Game Designer Interview: Antoine Bauza

After playing the extremely clever Takenoko at GenCon, I thought to myself: “That Antoine Bauza guy is on a roll! I should interview him!”

I asked him, and he was gracious enough to accept and get things moving rather quickly. So here we are. Many thanks to Antoine, not just for the interview, but for the awesome games as well.

First off, congratulations on the Kennerspiel des Jahres award for 7 Wonders! Did the categorization of the game surprise you? Do you view it as an experienced gamer’s game, or as a family game?

I think the categorization is quite right. I read almost everywhere on the web that the game should be in the family category, but, you know, the web is mostly written by gamers! Yes, it’s a simple game — from a gamer point of view. I quite agree with the SdJ jury: it’s a game for those who grew up with the SdJ and are now looking for something a little bit deeper but not a hardcore gamer’s game. Their decision is quite logical for me.

7 Wonders has just had its first expansion printed, and you’ve mentioned that you have several more in mind. What is your long-term concept of the game? Is the base game the “true” game, with the expansions being modules to use on occasion, and not all at once? Or do you see the base game eventually morphing into a larger, longer, more interesting game with all of these expansions mixed together?

I have several ideas, yes, and I discussed them with the publisher. I don’t want 7 Wonders to be more longer or more complex, but I want each expansion to bring something quite new to the gaming experience — and that’s not so easy. I think this contract is fulfilled with Leaders (I hope so). I have been working on the second expansion for a long time now. I played over 200 games and it is not as good as we (Repos Production and I) want it to be, so I am still working on it. Expansion #1 and #2 will be playable together for sure but I cannot say for the next ones.

I can’t help but notice that many of your games – Ghost Stories, Takenoko, Dojo, Hanabi & Ikebana – are set in the Far East. It’s a great idea, as it’s rather unexplored territory in board games. What led to your fascination with those cultures?

Well, it’s not a deliberated idea, it’s just my personal sensibility: I am fond of Asian culture (I studied Japanese language, calligraphy, martial arts), so it’s a natural theme in my games like it was in my other creative activities (I wrote some novels and one comic book about Japan). But I promise I will try to be more original in the next years!

I played a prototype Takenoko at GenCon and loved it. Can you tell us a bit about the development of the game and what inspired it?

Takenoko was one of the first game I designed, a long time ago (2005 I think). It has many many prototype versions, because I was quite a rookie when I started working on it. So the game evolved year after year. The first idea came from a visit at the Tokyo zoo, back in 2003: at the entrance, there is a funny statue with two Chinese giant pandas. When I came back home and saw the picture, I start to work on the first concept. The picture gave me the primal idea. For the record the first prototype had two pandas, just as the statue does, but one has been lost during the development. Nature is cruel sometimes.

Although you have done your share of cooperative designs, it seems that your most successful games (7 Wonders, Ghost Stories) have been solo outings. How does cooperative design come about for you? Which do you prefer?

Cooperative design comes… naturally! For me, it’s not a matter of preference but a matter of opportunity. We (designers) meet and talk regularly about our projects, our game desires and sometime new ideas arise from these discussions. Sometime you have a idea but you’re stuck with it and a new eye can be the best solution, too. It’s very interesting to work with another designer.  You learn a lot; it brings some passionate debate and great human experiences.

I read that you requested Miguel Coimbra to be the artist for 7 Wonders. All of your games seem to have bright and colorful artwork, often with cartoony graphics (which I personally love). Do you often have a say, or is it more that your games lend themselves to that style?

Well, I like to be involved in the artistic design of my game. For me, it’s just as pleasant than the design itself.

When I work for the first time with a publisher, I always ask about my involvement in the artistic development of the project. I think I can decline a business offer if my involvement is too thin! About the cartoony style, it may be connected to the essence of my games: light, not too serious, colorful.

Although your games have this Eastern thematic link, they seem quite unrelated mechanically – deduction, civilization, cooperative. Many designers seem to have trademark mechanics (power cards, set collection, etc.) but I can’t find one for you. Is it always the theme first with you? How do you think up such different mechanics?

I can give you a simple explanation for that: for my first steps as a game designer, I wanted to explore “classical” mechanisms and I tried to keep those as a guideline in my first designs. I was not a game expert. I started to play modern boardgames the very same year I started to design. So I made different games, exploring a panel of strong almost universal mechanisms: roll ‘n’ move, deduction, etc. Theme always comes first in my work, games begin as a story: I want to tell something, then I need mechanisms to do so.

Speaking of such unique mechanics, the idea of destroying buildings in your game Rampage with Ludovic Maublanc sounds awesome, but how does it work mechanically within the game? Can you give us an idea?

No, I can’t! Because if I do so, I will be forced to smash you down with my huge smelly feet, to blow my toxic breath into your face and throw your broken body into a crumbling building. And we both don’t want that, do we?

Many U.S. players have been importing your small card game Hanabi & Ikebana. Can you also tell us a bit about your other upcoming small releases Dojo and RockBand Manager? Will these games see U.S. release and/or are they import-friendly?

I must confess that I am not quite aware of my game’s releases. I tend to let the publishers do theirs job while I am already working on my next projects.

Hanabi has been re-published by Cocktail Games so it will be easier to find it, I guess.

Dojo is a light game (about 15 minutes) for 3 to 5 players on martial arts theme. It’s about double-guessing, risk-taking, and placement.

Rockband Manager is another of my first designs (about the same period as Takenoko). I used to play a video game (Atari 520STF) as a teenager: “Rock Star Ate My Hamster“.  I spent hours on this one, and Rockband Manager is a kind of a tribute to the old one. So, you’re a manager with some cash and you build up a band (five musicians) to rock some gig places and record some awesome discs! It’s for 3 to 6 players for 45-60 minutes, published by Edge and soon available in an English version I think.

Players seem to have a lot of ways to interpret how to play cooperative games, and certainly you’ve designed games where players can discuss everything (Ghost Stories) or next to nothing (Hanabi). The ambiguity of cooperative play leads to a lot of questions. What should players do when they disagree in Ghost Stories? What kind of “conventions” can players legally use in Hanabi? Or, more importantly than the rules, what do you envision an ideal round of Ghost Stories look like? Hanabi

Well, there’s no rule about “not agreeing” in Ghost Stories. I like to think that a bunch of people (most of the time friends) can find a way to be agreeable when playing a game. I tend to say that if you cannot manage to agree then do not play a cooperative game together! But for those who like to see everything written in the rulebook, you can also add our own house rule which can be, in GS : “the active player has the final cut”.

Hanabi is all about communication and non-communication. Some like to play it the hard way (just give the information, with a neutral tone), some like to play it the soft way (making small sign, changing tone, using eye contact). It’s an experimental design, so I ask the players to make a move and choose their conventions.

For me a perfect round in Hanabi or Ghost Stories is not one with a formal outcome (a nice move, leading to a brillant victory, for example), it’s one players will be remember later because it was a great gaming moment. Maybe it was a very bad move, who cares, the point is to have a great experience at the table!

Can you give us a bit more of a sneak peek of what to expect in Ghost Stories: Black Secret? Is it meant to be played both with and without White Moon? Does the Wu-Feng player always win?

Black Secret allows one additional player, taking the part of Wu-Feng. So the game becomes a one-versus-others game. It’s going to be a big box (same size as the base game) because there is a lot of stuff in it, including some new miniatures: Wu-Feng himself and some minions. Black Secret can be played with White Moon, yes, and I can truly say that I saw some delightful Wu-Feng losses during the playtests.

Apart from your own work, what have you been enjoying lately – what board games, books, video games, movies, etc.?

I spend too much time playing Through The Ages online and I’ve been catching up with my huge book stockpile: I Shall Wear Midnight (Pratchett) and the Jon Shannow trilogy (Gemmell) were my last reads. Oh, and I started playing ukulele this summer. Now I am trying to get back to work with some new projects and some 2012-release games that I have to finish!

Anything else you’d like to add? Any hints for what’s to come in the future?

The Ghost Stories saga is finished but players who like cooperative games can look for my next design: Sinbad. I am working hard on this one and it should be available at the end of 2012. You can check my website for more information — I try to post in English.

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