Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Things TO SAY when pitching to a publisher

My recent post, “Things NOT to say when pitching to a publisher,” has been very popular that past couple of weeks, having been linked to design forums from Boardgamegeek and even an Italien game design website (I couldn’t resist registering there to comment, even though I had to run everything through Googletranslate in order to understand the conversation).

At the prodding of several commenters, including those on Board Game Design Forum, I have now added a list of things you COULD and probably SHOULD say to publishers, when pitching your game to them.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Introductions to Games

As Christmas approaches, I will probably have several opportunities to play games with friends and family.  Most of these occasions will include people who do not normally play games, or people who only know a limited number of games.   In fact, these kinds of situations are not unusual for me, as the bi-monthly game night I host often attracts people who are there more for the social experience than to “learn every new Essen release.”  They could care less who the designer is or what kinds of game mechanics are used.  They simply want to have a good time with friends, both new and old.

That does not stop me, of course, from introducing new games to them, in an attempt to expose them to the wonderful wide world of our hobby.  My choices, however, tend to favor games with short rules and shorter playing times.   Following is a list of my favorite—and best-received—introductions to the hobby, my top “gateway games,” as they are often called.  I've organized them by type of game, as I have found that it is a good idea to have a few games of each type handy--something for everyone, if you will.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Birthday Games

December birthdays are often not celebrated as intensely as those that occur in the less eventful months between holidays.  My birthday was last week, and once again, I did not have the energy to throw a big party for myself and my friends, as there is a constant stream of them from November to January.  As Americans living in Berlin, we celebrate our own traditions and adopt many of the German ones.  This means that we invite our friends over for a Thanksgiving feast in November, then celebrate Advent in the traditional German manner with cookies and hot beverages.  We have also adopted the German tradition of Nikolaustag on December 6, when children place their shoes outside their door and Saint Nikolas places small gifts and chocolate in them while they sleep.  We eat a traditional Bratwurst and Sauerkraut dinner on Christmas Eve as our Berlin friends do, but we open our presents on Christmas Day, as is the tradition Stateside.

In any case, there is so much to do, and we already have so many guests for the other events, that I rarely have enough energy to plan yet another party for myself.  Instead, I usually opt for a quiet evening celebration with my wife and children.  Since my twin sons are now 5 years old and enjoy playing games, I decided to take the family to the Spielwiese gaming café this year for my birthday.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Learning from Penn State

For anyone from the United States, the subject of child molestation and preventing sexual abuse has, again, come to the forefront.  It should not be surprising to anyone, as recent statistics have reported a staggering number of child victims (1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls).

What is shocking to most people in this case, but unfortunately all too common, is the lack of action taken by authorities when abuse was initially reported.  Unfortunately that, too is all too common.  In the Penn State case, it appears that protecting the revered institutions of its university and its football program were more important than taking the claims of child victims seriously.

This happened in the world of high-stakes sports, but it can happen anywhere.
Yes, even in the game room.

Protecting Your Children and Yourself

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Things NOT to Say When Pitching to a Publisher

Your game idea has been lovingly and painstakingly transformed into a playable prototype, and you've received enough encouraging feedback from your playtesters that you are ready to present it to publishers.  There are quite a few blogs and books out there describing the way you should act and the things you should say.  Here are a few things you should avoid saying if you'd ever like to see your name on a cardboard box:

Pitching a game to Hanno Girke in Nuremberg.  How did it go?  
Let me answer this way:  have you seen my name on a Lookout Games box yet?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Finding my Game Titles in Unexpected Places

My sons were at their very first "sleep-over" at a friend's house last night, and my wife and I took advantage of a babysitter-free night to hit the town.  We headed over to the west side Charlottenburg Palace to take in a Baroque concert, but first we stopped by a popular brewery across from the palace for dinner.  The brewery had changed owners since I was last here, and I was surprised to see the same word game that was used for the title of one of my board games, Eine Frage der Ähre.  Normally, the saying is "Eine Frage der Ehre" which means "a question of honor," whereas Ähre is pronounced the same way but means "ears of wheat or corn."  It fit my farming game perfectly, and it seems to be a good marketing slogan for a brewery as well.  Perhaps I can re-theme the game and sell it through the brewery?

Monday, October 31, 2011

2011 After Essen Party

The Essen SPIEL convention 2011 has come and gone, and so has the Spielwiese's After Essen Party.  I've added photos of this year's festivities to the After Essen page.

Serving up Dice Cakes to commemorate the last 5 years of gaming and After Essen Parties at the Spielwiese!

Sunday, October 23, 2011


After a brief 3-hour train ride Wednesday evening, I finally found myself in an Essen guest apartment, anxiously awaiting my first SPIEL fair. My housemates were fellow Berliner and game designer Günter Cornett (Hey, That's My Fish!), designer Stefan Risthaus (Monuments, Level X, Ostia) and his family, and a friendly group of Gamers from Bremen (and fellow Berlin designer Peer Sylvester (Singapore, King of Siam) would join us Friday night). I could hardly sleep, but went to bed so that I could awake in time to make it to the convention center early enough to utilize my 1-hour early pass.

Thursday: Initiation
Thursday morning after the traditional German breakfast of coffee with fresh rolls from the corner bakery, I marched around the convention halls to get an overview of the different booths, which were still being hurriedly set up (and many games were just arriving or on their way). Sheets of cardboard were being punched and games were being set up on tables, while others were stacking boxes and marking prices. When the crowds were allowed in at 10:00, however, all eyes focused on the potential customers and the marathon demoing sessions began.
I said quick hello’s to Cwali’s Corne van Morsel, Bernd Eisenstein at his Irongames booth, and Günter at his Bambus booth. Then I met Michael from the Spielwiese and he gave me a tour of the facility, showing me where the different publishers were located. I made all my new-game purchases based on rules and previews I’d read: Eclipse, which I had pre-ordered (although I honestly don’t know when I will have time to study the rules and get such an involved game to the table), Walnut Grove (a worker-placement tile-laying game with a Little House on the Prairie theme, and I still think they should have included a Laura Ingles vs. Nelly Olsen direct conflict expansion giveaway), Friday (a solo game that couldn’t fit the theme better), The City (Race for the Galaxy for families—I’m in), Ruhm um Rom (a German version of Glory to Rome, as I finally had to see what all the hubbub is about), and the Japanese game Master Merchant (as I wanted to have at least one independent game that would not be available anywhere else, and Dale’s description sounded intriguing). There were many more games in which I was interested, but most of them were by Berlin designers and mainstream German companies and would be easy for me to get later (Hawaii, Singapore, and Frigiti, for example).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Essen Schedule

I'm in the midst of last-minute preparations to attend my first-ever SPIELmesse in Essen. I am looking forward to meeting more of the international gaming community there, and finally experiencing the excitement of the convention live and in person.  I had been excited about the planned release of two of my biggest and most complex games to date, but as often happens in this business, both were postponed until 2012.  The sudden announcement of the release of my card game, Pala, helped to diminish this disappointment, but it now appears that any copies that make it to the show will be incomplete.

Although these events could be discouraging, I'm looking at the bright side and am thankful for the freedom I have to spend time with gamers, designers, and publishers from around the world.  Although I have a few appointments with publishers to talk about prototypes and future releases, I will be free from demoing my games continuously (although I will be demoing for friend Bernd Eisenstein's games for a bit).

If you are planning to attend SPIEL this week and you see me there, please don't be shy and introduce yourself.  Following is a rough schedule of my week:

Friday, October 14, 2011

Lecturing @ Berlin's Technical University

“You were predestined for this, Jeff,” Hartmut wrote in a reply to an email sent out to several Berlin game designers.  It was a request from Berlin’s Technical University.  Their first-year architecture students were beginning the semester with a project on board game design, and they were looking for a game designer to give a lecture on the subject.  The faculty had contacted the Spieleautorenzunft (Game Designer’s Association) which, in turn, forwarded the request to me and the other Berlin members of the organization.  The problem was that the semester would begin the same week as the Essen SPIEL game fair, which all of us were attending.  “They are not flexible in the date of the lecture,” the email read.  But , thanks to Hartmut’s comment, I decided to see if I could convince them otherwise.  After all, who would be better to lecture to architecture students about game design than a former architect who was now a game designer? After writing to the faculty, they agreed and postponed the lecture to the week after Essen.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Prototype2Publisher: PALA

Preparing the Canvas
Back in 2005, I was still working my way through the vast archive of classic German boardgames. At the same time, I was refining my own ideas so that I would finally feel confident enough to bring them to my Monday night gaming group—one that included several established designers as well as others who soon would be.

I had learned German back in the mid 90's when I had first moved to Berlin, but entering into the world of game design felt like language learning all over again.  And although it was important for me to master the grammar of game mechanics, it was the theme of each game idea that inspired me the most, in the same way that the content of poetry moves me more than rhyme or meter.  Or the way that, as an architect, I was much more interested in the spaces and forms created and the concepts communicated than the structural calculations (that is why we have structural engineers, after all).

In any case, I was on the hunt for themes I had not yet seen, confident that new and interesting mechanics would automatically follow.  One of those early designs was about ticket scalping, and it turned into the published game, Circus Maximus, released in 2008.  Another dealt with one of my favorite pastimes of that period: painting.

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN: Where Designs are Discovered

Editor's note:  this was originally published in July, 2006 on

October is a magic month for those in the board game scene.  The SPIEL convention has become such a big event for designers and publishers—as well as a sort of pilgrimage for gamers—that the Mecca of board gaming conventions is referred to simply by its location: Essen.  But there is another meeting in Germany that does not receive as much coverage outside the Fatherland.  It’s the Essen before Essen—the annual Game Designer’s Convention that shows a glimpse into the future of German board gaming.  And like Essen, it has become so big that it, too, is referred to only by the name of the city hosting the event:  Göttingen.

Showing games to publishers at my table in Göttingen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hello, Finland!

One of the joys--or sorrows--of blogging is to check the "stats" page every once in awhile to see who is--or isn't--reading.  Since I am an American living in Berlin and writing in English, it's obvious that most of the hits on my sight come from the U.S. and Germany. Sometimes, however, I will get a few hits that surprise me (Iran, for example), and this week I was amazed to see that there were more hits from the country of Finland than from any other nation!

For anyone following international gaming trends the past couple of years, it may come as no surprise that there is a thriving gaming--and game design culture--in Finland.  There are game publishers bringing their releases to Essen, and Finnish game designers getting their work published in other countries, including Germany.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Universe is Expanding

The Opinionated Gamers just posted a debate on the value or expansions for boardgame hobbyists. From the game designer’s perspective, this trend is also a mixed bag.

But first, we need to ask the question, “What started this expansion craze?”  With Eurogames, it must have been Settlers of Catan.  The reason for this is not only because Herr Teuber created a hit game, but because he invented a modular game system that can be varied in an infinite number of ways.

This is the “Holy Grail” of game design:  not only to create a great game, but to introduce a new gaming system to the hobby.  Gaming systems are easily varied and expanded upon, and this invites tinkering.  Much like a player who enjoys exploring different strategies in a particular game, the game designer can delight in exploring the game system he or she has created. Not only that—it invites fans of the game to become game designers by creating their own variants and scenarios.  Furthermore, published fan designs like Settlers Book give the players a sense of ownership over their favorite game.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #51: The Waiting Game

We spend much of our lives waiting...

...waiting in line or in traffic...

...waiting for a special date...

...or waiting for the next turn in a boardgame...

I wrote about my personal battle with impatience in my newest article of my Postcards From Berlin series on Opinionated Gamers.

No one hates waiting more than a game designer...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Country Music

As someone who prefers variety to one particular style in just about everything, music has been no exception for most of my life.  When someone would ask what I listen to, I'd usually reply, "Everything--but Country."  I grew up listening to New Wave music from Britain and "hair metal" and rock 'n' roll from the U.S.  College introduced me to progressive rock, grunge, and a late appreciation for classic rock.  Later, I listened to rap and hip-hop as a basketball soundtrack, got aerobic workouts at techno trance clubs in Berlin (there was even a phase when I slept to drum 'n' bass CDs on repeat).  Jazz has also always appealed to me, as I played sax for a dozen years.  But even after some "Newgrass" music caught my liking, and I listened to some Johnny Cash after seeing the film, Walk the Line, I still avoided most country music (and my favorite Cash is still his cover of Nine Inch Nails haunting ballad, Hurt).

On my recent trip to the U.S., however, I found myself in the car with one of my sons, speeding around the twisting roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains with no CD's to choose from.  I wanted to listen to some music, but I was at the mercy of FM Radio, and as I hit the "search" button repeatedly, every station turned up a country ditty, accompanied by the familiar twangy vocals and steel guitars.  My 4-year -old German-born son asked, "Are they yodeling?"

Friday, August 26, 2011

Prototype2Publisher: Pergamemnon

I'm not someone who becomes enamored with one particular game--or even game system. By nature, I enjoy variety, and, if anything, I like to look at new game systems more for exploring the possibilities of expanding them or changing them.  Likewise, although I like Dominion and admire the originality in the design, I was not drawn into the "deck-building" craze it inspired on both sides of the Atlantic.

My friend, Bernd Eisenstein, however, thought that the system might work with a conflict-oriented game he was working on, and soon it was the backbone of yet another game set in his favorite theme: antiquity.  It also featured another of Bernd's favorite game elements:  players starting from different positions with civilizations that have varying special powers (as in his first self-published title, Peloponnes). 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Prototype2Publisher: PAX

I enjoy very much the opportunity to see and play the creative game ideas that our group of designers brings to the table each week.  Some people I've met do not care too much for playing "unfinished" games that might have game-breaking flaws, but I like to see the potential in each idea, and I savor my role in providing feedback that will spur the designer on to realize that potential.

Even so, there are very few games that I get excited about after the first playing as much as this card game by my friend, Bernd Eisenstein.  In fact, I eagerly looked forward to playing the game in each iteration, and was bitterly disappointed on those evenings when he did not even bring the prototype with him.  When we did play it, we almost always played a second game back-to-back.  It's that addictive.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Prototype2Publisher: SINGAPORE

I met Peer Sylvester in 2005 and travelled to my first Game Designer's Convention in Göttingen with him that year.  Since then, we've both had our games published, and I've had the pleasure to playtest many of his ideas.  One of them, Singapore, is scheduled for release in Essen this October.  Although he brought the prototype once to the Spielwiese cafe when I was there, that night we happened to be playing on separate tables and I did not have the opportunity to play it.  Pity!  The prototype looked interesting, however, and the rules sound even more intriguing.  I'm looking forward to playing it soon.

In the meantime, Peer has posted a Designer Diary about the making of the game on Boardgame Geek News, and editor W. Eric Martin has even added a summary of the gameplay.

Photo of the box cover courtesy White Goblin Games.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rediscovering My First-Ever Game Design

I was back home in Iowa for a recent visit, and while cleaning out the closet in my old room that still contains a few things of mine—namely, boardgames—I stumbled upon a game design artifact from my childhood.

I opened the small plastic bag and dumped out the pile of hand-drawn cardboard counters, a section of a game board, a “hit” table, several dice, and a rules booklet.  It was the first game I had ever designed.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #50: License to Sell

In my latest article in the series on the Opinionated Gamers website, I write about the increasing popularity of marketing tie-ins between blockbuster films and toys and games.   Now, it seems to have come full circle, as toys and games are becoming the stars in their own motion pictures.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Generating BUZZ

This October will be the first time I’ll finally be able to attend the SPIEL gaming convention in Essen.  Although I have yet to experience it first-hand, I’ve followed the event religiously for years, including the hype leading up to the new releases and the reports made during and after the fair by various gamers and gaming journalists.

As I last wrote, it takes some marketing savvy—especially for small publishers—to attract attention to their new games, as there are at least 600 debuted in Essen each year.  In my last blog entry, I covered some methods publishers use to create hype before the convention.  Now, I’ll list a few ways they create “buzz” at the convention, attracting the attention of the tens of thousands of hobbyists looking to fill their backpacks with new games before heading home.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

If You HYPE it, They Will Come

I've been vacationing with my family in my hometown in Iowa, and recently enjoyed one of the new attractions there:  a water park on the edge of town, surrounded on three sides by corn fields.  My wife compared it to the Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams, in which his character hears voices that compel him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of the Iowa corn fields.  The voices whisper, "If you build it, they will come."

The "Pool of Dreams" carved out of the Iowa corn fields.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Beginning in the Middle

Good stories rarely begin at the beginning. Though biographies ("He was born in 1837...") and histories ("In the beginning, God created...") may be exceptions, the most engaging narratives draw us into the middle of the action after many events have already come to pass. It's no wonder that George Lucas began his now-famous space opera with Episode IV, and even that first film opened in the middle of a dramatic starship battle.

Game designers often forget this lesson from the storytellers of other disciplines. In an age when the board game market is saturated with "engine building" mechanisms, many suffer from designers who wish to start their game play from the very beginning. While I can see the appeal of building something out of nothing during the course of the game, the result is often a very long, tedious prelude that drains the game of excitement long before things start getting interesting.


In my newest Postcard From Berlin on the Opinionated Gamers website, I reflect on the things that connect us to our memories, including the board games we play.

Monday, July 25, 2011


It is a stark contrast between the European metropolis and the Midwestern small town; between the urban life I now live and the rural roots I left behind, buried deep in the black Iowa soil. But I found myself returning home, flying alone, my seat locked in an upright position as I gazed out onto the square fields below, a view that could easily have been a game board.

I was on my way to the town where my father had grown up, a small town that once seemed so perfect it was proof that Andy Griffith’s Mayberry was not so mythic after all. Keystone sprang up along the railroad in the late 1800s, before the invention of the automobile. Like most small towns in the U.S., it thrived well into the second half of the 20th century, before the decline of the family farm and before the arrival of the interstate bypasses, strip malls and suburban shopping centers that effectively destroyed Main Streets across the country.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tobacco Promotion + Peace Activisms = Board Game Culture?

There are many theories as to how Germany's board game market became so much more dynamic than in any other country.  Certainly, the Spiel des Jahres, the German Game of the Year award, plays a major role in keeping good designs in the eyes of the mass market here, as well as pushing publishers to seek out original and engaging designs.  But there may be other factors I was previously unaware of, according to Titus Chalk's recent article, "Serious Fun", in the online German Times.

In the article, Klaus Teuber, creator of board game catalyst The Settlers of Catan, points to the tobacco company Krone, which began some of the first gaming clubs in Germany: “The idea was to offer something else you could do with your free time," says Teuber, and Chalk adds, "Presumably while you puffed a packet of the brand’s finest tobacco products."


When most people hear about my enjoyment of a hobby they think is best reserved for young children, they often shake their heads with a smile and call me a “child at heart.”

I’m sure the same thing happens regularly for Tim Walsh, but the 20-year veteran of the toy and game industry doesn’t shy away from that label. Born on Christmas Day, 1964 – the ultimate toy-giving holiday – he has proudly worn the badge “kid at heart” well into adulthood.

Friday, July 8, 2011


As with my favorite German board games, I always have much more that I would like to do in Berlin than is possible with my allotted actions and resources. Because of the capitol’s divided history, there were duplicates of everything in the east and west, and even now the city has scores of museums, no fewer than three opera houses, numerous concert halls, and plenty of alternative venues showing the cabarets and political satires for which it is famous.  And though it’s changing, Berlin is still probably the most inexpensive capitol in the western world to experience all of these cultural events. If only I could find the time. I finally stopped buying Tip, one of the city’s best biweekly cultural magazines, which listed absolutely everything that was going on in Berlin each day, because it was simply too depressing to constantly read about all the things I was missing.

Tip has since tried to narrow the choices for its increasingly busy readership, however, by running a series called “The 14 best things to do in the next two weeks.” One of its recommendations was an unassuming board gaming café in the heart of East Berlin’s new alternative scene.

 On sunny days, customers can take the games outside.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Indonesian Finger Game

I try to bring compact games wherever I go, in case there is an opportunity during the day to play.  If I am any good at keeping "margin time" in my schedule, then those opportunities present themselves regularly.  Sometimes, though, I find myself stuck in a line somewhere (at the post office, in an airport, etc.) without the table top or components to play a game.  That's where the Indonesian Finger Game has become one of my most-played games in my...err... collection. writer Valerie Putman introduced me to this component-less, two-player abstract in her column several years ago. Not only do I play it whenever I have a few minutes and there are no boardgames in eyeshot, but I've also incorporated the game into my Annual After Essen Parties, holding a tournament each year.  Following are the rules:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Five years ago, Michael agreed to help me bring a little bit of SPIEL back from Essen and celebrate in his Spielwiese cafe all the great new games that are released there each year--many of them from Berlin designers.

I’ve just finished the After Essen Party page to show some of the fun from the past four years.  As you can see, it has been a great mix of games and guests from around the world.

And SPIEL 2011 is just around the corner, which means that it’s time to start advertising the 5th Annual After Essen Party!  As always, it’s open to the public, athough space is limited and it is best to come early.  Visiting designers are welcome to show their newly released games as well (please, however, no prototypes).  Feel free to contact me or Michael at the Spielwiese in advance (especially if you are a game designer or publisher).  The party is on the Tuesday after SPIEL, beginning at 7 p.m.  Hope to see you at SPIEL and at the party in Berlin afterwards!

Sunday, July 3, 2011


The Spiel des Jahres, the prestigious German game of the year award, has just been announced, and it occurred to me that I had a hand in bringing Qwirkle to the attention of the eventual German publisher.

It was summer of 2007, and I was signing my first contracts for game designs, while writing for about my experiences as an American gamer and designer living in Germany.  I was also a bit frustrated that I could never seem to make it to the Essen game convention—the largest in the world—because of scheduling conflicts every year.  I finally decided to do something about it in a positive way instead of simply lamenting or complaining about it, like something I once heard about lemons and lemonade.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


There are many different motivations for making games.  Of course, the goal is usually to make a game that appeals to as many people as possible and then get it published so that those people have the opportunity to play it.  For me, however, sometimes a game design's sole purpose is simply to be a unique and personal gift for a good friend.  And other times, I want to design a game that would be fun for my friends and family and I to play, no matter how unmarketable it may be. Street Basketball was one of those designs.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Design that Makes Players Better

I was crossing a main boulevard in Berlin a few nights ago, in order to pick up a DVD for my wife and I to watch that evening.  It is a busy street, with a grassy island in the center and two sets of tracks for the streetcars that travel each way on that island.  At various intervals, there are paved pedestrian crossings across the tracks.

At a break in the traffic, I strolled to one of those crossings, lost in my thoughts as the city air turned cool in the early evening.  After making it across one track, however, I was jolted out of my daydream by the sight of a streetcar coming towards me from the opposite direction on the other track.  I saw it in plenty of time to stop and wait, however, because of the way the path across the island was designed:  the civil engineers did not simply pave a straight path across, but, instead, made it jog a few meters so that the pedestrian would be forced to turn in the direction of the oncoming street car, no matter which way he would cross.  There was no need for me to even turn my head to make sure the way was clear, and metal fences also prevented teenage cyclists from darting across carelessly while plugged into their iPods.

It may seem funny, but I was inspired by the thought that went into such a simple, utilitarian design.  And I was impressed that--although it was purely functional and not at all an aesthetic work--it's design was successful in actually reducing human error and accidents. I began to ponder other areas of design in which the functional aspect can be so well thought-out that it limits human error, and, naturally, I thought of boardgame design as well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

WHY Do I Design Games?

Why do I design games?  Just about everyone I know asks me this question eventually, and I probably respond with a different answer each time.  Oftentimes, it's even easier to explain which motivations I do not have, namely fame and fortune.

Recently, however, I took some time to reflect a bit more on this point.  So, for what it's worth in blogging currency (which, admittedly, is pretty cheap these days), following are the events and inspirations that led me to start designing boardgames, and reasons why I continue to do so...the "long answer" to the oft-asked question:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: FREEZE

For over a decade, I've enjoyed watching improvisational comedy both live and on television. There was a time, in fact, when I was so addicted that I requested my parents send me videotaped episodes of Who's Line is it, Anyway? from the U.S. I took notes on the different improv games and situations, and soon hosted improv parties with my friends and youth group in Berlin. There was, of course, the occasional over- or under-acting among the amateurs I assembled, but I was always astounded by the creativity and humor that almost always emerged from each skit. Rarely did anything fall completely flat, and we often laughed so much, we were literally gasping for air.

I have often thought about how one could turn one of these improv games into a successful party board game and can happily report that a new game – Freeze, released at the Spiel 2010 convention – has done just that. Fellow Berlin designer Andrea Meyer has teamed up with Hans-Peter Stoll – himself an improv actor in an amateur theater group – to create what will arguably be the game most likely to draw a crowd in Essen this year.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #48: My Favorite Things

My latest article in the Postcards From Berlin series is up on the Opinionated Games website. It's that time of year to discuss favorite games of 2010, and I take inspiration from John Coltrane in writing about "my favorite things."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Games in Galleries

The Family Center where I work was recently turned into a gallery by a group of visiting artists.  As some of them transformed the main room into an exhibition space, others performed music while a friend from a local catering service demonstrated how to cook some amazing Thai recipes.  Together with some inviting Spring weather and opportunity for children to make their own art outside, it made for a very creative and festive atmosphere.

I thought it would also provide a good opportunity to present my game-as-art project, War Game: A Prototype For Peace, in a better context.  Up until now, I had only tested the game during a game night or prototype-testing session, where it was compared to other games that were meant mainly as entertainment.  This would, instead, be an opportunity for people who are unfamiliar with the gaming culture to approach this as a work of art.  At least, that was my hope.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Emotionally Repressed?

If you've ever been witness to a Chess tournament, you know what I'm talking about. A pin dropping might cause one of the contestants to jump out of his or her seat. It's that quiet. I stumbled upon a tournament while I was in Macedonia several years ago. And from what I've seen in films about these kinds of events, I could have been anywhere. That stoic Chess-player is also the typical image the general public has of a modern boardgamer.

As I visited a recent gaming event in Berlin, I did, in fact, notice a similar atmosphere. Sure, there were intermittent discussions and laughter between games, but most of the players were intently engaged in the components on their respective tables.

Afterwards, I began to wonder if gamers repress their emotions more than the average person. And I began to think about games that actually encourage this: namely those with bluffing elements. There's nothing more somber, after all (and filled with latent tension) then watching a high-stakes Poker match. They don't call them "Poker faces" for nothing.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

GAME DESIGN TV - Part IV: Showtime

I already wrote about my experiences in filming a segment on game design for the ARTE program X:enius (see Part I, Part II, and Part II on this blog). The show was aired this week, and will only be online until next week. Furthermore, it is unfortunately blocked to viewers from the U.S. Below is a brief description of the final show, which lasted 26 minutes:

“Warum wir spielen, und was wir dadurch lernen (Why we play and what we learn from it)”

The program opens with the moderators, Dörthe und Pierre playing a large-scale game of Scotland Yard in the streets of Berlin with the help of an iPhone App. They discuss the enormity of the computer game market which transitions to a segment on South Korea, where professional gamers, earning 6-figure salaries, compete in the computer game Starcraft live, in front of 120,000 fans.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Air Time

The timing is funny, but my games have been featured in two separate news shows about modern gaming in the past two weeks--one on each side of the ocean.

The first aired on April 3rd on CBS Sunday Morning News, in which moderator Mo Rocca played a game of Piece o' Cake at the GENCON convention. The program, entitled Board Games Through the Ages, is also online.

Today, a show is airing on German/French TV station ARTE on their news program X:enius discussing the history of playing games and the modern developments in computer games and traditional board games. They visit the Spielwiese and film the development of one of my unpublished games from inspiration to prototype. The program is also already online in German and in French.

Unfortunately, the program is only viewable online in Germany and France, I believe. Here's the official description:

Ob Brettspiele, Computerspiele oder Rollenspiele, allein oder mit Freunden und der Familie - fest steht, der Spieltrieb steckt in jedem von uns. Gesellschaftsspiele gehören zu den ältesten kulturellen Ausdrucksformen der Menschen, noch vor Schrift- und Lesekultur. Doch auch Computerspiele sind schon lange keine einsame Angelegenheit mehr.

In Korea werden die Computerspiel-Wettkämpfe der Gaming-Liga bereits in großen Stadien vor gut 100.000 Zuschauern abgehalten. Aber warum spielen wir und was lernen wir dadurch? Und was macht ein gutes Spiel aus? Dörthe Eickelberg und Pierre Girard erfahren von einem Spieleentwickler, wie Spiele konzipiert werden und dürfen dabei exklusiv einen bisher noch geheimen Prototypen testen.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Just Enough Time

It has been difficult to find the time to write, as I have been so busy lately. In spite of this, I feel fulfilled in every other aspect of my life, having no shortage of basic necessities, relationships, ideas or diversions. What I always seem to lack, though, is time. It could be our generation's most valuable resource.

It is no surprise to me, then, that the past several years have seen game designs with the element of time playing an important role. Games as diverse as Thebes, Stronghold, and Merkator all use time tracks or time chits, much the same way tracks and chits are used to record victory points and other resources in other games. This is, of course, not including all the recent games that are played in real time with the help of sand timers and soundtrack CDs, such as Space Dealer and Space Alert.

I once wrote about the postmodern evolution in games that changed the goal from trying to earn the most money to garnering the most "prestige points," emphasizing fame over fortune. It seems only natural that, as a reflection of our hectic lifestyles, time would also become a commodity in boardgames, right alongside wood and wool and other typical resources.

The old adage "time is money" is, obviously, too simplistic. It really comes down to time + work + demand for that work + many other factors eventually generates money. And money gives you more opportunities to invest time and resources--or the opportunity to take "time off" for a holiday, after having built up a virtual reserve of time. In any case, many of today's engine-building-type games can surely handle the complexities of adding the time factor to their cube-churning formulas.

Since time is our most prized resource at the moment, and time-management is our most necessary skill, there is surely room to reflect this resource--and the management of it--in boardgame design.

I'm afraid, though, that for now at least, I'm out of time...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


A Game by Jeffrey D. Allers
Number of Players: 2
Time to play: 1-30 minutes

This is a 2-player card-driven war game, in that you play cards and use your pieces to remove your opponent's pieces from the territories on the board. When both players no longer have any cards left in their hands, the game is over. How many cards each player will use before they empty their hands, however, is entirely up to him or her. At the end of the game, it is the players who decide who are the winners, and who are the losers. There are opportunities for both competitive and cooperative play, and a single game can have phases where each is present.Table talk is encouraged, both during and after the game.

See Games in Galleries for news of the first presentation of the game.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #46: Learning From Hollywood

The latest article in my Postcards From Berlin series is up on the Opinionated Gamers website. In it, I write about one of my other passions, filmmaking, and compare it to game design. Perhaps there are truly things we can learn from Hollywood...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Prototype2Publisher: PORTO CARTHAGO

When Bernd first moved to Berlin and joined our gaming group in 2005, Porto Carthago was the first prototype he brought to our group. Furthermore, we were the first ones to play it. Needless to say, this one has been a labor of love for him, and I have had the privilege to play many iterations of the game during the past 6 years. I'm proud of him for sticking with it. After years of working on it, it had become a "monster" of a game, and I give credit to Bernd for being willing to trim down the rules and cut some of the details in order to make the game more accessible. Following is the story of the game, in his words. - Jeff

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

PELOPONNES & the beginning of IronGames

In the film industry, they are the writer/directors; in music, the singer/songwriters. They are like architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who always maintained artistic control over his entire work. In the board game industry, we call them self-publishers. And every October in Essen, more of them gather together in one place than anywhere else in the world at any time of year. In spite of the large number of established game publishers in Germany, many designers here still choose to publish their own creations. In fact, half of all the Berlin designers I’ve met have tried self-publishing at least once. Andrea Meyer, Günter Cornett, and Richard Stubenvoll have all experienced enough success through their first efforts to produce follow-up games. Now, “Irongames” has been added to the list, a formidable brand name and a clever play on designer Bernd Eisenstein’s name.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

GAME DESIGN TV - Part III: the Moderators

See here for Part I and Part II in this series.

There were already “parking reserved” signs on the street in front of the Spielwiese early that week. These are usually reserved for moving trucks, and dreaded by most Berliners, as they take up valuable spaces and it’s not always easy to remember the dates scribbled on them. When the day usually arrives, in fact, the first order of business is for the police and towing service to remove the many cars that are still parked there, in order for the moving trucks to drive in. Bernd and I were even towed once during a game night there.

As far as I know, no cars were forcibly removed this time, and instead of moving trucks, a large van with the X:enius logo drove in and parked outside, as show moderators Dörthe Eikelberg und Pierre Girard popped out. Fredérique and the moderators’ camera/lighting/makeup team were there, too, ready to put the finishing touches on their show’s segment about the German boardgame scene and how a game idea is developed, published and entered into this competitive market. The Spielwiese is a good picture of how crowded that market is: the walls are crammed full of game boxes of every size and shape, and anyone unfamiliar with the popularity of the hobby here is immediately taken aback by the sight.
The moderators and team were no different, amazed by the height and breadth of it all. They began by interviewing Michael, at home behind his coffee bar. They asked him typical questions about the gaming hobby and the concept of his gaming cafe/store/rental service. Meanwhile, Fredérique asked me to set my game up in another corner–one in which they had not yet filmed. Apparently, they were trying to record each scene or interview in a different corner of the room in order to change up everything a bit.

Then the woman in charge of make-up came over to me with a tiny white tube. “Do you mind if I put a little bit of this cream on your nose and forehead to take some of the shine away?” she asked politely. She demonstrated on her hand how it would turn the “glossy” into a “matte” finish, then added, “Most men in particular feel uncomfortable if I come at them with powder, but this cream works just as well.”

During a break in the shooting, I joked with Fredérique that it was a good thing the shooting hadn’t been scheduled for two days earlier. During that time, this whole district of the city had been taken over by left-wing protestors, sometimes instigating violent clashes with police in riot gear. The reason: nine squatters were being forcibly evicted from a run-down six-storey apartment building so that the owner of the building could finally renovate it and charge rent for the place. The event attracted just about anyone who was anti-establishment (and there are quite a few of those in Berlin), or any other person who fantasized about throwing a rock at the police or setting an Audi on fire. Thankfully, everything was in order again, just in time for the filming, although it would have made for an interesting backdrop.

Then it came time to play the prototype of Würfelburg with Dörthe und Pierre, both of whom were very enthusiastic. Without the benefit of practice–or any experience with flicking games, for that matter–Dörthe unfortunately used too much strength, and the dice flew off of the table each time.

After a couple of brief rounds, we sat down around the table and they asked questions about how a designer gets games like Würfelburg published. After the interview finished, they continued to ask questions, demonstrating that theirs was more than a “professional” curiosity. Looking at their shows online, I think I would enjoy having their adventurous jobs, learning about so many different things and participating in such a variety of activities.

This adventure into boardgame development was over, however, and they moved outside to shoot a couple of closing scenes. The Game-umentory should appear on TV and online in a couple months, Fredérique assured me.

Until then, "Cut!"

Monday, February 14, 2011

GAME DESIGN TV - Part II: the Production

See here for Part I in this series.

Then one morning, the doorbell rang and writer/producer Fredérique Veith strolled in with her cameraman and another who did the sound & lighting. They had just a few pieces of equipment to carry, and set up quickly. All were very friendly, and before long, we were shooting in my living room.

It was fun to be able to hit the main points of the design process, recording each one in front of the camera, interjecting brief interviews on subjects such as the inspiration behind a game idea and the different elements that make up a good game. They filmed me paging through one of my son’s books on medieval castles, for example, as I pondered the design of Würfelburg. I also showed them a reconstructed “first prototype” that I made with my sons, using their wooden blocks and a standard square game box (the game was always meant to use both sides of the game box, the way many Zoch games do).

Many of the shots were quite repetitive, as they wanted multiple camera angles for each scene. At one point, for example, I was instructed to enter the room, move my hand along the games stacked in the bookshelf, pull one out to take a closer look, slip it back into place, pull out another one, slip it back, repeat again and again and again. Another time, they filmed me opening one of the drawers of wooden bits I keep for prototypes, searching through with my hands, then closing it again. Then I opened another, and another, until I came to the dice drawer, where I reached in to grab the correct colors of dice I needed. I supposed that there would be quite a few close-ups of my hands in the finished production.

They filmed me creating the graphics for the prototype on my laptop, but carefully avoided getting a shot of the obvious lighted brand symbol on the back of my computer. The camera then captured the action of graphics being printed out onto sticky-back paper and being laminated. Finally, it zoomed in on my scissors, as I cut out the glossy graphics and carefully peeled off the backs, sticking them to the dice and the cardboard. I could only imagine what kind of theme music they would use when this was all spliced together.

Towards the end, I brought out the finished prototype to demonstrate my first play-tests with it. Again, it was repetitive, as I flicked one die after the other. “Flick another one to exactly the same place,” I was often told. “If the game were that easy, I wouldn’t have designed it!” I wanted to say.

One angle Fredérique wanted to pursue was my background in architecture, and I dusted off my portfolio to show some of my work in that area. My design process with games is actually very similar to what it was with architecture. Back then, I would design through building models—sometimes using all sorts of materials, even wire and plaster. As a game designer, I prefer to design through prototyping, “building” many different versions until I finally feel comfortable taking it to my group for play-testing. Some designers prefer to have the game all worked out in their head, but I think better while I’m working with my hands and working on visual elements.

A few hours after the crew arrived, they were packed and out the door again. We met later that evening in the Spielwiese to film the most critical part of the design process: the play-testing session. Designer Bernd Eisenstein along with regular play-testers Rolf and Alfred were there. Jerome, a new designer to our group, who recently moved to Berlin from Canada, also joined us. Most of them were already familiar with my game, and we flicked dice under the bright lights as the camera moved about, capturing every angle imaginable. After filming a few minutes of the start, we moved the victory point markers ahead to jump to the end of the game. Then my play-testers were asked to give their impressions. Fredérique was excited to have Jerome there, as he came from Quebec and could answer in French, as X:enius is produced in two languages. Accordingly, I made an official request for a deep French voice for my overdub.

As I took a break to chat with Michael, they had the guys play some other games like Chess in front of the camera. That was probably the first time I’d ever seen that game come out in the Spielwiese!

The next and final step in the “Game-umentory” was on the following week, when the two moderators of the show came to the Spielwiese to interview owner Michael Schmitt, have a go with my prototype, and ask some more questions.

To be continued…

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Sylvester Awards

Although Peer Sylvester has his own regular game night, meeting in his home across town (and, in Berlin, “across town” is quite far away), he does make it to our playtesting sessions in theSpielwiese often, and has tested many of my prototypes and those of other designers over the years, as well as bringing plenty of his own to the table. In fact, I enjoyed getting to know him better back in 2005 when we drove to the Göttingen Game Designer’s Convention together, each with a backpack full of prototypes to pitch to publishers. He was showing King of Siam for the first time, in fact.

Later, I discovered his blog, Spielbar, and was surprised to learn that he had awarded my card game, Pala, a “Sylvester” for his favorite prototype of the year. “Sylvester” is both a play on his name and on the German name for New Year’s Eve (Silvester), thus the fun graphic.