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Oriol Comas: 'We do not think that games are serious enough and are convinced that playing is not culture'

Oriol Comas i Coma has designed more than fifty board games and street games for institutions, NGOs, universities, newspapers and companies.

Oriol Comas i Coma has designed more than fifty board games and street games for institutions, NGOs, universities, newspapers and companies.

Inventum is a collaborative game in which each player assumers the role of a university and must join forces with colleagues to bring about one of the major human achievements of the last century. The fate of the players is decided by the dice and by their skills in strategically playing the game cards.

Inventum is a collaborative game in which each player assumers the role of a university and must join forces with colleagues to bring about one of the major human achievements of the last century. The fate of the players is decided by the dice and by their skills in strategically playing the game cards.

His personal collection includes 2,300 books and 900 journals on games, and more than 4,000 board games.

His personal collection includes 2,300 books and 900 journals on games, and more than 4,000 board games.

'In games we find social interaction, communication, intellectual stimulation, self-improvement, competition, dexterity, interpretation, a gateway to imagination and excitement, knowledge, seduction and betrayal, negotiation, team work, creativity and, above all, fun.'

'In games we find social interaction, communication, intellectual stimulation, self-improvement, competition, dexterity, interpretation, a gateway to imagination and excitement, knowledge, seduction and betrayal, negotiation, team work, creativity and, above all, fun.'

05/12/2011

Entrevistes

 

Oriol Comas i Coma has designed more than fifty board games and street games for institutions, NGOs, universities, newspapers and companies. He produced the Catalan adaptation of Scrabble and recently worked with Màrius Serra on the game Verbàlia. Among his most notable creations are El joc de les rajoles d’Antoni Gaudí, produced with Jep Ferret, Àgora Barcelona; El joc del món and the competition Què llegeixes?, also designed with Jep Ferret and backed by the Institute of Catalan Letters, which launched the web version in September 2005 (www.quellegeixes.cat). Comas oversaw the games area of the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures in Barcelona and has published the book El món en jocs (RBA - La Magrana) on the history of board games. His personal collection includes 2,300 books and 900 journals on games, and more than 4,000 board games.
 

Comas’ latest creation is Inventum, the result of an initiative coordinated by the UB’s Scientific Culture and Innovation Unit (UCC+i) and the Bosch i Gimpera foundation, with support from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation provided through the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT). The game, devised as an entertaining way to learn more about innovation and knowledge transfer, was presented by its creator at a special event held on 8 November in the Aula Magna of the Historic Building, where Comas was awarded his degree in romance languages some 30 years ago.

 

When we are young, we play all the time. Why do you think we lose the habit of playing games as we become adults?
Because there is more competition, and presumably because we believe that games are not serious enough and that life is terribly serious. Really we are fooling ourselves, though, because playing is very serious too!
 
At what age did you decide that you would continue to play games throughout your life, and that you would even make them your profession?
I went from being a child to a teenager and kept on playing… I went from being a teenager to an adult and kept on playing... In fact, I think that by the time I was 15 I was already doing things like collecting games and subscribing to foreign games magazines, and that was 40 years ago. Since then I haven’t stopped playing. I’ve had very different jobs and things have always gone well, so I’ve been able to collect games, and I now have around 4,000. One day, when I was in my 20s, I fell for games literature, and around 12 years ago I decided to take games up as my profession. I had a communication agency, but I wanted to devote all of my time to games and asked my parents if I could leave the agency.
 
Some might argue that making a living from games isn’t really a career. What did your family have to say about it?
[Laughs] Yes, you could definitely say that I’m paid to play! It’s true that I earn less now than I did twelve years ago, but I don’t mind. My wife is fine with it, and it’s all about putting the effort in – now I work doing what I enjoy. My father also said that if things were going well then I should just take the plunge. Life is about being happy!
 
What can we find in games?
There is social interaction, communication, intellectual stimulation, self-improvement, competition, dexterity, interpretation, a gateway to imagination and excitement, knowledge, seduction and betrayal, negotiation, team work, creativity and, above all, fun.
 
The culture of games goes back centuries and is part of the common heritage of humanity. What is the earliest example we know of?
The earliest example recognized as a complex game with rules, the oldest we have evidence of, is know as the Royal Game of Ur, which can be seen in the British Museum. The boards were found in a tomb in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, in the south of present-day Iraq, during an archaeological dig in 1926. It was invented 4,600 years ago and is similar to the games found in the tombs of the pharaohs, in preparation for the afterlife, together with food and clothing. It is something like a distant cousin of backgammon, a linear game with a board on which the two players have paths that cross. You throw dice, move forward, take opponents, and there are squares on which you cannot be taken.
 
Board games have been around since ancient times, but new ones are constantly being created: chess, backgammon, draughts, snakes and ladders… When was the real revolution in the world of game creation?
The biggest change came about in around 1840 with the introduction of chromolithography. After that, everything was different. Until the technique was introduced, everything was printed in black and white, cards were black and white. Colour printing changed everything and board games started to become a far more common possession.
 
The popularity of board games became clear during the 20th century.
Yes, with the 20th century and the welfare society, games found their way to the dining tables of our homes. Monopoly, for example, became iconic. Everyone has played at least once.
 
Nevertheless, do you think that games have been treated unfairly compared to other forms of culture?
Just as we do not believe games to be serious enough, we are also convinced that playing is not culture. This is why games do not have the same VAT as books, for example, which are taxed at the lower rate applied to cultural products, while games carry the same rate as any other industrial product. Yet a book and a game have exactly the same creative process and are published and commercialized in the same way.
 
The contribution of the media is also interesting, in the sense that there are hardly any television or radio programs with a section on board games.
That’s right, whereas the videogame has been widely accepted as a new form of culture. On Catalunya Ràdio there is an excellent program on videogames, Generació Digital, which is also on television on Canal 33. But on the cultural program Ànima on Canal 33 they never talk about board games. Perhaps books are covered extensively in the media because journalists are readers. It’s probably the case that people are not aware of the many different values of a board game. It is also true that a board game is a cultural product requiring a certain amount of initiation, in that buying a game, opening it, going through the pieces and reading the rules can sometimes feel rather laborious. However, if someone else does this for you, puts the game on the table and explains it, you may find yourself more easily immersed and the initial reluctance disappears.
 
You have almost 4,000 games at home. Have you played them all?
No [laughs]. Of the collection I have at home I probably play with around fifty games, which are the ones I enjoy the most. I have the rest of them because I wanted to build a collection that includes examples of everything that was done well over the 20th century, which was the most creative period in game design. The aim of the collection is to cover all the different ways of playing and designing games from the 20th and 21st centuries.
 
Your favourite game is Eleusis, created by Bob Abbott, a retired New-Yorker living in Florida. Why? What is special about it?
It’s one of those games that reaches a side of you that you didn’t know you had. Eleusis doesn’t have rules. For each game, a player makes up the rules and the others have to find out what they are. You play with cards and have to think of a way to link them. For example, red with black, one from each suit, an odd and even number… Players take turns to lay cards on the table and try to work out the rule. Often, you ask someone to play and they say, “I’m incapable of making up a rule”, but five minutes later they’ve thought of a fantastic one. Eleusis goes beyond deductive games because it’s not about guessing or deducing, you have to induce. What you decide to do takes you closer to the final solution. As an intellectual challenge it’s the most difficult game there is. I’ve be playing it for years with a group of friends, perhaps we have played around 500 games, and it might seem unlikely but we hardly ever repeat the rules.
 
You have created and produced over fifty board games and street games. What is your creative process?
Each creator has a different approach. In fact, there are no methods for creating games. Personally, I start from the assumptions that a good game should always establish a connection between the story it tells and the way it is played (the mechanics) and that, when you finish a game, it should make you want to immediately start a new one – what we call the “R” of games, their replayability. So although I think of the theme first, I also put a lot of thought into the mechanics and try to find the right mechanics for each theme. As a designer, I am from the colder, more abstract school – I’m not one of those hugely imaginative types who dream up stories with fairies and monsters. In terms of method, unlike colleagues of mine who never write the rules down, the first thing I do is write out the game from start to finish. Then I leave the text alone for a while, and once I’ve got to the fiftieth or sixtieth written version I know what elements it needs, how each game is prepared, how to play, how the scores are kept, how the game ends, and so on. Once I have all of this written down I build a prototype. Some designers are fairly artistic and draw the cards themselves, but not me, because it’s something I know nothing about and I don’t think it’s the job of the game designer. In fact, my prototypes are well known among colleagues for being just about as rough and ready as they come. I write them by hand, and if a card has to be blue I write “blue”, or I put “colour 1”, “colour 2”, “character 1”, “character 2”. Finally, once I have tested the prototype with friends and think that it will work, I look for an illustrator or go straight to publishers and show them the game. Each case is different.
 
One of your latest creations is the board game Inventum, the result of an initiative coordinated by the UB and the FBG, with the support of the Ministry of Science and Innovation. It was devised as an entertaining way to learn more about innovation and knowledge transfer. Creating a scientific game for the UB and making it fun must have been quite a challenge, which you obviously rose to. How is the game played?
Thank you. Inventum is a cooperative game in which the best universities in the world come together for a contest between colleagues to see who can demonstrate the highest levels of excellence. We are in the year 2450, and to mark its 1000th anniversary the University of Barcelona unveils the first ever time machine, the Ali Bei 18. The contestants decide to take their fight for excellence back to the 20th century and recreate some of the major human achievements of that period. We chose ten landmark achievements, including the discovery of exosolar planets, the creation of the Internet, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the invention of psychoanalysis. The game is cooperative because all of the universities are in the same situation – they all win or they all lose. In addition to this common goal, though, each university also has a smaller individual task kept secret from the rest, which is what puts a bit of tension into the game. It is important to play well as a group to bring about the achievement chosen at the beginning, so each player must be thinking about the group at all times, but it is also important to think about the individual goal in order to come out slightly on top of the other players. However, a player who concentrates more on the individual goal than the common objective can bring down the whole group. There is also an evil character, Dr. Nyap, for whom a number of options are available – the players can decide to include him, exclude him, or to not know whether he is in the game or not. If Dr. Nyap is involved, one of the players must work ‘under cover’ to try and sabotage the whole game so that the common objective cannot be reached, stopping the others from finding the right combination of researchers, equipment, money and time to complete the game, by discovering Tutankhamen’s tomb, for example.
 
Is the world of games affected by fashion?
Very much so!
 
And the economic crisis?
I suppose so, although from what I hear the games publishers say, bring on the crisis! This is because if you make the right purchase (a board game costs between 25 and 35 euros on average) a game is a good cultural and social investment, because you can play it once, twice, three times, and it will always be different. That makes it a very cheap cultural product. So it seems that games are one of the few things that sell better during an economic crisis.
 
What would you say to people who argue that games are only for children?
I would tell them to give me a call some day – I’ll go over to their home and after a couple of hours they will have changed their mind. I would also tell people to play a little every day. It’s a lot of fun!
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