A decade ago the non-profit association Czech Board Games captured ‘lightning in a bottle’ with the first edition print run of the heavy strategy game Through the Ages. Since, it has run an annual competition to get at least one outstanding design published each year.
I spoke to CBG’s Jakub Tešinský about the design competition, the Czech market and their latest success story, Shuffle Heroes. First, though, we started by discussing CBG's start.
“It was certainly a great start for us but a lot has happened since then and the market has changed a lot and we have changed as well!”
If we talk for a moment about Through the Ages, often when someone puts out a first title they’ll start with something small, a card game for example, they’ll take it slow. You guys began with a fairly complex, fairly heavy strategy game which made it big…
“It’s true and this is a part of what has come to define our association. Every year we run a competition to see a successful game design published and this hasn’t changed. And what makes us different is that we don’t place any limitations on the design. It can be a heavy game, it can be a family game, a children’s game. Certainly, Through the Ages was very special and it was an unusual way to start but we’ve kept that kind of approach alive.
“It is very positive because any game can be submitted; on the other hand, there is a drawback, which is that it appears we don’t have a clear line in our catalogue. So what we do is work with existing publishers where the design is a close match for the kind of products they put out.”
When you choose a winning idea for a given year, let’s say it’s a party game, you’ll approach someone specializing in games like that…
“Yes. It’s never as simple as it sounds, but the idea is for the game to be picked up by the publisher who can make the most use of it.”
You mentioned that the market has changed: has it become easier or more difficult to publish? I ask because there are quite a few Czech publishers now…
“It hasn’t changed that much in the sense that we are promoting domestic designs. Many publishers try to get the license for existing international successes, which is understandable. Our aim is to promote and successfully publish home-grown designs. The market is quite small and it is true that are only a few ‘adventurous types’ willing to try and publish new Czech games here. But it can be done. And that is the big aim of Czech Board Games. As a non-profit, we have the luxury that we can keep trying.”
In a moment we’ll talk about some of the games that you have put out after Through the Ages, but first: certainly the market is small, it can’t be compared to Germany’s, but is it growing?
“My personal feeling is that the market is much deeper than originally thought. Many people seem to be enjoying games now and I think it is still growing. On the other hand, there are many more games here than 10 years ago so it might be more difficult for companies to publish new games, so they should start small. One thing about the current period which is great is that we have long passed the hump where people didn’t know what board games were, where they thought they were just for kids. They know they are a form of entertainment like going to see a play or going to the cinema.”
I should mention that my two-year-old daughter is romping around here in the studio, so that listeners may hear a bit of her; as we speak she is examining the cards from a game which you published last year we will also talk about…
“She wants to play!”
As you said, a lot has changed… what percentage of the games market are the sort of hard core gamers playing heavy games which require a major time investment?
“Certainly in the Czech Republic they are a part of the market and that is great. But they are not the most significant part, which is the family, and family-style games. Hardcore gamers, more and more, as they also get older and have families, are beginning to realize that there are lighter games which are still fun, intelligent, deep and strategic even with shorter playing times. Lighter games can be clever and should not be seen as something ‘stupid’.”
Some of CBG’s past published designs… let’s mention a few, beginning with Insula, which was a fantasy-themed adventure game…
“Insula was very unusual and we were a little ahead of the curve or avant garde with it because it is a cooperative game before cooperative games were as popular as they are now. Cooperative games pit the players, together, against the game and they have to work towards a common goal or goals to win. So it was a little ahead of its time. A great adventure which also had elements of competition. After that we focused on party games with black humour. One of those was named Infarkt.”
Infarkt means heart attack and this was a game in which players have to choose between bad, not so bad or some good life choices, including getting exercise, eating well, eating poorly. I know it got quite a buzz on English-language sites where readers laughed that your persona in the game might feast on the Czech specialty tlačenka or head cheese. And of course the humour is black, as in ‘how to avoid a heart attack’.
“That was one of the interesting things we found out with some of the games in the party line. Some international publishers abroad liked the designs but admitted openly that they were too non-PC. That was surprising for me.”
Let’s talk about your most recent release, a successful title called Shuffle Heroes. This is a Czech design by Jan Vaněček. I have to admit that I didn’t know that CBG was behind this release, although I had heard about it.
“It’s an original design and one based on the idea of deck building if you know that style of games. But this is more of a deck de-constructor. Basically, we wanted to produce a very accessible game. It has a steampunk game, two players fight or duel and we launched it at Essen Spiel with great success. There were all kinds of couples playing and it caught on.
“The idea is to build a deck from two well-balanced decks chosen out of seven. Those cards form your side, your opponent picks their own. And then you face off. The backbone of the game is to keep an eye on what your opponent is doing and to target particular cards. If you have ever played a deck builder, you’ll know that some cards are kind of a neural point, which if you can eliminate one or two of them, the opponent’s whole strategy will begin to crumble or fall apart. So that is where some of the strategy and fun come from. And it is both strategic and tactical. At the same time, it was important for us to make the game simple so that it would be accessible to many players.”
The artwork is important in any game but I think also here to distinguish the different heroes and characters, those were done by several different artists.
“That’s right. There are seven heroes in the game, originally we were going to have seven artists but we had several but not seven in the end.”
A new selection process is just about to begin, so tell me a little bit about that.
“Next weekend we are going to have our first design meeting and everyone who has a game idea is welcome. The meeting is open to everyone but you can miss the first and still take part in follow up meetings later. So this is very exciting and it is always a nice feeling to start something new. So if you’re out there, come and talk to us.”
When you see a design for the first time, at the very beginning of the process, is there something that grabs you from the start?
“I’d say it is half-and-half. Half the time you see that there is something special in a game idea. It’s not always guaranteed that the idea will blossom, but there is a good chance. You have to work at it and see.”
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