Game Designer Interview: Michael Schacht

You’re probably familiar with Michael Schacht, designer of 2007 Spiel des Jahres winner Zooloretto, as well as a vast catalog of highly-acclaimed games such as China, Valdora, and The Golden City.  MeepleTown reached out to Mr. Schacht shortly after the announcement of his two upcoming games, Africana and Zooloretto Würfelspiel, and he graciously took time out of his schedule to chat with us.

First, I was wondering if you would talk a bit about how you became interested in the world of board game design.

There were always phases when I liked to play card and board games, but there were so many other interesting things, so I frequently lost the connection for some time. But games always came back. As I can remember in school, I made a expansion for Risk by adding Antarctica. That was kind of a start. When studying, I was fascinated by computer games and creating them (on the Commodore Amiga). That was the first real examination into inventing games for a longer lasting period of time. That lead to a quite complex Civilization-style freeware game called “After the Flood”. That work also influenced me to create two boardgame ideas (one of these is mentioned later). By chance I heard of a designing contest; I participated several times, and it lead to the first releases Taxi and Charts.

How does your design process work?  Do you come up with a strong theme and try to construct mechanics that complement it, or do you usually have the gameplay ideas first and then find a theme that fits?

Nowadays I mostly start with a mechanism idea. Inspiration is often my environment and daily life. If have the necessary initial idea (doesn’t have to big) or a concept idea, I’m thinking very long about it (with every year it becomes longer) until I make a very first prototype. Now I try to recognize the dead end ideas earlier. Shortly before the first prototype, I write down the complete rules. Then I see the all the missing details. Finally, the first prototype often gets re-designed several times because things always don’t work as expected. After a lot of simulations, it is really time to make a test with real people, because checking the fun component now decides whether to continue the work or kill the idea. Well, just a few ideas surpass all these phases and get finished.

ZoolorettoWhen Zooloretto won the 2007 Spiel des Jahres award, it was up against some very strong competition in Thebes and Thief of Baghdad.  Did you expect to win?  How has your life changed since receiving the most prestigious award in boardgaming?

Well, I saw some kind of chance but didn’t expect to win. I am happy that from all of my games Zooloretto made it, as it is a well accepted family game. The two games  you mentioned, as well as Yspahan, are both elegant designs and worthy of the main prize. At that time I was already very engaged in the game scene for years. So, it didn’t make a big difference for opening the publishers doors. Anyway, the year of the win was full of public interest in my work and a lot of fun. But most important was the win for me personally – an incredible, lasting honor.

You have the rather unique practice of offering mini-expansions for some of your games on your own website, including several new maps for China.  What kind of reception have you gotten from fans of these games?  Do you ever consider a game design “finished”?

Nowadays there are so many free expansions around that it doesn’t make a business effect. So, it is kind of a service offer: some players are interested in diving deeper in my games. Same with the China maps project and the whole online games platform on my site. Most people think I am already planing the expansions when creating a game. But that’s the exception; nearly all expansions were created after the release of the basic game, so this has no problematic effect on finding the end of the creation process. There are so many other difficulties in designing good games, but “finding the end” is usually not one of them, because I have worked before in a creative job where you have to have things ready in time – that forces decisions.

What types of games do you enjoy playing in your spare time?  

There are not a lot of chances for me to play already released games. So, I usually concentrate on the most important new games, which is hard enough.

Are there any recently released games by other designers that you’ve been particularly impressed by?

For my kind of creating games, Cartagena from Leo Colovini impressed me as it is so simple but involving, and not only for non-gamers. As a gamer, Puerto Rico is the archetype of modern boardgames. From the perspective of a game designer (and as a more recently released game), Dominion has an impressive concept.

While most gamers are familiar with Zooloretto and the “gold trilogy” (Valdora, The Golden City, and Felinia), over the years you have designed quite a large catalog of other games.  Are there any of your designs that you feel haven’t gotten enough attention from the boardgaming world?

As there are so many releases nowadays, 99% of the games don’t get the rewarded attention, and not only my games are meant. That leads to playing each game just once, which is really sad because some of the games need more than one play.

Coney IslandConey Island, a unique amusement park themed game, was released toward the end of 2011, but unfortunately is not yet available in the United States.  Can you please tell us a little bit about the game?  Did you ever have the opportunity to visit the real-world Coney Island when there were still theme parks operating?

There is still a chance for an American edition. The publisher is discussing this with possible partners at the moment.

The main mechanism of Coney Island is to bring your showman to the gameboard where the amusement park has to be built. This action has a lot of consequences. Which showman I place influences my income. To be able to place them, the building site has to be enlarged. And to gain attraction points the players have to erect big attractions. This element is special, because you don’t just replace your own showmen for that, you can also replace opponents showmen; that also reduces the income. Additional five person cards can refine your strategy.

But Coney Island is not only simply about building up, because at game end you shouldn’t have too many showman left on the board that would bring you negative points (you’d better have the big attractions). So, timing is very important in the game: if you replace your showmen early you will not have high income, and if you’re late you will lose a lot of points.

I visited the original park maybe 10 years ago — at that time, the roller coaster was just a ruin. Nevertheless, the theme was a suggestion by the publisher. The original theme was Rome, located right after Nero had burned down the city.

AfricanaYour new upcoming title, Africana, was just recently announced.  It appears to use some of the same concepts used in your classic game Valdora.  How much do the two games have in common?  What new things will Africana bring to the table?

The connection between both games is the book mechanism, which works nearly the same way. Besides that we have two different games, differing in rules, gameplay, and rhythm. If you compare the boxes, you can’t miss that the illustrator Franz Vohwinkel spent a lot of time to work out graphical links between the covers. At first sight you see that both are part of a series and also the name gives a hint on that. And I can imagine that there can be a further “book game” in the future (although no prototype nor concept exists so far).

Africana is kind of a modern traveling game and a race with a lot of competition and interaction. The turn decision can be more complex than in Valdora, but there is a concentration on strategies you can play: there are two main directions you can play (collecting art or concentrating on expeditions), or maybe a mix of these. So, overall Africana is simpler and more of a classical family game than Valdora.

Zooloretto Würfelspiel, which appears to be a dice-based recreation of Zooloretto, was also just announced.  Can you give us some details on what we can expect from the new game?

It is the shortest and the best for two players in the series so far. The basic Zooloretto mechanism remains, and you also have animals, enclosures, money, and the barn, but all very reduced. The twist that makes the game fast is that you always roll two dice at once and have to distribute both to the wagons. That sounds harmless but makes a really nice decision. Another new aspect is getting a bonus for filling up enclosures first. Some of the players comment the dice game is the essence of Zooloretto.

Please allow me to indulge myself by asking a very self-serving question: My wife (fellow MeepleTown contributor Hillary) is amazingly skilled at the Zooloretto; she often not only wins, but fills all of her animal pens without taking any negative points from the barn.  Do you have any top secret Zooloretto tips that might give me a snowball’s chance in hell of winning against her?

Getting no negative points doesn’t necessarily make the win. Personally, I try to start with not too many different species. Then I can try to collect animals that others don’t have or where there is not too much competition. With a high number of players it is harder to get your enclosures full; here is offspring very valuable. With a low number of players, being the last in a round offers a good chance for “blind” drawing because most animals will fit. I usually try to fill up the 4-place enclosure at first and then the 5-place enclosure, hoping to make some extra money by exchanging and adding tiles to fill again. The 6-place enclosure can be filled at last, as it generates no extra money as a bonus.

Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to our readers?

There are so many extremely interesting complex games around; that’s really great for us gamers. But dear designing colleagues, please don‘t forget about creating family games.

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