Smooth Sailing For One First-Time Designer
An interview with Thomas Rauscher
Uberplay's first release this year is Tongiaki, a unique tile-laying
game designed by Thomas Rauscher. For those who haven't yet tried
the game, Tongiaki offers a good mix of luck and strategy and
it's presented very nicely with colorful tiles and plenty of
little wooden boats. When it seems so many new releases are
simply familiar mechanics and components, just combined in
different ways, it's not surprising that a simple, fresh game
like Tongiaki would easily catch the eye of a publisher. Still, I
was a bit surprised to hear how quickly Mr. Rauscher found his
way from idea to published game!
With some help from Jeremy Young of Uberplay, I had a chance
to ask Mr. Rauscher a number of questions about his first
published game. Here's what he had to say.
Mike Petty: Thomas, first of all, thank you for agreeing
to this interview. Since this is your first published game, your
name is very new to us. Could you start off by telling us a
little about yourself?
Thomas Rauscher: Sure. I am 37 years old, married, having two
children ages 5 and 6. In my regular job I am working as a
software engineer for the IT Services of a large German insurance
group. I have studied statistics which is, in Germany, quite less
common than it is in the U.S.. I think that both my work and my
studies form quite a good background for inventing games because
I have learned to develop complex working systems as well as I am
familiar with calculating probabilities - which helps you a lot
while balancing a board game.
But surely these are not the only things one needs for
designing a game and so I must also confess that my capacities
concerning graphics and design are very very poor. But luckily
there is good software around for these matters.
I am also very interested in geography and history and some of
the things I read about may find themselves as the background for
a board game - like Tongiaki.
Apart from this I enjoy normal hobbies like reading, music,
soccer and, naturally, playing board games. I try to avoid
computer games as much as I can because it would cost me too much
time. Note I have two small kids so my free time is scarce. I
have only played Tongiaki online two times in the Brettspielwelt.
MP: When it comes to gaming, then, what are some of your
favorite games to play?
TR: My gaming interests are very widely spread. In general I
mostly like games with strong ideas, whether it is a game of 30
minutes or a game of two hours and wether it is an abstract game
or a theme-driven game. I prefer games with short rules although
I don't fear long rules if they are due to real complexity.
Amongst the complex games I love the most I can mention Vinci,
Ursuppe, La Citta, L÷wenherz (by far the best Teuber game). By
this choice you can see that I mostly like games where each
player can following a different strategy, more than games which
are merely tactical (like, for Example, El Grande or Puerto Rico
- brilliant games, but not my first choice).
Amongst these games with strong ideas and short rules I can
Blokus - Only with 4 players - an absolute mind twister.
Can't Stop - Not as much luck as one might think
Egghead -A game only for mad Mathematicians.
I don't like party games. I don't like Trivial pursuit, but I
love Anno Domini. I don't like war games and stuff like Tabletop,
but I love long historic games like Civilisation or Brittania.
That's the only exception when I play four-hour games. I also
love word games which few regular gamers do by my experience.
MP: Who are some designers that have most influenced or
inspired your own designs?
TR: I am not really influenced by any particular designer. I
try to evolve my ideas out of my regular life and out of the
themes I am interested in. This does not mean that one cannot
learn from other designers. I think that it is very important for
a game designer to be a game player too, because by playing good
games one can learn how good games are constructed. At least this
is true for me because I have definitely learned a lot by playing
all the games I just mentioned.
At least I am influenced by other games or other designers in
the sense that I know about the ideas I would not use because too
many designers already used them. A good example is scoring by
majority. There are so many games nowadays where majorities are
scored. I thought it would be a good idea for Tongiaki to develop
a scoring system which does just the opposite--you must try to be
in as many regions (islands) as possible regardless if you have
any majority there or not.
MP: Speaking of your game, how did the idea for Tongiaki
TR: The idea came from reading an article in GEO-Germany's
leading geographic magazine, comparable to National Geographic-about
the evolution of the Polynesian culture. A core theme of this
article was about relics found on Tonga by some archeologists.
These relics should prove that after 1000 years of stagnation the
people suddenly sailed off from Tonga thus colonizing the rest of
the Pacific ocean in a time span not longer than 300 years.
Although there are some theories about overpopulation and
desertification, nobody really knows why the first Polynesians
stayed so long in Tonga and then suddenly went off so fast.
This story came into my mind and formed the basis concept of
MP: Do your ideas generally develop from a theme first
TR: Not generally, but in many cases. As I am a little bit
crazy about maps, I often start with a geographic or historic
scenario which also gives me an idea about the board or the tiles.
Sometimes the scenario also gives me an idea about the game
mechanism, but sometimes I just start drawing a map for the board
and then look for ideas. In fact I still have some maps which are
looking for those good ideas.
One problem is that the 'World Game Map' has very few blank
spaces - which means that there are not so many fresh themes left.
Even with Tongiaki it is the case that it is only one of many
games which are located in the Pacific Ocean. Take Kahuna,
Clippers, or just recently Bonobo Beach.
MP: How long did you work on the game from the initial
concept to the finished prototype?
TR: I almost do not dare to tell this, but it took, no
kidding, only one month of work from the idea to the first
prototype. We did three weeks of testing and it worked perfectly.
After this I took another month to build a real pretty prototype
which I then handed the agent of Schmidt Spiele. But this is not
the normal case. I also have games I am still working on after
MP: Wow, that is a quick design process! You say the game
worked perfectly after some testing. What sort of things were you
looking for from the players when you brought the prototype to
TR: Three basic things:
1. Did they like the game?
2. Is the duration of the game stable and does the game lead
to a thrilling end? It is always important to figure out if a
player can ruin a game, for example, create a blocking situation
and stuff like this by doing odd things.
3. Does the game offer the players the opportunity to follow
different strategies and are none of these strategies dominant?
If this is not the case you have a game that's working but not
interesting. In Tongiaki there are three basic strategies:
- stay on Tonga as long as you can and come over from
- go out fast but try to keep your boats together.
- go out fast and try to spread out as much as you can.
Additionally--one could be cooperative or be mean. Any of
those strategies can lead to a victory dependent on the position
of the tiles and of the behavior of the other players
MP: So, do you have a playtesting group that meets
regularly to test your designs?
TR: Yes. It is not my group but a group which meets every
Wednesday and of which I am just a member. The people there play
every game which is new at least once and they also normally are
the first people who play my prototypes. Many small ideas you
find in Tongiaki come from those people, for instance the red
circle indicating where you place a tile.
The host of this group, Carsten Wesel, also runs a web site
about games. Incidentally it has almost the same name as your
website in German: http://fairspielt.de.
So if you don't fear the German language, just have a look there.
It's worthwhile. You can also find a photograph of me there but
it's a very bad one.
MP: So you had a game you were very pleased with. Did the
process of finding a publisher for Tongiaki prove to be as easy
as the design process?
TR: In this case it was pretty easy because the agent sort of
fell into my arms while we both were sitting in the same playing
group. So I could play Tongiaki two times with him and afterwards
I told him that he could keep the prototype if he liked. He did
and not much later I had my first contract.
A circumstance which may have helped was the fact that at that
time I had just achieved the first prize in the yearly Hippodice
game designer competition. The game I won the contest with is
called 'Aquadukt'. The game was much more complex than Tongiaki
and I am still looking for a publisher for that one. So I'm quite
aware of the fact that the publication of Tongiaki was a whole
lot of good luck for me as an unknown game designer.
MP: Congratulations nonetheless-for Tongiaki and for being
selected for the Hippodice competition!
How did it feel seeing the published version of Tongiaki
for the first time?
TR: Very pleasing, although I was involved in the whole
process of design and had seen the drafts for the tiles and the
ships. But it was still different when I had the first game in my
MP: Now that you've seen your first published game go from
concept to mass production, which part of the process do you most
TR: Definitely the part of game testing. Playing my own games
with other people who don't mind if the first run is complete
junk, then working on it and playing again till it's a good game.
MP: I've done a fair share of playtesting myself over the
last few years, both with my designs and for other designers. I
have to agree that it's a wonderful part of the creative process.
What has been the reaction of gamers to Tongiaki,
particularly after its debut at Nurmberg?
TR: As far as I've heard, many people liked the game.
Especially for three reasons: It's simple to explain, you can
play it with two players as well as with six and it looks very
MP: Those do sound like great selling points! Thanks again
for the time you've taken to do this interview. and we wish you
the best for Tongiaki and your other designs!