____ Interviews by an Optimist

Interviews by an Optimist # 80 -
Michael Schacht

Michael gave this short biography of himself...
- born in Wiesbaden, Germany, 1964
- married
- studied graphic design
- worked for nearly 15 years in advertising as an art director
- now working as a freelance illustrator especially for game companies
- started making board games around 1993
- first release 1995 resulted through the Hippodice game designers contest
- started around 2000 with my little self-publishing project "spiele aus timbuktu"

Tom: One of your most popular games is Web of Power. A new version (China) was released this year. Can you tell us about the changes, if any?

Michael: When we worked on the re-release, the idea was not to change the game just for making it different. For most of the changes the idea was to have an easier start for the first game.
The main differences are:
- The theme and the design.
- You have 4 instead of 2 cards lying in the display, so the card luck is less.
- There is no scoring in the middle of the game anymore, so streets and advisors are getting stronger.
- "Full" countries get scored immediately, so you have a better view for the actual points of the others.
- A 2-sided board with a different layout depending on the number of players.
- A special tile which enables you to double a street and the houses of a country.
The game feeling is still the same, but you probably need new tactics ;-)

Tom: I have seen you described as an extremely versatile designer - one whose games are quite different. How do you do that? - keeping your ideas fresh and original?

Michael: I have no special method or so (would be nice). I just try to be honest with myself when judging my ideas. There should be an original element in it.

Tom: Well, what are key elements that you think SHOULD be in a game?

Michael: If we talk about elements as mechanisms, everything should be possible. Of course, if we talk about elements as concepts there should be some in: for example drama. Otherwise you just have a repetitive gameplay. My personal view is that everyone should have the chance to win, not only the ones who are the best strategists or know the game best, especially in 2-player games. Otherwise it is hard to find players for the game after some matches. There are a lot more; not all have to be in the game, but some.

Tom: Of all the games you've designed, which is the one you're most proud of?

Michael: I think Coloretto and China (Web of Power). They both have the best argument and the most long-lasting fun.

game mechanism favorites: "Coloretto", "Mogul", "Paris Paris"
game balance favorites: "Web of Power/China" and "Hanse"
myself playing favorites: "Industria" and there is a new one (not published yet)
the number one favorite: "Web of Power/China"

Tom: How do you get your ideas? Do they come to you while playing other games, or do you sit down, set to design a game?

Michael: Not during playing another game because then the concentration is with the game. Usually I work automatically on games when I drive a bicycle or stand in the shower, a. s. o. of course I also sit in my office and work on a game.

Tom: Have games by other designers influenced you, and if so - what games?

Michael: I have a big respect for the work of Reiner Knizia. He has influenced the type of most of the German game designs during the past few years. But I can't name a special author or game that has influenced me especially. Finally I think every author is influenced by all the games that he plays. Then you can learn the most about how other authors get their ideas running.

Tom: So you've taken ideas and mechanics from other games?

Michael: No, that's not what I meant. Learning from other designs is not copying.

Tom: What do you think is the most original idea you've ever had regarding a board game?

Michael: With originality I like the bidding modus of Mogul or the whole gameplay in Coloretto most.

Tom: When designing a game, do you start with a theme or with the mechanics?

Michael: It depends. With Coloretto I began with the vague idea for the turn-system. With Industria it started with the theme. When I began developing games, I started mostly from the theme. Now it is easier for me to find interesting components by starting from the mechanics.

Tom: How do you decide which company to show your game ideas to?

Michael: Usually I'm looking at the type, style and theme of the game and then decide for which publisher it would make sense to publish such a game. Sometimes the publishers ask for a specific type of game. Then sometimes if I don't have something fitting, I rework games if possible in theme or in details.
If you look carefully at the program of publishers then you will realize fast that for most games there are just a few publishers that would make sense. Sometimes just one or two, and it makes no sense to send a pirate-themed game to a publisher you like that already had a pirate game published last year.

Tom: What company have you found to be the easiest for you, a designer, to work with?

Michael: The bigger the publisher; the easier the work is. With smaller publishers usually you do most of the work, but I like that.

Tom: What would be your response to people who criticize "German" games because the themes seem to be "pasted" on?

Michael: Is this really a German-only problem? ;-) If the theme isn't too pasted, I don't have a problem with it. A pasted theme is just an offer to add some atmosphere. An offer you can ignore if you don't want it.

Tom: How do you choose the themes for your games?

Michael: When I start a game with a theme, it is usually something that interests me strongly - i.e. the history of industrialization for "Industria". When I start with the mechanism, I try to find a fitting theme as soon as possible; then the theme can influence the further work, and at the end the theme fits best.

Tom: What advice would you have for prospective game designers?

Michael: Be honest with yourself. I mean, if you only playtest with your best friends, they probably will like your game very much, although it isn't finished or good enough. If you take part in test playing you will influence the gameplay. It is better to have neutral people playing your game. Don't tell them the rules; they should read them. Keep your influence as low as possible, then it is easier to see the quality of the game, things to improve and the quality of the written rules.

Tom: Do you prefer lighter games, or heavier games; as it seems most of your games are on the "lighter" side?

Michael: The real heavy games with game duration half a day or even some many days I don't play. I am interested in these, but it's a question of time. I like playing lighter or medium games the same.
As an author I prefer making lighter games. Adding a lot of rules can make a game work, but for me it is more fascinating to have as few rules as possible but a good game. And this kind of game is easier to learn ;-)

Tom: What games would you introduce new gamers to?

Michael: Good actual games for the very first start would be "Verflixxt" and then one of "Carcassonne", "Alhambra" or "Zug um Zug". And then "Diamant" or Kakerlakenpoker". Sorry about the German names.

Tom: Have any of your games ever surprised you by their success?

Michael: The games I sold the most are quite light games like "Isis & Osiris", "Tohuwabohu" and "Coloretto". So selling them more than more complex games shouldn't be surprising. But there are a lot of new titles every year, so I finally was surprised that they worked so well. "Socken zocken" as an easy children's game is also surprisingly strong.

The most (bad) surprises you have with good games you are proud of don't sell a lot.

Tom: Can you give us examples?

Michael: For example "Crazy Chicken" at Ravensburger. It could have been a long seller but just rested 2 years. Selling was okay, but in a way a lost chance.

Anyway, the game has a re-release with Simply Fun as a multi-player version under the name "Drive". Perhaps it will hit the second chance.

Tom: How important is component quality to a board game?

Michael: Very important. A good example is the publisher Zoch. In the past few years they have released a lot of games with high-end components. With that they were very very successful in Germany.
I think the enthusiastic reactions about "Camelot" also result a lot because of the material which is really wonderful.
There are a lot of games being published every year, so an ugly but good game can easily be overlooked.

Tom: In your opinion, what good games have been overlooked by the masses?

Michael: It happened to "Verflixxt" from Wolfgang Kramer. It would have been a good game of the year. Other titles: Fčrsten von Florenz, Makabana, Samurai.

Tom: Is game designing possible to do as a full time job?

Michael: At the moment I am working 50% as game designer and 50% as a (game) illustrator. Unfortunately it is not possible to do 100% game designs, because I wouldn't earn enough money.

Tom: Can you tell us a little about your game illustrations?

Michael: When I finished studying graphic design, it was a hard decision for me - joining an illustrations job or an advertising agency. I decided for the last, so over the years I tried to keep contact with illustrations and made some for games. But it was always something I wanted to do more. In May I left the advertising agency I worked a long time for and started to do a few more illustrations.

Tom: What games have you illustrated for?

Michael: The last designs were for Oltremare (with Oliver Freudenreich), China, and Coloretto Amazonas.

Tom: How long does it take you to do the illustrations for games? Where do you get your inspirations? Michael: It depends on the size and the complexity. Small projects have to be done in 2 weeks or so. Big projects can take several months. Some projects are quite simple, and the client defines a lot and some not. Finally, I try to think as a player and try to have a lot of atmosphere in the games I design.

Tom: Michael, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions! Do you have any final words for our readers?

Michael: Thanks for the possibility to talk about my games. As for the rest, the games should speak for themselves.