The Mind Behind Hive

The Mind Behind Hive

June 28, 2018 3 By Ryan Sanders

The Inquisitive Meeple catches up with John Yianni, creator of the modern classic game Hive, to learn a little bit of the story behind the game.

Hive. It really has become a modern classic in the board game hobby. It seems not many games these days stay in print for years on end in our hobby, but Hive which came out in 2001, has actually been able to do just that. For readers that don’t know much about the game, it’s a 2-player abstract game, that is boardless. In the game, you will be placing down and moving pieces (insects and spiders) in various ways. The object is to be the first to surround your opponents, Queen Bee. With that, we begin our interview…

Thank you for joining us today Mr. Yianni to talk about Hive. Let’s start off with what has to be your most asked interview question. What is the story behind Hive’s creation?

John: I was 18 years old when I first had the idea for a board-less chess-like game. I had no experience with gaming, except for games like Monopoly & Risk. But I had been designing and making board games for fun that I would play with family and friends. It was at this period of time that I had the idea for Hive, whilst watching a film on TV.

The main characters of the film were two old friends that met daily in a park to play Chess. They would come together, each bringing one half of the board and half the pieces. I don’t remember the name of the film but I do remember what inspired me. Looking at the unused empty spaces on their Chessboard I wondered, could I design a game that had no need of a board, so it could be very portable, but still kept the essence of what makes Chess so appealing?

I set of to design and make the game using thick card as the pieces. The game was made up of squares (still thinking Chess-board) with symbols of Rats, Dragons, Stones, Kings, and Pigs. Some pieces moved in the same way as our current Hive game, like the rat that had the same movement as the ant, but then there were other pieces like the Pig that pushed other pieces and the stone, which was more of a blocking piece. The object of the game was the same as Hive, to surround an opposing piece, (in this case the king) using pieces that all moved in different ways. All the pieces needed to be connected to one another, just like Hive. But unlike Hive there was a set-up position. The game played okay but not as well as I would have liked.  I decided that it was not worth pursuing and so I put it away never to be played or seen again for 18 years.

Some 18 years later, whilst working on something else on my computer, I drew a hex shape and for some strange reason, the Chess game came flooding back to my mind. I kind of knew instinctively that I was now onto something with the different shape of the pieces.

That’s was 2001, the start of what we call homemade Hive. The first 1000 games made mostly by hand. I found a local cabinetmaker, who had the machinery and was willing to make the hexagonal blocks for the pieces. He would make them in batches of a few hundred at a time without finishing them. I would then take them home and set about sanding them. I also had 22000 foil hex stickers printed and one thousand printed boxes and rule booklets. The hard work was the sanding and the sticking of the stickers onto the blocks. We roped in a few good friends and family to help with the sanding and paid them with an endless supply of KFC and beer. My wife and I did the rest, nightly sticking of the hex insect stickers using tweezers and packing them in there boxes.

Hive has been around 15+ years now, it’s always been a hit even going back to couple editions that were actually the wood and sticker versions that you just mentioned. It seems there are a lot of people out there that say “I don’t like pure abstracts,” until they play Hive and then they make Hive the exception. Why do you think it strikes such a chord with people, even those that don’t normally like luckless abstracts?

John: I truly believe the idea for Hive was God given, Jesus way of blessing me and my family and providing for us, and giving us a hope and a future. Romans 8:28  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

But also true, would be that Hive has stood the test of time because it has always been a classic, even from its conception. It is basically Chess distilled down to its core elements and presented in a new and vibrant way.

Old edition of Hive before the bakelite tiles.

Before we get to the next question, let me say as a fellow believer and Christian, that is awesome that you recognize God’s hand in your life. Now on to that next question…

Which original Hive piece has changed the most movement-wise from prototype to finished form, and why did you change it?

John: The Original Hive pieces, (after moving to the hexagonal pieces) have not really changed much, the only thing that was changed was the complement of pieces. We tried many different numbers of pieces before we were happy with the end results. For instance: I know some people complain about the weakness of the Spider compared to the Ant and say that the Spider being the weaker piece should have a larger number than the Ants, being that the Spiders are the pawns of the Hive world. But In some early test-plays, the Spiders (3) outnumbered the Ants (2), but we found we needed to have three Ants for the game to work well defensively and only really needed two Spiders.  

Was there ever a piece that almost didn’t make the final cut, but in the end, made it into the game?

John: Very Early in the process, there were pieces that were considered but never really made it past the thought process phase. Once the game was in the prototype phase, the five-piece types we now have in the standard game were already decided upon.  

Let’s talk about the Beetle for a moment. It is the most unique piece in the base game because it can climb on top of other pieces. Do you remember what inspired that?

John: I really wanted Hive to be a three dimensional game with an interesting visual aesthetic, so when viewed by passers-by would draw their attention, the answer was a top of the Hive moving insect. But because it would be a very powerful piece, I had to restrict it to only one space movement. A Beetle was a good candidate as I considered them heavy and slow moving. Heavy enough to pin another insect if they climbed on top of it.

Two interesting things about the Beetle design:

  1. It is the only piece that I designed on paper before scanning it in to draw around it to create the digital image. All the other pieces I designed directly in Abobe Illustrator.
  2. The Beetle is where the Hive logo design came from. I basically just cut up the Beetle and re-arranged its body parts to create the text for the Hive logo, that’s why the Hive logo is this jagged image of text.

Hive did something that normally abstracts don’t do, and that is, introduce expansion pieces. You have introduced the Mosquito, the Ladybug, and Pillbug. Do you have any more planned, or are you done with the expansion pieces?

John: The idea for the Mosquito was conceived out of a need to have a giveaway for fairs and such. It was something that we had discussed with our Netherlands agent, who was very keen to have something that he could use to promote the game. It did start out as just a promo set, that we wanted to have as a limited piece and only to give away at game fairs. The plan was also to give some to our distributors and agents as sample pieces so that they could use to promote the game and to also give out to people buying our games at games fairs. This proved to be very unpopular with Hive fans that would not be attending the fairs. The big outcry from them made us rethink our strategy. Thus was born the first ever Hive Expansion piece.

The Mosquito was a piece that I had been playing around with for some time. I wanted to add a piece that didn’t disrupt the game too much and because it was a piece that did not actually add any new movement ability, it seemed like a very good candidate. It has however proven to be a very controversial expansion for some Hive fans, who have designed extra fan-made insects for the game. It seems that the Mosquito brings difficulty because of its ability to mimic top of the Hive moving insects like the Beetle.

The next expansion piece The Ladybug came about because I wanted to add a new piece to the soon to be released Hive Carbon game. I wanted to add another top of the Hive moving bug, but I was also in the same predicament as the Hive fans, because of the Mosquito. I was playing around with some different movements for the new piece, and then I got the idea to make it a top moving bug but not one that would remain on the Hive, and with that simple revelation, The Ladybug was born.

The last expansion was a throwback to the very early days of Hive before the Hexagonal pieces, I wanted to add a defensive piece to help balance out any first player advantage, and so I decided to add a piece that could move other pieces, very much like the first design for the Rhino piece of the original Board-less Chess game.

I’m now very happy with the game as it stands, and so I’m also very reluctant to add any more expansions to it. I will not say never, but I will say that I have no plans at this present time to add any.

You mention that the Mosquito brings some difficulty. Do you wish that you didn’t put out that expansion or that it at least had a different ability?

John: Not anymore, I’m really loving what the Mosquito now brings to the game, especially since the introduction of the Pillbug.

Hive Carbon

About those fan-made expansions, do you follow them? Are there any that you think “wow that’s a great idea”?

John: I do follow the fan-made expansion threads, but unfortunately I don’t get a lot of time to try them out. There are a lot of very interesting ideas, some more interesting than others. I do also get a lot of people emailing me outside of Board Game Geek with what they consider novel ideas for new Hive bugs. But so far I have not really seen anything that would make me want to make them official.

My favourite idea is a relatively new one only posted on BBG in February this year and that’s the “Very simple new bug idea – the parasite” I like its simplicity and novel movement, but again I’ve not really had any time to try it out and see what it could add, if anything, to the game.

As we come to a close, what would you say has been your greatest lesson learned through Hive?

John: The biggest thing I’ve learned in these years of creating and promoting Hive, is how wonderful and amazing Hive fans are. They have taken to this game in such an awesome and unexpected way, creating a community with fan-made variants, running tournaments and even writing strategy books about the game. The fans are a big part of the reason why Hive has become such a success. Without their support, it would have been a lot harder to continue working and doing what I love.

Thanks to John Yianni for agreeing to do this interview. 

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