Bruno Faidutti: Professor of Chaos

Knucklebones CoverThis is a reprint of an article written in May, 2006 for first publication in the November, 2006 issue of the now-defunct Knucklebones magazine. Because of its origins, this article is more introductory and (hopefully) more polished than many of my online writings. Despite the original source of this article, this blog is in no way associated with Jones Publishing or Knucklebones Magazine.

Eurogames have been rocking the U.S. game market for almost a decade now. Most of them have traditionally come from German designers like Reiner Knizia and Klaus Teuber. However an increasing number of Eurogames are being designed by one of Germany’s closest neighbors: France.

Bruno Cathala (Shadows over Camelot), Serge Laget (Mare Nostrum), and Christophe Boelinger (Dungeon Twister) are just a few of the notable French designers whose games are now being published in the United States, thanks primarily to Days of Wonder and Asmodee Editions. However, the vanguard of French game design is Bruno Faidutti, with some 30 gaming titles to his name.

Getting Into the Biz

Bruno Faidutti is a designer who loves games. He first discovered modern board games when studying at college in the early 1980s. There he played Cosmic Encounter, Dune, Battlecars, and other American favorites. Designing games was a natural next step. “My favorite hobbies are reading and gaming,” Faidutti says. “I would have liked to write novels, but I’m far too lazy for it. By chance, designing games requires less time and concentration.”

Following university, Faidutti began teaching history and social science. He also designed his first games, which were published in a magazine called Jeux et Strategie in the mid-1980s. In the years that followed his first two boxed games, Baston (1987) and Valley of the Mammoths (1991), appeared. To this day, Faidutti continues to both teach and publish games, even though his success at board games would allow him to design full time.

“I usually have more fun designing games than teaching,” Faidutti says, “but I don’t
think I could stand to have a job with no obvious social usefulness, and with no contact with people younger than and different from me and my friends.”

Faidutti has always been a bit of a chameleon in his game design. He says, “My designs are influenced by the games I am playing or the games I am seeing being played around me. When I played Avalon Hill monster games, I mostly designed similar games. Like novels, games don’t come out of the blue. They come from a given designer, at a given time, in a given social situation.” This is reflected in his first few designs, which were similar in style to the American games he played in college. In those days, games were often simulations, about modeling reality first and doing so with clean, enjoyable game systems only second. Baston and Valley of the Mammoths were thus both pretty traditional American-style wargames, with Baston centering on a barroom brawl and Valley of the Mammoths on cavemen surviving in a cinematic prehistoric world.

In the mid- to late 1990s, German-style games like The Settlers of Catan began to find their way outside of Germany. Faidutti thus had the good luck to break into the American game market just when it was becoming interested in European games. He had his chess variant, Knightmare Chess (1991), published by Steve Jackson Games in 1996. Faidutti says this was “by sheer luck.” However it also gave him the credentials to contact other US publishers.

French Game Design & Chaos

Meanwhile, Faidutti had started playing German games himself; by the late 1990s his own designs would reflect an entirely different style of play. These new games of his, beginning with Corruption (1999)—which was published in the United States by Atlas Games—would contain the strong theming of American games, the robust mechanics of German games, and also some quirks of their own. Together, this would form a French style of play which is reflected not only in Faidutti’s work, but also that of other French designers, such as Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, each of whom would later collaborate with Faidutti.

One of the unique quirks of French designs is they aren’t afraid to include a bit of randomness. Boomtown (2004) actually includes a die to determine gold mine production, but that’s a rarity among Faidutti’s designs. Instead most Faidutti games feature a sort of randomness that could only be named “chaos”.

This chaos usually comes about through special cards or other sorts of events that can dramatically change the face of the game in a single turn. In Castle (2000), players alternate placing characters within a castle, and each character placed can have dramatic effects on the rest of the playing field. Draco and Co. (2001) and Dragon’s Gold (2001) are two other Faidutti fantasy games that feature cards which can shake up the game. On the other hand, Democrazy (2000) allows players to pass laws which can have big effects on all the other players’ scores, while China Moon (2003) is an abstract game of hopping frogs that includes chaos largely due to the fact that the playing field can entirely change from one turn to another.

Though chaos is a feature of Faidutti’s later, French game style, it was actually there from the start. Faidutti’s 1991 game, Knightmare Chess, itself introduced chaos to chess by giving players cards that they could play before, after, or in place of regular turns.

“Pure chaos makes no sense,” says Faidutti. “Pure luck provides no challenge. However, I like games with lots of interaction between the players, and in which short-term decisions are more critical than the big, strategic decisions. A game with no luck and no interaction is little more than an IQ test, and a game aimed at determining who has the highest IQ is not much more interesting to me than a game aimed at seeing who hits the hardest.”

A Tale of Two Castles

Faidutti’s best-known game is the fantasy-themed Citadels (2000). In this card game players set out to create a medieval city by each turn drawing cards or taking gold coins, then using those gold coins to build the buildings portrayed on the cards. The catch is a set of “character” cards.

There’s an assassin, a thief, a magician, a king, a bishop, a merchant, an architect, and a warlord. Each turn some of the characters are discarded and the rest are passed around the table, with each player secretly selecting one. These characters allow players to take gold or coins from other players, to take additional gold from the bank, or even to cause another player to lose a turn.  The secret selection of these roles introduces bluffing and deductive aspects to the game, as you try and figure out what other players might be doing and how they might impact your own game. These cognitive gameplay elements add a lot to what would otherwise be a pretty simple resource management game.

Citadels is Bruno Faidutti’s own work; however, it was originally intended to be a collaboration with Serge Laget. Faidutti actually does a lot of collaborations, with a very wide and varied group of designers. He’s worked with Frenchmen Pierre Clequin, Serge Laget, Gwenaël Bouquin, and Bruno Cathala, but also Italian Leo Colovini, German Michael Schacht, and Americans Ted Cheatham, Mike Selinker, and Alan Moon. Bruno Faidutti might well be the most international game designer around.

Faidutti says he enjoys collaborations because “four handed designs are much easier to finalize. When one designer stalls, the other often has the right ideas. When one is going into a dead end, the other can ring the alarm. But the main reason is more personal: it’s a good way to stay in contact with other designers. It gives reasons to meet, phone or
email. It makes game design a more social activity.”

For the Citadels collaboration, Faidutti and Laget each set off on their own to design a first draft of the game, planning to later combine the best elements of each. They had just a few core concepts in mind. They knew it would be a card game and that it would feature both characters and locations set in a medieval city. However, the games ended up pretty diametrically opposed. Faidutti’s game had 8 character cards and 60 locations, while Laget’s had 60 character cards and 5 locations. Faidutti’s game focused on bluffing while Laget’s instead featured very tactical gameplay.

In the end Faidutti published his own Citadels and then he and Laget worked together to create Castle based on Laget’s original design. The success of Citadels speaks for itself. It’s been published in over twenty languages and has sold over two hundred thousand copies. It’s a classic in Germany and a huge success in Holland. It continues to be published in the United States by Fantasy Flight Games.

Of its success, Faidutti says, “It’s a game I really like, so I’m glad of it, but sometimes I can’t help but feel a bit sad that a game like Fist of Dragonstones or Corruption, which creates the same kind of gaming experience for me, didn’t have the same success.”

Gaming & Ethics

One of Faidutti’s most interesting designs remains Terra (2003), published by Days of Wonder. Faidutti was asked by the Barcelona International Cultural Forum to produce a game about “peace, cultural diversity, and sustainable development.” The project was sponsored by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which promotes international collaboration through education, science, and culture.

Faidutti developed a simple card game, where each player is given resources (in the form of cards) and can choose to use them to resolve world “crises” that occur. However, players also have an alternative: instead of using their cards for the joint good, they can instead store them away and individually score them as sets. However, if too many sets are stored away, the crises aren’t solved, the world is overcome, and everyone loses.

Faidutti explains that the gameplay of Terra centers on “Olsen’s paradox” or “the freerider problem.” This paradox argues that people will not generally engage in collective action, because doing so has a cost to them, and they will receive the benefits whether they participate or not. However, paradoxically, if no one participates then there will be no benefits at all.

Faidutti embedded a lot of philosophy about capitalism and the modern world in this game. He says, “I would like this game to show that though it has some efficiency and
cannot be set aside if we want our lives to be interesting, free competition doesn’t mechanically achieve the best possible world, and must therefore be organized.”

The gameplay of Terra is tense. Usually some players are selfish and win and other players are selfless and lose. It’s not entirely a game that you can play well. However the conversations that Terra inevitably generates after it’s played are interesting and often insightful.

Despite being a teacher, Faidutti doesn’t believe in creating educational games. He thinks games should be fun. Nonetheless Terra does a great job of highlighting real global problems.

The Past & Future

Since 1999 Faidutti has been publishing 3 or 4 games almost every year. 2006 has been another good year, with new games including the territory-control game Mission: Red Planet, published by Asmodee, and the travel game Silk Road, published by Z-Man Games. He also revised Warrior Knights for Fantasy Flight Games; it’s an old American-style game originally published in the 1980s, and in some ways it brings Faidutti back to his wargaming origins.

Faidutti’s backlist of games continues to stay in print, and it includes many classics. Faidutti says, “I’m proud of Knightmare Chess because it’s a game like no other, of Mystery of the Abbey because the design was a real challenge, and of Citadels because so many gamers like it.”

We can all hope that the releases from 2006 and the future will soon become Faidutti classics as well.

American Ludography 

Most of Faidutti’s games have been published in the United States by Days of Wonder, Asmodee Editions, Fantasy Flight Games, and other companies.

  • Warrior Knights (2006) with Pierre Clequin & Friends
  • Mission: Red Planet (2006) with Bruno Cathala
  • Silk Road (2006) with Ted Cheatham
  • Stonehenge (2006) anthology game
  • The Hollywood Card Game (2005) with Michael Schacht
  • Boomtown (2004) with Bruno Cathala
  • Knock! Knock! (2004) with Gwenaël Bouquin
  • China Moon (2003)
  • Queen’s Necklace (2003) with Bruno Cathala
  • Terra (2003)
  • Fist of Dragonstones (2002) with Michael Schacht
  • Draco & Co (2001) with Michael Schacht
  • Dragon’s Gold (2001)
  • Castle (2000) with Serge Laget
  • Citadels (2000)
  • Democrazy (2000)
  • Corruption (1999)
  • Knightmare Chess (1996) with Pierre Clequin
  • Mystery of the Abbey (1996) with Serge Laget
  • Valley of the Mammoths (1989)

Author’s Note: Six years ago, Knucklebones offered a great opportunity — the chance to write about board games (which, clearly, I regularly do) and get paid for it. Thus, I wrote almost a dozen board game articles for professional publication over a year and a half period. When I contracted with Knucklebones I gave them what’s generally called “first publication rights”. They got a guarantee that my articles hadn’t been published before and that they’d get to be the first to bring them to print. They also got the right to reprint the articles in the future, but their license was non-exclusive — which means that other people could do the same thing. More notably, I held onto the copyright.

If I’d wanted I could have reprinted the articles as soon as they appeared in print, but I didn’t see much point when Knucklebones was publishing them very attractively in a magazine that they put out every two months like clockwork. So, that non-exclusivity seemed pretty irrelevant.

Six years later, I’m happy I held onto my ownership of the articles. The last I heard anything of Knucklebones was in early 2008, when word was that Jones Publishing was trying to sell the magazine. I’ve heard nothing since, so I assume that the magazine is really, honestly dead at this point. Rather than my articles being dead too, I’m instead offering them here on the ‘net. —SA, 7/23/12

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2 thoughts on “Bruno Faidutti: Professor of Chaos

  1. I appreciate getting to see the old Knucklebones articles. I was a late subscriber, so I only have the last few issues.

    Great article about one of my favorite designers. My kids love Diamant/Incan Gold or whatever you call the combined version we have put together. Queen’s Necklace may be my favorite 3 player game and my wife loves Citadels. I recently played Lost Temple, which is a modified version of Citidels where you race to the finish instead of collecting points.

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