Vlaada Chvátil – Designer of Through the Ages and Mage Knight

Vlaada Chvátil, photo: Czech Television

When it comes to game designers you would be hard-pressed to find one more successful in recent years than the Czech Republic’s Vlaada Chvátil. Six years ago, the Brno-based designer made his mark with a civ-building board game called Through the Ages and since he has produced a slew of successes including titles like Space Alert (where players have to cooperate aboard a space vessel in trouble) and his newest game (released by the US company Wizkids) called Mage Knight. It’s a niche hobby but within it the designer has earned international recognition and success.

Vlaada Chvátil,  photo: Czech Television
As a student Chvátil studied computer programming and his thesis project was a computer game design. As a professional, it’s no surprise then that he first made his mark in the video games market. But the drive to design board games, he says, was always there – projects he came up with for kids in what was the equivalent of a local scout chapter. The Brno Games Club which goes back 20 years has also always been a touchstone for projects, then and today, where new games are tried and tested by the designer, together with acquaintances and friends. Vlaada Chvátil himself told me more on a line from Brno:

“For me the Brno Games Club is very important, a place where I can meet with people, people who like games, friends. It is much for fun to be able to create games for people I know, to see their reactions, so for me this club is definitely very important.”

In hobby gaming, there are two main schools of design: so-called euros – games with shorter playing times and shorter rules sets that emphasize strategy over luck, and the American school (or Ameritrash as it has come to be known in recent years) offering more complex narratives, longer rules and playtimes and more immersive play. An example of a now classic ‘euro’ would be Germany’s answer to Monopoly The Settlers of Catan (which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide since 1995 and has been translated into 30 languages).

A famous American-school title (by Italian designers Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello) is War of the Ring, where Tolkien’s hobbits make the difficult way to the land of Mordor while hoards of plastic armies of orcs and trolls sweep across the board. In terms of design styles, Vlaada Chvátil admits he falls somewhere in between, combining elements of both:

“I am kind of between these two directions or styles and of course I am not the only designer who is somewhere in between: I think the two styles influence each other very much now. It is clear today that many American-style games are using many more euro mechanics [Ed. note: the systems that form the backbone of the game] but I am trying to approach it differently, bringing rich theme and greater complexity and theme to euro games. In terms of styles, I also prefer indirect interaction: that means I prefer players taking positive actions in the game which help their position rather than actions which directly negatively impact or ‘screw over’ the other players. This is a far more positive form of interaction – in my view – than games where you just ‘attack’ other players and destroy their buildings or territories or whatnot.”

Chvátil – as a designer – often relies on fantasy or science fiction themes for his games and the reason is not just because they are popular among ‘game geeks’.

“I like to always have a strong theme in my games and I want my players to be immerse themselves in the game world and have a unique experience. You can design something epic. But it is very difficult to design something what takes place in the real world because all the places have been discovered and you have to respect historical fact. By contrast, sci fi or fantasy allows you to tailor the setting exactly to your needs and the exact game format.”

Creating intricate games, which can take anywhere from one to four hours to play, requires numerous skills, in which an understanding of mathematics and statistical probabilities can’t hurt. Games can present simple to increasingly complex situations where players have to make both entertaining but also tricky choices.

The narrative may be simple on paper and may play smoothly, such as an adventurer in a fantasy world travelling through the land and gaining knowledge and power like in Mage Knight (not unlike World of Warcraft online). But the implementation is what can take many different forms, all of which have to balance out and have to be tested relentlessly. When it comes to a concrete design, creating a coherent world, with its own consistent internal logic, is no easy task, and after that there are many hundreds of hours of play-testing among different groups before titles are ready for release. Vlaada Chvátil again:

“Well it is a big relief when something like this wraps up and this is the same in the video games industry. When you create a game it is a different process than creating other products because there is always room for improvement. You can always make it a bit better and that means you are often working until the very last minute, trying to make the title as good as possible.

It can be five in the morning before it is supposed to go to the printer’s and you are still tinkering with it and fine-tuning, changing small details or text. Then it goes to the printer’s and you go ‘Whew! It’s finished!’.

Then I am usually a little afraid for a little while, wondering if I didn’t overdo it. As you said, some of my games are quite complex and sometimes I ask myself what if I went too far, what if they consider it too complex and nobody buys it! Then the first reactions appear and if they are positive then I am really relieved that it worked again. And when an enthusiastic response appears then I know that the many hundreds hours of work, as well as many sleepless nights, were worth it!”

At 40, Chvátil is not just a designer he is also the co-founder of the successful publisher Czech Games Edition which has released a number of his own games but also titles by newer up-and-coming talents. Still, he himself isn’t giving up design anytime soon. He always enjoyed making games for people to play.

In recent years, as more and more innovative designs have emerged, and as some colleges and universities offer game design in their curriculum, it has become a common discussion in game forums to scope whether games can be ‘art’. Certainly there are elements that the two share: aesthetics and presentation, from cover art to card and board illustration to narrative elements. Chvátil sees game design more as craft and for him at least there is one important distinction:

“A lot really depends of course on how you define ‘art’. For me games are more like craft with some artistic aspects. I believe that the commonly-perceived meaning of art is that it comes from an inner need of the artist, who has something he or she needs to express. The fact that people then might like it or admire it is not the primary aim. While, when I am talking about my creative craft, I think of my audience first, trying to come up with designs I think people will like. So I don’t think it is art with a capital ‘A’.

“It is of definitely creative work but I think that you can do art because you want to or have to and can ignore whether people like it or not. That’s not the case with board games.”

Vlaada Chvátil has come a long way since his title Through the Ages, a civilization building board game that was inspired by Sid Meier’s famous video game which made headlines in gaming circles and won acclaim. Although he says he has other personal designs he favours, this is probably the one that made the biggest difference in terms of his career, and it also helped put Czech game design ‘on the map’. Vlaada Chvátil again:

“If you publish a successful game and one that players appreciate, then you get recognised. People will naturally be curious about what you’ll come up with next and you begin to have more opportunities. Also I believe it was very good that it was published by a company called Czech Board Games because it drew attention to the Czech Republic as a country that can produce games.

“The next year it was really nice when we went to Essen – Europe’s biggest board games fair – and were able to read comments like ‘I wonder what those crazy Czechs have come up with now’. That was really nice.”

Since then, other designers, like Vladimír Suchý (designer of Last Will) and Jiří Mikoláš (author of Space Bastards) have joined the growing number of names from the Czech Republic to watch and Vlaada too remains one of the best. Just this week his latest title Mage Knight was named Game of the Year by gameshark.com and it would be surprising if his latest design didn’t make additional ‘Best of...’ lists.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on January 7, 2012.