Interview: Peer Sylvester, Designer of The King is Dead & Brian Boru

Peer Sylvester, designer of The King is Dead, Brian Boru and The Lost Expedition joins us today to talk about his career in game design.

Note: all images courtesy of Osprey Games, except where noted.

DM: Hi Peer, many thanks for joining us today. Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a game designer?

Hi! I’m a teacher (math and chemistry) from Berlin. In 2003, I lived for about 15 months in Bangkok and back then there were absolutely no boardgames there apart from checkers and chess. Having played boardgames my whole life, I started to do a lot of ‘Print and Play’s, but also had some ideas of my own. Back in Germany, I moved from Hamburg to Berlin and met designer Günter Cornett there who introduced me to the Berlin game design scene. Now I had ideas AND a way to playtest them!

Peer Sylvester

DM: You are now well known for designing The King is Dead, Village Green and The Lost Expedition, however, you designed many games before these. Can you tell us about some of those early games and how you eventually ‘broke through’ into the wider public consciousness?

I had a lot of ideas and I tried out a lot of stuff in my early days. The first published games were some abstracts from Hiku: Monochrome and Bamogo. Hartmut Kommerell, another known game designer from Berlin told me, that Hiku was looking for small abstract games, so I developed them with that goal in mind.

My time in Bangkok introduced me to Thai history and I was intrigued by the question, why wasn’t Thailand (or Siam, as it was once known) colonised? That thought process eventually developed into King of Siam, the predecessor of The King is Dead. I met Richard Shako from Histogame at the Göttinge game designer meeting and he agreed to publish this game. Since we both live in Berlin, we played other prototypes together as well. I introduced him to Wir sind das Volk and he really liked the idea and helped me develop it, with his involvement growing so big, that we decided to be co-designers of the game.

At this time, I mainly worked with smaller publishers, so internationally I was not known. In Germany I think I was mainly known as a boardgame blogger.  Then in 2014 Duncan Molloy contacted me, because he wanted to make a new edition of King of Siam, which was well liked by the people who knew it. Obviously, I agreed and that established a friendship and the connection with Osprey, who have published a lot of my games so far.

DM: The King is Dead, has now seen two editions and was based on an earlier game. Can you tell us about how this game has developed over the years and what you think is the reason for this game’s enduring popularity?

King of Siam worked pretty much from the start. I only changed the four-player game to a team-based game because playtesters felt there was too little control against 3 opponents if you are on your own. In development, we added the home provinces, but apart from that it plays pretty much like the prototype. The King is Dead changed the board and the starting cubes are now random for more variety. I added the Mordred variant, for seasoned gamers who want to try out something new.  To be honest, I’m not a hundred percent happy with it, but it does work, just not very reliably.

The new edition has, yet again, new art, map and setting. The number of ties for the neutral force to end the game has been reduced to three to make this more of a threat. And instead of Mordred you now have new cards that you can exchange with basic actions. I like this new card system – we had a lot of brainstorming what a possible expansion could do and this is the idea that stuck, although of course this is a new edition, not an expansion.

Also, the anti-kingmaker rule from the original was scrapped sometime along the way: Originally you could only play the very last card in the game if you win with it. This only affected the three-player game and was quite clunky and most groups would not run into problems without the rule, so off it went.

I think what people like about this game is that it puts a lot of strategy in a relatively short, dense game. There are not many rules, so the game is quite elegant, if I can say so myself. People like elegant games. And it’s very direct, your actions have immediate consequences for everyone.

Peer Sylvester
Pic: Tjark Schoenfeld

DM:  The Lost Expedition is a solo/co-operative game of jungle exploration known for its degree of difficulty. Can you tell us more about the design and development of The Lost Expedition and how you approach setting difficulty levels in a game design?

I’ve read David Grann’s “The Lost City of Z and really was inspired by the story of an adventure crew going into the jungle, not knowing what they may encounter. Exploration games are a bit tricky, because of the uncertainness of what to expect, but you want to be able to prepare for the worst things. For inspiration I scrolled down my “megafile of loose ideas and concepts”, which contains all my ideas that haven’t been made into working prototypes yet.  One idea just read “Kramer’s Take 5 as a co-op” and I thought that would be a good motor for the game. During the design process we noticed that the simultaneous card selection just isn’t very satisfying, but apart from that you can see the remnants of the original idea.

In terms of difficulty, it’s mainly playtest with a dose of mathematics. To avoid really bad draws I tried to make an advance symbol on every third card, if I remember correctly. Then I researched what encounters could happened and tried to translate them into game terms. And then it was just a matter of playtesting and tweaking a bit. I think a game feels right if you have the feeling, you almost made it most of it the time, with about 20% successes and 20% epic fails, but where the numbers improve when you play more often.

But to be honest, its mostly gut feel….

The Lost Expedition was reimplemented as Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth

DM: Village Green is a card-based puzzle game in the easy to learn, challenging to master vein. How do you approach the design of a ‘puzzle’ game?

This mainly started because I wanted to develop a garden game for my mum. I had the idea with the three different flowers in three different colours ages ago, but it never worked as a game, until I had the idea that, instead of just showing scoring cards, you play them in your garden. Then it was mainly a thing of removing the rule overhead. I playtested a lot with my mom and every time I realized things were too complicated for her taste, I streamlined things. Luckily the core is what makes this game shine, and it doesn’t need any additional ideas.

So again, the solution to everything is “playtesting” and “gut feel”. I’m sorry, I can’t be more helpful than that! When designing, I ponder an idea for a long time and think what I can do with it, If I have ideas, I’ll implement them, if not, I write them down. That means that some ideas spend a long time on my “megafile” and maybe are used for something, I haven’t anticipated before.

DM: North American Railways has been described as an ‘18XX’ game without any tracks or a map. Can you tell us about the game and why you decided to focus purely on the economic aspects of a ‘Railroad’ game?

It was kind of a challenge to myself.  I’ve read about a different game (I cant remember which) being described as “18xx the card game” and stopped reading to think “How would I approach this? How can you have some sort of topology without a map? How can you make the stock market interesting? If you remove the track building (or simplify it a lot) in an 18xx you automatically get a hardcore economic game.

My design process is driven by curiosity: I’m interested in things that haven’t been tried before and I like to see where my ideas end up. That can be a theme or a mechanism or a combination of games, to cross X with Y”, or like in this case “How to do an 18xx without a map?”

Brian Boru

DM: Your latest game is Brian Boru: High King of Ireland, a trick-taking based Euro with an historical theme. Can you give us any more details?

The idea of designing a game about Brian Boru was long in the making, but my first ideas didn’t work at all. One day on my way to work I pondered the question: “What if you play a trick taking game and every card you play determines an action you are doing on a board? This idea fitted quite well with Brian Boru because he not only gained power by winning internal rivalries, but also by fighting the Vikings, by marrying off various family members and working strongly together with the catholic church. These three things became the suits.

Now development took quite a long time, because things were taken in and out, but what remained (and still remains) is that it doesn’t feel like a trick taker. The card play is just the way you do things on the board, while also competing to win influence over a city (which you do by winning the trick). In this game everything is quite connected with each other. In its totally I probably would describe it as a thematic Eurogame with a lot of variability.

DM: Now that you are an established designer with a portfolio of published games behind you, have your strategies for dealing with success and disappointment changed?

It still feels kind of weird to think myself as a “well known designer” who has “fans” to be honest. I’m very happy – after all, making games that people like brings me joy – but I can’t really wrap my head around it

Getting noted by publishers is definitely easier now, so its easier to find a publisher for games – but I still get rejected a lot. That’s just part of it, you do need luck to find the right person at the right time and also maybe some rejections are for the better as well. Luckily as a teacher I have a very stable day job and I’m not dependent on my games, so I can take rejections in strides. 

I’m still kind of nervous when a game of mine launches, hoping it does well and dreading that people think I’m a hack and never look at my games again. I still try to look into every review I come across though, just to see how people react to my game. If there is criticism I try to see if I understand it and divide it into “yes, that’s fair” and “that person is completely wrong” (not really being serious there).

DM: Throughout your design career, your games have featured a wealth of different mechanics and themes, everything from garden design to erupting volcanoes to stocks and shares. What do you feel is the common thread throughout all your games?

That’s a difficult question! Probably “Full of hard decisions with little rule overhead”.

For me decisions are at the centre of most games. In Village green you have to make the decision where to put your cards. In The King is Dead every time it’s your turn you have to make the ‘do or pass’ decision and it’s always hard. I think most of my games feature hard decisions of some kind.

I also design game “from bottom to top”, i.e. start with the core and extend around the core until I have a working game that does what I want it does. Other designers try to fit a lot of stuff into their game and those games have more rules overhead (Im not saying my way is better – that’s a matter of taste and what your goal is, I’m just saying, my games have less rules).

DM: Finally, do you have any advice for new designers looking to begin their design career?

Write everything down! Everything! Every idea for setting, theme, concept, or mechanism. If you have time, you can develop those, if not, or if you don’t get an idea how to make it work, you can let it rest and maybe you can use it for a later idea. The economic system of Wir sind das Volk started as an abstract game, that didn’t work on its own. Without my megafile, I probably would have forgotten about it. For more complex games you need more mechanisms, and its good, if you have a “pantry” that you can visit for them.

But more importantly: design, what you like. It’s hard to motivate yourself if you are not fully convinced about an idea. Design games, that you would buy yourself. That must be the yardstick! This way, even if things don’t go your way, at least you made a game, that you like. That’s worth a lot.