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Your New Favourite Roll-and-Write?
Ganz Schön Clever or That’s Pretty Clever, as it has been termed for the English-speaking market, is my favourite roll-and-write. In a highly cluttered market, it stands out for me with its simplicity, multiple scoring opportunities and highly satisfying cascading turns in the later rounds. It works in any player count and is brilliant in solo. I never thought I would find another game in this field that would beat it. But I did. Welcome To and Rail Road Ink are very good games and have far better themes, I mean, they have a theme! I rate them very highly. But it is the next outing in the roll-and-write market from the same publisher as Ganz Schön clever, Schmidt Spiele, that has pipped it for me. With a similarly odd title, Man muss auch gönnen können is my new favourite dice chucking game, and I would say, an essential game for any collection. It translates to “you have to also grant others something”, and this is a major part of the game that I will come onto later. It has been released to the UK market at Divvy Dice, which is one of the worst names I have ever heard, but like Ganz Schön Clever, this game has zero theme, So the name is irrelevant. This is all about the game play. And its brilliant!
WBG recently sat down with the brilliant team, Ulrich Blum and Jens Merkl, to ask them how it came about.
We regularly pitch game ideas to each other to find out if it would be a project we are both exited in. One day Jens said: There are so many roll-and-writes and they all have this static score sheet. What if it wasn’t a pre-printed sheet, but something you actively build throughout the game. Wouldn’t that be cool?
The idea immediately clicked, and we started working on it. We had a prototype pretty quickly and it already resembled what can be found in the box now. We knew there was only one publisher we wanted to pitch this game to. Fortunately for us Schmidt Spiele liked the game just as much as we do.
Awesome! This is your 8th (Jens) /9th (Ulrich) game now right? How did you first get into making board games?
Jens: My very first steps I did back in the 80s as an 8-year-old. I designed a kind of a solo game with a standard deck of cards, that I loved to play. Believe me, I had friends! I made the game when I was on holidays with my parents. The next bit of board game design, I did during my studies (Interactive Media Studies at the Film academy in Ludwigsburg, Germany). We had a workshop with Noah Falstein, one of the first game designers of Lucas Arts Games, where they did famous games like ZackMcKracken, Monkey Island or Indiana Jones - and the last crusade. The cool thing was, this digital games expert, told us a lot about designing games, and he did that by letting us design... Analogue Board Games! Because it was a course about game design, not about programming, he had chosen the analogue games to teach us mechanics. And again, I had lots of fun and we did an interesting game there, which is called I am Bob!, which by the way is still on my shelf. Hey, maybe I have to show that to someone! Anyway, after my studies, I had the opportunity to design games for the hybrid system tiptoi from Ravensburger (hybrid as in: combining analogue and digital elements). I did 13 games for that system, but only one is listed on BGG, because the others where kind of a mixture of game, story and learning which you can only play solo, which BGG doesn’t list as board games. So yes, eight classical board games.
Ulrich: I also have a few more projects than the ones that can be found on BGG. Mainly because all forms of play are interesting to me and if the chance to work on something weird is thrown my way, I’m usually interested.
Like many game designers, I did my first designs back when I was about eight or ten. Some of these prototypes even still exist. As for doing game design on a professional level, it started with me getting hit by a car whilst riding a bicycle. I couldn’t work as an actor (what I wanted to do at the time) or as a chef (what I did to pay the bills) for a whole year. I started working on games to keep my sanity (doing nothing loses its appeal after about two weeks). Via a few winding paths, this led to me winning the German game designer scholarship, which is highly recognised in the German industry. That’s when I decided to go full time (the money couldn’t be worse than from acting, right?), which I managed to pull off two years later.
What an interesting path into the field. I am glad you were not seriously hurt in the accident Ulrich! How did you both get into the hobby as players?
Jens: As a kid I played a lot of board games. But as a teen I was more into computer games like Civilization, Monkey Island and Sim City. Then consoles took over with titles like Tony Hawks and Pro Evolution Soccer. As for boardgames, I was completely out for quite a while. Until one day friends wanted to play this game called Carcassonne of which I never heard anything. And so, it all started again.
Ulrich: I never hat to get into gaming. I can simply not remember a time when I didn’t play board games. It is probably something that makes the market in the German speaking countries special to this day. The Spiel des Jahres is so widely recognised that you will come into contact with modern game design early on. We played a lot as a family. And while we did play quite a few games of Risk (we never really liked Monopoly), more modern games where always being played too.
Roll-and-write are all the rage right now, but this one feels different. How did you go about making such a fresh feeling game within such a busy sector?
We try to have something new and fresh in every design we work on. As described before we pitch Ideas to each other quite often, to find out if it is something we want to work on together. This is a very effective first filter. Even your first idea needs to have something to get the other excited. Otherwise it’s not something we pursue (at least not together). The central idea of building your own score sheet, was there from the very beginning. Now, an idea on its own is not worth a lot and we strongly reject the image of the creative person that has a eureka moment and everything is just there. It’s the execution that makes a good game and is responsible for 99% of the work. But a good idea can give a vision of what you’re trying to achieve. It’s a goal or a signpost. The road right in front of you might be unfamiliar and confusing, but a clear vision will keep you from making too many detours.
Excellent advice! The solo mode is amazing too, with the mini campaign scoring mechanism. Was it important to you to have a strong solo mode in this game? How was this developed?
Ulrich: I play games solo quite often. So, I took the lead on the solo version. I want a challenge in a solo game. I want to be able to lose the game. That’s why pure high score races are never as appealing to me. I’ll play them, but I prefer this constant threat that it might all go wrong.
These thoughts led us to the basic system of the solo game, where everything below a certain score is a lost game. From there it was only a small step to create several levels with increasing difficulty. Once we had that, we thought: and why would I replay the game once I’ve beaten all the levels? And so, the campaign was born. You now have to win all seven levels back to back. That should keep you busy for a while. And if that’s still not enough for you, you can of course fall back to comparing the final score of all your successful campaigns.
Well I think its brilliant! I’m still struggling to beat it but having a lot of fun trying! What is next for you, are you working on new games?
Oh yes, very much so. We are currently hard at work on a game that’s been in development for quite some years now. As with Gönnen Können we are trying to break a few conventions and do things a little differently. The game is due to come out in the fall of 2021. Unfortunately, we cannot yet talk about it too much. This much we can say: Players will experience an interactive story and they won't be sitting down doing so. We’ve put in (and still are) an extraordinary amount of work and we are looking forward to the release quite a bit.
Not sitting down? Intriguing! I will look out for that. What game, not made by you, would have been your dream game to have been involved with in the development phase?
Ulrich: At the moment I am quite impressed with the design of Fog of Love. What fascinates me, is the way it works for different types of players. The game experience is obviously improved if you role-play your character a bit. But unlike other games with that quality, Fog of Love doesn't break down if players are reluctant to the role-play aspect. The mechanisms are built in a way that even if you play purely mechanical, you will still create a vivid three-dimensional character. This concurrence of mechanism and story (or theme if you will) is something I admire very much in games that achieve it.
Jens: That’s a difficult question. I might say Pandemic Legacy Season 1. I was impressed with how the designers achieved such a well-balanced game. Considering all the changes the players will make to the game throughout the campaign, that is quite remarkable.
Agreed. We love it too. If you could have a game night with any other designers, who would it be and why?
Jens: Michael Schacht, Rita Modl and Peter Jürgensen. With the right communication game, that would be a blast. We would be laughing quite a lot in this group.
Ulrich: There are too many to mention. Generally playing games with other designers is super fun. Just because you can always feel this great love for board games in each one of us. I also feel very blessed that I don’t have to imagine playing games with some of the big names in the industry. I can just give them a call and visit them.
Brilliant! Very jealous of that! What are your top five games to play?
Jens: It’s kind of hard, but let me try an All Time List: Stone Age, The Pillars of the Earth, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy, Man Muss auch gönnen können (Is that allowed? Sorry, I love to play that game, even after hundreds of testing rounds ;-)
Great list, and yes, I think that is definitely allowed, it’s on my list for sure too! It was great chatting with you both, thanks for your time. I look forward to hearing about your next game and will get some comfy shoes ready!
Making Games Funky!
Instagram is full of amazing accounts, so it would be foolish to say what our favourite one is. BUT! One of our favourite accounts is certainly Play that funky boardgame. Not just because of the Awesome name and content, but the fresh and honest approach Thomas brings to a range of games. We recently had a chat with Thomas from Play that funky boardgame to talk to him about all things funky. Want to know how to build a 17k base? Read on…
Great to chat with you Thomas. How long have you been playing games and what got you into the hobby to begin with?
I played a lot of board and card games as a kid, of course these have been mainly classic games and mass market games. During my time at the university I played the occasional game of Catan and Carcassonne with fellow students, but I was never as involved in these first modern boardgames as some of my friends were at that time. It was 2013 when my journey into this wonderful world of modern board games began. The games that got me into the hobby were your typical gateway games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, 7 Wonders, King of Tokyo, Dixit and for some strange reason Robinson Crusoe, which really captivated my attention right from the start. It took me quite some time to get the rules down, but once I finally did, this game took me on a ride that really showed me how amazing modern board games can be. My fascination for Robinson Crusoe never faded away. It’s still my favourite game of all time.
I can see why! So talking about your Instagram account, tell us a bit about how this came about and what inspired you to start this.
I probably would have never gotten into this hobby if it weren’t for all the amazing content creators out there that shared their passion for modern boardgames on YouTube and other platforms at that time. People like Tom Vasel and the whole Dice Tower crew, Quinns, Matt and Paul from Shut Up & Sit Down and Rodney Smith from Watch it Played really showed me the way. These content creators were my main source for getting information and recommendations on board games. So, once I was finally at home in this board gaming world, it felt natural to become a content creator myself to give something back to the community and to bring more people into this amazing hobby. In 2017 I started my Instagram channel, mainly because I was constantly taking pictures during game nights anyway. So, I figured, why not share my pictures and the corresponding board gaming experiences with others. Instagram also looked like the right platform to get in touch with other gamers around the world. Over the course of the last three years my Instagram channel continuously grew and gave me the opportunity to experiment with different formats and to constantly find new ways to be creative, which I’m very thankful for.
The hobby must have taken you to so many fascinating places and enabled you to meet so many amazing people. Can you share some stories from your adventures in games?
I've definitely met a lot of amazing people and made some really great friendships over the past few years through this hobby. Convention season is always a very exciting time, because it gives you the chance to meet so many fantastic people with so many different backgrounds from all over the world all at once. I could fill pages with great stories surrounding the hobby, but two of my fondest memories are about gaming experiences I had with my family. The first one was playing Pandemic Legacy Season 1 with my amazing wife over the course of two weeks during Christmas vacation 2015. It was our first time playing a legacy game and an unbelievably immersive experience for both of us. The other one was playing Stuffed Fables with my kids. This game has a very special place in my heart.
I really must try that game. I think my kids would love it too. Board games are predominately a social exercise and the community is amazing to be a part of. Is there anything the board game community could do more of do you think to connect better with others and support certain causes?
Playing board games is per definition a very social activity that has the power to connect people from all sorts of backgrounds with one another. In my experience most gamers are very friendly, and I’ve seen a lot of support for a variety of different social causes from within the board gaming community over the past years. Of course, there’s always room for improvement and I think it’s important that we as a community keep striving towards an open and inclusive environment in which everyone is welcomed with open arms at the gaming table and beyond.
Here, here! How has the recent lock down effected your gaming?
Well, I haven’t seen my regular gaming groups for quite a while. Fortunately, my family also loves to play board games, so I was still able to get some games to the table during the last couple of months. I also used the spare time to create some more content for my channel and to start a couple of new collaborations with other content creators on Instagram and on YouTube. I‘m regularly collaborating with the German You Tube Channel Better Board Games for which Im doing a lot of videos right now. I also have a biweekly talk with Dennis from Brettspiele & mehr, also a German Boardgame you Tube Channel.
What are the plans for you and your work in the future?
I will try to constantly improve my content on Instagram and to experiment with a few new ideas I’ve developed during the lockdown. I’m also planning on doing more collaborations with other content creators, especially on YouTube, since I've really come to enjoy making video content over the last couple of months.
What advice would you give to people starting up on Instagram who hope to build a community such as yours?
Be authentic. Be creative. Make content you're really passionate about. Create stuff that has value to other gamers. And never be afraid of reaching out to other members of the community. The board gaming community on Instagram is a very friendly place full of amazing people that are always willing to collaborate, share their knowledge and offer their support.
I could not agree more! Can you talk about some of your favourite games right now?
I guess, I've already talked enough about Robinson Crusoe, but I can’t resist mentioning it again. Anyone who likes highly thematic and very challenging, cooperative games should play this game at least once in his or her lifetime. Another game that really got to me over the last couple of years is Everdell, a gorgeous game that offers an amazing mix of worker placement and card-driven engine-building and creates an unbelievably beautiful world - mainly due to Andrew Bosley fantastic artwork - that I just want to spend more time in. If you enjoy heavy euro games with great themes, like I do, you definitely have to check out Vital Lacerda’s games like Vinhos, The Gallerist and most recently On Mars and of course all of the games that have been published by Mindclash Games so far, Trickerion, Anachrony and Cerebria.
A phenomenal list. Mirrors mine in a few areas! What about a few to look out for in the future?
The games I’m looking forward to the most right now are Perseverance, Merchants of the Dark Road, Namiji, Merchants Cove, the new edition of Rococo and hopefully we’ll get a third season of Pandemic Legacy someday.
Absolutely. It was great chatting with you Thomas. We will continue to follow your work on Instagram, and YouTube with avid interest. Thanks for talking with us.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us here, first up could you talk a bit about your background in the games industry?
Rachel: I was a digital artist for a number Nintendo DS Games during an internship and actually ran a mobile game studio with a few friends under the name of Firedroid. We both also participated a few times in Global Game Jams but had no connections or experience in the board games industry before starting Semi Co-op.
So, what got you into the hobby as a player?
Heinze: Board gaming specifically was a result of our apartment flooding about ten years ago. Because we had to live at Rachel’s mother for a few months while our apartment was drying out and the insurance needed to be sorted, we came across a copy of Agricola in a shop and Rachel really liked the concept of the game and bought it. Before that time, we played some D&D 3.5 and Munchkin with friends but that was the moment we really started focussing on board games. After participating in a couple of Netrunner tournaments at our local game store we started to find more people in our town that enjoyed playing board games and then it became one of our favourite ways to spend our free time!
And now a webcomic which is amazing! How did that come about?
Rachel: After becoming a freelance illustrator I decided I wanted a project to improve my character art skills. While I could’ve just followed along with some tutorials, I knew it wouldn’t stick unless I had a reason to keep making art. It started with a general idea of a webcomic centred around us and geeky things but after some initial test comics, we decided that sticking to a niche like board gaming would make it interesting and unique and it would give us a great excuse to discover more board games!
Well it certainly stuck! What do you see in the future? What’s next for you?
Heinze: We would love to expand the amount of time we can spend making Semi Co-op comics and other things and it’s awesome that publishers are starting to commission more sponsored comics and people support our regular comics on Patreon. We would love to do more with animation and live streams as well, we’ve done some fun videos and streams and we have some good ideas but it’s financially not possible to spend the required time on it right now.
Sounds great! Which game designer would you most like to have a games night with and why?
Rachel: Oh no, great question! Uhm, there are quite a few game designers I would consider my friends now, so this is a really hard choice. Maybe I’d go for Patrick Leder or Cole Wehrle, they seem like such nice people and we haven’t met them yet but would really like to!
Heinze: I would love to have a games night with Nikki Valens, she is probably my favourite designer and I would love to see how she analyses and plays games plus she apparently is crazy good in Gloomhaven. A few years ago, at Spiel she offered that we could play a prototype she brought and somehow being tired and a bit overwhelmed by the offer I turned it down and I still feel very silly for doing that…
Rachel: I can join this game night with Nikki as well, right? She’s awesome.
Sounds fun, can I join too!? It was lovley chatting with Rachel and Heinze. Check out there website here
Have you checked out the Semi Co-op web comic yet? It’s amazing and WBG recently chatted with Rachel Kremer and Heinze Havinga, the real people behind these awesome cartoons to find out what brought them to this stage.