A Conversation with Peer Sylvester

Peer Sylvester is a German game designer who doesn't just design with the same acumen and precision engineering as his fellow countrymen. What makes him stand out to me is his use of different and always interesting themes in his games, which I would have to say makes him less German. To put his work into context, he’s designed more Asian themed games than pretty much any other Asian designer I know, and I’m not talking about games about sushi, ninjas or pandas, but thoughtful and well-researched games about Singapore, Thailand, India, Philippines and the upcoming Polynesia. His use of meaningful Asian themes as well as the harmonious balance between theme and mechanics were a strong influence on me as a budding game designer years ago. In particular, Peer’s games like King of Siam and Singapore spoke to me and told me that you could design great games with not just great themes, but with themes that are an integral part of your identity. And so, because our paths crossed due to Spiel Digital, I took the chance to sit down and speak to one of the designers who was an inspiration and influence to me all these years.


Daryl:


Could you tell me a little bit about your experience in Asia and about how the board game scene was like when you were there?


Peer:


I worked in Bangkok as a teacher from mid 2003 to late 2004. I really liked the time there! However, back then there wasn’t any board game scene in Bangkok yet, (at least none that I was aware of) so I only played board games when friends or family visited me during that time. My wife and I did take a trip to Singapore though and played in the Settlers café, that to my knowledge was opened quite recently back then.

When I came back to Europe the scene in Asia exploded ☺


King of Siam was one of the games that influenced me a lot personally in terms of seeing a Western game designer use a theme that was really close to my heart (I also have a fascination with Thai history and its culture, and recently also designed Political Mess, a game themed around Thai politics). What aspect of Thailand did you want to express through your game, and how do the mechanics reflect this?


Living in Thailand I was curious about the history of the country of course and I found it fascinating that Thailand managed to not get colonized. Since that was also the time of great reforms in Thailand by the King, I imagined there would be some opposition behind the scenes. As there were no open animosities, I made an area majority game that doesn’t have direct conflict, only the exertion of influence.


In such a game a question is always: What happens in a tie? I interpreted that a tie in this context of a struggle could not be resolved by compromise, so the unified front would have cracks and the British would march in. Of course that's very much “inspired by real events” and not so much “historical”.

The prototype for King of Siam

King of Siam is not just a game with a great theme, but the mechanics and theme feel seamless. Looking back on the game, do you have anything that you would change in terms of the design or the theme, or is there anything you think you could do now to improve the game further?



Not really. The King is Dead 2nd Edition has a small rule change and there are some variants, but those are more an option than a necessity. If I would have one wish at all, is if I could have come up with a simple way to play it with 5 players, but I think I would have to expand everything to achieve that and the beauty lies in the simplicity I think.



For the game Singapore, you told me that you were inspired by a visit to the National Museum. What were you inspired by and how did you express this in the game?


The idea of basically building a big city in a swamp out of nearly nothing was appealing. I also learned about the struggles with the triads (especially in the time Raffles was not there) and wanted to incorporate that.

Peer in Singapore in 2004

In retrospect, do you have anything that you would change for Singapore in terms of the design or the theme, or is there anything you think you could do now to improve the game further? 


I’m not sure if I would touch the theme at all, because of the colonist connotations - and because there are so many Singaporean game designers who know much better of their history than me and would certainly create a much richer and thematic game than I did.


But theme aside, I think there are some things that could be improved - the illegal actions for example feel a bit underused as you can usually avoid them if you want (I did design an expansion that would focus more on those, but since the game did not do well it was never published).


A clan board for Peer's unreleased expansion for Singapore

Points duly noted - we will do our best to live up to your high expectations. In general, what is your design approach when it comes to games that deal with historical or geographical topics like these - do you base your foundation in the theme or mechanics first, or both?  


I research a lot. Then I think what parts I feel must be representative of that specific time. I usually know how a game about that topic should feel, and I look for mechanisms that transport this feeling - if I can't find any, I won't use that theme.


That being said: I have a long list of ideas for mechanisms and if I design a game I look through the list to find those that might fit. The opposite also sometimes happens: I have a cool mechanism and go through my list of themes or unfinished concepts to look where it would fit. So my answer to the old question “Theme or mechanism first?” is “Both!”


We have very similar approaches to game design then, amongst other things! Which other countries in Asia have you visited that would inspire you to make a game about? Are there other countries in Asia that you would really like to visit but haven't had the chance to yet?  


I've also visited Malaysia, Laos, China, Hong Kong and the Philippines. My wife is from the Philippines so naturally I have a connection to that country and I have several concepts for games about Filipino history - The People power movement and the War of Independence mainly (I am really interested in revolutions and freedom movements).


I always wanted to see Angkor Wat, but sadly never made it. Japan and South Korea are also quite high on my bucket list - but I really love to travel, so there is hardly a country where I don’t want to go ☺



The game Singapore (from BGG)

We talked a little bit about appropriation of themes from other cultures and how it goes both ways, with a number of Asian publishers making games about European or medieval or even cowboy themes. What do you think is different about your games that make them feel like 'genuine' Asian games? And what are your thoughts on appropriation?


I'm not sure if I call my games genuine Asian games, since I’m not from Asia. But I know what you mean of course. I think I owe it to the people from countries where I set my games, that I don’t treat the theme just as “a theme”, but to put effort in it to take the theme (and the people and their culture and history) seriously. “The Far East” is not just a pretty background, it’s a real place, with real people and I think Western publishers tend to forget this.


That’s a very quoteworthy statement and also very meaningful to hear. What can Asia learn from Germany in terms of board games, and vice versa?


Germany can learn from Asia by incorporating a broader spectrum of themes as well as types of games. Asia is incredibly creative with themes, but also with trends like “micro games”.

I'm not sure if I know the Asian scene (which is quite a broad term anyway, considering there are so many countries with their own games) well enough to make a judgement the other way around.


I think you were being polite, but there’s obviously lots that Asia (broadly speaking) can learn from Germany, not least game design itself! Thankfully, German designers like yourself bear the gold standard for us to look up to. Let's end on a fun note - as a German board game designer, writer and fan, what would you like to see happen in Asia in terms of the board game scene? Are there any specific themes or topics that you are particularly fond of?


That’s a tricky question, because what I like most are the surprises and the creativity. I would like there to be more Asian games about cultural or political/historical elements, so I can learn about them. Games are a great way to learn about a culture and too few games - no matter where there are from - reflect that.


Peer and the King of Siam prototype (from BGG)

Postscript:

One of the highlights for me at last year's Spiel, since there was nothing much to speak of this year, was meeting with a line of German kids who came to get their copies of Overbooked autographed (I had assumed no one would show up). Surprisingly, Peer himself had already played some of my games and told me he personally enjoyed Remember Our Trip. I can only hope that my games give these kids the enjoyment and inspiration the same way that Peer lit a spark in me through his games and game design, thus completing a very fruitful and meaningful circle.