Interviews by an Optimist # 49 - Richard Garfield
- Interviews by an Optimist # 49 - Richard Garfield
Richard says this about himself...
"I was born in Philadelphia in 1963. My father's work in architecture
took us all over the world by the time we settled in Oregon when I was
12. I liked games and puzzles a lot through my early youth, but
calling them a passion at that time would have been an overstatement.
That changed when I discovered Dungeons and Dragons; a game which
radically stretched the bounds of what the game could be, and which
thrust the players into the role of game designer.
My reaction was a bit different than many of my peers; rather than
falling in love with Dungeons and Dragons I fell in love with games in
general. I began to seek out and play all sorts of new games,
traditional games, wargames, popular games, niche games, role playing
games, and on and on. When I found a game that I didn't immediately
like, I would play it until I learned to appreciate what it did for
its players. I studied games strategy books, and game history books. I
designed my own games and fantasized about being a game designer.
By the time I was in college I had come to the conclusion that game
design was not the place to stake out a career. After all, each day in
the newspaper there were movie reviews and bestseller lists, but
hardly anything about games. If games weren't even big enough to get a
bestseller list or review in the paper once a year, it must be pretty
small potatoes. This doesn't mean that I lost interest in games, if
anything my interest increased because it seemed like a fascinating
undiscovered country to me. While I liked many different academic
areas, combinatorial mathematics spoke to me strongest - possibly
its value in analyzing game mechanics. I planned my future, studying
and teaching math, with a hobby of game research and design.
During my first teaching job at Whitman College, my first published
game, Magic, took off. Magic's success gave me the opportunity to
pursue game design full time, which I took - despite the fact that it
meant giving up academics, which I was fond of as well.
For the next ten years I worked as the lead game designer for Wizards
of the Coast, the company that published Magic. Under them I further
developed the brand new area of games centered on tradable components,
I designed several more traditional games, I worked on several to date
unpublished computer projects, and I helped develop an R&D department
that used almost scientific methodology to design and develop games,
rather than simple intuition.
Currently I am an independent game designer living in Seattle, though
I still consult with Wizards of the Coast and even work on Magic from
time to time. Most of my professional time is working on numerous
computer game projects, though I still design board games, and derive
special pleasure from doing so. This is probably the pleasure of not
having to deal with a million people to get a prototype made and
Tom: I've read that you actually designed Robo Rally first but
couldn't get Wizards to publish it, until you had given them Magic.
Is this true?
Richard: Yes, it is true. RoboRally was designed pretty much to
completion in 1985 or so. I was not interested in the business of
getting it published - I would love to have gotten it published but
felt that it was going to involve LOTS of unpleasant work and may not
have been successful. One of the many fans of the game within my
circle of players, Mike Davis, offered to get it published for me, and
I agreed to give him half of the game if he took care of all the
business end of things.
Many years later, the game had been rejected by many companies,
usually on the grounds that it didn't fit into any of their game
lines. It had been accepted by a few, only to later be let go (FASA
was one such company - they wanted to make RoboRally into a Shadowrun
game, something I was not too excited about). Mike decided that if he
tried a start up company rather than one that was established, there
may be less baggage from existing lines. He found Wizards of the
Coast, which was far from an ideal company, being as it was committed
to role playing games, had no money, and was very soon involved in a
lawsuit. However, Wizards did show interest in RoboRally and agreed to
publish it when there was more cash, and asked if I could provide
something cheaper to produce?
While Wizards was far from ideal for RoboRally, but it proved to be
quite good for Magic, because it did have one thing in particular
going for it which was Peter Adkison, the President of Wizards. He
recognized the potential of Magic, recognized the tenuous position of
Wizards, and decided to publish Magic in a second company, Garfield
Games, which later merged with Wizards of the Coast.
Two years later RoboRally was published.
Tom: Roborally is finally being reprinted by Wizards of the Coast
this year. Are there going to be any changes to this edition?
Richard: There are minor changes to the new RoboRally. When the
project first began, I was asked about changes I would like to see and
those I wouldn't want to see. I kept my distance on the German version
of RoboRally and, as a result, I believe the game was over simplified
- something I didn't want to see happen again.
There was some simplification I did want however. For example, the
concept of "virtual robot" didn't contribute enough to the game to be
worth the confusion. Another example of simplification centered on
race construction. Designing racecourses took a lot more skill than I
realized - beginners would tend to make long and painful races. For
this reason we constructed a detailed set of official races. Of
course, players can still construct their own if they want to.
An addition that I think is being introduced is a timer, which adds a
bit of pressure to the play. There was some controversy over whether
to do that because, while a timer speeds the game significantly and
adds to the frenetic flavor of the game, it can simply move too fast
for some groups. For this reason I introduced a rule so that the
timing is somewhat customized to your play group - you don't actually
begin the timer until there is only one player left programming. That
way, a single player can't slow the game too much, and yet the overall
pace of the game is not too much faster than the group wants.
Tom: Does the new Robo Rally contain anything from any of the
expansions? And will it be compatible with the older sets of Robo
Rally, including the Amigo version?
Richard: I believe the past and present RoboRallys will be compatible.
That was not a goal in particular, but I believe it is the case
nonetheless. I have not seen the final draft of the game, but my guess
would be that this version would contain no board elements that did
not appear in the original set, and it may contain some option cards,
which appeared in
expansions, but it may not. So mostly I would expect a game like the
Tom: You're certainly most well known for your trading card game
work, but you've also done several board games. One of these is What
Were You Thinking?, a party game, and Filthy Rich, a game unlike any
other. Can you tell us about how you came up with the ideas of both
of these games?
Richard: It is should not be a surprise to find that most of my
personal design time has been devoted to standard fixed deck card
games and board games. After all, there was no such thing as a trading
card game until the 90's, and I had been designing and studying games
all through the 80's. Only a modest number of these have been
published, but I am constantly tinkering on old designs and being
inspired to try new ones.
Many times my ideas come from something in real life that I realize,
at its core, is a game. Filthy Rich was one such game - while in Hong
Kong I was looking down the long alleys, and I was amazed by the
density of the signs. As I walked down the alleys, big signs would
obscure the ones behind them, and those would obscure the ones further
down, and so forth. I immediately began to think of the "game" of
hanging signs in an alley, signs at the front of the alley are
desirable, since they cover all the other signs and are never covered
themselves. Signs at the back of the alley are desirable, because if
uncovered you can see them the entire length of the alley, while the
ones at the front disappear as soon as you pass them. From this fun
real life/game observation I began to tinker with the idea of making
the "alley" a binder with plastic card holders, and the making the
signs cards that were inserted in the sheets. In this way, signs could
cover one another or be at the front or the back of the alley - and it
modeled my observations in Hong Kong pretty well.
With "What Where You Thinking?" I was working on a party game for
Wizards when at a dinner some people began arguing over something,
like "What is the longest river in the world?" They resolved it,
ridiculously, through a vote. That set me thinking - what if that were
the way trivia questions were resolved? Pretty soon I had come up with
a prototype, called "Hive-mind". The fiction I made for it was that
the queen bee had been told that there was not enough food for the
winter, and so she had to determine which bees were to be booted from
the hive. To do this she administered a test, but naturally what was
valued on the test was not being correct, but thinking alike.
The resulting game seemed to have all the properties you could want
for a party game. It was quick and wild, and everyone thought they
could do well - after all you only have to think like everyone else,
right? Also the questions made for endless discussions, about what
people really thought versus what they chose to answer. There was even
ego-protection; if I were out of the majority, I could claim I was
just trying to think down to their level, or I could feign surprise
that they all got it wrong - I never have to admit I didn't know
Tom: When it came to designing trading card games, why do you think
Magic was and is so much more popular than others, such as Battletech?
Richard: There are a lot of reasons why Magic was the most popular,
and not just the obvious one - it was first. However, being first
can't be ignored with trading card games because they require a
network in ways that board games just don't. With a trading card game
there is an entire network of players needed to get started; and if
your audience is
already invested in one, the next is really hard to get going.
Another reason is development time. Hardly any trading card game has
had the luxury of two years of development. It makes a huge difference
to the quality of the product. And that isn't just initial development
time; Magic's success has allowed it the luxury of starting a
professional tournament which makes a pool of very talented technical
developers available. It has also allowed us to schedule and design
our expansions a long time in advance, allowing us to perpetuate this
quality of development rather than constantly being rushed to get
Speaking of the tournaments, there is nothing like serious play to
make a good game last a long time. Basketball is legitimized by the
NBA; and while many people play basketball casually, it would be
nowhere without the backbone provided by the players and fans who take
it seriously. The Magic Pro Tour allows players to advance as far as
they like in the game of Magic, and to take it as seriously as they
The original motif of Magic helps from a game perspective a lot. It is
impossible to optimize a game without conflicting with the license in
some way on a licensed property. So Star Wars, Battle Tech, Star Trek,
or any of the other oodles of licensed products that have been made
into trading card games are automatically sub-optimal, they have made
some sacrifice for the license in game play. Magic had no burdens in
this way, and for that matter, Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh had none either -
the flavor was really designed to drive the game.
Anyway - those are a few of the reasons that Magic has outlasted many
other trading card games, including all other ones of my own design.
Tom: What do you think of the fact that you are known as the designer
of Magic, but very few know about your board gaming accomplishments?
Richard: I have far more fame than I ever intended to have, and so I
don't really think about it much. I designed games as a hobby before,
not a profession - and I went into Mathematics research. Both those
two life choices demonstrate that I wasn't in particular seeking out
fame. And even today I still design games with no intent to publish
friends and family and my own curiosity.
Besides, I haven't had any real reason to correlate recognition with
accomplishments that interest me. Game designers I admire languish
unrecognized, and ones I find unexceptional get acclaim. I don't
believe this is simply because the recognition is "unfairly"
distributed, but also no doubt because what much of what I value in
game design are not factors that are widely appreciated. Perhaps one
day they will be, but
maybe not - if I were an enthusiast of a particular style of
literature, I wouldn't necessarily expect it to one day be widely
appreciated, nor would I think that its failure to do so meant that my
enthusiasm was misspent.
My drive these days is much more focused on computer games as well.
Computer games have interested me more and more as networking has
become a staple - opening the door to multiplayer games in ways that
haven't been available before. Also, while there are many games these
days in the boardgame space that interest me, there are very few in
the space of computer games, which is obviously a reflection of how
the computer is being used rather than what you can do with a
computer. Most player versus player computer games are more simulation
than game, and are far too skill and/or time intensive.
Tom: What are your favorite board games you haven't designed?
Richard: That is a really difficult question, any time I say a game 3
more will come to mind that deserve to be mentioned. Also, board game
could be interpreted a lot of ways.
For traditional games, I would choose poker. If I were forced to have
a board, I would choose go.
For designed games I would choose Dungeons and Dragons, in my mind
nothing comes close to D&D for innovation in gaming in the last 30
For designed games with a board I would have to choose Titan or Cosmic
Encounter. The first if time is not an issue, the second otherwise.
Cosmic had many innovative features, which have inspired me in my game
design. Titan is the only game I ever quit playing because it was
eating up too much of my time.
For games in recent history I might go with Carcassonne. I play a
variant of my own design, but the base system is flexible, accessible,
Tom: What would be your response to those who are irritated about the
"collectibility" aspect of Magic the Gathering?
Richard: At some level I certainly understand the reaction. I created
the genre, and yet there is no game I typically less like to look at
than a "collectable" game. That is not because I don't like the form
of game; in fact I like it an enormous amount. It is because of the
effort required to learn whether they are worth playing.
Many folk I have known can and do sidestep the issue with Magic by
treating it as a board game. They purchase as much as they want, then
they draft it with their friends, or draw off a common deck, or
construct several decks, which they give to people who want to play.
When the play session is done, they take back their cards, thus they
a game, which is meant to be a distributive system into a more
traditional centralized system.
On the other hand, criticizing magic for it's collectable nature is
like criticizing Poker for being "played for money", or Starcraft for
being "a computer game". Customizing your deck in Magic is intrinsic
to its design and a large part of its appeal. It is nice that some
players can work around it as mentioned above, but while it may not be
everyone's cup of tea, there is an enormous amount being offered by
distributive game systems.
Whenever I return to a game I know very well, like bridge or poker,
and play it for the umpteen millionth time, I get a whole new sort of
pleasure that I don't get when playing a different board game every
week. That is the pleasure of a game system that is deep, that I know
well, and which becomes better and better the more you know it. The
vast majority of the board games I play don't stand up to that sort of
replay; and even when they do, it is hard to find the players that
will explore that really satisfying level with you. Yet at the same
time I am driven to new games because I love exploring new systems.
For me the distributive game system like Magic is another way to
approach this. I can become good at Magic and know it well, and yet
every time I return to it, it is a different game in a very real
sense. When I return to poker after a hiatus, I have the pleasure of
re-familiarizing myself with old skills. When I return to Magic, I
have the pleasure of re-familiarizing myself with old skills, and
using them to explore a new land.
I don't expect players who strictly play the new game of the week to
appreciate this benefit. But any player who likes new games, yet gets
such pleasure returning to an old favorite that they inevitably wonder
why they don't play it more - that player should understand at a deep
level the benefit offered by a game system like Magic.
Tom: How much input do you have into the current expansions of Magic?
Richard: I work on an expansion about once a year. I go into Wizards
on a weekly basis, and give feedback on the sets they are working on.
The next set I did an extensive amount of work on is the one coming
out in September, and I don't even know its name, since it wasn't
chosen when I was working on it. It was codenamed Control though from
It is a lot of fun working on the sets. There is no end of really
different environments that can be created, and there is a huge and
dedicated audience that will appreciate it.
Tom: How did it make you feel when certain cards were first banned
from tournament play?
Richard: I was certainly used to it by that time, people had been
banning cards - or providing their own modifications since before the
game even came out. And, in fact, that was my intent. I wanted there
to exist cards that people really loved - and that goes hand in hand
with cards that people really hate. I did not want a tepid game in
which everything was merely okay. Chaos Orb screams for house rules.
If >I< were running a
tournament I would have banned Schahrazad. The cards were meant to be
interpreted to meet the needs of each playgroup.
As Magic became positioned more as a serious game, we had to take more
responsibility for balancing the game and making sure the cards were
interpretable in only one way. Before that balance would be imposed by
individual player groups, and multiple interpretations of a card
weren't a disaster.
Even today though, I am not disappointed with bannings, provided they
don't get out of hand. The game system is so rich and interconnected
that I can say with certainty, if cards aren't ever being banned then
the development team is not taking any chances, and so the game will
be less innovative and exciting for the player.
Tom: Are you currently designing any games now?
Richard: I am working on a number of computer game projects, in each
to some degree I am trying to bring something of the long and rich
history of paper games. I have been involved with many of these
projects in the past but none have come to fruition yet, which I blame
on the combination of the general expense of computer games coupled
with the fact I am trying to do things that haven't been done in the
field before. This has caused me to both look for more adventurous
partners, and also to be less radical in my designs. At this point the
most likely game to appear is an online game for Microsoft, over a
year from now, but it is still too early to give any details on it.
As far as paper games go, I am always designing games for myself and
occasionally am moved to shop a design around. Currently I have 4
games in the hands of European publishers, which they have expressed
interest in, but haven't committed to, one game in the hands of
Winning Moves, which is all but committed to, and two games in the
queue at Wizards of the Coast, which are committed to.
At this point the only game I feel comfortable commenting on is a game
Wizards is publishing next year for Avalon Hill. It is fairly standard
European formula for a game, players are bidding for regions, and
score based upon the combination of regions they control at the end.
These games often involve far too much calculation and memory for me,
however, so I have tried to introduce more luck into the system, and
to use that to make the game move faster and be less work to play. If
done correctly, I believe games with a lot of luck can still satisfy
players looking for a skill testing game; just look at Poker. Another
non-standard feature I have brought to the genre are some metagame
modifiers, that is, some rules changes to each game to make it a bit
different each time. In my experience this technique can make a game
fresh for a long time. In a nod to the genre, which is so often set in
a city - preferably a European city from before the 19th century - or
better yet a city on the spice route, I have set this game in a future
city. I am not sure what the final name will be - something like
Futureville or Rockettown.
Tom: What are your thoughts on the collectible miniatures games that
were obviously inspired by Magic?
Richard: I enjoy seeing the theme of Magic propagate, both to
collectable games and non-collectables. The miniatures in particular I
admire more from afar, because, while the addition of sculpted
miniatures is an obvious plus to some, to me it takes away from a lot
of the utility of a card. The extra text space, the natural
randomization, the compactness, the hidden information - these are all
things that bring me personally back to cards each time.
Tom: Of all the collectible card games that are in competition with
Magic, which do you think has (had) the best design?
Richard: I don't want to laud or criticize specific trading card games
since I am employed by Hasbro specifically for trading card games -
and also any criticism will seem self serving. I don't feel that way
about other game forms since I am not nearly as well known outside the
TCG, and I have no specific agreements with anyone regarding them.
That said, I would be happy to tell you some features I like and
dislike in trading card games, and readers can interpret them as they
It is vital that trading card games not be long. A large part of the
appeal of the games is that when you replay them with small changes to
your components that they play very differently. If my time is
exhausted after one game then I can't really appreciate that.
Gratuitous complexity is a rampant problem with trading card games.
When I look at a card, I don't want to see a lot of attributes that
matter only one game in 1000, or conditional effects that are minor
and seldom come up. This is one way to produce the number of cards you
need for a trading card game, but not a good one in my opinion.
I like it when single cards can make a large difference. This makes it
so I really feel it is worth my time constructing the deck. In a
related vein, I vastly prefer games that have some simple heuristics
for making decks, the heuristics won't be optimal, but they get me
started. There are some games, where I have absolutely no idea how to
build a deck with
a particular strategy in mind.
One final note, as with most games I want to see enough luck that the
worse deck, or worse player can sometimes win. This drives me to play
again even if the players don't change their deck.
Tom: I feel that deck-building is more than half the game when
playing a TCG. Is that the way you intended it?
Richard: Certainly the effect of building a good deck versus playing
well will vary from TCG to TCG. I designed Magic not with a particular
balance in this regard in mind, but with flexibility in mind. I know
playgroups that favor sealed deck, or draft, or limited leagues, or
even common deck play; and in all these formats deck construction is
less important than in standard or extended Magic. In common deck
play, where all players draw from a common deck, deck construction it
is nonexistent - at least as a competitive component of the game. When
I choose a format to play, I do so partially on how much time I want
to invest in the deck construction portion; sometimes that leads me
to one format, and sometimes another.
Certainly, however, there is no better way to get people involved with
the rich play experience of designing a deck than to make it extremely
relevant to the play, so in that regard I was certainly trying to make
deck construction critical. And in fact it is a marked flaw of some
TCGs that I have played that I have no interest in designing the decks
a game or two; these may be fine games, but they don't need to be
trading card games.
Tom: How much playtesting do you do with your games, both board and
Richard: If left to my own devices, I will playtest a board game
indefinitely. A publisher's pressure is typically needed for me to
finish playtesting. Occasionally I will come up with a design that
really just falls into place with very little playtesting needed. My
typical design pattern, however, is to work on a game for a few weeks,
playtesting often, then
to put it away for a few months. After it has sat, I can return to it
and with a less biased eye tell what can go and what really the heart
of the game is. This pattern can be repeated indefinitely without the
pressure of a publisher.
A trading card game, however, is a different story - these always
involve endless playtest even with publisher pressure. I would
estimate that getting a trading card game to a comparable spot a board
game would be at, development-wise, takes about 100 times the amount
of playtest. It is vastly harder to balance a game where people can
choose their own components, and make the card mix as rich as the
rules system will allow.
Tom: Do you think a game with the popularity of Magic is even
possible these days?
Richard: One of the most beautiful things about a good game is that it
gets better and better the more you play it. My tenth game of go is
better than my first, and my hundredth is better than my tenth. I
believe this is why historically places will have only a few regional
games - normal players have to be really bored with the old game
before the new one has any appeal; and if that game is good, it may
So new games of huge popularity are always going to be rare. This
formula is very different in games with exhaustible content, as most
computer games have been, since being bored of the game is built into
the design. New player versus player game designs fight a battle
against old games that isn't nearly as biased in favor of the new as
competition is in movies or books.
That said, of course I believe games of the popularity of Magic are
possible. Pokemon and Yugioh both outsold Magic, and though they may
prove not to have the enduring appeal of Magic, Magic will have to
sell a very long time to catch up. And outside trading card games I
would be the last to predict there is nothing new left to discover
that could change all the rules. In computer games in particular I
strongly believe that is the case, but innovation is very slow in such
expensive, hit driven fields.
Tom: Richard, thanks for taking the time to complete this interview!
Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
Richard: I am happy to help, thanks for the interest. I have nothing
further to add at this time.
"Real men play board games"