Jeff's World of Game Design

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Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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"You Said This Would Be Fun", a book about game design, available at Amazon and DriveThruRPG
Come talk design at the Jeff's World of Game Design blog!
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Austin Powers is a fun film that I very much enjoy, but admittedly you do have to accept a few plot holes, such as that Dr. Evil, though having been in carbon freeze since the 70s, is nevertheless sufficiently aware of a Devo song from the 80s to make a joke riffing on its lyrics. Maybe Number 2 brought him up to speed in an off-camera scene.

Let's talk about advice. There are four senses in which players can give other players (and especially new players) advice in playing games:

1 Gratuitously self-serving advice that is only intended to benefit the person offering the advice
2 "Are you sure you meant to do that?" advice, when a person does something that appears to be unwise
3 Spelling out the best move for that player given their position and likely intentions
4 Advice that helpfully explains what a person's options are

Of these, the only one that I really have any patience for is 1.

3 is right out. Play your own game, don't tell other players how to play theirs. 4 seems well-intentioned, but personally I don't want to learn games that way. Games require the development of heuristics, and I don't like relying on heuristics other people have developed, I want to discover my own. That is part of the enjoyment, for me at least.

Now 2 is an edge case, because sometimes a player appears to have made a blunder, one that is going to explode their position in the game, and that might ruin the session for everyone by effectively taking that player out of contention. "Did you mean to do that?" can be a simple remedy to insure that a simple mental lapse doesn't spoil the evening's fun. But on the other hand, per the point above, personally I like learning by making mistakes, and anyway part of the fun of a session's story are "if only I hadn't..." sort of stuff. But more importantly, it may be that I'm trying something outlandish or counterintuitive, and other players calling attention to it perhaps reduces the chances that it will come off.

Given these choices, I greatly prefer 1. Offer advice that's obviously intended to benefit you, and deliver it with a twirl of the mustache, as it were. That kind of thing is entertaining, and makes a session lively and fun. And more importantly, it can serve as an entry point to actually meaningful discussion. Ok, you want me to move my farmer there; what's in it for me? What are you going to do for me if I do that? Or alternatively, nope, I'm not moving my farmer there, but I'd be willing to move it over there instead; what do you say to that?


When playtesting an unfinished game, these considerations change a bit. Often new players to your game have no idea what they're doing or what they're supposed to be doing. In such a situation, 4 is not a bad way to go; at least tell them what their options are. 1 is right out; most players expect the designer to win, but to do it by devious means and exploiting the other players' inexperience leaves a bad taste in the players' mouth and won't make them eager to test something else of yours in the future.

3 seems, on the surface, less obviously bad than in playing a published game, but I think it's equally harmful. As we discuss in the book, telling players the best move reveals what you believe the game's heuristics to entail, and generally players will take your word for it, but this skews the results of your playtest, and players will not be as likely to discover better heuristics, or flaws in the game.


We talked about negotiation a few posts back, and advice in negotiation games presents a challenge for new players because the line between 4 and 1 is blurry. "He's offering you a bad deal, don't take it! My offer is much more fair." Should I believe you or are you just saying that because you want me to take your deal because it will benefit you? This of course is what makes negotiation fun, the abandonment of the pretense that anyone is being anything other than self-serving, but in a learning game it's difficult without a perceived honest broker to help players formulate at least initial heuristics for how to make good trades.

This is one reason that Sidereal Confluence's simple fair trade formula, and the entry level heuristics provided on the character sheets, are such a good idea. Knowing that 3 small = 2 big = 1 octagon in the game's math is a good guidepost for trades, one that inexperienced players can always fall back on if they feel they're being led down the primrose path. Good players progress to more sophisticated trades, but simple and fair trades can be perfectly effective, and so the presence of this formula sidesteps the need to rely on the players to try to thread the needle between 1 and 4. That also means that learning game sessions of the game can still function as a full competitive session, which is more important in a game that runs for two hours.

This is a useful reminder that players offering other players advice will be a natural part of how a game is played, and therefore the rules teacher will inevitably be called upon to provide advice during a learning session. Design thinking would lead us to include more "cheat sheets" like the formula of Sidereal Confluence, both to take some pressure off of the rules teacher and to get players acclimated to the game's competitive domain from an earlier time in their first session.


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