One of the many benefits of being in the League of Gamemakers is talking with other designers. I asked designer, Bruno Cathala, if he’d like to answer a few questions about his latest hit, Five Tribes.
League of Gamemakers: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about Five Tribes and design in general. Let’s start with an easy one. What are a few of your favorite games by other designers off the top of your head?
Magic The Gathering (Richard Garfied)
Risk Legacy (Rob Daviau)
Robinson Crusoe (Ignacy Trzewiczek)
7 wonders (Antoine Bauza)
Mare Nostrum (Serge Laget)
LG: Is there a game you love to play that you feel most of us miss?
BC: For sure! I’m fan of 2 players abstract games. And for me, GYGES is a gem. It’s so easy and so deep… underestimated, for sure.
LG: Five Tribes has a wonderful storyline and theme. Can you tell us if the mechanics came first and then the theme was added, or did you think of the theme and add the mechanics to fit it?
BC: For this game, mechanisms came first.
Before introducing the prototype to Days of Wonder, the name was Heliopolis, and actually took place in mythological Egypt.
They liked it a lot, but they published Cleopatra and the Architect Society some years ago. This game was still one of mine, but was not as successful as expected. So, they asked to find something else for the theme, and I understood that perfectly.
LG: How long did it take to come up with the theme for Five Tribes?
BC: When we decided to change the initial theme, Arabian nights came immediately to mind. Everybody was excited with this theme. So we didn’t have to search for long.
LG: How much say did you have with Days of Wonder over the art and components used?
BC: It’s the fourth time I have the opportunity to work with Days of Wonder. I know the team very well, and they know me. We work very well together. When I finished work on the prototype, Days of Wonder was my first consideration. I was sure that they were the right publisher to do the best artwork and components for that game.
They were my first choice and I was happy to see them accept the game! Then we worked together concerning choice of graphic designer and components. It was their responsibility, for sure, but I was happy to have a consultative role. I’m really happy with the final result.
LG: There’s been some conversation about the use of slaves in the theme. In Rahdo’s otherwise glowing review of the game, he complains that slaves are insensitive to use in a game when something like stallions could have been used. There’s also been a lot of conversation on BoardGameGeek and other sites. Can you tell us how you feel about such criticisms?
BC: Yes, the reactions affected me, and I don’t really understand them. I think it’s probably due to a culture difference. Here in France, it’s clear to everyone that we are in a fictional world, and introducing slaves in a game is not an endorsement of slavery.
For me, not being allowed to introduce slaves into a game based on Arabian Nights (quite all stories introduce slaves.. Jasmine was a slave) is hard to understand. And just be sure that It was neither Days of Wonder’s nor my intention to promote slavery or to hurt anybody’s feelings.
That’s the reason why, In future print runs, slaves will be replaced by…. you will see!
This has caused further controversy over using sensitive subjects in designs to keep true with themes. We did not dive further into that discussion here.
LG: In a two player game, players go twice in a full round. What were some other alternatives to a two player game variant that you tried, but didn’t work?
BC: For me, since the beginning, it was clear that this was the most interesting way to play a two player game of Five Tribes. I play tested it a lot. Everyone knows I really like 2 player games, and I was satisfied that I didn’t need any other variants.
LG: It seems like you mostly team up with other designers for games like Boomtown, Cyclades, Abyss, and Shadows over Camelot, but Five Tribes is your own design. Can you tell us how that experience was different from working with another designer?
BC: If you look at my design history, I’ve designed about half of my games alone. So Five Tribes isn’t an exception, but it’s the first “big box” game I’ve designed alone.
LG: What are the pros and cons of working with another designer versus working on your own?
BC: Creating means doubting. And doubting alone is less comfortable than sharing doubts with someone else. That’s one of the reasons why working with someone else is interesting.
One other reason is that, sharing ideas with someone else will lead to solutions that would never have come to fruition otherwise.
The danger in working alone is to build the same game again and again. Working with a lot of different designers is a good way to avoid this danger. On the other hand, working with someone else each time can make you leave some of your ideas you really loved behind. So, depending on the project and situation, there are benefits to either side.
LG: You’ve never used Kickstarter to design a game. Have you ever considered it?
BC: Going through Kickstarter is the choice of the publisher, not mine. To be successful in Kickstarter, I think you need to have a game with a lot of miniatures, which is not the kind of game I design. So, I never had one of my games on Kickstarter, but I am not closed to the idea.
But things have to be considered differently, from a designer’s point of view. As game designer, the royalties I get are only a small part of the price, and I have no complaint with that. The publisher takes all the financial risk.
But, if the game is funded through Kickstarter, the financial risk is not the same. If the campaign is successful, there is no more risk to the publisher. In that situation, royalties would have to be negotiated differently.
LG: What is your opinion of how Kickstarter has impacted the hobby as a whole?
BC: For sure, Kickstarter has had a big impact on game market. Sometimes for the best, but not always.
People talk more and more about games that don’t exist yet. They focus their mind and their money on those “soon-to-be” games, and they will get them at home only months (sometimes more than one year later).
But when they receive them, if they aren’t as good as expected, it’s not so much a problem because this money has been spent a long time ago. And because their mind is, at this time, focused on a new project. “This one will be so coooooool!!”
LG: Sometimes a designer can get stuck on how a particular mechanic works in their game while designing it. Has this ever happened to you? If it has, what was your method for fixing it?
BC: Of course, It happens to me from time to time. For me, very often, the solution is to do something else really different. Sports are a good distraction, for example. This refreshes your mind completely, and later, you can reconsider all the situations with a new outlook.
LG: What’s the best advice you can give to other designers who want to make new and unique games?
BC: Be patient
Test, test, test
Take care to edit the rules correctly.
Test, test, test
And do it for fun not expecting to make any money!
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7 Readers CommentedJoin discussion
Wow! Thanks a lot for this interview. When I played 5 Tribes I did not really enjoy it. I prefer other kind of games. But, it is clear that the game is one of the best designs of the last years:
– Set up is almost non-existant, and as you play, you are already cleaning up the game.
– The game forces players to think. This is very important. Specially if you play with kids.
– Different game everytime due to several random mechanics.
– Relatively short.
– Very easy to understand, and accesible for players of all ages.
I wish more games shared those qualities.
I agree, it’s in my top 5 games of my collection right now.
First, great interview, Chris! The subject of “the use of insensitive subjects in game design” has been discussed considerably here at the League and I appreciated Bruno Cathala’s response to the criticism “slaves are insensitive to use in a game”. Those familiar with Brenda Romero’s game designs will know how she uses games to incite social awareness. In a TED talk she discusses how she handled her young daughter’s unawareness of the impact of ” the middle passage” which had been presented at school. Through a game she helped her daughter realize that the inhuman transportation of humans to the Americas actually happened. If Ms. Romero had used the term “cargo” instead of “slaves” as was the custom on ship’s manifests it would not have the impact of reality. The game Ms. Romero developed for her daughter was not a “soap box” design but rather in a social awareness manner. I believe that “Freedom – the Underground Railroad” handles the subject of “slavery” in a proper manner and would lose all purpose if “contraband cargo” was substituted for “slavery”.
Some interesting points Norv. I believe Five Tribes was not meant to incite social awareness though. Obviously, from what Days of Wonder and Bruno says, the use of slaves in this game was just keeping with the stories and theme.
Chris, I think you’re probably right about “was not meant to incite social awareness “. Also, to be fair, I have not read or seen Rahdo’s review; so, I don’t know the context in which he made the statement about using insensitive subjects. I guess I was just sounding off on the subject in general.
REALLY very interesting interview and comments. Thank you.
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[…] It’s not really possible to discuss this particular section without referencing a long-standing controversy associated with Five Tribes. In earlier versions of the game, there were no fakir cards. Instead, there were slave cards that filled the same role – a currency that existed within certain contexts of the game. Bruno Cathala’s response to this topic was not ideal, somewhat dismissively saying that it was the fault of everyone else for not understanding Five Tribes was a work of fiction. ‘Here in France, it’s clear to everyone that we are in a fictional world, and introducing slaves in…’. […]