With Ancient Board Game Collection, Klemens Strasser goes back in time
December 7, 2023
Klemens Strasser will be the first to tell you that prior to launching his Ancient Board Game Collection, he wasn’t especially skilled at Hnefatafl. “Everybody knows chess and everybody knows backgammon,” says the indie developer from his home office in Austria, “but, yeah, I didn’t really know that one.”
Today, Strasser runs what may well be the hottest Hnefatafl game in town. The Apple Design Award finalist for Inclusivity Ancient Board Game Collection comprises nine games that reach back not years or decades but centuries — Hnefatafl (or Viking chess) is said to be nearly 1,700 years old, while the Italian game Latrunculi is closer to 2,000. And while games like Konane, Gomoku, and Five Field Kono might not be household names, Strasser’s collection gives them fresh life through splashy visuals, a Renaissance faire soundtrack, efficient onboarding, and even a bit of history.
Strasser is a veteran of Flexibits (Fantastical, Cardhop) and the developer behind such titles as Letter Rooms, Subwords and Elementary Minute (for which he won a student Apple Design Award in 2015). But while he was familiar with Nine Men’s Morris — a game popular in Austria he’d play with his grandma — he wasn’t exactly well versed in third-century Viking pastimes until a colleague brought Hnefatafl to his attention three years ago. “It was so different than the traditional symmetric board games I knew,” he says. “I really fell in love with it.”
Less appealing were mobile versions of Hnefatafl, which Strasser found lacking. “The digital versions of many board games have a certain design,” he says. “It’s usually pretty skeuomorphic, with a lot of wood and felt and stuff like that. That just didn’t make me happy. And I thought, ‘Well, if I can’t find one I like, I’ll build it.’”
I found a book on ancient board games by an Oxford professor and it threw me right down a rabbit hole.
Using SpriteKit, Strasser began mocking up an iOS Hnefatafl prototype in his downtime. A programmer by trade — “I’m not very good at drawing stuff,” he demurs — Strasser took pains to keep his side project as simple as possible. “I always start with minimalistic designs for my games and apps, but these are games you play with some stones and maybe a piece of paper,” he laughs. “I figured I could build that myself.”
His Hnefatafl explorations came surprisingly fast — enough so that he started wondering what other long-lost games might be out there. “I found a book on ancient board games by an Oxford professor and it threw me right down a rabbit hole,” Strasser laughs. “I kept saying, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting game, and that’s also an interesting game, and that’s another interesting game.’” Before he knew it, his simple Hnefatafl mockup had become a buffet of games. “And I still have a list of like 20 games I’d still like to digitize,” he says.
For the initial designs of his first few games, Strasser tried to maintain the simple style of his Hnefatafl prototype. “But I realized that I couldn’t really represent the culture and history behind each game in that way,” he says, “so I hired people who live where the games are from.”
That’s where Ancient Board Game Collection really took off. Strasser began reaching out to artists from each ancient game’s home region — and the responses came fast. Out went the minimalist version of Ancient Board Game Collection, in came a richer take, powered by a variety of cultures and design styles. For Hnefatafl, Strasser made a fortuitous connection with Swedish designer Albina Lind. “I sent her a few images of like Vikings and runestones, and in two hours she came up with a design that was better than anything I could have imagined,” he says. “If I hadn’t run into her, I might not have finished the project. But it was so perfect that I had to continue.”
Lind was a wise choice. The Stockholm-based freelance artist had nearly a decade of experience designing games, including her own Norse-themed adventure, Dragonberg. “I instantly thought, ‘Well, this is my cup of tea,’” Lind says. Her first concept was relatively realistic, all dark wood and stone textures, before she settled on a more relaxed, animation-inspired style. “Sometimes going unreal, going cartoony, is even more work than being realistic,” she says with a laugh. Lind went on to design two additional ancient games: Dablot, the exact origins of which aren’t known but it which first turned up in 1892, and Halatafl, a 14th century game of Scandinavian origin.
Work arrived from around the globe. Italian designer Carmine Acierno contributed a mosaic-inspired version of Nine Men’s Morris; Honolulu-based designer Anna Fujishige brought a traditional Hawaiian flavor to Konane. And while the approach succeeded in preserving more of each game’s authentic heritage, it did mean iterating with numerous people over numerous emails. One example: Tokyo-based designer Yosuke Ando pitched changing Strasser’s initial designs for the Japanese game Gomoku altogether. “Klemens approached me initially with the idea of the game design to be inspired by ukiyo-e (paintings) and musha-e (woodblocks prints of warriors),” Ando says. “Eventually, we decided to focus on samurai warrior armor from musha-e, deconstructing it, and simplifying these elements into the game UI.”
While the design process continued, Strasser worked on an onboarding strategy — times nine. As you might suspect, it can be tricky to explain the rules and subtleties of 500-year-old games from lost civilizations, and Strasser’s initial approach — walkthroughs and puzzles designed to teach each game step by step — quickly proved unwieldy. So he went in the other direction, concentrating on writing “very simple, very understandable” rules with short gameplay animations that can be accessed at any time. “I picked games that could be explained in like three or four sentences,” he says. “And I wanted to make sure it was all accessible via VoiceOver.”
In fact, accessibility remained a priority throughout the entire project. (He wrote his master’s thesis on accessibility in Unity games.) As an Apple Design Award finalist for Inclusivity, Ancient Board Game Collection shines with best-in-class VoiceOver adoption, as well as support for Reduce Motion, Dynamic Type, and high-contrast game boards. “It’s at least some contribution to making everything better for everyone,” he says.
I picked games that could be explained in like three or four sentences. And I wanted to make sure it was all accessible via VoiceOver.
Ancient Board Game Collection truly is for everyone, and it’s hardly hyperbole to call it a novel way to introduce games like Hnefatafl to a whole new generation of players. “Most people,” he says, “are just surprised that they’ve never heard of these games.”
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