Interview with designer, Lucas Gerlach on this abstract card laying game, De Stijl. For 2-4 players, and from Quick Simple Fun games, where players are trying to have their color the most prominent in the abstract painting you are making together.

Designer, Lucas Gerlach

Thanks, Lucas for joining us to do this interview. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you choose to get into game design?

Lucas: Hey, Ryan! Thanks so much for inviting me.  Sure, I’d be happy to. I am a father of three and an elementary teacher who lives in Wisconsin. Though I grew up only a few miles from here, I’ve also lived in Nebraska, Michigan, Colorado, and China. It was while I was teaching in Shanghai that my love for board games was re-ignited. I had a wonderful group of board gaming friends there. During my last year in China, I decided to give game design a try. One of my degrees is in art education, so I’ve always had an interest in creativity, and guiding thought processes and human interaction is a part of teaching. So, for me, game design is a natural outgrowth of those interests. I love to see people come together around games. As I consider the relationship between educator and designer, one satisfying aspect of designing games is that when I work, I have an actual physical product in my hands that shows the efforts of my work. While teaching kids is rewarding, the successful education of children does not always yield quick and visible results.

Do you use games in the classroom? And if so, what do you think are the benefits of such?

Lucas: I do use games in the classroom, but I am certainly not an expert on the topic. There are a lot of benefits that come with using games in the classroom. Educational games can be used to introduce and solidify important concepts. Subject-related games that are not designed to be strictly educational help kids to develop the ability to transfer skills and knowledge, while also helping them to see the fun that can be had in developing their brains. Playing almost any game helps kids to relate socially, can teach good sportsmanship, and encourages following (or adapting) instructions. The enjoyment that comes from playing games also helps to develop a community which is an important part of having a successful learning environment.

In addition to games being used in education, there is a current educational movement that encourages the “gamification” of education. This movement turns almost the whole educational experience into a giant game or series of games. I think educational gamification has great potential, especially when it comes to motivation and buy-in from students, but I’m still working out how I can apply it within my particular classroom setting.

Your game, De Stijl was recently published by Quick Simple Fun Games. Could you share with us a little bit about how it is played?

Lucas: De Stijl is a very visual card placement game that requires you to overlap cards with each of your turns. Each turn, you choose a card to place on the central artwork that is being jointly built by all of the players. The square cards are divided into 3×3 grids of five colors. When you place a card, it must cover between 2-4 cells. De Stijl is a game of gaining the most points. Each separate area of your player color gains you a point at the end of the game, so you are looking to scatter your color as much as possible. However, you also receive significant bonus points for having the largest area of your color. It is difficult to win if you ignore either of these scoring opportunities. Another important aspect of the game is that, with each turn, you always add every players’ colors to the growing artwork. You must, therefore, consider how to overlap squares to cover or combine your rivals’ colors while working to improve your own score.

We seem to be seeing a rise in popularity of abstract games that have some randomness, for example, Sagrada and Azul.  Do you feel that De Stijl fits in that category? It seems to me that the theme kinda fits with those two as well.

Lucas: I agree that De Stijl fits in this category. I find it interesting that all three of these games also focus on a particular art style or medium as their theme. I think that may speak to a common desire for people to feel like they are part of a creative experience, that they are making something beautiful.

De Stijl, is, of course, inspired by Mondrian’s artwork. What draws you to his work?

Lucas: I find it amazing that Piet Mondrian was able to establish such a following and such distinction by using extremely basic elements in fairly raw forms. By restricting his work to primary colors and to verticals and horizontals, I think Mondrian is able to reach a part of us that is different from representational art. Mondrian was trying to present a sort of fundamental basic truth with his art, and I think he succeeded. Personally, I also really enjoy the vibrant colors and rhythms that are so apparent in his well-ordered compositions.

On a side, I think that part of the appeal of De Stijl is the way that it, like Mondrian’s work, uses extremely basic elements to construct an intriguing game.

Print and Play Prototype when it was still called Mondrian

De Stijl, actually started as a print-and-play before it was picked up by Quick Simple Fun, could you tell us the story behind the creation of the game?

Lucas: My family and I had just been to St. Louis to spend time with some friends. After that pleasant visit, it was time for the 6-hour drive back to Wisconsin. As I drove, my thoughts turned to Odd Hackwelder’s first annual microgames design contest. During those six hours, I stayed awake by mentally planning a simple micro-game based on Piet Mondrian’s artwork. I knew I wanted to experiment with overlapping, and Mondrian’s artwork perfectly fit the game I had in mind. His abstract artwork is characterized by its use of primary colors, its perpendicular lines, and its rectangles. As soon as I got home from my drive, I sketched out the card designs and had the first prototype the next day. What an amazingly productive drive that was!

I entered De Stijl into the microgames contest. BGG contests do a wonderful job of stimulating ideas and encouraging talk between designers, and De Stijl received some excellent feedback. After the contest, I continued to have some great discussions with other designers and players, both in person and over the internet, but the design remained stable for quite some time. It just seemed to work, and players enjoyed it.

Eventually, with the encouragement of Lynn Potyen, a Sheboygan game store owner, I approached a publisher about De Stijl. While this publisher did not sign the game, our discussions led to a square card format and the inclusion of a fifth player. This, however, required quite a bit of fiddling to get the balance right. Square cards meant adding three more cells to each card, and it started to get more difficult to consider all the possibilities presented by each card… a bit of a headache really. In order to get the square card design to work, I sent out a plea for help on Facebook.

A number of people agreed to print and play De Stijl. Many gave input that helped to balance and refine the game. Mick Wood, however, stood out as an amazing critic and collaborator. After playing a few solo games, Mick reached out to me with ideas for clarifying rules. As Mick began playing De Stijl with his friends and as our chats continued, several changes began to take place. First, we dealt with the mental overload caused by the need to analyze and mentally manipulated a handful of cards. Cards would instead be placed in stacks that the start player would reveal at the beginning of each round. During the round, each player would choose and play one revealed card. Then, we introduced another level of strategy by adding an end-game scoring opportunity. At the end of the game, players now gain bonus points for the largest areas … a direct contrast to the main goal of having the most individual areas. Finally, we worked on cleaning up the card design for greater playability. Mick was a huge help.

At that point, De Stijl was almost at its full maturation point. Further discussion on BGG, Facebook, and in person led to consolidating card piles into one stack and the inclusion of a score track.

Old De Stijl Prototype

It seems that De Stijl really grew with community help and effort. Do you find that the board game community is eager to help designers and would you recommend this route for designers that may need a little extra help?  

Lucas: It certainly did. In general, the board game community is a kind and generous group, and this characteristic applies to the development of games as well. I definitely recommend engaging the community in conversation during the process of game design. They are, after all, the people who will play your games. Successful game design cannot happen in isolation. Truthfully, not all feedback is useful, but bringing together many minds with the desire to make something wonderful is bound to improve what you are working on if you are wise and follow your vision. In addition, working with other gamers and designers is a great way to continue to build our truly unique community.

One of the things that stands out between the print-and-play version and the published version is that first player was allowed to place two cards at the start, to help with any 1st player disadvantage, but that rule is not in the published version. Was there a reason for taking this out?

Lucas: One challenge to overcome in De Stijl’s design has always been a slight last-player advantage, due to their opportunity to have the final influence on the developing artwork. Originally, I dealt with this by allowing the first player to play two cards. This “fix” seemed to be more of a perceived solution than an actual solution.

Another challenge (that eventually affected how I dealt with the first-player disadvantage) was the visual overload some players felt as they decided which cards to play. Originally, players held a number of cards in their hands, but it just became too much to look at. To deal with that problem, cards were placed into a gallery from which all players would choose a card. Because the gallery was not refreshed until the final player finished the round, the first player received an advantage of being able to choose from a wider variety of cards, while the last player only had two options.

The last-player advantage was further mitigated by rotating the first-player with each passing round, thereby giving all players the associated advantages and disadvantages at some point during the game.

Unlike most games where you lay cards (or tiles), you cannot just place orthogonally to a card. You MUST cover some of a card, however, you may only cover 2 to 4 cells (all cards have 9 cells). No more, no less. What does this rule add to the game?   

Lucas: This rule is pretty critical to the game and adds a number of things.

The “cover 2 to 4 cells” rule definitely encourages a bit of “take that” kind of player interaction. Covering my color means that you just took away my points. Of course, you’re also adding a bit of my color to the board, but how you place that card determines whether you give me another point or not.

The rule injects quite a bit of defensive strategy into the game. If I turn my card so that my color is on the outside edge, my opponent could cover my color. If I rotate my card so that my color is in an interior area, my opponents may not be able to legally cover my color, so I protect my points.

The rule also gives a couple kinds of boundaries. This guideline for card placement helps players to predict where opponents might choose to place cards. They can’t just place cards anywhere. It discourages the developing painting from becoming too sprawling, which helps with table space and with creating a visually pleasing final product.

In your mind, what makes the game stand out to other card/tile laying games out there on the market?

Lucas: For me, four main attributes make De Stijl stand out.

  • First is its simplicity. It is extremely easy to learn, making it quite an accessible game, even though players tend to put a lot of thought into each turn.
  • Second is its level of interaction. Every card that is laid will affect the score of every player.
  • Third is its visual nature. Players visually manipulate cards to determine their placement. Visual manipulation is not a skill used in too many hobby games.
  • The fourth characteristic is probably the most apparent one. It has a unique visual style that draws people in and is reminiscent of creating an artwork.

What was the best piece of feedback you received from a playtester when you were designing De Stijl?

Lucas: The best piece of player feedback was when Mick noted a certain difficulty in catching up when a player is behind. He suggested adding a secondary method of scoring, which became the end-of-game bonuses for the largest areas. This bonus scoring adds a great level of tension that really increases the level of strategic thought as players seek to balance “most strokes” with “largest strokes.”

In designing De Stijl what was the hardest hurdle you had to cross and how did solve the problem?

Lucas: Throughout De Stijl’s design process, I kept on coming back to the issue of visual overload. For quite a while, players held cards in their hands. It was a lot to look at and mentally manipulate. To deal with this, I first lowered the number of cards to be held. Then, the cards moved from a 2×3 grid to a 3×3 grid… even more to look at. I had to play with different color layouts to find layouts that would not present too large a number of options. I ended up grouping colors so that like colors were less scattered around each card. The final way I dealt with visual overload was to totally remove cards from players’ hands. With each available card clearly visible in the “gallery,” players did not need to shuffle through their cards to find the perfect option. To be sure, there still is a level of visual complexity, especially when viewing the final “painting.” For players who might want to simplify point counting, I suggest placing tokens on each of your strokes of color and counting the tokens.

Quick Simple Fun published the game, how did you end up getting hooked up with them and what was the best part working with them?

Lucas: In 2015, I went to my first big con, GenCon, and attended the designer/publisher speed dating event. For those unfamiliar with this event, designers sit at a table with their game while publishers rotate from table to table. Designers get about five minutes to pitch to each of the publishers. The game I presented (Spyzinger, a spy-themed pick-up-and-deliver dexterity game) was well received by a number of publishers including Patrick Havert of Quick Simple Fun. (Unfortunately, that game has been dropped by the publisher who signed it.) At my table, I also had sell sheets for two additional games, De Stijl being one of them. Patrick saw the sell sheet and thought it looked like a good fit for Quick Simple Fun. The day after the event, I brought him a copy of De Stijl. A few weeks later the game was signed.

So, designers, I definitely recommend attending the designer/publisher speed dating events and bringing sell sheets of other games.

Lucas Gerlach (right) showing off De Stijl at a con.

What has been your favorite part of designing De Stijl?

Lucas: My favorite part of designing De Stijl has really been the conversations I’ve had with people. Though I’m not naturally a great social talker, I really enjoy conversing with others, particularly when it comes to something like collaborative problem-solving. Each time someone new expressed interest in De Stijl, it was invigorating (and still is). It was wonderful to connect with people about playing the game and about what new things we could try to make it better. Sometimes those conversations led to connections that were more personal, and that was deeply satisfying. I hope that De Stijl continues to be a game that encourages people to connect.

If you had to describe De Stijl in just 3 adjectives, what 3 would you choose?

Lucas: Elegant, thinky, beautiful

When you look at your now published game, what makes you the proudest that you designed this game?

Lucas: I am most proud of how De Stijl is both simple (in rules) and complex (in thought-processes) in a way that can appeal to people of all ages, encouraging a kind of thinking that can lead to improved connections in the brain. I know that’s kind of a big statement, but there it is. At a recent local con, a retired teacher was talking with me about research showing the correlation of visual manipulation games to success in mathematics. It’s pretty awesome that my game can encourage people to have fun and grow their brains.

What was the biggest lesson you learned as a designer that you learned through designing De Stijl?

Lucas: I think the biggest lesson I learned was to strive for elegance of design. Some of my other developing games have been a bit more complex. Since designing De Stijl, I have begun to focus more on games with simple rulesets that encourage complex thinking. I have learned that games like this are made more interesting when a player has conflicting goals or when opponents are encouraged to play mind games with each other.

As we come to a close, we noted that at the start of this interview game originally started a print and play. For those out there they like to make their own print and play game, what advice do you have for them?

Lucas: Enter print-and-play contests. There are lots of them. Contests can be inspiring and help to hone your skills. Don’t ignore contest results, but also don’t take them too seriously. Your game might be promising but just didn’t appeal to the people judging that contest. (Solo-able games often seem to get a bit more attention.) Continue to work on promising games once the contest is over.

Make sure your files are formatted to be printed easily. I mark cutlines and type assembly instructions around the edge of the document. It also helps to have a black and white version if that works well for your game.

Get other people to read and critique your rules. Clear rules are ultra-important.

Talk with other print-and-play designers. Play their games. Read their rules. Share your thoughts. Those conversations will engender a lot of goodwill and will give you a better idea of what makes game designs good or bad. That will, in turn, enable you to make your own designs better.

Involve the boardgame community in developing your game. Ask for help. When you do so, post pictures, links, and give a solid pitch. Ask specific questions, mentioning areas of concern or development, but don’t get too wordy.

Thank you, Lucas, for taking time out of your schedule to do this interview. De Stijl is out now in the United States from Quick Simple Fun Games. 

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