Interviews by an Optimist # 33 - David Coutts
- Interviews by an Optimist # 33 - David Coutts
David says this about himself...
"I was 6 when I first emigrated to Australia (Dad had left the RAF). I
vividly remember playing Monopoly with adults in Melbourne, and
beating them. All except my father, that is, whom I never beat. I
stopped playing years ago (not because he won, it just became boring).
Aged nine and a half we went back to England. A six week cruise via
the Panama Canal. The whole thing was just wonderful for a kid my age.
And my brother taught me chess.
An early interest in toy soldiers soon developed. Around 15 my toy
soldier games became quite sophisticated, reminiscent of H.G.Well's
miniatures rules. And I played all the usual kid's games like Colditz,
Cluedo, Ludo, Snake's & Ladders etc. One day I found myself designing
a board wargame. It had 2 countries divided by a river and mountains,
each side having so many cities, etc. The air forces comprised tiny
aircraft from a model aircraft carrier.
Around this time I joined a chess club. I was never that good, and can
often be quoted as saying that I prefer less abstract games. I did
design a chess variant once, for a competition - Battle Chess, I
called it. My sister's boyfriend, David Farquhar, had watched me
develop my own game with interest, and one day he turned up with a
copy of Avalon Hill's Blitzkrieg under his arm and lent it to me. I
was hooked. I played for hours and hours, solo at first, then with
David. My design, essentially the same idea as Blitzkrieg, was
In time I found a games shop, Esdevium of Aldershot, advertising mail
order. I bought Battle Of The Bulge, Panzerblitz, Squad Leader, etc.,
etc. I have around 300 wargames....
I played some miniatures, but it wasn't for me. Too much time spent
painting, setting up, measuring (re-measuring), rolling too many dice
too often. I always think it looks great though. I tried to interest
these people in my board wargames, but it wasn't for them.
Another friend was an SPI fan; I have always preferred Avalon Hill for
the quality of their production. Now, both companies are gone
(although AH has re-surfaced to an extent under Hasbro). A friend of
the SPI fan, let's call him Captain Kirk, introduced me to
Role-Playing. D&D. David Farquhar became my brother-in-law, and we
played some Runequest & Cuthulu. I game-mastered AH's Lords Of
Creation and others.
Many of my wargaming friends wouldn't touch FRP's, and visa versa.
Some played both. There was a divide there for most. I bought a
computer, a ZX Spectrum (well, sort of a computer, in Europe anyway),
and played arcade games (which rapidly became boring), adventure games
(which I never seemed to complete), sports simulations (some friends
and I, calling ourselves Sunday Software, even wrote a game based on
Avalon Hill's Title Bout!) and wargames....
I played postal diplomacy; I played several PBM games including KJC's
Capitol (space empires) which featured 12 teams of 12 players across
Europe. My team was beaten by a fanatical Finnish guy who ended up
playing all 12 positions in his team and kicking our arses. I joined
the Avalon Hill Intercontinental Kriegspiel Society (former readers of
The General will understand) and went to residential game weekends. I
bought S&T, the Wargamer, The General. I playtested The Wargamer's
"Hell Hath No Fury" on Bodicea's revolt against the Romans, and
"O'Connor's Offensive", though I wasn't credited for the latter. And I
playtested some Squad Leader scenarios for The Wargamer.
Wargaming sparked an intense interest in history, which I still have.
I regard this as something very positive. Together with my love of
Science-Fiction - I'm a member of the The Melbourne Science-Fiction
Club - and with my wife's firm footing in the present, I figure I've
got all bases covered. This is reflected in my general preference for
games with a science-fiction, fantasy, or historical theme.
At age 30 I got a contract back in Oz. I took a year off gaming
altogether, and got a life... and a wife soon after - Tina
Kalliakmanis. Back in England, David Farquhar had begun writing for
Sumo Magazine Game reviews of non-wargames. He used to write for
Counter, but switched to chief playtester for my favourite games
designer Reiner Knizia on great games such as Lord Of The Rings.
As a result, I began to play what are sometimes called fluffy games
(family games, parlour games, beer'n'pretzel games...). I have quite a
collection of those, too. I played less and less wargames. Wargames
took too long, were often 2-player, and ....they were about war! I'd
tired of it. Occasionally now I still feel a need to play a wargame, a
bit like a drug, for me. It's hard to kick the habit...
The German boardgame market is where it's at though, with America
(Mayfair Games, AH/Hasbro, and now the excellent Rio Grande Games),
Britain, France & Italy following in roughly that order. The German
stuff is so original, and well produced. This in turn has influenced
American companies like Fantasy Flight Games, where the quality of
production just gets better and better (War Of The Ring, Twilight
Imperium, and so on). The "Eurogames" were games that women would play
- a rarity in wargaming circles! Some of these games were playable by
children, and young adults. Family games, sociable games. Games
playable in an hour! Or two....
Whilst back in England, I even helped playtest Gibson Games' Formula
Motor Racing with it's designer Reiner Knizia (one of Germany's finest
games designers). I discovered The Games Cabinet, The Web Grognards,
and many other such web sites.
Now I'm back in Oz (for good this time), and I mostly play
non-wargames. I like a few Collectible Card Games, such as Netrunner
and ICE's Middle-Earth. No miniatures, no FRPG's. I play PBEM games
and PC games, but not too much (not very sociable). If I say to
someone that I play games they usually have no idea. Monopoly? Trivial
Pursuit? Scrabble? Chess? Pictionary? Yeah, great. Bye. If I say I
play board games they say, "Oh, you mean like computer games." OK,
sure. If I were to say that I play a sport, then people would
understand. But people don't know about boardgames. I'm a boardgaming
evangelist - I sell the idea when I can. I'm a boardgaming and
I set up my own company, Board Not Bored Games Pty Ltd, to sell the
German style games to Australians. I helped found Billabong
Boardgamers, and more recently Gamers@Dockers. And now, at last, I've
designed and produced a boardgame, "6 Billion™". I've had to let BNBG
go, but I still support the game through my web site, and sell the
occasional copy through eBay or word of mouth.
Sadly, David Farquhar passed away recently. I created a GeekList on
boardgamegeek.com as a tribute to him.
Tom: You've designed and self-published the game 6 Billion. Can you
tell us about some experiences you've had along the way?
David: I found the whole design and production process absolutely
thrilling and was inspired enough to write up my experiences for the
Discover Games website and Counter magazine in the UK. Taking the game
to Spiel '99 at Essen was a dream come true, though I'd love to go
back as a games fan and spend more time just looking around and
playing games. Meeting some of the great names in the industry was
fantastic - Mike Siggins, Ken Tidwell, Reiner Knizia (again), Mik
Svellov, Frank Nestel, Harry Rowland, Alan Moon and of course Jay
Tummelson of Rio Grande Games (who became my distributor in the USA).
Tom: From your articles on the net,
http://www.discovergames.com/gamedesign.html and others, it is evident
that you created the game with a purpose in mind. Was the goal of
your game mainly to teach a point, or to create a fun experience?
David: A good question, with many answers. I'm a games player, so I
definitely wanted to design a game to be played. However, there are
probably a few "purposes" I had in mind by the time I'd finished
designing the game. Having read a number of doom and gloom forecasts
of our species' inevitable demise, one aim was to depict an optimistic
future of the human colonization of our solar system. Plus, most space
empire / science-fiction games gloss over this localised future (with
notable exceptions such as SPI's Battlefleet Mars), and head straight
off to the stars, and so I wanted to redress this imbalance. I also
wanted to challenge assumptions around just where we could colonise -
not just the Moon and Mars. Just like physicist Freeman Dyson said in
1999, the laws of physics and biology do not preclude settlement and
cheap travel throughout the solar system. Despite the inaccurate
comments of at least one unimaginative reviewer, this doesn't mean
vast populations living on each planet. It means living on or in the
moons, the asteroids, and space habitats, and some of the smaller
planets. Because the game is obviously themed around exponential
population growth, I thought it would be refreshing to present
population growth in a positive light. It's not about "solving"
over-population by colonising space (as another inaccurate review put
it). It's about securing the long-term future of our species through
sustained population growth (in game terms "Doubling" cards and "Free
Doubling") in space. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, I believe
that Malthus' highly influential "An Essay On The Principle Of
Population" (which also inspired the game's population doubling
mechanism) has been misinterpreted by the scientific community since
its first publication in 1798. Populations double and halve through a
process of variable compound interest. Reading between the lines, I
believe this is what Malthus tried to say. Instead, science regards
the Malthusian Growth Model (effectively fixed rate compound interest)
as only an approximate law of nature (Trefil 2002) due to the
impossibility of maintaining a constant rate of growth.
It's heavy stuff, I know, but you asked...
Tom: Do you think, then, that games are an excellent method of
conveying a message?
David: I think games are an undervalued, under-utilized method of
conveying a message. I wrote a little about this in my article on
Games Theory in Counter magazine. However, I do not expect all games
to convey a message. I enjoy Carabande, for example. Nor do I
necessarily think that I succeeded in getting all my messages across
in 6 Billion. Still, to design a game you have to model some form of
reality, whether it be fantasy, historical,
futuristic or something more mundane like a train game. In modeling
this reality, inevitably the designer must present his or her
interpretation. How many games are there on the battle of Waterloo, or
Gettysburg? Quite a few! No doubt many more will be designed. Why
should designers bother if they don't have something original that
they want to say? Sure, they want to make a game that people will play
(otherwise their message reaches too few people). Only rare
individuals like Richard Borg or Reiner Knizia have much commercial
success, so I hope the majority is not in it for the money! Many might
be satisfied with a little prestige. Then along comes a game like "We
The People" that manages to present a very playable game using an
innovative card-driven design, which also manages to get across the
fact that this war was as much a war of ideas as it was a war of
generals and armies (hence the rules on political control markers, and
the event cards). Take a look at Mark Herman's extensive historical
notes. This is a game on a subject dear to his heart.
Tom: But is it possible for the "message" of the game to occasionally
bog down the game, or make it less fun? Does theme have to be
sacrificed for fun?
David: I suspect more games would get bogged down through "over
simulation" than "message" - many wargames would fall into this
category. Other games are unplayed due to extensive FAQs and errata
(not a problem for 6 Billion). In the case of 6 Billion I think
cosmetic factors (map, tokens) have been a much larger factor in
reducing game enjoyment than I would have liked. Knizia's The Lord Of
The Rings is very heavy on theme, and considered by some to be more of
a puzzle than a game (I strongly disagree). However, I can think of
many fine looking, good fun Knizia games with very thinly pasted on
themes (eg. Ra, Medici). So there must be something to your question.
Tom: When you first designed 6 Billion, you went and showed your game
at the Essen fair. What were the effects of that?
David: Apart from negotiating Rio Grande Games as my distributor in
the USA, the only other effect was to make a minor splash in the huge
European games industry. It is incredibly hard for one-man,
independent companies such as Board Not Bored Games to compete in that
sized arena - especially when they're from far-off Australia! Still,
RGG distributed the game for quite a while, which created some
awareness of 6 Billion in the USA. Several hundred copies from the
2,500 produced were thus sold that I would never have been able to
Tom: After all has been said and done, would you have self-produced a
David: I'm glad I designed and self-produced 6 Billion, even though
there were some tough times. In some ways I wish I could do another
game, even if it meant self-producing again. However, I've gone
part-time in order to do some writing, so that's that for now.
Tom: Is there ever the possibility that we'll see a reprint of 6 Billion?
David: For the moment there's no need, as I still have copies
available. However, I'd love to see a version with a bigger board and
little rockets in place of the poker chip playing pieces.
Tom: What are some examples of terrific game design, in your opinion?
David: Wow, what a tricky question! Right now, some games that stand
out for me from a design perspective are El Grande, Tigris &
Euphrates, Elfenroads, Aladdin's Dragons and Robo Rally. On the
wargames front, games such as War Of The Ring, Hannibal, Storm Over
Arnhem, Squad Leader / ASL, Battle Cry / Memoir '44 (for playability)
and possibly Hammer Of The Scots (I've only just bought and played it,
so time will tell).
Tom: Do you prefer wargames or Eurogames more? Which do you play more often?
David: I really do enjoy both. In the past few months I've played War
Of The Ring, 7 Ages (3 player, all 7 ages in 46 hours. Man, I hate the
dark ages!), Hammer Of The Scots, HeroScape, LoTR: Tradeable
Miniatures Game, Naval War, Ra, Modern Art, Tigris & Euphrates
(online), Medici, Bang!, A House Divided, Lost Valley Of The Dinosaurs
(with my 5 year old daughter), Mag Blast, LoTR: The Confrontation,
LoTR: The Duel, Blue Moon, Game Of Thrones, Britannia, Titan: The
Arena, Take It Easy, Betrayal At House On The Hill and Doom. I've
probably missed a few, but that should give you an idea. Many I played
several times (eg. Ra, Mag Blast, Bang! and WoTR). Plus I'm playing in
PbeM tournaments for Paths Of Glory, Saratoga and The Russian Campaign
Tom: What's the boardgaming scene like in Australia, where you are?
David: Coming from a healthy Eurogame scene in England some ten years
ago, I felt I had stepped into the boardgaming Dark Ages. The clubs
were mainly into miniatures and RPGs. I remember going along to one
club with a big bag of board wargames, but nobody was interested. You
couldn't even buy Eurogames (which were mainly in German in those
days). So, I set up Board Not Bored Games to import games and
magazines from Europe. Around the same time a few of us started
Billabong Boardgamers, with a focus on Eurogames. These days it's all
quite different, though I tend to put that change largely down to Rio
Grande Games (and Mayfair to a lesser extent) producing many fine
Eurogames in English. With a couple of workmates I've started a second
games club - Gamers@Dockers - that plays mainly Eurogames, and others
have started to pop up too. Mind you, Warhammer is still - in my view
- excessively popular here.
Tom: What about games designed in Australia? Sunda to Sahul is the
only one I can think of off the top of my head...
David: There's a great deal more than that. The BGG GeekList "Wizards Of Oz"
provides a good overview. However, the two names that stand out are
Harry Rowland of the Australian Design Group (games include Empires In
Arms, World In Flames, and 7 Ages) plus older designs from John
Edwards of Jedko Games (games include The Russian Campaign, War At
Sea, Europe At War, and Fortress Europa - many later produced by
Avalon Hill)). Peter Hawes' Colonial Diplomacy is another Avalon Hill
game designed by an Australian. The best known Australian designed
game in Australia is unfortunately Squatter (a game I have never
played, and never intend to play).
"Wizards Of Oz" GeekList:
Tom: It still sounds like a majority of games are imported into
Australia. Does that raise the prices of the games drastically (like
it does here in Korea), thus hurting the hobby?
David: Yes, the situation in Korea sounds the same as it is here. Most
games are imported, making them much more expensive than they would be
in the USA or
Tom: Is there any cure for this problem? America used to have the
same problem, but then many companies in America started producing
games themselves. Can this happen in Australia?
David: In Australia only Jedko and ADG have really made a go of it,
and both focus on wargames. It would be wonderful if we had our own
Hasbro / Avalon Hill for example, but for the moment I can't see it
happening. We suffer from being so remote from the major game playing
populations - the USA and Europe. This impacts shipping costs to our
potential customers, and we don't have the population base to really
warrant major domestic production.
Tom: What advice would you have for aspiring game designers?
David: I designed 6 Billion because it relates to things I'm
passionate about. I find many budding game designers are similar. I
say - follow your heart and accept the consequences if success is
elusive, or else live with the regret of not trying. However, most
budding game designers that email me don't even seem to know anything
beyond games like Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly or Dungeons and Dragons.
They're convinced they're on to something big, something unique. I
recommend designers learn their trade, try some playtesting, and study
the market carefully as it has changed dramatically in the last
decade. Many have overblown self-assessments of their own game. My
personal '10' rating for 6 Billion is based on the fact that I am
always willing to play the game, and always enjoy playing it. That
doesn't mean I think it's a perfect game, couldn't be improved, or
appeals to everyone. Nor did I ever expect to get rich selling 6
Billion. At best, I hoped to break even, which I did. Some unpublished
designers believe they'll publish, get rich, and be famous. It's a
beautiful dream, to be realised by just a few rare individuals
worldwide. My dream was much more modest, but at least I lived it.
Remember - it's a tough environment in which to be successful. As game
geeks, we forget that most games are played by fellow game geeks who
are firmly in the minority. To sell 2,000 copies is success, unless
you get signed by a Hasbro. So, by all means try to design "the next
big thing", but balance your hope and creativity with realism. And be
careful of any expectations you place on friends and family. It's your
game, not theirs, so don't expect too much.
Tom: What are the advantages that board games have over computer games?
David: Approaching your question in reverse, there is no denying that
computer games have many advantages over board games. Set up time is
minimal, you can save your position in just a few clicks of the mouse,
the graphics these days are stunning, and networked and online games
are mandatory for any new computer game, so they're all playable
multiplayer and usually real-time. These days we also have boardgame
interfaces such as Cyberboard so that we can even play board games via
Personally, however, my preference is still for physical boardgames
played sitting around a table with friends. J.C. Hertz touched upon
this topic once in her Game Theory online column in the New York
Times. From memory, it went something like this. With computer games,
you interact by looking away, by looking into Cyberspace. With
boardgames, you are looking in, and the human interaction is so much
more natural and real. Also, I work in computing, and it is nice to be
able to escape via a low-tech mechanism such as a book, or a game.
Boardgames are tactile, and there is still something about rolling a
die or taking a card off a deck that appeals to me. I think because
I've done it so often, I even find it therapeutic (sad, but true) to
counters or tokens out of a new game. I like sorting counters or
pieces into bags. I love the smell of a new game. I like studying war
games, maps, and counters, to help try and understand the battle or
war being simulated. I also enjoy reading rules books (even bad ones),
and designer notes. I love it all, from top to bottom.
Tom: David, do you have any more thoughts to share with us - about
your board game, etc.?
David: One reviewer claimed that the population doubling / exponential
growth theme in 6 Billion was "pasted on". Nothing could be further
from the truth, though such comments are indicative of the general
lack of understanding of the exponential growth of populations. For
those interested, I explore exponential growth in more detail on my
Exponentialist web site.
This site aims to highlight and correct a simple but universal law of
nature of population growth first proposed in 1798 (imperfectly) by
Malthus, and misunderstood ever since (even by Darwin, who -
ironically - took consolation from the fact that if people could
misunderstand Malthus then they could also misunderstand him). It's
funny where game designing can lead you. I welcome genuine feedback
Putting all that aside, I encourage people to play 6 Billion as a fun
game that explores one optimistic future for our species as we expand
into our solar system.
Tom: David, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Any last
words for our readers?
David: Tom, thanks for the opportunity.
It seems to be a very exciting time in the boardgames / card games
world. I have around 600 games in my collection, and I keep buying and
trading to experience the apparently endless supply of quality new
games, or to add old favourites I've played but never owned. If I had
more money, I could still spend a small fortune. However, the key
thing is finding enough time to balance family, friends, work, health
and other hobbies (or in my case, obsessions). British wargames
grognard, author of two books on wargames, and (more recently) Labour
MP Nicky Palmer bemoaned the lack of hours in each day to satisfy his
hunger for games. I know what he means. I've been gaming for almost 30
years, and I'm still addicted.
"Real men play board games"