When I asked recently what you all might want to see more of from me, several readers suggested I do a few more interviews. And when I thought about this, I decided that one person I'd love to talk to would be Mac Gerdts, designer of what I reckon is easily one of the five best games of all time: Imperial. Luckily he was willing to put up with my inane badgering and provide me with some answers so, without further delay, here's the main event and the man himself.
1 - Thanks for agreeing to do this interview! Could you tell us a bit more about yourself, and how you came to get into games and game design?
First of all I have to thank you for the opportunity to talk with you! Well, I am 50 years old, and live together with my 33 years old wife Kathia and our 5 years old son Johann in a 100 years old house in Hamburg. After a degree in economics at the University of Hamburg, I started working for the city of Hamburg in 1989, and in my spare time I love to play and to develop board games.
2 - What are your all-time favourite games, and why?
Honestly, there is not the one and only all time favorite game. For many years, I was member in a chess club, but my capabilities for playing that well turned out to be quite limited. One of the outstanding games for me, with vivid memories, was Kremlin back in the 80’s. I also think that Imperial is pretty good and will never stop to love playing it because it is so much fun. Usually my favorite game is always the one which I am currently working on.
3-Your published games list the designer as Mac Gerdts and yet your boardgamegeek profile lists your name as Walther. What’s going on there?
My official name is Walther M. Gerdts, but after I told everyone at school that I have Scottish ancestors who came to Hamburg back in 1842, my comrades at school made Walther MAC Gerdts out of it. Since then, my nickname has been Mac, and I like that name well enough to publish my games that way.
4-Your earliest games, Antike and Imperial, were notable for having a high level of player interaction in spite of being clearly inspired by the German school of game design which tends to reject direct interaction. Was this a deliberate choice, and if so, why?
Player interaction is very important, it can be brutal, it can be frustrating, but mostly it is what a good game is about. I started developing my own games in the late 70s, when no-one talked about a “German school of game design”. When trying to present three of my designs to Ravensburger in 1981, they wrote me back that they already had 3 economic games in their portfolio (Oil: The Great Adventure (from 1960), Broker (1961), and Playboss (1970)), therefore had to be very critical with new games, and that they would by no means publish games with a war theme. Antike and Imperial were mainly inspired by my own designs of that time, in fact Imperial was originally an idea from 1983.
5-Antike features completely open player interaction and negotiation and allows things like Kingmaking to determine the game, and it got a lot of criticism for that. Was it a deliberate choice to leave things open? How did you feel about some of the commentary it attracted?
Negotiation is fun, but it is certainly not for everyone. This was a hard lesson to learn for me when I finally decided to play my games not only with friends, but to really publish them. It turned out that, what worked very well in our private circles could completely fell flat in other groups who were kind enough to playtest my games. Many things had to be adjusted, but open player interaction and negotiation survived this process. Finally, Antike was very well received, and the commentary was mainly positive. If not, it was certainly s.th. worth listening to and to learn from.
6-Did this have anything to do with your decision to re-use the mechanics in a 2-player game, Casus Belli? Why did you want to release another game based on the same basic mechanics?
In retrospect, as good as it was, Antike seemed to have two issues: It was not the best game for two players, and the arms race at the end of the game could be annoying, especially to players who do not know the game well and tend to overlook the frequent possibilities to conquer enemy temples. Casus Belli will be published as Antike Duellum this year, and works very fine as a 2 player game. Many event cards add some flavor and more options. The arms race is still there, but not as predominant because a) the price of a unit has doubled to 2 iron, and b) the arming process now is split in two stages: first recruit units with gold, then arm them with iron. This results in a very satisfying balance between military and economic development. You simply cannot overrun your opponent by a mass production of iron anymore.
6-Imperial features very direct player interaction but avoids the problems associated with open interaction. Did you plan to move things in this direction? How hard did you find it to solve the inherent balance problems in a multi-player conflict game?
Fortunately, Imperial has a bunch of mechanics which balance themselves out. As a student of economics I had to learn the mantra of supply and demand, the invisible hand of the market will secure equilibrium anywhere. All this theoretic stuff may not have to do much with reality, but was certainly helpful for my game designs.
7-So far, Imperial has been by far your most acclaimed game. Did you have any idea it was going to be such a success before it was released?
No, at first I was skeptical whether it could be as much a success as Antike, because I still was overwhelmed by Antike’s reception. And Imperial is quite a “heavy” game, which in general limits the resulting sale numbers. Luckily it turned out that I was wrong.
8-Many column inches have been spent praising Imperial’s central innovation which is the unique relationship between the economic and military aspects of the game. Where did you get the idea for this?
The core concept of 6 nations which are disentangled from the players via bonds, the rondel to speed up decisions, and the easy 1:1 fighting system were already present when the first prototype was drawn in winter 83/84.
9-Imperial has a very cynical theme and was once succinctly referred to as “war profiteer: the board game”. Do you really believe that financial investors can control governments? Do you think it has any relevance to the way financial markets influence government policy during the current economic crisis?
It is wonderfully cynical indeed; fortunately it is only a game. But watching the current international financial crisis and how governments struggle to maintain their ratings one could seriously begin to wonder about the strong influence the international investors have nowadays.
10-Imperial is currently the only one of your games to have an iOS version. What do you think of the conversion? Do you think it’s suitable for the asynchronous play that the developer plans to implement? Can we expect to see more of your games on iOS?
Hard to say, as I never tried that iOS version myself. To implement asynchronous play in a satisfying way is not an easy task with a game like this. I would be happy to see others of my games as an iOS version as well, but time will tell.
11-Why did you feel the need to release the very similar Imperial 2030? What do you think are the major differences in play style between the two games, and which do you think is better?
Maybe there was no real need, but initially it was an idea for a present to the Brettspielbären of Berlin, who organized an Imperial championship, and for Spielportugal, after Imperial had been awarded as Game of the Year in Portugal (Jogo do Ano). After a few adjustments it played really well. The feeling is quite different, as there are by far more neutral territories to conquer. And I could implement some new ideas like the Swiss Bank.
12-Navegador is currently threatening Imperial in terms of acclaim and popularity. What do you think has proved so appealing about the game and why?
Navegador certainly has a broad appeal because it is less “heavy” and less confrontational than Imperial. And a big plus is the graphical presentation, where I worked a lot on myself. Nonetheless it is a challenging strategy game with only a very little dose of luck. The rondel keeps the speed of play at a high level and offers a wide range of attractive choices until the end of the game. I am very happy about the popularity of Navegador, because it resides in a segment of the board game market with fierce competition of many other well crafted games.
13-The market mechanic you used in Navegador has been widely praised. What gave you the inspiration for it? Do you think it stands out as being possibly unrealistic in a game which otherwise has a tight and well-crafted theme?
I won’t regard the market mechanic in Navegador as being unrealistic. The colonies deliver their goods to the market which let the prices fall. On the other hand, there is demand from factories for raw materials, which lets the prices rise again. I know this requires some effort of calculating from the players, but I think the result is worth it. The whole system of supply and demand offers the right incentives where and when to invest, and thus leads to a good degree of interaction. Even for a sophisticated player it is not easy to ride the tides of the market. Never forget that influencing the prices always means setting incentives for the opponents.
14-Since Imperial and Antike, your games have veered away from combat and direct interaction and seemed much more like traditional Eurogames. Why? Was that a deliberate choice on your part?
I think when designing a game one should not - at least in a multiplayer game - include moves which hurt other players too much. If only one player feels frustrated, the mood will most probably suffer for the whole playgroup. Imperial allows and even demands aggressive play, but it is usually not directed against a single player, but against a bunch of investors, maybe including the aggressive player himself. This can be fun for everyone, and I want the players to enjoy themselves.
15-The majority of your games have used your unique Rondel mechanic. How did you come invent it, what design problems do you think it solves, and why have you chosen to re-use it several times in relatively disparate games?
The rondel was first used 30 years ago, and it is hard to tell after such a long time how it exactly came about. It has a lot of advantages as it speeds up play because you usually choose only between a few options, and most actions are done within a minute. It offers more variety than a fixed order of certain steps to be conducted one after another. It allows different strategies where you concentrate on only a few fields on the rondel. And you can easily assume - or try to assume - what the others might be doing next. This results in a game clicking at a good speed, with easy rules, but as well with good depth thanks to a large variety of strategies and tactics. But my games are not about the rondel itself; they all have very distinctive themes, mechanics, and strategic requirements. The rondel is a mechanic which in general can be used for a plethora of very different games.
16-One of the things that I personally like about your games is that they manage to be non-random and yet avoid excessive analysis by offering so many interlocking things to track that it encourages players toward a more subjective play style. Is this something you consciously strive for in your designs?
I don’t like over-analyzing in board games because the game flow often will slow down too much. The worst thing which can happen is that one player is analyzing his situation over and over, condemning his fellow players to boredom because there is nothing they can usefully do and think about at the same time. I am happy when games encourage a subjective play style, because not all calculations can be done. In Imperial, the map and the military units sometimes distract players from their goal of being the wisest investor, but this is okay as long as the moves themselves can be done in an intuitive way.
17-Are you happy with the current state of board game reviews? Do you think that it could, or should, be considered as a form of critique along similar lines to film or literary reviews?
Nowadays, the internet offers more and more information and reviews about games, which I generally enjoy to read. It helps a lot to know how others think and write about games and what is important for them. Sometimes those articles cannot be regarded as a form of critique along similar lines to film or literary reviews, but they are nonetheless very helpful for me.
18-What effects do you think the current explosion of board game licences on iOS and other mobile devices will have on the gaming market long term? Do you think it’s likely to lead to greater innovation, or less as publishers can make money from converting old games?
I would say that board games will ever survive no matter what happens in the internet. Meeting personally and having a good time together simply cannot be substituted by communicating with a machine. Nonetheless, I think licences on iOS will play a growing role in the gaming industry. When publishing a new game, they can become a very important marketing device.
19-Your games have featured quite a disparate range of themes. Are you interested in, or inspired by the theme of a game or do you start with a mechanic? Are there any themes that interest you, or that you’d like to work on?
The inspiration comes from the theme, and during the process of development a lot of mechanics and variations of them are tried out. I am generally interested in historic themes, and all my boards are geographic maps of the time.
20-Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m working on a game about Roman history, where you spread out, settle down in ancient cities, and produce a bunch of different resources. Instead of using a rondel, the selection of actions will be done by playing cards. A prototype was presented at PlayModena in Italy last month, and it was well received.