How the World's Greatest Game Designer Designs Games

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If you like board games, you've probably run into one designed by Reiner Knizia. Knizia is probably the most prolific designer of games working today, one of the few who designs games full-time, and has a number of extremely successful titles to his credit. Among the hundreds of games he has designed are my favorite two-player card game, Lost Cities, which I reviewed in July); its board game analog Keltis (which won the Spiel des Jahres award as game of the year in 2008); the 2001 game adaptation of Lord of the Rings; and hardcore gamer favorite Tigris and Euphrates. That last is one of four Knizia games to win the Deutscher Spiele Preis, another game-of-the-year award generally given to a more complex game than the one honored by the Spiel des Jahres, and those four wins give Knizia almost one of every five Deutscher Spiele Preise given in the award's twenty-one year history. I spoke to Dr. Knizia in early December to ask about his process and philosophy of board game design. [Image credit: Mat?j Ba?ha.]

Knizia has been designing games for a living since 1997, when he quit his job as operations director for a 300-person mortgage company in England, although he says he's been designing games since he was a child. My thought was that the hardest part in designing that many games – Wikipedia has Knizia's published total over 500 – would be conception, but Knizia says that's not the case. “I think it's not very difficult to have good ideas. We have plenty of ideas floating around; the real challenge is really to develop these ideas into excellent games – and that is a very long process. Of course you have to start out with the right idea, and you have to have a good selection process to decide which one can we bring into a perfect product.”

Knizia himself is a very process-oriented designer, moving quickly to prototype from initial concept and play-testing frequently with multiple groups of testers. “The lifeblood of design is testing, then refining,” according to Knizia. “The changes are quite radical early; then it becomes more fine tuning. That's the normal cycle of developing a design.” The testers offer pointed criticisms of game designs and mechanics, forcing new changes and sometimes even termination of a game concept that just doesn't work, something Knizia confesses to doing on a regular basis. “One challenge is falling in love with one's game. One needs to see the reality of it – this is nice, but there are some problems we can't overcome, so we need to kill the game.”

Game design involves both the creative side, coming up with the theme and concept, and the mechanical side, determining exactly how the game will be played, including the balance of chance and skill. Knizia himself says he sits somewhere in the middle, but also views himself as a “moderator” of the group at his small game-design outfit, nurturing ideas and directing conversations to constructive ends.

Donald X. Vaccarino, designer of the highly popular card game Dominion, told me that most board game enthusiasts are “math people” at heart, but Knizia wasn't sure he'd agree with that. “When I look at audience, games are played by all representations of different people, and with respect to game design I'm not so sure either. What I enjoy is that people are brought together by the love for games from many different designers, like a big group of different colorful birds … This is good. It gives us a big variety of games.” As for whether you need math skills to design a game, he cautioned, “It would be dangerous to say you have to be a mathematician. It's a good background” - Knizia himself has a Ph.D. in mathematics - “but we all have strengths and weaknesses. If you say math is the only way I can do this, I think you will fail. You need to take yourself back and say, 'Do the math models help me?' I'm pushing games I think are fun.”

Knizia is German by birth and while he lives and works in England now, Germany remains the major market for the style of game Knizia designs, although the U.S. market is developing. He says there remains a significant difference in how consumers and publishers in the two markets view games. “In America, the game is much more defined by its theme, whereas in Germany the game is defined through its mechanics. Many years ago, I was in America and I showed a new game design and it was an Egyptian game.” (Knizia didn't specify the game, although his Egyptian-themed game Ra has been very successful.) “I was told, 'No, we already have an Egyptian game,' and they wouldn't play it at all. Just a few weeks later I was in Germany, showed the game to a publisher who said, 'We have a similar game – but let us see your game first.' It's completely fine to use the same mechanics in America where you just put another theme on it. In Germany the critics will kill you for that because it's just the same game.”

One thing that sets Knizia's design group apart from others is that he has moved aggressively to license games for iOS, with roughly a dozen Knizia titles available on iPhones and iPads (including my personal favorite, Samurai). He recognizes what only a few other designers have – that given the relatively high price ($20-40) of these German-style board games, a $5 app can be the perfect gateway to introduce a player to the game's concept, potentially upselling him to the physical game later.

“People say, 'Oh there's a board game of this' - even though it was the other way around!” That kind of exposure in a market where reaching consumers through traditional channels has been difficult is invaluable, and Knizia's titles, which tend to involve simple rules that play out in complex ways, have translated very well to the small screen.

So why board games, other than the fact that designing them beats a typical office job? “Games are one of the great leisure activities,” says Knizia. “It doesn't matter how old you are or what background – we are here in this game together.”

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

January 18, 2011 - 11:15am
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