How Brett Gilbert Makes Games

Tell us about yourself - Who are you? What do you do?

I’m Brett, and I design games. I’ve done various other things, too, like make books and design websites, but I now consider my earlier career choices as bumps in the road; should have been making games all along.

If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try?

The catalogue isn’t vast, so it wouldn’t take you very long to play all of them, but if you were to only play one, I’d suggest that “Divinare” might be a good place to begin. It’s my first published game, and one that I continue to be very, very happy with. Underneath the beautifully baroque costume that Asmodee gave it, is the beating heart of a simple family game, with a very pure idea behind it. It perhaps never found all of the audience Asmodee hoped it would, although it did receive a ‘Spiel des Jahres Recommended’ badge of honour in 2013, which was a real thrill — and something I never stop mentioning to people!


One fact that we probably don’t know about you:

I loved LEGO as a child, and as a grown up I was incredibly fortunate to get to work with the team responsible for LEGO Games, primarily using my editorial skills to write their rules. My favourite sets were the four Heroica games: such a fun product! And my greatest achievement was proposing an alternate board layout for the Waldurk Forest set — a layout that was eventually used to represent the model on the front of the box. I actually helped design a LEGO set!


What tabletop games (including digital board/card games) are you playing most right now?

Prototypes! If there’s an opportunity to play, then playing a prototype takes priority — and there are always several to choose from, and you can simply never playtest enough. Beyond the usual crop of physical prototypes all bristling for my attention, I have (as it happens!) been developing ‘Quarta’, a digital board game for iOS that I have designed with an old friend of mine, the musician Peter Chilvers. In terms of plays logged in the past 12 months, the hundreds and hundreds of plays of Quarta I have under my belt far outstrip any analogue game.

What are your all-time favorite tabletop games?

As children, our favourite by far was “Sorry”: a true classic. If you’ve never played, it’s essentially just Ludo with the dice throws mapped to cards, but those cards give specific movement results special meanings. And that’s actually a really smart and fun idea that lifts it above its ‘roll and move’ heritage — and in the 1920s it would have been positively avant garde.

As an adult, and looking at the modern board game catalogue, there can only be one answer: Carcassonne. I have the base game plus a variety of the expansions, and a curious Darwinian process, over the course of many, many games, has lead to a preferred set of tiles and rules, which is almost certain to have rendered the version of the game I have played most often quite distinct from anyone else’s. Its (original!) simplicity is something to be applauded, but it has something else, something that few games have, something which equips it for both indefinite survival and an effortless devotion: charm.

What draws you to make games?

“In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance.”
― Jeanette Winterson

That might sound altogether too serious and po-faced, but there is more than a grain of truth in it. Game design is absolutely about reconciling those twin opposites, and the playful mission is inevitably intertwined with a personal one.

What are you not naturally good at, that you’ve learned to do for your work? Do you have a team to help with the tasks you’re not so good at?

I am not, to use the corporate terminology of the Belbin test, a “completer finisher”, so if there is one thing I have learned to do, or at least discovered the real value of, it’s collaboration. There are many benefits to designing with other people — assuming you find the right companions! — but one of biggest is that there’s someone else to tell you to “get on with it!”

Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product?

I’ll go with answer (b): ‘lack thereof’. It’s probably a bit trite to say that ideas can come from anywhere, but it’s true. The next step, however, is to be ready to capture them (and also to give yourself the space to have them in the first place), so I am never without my trusty notebook.

Once there’s an idea to get my teeth into, the ‘process’ is really just one of grinding through prototypes and playtests, there’s no magic formula. Which is to say, that if you don’t actually make something and actually play it (over and over) you can’t know what you have. There will be revelatory moments on that journey, and they are when the really important stuff happens that pushes a game along, but you can’t hope to skip the grind; it’s a necessary evil.


What game design-related media do you consume on a regular basis?

Hardly any, to be honest. There is a lot of good stuff out there: blogs, podcasts, books — but the *really* good stuff comes from people. If you want to learn about game design, ask people to play your games and then get them to tell you what they think as honestly as possible. Some of them, most of the time, probably won’t like what you’ve made, or won’t have fun. That’s not their fault, not even a little bit; it’s yours. So listen up!

What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without?

Apart from my sketchbook and favourite pen (and it’s worth figuring out what your favourite pen is, and then buying a box of them!), I do rely on my MacBook Pro. I am a long time user of an aging installation of the graphics package Fireworks, and that’s where I go to create mockups of game components and play around with things and see how the pieces fit.

Unlike probably every other right-thinking game designer, I enjoy writing rules, and usually try to do that as comprehensively as possible as early as possible, often even before the first prototype or playtest has hit the table. Of course this means that a lot of the actual words and spaces have to get thrown away, but for me the act of trying to capture in print the game I think I have in my head can be incredibly revealing. The process of abstracting game concepts into the written word forces you to think about those ideas differently.

Rules writing is as much a part of the true process of design as anything else.


What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest? How do you find playtesters?

Everyone knows that there’s no such thing as ‘too much playtesting’, so any playtesting philosophy that espouses anything else is deeply flawed. Genuinely early playtesting can be risky, in that it has the power to kill off ideas before their time and before they have had the chance to develop into something more viable. But playtesting is risky anyway: after all, it’s an invitation for all those aforementioned people to pin you down and tell you how awful it was! (Even worse: “I don’t care about your game.” — Ouch!)

In terms of actually finding playtesters, I am lucky that the game design community in the UK is strong, and that I have helped foster a weekly Playtest UK meetup in Cambridge at my local pub. Family and friends, however willing, can only take you so far. The company of other designers will help, as will any and all chances to get your prototypes in front of the only constituency that matters: the public!


What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them?

The chasm between the design process and actually getting published can be wide and deep; if you want an obstacle: there it is! If your objective is to design professionally, then connecting with and fostering relationships with publishers is a required art. But what makes this difficult isn’t the culture or people in the industry — which are (in my experience) open and generous — it’s whatever obstacles I build (or indeed dig) for myself. Psychologists have a name for this: ‘impostor syndrome’. I think you can learn to be a better marketer, but any designer born with natural, unassailable chutzpah and self-belief has the potential to go a lot further a lot faster. 


How do you handle life/family/work balance?

I am lucky — or at least, that’s one way of looking at it — that I don’t have the same domestic distractions that I imagine other designers must have; although that begs a different question: if I am so free of care, then why am I not more productive? It’s not clear that not having to fight a little to maintain that balance is really such a good thing. There’s such a thing as having too much time on your hands.


How many hours/week do you generally devote to working on games? How many to other business-related activities?

In terms of hours: it feels like the answer is both too many and not enough. (I can however say that “not enough” is definitely the answer when it comes to the other stuff, which is generally admin and therefore no fun at all.) Part of the trick of it has to be to spend enough time doing anything but designing; which is not to say that if you spend too long trying that it simply becomes work, rather that it eventually becomes impossible, and progress slows to a crawl. That’s the moment to put the prototypes away and go and do something else instead!

Of course, as I write these words and mentally pat myself on the back for making such a wise observation, I know that I am terrible at doing this and so need to find a way to summon enough gumption to actually follow my own advice.

Discipline, as someone once observed, is remembering what you want.


What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers?

Throw away the game you’re working on and design another one. Come to think of it, this isn’t terrible advice for the more experienced game designer, either.

Who would you like to see answer these questions?

Andrew Sheerin of TerrorBull Games — his perspective on games as the possible agents of political change is fascinating and unique.

Tony Boydell, designer and bon viveur — his answers would definitely have more jokes than mine!

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received?

Someone once said to me “Go live your life.” Wow; that’s it in a nutshell isn’t it? I haven’t cracked that nut just yet. I’m smart enough to realise that makes me a fool. One day I hope to get smarter still.