Interview with Alf Seegert and Musée

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pic2088837_t[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

Alf Seegert’s games came to my attention when The Road to Canterbury made to Kickstarter and, within 20 seconds, I had backed it. For three copies. Yeah… I liked it that much.

And then came Fantastiqa. And I also liked that game. A lot. A huge, massive lot of lots. And to top it up, Alf is one of the nicest guys in the industry. No. Nicer.

Now he’s again in Kickstarter with his most recent design, Musée. Another game with a unique theme, tremendous mechanics and tons of fun!

So I sent Alf a few questions in the hope that he’ll get the chance to answer them and, presto! here they are!

How long has Musée been in the making? I think you mentioned something when you were in the UK in 2013, but I’m not sure if you were already working on it.

Yes, I probably mentioned it when I visited last year. Our trip to the UK was actually formative in Musée’s development! The game has been in the works for about three years, under various guises, themes, and names.

You are known for original themes that are well reflected in the game play. How did this one start?

Not as a museum! Unlike most of my games, the muse of Musée appeared as mechanics first, theme later. For a long time I’ve admired card games with simple rules but complex and satisfying outcomes, classics like Reiner Knizia’s Lost Cities and Battle Line, and Mike Fitzgerald’s Mystery Rummy. I wanted a similarly engaging game, with equally novel mechanics and a theme that created something beautiful as each of the 60+ cards was played.

Originally I tried making it into a city-building game where each card was a different color of building and players competed to build the most compelling and colorful cityscape. Bonuses, earned by placing matching buildings adjacent to one another, or by completing a full street, were represented by bustling pedestrians, parks, and other urban improvements. It worked OK, but I felt like both the theme and the mechanics could be made better.

It was after touring the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last year that my wife and I realized that these game mechanics would work perfectly with a theme of displaying art in a museum. We first considered having different categories of museum objects like we saw at the V&A: teacups, dishes, furniture, etc. Later we decided to take advantage of the possibilities of library art and make all the game’s objects into paintings with various subcategories: landscapes, persons, architecture, animals, and water. Some of the artists in Musée (for example J.M.W. Turner and William Blake) were on special exhibition on our museum tours in London, so I’m especially happy to see them appear every time I play.

What are the mechanics of the game? How does it play?

In Musée , you compete to fill your three-story art museum with the most valuable arrangement of famous paintings. Players receive bonuses for displaying paintings of matching theme (suit) next to each other in the same Gallery, or by using connecting Staircases (tokens), whose pattern changes each game.

In a two-player game 50 cards are used: 10 cards of each suit, with each number between 1 and 50 showing a unique painting. You start with a hand of five cards (Paintings). On your turn, you remove one Painting from your hand and display it face-up in one of the three Galleries (6 spaces each) in your Musée and then redraw. It’s that simple. The beauty is, of course, in the details. Namely, you may place this card anywhere, so long as the Exhibit Numbers of all Paintings in the same Gallery increase in numerical order from left to right. Just as important, you can also score valuable point bonuses based on how you position Paintings in relation to one another:

  • Adjacent paintings of the same theme in the same Gallery score 2 bonus points.
  • Matching Paintings connected by a Staircase score 3 pts.
  • The first player to fill a Gallery with Paintings scores 4 points.
  • If you cannot display a Painting, you may not play any more cards for the rest of the game. The other players may keep playing until they can no longer display any Paintings!

When no players can play any more cards, the game is over: perform final scoring. The first player to win two games is the final victor. That’s it!

Have you borrowed from any of your other games to create this one?

I don’t think I borrowed any specific mechanics, but Musée feels a lot like Fantastiqa and The Road to Canterbury in that most cards have identical inherent value. Let me try to explain what I mean. In many games (say) a “7” card is always better than a card with a number lower than that. In Fantastiqa it didn’t work that way. Instead (say) the Spatula (Sword card) and the Cat (Tooth card) each have greater or lesser value depending entirely on what else is happening in the game. If you need to subdue a Dragon, then the Sword is very valuable; if you need to nibble through spiderwebs, Teeth are great for that. But if you need to subdue a Witch, these cards are no help at all! (You’d need a bucket of water instead…) The card values are thus all situational, but that doesn’t make their use random: you can work to collect the cards that you need to fulfill specific quests you’ve acquired.

Likewise in The Road to Canterbury, all seven deadly sins begin as equally valuable to a Pardoner who wants to pardon them for ready cash. But as the game progresses, Envy might become especially precious because a certain Pilgrim enjoys committing sins of Envy so much. Players can capitalize on Envy’s value by tempting this Pilgrim to sin ever further, taking the risk that the Pilgrim might die, or that other players will beat them to the pardon. A pleasurable tension ensues as you work to make certain cards valuable through the playing of other cards.

Musée follows this same model. The five different suits of art all begin equal but become more (or less) valuable depending on where you play them. I tried to sidestep one of the big problems of suit-matching games by not flat-out requiring a match or meld to play a card: a player may play a card anywhere in their Musée so long as all cards in that gallery increase numerically from left to right. But once (say) a green (animal) card is in play, it becomes important to find ways to place other green cards next to it. And doing so entails risks: each suit’s numbers increase in 5’s (green is 5, 10, 15…; gray is 1, 6, 11…), so acquiring good bonuses means taking the risk of not being able to place other cards in the proper sequence.

What is the bit of the game you’re the proudest of?

For a long time I’ve wanted to design a game whose rules could fit literally on a single page, and here it is. What some people call “elegance” in a game I call simplexity, which is the greatest amount of interesting complexity emerging from the simplest rules possible. Musée couldn’t be simpler: each turn you play one card and draw one card. But there’s a great deal of pleasurable anxiety involved in the commitments you make with every single card you play. Decisions are hard because there’s more than one way to score; each card you play functions like a “bet” on what the future holds for you based on the risks you take. Because you can see your opponent’s Musée and there is only one unique card for each number, the ratio of known to unknown information is well-balanced, resulting in neither chaos nor analysis paralysis.

Your work often goes around pieces of art publicly available, and yet I don’t think it’s just a money-saving manoeuvre. Why do you do it?

“Publically available” is a tricky term. Yes, several of my games have artwork for which versions exist in the public domain. But to access high-quality images and avoid liability concerns requires that an official curator be involved, so Gryphon Games pays to license all its images from Bridgeman Art Library. Designer Sean MacDonald and Gryphon Games together did much to spur this movement towards fine art in games via Pastiche, and I’m happy they did.

Although yes, using library art is not simply a money-saving tactic, it is especially useful when many images are required. I just don’t think it would have been affordable to hire an artist to create 60+ unique card images like Musée requires. It’s a small game and relatively inexpensive. And of course, when you have full access to a vast art library, you can pick from the very best: DaVinci, Raphael, Caspar David Friedrich, Monet, Van Gogh, Franz Marc, and Klimt for starters!

More important to me as a designer are the benefits that library art brings to my actual game designing. One thing I especially like about working with Bridgeman Art Library is that often the artwork inspires mechanics. For example, in Fantastiqa I wanted to transform deck-building mechanics into something more embodied and spatial, with players not just purchasing cards from a supply but subduing strange creatures and fulfilling quests that required that they actually go places. In so doing, I tried to follow the lead of fantasy writer Lord Dunsany from a century ago. For his classic collection The Book of Wonder he worked with artist Sidney Sime. Instead of asking Sime merely to illustrate his tales, he flipped the arrangement around and agreed to write stories based on a series of artworks that Sime would create himself. The result was a series of especially enchanting tales with such evocative titles as “The Injudicious Prayers of Pombo the Idolator,” “The Loot of Bombasharna,” and “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller, and of the Doom that Befell Him.” By letting Sime’s material images stir his imagination, Dunsany was kept from falling into a rut where stagnant mental patterns repeat themselves and each new creation looks just like the previous one.

On these lines, while working on Fantastiqa I stumbled upon a painting in the Bridgeman Library called “The Gentle Dragon,” which showed a friendly green dragon wearing an apron and serving tea. The moment I saw it, I thought: hey, that might be funny, a creature in your deck who doesn’t curse you or mean you harm, but who is simply (in game terms) useless because he’s too busy making tea to subdue other creatures or go on daring quests!

Existing artwork helped inspire mechanics in Musée as well. In early incarnations of the game, the three rows of cards were separated by city streets. Each row was a world unto itself. But once the theme was changed to fine art and I saw how different works of art looked together, I realized that each row could be treated as a separate floor of a museum, and that cards could connect with each other not just within the same gallery, but also between galleries via staircases. So I got rid of the boards I’d been using and substituted tokens that show staircases (connections) on one side and chandeliers (no connection) on the other. Their patterns change every game, adding a lot of variety. This simple change added enormous depth and challenge to gameplay, and helped make what was already a fun game into (in my opinion) something genuinely special.

How do you work with your publisher to make sure the game is as close as possible to your vision?

I’m fortunate to have such a good developer and publisher. Rick Soued and the others at Gryphon Games are fantastic to work with, and I feel like they genuinely honor my creative vision. Even if we don’t always agree on every point at first, the final product is something we all feel good about. Musée is my fourth game with Gryphon Games, counting the recently released game CUBIST, my recent co-design with Steve Poelzing. I’m happy to say that I have several more games in the queue with this same publisher!

What is the most frustrating part of the process of bringing a game to the public for you?

I’m somewhat of a perfectionist. I’m not a fan of showing people “works in progress.” I’d rather wait till everything is exactly right first: completed rules, completed art, etc. But the nature of Kickstarter is of course to raise funds to make all these things possible in the first place, so I have to learn to go with the flow!

And the most rewarding?

Having an idea become a playable prototype is nice. But witnessing a prototype become an actual published game with beautiful artwork and nifty components – a game world actually played, inhabited, and kept alive by thousands of people all around the world – that’s enormously satisfying.

For Musée I was especially pleased to see the final card design by Andrew Long. He made grand improvements to my own original layout. Between his fine graphic design on the cards and Pixel Production’s final version of the box and rules, I couldn’t be more pleased.

Finally, seeing such enthusiastic support on Kickstarter is certainly heartwarming! I owe an enormous debt of thanks to all the backers willing to support my games!

Once the game goes Kickstarter, what is your involvement in the process?

I check the Kickstarter page regularly, read over the latest comments, and reply as needed (focusing on questions about rules and design). The rest I leave to the good folks at Gryphon Games like Topher Speth, Ralph Anderson, Rick Schrand, and Rick Soued.

The Kickstarter is over… the game is going to be published… now what?

Yes! I was pleased to see Musée make its funding goal exactly 24 hours after it launched! And as of this writing it’s over double that. Gryphon Games has added some very nice stretch goals, including three thick cardboard Gallery Bonus Cards (showing three different versions of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers) and wooden Victory Markers to count each game won. They’re offering a free tuck-box version of Reiner Knizia’s High Society now as another stretch goal incentive if we make it to 25K. There are still a few days left in the Kickstarter, and after that it’s all printing and shipping – Musée should come out late this year or, at latest, early 2015.

As for “now what,” my co-design with Steve Poelzing, CUBIST, is just about to hit store shelves, along with the new Rucksack Edition of Fantastiqa and a whole bunch of new Fantastiqa gameplay expansions (there are now 10 expansions in total!). I’m excited to see how everything goes.

I’ve got several more board games in the works that I’m fine-tuning and polishing and I’m excited to share them. Thanks, Paco, for your very good questions and your continued interest in my games at G*M*S Magazine!


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