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Spacemen, Spies, and Civilizations: An Interview with Vlaada Chvátil

Chief Content Nerd Drew Dixon sat down with Czech game designer Vlaada Chvátil to talk about what inspires him to make games. Vlaada is known for the wide diversity of the games he designs, which include Codenames, Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization, Pictomania, and Galaxy Trucker.

Drew Dixon: Tell us about how you got into making games.

Vlaada Chvátil: I’ve just always made games. I was born, I was a little git, and I was making my own games because lots of kids invented their own games. I just never stopped. One moment I realized, “This is a serious hobby.” Then when I got some stuff published I said, “It’s a really good hobby, now.” When those games started to be successful, I said, “Okay, maybe it’s not just a hobby. It might even be work.”

When I see so many people—like adult, grown people—who could do anything else but they’re sitting here playing a game, having fun with friends, it’s awesome.

Drew: You’ve made a lot of games now. Which one are you the most proud of?

Vlaada: Wow, you’re really asking this. [laughs] I like all my games. The only criterion I have when trying to publish a game is that I have to like it. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of them—I’m just happy for the games that do well.

With Codenames, everything looked bigger because it’s a game for a very broad audience—it works well with gamers and even non-gamers. What makes me really happy is it’s a game I can play with my non-gaming family.

There are some games with these high prices, or that are ranked very high on BoardGameGeek because they’re very geeky games. So I’m very happy because it means some people like them very much. Deeply. If someone tells me, “Hey, I love your game,” and it’s a game that’s kind of in the shadow of other games, then I’m happy for it. I am happy that this game found some people that like it too. I would not say that I like some more than others, sorry.

CodenamesJana ZemankovaCC BY-SA 3.0cropped and resized

Drew: You’ve also made quite a diversity of games. A lot of them are very different. Codenames is very different from Space Alert. Is there a theme that unifies the games you’ve made?

Vlaada: There is one thing that unifies them. I already told you: the fact that I like them! Because, as a gamer, I like a variety of games. I don’t want to play the same game again. Even if I enjoyed it and liked it, I don’t want to play it again immediately. I never play two of the same games in a row. Sometimes I am in the mood for something heavier. Sometimes I am in the mood for some party games, yeah? All this inspires me. When I have an idea for a lighter party game, I do it. Then when I have an idea for something very heavy I usually toy with it for several years, and then maybe I’ll make it, or maybe not. Time shows if it clicks or if it’s much more work.

But there’s really no unifying theme. Some games reflect my preferences; for example, I basically never do games where people are backstabbing each other. All this Diplomacy stuff I don’t do.

Drew: Is there a reason why you don’t like having people do that?

Vlaada: I’ve playing games for very long time. We created our game company 25, maybe more, years ago. We played big games at the start: History of the World, Blood Royale, Diplomacy, and so on. I even created such games for my friends. Then I realized the problem is there is some metagame behind this, yeah? We will fight and he will prosper and so on, then someone has to stop him because he is going to win. This metagame is the same in all of these games. The actual mechanics differ, but the metagame is more important than the actual mechanics. Then one day I said, “Okay, I’ve played enough of this.” It’s all the same. If you see through the mechanics, you see to the core. The core is who will agree with whom, and basically the player who can convince others to let him win, wins. I decided that I’d played enough of this and stopped playing these games.

Space AlertDaniel ThurotCC BY-SA 3.0resized and cropped

Drew: Are there any other game designers that you look up to or games that you think are great? Are there any games that influence you?

Vlaada: As I said, I like to buy many different games. Variety is important for me. If I like something then it doesn’t influence me much, because it is already done. It works well. If I see something that could be done better, this inspires me. I won’t name a game that inspires me. I don’t want to be rude. [laughs]

For example, people are surprised, I like lots of games by Stefan Feld. Notre Dame, especially his earlier stuff I like.  But people say, “They’re completely different from your games.” That’s the point. I like them and enjoy them and don’t feel that I need to do the same stuff.

Drew: What drives you to make games? Why do you get up in the morning to make board games?

Vlaada: I like games. I like playing games. I always keep thinking about them. Sometimes I see that no one did this, or this could be a great idea. I just want to see it work. Another thing is that I have many gaming friends and I want to show them a new game and see how they like it. I really love gaming events. When I see so many people—like adult, grown people—who could do anything else but they are sitting here playing a game, having fun with friends, it’s awesome. I don’t even need to play myself if I see everyone else playing.

Drew: The joy that you see them experiencing through something you did brings you some satisfaction.

Vlaada: Yeah. If I see people playing it puts me in this mood. Codenames was created at a gaming event. I saw everyone playing and having fun, and I just got this idea. I got some paper—I didn’t even have scissors—I just shredded the paper, wrote some words on it, brought components from other games, and we played one hour later. This inspires me.

Featured image “Vlaada Chvátil” by Ivan Dostál (CC BY-NC 3.0, cropped and resized).

Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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