Please indulge a bit longer introduction than is my norm; Your narrator is currently wandering the streets of Essen, Germany with Friedemann Friese, designer extraordinaire, both eccentric and viridescent. Friedemann has over 100 designs to his credit, including multi award-winner Power Grid. Friedemann was kind enough to indulge my amateurish style of interview in English, which is not his native tongue, so you may note some odd word choices in the transcript. I tried to keep Friedemann’s words true, while holding their meaning, and I think this gives the interview character, but can honestly get a bit weird at times.
The main characters of this absurdist comedy are currently in search of a restaurant, where I made reservations, but to which neither of us know the directions. Joy.
DTD: Huh, I didn’t know. [staring at phone]
FF: If you come back over there, it’s like, yeah, you normally have it everywhere. Always some mobile Wi-Fi.
At this point, I am lamenting that I have no Wi-Fi of any sort in Europe. My map on my cell phone doesn’t work reliably.
DTD: I think it’s over there [pointing down the street]. But what is it? Jahnstrasse? It [the street] has got 2 names.
FF: Is it Florastrasse? No, we go one more.
DTD: No, I think it’s one more. Joseph-Lenne-strasse. So, how far did you have to come?
Play along at home! Look up the map for Essen, next to the Messe convention center!
FF: From Bremen. Actually 3 hours drive.
DTD: I spent the last week in Hamburg, in Harburg [a suburb]. I have friends who work in Chess – Schach [German for “Chess”]. So, let me tell you a little about myself. I’ve heard that you were, a math student. You studied math?
DTD: I was in biology, science, computers. I’ve done a little of everything. Did you want to hear a math joke?
FF: Why not?
DTD: Would you like to hear a Fibonacci joke?
FF: Yes, good.
DTD: Okay. It’s better than the last two combined.
FF: [laughs] good.
DTD: [laughs] That’s my only terrible joke.
FF: The other thing is, Schroedinger’s cat?
FF: Maybe I know [a joke] or not. [laughs] Maybe I know a joke. It’s just the same.
DTD: I love it. [laughs] Now that’s a good one.
FF: Great. Yeah.
DTD: Now I follow a lot of math, I like the podcasts on it. I’m one of those strange people. Got excited when Fermat’s was proven and tried to read it.
FF: Yeah, there’s a loaded-
DTD: I was there yesterday with the Dice Tower [pointing at Sa Rang Bang Korean restaurant].
It’s like a scavenger hunt! Where on the map are they now? Look – there’s Carmen!
FF: The joke about the neutron not going to the party because it was only for loaded guests.
DTD: [laughs] That’s pretty good. The grumpy electron goes to the party, gets kicked out for being too negative.
FF: Oh, yeah, good.
DTD: And I’m sure in translation, all the jokes get changed.
FF: [laughter] Yeah.
DTD: So now you’re designing full time?
DTD: Perfect, that’s getting pretty rare. Even Matt Leacock said it’s only recently he started designing full time.
FF: Okay. Yes, I think my problem is that if – there’re a lot of people thinking they could earn a minimum of whatever PhD income is, to get full paid. I always said, “Okay, if I have a job, maybe I’d choose, like, a cashier, or maybe a clerk or something. I’ll still make a living out of it, and the job is much better than, whatever, trash man or something like that.” I always say, this is first saying, “Look, if you can make a living out of it, I think there’s a line we have to draw.”
DTD: It’s right around here-
DTD: So let us look at mine [cell phone]. Do you see Tatort Essen? It says to keep going that way. [pointing]
We are standing at what appears to be the end of the street, a T intersection. But everything digital suggests that our goal lies straight through the T. Confusion ensues.
For those playing at home, this is the intersection of Joseph-Lenne-Strasse and Alfredstrasse.
DTD: [laughs] I don’t know how we do that.
FF: You know what the “B” stands for in Benoit B. Mandelbrot?
DTD: Benoit, wasn’t it?
FF: Benoit B. Mandelbrot, what the “B” is for? No way, it’s for Benoit B. Mandelbrot.
DTD: [laughs] Now, I have a follow-up question. What is the “B” for?
FF: For Benoit B. Mandelbrot. [laughs].
DTD: Oh, right, Benoit B. Mandelbrot. But what about the “B”? [laughter]
FF: I tell you what – good pictures.
DTD: Oh, I love them.
FF: I’ve just remembered them.
DTD: I was raised by geeks. My father is one of the people who ‘created’ the internet way back when. You know UNIX?
DTD: He did that. In the 1960s.
DTD: So, it’s been nothing but geeks and bad jokes for 50 years.
FF: Yeah, that’s okay. [laughs]
DTD: But now he likes game theory and games.
FF: Game theory is great.
FF: For geeks. [laughs].
DTD: Yeah. Unfortunately, he likes Chess best.
DTD: I’m not good at it at all.
FF: [laughs] My problem is I do not like it for what it is, because I do not like to make long – what I’m not liking about these kinds of games is you have to think about every possible move, and find out the best one.
FF: I like games where I get a bunch of decisions and where I choose which of the decisions is the right. And not which is – Because if I look for the best move, then I might find it, if I take enough time, and this is not gaming for me because gaming for me is making decisions. Yeah, to say, “Okay, this is a risky turn, this is a more stable turn I can make, so do I want to make a risky turn this time or not?”Or, “Do I believe that this player will do that next turn, then I can make this.” If he’s not doing that [laughs] or if he oversees that rule, fine, I’m fine with that. I can make this turn – this move, yeah, and it will not kill me. But if he sees that, I should not do that. So before I make that, I want to play with the other players.
DTD: Some people say that you’ve made games like that. I think if you play games long enough, the same game over and over, it turns into this.
FF: Yes, I know chess is a game of psychological, yeah.
DTD: This game of thinking so much ahead. So, I mean, Power Grid is there.
FF: Is it here? [pointing down street]
DTD: People who are good at – Is it?
FF: I don’t know. I cannot read that.
DTD: Oh, yes.
The waiter is practically meeting us at the door. Kind, professional, sympathetic. He rapidly takes these lost, weary travels into the land of milk and honey.
DTD: Hello, reservation for Corey.
Waiter: Yes, for two persons?
Waiter: You may sit here. Okay, yeah? Or even at the big table.
DTD: [laughs] This sounds great. Yep, are you good on that side [of the table]?
FF: I like to be [points and makes funny sound] at the…
DTD: Back to the wall in case you’re attacked?
FF: Oh, yeah.
FF: I don’t know what it is.
DTD: No, I know – I know a lot of people like that.
FF: I’m matching that mood. [laughs]
DTD: That’s okay.
FF: It’s a – it’s a nice restaurant.
DTD: Yeah, I like it. So when did you start making games? Have you always done it ever since you were a child?
FF: Yeah, I guess so.
DTD: Probably forever.
FF: Yeah, just impossible to say when it starts. I think someday it starts that I like games then I played games, and then it – I always changed games, kind of.
DTD: Ones that you played already, you changed the rules?
FF: I think everybody who makes games always made a rule saying where you have to present cards, or something like that.
DTD: Yeah, I’ve heard it a lot.
FF: I think I made it, but it was more or less that I started.
Waiter: Oh, this is corporate color!
FF: Yeah, corporate color, yeah. [laughter] This is fun.
The waiter had seated Friedemann in a small nook with a green jungle painted background. I have to admit, he looked great; I couldn’t have staged it better. Friedemann and the waiter had a great animated talk entirely in German, which went almost entirely over my head. I understood just enough German to be 80% sure they were not talking about me. Much.
Waiter: A lot of greens in the jungle.
FF: Yeah, I love it.
Waiter: Okay, so what we have, today is – we have, this is for business lunch. I would like to offer this is a two-course meal with water and coffee included. And today we have ricotta stuffed raviolis with spinach as a starter dish, as an appetizer. The main, you may choose the plain monkfish with saffron risotto or cheek of, a braised ox cheeks with the risotto made of tomato.
I mean it, WOW. This restaurant was getting better and better. I need to thank my friend Uli, who went far above and beyond, setting up reservations for me, and making everything in Germany “unglaublich ausgezeichtnit.” Uli was absolutely indispensible for the Dice Tower in Germany, and I will likely thank him many times to come.
FF: Good, hmm? Yeah? Are you gonna take that?
DTD: Yeah, sounds good.
FF: Yes? Sounds good?
Waiter: So what would you like to have? Fish or meat?
There’s no fooling around here. The menu is read, you pick now. I’m glad Friedemann jumped in first.
Waiter: Okay. What may I serve to drink? Water?
DTD: I prefer water.
FF: I’m happy with water too, yeah.
Waiter: Sparkling, non-sparkling?
DTD: Yes, still. Thank you. That’s nice. That sounds pretty good.
Not trying to be impatient or rude – “still” is the German/European term for “non-carbonated.”
DTD: So was there a certain point where you decided, “Yeah, this is what I’m going to do. I am now a board game designer.”
FF: I was just like, it started and I have cousins from, who were in Göttingen, and they know something with these old Göttingham area because one is this very famous game designer from Göttingham and we had this German design-
DTD: Okay, you had a mentor? Or you knew somebody-
FF: No, no, not me. They were in that city and had contacts with games he made. So I did not know them, but therefore, I got ideas of new games and we designed just games for us in those days.
DTD: It’s always fun.
FF: I don’t know if there are any existing somewhere, I don’t know.
DTD: Somebody has them saved. Selling on eBay.
FF: I don’t know. Yeah. And someday maybe, after my death maybe. [laughing]
DTD: Well, they always get more valuable.
FF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And they’re waiting. [laughter]
FF: And then I started in school. I think I was 16 or so. And I decided to make a board game. Really to make a board game, and I had a classmate who’s very good in art design and he asked me for-
DTD: Yeah. Was this the counterfeit money game?
FF: No, no, no, no. Just early on.
DTD: Before that?
FF: Just before that, and was just kind of, Pick-up-and-Deliver stuff. Game was heavily themed, and you have travel around. I mean, it’s – and, surprisingly, from this game, first one that really I said, “I made a game.” And it’s the Easter holidays, I only work on that. So, it was just mine. And this started and it never got published, but it was the idea to make a game.
FF: And this was the first time I really wanted to. And then surprisingly, this game came out later as, similar other ideas added, and streamlined as the Fische Fluppen Frikadellen game. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Fische Fluppen Frikadellen game?
FF: It was kind of- this was the first thing I have-
DTD: It was your first implementation?
FF: And, then after that, I had – I started studying. Played a lot of games, that’s why I – in the evening, you got to know Civilization, kind of other games.
DTD: He just passed. Just a day or two ago. Francis Tresham.
FF: I know. I know this.
DTD: So, that was – I just read that.
DTD: Oh, nice.
FF: I just designed little ideas, and these are somewhere.
DTD: How fun.
FF: I don’t know. I don’t even know the rules, because it was before the, whatever, computer data stuff, where everything goes out and no data anymore for that. I just made once and gave it away. And there was one of these games was Landlord!. And then I went to Essen for some 91, and I’ve seen people with – yeah, it was just a table, and a handmade game and I said, “Okay. If they do it, why not me?”
DTD: Yeah. I’ve heard other people talk about the early days.
The waiter, one of the most efficient I have ever seen, returned with warm homemade wheat flour herb bread, and a delightful smoked red pepper and yogurt cream. I love this place. I am never leaving.
DTD: Wow, I like this place already.
FF: Then I decided to think of making my own game. It’s because I wanted always…so just-
DTD: I’m going to be mean and take a picture.
At this point, my friend and editor continually ridicules me for continually saying “I am mean” before I take pictures. I guess it is hard wired into my brain.
FF: Yeah? [laughs]
DTD: I need to prove it really happened. You could just call up and say, “No, he made it all up. I’m gonna sue him now.” Wow, this bread is just great. So, I’m sorry, I interrupted. You made birthday presents, and those ideas-
FF: Yeah, I did this Landlord! thing, and with these ideas. Or had this idea. And then I wanted to make this, and then I was thinking about, thinking about, thinking about, then I got back to the idea to go to Essen, and it was after the closed registrations I said, “Okay, maybe hmm, I can call them if it’s still possible to get a booth.” I said, “Okay, if I get the booth then, then I have to be a game designer and I have to make it.” [laughter] And they gave me the booth. And I said, “Okay, now I have to make the game.” So I made the Landlord!
DTD: So you – that’s cheating a little bit. But, honestly, I’ve heard a similar story from Ignacy. [laughs] About selling games before they were made, and getting booths before there was something to show.
FF: Okay, no. That was not really the way, but it was just like, “I have this game, and I really like the game and I want to make it.”
DTD: Oh, that’s great.
FF: We cut it down from 250 cards, down to 96, so yeah. And made a product. It was the first time I was in that challenge to make a product out of a game. Which is a different thing.
DTD: Of course, I’ve heard a lot of people say that early designers will add more and more and more to their game, and late designers will take away more and more from their game. So it’s that learning process of how to do it.
FF: I don’t know. I think it’s really learning process or it’s just, I don’t know. It’s just like, just saying, it’s a lot of early design – Landlord! was a very good game. And I think by now I would not design a game like this again, because, yeah, I’ve changed.
DTD: I’ve wondered a lot. I read a lot of books, especially science fiction. And a lot of times, the author’s very first book is strange and different and exploratory. And then they get into their groove. They get into the standard.
DTD: Do you think board game designers are like that too? Their first game is crazy and wild and different? And they would never do it again?
FF: They’re just designers, so why not? I think so, yeah. I really do think so. Just like by now I have an idea in my head and maybe, “Oh, make a game of it. Oh no, it will not work,” and maybe, in the older days I would have said, “Oh, no. I could maybe make a game out of it. And it could work.”
DTD: But you’ve made a lot of games so far. It’s like, I tried to do my homework and I was reviewing all the older games that I don’t know and, there are too many. You’re too good. [laughter]
Stay tuned for next time, when we discuss creativity and the infamous “Friday Project” in the early 2000’s, as well as designing Power Grid, and all things 2F.