Interview: Alexander Pfister talks Isle of Skye, Broom Service, and More

Digital StillCameraOne of the most famous awards in the board game industry is the Spiel des Jahres. Winning this award can launch designers into being able to design full-time as a job instead of as a hobby, as it can lead to hundreds of thousands of sold copies for a game. In 2011, the Spiel des Jahres split into a family category (with the same name) and an advanced category called the Kennerspiel des Jahres. Alexander Pfister and his co-designer Andreas Pelikan have made history as the first designers to win the Kennerspiel des Jahres twice. In fact, they won it twice in a row! Now, Alexander talks to us about those two award winning games (Broom Service and Isle of Skye), and much more. Here we go!
Can you tell us a bit about your background? What board gaming was like growing up, how you got into the hobby, etc.
Pfister: I’m an only child, so I suppose that’s the reason why I played games very often by my own as a kid. Playing games and designing games went hand in hand. Games were quite expensive at that time. I saw them on the shelves of gaming shops and imagined how they might work. Then I tried to copy them. I was always interested in economics. Therefore, I loved to design games with money (by the way, I also studied economics). As a teenager I got Acquire as a present. And we played this game very, very often. But with my own rules, not the rules included. In my variant, companies had a regular income and could buy shares as well. They paid dividends, etc. So it was completely different.
How does the board gaming scene in Austria compare to that of other countries (and Germany specifically)?
Pfister: They are quite similar, but there is one big difference: the media coverage. In Germany, it is natural that newspapers and even television networks report about the Spiel des Jahres award. I think this is unique in the world. In Austria, gaming is not a big topic in the media. But I think the people in Austria play similar games to those played in Germany.
broom serviceIn my own research as a professor, collaborating on papers can be a bit awkward sometimes since it is kind of competitive but also cooperative. How did you first decide to work with Andreas Pelikan on retooling Witch’s Brew into Broom Service, and then again on Isle of Skye? How do you decide when to work with a partner and when not to?
Pfister: Working with somebody else speeds things up. Regarding Broom Service: The publisher wanted to have a board game version of Witch’s Brew. Andreas tried it alone and I was just a tester. But he was stuck and so I offered him to try it myself and present him my version. He liked it and so we ended up doing it together. With Isle of Skye, Andreas came up with the idea of changing scoring tiles. He asked me if I was interested and yes, I was. We then continued as a team.
Speaking of those two games, you are now the first designers to win the Kennerspiel twice—and in a row, too! What was going through your mind during the ceremony this time? Do you think this will lead towards trying to design full time?
Pfister: Yes, two times in a row. Wow! I’m very proud of this and was very happy when the winner was announced. As I’m self-employed I can define how much time I invest in game designing. At the moment, I’m investing more time to designing, but it can change any time.
When you have a game in mind, how do you decide which publisher to take it to? How did you begin your close relationship with Lookout Games?
Pfister: Klemens Franz also lives in Austria and I often showed him my game designs. As he does the illustration for many publishers, he presented them to the publisher he was working for. So my designs came to Lookout Games, Amigo, Eggertspiele etc. Isle of Skye was first shown to another publisher. Afterwards, Lookout tested it and really wanted to do it. They were very happy when the other publisher turned it down.
mombasaI know that Mombasa was adjusted at the request of the publisher to be heavier. In other industries, artists are often very protective of meddling by developers or producers. How do you as a designer know when to agree to a publisher’s idea or when to fight against it?
Pfister: The publisher wants to have the best product as possible, so we are on the same side. It’s the task of the editor to test the game and give feedback and make changes to fit to the target group. There were only rare cases where I had to convince the publisher to do it a different way. And then it’s a matter of good arguments. And this works in both directions.
Despite the two Kennerspiel wins for Broom Service and Isle of Skye, Mombasa is your highest rated game on BoardGameGeek. Which is more important? If you could have a game win ten awards or be the #1 rated game on BoardGameGeek with no awards, what would you prefer?
Pfister: BoardGameGeek is great! Nevertheless, it represents only a small fraction of gamers, mostly heavy gamers. One of the most successful games is Settlers of Catan. Gosh, I wish I had designed this game 🙂 The fan base all over the world is so big and this game is only #205. BGG has a strong bias towards heavy games and games that are played by a relatively small group rating it very high. On the other side, an award is also only given by a small group of people. [What’s] important for me is the reception of the target group of my games. I will continue to make heavy games as well as very light games, and I know that my light games will always have a low rating on BGG.
isle of skye boxAre we close enough to release that you can give us explicit details about how the Isle of Skye expansion works? I know it involves traveling and contracts…
Pfister: The expansion will probably be released in 2017. So there still might be some changes. Overall playing time and complexity is not increased too much as I think this is the strength of Isle of Skye.
Do you know when Port Royal might be available widely in the U.S.? (It’s a great game!) Can you tell us a bit about how the expansion’s cooperative variant works?
Pfister: Sorry to say that I don’t know when Port Royal will be widely available in shops. About the expansion: when you play against each other, 4 contracts are revealed. Everybody has 3 markers and you score 0/1/3 VPs if you fulfill 1/2/3 contracts. But every contract also gives you immediate money, which is a big boost. When you play cooperative, X contracts are revealed with X depending on the player count. The group wins if every contract is fulfilled by at least one player. You lose if time runs out—you only have a certain number of turns. The game feeling is completely different: You take ships with only 1 coin, you discuss who wants to do what contract, etc. But on the other hand, there is still the same tension when cards are flipped. The contracts are very different. For example: pay tax, repel a ship of each color, own 2 traders etc.
Your other game coming soon to the U.S. is Broom Service: the Card Game. What makes that game unique from Witch’s Brew or Broom Service? Do you have a favorite of the three?
Pfister: Broom Service: The Card Game is very fast—15 minutes—and only focuses on the brave and cowardly mechanic. So whenever you have 15 minutes left, get this one out, or play it with casual gamers who want to have fun. If I have a full hour, I prefer Broom Service (the board game), as it is deeper. But at the end of a game evening the card game is great. It is an alternative to such great games like 6 Nimmt or Love Letter.
Broom Service comes with several expansions in the box. What’s your favorite way to play the game?
Pfister: I would always use the amulets, as this gives you an additional way to score. Beginners especially have a goal on where to move to. I also like the special clouds. They give you a long-term strategy. These are my favorites.
Geeks Under Grace is a faith-based site. Do you think faith or worldview has an effect on the way players approach board gaming, or on the way designers approach game design? Should it?
Pfister: I think this can apply to the theme of the game, but also how and where a game is produced. This should be a personal decision. I’m religious, but the theme of a game does not bother me a lot when playing a game.
What have you been reading/watching/playing/enjoying lately?
Pfister: Playing tennis, watching Arrow, reading blogs/reviews/BoardGameGeek, listening to podcasts, visiting swimming pools with my family, etc.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Pfister: In 2-3 months my next big title, “Great Western Trail” will be released. It will be available in the U.S. and Europe at the same time. In Great Western Trail we are cattlemen herding cattle to Kansas City. There, we ship them by train to major cities in the U.S. We also hire cowboys, craftsmen and engineers, trade with Indians, build houses and railroads, etc. Then there will be an expansion for “Oh My Goods.” Rebels burned down our corn fields. Now there is the danger of a famine in our capital city and we have to produce food. This is the first of 5 chapters of a story we play. Whoever is not interested in the story can just skip it and play the last chapter, which includes all new buildings.
Thanks to Alexander for the interview!

Derek Thompson

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