Uwe Rosenberg first gained notoriety as a game designer with Bohnanza in the late nineties, but after 2007′s Agricola his career has truly taken off. Agricola has won countless awards, and was for a while rated as the #1 game of all time on BoardGameGeek. I asked Uwe questions in English, and he responded in his native German – that means lengthy, exciting answers, but also that I did the translating myself with the help of a German-speaking colleague, so I apologize if the answers seem awkward at times. Thanks again to Uwe!
My understanding is that after the success of Agricola, you have become a full-time game designer. How has life changed for you since then?
I have been working as a game designer since 1998. After graduation, I wanted to give myself time to find a way. The search lasted until late 2005, when I started with the development of Agricola and very quickly realized that I had found my favorite kind of board games. It really changed my life in the fall of 2007, when there was so much to do at once. The project Le Havre was urgent. The ideas for Le Havre, I’d had for a little longer. And new cards for Agricola needed to be tested. I foolishly stopped jogging, which has affected my fitness to this day. And I was out five nights a week, to show the people I had met over the Internet Le Havre. I had “blind player dates” churning out and thus met every week new, nice people. Some became friends. That was a great time. A lot more hasn’t changed since Agricola. Nothing has been compared to 2009, when my first child was born: Family Growth is simply no small acquisition.
You mentioned in a past interview that you are interested in telling the story of the common man. Your games all tend to have themes of hard work, such as farming. Most people (in America) think of superheroes and medieval knights and very powerful people when they think of themes for toys and games. However, your games have been very successful. Why do you think these unconventional themes of common folk have done so well?
I actually think that many men are rather put off by my themes. But I think that this is offset by the fact that women usually like my themes and then the men encourage playing. In the long term I aim to generate interest in sustainability. We are ruining our environment gleefully to feel that we are important, but will not win the favor of our descendants. It is because of my political aspiration that I will not let there be superheroes in my life. It is the politicians that are on top that stop me from believing that there could be superheroes in real life.
You also mentioned that you are interested in “hermetically sealed completeness.” I assumed this meant that you want your games to feel as whole as possible. How do you balance this idea against the desire to design the many expansions for games like Agricola and Bohnanza? Do expansions make the game better, or just different? Are they important or necessary for the games?
There are four conditions, in my opinion, to make a good game expansion.
a) The basic rules of the game are to be preserved in the expansion. The advantage is that people who know the basic game, need to only learn a little to move into a deeper game world.
b) The narrative universe must be extended. The joyous imaginative players will be even more deeply immersed in the story being told.
c) The expansion should include a new game engine. The idea is to apply learned strategies to new situations.
d) The expansion should have the right price-performance ratio as if it were a basic game. This is not only for the material, but also the extension should be tested as thoroughly as if it were a standalone game.
Extensions that do not meet those factors damage a basic game. They could even stop a basic game from getting the chance to become a classic. Therefore, more extreme caution.
My preference for hermetically sealed worlds refers not only to games, but to dramaturgy in general. A complete world gives connoisseurs of art the possibility to think within this world and live in this world, to peek through doors within the world and explore further, and leave the doors open to return if they do not like what they see.
Most of your recent games have involved the worker placement mechanic first found in Caylus. Do you think that worker placement is a “fad” that will eventually fade away, or do you think it is now a permanent fixture of board gaming, like set collection or tile laying? Is this now the first idea that you use when you think about designing a large game?
Caylus was not the first worker placement game. As far as I know, it was one of the Key games of Richard Breese.
Anyone who has played many worker placement games, enjoys it then also, and can play these games more quickly. Worker placement mechanisms are among the best building blocks for strategy games. That will remain the case. Worker placement mechanisms are also particularly good for game developers, for the first steps of a company. One can learn a lot about them from the newly created games.
What made you decide to create your own publishing company (Lookout Games)? How would things have gone differently if you had simply brought these games to other publishers?
If you self-publish, it is worth it to be able to spend entirely too much time stuck in the development of a game. For Agricola it was two years, for Ora et Labora, even three years. After this time, you should be the one who knows most of the game. For really complex games, not a single parameter of what was set out by the author should be controlled by another person (or editor). Moreover, it is financially better to self-publish, if you can reasonably manage the sale of the complex games. I still hope that we will sell the really good games on their own, so I will hopefully in the future not even need a marketing department. These days, we have a third company. After Lookout and Hall Games, we have the publisher Feuerland Spiele, with a German name. Frank and I are planning to move army games, especially by inexperienced designers. The idea is that I should work on the fundamental mechanisms of the games, and in this way can often lead hopefully totally new ideas to fruition. Our first game is called Terra Mystica and has a new idea that the players have to spread out on the board, but at the same time need to be close to their peers in order to gain influence.
All of your big games since Agricola have received high praise, but it seems that At the Gates of Loyang and Mercator were not as loved as Agricola, Le Havre, and Ora & Labora. Why do you think that is? What separates these two groups of games?
Loyang is the most exhausting game that I have invented. Mercator provides the most basic variety. In all five games, I could gauge the degree of success quite well in advance, since I had tested all the games with more than 200 people. Loyang and Mercator are games that I have allowed myself on the long road to Ora et Labora. Both games have their own fans. And if I have enriched the lives of these people, I’m satisfied.
Who is the target audience for Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small? Is it for Agricola players wanting an even quicker 2-player game, or is it meant as a lighter, easier game for players who didn’t like Agricola? Why would someone who owns Agricola and plays it with two players also decide to buy this game?
In fact, the game shall introduce new people to Agricola. We want to be represented by this game in big game chain stores. Among all pure two-person games I like it the most: after six games in a row I’ve seen players still eager for the next. Due to the additional special buildings, which will be published shortly, the game’s replayability will be closer to its big brother.
I have not played it yet, but it seems to me that Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small has no random elements, which is a huge change from Agricola which has cards and semi-random action spaces that appear. Many players think that luckless games are ones of deep strategy and family games must have a lot of randomness so anyone can win. Yet here we have a shorter, lighter luckless game and a deep strategy game with many random elements. For you, what is the purpose of randomness in a game?
I agree with the assessment of luck in strategy and family games. The two-person game Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small now falls under the category of family game, without having any luck. Sometimes you must have the courage to do something different. The market cannot absorb many games of this type. Let us hope that it is one of the few, and perhaps do well because of its “Oh, it’s cute” factor.
You’ve been working on heavy worker placement games ever since Agricola, but then we have the recent Bohnanza dice game. Why did you decide to make another Bohnanza game, and how did you convert the ideas of Bohnanza into a dice game? Is there a chance we will see more games with dice from you in the future?
The dice game of Bohnanza was a long cherished desire of the publisher. There have been various designs long before I had a game that was really convincing. In the meantime, my co-author of Babel also tried. We may also publish its prototype someday. Important to me is the tension during a dice roll. The players should hold their breath, and exhale at the end: “Phew, made it.” Or: “Oh, no, that was close.” That’s a tall order, and I suspect that I will rarely fulfill it. But I’ll try it again and again.
Can you tell us anything yet about Agricola: Cave Farmers? What makes it stand apart from Agricola? Is it more or less of a gamer’s game than Agricola?
Agricola: Cave Farmers will also appear yet this year, because we first have to focus on Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, for which there will be additional buildings. Agricola: Cave Farmers is like a gamer’s game Agricola. More than that. It is an Agricola with an added dimension: the forging of weapons. With the weapons, additional rewards are earned. The weapons will not be used to attack other players. Agricola is and remains a peaceful game. Other new features: instead of 3, there are 5 species. And there are special rules for the keeping of animals. For example, donkeys can be kept inside the cave. As with Agricola: Farmers of the Moor, the land must first be cultivated. It is now easier to get food. Everyone has from the outset a hotplate, and with it, anything edible can be converted into food.
Can you share anything you’re working on after Agricola: Cave Farmers?
My newest game is about the cooking of brick and glassworks. Clay is baked into bricks. By heating silica sand, glass is made: in the glass production you need potash (wood and water) to help. The three firings have led me to the working title “Ashes Are Burning”. The engine of the game is a card mechanism as in Loyang. In the end, it’s like other games that I have invented: contribute to the construction of buildings, special features, and points. Next, I make an intermediate step. I have been making the game again without brick to see what is better and what is worse. In this way, I will get a better feeling for the card mechanism, although I find it actually quite well known, because I did it myself already, for a game called “Wir sind schwanger” (“We’re pregnant”) that was only released in Germany.
What have you been enjoying lately (books, movies, television, games)?
Asko Sahlberg’s “The Voice of Darkness” I have recently read for the third time. Maybe it’s my favorite book. The six British “Sherlock” films were some of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Otherwise, I’m on Season 5 of “Alias” (without JJ Abrams, my life would be different). The two best games I’ve played recently, Homesteaders and Vegas Showdown. But it’s been a while since I played them.
Those were very interesting questions. Hopefully we get to know each other in Essen.
[Derek: that would be great, if someone would buy me a plane ticket!]