Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here: https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/58777/index

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Making a Game Shorter

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I find that more games would benefit from being shorter, than from being longer. It's very rare to hit the end of a game and think "I wish this'd go on for another dozen turns". Sometimes "I wish this'd go on for one more turn" but I think that's intentional on the part of a designer who's hoping to transmute that into "lets play again." So, since we're more likely to want to make a game shorter rather than longer, let's talk about how to do that!

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As any surgeon will tell you, it's best not to remove something unless you've got a really good idea of exactly what you're trying to remove and why. So let's look at how time is spent during the typical game and then see how we can cut down on different parts of it.

1 Agreeing what game to play
2 Learning or remembering the rules
3 Setting the game up
4 Waiting for the other players to finish their turns
5 Deciding what to do on my turn
6 Executing the decisions on my turn
7 Repeating steps 4-6 until someone wins
8 Either putting the game away or resetting for another game

I've never come across a game that makes step one easier. Gamers need to have smaller collections and stronger preferences (but never strong preferences that contradict other gamers). I predict that any length in this step is a universal constant, more so than taxes, slightly less so than death.

Step two is easy to overlook - learning the rules is a one time cost, so any saving is a one time saving - is that a justified place to be working if you want your game to be short in general? Well, maybe, it could be that people's first experience will affect how they play the game in the future and if you want your game to feel pacey launching right into it is for the best. However generally first time learning, while an important issue, isn't the solution to this problem.

Remembering on the other hand is different. I saw a doozy of a post on a reddit thread the other day, which I'd paraphrase as:

"If I ever make a game the front cover is going to say: 'If you are coming back to these rules because you've played before and forgotten something: The starting hand is four cards, the game is nine turns long, the winner is the player with the most money and cards combined.'"

How many times do you go back to rulebooks for that sort of thing? There's a neat implicit point buried in there that except for people's absolute top games there tends to be a bit of rules re-learning whenever you come back to a game. Simply having nicer reference cards or player aids can shave a bit of time off this process (and also save time in game when players pause play to check a rule). Player aids are great.

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Step three: Setup is also a place where it's possible to save a bit of time. Look at the individual processes for setting up a game and ask three questions
1) Could this be faster?
2) Could more people do this?
3) Is this necessary?

Speeding up setup can often be achieved by making the components physically more convenient. Having one type of counter be a hex where another is a circle so that they're separated more rapidly. Or having an icon on each card that needs to be pulled out of a deck so it's faster to leaf through and take them out (This icon should be on a corner, which makes it much easier to do at speed).

Games are played by several people, but often set up by one. I hear the exchange "Can I help?" "Not really" quite often, what's meant by that is "The thing I could ask you to do would take more time for me to explain than for me to do it myself." If some tasks can be more "offload friendly" then setup gets faster even if each individual step is the same.

The third step is more involved with the rest of your game - but is something we'll keep coming back to. Looking at parts of your game and asking "Is this necessary?" can lead to removing something. Removing something saves time in setup and in play. It's also possible to take something out of setup and into play which isn't quicker, but can feel quicker because the time spent is more engaging rather than busy work. Examples of this being implemented successfully are in games that don't have a pre-game map building segment and instead ask players to take it in turns to lay out pieces of the game - encouraging them to do so for their own advantage such that the competition has already begun.

Step four: Waiting for other players to take their turns...

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You probably shouldn't be approaching this as part of a game length issue. If players are spending significant time waiting and are not engaged during that time you've got a whole different problem to "The game is too long." You're dealing with its unpleasant cousin "The game is too tedious."

Still, a quick reminder couldn't hurt: Minimise downtime! Try to make it so that players are actually *doing* something during their opponents turns. If you can't then at least make it possible for them to plan their next move.

Which brings us neatly on to five: Deciding what to do. For some games this is actually the longest step of the game, with players spending more time thinking about playing the game then actually playing it. That can be a really good sign - but it can also be a sign that the game is making decisions inconvenient.

In addition to encouraging players to plan off turn (By avoiding randomisers early in the turn sequence and wild swings that change everything) you can try to make sure that players have meaningful choices and good information. Your players shouldn't be having to consider a bunch of options that aren't relevant to their situation - "Is this necessary?" remains a great question to ask. If it turns out that choosing whether to aim or not results in the same overall chances of success then remove that decision point from your game. Players will use information to make their decisions - you know how some games have a player announce when they're one point away from victory? That's to speed up play by avoiding having players recount the score every turn (Two lesser versions of this are: The victory track clearly shows how many points everyone's got at all times and victory points are hidden so you can't count the bloody things).

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So we've over a thousand words into an article on making things short and we're finally ready to address: Actually playing the game!

Here you want to look at how each action is resolved and look for ways to make it faster. There are two parts to this: One is looking for useless chum to remove, the second is acknowledging that some component actions are faster than others and trying to use them.

"Is this necessary?" remains a great question. It's surprising how many games work just as well with something that might be considered "core" removed from them. If one particular action takes a long time to do, see how well you can work without it. Suppose you have a 4X game and when two fleets meet you simulate a detailed battle between them - what happens if you resolve the entire engagement with a single die roll? Sometimes it hurts the game and the simulation was necessary for the exploration and exploitation to feel worth it - other times it speeds up the game tremendously at almost no cost.

The worst offender I ever saw for this was a mechanic that was resolved by shuffling a deck and drawing a card - where playtesting had caused card types to be removed from the deck one by one until only one type of card existed. Get rid of the deck and just rule on what happens!

Component speed is a different issue, but also worth considering. There's a hierarchy in how long things take to do: "search the deck for any card", "roll a die" and "move a piece one space" take different amounts of time. There might not be much in it as an individual operation, but when you're describing things that people are doing every turn, possibly several times per turn, then it makes a difference.

Reducing the number of operations also makes a difference. Does anything happen if your roll to hit succeeds but your roll to damage fails? If not, why are you rolling twice? At very least you could throw the dice at the same time rather than sequentially.

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Which brings us to where most people trying to cut a game short typically start: Repeat this loop until someone wins.

If someone can win in fewer turns then the game will be shorter. This often feels like a magic bullet, but your game's length is broadly:

Game Length = Setup + (Turn length x Number of turns)

So reducing the number of turns has a smaller impact at shorter turn lengths and vice-versa. Often attempting too extreme a reduction in either category will sorely hurt a game, so looking for ways to cut down on turn length and number of turns to a more moderate degree can leave you with a better game than trying to gouge either.

The method for reducing the number of turns will depend upon the properties of your game. If you're playing to a score, then a smaller score. If you're playing to the elimination of a faction then more fragile factions (possible via a smaller map). If you're playing until a deck runs out then fewer cards in the deck (or more drawn per turn). It should be fairly self evident what approach is required depending upon your ending condition.

Remember that what you're looking at is the difference between your start state and your ending condition, rather than the absolute value of the ending condition. So if a game is played to 10 VPs it may be that rather than reducing that to 8VPs you could start players with 2VPs worth of assets. Are your playtesters more engaged at the start or end of the game? When choosing which side to shave some time off, be sure to shave from the part of the game that's generating less enjoyment.

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That brings us to the end of the important stuff. The only step left unmentioned is the time spent clearing a game away or resetting for another round - which is unimportant to the experienced length of most games.

However if your game is short and intended to be played dozens of times in a session then it's worth devoting a little bit of thought to how it might be achieved. How much needs to be separated? How many things need to be shuffled? Are there ways to reduce them? Perhaps - but it's a rare game that takes this as its primary focus.

So, this was my long article on making shorter games Bear in mind that shorter isn't always better and not every game wants to be minuscule, but it's always worth bearing in mind that game length is a choice, not an immutable fact. Happy gaming, whether you prefer short or long ones.
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Fri Aug 25, 2017 4:20 pm
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A Game Designer at a Comics Convention

Greg
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So a little while back I went to Comicon to show off the Scandinavia and the World game. Since we're launching in just a couple of weeks now seems like an excellent time to talk about that - but what I really want to talk about is how to be a fish out of water. I've done plenty of board gaming conventions, but the comic convention was something entirely different. I may have been the only person demoing a board game in the room (I might not have been - but in any event there weren't many). So let me tell you the ways in which it was different and what I'd recommend to a game designer who's going to be the only board game person at a convention in the future.

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The venue was pretty much the same as any other convention. I had a bit of table, people are walking past looking at all of the neat things, all of the main things that define running a stand at a convention were pretty much the same as normal. Where there were differences it was in the people - but conventions are mostly about the people so that's a big difference.

As will become increasingly obvious as I post photos, everyone looked fantastic! While a games convention isn't populated by people who have gone out of their way to worry about how they look, the comics convention was full of people who've spent months preparing the perfect costume. Not everyone was taking this approach, but I couldn't help but feel later in the day while I was playing someone dressed as Gambit at a card game (which I'm sure made me at least 10% more cautious than I'd usually be) - perhaps I could've picked an appropriate game related getup.

It's probably futile to say "Also learn what everyone else might be dressed as" because of the sheer number of characters that there are. However speaking to a couple of people going and getting an idea of what might be popular seems like a good idea. I'm pretty sure that I offended someone by misidentifying their costume and "I called you the wrong thing" can come across as "The costume you put effort into is bad and I can't tell what it is" rather than "I have literally never encountered the character you're dressed as". I suppose my advice for people going forwards would be don't guess until you've established enough of a rapport that it'll be okay to be wrong.

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I don't want to talk much more about costumes, because it's only a skin deep thing and not the most important part of being a board game designer at Comicon, but it's worth a small mention that some types of costume make things more challenging. Not being able to make eye contact with someone is quite disconcerting. Gloves make it harder to handle components. Sweeping sleeves have an inherent desire to clear the table if a player has to reach for something in the middle of the table.

Think about these things when you lay out your stand. If necessary make things inconvenient for yourself in order to make it easier for people who may have a costume disadvantage. For instance by the halfway point I'd got used to either putting draw decks nearer the far side of the table rather than in the middle, or adapting play slightly so that the host hands out cards rather than a player needing to draw them.

So let's move from something quite superficial to something that had a big impact: While there were obviously board game fans around and there was a space in which people were playing board games, almost nobody was demoing them on their stand. Being the only demo game in town has advantages and drawbacks.

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A surprisingly big one was: We had chairs. On which people could sit. People who are walking around a large convention floor for an extended period of time would do basically anything if it involved sitting down. While I believe in the game I'm working on and think it's great fun, I suspect that this was one of the main reasons that I barely had a couple of minutes go by without starting a new demo game for the whole con. Perhaps the most useful piece of advice for doing this sort of thing would be: Get more chairs than you think you need.

Another is the novelty value. People are expecting to look at a lot of pretty things and speak to people about awesome things, but they're not really expecting to get to do the thing. It'd be super rude to sit in front of someone's comic stand and read one of their comics from cover to cover and then leave without buying anything, most people wouldn't do it (I'm sure some people do because people are terrible). Getting to join in with a thing and actively engage with it is an activity that you can offer as a game designer and that generates a certain amount of interest.

There is a downside to the novelty though: A lot of the people joining for games weren't gamers. Now on some level's that is perfect for this game, it's aimed at a webcomic audience and doing tests outside of usual playtest groups is desperately important. However it also means that people handle things differently. An audience that's used to thinking of a card as a critical piece of a £80 game that will ruin the game if it's destroyed and an audience that's used to thinking of a card as a disposable thing from an easily replaced £2 deck of playing cards treat cards differently. There's more bending, folding, spindling and mutilating. There's more happiness about holding them alongside drinks or other miscellaneous sticky things. The prototype did not really survive the weekend - so that's another lesson: Carry one more spare prototype than you think you need if you're not dealing with a predominantly gaming audience.

Overall though, the trade off is more than worth it. An advantage I didn't expect to encounter was that for a while I found it easier to work on the game. The novelty of the surrounding meant that people approached it with greater enthusiasm and (hopefully) the quality of the game carried that feeling through the play. Seeing people get enthusiastic about a game is one of my main motivations to design, so it always gives me a boost.

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For this convention I was partnered with the Scandinavia and the World team and in truth what I've been referring to as "my table" was really the last few feet of their impressive display. I think it helped a lot to be connected to a webcomic stand, because people would look at all of the things they had out on display and I provided a handy "Would you like to see more? We have a game you can play" when there were no more things to look at and someone else was already looking through the box of prints. I think if I was going to do this again it'd be nice to be partnered with someone. If I had a game that had the Comicon folks as its target audience but wasn't linked to a specific webcomic I might still look to do a deal with an existing exhibitor to go to the convention together. Perhaps commissioning them for a piece of art to put onto a promo card or something like that. It was definitely good to be working with decent people throughout the convention.

All in all it wasn't that different to a regular day demoing at a games convention - but the small differences mattered and I could have been better prepared. Hopefully if you ever do anything similar you'll find some useful advice in this article. Happy gaming in unusual places
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Sat Aug 19, 2017 1:55 pm
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I'm so random

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Discussing the removing luck post, we wound up talking about sources of randomness. It's suggested that players are a source of randomness in otherwise deterministic games, that's an interesting idea I'd like to dig into.

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Let's start by getting to the root of what a random factor is. When people say "random" they don't mean it in the literal sense - the roll of a die is deterministic. You throw it at a certain angle with a specific force onto a particular surface. A physicist with a lot of time on their hands and nothing better to do might be able to simulate the outcome of your roll, given enough information about it.

The most common crutch is to say that when people talk about something being "random" in games, they mean that it is "unpredicatable". However I don't think that stands up either, I cannot predict my opponents 48th move in a game of chess from the starting point, but it a game that most people are happy to call "no randomness" and practically everyone will call "low randomness".

I'd be inclined to define it as factors that are beyond the control of either player - but that's cheating since I'd be including a conclusion ("Players aren't random factors") in a premise ("Where random factors are defined as things that are not players") which is extremely bad form.

When people think about randomness I'm not sure that there is a consistent logical construct that can be defined. It's more a combination of unpredictability and uncontrollability, viewed with hindsight - where players don't see something coming, don't have the ability to meaningfully influence it and (once it's happened) don't feel like they even could have seen it coming or have influenced it - then they experience that thing as random.

At very least this fuzzy definition would explain why people will argue about whether cards are "more random" than dice or not

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So, looking at another player.

Hey you! You're one of those.

Looking at another player: Are they unpredictable and uncontrollable?

Let's start with unpredictable. Two things are immediately and obviously true: It is sometimes possible to predict what another player will do, yet it is not always possible to make that prediction.

More interestingly the degree to which they can be predicted varies depending on the attributes of the game in question. I can predict whether my opponent will open with their rook pawn in chess with much more accuracy than I can predict whether they will throw "scissors" in rock, paper, scissors.

Even in the most extreme examples, people are some degree of predictable. Opening moves in rock paper scissors are not distributed 33% 33% 33% - you may not be able to predict this specific opponent with complete accuracy, but nor are you completely blind.

Since how people perceive what counts as random, I question whether people's beliefs about randomness in other players are correlated with their ability to predict what people will do. I've written before about how different players will sometimes experience probability differently, with some players experiencing quite deterministic systems as being quite random because they struggle to understand them.

Most people don't understand most people.

Which is probably the cause of most of the things that are wrong with the world. My point is that I tend to know the people I play games with quite well and have got used to their habits. I'm also a doctor of psychology. It's possible that one reason for differences in opinion over whether players are randomisers is down to differences in capacities to predict players which in turn leads to their behaviour being seen as "predictable" or "random" as viewed through different lenses.

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Moving on to the issue of control - most games give you the capacity to indirectly control your opponents actions. The concept of a "forced move" is almost as old as gaming, sometimes your opponent must take a particular action or you will win. A game may even go as far as to codify a hard control of the form "If you make this move your opponent must respond in this way".

Obviously an opponent is providing no randomness if they don't make any actual choices because you have forced them all. Equally obviously a game in which that is actually possible (if one exists) is barely a game and is at best a solitaire game with an observer who's not permitted to leave. However once you move away from forcing a player to do something towards persuading them to, more realistic games come to mind.

This sort of soft control is particularly easy and impactful in high interaction multiplayer games. There are a lot of ways to influence people. Some of these are pretty subtle (Check out my first post in my geek of the week thread for an example of a relevant psych study that's pretty neat), others can be as blatant as saying "Cid is winning, you should attack Cid, all of the cool kids are attacking Cid."

Even in a two player game there are soft ways to manipulate an opponent. A lot of players will visibly react to their opponent considering actions that do or don't suit their plans. A smaller number of players will look for those reactions and base decisions on them. A subset of those will fake those reactions in an attempt to control the prior group. Heck, I've played in a game where a player has faked a reaction to a fake reaction in order to persuade the original faker than their faking has worked and to drive them towards a slightly suboptimal move in order to continue their bluff.

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So where does all of this leave us?

At the seemingly unsatisfying conclusion that whether players should be considered a random factor depends upon factors that change depending on the game being played and the nature of the players. Some players are better at predicting and controlling others, while some are not. Some groups have it as part of their social contract, where others expressly forbid it. Some games lend themselves to producing predictable, controllable behaviour - while others are the opposite. The question "Are players a source of randomness?" must be answered "Sometimes"

But I don't think this is an unsatisfying conclusion. Let me draw your attention to the important part: "depending on the game being played"

Thus we have yet another glorious spanner for the designer's toolbox. The extent to which players are used as a source of randomness is something we can mess with. Furthermore it is subject to the same effects as every other type of randomness, which has some neat features. For instance if you want to get that "Somewhat random factor that players think is a result of their skill" effect that some games use so well, this is a great way to do it.

Earlier I mentioned that the distribution of throws in Rock-Paper-Scissors isn't perfectly even - there's some non-random behaviour going on there. However it's still very largely unpredictable and here's a second statistic on that game: The average player believes that their win rate to be above 50%.

It's much harder to study and to see in playtesters (and a common cause of the 'tested on the same group of playtesters too often' problem) but if you can get your head around how your game is interacting with your players predictability and controllability you've got a neat tool to play with.

Happy random gaming!
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Tue Aug 8, 2017 2:51 pm
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Who are you?

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Most games don't care very much about who you are outside of the context of the game. We'll not be talking about those games today. Today is all about games that ask "Who are you?"

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A lot of games do this in a pretty trivial way. It's practically a tradition that games offer some daft methodology for deciding who goes first based on some irrelevant factor from who you are outside of the game: Pointiest ears, longest beard, most recently got sick ... whatever.

This is maybe good for a giggle, but doesn't serve any deeper purpose than getting the game going. Realising "get the game going" was the important part I came up with "The first player to ask who goes first goes first" which I'm pretty pleased with. But it doesn't do anything with identity.

The "first player" mechanic can be corrupted though. The famous (or infamous depending on how you see it) Train used the mechanic "The least trustworthy player goes first". Given that half way through the game it will be revealed that the player's are moving Jews to concentration camps this is less a "facilitating who goes first" so much as it is "foreshadowing". Especially the weird pride people can take in a good betrayal and how whatever they say in order to obtain that "first turn" might retrospectively sound in context of the game's reveal.

Dog eat Dog takes a more direct approach with "Richest player is the colonialist". I understand that an unwillingness to talk about money, income, savings etc. is a trait that's exaggerated in England, but that's still shared a lot in the world at large. At the very least it seems wrong to remind your friends that you're richer than they are in order to get an advantage in a game. In a lot of ways it's a game about wrongness and the game benefits from using a broader lens and saying "You, personally, outside of the context of the game, have advantages like this."

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There are also games that intrinsically bring in real world aspects of the players. Have you ever sat down to play Werewolf with a group of friends who know each other but not the game?

You'll hear people making accusations along the lines of "It's probably Jane. She's an excellent lair." These games bring in the player's relationships and beliefs about each other from outside the game.

Most of the examples I've given so far are games that are enhanced by drawing in elements from outside of the game. Either those that gain a degree of complexity beyond their mechanics by bringing in the wonderful, tangled, messy web of human relationships or those that create the emotional buy in necessary for them to work by leaning on real world priorities. However it's not always good.

For instance I had a game of Battlestar Galactica a few years ago in which I was sure someone was a cylon (or at least had an ulterior motive) because the strategy they were arguing was so bad that we would surely all lose if we begun to implement it. While the arguments were complex, as they can be, mine basically boiled down to "He must be a cylon because nobody is that incompetent."

I'm sure you can see where this story is going: They were not a cylon, they were just pretty bad at the game. The thing is that I wouldn't normally (and I suspect most people wouldn't normally) bluntly say to another player "You're really bad at this game, your ideas are terrible." It might be something that you choose to communicate in different terms, with an eye to helping someone improve, but you wouldn't just come out and say it that way.

But the structure of the game made it possible to conflate an in game action ("Trying to persuade the group to make a mistake") with an out of game state ("Not being good at this game") where those things require opposite responses - in the first case to highlight it and make sure other players on your team are reacting appropriately, in the second case not to draw any more attention to it than necessary.

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So having meandered to it, my point is this: Even if you're not intending to have your game interact with who your players are away from the table, it's something that might happen.

People care about who they are and what others think of them. That can be a huge source of power in games - for good or for ill. Not every game is going to want to play with that, in fact I can imagine that most games don't, but it's worth thinking about how it might be engaged deliberately or accidentally.

Consequences for fake people are hard to manage if you can't get people to "buy in". The corruption effects in the Lords of Waterdeep expansion typically don't have much emotional impact on players. The theme of the game is too abstract and there's not enough that engages a person's real world life choices to make them land with any weight. Which is fine - they're not meant to be moral choices - the game is primarily a euro.

Contrast this with reports I've had of Freedom: The Underground Railroad (which I've not had a chance to play yet - if you know me and have this drop me a message ) which is able to land a less abstract theme in a way that makes players care about the choices they make. Also the various Legacy games, which use long term consequences as a way of making players engage with ideas in a manner that goes beyond short term victory.

So if you've made a game and you want to make the "who are you really, away from this table while not playing games?" question important how can you do it?

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Well the most direct route is to simply directly include it as game mechanics. It's a blunt instrument but a card reading "Each player moves one space forward for each person they can name who they've made to cry." tells you something about the players and brings a specific type of their event to mind as a means to setting a mood.

Almost as blunt an instrument is simply asking people to describe their lives. "Wealthiest player is the colonist" takes part of its power from the fact that it obliges people to disclose things about their lives that they might otherwise choose not to. "Truth of Dare" is the archetype of games that do this and while terrible, has in it the kern of a good idea waiting to be harnessed by future designers.

The much more subtle but much harder to implement method is to make your players buy in to your world. There is a lot of literature on how to do this in computer games and it's orders of magnitude harder in board games because the designer controls so little of the player's experience: The room they're in, the company they're keeping, most decisions about how the game is player are all in the hands of the player not the designer.

None the less, if you can overcome these obstacles and get the players to buy in, you can do *anything*. Where you have abstracted blue chips and don't want to run out then you can go "Lets lose a blue chip now to get one a turn for three turns". Where your theme has landed "Do you want to throw a person into the grinder to prevent one starvation death each turn for three turns?" is a much tougher question that draws as much on people's ideas about their world as the abstract optimal strategy.

Which I think gets to the root of that sort of "buy in", because you're not only asking the players to buy in to the idea that the world is real and that their choices matter, but you also need them to "buy out" of the idea that winning is the objective and all choices should be oriented around an efficient path to victory. It's no accident that a lot of the games that do this well have a narrative focus where "telling a good story" and "enjoying the journey" are emphasised in the rules and design more than "winning".

So those are my thoughts on games that ask "Who are you?", where that question comes from, how it can be used and where it can make for better games. Try to keep a hold of the intangible nature of self while enjoying your happy gaming
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Thu Aug 3, 2017 3:51 pm
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Removing Luck

Greg
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Today's post is a thought experiment: Can we take a game that includes a degree of randomness and remove all luck? Does doing so improve it? What does this mean for game design?

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Let's start by simplifying the problem: We'll make the assumption that our original game is entirely deterministic except for die rolls and that we are going to remove those. We'll consider three games: Something simple, something that adds a social element and something that adds some complexity. Let's go with Snakes and Ladders, Liar's Dice and Titan.

Alright. Our first attempt to remove randomness with be the simplest: Let's assume continuous average rolls. The dice always come up 3.5. Actually better call it 4 because none of these games is going to handle a 0.5 particularly well.

Snakes and Ladders just became even more predictable. Depending on the layout of the board it's now either an infinite loop or victory will go to the first player. Assuming we lay out the board to avoid the infinite loop - what happens to the game?

Well the dominant strategy didn't change. The odds of any particular player winning didn't change (assuming we don't know who's first player before we start). The quality of the game changed though - its easy to get snobby about games and say "Well it had no quality in the first place" but let us be honest: Generations of children have at some point enjoyed the game. Despite it being the same in terms of most metrics we might consider important as gamers - something has been lost.

Liar's Dice is laughably broken. The opening bid is always "4s equal to the number of dice remaining"

Titan behaves strangely. There's a bit of novelty in working out how best to maneuver piles in four step jumps to obtain the best creatures and when to move to stop your opponent doing the same. The capacity to plan several moves ahead adds something to the game and makes predicting and interrupting an opponent's path of movement more interesting.

The combat system has totally fallen apart though. A system that determines whether you need 2+, 3+, 4+, 5+ or 6+ to hit doesn't survive everything being 4s very well. A single high skill monster is now a match for infinity lower skill monsters. The diversity in the pool is completely undermined and so any advantage that might've been gained in the strategic layer is lost when most strategic advances do nothing at the tactical layer.

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New plan: We'll replace the dice with cards. Each player gets cards marked "1" through "6". Whenever they need to roll a die, they play a card to indicate its result, when all six are played they recover their hand.

Snakes and Ladders becomes a different sort of game. It remains as strategically trivial as it has always been but asks for a slightly different type of thinking, which might have some novelty for its intended audience. Particularly given clever board design that ensures that taking the fastest possible route to the biggest ladder leaves you with the wrong cards in hand not to inevitably hit a bigger snake. Not a lot of replayabiltiy of course once someone has seen the trick, but it's doing better than the "All fours" version.

I'm not sure what happens to Liar's Dice. In the first round you know that each player has rolled five different numbers - but not which one is missing. It's particularly important that you don't know that it's a wild card - since that gives a lot of wiggle room for the total around the table. Is this a game that benefits from there being more information that's available to players?

There are certainly lucky and unlucky rolls in Liar's Dice. Having a roll of all the same number is like mana from heaven, so smoothing that out and making it more of a game of skill seems like something that's got a place. I think whether the extra complexity justified the improvement would depend a lot on the individual player - but for the average player it probably doesn't work out.

So what about a more complex game like Titan? It's very much not a trivial problem to determine what the optimal move pattern is to maximise gains over the first few turns. There's also the emergent property that if you want to do a move of the same value twice (For instance to repeatedly use "2" in order to back and forth on the same useful space) then you can do so by engaging in a fight and managing your hand so that the right card is left to you at the end. You could even see a strategic conceed made in order to leave an opponent with only a strategically poor card for their next move.

The battles are likely to be very regular. Due to the fact that you roll a handful of dice at a time you're likely to use more than one hand of cards on a roll. So a monster that rolled 8D6 is now rolling 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 2D6. On the other hand those last two can distort an effect quite strongly. If that monster needs 5+s to hit then you can double your effect by using your 5 and 6 twice at the expense of knowing the next hit is going to go badly. I'm not sure if this would lead to interesting play and counterplay in which you're trying to force fights that let you get optimal use out of your cards or if it would be degenerate. Possibly the "Player whose turn it is chooses which battles are fought in which order" would need some refinement.

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So removing randomness causes us to pretty much break Snakes and Ladders whatever we do with it, we'd need to modify the game so heavily that it would be unrecognisable compared to the original to do otherwise (except for the theme of course).

It could do interesting things to liar's dice if we wanted to, but the chances are that the method that replaces dice winds up adding complexity to a game which presently benefits from an elegant simplicity. There may be more refined ways to remove the random element, though again they end up changing the game. Arguably if you take removing randomness from liars dice and replacing it with choice far enough and are willing to change enough rules in the process you wind up playing Skull (or something like it).

The approach generates a lot of emergent properties when it's applied to a more complex game. I can do all of the theory crafting I like, but without actually trying it I'm not sure how a deterministic Titan would come out. It would be interesting to try this sort of approaches on a lot of games designed at a time where "games have dice because that's what they do" and see what falls out. While it might not work for a game wholesale there are likely a lot of novel mechanism combinations waiting to be discovered there.

I always like it when game design comes to resemble mad science. Keep experimenting and happy gaming
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Thu Jul 27, 2017 9:28 am
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Infinite Power Creep

Greg
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A question for this week: If a game is going to have infinite expansions and you're not going to simply forbid the use of earlier material - is it possible to prevent power creep?

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The first step to solving a problem is defining it, so let's go:

Power creep is the situation in which new content is significantly more powerful than old content. The consequence of which is that if players have asymmetric access to the new content (as in CCGs) then the game becomes about content access rather than all of the neat things that game play was supposed to be about. Also, regardless of access, the old content ceases to provide value to the game as it is made redundant by the new content.

There are two aspects to power creep that help it to persist even where designers are actively seeking to remove it:

The first is that no designer has ever been able to deliver on the promise of perfect balance. Any set of effects a designer produces will have a bit of variation in them. Therefore even if a designer arranges an expansion such that the average power level of things in the expansion is the same (or even slightly lower) than the previous offerings - natural variation means that there will be some new content more potent than the old option.

The second is that if the game is interesting, its different components probably interact with each other to some degree and taking advantage of these interactions is part of the game. When you add even a modest amount of new content, you add a vast amount of possible interactions (between the new content and every individual element of the old content). While everything added might strictly be on par with the existing content, the combination creates power creep.

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The second step is to talk about what's been tried to deal with it:

The most common suggestion is "Just stop making stuff that's more powerful" which is barely effective for the reasons given above. There's a perspective that power creep is a consequence of companies releasing better stuff to try to get more money out of people, while there's an extent to which that does happen, it's far from the sole cause of the problem. There's no real option to "Just stop it."

Magic takes the step of using formats that simply prohibit the older content, meaning that the infinite synergies problem doesn't apply and if the average levels can be kept relatively stable the game doesn't have the issue in the long term. It's reasonably effective, but only by surrendering to part of the problem: Having the older content become irrelevant because it's not permitted in current formats rather than because it's eclipsed is something of a Pyrrhic victory.

Pathfinder sought to take over the mantle of 3.5 D&D and had concerns about how power creep had afflicted that format. Their solution was to talk about certain spells and abilities as the yardstick by which new entries would be measured. The theory went that while some creep was inevitable if the creep always started from the same point then there'd be a consistent maximum that the creep hit that could make the system as a whole work. While this has helped it maintain its levels more effectively than its predecessor, this does nothing for synergistic creep. There is an ability to use a grappled opponent as an improvised weapon. There is a feat that means when you hit someone with an improvised weapon it deals extra damage, but the weapon is broken. These are individually balanced.

Taking a sideways swerve away from the mainstream XXXenophile made several unique design decisions, but the one of interest to us is one that undermines a key drawback of power creep: Players start the game by shuffling their decks together and creating a shared deck. Whatever the games other flaws were, a more elegant means of ensuring that unequal access to content did not create a problem and a better means to remove the incentive to consider less powerful cards obsolete has not been generated since. However at the end of the game the player's collections are mixed and the game's mechanic of having half of the cards permanently change real life ownership was predictably unpopular.

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Alright, so we've got a problem and some solutions that have been tried. What else could we try?

To make it easy to talk about I'm going to discuss it like we're talking about a CCG, but this could apply to a wargame or a space ships game - less so to something that's simply a board game with a lot of expansions but the ideas have some applicability there.

One approach would be to take the essence of the "previous cards are now banned" but try to apply it in a way that kept everything viable. A direct approach would be to control how much came from each set: So you might say "Pick as many sets as you like, but your deck must have an even number of cards from each set represented in its makeup". This stops player's cherry picking the best card from each set and goes some way towards smoothing the "Any set has variety and there will always be something at the peak of that variety" effect. However in a way it creates the same problem just one step removed: Synergies would exist between certain sets rather than certain cards and the player with the best "set of sets" would have an advantage while some sets would fade into useless obscurity.

Another would be to take the core of the third solution above and aim not to prevent power creep, but to make it irrelevant by removing the incentive towards more powerful cards. Shuffling decks together is not the only way to achieve this - players could periodically swap decks throughout a game with discard piles being maintained by card ownership rather than player. However you'd likely end up with a different type of creep - victory would come from building decks that you can use while your opponent can't. That'd mean making it particularly fit a play style that you're better at executing or building them in an obscure way that makes it hard for your opponent to work out how to use them well until it's too late. However that does mean cards would creep towards the new metric, so you'd just have replaced "power creep" with "weird obscurity creep".

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Perhaps games will always been creepy, but there's something to be said for editing the type of creep. If the desirable type of card changes from "most powerful" (or at least the definition of power in the context of the game changes) then you can wind up with the game creeping in a different direction.

Imagine a game that had "interesting creep" such that over time the set of cards that got played were the best designed, most innovative ones. You wouldn't classify that as a problem so much as feeling like new expansions and additions were genuinely improving the game. Mission accomplished! If you could find a way to do it

Lots of games try to preserve older cards by having them interact with newer ones. "All goblins get +1/+1" becomes more valuable if the next set prints a particularly useful goblin. The problem is that power creep will always survive this because you need the new card to make the old card worth having, so there's still this advantage to accessing the new set and the consequent closing of play space for the older cards.

What if the utility added to an old card, by a new card, did not depend on which player had the new card? A lot of games use mechanics in which something you do provides an opportunity for the opponent. Consider something like Race for the Galaxy where choosing an action makes it available to your opponents too. Suppose cards giving your opponents opportunities was central to the game's design and aiming to breathe new life into abandoned cards was an explicit design goal whenever the team was creating new cards?

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The latter two approaches are perhaps theoretically possible, but difficult in practice and would grow more so with the complexity of the game.

It may well be that stopping power creep over an infinitely expanding game is an impossible task - but thinking about how it might be done suggests some interesting ideas for designs. I hope you've enjoying considering the question and happy gaming
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Tue Jul 18, 2017 2:19 pm
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Kickstarter: How to get the word out

Greg
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In about a month I shall be launching my fourth Kickstarter campaign. Before I launched my first I received a lot of advice about how important the month in the run up to launch was and that has shaped my thoughts as to what will happen next. So today's post will be sharing what's worked for me in building the crowd, what I intend to do this time around and ends with an idea for something I've not tried before but would be interested in hearing your opinion on.

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So the first thing is to talk to all of the people that have been around for the rest of the year - a friend isn't just for launch month There's a lot I do to be involved in game design and to refine ideas throughout the year. I've also got a mailing list consisting of everyone who's agreed that they'd like me to tell them if I'm launching something - I always promise people who are signing up that they won't be spammed so I try to mail this very infrequently - but a month before launch and again on launch day is reasonable.

All of which is perfectly useless to you if you're reading this as a first time creator in launch month who doesn't have a list of people from previous campaigns

Continuing in the vein of "things you already should have done" it's also a date by which you should've already sent review copies of the game to anyone who's going to be nice enough to write about it. There are some reviewers who will rush something through in a month if you pay them extra (or even just because they're lovely and really want to help) but it really is best not to apply that kind of pressure.

I have a spreadsheet of reviewers that I've spoken to in the past, it contains which games they've reviewed for us and anything they've said about their preferences. I'm always trying to get games to reviewers who like to review that sort of game, so it is indispensable to have an idea of their preferences.

I consider it important not to list whether a review was positive or negative. A reviewer offers their time and their honest opinion - if they don't like something they have a right to that. It even saves you borrowing trouble in the long run, if the reviewer doesn't like the game the chances are that some players won't like it to. It is a good thing for them to find that out before they've backed the project - you don't want a lot of angry players who have got something that they're disappointed with.

The only way to get a red mark in my reviewer sheet is to offer a review, receive a copy of the game and write nothing. Prototypes can be expensive and time consuming to make and I'd rather not waste them. I'll happily offer a new game to reviewers who didn't like the last one - frankly reviews are information for your players, more reviews is better than fewer reviews.

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So - it's a month to go, you've got your mailing list and reviewers have their advanced copies. What else is there to do?

Just getting the word out is a good start. There are lots of places that people discuss games, so posting to those places to let them know that your game exists is a great thing to do. However just spamming it to each place is bad for everyone: The site doesn't work the way it's supposed to and you're not going to make any friends doing it.

My policy is to keep a list of places to visit and to try to visit them all and post something there every few days. The important thing is that the "something" should be relevant to what is already being discussed, not my Kickstarter. If it happens that there is a discussion in which it's relevant, great! It's not uncommon for someone to say "I'm interested in games with this mechanic" or for a blog article to say "What do you think of this idea?" and for your game to be relevant to that. If so, great, mention it and throw in a link - but the first thing is to be relevant. Before hitting post ask the question "If the game mentioned wasn't my game, would this reply still be about the original topic and add something to the conversation?" only hit post when the answer is yes.

I'm not sure how effective this is, since it's very difficult to track where different people heard about things during a campaign, but it's good to keep up to date on what's going on. My favorite places to frequent are boardgamegeek and the tabletop game design subreddit - but I also enjoy islaythedragon's village squares and cardboard edison for pointing me at lots of other things that are interesting. I do tend towards game design discussions over game play discussions, but it's probably better to engage more broadly.

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So that's what I have been doing so far and will do again this time. I know that some creators like to run formal advertising in the run up to their launch - banner ads and the like - but I'm never sure that money spent doing that wouldn't be better spent during the campaign when someone clicking on them can pledge immediately. Perhaps I will dip my feet in this year and spend some budget in the week leading up to launch to see if it has enough of a positive impact to justify doing it - if so I'll report it here! But that's not what I wanted to ask about...

There was a card design, a while back, that got removed from the game. However I've still got the original art for it and it wouldn't be hard to put together a file for it as a promo card and get a few hundred printed up along with the main print run of the game. I'm considering including as part of the "launching in a month(ish)" email an offer to send a promo card to anyone who does some simple things to help with the campaign. Something like this:

"We would like the Scandinavia and the World game to be a huge success and to do that we need lots of help. If you’re willing to spend a few minutes helping us with the campaign, then we’ll include a promotional card in your copy of the game. Here’s what you need to do:

* Drop me an email to say that you’re in with a link to your favorite board game site. (So that I can add them to the list of people to write to and work with some time)
* A little before launch I’ll send you a link to the Kickstarter preview page. Drop a comment suggesting any improvements or just saying “looks good” if you don’t see anything that needs changing.
* Back the project on launch day and make a post to social media (This can be twitter, facebook, anything you use) just saying that you backed it and why. Message me as a backer with a link to the post.

That’s it! We don’t want you to have to put in loads of work or spam anyone, we’re just looking for a suggestion of a site to look at (which doesn’t even have to be for this game), an extra pair of eyes to check the page before launch and a single post to talk about the campaign. If you want to do more to help us then the extra help is very welcome, but that’s all we’re asking for the bonus card."


I'm in two minds about whether it's a good idea. A lot of people would help anyway, just because they like us and/or the project. Also given the backlash about Mona during the Wizard's Academy kickstarter I'm hesitant to do something like this that might give some people the impression that "they're not getting the full game". On the other hand it probably would motivate more people to help us than usually would and it'd be lovely to have something to give back to the folks who do. There's nothing stopping us putting the promo into the BGG market and making it available at conventions we attend for the die hard fans who really want it but (for whatever reason) miss the chance to still be able to get it.

So what do you think? Is this a nice thing to do or a disaster waiting to happen?

Good luck with your projects and happy gaming
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Thu Jul 13, 2017 3:05 pm
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Ready Steady Design!

Greg
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I had an interesting design challenge thrown at me a few weeks ago.

My boss came to me and said "We're releasing a magazine soon. We're interested in having a free game to go with it. Since it's a freebie alongside the magazine it's not got a lot of budget behind it and since it's being published soon there's not a lot of time either. On the plus side we can use art assets from the magazine. Here are 31 images of monsters. You have three weeks to design, prototype, playtest, improve and write the rules - whatever comes out of that process is getting published ready or not. Go!"

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Obviously this was something of a challenge. Now 3DTotal is a very good place to work and I've never been subject to an unreasonable expectation. Everyone's aware that the game will be quick and that it's going out free with something - nobody really minds if it isn't very good. Certainly nobody was planning to blame me if the game coming out of a process like this was a bit of a flop.

Except me.

I mind.

Not all of my games are amazing smash hits, but all of them have delighted some number of players. I'm typically more interested in making something that sings to someone than something that's broadly inoffensive to everyone. I didn't want this to be the exception, I wanted it to be someone's favourite game.

This weeks post is going to be about doing all of the things designers usually do, but at speed. I'll let you know the shortcuts I took, the compromises that entailed and what it was oriented around to make a game that was still worth something.

My usual process for writing games to spec is to create three games that fit the bill, test them all, pick the one getting the best results and take that further. The testing and improvement cycle then takes months and months of playing the game and getting it to a stage that it does the job. The codification of the rules tends to be my weak spot, but I still make an effort to get a bunch of blind testing done to see just how much people struggle with the nonsense I write.

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So the first step was to steal. The more material I could steal the better - if something's already had a lot of design, playtest and improvement work then that's less to do in the very limited time available, without a sacrifice in quality.

But who is there that I can steal from ethically? I don't want to take credit for someone else's work, especially not to their detriment or if it makes their game look worse because some players first encounter a cheap, quickly made knock off floating about.

There are two answers. The first is to steal from someone who's long dead and far past caring. If I want to make something that's a loose kludge on the rules for Mancala I suspect that its creator (whoever it was) is way past caring. The second is to steal from the person I know who most tolerates my nonsense: Myself!

Remember the early days of the SatW design where I followed my usual approach to the extreme and wound up making eleven versions of the game before choosing just one to ultimately be published? Those other ten versions are just gathering dust, but they weren't all bad, particularly ones that were rejected more for not suiting the target audience than for their intrinsic flaws.

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The relationship game was pretty neat, laying cards to try to match up the icons in ways that suited you was compelling gameplay. It's pretty easy to edit that for a game about thirty monsters, trying to get people to line up their monsters so that they win. The resolution needed to change - so that monsters were harming each other and could in some way be defeated - but the mechanics of how to add cards to the grid and the set of special abilities that allowed the grid to be manipulated had now already been designed and subjected to at least some testing.

Which is pretty good for the first ten minutes of a three week crunch.

The next step was to make sure that my prototyping and improvement was rapid. There weren't going to be a lot of playtests and testing and improvement is the heart of game design. That meant getting to a testing stage needed to be faster and iterations had to be quick.

Fortunately these are pretty natural corners to cut. Simply making a decision of "physical playtest vs TTS playtest" and only creating a prototype for one halved iteration time. Then not taking the time to do things properly (tm) became worth the trouble. I usually like tools like NaNDeck that let you make changes quickly. The idea is that if you want to - say - move an icon from the top right to the top left you can make that change quickly and see it propagate through the entire deck. It saves a lot of time in the long run.

We didn't have a long run - the time spend setting up the cards on the software would be greater than the time it saved. Plan B!

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Openoffice it is! It turns out that setting a slideshow to the right size for a card, creating one card and copy-pasting it a bunch of times before changing the details is really fast. It's a horrible kludge and if later you decide you want to make a consistent change on every card it's a lot of work - but it's fast. I had my first playable prototype within a couple of hours of being handed the job.

So with a prototype in hand and rules as intended in my head (with nothing on paper) what was left was to playtest, improve, codify and blind test. So what corners got cut on this process?

The answer is as few as possible. I can filch design ideas to make the initial design step quicker. I can decide I don't care about having an easily managed project in the long term to make prototyping fast. There is simply no substitute for playtesting. That's where the majority of the time went.

I only found two viable short cuts for playtesting:

The first was to engage in mathematical analysis at times that playtesters weren't available. Knowing that one set of monsters had a higher average health or lower average attack allowed some attempts at balancing in the absence of feedback. Maths balancing will never make a good game on its own (A fair game and a good game are not synonymous).

The second was to overlap the RAI testing and RAW testing. Usually I prefer to play games explaining the rules until the rules as intended are working exactly as I'd like, before codifing them and doing blind testing until the rules lead to people playing the game in the intended fashion. There was no time for it this time around so those stages were overlapped to the point that "rules testing" playtests were also leading to balance and ability adjustments.

This is a little dangerous because it's possible that a new or changed ability wording will cause someone to interpret the rules differently but it seemed like the extra round of balance testing was going to offer more of an improvement to the game than this limitation would hold it back.

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From a game design point of view, the game turned out pretty reasonably. The last group of testers to touch it seemed to have a lot of fun. It's not my best work - nothing created so quickly could be - but I feel like it could be someone's favourite game. If you're curious you can have a peek at the rules here.

Obviously the rules and the cards will be attacked by a graphic designer who's got a similarly short space of time to make them beautiful. Usually I would be involved in that process, actively running playtests with the newly designed cards to make sure that players can follow what's going on with the new card designs - but I gather he's been giving a similarly short window for that stage of the project so there's probably not enough time between the design being finished and going to print to get in a round of testing and improvement on the final designs. I'll sneak one in if I think I can though

Despite everything I'm looking forward to seeing the end result. I'm definitely snaffling a copy from the run. I think that it turned out well enough that I'll get some fun out of it. I hope that the post was some use to you in seeing how to speed up the process when needs must, though it's always better to take your time. Think fast and happy gaming
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Fri Jul 7, 2017 6:07 pm
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Creating a Tabletop Simulator Mod

Greg
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I've found Tabletop Simulator a great venue for playtesting and I need to update the Scandinavia and the World workshop entry - so I thought that it might be nice for me to do this in the form of a tutorial. It's been a really great venue for me and isn't tricky to use, so a bit of a step by step guide seems like something that might help break down barriers to entry for other designers.

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Boot up TTS and find the main menu. Click "Single Player" so that you can work on your game without being disturbed. You'll still see chat from the main room, but you can ignore it.

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When you go into single player you'll be confronted with a host of games to play. Ignore all of them and hit the "X" at the top right corner of the screen. These are just shortcuts for opening other people's games and you're here to make your own!

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To get your game into the editor you're going to need custom components. So hit "objects" and select "custom". This will bring up choices for various components - since I'm making a card game, let's take a look at custom deck:

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So here we have a menu asking for a bunch of things. Going through each of them in turn:

Face: A link to the images for the front of the cards.
Back: A link to the images for the back of the cards.
Unique Backs: If this is checked then the software will treat the image at "Back" as one image and paste it onto the back of every card. Otherwise it'll treat it as several different images and chop it up, putting a bit onto the back of each card.
Sideways: Used if the cards should be held and displayed in landscape rather than portrait
Back is Hidden: If you want a double sided card, but want it to be ambiguous what a player is holding in their hand check this box. It will ensure that the card backs are not displayed to the other players while it is in your hand - instead the last card in the face image will be displayed.

Width & Height: "Face" linked to a single image, but that image contains the images for all of the cards in the deck. These tell the software how many images are in the super image.

Confused? Let me show you my image:

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So here I have one image that shows a lot of different cards for my game. If I tell the software that this image is a 7 x 10 grid (i.e. width 7 height 10), then it automatically cuts the cards out and displays them differently so I don't need to do 70 separate uploads. Ignore the Escape the Nightmare card, that shouldn't be there

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Once your deck is imported into the game, you can drag and drop individual cards to set up your game however you like. This is how players will encounter it when they load the mod, so doing as much setup as possible is good - but bear in mind that any randomisation will be saved, so if you shuffle a deck then everyone who loads your mod will get the cards in the same order.

Useful commands:

Move a card: Click and drag (doing this on a deck will take the top card of the deck)
Flip a card face up/down: Press "F" while holding the card
Shuffle a deck: Click and hold on a deck and wave the mouse furiously
Stack cards together: Place them on top of each other or drag and select a bunch and then click and hold the mouse while waving it furiously (This will collect all selected cards and shuffle them)
Resize the cards: Press "+" or "-" while holding to rescale the card.
Zoom: Holding "ALT" on mouse over will show a zoomed in version of the card so that you can read it more easily.
Delete a card: Hit DEL while holding the card.
Undo: The left facing arrow icon (first icon along the bar at the top of the screen)

Once you're happy that your game is as you'd like your playtesters to find it, it's time to upload it for the internet at large to see.

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The upload button is pretty self explanatory - you give the game a title, a description and tag some types and a player count and then hit go.

The only pitfall is that you'll need an image for the workshop thumbnail. This image needs to be square and will be displayed at 100x100 or 256x256 depending on where someone is looking at it.

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Once you've uploaded it, quit out of TTS and have a look at steam. Hit Community and then Workshop to get to the steam workshop.

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Then scroll down a bit and click on "Your Files" which doesn't look like a hyperlink, but it is! That'll show you your uploads and you can pick your newly uploaded game.

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At the top left is a URL. That's the URL that you want to give to anyone who is planning on playing the game - it'll lead them to this page and they can hit the "Subscribe" button which will mean that they automatically download updates to this game from now on. Go ahead and subscribe to your own game!

The "owner controls" at the bottom right are also pretty handy. As well as putting some more detail into the games description, you can also include a link to your site about the physical game.

Also, by default your game will have one image and it'll be a super zoomed in version of your square image - it's nicer to show off some box art and cards from the game and the like. You can upload new images there (Note that steam will display them at something daft like 636 x 358 which can make them look weird if you've not prepared them at that size)

Finally, whenever you change the mod that little line that says "6 change notes" will update. If you hit the view button, you'll see steam says something like "Modified on date X" You can edit the change notes to display what you actually did if you like.

Once you're happy with the workshop page, boot up TTS again to make sure that it all works.

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If you uploaded and subscribed correctly you should see your little square image displayed on the "workshop" row. Give it a click and see what happens.

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All going to plan you should now be looking at your game, exactly as you'd like a new player to see it. If that's what's happened, great! Now you just need to tell people it's there and you'll be able to enjoy playtests with people all over the world without needing to create and post a million prototypes.

Obviously there's more that you can do beyond this brief tutorial: You can see that I've changed the table and included a rulesheet as well as the steps previously taken. I couldn't possibly highlight all of the components you might want your game to improve, but you can't go wrong by playing around in the "objects - custom" category and trying things out.

I hope this whistle stop tour of online playtesting is useful to you. If you fancy taking a peek at SatW then the link for my workshop mod is right here. Happy gaming and see you online
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Tue Jun 27, 2017 2:57 pm
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Hidden AI Goals

Greg
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Today I came across a thread in the board game design subreddit which posed an interesting question: "Is it possible to make a board game AI with a hidden goal?" I posted a brief answer there, but I'd like to dig in a little deeper.

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The challenge is to develop a cardboard AI that is capable of goal directed behaviour, but that a player can execute without knowing what that goal is.

This is meaningful in a game that contains a lot of counterplay or the opportunity to execute denial strategies. For instance if I'm playing 7 Wonders I would like to construct my wonder using cards that other players need for the strategies they're pursuing. If they build a Scriptorium that could imply they're going for a lot of science points and I should bury science cards or it could mean they intend to play a low resource game relying on the free build progressions, so I shouldn't waste my time on trade cards.

If the AIs strategy is known it's not hard to have it take actions in pursuit of it. "If the AI has the "science" strategy out so it drafts a tech card whenever it has the chance" is an implementable and executable rule. Writing a rule to let a player decide which move the AI takes if the player is not allowed to interrogate the AIs strategy sounds impossible.

Let's talk about ways to do it.

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One option is to allow the player to "see" the AIs strategy decision, but to have it be presented obtusely enough that the player isn't able to interpret it.

Consider a code wheel, in which the player lines up two icons and then reads something from an underlying set of words through a window on the wheel. In the 7 Wonders example the player may match a players (different each turn) current highest scoring category to the AIs current highest scoring category and then read through the windows an order of priorities for drafting.

A different wheel would represent a different strategy, where the underlying text is more likely to tell the AI to build particular things, while still having some degree of reactivity to the current game state. However unless a person was taking the wheel apart to carefully check it, it'd be tough for a human to glance at it and go "Yup, that's the tech strategy wheel".

The player sees the strategy in that they can see which wheel they're using for the AI this game. However since they're all decorated identically and on the surface are the same (Two rows of things to match and underlying text) does not comprehend it - which is as good as keeping it hidden.

There are plenty of ways to achieve this other than code wheels, but if I must have the Monkey Island tune stuck in my head so do you.

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Another option is to cheat. Not cheating at the game or routing around the problem by using an app to have a real AI run the cardboard AI. This will be fairly transparent, benign cheating that the player will notice as soon as they start running the AI, but for some players that won't be a big deal. AIs are expected to use shenanigans.

The reason to hide an AIs strategy is so that it can make moves that are ambiguous between a few different strategies in order to keep the player guessing and to make games in which predicting your opponent and countering their actions is meaningful.

However if a move supports two strategies (Let's call them A and B) why is it necessary to know which the AI had "in mind" at the time of that move?

Imagine a game where there are AI cards for a dozen different strategies laid out at the start of the game. On the AIs turn one of these is chosen at random and it determines which move the AI makes. So far so good, here's the twist: When the AI makes a move you then flip all of the strategies that were not supported by that move face down.

The consequence of this is at the end of the game the AI will have one strategy card showing and all of its moves will have been in support of that strategy - however during the game the AIs strategy is ambiguous as several potential strategies (all supported by the AIs moves so far) remain showing.

Of course the player will always know that the AI didn't "really" choose that strategy all along - but then how many human players set their strategy in stone on turn one anyway?

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A third option might be to use a probabilistic strategy. In this model the AI doesn't commit to a particular strategy and use it continuously, instead it's operating on a combination of strategies, flavouring some over others. Obviously this is more suited to some games than others.

Suppose that the AI has a deck of behaviour cards shuffled together and each turn one is drawn. The composition of the deck decides the AIs overall strategy and it would be eminently possible for a player to assemble that without having interrogated the entire deck.

It would even be possible for the AI to switch strategy mid game by discarding half of the deck and replacing it with other cards, should a change in strategy be something that is in some way desirable.

There are echoes of this in Dark Souls: The Board Game, in which a boss that is wounded increases its difficulty by randomising the order of its moves. This randomisation essentially creates a change in strategy in which a natural language description of its behaviour might change from "Then I pounce on them and perform a double attack to make sure I kill my target" to "Then I pounce on them before spinning around to make sure they weren't leading me into a trap." Of course the change isn't "intelligent" in any way and the boss may well be changing to a worse strategy - but from the point of view of the player it's almost always harder if only because you don't know what it is.

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There are likely many other AI approaches to this problem, but the main thing is that with a little creativity the seemingly impossible is achievable. Cardboard AI has been getting better and better, but it's still something that's not had broad formal development and as such is an area where a designer has the opportunity to try something new. Good gaming and try not to lose too many games to inanimate tree pulp
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7 Comments
Tue Jun 13, 2017 2:53 pm
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