Monday, April 13, 2009

On the Keeping of a Kingdom

Has it really been 6 months since I posted here? My concept of time has been simply mad this year.

A couple of hiatuses from, and subsequent returns to, game design, have lead to a crystallization of my thinking on the process. I find I'm less inclined to go down poor paths, to flesh out ideas that aren't workable. My instincts for good and bad designs are growing more keen, and I can bring them to bear on less well-formed designs. I was attempting to pin down what exactly the insights are, but they're slippery. Here's a start:

- Don't fall in love with engines. I sometimes figure out a conceptual way that certain game entities might interact, creating an engine that the player can influence. This is a bad starting place for a design, and placing such a mechanism first is going to put you down a design path that is unlikely to actually be fun, and will to tough to deviate from mentally. This was the biggest problem with much of my early designing.

- What is the challenge structure? This is the biggest insight I've had, is to ask this. Challenges, as I think I discussed in a previous post, are at the heart of interesting gameplay. When the player sits down, what challenges are presented to them? Ask this of any new design you have, if you don't have a good answer, work on the idea until you do. If you still can't solve it, its not a good design.

- What is the simplest version possible of this game? God, this exercise is useful, this is a great way to judge the early viability of a game.

- What are the first two sentences you say to a new player when you sit them down to play this game? Imagine you are just sitting down to play this game, and it is being explained to you, is it something that you want to play? This is an important step-back method later in the process, when you're trying to sort the details out. Is there a core way to explain the game to someone new that is understandable (grokable even) and appealing? So often you wander from the core of what you wanted to do in a game, get so excited about some mechanism that its become impenetrable to the new player.

I think games need to be constructed in layers of elegance, and that this can be detected by the way that a new player perceives the game. Is there a quick, high-level picture of what the game's about? Does the rest of the stuff fall under that as reasonable extensions of the initial principles?

My point is, a teachable game is a good game. The more easily players can internalize the logic of your game, the sooner they can get to the business of playing it. Thinking about how you would present the game as it currently exists is a valuable exercise in the quality of the design.


This is all to say these are techniques for seeing your game in terms of the experience it provides, rather than the makeup of its parts. And this doesn't mean the decisions that are presented, or the per-turn nuances that you're trying to create: that's the sort of stuff you think about naturally while you're designing. The challenging part is to see the big picture, to see if all that stuff is adding up to a game.

Because honestly, usually when you take a stab at the detailed mechanics of a game, you're going to end up with ones that just don't work. Its such a fragile, fickle, brittle, wicked thing, game design, the low level stuff you create that seems good in isolation just rarely works in the broader context. The trick is to recognize that early on, and try again, and again, and to keep your searches shallow and your process broad. When you dive too deep into a given mechanic, and invest too much time into it, and allow too many assumptions inherent to it to calcify, you've ruined the entire design for yourself. You're no longer able to throw it away and try something else, it has crusted into place around the rest of your design the two have to live or die together. So they die.


So yes, this is all a bit dramatic, mostly for effect. Of course generating ideas is good, as is exploring them, falling in love with them, honing them and being patient. Finding elegance is hard work. But I rant like this because I think that the other side of the coin is easy to ignore, especially for the novice designer (like me, still, to be honest). Of course, yes, you can throw ideas away, and good designers do. But my point is, its harder than you think, and hard work and focus on a given idea that shows promise is not always the right course of action.


This ties into two general design theories that have come into focus for me this year, that I will allude to just briefly here:

1) Design is about creating approximations of the outcomes and experiences that you expect your design to lead to. You need to create sketches, models, mental simulations, actual simulations and other approximations of your design, and see how they fare in approximated practice. This is tough in board game design, where the actual experience is borne of the complex unknowable interactions of mechanics and human minds, but the tips I mention above are a start.

2) There are special challenges when you are designing information-based products such as software and board games, when you are creating not a physical object but a system of rules and ideas. In these cases, too much depth early on is a death stroke. Its as if your first step in designing a building was to lay down a huge iron column and decide what to do from there (with apologies to Christopher Alexander).

Here's the myth about software design and board game design: that mental design decisions are wholly malleable. The ideal is that you just think about stuff, and if a given solution doesn't work, well, you'll just try something else. You won't.

Once you've thought about a given idea in enough depth, put the effort into developing it, gotten used to thinking about certain idea's you've developed as givens and constraints to work around, they become solid. They become as solid as if you'd physically started building something.

What you need to do in board game design, and software design as my ongoing research is trying to prove, is take lots of little stabs at the problem. Explore it from a variety of angles at minimal depth, and slowly work your way in. The preliminary work on one angle will provide the means to understand the other angles, and as long as you don't go deep on one too early, you won't lock the whole thing up and ruin it.

Some of the tips I mentioned above are towards this aim. You think about the challenges, the simple version, the explanation of the game. They yank you out of your current angle, show you the others, show you where they clash. And if you're lucky, you can try to build an elegant solution that involves the shifting of all of the angles' needs, instead of building them around one big calcified spike of an idea that you're just too attached to.


Again, I know, this is all very dramatic. The idea of spikes you can't move, of all these angles, of clawing your way back out of your ideas? Its only to draw contrast to what you might think about game design.

Every idea you generate is a double edged sword that represents progress in one direction, but resists deviations from that path. Its a fortress. You've staked out a space, and now you can use it, but if you try to uproot it, it will bristle with crossbows from palisades. Build little outposts on the landscape, but don't let any of them get so strong that they defy you.

Edit: added 3rd section as something of a response to Chad's comment - thanks Chad!

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Yesterday I sat down for a quantity-over-quality design session, a bit more detailed than outright brainstorming, but just trying to get some ideas flowing. It ended up going on, on and off, for about 2 hours, and resulted in 21 preliminary game designs over about 5 pages in a notebook. Its got me thinking in a lot of directions, working on my intuitions about what works, noticing my tendencies, noticing mental traps and ruts that I go into again and again. I also found that just having the TV on quietly in the background was helpful to give me some stimulus, some inspiration to get ideas flowing. Writing down words that kept kicking around in my head also helped to spark new directions when I was in a mental loop/trap/rut. So useful in a few ways, pretty satisfying. I will try to do more of these in the future.

For reference, here's a 1 line description of each. Some of these werent' developed much more than this, some got a half page of side ideas to themselves:
1. A party/parlor/word card game about rapping/poetry/rhyming words
2. A game based on google searches, each person gets a laptop? Guesses about searches?
3. Minigame Social Game sub-idea: Numbered hats as rank, determines matchups
4. Minigame Social Game sub-idea: What room you're in determines challenge types availible
5. Climbing game based on reveals of vertical tiles
6. A traditional-deck game about rigging and betting on sporting events
7. Each player makes a dungeon and explores others' dungeons - an improved design of an idea I saw in another game
8. Moving furniture into a room
9. Simple sports game with a cheating/steroids element
10. Alchemy still hasn't been done right - some notes.
11. Game of Games - this is an involved one.
12. Marching band field show game
13. Play at the plate - a 2 player game of the subtle sub-second moments and movements of a single opposed action
14. Totem Pole Building
15. Fight/chase in an abandoned suburb
16. Chili Cookoff - expansion of a DnD minigame I had in the day
17. Game of being dungeon masters and keeping players happy
18. Zen Game - trying not to adhere to any of several false "victory conditions"
19. Poker/combinations with "squared" deck
20. Guiding a teammate through the maze/situation/obstaclt course you can see that they can't
21. Minigame Social Game sub-idea: 2 on 2 team approach

Monday, August 11, 2008

Victory Conditions

How do I see myself succeeding at this game design game? I'd like to create something playable; something fun. I see three main ways this might be achieved, three kinds of games, or more accurately three kinds of game designs, that might forge that path.

1. The real game. The traditional-sized, fairly complex game that doesn't reinvent the hobby, but that I just happen to make better than average through some effective designing. This is the hardest to accomplish, the hardest to prototype, and the most daunting to playtest.
My Examples: Pirate coop, nearly every early game I designed
Real-World Successes: Puerto Rico, Arkham Horror, most games.

2. The simple game. Sure its not the best game you ever played, but its an illustration of a clever mechanic or interaction, and it was obviously designed as a "small" game. Pet games might use cheap components, or existing components like traditional dice or cards, piecepacks, or minimal custom decks. Can seem unexciting, but are far more feasible to prototype and play.
My Examples: Several designs, tellingly though, few that get talked about here.
Real-World Successes: Many public domain games, many cheapass games, card games such as 6-nimmt and rage, For Sale, many smaller Knizia games.

3. The innovative game. Take a simple idea and make it fly, providing something really new, without necessarily recombining things that you'd seen in the past. This best explained through:
Real World Successes: Apples to Apples was able to go with nothing but a decko f words and like 3 rules to create gameplay. Tales of the Arabian Nights brought the book of tales concept to its full height (and most of the rules they added afterwards really weren't necessary). Finstere Flure built a simple set of rules around the idea of an autonomous monster, Roborally added some (too many, perhaps) rules around the basic notion of prealigning moves with a card each. Magic obviously blew things up with its collectible notion (though the game itself is one of the most complex around if you really get down into it).

The real game is the hardest to create, the hardest to work with, but its easy to slip into. I often start with something simple or innovative, and I really like it. But it doesn't quite work, and I can't quite get it to come together, but I liked the original idea enough that I can't really let go of it. Soon I've painted myself into a corner, and don't know it, or cling onto the idea anyway. Making a real game work requires, as I've described recently, resources and/or bravery that I currently don't have, and rather than fight it, I'd like to satisfy myself with smaller designs for a while. So, how to proceed.

1) Accept the growth and go ahead and try to make the "real" designs that start to emerge work.
2) Show more discipline in keeping ideas simple. Easier said than done, but something I'm working on.
3) Generate more simple ideas, creating a large number of them, and not getting too attached to any one.

This last one is where I'm going with all this. It seems a little unintuitive, essentially a strategy of quitting. To explain: I think its far, far too easy in design in general, and game design in particular, to get hung up on a given idea, work out some additional rules/constraints/decisions to make it work, get locked into those ideas, and find yourself in a failing state in the space of possible designs, without the will/wisdom/wherewithall to know how to salvage what was working. In fact, in the midst of working on a given idea, I'd say its nearly impossible to even throw away everything other than the core idea and try a different direction on it, let alone retreat to a more complete, later, partially successful state.

But that idea was good - what's needed is a way to keep it, but to get a clean conceptual start on it. I wonder if rather than hashing out a single idea, it would be wiser to create a large number of ideas, take a stab at working out each, but then log them, move on, and use the time working on newer ideas as a palette cleansing period to take on those that have fallen by the side.

Perhaps I'm not succeeding in explaining the motivations behind this process, let alone the process itself. But I want to find a way to:
1) ride that enthusiasm of an idea, which is fun
2) explore it a bit
3) but not keep pounding on it until its broken
4) find away to return to it later

In short, going a bit more breadth first with my design process for a bit - increasing my chances of keeping the core good ideas straight and sticking to those simple and innovative games without letting the need to make them work distort them. This might involve a more rigorous approach to my sketchbooks and filing, or might emply this blog somehow. We'll see.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

regarding the real world

I'm constantly looking at the world in game design terms, but this can lead to lots of excitable trips down dead end paths. Oftentimes, I find:

1. Modeling an interesting real-world decision process in a game does not necessarily result in an interesting game mechanic.

2. Introducing an interesting real-world effect as a rule does not necessarily make for an interesting rule, let alone interesting gameplay.

There's getting inspired, and there's getting distracted. Telling them apart is difficult.

gosh but designing games is hard

I worked for a while on the pirate coop game, and the asymetrical monster city game - and I think both have potential. Lately I've hatched an idea for a strange drafting / sports game that seems to have learned the lessons of previous similar designs. But its proving tough to get past a certain point with these designs.

I think part of the problem is, there is only so much you can do without a playtest group. Furthermore, I think you need hours and hours of playtesting at various levels to make any progress. And while I might have had the possibility of such a group years ago, I didn't take advantage of it, and now the possibility has largely evaporated.

What is the solution? I'm not sure, I suppose I could look for / recruit for a group locally, on craigslist of whatever. Its a bit of an intimidating prospect, but I think a groups of this kind are the only hope for moving beyond the sketches and doodles phase.

But then, is that a goal? The sketches and doodles phase is fun, and maybe that's just where I'll stay. Its a bit useless, but no bigger a waste of time than, say playing video games. And I do feel like I'm honing my sense of what will work and what won't, catching duds earlier in the process, steering designs away from pitfalls I'm learning about.

The latest draft-ball-game is a good example of this - maybe something I'll write up later.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


I've worked a lot on Robin and my Coop pirates game, though that is a big beast of a design to really finish.

In other news, having a girlfriend is detrimental to getting board game design work done.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Drama of Dice

Why board games over computer games? Why bother with board games at all? I think a lot of it is that they're an excuse to hang out, to enjoy face to face interaction. But its also the bits, some intangible quality of the physical components.

I've been reading this book about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, with these impassioned descriptions of how certain fuzziness was achieved using analog techniques, how acoustic guitars trump electric, how lo-fi can be better than polished. I think a lot of the appeal of board games lies in the same subtle corners of "realness".

In particular, dice. There was this geeklist a while back where someone was saying what was wrong with American-style board games. Dice was one of the problems, too many dice. But it made me realize how much I *like* dice. Here was one of my responses, about the appeal of an important die roll.

They bounce and rattle and tease you with the face you need, spinning on end, your mind grasping for the first moment when the result is rendered, eyes darting across the seven settling cubes; a five! did I see a one and a two out of the corner of my eye? I swear that was about to fall a six! Everyone's eyes fly about, trying to be the first to declare the result. And someone yelps, and a ripple runs through the players, a mere half-second in length as everyone sees the result - success!

That dulcet anticipation of the result is terribly underappreciated, and terribly lacking in other mechanisms.

Its just not the same as flipping a tile, looking up a result on a chart, or your opponent revealing a card. The die has been cast, nothing can be done now, but to watch and hope, and try to figure out the result as soon as possible. Its like a basketball shot flying through the air, as you try to determine whether you think its going to go in, as all has been done, and soon physics will tell you the outcome.

Here's another example, from a Battlestations session report I did (that, by the way, was featured on their official site, for some reason). Note that all rolls are two dice in this game, needing a total of 8, in this case:

At this point, despite having the “lucky” perk, Leonov was completely out of luck. The ship was size 4, the speed was 6. Leonov had one point of piloting skill, and he had prepared. He *needed* a natural roll of 8 to turn the ship.

We made this clear, and got ready for the roll. We psyched ourselves up and leaned forward on the couches. Nate readied himself, and rolled the dice. The first die came up a 2. Immediately. We all agreed afterwards that there was a subtle but distinct backward motion in each of us, as we slouched backwards in defeat and disappointment. It was just instinctual, you see a 2, and its over. 2’s are really, really bad. But that damn second die just spun on its corner, I can still see it now. It spun and tumbled and came down a flippin’ 6. We totally lost it.

That actually happened that way. So strange, that the low number slapped down right away, while the other die spun for so long. The odds of all of that coming together for maximum drama are ridiculous.


So I like dice. As an actual game design post, what is the conclusion? Well, its made me realize the importance of the pieces you use. I've long considered the relative merits and abilities of cards, tiles, dice, discs, etc., but another dimension is the psychological impact of the actual physical objects that are at play.

And when it comes to dice, how do you use them to determine outcomes? This came about when I was designing this superhero game today, which is really more of a candidate theming of a mechanic I like, rather than a theme I'm married to. In any case, I wanted a simple die roll to determine the outcome of a crime-fighting activity. At first I considered a single die roll + modifier check. But then I considered, this is a simple roll that will often have a very big impact on things: it needs to carry as much drama as possible. From that perspective, rather than looking at the result of a single die, it would be more exciting to have that brief moment of uncertainty as you roll. Its that moment when the two samurai have run past eachother, and you wait to see which generates a jet of blood indicating he had already lost.

So maybe two dice, as in battlestations. Or maybe a number of dice equal to your skill, requiring a particular number of successes, as in Arkham Horror, Betrayal, etc. I think its telling that those two games, theme-rich as they are, both use that mechanic, and I certainly have gotten some good drama out watching those die rolls unfold.

Plus, double counting makes it tougher to pin down the actual odds at play, vs needing a given number on two dice.

My point is, I had often seen randomization mechanisms purely in terms of the outcomes they could produce, and in what proportions. But there are also implications to the user experience of actually handing those components, and using them to determine the results of their actions. What kind of physical drama does that create, in the real act of playing the game? Its a subtle issue, and not one that I've seen get much overt attention from the game design community.