Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Brett J Gilbert

Brett J Gilbert is both a board game designer and board game consultant, who has consulted for international clients such as Lego and Twitter.

His first published board game, Divinare, was recommended by the 2013 Spiel des Jahres award jury. Elysium, published in 2015 by Space Cowboys, was nominated for the prestigious Kennerspiel des Jahres.

This is the fourth in a series of Q&As with published board game designers. The idea is to ask them all the same set of questions, so people can compare the answers and build an insight into what makes designers tick – alongside a stock of answers to questions all new designers will end up facing themselves.

1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
Although academically a mathematician and scientist, I have otherwise worked in publishing and design (at least when I had a proper job) so creation and creativity has always a big part of what I’ve done. [Which , before anyone says any different, is not to say that I believe that science isn’t essentially a creative endeavour but I assume you mean ‘creative’ in the ‘make pretty things’ sense, not the ‘critical thinking’ one.]

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
My terrible secret is that I am not much of a “gamer” and certainly no fanboi of any particular designer’s work. The big beasts of the industry will therefore have to achieve their success without either my patronage or my adoration. [I think they’ll cope.]

But one has to genuinely admire the consistency, determination and, let’s face it, sheer quantity of work done by the likes of Knizia, Rosenberg, Feld, Vaccarino, Bauza and Cathala (to name a few obvious examples). Hats off to them!

3. What drew you to game design?
This is probably a serious and deep question, to which a serious and deep answer would reach far into the psyche and uncover all sorts of private motivations. Why does the painter paint? Why does the long-distance runner long-distance run? Let us not dwell upon such unspeakable things.

4. When you design, what tends to come first – theme or mechanisms? And why? Do you design with a specific type of person in mind?
[Hold up! Isn’t this the Designer’s Dozen? This question appears to be (at least) two!] But to address the first, I am often inspired by the physical or the visual; two aspects that are neither strictly thematic nor mechanical. And I’d say there’s a problem approaching a new design with specific labels already in place. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Theme and mechanics are answers, not questions. They are the where and the how; they are not the why. As for who [see what I did there to link to the second question?] that’s easy: for me. I genuinely don’t know how a designer could design anything worthwhile for anyone else.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best moments are the ones of discovery; of realising that within an idea, hiding in plain sight, is more than you thought there was. This is, after all, something you made, so looking again and finding something else is kind of miraculous. Of course, you only have to flip this scenario to understand the worst moments: the moments of revelation, no less profound, when you discover that there was nothing there in the first place.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Which is to say: no game design is easy. Doing it properly is always going to hard.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
“Make do and mend” would seem sound advice. Don’t be prissy about prototypes, and certainly don’t spend any real money.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
One of the memorably terrible meetings Matt Dunstan and I endured was with the employee of a very well-known publisher who, it turned out, didn’t have a clue who we were. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant; I mean we had met with this individual before, they had been reviewing one of our games at length and the meeting had been booked to discuss it – and he still didn’t know who we were. After leading us through the Essen crowds for five minutes to find a quiet spot in the business lounge he began to unpack a prototype on the table in front of us. Matt and I exchanged puzzled looks. This was not our prototype (ours was back on the stand on the other side of the Hall). Awkward.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Hopefully the best is yet to come, but attending the 2015 Spiel des Jahres ceremony in Berlin after Elysium was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres ain’t bad, is it?

Matt and I had a whole heap of fun, met lots of lovely people, ate a few lovely meals and were generally very well looked after. Elysium didn’t win, but to date only 18 games have ever even been nominated for the Kennerspiel; Elysium is a permanent part of that history.

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I have come recently to the realisation that I never want to play games that are – or think they are – smarter than I am. Suffice it to say this elegantly rules out a vast swathe of the modern board game catalogue. What’s left? Although I don’t play it nearly as often as I used to, I have always loved Carcassonne as a two-player game. Examples of newer games that I have enjoyed are Codenames, which deserves every bit of its effortless soar-away success, and Deep Sea Adventure, a game which carries its fiendish cleverness very lightly indeed.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
This is another serious question, so I must resist the impulse to be flippant. But I think it’s looking pretty good, isn’t it? Thriving, inclusive and growing its reach. Speaking entirely selfishly, I’d love to see more UK-based publishers and an ever-greater awareness on the UK High Street of modern games in all their many colours. But I’m not sure there’s a problem to be solved here, and even if there were you can’t impose popularity or mandate what form popularity will take. It has to come – and I think it is! – from the ground up, from people rediscovering games and gaming as a rewarding, social and essential pastime.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
I feel a connection to Question 3 – or at least to its ungiven answer. Some creators don’t shut up about themselves, but isn’t it more sincere to let what you make speak for you? Isn’t that why you are driven to make it? Artists, photographers, playwrights, game designers… makers of all kinds stand out of view. If I wanted you to notice me, I’d wear a bow tie.

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