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Terms of Art: Building Language for Board Game Criticism, Design and Casual Discourse

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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I feel another zeitgeist moment coming on in the exciting world of boardgame terminology, taxonomy and criticism (par for the course around here!). Precipitating this sense was that I recently listened to the excellent interview The Thoughtful Gamer held with Dan Thurot (of Space-Biff), where the two discussed board game criticism and language (henceforth referred to as “the podcast”). The discussion tapped into many key aspects of my own journey through this hobby as a player, as a designer, and as a critic - and so it resonated quite strongly.

At one point in the interview, Dan Thurot, speaking on the subject of language and methods for criticism said (and I’m paraphrasing), “If someone has a better framework for criticism I’m all ears!”. <Raises Hand>. I think I have one (or at least the foundation for one)!. So to Dan and The Thoughtful Gamer, this post is dedicated to you, your keen insights, and your great contributions to the critical body!

From gallery of Mezmorki

First, a little background and context

I joined BGG in 2010 and started this blog in late 2011. The blog has been, were I to summarize its overall conceit, an endeavor to advance the language of games as it relates to both playing, critiquing, and designing games. Three legs of a stool.

While I’ve been a game player all my life (and I just turned 40 for the curious), the deluge of new games I would discover through BGG and the exploding hobby market bombarded me with a slew of terminology and ways of talking about games. What did we mean by depth? Or by interesting decisions? What was an engine building game compared to an Ameritrash game? Were these terms even speaking to the same level of classification or to something different? I wanted to understand the language and its taxonomies, as both a player and a consumer, so I could find out what I liked and how to refer to it and talk about it with others competently.

I’ve also been a game designer for nearly as long as I’ve played games, constantly tinkering and houseruling games or designing up new games from scratch. I found that having a handle on the language of game design and being able to articulate how a certain set of mechanics translates into a certain intended experience, is invaluable for being able to talk with fellow designers or even to independently critique my own designs. Answering basic questions like “Is this game achieving its design goals?” is hard to answer precisely, but fundamental to making games. You need clear language to do it. As my language grew, I found my ability to think creatively about design grew in turn.

The last leg of the stool is related to criticism. Through writing a handful of reviews, participating in the Voice of Experience contests (as a judge), and writing for Explorminate, I found myself increasingly engaged in the critical analysis of games. I’ve had a strong desire to go beyond “reviews” and really dig into the how and why of a game. Critique and criticism, as Dan Thurot points out in the podcast, is necessary for advancing a form of art or media. Through critical analysis, we can advocate for “better” designs and advance the industry (more on “better” later on).

Why Bother with Game Language?

I mentioned this being a zeitgeist moment (at least for me personally). In tandem to listening to this podcast (plus reflecting on Dan Thurot’s and The Thoughtful Gamer’s writings on theme) I’ve been engaged in a number of recent BGG discussions that cut to the heart of why language matters at a practical level to the players themselves.
Case #1: A BGG Video on Top 10 Abstracts raised my hackles a bit when the vast majority of games listed as abstracts (and the purported top 10 that the video creators had played I might add) were not games I would even consider Abstract (with a capital-A) in the first place. How could our respective understandings of what makes an abstract game be so wildly different? And how does this in turn reinforce or erode the broader community understanding of what an Abstract game is?
Case #2: A recent thread requested that use of the term Dudes on a Map be stopped and the term replaced with something more inclusive (i..e Troops on a Map or a Boots on a Map). What I found illuminating was the following (a) Many people weren’t familiar with the term’s history and what it intended to describe; (b) Alternatives were proposed that missed the mark due to not understanding the historic usage; and (c) Many people questioned why such a term for describing a distinct “style” of game was even warranted in the first place (e.g. why not just call it an Area Control game?). All of this underscored the need for more robust language.
Case #3: A subplot in case #2 (and not a new one) was what people meant by the term Wargame or Wargaming - and this relates a bit to the risks inherent in not reinforcing our language and thus letting it erode. One commenter said their definition of a wargame is broad enough to compass everything from Chess to Case Blue - indeed any game with a hint of warfare could be a wargame. This varies considerably from what many others feel a “Wargame” is, with respect to a more narrow style of game with a history and set of conventions unique to that style. Ask someone who cut their teeth playing Avalon Hill games in the 70’s and you can be sure Chess isn’t a wargame.
And throughout these many years of discussing game classification, taxonomies, and language, I routinely run into people posing the question: “why bother”. Their reasons are many: Definitions and terms can’t possibly be perfect (hint: they never are); no one will ever use these terms correctly (hint: they WILL be used incorrectly, but we can try to inform nonetheless); languages evolve and we shouldn’t try to constrain it (hint: that has been and will continue to be the case regardless); who made you an authority (hint: no one did, I speak only for myself).

I should clarify that my intent isn’t to be dictatorial with developing terms of art for board games. Languages ARE living things and they evolve and grow. But within a context of criticism, it is important to have some common basis of understanding in order to converse effectively.

I often think this: What is vitally important, and so often missing, is that someone reading criticism (whether a more casual review or an in-depth analysis) be able to ascertain how the critic is using a particular term so that the critics bias, opinion, and perspectives can be considered relative to your own.

You and I might have a different working definition of what an abstract game is, but so long as I understand what you mean by abstract, and that you understand what I mean, then we can have a fruitful discussion. In the absence of a respective understanding, discourse is more challenging! Writing down in a framework or a lexicon what we mean by different terms can help us gain mutual understanding.

Case in point: Dan and The Thoughtful Gamer were discussing situations where technical language wasn’t shared or commonly understood between fields of study, often at a foundational level, which led to gross misunderstanding about what the two fields of study were each talking about. They also imagined a future, as has occurred in other media (literature, film critique, etc.), where different schools or styles of criticism evolved and weren’t easily understood by each other. Who knows if that fate can be avoided (hint: probably not), but for those of us invested in game criticism, we can endeavor to build and document a shared language such that it is a resource available to anyone who wishes to use it, or a reference point for those consuming the criticism.

You Said Something about a Framework?

One of my earliest posts, Towards a Science of Boardgames (2012), established my blogging and criticism trajectory, laying initial groundwork that I’ve continued to explore, build upon, and refine. It created a roadmap of sorts that myself, and many other contributors, worked through as part of the Game Genome Project.

To cut to the case, this work culminated in a framework for understanding games and being able to navigate a line of thinking and rationalization from the mechanics and observable “facts” of a game up to how it creates a certain intended experience. This framework for understanding games, which I called the Genomic Framework for Game Analysis did not spring out of a vacuum, but was built on prior works, such as the MDA Framework, Jesse Schell’s Tetrad, and writings by Mark Major on Theme vs. Mechanics.

While I implore you to check out the full article on the framework, I can provide an abbreviated version below. My intention isn’t to dig too far into the specific language today, but rather to highlight the way in which this framework and associated terminology might be used as a design, critique, and discussion aid.

The framework describes four levels of systems at work in a game. I like to imagine it as a 4-layer pyramid as follows:

Fundamentals (F): The bottom level is the foundation, or the fundamentals. These are the more objective and observable facts about the game: the rules, the components/systems, the context/setting, the players.

Intrinsic (I): The next level up are six intrinsic dimensions of games, which are formed by the intersection of each different fundamental level: representation (art), roles (associations), complexity (intricacy), interactions (goal trees), coherence (theme integration), and interface (ergonomics).

Dynamic (D): The dynamic level includes four dimensions that directly shape the total experience. These are: Narratives (player-created arcs and drama and thematic realizations); Challenge (depth, complexity, types of thinking, heuristics); Immersion (how players are drawn into the world); and lastly Simulation (“realism”, theme fidelity, modeling).

Aesthetics (A): The top most level is about aesthetic experience and meanings. What is the culmination of the experience, what does the game mean to its player, what emotions or types of “fun” are had by players?
From gallery of Mezmorki

While the initial post laying out the Genomic Framework (aka FIDA) depicts the overall structure, I acknowledge there is plenty of detail to fill in when it comes to what types of things exist within each of these buckets. When we talk about player created narratives (for example), to what extent are these narratives a vital part of the experience (or not). What is the range for how theme and narratives, conceptually, can connect with a game’s mechanics? What types of relationships can be coded? How does all of this translate into “fun”?

Rethinking “Fun” as Experiential Motives

A central topic in the Dan Thurot interview was about the “problematic” nature of the word “fun” - which is to say that on it’s own (and as it is so casually and commonly used) it says almost nothing about the experience. More to the point, what one person finds fun may not be fun to another, and so one type of game with a certain flavor of fun might work well for some and not others.

Ultimately, the aesthetic level in the framework is about describing “the kinds of fun” or the total experience that a game provides to players. Moreover, for this framework to be useful, we should be able to identify a particular “type of fun” that a given game provides and be able to trace it back through the framework to understand how that type of fun was created and/or identify the factors contributing to it.

The MDA Framework identifies a number of types of aesthetics, “fun”, or experiences a game can create, and I happen to think it’s a pretty good list. I also like to think of these as “motives” or reasons why someone would seek out a particular type of game. I’ve tweaked the list and language from the MDA Framework and added to it a bit. My working set is as follows:

(1) Socialization - The game provides a context for social interactions. Provides ways of engaging with the psychologies and personalities of the players at the table. The game itself, like a pastime, may take a back seat to these player-centric interactions.

(2) Challenge - Games provide fun by giving us interesting problems to solve. They tax our mental faculties along spatial, logistical, or psychological lines (i.e. different modes of thinking). Problem solving, puzzle solving, etc.

(3) Discovery - Fun is provided by learning and understanding things about the game world. Exploring mysteries, seeing what’s around the corner, etc. Can even extend to discovering how mechanical systems work and what’s possible within the rules (for example “finding combo” in different arrangements of cards).

(4) Drama - Fun comes through the provision of narratives that are engaging to the player. Can be player-driven/created or designer controlled narratives. Chaos and the unexpected can drive unique dramas and situations that unfold. The feeling of “what happens next?”

(5) Immersion - Fun provided through a sense being transported into the game world. The presentation, interface, artwork, narratives, audio/visual queues, help maintain our suspension of disbelief and draw us into the fictionalized world. That our agency as players acting in the world has plausible causes and effects.

(6) Fantasy - Games tap into our fantasies and give us a means of acting them out or role-playing (albeit in an artificial format). “Fun” comes from being in a role we wouldn’t otherwise occupy. Often framed as power fantasies, but there are others too.

(7) Sensation - “Fun” is tactical or sensory in nature - that our nerve endings are positively stimulated by the physicality of the game or other sensory inputs and repetitions that are pleasurable.

(8) Expression - The game provides opportunities for creative expression and outlets for creative energy, through building/creating things in unique or novel ways that allow us to project our sense of identity, self, or capabilities.

(9) Competition - The game’s fun comes through its ability to provide a controlled environment for fair competition and determining which player has superior skills / abilities. The motive is dominating the competition.

(10) Learning/Reflection - The game provides insights and realizations that extend beyond the scope of the game and import ideas/knowledge/ideas that have real-world relevance - such as history, natural phenomena, art, philosophy, etc.

(11) Achievement - The game provides a clear sense of progress and achievement (even in the form of tangible rewards seen outside the game). Taps into our reward-seeking motivations, desire to complete things.

(12) Comfort - Fun is manifested through the game providing a comfortable space for our mind to rest - that it can allow us to enter a zen-like state of singular but low stress comfort.
It should go without saying that most games probably do a little bit of all of the above, but also emphasize a few in particular - depending on the style of game at hand.

As a tool for critique, teasing out what sort of “fun” a game provides helps us put the game in the context of other games that provide that same sort of fun, or help associate the game with a certain audience or set of preferences. As an aside, this approach also resonates with me when it comes to “designer intent,” which is to say that most games broadcast through their box design, artwork, or marketing what type of fun the designer intended. We can then critique games, perhaps in a less biased way, based on whether they achieved the design intent or not, rather than whether or not the game’s particular ‘fun’ connected with the critic.

It’s also worth reflecting, as a critic or designer or player, on what specifically motivates an individual to engage with certain games and how those motives bias their reactions. If there is anything my amature critic-self has learned over the years, it’s the importance of knowing your own biases and preferences and the biases and preferences of your fellow players, designers, and the critics you follow. Without understanding what each person means by “fun” its very difficult to have a deep and detailed conversation (or critique, or design discussion).

From gallery of Mezmorki

Modes of thinking diagram, a tool for understanding the relative emphasis of different kinds of thought required by a game.

Connecting the Genomic Framework to Taxonomy

Parallel to my thinking about the Genomic Framework, I’ve continued to work through my taxonomy and classification system for games, an endeavor which forces my hand and requires getting specific about terminology. While the Genomic Framework identifies a lot of buckets, the question then is: what are the sorts of things that actually go into those buckets and how do we assess them (particularly regarding the intrinsic or dynamic levels which are a bit fuzzier).

The “Genomic” part of the framework dovetails with game taxonomies. The initial purpose of the Game Genome Project was to “map” as best we could all of the traits and characteristics for games. Like genetics, we wanted to identify the traits (e.g. eye color) but also identify the range of expression (e.g. brown, blue, hazel, green, etc.) for that trait. The foundational levels are relatively easy, because we can look at the game’s discrete mechanics by category (e.g. how do players take actions) and broadly identify different action mechanics (e.g. action points, action drafting, role selection, and so on). The rules lay out the game format and structure and the victory conditions. We know the components, how many players are supported, etc. We can look at the “theme” in terms of its setting, scope, and subject matter (e.g. Star Wars, galactic-scale space battles, fighting for control of planets).

Conversely, the intrinsic and dynamic levels are harder to pin down. How do we assess how narratives are built in-game, or the impact that rule complexity and use of randomness impact strategic or tactical depth? How can we measure immersion or the simulation fidelity of the game?

What we found helpful was to frame the assessment around different experiential dimensions of the game. Evaluating these dimensions can be done by posing a series of questions, which can be answered on a 1-5 continuum scale (see the link for some working rubrics) but also really benefit from qualitative descriptions as well. These dimensions relate to the following:
Theming: How integrated are the theme and mechanics? Does the theme function as decoration or interface? Or do the game systems strive to model or simulate a “real” analogue? Include consideration of theme as micro vs. macro (per The Thoughtful Gamer).

Interaction: How much board-level interaction is there between players’ respective playing pieces and what is the nature of that interaction (direct, cutthroat, indirect, etc.)? Also, how much player-level interaction is there directly between players, at a psychological or communicative level?

Complexity: How complex are the game rules? A useful metric for this is how long does it take to teach someone how to play competently? How complex are the game’s underlying goal trees?

Depth: How deep is the gameplay and decision-making? What is the balance between strategic, versus tactical, versus optimization, versus mundane decisions? Are large skill discrepancies possible? What types of thinking are demanded? Are decisions “interesting”?

Randomness: How much system-level chaos, randomness, and uncertainty is present in the game? Sliding scale from zero (i.e. combinatorial games) to highly chaotic. Nature of randomness (input vs. output) can also be considered.
Certainly there can be more questions to ask. At a more comprehensive level, there could even be a question and answer rubric associated with each of the types of fun listed previously. But as a starting point, I’ve found the questions above to be effective at framing the broad parameters defining a game’s experience. An anecdote (suggesting we might be on the right track) is seeing how the above terms are often used as part of a game’s marketing or descriptive language to define the experience contained in the box, in an effort presumably to get it to the right audience.

Before we move on to the next section, let’s take stock of how these pieces are coming together:

Fundamental Level: Lexicons of game mechanisms, theme as setting/scope/subject matter, and other objective facets of the game define its operation at a fine grained level.

Intrinsic + Dynamic Level: Experiential dimensions allow us to assess key parameters of the game relating to things like depth, complexity, theming, randomness, and interactivity.

Aesthetic Level: We can describe the different motives (types of fun) and their relative importance/balance that a game provides in creating an overall experience.

Revisiting Schools of Design and Game Style Conventions

Board Game: Pandemic

Early in this article, a few cases where language was not mutually understood were shared (e.g. differing opinions on what was abstract or not, what was a wargame or not). These examples key into a much broader and longer running discussion about Schools of Design (e.g. Eurogame, Ameritrash, Abstract, Wargame, and so on) and whether or not these are even useful or relevant means of classification. Moreover, what does the Genomic Framework and everything discussed above have to do with it?

Here’s my thesis statement: A School of Design, as well as more narrowly defined game “styles,” are characterized based on typical conventions that connect foundational elements of the game to its overall experience.

That’s a bit of a mouthful. But the idea is that we can take “Eurogame” as design school and look at each of the levels in the framework and make some generalizations about how the “typical” eurogame operates. At the experiential level, the focus of most is around Challenge (problem solving, navigating complexity), Discovery (fetishization of learning the rulesets and their nuances) and Competition (fair playing, usually designer controlled-environment). This is different from an Ameritrash game, which will emphasize Drama (the unexpected creating excitement), Immersion (story-telling, artwork, fidelity to setting), and Fantasy (players as agents directly in the world).

When it comes to dynamics and the intrinsic level in the framework, we can identify the mix (think of a graphic equalizer) that a typical eurogame has that’s distinct from other design schools. The theming is usually pretty thin and functions mostly as decoration. The interactions tend to be heavily focused on board-level play (as opposed to player-to-player), and even there tend to be indirect or parallel running interactions (a race with blocking as opposed to all out attacking). The nature of limited-interactions usually forces the designs to be more complex in order to provide a desired level of depth. Randomness on the back-end is usually not desired, and whatever randomness there is wants to be highly mitigatable (which feeds back into increased complexity). The experiential desire for “competition” likewise feeds into the complexity, which is why so many games have entire card drafting mini-games, before the game even starts, just to minimize first-turn advantage and luck of the draw.

When you consider the type of experience that a eurogame desires, and the dynamics necessary to get you there, it steers the foundational elements of the game towards certain things. Mechanics feed into creating engine building games, which include a large swath of tableau builders, worker placement games, drafting and deck building games. Turn structures are carefully managed. The types of thinking required are usually focused around logistics (not spatial planning or psychology). The componentry is (or rather traditionally was) somewhat abstract to keep the functionality high and the board state easy to read (and the theme doesn’t really matter as much).

The power of all of this is that we can start to identify genres or styles of games (or even broader design schools) based on the conventions that they typically follow. Qwertymartin, some years ago, introduced me to Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblance idea, which is immensely helpful in these conversations. I’ve used the word “typically” throughout this, because the idea is that rather than trying to find the one perfect definition for a style of game or design school, we instead list the criteria that are commonly cited, and recognize that any given game need only express a majority of those criteria (not all of them) to be a likely member of the group.

At this point in the evolution of our hobby, I think the Schools of Design concept remains useful as a lens through which we can critique games and understand their historical context, genesis, or influences. But I also fully recognize that we’re increasingly in an era of hybridization of forms, and that the design schools specifically as a “classification” tool may be less relevant. Problems with practical usage is also compounded because certain design school terms (e.g. German Family Games) have fallen out of common usage and have been subsumed by others (e.g. Eurogame). But as critics trying to provide greater insight in our analysis, these distinctions remain useful I feel.

Lately, I’ve been drawn more towards a discussion and identification of subtler “styles” of games. Much like design schools, these can be described by listing typical characteristics at the different levels in the framework. In trying to keep up with commonly used terms, browsing the recommendation forum on BGG provides a lot of insight. A common request to ask for a certain mechanical genre of game (e.g. worker placement) coupled with a “weight” (e.g. lightweight). So someone might say, I’m looking for a lightweight worker placement game. But these style (and game requests) can intersect at other levels in the framework too. You might see requests for a “rich thematic narrative” game. During the classification work I spent a lot of time reading the recommendation forum and aligning that with an emerging understanding of styles of games. I ended up with the following that you can see HERE

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

From gallery of Mezmorki

This article has gone on much longer than intended! Thanks for bearing with me as I’ve rambled through all of this.

Long story short, the Genomic Framework and classification/taxonomy work I’ve engaged in is all about building language and some consistency in language. It’s also about building a greater understanding of how games work, and providing tools for how one can look at a game’s mechanics or its overall experience and delve into a discussion of dynamics. Put bluntly, to have more precise words to describe the how and why of a game.

And this is useful for everyone in the hobby. As a critic, language lets us advance our understanding of games and advocate for designs that create new types of experiences or that engage with novel ideas or dynamics. I also think many critics struggle to rectify (or communicate) their personal tastes and preferences relative to a game they are discussing. There is pressure from the audience at large to “be objective”, which in part results in so much content focused merely on rule and gameplay overviews. Embracing more nuanced language and being upfront with our preferences would, paradoxically perhaps, give more freedom to critics to discuss the things that really matter in playing games: the types of dynamics and experiences they create.

As designers and publishers, a common language enables us to talk about how a given design lives up to its intended experience, and answer basic questions like “is this game providing the right sort of fun?” And as players, we can better talk about our experiences and preferences, and more easily find games that align with our tastes or discuss games more broadly from an informed perspective.

If you’ve made it to the end and are cursing my name for writing something so long, feel free to blame to The Thoughtful Gamer and Dan Thurot!

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Wed Aug 11, 2021 4:54 pm
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Chaos and Control: Balancing Strategy and Narrative in Game Design

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Microbadge: The multiverse!  Fan of theoretical physics I don't understandMicrobadge: Hyperion fan - The Shrike is My Hero!Microbadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGGMicrobadge: HumanistMicrobadge: Ask The Next Question
I have to apologize in advance, because this post is going to dig into the nuances of Warhammer 40,000 a bit. But I’m holding out hope that the conversation remains relevant to a broader (i.e. not just 40K) audience! You can let me know how I did at the end.

As I touched on in a prior article, I’ve been designing “ProHammer,” which is a custom ruleset for the “classic” versions of Warhammer 40k that unifies 3rd through 7th edition. I recently completed a big milestone in the project, the result of which is a completely rewritten rulebook from the ground up and nearly 70-pages of densely packed rule goodness.

Overall, this writing process (along with much playtesting over the past 6 months) afforded me a deep understanding of which types of rules led to what types of questions and situations arising during play that the player would be forced to grapple with. And ultimately, how deep or interesting these choices are says a lot about the level of strategy or tactics at hand in the game. But it also speaks to broader questions about how the intended experience of a game is shaped, and how the levers of design can be used in crafting it.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Horus, we have a problem

40K has long suffered from a problem where much of the “strategy” of the game has little to do with playing the game itself - which is to say the actual table level interactions - but rather in the creation of your army list. What units you field in your army, how they work together, how efficient they are at attacking the enemy or securing objectives has always played an outsized role in the game. But this facet has become even more dominant in the “modern” 40K editions (8th and 9th edition).

People often criticize modern 40K as starting to feel like a CCG (e.g Magic: The Gathering), where the equivalent to deck construction (i.e. army list building) is stealing the show. As a bit of evidence, go look up tactics articles for 40K or tactics discussion forums. The overwhelming majority of content relates directly to “what units do I put in my army” and very little to do with traditional tactics like position and maneuver.

I do recognize that for high level competitive play, deck construction becomes somewhat of a “floor” to your competitive success, and with all top level players having highly tuned and effective decks, the tactical choices of play becomes the deciding factor. But outside of that, a well-optimized deck is going to routinely lay waste to a poorly made one, regardless of player skill. For 40K it is much the same, and certain army lists are nearly auto-wins versus others.

From gallery of Mezmorki
A Challenge of Customization

Given the above situation, how does one devise the rules for a game, be it a tabletop miniature game, a CCG, or some other form of customizable game in a way that emphasizes in-game strategy and tactics, and player skill, as much as possible? This was the challenge I was initially looking to surmount in the design of ProHammer.

There are a number of areas in the rules to make interventions. At the broadest level, and getting directly at the dominance of list building, I considered the following thought experiment: What would 40K look like if it was modeled after chess? What if every battle was a mirror match, with a symmetrical table layout and deterministic combat results (in lieu of die rolling). If this were to happen, then the army building aspect of the game would be gutted and the game would be entirely down to player decision-making prowess on the table.

Obviously the game is never going to be played in a perfectly chess-like manner (nor would I want it to be), but might moving certain design needles in that direction help? If so, what needles needed to be nudged?

One element that stands out to me are the rules governing army list creation. Older versions of 40K were more restrictive and limited player choice. You had to take a certain number or percentage of your army’s points in basic “troop” units, you couldn’t have more than three of a certain type of specialist unit, and so on. Later editions of 40K did away with much of this, with formations and variable detachment types essentially letting people build whatever army they wanted.

In a certain respect, this is to be celebrated because players have “freedom” to play wherever combination of forces they want. But on the other, this “freedom” means that the opportunities for building especially powerful (ahem, overpowered) combinations are much greater - and the needle moves further away from chess.

Ultimately, the mere existence of more powerful lists drives the “meta” of the game towards more narrowly defined army lists that can compete in the meta. And this situation in turn feeds into undermining the table-level tactical play. This is a case where restrictions can breed invention. By forcibly narrowing the range of army lists, we might reign in power differentials and thus keep differences in lists focused at a finer, less impactful scale. By making everyone take a slightly more “chess-like” army we put more emphasis on the ensuring tactical gameplay choices.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Victory Conditions

The next rung down is another crucial aspect of the game play and it’s strategic potential: mission design. One of my great lamentations about the current 40K game (9th edition) is that essentially all of the official missions are actually the same mission, based around securing “control points” with minor flavors and variations in what specific points earn more or less VPs. The result of having effectively just one competitive mission is that players can continuously optimize and refine their army list to do that one exact mission as best as possible.

This poses two sticking points. The first is, when coupled with greater freeform for list building, players can just zero in on optimizing for one set of mission parameters, which further reinforces “skew” lists (moving away from chess). I must acknowledge though that, like the competitive Magic: the Gathering example, if everyone is bringing a highly optimized list, then it should push things towards player skill and tactical choice again. But this leads into the second issue!

The second issue is that given one single set of mission/victory parameters, certain factions and styles of army lists are simply better suited for those missions than others. In the current “meta,” armies with durable elite infantry that can both move very quickly onto objectives and can hold out on those objectives and fight well in close combat have a big advantage. Armies that can’t do this as well, are at a distinct disadvantage regardless of how much freedom the players might have to build their list.

How ironic is it then, that by giving greater flexibility for army list creation, but with a singular style of mission, that we end up in a situation where only a narrow range of those possible army lists are strong performers?

One partial solution to this conundrum is providing a more diverse range of missions, and specifically having these missions require a broader range of army capabilities (i.e. a more flexible list) in order to be successful. By restoring restrictions on army composition (to create a bit more homogeneity between armies) in conjunction with broadening the range of mission challenges, the focus of the gameplay tips towards “how” you are using your army rather than “what” is in your army. This is foundational for making a more strategic game.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Chaos and Control

At this point, we might toss up our hands and say, “well if there is a huge variety of amy lists, and a huge range of mission types, doesn’t the whole thing become a kind of crap-shoot then anyway (albeit one with more types of lists that might be able to randomly win)”? In a way it does (and I’ll get to why that might be a GOOD thing in a moment), but in a way it doesn’t.

It doesn’t because players are now rewarded for learning and gaining a broader set of decision-making heuristics. Being able to read the mission, and the table setup, and looking at your army and your opponent’s army and devising a “unique” plan of action for the situation at hand is perhaps the most important skill of all in the game - and is much preferred (by me) than the “skill” of making a highly tuned and optimized list (which you can just look up on the internet).

This greater level of “chaos” is, in my opinion, a good thing for the game as a whole for one very good reason: narrative. Having fundamentally different types of missions with lots of different viable types of army lists, creates more opportunities for novel and interesting situations to emerge, which is the hallmark of games that create a story through their play. And for all of this to be successful, the game’s mechanics as a whole need to find a careful balance between player control and chaos - to allow for enough chaos to let the unexpected happen and also to take the pressure off a competitive mindset, but to have enough control that player choices still matter and that players feel invested in the outcome of the game.

This tension - between chaos and control - strikes at the heart of trends in modern gaming. And this was my “ah-ha!” moment that prompted me to write this post. It was a realization that perhaps Warhammer 40k, starting in 8th edition (in 2017), wasn’t being designed so much as a narrative-making game (Ameritrash if you will) as it was being designed for the competitive and “challenge” oriented crowd. As I realized this, I started seeing the evidence all over the place.

For example, modern gaming “sensibilities” often take the view that “output randomness” is a bad thing, or something to be mitigated. And so we see one of the biggest changes in 8th edition: the introduction of the command phase. The command phase allows players to spend command point resources on “stratagem” actions - the overwhelming majority of which are strictly designed and intended to counteract randomness. Don’t like a die roll? Spend a CP to re-roll it. Moved a unit into a bad spot? Spend CPs to boost their armor save. Shooting didn’t go your way? Spend CPs to take another chance at shooting.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Shifting Sensibilities

Another, more cynical, manifestation of this shift from chaos to control is to suggest that the modern “challenge” oriented player doesn’t actually like contending directly with their opponent. Designer-controlled games, like many modern Eurogames, are designed explicitly to challenge a player but also in a manner that doesn’t require them to really contend with the psychology or actions of their opponent. Players, it seems, often want to win or lose “on their own merits” rather than win or lose relative to the performance of their opponents.

There’s a bit of coddling involved. And the festishization of army list building plays right into the above notion. Perhaps, again cynically, the push towards list building and narrower mission design (as discussed earlier) becomes a way for players to absolve themselves of their own mistakes in a loss. It’s much easier to say “well I just didn’t bring the right army list to beat your army list” than it is to say “I got outplayed and made mistakes.”

Now, a confrontational game like Warhammer 40K is still vastly more directly interactive than many modern eurogames. Yet I can’t help but feel like Warhammer 40k “the tactics game of position and maneuver” is, bit by bit, giving way to Warhammer 40k “the resource management combo-building game.” It is becoming less a game of who can outsmart who on the battlefield, and more a contest of who can bring the better optimized force to the table.

Ironically though, there is a limit to how far down the “challenge” pathway modern sensibilities seem to want to go. We’re still quite a ways short of chess, which is a far more intense, direct meeting of the minds with no outside factors (list building, die rolling, etc.) obfuscating the competition. It’s direct and brutal - but despite the pretense for competitive mindsets, I don’t think 40k players really want to know who the better player is in quite such stark relief.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Priorities in Design

So what are the implications for the design of Warhammer 40K specifically, and the design of other games more generally?

My takeaway is that this exercise and process of building a “better” 40K is, like all game design efforts, a matter of balancing priorities. Are we designing a game to “really” test our mettle and see who the better player is? Are we designing a game to challenge our logistical minds and combo-hunting faculties? Are we designing a game to see who can better manage risk and chaos and adapt to uncertainty on the fly? Are we designing a game to, first and foremost, tell a story through the act of playing it? How do we balance these competing demands?

To some extent, my approach to designing ProHammer has been a gradual realization that designing to balance these different priorities results in an imperfect solution, one riddled with contradictions and elements working at cross purposes. In short a mess. But maybe a beautiful mess for the right participants.

On one hand, I’ve designed and intended many facets of the game to add more meaningful decision points where none existed before - in order to make the gameplay more interactive and support a back-and-forth dynamic. Yet on the other hand, the outcome of these choices continues to rely heavily on the luck of the dice, which I’ve kept “unmitigated” as much as possible. So more decisions are in the player's hands, but ever more outcomes are left to fate.

It’s a strange paradox and I think appreciation of games that are “messes like this” require a certain attitude and outlook towards what type of experience is desired. Clearly, this is neither a challenge oriented design like a Eurogame, nor a “hard” challenge game like an abstract. It is perhaps most of all a story-telling game, but one where the choices and efficacy of player action weigh heavily in shaping the overall narrative, but not necessarily its details. It’s a game that will challenge players, but is ultimately best enjoyed when the players don’t put too much stock in the outcome. Just like the good Dr. ordered.
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Thu Feb 25, 2021 2:39 pm
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Classification conundrums and ruminating on the "styles" of games

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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So I started writing a reply to a geeklist the other day...

From gallery of Mezmorki

And well, the reply got so long that I figured I might as wells posts its here for your alls enjoysments. And so, pitter patter lets get at er.

On a whim I started to categorize my games in my collection (about 150 or so) by their primary genre, using the genre descriptors we were developing in the new classification taxonomy.

While many games were easy to assign, many games were really not. And while the genre field was originally structured around the notion of "how do you win" as a way of being specific about what "genre" represents, I'm not sure how useful it actually is in describing many games.

Also, I fully admit on further reflection that the genres descriptors was a bastardization of Selwyth's original approach (which was laser focused on genre being a shorthand for "how to win"). We've mingled many of his specific things with stuff like "Engine Building" or "Worker Placement" or "Deck Building." While it seems innocent, it does sort of confuse things. Is "Stone age" a worker place game or a set collection game or an engine building game? It's probably all of those. But what one is relevant if you had to talk about the kind of game experience you wanted that led you perhaps consider Stone Age?

It got me thinking that maybe genre isn't really what we were looking to define here. It also goes to the consternation we've faced in the discussions around school of design and how useful that is (or not) in practical terms for describing the overall feeling or style of a game, which are much more diverse than the half a dozen categories we've identified. I still think schools of design are interesting as a historical marker for understanding games and their design influences, but less so perhaps for classification or practical game selection.

What got me launched on this was, as I said, trying to organize my own games into some logical buckets and groups. Call them styles of games if you will. I started thinking about what's going on in my brain when I walk over the game shelf to pick something out. What am I asking myself? Typically, I'm asking about the overall feelings and mood I'm looking for. How interactive is it? How long does it take to play? How brain burning is it? Do I want to laugh and socialize while I play? Or contemplate in relative silence?

This overall sense of style or "gestalt" (i.e. an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.) feeling for a game is what I'm sifting through in my mind. Lo and behold I talked about this exact thing 8-years ago, here and here.

What does this mean for this classification thing? Honestly, I have no idea at the moment. As interesting as all of this is, and as useful as this detailed classification approach might be for design and deeper game research questions, it might not be terribly relevant or useful from a practical standpoint. Genre is too fine-grained to be useful as an overall descriptor for many games, and yet schools of design are perhaps far to broad and less useful overall.

I mean, what is the genre for A Study in Emerald? It's deck-building game, but also objectives race and engine building (via the deck), but with a huge dose of area control. But none of that captures the psychological hidden role dimension of the game, which is part of the game's "structure" (not genre) yet it takes center stage in defining the overall experience. And it still fails to capture the off-the-wall narrative aspects and negotiation play. This game, and many others, sort of defies easy classification by genre. Calling it a "hybrid" sort of skirts the issue.

Lastly, in a more recent blog post, I ended up framing my collection along the following styles (with a few edits at present):

* Asymmetric wargames / COIN-like
* Block wargames (lighter + heavier versions)
* Empire builders / dudes on a map game
* Adventure games
* Beer & Pretzels / Take That!
* Light family games (various styles)
* Mid-wight family games (e.g. role selection games, tile-laying games)
* Spatial euros (heavier/deeper)
* Press Your Luck / Dice Rolling
* Cooperative + Solo games (of various weights)
* Social deduction / bluffing
* Special power card games (complex card games)
* Engine building / tableau building / clockwork games
* Auction games
* Rank & Suit / traditional card games
* Abstract strategy games
* Narrative games
* Party games

Within any of these categories, the other defining characteristic in my mind is weight. While some styles (e.g. beer & pretzels or party games) tend to align with a certain weight most of the time (e.g. light), other styles (like engine building or dudes on a map) can have a pretty big range of weights.

I'm sure there are many more categories than what I have above (i.e. Train games / 18xx are sort of a distinct thing), but I guess I feel like there is something that doesn't have as many finely sliced things as as the genre descriptors, but that certainly has more categories than what is captured in schools of design. But more importantly, whatever emerges is a pool of descriptors that better conveys the overall experience and feeling of a particular style of game in a shorthand, albiet inevitably imperfect, way.

What do you think? When you contemplate your collection or discuss the styles and types of games that you enjoy or play the game of "what game should we play" with others, what are the terms and words that jump out to you? Phones are open, as always!
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Wed Aug 19, 2020 9:41 pm
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Warning, Chaotic Thought Storms Ahead: Wingspan, Awards, and Preference Reflections

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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From gallery of Mezmorki

This post is going to be a bit of an outpouring of thoughts, stream of consciousness style.

This fall will mark 10-years that I’ve been part of the BGG community. But of course my gaming life - both video and tabletop - has gone on much longer than that (since the mid 80’s when I was a young lad). More significantly, this fall will mark 9 years since I started this blog. It’s remarkable because this has been one of the few constants in my “hobby” life. Games come and go, gaming groups come and go, … but this blog is always here. Even if I take long lapses in posting, I know that it’s quickly available when inspiration strikes!

My time on BGG has marked an era of sorts for me and my gaming however. Both the depth of conversation here with many of you all, the collectively hemming and hawing we all do over the games and ratings … and all of it … adds a certain formality to engaging in the hobby. The conversations have helped crystalize my own thinking more, and much of the critical analysis that I’ve seen has in turn inspired my own writings, my gaming preferences, and - more tangibly - my game design work.

Golden Geeks and Wingspans

I’ve been thinking more about my gaming preferences recently - in no small part due to the golden geek winners and the fury of conversation about the award process and how the awards do (or perhaps don’t) intersect with the trove of other data and information generated by BGG each and every day. While I don’t put much personal stock in the value of the Golden Geeks (they are a popularity contest which is decidedly anti-geek, right?), they and other awards nonetheless hold a mirror up to the community and let us reflect.

So reflect I shall! First of all, let’s talk about Wingspan. Wingspan is NOT my usual style of game. It’s a tableau engine-builder, with pretty minimal and indirect interaction. I like games in shared-spaces focused on spatial intersections with a high degree of contentious interaction and table-talking. But… my wife had a chance to play Wingspan with a co-worker and was super enthused about the game. What choice did I have? With xmas around the corner it seemed to be my destiny.

I’ve played probably 200 games of Wingspan since December 2019, almost all of it 2-player with my wife. While not my type of game, I’ve come to greatly appreciate the design and gameplay. Obviously it’s wonderful from an aesthetic standpoint - and I love that the theme is about something tangible and real world related (and not related to wars or political conflicts). One could use the game as a means of building their bird knowledge based on image recognition along. It’s great in that respect.

I don’t have a chance to play many games 100+ times, let alone 200+. What’s remarkable is that with a competent opponent almost any game can display a surprising amount of depth - especially when played in 2-player, head-to-head games. Wingpan has become more interesting as time goes on and our experience.grows. And perhaps most significantly, playing it in 2-player mode means that what minimal level of interaction there is, on the surface, becomes significantly magnified when playing hard to win.

There ARE mind games to play and calculated risks to make based on reading your opponent. Seeing a valuable set of resources in the bird feeder or cards in the display, and weighing whether to take them now versus first optimizing your board actions - at the risk of your opponent taking the goods instead! - is frequently a tough call that requires reading into your opponent. Likewise, with only 2-players, the fight over the end of round bonuses can be exacting, pitting players against each other in a tense race. Weave in card powers that leech off your opponent’s actions and’s not really so different from Race for the Galaxy now is it? Which is, of course, another engine and tableau building game with indirect interaction whose depth profoundly opens up the more you play.

From gallery of Mezmorki

Wingspan’s weakest link lies in playing with more than 2-players. Each additional player either multiplies the game length or erodes the value of interaction and paying attention to your opponent by a comparable amount. This is a game that shines when played in 30-40 minutes. This is easy to achieve with 2-players but nearly impossible with more.

All this is to say that it’s no surprise to me that Wingspan is as successful as it has been. It fires on a number of cylinders. It has a unique aesthetic hook, an approachable theme (especially for people tired of the usual thematic tropes), and the gameplay deepens the more you play it.

Now, when it comes to the BGG Golden Geek awards, the debacle of Wingspan winning half of the categories - even seemingly contradictory ones - highlights two things: #1: The Golden Geeks are fundamentally a popularity contents, and #2: as far as organizing a popularity contest goes BGG fairled to uphold its namesake and inject some much needed geekiness into the process. It underscores how little care and value BGG admins seem to place on the trove of data and information in their very own database and in turn their resistance to using (and over time improving) the quality of that data for the community’s benefit.

This recent post looked back at 2017 game releases and used the BGG database to automatically determine the best games across a number of categories that can easily be drilled down using the data. Good or bad, the old sub-domain categories still exist and BGG users can vote on them - and there is an objective number of votes that determine what categories a game falls in. If a game is listed for multiple domains, looking at the numbers usually shows a clear lean towards one of the categories. Combine the domains with the weight ranges and other descriptors and we could auto generate a great set of nominees to then vote on.

But like the fading effort to rework the BGG database that was generating buzz last year, BGG admin seems thoroughly disinterested in making substantive improvements to the database and/or utilizing it in more inventive ways. For us data geeks, there are so many potential ways to use the data - and why not use the data generated itself to tell the story of BGG’s rising stars over the course of the year. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t even “need” an awards process - because we’ve all been involved in the “voting process” all year long through logging plays and rating games. This would be not only a more effective approach, but also a more genuine one that respects the contributions everyone makes to this site every day.

Preferences & The Pinwheel of Joy

All this talk of gaming preferences has me returning back frequently to something I’ve grown fond of using as a lens for evaluating games, understanding my preferences, and even as a design aid. Below (and BEHOLD!) is the Pinwheel of Joy. The basic idea of this was derived from the vastly more complicated looking Genomic Framework for game analysis, which was a magnum ops of sorts in my theorizing over games. The Pinwheel of Joy is a simplification of that framework, but captures the same basic idea. Players, rules, theme, and components come together to determine narrative, challenge, simulation, and immersion - which are the cornerstones of the total experience.

From gallery of Mezmorki

When I find myself asking the most basic of gaming questions - is game X fun? - the pinwheel of joy becomes a reference point. I can zero in to try and understand whether the pleasure I’m getting (or not getting) is based on whether the game delivers a deep challenge, or a compelling narrative, or gripping immersion, or provides a coherent simulation. This approach works in both directions if you will. I can use the pinwheel to understand what I hope to feel and experience from a given game, and then use it to evaluate the game and determine whether my expectations are satisfied or not. Thus, it lets me be more honest and effective in my critique.

The topic of preferences came to light in the follow up to my article about boardgames being better strategy games. While BGG showed general agreement with the gist of the article, on the other side of the fence (i.e. from the 4X video game perspective) the reactions were more varied with many in hearty disagreement. A few particular insightful replies remarked that for most 4X game players - as is likely the case for most videogame players overall - the importance of “challenge” in my pinwheel is likely lower than it is for most boardgamers.

People play video games oftentimes to “be entertained” in a more passive sense, even when playing heavier strategy games (like 4X games). In this case, the immersion and aesthetic experience, feeling like you are part of a narrative, etc, are more important than providing a hard challenge with tough consequential choices. Some games do the latter well, but most don’t place that as the first priority. Hence, this may explain why we see lackluster AI’s despite their being the capability for much stronger ones. The added challenge stronger AI’s would add to the game isn’t really demanded - and in fact may undermine the chill, relaxing tone the game is aiming for in the first place!

All of this resulted in an interesting set of observations about the differences between boardgamer attitudes and 4X gamer attitudes - and in turn might explain why developers are designing 4X videogames they way they are. Unfortunately for me, as someone who places challenge as the number one priority in what I desire from a 4X game, my experiences with most 4X games are lackluster - they just don’t end in a satisfying way like other proper “strategy games” do. But I’ve lamented and argued about this enough before so will spare you all from another rehashing.

It's BGG "Charts" ... not a best game list

On the continued topic of preferences, I wanted to share a thought I had about the BGG ratings. I’ve found it far better to view them not as a listing of the “best” games (with respect to BGG users), but rather as a slow-moving version of music charts (e.g. billboard top 40 and others). As such, they are a reflection of what is popular, liked, and/or highly rated “right now.”

The above point is something I’ve been trying to share and push, especially when talking to new players. It’s easy, I imagine, when starting out on the hobby to look at the rankings and think “these are the best to worst games” and not stop to ask the question about what your actual preferences are. The BGG ratings trend towards heavier and/or bigger games, and BGG overall tends more towards euro-y games, which may or may not align well with the average budding gamer wandering into the BGG ecosystem.


In winding down, I want to go back to where this post started. Despite my grievances about BGG (and most of these are in the form of missed opportunities rather than acute “problems”), at the end of the day this is a pretty amazing community filled with wonderful and insightful people. The relationships I’ve built here have lasted, and if there is one place on the internet that feels like “home” - it’s here. Thank you all for listening. More to come!
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Mon Jun 1, 2020 2:16 pm
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The Curious Case of 4X Games, Efficiency Engines, and Missing Strategic Gambits

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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I've long been a fan of the 4X genre, while also being frequently critical of it and its many floundering conventions. Despite the renaissance and watershed of renewed interest in the genre, there is a worrying lack of design advancement in my estimation. A recent reddit post and ensuing discussion on r/4xgaming encapsulated nearly all my frustrations with the 4X videogame genre in a single question:
Do you know of any [4X] games that will let you fight back after being beaten down, or have the AI be able to come back after you start to gain an advantage over them?
This seems like such an obvious question to ask, and yet it’s one that apparently few, if any, 4X developers have seriously raised, let alone crafted gameplay mechanisms to answer. What’s fascinating about this question is that, while seemingly simple, it nevertheless strikes at two critical points: (#1) the core of what 4X games are; and (#2) the perennial frustrations players have with unsatisfying late game gameplay.

From gallery of Mezmorki

(#1) 4X games are efficiency engine games

What struck me in reading the comments relative to point #1 is that I think my waning interest in traditional 4X games is tied to the realization that these are largely in the same gameplay genre as efficiency engine styled euro games (of which I’m not usually a fan), despite the overt combat-heavy nature of the genre. This quote, in response to the question above, hits it perfectly:
I don't think it is generally possible in 4X [games]. The genre is about ramping up production. Once you have a production advantage over someone, they're gonna die.
A production advantage. The early stages of 4X games are always about exploring, and that exploration is always about finding the best opportunities to grow your short and long-term production. Production itself fuels everything else in your empire: development of cities/planets, construction of military units, building research facilities. Heck, most 4X games provide tools or technologies that let you convert production directly into other outputs (research, culture, political influence, etc.). It a fairly standard feature.

Like many euro-style board games that fall into the “efficiency engine” style of game (i.e. most worker placement, resource conversion, tableau-building style games), 4X games are about building a production engine in the most efficient way possible. Once you have a stronger and more efficient engine than your competitors, it’s easy to “snowball” your way to victory. Or more aptly, to “steamroll” your way to victory, as once you conquer one enemy, with their assets under your control you are even more powerful with an even greater production advantage over the remaining players.

To compound the problem, victory conditions are almost always a function of production outputs. Whether it’s an economic victory threshold, or research target, or outright conquest, in all of these cases having more production ties directly into making more progress towards victory. 4X games handle these even worse than euro board games, the latter of which usually provides some decision inflection point where you go from building the engine to instead generating victory points. 4X games usually don’t even provide that.

(#2) The late-game problem

All of this ties into point #2, which is that by the mid-game you usually know if you have a significant production advantage over your competitors, and if so, victory is inevitable.

The reddit post’s question drew a comparison to Magic the Gathering as a brilliant counter example. In Magic the goal is to drain your opponent's life total from 20 to 0. However, being lower in life isn’t a clear indication that you are in a worse position, and players with much lower life than their opponent can routinely stitch together a combination of clever strategic or tactical plays to defeat their opponent. In fact, many decks and playstyles hinge on this exact reversal or “back and forth.”

Sadly, I’m pressed to think of any 4X games where the above “reversals” or clever strategic strategic gambits are a core and frequently experienced part of the gameplay. If it were, I think it would dramatically reshape the late game experience. No longer would having a production engine advantage mean your position was secure and victory inevitable. If you’re opponent was positioning themselves to unleash the civilization equivalent to a Drain Life spell on your empire, turning your strength to their advantage, imagine the surprise and excitement that would result? Is such a thing possible?

What's even worse, is that the one layer of interaction in 4X games, military combat, is often poorly executed with minimal depth or interest at the strategic scale. Tactical level combat, if included at all, is most often determined before the fight based on what each side brings to the table. 4X video games struggle mightily compared to many area control or dudes on a map style board games, where aspects of strategic position and maneuver frequently offer up opportunities for tactical rebounds, reversals, or other strategic gambits.

The Solution lies with a different formula

Building a 4X game that encourages such reversals and back and forth gameplay would require a totally different approach to the victory structure of 4X games (i.e. decoupling victory from the production engine mechanics). Perhaps, it requires restructuring the very nature of 4X games in their entirety. That said, a few avenues of design innovation come to mind.

First, 4X games are usually designed as if they are competitive Player vs. Player (PvP) games, with empires starting out on roughly equal footing and progressing competitively from there. Of course, in practice, most 4X games are played in a single-player manner and the AI usually just can’t keep up or provide a challenge for experienced players. Imagine designing a “competitive” first person shooter game (i.e. deathmatch or team-style game), except you could only ever play against AI Bots that played by the same rules as the human. It would be a miserable failure.

Perhaps, 4X games should try focusing instead on Player vs. Enemy/Environment (PvE) with victory conditions and goals related to overcoming PvE obstacles (like in AI War or Thea: The Awakening). You can still have other players/empires you are competing against (or cooperating with), but the pressure for having a top-notch AI that competes directly with the player is off. Instead, design energy can put into creating global hostility/opposition/enemies that function asymmetrically and can be stacked with whatever bonuses or gameplay advantages to make overcoming it an interesting challenge for players.

Second, and related to the above, is that victory conditions should be decoupled as much as possible from the production engine. The most straightforward way of doing this is by requiring production to be diverted away from things that also benefit the engine itself and instead towards victory steps/goals exclusively. Investment in the victory goals should confer no advantages back to the production engine. It should be decoupled from it. There is ample room for quests or event chains, with no reward other than progress towards victory, to provide a vehicle for this. An ancillary benefit is that such an approach would allow the game’s lore and narrative to be tied to novel victory conditions, instead of relying on the same old victory tropes.

Third, there needs to be more avenues for significant interaction in 4X games. 4X games are primarily one-dimensional games, which is the relationship between board/map position and production. Better map position confers greater production advantages, whether through controlling juicier locations or amassing a larger territory. While 4X games often have systems for foreign trade, or diplomatic exchange, or espionage - these are, almost without exception, playing around the margin of or in direct service to the production gameplay dimension.

As an example of the second and third point using an unorthodox approach, consider King of Dragon Pass, a narrative-heavy strategy game. The brilliance of this game is that there are tons of interactions with rival clans. Often these interactions aren’t about getting production related benefits, but instead learning bits of lore or gaining political support that feeds into the rituals your clan needs to perform in order to become the titular King of Dragon Pass. It’s brilliant, and unites the lore and victory conditions expertly. I’ve yet to see a proper 4X game tackle anything remotely close to this.

More broadly, I think 4X games could make non-combat related interactions far more transformative in their possible impacts and rely on different foundations than the production engine economy. For example, plenty of 4X games have espionage and/or espionage focused empires, and yet rarely is it more than an annoyance to deal with (and is often uninspiring and repetitive to utilize yourself). But what if, like in the Magic the Gathering example, while lagging in your board position (i.e. “low health”) you were secretly building up a clandestine operation that would snatch away a huge chunk of your opponent’s empire or turn their own citizens against them in a highly impactful way. There is tremendous opportunity here, but it’s rarely realized.


Lately, I’ve really scaled back by my interest in 4X games, to the point that any traditional 4X game is a non-starter for me right now. In the same way that I maintain a general distancing from efficiency engine euro games, I think 4X games have slid into the same category. When I try out a new game and am met with the with the same exploration imperative coupled with the same production-derived victory conditions, I’m just not particularly interested. The game might have amazing lore and visuals (ala Endless Space 2), but if it’s not connected to victory in a novel way that fundamentally changes the structure of the game, it’s still the same old snowball/steamroller experience leading to an anti-climactic ending.

I’m at a loss for why more developers aren’t challenging the 4X formula and trying to do something different. So many other genres of strategy games, whether physical board games, tactical RPGs, tactical roguelikes, wargames, and more are fertile grounds for innovation with plenty of creative and inspiring designs. Yet 4X seems stuck in the same rut it has been since the dawn of Civilization (pun fully intended). Cheers.
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Mon Jan 20, 2020 4:41 pm
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Visualizing the BGG Game Database with Gephi. Whoa!

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Microbadge: The multiverse!  Fan of theoretical physics I don't understandMicrobadge: Hyperion fan - The Shrike is My Hero!Microbadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGGMicrobadge: HumanistMicrobadge: Ask The Next Question
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?

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.


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
United States
Ann Arbor
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Microbadge: The multiverse!  Fan of theoretical physics I don't understandMicrobadge: Hyperion fan - The Shrike is My Hero!Microbadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGGMicrobadge: HumanistMicrobadge: Ask The Next Question
Note: This article is mirrored at eXplorminate, posted July 15, 2016

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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?

Board Game: Advanced Civilization

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.

Board Game: Go

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?

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

Board Game: Antike

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
United States
Ann Arbor
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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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

Karen broke her leg!? Oh snap!!

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

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

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



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

Examples! You need examples!

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

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

Darkest Dungeon, aka the Hero Mill

Turn-based vs. Real-time

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


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


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

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

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

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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?

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

Ohhh, the Stats screen in Crowntakers

RPG Items and Loot!!!!

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

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


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

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

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

Anything but the Lizard Eggs … help us!


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

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

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

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

From gallery of Mezmorki

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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Fri Nov 13, 2015 4:38 pm
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The Rise of Boardgame-Like Games and the Platform Paradox

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Microbadge: The multiverse!  Fan of theoretical physics I don't understandMicrobadge: Hyperion fan - The Shrike is My Hero!Microbadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGGMicrobadge: HumanistMicrobadge: Ask The Next Question
From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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?

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

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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
United States
Ann Arbor
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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.

Board Game: Advanced Civilization

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

Video Game: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War

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.

Board Game: Go

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.

Board Game: Twilight Imperium: Third Edition

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.

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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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

Board Game: Eclipse

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?

From gallery of Mezmorki

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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