Mike Richie has been developing games in the hobby industry for over a decade. His designs tend to walk the line between hobby and family. When not designing games, Mike can usually be found hiking with his wife and son.
The following interview is about Element, a board game he designed.
Jason (GameGobble): You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you wanted Element to feel like a game that’s been around for a thousand years. Can you elaborate?
Mike: I’ve always liked history, folklore, and fantasy, and oftentimes that passion gets woven into my designs. As Element went from a few scattered ideas to a working game, the ancient world fit perfectly. The gameplay is strategic and shares a feel of older, familiar games such as chess, Go, and checkers. The theme of elemental magic also hearkens back to a much more mystical era where wizards, heroes, and monsters held sway over mortal men. To go in any other direction would not do the game justice, which is why we spent so much time developing the look and feel of the final product. Our artist, Grant, drew inspiration from old viking chess sets, medieval tapestries, and the Irish Book of Kells. The result was a perfect blend of aesthetic and function.
Jason: Element contains both elements of strategy and luck. How did you decide on the right mixture of each?
Mike: Simply put, a LOT of play with a LOT of different people. It’s a lot harder to make a simple game than it is a complex one. In large, heavy games, adding a few more rules to take care of certain situations isn’t usually an issue. However, when the goal is streamlined simplicity, each rule needs to carry weight and not bog down the overall experience. The balance of luck vs. strategy was tricky. I didn’t want a true luck based game, and I think we did pretty well with it. Though there is a randomizing component, the drawing of the Element stones from the bag, it doesn’t matter all that much since as the stones are placed, more and more options are available to all players. The game is designed to be a toolkit, relatively few rules but with many different options to choose from no matter what you draw.
Jason: Element is an abstract game that can accommodate 2-4 players. How do the dynamics change with the different number of players?
Mike: Well, two player is a very traditional head to head style of game. Each player is attempting to entrap their opponent’s Sage (playing pawn) with the Element stones so they cannot move. The Sage’s move like a king in Chess, one space in any unoccupied direction. As stones are drawn, walls are built. Since the four different colored stones are based upon the classic elements of fire, water, earth, and wind, all of the walls build differently and offer different strategies. Additionally, each element can be replaced by another. For example, water puts out fire so a water stone could replace a fire stone on the board. As soon as a Sage cannot legally move, that’s game. Moving into a three and four player game doesn’t change any of the rules regarding the elements or the movement of Sages. What does change is who you are attempting to capture. In multiplayer, you are always attempting to capture the player to your right, and ONLY that player. If you capture the wrong player you will actually forfeit the game. This leads to some very interesting push and pull in the game.
Jason: What kind of experience are you hoping players have after a game of Element?
Mike: Hopefully a good one! Honestly, we want people to find in Element a game they will be playing twenty years from now, a new classic if you will. More often than not people will play several games in a row since they are relatively short and games play very differently each time. Some games have players dodging large moving rivers because of the amount of water on the board, others have the players dealing with ever spreading fires more than anything else. Earth can create a frantic, claustrophobic game, and capricious winds require a lot of thinking ahead to guarantee capture. Each experience is unique, and the toolkit style allows for ever evolving tactics.
Jason: What is one thing you want gamers to know about Element?
Mike: Element has been in development for quite a while. I began working on it back in 2005. Many games have a distinct lifespan, some of my designs included. But at the risk of sounding arrogant, Element is here to stay and we’ve just scratched the surface of where we intend to take the Element universe. This game satisfies hardcore chess and Go players while being approachable with a not-too-steep learning curve for more casual gamers. Even after all this time, people still surprise me with subtle strategies and combos they pull off. We love it and are thrilled at the reception the gaming community has given our game.