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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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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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