Another day, another designer. I am lucky enough to have convinced Andreas Odendahl, better known as “ode.” to have a socially distanced meal over virtual networks. Separated by 5500 mi/8850 km (technically, I am closer to Tokyo than to Germany), Ode is having a late dinner while I have breakfast. Ode is the designer of euro classics La Granja and Cooper Island, but also has a significant history in the industry, with a long list of impressive developer credits to his name. Additionally, I am a huge fan of Ode’s games, so please excuse the fact that I am giggling like a groupie. Like all great interviews, we start with coffee and goats.
DTD: Hello, Ode! Can you hear me?
Ode: Hi, yes, I can. Sorry, just a sec.
DTD: Oh, no worries. No worries at all.
Ode: Hi, I just wanted to enter so you know I will be here, but I need to go and just do a little something. To let my goat out in the garden so she can eat.
DTD: I think “Let your goat out in the garden” is the greatest excuse I have ever heard. So, that’s fine. [laughing]
Ode: Yeah. Just a sec.
It is at this moment, that I am proud to say I allow significant pause for a goat. a metaphorical caprine comma, so to speak. An ungulate unwinding.
I am really impressed by the goats.
Ode: I just saw that my wife already did it. OK, so we’re good. Just let me. Plug in my … headset.
DTD: Yeah, no worries.
Ode: Can you hear me?
DTD: Yeah, I can hear you fine. And it’s great to finally be able to meet you face to face, so to speak.
Monitor to monitor.
Ode: Sorry, sorry. I was adjusting my headset so I couldn’t hear you.
DTD: Oh, that’s fine. I was saying it’s great to finally meet you face to face, or as close as we can get in times like this.
Ode: OK, it’s not only times like this is. It’s also the distance, I guess.
DTD: Yeah, well, I had plans to go to Germany more often. I went to Essen, the last Essen . Had a fantastic time. That’s where I picked up Cooper Island, I picked it up at Essen and it was one of my top picks from the show.
Ode: Thank you.
DTD: Had a great time. I was planning on going to Essen every year and maybe in between. I just love it out there. I lived in Germany for a little while when I was a teenager.
Ode: You did?
DTD: Just haven’t been back in a very long time. Up in Hamburg.
Ode: OK. I have to admit that I have never been to America.
DTD: You should come sometime! If you end up on the California coast, you need to let me know and we will find places for you to stay and things for you to do.
Ode: Where do you live exactly?
DTD: By Napa Valley.
Ode: Oh yeah, right, right. Well.
DTD: Up in, it’s called Northern California, but if you look at the map of California, it looks like its right in the middle.
Ode: It’s this famous wine country, right?
DTD: It is. There’s a lot of good wine stuff around here.
Ode: Yeah, I heard. And also, there’s a…I don’t know if you saw The Mentalist, this TV show.
DTD: You know, I heard about it. I think I’ve only seen one episode.
Ode: The big bad killer in this is from Napa Valley.
I am certainly not Red John.
DTD: That’s right. You told me that. My wife watched all of The Mentalist. I only caught pieces of it here and there.
Ode: I like it very much. I’ve seen it three or four times already, but always just when I need something that doesn’t bug me too much and I don’t need to invest too much into what I’m watching, then I’ll put on The Mentalist.
DTD: Something in the background.
Ode: Yeah, right?
DTD: Oh, I understand totally. So again, thank you for doing this. I know it’s a little bit of a hassle to chunk out a piece of time. But we will see what happens. This is still experimental to see if I can actually have a meal with somebody over the internet.
The clear answer is “kinda”.
Ode: Yeah, well thank you for asking me. I’m happy to do it. I’m really looking forward to it.
Ode: Oh, thank you. So sweet.
DTD: No worries. So how did you get started in doing all the board game stuff? This is a relatively recent thing for you, isn’t it?
Ode: Oh, um. You mean like, when did I start playing, or when they start designing?
DTD: Well, when did you start designing?
Ode: Are you already recording this?
DTD: Oh yeah. I apologize.
The main detriment to doing a very casual interview is that almost no one knows they are being interviewed. Awkward.
Ode: Oh, OK, so I was just wondering, because you said you’re new to Zoom?
DTD: Relatively. I’m not recording it with Zoom. I’m doing an audio-only recording, and I’m doing some pictures, every once in a while, with OBS.
Ode: Oh, OK. OK, yeah, I just wanted to say, because I got familiar with Zoom a little bit, and if you don’t have a premium account it’s only 45 minutes that we can enjoy this meeting.
DTD: Except if it’s a one-on-one meeting. If it’s only 2 people, then you can go a long time.
Ode: OK, so you know better than I do. OK, back to your question.
DTD: I ran into that one the hard way.
Ode: [laughs] OK, I started. I am exactly, I don’t know when this all started. I guess it was 2007 or 8 or something like this, when I had the first few ideas of, um, my own board games maybe, or some ideas that came into my mind. Yeah, I remember that I met Uwe Rosenberg.
Uwe Rosenberg is often considered the father of euro games, certainly the overlord of farm building and “feed your people” games. He is the designer of hundreds of games, including Agricola, Caverna, A Feast for Odin and many more. Someone should interview him sometime.
DTD: Oh, cool.
Ode: During his development of At the Gates of Loyang.
Ode: Back then I was writing for a blog, a board game blog that was doing interviews and articles in Polish and German, so that there was another guy, and he was a Polish guy who lived in Germany. And he started a blog writing in both languages. And he asked me to join in, and I was happy to do so. And yeah, when we started this, I thought, let’s ask Uwe, because he’s not living so far away from here, and back then he was going from gamer’s gathering to gamer’s gathering to playtest his games. Especially with Le Havre, he was… It was also almost like he did a tour with the game. He was all over Germany, wherever players would meet together and play games, he would be there and to introduce his prototype. And I missed this! Because we have a gathering here, in my hometown, and I wasn’t there when he introduced Le Havre to the people. And I was such a huge fan of Agricola, and so it was a little bit…yeah, I was sad about missing the opportunity to meet him, so I sent him an e-mail. Wanted to interview him for this blog and I asked him if he could meet. And we met at another gathering before our estimated interview day, so I learned him, while playing…I got to know him while playing Loyang, and then he said “OK, let’s meet on the interview date”, and when we met, he didn’t want to talk at me, to talk to me. He wanted to start playtesting first.
Ode: So, he brought a two-player game of his, a small game, and he wanted to, well, he wanted to get to know me by playtesting with me.
DTD: By playing a game with you. That’s kind of scary.
“If you would read a man’s disposition, see him game, you will then learn more of him in one hour, than in seven years conversation.” -The Very Reverend Richard Lingard, 1696
Thank you kindly, research department.
Ode: Yeah, right, and this this game later, way later, became Hengist. It’s a small two player game published by Lookout Games and, yeah, that’s when I met Uwe. And he also introduced me to Loyang and asked me if I wanted to play test the solo variant, because he knew that I was into solo gaming back then. I played Agricola and Le Havre against like this, because my day job is having very long shifts, so I had 18 hours or 24 hours shifts.
Hengist has the dubious distinction of being the lowest ranked (#19,593) of Uwe Rosenberg’s ranked games on BGG.
Ode: And after two days in a week, I was basically done with my whole working week. So, I had much free time on my hands at times when no other people had time to play. So, that left me looking for games, playing solitaire. And back then, it was most of the time Uwe’s games, because they had a solo variant and that was something special back then.
DTD: Yeah, it’s so much more common now.
Ode: Yeah it is. And I think it’s part of his doing, that it’s become so popular. But yeah, so he asked me to playtest Loyang, but only the solo variant, because the rest of the game was final. And I had contact with the publisher back then. Because he, I gave him the feedback about new playtesting. I played the game maybe 15 times back then, and I was named in the rules after it was published as, what was it…? “Expert for the solo game” or something like this?
DTD: [laughing] You need to put it on your business card.
Ode: And after that, I asked the publisher if I could explain the game in Essen, at the booth of H@ll Games, and he agreed. So, this was actually the first game where I got in touch with the business, if you would say so. And on this booth, explaining Loyang I met Mike. Mike Keller. Whom I started to talk to about our own gaming ideas. So, he was starting to think about gaming ideas, and me as well. So, we started to talk. And Mike is from Switzerland and we met in Essen, and I’m from Northern Germany so there was some distance between us, about 600 or 700 kilometers [about 370-440 miles]. And so, we started this online sharing about gaming ideas, and so on. And this is when we thought of La Granja and Solarius Mission.
DTD: That’s awesome.
Ode: So, from this friendship we developed two games. And yeah, this is the whole story how I started designing games because after this initial meeting with Uwe, we became friends, and we started playtesting together all the time. So, we had a monthly meet, where we met, just the two of us in a cafe somewhere, just playtesting and playtesting and playtesting, over and over again.
DTD: That’s fantastic!
Ode: After our playtesting, we [Uwe Rosenberg and Ode] normally took a walk through the city where we were meeting, because I was always meeting him halfway to his home. So, it’s maybe half an hour away from me, and half an hour away from him, because we live roughly an hour away from each other. And on the one of those talks he told me what was very important to me, because he said “There’s so many people out there having ideas of what may be, could be a board game. But most of the people are just fantasizing about it. and the difference is, if you want your game to become a reality, you have to start and really do it, you just don’t walk your dogs, and have fantasies about becoming a board game designer, and having ideas. You have to sit down, and you have to make the game, and you have to play test it. And if you don’t do this, you can always run around fantasizing about your own games and having a fantasy about your name being on the box, but that won’t become true, because you need to do this step: sit your ass down and finally make the game.
DTD: Yeah, a lot of designers I talk to have talked about that moment where they finally put it on paper, put it on cards. And play test it.
Ode: Yeah, right.
DTD: [I sip my coffee]
Ode: Oh yes! I’m having a double espresso as well!
Ode is a self-professed worshipper of the arabica bean. A fellow java jockey.
DTD: Wonderful. I actually, I just love this glass. It’s a thermos glass, keeps it hot.
Ode: It’s beautiful.
DTD: But I also brought myself a cup of steamed milk so I can have a nice little cappuccino. I cheated.
Ode: OK. Oh, it’s fine.
DTD: So, has Uwe been playtesting your ideas when you come up with them?
Ode: Well, to be frank, it was only a few times, because most of the time when we met, we play tested his stuff, and that’s basically the hierarchy between the two of us. So, he was the well-known, famous designer, and I was a Fanboy, and we became friends, but it’s always stayed…he was a senior in this relationship of two designers, and normally we would playtest his stuff. So, I was one of the first play testers of Fields of Arle, the Agricola two-player game.
DTD: Yes, I love Fields of Arle!
Ode: Yes, yes. Very much. And this Glass Road game.
Ode: That got published from…I’m normally, I was normally the first one to play them. And also, oh yes, A Feast for Odin. I was at his home playing this, when it was the first time he introduced it to someone, someone else, then just himself. So, he…normally he is playtesting his games over and over and over and over again.
And A Feast for Odin is the highest ranking Uwe Rosenberg game on BGG at #22.
DTD: Oh yeah, he is a machine.
Ode: Yes, but only by himself, only by himself. He’s only playtesting them by himself. And when they finally hit the play tester’s table, when there’s other people like me, it’s very close to the game that will get published later, because he’s such a… It’s almost close to perfect.
DTD: He’s as close as I’ve seen to a real professional at making games. He has a method, and he is just very, very precise. I did one of these interviews with Uwe at Essen, and I think I may have scared him.
Ode: Yes. Yeah, yeah, he’s not so good in English, is something he always says.
DTD: He was uncomfortable. But by the end, I think he had a good time. I’d like to think he had a good time. But it was very interesting.
Ode: I bet he was very insecure about this.
DTD: So, I definitely can see in Cooper Island, I can see some of the mathematical resources, but simple ruleset, that Uwe’s games can have.
Ode: Yeah, that’s basically, that’s really something that I want to achieve all the time, so I want to have a very simple set of rules, a very simple core of the game. And this is something that I always told Mike, my co-designer from La Granja and Solarius Mission. I’m always going for having the mechanisms as simple and easy, hopefully elegant, as it can get.
DTD: That’s the word, is ‘elegant.’ That’s the way to make games now. I was really impressed with…
Ode: Yeah, and the complexity would come from what you try to control with this core mechanism. So, for example, if you place a worker, it’s very simple. You just place a disk on an action space. That’s basically it. And what the complexity comes from, what you are controlling with this action disc, so you have a very good access to the game, because you understand the rules of what you should do. But the connection between the elements of the game; That’s what should be the problem for the player and what brings joy to the player, not fighting with the rules, but fighting with the elements of the game to get them to work together in the best way. That’s what you want to have as a, what I want to have as a designer.
DTD: Well I think in Cooper Island, you definitely succeeded. It’s the complexity of it, comes in “How do I use a run of these simple rules to get something done, to really maximize how much stuff I’ve made?” At the same time, there’s all these limits in there, that I cant just hoard materials, because I’ll get in trouble if I do that. But just the simple ideas of stacking tiles, and putting cubes on top of stacks, and the value of the cubes is the height of the stack. I was, I was very, very impressed with it. It really worked for me, and it was just a summation of simple ideas, which is the kind of game that I really enjoy.
Ode: That’s normally what I’m aiming for. That’s what I like in games as well, so normally I have…yeah, yeah, I’m always trying to find games that have these simple mechanisms, but also an interesting decision to make for me. I don’t want to have complicated rules, and fight with the rules. I want to fight with the game itself.
DTD: You can kind of measure that by how often people have to refer back to the rulebook.
Ode: Yes, Yeah.
DTD: Constantly figuring out back and forth and back and forth. But when the simple rulesets click in, then you just play, and you know what it is. Your games have also been very nice, in that all of the rules are printed somewhere on the board. At some point if you get confused, you can see, “Oh, there’s an icon there!” And that says exactly the thing that I am looking for. So, there are reminders printed all over the board.
Ode: Yeah. Yeah, I have to say that this is the accomplishment of the editor. Viktor Kobilke was the one who was doing the job here, and he is pretty awesome doing this transformation from the idea of mine into a real game. And that’s where he came in, and I can only do so much and prepare what he should do. And it’s maybe like an orientation, what he can do after this, but…
Ode: For instance, the rulebook of Cooper Island, it’s a very, very big rulebook, but to my personal opinion, and I heard this quite a lot, this rule book is pretty good in explaining a very complex game, very simple.
DTD: It is, yeah.
Ode: So, you really understand really well what’s going on in the game and it clicks. It just clicks while reading, and this is what you want to have in a complex game. And that’s the testament of Viktor, who did an awesome job on transferring the idea of a prototype of something that I invented, and he transferred it in a very congenial way, into a real board game.
DTD: And I did a series of interviews a little while ago looking into these jobs. Not the designer of the game, but the developer, the editor. Who puts the pieces together and takes this away, and adds this in, and makes it work. Or the rulebook editor, or the graphic designer, setting the layout of the boards and the cards. I think that those are such important jobs, and a lot of end users, a lot of people playing the games, kind of have this idea that there is a designer in his garage, and he puts it together and puts it in a box, and then he gets somebody to sell it. There’s so much else involved. There’s so much iteration and over and over, and playtesting. And figuring out how it should look and how it should work. Its nice to hear that the editor has worked hard on getting the flow, getting all the pieces working well.
Ode: Yeah, I’m actually, my personal opinion is that it really helped me working on such games like At the Gates of Loyang when I was granted a look behind the scenes, and also after Loyang. The publisher H@ll Games is only done by one guy, this company, and it’s only his hobby.
DTD: Really? Because H@ll has so many good games.
Ode: Yeah, it’s basically his hobby, to publish games.
DTD: That’s great.
Ode: That’s why he always only does one game in every two years. And yeah, sometimes he’s working as a freelancer for Pegasus Games, so it’s not only every second year. Yeah, but when Loyang was done, he had in another title, and he asked me to help him develop the game, and this was what later would become Luna by Stefan Feld.
Stefan, call me. Let’s do lunch.
Ode: So, the second game from H@ll Games, and this was very important for me because I was part of the development of this game and I learned from, from Uwe at first, and always from playtesting with him. And then I learned from Ralph [Bruhn], who was the guy behind H@ll Games. He’s a very good editor himself and very good developer. And also working with Stefan Feld and Klemens Franz on the game [Luna].
Ode: It was so it. Incredibly valuable for me to work with these guys and learn from them. That I am under the impression that I am by now a very good developer myself, so I know where those guys are aiming for and I know what the publisher looks [for] in a game and also I know…
DTD: You took the Master Class.
Ode: Yeah. You might say so, and I also know maybe a little bit to think like an editor, and also like a designer, so I know I can think of some basic things that an editor doesn’t have to do after this, so I think this comes in very handy.
Next time Ode talks about games that influenced him over the years, including his thoughts on crediting other designers, and tells stories about the development of Luna. Plus, pomegranate juice.