Welcome to the final part of my virtual dinner with board game designer Ode! As you can tell from the picture, it is getting very late in Germany, and poor Ode would probably be asleep if not for good coffee, and some overexcited Californian. In this segment, we discuss game design with regard to one time players, Kramer and Kiesling classics, and hard core Splotter. Enjoy!
DTD: I’m looking forward to Paris from [Wolfgang] Kramer and [Michael] Kiesling. That’s coming out soon.
Ode: Paris? Oh yeah, yes, I know what you mean.
DTD: Does it have a different name in Germany, or?
Ode: I think it’s a Polish publisher… It was not a German publisher.
DTD: Really? Maybe, it’s uh, I think it’s a big publisher here. [pause] I’m cheating, I’m supposed to know all this off the top of my head. Paris – Game Brewer.
Game Brewer is a Polish publisher.
Ode: Oh yeah.
DTD: It’s also [distributed] from Czacha Games, so you know, again, it’s [Carl] Chudyk’s group.
Carl Chudyk is the designer behind Glory to Rome and Innovation.
Ode: Yeah, yeah. To be frank, I am not so sure about Kramer – Kiesling games anymore, because they tend to use the same scoring mechanism all over again, in all of their games. The games normally are structured like, there’s a three rounds. And in between every round there is a scoring. And the first scoring is a small one, then there’s a medium one, and then there’s the big one. And the big one is basically the game changer in order, so you can always win the game with the last scoring, if you have scored decent in the first two rounds. And they use this scoring mechanism all of the time, mostly. And because I have played so many of their games…
The dynamic duo design team of Kramer and Kiesling are responsible for many classic light-medium euros, including Tikal, Torres and Mexica.
NB: Ode has just recently posted to twitter that he played Paris, and did not dislike it. Ha!
DTD: They feel kind of the same?
Ode: They feel kind of the same to me, so I became a little bit bored with their designs. And the last one that I really enjoyed was actually this coal mining game Glück Auf [Coal Baron]
DTD: There were so many that had almost the same name. But it was, was it the one with the elevator?
Coal Baron has a lovely mechanism with an elevator in the middle of the board, out from which players mine for ore.
Ode: Yes, you’re right. But it had the same scoring mechanism like I just described to you.
DTD: Well, there’s a psychological thing to that, that nobody wants to know that they’re not going to win early on. So, if you can predict halfway through the game that there’s no way you can win, nobody likes that. So, you want unknown scoring near the end, and you want bigger scoring as the game goes on, so that at any point you could win.
DTD: I mean I understand why, but I also understand that it’s a frustrating thing.
Ode: Yeah, I also understand why, because it also tells a story, so that the tension mounts. You know, like in a good movie, where the beginning is a little bit slow, and then all the action kicks in. And at the end there’s a big bang.
Let’s all remember that in Raiders of the Lost Ark, nothing Indy did actually mattered at all in the long run.
DTD: Unless you’re Splotter Games, then you just, you know. Then you let them know on the second turn, that there’s no way you’re going to win.
Splotter Games are notoriously difficult and unforgiving. Example games include Roads & Boats, Food Chain Magnate and Indonesia. Additionally, the designers are often quoted as saying that if you cannot lose in the first move, why have a first move?
The actual quote comes from a YouTube interview with BGG in 2015: “We think that it is important that every single turn should matter. If you cannot lose the game on the first turn, then the first turn should not be played.” — Joris Wiersinga
Ode: Very true.
DTD: Are you a fan of the Splotter Games?
Ode: Um, yeah, me too. I am, I’m a big fan, especially of Antiquity.
Ode: My wife is not so. It is very bad for me, but I love them.
DTD: I got my wife to play Food Chain Magnate recently. But she says she will never play it again. [laughs]
DTD: From Splotter?
Again, difficult. Excruciatingly structured. And unforgiving. But man, is it a good game.
Ode: I haven’t played this so far. The thing is we played, let me… this African themed game. It’s the most recent, I guess.
Ode: From Splotter, yes.
DTD: Um, the reprint? They did a reprint of Roads and Boats.
Ode: No, the last game he decided to design.
DTD: Oh, [The Great] Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe.
Ode: Zimbabwe, yes, yes.
DTD: That was a reprint also, I think. I don’t think that was new.
Ode: Um, yeah, but I I think… oh no, Food Chain Magnate came out after.
Zimbabwe was released in 2012.
Food Chain Magnate in 2015, with The Ketchup Mechanism expansion released in 2019.
Zimbabwe had a reprint in 2016, with another due in 2021.
DTD: Food Chain I think is the most recent.
Ode: Yes, but we played Zimbabwe, and I have the impression that this game is completely out of balance.
DTD: I am not surprised.
I was not surprised that the game was imbalanced per se, just that the impression was that the game was imbalanced. Splotter games are difficult to master, and appreciating the true balance can take several plays.
Ode: This this could not happen, and we played it a second time, and then there again was incredibly strong combination of elements and the game went through the roof. And I had the chance of meeting Jeroen [Doumen] in Essen one time, and I talked to him very long on the meeting. Do you know Heavy Cardboard, Edward [Uhler]?
Jeroen, call me. We will go out for tandoori.
Ode: He is having a Heavy Cardboard meet up in Essen every Friday. Very small meet up, and you could meet all kinds of people who don’t want to be at the big meetings. And it’s a very casual one, and I met Jeroen over there, and I talked to him a lot, and I realized that he is a statistics mathematician. I don’t know what the name is. He’s even teaching at a University in the Netherlands, statistics.
Jeroen Doumen received a Ph.D. in Mathematics/Cryptology from the Eindhoven University of Technology in 2003, and taught at University of Twente from 2003-2008
DTD: Well, Uwe [Rosenberg] also.
Ode: And when I talked to him, I instantly realized that all his games are perfectly balanced. It has to be, because he’s incredibly smart.
DTD: Well Uwe has an advanced degree in statistics as well, doesn’t he?
Uwe did statistics studies in Dortmund, and his thesis was “probability distributions in memory”. I wonder if this research went into the card game Mamma Mia.
Ode: Yeah, right, that’s true.
DTD: And Friedemann Friese studied math I think.
Ode: I’m pretty certain that there is combinations in all his, those Splotter games, that go through the roof. But there’s different ways to perform the same thing. So, there’s a balance in all the elements, but you have to find them.
Ode: Perfectly certain because he’s too good in math.
DTD: I have not played Zimbabwe yet, but like you said, I have trouble finding people to play the Splotter games with me. And when I do find someone who’s excited to play them, they destroy me so completely. So, I like them, but I’m not good at them.
Ode: But Antiquity is as good in this sense, because you’re doing your own stuff all the time, and you just develop your own landscape, and then at a certain point you meet, maybe. But this will only be close to the end, and you have your own thing going on, and you struggle with it. But the fun is always there. And then at the end somebody will win, but who cares?
DTD: It’s that balance between fun and winning. There’s certainly a lot of games I play where I do what’s fun, and then end up not winning at all.
The first time I played Gùgōng, I had such an absolute fantastic time playing, then I realized that nothing I had done actually contributed to victory points. I think I still have never won that game.
Ode: But you had fun, so the experience was positive.
DTD: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. There’s very few games I play, that are that are not fun. I tend to be a little picky about what I’ll pick up. So, here’s a question for you. I found recently a lot of games that I play, the score at the end of the game will end up being very close. And I paid attention to it. And it feels like whether you are good at the game, have played it before, or have never played it before. It seems like the score is always very close, and I think there are more and more designers making games with this in mind. They kind of know that the game is going to be played 1, 2, 3 times. And they designed the game to make you feel good and have fun, but you can’t really be good at it. Nobody really wins. It’s designed so that everybody does pretty OK. Everybody does about the same. Have you seen this? Or do you think I’m crazy?
Ode: No, no, you’re definitely not crazy, and I think this is by design.
DTD: I guess that’s really my question. Is it by design or am I over analyzing?
Ode: No, no I think there’s two things that keep… That is in the people’s, not only the designers but also the publishers, minds that the first play of game is incredibly important, so not the first in ever, but the first for you.
DTD: Yes, if you don’t have fun, you’re not going to pick it up again.
Since so many people play a game once only, it is even more important that this one play be an enjoyable experience. So you tell your friends. And losing miserably tends to be a slight bit more… miserable.
Ode: Yeah, right, that’s exactly what. So, when you play a game and you think, “Oh no, I didn’t like it. Let’s shelf it and never play it again.” You also know first, the designer has designed the game that I only played once, and the publisher published the game I only played once. And if you play the game, maybe three to five times, you know, they designed a very good game and they published a very good game. So, you instantly become interested in the next game they will publish. And that is certainly something that publishers look for. So, for me personally, I always like it when the player who’s doing better will actually win the game.
DTD: Exactly. Yes.
Ode: Yes, I am trying to achieve this on a different approach. So, in my games, normally the one who’s playing better will win. And it’s always… I always design, as well, that you can play really shitty. You can really suck at the game, but I always try to implement something that you will, even though you sucked during the game, and you performed really poorly, you still have fun during the game. And that’s very important to me. So, when you play Cooper Island, you will, in the end, even though you have only 15 or 20 points, you will still have these levels of resources. You will still have built a statue or a building or something, and you will actually see a 3-dimensional island in front of you. That’s something you created. Even though it did not do very well, you still can see why you played the game. So you have something, you build something up. And also, the way of scoring, is because to me personally victory points is the least interesting thing in the game. Victory points, normally, they don’t bring fun, they only bring the victory. So, normally when I play games, I don’t care for victory points. I care for things that benefit myself, my play, they start my engine.
DTD: You feel like you’ve done something. An exciting turn.
Ode: Right, that’s the feeling that I want to create, and when you play La Granja, you will never score only points. You will always score and get an in-game benefit. And with Cooper Island, that was actually the next step, because I thought scoring, only scoring, is boring. So, let’s make the scoring track part of the game.
In Cooper Island, players move their two boats around the outside of the board. It was only after repeat playing that I realized this track that the boats follow is the scoring track. It is so organically integrated into the game mechanisms.
Ode: And even if you only score a couple of points, you still have some islands, small islets, to jump over and to have bonus actions. That is very, very fun. So, you might even end up with only 15 points, but you still had some bonus turns, some bonus actions you did. You have the islet in front of you. Maybe you even reached level four or five and have a big building on it. So this is, this is something you accomplished, and even though you maybe… Yeah, maybe 15-20 points, you still have something in front of you that you can see, and I did this.
DTD: Yeah, and it’s inherently just exciting and fun to add that physicality to the victory points. You know, I get to move my ship around. Not only that, but if I move my ship enough, it’s going to go into your board, which is just cool. That’s just fun. So, it takes the idea of ticking points…
Ode: Yeah, this is what I’m trying to do. So, you still can suck at the game, and you can still… You get better by every play you do, but you still have fun playing it, even though the points are from a different range. But still in the in such a low scoring game, having a difference of five points is, it’s just five points, but it’s still very much in this game. So, it’s both. So this low scoring game is also a mechanism of keeping people together, because they are used to having 450 points, 430 points, and it’s 20 points different, but it still feels very close, but it’s a difference of 20 points. Yeah, and difference of three points is very much in Cooper Island, but it still does not feel too much so.
DTD: No, you don’t feel like somebody was completely left behind. I think you succeeded in that very much.
Ode: But what I learned in the development, is that many people get frustrated by only earning 20 or 30 points in a game, because they are used to scoring 200. And then they see the game, see their scoring, and they say, “Oh, I only get 30 points? I don’t like this.”
DTD: It depends.
I find there is something clean and refreshing in a game that has a particularly low scoring system. For me, scoring 30 points in a well-played game is more intuitively satisfying than scoring 400. I found this in pinball machines as well – it just feels better to have a pinball score in the thousands than one in the hundreds of millions. Make every point count!
Ode: It depends on the type of guy you are.
DTD: That’s what I was going to say, is there’s people who the only reason they play games is to win. That’s their sole, their only goal, to play games. The only joy they get out of it is if they win. And there are people who don’t care if they win, and their goal is to explore, and to see what can the game do? What can I do? Can I gain resources? Can I build buildings? Can I do this? And then the third kind of person is the people who play games just to be in a social group. So, they don’t really care about the engine, they don’t really care about winning, they care about interacting with the other people. It still seems those are the big three out there. I think I probably stole that from Magic the Gathering at some point.
There are 3 much-discussed (one more than too much discussed) Magic the Gathering player archetypes. Very briefly, these are:
Timmy/Tammy – This player likes big, exciting actions, and exploring the game is more important than winning.
Johnny/Jenny – The big driving force here is complex interwoven combos, and often the goal is to try to “break” the game.
Spike – Spike is very competitive, and is looking to win, win, win, kill, and win.
These archetypes were first described by Mark Rosewater in 2002.
Ode: But that’s a very cool thing that came to my mind just a couple of years ago, that there are so many different people with different things they want to enjoy in games. And that you can aim for them, with certain effects in the game. I think Tom Lehmann is also using this for, especially for Race for the Galaxy. I once saw, he gave a speech on this and it was very interesting.
DTD: OK. Yeah, he knows his stuff.
Ode: Yeah, well, I think at some point, this might be something that I want to try, because it’s so including. You can include in one game, you can have different effects, and you can have all the people, all the players. You can have the one who’s strategic. You can have the one who wants to win. You can have the one who wants to go for big combos. All in one game, and that’s very including everybody in one game. That’s something I want to do at some point. Because I like it when all the players at the table have fun playing the game.
DTD: That’s supposed to be why we’re playing.
Ode: Not working all the time.
DTD: I know, I know, but I feel bad, I think it’s after midnight at your time. Is there anything else that…?
I just realized that I was keeping poor Ode into the wee hours of the night. It was only early afternoon for me, so after my coffee I was awake and hyperactive.
Ode: Yeah, I was, you know, this talk is very, very casual, very… and I like talking to you, but I was always thinking about 15 minutes ago, when do I say something, but I enjoy it. I enjoy talking to you, it’s very fun.
DTD: We should keep in touch! This is fun. I mean not… we don’t need to do constant interviews, or anything, and I purposely kind of stayed quiet before the interview, because I hate repeating things that I already know the answer to.
Ode: With me it’s always the case, that I don’t like to throw myself at people, saying, “Oh, please, come interview me, because I’m Mr. Super Duper game designer, and I’m well known!” Actually, I don’t need this, and I don’t want this. When Cooper Island came out, I asked the publisher to do all the interviews, and but when somebody asks me, and especially on such a really nice chat that we had today…
This is exaxctly how Ode introduced himself to me. “Super Duper Game Designer”. I think it’s on his business cards.
DTD: Well, thank you.
Ode: It’s very, very interesting and I would never turn down such a, such a lovely invitation to a meal.
DTD: I wish I could do more for the meal! That was such a big part of it at the beginning, but it’s just fun chatting. I’m just having a great time.
Ode: This is cool because it’s not for promoting stuff, or… Because it’s just, you need to understand that I consider myself just a regular guy. I’m not the brightest one. I just have the time to design games, you know. The people playtesting my games, they’re way smarter than I am. And I’m just the one holding all the project together. So, this is always a team effort, always something that so many people put so much work in it. And sometimes it feels very unjust that my name is on the box.
This is unequivocally untrue. I have had the chance to play games with Ode since the interview, and he is frighteningly smart.
Ode: Because it’s not my accomplishment, it’s all of us, all of the playtesters, especially my wife.
DTD: You are too kind and modest.
Ode: And, well, it makes me uncomfortable when I have to give an interview, but this is definitely not an uncomfortable one. It’s very, very nice to talk to you. Because this is not, I’m not… Yeah, yeah, I’m just a gamer, like you.
DTD: Yeah, and that’s what I wanted to do for the past… Wow, it’s been a year now, or more. Is I just, I find it’s interesting because a lot of times I’ll corner a big game designer, and they’ll be ready for a formal interview, and they want to be given the questions. And then I just start talking about mushrooms or something. And they get very confused.
I have no idea why I said mushrooms. It seemed like something interesting and tangential to talk about. And they are delicious.
Ode: Yeah, they’re not used to it, and… this is something that they do on their free time, but not on the job time.
DTD: See, tell your friends. I have to reach out and do more interviews in Germany. I gotta get Stefan Feld. He’s on my list.
Stefan, call me. We will eat lunch at a school cafeteria. Actually, I will get you any food you like.
Ode: Stefan is very… Well, he told me once, he’s been not so much into podcasts because not… Well, Stefan is a teacher. And he’s the head of the school, not only just teacher, because he’s managing a whole school.
Stefan Feld is the school principal and physics teacher at Marta-Schanzenbach-Gymnasium in Gengenbach, Germany
Ode: And he’s putting out game after game after game. I Don’t know where he takes time.
DTD: Oh, he produces quickly, yeah. What does he teach?
Ode: Not, he’s not teaching anymore, because he’s the head of the school.
DTD: Because he’s running the school, yeah.
Ode: When he started designing games, he was the junior boss of the school, and now he’s the full boss. So, he’s not doing so much teaching anymore I think. But he has a very, very responsible job, and it’s very, very much time, that he needs to do for this job. Especially being a teacher. And I don’t know where he takes the time to design games, even.
DTD: And it surprises me still, how many game designers have an actual full-time other job. That’s hard. Matt Leacock only recently stopped working his other job.
Ode: I’m doing a podcast here in Germany with some of my friends, and because I know some people in the business, we sometimes have guests, and actually Stefan was on our last episode, talking about Bonfire and it was his first appearance in a podcast, ever.
DTD: Wow. Well, congratulations.
Ode: Yeah, I never knew this. He’s doing interviews for bloggers all the time, but never on a podcast. So, it was his first time on a podcast, and it got us many, many clicks.
DTD: That’s awesome. Well, there’s Cooper. Oh, my goodness.
Ode’s dog Cooper wandered into the camera field. And he looked very tired. Another hint that I was in a different timezone, and should quietly say goodnight, Gracie.
Ode: Yeah, he’s recovering. He’s very tired from the day.
DTD: He had a very busy, tough day.
Ode: Yeah, he had, he had a very tough day.
DTD: Poor guy. Well, I should let you go. It’s only, you know, the afternoon for me. So, I’ve got energy and I’m ready to go, but…
Ode: OK, yeah, I’m going to bed.
DTD: Thank you again so much for taking your evening. This is very fun, and I am a fan. It’s very exciting talking to you about these games that I love. It’s very cool.
Ode: Thank you very much. Corey, if you want to, we can talk again. If you want to, we can do an interview, or we could just chat or about games, I don’t care.
DTD: I love chatting about games! Any time!
Ode: This was very fun. You seem to be a very nice guy.
DTD: Thanks [laughs]. I’m just a crazy retired guy. I have nothing but time.
Ode: We can, maybe we can add to Jonny [JonnyPac Cantin] to this, another night, I don’t know, maybe.
This we have done. Such a good group of guys.
DTD: Absolutely. Yeah, we will try to figure that out. Because I know Jonny – Oh, he could talk all day. Did he tell you, when I did… this… with Jonny do you know how long he talked for?
Ode: I imagine, how you said it to me, that it was a couple of hours.
DTD: It was six hours.
I am not regretting it, nor am I saying I was not complicit. It was six hours I would happily do again. Plus, really good Chinese food.
Check out my dinner interview with JonnyPac.
Ode: And that guy can, yeah, that guy can talk.
DTD: He can, and it was fun. It flew by. But I had quite the quite the task ahead of me to edit that.
Ode: OK, yeah, so let’s stay in touch.
Ode: Maybe we can, I am trying to get some games, some prototypes of mine online. Maybe we can play test sometime, maybe together with Johnny.
DTD: Anytime if you need another body. I am more than happy.
This is a general offer to any and all readers. I have no standards.
Ode: Yeah, sounds good sounds good.
DTD: Yeah, and I’ve played a lot of things, so I kind of know my way around a mechanism or two.
Ode: OK, sounds good. Very cool. Alright.
DTD: Thank you very much for doing this and…
Ode: No, thank you, this was all effort on your side. This is a joy for me. So, you have a good evening.
DTD: You have a good day, and let’s stay in touch.
Ode: Alrighty Sir, it was wonderful meeting you. You take care.
A huge thank you to Ode, who was an absolute delight to spend time with, as we each spoke from within our LED miracle boxes. It does not happen often, but in the weeks since the interview, Ode and I have talked several more times, each more delightful than the last. And I am very lucky to call Ode a friend. As we all hopefully reach the end of this virus imposed isolation, I truly hope very soon I can have a real dinner. With a real Andreas Odendahl. In something approaching real life. Stay healthy everyone.