Graduate success story: Vladimír Chvátil creates games for the whole world
Spiel des Jahres is a very prestigious German award, it’s almost like winning an Oscar. In Germany, board games are widely accepted as a normal leisure activity for adults.
If Vladimír Chvátil was a writer, he would be widely known across the Czech Republic as an internationally successful author. However, this graduate of the MU Faculty of Informatics scores all around the world in a different field – he creates board games. His next to last board game called Codenames sold around a million copies in thirty different languages and was recently awarded the prestigious Spiel des Jahres prize.
How is a board game created?
It differs from author to author and, in my case, also from game to game. Sometimes there are many months or even years before the actual development phase when I’m just thinking about the game while doing other work. I’m making up various mechanisms around the topic and combining them, imagining how the game would be played. Only when I feel that it would really be fun, do I start the actual work, which usually takes many months. Sometimes though, it’s an instantaneous idea that I implement in several days or even hours and it just works.
Where do you get your ideas?
Anywhere. You could probably say that what inspires me the most is unused potential. Maybe I’m playing a board game, not even a very good one, and I’m thinking that this could be done better. Or I suddenly think, how come nobody made a game around this topic yet? Why did nobody try to combine these mechanisms? When you like games and you think a lot about them, it comes naturally.
Who do you test the games on?
First, I test them on myself, if the type of game lends itself to that. I usually play a digital version on my computer screen with myself and tweak it until I’m happy with it. I respect my friends and don’t want to use them for testing something if I’m not sure that it works. That’s the next step – testing the game in my club, at board games events or lately, also with my wife and children. More complex games have to be played many times. I usually use the digital version for that; it makes it easier to collect data.
Just like in the case of comics, there is a whole community of people into board games. What are they like?
While I know a number of what you might call “geek” communities, board games are a much wider and probably more lasting phenomenon. Our board games club, for example, has been around for over twenty years. At its core is a group of people whose priorities, personal philosophies, life goals, and actually even their taste in board games have changed over the years, but they all still think it’s fun to meet friends over a board game. It’s actually much less weird than you perhaps imagine – previous generations used to gather to play whist or bridge. The main difference is that you don’t play the same game over and over again, but you can choose from dozens of them. Anyway, when you go to a public board games event, you’ll see normal couples, groups of friends, and families with children.
Can you make a living from creating board games?
That depends on how successful they are. Around a thousand games are published every year. Most of them fail and unless you are really into games, you won’t even hear about them. Several dozen make it and become familiar names to players – and those will almost certainly bring you a profit. If their qualities are at least a little timeless, they can be reissued and sold for years to come. And that will already bring you a decent living, especially if you have several games like that on the market. And then there are bestsellers that you will know about even if you’re not a player, such as The Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne. It seems that my Codenames will fall into this category as well.
What is it that makes or breaks a game? And what made your Through the Ages and Codenames so successful?
I guess it has to offer something that people want and that, if possible, has never been done this way. The two examples you mentioned are quite extreme. Through the Ages is a complex game simulating the development of mankind from ancient to modern times. Its main asset is the game system, which is sufficiently interesting and variable and, at the same time, covers the history of mankind from the pyramids to space flights. It’s not easy to learn and it’s certainly not a game for everyone. Codenames, on the other hand, has a really wide appeal, from inveterate players to people who don’t play board games at all. It’s more like a group activity. In fact, Codenames was not designed for the general public but has nevertheless been hugely successful. That was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t expect people, in general, to be so playful.
How does the board game business work? Especially with regard to the award that you received for Codenames in Germany – Spiel des Jahres, which means the Game of the Year.
There are several companies in the Czech Republic that look for the best games all around the world and publish them in Czech. Our company, on the other hand, publishes the games of Czech and Slovak authors for the world market – primarily in English, but we also have partners in a number of other countries who translate our games. In this way, Codenames has already been published in over 30 languages. As regards the award, it is very prestigious in Germany; it’s almost like winning an Oscar. For many years now, board games have been considered a normal part of the culture in Germany and are a widely accepted leisure activity for adults.
How useful has your degree in information science been in all this?
I must admit that my main reason for enrolling at informatics was that computers seemed like an interesting medium for games. And even though I don’t work in computer games any more, coding is useful for creating virtual game prototypes and for working with data when I develop games.
Games were also the topic of your diploma thesis. Was it a struggle to be allowed to choose this topic?
No, it was actually the other way round. It was the initiative of the late Tomáš Havlát, a very nice person who unfortunately passed away many years ago. Back then, he was the head of the informatics department. He just came to me and my friend one day and said, “Hey guys, you seem to be doing something with games all the time, would you like to write your thesis on them, too?” And that was it.
And why did you focus on board games rather than computer games?
Computer games were my thing for a long time and they have remained my hobby. I switched to board games for two reasons: back then, computer games were huge projects requiring dozens of people and a big budget. When this was the case, I couldn’t just do what I liked, people had to be paid and so it was necessary to conform to the market and follow commercial trends. But perhaps the main reason was that I really like board game players and it’s nice to work for someone you value and respect. I couldn't always say the same about computer game players. Nevertheless, for the last couple of years I’ve worked with a team who adapts my board games for mobile devices, so the circle is complete now.