Archive for Oliver Kiley
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The world of roguelikes and roguelike-likes (i.e. games with a selection of roguelike elements) is on the rise. In some ways, I wonder whether this is driven by the Nintendo-generation’s (or earlier) nostalgia for games that were f-ing hard. The kind of hard that made you throw the controller across the room. The kind of hard that didn’t have a save feature, let alone autosaves. You know what I mean. These were the games you had to leave paused with the TV off, crossing your fingers that the power light didn’t catch mommy’s eye in the dark of the night, prompting her to shut the thing off and ruin that flawless run. Those were the days; games were brutal and our perseverance was put to the test.
Karen broke her leg!? Oh snap!!
Maybe Oregon Trail had a role to play. It’s spawned its share of imitators and tributes. We’ve got Organ Trail, the recent zombie-themed remake. Then there’s BEDLAM, a modern-day Oregon Trail. Even FTL could be taken as a futuristic homage, come to think of it. Did many of us cut our teeth on Oregon Trail without realizing that it was priming us for a love affair with roguelikes? Curiously, Oregon Trail, first released in 1971 (!!!) predates many of the original early roguelikes (ahem, Rogue from 1980). This makes me wonder about the hidden influence Oregon Trail might have had on the rise of roguelikes, their underlying mechanics, and the surging popularity of roguelike elements woven into other genres.
I mean, we ALL played Oregon Trail right? We can all relate to Jenny and her snakebites. As the ideas and mechanics behind roguelike games start to permeate into other genres, I often find myself trying to make distinctions between them and understand how different “roguelike elements” are used in one game compared to another. I’m having to split hairs by saying this game does X and that game does Y, so they are different, you see! And when you knead additional trends into the genre-dough, like the RPG-ification and survival-craft-ification of everything, then it gets really complex. Where does a roguelike tactical RPG end and a roguelike survival-craft game begin!?
So, for my own sanity and the purpose of this eXposition, I’m going to stab into the dark, embarking on my own little adventure to define a number of roguelike and related terms that pertain to a lot of current games these days. ‘ere we go!
First off, I want to talk about the format of roguelike(-like) games. The original Rogue and its direct descendents were all Individual-based games, which means that you controlled a single individual character. Then there are roguelikes where you are controlling multiple individual lives. Let’s call these Party-based games. Some roguelikes feature dudes and dudettes onboard some sort of vehicular contraption (like a spaceship, a boat, or a wagon). We can call these Crew-based games. Or perhaps you are controlling a roster of characters where only some subset of them is used at once. The game then becomes more Operations-based, with you managing the resources and facilities for this burgeoning roster of ill-fated individuals that you send off to their deaths. Step up in scale from there and we find ourselves suddenly managing an entire community of people in a Clan-based game. And it’s only a matter of time before we get our first Empire-based roguelike. Frankly, any number of 4X games could probably qualify, if played in some sort of hardcore, all decisions are permanent mode (with no save scumming!)
Examples! You need examples!
Individual-based: Rogue, Out There, Pixel Dungeon, Diablo (hardcore mode), Hoplite
Party-based: Crowntakers, This War of Mine
Crew-based: FTL, Sunless Sea, Bedlam, Oregon/Organ Trail, Flame in the Flood
Operations-based: XCOM, Darkest Dungeon, Invisible Inc, Hunters 2, Massive Chalice
Clan-based: King of Dragon Pass, Thea: The Awakening, At the Gates
Empire-based: Age of Wonders 3 (when I refuse to reload save games!)
Out There is kinda, sorta, like a modern Oregon Trail, but in space. Sorta.
Strategic-Layer & Tactical Space
Next up is whether or not the game has additional “layers” to the gameplay at a higher (strategic) level and/or at a smaller (tactical) level. The strategic level often has to do with things like base-building, choosing missions/operations, resource and personnel management, etc. For example:
Invisible Inc: Selecting missions from a global mission screen based on risk / reward
XCOM: Base building, economy, and threat mitigation
Darkest Dungeon: Base building, roster management, hero advancement, economy
King of Dragon Pass: Clan development
Thea: The Awakening: City development
Other games have a separate tactical space where battles or other types of conflicts are resolved at a finer grain of detail. For instance:
Crowntakers: separate turn-based tactical combat mode
FTL: real-time (pausable) ship-to-ship combat
XCOM: tactical combat missions
Darkest Dungeon: dungeon delving quests of doom
Some games, of course, have both a tactical and strategic-management space (e.g. XCOM, Darkest Dungeon) with no in-between space per se, unlike Crowntakers (for example) which has the overworld map you navigate. This might be a function of their “operation-based” nature. Taking another example, This War of Mine is similar in some respects, with a distinct strategic, base-building phase and a separate tactical scavenging (yes, that’s an awesome new term I made up) phase. Yet unlike XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, in This War of Mine the base-building/management environment is presented in the same side-scrolling structure as the scavenging missions.
Darkest Dungeon, aka the Hero Mill
Turn-based vs. Real-time
This is a obviously a biggie for many people. Proper roguelikes are turn-based, so you can contemplate whether you will step left or step right and the odds of picking wrong and stepping-on-a-trap-that-will-insta-gib-you will be. But of course, developers are messing with the formula so we have these real-time things invading the turf. It’s fairly obvious when a game is real-time or turn-based, so I’m not going to spew off more examples (yet).
Now we are getting down to the details. As a bit of history, roguelikes are named in reference to Rogue, a game from the precambrian era of gaming, i.e. 1980. Rogue, and the many derivative works that followed (and the earlier stuff that preceded it), generally had three key ingredients: a procedurally generated environment for your unlucky hero to explore, turn-based gameplay, and permadeath.
Permadeath means, generally speaking, that when your character dies, they stay dead. No save points, no free-saving, just death. Time to restart folks. From the beginning. Game over man. It’s important to note that for permadeath to actually have significance, the game will not typically allow manual saving and reloading. Otherwise, you could save scum to your heart’s content in order to avoid the deathtraps and missteps that constitutes a hallmark of the roguelike genre. It would undermine the entire point and challenge of the game to have free saving.
Some games, particularly those at the party-based level and beyond, might feature permadeath for individual characters; but provided that some of your characters live you can continue to press onward. Some games, like Diablo 2 for example, have optional “hardcore” modes that turn a traditional infinite-life game experience into a die-once-and-it’s-over-buddy experience. So while Diablo 2 isn’t traditionally viewed as a roguelike, it operates quite a bit like one in hardcore mode (aside from the real-time nature of the gameplay).
Suffice to say, any game can potentially be a tiny-bit-more-roguelike if you can tame your urge to save scum and instead elect to throw your computer out of the window when you die. That will, short of having an actual permadeath system, do the trick nicely, I think.
What’s up Brogue? Want to ASCII me another question?
Having a unique and random world/dungeon/pit-of-despair/bog-of-eternal-stench generated for each play through is another pillar of the roguelike temple. Nowadays, all game environments are procedurally generated (I’m not being that serious), and in the near future all games will be procedurally generated too (I’m being a little serious). The point of procedural environments is not to put the strategy game guide people out of business, but rather to create a tremendous amount of uncertainty and a new delicious menu of risk each time you start a new run.
Of course there is a grey area here, and quite a few games combine procedural environments with a dose of handcrafted splendor to ensure that certain milestones or locations are present in the world from game to game. Some games simply have certain elements randomized in their initial placement. For example the location and standing of your clan in King of Dragon Pass relative to the other clans is different each game, which adds a little variety to each play through.
Survival & Status Decay
A cornerstone of many roguelikes is a system for survival and/or status decay over time. In other words, if you stand still or run around in circles, you will eventually run out of food, water, torches, or gold doubloons and meet a grisly death due to starvation, dehydration, insanity, or turncoat mercenaries. Many roguelikes have a system for auto-healing, but requiring a constant influx of resources (i.e. an upkeep) means that you can’t just wait around until you all heal up; you have to keep moving. The incorporation of survival elements seems to be increasing across many genres of games, and it seems our endless cultural fascination with all things zombies strikes at the heart of this desire (hence we get Organ Trail, DayZ, Savage Lands, Don’t Starve, and so on).
As a side note, many games are predicated primarily around survival such that the game is essentially “endless” until you fail to survive. There is no winning condition, only a losing condition. A familiar example of this is the puzzle game Tetris. There is no “beating” Tetris, only losing. Of course, when you lose you also get a score, and the challenge then becomes to play it again and earn a higher score. A number of roguelikes work with this principle too, such as the endless modes in Invisible Inc, Flame in the Flood, and The Long Dark.
Clements, we told you not to eat the zombie parts!
Instead of survival pressure, some roguelike games have a time pressure and/or external threat mechanic that forces the player to make forward progress. For example, in FTL there is the forward march of the rebel fleet that spreads further across the map each turn. You have to keep moving forward or else you’ll get caught in the wave of rebel scum and perish. Other games have external pressures that are not such a hard line, but nevertheless force action. In Crowntakers, each day that passes sees the enemies grow stronger and stronger. If you dilly dally too much, the opposing forces will become too difficult to deal with, and you will be unable to survive. The main difference between survival mechanics and time pressure mechanics is that survival is about maintaining your internal condition, while time pressure is based on an external force putting pressure on you to act decisively.
Jump now, or forever hold your peace ...
Achievement-based unlocks are systems where accomplishing a certain feat or goal in one run-through of the game will unlock a new feature or additional content that is available to you on the next run-through. Beating certain goals in FTL with certain ships will unlock new starting ship options. Your score in Invisible Inc - when your team finally (and inevitably) succumbs - earns you points towards unlocking new starting agents for a subsequent run. In Hoplite, doing specific awesome things unlocks new abilities that you can then use over the course of the next run. In Dungeon of the Endless you can unlock new escape pods that affect your starting position on future runs, as well as new party members to use in your current and future runs.
Persistence and Carryover
Some roguelikes have systems where certain characteristics, items, or other resources carry over between playthroughs. For example, in Wayward Souls you can collect gold during your runs, which you can then use to purchase permanent character stat boosts for the different classes. In Crypt of the Necrodancer you get to hold onto gems that you can use to purchase better starting equipment the next time around. In the Flame in the Flood, you can leave items on your doggie’s satchel which will return to you the next time you start over. In Crowntakers, “easy mode” lets your characters keep their experience and level-gains across multiple runs. In Thea: The Awakening, the levels deities earn remain for future games. In some cases, the gains are “persistent” across all future runs (e.g. Wayward Souls), and in other cases the gains only “carryover” for the next run (e.g. Flame in the Flood).
These persistent, carry-overs differ from the achievement-based unlocks in that they are less about opening up new content and options (i.e. variety) and more about making subsequent runs progressively easier. It becomes a soft-handed way of letting people that are terrible at roguelikes (err, ahem … don’t like the “challenge”) still make forward progress in the game if they put in the effort. Many consider this a serious breach of the roguelike contract, yet others applaud these efforts for making roguelike games more accessible. You’ll have to decide for yourself what side of the line you are on. Or maybe you’re one of those oddities that likes to put their hands on one side of the line, and your feet on the other?
Flame in the Flood’s eternal champion, Aesop the Dog, let’s you carry over a few precious items between plays.
Legacy & Inheritance
This set of mechanics doesn’t appear to be used as much as the others I’ve mentioned, but there are a few games I’ve seen that are playing with the idea, so I’ll mention it. In five years when this is the hot new thing, I’ll look like a genius. Anyway the idea here is that there are carry over effects between runs that affect the gameworld rather than you as a player. While not a roguelike, the upcoming game Descendants: Voidborne uses this idea. Essentially, it’s a 4X-ish game built around a series of shorter matches. When a match ends, by reaching a victory condition, the next game you play starts by re-purposing the final game state from your previous game. For example, maybe you built a big huge galactic empire and finished one game, but afterward a rebellion broke up the empire such that in your next game you start off as one of the smaller rebel factions. It’s an interesting idea for sure. Curiously, the board game Risk: Legacy did this exact thing, requiring players to make permanent alterations to their game pieces and the board itself that affect how the game would work on future plays. Pretty rad!
RPG Skill Progression
The RPG-ification of all games has been underway for quite a while. Rare is the game that doesn’t have some sort of stat tracking leading to minor skill improvements, level-ups, and aren’t-you-are-so-special unlocks and perks. I mean, even modern multiplayer shooters like the Battlefield series are rife with achievements feeding rank advancement and gear unlocks. Where does it end!? Certainly not with roguelikes, which have been a natural concubine to the succubus that are RPGs. Of course, some games emphasize this more than others. In FTL, your crewmates have a few basic stats that improve over time as they get better at certain tasks. That is quite minor compared to the sorts of skill tree min-maxing that you might undertake as a hardcore mode Diablo player.
Ohhh, the Stats screen in Crowntakers
RPG Items and Loot!!!!
Loot is synonymous with all good things for most gamers. Loot is where the heart is. I’m hard pressed to find anything remotely resembling a roguelike that doesn’t have some system of loot collection as a core element of the game. You need loot to improve your weapons and armor. You need loot to improve your food stuffs. You need loot to improve the engines on your spaceship. You need loot for trading, for survival, for glory, for victory… Ahhh… You get the point. Loot!
I should mention that many classic roguelikes have a particular flavor of loot known as the “unknown” item: be it a potion, a sword, or a brightly colored mushroom. Drinking, equipping, or ingesting such items might bring you fantastic benefits and powers, or might cause a terrible belly-ache and curse your character for all eternity. You just don’t know. The random, unknown nature of loot can add an interesting check to the usual “all good things” aspect of loot collection. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll think twice next time.
Speaking of loot, what better use of loot than to make newer, better and bigger loot? Hence we arrive at the third horseman of the videogame apocalypse: crafting.
Crafting increasingly is seen in all sorts of games and meshes well into the milieu of roguelikes. Crafting is “almost” hand-in-hand with survival mechanics, although there are exceptions. Terraria (arguably not a roguelike) is all about crafting, but there is no survival imperative. Diablo 2 has crafting with the glorious cube, but again no survival need. I suppose large swaths of MMO’s fall into crafting without survival need territory too. But in the world of roguelikes they typically go hand-in-hand, with players needing to craft various items to maintain their survival as well as creating more powerful gear to advance deeper into the dungeon.
It takes a village to craft a sword (Thea: the Awakening)
Economy & Resources
Economy is most often associated with operations-based games like XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, where you have a global pot of gold (or other resources). These resources need to maniacally allocated to certain tasks, be it building satellites, managing workers, or sending your depressed, broken crusader out for a raucous night at the bar to lift his spirits. While the need to balance a flow of money often mimics a survival mechanic, running out of money is not usually grounds for immediate termination. In Crowntakers or FTL you have nice little bank account than you can freely spend down to zero if you want. You won’t be able to buy anything, but your game isn’t dramatically over either, at least in the short term. At a greater scale, Thea: The Awakening seems to be bringing the menu of roguelike mechanics to the resource and economy-based 4X gameplay.
Last, but not least, is the notion of special narrative events. Choose your own adventure style gamebooks are making a comeback in the digital age as technology makes these sorts of things far more engaging than mere words on paper (although purists will disagree). Some of this, I feel, is rubbing off in terms of roguelikes and related games with narrative-driven event-based systems that add a quasi-procedural dimension to the storyline. For example, King of Dragon Pass uses 100’s of special events that must be responded to in ways that are rarely cut-and-dry. Events can push your progress down a different path and/or come back to haunt you years later. But the result is a unique experience each time you sit down to play. I haven’t played it myself, but I wonder about the kinds of events that are created in a game like Dwarf Fortress and how that shapes a unique and rich narrative there. Sorcerer King is a recent 4X games that leans heavily on narrative events to shape the experience as well.
Anything but the Lizard Eggs … help us!
It is interesting to see how the design of many games, particularly games that seek to challenge the player in a single-player setting, increasingly draw on roguelike elements to ramp up the difficulty. I’m only half-joking about an Empire-based roguelike, as I’m sure the big one is just around the corner (and Thea: the Awakening and Sorcerer King aren’t far off the mark). So many of these mechanics, like survival or crafting, can scale up or down to work as well with an individual hero as they do with managing a settlement of people. External threats and pressures require you to stay one step ahead of the rebels in FTL. Is it hard to imagine a similarly functioning mechanic that threatens your space empire? AI War was already headed in that direction.
For me, the shared attributes between survival-craft games, RPGs and roguelikes all speaks directly to strategy and strategic thinking, albeit in slightly different ways. Dealing with these mechanics requires us to plan ahead. This need to think manifests within roguelikes (for me anyway) as it does in many typical strategy game genres. The result is that I’ve become far more interested in games outside of my usual circle. These games all provide a high level of challenge and depth despite being in different genres.
Others have written interesting (and controversial) pieces about the nature of games and the differences between a game, a puzzle, and a toy. Many modern games, for example open world sandboxes like Skyrim, are functionally more like a toy. Save systems and a general dumbing down of gameplay (for lack of a more PC-term), mean that fewer and fewer of your choices have lasting consequences - you can always reload or undo a decision that did not go well. More to the point, there is no “winning” of the game as a whole. Sure, you can accomplish a quest (or the major plot lines) but you can continue playing afterwards if you want. Like a pile of LEGOs, the goals you face- if you even have one beyond exploration - are self-determined. There is no toy fail.
So in many ways, I feel like the rogue-ification of games, which tends to reintroduce consequences and hard choices, is a move away from games as toys and back towards games as “games.” There is tension when it is possible to fail and lose everything. And this threat of failure and loss makes such games (for me), more impactful, rewarding, and engaging. I play them differently, with more focus and careful consideration, and beating them feels all the richer as a result. Fortunately, we appear to be having a heyday for these types of games. Keep ‘em coming, I say!
The Long Dark - a roguelike, survival-craft, sandbox, RPG-FPS -thing. Yes.
Now it’s your turn. Are there major gameplay devices related to roguelikes (or other genres) that I missed? Ones you don’t agree with? Share away!
Preamble: A Fool’s Quest
It may come as no surprise that I have aspirations to design a 4X game. I’m sure many of you reading the headline have entertained such thoughts as well. And while I have designed and published a 4X board game (and am no stranger to the design process) my spider-sense tells me that designing a 4X video game is like navigating a minefield. There is so much that can blow up. We also appear to be entering a heyday for 4X games, which begs the question “do we need yet another 4X game rampaging through the market?” Probably not. But that isn’t going to stop me from dreaming and putting forward a vision for what I feel would be something unique and different.
I’ve dedicated a fair portion of my writing to critiquing 4X games along a number of different avenues: bad endgame experiences, pacing and flow, strategic depth vs. routine optimization, snowball and steamroller, over-complication, underdeveloped systems, thematic incongruities, and so on. Throughout all of this, I always ask myself “If I’m so quick to critique, how would I do it differently?” For a long time I’ve been striving to understand what it is I’m actually looking for in a 4X game experience. Is it narrative? Is it challenge? Is it immersion? I think it needs to be all of the above, but wrapped together in a way that provides a meaningful and coherent experience.
Through all of this, there is one central thing keeps nagging at me as I look back on the many 4X games I’ve played: 4X games rarely have a satisfactory ending in terms of narrative or gameplay - and often both are lacking.
A design lesson I’ve learned is that, for strategy games at least, the end trigger and win conditions are the game. You have to conceive of a compelling conclusion to your game first, and then work towards building that experience. I think a lot of games do it backwards: they conceive of all the things they want players to do, and then figure out how to wrestle the behemoth they’ve created into a coherent game with some way to end it. How many games patch in new victory conditions post-release? It’s absurd if you think about it. Strategy games need to be designed around the victory conditions so that all the elements can be balanced and directed towards a compelling closure. So I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing it backwards.
4X games are often a letdown in terms of gameplay for reasons that have been discussed considerably of late. How many of you actually bother to finish a 4X game once you have passed the point of knowing victory is inevitable, if only you just hang on and grind through? That’s a problem having to do with the snowball and steamroller. Another issue is that victory conditions themselves are often silo’d as isolated offshoots of disjoined mechanics: you have some arbitrary economic win, or a technological win, or a military win, etc. Gameplay becomes a giant optimization puzzle to hit your chosen goal first. More alarming, this is often a goal you set right at the start of the game, based on race selection, and which rarely is challenged or changed during play. Strategy is about deciding on goals - and how much strategy is there really in a game where you set you set your goal in the the first 5 minutes?
The narrative problem that I have with 4X games can be summarized with this question: What does it mean for an empire to “win”? I’m tired of games built around conquering the world or galaxy, or becoming the supreme ruler, or achieving some technological triviality, or abstractly cornering the market, or whatever else. The end triggers for so many games are painfully arbitrary and hence unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint. More to the point, these sort of winner take all win conditions are not very enlightened or sophisticated, they translate colonialism into space. Whoopee. I think we can do better.
I read a lot of science fiction, particularly space operas from the likes of Isaac Asimov (old school) to Peter F. Hamilton (new school). These narratives are dramatic and visionary. They cover vast sweeps of time, and yet boil down to nail-biting and personal moments as the protagonists strive to stay one step ahead of whatever horrific menace is sweeping across the stars. I’ve never had the sort of tension and sweeping grandeur in a 4X game that you get from a novel - but I have some ideas for how it might happen.
So the challenge I’m laying at my feet is two-fold: First, conceive of a design for a space 4X game that would unify the gameplay with what it means to win through a compelling narrative frame that captures the boldness and imagination of the best of space opera. Second, I want to accomplish this with a game that is tightly designed, relatively quick to play (by 4X standards), and is emergent and engaging with getting bogged down by its own design.
PART 1: A Sketch for a Space Opera
A Dream Transcendent
Imagine for a moment that a game with the tightness and pacing of something like FTL (Faster Than Light) had an unholy union with a narratively curious game like King of Dragon Pass. Except instead of trying to fly a spaceship from point A to point B, as in FTL, you were guiding an empire among the stars. And instead of trying to become the king of all the clans, you were seeking transcendence and an ascension to the next level of galactic consciousness. This is the of the idea for Transcend. Let me elaborate.
First of all, I want to create a 4X game where what it means to win is something positive and evolutionary. Most 4X games presuppose that winning is only by achieving dominance in some way, and that other empire’s are inherently in a zero-sum competition with you. Hence, most 4X games task the player with overseeing yet another colonial era of manifest destiny. I think this is a tired concept, and coming up with something novel and positive means reexamining what it means to “win.”
I think modern humanity, as a whole, could move towards “winning” in some sense by achieving world peace and ending poverty, or achieving an equilibrium with planet Earth. Those are positive goals in my mind. Becoming the supreme ruler of earth doesn’t sound very positive to me - it’s draconian. So in Transcend, there is one singular winning condition: surviving to achieve transcendence with your culture. Achieving transcendence will open up a pathway to a higher plane of existence (e.g. accessing higher dimensional orders of reality) where other transcendent cultures thrive and continue their own quests for evolution and understanding in the universe. It’s a bit Zen-like, eh?
How your culture achieves transcendence will vary in unique ways depending on their physiology, consciousness, and morality. These starting conditions, which will be covered more later on, frames a sequence of positive goals you need to meet to successfully transcend, such as achieving empathy, equity, freedom, creativity, etc.. A race of artificial machines might need to learn empathy and compassion, or a culture of passive space slugs to learn when force is justified, or for humans to move beyond their rigid individualism.
In my mind, these transcendent goals provide a more compelling context for a 4X game’s winning condition than “I’m better/bigger than you.” So the idea isn’t a technological victory or any other specific win trigger, but rather requires players to build a strategy that employs all aspects of their empire as they pursue a series of culture-spanning transformations towards transcendence. This will also (hopefully!) create an opening to recognize and reward cooperation between empires. Such cooperation is a rarity, and most often a friendly handshake is just the precursor to a stab in the back. But here, it is possible for multiple races to Transcend and even work together to achieve it mutually, because it isn’t zero-sum. What I need to transcend may be very different from what you need, and there is room for both of us to succeed if we work together.
Yet achieving transcendence, in the absence of any external threats, must be a challenge on its own. Managing growth and resources so that your culture doesn’t spiral out of control and consume itself along the way, putting transcendence forever out of reach is central to the design. There needs to be internal pressure on the player. In metaphor, the path to transcendence is like navigating through a maze of tightropes, and there are plenty of opportunities to fall off.
There are also things trying to push you off the tightrope.
Whispers in the Dark
My space opera inspired design challenge also needs to apply external pressure on the player to keep them on their toes and prevent players from simply optimizing their way to victory. Enter the Galactic Threats. Galactic Threats are something big and bad that happens to the entire galaxy. Fundamentally their presence requires players to achieve transcendence before the galactic threat wipes you (and everyone else) out.
So the central strategic challenge in the game becomes balancing your own progress towards achieving transcendence while holding enough back to deal with the galactic threat when it shows up. You need to walk the tightrope but be resilient enough to not get pushed off by a strong wind. If you invest too heavily in one aspect of your empire, you might not have the flexibility and foundation in place to react when the threat comes knocking. And while players may be able to slow down the galactic threat, inevitably they will have to transcend to escape it - there is no other way.
Of course there is a further wrinkle: you don’t know what the galactic threat will be. The game will include a series of different threats, and one of them (or more than one on harder difficulties) will randomly be unleashed on the galaxy at some unforeseeable moment. And these threats can take a number of different forms, with only subtle narrative clues and events hinting at the storm to come. For example, an unfathomably massive black hole might appear in center of the galaxy and slowly starts pulling all the star systems into its maw, turn by turn obliterating them. Transcend before your empire is swallowed.
Another threat idea is “Galactic Hot Potato” (working title!), where a mysterious homing beacon is unearthed that starts summoning progressively stronger waves of extradimensional alien forces into the galaxy. Players need to cooperate to “pass the potato” and keep the aliens chasing it around the galaxy. Or maybe you can use spies to sneak it onto an opponent’s world to sic the aliens on them! Regardless, if the aliens get a hold of it, the motherships show up and you are all screwed. Prudent leaders transcend before the motherships show up. Or maybe some wild nano virus starts spreading throughout sentient life and turning your populace against itself.
Holistically, the galactic threats introduce an asynchronous form of opposition that provides a more compelling narrative structure to the game. On a basic level, it gives the player an interesting challenge, greatly lessening the burden for programming other AI empires to give the player a challenging peer-to-peer experience. Additionally, the threat system has the potential to open up more interesting gameplay, with opportunities for cooperation between players to occur as they collectively try to hold back the tide; yet with each culture still racing against the clock to transcend on their own. When combined, these two dynamics (transcendence and galactic threats) can move the genre beyond a mere repetition of the colonial manifest into something bold and new, and more fitting as a “space opera.”
The Supporting Cast: Design Goals
While the Transcendence and Galactic Threat systems address my overarching design goal of creating a challenging and narratively interesting victory system, there are other critical design goals to discuss. Establishing goals for a design is important to guide decision making and to keep the game focused around the experience you are trying to craft. While goals can certainly change, often times the constraint of holding the design to them can breed ingenuity. So what are these other goals? So far I have seven of them:
I’m longing for a 4X game that I can sit down and play to it’s conclusion in an evening or two and feel like I’ve been challenged and engaged the whole time. Contrary to the “just one more turn” sentiment, I want every turn to have tough choices and tradeoffs to make. I want less turns, but I want them each to matter more. There should never be a turn of “doing nothing but pressing next turn.” I want to compress the normal 4X experience so that all those crazy late-game technologies we drool about are actually employed sooner and have a bearing on the game. I’ve had this notion of structuring the flow and pacing of the entire game around 30 turns, recognizing that if I design for 30, I’ll probably end around 45 or 60 turns. Each turn, to capture the sweeping growth and transcendence of a culture, will need to represent a large chunk of time, and by necessity requires a bit more abstraction throughout the design. But I think that’s okay, because I want to …
Embrace the Fantastical.
Science fiction literature is filled with all sorts of awesome ideas: cultures going post-physical, hive minds, dyson spheres, ring worlds, starbombs, galactic cannons, miniature black holes, Helium mining from super gas giants, getting lost in subspace, etc. Very few 4X games really give you a way to engage with these ideas. With 30 turns, the idea is to bring these fantastical ideas to the forefront and let players utilize them earlier on as part of your grand strategy building on the quest for transcendence. I rather like the design doctrine of letting everything be “overpowered” - the gameplay results are usually far more interesting.
I want most of the numbers in the game the be less than 10. 4X games can quickly spiral into complex math and algorithms that obfuscates the gameplay, requiring players to jump through all sorts of mental gymnastics just to evaluate the potential outcomes of different choices. I want to keep the numbers simple so that evaluation of choices is driven more by a consideration of the context, needs, and opportunities as a discrete option rather than as a mathematical optimization exercise. In other words, I want to enable players to “shoot from the hip” in their decision making, which might also open up the design to a broader audience.
To the extent possible, I want to keep the theme and mechanics in alignment. I dislike, in general, “gamey” systems that exist without a clear connection back to the theme. If a mechanic or system can’t be clearly understood on the basis of it’s theme, then it needs to be reevaluated. If I’m doing something in-game that is totally illogical or counter-intuitive, that’s a problem. Games obviously require abstraction, but I want to abstract the various systems in the game to a comparable level. So many games go into great detail on ship design and combat, yet leave espionage or trade woefully underdeveloped. I want both to be compelling systems, even if that means neither might be as deep on its own.
One issue I have with many 4X games is that they don’t provide enough feedback to the player on the consequences of their choices or as to the state of affairs in the game world. Without adequate feedback and information, it can make it hard to understand why the game state is the way it is, and in turn is hard for players to build heuristics and develop their skills and strategies.
Big Picture Management.
4X games can quickly spiral into a management nightmare for many gamers (myself included). The core systems of the game will be designed starting from the end, i.e., what does an empire look like at the precipice of transcendence and how is managing that state of affairs interesting, engaging, and free of frustration? That’s the goal, and achieving it relates to both the core game system mechanics around empire and colony management as well as the UI approach. I want the game to focus on the “big picture” at the galactic scale, and not get too far in the weeds. Ideally, there would be few menu’s in the game, with information presented visually right in the main viewport.
Strategic Interaction, not Optimization.
I have a nagging feeling that a lot of 4X games are more like optimization puzzles than proper strategy games. Part of this is because interaction between empires is usually limited to warfare. If interactions are based only around warfare, then the player that can optimize best, and build the strongest military engine the fastest, will inevitably win. Typically, there aren’t enough other ways to interact with foreign empires that can apply pressure to the same extent that military force can. As a result, the “strategy” of most 4X games is rather one-dimensional and boils down to learning the optimization puzzle best. I want Transcend to embrace multiple avenues for interaction, both peaceful and aggressive in nature, so that building up a big military isn’t the only way to go and that other emergent opportunities can manifest as well.
In conjunction with the transcendence / galactic threat system, my hope is to create a more tightly designed 4X game. I want players to immediately be faced with compelling situations that require strategic planning, not number crunching, to navigate. I want the game to move at a fast pace to keep narrative constantly evolving over the course of the game, with other empires thrown into a highly interactive geopolitical arena.
Up Next: Species & Core Gameplay Systems (probably)
In Part 2, I will present the core gameplay systems that underpin the design, specifically the Admin System. The Admin system is envisioned as a way to frame the player’s role as the leader of your culture. How Admin relates to exploration, colony management, and the production model will be described in greater detail.
In the meantime, I welcome any discussion, theory-crafting, and criticism of what has been presented thus far. Thanks, and stay tuned!
The last two months have been crazy. But it seems like the last two months are always crazy, so I suppose that’s no excuse for having not updated the blog. And despite my effort to make the What’s Going On!? series a more regular thing - it seems I haven’t. But you’ll all forgive me I’m sure, because now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for another What’s Going On!? Roll the excuses ...
The “eXplorminate” eXcuse
One excuse is that I’ve been continuing to write articles for eXplorminate. The first is a nice little Q&A with Starbase Orion developer Rocco Bowling. I’ve written about Starbase Orion before, and in the realm of Master of Orion successors, I think it remains one of the best over the past many years. It is great to see that the game continues to get development and support. I’m keeping my spider-sense alert for news of Starbase Orion 2, which rumor has it is in the works.
I promised in the last What’s Going On!? article that I’d do a proper review of This War of Mine. I’m happy to say that I have accomplished that goal, and there is a review of This War of Mine over at eXplorminate. This War of Mine is 11bit’s amazing war-torn civilian survival game, that is challenging, immersive, and hauntingly grim in a way that few other games manage to accomplish. If you are at all interested in roguelike games or survival-craft games, this is one to definitely check out.
Moving more into the board gaming orbit, I also did a review of Eclipse at eXplorminate, looking primarily at Big Daddy Creations iOS app version. But of course much of the discussion focused around the core gameplay experience, which has much in common with the physical meat-space version of the game. Long story short, I do enjoy Eclipse and think it does an excellent job delivering on its promise. I also happen to enjoy the game MUCH more as a digital app. Many of Eclipse’s downsides (in my opinion) relating to randomness are easier to swallow when I knock out a game in 30 minutes on my ipad compared to being stuck at a table for four hours surrounded by ancients. Anyway, check out the review.
The last bit of eXplorminate activity is a review of Invisible Inc. I mentioned last time that I’d be looking at this title more, and I am so glad that I did. Simply put, Invisible Inc provides the most fun that I have had in a turn-based tactical RPG game in forever. While the strategic side of the game is fairly thin, the stealth-based, net hacking, tactical espionage missions are just awesome. The game blends puzzle-solving, intuition, and strategy into a multi-layered experience where you are constantly having to juggle way too many things: gear, detection, power, unconscious bodies, surveillance, and more. The game’s character and execution is just wonderful as well. The narrative is the weak point of the game, but that shouldn’t stop you from digging in. If you like turn-based tactics game, Invisible Inc gets a giant glowing green light from me.
I have pile of other stuff in the works that will be cross-posted between this blog and eXplorminate, so stay tuned.
The “I Was On Vacation” Excuse
But I was on vacation. Unfortunately, I had to bring along a trunk full of games, and even sadder was that my family and extended relations kept wanting to play games! The audacity!
As I’ve mentioned regularly, my time for playing big boy games has been challenged over the past year or so (two kids does that, especially in light of other responsibilities). But, this means that I’ve increasingly been shifting focus to playing games with my kids (at least with the four year old who doesn’t try to eat all pieces) and my nephews. Here’s the highlight reel of what me and the fam have been up to:
I picked up Mice & Mystics during the summer, using my hard earned father’s day bonus to selflessly purchase a board game “for the kids” instead of buying yet-another-cardboard space-waster for my shelf of unplayed games. My kids/nephews have been enjoying the Mouse Guard graphic novels (as have I), and playing a game set in a similar world seemed like a no brainer, especially in light of their past interest in HeroQuest. Mice & Mystics is pretty great, with a fun story and lots of character. Given its cooperative nature, it makes it easy for me to sheppard things along, and the 4, 5, and 6 year olds have all made it through a number of quests at this point. They really get into it, which is just awesome to see.
Eight Minute Empire: Legends was stuffed into the game trunk as well. I wasn’t sure how well the abstract nature of the game would go over with the kids, but two of them really got into it. It is a testament to the amazing artwork of Designer/Publisher/Artist extraordinaire Ryan Laukat, that the games suckered in the kids so well. The set collection and area control are also very “visual” gauges of your score, which makes the decision making easier. It plays quickly, has plenty of opportunity for strategizing (or can be played more casually). It is among the best of the “high gravity games” that pack a lot of punch in a small box and compressed playtime. I love it, and might pick up the expansion at some point too.
I also have a new budding romance with designer Shadi Torbey and artist Élise Plessis's Oniverse. In particular the solo / coop card games Onirim and Sylvion. I’d like to gush even more about these games later, but I’ll give you the short take here. First of all, I absolutely freaking love the artwork and the whole package for these games. Z-man has done an amazing job of making the act of playing with a deck of cards feel like luxury. Folding open the box inserts is like cracking open a fresh box of chocolate each time. I can’ help myself from drooling.
In terms of Onirim, I’ve probably played well over 100 games over the past few months, most of these with the base game in cooperative mode with my wife. We’ve been playing it a bit in the vein of Hanabi with keeping our table talk to a minimum (which makes it much harder BTW), and it’s been a great experience. We’ve gone from losing almost every game to winning almost every game, which is a nice acknowledgement that skill matters. Still, you can get the bad hand that just doesn’t work. But the game does a great job maintaining tension throughout. I don’t feel a huge need to dive into the expansions, but I’ll probably test the waters more in solo play.
Sylvion is likewise a gorgeous game with a clever set of rules. I’ve played about 6 or 7 games so far, and feel like I’m just scratching the surface. I’ve found it a bit easier than Onirim, so I suspect I’ll be adding the expansions in in short order to ramp up the challenge a bit. Sylvion, for those not in the know, is a pretty slick interpretation of a tower/lane defense type game that are more commonly seen video games - yet the translation to a board game works well in this case.
I picked up Red7 from the illustrious Carl Chudyk. I played a few hands during the vacation with some of the adult types. Unfortunately, the experience confirmed my suspicion that Carl’s games, though simple mechanically in the case of Red7 at least, are really aimed at gamers. There is a certain sort of action planning, look ahead, and mathematical gymnastics that you need to go through to get the most out of his games. If you aren’t inclined towards such things, his games are going to feel dry, flat, confusing, and frustration. Which is the reaction had by most of the table. There is a genius at work in his games, but you have to want to stroke the genius to appreciate it. Ah well...
The “But I Was Glued to my iPad” Excuse
My family, sensing my inner need for games, gifted me some itunes bucks before vacation, so I loaded up my iPad with some new goodies. I tend to stay up way later than the rest of the family (a habit which will probably catch up me in time), which affords me a couple of hours most nights to nerd on out my platform of choice, be it board games or video games.
The first one to mention, and which was recently updated with a free content patch, is Inkle’s 80 Days. This is an absolutely phenomenal game. The game is based on a steampunk interpretation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, but structured as a choose your own adventure style gamebook. Inkle’s Sorcery series (which I also love) cemented their mastery of the digital gamebook, and 80 Days is no exception. In 80 Days, you assume the role of valet for the preeminent Mr. Fogg, tasked with principally with tending to the luggage and securing travel arrangements. Sounds dry, but it is so rich. The narrative and writing is superb, and there are a plethora of decisions to make in planning your route and finding opportunities to sell collected items for a profit, earning funds to continue the adventure. The game drew me in quickly and didn’t let go until I finally collapsed into a heap. If you are at all interested in digital game books, this is one to try.
In a nod to board gaming, I grabbed Battlelore: Command, a fantasy game based on the Command & Colors wargame system. The app is nicely done with great visuals and solid gameplay. I played a number of missions and they can be quite challenging. I’d love to see this game expanded with additional content though.
I have a pile of other iOS games I’ve been dabbling with, in no particular order:
- Warhammer 40,00: Deathwatch (meh, I liked Hunters 2 far more)
- Spacecom (cool slow-time RTS 4X game)
- Battlestaion: Harbinger (ship/fleet building roguelike thing, sorta like FTL, okay)
- Xenowerk (top down action RPG, meh)
- Space Marshals (top down action RPG, humorous, looks promising)
- Galactic Keep (sounds awesome on paper, haven’t played yet!)
I’ll write up more on these eventually. But not just yet.
Last, but not least, is Organ Trail. No, I’m not talking about the game Oregon Trail, the pioneer themed game that you played during grade school in some dilapidated computer lab. This is Organ Trail, the zombie themed game that you can play right now on iOS or Android in your very own home. Organ Trail has you loading up a station “wagon“ (wood siding and all) to embark on your very own cross-country adventure amidst the crescendo of a zombie apocalypse. It will all feel very familiar. Jenny got bit by a zombie. Joey has dysentery. Your wagon broke a tire. You need more bullets. You’re running out of food. And so on. If you like Oregon Trail, and you like zombies and station wagons, then take a look at Organ Trail. It’s really the same thing, but with Zombies. And it’s still just as good.
The “Buried Under Too Many Heavy Games” Excuse
This next excuse has to do with all the big grand games I’ve been playing recently. It’s ghastly to think about it. But I feel like I’m in a golden age for the sorts of games I like to play. And while the menu seems to be growing by the day, there is still the unpleasant task of separating the wheat from the chaff. So let’s get on with the drudgery.
Say what you will, but the 4X video game sphere is undergoing a period of galactic inflation. The number of games coming out that let you play emperor, dictator, or supreme peacemaker continues to grow and with more on the way. Earlier this year I had a chance to play around quite a bit with two often confused game: Star Ruler 2 and StarDrive 2. The former is a real-time 4X game with a number of inventive and clever mechanics, particularly around the concepts of creating resource networks between planets and the card-based diplomacy system. In practice, I found the game a bit too dry and cumbersome to convince me to continue with it, which is a shame because I love the ideas behind it.
The latter, StarDrive 2, is a turn-based reworking (for lack of a better term) of the often criticized original StarDrive. As a point of comparison, SD2 is about the closest we have to a modern Master of Orion 2 game, and it is really quite close to the mark. Except that it isn’t. It seems to have all the right pieces in place for an exceptional experience, but it needs a lot more tweaking and refinement to get the systems working better and to make the gameplay more challenging and varied. It looks good on paper but overstays its welcome quickly when you start playing. Still, it has an awesome ship builder, great visuals, and might be worth a shot. An expansion is in the works, which if coupled with improvements to the base gameplay, could turn this into a great title.
I’ve also put myself up to checking out Sovereignty: Crown of Kings, on behalf of eXplorminate. The game is still in early access, but it feels a bit like a streamlined fantasy version of Paradox’s grand strategy magnus opus Europa Universalis. I’ve never been able to get into Europa, as I just don’t have the attention span to wade through all the numbers and figure out the various systems. If I could figure it all out, I’m sure I’d love it. Oh have I tried. In contrast, Sovereignty takes many of the same ideas but keeps it all at higher more abstract level, and I can dig that. It also has a tactical battle system that feels very wargame-y (in a good way), a magic system (why not?), a slick agent/espionage system (yes!), and tons of diplomacy options (naturally). I need to give this one more time on the front burner, but so far it feels like something I could really dig into.
Then there is Thea: The Awakening, another early access title that has been generating some buzz for its unique combination of settlement management, strategy RPG, roguelike elements, and survival-craft. Here again, I need to spend more time with the game, as on paper it sound exactly like something with the potential to consume me. But in the short time I’ve played with it, I found it overly fiddly and detailed in a way that threw up too many roadblocks between me and the unfolding narrative. But my experience is limited and the game is still in early access, so anything is possible. I’ll be playing this more and watching its development closely.
The “Just One More Run” Excuse
My appreciation of roguelike games (and games with roguelike elements) continues to blossom. I’ve got something more specific in the works about this, but until then I’ll share a little about the games I’ve been fawning over.
Darkest Dungeon. I bit the hook and grabbed Darkest Dungeon. I told myself to wait. I told myself that it will be better when it’s all done. I said I’d never do it. But I did. I lied to myself. I bought the game. And not since I and a close friend had an entire movie theater to ourselves, where we watched nothing other than Van Helsing while screaming and swinging our fists in the air, has a game got me so pumped. Maybe it has something to do with its Van Helsing-ish mixture of Sleepy Hollow meets Lovecraft at the gates of hell (to name a few of my favorite things). But whatever it is, developer Red Hook Studios has got it. The game’s atmosphere (especially its amusingly dark narration) is just perfect for setting the stage for the grisly operation you will be running. Essentially, you have the pleasure of managing a hero mill. Heroes come to town, literally by the stage coach, and you feed them into the maw of various dungeons on your way towards unlocking the darkest of dungeons. Heroes are far more likely to come back from the pits a broken shell of their former selves, afflicted by disease, psychosis, and other crippling ailments. So you send them off to the sanitarium while you get the next load of fresh meat ready for the ginder. This all sounds awful, but I assure you it isn’t. Check it out.
Crypt of the Necrodancer. A friend of mine recently got married, and so we did the bachelor party thing of gathering up as many canoes, kayaks, rafts, coolers, and beers that we could to float down a river as far as it would take us. Curiously, the river ended up, somehow, at my house where I, somehow, had Crypt of the Necrodancer cued up, somehow, on the “big screen.” Crypt is a roguelike with a twist, which is that everything moves to the beat of the completely outrageous techno music that constitutes the game’s high-energy soundtrack. The game is funny, hard, and silly. And it features local co-op, making it an ideal candidate for hanging out with a bunch of jolly friends, keeping the good times rolling after a raucous day on the river. It’s also a pretty damn fun game on its own.
The Flame in the Flood. I just started in on this one. But it plays nicely into my theory that Oregon Trail was one of the first roguelike games. In the Flame in the Flood, you are tasked with navigating your way down a river in a flooded world. The river navigation sequences are eerily reminiscent of the final river stage in Oregon Trail. The rest of the game has you stopping at islands and scavenge around for various craftable materials, used to keep yourself nourished, hydrated, warm, and healthy. The game is still in early access, and the story/campaign mode is not in place yet. So right not it is a “how long can you last” type game. What is present, however, is well produced and engaging. But the game is also HARD. Whether it is too hard or not (for me) remains to be seen, but it’s a cool game nonetheless.
Massive Chalice. The games keep coming! I picked this one up too, and have been tinkering with it a bit. I’m not sure that it is all it’s cracked up to be, although I’m enamored enough with the idea of it that I’ll keep playing. Essentially, the game marries a tactical RPG combat game with a lineage management sim. As a sort nebulous overlord figure, you establish various royal houses and arrange various marriages that will lead to the birthing of various offspring that you can train and deploy in the various tactical combats that you will be variously called upon to conduct. It’s a nice execution, with a reasonable balance of detail in the systems. But I’m not sure how much variety there is over the course of the game, even with all the various things mentioned above.
Almost done. Hang on.
The “Bitten by Nostalgia” Excuse
In an earlier blog post, the one about old school FPS games, I reminisced about Doom and Quake. That reminiscing has led me down a rabbit hole of actually playing these old gems again. Not only that, in the case of Quake (one of my all-time favorite games), I’ve put myself through the horror of getting my own multiplayer server running. This has been a total cluster-f^&k operation that has culminated in me learning more than I ever knew there was to know in the first place about home networking, DNS servers, flashing router firmware, and the command prompt. But I overcame.
More horrifying is that I successfully convinced many of my local friends to dig out their ancient copies of Quake and join with me and the Dark Lord Sauron on the server, that we may rekindle long-extinguished flames. And it happened! A number of us have been playing Quake deathmatch across the trove of custom levels I’ve collected. I even went nuts and started to re-catalogue the 100’s of maps I have. Take a peep at if you dare.
Last, I’ll mention a game I’ve been playing a bit that has captivated me in a number of ways. The nostalgic way is that mechanically, the game plays like a japanese-style RPG, reminding me of playing final fantasy on my Nintendo. The aesthetic way is that the art direction, soundtrack, and narrative is just amazingly well done. The third way is that I’ve been playing the game with my daughter, who seems as enamored with it as I am. The game is Child of Light, and among other things is a nice case study for the kinds of creative design and execution is possible from a AAA studio with a AAA budget when unshackled from the usual AAA constraints.
Child of Light is a side-scrolling adventure RPG about a young princess trapped in a sort of fairyland dreamworld, on a quest to free her bed-stricken father from a comatose state. The overarching story isn’t terribly original, but it is presented in a very touching manner and all of the text is structured to a rhyme and meter. The game world feels like this wonderful little mystery box that you get to explore the nooks and crannies of, and my daughter loves flying Aurora (the protagonist) around and looking at things. It’s like a picture book. There are even some local co-op features built in so that we can play together. And finally, the sound track. I’ve listened to the soundtrack so many times on YouTube, especially when I’m working. I don’t know what it is about it, but it beckons to me. Check out the video below, and see if Child of Light beckons to you as it does to me.
Theoretical frameworks are conceptual models or tools that help us organize our thinking and enhance our understanding of how different concepts interrelate. Much of Big Game Theory! has focused on developing frameworks to help make sense of games. This effort has been directed towards developing language, terminology and associated concepts to support both game design and game analysis. Whether you are a designer, a critic, or a player, these frameworks can help us articulate an idea, dissect a reaction or "feeling" we have, and be more aware of how games operate "under the hood."
One of my larger ambitions has been towards developing a "Science of Board Games." This post is the latest installment in this line of thinking, expanded to include all games (video games, tabletop games, etc.), and is an effort to unify different frameworks that have been presented by myself and others over the years. A shortcoming of many earlier frameworks is that, while they are useful, they are also not terribly specific. I’m interested in looking at a larger range of terms we use to discuss games and see how all of these terms might integrate into a more cohesive and unified model for understanding games.
The nod to "genomics" in the title of today’s framework relates to two notions. The first is the connection to the Game Genome Project, an on-going effort to map the possible characteristics of games that manifest through a series "traits", such as luck, theme, interactions, pacing, etc., and describe how they build on one another. Different expressions of these traits result in different gameplay experiences. Second, genomics (as in genetic science) relates to analyzing gene structure to understand how they connect to higher order functions. Similarly, I’m interested in how these fundamental traits or "genes" of a game translate into or emerge to create a total experience for players.
Conceptual Starting Points
Games are complex in the the interactions they create, the challenges they provide, the stories they tell, and the subjects they model. Conceptual frameworks have provided a number of approaches for helping designers, critics, and players to make sense of this this complexity. The Genomic Framework, which I will present in the next section, is based on three prior frameworks:
(1) The MDA Framework (Mechanics > Dynamics > Aesthetics) by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubeck (2004)
(2) Jesse Schell’s Tetrad (Aesthetics, Narrative, Mechanics, Technology) from the Art of Game Design (2008)
(3) The Unified Boardgamery Theory (Players, Theme, Rules, Components) by Oliver Kiley (2014) and based on work by Mark Major (2014).
After presenting my Unified Boardgamery Theory, I received a tremendous amount of discussion and input. As a reminder, my framework presented the four key elements of player, theme, rules, and components in a Venn diagram type arrangement. This diagram showed the relationship between elements as "overlaps", which in hindsight had the side effect of making it hard to read. The overlaps obfuscated a critical aspect of the diagram, which I did not even realized at the time. Rather than a series of overlaps, moving from lower order to higher order characteristics is actually a process that we can map. And we can map it by using the basic concept presented by the MDA Framework.
The MDA Framework presents a sequence of relationships between a game’s fundamental mechanics, the dynamics that are created from the those mechanics, and how players experience those dynamics through an aesthetic response. From a designer’s perspective, this sheds light on how we can approach mechanical design to solicit a particular aesthetic response, and can check this through playtesting to see if the right kind of dynamics are being created. As a player (or even a critic), we can start with our aesthetic response and work backwards to tease apart the dynamics and mechanical systems that created that response.
While the MDA Framework is incredibly useful for thinking about the process how mechanics lead to experiences. But it is generic and not as useful for thinking about the specifics movements and pathways within that process and how they relate to different fundamental properties of games. My question is always "what" are the dynamics that we should be focusing on and what are the fundamental properties that feed into building those dynamics. Both The Unified Boardgamery Theory and Schell’s Tetrad are more specific about what these fundamental inputs are and the characteristics that define them.
Schell’s Tetrad is useful in many respects, but I did not find it universal enough it’s scope to apply towards a broader range of games. For example, the notion of "technology" is cumbersome conceptually in the boardgame world. Also the aesthetics are really a higher order thing in my mind, created from the fundamental mechanical elements (as in MDA), so it feels out of place as a leg of the stool. Lastly, the Tetrad doesn’t address the "players" themselves as one of the fundamental factors in a game framework. Players are just as necessary as rules and components, and their role within any framework attempting to describe games needs to be considered.
My revelation was that the Unified Boardgamery Framework can be re-interpreted as a sequential process of building higher order characteristics from lower order one’s, and that this process matches the MDA Framework. Armed with this insight, I set about reworking my theory into a sequence, rather than as a series of overlaps. The result is something that adds more clarity and specificity to the MDA Framework, while providing a mechanism to integrate and relate the broad range of "trait" and "genetic" terms used to analyze games.
FIDA: A Genomic Framework for Game Analysis
FIDA stands for Fundamental, Intrinsic, Dynamic, and Aesthetic, and each of these terms relates to a different functional order within a game. It is "Genomic" in that it is a "trait-based" framework that identifies key characteristics of games. The Fundamental level includes the four basic building blocks of a game: players, rules, media, and theme. The Intrinsic level describes all six of the combinations of fundamental factors. The Dynamic level results from the Intrinsic-level elements coming together and creating challenge, immersion, narratives, and simulations. And all of these culminate with the Aesthetic level that describes the net experience and greater meanings. While similar to the Unified Boardgamery Theory, the Genomic Framework is structured as a process. And while we can navigate the framework from lower to higher levels, we can also navigate it from higher to lower to see what factors and traits feed into a particular element.
The "players" are the agents that are involved in playing the game. Players, assuming they are human, bring their individual attitudes, values, and motivations to the game. Players can also be artificial or non-human, for example the AI personalities that you play against in a video game like Civilization.
These are the process-oriented mechanics of the game that define how interactions take place and how the game state is changed from one moment to the next. In a board game, the rules are generally the "rulebook," and in a video game the rules are coded into the programming. There are a number of critical traits associated with the rules themselves, such as input-and-output operations, use of randomness or chaotic elements, how game systems integrate, establishing objectives, etc.. Rules can also exist outside of the rulebook or programming, such as house rules, rules of conduct, tournament rules, which can also have a bearing on how a game operates.
Theme ("Where, When")
I’ve discussed theme previously, but in the most basic sense theme is about the subject, setting, and scope of the game. The subject could be something like trading or empire building. The setting could be "in the Mediterranean" or "in space". The scope could be "managing a company" or "piloting a ship." What is important is that theme shapes the environment and atmosphere and provides context.
Media includes the technology, components, playing pieces, equipment, input devices, and everything else that gives physical (and/or digital) form to the game. In the absence of media, a game is just a collection of rules with no way for it to be played. The media often defines the boundaries of the game. While the rules of Chess stipulate how the play the game, the physical 8x8 board bounds the playing area and establishes the geography or landscape of the game. In a first-person RPG video game, the boundaries of the created world define the play space.
Roles are a factor of players and theme. Typically, the scope of of the game define what the players’ roles are within the game, e.g. captain of a ship vs. the CEO of company. The role may also define certain associations, thematically, between players or agents. For example, the player as emperor with AIs controlling governors. The role can define the perspective of the player, e.g. first-person or third-person. Roles are important for placing the players into the gameworld, and they define the perspectives and operating assumptions of the player.
Interactions are created at the intersection between players and the rules. The types of interactions created by the rules describe the overarching game format (e.g. competitive vs. cooperative) and how direct or indirect the interactions can be. Players, interpreting the rules, may develop internal "goal trees," which are the player-created mental models for how the player navigates choices and works towards accomplishing objectives within the game. Interactions relate to how players affect the game state, by way of the rules, as a consequence relates to player agency and how strongly or weakly a player can affect the game world.
Complexity is a function of both the rules and the media. Adding more systems or layers to the rules can increase complexity, as can increasing the extent and geography of the game world. Tic Tac Toe becomes much more complex if the board size increased to a 5x5 grid. Other than changing the goal to require 5 in a row, the basic rules are still the same; yet the gameplay is more complex. Complexity can relate to the size of the breadth of the decision space (e.g. how many places can I go) as well as variability within the game (e.g. 52-cards vs. 104 cards in a deck).
Representation connects the media of the game, whether digital or physical, with the theme and context. In a video game this includes the graphics (models, textures) and audio (music, sound) that conveys the theme. In a board game, it is typically the artwork, illustrations, and flavor text.
Coherence and Interface are important bridging elements that connect across the framework and in turn feed into the all four of the Dynamic level elements. While they are based on the Foundational elements they are far reaching in their influence on a game’s dynamics and how those are experienced.
Coherence (Bridging Element)
Coherence is the relationship between the theme and rules, and describes the nature of that relationship. Theme can be "pasted on" or deeply connected to the rules and derived carefully from it. Games with greater coherence have better alignment between the rules and mechanics and illogical inconsistencies are relatively minimal. Coherent games can facilitate decision making (and possibly the sense of challenge) by providing a useful metaphor to facilitate decision making. Coherent games have positive impact on the narratives that are created as well as the sense of immersion (i.e. suspension of disbelief). More coherent games can provide better models or simulations of their subject matter, with greater fidelity and accuracy in representation.
Interface (Bridging Element)
The interface connects the players with the media and determines in turn how players interact with all facets of the game. Critical issues relative to interface relate to ergonomics and whether the game is fiddly or streamlined. It can also speak to the pacing and flow of the game and how smooth the experience is for players. Games with lots of upkeep or maintenance tasks, relative to decision-making tasks, may feel more disjointed and clunky. The interface is also critical for providing feedback to the player so that they can perceive and understand changes to the game state and how their actions have affected (or not affected) it.
Challenge relates to depth of gameplay. More challenging games are typically (though not always) more complex games with greater decision depth (i.e. more factors to consider in making good decisions) as a result from player interactions and changing game states. Challenge hinges critically on the interactions between players (and/or the environment) to create unpredictable situations that the player must try to overcome. Challenge relates to player skills and heuristics (i.e. learning effective play), which connects to the Modes of Thinking framework describing the balance and intensity of thought across Logistical, Spatial, and Intuitional types. Elegance is also wrapped up in challenge/depth, and is the relationship between strategic depth and complexity. More elegant games provide the same or greater depth with less complexity as an inelegant game..
Narratives are the "created" stories and dramatizations that occur over the course of playing a game. Narratives are player-centric and shaped by the game’s theme. But the rules of the game play a vital role in structuring the narratives that emerge throughout the course of play, by way of interactions. Think of the narrative as a the post-game story you might tell that describes the arc and progression of the game, the rise and fall of players, the dramatic high and low points, the tensions, etc. Games with stronger narratives are typically easier to re-tell, as they create a more engaging and novel experience each time.
Immersion is an often used yet rarely defined term - but I think it is central to how we experience and enjoy games. At the simplest level, immersion relates to our suspension of disbelief. More immersive games get us to more effectively buy-into the reality created by the gameworld and re-align our thinking and expectations to conform to that reality. Lots of things can break our sense of immersion: a bad interface or UI that "pulls us out of the game," artwork that doesn’t seem to fit, rules that don’t make any sense, cumbersome controls or ergonomics, no sense of presence in the player’s role, etc.
Games, as systems designed to abstract some real or imagined reality, are in effect simulations or models for the subject theme. At the dynamic level, games can function as models or simulations that provide opportunities for learning, study, or engagement that can go beyond simply playing the game as competitive (or cooperative) exercise. These can be witnessed by observing a changing gamestate overtime. And the fidelity of these models can be considered in light of how well (accurately, realistically, etc.) they function as an abstraction of the modeled reality.
Net Experience & Meanings ("Why")
The net experience level relates to the overall aesthetic reaction and experience the players have. While aesthetic is often used to discuss artistic characteristics, an "aesthetic response" is how someone "feels" about a work, artistic or otherwise, and is quite relevant to games I feel. For players, the line of aesthetic questioning is often "was the game fun?" And for players, what constitutes fun is central to the overall net experience of the game and what players hope to get out of it.
The many-faced monster of "fun" can of course take on a number of different forms; not all types of fun is equal for all players. The MDA Framework provides eight different aspects of fun that players may seek in the games they play. These eight kinds of fun are: Sensation, fellowship, fantasy, discovery, narrative, expression, challenge, submission, etc. Other aesthetic responses are possible as well, such a those that explore meanings beyond the game itself (pushing games into the realm of art perhaps?). All of these responses speak to something gained that transcends beyond the game itself; they are things that you can take with you when the game is over.
Additionally, the "types of fun" a game provides relates directly to the "genre" of the game. While there are many definitions and approaches to game genre classification, I’m attracted to the notion of genre being coupled to net experience, because it relates genre, which is a shorthand descriptor for a broad category of games, to the aesthetic responses that genre is trying to solicit. A fantasy MOBA, a modern FPS shooter, a eurogame, a dudes-on-a-map game, etc. all endeavor to tap into certain combinations of aesthetic responses. And these aesthetic responses come about as a function of different levels and flavors of the four central dynamics (narrative, challenge, immersion, and models).
THE GENOMIC FRAMEWORK IN ACTION
Key Relationships for Designing Games
The Genomic Framework imbeds some other interesting (to me at least!) relationships, especially as a game designer. The four fundamental components each have a close relationship with a certain dynamic: Rules with Challenge, Media with Simulation, Theme with Immersion, and Players with Narrative. And this isn’t by accident! A narrative-focused game, for example an RPG, relies heavily on how players engage with that narrative, and thus Roles and Interactions are quite important (along with the bridging elements, Coherence in particular). From a game design standpoint, focusing on those elements might be more worthwhile compared to focusing on other elements.
There is also a soft relationship between Complexity and Interface and between Roles and Coherence. Again, this is no accident. As the complexity of a game increases, the more critical it is that the interface be effective in presenting the player with information in an organized manner. Similarly, coherence depends in large part on players being assigned roles and perspectives that afford them the means to see and understand the inner workings of a game.
Critiquing and Analyzing Games
For a while now, I’ve used three terms as a way to critique games: challenge, immersion, and narrative. In some respects I’m surprised to see that those three are all central dynamics in the Genomic Framework - since I’ve been kicking these three factors around for longer than I’ve been considering this framework. Or perhaps it isn’t surprising, and this is all a convoluted way of justifying my analysis approach! Regardless, the Genomic Framework adds a fourth dynamic, Simulation, which is not as important for me, given my preferences, but is certainly of critical interest to many other gamers that relish in opportunities to learn and glean deeper insight about a game’s subject matter.
Whether we are analyzing a game as designer to figure out how we might improve the game, or are critiquing the game as a critic (or player), focusing on these four dynamics is vitally important I feel. They provide sufficient flexibility to cover (or relate to) nearly every topic concerning a game. They are tangible enough to still be spoken about with clarity, while being readily relatable back to the intrinsic or fundamental level characteristics. Being able to describe what the created dynamics are will allow the critic to make better predictions of the likely aesthetic responses or use it as a means to explain their own aesthetic responses in greater specificity.
So here is where this all comes full circle: The Genomic Framework provides a structure of relationships between nearly all of the game traits and characteristics I’ve been mapping through the Game Genome Project. It provides a way to slot in a term and our understanding of it along with how it feeds into or is fed by other elements.
I’d like to apply this framework towards analyzing a number of different games, to further test the water on how it functions. And of course, your feedback and discussion on the validity, integrity, or preposterous-ness of the framework is always welcomed. Thanks for reading!
Over the past few weeks I’ve been going through various computer archives and backing up old decaying data onto a shiney new 2TB drive. Along the way I’ve unearthed various troves of lost treasure, scattered like leaves amidst small piles of portable drives and burned CDs. Among these were files for Doom and Quake, two legendary games from id Software, and which were among the first to crawl out of the primordial ooze of the person shooter (FPS) genre. Indeed, one might argue, they helped make the ooze in the first place.
I looked up the dates for when these games were first released: Doom (1993), Doom II (1994), Quake (1996), Quake 2 (1997), Quake 3: Arena (1999). I was shocked, and I’m going to spill my age here, but I was 12 when Doom was released. I didn’t start playing the Doom games until after Doom II was released, so in actually I was fourteen-ish when these games panned into my field of view. I was sixteen when the Quake launched, and I still remember an all-night LAN party my friends and I had after graduating high-school in 1999, the year Quake 3 was released.
It is remarkable to see transformation in game technology between Doom and Quake 3. In less than 6 years we went from the above image to this:
Quake 3 Custom DM map Lunaran
But more important than the technological progress, id Software’s creations were a defining part of my early life. I remember playing Doom deathmatches over dial-up internet, as we juggled multiple phone-lines and waved our arms, evoking various incantations that would make the technology work our way. Once everything was connected, I recall crawling through the dark depths of Doom’s single player levels as my friends and I stalked one another, boomstick in hand. Later on, we would sneak off to the nearby college campus computer labs to play Doom (and later Quake) over the university T1 networks. Multiplayer was where it was at, man!
It was a glorious and transformational time in gaming, unshackled and limitless feeling. It was a golden age before the heavy hand of corporate suits started stirring the pot; a time where the vanguards of id Software were our underground heroes. Now in my mid-thirties, it’s shocking to look back and see how slowly time seemed to progress then. I swear that I was playing Quake for half-a-decade at least before Quake 2 was released. But in reality it wasn’t much more than a year; a fleeting moment. How could that possibly be?!
Better Chemistry Through Modding
Doom and Quake were, from my standpoint, the birth of the PC game mod (modification) community. It’s incredible to see how so many of the big giants of the industry today connect directly back to modding. Team Fortress 2, Valve’s giant money-printing machine, was originally a Quake mod that introduced class-based capture the flag to the world. There was also Threewave’s Capture the Flag mod, which gave players an off-hand grappling hook they could use to zip around the level. Don’t even get me started on the Head Hunters mod or Future vs. Fantasy! Even earlier, I remember playing a Total Conversion (TC) mod for Doom based on Aliens - and it scared the crap out of me.
Mr. Shambler at your service!
There were so many wild and inventive ideas floating around. Take the mod Painkeep for example, which among other crazy weapons featured a black hole “Gravity Well” generator that you could throw down and which would slowly suck everything nearby into its gaping maw, gibbing it to pieces. Nowadays, someone would complain about how imbalanced it was, or that casual gamers would be turned off by it monstrousness. Fools! I remember the Super Heroes mod for Quake 2 that let you customize your own hero by combining different powers, resulting in completely ludicrous gameplay. The only way to reign in someone's killer combination was to come up with one even more powerful yourself. That’s the way to handle balance! Quite honestly, nothing has captured these gaming moments. Everything is markedly more refined and tempered these days, designed for the masses and not for unfettered enthusiasm.
Half-Life was released in 1998; and while not an id Software game it was right in the middle of this milieu of gaming. Half-Life was an excellent game on its own of course, and even the deathmatch multiplayer had a enough silly flair to be inventive and enjoyable. But Half-Life really propelled the modding scene. It ushered in the release of the Counter-Strike mod, which is one of the major competitive FPS games (recently re-implemented as CS: Global Offensive) and in all likelihood spawned the modern shooter genre. A lesser known fact is that one of Counter-Strike’s original authors, Minh “Gooseman” Le, created the mod Navy Seals for Quake as well as the more well-known Quake 2 mod Action Quake. I couldn’t even begin to the count the number of hours I’ve spent jumping over the rooftops of Action Quake levels.
The Navy Seals mod for Quake - I didn’t know shell casings came in square (Map: Bovine)
Quake and Half-Life spawned so many other mods as well. It’s incredible to think that between those two games a lifetime’s worth of gaming was at your fingertips. Other notable Half-Life mods include Day of Defeat (a WW2 team-based mod), Firearms, Front Line Force, and Natural Selection. Waves of nostalgia hit me just typing out these names.
The Ancient Art of Mapping
Doom and Quake also saw the birth and evolution of the custom mapping community. While I was playing all manner of game mods as a player, when it came to mapping I was far more involved in contributing to the community. As an aside, do you want to see what the internet looked like back then? Take a look at this archived version of the Mr. Doom website - one of the biggest websites around (then) for Doom .wads (file format for Doom levels). Whoa! I spent hours scouring around that webpage as a kid, hunting for new Doom levels to play over our temperamental dial-up connections.
Sadly I was NOT actually playing a deathmatch against John Carmack. It was a bot named John Carmack. Pure coincidence! (Map: RF by Pingu)
In any case, as I was digging through my digital file archives, I came across an “HTML” folder with some old file dates. Inside I found about six different iterations of a Quake map review and news website I ran, having taught myself HTML when I was 15 or so. The site was hosted on the now defunct Planetquake (curse you IGN!), but the final iteration, Prominence, is still on the internet archive (minus the background image). It was here I found my “digital home” in the embrace of a great community of custom map authors, primarily for Quake Deathmatch (DM). A common thread running throughout my time in the quake world was following this group of quake mappers, like some sort of digital groupie, and running the website from about 1997 to 2002. Not a bad run.
At the time, I was interested (as I still am) in how map design was an artform all on its own. One of my final posts, which I remember typing in a university computer lab, was Quake as an Art. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Quake is more than a game; it is an abstraction of combat. It is does not strive to be realistic, and so emerges as an original convention. As an abstraction, it is also a form of art; as a simulation, interactive.
The art form for interactive combat is the map.
The mapmakers are the artists. They do not create with paint and canvas, but with design and texture. Quake mapping has a history, a present, and a future. The conventions of mapping have evolved of their own accord. And so will it continue.
This site archives the evolution of mapping, Through both the art and the artists, Presenting the great works for all to revere.
The crudeness and limitations of the quake engine force mapmakers to be innovative. If we all had unlimited resources, we could each conceive of innumerable landscapes on our own, and the beauty and nature of the art would be lost. If painters could paint with utmost realism upon an infinite and three-dimensional canvas, why not simply look at the real world? The very existence of limitation allows astounding works to be recognized for what they are, masterpieces in their own domain.
~ Peekaboom (aka Mezmorki)
A tad esoteric, and I was probably a bit full of it too, but I felt I could address something hard to grasp: that these map makers worked in a growing and evolving ecosystem of design and aesthetics. Rather than reviewing maps on their own, I organized them by author. And for many of the authors I spent considerable time trying to track down their map making heritage and inspirations, how one mappers design would spawn a little sub-branch of map styles. Another editorial post presented the history of DM map making. It’s interesting to reflect back on the various eras of design trends, similar to what exists in other art forms. And to consider the name of friends and designers of the time, Headshot, Peej, Mr. Fribbles, Pingu. The names roll on, and many can still be found on the Func_Msgboard.
EFDM8: Cryptosporidium by Mr. Fribbles. One of my all time favorite maps from one of my all time favorite map designers.
Up until a few years ago (like 6 or 7) and before my friends and I started having kids and greater adult responsibilities, we would still have the occasional LAN party. Invariably, a build of Quake would get passed around the network amidst the Mountain Dew and Dorito dust, and we’d take a trip back down memory lane. We’d play some good ol’ balls-to-the-walls free for all deathmatch, jumping through the library of Quake maps I had accumulated. It’s shocking how many of these maps and digital spaces are etched in my memory. I was discussing a map the other month with a friend, a map that we used to play a decade ago. I was having trouble describing it, and couldn’t remember the name, so I drew the layout on a napkin. My friend said, “Oh yeah, you mean de_inferno the Counter-Strike map”. Crazy, I hadn’t played it in 10 years but drew it nearly perfectly from memory; and he recognized it too.
My Creative Hand
I was also a dabbler in the modding and map design realm. I suppose that was inevitable given my proclivity towards design and tinkering with games. My first efforts were with a Doom 2 .wad (level) that I created when I was fourteen. It was called, appropriately, “Blood Remix.” Cool name eh? I came across the single-player map in my rummages through the archive, so of course I had to find a modern Doom engine that could play. I accomplished that feat, and for a moment, went back in time. Everything was just as I left it. Except that my skills are a bit unpracticed at the moment I got my rear handed to me.
The result of my own timid foray into the world of mapping: Use Me, Abuse Me. Inspired by the central arena DM map UltraViolence.
I made a number of maps for Quake and Half-Life (Counter-Strike maps). I really enjoyed it, and probably should have stuck with it more aggressively. It could have been an inlet into the game design industry, as it was for many of the early mappers in those days. I made an appropriately named Quake DM map called “Use Me, Abuse Me,” which was great fun but didn’t hold a candle to the kinds of maps produced by the authors I covered through my website. Still, it was a fun endeavor and I got at least one thing out of it: learning AutoCad, which I need to use in my professional work, was a sinch!
As I look back on this period of time, one could criticize it for being an incredible waste of time. But beyond the sheer entertainment value from playing and modding these games, I learned how to teach myself things. I learned HTML, I learned how to use vector design tools, I learned a little programming, I learned to build computers, I learned photoshop, I learned how to write a little better, I learned how to communicate and be constructive within a community. All of these things have had a positive impact on the rest of my life.
Graveyards and Bright Lights
The most sombre aspect of this trip down memory lane is that so much of what once was, has been lost. A week ago, QuakeWiki.net was still running, which had active archives for all of the old PlanetQuake hosted sites. This included my site but more importantly dozens and dozens of sites made by all the mappers and modders that built the community. And quite frankly had an hand in building the entire FPS genre. Other old Quake websites seem to be going down with increased frequency, which is a shame. But many are still up and active it seems, such as InsideQC and QuakeOne. With Quake’s source code having been released at some point during my hiatus, a revival of sorts seems to be afoot, particularly in the single-player mapping world.
As I’ve been uncovering my archives, I’ve been pulling a bunch of it into the active duty roster. I got a modern Doom engine up and running. I’ll need to play this again. I reassembled a Quake package, replete with 307 custom maps (just my personal favorites) and tried out half-a-dozen new Quake-engines that have been released over the intervening years. I then loaded up a bot mod (computer DM opponents) and spent a late-night evening blasting away through some of my favorite levels from the past. I rocket jumped, I grabbed the quad, I strafed, and I gibbed. It was as it should be.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll host a dedicated server and see if I can rouse my friends, all scattered across the region, for a night of classic fragging.
Nothing like a cold one and a little deathmatch on the tiny map Spank1.
References & Further Reading:
Why Quake Changed Games Forever
id Software Documentary (YouTube)
The last year has felt that the various scions of the gaming world are on a collision course. Digital games are increasingly being released cross-platform on desktop, console, and mobile platforms. The boardgame market continues to grow and is spilling over into the mobile market place through digital boardgames at a faster rate. Videogame developers are taking note and designing and marketing games with "boardgame-like qualities".
Yet all of these interaction points, between serious (hardcore) gamers and mobile gaming, between boardgames and mobile games, and between videogame design notions and boardgame-like-ness, are sources of tension. But in every issue there is an opportunity, right? I can't help but forecast a bit into the future and envision an ecosystem of games that evolve at this nexus of gaming pressures: original and cross-platform digital games that embrace "boardgame-like" design principles and appeal to both serious/hardcore gamers as well as a broader segment of the market.
This post will break down these trends and provide some reflection on what I think it could mean. This is all total speculation and reporting based on my observations and discussions with others. Discussion of all forms is encouraged! Let's get on with the show.
The Growing World of Boardgames
I'll start off by quoting myself, as is the proper thing to do when one is in need of a reliable source of data! A thread on BGG was discussing the increase in the number of games released every year, and I pulled down some of BGG's data to see what the trends looked like.
METHOD: I searched by year for games (not expansions) and tallied how many had 50 or more ratings to use in weeding out games that aren't actually published or widely distributed. I also made note of the top-rated game each year as a sort of reminder/benchmark.
Here's the data table:
YEAR QTY Top Rated Game
1990 85- The Republic of Rome (201)
1991 120 Tichu (62)
1992 137 Modern Art (179)
1993 114 Magic: The Gathering (121)
1994 116 Blood Bowl (Third Edition) (161)
1995 128 El Grande (26)
1996 133 Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (65)
1997 136 Tigris & Euphrates (33)
1998 153 Samurai (123)
1999 181 Paths of Glory (45)
2000 203 The Princes of Florence (59)
2001 218 Hive (145)
2002 239 Puerto Rico (5)
2003 302 YINSH (96)
2004 347 Power Grid (11)
2005 376 Twilight Struggle (1)
2006 353 Through the Ages (4)
2007 367 Agricola (6)
2008 402 Le Havre (13)
2009 432 Dominion: Intrigue (21)
2010 459 7 Wonders (18)
2011 440 Mage Knight (8)
2012 487 Terra Mystica (2)
2013 452 Caverna: The Cave Farmers (3)
2014 430 Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game (16)
2015 69 XCOM: The Board Game (400)
Basically, the number of games with any significant presence (enough to get 50-ratings) has grown from around 200 games/year circa year-2000 to around 400 games/year circa 2015. That's a lot of growth in a relatively short period of time, and says nothing about the volume of other games that get pushed out each year that doesn't make the cut of 50+ ratings (1000 or more games per year easily). This trend probably isn't surprising to anyone in the boardgaming world, but it's worth pointing out nonetheless, especially for people that aren't as deep into this slice of the gaming hobby.
Why is this relevant? I think boardgames of the modern sort are bringing "thinking" back to people as a form of entertainment. Certainly the amount of thinking can vary widely between a heavy weight eurogame and a social party game - but most at least it's pushing people into learning something new, interacting, and applying their brains in some capacity; which is a nice move away from slumping into a TV-coma. I wonder whether the increasing popularity of boardgames might be a mechanism for getting the broader public interested in games as a whole.
Surging Mobile App "Ports" of Boardgames
Having a digital (and most likely mobile) version of a boardgame for many people is tremendously appealing. For many of us in love with the hobby, finding time to attend an evening of gaming can be a challenge and is fraught with it's own bundle of frustrations (choosing which games to play, finding enough time, coordinating schedules, having enough beer, etc.). The unfettered convenience of having a library of boardgames at your finger tips that you can play asynchronously with your buddies (or total strangers) or against the AI opponents is remarkable.
True, you lose the face-to-face interactions and some of the tactile pleasures of manhandling meeples, but I also think a nicely designed mobile app can have it own charms. I recently asked people what the appeal was for pass-and-play, and to my surprise a lot of people jumped in and commented about how much they use pass-and-play modes on mobile boardgame apps. In such cases you can still retain a bit of face-to-face interaction, so even that is less of an issue.
Others have also been commenting, with increasing frequency of late, about the rise of solo boardgaming. Solo gaming, in a way, feels like the natural extension of cooperative games, you just remove the other players. Furthermore, a lot of my geekbuddies have been pointing out how complex eurogames are perhaps better as solo experiences anyway. It sets the stage for mobile gaming.
I also wonder about the pure practicalities of playing mobile boardgame apps. It's a LOT cheaper to buy the mobile version of Eclipse or Small World, or countless other games than it is to buy the physical version. For the list price of a mid-size boardgame I can buy half a dozen boardgame apps. It also takes up zero physical space, and with the millennial trend towards minimalism, I can't help but think the digital versions have an additional appeal for reducing the amount of junk you need to lug around when life keeps you on the move.
Last, I keep thinking about the environmental and logistic realities of physical boardgames. How much energy is spent manufacturing a cargo container worth of components and shipping it around the world by boat and train, warehousing it all, lugging it to conventions, sending it to distributors and then to stores, etc. It's kind of crazy to think about it. Digital games utilize existing IT infrastructure and have comparably less impact per game. Plus, digital games aren't likely to go out of print. How many digital apps are no longer available, for whatever reason, compared to how many boardgames are out of print?
The Cross-Platform Videogame Paradox
Increasingly I feel that developers are designing games to be cross-platform between desktops (PC/Mac/Linux), console systems (PS/XBox), and mobile devices (iOS/Android). Other things being equal, if you can sell a game across multiple platforms you have the opportunity to reach a broader audience and market, and can leverage your work in creating a game to earn more revenue. The Unity game development engine and software suite is likely contributing to this trend, as (from what I can gather in my readings) Unity makes it relatively easy to deploy a game across platforms.
Curiously, this trend seems to be on the rise despite a lingering stigma around mobile gaming. As a recent TouchArcade article highlights, there is still a widespread stigma from larger videogame circuits directed at mobile games. The example the TouchArcade article references is the game Race the Sun, an endless runner type game that was intended to be a mobile game. However, the savvy developers released their game on desktop platforms first, garnering attention and coverage from non-mobile outlets and avoiding the "just another mobile game stigma" in the process. They subsequently released the game on mobile platforms, garnering further attention for bringing such a cool desktop game to the mobile market. Its crazy to me that this should ever happens, and underscores that people are making judgement about the game and its merits based purely on the platform.
This stigma is due to a few different factors I think. First, for many serious gamers looking at the mobile market all they see are free-to-play (i.e. pay-to-win or timer-based) games, which is the antithesis of what serious gamers want. This perception is wrapped up in fears about the "dumbing down" of the gaming industry (which has some truth to it). The growth of free-to-play game models is also spilling over into a deskstop/console games, and understandably this has many gamers very worried and concerned about the fate of serious games.
I also think this stigma is fueled by many serious gamers (both players and media personalities) questioning why they or any other serious gamer would ever want to play on a mobile device in the first place. I recently interviewed Rocco Bowling, the developer of Starbase Orion, for eXplorminate. Rocco had this to say:
In my non-scientific, common-sense reckoning of things, as a person develops in their life, more and more things start to take priority. Gamers graduate school, gamers get jobs, gamers have kids. These things take up more and more of their time, leaving less and less time for dedicated gaming. Your 4 hours a night turns into 1 hour a night, which turns into gaming only on Tuesdays. What’s a core gamer like that supposed to do? Quit gaming? Succumb to the inane world that is “casual” mobile gaming? I believe these dedicated, but suddenly very busy, gamers would love to play a core game during the bits and pieces of time they have throughout their day.
Too often people associate “mobile” gaming with “casual” gaming. I have much respect for companies like Super Evil Megacorp; they made VainGlory, a core game on mobile without compromise. I believe there is a bright future for core gaming on mobile, for those crazy enough to walk that path.
I think Rocco's quote tells a big part of the story and explains, for Rocco at least, why a premium game like Starbase Orion has been so successful as a serious "gamer's game" despite being on a mobile platform. And there are plenty of other reasons why a serious/core gamer would want to play on mobile as well. Many of these I discussed in the previous section: convenience, asynchronous play, portability. But this hidden market of premium game is at odds with the stigma surrounding mobile games as a while. When you consider the financial incentives developers have to go cross-platform, it does create a bit of a paradoxical situation: You want to make a game cross-platform, but doing so opens you up to the anti-mobile stigma. What a mess.
Debunking The Myth: "Serious Strategy Games Won't Happen on Mobile"
I discussed this issue on another forum, and I want to refine my response and present it here as part of this larger conversation. Of all the possible "serious game genres" like first person shooters, real-time strategy games, RPG's, I think "strategy games" as a broad umbrella are ideally suited to mobile platforms. Let's break it down a little:
Why would anyone play a "strategy game" on a mobile device?
Convenience. As Rocco said, mobile devices can go anywhere with you, and the accessibility they provide is good whether you are waiting in line for 30 minute, on a 5 hour plane trip, trapped in a hotel, on vacation, or hanging out in your living room. Most mobile games/apps can be opened and launched in a fraction of the time it takes to get a game launched on a PC (close down other resource hogging applications, launch steam, sign-in, etc…). The “barrier to entry” (i.e. booting up a given game) is much lower in mobile than PC.
Comfort. Basically, playing a mobile game is not sitting at your desk on your PC, something a lot of people spend their entire workday doing. I can pull out my iPad when sitting on my couch, or next to the fire, or sitting under a tree by the river, or up in bed before I pass out for the night, etc. I don't need a full keyboard + mouse setup to play most strategy games, so I don't need (or want) to spend more time at a desktop if I don't have to.
Touch-interface. This is somewhat related to the above about comfort, but for me, and I suspect plenty of other people, a well designed touch-interface has its own tactile charms. That UI button is closer to feeling like an “actual button” when I press it with my finger directly. With a traditional keyboard + mouse there is an extra layer between what you see on your screen and how you interact with it. I’m not intending to debate that one set of inputs is better than the other (they all have pro’s and con’s), just recognize they are different and can be appealing in to different people and different circumstances.
Multi-player and asynchronous play. For multiplayer asynchronous turn-based games, having the game on a mobile platform is extremely beneficial. You get a notification (e-mail, game-center popup, etc.) that “it’s now your turn” and you can load the game up from anywhere, jump in quickly, take your turn, and pass the baton to the next player. The convenience factor of mobile really helps facilitate multiplayer gaming for strategy games that would otherwise be relegated to extended live-play sessions or play-by-email (PBEM). It takes me longer to boot up my PC and launch most strategy games than it takes me to actually complete my turn, and I can do all of this much quicker on a mobile device.
Preference: For me, the only reason I play a given strategy game (or other mobile friendly genre) on my desktop and not on my iPad is because they game I’m interested in doesn’t exist for iPad/iPhone. I simply find it more enjoyable to game on my iPad and I don’t feel that I am missing any part of the PC/Desktop experience. I use headphones, so sound isn’t an issue, and retina displays coupled with a much closer viewing distance negates in part the benefit of having a big monitor. And, if there there was ever a genre of games that can stand on its mechanics and game design, rather than an audio-visual wow fest, it’s strategy games.
Mobile devices can't handle the demands of modern strategy games! It'll never happen!
Complexity. It’s worth noting that the games that spawned the 4X genre (Civ, Master of Magic, Master of Orion, etc.), and are at high complexity end of the strategy game spectrum, ran on computers slower in every way than a decent smartphone or tablet is today. If those older games are the benchmark for our complexity demands, why again can’t such a game be accommodated on mobile? There are plenty of examples of quite complex and deep games on mobile platforms already (a port of the classic PC game Ascendancy, Starbase Orion, etc.).
Reading about the design process for older games, where processing and memory limitations were a far more limiting design obstacle, I see no reason why games of similar complexity to one's from 20+ years ago can't work on today's mobile devices.
Rather, it is our graphic expectations that are probably the biggest hardware limitation between mobile and desktop. Personally, I think a good and engaging visual design is more important than flashy graphics for a strategy game. And it’s entirely possible to make gorgeous looking games that work on mobile. But there are limits to what mobile can do graphically compared to desktops, and if the most cutting-edge graphics is a major requirement for, obviously that's an issue. Personally, I feel strategy games have a less pressing of a need for ultra impressive graphics anyway, as their game play is what I care about.
User Interface: The UI does need to be more streamlined to work on a mobile's limited relative screen space. Yet that isn’t a bad thing. Personally, making an effective and intuitive UI for mobile can result in a better UI anyway, as it forces the UI design to be more effective and efficient in its presentation. In some ways, its too easy to make a horrendous UI on PC and get away with it (examples I probably don’t need to mention abound) by spamming popups and tooltips all over the palce. Restrictions and limitations can foster innovation, and I think games intended for cross-platform have a greater need for an exceptional UI to make it work, and so it raises the bar.
The Rise of "Boardgame-Like" Games
The culmination of the trends and industry challenges discussed above points a big fat arrow towards the rise of "boardgame-like" games. You have boardgame players reaching into the mobile and videogame market space by way of boardgame ports. You have app developers saying, "hey there's a market here for premium strategy games given successful boardgame ports." And you have serious videogamers turning towards premium mobile games (strategy titles among them) for all the various reasons that have been discussed.
The culmination of this article is the following messy sentiment (I'm imagining a developer saying this): "Whow, these hobby boardgames create deep/challenging experiences with relatively simple mechanics, and as a result are appealing to both serious and casual gamers! We can create new boardgame-like games that can tap into both audiences while also delivering a game that is at home on both mobile and non-mobile platforms. It's a quadruple win!"
I've come across a number of videogames that make reference to "boardgame-like" properties, or mentions that game developers play and were inspired by boardgame. Sid Meier's crew behind the Sid Meier's Starships! supposedly drew influences from boardgames (I'm wondering which ones, because the game isn't that great IMHO, but I digress).
The question then is what exactly constitutes a boardgame-like game? Obviously a proper "boardgame" or tabletop game is one that is played entirely with physical, analog game components and that requires to the player to process all the changes in the game state. When making the jump to a digital medium, what is it about the fundamental design and operations of boardgames that can make the jump as well? I think there are a few underpinnings to games with a more "boardgame-like" design.
Transparency of Mechanics. Given that boardgames are analog and humans have to "process" the game state, it goes without saying that the rules that determine the mechanics need to be understandable and manageable. So in boardgames, the mechanics are fully "transparent" to the player. There is no black box of programming algorithms that you dump decisions into and then get the results spit back at you. When you do something in a boardgame, you can follow the mechanical how's and why's your decision led to a particular result.
This is a departure from the design of a lot of videogames, where there can be all kinds of hidden shenanigans going on in the background that shape the game world and respond to player actions. And for a lot of types of videogames, this approach works well. First person shooters, or heavily narrative, experience-first type of games come to mind, where you don't really want the mechanics and numbers getting in the way of your sense of immersion.
The design appeal is that if the mechanics are transparent and comprehensible, it makes games easier to learn the game and moves players towards improving their skills sooner, which hopefully triggers their sense of reward and keeps them playing.
Simple Math & Systems. Put simply, most boardgames don't require complicated algorithms, formulas, or functions to process changes in the game state. Math is kept comparatively simple. In most games there is no need to write numbers or anything down, although occasionally that can prove useful. In other games, there might be more complex optimizations or cost-benefit type decisions to work out, but rarely do they require a calculator, and most are still predicated on relatively simple math equations.
In videogames, as mechanics are processed by a computer, it is tempting and commonplace to have all sorts of higher order mathematics underpinning gameplay systems. On one hand, this opens up the door for more realism and simulation fidelity in a game, i.e. the dynamics that your game creates can be a more accurate model of the game's assumed reality. On the other hand, even if these formulas are known and presented to the player, it is vastly more complex to work through the ramifications of a particular decision if you try to run it through the math.
The design appeal for basic math and simplicity also goes back to accessibility. In the boardgame design realm, there is always an interest in reducing complexity while retaining or increasing strategic depth. Complexity is not necessary for creating depth; and a boardgame-like game may embrace this sentiment as well and resist the urge to layer more systems into the design and instead keep it simple.
Action Choice Driven. Boardgame require structure to how players take and perform actions in the game. There are mechanics that control the order in which players take their turns, or limits the range of actions or choices that are available to players are a particular moment in time. Part of this is born out of the practical realities of playing a physical game, i.e. most games aren't a free for all of chaos with players taking their turns whenever they want.
Part of it also relates to things like reducing downtime or analysis paralysis. If players have a menu of six actions and they can only perform one on their turn, it keeps their action planning focused and the pace of the game moving. If a player has a menu of six actions and they can perform any number of them in any order, player turns will take forever.
Yet the net effect of boardgame action mechanics goes beyond just managing these practicalities; they are often a source of strategic depth and challenge on their own. Turn order and ways of changing turn order can add a strategic element to the gameplay. Being restricted to one or two actions a turn forces the player to make trade-offs that consider all the moves of their opponent more carefully, and so on. So many of these uniquely boardgame mechanics can readily transcend beyond their roots and have applications in other types of games as well.
Wrap-Ups & Wishful Thoughts
This became way longer than intended, so thank you for bearing with me to end if you are still reading this!
In summary, I'll say that this has been a challenging set of topics and issues to pull together. And I'm not sure I succeeded fully in the endeavor. But the takeway from all of this is my sense that boardgames are penetrating their way back into videogame design practices. In part this may be due to digital ports of boardgames raising awareness. It may also be due to developing cross-platform games being ideally suited to strategy games and board-game like design notions. If the game is relatively simple yet deep, it can probably be implemented effectively on mobile platforms and it may stand a better chance of attracting both casual and serious video gamers. And among boardgamers, if there is a slowdown in physical game acquisition, digital boardgame-like games offer fertile grounds to explore.
Oh what cruel irony is this, that I should endeavor to define my being through the whims of microbadges. If only I could resist their dangerous temptations and define my life by actions, instead of by tiny 16x16 pixel icons. Resistance is futile! So let us just get on with Part 1 of a 3 part series. Badge it up!
PART 1: This Boardgame Life
Award & Recognition
I've got more than 10,000 thumbs. I should probably be giving out more thumbs, as I have ~20,000 received to only 6,000 given. The shame! Or the vanity?!
I've also uploaded a bunch if images (no surprises there), and posted some geeklists. Oh boy!
Game Collections & Acquisition
I've been hovering around 100 games for a while. In some ways this is a small collection, in other ways it would be great to cut it in half. I really don't need (or have the time to play) all of these games. But what else will go on the shelves?!
I tend to thrift for games, mostly via yard sales, and am always on the lookout for games that might work with the kids. I've picked up a lot of garbage (and gems) over the years and most of it I've either traded away or sold in my own garage sales. Go figure.
I also have a deep love for small game boxes. I despise opening up a big box to see 90% of the box just wasted empty space. The smaller the box, all other things equal, the more I will probably like the game. My ideal games are "small footprint, high impact games" - those that pack a lot of game in small package.
Of course, I also enjoy PnP projects and have various cabinets stuffed full of extra components and materials for crafting up games.
I've always been a gamer, since I was as young as I can remember. So it's "In my DNA" so to speak. I enjoy playing games with people the most when those other people are enjoying themselves too.
I used to be far more competitive than I am. While I wasn't (or didn't think I was!) overly competitive, I did used to win more than my fair share of games and I think people got frustrated at times. So I've relaxed far more these days, and tend to play from my gut and keep the game moving along, even if I know I'm not playing as optimally/ruthlessly as I could be. I'm a friendly competitor (that plays Yellow)!
The slow games movement was about a few nebulous things. One of them was taking more time to actually play a game and not feel rushed or rush other players. The other aspect was about slowing down the "churn" that we burn through games. I'm a cult of the old'er at this point (Tigris & Euphrates). I suppose it's hypocritical to be a designer and pushing for new games in one breath, and then saying STOP THE CHURN with the other, but oh well. For me anyway, it just means that I'd rather play the games I already know I love more times than chase my tail trying to find something that's questionably better.
Gaming "Venues" (e.g. how, where, and with whom I game)
The salad days are over. It used to be that I could spend an entire day (or more!) holed up some basement playing games - but not anymore. The "venues" in which I game have certainly changed. Despite all this, I remain the primary game bringer and game explainer among my group of friends.
My biggest gaming opportunity is currently with my wife, and we'v had some great runs and got a lot of plays into a a few games. Various Decktet games, Hanabi, Onirim (most recently). I also have my kids and similarly aged nephews to game with, some my opportunities have definitely taken a turn back towards more kid-friendly games. By kid-friendly I of course mean smashing goblins, wrecking buildings, and stealing cheese (HeroQuest, King of Tokyo, and Mice & Mystics respectively).
More recently, and with even less time on my hands, I've taken to playing a lot of boardgames on my iPad (or iPhone) as well as on my PC. Some of these games are web-based through Yucata and other online boardgame platforms. But there are some great digital boardgame apps that I really enjoy as well.
Game Designing / Game Hacking
It goes without saying that I love game design, and have for as long as I can recall. I vaguely remember being about 12 and being stuffed in the back of a car on a cross-country road-trip while I designed an entire AD&D character module, despite having never played D&D. It was a trend that never really stopped.
I have a (bad?) reputation for wanting to immediately house-rule and hack games apart into something newer/different, even when the game as designed is perfectly fine. Sometimes this pans out, other times it doesn't
Boardgame Genres & Themes
First of all, my preferred genre lies at the intersection between Ameritrash and Eurogame, in other words Francotrash/Weuro games. Cyclades (also below) is a great poster-child for this genre. I like civilization games as well, so I naturally find myself gravitating towards dudes on the map, build 'em up and tear 'em down style games with a lot of room for spatial interaction and resource management. I like outer space a lot too, do if I can have the above in space that's even better. I'll take feudal japan as a backup, as samurai are pretty sweet.
Gameplay Preferences & Mechanics I like (or dislike)
I have a terrible problem: if a game has a modular board, and especially one that involves hexagons, I can't help myself from looking at the game a little more than I might otherwise. I like games with a strong and interesting spatial element that's the focus of the action.
The corollary is that I've come to despise games with great big giant boards that are just a smorgasbord of action placement locations, trackers, wheels, manacala-insanity, and other assorted doohickeys. I want the central board and game space to be "geography" ... call me old-school. As a result, I tend to not want anything to do with VP salad games, since these two tend to come hand in hand. At least that's my misguided and biased assumption.
Given the above, it should be no surprise that I like games with direct player interaction. I like the table-talk, dynamics, and negotiation that comes with "playing against players" instead of "playing against the game". I also enjoy a good deduction game, Mascarade being one of my favorites, even if it is a bit chaotic.
I like Bruno Faidutti quite a bit. Citadels was one of my early German-style game purchases, and it's a game that works as well as a tight 2-player deduction game as it does as a big 6-person chaos fest. Ditto for Mascarade. I've also appreciated Bruno's writing and reflecting on the industry and the game design process.
Reiner Knizia is one of my favorite designers. Tigris & Euphrates is one of (perhaps is) my favorite game, but others from the Dr. include Lost Cities, Samurai, Ra, Ingenious, and Loot (more of a kids game). I've played all of those quite a bit. I find it a bit unfortunate that Knizia seems to be loosing traction among the more hardcore gamers. He stands as a reminder, for me at least, that complexity is not always better. In fact, distilling a game down to it's core essence can be a way to find deeper and emergent gameplay, where you enable relative simplicity to open up into a vast decision space. I like those sorts of games.
Last is Todd Sanders. While I haven't played many of his games, I am always amazed at the volume of games he produces in the PnP circuit. Whether it is remaking a lost relic or doing something original, Todd brings an awesome graphic design aesthetic to his work that I always find inspiring.
Favorite Boardgames (this is why you are really here eh?)
As mentioned, I love a good civ-building type of game. Cyclades is just about perfect for a quick, highly interactive civ-y sort of game. I think the auctioning mechanic and how it relates to your on the map actions is just brilliant, and of course makes all aspects of the game highly interactive. It's one of those games where only a round or two into the game I feel like everyone is fighting tooth and claw for a win. Each person is often a mere turn or two from winning at any given moment. Cyclades is tense and fast-paced, and for a civ game it plays really quickly (90 min or so).
A bit more bread-stroking is Antike - a distilled civ-lite game. The beauty is in how snappy this plays, while still being very strategic. I'll chalk that up to the use of the Rondal mechanic for action selection, which makes planning and timing actions critically important but keeps each player's turn short and focused. The end game can turn into a little bit of a slugfest, but it's nothing some house ruling can't fix (i.e. play to one less VP).
I have to admit I've only played Inca Empire once, but I like it mucho. Most notably is that I'm totally infatuated by the game's visual presentation: it's gorgeous. Beyond that it delivers a sort of ramped up Settlers of Catan-like experience. There is route + network building, placing cities on nodes, sense of shared ownership, blocking, a way to screw people similar to the robber (the sun cards), and a nice dose of resource management. It's a slick game, has a cool geography, and hits a really under-represented theme.
Last is Eight Minute Empire: Legends. More than anything this is a shout-out to Ryan Laukat (Red Raven Games), a renaissance man/designer/artist/publisher whose graphic style I adore. It's also shout-out for the whole express-game (or microgame) movement that takes big sprawling messes and turns them into compact, tight, little games. Legends fits the bill perfectly.
Having not one, but two, Tigris & Euphrates microbadges says it all.
Taluva is also one of my favorites. This is a Carcassonne-esque tile laying and meeple placement game that builds 3-dimensionally. It plays really quickly, and overall is a nearly perfect spatial abstract with just enough thematic-dressing to keep it fresh and whimsical.
Probably my most played boardgame, however, is Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, a game I play frequently with my wife. I've never played the original Carcassonne (with or without any of it's myriad expansions), and I see little reason to do so. Hunters & Gatherers hits everything I'd want in a casual tile-laying game. You can read my love letter to the game here.
Card Games & Game Systems
As I mentioned earlier, I love game systems, and for me the Decktet is just continually interesting. My secret hope is that in years down the road, the Decktet is as known and recognized as a standard deck of cards. That would be cool. I love the artwork and ambiguity of the cards; and I like how they are immediately familiar given the standard rank and suit configuration, yet open up so much opportunity for different styles of games. Magnate and Emu Ranchers are two of my favorite decktet games.
More recently, I've had a serious nerd-crush for Onirim and also Sylvion. I'll write more about these at some point, but I find the overall aesthetic experience to be just excellent, from the opening of the box with it's amazing presentation all the way until the last card is drawn. I purchased them to do some solo-playing while at the lake, but with Onirim I've also been playing the cooperative mode with my wife, which has been a blast and makes for a very challenging game.
By default I'm wary of engine building games. Fundamentally, I just don't find the optimization/puzzle exercise provided by most of these games to be terribly compelling. Many of these games also fall into the non-direct interaction category, of which I'm also leery. That said, there are a few that grabbed me over the years.
Race for the Galaxy is just awesome. I've only played it with the first expansion (Gathering Storm), and much of my playtime has been either against the solo "robot" or using Keldon's AI program. But I find the card play, interactions between cards, and more importantly the subtle but critically important role selection mechanics and interactivity through leeching and double-think it provides, to be supremely interesting.
Next up is Glen More. I like wiskey, Scotland is cool (although I've never been there), but more pertinently this game is slick. The tile selection system, market, and scoring mechanics keeps the game quite interactive, when normally these sort of "build your own tableau that only you pay attention to" games don't interest me in the least. I enjoy how the tile placement works as a way to trigger and chain actions, and find that spatial aspect of it quite enjoyable.
Last in this bucket is Ginkgopolis. This is, in some respects, a cluster of a game. It has card drafting, communal deck-building, tile-placement, area majority, tableau building, and probably more. Yet - it plays quickly and all of these elements knit together well in my opinion. I like the quirky theme, and as I expressed in my review, I fell that the game IS thematically aligned to the mechanics, despite most people's impressions.
Last are a few of the Ameritrashy sorts of games. I was firmly within this camp for decades before coming into the fold of modern/designer games.
I have to give a special nod to Illuminati, as this game was the place setting for many a get together with my friends back in the salad days. Which of course we could only play back then because the game can take freaking forever. From today's vantage point, the game is flawed in a number of ways, but the core idea is still cool-as-hell and the theme is just wonderful. I'd love to see a re-boot of this game, to modernize the concept a bit and reign it in. Still, it's one of my favorite games; rose-tinted glasses be damned.
I played a lot of Warhammer 40,000 over the decades. I had the original Rogue Trader rule book, but really didn't start playing intensely until 2nd edition arrived and the game actually became somewhat playable. The Warhammer 40k lore is pretty awesome, although the games themselves are mediocre mechanically. We did a lot of house ruling on 40k, let's just say that. I played on and off for years and have a bunch of painted armies (Elder + Space Wolves were my favs) still in their precious carrying cases in my basement. Ultimately though, Games Workshops shenanigans drove me away. I had no interest in re-buying the rulebook and all the accompanying codex books on a continual cycle, especially when the cost of such books (not to mention the miniatures) continues to escalate. One of my secret lusts is reading speculation articles on when GW is going to go belly up. But whatever happens, their IP is going to live on ...
I should also mention HeroQuest, a game that more or less possessed me as a youth. I have all the expansions crammed into a disintegrating box. Every so often I pull the old bird out, rally the clan, pour a Gin & Tonic, and take up position behind Zargon's Screen of Terrible Plotting to subject my friends to another romp in the dungeon. More recently, the game has captured the attention of my daughter and nephews, whose looks as they gaze (and drool) over the miniatures and furniture pieces no doubt matched my own. We've managed to stumble through many of the quests with a little house ruling to make it easy on them. The love it ... and I do to.
Long live gaming! And Zargon!
This concludes Part 1 of My Life Through Microbadges. Part 2 will report on the digital side of my gaming life, and Part 3 will explore my world beyond games.
Thanks for watching, stay tuned for next time!
What’s Goin On!? will be a regular feature around these parts. Regular, as in me posting, on a whim, a veritable smorgasbord of thoughts and quick reactions to games I’ve been playing lately as well as other assorted ideas I’ve had. Beware!
What’s on my mind?
I’m an eXplorminator!
First, I should mention that I’ve signed on in (maybe in blood, I’m not sure yet), as a staff writer and contributor to eXplorminate. eXplorminate is a group of 4X and strategy game enthusiasts that endeavor to bring the 4X gaming community together as well as provide regular content in the form of reviews, previews, articles, podcasts, youtube videos, and … you get the picture. It’s a great group with an active Steam community. If you are interested in strategy games (aren’t we all here?) and 4X games in particular, it’s worth checking out the group.
So far I’ve written a review for the second Age of Wonders III expansion, Eternal Lords, as well as a comprehensive review of all of Age of Wonders III, with the patches and both expansions in effect. Spoiler - I think it’s one of the finest strategy games in recent memory. I love it, and it remains one of my most played games in years (over 400 hours!). In terms of this blog, expect to see a number of articles, reviewers or otherwise, cross-posted between here and eXplorminate.
Now, on to the games!
What’s on my table?
Let’s see. Most of my tabletop gaming recently has been with my daughter and two nephews (ages 4 and 6). They’ve all taken a liking to King of Tokyo - and who wouldn’t really? For me, it pulls at the rampage heartstrings, bringing a secret smile to my face whenever I pull it out. Gosh, I still remember feeding coin after coin into the Rampage arcade machine inside the ill-fated Boblo Island ferries. Oh Bobblo, where art thou? The kids love King of Tokyo too. Giant monsters? Crazy powers? Die rolling? Smashing helicopters? Trash talking? Yes to all of the above. Ding, ding, ding - we have a winner!
I also have a review copy of the second edition of Evolution, from Wits & Wagers designer Dominic Crapuchettes and publisher North Star Games. I haven’t yet had a chance to get it to the table, but it strikes me as a pretty interesting special powers card game that pulls at a different set of strings: my inner biologist. I’ve been on the lookout for a game that provides a compelling model or simulation for ecological processes, and this one seems to be the top contender so I’m keen to try it out. NoHighScores legend Michael Barnes recently wrote a nice review describing the game and the thematically well-adapted gameplay that comes out of the experience. Till I get my own thoughts pulled together, Barnes will have to do.
My wife and I continue to play Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers, often a few times a week. A Z-Man reprint landed recently so the game is once again available to the masses, which is a good thing. Of course, I still haven’t played the original Carcassonne or it’s 9-million expansions, but frankly there isn’t anything more I want out of the H&G version - it does things well and is balanced. Don’t mess with a good thing, eh?
What’s on the Forecast?
My great eye is drifting more toward kid-friendly games, as I endeavor to instill a healthy appreciation for games in my budding, underage gamer group. I’ve been reading Mouse Guard to my daughter and nephews, and given their interest in HeroQuest, I think Mice & Mystics could have a glorious future around the home. I’m thinking of picking up the base game and sneaking it out to the family cottage. Then I’ll turn on my secret weather machine so that rain pours and we’re stuck inside said cottage … playing games!
Martin Wallace is also issuing a 2nd edition of A Study in Emerald, which has me chin scratching. Of course, the likelihood of getting it to the table anytime soon, should I purchase it, is worryingly slim. But everything I’ve read about the game makes me think it would be stupendous if I could manage to rally the troops for an evening of gaming bliss. We shall see.
What’s on my screen?
I’ve been slowly dabbling in the world of roguelike games. For the uninitiated, here is my (and only recently initiated) understanding of roguelike games: At their core, roguelikes are role-playing games that combine (1) procedural world generation with (2) character permadeath and (3) turn-based tactical/strategic gameplay. The Three Moves Ahead (3MA) podcast, which focuses on strategy games, recently had a great episode covering Roguelikes, touching on their history, major design underpinnings, and how the genre is diversifying and merging with other genres.
In many ways, Roguelikes are a throwback to the earlier days of digital gaming - the era where throwing your controller into the wall in utter frustration and contempt at your own inability to play well was common place. You see, we’ve become “soft” in a lot of ways, with games getting dumbed down and holding our tender pawns ever more firmly. A lot of mainstream games have shifted away from offering a rigorous challenge in favor of giving the player some streamlined and homogenized experience. So many games aren’t a question of “IF” you can beat it but “WHEN” you can beat it - keep playing and you will win.
Roguelikes drag you screaming in the other direction. And some of them can be manically frustrating. But the point is to focus on player skill and demand more careful consideration of moves and options, also reminding you that one misstep can send you packing on the permadeath train and force a total restart. Do or do not, there is no saving.
A gentle introduction to the genre can be had in the mobile game Hoplite, which has been painfully addicting for me. Basically, you are a little Greek/Roman soldier navigating a hex-based dungeon in true roguelike fashion (randomly generated floors, turn-based, permadeath). You have a few different moves (stab, lunge, leap, throw spear, block) at your disposal and these can be augmented at shrines on each level to become more powerful. This is good because each successive level of the dungeon is filled with more and more dudes wot need slayin’. There is a simple feat-based achievement system that unlocks stronger abilities to boot. I think Hoplite’s charm, which is central to good roguelikes, is that the tension mounts and mounts the further you go as the stakes get higher and higher. One miscalculation or rash decision can ruin your entire run. It’s frustrating but it’s also liberating - you can’t get too attached to your little dude because it’s all just a fleeting moment.
Another roguelike I’ve been dabbling with is Crowntakers, on mobile platforms and also Steam (PC). Here you have a central character that you navigate through a series of procedurally generated zones (forests, cities, etc.) acquiring better gear and picking up a motley crew of indispensable companions. It has an FTL-like “better hurry the hell up” mechanic in that the more days that pass the stronger the opposition gets on your way to reach the castle and reclaim your birthright. So you can’t be lingering too long in each zone. When you encounter hostiles, the game switches into a tactical level, turn-based (and hex based) battle zone. The tactical combat has some surprisingly deep mechanics to it, like flanking and attacks of opportunity, which reminds me a lot of Age of Wonders 3. Of course, it’s all permadeath if your main character dies. Overall, Crowntakers a beautifully executed game and, unless you play on the cheater mode, devilishly hard (I’ve never made it past the halfway mark!).
Two others I’ve dabbled with include DoomRL and Brogue. DoomRL sent me into a nostalgia spasm. It’s a traditional (and free!) roguelike that hijacked art and sound assets from Doom (yes the shooter) and crafted a new and painful way to experience the Doom-ness. Brogue is an ASCII based roguelike (going even more traditional) that has an iOS port. I’ve just tinkered with it for a few minutes, but now it’s gnawing at me! Too many games!
... and Roguelike-likes?
The 3MA podcast raised the point that a lot of games are incorporating “roguelike elements” into their designs. Maybe it’s permadeath (XCOM for example), or procedural world generation (Terraria, Minecraft), or turn-based mechanics (Banner Saga and so much more). Personally, I think this represents a shift in the collective psyche of a lot of developers and gamers. Which is to say that they are getting a bit tired of the shock-and-awe grandeur that AAA games present as the epitome of awesome gaming. They want to go back to smashing controllers/mice/keyboards against their walls/desks/monitors; back to “games” and not “narrative experiences.” Of course, a lot of developers try to do a little bit of both - and that’s where it gets interesting.
One game that I’ve played a lot recently is This War of Mine. I expect I’ll do a proper review in time, but for now I’ll describe it as this: Basically, you are tasked with orchestrating the survival of a group of survivors that have taken up shelter in a bombed-out house in a city ruined by war. The setting is suggestive of an eastern block country, although the time period and details of the war itself are vague. During the day, the survivors need to craft-up all manner of objects for survival. And under the cover of darkness at night, you can send off one lone individual to scavenge/trade/steal/kill for raw ingredients needed to fuel your survival-crafting.
This War of Mine is an absolutely brutal, crushing, and depressing reminder of the civilian costs and realities of war, so often overlooked in the dramatization of it all across our media. You need to survive for 40-50 days, and despite having run the gauntlet a number of times I haven’t yet managed to reach the end. Plenty of moral and matter-of-survival type decisions loom over your every moment of the game. It is challenging; and one botched night of scavenging can send you on a downward spiral of starvation, sickness, predation, depression, suicide, and ruin. Yeah, it’s grim - but it is so well executed and nuanced that it keeps me coming back. It's been out on PC for a while and rumor has it that it's coming to iOS soon.
Another game, on a far more whimsical and comedic note, is Sunless Sea. This is perhaps best understood as a roguelike-like bastardization of FTL and King of Dragon Pass. It’s a narratively rich game about trying to accomplish some choose-your-own-adventure-selected goal and then sailing your ship, replete with supplies, upgrades, and a hearty crew, around an undergound sea that is supposed to be some part of a sunken, lovecraftian England. It’s a quirky and odd game, and despite the dire and gloomy setting manages to be lighthearted and deadly serious at the same time. It’s a great presentation. I haven’t played it enough yet to really get into it, but what I’ve seen so far has been perfectly engaging. Turn off the lights, put on the headphone, and grab the helm. Or something ...
What’s on the Queue?
So many games … so little time. In terms of roguelike’s I’m itching to try out Tales of Maj’Eyal, which has been touted as a pretty solid roguelike set in a Middle Earth-like setting complete with Gandalf-like characters. I hear it’s coming to mobile platforms, and ideally I’d like to wait until then. It’s free to download direct from the developer or you can purchase it (cheaply) through steam.
Another more recent entry, in the roguelike-like category, is Invisible Inc - which is from what I can gather also an XCOM-like tactical game, but with a focus more on stealth and all-things cyberpunky. It has a slick aesthetic, reminding me a bit of The Incredibles movie - which is one of my favorite pixar movies incidentially. I’m hoping to try that out.
Massive Chalice, from Doublefine, was also released recently. This is similarly an XCOM-like, roguelike-like game that merges a fantasy-themed tactical battle game with a dynasty, bloodline management sim. Sounds cool on paper, although the reviews have been pretty varied. I’m assuming its one of those games that some are going to love and others are going to loathe. Just like all the other games.
What else is on my mind?
I should mention that I’ve been afflicted with a curse, and that curse has a name. This curse is named IsThereAnyDeal.Com. It’s a horrid site where you can create a wishlist of games (and even more horrifically import an existing wishlist from Steam or other services) and have it a watch out for deals across a wide range of digital distribution platforms of your choosing. It’s like those big blowout sales that claim to “save you money” despite the fact that they end up compelling you to purchase stuff you never would’ve bought in the first place - and thus end up being the exact opposite of saving money.
The result of this curse is that I’ve purchased a bunch of games through Humble Bundle’s recent sale (among others). Do I dare go on? Yes I dare: Wargame: AirLand Battle, Wargame: Red Dragon, Borderlands 2, Halfway, To the Moon, The Last Federations last expansion, Pandora, Pandora Expansion, assorted Europa Universalis IV DLC, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, Star Drive 2, Star Ruler 2, make it stop ….
We’ll touch on all of that in the next installment of What’s Going On?! Until then, enjoy the music:
I’ve been struggling to write a holistic critique of the 4X genre for a while. On one hand, I ask myself “why is such a critique even necessary?” On the other, I feel that the genre is at a crossroads. Different tensions, for good or for bad, pull the genre in different directions. Trying to understand these tensions, which shape the genre’s landscape, will (hopefully) illuminate more challenges and opportunities in 4X design. Of course, I have my own aspirations of making a 4X videogame, so understanding the current “state of affairs” is important for designing in an informed manner and navigating through this messy environment.
Thankfully, a recent Three Moves Ahead (3MA) podcast on 4X games gave me the needed kick-in-the-pants to get me writing. The 3MA episode, intentionally or not, provided a rather scathing critique of the entire 4X genre and its failings, as well as highlighting a few small bright points of promise. I felt myself doing the proverbial headbang dance as I listened to the podcast, as many of their reactions and sentiments echo my own. Engaging in the 4X genre is a bit of a shattered dream, where we sift through the shards in hope of finding that one perfect game. But so often we cut ourselves on the glass.
The “Shattered Dream” is a 3-part article that will critique the 4X genre in a number of ways. Part 1 will focus on defining the 4X genre and relevant sub-genres. Part 2 will dig into what I feel is the primary tension in the genre: the desire to craft detailed simulations of other worlds and provide players with a deep strategic game. Last, Part 3 will look at how various tensions play out in the market space for 4X games and what promising avenues of innovation (and massive potholes!) lie ahead.
Part 1 - A Fragmented Genre
Much of my writing has focused on the classification and taxonomy of games. And it is important to recognize that no classification scheme will ever be perfect and cover all cases adequately. However I feel that the byproduct of discussing classification is that it forces us to explore game characteristics in detail. And this understanding is beneficial regardless of whether it culminates in a useful classification system or not. With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin.
The term “4X” refers to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The term was originally coined in a preview article for Master of Orion (the first) as a shorthand to reference the scope and nature of game - and the 4X term has grown in use ever since. It is tempting to use the label as a literal definition for classifying games, and hence for a game to be a 4X you need to have “The Four Elements” in place. But I think this ultimately doesn’t work; it becomes far too inclusive if taken literally. For example, most RTS games in the ilk of Starcraft or Age of Empires could fall under a 4X definition.
Rather, I think the “spirit” of the 4X label is what is important; which is that the 4X games strive to capture a grander scope than a RTS or turn-based wargame. There is usually some degree of empire building and management present, with the player filling the shoes of a real or assumed leader, often with an omnipotent view and uncontested control over their domain. The time scale is usually long, with a players’ empires growing and advancing. There is usually a balance between internal pressures mechanics, like managing the happiness of your population or the upkeep of a burgeoning bureaucracy, and external pressures such as military threats, hostile environments, and diplomatic posturing.
Yet within this umbrella, there are some useful sub-genres to consider. And it is these sub-genres that I feel provide the most salient lens through which to view the nuances and diversity of the 4X genre. As with past game classification efforts, it is important to consider the historic origins of these sub-genres. Furthermore, I’ll use the opportunity to reference Wittgenstein's Family Resemblance concept. Essentially, rather than trying to adopt a rigid “in or out” approach to classification, we need to recognize that genres are a collection of commonly, but not always, associated traits and that games that fall within a particular genre may only exhibit a portion of those traits.
Here we go:
Empire Builders - The 3MA podcast used the term “Empire Builder” as an alternative to 4X games to describe those that emphasize empire building. Civilization is certainly the most iconic example of an Empire Builder, and some of the key characteristics include: (a) Internal pressure mechanics like upkeep costs, population happiness and approval, diminishing returns, etc.; (b) External pressures from foreign competing empires; (c) Multiple and divergent victory conditions (e.g. conquest, technology, culture, political); (d) Relatively detailed “Management Unit” (MU) optimization requiring you allocate workers or resources within each MU.
Examples: Civilization, Endless Legends, Endless Space, Armada 2526, Distant Worlds, Galactic Civilization
4X-Lite - In trying to ascertain what games get branded with the “4X-Lite” label, the best I can tell is that these are games that downplays internal empire management in favor of a focus on warmongering. The games are often “simpler” from a complexity of mechanics standpoint but place far greater emphasis on the production, movement, and positioning of military forces. Victory tends to focus primarily (or exclusively) on military related win conditions such as outright conquest or domination of the map. In some ways, I think of these almost as “pure 4X” games because they are most directly aligned with the 4X’s and have relatively few other systems bolted on.
Examples: Sword of the Stars, Age of Wonders, Neptune’s Pride, UltraCorps, Master of Magic, Warlock, Star Drive 2
Heroic Strategy - There is some overlap between this and the previous category, but Heroic Strategy in my mind are games with many 4X elements but often with a strong focus on RPG-like character development of a smaller pool of characters. Oftentimes, “empire management” is handled through the development of a single or primary town/castle where units are recruited.
Examples: Heroes of Might and Magic, Disciples
Grand Strategy - This is a term most aptly directed towards paradox’s landmark titles, like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis. Sometimes, these are described as 4X games where you cut out the opening exploration phase of the game (since generally the geography is already known) as well as the late game victory dash by having more focused scenario-based goals. The heart of such games tend to be in relatively more complex empire planning, force organization, leader/character management, and nuanced diplomatic mechanics.
Examples: Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, The Last Federation, Imperia 5X
RTS-4X Hybrid - These are games that cross the line between a typical real time strategy (RTS) game like Starcraft or Command & Conquer and a 4X game. While any 4X game can be “real time” (e.g. Distant Worlds, StarDrive 1, Star Ruler) many of these are intended to work in a “pausable” real time fashion where “who can click/think fastest” is not really a factor in your success. The RTS-4X Hybrids blend the need for fast thinking (and clicking) found in a typical RTS game with the grander design scope seen in most 4X games, with players often having to navigate far bigger technology trees, diplomatic relationships, and internal empire considerations along the way.
Examples: Sins of a Solar Empire, Rise of Nations, Haegemonia
Campaign Driven - The last category is reserved for games that feature a 4X type system that provides a structure for a campaign, with individual tactical battles (turn based or real-time) taking the center stage. The campaign level can vary quite a bit in terms of complexity and scope, but is nonetheless in the service of providing context (and consequences) for the tactical battles that are the focus of the game.
Examples: Total War series, Dawn of War Soulstorm campaign
Tension Point: On Genre, On Blitzen!
Why is this important? I think these sub-genres (the title of which are open to debate!) have existed for a while without much formal recognition. Yet these go a long way towards explaining people’s perspectives, tolerances, preferences within the genre. Personally, I am tired of seeing comments like “this game is garbage because there’s no depth in empire management!” when the intent wasn’t be an empire building game in the first place. It’s like saying a free-for-all deathmatch arena shooter is bad because it is not team-based and doesn’t use modern military weapons. They are both FPS games, but an arena shooter (ala Quake-series) is much different from a team-based military shooter (ala Battlefield-series).
By calling everything under the umbrella “4X” all the time, it presupposes certain expectations on games and in turn biases our outlook of them. For instance, we assume that it should have some exploration elements, a way of expanding, a way of exterminating, and so on. This creates tension across the genre between our expectations (whether well- or ill-conceived) and the desire for encouraging diversity in the genre. Having said of all of this, genres (and sub-genres) are still useful for understanding games, making comparisons between them, and having more consistent language that gamers can use. But they can also be a trap that confines what we think is possible. If we think too strictly in terms of genres, particularly as designers, we can blind ourselves from seeing and pursuing genre-breaking game concepts.
Part 2 - The Dueling Pianos: Simulation vs. Game
Complexity does not equal depth
If there is one point I hope to get across in this article it is the above line. I think there is a misconception in the 4X community that the only way to have a deep game is to have a bunch of complex systems all intertwined into some giant mechanical monstrosity. But depth in decision-making is different from the complexity of the game. Decision depth is an emergent property of the gameplay that comes about as players are required to make tough trade-offs; whether that be in allocating resources, making diplomatic arrangements, positioning forces, or advancing your empire.
As I’ve written about before, decision depth (at a particular decision point) is a function of the major trade-offs or factors at work in influencing your decision and evaluating its potential outcomes. These factors can be economic, spatial, or intuitional in nature. For example: how to use a limited pool of strategic resources (e.g. casting points in Age of Wonders); or where to stage your military forces to maintain map control or chokepoints; or what diplomatic arrangements to pursue with what foreign powers. Complexity only serves to increase actual decision depth, and not merely the challenge of identifying or evaluating such decisions, when it makes these strategic (or tactical) factors more ambiguous.
The “deepest” choices are when players are faced with two or more equally viable or valuable appearing options and the player needs to rely on their experience and heuristics to make the right decision. Complexity, if it does not provide adequate feedback to the player to help build their heuristics (e.g. methods of effective play) simply makes choices harder to identify or evaluate and actually inhibits players from engaging with any potential depth. It might “feel” like the game is deep because it is mentally challenging - but these sorts of optimization hurdles are a pretense to getting to a decision point, not a decision point on their own.
In the worst situations, complexity can backfire when you’ve “figured it out” only to realize that at the end of the tunnel the actual decisions are obvious; that the game is an optimization puzzle of sorts and not really a game. An often used metric for a game’s depth is how many levels of skill there are among players (e.g. Chess rankings). If there is just one or two large skill levels (e.g. “I have it sort of figured out” versus “I’ve figured it all out!”) then it ultimately isn’t a deep game even if it has taken considerable effort to understand. Once you know the formula for success and can apply that every time the game will be short lived in terms of real depth.
Pacing & Flow
The 3MA’s podcast spent some time discussing issues of pacing and flow in 4X games, noting that pacing is key to making games fun in a “one more turn” sense as well as to making the “arc” of a game as it moves from the opening exploration to late-game victory exciting. Sadly, this an area of 4X game design that is perhaps the hardest to do well, especially for many of the newer indie studios making their first foray into game design. Many of the genre favorites are classics, I feel, for the very reason that they got the pacing right and kept players engaged throughout.
One way of evaluating the pacing and flow of a game is consider the types of actions that players can take. I’ve identified four general types of actions that range from most to least engaging and interesting (at least for me!):
1. Strategic Decisions - These are high levels decisions about your strategy, such as what victory condition to work towards, what mid- to long-range goals you are establishing (e.g. what opponents to ally with or fight), where to colonize next, what geographic areas are strategically important to control, etc.
2. Tactical Decisions/Actions - These are important decision points and/or actions that are taken to resolve your strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. For example, how you assemble an army or fleet and which general route they take or how you allocate the use of a limited strategic resource. These decisions can exist at the strategic scale as well as the tactical scale (if there is one in the game).
3. Optimization Activities - Should I build my research lab and then my production facility, or production then lab? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and depending on the complexity can be very challenging or relatively easy. Some players really enjoy these sorts of activities, other don’t. For example, I’d argue that ship building is a protracted optimization activity to construct ship/fleet to accomplish a particular tactical or strategic objective that you’ve previously identified. Adjusting the allocation of worker populations is likewise an optimization task, there is often one best solution/approach for a given strategic goal.
4. Managerial Upkeep/Overhead Activities - Last are routine management and/or upkeep tasks that require attention to move the game forward. Things like keeping unit/building queues up-to-date, remembering to build transports every few turns, upgrading ship designs to use lasers 2 instead of lasers 1, clearing notifications so you can process the next turn, pathfinding your forces to a given rally point, etc.
I feel that better games maximize the amount of hands-on time spent with #1 and #2 relative to #4. #3 (optimization) is more a matter of player tolerance, although personally I don’t like too much emphasis on optimization. The point here is that good pacing keeps players engaged by giving them meaningful strategic decisions on frequent intervals, rather than abandoning players to long stretches of just managing the consequences of a decision. When too many of the decisions in a game are trivial or obvious (often too many #3 or #4 actions), the game can feel far less deep and engaging. Streamlining the design, and providing ease-of-play automation that doesn’t detract from legitimate decision making is important.
Narrative Arc & Goals
The “narrative arc” of a game does not refer to it’s actual plot or storyline, but rather to the structure of the game itself as a story; with an opening, middle, and late-game phase that culminates in (hopefully) a well-earned and awarded victory. While good pacing is key to making the gameplay engaging and flow well, the overall narrative arc of the game helps shape your memory of the experience. Good games are memorable games.
How many times do we start a 4X game only to abandon the session part way through when it becomes obvious who is going to win or lose? In my mind, games that push us towards aborting a game early fail to provide a compelling narrative arc. If we already know how the story ends, we don’t bother finishing it. Creating an interesting narrative arc is undoubtedly a challenge, and is wrapped up intimately with the goals and victory conditions of the game.
In my experience, a lot of 4X game developers, particularly newer ones, don’t spend enough time (for whatever reason) refining the narrative arc to create excitement. Snowball & steamroller issues are part of the problem that push games towards a foregone conclusion: the player that optimizes early exploration is best positioned to expand/exploit the best, and hence best positioned to exterminate their opponents with no counter-threat. So addressing this issue is critical.
The victory conditions in the game are also a vital part of the narrative arc - and ideally the game is designed such that all players are kept in a state of tension all the way to victory. Runaway leaders and foregone conclusions are not much fun, but if you can counteract snowballing by providing alternative ways to achieve victory (perhaps as a high risk, high reward option) then it can help to keep the game close. Age of Wonders 3, while remaining focused on warfare (as a 4X-lite), combines typical conquest with a leader assassination and king-of-the-hill style victory options. A player that is steamrolling militarily can be eliminated from behind by killing their leader and capturing the throne city. Alternatively, other players can grab seal points and force the steamrolling player to divert focus away from conquest and claim seals instead.
The 3MA’s podcast further criticized the typical conquest, research, economic, etc. victory system used in so many games because it tends to put game mechanics into silos. If you only care about research and can otherwise defend yourself, you just focus on research until the end of the game and aren’t really incentivized to engage with the other elements of the game. These disconnected goals lead to a sort of disconnected play experience that doesn’t culminate in an interesting closure to the narrative. Achieving victory tends not to signify much beyond hitting an artificial threshold before your opponents, there is little thematically memorable about it. And for games that can take dozens of hours to play, the drab “victory screens” are a further taint on the experience.
At the end of the day, the narrative arc should culminate in an exciting and hard-fought win, not a tedious grind to an inevitable victory. 4X games need to pay serious attention to victory conditions and how these set the stage for a compelling arc and drive the gameplay forward.
Tension Point: Simulation Toy vs. Strategy Game
Keith Burgun recently wrote a thought provoking article, Videogames are Broken Toys, about how many so-called games might actually be better understood (and hence designed) as toys instead of games. To a certain extent I agree. I think about open sandbox games like the Elder Scrolls or the X-series, and indeed they are very “toy-like.” They are an environment for interaction, where the player can establish their own goals and interact with the systems to whatever extent they want.
I have a pet theory about 4X gamers, which is that there are two camps of preferences (which occasionally intermingle in the night). One set of preferences is for detail and “simulation” - and you often see people clamoring for the ability to micromanage 1000’s of colonies across a vast intergalactic empire. Another sentiment is that some people “love watching the galaxy unfold” into a living dynamic system. Indeed, Distant Worlds seems to be the darling game here, where you can literally automate everything and watch your empire take on its own life. Likewise, the player is at liberty to engage with whatever part of the system they want to, and automate the rest. In my mind, these are both very “toy-like” notions, and the more complex and intricate the toy, the more it people enjoy manipulating it.
The other set of preference is more aligned towards a fair, competitive, strategy “game”. Here, streamlining and simplification is tolerated (and even preferred) when it brings the decisions and their consequences to the forefront of play, even at the expense of simulation realism. More clear-cut discrete choices that rely less on complexity and more on transparency is important. As a “game,” feedback on what worked or didn’t work, via the UI or reporting, is vitally important to building heuristics and better strategies. To use Keith Burgun’s terms, a game is a “contest of decision making” - and the more focused the gameplay is around those key decision making points, the more successful it is as a strategy game.
All in all, a game’s leans towards simulation or “game” has ramifications for the complexity, pacing, and narrative arc of a game. Individuals will all have a different preference points between these poles, and I suppose the insight for developers is to consider carefully their intended audience and how they can craft the best experience (narrative arc) within that context. Getting this right takes no small amount of effort, and in a way it is unfortunate that so many games are released in the genre missing this key stage of refinement or leaving it to post-release development.
Breaking out of Orbit
Rooted in the Past & The MoO2 Conundrum
A tension in the 4X genre (and the videogame industry as a whole) from a marketability standpoint is that innovation is risky and tried and true designs sell better. We see this as evidence for successful games being serialized or reimplemented under a different guise. It is amazing to me that some of the mechanics seen in the early civ games or Master of Orion 2 (like allocating workers in a city) has remained a hallmark of the genre 20-some years later. How many recent or upcoming space 4X games are trying to snatch the MoO2 mantle? Why are we still clinging to a Civ template?
The 3MA’s podcast was suggesting that the genre is stuck in a bit of a catch-22. The biggest market opportunity is rehashing (or modernizing) a proven design concept – yet indie and AAA studios alike often fail in this endeavor. Either the polish and execution is off, or the developers just didn’t understand why some of the older titles worked successfully and replicate those lessons their own game (e.g. Alpha Centauri to Beyond Earth = fail).
For games striving to be more revolutionary and innovative, unless the game is exceptionally polished and well-made, the audience is even smaller and the marketability even less. Without a bigger budget (production values, marketing, attention, etc.), innovative titles that are amazing in concept often fail in the execution due to buggy launches, crude UI’s, unengaging graphics, lack of press coverage, and so forth. Many indie games, whether going innovative or more traditional in their design, are barely able to get a feature complete release together, let alone do the necessary refinements to the pacing and narrative arc to make the games stand out in comparison to the old classics.
I am increasingly feeling that the era of Early Access and the expectation of post-release development is partly to blame for why games seem to come up short. During the heyday of the 90’s, a game needed to be very solid at release because most people would never patch (or even know to look for a patch assuming it was possible) once they brought it home. The game was the game, for good or bad. And people also frequently waited for reviews to come out before purchasing, so they would know whether they were about to step into a buggy mess or not. As a consequence, a LOT of time was spent polishing and balancing before launch to make sure the gameplay was as genuinely compelling as it could be, that there was ample room for real strategizing, and that the AI provided real opposition.
With Early Access and games being released well-before their time becoming the norm, it just paints a poor picture of the entire genre. How many 4X games come out with bad reviews but are eventually patched or expanded to be great games a year or more down the line? A lot of games are improved and turned from bad or mediocre to great – but in this situation you’ve lost your ability to reach a wider audience with a positive launch and you’ll never make-up the lost sales. All of this poor perception keeps the genre as a niche; the mainstream crowds don’t have much tolerance for waiting.
Of course, Early Access and crowdfunding is largely responsible for enabling indie devs to get to market in the first place, adding their take on the genre. Without these tools, we would likely see far less diversity and innovation than we do now. So I don’t intend to be overly critical of these new tools either. A lof of games seem to go into Early Access before being feature complete, and get released soon after being “feature complete” - which really doesn’t leave enough time in my opinion for polish and balance with all the systems in place.
Reimagining the Challenge, Asymmetrically of Course
I feel like we are, perhaps, on the precipice of a new era of 4X games. Should we manage to secure a few good (or exemplary) reimplementations of past favorites, e.g. our darling Master of Orion modernized, it might leave the door open for pursuing alternative styles of 4X games. And a number of games have been released or are under development that are exploring new asymmetric designs as a way to provide a novel experience to players while still building on the 4X language. One of the primary goals of such endeavors is to get around the typical need for competent, human-like AI opposition. Without a strong AI to challenge and pressure the player, so many 4X games just feel flat and underwhelming. So if you can’t change the AI, change the game.
Jon Shafer’s “At the Gates” is one such game, where the player is primarily responsible for leading a migrating city around the map, absorbing different clans along the way. The opposition comes from various external threats, none of which are intended to be analogous to the player. Similarly, Arcen Game’s AI War pits the player as a tiny flee-of-an-empire against a vastly bigger AI empire, requiring the player to build up without gaining too much attention from the less-than-friendly AI. Keith Burgin’s iOS title “Empire” has the player managing cities that deplete their natural surroundings and must constantly be relocating, yet this is set against the backdrop of a growing corruption that will eventually overwhelm the player and lead to their defeat. The challenge is to see how long you can live - and much like a game of Tetris, eventually time runs out.
These Aren’t the Boardgames You Are Looking For
Another trend that I’ve been seeing is more reference to digital games that use “boardgame-like” mechanics in their design. While what constitutes boardgame-like is a topic all of its own, I think part of it comes down to transparency, streamlining, and providing fewer but more challenging decisions. For 4X games, this relates to the earlier section on complexity and depth. Boardgames, by virtue of having to be “processed” by the players at the table tend to be far more transparent in how their mechanics work, and create depth through challenging situations rather than relying on complexity alone as a stand-in for depth. The effective depth-to-weight ratio is higher for most boardgames than video games I feel.
Curiously, 4X games have their roots in boardgames from the 70’ and 80’s (as does Civilization). With a number of highly successful 4X boardgames (Eclipse in particular, also available on iOS) showing what is possible in a non-digital format, perhaps it is an opportunity for 4X video game designers to look back over the fence and learn a few tips. Perhaps, by streamlining games but maintaining the depth, we can make 4X games more accessible to a broader audience or even make it easier to build competitive AI’s. Unfortunately, one recent title, Sid Meier’s Starships, missed the mark and its claim to have been influenced boardgames suggests that maybe it was looking at the wrong boardgames. But there is hope.
On Finding Greater Meaning
The 3MA’s podcast discussed to topic of meaning in 4X games, which is a great final point to this long-winded article. In short, they commented on the notion that at the core all of these 4X games are really the “same game.” They are all an embodiment of a colonial-era manifest to become the supreme lord of the manor. On one hand this isn’t surprising given the “ingredients” of the 4X genre of exploring and laying claim to unknown lands and exterminating your way to victory. But this begs the question - can the genre do more?
What is it that compels us to relive the same narrative over and over in different flavors or via a slightly more polished implementation? Why must it always end in blood or economic monopolization or diplomatic unity? Can or should the genre be an opportunity to speak to a different, perhaps post-colonial, narrative? This prompts bigger questions about meaning in video games and to what extent games can provide a greater commentary on the human condition beyond tickling our fancies. What happens after we conquer the planet? In a way, Burgun’s “Empire” is a reminder that all of our civilizations will eventually crumble to dust and be replaced with something else - I’d like to see more games put the player in those reflective situations.
I also remain eternally fascinated by my relatively recent discovery of King of Dragon Pass, which is a sort of mash-up between a clan management, 4X, and a choose your own adventure. Here is a game where the player is not an omnipotent ruler of their domain, but a single person with only so much time in the day for making decisions and taking actions. It is a 4X game of sorts, but the perspective is shifted and the entire tone is immediately more immersive and reflective. Could such an approach be applied to a more traditional 4X title? Could it sell?
A Menagerie of Tension
To sum up, the 4X genre is fraught with tensions. Some are internal to the design of the games themselves, such as the balance between simulation and streamlining or designing an open sandbox versus a tight strategy game with a compelling narrative. Other tensions relate to the legibility of the genre itself and the extent to which 4X is even a useful term, or whether the sub-genres can gain traction as a shorthand. Yet more tensions exist in the marketability of 4X games, with the drive to pay homage to the past and take on less risky (more profitable?) projects or to tackle more revolutionary design concepts. And of course, there is tension in the development process of the game’s themselves and the mixed-messages and needs of Early Access and crowd-funding.
My hope is that cunning developers can navigate all of this. We can each imagine our perfect game (or games!). And should the genre grow and mature the chance of that one game being made goes up, somewhere, somehow. There might be more chaff along the way, but it’s the dream that keeps us sifting through the broken shards of glass. And if all else fails you can always set sail and try to make your own game right?!
Phew! Spring is getting underway here in Michigan, which means the grill has been dragged out of the
dungeon garage and we are all finally able to walk outside without fear of falling ice, jackets, avalanches, and little slippery spots on the sidwalks. But you all have questions: What about the blog?! What about the games?! What are are you doing there behind the curtain? Watch in awe as I interview myself:
Alter Ego: This IS still a blog that talks about boardgames right?
Oliver: Yes, yes, yes. My boardgaming has, as previously mentioned, taken a bit of a backseat this past year - a situation I hope to remedy soon. That said, it hasn't been all devoid of activity in this arena. My wife and I have been playing an awful lot of Backgammon over a pint throughout these past few months. Backgammon is one of those great pastime games. While no doubt it can be thinky and cut-throat, and brutal, it's also quite relaxing to chuck the dice and move your pieces about the board.
Backgammon a great risk management game, that works in a sort of paradoxically backward feeling way. Taking risks, which usually means leaving a single (capture-able) piece in its own stack, also affords greater flexibility as the more spread out your pieces are the more potential ways you have to use your die results. "Playing it safe" is often the more risky move because you can work yourself into a corner that requires specific die rolls to get you out. So it's an interesting balance between order and chaos, and I like the unspoken tacit agreements between players about how chaotic or not you are willing to let a particular session go. It's fun.
I've also been playing a fair amount of King of Tokyo with my now 4-year hold. We actually manage to play the mostly correct and to it's conclusion (although usually we only play to 10 victory points because of a thing called bedtime). She has a soft spot in her heart for Mecha-Dragon, and I of course "have" to chose The Kraken every ... single ... time ... but that's okay with me. Everyone loves a good Kraken.
Beyond the above, I've managed a few games of Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, which is truthfully one of my favorite games. I wrote about it while ago here. Then there's the obligatory evening sessions of Emu Ranchers.
Alter Ego: I've heard that you've designed boardgames. Up to any new design projects?
Oliver: As a matter of fact, I have been kicking this ball around a little more. An interesting thread in the Hegemonic forums prompted me to spill the beans that my current secret project is an expansion for Hegemonic. Nothing official has been discussed as far as making this a produced product, and I am in the early stages of prototyping. As things develop and a I get a better draft of materials put together, I'll likely send out a "who wants to PnP-Playtest this thing?!" type of message into the ether.
As far as what the expansion is trying to accomplish; it's tricky. On one hand, there were a bunch of ideas on the cutting room floor that were pulled out from the original design that would be interesting to see they could be woven back in. For example, the idea of building up "industry" opening up some sort of real trade-opportunities for players. The expansion is also an opportunity to revisit some of the existing mechanics and tweak things based on now a fair amount of feedback from players and critics and alike. There are some balance improvements that I'm tinkering with for example. Last - I've always wanted to add a solo mode to the game design and wrap it around, perhaps, a new victory condition based on the idea of Transcendence. We'll see ...
To give an example of one feature I'm developing is an addition to the exploration mechanics that add a special location token to tiles as they are added to the board, based on the player choosing a type of token to place. These tokens are up for grabs for anyone, and can provide a range of different abilities or effects when used. Sets can be collected and used for VP's (perhaps) as well, but more importantly players' industrial power gives them the ability to make trade requests (or force or block trade deals) of these resources.
I seems that solo gaming is really taking off in recent times, and I'd love to work out a solo-rule set for Hegemonic. I've always thought the "AI Robot" in Race for the Galaxy was a stroke of genius, and I'd like to follow in those vootsteps and develop something similar. I somewhat obsessed with the idea of making an empire building game where as you build up your empire towards ultimate transcendence, there is some external threat that is growing stronger and stronger. The player is then in a race against the clock to achieve some challenging goal before they get overwhelmed by superior force, and have to constantly chose between investing in the goal versus investing in keeping the threat at bay to buy them time. If I could work this concept into Hegemonic, I think it could be pretty awesome.
Recently, I posted live and open links to the Emissary files (cards with the space theme) in hopes of drumming up more feedback. I'm also trying to decide what to do with the game. I really like it as is, and don't want to mess with it too much beyond smoothing out a few rough parts. But then what? Do I try to pitch it? Minion Games might be interested in it as a spin-off to Hegemonic. Alternatively, I might try to run a very small kickstarter and test the waters there. But that's a lot of work, and I'm not sure if I want to take that plunge.
Alter Ego: What's this I hear about "Explorminate?"
Oliver: Ahh, I was hoping that I would ask myself that question!
Explorminate is a newish website bringing you "4X News from 4X Fans," and of course we're talking about 4X video games now. You know, the Civilizations, Master of Orionses, and Master of Magicses of the world. Anyway, it's a great group and a quickly growing community that is focused in on the 4X game genre.
I've also started doing some writing for them, with the first contribution being a review of Triumph Studio's Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords expansion. If you don't know, I've raved about Age of Wonders III in the past, and it has remained my most played videogame in the past many years. The new Eternal Lords expansion was just released and is the second expansion for the game. The game really just keeps getting better and better, and I'm completely smitten with it. If you have any interest in 4X games (particularly one focused on warfare and having the best tactical combat system of any 4X game ever) - then you really need to check out Age of Wonders III. It's also on sale on steam right now ...
Alter Ego: ... Ahh! See! I knew you were trying to turn this blog into a 4X game blog! Seriously, spill the beans. Come out with the truth. How many 4X games have you been playing lately!?
Oliver: Yes, it's true - I'm succumbing to the dark side. Let me lay it out ...
This is a great time be interested in the 4X games, with so many recently or soon to be released titles in the mix. Take a look at this Known 4X-like database I've been putting together from various sources for a gander. Quite a bit going on.
Star Drive 2 and Star Ruler 2 are two of the newest, with the former perhaps best viewed as a modern take on the Master of Orion formula and the latter a more innovative departure from the typical formula. Star Ruler 2 has an interesting "connect the dots" system of empire building, coupled with a clever card driven diplomatic mini-game. I'm really just getting my feet wet with both titles, but the are each compelling in their own way.
That said, I still have a lot of frustrations with the genre. A recent podcast from Three Moves Ahead on 4X games raised a number of issues with the genre and tried to tease apart why so few games seem to be moving the ball forward. On one hand, the audience for 4X games so often clamors "we want an updated Master of Orion!" (see Star Drive 2 or Starbase Orion), and this backwards looking drive keeps the genre in a sort of stasis.
On the other hand there are some developers trying to push the edge and do something different. The Three Moves Ahead fellows talked about the dominant paradigm of 4X games being on of colonialism - it's all about expanding under the auspice of manifest destiny. Well, what does or could a post-colonialism 4X game look like? What about changing the role of the player from omnipotent overlord to a person with only so much time in the day to get things done (ala King of Dragon Pass)?
I have my own far more detailed thoughts on the matter, that all points towards a hypothetical game I'd like to make. Look for that soon!
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