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Visualizing the BGG Game Database with Gephi. Whoa!

Oliver Kiley
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So I stumbled into an interesting post over at r/boardgames from reddit user Shepperstein, who had downloaded a trove of data from BGG’s database. He then used Gephi to create some fantastic network models (aka graphs) depicting relationships between game categories. Very cool stuff. I urge you to check out his post and links to his analysis.

Of course, I immediately wanted to start playing around with the data myself!

Fortunately, I’m no stranger to excel AND I used Gephi several years ago, so I was already familiar with its basic functionality. Shepperstein also kindly provided a direct link to his database, so I could tap into that information directly. Are we excited yet?



Even more, this would prove to be an opportunity to tackle something I’ve long wanted to do. If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I’ve always had an interest in game classification and taxonomy. In particular, I’ve had a long-standing attraction to Selwyth’s Alternative Classification of Boardgames, which provides a comprehensive rework of BGG’s category and mechanism descriptors.

One of the challenges has always been finding a way (or perhaps simply the motivation) to “remap” BGG’s category + mechanism descriptors into new classes (based on Selwyth’s approach for example). Ideally, these classes would better reflect the nature of the individual descriptors. For example, the 80+ descriptors in the category field are a total hodge-podge of thematic items (“farming” or “trading in the mediterranean”, etc.), mechanisms, domains (i.e. Wargame or Party Game), and more besides. Likewise the mechanism attribute contains stuff that aren’t really mechanisms at all.

Long story short, I remapped all of the categories and mechanisms from BGG’s system over to an “alternative” system. You can check out the category-mechanism reclassification tables to see what I did, if you’re so inclined. Armed with these reclassified tables and a trove of BGG database… uhh… data… I set about pulling it all into Gephi and having a look at what I could do.

In contrast to Shepperstein’s work, I wanted to use Gephi to visualize not just the BGG categories, but also the Mechanisms, AND do it in a way such that the final output would give an indication what new class the descriptors would fall into. I wanted it so that things Selwyth classified as mechanisms or genre would be identified as such. Of course I also needed to balance this with the ability to logically discern groupings (aka “communities”) of related attributes.

The image below shows the culmination of this effort. If you want to read it, you really need to expand the image link and make it full screen. Have at it, and I’ll provide some discussion below.




A few technical notes about the above analysis.

(1) The database from Shepperstein only includes games from 1990 to 2018, although that still reflects tens of thousands of games, and also tends to be things more recent and more likely to be tagged with mechanisms and categories.

(2) In Gephi, I excluded node records (i.e. the list of descriptors) with less than 50 games using that category. Likewise, I excluded games where the “weight” of connections between any two descriptors was less than 40. This means that if there aren’t more than 40 games that both share a pairing of any two attributes, then the relationship is ignored. With over 18,000 node connections, it made sense to prune out the ones with a fairly minimal impact.

(3) The fainter-shaded outer circles/colors around the nodes correspond to my reclassified descriptors discussed above.

(4) The colored “community” groupings were based on running a modularity statistic (I have no idea what it’s doing, just for the record), but it results in assigning nodes to groupings based on the relatedness to other nodes. After playing around with the tolerances, it ended up with 11 categories that you see in the brighter colors (e.g. all the “Wargame” related stuff are Red).

Now, I think there some really cool things to come out of this graph and the community groupings. Wargames along with their frequently used mechanics (area movement, campaign/card driven, chit-pulling, point-to-point movement) are all clustered pretty well together. Likewise we see groupings around Party games, which also contains the gamut of social deduction-style games.

Given the plethora of cooperative games with horror/zombie themes, roleplaying elements, and adventure, it was neat to see all those clustered together. Of course, this was pretty well intermingled with fantasy games that leverage variable player-powers, fighting mechanics/genres, miniatures, collectable components (i.e. LCG’s). Science-fiction is likewise ensconced in this zone of the graph.

Economic games are in the bottom right, and constitutes the bulk of what I see as mainline euro-style games. I like the little enclave of Route-Network Building, Transportation-theme, Train-them, Stock holding down there. Aka, the 18xx games and their ilk. I do think there is a high level of alignment with Tile-laying games and eurogames, which is why they also fell into the same community.

Another interesting result is that Area-Control / Area-Influence ended up as it’s own community, and rightly situated between wargames and more euro-style economic games. Area control games tend to have more direct player-to-player interaction on a map, and hence are associated somewhat with their wargaming neighbors. Is this the homeland of the wuero?

Abstract games are down at the bottom, at a logical point between both euro-style economic games (which also tend to be somewhat abstract in nature) and Children’s Games, which are also quite abstract (perhaps as a means of keeping things simple in mechanics - or just that they share some common descriptors?).

In the dead center are a few big communities, including card games and the obviously associated hand management, along with Dice and press your luck type systems. Some of these, like cards and dice are so ubiquitous across domains of games that it’s not at all surprising to see them in the middle of the graph with connections to just about everywhere. I tried excluding them from graph and it basically had no structural impact at all, more or less confirming this assessment. Of course you get things like “take that” games and “trick-taking” games are very closely associated with card games, so I left it in for clarity and completeness.

I also thought it was interesting to compare opposite sides of the graph. Wargames are directly opposite to Children’s games. Highly thematic games in the Fantasy/Fighting, Science fiction, and Cooperative realms are all opposite to Economic (euro-style) games and abstract games. Likewise, games that focus on area control/majority elements and derive much of their deep strategic play from spatial positioning and the like are opposite to party and deduction style games, which emphasize an entirely different sort of player-to-player interactions.

Phew!

Having done all of this, I’m not sure what’s next! I’m tempted to see about refining the database to pull, for example, the top 10,000 ranked games or top 10,000 most owned games - irrespective of year - in order to hone the database around games more likely to be known, as well as grabbing more of the popular (or classic) games from prior to 1990. Much of the database is filled with relatively obscure games or print-and-play projects and don’t reflect fully published and circulated titles. Over 50% of the dataset (~8,200 records) are games with less than 250 owners for example. I also have pulled in BGG ranking data, average weights, number of owned copies, and more - but I’ll need to think more on how to make that interesting.

So for now, I guess it’s time to open the phones! Any reactions? Thoughts or ideas of other ways to slice the data? I’d love to hear from you all. Cheers.
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Fri Aug 31, 2018 2:53 am
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This Thing Called Strategy

Oliver Kiley
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Note: This article is mirrored at eXplorminate, posted July 15, 2016



Geopolitical strategy, circa 1675


For the past few years, a question has been haunting my dreams: What is strategy? A narrower follow up question is: What makes a compelling strategy game?

One reason this question has been bothering me, particularly in terms of 4X or Civilization-style games, is that so often the gameplay does not feel like what strategy is or ought to be, at least for me. If the gameplay isn’t strategy, then what exactly is it? And if I’m not getting what I want out of a strategy game, then what in the heck do I really want?!

I have a number of pet theories floating around these troubling questions, which might help me work towards an answer. Fair warning though, much of this article will be spent in the realm of “pontification” or “theorycrafting.” Back in the old days, we called this “BSing.” You’ve been warned!

That said, the concepts I’m trying to discuss are hard to wrap the mind around (well, my mind anyway), so I’ve tried to break my thinking down into bite-sized morsels. These morsels are parts of a bigger thesis I’m working towards. Usually the thesis statement goes at the beginning, but I’m saving it until the end for dramatic effect.


Simulation, Game, Sandbox, Toy, or Puzzle? Or none of the above?


Games, Contests, Puzzles, and Toys, Oh My!

I’m going to start with something that might ruffle some feathers: many of the games we love to play aren’t really “games” at all. Game designer Keith Burgun, in his hierarchy of interactive forms, describes proper games as a “contest of decision making.” What does that mean? Let’s step back for a moment and consider Burgun’s hierarchy in full.

At the basic level there are toys. Toys are a system of interaction that may have any number of rules (from just a few to a great many) that describes how the system works or operates - but there are no prescribed goals. A big pile of LEGOs on the floor is a perfect example of a toy. It’s a sandbox where you can do whatever you want subject to the constraints (i.e. rules) of how the pieces lock together. Even then, you can break or bend the rules with few repercussions.

Now consider a puzzle. Puzzles are systems of interaction that generally have a single solution or prescribed goal state. A jigsaw puzzle has a correct final arrangement, just as we might follow the instructions to build a LEGO set and arrive at the “goal” of the finished castle/spaceship/hospital. Puzzles generally have optimal or perfect solutions - they are about solving for something.

At the next level are contests. Contests build on the notion of a puzzle by layering in a means of evaluating the result. With a jigsaw puzzle, it is either solved or it’s not. But in a contest, the end result can be measured in some objective way and compared across participants. A running race is a contest to see who can cross the finish line first. We could likewise start a stopwatch and see who can build a certain LEGO set the fastest. Generally however, there are few decisions to make in a contest. The optimal path is usually clear and it comes down to who can execute or solve it better or faster.

Finally we have games. Games introduce the notion of making decisions. The need to make decisions exists because the “optimal paths” to victory are unclear and interlinked with the decisions of other participants. You might not know what move your opponent is going to make, or what the results of a combat encounter will be, or what diplomatic arrangements your enemies are making behind your back. And so you have to make a decision about how to move forward without having perfect information and without knowing the optimal route to accomplish your goal. To round out the LEGO example, consider the game Mobile Frame Zero, which creates a miniature battle “game” out of constructed LEGO robots.

I need to pause for a moment and make an important distinction. Burgun’s use of the word “game” is very specific - and in this article I’m not intending it to replace the more common understanding of a game as a type of media (e.g. a video game or a board game). So, we can have a video game or a board game (or a sports game) that is structurally a puzzle, or a contest, or a toy, or a proper “game.” When referring to Burgun’s definition of a game, I will use the term “game” (in quotes) or the term proper game or strategy game to keep things clear.

Each step in the hierarchy builds on the prior, and so “games” are contests but with the additional element of making decisions. If we think about 4X games, it isn’t hard to imagine one manifesting as any of the four interactive forms. Imagine a 4X game with no opposing empires and no random events. Two players instead play separate instances of the exact setup and we see who gets the highest score at the end of a certain number of turns. We just made a 4X contest. Take out the ability to compare scores, leaving a singular, solved “win state” instead (e.g. transcend or colonize 50 planets!), along with no competing empires, and we just made a 4X puzzle. Strip out any sense of goals, and we have some sort of space colonization sandbox - a toy, or perhaps an empire simulation.


Civilization: A study in internal versus external game mechanics for over 25 years


Internal vs. External Systems

Now that we have a basic understanding of interactive forms, we can examine how different mechanical systems relate to each type of form. In particular, there is an important aspect to 4X game mechanics that drives what sort of interactive form it is: internal versus external systems.

Internal systems relate to gameplay mechanics that exist and operate primarily within and amongst the assets you control directly in the game. In a typical 4X game (Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, etc.), internal systems include city or colony management: production queues, population happiness, tax rates, economic balance, research priorities, etc. Consider this: if there were no other players or empires in the game, which mechanical systems would continue to function more or less as normal? Those are the internal systems.

The external systems are gameplay mechanics that create and/or depend on interactions with forces outside of your control. Most often these are the interactions you have with other players or empires through the likes of military conquest, espionage, diplomacy, trade, foreign relations, and so on. Beyond other players or empires, it could also include asymmetric forces like random events, endgame threats, space amoebas, or other sources of randomness that add chaos and unpredictability to the gameplay. The key aspect to keep in mind about external systems is that they are outside of the player’s control.

These differences are critically important. In order to have strategic gameplay there has to be an engagement with external systems. Why? Because these external systems and resulting interactions, per Burgun’s hierarchy, are what enable a game to be a proper “game” - and not a puzzle or a contest. External forces provide ambiguities, which obfuscate the optimal paths to victory, and in turn create room for strategic play where we can’t be certain whether our long-term decisions will pay off or not. Moreover, being able to navigate these ambiguities better than your opponent is where skill matters in determining the eventual winner. Games that have many levels of skill (e.g. Chess rankings) and more elaborate heuristics, tend to be deeper and more strategic games.

By contrast, the more a game leans on internal systems, the more puzzle- or contest-like it tends to be (e.g. Apollo4X). In most 4X games, for a given setup, there is an optimal path to expand and grow your empire that follows the rules of the game. This optimal solution can exist because there are few (or no) external systems that make the potential results of the decision process unclear. Of course, external pressures might shift or change what you are optimizing towards during the game - but once that shift in direction is decided, the actions that follow are largely self-evident.


In some games, survival is the only form of winning


The Goal of Succeeding versus Surviving

A curious quality to games is the difference between succeeding (e.g. meeting a victory condition) and surviving. Some games are structured around the notion that eventually you will fail to survive. Consider the game Tetris. Eventually, the blocks will fall so quickly that the game becomes mechanically unwinnable, and so the game ends and you get a final score. Burgun’s iOS game Empire is the Tetris of 4X games. Eventually your empire will be overrun by external forces - the challenge is to see how long you can survive and how big your final score will be.

Survival games can also be driven by more passive or internal forces. There are plenty of survival sandbox games these days (The Long Dark is a nice one), and here it is less about keeping ahead of some menacing threat actively trying to kill you and more about managing your own affairs and assets such that they don’t unravel and lead to your demise.

Similarly, Paradox’s grand strategy games tend not to have specific victory conditions. Games usually end when the time period covered by the game is over, and the main question is whether or not you survived to that end point. Players might also establish goals of their own choosing during the game. In this regard, these games function more like Burgun’s “toy” definition - although I’m inclined to call them “simulation sandboxes” given the level of complexity and the potential for “failing to survive.” So does the lack of a defined victory condition make it less of a proper “game?” I’m not sure - but maybe.

Most 4X games, however, concern themselves with the notion of victory and “succeeding” - being the first to reach a goal or victory condition. Granted, there may still be an aspect of survival at work, as other empires may decide to wipe you off the planet (or galaxy)! And so in many 4X games, there is a tension between the need to survive and the need to achieve victory; finding the balance is certainly a question of strategic decision making.

So what then are these strategic decisions?


Civilization. Civilization never changes (Heiko Günther’s Advanced Civ Re-design)


The Balance of Actions

The next theory I want to lay out is an approach for categorizing the different types of actions or activities one might take in a strategy game. Personally, I want games that emphasize making interesting choices as opposed to making mindless non-decisions. Think of it this way: deciding whether to spend the afternoon at the park or going to see a matinee movie might be an interesting choice, but deciding to turn on the car in order to drive is a necessary (and boring) part of achieving either goal. We’ll get to what interesting means in game terms in a bit. For now, I tend to see actions in the following types:

Strategic Decisions: These are high-levels decisions that feed into how you are going to win the game. Most often, strategic decisions are influenced by external systems. Is my neighbor going to invade me (or not), and should I therefore strike first (or not)? How much should I invest in building military units versus funding empire growth? Who should I conduct espionage against or form an alliance with? What type of victory condition am I working towards, and how will I get there before everyone else? Do I need to shift strategies? Strategic decisions exist in our minds - they don’t play out in the physical game space. They are about establishing objectives that set you on a path to victory.

Tactical Decisions/Actions
: These are the important decision points and/or actions players take to actualize their strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. They relate to how you will accomplish an objective. If a long-term strategic plan calls for subjugating a neighboring empire, how are you going to do it? What type of fleet will you build and what route will it take? How will you deal with enemy forces or planetary defenses? Unlike strategic decisions, the result of making a tactical decision is usually reflected by a change to the game state - e.g. I move my fleets to another system, and thus the game state has changed.

Optimization Activities: These are actions that relate mostly to internal systems and consequently ask you to solve or optimize for a particular objective. Do I build my research lab and then my production facility, or vice versa? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and, depending on the complexity and math involved, can be very challenging or relatively trivial. Adjusting the allocation of workers on a colony between production, food, and research is an optimization task as there is often a best solution for a given strategic goal. 4X games are occasionally derided as being “spreadsheet managers,” and the need to optimize outputs (or military efficiency) strikes at the heart of that criticism.

Upkeep & Overhead Actions: These are the routine actions that relate, again, mostly to internal systems and are part of the maintenance or upkeep of your assets. Generally, there is little choice in these actions, they are things you just have to do to advance the game state. In board games these upkeep actions are quite common (reshuffle decks, refill tokens, pay upkeep costs, etc.). We see these in 4X video games, too: tweak the ship design to add the newest laser weapons, add the newly-researched building to your all your production queues, send constructed units to the rally point, clear notifications to advance the turn. These are “no brainer” decisions that rarely require much thinking.

I’ve often found myself critiquing strategy games by asking “what percentage of my time am I spending on what types of actions?” The optimal balance is, of course, a matter of personal preference. For me, I’d much rather spend my time making strategic and tactical decisions, rather than running optimization exercises. Overhead actions, ideally, are just automated and resolved by a competent AI or streamlined UI - or else removed entirely. As a result, I tend to prefer games that emphasize external systems (e.g. more wargame focused 4X titles) over those focused on internal systems and hence optimizations and puzzle-solving.

The notion of survival versus success is also relevant to this topic. Strategic or tactical decisions are easiest to see as they relate to external factors (e.g. other empires), which in turn relate to the choices you make to move closer to success. Less common, but certainly possible, are strategic and tactical decisions relating to survival and internal mechanisms. Grand strategy games often latch onto this idea - where various internal pressures (e.g. mismanagement) can result in a revolt or collapse (e.g. a coup or assassination). This transforms them into external factors, which could then destroy your empire. But I feel like more could be explored along these lines.


A stone here, a stone there… Where will you Go?


The Deception of Complexity

Consider for a moment the classic board game Go. Go has a ruleset that can be explained in a few sentences. And while it’s one of the simplest strategy games, it also has nearly unrivaled depth. This no doubt accounts for the game’s lasting appeal over the course of thousands of years (yes, thousands). The key point is that mechanical complexity does not equal depth, and Go is a testament to the notion that great depth can emerge from simple systems. And so, if we can achieve great strategic depth through simplicity, what role does complexity then play in strategy games?

Complexity can affect gameplay in two fundamental ways. First, complexity can affect the size of the decision space. Playing Go on a 9x9 grid is less complex than playing on a full 19x19 board, where there are vastly more possible moves and game states. Second, complexity can affect the number of factors or layers that go into making a decision. Imagine a simple, multilateral wargame with no option for diplomacy. Now insert diplomacy - suddenly there is a new system for interaction that can influence your decisions for who to defend or war against.

But does this added complexity always make for a deeper strategic game? Not necessarily.

Perhaps enabled by increased computing power, I feel that strategy games have become more complex over time. For many, this added complexity is welcome because it means the game has more longevity - it takes longer to tease apart all the inner workings and to build up skill. We see this frequently in modern board games as well, where learning the rules of the system is a major part of a game’s appeal. Players discuss the joys and thrills of learning how a new system operates and what all the levers and cogs do. But this can be a double-edged sword.

In many cases, complexity merely makes the math of solving optimization problems more convoluted and challenging - diverting attention away from the real strategic interactions in the game. For example, many 4X games have giant tooltips filled with positive and negative modifiers explaining all the factors affecting a colony’s happiness. Maximizing happiness, and in turn productivity outputs, requires identifying what options you have to mitigate each of the contributing factors and determining which has the best net return. You might even conduct this optimization task across all of your colonies to determine exactly which one yields the most bang for the buck. In this regard, the complexity is making the optimization harder, but it doesn’t really deepen the strategic landscape - you are still trying to solve for the same X.

Moreover, once you’ve cracked the code and learned these internal optimizations, you have solved the major puzzle of the game - and can then beat it relatively easily over and over again. There might be strategic or tactical decisions to be made - but they are no longer as interesting and gameplay depth has been diminished as a consequence. A question to ask yourself is this: does a given strategy game become more interesting or less interesting as you play it more?


That’s the same face I make when I strategerize...


The Quest for Deep, Interesting Decisions

My ideal strategy game is one where I spend most of my time making interesting strategic and tactical decisions - compared to optimization and upkeep actions. But what makes a choice interesting in the first place? Principally, an interesting strategic decision is one where you have to make a choice and you are uncertain about what the long-term payoff of that choice will be. But you are not shooting blindly in the dark, either. This balance of uncertainty - and the nature of it - is crucial because otherwise the “game” is reduced to a solvable, though potentially quite complex, puzzle.

Uncertainty itself can arise from a number of sources, each of which has an implication on the strategic depth of a game.

One source of uncertainty is chaos or randomness in the game system. If random events, die rolls, or the Wizard-Kings of Probability have a bearing on your long-term decisions, then clearly the outcome has uncertainty to it. However, this may not make a deeper or more strategic game; rather it may just make it more unpredictable and harder to predict. Would chess be considered as skillful and deep if there was only a 50/50 chance to capture a piece? The randomness would make it difficult to strategize and diminish the potential gains for careful planning. In other cases, for example in a game like poker, high degrees of uncertainty adds another level - one of probability and risk assessment - to the optimization activities. It makes decisions more uncertain and harder to calculate, but maybe not in a fundamentally more interesting way. What makes poker interesting is that the randomness of the deal is filtered through the skills and behaviors of other players in an interactive way.

So then, the other major source of uncertainty is related to the interactions between players - and here is where decisions become more interesting. If “games” are understood to be interactive systems that are contests of decision making, then having to account for and react to the actions of your opponents is crucial. Player interactions are external in nature and manifest across a number of 4X game systems: diplomacy, military positioning, espionage, etc. They can also take on a number of different forms: open negotiation, bluffing and feigning, double-think, maneuvering, etc. The crucial skill is being able to read your opponent based on understanding their position, personality, and playstyle, and in turn identify your likely moves (and countermoves). This is where you can leverage your own wit or cunning to achieve a strategic advantage. This is where skill and experience comes into play.

Ultimately, what makes choices interesting is whether or not the strategic landscape of the game - the multi-layered decision spaces that exists in your mind - allows unique and consequential decisions to emerge. In the board game world, games are often discussed as having either “pre-baked” strategic pathways that are created by the designer (and to be discovered by the player) versus games that are more player-driven and emergent in the game states and situations that arise. The pre-baked path approach relies heavily on “learning the system” and on complex internal mechanics.These are often paired with limited player interaction and less volatility as a result. The player-driven approach is more in line with the “simple to learn, lifetime to master” notion - where the depth and interest comes from unique situations where player personalities mix in an interactive and dynamic environment. The former is predominantly about optimizations, the latter is concerned with strategic or tactical interactions.


Diplomacy for another age


Implications for 4X Game Design

I’ve laid out a number of pet theories in this article:

- The definition of a game versus a puzzle, toy, contest, or simulation
- Internal versus external systems
- Surviving versus succeeding (victory, goals)
- Types of actions (strategic, tactical, optimization, upkeep)
- The roles of complexity
- Interesting decisions, uncertainty, and player- vs. system-driven games.

What does all of this mean for 4X games? If I have one big critique (here is the thesis!) of 4X games, it is that they often emphasize the exact wrong things in their design (given my preferences), and so I don’t find many of them to be all that strategic as a result. In many cases I’m not even sure they could be classified as proper “games” (per Burgun’s hierarchy) - they feel, to me, more like puzzles.

Complexity appears to be increasing in 4X games, but much of this complexity is directed towards internal game systems: ever more intricate systems of colony management, internal policies, worker optimizations, more complex development pathways, and so on. Little of this really affects how interesting the big long-term strategic decisions are. In fact, the focus on creating compelling or interesting victory conditions (essential for a proper “game”) seems to be in decline - making the choice of what you are optimizing for all the more obvious. In so many 4X games, I feel your race selections and starting position railroad you down a certain track towards a certain pre-ordained victory condition. You might start the game game knowing you are going for a technological win because your empire/species is all about boosting technology. The decisions that follow from there are all about optimizing and solving for X. It’s a puzzle, not a game.

One of the challenges with complexity also has to do with the AI’s capabilities and level of cunning. On one hand, a shift towards greater focus on internal system complexity could be seen as a way to sidestep a weak strategic AI. However, the AI still has to navigate these complex internal systems, and often it ends up receiving bigger and bigger bonuses to compensate for its inefficiencies. This isn’t a good foundation to build a competitive strategic game. On the other hand, simpler game systems might be able to better leverage a computer’s brute-force calculation power to legitimately out-optimize or out-wit the player. I have a Go app on my phone and the AI, sans bonuses, absolutely trounces me. Go figure...

Other types of 4X games (and especially grand strategy games) take a different approach. They are using increasing complexity as a basis for building more detailed simulation models. Within this type of simulation, players are at liberty to decide their own goals and what game systems to focus their choices around. It is a sandbox experience and, short of a failure to survive, is not usually oriented around goals or victory conditions at all. This is, of course, a perfectly valid approach, and simulations have a great capacity to allow for player-created narratives to emerge. But in a certain sense, these really are not “games” either - at least in the strict sense of active competition for victory.


Depth through simplicity?


So, 4X games appear stuck between a puzzle optimization pole on one end and a complex simulation pole on the other. And neither of these really results in a focus on making interesting strategic decisions based on external, player-driven interactions.

Personally, I’d love to see a 4X game take a different approach and embrace mechanical simplicity - using it to build a more interesting interactive player environment. What would a 4X game with practically zero empire management look like - with all the focus instead on diplomacy, military maneuvering, controlling shared markets, and cultural exchange? The skill of the game, and its potential depth, would be less contingent on knowing the optimal pathways and instead about making strategic decisions within an emergent and dynamic game space, including the personalities and eccentricities of your rivals.

Most titles seem to drift towards either the survival/sandbox simulator or the optimization/ steamroller to victory. There are a few games that strive to zero-in on interesting strategic decisions and that focus more on external interactions as a result. Age of Wonders III, for example, has relatively simple empire management and de-emphasizes optimization tasks. Instead it emphasizes military positioning, maneuvering, and the careful use of magic resources - all higher level strategic or tactical decisions. This bring it closer to a proper strategy “game” than many other 4X games, at least given my preferences. I would put Master of Orion (the first one) or Sword of the Stars (the first one) in the same category. They are relatively simple games mechanically that emphasize external interactive systems over complex internal mechanics. But fewer and fewer games seem to follow in their footsteps.

As a parting thought, consider these various pet theories and whether they have informed or changed your perspective of 4X games that you have played. How do your own interests and preferences align or not with these concepts? Do you see other styles of 4X or strategy games that do or could exist? Do you feel that the games you play are are “puzzles” or “contests” or “games?”

As always, the comment line is open.
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Mon Jul 18, 2016 2:02 pm
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Prepare to be Assimilated: The Roguelike-ification of All Games

Oliver Kiley
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Note: This article is cross-posted on eXplorminate. If you enjoy this article, please check out eXplorminate's coverage of 4X and strategy games. A gentle reminder that there is also a dedicated site, off-BGG, for Big Game Theory! ~ Cheers!

The world of roguelikes and roguelike-likes (i.e. games with a selection of roguelike elements) is on the rise. In some ways, I wonder whether this is driven by the Nintendo-generation’s (or earlier) nostalgia for games that were f-ing hard. The kind of hard that made you throw the controller across the room. The kind of hard that didn’t have a save feature, let alone autosaves. You know what I mean. These were the games you had to leave paused with the TV off, crossing your fingers that the power light didn’t catch mommy’s eye in the dark of the night, prompting her to shut the thing off and ruin that flawless run. Those were the days; games were brutal and our perseverance was put to the test.


Karen broke her leg!? Oh snap!!


Maybe Oregon Trail had a role to play. It’s spawned its share of imitators and tributes. We’ve got Organ Trail, the recent zombie-themed remake. Then there’s BEDLAM, a modern-day Oregon Trail. Even FTL could be taken as a futuristic homage, come to think of it. Did many of us cut our teeth on Oregon Trail without realizing that it was priming us for a love affair with roguelikes? Curiously, Oregon Trail, first released in 1971 (!!!) predates many of the original early roguelikes (ahem, Rogue from 1980). This makes me wonder about the hidden influence Oregon Trail might have had on the rise of roguelikes, their underlying mechanics, and the surging popularity of roguelike elements woven into other genres.

I mean, we ALL played Oregon Trail right? We can all relate to Jenny and her snakebites. As the ideas and mechanics behind roguelike games start to permeate into other genres, I often find myself trying to make distinctions between them and understand how different “roguelike elements” are used in one game compared to another. I’m having to split hairs by saying this game does X and that game does Y, so they are different, you see! And when you knead additional trends into the genre-dough, like the RPG-ification and survival-craft-ification of everything, then it gets really complex. Where does a roguelike tactical RPG end and a roguelike survival-craft game begin!?

So, for my own sanity and the purpose of this eXposition, I’m going to stab into the dark, embarking on my own little adventure to define a number of roguelike and related terms that pertain to a lot of current games these days. ‘ere we go!

STRUCTURE

Format

First off, I want to talk about the format of roguelike(-like) games. The original Rogue and its direct descendents were all Individual-based games, which means that you controlled a single individual character. Then there are roguelikes where you are controlling multiple individual lives. Let’s call these Party-based games. Some roguelikes feature dudes and dudettes onboard some sort of vehicular contraption (like a spaceship, a boat, or a wagon). We can call these Crew-based games. Or perhaps you are controlling a roster of characters where only some subset of them is used at once. The game then becomes more Operations-based, with you managing the resources and facilities for this burgeoning roster of ill-fated individuals that you send off to their deaths. Step up in scale from there and we find ourselves suddenly managing an entire community of people in a Clan-based game. And it’s only a matter of time before we get our first Empire-based roguelike. Frankly, any number of 4X games could probably qualify, if played in some sort of hardcore, all decisions are permanent mode (with no save scumming!)

Examples! You need examples!

Individual-based: Rogue, Out There, Pixel Dungeon, Diablo (hardcore mode), Hoplite
Party-based: Crowntakers, This War of Mine
Crew-based: FTL, Sunless Sea, Bedlam, Oregon/Organ Trail, Flame in the Flood
Operations-based: XCOM, Darkest Dungeon, Invisible Inc, Hunters 2, Massive Chalice
Clan-based: King of Dragon Pass, Thea: The Awakening, At the Gates
Empire-based: Age of Wonders 3 (when I refuse to reload save games!)


Out There is kinda, sorta, like a modern Oregon Trail, but in space. Sorta.


Strategic-Layer & Tactical Space

Next up is whether or not the game has additional “layers” to the gameplay at a higher (strategic) level and/or at a smaller (tactical) level. The strategic level often has to do with things like base-building, choosing missions/operations, resource and personnel management, etc. For example:

Invisible Inc: Selecting missions from a global mission screen based on risk / reward
XCOM: Base building, economy, and threat mitigation
Darkest Dungeon: Base building, roster management, hero advancement, economy
King of Dragon Pass: Clan development
Thea: The Awakening: City development

Other games have a separate tactical space where battles or other types of conflicts are resolved at a finer grain of detail. For instance:

Crowntakers: separate turn-based tactical combat mode
FTL: real-time (pausable) ship-to-ship combat
XCOM: tactical combat missions
Darkest Dungeon: dungeon delving quests of doom

Some games, of course, have both a tactical and strategic-management space (e.g. XCOM, Darkest Dungeon) with no in-between space per se, unlike Crowntakers (for example) which has the overworld map you navigate. This might be a function of their “operation-based” nature. Taking another example, This War of Mine is similar in some respects, with a distinct strategic, base-building phase and a separate tactical scavenging (yes, that’s an awesome new term I made up) phase. Yet unlike XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, in This War of Mine the base-building/management environment is presented in the same side-scrolling structure as the scavenging missions.


Darkest Dungeon, aka the Hero Mill


Turn-based vs. Real-time

This is a obviously a biggie for many people. Proper roguelikes are turn-based, so you can contemplate whether you will step left or step right and the odds of picking wrong and stepping-on-a-trap-that-will-insta-gib-you will be. But of course, developers are messing with the formula so we have these real-time things invading the turf. It’s fairly obvious when a game is real-time or turn-based, so I’m not going to spew off more examples (yet).

GAMEPLAY MECHANICS

Now we are getting down to the details. As a bit of history, roguelikes are named in reference to Rogue, a game from the precambrian era of gaming, i.e. 1980. Rogue, and the many derivative works that followed (and the earlier stuff that preceded it), generally had three key ingredients: a procedurally generated environment for your unlucky hero to explore, turn-based gameplay, and permadeath.

Permadeath

Permadeath means, generally speaking, that when your character dies, they stay dead. No save points, no free-saving, just death. Time to restart folks. From the beginning. Game over man. It’s important to note that for permadeath to actually have significance, the game will not typically allow manual saving and reloading. Otherwise, you could save scum to your heart’s content in order to avoid the deathtraps and missteps that constitutes a hallmark of the roguelike genre. It would undermine the entire point and challenge of the game to have free saving.

Some games, particularly those at the party-based level and beyond, might feature permadeath for individual characters; but provided that some of your characters live you can continue to press onward. Some games, like Diablo 2 for example, have optional “hardcore” modes that turn a traditional infinite-life game experience into a die-once-and-it’s-over-buddy experience. So while Diablo 2 isn’t traditionally viewed as a roguelike, it operates quite a bit like one in hardcore mode (aside from the real-time nature of the gameplay).

Suffice to say, any game can potentially be a tiny-bit-more-roguelike if you can tame your urge to save scum and instead elect to throw your computer out of the window when you die. That will, short of having an actual permadeath system, do the trick nicely, I think.


What’s up Brogue? Want to ASCII me another question?


Procedural environments

Having a unique and random world/dungeon/pit-of-despair/bog-of-eternal-stench generated for each play through is another pillar of the roguelike temple. Nowadays, all game environments are procedurally generated (I’m not being that serious), and in the near future all games will be procedurally generated too (I’m being a little serious). The point of procedural environments is not to put the strategy game guide people out of business, but rather to create a tremendous amount of uncertainty and a new delicious menu of risk each time you start a new run.

Of course there is a grey area here, and quite a few games combine procedural environments with a dose of handcrafted splendor to ensure that certain milestones or locations are present in the world from game to game. Some games simply have certain elements randomized in their initial placement. For example the location and standing of your clan in King of Dragon Pass relative to the other clans is different each game, which adds a little variety to each play through.

Survival & Status Decay

A cornerstone of many roguelikes is a system for survival and/or status decay over time. In other words, if you stand still or run around in circles, you will eventually run out of food, water, torches, or gold doubloons and meet a grisly death due to starvation, dehydration, insanity, or turncoat mercenaries. Many roguelikes have a system for auto-healing, but requiring a constant influx of resources (i.e. an upkeep) means that you can’t just wait around until you all heal up; you have to keep moving. The incorporation of survival elements seems to be increasing across many genres of games, and it seems our endless cultural fascination with all things zombies strikes at the heart of this desire (hence we get Organ Trail, DayZ, Savage Lands, Don’t Starve, and so on).

As a side note, many games are predicated primarily around survival such that the game is essentially “endless” until you fail to survive. There is no winning condition, only a losing condition. A familiar example of this is the puzzle game Tetris. There is no “beating” Tetris, only losing. Of course, when you lose you also get a score, and the challenge then becomes to play it again and earn a higher score. A number of roguelikes work with this principle too, such as the endless modes in Invisible Inc, Flame in the Flood, and The Long Dark.


Clements, we told you not to eat the zombie parts!


Time Pressure

Instead of survival pressure, some roguelike games have a time pressure and/or external threat mechanic that forces the player to make forward progress. For example, in FTL there is the forward march of the rebel fleet that spreads further across the map each turn. You have to keep moving forward or else you’ll get caught in the wave of rebel scum and perish. Other games have external pressures that are not such a hard line, but nevertheless force action. In Crowntakers, each day that passes sees the enemies grow stronger and stronger. If you dilly dally too much, the opposing forces will become too difficult to deal with, and you will be unable to survive. The main difference between survival mechanics and time pressure mechanics is that survival is about maintaining your internal condition, while time pressure is based on an external force putting pressure on you to act decisively.


Jump now, or forever hold your peace ...


Achievement-Based Unlocks

Achievement-based unlocks are systems where accomplishing a certain feat or goal in one run-through of the game will unlock a new feature or additional content that is available to you on the next run-through. Beating certain goals in FTL with certain ships will unlock new starting ship options. Your score in Invisible Inc - when your team finally (and inevitably) succumbs - earns you points towards unlocking new starting agents for a subsequent run. In Hoplite, doing specific awesome things unlocks new abilities that you can then use over the course of the next run. In Dungeon of the Endless you can unlock new escape pods that affect your starting position on future runs, as well as new party members to use in your current and future runs.

Persistence and Carryover

Some roguelikes have systems where certain characteristics, items, or other resources carry over between playthroughs. For example, in Wayward Souls you can collect gold during your runs, which you can then use to purchase permanent character stat boosts for the different classes. In Crypt of the Necrodancer you get to hold onto gems that you can use to purchase better starting equipment the next time around. In the Flame in the Flood, you can leave items on your doggie’s satchel which will return to you the next time you start over. In Crowntakers, “easy mode” lets your characters keep their experience and level-gains across multiple runs. In Thea: The Awakening, the levels deities earn remain for future games. In some cases, the gains are “persistent” across all future runs (e.g. Wayward Souls), and in other cases the gains only “carryover” for the next run (e.g. Flame in the Flood).

These persistent, carry-overs differ from the achievement-based unlocks in that they are less about opening up new content and options (i.e. variety) and more about making subsequent runs progressively easier. It becomes a soft-handed way of letting people that are terrible at roguelikes (err, ahem … don’t like the “challenge”) still make forward progress in the game if they put in the effort. Many consider this a serious breach of the roguelike contract, yet others applaud these efforts for making roguelike games more accessible. You’ll have to decide for yourself what side of the line you are on. Or maybe you’re one of those oddities that likes to put their hands on one side of the line, and your feet on the other?


Flame in the Flood’s eternal champion, Aesop the Dog, let’s you carry over a few precious items between plays.


Legacy & Inheritance

This set of mechanics doesn’t appear to be used as much as the others I’ve mentioned, but there are a few games I’ve seen that are playing with the idea, so I’ll mention it. In five years when this is the hot new thing, I’ll look like a genius. Anyway the idea here is that there are carry over effects between runs that affect the gameworld rather than you as a player. While not a roguelike, the upcoming game Descendants: Voidborne uses this idea. Essentially, it’s a 4X-ish game built around a series of shorter matches. When a match ends, by reaching a victory condition, the next game you play starts by re-purposing the final game state from your previous game. For example, maybe you built a big huge galactic empire and finished one game, but afterward a rebellion broke up the empire such that in your next game you start off as one of the smaller rebel factions. It’s an interesting idea for sure. Curiously, the board game Risk: Legacy did this exact thing, requiring players to make permanent alterations to their game pieces and the board itself that affect how the game would work on future plays. Pretty rad!

RPG Skill Progression

The RPG-ification of all games has been underway for quite a while. Rare is the game that doesn’t have some sort of stat tracking leading to minor skill improvements, level-ups, and aren’t-you-are-so-special unlocks and perks. I mean, even modern multiplayer shooters like the Battlefield series are rife with achievements feeding rank advancement and gear unlocks. Where does it end!? Certainly not with roguelikes, which have been a natural concubine to the succubus that are RPGs. Of course, some games emphasize this more than others. In FTL, your crewmates have a few basic stats that improve over time as they get better at certain tasks. That is quite minor compared to the sorts of skill tree min-maxing that you might undertake as a hardcore mode Diablo player.


Ohhh, the Stats screen in Crowntakers


RPG Items and Loot!!!!

Loot is synonymous with all good things for most gamers. Loot is where the heart is. I’m hard pressed to find anything remotely resembling a roguelike that doesn’t have some system of loot collection as a core element of the game. You need loot to improve your weapons and armor. You need loot to improve your food stuffs. You need loot to improve the engines on your spaceship. You need loot for trading, for survival, for glory, for victory… Ahhh… You get the point. Loot!

I should mention that many classic roguelikes have a particular flavor of loot known as the “unknown” item: be it a potion, a sword, or a brightly colored mushroom. Drinking, equipping, or ingesting such items might bring you fantastic benefits and powers, or might cause a terrible belly-ache and curse your character for all eternity. You just don’t know. The random, unknown nature of loot can add an interesting check to the usual “all good things” aspect of loot collection. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll think twice next time.

Crafting

Speaking of loot, what better use of loot than to make newer, better and bigger loot? Hence we arrive at the third horseman of the videogame apocalypse: crafting.

Crafting increasingly is seen in all sorts of games and meshes well into the milieu of roguelikes. Crafting is “almost” hand-in-hand with survival mechanics, although there are exceptions. Terraria (arguably not a roguelike) is all about crafting, but there is no survival imperative. Diablo 2 has crafting with the glorious cube, but again no survival need. I suppose large swaths of MMO’s fall into crafting without survival need territory too. But in the world of roguelikes they typically go hand-in-hand, with players needing to craft various items to maintain their survival as well as creating more powerful gear to advance deeper into the dungeon.


It takes a village to craft a sword (Thea: the Awakening)


Economy & Resources

Economy is most often associated with operations-based games like XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, where you have a global pot of gold (or other resources). These resources need to maniacally allocated to certain tasks, be it building satellites, managing workers, or sending your depressed, broken crusader out for a raucous night at the bar to lift his spirits. While the need to balance a flow of money often mimics a survival mechanic, running out of money is not usually grounds for immediate termination. In Crowntakers or FTL you have nice little bank account than you can freely spend down to zero if you want. You won’t be able to buy anything, but your game isn’t dramatically over either, at least in the short term. At a greater scale, Thea: The Awakening seems to be bringing the menu of roguelike mechanics to the resource and economy-based 4X gameplay.

Narrative Events

Last, but not least, is the notion of special narrative events. Choose your own adventure style gamebooks are making a comeback in the digital age as technology makes these sorts of things far more engaging than mere words on paper (although purists will disagree). Some of this, I feel, is rubbing off in terms of roguelikes and related games with narrative-driven event-based systems that add a quasi-procedural dimension to the storyline. For example, King of Dragon Pass uses 100’s of special events that must be responded to in ways that are rarely cut-and-dry. Events can push your progress down a different path and/or come back to haunt you years later. But the result is a unique experience each time you sit down to play. I haven’t played it myself, but I wonder about the kinds of events that are created in a game like Dwarf Fortress and how that shapes a unique and rich narrative there. Sorcerer King is a recent 4X games that leans heavily on narrative events to shape the experience as well.


Anything but the Lizard Eggs … help us!


SO WHAT!?

It is interesting to see how the design of many games, particularly games that seek to challenge the player in a single-player setting, increasingly draw on roguelike elements to ramp up the difficulty. I’m only half-joking about an Empire-based roguelike, as I’m sure the big one is just around the corner (and Thea: the Awakening and Sorcerer King aren’t far off the mark). So many of these mechanics, like survival or crafting, can scale up or down to work as well with an individual hero as they do with managing a settlement of people. External threats and pressures require you to stay one step ahead of the rebels in FTL. Is it hard to imagine a similarly functioning mechanic that threatens your space empire? AI War was already headed in that direction.

For me, the shared attributes between survival-craft games, RPGs and roguelikes all speaks directly to strategy and strategic thinking, albeit in slightly different ways. Dealing with these mechanics requires us to plan ahead. This need to think manifests within roguelikes (for me anyway) as it does in many typical strategy game genres. The result is that I’ve become far more interested in games outside of my usual circle. These games all provide a high level of challenge and depth despite being in different genres.

Others have written interesting (and controversial) pieces about the nature of games and the differences between a game, a puzzle, and a toy. Many modern games, for example open world sandboxes like Skyrim, are functionally more like a toy. Save systems and a general dumbing down of gameplay (for lack of a more PC-term), mean that fewer and fewer of your choices have lasting consequences - you can always reload or undo a decision that did not go well. More to the point, there is no “winning” of the game as a whole. Sure, you can accomplish a quest (or the major plot lines) but you can continue playing afterwards if you want. Like a pile of LEGOs, the goals you face- if you even have one beyond exploration - are self-determined. There is no toy fail.

So in many ways, I feel like the rogue-ification of games, which tends to reintroduce consequences and hard choices, is a move away from games as toys and back towards games as “games.” There is tension when it is possible to fail and lose everything. And this threat of failure and loss makes such games (for me), more impactful, rewarding, and engaging. I play them differently, with more focus and careful consideration, and beating them feels all the richer as a result. Fortunately, we appear to be having a heyday for these types of games. Keep ‘em coming, I say!


The Long Dark - a roguelike, survival-craft, sandbox, RPG-FPS -thing. Yes.


Now it’s your turn. Are there major gameplay devices related to roguelikes (or other genres) that I missed? Ones you don’t agree with? Share away!
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The Rise of Boardgame-Like Games and the Platform Paradox

Oliver Kiley
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The last year has felt that the various scions of the gaming world are on a collision course. Digital games are increasingly being released cross-platform on desktop, console, and mobile platforms. The boardgame market continues to grow and is spilling over into the mobile market place through digital boardgames at a faster rate. Videogame developers are taking note and designing and marketing games with "boardgame-like qualities".

Yet all of these interaction points, between serious (hardcore) gamers and mobile gaming, between boardgames and mobile games, and between videogame design notions and boardgame-like-ness, are sources of tension. But in every issue there is an opportunity, right? I can't help but forecast a bit into the future and envision an ecosystem of games that evolve at this nexus of gaming pressures: original and cross-platform digital games that embrace "boardgame-like" design principles and appeal to both serious/hardcore gamers as well as a broader segment of the market.

This post will break down these trends and provide some reflection on what I think it could mean. This is all total speculation and reporting based on my observations and discussions with others. Discussion of all forms is encouraged! Let's get on with the show.



The Growing World of Boardgames

I'll start off by quoting myself, as is the proper thing to do when one is in need of a reliable source of data! A thread on BGG was discussing the increase in the number of games released every year, and I pulled down some of BGG's data to see what the trends looked like.



Mezmorki wrote:
METHOD: I searched by year for games (not expansions) and tallied how many had 50 or more ratings to use in weeding out games that aren't actually published or widely distributed. I also made note of the top-rated game each year as a sort of reminder/benchmark.

Here's the data table:

YEAR QTY Top Rated Game
1990 85- The Republic of Rome (201)
1991 120 Tichu (62)
1992 137 Modern Art (179)
1993 114 Magic: The Gathering (121)
1994 116 Blood Bowl (Third Edition) (161)
1995 128 El Grande (26)
1996 133 Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (65)
1997 136 Tigris & Euphrates (33)
1998 153 Samurai (123)
1999 181 Paths of Glory (45)
2000 203 The Princes of Florence (59)
2001 218 Hive (145)
2002 239 Puerto Rico (5)
2003 302 YINSH (96)
2004 347 Power Grid (11)
2005 376 Twilight Struggle (1)
2006 353 Through the Ages (4)
2007 367 Agricola (6)
2008 402 Le Havre (13)
2009 432 Dominion: Intrigue (21)
2010 459 7 Wonders (18)
2011 440 Mage Knight (8)
2012 487 Terra Mystica (2)
2013 452 Caverna: The Cave Farmers (3)
2014 430 Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game (16)

2015 69 XCOM: The Board Game (400)

Basically, the number of games with any significant presence (enough to get 50-ratings) has grown from around 200 games/year circa year-2000 to around 400 games/year circa 2015. That's a lot of growth in a relatively short period of time, and says nothing about the volume of other games that get pushed out each year that doesn't make the cut of 50+ ratings (1000 or more games per year easily). This trend probably isn't surprising to anyone in the boardgaming world, but it's worth pointing out nonetheless, especially for people that aren't as deep into this slice of the gaming hobby.

Why is this relevant? I think boardgames of the modern sort are bringing "thinking" back to people as a form of entertainment. Certainly the amount of thinking can vary widely between a heavy weight eurogame and a social party game - but most at least it's pushing people into learning something new, interacting, and applying their brains in some capacity; which is a nice move away from slumping into a TV-coma. I wonder whether the increasing popularity of boardgames might be a mechanism for getting the broader public interested in games as a whole.




Surging Mobile App "Ports" of Boardgames

Having a digital (and most likely mobile) version of a boardgame for many people is tremendously appealing. For many of us in love with the hobby, finding time to attend an evening of gaming can be a challenge and is fraught with it's own bundle of frustrations (choosing which games to play, finding enough time, coordinating schedules, having enough beer, etc.). The unfettered convenience of having a library of boardgames at your finger tips that you can play asynchronously with your buddies (or total strangers) or against the AI opponents is remarkable.

True, you lose the face-to-face interactions and some of the tactile pleasures of manhandling meeples, but I also think a nicely designed mobile app can have it own charms. I recently asked people what the appeal was for pass-and-play, and to my surprise a lot of people jumped in and commented about how much they use pass-and-play modes on mobile boardgame apps. In such cases you can still retain a bit of face-to-face interaction, so even that is less of an issue.

Others have also been commenting, with increasing frequency of late, about the rise of solo boardgaming. Solo gaming, in a way, feels like the natural extension of cooperative games, you just remove the other players. Furthermore, a lot of my geekbuddies have been pointing out how complex eurogames are perhaps better as solo experiences anyway. It sets the stage for mobile gaming.

I also wonder about the pure practicalities of playing mobile boardgame apps. It's a LOT cheaper to buy the mobile version of Eclipse or Small World, or countless other games than it is to buy the physical version. For the list price of a mid-size boardgame I can buy half a dozen boardgame apps. It also takes up zero physical space, and with the millennial trend towards minimalism, I can't help but think the digital versions have an additional appeal for reducing the amount of junk you need to lug around when life keeps you on the move.

Last, I keep thinking about the environmental and logistic realities of physical boardgames. How much energy is spent manufacturing a cargo container worth of components and shipping it around the world by boat and train, warehousing it all, lugging it to conventions, sending it to distributors and then to stores, etc. It's kind of crazy to think about it. Digital games utilize existing IT infrastructure and have comparably less impact per game. Plus, digital games aren't likely to go out of print. How many digital apps are no longer available, for whatever reason, compared to how many boardgames are out of print?




The Cross-Platform Videogame Paradox

Increasingly I feel that developers are designing games to be cross-platform between desktops (PC/Mac/Linux), console systems (PS/XBox), and mobile devices (iOS/Android). Other things being equal, if you can sell a game across multiple platforms you have the opportunity to reach a broader audience and market, and can leverage your work in creating a game to earn more revenue. The Unity game development engine and software suite is likely contributing to this trend, as (from what I can gather in my readings) Unity makes it relatively easy to deploy a game across platforms.

Curiously, this trend seems to be on the rise despite a lingering stigma around mobile gaming. As a recent TouchArcade article highlights, there is still a widespread stigma from larger videogame circuits directed at mobile games. The example the TouchArcade article references is the game Race the Sun, an endless runner type game that was intended to be a mobile game. However, the savvy developers released their game on desktop platforms first, garnering attention and coverage from non-mobile outlets and avoiding the "just another mobile game stigma" in the process. They subsequently released the game on mobile platforms, garnering further attention for bringing such a cool desktop game to the mobile market. Its crazy to me that this should ever happens, and underscores that people are making judgement about the game and its merits based purely on the platform.

This stigma is due to a few different factors I think. First, for many serious gamers looking at the mobile market all they see are free-to-play (i.e. pay-to-win or timer-based) games, which is the antithesis of what serious gamers want. This perception is wrapped up in fears about the "dumbing down" of the gaming industry (which has some truth to it). The growth of free-to-play game models is also spilling over into a deskstop/console games, and understandably this has many gamers very worried and concerned about the fate of serious games.

I also think this stigma is fueled by many serious gamers (both players and media personalities) questioning why they or any other serious gamer would ever want to play on a mobile device in the first place. I recently interviewed Rocco Bowling, the developer of Starbase Orion, for eXplorminate. Rocco had this to say:

Rocco wrote:
In my non-scientific, common-sense reckoning of things, as a person develops in their life, more and more things start to take priority. Gamers graduate school, gamers get jobs, gamers have kids. These things take up more and more of their time, leaving less and less time for dedicated gaming. Your 4 hours a night turns into 1 hour a night, which turns into gaming only on Tuesdays. What’s a core gamer like that supposed to do? Quit gaming? Succumb to the inane world that is “casual” mobile gaming? I believe these dedicated, but suddenly very busy, gamers would love to play a core game during the bits and pieces of time they have throughout their day.

Too often people associate “mobile” gaming with “casual” gaming. I have much respect for companies like Super Evil Megacorp; they made VainGlory, a core game on mobile without compromise. I believe there is a bright future for core gaming on mobile, for those crazy enough to walk that path.

I think Rocco's quote tells a big part of the story and explains, for Rocco at least, why a premium game like Starbase Orion has been so successful as a serious "gamer's game" despite being on a mobile platform. And there are plenty of other reasons why a serious/core gamer would want to play on mobile as well. Many of these I discussed in the previous section: convenience, asynchronous play, portability. But this hidden market of premium game is at odds with the stigma surrounding mobile games as a while. When you consider the financial incentives developers have to go cross-platform, it does create a bit of a paradoxical situation: You want to make a game cross-platform, but doing so opens you up to the anti-mobile stigma. What a mess.




Debunking The Myth: "Serious Strategy Games Won't Happen on Mobile"

I discussed this issue on another forum, and I want to refine my response and present it here as part of this larger conversation. Of all the possible "serious game genres" like first person shooters, real-time strategy games, RPG's, I think "strategy games" as a broad umbrella are ideally suited to mobile platforms. Let's break it down a little:

Why would anyone play a "strategy game" on a mobile device?

Convenience. As Rocco said, mobile devices can go anywhere with you, and the accessibility they provide is good whether you are waiting in line for 30 minute, on a 5 hour plane trip, trapped in a hotel, on vacation, or hanging out in your living room. Most mobile games/apps can be opened and launched in a fraction of the time it takes to get a game launched on a PC (close down other resource hogging applications, launch steam, sign-in, etc…). The “barrier to entry” (i.e. booting up a given game) is much lower in mobile than PC.

Comfort. Basically, playing a mobile game is not sitting at your desk on your PC, something a lot of people spend their entire workday doing. I can pull out my iPad when sitting on my couch, or next to the fire, or sitting under a tree by the river, or up in bed before I pass out for the night, etc. I don't need a full keyboard + mouse setup to play most strategy games, so I don't need (or want) to spend more time at a desktop if I don't have to.

Touch-interface. This is somewhat related to the above about comfort, but for me, and I suspect plenty of other people, a well designed touch-interface has its own tactile charms. That UI button is closer to feeling like an “actual button” when I press it with my finger directly. With a traditional keyboard + mouse there is an extra layer between what you see on your screen and how you interact with it. I’m not intending to debate that one set of inputs is better than the other (they all have pro’s and con’s), just recognize they are different and can be appealing in to different people and different circumstances.

Multi-player and asynchronous play. For multiplayer asynchronous turn-based games, having the game on a mobile platform is extremely beneficial. You get a notification (e-mail, game-center popup, etc.) that “it’s now your turn” and you can load the game up from anywhere, jump in quickly, take your turn, and pass the baton to the next player. The convenience factor of mobile really helps facilitate multiplayer gaming for strategy games that would otherwise be relegated to extended live-play sessions or play-by-email (PBEM). It takes me longer to boot up my PC and launch most strategy games than it takes me to actually complete my turn, and I can do all of this much quicker on a mobile device.

Preference: For me, the only reason I play a given strategy game (or other mobile friendly genre) on my desktop and not on my iPad is because they game I’m interested in doesn’t exist for iPad/iPhone. I simply find it more enjoyable to game on my iPad and I don’t feel that I am missing any part of the PC/Desktop experience. I use headphones, so sound isn’t an issue, and retina displays coupled with a much closer viewing distance negates in part the benefit of having a big monitor. And, if there there was ever a genre of games that can stand on its mechanics and game design, rather than an audio-visual wow fest, it’s strategy games.

Mobile devices can't handle the demands of modern strategy games! It'll never happen!

Complexity. It’s worth noting that the games that spawned the 4X genre (Civ, Master of Magic, Master of Orion, etc.), and are at high complexity end of the strategy game spectrum, ran on computers slower in every way than a decent smartphone or tablet is today. If those older games are the benchmark for our complexity demands, why again can’t such a game be accommodated on mobile? There are plenty of examples of quite complex and deep games on mobile platforms already (a port of the classic PC game Ascendancy, Starbase Orion, etc.).

Reading about the design process for older games, where processing and memory limitations were a far more limiting design obstacle, I see no reason why games of similar complexity to one's from 20+ years ago can't work on today's mobile devices.

Rather, it is our graphic expectations that are probably the biggest hardware limitation between mobile and desktop. Personally, I think a good and engaging visual design is more important than flashy graphics for a strategy game. And it’s entirely possible to make gorgeous looking games that work on mobile. But there are limits to what mobile can do graphically compared to desktops, and if the most cutting-edge graphics is a major requirement for, obviously that's an issue. Personally, I feel strategy games have a less pressing of a need for ultra impressive graphics anyway, as their game play is what I care about.

User Interface: The UI does need to be more streamlined to work on a mobile's limited relative screen space. Yet that isn’t a bad thing. Personally, making an effective and intuitive UI for mobile can result in a better UI anyway, as it forces the UI design to be more effective and efficient in its presentation. In some ways, its too easy to make a horrendous UI on PC and get away with it (examples I probably don’t need to mention abound) by spamming popups and tooltips all over the palce. Restrictions and limitations can foster innovation, and I think games intended for cross-platform have a greater need for an exceptional UI to make it work, and so it raises the bar.





The Rise of "Boardgame-Like" Games

The culmination of the trends and industry challenges discussed above points a big fat arrow towards the rise of "boardgame-like" games. You have boardgame players reaching into the mobile and videogame market space by way of boardgame ports. You have app developers saying, "hey there's a market here for premium strategy games given successful boardgame ports." And you have serious videogamers turning towards premium mobile games (strategy titles among them) for all the various reasons that have been discussed.

The culmination of this article is the following messy sentiment (I'm imagining a developer saying this): "Whow, these hobby boardgames create deep/challenging experiences with relatively simple mechanics, and as a result are appealing to both serious and casual gamers! We can create new boardgame-like games that can tap into both audiences while also delivering a game that is at home on both mobile and non-mobile platforms. It's a quadruple win!"

I've come across a number of videogames that make reference to "boardgame-like" properties, or mentions that game developers play and were inspired by boardgame. Sid Meier's crew behind the Sid Meier's Starships! supposedly drew influences from boardgames (I'm wondering which ones, because the game isn't that great IMHO, but I digress).

The question then is what exactly constitutes a boardgame-like game? Obviously a proper "boardgame" or tabletop game is one that is played entirely with physical, analog game components and that requires to the player to process all the changes in the game state. When making the jump to a digital medium, what is it about the fundamental design and operations of boardgames that can make the jump as well? I think there are a few underpinnings to games with a more "boardgame-like" design.

Transparency of Mechanics. Given that boardgames are analog and humans have to "process" the game state, it goes without saying that the rules that determine the mechanics need to be understandable and manageable. So in boardgames, the mechanics are fully "transparent" to the player. There is no black box of programming algorithms that you dump decisions into and then get the results spit back at you. When you do something in a boardgame, you can follow the mechanical how's and why's your decision led to a particular result.

This is a departure from the design of a lot of videogames, where there can be all kinds of hidden shenanigans going on in the background that shape the game world and respond to player actions. And for a lot of types of videogames, this approach works well. First person shooters, or heavily narrative, experience-first type of games come to mind, where you don't really want the mechanics and numbers getting in the way of your sense of immersion.

The design appeal is that if the mechanics are transparent and comprehensible, it makes games easier to learn the game and moves players towards improving their skills sooner, which hopefully triggers their sense of reward and keeps them playing.

Simple Math & Systems. Put simply, most boardgames don't require complicated algorithms, formulas, or functions to process changes in the game state. Math is kept comparatively simple. In most games there is no need to write numbers or anything down, although occasionally that can prove useful. In other games, there might be more complex optimizations or cost-benefit type decisions to work out, but rarely do they require a calculator, and most are still predicated on relatively simple math equations.

In videogames, as mechanics are processed by a computer, it is tempting and commonplace to have all sorts of higher order mathematics underpinning gameplay systems. On one hand, this opens up the door for more realism and simulation fidelity in a game, i.e. the dynamics that your game creates can be a more accurate model of the game's assumed reality. On the other hand, even if these formulas are known and presented to the player, it is vastly more complex to work through the ramifications of a particular decision if you try to run it through the math.

The design appeal for basic math and simplicity also goes back to accessibility. In the boardgame design realm, there is always an interest in reducing complexity while retaining or increasing strategic depth. Complexity is not necessary for creating depth; and a boardgame-like game may embrace this sentiment as well and resist the urge to layer more systems into the design and instead keep it simple.

Action Choice Driven. Boardgame require structure to how players take and perform actions in the game. There are mechanics that control the order in which players take their turns, or limits the range of actions or choices that are available to players are a particular moment in time. Part of this is born out of the practical realities of playing a physical game, i.e. most games aren't a free for all of chaos with players taking their turns whenever they want.

Part of it also relates to things like reducing downtime or analysis paralysis. If players have a menu of six actions and they can only perform one on their turn, it keeps their action planning focused and the pace of the game moving. If a player has a menu of six actions and they can perform any number of them in any order, player turns will take forever.

Yet the net effect of boardgame action mechanics goes beyond just managing these practicalities; they are often a source of strategic depth and challenge on their own. Turn order and ways of changing turn order can add a strategic element to the gameplay. Being restricted to one or two actions a turn forces the player to make trade-offs that consider all the moves of their opponent more carefully, and so on. So many of these uniquely boardgame mechanics can readily transcend beyond their roots and have applications in other types of games as well.

Wrap-Ups & Wishful Thoughts

This became way longer than intended, so thank you for bearing with me to end if you are still reading this!

In summary, I'll say that this has been a challenging set of topics and issues to pull together. And I'm not sure I succeeded fully in the endeavor. But the takeway from all of this is my sense that boardgames are penetrating their way back into videogame design practices. In part this may be due to digital ports of boardgames raising awareness. It may also be due to developing cross-platform games being ideally suited to strategy games and board-game like design notions. If the game is relatively simple yet deep, it can probably be implemented effectively on mobile platforms and it may stand a better chance of attracting both casual and serious video gamers. And among boardgamers, if there is a slowdown in physical game acquisition, digital boardgame-like games offer fertile grounds to explore.

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Thu Jul 30, 2015 5:45 pm
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A Shattered Dream: Critiquing the 4X Genre

Oliver Kiley
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I’ve been struggling to write a holistic critique of the 4X genre for a while. On one hand, I ask myself “why is such a critique even necessary?” On the other, I feel that the genre is at a crossroads. Different tensions, for good or for bad, pull the genre in different directions. Trying to understand these tensions, which shape the genre’s landscape, will (hopefully) illuminate more challenges and opportunities in 4X design. Of course, I have my own aspirations of making a 4X videogame, so understanding the current “state of affairs” is important for designing in an informed manner and navigating through this messy environment.

Thankfully, a recent Three Moves Ahead (3MA) podcast on 4X games gave me the needed kick-in-the-pants to get me writing. The 3MA episode, intentionally or not, provided a rather scathing critique of the entire 4X genre and its failings, as well as highlighting a few small bright points of promise. I felt myself doing the proverbial headbang dance as I listened to the podcast, as many of their reactions and sentiments echo my own. Engaging in the 4X genre is a bit of a shattered dream, where we sift through the shards in hope of finding that one perfect game. But so often we cut ourselves on the glass.

The “Shattered Dream” is a 3-part article that will critique the 4X genre in a number of ways. Part 1 will focus on defining the 4X genre and relevant sub-genres. Part 2 will dig into what I feel is the primary tension in the genre: the desire to craft detailed simulations of other worlds and provide players with a deep strategic game. Last, Part 3 will look at how various tensions play out in the market space for 4X games and what promising avenues of innovation (and massive potholes!) lie ahead.


Part 1 - A Fragmented Genre

Much of my writing has focused on the classification and taxonomy of games. And it is important to recognize that no classification scheme will ever be perfect and cover all cases adequately. However I feel that the byproduct of discussing classification is that it forces us to explore game characteristics in detail. And this understanding is beneficial regardless of whether it culminates in a useful classification system or not. With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin.

The term “4X” refers to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The term was originally coined in a preview article for Master of Orion (the first) as a shorthand to reference the scope and nature of game - and the 4X term has grown in use ever since. It is tempting to use the label as a literal definition for classifying games, and hence for a game to be a 4X you need to have “The Four Elements” in place. But I think this ultimately doesn’t work; it becomes far too inclusive if taken literally. For example, most RTS games in the ilk of Starcraft or Age of Empires could fall under a 4X definition.

Rather, I think the “spirit” of the 4X label is what is important; which is that the 4X games strive to capture a grander scope than a RTS or turn-based wargame. There is usually some degree of empire building and management present, with the player filling the shoes of a real or assumed leader, often with an omnipotent view and uncontested control over their domain. The time scale is usually long, with a players’ empires growing and advancing. There is usually a balance between internal pressures mechanics, like managing the happiness of your population or the upkeep of a burgeoning bureaucracy, and external pressures such as military threats, hostile environments, and diplomatic posturing.

Yet within this umbrella, there are some useful sub-genres to consider. And it is these sub-genres that I feel provide the most salient lens through which to view the nuances and diversity of the 4X genre. As with past game classification efforts, it is important to consider the historic origins of these sub-genres. Furthermore, I’ll use the opportunity to reference Wittgenstein's Family Resemblance concept. Essentially, rather than trying to adopt a rigid “in or out” approach to classification, we need to recognize that genres are a collection of commonly, but not always, associated traits and that games that fall within a particular genre may only exhibit a portion of those traits.



Here we go:

Empire Builders - The 3MA podcast used the term “Empire Builder” as an alternative to 4X games to describe those that emphasize empire building. Civilization is certainly the most iconic example of an Empire Builder, and some of the key characteristics include: (a) Internal pressure mechanics like upkeep costs, population happiness and approval, diminishing returns, etc.; (b) External pressures from foreign competing empires; (c) Multiple and divergent victory conditions (e.g. conquest, technology, culture, political); (d) Relatively detailed “Management Unit” (MU) optimization requiring you allocate workers or resources within each MU.

Examples: Civilization, Endless Legends, Endless Space, Armada 2526, Distant Worlds, Galactic Civilization

4X-Lite - In trying to ascertain what games get branded with the “4X-Lite” label, the best I can tell is that these are games that downplays internal empire management in favor of a focus on warmongering. The games are often “simpler” from a complexity of mechanics standpoint but place far greater emphasis on the production, movement, and positioning of military forces. Victory tends to focus primarily (or exclusively) on military related win conditions such as outright conquest or domination of the map. In some ways, I think of these almost as “pure 4X” games because they are most directly aligned with the 4X’s and have relatively few other systems bolted on.

Examples: Sword of the Stars, Age of Wonders, Neptune’s Pride, UltraCorps, Master of Magic, Warlock, Star Drive 2

Heroic Strategy - There is some overlap between this and the previous category, but Heroic Strategy in my mind are games with many 4X elements but often with a strong focus on RPG-like character development of a smaller pool of characters. Oftentimes, “empire management” is handled through the development of a single or primary town/castle where units are recruited.

Examples: Heroes of Might and Magic, Disciples

Grand Strategy - This is a term most aptly directed towards paradox’s landmark titles, like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis. Sometimes, these are described as 4X games where you cut out the opening exploration phase of the game (since generally the geography is already known) as well as the late game victory dash by having more focused scenario-based goals. The heart of such games tend to be in relatively more complex empire planning, force organization, leader/character management, and nuanced diplomatic mechanics.

Examples: Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, The Last Federation, Imperia 5X

RTS-4X Hybrid - These are games that cross the line between a typical real time strategy (RTS) game like Starcraft or Command & Conquer and a 4X game. While any 4X game can be “real time” (e.g. Distant Worlds, StarDrive 1, Star Ruler) many of these are intended to work in a “pausable” real time fashion where “who can click/think fastest” is not really a factor in your success. The RTS-4X Hybrids blend the need for fast thinking (and clicking) found in a typical RTS game with the grander design scope seen in most 4X games, with players often having to navigate far bigger technology trees, diplomatic relationships, and internal empire considerations along the way.

Examples: Sins of a Solar Empire, Rise of Nations, Haegemonia

Campaign Driven - The last category is reserved for games that feature a 4X type system that provides a structure for a campaign, with individual tactical battles (turn based or real-time) taking the center stage. The campaign level can vary quite a bit in terms of complexity and scope, but is nonetheless in the service of providing context (and consequences) for the tactical battles that are the focus of the game.

Examples: Total War series, Dawn of War Soulstorm campaign



Tension Point: On Genre, On Blitzen!

Why is this important? I think these sub-genres (the title of which are open to debate!) have existed for a while without much formal recognition. Yet these go a long way towards explaining people’s perspectives, tolerances, preferences within the genre. Personally, I am tired of seeing comments like “this game is garbage because there’s no depth in empire management!” when the intent wasn’t be an empire building game in the first place. It’s like saying a free-for-all deathmatch arena shooter is bad because it is not team-based and doesn’t use modern military weapons. They are both FPS games, but an arena shooter (ala Quake-series) is much different from a team-based military shooter (ala Battlefield-series).

By calling everything under the umbrella “4X” all the time, it presupposes certain expectations on games and in turn biases our outlook of them. For instance, we assume that it should have some exploration elements, a way of expanding, a way of exterminating, and so on. This creates tension across the genre between our expectations (whether well- or ill-conceived) and the desire for encouraging diversity in the genre. Having said of all of this, genres (and sub-genres) are still useful for understanding games, making comparisons between them, and having more consistent language that gamers can use. But they can also be a trap that confines what we think is possible. If we think too strictly in terms of genres, particularly as designers, we can blind ourselves from seeing and pursuing genre-breaking game concepts.


Part 2 - The Dueling Pianos: Simulation vs. Game


Complexity does not equal depth

If there is one point I hope to get across in this article it is the above line. I think there is a misconception in the 4X community that the only way to have a deep game is to have a bunch of complex systems all intertwined into some giant mechanical monstrosity. But depth in decision-making is different from the complexity of the game. Decision depth is an emergent property of the gameplay that comes about as players are required to make tough trade-offs; whether that be in allocating resources, making diplomatic arrangements, positioning forces, or advancing your empire.

As I’ve written about before, decision depth (at a particular decision point) is a function of the major trade-offs or factors at work in influencing your decision and evaluating its potential outcomes. These factors can be economic, spatial, or intuitional in nature. For example: how to use a limited pool of strategic resources (e.g. casting points in Age of Wonders); or where to stage your military forces to maintain map control or chokepoints; or what diplomatic arrangements to pursue with what foreign powers. Complexity only serves to increase actual decision depth, and not merely the challenge of identifying or evaluating such decisions, when it makes these strategic (or tactical) factors more ambiguous.

The “deepest” choices are when players are faced with two or more equally viable or valuable appearing options and the player needs to rely on their experience and heuristics to make the right decision. Complexity, if it does not provide adequate feedback to the player to help build their heuristics (e.g. methods of effective play) simply makes choices harder to identify or evaluate and actually inhibits players from engaging with any potential depth. It might “feel” like the game is deep because it is mentally challenging - but these sorts of optimization hurdles are a pretense to getting to a decision point, not a decision point on their own.

In the worst situations, complexity can backfire when you’ve “figured it out” only to realize that at the end of the tunnel the actual decisions are obvious; that the game is an optimization puzzle of sorts and not really a game. An often used metric for a game’s depth is how many levels of skill there are among players (e.g. Chess rankings). If there is just one or two large skill levels (e.g. “I have it sort of figured out” versus “I’ve figured it all out!”) then it ultimately isn’t a deep game even if it has taken considerable effort to understand. Once you know the formula for success and can apply that every time the game will be short lived in terms of real depth.



Pacing & Flow

The 3MA’s podcast spent some time discussing issues of pacing and flow in 4X games, noting that pacing is key to making games fun in a “one more turn” sense as well as to making the “arc” of a game as it moves from the opening exploration to late-game victory exciting. Sadly, this an area of 4X game design that is perhaps the hardest to do well, especially for many of the newer indie studios making their first foray into game design. Many of the genre favorites are classics, I feel, for the very reason that they got the pacing right and kept players engaged throughout.

One way of evaluating the pacing and flow of a game is consider the types of actions that players can take. I’ve identified four general types of actions that range from most to least engaging and interesting (at least for me!):

1. Strategic Decisions - These are high levels decisions about your strategy, such as what victory condition to work towards, what mid- to long-range goals you are establishing (e.g. what opponents to ally with or fight), where to colonize next, what geographic areas are strategically important to control, etc.

2. Tactical Decisions/Actions - These are important decision points and/or actions that are taken to resolve your strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. For example, how you assemble an army or fleet and which general route they take or how you allocate the use of a limited strategic resource. These decisions can exist at the strategic scale as well as the tactical scale (if there is one in the game).

3. Optimization Activities - Should I build my research lab and then my production facility, or production then lab? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and depending on the complexity can be very challenging or relatively easy. Some players really enjoy these sorts of activities, other don’t. For example, I’d argue that ship building is a protracted optimization activity to construct ship/fleet to accomplish a particular tactical or strategic objective that you’ve previously identified. Adjusting the allocation of worker populations is likewise an optimization task, there is often one best solution/approach for a given strategic goal.

4. Managerial Upkeep/Overhead Activities - Last are routine management and/or upkeep tasks that require attention to move the game forward. Things like keeping unit/building queues up-to-date, remembering to build transports every few turns, upgrading ship designs to use lasers 2 instead of lasers 1, clearing notifications so you can process the next turn, pathfinding your forces to a given rally point, etc.

I feel that better games maximize the amount of hands-on time spent with #1 and #2 relative to #4. #3 (optimization) is more a matter of player tolerance, although personally I don’t like too much emphasis on optimization. The point here is that good pacing keeps players engaged by giving them meaningful strategic decisions on frequent intervals, rather than abandoning players to long stretches of just managing the consequences of a decision. When too many of the decisions in a game are trivial or obvious (often too many #3 or #4 actions), the game can feel far less deep and engaging. Streamlining the design, and providing ease-of-play automation that doesn’t detract from legitimate decision making is important.



Narrative Arc & Goals

The “narrative arc” of a game does not refer to it’s actual plot or storyline, but rather to the structure of the game itself as a story; with an opening, middle, and late-game phase that culminates in (hopefully) a well-earned and awarded victory. While good pacing is key to making the gameplay engaging and flow well, the overall narrative arc of the game helps shape your memory of the experience. Good games are memorable games.

How many times do we start a 4X game only to abandon the session part way through when it becomes obvious who is going to win or lose? In my mind, games that push us towards aborting a game early fail to provide a compelling narrative arc. If we already know how the story ends, we don’t bother finishing it. Creating an interesting narrative arc is undoubtedly a challenge, and is wrapped up intimately with the goals and victory conditions of the game.

In my experience, a lot of 4X game developers, particularly newer ones, don’t spend enough time (for whatever reason) refining the narrative arc to create excitement. Snowball & steamroller issues are part of the problem that push games towards a foregone conclusion: the player that optimizes early exploration is best positioned to expand/exploit the best, and hence best positioned to exterminate their opponents with no counter-threat. So addressing this issue is critical.

The victory conditions in the game are also a vital part of the narrative arc - and ideally the game is designed such that all players are kept in a state of tension all the way to victory. Runaway leaders and foregone conclusions are not much fun, but if you can counteract snowballing by providing alternative ways to achieve victory (perhaps as a high risk, high reward option) then it can help to keep the game close. Age of Wonders 3, while remaining focused on warfare (as a 4X-lite), combines typical conquest with a leader assassination and king-of-the-hill style victory options. A player that is steamrolling militarily can be eliminated from behind by killing their leader and capturing the throne city. Alternatively, other players can grab seal points and force the steamrolling player to divert focus away from conquest and claim seals instead.

The 3MA’s podcast further criticized the typical conquest, research, economic, etc. victory system used in so many games because it tends to put game mechanics into silos. If you only care about research and can otherwise defend yourself, you just focus on research until the end of the game and aren’t really incentivized to engage with the other elements of the game. These disconnected goals lead to a sort of disconnected play experience that doesn’t culminate in an interesting closure to the narrative. Achieving victory tends not to signify much beyond hitting an artificial threshold before your opponents, there is little thematically memorable about it. And for games that can take dozens of hours to play, the drab “victory screens” are a further taint on the experience.

At the end of the day, the narrative arc should culminate in an exciting and hard-fought win, not a tedious grind to an inevitable victory. 4X games need to pay serious attention to victory conditions and how these set the stage for a compelling arc and drive the gameplay forward.



Tension Point: Simulation Toy vs. Strategy Game

Keith Burgun recently wrote a thought provoking article, Videogames are Broken Toys, about how many so-called games might actually be better understood (and hence designed) as toys instead of games. To a certain extent I agree. I think about open sandbox games like the Elder Scrolls or the X-series, and indeed they are very “toy-like.” They are an environment for interaction, where the player can establish their own goals and interact with the systems to whatever extent they want.

I have a pet theory about 4X gamers, which is that there are two camps of preferences (which occasionally intermingle in the night). One set of preferences is for detail and “simulation” - and you often see people clamoring for the ability to micromanage 1000’s of colonies across a vast intergalactic empire. Another sentiment is that some people “love watching the galaxy unfold” into a living dynamic system. Indeed, Distant Worlds seems to be the darling game here, where you can literally automate everything and watch your empire take on its own life. Likewise, the player is at liberty to engage with whatever part of the system they want to, and automate the rest. In my mind, these are both very “toy-like” notions, and the more complex and intricate the toy, the more it people enjoy manipulating it.

The other set of preference is more aligned towards a fair, competitive, strategy “game”. Here, streamlining and simplification is tolerated (and even preferred) when it brings the decisions and their consequences to the forefront of play, even at the expense of simulation realism. More clear-cut discrete choices that rely less on complexity and more on transparency is important. As a “game,” feedback on what worked or didn’t work, via the UI or reporting, is vitally important to building heuristics and better strategies. To use Keith Burgun’s terms, a game is a “contest of decision making” - and the more focused the gameplay is around those key decision making points, the more successful it is as a strategy game.

All in all, a game’s leans towards simulation or “game” has ramifications for the complexity, pacing, and narrative arc of a game. Individuals will all have a different preference points between these poles, and I suppose the insight for developers is to consider carefully their intended audience and how they can craft the best experience (narrative arc) within that context. Getting this right takes no small amount of effort, and in a way it is unfortunate that so many games are released in the genre missing this key stage of refinement or leaving it to post-release development.


Part 3
Breaking out of Orbit


Rooted in the Past & The MoO2 Conundrum

A tension in the 4X genre (and the videogame industry as a whole) from a marketability standpoint is that innovation is risky and tried and true designs sell better. We see this as evidence for successful games being serialized or reimplemented under a different guise. It is amazing to me that some of the mechanics seen in the early civ games or Master of Orion 2 (like allocating workers in a city) has remained a hallmark of the genre 20-some years later. How many recent or upcoming space 4X games are trying to snatch the MoO2 mantle? Why are we still clinging to a Civ template?

The 3MA’s podcast was suggesting that the genre is stuck in a bit of a catch-22. The biggest market opportunity is rehashing (or modernizing) a proven design concept – yet indie and AAA studios alike often fail in this endeavor. Either the polish and execution is off, or the developers just didn’t understand why some of the older titles worked successfully and replicate those lessons their own game (e.g. Alpha Centauri to Beyond Earth = fail).

For games striving to be more revolutionary and innovative, unless the game is exceptionally polished and well-made, the audience is even smaller and the marketability even less. Without a bigger budget (production values, marketing, attention, etc.), innovative titles that are amazing in concept often fail in the execution due to buggy launches, crude UI’s, unengaging graphics, lack of press coverage, and so forth. Many indie games, whether going innovative or more traditional in their design, are barely able to get a feature complete release together, let alone do the necessary refinements to the pacing and narrative arc to make the games stand out in comparison to the old classics.



I am increasingly feeling that the era of Early Access and the expectation of post-release development is partly to blame for why games seem to come up short. During the heyday of the 90’s, a game needed to be very solid at release because most people would never patch (or even know to look for a patch assuming it was possible) once they brought it home. The game was the game, for good or bad. And people also frequently waited for reviews to come out before purchasing, so they would know whether they were about to step into a buggy mess or not. As a consequence, a LOT of time was spent polishing and balancing before launch to make sure the gameplay was as genuinely compelling as it could be, that there was ample room for real strategizing, and that the AI provided real opposition.

With Early Access and games being released well-before their time becoming the norm, it just paints a poor picture of the entire genre. How many 4X games come out with bad reviews but are eventually patched or expanded to be great games a year or more down the line? A lot of games are improved and turned from bad or mediocre to great – but in this situation you’ve lost your ability to reach a wider audience with a positive launch and you’ll never make-up the lost sales. All of this poor perception keeps the genre as a niche; the mainstream crowds don’t have much tolerance for waiting.

Of course, Early Access and crowdfunding is largely responsible for enabling indie devs to get to market in the first place, adding their take on the genre. Without these tools, we would likely see far less diversity and innovation than we do now. So I don’t intend to be overly critical of these new tools either. A lof of games seem to go into Early Access before being feature complete, and get released soon after being “feature complete” - which really doesn’t leave enough time in my opinion for polish and balance with all the systems in place.

Reimagining the Challenge, Asymmetrically of Course

I feel like we are, perhaps, on the precipice of a new era of 4X games. Should we manage to secure a few good (or exemplary) reimplementations of past favorites, e.g. our darling Master of Orion modernized, it might leave the door open for pursuing alternative styles of 4X games. And a number of games have been released or are under development that are exploring new asymmetric designs as a way to provide a novel experience to players while still building on the 4X language. One of the primary goals of such endeavors is to get around the typical need for competent, human-like AI opposition. Without a strong AI to challenge and pressure the player, so many 4X games just feel flat and underwhelming. So if you can’t change the AI, change the game.

Jon Shafer’s “At the Gates” is one such game, where the player is primarily responsible for leading a migrating city around the map, absorbing different clans along the way. The opposition comes from various external threats, none of which are intended to be analogous to the player. Similarly, Arcen Game’s AI War pits the player as a tiny flee-of-an-empire against a vastly bigger AI empire, requiring the player to build up without gaining too much attention from the less-than-friendly AI. Keith Burgin’s iOS title “Empire” has the player managing cities that deplete their natural surroundings and must constantly be relocating, yet this is set against the backdrop of a growing corruption that will eventually overwhelm the player and lead to their defeat. The challenge is to see how long you can live - and much like a game of Tetris, eventually time runs out.



These Aren’t the Boardgames You Are Looking For

Another trend that I’ve been seeing is more reference to digital games that use “boardgame-like” mechanics in their design. While what constitutes boardgame-like is a topic all of its own, I think part of it comes down to transparency, streamlining, and providing fewer but more challenging decisions. For 4X games, this relates to the earlier section on complexity and depth. Boardgames, by virtue of having to be “processed” by the players at the table tend to be far more transparent in how their mechanics work, and create depth through challenging situations rather than relying on complexity alone as a stand-in for depth. The effective depth-to-weight ratio is higher for most boardgames than video games I feel.

Curiously, 4X games have their roots in boardgames from the 70’ and 80’s (as does Civilization). With a number of highly successful 4X boardgames (Eclipse in particular, also available on iOS) showing what is possible in a non-digital format, perhaps it is an opportunity for 4X video game designers to look back over the fence and learn a few tips. Perhaps, by streamlining games but maintaining the depth, we can make 4X games more accessible to a broader audience or even make it easier to build competitive AI’s. Unfortunately, one recent title, Sid Meier’s Starships, missed the mark and its claim to have been influenced boardgames suggests that maybe it was looking at the wrong boardgames. But there is hope.

On Finding Greater Meaning

The 3MA’s podcast discussed to topic of meaning in 4X games, which is a great final point to this long-winded article. In short, they commented on the notion that at the core all of these 4X games are really the “same game.” They are all an embodiment of a colonial-era manifest to become the supreme lord of the manor. On one hand this isn’t surprising given the “ingredients” of the 4X genre of exploring and laying claim to unknown lands and exterminating your way to victory. But this begs the question - can the genre do more?

What is it that compels us to relive the same narrative over and over in different flavors or via a slightly more polished implementation? Why must it always end in blood or economic monopolization or diplomatic unity? Can or should the genre be an opportunity to speak to a different, perhaps post-colonial, narrative? This prompts bigger questions about meaning in video games and to what extent games can provide a greater commentary on the human condition beyond tickling our fancies. What happens after we conquer the planet? In a way, Burgun’s “Empire” is a reminder that all of our civilizations will eventually crumble to dust and be replaced with something else - I’d like to see more games put the player in those reflective situations.

I also remain eternally fascinated by my relatively recent discovery of King of Dragon Pass, which is a sort of mash-up between a clan management, 4X, and a choose your own adventure. Here is a game where the player is not an omnipotent ruler of their domain, but a single person with only so much time in the day for making decisions and taking actions. It is a 4X game of sorts, but the perspective is shifted and the entire tone is immediately more immersive and reflective. Could such an approach be applied to a more traditional 4X title? Could it sell?



A Menagerie of Tension

To sum up, the 4X genre is fraught with tensions. Some are internal to the design of the games themselves, such as the balance between simulation and streamlining or designing an open sandbox versus a tight strategy game with a compelling narrative. Other tensions relate to the legibility of the genre itself and the extent to which 4X is even a useful term, or whether the sub-genres can gain traction as a shorthand. Yet more tensions exist in the marketability of 4X games, with the drive to pay homage to the past and take on less risky (more profitable?) projects or to tackle more revolutionary design concepts. And of course, there is tension in the development process of the game’s themselves and the mixed-messages and needs of Early Access and crowd-funding.

My hope is that cunning developers can navigate all of this. We can each imagine our perfect game (or games!). And should the genre grow and mature the chance of that one game being made goes up, somewhere, somehow. There might be more chaff along the way, but it’s the dream that keeps us sifting through the broken shards of glass. And if all else fails you can always set sail and try to make your own game right?!
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Thu Apr 30, 2015 5:08 pm
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Culture Storms and the Evolving Medium of Games

Oliver Kiley
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I’ve been wanting to write something on the culture storm within the video gaming community that’s been brewing and raging over the past many months. On one hand, I’ve stayed relatively silent on the issue because it hasn’t been clear how best I, and this blog, would make a useful contribution to what has become a total quagmire of internet vitriol. On the other hand, my own thoughts are sufficiently confused on the subject that writing about it at least forces me to articulate the thoughts I do have and try to work towards resolution in my own mind. It’s therapeutic on some level.

The culture storm I’m talking about is related to #GamerGate. If you are aware of the controversy, you probably have some of our own opinions and thoughts. If you haven’t heard of it – wikpedia’s GamerGate article appears to provide a fairly detailed account of the issues in play. I’ve taken to calling this a “storm,” as opposed to a war or conflict, because I think it’s far messier than what a war with cleanly divided sides might suggest.

Ultimately though, I don’t want to talk about #GamerGate directly. My feelings, after reading far too much (from both sides), is that trying to sort out the root causes, motivations, and rationales for pro-GG and anti-GG camps is like trying to fight your way through Minos’ Labyrinth. Except instead of facing the Minotaur you face a never-ending stream of photo collages of retrospective twitter posts, the authenticity and context of which is routinely unclear or absent. Its total confusion on both sides of the fence, with the extreme contingents on both sides screaming conspiracy, causing whatever facts or salient points might have been raised in the middle ground to be completely lost. Phew!

So, I’m not talking about #GamerGate. If you are looking for another voice, Erik Kain wrote a nice piece back in September that encapsulates my frustrations with the whole situation rather eloquently. Instead, I want to focus on the issues that have come out of the controversy that ARE important topics to discuss relative to the health and future of gaming culture and industry overall.

You are probably asking “what are these ‘issues’ that we can pull out from the fire and talk about?” I’ll frame each one below, and try my best to frame the different perspectives that come into play on each, and then include some of my own thoughts based on my own experiences and what I’d like to see happen.


Ethics in Game Journalism Part 1: Gaming Press Integrity

The call for better ethics in games journalism has been a central point in the in the conflict. Many people, rightly-so, are concerned about the close relationships between game developers and the gaming press. “Relationships” covers a lot of territory though, from individuals having close personal relationships outside of their industry involvements, to professional relationships born out of typical business networking. Obviously there is a lot of gray area here, and the call for revealing conflicts of interest is reasonable. At the very least stating relationships and potential conflicts when it could be interpreted as (or is) a source of bias is a good thing.

But at the same time, the relationships between developers and the press (and within the developer and press circles themselves), are important to have. We can’t expect them to exist in separate silos with no form of communication outside of what is posted for public consumption. If readers want to know what’s going on behind the closed doors of development studios, beyond company press releases, then there need to be journalists the developers know and trust enough to share information with. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but provided the nature of arrangements and access is disclosed appropriately, it can still be an ethical sound situation.

There are certainly valid complaints levied against the gaming press – a recent example being press members receiving a certain game early for review provided the game’s negative points were withheld from the “review” (or something to this effect). That’s an ethical trap for sure. Yet it looks like the rally cry for better ethics in game journalism has precipitated changes of policy at some media outlets (Polygon and Kotaku come to mind), which is hopefully a good step forward.

For all the discussion around ethics in journalism, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion about it directly. It is complicated for sure, but doesn’t appear insurmountable.


Ethics in Game Journalism Part 2 – What is a Review?

At a finer scale, the ethics debate has sparked conversation about what should constitute a proper “review.” Reviews drive much of the buy / no-buy decisions for people, and the internet storms that have whipped up about review scores and the motivations behind them provide no shortage of fuel for the ethical flames. There is a BGG thread on this exact topic right now.

I’ve seen comments from people suggesting that a review should be nearly exactly “X, Y, Z”, or that a review should just “stick to the facts” and keep politics or other issues out of the conversation. Paradoxically, advocates for freedom of expression in the games themselves (particularly with regard to not-censoring violence and sexism) can be quick to admonish the freedom journalists have to write however they please about the games they play, particularly when those writings cast games in light of greater political or cultural commentaries.

Some websites (for example Rock, Paper, Shotgun – a favorite of mine) simply avoid calling reviews “reviews.” and instead call them something else. Rock, Paper, Shotgun uses the “Wot I Think” tag for reviews, which emphasizes the subjective nature of game reviewing and playing a game is a personal endeavor that we all experience individually in our own unique ways.

Two things come to mind.

First, I do feel that consumers of games (and game reviews) need to be more informed and cognizant of the nature of what they are consuming. Reviews should never be read and taken as fact. Even which facts are or aren’t reported on in a review is subject to bias, and there is always a level of subjectivity when it comes to writing about creative works – at the very least choosing WHAT works to even talk about in the first place is a subjective decision! As readers/consumers, the critical lesson is realizing that the experience and value you get from playing a game is never going to be the same as the experience and value the reviewer had. As a reader/consumer, you need to decipher the reviewer’s preferences/biases going into their review of the game, and cross-tabulate that with your own preferences and knowledge. There are two levels of signal-to-noise to sort through, yet all too often people come to expect reviews to be fact, only to find out the experience they had didn’t match.

Second, as the gaming culture/industry evolves (more on this later), the landscape of game writing will become more diverse and nuanced. The era of reviewing games “with just the facts” and issuing a numeric score is dwindling in its relevance as games move beyond many of their traditional genres and formats; and perhaps away from the idea of being a “game” in the first place. As the nature of the industry diversifies, there can’t be just one way to talk about games or to write a review – it is far too complex for that.

As an aside, I came across a rather interesting comment (here on BGG) where someone said they came to the realization that few, if any, games are objectively good or bad – they are just good or bad depending on what you as an individual hope to get out of them. This seems obvious once you realize it, but too few people seem to share this opinion – and the result is that you can get shows of disrespect doled out to game creators and the people who DO enjoy those games. For a local example, look no further than Munchkin here on BGG.

So, my advice/wish/dream is that ever more and more voices be brought into fold of game writing. More perspectives seeking to articulate in different ways how a certain game is experienced is a good thing in my opinion. Yet at the same time, the consumers/readers need to find a way to navigate this complex milieu and connect with the reviewers and critics whose sentiments bring them valuable perspectives and insights. But it requires work to find those relevant voices for yourself. At the same time, realizing that voices that don’t match your own opinions aren’t invalid or unjustified for that other person is key to making the industry more mature. In other words, we need more empathy across the board.


Games as Media Form vs. Games as “Fun” Entertainment

I’m going to come back to this topic in a future post – but I do want to raise the point here. One of the bigger lines of debate that I feel underscores much of the gaming culture storm is about the whole notion of games as art versus games’ traditional role as something that is “supposed to be fun.”

People advocate frequently (I’ve had plenty of comments here on the blog affirming this) that games are “supposed to be fun” and why should we be seeking other purposes or meanings from games, much less write about it? Traditionally, videogames adhered strongly to a concept of “fun” as a metric for success and good design practices. An illuminating (and ridiculously long) article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun teases apart how the pursuit of “fun” in videogames has led to a preponderance of game design falling into certain modes, themes, and genres designed to appeal to a particular notion of fun for a particular audience. This situation ignores two important facets of the current gaming culture/industry.

First, is recognizing that “fun” is not a universally experienced attribute. In other words, every individual can have a different interpretation for what “fun” means to them – what’s fun for one person might come across as very much not-fun for someone else. Those advocating for “fun” tend to describe a game experience filled with a certain amount of visceral, active joy, and delight, which is a more limited definition. Instead of talking about fun, we might be better served by talking about the “value” derived from a game – what it is that the game brings to the table (or monitor) that is of value to the player. The range of possible values can go well beyond what typically looks like “fun” – it can be contemplative or instructional, bewildering or rational, depressing or elating.

Which leads us to the second point: games are a form of media. Media; like books, or video, or ancient scrolls, or newspapers, or TV broadcasts, or pamphlets, or press-releases. Just as “books” aren’t all supposed to be “fun, entertaining reads” neither must games. There are books that are written for entertainment (of all persuasions), just as there books designed to teach or instruct, or recount history, or inspire action or bring to tears. A film/video can be an instructional safety video or an inspiring work of artistic vision and narrative. Games are no different – and they certainly don’t have an obligation to be “fun” despite their historic roots. So long as a past notion of fun is used as a benchmark for conceiving of and evaluating games, the potential of the media is going to be constrained.

So in answer to the common question “are games art?” I would say this: games are a media, and like any other media CAN be art, although it isn’t always art. What it is that makes something art or not-art is a debate I suspect can’t be resolved; it’s an unending quest and ultimately up to the individual to decide for themselves what art is or isn’t. That said, a notion that has worked well “for me” is that something is art when it asks us/me to reflect on the human condition and the nature of reality. This can be at the highest level of “what does it all mean?!” down to more mundane matters “why do we clean our houses?!” But it doesn’t require “fun” or “learning” or any other potential values other than prompting me to reflect on the human-perceived reality that resides beyond the reality of the work itself.

As said, I want to come back to this topic in more detail in a future post (with examples!) – but for now I want to assert that this divide between “games are supposed to be fun” and “games can be works of art with greater meaning” is at the core of the culture storm in video gaming right now. The established “core gamer” audience (of which I consider myself a member) is witnessing the media growing beyond the domain of fun and into other avenues, some of which may be art. As the industry grows, more and more players and developers are looking for game experiences outside of the core gamers “fun” bucket – and as a consequence, developer focus and effort, and press and media coverage is diversifying in reaction to this growth.

Which brings us to the next point…


The Gamer Identity and Game Culture Diversity

The game industry is growing by leaps and bounds, and total revenues exceeded the film industry a while ago (for a benchmark point). Much of this growth is in “core gamer games” becoming increasingly mainstream house-hold names. AAA game titles that are cross-platform (PC, console, mobile, etc.) can be very pervasive across wide demographic ranges. Coming from the other side, ever increasing numbers of “casual gamers” are coming into gaming by way of social media games or mobile games. And in many cases these two worlds are colliding and intermixing. And lastly, you have a growing interest, particularly among indie developers, to utilize games as media for purposes beyond “fun” entertainment. Each of these areas, as they grow, brings in a greater diversity of game players, each advocating through their purchasing behavior or direct communications what kinds of game experiences they are looking for.

A series of articles written throughout the culture storm has raised the notion that “gamers are dead”, as in the label of “gamer” has lost its meaning. While the tone and intent of these articles have varied tremendously, the point stands that the contingent of people self-identifying as a “gamer” is changing – largely as a consequence of many more people not-previously considered gamers now identifying themselves as gamers. At the furthest end, some contend that “we are all gamers!” and hence can cast-off the mantle of gamer as a point of our identity.

On one hand, there are people celebrating this state of affairs, acknowledging that gaming has achieved mainstream acceptance and may usher in an era of de-stigmatizing “gamers.” This mainstream acceptance can perhaps open the door to further expansion of the gaming industry and the diversity of games that are produced. More people, more games, more diversity – all good things right?

On the other hand are people, mostly in the traditional “core gamer” demographic that took legitimate offense to the “gamers are dead” notion – taking it as an attack on their validity and identity, a brushing under the rug. This was made more bitter by the feeling that “core gamers” are what made the industry grow to such a point in the first place, and they are now being cast aside. These are legitimate feelings of course. The potential impact of their worries is that as the industry diversifies, development energy for making “fun games” for the core gamers will give way to other types of games appealing to other audiences.

Change is hard, and it’s happened before, and sadly some things are lost while others are gained. The greatest gaming change I’ve had to come to terms with is the “console-ification” of traditionally hardcore PC games. We each have our own opinions of course, but the Elder Scrolls games are my go-to example for games being routinely watered-down and streamlined to appeal to a more causal, console-centric gaming audience. Oblivion/Skyrim will never live up to Morrowind in my mind for this reason.

But the silver lining is that the industry is growing – and the numbers of developers in the industry are growing. If something is lost in one instance, two somethings will fill its place in another. Time will tell if this bears out – but rather than rally against the change, we can re-assert what types of games we do want to play and find a mechanism for getting them made. Space games, both 4X strategy games and space flight simulators are going through a renaissance after decades of big publisher disinterest once crowd-funding opened the doors of opportunities and exposed the latent demand for such titles. As indie developers become more sophisticated and experienced and move up the rungs of the industry, I suspect we will see even greater diversity of high quality games be released. Surely this is a bright spot amidst the gray fogs of change.


Sexism, Violence, and Freedom of Expression

The last topic on want to raise is sexism (and violence) in video games – as it is the eye of the proverbial hurricane of the videogame culture storm; it’s the issue everything else seems to be swirling around and manifesting though. So it is worth addressing for that reason alone, but also because it is important more globally.

Let me attempt to describe some of the contrasting perspective and opinions.

Some contend that a great many games are sexist in nature due to their depictions of women, the roles they assign them, and the agency they are afforded in games; as visual props, or defenseless damsels to be rescued, or eye-candy, or marketing material, etc.. I’ve been playing video games for a long time, and while I can’t make any claims on the relative or absolute share of games that could be interpreted as sexist, I feel comfortable saying that a lot of them are. Look no further than the countless not-safe-for-work ads that pop-up on video games sites. Sex sells, as it always has.

Others don’t perceive these sorts of depictions as sexist, or dismiss them as part of a broader cultural issue to address. For how many centuries have we been writing stories about damsels in distress that need rescuing? Sexist criticisms are often flipped around, asserting that men have an equal right to complain (but generally don’t) on sexist grounds because, for example, in shooter games it is mostly nameless men being gun-downed, equally without agency, as depicted as nothing more than meat shields. Or that the Conan barbarian visage is just as sex-driven of an image as ladies in chainmail bikinis.

But these counter-arguments fail in two ways.

First is that they fail to acknowledge how individual perspectives (mainly women’s perspectives in this case) and the broader context around the issue shapes the criticisms. Most of the games criticized for sexist depictions are games designed for male audiences, which has been the main demographic group for core gamers. Both men and women can be sexualized in this context, but the nature of it and the resulting reaction is quite different. Men are often sexualized in ways where the presumably male audience can see themselves “being” the male character (I wouldn’t mind being Conan for a day!). In the case of female characters, its more about their potential sexual “appeal” – or the eye-candy factor or whatever you want to call it. I can play Conan because I want to be strong and smash stuff in my loin cloth. I play Tomb Raider (circa 1998 or whenever) because I get eye-candy while I play.

Feminists are (I believe) arguing that the reserve interpretations don’t hold up for women. Women don’t want to “be” the overly sexualized chainmail bikini character (for example), nor do they really want to be (or derive the same sexual appeal from) the male character. In other words, though the depictions are equally sexist from a sort of genderless perspective, the resulting interpretation by men versus women are much different. This difference of perspective is further reinforced by layering in historic discrimination and objectification of women. Men aren't outraged because men aren't the demographic feeling objectified by in-game depictions while simultaneously living their daily life in the real-world that also objectifies them.

Second, dismissing the sexist criticisms, even if acknowledging them as reasonable, as part of a broader cultural issue doesn’t recognize that games ARE a part of our broader culture and both reflect and shape that culture in return. I am not an advocate for censorship, and believe that creativity and freedom of expression are a vital part of society. So on this basis, I don’t think that trying to eliminate all possible sexist depictions from games is a worthwhile (let alone feasible) endeavor. However, I do feel that as designers (and consumers), using these tropes and devices turns-off a potentially huge market segment while at the same playing into formulaic expectations (it’s lazy design?). Maybe its “fun” but it doesn’t advance or innovate the gaming offerings (although it shouldn’t have to). I haven’t touch on violence much (I will for a future post) – but it is also a trope that pigeonholes games around certain themes and motifs that appeal to certain audiences.

Under the banner of freedom of expression, games with sexist depictions do have just as much right to exist as do the criticisms against them (and the criticisms against the criticisms … and so on). As long as there are people wanting to buy games of a particular sort, there will be people making, playing, and reviewing them. Largely, it is up to the developers to decide how to respond these criticisms and who they want their games to appeal to. My hope is that by striving to be more inclusive for all audiences, the industry will encourage more participation and involvement by a greater diversity of people and yield a greater diversity of games in return.

And this is why I think addressing sexism is important. Gamer culture has a sitmga of sexism surrounding it, whether true or not (lots of debate on both sides) – and the current culture storm has likely magnified that impression. Yet I know from experience that many games have sexist content, and I also know from experience that having sexist remarks thrown your way from gamers themselves (in online games especially) is rarely more than a stone throw away. The two aren’t explicitly related, but from an outsiders perspective they can look like they are, which turns people away from gaming and marginalizes the whole industry. We can take baby steps to move past this.


#EmpatheticGamer

The issues raised in this post are all part of the culture storm and are certainly interrelated. We need more transparency and ethics in journalism so consumers know what they are reading and how to interpret it. But we also need more voices and perspectives in the industry talking about and responding to the new and different games that are emerging. We need better means of connecting gamers to the voices that matter to them. We need to respect one another’s perspectives and sense of identity at the same that new ones are brought into the conversation.

I love games. I love writing about them, playing them, and designing them. I think the whole gaming culture and industry is at a watershed moment, perhaps even brought to light because of this culture storm. This moment is about recognizing that games can exist “for fun” but that they can also exist for other reasons that are equally valid for different people. I would like to see greater innovation and artistic expression in games, but the whole culture needs to be more inclusive and accepting to get us there. Yet, no one needs to be dismissed or rejected from the milieu of gaming either.

Ultimately, I think this is all about empathy. We all, whether a player of games, a gamer, a developer, a blogger, a reviewer, or someone on the outside, should endeavor to be empathic towards our fellow humans. If not able to fully understand or comprehend one another, at least strive to be respectful. To be an #EmpatheticGamer
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Mon Nov 17, 2014 6:27 pm
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Schools of Design and Their Core Priorities

Oliver Kiley
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One of the regular topics on this blog has to do with the classification of games and the pursuit of a theory or framework that describes the operation and resulting experience of playing board games.

This interest is not driven by the assumption that we'll ever find a perfect system for actually classifying games. Rather, I feel the pursuit of such classification efforts and building a framework for understanding generates interesting discussion, builds knowledge, and creates insights that can be of value on their own.

I've discussed, in an earlier blog post, the idea of trying to define broader categories of games (e.g. What makes a euro a euro?). I want to return to this topic but bring in some other insights and references that I've come across, which will hopefully provide a more tangible and comprehensive picture.

This is a monstrous post ... you have been warned!

What a tangled web we weave...




Core Priorities & Design Schools

A landmark post from way back in 2007 by Jezztek brought up the topic of "Core Priorities" in a game's design and how these core priorities related to different Schools of Design or design philosophies. I think he nailed the idea, but it also had some gaps. Here's the start of his text wall to start the discussion:

Jezztek wrote:
The problem is that when people try to define 'Ameritrash' they tend to use expressions of the quality 'Ameritrash' instead of trying to define the core of 'Ameritrash'. It's like if I were to ask 10 people to define 'dog' using one quality. I might get responses like: 4 legs, fur, floppy ears, wagging tail and so forth. Then the contrarians would go through each quality one at a time and find counterexamples or bleed examples: I knew a three legged dog once, so that means he stopped being a dog? Cats have four legs too, so do they qualify as dog? What about hairless breeds, are they not dogs? And thus the contrarians would assume the label of "dog" must be meaningless.

So to solve this dilemma we need to pan out a bit and attack the problem one level up.

Let me start at the very beginning. When we talk about Ameritrash vs Euros first of all we are not talking about the geographic location of the game's design or production. Ameritrash games can come from anywhere, Euros likewise. So why do the names have a geographic component? Because these labels are about one thing, Design Philosophy, and these design philosophies are movements. While these movements have their roots geographically, they have both spread well around the globe, but the names remain fixed on the geographic heart of movements they represent.

Ok, so what exactly is the design philosophy that drives Ameritrash vs. Euro games? When a designer is making a game he or she has a series of choices to make, and often these choices are something of a zero sum game. You can't have it all, so to speak. And as a designer you need to have priorities as to what you feel is most important, and are willing to build your choices around. Each side has it's "Core Priority" that really defines it's design philosophy.

I agree with this wholeheartedly; and especially so from a game designer standpoint. I think the notion of Core Priorities inevitably relates directly to designer intent, and in turn a game's indented audience and their preferences. And as the quote says, you can't have it all. What elements and characteristics a designer choses to prioritize over others has an impact on how the game is received by its intended (or unintended!) audiences. This is important.

So, understanding the core priority of a given genre of games sheds insight on how the mechanics, theme connection, and interactivity manifest. Furthermore, these Core Priorities can be a useful nomenclature for understanding what different "Schools of Design" are attempting to achieve, and how the intersection of these schools give rise to different hybrid forms of games.

As an overview of where this post is going, here are the design schools and associated core priorities that will be discussed:

- Ameritrash School ~ Drama

- German Family School ~ Engagement

- Eurogame School ~ Challenge

- Wargame School ~ Realism

- Abstract School ~ Minimalism




Ameritrash Games: Drama



Drama:
Quote:

Any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results

Ameritrash is a term that has been around since 2006 or so (if my BGG diggings are accurate). It commonly comes up as a topic of conversation/debate - and people's opinions range wildly on the term. Some people think it's a useless and meaningless term. Others think it has too negative of a connotation. Others recognize that it was once used to describe Mass Market American games but that the term was coopted as a term of endearment subsequently. Others think it means the game must be from an American designer. The fact of the matter is that this term has pervaded the discourse surrounding boardgames and looks like it is here to stay.

So - what is the Ameritrash design school and what does it have to do with Drama? The approach advanced by Jezztek is that Ameritrash is a design school that seeks to play up the drama of a game experience. Drama can manifest many ways, from the game providing a rich narrative experience that tells a story (a dramatization of a story, think "theatre"), to creating tensions and other dramatics between the players themselves. Ameritrash games seek to immerse players in an evocative narrative (typically) that creates an uncertain story around conflict and tension.

Key tenets of the Ameritrash School:
- Theme & Narrative
- Conflict & Interaction
- Uncertainty, Luck, and Chaos
- Epicness & Victory
- Chrome & Immersion

Ameritrash & Drama: Theme/Narrative

Jezztek wrote:
How does Theme relate to the core priority of Drama?

These helps draw people emotionally into a game. The game ceases to be a simple multiplayer puzzle and instead becomes a world, and a world you are directly invested in. It's about feeling like you are commanding a legion and not pushing around cubes, manning a post apocalyptic battle car and not just moving a tile around a tabletop, it's pretty much inseparable to drama.

It's unfortunate that AT games are so often associated with fictional themes (fantasy, space, zombies, etc.) because it tends to box in people's expectations about what theme can be in a game. Really, the theme can be about anything - but the important part is that it be successful in immersing a player in it, making them feel like they are an agent within an unfolding narrative instead of some ambiguous entity on the outside.

Games are successful in this regard when decisions over the course of the game are consistent if one were to imagine themselves INSIDE the game world having to make those same decisions. If one can imagine themselves readily in the gameworld and the decisions flow congruently with the theme, that's a great feeling. Nothing breaks the immersion of such a game when the "best move" for advancing your position is doing sometime totally contrary and nonsensical with respect to theme. Consider the starvation strategy in Stone Age - its a contrived "gamey" thing, not a thematic expression.

In many ways, Ameritrash games also graze the closest to the RPG genre in terms of putting players in a narrative and giving them a clear role to play.

Ameritrash & Drama: Conflict & Interaction

Jezztek wrote:
How does Conflict relate to the core priority of Drama?

This one is any easy one, there are few things in life more dramatic then conflict. Love perhaps, but good luck creating a board game that evokes that particular emotion. [But] when you have your back to the wall, battling tooth and nail outnumbered by your enemies and still crushing them under your boot heel, that's dramatic. As such, to any designer trying emphasize the core priority of drama conflict is about as common as a quality can get.

Interaction can of course take many forms, but for Ameritrash games hostile conflict and battling are par for the course. This notion of conflict can really sweep across scales. You get grand strategic conflict playing out in something like Axis & Allies all the way down to the take-that, tit-for-tat type conflict in a game like Munchkin. A key aspect in both of these is that the conflict, as in many AT games, is targeted. You, the player, get to chose who you beat on and chose when you dish it out.

Ameritrash & Drama: Uncertainty, Luck, and Chaos

Jezztek wrote:
How do Dice (uncertainty) relate to the core priority of Drama?

Dice adds uncertainty, uncertainly is a fantastic tool for heightening drama. When I see a table full of players jumping to their feet in anticipation, or bursting out in cries of joy (or into yelps of obscenities) 9 times out of 10 dice are somehow involved.


I've come to realize that uncertainty, specifically uncertainty of outcome, plays a critical role in building a dramatic narrative. Consider a game like Eclipse (which I think is almost entirely AT). Rolling dice to determine whether your combat attack (conflict) was successful or not is critical to not only building dramatic tension but making the narrative come alive in a way that transcends and trumps player actions. It's the idea of fate (if you believe in such a thing) manifest in the game. By hanging things on uncertain die rolls it drives the narrative and board-state into unique or unforeseen situations and builds a story within a story of sorts. It's richer.

Compare a die-roll based attack to a zero-luck one. In the zero-luck situation, we can imagine a story coalescing around our forces as they close in to combat range, and then the combat is resolved in a perfectly known and predictable manner. Story over. In the die rolling situation, we can have the same narrative about our forces clashing, but a second narrative is possible describing the outcome. Perhaps you brought in superior forces, yet some brilliant twist of fate resulting in my one lone interceptor surviving against all odds to blow up your mothership. OMFG!!!! We'll be talking about that one for a while, right? It created a unique story that will likely never exist in the same way again.

Ameritrash & Drama: Epicness and Victory

Jezztek wrote:
Again this is about emotional investment. When playing a disposable 45 minute mini-game you just haven't invested yourself in the same manner as someone heading into the 4th hour of their drawn out head to head conflict, it's just basic human psychology. If I've poured 3 hours of brain crunching into my plans and strategies I'm just far more invested in the outcome then if I was just dropping in for a quick filler. The more invested I am in the outcome, the more dramatic the game becomes.

AT'ers often seek out games with an "Epic" feel, which can manifest as games with long playtimes with high stakes. Victory is often based on achieving a decisive and glorious moment, as opposed accumulating an incremental trickle of victory points. And as decisive as victory can be, so can be defeat - and we can see far more AT games with player elimination (or effective elimination) compared to many other schools. In the context of long, epic games - being eliminated if you have no chance of defeat is often preferable to having to play out the rest of the game sitting on the sidelines.

An avalanche of stuff!

Ameritrash & Drama: Bits, Chrome, and Immersion

Jezztek wrote:
Chrome is all about being evocative of the theme, and heightening the sense of immersion in the game. It also subtly plants the idea that there are a wealth of possibilities and anything could happen during the game. Robartin put it best:

"Rules that might occur in 2 out of every 400 games. Still, when they happen they are damn cool because they're straight out of the freakin book! Who doesn't remember the game where Jonathan Harker actually killed the Count?"

I think this last point is an excellent one. Whereas other schools might look at that often unused and extraneous rule as more overhead and eliminate it in the same of streamlining; for Ameritrash games it adds that bit of spice that creates distinct, unique, and memorable moments.

And a parting quote from Jezztek:
Jezztek wrote:
In the end Ameritrash games are about the people playing the game, and most importantly playing the game against each other.
...
With head to head open ended conflict based games this is much less of an issue. In reality it's often times less about playing the rules of the game, but instead playing the minds of the other players. Trying to avoid drawing their ire, trying to look as weak as possible while making your position as strong as possible, often times the meta-game is the game, and that is inherently more dramatic then playing against the board. Ganging up, Kingmaking and Imbalance all just tend to come part and parcel in these type of games, and thank god for that.





German (Family) Games: Engagement

Is everyone having fun yet?

I want to raise a point here that German Family Games are not Eurogames and Eurogames and not German Games. They are related schools of design, and certainly Eurogames grew out of German Games as they mixed with other influences/desires, but it is important that the two schools remain distinct and are recognized as such.

But first, it is important to discuss a bit about what German Family Games are and why Engagement is the Core Priority for their design. Samo's comment to a prior blog post does an excellent job identifying some the critical underpinnings for German Games (and compares them to eurogames), so I'll use his work as a starting point.

Key tenets of German Family Game School:
- Accessibility / Approachability
- Closeness, Balancing, Pacing
- "Pacific" Themes
- Non-Violent Interactions

German Games & Engagement: Accessibility/Approachability

sgosaric wrote:
simplification
It's reducing everything to its essentials - which depends on your goals. The reason for it is probably the family market (simple to learn, plays in a short time). The consequence of it is why the theme is never more thoroughly developed.


German Family games are largely designed to appeal to a broad audience, hence they need to be readily accessible and eliminate as many "barriers to entry" in their gameplay. The biggest barrier from a family game perspective is rule complexity. If its too complex your 10-year old nephew and your 80-year old grandmother aren't going to be interested in learning and playing the game. So great family games need to strike a compelling middle ground. Emphasis is placed on streamlining and focusing the gameplay around a core concept that is easy to teach and understand yet offers sufficient depth to keep the gameplay fresh and dynamic for years to go.

German Games & Engagement: Closeness, Balance, Pacing

sgosaric wrote:
keep them in the game
[This has] to do with the family market and shorter playing times. As was mentioned there's no player elimination, but mostly it's about keeping players constantly in the running (usually by a fair amount of luck). VP are also common precisely they run against the idea of zero-sum games which are much more definite and competitive.

Another aspect of Accessibility comes through having designs that keep players engaged throughout the game. Games are most engaging when everyone is in contention for the win, or has a chance at winning. If you know you are going to lose ahead of time, or there is a clear-cut winner, finishing out the rest of the game is considerably less satisfying.

Of course there is a delicate balance point between "keeping them in the running" and "making players accountable for good/bad play", but an appropriate amount of luck or player-driven balance, or hidden scoring can go a long way towards keeping everyone at least "feeling" like they have a shot at winning.

In contrast, many other schools of design, intended to appeal to more hardcore gamers, are less concerned with giving everyone a chance to catch up, because the desire is for player's strategic choices to have high bearing on their performance and the final outcome of the game.

German Games & Engagement: "Pacific" Themes

sgosaric wrote:
theme as user interface
Theme is not used as a goal (immersion, simulation) but as something to help people playing the game, either by creating a proper atmosphere and making the game inviting to new players (these were nongamer friendly games) or by making the connection between theme and mechanics intuitive, thus easing learning and playing the game.

The theme of many family-games is of importance primarily as it is used to enhance the legibility and understanding of the game and also to make sure it doesn't turn people off. A term Lewis Pulsipher uses describe the theme of many German Family games is Pacific. This means that the themes tend to diminish or downplay conflict. Inside the game, this is often manifest as themes about "building up" as opposed to "tearing down."

On the outside, it also means themes are less likely to cause conflicts with the preferences of the intended audience. These are themes that are comfortable. Everyone can get behind (or at least tolerate) trains or medieval European farming. Zombies on the other hand, or other heavy conflict-based themes, are going to alienate a lot more people, which runs counter to the notion of engagement.

German Games & Engagement: Non-Violent Interactions

sgosaric wrote:
Non-conflict competition
This has something to do with post ww2 Germany, but also with [the] family market. There have been many strategies around this problem, one is trading (win-win negotiations), then auctions and then we're probably moving to the euro territory.

This concept ties into the above discussion on theme, but it also translates into the actual gameplay mechanics. German Family games do have a fair amount of interaction, often of a very open and chaotic sort (auctions, bidding, etc.). Yet this interaction is almost always framed in a positive and constructive manner (e.g. mutually beneficial trading), not in a hostile manner.

Targeted interactions, where players can specifically affect/harm an opponent of their choosing is rare. Even when it occurs, it is often the result of a player being required to make such a move, as opposed to choosing to make such a move. For instance in Settlers of Catan, if you roll a 7 you HAVE to decide where to place the robber, and the logical response to place it where it improves your score the most relative to the lead player. By having the game force you to do this, it excuses players from having "hurt" another player, and maintains a more friendly and positive atmosphere (usually).





Eurogames: Challenge



One of the shortcomings to Jezztek original post is that while his breakdown and assessment of Ameritrash games was spot on, the identified core priority for eurogames was not. Originally, the core priority for Eurogames was identified as Elegance, yet elegance is more of a global trait in my mind, one which any design might aspire towards.

I can understand the drive for using elegance as a term, as certainly the drive for more streamlined and elegant mechanics was part of the German family games movement/school as Eurogames grew out of it. Yet looking at the top eurogames from the past few years, these games hardly strike me as elegant in the way that Go is elegant, or Lost Cities is elegant, or even Settlers is Elegant. Eurogames are generally far more intricate and complex than German Family Games - and while the integration of mechanics might be elegant, it is not elegant in sense of creating greater depth through relative simplicity.

So before going further, let's expand on that last point about what Elegance is (and isn't) in my mind:

Quote:
Thoughts on Elegance and Fiddliness

I often see a conflation between the idea of elegance and fiddliness, as if the two were on opposite ends of a spectrum. Really, they are talking about two different things. Elegance is about the gameplay complexity and depth, fiddliness is about the ergonomics or physicality of playing the game, moving pieces about, record keeping, etc. In more detail:

Gameplay: Elegant vs. Clunky

The elegance versus clunkiness continuum represents the relationship between gameplay depth (strategy, tactics, etc.) and rules complexity. Games that achieve greater levels of depth through simpler rules and less overhead are more elegant than games with similar (or less depth) but correspondingly more rules and overhead.

This continuum has nothing to do with the physicality of the game, how the pieces are manipulated, how the execution of board states are handled, etc. That has to do with how streamlined or fiddly the game is physically.

Ergonomics: Streamlined vs. Fiddly

The ergonomics of a game are really about the manipulation of pieces, and the physical processing of actions, etc. A very streamlined game is something like LOST CITIES, where the gameplay flows smoothly between players, there is little downtime, no complicated steps to perform in taking and resolving actions, etc.

Civilization is ultimately quite an elegant game, but it is a very fiddly game too. The underlying mechanics are surprisingly simple given the games scope and depth - yet the gameplay experience is broken up into many phases each round, and the execution of actions requires moving lots of tokens around, adding up the value of trade cards ad nausea, etc. It's a very fiddly game and not particularly streamlined.

So back to Eurogames, which have the core priority of Challenge. The term "Challenge" is not meant purely in terms of competition or conflict, although that certainly can be a part of the challenge eurogames provide. Rather, the idea of challenge is broader in application. Eurogames are ostensibly gamer's games - there are primarily for people IN the hobby, and they came about as German Family games had a front-end collision with the more American-style "hobby gaming" that was far more tolerant (and even embracing of) games with greater rules and mechanical complexity.

As a consequence, the euro-gamers games endeavor to challenge players in a multitude of ways. Players are challenged in terms of learning more complex rules systems and new mechanics, having to manipulate complex and interlinked mechanical systems, making tough short- and long-term decisions, and competing with other players in a controlled and (at least initially) "fair" and balanced manner. A tall order. Let's break it down.

Key tenets of Eurogame Design School:
- Intricacy and Mechanics
- Competitiveness
- Control & Constraint

A beautiful clockwork...

Eurogames & Challenge: Intricacy and Mechanics

Let's start off with Samo again

sgosaric wrote:
Mechanisms
The idea that theme doesn't have to be immersive was interpreted as something else [by euro designers] - that theme is not necessary at all. But what does then hold the game together? [The] focus became on mechanics and some were fetishized simply for being novel.
This trend with time became the opposite to simplification. Recently it seems to be about many interconnected mechanics (clockwork design).

BGG is most certainly the epicenter of the Eurogame player-base on the internet, and one thing that is always evident is the interest and importance eurogamers place on the mechanics of games. There is a constant desire and interest in seeking out new and "innovative" mechanics, or finding games that implement a mechanical idea in a more clever or more novel way, or the thrill/joy of learning new game systems and "discovering the game."

You hear over and over again from eurogamers about the joys of “learning the system” for a new game. As the embodiment of “gamers games”, eurogames fill the desire to learn how to manipulate new-fangled complex system. New systems pose new challenges for gamers to work through; and their intricacy is ever intoxicating. Such games emphasize their intricacy (e.g. how mechanical sub-systems come together in a clockwork-like manner) and innovations.

The other side of the coin is that the pursuit of ever more novel mechanics diminishes the importance of theme in many eurogames. Hence we end up with the sentiment that the theme is tacked on. This exists because many (not all) eurogame mechanics don't have any conceivable analog in the real or fictional worlds their theme evokes. Certainly there are eurogames that successful connect theme and mechanics, and those do stand out. Yet many more eurogames use theme as a understanding and communication aid, and not something their mechanics are striving to model or actualize.

Eurogames & Challenge: Competitiveness

sgosaric wrote:
Low Luck
Probably born from the clash of american gaming culture (heavy with dice and other luck factors) with different german game designs. What changed is that competition factor became seriously pronounced and that hobby gamers wanted serious competition, but still without "hurt feelings" vibe of german american games. First champions of this were auction games, but they have then via worker placement turned into indirect competition games.

Balance
This one comes from both designer control (as in - it's the designers, not the players that must make the game "fair") and the idea of serious competing.

Eurogames are intended to be taken seriously by their players (playing them is not an insignificant investment after all). The old Knizian adage "When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning." has grown into a rallying cry for a competitive motive for play that seems to resonate strongly with Eurogamers. This isn't meant to imply overly (or negatively) competitive behavior, but simple that playing your best within the strategic, low-luck, balanced context of the game is expected to some degree.

As a consequence, transparent gameplay, fairness and balance are more important issues than the drama and chaos provided by randomizing elements (e.g. success based die rolls), targeting attacking, and so on. Eurogamers generally want their successes and failures to be the result of their own good or bad decisions.

This drive for competitiveness without the chaos results in many games were players are challenged to "work the system" better than their opponents (see above for Intricacy & Mechanics) over the course of the game, rather than engage other players more directly. This pushes eurogames, often times, into the realm of player vs. game as opposed to player vs. player (although that's an over-simplification). When the opportunities for interacting with players directly (through board play or via negotiation, etc.) are restricted, the complexity of the game needs to increase to provide an equivalently deep strategic experience.

Eurogames & Challenge: Control & Constraint

sgosaric wrote:
Designer Control
With lower luck, there seem to be one unpredictable part of gaming left, which were players. Designer control [games] were born - their bonus side [being] that they are not so group dependent as heavier interaction games (even auction games). As you're competing against the design and not each other, it also lowers the possible anxiety arising from the conflict.

Following from the above, we arrive in a situation where eurogames function within a tightly controlled decision space and where procedural aspects of the gameplay are often of critical importance. For example, turn order handling is often of vital concern to eurogame designs, where first turn or last turn advantages/disadvantages need to be accounted for to provide "fair play" and competitive play. Chaos (random factors or other players' actions), which has a reduced role in the gameplay would otherwise make subtle turn order matters irrelevant over the course of the game, but no so in a tight controlled environment.

The other outcome of this designer controlled environment is increasing the predictability of the game from one session to the next, which in turn enables players to hone their strategies and skills more. By restricting and limiting how players interact with each other, personalities, play-styles, or metagame issues can be minimized. This enables eurogames to function equally well whether playing with a group of close friends or total strangers at a gaming meetup or convention. I wonder to what extent the success of the eurogame design school has to do with such games breaking into more, potentially uncertain, social settings.

This control and constraint notion also manifests, often times, as a the whole "multiple paths to victory concept" - where big strategic pathways are intentionally baked into the design. Good play often times down to identifying these pathways and navigating along them better or more optimally than your opponent, who is often times racing down a completely separate pathway. This is a generalization but nevertheless quite evident in many euro games, and is a contrast to more open decision space games (sandbox games or "framework" games) that tend to evoke more emergent and surprising strategies with an ever shifting meta-game.





Wargames: Realism

Welcome to the war room

Ameritrash games prioritize for drama, the inter-player narratives that are formed and take on a life of their own, implemented with a focus on immersion. Eurogames emphasize challenge as manifest through an emphasis on mechanics, intricacy, and competiveness. Wargames, in turn, emphasize Realism of their subject matter - and endeavor to model, simulate, or mimic a real (or fictional) subject matter. Most often this is about historical wars or conflicts (i.e. ConSims of Conflict Simulations) - but it need not be.

For Wargames, mechanics are utilized however necessary to provide an accurate or realistic analog to the theme. Likewise, drama is often less a concern, with dramatic situations at liberty to occur or not occur in a realistic manner befitting the subject matter; but it's not forced.

This is a useful quote to consider:

Jezztek wrote:
All three genres [edit: Euro, Ameritrash, Wargame] have games about war, but each of them realizes these scenarios through the lens of their core priority. Let's say you are designing a game about war, you have most of the mechanics fleshed out but are trying to decide about whether to include any mechanics related to supply lines.

As an Ameritrasher you would be asking yourself whether by adding Supply Lines to your existing mechanics you would be bogging the game down making it less emotional and dramatic, which would not be a sacrifice you are willing to make, but if they could include it in a simplified stylized manner that would heighten drama (i.e. Fortress America) they would be happy to do so.

A euro designer would be asking themselves if there is way any way to include the mechanic seamlessly and elegantly into the core game, or if it would feel tacked on and add needless complexity.

A wargame designer, on the other hand, would be willing to sacrifice both a certain amount of elegance and a certain amount of "edge of your seat" drama if it meant fulfilling their core priority of realism.

Wargames & Realism: Level of Detail & Fidelity

I should be honest in that my experience with Wargames is quite lacking. Yet following from the quote above, and based on observation and commentary, it appears to me that the question of level of detail and the fidelity of translating that detail into the realm of plausibility is important for wargames and is often used as a basis for distinguishing one game from another.

A term I like to kick around as I think about design is the notion of Congruency, by which I mean how plausible and realistic the mechanics are in terms of the theme being covered. Wargames, given a desire to prioritize realism and believability of the game's theme are looking for congruency, where mechanics "make sense" and aren't arbitrary.

Curiously, I do wonder how this notion of detail and fidelity translates into a non-ConSim or historical wargame game's. Is it fair to consider Magic Realm (for example) a "wargame" in the broader context of simulation and realism? If I were to imagine a game trying to simulate, at a high level of detail, the adventures of a fantasy wizard traversing a fantasy world, Magic Realm provides a high level of fidelity, detail, and internal congruence.



Wargames & Realism: Knowledge Building

Another point or motive I hear Wargamer's raise when discussing such games is their capacity for learning about the real-world events or realities being modeled. Playing a ConSim for a particular battle or historical military campaign provides the players with some degree of insight or knowledge about the actual event. Even if things play out differently than in reality, the issues and decision factors the players grapple with are often highly analogous to those of the real world historical events.

I also wonder how games not about war and conflict, yet that nevertheless appeal to this sense of real world learning fall broadly within the wargame design school. I think of Sierra Madre Games like High Frontier or Bios: Megafauna in this regard, where the games are trying to take scientific knowledge and concepts and wrap them around a game and let players explore the theories and ideas. Similarly, I consider a game like Container within this realism/simulation school from the standpoint of tasking players with building a working economy with market changes and dynamics that are analogous to those in the real world (if nonetheless abstracted). There are principles and dynamics being modeled that have implications for knowledge building and learning that reach beyond the game itself.





Abstracts: Minimalism



There is often a lot of discussion about what is or isn't considered an "Abstract" game. While some games we all generally agree on (i.e. Go or Checkers), others are less clear. Some people have argued that Chess isn't an abstract because the playing pieces have a thematic element to their design and naming (e.g. Knight, Rook, King, Bishop, etc.). Tigris & Euphrates is another interesting case, where the theme comes across very weakly for some players leaving them feeling like the game is an abstract, although for others they have quite the opposite reaction and find it relatively thematic.

In the general sense, I tend to think of Abstract strategy games as games that (in some combination):
- Typically have no theme or representation art (i.e. abstract)
- Typically have no random elements (are deterministic)
- Typically have no hidden information (have open information)
- Typically 2-player
- Typically no simultaneous decisions/bluffing
- Typically simple components
- Typically simple rules with emergent gameplay

Under this approach of "typically" I'm perfectly fine lumping Chess, Backgammon, and Go all equally under the abstract strategy game umbrella, despite Backgammon's use of dice and Chess evoking a warfare theme. They have enough of the other elements in place to put them well within the realm of abstract games in my mind.

But what is it that drives the design approach for abstract games? I feel that, taking the above criteria holistically, abstract games are an embodiment of minimalism in their design and execution.

Abstracts & Minimalism: Less is More

Under the context of minimalism, theme is not particularly necessary or desired. Heavy use of hidden information, random elements, or other considerations generally requires more rules and/or components to execute. Having more stuff to support more players generally runs counter to this minimalism idea as well.

Given the age of many classic abstracts, I do wonder to what extent this minimalism was born of necessity of the times, versus being a design conscious choice, or (perhaps more likely?) the result of the games evolving towards a more "pure" state over 100's of years (in some cases). In Chess, or Go, or Backgammon, nearly everything that isn't absolutely core and central to the game has been boiled away.

Abstracts & Minimalism: Emergence through Elegance

The compatriot of minimalism is the vital impotence abstract games place on simple rules creating emergent depth. Many of the classic abstract strategy games and can be leaned in a few minutes, yet the gameplay resulting from such a simple ruleset (and a minimal amount of components) is typically very deep and emergent. Abstracts are, in some ways, the ultimate expression of a framework or sandbox game, where elegant mechanics give rise to great depths. Go is the epitome of this notion.

Footnote
I wonder where Traditional Card Games fit across this spectrum of design schools. Like many classic abstracts, Traditional Card Games have evolved over periods of time. Yet despite a game like Bridge, Cribbage, or Rummy being very different from each other and from more "board"-centric abstract games like chess or go, I feel like that have a similar lineage and design philosophy. They are minimal in their execution (in terms of components), are typically theme-less, and have simple rules with surprising depth. The big differentiator is of course hidden information and randomness - but there are other abstracts that demonstrate both of those attributes as well!




BONUS! Customizable Games: The Meta-Game

Having played a fair bit of Magic: The Gathering (customizable card game) in my younger days, as well as a healthy serving of Warhammer 40,000 (customizable miniature game) I feel that customizable games are ones where the bulk of the player's thinking and strategizing is at a meta-level. I've spent probably more time thinking about and designing and testing Magic decks than I've spent actually in-game playing them. Likewise building army lists for Warhammer. The STRATEGY of these games is in the construction of the deck/army/whatever, and the tactics are in the execution of an individual play session.

Given that the strategizing exists largely outside of the gameplay itself, it isn't surprising that the meta-game is of paramount importance. Knowing what cards or deck-types are strongest at a particular point in time and how to build a deck to work with that or counter it is critical to effective play; ditto for assembling miniature armies. Hence, being a good player of customizable games hinges heavily on your ability to follow and engage in the ever- shifting meta-game.





Wrap-Up Postulations

Phew! Let's review where we went:

- Ameritrash School ~ Drama
- German Family School ~ Engagement
- Eurogame School ~ Challenge
- Wargame School ~ Realism
- Abstract School ~ Minimalism

The question you may be asking now is, what's the point of all this? I have a few responses.

(1) There has been a fair amount of discussion recently about gamer preferences and how that translates into motives for playing certain types of games. I feel there is a strong relationship between these core priorities and the motives players have for a particular type of game and the experience that game intends to provide. Players looking for a simple but deep game that love abstracts might be turned off by many Ameritrash games, what with their fantastical themes and high drama theatrics.

This isn't to say that gamers only have one preference though! Preferences and tolerances can change depending on one's mood and the attitudes of the group as a whole that's looking to game together.

(2) From a designer's standpoint, being cognizant of these core priorities and how they impact the design decisions you make in light of your intended audience is critical. Fundamentally, as a designer you need to ask yourself "who" you are designing for, and start to work towards that audience or at least be aware of how different audience might interpret your game.

(3) These core priorities and design schools are loose, amorphous, and ever-changing. These aren't hard and fast rules but rather general feelings and directions that define the movements. I found the core priority concept to be a handy way of framing the "gestalt" sense of certain types of games and a way to articulate what it is that certain games are trying to achieve.



(4) The past few years has seen a tremendous amount of hybridization and hybrid game forms. Hybrids, I'm inclined to think, occur when two or more priorities are roughly equal in importance. I can't help but look at Mage Knight and see it has the off-spring of a simulation-ist Magic Realm-type game that had a collision course with Dominion and HeroQuest.

In conclusion, the core priorities idea provides a frame for better understanding the different schools of design. And going all the way back to Jezztek's initial premise, it does in a way that let's us come to terms with the big idea of the different schools and not get bogged down in the exact specifics of which attributes do or don't define a particular genre. So the question now is, does this approach resonate with you? Or send you running in the other direction?
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Tue Jun 17, 2014 6:04 pm
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15 Years and Worlds Apart - Autumn Dynasty: Warlords & The King of Dragon Pass

Oliver Kiley
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Introduction

I've been playing two games on my iPad recently, Autumn Dynasty Warlords (Touch Dimensions) and King of Dragon Pass (developer A Sharp for iOS on ITunes or PC @ GOG.com). While the two games are quite different in their intent and are separated by a mere 15-years of time - I can't help but draw comparisons between the two. In many respects, the merits and failings of each game may underscore a shift in game design over the years, or perhaps a shift in my own expectations and gaming desires in relation to the wider gaming audience.

In short, I feel that King of Dragon Pass does so many things right and creates a deep and captivating experience. And it really showcases and embodies the fleetingly lost art of game design. AD: Warlords on the other hand, like so many games in the Civ/4X genre today, seems more interested in having players "just do stuff" because once upon a time some older game had "players do that stuff" and established expectations. Yet in reality the stuff you do is trivial and dull, despite it hiding behind an otherwise intoxicating level of production polish.

Beware, harsh criticisms ahead ...




Autumn Dynasty: Warlords



AD: Warlords is the follow-up game to the original Autumn Dynasty (which I've also played through). "AD The First" was a real-time strategy (RTS) game featuring a linear campaign and also AI and multiplayer skirmish modes. The game uses an excellent "painting" feature to draw organic movement for your units to follow. The campaign missions where challenging and often quite tense as you frantically tried to build up resources and stay ahead of and outmaneuver the opposition. I honestly can't imagine a better RTS experience on a mobile platform - it's a tight, focused, and exceptionally well developed game. Check it out.

Pocket Tactics

AD: Warlords builds on this RTS engine by wrapping an Civ/4X-style strategic game around the real-time battles, Total War style, in lieu of the single player campaign. The game is focused around provinces, with players developing the principal town in each province through various building projects, raising troops, assigning heroes to carry out special missions (diplomacy or espionage), etc. As far as the "expected feature list for Civ/4X games go" - this one is surprisingly complete. It's really quite remarkable that all the elements are packed in to a cohesive package.

When players invade other provinces, they send their troops on a sequence of missions from scouting and establishing forward bases to the final siege of the provincial capital. It's a brilliant idea and one I've been longing for a game to implement, a sort of strategic middle road between the global troop positioning and the tactical level combat. And the tactical level combat uses the same basic RTS engine/experience established so well in the original Autumn Dynasty game. Yes, it seems to have it all.

But then things start to go wrong.

Pixel Perfect Gaming

The game world is comprised of 40 or so provinces. After I had expanded my reign to about 8 or 9 provinces in size, the gameplay wasn't becoming deeper or more interesting - it was becoming shallower and more and more routine. Cue up new army units, move army units to the front lines in preparation for an overwhelming assault on the enemy stronghold, use heroes to maintain the peace diplomatically with other empires until in position to attack them. Rinse and repeat.

The game has awesome ideas and all the parts are right there. But they don't hang together as a deep or engaging strategic experience - there just aren't many hard choices or tough tradeoffs to be found. I've been on autopilot for hours, going through the motions of building my empire but not making any decisions of greater consequence that whole time. Meanwhile, the overhead burden of micromanaging a growing number of provinces continually increases - the death knell of so many well-intentioned 4x games. Can't someone crack that nut?

I've touched on this before, but I think the overall failing of aspiring 4X games is that they don't provide, at an overall strategic level, enough hard compromise decisions over the course of the game. You can have it all, eventually. All the techs, all the units. There's no pressure. When coupled with a single-victory condition (i.e. conquest) the game boils down to trivially optimizing your military development so you can just steamroll the opposition. It's the same every freaking time in every freaking game. I recently played Alpha Centauri again, and for all its merits it has a dreadfully dull endgame. I'm obviously going to win, and I can spend the next hundred turns monstrously taking over the world with military, stockpiling cash, or rushing through the final sequence of technology. Gah!

I'm desperately craving a civ/4x game that offers really compelling and interesting victory triggers - even going beyond the "economic win" or the "political win" or the "technology win." Those can be a part of the equation certainly, but there is rarely the sense that I'm in contention for the win. More so, I'd love something that linked victory with an emerging narrative structure - where the choice to just steamroll your neighbors isn't always a good option, or where you had to manage your empire in a constant state of tension in regards to those around you. I like the idea of Civ/4X games, but am increasingly turned off by how they actually play out as a game - with the "design" for the endgame being so routinely overlooked.

Enter stage left: The King of Dragon Pass




King of Dragon Pass



The King of Dragon Pass is a game I was quite hesitant to pick up. It looks strange and on paper (or screen) was a game I couldn't possibly enjoy, right? KoDP was originally released as a PC game in 1999 - and I was totally unaware of it at the time (and probably wouldn't have had the patience for it anyway). It was released on iOS a while ago, and I've been playing it on my iPad. I contend that KoDP "IS" a civilization game (or a town/clan management game) yet it is executed through a narrative perspective. Instead of having a "gods eye view" over your dominion, as so ubiquitously seen in other Civ/4X games, in KoDP you are basically sitting at stable with your trusted village advisors deciding what to do over the coming year.

I'll give a little anecdote about the game ... My first attempt at playing the short game ended rather badly - namely with my villagers basically giving me the middle finger and saying "we are leaving and going to live with someone else who isn't such a F%^&$-UP, bye!"

You see - cows are of the utmost importance to your villagers, and the measure of a clan is often determined by the size of their cattle herd. I had been too liberal in the slaughtering of cows to erect magical shrines that overtime the fertility of my herd slowed down. Then my prize bull, known for his prowess among the cow fields, passed away and my herd fertility dropped even lower. Then we had a particularly bad harvest season and I hadn't stockpiled enough food, forcing me to slaughter more cows for emergency food rations.

When the winter season was over, my thinning and disgruntled villagers came to me with the bad news. Our minuscule herd of remaining cows (a paltry 15 or so) wasn't enough to maintain the clan - so they were leaving. Game over. It was one of the most satisfying gaming moments in recent memory, and I was grinning from ear to ear even in my defeat. That's how you make a good game.


Image: App Annie

I really can't do all the intertwined mechanics of the game justice in this post - you need to try it for yourself. But to step back a little, the basic structure of the game hinges on a yearly cycle of 5 seasons. In each season, you can make two primary actions (see the list below). The seasons all have a very distinct impact on your clan's operations. For instance you need all hands on deck in harvest time to collect food, summer is best for raiding, during sacred time raiding other clans is frowned on, etc. The yearly cycle and limited number of actions you can take each season adds a distinct time aspect and rhythm to the gameplay that is lacking in many 4X games.

Add to this seasonal structure the constant worry that each time you take an action it may trigger one or more random special events, to which you will also need to respond. These events are narrative-driven, almost choose your own adventure style scenarios, in which you need to plot an appropriate course of action by consulting with your clan ring (often with their own conflicting ideologies and agendas you need to wade through). The uncertainty of these events popping up, and leaving enough on the table to react to them effectively, adds another level of tension and depth to the game.

The abbreviated list of "stuff you do" is this:

- Selecting and managing a balanced pool of leaders to serve as your advisors on the clan ring (of upmost importance)
- Clan mood management, both for your farmers and your warriors - taking actions (feasts, etc.) to increase the mood.
- Allocation of crop land vs. grazing land vs. hunting grounds.
- Recruitment and maintenance of weaponthanes (e.g. warriors)
- Building defenses
- Conducting full raids, cattle raids, and aggressions on other clans
- Sending exploration parties to nearby or distant places to search for treasures or other discoveries
- Erecting shrines to the 20 or so different gods, conducting sacrifices to learn new magic (essentially the games technology tree), etc.
- Trade system for trading goods/cows/food or establishing on-going trade relationships.
- Diplomacy system for creating alliances, tribes, paying tributes, giving gifts, exchanging knowledge/lore, etc.
- Preparing leaders and sending them on "Hero Quests" to trigger special events or gain an unique/powerful advantage.

What makes KoDP so great, if I had to pinpoint one quality that unifies the above, is that the player is always put into a gray area with no black and white answers about what to do. Case in point, when sacrificing cows as part of a mystery ritual (to learn new magic / technologies) you can sacrifice 0 to 50 cows. How many cows do you sacrifice? Your advisors might all tell you something different - and experience suggest about 14 cows is a good number. But it isn't a guarantee. The question is about how much risk you can take and how much you can afford when taking a bigger picture look at your herd size over the coming years. So choosing how to respond within these varying shades of gray has a real outcome on the success of your clan. Couple these tensions and uncertainties with the inexorable advance of time through the world's 5 seasons and the result is a fascinatingly complex web of gameplay.

Image: App Annie

These tensions are best exemplified in the dealings with other clans in the area. Unlike other 4X games, it is exceedingly difficult to totally wipe out other clans - and you wouldn't necessarily want to anyway, even for your staunchest enemies. Your clan has a standing with other clans, from friendly allies down to hated enemies, and managing your relationships is critical. Raiding other clans for cattle or loot is a big part of the game and part of the cultural fabric of the clans themselves. You often want to maintain somewhat hostile relationships with a few close neighbors solely for the purpose of raiding. But if you raid them too hard and often, they might appeal to your generosity to spare them, and pay you a tribute instead. Politically, you might be forced to accept the tribute but your capacity for raiding (for relatively more cows) is thus diminished - so it's a tight-rope you are walking.

On the positive side of inter-clan relationships, continually sending gifts and emissaries to maintain relationships is critical, so that when times are tough you can call on nearby friends to help you out. Yet the resources expended (cows, goods, time, etc.) on maintaining these relationships detracts from your ability to use those same resources in furthering your internal development and growth (exploring, building shrines and magic, recruiting warriors, building defenses, etc). How you balance these expenditures while at the same time maintaining the status quo can be quite a challenge. In my first game, I was far too liberal with consuming cows, with the end result that I was living well beyond my means. I should've been doing more cattle raiding to help maintain my herd size, but instead I was trying to be nice to all my neighbors. In the end, my people decided my neighbors would offer them a better quality of life, so they took off.

Another element of the game that is a brilliant piece of design work is the "magic" system. Magic is a somewhat nebulous and abstract resource (think of it as the good will of the gods) that you assign to various aspects of your clan's operation during the new year rituals. It's a bit like establishing a yearly budget - and the composition of your clan council ring determines to what extent you can assign magic resources and into what buckets. E.G., assigning magic to warfare will make your warriors stronger that year, assigning it to trade makes your trade missions more profitable, assigning it to mysteries makes your sacrifices for knowledge more successful, assigning magic to herds makes your animals more fertile, and so on. These decisions are of vital importance and shape an arc that guides your actions over the coming year. In addition, you can retain a pool of unallocated magic to use in response to events, a sort of magical slush fund, but it isn't as efficient to use magic that way compared to planning ahead appropriately.

Winning King of Dragon Pass is a challenging affair, heck just surviving can be a challenge. In the "short game" you win by forming a tribe (a formal alliance of many clans) and having one of your leaders lead the tribe as its king for at least 10 years. Forming a tribe is no small undertaking, and entails conducting a series of Hero Quests (and learning the background lore necessary to make you successful) and building up the relationships with surrounding clans such that they are willing to just TALK about forming a tribe. Even that is no guarantee - as the tribal talks can break down or even be dead on arrival if you are trying to form a tribe with clans that hate each other. Not to mention, even if you DO form a tribe, once formed the tribe may decide they don't like you enough to elect one of your leaders the king, handing it to someone else instead. If a tribe is established, it opens up a whole new web of internal tribal politics that now need to be navigated, going far beyond the typical offerings of Civ or 4X games. It's nuts. I haven't accomplished that feat yet - and the long game easily doubles or triples what you need to accomplish. Oh my.

It's worth taking a moment to say what King of Dragon Pass is not. It is NOT a game with a heavy spatial or geographic element. There is no movement of forces or units around a world map, no physically identifiable expansion of territory or influence. Yet the game manages to address the implications of all those things through other mechanics. There IS a map which shows the location of other clans and has known and unknown land areas identified - and you can chose where to send exploration parties for example - yet this map isn't a typical Civ style map that is front and center to the play experience. While the game doesn't have this spatial element, it has so much more to offer in terms of challenge and narrative that I don't miss it.




Concluding Thoughts

King of Dragon Pass seems to do many of the same things, at a basic mechanical level, that Autumn Dynasty Warlords does - even down to the need to send actual leaders to other clans (or provinces) to engage in diplomacy (a cool underused idea). Yet KoDP's endearing success (for me anyway) is because everything is mechanically intertwined and uncertain, and no or exceedingly few decisions are ever trivial. In AD: Warlords, it seems that most decisions are trivial. My 10 choices per year in KoDP are precious and need to be made carefully - my 100's of potential moves in AD: Warlords are washed away in a sea of irrelevance. (I should mention that I don't think Warlords is a poor game at all - its exceptionally well produced and a great Civ/4X game by most standards. But for me it's the latest iteration of the overall failings of the genre itself.)

Of course, the two games are very different in intent. Warlords' design is fundamentally oriented towards supporting and giving context to the real-time tactical battles that play out in the land grab strategic game (and it does well in that regard). KoDP is about guiding your people towards the promised land, and is a rich narrative experience as much as a strategic one. However, there is considerable overlap in "what you do" in both games that highlights an opportunity, still hanging out there and tantalizing me, for a game that unites the best of both worlds. Perhaps in time we'll see such a thing.

This whole discussion makes me wonder whether my preferences have changed and evolved over time or whether the gaming majority has changed. Recently I read an article from a video game designer talking about how we reminisce about the challenge and depth of old "classic" games. But really, it was suggested, that we were just "worse" at games back then and that all these genres were new at time. So in combination everything was far more exciting and deep seeming, but fundamentally quite similar to what games are like today.

If that's true, then it might explain why, to me, Autumn Dynasty Warlords feels trivial - it's because I've "done these things" 25 times already in 25 different games and the same basic strategies and principles for winning apply to all of them. Hence, Warlords comes across as easy with relatively obvious best choices to me - but to a player just cracking the spine on a civ/4x game, perhaps it IS a bewildering challenge. I hate to assume this is true though, because A) it seems egotistical, and B) it means the good ole days have come and gone for me.

Yet, here comes King of Dragon Pass - a came about "doing" much of the same stuff seen in other Civ/4X games, yet the underlying game design poses strategic challenges that are unique and specific to that game. I've played it a number of times and still haven't won the short game - let alone the long game. So at least for me, KoDP shows that it's possible that games can pose new and interesting challenges - or perhaps it just exemplifies an approach to design that is seldom seem today; daring to be different and take a risk. I just find it amazing that I had to go back in time to 1999 to find such an experience. And perhaps that, more than anything, says something about the state of game design today.
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Wed Mar 5, 2014 4:47 pm
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Conflict Soup for the Gamer’s Soul

Oliver Kiley
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Lewis Pulsipher's recent post, “Competition, direct conflict, wargames, and screwage games,” discussed the degree of conflict in a game. The post stirred up a number of prior conversations I’ve had on the topic, and in particular the thinking a number of us invested in the Game Genome Project – specifically in the “competitiveness” category.

I posted a reply to Lewis’ post summarizing my stance on the subject, but thought it could warrant additional conversation, clarifications, examples, and general blabbering. So here we go...



I tend to view the competiveness aspect of a gameplay on a rough continuum that progresses from games where you “HAVE to destroy other people’s assets to WIN” all the way down to “games” that are multiplayer-solitaire contents or puzzles. It’s important to note that there are games that follow euro, ameritrash, wargame, or abstract design philosophies that exist all across this continuum – so keep that in mind moving forward.

Assets huh?
I’ll take a moment to clarify what I mean by ASSETS, because this is important for understanding the framework. “Assets” refer to anything under the direct control of one player (or allied team) that pertains to their capacities for performing actions, scoring points, or otherwise “doing things” in the game. So, my assets in Stone Age are my cave-meeples, my collected resources, my purchased cards/buildings. You can’t willy-nilly use my assets for your own purposes as if they were your own. Said another way, a player’s assets pertain to their “means of production” in the game, production being anything with an output in terms of taking actions, scoring, etc. However, the “score itself” in most games is generally not considered an asset, except in cases where it is (i.e. Money in Monopoly is both assets and victory points)!

On to the categories!



Necessary Destruction Games
i.e. Direct/overt conflict, combative, aggressive, cutthroat games

All our ducks in a row...

... and it all comes down to this.


At the most confrontational level, these are games where players are “required” to destroy or reduce their opponent’s assets in order to win the game. You HAVE to attack if you want to win, and that attacking is explicitly part of the victory condition. Examples:

- Chess (abstract – kill the king piece)
- HeroQuest (Ameritrash; kill the boss monsters and/or Hero Party)
- Wargames where VP’s are primarily (or only) gained from destroying opposing units.
- Magic the Gathering (and most duel/battle CGG’s)
- Miniature Games (Warhammer, BattleTech)

Eurogames: I can’t think of any in the euro design philosophy that require destruction – probably because not requiring it is one of the underlying traits of the euro design philosophy, or at least that of German family games.

In many cases, these games are focused around attrition. Often, the player’s will have the most assets at their disposal at the START of the game; and over the course they slowly loose forces/assets until a win condition is reached. Think of it as games focused on “tearing down” the opposition.



Opportunistic Aggression Games
i.e. Civ games, 4X games, area control/enclosure, economic, take that games

These are games where players have the tools, options, and means at their disposal to attack other players’ assets and means of production directly, but they are not required to do so in order to win. Victory in such games is often based on accumulating VP’s or completing objectives that earn you points in ways outside of (or in addition to) taking actions that can destroy your opponent’s assets. In such games, it is possible to play and win (and conclude the game) with no players ever having to destroy another player’s assets. These games include ways for “building up” as well as “tearing down.”

It's kinda like geopolitics; it's all the meta game man!


In terms of multiplayer games (3 or more players); these games also tend to implement attacking in ways that allow for “targeted” attacking. I.E., being able to single out a player or target for the attack. This characteristic can make the games intrinsically focused around politicking and meta-gaming, occasionally to the extent that such considerations trump board play. In addition, characteristics like king-making and leader bashing tend to manifest heavily in this category.

Examples:

Go (abstract). Maybe I’m going on a limb here, but technically one could play a game of Go without either player ending up capturing any of the other player’s stones. The game ends when both players pass, and there is no requirement to capture stones for determining the winner. Of course, you CAN capture stones, and probably will, but that isn’t directly tied to victory.

Tons of euro, AT, and various hybrid games fit into this category, and I’m sure a number of sub-categories could be devised within this grouping. Suffice to say, here’s some examples across the spectrum:

Go (abstract; territory/area control)
Settlers of Catan (robber)
Carcassonne (stealing regions)
Tigris & Euphrates (internal/external conflicts)
Acquire (economic/stock holding)
Cyclades (euro-fied duded on a map)
Antike (euro-fied duded on a map)
Citadels (stealing/destruction of cards, money + actions possible)
Munchkin (and just about every take-that type game)
4X/Civ games (Civilization, Eclipse, TI3, Hegemonic, etc.)
Risk (area control)
El Grande (area majority)
Taluva (abstracy euro – features destroying other huts)

Acquire is worth noting because it illustrates the economic expression of opportunistic aggression type games. Many games that feature stock holding (such as Acquire) give players the means and tools to impact the value of stocks which is a type of voluntary destruction. By taking actions to disproportionally devalue your stocks, I’m reducing your total assets and however that plays into scoring and/or taking actions follows from there.

Area majority type games may seem like an odd fit, but consider El Grande or Samurai. While you aren’t explicitly destroying your opponent’s pieces, you are destroying their invested assets value for purposes of scoring, which is part of the means of production concept. In Samurai, if you put down a strong piece to attempt to capture scoring tokens, and I swoop down and claim it out from under you with a stronger piece – I’ve effectively devalued your asset and “stolen” the reward that you were poised to achieve. Looking at it in a different way, consider a location where you have a majority to be one of your “assets” (in the sense that you control it and get the most value/score/VP out of it). If someone else acts to take the majority from you, they’ve effectively stolen that asset and means for scoring future points.



Denial Games
i.e. Blocking, indirect conflict, barriers, road blocking, hampering/hindering, etc.

Races like this. Or this...

... Rubbin's Racing...


This category includes large swaths of the core eurogames, where players DO NOT have means of directly damaging other players’ collected assets. Instead, players are given various means and methods for “denying,” blocking, disrupting, hindering, etc. access to future assets via neutral or shared board elements. You might think of these games as principally about “building up” with players interacting in ways that slow or impede their opponents’ pace of progress. Often, such games hinge on timing actions, being the one to “get there first” in order to deny subsequent access to someone else.

Worker Placement games (Agricola, Stone Age, etc) fall into this camp. I can block access to you getting certain future resources or actions that you may really want to take, but I can’t send my peons over to your farm to rustle your cattle. Ticket to Ride similarly allows players to block others players by building routes to deny those routes to other players, but I can’t steal your train cards or sabotage your already built connections.

More Examples:

7 Wonders (“hate drafting” as a means for denying access)
Glen More (tile drafting)
Ginkgopolis (drafting focused)
San Juan (i.e. drafting a role out from under someone else)
Ra (Bidding Games, Ra?)
Formula De, Bolide (Race Games with shared tracks)

Interestingly, denial games despite their intent to minimize destructive type interactions (if that is the intent) can still cause significant angst and frustration for some people. Games featuring direct destruction often do so in big obvious ways, and those actions are an expected part of the experience. Games that focus on denial elements may appear more passive and less hostile, yet blocking can be equally targeted and hostile in intent; which in turn can cause anguish for players otherwise looking for less confrontation.

There is a flavor of race games that fits into this category as well, which are those where players are racing along a shared/common lane. Think of a Formula 1, Indy Car, NASCAR, or a horse race. In these cases all players are moving through a shared track and there is an abundance of interaction occurring as players jockey for position, block each other from passing, and so on. There are games that do exactly this.

I don’t have a lot of experience with bidding focused games, but perhaps those (like Ra) also fit in this category?



Tracked “Race” Games
i.e. get there first, the most points at the end

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can ...


These are games that are “almost” multiplayer solitaire. Players are able to “influence” each other through shared or neutral or indirect means, but have no actual methods for blocking or preventing another player from doing what they want. Think of these games as “leeching” type games.

Analogy time: Imagine a track race (500m dash or something); where each runner is confined to their own track and runners can’t cross the lane lines and/or physically interfere with other runners. However the pacing strategy and approach a runner takes can constitute a psychological interaction. Do you start off strong and try and keep the lead to sow the seeds of discouragement, or do you hang back and then try to dash ahead at the end? All the runners are going through these psychological decisions in response to the runners around them, even though they can’t physically do anything to their competitors.

Race for the Galaxy is pinnacle example. Players are free to choose any action they want for the round, unlike San Juan where a role you want to pick can be drafted before your turn denying you access. However, other players can/will leech off your selection, so it behooves you to balance and time your actions to minimize that leeching effect while you in turn leech off your opponents. Even though the interaction in RftG is quite indirect, it nevertheless plays a significant role in the strategy of the game and is a strong (but subtle) form of interaction at high levels of play.

Depending on the selected kingdom cards, Dominion is another example, where you can’t prevent me from using the cards in my hand in any sort of targeted denial type way. I’m at liberty to take whatever actions I want and can afford to take during my turn.

In the classic card game world, Cribbage is a good example as well. In this case, players are progressing down a fixed track and the player to cross the finish line first wins. The primary interaction is through pegging and what cards you put in your crib – but this interaction doesn’t inhibit or prevent me from doing whatever I want in terms of legal plays.

Roll Through the Ages is an interesting case. By and large players are racing independently to build improvements and monuments (the primary point generators). Although there are certain die roll combinations that will affect your opponent’s score (i.e. Pestilence rolls). While this may appear to be an overt conflict, remember that VP’s aren’t technically assets (unless they are; like money in monopoly). In the case of RttA, hitting all opponent’s equally with a -3 to their VP’s is the same as you, alternatively, gaining 3 VP’s and pulling further down the VP track.



Contest Games
i.e. score comparison, “true” multiplayer solitaire.

Step right up! Give the thing a whack with the Hammer! Prove how strong you are and win a free hotdog!!


Yahtzee is the most clear-cut example of multiplayer solitaire (MPS) type games. All players are given an equal number of turns to score the highest score they can and there is no way that the rolls of one player can affect the chances, opportunities, or score of another player. Boggle is another game, where players are tasked with finding word sequences in a grid of letters under equal time constraints. At the end, we compare words (less and shared duplicates) and the player with the most wins.

Despite the brandishing of many games with the MPS label, very few games tend to genuinely fall into this category – most are instead Race Games.



Non-Competitive Games
i.e. puzzles

This category includes mostly cooperative-style games. I’m calling these games by acknowledging that the board, as a sort of analog AI, provides reactive and appropriate responses to player action that creates the feeling of competition. If one takes the opposite stance, that analog AI’s do not constitute thinking opposition, this category might be better labeled as Non-Competitive “Activities” or Cooperative Puzzles. Granted, dynamic variations over the course of the game, if in response to player action, can mean that rather than there being a fixed solution for any given board setup, that there may be many possible solutions each with a probabilistic chance of success.

As a point of illumination, compare traditional solitaire to Forbidden Island. In solitaire, for any given initial setup, there may or may not be 1 or more solutions. If there are zero solutions at the start (which is entirely possible), no amount of player action will allow you to win. Furthermore, there is no injection of randomness during the game to change this starting premise.

In Forbidden Island however, the probabilities and potential solutions are constantly shifting as players take actions and in turn the item and location decks are reshuffled. This reshuffling process and the removal/addition of cards into the decks changes the solution space and the probabilities, making the system feel more “game like” and less puzzle-like. But it’s an illusion to some extent …. caused by the pants of course.



Wrap-Up

So what are we left with?

Necessary Destruction
Opportunistic Aggression
Denial & Blocking
Tracked Race
Contests
Non-Competitive


I’m not married to any of these terms as a label; they work at a descriptive level but are a little clunky. Really no one is going to use these. But the more important point, moving beyond what the buckets are called, is the ideas they represent in terms of the underlying nature of conflict found in hobby games.

So, what are your reactions to the concepts? Is missing something missing? Do share!

Cheers!
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Thu Oct 10, 2013 7:24 pm
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Game Compulsion Disorder and the Call for Discipline Games

Oliver Kiley
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This post started as a reply to Patrick Carroll’s recent blog post: Aha! So That's What I'm After!. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts, and after my reply snowballed into over a page of text, I figured I might as well go for it and make it blog post of its own. Here we go…




When playing a video game, a tough situation often comes up for me. I'm playing along and pause to reflect, asking myself "why the heck am I playing this?" What is it I'm getting out of the experience (if anything?).

I recently read an article from Keith Burgun's blog titled an "Anti-Videogame Manifesto" that I think you'll find insightful.

In it, he describes “compulsion” games and “discipline” games. Compulsion games compel people to play based primarily on a schedule of extrinsic rewards. Case in point – I used to play Diablo and Diablo II (computer action RPG’s) quite a bit, until one day I asked myself, “why am I playing this game?” All I’m doing is the same monotonous sequence of clicking and attacking in hopes of finding incrementally better loot so that I can progress incrementally further into the game in hopes of getting the next incrementally better pile of loot. There are very few significant decisions with broader or long-term consequences in such compulsive games. You are motivated to play for the extrinsic rewards.

By contrast, “discipline” games – of which most hobby/strategy board games would be, are more focused on creating significant decision points – and the “journey” of how you win or lose and the knowledge gained from that sequence of choices is the primary “reward” rather than a hand out of extrinsic rewards.




In terms of video games, I feel many of the games in the strategy/turn-based camps (i.e. Masters of Orion, Master of Magic, etc.) are in the discipline camp when the scenario/situation calls for deeper strategic decisions – but there is still a moderate amount of monotony as well (moving fleets/units across the map turn after turn for example). But generally, these games don’t have a compulsion aspect to them; the joy of playing them is, well, actually playing them and making tough choices!

I used to play a lot of FPS games (Quake, Doom, Counter-Strike, etc) and RTS games (Starcraft, Dawn of War, etc.) and in a competitive multiplayer context these were definitely discipline type games too. You had to play and practice to become better at the game, and that was reward enough. Winning a tough match against a skilled opponent/team was an accomplishment. You didn’t need to be rewarded on top of that with some silly “achievement” badge or special unlock, or some other external reward.

Looking back, I can’t help but see that the decline in the quality of FPS games (in particular) is plummeting (in my opinion) because the gameplay is shifting from a discipline model to a compulsion model, and one that is also coupled with monetization schemes. The gameplay itself is dumbed down to shrink the impact of skill differences – but in turn skill differences are artificially imposed by giving perks to players willing to “grind” for better gear/loot or pay money outright for better stuff (the pay-to-win-model). It’s really too bad.




So for me, I’m rarely interested in any videogames at this point that fit the compulsion model. They seem like pointless time wasters. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time/flexibility to play many competitive multiplayer games either (the good ones that are still around). So I’m mostly restricted to solo games – of which I’m most interested in 4x/Civ style games from a strategic standpoint and adventure/RPG games from a narrative and immersion standpoint.

Yet even here I have my doubts about what’s to be gained from playing such games. Skyrim, which I've discussed before, provides an interesting point. I think from a raw design standpoint, it’s a compulsion game, with the player being incrementally rewarded with better gear and the next monotonous quest assignment. There isn’t much room to actually become a “better” Skyrim player or more skilled at playing the game. The extrinsic rewards of gear and skill points make your “character” better, not “you” better. At a certain point though (and fairly quickly for me) the compulsion drive runs its course and there is no room for substantive advancement of your character. Sure, you might get more skill points or this slightly better weapon – but the challenges you face don’t really require it. So what are you left with?’

One might say the value is in the “narrative” of the game, which in other RPG’s or other games could claim to be of a discipline aspect, where players are faced with tough choices with lasting consequences and no way of “going back.” Yet the narrative in Skyrim is not at all dynamic or responsive to player choice – for all its appearances of being a living world it’s really a dead one. Which leaves the visual adventure, for me, as the only redeeming quality of the game – in other words the “journey” of going from one place to next provides its own sort of aesthetic reward. Yet this only works in modest chunks and wears itself thin quickly. And perhaps even that reward is compulsion too.

From the Civ/4X standpoint, I run into similar quandaries. I recently fired up Alpha Centauri again, a game which I purport to love. Yet it struck me this time around as immensely boring. The vast majority of the game time is spent messing with build cues on planets, and moving units from one spot to the next. For every meaningful strategic decision I might face in the game, there are 100 monotonous actions leading up to it. Why? I think there is a certain compulsion element to that game as well – the incremental reward of getting the next technology, or finishing a special project. Is there really strategy in that? The gameplay is in general far too tactical and stretched over too long of a time frame to be certain of whether your choices are even strategic in nature or not.

An older game that I’ve been playing recently that I’m fairly intrigued by is Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. This is a fantasy 4X game in the vein of Master of Magic. I’m enjoying it quite a bit, despite some concerns I’ll outline in a moment. On the plus side, the fantasy setting has a much stronger narrative and sense of character than most sci-fi/space 4x games do. But more importantly the way magic works, and how you project your wizard’s magical abilities across a domain of influence adds a decisively strategic layer to the gameplay that’s absent in most space 4x games. Your wizard’s magic abilities, on any given turn, are limited by your mana pool – it’s a sort of turn by turn strategic resource that you need to use and allocate wisely. Couple this with the fact that you can only project your magic around your wizard towers or hero’s and suddenly there is compelling strategic planning element to how you build your empire and distribute your forces to be able to support them with your magical reserves. It’s pretty cool.

Yet ultimately, a lot of the gameplay is still monotonous and compulsive. Many turns go by of methodically exploring the world map, fighting neutral monsters for loot-based rewards, repositioning your forces on the world map, etc. I’m not terribly far into the game, but I hope that as I progress the difficulty and the time pressures the player is put under increases significantly – because at the moment I feel like I have “all the time in the world” to amass my forces for an inevitable victory. There aren’t enough competing demands or time pressure to force me into tough strategic positions. But maybe as I get into the harder levels/scenarios that will change. I’m hoping it does.




What’s the take away from all of this?

I think there needs to be (or I need to find) more video games outside competitive multiplayer games that are more discipline focused. I keep brainstorming a videogame design concept for a 4x/civ game that VASTLY increases the “density of strategic decisions” while eliminating the monotony. Boardgames in the genre already do this well. So the challenge is how can you do the same in a video game format while taking advantage of platform to create a more immersive and narrative experience at the same time. How would redesign Master of Orion if the whole game was to be played out in 30 turns instead of 300 turns? How would the game be structured such that every turn the player was faced with significant strategic choices? Certainly the game could still be complex and rich, but it would be focused on scrutinizing the details to inform a grand strategic choice, rather than navigating the details just to carry out monotonous incremental tasks in the name of “empire building.”

‘nuff said.

What do you think?
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Thu Sep 12, 2013 5:20 pm
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