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Interview with Alexander Pfister, Designer of Great Western Trail

Some designers can claim back-to-back success in game design. Much fewer are those that are awarded the Kennerspiel des Jahres award two years in a row. Alexander Pfister (AP) is one of those designers. He took some time away from polishing his latest game, Great Western Trail, to answer a few questions from Controlled Area Gaming (CAG).

Great Western Trail BoxCAG: How did the idea for Great Western Trail begin?

AP: It must have been 5 years ago when I started the game. I wanted to design a game with a circular path and buildings giving you more and more possibilities over the course of the game. It starts simple with only few options but evolves over time. Right from the begining on it was set in America. Trading with Indians was included and you could hire staff.

CAG: The board looks like a long path with multiple challenges and opportunities along the way. Was this always the case?

AP: Actually yes. At first the map showed the southern part of the States. I also remember that you could buy oil wells. The cattle theme came later.

Great Western Trail Board RenderingCAG: The art for Great Western Trail is gorgeous. How often do you get to work directly with artists and make sure the visual tone fits the game?

AP: I agree, the art is fantastic. Kudos to Andreas Resch, who did a fantastic job. It’s mostly the publisher, who works with the artist. But that’s fine for me, as the artist is the expert on his field.

CAG: Mombasa has a great feel as far as being not too complex but having just the right balance of puzzle and player interaction. What’s the feel in this regard for Great Western Trail?

AP: Great Western Trail should be similar in this respect. All players erect buildings on the same path, so there is a lot of interaction in this respect. But this is less direct than in Mombasa. Your buildings influence all other player’s movement equally. There is also competition on the cattle and staff market, limited space for stations, interaction when you move your train etc. Still you can plan several turns ahead, something which is important for me because you have something to think about if it’s not your turn. Turns are very fast, move 1 to 3 spaces and perform the action there.

CAG: How has the Kennerspiel des Jahres win for Isle of Skye affected you creatively or influenced your work?

AP: After winning the first Kennerspiel des Jahres award with Broom Service one year ago, it was a big boost for my motivation. Publishers were more interested in my games. Knowing, that if you have a good game you will almost certainly find a publisher, was great. I was also very, very happy when Andreas Pelikan and I won the award again this year. Spiel des Jahres is the Oscar of the gaming industry with an independent jury evaluating all available games to find the best fit for two target groups: casual gamers and more experienced gamers. Winning it two times in a row is incredible. Nevertheless it’s the people for whom I design games. And I hope they like it and if they do, that’s what makes me happy and drives my motivation.

CAG: As a designer, what kind of games do you seek out to learn from?

AP: The successful ones ?. I play many games and afterwards I ask myself what feature did I like best? Or, why was this game such a success? I also test with new game designers and as general advice tell them to play a lot of published games.

CAG: As a gamer, how do you approach other games? Do you have a critical eye or are you able to simply play?

AP: When I play a game, indeed I sometimes see it from a designers point of view. But this does not prevent me from simply playing a game. However I might analyze the game afterwards.

Mombasa Play Close UpCAG: The game Mombasa handles a potentially dangerous theme in a brave and non-confrontational way. Are there other themes you feel are worth exploring?

AP: Thank you! By now I have always started with the core mechanic of the game, but tried to find a fitting theme as early as possible. When you have the theme it’s easier to enrich the game.

CAG: When playtesters give you feedback about your design, do you have a certain mental test for whether or not to keep or build upon that feedback?

AP: I like to see the emotions during playtesting. When is a tester frustrated, when happy. Every feedback is important and I keep it in mind. But not every feedback leads to a change. At the end I have to rely on my gut feeling – apart from mathematical balancing issues.

CAG: What is one game you would like to redesign and give it your own style or revision of rules?

AP: In my youth my friends and I played Acquire more than hundred times. We played with house rules and everybody loved it that way. I think it is a fantastic game. This would be a game I would love to redesign.

Controlled Area Gaming would like to thank Alexander Pfister for his time. Mombasa is also the recipient of Controlled Area Gaming’s Game of the Year Award for 2015.