses, Bismarck and so on. In comparison, America has relatively little history: we have greater need of a mythology so maybe that's another reason science fiction has taken a deeper hold?

The reason you describe for the difficult standing of SF and Fantasy in Germany is surely mostly right, but I also think that there are some basic cultural differences at work here. Great Britain's history is, for example, as long and convoluted as German history, but the Brits have always excelled in the phantastic and also humoristic genre, and I think it was Brits who brought the genre to the Americas actually (the most influential American phantastic writers like Poe and Lovecraft were clearly in the Victorian novel tradition).

DVD cover
The Cabinet of Dr.
a way paver
But Germany also has an interesting phantastic tradition, from Gustav Meyrinck to E.T.A. Hoffmann, and in the golden age of German cinema (Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are certainly outstanding examples that paved the way for later films like Star Wars and Psycho) the phantastic genre certainly was a much-visited theme. But I think what followed was a huge crisis through the rise and fall of the Nazi regime, which actually defined itself in a kind of futuristic esthetic (the futurists in Italy easily turned into fascists as well). German artists and intellectuals saw the futuristic ideas of their art lose their innocence – the cute, semi-realistic vision of a space rocket in Lang's Die Frau im Mond became the very real V2 rocket through the same designer, the phantastic machinery of Metropolis metamorphed into the cruel effectiveness of the gas chambers. I think this crisis was the main reason that German literature and cinema nearly totally abandoned the phantastic genre in the years to come – I can only name a small number of German SF films between 1950 and 1980, for example. This crisis was not existent in Hollywood, as the American technology was victorious in the War, and so their was no reason to perceive it as problematic. Interestingly enough the US failures in the Korean and than the Vietnam war brought the "dystopic" SF-film into existence, suddenly even American SF-films became very pessimistic and showed a bleak, undesirable future, at least in the two decades decade between 1960 and 1980.

DVD cover
A "phantastic" film
I think the main reason that SF films fared well in the last decades is the simple fact that with George Lucas' Star Wars there was a simple re-imagining of films as spectacle, which of course goes back to the roots of film as a carnival spectacle. Were it not for the progresses in special effects and computer imagery, the modern phantastic film would have a much lesser standing, in fact "serious" SF films like Gattaca which refuse to succumb to empty imagery, still have it very difficult and are not successful at all, it is mostly the "wham-bang" spectacle that wins big bucks. We can be lucky that there sometimes are subversive efforts like the new Starship Troopers or even the excellent new TV Battlestar Galactica (have you seen it yet? It is truly excellent ...). In a time of social worries and depression fantasy themes also stand for escapism, this is why there was always a big audience for SF and Fantasy films in Germany, there was simply not so much home-grown output. This of course is reflected in the gaming industry, where any SF or Fantasy theme is still regarded as a "killer". Games connected to film licenses like Lord of the Rings fare well, but for new games the publishers discourage the designers to use "hard" SF (Fantasy themes have it easier a bit). Nevertheless one should not forget that "hard" SF has a strange success in Germany with Perry Rhodan, the longest running SF-pulp-series in the world (way beyond issue 2000 at the moment). It is virtually unknown outside of Germany, but it is a household name that everybody knows. Do you know it?

Perry Rhodan was something I read in high school, but unfortunately not since.

But what about
Battlestar Cat-
You raise good points and let's not forget that Star Wars too was inspired by the war in Viet Nam. George Lucas was originally supposed to direct Apocalypse Now, but in the climate of the 1960's he couldn't get funding so he dropped it. Later he distilled what he was trying to say with that film into Star Wars, basically that no matter how great the superpower, it would always be possible for a small, dedicated opposition to stymie and ultimately defeat them. I wonder how many Star Wars fans realize that the Empire stands for United States ... (for more on this see the brilliant The Conversations by Michael Ondaatje)

Also, you talk about the early British science fiction – was there anyone earlier than H.G. Wells? What a coincidence that he was also one of the earliest war games players!

You know, you would think that another reason we'd see a lot of science fiction themes is that there are so many game mechanisms being used that don't fit well with real life. With SF one could simply invent the world circumstances and voila! perfect fit to mechanics! I guess this is merely more evidence of how little German games are really interested in theme. :)

What would the George Lucas
version have been like?
Would we get action figures?
Two last questions: You and your games group seem to play just about all of the new games every year. This year's Essen had more publishers and games than ever! How are you and the Westpark Gamers coping? Are you still going to be able to play just about all of them in the coming year or do you find yourselves becoming somewhat choosy? And what will you do next year which it seems to me will be even bigger yet? (my theory being that as more games get to more countries, more people will be inspired to create new ones)

Finally: do you ever have music playing during your gaming sessions? I often would like to play some classical music, but fear that some wouldn't like it, or might prefer something that I don't like, so I usually end up just not opening that potential can of worms? But maybe you are a person who always likes to have some music on? Or on the other hand maybe it just reminds you too much of work?

You are of course right with your assumption that I DON'T listen to music while playing games (or doing anything at all). Being a musician I simply hate having music in the background, and I also prefer bars and restaurants which don't have any music. The problem is that it doesn't even matter what kind of music is on – if it is bad I can't help but note it and be annoyed; if it is good I'd rather really listen to it instead of doing other things. Having said that, there are exceptions ... for example, some film music (as it was designed to accompany something else) works well with certain games. Although I find the music of Lord of the Rings not at all good, it fits quite well to a game of War of the Ring. And I used some horror film music for special sessions of Call of Cthulhu way back, which was quite effective. But at the Westpark Gamers I don't think it would go over too well.

box cover
Chaosium's Lovecraft-
inspired roleplayer
Yes, Essen has been very different for us this time, because of the immense number of review copies we brought back. And there is an increasing sense of responsibility as many budding game designers or game companies approach us with their games, and of course every review copy wants to be reviewed. And sometimes it is sad if people are nice, but their games don't work and you have to tell it to them somehow, as you don't want to be dishonest with them. But with the responsibility also comes fun, as the professionalism with which we try to approach game criticism also makes us appreciate the inventions in games more. It is a kind of learning process. We still haven't finished all Essen games (and even our bounty pile of games was only a small part of what was published), and there is certainly a certain feeling of "what game have we not covered yet?" at our sessions. The problem I see with the immense flood of new publishing (and I agree that this output will grow exponentially, not necessarily in Germany, but in other countries – Essen has not yet reached its nadir of size, I think!) is that even great games get very little replay, as you struggle to cover as many new games as possible. And just when you're sort of finished with the Essen crop, Nuremberg comes along. I won't go next year, but Peter and Aaron will go, and I'm sure they will bring back lots of games. I think the names of established game designers will become even more important in the future, as of course one has to be more choosy and will probably go with designers one already knows and likes. And this will make it much more difficult for newcomers, a problem that is of course also existent in the world of music, where there is already a lot of great classical music around, and it is difficult to explain to people why there should be always "new" music.

And also one has to be honest enough to say that one playing of a game is not necessarily enough to appreciate it. Oltremare for example was received quite well in our group, because we had a lot of fun in the trading phase, a couple of days later I played the same game with a different group and it suddenly seemed dry and boring. But this is also the advantage of a regular gaming group, that you know the different people so well that you can judge their tastes accordingly. We have the terms "Walter" and "non-Walter"-game for example. Walter hates all games with Fantasy or SF elements – "no orcs or magic!" – and will never give these games good ratings. But knowing that one also knows that this not the game's fault but the taste of a single person, and can also do the review properly because of that. Would I not know Walter in a session I could assume that he hates the fantasy game for other reasons, and this would cloud my judgment somewhat.

But you also play and review a lot of games. 1001 Nights of Games is already legendary in the Internet, and one wonders where you find all the time to do this ... What is your "code of honour" in judging a game? Do you use complicated ratings systems or do you use your gut feeling when writing about games? Has knowing the designer personally ever influenced your judgment? (knowing your sometimes sharp reviews I would assume you usually resist). Have you ever experienced what I describe with a game, that it played totally differently in a certain group, to the point of feeling it was a completely different game?

Yes, clearly I have made a Mephistophelian bargain, though sometimes when a game is bad enough I wonder if Mephisto hasn't started early! But you're really much too kind in your praise ... or rather singular in your opinions!

Anyway, yes, of course I have run into the dilemma that you mention, though I have managed to avoid one problem by not accepting free evaluation copies, which, if anyone doesn't know it, are games that are kept by reviewers that take them. In order to keep the inflow going, these reviewers often tend to simply not review a free game if the comments are not going to be positive. But I think at least some of still need to keep reviewing all of the games otherwise folks don't know if a game without reviews is that way because it's not liked or if it's just because no reviewer has had a chance at it.

I do use a somewhat complicated rating system which is public on the site, but anyone can see that it has room for subjectivity as well. I find this a useful framework, but by now I have used it so often that I usually don't have to go through all of the steps manually, but can feel what the rating should be. But also, as I've written elsewhere, I am more in search of quality than quantity. It's not about a game's Absolute Goodness, but rather what it is, what about it is good (and not so good), and for whom, given that people differ in their ages, experience, personalities and group sizes.

In terms of evaluating games by folks I consider friends, I constantly remind myself that my first duty to the readers. Without them there is little point in writing the review in the first place. The second reminder is that any time I review a game, I am helping it, simply because if nothing else the spotlight gives it more attention. Third, the larger companies have a lot of ways of countering a negative review. They can just throw marketing money behind a game and it really won't matter what I say about it, e.g. most Hasbro games. The very small companies don't have this capability so I try to be more encouraging to them, trying to remember to praise what they have done right and offer constructive criticism about what has gone wrong. Actually I think frank, rational criticism is the best gift one can give a designer because after laboring with a game as long as it takes to publish, the poor inventor is totally clueless about the game's quality. Oh he can tell if it works or not, but just how good it may be – surprisingly – becomes a deep mystery.

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please volley fast
I have certainly had varying experiences with some games depending on the audience. One example is Tichu which we now play constantly – at first we didn't like it at all. We simply didn't understand it. But take a game like Bang! or Strand-Cup. If they're not played with flair and speed, the fun falls out. To avoid this I try to become an expert on the tastes of all the players I know so that by now it really only happens when I am visiting a bunch of players entirely new to me. But if a game plays too differently, unless they didn't understand it, I think it really says more about the game's fragility than the players. All of this is another reason I'm having the reviews talk more and more about who should like a particular game. By the way, this is a problem one rarely sees with a Knizia title and I suspect he takes more care than most that his games do not depend on being played in a certain way.

Well! this interview – nay, conversation – has stretched out through most of the fall and it has already become the new year. I never thought of it before, but these cold months are really ideal for gaming, aren't they? No one wants to be outside anyway and we have so many new games from Essen to try. And should those pale, we can read about the Nuremberg offerings, and dream. With such happy visions, I should like to thank you for this enjoyable "talk" and wish you and all a very Happy New Year of gaming!

"Wow, this was a monster of an interview (or more of a dialogue where the interviewer is suddenly interviewed ... again!). But I certainly was enlightened in the process and learned many new things. We unwittingly created the Advanced Squad Leader of gaming interviews!!! But I think we should just let it stand as the (fascinating) creature that it is.

Back to the gaming table it is, and may (not only) the future of gaming always be bright – it's a tribute to the hobby that one can touch so many subjects while "just" talking about ... gaming."

Links Cited in this Interview:

Spotlight on Games > Interviews