Game designers Knut Happel and Christian Fiore on creating Ravensburger’s Minecraft: Heroes of the Village
Hi guys, it’s great to connect. Before we dive into Minecraft: Heroes of the Village, how did you find your way into board game design?
Christian Fiore: Knut and I have loved board games since childhood. We really enjoy role-playing games, and I think anyone that’s part of a role-playing group at some point writes their own role-playing game. So, one day we decided to create our own role-playing board game, but everyone told us “Oh, another fantasy role-playing game! There’ll be no market for that!” We soon switched and started looking at designing more classical board games.
We invented some games, went to Essen and were lucky that a publisher – Goldsieber Spiele – took our first game, Pecunia non Olet. I’m an illustrator as well as a designer, and I’d done some sketches for the prototype. The publisher liked the sketches too and so we did the artwork and the game design – it was published the following year. This was our start in the industry.
On that, do you still work in game illustration?
CF: Yes, I do work for companies like Ravensburger, Kosmos, Schmidt, AMIGO and so on. It means we have experience doing design work on other author’s games, as well as having good contacts at these companies to present our own designs to.
And how does this partnership between you work? How do you split ‘design duties’?
CF: It’s pretty organic. We both have our strengths. I’m more of a creative, while Knut handles statistics, calculating if the gameplay will work out fine. I’m the stomach and Knut is the brain!
Knut, the brains of the operation – not a bad title to have!
Knut Happel: That’s very nice isn’t it! We’re not usually this nice to each other!
CF: Billy doesn’t yet know when I’m making fun of you.
KH: Ha! But Christian is right, we do have different approaches. As a graphic artist, he is able to visualise things. As a law guy, I see the structure. A good example is one of our first games – Die Säulen von Venedig or Pillars of Venice. Christian said “Wouldn’t it be great to have a game where you’re building a city on the lagoon of Venice.” I said: “Yes, how would it work?” and he said: “I don’t know!” There was no real game mechanics in mind; the starting point was that it would be a cool setting.
CF: I get the cool job and he has to work out all the details! It’s great!
KH: I have all the Excel documents that tell me whether there’s an 86% chance of something happening in a game, but Christian doesn’t care about all that. He feels if it works and it’s fun, who cares about the percentages!
I’m sure some of our readers will share your Excel enthusiasm so don’t feel too bad! Now, let’s talk about your Minecraft game, Minecraft: Heroes of the Village, published by Ravensburger. How did this come together? Was it always a Minecraft idea?
CF: Ravensburger was looking for Minecraft board game concepts. They already had a very successful game – Minecraft: Builders & Biomes – and they wanted to extend the line with something that fit more in the family games space for younger kids.
I actually contributed to Minecraft: Builders & Biomes on the artwork side, so Ravensburger already knew I had a crush on the Minecraft brand… I like it very much!
Oh, you were a fan before this opportunity came up?
CF: Yes, we’re a Minecraft family! My son loves Minecraft, I love Minecraft and even my wife has started playing it. I’ve got it for the Xbox, for Android, for the iPad…
KH: He basically wanted some of the money back that he’s spent on the brand!
Ha! Are you a Minecraft fan too Knut?
KH: I didn’t have much of a connection to it to be honest. I’d stumbled across it before and wondered why it had those Eighties graphics! Christian told me that was intentional and part of the fun! So I wasn’t as deep into Minecraft.
Interestingly, out of the Ravensburger team that we worked with on the game, one was a fan like Christian and one was not too deep into the topic. That was useful as it helped ensure the game worked for both Minecraft fans and also just as a board game.
Were there any challenges in adapting the video game into a tabletop experience?
KH: Well, in the video game, the computer handles a lot of the stuff that you have to do yourself in a board game.
CF: And the exploration aspect of Minecraft was really important to capture in the game. In the video game, you start in the middle of nowhere, you have nothing and you have to explore the landscape and build up from there. That was our starting point for the game.
On that, how did you capture that feeling of exploration in Heroes of the Village?
CF: We have a bag where you pull out the blocks you need to craft and build buildings. For example, if you dig, you’d pull something out of the bag to discover what you’ve unearthed. We also have landscape tiles that you flip over to see which locations you’ve discovered. Both of these concepts helped capture that feeling of exploration and gave us the foundations of the game.
KH: The exploration angle initially disturbed me, but it meant we didn’t have to have a gameboard. You can do whatever you like. If you want to walk to the left, you can walk to the left! If you want to go to the right, you can go to the right! That’s normal in a video game but that’s not how a board game usually works. It gives players a lot of freedom, while also remaining quite simple to grasp. It really helps the game feel very Minecraft.
Does your approach differ much when designing a licensed board game compared to working on one of your original concepts?
KH: You get more input from the publisher, especially regarding the difficulty level. With a game like Minecraft: Heroes of the Village, it’s not up to us who the target audience is. Ravensburger would tell us when a rule might be too complex for the audience, so we’d simplify it.
CF: As with any licensed game, it’s about pulling everything together in a way that suits all parties. Mojang had thoughts about the game, Ravensburger had thoughts about the game and our job was to deliver a concept that satisfies everyone and a board game that worked well. In our experience, this process actually results in better games. The Ravensburger crew was fantastic and Mojang gave us a steer on keeping it on brand.
How do you guys have ideas for games? What fuels your creativity?
KH: I’m a history guy, so I might read a book and that might trigger inspiration for me. I like to play history-themed games. Christian is more of a sci-fi fan, so that triggers him. I also might encounter a mechanic in a game that I really like and want to explore in a different way.
Take Carcassonne for example. The basic rule of laying and connecting tiles to score points was done by Klaus Teuber in Entdecker. There was a lot of game around it, but the basic tile-laying mechanism was great. Then, four years later, Klaus-Jürgen Wrede used that basic mechanism and progressed it in a remarkable way in the hugely successful game, Carcassonne.
It was addition through subtraction in a way, because the mechanism there didn’t have all that extra stuff around it. We work in the same way, getting inspired by mechanisms and looking at how we can develop them.
CF: I’m inspired by stories, be it in video games, on the TV or elsewhere. I’ll watch Game of Thrones and think “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool to do a game with dragons…” It’ll provide a little spark of inspiration that will lead to a bunch of weird stuff…
KH: That’s when I’ll get an email from Christian listing all the ideas…
CF: And I’ll get an email back from Knut saying ‘Okaaay, that is a lot of ideas. But what do you want? Where are we going from here?’ But hey, our different approaches tend to complement each other!
Guys, this has been great. A huge thanks for taking time to chat and good luck with Minecraft: Heroes of the Village.
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