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Q&A Today: Guenter Cornett

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It’s not every day that we get to enjoy seeing game designer Guenter Cornett chime in on AGAMEMNON and all things gaming, so let’s do this, with relish.

Photo by Ines Hoffmann

Q: When did your first ideas for the AGAMEMNON board game begin to materialize?

GC: My first ideas to this game referred to another theme: ancient Chinese philosophies (Konfuzianism, Legalism, Mohism, Taoism and Sophism.) About ten years ago I started to collect material about these topics. It vanished below other papers. In 2012 I was in a hospital three times because of kidney stones. While there, I found time to read books about ancient China (especially as it pertains to the time before China was founded.) I also thought about basic game mechanics – which are rather abstract, but based intensively on that theme. When I had left the hospital, it was easy to build the prototype which worked well during the first tests. The rules of “Mo-Tse” were not changed so much after my playtestings. I joined Hippodice Game Designer Competition 2014 and reached the final stage. I showed it to a few companies, until Osprey Games took interest. The publisher asked me to change the theme to Agamemnon. This was not a problem for me, although a big part of development is cut off. If I publish a game by myself I have full control, full work, full responsibility and full risk. If it’s published by another company, I am a part of a team and responsible just for my own area as game designer. I prefer the latter scenario.

Q:  How much playtesting and rule testing occurred for AGAMEMNON before it was published by Osprey Games?

GC:  I don’t count playtests, because I focus on the game, not on statistics. As a very rough estimation I’d say maybe 30 playtestings with my participation (including playtests which I did solo.) Additionally, there were playtests at Hippodice and Osprey.

The German rules I gave to friends for proofreading, but I didn’t make it a hard test (giving to players and let them play without any help.) I got a few hints for better formulations. Because I wanted an accurate translation into the English language and I had too little time just before the fair, so I paid a professional translator. A few questions from him and minor “translation errors” led to corrections of the German version.

Q: The LOOM variation of the game is fascinating. How did this idea come about?

GC: In my first prototype I had two boards: One with a printed start situation (as in published version) and the other with just dots without any printed strings. With a few words I described how to place the string tiles onto the board to get a well-working situation at the start. Osprey asked me to make this more comfortable for the players. And so I did. First, I tried the standard board using the missing connections as a fourth color. Because this was flawed, I designed a new board with four colors.

Q:  What do you suppose King Priam of Troy would think of your AGAMEMNON board game?

GC:  When I mentioned this question to my neighbor, she spontaneously gave the most plausible answer: He would hate the game because of it’s title.

Q: Of all the famous persons involved with the Trojan War, who fascinates you the most, and why?

GC:  In my youth I preferred Odysseus to Achilles because he was described as very clever and brave. But later I read that he was more disingenuous and vindictive. Odysseus foisted Palamedes a faked letter and gold to accuse him as a traitor, so that Palamedes was judged to death. Reason being, Palamedes had unmasked Odysseus, when he tried to avoid participating in the Trojan War by dissembling himself as a maniac.

Palamedes is described as the wisest man. He invented letters, numbers, coins, calculation of times and perhaps one of the first board games: Tavli, an ancestor of Backgammon. Okay, it’s all just a legend…

Q: Of the many tabletop games to come along over the years, which have been your favorites, and why?

GC: On the top is a group of ten to twenty games, e.g. Tichu, 1830 (especially this of the 18xx series,) Vikings (Michael Kiesling,) St. Petersburg, Cartagena, Tayü, Tsuro, Transamerica, Yucata, Ponte del Diavolo, Mamma Mia, Schottentotten, Black Dog, Carcassonne, Krazy Words, Werwölfe von Düsterwald, Finito and Take It Easy. It’s a wide spectrum and it depends also on the situation and other players. Many of the aforementioned games are those of game publisher Hans im Glück. Most but not all of the games have a clever gameplay, short time, decent theme and easy rules. Many of the games which I do not like feature many of those things as well. What makes a good game (to me or generally) is a mystery, which will never be solved, I guess.

When I played Transamerica for the first time, I thought: What’s that? A game? Too thin, nothing to do. Now it’s my favorite game for a mix of experienced gamers and the old grandma (sorry, grandma, for using this stereotype.) Francis Tresham, designer of 1830 and Civilization has my biggest respect for creating monumental games which are original, clever, developing dramaturgy – especially at a time when game design was at a “lower” level than it is now. Although I usually don’t like memory elements in games, Mamma Mia is one of my favorite games and for my personal taste absolutely the best of Uwe Rosenberg’s games.

Guenter as an extra

Q: What are you reading these days?

GC: I’m reading three books about Berlin: one about criminal history in Berlin, one about the private lives of Prussian kings and one about Neukölln – the urban quarter where I live. Thomas Lindemann’s “Keine Angst, hier gibt’s auch Deutsche” (Don’t Be Afraid, Germans Live Here Too.) In Neukölln there are many people from all over the world; the author is a father moving with his family here from upcoming Prenzlauer Berg. He describes their problems in a funny and respectful way.

The other two books I read mainly, because I work part-time as a rickshaw guide and I’m always looking for interesting stories to tell the tourists. But maybe I need a few more kidney stones to finish these books.

When I am in good health, a newspaper suits me than a book.

Q:  Which of the Prussian kings fascinates you the most, and why?

GC:  Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Große), because of his ambivalence. He brought enlightenment to Prussia and a war with 500,000 dead in Europe. This may be caused at least partly in his education: Frederick’s father was the soldier king, severe to the people and to his son. He wakened him early in the morning with the roar of guns and forced him into a military education, while Frederick preferred music, art, literacy and philosophy. When his father came to know that his son secretly learned Latin, he beat both his son and the teacher.

While the soldier king kept peace to preserve his soldiers, one of his first royal acts was when the “sensitive” Frederic attacked Silesia. In subsequent conflicts, Prussia was nearly lost but finally became stronger. Also interesting is that conservative and nationalist Germans admire both Prussia and Frederick, but ignore the fact that Frederick disdained the German language for being too rough; like nobles and artists he preferred the French language. And, Prussia was not only a militaristic authoritarian state, but also tolerant towards religions and foreigners. Besides language, the French could also use French laws in Prussia.

Q: When it comes to game design, what are your thoughts on plagiarism?

GC: About plagiarism I could tell much, maybe too much. Plagiarism is a rare problem for game designers, but when it happens it’s hard. Unexperienced game designers fear it more than is necessary, because plagiarists prefer to plagiarize games which are already successful on the market.

Often it’s not easy to decide, if a similar game is plagiarism or just inspired by another game. In German, I wrote a proposal how to handle a suspicion by describing several grades of similarity.

Real plagiarism grabbed me several times as writer and as game designer. It’s not funny, because the defense takes time and concentration away from creative projects. So it steals not only property from the designer but also pleasure from the members of the public. It blocks the development of new creations (but of course, other trouble does the same.)

The German version of (text added to my game Nanuuk!) was plagiarized several times by pupils (and published,) as well as by a professional Austrian outdoor magazine.

While in most cases just an email solves the problem, I had to take legal action against the Austrian magazine to stop it, and also against a big German newspaper that tried to steal articles of mine by immoral terms of trade. Other “plagiarism” is sometimes done by fans, publishing personal fan editions. This makes me proud, but it’s also ambivalent, because permissions can lead into loss of creator’s rights.

Hey, That’s My Fish was plagiarized by big Russian company Zvezda :

Here I got help from complaining gamers, gameshops, reviewers, bloggers, game designers and mediation by the German companies Kosmos and Amigo to solve the problem, so that the plagiarism vanished. It shows not only that plagiarism happens, but also that it’s possible to fight against, even if it happens as far away as the Russian market. On the other hand, they made a profit with our game for a while.

Zvezda did not only steal my game, but also threatened me with a lawsuit in case I continued public accusations of plagiarism. Therefore it’s a bit naive to argue that a game publisher cannot steal a game without losing his reputation. A creator whose creation is stolen is always in danger of legal actions against him and paying a penalty to the plagiarist, because he has to prove his accusation. Not a nice situation, but in this case it was rather clear and the threat empty.

Guenter as an extra

Q: How might you describe the craft of game design to an attentive class of university students?

GC: For me, personally, game design is more art than craft, but of course it has many elements of craft. There are many individual ways to start, depending on personal preference: a story, a mechanic, material, variants of other games, et cetera. I usually start with game mechanic and/or story. I read books about a theme, even if it may change later. This helps me to keep my mind in the game and to find adequate rules.

More professional game designers may think about special target groups; I mainly make games that I like to play. When I built prototypes, I do it just functionally as opposed to beautifully. In most cases clear colors and standard pieces are enough. During playtesting I make notes on the board, so I don’t lose them. Later I can print a new board. Companies may also paint on the board or cut it as they want, when they like to test changes. I don’t see my prototype as a sacred. It’s to be used up.

I have a personal standard for writing rules, which probably is close to others (of course.) But I avoid stylized text, which refers just to the theme. My introductions are either very short or give an overview about the game mechanics and objection, so that there is a mind base, when the players start to listen to the rules.

Playtesting and rule testing is important. More professional game designers may give it to many groups and collect results. I stay at playtests and get just direct comments, because my own taste is relevant, not just that of a focus group.

Q: What are your thoughts on organic structures in game design versus a more symmetrical design?

GC: In school I liked the set theory. And this went into games like Kahuna, China Gold and Agamemnon. Its structure is organic, asymmetric, netlike, complex, but not complicated. I guess such structures work well without additional details, which may make a game complicated. While a chess-like board looks like hard work, such organic structure is more open for explorers. At least in my brain it is. Of course this is a subjective statement, based on my personal taste, not on objective facts, but I feel it’s a bit more than just subjective.

Q: What is your favorite part of Homer’s ILIAD?

GC: “Who is hurting you” asked the other Cyclopes, Polyphemus screamed “nobody is hurting me.”

I like the play on words, although (and because) some fellows hate me for this. But I confess: I read the story of Odysseus in my childhood, so my memorization is not so intensive.

By the way, in my first Agamemnon prototype the warp tile (mixing up the situation) was an ancient Chinese sophist from 300 BC:

Gongzun Long should pay a fee for his horse. He argued (2000 years before modern set theory): The fee is for horses, but this is a white horse. A white horse is not (the same as) a horse. So I don’t have to pay the fee:

Of course such thoughts are just temporary part of game design and usually never come to the gamers, unless by way of an interview. To spend time thinking about it is my personal joy, a non-professional attitude, but still a good reward even in situations when I don’t find a publisher.

Q: If you could ask Gongzun Long one question today, what would you ask him?

GC:  To start conversation I’d ask: I have a box, in which I put a stone and nothing; hereafter is there nothing in the box?

But I’d like more to know his opinion about modern society. Besides technical development and the fact, that people from different parts of the world can communicate without delay, is there any important change between ancient China and present time? Are the people any different?

Photo by Krzysztof Jarzebinski

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

GC: Francis Tresham, Johann Peter Petri*, Elizabeth Magie, Sheldon Cooper and “you” (the unknown game designing reader of this interview.) Johann Peter Petri was a member of the infamous Schinderhannes gang and a charcoal burner. 1811 in prison he designed the card game “Schwarzer Peter” (“Black Peter”), which is probably based on “Old Maid”. I’m sure”Black Peter” whose nickname became the game title, will be an excellent grill master.

Q:  Elizabeth Magie was an extraordinary woman.  Which of her board games have you tried and enjoyed?

GC:  As a young boy I often played Monopoly, a follower of her Landlord game (which I played just one time.) In my childhood I liked Monopoly very much, although the intention of Elizabeth Magie was totally different. With that game she wanted to condemn the evilness of capitalism. So there would be an interesting conservation with her about game design, theme, game mechanics and other games of hers which I am unaware of.

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

GC: (Not happened as far as I know:) I’d like to see Kahuna or another game of mine (and/or of another game designers) made as garden projects. E.g. Kahuna: Either a small pottery version for a table or big for a landscape; islands with plants, wooden bridges (to be turned in three positions: blue, red, neutral,) cards with information about the plants. It’s time to exchange dry chess from the parks against games which fit more for casual gamers. Maybe games will “occupy” the cities together with bicycles, when cars are reduced and people find other reasons to stay in the city than visiting the 101st shopping mall. Maybe it’ll work out this way. Maybe Pokemon&Co will be one step ahead.

Q:  KAHUNA Park would be incredible.  What kinds of plants would be there?

GC:  I don’t know much about gardening, so I don’t prefer a special kind of plants. Ground covers may suit. For me it is important that the game should work, it should look nice, and it shouldn’t require too much work to keep the first two points throughout the whole year. In detail it depends from the special project. The style and the size of the bed and the taste and ability of the gaming gardener. A game in a public park would be very different from a small bed in a private garden.

While we are doing this interview, my neighbor started a little Kahuna garden project by planting flowers to an area of about 3m², and I joined in. I built the structure, graved the rill and filled it with stones. The central island will get smaller plants for a better overview.

We are thinking about the design of bridges. A neutral one comprised of bamboo as an example. Pieces of two colors for the players will be added, maybe as long sticks, snakes or just boxes, which cover the bamboo bridges. We also have to think about how to place the island names and the player markers so that that’s nice and functional.

Q: What are you most looking forward to in 2017?

GC:  2017, hmm, it’s the present year, isn’t it? In former years I used to work on a game project with the aim to publish it at next game fair in Essen. Because of the growing game scene – which means more gamers but even more game designers, publishers and illustrators – it becomes harder and harder to keep the increasing quality level. Today it’s no more possible to publish a game in a pizza box, as we did in 1997 with Arabana-Ikibiti, or with simple “illustration” as my first run of Bottle Imp in 1995.

For a while my passion seemed to turn into a struggle. So I stopped the attitude to make plans for year 20xy and began to work on projects without following a schedule; I do, what I like to do, and if there is a result, which I can publish and turn into money, I’ll try. So my personal way of game design is not so effective and therefore not so lucrative as that of more professional game designers, but I am Lord of my time – although I don’t earn much money as game designer, rickshaw-guide and an extra (movies and theater.)

My present gaming projects (besides my other jobs) are:

– A game about the Bötzow-Viertel (small quarter of Berlin) I do with a local society. It’s a variant of Old Town Robbery, which is designed by Peer Sylvester and mmyself, published by Clicker-Spiele.

– The Kahuna garden project – I guess, this interview helped to set the ball rolling, thanks to you.

– A variant of Agamemnon for 3 and 4 players (inspired by Wolfgang Werner’s Dr.Jekyll & Mr.Hyde), playable with (nearly) the same material. It’s mainly finished and seems to work fine.

– Two more projects, which are not enough progressed to talk about.

I don’t know, which projects will be finally realized in 2017, but I’ve heard the rumor, that a year 2018 will follow after 2017.

During the next game fair in Essen probably I’ll join the Potsdam Horror Nights again (as I did last year) to make the people scream. It’s fun to me, but physically speaking it’s the hardest job I’ve had in these last few years.

Guenter at Potsdam Horror Nights

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