I just learned that game designer Satish Pillalamarri passed away earlier this month. You may not recognize his name, but we as designers are enormously in his debt. Satish was the co-designer of Wits & Wagers. I met Satish only once, at a 2005 Protospiel-esque event "Pow Wow", organized by Stephen Glenn, and he and Dom were in the final stages of testing W&W. I don't recall getting to play it, but I remember that Dom and Satish were the life of the party that weekend. Doubtless a big part of this was due to their fun and enormous personalities, but equally important is the truly special game they created.
That it would go on to be a smash success is no surprise, but the role it single-handedly played in opening up Target and Wal-Mart to hobby games is incalculable in its significance. I never would have thought that Target would have an entire section full of great Euro games, but there's no question W&W, though not itself a Euro, played a pivotal role in that, and the hobby's growth is surely reaping the rewards of this one game's resounding success. We have Satish and Dom to thank for this.
Doubtless we have all thanked them by buying W&W. But there's another way we can show our appreciation. Satish leaves behind a newborn son, Om, and Satish's friends have set up a GoFundMe to raise funds for a college fund for Om. The campaign is here.
Additionally, Satish's last project was the whimsical game dude. North Star will donate all proceeds from the sale of dude. that they have left in stock to the campaign, so buying dude. also helps Om.
Finally, I will donate all of my royalties for You Said This Would Be Fun for October to the campaign. A great Christmas gift for your favorite designer friend, and buying it now means that your purchase does some good in the world too. Here's the link.
Here's to the memory of a great game designer and a person who greatly enriched the lives of all who knew him. May his memory and his games enrich all of our lives as well.
- [+] Dice rolls
Twitter is (justifiably) in the news now for its decision to lock the accounts of users (some of whom were quite high profile) who shared links to a story in the NY Post, and for deleting tweets that linked to that story, including the Post's own link. But Twitter the cultural phenomenon is interesting as a bellwether of our time, and perhaps the best metaphor twitter provides us with for the increasing polarization and intellectual stove-piping we engage in is with the block feature.
In a way this gives you the whip hand in every engagement: someone says something you don't like, you can just block them, and never hear from them again, nor can they ever hear from you. Now surely there are people that you just know you never want to hear from again, so, it's easier to to block them then to ignore them every time someone quotes them or replies to them. On the other hand, the "mute" feature also exists and has a similar effect, so using block is, in a way, a more aggressive act.
So for a bit of Saturday frivolity, I will allow you, the audience, to play Twitter jury. Late one night, someone (who might have been Seth), opined that he liked Last Crusade better than Raiders. Someone else (whose identity doesn't matter) said they like Temple of Doom better than either. The first someone made a joke about Kate Capshaw's ridiculous performance in ToD. The second someone said that criticizing a female character in the IJ canon was a bad look, because of the fact that Marion is pretty much implied to have been about 15 when she and Indy were romantically involved in the events referenced in Raiders. And that someone linked to this article:
It is a real doozy, and it seems to me to be a huge exercise in missing the point. Unable to let things go as I sometimes am, I took to Twitter to opine:Quote:Yikes, the only thing I’d cite that article for is as evidence that the world is not bereft of people who invest quite a bit of energy into being poopypantses. “Indy doesn’t publish enough”, seriously?As a result of this, the second user, the one who linked to the article, blocked me. No great loss, it wasn't someone I follow, and maybe it wasn't nice of me to imply that by liking the article this person was themself a bit of a poopypants.
I think Indy is quite clearly drawn in shades of grey, a contrast to Star Wars’ characters who are all white hat/black hat. I suspect this is why Ford liked playing Indy more than Han; Han is a fun character for the audience, but he’s not very interesting, ie not very three dimensional.
But I think there's a connection here to the kinds of questions we and others are grappling with about games with morally questionable themes: capitalism, colonialism, and so on. We talked a bit about Dan's very nice review of The Cost and the way it threads a tough needle: it is, he says, an honest look at a morally problematic industry, and yet it's also quite fun to play. The implication of this silly article would seem to be that if Indy has blemishes on his character, we should think badly of him as a film character and either shouldn't enjoy the films or shouldn't root for Indy. By extension, if an entity in our game's world has bad things associated with it, we shouldn't play such a game at all, or certainly we should feel like sewer refuse if we enjoy ourselves even the slightest bit while playing.
To me, this gives too little credit to humans, and the ability that we (some of us, anyway), possess to hold things in tension. You can watch Raiders, think that Indy's conduct toward Marion ten years prior to the film is reprehensible, can think that looting the temple of the Chachopoyan Warriors is ethically questionable, can think that Belloq has a point that Indy wants to see the ark opened just as much as he (Belloq) does (which point Indy confirms by lowering the bazooka), and still find the film to be entertaining. People are rarely all good or all bad, and a film forcing you to grapple with a protagonist's flaws and faults in tension against their virtues and triumphs, is part of what good entertainment can do: it makes you think.
And incidentally, this is part of what I like so much about the hubris system in Lost Adventures, that it allows for these sorts of gradations -- admittedly in an abstract way -- in 'shades of grey'; who wants the grail most and is willing to (abstractly) engage in the most hubristic conduct in the pursuit of it? All of us will emerge from the story with some black marks on our character (well, green actually), but also some acts of altruism; will the good outweigh the bad or will our hubris make us unworthy and doom us to a painful and untimely death?
Anyway, maybe I'm way off base here, in which case, you may have to block me on Twitter or here at BGG!
- [+] Dice rolls
Nearly every game you've ever played has an action selection mechanic. In Puerto Rico, you pick a role from the available display and then use its ability. In Tikal, you allocate your available action points among several actions, which you then execute. In Carcassonne, you draw a tile and then choose where to place it. And so on.
I've mentioned plenty of times how my game Collusion works differently: each round you place two action tiles, representing actions you're proposing, and then we go around the table and provide support to other players' actions, and only the most supported actions actually come off. So you have goals in the game but can only pursue them indirectly.
A different kind of game of indirect goals could riff off of a different kind of human interaction, albeit not a very pretty one: blackmail. The idea would be that each player has some dirt on each of his opponents, and must use that as a basis to persuade his opponents to take certain actions that will advance his own goals, lest he reveal the dirt and cause some harm to the outed player's position.
Perhaps it's even that the means of taking actions on other players' behalf itself creates additional shameful occurrences that themselves are subject to additional blackmail opportunities.
Thus this game becomes another kind of negative deal-making game, a bit like the ultimatums game I've talked about here: do [this], or I will expose you for [that]. If the [this] I'm asking for is too far out of proportion with the repercussions for [that], I'll ignore you completely, so it's a matter of finding the right balance.
I suspect this means that the "dirt" players have on their opponents varies in magnitude, and that everyone has a variety of stuff that's known about them and that is harmful to varying degrees.
What harm comes from having a shameful thing revealed? Negative points is the obvious one, but perhaps also lost in-game abilities or additional risk of certain actions. If it's known that you've been known to pass around bad checks, then your plan to raise funds to bribe the Congressman that Joe wants you to bribe with a check kiting scheme might be more risky or difficult.
Needless to say this could be a pretty dark topic and thus would need to be handled with a very light touch to keep things silly and fun. But game-mechanically, it's certainly unexplored terrain to say the least so it's fun to contemplate whether something like it could actually work.
- [+] Dice rolls
No, not that kind of representation (see here for that subject). This time we're talking about player representation. Apologies for the clickbait.
In Ch 3 of You Said This Would Be Fun, we talk about the benefits of giving your players a well-defined role within your game's story. And thus by contrast we've talked about how certain genres of games, like nature games (e.g Wingspan, Oceans, etc), civ games (Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, etc) can miss opportunities to engage the players because players are given an ambiguous or counterintuitive sense of who they are.
But I think there's another sense in which player representation matters, namely in the question of who you are relative to your opponents. I've been reading a bit about Mariposas, in which you are butterflies trying to migrate to and from Mexico. (Or are they actually migrating from and to America? Hmm...) It's a bit ambiguous why you are controlling butterflies but the bigger question for me is, in what sense are "my" butterflies differentiable from "your" butterflies? Do butterflies have tribes or clans or factions or teams? I mean, not that we know of. So why are we in competition with each other?
From a design perspective, being unable to come up with a good answer to why we are competing against our opponents may mean that we fail to identify a useful, interesting, or thematically justifiable source of interplayer friction. A better understanding of the boundaries between myself and my opponents can lead to creativity in setting the stage for a dramatic competition between our rival [whatevers].
Another game that I've recently learned about is First Monday in October, a grand-sweep-of-history game about the Supreme Court. This is a game developed by Jason Matthews and I'm sure it will be good. And again we have a civ-style question of representation, for who are these shadowy entities that have been with us since the dawn of the republic pulling the strings to steer court decisions in whatever way they wish? Would they not have been better off just pushing for congenial legislation?
Moreover we are led to ask, as we did above, who the players are relative to each other. Are there four distinct and discernible alignments that intersect in the cases that come before the Supreme Court? I'm not sure that's entirely historically accurate.
But my actual observation about this game is that it seems to set the player representation at a level that largely misses the point of the theme. What's interesting about landmark rulings isn't the effect that they have on the interests of power brokers, it is the effect that they have on the course of American history. Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, these have had enormous consequences on the country, for good or for ill, and it seems like a game on the subject of the Supreme Court that's just about the rulings with no interest in the subsequent alterations to society that resulted is perhaps missing the point (not that I know how you'd do the latter).
This is not to knock this game, which I've not played and know little about, but rather to say that the possible design lesson is to ensure that in trying to express your setting through the player representation, make sure you don't miss what's important.
A positive example of this is Pit Crew, in which players are, obviously, the pit crews for rival race cars. If the game were a competition of who could remove and replace tires the fastest, etc., it would have missed what is actually important: winning the race. Your work as a pit crew is ultimately in service to the larger goal of helping your car win, and obviously a better crew will have a better race, and luckily that's how the game works.
A negative example comes from a game I quite like, Wallenstein, which, though mechanically very sophisticated, is historically quite dubious. For one thing, players compete to build palaces, churches and trade houses, and, uh, let us just say that building stuff wasn't a preoccupation of any of the combatants of the Thirty Years War. Famine is a problem, and that's historical, but the game ignores the fact that the war was the cause of the famine, with armies stripping towns of their food or torching the fields of their enemies. Thus the game nods in the smallest way to the suffering the war brought about, but ignores the role the participants played in bringing about and perpetuating that suffering, and thus misses the most important historical facts of the conflict.
This doesn't mean that a game can't be narrowly focused, of course. For example, in most mafia games you're the Don, but we could of course have a game where you're the triggerman, or a game where you're a business owner torn between having to pay into the protection racket but wanting to stand up to organized crime. Moreover, while the central historical fact of the Titanic is its sinking, we could imagine a puzzly game where players must compete to assemble the deck chairs in accordance with certain requirement cards, evoking the famous saying; such a game would actually amplify the broader historical point: that what we are doing is ultimately futile because we are on the Titanic.
Thus we can add two additional lenses to our considerations of player representation:
Who do I represent in the game's world?
Who do I represent relative to my opponents? Why are we at odds or trying to outdo one another?
Who do I represent in the big picture?
The goal of asking these questions of our design is to ensure we're looking for ways to present our players with interesting decisions, but also to clue them in to what they are likely to be doing, what they are likely to be pursuing. If players have a role that has a sensible goal, sensible rival, sensible connection to the big picture, then they'll intuitively understand what they are trying to do, why they're trying to do it, and most likely how they are going to go about doing it. That makes the game easier to learn and gets them into the action all the more expeditiously.
- [+] Dice rolls
A few months back, Disney announced that its Splash Mountain attraction at Disney World and Disneyland would be reskinned to their film "The Princess and the Frog". They stated that this change had been planned for some time, but it's likely that the protests over the death of George Floyd spurred the announcement, if not the change itself.
Now if you aren't familiar with Splash Mountain you might not see what the connection would be, and even if you are familiar with it you might not, because there's nothing in Splash Mountain that is or could be construed as being racist in any way, at least on the surface. But the characters in Splash Mountain, and some of the stories depicted in the ride, are from Disney's film "Song of the South", which is widely considered to be racist. Or at least it's widely assumed that the film is racist; most people haven't seen it, as Disney has had it in "the Vault" for decades now, which perhaps is confirmation enough.
What is perhaps not as widely known is that the film is based on the Uncle Remus stories, which were collected and published by newspaperman Joel Chandler Harris in the late 1800's, and he obtained these stories directly from former slaves. Thus this body of stories is American folklore, and more specifically, African-American folklore.
In contrast, The Princess and the Frog is a classic and familiar fairy tale of European origin, which Disney set in New Orleans with an African American principal (cartoon) cast. Well, actually a lot of the principal cast are animals, but the lead, Tiana, is African American.
The broader point is that, as is so often the case, things aren't always as simple as they appear on the surface. Let's stipulate to the fact that this ride is based on a racist movie. But it can also be true that it's the last remaining testament in the public sphere of this collection of African American folklore. Does that matter? Is it racist to remove a theme that has its roots in that folklore tradition and replace it with a story from the European folklore tradition? Does it matter that James Baskett was the first African-American man to win an Oscar, for his portrayal of Uncle Remus?
We might at least find ourselves inclined to contemplate questions like these more deeply, if we were a more contemplative society. But people also tend to be rather visceral, as the present cultural moment is making all too plain. We have a propensity to draw conclusions that are based on incomplete or imperfect information. For example, at about that same time, statues of historical figures were being pulled down all over America (remember that? Seems like forever ago now). A person I follow said on twitter around the same time, "It's not enough to tear down statues of the racist past, we must also preserve these historical atrocities for all to see. There should be museums in D.C. documenting the horrors of the slave trade and slavery, and to the mistreatment of indigenous peoples". This person was apparently unaware of the existence of the National Museum of African American History and Culture or the National Museum of the American Indian.
Going off half-cocked and saying something a bit foolish is something we've all done. It happens, none of our information is complete or perfect. But it's probably also true that many of our decisions and opinions and beliefs are not nearly as informed by facts and analysis as we'd like to believe. If I recall correctly, studies have shown that most of our conclusions are drawn instinctively, and the brain goes in and supplies data to fit the conclusion after the fact. And this is turn makes it hard for facts to overrule a conclusion we've drawn, because we're inclined to "trust our gut."
One of the arguments for games, and game design, that YSTWBF makes is that games promote critical thinking. By taking input information, filtering in through a critical apparatus of evaluation of potentials and incentives and intentions, we can arrive at a course of action that will, we hope, lead to the intended outcome (in the case of gaming, winning the game).
But critical thinking about games is also part of this broader picture and the opportunity they afford for broader contemplation and societal critique.
"I won't go on the racist ride" is in the same spirit as "I won't play the racist game", which we have documented enough times to detect a pattern. And again, just to be clear, people should not play any game they don't desire to play, for whatever reason they have, even if it's just a gut feeling. Game are a leisure time activity, you should spend your leisure time in whatever manner seems good to you.
But similar considerations percolated up to the surface in the reaction to the new Spielworxx game The Cost, which is about the asbestos industry, which is ... not the most savory of industries, shall we say. A game whose subject is a morally dubious industry may itself seem morally dubious, just as a ride based on a racist film may itself seem racist, but applying the apparatus of critical thinking can reveal considerations below the surface that thoughtful people must then weigh as counter considerations. Sometimes things need to be held in tension. (Dan Thurot has a very nice piece about this question of games and morality, well worth a read).
The game design aspect of all this that interests me isn't just the question of theme selection. Rather, it's that as game designers, we are charged with creating a memorable experience for our players, one that they'll want to have over and over. Thus we can't escape the role that player emotion plays in telling us whether we're on the right track or not. Is the experience fun?
But at the same time, we've all had experiences where playtesters have argued us practically to the point of death that something is broken in our game. I mean, this happens with published games all the time, and often the person is wrong: they're missing something, and experienced players can chime in and supply that additional information. This is much harder with an unpublished game. You don't have a chorus of fans of the game at the disposal, it's just you, and (a) your "defense" of the game might appear to be simple defensiveness, but also (b) you might be wrong! This is why I advocate elsewhere a dialectical approach to such conversations: ask questions, share anecdotes.
Often, though, the reaction isn't even "I declare [this system] is broken", but just "this doesn't feel right to me", or even, "this doesn't feel good to me". How much should feelings guide our play? How much should playtesters' feelings guide our development?
We can't discount the role that visceral emotion plays in sometimes drawing greatness out of us. Here's a silly example. Everyone remembers the Swedish pop band Roxette for their big hits like "It Must Have Been Love" (from the Pretty Woman soundtrack) or "The Look", but one of their early singles was called "Dressed For Success". Here's the song (as usual for the 90s, the video is barely watchable but the song is cool).
Anyway, this is a song with a soaring vocal from the late great Marie Friedriksson. The story behind it is, late night after a full day recording session, things aren't going well, and Marie is getting pissed. They roll tape one more time and she channels all of that frustration and anger and completely uncorks one, giving us the snarling vocal of the final recorded song.
I don't know that games give us many opportunities for raw, visceral emotional experiences like that, although maybe games that do could exist (though they wouldn't be "fun"). Really only "petty diplomacy" type stuff or wild swings of bad luck type stuff produce the table-flipping of visceral anger, and, ok, when we see that happen in a playtest we want to tone down whatever brought it about!
But players should experience emotions in playing our games, and those emotions reflect the experience they're having, and if those emotions are negative, it's worth worrying a bit about why the game has created those emotions, and whether better information, either in the form of improved transparency or a better presentation of the rules, would have prevented a misunderstanding that led to them. And this is one of the many reasons I think it's wise for a designer to participate in the game oneself: you can better tell whether the game provides its intended experience, and can empathize with the players in whatever experience they are actually having.
I heard a TED talk that stated that the part of the brain that controls emotion and the part of the brain that controls reasoning and language are separate from one another, and this is why we often speak of a "gut feeling" and why we struggle to put into words why our gut is steering us in a particular direction. "I see all the evidence you're laying out for this purchase, but it doesn't feel right, I can't say why."
But surely this helps to see that there may be an obstacle in our attempts to convince a playtester with numbers or reasoning that their concern about a particular imbalance is unfounded, because their feeling may not be analytical, it may be visceral.
For example, there's a joke about the World's Most Famous Man, that when it's a 50-50 shot, the odds are 80-20 in his favor. That's often how we expect to feel as players: that there's some random thing, but I expect, narratively, for it to break in my direction, and when I doesn't it might "feel" like I'm the victim of "bad" luck.
The design takeaway of all of this, I think, is that we should absolutely seek to grow as critical thinkers, both as designers and as playtesters. We should try to make arguments that are well-grounded on observational facts and reasoned conclusions drawn from those facts. But "my experience was [thus]" IS, itself, an observational fact, and it's important to take into account, understand how it arose, and evaluate whether it's worth considering. As an example, "catch-up" mechanics are decried by hard-core gamers -- "You should have just played better if you didn't want to be sucking pond water in last place!" -- but the experience of "I'm sucking pond water" IS unfun, and perhaps the injection of some form of catch-up rule, though not technically "fair" to the leading player in an analytical sense, makes for a better overall experience and is worth contemplating.
I think I've mentioned a while back how in Lost Adventures, players tend to get 7 or 8 of the 10 available pieces of information. Someone observed that that wouldn't lead to much asymmetry between the players: everyone knows most of the available info! But we've found that it just feels more fun to think you know most of the info, and that the little bit of asymmetry you get from slight differences in info outweighs the big asymmetry you get when people know much less, because in the latter case they feel clueless and unempowered.
Making players feel good so that they'll want to keep playing your game may seem like crass salesmanship, to which my only response is...
- [+] Dice rolls
To assure you that I have some street cred in what follows, let me disclose, or re-disclose, that in my day job I work as a scientist and I have a snappy degree from a snappy school.
All scientists use models to validate certain ideas about how a system behaves. I especially like "toy models", models that are deliberately simplistic, because if they behave in ways similar to the experimental observations, then it's a great aid in interpreting the experimental findings. For example, in modeling how atoms move around on a surface, a toy-model approach uses "cubonium": pretend the atoms are actually cubes, on a 2D square grid. That's not accurate at all, but if you see similarities in the behavior of cubonium and your experimental findings, you know that the assumptions you built into the model have some validity, and that the system is explicable in terms of those simple assumptions without the need to invoke more elaborate effects.
One system that's resistant to modeling is the electronic behavior in atoms, molecules, or solids. It turns out that once you have more than a single electron (i.e. anything other than hydrogen) the electron-electron interactions make the problem computationally intractable. There's a sophisticated computational apparatus called density functional theory (DFT) that makes certain useful approximations and assumptions that allow you to calculate electronic behavior for a variety of systems. This is a rigorous theory and (justly) won the Nobel Prize. I have several friends and colleagues who are full-time DFT modelers. It's a serious, and challenging, scientific discipline. And yet!
DFT has an open secret. Experimentalists like DFT because if you can find agreement between your experimental results and first-principles modeling like DFT, well then maybe you understand what's going on physically, and DFT is a "first principles" model and is therefore way more rigorous than the toy models I mention above. But just as Stalin said "show me the man and I will show you the crime", it's equally possible to get DFT to tell you what you want to hear, just by controlling the input conditions that go into it. Serious modelers don't do this, of course, at least not on purpose, but it's possible to use this tool in an undisciplined way to get the results to say what you want them to say.
We are living in a moment where those in charge of public policy look to the scientific community to navigate the uncertain waters of a public health situation in which accurate data has been hard to come by, particularly in the early stages. Thus many consequential decisions, especially early on, have been based on models. As a scientist, this worries me. A lot. It's one thing to say, "look, this is our best guess at the moment, let's try this and correct as appropriate." Epistemic humility is the first quality the scientist should cultivate, and I think by and large we do that pretty well, but not everyone who wants to invoke science, and in particular scientific models, in their arguments understands the importance of holding scientific conclusions tentatively.
But more importantly -- and yes, I get that this is a slippery slope argument -- it's not clear what limiting principle would prevent the abuse of scientific models as a means of exerting control over a population, should someone want to do that. But if a rigorous hard-science model like DFT can be wrong or can be manipulated, how much more a soft-science model that has behavior as one of its inputs?
Game designers understand this very well. If you say to a publisher, "I coded up a model of my game and have simulated my game 10,000 times, and I'm sure it's balanced, so it's ready to publish", they'll laugh in your face. If you haven't played it with real people, you haven't even begun to playtest, because people don't always behave in the ways your model predicts. Your model relied on assumptions and approximations, and those may or may not have been accurate. Data is of significantly greater value than models, which is why we playtest. When data is not available, that doesn't necessarily justify using models as the best or even as a good alternative to data. That's true in game design and it's true in public policy as well.
Let's turn this in a more upbeat direction and talk about models in games. I talk in Ch. 7, and here at the blog, about a game's "central idea": what is the game about, what is its literary theme, what is it saying, what are we the players saying by the decisions we make? These are fun and important design questions.
But there's a different design question that I think is perhaps insufficiently appreciated among modern designers, namely the idea of a central abstraction.
As readers here know, I think Puerto Rico is partly to blame, in that it taught us that trying to include everything was a valid design strategy. We have to produce goods, ship them, sell them, build stuff, bring in workers: lots of different things happening! And look how quickly we go from that to Agricola's kitchen sink theme evocation, where there are so many aspects of subsistence farming included that you wonder how subsistence farmers managed to do it without a detailed instruction manual. And same thing more modern games like Scythe or Maracaibo or Terra Mystica or Terraforming Mars. All of these games, and the many others we can think of, force players to grapple with many aspects of the games' settings all at the same time.
It wasn't always thus. Witness a game like Acquire. Acquire is ostensibly a game about hotel chains. Now in the real world, there's a lot to running a hotel chain: site selection, permit acquisition, bidding out the project, overseeing construction, paying the construction firm to build the hotel, hiring staff, acquiring all of the items needed to run the hotel, paying for utilities, acquiring customers, providing hospitality, maintaining the grounds, maintaining the hotel, and many more things besides. And yet, in Acquire, to build a hotel, you drop a tile on a grid. That's it. That's because Acquire's central abstraction is that hotel chains grow. That's the only thing that interests us: chains get bigger, by moving into more cities or regions or however we want to think about it. Acquire isn't interested in the specifics, only in the growth.
Consider another of my favorites, Lost Cities. Running an archaeological expedition is obviously also a complicated affair: lots of library research, securing funding, acquiring tools, getting permits to dig, and a bunch more things, you get the idea. But in Lost Cities, the central abstraction is that archaeological expeditions progress. And it models this by having us place numbers in increasing order. The more we explore, the more interesting things we learn, the closer we get to the big discovery, the more valuable our knowledge becomes. In Lost Cities, the value of acquired knowledge from a dig is cumulative.
Consider yet another of my favorites and favorite go-to examples, Web of Power. In Web's central abstraction, we place cloisters into regions, signifying that our religious order has a presence in that region. The presence of advisors in turn gives us (collectively) permission to place advisors into that region's court. Religious orders score for the regions in which they have a presence, and for the inter-region machinations they're able to execute as a result of having an advisor presence on both sides of the border between any two regions. There are of course many other details to running a religious order-- moving into new regions, gaining sufficient influence to capture the ruler's ear, maintaining communication over large distances when correspondence happens at the speed of foot traffic, and so on--but all of these details are abstracted out so that the game can focus on the actual problem that confronts the players: how can I make my religious order the most influential, the most powerful?
Thus a good central abstraction is a model of reality but only a particular subset of reality. It says, this game is about this aspect of the game's setting, and no other. Different games can of course emphasize different things in their abstractions. A different hotel game could emphasize hospitality, in which case the game wouldn't be about chain growth, it would be about meeting customer demands. A different archaeology game could be about gaining information about a lost temple whilst avoiding taking on hubris (heh). And so on.
The key point is that every game has abstractions, even very heavily involved thematic games like the ones we mentioned above. Or for that matter, my game, Sands of Time, in which you build, battle, expand, advance, govern, build trade routes, raid, collect tribute; lots of stuff going on. And yet there are still many, many abstractions in this game, in spite of its complexity. And so the point isn't necessarily that every game should be as simple as Acquire, but that we should be mindful of the abstractions we're making and should always be open to considering abstracting just one more thing down. If we keep doing this, eventually we'll arrive at some minimum kernel of abstractions that the game needs so as to function, and it's at this point that the game can really start to sing.
I think it's worthwhile to have a central idea for your game, and I think it's probably also worthwhile to have a central abstraction. The central idea helps you make design decisions: does [this element] support the idea, does it steer players into grappling with that idea? The central abstraction can function similarly: does this potential additional system express the central abstraction, or is it another element of the theme that we're now going to try to incorporate?
In your race car game, where players have to make pit stops strategically to refuel and replace their tires, is it also important to have drivers have to take bathroom breaks, or is it ok for the game to not have to go that deep into the simulational weeds? In your movie-making game, in which you have to cast the best talent, is it also important to include negotiating rates with union representatives or is that an extraneous distraction from the central abstraction that "movies are made by writers, stars, and directors"?
The central abstraction, then, helps you filter out those long lists of helpful suggestions playtesters make of all the things you could add to the game. "You should totally add bathroom breaks to your race car game!" "Thanks for the idea, but the model here has more to do with how drivers jockey for position on the track, not at the row of toilets in the locker room."
- [+] Dice rolls
We talk endlessly at BGG about "Euros", are they different from American games, are new Euros different from old Euros, and so on. Everyone here knows what I think, but most important to my view is that, yes, there's a difference: "Euro" now means analytical and crunchy.
I recently asked a well known publisher, what are you looking for? Their response: "heavy Euro games, two hours, high complexity, no direct negative interaction, no luck".
Wow, I thought, that sounds almost exactly like my game Collusion, which I've talked about here quite a bit. Here's a link to the rules, see for yourself! So I sent the rules along to them thinking it was quite a good fit.
Their response: "This is close to what we publish but I have to say not close enough. This is a more interractive game and not Euro style like what we usully publish."
There you have it, Collusion isn't a Euro because Euros are not interactive!
- [+] Dice rolls
The previous post talked about how a game's player experience can function as an important selling point, but of course it's also useful as a design target.
To get us there let's consider a Tweet by designer Eric Lang from last week. This is the second or third time now I've used one of Eric's tweets, but I'm not picking on him, it's just that he's mastered the art of stating points of conventional wisdom with extreme concision: truly a skill that serves one well for Twitter, which is why I'm not a very good tweeter. Anyway, Lang says:
Designers: Your first playable prototype will be terrible. Don't waste time and morale making a full component set (unless it's a super simple or zero-exceptions).— Eric Lang (@eric_lang) September 11, 2020
Make enough to play a few rounds, because that's likely all you need to find out what game you're really making.
Lots of designer-advice-givers advocate this fail-fast approach: get your game to the table, ASAP! But my own experience is different. I talked earlier this year about a game I've been working on for a while now, and I can attest that I'm still working on it, but it hasn't yet reached the prototype stage since that last post. Why? Because I know the experience the game is supposed to create, but I don't (yet) quite know how to create it. The intent, to review, is for a game that's dense with paranoia and mistrust, where open communication feels risky, where you suggest rather than declare, and where you must manipulate the levers of a bureaucracy to propel you to victory.
As you can see, this design has something going for it with regard to the last post: I can clearly state the player experience already at this early stage. When the time comes to write the sell sheet, this part of it, at least, is already written! And once I start playtesting, my questions won't be "did it seem balanced?", and in fact I might not need to ask any questions at all, because it should be evident whether the right atmosphere permeates the session or not.
But creating this atmosphere is beyond tricky. The hardest nut to crack, I think, is the communication piece. I have something I want to communicate, but saying it openly might invite 'attacks' (in whatever form that takes). So I want to say it to you in confidence, and that means, perhaps, providing players with some way of sending encoded messages. That led me to each pair of players having a sort of code word that they share, e.g. "red" or "bird", and when I want to say something that only that player is meant to understand, I can slip that word or an associated concept in. "I imagine the crows will be swirling around the trade ministry after all this is over," or something like that. To everyone else it may sound like I'm saying "I think the trade ministry is in trouble, we should help it", but what I might actually be saying, just to you, is "let's target the trade ministry".
A different approach to this would be to give you a little notepad, and you can write little messages to different players, akin to "sending an emissary with an urgent message". But perhaps these can be intercepted, or publicized by an opponent who elects to betray you, and thus you want the message to be a bit veiled in what it conveys so you have plausible deniability.
Now, the experience of these two systems will be quite different. In the first, you're listening to things that people say and trying to decipher what their true meaning is, trying to "crack the code", paranoid that everyone but you knows something important. In the latter, the paranoia comes from the possibility of your message being intercepted or exposed. Both should be a bit paranoid, but which is the right form? The latter certainly has less bureaucracy so that's something.
The bottom line, for me, is that contrary to the "just get it on the table/fail fast" school of conventional design wisdom, I don't see any upside to wasting everyone's time with a half-baked idea if I think it's likely that the application of further thought will advance the design -- if there's a specific experience you're trying to create and you're pretty sure the game won't create it as constituted, why just confirm what you already suspect to be true?. There's no rush in design, so why not just take your time, think things through, and playtest when you have things figured out? I think this is especially appropriate when you're chasing an experience. Yes, if you're truly stuck, perhaps your playtesters can make some suggestions that might get you unstuck, but I think sometimes, long cycles of thinking and waiting can be time well spent, as they give you space to really think about what is the experience your game should create, what will it feel like to play the game, and what kinds of things are players doing so as to bring that experience about? It's ok to wait to build until you can sort of see the answers to those questions.
(The good news for Palace of Dreams, at least, is that it requires a couple of operations that cannot easily be replicated in a virtual environment, so insofar as we're likely still months away from in person testing, there is quite literally no rush to nail down answers to some of these design questions!)
- [+] Dice rolls
There are basically two scenarios in which one is trying to convince someone to buy, or at least consider buying, a game: when a publisher has released the game for sale and wants people to play it and buy it, and when a designer is presenting the game to a prospective publisher and wants that publisher to license it.
In both cases, a full exploration of the rule set and play through may be what eventually close the sale, but the initial setting of the hook comes from the first contact that the seller makes with the buyer: the sales pitch, either on the back of the box (in the former case) or in the inquiry email or sell sheet or whatever (in the latter case).
What interests me is the language we use to try to close these sales, in light of the things we talk about here.
There are essentially three pieces of information that these sales pitches tend to include:
The game's theme or setting. "In this game, become a fearsome yeti, terrorizing visitors to your mountainous domain."
The player's goal. "Be the first to get your solar-powered car to market!"
The main turn mechanic, i.e. what you do as the player. "Balance between having enough resources to build factories and running your factories for a profit.
Now I've previously observed that in talking about their games, few designers can succinctly summarize what is noteworthy about their game and next to none attempt to articulate their game's central idea.
But what I think is possibly more surprising is that in neither of the "sales pitch" cases above does the seller attempt to convey to the buyer what the experience of playing the game is like. Go ahead, grab any box from your collection, and read the blurb. Sure, there might be a few marketing adjectives like "thrilling" or "exciting" but there will definitely not be any mention of what it feels like to actually play the game.
Why is that? If we accept the premise that a game is a delivery vehicle for a certain kind of experience, if our goal as designers is to structure a set of rules that will provide an experience with a good arc and satisfying ending and lots of friction and all that other stuff, if we set out to build our entire game around supporting that experience, then why in the world don't we tell anyone about it? Why do we waste time talking about its mechanics or even its goal? Story I can at least understand, you're appealing to the buyer's imagination, and, ok, fair enough there.
The only explanation I can come up with is that experiences are very hard to capture in words. What's it like to ride a rollercoaster? What's it like to eat a perfectly cooked steak? What's it like to go through a break-up? It's possible to convey experiences like these in words but perhaps it's difficult.
But a possibly related aspect of this is that it may be hard to apprehend what the experience is supposed to feel like without a bit of context.
Nevertheless, here are a few attempts:
"In Puerto Rico, attempt to grow your island with productive plantations and prosperous buildings, by leveraging the actions taken by your opponents and at every turn choosing an action that will help your opponents as little as possible."
That's not quite perfect, it's still describing what you do rather than how you feel, but it's at least a little closer insofar as it's aiming at how your thought process works, which is kind of like an experience.
"In Attika, race to be the first to place all of your building tiles onto the board by constantly seeking opportunities to build for free, and struggling with the attendant decision of whether to build now at cost or wait until you can hopefully build for free later."
I think that's maybe a little better, as it gives a better sense for how the agonizing decisions in the game induce agony.
"In Sidereal Confluence, guide an alien race to prosperity by striking deals with your opponents to share resources and grow your economy. Find the opponents that have what you need, and figure out what you can offer them, before someone else makes a better offer first!"
Hmm, this is not so easy. Let's try with a few of my own games and see if being closer to something makes it easier to capture its emotional core.
"In Downhill Racer, the lure of the competition pulls at you, constantly enticing you to take greater risks to catch up or pull ahead, but while fortune may favor the bold, excessive speed punishes them mercilessly."
"In Le Sablier, complete a busy dinner service by manning your station and shouting at your coworkers to do a better job manning theirs, so that you have what you need to fulfill your own role."
Well, not sure those are great either. But I think the difficulty of the task doesn't mean it's not worthwhile, but merely that it's hard to do well.
But the benefit of this, I think, is the ability to convey something about the game that's more useful and more informative than what its mechanics convey. "It's a word game." What, like Scrabble or Dixit or Stinker or Poetica? These are all quite different, experience-wise, and someone who likes one experience might not like one of the other. Moreover, someone who doesn't think they like word games might nevertheless like the experience that one of these games provides. And we can do the same thing for trading games, auction games, deckbuilding games, and so on. So capturing the experience may make a stronger emotional connection with an interested party, but it might also benefit from just being more informative.
- [+] Dice rolls
rerolls, which (can) violate our expectation of resolving tension with aha! excitement, and top-decking, which (can) violate our expectation of always having something meaningful to choose between.
In YSTWBF, I talk about how the game's scoring rules represent an agreement between the designer and the players. The designer is saying, if you will pursue these scoring rules to the best of your ability, you will have the kind of fun experience that this game supports. And of course, the old-fashioned word for an agreement of this sort is a "covenant".
Thus the 'covenant' represented by the lost ark of Raiders' fame is the agreement between God and the Israelites in the form of the Ten Commandments inscribed on two tablets at Mt. Sinai after the exodus from Egypt. And most people know that Jews refer to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, as "the law".
But what's perhaps less familiar is that the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, is, structurally, a treaty. Specifically, it's in the form of a suzerainty treaty common in the Ancient Near East. Even more interesting is that Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen has analyzed these treaties and found that they follow a specific evolution in time with respect to the elements they include and the way they are constructed. By analyzing the structure of Deuteronomy and comparing it to this evolution, he makes an argument for the exact century in which Deuteronomy was probably written. (I forget which one it was without looking it up but I know it's much earlier than critical scholarship would suggest).
And that's why the Christian Bible has the "old" and "new" testament, formerly called the old and new covenant; it's literally "the old agreement between God and humans", and "the new agreement". Jesus says at the last supper, "this cup is the new covenant in my blood", which basically means, "we're doing things differently from now on", which is of course quite a radical statement indeed.
Back to game design, and the agreement between the designer and player. We talk about how games tell stories, and thus part of the expectation of a fun /experience/ should be a fun /story/, complete with a fun and lively /ending/, the subject of the last two posts.
The specific design flaw we have in view today is a story-arc that is too flat. It can be said of many games, "you just do the same thing over and over, and then it ends." And frequently in such games, the ending is set based on how long the typical group's patience for the game seems to last. That's a design mistake; the game length should be set by how long it takes to set up and resolve a compelling story arc. If the game isn't doing that, either its length is set incorrectly, or its action isn't built to allow the right kind of progression that sets up a fun dramatic arc.
That doesn't mean that starting from a target length is a bad instinct. Sidereal Confluence used to be an 8 hour game, but Tau realized (correctly) that it could, and should, be a 2 hour game. The interesting balancing act in that one is that you have 9 different races, and each has a different arc in terms of how quickly their economy turns on; some start pretty hot, some really need some coaxing to kick into gear. But all of them have the potential to be about as effective as any other over the course of the game's 6 turns. Playing for 5 or 7 turns would not work because the game is balanced.
But on top of individual species arcs, there's an overall arc created by the scoring rules. Somewhat like Castles of Burgundy, technologies you invent early on provide a big bonus in VP, whereas techs invented late are worth much less. That means you want to invent as early as you can, except that losing the resources you spend to invent those techs can really stall out your economy, and so there's a nice tension between pushing hard to invent quickly or waiting to invent when it will be less of a disruption. And then there are late-game techs that provide no benefits, just points, which by late game is what you're going for anyway.
Another example is how with each invented tech, everyone gets the associated tech, and so the game should have a proliferation of abilities, except that you can burn tech cards to make other tech cards better. This means that your options narrow but they become more powerful, but also that players are even more asymmetric in what they can do and what they're pursuing, which drives late game deals to be extremely consequential. Everyone really, really wants to run Megastructures because of how lucrative it is, but the ultratech needed to run it are in hot demand, who will score the deal that gets those octagons, or better yet, can you be in position to provide those octagons and then run something else with the proceeds of that deal?
We said that arc is part of the agreement between the designer and the player about a fun story, and that agreement benefits tremendously by being transparent. Just as players should learn as the very first thing how they win the game, they should be able to see almost from the get-go what the shape of the game's arc is going to be. How is the game going to end, what drives it to its end, what is going to ratchet up the excitement as we approach the end? The more players can see this from the outset, the more they can buy into it and build their plays around actions that support it.
Sometimes this is obvious. In a race game, obviously the end is going to come when someone crosses the finish line, and the arc is going to be about the struggle to reach that finish line first. In a conquest game, obviously the end is going to be when one player has eliminated or subdued everyone else.
But even in a game like Puerto Rico with its somewhat wonky game end conditions, you can see in a general aspect that the game will end "when we have fully settled the island", whatever that entails. And Web of Power will end "when we have mostly filled up the board", whatever that entails.
Thus in those games and others like them, the skill in design is revealed in that the game end trigger (all VP tokens claimed/all cards used) closely corresponds to the intuitive game end trigger. When we feel like the game is close to ending, based on the sense we have of what the end point of the story arc ought to be, we are in fact close to the game's ending, because the end game trigger is also close to happening.
But why not just always have the intuitive trigger and the actual trigger be the same? Why not just have Web end when the board is full instead of when the deck runs out?
Ah, because the expectation of exciting finishes means that (a) it's good if the end game is not perfectly calculable, and (b) that the game doesn't end with obligatory or ineffectual plays. If Web had to keep going until the board was full, many late-game placements would have little impact on the game's outcome and would therefore be pointless, and as a result the arc would go flat right at the worst possible time.
In summary, then, if part of the agreement we make with our players is to take them on a fun ride, but the fun-ness of that ride is contingent on the decisions they make, then we do well to build that fun ride around an arc that makes intuitive sense so that players will traverse its course organically just by doing what appears to make intuitive sense. A good game arc, then, is self-evident and self-reinforcing. The covenant between designer and players is neither formal nor explicit, but when players traverse your game's arc reliably, you know that you've held up your end of it.
- [+] Dice rolls