Spotlight on Games > Interviews
Walter Müller designs and plays games in Kempten, Bavaria.

This time you and I have the rare privilege of hearing from one of the true pioneers in this great, modern flowering of board games which we are fortunate enough to be living through. Not only does he discuss the intriguing, sometimes controversial, games he has brought us, but also what it was like in those early days, trying to make it as a game inventor and publisher. I think you won't find anyone who loves games more than Herr Walter Müller. (All links repeated at end.) September 10, 2006

1. Herr Walter Müller, in the world of games you have been a player, a game host, a designer, a publisher, a game store owner and as a father, a teacher of games to children. The excellent website, Luding, is the basis for your biography at right. But when and how were you first captured by the world of games?

At no point was I captured by the world of games. I was always in the world of games. Every child plays happily. Unfortunately at a certain age most people stop playing. I never stopped playing games.

But an important day was the one that I first found Spielbox magazine at a kiosk. Then I knew I was not alone; there were more people who make games and love to play them.

Regarding the 1977 game design competition, this was a participation, not a failure. Yes, I won no prize, but I won a lot of experience. In 1977 I was 18 years old and I was very proud to send three games to this competition. It was an important step in my development as a game designer.

The life and times of Walter Müller, so far
  1. Born in Kempten, later apprentices as a locksmith.
  2. Develops Brettfußball (Strato Football).
  3. Fails to win the ASS game design competition.
  4. Jury awards the first Spiel des Jahres.
  5. The Spielbox games magazine begins publication.
  6. Publishes his first game.
  7. Partners in a game shop.
    Publishes Turmbau zu Babel (Tower of Babylon).
  8. Publishes first version of Entenrallye.
  9. Favoriten on the selection list of Spiel des Jahres
    Deutscher Spielepreis (German Game Award), Rank: 4
  10. Publishes Flußpiraten (River Pirates) together with
    Klaus Zoch. Deutscher Spielepreis (German Game
    Award), Rank: 9
  11. Son Simon born.
    Entenrallye on the selection list of Spiel des Jahres.
    Publishes Sensationen.
  12. Publishes Rette sich wer kann by Ronald Wettering.
  13. Son Jonas born.
  14. Daughter Aliena born.
  15. Publishes Strato Football (English edition of
  16. Publishes Alpenexpress.
    Publishes new edition of Brettfußball.

2. Probably few remember the 1977 ASS Autorenwettbewerb, so would you be willing to tell us something about it? How many entered? Was there a prize? Who won? Were many of the entries later published? Were any of the games that you submitted later published?

At the Autorenwettbewerb of 1977, 125 games were entered. After the end of the competition, I sent a letter with some questions for ASS: What ranking did my games achieve? What in my games was good, what bad? What was the reason my games didn't win? Which games actually won the Autorenwettbewerb? The answers were important for my further work.

Unfortunately I got no answer from ASS! Thus I could not discover which games had won the first three places and which designers had made them. As a prize it had been specified that the winners of the first three places would receive contracts and the games were to be published by ASS. The information policy from ASS in 1977 was very bad!

At the Autorenwettbewerb I had 3 Games: Brettfußball, Expedition zum Nordpol and Slalom. Only Brettfußball was produced.

In the game Expedition zum Nordpol (Expedition to the North Pole), the players had to be the first reach the north pole. At the start of the game, nobody knows where the north-pole lies. Every player had only a part of the information. So in the game the players asked each other for more information. Eventually, it was possible to find the right place. The winner was the player who reached at the north-pole first.

Slalom was a tactical skill game. On a slanting gameboard with many little holes, the players made a slalom course with little banners. The players had to build a ball course with little wooden sticks. The ball must roll around the banners from the start to the finishing point. The winner was the player who required fewest wooden sticks so that the ball could roll around the banners without mistake.

3. It's too bad that the Expedition to the North Pole was not produced as it sounds an interesting topic. Between 1977 and the time you founded WM Spielwerkstatt in 1984, how many games did you invent? What made you finally decide to publish yourself?

I cannot remember all the games I have invented. That is because it is not so clear what is a game and what is only half an idea. Sometimes I start to create a game, but when the first tests prove negative, I stopped.

But I can remember some games: Zugspiel (Traingame), Midora, Forstwirtschaft (Forestry), an abstract game without name. I think it was in 1983 that I invented two games produced in a low number: USO (Unidentified Playing Object) and Schiebung (Sliding). In German the word Schiebung has two meanings: (1) I slide something away, but also (2) swindle.

Here is some info on these games:

Traingame is for only one person. The player had to drive some trains through a railway station with many tracks. In the game there were some timetables. The player had to bring the trains on the right track, to the right time in the station and out of the station. When there was only one mistake, the game was lost. The job was very dificult, because there were many trains and little time, so you needed a little luck, as the trains moved via dice.

Midora was a simple dice game. The players decided whether to throw out an opponent or if to bring themselves in safely.

In the Forestry game, players plant trees, wait some years, cut the trees and bring the logs to the sawmill. If the trees are old, the players get more points at the sawmill, but it is more difficult to transport an old, heavy tree.

In the abstract game, I tried to create a computer game on a game board. One player had to drive three cars on a street without colliding with the other cars.

USO (the name comes from UFO) was a wooden ball with 26 holes and some lines. Two players put white and black sticks in the holes. The winner was the player who had the longest row of sticks. It was difficult to orientate because the players always turn the ball in their hands.

Schiebung had the same mechanism as the later game Verrücktes Labyrinth. At the beginning of the game there was an empty playing field. The players slide round stones from outside on the play area. Every player tried to make a way diagonally across the field of play.

I decided to make my own games after Ravensburger Spiele refused my game Favoriten. At first, when Ravensburger said: "Yes, we produce this game" I was at the end of my dreams; it was wonderful for me, a game from Walter Müller at Ravensburger. Everything was perfect – we had a contract. A few months later came a letter from Ravensburger. They refused the game and they paid 4000,-- DM compensation. The reason of the refusal was funny. All of the game was wonderful, only the design of the game box and the game board were bad. But the design of the game box and the game board were made by Ravensburger. So I said, take the design from Wolfgang Steinmeyer. Ravensburger answered, it is not possible, because the design from Wolfgang Steinmeyer doesn't go with the other Ravensburger designs. So I thought. Now I will produce the game myself because the people from Ravensburger Spiele said, It is a good game. I produced the game Favoriten with the art design of Wolfgang Steinmeyer and the game was on the short list for Game of the Year for 1990.
Favoriten box cover
and components

4. That's a wonderful story! And Favoriten is a game I have played and enjoyed as well. Presumably you brought this game out at the Essen Fair? I believe this was 1989? Could you tell us something about what the famous fair was like in those days? How has it changed?

Yes, it is right. Favoriten came out in autumn 1989 in Essen. This fair was for me like a dream. There were thousands of people who simply played. They wer interested in all of the games at the fair. Everybody asked: Which game must I see, which game is good? If there was a person alone on the fair, he called around: is there anybody who wants to play with me? In a few seconds, there would be a couple of people; they have never seen each other before, and they played, and had fun together.

A high number of exhibitors were inventors, producers and sellers and, of course, players in one person, like me. The games were not as perfect as today, but they were singular. Everybody was proud of his work and the others were no competitors, they had fun together with a great hobby.

Today there are not as many small publishers who stay more than a few years. The games are more professional, but the games are not so singular as in 1990. And the number of new games is higher every year, so it becomes more difficult to discover a really new idea.

The exhibitors have changed too. There are fewer publishers, but more sellers. These sellers could also sell vacuum cleaners. They only want to make a lot of money; the game is not so important. The result is that the sellers have a lot of games and they want to sell them. And the price of the games gets lower and lower, sometimes two or three times every day. The second result you can see from the visitors at the fair. Today they ask: Where can I get this game at the lowest price? Look at stand 37, there is the game for only 9,90."

Of course, the visitors play the games today at the fair too, but many of them only come to get a good prices for Christmas presents. They spend a lot of time finding out the lowest prices so they have less time to test new games. The games of the small publishers are too expensive and if a small publisher tryes to make a low price too, he will be broke in two years. This is a bad development, but it cannot take my courage, my fight goes on!

5. As a designer and a publisher, what do you look for in a good game? Do you have a design philosophy?

This question is easy. Important in a game are only fun and exitement. If I have invented a new game, I bring it to the game evening in my town (We play together every Monday with 15-20 people). Of course, everybody wants to play this new game at once. Next week, I bring this game to the game evening again. I ask again, if someone wants to play this game. If all 20 persons want to play it again, it seems to be a good game, but if only a few people say, "okay, we can do it", it seems to be a bad game. In the third week, I put the game on the table and I say no word about the game. If nobody else wants to play it, it is a bad game and I can throw it in the garbage.

I have no design philosophy. Many of my games have an element, that the players have to work together, if they want to reach the aim of the game (Turmbau zu Babel, Flußpiraten, Favoriten, Rette sich wer kann). But at the end of the game, there is only one winner. Also I try to make simple rules without many exceptions (Strato Football, Favoriten). The rules have to be simple; there have to be many possibilities. I don't like long, large, complicated rule books and I don't like chance cards.
Walter Mueller
Herr Walter Müller

6. Which games did you admire growing up? Which ones do you admire from recent days? Any that might surprise us?

As I was a child, we didn't have many games. I remember a game named Racko from Ravensburger. Each player had to arrange his cards in an row, lowest in front and highest in back. My mother won the most Racko games, but this awakened my ambition to become a better player. I remember in another game (I forget the name and the producer). In this game every player must buy something in several places in a city. Each player comes to the city via a different means: by car, by bus, by bicycle or walking on foot. The game is always won the car driver, because the car was four times faster than the man on the bicycle and six times faster than the walker. The prerequisites were so different that the walker had no chance to win the game. It was clear that the winner will always be the car driver. I asked myself, how is it possible that someone produces such a bad game and sell it?

With my parents and my grandmother and with my aunts, we sometimes played Romé (Rummy, a popular card game in Germany). I was very proud, that I was allowed to play with adults in the evening. We played also Monopoly very often. I wanted to play with my cousin every time. But he always wanted to play only with his quitar. Today his job is to play guitar in a band and I am a game inventor and producer.

Today I like to play Siedler von Catan, El Grande, Zug um Zug. But the best game (besides Strato Football) is PS by Rudolf Ross (Hans im Glück Verlag). It is a car race game that takes about 4 hours and has everything a good game needs: tension 'till the last minute and simple rules. Each player has three cars. Each car has to drive four rounds. The tactik is to drive two cars as quickly as possible and drive the third slowly. When the ast cars are in the second, third or fourth round, try to obstruct them with your slow car. And you decide, wihch player do you want to obstruct.

For me it is the best game by another producer, I have ever played! Sometimes I play easy games as Halali! or Ogallala (both by Rudi Hofmann) or Twixt from Alex Randolph.

7. These games sound interesting. Perhaps one of our readers will be able to tell us the name of the "travel and buy" game. But since you mention your game, Brettfußball, I want to ask you about that. Is it true that you designed and published this game already in 1974, i.e. at age 15? Can you tell us the story? And by the way, which Fussball team holds your allegiance?

Yes, it's true, I made the game Brettfußball in 1974, I was only 15 years old. It was during the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Nearly every afternoon I played socker with my friends and, of course, we watched every match on TV.

One boring day it rained very hard, but I nevertheless wanted to play soccer. But my friends had no joy, understandable during that weather. Well I got me a piece of cardboard, I draw a soccer field, subdivided into little squares. I took 11 white and 11 black figures from our Chess, set to form the two teams. I played with my brother. A ten cent piece was the ball. We had a die. If a playing figure was on the same square as the ball, the player decided whether to kick the ball or move one of his figures in accordance with the result of the die roll (i.e. 1-6 squares).
Strato Football box
Brettfußball (Strato Football)

But if the figure with the ball was attacked by an opposing figure (an attack occurs when a playing figure ends its move on the same square as an opposing figure having possession of the ball) the player is forced, to kick the ball in his turn. If the ball lands on a vacant square, every player has a chance, to get the ball.

The idea and painting of the game board took about 20 minutes. The game worked and we had fun! From the first day 'till today, the rules never changed and today we organize every year a big championship in our town including more than 50 people. Each player has one game per month and the championship begins in January, the finale in December.

On the first day in 1974, we didn't know, how much tactic and strategy were in this game; we discovered the game over many years. But this is the reason why the game stayed interesting for more than 30 years! Nobody can see all the possibilities from the game in only two or three matches. If a guy wants to reach the final round of our championship, he has to practice some years. But note, the rules are so easy that everybody can learn to play the game in one minute.

Since 2005 we have had an English edition named Strato Football After ten years (1984) I produced the first edition of Brettfußball for selling. Before this time, my friends made their own copies themselves. Included in the new 2003 edition is a tactics book, with my experiences from nearly 30 years (only in the German version – an English translation is available on Board Game Geek).

In 1974, as we started our first Brettfußball championship, every one of my friends chose a great soccer team: my brother played Germany, my friends were Poland, Sweden, DDR(!), Netherlands, Brasil, and I was Argentina. And 'till that day I was a great fan from Argentina, so I hope Argentina will win the championship in Germany this year, but very much harder I hope, Argentina will win the Brettfußball championship 2006 in my town!

8. In Sumo magazine, John Webley has written "All Walter Müller games are instantly recognisable owing to their unique art style, once seen, never forgotten." From what I have seen, this appears correct. I was wondering if you could tell us how this came about? Have you always used the same artists? How was "the look" decided upon?

I think it is important for a company, that the sellers can recognize all the games. So, if they like one of the games, they will have a look at a new game in the same design. And it is also important, to have a good and unique design. For example my game Entenrallye. I made this game in 1988 in a ugly box. I thought then that only the rules are important. But nobody wanted to play this game. Only, if I said "Please try it", some people played that game, and everybody wondered, if the game is good. So I produced it again in a beautiful box and the game was on the "Auswahlliste Spiel des Jahres" [game of the year short list] with nearly the same rules as the first edition!

I had found a painter in my town; his name is Wolfgang Steinmeyer. Later he became my really friend and he is the godfather to my son Simon (Today happens to be Simon's 14th birthday). Wolfgang Steinmeyer did the art design for my games Favoriten, Entenrallye, Flußpiraten, Sensationen, and Rette sich wer kann.

Sometimes it was a little bit difficult with Steinmeyer. He is not a player; he is only a very good painter. But in a game we need some spaces, on which figures can stand, some lists or other things. But these lines disturb his painting and he always wants to make them smaller or less conspicuous. But I think in the end we always find a good compromise.

When I make a game with Steinmeyer, I tell him only the theme of the game and the number and the position of the spaces (for example, how many spaces long is the road from the first town to the second town on the game Entenrallye, and how large the space must be so that a a wooden car can be positioned on the space. All the other aspects of the painting are entirely the ideas of Wolfgang Steinmeyer. I think the fewer orders an artist receives, the better the result.

Sometimes, but very seldom, I find some details on a picture that I don't like. Then we speak about it and Steinmeyer changes it, but I like almost all the pictures he creates.

Before I knew Wolfgang Steinmeyer, he had an exhibition of his pictures in Kempten (my hometown). I visited this exhibition and there was a picture named "Pferderennen" (Horse Race). It was a very funny picture. As I drove back home (10 minutes), I thought to myself, horse racing is a good theme for a game. When I reached my house, the idea for the game Favoriten was ready. The next day I called Steinmeyer. I visited him on the same day and we decided that he will paint my game Favoriten. The rest of the story I already told you.

The game Brettfußball was not illustrated by Steinmeyer because he doesn't like soccer and he is not able to paint a picture with a theme he doesn't like.

Half Time: Read Part 2 of this interview here

Links cited in this interview:

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