The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Franz-Benno Delonge Interview

Dave Shapiro

August, 2004

May you live in interesting times.

Ancient Chinese curse.

What a fascinating era we live in. Future historians will compose dissertations on the effects of the Technological Revolution, contrasting it with earlier historical pivot points that forever altered the course of civilization. The profound implications of this revolution permeates everything today from work product to leisure activities. Even a niche area such as board gaming cannot remain isolated from the staggering achievements in electronic communications. Consider that in less time than it requires to read this article, you could log on to a site that allows you to play opponents from around the world choosing from hundreds of different games. Another, possibly more significant benefit of this information age is the exposition and spread of ideas; gaming concepts in one part of the world can be shared with gamers everywhere else in the world. Can anyone reasonably argue that the internet has not been a prime factor in the tremendous interest and growth in Euro-style gaming?

Gamers around the world have contributed to the ease with which we are able to expand our choices. I do not hesitate to purchase foreign language games as I am confident that a translation will be available. Among my favorite games are Wongar and Wallenstein; neither has ever been published in my native tongue and probably never will be. (For those purists who would insist that I learn an alternate language, I must confess that though the intricacies of mathematics I comprehend readily, attempts to understand even rudimentary concepts in foreign languages continues to elude me—if you must suggest that I am ignorant, please do so in English.)

Of course the Yin-Yang nature of the universe requires that there be a counter-acting force to balance these advancements, this progress. Most of these opposing forces are substantially insignificant; for example, the noticeable change in the boasts of business letterheads. "Established in 1857" has been replaced with the new dot-com mantra "Established in January". Another, significantly more relevant effect, is the direct result of the exponential increase in the variety of product. The diversity of the games now marketed increases the probability that some real gems may be missed, lost in the cacophony created by the expanding availability itself. With literally thousands of games detailed on BoardGameGeek, how does one know which are the real treasures, the precious few, gifts from the gaming gods? Even with the fantastic amount of information available, how can you be assured that some rare, outstanding design, one of the great ones has not "slipped through the cracks"? Unfortunately it is simply impossible to examine every new release, checking ratings and reviews. One of the solutions is for gamers, who uncover a great game, to draw the attention of other players to their discovery.

Franz-Benno DelongeThe games of Franz-Benno Delonge are just such a discovery, a hidden treasure. To date, five of his designs have been published: four board games and a card game. (Big City, Hellas, TransAmerica, Dos Rios and Zahltag.) Each is unique in both presentation and mechanic. Accessibility, quality, a well integrated theme, intensity and excellent balance are trademarks of the Delonge style. His games demonstrate the author's respect for the intelligence of the player. Reviews of these games include comments such as: superior, brilliant, outstanding, exceptional, excellent and (most important) fun. One comment stunned me as I have never encountered this with a description of any other designer's work. Rick Heli (of Spotlight on Games) described Delonge's games as noble; a very accurate and astute interpretation. For those who are unaware or simply missed these games, a short description of the elements of his published accomplishments follows.

Big City is a tile laying game with three dimensional tiles. The tiles are molded plastic forms in the shapes of a variety of buildings. The city grows with the placement of each new tile (building) resulting in a visually delightful presentation reminiscent of the SimCity computer game. The unique aspect of this game derives from the variable value of the tiles played. A building played at one time early in the game may, and probably will, have an alternate value if played at a later time. Values are dependant on the adjacent properties with one player's tile altering the potential value of his opponents' tiles; possibly with greater benefit to the opponent than the player. This is Carcassonne on steroids.

Hellas is an intense little contest where two players vie to control ten cities in ancient Greece. As the creation of the playing field is an integral portion of play, no two games will ever be the same. Being ancient Greece, the requisite gods appear in the form of three decks of cards that directly influence different aspects of play. Balanced with NASA-standards precision, the game see-saws back and forth as players often exchange the lead. Refreshingly, Hellas includes direct confrontation, conflict; an asset so often excluded in Euro-style games.

Hellas

Zhaltag is Delonge's only published card game to date. Players must hire construction crews in an attempt to win contracts and gain income. Revolving around blind bidding and a strong element of resource management, the game is competition for Faidutti/Colovini's Vabanque or Schacht's Mogul. Tension builds during the game as play concludes when the fifth Payday card is revealed (similar to Union Pacific or Alhambra). The bidding (auction) portion includes every element that intensifies the experience: bluffing, gambling and a required familiarity with your opponents style of play. As with Mogul, there is a heck of a lot of game in this little package.

TransAmerica is "the little choo-choo that could". It is, possibly, the most accessible game ever designed. Any list of suggestions for introducing novices to gaming must include TransAmerica. One's initial encounter with this game suggests that this is little more than another railroad/network race to connect five cities; a rehash of so many of these types of games. The element that elevates TransAmerica above the others is the unique properties that derive from the shared network. Players may merge their lines with that of their opponents, creating an expanded network by the addition of a single piece. No player can win the game without merging, advancing both his position and the potential for his opponents (similar to the dilemma confronting players in Big City). Successful shared network games are extremely difficult to design and thus, very rare. Delonge has designed a game that belongs in every family's library. Note: Alan R. Moon's excellent Ticket to Ride (2004 Spiel des Jahres winner) is not a TransAmerica "killer" any more than it displaces 1830, Age of Steam or even Empire Builder (ok, maybe Empire Builder). Both are good games; owning and playing one does not exclude enjoying the other.

Dos Rios is the most recent Delonge offering and it is probably the most difficult of the group. Set in South America the theme is that of a nobleman (hidalgo) managing the resources of various fields. The game pivots on control of two rivers that span the length of the board and determine the productive tiles. An element of conflict is introduced increasing the opportunities and depth of the game as opponents scoring units (campesinos) may be forced to return to the city. Those familiar with Settlers of Catan will find some similarities here. However, where trading resources is the central component of Settlers, tactical control of the rivers is the driving force in Dos Rios and this results in a completely different experience. The game is more Kramer (Tikal) than Teuber; it is cerebral Settlers.

These games are jewels and one will not be disappointed by playing any of them. One day soon, following the publication of a breakthrough game, players will be astonished to find that there is a history, a catalog of great Delonge offerings similar to the surprise acknowledged by many readers of the best selling The DaVinci Code upon discovering that this was not only Dan Brown's fifth novel, it was actually a loosely based sequel to his Angels and Demons.

Franz-Benno Delonge is one of those rare men with greatly varied interests at which he excels. He is a family man, philosopher, author, designer, a judge (in Munich), an observer and interpreter of the human condition, opinionated and dynamic. He is a man who thinks "out of the box" with ambition, confidence and persistence; a Renaissance man.

With many artists, privacy is paramount and justifiably so as we may enjoy their work without claims on their personal lives. However, it is human nature to desire more information; the back story, the foundation. Fortunately, Franz-Benno Delonge is an exception; he is receptive and cordial. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions. I have taken the liberty of editing some of the questions and his responses to eliminate some of the overlap of information with the presentation above. Prior to submitting this to The Games Journal, I requested that His Honor review the article for errors or corrections.

Dave Shapiro: When and how did you become interested in games?

Franz-Benno Delonge: I started gaming as a little boy of 6 or 7 years. I often spent weeks at the house of my grandmother, who lived in the countryside, together with two of her sisters. These three widowed, old ladies loved gaming—board games and card games. And the most popular Bavarian card game is for four players! It is quite difficult to learn, but they made me learn it before I was 8 years old.

What interests do you have other than gaming?

Soccer! Collecting useless things. Philosophy. Drinking beer with my friends. Family life with my wife and daughter.

What does your family think of your game activities?

My wife likes certain kinds of games and joins my gaming round sometimes, but not too often. She doesn't mind that I spend time working on my games. My daughter is just four years old and always wants me to play games with her.

Which of your designs is your favorite?

This is hard to answer! I like TransAmerica because it was my biggest success so far and because it works so well with so few rules; but if I am to play, I would prefer Big City, Hellas or Dos Rios. Probably the best thing I ever did is a game that will (finally!) come out in Nurnberg 2005, called Manila. This game is actually five years old but I'd still play it any time of day.

Which game was the most difficult to design?

Definitely Dos Rios. This was a fine basic idea right from the start, which was about four or five years ago. All of my fellow gamers said that this had great potential but everyone added that it still wasn't quite where it should be. The Kosmos guys said the same thing when after two years of improving the game; I offered it to them. We agreed to a contract that gave them an "option" and forced me to work on the game for two more years. Finally we had something we were all convinced of.

Which game was the easiest to design?

Also an easy answer: TransAmerica. I had the idea one day while reading an interesting article in the newspaper. In the evening, I built the game and wrote down the rules. I did two or three test games with friends and added just one more rule: That all of the rails of one player must be connected. And the game was ready—no more changes until it came out.

TransAmerica is a very popular game. I read that you had submitted the game to a variety of publishers for nearly ten years before it found a home. Why did you persist when so many would have become discouraged and tried something else?

TransAmericaThat is not exactly correct. TransAmerica was ten years old when it was finally published but I did not offer it for the entire time. I offered it to about ten companies for three or four years but no one wanted it so I put it on the shelf and let it catch dust. I continued to work on other ideas which, luckily, had more success. Years later and just by chance, I read a short notice in the circular letter of the Game Designers Association which said that Winsome Games in the U.S. was always interested in new railroad games. I went to their booth in Essen and showed them my old game. They were interested and I thought: better to have 100 copies sold than none, so the game was released in Essen, one year later. Then Winning Moves, who had heard about it through obscure channels, asked for a license. You know the story from there.

To date, Zahltag is your only published card game. Do you prefer designing board games to card games and which is more challenging?

I do not prefer one over the other, but it seems that card games don't come as easy. I have great respect for the guys who invent great, perfect card games such as Kuhhandel, Bohnanza, and Mamma Mia but I don't seem to count among them.

Some designers have stated that once they began designing games, they lost interest in playing games. Do you continue to play games?

I agree that the fun of creating a new game usually is a bigger thrill than buying and playing a game created by someone else. But I will never stop playing purchased games and I do not understand authors who do stop this. The best example is Klaus Teuber, the greatest game designer that I know. He is still very interested in any new game that comes to the shops. And if he is still interested then anyone else has enough reason to be too.

What types of games do you enjoy and what is your favorite game (not your own design)?

There are certain kids of games that I do not like: games that have big rule books, games that take more than 90 minutes playing time and games that do not fit their theme. The opposite of these three things is what I call a great game. Presently I am an addicted fan of Ticket to Ride although this one seems to be about to dig off the water [steal the thunder] from my TransAmerica. Another new game I also love is Attika. My all time favorite is still Settlers of Catan although it does not see as much table time as it did.

As a designer, do you ever play a game and believe you could have improved on it?

If you mean my own games, then I must say yes. For example: Big City. Today I would no longer suggest playing it with five players and I would change the rule that city hall produces no points at all—sometimes it is too long before someone wants to build it. As for games from other designers, yes, sometimes when playing a game I have some ideas that I think might improve the game. Occasionally we try these ideas but not often. I prefer to play games that impress me just the way they are.

Some designers will not play games that they designed. One stated that every time he began playing one of his designs, he noted all of the mistakes he had made. Another designer claimed that he would not play his own games because they reminded him of work, not entertainment. When you play games in a social setting, do you ever play games that you designed?

Yes, I do. I invite friends for a gaming evening at my home usually every 14 days. Usually we begin these evenings by play testing one of my own designs that I am working on. Later, we turn to "ready" games and there we make no difference between my own designs and bought boxes. Manila, mentioned before, is still my biggest hit in my own gamers group.

Sackson and Teuber used family members and friends to play test their games, others use outside play test groups. How do you play test a new idea?

I have a circle of about five hard core friends who would not mind play testing once a week. There are about ten to fifteen other people who like to play test maybe once a month. This is more than enough. Among these testers is my brother and my brother-in-law is the toughest of them all.

Have you ever "accidentally' designed something into a game? For example: TransAmerica is a shared network game. It is unlikely that a player could win without merging with another player. Was this a deliberate part of the design?

Right. This appeared in the game unintentionally! The basic idea was just the task of connecting five points with the shortest route. A really good game has its own life. It will always show some features that the designer never thought of.

Players have created their own variants for TransAmerica and Big City. How does a designer view these types of variants? Does it offend a designer when players tinker with the design of a game?

Definitely not. At least this shows that these people like the game enough to think a lot about it. For example, I like the additional buildings Greg Aleknevicus invented for Big City.

Your games have some of the greatest integration of theme and mechanic. Where do you find the inspiration for your themes/mechanics and have you ever considered designing an abstract game?

My games always develop from the theme, not from the mechanics. I need to have a theme that captures me; then the mechanics come along, just out of the logic of the theme. I never like games that obviously took shape the other way around. The problem is: as long as I have no good, new theme, I cannot work on a new game. And sometimes there is a very long time between two good ideas... but I cannot force it. Fortunately, there are always enough old ideas laying on the shelf because they have not turned into a good game. As long as I have no new ideas, I keep working on the old ones.

Have you ever considered designing a role playing game?

No, never. I never cared for and never play these types of games.

Recently, Alan R. Moon acknowledged that Oasis was not a recent design, it simply found a publisher much later than his other designs. In which order were your games designed?

By far the oldest idea was TransAmerica. Next was Manila (the new game to be published) and Big City which was my first published game. Next I started work on the Dos Rios idea. Zahltag and Hellas began about one year later.

Both Hellas and Dos Rios have elements of conflict (Hellas is almost a micro wargame and in Dos Rios, players can send opponent's pieces back to the city). This is somewhat unique in Euro-type games, how has this been received?

I learned that some people object to these conflict-type games. This annoys me as I despise "political correctness" in any shape. We should see Mankind and the world as they are, not as we want them to be.

Do reviews/criticism of a published game influence your design decisions in subsequent games?

Yes, they do, especially if negative critics can convince me. I try to make no mistake more than once.

There was a discussion/debate between Friedemann Friese and yourself concerning whether the rules of games translate into reality (real life). This is actually a question of Art versus Life. Would you like to expand on your philosophy?

Nice to know that somebody took notice of this funny discussion.

To expound on my philosophy is not easy, as philosophy is a very important thing for me. It does not seem to have much to do with my games. I could describe my personal philosophy as very immoral. I believe that the basic thing in life is the "pursuit of happiness" of the individual. This "happiness" for me, is just defined as "feeling good", which can be mostly described as sensual pleasure. Other people too are the source of such individual happiness. The interesting thing here is that this special kind of pleasure is double-sided: sometimes we are happy because other people are happy too; another time we are happy because other people are much less happy than we are. Each side is as natural as the other. Both can give us sensual pleasure. Gaming is not the worst example to explain this: sitting together with friends at the gaming table is fun; beating the other players and witnessing their troubles is fun too.

Video games are extremely popular today. Other than the obvious effect on sales of board games, do you think this has influenced the design of board games in any way?

I don't see how they could. They are in a completely different world from board games. I see that Klaus Teuber has tried to change a computer game into a board game but so far, I am not very impressed with the results.

There are many people that play "board games" on the Internet (Yahoo, The Zone, BrettspielWelt, etc). Do you ever participate in these and do you think this is the future of gaming?

Maybe this is the future of gaming but I myself do not participate. I have tried the TransAmerica version on BrettSpielWelt occasionally but this way of gaming is not much fun. I do not like to sit at the computer, gaming. For me, gaming must take place at a table, with real gamers of flesh and blood.

In the U.S. there has been significant debate concerning the value and influence games have on children. The discussion usually centers on the theory that competition in games encourages aggressiveness in children. The second point of contention is the violence found in games (usually this is limited to video games but Dungeon and Dragons players have been the target in the past). As a designer, how do you respond to these arguments?

It is ok to educate children in a way that makes them fit better into society but it is a joke to educate them in such a way that they become doves. If you try this, you will just create hypocrites and this we have in abundance. On the other hand, I would not mind seeing the worst examples of video games banned. Not because extreme aggression is "evil, but because it does harm when living together in large groups as we do today.

What I find very strange is the fact that we seem to fear "sexual evidence" more than violence. By the way—do you know the difference between sex and murder? It is illegal to commit murder in reality, but it is legal to show it in detail on TV. With sex it is the other way around.

Personally, I find the entire debate dishonest and forced. The one case in particular, that received so much attention here was the episode where two high school students entered their school and shot several other students. The news media here suggested that this was the result of the two playing violent video games and Dungeon & Dragons. No one bothered to ask how two 16 year old boys were able to obtain shotguns and ammunition.

Ok, I watched Bowling for Columbine in the cinema. I agree with about two-thirds of what Michael Moore is saying but the old NRA slogan is not so wrong either: "Guns don't kill, people do".

While researching, I discovered your book, Ruckhaltose Aufklarung (Straight Talk?).

The correct translation would probably be Inconsiderate Clearing-up. It is a satirical encyclopedia of the professional language of politicians ...and maybe not only German ones.

Which do you enjoy more—writing or designing?

Designing games gives me more enjoyment, more success and less disappointment but I want to continue to work on books too.

Can you share some of your future plans?

There are three new games to be published in the next few months and I am looking forward to all of them.

First will be Nah Dran from Piatnik. The game was presented at Nurnberg this year but is still not published as they have had some production problems. I doubt the game will interest you as it is a special type of quiz game which probably won't be translated into English.

Playing the Goldbraeu prototypeNext will be Goldbraeu to be released in Essen 2004. It will be a co-production of Zoch games and a big German book publisher. It is a tough economic game on buying shares and making money. Part of the fun is that the companies you buy shares in are breweries and beer gardens. This gives the whole thing a touch of easiness. The game itself plays very fast and is exciting. Both publishing companies expect it to be a big hit; I hope so too. The co-production of a game publisher and a book publisher is something very special that shows much promise for the future. I believe that the kind of games we play are better off in a bookstore rather than in a toy store. This game will be sold in both types of shops.

Third will be Manila coming out in Nurnberg next year. It is a thrilling betting game. Just wait for it; you will like it.

I have been working on a "serious" political-philosophical book for years but it is a drag to get this finished.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for the many hours of entertainment you have provided through your games.

- Dave Shapiro

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