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Think of the children!

Jeff Warrender
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Per our earlier discussion, I don't think Candyland is an especially good game but it does have this going for it: that, for very young children, it teaches kids to take turns and follow the rules and be a good sport about the winner.

Well, actually, the last bit is NOT something that the game teaches well. Here's this random deal of cards that none of you has any control over, but that is going to bless one of you with the victory absent any input, creativity, or thought on his/her part. Now when that happens, be nice and shake that person's hand and say "good game". What?!?! Candyland is an awful game for teaching sportsmanship!

Anyway, like Snail's Pace Race and Chutes and Ladders and other "kid's first game" type of games, the point isn't to give kids a deep strategy experience, but to give them exposure to the very act of playing a game.

I've been interested for some time in considering whether there could be simplified versions of familiar game mechanics that would help kids get some exposure to how those mechanics tend to work, but that also sidestep some of the kid interpersonal problems that games can give rise to. Here are a few ideas.

Trading

Go Fish is of course a sort of trading game in that it involves the exchange of cards, but it doesn't capture the essence of trading, which is the possibility of an in-game transaction that is mutually beneficial.

Free for all systems like that of Pit or Chinatown are too chaotic, and anyway games like Chinatown and Settlers may require a bit too much strategic thinking for young kids to do well. I think what we want is something that's more structured.

My instinct here is that the best system is that of Mare Nostrum, whereby everyone puts out the cards they're willing to give, and then we go around claiming cards from those that people have put on offer. That's trading without haggling and deal-making.

Another option is my "selectman" mechanic, where each turn one person is the selectman, everyone else makes a proposal of some sort and the selectman picks the one he/she likes best. This is similar to the price-setting offer system of Isle of Skye or the path-selection system of Santiago.


Bidding

Bidding mechanics are tricky because of the possibility of going bust by bidding injudiciously. High Society's system helps with this a bit by giving you a fixed number of bid cards instead of a pile of currency. The mechanic of No Thanks! is as simple as can be but the math is probably a bit much for young players.

I'm trying, with Candyland Bidding Game, a simultaneous bidding system whereby each player has a wheel, and ties are friendly. Taken together I hope these will keep players from bidding themselves into oblivion, which I think an around the table system could lead to -- "Oh yeah? Well I bid 15 for that one space of movement!"-- and from the "no fair I keep missing out" feeling of frustration that consistently underbidding could lead to.

Workers

I have previously stated my belief that non-gamers, which includes kids new to gaming, need simple and rigid turn mechanics. On your turn, move your pawn, take a card, and then place a cube on the board, simple recipe-style stuff like that. I think action-point systems like that of Pandemic probably only "work" because of the likelihood that a parent is presiding over the festivities. And I think this especially applies to worker placement systems, which at their core are a menu of available actions.

Instead, I'd probably introduce kids to worker-placement concepts with some kind of hybrid of Aladdin's Dragons and Elfenland, with the idea being that the different spaces are different animals we can befriend or ride or something like that. Maybe it's a game where we harvest magical gems and different magical creatures are better suited to different types of terrain, so depending on where we (think we) want to go, we place workers to claim the creatures we need to be able to go to those places.

In other words, make the placement not be about the actions that the spaces allow, but about claiming a useful capability, in some simple and intuitive way, dragons can fly, cheetahs are fast, etc.

Tile-laying

This one is pretty easy for kids, I think, because pattern-matching is a skill they learn pretty early on. Thus Dominoes is an easy one to pick up, and games like Kingdomino obviously capitalize on this familiarity. My daughter and I were playing a Carcassonne variant from the time she was two. She'd come along to game night at the game store to play games with "the big guys", and we'd throw some tiles on the table, and just take turns building a "city" and putting meeples onto the features that formed and saying what that person was there to do. And we did similar things with a watered down version of Goldland a few years after that. Gamewright had a game called The Legend of Landlock that was a good example, and asymmetric to boot -- one player plays "streams" and the other plays "paths". And maybe Chartae is kid-compatible? Not sure.


Deck-building

Deck building should be hard for kids because fundamentally, deck building is weird. I'm acquiring these items, which the fickle finger of fate is then going to re-bestow upon me in clumps at some future time. That doesn't make any sense! And so I wonder whether there has yet been a deckbuilder whose deck-building made thematic sense, maybe Xenon Profiteer? Anyway it seems that Abandon All Artichokes is pitched at kids so evidently kids can follow the mechanic given the right game.

Set collection/drafting

Set-collecting via drafting should be an easy enough concept for kids to follow, but the trouble is that such games often entail hate-drafting, and worse, accidental hate drafting. "He took the card I wanted!" I wonder if we could conceive of a set collection game in which you meld cards with other players, so it's not so much about possessing everything yourself but making combinations with what other players have. That's really what Happy Salmon does, gets us talking to find how my hand might synergize with something in your hand. Now, how could we do the same thing with a non-party game?

One idea might be a sort of story-telling game, it's a rainy day and we're trying to think of fun stuff to do, so I hold up one of my cards and say what it is and then other players have a chance to put forward one of their own cards and say what those items, when combined, could enable us all to do to pass the time, and then we vote on which of those activities sounds the most fun. Actually that's sort of a party game too.

bluetaj:

I bet there are other familiar mechanics that could be distilled down into kid-friendly forms to help kids learn basic gaming concepts to help ease the transition to more involved family-weight games and beyond. But I think it's also worthwhile, in designing a game that's intended to be family-weight or gateway weight, to be thinking about these kinds of considerations so as to select mechanics that are appropriate for kids, which means avoiding overburdening their cognitive faculties and navigating the particular behavioral "problem spots" that we all remember games eliciting when we were kids!


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Mon Apr 12, 2021 3:31 pm
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This is no ordinary lamp

Jeff Warrender
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One of the most common places designers look for inspiration is mash-ups: "I wonder what happens when I combine Mechanic X and Mechanic Y?" This is a perfectly good starting point. What I think is less common is a game that looks like one kind of game (because of its core mechanic) but actually is informed by the sensibilities of an entirely different kind of game.

In the post about a new gateway game idea, I proposed an idea for a game about attending a theme park (update: playtesting is going very well so far). That game looks like a route-planning/efficiency game: how do I get to all of the rides I have to go on, what is the best order to do that in? But in actual fact, I think it will actually be a game of plate-spinning.

Each player has a row of 4 "person cards". When you go on a ride, you do two things: you move card of the person who liked that ride to the left of the row, and then you place a crankiness token on the person card on the right end of the row. i.e. the person who last got to go on a ride they liked is unhappy, and if you don't get them out of that spot, they'll become more unhappy.

And this is exacerbated by another rule, which says that going on a ride of quality 1/2/3, you place "fun tokens" (scoring) on 1/2/3 person cards starting from the left. So, the rich in your group get richer, which is bad because it's a most-of-the-least scoring system. Thus you're constantly trying to maintain enough flux in your row to maximize your scoring and minimize your exposure to risk (and there are interplayer aspects to the latter), but traveling around the park consumes time so you'd prefer to do things "in order"; all of this feel smuch more like a juggling act than it does like solving a spatial/efficiency puzzle.

bluetaj:

We can think of other examples of this.

sugar Tony has previously observed that Web of Power looks like an area control game but it actually has the logic of a card game.

sugar Ben, in our previously-mentioned episode of the Who What Why cast, mentions how Broom Service actually has the logic of a trick-taking game, with going "brave" akin to playing a trump card.

sugarRoot looks like a VP race but it actually hinges on the kingmaking and king-suppressing logic of classic combative games like, err, well, Munchkin if we're being honest, although I don't think Munchkin was an influence! (And of course the use of VPs make Root different than king-of-the-hill games like Illuminati or Throneworld where points can be taken away).

sugar Ticket to Ride looks like a train game but it's actually more of a rummy game.

sugar Dan has argued that Babylonia actually has the rhythms of bidding games.

sugar Candyland Bidding Game looks like Candyland but it's actually a bidding game. Err, I guess that one is obvious.

sugar James Nathan wrote a fun review in which he compared the gameplay of Northern Pacific to the camouflage applied to British destroyers in WWI!

Maybe we can think of other games in this "looks like X/plays like Y" taxonomy, but the point isn't just a taxonomic exercise. Rather it's that, in trying to create a "looks like/plays like" game maybe we emerge with something new.

One idea I had along these lines was a train game maybe a little like Northern Pacific where we're collectively planning out the routes for some train companies, but we are also playing a sort of trick-taking mechanic to gain permissions from local politicians to send the route through their districts, gaining us political influence with them and then using that influence to steer the routes to our preferred/target destinations. Now this isn't quite a looks like/plays like case because it's explicitly using a trick-taking mechanic, but it's maybe a step along that direction.

bluetaj:

We talked last year about Shannon Appelcline's and Doug Orleans' "grand auction unification theory", that every game is arguably an auction game if you think about it right, and I posited my correction to this that every interactive game is fundamentally a test of mettle.

As we think about this looks like/plays like construct, I'd argue that there are two kinds of mechanic that by their very inclusion take over the entire game.

The first is dexterity. Although there are game like Space Cadets that include dexterity mechanics, generally speaking a game that includes a dexterity system will be perceived as a dexterity game, even if, like Catacombs or ICECOOL or Men at Work there are some other things going on too.

The second is negotiation. Games with negotiation are negotiation games, ipso facto.

I once played a game of Ikusa, which everyone knows is a negotiation game. Everyone except my three opponents, that is. I took one guy aside at the start of the game and suggested "hey, based on the way territories shook out, you and I are going to go through a bloodbath to be able to consolidate. Why don't we move through each other's territories with minimal fighting?" His response: "What, are we playing Diplomacy now?" And the other two players were annoyed that I had attempted to negotiate with the other player. In the minds of these three players, negotiation completely changed the character of the game.

I have seen this in my own designs too. My game Collusion began as an indirect interaction game, the intent being that players have aligned interests but that they were supposed to coordinate their actions indirectly to bring about outcomes that were mutually beneficial. But players kicked at the goads. "Why can't we just talk about this stuff so we can actually coordinate?"

These protestations are what, I suspect, leads designers to include vague not-really-rule statements in their rulebooks like "groups can negotiate, if they want to".

But you can't really prevent scope creep in player negotiations. And moreover, it can violate the spirit of our axiom to design with incentives not restrictions.

Negotiation inherently taps into (some) players' creativity, their desire to sell, to persuade, to concoct, and so once you open the door to negotiation, there is no incentive structure you can put in place that will get your players to make narrowly focused deals, because the more scope you can build into a deal, the more granularity those deals can provide.

"If I go here, you go there" is simple but it's also blunt. "If I go here and attack the badger on this turn, you go there and attack the dragon next turn, and I will support your attack but I want you to pay me 1/3 of the spoils for my help, and I want you to commit to supporting my attacks for the next two turns afterward" is a more elaborate deal, but it also has more scope built into it, and thus it leaves more room for negotiation. "No, I won't support you for the next two turns, only the next turn. And I'm only giving you 1/4 of the spoils".

But the real implication of negotiation taking a game over is that because negotiation can balloon in scope, less stuff can happen overall. Players cannot negotiate quickly. Chinatown and Sidereal Confluence only have six turns. In Chinatown, at least, not all that much "happens" in terms of the changes to the board state, but the time required to accomplish these changes is considerable because negotiation takes time.

bluetaj:

Not every "looks like/plays like" game has to be so comprehensively taken over by its "plays like" mechanic like a negotiation game can. The broader point is that it's worth being on the lookout for ways that including mechanic X in a particular changes the game so fundamentally that it becomes an X game, with decision points and considerations appropriate to X. Sometimes that's a change for the better (Collusion is much better than it ever was before becoming a negotiation game), but the main thing is to be aware when a change of this sort has happened, and decide whether it's a road you want to keep going down.

And while I'm not myself an especially big proponent of the "designers should play games voraciously" school (maybe another post for another day), one advantage of being well versed in different styles of games is that you can mash up, not just mechanics, but styles and core considerations, to come out with something quite distinctive.


bluetaj:

One minor note: You Said This Would Be Fun turns one later this week. It is still selling, so apparently the world has not quite yet had its fill of game design pontification from BGG's 6500th best game's designer.

You've all been a vital part of this journey, from participating in the discussions that led to the book to reading the book and even saying some very nice things about it. I really enjoy being a part of this community and just want to thank you all in as non-cheesy a way as I can for helping to make this little book a success!


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Wed Apr 7, 2021 1:35 am
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We got a winner

Jeff Warrender
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It is my pleasure to announce that our March Madness victor is ...

sugarindigocorncoffeeThe Chronicles of Narnia!coffeecornindigosugar

Kudos to Adam for taking home the ultimate prize. Please have a look at Adam's chosen charity, the John Paul II Medical Research Institute.

I'm a big fan of Lewis's work. My favorite is The Great Divorce, well worth a read (only 100 pages). It's sort of Lewis's take on Milton and Dante or something like that.

Congrats are also in order for Cube, for defeating Icosahedron for 3rd place. The venerable d6 is a workhorse but the d20 is a lot more flashy. But the cube as a form finds so many uses in so many games, it's tough to go against that, and so no great surprise that it held steady for 3rd. Kudos to Russ for bagging two of the coveted slots in the final four.

And with that, our tournament comes to a close! Thanks to everyone for submitting entries and voting. I hope it was fun.

Poll
Should we do this tournament again next March?
      44 answers
Poll created by jwarrend


bluetaj:

For today's post, here's a discussion that started on Twitter and that made me do a calendar check, but sure enough it was not, in fact, April 1 on the day that it happened.

I've mentioned before that in college I played guitar in a 3-piece jazz/funk combo. We were pretty good. Or rather, the bassist and drummer were prodigies and I was mediocre, so we averaged out to pretty good. Anyway at that time I was listening to indie jazz/funk groups, and since we talked about obscurity the other day, here are two jazz-funk groups worth remembering. The first was a four-piece that happened to be playing in front of the T stop in Harvard Square one day. Called Soulwork, they had everything our little group had AND a great vocalist. Then there was a CT-based female combo, Swivelhips. My favorite song of theirs was called "Candyland". You can still find it, sort of, at their website, though it requires a download. http://www.swivelhips.com/jukebox.shtml

As for Soulwork, it looks like it's possible to buy their CD at Tower Records, and I guess their singer Skip Jennings is now a spiritual instructor or something.

bluetaj:

Last week, NOT on April 1, game developer John Brieger started a twitter extoling the virtues of Candy Land, a game that was originally created as an amusement for kids in polio wards. The kids loved it, but it's not much of a game, not really. But John takes the view that the specific design choices made by its creator, Eleanor Abbott, are vital to its success, and are worthy of study and emulation by designers to understand what great game design truly entails.

Brieger is right up to a point. As I've argued here, there is a place for situational design: a game that's perfect for a particular audience or person or setting. My game "Disney Fairies" may or may not be a good game but as a gift for my daughter's 8th birthday it was perfect. There's a place for this.

But Brieger sticking up for Candyland isn't the absurd part. A few people, myself included, pushed back against his argument (note to self: don't ever do this, it's not worth it). I observed that Candyland, while commendably responding to the needs of kids at a time of great stress for them, was nevertheless maybe not something designers should study, in particular because of the fact that it's possible for the game to never end. If you draw a card that sends you backward, backward you go, and this can go on (for what feels like) forever. Same thing Chutes and Ladders.

Well, the level of apoplexy this triggered was astounding. At least a half dozen people, none of whom I know in the slightest, took issue with everything I said. The looping is part of the fun. Adults like me can't understand the mind of a child. I don't know what an axiom is. And so on. And a dozen more people besides upvoted all of these rebuttals. I never anticipated Candyland would have such a stalwart fan base. I somewhat despair for the future of boardgaming if this is a hill so many are willing to die on!

bluetaj:

But it brings up the perennial question, what is good game design? But maybe there's a more relevant question we can sometimes ask, which is, is this particular thing a great game or a great product?

Developers like Brieger will say there's no difference (in fact, he did say that). To me, the difference is quite simple: if you stripped away all of the "product" aspects of the thing, just played it in its prototype form, would you say "that's a great game!" or not? If not, then its success might have more to do with its production than its gameplay. Of course some games are both.

Since we love polls, let's think about some popular games along these lines:

Poll
Great game or great product?
  Great game Great product Both
Candyland
Wingspan
Puerto Rico
Race for the Galaxy
Scythe
Gloomhaven
Pandemic
Ticket to Ride
7 Wonders
Hanabi
Codenames
Disney Villainous
Magic the Gathering
      80 answers
Poll created by jwarrend


bluetaj:

Finally, the obligatory game design idea of the day.

I suggested in John's twitter thread a variant of Candyland whereby, each turn we reveal a card and everyone bids, high bidder claims the card and moves to the next space of that color.

Ties are friendly, but whoever of the involved players is furthest back gets to claim the card. And then you can trade in sets of cards to claim a "conveyance" card (ocean steamer, hot air balloon, elephant, whatever) to access the shortcuts (i.e. you don't have to land on them if you have the right conveyance card).

To play quickly, the bidding probably wants to be simultaneous, but maybe it's done via giving everyone a wheel numbered 1-6 (no abstaining?) so you can't get yourself in trouble with overbidding too much, which is probably important if it's a kids' game.

Since there's apparently a push to make games about obscure Disney properties, my first instinct is to make this one a game based on the Adventurer's Club. You're trying to travel around the world and have interesting adventures and be the first to return to the club to share your exploits. I don't know, maybe.

It's a simple enough game to mock up, we'll see if anything comes of it. Kungaloosh!

From gallery of jwarrend


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Thu Apr 1, 2021 6:00 am
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The best songs will never get sung

Jeff Warrender
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I've only been to Europe once, on a work trip to the Netherlands. I had a chance to go to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, which houses a ton of paintings by the Dutch masters but most famously Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. And in Amsterdam, I was able to take a guided tour of the Van Gogh museum. I'm not a big art enthusiast but my wife always had a great love of Monet's paintings, and having gone to a big Monet exhibit at the MFA Boston I was quite excited by the Van Gogh museum, and his distinctive take on impressionism. My excitement built and built the further we went through the museum, knowing that we were getting closer and closer to seeing Starry Night, which surely they were holding off till the end. With each painting we saw, my excitement became unbearable! And then, finally, the guide brought us to...a few of his sunflower paintings, and thanked us for taking the tour.

"But, won't we be seeing Starry Night?"

"Oh, that's at the Met, in New York City." [side note: 2.5 hours from where I live]

It was real there's-no-basement-at-the-Alamo moment, I must tell you.

bluetaj:

My daughter, a talented painter in her own right, has recently taken an interest in Van Gogh, and read a biography that she recounted to me as she went along. Many of the details of his life jogged my memory of things I had learned about him on that tour. The most interesting was that he was mostly lonely and his work mostly unappreciated during his lifetime. This seems unimaginable to us now, but it's sad to think of so great a genius toiling away in obscurity, sad and disaffected by his inability to get anyone to notice or care about his work.

He is far from the only famous creator to have had such an experience. Emily Dickinson died mostly unpublished and mostly unknown. English poet Francis Thompson didn't die in obscurity, but did spend years living on the streets, addicted to opium, struggling to find an audience for his poetry. And so on.

Stories like these provide a weird sort of comfort to creative types: "maybe my work will be discovered and become famous after my death!" We have to admit this is a bit unlikely for game designers, since games need relentless busking to even make it to market. But still, it's always possible, one supposes.

bluetaj:

Last year I noted my appreciation for a Wilco song, "The Late Greats", and though I know you've all sought it out on Spotify and committed its lyrics to memory, here's a quick recap for our new members:

The greatest lost track of all time: Late Greats, Turpentine
You can't hear it on the radio
You can't hear it anywhere you go

The best band (who) will never get signed: Kay-Setts starring Butcher's Blind
So good you will never know
They never even played a show
You can't hear them on the radio

The best songs will never get sung
The best life never leaves your lungs
So good you will never know
You'll never hear it on the radio

The point I made at that time and that I think is still true is that there's something cool about having been there when great music was being made and great music was being played, whether or not it went on to become popular.

bluetaj:

Here's a story that goes like that. We homeschooled our daughters, and one day read on a local homeschool group message board that a homeschooling family bluegrass band was passing through town. We went to check out the show and support our fellow homeschoolers, and holy cow they could play! The girls (teens, twins) were beautiful singers with piercing harmonies, the boy (pre-teen) was a fiddle prodigy, the Mom was obviously the manager and a bit of a stage-Mom, but it was clear the kids were the star of the show.

We bought a couple of their CDs, and here the story gets a bit personal. My son has had a number of medical procedures, many of them in a different city. Whenever we would go there, he would struggle to fall asleep in the city's Ronald McDonald House (incidentally: an excellent charity to support). So we'd go out for a long drive, and throw in the Amber Waves Band's CD; their music helped him relax and the CD was exactly the length for him to fall asleep.

Their kids grew up and I don't think they're still playing, and they never played at the Ryman or anything, but for a few years they made great music and it made a difference in lives like my family's.

bluetaj:

I'm thinking about obscurity and flickering candles like these lately because a couple of my very best games are really struggling to get any notice whatsoever with publishers. It's possible they're not as good as I think! But either way, they are clearly not making enough of an impression that publishers even want to play them, and so it's natural to think at this point that maybe nothing will come of them. Maybe nothing will come of any of these new games I'm working on, either. I suspect a lot of designers struggle with similar feelings.

bluetaj:

But working on my new theme park game (maybe also destined for obscurity!) has indirectly taught me something valuable. In that game, you score by placing tokens onto your group members as you go on rides. I call these "fun points" or "magic points", but what they actually represent are memories. (Incidentally this also explains why "crankiness" doesn't provide negative scoring at game's end, people only remember the good stuff).

As designers, in seeking to give our players fun experiences, we are giving them happy memories. And that's no less true of why we ourselves work on these games. But there's an important limit. A published game that's played by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand people, hopefully provides some good experiences for its players, and we can take satisfaction in having created something that gave people some fun. But it's all vicarious fun: you don't personally get to partake in the fun that those thousand or however many people are having, you just get to hear about it. The fun experiences you will have are the ones you yourself had playing your game with your friends. Once publication hits, in many cases your fun with that game is all in the rear-view mirror anyway.

The point is that whether your game finds an audience or not, the experiences you shared with friends in the act of creating it have value and give meaning to the game. Its success (or lack thereof), its acclaim (or lack thereof) do not add or subtract from those experiences.

bluetaj:

Happily my story above does have a happy ending: at least some of the Amber Waves Band's music is available online. I know not everyone follows through on the "listening assignments" I provide in these posts, but please, consider spending three minutes on this one, a haunting take on a traditional song; you will not regret it! The best thing about it -- well the best thing is the vocal, let's be honest -- but the second best thing is the disciplined arrangement, how it builds interest and momentum by adding the instruments progressively, holding off on the harmony vocal until late, etc. The recording doesn't do justice to what those vocal harmonies sounded like live, but it's a very good approximation.

And may it serve as a reminder to us all, that even if those candles flicker, even if they go out, they burned once, and the memory of their having burned can't be erased.

bluetaj:

And now, after a couple of close semifinals, we are ready to see who will prevail in our epic finale.

First, we have our third place game, the Battle of the Platonic Ideal Forms.

Poll
3rd Place Match
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Cube
76.7 percent
76.7% 23
Icosahedron
23.3 percent
23.3% 7
Voters 30
This poll is now closed.   30 answers
Poll created by jwarrend
Closes: Thu Apr 1, 2021 6:00 am


And then in our final, the Always Winter and Never Christmas Throwdown, it's:

Poll
Championship
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Snow
35.5 percent
35.5% 11
The Chronicles of Narnia
64.5 percent
64.5% 20
Voters 31
This poll is now closed.   31 answers
Poll created by jwarrend
Closes: Thu Apr 1, 2021 6:00 am


Jadis would be pleased with this finale, but Spring is coming (eventually...in upstate NY we learn to be patient about these kinds of things), however this one turns out!

bluetaj:

And now let's talk briefly about charities. I said a few posts back that I'd make a contribution to the winner's charity of choice, and however things shake out in the championship, I've made a contribution to Adam's chosen charity, the John Paul Medical Institute. Learn more about their work here.


Additionally, in recognition for placing two entries in the final four, I've made a contribution to Russ's chosen charity, the Jack Vasel fund. Read more about their work here.

If you enjoyed this event, consider throwing a fiver (or more if you want) to either of these charities, or any charity that you like!

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Mon Mar 29, 2021 11:42 am
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Son of Co-op

Jeff Warrender
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It was almost a year ago to the day that I famously and controversially declared that Pandemic is not a co-op. My reasoning, which I still stand by, was that Pandemic is purely a game of coordination; there is no self-sacrifice, other than the "go-along-to-get-along" which admittedly requires a little bit of humility. I contrasted this with The Lord of the Rings, in which players can sacrifice themselves and be eliminated from the game, which I consider to more accurately model real-world cooperation. We each have a self-interest (continuing to participate in the game) but we can (and must) suppress our self-interest for the good of the collective. That's cooperation in the Jeff sense.

bluetaj:

It was recently announced, in the New York Times of all places, (and later here at BGG) that Matt Leacock is hard at work on a daughter game to Pandemic, Daybreak. Daybreak is a cooperative game in which players work together to end climate change.

Now, there are a lot of things we could latch onto in a game design blog post: stuff like "when is it advisable to announce an in-progress game design?" (some designers are very secretive, some--like me--will basically just come out and tell you everything), or "how to model a complex phenomenon in game mechanics without trivializing the subject?", or "how do we design a game that has a strong message without being trite?", or political stuff, and so on.

But because this is just a spontaneous post and the next real post is hitting tomorrow, I'm simply going to observe that Daybreak, unlike Pandemic, has the potential to be a co-op in the Jeff sense, because each player represents a nation, and in the real world nations have self-interest. That is the very nature of being a nation, one might say: a massive in-group that looks out for its own self-interest primarily and fundamentally.

Time will tell whether this possibility for Daybreak will be realized; it depends on the mechanics. I will predict not, simply because the game is billed as a co-op, whereas probably this subject wants to be a semi-co-op. We each have goals and interests, but if the planet heats up too much (or whatever) we all lose. That would force us to grapple with real tragedy of the commons problems, which are going to be barriers to any international effort to any problem in which self-abnegation is supposed to be a key component.

I predict Daybreak will instead be infused with the kum-ba-yah ethos of Pandemic, in which we all band together because it's the right thing to do, and self-interest isn't a concern; it's merely whether we coordinate our efforts efficiently enough. That's not a wrong direction to go in, it's simply an artistic choice, and to make such a choice would be to take a positive and upbeat we-can-do-it approach to the subject. That's a valid artistic decision, it just means that it's still not a co-op in the Jeff sense, which I suspect is hardly a concern of the presumably very wealthy Matt Leacock!

But anyway, let's keep an eye on it and we'll see!

bluetaj:

March Madness final starts tomorrow; we go through the wardrobe and past the lamppost to see if it's the snow, or the land covered by it, that truly have the March Magic!

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Sun Mar 28, 2021 11:47 am
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Yipee ki-yay, Yipee ki-yo, ghost writers in the sky

Jeff Warrender
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Most games start with a theme or a mechanic, but a few (e.g. Abandon All Artichokes) start with a title. A few months back a title came to me, "from beyond" as it were: Ghostwriters.

Step 1 (Ch 3) is "who do we represent?". There have been plenty of games about ghosts -- Geist, Ghosts of the Moor, Ghost Stories, Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters. Ghosts apparently communicate through images (Mysterium), or through occult means (Medium), but communication is never perfect.

In many of these games, ghosts want to help solve crimes. (Attentive readers might recall this was a possible direction for a Pepper's ghost illusion game I previously proposed). But I think our title suggests a fun central conceit: we have been hired to write biographies (of famous people?), but we are terrible writers, so we enlist the help of ghosts. And since it contains the word "write", the burgeoning roll-and-write genre seems an obvious medium to capture this imperfect communication between realms.

So, ghosts would communicate to us through dice, which each provide a single word, a bit like Rory's Story Cubes. I think we have several d12s, each of which has a corresponding look-up table of high frequency words. So you'd roll dice and write a sentence that includes one or several of the words you rolled, then repeat a few times, maybe crossing out words as you use them.

I think, during setup, we each wrote down the name of a famous person, who is the subject of our work, and those are distributed randomly. I think maybe we also assemble a two-word subtitle from rolling two d12s and grabbing a word from two word lists. So maybe we get "Mother Teresa, the lecherous cad" or "Barry White, the insouciant genius". The point is you're not just forced to write about this person, you're given a particular angle, which will often be a misfit or perhaps completely incoherent. That's why you need the ghosts to help!

bluetaj:

Then comes the hard part, the thing we found to be the hard part of Poetica: how do you score a creative work for its quality? What objective criteria are there? For Poetica we abandoned any pretense of trying to find one, and went fully subjective in the scoring. For a R&W, you can't do that, because the whole point is the ability of the game to permit massively parallel play.

But the answer may not be entirely hopeless, either. Computer scientists are training computers to write stories via machine learning algorithms. The program is fed a bunch of story fragments or excerpts, it assimilates these and generates a story, which is usually amusingly terrible, and then it is "graded" in a way that trains the network so as to do a better job the next time around. Repeat the process a bunch of times and eventually the network can produce something that's at least intelligible (though usually still amusing).

The question for us is, how does it learn? How do we teach it to make a story better? There must be some objective criterion we can impose on stories that can help train a story-generating algorithm, and if we knew that criterion, we could use THAT as the basis for our story-writing scoring system.

bluetaj:

Well, the answer turns out to be a bit disappointing. I looked up a paper about this and the objective criterion they use to evaluate an algorithm's performance is, how often does it repeat itself? For example, one story this paper's algorithm generated is: "Anna was cutting her nails. She cut her finger and cut her finger. Then she cut her finger. It was bleeding! Anna had to bandage her finger."

But then they drop the hammer:

Quote:

For a creative generation task such as story generation, reliable automatic evaluation metrics to assess aspects such as interestingness, coherence are lacking. Therefore, we rely on human evaluation to assess the quality of generation. We conduct pairwise comparisons, and provide users two generated stories, asking them to choose the better one.
What a let-down! But they do at least give us something of possible utility: namely, that they evaluate the stories with four criteria: fidelity to the prompt (the algorithm is given a story title to start), coherence (does the story make sense?), interestingness, and overall preference.

bluetaj:

And here we come at last to the real point of the March Madness tournament: to illustrate the idea the potential utility of pairwise comparisons as the basis for a subjective scoring system. We hopefully chuckled a bit at trying to compare disparate things like the color Yellow and Kang the Conqueror. Deciding "which is the best?" may not be easy were we to look at all 64 entries simultaneously, but "which of these two things do I like more?" forces you to decide, and thus if we moved such decisions internal to a game we could give players a fun experience after the fun experience of creation.

bluetaj:

Here's how I think it works for Ghostwriters.

sugar After writing concludes, each player is dealt N-1 cards, face-up, which say one of three things: "Coherence", "Appropriateness" (did it fit the prompt?), and "Interestingness".

sugar During setup, each player is given a set of comparison cards that name themselves and one opponent. Say I'm "red", for example; I'm given cards that say "red/green", "red/blue", and "red/purple".

sugar So now we go around one at a time, each time giving one of our comparison cards to other players (but I can't give "red/green" to the green player, of course) until everyone has N-1.

sugar Then, each player must assign one scoring criterion card to each comparison card, and then give the criterion card as 1 point to the "winner" of that matchup, according to their own subjective judgment as to which of the two was more [coherent/interesting/appropriate].

The point, then, is that while you're trying to write a story that's interesting AND coherent AND that fits the prompt, all the while making use of randomly-given words -- a daunting task! -- your story's coherence only matters to the extent that it's being directly compared to a particular opponent.

Say that I think my story is more coherent that Blue's, and I see you (Green) holding two "coherence" cards. Maybe I give the red/blue card to you, then, hoping you'll award me one of those coherence cards. Or alternatively, say my story is completely incoherent but it's funny, so maybe I try to give my comparison cards preferentially to other players who have more criterion cards in "interestingness" or "appropriateness".

bluetaj:

The point of all this is to say that in creativity-based games, but perhaps in other game types as well, we can use pairwise comparisons between players to make subjective scoring, if not more objective, at least more interesting and perhaps even something players can harness and make intelligent decisions about.

bluetaj:

Incidentally, it's worth noting that I wrote the original draft of this post a month or two ago, I've since become aware of a forthcoming game entitled Ghost Writer, which looks to be a clue-giving guess-the-hidden-word type of game with some twists to how the clues are given. Very different from the game in this post in every way. But I think it's on KS now or soon will be, so check it out if interested.


bluetaj:

And now the moment we've all been waiting for, we're down to our final four!

sugar Snow
indigo Icosahedron
tobacco Cube
coffee Chronicles of Narnia

Unbelievable that two platonic solids are still alive, and there's the potential for an epic dice battle in our final, depending on how these semifinals go down.

Pack a bag and let's get movin'!

Poll
Semifinal 1
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Snow
57.6 percent
57.6% 19
Icosahedron
42.4 percent
42.4% 14
Voters 33
Semifinal 2
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Cube
48.6 percent
48.6% 17
Chronicles of Narnia
51.4 percent
51.4% 18
Voters 35
This poll is now closed.   35 answers
Poll created by jwarrend
Closes: Thu Mar 25, 2021 6:00 am


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Mon Mar 22, 2021 12:00 pm
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Precious and few are the moments that you and your own worst enemy share

Jeff Warrender
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I wrote a post last year about solo testing, which I use as my primary means of testing my games. There's a benefit I didn't entirely capture that's worth underscoring here: solo-testing can give you a good read on balance.

The conventional wisdom approach to playtesting is to play with lots of different people, maybe even blind-testing, etc. That's fine advice as long as you know why you're doing it: it is, mostly, to get a large number of people's first impressions of the game, so you can get a feel for how accessible and appealing the game is.

But balance is quite a tricky thing to extract from playtesting, actually. Unless you only ever play with the exact same players, your players will have different experience levels with your game. They will vary in their native intelligence, in their engagement, in their aptitude for this style of game. These variables make outcome data difficult to interpret. Thus the your only hope for finding whether the game is balanced is to amass a lot of data from a lot of sessions and see how it looks in the aggregate; what do average scores tend to look like? Now this is not helpful for some games, for which proximity to victory can't be measured strictly by score, and so finding the average score and even the standard deviation doesn't tell you much about balance. But either way, your measurements of balance, whatever they are, are a convolution of the actual balance of the game's systems and the inherent differences between your players, and deconvolving them is not always possible.

If you could do a control experiment, where all players were the same, you could remove a lot of that variability. And lo and behold, solo testing provides exactly that.

When I see scores starting to get closer and closer in my solo tests, it indicates to me that the balance is getting better. If that never happens, it means either that (a) I don't understand how to play the game well (a bad sign if the designer can't figure it out) or (b) the game is chaotic and there isn't sufficient rhyme or reason to how players score. Both of these indicate changes are needed.

Now of course it's possible and even likely that other players will eventually go on to discover better heuristics than my own, so my solo-tests don't represent optimal play, but they at least show fairness across [seats, roles, positions, etc] and they make it much easier to answer the question, "Ok, blue won; why did blue win?" And since it's just you, it takes all ego out of these conversations. "I should have won, I played the best game!" Well, actually... But there's none of that when it's just you against yourself.

People speak of solo testing as though it's only useful for early alpha testing, but I think actually it has quite a useful role to play in late beta testing as well.

bluetaj:

And now, the Ides of March befall two of the contestants in our last two regional championships, after which we will have rounded out our Final Four:

tobacco region

Poll
Match 59
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Cube
53.3 percent
53.3% 16
San Francisco
46.7 percent
46.7% 14
Voters 30
This poll is now closed.   30 answers
Poll created by jwarrend
Closes: Wed Mar 17, 2021 6:00 am


coffee region

Poll
Match 60
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Octahedron
40.0 percent
40.0% 12
Chronicles of Narnia
60.0 percent
60.0% 18
Voters 30
This poll is now closed.   30 answers
Poll created by jwarrend
Closes: Wed Mar 17, 2021 6:00 am


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Mon Mar 15, 2021 12:00 pm
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No one cares how the trick is done

Jeff Warrender
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If you have Hulu, you could do worse than to spend 90 minutes watching In and Of Itself, a one-man show by Derek Delgaudio. For the first 30 minutes or so you're disoriented by the performance, trying to figure out exactly what kind of performance this is. Then a couple of things happen and you say, "aha, ok, I see now, it's [X]", because a few genre expectations click into place. And the next 30 minutes go along smoothly enough and you say, "ok, yup, this is compatible with my genre expectations", and then the final 30 minutes blow all of that to smithereens and you're back to having no idea what you just witnessed. It's quite remarkable. Please, no spoilers in the comments!

bluetaj:

There's a related thought we can think when we think about our previous post about minimalism and maximalism. As designers, and frankly as gamers, we fixate perhaps a bit too much on the inside-baseball aspects of game playing.

This is of course something I say a lot. We've previously discussed how a game's "hook" isn't its fancy action selection mechanic, it's the player experience the game delivers, and how the player's goal should be driving the car of the experience, and so on. Good design is player-centered and is focused on the player experience, not on the player's level of obsession with game geekery.

To get the right mindset, think about some art form that you enjoy but aren't yourself a practitioner of: perhaps music if you aren't a musician, or literature if you aren't a writer. The famous Rolling Stone music critic Robert Christgau (a person of controversial tastes to be sure) said that he wasn't himself a trained musician, he just reacted to the music as he heard it, which he felt gave him an honesty that resonated with his audience. The best game reviewers, people like Dan and Ben, are certainly steeped in the arcane knowledge of the hobby, but they don't obsess over the clockwork, they talk about how the game feels, what the game means.

It's fun to talk shop with specialists, but the specialist is rarely the work's intended audience. The audience the filmmaker is aiming for isn't the person who understands the difference between 80mm and 135mm, or how exactly you achieved that long running shot. The filmmaker is trying to produce an effect on the audience, and the filmstock or the lens or the dolly shot are all included for the effect they create. The musician doesn't need the audience to know that the guitar was tuned in dropped D or that the transition from a suspended 4th minor chord to a dominant MAJ 7th chord requires an especially intricate pinky maneuver, they only care about the effect that the sounds the instruments create have on them.

We would do well to think about our games the same way. BGG convinces us that everyone who likes games must care about a reductionist, taxonomical approach to gaming. "Oh, this is clearly a kind of auction, but let's really think about it to see exactly what kind of auction we'd consider it to be, is it continuous or continuous-with-allowed-reentry or is it ante up without folds, let us ponder this deeply." The average game player doesn't care a whit about any of that crap. They just want to have fun playing a game that challenges them, and so the emphasis for us should be how our games create that effect, not on how clever we are for coming up with that auction mechanic that defies easy taxonomic reduction.

bluetaj:

As a practical illustration of this, Nick Bentley has reported a few times over the last year that his employer, Underdog Games, is selling games like gangbusters. Have you even heard of their two games, Trekking the National Parks and Trekking the World? They don't have many owners at BGG and their ratings at BGG are just ok. And yet, despite not being big hits among BGG Geeks, they are finding an audience and selling very well. It supports the idea that there are a lot of potential game players out there who aren't versed in the arcane ways of board game geekdom, but who nevertheless enjoy playing games. But it seems to me that most (American, at least) publishers are themselves game geeks, and design and market their game primarily to other geeks. That's understandable, because it's easier to market to the customer you understand than one that you have to go out and acquire. But Underdog, at least, seems to have taken the more ambitious path of venturing out of the four walls of Fortress Geek, and it's encouraging to hear that it's paying off for them; perhaps other games will be motivated by their success to take similar risks.

Here's a short post Nick wrote about their business model.


bluetaj:

And now we are down to eight in our March Madness tournament! We have kept up a brisk pace thus far, but we have plenty of March ahead of us for the remaining three rounds, so we'll resolve fewer matches per post and probably put each one on a shorter time table.

sugar regional final:

Poll
Match 57
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Metal coins
40.5 percent
40.5% 17
Snow
59.5 percent
59.5% 25
Voters 42
This poll is now closed.   42 answers
Poll created by jwarrend
Closes: Sat Mar 13, 2021 6:00 am


indigo regional final:

Poll
Match 58
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Icosahedron
61.0 percent
61.0% 25
"Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries"
39.0 percent
39.0% 16
Voters 41
This poll is now closed.   41 answers
Poll created by jwarrend
Closes: Sat Mar 13, 2021 6:00 am


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Wed Mar 10, 2021 5:54 am
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More is more

Jeff Warrender
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Readers here know that I argue for game design principles that are more minimalist both in construction and aesthetic. Indeed, in last week's post about games every designer should play (and in the subsequent discussion) we talked about one-mechanic games, both for their illustrative value and their value as good games, their ability to clarify the action for the players.

I heard about a game the other day that I think is characteristic of what a lot of newer games sound like to me: "it's worker placement plus tableau building plus tons of different scoring cards." Admittedly this one was a bit restrained, usually there's also resource management, dice manipulation, and the left-handed Enkleman tworsh mechanic to boot!

But I think it's important to emphasize that the important thing isn't the minimalism per se, it's the philosophy that underpins the minimalism. And concomitantly it's not that maximalism is bad, it's that the philosophy that attends maximalism often needs correction.

Specifically, maximalism is frequently reductionist: as though all one has to do to make an interesting game is to cobble together a bunch of disparate parts and surely something very cool will emerge. That's rarely true, because a good game isn't made good by its fancy clockwork, it's made good by having a keen eye for the real purpose of the game, which is to promote an interesting and challenging contest.

This doesn't mean, though, that every game has to be simple, it just means that we need to think of the moving parts of the game in terms of how they contribute to the experience of the game. Sometimes a good game needs a number of moving parts to achieve its experience. That's fine, but let us not confuse the game with the parts that it comprises.

Here's an illustration of this principle, a great rendition of a Richard Thompson song, "Beat the Retreat", by folk artist June Tabor. You'd think a folk song could mostly get by with vocals and acoustic guitar, or maybe at the most a bluegrass backing band (fiddle, banjo, mandolin, upright bass). This arrangement features three guitars, all played by talented musicians: Martin Carthy on acoustic, James Burton on electric and David Lindley on electric slide. But it would be a mistake to think that in saying "this is Beat the Retreat with three guitars", we've said anything remotely interesting or useful. The interest comes entirely from the execution, in how the instruments are used, and more importantly in this case, how much latitude the musicians are given to do what they're good at. Is it possible for a game to give its mechanics, or its players, room to run, room to explore, room to do what they're good at? Great music always makes me think about how to implement ideas like this in games.

Anyway, take five minutes out of your day for this lovely song:



And now to more timely matters, we are in our "sweet sixteen" for the March madness tournament, with a couple of the last round's matches having ended in buzzer beaters and some surprises surely in store this time!

sugar

Poll
1. Match 49
2. Match 50
      37 answers
Poll created by jwarrend


indigo

Poll
1. Match 51
2. Match 52
      37 answers
Poll created by jwarrend



tobacco

Poll
1. Match 53
2. Match 54
      37 answers
Poll created by jwarrend


coffee

Poll
1. Match 55
2. Match 56
      37 answers
Poll created by jwarrend


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Sun Mar 7, 2021 9:47 am
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This feels familiar

Jeff Warrender
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Game designer and graphic designer Daniel Solis said something on Twitter that echoes an important principle we talk about here, and that comes up early on in Ch 3:



Yes! So many new game ideas are so samey in their blandness, amass the most valuable resources to impress the best nobles blah blah blah. Not to say you can't make a good game on a bland foundation, but that in aspiring to more exciting foundations we can aspire to more exciting games as well.

The "rule of three" starting point for a new game idea (not prescriptive, but sometimes helpful) is to identify who the player represents, what such a person would be pursuing, and what the person would encounter as an obstacle in the pursuit of that aim. Role, Goal, Struggle.

And so, finding more interesting answers to the question "who do I represent?" is the second greatest opportunity area for innovation. The greatest is more interesting goals, which will lead to more interesting scoring concepts. Because scoring rules govern how players play the game, fretting from an early time about scoring innovation should preoccupy the vast majority of a putative innovator's thinking! But an interesting role will do in a pinch.

bluetaj:

But there's another point that we can draw out of Daniel's post. It is that too often we equate being innovative with identifying an innovative setting. "It's a game about hospital ombudsmen". "It's a game about boll weevil eradication methods." Novel settings are of course a perfectly good place to look for new ideas, but in my experience they carry two problems.

First, a setting that is unfamiliar to players or doesn't resonate with them won't necessarily create the engagement that the game's story is supposed to provide. They won't possess any intuition about what the game's mechanics are supposed to entail, and they may not have any particular desire or excitement to explore this unfamiliar world.

Second, not every setting lends itself straightforwardly to "gamification", and so figuring out the other parts of the equation -- role, goal, struggle -- aren't necessarily made easier even if you've found something quite novel. And worse, in many cases, unable to find anything particular useful to do with the setting, designers resort to familiar approaches that reduce to "acquire the best resources to impress the best nobles", but in different dress: this is chrome-theming, something we want to avoid.

Thus, in thinking differently about players' roles within already-familiar settings, we capitalize on the engagement that the setting already provides, and can build the mechanics on intuitive foundations we know the players already (are likely to) possess.

For example, maybe it's a building game, but we are each, in addition to the city planners, in the employ of a different material supplier (concrete, wood, glass, steel) and so each of us looks especially favorably on one particular type of construction but we don't want to let on what our favorite is or we could get hit with a corruption lawsuit. Or we are the trusted advisors of prospective heirs to the kingdom, but we don't particularly want the responsibilities of ruling, so we are out searching for lookalikes that can stand in for our heir at official events, allowing our employer to live a carefree life. Or whatever, those are off the top of my head, there are tons of possibilities.

The twist comes, then, not from the novel theme, but in the way we subvert the players' expectations, and that is almost always as delightful (or in many cases, more so) than presenting them with something truly unfamiliar. People say they want new and unfamiliar experiences, but they don't really mean it; too unfamiliar and they have no reference points on which to build a heuristic understanding of "what is this thing?" Give them what they actually want, not what they say they want!

bluetaj:

And now, on to our Round 2 matchups! It's Thursday, so let's say voting on these will conclude sometime late on Saturday night, and the next round will begin on Sunday or Monday.

sugar region

Poll
Match 33
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Chwazi
47.5 percent
47.5% 19
New Orleans
52.5 percent
52.5% 21
Voters 40
Match 34
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Metal coins
74.4 percent
74.4% 29
Kang the Conqueror
25.6 percent
25.6% 10
Voters 39
Match 35
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
Snow
48.7 percent
48.7% 19
Dodecahedron
51.3 percent
51.3% 20
Voters 39
Match 36
 Choices Your Answer  Bars Vote Percent Vote Count
"Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn"
39.0 percent
39.0% 16
Purple (game piece color)
61.0 percent
61.0% 25
Voters 41
This poll is now closed.   41 answers
Poll created by jwarrend
Closes: Mon Mar 8, 2021 6:00 am


indigo region

Poll
1. Match 37
2. Match 38
3. Match 39
4. Match 40
      43 answers
Poll created by jwarrend


tobacco region

Poll
1. Match 41
2. Match 41
3. Match 43
4. Match 44
      43 answers
Poll created by jwarrend


coffee region

Poll
1. Match 45
2. Match 46
3. Match 47
4. Match 48
      43 answers
Poll created by jwarrend


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Thu Mar 4, 2021 10:02 am
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