Phases of the Moon

Alan R. Moon is a man of many facets. He is an accomplished game designer whose resumé is graced with such wonderful games as Airlines, Reibach & Co., and the ever-so-collectable Elfenroads. He has been a games publisher and was one of the founders of that lost and lamented games company, White Wind. He is a tireless games fan who organizes the annual Gathering of Friends which brings together gaming fanatics from all over North America and beyond.

The Game Cabinet asked Alan to tell us about his latest role in the gaming industry. Alan's involvement in this new venture will go a long way to reassuring American gamers that the flow of European games into the American market will continue in the wake of all the changes at Mayfair.

Director Moon

Game Cabinet: Can you tell us a bit about your new position?

Alan R. Moon: I am the Director of Game Development for the North American division of FX Schmid (FXS), one of the largest publishers of games and jigsaw puzzles in Germany. FXS has been publishing jigsaw puzzles in the States since 1989 and now has over 700 titles. This year, FXS is opening up their North American game division and I'm the guy in charge of that.

Cabinet: What sorts of games can we expect to see FX Schmid bringing into the American market?

Moon: The first ten games should be out in the Fall and come from the German FXS line. The majority are children's games. The two adult titles are BLUFF and TAKE IT EASY. BLUFF was named Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) in 1993 but is better known as LIARS DICE in the United States from the original Milton Bradley edition.

Three of the others are what I'd consider family games. HEXENTANZ (DANCE OF THE WITCHES will be the American title) is a memory and strategy game. ALLES FUR DIE KATZ (CHEESE PLEASE) is the latest version of the Rudi Hoffman classic that was known as DORADA from Ravensburger. And HAC MAC (BURGERBATTLE) is a card game.

The schedule after the release of the first ten games is still up in the air. I'm hoping to have two to six new games for Toy Fair 1998 in February and the overall plan is to have thirty to fifty games in the line by the end of three years. Beyond the first ten, the question of what to publish is wide open. There could be some more games from the German FXS line, but most will either be previously unpublished games or German games from other companies that have never been published in the US.

So, if you're an established designer or a wannabe, my number is (603) 893-4473.

Cabinet: Do you think the American market is ready for more German games?

Moon: Absolutely. Mayfair sold out their first run of 5,000 copies of DIE SIEDLER VON CATAN pretty quickly. I know most German games aren't going to do as well as SIEDLER but at least we know there is a potential market of 5,000+ out there. I also think the Net has been expanding this audience and will continue to expand this market on a steady basis. Which probably means the number of potential customers is a lot larger than 5,000 already.

Designer Moon

Cabinet: When did your interest in games start?

Moon: One of the consistent things I've found about gaming is that adults who play games almost always played games as children, often with their parents; and that adults who don't play games rarely played games as children and had parents who didn't play games with them. When I was a kid, up till my later teenage years, every Sunday was family day. We'd go bowling, go to the movies, play miniature golf, but the day almost always ended at home playing games. I also played games with my friends and started playing wargames (mostly Avalon Hill) when I was 15 or 16.

Cabinet: How did you become involved in game design?

Moon: When I was in college, I started writing articles for The General, and quite soon after that I started fantasizing about working at Avalon Hill (AH). I met Don Greenwood at a convention during my senior year. Don told me he was looking for someone to take over as editor of The General, Avalon Hill's house magazine.

So when I was hired in 1979, it was with the understanding I would be the assistant editor for a while and then take over as editor. But when I got to the Hill, I almost immediately started working on games and enjoying it. Conversely, I found that I didn't enjoy the duties involved in working as an editor. Not everyone was happy with my discovered preference but I was able to become a full-time developer.

One of my favorite AH stories is about my first few weeks on the job. I was basically assigned an office with a typewriter and just about nothing else. I spent the first couple of weeks waiting for someone to tell me what my job was. When it didn't happen, I started looking for ways to keep myself busy.

In Don Greenwood's office and a couple of other rooms were dozens, maybe even a hundred, prototypes submitted over the course of the previous several years. I asked Don if I could look at them. He not only said I could look at them, he said I could decide what to do with them. To say I was surprised by my newfound authority is an understatement.

I spent the next few weeks looking through all the prototypes. Most were returned without being played. Some were so bad that I never even read the rules completely. But there were a certain number that made it through the initial cuts and actually got played. The three I remember making it to publication were WAR AND PEACE, FORTRESS EUROPA, and HEXAGONY, but there may have been a couple of others, too.

Cabinet: How do you go about designing games?

Moon: People sometimes ask me if I have a design philosophy. Or sometimes people say my games have a distinctive style. I'm not sure about the distinctive style part, but I do have a philosophy now. Actually, I suppose I always had a design philosophy but I never really thought about it before.

Basically, I want to create tension (that's tension, not stress) by giving the player several choices each turn. Several usually meaning two or three, since allowing more choices slows down play too much, and choosing between just two choices can still be agonizingly difficult if the choices are well balanced. The basic mechanic in Santa Fe is a good example. Each turn, a player must choose between playing a City Card or a Double Turn Card. Usually, the player wants to do both.

Since the choices have to be balanced, in effect there really are no bad choices. There are one or two good choices and then there is the best choice. However, despite there being no bad choices, it is amazing how soon you realize you haven't made the best choice, and how bad your seemingly good choice has turned out to be. This is the other thing I like because it adds to the tension when making the decision. You are trying to select the best choice knowing full well that it will shortly be obvious what the best choice was. So not only is the play of your opponents putting pressure on you, you are also putting pressure on yourself.

Put more simply, I want the choices to be simple in concept but difficult in execution. And I want the player to be able to see the results of his decision fairly quickly.

I have also bought into the German philosophy (or trend) in games which leans towards lots of simultaneous play in which no one has to sit around for very long without taking some part in the game. It is now hard to believe that I enjoyed playing wargames where I often had to sit around for 10-20 minutes between turns.

Beyond these two things, I guess all I want is for people to have fun playing my games but, since gaming is not an exact science, there is no real way to guarantee people playing my games will have fun. Playtesting is the key to improving the odds, though, and in this I think White Wind has a distinct advantage since White Wind games are playtested both in the United States and Germany by groups of players with very different styles of play. If a game appeals to all of these players, it will usually appeal to many others, as well.

Publisher Moon

Cabinet: Why did you decide to found White Wind?

Moon: I founded White Wind mostly out of frustration. I had several prototypes bouncing from company to company in Europe. Most of the games that were being published were so bad that I just couldn't understand how my games kept getting turned down. The worst example was AIRLINES (at that point called NINE RAILROADS). It was at Mattel in Germany for over a year. I was repeatedly told I would be receiving a contract for it. Then, all of a sudden, I got the prototype back. I asked for a reason and was told that the top people at Mattel couldn't understand the rules.

Around the same time, I had become friends with a number of people in England and Germany. One of them, Peter Gehrmann, was just getting involved in games, acting as an agent for designers (including me), writing rules for games, and getting involved with several of the German companies. I'm not sure who brought it up, but Peter and I started talking about starting a game company. These talks eventually lead to the founding of White Wind.

Most people have misunderstood the goals of White Wind, which were really very simple. I wanted to publish limited editions of my own games, so I could actually get my games published without having to wait till someone else decided to publish them. I would then be able to send the published games to all the companies at once and avoid all the legal hassles of disclosures since those rules don't apply to published games. I hoped other companies would then buy the rights to these games and republish them in much larger print-runs. Of course, this didn't happen, at least not right away. It took over four years to sell the rights to the first White Wind game.

Cabinet: What lessons from White Wind do you want to pass on to other game designers that are thinking of self-publishing?

Moon: Don't do it. Never, ever. If you absolutely can't stop yourself, get someone else to put up the money. Don't spend your own. You'll be spending your time, a lot of your time.

Spielfreak Moon

Cabinet: How did the Gathering of Friends get started?

Moon: Years ago at a game convention, several friends (Bill Cleary was the one I definitely remember) suggested I start a game convention. When I asked them why they didn't do it, they gave me some bull about how I was the one who knew lots of people and could pull it off. Having started two game clubs over the years I knew I could do it, but I also knew how much work it would be so I wouldn't even consider it at the time. But a few weeks later, amidst more encouragement, I decided I might as well take the plunge. I think I sent out less than 50 invitations the first year and 23 people turned up. Last year, I sent out over 500 invitations and 109 attended. This year, I've sent out fewer invitations but I expect the attendance to be somewhere between 110 and 150.

Cabinet: It seems like a lot of work: why do you keep doing it?

Moon: Good question. It is a lot of work, more each year. You may also be surprised to know that I lost quite a bit of money in the first four years. I may have made it back in years five and six, but I don't really keep track because money was never a factor.

As to why I keep doing it, there are lots of reasons. For one thing, I often become obsessed with streaks and it's hard to think about stopping this one now. Playing games with my friends is also the thing I enjoy most in life and 5-8 days of solid gaming is my idea of heaven on earth.

But the positive feedback is the most important factor. It simply makes me feel good to have people come from all over the country just to play games. The nicest compliment I've ever received in my life came from my friend, Stuart Ashley, several years ago at The Gathering. As we stood at the side of the gaming room he said, "All these people are here because of you. You make a difference in people's lives." I was incredibly moved by that. Especially since I'd always considered Stuart to be such a great person and someone I'd like to be more like myself. He became a cop in Vermont in the hope of working with kids and making a difference in their lives.

The Compleat Moon

Cabinet: You often have very strong opinions about games. What elements are you looking for in a good game?

Moon: I guess what I enjoy most is that feeling of tension in the pit of my stomach when I'm really into a game I'm playing. I got this feeling during every game of FOOTBALL STRATEGY I played in the Avalon Hill FS League years ago. I also tend to get it in the tournaments at The Gathering. I also get the feeling during regular gaming sessions, usually when Mike Schloth gets overly excited (this happens quite often) which tends to get me going, too. After it's over, I could care less who won, but during the game I'm totally focused on winning and depriving others (especially Mike) of their chance to do the same. I never play anything less than my best. There would be no point in playing if I did. So what I'm looking for is a game that brings out my competitiveness and keeps me on the edge of my seat (often literally). MÜ, WILDLIFE ADVENTURE, LIARS DICE, DRUNTER & DRÜBER, MODERN ART, TABOO, EL GRANDE, and MEDICI are all good examples.

Cabinet: What elements can spoil a game for you?

Moon: A game is completely spoiled:

1. If the game doesn't have enough interaction.

2. If the game is too long. As a general rule, anything longer than two hours doesn't interest me much anymore. Of course, there are exceptions. A recent game of AIR BARON took three hours and I wouldn't have minded if it had gone twice that long.

3. If there is too much time between my turns or if people take too long to take their turn. This is one of the reasons I don't enjoy playing most abstract games because people often spend too much time looking for the perfect move.

4. If there is no strategy or too much luck.

Cabinet: Any advice for designers just starting out?

Moon: Keep plugging. Remember that designing games is fun. Do it because you enjoy it, not because it will necessarily get you anywhere. Keep your day job.

Don't get discouraged by rejection; get used to it. Be prepared for people that don't like your games and try not to be too sensitive about the criticism. Try to figure out what ideas and parts people like about your games and focus on those things.

Play as many published games as you possibly can. Study game systems and their mechanics. Playing games is absolutely essential; it's experience and the number of games you've played does make a difference.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell