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All Roads Lead to Amber

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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So has anyone read Roger Zelazny's Amber novels? For those that haven't, or need a refresher, here is the gist:

The Chronicles of Amber is a 10 book sequence split into 2 parts. Part 1 was written between '70 and '78. And Part 2 was written between '85 and '91. These are fantasy novels set in an alternate reality, of which Earth as we know it exists as one of many different worlds/realms. The basic universe exists as a sort of continuum between chaos and order, with the Courts of Chaos and the Logrus on one end and Amber and the Pattern on the other. All of reality is spread between these two poles.

The stories are quite engrossing and all 10 books are about as long as one book from the Games of Thrones (for reference). The major plots revolve around various Lords and Ladies of Amber (or Chaos) going about their power grabs in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The books mostly focus on the political intrigues and dynamics between the characters, and not the usual fantasy trappings - its almost the progenitor for something like the Game of Thrones in that regard. But better and more concise in my opinion.

Other than a rather odd (diceless apparently!) RPG set in the Amber universe, there haven't been many games using the Amber setting (although I've heard rumors of it being difficult to license). This is about to change!

I recently finished re-reading the Chronicles of Amber (for the 3rd or 4th time now?) and have been kicking ideas around for a game based on it. At a high level, I'm interesting in creating a game of multiple cat-and-mouse type deductions, secret goals/agendas, and variable winning arrangements; all in a sand-boxy environment that lets unique narratives emerge from game to game. Principally, each player might have 1 (or more?) objectives constructed from a variable set of random inputs/clues. Players would need to be moving around the universe/realms finding what they need for their own mission while trying to deduce what everyone else is up to and stop them where they can.

The books rely heavily on characters forming temporary alliances for some mutual gain - while at the same time trying to deduce each other's motives. So I imagine part of the game being a social deduction game, but with players being able to cut a deal and combine forces to accomplish a feat in exchange for revealing one part of your goal-clues to the other players. It's could be quite thematic and consistent with the feeling in the book. As you get closer and closer to your own goal, you have to reveal more and more of it to the other players, making it possible for them to stop you - but of course they are in the same position! Combine that with fixed and variable win conditions and alliances it could a pretty interesting game space!

The Badger Deck

As I've written elsewhere, I have a growing infatuation with game systems, e.g. card systems like the Decktet. Most recently, I've acquired a Badger Deck, designed and illustrated by Dennis Bennett. The Badger Deck is a spectacular 10-suited deck with 32 ranks in each suit (numbers 0-20, Fool, Ace, Jack, Queen, King, Princess, Wizard, Sorceress, Hero, Monster, Castle). The deck is a monstrous 320 cards in total size, but it provides a lot of room to implement lots of different design ideas. One other thing I like is that the suit colors lend themselves to various sub-divisions, e.g. warm vs. cool colors. Blues/purples vs. Red/Yellow/orange vs. Greens which adds a further dimension to how the deck structure can be used.

For the time being, it seems like a perfect fit as a base system for developing this Amber game. And with the Badger Deck just becoming available through various Print-on-Demand (POD) services, there just might be a few people interested in playing the Amber game!

The Scions of Amber
Working title & working rules
2-6 players

Disclaimer: This is a rough working ruleset - lots of streamlining and ironing out is still needed!

Gameplay Overview

In the "Scions of Amber" (working title?) each player assumes a hidden Lineage, marking them as a descendent of Amber, or the Courts of Chaos, or an Independent Realm. In addition to a Lineage, each player also has a secret Agenda that determines what they need to do in order to win. One player could be a descendent of Amber seeking to steal the throne of Amber for themselves, or a member of the Courts of Chaos seeking to destroy the Pattern that gives life to Amber. Players must try and deduce other players' goals and prevent them from winning, while at the same time trying to accomplish their own goal. Players can work together and it is even possible for two players to conspire and win at the same time!

The game plays across a map of cards (Realms) that are arranged on the table during setup, with Amber on one end of the map and the Courts of Chaos on the other end. Meeting the secret Agenda will require not only the right combination of cards, but also being in the right location on the map. Players will traverse the map of cards searching locations for needed resource cards while also interacting with other players. Interactions include trading cards or information, traveling together, or even attacking and attempting to steal someone else's card or reveal their secrets!

Components & Setup

Needed Components
- Badger Deck
- One 6-sided dice "Pawn" for each player

Cards in the Badger Deck are used as follows:

Realm Map comprised of the following cards:
- All 10 Castle Cards
- Monster of Hearts and Spades
- Extra Phoenix Card (0 of coins)

Realm Map Setup:

(1) Place the Phoenix card (0 of Coins) in the center of the table, this card represents Earth.

(2) Make a pile of cards containing the Castles of Hearts/Flowers/Diamonds (Chaos realms) and another pile containing the Castles of Spades/Clubs/Coins (Amber realms). Shuffle the remaining 4 Castle cards and deal two to each of the piles.

(3) To one side of Earth will be the Amber Realms, the other side will be the Chaos Realms. For each side, deal a 2 x 2 block of cards from that sides deck and then place the remaining card above or below earth. Last, place the associated Monster card (Hearts or Spades) at the end of each side. See diagram below:

Give the cards plenty of space (more cards will be placed on-top of these cards). Note in the diagram the gray dashed lines that indicate valid movement paths between the cards.

(4) Place the Castle of Amber (Monster of Spades / the Unicorn) at the far end of the Amber Realms. Place the Courts of Chaos (the Monster of Hearts / the Serpent) at the far end of the Court Realms per the diagram above.

Lineage Cards
- All ACE cards (12 total)

These cards represent who the player is and what their lineage is, which will determine what realm locations must be visited to accomplish their goal.

Setup: Shuffle these cards and deal 1 to each player.
- Amber Lineage: Spades, Clubs, Coins
- Courts Lineage: Hearts, Diamonds, Flowers
- Independent Lineage: Pyramids, Bats, Stars and Moons

Set the remaining Lineage (Hero) cards aside, they will not be used.

Agenda Cards
- Wizard and Sorceress of Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades, Coins, and Flowers (12 cards total)

Setup: Shuffle the cards and deal 1 to each player.

Set the remaining Wizard and Sorceress Cards aside, they will not be used.

Resource Cards
- Card ranks 1 thru 9, Jack, Princess, Queen, King, Hero and Fool of the following six suits: Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades, Coins, and Flowers. There will be 15 cards of each suit, and a total of 90 cards.


(1) Put all of the "Amber" resource cards (Clubs, Spades, and Coins) into a pile and all of the "Chaos" resource cards (Hearts, Diamonds, Flowers) into a pile. Shuffle each pile separately.

(2) Deal two cards from the Amber deck to each Realm in the Amber portion of the board and two cards to Earth. Place these cards face down and perpendicular to the Realm cards such that the Realm Cards' suit icon can still be seen. Do the same with the Chaos deck, dealing 2 cards to each Chaos Realm card and 2 cards to earth. Do not deal any cards onto earth.

(3) Shuffle the remaining cards together and deal cards to each player depending on the number of players in the game. For 2-4 players, give each player 5 cards. For 5 and 6 players, give each player 4 cards.

(4) Deal two additional cards from the deck to each Realm again (excluding Earth). There will be four cards face down at each Realm. Put the remaining cards next the board in a resource Draw Pile.

Final Setup

(1) Each player should take their d6 Pawn token and place it on earth with the "4" value facing up. The shown dice value reflect the players' current power level.

Game Objective

Each players' Agenda card ("Wizard or Sorceress") will have a suit listed on it (either an Amber suit or a Chaos suit). In order to win, players must meet three objectives, in order, by playing hands of cards containing that suit onto the table:

- Objective #1: Play cards with a total value of 15 or more, while in any location.

- Objective #2: Play cards with a total value of 30 or more, while in a location of the same lineage as your lineage (Ace) card. E.G., if you have an Amber lineage, you must be on any Amber suited location.

- Objective #3: Play cards with a total value of 45 or more, while in the location matching your lineage card.

Players can accomplish their objective on their turn by laying down a legal play of cards from their hand that equal (or exceed) the value of the current objective and that contain at least one card in Agenda's suit. Face cards, with the exception of the Fool, are all valued at 10.

A legal play of cards must be one of the following:

FLUSH: All cards are a FLUSH of a suit matching the Agenda's suit.

SAME RANK: All cards are of the SAME RANK with one card containing the Agenda's suit.

STRAIGHT: All cards are a STRAIGHT in order, with at least one card containing the Agenda's suit. Rank of face cards = J, P, Q, K, H. The Fool rank cards can be treated as any rank for purposes of forming a straight, but do not contribute anything towards the total value of the resulting straight - they are "valueless wilds."

When making a play, cards are placed face up in front of the player and left in place for the remainder of the game.

When a player has completed their third and final objective, they will win the game

Sequence of Play + Actions

Choose a player to begin the game. Each player will perform actions during their turn (described below) before the next player's turn. Play proceeds clockwise around the table and continues until one or more players have accomplished their goal.

During a players turn, a player may perform one "Movement Action" and one "Basic Action" and any number of "Free Actions." Actions may be performed in any order during a player's turn. Free actions may also be taken when it is NOT your turn.

Free Actions

Investigate: You may look at any face down resource cards in the location where your pawn marker is located.

Trade: You may agree to trade with another player when their pawn is in the same location as your pawn. You may reveal any or all (or none) of the cards in your hand and openly negotiate any trade deal. Agreed upon trades must be made immediately.

Movement Actions

Simple Movement: The player moves their pawn to an adjacent card (see the map above for valid movement paths). Other players in the same location the player moved from may chose to "tag along" and may move with you during your movement without impacting their turn.

"Trumping" Movement: The player may move their pawn to any one face-up FACE card in any realm by discarding a card from their hand that matches the suit of the face up card.

Hellride Movement: The player may move across multiple cards in as a single move. Each card moved to beyond the first requires playing a card from your hand and placing it face up on that location OR by reducing the power your power by a point (turning the dice down a value). Players may not use Free actions during a hellride.

Walk the Pattern or Logrus: The Pattern exists and can only be walked at the Castle or Monster of Spades (unicorn) and the Logrus exists only at the Castle or Monster of Hearts (serpent). The player may chose to walk the Pattern or Logrus if in the appropriate location AND provided they are of the right lineage (don't reveal your lineage card) by discarding an Amber suited or Chaos suited card (for Pattern or Logrus respectively). Independent lineage characters cannot walk the Pattern or Logrus.

After walking the Pattern or Logrus, the player does all of the following:
- Must their pawn to any location card that does not contain a Pattern or Logrus.
- Looks at the top 3 cards in the draw pile and choses one card to add to their hand, returning the remaining cards to the draw pile in order.
- Adds 2 to their current power level by adjusting their d6 pawn (may not exceed a maximum of 6).

Basic Actions

Exchange 1-for-1: You may exchange one card from your hand with any Resource card (face down or face up) in the location where your pawn is.

Exchange by value: You may exchange one or more cards from your hand with one or more Resource cards on the current location provided the total value of your cards is equal to or higher than the total value of the resource cards being collected. You may also use power (adjusting your d6 pawn down) to add to your trade total.

For example: You could exchange a 7 and 8 (value 15) for a Jack, 1 and 2 (value 14).

Resting: A player may rest while located on the earth card. If the player has fewer cards then their initial hand limit (4 or 5 cards depending on the number of players in the game) they may draw one card. If their current power level is less than 4, they may also add one power.

Independent Lineage players that rest may chose to refill their hand to the hand limit in one resting period and also gain one additional power (2 per rest) up to a maximum of 6 (instead of the 4 power limit for resting non-independent players).

Achieve Objective: Reduce your power by one to play a set of cards to meet one of the objectives (see previous section). If you are already at 1 power, you'll need to rest first! Once the new set of cards is played, the old set of cards is discarded to a discard pile next to the draw deck.

Challenge a Player: You may challenge a player that you share a location with, with the exception of earth (players cannot challenge other players on earth). The Challenged player may either accept the challenge or try to flee.

If the challenge was Accepted, both players chose and reveal a card from their hand simultaneously. After revealing the cards, players may consume power (adjusting their d6 down) to improve their score, starting with the defender and alternating back and forth. The player with the highest ranked card (face card rank = J, P, Q, K, H) wins and may do one of the following:
- Look at the loser's hand of cards and take one card
- Look at the loser's Agenda or Lineage card, and places it back face-down.

If the challenged player chose to flee, the fleeing player immediately enters into a hellride and must move at least two cards away by discarding cards from their hand and/or consuming power as described above for Hellrides.

Ending a Turn / Ending the Game

At the end of each player's turn, add cards from the draw deck to any location cards with less then four resource cards (whether they are face up or face down). Place these new resource cards face down.

The Game Ends when a player has completed their third and final objective. Any other players who are in position to complete their own final objective by being in the required location and having the right cards in hand, may also reveal their cards and win as well - this opens up the possibility to collaborate on a joint-win if players want.

Designer Notes

A few final thoughts on the game design + concept ...

(1) The "intent" is to make this a deduction game with a mild spatial element. Players have to piece together their own objective while looking for opportunities to deduce and foil the efforts of the other players.

(2) I want players to always feel a thin line between cooperation for mutual interest (moving together, trading, etc.) with the possibility of backstabbing each other at some crucial moment (hence the challenge system). We'll see how this all plays out.

(3) I've found that giving players a slip of paper to keep some notes can be helpful - who is discarding what suits? Are they doing it because they don't need that suit, or are they trying to throw you off?

(4) The balance between Exchange 1-for-1 versus Exchange for value is interesting. Low value cards may not be great for achieving an objective, but you can 1-for-1 exchange a low card for a high value card, so having a lot of low value cards is a good thing. At the same time, being able to exchange one high value card for 2 or more low value cards gets you more low value cards for future 1-for-1 trading. I think this is an interesting system.

(5) The power / resting / logrus-pattern walking mechanic is one that I feel is quite thematic to the books. Earth was a place of respite for the most part, to recover and talk on neutral ground - hence players needing to head to earth to rest and also gain some more cards. Of course, Chaos or Amberites can walk the Logrus/Pattern to get more power and set themselves up for a win (potentially).

If you have a badger deck (or even if you don't!) I'd appreciate any feedback on the design after reading the rules or giving it a play through.

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Wed Nov 5, 2014 3:35 pm
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Fall-time Spectacular: The State of the Blog!

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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It's been too long right? I know, I know, you are wondering, where has he been!? The answer my friends is that I've been here, just not writing as much as I've been intending to. In fact, I'm starring at a virtual stack of half-finished term papers ... err blog posts ... that I'd love get finished and submitted to the interwebz professors; but life has been hectic lately. I'm sure you've all been there.

Part of me is also a little torn about what direction in which to take the blog. One thing I'd like to do is have more frequent blog posts, which of course requires me to actually write blog posts more frequently. This conundrum is somewhat at odds with the fact that I haven't had a lot of extra time lately in which to write said blog posts (hence the lack of posts over the past few months). Sigh, it is a circular and terrible circumstance. What to do?

One thing I'm going to endeavor to accomplish is this: write shorter pieces more frequently, say at least once a week. I enjoy writing and talking about games and design thereof, and I have plenty I'd like to blather on about. Yet, I feel this pressure to wrap half a dozen disparate little threads and ideas together into some big monstrous magnum opus each time I post has become its own barrier to writing. It gets a little daunting when each post has to address some minutia of game design and relate it all the way up to grand cosmological theories! So perhaps I can force myself to be more incremental, to make smaller but more frequent and reflective posts in-between the big pontificating ones.

What about the content of these smaller posts? Here is the rub: I have to be honest in that I haven't had much time or opportunity to play boardgames over the past few months. Having two young kids will do that to you, especially when one of them isn't much of a "sleeper" and results in my wife and I stumbling through our days like zombie creatures. Breaking away and leaving the homestead understaffed for some period of 4 to 12 hours for a moment of blurry-eyed gaming is not a prospect I want to leave the home with. I will say my wife and I have been playing (far too many) games of Emu Ranchers in the evening - that game being about all we can collectively muster the forces to play.

BUT! There always a but! I have been playing plenty of games lately, even new ones, just far more of them are the digital sort, either on my various iOS devices (iPad Mini or iPhone 5s) or on my aging but venerable PC laptop. I have also continued to advance a number of game designs, and even daydreamed up some new ones worth talking about (soon). I've also been playing more boardgames with my older daughter (old being relative, she is only 3) and her cousins - HeroQuest and King of Tokyo have both seen some table action.

So, like the double rainbow, what does this all mean? This will mean that I'll be spending my fleeting flickers of time writing smaller posts on the blog. Perhaps these smaller posts will focus more on digital gaming and gaming with kids, at least until I get my hardcore tabletop mojo back! I have other enticing topics I'd like to discuss as well, related to game design and gaming culture, but I'll save those for the bigger, longer-windier posts. All said, I have justified this course of action internally because eventually I want to write a magnificent and eloquent post about the intersection of virtual and meat-space games and gaming - thereby retroactively making all these hypothetical posts about video games also actually about boardgames. You with me? Hang on!

If you have any applause or commentary to send my way, the comment button below was functioning fine last time I checked.

Till next time, thanks again - and cheers!
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Tue Nov 4, 2014 3:10 pm
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Defined by Committee: Games and the Language Thereof

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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The Challenge of Talking About "Talking About" Games

It's futile. That is what a lot of people say when I, or many others, start to get all big-wordy when the subject of game analysis or critical review, or other forms of game-related theorizing and pontificating take root. The argument is that (1) we're never going to agree on terms, or (2) this topic has been endlessly debated before, or (3) why do you think you are right, or (4) even if we all agree on terms not everyone is going to use them correctly, or (5) what a waste of time.

My opinion is that without talking about the language we use to discuss games, we are going to be challenged to actually talk about games in a way that opens the door for critical analysis or discovery If we don't advance the language we are in a holding pattern. And even if any particular conversation doesn't yield something tangible and applicable, the discussion nevertheless helps with knowledge building and working towards a common understandings - or at least framing our disagreements and differing perspectives.

The thorn in my side though is that so often we (i.e. I) often just want a high volume of unfettered opinions on something. If one were to ask in a general forum thread, "What is a Worker Placement Game" before too long the discussion isn't even about worker placement games and its definition - it degenerates into some argument about symentatics and how things were said, etc. Such is the nature of the interwebz.

Fortunately the interwebz also offers up a variety of tools for collecting this high volume of responses/perspectives. Enter, "The Web-Survey!" After having a lively conversation in another post about what we meant by the term "Fiddly" I decided to make a Google Form Survey to ask that question. While I was at it, I asked a bunch of other questions too! Like what is a Game? Or What is Complexity? Or What is depth? The survey was going to be how I planned to cut the meta-debating of semantics off at its proverbial meta-knees.

You can check out the survey HERE (if you want to take it), or look at the results summary HERE.

"Game" Defined by Committee!

The "Big Question" that rises to the surface of the gamer-debate-o-sphere as often as the tides comes in, is the question of "what is a game?" So I asked that question and took a stab at analyzing the results for this conversation.

Now, one of the painful parts of this exercise is in drawing some objective conclusions out of open-ended response questions. Its tedious, but not impossible. The common wisdom that I've employed, drawing from both my professional experience in assessing surveys and reading up a bit on the subject, is to identify common "themes" in the responses and quantify the occurrences of those themes across the responses.

First, one has to actually read all the responses. You can't claim to have "read the responses" unless, you know, you actually read the responses! While taking the first pass, start to identify key words or phrases that are part of the response you come across. After reading through everything, distill your list of key words/phrases down into a more manageable list of major "themes" in the responses. Now go back and read them all again, and track which major theme(s) each response relates to. You can now tally that up and summarize occurrences or even do some basic association type analyses.

Design by Committee?

So in asking people, "What is your definition of a game?," at the time of writing this post I had collected 82 responses that I analyzed for themes. My short-list of themes is as follows (ordered by number of occurrences:

42 - An Activity or Pastime or Type of Play
38 - Has Rules or Structure or System of Working
33 - Is Fun or Entertaining or Pleasurable/Enjoyable
25 - Has a Goal or End-Trigger or End-Condition
20 - Has a Win/Loss condition or Scored/Ranked Outcomes
18 - Is Competitive
17 - Is Social
08 - Requires Skill or Is Challenging
08 - Requires Components
07 - Is Cooperative and/or Competitive Against "The System"
06 - Requires non-trivial decisions
04 - Non-Essential for Survival
03 - Is Not a "Sport"

Curiously, if we were to build a definition using the top 4 or 5 or the 13 themes it might be something like this:

A game is an entertaining activity with rules, goals, and evaluated outcomes.

It doesn't get much simpler than that. Of course more detailed reactions to this Committee Definition are in order!

First, I think we can all agree that games are in the broad realm of what is considered an "Activity." I could see amending activity to "contest" instead, suggesting some sort of conflict or interaction, but I think that's being nitpicky. Moving on...

Next is that after much contemplation, I do feel that "Entertainment" (e.g. "fun") is important to the definition of games. The "entertaining/fun" descriptor puts games in a non-essential or non-basic needs category and into one of entertainment and pleasure-seeking. We play games, by and large, for pleasure or entertainment however we chose to derive that. Some people have fun by laughing at other people, others have fun by scratching their beards in deep contemplation.

Of course, for some people, playing games IS a means to their livelihood (e.g. professional athletes, poker players, etc.), and it's worth mentioning that counterpoint, but professional sports exist nevertheless to provide entertainment to the audience.

Without the entertainment quality, a lot of what we do that has rules, goals, and ranked outcomes fall into other categories; like taking a test, solving design problems, running simulations, conducting experiments, or performing an analysis.

"Rules" are important because without rules the activities in question fall into the territory of free-form "play", story-telling, exploring, etc. There is a lot of lee-way here, and rules could be implied by the nature of the activity (e.g. a game of tag) or in some cases the rules aren't even known by everyone playing the game; yet they are still intrinsic to the activity being a game.

"Goal" refers to the point of the game, what are players attempting to do. Often times this goal also relates to the end-condition of the game or is a combination of end-trigger and win condition. Either way, having a goal suggests that the goal can be accomplished and that players work towards it. Furthermore, it emphasizes that the game is played over some non-infinite period of time (although that's not strictly speaking a requirement).

Last, "Evaluated Outcomes" implies some measurable, transparent or objective assessment of the game's end state, i.e. either meeting the goal and winning or comparing scores/points when the goal or end-trigger is met. Key to this is recognizing that outcomes can be PLURAL, meaning that there is generally no known and pre-baked solution or outcome, but many outcomes are possible; e.g. winning or losing, some people winning other people losing, people winning/losing more or less, etc.

These evaluated outcomes, in conjunction with goals and rules, make games distinct from other activities. For example, playing "tag" is an activity that follows a set of rules (one person is it, has to touch others with one hand to make them it, etc.). Often it is played as an activity with no thought to keeping score or what the goal is. But if we were to keep score (e.g. the player that is "it" the fewest times wins) and we establish an endpoint (e.g. we play until the recess bell rings) it is very much a game in my mind.

If we were to step back a bit and define "structured play" instead of game, we might define structured play as an entertaining activity with rules and goal. Structured play becomes a game when there are evaluated outcomes.

As another example, consider the kid-favorite, "the coloring book." By itself, it is certainly not a game of any sort - you color however you feel like, and who cares how sloppy it is! Yet we could make the activity of coloring into a game. For example, "You have 5 minutes to color the page and try to stay inside the lines. Each uncolored area or straying outside the line gives you point. The goal is to get 0 points (or fewer points than the other kids at the coloring table."

So that's it, five basic elements: activity, entertaining, rules, goals, and evaluated outcomes.

But How Puzzling!

Consider puzzles in relation to the above definition of games. Puzzles (Crosswords, Sudoku, Logic Puzzles, dexterity puzzles, etc.) fit within the above definition of a game, and I think it is reasonable to suggest that puzzles are indeed a subset of this broader definition of games. There are "evaluated" outcomes in puzzles, which is that the puzzle is either unfinished or completed and solved. The goal is of course to complete the puzzle, and the game end trigger is met when the puzzle is solved. In this way, puzzles are a specific subset of games.

Under this notion, Solitaire is clearly a game and NOT a puzzle in my mind, despite having only 1 win condition, because it is also possible to "lose" the game and not reach the win condition. A Crossword puzzle or a maze ARE puzzles (a subset of games), constrained in its definition by the fact that there is only one possible outcome (aside from not completing it).

Wandering the Waste, Minding My Own...

The other genre of games that I wanted to examine in light of this definition are the open-world, sandbox-type games (what Gil calls World Games), which are generally videogames in my experience. The Elder Scroll games come foremost in mind, although "role-playing games" in general also fit. Some people have asked, "Are these even "games" in accordance with the definition above?" Personally, I refuse to believe they aren't games, but at the same time there are some particular dimensions to them that should be clarified.

The open-world sandbox game (OWSBG), typically go on forever. There is no forced ending. No way to "win" and proclaim, "Now it is done!" What a OWSBG does is modify the "goal" part of the game definition to be goals that are player-defined. In a sandbox game, you generally decide what you want to accomplish and then set about taking the steps to get you there. The goals are player-driven, and as a consequence the evaluation of outcomes is also far more subjective, especially when it comes to narrative based outcomes. Do you make Bernadette happy by clearing out the rats in her basement, or do you set the rats loose upon the village? It depends what type of character you are playing and what goals you have set for yourself.

The other aspect of many of these games, particularly single-player OWSBGs, is that there is no death. If you die, you re-load. The lack of consequences, and the ability to infinitely try again or experiment with different approaches pushes the games into the realm of puzzles, at least a little bit. I've tried, and died, and re-tried some encounters in such games dozens of times, trying to find a satisfactory solution that gets me through the encounter alive. Very puzzle-like indeed. Yet puzzles are also games per the broader definition.

But what about X, Y, and Z?!

Other ingredients in the definition of game are worth mentioning, but as we layer on these additional aspects I feel that the definition is getting narrower in scope, potentially alienating things commonly understood to be "games."

"Competitive". Not all games require competition between players, some might be competitions between the player(s) and the game system itself, which can make the game cooperative (generally). While most games can be described as competitive, I don't think it is a necessary component of games. Are role-playing games competitive? Are sandbox video games (Elder Scrolls, Fallout, X3-series, etc.) competitive games? I don't think so, at least not in the way that a great many other games are completive, yet I still consider those examples games.

Secondly, "Social" as a descriptor implies that you generally play games with other humans. This is a broader use of the word social, in contrast to the subset of games that might focus on socializing, e.g. social deduction games or acting games. Playing games with other people implies some level of social interaction, even if that interaction only manifests through the board state itself. If "social" was included as one of the primary criterions though, solo-games or solo'able games would be pushed out of the realm of games and into something else entirely. I prefer to be more inclusive for the definition of games, so "social" is not a requirement.

It's at this point we hit Richard Garfield's definition of an Orthogame: A competition between two or more players using an agreed-upon set of rules and a method of ranking. An orthogame is adversarial (i.e. competitive) and requires multiple players (i.e. social), while having rules and a method for ranking the outcomes (I think the goal language can be implied by the rules). The only thing missing is the "entertainment" dimension, but that could be implied as well.

The last idea I want to address specifically is "Non-Trivial Decisions" . I see a lot of people brandish that requirement around. If it is included in the definition of a game than a great many things commonly recognized as games suddenly don't fit the criteria; gems like Candyland, Chutes & Ladders, LCR, etc. Those games have zero actual decisions you can make, yet you'd be hard-pressed to convince the average person that they aren't games!

Lord help me if Gloppy get's me again!

Further Ruminations

In comparison to other recent writings on the definition of games...

My feeling is that the basic minimum definition of what a "game" is should be highly inclusive, recognizing that there is a huge diversity of types of games. But if one's definition of game fails the basic test of excluding things broadly understood to be a game, then I think the definition is weak.

If you want to try and draw particular distinctions around groupings of games, I'm all for doing that and discussing it as such. Hence specific definitions like "Orthogame." But every orthogame is also a game. Just as every pseudogame or idiogame is also game.

The one hang-up I have with the Committee Definition of game is with the "entertaining" descriptor. While I admit that most games are meant to be fun, pleasurable, etc. There are some games that maybe give pause. What about military "war games" meant to evaluate probably scenarios? Are these "games" or should be more accurately referring to them as "simulators"? I'm guessing the latter. We could be slightly more specific in our definition and suggest that games are "An artificial contest with rules, goals, and evaluated outcomes" - but you know what?

Sometimes we can just let the committee be right.
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Tue Aug 12, 2014 7:02 pm
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Towards a Grand Unified Theory of Boardgamery

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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There has been an interesting series of articles on the League of Game Makers about the whole mechanics-first or theme-first approach to designing games (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3); and in turn how important theme is or isn't in terms of shaping a game's overall experience and long-term success or failure. That debate is always interesting and illuminating, and arguments for or against one approach over the other simply underscores the diversity of approaches and methods for working on a design.

Part 3 of the series, Theme vs. Mechanics: The False Dichotomy, presented an interesting Venn diagram showing how "theme" manifests in relation to a game's rules, its components, and what we imagine about the game at hard. The blog post I'm writing today started off as a desire to refine the concept Mark Major proposed; but consequently has cascaded into a watershed moment for me. This moment has coalesced a number of threads of game design and theory I've been wrestling with since starting this blog. For my thinking at least, this moves me a few steps closer towards a Grand Unified Theory of Game-Stuff. No way! you say? Yes way!

A Critique of a Starting Point

Mark Major's interesting diagram (I'm always a fan of diagrams!) considers the relationship between "Imagined", "Virtual", and "Physical" aspects of tabletop games. The diagram opens up a Pandora's box of thought with a number of interesting insights.

Yet I'm not convinced it hits the mark either. The associations and terms don't quite feel right to me; it isn't tangible enough (e.g. what does "virtual mean" and how is that different from "imagined?) and moreover it seams to repeat itself internally a bit. The notion of "context" being at the heart of the diagram, in the inside or middle, seems backwards to me (context is on the outside), and as a consequence it felt like the discussion of context was vague and too multi-faceted to be a useful notion.

So here are some revisions, along the lines of tweaking, to Mark's game framework diagram.

(1) The entire circle of Imagined could alternatively just be called "Theme". Theme, we presume, connects to something bigger that does or could existing outside of the game itself. We can talk about the theme in term of "subject matter" and "player roles" etc.

(2) The virtual circle can just be called "Rules/Mechanics" - that's what it is, and the need for a double name just muddies the waters.

(3) Similarly, the 3rd circle "Physical" can just be called the "Physical Components"

So reexamining the intersection you get things like this:
- Rules & Components = "Ergonomics" of a game. Is the game fiddly or streamlined?
- Components & Theme = "Representation" of the theme. How does the artwork or physical design of the components convey or represent the theme?
- Rules & Theme = Congruency between the theme and the mechanics. Are the mechanics simulating/modeling the subject of the theme? Or is there a disconnect?
- Rules & Theme & Components = Narrative & Dynamics = The "net experience" of the game.

Another piece of the theme puzzle is from an idea of qwertymartin proposed in his post How do you wear your theme, sir? about different functions of theme. This included:

- Theme as decoration
- Theme as mnemonic
- Theme as mechanic
- Theme as dynamic

In looking at the diagram, I can see how theme can function as decoration (overlap with components + art) and how it can function as mnemonic (overlap with rules), but I was curious where the others fell. It is possible they fall somewhere in the middle, the nebulous 'net experience' realm, but I was interested in seeing if those dimensions could be articulated more intentionally in the framework.

Towards a Science of Boardgames - Part II

Stepping back, I feel the core elements of Rules, Theme, and Components made a certain amount of sense as the discrete and understandable building blocks of a game. But on further consideration, I felt that something was missing, which would call for a 4th dimension to be added to the mix: The Players.

All too often our frameworks for understanding games from a design or analytical standpoint occurs by looking at the "game" as only the rules, theme, and components. And much of the time it appears people aren't even bothering much with theme, given the fascination with mechanics of late. So the relationship of the players themselves as a part the framework is often not formally acknowledged. But games don't exist as just the rules, a pile of components, and a (possible) theme. Much of what shapes the experience that emerges from a game only does so when it is actually played by people - so the people matter.

With that, I set out to devise a four-dimensional Venn diagram with the following core elements:

(1) Theme - The "Why" (setting, subject matter, etc.)
(2) Players - The "Who" (target audience)
(3) Rules - The "How" (mechanics/genre)
(4) Components - The "What" (playing pieces) and board state

This framework allows more complex aspects of games to be pinpointed as we consider the overlaps and interactions between the various elements. The Who/What/How/Why notion frames these in terms of potential design questions and goals. The "Why" might suggest a game's victory conditions and objectives from a thematic standpoint - but more practically why are we playing this game? The "Who" is a consideration of the players as the audience and what their expectations and motives might be for playing the game. The "How" and the "What" are the more typical realms of game design - working with mechanics and their physical manifestation.

If we want to be complete, we could also consider the "Where" to be the context and environment in which we are actually playing the game; and hence encompassing the entire diagram/framework. This probably does have a bearing across all of the four primary elements and merits further discussion, particularly in relation to the meta-game. But for now I'm leaving the thought aside.

What was most revelatory for me though in this, was that in making the diagram it forced me to reflect on the new intersection zones. And what do I call them? Some of them were straightforward (theme + components is the realm of "representation"), but others were tricky. What's the relationship between rules, components, AND players? What realm of design or boardgame theory does that represent?

Let's examine the overlaps in more detail:

1st order overlaps:

Players & Rules = Interactivity (socialization, competitiveness)
I've discussed key aspects of interactivity previously in terms of Competitiveness and types of conflict and the Game Format. Interaction can manifest "on the board" in terms of competitiveness; and can range from minimally interactive (multi-player solitaire) contest or puzzle-like games to those that require high degrees of conflict and interaction. Interaction also manifests "above the board" in terms of table-talk, diplomacy/negotiation, bluffing, double-think, cajoling, merry-making, and so on. It's a hugely important facet of games. But it is the rules AND the players that define the nature and boundaries of a game's interactions.

Theme & Players = Roles (associations)
If the theme itself delineates the subject matter and setting (e.g. farming in medieval Europe or trading in the Mediterranean or empire building in a distant galaxy), adding in the players relates to how players view themselves within that setting. Are you the head of a farming family, or the manager of a trade network, or the ruler of a space empire? How players see and associate themselves within the theme is an important consideration for design but also for the type of experience a game makes with the players.

Theme & Rules = Legibility (understanding, mnemonics)
Theme is often discussed (and used) in terms of its ability to make the rules of a game easier to understand, comprehend, remember, and name. Theme can provide an effective shorthand for referring to otherwise abstract rule constructs and physical components in a thematically unified way. Theme gives us a mnemonic for the rules.

Theme & Components = Representation (artwork, mood)
This is fairly straightforward: it's how the theme is actually conveyed through the physical components of the game; from the box and rulebook down to the shape of the meeples. The artwork of a game and its style are vital for setting the right "mood" of a game. I've talked before about the "intent" of a game and what it is trying to achieve and what it signals to potential players about the type of experience they should expect. Artwork is critical for establishing the proper mood and expectations for a game.

Rules & Components = Complexity (mechanical intricacy)
I've previously tried to clarify "complexity" in a game, as it relates to the rules and components, and the ergonomics of a game (below), as how they relate to physical manipulation. Complexity is about the mechanics themselves, how interlinked they are (or aren't) and how that complexity translates into physical design needs.

Players & Components = Ergonomics (fiddlyness vs. streamlined)
Ergonomics is related to, but different than Complexity, and has to do with how fiddly or streamlined the physical play experience is. It has to do with the player's physical manipulation of the components.

2nd order overlaps:

Players, Rules, Components = Depth (strategy/tactics, elegance)
Following from Complexity + Ergonomics is a consideration of "depth" in terms of a game's strategy and tactics. Depth hinges on players and the interactions between them (in most games) to shape interesting decision spaces. I've discussed depth & complexity in detail previously (See Searching the Depths). The other aspect I wanted to mention is "elegance" (also discussed previously), which is the relationship between a game's mechanical complexity and the amount of depth it provides. The depth of a particular situation in a game is a function of the current board state (the physical arrangement of pieces), the disposition and past history of other players, and the player's heuristics in navigating the decision space. The skills and Modes of Thinking also have a bearing on how we navigate depth.

Theme, Players, Rules = Dynamics (modeling, simulation)
Dynamics are a term often tossed around without much regard for what it may actually be referring too. The understanding of dynamics that I gravitate towards is the extent to which the game evolves and changes in response to player actions and that does so in ways that is (or perhaps isn't!) predictable in relation to the theme and subject matter of the game. We could be talking about the dynamics of infantry combat and the fidelity with which it is simulated in a wargame, or whether the game is striving to model a dynamic market system of supply and demand. There are a lot of ways that a game's dynamics can manifest in relation to its theme.

Theme, Rules, Components = Immersion (congruency, coherence, chrome)
Immersion is an often discussed notion for boardgames (and videogames), and it is multifaceted. On one hand, we can consider Immersion from the standpoint of congruency or coherence between the mechanics and theme. Do the mechanics make sense within the context of the theme or are they arbitrary seeming? Do the decisions players have at their disposal make sense or are they artificial? Games that are more immersive let players project themselves into their assumed "role" and make decisions in a thematically appropriate and internally consistent manner. Games with giant illogical situations aren't generally immerseive. And aesthetically, the physical components play a role in drawing players into the game's thematic setting.

Theme, Players, Components = Narrative (drama, story-telling, role-playing)
The narrative or the story a game tells transcends the rules. When we talk about the story that comes out of a game session it is often in relationship to the theme and the players and how it played out physically on the board.

3rd order overlap:

All Four = Net Experience (meaning, emergence, impact/ efficacy/legacy)
The "net experience" of a game is where all four elements come together. These are often the hardest ideas to describe and articulate because they result from a layering of all the other elements. A few notions that come to mind when I try to articulate high-order experiential aspects of a game includes meaning, emergence, and impact.

- Meaning: what was the lesson learned about the game's strategy, about the other players, about the theme's subject matter, or about ourselves? Meaning is about learning (discussed here) and discovery and comes out of the total experience we had in learning a game.

- Emergence: In what ways is the net experience greater than the sum-total of all the individual elements? What kinds of dynamics, or strategies/depths, or narratives, or immersions grew organically out of the experience in a unique way that will never quite be that way again. Articulating what emergence is in a defensible way is a challenge, and I'm inclined to think that while we might have a vague notion of what it is, and can point to some examples where we think it exists, we don't yet have quite the right vocabulary to talk about it in a defensible manner.

- Impact/Efficacy/Legacy: How have players left their mark on game session in terms of shaping its outcome. Did players feel like empowered agents within the game or were they adrift on the seas of fate? What memories or legacies are created by playing a game?

Back to Theme (for a Moment)

Martin's post about theme considered theme's function in terms of decoration, mnemonic, mechanic, and dynamic. It is worth noting that that these functions shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Theme can function as mnemonic as well as dynamic (for example). More interestingly, the 4-dimensional framework diagram shows that all of these functions of theme can and likely are present in games to one degree or another. Some games might use theme mostly as decoration, others as mnemonic (an aid to understanding the rules) or as a 1:1 mechanical analog (simulation), but something can be said about each function of theme.

Applications, Theoretically Speaking

As always, I get asked about what the point of all of these cerebral speculations is. Curiously, the resulting points/ideas here galvanizes nearly all of the terms and notions I've been kicking around since the first "Science of Boardgames" post started my inquiry. This diagram provides a framework that organizes all of them into something more logical and better articulated than I've managed before. A few of the realms of application follow.

Understanding Motives for Play & Schools of Design

The framework diagram highlights and emphasizes the different attributes of games that players might gravitate towards as a motive for play, perhaps even tying into the whole Schools of Design concept discussed previously. Different combinations and levels of emphasis across the elements and their intersections start to drive the schools of design in their own unique directions.

For example, the Eurogame emphasis on "Challenge" results in games with higher complexity (rules & mechanics) but often with funneled/controlled forms of interactivity (rules & players) and with less importance placed on thematic Congruency. Wargames & Ameritrash games might both be seeking high levels of Dynamics and Immersion, but the roles players assume are often very different and the form of the Representation is quite distinct. One emphasis fidelity across these same factors, the other drama.

Another interesting article that considered motives for playing in terms of the type of experience players are seeking is this:
MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. This approached identified 8 key motivations for playing a game that player's might have:

1.Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure (representation, ergonomics)
2.Fantasy: Game as make-believe (roles, associations)
3.Narrative: Game as drama (narrative, role)
4.Challenge: Game as obstacle course (complexity, depth)
5.Fellowship: Game as social framework (interaction)
6.Discovery: Game as uncharted territory (challenge)
7.Expression: Game as self-discovery (net experience: meaning, learning)
8.Submission: Game as pastime (interaction/socialization)

In the parenthesis is my attempt at mapping these motives to the framework. It's not a perfect 1-to-1 relationship, but it starts to get at the idea that perhaps, as designers, we can start to focus in on the elements that most appropriate given how we believe our intended players would want to play the game.

A Toolbox for Critical Analysis

The Framework Diagram can also provide a useful approach and nomenclature for the critical analysis of games, and in giving game criticism in a more understood language to utilize. So many reviews of games tend to skip across the surface, touching on the 4 main elements (who, what, how, and why) and maybe some the 1st order elements. Not many reviews get into the 2nd order elements (Depth, Immersion, Dynamics, Narrative), and fewer still into the net experience realm.

Another Starting Point...

The first Science of Boardgames post ended with a diagram, here it is for reference. That diagram, on further reflection, only considering a a few of the elements described in this post, mostly related to the intersection of mechanics and components with a little bit of player input (not acknowledged) as it relates to depth. There is more to it than that diagram I'm glad to say!

The first post also started the Game Genome Project, and effort to map all of the traits/characteristics of games and the multitude of expressions within each. The framework presented here provides a missing link in that work; an organizing framework.

Now it's your turn! What of this did you find insightful or off-base? And do you see and validity in it and applications? Cheers!
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Tue Jul 15, 2014 5:03 am
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Emissary's Thematic Conundrums

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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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.

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!

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!

What card art/theme do you like the most?
"Landscape" all the way!
"Space" is best!
Both are groovy!
Both are wretched!
      78 answers
Poll created by Mezmorki
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Tue Jul 8, 2014 9:37 pm
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Schools of Design and Their Core Priorities

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

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

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

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

What a tangled web we weave...

Core Priorities & Design Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Ameritrash School ~ Drama

- German Family School ~ Engagement

- Eurogame School ~ Challenge

- Wargame School ~ Realism

- Abstract School ~ Minimalism

Ameritrash Games: Drama


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

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

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

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

Ameritrash & Drama: Theme/Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

Ameritrash & Drama: Conflict & Interaction

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

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

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

Ameritrash & Drama: Uncertainty, Luck, and Chaos

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

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

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

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

Ameritrash & Drama: Epicness and Victory

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

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

An avalanche of stuff!

Ameritrash & Drama: Bits, Chrome, and Immersion

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

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

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

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

German (Family) Games: Engagement

Is everyone having fun yet?

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

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

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

German Games & Engagement: Accessibility/Approachability

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

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

German Games & Engagement: Closeness, Balance, Pacing

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

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

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

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

German Games & Engagement: "Pacific" Themes

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

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

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

German Games & Engagement: Non-Violent Interactions

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

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

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

Eurogames: Challenge

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

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

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

Thoughts on Elegance and Fiddliness

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

Gameplay: Elegant vs. Clunky

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

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

Ergonomics: Streamlined vs. Fiddly

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

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

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

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

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

A beautiful clockwork...

Eurogames & Challenge: Intricacy and Mechanics

Let's start off with Samo again

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

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

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

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

Eurogames & Challenge: Competitiveness

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

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

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

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

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

Eurogames & Challenge: Control & Constraint

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

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

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

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

Wargames: Realism

Welcome to the war room

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

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

This is a useful quote to consider:

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

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

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

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

Wargames & Realism: Level of Detail & Fidelity

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

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

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

Wargames & Realism: Knowledge Building

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

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

Abstracts: Minimalism

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

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

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

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

Abstracts & Minimalism: Less is More

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

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

Abstracts & Minimalism: Emergence through Elegance

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

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

BONUS! Customizable Games: The Meta-Game

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

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

Wrap-Up Postulations

Phew! Let's review where we went:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion, the core priorities idea provides a frame for better understanding the different schools of design. And going all the way back to Jezztek's initial premise, it does in a way that let's us come to terms with the big idea of the different schools and not get bogged down in the exact specifics of which attributes do or don't define a particular genre. So the question now is, does this approach resonate with you? Or send you running in the other direction?
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Tue Jun 17, 2014 6:04 pm
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Big Game Theory! Expands into a New Universe

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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The Big Game Theory! blog has a new, dedicated home in an alternate reality where BGG, impossibly, doesn't exist! What you say!?

The Big Game Theory blog launched at BoardGameGeek (BGG) to discuss boardgame design and design theory. The blog has been running at BGG since September 2011 and has generated a ton of great discussion and dedicated followers. So worry not, it will continue to be updated at the original location in full.

So why the dedicated site?

I’ve been expanding my coverage of games to cover non-boardgame games as well (i.e. PC and iOS games). Along with that comes a desire to reach out to a broader audience that may not be part of the BoardGameGeek community already and would thus be limited in their desire or ability to engage in the discussion. Expanding to a new dedicated site was a way for enabling more discussion with more people - which is the whole point of the blog!

That said – the blogging community at BoardGameGeek is FANTASTIC and I don’t want to jeopardize the wonderful involvement with the wonderful people and friends I’ve met there. Hence I now have the pleasure of running two sites: this one at this new location and the original site at BoardGameGeek.

I also wanted to play around with a new look and feel for the blog along with added functionality. As beautiful as BGG is as a website, it couldn’t happen there. So this desire required a different platform. Hopefully you find this look compelling and functional. Please drop a comment if you see something broken, screwed up, or rage inducing that you feel I should address.

So what’s next?

I have more new content in the works that will be posted as normal when its ready (and cross-posted on both sites). In addition, I will be duplicating the backlog of older posts slowly to this new site. I’ll use that as an opportunity to re-publicize some (but not all) of the older content and provide a bit of reflection on key older posts as well.

For now, please let me know if you have any comments or feedback on the new site and the changes. Beyond that, I look forward to hearing from you and keeping the conversation rolling in this new, expanding, universe.

Thank you for your time and interest! Cheers,

~Oliver Kiley
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Fri Jun 6, 2014 7:52 pm
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The Wondrous Ages I Have Known

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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It’s been a while since the last post, and I feel an update is in order so you all don’t think I’ve succumbed to a game avalanche tumbling down out of my closest or that I've been dragged into Real-Life by some demon spawn. No – it’s been far more ordinary than: family, work, deck (re)construction, traveling, and general chin scratching. All this, plus Age of Wonders 3 and some trepid steps towards a possible expansion for Hegemonic (more on that in the next blog post). As for this post - it's all about my reflections ofAge of Wonders 3, a PC 4X game I am enjoying more and more by leaps and bounds.

Orc Sorcerer owns you!

Setting the Table

I somehow missed Triumph Studio's Age of Wonders boat back when AoW 1, 2, and Shadow Magic were released (’99, ’02, and ’03 respectively). I picked up Shadow Magic (the standalone sequel to AoW2) about a year ago because I kept hearing good things about it, and I quite enjoyed the game. Age of Wonders 3 (technically 4?) was released March 2014, and I’ve been playing it as much as I can since.

Overall, the Age of Wonders series is one of war-focused 4X turn-based strategy (TBS) games. Think Lord of the Rings and the Battle for Middle Earth. It mirrors that narrative quite compellingly.

The game features the usual suspects of fantasy races (Elves, Orcs’es, Goblins, Dwarves, etc.) plus a few novelties (i.e. Draconians). You’ll start out with a throne/capital city and a tiny army, and then your off expanding your empire outwards, building up your armies, establishing new cities, engaging in (light) diplomacy, and of course trying to win through conquest. It’s fairly standard stuff on paper – but there are enough twists and turns to make it something quite unique.

The empire building aspects of the series IS pretty streamlined, as it really just provides an engine and context for the war-mongering. So don’t expect Civ-level empire management here. Instead, the game’s mechanics are all directed towards servicing the excellent turn-based tactical combat. Now normally, I don’t like detailed tactical combat, as I feel it detracts from the grander strategic aspects of 4X games at the empire level. However, AoW is “all about” the tactical combat, with the strategic gameplay providing a tense context for tactical fights in a way that I’ve really come to enjoy. It’s a testament to how good the tactical combat is that it’s forced a paradigm shift on me.

Peaceful ships ahoy, I swear!

Tactical Shenanigans

Tactical battles start when opposing armies (each army contains up to 6 units) attempt to move into each other. And when a battle occurs, all other armies/stacks within a one-hex radius of the defending army are also pulled into the fight. The result is that up to 7 armies/stacks (and 42 units total) can be dragged into the conflict. At the strategic level, maneuvering your forces across the hex-based landscape so you can bring 4 stacks to bear against 3 stacks (assuming a full engagement) is critical for tipping the odds in your favor and makes strategic positioning quite important.

Once the battles start, each players’ stacks are positioned in an initial deployment pattern in relation to their position on the strategic map. Defender moves first, then the attacker, with each being able to move all of their units on their turn. The greatest amount of content and detail in the game is wrapped up in the stats and abilities of units at the tactical level. Knowing what units best counter others and how to synergize unit attacks and abilities to overcome your opponents is critical - and there is a lot of room for skillful play and pulling out wins despite the odds.

Age of Wonders 3 builds the combat around some excellent gameplay concepts, such flanking attacks and attacks of opportunity and retaliation, that makes movement and planning ahead during combat critical. Range modifiers, line of sight constraints, various movement types, special abilities, and more all play into making a dynamic a weaving combat experience.

And thankfully, the interface and tool-tips provide all the information you need with a simple click or mouse hover, such that negotiating the detail is effortless. It’s the choosing of the bold deeds and terrible sacrifices that’s the hard part! Order of attack, as with many tactical games, plays a huge role in squeezing the most out of your forces. While sometimes the order is obvious, in big large battles, (particularly sieges) working it out can be a wonderful challenge.

Forces lining up for a siege

A Dose of Role-Playing in your Empire Building

Another key aspect of the series worth highlighting is the importance of heroes, particularly your leader. The Age of Wonders game are loosely role-playing games in the sense that your units (most importantly your leader and other heroes) level up as they engage in battles and unlock stronger abilities. Your heroes can even be outfitted with all sorts of gear and equipment to further focus their role in supporting the war effort. Plus you get to craft the look and feel of your leader, all the way down to the trim color on their trousers and whether they are wearing an eye patch or a nose ring.

In Age of Wonders 3, the hero system is increased to a new level (no pun intended!) by giving heroes “classes” (Rogue, Warlord, Druid, Sorcerer, Theocrat, and Dreadnaught). The class of your main leader matters more than your initial race in terms of playstyle in most cases and determines the kinds of spells and abilities that you can research (think class specific tech trees) and the resulting options at your disposal. Ultimately, the intersection of race, class, and magic school specializations during character creation created a lot of opportunity to shape a play-style you enjoy and see how it fares against the opposition.

Speaking of which, the magic system in the game is, in my estimation, what really makes the game series shine and compensate for the relatively basic empire management. All the leader classes have access to magical spells and abilities, which range from tactical damage spells and unit enchantments all the way up to persistent city- and empire-wide global spells that transform the entire strategic space of the game.

What’s most interesting is that the magic system relies on a “casting point” mechanic that limits how much magic you can perform each turn. The decision balance between using magic tactically to tip a fight in your favor versus using it summon fantastic creatures or curse an opponent’s city (among other nifty tricks) is often a challenge. As a operational and strategic resource, the magic system adds a level of complexity and depth to the game that helps it transcend well beyond what might otherwise be construed as a fairly standard 4X fantasy experience.

The character creation spectacular

The Strategic Experience and AI Competency

In terms of the overall gameplay experience and depth I’ve found that the more I’ve played the game the more interesting, deep, and nuanced it has become. However, this realization also hinges considerably on whether the game’s AI is deciding to have a good day or a bad day, which in turn hinges largely on how the a given game is setup. In short, the AI ranges from being ruthlessly brutal and surprisingly cunning to a completely flaccid peon depending on the situation.

What do I mean by this flip-flopping AI? If the AI, in its estimation, determines that it has a force advantage strategically it goes into “aggressive mode” and will hit you on multiple fronts, move forces around with a sense of purpose and fantasy-inspired authority, and generally make for a tense experience with lots of back-and-forth fighting over cities and territory. However – if it decides that it’s weaker than you, it literally runs away from you every chance it gets, abandoning cities in its wake in a pitched effort to stack all its eggs around defending its throne city. This behavior makes no sense, and once the AI goes into that mode, its defeat is a foregone conclusion as you can grab control of most of the map and cities without resistance.

This can be somewhat ameliorated depending on the (extensive!) game setup options you chose. I’ve found that playing against multiple AI’s that are forced onto a team provides the best level of challenge, regardless of the underlying difficulty level (which gives the AI bonuses to production, research, etc.). While I’m beating up on the first AI empire, the other 2+ AI’s are getting their ducks in a row and amassing enough force to go into "aggressive mode". If playing 1v1 against an AI or where diplomacy is enabled with the AI’s then it is just too easy to exploit the AI’s weaknesses and coast to an easy win since it never gets that critical mass of force.

Fortunately for the AI, the developers have acknowledged the issue and are actively working on it – so that’s good news. And overall, the developers have been very active in the community forums listening to feedback and discussing potential changes to the gameplay and balance. Developer support like this is great to see and will likely result in a game that gets better and better as it ages. I have a laundry list of smaller gameplay issues and opportunities I’d love to see addressed, and I’m happy to say that 90% of them appear to be on the dev’s radar. There are even rumors of a new race being added to the game soon – so more content is also planned, which exciting as well.

Who will make the first move?

Closing Sentiments

The overall fit and finish of Age of Wonders 3 deserves special mention. In an era of early-access alpha/beta games dominating much of the PC gaming scene, Age of Wonders 3 followed the traditional publishing route and was released when ready as a complete game – and it shows in spades. The graphics and audio of the game are beautiful and lush from the strategic map all the way down to the unit details in the tactical battles. The interface, menus, in-game information, and all that sort of stuff is also really well done. The game is just a great aesthetic experience – and I’m usually not one to get all hot and bothered by glitzy game graphics. There were a few launch bugs, but those have already been patched. So kudos to Triumph Studios for making such a nicely polished game.

I haven’t yet dived into the campaigns (preferring random maps in general) or online multiplayer (which I suspect is quite a fun prospect) – but for now I’m having a good time trying out different class/race combos and getting the settings right for challenging single-player matches.

The bottom line, for me, is that the Age of Wonders design and “system” as it applies to a war-focused 4X game is overall excellent and leads to a great experience, especially when the AI is playing aggressively. When the heat is on, all the seemingly simple empire-level decisions (what to research next, what buildings to construct, what units to make, etc.) become far more acute and agonizing choices as you try to squeeze every ounce of production capacity out of your empire. The strategic landscape always poses interesting positional choices for moving your armies, and map control is a critical element of winning a game. And when the inevitable tactical combats happen those reveal their own layered depths and challenges.

Shadow Magic, the previous Age of Wonders game has been a fan-favorite for 10+ years and carried the series into the modern era. Triumph Studios built Age of Wonders 3 to endure the next 10+ years, and I think they are on-track to do so. If interested in the 4X fantasy genre, particularly with a war-centric gameplay focus, Age of Wonders 3 is worth a long, deep look.

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Mon May 19, 2014 5:17 pm
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A Call to Arms!

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Hello all!

It's been a little while since posting, and among other reasons was the most prominent one: last month saw the birth of our second child and all that entails. Things now seem to be slowing down on the crazy-factor scale, so I'm crawling out of the cave with a little request!

I've talked about Emissary: The Red Frontier in prior blog posts (Emissary: A Study in Brain-burn and Emergence) but I wanted to more formally open up the doors for broader playtesting of the game. It's been tweaked and developed quite a bit more since the last time I talked about it, and I'm now at a point where getting a broader set of opinions and reactions to the game would be just stupendous!

If interested in playtesting, head over here:

Emissary - An Intriguing 4X "Express" Game - Call for PnP Playtesting

Otherwise, here's a little teaser-tiddy about the game, showing off its fancy new (working) card design that departs a bit from the Decktet the game was originally based on. Cheers!

An intriguing 4x "express" game of territory building and espionage | 2-4 players / 15 min. per Player

A Call for Playtesting!

In Emissary, players will explore locations on the “Map”, comprised of a grid of cards, and will then collect and use resources to build up Influence across these locations. Locations that are adjacent and share a common suit form larger Regions, over which players will compete for having the most relative influence. Points are awarded at the end of the game based on the size of each region as well as how much influence each player has in that region.

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Fri Apr 25, 2014 6:46 pm
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15 Years and Worlds Apart - Autumn Dynasty: Warlords & The King of Dragon Pass

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

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

Beware, harsh criticisms ahead ...

Autumn Dynasty: Warlords

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

Pocket Tactics

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

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

But then things start to go wrong.

Pixel Perfect Gaming

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

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

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

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

Enter stage left: The King of Dragon Pass

King of Dragon Pass

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

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

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

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

Image: App Annie

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

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

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

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

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

Image: App Annie

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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