Q&A Today Peer Sylvester

Q&A Today: Peer Sylvester

It’s not every day that we get to enjoy seeing game designer Peer Sylvester chime in on THE KING IS DEAD, LET THEM EAT CAKE, THE LOST EXPEDITION and all things gaming, so let’s do this, with relish.

Q:  What was your inspiration for THE KING IS DEAD board game?

PS: Originally the game was set in Siam (now known as Thailand). I worked in Bangkok as a teacher for a little more than year and I was fascinated that Thailand was never colonized. I imagined the factions that existed back then; the struggle for power in the background while having to put a unified front against the European powers. That’s probably not what really happened, but that’s where the mechanic comes from; that a neutral power takes over a tied region.

When Osprey picked up the game we looked for a setting more fitting for a British audience. We found the Arthurian saga a perfect fit and I changed some details (mainly regarding the map) to fit in with the new theme (and added the Mordor variant.)

Q:  What was it like for you, being a teacher in Thailand, and what subject did you teach during your time there?

PS:  I taught Math and Science. I had a great time doing it – I really love Bangkok, it’s a city that has a very relaxed atmosphere, the weather is great, everything is cheap and the food is just great. But I had to go back to Germany to finish the apprenticeship, that is required to teach here. Berlin has a much bigger board game scene though…

Q:  LET THEM EAT CAKE is a “game of committees, coercion and cake.”  Aside from the inclusion of a guillotine, what is it about this board game that really sets it apart from other board games?

PS: Clearly that has to be the voting mechanism! Everybody votes for everybody else, but nobody can vote for himself. You also have to vote for everybody once, before you can vote on the same player again. This way players always have to form new alliances. I came up with this, after a frustrating game of Junta – there you can get lucky and draw a lot of additional votes or you don’t. If you don’t have those extra votes, there is not much to negotiate with. As a result, an alliance of three players more or less dominated the game. This cannot happen in Let Them Eat Cake, where there is a true “Egalite.”

Q:  Balance is essential when it comes to tabletop gaming.  Vive le egalite!  We rarely see French Revolution tabletop games (and we never see Reign of Terror tabletop games.)  LET THEM EAT CAKE fills the void rather nicely.  What is it about those particular events in our world history that fascinate you the most, and why?

PS: Generally I am always impressed when people are able to successfully revolt and topple an oppressive government. This was one of the main driving forces behind my Wir sind das Volk about the history of divided Germany. I’d love to make similar games about Solidarnosc in Poland and the People Power of the Philippines.

Let Them Eat Cake shows a much lighter side of course, but it’s still somewhat related. What makes the French Revolution so interesting is that it quickly turned very dark – the revolution itself seems to have been the easy part compared to what came next. The “Reign of Terror” showed that power corrupts even those with good intentions. Let Them Eat Cake is an ironic, maybe even cynical take on this. I don’t want to say that I intended to make a political statement with Let Them Eat Cake – it’s far too light for this –  but I do think its handy to remind yourself that freedom has to be defended constantly.

Q:  THE LOST EXPEDITION comes out this year. What can you tell our readers about this board game (without giving too much away?)

PS: Percy Fawcett was arguably the most famous adventurer of his time. In 1925 he set into the Brazilian rainforest with his son and a friend to find El Dorado (which he called “Z”), never to return again. Speculations of his fate were printed in newspapers for years with a movie coming out this year as well.

The players follow his footsteps into the jungle. It’s a cooperative game (you can play two-players head-to-head as well) where you have to manage all the dangers of the jungle and hopefully come back alive. It has a quite unique mechanism that prevents “quarterbacking”, i.e. players dominating everyone else. The game features beautiful art by Garen Ewing.  It will be, without doubt, my prettiest game so far. It has a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-Book vibe. But, unlike those books, different dangers come out at different times, so every decision is unique.

Q:  What’s it like for you to be working together with Garen Ewing?

PS:  I really didn’t work with him personally – Osprey Games sent him the themes of the game’s cards and he did his magic. I just saw his work and offered feedback – but really his art is so stunning.

Q:  Why did Percy Fawcett refer to El Dorado as “Z”?

PS: Nobody really knows. He was not really interested in the gold. He was genuinely interested in the civilization that he thought was hiding in the jungle. He might have chosen that name simply to avoid a connection to the mystical place.

He was right with most of his reasoning, by the way. It was just that the civilization didn’t build grand buildings, but was indeed rather modest.

Q:  When you aren’t designing games, what do you enjoy doing with your spare time?

PS: Playing games! I also read approximately one book each week and I like writing. Due to a lack fo time, the latter is normally limited to my (German) blog. But really, most of my spare time is spent with my wife and kids.

Q:  Which book did you recently read, and what is it about?

PS: Purely by coincidence I just finished reading The Lost City Of The Monkey God (by Douglas Preston,) about the cities found in the Honduran jungle during the year 2012. It’s great because it’s such a new discovery – and it’s amazing that nobody had found the ruins prior to five years ago. This area is so inaccessible that virtually nothing is known about the culture that spawned the cities. I can highly recommend it.

Right now I’m reading Brandon Sanderson‘s first book (Elantris.) Since I discovered Sanderson’s books, I am trying to catch up on his immense body of work. I really like his style and the way he sets up his story. Its not your normal standard fantasy (which I do like, but have read more than enough of that by now.)

Q:  Which board games of the last ten years would you say impressed you the most?

PS:  Pandemic Legacy, Descent 2nd edition and K2 .

I love how Pandemic Legacy tells a story. It’s not just that the Legacy system is very innovative – which it is – it’s also what Rob Daviau did with it. It’s much more of a gimmick and really feels like a TV-series or a computer game.

I already liked the original Descent a lot. Just a reminder: Descent was one of the first games to revive the old Hero Quest-ish Dungeon Crawler genre that is so popular on Kickstarter these days. The problem was that a game took hours and I rarely have this kind of time. Descent 2 neatly compresses the playing time needed and focuses on what matters – a great feat.

K2 is a perfect blend between theme and mechanics. Mountaineering is a difficult theme to implement without using a lot of dice (or hundreds of charts) but K2 pulls it off. The rules are simple and yet thematic. It’s all about how much you are willing to risk.

Q:  If you could attempt to scale one of our planet’s most famous mountains, which mountain would you choose and why?

PS: Of course I would love to be on top of Mount Everest! But to be honest: I am absolutely not cut out to be a mountaineer. I’m afraid of heights and I get altitude sickness easily – even in the lower Alps I need at least a day to get acclimated. I’m also not good with cold. In other words, I lack everything needed to go up  mountains. I used to sail though and I think the sea is better suited for my skills. I haven’t sailed in the Pacific Ocean, so sailing around some islands there (Micronesia maybe) would be something I would do, if given the chance.

Q:  What were some of the first board games that you really enjoyed?

PS: I grew up with games. My dad taught me chess when I was 4. For a long time, I played it a lot. At about the same time the German Game of the Year Award (Spiel des Jahres) was founded, my parents always bought the winning game for Christmas (and sometimes an additional game or two.) So we played these a lot. I think we got the most out of Hare and Tortoise (still a good game,) Dampfross (haven’t played in ages,) Waterworks (which is nothing I would still enjoy, but we liked it back then) and Flying Carpet (still a decent family game.)

Q:  Given that you were introduced to Western chess at such a young age, and given that you spent time in Thailand, did you also learn to play Makruk (or any of the many Asian chess styles?)

PS: Unfortunately not. I did download the rules, but I never progressed beyond reading them. The problem is that nobody I knew played the game and could teach me (or play with me.) I am interested in traditional games though – my wife is from the Philippines and taught me some traditional games (such as Pusay Dos or Mah Jongg,) but there are so many games, and so little time.

Q:  What hasn’t really happened yet, in the world of tabletop gaming, that you would love to see happen next?

PS:  That’s a difficult question – If I knew that, I would be working on it.

What I think hasn’t been achieved yet, but I would like to see, would be something that translates the feeling of one of those old computer adventure games into a board game. There are several games that capture parts of it (such as Betrayal At House On The Hill or the new Unlock,) but none of those succeed completely.

Generally I think video games evolved into more different directions. For example, games like Limbo deal with death in a way no board game I know of even tries to. It is a difficult thing to deal with surprises (or feelings like fear) in a board game and I think there is a lot of ground still to be covered there.

Board games are evolving more with games like Spyfall or Werewolf where a lot of the game happens in the player’s head instead of on the board itself. I expect (and hope) to see more of that.

Q:  How much playtesting usually happens “behind the scenes” before your board games are ready for the public to enjoy?

PS: I don’t think I can give a number – that depends too much on the game. Some games need relatively little playtesting (like dexterity or trivia games.) More complex games, with lots of moving parts, need a whole lot more.

The prototype of the King Is Dead worked pretty much from the start. It was the same with Let Them Eat Cake. Both are quite robust systems, where rule changes don’t have that much of an impact and a lot of the balancing happens automatically (in Let Them Eat Cake with the voting cards, in The King Is Dead because you always weaken the faction that you gain control of.)

The Lost Expedition is different because it’s a cooperative game and getting the difficulty just right takes a lot of time – especially because there is a random element and a tactical element. You always have to figure out if you failed (or if you won) because of luck or because of your tactics. I would estimate that between me and the developers at Osprey, we are way into three digits with the number of times we’ve playtested the game.

Q:  Five dinner guests.  Which five game designers would you invite to a dinner party?

PS: I’m a big fan of Francis Tresham and would like to meet him. Rob Daviau is someone I’d like to meet as is Eric Lang – both great designers and nice guys as far as I know. Senji Kanaii is a friend I meet every year in Essen, and he would fit well into the group. And lastly, because he is a very good friend and the godfather of my daughter, I would also invite Günter Cornett.

Q:  That sounds like it would be a marvelous dinner table.  If they could each bring one tabletop game with them to the party, which games would you request that they bring?

PS: Well, we would be six players and not many games can be played with this number. I would suggest 1830 (a great opportunity to play with the author himself,) Breaking Away (one of my favorite racing games,) A Fake Artist Goes To New York as an opener, Captain Sonar for something in-between and probably Formula De… But really, I would ask them all to pick a game or a prototype and let them surprise me. With this table of authors we would have a great variety of games.

Q:  How important is tabletop gaming for the development of today’s youth?

PS: I think tabletop games provide great opportunities for adults and children/teenagers to spend quality time together. It also provides young kids with simulations of possible real life scenarios where they make choices from the many alternatives presented to them.

Q:  In addition to the release of THE LOST EXPEDITION, what are you most looking forward to in 2017?

PS:  Without a doubt, it would be Pandemic Legacy Season 2. I look forward to it as much as I look forward to the next season when my favorite TV show ends in a cliffhanger. I’m also quite curious about the This War of Mine board game because of its very unique theme – war from the perspective of the civilians. I look forward to seeing what the designers did with it.

Q:  When is THE LOST EXPEDITION expected to become available?

PS:  Estimated Arrival Time is the 18th of June. There is a slim chance that a few pre-production copies may be available at the UK Games Expo (June 2 – 4.)

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