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A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Expectations Part Two

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Original Post

Yesterday I wrote about the role of expectations in games and about how a persons expectations shape the moves they choose to make in playing a game. This can be useful to a designer in shaping the players behaviour to make the game more enjoyable or to lead them towards the hidden depths of a game.

Today is about how expectations change the way that people feel about games. This is perhaps more important than the moves that people choose to make, as people engage with media (games, films, books, TV, whatever) in the interests of feeling a particular way. A person might just want to be entertained, or they might be looking for something more specific. Sometimes I pretend that I'm not only playing mafia because I like the experience of successfully deceiving people, I like it when people believe that.

The most obvious tool a game can use to set a particular mood is its box art. This has a big impact on how the game is initially viewed. The box for Twilight Struggle is somewhat muted in a manner typical of wargames, it's not trying to sell itself on "Bang! Zap! This is exciting!". It's telegraphing to the player that this is going to be a strategy game and that what you'll get out of it is that sense of strategic satisfaction that comes with executing the perfect plan. The American and Soviet symbols highlight that this is a face to face confrontation between two players. Even the floor the character is walking on reinforces both messages by conjuring up images associated with chess.

Contrast this with something like War on Terror, a game that is unrewarding if taken too seriously. The board and some of the elements are a lot like risk, which might imply a more strategic game, but the rules are fairly arbitrary and most grand strategies can fall apart at the drop of a hat. Really this is a game about having fun with friends and an excuse for banter, more than it is a deep game. The box art supports this, most obviously through bright colours and a large number of caricatures acting manically. Also by highlighting that the game contains an 'evil' balaclava for a player to wear it's implicitly admitting "This game isn't about the game itself, the important things here aren't game play elements".

I don't want to keep hammering on this point, but I am subject to the human disposition to prefer three item lists, so I'll just say that Twilight Imperium's art is pointing towards one word: Epic. The box lets you know that if you sit down to play this game you're not going to be standing up for a good long while, which seems a very important expectation to set in that particular game's case.

A game has many elements that can influence a player beyond things like box art though. Obviously there are other visual elements such as the card and board design, but all of these things may be beyond the reach of a game designer, as often the publisher will make these decisions. A designer’s domain is the rules of the game itself and these can also be used to set a mood.

For instance the rules for setting up a game can be important. The first thing that a new player is handed will shape what they consider the game to be about. In Shadows over Camelot or Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game one of the first things that a player will be handed is a card indicating whether they're loyal or a traitor. This screams to those players that loyalty is going to be important to this game and that the search for traitors will make up a large part of the game.

There are plenty of other game design elements that can be used in this way. The 'first turn' mechanic is an underused mechanic for this, but knowing that the first turn goes to "The player with the longest hair", "The player who can tell the best adventure story" or just "The player to the left of the dealer" each influence the way in which people experience the game.

One of the things I learned as a psychologist is that almost nothing is too small to influence human thinking. I don't know if it's a deliberate effort on the part of the designers or the result of many hours of diligent playtesting, but the best games out there use this to great effect. See if you can spot something new that leads you to this next time you crack open your favoriate game
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