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How the World's Greatest Game Designer Designs Games

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.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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