Jorge Zhang

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Interview with Matt Calkins

September 12, 2021 by Jorge Zhang

This is an interview with Matt Calkins, the founder of Appian and an avid board game designer and enthusiast. You may know of his designs such as Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan and Tin Goose.

You are not only the founder of Appian, but also someone who has done extraordinarily well at the couple of Diplomacy tournaments you have attended. What are some similarities between how you negotiate an alliance in Diplomacy versus an “alliance” in the business world?

A real-life alliance is unlike a Diplomacy alliance in that it is not zero-sum. In real life, a partnership should be win-win, in Diplomacy it generally cannot be. Core to the way I approach business and life is being sure that I'm a good part of other people's lives. Help them succeed, and you will also benefit. That's not a winning strategy in Diplomacy, but it is elsewhere.

Do you have a secret to negotiating?

My secret to negotiating is to really understand what the counterparty wants. I treat the negotiation as a puzzle, trying to discover a mutually beneficial outcome.

Appian deals with designing software, so some might be surprised to find that you design board games too. Is designing board games similar to designing software?

Designing games is like designing organizations, but not really like writing software. Creating good mechanisms to make decisions, recognizing the essence of a complex dynamic: these are game-design skills.

How did you get your ideas for the board games you have designed?

I get ideas for board games based on history, travels, other games that I like, or just being exposed to a topic. (When you design games, you start to see everything in terms of rules and mechanisms.) Recently I watched some tennis matches -- now I'm thinking of writing a game about tennis.

Have you thought about starting your own board game company?

I have not seriously thought about starting a board game company.

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