Ruel Ultimatum – An Interview with Richard Garfield

A few weeks ago I played in a PTQ in southern France, in Cannes, where a game festival was held. Richard Garfield was there to introduce his newest game, King of Tokyo, and was glad to answer my questions about Magic and his other creations. Spending almost an hour with the person who changed my life was a weird experience as I have a lot of respect for him.

Richard is indeed a very nice guy who kept his head cold when his biggest creation, Magic the Gathering became an astonishing success worldwide. Definitely not the kind to show off, I even embarrassed him with my questions a few time.
It is unfortunate for him to release a game involving Tokyo’s destruction at the time tragic events happened in Japan, but the game itself seems quite good.

When I talked to Richard with the Regionals being held 5 meters away from us, he seemed very happy to see, once more, that hundreds of players came to play to his creation, thousands of kilometers away from his country.

The few words he said to the players with the HJ’s mic at the beginning of the tournament were impressive, and that was about the first time I saw players paying attention to a pre-tournament speech, even though most of them did not speak English well enough to understand him.

Antoine: Hi Richard, what used to be your job before you became a game designer?

Richard: I was teaching mathematics in college.

So that’s not an urban legend! Have you stopped teaching?

Well, I do like math and enjoy teaching it, but I do not have so much time in the day, so I decided to spend it on the games. I actually do teach a game design course at the University of Washington occasionally.

How did you come up with the idea of creating Magic: the Gathering?

I was trying to sell Robo Rally for 7 years to different companies. I presented it to Peter Atkinson, who was the head of Wizards of the Coast, which was very small; when I showed it, they had no products yet. He liked Robo Rally, but thought it was too expensive to make and asked me for a cheaper game.

At that point, I thought it would be a good idea to create a game in which all players would have different cards … there would be so many cool things to do with this concept. When I told Peter, he was very excited about that. It turned out that it would be more expensive than RR, but it was exciting enough that he was willing to raise the money, and there Magic was born.

Do you know how many different people in the world have ever bought booster packs or how many Magic players there are?

It is very hard to measure the number of Magic players because unlike a game like Monopoly, people buy multiples, so you do not know when the same people are buying.

I think we could create a country just with Magic players, any idea how many people have ever played in a tournament?

That … one should know but this one does not …

Over a million I guess?

Yeah, certainly. At one point, there were over 2000 tournaments every week that we kept track of and I think it’s only gotten bigger since then, because Magic has been steadily increasing at a good rate. You can also add the Magic Online tournaments nowadays.

Do you ever play Magic?

I do! It used to be that I would only play when I go to tournaments because otherwise I could just spend all my time playing. But recently, my children have gotten very much into Magic, so they are always challenging me and they are getting pretty good now.

I took my son to Chiba for the Worlds Championship last year. He had played only a little because he knew I made it, then Robo Rally for the same reason, and many other games as well, including some I was working on. But when we went to Worlds, he totally felt in love with the game, he started drafting all night with the professionals, and then he got his friends back home to start drafting.

Any chance he becomes a pro some day?

He might be really good, but I believe he plays too much for fun.

Everyone starts this way …

Good point, but I’d rather him be that way, but that might not win the tournaments.

Must be tough for him to play tournaments with such a dad … the expectations are not the same as for anyone else and everyone probably wants to beat him.

Yes, maybe.

(Richard was not at ease when I asked such questions, as he is very modest)

Have you been working on recent extensions or sets?

Yes. I do not work a lot on Magic these days even if I still go to tournaments for Wizards, but every couple of years, I work on a set. Last year, I worked for about 6 months with Mark Rosewater and the card design team on the set that will be coming out in September.

Which is?

No idea, the code name was “Shake”. That was a lot of fun and I like working on Magic; it is a lot easier than working on new games because there are so many people out there that can give you an immediate feedback on your Magic design. Whenever you create a new game such as King of Tokyo, you can only have a delayed feedback when people play it a lot because it is a new thing.

Can you play in tournaments? You are not one of WOTC’s employees, are you?

No, I am not a Wizards employee, so I guess that technically I am allowed but I would not do that though, because, hum…

That would be a bounty hunt…

When I go to tournament and I feel like playing, we set up unrated or informal tournaments.

Where do you live?

In Seattle, which is also where the headquarters of WOTC are.

When you created Magic for Atkinson, would you ever have believed it would become what it is nowadays?

I would have had to be extremely arrogant to believe that this was possible; it is constantly surprising me, even today.

Magic is amazing (gesturing to the Regionals in front of us). Take for instance this tournament: there are tons of judges, the game itself is pretty complicated, tough to learn, and you often need them for the games to run the right way. How would you explain that people go beyond that and keep playing and learning Magic when it is so complex?

When you look very closely at it, Magic is very complicated. But if you are a casual player, it is actually not. The game only becomes complex when you come to weird situations which either do not happen too often when you are a casual player or you do not notice so it does not matter. You have to be precise in a tournament, not when you play for fun.

True, when I started playing in fourth edition, we could only learn how the game was supposed to be played with a big rulebook in the starters. It was not understandable for someone who would not speak English, and we ended played with wrong rules (such as no upkeep, since I didn’t understand it, which would my powerful [card]Cosmic Horror[/card] into crap) for over a year!

But you had fun right?

A lot! Cracking big monsters in the packs and adding them to my deck was great!

Do you remember the an invitational Prerelease in Moscow for the release of Tenth Edition? There was a player’s dinner after the tournament in which everyone had 3 glasses: 1 wine, 1 water and 1 vodka. Anytime 1 of the 3 was empty, it would be insta-refilled, so we all ended up quite drunk. At some point, I came to you and hugged you, saying ”you changed my life, thank you”, and Geoffrey Siron and many followed. Do you know that a lot of people think the same way and that you are kind of a hero for a lot of us? And how does it feel?

(Highly embarrassed) It feels like great responsibility. I am glad that people took so much pleasure with my creation and I hope that everyone will stay in the games in general for life, even if it is not Magic, because games are such a wonderful hobby.

Yeah, seems like you turned a lot of people into geeks/nerds, including myself!

(I switched the subject at this point)

Do you have advice for new players?

The most important thing is to have fun. Then there are many different ways of playing Magic, and you should find the one that suits you. As far as I am concerned, I like opening sealed decks with my friends and playing with those over and over again. Some other players are into drafting, some on deck building, multiplayer games… just find what your Magic group likes more!

Then, what is your favorite Magic card?


[card]Shahrazad[/card]! that was a card I made for the first extension, Arabian Nights. When you cast it you create a subgame, and whoever wins it gains benefits. I like unique mechanics like this; they take games in interesting places and this also fits from the original story of Shahrazad who tells stories within stories so games within games is perfect. Nowadays, there are card restrictions, but back in the days you could play with as many cards as you liked of a particular type, so if you played all Mox Pearl and Shahrazad, then you would play infinite sub games; after about 30 000 of those, you win!

Inception style…

Yes, how could that not be my favorite card!

Besides me, who is your favorite Pro Player?

(embarassed) I do not think I can …

Finkel Or Budde then?

Sorry, I cannot answer that

Then, who is your favorite child?

coming back to Finkel/Budde I have a lot of respect for the two of them and for a lot of the Pro Players, they are both very talented and smart, which is good for the game. I look at the Pros not only for how good they are at playing and analyzing decks, but at how good they are for the community, and both Kai and Jon did a lot for the game.

Let’s move a bit on King of Tokyo, your new board game that you came to introduce in France. Please tell us about it.

The game is very different from Magic. Your monsters are destroying Tokyo and a game is between 20 to 30 minutes. I think 2 players is not very interesting, but 3 to 6 is pretty good. The way I came about with it was an exercise; I was thinking “I really like Yahtzee” -a classic game-, its mechanics are very good, you have to think about the odds and it is very interesting, but it lacks interaction. So I was wondering: “how I could take that excellent concept and make it a very interactive game?”

King of Tokyo is the result and I think it has worked very well. Iello, the publisher, did excellent work with the design. I was looking for a very humorous game and they did exactly what I have been looking for.

So, why destroy Tokyo and not Paris or Seattle?

Because that’s where you have all the big monsters such as Godzilla …

Do you watch those kinds of movie?

Oh, I love them. Maybe the expansion will be King of Paris or King of New York …

… This one already is a movie

True, but it’s a bit different.

Does it come naturally for you to create games? What is your usual process?

I love playing and exploring games, and so when I hear about a new game with interesting mechanics, I always go out and try it. Then I usually try to change the rules a little bit and see what happens or maybe add some ideas that I might use for the game I am working on. So I am constantly mixing the other games. But it often works as it did for KOT, where I have a mechanic in mind and I build a game around it.

What is the best game you have ever created? Lots of people seem to think it was Netrunner.

Netrunner won a lot of awards when it came out and people thought it was the best trading card game ever (note: it was created after MTG). I am not sure I believe that anymore even though I love the mechanic and it is still very popular, with the French players in particular. I think Netrunner would have been a better stand alone game and I thought about remaking it so that it comes in one box and there is some small deck construction maybe like Dominion or something like that with the Netrunner mechanics. But it does not have the same flexibility that Magic has.

For me, the best game I made is Magic without a doubt. Anytime I doubt that and I think it is not true, 1 month later I will come and play Magic and say “wow, it has changed again and it is so different but it is still fun. Anyway, if people prefer my other games, I am still very happy about it.

What other games have you designed?

I’ve done several other card games: Vampire, Battletech, Star Wars TCG. For the board games, I made a party game called “What were you thinking”. I really like that game but it did not do well for a variety of reasons, a speed card game called “Twitch”, Pecking Order, Rocketville, Roborally, Filthy Rich, Dilbert – Corporate Shuffle, Stonehenge. I even designed video games : Schizoid on XBOX and Spectromancer on PC. I am very attached to them as I am interested in video games that feel like board games.

That’s a lot of games, do you create a new one every month or so?

No no … actually I might create a new game a month, but it is much closer to one every 2 years that gets published and the rest go in my closet because they might have some interesting things, but they are not something I want to sell.

So, what do you expect from King of Tokyo? For it to become well-known?

Well I am hopeful, but I am pleased with it in any case.

Well I tried it and honestly, it was very good!

Thanks Richard for spending some time answering my questions, and I also would like to thank you for all the Magic players that will not have the opportunity to. Magic is very important for a lot of us.

I hope you liked this interview and if Richard also is one of your heroes, that you enjoyed it as much as I did. Thanks for reading!



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