Game Designer Interview: Sergio Halaban

Bruno Faidutti, left, Sergio Halaban, right

Bruno Faidutti, left, Sergio Halaban, right

Tell us a bit about yourself: your day job and family, how you first got into gaming, what got you to start designing, etc.

My name is Sergio Halaban, I`m 51 years old.
I`m married to Sílvia Zatz, she is a writer. We have three kids (7, 10 and 13 years old).
In 1997, two years after we married, Sílvia and I decided to host a weekly game night at home and invited André Zatz (Sílvia’s brother), as well as his girlfriend at that time.
None of us were a “real gamer”, so we started with the games we used to play in our childhood and adolescence (Monopoly, Clue, Risk, etc.). At that time the Internet was a novelty and through it we discovered a wonderful new world of games! So from the Hasbro “classics” we moved to Settlers of Catan and then we never stopped!
At that time, Sílvia, André and I, wanted to develop some creative activity together, which could evolve to become a part time job for us. I don’t know from where we got the “stupid” idea that the gaming market could offer this kind of opportunity. Probably because we were not gamers and we did not know much about what happened in the game market between late 70’s and the modern board games boom.
We visited some toyshops to research on board games and to our surprise there was nothing new! The same old games that we played in our first game nights were still the blockbusters!
So we started to develop our first games. 🙂

 

Your best-known games are co-designs with Andre Zatz. How would you describe your collaboration process?

We (Sílvia, André and I) have discovered and explored modern board games together. And from the very beginning we wanted to develop games together. Our fist published game Corrida Presidencial (something like “Presidential Campaign”) was released in 1998.
In the year of 2000 we started a company to develop games for many purposes: from board games for the toy market to corporation-minded and training games. In fact we worked for anyone who would like to hire us ;-). We have even developed some games for the main Brazilian TV network (Rede Globo).
Since 1998 we have designed and published (with distribution only in Brazil, and mainly oriented to the toy mass market) more than 40 games. Our best selling game, Floresta Encantada (Enchanted Forest) has sold already 380,000 copies.
In 2004 Sílvia decided to leave our partnership, so she could focus on her writing career.
In 2013 we (André and I) decided to split our activities. André decided to specialize in games for corporative and training demands, and I decided to focus on board games for fun. 🙂
Regarding our collaboration process, it is almost a marriage… Actually, today I am learning to work alone. For me, the natural way to design a game is in a collaborative environment. It is a fluid process. One of us came with an idea and while presenting it to the other, new ideas and possibilities pop up and are added by both of us. Before we notice, that first idea that one of us has brought is already something that belongs to the two of us.
The most important thing (I think) is that the two of us must have a chance and space to add something to the first idea. We understand that in any project we must feel that we have made at least one significant contribution. Obviously this is not always easy. Often we have to convince each other of our ideas and contributions. Once we have this feeling, that each one has added something, we can say that the project now belongs to the two of us. I believe this was the secret of our partnership.

 

Another unique thing about the two of you is that you’ve done two co-designs with Bruno Faidutti, with much of the work being done before you ever even met him. What was that like? What advice would you have for other designers who want to collaborate over long distances, and who are trying to find design partners?

My advice is to give a try. The answer “no” you already have, so you have nothing to lose. 🙂 But be prepared to hear that “no” you’ve got from the very beginning. And be prepared to accept that other people will modify your “little baby”. Especially if you are collaborating with a well-established game author.

Our collaboration with Bruno Faidutti was very easy and enriching.
For the first game, Formula E, we (André and I) had this elephant racing game that we had submitted to many editors. From the feedback we received we knew it was a good game, but apparently something was still missing. I suggested to André to show it to Bruno. My inspiration for that came from an old interview with Alex Randolph. In this interview Mr. Randolph tells about his collaboration with Leo Colovini for Inkognito, Mr. Randolph tells how he was immediately gripped by the theme and few fresh ideas he saw in Mr. Colovini’s game that he offered him to work together. This story gave us the courage to approach a designer we admire like Bruno, and submit him our idea. Surprisingly he liked our game from the first moment. It was a great honor for us to work with such a talented and experienced game author.
We (André and I) were prone to accept all Bruno`s contributions unless they change too much the main idea of the game. In fact he suggested a lot of changes that made the game more fun and suitable for the family market. All these new ideas were tested in Brazil and in France at the same time. We exchanged a lot of e-mails for several weeks, and the final result pleased very much all of us. Unfortunately, the first print run of Formula E was a little small and despite it selling out very fast, apparently there is no plan for a second print run in the near future…
Few months after this collaboration I sent Bruno a second game idea that also caught some attention from editors but apparently was lacking something too. We worked in the same way and the result of this second collaboration is the game Warehouse 51, to be presented at Gen Con by FunForge and Passport Game Studious.
In May 2015, after two collaborations and a little more than two years talking by emails I finally met Bruno in person at his Ludopathic Gathering in Etourvy.
I am very proud of both collaborations. It’s very rewarding and kind of strange at the same time when you have the opportunity to work together with one of your “heroes” 🙂

 

sheriffboxSheriff of Nottingham has been a huge success! If I understand correctly, this is the third iteration of the same game system. What lessons have you learned as the game continued to take shape, even after being published?

It is indeed! I’m really proud of it!
André, Sílvia and I started to work in this game in 2003. In 2004, Sílvia “abandoned” the development, but André and I persisted. In 2006, Kosmos released its first “incarnation” under the name Hart an der Grenze. It was our first game published outside Brazil. This first iteration entered the recommendation list of the “Spiel des Jahres” in 2006.
In 2011, Galapagos Jogos released its second “incarnation” called Robin Hood, distributed only in Brazil. It was nominated for best Brazilian game of the year at “Prêmio JoTa”.
The third “incarnation” is Sheriff of Nottingham, is the most successful one. For our surprise and big happiness, it won the 2015 Origin Awards for best board game! I must thank Bryan Pope and Scott Morris (from Arcane Wonders) for the terrific job they did, and are still doing, in the edition and promotion of this game.
All this process has thought me many things. Some of the most important are:
First that a game development is never actually finished :), even if it finds a publisher.
Second that different markets have different cultures and different players. And you should be aware of this and respect it. Fortunately we were lucky enough and the game found three good and talented developers for its three “incarnations”.
Third and most important, is how a good marketing strategy and promotion plan is important for a game success. Of course the game itself must have some qualities too 😉

 

Can you tell us a bit about your design process? How do you go from the idea for a game, to a prototype, and so on? How do you know when to scrap an idea, when to keep working, or when it’s done?

I would describe my design process as more intuitive rather than structured. Although I have a big familiarity with structured development processes, I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering and professionally worked for more than ten years as a product designer. But when it comes to game design, I put all the development theory aside, and follow a chaotic and intuitive process.
Usually I start from a theme or from a game situation. Then I try to find a mechanic that can fit.
The design process itself is similar to most designers, I think.
I try to assemble a playable version as fast as possible, play-test, adjust, play-test, and adjust…
When a game is done? Never :)… but at some point you have to stop. I usually stop in one of two cases:
I am satisfied with it, I just like playing it, or,
I don’t see how I can improve it anymore. I prefer when I arrive to the first case 😉
Even though it is hard to figure out when the game is done.
One of my main difficulties is to leave an idea that is not working well, I tend to insist to find a solution for problems I am experiencing in playtests. Sometimes I wish I could give up and go to the next idea instead of losing a lot of time in a hopeless idea, but I can’t. Another difficulty I have is that I take too long before I assemble the first playable version of a new game idea. I know I said I try to go fast, but most of the times I don’t succeed in doing it 🙂

 

How have you gone about trying to find publishers? I know some situations have just been serendipitous, but how did you go about getting started with your first designs?

Well, we are in this business for a long time now. This allowed us to build a good network. When we started, almost 20 years ago, the “competition” was smaller and we managed to make good contacts with many editors and publishers. The Internet, which was still in its beginning, helped a lot, shortening the physical distance between Brazil and Europe.
We have always submitted our game ideas through emails. In the first contact we usually send an overview of the game with some important information as number of players, target public, game length, etc. If there is any interest from the publisher they will ask for a playable version. The next steps (if they happen) are the natural consequences from the previous ones.
About luck, it definitely plays a huge role. More than I’d like to admit. Of course the game must be good or at least have some qualities. But it also must be in the right place at the right time.
To give an example of how important the circumstances are, After Hart an der Grenze was published, Wolfgang Luedtke (from Kosmos) told us that when he received our submission he found the game interesting, even though he was in doubt to ask for a prototype just because if they didn’t like it, it would be expensive to send it back to Brazil. I don’t remember how we told him that there was a playable version of the game with a friend of ours in Germany. And this information changed everything. After he knew about it, Kosmos asked for the playable version and the game ended up being published. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
Since then, I adopted as my politics, to never ask for a prototype back. If a publisher rejects one of my submissions, I just ask them to destroy the prototype, without any mercy. There is no need to send it back to Brazil.
Another situation involving luck occurred to our first published game in Brazil. It was called Corrida Presidencial (Presidential Campaign), published in 1998 by Toyster / Game Office (a Brazilian toy manufacturer). In this game each player was the coordinator of a presidential campaign. At that time the owner of the company used to play himself with the game designers. During our game, he managed to make some smart moves, which made him very happy with the game. Than he had to leave, for another meeting, in the middle of our game… We finished the game with his assistants and when he came back he already had made his decision in favor of the game. One week later we signed an agreement. Later we found out that he was lacking a “strategy” game to fill a gap in his line, because another designer could not complete the development in time for the release of another game the company had already signed for. Besides the owner of the company just loved politics. Of course our game had its qualities. We have worked a lot during its development. We too liked politics at that time (I confess I am not very interested anymore…), but it is also obvious that we arrived in the right place with the right product at the right time.
And as with these two games, if I look with a broad perspective I will find out that with every game I have published until today, lady luck or mister chance were always present somehow. So to publish a game is only a mater of luck or chance? Not at all! But as I used to say: You should believe in God, but don’t forget to tie your horse 😉
Personally I believe that chance rules a big part of our lives. I think it helps me to keep my feet on the ground. I know that when I succeed, that’s not 100% due to my creativity or capacity or whatever. And when I fail, it is not 100% my fault as well. And thinking this way helps me a lot to deal with the inevitable frustration of the constant refusals we have to deal with when submitting our ideas to evaluation.

 

warehouse51Can you tell us about Warehouse 51? How does it play? What makes it exciting? How does the theme come through?

Warehouse 51 was my second collaboration with Bruno Faidutti. After the collaboration for Formula E I felt more at ease to show Bruno some other games I had. One of them, an auction game called “National Museum”, which had a very classical mechanic and theme, caught his attention. After all, there were some interesting ideas there, that motivated Bruno to start a second collaboration.
Again we exchanged lots of emails, Bruno proposed a lot of changes and the result was a quite original game (thanks to the great ideas Bruno brought), but still with a not very exciting theme. Even though it found a publisher. Rob Merickel from Passport Game Studios was interested in publishing the game but with one condition: He wanted to change the theme to relic collectors instead of ancient art. We immediately agree! Rob’s idea was just great a solved two problems at once: The new theme was much more exciting, and thematically fitted much better one of Bruno’s ideas, that was to associate effects (blessings or curses) to the art objects (now relics). It makes much more sense that “Thor`s Hammer” will bring you a blessing than the Hammurabi`s Code. And then Warehouse 51 was born!
One year later, Bruno played Warehouse 51 with Philippe Nouhra from FunForge, who liked very much the new theme and suggested the pawnbroker idea. As Rob and Philippe had some business together (Passport is the distributor of FunForge’s games for the US market), they reached an agreement and the rights of the game passed to FunForge.
Warehouse 51 is an auction game, where players are in the role of eccentric multi-billionaires, who collect real relics. In the year is 2038, after decades of borrowing money from the rest of the world, the USA finally went bankrupt. In a last desperate move, the federal government decides to auction its most secret treasures: the artifacts and relics stored in warehouse 51. And there’s serious stuff in there, such as Aladdin’s Lamp, The Hammer of Thor, the Golem, and the Philosopher’s Stone. These relics are organized in four groups (representing four different mythologies). Players will dispute for the most prestigious collections in each one of the four groups. The player with the most prestige in the end of the game is the winner. Looks simple? Well, it isn’t that simple. Some relics will be fake (in each game the fake relics are different, chosen at random), each player knows about some fakes but never about all the fake ones. Most of the relics will cause an effect (blessing or curse) to the player who buys it. Some effects take place immediately, some last for the entire game and others will happen only in the game end. With all these effects the game is always full of surprises and lots of bluffing. And to make things even more challenging, the money circulates among players in an unusual way. The player who wins an auction will pay his bid to the player seated to his left. This simple rule generates an interesting and challenging money administration for players. There is also a pawnbroker where you can pawn a relic in order to get some extra money during the game.
It`s a game that I enjoy very much playing.
FunForge did an awesome production job! They found a very talented illustrator called Rafael Zanchetin, who is also Brazilian. 🙂

 

Can you tell us about your involvement in Ludomania (and what that is exactly), and what the board game culture is like in Brazil?

In 1998, after we published our first game, Corrida Presidencial, André learned a little about HTML and published a site in the web to promote it.
With this experience André decided to publish another site to promote board games in general, the idea was to create a space to put information about board games. It was the first web site in Portuguese about board games.
André has a degree in journalism and was interested in explore the possibilities of the Internet. So he could join two of his interests in one activity.
At that time, to play board games as a hobby was something almost nonexistent in Brazil. So in short time our web site became an important source of information . A little later we adopted the name “Ludomania”. In the beginning we were focused in the Brazilian market. Then André started to write about Chess, which he played a lot wen he was a teenager, and other classic and traditional games. After that we started to write about modern games, etc. For many years this site was a big reference and brought many people to the hobby.
With the growth of the board game community in Brazil, many other sites appeared, doing a great job in terms of bringing information about our hobby, and André gradually lost interest in keeping our site updated. There is a lot of job to keep an interesting site ;-). I tried to replace André for almost a year, but I don’t have his ability to do this. So today it is completely abandoned in the web.
The board game scene in Brazil, together with the geek culture, has been growing very fast in the last four or five years. Today we have at least four companies that produce or import games licensed from USA and Europe, translated into Portuguese. Lots of virtual and physical shops specialized in board games. Lots of sites, blogs, podcasts, video reviews, etc. specialized in board game information. All over Brazil there are groups that organize regular gaming events. These events can gather from 10 to 100 people for an afternoon of games. Among some dozens of groups in Facebook there is one that has more than eleven thousand participants and is still growing fast..
We have at least two platforms for crowdfunding, where board games are doing quite well. Lots of new game authors with lots of great ideas are releasing their own games.
If I think that two years ago we didn’t have even one third of all I have just mentioned, I’d say that the board game culture in Brazil is a snowball that is growing fast 🙂
On the other hand, as all this is too recent, many of these initiatives are still in their beginning. It will take some time before we can have a more experienced and professionalized market with consolidated companies, producing and selling games.

 

Playing the Warehouse 51 prototype

Playing the Warehouse 51 prototype

What have you been reading/playing/watching/enjoying lately?

Reading: Quando as mulheres saem para dançar (When the woman comes out to dance) and Hombre (Western roundup #3 Hombre), both by Elmore Leonard.

Playing: Prototypes, Caverna, Imperial Settlers, Prototypes…

Watching: Soccer 🙂
A movie that I`ve watched recently and recommend to everybody ever since is Relatos Selvagens (Wild Tales). If a Brazilian is recommending anything made in Argentina, believe me it must be very good 🙂

Enjoying: Learning to play Magic with my 10-year-old son, to play Go with my 13-year-old son, to play Summoner Wars with my 7-year-old son (who thinks he is 13), weekends with wife and kids, listening music (mostly jazz and blues).

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to share some thoughts and my history in the board games world.
I hope you have found it interesting or at least entertaining.
See you around!

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