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Interview with Game Designer Torben Ratzlaff

Ask any board game designer about their process for creating a new game and no two answers will be the same. For instance, some begin by building the game mechanics and apply a theme later, while others begin with a theme or concept and craft the mechanics beneath it. Designer Torben Ratzlaff, embraces the latter, beginning with a feeling, believing that idea can be transformed into a board game, and developing gameplay mechanics that support and enhance his vision.


Last month I had the chance to chat with Torben about game design and his experience as a tabletop board game creator. Torben is a Hamburg, Germany-based designer, artist, and developer and the creator of Shapes and Dreams, an imprint to publish tabletop board games that are meant to bring people together for enjoyable, out-of-the-box-thinking gaming experiences. One of Torben’s first tabletop games, Beacon Patrol, was released earlier this year.


You can listen to the audio recording of my interview with Torben Ratzlaff below or read on for an edited transcript.





 




I will start off with one of the toughest questions first. What is your favorite board game?


First I would say Next Station: London, a game I have greatly enjoyed, with a great balance between complexity and simplicity. It is easy to teach and feels fresh every time. And I think a lot of people feel the same way as it was a Spiel des Jahres nominee this year. I enjoy it more than the sequel, Next Station: Tokyo as I think the original is more straightforward.


Second would be Tokaido Duo, which I added to my collection recently. It’s very chill and achieves very much with very little—just a few components but so much to get out of it.


And third, which is a bit different, is Root, from Leder Games, which is amazing from artwork, to components, to concept. I love the asymmetry and the quirkiness of the different factions. It is amazing, even though I haven’t played it in a while.


For sure, Root is also up there at the top for me. I think the designers created a really interesting strategy game and built a rich lore and narrative around it.


Yeah, you really feel the lore of the factions through the gameplay, which is excellent.


You have a lot of prior experience in video game design, but only more recently got into board game design. Can you share how you got into the board game side of things?


I studied communications design about ten years ago and have been working in the video game industry since then, creating my own projects and working for clients. I started creating board games about two years ago. I was fed up with video games since they take so long to complete—maybe ten or a hundred times as long. So I paused the video game development.


It was around the time during Covid when people started to go out again, and meetup with close friends and I thought, “I still really love games.” Most of the video games I did were single player experiences, but I found the board game medium at that time very attractive to making physical games where people could play with other people once again. So when I started out with board games, I already had some of the tools and a bit of knowledge about game design, generally. 


What does your process look like for designing a board game? And how long does that process take?


The time always depends on the scope. Most of the time, I begin with a feeling or theme that I want to build a game around, rather than starting with the mechanics. Those come in the second step. I will often envision a theme and think “wouldn’t it be great if there were a game where you can do this or that, or where you are this or that,” and then look for mechanics that can help convey that theme or feeling. This, as I learned, is quite different from how most board game designers I have met approach their games, especially ones that are more mechanically-driven.


What was the specific inspiration for the theme or the feeling you wanted to convey with Beacon Patrol?


Beacon Patrol started out as a very different game, but it was always about exploration. The idea began as a rather abstract game called Hidden Places, where you are sightseeing in a town or quarter of a city that is unknown to you. You are exploring hidden alleyways and finding hidden places, just like you could in real life, and like I did as a tourist.


That was the feeling or theme I went for first, but there was more that emerged from that. Like the calmness or relaxation that you experience when playing the game, that was something that I wanted in the game that came after the main concept. The actual theme of the North Sea or ocean was something that was changed later in the process. I scraped most of the work I had done on the game up to that point and focused on the main mechanics, and that sort of just came about.


You mentioned the calmness that you wanted in Beacon Patrol. And one of the main strengths of that game is that you don’t have to think too hard about it. It’s supposed to be a very enjoyable experience. Other than that calmness, what sort of feelings or experiences do you hope people walk away from the table with after playing your games?


The games I’ve done so far are meant to connect people—if they play with others, not solo, of course. In any case, I want people to walk away from the game lighter than how they came into it, offering rest from the stresses of everyday life and the craziness of the world. This is classical escapism that you can find in many many games, but I like the feeling of having accomplished something after playing a game, to have closure, and to find meaning and relaxation in that.


And what I also noticed—and it wasn’t really planned—is that you notice things later on as people interact with your games and find that the games behave differently if you play them alone or if you play them with other people. So the focus of the game might shift, like in Beacon Patrol, for example. As you’ve described it, if you play it alone it can be either a very relaxing experience or a heavily strategized one. It is what you make of it. And if you play it with other people, this focus shifts, and it’s more about communication and planning together, working together, towards a common goal.


The games I do are not mean or cutthroat. Even the multiplayer competitive games I do have more mild interactions. For example, in a game I did called Tiny Travels, where you explore a city and do some sightseeing, you play against each other and you interact with each other, but always, the interaction is positive. And of course someone is the winner in the end but during the experience you just have these positive interactions.


You mentioned that board games are often a form of escapism, whether that’s leaving behind the stresses of the world outside of the game you’re playing, or even just trying to disconnect from a screen and play something analog for a while. It’s very important to have games that don’t add to that stress. There are some games that are extremely complex, or like you mentioned, have very cutthroat interaction and sometimes you just can’t have that after a very stressful day.


Yeah, it’s just a different focus. As I said before, I really love playing Root which sometimes is very stressful, very cutthroat depending on how you play it, but I think you go into those games with a different goal, a different kind of experience you’re looking for.


Going back to your design process, and talking a little bit about the publication process as well, what has been one of your most memorable moments, or the best experience you’ve had during this whole process of getting into board game publishing?


The first thing would be how—and I don’t want this to sound wrong—simple it is to get something on the table. Coming from a video game background where the creation of a prototype itself involved so much time and investment up front, just to be able to scribble something down with a pen and paper, and get somebody to play it, and get initial feedback in a short amount of time is something I have really enjoyed. A board game has a lot of less initial effort to start to see the results of a project and begin to solicit feedback for it.


Another thing that has been very memorable for me has been, since the publication of Beacon Patrol, hearing and reading all of the reviews of the game and discovering that someone seems to understand the game better or differently than I do, or shares the vision I had for the game and expresses it in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to. I think you mentioned in your review, the review by Andrew Lynch from Meeple Mountain, which really ressonated with me. And I just thought, “Yeah … that’s what I feel.” And that’s not something I’ve experienced before.


The last thing of course are the people. Here in Hamburg we luckily have a meetup for board game designers that meets twice a month. That’s been a really great group with whom to have these conversations and to hear from their experiences in this sometimes very crazy industry.


Do you play a lot of solo board games?


I do! For example, Next Station: London, like I mentioned, and other Postmark Games. And I really do enjoy them, but I do think I enjoy playing with other people more. For me, it’s about time. If I sit down and take the time to play a board game, which is not always so simple with a full schedule, if I can have social interaction and be able to play a game, that’s a win-win. If I had more free time on hand, I would play more solo games.


I think that’s the main reason people play solo games: finding the time with their gaming group. 


Is there a particular point in the design process where the ideal player count for a game starts to become clear and does making the game work as a one player experience factor into the process?


So, of course, it depends on the kind of game. One game I developed called Welcome Words was meant as a social interaction game, like an icebreaker game. In that instance, the case for a solo mode is out the window because it’s really not the purpose of the game. It would require really bending the rules.


But most of the other designs I have so far explicitly start out as single player experiences. I guess this comes from my video game background, where I also mostly did solo games. Most of the time, I will start out a design from a solo perspective, thinking “how can this idea for a theme or feeling be achieved from a solo perspective?” After I have an idea for the game design, I will look for opportunities in that design to find ways of creating interactions between players that might also enhance the theme even more.


So far, this has led to games that require very few rules changes between single player and multiplayer. I have found it much easier to transition from a solo perspective game to a multiplayer game, than the other way around. Because if a game is very focused on player interaction, it’s very hard to make a solo variant out of it. You would have to change a lot about the game to get it there. But if you already have an enjoyable solo experience, and you give it a twist or can just make it more enjoyable by adding other people in, you still have a solid solo player experience with the added bonus of an enjoyable multiplayer experience too. This, of course, has the downside that the player interactions cannot be as deep or as meaningful. So I’ve found this process very interesting. It also gives me a nice opportunity to do a lot of playtesting myself.


As we’re getting towards the end here, what is some advice that you would like to offer or give to new and aspiring board game designers based on your experience over the past few years?


I have found it very interesting coming into this industry—since I had few touchpoints with it before—the kinds of discussions going on in the board game space right now. Some of these discussions remind me of the ones that were going on in the video game industry like 10 or 15 years ago. It’s like a mirror image of the same, sometimes important, sometimes pointless, conversations. One I want to highlight, especially as it annoys me, is when people try to define or question what a game is and is not. Yes, from an academic standpoint it might be interesting, but in a practical way, it is completely useless.


I think what is important is that what you do is relevant for yourself, or relevant for others, that people have a great time and enjoy it. If what you have in the end is a game, or a puzzle, or whatever, it does not make sense to have this discussion over what is and is not a game.


Sometimes there seems to be this attitude of, “that’s not how we do things here.” Big publishers in Germany, for example, that have been in business for 20, 30, or 40 years, dominate how things are done, how games are made, which games are published, and how interactions between designers and publishers go. In the game designer group I attend, for instance, there was someone who had a great game about boxing. I think the theme of the game fit the mechanics really well and the other way around. And he ended up changing it because everyone was telling him that a game about sports wouldn't sell, that no publisher would publish it, and that no one would play it.


I would love for more people to get into board game design, especially women, minorities, and anyone who has a different idea of what board games mean. My advice to start, would be to find something you enjoy and be open to breaking conventions and trying new things. Hopefully you will make something that is relevant to others and yourself.


And not worrying so much whether it’s considered a game or not.


Yeah! And the second part is, you have to get your game out there. I have met a lot of people who have told me that they worked on a game, long ago, but never really showed it to anyone. Look for communities around you for meetups, especially if you are in a larger city like I am. You can also find that online. There are several Discord groups, Reddit, or even Board Game Geek.


Well I think that’s just about all the time we have for today. But before we end, are there any new projects that you’re working on that you’d like to share?


Yeah, of course! Thanks for asking. We are working on a Beacon Patrol video game adaptation and we already have a demo live on Steam that you can play right now. We plan on releasing the video game adaptation next year. On the one hand, it will be a faithful one to one adaptation of the board game. But there will also be additional game modes that are only possible in the digital space, like an endless mode, or special challenges that you can do, or seasonal changes, for example. And we have a whole lot of things that could enhance the experience in other ways. But of course we will have the original game, and you can play it solo, or multiplayer local (all in front of one screen) or remote.


So that’s the game I’m working on now and that takes most of my time, so unfortunately I don’t have time right now to develop new board games, but I have huge piles of ideas that I hope I can work on later on.


I do have one other game that’s already published. I mentioned it before. It’s called Tiny Travels and it’s a print at home game. We’re also planning to do another version of it. This is a traveling and sightseeing game in which you explore a city and perform different activities like visiting a museum, trying food, buying souvenirs. You can play it alone or multiplayer, and if you play it together, you can go to those places and explore those things together.


Right now there’s one map for Seoul, South Korea, but I plan to release additional cities later on with slightly different rules. The game map is based on the real city map so if you travel there you can play the game to check it out and see where you may want to go. You can get it as a print at home version on my website, and if you do, you will also get all future pages that will be released.

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