From playing, to organising major tournaments, to working with big distributors and publishers, as well as a stint with the Board Game Geek team, before turning pro at game design in more recent years, the Swedish board gaming expert, Rustan Hakansson’s knowledge of the sector spans just about every aspect of it.
Across his two decades in the business, and still only at the youthful age of 38, Hakansson’s portfolio of games spans seven titles, among them the 2013 Nations, the 2014 Nations: The Dice Game and 2019’s Cities: Skylines – The Board Game, and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar – The Rise & Fall of Anvalor, while there’s an equally eclectic, mix of games in between.
ToyNews caught up with the designer to talk his process and the issues in publishing today. Here’s how that conversation went…
How’s it been for you since the completion of Cities: Skylines – The Board Game, are you enjoying some down time?
Hakansson: Actually, no. There is no time to rest when you’re a professional board game designer, particularly when you are freelance. The nature of this work, and of the industry, means that you really have to have three or four projects on the go.
If a game isn’t finished by Essen in year one, it still won’t be ready for Essen the following year. You need to be polishing it by Essen the year prior to its launch at the show the next year.
Wow, so it’s a lot of work. Do you feel an amount of pressure under the workload?
Hakansson: It depends on who you are, and how you are approaching it. Since
I made the switch to full time games designer, I’ve definitely felt the pressure increase to take on and complete projects – especially ones that are hits, otherwise this would be a hard job to make money from.
If I take a couple of years full time to make a game, and it sold 2,000 copies, that’s not a success, that’s not enough to make money from.
That’s the thing, if you have a hobby and you switch to doing it full time, it is your job. You have to approach it as a job. The things you find enjoyable – for me that’s sketching designs – become the smallest part of the job. The initial phase of inventing games is about putting in the hours and working through the game, polishing it, writing rules and discussing with publishers. And the thing is, you have to be making money from this.
So, you have to hope that the game you put time into pays off for you in the end. Are there any grants available, like they run for other creative vocations?
For game designers, there’s little by way of support. There are a couple of programmes in Germany where they run internships, or you get paid to go to publishers and learn, but that is special for new designers in the industry. It’s very good, but if there were more it would be a real help to the industry.
A lot of game designers who want to go full time, they don’t understand what is required of them. I’ve been doing this for a few years now. My aim is to have five games published a year, but so far I haven’t managed that. This year I will hit four, last year I hit four. I am getting there, but I am aiming for five. It takes a long time.
What’s the biggest hurdle that’s stopped you hitting five so far, then?
The issue is, there are so many designers out there, including those that do it just as a hobby, and the majority is done by hobby designers, that if you spend a couple of years polishing just one game, you have thousands of people doing that and publishing them. There is a lot of competition out there today.
That must keep you driven, though? Do you thrive off that competition?
Well, what actually keeps me going is when I have a game published, and I see people playing it. When they say to me ‘this is a fun game, thank you for designing it.’ I get messages from Board Game Geek from people that are happy that they have found a game that I have designed that they like. That’s a big reward.
How do gamers know when they’re playing a Hakansson game, is there a theme you look to in your games?
I don’t have a specific type of game that I do. I won’t only do Euros, or board games or kids’ games. I have been very involved in games for such a long time, more than 20 years in the hobby and in the industry for the last 15 years, so I have been exposed to many types of games. I like to bring this to the way that I design games.
In that case, what was the process of developing Cities: Skylines like?
A request came to me to do the game. We started discussing it and looking at what publisher would be best for us. We decided it was Kosmos. Then we started sketching out the ideas, and talking to Kosmos about what their targets were.
The first iteration of the game was a competitive game that was presented last year. It was popular and people were playing it, but after a few more months of work on it, Kosmos realised that a co-op title would fit their portfolio better. We asked ourselves, ‘what would Cities be if it was co-op instead?’ It was worth exploring to see if it could be improved this way. For one year I worked nearly half time on this prototype, and it then all got tossed, and I had to make a new game.
It was tough, but I agreed it could be an improvement. The end product now is vastly different to the first iteration, and instead of one and a half years, the project took two and a half.
Did you feel a responsibility to get it right, what with it already being a hit IP in video games?
When you have experience of an IP, the pressure is off a bit. If it was an IP I didn’t know so well, I don’t know how well suited I would have been to the task.
In general, there’s always a responsibility to make it the best it can be. If I’m not happy with something, I won’t want it to be published. I want it reworked until it is the best it can be. With the Nations Dice Game, I made three versions all completely different. One, the publisher approved, but as I worked on it, I wasn’t happy with it, so I scrapped it and started from scratch.
I want to design games that will find their place and find their fans in the world. Just designing a game to get designed is not what I am after.