Interview with game designer Antoine Bauza

The man himself

At the 2015 PAX East convention game designer Mike Selinker shared a list he titled the 100 Games you Absolutely, Positively, Must Know How to Play. It was a list of table top and electronic games that if a friend said to you, “I don’t know how to play that”. You would say, “Oh, we need to fix that right now.”

Mike Selinker is one of the most innovative and productive designers working today, so when he shared a list of games that inspired and taught him about game design, I took an interest. Over the past year I have been working on playing through all the table top games on that list and as many of the electronic games as I can with an eye to understanding what makes for good design, as well as what makes for a fun game. If you want to know more about my investigation into Mike’s list I have been documenting my research on YouTube.

Designer Antoine Bauza is on the list with his two table top games “7 Wonders” and “Takaido”, making him one of the few designers to appear on the list twice. It also happens that Bauza has a few more than two games in my personal collection and ranks as one of my favourite designers. I reached out to him to deepen my understanding on his design process and to learn a bit more about “7 Wonders” and “Takaido”.

Antoine Bauza has to be one of the hottest designers around today. His game “7 Wonders” skyrocketed to success in 2010 and 2011 growing in popularity with each expansion. It managed to take home the connoisseur category of the most prestigious award in board gaming, the Spiel Des Jahres, commonly known as the Kennerspiel des Jahres. Recently he extended the “7 Wonders” experience with the two player “7 Wonders Duel” which was also an honourable mentions for the Kennersiel.

While “7 Wonders” is a stand out achievement it is by no means his only. He has had both “Tokaido” and “Takenoko”, featured on Wil Wheaton’s TableTop. “Ghost Stories” has received almost cult like status among gamers, with threads on Board Game Geek dedicated to helping players beat the game. Oh, and then there was the time he won the most prestigious gaming award a second time taking home the Spiel des Jahres for “Hanabi”.

Out of the games listed so far no two games use the same mechanics. In fact Antoine has become well known for creating games with unique and interesting game mechanics. Central to his design process is the player experience. To aid in creating lasting player experiences he focuses heavily on theme. This is one of the reasons why “7 Wonders” and “Tokaido” were both featured on Mike Selinker’s list. I started by asking him about his inclusion on lists such as Mike’s.

Are you surprised to see your games appearing on lists like this and what do you think it is that keeps them relevant to the gaming hobby years later?
Well, you should ask Mike! 🙂
Those two games are both big success (well, huge success for 7 Wonders), for different reasons I think. 7 Wonders offers a wide audience gaming experience with a universal theme and no downtime at all. It’s a light strategy game that you can play 2 to 7 and it has several expansions. I think this resume may justify its presence on that list.

Tokaido took its time to find its audience but there are obviously more and more new players around. Among those players, there must be players like me, who are not interested in competition and /or brainy games but more into refreshing gaming experience. And maybe into beautiful games too?

Takenoko was one of the first games you designed 2005 but was not released until 2011. 2008 saw the release of Ghost Stories, 2010 brought 7 Wonders, and in 2012 Tokaido, what was the tipping point in your understanding of game design from 2005 that made these games possible?
I’m an intuitive person, I don’t overthink the things I do in my work. just like in my life. I don’t have any clever answer to this question, I just design the games I want to play and share them with people. I’m designing board games for almost ten years and I’m still learning to do this each day.

That raises an interesting point. In your opinion, what does 7 Wonders and Tokaido reflect about you?
That I’m not a competitor and don’t really care about winning. In (most of) my games I try to tell a story, to give the players a pleasant experience; It could be to travel through Japan, the management of a growing bamboo forest, the quick build of a civilization… I strongly believe in the need for the human beings to hear, read, and tell stories.

Experts in design argue that innovation and creativity comes not just from depth of knowledge but a general curiosity, interdisciplinary interest, and bringing together divergent ideas. What outside of game design inspires you and provides ideas for games?
I try to keep an open mind and to make my life rich by traveling, meeting people, reading, watching shows. When you design a game you take a piece of life and bring it to the table, so the richer is your life, the better designer you are.

When designing Attack of the Titan you mentioned that the product you were play testing was very close to the original idea and that is a rare thing. How does this statement compare to 7 Wonders and Tokaido? What were some of the biggest changes and how did they come about?
7 Wonders is another exception to this rule; the ruleset was stable after the first prototype.
Tokaido was a long process with a first long time of development on a very different prototype (with no big board but a dynamic one made of tiles). I play tested this prototype before realizing that it wasn’t delivering the experience I wanted. So I let it rest on the shelves until I had the good idea to make it work. From this point, it was a just a matter of development and tuning. Many of my games follow this (long) maturation process.

What key indicators do you look for during the design process that encourages you to keep developing or tells you when a game is not or will not work?
I don’t have formal indicators. By watching people playing a prototype you can determine what should be your next step. Sometimes it’s changing a small rule, sometimes it’s improving the UI on a card, and sometimes it’s throwing the whole project into the garbage. I think that one important quality (or call it a skill) for a game designer is to be a good observer / listener.

You design games for gamers and for families, as someone who is driven by theme do you also set out with a specific intention for the audience or does that form naturally out of other factors? Do you find one audience more satisfying to design games for?
The audience clearly comes naturally during the first stages of development. The exception is when I want to design a children’s game because the process is very different for those games.

Before 7 Wonders you were a teacher and part time game designer. In those early days can you describe your work/life balance, how you managed to design in the midst of holding a full time job and other commitments?
I didn’t keep my full-time job for very long. Teaching demands a lot of time and involvement as does game designing. That’s why I took the risk of moving on a part-time job early. Just after that, 7 Wonders came out and allowed me to do game design full-time.

As a former teacher, current trends in education are emphasising the emotional tools required for learning and creativity. Can you describe the design process of 7 Wonders or Tokaido from the viewpoint of an emotional journey?
The 2 games are very different on this matter. I designed 7 wonders because at the time I was playing in a 7 player group and we don’t have a lot of games to play at this number. I designed Tokaido as a Japan lover who wanted to pay pack a culture for using it several times in my early designs (Hanabi, Ikebana, Takenoko). Tokaido was built around the experience of a journey across Japan. Tokaido is a competitive game but I don’t care about the competition, I wanted players to have the feeling of crossing Japan discovering its culture. I wanted to make the players love Japan like I do.

Has becoming a game designer changed the way you evaluate games? For example, are there games that you used to hate that you now appreciate more, or games that you used to love that you now recognise the flaws in?
My taste in games changed in the last decade but I don’t know if it’s related with my game designing job honestly; it’s just life I guess. Of course when I play games I have a game designing layer which takes place on my playing layer. I can’t help it. There are games that I can recognize flaws and love, most of the games in fact 🙂 And it’s quite the same for my own!

What areas of table top game design, mechanics, themes, or game play do you feel require exploration or reimagining?
Game design is a wide and complex area of study, because it includes a lot of different areas (like mathematics, sociology, psychology). Games (of all kinds) are now an art form in the mind of most people so there will more and more research on the subject. I will be very interested in following that in the future.

What support network do you rely on to aid you in your design process? Who do you rely on to bounce ideas off of and provide meaningful feedback during the early stages of design?
When I work alone, I usually need a lot of time and maturation to find the proper way to deliver a playing experience. I have a group of close friends who are my first play testers and they provide valuable feedback.
Working with a fellow designer is, of course, more effective for bouncing ideas off of and those projects see a faster development.

What help in your creative process, if any, does being part of gaming communities such as Board Game Geek offer?
I use BGG to follow up on my released games, answering rules questions and giving information on my upcoming projects. I don’t use the gaming communities in my creative process as I don’t believe in open design and I strongly think that you must be physically present when running playtest. Internet can’t be your ally here.

Where do you see the future of the table top games heading?
I think the industry has a bright future ahead! There are more and more players, designers, publishers, events, awards. All good omens.

What about you personally. Your designs have won the Kennerspiel Des Jahres, and the Spiel des Jahres, among numerous other awards, as well as finding sales success, what goals do you set as a game designer, what is out there that you still hope to achieve? How do you measure success as a game designer?
I don’t think and live in term of achievement but more in terms of experience so I don’t hope to achieve anything. I find pleasure when I design games so I do that. The day I don’t have pleasure designing games, I’ll move to something else…
Of course, I designed some successful games, which give me the comfort of making the things I have. I’m well aware of this privilege.

What projects are you currently working on that we can look forward to?
With Bruno Cathala, we are finishing the 7 Wonders Duel’s expansion, Pantheon. It will be released in Essen, October 2016. After that, I will resume my work on the next 7 Wonders expansion, Armada.
I started a several new games this year but there are at the very beginning of their development. I also have several finished games in the pipeline; Oceanos, Welcome Back To The Dungeon, Attack on Titan, and Dirty Dishes.

Antoine continues to keep us anticipating what new and clever designs he has waiting for us. I have really appreciated his approach to the process showing a very deep connection to the player experience. This is no more evident than his desire to be as present and invested in play testing as much as possible. Antoine acknowledges the long and tedious nature of playing his own game repeatedly, but it is his commitment and focus to this task that brings proven results. Antoine does not just understand how to make rules work, but how to engage people on an intellectual and emotional level. We want to thank Antoine for his time and effort in answering our questions and wish him well with his upcoming releases. We will be among the first in line to review them.

Interview conducted by Gameapalooza Staff Writer David aka NerdsofWisdom.