Time for another exclusive interview here on Little Metal Dog, this time with Polish designer Ignacy Trzewiczek. As well as producing some great games that we get to talk about, Ignacy is also the founder of publishing company Portal. From post-apocalyptic nightmares to the infinitely more terrifying world of fashion, they’re responsible for some truly interesting titles…
My first question – could you tell me a little bit about yourself? What is your role at Portal and how did you get there?
It all started in 1999, many, many years ago. I am damn happy that I took a risk and escaped from University and tried to do in my life exactly what I love – work on games.
I was studying at the Technical University for four years and year after year, I was feeling that “this is not for me”. I thought that I’d be a terrible engineer, so I made a quite desperate move – I wrote an RPG adventure (for Warhammer) and sent it to a Polish RPG magazine. They liked it, published it and the adventure was choosen by readers as best piece in that issue. I was finally happy, proud of what I did and what’s more – I earned some money! So I wrote another article and that was published, chosen as best in that issue (again) and brought me more money. I did it again and again and at some point I finally realised that although I was a terrible engineer I really can write about games.
I left university, founded an RPG company and started publishing a magazine about role playing called Portal. We published bi-monthly and it was very well received in Poland. Two years later we started doing our first role playing games (like Frankenstein Factory and De Profundis). Both were translated into English, Factory was then licensed to Spain, De Profundis was licensed to Hogshead Ltd. in the UK and USA (and was then awarded a Diana Jones Award).
Then we designed the Neuroshima RPG followed by the Monastyr RPG, and then we discovered – a little bit by an accident – boardgames.
So what’s the gaming scene like in Poland? Does everyone grow up with the same games that I’m used to – Monopoly and Cluedo, for example? And what are the big titles over there now?
Modern games have only been around in Poland for a few years. The “gamers games” market is very very young. For example, the first Polish Game of the Year award was only in 2004, just a few years ago! During these past few years the market in Poland has grown extremely well – perhaps it is the best growing market in Europe. Every year more games are printed, more games are sold and more new gaming stores are opening.
Games are known mostly by gamers – it’s not as popular as in Germany, but this is changing every year for the better. The average Pole still knows only Monopoly, Scrabble or Jenga, but every single year we’re taking big steps to promote modern games and I think the future of this hobby will be strong here. We have two mainstream publishers who release games for average people but they have started to produce more modern games and are presenting them to mass market. They do a great job. We at Portal publish a quarterly magazine about boardgames, promoting gaming and writing about designer games. What’s more, games have become a bit fashionable and huge Polish institutions want to use them as education tool.
For example, our Essen release for 2011 (Pret-a-Porter) was originally published last year in Poland, produced in co-operation with the National Bank of Poland! They know that games are great tool to teach, so they helped us to create an economic strategy game to teach people about economy!
So, yes – Monopoly and similar crap is still on mass market shelves but gamers games are fighting hard to become popular and they are growing every year.
Nice! So what are Portal’s big games at the moment? I think Neuroshima Hex is your biggest outside Poland, yes?
Yes, our first international release was Neuroshima Hex at Essen 2007 and it was extremely well received. We have US editions, a French edition, a Dutch edition, an Italian one – there were many versions and many players know the game. We’re also lucky to have the Neuroshima Hex app for iOS devices which is proving very popular too. It got a few awards and is very high in Appstore rankings around the world.
In 2009 we published Stronghold and this game was a big hit for us – we received nominatons from almost all of the important boardgame awards and sold all of our copies! We then sold the license to a big publisher, Valley Games – it was all like a beautiful dream. I think we, step by step, are becoming more recognizable. We try to build a very clear picture of our company – we do good games, mix of Eurogames and Ameritrash. Neuroshima Hex is about war, Witchcraft was about war, it’s the same with Stronghold and Stronghold Undead…
Now this year we’re publishing Pret-a-Porter, a game about fashion! I strongly believe that some of our true fans will be more than confused.
That really is a very big leap! Can you tell me a little bit about Pret-a-Porter? And what led you to releasing a game about fashion? There aren’t that many other games I can think of that cover the subject.
It is a really long story. It all started in 2009. As I said earlier, we sent an offer to The National Bank of Poland. We wanted to design and produce game about the economy in co-operation with them. We knew that the Bank had an Educational Department and they want to educate young people about money. So our offer was very simple – we make great games and we want to do another great game – this time, a game about money. “We will help you educate young people,” we said. “What do you think?”
And they loved the idea.
After a year of working with the experts from The National Bank of Poland we were proud to produce a game recommended by the most important monetary institution in our country. This is a deep economic strategy game (think around the complexity of Vinhos or Brass). We designed a game that is a quite unique mix of Portal’s style (lots of interaction and cut-throat action) with very serious economic mechanisms. Players run a company that makes clothes – they buy materials, they gather projects from designers and hire workers (like Designers, Accountants, Product Managers and Models). Then they build important buildings (branded shops and offices), sign important contracts (from PR Agencies to material production factories) and once per quarter they go with their clothes to the fashion show. During the show players’ clothes are judged in four categories – PR, Trends, Quality and the Amount of clothes in the collection. Winning every category gives you a great profit.
On the one hand there is the economic aspect of buying materials, hiring workers, paying salaries, calculating costs, and on the other hand you have a bloody battle at the runway show – players aim to have the best PR (by for example hiring the hottest models), to be Trendy (which can be done by opening a Designer office), best Quality (buying the most expensive materials) and biggest collection (by having most Projects that are in the same style). You calculate money and you calculate which of these four factors you win, which your opponents have taken (and what you can do to take them down).
Here in Poland the game was published in 2010. We were a Game of the Year nominee, we’ve sold almost all copies and now we’re working hard to prepare the second edition for Essen with revised rules, a few new cards and polish up the balance of some cards. We are very excited about this release. And the fashion theme? Well, we had huge mech on the cover in 2007. We had orcs on the cover in 2009, we had skeleton on the cover in 2010… This time we have a hot model on the cover. I like it!
Ha! I don’t think it can ever be said that Portal isn’t willing to take a risk!
You guys are coming up with some great games with interesting ideas – I particularly like Zombiaki II, a simple concept that is brilliantly expressed: it feels like a gruesome version of Plants vs Zombies [a defence game available on iOS, Xbox Live, PC… oh, and an upcoming boardgame too]! Where do you find you draw your inspiration from?
I designed the original Zombiaki in 2002 at dinner at my mother-in-law’s house! I think many of us know the situation – you go for dinner, it’s a boring afternoon sitting at the table and doing nothing interesting. I took the All Flesh Must Be Eaten RPG with me to have a good read after dinner and I was really impressed. I loved the book and I quickly started to make notes – I drew three lines with zombies coming toward a human-built barricade. I wrote down some very first basic ideas – every turn zombies go forward, after shooting at a zombie they’re forced to step back, etc.
Next day I came to the office with my notes, I made the very first prototype and it worked! Just like that! I spent a few months designing cards and balancing the game but this very first simple draft of rules was good. We published the game in 2003 and it became extremely popular in Poland – a simple, fun card game for 15 minutes of play. In 2010 we published Zombiaki II, the English language sequel. [Which you really should play if you get the chance – review coming soon! M]
Are there any other designers that impress you?
I am very impressed by Eric M. Lang and his work. His great card games are one of my favourites! He has a great skill in making players make decisions all the time, every moment during game is a tough decision. This is great! The Game of Thrones CCG is a masterpiece!
I’m inclined to agree. Creating a good card game is difficult enough, but one like Game of Thrones is a rarity! Now, before I let you go, are you allowed to tell us about anything else you have coming up? Obviously there’s Pret-a-Porter but do you have anything else planned?
I’ve just finished working on The New Era, a standalone expansion for 51st State – that will be released for Essen this year. This is a little anniversary for us at Essen – it’s our fifth year of exhibiting there – so we plan to have a few surprises for our fans that we hope to see there! I also need to read a few books and watch a few movies to start researching for my new game based on Robinson Crusoe. It’s a book that I’ve always loved and I’ve wanted to design a game inspired by it for many years…
More information on Portal Games is available over at their website which can be found at http://www.portalpublishing.eu/ – Thanks to Ignacy for answering my questions, and seriously, you’ve got to at least try out Zombiaki II!