The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

A Game Artisan

Andrea Angiolino

September, 2005


n : a skilled worker who practices some trade or handicraft.

I was quite intrigued by Bruno Faidutti's article Game Author in the July 2005 issue of The Games Journal, and I'd like to point out my personal point of view about being a "game author", "game inventor" or something else.

Like Faidutti, I also prefer being called an author rather than an inventor but there is something that defines my job even better and that is "artisan". When people think of an author, they mainly think of an artist working on his own; in contrast, I work with co-authors, graphic artists, editors and playtesters among others to make an enjoyable product, just like in an artisan's workshop. An artist is usually imagined being mostly in a solitary, spiritual search for beauty or truth; my work is more similar to the craft of a carpenter building furniture, trying both to make a nice-looking cupboard while at the same time having its drawers open and close smoothly with no gaps or squeaks. So while I like to make nice and original games, my main concern is to have mechanics and chrome that fit well together and give an enjoyable gaming experience. That's the necessary foundation on which to build fun and effective games.

The fact that many games tell a story is a point in favour of the "author" label, just as Faidutti points out: but that's true only for some games. Story is a significant element in simulation games and role-playing games, but it is almost totally lacking in boardgames as Fox and Geese, Checkers, Continuo, Twixt, Boggle and other abstract games. Similarly an artisan can create furniture covered with ornaments, paintings or shapes that exist purely for artistic value, but he can also create furniture that is purely functional that has no "theme", no "story".

It's true that game authors, like writers, usually have a personal style. Even though an author may write such disparate works as a historic novel, a children's book or an essay, you can often recognize that it is his work. Similarly, it is also true for the author of a game: for better or worse, you can often tell if the game will be to your liking even before you've opened the box. However, good artisans also have their own personal style and deserve similar credit. If they have a really personal style in their furniture, tools, coffee machines or whatever, we call them "designers". After all, the industrial designer of today is just a portion of the job that used to belong to the artisan. Thus, personal style is something that can not really be used to distinguish between an "author" and an "artisan".

In Italy, the largest publishers often publish un-credited games made by their own employees. In most cases these are just one-season instant games that can sell a lot but are quickly forgot and replaced by new ones next year. Nevertheless this accounts for a large share of the Italian game market. This does not happen so much with books as most publishers always use freelance writers. This is another example of how game designers are more like an artisan than an author.

Maybe this point of view is linked to my personal story and my local environment. In Italy, if you are not a full-time employee of a game publisher (and there are very few who are), you have to do a bit more than just design games in order to make a living, something which I've managed to do for more than twelve years. Board games are perfect for this, especially when you make them for promotional or training purposes. You do not have to rely on royalties since you can negotiate a fixed fee based solely on your time and effort and for the use of your ideas. I have created several board games that were used as promotions for other products, for example. Even so, boardgames are not enough. In this job you sometimes need to do board games, sometimes CD-Roms and other times Internet games. For several years I created games for television and radio. I've created game inserts for magazines, for teletext, for magazine advertising, for theater programs. I also wrote books about games, taught the use of games to teachers and librarians, reviewed games for magazines, translated games, edited games and translated rules. All this practical work was a job from which I could make a living whereas I could not have survived just designing games alone. By itself this does not really differentiate between the author and the artisan because many authors also have other jobs: Umberto Eco is a professor, Jorge Luis Borges was a librarian, Italo Calvino a translator and editor. The point is that when I create a game on commission, I work exactly like the carpenter who creates a bookshelf for me: he has to cope with my needs and with the crooked walls of my flat. I have to cope with the needs of the people asking me to create a game for promotion, advertising or training. The subject, the game materials, the target are often given to me, and I then have to do the best I can with them, fitting them together with my ideas and my design into a smooth and well-working game. Similar to how my carpenter will have to do his best with the constraints given by the shape of my house and by the kind of books and games that the bookcase will hold. Again, I must act more like an artisan than an author.

When I design a boardgame about Ulysses, or air aces of the First World War, or Etruscian tombs in Central Italy, I do it because the artist in me feels like creating such a game. However, when I edit/rework them to suit the catalogue of a publisher, I feel more like an artisan caring for the tastes and needs of his client than an artist simply expressing whatever he has in his soul.

It is true that I also published a few books for children at the request of publishers that gave me the subject, instructions, research materials and more. Still, I am the "author" of those books none-the-less. But even in these cases I feel more like an artisan than an artist, and maybe these are the two words that should really be compared. "Author" and "artisan" are not too far from each other whereas "artist" and "artisan" are separated a bit more. So while I do not complain about being called a "game author", I do feel that "game artisan" is a better description of my real job.

Incidentally, I think that this "artisan attitude" toward game design is quite wide-spread here in Italy and is creating something of a local style, quite different from other nations. I'd suggest that recent Italian games have a distinct feel. In Italian games, the rules and the chrome are far more connected to each other than in most German games where it's common to have an abstract mechanic with a theme pasted on it—often by the marketing department. It could be that in the next edition the mechanics will be exactly the same but the setting will be totally different! You could not make a new War of the Ring, Bang! or Wings of War just by changing the chrome. Our games tend to have simple basic mechanics that are quite rational but even when they are not so simple they feel easier than equivalent foreign ones. War of the Ring has a long rulebook but I personally think that every rule fits into the system in a more harmonic way than Axis and Allies for example. Besides, Italians love the arts: I think that there is an attention to the aesthetic in Italian games that is a bit greater than in other nations. Just compare the miniatures from War of the Ring to the ones in Lord of the Rings Risk, even though the latter is produced by a far larger company. Consider the effect this had on Fantasy Flight Games—they seem to have liked those little figures so much that they used the same approach in games such as Doom and Descent (even asking for the same artist). However, I am probably not the most objective person to judge Italian games. Italians are often funny people, so proud of their country even if often ready to criticize it mercilessly.

In any event, I hope that I have made a case that it is more correct to call me an artisan than author, artist or inventor.

- Andrea Angiolino

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