Jeff's World of Game Design

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Make games playful again

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
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In the last post I mentioned a new game, "Realm", with a kind-of-newish mechanic. This post is about another new design that I think has some points that warrant discussion.


The game is called "Welcome to Terra" (not to be confused with "Greetings from Terra", my party game). We are building resorts for alien tourists. The game runs seven rounds, each has three steps.

sugar First we reveal seven customer cards, showing the species that will be visiting this round. And we flop out several domino-style tiles, representing amenities. Each amenity caters to two types of aliens.

From gallery of jwarrend

From gallery of jwarrend
sugar Second, we each draft one amenity tile and add it to our resort, which is a 4x4 grid (i.e., it can hold 8 tiles, each of which have two boxes). Contiguous clusters of boxes for a given species add value by the "common difference" scheme, i.e. 1/2/3/4 boxes provide 1/3/5/7 points of value. Customers go to the resort with the most value for that customer.

(e.g. in the example to the right, my value for the 'tentacle' species is 9+1=10, for the 'bug' species 7, for the other two 1)


The third sugar is the one that has several points of interest to it.

Back in the late 80s there was a computer game called Starflight II. You were a spaceship captain assembling a crew and traveling to different planets. In your travels you'd interact with alien ships, and you could decide what posture your comms officer would adopt with that species. The funniest one was "obsequious". Loosely inspired by this, step 3 of our round sequence is:

sugar Grovel. You pick one species to target, and grovel before them by picking a number, which is added to your resort's base value for that species. But, you can't grovel less than you've previously groveled to that species. High bidder gets the customer, worth one point.


The first point of interest is the simplest. While the winds of design seem to be blowing away from "traditional" topics like trading and building and toward things like cats and crumpets, what I think designers are somewhat leaving on the table are opportunities to make games playful.

Making players bid "hubris" in Lost Adventures, take on "crankiness" in Theme Park, and "grovel" before aliens in Welcome to Terra, are examples, I think, of how looking for inspiration in the playful or the silly can breathe some fresh air into a design. The next post has another fun example of this, I think.


The second point of interest riffs off of our earlier discussions about Pandemic. The most ingenious thing about Pandemic is its infection mechanic, whereby the same cards get shuffled back into the top of the deck. I think it actually works better as a customer mechanic: provide good service and the same customers will keep coming back.

Terra uses something like this. If any one player's combined bid for a species (resort + groveling) is greater than 10, the visitor cards for that species are added back to the draw pile. This encourages you to want to grovel a lot early on, but of course as previously stated you can't un-grovel.


If the players collectively grovel too much to one species in the same round, that species decides that Earth is inferior and must be destroyed, which ends the game.

This is our third point of interest for design discussion. Games like Q.E. have shown that bidding games don't have to be resource management games; you can be bidding for how much risk you're willing to assume.

And that's how Terra works. There's no "paying for your bid", you're groveling, lay it on as thick as you want! But there's no going back, and the more you bid early, the more risk that fighting over one species later on will result in destroying our planet and more importantly, our businesses.


Now I strongly suspect this rule will be polarizing: it's not fair, it rewards the player who successfully plays chicken with the rest of the group, etc. But we must admit, it has a lot of bite!

My biggest concern is simply that it might be exploitable. A softer position might be that those who brought about the end of the world can't win, softer still might be that the game continues but that particular race refuses to return in future rounds, or softer still might be that those involved in the over-groveling can no longer attract that species in future rounds. So there are fall-back options.

But I think this shows how, as a designer, sometimes the challenge is to separate what players like from what actually works. Sometimes you back away from something really interesting or bitey in favor of something more familiar, simply because your playtesters didn't like the unconventional thing. But that can be a mistake. If you know where you're trying to go, then playtester feedback becomes a way of knowing whether you're on the right road to get there, and not a critique of whether that destination is worth visiting in the first place.

Of course it doesn't hurt, when trying something unusual, to enlist playtesters who you think are particularly likely to appreciate it. If they do, then you can focus on making it work; if they don't, then perhaps you really are on the wrong track.


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