Bruno Cathala: Passionate gamer, celebrated game designer, and as of recent, Spiel des Jahres 2017 recipient*. For a designer like Cathala, whose ludography includes popular games like 5 Tribes, 7 Wonders Duel, and Abyss, this award is a long time coming.
With the announcement of its win on July 17th, 2017, Kingdomino instantly joined the ranks of popular past award winners like The Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Codenames. According the Spiel jury, Kingdomino was chosen because it, “lifts the time-honoured principle of dominoes to a new level – without losing any of the sleek elegance of its predecessor. On the contrary: the dual mechanics of planning the far-reaching lands surrounding the castle and the clever method of selecting tiles fit together extraordinarily well, they are expertly reduced to their essential components.”
While the finished product has impressed the public since its debut at Essen 2016, the story behind how a humble game of dominos turned into a crown jewel shows that much like building an entire kingdom, the creation of a board game is no easy feat. Amidst his busy schedule, Bruno Cathala was kind enough to answer a few questions about his game design process, the gaming world, and his crown jewel Kingdomino.
Interviewer’s note: Answers were translated from Cathala’s native French and edited for the sake of clarity and length.
Kathryn Hill: To start off, what is the biggest challenge when it comes to inventing a game?
Bruno Cathala: When I have an idea, and I start developing it to create the game of my dreams, there is excitement, feelings of urgency, and a lot of hope about the playful experience I am hoping to generate among players. The biggest challenge is to keep this excitement up along the way, test after test, even when the prototype is completely done.
KH: During this process do you find inspiration in other people, or other games?
BC: True creation without any external influence is completely impossible. This is true in literature, in painting, and in music. It’s also true for games. The author is influenced by his own life experience: the games he has played, the films he has watched, the books he has read, the conversations he has had. However, in my case, if all those influences do exist, they are not conscious. I never work on a project thinking ‘’Oh, I could do it as in this game… or I could do as this person did…’’ But even if the ideas coming to my mind seem very personal, I bet they are the result of a long and complex process that digests all the various influences I have experienced.
KH: From your experience as a French game designer, what are the main differences between the European market and American Market?
BC: My experience of the US market and how it works is too limited to give a straight-out opinion about the differences between both markets. However, in the last few years I have been going to Gen Con in Indianapolis. And I have to say I am delighted by the welcome gamers are giving me. I have met playful, cheerful, curious people, with whom I have become friend with, and this summer event has become a real pleasure. Thank you all for this welcome!
KH: Do you take the market or previous experience into account when designing games?
BC: Actually, my creative process is quite selfish. I only work on the games I want to play myself; I am my first client. Then, once my creative job is done, I start a second phase trying to convince first the editors, then the players, that they need to follow me! I never think about the market when I create my games, and that’s better. To format a game to a specific market from the beginning of its creation is the best way to create a game that will surely be functional, but probably with no soul. It is my passion for games that I try to convey (probably clumsily) game after game.
KH: It seems you have spent a lot of time creating games…do you play a lot of games yourself as part of the designing process?
BC: Not often enough! Indeed, I know it does sound surprising, but my close ones I don’t really like to play. I only have one evening a week dedicated to playing games, and I mainly play my own prototypes. I try to play other inventors games as often as possible, when I get an opportunity to do so. However, I do stay connected to game industry news by reading websites (Tric-Trac, boardgamegeek, Dice Tower…), watching how-to-play videos, and reading rules on the internet.
KH: Currently, what are your favorite games on the market?
BC: Over the past few months I have fallen in love with a few games. Captain Sonar is amazing because it gives an incredible, different and unique gaming experience to players. I like Flamme Rouge, because it’s easy, clever, end so elegant. I love Santorini, because for a fan of pure and beautiful abstract games like me, it’s a must have. I also really like Jaipur. You absolutely have to download the app, it’s one of the best ever!
KH: Now moving on to your pièce de résistance; where did you get your inspiration for Kingdomino? What is the story behind it?
BC: Kingdomino’s story is different from my other games. Indeed, at the very beginning, it was a game specifically developed for a ski resort! On top of my job as a game designer for the conventional board game industry, I create games for private clients, following their specifications, for them to use for internal or external communications purposes, or as a training tool. I had already created tile, dice, and card games for this ski resort to give to people who bought week long family passes, and so when 2015 arrived I wanted another playful object that I could possibly use, and twist, to make a very simple game. Almost right away I thought of dominos. This is what led me to K’dominoz! The size of the box only allowed each player to play with 8 dominos, small in size and thickness. I had so much pleasure in playing and playing again, that I told myself it would be a shame to not try to enrich it a bit and give it a chance in the board game world.
I created Kingdomino on that basis and incorporated a theme, hesitating a long time between the building of a Kingdom as you know it, or some kind of farm with fields containing different animals in place of crowns. I also increased the number of tiles, added domino types, and introduced the system of numbers underneath each domino to bring an interesting dilemma for savvy players. Then came the different game play variations, of which the 2 player 7×7 is my favorite. In regards to the timing…the first little game was wrapped up within one afternoon. However, for this draft to become Kingdomino, there was about 6 months of work and dozens of tests to validate a final distribution that met my satisfaction.
KH: After the initial development period you just mentioned, are there any interesting changes or improvements that were made before production?
BC: The path from a prototype to an edited version is not always easy. One essential element to the success of this operation is the artistic direction. With good artistic direction, a complex game can seem easy, and a simple game can seem complicated.
When it comes to Kingdomino, the work started with an illustrator, who was told to draw everything from a top point of view, in contrary to my prototype which was based on buildings seen from the side in an isometric view. At the end, to my biggest disappointment, the final result was difficult to play and the aesthetic was questionable and not very attractive. The work was completely done, the illustrator had been paid, and the game was ready for production. However, I shared my doubts and sadness with Blue Orange and they were incredibly responsive to my disappointment. They changed the illustrator and paid for the cost of the re-done illustrations. This is when Cyril Bouquet became the illustrator, drawing the buildings from the side, and adding crowns, just like my prototype, to visualize important squares.
Today I am entirely satisfied with the final result. I am sure that without this last minute change, Kingdomino wouldn’t know the success it is having today. I want to thank my editor for making this decision, I do not know too many people able to say ‘’I was wrong’’ and double the costs to correct a problem.
KH: It seems you and Blue Orange Games have a good relationship, how did you start working with them?
BC: The story is kind of surprising actually. Before becoming a designer I was a gamer for a very long time, mostly passionate about 2 player abstract games. In the mid-80s I completely fell in love with a game that was produced one at a time by its author, Claude Leroy, called Gyges. In 2002 I discovered that Claude Leroy, whom I admired, lived a few miles from my parents in South of France. I took advantage of a Christmas visit to my parents and contacted Claude Leroy to simply tell him all the good I thought about his work, and he invited me to his home. There I met his son Timothee Leroy.
A few years later Timothee, who had just finished his business studies, decided to create a publishing company called Jactalea with the main goal of highlighting his father’s work, and abstract 2-player games. In brief, we had met before and we have a common passion for abstract games and Claude Leroy’s work. Naturally, I immediately connected to Jactalea and a year or two later I offered them a 2-player game, Kamon. It was then our partnership was born. (Interviewer’s note: Jactalea and Blue Orange Games combined in 2013 to create Blue Orange Europe, connecting Cathala with the Blue Orange brand).
KH: How did it feel when you found out about the Spiel des Jahres nomination?
BC: When one of my games is nominated for a prize, and even better, is awarded the final prize, it’s always for me a surprise, a joy, and a big honor. But this is more than that. In our little world of board games, I think it is the equivalent to winning an Oscar. Being part of the 3 finalists is just huge, especially because it is my first nomination after 15 years of designing games, and maybe my last. I was happy, honored, and also a little stressed.
BC: When I heard the announcement I was paralyzed. I couldn’t breathe. My heart was beating at 180 beats per minute, and the tears were not far. I sat there speechless, while everybody was jumping and crying around me, shaking me in all directions. It took me a good 30 seconds to get my thoughts back together. This is because it is the greatest recognition that exists for a game author. The holy grail. An Everest. It is an absolutely fantastic reward, and the biggest gift the gaming world could offer to me.
KH: Do you have any advice for someone who has ideas about games or would like to start inventing games?
BC: First, I would say that having a game idea doesn’t make you a game designer. Having an idea is just the beginning… it’s the visible part of the iceberg. Transforming this part into a real game requires a lot of work, and the first thing you have to learn is patience. You will need to build your prototype, playtest it, modify it, playtest it, modify it again, again, and again with a lot of different people (not your family or friends who always think that what you do is incredible). You will feel excited, disappointed, excited, and disappointed, again and again…and at the end, you will have to really work a lot to write an understandable and clear rules booklet. Only then it will be time to try to contact a publisher.
KH: Looking towards the future, do you have any upcoming projects you are excited about?
BC: Yes, always! Regarding projects with Blue Orange, I am right now working on different avenues to develop the universe and concept of Kingdomino. And for the end of next year, I also have lots of hopes for a cool game that can be played solo, or one on one. It’s a common project with Ludovic Maublanc and I believe in it. I am quite excited about it actually!
To learn more about the Spiel des Jahres, check out their website.
* The Spiel des Jahres is internationally acclaimed as the reigning authority on deciding the best and most accessible family board game of the year, although its contenders are games that are new only to the German market. It evaluates three finalists looking for the best design, rules, layout, and overall gaming concept. More complex games fall under the Kennerspiel des Jahres category, and children’s games fall under the Kinderspiel des Jahres category.