I’ve been lucky enough to recently do a bit of back and forth emailing with Antoine Bauza, designer of such great games as 7 Wonders, Ghost Stories and Takenoko. Here’s what happened…
Michael Fox: So Antoine, let’s begin with less of a question, more of a request: could you tell me a little bit about your gaming history? What kind of things to you like to play and what got you into the hobby?
Antoine Bauza: I’ve played every kind of game throughout my life; traditional family boardgames as a kid, a lot of roleplaying games as a teenager, Magic: The Gathering and others. I’m also fond of videogames. At the end of my studies (I did chemistry and computer science), I attended a game design school in France and after that, I tried to find work in the video game industry. I didn’t meet with much success; it was a bad time for videogames in Europe and it was very hard to find a job focused on on game design (which I was looking for because I suck at programming, graphics and making music…). So I took another path and became a school teacher! I started to play modern boardgames around 2003 or 2004, and started designing my own games around the same time. After several unsuccessful prototypes, my first game was published in 2007: Chabyrinthe from Cocktail Games.
MF: What were those early games like? Anything that you’ve drawn ideas from since hitting the big time?
AB: Honestly, I cannot remember precisely those early games. There was something about washing machines, one about wrestling, another about stray cats fighting for a neighborhood… The only one worth remembering is Ikebana, the big brother of Hanabi… It was my first finished prototype.
I remember I sent it to Repos Production because a friend of mine told me they were nice people. They did not publish the game in the end but the CEO, Cédrick, called me to talk about the game and give me some feedback. I really appreciated that he did that because usually publishers don’t even bother to respond to unknown designers… Then a few years later we ended up working together on Ghost Stories and 7 Wonders.
MF: Of course, those two big hitters really helped you make your name on the designer games scene. Could you tell us a little about Ghost Stories? I’ve played it a few times but have never managed to actually win… did you intentionally design it to be so punishingly hard?
AB: Ghost Stories is my only heavy (well, not so heavy I guess) game and the first cooperative game I designed. And yes, it’s a hard game and we intended it to be like that because both Repos and I are mean! Seriously though, we wanted to make a challenging game because we love co-ops and we think many are too easy for expert players. But to tell you the truth, the game is not so hard and when you know it well you cannot lose at all in easy mode and almost never lose in normal or nightmare mode. The White Moon expansion does make the game a little easier. The Black Secret expansion, well… that depends on the player who’s in Wu-Feng’s shoes… Try to find a nice guy to do it!
MF: How about 7 Wonders then? What was the genesis behind that? And did you always have it in mind that you’d be able to play with seven people?
AB: I wrote down the complete genesis of 7 Wonders on my blog but yes, the first idea was the make a light strategy game playable up to seven because there were always seven people showing up to my regular games night.
MF: Were you surprised at how well 7 Wonders was received by gamers? It seemed to come from nowhere and was suddenly on everyone’s table!
AB: Well, we knew the game was certainly going to be a success. We did a lot of demonstrations at a lot of conventions, toy fairs and we had a lot of very nice feedback before it had been released. We were confident when the game finally came out but we never expected to have this amazing level of success! You never know if such things are going to happen, that’s part of the magic!
MF: One thing I love about 7 Wonders is the opportunity for expansion. You’ve already had Leaders and Cities released and I know there’s a forthcoming Wonders Pack too. I heard a rumour that you’re planning on eventually doing Seven Expansions – is there any truth behind that?
AB: Well, my publisher planned the seven expansions… I’m just going step by step! Currently I’ve got two prototype expansions in development – codenamed Armada & Babel – but there is still a lot of work to do on both so I cannot guarantee anything right now !
MF: Do you actually get to play it much yourself? And do you have a preferred strategy or Wonder board that you always like to get?
AB: Sure, I’ve played a lot of games but I did stop for a while. Taking a break, you know, clearing my mind and getting ready to be able to work on the next expansion. I can’t say I have a favorite Wonder or Strategy but I try not to stick with just one way of being efficient! (Secretly though, I like to try playing without resources, using lots of Yellow and Green cards, but shhh! Don’t say it at loud!)
MF: Ha! We know how to beat you now, Antoine! You’d better watch out in future! Now, could we move on to Takenoko? It’s a curious little game that’s been very well received – even Wil Weaton mentioned it recently on Twitter! How did the idea for it come about?
AB: It all started on my first trip to Japan, back in 2003 when I visited Ueno Zoo. At the entrance there is a funny statue that caught my eye. Then when I got back to France, I started think about a bamboo growing game with two pandas… that was almost nine years ago.
MF: NINE years?! I didn’t realise it had been in development for so long! I suppose the success of 7 Wonders helped get the attention of publishers so you could push your other designs?
AB: Yes, sometime it takes time… The prototype had many many versions. The publishers (Matagot & Bombyx) worked for a very long time on the wooden pieces and miniatures. 7 Wonders did open some doors with foreign publishers – mostly in Germany and the US – but for now, all my games are published by either French, Belgian or Swiss ones, so the success of 7 Wonders isn’t that relevant yet… I’ll certainly take this opportunity in the future, because I like to work with different people and companies.
MF: So what are you working on at the moment, Antoine? Anything you can tell us a little about?
AB: This year I’m actually spending less time on boardgames. I want to experience something different before I get bored! Right now, I’m working on a small videogame project that involves some game design but concentrates mostly on story writing. But I’ve still got some boardgames in the pipeline: those 7 Wonders expansions, a brand new cooperative game (codename Sinbad) and a brand new resources-and-card-based development game that’s pretty different.
MF: Exciting times then! Are there any designers out there you’re a fan of? Anyone whose games you particularly enjoy playing or keep an eye out for?
AB: Besides my fellow french designers like Bruno Cathala, Bruno Faidutti, Ludovic Maublanc and others, I always like to keep an eye on Vladaa Chvatil – he’s an amazing game designer. I like Rob Daviau’s work too!
MF: All good designers! Have you managed to try out Risk Legacy?
AB: Of course ! I think Risk Legacy is the most innovative boardgame since Magic: The Gathering!
MF: High praise indeed, Antoine! Now, finally, is there any advice you have for aspiring designers? Any suggestions you may have to help improve their games and get them noticed by publishers?
AB: I’ve seen several aspiring designers spending all their time and energy on a single idea and prototype. I believe you have to make gameS (plural!) to learn how to make gameS! You also have to be a good observer and listener, paying attention to the people playing your prototype, catching what they enjoy and what they don’t like. Then when it comes to publishers, you’ve got to actually see them and play your game with them. I don’t believe in any of that “sending the rules by email” stuff…
MF: Fantastic. Thanks for your time Antoine – it’s been a pleasure!