Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Bruno Cathala

Bruno Cathala is a celebrated French board game designer with almost 15 years experience and well over 50 games behind him. He now works in the hobby full-time, both on his own projects and with corporate clients.

Highlights of his design career include Five Tribes, Shadows Over Camelot (with Serge Laget), Mr Jack (with Ludovic Maublanc), Cyclades (with Ludovic Maublanc) and 7 Wonders Duel (with Antoine Bauza).

This is the fifth 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?
I’m lucky enough to get all my income from games. Royalties form games you know, but I’m also creating specific games for private customers; for example for advertising reasons. For the creative unpaid part, I’m a (bad) musician so, I also like to write (bad) songs for myself.

When I was 20 I dreamt of becoming a comic strip writer/artist. Today I do it in a very modest way: each month I try to write a small story in three images for Plato, a French magazine dedicated to games.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
For me it would be Richard Garfield and Claude Leroy.

I have to say thank you to Richard, because Magic: The Gathering really changed my comprehension of game design. It opened my eyes. I still love MTG and think it’s one of the few games which had a major influence on all modern games.

Claude Leroy is the designer of Gyges, an abstract two-player game. I love abstract two-player games (I could also speak about the incredible work of Kris Burm with the GIPF project). But Gyges is THE game. Incredibly clever, simple to learn, but so deep. It’s a pity that this game is not more popular.

3. What drew you to game design?
I discovered there was a life after Monopoly when I was 20 because of a French magazine dedicated to board games. I bought my first one and was so impressed that I decided that, one day, I would create my own game – but I had absolutely no ideas at this time. So, during the years I just fed myself with games, games, games; all kinds of games. Then, when I was 36, I suddenly decided now was the time for me to make this game – and I began to work on my first prototype, Lawless, which was published in 2003.

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?
You forget one other thing – components! Because components can also initiate something special. But story, mechanisms, components are only tools you use to create a specific game experience between players. And it’s that game experience I try to create which excites me.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best aspect is that you are completely free to do what you want! You are the king of your world, without any limit. The worst is that you have to find a publisher! And that you need as much energy for that. And it can be a long road, strewn with a lot of disappointment.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
Games for young children (my head seems to be too complicated) and party games (it’s not common for me to have a starting idea in this category).

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
Spend as little time as possible creating the first prototype, because you will definitely trash it and build something new just after the first playtesting session.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
I was pitching Mow to a publisher I really wanted to work with and I knew this very simple card game would fit in his line.

I began my speech, but he stopped me in the middle of my first sentence saying, “Definitively not for me – too mathematical”.

But there was nothing complicated in that game; it was just that at that time I was known for more brainy games; he couldn’t see me as someone able to create a simple game. I was so upset, and disappointed, but luckily I found another publisher (Hurrican) and, at this time, Mow has sold more than 100,000 copies.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Probably the creation of Five Tribes. All the ideas came at the same time, like if it was an emergency, and the game was built in two days. It took me much more time to fine tune it, but the creation was so easy and fast!

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
Two-player games! For example, I have fallen in love with Santorini – it’s just… perfect! The game is easy to learn but deep, while also having very high production values. And it also has ways to balance the chances of winning between players who are not at the same level of experience.

I also have fun playing some addictive games such as Hearthstone and Star Realms. And I’m a big, big fan of Flamme Rouge, which was released at the last Essen (October 2016).

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
More women! To be honest I can see that there are now more and more women at game conventions, but we also need more women as game designers.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
I’m a fan of… mushrooms! I really enjoy spending time walking in my mountain woods to find them – and then cooking and eating them!

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