Thoughts by Bez

I am a full-time designer/artist/self-publisher and I am available for freelance work. I go to cons as a trader and help run the all-day Friday playtest sessions in London. I left my last 'real' job in 2014. I was getting benefits for a few years. I'm currently writing sporadically, but getting back into the habit of daily posts. If you have any questions/topics you'd like me to address, send me a geekmail and I'll probably address the topic within a week.

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AQs: How do you think “beyond” the game when designing your game?

Bez Shahriari
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A few things come to mind.

A game system like the ELL deck can be all about encouraging other folk to make their own games. I do this via competitions, and making time to give real feedback and help to folk who really wanted to work on a game. Categorickell was originally a competition submission. But it was so good that it's become many people's favourite games. Beyond that, the notion of what is an 'official' game, or a 'fan' game becomes blurred. The notion of a game system is inherently about building a game library - far more than within a single game.

Within one game, you can have - or even encourage the creation of - variants. Categorickell has 19 suggested categories to choose from. By the time I list a few, folk are often suggesting their own categories, whether that's about personalised niche knowledge (2 people played a whole game with the category of MAC cosmetic products), or a strange convoluted linguistic rule.

You bring worlds into the game. Parody or real-world quotes. For Kitty Cataclysm expansion cards, I parodied several folk, from Mewry Pawpins and the Purrnce of Purrsia to Catleen Mewrcury. This can allow folk to appreciate the wider world, from fandoms to the people around them. MtG used to have a lot of quotes from Shakespeare etc.

By contrast, you can try to bring the world into the game. When your world is full of wonderful characters, quotes or other traits that folk can bring into the real world, that's a wonderful thing.

Finally, you have the 'metagame'. The time spent deckbuilding, pondering your tactics, or doing anything else to do with the game when not actually playing. CCGs are all about this. But you could work to encourage strategy articles, etc. Make the game something that generates stories and memorable moments. Include key decisions that will have folk pondering afterwards, thinking, 'what if'. I was very gratified to hear one review saying how Coupell 'lingered in their mind' long after the game was done.
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Sun May 3, 2020 5:53 pm
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AQs: What global changes would you like to see in the gaming industry?

Bez Shahriari
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Inspired by this thread on FB:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKboardgametrade/permalink/2...

To some extent, I'm in a position to try to be the change I want to be. However, some things (good retail alternatives to shrink-wrap) aren't offered as options by printers, and some things (box size) are an arms race and anyone not following suit is at a disadvantage (shelf presence in shops/cafes/cons/psychology of worth). But someone needs to take a stand.

Honestly, for massive change, we need to lobby Asmodee/Hasbro. So, if you agree that smaller boxes are needed, then you can do your bit by telling off companies that produces overly large boxes and also voting with your wallet (refusing to buy their stuff and telling them that you are doing this).

Ultimately, most of what I'd like to see comes down to honesty and prioritising the consumers rather than marketability and profit.

No production waste.

No unecessary waste in the final product. That is impossible of course, but it's the dream.

Honesty in playercount and play length.

I like Between 2 Cities, which says '3-7p' on the side, and then mentions '1-2p variant' in smaller writing. I feel like if a given playercount is on the box, then it should be worth buying/having even if you ONLY play it at that playercount. As such, I'll be changing Kitty Cataclysm to 3-5p for 2nd edition. Yes, it's more restrictive and might lose me a few sales, but over the past year I have come to agree with folk who say that 2p is a slightly lesser experience.

If your playtime ranges from 75-150 minutes, and you have over 700 pieces of data from playtests, then putting '115 minutes' seems wrong. Just plonking down the median, or mean, is a bit misleading. I would advocate for some sort of standardisation - I would like for a playtime to be a range, that covers 85% of FIRST TIME plays where folk are learning from the rulebook. If the playtime is dependent upon playercount, I'd like that mentioned. For hobby games, maybe even have a different time listed for each playercount if it varies a lot.

If there's a lot of randomness or variability in length, I think that 'ish' conveys a lot of information.

Smaller boxes in general.

It's one of my most-loathed things in games. Dread Curse is fantastic, but I HATE that the components could be easily stored in a box 1/4 the size.

Clearly stating how long and how many players can play a game.


Both on the box and in the manual. I find it surprising how many boxes/manuals are missing this info.

General desire to make a good thing.


Spending a little longer on development. Better rules writing. More proof-reading.

Being willing to make changes between different editions of the game.

Continuing to absorb feedback. Unless it's a CCG, I'm all for tweaking numbers for a future edition. And you can always work to improve clarity in wording, graphic design, or even change entire mechanisms if it's going to result in a clearly better game.

There's a saying that a game is often played more after a day of release, than in the entire design/dev run-up to that. You'll inevitable get some feedback. Maybe even some startling insights! Why not use that?

So, those are my opinions.

Do you disagree with any? Do you have any to add?
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Mon Jan 27, 2020 6:58 pm
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AQs: are there too many games?

Bez Shahriari
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I think that 'too many', or 'too few' need some clause.

Too many for what?!

Too many for all designers to be able to financially afford to do it full time? Yes.

Too many for shops to stock more that a tiny fraction? Yes.

Too many for the market to support another title? No.

Too many for there to be any possibility of further innovation? No.

=========

Ages ago, someone pointed out that when I say, "I need to get ready to go out," they could say, "no, you don't."

Do I need to even go out? Certainly not if my 'need' is a measure of 'what do I need in order to stay alive'. Now, this was an annoying thing to point out at the time, but it is useful to ponder WHY you are doing a thing.

Instead of saying, "I need to go out," you could say, "I need to go out... in order to have an enjoyable evening and bring some semblance of interest into my otherwise uneventful life."

Or maybe, "I need to go out in order to meet people that may be important to my business." Whatever. The point is that the phrases, "need", "too many" and "too few" are meaningless without some sort of qualifier.

=========

I used to believe that every game published should be an attempt at making an evergreen title. Each game should be completely new, or better, than other things before. To publish a game that you didn't believe would be an evergreen seemed like laziness.

Now, I realise that even the best games might never be reprinted. Maybe the publisher doesn't want the hassle of reprinting. Whatever.

There is value in having weird stuff around. Sadly, some of that stuff may not be as marketable.

==========

I guess that if a publisher/shop/distributor says, "there are too many games," they are probably meaning "there are too many games for us to have an easy life."

Sure, if there were 50 games release each year, I'm sure I'd have a lot more excitement over each game I release and I'd probably be better off, financially.

==========

Many years ago, I realised something astounding. On one website, each day there was more than 24 hrs of music uploaded. I could literally have a soundtrack of music, that people had spent real time and effort on, and never hear the same track twice.

Listening to everything is impossible.

Watching everything is impossible.

Reading everything is impossible.

Playing everything is impossible.

In today's world of abundance, we have to acquire new skills.

The skill of being selective. With so much around, it's no surprise that folk will abandon a game after one play, or just skim an article and skip most of it. That we might still find ourselves drawn to finishing a TV show even after it's not that good anymore is a thing I"ll leave you to ponder.

The other skill is that of being OK with not seeing stuff. This is difficult. FOMO is a real thing. We find ourselves driven to check out everything. Yearning the experiences that everyone else talks about so we can engage in that discussion. Craving to find new things so we can show our friends.

But at a certain point, in order to maximise our own happiness, we need to be OK with not experiencing everything.

If we are, then overabundance ceases to be a real problem.
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Thu Jan 9, 2020 12:58 am
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AQs: How 'finished' are games at Playtest UK? Do folk use patents?

Bez Shahriari
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I am one of several organisers of Playtest UK meetup groups. Sometimes I get questions. Here are two.

"how "ready" are the game usually when they are presented?"


It varies massively.

Also, note that every game has a different story.

A meetup group with lots of designers is the ideal place to try out a game that probably won't work. I have had an idea on Wednesday, pondered it on Thursday, spent an hr or so mocking it up on Friday morning, then taken it to play that Friday. Sometimes, I'm still prototyping at 10am when folk are arriving.

Conversely, I continued using the same meetup group for late-stage testing of Kitty Cataclysm (along with the 2 expansions). At a certain point, I was changing maybe a couple of numbers every 10 plays. It was fairly 'late stage'.

And sometimes you even get designers testing expansions to existing games. As such, you'll see final-quality components on the table. Don't be put off by this - bringing along bit of paper with scribbles on, asking folk to play for 5-10 minutes, and then having a 20 minute discussion on why it didn't work is totally fine.

Honestly, the important thing is to be upfront regarding the game's state. And be respectful of people's time. It's totally OK to show a game that probably won't be fun if you're learn a lot from it. Conversely, if you're not learning anything from a game being played (maybe you've already realised there are major changes to be made), don't force folk to play any longer.

At our Friday daytime playtest sessions long as you are respectful of other folk and spend time testing other designers' things, you can organise your 'slot' however you wish. One designer in the past just wanted to gather 2 or 3 other folk to chat through ideas and that's totally OK!

"the games that are presented are somehow patented or it's more a matter of trust among the group?"


The latter.

There are 2 parts to this. Firstly, it's generally not worth the time/effort/money to patent part of a game. And patents are of limited value anyway. Secondly, the attendees are either coming to have a good time, or to work on (and improve) their own ideas. People aren't coming to steal ideas.

Yogi will probably be my most financially successful game ever. It is currently paying my rent. I'm sure that many other folk realised - during its creation - that it had potential to sell a reasonable amount. Yet, there was never any doubt in my mind that it wouldn't be 'stolen'.

Theoretically, if we were working on toys that were likely to sell in the millions (e.g. Pie Face), we might start getting some 'spies'. There is simply not enough money involved so we have fostered a relatively healthy environment of folk who genuinely want to help each other create the best games possible.

If something ever were to be stolen, you'd have some witnesses to confirm that your game came first. But remember that you can't easily protect game mechanisms.
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Sat Jan 4, 2020 4:15 pm
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AQs: How did I decide what letters to match with what letters in W++?

Bez Shahriari
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When demoing a game for the Series: Wibbell++ game system, this is arguably a FAQ.

Most often, I get asked how much it is. Maybe I should invest in some better signage, like those plastic things that can sit on tables.

I occasionally get asked how to play a particular game. But usually it's me asking if they'd like to play something different and then suggesting a few options.

The second-most FAQ is probably about the distinction between core/other games.

About once or twice a con I get asked about how the letters were divvied up.

It all started with Wibbell. Well, technically, it was 2015.1.E.

This list of letter frequency was the start.

I tried to have letters roughly proportional to their % use, with 1 card for anything <1%. I also had a maximum quantity of the most frequent letters. In the first version, I tried to match the most common letters with the least common letters, whilst keeping all the cards unique.

At some point, I realised that this didn't really work - when you have 2 letters that are 'semi-useful', that's worse than 1 useful and 1 terrible letter.

I decided to have one really good letter and one 'other'. The pattern of having each common letter represented equally seemed almost natural. There needed to be an upper limit.

I considered 11x5, 10x5, 9x6, 8x6, 7x7. I wanted to print on a 55-card sheet, so these were the reasonable options.

In the end, 8x6 seemed to work best.

Some of those 'common letters' are more common than others. So the terrible letters are generally matched with the best ones. In order to keep the cards unique, this had to be shuffled around.

Some of the letters were actually found to be harder or easier to use than their frequency would suggest, and so moved around.

H is harder than R. H is a bit more common because of a few commonly-repeated words: he, she, they, the, his, her, their... So 'H' became a lower letter on the cards and R was promoted to being a 'common letter'.

G is easier to use, so I added a 3rd. This is probably because it's so easy to add 'ING' to a verb.

B is much easier to use than its frequency would suggest. I have no explanation, but I definitely have found this to be the case over several hundreds of plays of the Wibbell++ games.

symmetry

Fabio was confusing the early M/W. To solve this, I not only further differentiated the letters but also ensured that M/W never appear with a rotationally symmetrical letter. [AM] is more clearly an [AM]. But [IM] could be misinterpreted as [WI].

N and Z were intentially placed next to each other after all the times that someone was unsure whether the 'Z' was a 'Z' or an 'N'.

I don't think the final 'Z' could be much clearer but I still hear people wonder aloud whether it's a 'Z' or 'N', before realising a few seconds later what it is, or maybe that it doesn't matter (as both are represented).

Trust me - with cards that are often seen at weird orientations, there was far more confusion when Z was matched to the previous letters.

Puzzell

I had created Puzzell - a solitaire game with 20 'puzzles' to beat. This involved creating alphabetical runs, letting you use an 'AP' to either place a 'B','C' on top, or a 'Q','R'.

For this game, it was best if the letters on any given card were far apart.

So everything was redone.

final pass

Showing the cards to Paul Mansfield/David Brain before publication, they pointed out that some pairs of letters really seemed like they should go together. Given that the cards are meant to offer options, rather than challenging you to use both, this isn't great.

I wasn't able to remove all these, given the previous rules I had established for myself. But a good few were taken out.

And that's pretty much how it was done.

I can't be certain that the pairings are correct. In fact, they almost certainly aren't. But, given finite time, we have to accept shortcomings.
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Thu Aug 16, 2018 3:00 am
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AQs: Should I complain about this game box?

Bez Shahriari
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People who ship things don't tend to specialise in boardgames. Most of the things that are posted will see most of the packaging disposed of. The majority of folk throw away the boxes for their radios/TVs/etc. Boardgames are idiosyncratic in that the 'packaging' is part of the item.

I have bought an item from Amazon that was just a shrink-wrapped box with a label stuck on it. The gamebox was only protected from everything by a thin sheet of plastic. Of course it got damaged.

If this were a TV, I wouldn't care about the box in the slightest. The box would only be in case of returns.

If you were to buy a toolbox and it was cracked, no-one would say, 'it's only the box'.

If buying a boardgame, it's less clearcut, as the primary thing you purchase is the ability to play with the bits inside. But the box will likely be staying on your shelf, visible and proudly displaying itself.

I will point out that the box is often the most expensive component. Unless using a tuckbox, the box will likely be more expensive than the deck of cards, board, or even any mini inside.

It's expensive to replace. Not only is it expensive to manufacture, but also expensive to ship. It's - by design - larger than anything else. It'll be more fragile the 2nd time around with no pressure pushing outwards. Some companies simply refuse to replace boxes, but might offer other compensations instead.

Don't expect a company to automatically replace things for you, specially if they are a small startup with low margins.

But that doesn't mean you should let shoddy packing go unanswered.

Ultimately, it's up to you. If you're asking folk on a forum, then maybe use that time/energy for simply getting in touch with the seller.

If you paid more money for something deluxe I can imagine being a lot more bothered. If it was on clearance, then sometimes things are even advertised as having some possible defects.

Like everything, it's all psychology. The only reason to even play a game - arguably the only reason to do ANYTHING - is because of the way it affects our brains. Our brains compel us to do things, give us drugs for certain behaviours, and we 'want' to do things. There are some near-universal wants and desires. But if you're bothered by something than it doesn't matter if you're in the minority. And vice versa.

You don't need our permission to complain. But if you're acknowledging on social media that the defect is minor, then maybe acknowledge that when writing it. Don't be unpleasant about it.

As long as you follow the principle of the golden rule, you never need anybody's permission to do whatever.
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Thu Aug 9, 2018 10:39 am
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AQs: How many times do I play a game before judging it?

Bez Shahriari
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Honestly, the answer is 0.

I have judged games all the time before playing them.

In my personal life, I like to play games for enjoyment. I simply do not have time to play everything once, let alone multiple times. I need to make some assumptions based on the look of the games.

If a game is from GMT, maybe I'll assume that it'll take a bit longer to learn and play.

If a game is carved out of wood, I might assume that the game has been a bit more tested than a game that is made out of thin cardboard.

If I notice typos in the rules, I might assume that is a reflection of the lack of care that went into other areas of the game.

Of course, first impressions can be wrong. I might be mistaken. I'm willing to give things a 2nd chance if so, or perhaps ask other people why they love something.

Sometimes, I just know my own personal tastes. Sometimes, even if folk love something, it might not be a thing for me. I have learned to have some confidence in my own judgements.

I've probably played thousands of games at this point. I've read hundreds (but probably not thousands) of rulebooks/rulesheets. I've developed an ability to tell what a game might play like and simulate it in my mind somewhat.

Professionally, I'll usually play a game about 0.3 times before deciding with Caezar whether it's suitable for publication or what should be changed. If something clearly isn't working, playing to the end of the game is a waste of time.

With a published game, I'm usually a bit more patient. If the rules sound good enough for me to show it to my friends and we start playing, we'll almost always at least finish the game.

There are games I own that I have dismissed after reading the rules, or after 1 game. Often I like a game, will play a 2nd, 3rd, etc. time and probably keep the game around for a while.

Some games I'll play and dislike, but want to try again as I might feel unsure about an aspect; perhaps it's strongly group-dependent, or maybe I feel I missed something.

I think this is the key - my judgement is never set in stone. I am always happy to be proven wrong. I absolutely understand that a game I love for the first 100 plays might be a tiresome chore later on. A game I feel negatively about might become charming and enjoyable to play.

Sometimes the trajectory is a surprise and I end up learning things about my own tastes, or even myself or the ramifications of various aspects of games.

Generally, the trajectory isn't surprising and I'm getting better and better at predicting my own future opinions.

So, I have an opinion straight away. Even after hearing the name.

But I never really 'know' how much I'll like it in the future, and I'm willing to admit that.
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Thu Jul 5, 2018 7:00 am
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AQs - What is your process for writing a rulebook?

Bez Shahriari
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This question was asked of folk in general, and other have also answered here.

This is my process:

First, I decide on the rules.

I am almost always irritated if someone comes to Playtest UK for the first time and has us blind-test a game. Until you've actually settled on the rules, having someone blind-test your rules is a waste of everyone's time.

If you have a game that you may potentially forget your own rules for, then writing some notes for your own benefit works well. David Brain does this. I don't always but it means that I have left games alone for months and then sometimes struggled to remember what the rules were. Unless writing in full sentences feels easier to you, I'd personally suggest writing short notes as 'best practice' both for a set of notes when teaching and as a momento for some months away from the game.

Write a first draft.


After having taught your game various times, I should know the most important points. Write them down, as paragraph headings. Decide on the approximate order of text. Start writing. I'd try to do it in one sitting, but sometimes take microbreaks when doing any given task.

Leave it. Then edit/rewrite.

Check the rules a few days/a week afterwards. Maybe get a few other creators to look at it Lucas Gerlach runs an editing/proof-reading exchange program.

Test it. Iterate.

For me, it's about what opportunities pop up.

Each time I blind test, take note of all the issues. As soon as there's a major point of confusion and everyone is deviating from the rules, stop the test and start testing a different thing. Eventually, you'll make it through your rules with experienced gamers.

Then I start blind-testing with folk who are less experienced at learning rules.

I might totally rewrite the rules if I think of a better way to format it.

professional proof-readers/publication

In the end, I send it to Christoph Zinsli (who I support via Patreon) and Rachael Mortimer (who I pay money per project). Then I add the diagrams (which are just descriptions of diagrams until then).

Really, I would have been better off doing the illustrations earlier, but this is what I currently do (not what I advise).

For my next things, I'll try to develop a better workflow for getting quick diagrams into the document and starting that earlier.
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Sun Jun 24, 2018 2:27 pm
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Autobiography

Bez Shahriari
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I was born on Friday 13th. Sometime between 1814 and 2025.

First memory - a Spectrum loading screen. My brothers weren't even playing a game. It was a drawing thing. Regardless, I was entranced.

My 2nd memory is of following a cat into a house. I remember a strange toy hulking in a closet. The house belonged to a family friend who then sat me down in front of an old animated film.

I loved videogames. Arkanoid. Prince of Persia. Lode Runner. Super Mario Bros. I never had my own device to play them on. I would play when I could, drawing maps and imagining rules when I couldn't.

Frequently travelling to Iran, I witnessed a totally different style of living. My family - having the luxury to emigrate for tuition and then settle in the UK - is relatively privileged and it wasn't as if I was exposed to the slums. But just seeing the cultural differences did possibly broaden my mind. My last time there was just before I turned 18 (at which point forced military service, or detainment, became a serious risk to navigate).

At primary school, I think I was a bit of an outcast. A bit different. Being told early in primary school - by the deputy headmaster - that I needed to shave. In secondary school, I played up to this and acted out. I shot BB guns in class; knifed a ball; instigated a fight that I was ready to get injured in; and drank some of the acid that we were using in chemistry. Copper2Sulphate is the worst-tasting thing I've ever put in my mouth. Apparently, I got more detentions in my first year than anyone had previously gotten in their entire school history.

I was cajoled into playing the piano. At the time, I hated it but I was so so thankful a few years later. Being good enough to improvise something and have some vague understanding of harmonies is incredibly liberating. I won a 'talent contest' at school and started playing in bars afterwards. I also sometimes played trumpet, drums and various things not usually considered instruments. I got to play in a variety of settings, which is always enjoyed.

I loved to dance. Maybe thanks to Iranian weddings. I enjoyed Salsa for several years. I tried pole dancing on a whim and found I really enjoyed it. I've not done it at all for nearly a year but really want to get back to it and establish some semblance of balance in my life.

I went to uni to study 'Computer Games Technology' which was meant to be half about designing and half about the other stuff (mainly programming). But I was the 2nd year to do this course and it was still shifting - towards programming, which I despise and loathe.

After dropping out, I worked in shops (Tesco, Kebabish) and spent most of my money on Snes games. Eventually I went back to education - a degree in something a bit more arty - to help me a) teach English abroad and b) be a better videogame designer. Neither of those 2 aspirations really materialised.

I have a terrible history of avoiding things and leaving them to the last minute. I essentially got my degree in one summer. I'm not proud of this trait and I'd like to change.

Boardgames: Monopoly, Risk, 3D Noughts & Crosses; Escape from Colditz, MtG; traditional card games, backgammon, draughts, chess; go; boardspace.net; Puerto Rico, Lost Cities, Carcassonne, Catan; and then an explosion of things.

I feel that the internet has facilitated some wonderful IRL connections. Boardgaming, but also with old schoolmates and new friends. We need to filter out a lot of bullshit though.

I have a history of sometimes being a bit down. First time I went to uni, I slept most of my life away. Afterwards, I was lacking any sense of achievement outside of gaming and any connections apart from music, dancing and boardgames. I crave company.

Facebook games can be really insidious and prey upon depressed folk. As can a lot of mobile games.

As a designer and player, I focus more and more on the shared experiences. But there is a very real place for simply exploring a set of rules - maybe even on your own - and satisfying your intellectual curiousity.

Primordial Group (in Glasgow), London on Board and Playtest UK allowed me to play a tonne of stuff and also (in the case of PTUK) get my own creations played.

In London, thanks to the anonymity offered by the population density, I allowed myself to dress as I wanted and explore the dynamic of gender.

Right now, I wonder how much I like making stuff and how much I just want to share stuff that I made. The difference possibly speaks of an unhealthy mind.

At some point, I will almost certainly die.
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8 Comments
Mon Jun 11, 2018 12:29 pm
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AQs: Making a good game great.

Bez Shahriari
United Kingdom
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Microbadge: I play with red!Microbadge: I play with purple!Microbadge: Citizenship Recognition - Level III - Are we geeks because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are geeks?Microbadge: I'm genderqueer/nonbinary!Microbadge: I'm a gut player!
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How do I fix a design that is good, but not great?
(Have you ever crafted something that technically was a game, but just wasn't that fun? Or perhaps it was sort of fun, but something vital to the design was a bit awkward. How did you overcome it? Or did you scrap it?)
Wow. This is a difficult question.

If there was an easy answer, then all games would be 'great' rather than 'good' and bad/mediocre games wouldn't exist! David Brain has remarked a few times that it's fairly easy to make a 'good' game that will get 6/10+ on BGG. Getting 7/10+ is the real challenge.

Some games start off with the brilliance already burning bright, and you just need to sweep away a few stones that are obstructing the light.

Some games start off with a spark that can be fanned into a flame.

If people are liking your game, but no-one truly loves it, then it may well be a creative dead-end.

If it possible to turn it into a wonderful experience, then the path ahead will likely be unique to your creation. Sure, there are some simple questions that might help you overcome mental blocks or obstacles.

What if you cut out half the game?

What if the person with the highest score lost?

What if the theme had to change?

What if you cut out the central mechanism?

What if you had to remove half the components?

Sometimes, you can break something and then rebuild it into something better. Sometimes, asking questions and considering things orthogonal to the main core of the game can help you get inspiration.

Sometimes, a good game will never become great. There's no shame in laying a game to rest. You can start on a new one. That's OK.
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2 Comments
Sat Apr 28, 2018 6:05 am
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