Trevor HarronUnited States
A few months ago, I talked about the game mechanic of dice and how games like to use dice for randomness and chance. This week examine one of the most familiar and oldest mechanics in tabletop gaming: cards.
To fully (or even partially) explain the history of playing cards would take its own blog post so let us focus on the why and how cards are used in modern games. The main benefits to cards is that a ton of information that simple tokens and dice would not be able to convey. The cards themselves also provide a way to efficiently change rules, build a board, or provide a more abstract representation of resources, or even a way to track abilities or other information. For any of the modern or classic games that use cards as a mechanic (or for any designer) the only limit to the uses of a card are the size of font used and the amount of information that is put onto the card. At the most basic, a card is simply a piece of cardboard with a front and a back. The front of the card will display the relevant information for the game which can range from simply a value and a quality (such as a suit) to more complex information including spells, abilities, items, player information, turn order, etc. The back of the card could also contain some level of information (but then it could be argued it is another front) or simple be a single motif to provide a ‘hidden’ aspect to the face of the card. In either case this duality provides a range of options for mechanics, shuffled into a deck for randomness, placed down to keep track of score, or combined with other mechanics for interesting interactions. For today, lets focus on a few of the most basic mechanics of cards: as random chance in a deck, as hidden information, and as an alternative for other kinds of game pieces.
The first of the basic mechanics that uses cards is to shuffle them together in a deck. Like with dice, a deck of cards provides for some randomness in games. However, the randomness that a deck of cards provides is constantly changing since once a card is drawn from the deck it cannot be drawn again (unless you shuffle after every draw). This allows for players that can/want to try and predict what will be drawn by counting cards and/or considering the probabilities that could occur and plan for the randomness. Several games use a deck to great effect ranging from Magic the Gathering, to Monopoly, to deck building games like Ascension, and finally to classic Hoyle’s games including Rummy, Bridge, and Poker. This presents a potential ‘mastery’ that players like to feel in a game: they weren’t forced to fold in a game of poker, they instead chose to fold based on the odds of winning for instance.
The second basic mechanic of cards to provide hidden information. The dual front and back nature of most decks of cards lends itself to being able to conceal the relevant information (such as the suit and value) while presenting the back of the card so that (in theory) any card is possible. The design space that this leads to allows for a whole sort of games in which players have to adapt based on the revealed information. Bluffing games typically use this to great effect when concealing what value a player’s hand has forcing players to consider the possibility of what seems like a lie to be true. This idea of hidden information is continued in Who Wears the Crown? by having the backs of cards present part of the information (i.e. the potential point value) while concealing if the cars will actually be worth those points at the end of the game or not.
Finally, while not a mechanic in its own right, cards are sometimes used as a game pieces. To clarify, this means that the card could conceivably but replaced with tokens, wooden cubes, or boards. There are several games that use cards in this way including Catan, Rivals of Catan, Bang!, and more. For this use of cards, the card can represent resources or board pieces and are chosen for one of two reasons: cost for making the game, or that the properties of a card allow for the card to be more effective as a piece. In the case of Catan, there are several sites that make the resources of wood, ore, sheep, and grain as tokens but with the use of cards players can conceal what resources they currently have. In Rivals of Catan, the cards are used as a quick way to track the resources as well as limit the amount of each resource that can be acquired by one player. In Bang!, some of the cards track the players’ health while others are used as actions. Like in Catan, some of the cards in bang could be replaced with tokens, though in the case of Bang! the card used to track health has another purpose as a character card meaning that the number of components in the game are limited making the game as a whole more elegant.
For each of the basic mechanics of cards relies on the dual front and back nature of the cards. This nature is clearly seen in the basic mechanics of randomness, hidden information, and complex game pieces. These basic mechanics can be used by designers to help provide the building blocks for other more intricate mechanics such as deck-building, drafting, different forms of card drawing, and more. So with all of this in mind, take some time to think about how cards are used in the games you play and design.
This is a weekly blog to talk about different aspects of games and gaming ranging from specific genres to more specific game design problems.
Archive for Trevor Harron
08 Aug 2018
- [+] Dice rolls
04 Jun 2018
First of all, apologizes for the long delay since my last post. Since I wrote my piece on board game literacy, I have found myself torn on what to talk about next. Part of me wanted to write about other important questions that designers face and part of me wanted to keep coming back to the idea of literacy. Eventually, I realized that way back in the earlier days of writing for Morning Table Talk, I had done a post on bluffing games and a post on cooperative games and then it hit me, I should talk about mechanics. Part of my discussion about board game literacy was on how the ability to recognize and utilize mechanics effectively while playing a game is key to obtaining this literacy so it occured to me to continue the discussion on mechanics including what games have them and what makes up those mechanics.
As I write these posts, I’m going to try and present the most widely known and simplest mechanics first and then move into the rarer and more complex mechanics later on. This ordering will be based on my experiences as well as some of my personal thoughts and should be taken into account while reading the coming posts. I will try to cover as many key mechanics as I can but as games are made everyday there are new mechanics and new uses for old mechanics.
So without further ado, let us dive into one of the simplest and oldest mechanics in games: rolling dice. Dice themselves have been evident for as far as we have records of board games starting with the Royal Game of Ur. There are also a ton of modern games that use dice ranging including Craps, Yahtzee, Affectionate: Cats and Cuddles, Roll For It!, Dice of Crowns, as well as pen and paper RPG games like Dungeons and Dragons and wargames such as Warmachine and Hordes. This modest list doesn’t even include games that use dice as counters, as oft used by Magic the Gathering players, or as extra game pieces such as Praetor.
To help showcase the mechanic of rolling dice in games, I will showcase 3 games: Parcheesi, Affectionate: Cats and Cuddles, and Settlers of Catan and showcase how they use dice. The reason these 3 games were chosen is because each of them use dice as a core part of their game but do different things with the dice themselves. Parcheesi is a very simple racing game where players race to get all of their pieces out of their home base and to a specific set of goal spaces with a players moving their pieces rolling by two dice. Affectionate: Cats and Cuddles is one of our games were you try to gather the most cuddle tokens by the time there are none left in the middle. In Affectionate, the way the players take actions is by rolling a pair of dice and seeing what the combination of their dice is and then taking that action. Last and certainly not least, Settlers of Catan is a modern classic where players try to earn victory points by gathering resources and building settlements, roads,and cities. In Catan, dice are used to randomly generate resources if a player is adjacent to the tile whose number was rolled. As a note, there are many other games that also use dice rolling as a main mechanic but several of those games have additional mechanics that will be discussed in further detail.
One reason rolling dice is in a game is to provide a random chance that something will happen and that the random chance of things happening is consistent turn from turn. Basically, with Parcheesi, Affectionate, and Catan the player understands that the chance to roll a certain number or combination is the same every turn. This is important for dice games because if the designer wanted the chance of something happening to change every turn then there are other methods of randomness that could be used including a deck of cards or a bag of tiles. By providing a consistent random chance that things could happen players can plan and attempt to anticipate what the potential options will be on their turn (or as they wait for their turn).
Coupled with the need for random chance is that there is a distribution of different combinations that are more likely than others. For instance with two standard six-sided (2d6) dice the most likely number to roll is a 7 while it is highly unlikely to roll a 2 or 12. For several games, this idea of probability factors into the design of the game as well as the player’s decisions. For instance in Catan, players have to choose where to build their settlements since the way they acquire resources is through dice rolls matching the tiles they are adjacent to. This probability distribution makes some resources rarer and/or some tiles more valuable based on their number since with rolling dice some numbers are more probable than others. In Parcheesi this concept of a distributed probability takes an interesting turn since whenever a player rolls doubles ( two 1s, 2s, 3s, etc) they make an extra set of moves based on the numbers on the bottom of the dice (6, 5, and 4 respectively). This bonus to a relatively rare roll adds tension and excitement for the player. In Affectionate, the actions that are extra special are also the actions that a player is least likely to roll (these being doubles).
A final major component with the dice rolling mechanics is that there needs to be a positive and a negative consequence in rolling the dice. This positive and negative aspect adds tension and excitement to each roll as players hope to get a desired set of results. Without this dichotomy, players could find themselves wondering why they are rolling dice or what it even adds to the game. In Parcheesi, this positive and negative aspect comes from a need to roll a specific number to move one’s pieces onto the main track and to need an exact number to score in the score track at the end of the board. If for instance the require value is not rolled on either dice, the player cannot start moving until they get the required value. With Affectionate, there are positive, neutral, and negative rolls that either force players to lose cuddle tokens to the middle, gain tokens that could be used for rerolls, or take cuddle tokens from the middle. This difference in actions always gives players something to do but indicates that there are some options they would prefer over others. In Catan what players want to roll and what is good depends on the tiles that they are trying to gain resources from. When a 7 is rolled in Catan, instead of gathering resources the current player moves a token called the robber which allows the player to steal resources based on where the robber is moved from another player and block all resources from being generated on that tile. This means that the 7 can be either a desired result similar to other resource generation or a undesired result when a player wants a specific resource or to not be targeted for stealing. Lastly, the need for resources drives which values are desired and not in Catan adding onto the tension of the robber as well.
In conclusion, there are 3 main features that make up the dice rolling mechanic in games. First, the need or want for consistent randomness in a game. Second, a distinct distribution of probabilities ranging from likely to unlikely to help the player plan on what could happen. Finally, with dice rolling mechanics there needs to be a positive and a negative result to help provide tension and a desired result for the players.
Hopefully this gives you something to think about this fine day and may the dice be in your favor.
- [+] Dice rolls
08 Apr 2018
[Edited to improve the formatting]
As I was playing at a game night a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that when teaching games to people you assume that they have some form of board game literacy. So this made me think about what does it mean to have a literacy in board games? How do you expand that literacy and teach it to those not familiar with games. The wonderful folks at Extra Credits did a video on the basic questions about video game literacy (which is definitely worth a look if you have the time for it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNV2xtiBk5U) and, in that vein, I wanted to define basic board game literacy, how do you improve your own board game literacy, and why it is important to the board game industry.
What is Board Game Literacy?
Before delving too deeply into what board game literacy is let's first look at how literacy is defined. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, defines literacy as the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” In several ways this directly relates to how we can define board game literacy including the need for understand and communicate (as well as for printed materials). Using this broad definition lets start with a definition of board game literacy as: “the ability to understand, play, and communicate the mechanics and concepts for board games in order to make informed decisions during gameplay.” Loosely, if you can look at the rules for a game and understand how to play it, what the major mechanics are, and what the goal is you have a basic game literacy. In basic board game literacy, a player can easily understand the systems in a game to make informed choices on their turns.
I mentioned mechanics in my definition on board game literacy since that is part of the basic vocabulary required to play some games. If a player doesn’t understand some mechanics it is similar to running across a word they don’t know in a book; to fully understand the text the reader would need to look up or be taught the word’s meaning. With a fundamental understanding of mechanics a player can begin to grasp the game’s systems as a whole and understand how they can win (a fundamental part of learning any game).
This mechanical understanding also leads to the importance of understanding the concepts of a given game. The concept of a game comes from a understanding of both the goal of a game and what can be done on a given turn. This conceptual understanding can be the bridge for players to understand how to win and formulate a strategy as necessary leading to an understanding of the game system as a whole. Without this understanding players can feel that their choices may not matter in working towards their goal or that they cannot connect the mechanics to complete their objective.
Finally, the ability to communicate, as well as understand and play the mechanics and concepts for a game allow for games to be taught to new players. With the ability to teach a game to a new player, a given player demonstrates their understanding of the core concepts of the game at a level that allows for more players to learn and continue playing the game. This communication also allows for players who have played or who are currently playing to discuss the mechanics and come to a deeper understanding of the systems involved to make more intelligent decisions during currently and future gameplay.
How Does One Improve Their Board Game Literacy?
Now that we have defined and extolled the virtues of board game literacy, how does one increase or acquire this literacy. The answer is very simple, you have to play board games. Just like you have to read new books to increase your literacy you have to do the same with games. This literacy, just like with book, does sometime require being taught new games but also the benefit of games is that they are (hopefully) designed to be learned. My personal recommendation is that you should play games that are wide and varied in mechanics and learn from someone who has played before. By playing a wide variety of games, players can experience new mechanics and systems to increase their ability to make informed decisions in both new games and games they are already familiar with. The second way to improve board game literacy is to play a game multiple times. Personally I like playing a game three times. With the first time playing a game you can learn the basic rules, the second round of playing helps build a better understanding of the mechanics and systems learned in the first play and in a final play new strategies and mechanics can be explored to help examine the intricacies of the game’s design and gain a full understanding of the game. This also applies to mechanics and groups of games, if you play multiple different games in the same genre, then you gain a better understanding of the shared mechanics and systems of those games.
Why is Board Game Literacy Important?
So now that we have defined board game literacy why is it important? Why is this concept important for designers and players to think about? There are a couple of reasons we should care about board game literacy and they revolve around the growth and health of board games as a whole. With improved board game literacy we as game designers and players can bring more experiences and questions to the table in the form of games as well as introduce new players to the breadth of games already in existence.
This increase in games and experiences would also bring new players and an increase in understanding games. One of obvious benefits with an increase of potential players is that these players can experience the wide range of games that are already in circulation. This improvement of literacy would also lead to an increased understanding of mechanics and lower the barrier of entry to understand new games overall. These two benefits could potentially help continue and grow this renaissance of board game design and playing we currently find ourselves in.
With the understanding of games, coupled with a larger base of players, the lessons that games can teach in literacy, critical thinking, and decision making will increase as well. While the increase of these skills has obvious benefits overall, there is a secondary benefit to the industry as a whole by increasing the possibility for new innovation, mechanics, and ideas to be expressed for board games.
In short, the reason we care about board game literacy is that with an increase in literacy we have more players and designers able to play and design games. In my humble opinion this can only lead to a good thing as more players experience more games and more concepts get successfully designed into new and exciting games. As with literacy in general, the increase in board game literacy can only provide benefits to those who enjoy the medium.
- [+] Dice rolls
26 Feb 2018
So far in Morning Table Talk we have looked at and talked about games that play with multiple people and this morning let us look at solo games and solo variants of a game. Since solo gaming is a drastically different experience than playing with other players, let us examine why players might choose a solo experience, some different types of solo games, some examples of these types, and finally what about them makes for a good solo game.
First the important question: why play a solo boardgame? Surely if a player wants to have a solo experience there are any number of video games to choose from? Well the short answer is yes and no. Yes there are great computer games for solo gaming but to look at solo boardgaming we have to look at why people play board games to begin with. Generally people play to have fun (and there are several ways people have fun), be social, and to prove one’s skill. While the social aspect is not relevant in solo gaming (for self explanatory reasons), the other reasons still stand though emphasis is on the challenge is paramount. In a solo games, like cooperative games) there is a always a singular win condition and multiple ways to fail, stacking the deck against the player. To be safe, one could say that the similar reasons for playing solo games as cooperative games BUT for the wish to conquer the goal by themself.
With the various games out there there are two types of solo experience games: ones who are designed to be solo games and multiplayer games that are adapted to be a solo experience. Both of these games have their own advantages and disadvantages but try to accomplish the same solo experience. Games that are designed to be solo games initially have the benefit that the main intent of the game’s design is around the solo experience. Traditional solitaire and the Onirim cycle of games (Onirim, Sylvion, Castelion, and Nautilion) are all examples of this kind of game. For each of these games there is a singular objective to accomplish and multiple ways to fail and ways to make the game more challenging for experienced players. All of these aspects fit into the idea that solo board gamers want to overcome the challenge of the game. The second type of solo games are games that were designed with a multiplayer experience in mind and a solo experience was added as well.In these games (such as Mint Works and Viticulture) the challenge of the game is taken on by a ‘AI’ (a set of preferences of actions and abilities) to control the other player. This AI is interesting for two reasons, one it implies that you are trying to beat the AI and not the game (as other solo games try) and that the AI is a player essentially keeping the feel of the experience similar to the core game. As one could suspect the core design focus in these games is on the multiplayer experience and, while I have enjoyed some of these solo modes, they don’t quite capture the same experience as the core game and make me wish I was playing the core game. These games are interesting though in how they try to automate the other player and still try to capture the aspect of overcoming challenge that solo games seek.
Now shortly, what makes a good solo game experience? As previously mentioned the core of a solo game experience is overcoming challenges that the game puts forward whether from the board itself or an AI player. In the mentioned games, there is also a singular goal the player is trying to accomplish and multiple ways to fail. As previously mentioned there are several ways that the solo and cooperative experiences are similar and rely on the same patterns. However, with the basic actions and the game’s actions a designer should think about what actions the player will be repeating multiple times and how that affects the experience. If a single turn takes a long time to execute (not decide on mind you) then the solo experience could suffer as the player becomes frustrated or (even worse) bored with the game. As with other kinds of games players should make meaningful choices to further the goal they are trying to accomplish as well as the game responding well to players taking the actions that are key to the core gameplay. As a final difference between most games and solo games (though similar to cooperative games) is that the player should be at a disadvantage. That is not to say that it is not unfair but that a player can look at how they failed and how they could have succeeded instead but realize that the game is a challenge to beat. If the game is too easy then it becomes trivial to beat it and the satisfaction is lost. If the game is impossible, then frustration will keep the player away. In short several of the same principles of good game design carry over to solo experiences but a great solo experience will keep the physical execution of a turn to a tight loop of actions that don’t take too long but will still be challenging to the player.
- [+] Dice rolls
05 Feb 2018
Before a game is ready for being pitched to a publisher, Kickstarter, or self-publishing it needs to be playtested. During this time of playtesting, designers have to make changes to the game rapidly and iterate as quickly and efficiently as possible. In order to save money and time on art and prototyping, most designers use what is called paper prototyping. Frequently used for computer games or UX design, paper prototyping can be any game designer’s best friend when it comes to trying out and refining new ideas. But what is a paper prototype? Simply, a paper prototype is the most basic, stripped down, low effort, prototype of your game. This version of your game is meant to be easily iterable/changeable as you play your game. Frequently, this is the first type of prototype for any kind of game that is developed so that the designers can focus on refining the mechanics and gameplay before worrying about the art (or other assets). This morning I want to talk about what you should have for your paper prototype toolkit to help get your ideas down and refined more quickly.
What Will You Need
For early prototypes, you need to keep in mind that your design will (and should) change over time. In this vein, there are 5 key things you should have in your paper prototype toolkit: paper/cardboard and pen, sticky notes, random tokens, card sleeves (or a standard card deck), and a plastic bag.
The first thing you will need for you paper prototype is paper (and pens). As obvious as this seems, it underlines that this prototype is and should be rough and anyone could do it. Have an idea for a board? Use a sheet of paper (or random cardboard) to make the board. Have some ideas for cards? Cut them out of paper and write on them. Using paper and pen allows you to quickly mock up your ideas and test them out without having to worry about the longevity of the prototype.
When creating a paper prototype, sticky notes are your best friend. For spaces on a board, character abilities, quick notes, and other game elements, sticky notes are perfect for being a way to write rules that may need to be changed rapidly. Personally, I believe that for every game you create you should (before starting to finalize the layout/design) use almost exclusively sticky notes so that your designing process can be as flexible as possible in finding the fun in your game.
If your game will involve tokens, using random cubes, Lego pieces, or other bits can be used stand-ins for the various components of your game. Some of the components can be made with cardboard or paper if needed, but it is always good to have the tactile feel even with the early prototypes. If you have games you do not normally play you can also use those components (such as monopoly money) to also help get an idea what the components will be. Having a bucket or bag of these various components is always a must in my book as I develop games.
If you are making cards for your game there are some strategies that you can use: you can make them out of paper, use business cards, or use card blanks. Card blanks are expensive making them less than ideal for this highly iterative prototype but with business cards and paper, players can easily see through the back of the card. There are two solutions to this problem, first is that you can use card sleeves for your paper cards so that you cannot see through the back or you can use standard playing cards and simply tape the paper (or sticky note) onto the card. Personally, I prefer using sleeves because it allows for cards to be swapped in and out more quickly and cleanly (and more reusable) than a standard deck of cards, but that is my preference. In either case, if you are making a game with cards and need to keep the back opaque then you should have a set of sleeves in your paper prototyping toolbox.
Finally, to keep your game together and/or the various components of your game you should have plastic Ziploc bags. For your various games, keeping all of the components together can help ensure that once you hit a wall for a design session you can store everything and pick it up at a later time. Keeping these ideas organized can be the difference in making sure that the right components make it into the more expensive and final versions of your game.
The purpose of a paper prototype is to help you, the designer, get the ideas for your game down on paper and playing those ideas quickly. Each component of the toolkit is chosen to help with the changing flux of the rules and mechanics as the game becomes more and more refined. I have included those 5 components into my toolkit helps me get a game ready for the more polished iterations of my games. I hope this has given you some tools for your prototyping and some food for thought.
- [+] Dice rolls
29 Jan 2018
The ending of a game can be as impactful to the player’s experience as the rest of the game. By controlling the end of a game the designer also helps limit the gameplay time and what note people end the game on. In looking at a number of games there are two main thoughts on how the end of a game is determined either by having played a fixed number of rounds or by achieving a certain goal or game condition.
The simplest of the end conditions to talk about is that a certain number of rounds have been played. A number of traditional card games fall into this category as well as many more modern games for a number of reasons. It is simple to explain to new players that there are a certain number of turns it provides an easy way for players to keep track of how far into the game they are. In addition, the anticipation of the end of the game provides tension in the gameplay; players have to frantically make their last moves and those who have little to no chance of winning can look forward to either playing another round of the same game or a different game. Some of the best examples I have seen this done well are in the games Vinhos, Wizard, and Small World. The reason these games work well is that at the end players understand where they in terms of the score and they can work their way to victory in that time frame. As a note, a number of games can accidentally have too many or too few rounds in them potentially leading to a lackluster experience. Some other ways a game can conceal this end condition is by constantly using resources like a timer (although there can be other uses for those resources too). An example of this is in Carcassonne and Kindomino where the tiles played are limited to provide for a fixed number of turns. In short, the easiest way to have a game end is by letting people know it will end in a certain number of turns.
The other way a game can end is by meeting a certain condition, either there are no more of a resource left, a score achieved, or any other condition can be met. These different conditions provide not only a goal for players to play to but also can provide a visual/tactile way of quantifying the amount of time left in a game. In Collectors and Capers, for instance, the game ends a certain number of rounds once all of the treasures have been stolen from the center of the table. With this end condition, players can easily see what is left to be stolen and plan accordingly for the end of the game. Other varieties of this can obviously be when a player scores a certain number of points or when all but one player is eliminated. In particular with player elimination as an end condition, the remaining players can be bored or frustrated as they wait for the end of the game. One of the challenges in designing a game with this kind of end condition though is that a game can last too long or be too short due to the players themselves. This volatility can lead to an exciting end of a game but is less consistent than by measuring out the number of turns.
The different ways to end a game, either by having a fixed number of rounds or a condition met, these can be used to help provide a satisfying end to a good game. For each of these strategies, the intent is to provide clarity and excitement to the players as they make their final bids for victory.
- [+] Dice rolls
07 Jan 2018
In the process of working on 3 games over the past couple of years, I have done a lot of playtesting. These playtests give me some insight into how people will play my games, what works well, what does not, and have even helped my understanding of how to better design games. From my times playtesting I have found that there were five lessons that playtesters inadvertently taught me:
Always Have a Notebook
Feedback is Always Good
Players Will Always Surprise You
Rules are Bad
Players Always Listen, Sometimes Read
Without further ado, let begin diving into these 5 lessons, how I came to learn them, how it has impacted my designs, as well as how it has impacted my understanding of games as a whole.
Always Have a Notebook
While you are playtesting games it is great to have a notebook to take notes. Some of these notes can be basic things like player count, time played, and notes about who won. What I have found though is that additional information comes up, ideas for mechanics, questions that you need to consider, or even on the fly observations about gameplay. If you don’t have a notebook you can miss out on key observations and notes that can be detrimental to your game in the long run. For every designer, it is always good to take notes on the fly and have a written record of your thoughts, especially during playtesting.
Feedback is Always Good
As any designer knows, people will always have opinions about the games you make. As I started playtesting my games more and more I found that there was a wide variety of feedback that people were giving me. Some of this feedback was positive some was not, but what was the most frustrating was when someone did not provide feedback. With the loss of feedback, there is the loss of potential lessons learned: positive feedback you see that you might be on the right track while negative feedback provides guidance to how a game can be improved. This helped me learn to enjoy both positive feedback and negative feedback and encourage it since it meant that as a designer I could improve my games beyond what I could initially conceive. From this feedback, I have been able to glean more information about who plays games, why, and what they want out of an experience and tailor my games to that feedback.
Players Will Always Surprise You
There is a famous quote by the German general Helmuth von Moltke, “No Battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy,” that finds particular purchase with game design as well. When you design a game, you try to think of every possibility and how that could affect the experience of the game. However, I have found that, like Moltke, these plans rarely survived contact. There is a simple reason for this: players will try to play your game in ways you could not imagine. This is a good thing but can lead to trying to come up with rules and rulings on the spot and then writing them down for reference later. This experience from playtesting will lead to a better game if as a designer you write down the questions, concerns, or behavior you see that you did not think about. This made me think about how once games are complete and released, the designer now has to trust their rules to govern the game, that through playtesting were able to see how players would play their games and design accordingly.
Rules are Bad
As I have been designing and playtesting Who Wears the Crown I started noticing a few things about the rules and how players interact with them: players don’t like rules. If there are too many, the game becomes overly confusing and complex but with too few there are more questions than answers. Coupled with this that players rarely want to be told that they cannot do something. Feeling pinned into a action often leaves players feeling irritated and thus not enjoy the game experience. To deal with both the issue of complexity and telling players what they can or cannot do, I found that incentives and penalties are the best way to direct behavior. This way players feel good about making some choices and consider the options of taking a penalty to do undesired actions. The trick with this is to keep the benefits and penalties simple and consistent to keep players from becoming bogged down in the rules.
Players Always Listen, Sometimes Read
Much to my chagrin, I have found that in several instances despite having written rules, player aid cards, or handouts, I am asked a question that could have answered by reading. After having seen this phenomenon several times I started realizing that just because you have written a rule down it does not mean that it was read. Several games have solved this by having video tutorials of their games or apps that help and this made me realize that players listen but only sometimes read. If you think about how a group learns a game typically there is one person who understands the game and vocally teaches the others. This has made me think about how I construct the rules in a way that provides the minimal amount of reading required to get started and proficient in one of my games.
These 5 things have been some of the best lessons I have learned in my pursuit of game design, creation, and publication. It is because of these lessons I look forward to and enjoy playtesting (in addition to showing my games of course). As I continue to work on Who Wears the Crown and start developing new projects I try to integrate these lessons into my designs. I hope you have learned something as well and hope you have a great morning!
- [+] Dice rolls
11 Dec 2017
With the release of several video games such as the latest Assassins' Creed I have been spending this week thinking about expansions and DLC’s (Downloadable Content) and how these affect their games. First, for those who do not know, an expansion/DLC are paid add-ons for a game. Expansions are typically used in board games while DLC can be thought of an expansion of a video game (in most cases). There are several ways that an expansion or DLC can enhance a game but others that fall short of this goal. This morning, I am going to look at expansions/DLC why designers make them, the good about them, and what happens when they do not go well.As an important note, an expansion/DLC is not meant to fix a game or balance it but to simply add to it.
So let us start off the obvious question: why would a designer make an expansion/DLC? To start, there are several reasons that I can think of that would lead me to design an expansion or DLC over a whole new game. When you design a game there are some ideas that may not fit in the initial design intent or within the time before releasing the game. Adding to these ideas some others may come to the designer post-release. These ideas can be added on for better, smoother gameplay or bring a new set of mechanics to help keep the game fresh. In addition to these creative motives there other reason for expansions/DLC to be made is to help sell the game more. Part of the problem with selling games is that once a person has the game there is no continued income expect by making more games (which is most of the fun, to be honest) or taking those ideas and making them into expansions or DLC. If these additions are beneficial to the game as a whole or detrimental depends entirely on the execution of the expansion/DLC.
When done right, expansions/DLC can add whole new layers of gameplay but is not be required to enjoy the game itself. The market for an expansion/DLC is based entirely on those players who enjoy the basic game so the best expansions/DLC takes that initial design intent and adds mechanics to reinforce and enhance that intent. Some games like Crusader Kings 2 sell DLC to add new gameplay experiences that enhance this intent but are not required to have a full gameplay experience. With board games like Carcassonne, the expansions can be as small as a 1.5 inch cube or a large box each adding new mechanics on top of the basic game allowing for more interesting choices to occur in the expanded game. In both cases, the expansions/DLC are simply add-ons to gameplay and are not required to play a balanced game.
Now with the aforementioned Assassins’ Creed, while I have not had the opportunity to play the game myself, every reviewer that I have seen has had the same criticism around the gameplay. In several areas the complaints were around levels being unbalanced but that DLC could be bought to get items that were tailored to the mission. This while loosely following the criteria of not be required means that the gameplay suffers if you do not buy these additional perks. Similarly, if a board game where to have an expansion that fixes the gameplay of a game then that expansion is in essence part of the base game and thus places a tax on the player of not only the base game but also to buy the expansion. If a designer finds themself in a place where they need to fix a game after it has been released then they should release an eterra (a set of corrections) instead and try to distribute it as much as possible.
Personally, I am working on some expansions for a few of my games as well as an eterra and see these both as valid options for benefiting a game. Where I see expansions/DLC failing is where a company decides that they are going to instead use expansions/DLC to sell additional required gameplay to the player. An expansion/DLC should be required nor a bandage for gameplay but as mentioned previously an additional experience.
These are just my thoughts though and I hope that it gives you something to think about.
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03 Dec 2017
Let us take this afternoon to conclude our discussion on Table Citizenship and take a look at the remaining four sins of Greed, Wrath, Sloth, and Lust. For each of these sins let us take a look at the manifestation at the table and how to prevent them from plaguing your game night.
One of the more simple sins, Greed can be defined as wanting everything whether it is all of the games at the table or if someone always needs to have their way. If you have a player who always wants to play games that they suggest try finding games that are similar but can add new flavor to your game nights. To avoid this greed, you could also set up a schedule where on different game nights different people bring different games. Alternatively, games could be voted on beforehand. As a player, you should always be open to new games and recognize that if you insist on the same games over and over then you might find that the table becomes fed up with the game. If you find yourself playing a game you do not like then find a similar one that you like and offer that suggestion after the game night is done. If people still insist on their own games or constantly and refuse to agree to a resolution then it might be better for them to join another game night.
Now while many of the sins can be irksome to a game night but few can ruin it like wrath. It can either be an explosive outrage after a game is lost or it could comment during following games. Wrath can be also targeted towards a person or it could be towards a game. My advice is to take a break after a game if only for a little bit. If you are the player who is enraged, then suggest taking some time away from the table. I always find taking walk is a good thing to do as well as talking about the source of the disagreement after enough time has passed. If enough people are angry then the game night should be ended and then people need to talk about what made them angry. The important thing to keep in mind is that if the grievances are not addressed then these issues can lead to the dissolution of the game night. Time and patience are key when dealing with wrath.
Sloth could be least of the 7 sins described for board gaming. The worst scenario for sloth is that a game is not cleaned up after it is played and that can easily be handled by simply being diligent after a game is complete to clean it up. If it becomes a problem then a rotation of who cleans up can be implemented.
As I wrote this article today, this was the sin that is the most difficult to talk about. The issue with talking about lust is that there are a ton of ways that it can manifest. Instead of trying to enumerate all of them I will simply try to provide some rules. First and foremost, a game night is for games, trying to flirt or make advances is not appropriate for the table. Second, consent is the most important thing: ask for permission and respect the wishes of those at the table. Third, if someone is being inappropriate remove them from the situation and talk to them about what is not appropriate. Finally, if a group member is made uncomfortable by another’s actions, move quickly to resolve the situation. In all of these rules, the key thing is to remove group members who are not acting appropriately. There are many other people in the gaming community who have tackled this issue a lot better than I can.
So these rules are but a guideline to trying to be a better citizen at the table and hopefully your game nights will benefit.
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26 Nov 2017
So You Are About To Go On An Adventure
With GenCon and many other conventions coming to a close (but many more to come), I want to talk about games you take while you are traveling. As I have been going around to conventions like PDX and (eventually) PAX Unplugged I have had to look at my game shelves to see what games I can take without taking up too much weight and/or space and play en route. In that spirit this morning, let us look at how to tell how travel friendly a game is.
What Should You Look For?
Stating the obvious, size and weight are your enemies when packing games for travel. Now the size of the game can be broken into two categories: storage size and table footprint size. Now depending on how far you are traveling, the method, and your time at your destination these things can change but for the most part you want games that will minimize these size factors (so you have more room for other games). Looking at my own shelves, there are many classics that don’t make this mark: Lords of Waterdeep, Power Grid, and Carcassonne to name a few games that would be difficult to pack or play while traveling. Now some of these games you may want to play at your destination and I’ll talk about how you can still get your games to your destination. So what do these games all have in common? A lot of components to them and with a lot of components you get big boxes and large table footprints.
As a starting place, games that come in compact boxes are a good starting point. With a small box, the amount of space that the game takes up is minimal leaving room for other games or other luggage. The second thing to keep in mind is that the number of components should Ideally be minimal. With more components things could get lost enroute and more table footprint. Card games are particularly good for travel since they can have a limited number of small components and the footprint can be minimal. In fact, a deck of cards is also a good choice since there are a number of games that can be played with a standard deck and most of these games don’t take up a lot of space. Also for games to play on the road, dice games are not ideal since dice can fall to the ground.
Finally, depending on how you are travelling, the number of players is important since most forms of travel limit the proximity that you can have with other players. If you think about airplanes then you would want to look for 2 or 3 player games since it is easier to talk to your neighbors while sitting in a line. If you are travelling by yourself then you may want to look to some solo games or games with solo adaptations.
So What Games are Good for Travel?
There are also several games that are good for travel ranging from Mint Works to Harbour and to Collectors and Capers. These games that have a small box, limited components, and the right number of players but the the Tiny Epic Series of games (and especially the Ultra Tiny Epic Kingdoms) are great in this regard. However if you are concerned that these take up too much space on the table and in you luggage then you cannot go wrong with a deck of cards. With all of these games the table footprint can be minimized, the box itself is small, and the number of components is limited.
What About Mobile Adaptations?
Now these games can still take up a bit of space and an obvious solution to this is to play games that have an mobile app version. These games can be played with friends online or by oneself and have the smallest amount of table space needed to play. These games can help pass the time if you have the battery for it but miss out on the tactile experience of a board game.
So in short if you are planning to pack some games to play via travel the size of the game, the table space the game takes up, number of components, and number of players are all things to keep in mind. If you don’t mind missing the tactile experience then mobile digital adaptations are great but in the end a deck of cards is always a good choice. I hope this has given some food for thought for you this morning and would love to hear about what you think.
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