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

Oliver Kiley
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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.
Quote:
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?
Quote:
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.
Quote:
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:

Quote:
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:

Quote:
(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:
Quote:
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!

Cheers.
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Wed Aug 11, 2021 4:54 pm
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The Game Formally Known as Emissary: Design Journal Part 1

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
So I haven’t talked much about Emissary of late - but it’s time to change that! For those who don’t know, Emissary was first conceived as a Decktet game that was an attempt to create a micro-4X game loosely modeled on concepts from Hegemonic. As a decktet game it was surprisingly clean and simple, and seemed to have gone over well among the folks that played it.

Since then, I’ve been wanting to build out the game more fully and make it its own distinct thing (separate from the Decktet). But the perennial challenge has been how to theme it - and more importantly how to use the game’s theme to reinforce the gameplay. Coming from the Decktet, an abstract card system, meant the original mechanics were broadly themeless. So “finding” a theme that fits with and reinforces the gameplay is the challenge (and before you ask, I don’t want to leave it as an abstract).

Over the years, the game has gone from the decktet with a loose theme of sending emissaries (hence the name) to nomadic tribes living in the decketet universe (all very vaguely defined mind you), to a clearly but still abstract “space” theme, to a theme representing different landscape patterns, and to theme based on colonizing mars. There have been other experiments along the way as well. All of these have struggled to bring the gameplay to life and provide a plausible and supportive language for interpreting the game’s mechanics.

Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier


During this time, multiple friends, geek buddies, and fellow designers urged me to look for a historical theme that the game could be coupled to, letting it leverage the historic specifics to enrich the design. Add to this that multiple people have said the gameplay falls into a crunchy Pax-like game territory: lots of points interaction, interplay between shared board and card play, the action economy, etc.

As I thought more on it, perhaps my theming endeavor shouldn’t be directed towards finding a clear and simple theme to attach to the game, but rather to let a more nuanced and complex theme direction push the game towards realizing that theme, even at the cost of increased complexity. While I admire the original design for having a fairly simple (so I thought!) yet abstract system, the reality is that this is a crunchy game. I needed to embrace it.

FINDING THE HISTORICAL FLAVOR

I’m going to see how far I can go in describing the theme to you all without naming it explicitly. Let’s see how this works!

Let’s talk in abstract terms first. The basic flow of the game is such that cards played to the map and controlled are leveraged for resources in a given suit, that in turn can be used to exert control over other cards sharing those same suits. It’s not a resource conversation game per se, but one of resource extortion. In some ways, this was there from the beginning with the Decktet theme. To get in with the blue/water people, you need some blue/water resources that are of value to them. Once you are in, you can leverage that relationship to get more blue/water resources. It’s a “favor” system really. And so one important realization in framing resources as “favors” - something garnered from one source that can be cashed in at another.

From gallery of Mezmorki


For reasons that will be revealed in a bit, I began researching the enlightenment period and beyond, up to about the French Revolution. It was a fascinating period where so many ideas and concepts that shape modern (and democratic) society came to light. Of course, as the French Revolution showed, putting these ideas into effect and actually reshaping society around them was at odds with the powers that be. The ruling nobility class and religious institutions took strong issue with enlightenment thought because it challenged their right to authority.

As time progressed, different places sought to act on enlightenment thinking and reshape society using different means. Some efforts were more overt and forceful (i.e. French Revolution). Others attempted more subtle methods of subverting the ruling powers. In the centuries preceding the French Revolution, the Holy Roman Empire (H.R.E.) - an amalgamation of nobility and church authority - reigned over much of what today is Germany, Austria, Northern Italy and adjacent regions from the late 900’s to the early 1800’s (where it eventually dissolved as a consequence of the French Revolution). But efforts to apply pressure on the rule of the H.R.E. were attempted prior to the French Revolution.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Of particular interest was the Electorate of Bavaria (H.R.E. territory in what is south eastern Germany today). In this region, the church held notable sway over educational institutions and writings (including from enlightenment thinkers). Strongly liberal or protestant notions were regularly discouraged and in some cases outright prohibited. Those who wished to discuss or distribute enlightenment thought (or heaven forbid act on it) felt it necessary to do so from the shadows and outside the percept of more scrutinizing observers.

Ultimately, this story lands us at the University of Ingolstadt in the 1770’s, where a certain professor was dissatisfied with the inability to openly discuss or promote enlightenment thinking and put the wheels in motion for change through subtler means. This scholar, a certain Adam Weishaupt (ringing bells yet?), found a course of action by establishing a secret society that would recruit influential people receptive to enlightenment ideals and that might be in a position to act on them (either now or sometime in the future). Initial efforts were aimed at pushing back against superstition, religious dominance of daily life, and perceived abuses of legal and state power (i.e. human rights violations - although not quite framed in those terms).

In short, this secret and slowly growing group was aimed at spreading the enlightenment, to bringing broader awareness of its ideals and principles to key people. During this time period, other secret (but not “really” secret) societies, such as Freemasonry, provided a template and roadmap for how to recruit members, control the flow of information and knowledge, and build trust and capacity among the membership. Any guesses what secret society we’re talking about?

From gallery of Mezmorki
If you haven’t guessed now, it’s time I spilled the beans. The group Adam Weishaupt founded was known as the Bavarian Illuminati, or more simply just, “The Illuminati.”

In contrast to popularized conspiracy theories, the Illuminati was a relatively short lived entity, from 1776 to about 1790. Moreover, it’s tangible impacts are likely far less pervasive than the conspiracy theories would have us believe. A series of edicts directly from the Elector of Bavaria during the active years of the Illuminati eventually undermined much of its momentum. Of course, by the time it ceased its primary operations in Bavaria, membership had grown to well-outside the region and the H.R.E., with estimates ranging from about 650 - 2500 members across Europe.

The historical record contains primary source material recovered during a raid on Illuminati members’ residences following the Elector’s edicts. And through these records we have an idea of the methods employed, membership, and accomplishments of the society. While it is fun to speculate over what the Illuminati might have been (or might still be if conspiracy theorists are to be believed!), the record suggests the extent of impact was fairly limited and contained.

Nevertheless, the story is a fascinating one, and I was most intrigued to learn that the Illuminati’s objective, was not to take over the world in order to be it’s masters, but instead to change the world by ushering in the ideal state as envisioned by the enlightenment: To erode the stranglehold of the church and nobility, to give more people basic human rights, to support education and the sciences, and to advocate for a more democratic society. Not a bad ambition.

REALIZING A THEME FOR EMISSARY

In terms of Emissary, I’m in the process of redesigning the game around this theme - but I need to do so carefully and also present the game in a manner that doesn’t make people go “oh no, not the illuminati again!” Curiously, while the Illuminati features in a number of games (aside: Steve Jackson's Illuminati was one of my first "hobby" board games that got me back into gaming) and other popular media, most focus on what the illuminati “might” have been from a conspiracy theory perspective, rather than focus on what we know that it was. What it was, was far more limited - but nevertheless an interesting subject for a game!

As I started researching more, overwhelmingly aided by the book Perfectibilists, design issues found elegant resolutions in the historical record.

Chief among the challenges was what the cards and different suits, and indeed the entire purpose/objective of the game, represents. The illuminati theme let the secret agents structure of the game really take off. Cards in the game would represent people (aka, Luminaries) that were targets for recruitment. Players assume the role of one of Adam Weishaput’s innermost circle of confidants known as the areopagus. The goal cards reflect the specific recruitment challenges that you, as one of the areopagus, are tasked with accomplishing through your own network of agents and contacts. The six suits/factions in the game map to the sectors of society comprising Illuminati membership: nobles, clergy, magistrates, scholars, professionals, and artisans. The resources work perfectly as “favor”, as you will use favors leveraged from one person within a faction to make in-roads with another person.

A recent-ish version of Emissary added an event card system to the game, and being able to anchor these events to the historic context offers up a lot of inspiration. In particular, five of the event cards relate to the edicts that ended the real Illuminati and can likewise act as an end-game trigger here. The faction cards and other abilities can be keyed into some of power and capabilities of their associated sectors. Nobles have political sway and boost your ability to influence others, the clergy and use their religious clout to expel membership by drawing scrutiny, artisans can move more freely through society and can make connections easier, and so on.

One gameplay point of criticism was that there was a desire for a little more flexibility in how many actions you can take. Like a number of my favorite games, the basic action economy is for two-actions per turn - but in Emissary that can at times be too rigid. The event cards help loosen it up a little bit, more more was still needed. I reworked the “scheme” action, which was previously a slightly mandatory free action letting you discard a card for its favor value). Now, the scheme action lets you play down and “chain” a sequence of cards from your hand so long as they can all share a suit/faction sequentially. Many of the scheme actions provide bonus actions and/or buffed actions that let you stretch beyond the two-actions per turn limit, with a little bit of careful planning. It deepens the card play, and is a great thematic twist (IMHO), whereby you’re using non-Illuminati members (those are in the map) as pawns for your scheming efforts. It’s working really well in-playtesting.

That said, I’ve been playtesting this newer version quite a bit in recent months, working through the gameplay and card ability balance using a crude prototype. So far, the gameplay is better than it has been. While a few things have been added onto the design, I’ve also endeavored to simplify the mechanics throughout as much as possible. I’m trying to shave out any of the things that have given people pause or caused confusion, even if it means sacrificing a little bit of nuance. While this is a crunchy game, I want people’s thinking oriented around the board and strategy and lines of interaction, not oriented around trying to dissect mechanics.

I’mI simultaneously working on a new user interface and visual design for the game as well. Some of the work-in-progress card designs are below. Obviously, this is heavily inspired by recent Pax games (e.g. Pax Pamir 2nd Edition). Speaking of which, I’m still toying with possible titles, but I’m leaning towards something like Pax Lumine or Pax Luminous. The “Pax” verbiage existed prior to Sierra Madre’s Pax-series games, but I’m still a little worried about using it given the growing recognition of that series. Yet at the same time, the game operates in a similar design space as pax games, even more so now given the historic theme. So calling it Pax “something” gives it the right connotation to connect with the intended audience.

From gallery of Mezmorki
From gallery of Mezmorki
From gallery of Mezmorki


I’ve been on a design kick with the game again, and finally finding a theme that clicks with the mechanics has been great. I’m currently engaged in the somewhat thankless task of aligning a large list of 90 or so known/suspected Illuminati members with what factions/suits they most align with, and pulling the card assets together (picture, historical text, etc.). Once done, I’ll be able to show off a more robust prototype for how it’s all coming together.

As always, please let me know your thoughts and if you have any reactions, suggestions, or inspirations to share! Take care!
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Tue Jul 6, 2021 8:38 pm
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Chaos and Control: Balancing Strategy and Narrative in Game Design

Oliver Kiley
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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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Rhine & Rhone: An express version of T&E (or Y&Y)

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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Alright, so having recently acquired Yellow & Yangtze I'm now getting all reinvigorated for the Tigris & Euphrates-style gameplay.

However, one thing about both games is that neither are particularly portable and games can run on for a while. My kids and nephews have really taken to Y&Y (yes!!!!) but sometimes we don't have the time to play a full game but still want something along those lines. Also both games are not very portable. And so I got thinking...

What if there was another two rivers themed game that uses the same mechanics but comes in much more condensed package - both in terms of components and overall game time. The Rhine and Rhone rivers have a nice ring to them, and are both rivers in relatively close proximity in Europe. Both played an important role throughout EU history and interestingly both have their headwaters up in the Swiss Alps but on opposite sides of the continental divide. The Rhine heads north into the North Sea, and the Rhone goes south into the Mediterranean.

Mechanically, to keep things small (and especially the game box) I'd use the "Micro Cards" (1.25" x 1.75" cards from GameCrafter) instead of tiles. Likewise, I'd dispense entirely with the need for a board. Instead, you would set up a 9x9 hex-grid of cards like in the image below. You'd have a set of fixed "River" cards for the Rhine & Rhone to form the basic layout of the map, with spots for the initial Black tiles (like in Y&Y). All the other cards would be face down. When you place new a tile/card, you'd take the face down card and add it to the top of the draw stack.

Here's a layout example showing the river locations and starting black cards.

From gallery of Mezmorki


One interesting thing is that with using cards to build the board, you could potentially have many different game setups recommended in the rules and/or a process for building out your own unique board each time you play. Interesting?

As for the suits/tile colors, the following make sense to me...

WHITE = Clergy (monasteries)
GREEN = Merchants (marker place)
BLUE = Peasants (farmlands)
RED = Lords (keeps)

Players would have a leader cards corresponding to those colors with a unique symbol and/or a special unique shaped/color pawn to mark the leader card as belonging to them. Alternatively, since the board is so much more cramped, I was thinking that leaders might actually just be placed ONTOP of a tile/card, so long as it's placed on or next to a Clergy tile, consistent with leaders needing to be next to red in T&E or black in Y&Y tiles.

All of this leaves the question of what mechanics to pull from across T&E and Y&Y to round this out. My sense is that it's mostly pulling from Y&Y since the gameplay is a little more straightforward.

However, for simplicity I'm ditching the yellow/wild tiles and leader, and instead adding back in the initial "treasures" that start on Clergy tiles like in T&E. Connecting two treasures together allows you to claim one if you have a merchant leader in the kingdom. Treasures count as a wild and the game ends when all the treasures have been taken (or all but 1).

I'm thinking monuments work like in Y&Y - but possibly also are dual colored. Not sure about that yet. Thematically, I was thinking that getting a triangle of 3 cards and would represent founding a "city", which would have a primary color plus another color to it.

Lastly, in terms of scoring, I was thinking of using a very small board with a Ingenious style OPEN scoring system. Basically, there would be 4 tracks for all the resources and players would have a cube in their color (yes, probably need to assign a different color token to each player, e.g. purple/yellow/black/orange or something) to track points earned. There could also be a victory trigger where the first player to get say "9 points" in their lowest color wins.

Thoughts about all of this? I'm kinda excited about the idea of it!
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Fri Aug 17, 2018 3:19 pm
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Rethinking Emissary for the "Red Frontier"

Oliver Kiley
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Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier


Emissary is a design I’ve been iterating on for a number of years now. And while the vagaries of life pulled me away from design work, recently I’ve had a window of time to resume my eternal tinkering.

For those unfamiliar, Emissary was created for a PnP design competition to either create an express version of a bigger game or a micro-game (or both!). At the time, I was experimenting with a number of games using the Decktet system, and I came upon the idea to take Hegemonic and distill it down to its 4X roots (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) by using the decktet. The resulting design worked quite well and had a vaguely Magnate-like feel to its balance of resource management, hand management, and area control.

GAMEPLAY TUNING

Since then, it’s been a lot of fine tuning over the years to get the balance and pacing smoothed out. The biggest change has been to rethink the victory conditions to be something that doesn’t require as much arithmetic to forecast, as that can be a major source of AP or slowdown. But more importantly, I really prefer games where the victory trigger is discrete. By this, I mean games where there is a single condition that if a player meets it, they win instantly.

Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier


Taluva is a favorite game of mine. It’s an abstract tile placement game where you also have three different types of buildings to place, each with their own conditions for placement. If a player gets all of two of three types of buildings down, they win. The backup is that if you run out of tiles, the player with the most huts wins.

I looked into doing something similar to Taluva for Emissary. Eventually, I settled on a system where there are three specific objectives to work towards, and if player can complete two of three they win immediately. One objective, Might, is based on building a region of a certain size (e.g. 5-cards) and having the most influence within that region. Another objective, Economy, is based on building a trade network, with 4-cards of the same rank adjacent. The last objective, Authority, is based on having the most power on Crown cards (and least two controlled crowns).

These objectives do wonders for orienting the gameplay towards more discernable goal posts. They also create more reasons to conduct certain actions, such as “Replace” to swap cards in the map as well as Hostile actions to push players out of key cards. Of course, there is a backup goal system (a much simplified version of the original scoring system) in the event that the map is built out and no one manages to secure two objectives first.

All in all, I really enjoy Emissary and how it’s grown. The latest version of the rules contain a fair number of other streamlining steps to smooth out the actions, turn sequence, and conflicts. The result is a game that, I feel, packs a lot of punch into a small package. It accomplishes my goal of creating choices with tough trade-off decisions and opportunity costs. For example:

Quote:
* Crowns cards in your hand are strong for winning conflicts, but playing them to the map is also needed to achieve am Authority victory.

* Aces are powerful defensively, but can be discarded for three resources, which can open up a lot of options for the Influence Action.

* Getting adjacent ranked cards is great for building up resources and working towards the Economic victory, but often makes it harder to effectively network a large region of the same suit together.

* Always tough to decide what cards to discard: do you keep a card for future use on the map, for resources when you need them, for winning conflicts?

* Moving influence is a cheap way to get onto a card that would otherwise be expensive to influence, but it is less efficient in terms of actions.

* Exploring is good, but has to be timed to not give your opponent an opening to influence the card first.

* Crowns on the board can help anchor your position on the board, but they can easily cut off regions and make it hard to connect.

* Tier 1 cards are cheap to influence, but don’t let you concentrate power very well.

* Tier 3 cards can let you concentrate power, but often gives your opponent an opening to build onto them as well - and they are expensive.

* Sharing influence on an card with an opponent may get you (or them) bonus resources through trade, but might let them (or you) get closer to meeting a victory condition.
Having patted myself on the back for the design work, there still remained one further struggle.

RE-THEMING WOES

One of the big struggles in the design of Emissary, around which I finally made a breakthrough, has to do with theme. Admittedly, Emissary is quite an abstract game mechanically, and so any attempts to theme the game need to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I was never very satisfied with my efforts to theme the game previously.

Emissary’s theme started out as a play on the Decket’s mythos about being from the land of purple and red and sending Emissary’s to gain influence among various roving clans. It sorta worked. From there I was tinkering ideas for a proper space 4X theme or alternatively some terrestrial fantasy theme.

Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier


The challenge is that the design of the game is really dual layered. One layer is the map and specific suits each cards represent. What are these suits? Roving clans? Foreign space empires? Migratory fantasy races? Floating islands? Then comes the question of what the players represent via the layer of their influence over the cards. Is your influence goodwill? Spies and secret agents? Political clout? Mechanically, it was important that a major action be the replace action, allowing you to swap cards on the map around - but it was hard to rationalize what was being swapped from a thematic standpoint.

Long story short, I settled on an idea that I finally feel excited about. It started with a Popular Mechanics article about Mars colonization, that led to me this NASA research paper, about in-situ resource utilization on the Red Planet. It’s a pretty cool read. And so it may be a tad in vogue, but the wheels were turning and I had a compelling idea for theming Emissary at last.

The basic premise is that players represent different enterprises working to prep a new frontier region of the Martian surface for colonization. This prep work is done by working with six different guilds to leverage their expertise in terraforming and building critical infrastructure. The first player able to fulfill two “contracts” (i.e two of the three special victory objectives discussed above) first gain the right to colonize the region and earns the favor of the guilds.

What does this look like in practice?

The resources used in the game, instead of being generic, can now be coupled to basic resource needs for colonization:

* Blue = Water (for drinking and irrigation)
* White = Oxygen (for breathing)
* Yellow = Silica (for glass, dome construction, solar panels)
* Orange =Iron (for construction)
* Brown = Carbon (carbon fiber, plastics, hydrocarbons)
* Green = Plants (food and fiber)

The actions, rather than being so generic, can be framed in interpreted around terraforming and infrastructure building activities:

* Explore = Survey new areas (with a bit of optional terraforming)
* Influence = Build habitat domes and machinery for resource processing
* Collect = Extract and/or produce resources (with partnerships for trading)
* Move = Migrate workers/drones to a new habitat dome
* Replace = Terraform / Reengineer (changing equipment around for a different resource)
* Oust! = Negotiate ownership

Visually, the different types of cards can reflect things in a more thematic way too:

* Origin cards = Contract cards (objectives)
* Tier 1 cards = Barren plains
* Tier 2 cards = Arid foothills
* Tier 3 cards = Rich valley
* Aces = Strategic stockpile
* Crown = Guild outpost

Obviously this retheming will require revamping the background artwork for the game. I have a few ideas for this, but it will take some tinkering before it’s ready for public consumption.

The last element, is the name of the game. While I like Emissary as a name quite a bit, it doesn’t really fit the new theme all that well. After churning through a bunch of different ideas (including lots of really bad puns) I settled on one that I like (for now): Red Frontier. Or maybe it is just Wild Red (like Wild West, but you know, on Mars). Or maybe the full name is: Wild Red Frontier. Gosh, or maybe it’s Emissary: Red Frontier. Hmmm. Seems like there is more work to do after all!

Thanks for tuning in and let me know what you think!

Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
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Fri May 25, 2018 7:32 pm
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Lobotomy Lab: Shipwrights of the North Sea

Oliver Kiley
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Someone Call a Doctor!

So I have a problem, and the name of the problem is Series: The North Sea Trilogy (Garphill Games), a series of viking-themed games by Shem Phillips. I'm not usually one to be suckered into being a completion-ist. But alas I have a weakness for viking-stuff. And when that "stuff" happens to be a boardgame coupled with amazing artwork, it is hard for me to resist (apparently).

After acquiring and enjoying Raiders of the North Sea quite immensely, I soon found myself looking into Explorers of the North Sea, a Tikal-like tile placement and action point game in the same North Sea series. Shortly thereafter, when I was in the store succumbing to that temptation, sitting on the shelf right next to Explorers was of course The North Sea Runesaga, which allows you to combine Raiders, Explorers, and Shipwrights of the North Sea into one multi-game campaign. Of course that also meant that I needed to buy Shipwrights, and so oh my god, what have I done.

My wallet considerably lighter, and with smiles on the store clerks' faces, I ambled home in a state of post-purchase bliss.

Family: Series: The North Sea Trilogy (Garphill Games)


It was inevitable that Shipwrights wouldn't really click with me. It was an impulse purchase and had I done my usual due diligence its shortcomings would've dissuaded me from ever purchasing it in the first place. After playing through a few partial games by myself, these flaws were immediately apparent: it is a game with fairly dull decisions coupled with far too much downtime, excessive randomness, and a playtime that overstays its welcome. If it were a 30-45 minute filler game, these faults would be more forgivable, but this is a game that can drag on for hours.

And yet I really didn't want to give up on Shipwrights. Raiders is an absolutely amazing game and one of the few worker placement games that has won me over (primarily due to the more interactive nature of the shared workers and fierce competition for raiding spots). Explorers is a solid game on its own, and seeing as I didn't have a "go to" pick-up-and-deliver game, Explorers fit the bill.

But shipwrights! What would we do with you? The prospect of playing the whole Runesaga is considerably less attractive if the opening act is destined to be a tedious slog.

Something had to be done.

Shipwrights needed a lobotomy.

Board Game: Shipwrights of the North Sea


Fortunately, Shipwrights feels like "almost" a solid game, but the pacing and structure of the turn sequence is all off. The ingredients are all there (components, theme, basic ideas, etc.), but the recipe is has everything put together in the wrong order.

Getting specific, here are the issues I was hoping to resolve by lobotomizing the rule set:

(1) Game lasts too long, and getting it under an hour would be great. This is partly due to the victory trigger (once a player builds their 4th ship), partly due to how slowly resources are accumulated for building the ships, and partly due to a high dose of randomness (which can drag the game out if no one gets the cards they need to build things quickly).

(2) The turn structure is dull and non-engaging for the non-active players. Normally, Shipwrights has players drafting 3 cards during each day (full game turn). Except the drafting structure is based on drafting from a single hand of cards three times - and then going around the table a fourth time with each player resolving all of their actions. Ugh. Very slow and not exciting.


The Procedure

Changes to the End Game & Victory Triggers

First, in order to shorten the game length, I made the end game trigger occur when a player has accumulated 10 victory points (instead of 4 ships). Once triggered, the current day is finished and then one final day/round is played (as normal).

Overall, this change greatly speeds up the game. It also creates a more opportunity to create more cheaper ships, which normally aren't worth much in terms of VPs, but help advance the engine building aspect of the game (constructed ships provide various bonuses and/or penalties to your engine). The game also features a bunch of buildings that are worth VP's too, but these were always very difficult to justify playing in comparison to ships. Now there are a hotter commodity.

Board Game: Shipwrights of the North Sea


Changes to the Turn Structure

The next big change has to do with the turn structure itself. Something I thought was brilliant about Raiders' take on worker placement was that the "place a worker, take a worker" system created a very quick rhythm in the game and minimized downtime. It also made the core action mechanic interactive and engaging for all players at the table, since you can be thinking about how your own opportunities are taking shape the entire time. Nothing like this existed in Shipwrights, despite the game feeling like there should be that feeling.

So, what I did was have every player start with a hand of 3 cards. Then, rather than drafting cards one at a time from a single hand of cards that gets passed around, I had players draft from a pool of cards in the middle of the table (pool size is one more card than the number of players in the game). AND most importantly, rather than drafting three cards across three sounds, and then going around again to play cards, each player drafts one card from the pool and then immediately does the following: play one card from your hand, take one worker action, and take one trade action (you can do these in any order).

This change to turn structure accomplished a few crucial things:

In the original rules, each player's turn could be a bit of a convoluted puzzle of deciding which order to play cards, what worker action to take, the timing of when to trade, etc. By constraining the amount you can do at any one time, player turns take less time (less giant puzzle to solve), which keeps the game moving at a brisker pace.

Secondly, having a hand of cards to play from immensely reduces the amount of randomness in the game - or at least lets players mitigate it better. In the original rules, you had to play (or else discard) every card in your hand each day. Very often you'd get stuck with cards that were useless in the present situation and did nothing to help advance your position. This would lead to a lot of turns feeling like dead turns where you could only utilize a fraction of cards (or even none of them). This also contributed to drawing out the game. But now, with having a hand of cards and only drafting and playing one at a time, the decision around what to play is much more interesting and multifaceted. Key cards can be held and played at more opportune times and dead turns are nearly eliminated.

Changes to Resource Abundance

The final bucket of changes have to do with the supply of resources and workers in the game. The biggest immediate change has to do with trading. In the original rules, trading for goods cost 2 gold and 2 workers. The awful part of this is that each worker you have at the end of day generates a gold to use next turn. Players have an incentive to just sit around and do nothing other than build up a large pool of workers so their gold engine doesn't get wrecked when you start spending workers during trade actions or for making ships. This again stalled the pace of the game.

So I merely eliminated the worker requirement for trading entirely. However, trading was also limited to only being taken once per turn, instead of an unlimited number of times as before. As each day now has three player turns (coupled to their drafting action), you can still do up to 3 trades per day, however you need to think a bit more about the timing of them. But it also avoids potential analysis paralysis stemming from having multiple trade actions all occurring at once. Again, it speeds up the game while making the decisions a little more interesting at the same time. Constraints breed depth.

I also changed the way the "Townsfolk Expansion" works. Each player turn, you can now spend one worker to take a townsfolk board action. However, instead of workers being "spent" permanently to the townsfolk board (to be swooped up by an opponent), they are now placed in a "tired" worker pool next to your player board and won't be available for other actions until the next day. Overall, this adds a bit more flexibility to how you use workers, when you spend them, and how you build up your economy.

Board Game: Raiders of the North Sea


Recovery Room

If you're curious to get the full details on the rule changes, check out this post over in the game's BGG forums. It should spell things out pretty clearly.

I've had a chance to play the game with these rule changes in effect, and I was immediately far more engaged and excited about the gameplay. As with any major surgery, there are likely to be unanticipated complications. There might be situations where certain card effects aren't less clear and/or where the balance might be off. I'm not going to lie, there might even be glaring loopholes or exploits that are enabled due to these changes. If so, we can always make another visit to the cutting room.

Your turn: Have you played Shipwrights? What are your thoughts on the original gameplay and what these changes might mean? What about the broader topic of "lobotomizing games" through a fundamental shift in their mechanics? Any candidates in need of a lobotomy?
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Fri Apr 20, 2018 9:13 pm
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Smorgasboard 2015-16: What's Going On Edition

Oliver Kiley
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From gallery of Mezmorki


Hello fellow readers! It’s been a little time since posting, but I felt a year-end recap and look-a-head into 2016 was in order. Please bear with the Smorgasboard nature of this post, but do feel free to bounce around, sampling which ever delights strike your fancy.

Today’s Menu:
- Boardgames!
- Articles & contributions!
- Wot I’m Playing!
- Game design projects!

Boardgames

I think over the past year, the nature of my boardgame playing has changed considerably. Two kids in the house, full times jobs (plus an extended sidejob), family obligations, friends having kids, my kids now also having friends, etc. introduces a set of constraints. Days spent hunkered over monstrous game boards and drowning under avalanches of meeples and hexagonal chits have dwindled.

Board Game: Eight-Minute Empire: Legends


Of course, and as I’ve mentioned before, it isn’t all bad. My daughter (now almost five) continues to like playing and “playing” with all sorts of games; and my two nephews are in the mix as well. We were on a big family trip at the end of last August and collectively played a lot of Eight Minute Empires: Legends, among other games. I had played a number of games previously, but I was surprised how much the kids really got into it. My 7-year old nephew used his allowance to buy his own copy when he returned home! While the game is somewhat dry mechanically (as a simple area control game), the artwork really makes it connect for people. I do love this game.

Board Game: Mice and Mystics


I also picked up Mice & Mystics over the summer, which was a big hit when trapped inside the cottage on rainy days. The Mouse Guard graphic novels have been making the rounds with the kids in the family, so the Mice & Mystics game slotted into their swirling sphere of perception nicely. It’s a well designed game and perfect for gamer dad facilitating play with the kids. The rule set is loose and flexible enough that we can take some liberties and the game doesn’t totally fall apart. My only complaint is that it can be a lot to setup and tear down quickly, and when you are working with 30 minute attention spans, I end up spending less time playing than organizing bits. But fondling bits never discouraged me … ahem …

I’ve also fallen deeply in love with Shadi Torbeys Oniverse games, as illustrated by Élise Plessis, whichincludes Onirim, Sylvion, and Castellion. First of all, the artwork and presentation is just amazing. I absolutely love the art style and how the boxes are assembled. As single-player games (or two person co-ops), Z-Man hit the mark with creating a compelling experience just in opening the box. It feels like luxury.

Board Game: Onirim

Image Credit: KSensei @ BGG


I’ve probably played Onirim 60+ times by now. Mostly in two-person cooperative mode with my wife. The game, in contrast to many cooperatives, feels less like a puzzle and more like a strategic thinking game. By contrast, in Forbidden Island (for instance), you can play nearly perfectly but just get screwed based on how the cards are shuffled. In Onirim, that can certainly happen, but it feels more like you have control, and if you plan and think carefully about your choices, you have ways of nearly eliminating the blind luck of the draw factor. It’s hard to describe, but the game works really well, and I haven’t even dabbled with the seven (!!) included expansions.

I play Sylvion a bunch in solo mode over the summer, and also quite enjoyed the game. The design is based on a lane defense concept, usually seen in videogames, where you are defending your forest from an on-rush fire elementals trying to burn it down. There is an interesting two-stage approach to the design, where in stage one you draft a deck, which you then use in stage two to defend. There are various strategies and synergies to pursue in how you assemble the deck, so there is lots of decision space to explore. As for Castellion, I just got it over the holidays and have only dabbled with it. Unlike the prior card-based Oniverse games, Castellion is tile-based, but I like where the design is going. More on that to come!

Board Game: Keep


I also stumbled across the kickstarter for Keep and picked that up. I had a chance to get it to the table when some friends were over, and I’ve also played a bunch of the two player game with my wife. The game is a simple drafting card game (with 50-some cards) in the vein of Sushi Go. You do the usual “play cards to your tableau and then pass your hand” routine, with scoring occurring all at once at the end based on various synergies between your drafted cards. There is a nifty hidden action element to the game (that I think more could be done with), that adds some wildcards to the experience. It plays quick and is frankly all I’m asking for in a drafting game. Whereas 7 Wonders ends up feeling overwrought, here you get a game that accomplishes nearly all the same things but without the bloat. And it fits in your pocket.

Over the holiday’s I also picked up: Gubs (haven’t played), Dragonwood (meh), Friday (haven’t played, but intrigued!), Red7 (flopped), and the Mouse Guard RPG Boxed set (I’d love to start an RPG with kids in a few years, and this just might work).

One thing that unifies all of the above is that they are all smaller box games. I started out in the hobby gaming world playing more small box games (Drakon, Flux, Muchhkin - don’t judge), and in many ways it is nice coming back more towards that end of the spectrum. Especially in light of having kids with short attention spans and not having the flexibility to spend 20 minutes setting a game up in the first place! Small boxes will inherit the earth. Or something!

Articles & Contributions

I’ve continued to write a number of video game reviews and articles over at eXplorminate (which has been growing its readership steadily over the past year). A few things worth mentioning:

I had an opportunity to play and review Invisible Inc.. If you like turn-based tactics games, Invisible Inc is one of the finest I’ve ever played. It is largely focused on stealth gameplay, set in a sort of corporatized neo-Noire Dick Tracy-esque dystopian cyber-future (how’s that description!). This is like Neuromancer: The Videogame. It has a great sense of style and art direction, with the gameplay being an interwoven tapestry of stealth, spatial planning, hacking, and timing that is really quite intoxicating. One of my favorite games from the past year.

I reviewed a number of other games as well, including This War of Mine, Crowntakers, Eclipse (iOS version). This War of Mine is a pretty engrossing (though somber) survival management game. Crowntakers a pint-sized party-based roguelike romp. And Eclipse is the kingpin 4X boardgame ported to iOS. All solid and fun games in their respective genres.

From gallery of Mezmorki

"Prodigious size alone does not dissuade the sharpened blade."


Most recently, I reviewed Darkest Dungeon, which just released on January 19th. This is worth a moment to describe. Darkest Dungeon is an “operational roguelike,” which means that you are managing a roster of heroes (fools) along with their base of operations (a sleepy-hollow-esque hamlet in this instance). You send your heroes on various quests (battling Lovecraftian horrors in this instance) in hopes of reaching the final goal/mission. It is a roguelike in that your characters have permadeath and you can’t reload when things fail, but it is a little more forgiving as there are always more heroes showing up to test their mettle. The gameplay is really solid and innovative in a few key areas (see the full review), but more than anything the game has a tremendous sense of style. I love the graphic novel look; and the voice over narration, both the writing and the delivery, is outstanding. Excellent little game; if you are into this sort of thing.

Wot I’m Playing

I succumbed to a game, and that game is Payday 2. This is a FPS (first person shooter) game, which is also a 4-person cooperative multiplayer game, and which is also about pulling off all manner of illicit heists. The game takes its cue from the vast swaths of heist-movie history, from Heat to Die Hard, and plenty of other references. I have a longer review in the works, but I’ll share a few things for now...

Not many video games manage to suck more than 20 hours out of me. Payday 2 is one of them, and since last November I’ve logged well over 200 hours. In part, this is because this is one of the first games in the past many years that all my local friends have also got into playing. So while we haven’t been able to get together for boardgame nights as often, we’ve been getting together via Payday 2 to heist the night away. Certainly this is part of the appeal.

From gallery of Mezmorki


To paint a broad picture, the game lets you pick a heist, from a large list, to perform. Heists can range from robbing convenience stores and drilling into bank vaults, to intercepting drug deliveries and breaking comrades out of jail. It’s all morally dark territory for sure; you are playing the bad guys after all! Heists are either “loud” (in which case you go in with guns blazing) or “stealth” (in which case you sneak your way to the objective), or some combination of the two. With 30+ different heists, many of which can be accomplished in very different ways, and a staggering 300+ achievements, there is a lot to see and do in the game.

It also incorporates a rather sophisticated RPG layer. Successful heists earn you money and experience points (XPs) that you use to purchase new gear and learn new skills. There is a staggering 180 skills in the game, 100’s of moddable weapons, along with a host of equipment and other perk specializations. Given that an individual skill build is limited in how many skills it can have active, there are tons of ways to customize how your character works and performs. It’s all quite engaging … and really deep man. The game also strikes a nice balance (IMHO) between being serious and being tongue-in-cheek. This rubs some people the wrong way, but I appreciate the humor the developers have woven into the game.

To be honest, other than a few family boardgames here and there, I haven’t been playing many other games. Payday 2 has clawed me deep.

Design Projects

I’ve continued to advance a number of different design projects.

First up, is my design concept for a pseudo-4X strategy game, Transcend, which I outlined in a prior blog post. This design is for a digital game, and given my total amature status when it comes to programming, might remain a pipe dream … but we shall see.

I did manage to make a few technical steps, using excel of all things. I came across an article that talked about how someone re-created XCOM in excel. I thought to myself, “Well I love spreadsheets, I love excel, I can stumble through scripting … maybe I should see what I can do.” Lo and behold after a few hours (well, more like 10), I came up with this:

From gallery of Mezmorki


Yes, that is all excel, and is a semi-functional mock-up of a UI. On another tab there is a big “generate galaxy” button, that runs VBA scripting to randomly generate a star field of 15-30 stars, generates 0-4 planets in each star system, and assigns planets a few key properties (size, type, etc.). It’s very crude and rudimentary, but it works, and provides a functional basis to start layering lots of other data and attributes into the galaxy generation. Eventually, different excel buttons would turn on/off different data overlays on top of the main star view. I do a lot of data visualization professionally (GIS spatial analytics mostly), and it always bothers me that data in 4X isn’t presented more graphically/spatially (always miserable tables) - so that’s something I definitely want to address with this design.

I also started using excel to build a dynamic model for how the game’s economy and pace of development would proceed. This includes an “end turn” button that lets me queue up orders for planetary improvements, drawing down global resources, and then process the turn. I want Transcend to be much faster paced compared to other 4X games (e.g. get to capstone high-level technologies and developments within 20-30 turns). So experimenting with these dynamic economy models early on are important. I did a cruder version of this (also in excel), when working out the pacing and economy of Hegemonic (which is typically 6-9 turns) - and I think that was one area of the game that really worked well. Resources are in just tight enough supply that you have lots of ways you “could” proceed but have to prioritize down to just a few. I’ll keep plugging away (and I have the next dev diary in the works already).

I’ve also been circling back to one of my first game designs, which is Shifters. I had a chance to playtest it some over the summer during protospiel, and a number of times since. It’s interesting to see how many times this game has been torn down and rebuilt - but finally I’m quite happy with how all the pieces are fitting together. As a game intended to be a lighter weight, take-that style card game, smooth gameplay is important. To this end, there are a few cumbersome spots in the design to streamline. But it is really coming together and I’m contemplating how to best move forward with the design. Probably starting to talk to publishers - but I might also print a number of decks through printer studio and sell it for close to cost via BGG. We’ll see.

From gallery of Mezmorki


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap.
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Fri Jan 22, 2016 9:41 pm
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Delusions of Grandeur (Part 1)

Oliver Kiley
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Ann Arbor
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From gallery of Mezmorki


Preamble: A Fool’s Quest

It may come as no surprise that I have aspirations to design a 4X game. I’m sure many of you reading the headline have entertained such thoughts as well. And while I have designed and published a 4X board game (and am no stranger to the design process) my spider-sense tells me that designing a 4X video game is like navigating a minefield. There is so much that can blow up. We also appear to be entering a heyday for 4X games, which begs the question “do we need yet another 4X game rampaging through the market?” Probably not. But that isn’t going to stop me from dreaming and putting forward a vision for what I feel would be something unique and different.

I’ve dedicated a fair portion of my writing to critiquing 4X games along a number of different avenues: bad endgame experiences, pacing and flow, strategic depth vs. routine optimization, snowball and steamroller, over-complication, underdeveloped systems, thematic incongruities, and so on. Throughout all of this, I always ask myself “If I’m so quick to critique, how would I do it differently?” For a long time I’ve been striving to understand what it is I’m actually looking for in a 4X game experience. Is it narrative? Is it challenge? Is it immersion? I think it needs to be all of the above, but wrapped together in a way that provides a meaningful and coherent experience.

Through all of this, there is one central thing keeps nagging at me as I look back on the many 4X games I’ve played: 4X games rarely have a satisfactory ending in terms of narrative or gameplay - and often both are lacking.

A design lesson I’ve learned is that, for strategy games at least, the end trigger and win conditions are the game. You have to conceive of a compelling conclusion to your game first, and then work towards building that experience. I think a lot of games do it backwards: they conceive of all the things they want players to do, and then figure out how to wrestle the behemoth they’ve created into a coherent game with some way to end it. How many games patch in new victory conditions post-release? It’s absurd if you think about it. Strategy games need to be designed around the victory conditions so that all the elements can be balanced and directed towards a compelling closure. So I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing it backwards.

From gallery of Mezmorki


4X games are often a letdown in terms of gameplay for reasons that have been discussed considerably of late. How many of you actually bother to finish a 4X game once you have passed the point of knowing victory is inevitable, if only you just hang on and grind through? That’s a problem having to do with the snowball and steamroller. Another issue is that victory conditions themselves are often silo’d as isolated offshoots of disjoined mechanics: you have some arbitrary economic win, or a technological win, or a military win, etc. Gameplay becomes a giant optimization puzzle to hit your chosen goal first. More alarming, this is often a goal you set right at the start of the game, based on race selection, and which rarely is challenged or changed during play. Strategy is about deciding on goals - and how much strategy is there really in a game where you set you set your goal in the the first 5 minutes?

The narrative problem that I have with 4X games can be summarized with this question: What does it mean for an empire to “win”? I’m tired of games built around conquering the world or galaxy, or becoming the supreme ruler, or achieving some technological triviality, or abstractly cornering the market, or whatever else. The end triggers for so many games are painfully arbitrary and hence unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint. More to the point, these sort of winner take all win conditions are not very enlightened or sophisticated, they translate colonialism into space. Whoopee. I think we can do better.

I read a lot of science fiction, particularly space operas from the likes of Isaac Asimov (old school) to Peter F. Hamilton (new school). These narratives are dramatic and visionary. They cover vast sweeps of time, and yet boil down to nail-biting and personal moments as the protagonists strive to stay one step ahead of whatever horrific menace is sweeping across the stars. I’ve never had the sort of tension and sweeping grandeur in a 4X game that you get from a novel - but I have some ideas for how it might happen.

So the challenge I’m laying at my feet is two-fold: First, conceive of a design for a space 4X game that would unify the gameplay with what it means to win through a compelling narrative frame that captures the boldness and imagination of the best of space opera. Second, I want to accomplish this with a game that is tightly designed, relatively quick to play (by 4X standards), and is emergent and engaging with getting bogged down by its own design.


PART 1: A Sketch for a Space Opera

From gallery of Mezmorki


A Dream Transcendent

Imagine for a moment that a game with the tightness and pacing of something like FTL (Faster Than Light) had an unholy union with a narratively curious game like King of Dragon Pass. Except instead of trying to fly a spaceship from point A to point B, as in FTL, you were guiding an empire among the stars. And instead of trying to become the king of all the clans, you were seeking transcendence and an ascension to the next level of galactic consciousness. This is the of the idea for Transcend. Let me elaborate.

First of all, I want to create a 4X game where what it means to win is something positive and evolutionary. Most 4X games presuppose that winning is only by achieving dominance in some way, and that other empire’s are inherently in a zero-sum competition with you. Hence, most 4X games task the player with overseeing yet another colonial era of manifest destiny. I think this is a tired concept, and coming up with something novel and positive means reexamining what it means to “win.”

I think modern humanity, as a whole, could move towards “winning” in some sense by achieving world peace and ending poverty, or achieving an equilibrium with planet Earth. Those are positive goals in my mind. Becoming the supreme ruler of earth doesn’t sound very positive to me - it’s draconian. So in Transcend, there is one singular winning condition: surviving to achieve transcendence with your culture. Achieving transcendence will open up a pathway to a higher plane of existence (e.g. accessing higher dimensional orders of reality) where other transcendent cultures thrive and continue their own quests for evolution and understanding in the universe. It’s a bit Zen-like, eh?

How your culture achieves transcendence will vary in unique ways depending on their physiology, consciousness, and morality. These starting conditions, which will be covered more later on, frames a sequence of positive goals you need to meet to successfully transcend, such as achieving empathy, equity, freedom, creativity, etc.. A race of artificial machines might need to learn empathy and compassion, or a culture of passive space slugs to learn when force is justified, or for humans to move beyond their rigid individualism.

From gallery of Mezmorki


In my mind, these transcendent goals provide a more compelling context for a 4X game’s winning condition than “I’m better/bigger than you.” So the idea isn’t a technological victory or any other specific win trigger, but rather requires players to build a strategy that employs all aspects of their empire as they pursue a series of culture-spanning transformations towards transcendence. This will also (hopefully!) create an opening to recognize and reward cooperation between empires. Such cooperation is a rarity, and most often a friendly handshake is just the precursor to a stab in the back. But here, it is possible for multiple races to Transcend and even work together to achieve it mutually, because it isn’t zero-sum. What I need to transcend may be very different from what you need, and there is room for both of us to succeed if we work together.

Yet achieving transcendence, in the absence of any external threats, must be a challenge on its own. Managing growth and resources so that your culture doesn’t spiral out of control and consume itself along the way, putting transcendence forever out of reach is central to the design. There needs to be internal pressure on the player. In metaphor, the path to transcendence is like navigating through a maze of tightropes, and there are plenty of opportunities to fall off.

There are also things trying to push you off the tightrope.


Whispers in the Dark

My space opera inspired design challenge also needs to apply external pressure on the player to keep them on their toes and prevent players from simply optimizing their way to victory. Enter the Galactic Threats. Galactic Threats are something big and bad that happens to the entire galaxy. Fundamentally their presence requires players to achieve transcendence before the galactic threat wipes you (and everyone else) out.

So the central strategic challenge in the game becomes balancing your own progress towards achieving transcendence while holding enough back to deal with the galactic threat when it shows up. You need to walk the tightrope but be resilient enough to not get pushed off by a strong wind. If you invest too heavily in one aspect of your empire, you might not have the flexibility and foundation in place to react when the threat comes knocking. And while players may be able to slow down the galactic threat, inevitably they will have to transcend to escape it - there is no other way.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Of course there is a further wrinkle: you don’t know what the galactic threat will be. The game will include a series of different threats, and one of them (or more than one on harder difficulties) will randomly be unleashed on the galaxy at some unforeseeable moment. And these threats can take a number of different forms, with only subtle narrative clues and events hinting at the storm to come. For example, an unfathomably massive black hole might appear in center of the galaxy and slowly starts pulling all the star systems into its maw, turn by turn obliterating them. Transcend before your empire is swallowed.

Another threat idea is “Galactic Hot Potato” (working title!), where a mysterious homing beacon is unearthed that starts summoning progressively stronger waves of extradimensional alien forces into the galaxy. Players need to cooperate to “pass the potato” and keep the aliens chasing it around the galaxy. Or maybe you can use spies to sneak it onto an opponent’s world to sic the aliens on them! Regardless, if the aliens get a hold of it, the motherships show up and you are all screwed. Prudent leaders transcend before the motherships show up. Or maybe some wild nano virus starts spreading throughout sentient life and turning your populace against itself.

Holistically, the galactic threats introduce an asynchronous form of opposition that provides a more compelling narrative structure to the game. On a basic level, it gives the player an interesting challenge, greatly lessening the burden for programming other AI empires to give the player a challenging peer-to-peer experience. Additionally, the threat system has the potential to open up more interesting gameplay, with opportunities for cooperation between players to occur as they collectively try to hold back the tide; yet with each culture still racing against the clock to transcend on their own. When combined, these two dynamics (transcendence and galactic threats) can move the genre beyond a mere repetition of the colonial manifest into something bold and new, and more fitting as a “space opera.”


The Supporting Cast: Design Goals

While the Transcendence and Galactic Threat systems address my overarching design goal of creating a challenging and narratively interesting victory system, there are other critical design goals to discuss. Establishing goals for a design is important to guide decision making and to keep the game focused around the experience you are trying to craft. While goals can certainly change, often times the constraint of holding the design to them can breed ingenuity. So what are these other goals? So far I have seven of them:

30 Turns.
I’m longing for a 4X game that I can sit down and play to it’s conclusion in an evening or two and feel like I’ve been challenged and engaged the whole time. Contrary to the “just one more turn” sentiment, I want every turn to have tough choices and tradeoffs to make. I want less turns, but I want them each to matter more. There should never be a turn of “doing nothing but pressing next turn.” I want to compress the normal 4X experience so that all those crazy late-game technologies we drool about are actually employed sooner and have a bearing on the game. I’ve had this notion of structuring the flow and pacing of the entire game around 30 turns, recognizing that if I design for 30, I’ll probably end around 45 or 60 turns. Each turn, to capture the sweeping growth and transcendence of a culture, will need to represent a large chunk of time, and by necessity requires a bit more abstraction throughout the design. But I think that’s okay, because I want to …

Embrace the Fantastical.
Science fiction literature is filled with all sorts of awesome ideas: cultures going post-physical, hive minds, dyson spheres, ring worlds, starbombs, galactic cannons, miniature black holes, Helium mining from super gas giants, getting lost in subspace, etc. Very few 4X games really give you a way to engage with these ideas. With 30 turns, the idea is to bring these fantastical ideas to the forefront and let players utilize them earlier on as part of your grand strategy building on the quest for transcendence. I rather like the design doctrine of letting everything be “overpowered” - the gameplay results are usually far more interesting.

Easy Numbers.
I want most of the numbers in the game the be less than 10. 4X games can quickly spiral into complex math and algorithms that obfuscates the gameplay, requiring players to jump through all sorts of mental gymnastics just to evaluate the potential outcomes of different choices. I want to keep the numbers simple so that evaluation of choices is driven more by a consideration of the context, needs, and opportunities as a discrete option rather than as a mathematical optimization exercise. In other words, I want to enable players to “shoot from the hip” in their decision making, which might also open up the design to a broader audience.

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Congruence.
To the extent possible, I want to keep the theme and mechanics in alignment. I dislike, in general, “gamey” systems that exist without a clear connection back to the theme. If a mechanic or system can’t be clearly understood on the basis of it’s theme, then it needs to be reevaluated. If I’m doing something in-game that is totally illogical or counter-intuitive, that’s a problem. Games obviously require abstraction, but I want to abstract the various systems in the game to a comparable level. So many games go into great detail on ship design and combat, yet leave espionage or trade woefully underdeveloped. I want both to be compelling systems, even if that means neither might be as deep on its own.

Feedback.
One issue I have with many 4X games is that they don’t provide enough feedback to the player on the consequences of their choices or as to the state of affairs in the game world. Without adequate feedback and information, it can make it hard to understand why the game state is the way it is, and in turn is hard for players to build heuristics and develop their skills and strategies.

Big Picture Management.
4X games can quickly spiral into a management nightmare for many gamers (myself included). The core systems of the game will be designed starting from the end, i.e., what does an empire look like at the precipice of transcendence and how is managing that state of affairs interesting, engaging, and free of frustration? That’s the goal, and achieving it relates to both the core game system mechanics around empire and colony management as well as the UI approach. I want the game to focus on the “big picture” at the galactic scale, and not get too far in the weeds. Ideally, there would be few menu’s in the game, with information presented visually right in the main viewport.

Strategic Interaction, not Optimization.
I have a nagging feeling that a lot of 4X games are more like optimization puzzles than proper strategy games. Part of this is because interaction between empires is usually limited to warfare. If interactions are based only around warfare, then the player that can optimize best, and build the strongest military engine the fastest, will inevitably win. Typically, there aren’t enough other ways to interact with foreign empires that can apply pressure to the same extent that military force can. As a result, the “strategy” of most 4X games is rather one-dimensional and boils down to learning the optimization puzzle best. I want Transcend to embrace multiple avenues for interaction, both peaceful and aggressive in nature, so that building up a big military isn’t the only way to go and that other emergent opportunities can manifest as well.

In conjunction with the transcendence / galactic threat system, my hope is to create a more tightly designed 4X game. I want players to immediately be faced with compelling situations that require strategic planning, not number crunching, to navigate. I want the game to move at a fast pace to keep narrative constantly evolving over the course of the game, with other empires thrown into a highly interactive geopolitical arena.


Up Next: Species & Core Gameplay Systems (probably)

In Part 2, I will present the core gameplay systems that underpin the design, specifically the Admin System. The Admin system is envisioned as a way to frame the player’s role as the leader of your culture. How Admin relates to exploration, colony management, and the production model will be described in greater detail.

In the meantime, I welcome any discussion, theory-crafting, and criticism of what has been presented thus far. Thanks, and stay tuned!

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Wed Oct 21, 2015 2:36 pm
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A Genomic Framework for Game Analysis

Oliver Kiley
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Theoretical frameworks are conceptual models or tools that help us organize our thinking and enhance our understanding of how different concepts interrelate. Much of Big Game Theory! has focused on developing frameworks to help make sense of games. This effort has been directed towards developing language, terminology and associated concepts to support both game design and game analysis. Whether you are a designer, a critic, or a player, these frameworks can help us articulate an idea, dissect a reaction or "feeling" we have, and be more aware of how games operate "under the hood."

One of my larger ambitions has been towards developing a "Science of Board Games." This post is the latest installment in this line of thinking, expanded to include all games (video games, tabletop games, etc.), and is an effort to unify different frameworks that have been presented by myself and others over the years. A shortcoming of many earlier frameworks is that, while they are useful, they are also not terribly specific. I’m interested in looking at a larger range of terms we use to discuss games and see how all of these terms might integrate into a more cohesive and unified model for understanding games.

The nod to "genomics" in the title of today’s framework relates to two notions. The first is the connection to the Game Genome Project, an on-going effort to map the possible characteristics of games that manifest through a series "traits", such as luck, theme, interactions, pacing, etc., and describe how they build on one another. Different expressions of these traits result in different gameplay experiences. Second, genomics (as in genetic science) relates to analyzing gene structure to understand how they connect to higher order functions. Similarly, I’m interested in how these fundamental traits or "genes" of a game translate into or emerge to create a total experience for players.


Conceptual Starting Points

Games are complex in the the interactions they create, the challenges they provide, the stories they tell, and the subjects they model. Conceptual frameworks have provided a number of approaches for helping designers, critics, and players to make sense of this this complexity. The Genomic Framework, which I will present in the next section, is based on three prior frameworks:

(1) The MDA Framework (Mechanics > Dynamics > Aesthetics) by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubeck (2004)

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(2) Jesse Schell’s Tetrad (Aesthetics, Narrative, Mechanics, Technology) from the Art of Game Design (2008)

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(3) The Unified Boardgamery Theory (Players, Theme, Rules, Components) by Oliver Kiley (2014) and based on work by Mark Major (2014).

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After presenting my Unified Boardgamery Theory, I received a tremendous amount of discussion and input. As a reminder, my framework presented the four key elements of player, theme, rules, and components in a Venn diagram type arrangement. This diagram showed the relationship between elements as "overlaps", which in hindsight had the side effect of making it hard to read. The overlaps obfuscated a critical aspect of the diagram, which I did not even realized at the time. Rather than a series of overlaps, moving from lower order to higher order characteristics is actually a process that we can map. And we can map it by using the basic concept presented by the MDA Framework.

The MDA Framework presents a sequence of relationships between a game’s fundamental mechanics, the dynamics that are created from the those mechanics, and how players experience those dynamics through an aesthetic response. From a designer’s perspective, this sheds light on how we can approach mechanical design to solicit a particular aesthetic response, and can check this through playtesting to see if the right kind of dynamics are being created. As a player (or even a critic), we can start with our aesthetic response and work backwards to tease apart the dynamics and mechanical systems that created that response.

While the MDA Framework is incredibly useful for thinking about the process how mechanics lead to experiences. But it is generic and not as useful for thinking about the specifics movements and pathways within that process and how they relate to different fundamental properties of games. My question is always "what" are the dynamics that we should be focusing on and what are the fundamental properties that feed into building those dynamics. Both The Unified Boardgamery Theory and Schell’s Tetrad are more specific about what these fundamental inputs are and the characteristics that define them.

Schell’s Tetrad is useful in many respects, but I did not find it universal enough it’s scope to apply towards a broader range of games. For example, the notion of "technology" is cumbersome conceptually in the boardgame world. Also the aesthetics are really a higher order thing in my mind, created from the fundamental mechanical elements (as in MDA), so it feels out of place as a leg of the stool. Lastly, the Tetrad doesn’t address the "players" themselves as one of the fundamental factors in a game framework. Players are just as necessary as rules and components, and their role within any framework attempting to describe games needs to be considered.

My revelation was that the Unified Boardgamery Framework can be re-interpreted as a sequential process of building higher order characteristics from lower order one’s, and that this process matches the MDA Framework. Armed with this insight, I set about reworking my theory into a sequence, rather than as a series of overlaps. The result is something that adds more clarity and specificity to the MDA Framework, while providing a mechanism to integrate and relate the broad range of "trait" and "genetic" terms used to analyze games.


FIDA: A Genomic Framework for Game Analysis

FIDA stands for Fundamental, Intrinsic, Dynamic, and Aesthetic, and each of these terms relates to a different functional order within a game. It is "Genomic" in that it is a "trait-based" framework that identifies key characteristics of games. The Fundamental level includes the four basic building blocks of a game: players, rules, media, and theme. The Intrinsic level describes all six of the combinations of fundamental factors. The Dynamic level results from the Intrinsic-level elements coming together and creating challenge, immersion, narratives, and simulations. And all of these culminate with the Aesthetic level that describes the net experience and greater meanings. While similar to the Unified Boardgamery Theory, the Genomic Framework is structured as a process. And while we can navigate the framework from lower to higher levels, we can also navigate it from higher to lower to see what factors and traits feed into a particular element.

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FUNDAMENTAL LEVEL

Players ("Who")
The "players" are the agents that are involved in playing the game. Players, assuming they are human, bring their individual attitudes, values, and motivations to the game. Players can also be artificial or non-human, for example the AI personalities that you play against in a video game like Civilization.

Rules ("How")
These are the process-oriented mechanics of the game that define how interactions take place and how the game state is changed from one moment to the next. In a board game, the rules are generally the "rulebook," and in a video game the rules are coded into the programming. There are a number of critical traits associated with the rules themselves, such as input-and-output operations, use of randomness or chaotic elements, how game systems integrate, establishing objectives, etc.. Rules can also exist outside of the rulebook or programming, such as house rules, rules of conduct, tournament rules, which can also have a bearing on how a game operates.

Theme ("Where, When")
I’ve discussed theme previously, but in the most basic sense theme is about the subject, setting, and scope of the game. The subject could be something like trading or empire building. The setting could be "in the Mediterranean" or "in space". The scope could be "managing a company" or "piloting a ship." What is important is that theme shapes the environment and atmosphere and provides context.

Media ("What")
Media includes the technology, components, playing pieces, equipment, input devices, and everything else that gives physical (and/or digital) form to the game. In the absence of media, a game is just a collection of rules with no way for it to be played. The media often defines the boundaries of the game. While the rules of Chess stipulate how the play the game, the physical 8x8 board bounds the playing area and establishes the geography or landscape of the game. In a first-person RPG video game, the boundaries of the created world define the play space.

INTRINSIC LEVEL

Roles
Roles are a factor of players and theme. Typically, the scope of of the game define what the players’ roles are within the game, e.g. captain of a ship vs. the CEO of company. The role may also define certain associations, thematically, between players or agents. For example, the player as emperor with AIs controlling governors. The role can define the perspective of the player, e.g. first-person or third-person. Roles are important for placing the players into the gameworld, and they define the perspectives and operating assumptions of the player.

Interactions
Interactions are created at the intersection between players and the rules. The types of interactions created by the rules describe the overarching game format (e.g. competitive vs. cooperative) and how direct or indirect the interactions can be. Players, interpreting the rules, may develop internal "goal trees," which are the player-created mental models for how the player navigates choices and works towards accomplishing objectives within the game. Interactions relate to how players affect the game state, by way of the rules, as a consequence relates to player agency and how strongly or weakly a player can affect the game world.

Complexity
Complexity is a function of both the rules and the media. Adding more systems or layers to the rules can increase complexity, as can increasing the extent and geography of the game world. Tic Tac Toe becomes much more complex if the board size increased to a 5x5 grid. Other than changing the goal to require 5 in a row, the basic rules are still the same; yet the gameplay is more complex. Complexity can relate to the size of the breadth of the decision space (e.g. how many places can I go) as well as variability within the game (e.g. 52-cards vs. 104 cards in a deck).

Representation
Representation connects the media of the game, whether digital or physical, with the theme and context. In a video game this includes the graphics (models, textures) and audio (music, sound) that conveys the theme. In a board game, it is typically the artwork, illustrations, and flavor text.

Coherence and Interface are important bridging elements that connect across the framework and in turn feed into the all four of the Dynamic level elements. While they are based on the Foundational elements they are far reaching in their influence on a game’s dynamics and how those are experienced.

Coherence (Bridging Element)
Coherence is the relationship between the theme and rules, and describes the nature of that relationship. Theme can be "pasted on" or deeply connected to the rules and derived carefully from it. Games with greater coherence have better alignment between the rules and mechanics and illogical inconsistencies are relatively minimal. Coherent games can facilitate decision making (and possibly the sense of challenge) by providing a useful metaphor to facilitate decision making. Coherent games have positive impact on the narratives that are created as well as the sense of immersion (i.e. suspension of disbelief). More coherent games can provide better models or simulations of their subject matter, with greater fidelity and accuracy in representation.

Interface (Bridging Element)
The interface connects the players with the media and determines in turn how players interact with all facets of the game. Critical issues relative to interface relate to ergonomics and whether the game is fiddly or streamlined. It can also speak to the pacing and flow of the game and how smooth the experience is for players. Games with lots of upkeep or maintenance tasks, relative to decision-making tasks, may feel more disjointed and clunky. The interface is also critical for providing feedback to the player so that they can perceive and understand changes to the game state and how their actions have affected (or not affected) it.

DYNAMIC LEVEL

Challenge
Challenge relates to depth of gameplay. More challenging games are typically (though not always) more complex games with greater decision depth (i.e. more factors to consider in making good decisions) as a result from player interactions and changing game states. Challenge hinges critically on the interactions between players (and/or the environment) to create unpredictable situations that the player must try to overcome. Challenge relates to player skills and heuristics (i.e. learning effective play), which connects to the Modes of Thinking framework describing the balance and intensity of thought across Logistical, Spatial, and Intuitional types. Elegance is also wrapped up in challenge/depth, and is the relationship between strategic depth and complexity. More elegant games provide the same or greater depth with less complexity as an inelegant game..

Narratives
Narratives are the "created" stories and dramatizations that occur over the course of playing a game. Narratives are player-centric and shaped by the game’s theme. But the rules of the game play a vital role in structuring the narratives that emerge throughout the course of play, by way of interactions. Think of the narrative as a the post-game story you might tell that describes the arc and progression of the game, the rise and fall of players, the dramatic high and low points, the tensions, etc. Games with stronger narratives are typically easier to re-tell, as they create a more engaging and novel experience each time.

Immersion
Immersion is an often used yet rarely defined term - but I think it is central to how we experience and enjoy games. At the simplest level, immersion relates to our suspension of disbelief. More immersive games get us to more effectively buy-into the reality created by the gameworld and re-align our thinking and expectations to conform to that reality. Lots of things can break our sense of immersion: a bad interface or UI that "pulls us out of the game," artwork that doesn’t seem to fit, rules that don’t make any sense, cumbersome controls or ergonomics, no sense of presence in the player’s role, etc.

Simulation
Games, as systems designed to abstract some real or imagined reality, are in effect simulations or models for the subject theme. At the dynamic level, games can function as models or simulations that provide opportunities for learning, study, or engagement that can go beyond simply playing the game as competitive (or cooperative) exercise. These can be witnessed by observing a changing gamestate overtime. And the fidelity of these models can be considered in light of how well (accurately, realistically, etc.) they function as an abstraction of the modeled reality.


AESTHETIC LEVEL

Net Experience & Meanings ("Why")
The net experience level relates to the overall aesthetic reaction and experience the players have. While aesthetic is often used to discuss artistic characteristics, an "aesthetic response" is how someone "feels" about a work, artistic or otherwise, and is quite relevant to games I feel. For players, the line of aesthetic questioning is often "was the game fun?" And for players, what constitutes fun is central to the overall net experience of the game and what players hope to get out of it.

The many-faced monster of "fun" can of course take on a number of different forms; not all types of fun is equal for all players. The MDA Framework provides eight different aspects of fun that players may seek in the games they play. These eight kinds of fun are: Sensation, fellowship, fantasy, discovery, narrative, expression, challenge, submission, etc. Other aesthetic responses are possible as well, such a those that explore meanings beyond the game itself (pushing games into the realm of art perhaps?). All of these responses speak to something gained that transcends beyond the game itself; they are things that you can take with you when the game is over.

Additionally, the "types of fun" a game provides relates directly to the "genre" of the game. While there are many definitions and approaches to game genre classification, I’m attracted to the notion of genre being coupled to net experience, because it relates genre, which is a shorthand descriptor for a broad category of games, to the aesthetic responses that genre is trying to solicit. A fantasy MOBA, a modern FPS shooter, a eurogame, a dudes-on-a-map game, etc. all endeavor to tap into certain combinations of aesthetic responses. And these aesthetic responses come about as a function of different levels and flavors of the four central dynamics (narrative, challenge, immersion, and models).


THE GENOMIC FRAMEWORK IN ACTION

Key Relationships for Designing Games
The Genomic Framework imbeds some other interesting (to me at least!) relationships, especially as a game designer. The four fundamental components each have a close relationship with a certain dynamic: Rules with Challenge, Media with Simulation, Theme with Immersion, and Players with Narrative. And this isn’t by accident! A narrative-focused game, for example an RPG, relies heavily on how players engage with that narrative, and thus Roles and Interactions are quite important (along with the bridging elements, Coherence in particular). From a game design standpoint, focusing on those elements might be more worthwhile compared to focusing on other elements.

There is also a soft relationship between Complexity and Interface and between Roles and Coherence. Again, this is no accident. As the complexity of a game increases, the more critical it is that the interface be effective in presenting the player with information in an organized manner. Similarly, coherence depends in large part on players being assigned roles and perspectives that afford them the means to see and understand the inner workings of a game.

Critiquing and Analyzing Games
For a while now, I’ve used three terms as a way to critique games: challenge, immersion, and narrative. In some respects I’m surprised to see that those three are all central dynamics in the Genomic Framework - since I’ve been kicking these three factors around for longer than I’ve been considering this framework. Or perhaps it isn’t surprising, and this is all a convoluted way of justifying my analysis approach! Regardless, the Genomic Framework adds a fourth dynamic, Simulation, which is not as important for me, given my preferences, but is certainly of critical interest to many other gamers that relish in opportunities to learn and glean deeper insight about a game’s subject matter.

Whether we are analyzing a game as designer to figure out how we might improve the game, or are critiquing the game as a critic (or player), focusing on these four dynamics is vitally important I feel. They provide sufficient flexibility to cover (or relate to) nearly every topic concerning a game. They are tangible enough to still be spoken about with clarity, while being readily relatable back to the intrinsic or fundamental level characteristics. Being able to describe what the created dynamics are will allow the critic to make better predictions of the likely aesthetic responses or use it as a means to explain their own aesthetic responses in greater specificity.

So here is where this all comes full circle: The Genomic Framework provides a structure of relationships between nearly all of the game traits and characteristics I’ve been mapping through the Game Genome Project. It provides a way to slot in a term and our understanding of it along with how it feeds into or is fed by other elements.

What’s Next!?
I’d like to apply this framework towards analyzing a number of different games, to further test the water on how it functions. And of course, your feedback and discussion on the validity, integrity, or preposterous-ness of the framework is always welcomed. Thanks for reading!




Further Reading

https://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/44188/mechanics-dynam...

https://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/43320/what-makes-game...

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/LuizClaudioSilveiraDuarte/201...

https://lakitusdevcartridge.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/the-ele...
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Emissary's Thematic Conundrums

Oliver Kiley
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Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
Emissary was originally designed for the PnP Express/In-a-Tin Design contest using the Decktet. It was envisioned as a card game "express" version of Hegemonic transplanted into the fantastic and odd world of the Decktet universe. If you are curious about the gameplay of Emissary, check out this prior post on the topic: Emissary: A Study in Brain-burn and Emergence

As much as I love the Decktet, using the Decktet cards posed some playability challenges. Players had to mentally map the card's ranks into a Tier structure used in Emissary, each of which had certain implications for the cost of using those cards. It was hard for players to keep it all straight in their mind (and required a reference card at a minimum) and as a consequence the flow of the game bottlenecked a little bit.

If the game was to mature beyond its roots I felt it had to deviate away from the Decktet. Custom cards could facilitate learning the game and streamline the play considerably by using clear iconography to identify the various ways of interacting with the cards (costs, build allowances, etc.). But this opened up a whole separate question, what to "theme" it around. I was torn whether to embrace the games forefather (Hegemonic) and go with a spacey theme, or do something more subdued and landscap-y. I couldn't decide so I did both!

Onward to the eye-candy!

"Landscape" Theme

The landscape theme uses the Decktet colors as follows. Blue = wetlands, Green = Forests, Orange = Fields, Yellow = Deserts, White = Tundra, and Brown = Mountains. The resulting "map" creates an interesting interweaving landscape of different terrains. I did these illustrations myself (in Illustrator) and I think they turned out reasonably well given my hackr-drawing skills.

Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier

Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier


Should this design move forward, I'd like to refine it into more of a fantastical looking landscape with each terrain type being occupied by some fantastical race of beings - keeping in mind that in the world of Emissary the landscape is always shifting and changing! So it might grow into more of a terraforming theme, with giant Avian-lizard things living in the swamps, and of course mole-trolls in the mountains and dryad-tree people spreading love in the woodlands.

"Space" Theme

The space theme was predicated on the idea that the players are actually another consortium of alien races from a DIFFERENT galaxy sending political "Emissaries" to the galaxy of Hegemonic to build up influence within the Great Houses of the Human empires of Hegemonic. In way, player's are competing for influence among the great houses ON TOP of a game of Hegemonic playing out across the map. Double whoa!

Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier

Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier
Board Game: Emissary: The Red Frontier


Realizing the Conundrum

If someone, not knowing anything about Emissary, were to try it out, I have no doubt it would come across as quite abstract. In the same way that (I was surprised to find out) most people seem to feel that Hegemonic is far more abstract than I think it is. In Emissary, the actions were near perfect 1-to-1 mapping of the classic 4X elements. You explore by revealing cards, you expand by placing influence tokens, you exploit by generating resources from occupied cards, and you exterminate by attacking your opponent's influence. It doesn't get much more clear cut than that in my mind.

Yet I am realizing that my interpretation of theme is more amenable to abstraction. I've always been an advocate of marrying theme and mechanics - yet I've also come to recognize that the association between theme and mechanics means different things to different people. Some people can build off an abstract sense of things and project/imagine the theme at work; others require something much more visceral and tangible to "feel the theme."

At the end of the day, I never thought of myself as a designer that would have a game that lends itself to being easily re-themed. Yet I'm also increasingly not too bothered about that reality. Theme IS important to me in terms of inspiring the design and the resulting mechanics. But I don't feel a pressing need to make the theme some vivid "OMFG!!!!" kind of the thing. If the game that emerges at the end of the day comes across more abstract - I'm totally fine with that.

As with Emissary - we will see where it goes. I have some tweaks in the works but otherwise I'm very excited with how the game has shaped up, and I'm hoping good things are in its future.

As for the theme? Maybe I'll leave it up to a vote!

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