Interviews by an Optimist # 52 - Richard Breese

Richard has spent his business life in finance. Initially he was with Barclays Bank and subsequently an accountant in practice and then in commerce, most recently as Finance Director of a UK based multi-national commercial property development group. Two takeovers, a privatisation and an MBO in the last eighteen months have however recently restricted Richard's gaming time. Richard is married to Dawn and they have three sons, Mark, Stuart and Jonathan, all of whom enjoy board (and also unfortunately computer) games and make a significant contribution to playtesting the R&D games.

Richard published his first game under the R&D label in 1989, following this with the first of his 'Key' series of games, Keywood, in 1995. As games are simply a hobby for Richard, his gaming time competes with his work and other interests, but his aim is to keep publishing on a biennial basis.

Tom Vasel: Richard, compared to some prolific designers, you've only produced a few games. However, the games that you've designed have met with extremely high praise. How much time do you spend working on each game?

Richard Breese: This is a difficult question to answer. Recently I have managed to publish games on a two-year cycle, but often the development periods of the games overlap each other. Reef Encounter, my most recently published game took about three years from conception, whilst watching the BBC's Blue Planet documentaries, to Essen 2004. I have never attempted to count the man-hours. My wife, Dawn, simply calls it my second job! It just takes as long as it takes until I am happy with the design. With Keythedral and Reef Encounter the process took longer as I am now also spending a lot of time on the pc, producing the graphics in Photoshop and QuarkXPress, using my sister Juliet's drawings.

Tom Vasel: One thing I've noticed about your games is the lack of repeated graphics. For example, each coral tile in Reef Encounter is slightly different. Most people won't notice this, but I think it's pretty neat. The same would go for the different counters in Keythedral. Do you have a reason for this variety in artwork?

Richard Breese: Yes. I try to produce games that I would like to buy and play myself. This means both in the quality of the production and the game play. Often, an evening will be spent playing just one or two games, so you are likely to spend a lot of time just looking at the board and pieces - probably longer than any other similar type of artwork. How much more interesting to look at different pieces than one design repeated ad nauseam. I understand why repeats are used, it is much quicker and the artwork less costly. Margins are already slim, so why spend money unnecessarily? However, for games such as Settlers, where the quantities produced are over six figures, then the additional unit cost would be minimal. I am able to produce different pieces as I have learned how to use the computer graphics programs and can spend longer than could be commercially justified in manipulating Juliet's original drawings in order to produce the finished artwork.

Tom Vasel: What started you down the road of designing?

Richard Breese: I come from a creative family. My father was a graphic designer, my mother an authoress and my sister Juliet, who does the R&D Games artwork, is an illustrator, so I guess that part of it is in the blood. My day job as a Finance Director does not provide me with an obvious creative outlet - unless you count producing board reports and statutory accounts.

I have played games for as long as I can remember and dabbled in designing games for almost as long. The catalyst for publishing my first game was meeting up with my secretary's partner, Nick Fletcher, who had just started Manik Games and was about to produce his first game, Chikara - still one of my favourites. I shared his stand at the British Toy Fair and then subsequently at my first Essen in 1991.

Tom Vasel: Your games seem to have taken an evolutionary path. One of your early games, Chamelequin, is strictly an abstract game. Is there any reason you veered from games of that genre?

Richard Breese: Chamelequin dates from the late eighties, a time when I was playing games like D&D and Talisman. Whilst Chamelequin is an abstract game, it was actually derived from a movement system I had created for different races - humans, dwarves, etc., to move across different terrains. This was the game I took to Essen in 1991 where I discovered and started to play German games. As I aim to produce games that I enjoy playing, it followed that the subsequent games were in the German style, albeit at the slightly heavier end of the market. My second game, Keywood, actually started life in the corner of the Elfenlands game board.

Tom Vasel: I heard that one of your games was the winning entry for a game design contest. Is this true?

Richard Breese: That is correct. The catalyst for my second game, Keywood, was a design competition run by Mike Siggins in Sumo. It was in fact the only entry, but happily was just the sort of game Mike had been hoping to encourage. The positive reception the game received from Mike, his readers and then at Essen, especially from Ferdinand K?ether and Spielerei, where it received their top rating, encouraged me in repeating the exercise with Keydom.

Tom Vasel: Aladdin's Dragons enjoyed great success, even being picked as Game of the Year by GAMES magazine. Still, it took a while for Keythedral to be picked up, and we haven't seen a larger company pick up Reef Encounter yet. Why does it take so long for your games to be produced by a larger company, given your excellent track record?

Richard Breese: As games are simply a hobby for me, I am content simply to publish and cover my costs, which of course includes my Essen trips. What makes it worthwhile is the fun of the development process and the feedback after the games are published. The gamers' game market is not huge, so my initial run of up to 1,000 copies will satisfy most of that market. If the game is sufficiently well received it may be attractive for a larger publisher to consider. This process takes time. But I am not actively marketing the games. If it happens that the game gets republished that's nice. If not, that's fine also. I have already had the fun bit.

I have a policy of not doing second editions myself, as the publishing part is not the fun part for me. The only exception I would make is if I were to significantly change the original version.

In answer to your question, there are a lot of aspiring designers out there, many with good track records, so games companies are receiving huge numbers of games to test. I am fortunate however of being in the happy position of knowing that I will always have an outlet in R&D Games.

Tom Vasel: Are you working on any games currently?

Richard Breese: Yes, I always seem to have at least one game on the go. Initially the ideas take shape in my mind, then when I have something that I think will work, I construct the pieces for a prototype. This is essential for me to develop the idea further. At this stage I will also start to write the rules. I find it helpful to create the rules at the same time that the game develops so that I can record any ideas or the solutions to any problems as they
arise and ensure that nothing is omitted. In this respect it is a little bit like cooking and creating a new recipe. I will often introduce new ideas and pieces - the ingredients, to see if they will improve the game - the meal. From experience I find that it is important not to change too much at a time, otherwise it can be difficult to tell which ingredient is responsible for the change in the flavour. It is also important to me when I am creating a game that there is an internal logic to it. As I add new elements to a game they must work both from the game's point of view, but also make sense as far as the 'story' is concerned. You will see that with my games it is not really that a theme is added to the game but that the game and the theme develop together and flow naturally from the original idea.

At the moment I have one game, which has passed through the creation stage. It is now at the early part of the second phase, which is the artwork. As I mentioned earlier, Juliet does the initial drawings and then I prepare the final layout using Photoshop and QuarkXPress. This is a distinct second stage, which does not start in earnest until the game is more or less final. My aim is to publish this at Essen 2006.

There is a second game, which is at the creation stage. I am still introducing the ingredients to this game, but I am happy that there is an idea, which can be moulded into shape. At present I have been publishing once every two years, and so this game is pencilled in for 2008. Unfortunately my business life is very busy at present, and I have not had as much time as I would have liked to develop the games recently, so even 2008 may be a bit tight!

Tom Vasel: How much and with whom do you playtest your games? How many changes occur between your initial design and the finished product?

Richard Breese: A lot of the initial playtesting is done with my sons and one of their friends. This works well as they quickly let me know what they like and what they don't like, and all of them come up with interesting ideas. It is amusing that before we start to play a new game they will always ask, 'So what's changed this time dad!' As I have mentioned earlier, the number of changes need to be limited from one playtest to the next in order to be able to judge the effect that the individual changes have on the game. Introduce more than one related change and this is not always possible. Like me, my sons tend to play fairly quickly so it is important that I also test the games with all adult groups. Suddenly what you are used to playing as a fun quick game becomes a long game with much analysis taking place. Reef Encounter is such an example. There are three other main groups I playtest with. One group involves Tony Boydell, Alan and Charlie Paull, aspiring games designers like myself. A second is a fluid group of experienced Friday night gamers. I also meet up with Mike Siggins and Alan How on a semi regular basis to exchange game ideas and have benefited from their extensive gaming knowledge and development suggestions. Last, but not least, once the game reaches it?s final stages, Barbara Dauenhauer, who does my much praised German translations, and her husband R?diger Beyer, both well known in the German games scene, give the game a critical analysis. All of the main culprits are acknowledged in the published game rules.

Almost everything changes to some extent between inception and finalization except the core idea. Reef Encounter for example started as a single board. I subsequently tried a large number of board layouts with differing numbers of deep-water spaces. The free growth spaces were a final tweak, which were required to increase the interaction in the centre of the board and reduce defensive play. The availability of new tiles and cubes also went through endless variations before I decided on what I considered to be the best balance. I wanted there to be some restriction and for a long time during the playtesting phase it was only possible to secure one of four of the five different coloured cubes in any one turn. However, with certain numbers of players it was possible for one player to lock the following player out of a particular colour, so that had to be changed. The solution was to allow all the colours to be available but to burden the choice with differing numbers of tiles. I could go on, but you get the drift.

Tom Vasel: Do other designer's games affect you as a designer, and if so - which ones have had the greatest impact?

Richard Breese: Yes, definitely. Games are my hobby, and I am just as happy playing games as designing them. I try to play most of the new meatier German type games and always enjoy encountering other designers' ideas. By playing other designers? games you can get a better idea of what works in general terms and what doesn't. For example, it is much more fun to be playing a game where you develop and improve your position through the acquisition of goodies, such as in Settlers or, as in two of my current favourites, Goa and St. Petersburg, than it is to play a game where you are restricted in movement or where goodies are forfeit or lost.

The game which was the biggest single influence was undoubtedly the original Elfenroads. This encapsulates a world and has a visual scale that I enjoy and this certainly influenced the design of my Key games. The positive aspects of Settlers also probably played a part in my design ideas, although I doubt that I would ever design a game that resorted to the use of dice with the amount of luck that they bring into a game. I would also always want to avoid something which was too similar to an idea that had already been published.

I am always particularly keen to play the new games produced by companies like Hans im Gluck and Alea, companies who are run by the two people I consider to be the games businesses? master craftsmen; Bernd Brunnhofer and Stefan Bruck. They set a very high benchmark in quality of design, a level that I would be delighted to emulate someday.

Tom Vasel: You mentioned that you don't like using dice. What are your thoughts about luck and board games? How much luck is too much?

Richard Breese: To be precise, I mentioned that I doubt that I would ever design a game that included the use of dice. That is not to say I do not like games with dice. Can't Stop, Liar's Dice, Seafarers and Talisman all come immediately to mind. However, when designing, I prefer the challenge and reward of devising a game using a mechanic or idea that is decision based rather than, say, dice driven. I am however happy to add a small amount of spice (luck) to the game recipe. For example the blind card draw of the law cards in Keythedral, or the different polyp tile combinations that arise in Reef Encounter. But then in Keythedral all players have the option of choosing to take the card. In Reef Encounter the tile combinations build up slowly, one tile at a time, so the luck is not great and a good combination, say three polyp tiles and a larva cube of the same colour, cannot 'luckily' arrive together unheralded except as part of the initial set up.

Tom Vasel: Which of your games do you think is your best design, and why?

Richard Breese: I think the answer depends on the target audience. Reef Encounter is probably best for the gamer/geek. Reef Encounter is a little more complex than the Key games. Aladdin's Dragons is the most successful for the family market. Aladdin's Dragons is easy to learn and everyone has more of a chance, although the better players will still usually win. But I hope the answer will always be my next game, as with each new game I have more designing experience to draw on.

Tom Vasel: What advice would you have for aspiring game designers?

Richard Breese: To play as many games as you can to get an idea as to what works and what does not work and as far as possible to check that someone has not already published something similar.

Try to get your game playtested by as many people as possible and listen to their comments. Take notes as you playtest so that comments and ideas are not lost. I often use a selection of different coloured Post-It stickers to mark changes to the board and pieces as I play. With Reef Encounter the early boards were virtually made out of green and blue Post-It stickers, which could be easily and quickly repositioned to assist in getting the right balance between rock and sea spaces. Maintain and update the rules continuously throughout the playtesting stage so that as far as possible nothing is overlooked or omitted. Try to get the game tested when you are not present also, in order to check that nothing unexpected crops up which you have previously taken for granted. Remember that different people like different types of games, so you need to allow for the fact that some people will not like a particular game when another player or group will. Continue to playtest until you are happy everything works and the game is complete and finished - I find that you know when you have reached this point. If you are in doubt, you have not got there. Do not attempt to publish your game before you have reached this point.

Know your market. This is not easy. A case in point for me was Keythedral. Toward the end of the playtesting phase I downsized the game to a one-hour game by reducing the number of seats in the Keythedral, even though we had enjoyed the bigger game. This was to make the game more suitable for family play. However for many gamers (my main market) this made the game too short, so when the Pro Ludo edition was published, the longer game was reinstated as an option, which generated a favourable response.

If you are self-publishing, then be cautious to start with. 500 is a good number to take to Essen for example if you have a good game like, say, Oltramare or Jenseits von Theben. Both sold out at the show in 2004, and could have sold more, but the producers limited their downside risk. In the case of Jenseits von Theben, where only 100 games were produced, this was too cautious, but because the game was so good it should be possible for a larger second run to be made with little financial exposure. My approach was similar, with just 200 Keywoods in 1995. There are many examples of over optimistic designers being left out of pocket and with a garage full of games.

Don't expect to be able to give up the day job, unless you name is Knizia or Teuber.

Tom Vasel: What do you think about the fact that your earlier games have already become high-priced collector items - such as the original games in the "Key" series? And will we ever see another "Key" game?

Richard Breese: If the games are bought to play, then I am happy. If they are bought for investment only, then that is not what they were made for.

If everything goes according to plan, the game after next will be another Key game.

Tom Vasel: You've been designing games for over a decade. Have you noticed changes in the board game market over that time?

Richard Breese: My first game was published in 1989, but I did not discover Essen until 2001. I have been fortunate to go each year since. I think Essen is a good barometer for 'our' market in general. I think this period can be divided into two periods. BC (Before Catan) and AD (After Die Siedler).

In the BC period, the market was smaller and, in general, most of the games less sophisticated: Drunter and Dr?ber and Manhattan being good examples. With a few exceptions such as White Wind's Elfenroads and Talisman, I find most of the games I play regularly are from the AD period.

In the AD period Essen has continued to expand year on year, albeit only in part due to family and gamer's games. During this period I consider that the quality of the best games published in the gamer's market has been consistently higher than in the BC period. I don't think games such as El Grande, Puerto Rico, Goa or Age of Steam would have been developed in the BC period, where only the demanding Die Macher immediately springs to mind as a counterbalance.

The best of these games have expanded the market and also encouraged new entrants. The expansion of Essen has also been partly fuelled by a larger number of smaller independent publishers. However whilst this has provided us gamers with a few gems, the most reliable source of new quality games remains the leading players, with Hans im Gl?ck, Alea and Kosmos being at the forefront.

Tom Vasel: With all of these new companies springing up, have you found it harder to sell your latest games?

Richard: I think if there are more companies, it is good for the market, especially if the games are good also. If punters find good games from smaller companies like 2F, Doris and Frank, Lookout or Ystari, then it is more likely they will consider other purchases from independents. As the number of gamers at Essen, my main market, appears to be growing at a similar rate to the number of stallholders, then there is no discernable affect.

As you know R&D only produce limited edition games and to date I have been fortunate that the games have sold out fairly quickly. I do think however that the market generally is expanding. Most of my sales are to Germany, the UK and the US, but increasingly I am getting more enquiries from elsewhere in Europe, Australia and Japan.

Tom Vasel: What do you think when you see that many renowned game critics state that they'll buy one of your games on the spot, unseen?

Richard Breese: I think that I hope they enjoy the game and that they will write nice things about it. Hopefully they will then get the next game as well.

Tom Vasel: Do you read reviews of your games on the internet, and other comments? How big of an effect has the internet had on you as a gamer?

Richard Breese: As I have already mentioned, games are simply a hobby for me. The R&D editions do little more than break even and cover my costs to Essen each year. So I do not measure the success of my games in sales - as happily the small runs tend to sell out, but in the response the games receive. The reviews on the internet and also in the games magazines such as Counter, Spielbox and Spielerei, are a significant part of this.

There are some reviewers, such as yourself and Alan How for example, who have a huge enthusiasm for games and gaming in general and are generous enough to be able to be positive about most games. These reviews are nice for designers to read when they have made a big investment in time and effort to get their game to market. Then there are reviewers like Greg Schloesser and Stuart Dagger who find it easier to be a bit more critical. I hope I am objective enough to take any criticisms constructively when they are made and to try to learn from these. One example was Keythedral, where I introduced some changes into the Pro Ludo edition in response to the feedback - ironically, as I have mentioned, in the case of the extra seats in the Keythedral this change reversed a change I had made late on in the day when finalizing the design of the original game.

Tom, I think for the benefit of your readers, I should mention at this point that this interview has now entered its fifth month! I am not sure how typical this is, and commend you for your patience. This long period is largely a result of a busy period I have had in my full time job arising from corporate changes. I therefore apologise if there is a little repetition in my replies - it is simply that after such a long period I am not always certain whether I have already mentioned some points in my earlier answers.

Regarding the internet in general, this has made a big difference in many ways. Firstly, I have turned into a Geek and most days after I have published a new game I look at the BGG to see if there are any new comments. I also scan both Diggers and Spielfrieks, but find it hard to keep up even with only the daily digests. Most days there are a few e-mails regarding my games - how to find them, missing pieces, rules queries, etc. I reply to all of these. E-mails are also essential in facilitating the translations that Barbara does so professionally for me.

To date, the internet and Counter/Sumo are the only places I have advertised. Brett and Board and more recently Gamefest provide excellent pre-Essen announcement services. These produce pre-orders by e-mail and effectively a database. Payments can be achieved painlessly and cheaply using Paypal. Reef Encounter was produced by Ludo Fact in Germany. It would have not been feasible to arrange that were it not for the internet.

The BGG, as many of your readers will know, also provides an unrivalled information source of gaming data. I find the rules translations particularly useful.

However, one area where the internet has not affected me and which I avoid completely are computer games. I know that if, like my sons, I started playing games such as World of Warcraft, I would soon get hooked, time would disappear and there would likely never be another R&D Game! Many moons ago, and I am showing my age here, I caught Pacman fever. Some readers may remember those 'Congratulations on your first 200,000' Pacman greeting cards and the Pacman fever (vinyl) record! My cure incidentally arrived unexpectedly. Waiting to play, I happened to watch someone playing a game at the back of a dingy amusement arcade in Oxford Street, London. Their single game lasted well over two hours and the score went into the millions. I realised there was no point in spending time trying to reach that standard! The only electronic game I have succumbed to since was Lemmings.

Tom Vasel: Richard, thanks for your time in answering these questions! Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Richard Breese: I would just like to thank you for the time you have taken in conducting this series of fifty or so interviews, many of which I have read with interest. I think the gaming community is richer for your involvement, including the steady flow of reviews, which you also publish. I hope you get out as much as you put into our hobby and that your enthusiasm does not diminish.

Tom Vasel
June, 2005
"Real men play board games."