Interview with Alexander Pfister - Designer of Isle of Skye
Join Meeple Mountain as we welcome Alexander Pfister to the interview table. Alexander Pfister has amassed quite a body of work in recent years: Port Royal, Oh My Goods, Mombasa, a Kennerspiel des Jahres win for his game Broom Service and a Kennerspiel des Jahres nomination for his game Isle of Skye.
Note that some questions were submitted from Joshua Mills (@JoshuaJMills), designer of Rocky Road a la Mode. These questions are notated with (JM).
MM: Thanks for joining us Alexander, what games are you playing lately?
We have a gaming club and fortunately they buy a lot of new games. So I get to try them and I mostly play them, usually only one time. I try to test my own games in development as often as possible.
MM: How, and when, did you start designing board games? Are you a game designer full time?
I started as a kid. Mombasa for example is based on a game I developed 30 years ago. My latest successes have motivated me to invest more time in game designing, but it's still a hobby and not full time.
MM: Oh, what you do full time then?
I'm a financial analyst.
MM: That helps explain the excellent economic balancing act you performed in Isle of Skye!
MM: What drives you to take something from concept or early prototype to completed game (JM)?
When I have an idea, I try to test it as fast as possible. This may be done with materials from other games or hand written cards/board. I try to avoid investing too much time in building a prototype. If these first tests are fun and I see potential I go on. I make a nicer prototype and test again. Maybe with other game designers. These games don't have an end game yet, it's just about testing the potential of the game. The next step might be to make a prototype for gamers (end game, some illustrations and so on). And then there are many tests.
MM: Do you design with self imposed constraints? if so what are they (JM)?
Sometimes there are design competitions with constraints, e.g. just 110 cards. But apart from this, I don't have any constraints.
MM: Is there idea in one of your games that you think no one notices, or simply one that brings a smile to your face? It could be a mechanic, a way you used a theme, a way of laying out cards, etc. (JM)?
In Oh My Goods the workers and assistants are male on one side and female on the other. I'm not sure how many noticed this.
MM: This is one of my favorite things about Oh My Goods. It's such a simple addition, and goes a long way towards inclusion in gaming. Thank you.
MM: When in the design process do you start thinking about the "weight" of a game? For example, did you ever think that Port Royal might end up as a heavier game?
I try to design games as simple as possible but still keep enough depth. Mombasa was much simpler at the beginning, but the publisher wanted to have a heavier game. If the game has some randomness in it, I think it is even more important to keep it simple and short.
MM: Your Kennerspiel des Jahres nominated game Isle of Skye has so much replayability and variety. How were you able to test it thoroughly enough to determine there were no clear overpowered combinations? Do you use computer simulations, or just lots and lots of play testing?
The good thing is: It does not matter if one scoring tile earns you more points than the other because this is open information for everybody. Of course it should not be way too much, because than everybody would just focus on this scoring tile. I think it's good that some tiles are more valuable and give points from 2 or 3 scoring tiles, than others. This makes the pricing process more interesting. We did not have computer simulations but just did a lot of testing.
MM: You've worked with some of the most well known artists in the board gaming industry. How involved in the direction of your game designs are you?
I did not have much contact with the artists - except for Klemens Franz who did most of my games (Isle of Skye, Port Royal, Oh My Goods, Mombasa... - actually almost all my games are illustrated by him :-)). But generally it's the publisher who approves the illustrations and works together with the artists.
MM: Broom Service won the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2015. Now Isle of Skye is nominated for the same award this year. No designer(s) has won back to back SdJ awards since Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling won for Tikal/Torres in 1999/2000, and no designer has ever won back to back KSdJ awards. How do you feel about your chances of breaking this streak?
I'm trying not to think too much about this, because there are 3 nominees so there is only a ~33% chance of winning the award. But yes, it would be fantastic!
MM: For what it's worth, Isle of Skye is my personal pick for KdJ. It offers variety, replayability, and economic engine, and is language independent. Plus it's just a great game.
MM: Could you talk about the process a game goes through to become nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres or Spiel des Jahres awards? Also since you've won the Kennerspiel des Jahres, could you also talk about what happens after a win?
There is no process for me beforehand. The jury plays all games and decides which 3 are nominated in each category. Then I get an invitation to the ceremony (actually the publisher gets it). Before the ceremony all games are presented to the press. The jury does a secret election the evening before, the chairman collects the votes and only he knows the winner.
The ceremony is on Monday morning, there are many people there. After a short video clip about the 3 nominees (like the Oscar ceremony), then comes the magic moment: The winner is is announced. After the ceremony there are a lot of interviews.
MM: With the success of Isle of Skye, and the possibility of a Kennerspiel des Jahres win, are there any plans for an expansion?
Indeed. We finished the expansion already, I'm not sure when it will be produced. In the expansion we will be able to travel within our kingdom. Roads become even more important. And we have contracts, like bringing whisky to a lighthouse. Even if this sounds like a lot going on, we tried to keep it as simple as possible. Playing time will not increase much as we wanted to conserve the strength of Isle of Skye: An easy and fast game.
MM: That's wonderful to hear! Keep Meeple Mountain in mind when you're sending out review copies! :D
Thanks again Alexander for your time, and your excellent games. Meeple Mountain wishes you the best of luck for the Kennerspiel des Jahres nomination.
Update: Isle of Skye was announced as the winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres award. Read our review of Isle of Skye.
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