When I first started this project, I dreamt of interviewing famous board game designers over dinner, pretending to be friends for a day. And there were several names that I wrote down on my grail list, people I knew were unlikely to tolerate my intrusive fanboy conversation, let alone sit with me over a meal. And at the top of this list was the perfecter of worker placement, and creator of the “feed your people” mechanic, Uwe Rosenberg. This master of his craft has created some of the most famous games we know: Agricola, Caverna, Patchwork, A Feast for Odin, Glass Road, Bohnanza…the list goes on and on. I must apologize, because at this point you probably realize that the introduction for this interview is a story in itself.

I wrote Uwe at the very beginning of DiceTowerDish, knowing I would be at Essen Spiel 2019, and to my delight, he wrote back, congenial and interested. It became clear relatively early on that he was not 100% fluent in English, which I thought matched the fact that I was not 100% fluent in German. I asked many times if it was OK to conduct the interview in English, and he was beyond gracious. Everything looked good to go. Fast-forward to Essen, late October, 2019.

At this point I need to introduce Uli, the unsung hero of my Essen trip, and a person whom I now consider a close friend. Uli has helped the Dice Tower in Germany for years, being by far the smartest and friendliest person to have work a booth, as well as a native Deutschlander. Uli volunteered to be translator for the interview, which I think set both my and Uwe’s mind at ease, and without him it would simply not have been possible. It turns out 2 people who consider themselves 80-90% competent in a language can only manage to communicate together about 40% of the time. I know, the math simply does not add up.

So the moment arrives, and all three of us meet at the Lookout Games booth. Uwe informs me that he has almost 30 minutes, and could I please give him the list of questions for the interview. As you hopefully realize at this point, Uwe had not understood the freeform casual focus of this blog [a polite way of saying I never write questions, or really prepare]—probably my own fault for communicating poorly in my host’s second (or third) language. Uli then proceeded to clearly explain to Uwe exactly what it is that I do… And the board game designer I idolized looked understandably terrified. He immediately blurted out that “This is not my type of interview!” I offered to cancel, as he really did not look at all ready for casual interrogation. Just as I am packing away the recorder, Uwe had a calm moment of reflection, and stated “Wait, I am a professional. I can do this.” He offered me the aforementioned 30 minutes to sit in the Essen cafeteria, but no more. You can see much of this transpire during the initial interview. Spoiler alert: we talked for almost 2 hours, and I like to believe he enjoyed himself.

So now on to problem 2. Uwe and I both consider ourselves competent, but not fluent, in each other’s languages. To be fair, Uwe is much better at English than I am at German. So, more often than not, I would ask a question in English, which Uwe would then answer without waiting for Uli to translate. And I would do the same after Uwe spoke in German. And poor Uli was always trying to correct the two of us when we got things wrong. It was not a traditional conversation with a translator; it was more of a 3-way discussion with continual backpedaling and editing. So the interview will appear a little short, since I removed so much that was repeated, and I apologize if this makes the remainder feel choppy or disconnected. But for the most part, this is how it went down, and I would not have changed it for the world. It was so nice chatting with Uwe and my friend Uli, and I hope they had close to as good a time as I did.

And now, without further ado, we enter in media res at the Lookout booth, as Uwe Rosenburg and Uli discuss a previous interview with The Dice Tower.

Uwe: [Remembering a previous Dice Tower interview] with a small guy.

Uwe: [Talking about an old Dice Tower interview] mit so einem kleineren.

NB: Italicized sentences have been translated into English. You can click on the text to see the original German. Uwe tended to bounce between both languages.

Uli: Jason [Levine].

Uwe: Yes, exactly.

Uwe: Ja genau.

Uli: I guess, that was two years ago.

Uli: Vor zwei Jahren glaub ich war das.

Uwe: Last year and two years ago.

Uwe: Letztes Jahr und vor zwei Jahren.

Uli: Two years ago. My friend was holding the camera, because there was something wrong with the camera.

Uli: Vor zwei Jahren. Meine damals bessere Hälfte hatte die Kamera nämlich gehalten, weil mit der Kamera was nicht funktioniert hatte.

Uwe: Really? [Leaving Hall 1, entering Lobby, pointing]  It’s up there. I can recommend that to you for the future.

Uwe:  Echt? [Leaving Hall 1, entering Lobby, pointing] Also da oben. Das kann ich Euch auch für die Zukunft empfehlen.

Uwe is leading us to the Essen Convention Hall cafeteria, an upstairs balcony nook, which completely escaped my notice.

Uwe: There are always a lot of empty tables, surprisingly.

Uwe: Da ist eigentlich immer sehr viel frei, unglaublicherweise.

DTD: Sounds good, if it’s quiet and easy.

Uwe: There is something to eat [pointing to the buffet]. There we can sit [directing to the tables].

DTD: Perfect.

Uli: Is it self service?

Uli: Ist das selbstbedienung da drüben?

Uwe: This, I don’t know. I’ve never been here to eat.

Uwe: Das weiß ich nicht, ich hab hier nie was gegessen.

Uli: Ah, I think it’s self service.

Uwe: Ah, ok, it’s written here. [pointing at a sign that says “self service”]

Uwe: Ach so, da steht’s ja.

DTD: Ah, ok.

And so I head to the upstairs cafeteria with Uwe Rosenberg, one of the biggest rock stars I can think of in board games, and we get, well, cafeteria fare. Uwe passed out the plastic trays to our little group. Not the dining experience I envisioned so many months ago…

Uli: Thanks!

Uli: Danke!

DTD: Thanks!

DTD: Danke!

DTD: I wish I could take you somewhere better!

Uwe: Nice... [smiling]

Uwe: Fein… %{%smiling%}%

Uli: I will just get a salad, I guess.

DTD: Anything you want, it’s on me.

Uwe and Uli got salads and rolls, while I got a currywurst, the talk of the town amongst Americans, while in Germany. And we sat at our Formica table with plastic trays. They thanked me so genuinely for picking up lunch, but honestly I think my taxi that morning was more expensive.

DTD: Thank you so much.

Uwe: No, thank you for your time.

DTD: No, no, no, I know…

Uwe: I think in the mornings I have problems with getting awake. I have the same problem Tuesday.

Uwe had delayed the interview by one day, feeling a little off the day before.

DTD: It’s so busy!

Uwe: Now I feel fine.

DTD: You have probably had so many meetings and so much things going on.

Uwe: And I have here…

DTD: Oh I’m sorry. I feel bad. But I really appreciate you doing the interview. I’ve been a fan of your games for a very long time. All the way back to Bohnanza. One of my favorite games still.

Uwe: We can start with the interview.

DTD: Oh yeah, it’s going [pointing to the recorder on the table], we are just going to talk.

I had shown Uwe the recorder when I started it going, but it’s a crowded convention, things get confused.

Uwe: Oh, it’s going?

DTD: I’m sorry, yes, it’s going. Genau.[exactly].

Uwe: Oh, surprising. [laughs]

Uli, my faithful friend and translator, reminds Uwe gently that the interview has started, if you can even call it an interview. I am just interested in talking, both about games and not. I suspect Uwe thinks I am a gossip columnist, and Uli takes a while to explain what I do.

Uli: [to Corey] You have pictures, right?

DTD: I take a couple of pictures. And so the webpage just has transcribed text from the recording with a couple of pictures and some little comments about the food and little comments about what is going on. And things like that.

DTD: It’s very casual. Has he [Uwe] seen the television show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”?

Uli: We don’t have this one in Germany.

DTD: It’s on Netflix.

Uli: If you know the Netflix show “Comedians getting coffee”

Uli: Ob Du die Netflix Show “Comedians Getting Coffee” kennst?

Uwe: I never saw that. I never watched Netflix.

Uwe: I never saw that. Ich hab Netflix nie gesehen.

DTD: It’s just very casual. I thought it would be fun to find some of the big designers and just go out and have a meal and just talk like we are friends and see what’s going on. Maybe learn a little bit about what’s coming in the future, talk about what it was like for some of the past games. As you can see, I’m not a very formal person. [laughs]

This is the point in the story where it really hit home for Uwe what was actually being proposed. He was ready for a scripted interview, and now this crazy looking old hippie is asking him to go out to eat and discuss life. Once again, I thank all that is good for Uli, who did some great mediation.

Uwe: It’s not quite my kind of interview.

DTD: Oh, I’m sorry, if you are not comfortable with it. I am happy to just feed you and talk. If you don’t want me to put it on the internet, its fine.

Uwe: I would like to have concrete questions to answer. I am not a man who talks just because of talking.

DTD: Oh, OK. Do you want me to turn that off [points to recorder]? We can just eat and visit.

Uwe: I absolutely don’t care. But I don’t stand for triviality. So - if people deal with my interviews, then - Uwe is talking specifically about his work, how an element of a game has been developed, or something like that - and how is the food? People don't expect things like this in an interview with myself. This I…yes…I don’t know if you could adjust to that, so that you are a little bit more tangible.

Uwe: Mir ist das alles egal. Aber ich steh nicht für Belanglosigkeit. Also – Wenn sich Leute mit meinen Interviews beschäftigen, dann – irgendetwas erzählt Uwe konkret über seine Arbeit, wie ein Element aus einem Spiel entstanden ist, oder so was – und wie ist das Essen, das erwartet man bei Interviews mit mir auch gar nicht – Das hab ich… ja… Ich weiß nicht, ob Ihr Euch darauf einstellen könnt, dass wir ein bisschen konkreter werden.

DTD: Let’s do that. Let’s talk about…I’ve always thought about your games in three big categories. Early there were little card games, then there were “feed your worker” games, and now it seems you are in polyomino games. So, I was wondering if this was intentional, and if there’s a fourth phase coming?

Uwe: I got that. Indeed, it all started with card games and it had a, what I call, “parking spot moment.” I was at a parking spot with an editor for a games magazine after board game night and he told me about a new card game in the States, and that they predict that this boom will be over in about 3 years. This is why they [the publishers] are searching for card games after that period of time.

Uwe: Ich hab das so verstanden. Also tatsächlich ist es so, dass es mit den Kartenspielen los ging und das hatte einen “Parkplatz-Moment”. Ich war mit einem Spieleredakteur auf einem Parkplatz nach einem Spieleabend und er hat mir davon erzählt, dass es ein neues Kartenspiel gibt in Amerika und sie rechnen schon damit, dass in 3 Jahren vorbei ist mit diesem Boom. Und darum suchen sie jetzt schon Kartenspiele für die Zeit danach.

Uwe: And the card game was Magic [the Gathering].

DTD: Was that Bohnanza? Not the game we are talking about, but did that inspire Bohnanza?

Uwe: So the card game this guy talked about, was Magic.

Uwe: Also das Kartenspiel, von dem der Mann redete, war Magic.

Uwe: In the first years the American people thought Magic is going 3 years and then is fine. Mistake, OK then.

DTD: And that’s what happened.

Uwe: Yes, that inspired me, to start with card games. And what I guessed back then really came true. 4-5 years later, there were stores in Germany, that had shelves full with card games. We had a card game boom here in Germany round about the year 2000 and I contributed massively to that boom. In these three and a half years I have invented a lot of card games.

Uwe: Ja, das hat mich inspiriert, mit Kartenspielen loszugehen – loszulegen. Also das heißt, es gab eigentlich sonst kaum Kartenspiele und das was ich erahnt hab, ist dann auch wirklich passiert. 4-5 Jahre später gab es in den Läden in Deutschland ein Regal, da waren nur Kartenspiele drin. Wir hatten einen Kartenspiel-Boom um das Jahr 2000 herum hier in Deutschland und da hab ich maßgeblich dazu beigetragen. Ich hab etliche Kartenspiele in diesen dreieinhalb Jahren erfunden.

DTD: Oh, I saw it. And congratulations. Bohnanza is still one of my favorite games. So, Bohnanza, Mamma Mia

Uwe: The surprising thing was, that I have invented around about 200 games, of which I threw a lot away, just a few I was able to finish - watch out - the very first game I did was Nottingham, that was published by Überplay in the States, a publisher that doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of other games followed, but “Bohnanza” was already the second game.

Uwe: The surprising – also das überraschende ist, dass ich vielleicht so 200 Spiele erfunden habe viele davon auch wieder weggeschmissen habe, dass ich wenige auch wirklich fertig gemacht habe – und Achtung – das allererste Spiel, das ich gemacht hab, war am Ende Nottingham, das ist bei Überplay auch erschienen in Amerika – ein Verlag, den es nicht mehr gibt. Und das zweite Spiel, was ich damals erfunden hab’, war Bohnanza. Danach kamen dann etliche andere, aber Bohnanza war bereits das zweite Spiel.

DTD: And is it true that Bohnanza is still your bestselling game?

Uwe: So, first of all you can measure it based on the amount of copies sold and based on the revenue. Ehm…based on the money, added up over all the years, I would say, that “Bohnanza,” “Agricola” and “Patchwork.” OK, “Patchwork” is a little bit behind; these three are way ahead. Based on the amount of sold copies of “Bohnanza” and its family, we are at around 3 million. Of course, no other game is able to come close.

Uwe: Also einmal kann man das ja messen, an der Anzahl Spiele, die verkauft werden und nach dem Geld, was damit eingespielt wird. Ähm… Nach dem Geld, über all die Jahre aufsummiert, würde ich sagen, dass Bohnanza, Agricola und Patchwork – naja Patchwork noch ein bisschen hinterher – die drei sind ganz weit vorne. Von der Anzahl der Spiele sind wir bei Bohnanza plus Familie, also alle Exemplare, bei an die 3 Millionen, da kommt natürlich kein anderes Spiel mit ran.

DTD: And well deserved. It’s a wonderful game. So what inspired you to go from the little card games to a big heavy board game?

Uwe: There was a phase in between. So, I finished university in 1998. Then the question was, if I should take a position as doctoral candidate in statistics. I’ve had a job interview and received the call “you can have the position” and then it got very interesting. I still remember receiving the phone call and getting stomach pain, as I had the feeling, my life is heading in the wrong direction. The special thing with us statisticians was, that there were a lot of open positions. I could afford to wait another 3 years. I would still be able to find a job afterwards. And that is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to check for the next three years, if I could be successful, so that I can become a board game designer. The important thing is, that based on the subject I’ve studied, I could afford to wait for 3 years. I was lucky, that I studied the right thing.

Uwe: Es gab eine Zwischenphase. Alse, es war so, dass ich 1998 mein Studium beendet habe. Und dann ging’s darum, ob ich als, ob ich die Doktorandenstelle in Statistik annehme. Ich hab auch %{%ein%}% Bewerbungsgespräch gehabt und bekam den Anruf, sie können die Stelle haben und dann war das ganz interessant. ich weiß heute noch, wie ich den Anruf bekommen hab und wie ich danach Bauchschmerzen bekommen hab, weil ich jetzt das Gefühl hatte, mein Leben läuft, das geht in eine falsche Richtung und finde, darauf hab ich auch… das besondere bei uns Statistiker ist, dass es sehr viele Jobs gibt. Ich konnte es mir leisten, 3 Jahre zu warten. Ich hab danach immer noch ‘ne Stelle gefunden. Genau das wollte ich machen. Ich wollte drei Jahre kucken, ob ich irgendwie Erfolg habe, damit ich Spieleerfinder werden kann – das kann man jetzt erst mal %{%Übersetzen%}%. Wichtig ist, dass mein Studium mir erlaubt hat, 3 Jahre zu warten. Ich hab das Glück, dass ich das richtige studiert habe.

DTD: And I can see a lot of math and statistics in the mechanisms and how the games work. I have a similar background, so I love it.

Uwe: Yes, OK. Then the next phase came, where I made games the way they are made anyway, ordinary family games, whatsoever…I thought to myself “let’s see, if I can be successful”, and I was as “not successful” as possible.

Uwe: Ja ok. Dann kam die nächste Phase, wo ich Spiele gemacht hab, wie man sie so macht, ganz normale Familienspiele, wie auch immer. Ich dachte mir, jetzt kuck ich mal, ob ich erfolgreich bin. ich war maximal nicht erfolgreich.

Uwe: Not at all. [laughs]

DTD: Really?

Uwe: Not in three years.

Uwe: Not in drei Jahren.

DTD: I have heard a lot of designers tell a similar story, that there were a number of different paths, and they said “If I can do it in…2 years, in 3 years…Ignacy said the same. Friedemann Friese said the same. I find it really interesting that you spend a period of time and say, “I’m going to try it for this, and see what happens.”

Uwe: After that 3 years I had to think about, what to do next. I had a rent of about 120 Deutche Mark, that is about 70 Euro [small apartment]. One day I said to myself, that I want to continue, living my life. I had the “Bohnanza” income, that was very important, without this I would have decided differently. I want to live with just a small income, but live my life and invent and test games. And that continued like that for some time.

Uwe: Nach den 3 Jahren musste ich dann überlegen, was ich jetzt mache. Ich hatte eine Miete von 120DM [Deutsche Mark], das sind… 70 Euro. Und ich hab irgendwann gesagt, ich möchte mein Leben weiter leben. Ich hab die Bohnanza Einnahmen, die sehr wichtig waren, sonst hätte ich mich nicht so entschieden. Und ich will einfach mit wenig Geld leben, hauptsache ich kann mein Leben leben und Spiele erfinden und testen. Das ging dann ein bisschen so weiter.

Uli and Uwe break in a side discussion, as Uli is absolutely flabbergasted at how cheap the rent was. 120DM [a currency obsolete in the year 2000] is the current equivalent of $67 US.

Uwe: I decided against family and childs. [laughs]

DTD: I understand. There are quite a few designers—and I was just talking about this yesterday—that had an early game that does very well. And that provides income. And then they decide, “I can do anything now. And I want to try more risky games, and more experimental games. Because I have this one that will give income. But now I can try other things.” Do you think you were there with Bohnanza?

Uwe: Yes, so “Bohnanza” was the game that gave me the income, that is right, but besides that, I made a mistake. I tried to invent games like everyone else designed, because I wanted to become an ordinary game designer.

Uwe: Ja, also Bohnanza war das Spiel, das mir das Einkommen gegeben hat, das ist richtig, aber danach hab ich was falsch gemacht. Ich hab Spiele versucht zu erfinden, wie sie jeder erfindet, weil ich ein ganz herkömmlicher Spieleerfinder werden wollte.

Uwe: It was a mistake.

DTD: When did that change? Which game was no longer ordinary?

Uwe: Agricola was the [most] important. The first game that comes was Antiquity. 2004 or 2005. I love this game, and I made The Gates of Loyang after that. And then Essen 2005 comes, and on this show Caylus was our neighbor booth. And this was my favorite game of all. I played this game every evening for 2 weeks. And in these 2 weeks, I designed Agricola.

DTD: And Caylus was so different.

Caylus, by designer William Attia is generally considered the first worker placement game.

Uwe: I designed the ideas of Agricola. And after the idea of the game in November… So in November I sat down and played very intensively for a whole week. Till that moment I only had invented the idea so far. And for a whole week I only played the first 4 rounds of Agricola. That was in November, directly after the fair. Only the first 4 rounds. That is the special thing about it.

Uwe: I designed the ideas of Agricola. And after the idea of the game in November… Also im November hab ich mich hingesetzt und eine Woche lang intensiv gespielt. bis dahin hab ich nur die Ideen entworfen. Und ich hab eine Woche lang nur die ersten 4 Runden gespielt.

DTD: Wow.

Uwe: 12 hours a day. It was the whole week. Only these 4 rounds.

Uwe: After the first 4 rounds were operating well, I designed the rest. That went rather quick, and in December I had my first real game. What I changed quite a few times then were the final 3 rounds, because I wanted to adjust these exactly. “OK, what is missing, to get a nice farm at the end?” Then I was adjusting things over and over again, until I had the nice matching fields. It’s not that I have selected this from the beginning. It’s just that I had a closer look, to find out, what is missing for the final 3 rounds. That took a while. As far as I remember I was more or less done in February/March, so that barely anything had to be changed after that.

Uwe: als die 4 Runden dann gut funktioniert haben, hab ich den Rest erfunden, das ging dann ziemlich schnell und im Dezember hatte ich meine erste richtige Partie. Was ich dann noch öfter geändert hab, waren die letzten 3 Runden, weil ich die genau anpassen wollte. “Ja was fehlt denn noch, damit man nen schönen Bauernhof hat?” Dann hab ich immer wieder was geändert, bis ich die schönen passenden Felder habe. Ich hab’s mir auf keinen Fall vorher ausgesucht. Ich hab wirklich einfach nur gekuckt, was fehlt noch die letzten 3 Runden. Das hat ein bisschen gedauert. Und ich denke im Februar/März war ich so weit fertig, dass kaum noch was dazu kam.

Uwe: After all that, I created cards and cards and cards. I play tested it for 2 years, and I thought [about] nothing else, because I only want to play Agricola.

DTD: It’s a wonderful game. And certainly after Agricola, you had the freedom to make any kind of game you wanted. I am assuming Agricola did well from the very beginning.

Uwe: Yes, that is right. But I’m not interested in doing what I want to do, but I want to make a good game, that a lot of people like. I don’t want to do experiments. With the start of a game I already want to know what I’m doing. There should be a “gaming impulse” I trigger, where I can be sure that it is good from the beginning. I have got a solid base, then the theme gets added, and then the rest gets attached. I don’t do experiments. What I also like to do is declinate through. I’ve got an idea that works well. How can I adjust that? I make some changes and then I design quite similar games a few more times.

Uwe: Ja, das ist richtig. Aber ich bin gar nicht daran interessiert, machen zu können, was ich will, sondern ich möchte ein gutes Spiel machen, was vielen gefällt. Da will ich nicht zum experimentieren. Ich will mit dem Einstand in das Spiel bereits wissen, was ich da tue. Das soll ein Spiele-Reiz sein, den ich da auslöse, wo ich mir sicher bin, das ist erst mal gut. Da hab ich ‘ne gute Basis, dann kommt das Thema und dann wird der Rest zugefüttert. Ich experimentiere in dem Sinne eigentlich nicht rum. Was ich auch gerne mache ist, dass ich dann durch dekliniere. Ich hab eine Idee, die gut funktioniert. Wie kann ich sie variieren? Mach sie anders und dann mach ich in etwas das gleiche Spiel öfter.

Uli: Just to make sure, that I got things right: It’s not in your focus to do things [games], you really want to do, it’s more that you imagine what would other people make happy.

Uli: Nur, dass ich den Anfang richtig verstanden habe, das heißt für Dich ist gar nicht so im Fokus, dass Du das machst, das Du willst, sondern dass Du glaubst, womit mach ich die Leute glücklich.

Uwe: Yes, this is correct. And when I have invented something, that works well, I’m continuing working on it, so that I can explain in detail, how and why it is working, at the end. I can do a theoretical speech about worker placement, what has an impact on what… because I have done so much with that [mechanism]. Other designers are kind of like, “I have done this game, now I want to design something totally different, I want to surprise my fans”. And that is not me.

Uwe: Ja, das ist richtig. Und wenn ich schonmal was entdeckt hab, was gut funktioniert, arbeite ich daran weiter, um am Ende dann auch erklären zu können, wie es genau funktioniert. Ich kann mich auch theoretisch über Worker Placement reden, was was bewirkt, eben weil ich da viel mit gemacht hab. Und andere Autoren sind ja eher so, ich hab schon mal das Spiel, jetzt will ich was ganz anderes erfinden, ich möchte meine Fans überraschen. Und das bin ich nicht.

Uwe: And when I find something that works, then I look after other things that work in this way.

DTD: And I can see that, because I have really looked hard at all of the games during that period. And they all seem to evolve off of each other. Glass Road is a little more of a shorter, family building game, whereas Le Havre is more strategic. And Ora et Labora is very mathematical and statistical, and has so many more pieces. But they are all pieces of the same thing.

Uwe: To “Glass Road” I have to say, that I have designed it that big as well, but Kosmos wanted to have the game, and Kosmos wanted to have the game less heavy. That’s why I made it a little more simplified. And then the editor changed and Kosmos was not interested in it anymore.

Uwe: Zur Glasstraße muss ich sagen, dass ich das auch so groß erfunden hab’, aber dass Kosmos das Spiel haben will und dass Kosmos wollte und Kosmos hat das Spiel einfacher haben wollen. Deswegen hab ich’s einfacher gemacht. Und dann ist der Redakteur gewechselt und Kosmos hatte kein Interesse mehr.

DTD: That’s my favorite, Glass Road.

Uwe: And the man was Stefan Stadler. After that, at Lookout Games and now Pegasus [Spiele] he’s working.

In the next installment, Uwe and I discuss the evolution into all those polyomino games – reasons, direction and what may be coming next.

%d bloggers like this: