Tabletop Interview: Bruno Cathala talks Spiel des Jahres, Yamataï, and more

You may have heard of a guy named Bruno Cathala. He’s designed a lot of board games. And finally, he’s up for the topmost award: the Spiel des Jahres, for Kingdomino. He’s also releasing a spiritual successor to Five Tribes, another critically acclaimed design, Yamataï from Days of Wonder.
I’ve forgotten which Gen Con I first met Bruno at, but it’s always been a pleasure to talk to and work with him, and this was no different. He once told me that game design is like music—mechanisms are notes, meaningless by themselves, but properly weaved together, they make something beautiful. He is one of the most passionate board game designers in the world, and I hope it shows through in this interview! So let’s get to it!
First off, congratulations on the Spiel des Jahres nomination for Kingdomino! While you and Serge Laget won a special award for Shadows over Camelot, I believe this is your first nomination for the award. How do you feel about your chances?
Thank you very much, Derek.
My first game was published at the end end of 2002.
Since that time, I’ve been honored many times by SdJ jury with some of my games making the recommended list:
Boomtown (with Bruno Faidutti), 2005
Jamaica (With Sebastien Pauchon & Malcolm Braff), 2008
– MOW, 2009
SOS Titanic (with Ludovic Maublanc), 2014
7 Wonders: Duel  (with Antoine Bauza), 2016
and with this special award for Shadows over Camelot, 10 years ago.
…But you’re right, it’s my first nomination! CHAMPAGNE!
Concerning the final decision, my feeling is that it’s very open. I can’t see a real favorite.
Magic Maze is really successful here in France. It’s original and well-produced. Could definitely be a winner.
I have no idea about El Dorado (not available in France yet). But a Ravensburger game combined with “Herr Doktor Knizia”… this looks like a winning ticket.
Frankly speaking, I would be more than happy if Kingdomino gets the award. For me, the Spiel des Jahres is like Oscars for the cinema. And I have to admit that, before beginning to work on my first game 15 years ago, I secretly dreamed to be in the position to get it one day. I never worked thinking on what I could do to get it, because it’s not my way of working. I always chose to do exactly what I wanted to do, expecting that one day, maybe it could come to me. So let’s see what happens. It’s still a big reward to be in the final list.
Kingdomino is one the best games I’ve played in 2017, and it’s very hard to tell what makes it so good because it’s so simple. How do you know when a game has too much or too little going on? Will we see expansions or more advanced versions of Kingdomino in the future?

When I’m designing the game, I never ask myself if it’s too much or too little. I’m just asking myself if I want to play it again and again. In fact, my designing process is quite a selfish process: I’m my first customer. And I’m always working on the game I would like to play, now. And depending on my mood at the time I begin the process, the final game can be more complicated, or less.
For Kingdomino I wanted to try to create a game I would like to play again and again, but with rules I wouldn’t have to teach twice, even with newbies!
For the future, yes, I’m working in a different direction to develop Kingdomino’s world. One game with more depth, more strategy, dedicated to more experienced people. And also one expansion for Kingdomino, probably adding a 5th player, and maybe something specific for children. Let’s see…
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have a suspicion your most successful game has been Five Tribes, a far more complex game than Kingdomino. Now, Days of Wonder is putting out Yamataï. Am I correct that Yamataï began with the Arabian nights setting, meant to be a sequel to Five Tribes? What led to the change?

You are wrong. My most successful game, far away, is now 7 Wonders: Duel!
But, yes, Five Tribes is also a big success… and is still on the market with really good sales.
Concerning Yamataï... when I presented the prototype to Days of Wonder’s team, the action took place in ancient Egypt (specialists were Egyptian gods, for example). When they decided to publish the game, they asked me to find a new theme, because they still published a game with an ancient Egypt theme (Cleopatra and the Society of Architects). When discussing it together, we were so focused on Five Tribes’ success that we thought it could be a good idea to place this new prototype in an Arabian Nights atmosphere, like Five Tribes. And I built a prototype this way (it was named Naqala). But at the end, we had some feedback from partners (distributors, shops), fearing that this could be confusing. The risk was that some people could think this new game was only a Five Tribes expansion, or just a Five Tribes variation.
This led us to find a new theme. We needed an ancient civilization with a legendary city. And here came Yamataï !
Yamataï is also your first co-design with Marc Paquien, and one of his first games. How did you meet Marc, and what convinced you to work with him on this title?

Each Friday evening, I have a play-testing session, in a café located in Annecy, a very nice city close to my house. It’s open to anyone who wants to play my games, or any other games. Marc came there with his first prototype, and asked me if I would like to play-test it and give him some feedback. We played together. Like quite each time someone builds his first game, there were at least 3 different games in his prototype. I gave him some feedback and advice. He worked on his game something like one complete year, changing things again and again, trying to find the good way to keep all in a single game. And one year later, I proposed he start something completely new based on one of the main ideas of his first prototype (the way you take and place fleets on the board). He agreed it was a good idea, and asked me if I would like to work with him. I accepted and we built Yamataï together restarting with only one of the initial ideas.
How does Yamataï compare to Five Tribes mechanically? Would you say they feel the same, or that they are very different games?

Yamataï and Five Tribes are definitively two very different games that feel very different.
In Five Tribes, all is out on the board at the beginning of the game. At the beginning of the game, you have a lot of different possibilities. The more the game progresses, the less possibilities you have, creating this specific tension growing all along the game.
In Yamataï, things are really different. At the beginning, the board is empty (there are only the resource tokens). And the tension is created because never mind your choices; you will always get something good for you, but will offer new possibilities to the next players. The winner is always the one who is able to maximize what he gets, while minimizing what he gives.
Speaking of Five Tribes, there is also another expansion coming for it soon, Whims of the Sultan. One of the most interesting aspects of this expansion is the addition of a fifth player, in a game that already can cause serious “analysis paralysis.” Can it really work with five players?

Analysis paralysis is not created by games. It’s inside one specific category of players: they fear so much not making exactly the best move that they become frozen.
Concerning Five Tribes, after one or two games, you are in position to identify very fast that you don’t have to analyze ALL the possibilities to make a decision, because there are only a few moves which can really be interesting. And you have to focus on those moves. When you think that way, you can play very fast. And even with a 5th player, it’s still possible to finish a game in 75 minutes. On my side, I really like playing with a 5th player because of the new bidding track. I like this tension. And I still win something like 90% of my games, which lets me think that the balance has not changed significantly.
What is your favorite way to play Five Tribes? Do you use only one of the two expansions, or do you play with both together in a “mega-game”?

It depends who my partners are. I use expansions only if all players have played at least one time with just the basic game. Then, depending on my mood, I will play with one expansion, or the other… or both together. I like playing that way in a mega-game.
Another upcoming title of yours is an expansion for Jamaica, 10 years after its publication! This is a special moment for me as well; Jamaica is the first game I ever reviewed. What led to the game getting an expansion so long after the fact?

Why design an expansion 10 years later ? Two main reasons. First, we still love this game and play it at home from time to time. Second, it is still on the market 10 years later, with sales growing (slowly) each year. These two reasons led us to think about what we could add to offer new possibilities to Jamaica’s fans.
What can you tell us about the gameplay of Jamaica: The Crew?

In the basic game, when you end your move in a harbor, you have to pay gold coins (victory points). With “the crew,” it doesn’t change. But the gold you pay allows you to pick some special characters that you will place into you ship. Each character is different and gives you special abilities as long as he stays in your ship, and victory points at the end of the game.
But don’t forget: We are pirates. And it can sometimes be useful to throw one passenger out of the ship!
What have you been reading/watching/playing/enjoying lately?

I like TV series. And I really enjoyed watching Stranger Things.
I also like to go to the cinema. And I was impressed by La La Land. Mainly for the last 30 minutes.
And concerning games, I LOVE playing Santorini!
Anything else you’d like to add?

Well… I have the incredible chance to be able that my passion became my job. This is priceless. I just hope that I will go on that way as long as possible !

Derek Thompson

I've been a board game reviewer since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.

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