The Italian Design Scene, Part One: The Analysis

In the last few years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of Italian games being produced and being made available in America. A lot of this is due to the hard work of Mayfair Games, Z-Man Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and to a lesser extent Rio Grande Games in getting Italian games to the American market, but I think we’re also seeing a new flood of Italian creativity, a renaissance if you would.

Over this week and next, I’m going to look at this Italian creativity, offering up my best outsider’s view of the Italian game design scene. First up I’m going to discuss some of the more analytical stuff, featuring a look at the character of Italian game design and the network of Italian game designers.

Thanks to Andrea Ligabue, who’s contributions to BoardGameNews gave me some insights for this article, and who was also kind enough to read early copies of these articles and to offer comments, clarifications, and additions.

The Italian National Character

Last December I wrote an article about schools of game design, and of the Italians I said I wasn’t sure quite what their “average” game design was. Several months later I feel like I can put the overarching idea of Italian game design into a single word: “tough”.

Italian design feels at the same time like the designers have never played another game, because they do things so wacky that I’m befuddled over the choices, and that they have, because despite the newness and strangeness, their designs still tend to work … at least more often than not.

However, I also think Italian designers do one other thing which tends to make their games look alien to me: they depend upon the intelligence of their players. As I wrote in my 2005 year in review, I believe that German games have been getting simpler and more family oriented for a number of years. The Italians are releasing games in a different model. They have been publishing family-oriented games — it’s clearly more than half of daVinci’s releases — but at the same time they’re also releasing “tough” games which require real thought.

To offer a few examples of this first major element of Italian game design:

  • Alexandros and Go West are Leo Colovini designs which depend upon players choosing when to score, as I mentioned in my overview of Colovini. This is a pretty obvious case of depending on players being intelligent enough to know when to do the right thing.
  • Il Principe is another example of a game needing its players to be smart. The auctioning is so open-ended, that you have to know what to bid in a way much deeper and more meaningful than in most auctions. Further, the requirements for building are so precise, that if you purchase badly, you can end up unable to do anything.
  • Siena is another game that is tremendously open-ended: there are three roles in the game, and you can choose to become a merchant or a banker whenever you have the minimum funds necessary, but the best time to do so can be a totally open question.

In general: Italian games often give players many more choices and many more open-ended choices, thus requiring more thoughtfulness and a better understanding of the game’s strategy.

A second element that shows up in a lot of Italian design is what I call an overloading of choices. This generally goes to game complexity, and is a lot of what makes Italian games “tough” for me. 

Il Principe was the game that really highlighted this issue for me. Overloading shows up throughout the game. For example, when you build a city in Il Principe you spend cards. Directly that gets you the points for the city and lets you place some board-based majority-control tokens, but indirectly it also gives you the card majorities you need to collect roles. And roles in turn can give you cards, shields, or victory points. Many choices can have multiple, independent outcomes.

Many other Italian games include overloading:

  • Lucca Citta overloads card playing. It affects your sets, other players’ scoring, your points, and your turn order.
  • Oltremare overloads a lot of different elements into each card: value, how many cards you can hold, how many cards you can play, pirates, ship movement, card draw, and money(!).
  • Siena overloads actions related to the three classes (peasant, merchant, banker). Whenever you take an action it can aid players in each of the other classes.

I’m not convinced that overloading is the be-all and end-all of Italian game complexity, but it does seem to be a pretty unique feature, and not one seen to the same extent in other national game design characters.

I also think many Italian games include a third element: uneven development. The Italian game design scene is really just a few years old, so it’s not that much a surprise that developers are still learning the ropes, but I suspect it contributes to the “difficulty” of Italian games just as much as the other two, more positive, elements do.

Six Degrees of Italy

Though I say the Italian game design is just a few years old, there have nonetheless been game companies in Italy for quite some time. However, the older companies seemed mainly to be oriented around roleplaying. With Quality Games in 1994 and Venice Connection in 1995 there was more of a move toward board & card game design, just around when The Settlers of Catan appeared in Germany. However, German-style board games didn’t really start showing up in Italy until 2000.

As a result, today the companies still seem very young. In addition, Italian designers seem scattered. Some are old-time gamers who are familiar with the genre and may even have some older publications under their belt. However, there’s also a number of new designers in Italy who are entering the industry because it’s so quickly growing, but don’t necessarily have a good understanding of it. (For the most part it’s the old-time designers whose work is going international, while most of the new designers aren’t showing up outside of Italy.)

Part of the newness of the Italian design scene can be seen when you plot out the “Six Degrees of Italy”, using the same methods as The Six Degrees of Bruno Faidutti. There are nexuses around the older companies, Venice Connection and Quality Games. Meanwhile newer companies like daVinci Games and Nexus Games are much more fractured and some new designers don’t show up at all in the interconnections. Leo Colovini and Andrea Angiolino each form mini-networks, but they’re distinct. There are many more subgraphs of Italian designers who haven’t worked with anyone else.

I suspect that today’s Italy is in a similar situation to the US of the late 1970s or Germany of the 1980s, with lots of enthusiastic designers finally getting the opportunity to put out their games to a wider audience. Greater complexity and more innovation seem to walk hand-in-hand with this period of early game design.

Six Degrees of Italy
The numbers refer to interviews by Andrea Ligabue that were previously on BGN before it was eaten by BGG. Some now can be found on il ludologo.

Conclusion

So that’s my first take on Italian game design. Next week I’m going to provide a quick reference to Italian games, with a look at award winners and game producers.


Author’s Note: A second article did indeed follow on the next week. It includes an updated and expanded version of the Six Degrees of Italy chart.  I’ll have more comments there. —SA, 7/24/12

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