Designer Spotlight: Michał Oracz

The king of awesome and dark sci-fi games has been kind enough to take some time out of designing his awesome games to do an interview. Strap yourself because he has a lot of interesting things to say.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?Michal Oracz

Well to be honest I’ve done quite a lot of things in my life… weird things mostly. I rarely get a chance to talk about any non-boardgames related topics so I hope you won’t mind if I use this occasion 😉


I’ve been a graphic designer and an illustrator since like forever, I worked as an art-director for a few publishing houses and advertisement agencies. Today my work in this area is limited to music publication, layouts and book illustrations. One of my trades is woodcarving and really hope to return to it some day. As far as my education goes I am a philosopher and what I learned during my “philosophical” period helps me today to create simple, comfortable and efficient designing methods.  There was a period when I worked in an editorial office for several magazines: a fantasy magazine, a music magazine and a prison magazine, a funeral magazine and a debt collection magazine 😉

I am also a dedicated fan of horror and sci-fi, post-apocalypse, retro-fantasy, Lovecraft, Wells, Barker, P. K. Dick, the 80’s movies and B-type movies. I never grew out of those things.


But the most important thing is that I’ve been creating games since I was a pup. My first boardgames were castles not only full of traps and treasures but also of rules. The treasures were hidden beneath chest tokens etc. Some of the cartoons I watched, I transformed into games even before I learned how to read. Of course most of that kiddie stuff will never see daylight 😉


Besides boardgames (Neuroshima Hex, Theseus, Witchcraft and the up-coming Cry Havoc) I have a few RPG game cycles in my folio (Neuroshima, Monastyr), a Lovecraftian correspondence game (De Profundis), a digital CCG (Earthcore Shattered Elements) and two tactical war-games (Neuroshima Tactics and the up coming The Edge) plus working on a computer game (Dying Light).


For 13 years, that is from the very beginning (for good and bad times) I co-created Portal Games with Ignacy Trzewiczek (this is some serious book material!). For a few years now I tend to walk my own way and look for new roads but I still am fully dedicated to Portal.


And for those of you who are curious about my graphic portfolio (updated until 2013) please check: 😉

What’s yours favorite game?

Before going into board game territory I should probably mention quite a few PC games first. X-COM, Fallout, Diablo, Silent Hill, Unreal, Arcanum – I practically worship these titles. And some tabletop RPGs (The Call of Cthulhu, Warhammer, Cyberpunk 2020). As far as boardgames are concerned: Mall of horror, Dixit, Black Stories, Robinson Crusoe, Ascension, Roll for the Galaxy, King of Tokyo, The Manhattan Project, Drakon, Star Realms and Kemet.


I must admit I am not a know-it-all when it comes to the board game industry, I am more of a satellite that is circling around it. Most of the time I play simple gateway games or games that are currently being played by the guys in Portal (mainly new hot games). I have not tried many of the classic titles until this very day.


I sincerely enjoy the direction set out by games like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, Robinson, Pathfinder, Dead of Winter or X-COM. The plot in the Mansion of Madness is very much to my liking but the if only it could all work a bit smoother with a shorter setup and with no Dungeon Master needed.


Now don’t get me wrong, I love many boardgames like this but I am still searching for something a bit different from what I am used to. Whenever I see a blurb that says “a perfect match between an RPG and a board game” I get all excited and can’t wait to see what it will be like (T.I.M.E. Stories). I dream about a game that would include simple mechanics, simpler than most adventure games today, but yet much more adventure oriented with more plot, loaded with content, fully re-playable and surprising every time you play it – just like a good movie, book or a tabletop RPG.


Some games capture me with their simplicity, I become addicted to their play-ability, their gameplay dynamics, some other games captivate me with their potential depth of storyline. What I would finally like get is a game that would connect these two aspects into one. Simply game with deep and repayable story. I am waiting for a moment when such a game hits the market. Maybe it is already out there and I simply haven’t had the luck to find it yet? 😉

What game would you use to introduce new people to the hobby?

I don’t feel like an ambassador of the game industry as a whole, more like its peculiar section. It’s like with music, movies or literature – I really enjoy some specific sub-genres, very niche ones to be exact. Therefore I do not care for others to start playing some colorful puzzles or board-toys or find a new way to entertain themselves.


Instead I do my best to promote that niche in the boardgames industry as well as those aspects and features of boardgames that I find really important.


I would choose Dixit or Black Stories for they are extremely simple and based on a loose conversation, it is as clear as it gets. The mechanics are not in the way of the live contact. Less mechanics, more gameplay and conversations – this is an ideal gateway game for me.


My own games might not show it, but I prefer games that create a friendly atmosphere that allows for the shared experience, shared pondering, no stress against each other (but not necessarily cooperative).

What’s your best game experience?

Kingdoms – very first game that I got excited about for possibilities of creating terrifying combos on board. I quickly adapted this as module tiles when I was working on Neuroshima Hex.


Magic The Gathering, Ascension, King of Tokyo, Star Realms – for amazing flow of play and addictive dynamics.


Black Stories, Dixit – for very pure, narrative interaction among players.


Space Alert, Mansion of Madness – for strange and uncompromising emphasis on theme over the mechanics.


Monster Chase!, Zombie Dice, Love Letter – for stunning and extreme simplicity.


Stronghold, Zombiaki – for total asymmetry of sides.


Well, yes I see this does not fit to my earlier ideal game 😉


I simply adore this state when after a short yet dynamic game you just can’t resist to play one more time and more time after that and again…

What is the most important aspect of playing games for you?

The way I feel about all games is that they are like a ticket to different worlds, just as with literature, it is experiencing an amazing story. For me this is the most important thing in games, this plus substance (which, unfortunately, is rather lacking in most boardgames).


Together with Ignacy Trzewiczek we began our adventure as Portal Publishing with RPG games for a reason. RPG is the story. I still dream about a perfect transition between an RPG and a boardgame, deep-set in a story and full of surprises. This ideal game would also be about something meaningful, allowing for a book-like plot not the usual pretext stuff. Story and meaning, not only mechanisms, points, advancement and scraps of fluff.


Stories are also the best medium for ideas, and I think it is safe to presume that each one of us has something to pass on. I also think it is safe to presume that each one of us would like to see our common life, on this tiny planet, improved. I hope that boardgames, along with books, movies, music, art and even computer games, will finally serve as fully-fledged idea and story carriers.


It is high time for such changes in boardgames, I am sure of it. We need some boardgame Umberto Eco or Stephen King.


We already have hundreds of the mechanics we need to this, developed by great designers and spread throughout various games. It is time to pull it all together and use to create games that could rival cinematography or literature when it comes to telling stories.


Too easily and too quickly have we classified boardgames as not fit for such things, as just games – not worth the effort. Nothing stands in our way besides ourselves – the designers.


As for the players I think they are ready for these changes. They are waiting for this. This is exactly the same scenario as with cinematography, this is how it evolved, it was ready for the revolution and it happened. Tabletop games are ready and I don’t mean the mechanics, but the plot.


I am not a boardgames fanatic if they are to be considered as logical toys, nice boxes to be collected or competitive arenas allowing players to prove who can solve the mechanics or understand the rules best and first. Tabletop games seen us such “decision optimization” toys are not my thing.


OK, you caught me red handed, I am lying since so far I only designed such games, such “arenas”. However as a player I am looking for something entirely different in a game, as a designer I am constantly struggling with what I dream about as a player, with something that I have not found in any store, on any shelf.


Each designer smuggles a tiny bit of himself into this hobby. My goal is to deliver mechanism for introducing a lot more complex, deeper and more meaningful stories into games. I want to do this in the nearest future and with it I plan to eliminate one of the deadliest sins of all boardgames – the long and cumbersome manual. No need for flipping through a manual before each game (and without Game Master).


To sum it up: we need to insert real, meaningful content into boardgames and throw away the rulebook. These are the changes that I am looking for in boardgames as a genre. I intend to speed this evolution up, as much as I can.


You can be sure of one more thing from me: more sci-fi horror and dark adventures taking place in closed, claustrophobic locations 😉 Each one of us has this urge for creating mini-worlds based in our favorite settings, so that we can be a part of that beloved universe of ours for a little while more, to approach it in yet another way. I love dark corridors 😉

Why do you design games and what are you most proud of?

For now, I am not proud of anything. Hex, Earthcore or Theseus are all just games in the crowd, they are puzzles purely for fun. I just hope they are seen as competitors in their league. They are just simple toys for adults. Unfortunately I do know that not everywhere in the world people have opportunities like us to have fun. How can I be proud, embracing, a brand new game in it’s pretty box, if I can hardly ever forget about all that is happening around me. It simply washes the smile off my face. We have TV, internet, we read newspapers and travel around the globe and we can see that there is so much that remains to be done on this planet. Each one of us has very little time to spend but brick by brick we can accomplish incredible things because the scale provides strength. My mission is to do what I do best for the benefit of others, hopefully those with greatest need for help. There is place for such behavior in every job. Even being a board game designer! 🙂


A while ago I used to work as cover illustrator for a certain sci-fi writer. His books focused mostly on the very up to date topic of child soldiers. Before this I saw the issue as some distant legends, only echoes of which made their way into my country. If you want to make an honest cover for a book, you must get deeper into the subject it touches. I could not believe what I saw.  Once you open your eyes it is hard to close them.


My other employer was a company that cheated their employees in China, mostly people who lived in small villages. The company did not pay wages, that were as cheap as they could get, for many months of hard labor. Afterward the company moved away to some other remote village to ruin other lives. This was extremely profitable for the company, the profit largely exceeded 1000% of production and transportation costs. For me it seemed unbelievable that such system even existed, that people could operate without a trace of morality.


I worked in many places that were built on deception and people’s naivety or desperation.


There was a time when I simply got used to the fact that the World is as it is, that it has an empty, swollen stomach, that it boils with conflicts. I got used to poverty, exploitation, thoughtless fanaticism, lack of choice or chances, or normal childhood, the ever-present egomaniacs, unquenchable consumption, rat race and discontent of other nations – I thought that all this should be left alone and forgotten. What can I do?


But wait a minute. Wherever I worked I had some kind of a tool. Larger or smaller, depending on the job’s position, to make some small changes, instead of affirmations. It is not much of an effort. Each of us has such a tool depending on their job, all we have to do is stop believing that we cannot do anything. Stop repeating the things you hear around and believe you can change something, in your city, or country, where you spend every day of your life.


It wouldn’t surprise me if all that reasoning would make somebody smirk, I, myself, am a cynic by nature 😉


It’s the small things that matter.


I make games. I want to make a game about SOMETHING and for a reason.


Maybe I will be proud when my game will be out and if it will accomplish even some of the goals that I have planned, if it would just slightly change the way boardgames are made and seen. For now I have to be proud of the fact that I am not making games only to produce another colorful working toy.

What is the most important part of making a game for you?

Until recently, nothing that I would consider essential. I just made games, looking for a [1] perfect flow and [2] infinite replayability combined with a [3] monstrous combo-producing mechanics.


These were my three goals:


Now I want to challenge a task that waited for quite some time, hidden in a closet. I want to construct something that I do not find in most games. I want to make a perfect game for myself: throw out the manual and instead put some quality plot & story inside.


The games we get nowadays possess more and more mechanisms for transferring complex plot, any kind of content. Just a few more experiments like Dead of Winter, X-Com, Robinson, Dixit, Black Stories and we will finally have expanded, easy to use board versions of books on any topic. I can’t wait for this next stage of games evolution or simply for such a tiny sub-genre.


Shared, interactive, complex and expanded, always surprising adventure, where you can barely notice any mechanics – that is my definition of an ideal game.


For me the most important thing in gamedesign is the goal. And that’s my actual goal.

Do you usually like to start from the theme or mechanics?

Contrary to what you may think I design games starting with a theme, or as the weather people say from a climate. From a universe.


And I only make games about what turns my engine. I couldn’t design in a theme that bores me or as is the case with most board games, in a theme that repulses me, only because it sells. I love retro fantasy, horror, horror sci-fi, steampunk, b-movies or more “literary” topics and I predict that it will stay this way, my games will stay this way.


Mechanics can be recycled and repeated but usually during the design process it is mechanics that forces its way to the front.

Where do you find your inspiration for new game themes and mechanics?

When it comes to themes I have a couple of sources:


[1] the world around me – or rather what is wrong with it (mainly in the RPG series of Neuroshima and Monastyr, as well as the universe for Earthcore because the content and the story were really important there)

[2] old PC games and 8-bit computer games

[3] my favorite literature and cinematography genres, that I mentioned earlier and finally

[4] paintings of all eras and the darker side of folklore (some incredible universes emerge from them, just waiting to be translated into a game… I get shivers when I think of the lands created by Durer, Bosch, Bruegle and 19th century urban legends…)


A couple of years ago I would add two more items to this list: Lovecraft (!) and zombies (!), however we have been flooded with products based on these themes therefore making them blurry and so broad that it is a shame to admit that I also love that two themes since… forever.


One thing is certain, I never LOOK for a theme of a game, it is the other way around – several themes are so much to my liking that I either paint or write or design a game about them – doesn’t matter if it is an RPG or a boardgame or correspondence game or mobile on or even a wargame. These are just forms.


As far as the mechanics are concerned the first place for inspiration are the boardgame I play. Each one becomes a source of inspiration, each possess some unique mechanics and solutions that can be combined with something entirely else therefore creating new effects.


My second source is the simple PC games (usually old) or modern mobile games.


Yet I struggle to make the mechanics of my games transparent, possible totally invisible. Oh, well I guess it would really have to an ingenious and terrific one for such phenomena to occur 😉


I know that was a very long read indeed. But Michal had so many interesting things to say that I felt it wouldn’t be right to edit and remove stuff. I hope you enjoyed it and you made your way through it all 🙂


Follow Peter H. Møller:

Tabletop Together and dachshund owner, sci-fi geek, trekkie and whovian. Lover of medium length, thematic, silly (in the good way), worker placement style games. A sucker for beautiful art. Generally just a big lovable teddy bear.

Latest posts from

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.