20 Questions: An INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD GARFIELD
by Herb Levy
(Had Richard Garfield only created Magic, the Gathering, he would have carved out a secure place as one of today’s most successful game designers. But, of course, his career and achievements encompass much more than that. In our latest “20 Questions”, Richard offers his views on his games, game design and more.)
1) You are one of the most successful contemporary game designers. What first got you interested in games (in general) and game designing (in particular)?
Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons. I was interested in games before D&D, but wouldn’t have called it a hobby – I just would have always agreed to play a game when it was an option. When D&D arrived at my doorstep I was about 13 and my world was turned upside down; while the game itself was brilliant the more influential part – for me – was the demonstration of the vast variety games could have that I hadn’t even considered. I immediately began going to game stores and spending my meager resources on every game I could; wargames, classic games, board games, role playing games – you name the game I wanted to try it. D&D also thrust the players, particularly but not exclusively the Game Master, into the role of game designer. I carried that role into every game I explored, and felt authorized to change or add any rule I wanted that my friends would agree to. — RG
2) As a game designer, you have shown a remarkable range. Your credits include collectible card games (MAGIC: The Gathering and Netrunner), non-collectible card games (The Great Dalmuti and Filthy Rich), board games (RoboRally) and party games (What Were You Thinking?) How do you account for this wide variety in your work?
Since my fascination with games began I have been religious about trying new games – and beyond that really learning what made them fun. If a game had a following, the players must see something in the game, and until I could at least see what the appeal was I wouldn’t let it go. This led me to join bridge clubs, play wargames and miniatures, set up chess and hearts ladders, run every sort of RPG I could, go methodically through game books trying anything that seemed unfamiliar. This broad interest and ‘training’ surely contributed to my range of design. — RG
3) Which comes first for you: the theme of a game or a specific mechanic?
Generally the two are interrelated for me – rarely do I make a game that is purely one or the other from the start. For example, RoboRally was the 4th or 5th game in a series of robot battling games that I designed. I was excited about the mechanic of being dealt cards and creating a program – which distinguished RoboRally from its predecessors, but I was at the same time already immersed in the theme of manipulating robots. Similarly when I came up with MAGIC I was being driven by the mechanics, but I combined it with a theme that I had been working on for 7 years or so. So I guess in these two cases at least the theme came first in some sense, but in my mind the games were born with a mechanic. — RG
4) What qualities do you look to instill in a game when creating one
I like to see interesting decisions that have enough luck involved in their resolution that you don’t need to sprain your brain to win. The most common complaint I level at a game is that there is too little luck. I like a lot of luck and a lot of skill in a game – Poker being one of the ideals in this regard. Anyone can win a hand of poker, and even a session of poker, but the game has enough depth that the expert will always win given time. There are many board games, and essentially every online game, where you simply have no chance if you are not the best player. — RG
5) Some movie stars can’t bear to see themselves on screen. Others don’t have that problem. Do you enjoy playing your own games?
I do like playing my games – I generally created them for myself! I don’t play them that often, because I am still hungry to learn new games and to explore game design – which I can only do through playing new games – either of other folks or drafts of my own design. But whenever I sit down to an old game of my own I have a great time. — RG
6) Besides your own designs, what games do you like to play?
I like to play new games, whether they are newly published or just new to me. Recently that has been taking me on a tour of traditional Russian card games, but in the last few months some published games I have played and enjoyed have included Shadows over Camelot, Roma, Nexus, and David and Goliath. As far as games that I always go back to, which never get old, I would include many traditional card games like Hearts or Bridge, role playing when I have the time, Titan, and Fast Food Franchise. — RG
7) What other game designers have influenced your work?
The designers of Cosmic Encounter; Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton and Peter Olatka were a great influence with their remarkable open ended game system. Tom Wham, with his sense of humor and his solid game play was an inspiration. And my list would absolutely be incomplete without Gygax and Arneson, who made what is likely the most innovative game breakthrough of all time with Dungeons & Dragons.
8) What game that you did NOT design is a game you WISHED you designed? Why?
Well, as implied by my previous answer Dungeons & Dragons would be the front runner. For me there is no game close to it in terms of redefining what the potential of games is. For computer games it would be Tetris or Minesweeper – both games which are elegant and have an almost ‘boardgame’ quality to them; a quality which heavily influences the few computer games that aren’t 80% simulation. — RG
9) MAGIC is what we’d call a “watershed” game – i.e., a game that establishes a new style of play that impacts on the scene and creates a flood of imitations. Monopoly and Dungeons & Dragons would fall into that category. Did you anticipate the impact MAGIC would have on the world of games?
There was absolutely no way I could have anticipated it, it has been insanely more successful and influential than I had thought possible. I knew the game was a solid game – the playtester’s absolute addiction to the game attested to that. But I also knew that quality game does not equal success; and suspected that many good games of the past had not made it anywhere at all. — RG
10) Of your many designs, which do you find most satisfying and why?
MAGIC is by far my favorite. I wouldn’t have said that even 4 or 5 years after it was published, but the thing is, each time I go back to the game it is fresh and different, and yet I play it as an expert. It is hard to explain how exciting that is for me; as I have mentioned previously I love playing new games – I love exploring new systems and the great big strategic leaps you make when first discovering the game. On the other hand I love playing old familiar games – because the best games have a special quality; the better you know them the better they get. With MAGIC I get both, each time I play it I am an expert, but at the same time I am an explorer and an innovator in a new system.
Outside of MAGIC my favorite is What Were You Thinking? The adaptability of this partygame to any set of temperaments never fails to excite me. — RG
11) Which begs the question: which of your designs have fallen short, in one way or another, in your estimation?
Weirdly enough I would list What Were You Thinking? here also. Despite the core quality of that game, and the fact that I think its principle failure to find a wider audience was marketing, I failed on its design at a nuts and bolts level as well. The name was awful, and I didn’t care for its look, both of which I had some say in. And at the very nitty gritty level, I designed the game to play for a loser rather than a winner; which I had some very good reasons for doing – but probably not good enough. Many of my favorite games are played to a loser, but it is pretty uncommon in the broader market, and I ignored all the evidence to that effect. Since I have come up with some different designs that overcome that problem (the most obvious fixes have some flaws which are clear once you play for a while, which is why I went to the system we ended up with.) In any case, I have a new ‘polling’ game and am just looking for a willing publisher, in time you may see it. — RG
12) RoboRally and its expansions have commanded premium prices on the secondary market. How do you account for this strong interest in the game?
Well, every time I return to RoboRally I am surprised by how much fun I have, so I think the game design has some enduring long term quality which is what one strives for but can’t count on. My guess is that groups of players got attached to the game when it was published, but only needed one set for every, say, 6 players. Then as life progresses, playgroups shuffle, the fans find themselves with no one in their current group that has a set – and prices rise. I guess that amounts to a slow grassroots spread of the game. — RG
13) Avalon Hill has just released a new edition of RoboRally. What input did you have in this re-release, have any changes been made and are there plans for new expansions?
I did indeed have input, initiated several changes, and approved of all the others. The game is certainly compatible with previous editions, all the changes were minor. The biggest one in my mind was getting rid of virtual robots (good riddance!) It was the sort of mechanic that I have grown to hate, one that really draws attention to the game design and detracts from the game, because it was such a tricky clever way to make the game ‘fair’, but was complex enough no one really ‘got’ it except for the alpha gamers in the group. Instead now there are some starting boards and a whole slew of pre-designed races in a race handbook, much much easier. The other change was really an addition – a timer. There was some debate on how to implement the timer, I believed every group was better off with some time pressure, but that a 60 second clock would be way to fast for some groups and just right for others, while a 5 minute clock would actually slow down the pace of some people’s games. The solution was elegant, I thought, a very fast timer – maybe 30 seconds – but it is only started when there is one player left programming. That way the game group sets their own general pace, while still putting on a bit of pressure. — RG
14. Your new design, Rocketville, is scheduled to be the first new design by Avalon Hill in 2006. Interesting title. What can you tell us about it?
Rocketville is very European in some respects and U.S. in others. One of my pet peeves with many of these types of games is that they are too scientific – I feel like I can’t win unless I spend oodles of time grinding through numbers. Rocketville has a lot of the skill of these games, but also a lot more luck and hidden information- – RG
15) If you could go back in time, what would you change regarding your personal involvement with games and gaming?
A good question, with a boring answer – I can’t think of a thing I would change, in particular in board and card games. In 10 years my answer may be ‘I wish I hadn’t wasted so much of my time working on computer games that never came to fruition or that failed miserably’, but since that hasn’t happened yet it is just a possible answer. To this point I can rationalize that all my ‘wasted’ time working with people in the computer industry who in the end didn’t want to take any real chances were a necessary part of learning my way around. — RG
16) What changes have you seen in the gaming world since first starting your involvement with games on the professional level?
The game world has been turned upside down by many forces, including computers, Magic, and the eurogame movement. When I was in high school it was tough finding interesting games, which was one of the forces that pushed me into game design – I was trying to fill the needs I felt. Now between computer games, highly successful collectable games, and slick professional board games from Europe, there is a lot more money in gaming and so things are a lot more professional than they used to be. I am sure there are still scary looking hole in the wall game stores like the old days but most game stores now are clean, well lit, well stocked, friendly and have a breathable atmosphere. And bigger stores sometimes carry some surprising games also.
So I am mostly bullish on these changes, though it is not without its drawbacks. A friend of mine, Skaff Elias pointed out that game conventions 10 years ago were more exciting than now. I was surprised by that comment because the size has grown so much, but he explained that 10 years ago they were filled with closet game designers who all thought they had designed one or more great games, and now there are a lot of companies that don’t even as a rule believe their games are good, they are just trying to catch the next ‘big wave’.
Still on balance I will take today’s game market over then. It is invigorating seeing so many people enthusiastic about games. — RG
17) Suppose your life had taken a different turn and you didn’t design games. What would you have done for a living?
Math Professor – teaching and research at a university. I had completed my second year of that career when I left academics for game design. I loved the subject, the academic life, and teaching. I tried working in industry for a while – AT&T Bell Labs, but couldn’t raise any enthusiasm for the work. Teaching and pure research spoke to me however, it felt meaningful. — RG
18) Game design is challenging and time consuming. What do you do to relax?
Hah – I play games. With my kids, with my friends, online. Having fun with games is the only way my game design has any life to it – the periods where I am designing and not playing my designs are a lot less fun. However, when I am not designing or playing games, I like to participate in puzzle hunts, play squash, travel with my family, watch movies, read books, and eat exotic food among other things. — RG
19) We briefly met several years ago at the New York Toy Fair. Toy Fair and the various conventions around the country are centers for game promotion. How do you like the promotion aspect of gaming?
My focus is almost entirely on game design and my interest in promotion is to see the products they are promoting. Hobby games are a special challenge to promote, however, because hobby game players – by definition – have games they are already dedicated to, which take their time. This isn’t true of movies or books; a movie enthusiast or a book reader don’t have a movies and books that they are dedicated to, to the point they don’t really consider new products. Good games just offer more and more to a player as they get more and more familiar with the game. — RG
20) Where do you see yourself – and the gaming world – in five years?
There are a number of possibilities – if any of my computer game designs ever get published and are successful I can imagine spending more time in that arena. In any case I expect I will be designing and publishing paper games on the side, not spending a lot of time on it but simply because it is fun to do. There is also a possibility that I will be involved with designing a curriculum for game design classes at a university, and perhaps teaching some of these classes. There has been more and more interest in recent years on this and I think it would be fun to be involved with. — RG
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Winter 2006 GA Report Articles