We will finish our series of interviews by talking to Ariel Seoane. He is the designer of Love Means Nothing, the winner of last year´s contest:

Hello Ariel! Congratulations on your winning entry “Love Means Nothing”! Please tell us a bit about your background as a designer: Is “LMN” your first game or are you a veteran already?

You could call me a veteran, but there’s always so much to learn about games and game design that I feel I’m just starting. I got into game design in 2005 when I discovered boardgamegeek.com and bgdf.com. There was so much about board games that I didn’t know that the prospect of designing a game seemed daunting at times, but also a fascinating challenge. I loved playing games like RISK and Clue when I was younger, but knew nothing about modern board games, which meant there was tons of new stuff to learn about. The community at BGDF.com was a huge help in the learning process, and I made many good friends there who made my life a lot easier with their comments and suggestions.

LMN is not my first game (I have some 50 game ideas at different stages of completion in my games notebook), but it is probably the one I worked on the longest, if you consider it as the latest incarnation of a long chain of attempts at a tennis-themed game.

In 2007 I designed two games for a World Bank Institute contest. You had to design an educational board game that would be used on the WBI Street Addressing training courses. It was a very interesting challenge because it involved learning about street addressing and thinking of an efficient way to mix the fun of a game with the educational side the contest required. My entry “I Need a Sign!” was selected as one of the winners (the other was John Baluci’s “Urbs & Civitas”) and then published in a limited run that was used on the Bank’s Street Addressing training courses in Africa and Latin America.

What was it like to make the game? Did you encounter any particular problems you had to solve? Please tell us a little about the whole process!

I began working on ideas for a tennis game in 2005 (a game that combined a board, two player pawns, a ball and dice to determine the precision of your shots) but the game was too complex and slow to play (my daughter Catalina, who helped a lot with playtesting the earlier versions, will be more than willing to confirm that); in 2006 I started thinking about cards as the main component for a tennis game, but I still had a board, player pawns and a ball marker, and the result was still too slow and painful to play, too much of a simulation and therefore the feeling of having to take quick decisions that I wanted to translate from real tennis was totally lost.

Then, in December 2006, came “Traveling Light #2: Sports Edition”, the BGDF Game Design Showdown that gave birth to Love Means Nothing. The GDS is a friendly monthly contest usually run, back then, by Matt Worden, designer of Jump Gate and Castle Danger, where you have one week to come up with a general idea for a game matching specific design requirements that vary every month. The requirements for that particular month were to design a small package game (all game components should fit in a double-wide card box), based upon a sport, playable by 2 players. I decided to make a new attempt at designing a tennis game, and while the result was far from what LMN ended up being, it was the first time I called the game “Love Means Nothing” (a pun on the word “love” being used instead of “nothing” or “zero” when calling the score in a tennis match). And while the finished design is somehow far from the game concept I entered for the GDS, it is the result of many small changes (and a bit of larger ones) rather than a different game.

After the GDS I kept tweaking the game, playtesting and streamlining the game mechanics. By March 2007 the original board and player pawns the GDS entry had, probably a legacy of my previous designs on the subject, were gone: the game was only cards now, and my main focus was on making it more agile and tactic, and on how to reflect the “geometry” of real tennis, where it is key to make the right choice when deciding where to place your next shot and where to move afterwards.

During the first half of 2007 I’ve been spending a lot of time with David Tome and Dylan Kirk on the BGDF chat room, exchanging ideas and discussing the games each of us was designing. Dylan was living in Sri Lanka at the time, and David and I, while on the other side of the world, worked late almost every night, so it was the three of us talking about games (and beer) on a regular basis. I was working on my entries for the WBI Street Addressing contest at the time, and Dylan was working on Genji (later published by Z-Man games); he would show me some of the amazing art he was doing for the game, and I would suggest small tweaks or changes I felt would improve it. While Genji has nothing to do with LMN as a game, it was the source of inspiration for the switch from one tennis court per card to the two separate halves concept. And that made the game finally click, IMHO.

Seth Jaffee (designer of Eminent Domain) was another of the chat regulars that got interested in LMN back then, and helped a lot with playtesting and suggestions when we met in New York to go to Spielbany (a designers meet-up at Troy, near Albany, usually held at Tom Kiehl’s place). We even discussed about a volleyball-themed variant. Back then LMN had a different special shot mechanic, based on specific cards marked with four different special shots: lobs, drop shots, passing shots and smashes. The next time I met Seth at Spielbany, in 2011, I had a hard time convincing Seth that the new special shot mechanic is more elegant and flexible, but I think in the end I succeeded. 😉

By the start of 2011 the game was almost finished, but I did little to get it published. It was again the BGDF chat room that would set the ball rolling. David Whitcher (designer of Tahiti and Protospiel organizer) asked one morning: “Anyone submitting to the KBG card game contest? Deadline is tomorrow”. I had LMN ready, so I submitted it and you already know the rest of the story!

The theme of your game is “Tennis”. While you agreed to let us change the theme if we feel it is necessary, it seems that this topic is of special importance to you. Is there a special story behind that, which you might care to share with us?

I love tennis. I love watching professional tennis, and I love playing tennis myself. When I got into game design, it was just natural that I try to create a board or card game about tennis. It was also an interesting challenge to design a game that would “feel”, at least to some extent, like playing tennis in real life. I wanted a game that would appeal to tennis fans, a game you could play when it is raining and the courts are wet. It took a while, but I think I did it.

To get a feeling for what kind of gamer you are, please give your three favorite games and explain your choices.

It is hard to pick just three. I am not too much of a gamer, though I enjoy playing board games and am part of a local gamers group. When I am playing, I tend to focus too much on analyzing the game from a designer’s perspective, and not as much as I should on just winning the game. Or maybe my gamer friends are just smarter and better players than me, which is most likely also true.

But to answer the question, I would probably pick Tikal, Power Grid, Homesteaders, Pandemic, Wallenstein among eurogames, and Ticket to Ride and Carcassone on the lighter side. One game I’ve played recently and liked a lot (which will probably go into the favorites list after a couple more plays) is Noblemen, by Dwight Sullivan; maybe I am biased, as Dwight is another BGDF friend, but I am pretty sure I just like the game because it is a great game. I played Village once and liked it a lot too, but with just one play it is hard to rank it; I really liked some of its mechanics, though, so it might be a good candidate for my list of favorites.

In general, I would say I like games that are not too complex, I am probably on the light to medium range on that. I like games that are easy to learn but hard to master, though I guess that might sound too general for some. I tend to enjoy (and do reasonably well) on games that are very visual, like tile-laying games. I prefer abstract games rather than heavily themed games, and that is probably reflected on my own designs. I am not a fan of games that have cards with a lot of small-print text on them. Most of all, I like games that give players a reduced set on interesting and meaningful decisions to take, and do not rely too heavily on randomness, though I don’t mind some “luck” factor involved, as long as there is a reasonable chance for the better player to win in spite of any bad card draws or dice rolls.

You are living in Montevideo, Uruguay, South America, which might qualify as a region with even less tradition in board games than -for example- South Korea. Would you agree with that assessment? Can you tell us anything about board game culture or the board game community over there?

You are mistaken, the board game tradition here would put Essen to shame… not. 😉

The board game tradition here is very limited. It is almost impossible to find anything but imported or local versions of the most mainstream titles like Monopoly, Trivia Pursuit and Clue. You won’t find Carcassone or Settlers of Catan anywhere, let alone a gamer’s game. If you want a game, you either bring it when you travel, or buy it by mail (and then, you might have a lot of fun dealing with the customs officers, depending on how lucky you are).

Fortunately, not all is bleak. There is a good gaming group (the Gaming Night Society) that meets once a month for a full night of gaming; as the group’s Facebook page states “it is like the Dead Poets Society, but instead of writing poetry we play board games”. It is usually twenty or thirty people playing games from their personal collections.

As we have already revealed, you received a contract offer for the game and accepted it. Obviously the game is not out yet, but do you have anything to say about the cooperation with KBG? Now would be your chance to warn people!

Working with KBG has been a pleasure; everyone has been very nice and open. I don’t see why that would change, quite the opposite, I hope once the game hits the shelves and starts selling by the millions, we will all become BFFs. 😉

As you know, the next KBG contest is already running, but we did not receive an entry from you, yet. Do you plan on participating again? If not, we would of course like to know why.

I will participate again, and am on the final playtesting stages as I write this (playtesting sessions scheduled for today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow). I think it is a cute game and hope the jury will like it as much as I do. I still need to write down and lay out the rulebook, but I am used to meet deadlines just barely. I guess I am not the only one at this; many designers I know seem to keep tweaking and testing their games till the last minute.

Final Question: In our contests we are looking for games that fulfill certain criteria. Some of those criteria are necessities of the market, some derive from our feeling and intution on what is good/fun and what is bad/boring to play. What – in your opinion – makes a great game?

As I said above, meaningful decisions for the players, and more wit than fortune when it comes to who wins the game. A great game, to me, should be balanced so that an early mistake does not ruin all your chances for a recovery. I also value games where a player’s turn does not take twenty minutes to complete while the other players just watch, and games where you feel the pace increases as the game end approaches. That said, the very definition of “a great game” varies wildly depending on the players, which means a great game to me might be boring for the next guy, and vice versa.

Thank you for the interview!

Thank you!