I call the above picture “Still Life with Ode.” Welcome back to lunch/dinner with Andreas Odendahl, better known as Ode. Ode is the designer behind such hits as La Granja, Cooper Island and Solarius Mission, some of my favorite games. So if I ramble on a bit, it’s because I am a little starstruck. Luckily, Ode is a great guy, and pretty much a gamer, so there’s tonnes (98% of a ‘ton’) to talk about.
Ode: [laughs] It’s OK, I know what you mean.
DTD: There you go. Well, tell me about that. Tell me about Possessions.
During the abovementioned virtual convention, Ode and Uli Blennemann teased La Granja 2, tentatively titled “Possessions”.
Ode: Yeah, I have to admit that I am not able to tell you so much.
DTD: I understand.
“I understand” is what you say to look and sound pitiful, so that maybe the person you are talking to will pity you and spill all the beans. We were on video, and I must admit, I looked pretty wretched and endearing.
Ode: This is this is very, very early. Normally, I’m very open about my projects because this is one of the points of me making sure that everybody knows what I’m doing, so nobody can copy what I do, because everybody knows, “Oh, he’s already doing it.” So, when I had the idea of doing a second La Granja game, like I said in in the in the ConWorxx chat, I was working on some expansion ideas, and I instantly after some consideration had come to the point where I think I don’t really want to have an expansion; let’s do another full game. But this is some mad idea, and I am not the one who to put it out, I’m the one who will design and develop it, but I need…for this special project, I would have need Uli [Blennemann] on board. So, I play tested the game a couple of times with my wife, and I said, “OK. This is something that I can do. This will become a game and it will be good. I can go to Uli and ask him if he would publish it,” And only if he says ‘yes’ I would actually continue working on the game because it would be too much work to develop the game. Maybe one-and-a-half years and then [if] he said “No, I’m not doing it.” And so, I needed his approval. So, I said I would say, “OK, this is actually worth giving it a shot.” So, when I talked to him he said he would always be interested, and I showed him what I had. And he said, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do it totally. I can find, I can find space in my timeline for this game.” And I said, “Oh, this is two or three years in the future from now”, and he said, “Yeah, no problem. We will do this.” And then he had the crazy idea to announce it!
Ode: Only a couple of play tests in the development and ‘how do you really think this is a good idea,’ but Uli is as well, very open about what he’s going to publish. He has already in 2019, he already published what he will publish in 2021. So, this is just how he’s doing it, and he says…it is always maybe a little bit of him putting a little bit of pressure on me, because you know, I need it. Otherwise, this will take very long.
DTD: Well that’s just mean.
Ode: So now he said to the whole world, we’re going to publish La Granja 2, and I have to make it work now. So, this is this is him giving me a kick in the butt.
DTD: I’m very excited about it. It’s interesting that this next thing that has been announced is on the La Granja side and not on the Cooper [Island] side. It seems people always announce their next project off of the one that’s popular, that just came out. So, I expected if an expansion or a sequel came from you, it would probably be Cooper that was announced first.
Ode: Yeah, the thing with Cooper Island is right now, I’m pretty…I have worked on it very long; four years to be exact. And I have played it since it came out, certainly 20 times. So, I am not sure if I really have fun play testing it all over again, over and over and over again, Cooper Island.
I have 10 recorded plays of Cooper Island, so I’m catching up fast.
Ode: And this this is possibly the reason why this expansion.
DTD: A change of pace.
Ode: I don’t know. I don’t know if this will ever come out, as so. I have to go from the publisher. He said, “I want to do an expansion,” and also he has some partners, who are always asking about, “Will there be an expansion, maybe?”
DTD: Well, everybody’s going to ask. Like me!
Ode: Yeah, but the thing is, that it’s normally not like how I work and how I think, because I am always trying to put the best game in one box. So, what’s the point in in expanding it? So, here’s some thoughts that I’m always having. My personal opinion is that I want to play a game as much as I can. I love to play a game over and over again, and explore all the depth of one game. So, I have played Underwater Cities 130 times by now.
DTD: Oh, it’s such a good game.
Ode: I love this, and there’s so many games I would love to play twenty, thirty, forty times over and over again. This is what I want to do. And personally, I’m trying to design games that can offer this much replayability. And personally, I think Cooper Island, although it’s very open, you can see all you can do, all the time. It’s just that the game has so much to offer, that you have to focus on something, and you can all the time, you can do something different. But it’s always there. You can always see it, so…some players have the…they think that the game has not much replayability because it doesn’t vary too much from the setup. But you can always play it different. So personally, I think there’s maybe 50 plays in Cooper Island, and you haven’t seen everything at all.
DTD: Things play off of each other so well. You can definitely pick a strategy and try very hard to do a singular thing very, very well.
Ode: Yeah, but who is playing games this often? Do you can…can you say that I have played this game so much, that I definitely need an expansion, and then I will play it 15 times over again? That’s the question that I’m always asking, because the time we are living in now, is that most of the games get only two or maybe five plays. And then there’s a new…
DTD: Exactly. If that.
Ode: You know what I mean, right?
DTD: Yeah, most people buy a game because its new, play it a couple times, and then buy the next game that’s new.
“Most people”. Certainly not code for myself.
DTD: And the purpose of the expansion is not to add new life to a game because you’ve played it as much as you can play it. The purpose of an expansion is usually to remind people about a game that’s older and to convince people that it’s new again.
Ode: Yeah, but you know, that’s not actually what…I’m not trying to sell games. I’m trying to offer people games that they can play multiple times and have still fun after 20 plays. That’s what I’m trying to do.
DTD: Which is fantastic. You can definitely see some games out there that are designed to sell a game. And they make money, and that’s what they were designed for. But they’re not great games. I’m not saying the two can never overlap, but you can feel a game that was made out of love versus a game that was made out of money. You feel the difference.
Ode: Yeah, so this is basically what I am…why I am not so keen about expansions, because I put so much effort into designing one game that has so much replayability. And personally, this game was part of my life of 4 years. Now doing this, picking a new project, something that is completely new to me, and then I work on this for a couple of years, so I don’t have to deal with Cooper Island again for maybe two or three years because I need to design an expansion. Sometimes because I’m just a hobby designer. You know, this is all my free time, and I’m right now, I’m not in the place that I want to play Cooper Island 50 times over again. So, I’m focusing on different things, and that’s basically why expansions don’t come into life for me.
Ode: And La Granja is now 6 years old, and when this game came out everybody was asking me about an expansion, and I always said “Yeah, maybe sometime.” Because I was so sick of the game…
Ode: And now this game is…well, I had to play the implementations for Yucata and for Board Game Arena and the game came back into my mind, and it developed something in me. So, there’s now a second game that I came up, and this is maybe the…this is what my version of an expansion would be. A new game. You know?
DTD: OK. So, the question is, after all of the design and all of the work, do you enjoy playing your own games? If someone came over to your house and said, “We are going to play a board game!” Would you be excited, or a little weary, if they pulled out one of your games to play?
Ode: Well, I would never refuse to play it with, especially with good friends, when they say, “Oh, you have a new game. Let’s play it.” I would never do this, but I would…this changed a little bit over time. When La Granja was out, it was my first game. It was all exciting. It was my most favorite game in the world, and there was no better game to me. And so, I loved to play it. After the game was published, I played it thirty, forty times. And maybe this was also a reason why I’m not so much into designing an expansion, because I was after a time… I was so sick of it. By the way, my wife [is] still not sick of it. She loves La Granja to the bone, still.
Such a good wife. My wife would not do that. Nobody tell her I said that.
DTD: That’s great!
Ode: Yeah, she’s always bugging about me about, “Let’s play La Granja again!” [laughs]
Seriously, no one tell Renee about this interview.
Ode: Yeah, but this is changed a little bit, so Cooper Island is actually something that I now don’t play so much. I would never turn down a game if somebody asked me, but I would certainly not suggest it. Yeah, but you know. Yeah, I’m a little bit hesitant to say it, but the game I love to play the most of mine is actually Solarius Mission.
DTD: That’s pretty cool. When you play one of your own games, do you have regret? Do you come up with ideas and say, “You know, maybe I should have done this other thing when I made this game…”?
Ode: With La Granja and Solarius Mission, I think no. There are some things I would maybe fix a number or something like this, but…
DTD: Tiny changes.
Have I mentioned how great my wife is? She’s the absolute best.
Ode: Tiny changes. But overall, those games are…they were completely under my thumb. So I made every decision on this at the end. And with Cooper Island, it’s different. So I, at some point, the editor of this game took over the development and changed some things. And the game is still very, very good. He made something really right, because the game has fantastic reviews. But Cooper Island is certainly the game I would change the most.
DTD: When you are working on the game – this is kind of the same thing. Do you have trouble deciding when it’s done? When you are sitting and working and changing, and doing this different and that different, are you the one who decides “This is done now.” Or is it a time limit, or the publisher, or pressure from outside? It seems like it would be very difficult to decide, “This is the end. This is the finished product.”
Ode: This is actually something that I learned when we developed Luna. And I benefit from this very much because when we developed Luna, I was the one always saying, “Oh, we need to do this! and we need to do this now! And maybe we can tweak it over here a little bit, and something like here.” and then Ralph [Bruhn] said “No. This is done. This is it. We’re not going here at this point, over and over again. This has to stop. And you have to trust me on this, because I can see where the game will be when it’s out, and this is good.” And I disagreed on this, back then. And he said, “No, it’s my decision. Thank you for your feedback, but this is it.”
And when the game was out, I realized that he was perfectly right. So he taught me, in a way, how to feel the point when something should not be touched anymore. And when we were developing La Granja, I was the senior one on the development, and Mike [Keller] was the one always saying, “Oh no, we have to, we have to…we have to put on another…we have to change this, and we have to change this.” And at this point, I was the one saying “No. This is this is good. We can publish it like this. Trust me on this one. We have to fix other things, maybe not. But not this.” And then he said, I remember vividly when we developed Solarius Mission I…at one point I said “No. This is it. You have to trust me on this.” And he said “No, we have to change it. It’s not good. You have to…” And after it got published, he said, “You were right. You were right. Yes, yes it was brilliant.” Because personally, I think what I learned back then is to see the potential In something that is not ready.
DTD: Where is this going to lead? How much time will it take versus how good will it be after that time is spent?
Ode: Yes, I think I think I have a very good vision of what the game will be when it’s illustrated and designed, and everything is produced. I can see clearly how this will work out. This is maybe something I learned back when we were developing Luna. And with the La Granja and Solarius Mission. It worked very good. Cooper Island it was not my job. That was the job of Viktor Kobilke, and he did it very good. Actually, this thing, to say “No. This is it. We need to do over here a little bit more.” It was his job, and I let him do it. But I think actually, I think this is something I can do really good. But it’s always a gut feeling. And I remember vividly how the feeling about the game changed when we [were] developing La Granja. I always had the feeling something is missing over here, and it’s not as good as it could be, and the feedback from the play testers was more like mediocre to good. And then I did a certain change, and after having changed that, the feedback got way better. And then there was this guy saying, “This game is as good as Terra Mystica.” I said “Oooh, it’s… No, it’s not that good. I thank you very much for this feedback. I’m very flattered, but it’s not that good.”
Quite the compliment, since 2012’s Terra Mystica is currently ranked #15 on BGG.
Ode: But the fact that he said this was, to me, a sign of “Yeah, this is it.” And it turned out, it turned out very good.
DTD: Wow. That’s terrific. Can you remember any specific, or can you say any specific parts of Cooper Island that you wanted to change, that ended up not being changed?
Ode: Now it’s the opposite. There was something that got changed that I didn’t want to have changed. And it was the way the landscapes are puzzled. So, in my prototype you didn’t have to put the same landscape on the same landscape over again, so the landscapes could change. You don’t have to put wood on wood, or a mountain on a mountain. And this is something that was very important to the editor, but it was too… too hard, too brainy to do this with the old mechanism. So one day I came up with the, the single landscapes. They were not in the game at a certain point, even not in 2019. And then I designed those single landscapes. And he said, “OK, these landscapes are the perfect angle to change the rules, to put, to have a thematic approach to the landscapes. Because mountains don’t change in in in reality.” And this was always something that he thought should be in the game, and with the single landscape tiles it was possible to make the puzzling element not as brainy as it would have been with the old puzzle.
Cooper Island comes with double hex tiles, featuring 2 different landscapes on each side. Building vertically is quite important in Cooper Island; When placing higher layers of these tiles on your island, you need to place like on top of like. The single landscape tiles let you “fill in the gaps”, so to speak.
DTD: It added the restriction. You were limited on where you could put your pieces, so it gave you a direction to think.
I can only imagine, if you were able to place these tiles anywhere on the board, there would be so many choices of where to place tiles!
Ode: Exactly. And the mechanism I had designed was a little bit more accessible, because you didn’t have this restriction. You could… the only rule you had to follow, was that if you put one puzzle tile in the next level, you had to connect two tiles that were in the lower level. That was the only rule, so it was very simple. Very like I always tried to design games. Very simple, very logical. And it was from a mechanical standpoint. But his approach was, and he got very positive feedback about this from the play testers, that he wanted to have it more thematic. So, a mountain cannot be removed any longer. You can still have a settlement on the mountain, but that’s, that was necessary. So, this was a change they did, and personally I would have preferred the easier way to puzzle because this puzzle is very hard. You can see my brain melt if I tried to play Cooper.
My brain frequently melts during Cooper Island. But it melts like good gelato – deliciously.
DTD: Oh, it is very brain-melting. But I love it. It has that wonderful brain meltiness. You feel good when you figure it out. And there’s always…it’s difficult to get truly stuck in it. But I think it’s great, wherever it came from.
Ode: Yeah, so this is actually. This is actually the point. So, I was the one who was saying “Please don’t change it,” and he said, “But we need to change it, because it’s better.” And that was their choice, and it was fine. And everybody, most of the people, think this game is, because of this brain matching puzzle, is so good. So, this was their way of changing the game.
Ode: To a point where they thought this was better. To my personal taste, the old mechanism that was a little bit more simpler, but not as challenging, would have been better, because I like it this way a little bit more. I like it, I like it a little bit better. But this is a team effort, like I said. This is always something you discuss, and you argue about, and sometimes somebody has to make a decision. And in this case, it was the publisher, and they said, “Trust us, this is a better way,” and I said, “OK. Do you think?” All is well.
DTD: And that’s why it’s always good, in a team that’s making something, to know clearly what the hierarchy is. Someone has to be able to break the conflicts, has to have the final word in it, or else you just spin in circles.
Ode: Yeah, that that could have been the case, so I’m not mad at them for changing this. Because that was their way of, what I what I told you a couple of minutes ago. Somebody has to make the decision to say “This is it. This is what we’re publishing. Trust us. This will be good,” and yes, it’s good.
DTD: And maybe that old mechanism will show up in another game one of these days… [laughs]
Ode: I think there is some potential because, maybe I can tell you this…do you know the old game Antics from Fragor Brothers [Fraser and Gordon Lamont], from this British publisher, who’s only doing small print runs?
DTD: I know the brothers, and I have heard of the game, but honestly, I can’t picture it. I don’t think I have played it.
The Lamont Brothers make some beautiful and quirky games with delightful components. Their company, Fragor Games, is a portmonteau of their first names, Fraser and Gordon. Their most known title is Poseidon’s Kingdom, with its giant dice wave and bizarre creature figurines.
Fra-Gor Lamont – call me. Let’s do dessert.
Ode: OK, so the resource puzzle in Cooper Island is from this game. I got the idea when I played Antics, and in Antics this is the action selection mechanism. So, when you have the action A…let’s just keep it mechanically…action A. And action A is at level three, then you can perform it 3 times. If it’s on level one, you can perform it one time. So, the higher your puzzle gets, the more powerful your actions will be. And that was a very brilliant mechanism, but that mechanism had a very cool clue, a very cool twist, because at some point in the game you needed to collect leaves, because it was an ant game. You have to collect leaves and place them on your anthill. And this would cover the actions. So, a leaf in level one would be one victory point, and the leaf in level 5 would be 5 victory points. So what you wanted to do in this game…
DTD: Just like when you would build your statue, or your final cap, on Cooper Island.
Building higher gives increasing rewards, but to score points you need to cap off your reward fountain, so you cannot use it any longer.
Ode: Yes. And I think that the mechanism in Antics is better designed, because of this “victory point and level” thing. You don’t have this in Cooper Island, so it doesn’t matter where you put your building on, or where you put your statue on. It doesn’t matter, because the level has no meaning here. You just get one point for the small building, 2 points for the for the middle building, and four points for the [largest].
DTD: Well, it’s a different interaction. If you have an area in Cooper Island that is generating resources for you very well, you essentially turn it off in order to get victory points. So its exchanging victory points for resource collection.
Ode: Yes, true, but what Antics made so elegantly better in my point of view, is that the level also indicates the number of victory points you would earn. And this is something that I was not able to accomplish in Cooper Island. So, at some point I had to say, “It’s not working.” I had this at a certain point in the prototype, so you could only build the second building, the middle building, you could only place on level 2. And the fortress, you could only place on Level 3 or higher. And you would gain the victory points from the level. But that was too powerful in Cooper Island, because it was too easy to get too many points here, and what we wanted in Cooper Island was to connect it with the victory point track.
DTD: You could make something very tall very quickly.
Ode: And on the victory point track, there are many bonuses. And if you get five points, that would mean five steps on the victory track, and maybe 5 bonuses. And the collecting of the victory points turned into a nightmare because you had this action, this action, this action, this action. There was a chain reaction, that was way too long. So, we had to disconnect the scoring mechanism from the levels.
In Cooper Island, victory points are equal to moving your boat around the board. And whenever your boat reaches an island, there is a bonus. Whenever it reaches a port, there is a bonus.
DTD: I could see that. I need to look into Antics, then. Because I know the brothers, they have some really interesting games.
Confession: I bought Antics the day after this interview. I really am a terrible impulse shopper.
Ode: Yes, yes. Very true.
DTD: They have some very bizarre things.
Ode: Well, this is something that I wanted to accomplish with Cooper Island, and I wasn’t able to do so, and maybe this puzzle mechanism, maybe in a couple of years will come back to life. And then I will try to implement this scoring mechanism as well.
Time to give Ode that much needed break for some food, although I cannot help but talk non-stop. You would think I am locked up in a house, isolated or sheltered or something. Next time Ode and myself talk about the mechanism of delayed actions, games that really impressed us and the strange mystical world of chess.