In this episode of Rule Breaker Investing, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner is joined by a very special guest. There are many faces that could appear on the Mount Rushmore of Foolish board game designers, but one place is reserved for Reiner Knizia, not only for his brilliant games, but also his business acumen, his enthusiasm for life, and his dedication to his purpose of entertaining people.
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This video was recorded on February 2, 2021.
David Gardner: Richard Garfield, Jamey Stegmaier, Rob Daviau. Now, for many in the world, they do not recognize these names. But for geeky, hardcore tabletop game players like me, maybe you too, people who love board games, card games, we recognize each of those names. Richard Garfield designed Magic: The Gathering, Jamey Stegmaier designed Scythe and mastered another game of sorts, Kickstarter, even wrote a book about it, and Rob Daviau invented Legacy Games, games that change from one play to the next based on the results of the previous games, a profound innovation. Another thing unites these three gentlemen, Richard and Jamey and Rob are all past guests on Rule Breaker Investing. Now, I don't know that I'm trying to create a Mount Rushmore of game designers on this podcast, but if there's one face and name that absolutely should be on a global Mount Rushmore of living game designers, it would be my guest this week. Again, much of the world that doesn't follow this industry may not know the name Reiner Knizia, but anyone who does will recognize this many times award winning full-time game designer and businessman who's been bringing enjoyment to the people for more than 20 years, which is about how long I've known him and so I'm delighted to help make you smarter, happier, and richer with a particular emphasis on 'happier' this week on Rule Breaker Investing.
Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing. Happy Groundhog Day, if you're here in the United States. Well, actually, this comes out Wednesday. We happen to be taping yesterday, Tuesday, which is Groundhog Day. Still a wonderful movie, I think I've seen that movie four or five times, waking up and experiencing the same thing over and over. That's the way a lot of people have felt [laughs] during their locked down COVID year that we're all just about reaching approximately, give it another month or two, a year of being in pretty heavy lockdown for many of us. Certainly, Groundhog Day extra resonants here in 2021.
Well, as I mentioned at the top, I'm delighted to introduce you to Reiner Knizia. If you are a gamer, you certainly will recognize Reiner's name, and for many who aren't, I'm so delighted to introduce you to someone who for you will be new but for the gaming world is one of the real constants of the last generation. About 25 years or so, Reiner has been bringing enjoyment to the people through the many games that he has both designed and then also worked with publishers globally to manage all of the intellectual properties. He is both a game designer and a businessman, and we'll certainly be getting into that. Rule Breaker Investing, it's hard as I've often said, we spent about a third of our time on investing. It is kind of in our name, so there's a promise there, but we also spend a third of our time on business and we're certainly going to learn some about that this week, and a third of our time on life. You know, the thing that we all live, that we try to do the best we can. Investing business in life and in particular, my effort through Rule Breaker Investing, this podcast every week, is to introduce you to some of the best; the best ideas, the best opportunities, the best people. Certainly, Reiner will fit right into that as you see.
I've sometimes mentioned in the past, the now dearly departed former preacher of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, Maurice Boyd, who had a wonderful Northern Irish accent and he used to refer to his friend Malcolm Muckridge, the British journalist. He said this about Malcolm, he said, "Malcolm's greatest regret in life," Boyd would say, "was that he settled for the tenth rate when he could have had the first rate." I always remember those words and I've always tried to live a life that aims for the first rate. Let's see if we hit that for you this week.
Reiner Knizia is one of the world's great board game designers. I liken him to Mozart in terms of the prolific nature of his creation and the greatness of his work. However, unlike Mozart, I'm happy to say he did not die young and has no Salieri that I know of. For 25 years, Reiner has been winning awards and winning the hearts of gamers for his designs of great games like Lost Cities, Tigris & Euphrates, Ra, Modern Art, Ingenious, Battle Line, Samurai, The Lord of the Rings co-operative game, Through the Desert, Quest for El Dorado and the list goes on. By the way, the 10 games I just mentioned are, first, his most played games measured on my second favorite website, boardgamegeek.com. They're also all games that I've not only personally played, but indeed, I personally own every one of them, and many others besides. Now, Reiner is a German native after many years living as an expatriate in Windsor, England. A few years ago, he returned to Germany where he now resides in beautiful Munich, Germany. Reiner, welcome to Rule Breaker Investing.
Reiner Knizia: Thank you for that very nice introduction, it's an honor to be there.
Gardner: I'm so glad that we're together, Reiner. At the top of the show, I spent a little bit of time explaining why having one of my favorite board game designers makes total sense for Rule Breaker Investing. To summarize my reasoning, I want to share with my listeners the best of the best in all things, including the people that I've known who make valuable contributions worldwide every day and you have done that for so many gamers, me included, and I thank you for it. Now, I want to start at the beginning, asking you to take us through your early days. Let's start by fact checking some of your Wikipedia page. Are you ready?
Gardner: I see three items that I want to check on. Now, the first is it says, "Born in Germany, he developed his first game at the age of eight." Is this true? If so, can you explain?
Knizia: Yes, I was born in Germany in Illertissen, in Southern Germany, a small town. If it was really at the age of eight, I can't quite remember that far back on my exact age or the exact day when I did it, but gaming was always on my mind. I always loved it. Of course, when you are a child, everything you do in the world is playing with the things in order to learn them. We're probably more talking about rules-based games, and yes, I had some friends at school and I was so enthusiastic about games and actually funny, at that time, there was no Internet and there was no access to other games. In our small town, only the barber sold some games. I was pestering him a lot, but he didn't have a great choice and I didn't have lots of pocket money. Whenever I saw a theme that made me enthusiastic, then I decided, I'll try it myself and I want to play this with my friends. It was about eight, 10 and it changed, it was boards with castles and knights. It was motor racing, long tubes where the cars went through with statistics, how far they went into the little bit of mathematical touch. Then what fascinated me is the big piles of money which I initially took from monopoly, and then later made myself. There was no desktop publishing. I can't draw them and cut them out.
Gardner: Right. Wow.
Knizia: The early age, I'm a money forger, yes?
Gardner: Yes. You were creating your own currency, it sounds like. [laughs] Now, Reiner, a lot of us can probably relate as little girls or little boys to making up games with our friends, but at a certain point, it became real for you. Some of us put away the play things and thought that the world was about more serious things, but you went on and you just kept creating games. What was your first published game?
Knizia: I was lucky enough that once I got serious about being published, which is completely different than just playing with your friends because you need to create a proper general product, I was lucky enough to have gotten published in 1990 with a book by a German publisher, and with two games which accidentally have similar themes; Gold Rush and Digging. These were the first published games in boxes and in book form. Before that I had a lot of publications in magazines, I had a monthly column in the Spielbox which was a big German magazine at that time already. It moved gradually, and I also had a play-by-mail magazine which I issued every month, but the question answered to you is the book: New Tactical Games with Dice and Cards, which has just been translated, and this was not discussed before. [laughs] Just been translated into English, so the book is now available for a few months in the English language as well.
Gardner: Wonderful. Congratulations. Did you ever have a chance to go back to the barber and find that he was selling one of your own games?
Knizia: No. Of course, I'm going back because my mother still lives in Illertissen, but the town has changed. Even the house is no longer standing where it was. There's lots of change. It was right in the center of the town, so lots of rebuilding, and lots of redoing. I know where it was. I know the place where it was, but the house is no longer there or a different house.
Gardner: Before we move on to adulthood, Reiner, what other story maybe about you as a little boy might shine some light on our understanding of you today?
Knizia: I think I have given away all my secrets because I talked about money, so I became a banker. I talked about cars through tubes which made mathematics, and we talked about games and there is nothing else in my life. I'm such a poor sucker.
Gardner: [laughs] Let's go back to your Wikipedia page. Here's the second question I have for you. Next it says, "He gained a Master of Science from Syracuse University in the United States, and a Doctorate in Mathematics from the University of Ulm in Germany." Is this true and if so, what are your reflections on your education?
Knizia: This is true, and particularly, as you mentioned, in Syracuse University, it was a great pleasure to be there. I really enjoyed my time. I have very vivid memories of it. The educational part of my life I am very fond of and I was very much enjoying. For some time, I could not even imagine leaving the Ivory Tower, I'd say, and all. I enjoyed giving lectures because I then worked at university. I enjoyed giving lectures, I enjoyed doing research. I had a wonderful partner and my professor whom I did my thesis with. It was great. I thought I would never have to work in my life. I'll just stay at university. Luckily, [laughs] I got in contact with a board member of a bank who was giving management courses at the University of Ulm, and I got closer to him, I understood him better and I thought, "That is very fascinating what they are doing." He was a top guy at IBM first and then he was, at that time, a board member of the bank, and so when I decided it's time to leave, I actually applied at IBM. I applied at the bank and I also looked at McKinsey. In the end, I decided I will go to the bank because I thought that's a good basis, and how should I say this? People are going to hang me for this. [laughs] I was working a lot. I've been working. It's what I like to do. It's not work, it's a hobby and I like to do where my heart is. I thought the McKinsey's people are all working quite a lot, that's normal standard, and IBM probably in sales and so on as well. Forgive me, I thought the bankers are more of the 9:00-5:00 people or whatever, but what if I go to the bank and really worked hard, I might stand out the best, and yes, I made a good career there.
Gardner: It seems to have worked out that way. Now, we're going to go back to the bank in a minute, but I want to go back to your decision to attend university in the United States of America and going to Syracuse. Did you always have that in mind? Why did you pursue United States education and how did you end up in a very cold place this time of year, Syracuse?
Knizia: I think the cold places are actually very good because people stick together and there is a better community than if everything is so easy. It was relatively straightforward. My professor with whom I did my thesis with was also a professor in Syracuse, so whenever he went over he said, "Come with me," and so we continued working there, and of course, the doors were open to go there. Well, you grab the opportunities when they present themselves.
Knizia: I'm very, very grateful that that happened because I didn't initially plan it, but when the opportunity came, it was just a wonderful step.
Gardner: I can imagine, Reiner, that you always received high marks in mathematics. Obviously, you then went to pursue mathematics at a graduate level. Could you describe the University of Ulm in a few sentences for many of us who've never been there?
Knizia: The University of Ulm is a young university. Ulm is also in southern Germany. It's actually interesting. If I may deviate a little bit, I was very much and I am still very much into science. The first university I applied to was Munich, where I'm sitting now, and then Heisenberg, the uncertainty principle, that's how old I am, was still lecturing at that time.
Knizia: I was applying there, but then I had to do my mandatory army series for a year as everybody had to at that time. Then I had to go to the army, and when I came back from the army, he had retired, so he had escaped me. Then I said, "Well, might as well be lazy and stay in the rural area at home." Then I went to Ulm. I have never regretted it. Ulm is a fantastic university because it's relatively small, it's relatively familiar. The professors know you all by name. It's just wonderful, and it's an excellent learning atmosphere. What they offered that time, almost unique in Germany, was the Wirtschaftsmathematik, so business mathematics. They had computer sciences in there. We had to wait in the first semester for four months until the first computer arrived [laughs] at the university. It's stone age.
Knizia: We had operations research, we had statistics, we had mathematics, we had business in there. So, all the different ingredients, which are probably better than just focusing on one thing. That's Ulm.
Gardner: Thank you. You're reminding me that, I guess, Heisenberg gave new meaning to uncertainty as he vamoosed before you had a chance [laughs] to study from him.
Knizia: Of course, Heisenberg was a physicist, and I was actually extremely fond of physics. People actually looked quite after me but in particular one teacher at school, when I went far beyond what school did and I looked into relativity theory, and there was always one problem in relativity theory which I could not understand, and my teacher could not tell me. I finally said, "Now, I will study physics in Ulm." I did. Then a friend of mine from school went there and studied mathematics. I said, "Well, you always need a lot of mathematics in physics, so I will study mathematics at the same time."
Knizia: After a few months, we came to relativity theory. Then I said, "Okay, now, I will finally understand it." When the subject came up, I didn't. Well, I went to the tutor. This is a true story, I went to the tutor. After a while, I had confused him. He said, "It's not a problem, we'll go to the assistant professor and we will sort it out." It took a little longer and then we had him confused. Then actually, all three of us moved on and actually went into the professor's room at the time. When you dig yourself into your own theory of not understanding your principle, after half an hour of discussing with him, he gave up, the professor gave up. That was an extreme disappointment for me. That actually made me give up the study in physics and go into mathematics.
Gardner: That is a wonderful story. My own record, I've never understood relativity theory myself, not that I really had a shot at it. I was never that inclined toward physics. In fact, I managed somehow to avoid physics in preparatory school. But I did learn about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. My memory from my undergraduate days is that the premise is that you cannot measure the location of something and the direction that it's going at the same time, right?
Gardner: But then that was mapped into being generalized, this idea that if you observe something, you change the nature of that thing by the very act of you're observing it. It's always been a wonderful concept and I love that you actually knew Heisenberg, that is remarkable.
Knizia: I never got to know him personally, but of course, he was still there. I would have loved to take a lecture with him, yes.
Gardner: He was wandering the hallways, I love it. Okay. The last Wikipedia detail that we want to pin down on Reiner, No. 3. This is the part of course I find so compelling as the host of the Rule Breaker Investing podcast. It says and I quote, "He went on to manage a $2 billion financial company." Is this true and how did you get there?
Knizia: This is true because when I worked for the bank, I worked in the IT department. I've worked in the organizational department, and then I went into the strategic planning department for the bank. At that time, the board decided that the bank needs to be restructured. They got in McKinsey.
Gardner: [laughs] Of course, they did.
Knizia: Actually, when you go to McKinsey, you make these very fast careers sometimes. One of my students from University was actually the Project Manager for this project in the bank. [laughs] Because at that time, he was much higher than I was because it's how things go. When this project came to an end, the question was then, where do I go? The board member I reported to at that point in time said, "Yes, we have some things in Germany for you, but we have a challenge in England." England sounded wonderful, so I went to England in 1993, [laughs] and it is a mortgage company and the mortgage company writes, of course, a lot of new business every year. The mortgage company wasn't at good standing. That's not a secret because at that time, there was a great recession in the U.K., and in the U.K., you get loan-to-value up to 90%, 95%, and then the house prices had fallen by 40%, so there was quite chaos. I think the bank decided they wanted to have a German there from the head office to look after things. It was a brilliant job. It was a big business. It grew and it brought all the administration in house which was done by external providers and that was partially the problem. Of course, just because of me, the whole economy turned around, [laughs] the house prices were up again.
Gardner: Very inspiring.
Knizia: I was a little hero, but the accidental hero. [laughs]
Gardner: Reiner, during that period, what did you learn about business and what did you learn about yourself?
Knizia: Yeah. I think my first big learning which also reflects back to my gaming career, actually, was very early when I went to the bank, I went into an international trainee program for a year. I saw the different departments and the different businesses. One of the businesses was the credit business, so the loan business. I have really learned there, when I watched how these conversations went, and how the guys took the decision that when you come in and say, "Look, if you gave me the money, then I could do this and then I would do this and so on," these people never got the money. If people come in and say look, "This is what I'm doing and this is my plan, and this is what I have done, so I'm already in, now give the money and I'll start," they got the money. Now, I'm going back to games, it is not, "Okay, I have an idea and we could do this and this, what do you think about the concept and then we could," you never can. What you need to do is to say, "This game is going to be published, so I need to give it my best. Because once I go to the publisher, they will take it and publish it, I won't have an influence of it, so I need to put the best in there. If I put my best in there, there will be a publisher, not if I could and would and it will be a good one. It has to be a good one." That was very early in my career. That actually helped me a lot when I offered games to publishers. Because I said, "Okay, understood, that's what I need to do." You need to work anyway, so do it. If you'll believe in yourself, you'll do the work. If you don't believe in yourself, you don't need to do it because you don't never think you have to do it. Yes?
Gardner: Yes. All right. Well, enough with the Wikipedia page, Reiner I'm glad to know it's mostly accurate though, that was inspiring. Reiner, you became one of the first board game designers, maybe the first to turn this calling into a full time job. When did that become a reality for you?
Knizia: I certainly wasn't the first, but initially, I never thought I would turn that into a profession. But it became more and more serious and when I was managing the bank, the mortgage company in Britain, and I had my successes with games, I won the first game prizes and so on. I soon came to this situation where I said, I love both, but I don't feel I can do justice for both at the same time, I need to make a decision. It was clear if I wanted to get higher, even higher in management, then you need to fully dedicate yourself to this. Or if I want to really do a serious business and conquer the world there, then I need more time for that as well, because game design is not just a side event. This was a long thoughtful process, because I knew once I got out, I will never get back into management. Finally, I gave myself a present, it was my 40th birthday. I missed by five days when I left. Since then, I am a full-time game designer. That was wonderful. I've never regretted doing this. Essentially, I left the money and followed the heart. But when you follow your heart, the money follows as well. In the end, it was the right decision, because that is really what intrinsically motivates me. I recently read in a book which I strongly believe in, if you do a job as work, you feel it as work. If you then compete with people who love it and do it from the heart and actually recharge while doing it, you have no chance in competing. The best thing really you can do is follow your heart and the success will follow. If you follow the money, you will have a hard life.
Gardner: That is profound and thank you for sharing that and a life well lived. 23, 24 years now, Reiner, you have been doing your work as a full-time board game designer and a businessman, we'll talk a little bit about that later. But could you, over those 20+ years or so, what was the typical day in your life? What does it feel like? What does it look like? A day in a life?
Knizia: That has of course changed a lot over the years. Initially, I had a lot of time, I could do a lot of design. These were the designs of the '90s. You mentioned some of the classics there. Over the years, you become the victim of your success because -- you know that yourself. The company grows or there's more to do, so the operational side grows, you publish more, you have more contact to the publishers, you need to negotiate more contracts, you need to get the graphics, you need to get the rules, you need to approve everything. Suddenly, there's a lot of day-to-day stuff which happens, so that led to my insight that I need support. I have always had a big circle of hobby designers, painters that surround me and they do up to today, contribute a lot with their creativity. We have a lot of discussion that I'll suck them empty like a vampire [laughs] and get their creativity and put them in there, but they get credits for it. [laughs] But then I said, I need to have support on the operational side, then I hired Karen. Karen, she is my brilliant colleague and she looks after the operational side. That went very well, it's still very well, but it's been very well with respect to the concept of giving me time until we both got somewhat [...] and then I recently actually decided to get another colleague onboard. This is Britta, who is now looking after the licensing side of the business.
Gardner: That's kind of what takes over, right, Reiner? Because I remember as you described the 1990s, you were focused on just creating the games, but then being prolific and creating brilliant games, you had to manage those relationships with the publishers. Maybe a lot of my listeners who don't know the board gaming world as much as you do, won't recognize that each of your games will be published in multiple countries, sometimes, in different versions. You'd have to test the rules, make sure that that makes sense for that country, you might retheme a game. Then you have dozens of designs published in dozens of countries and you and Karen for years, managed and oversaw that. Of course, your business background made it possible for you and your great understanding of time and your self-discipline. Yet it becomes, as you said, you're a victim of your own success, but I guess in a good way.
Knizia: Of course, in a good way, I'm not complaining, I'm extremely blessed and extremely grateful. For me, there's one overriding principle, I think, which is an important factor of my success, and that is simplicity. Complexity comes so quickly. Of course, I had the organizational background, I have managed bigger companies. We have set up very simple processes, very simple tools, but also very simple means of information. We have about 400 active intellectual properties which we market, and there are 65 leverage folders full of licensing contracts one after the other, all active. That is quite a bit to manage, to see those royalties come in and so on and so on, which one doesn't sell anymore. It's a big job, but if you keep it simple, then you don't get overwhelmed. Once you start introducing complexity, complexity grows on itself. I think simplicity helps us to focus on what we really need to do?.Very early even before I became a full-time game designer, I thought about what is actually the tag line of our business, of my business? I created the benefits until today, bringing enjoyment to the people.
Gardner: Absolutely, I recognize that.
Knizia: When I look at this and say, "Why am I doing this?" I'm not doing it for the money, I'm not doing it for the reputation or whatsoever. How can you be successful? You can only be successful if you do something which suits the people.
Knizia: Essentially, when you bring enjoyment to the people, that's the biggest reward for me. Of course, that means we need to sell the games, if only two people buy it, you can't reach a lot of people. I want to reach a lot of people, but it's more reaching the people and bringing fun to them rather than having big sales.
Gardner: So many of the best businesses have their purpose statement and they're driven by their purpose. Conscious capitalism, one of my favorite topics, holds purpose over profit, and the secret is, and you will understand, that often, the most profitable companies are the ones that held purpose high. It just so happens that that gives them even more profit and that's, in part, explaining many of our best stock picks at The Motley Fool. Reiner, I want to describe one of the most surprising moments I've ever had at a game table. I was at a game table with you, you had come and visited us here in Washington, DC. You were in my house and we put a game on the table and it was one of your games, Taj Mahal, I think, a wonderful game. We set the game up and then you turned to me and my few other friends playing the game and you said, "Okay, how do we play?" [laughs] It was completely shocking to me that I was then explaining your game to you. Now, I have since come to an understanding of this and you explained at the time, but I want to make sure all of my listeners can realize this, because it says something about how busy you are in the world. You are used to having a game like Taj Mahal published in multiple countries and with different publishers. The publisher might take it and tweak something, they might change a rule, they might retheme it, the components may look different. Even though in my mind, like a novelist, you've written the book, you know the plot, in fact, as a board game designer, you don't know exactly what version or how this game has been published, and so you asked me and my friends to teach you the game that you have put on the table before us. Remarkable.
Knizia: But it is absolutely true, you see. Of course, I know the plot of the game, it's not completely new. But the first thing you said, "Yes, some publishers want to tweak one or two things, which makes sense to adopt it to the various markets." But more importantly, I have it probably more difficult than other people with my own games, because I don't only know the one version. When we developed the game and tested it many, many times, of course, it had many different versions. We tried out so many different avenues to perfectionate it.
Gardner: Of course.
Knizia: In the end, one sits a few years back, it all mingles together and then I don't quite know which one in the end did we decide for, which version of the rules, and that makes it even harder. Sometimes, actually, I'm falling to play a wrong version of the game because that's more on my mind. One other thing I really believe in, because we're talking business, is being prepared. I know the plot of my games. Of course, presenting a game at a show when we go to the different game fairs, it's different than explaining it to be played. But nevertheless, the weekend before any show, Nuremberg Toy Fair, or Essen, is reserved for me learning rules, and I dread it because we take a three-figure number of games to the fairs to market. When you read one piece of rule, fine, and then it's 10, and then it's 20, and it's 50, you almost get to the point of sickness because you're scramming so much into your head. But it's important, because I do not want to sit in a sales meeting with a publisher and then have to think about what I want to say. I want to concentrate on the publisher. I want to concentrate on the relationship, and therefore, I need to do my preparation. The preparation goes into anything when we prepare a meeting with a publisher about what to show. It's a lot of preparation; what we show, to learn about the publisher, looks at the catalogs. All of this is the basis for then having a successful meeting. I know a lot of people, when we had hard negotiations about some legal matters and so on, that the counter side actually criticized me. "You're always so damn prepared with all the materials, it's impossible [laughs] to negotiate with you."
Gardner: [laughs] Well, it makes sense, because you bring a business background that many games designers probably didn't have, and so there's an integrated approach that you've taken and it makes a lot of sense how you're describing that, Reiner. You know, it reminds me to ask you a little bit about your creative process, because anytime I get to meet an artist and talk with an artist, I want to know how they do what they do. So, tell us a story, maybe a minute or two long, of just how you make a game.
Knizia: As an introduction, we talked a lot about business and now we're talking about the creative part. I think the real way to think is to manage both sides. There are people who are perfect businessmen and there are people who are perfectly creative. If you're wonderfully creative but you don't have the business sense, it's all chaotic and then maybe you need to find a manager, but that in games business is not so easy, or otherwise, you won't sell the stuff, you won't have the relations. The other side is you're an excellent seller and businessman but you're not good at creating, because then you have nothing to sell. These two sides are relatively difficult to get under one head because business needs to be optimized. Business needs to be efficient, focused, whereas creativity is not like this. It's completely when people talk about getting the ideas under the showers and so on. I cannot press out a good idea between two telephone calls and then [...] negotiations and then they want an email and so on. This is really hard to let go of the effectiveness and the efficiency, and to fall back and to have peace of mind to really go deeper into thinking and create something groundbreaking new.
I mean, standard games: a nice card game, a trick taking game and so on, I'm not talking these down. You can't do standard games and yes, it's a nice game and there are 20 others like this. It's still a lot of fun. There's lots of demand for lots of games, but this is not really my ambition. My ambition, of course, is to also do groundbreaking developments, do new trends and really make a mark. This is something which I usually do over the weekend. On the weekend, I have finally taught myself I do not need to feel guilty if I don't do operational work. I can really sit there in full back. When I'm creative in the morning, I get up very early. I can really start with this and lose myself in it, and so to speak, securing these protected periods. I'm very often not doing this in the office. I mean, I'm here in the studio in my office. So, I will do that at home. I would sit there in the living room and have my laptop there and think. I'm completely free and essentially let the enjoyment, let the enthusiasm go.
I haven't answered your question because you said, "How do I it?" The point here is that there are lots of theories how people come up with creativity things, but these are just models, and if they really reflect what you're doing, it's not at all clear. There's more design thinking stuff today more than ever, but what else do you do? You start with something and you play it and then you change it and you play again and then change it. We have always done this. Today, it's called design thinking is modern. It's common sense. All of this stuff is common sense. But in a way, for me, designing has two phases. One phase is literally where I sit and close my eyes and look into this world I want to create and imagine the feelings and the emotions I want to have with the game, and then see the different components and see the game. I mean, I see it now. I see the players and then I think, "Okay. It's my turn," and so while I'm biting my fingernails and I think the experience helps there. I can really get into this. So, I can really feel it and play it and try out a lot of things, and then I go back and I analyze it and I look at it very structured. Is it sellable? Is it new? What can I do? Then it would go into discussion rounds with other people. We don't only play test, but we also sit and discuss. So this is the intuitive, creative phase in my head. Now, the good or the bad news is, once I'm convinced of a design and I have spent a lot of time in my head, the game works perfectly in my head.
Gardner: [laughs] Because podcasts are only an audio medium, I want to make sure that my listeners know that as you were describing your process, you had your eyes firmly shut. You really were visualizing the game that was in your mind. If you will, maybe the platonic version, like Plato's Cave, it looked perfect up on the wall. But now you're describing, Reiner, a process where you open your eyes, you have components, you have real play testers, and you start to figure out, "Oh, that didn't quite work in the perfect way I initially saw."
Knizia: Yes. That is when you, in modern terms, talk about prototyping, so when you make your first model and actually play it, and that's essentially the moment of truth. There is an important decision when to go to prototyping. When you go too early, then you don't really have meat on the bones and you don't get proof-of-concept because you haven't really worked it out. I'm more tending toward the other era of falling in love with my design in my head and working out things to the end degree and fine tuning it and everything, and then I put it in play testing, and then it crashes enormously and it looks completely different after the first game, and a lot of the fine tuning in my head is completely wasted. So, it's not falling in love with it. Leave it, play it at the right time. Play testing is really the heart of game design. So, that means we play it, and initially, when we play it, there are big, enormous changes in the [...] in the game and changing it. Then it is smoothened out, then it goes into fine tune. Again, we have more and more stable rules. Then it's really about getting to a 100%game; an 80% game is easy, and an 80% product is easy. I really admire Steve Jobs, because Steve Jobs, whatever personality, but Steve Jobs had absolute dedication to making a wonderful product and not compromising. Really changing the world through his non-compromising insistence. Not always present, but insistence of getting it [...].
Gardner: A great example.
Knizia: Yes. This is the effort to put in. What I've learned what I need to do then is, once I think the game is finished, then to leave it for a month, and then to take it up again, because you can't get too close to it. Then I'm looking like, not like a beginner, but then all the things feel very different and I see how a new person would experience it. That sometimes says, "Yes, it's perfect." Or sometimes says, "No," You can do something. Yes?
Gardner: Yes, Reiner, you're reminding us the importance of play testing I know for your games for years. For example, when you were living in Windsor, when you were back in England, you had school children who had come over, I'm making this up, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:00 AM systematically, and come play your games. They got the fun of playing games. You got the great benefit of having young play testers. I know you have a lot of adult play testers too, but play testing. Shakespeare said, "The play's the thing," perhaps, Knizia says, "The play testing is the thing."
Knizia: Absolutely, this is the organization of it. Of course, when we did a lot of play testing, then we play, if it's non-corona times, we play everyday, and yes, there will be different target groups because, again, there is a two step process. First of all, I would try the experienced play testers as my inner circle as we speak, until we get a stable game, but then you need to play with your audience target. You go to the kindergarten and you see how they bite on my prototypes and you could strangle them. But essentially, you get very clear feedback because you want to play it again? No, [...], far too pleasant. My criteria for a good play tester is that I constantly want to strangle them.
Because that's where they are honest and we need to be -- I work in the entertainment business as a game designer. My products are entertainment. But I'm not on the stage, so I'm not directly interacting with them. I put my entertainment into boxes. When people open the box, they expect that the entertainment comes out. That means it needs a lot of robust testing, and that's the point. There's many different people, many different groups. If you only play with one group, you develop certain conditions, how you play, certain conventions.
Knizia: Then the game looks perfectly well and then somebody else takes it and then they play it, other, perfectly fine and it doesn't work. That robustness needs to go into the design.
Gardner: Yes. Reiner, let me ask you to that end, I got a listener question. This one comes from Sarang Deshpande, and he says, "Hello, David, thank you for giving us Fools an opportunity to ask a question to Reiner." So here is Sarang's question. He said, "Hello, Reiner. My 10 year old son is an avid board gamer. He loves playing your game Lost Cities. Now, he has an idea to design a board game. He has started working on it. How would you guide a kid of his age to go from a good idea to a reasonable homemade board game that he could play with friends and family. What he's having a hard time with," says Sarang, "is keeping the rules and incentives of the game at the right level of simplicity, while still keeping the game interesting. Thank you so much. Signed, Sarang Deshpande."
Knizia: The process, I can only offer the one process, is play it with different people and see what makes most fun, be open to it, but also, if you get more ambitious, if you just do it for your family, then you can just play it in family, make the rules that family likes. If you're more ambitious and want to bring it to a wider public, you need to test it with a wider public. Then of course, you need to find a publisher. Self-publishing is not a good idea. If you find lots of publishers who want your games, then self-publishing is good. You should plan [...] self-publishers, there is a message for you. When you look at this essentially, it's testing, it's being serious about what other people say about it, and if you want to get published, of course, then the whole thing about understanding the industry, understanding other games, playing lots of games. It can also help, playing those of other games, see how they do that, not to copy, but just to get a feel for; what does this feel like? How does this feel? Then he says, the game gets too complex. That's a matter of personality. I am a scientist. This is my handwriting, I like to condense my games into very few principle rules, which hopefully are so intuitive that you have guidance on how to play. Then the people themselves become the acting part on the platform to actually bring their philosophy about how to approach the game into strategy, and that makes the game different every time.
There are the other side of people who are storytellers. But I reduce redundancy, they create redundancy, they invent lots of different details, and another event card, and another tile, and another die and another this. This sometimes gives you the impression of a very sematic game. Sometimes, you have the problem that you are administering the game more than playing it. But don't fight your personality. If the personality is more 'I like complexity,' there are people who like complexities. You cannot win them all with one game. First of all, follow your heart, find your own path and your own handwriting. But of course, don't forget the target market. Because otherwise, you will have to go to your garage.
Gardner: Wonderful advice. To think that he is already thinking about this at the age of 10 says some very good things. For us as investors, the earlier we start, the more time we have to compound our returns, so it's always very promising.
Gardner: When we hear a 10-year-old is interested, whether it's in board game design and/or in investing. Talking about complexity and simplicity reminds me, I think this has always been attributed to the American writer Mark Twain. "I'm sorry, I wrote you such a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one." Reiner, this reminds me of how hard you work to reduce your games to just a few simple devices. The way that they interact is what makes it special. But it is awfully hard work to simplify. I congratulate you, and I'm grateful for that.
Well, speaking of simplifying, I think toward the end of our discussion, I just want to ask you some simple questions and get some simple answers. That way, we can go through, because I have too many questions for the time that we have, but here we go. I've got to know you as a friend over the years, Reiner. One of my favorite things about you are some of the lines that you've delivered that show an underlying philosophy that I want to equate my listeners with. For example, I once met you for coffee and we said we would meet at 9:00 A.M, outside Starbucks and I came at 9:02, I believe. You were sitting outside Starbucks on the bench and you were very effectively looking at your watch. I believe you delivered a line something like this, "When you are late, someone is hurt. The one who's hurt should not be the one who is on time."
Knizia: Absolutely. This is a business philosophy essentially, because you convene people for a meeting, and then somebody comes late. You punish all the people who are waiting there investing their time. Therefore, I'm absolutely strict. That means I've always said, "You're late," and if it's only one minute, I mean this funny, but people get the message, we start on time. I was very grateful because I have done a very co-operative Lord of the Rings game, and when I watched the movie, they gave me the honor, I think the first sentence which is said to Gandalf says, "You are late."
Gardner: [laughs] Yes. I remember that moment. Reiner, it's a reminder. Certainly, Germans have a reputation for punctuality, well earned. You are foremost among your countrymen, but I absolutely appreciate the point and that's why I wanted my listeners to hear it. Now, speaking of pain, another of your lines that I remember is, this often happens when we're playing a board game and you are in the lead, and I make a mistake, and you win the game and then you say something to this effect, "If it does not hurt, you will not learn."
Knizia: Essentially, we only learn and change our behavior through emotions. In a way, if we want to become better players, it also needs to hurt. Not physically and not mentally, detrimentally. But yes, if you check it for reasons, I don't mind, I don't care. If you don't care about it, you're not going to change. Therefore, putting some competitiveness or some emotion into the game certainly helps the development of your playing qualities and the development of many other qualities, so yes, it needs to hurt a bit.
Gardner: Very well said. Often, if you're playing a game against Reiner, he'll probably be winning the game and he's rubbing his hands together and he's saying, "If it does not hurt, you will not learn." [laughs]
Knizia: You know what this means in investing. [...] says stock exchange is not a one-way street. Yes, you need to feel the hurt to understand what careful investing means, for example.
Gardner: [laughs] One more for you, Reiner. When you play board games, you inveterately choose a single color as your playing pieces. The color is blue. Now, as Shakespeare once wrote again, "Thereby hangs a tale," why blue, Reiner? Has that ever gotten you in trouble in a sales meeting?
Knizia: Yes. You probably know the story as I told you that before. I play blue, I don't know how it came, and we among the play testers have our own colors. Yes, people know that they can't have blue because I'm playing it. But I am so focused on this now that I had a sales meeting and I said, "Which color do you want to play?" and the lady said, "Blue," so I had to give her blue. We played it a little and I played complete nonsense because I always thought I had the blue, I was moving the blue pieces. She said, "What are you doing?" She saw that I'm a complete fool, and it was so ingrained in my mind. It's also in design. I have a very visual brain, probably. The board always has to face me the same way when we design it. It doesn't matter where I sit on the table because I know then, they're down on the left, it's a problem, I need to change some spaces. It just completely slows me if we turn over the board.
Gardner: [laughs] Creatures of habit all of us.
Knizia: But that's important, because why make it difficult for us? Why do I have to process all the time, am I red, yellow, green or whatever? I'm always blue, done, so I can concentrate on the important stuff.
Gardner: Well, I think Steve Jobs had a reputation for always just wearing a black turtleneck, that way he didn't have to think about what he was going to wear each morning. It's just mechanical and he moves on to more important things in higher callings, presumably. Well, Reiner, this has been such a delight, and thank you for joining me on Rule Breaker Investing. You told me in January when you and I had a call together that you are living today as you want to live. Now, that is so refreshing and inspiring. I say refreshing because so many people keep putting off this idea that one day they'll be happy and they'll be fulfilled, but it's always in the future, whether they ever get to it or not. I also think it's inspiring because so many of my fellow Fools and listeners get really inspired by people who have reached the mountain top of their ambitions and that they love what they see. How long has this been the case for you and how did you make that happen?
Knizia: There are no excuses, because essentially, you are the master of your own destination. We are, of course, in the lucky situation that we are not starving and not having to look for food for the next day. We have settled with respect to having reasonable finances, we have peace in our world, I have good relationships. You build it and then there are no excuses. There are accidents, there are exceptions, there are illnesses which can hit you, but otherwise, in this situation, there's no excuse not living your own life. Why not do it?
It's interesting, I was at the dentist, actually, somebody who did a surgical operation, nothing serious, but it was a pretty conversation. The guy, I met him for the first time, was absolutely relaxed. He was running these surgeries. So, he was examining me, then he went into his office and he was asking me questions about the games, and I didn't seem hurried at all. I thought, this is not a typical doctor, because usually, they have 12 patients in parallel, I'm sorry for black and white here. So, I actually asked him, "Tell me, what's your secret that you make such a relaxed life and impression, and this is not a typical thing I would have imagined." He said, "First of all, I'm the boss here, so there are no excuses, I decide. I have very able employees who can handle their own things and it is a fair decision." He said, "I'm spending 14 hours a day doing this surgery." He has kids, he has a wife, and that's all which came out of this first conversation. He says, "I can raise myself to death here for 14 hours, what's the difference? It's not going to be better, so I've taken a deliberate step not to overwhelm myself and to do what I enjoy in an enjoyable manner." That left a big impression on me, but it showed me, again, I have not reached that stage, but I'm always ambitious to get there. I'm on my best way to it.
Gardner: Wonderful. Well, you and I have talked about the dearest commodity of all, and that is, of course, for humans, is time. I remember you saying that you'd love to live forever if you could. You said to me, "Just put me in a bottle. I just want to watch and see what happens."
Knizia: Absolutely. Because our time is so exciting, so many things are happening. When we talked about the early days, the world was completely different. We did not have any smartphones to connect to the Internet, because there wasn't any Internet [laughs] and it's a completely different world. I think it accelerates, and therefore, it affects all of our life. Of course, you are talking about life from a perspective of investment, and of course, investment is all about opportunities, it's a long game, the fundamentals behind it, and these fundamentals will all be shaken by the new developments. It is highly, highly relevant, but it is highly exciting what's going to happen. I want to see it all.
Gardner: So do I, so let's keep living. Reiner Knizia, thank you for joining us on Rule Breaker Investing.
Knizia: Thank you, great honor.
Gardner: Well, Reiner certainly doesn't need me to promote anything that he is doing. That's not his purpose for coming on this podcast, but I still want to. I want you to know that we mentioned once or twice, the card game Lost Cities. Now, if you're looking for a good two player card game, you have a spouse, a partner, or a child, you'd love to play an accessible, often replayable game, Lost Cities, easily purchasable on Amazon or wherever you like to buy games. Lost Cities is a wonderful introduction to Knizia games.
Reiner also had a big hit last year with L.L.A.M.A., that's L.L.A.M.A. as you'll see. If you have, let's say, an eight-year-old kid in your household and you're looking for a good kids family card game, I can recommend L.L.A.M.A. to you. But my favorite game in the last few years from him is My City. My City is a tile laying game and it's a legacy game, Reiner's first legacy game. I mentioned those are the top games that change based on past results of those games. Well, if you're into that sort of a thing, I highly recommend My City, which we played all the way through in the year 2020. A tile laying game that just keeps getting smarter and more interesting as you play.
One more thing. You remember my mental tip trick or life hack to make your own holiday? Well, if you're a regular listener, you may even know that I made one, and it's this Thursday, February 4th, and you may celebrate it with me if you like. It's Win, Win, Win Day. It's a conscious capitalism concept. It's the only real way to create sustainable wins and growth and progress in life of the best kind, the kind that brings everyone else along with you. It's to create not just a win for you, but to create a win for you, a win for me, and a win for everybody else. This Thursday, whether you want to pause for a moment of silence, or toast with a glass of wine, or go off to a mountaintop to really think about how to create win, win, win, the importance of doing so, you are invited to celebrate this brand new holiday, the first time ever. February 2nd of every year here in the U.S. is Groundhog Day, and two days later, every year, not just in the U.S. but in the world, Win, Win, Win Day. Happy Win, Win, Win Day, winning the game of investing, the game of business, and the game of life, and trying to do it for all of us. That's it for this week. Next week, we're going to head back to the past. It's going to be Blast From The Past, Volume 5. We lasted this in July of last year where I pulled some of my favorite cardinal points from years past and brought them back into the here and now for you only on Rule Breaker Investing. In the meantime, have a great week, Fool on, and game on.