Interviews by an Optimist # 43 - Benno Delonge

Benno said this about himself...
Born 1957 in Munich, where I have always lived since then.
Learned to game at the age of 6 or 7, from my grandmother and her two widowed sisters, who had a beautiful house in the countryside, where I usually spent my summer holidays. Ever since then, Christmas has been a depressing if I did not get at least one new
game...

I created my first own games at the age of 15 or 16 for me and my two younger brothers. These games were... ehm, like games were those days. For some years, I forgot completely about gaming. Came back to it in the beginning of the 80’s, when the "Spiel des Jahres"-mania began. And in the beginning of the 90’s, I started again to try to invent new games of my own - now with real enthusiasm and eagerness. Which had to be, as it took from 1991 (when I sent my first game to a company) to 1998 (when I signed my first contract) or even 1999 (when this first game, Big City, finally appeared in Nürnberg). Now it looks as if the whole thing got some steadiness. With the three releases of Nürnberg this year (Manila, Fjorde, Trans Europa), there are 10 games of mine that are (or have been) in the shops. When I don’t game, I work as a judge in Munich. I am married and have a little girl of 5. And I just hope life goes on for the coming years, just the way it goes at present.


Tom: So it took eight years before your first game finally was produced? Were you ever discouraged over this lengthy time?

Benno: Of course I was disappointed every single time when I got a package back from a game company. But I always kept on because the main reason for working on games always were the ideas I had in my head. If you have in mind the idea of a game that you would like to play yourself when its ready, then you cannot but work on it.

In addition, some of the companies gave me some encouragement even if they rejected the games. Something like, "We would like to hear from you again if you have something new." Even things like that help a young unsuccessful games inventor to hang on.

And I realized that my games were becoming better during these years. With every new idea I thought: This one is better than the ones before! This one will finally make it! (Maybe with the one exception that TransAmerica was the very first idea of them all, which found no publisher for about ten years...) But if it had taken more than eight years, I think I would finally have dropped the whole thing...

Tom: Why do you think it took so long for a publisher to discover Transamerica, and then the game became a smash hit?

Benno: Well, you are not the first to ask this question... There was some real bad luck for this game in its first years. I had the game ready in 1991 and offered it first to Stefan Brück, who at this time was working for F.X.Schmid-Spiele. He really liked the game, tested it for more than a year, but then rejected it because his boss thought there was no market for a train game. And I heard just the same from about every other games company in Germany, when I offered the game during the next four or five years. Well, and then came the time when we had the coming up of "deeper" (i.e. more complicated) games, following "Settlers" and "El Grande". Having collected no less than ten
rejections, I put my box in the shelf and stopped offering this one. In 2000, there was a short notice in the SAZ-News that Winsome Games from US was always looking for train games. So I showed my old thing to John Bohrer in Essen 2000, and in a few weeks we had a deal; the Winsome game ("Iron Road") appeared in Essen 2001. I thought: Better to have 100 copies sold than none!

But after a first preview in a German games magazine Winning Moves Germany caught wind of it, they asked us for a license; as they had heard from other side that this was a good game. John and I found an agreement with them just during these Essen days 2001, and Winning Moves got it ready for Nürnberg ‘02. It was the "Team Annaberg" (Christwart Conrad, Marcel-Andre Casasola-Merke, Jens-Peter Schliemann, Berhard Weber) who contributed some good new ideas to the game, especially the changing of a square grid to a triangle grid.

By this time, I knew the game for ten years, and lots of gamers who had playtested it still loved it and played it. So I was quite sure that this would be a real success as soon as it finally appeared on the market. And now I can tease about every games editor that I know for having had TA on his desk but not wanting it...

Tom: TransEurope is coming out this year. What are the differences between it and TransAmerica?

Benno: Well, there are very few. One could say it is just the same game on a different map. The geographic situation is a little different, as the European map forces players to cross parts of the sea in many areas (which has to be imagined as train ferries), while the USA builds a pretty rectangle that fills the game board quite perfectly.

Crossing the sea on the European map is quite expensive, as we have "double" lines wherever you go from land to sea or from sea to land. But all lines in between, that are completely on the sea, just count single.

Some might criticize that we did quite the same thing with TransAmerica as did Days of Wonder with Ticket to Ride, but in fact we had this planned long before Ticket to Ride appeared.

Tom: What do you think about the constant comparisons between Ticket to Ride and TransAmerica?

Benno: These comparisons are quite inevitable, as both games have the same theme and use a very similar gameboard. But beside that, I think the only other thing that both games have in common is that they both are games with a very simple structure - ideal to play with less experienced gamers. I always try to do just this kind of game: Games that can be played with non-gamers (but bring enough fun for hard-core gamers too to make them accept and like it at least a bit). And this describes exactly the kind of game that I love to play myself. What is to say that I admire Ticket to Ride and saw it as a truly deserved Spiel-des-Jahres-Winner. It was my favorite for 2004 right after my first play.

If someone compares it to my TA, more people seem to prefer TtR, but luckily some others still prefer TA. I think TtR can be accepted easier by experienced gamers, as it is not that simple as is TA. But TA will always be the game that you can teach to your little school kid within five minutes - as well as to old Aunt Rosie.

Tom: Many people think that TransAmerica, while fun, has little strategy - while others boast of winning percentages that are quite high. What are your thoughts on this?

Benno: Both are right, I think. You can surely play the game just having fun, without doing too much headwork. But on the other hand, if you do burn your brain on every turn, you will surely win more games than you lose, because there are enough tactical elements in this game that can be optimized. But to tell you the truth: I myself do no longer analyze the different aspects of the Trans America gameplay. This is in my eyes a true "just play it"-game. And moreover, it is a game that I invented 14 years ago, and that appeared on the market three years ago - which means that I do no longer expect to find new aspects in it...

Tom: Of all your games, which are you the most proud of?

Benno: There are nine games so far that have seen the light of public. I myself still like to play each of them, but frankly speaking: I think two of them stand out and will still be played after some years, when the others will be forgotten. These two are TransAmerica and Manila. To predict this, I just have to report what my friends think. Because Manila is about seven years old in my private circle, and they still love to play it any time; it is the same with TransAmerica, which also had been very old when it was published. If a game keeps its glance through so many years in your private rounds, then you can be very confident that the game will make it in the public as well. You might think it wrong to say that my personal pride on different games depends on their public echo, but this is just the way it is. It is not so difficult for a game designer to make a game that he himself thinks to be great. But you should not trust your own verdict too much. Just listen what others say; they are more objective.

Tom: Will we ever see reprints or re-workings of your older designs, such as Big City (a tremendous game!)?


Benno: Big City is the only one of my games where I really think of this. It is out of print, and the rights have fallen back to me, so I could do it. And I believe that this game could indeed profit from a few little improvements (that come out of the experiences with the original Goldsieber version) to become a better game.

Tom: What things do you do as a designer early in your career that you would change today?

Benno: My "career" started very slow and rocky; there were seven years between sending my first prototype and signing my first contract. But in spite of that (or just because of this) there is nothing that I would do different, looking back to it from now.

Although I liked all of my early designs and was very disappointed by every single refusal, I understood on the other hand that I had to make still better games to finally convince these ignorant fools...

And looking back from now, these guys were not so wrong in most cases, if we leave out Trans America. My other early games were really weaker than those I do today. And I would not have tried to do better for so long if I had had easier success in the beginning.

In some cases, it was even useful to work on one idea over and over again. Best example is Manila: The thing that I started sending back in 1997 (under the title "Hansa", and later just as "Three Ships") was not the same than the game that comes now in the "Manila"-box. With every refusal by a company, I tried to make the game better, by changing this or adding that. In some cases, it was even the guys from the games companies who added some good ideas before finally refusing the game...

Another thing that I tried from the beginning and that I still think very important and that I would recommend to any young game designer: I wanted to get to know these guys who decide in the companies from person to person. If you have had a personal talk on somebody’s general ideas on gaming, on which games somebody likes and which he does not, you just learn a lot - and you know much better what game to send to which company.

Well, I did it this way, I never lost hope for better days through these sometimes frustrating first years (of which my wife says that this is the one thing she rates highest on all my games-designing thing...), and the last few years have brought me the crop. So I probably would do it all the same way again.

Wolfgang Kramer once said that the biggest mistake of younger game designers is that they send their games away too early: They offer them to the companies as soon as they work, instead of waiting until they work very well. He is probably right, and I seem to have made this mistake too. But as a greenhorn, you are so impressed with your first ideas that you just cant imagine that they could still profit from some more thinking time. This is something you always just realize when looking back...

Tom: How much were your games changed by the companies after you submitted them? Did this ever cause you any anguish?

Benno: Of course, all of my games got some changes in the time between signing the contract and publishing - some less, some more. But as far as I remember, there was never a serious quarrel about it. There is a clear sharing of responsibility between the company and the designer. The company has the last decision on everything that belongs to the shape of the game: Its title, theme, artwork etc. And I was always very pleased with what professional artwork made out of my rough prototypes; I never was disappointed by the outer shape of a game of mine. Only the title of my cardgame "Zahltag" (=payday) was not to my delight; I had preferred to keep my original title "Baggern" (=excavating). On the other hand, all changes to the mere rules need the author’s agreement. Naturally, there have always been discussions on that too, for example with "Dos Rios", which went through a very long time of testing, changing and improving. But in 95 % of all these cases, I found a common ground with the guys from the companies. And in the very few cases where we found not, I had no problem telling them that in the end they have to respect my opinion as the designer of the game.

Tom: How did you determine which companies to send your games to?

Benno: In the first years, I just gave every new game to the few companies where I knew the deciders. The very first that I came to know personally was Stefan Brück, who at that time (about 1992) worked for FX Schmid. But to say the truth, he still is one of the few German games managers who NEVER accepted one single game of mine, although he might have seen nearly all of them... De gustibus non est disputandum.

In the second step of my "career", I gave new games to the companies that had already published one of my games. Which means that for some years (1999 to 2002) I showed everything first to Joe Nikisch, who worked at that time for Goldsieber and had done my first and for a long time only published game "Big City". But to say the truth, he never published a second one... De gustibus non est disputandum.

As none of these tactics worked, I tried to get in better contact with the other companies and get an understanding of what was their special wantings. And so it came that my so far nine published games have appeared with eight different companies; only Kosmos did two of them (Hellas, Dos Rios). You might think of Zoch, but the contract for Goldbräu was first made with Hanser; it was them who chose Zoch as a partner. So Manila is so far the only original Zoch-game.

Meanwhile, I guess that I have a good idea of who wants what. When a new game is ready, it is the game itself that selects the company to which to offer it. But all of my games have some common features; they tend to be family games, which makes it hard to get respect from hard-core gamers (although I always try to please both sides). So they will generally fit better into a Kosmos or a Zoch box rather than Alea or Hans im Glück. But it is the exception that makes the rule; see "Fjorde"!

Tom: Now that you are a rather well-renowned game designer, do you find it easier for you to introduce your games to companies?

Benno: Yes, I sure have a better entrance. It is no problem to fix a meeting with someone I have never seen before; they know my name, and they want to see what I have. But this goes just for introducing my games. The more interesting question would be: Is it easier for a well-known game designer to have his games accepted? And to this no one knows the answer, as you can´t really test it.

I see that after the success of TransAmerica there was a serious increase in published Delonge games, but as you may guess, I really believe that the reason for this can be nothing else but the improved quality of my games, eh-hm. To talk seriously: I think that generally you cannot sell any game with just average quality to any bigger company - even not if you have a name. And on the other hand, you generally will have a really good game accepted - even if you don’t have a name at all. The little advantage that a well-known name might bring is that sometimes it helps you to sell a game that is somewhere between average and really good... This might have been the case with some of my own work, as well as with some games of other designers who have much bigger names than mine.

Tom: When designing a game, what do you start with - theme or mechanics?

Benno: You certainly know the allegory of "storytellers" and "watchmakers"; I am definitely the first. My games always start with the theme. I need to have a theme that fascinates me; then the rules should just come out of the story that the game tells. (If they do not, there is no new game.) I remember an interview on the German website
"Pöppelkiste" with Reiner Knizia; definitely a member of the "watchmakers", whose games take shape the other way round. He stated that games, which develop from the theme, would always have more and longer rules, while the mechanic-based games were simpler and clearer, being more "logic" than the others. I do not agree. Even if a game is strongly based on its story, it can have clear and simple rules that are easily understood.

Or take "Settlers" - certainly a perfect story-based game. Other games may have shorter rules, but once you have played this game, you probably won´t ever look again in the rulebook. Other games´ rules may have fewer pages, but every time you play again some weeks later you check the rules again from page one to the end, because they are just artificial.

Tom: What do you think is the best length for a game? When designing a game, do you try to attain a certain time frame, like thirty minutes, etc.?

Benno: For the kind of games I make, the time frame should be about an hour. The simpler, the shorter! All my games play from 30 to 75 minutes. And this is the frame that I prefer with purchased games as well. I like to play about three different games in a games evening, and we usually play on working day evenings - typically from 8 pm to 11 pm.

Tom: Have you ever had the urge to make a long, deep game?

Benno: Not exactly. When I have the idea for a new game, I always want it to become something that appeals to casual gamers as well as to experienced gamers. And it may be possible to convince a hard-core gamer of a simple game, if it has enough depth. But there is definitely no chance to get someone who plays four times a year to try a game with a 20-page rulebook. Maybe someday there will be the idea that brings me to try a real alea-style game. But I would not bet on that. Because my main urge to design a game always is the hope to get something that I myself burn to play. And I just don´t like heavy work at the game table.

Tom: Are there any themes, which you think there aren't many games on but are just begging for a game to be made of them?

Benno: Yes, there certainly are, and I think I know some of them. But this audience is way too professional to mention them here... Generally speaking: I am fed up with these medieval themes, and I always try to get game companies to consider modern age themes. But they believe that game buyers always want the same three themes. And maybe they are right.

Tom: Manila seemed to be a strong contender for the Spiel des Jahres this year. What are your thoughts on that, and the award itself?

Benno: I will start with the second question. I think the SdJ is a great thing - for two different reasons. First, this prize has created a great part of the games boom in Germany. It was the best possible marketing idea for boardgames. Every year, we have hundreds of thousands of people going to toy stores and buying just this one Spiel des Jahres - and lots of them would never buy any game if there wasn’t this award. Maybe some game companies would have ceased existing years ago if they had not won this award just once.

And second: I usually like these prize-winning games. As I told before, I prefer games that are learned and played in a reasonable time frame - unlike most DIGers, I am just the typical SdJ-gamer. And in previous years, whenever I thought there was a game that MUST win "Spiel des Jahres", it really did: Torres, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride.
But this leads me to your first question. I would agree that Manila is one of my best games, but no games designer can take a reasonable part in a discussion on SdJ, if he has a possible candidate of his own.

I have really loved Manila for six or seven years, some other gamers seem to share my opinion, but some others seem definitely not to do so. So it would be no real surprise to me if it were missing on the nomination list. But apart from that: It is always a highlight in a game designers life, if he has a game that was big fun and success in lots of different rounds for years, then sees it finally appearing on the market, and then reads the first comments from those lovely 3-raters on boardgamegeek. "Horrible..." - "boring..." - "stupid dice rolling..." - "will never see me again playing this..." Hmpf.

Tom: Besides the Spiel des Jahres, what other awards do you, as a designer, think highly of?

Benno: As you may guess, I think highly of any games award that picks up my games. So the best award I know is the "Portner", although this award is completely unknown outside the spielbox-online forum. Erhard Portner (who is a dedicated gamer) has declared some years ago that he will award one game each year with the "Portner", just because he himself likes this game best. And in 2002 he chose "Hellas" - this is the only award that I have obtained so far. (TransAmerica finished second in about every games award all over the world.)

To talk seriously: I only look for some other European game awards, as I know nothing about the American awards (especially not how they choose their winners). Of course I am interested in the Deutscher Spielepreis, although most of the voters are hardcore-gamers who tend to prefer the kind of games that I do not like so much. And I look for the Austrian-based "Spiel der Spiele", which separates the awarded games very reasonably in different categories. All of these other prizes can earn your game some honor and respect - but if you want a big increase in turnover, just go for "Spiel de Jahres"...

Tom: What games by other designers have most influenced you?

Benno: That is a difficult question, as no designer likes to think that he might be some kind of epigone. But of course, everyone will find some new mechanism in another game and use it later in a game of his own. If you see "influence" in a wider way, then I can give a few names. The ideal of "Settlers" always hangs in the air when I think of a new game; it is exactly this perfect kind of organic feeling in a game that I hope to create. Of course, it never works out, but if you dont fall all too short from it, you have a nice game. From the newer games, it was especially "Attika" that impressed me very much. Here it was not only the feeling of the game, but also some special nice rule ideas. Winner is who first has placed all his stuff on the board - that is very elegant. Besides that, there are only the usual suspects that might have influenced me the most.

Tom: When designing a game, do you ever feel "stuck" and have a hard time completing it?

Benno: Yes, this occurs more often than I like. But then I put the box back on the shelf and let it wait for a while. There are always other "works in progress" to which I can turn. Sometimes, a game has been sleeping for one or two years - when suddenly one new idea makes it worth picking it up again.

Tom: After one of your games has been published, how often do you yourself play it? Do you ever get tired of playing one of your games hundreds of times?

Benno: Yes, sometimes I get tired of a game of mine - just like it happens to most of purchased games from other authors. It is plain to see: If it is a game of my own, I must have played it very often until it gets published - about ten times more than I would play most any other purchased game.

There is a push of new fun when I see my game in its published shape, but then there might come the time when it is definitely "gamed out" for me. Sometimes it can be the critical remarks from other people after the publishing that make me see the weaker sides of the game more clearly... But there are some of my games that I would still like to play any day, even after years. This makes me sure that these are my best games.

Tom: Thanks, Benno, for taking part in this interview. Do you have any final words for our readers?

Benno: I have to thank you! One remark that I would like to close with: I am very unhappy with the fact that we game loving people have become divided into "hard core gamers" and "casual gamers". This special kind of culture will not survive if we do not manage to get these two sides together again, and this is what I try with my games: To please both sides. But in the worst case, these games might fall through between the two chairs - too complicated for the ones, too simple or luck-driven for the others...

Anyway, I hope there are DIGers who enjoy what I do.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”
June, 2005