Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Meet Haim Shafir

Note: still working on Sarah, but I've had little time with the start of school. Maybe I'll write more about that on my blog.

Haim Shafir is Israel’s most prolific game designer. His game Taki is practically the national game of Israeli children and adults alike (although I think Backgammon and Chess would be fierce contenders). Around the world he is best known for Halli Galli, as well as many other games.

Hi, Haim. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.

Let's start off with the basics. Tell us about yourself (apart from gaming), and then tell us about your life with regards to games.

I am 55 years year old. I live in Haifa, and I have 2 boys: Asaf, who is in the movie business, and the other, Uri, who is working with me.

Almost 30 years I have been toying with games. After completing my degree as a mechanical engineer at the Technion in Haifa, I spent 2 years as a designer of packaging lines and packing machines before I decided to become my own boss. Games and toys seemed the perfect field to combine my eagerness to innovate with my shortage of cash… I thought that since games are inexpensive, making them should not be so hard or costly…

It took me 2 years and quite an amount of lost money to realize how wrong I was. But after 2 years, I had 2 important treasures in my hand: #1 -I knew what I wanted to do in my life and was pretty sure I could be good at, and #2 - I was experienced in the field in which I wanted to excel.

In the beginning, most of what I did was adjusting and improving existing games, but gradually I started to take off and really come up with original concepts.

What was your first successful design? How did it happen?

"Success" in game developing is usually referred to numbers sold and I do not see it like this. Success in game developing is creating a game with a staying power - a game that becomes "Ever Green" – and has the quality of a "Must Have". If we define success this way, than surely Taki is my first success. Not because of the numbers sold but because in spite of the fact that its a Crazy Eight based game – it took off to new playing levels and became a "must have" even by avid UNO players.

What is your most successful game?

Halli Galli is definitely my most successful game. It is sold in more than 20 countries and became most famous in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Korea and many more.

Did any games surprise you and do better than you expected?

Usually I am not surprised because I don't mark figures as targets but staying power. My job as an inventor is to equip my distributors with the best "weapon" but the actual figures are determined by the way they conduct the "war" of marketing. It would be unwise to have any figures in mind before the game is launched. But as far as the quality of the game is concerned, yes, sometimes I learned too late that a game was launched premature, and sometimes I learned that a game I have developed turned out to be even better than I expected.

How many games have you published?

I have lost accurate count but I can estimate over 50 games, so far.

OK. Pick one of your games. Can you bring us through the development cycle, from initial concept to published design? How did the idea come about - mostly inspiration, or mostly perspiration? Did you add a lot and then remove what was "too much"? Did you have something basic and then add to make it more complicated? How much playtesting went into it? Were there any false starts that were rejected after playtesting? Dramatic rewrites? Sudden inspirations? How did you decide where to go to publish it? How much did the publisher add to the game play itself? Who picked the artist and how was the art decided on? Did you play around with the "theme" of the game? Did you plan for expansions or other versions of the game before or after seeing if it became successful, or not at all?

WOW! Long list of questions. Enough to write a whole book….

I will try….

Every game has a story behind its birth. Every game was summoned by a different spell... Sometimes a great idea comes light a lightning (A game by the name Henry that was licensed to Tiger Electronics and later to Hasbro, was invented in 20 seconds), and sometimes, it takes several transformations before a game takes its final shape – no rules.

Halli Galli is a great example for how long and unexpected the process may be: Halli Galli was originally designed as a slow card game for the recognition of colors and quantities for preschoolers. It was one of 5 preschool card games which I developed and licensed to Jeux Nathan in France. During the process of adapting the game to the needs of the customer, the game took a dramatic turn and became a quick-reaction fast-paced game. For 2 years it was sold without the bell, and only 2 years later, while playing with friends, the idea of adding the bell sparked. Today it looks so coherent and complete, that one would find it hard to believe that it took 3 long years and several transformations until it reached its final form. 5 years later, when I found the way to further simplify the game without losing its magic, I developed the Jr. version of Halli Galli. Halli Galli Extreme - a more challenging version, which hit the shelves last year – came 15 years after the classic version was born.

Sorry for hitting you with a barrage of questions! I'll try to slow it down.


What kind of relationship do you have with publishers? Do you pitch ideas? Do they have a lot of input into the design? Do you work with only a few publishers or do you still shop around?

All of the above...

I understand that people still stop you in the street thanking you for making Taki. Do you have any good customer stories? Favorite customers?

People need to be able to touch what they consider the source of their joy, happiness and meaning. That is why it makes people very happy when they meet me, ask for my autograph or take a photo with me. Taki has made me "responsible" for the joy and happiness of millions of people and I am always happy to hear the stories they share with me and enjoy the great privilege that came across my way.

Look at some of the stories on my website: http://www.shafirgames.com/gallery.htm.

Let's get personal:

What games do you buy? What games do you like to play?

Usually I like cool social games or quick strategy games (4 in a Row, Othello, Go, etc.) but since playing is work for me, I mostly play games from which I can be inspired and "stretch the envelope”.

When you play with your social circle, what do they like to play?

See above.

What does your wife like to play?

Eight and a Half. She is crazy about this game.

What do your kids like to play?

Sony Playstation.

When you have people over for dinner, or if you go out for dinner, is a game hoped for or expected?

Rephrase the question….

I meant, do you tend to introduce games in the usual social situations, like joining friends for dinner? Or do you keep your game playing away from your "normal" social life?

Oh, yes, my friends are my first focus groups.

Moving on, do you go to game conventions? Which ones? Do you socialize with other game designers?

Sure. I attend Nurenberg Toy fair, NY Toy Fair, and Essen regularly, and others from time to time.

Tell me about your book. What inspired you to write it? Is this a one off idea, or part of something new? Are you attracted to other creative formats, like art?

I wrote several books. All of them about the phenomenon of playing and about creativity - two subjects I’ve earned the right to speak about. My life is "dipped" in those two subjects and writing about them is natural for me. Generally, I believe that any person who wishes to be creative and try to make a living from his own talent must experience many forms of artistic expressions through which he will sharpen his best and most profound talent.

Where can I see/buy your games and books online?

My website is: www.shafirgames.com.

The games and books are sold online through http://www.ibooks.co.il/NS_GLOBAL_05.HTM.

Or http://www.games-shop.com/.

What did you think of Settlers of Catan [I leant Haim my copy when we first met]?

It is a great game, especially when you want to have a game party, but it is only for hard core players which I am not one of. I am more of a casual player. I like a game to begin and end within max 20 minutes and if the players wish to play more they can start another round. Hard core games usually demand at least 1.5 - 2 hours which most people cannot afford.

What games do you have planned on the horizon (that you can tell me about)? Anything coming out in the next year?

My next game is Bungee!!!

I have big expectations from this one. It appeals to all ages and cultures. I cannot reveal more but it will be in the market in Israel in 2 months and in Germany next year. Hopefully the rest of the market will follow.

I am also working on a game which is based on the famous children book "Where is Pluto?" that almost every Israeli family know. Every now and then, I make games which are exclusively for the Israeli market. Israel is a small market but good games can generate big sales since Israelis believe in playing.

Any final words?

Many people ask me where my ideas come from. The truth is: I have no idea... But one thing I know for sure: creative ideas come and stay only for a split second and if we are not alert they leave and go elsewhere. So my advise to those who wish to have a tip from an inventor is: Always be ready! Ideas come by surprise.

Thanks for the interview.

Thank you.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

The next one is a doozy.

Joey* said...

Halli Galli is cool! what does it mean? where does the name come from?