The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Themes & Mechanics 3.0

Bruno Faidutti

July, 2005

Game Author

I do not like to be called a "game inventor", and assert that my proper title is "game author." A person who creates a game is neither an inventor, nor an explorer who discovers a game which has always existed. Nor does he engineer and tweak a machine which creates evenings of play. Even though writing the final set of rules is not the essential part of the work, the work is like that of an author or writer. A game is indeed structured like a novel or a film screenplay—at least as far as someone like me, an outsider to the world of cinema, can tell.

Like a film or a novel, a game tells a story—but a story which changes with each game. Like a film or a novel, a game is inspired by all the works (books, films, and mostly other games) which have preceded it, and is part of a cultural tradition through references and quotes. This is definitely why I consider role-playing games, undoubtedly the least technical form of gaming but by far the most social and literary, to be the quintessence of gaming. There are of course technical and mechanical aspects in creating a game, testing and adjusting various systems, but the same applies to films and novels, neither of which are considered technical creations.

Players often have the distorted impression that the creation of a game requires complex mathematical calculation, and that games should only made by mathematics geniuses. This is not true, even though the two most notable authors of the past twenty years, Richard Garfield and Reiner Knizia, are trained mathematicians. The majority of authors, like me, are of a more literary disposition, and many come from literature, theater, role playing games, and video games—this last category is also becoming more and more story specific; more and more like writing novels and less and less like writing computer programs. Occasionally you see references to some arcane mathematical "game theory", but this mathematical concept does not have much to do with the reality of a game, and is rarely useful for a game author.

Even though one does not have to be an egghead to conceive games, a certain technical nature is necessary to develop them. One needs to know a little statistics, combinatorics, and probability to have an idea of the frequency of outcomes of picking a card or rolling a die. However, the depth of knowledge needed is nothing close to a full degree in mathematics—it is merely a case of more or less remembering a few tools. A mastery of history and literature is easily as necessary in order to breathe life into the games.

Like that of a writer, the work of a game author is solitary, first staring at the game in one's head, then staring at the game outline on a sheet of paper or computer screen. Only after a long period of turning the idea over in your head, after having imagined the play of the game, can one begin to write down ideas, draw up lists of cards and outlines of the board. Collaborations are much more common in games than in literature, and have become my specialty—my five games for 2005 are all collaborations, all with different authors. These collaborations are of two kinds, depending on whether the authors worked on the product successively, or were present at the start of the conception of the game.

Working With Four Hands

A History of Bruno Faidutti's collaborations
Baston Pierre Clequin 1987
Knightmare Chess Pierre Clequin 1996
Mystery of the Abbey Serge Laget 1996
Knightmare Chess 2 Pierre Clequin 1998
Castle Serge Laget 2000
Draco & Co. Michael Schacht 2001
Vabanque Leo Colovini 2001
Fist of Dragonstones Michael Schacht 2002
De l'Orc Pour les Braves Alan Moon 2003
Queen's Necklace Bruno Cathala 2003
Toc Toc Toc! Gwenaël Bouquin 2004
Boomtown Bruno Cathala 2004
Iglu, Iglu Bruno Cathala 2004
Diamant Alan Moon 2005
Key Largo Mike Selinker, Paul Randles 2005
Silk Road Ted Cheatham 2005
Mission: Planète Rouge Bruno Cathala 2005
The Hollywood Card Game Michael Schacht 2005
Argo Serge Laget 2005

The latter case is most frequent, because it allows the authors who are in a little hurry (eager to finish the current job so they can attack a new one) to work more quickly, effectively, and (at least in my case) with more pleasure. When I create a game with Alan Moon, who lives in the United States, with Michael Schacht, who lives in Germany, or even with Bruno Cathala or Serge Laget, we both work together each on our own sides. Bruno Cathala loves to talk on the telephone, so we discuss our projects often, but with other less loquacious authors we fall into the habit of exchanging emails, rules, and board drawings. The Internet gives us the great ability to do this sort of work, allowing collaborations which were never before possible. Each author tests on his end with his playtesters, and after each play, we exchange impressions, comments, and ideas to try to solve the small problems which appeared during the tests. These constant exchanges speed the process of the creation of a game much faster and more dynamically than when an author works alone—and generally leads to better results, as the design has to satisfy two authors and two groups of playtesters to complete the game. Often, the game is created, and even published without the authors ever sitting down and playing a game together!

It also happens that an author is stuck staring at a project which seems promising, but he cannot find the idea, theme, or mechanism which will again start the machine. A solution is to let the project rest for awhile, place the prototype on a shelf, or leave the computer files in a remote corner of the hard disk, while waiting for inspiration. Those inspirations, however, do not always happen, and the promising project can age and sink behind lapses of memory—I've often found a box full of pawns, cards, and diagrams, and had no earthly idea what it was supposed to do. To avoid this, one can then find a collaborator who can provide a new set of eyes on the project or take over the project entirely.

The Glorious History of Pirates

Paul Randles, one of the authors of Pirate's Cove, created a sequel called Treasure Island, which would have continued the action in the Caribbean realm of Blackbeard, but two or three centuries later. The players would no longer take on the role of pirate captains, but would be treasure hunters searching the sea beds, looking for wrecks of galleons and skiffs sent to the bottom with holds full of gold and gems. Carried away a few months later by a terminal disease, Paul did not have time to finish this game, though it held much promise. A little before his death, he entrusted the game to another amateur pirate, Mike Selinker, who had already worked on Pirates of the Spanish Main. Mike added many parts, and finished the tweaks to make a game with a wealth of tactics and bluff, but the pieces made it a little tiresome to set up and play. He got me to play Treasure Island at Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends, and I quickly realized that one could replace the board, tokens and pawns with cards. This suggestion added me to the project as a third wheel. A few weeks later, I had installed a tavern on the island, modified the programming system slightly, and had put the final hand to a work in which three authors have successively left their mark, even though it remains the initial creation of Paul Randles. The game missed being published by Days of Wonder, and then by Amigo, but it should be appearing from Tilsit this Fall—perhaps it will be called Treasure Island, perhaps Sargasso, perhaps Key Largo... ideas about international titles which are evocative of sunken treasures are welcomed.

- Bruno Faidutti

(Translated from the French by Frank Branham.)

(This article originally appeared in Des Jeux Sur un Plateau magazine.)

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