A Chat with Chenier La Salle, Designer of New York 1901

Many gamers in South Louisiana can trace their roots to Canada. Of course, the Acadians are the most well known transplants, as they were forced out of the Acadie area of Eastern Canada during Le Grand Derangement in 1755 and found their way south to Louisiana.  But, there were also a lot of soldiers, business people, tradesman, farmers and sailors who left Quebec and other French speaking areas in the 1700s and headed down south.

So we are always excited to hear of the successes of the gaming and design communities of our Francophone friends in Quebec.  Recently, we had the pleasure of catching up again with one of those successful designers.

 

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Photo from Board Game Geek’s Designer Page
Chenier La Salle is the award winning designer of New York 1901, published in 2015 by Blue Orange Games.  Chenier is originally from Quebec, but currently lives and works in Japan on assignment from the Canadian government. Of course, he is also working on his latest game there,

 

He was gracious enough to exchange messages with me for this interview. Merci, Chenier!

 

 

…………………

BJ: I read that your family game nights with your own children got started with card games and games like Ticket to Ride, which your family called “The Train Game.” Funny! In our family, we call it the same, as in “Want to try one of my dad’s games? We could play The Train Game.” Was that name organic or something Dad (Chenier) created to make the games more palatable to our video obsessed kids?

CL: It just happened. Thurn and Taxis became the “Germany game” and Finca the “fruit game”. Must be human nature. I’m sure some people also shorten the already short New York 1901. I’ve heard people refer to it as “New York” (a quick game of ‘New York’?) and others as “1901”. 

You spent some time in the south (Texas) after jumping back into this hobby with two feet. Any special memories of gaming in Texas?

My most vivid gaming memory, beyond the game that our family created in Texas, is the pleasure of discovering how less expensive board games are in the US compared to Canada. Dad (me) really went nuts buying many more board games than he can ever hope to play. It’s kinda ridiculous – my wall of shame is filled with games from that 4 year buying spree!

Did you attend any of the cons in Houston or Dallas? What was the hobby gaming scene like in Houston when you were there? Any friends to thank for their help on NY 1901?

As for the Houston gaming scene, it’s very active but I didn’t attend any of the cons. I did attend a weekly game designers meetup early in the development of New York 1901. I got a lot of ‘tough love’ just when I needed it most.

As a Quebecois, you are bilingual. When Amazon delivers a game from Canada or Europe that you’ve been waiting for….do you grab the French rules or the English rules first?

Hehe, good question. If the game has both English and French rules, I’ll probably read the first version I stumble upon.

So, you are on a post in Japan, returning to you and your family’s roots somewhat. How has that experience been? We are seeing more and more cross over games from Japan and other parts of Asia.

Yes, this posting in Japan is perfect on all fronts. I’m in a country that I know well so on a professional level, I can really make a difference supporting Canadian industry. On a personal level my wife is extremely happy to be back home – I met her in Japan when I lived here from 1994-2004. My job had forced her to live outside Japan for 12 years and she really missed home. You can also imagine how happy the in-laws are to see their daughter and grandchildren. I think I’ll have a hard time getting her to leave Japan once this posting is over!

What is the Japanese gaming scene like?

It’s still relatively small in Japan. Nagoya, the city I live in is the third city in Japan in terms of population (it’s big) but has only one small shop where you can find “revival” boardgames – which shows you how small the market is here. But the scene is growing. Carcassonne has a somewhat of a following.


My first Gen Con last year was overwhelming and exhilarating at the same time. In 2015, you traveled to Indy for your first GenCon to showcase NY1901? What was the experience like? What did you learn for your next big con?

It felt overwhelming and exhilarating just like it was for you or for any first time goer! When you add the fact that I had a game that was coming out at Gencon that had built up quite a bit of buzz, it was a surreal thrill! The lessons I learned were mostly about the groundwork that goes into preparing for a show like that. All the prep work has to be perfect but that’s mostly in the publisher’s hands – although I was very active on the internet myself before the show. As a designer during a show, your most important job is to make yourself available.

I love Vincent Dutrait‘s work (the artist on New York 1901). He has a style that is very recognizable right away. How did he get attached to your NY 1901 project?

It’s the publisher’s job to hire the artist and they made a great decision by hiring Vincent. Like you said, his style is very recognizable. It has a European comic strip feel to it that suits board games very well and gives them a tasteful yet playful feel. A great privilege to have Vincent bring the world of New York 1901 to life. I love his work.

I read in an interview that he added a little “gift” to the inside of your box at Gen Con 2015. What did he draw or inscribe?

Vincent and I were at the Blue Orange booth for a few hours each day signing the inside of the boxes for the gamers who bought a copy. I would just sign and add a thank you note or something but Vincent would draw a character for everyone who bought the game and stood in line. Before the end of the show, he opened a box for me, signed the inside of the cover and drew a character from the game. He made my drawing a ‘deluxe version’ by making it a bit more elaborate than the ones he drew all day. The box is now truly a family heirloom.

How have you changed or grown as a player since starting your own designs? Do you have a favorite genre?

Sadly, I don’t spend as much time as I’d like “playing” games now that I’m working on my own designs. I still try to play new games a few times a month to keep building on my personal database of experiences. Since I do all of my gaming with my family, we go for family fare. We’ve had fun trying out a lot of the Queen games we bought over the holidays (there were some great deals!).

Any plans for conventions in the states or Europe?

Not really. The next convention I attend will likely be for the release of my next game, which could be 2 or more years away. Unless there’s a opportunity in Japan or Taiwan over the next few years to help promote New York 1901. But nothing planned for now.

Let’s talk about game design. Of all of the designers I have studied, you *really* dive deep into historical research. Obviously, a game about turn of the century New York skyscrapers lends itself to that deep dive, but what is it about you or your background that attracts to you the historical or the antique?

Apart from abstract games, most board games include some kind of role-playing element: you become a real estate mogul, a general, an explorer etc. I enjoy this part of the board game experience and I love it when a theme has been properly developed to establish and build the “immersion” factor. I remember playing war games in my adolescence and I noticed the details. I loved playing with authentic units with their actual name written on them. I loved the leader tiles that featured the actual names of the generals who led their armies into battle. I noticed and enjoyed these little details tremendously and I thought I’d include them in my own designs. I hope people enjoy. I’m also sensitive to the aesthetics of certain historical periods and choose my themes from among the periods that appeal to me and that I feel will appeal to the public in general.

Another reason for the extensive research is the fun factor. Developing a board game can take many years (over three years for New York 1901) so it can’t just feel like work. It has to be a ‘fun’ labour of love or you’ll just give up halfway through. I chose a theme that gave me shivers and still does. Discovering a new pic (one I’ve never seen) on the internet of an old New York skyscraper still gives me a bit of a high.

So to answer your question about my background, all I can say is that I’m bringing my own sensibilities to the forefront, highlighting what brings me pleasure and selecting and keeping what I think others will respond to.

Recently, some of the more ‘famous’ designers in our hobby have experienced backlash from the internet community. By that I mean, a designer like Jamey Stegmaier or Eric M. Lang lands a few designs on the ‘hotness’ on Board Game Geek, and suddenly, there is an almost inevitable undercurrent of gamers ready to trash their next designs. Where do you stand on criticism of designs and designers? Gentle, acerbic, or don’t give a hoot?

I’m not surprised. It’s human nature. Marketing is an important part of a successful board game project and the two designers you mention are very good at marketing themselves and their games. When you’re visible and successful, you make yourself a target for some gratuitous criticism. I think that at the core of the negative reactions is a feeling of “why are we always talking about this game/designer while there are so many others that are deserving”. It’s actually an understandable reaction. New York 1901 was the target of some criticism for similar reasons, it had a solid awareness building effort behind it so it made an easy target for gratuitous criticism. When I read some of the comments posted online, I can often see that some of these people have actually never played the game – which is very disappointing. You need thick skin when you put your soul into a game and then put it out there.

On a personal basis, now that I have creations of my own out there, I refrain from rating or commenting on anybody else’s work unless I have something positive to say. I think most designers do the same.

Antoine Bauza is well known for having his love of Japanese culture influence many of his designs. You have lived all over the world but have focused on New York City. Do you expect to see some of your world journeys leak into future games?

I love big cities. I love the dynamic image they project. Cities give me goosebumps. I love to channel some of that imagery and use it to build immersive backgrounds for games. So the answer is: yes!

13173491_861889250601313_660072578630068742_oHow have you enjoyed the ride of success of having your first published game, New York 1901, garner press attention, con attention, good sales and even wins / nominations for big awards.

I’m very lucky. I beat the odds in many, many ways. I was fortunate simply to have my first creation published. But then there’s more. New York 1901 was published by a major publisher and went on to receive a few awards (2016 Mensa Select Winner, Games Magazine, Finnish Game of the Year) and get nominated for a few more (Dice Tower, 2015 Golden Geek (BGG) Best Family Board Game Nominee, Origins). People say you have to work hard to create your luck, and I did work very hard, but I’m the first to admit luck met me halfway – you get that perspective on life as you get older. I’m very fortunate. My biggest reward though is talking to fans of the game and to the many friends I’ve made because of it. Merci Barry!

What would you do different?

Hum… some small things but nothing worth mentioning.

You seem to love prototyping! What is it about making prototypes that attracts you?

I have fun collecting imagery and putting it together in prototype material. I try to seduce myself when I’m making games and hope that others will feel the same way. But beyond the aesthetics, making prototypes is kinda like ‘meditation’ for me. As I’m assembling the prototype or tinkering with the graphics on my computer, I’m exploring new ideas in my head. I’m playtesting in my mind. I guess it’s part of my creative process.

I’m seeing sneak peaks of a very interesting new “La Salle creation.” What can you tell us about this new game? (note, Chenier graciously allowed us to bring you a link to his Facebook page. You can follow the fascinating development of his latest game here.)

I’m still working with my muse, New York City. I got to know her so well during the last creative process so I know she has much more to give 😉

The new game still centers around skyscrapers but covers a much longer period of time historically. It’s less ‘tetris-y’ than the first but there’s still a tile laying element. I’m going new places in terms of mechanics: I’m playing with variable powers, with worker placement and with hand/resource management. Again, it’s meant to be a family ‘gateway’ game that plays quickly and intuitively. It’s also meant to have an immersive fully developed theme. People who take out the game have to feel like they’re living an ‘experience’. If I can accomplish that, I’ve done my job.

What was the inspiration? How long has it been germinating?

It stems from some of the original research I did for New York 1901 so I guess it goes all the way back to 2011. In earnest, I’d say I’m a year into the project at this point.

How far along are you? What are you expecting out of this one?

I think I’m still a good 6 months away (damn that day job!) from having a prototype worth sharing outside my immediate playtesting group which is my family.

Who is the target audience? Any potential publishers interested or looking?

I’m hoping for an immersive gateway game that finds a home with families and medium-light gamers. Haven’t showed it to any publisher yet. If I did learn something from my first experience it’s that you should only pitch your game when it’s truly ready.

Where do you see yourself in this hobby in 10 years?

I’m 48, so that takes me to 58. I see myself with a few more games under my belt and preparing for a retirement (from my day job – government pension) so I can start a new life filled with playing and making games. I hope it happens. I’m chasing my dream and having fun doing it. Merci Barry!

Merci, Chenier!

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