I recently had a chance to chat a bit with board game designer and publisher, Ignacy Trzewiczek. Despite beating out even Corey Konieczka for having one of the hardest names to pronounce, Ignacy is fairly well known around the board game world. He founded Portal Games (Neuroshima Hex, Stronghold, Robinson Crusoe), has been designing table top games for over a decade, and even writes a blog about game design (Board Games that Tell Stories) that was recently published into a book. So I used my limited time I had to ask Ignacy about game design, being a publisher and what’s new on the horizon for Portal Games. I hope you find his answers as interesting as I did.
Board Game Quest: For those of you that don’t know (and haven’t read your awesome book), tell us a little about yourself and Portal Games.
Ignacy Trzewiczek: I am a geek who decided to drop college in 1999 and to found company dedicated to games. I don’t recommend such ideas, but well, I have to admit, it worked for me. For the first few years I was writing and publishing RPGs. In 2007 we decided to go to Essen Fair and to present there our board game called Neuroshima Hex. That was like finding a treasure – worldwide audience learned about us and our company began to grow like crazy. Since 2007 we designed and published some about 10 games – we are most renowned for Stronghold and Robinson Crusoe.
BGQ: Stronghold and Robinson Crusoe are definitely two very well-known and well received games. On the other side of that coin, what game have you made that is probably more unknown that you’re especially proud of and wish more people knew about?
Ignacy: We did Witchcraft which is… In terms of game experience is kinda like Tash-Kalar, it’s a tactical game with strong abstract feeling. Witchcraft has the same feeling. I think this is a great game, but we were not able to show it enough. We sold first print but there was no demand for second print. We work on second edition, I hope that with our experience now we will be able to produce and present this gem as it should be done right from the very beginning.
Another title that got under radar of gamers is Pret-a-Porter. It has very high ratings at BGG, it was International Gamers Award nominee and Game of the Year (in Poland) nominee, but because of very strange theme (production of clothes) it was very unpopular. We will do new edition with new artwork and theme. This game deserves second chance. It is very tight, engaging economy game that puts players in the role of CEO of a company and let him struggle against other companies. It is a very engaging game.
BGQ: I look forward to checking out the new edition. I could see how some gamers might not be into the theme of a fashion company. Now as a game designer, do you design more by starting with some unique mechanics and then adding on a theme or do you find a theme you really want to build a game around first?
Ignacy: Absolutely the theme.
BGQ: To add on to that a little, tell us about your process. How do you start working on a game, what steps do you go through to get it to our table top?
Ignacy: For simple card games like Zombiaki or Convoy (or even a 51st state) it is pretty easy – I got the idea, I make prototype, I play, play, play and at some point game works smooth and is ready to publish. With big games like Stronghold or Robinson Crusoe it gets much more complicated. For about six months I do research – I read books, comic books: I watch movies dedicated to the theme. I make ton of notes, about items, events, locations etc. Then, I sit with those notes and step by step I change it into game rules. It takes another few months of testing, balancing, and then production. Then I can’t look at the game… 😉
BGQ: I can imagine after all that testing you must get sick of even games you love. With all your steps you take to make a game, how many of them end up in the trash bin? Do you have any that you thought would be great and just ended up not working out?
Ignacy: I have couple prototypes in the bin, but not that much. It’s my job to make prototype working so even if it’s hard sometimes, I make them work. Sooner or later, they will work and turn out to be good games. But of course, most prototypes are like kids – they do everything except listen to you. 🙂
BGQ: Going back to themes, I know you’ve recently worked on a game for The Witcher. What was it like to make a game based on a very large and established franchise? To go along with that, is there one theme or license you really want to build a game around?
Ignacy: Doing the Witcher was a huge thing for me. Here in Poland Witcher is like a National Treasure. This series of novels is more popular than LotR, every – literally every – person in Poland read these books or played video game. So doing a Witcher was a dream job.
I am huge SciFi/Fantasy fan so you know, I just look at my shelf and I see plenty of great stories that could make a cool board game. I think Dune is the novel I could dive into and find there a lot of material to build on.
BGQ: I first came into contact with your games when Robinson Crusoe shot up the hotness track on BGG. Having played it quite a few times, I regularly fail at trying to survive on the nasty island you’ve created for us. Any tips for those of us that are constantly leaving piles of corpses on your island?
Ignacy: Don’t focus on short term goals. I run few hundred demo games at conventions for the previous few years and I see it coming over and over – players try to survive and spend energy and time on gathering 1 piece of food. They should build tools so in a future rounds food will produce by itself.
But you know this is ‘euro style’ answer.
My heart would rather say: Have fun. Die and play again! 🙂
BGQ: You recently published a book, Board Games that Tell Stories based on your blog about game design. How has the reception to the book been? What is your favorite story from the book?
Ignacy: Reception is super cool, I am super proud of this book and feedback I receive from all over the world is very kind. What is my favorite story? It’s hard question, sir. I think I would go with Rob Daviau story about play testing Risk. It was a blast when I read it for the first time 🙂
BGQ: You are making your Gen Con debut this year with your very first Portal Games booth (Booth #664) at the show. What made you decide to exhibit there this year? What are you most looking forward to at Gen Con? And to go along with that, what’s your biggest fear?
Ignacy: Last year I was invited to Gen con as a guest by ZMAN Games.
I saw convention and I felt in love with Gen Con.
I knew I have to come back to US and visit Gen con again.
Our games had very good reception for years; year after year we were getting nominations for various awards in US (Golden Geek, Dice Tower). We decided that it is a high time we came with booth – to meet our fans, to signs boxes, to chat with people and to bring new game. I am so excited. This will be mind blowing weekend for me. Last year was awesome. This year, with release of Imperial Settlers… I can’t wait. I want Gen Con begins NOW!
BGQ: There is a lot of buzz already for Imperial Settlers and its Gen Con debut (take that Essen!) this year. Tell us a little bit about this game. What’s going to make it shoot up the rankings?
Ignacy: It’s fun. You are building your empire with cards – you build Castles, Taverns, Towns and Villages and round after round you see your lands are looking more cool and powerful. Game about building your very own Empire. Sir, I tell you, whenever you win or lose playing Imperial Settlers, you will have fun. You will build your cute Empire, you will have workers doing this or that, you will have your mines and woods, that give you resources, perhaps you wil have gold mines or you will have plains…
I mean, this game is all about the stuff we all love. You won’t be able to resist. Trust me. You are already doomed. You will play it. 🙂
BGQ: Imperial Settlers sounds really interesting and I can’t wait to try it. I know that it’s based off the 51st State ruleset. What sets this game apart from your other games with these rules (51st State, New Era)? What makes it worth the new purchase in your opinion?
Ignacy: There are three factors that I believe are important and can make mechanism of 51st State shine here. The first is theme and artwork. We moved from dark future into much more fun and nice looking settlers theme. Basic theme was a point where some players were deciding it’s not for them.
Second factor is ruleset – I made rules for Imperial Settlers much easier. I expect that some hardcore gamers may complain that Imperial Settlers is too easy, but as I look at the game, I believe it was very good decision. Imperial Settlers is much faster, much more smooth game. It is easy to teach, easy to play even for beginners.
Third factor is called faction deck. In 51st State each player played cards that were drafted from common deck. In Imperial Settlers each player has his own faction deck. It makes each empire unique; each player develops in different direction and has his very own special powers and abilities.
BGQ: That sounds interesting; I love games where players have unique decks to use. You have been a professional board game designer and publisher for quite a while now. Do you have any advice for budding designers or publishers that would love to follow in your footsteps?
If you have no patience, you will fail.
You need patience while testing game.
You need patience when improving the game.
You need patience when balancing the game.
You need patience when your first game is released and – believe it or not – not the whole world will praise you.
You need it to give you strength to begin work on your second game. And third. And fourth…
I am ‘This guy who designed Robinson Crusoe.’
I designed it in 2012.
It was 13 years after I found Portal Games and begin to work in gaming industry.
For 13 years I did better and worse games, I had my successes and I had failures. And I kept designing. Doing better and better games year after year.
Want to have success?
Have patience, I would say.
But you know. I might be wrong. History knows people who have success right from the beginning.
It just isn’t my story… 🙂
BGQ: That is some really great advice. Finally, what’s next on the horizon for Portal Games? Any hints as to your next game you’re working on or what we might expect to see?
Ignacy: We are working on science fiction game that will more or less games like Starcraft or other SciFi RTS games. You will be recruiting forces, building special buildings and conquer lands, both neutral and those from other players. Direct interaction, different factions, and special powers. What’s not to like? 😀
I am also working on new edition of Stronghold game and some other projects. 2015 for Portal Games will be epic. 🙂
That’s all the time I had to bother Ignacy. I’m really grateful for him taking the time out of his day to answer some of my questions. Be sure to check out Imperial Settlers when it hits the stores as it looks like it’s shaping up to be a really good game. If you are going to Gen Con, you can pre-order your copy of Imperial Settlers and pick it up at the Portal Games booth (#664). If you want to wait and see, I’m sure Ignacy will be happy to demo the game for you…at which point he’ll also probably convince you to buy it. 🙂
You can follow Ignacy and Portal Games on twitter at @trzewik.