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Interviews by an Optimist # 33 - David Coutts

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  • Tom Vasel
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2005
      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
      computer geek.

      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
      sell otherwise.

      Tom: After all has been said and done, would you have self-produced a
      game again?

      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
      (4th edition).

      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
      punch the
      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
      and questions.

      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.

      Tom Vasel
      "Real men play board games"
      May, 2005
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