Czech Life Petr Bělík – Former TV journalist turned game designer – Part 2
Two weeks ago in Czech Life we met former TV journalist Petr Bělík, known for his work on the programmes Obcanské judo and Víkend at commercial broadcaster TV Nova. Highlights included how he became the first reporter to train with the country’s rapid response force, as well as how difficult they made it for him to smash down a barricaded door. Today, we move on to what Petr is doing now which is game development and design, a surprise move into a new profession in which he has so far excelled.
“I know it is going to sound funny when I say that I ‘always loved games’. When I was eight or nine there wasn’t much available on the socialist market in former Czechoslovakia: the only game most people knew was Dostihy a sázky, a Czech take on Monopoly in which you acquire racehorses. It wasn’t satisfying if you had any kind of imagination and early on my brother and I began inventing our own variants and rules.
“As an adult, I learned around 2003 that we were in a kind of vacuum in which games like Monopoly were considered ‘modern’ although that design concretely dates back to something like 1935. What I didn’t know at the time was that the field had moved on and gradually I learned about the market in neighbouring Germany where games had made big advances.”
The hobby enjoyed a boom in Germany in the mid-1990s and onwards, thanks in no small part to a slew of clever new titles including the seminal Settlers of Catan, that boasted shorter play times and interesting player decisions. Games were aimed not only at families or children but also at hobbyists, many of whom had grown up playing monster-style American games of conquest or civilisation in the 1980s but largely moved on to computer games. Cardboard came back in a big way: more fun, more accessible, and available to a broader audience.
Of course, board games will probably always be a niche hobby, so for casual observers it remains surprising that thousands of titles are released each year in Europe as well as in the US. Arguably, the most important month of the year is October in Essen, Germany, home to Spiel, the largest games fair in the world that annually draws more than 200,000 visitors. If you visit, you can find games about everything under the sun: from adventure and fantasy to fashion design, from drugs trafficking in Central America to building evil lairs with your evil necromancer underground. Almost anything can be done. Petr Bělik again:
“When you discover the possibilities, including the Mecca that Germany represents in this field, the hundreds of different games that are put out every year, it can be overwhelming. You find out that the possibilities are endless, that hundreds of different ideas exist and that almost anything that occurs to you has – or can have – a game equivalent. I found that very inspiring. Every year there is a thousand new titles and when I learned this I became a dedicated gamer.”
According to Bělík, chance played a large role in his eventual departure from TV to becoming head developer and designer for a newly-launched Czech brand, Stragoo Games. Stragoo has now released several titles on the Czech market, none arguably more successful than Mafia City, which was released in time for Essen last year. The game plays in roughly an hour, with 3 – 5 players taking on the roles of Prohibition-era gangsters vying for control of a big American city. Designer Petr Bělík:
“Thematically, you are the head of a mafia family who is trying to gain control through any means possible and all possible routes. As it happens, you might have the town’s mayor ‘in your pocket’ and he can help you in certain ways. Or you may try to pay off a federal agent. Another player may be in control of the police force and they try and use that against you. Throughout, you try and maintain a balance and slowly increase control so that the scales tip in your favour and you are left in top spot by the game’s end.
It didn’t take long for Mafia City to garner plenty of positive response. While there were bigger hits from the biggest players in the field at Essen least year, Mafia City did very respectfully and has since gained plenty of attention among players and regular visitors on the Czech Republic’s most-visited board game sites. And while some local shops underestimated the initial interest and for a time sold out, Mafia City is now back on the shelves and continues to do well. What does Petr think are some of the secrets to its success? He points to theme: successful games allow players to immerse themselves in a role for an hour or two.
“Theme for me is the most important thing. I think that everyone will eventually have to focus more on theme in the future. The reason is that there are so many games now to choose from and theme, if nothing else, can set them apart. If you go to a game store you might see 50 games on the shelves. And that is just a tiny sliver of what is available.
“Nowadays it is getting harder and harder to attract new players and if you can, the better your title will do. Another important aspect is simplicity: in Mafia City I wanted a game that wasn’t hard to play but intuitive. You try and put yourself in a gangster’s shoes and feel that you’re taking certain actions, not just throwing down cards with different number values to trump the other players.”
As both a game designer and as a games player, Petr Bělík prefers realistic themes as opposed to something invented: he doesn’t incline to the ‘I hit it with an ax’ school of design, Dungeons & Dragons-style games where heroes must defeat a two-headed dragon, for example, or some other evil baddie. He likes his topics serious and anchored in reality, although he puts it quite humorously:
“I think I am different in this from some designers: I don’t really like games which employ faux-humour such as ‘Oh, the little elf has broken his leg, help him find a crutch’. I mean, I like laughing during games, but from the situations that arise. I dislike caricatures when used in the art in games and I also can’t pretend I’m a dwarf for an hour.
“I need games to be based in reality, which have some kind of economic engine and themes based on the real world, whether it’s business or farming or whatever. I can’t play a game where the UFOs have landed. I find that boring and unnecessary.”
That led me to ask him what was next for Stragoo and here is one of the designs that might get released at some point in the future, certainly something to look forward to and we wish him and his team the best of luck. Petr Bělík again:
“It is still very early days but we would like to develop an epic title, complete with accompanying film trailers to attract our audience. It should be based on Czech and Moravian history and legend, featuring mazes and secret castles and so on, with the primary anchor being history.”
For more information visit www.stragoo.cz