Thursday, December 20, 2007

Romantic Bits

I was looking at a board game book on Amazon, and noticed this cover of a related item. I'm a big fan of bits/pieces/tokens/components in a game - I liked the little gems in Niagara so much that I bought 7 bags of them in various colors for use in prototypes. I just wanna touch em.

For some reason, the little dice with an Anchor on it, in the top right of this picture, really appeals to me. I want to roll a dice and hope for an anchor.

It's strange. Suppose there's a game where you can take a number of actions, as determined by a dice roll, and one of these actions is to move your ship. I'm not that excited about a game where a standard dice is used, and a 6 corresponds to ship movement. But when I need to roll an anchor to move the ship, now I'm stoked.

This is tough to get past when I'm prototyping. You don't have time to do every little thing right in an exploratory prototype, and you certainly don't have the ability to get custom pawns/dice/etc made. So you make do. But sometimes when a game is missing some spark, I have to wonder if the spare physical composition is to blame. I feel like a Niagara prototype, without the canoes, waterfall effect and gems, would belie the appeal that the finished game ended up having.

I even let this problem impede me in the monster city game, where I wanted to use the Memoir 44 dice (depicting tanks, infantry, grenades, etc) so badly that I let it dictate some probabilities I might not have gone with otherwise. The effect wasn't all that profound, but I found myself drawn by the components in a strangely seductive way.

I suppose the answer is to learn to see past the components during a prototype, but that's tough. At very least I need to separate my emotional dissatisfaction with the feel of a game from whether or not its actually working. If its "working" in some sense, I might need to gussy it up a bit and see how it feels then. The more I think about it, I know of plenty of games that would have seemed pretty lame before a proper componenting out.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More Monster City

This game continues to plague me. There are just a very large number of ways you can take the game, so many ways to do the monster actions, so many ways to do city actions, so many city layouts, so many extra twists, all exploding combinatorially. This is the nature of game design, but its especially tricky this time.

I've tried to focus on my actual goals, to back out of assumptions about how things should be done. What I've come up with is:
1) City units should be able to hinder the monster, getting in his way.
2) The city players should not be able to damage the monster. This emerged over time, that it just felt wrong for the city to slowly damage and kill the monser. The city is in a desperate fight to avoid getting obliterated, but they are not an actual threat to the monster's supremacy.
3) The way the city player wins is to survive until a point where they get an ultimate weapon done, which is the one way they can kill the monster and win.
4) The way the monster player wins is to do a boatload of damage to the city, and return to the sea before the ultimate weapon destroys him.

So, the monster is trying to screw stuff up as fast as possible, and the city player is trying to keep the monster from screwing too much stuff up until they can get the weapon online, and either kill the monster with it, or use the threat of it to drive the monster back to the sea.

So how do the city units do anything useful? Well, for one, they can contain the monster, who can't use his big long-distance moves if there are units in the way. So we get a bit of fox-and-geese, where the city units try to slow the monster down and cut off his options. Second, and this is a fairly recent idea that I'm not completely cemented on: the units have an attack range, and they don't do damage or anything, but the monster can't attack a building while he's in the attack range of a unit.

So this leads to an interesting interaction. A city player piles up a bunch of units near the monster. The monster might try to kill all those units, and then will be able to wreck the nearby buildings, but this might take a while, especially if the city player keeps bringing in reinforcements. So the monster is liable to just head off to some other part of the city, where the resistance is less stiff, and wreck that freely. But the city player can use units to try to slow the monster's avenues of movement, to keep it in the areas where the city is well defended. But if the monster breaks free, its going to rip stuff up for a while, until the city player can stop it.

If this happens, does the city player desperately send in a single unit to buy himself some time while the monster kills it and goes back to wrecking? Does he send in a big force, which the monster might just avoid? Does he start cordoning off the main routes out of that area, and then send in a big force, to reestablish control? Or some combination of these effects? I think the strategic depth has a lot of potential.

In addition, I like the thematic feel better than some other versions I've come up with. The monster shouldn't actively seek out tanks, he should just wail on the ones in his face and then go back to beating up the city. And the city player shouldn't be able to control the monster, but can still limit its options, make stands, block certain streets. They will never be in control, but they just might buy themselves enough time...

Some questions remain as far as making this work:
1) How can I balance the monster and unit mobility so that these sort of questions are interesting?
2) How can I keep things unpredictable within the game? I don't want it to be complete information, where the monster can say "well, if I go here, there is no way he can stop me". I feel like in a game like this, it could get frustrating, and I'm not interested in crafting a perfectly balanced, open information, asymetrical, thematically sound game, its plenty challanging as it is. It'd be nice if he could instead make a reasonable guess about how likely the city player was to be able to stop him, based on some secret or unpredictable element, and had to weigh that. Think Memoir '44, but with more reasonable mission balance.
3) Can I keep the tension high throughout the game, or will one side clearly be doomed 2 turns in. This relates to the win condition, how many points does the monster need to win? Does he know, hits it, and escapes? Or should it be a press your luck affair, where he wants as many as he can get without dying. Could it be secret somehow?
4) I want to encourage the monster to get to the heart of the city, and the city player to want to stop that. But I also want it to be a bad idea for the city player to just hole up downtown, letting the monster bulldoze the shoreline. Its a tricky business, and might involve the scoring system somehow.
5) How do I give the game some pop? I still need that OMG turn, that memorable sequence that turns the game around.

Lots of open questions, but I think I'm on an interesting track. I have a new city design that I think will be more compelling, and a card-based approach to actions that just might work. I think this is maybe where the pop will come in, through narrowly applicable but powerful cards that can have a splashy effect if used just right.

In any case, I need to mock it up and playtest it again; there's too much theory swirling that needs to be confirmed or refuted.
Also, I went back and added lables to all the old posts. Might be useful?
Note to myself: I should do a post on "pop" and how it relates to "the bomb" from that Games Journal article. It's been coming up a lot.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Flexibility in Representations / Racetrack Design

I've been sketching lots of maps for the Pirate Co-op game, just trying to get a feel for the design space. But it occured to me it would be really nice to have a way to be really flexible about this, to have a physical map that could be readily rearranged during playtesting.

Heroscape tiles might be nice if we ended up with a hex-based game (this is still not certain, believe it or not!). But just starting with a map with a blank grid, and then placing island / trade route / dangerous seas tiles on it could work too. Its strange, I assumed we would have a printed map, but there's really no reason that must be the case, especially not during playtesting.


The concept of a flexible, intermediate representation of design ideas is something that I've been thinking about a lot. When you're designing, its often a matter of finding a medium that reflects the properties you're looking for and then:
1) creating a representation of your ideas in that medium
2) evaluating that representation to see if it has the qualities you're looking for
3) adjusting or creating a representation based on what you saw

Ideally, you end up in Schon's of Reflection in Action, where this all happens as a unified, creative thought process, where you're evaluating as you create.

So, you want a representation that is easy to create, but that tells you what you need to know. These are the two steps I've always focused on when thinking about this stuff, ignoring that third step of adjusting course. Maybe that's because most of the books I've seen on this subject focus on sketching, where you usually make sketch after sketch, rather than trying to adjust a previous drawing.

But what about a representation that lends itself to changing its configuration? That is, rather than sketching map after map, should I be creating a physical set of objects that can be nudged around as I see fit?


So I was already thinking about this a bit, but what prompted me to post was seeing this show about a guy who designs racetracks. They had this footage of his studio, and I immediately started to wonder, what sort of representations would you use for this? As he pointed out, you need to consider making the course challenging to drive, interesting to watch, you need to work with the topography of the land. They showed these drawings of course layouts, but I didn't see how you could get to those just by drawing squiggle after squiggle and saying 'that looks like a good one!'

About 5 minutes later, I wasn't disappointed. They had built a topographical model of a location out of layers and layers of cardboard, and were using pins with yarn between them to lay out possible course routes. They had multiple routes in different colors, and when one guy placed this red segment, they talked about how it had this nice drop down the hill, and how the cars would really fly down it given the angle and the speed they would have. How cool is that?

The lesson I got from this was how to build prototypes so that you can readily adjust them as you're playtesting. More specifically, don't assume that the approach you're going to use in the final game is the approach you have to use for a playtest: even if you plan to use a static map in the end, tiles might do you good in the meantime. For reasons I won't get into here, I firmly believe playtesting is one of the only good ways to get feedback about a board game design, and ensuring that third "adjusting" step is as easy as possible seems like a good idea.

Is this obvious? Maybe? Its something I overlooked though, and it seems like an observation worth holding onto.

[Finally started adding labels. Will maybe go back and add them to the old ones some day.]

Friday, December 7, 2007

Friggin Marlins

Why did they have to hand-deliver two great players to the Tigers? For nothing but prospects.

I'm tempted to put quotes around "prospects", to derisively say that the Marlins're doing nothing but cutting costs so that they can put a subpar product on the field for a payroll under 10 million. But, they did this in the past and enough of those prospects payed off that they still won another championship.

Part of me says, this is bullshit, you can't sell off all your best players just to cut costs. But if you can cut costs to the organization and still contend in the long term, isn't that genius?

The dual nature of victory conditions got me thinking. Wouldn't it be a rad game where you run a sports team, trying to win a championship, while also trying to run a savvy business? Where the glory (and ticket sales) of a winning team are nice and all, but where a carefully planned "rebuilding year" can win you the game on a 20-year time scale?

The strategy of the rebuilding year, that's what really gets me. When do you enter one? When is it a bad idea? Would the Yankees (huge, huge, huge payroll, nothing to show for it lately) be losers in such a game?

I'm not going to design it, but it piqued my interest.

Edit: snipped. No need to be silly.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Co-op Pirates

Last weekend, Robin and I spent a goodly number of hours working on a cooperative pirate-themed game. I'll not get into too much detail here, but important details are:

1) The big insight was that if you want to do a pirate game right, it really should be cooperative. Everyone wants to be a pirate, but pirates aren't really in the business of directly competing with eachother. Pirate's Cove was illustrative of this, usually the last thing you want to do in that game is spending the time and resources to fight another pirate, and you spend most of the game trying to stay out of eachothers' way. Pirates are mostly in the business of preying on the weak, so why not let the game itself represent the players' targets, and let the players work together to conquer them. Robin came up with a really nice theme for the cooperation, but I'll tease it away for now.

2) There's more to pirating than pirating. We tried to make multiple strategies that a player could undertake, and make sure that each is interesting. Specifically, players can a) attack merchant ships, while avoiding navy defenders b) smuggle contraband between islands c) explore far-off islands in pursuit of epic treasure. There are skills and items that support each of these angles, and no one player can fully adopt one strategy without weakening themselves in terms of the others, so players can informally establish roles for themselves, and work together in disparate ways towards a common goal. I see it almost in terms of a WoW clan, where players have different classes, and might find an item that they can't use, but that is useful to someone else. That's good, fun camraderie.

We have pretty nice systems in place for all of those details; mostly we need to refine out how exactly the actual ship movement hangs together so that the pacing of the actual pirating-smuggling-exploring subgame occurences feels right. Then its actual card design and balance, which will just be fun.

The biggest threats right now are component overload and rules complexity, but we've been pretty mindful of both, and it certainly won't be worse than Arkham Horror, or your average Fantasy Flight big-box game on either count.


In other news, I suffered through the old ticketmaster price double-up to ensure I had my ticket to Ultimate Reality Live / Dan Deacon Set Jan 15th. Because, lets face it, Dan Deacon is the man that makes me most want to quit grad school, blow off my life, and become him somehow.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Stoke of Genius

Another idea I'm haunted by is the stroke of genius, the feeling that there is a wholly unique approach to games that is waiting out there to be happened upon, some utterly elegant, appealing idea, that is just out of reach. I get so excited about looking for it sometimes, but so far I've come up empty.

On a few occaisions, I've had the experience where I'm sleeping, and in my dreams something really good will happen, maybe I'll come into some great sum of money. And while I'm still dreaming, it occurs to me in this vague way that I can't "keep" the money, that its not real. I'm filled this vague, deep sense of loss that I suspect can only be felt by the sleeping mind, my dream's existential crisis, I suppose. And after that flash of recognition, fevered dream logic frantically bargains with reality, thinking there must be some way, and then the whole thing folds in on itself and I wake up, always a tiny bit disappointed that my boon didn't find its way through with me. Its sort of like that when I think way outside convention, looking for that overlooked gem of an idea: this excitement, and then sense of something slipping through my fingers.

I have a game that I respect a lot, and its not really one you'd necessarily expect. Apples to Apples is not a perfect game, and its something of a crutch when the group gets big, and we've played it to death, and the gameplay is shallow in various ways and so on. But it is such a simple idea, it is so utterly clean, and it has no precedent that I'm aware of in games. Its such a pure example of emergent gameplay, where the actual mechanics are absolutely tiny, but the discussions and repercussions of each choice are where the fun lives.

On some level, maybe I get frustrated trying to carve out a game the right way, which is really difficult, and I just hope for that flash of inspiration to free me from my "lack of having even a single game design I'm really happy with under my belt". Its like summing the numbers from one to one-thousand by hand, knowing in the back of your mind that there must be a formula that will let you find the answer in 15 seconds.

And I don't even want commercial success, just something satisfying. I think maybe the answer at the tip of my brain still has something to do with drawing, or maybe it was physical-levels, or maybe... but its always too quick to grab, too smooth to hold, as Kevin Drew says, tbtf, and so on until morning.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Theme and Mechanic Traps vs. Tension-Resolution

This idea is something that I have had percolating for some time now. I don't know if I can quite bang the whole thing out, but I wanted to get the essence down.

My early game designs fell into two approaches, both "traps", in the sense of leading me down wrong paths and ending up at games that weren't going to work.

The Theme Trap
The theme trap is where you think of an awesome scenario, and want to make a board game that creates the awesomeness of that scenario. For example, my early versions of my Monster-in-the-city games were born from this. I liked the idea of monsters wrecking a city; you could wreck buildings! Stomp tanks! So I started from that point, and let some major, important decisions be made in that spirit.

I.e.: Each player has a monster. But who controlls the city? Well, each player also has a set of army units! What are some appropriate army units, how about infantry, tanks and planes? How should those move? Well, infantry should be slow, planes should be able to move really far in a long line. And monsters should be able to have fire breath and eye beams and...

It sounds really childish, and I am giving myself a hard time a bit, but its really easy to fall into this trap. Some games can pull it off, but they usually do so with an (unpredictable) one-effect-per-card deck, give the cards to the players, and let the whole thing fall out as it may. It sort of can work, but the gameplay is usually pretty unsatisfying.

The Mechanic Trap
This is where you come up with a clever mechanic or interaction, and try to build a game around it. You would think the outcome is a successful game with no theme, but that's not quite it in my experience. For me, it doesn't even turn into a workable game.

A lot of my designs have fallen into this trap. And I think the problem is, I see an interesting interaction of rules, and I build a game around them, but there often isn't any game there. I might call a sub-problem of this the "engine trap", where basically I build an interesting engine that the players can toy with, hoping that their doing so in opposition to one another will lead to interesting gameplay, but it just doesn't. It doesn't lead to good player interaction, there are positive feedback loops of success or failure, the whole thing ends up feeling like its playing itself, or its just not fun for some reason.

I had a game design (lets call this Mistake Explanation #4) where you were a scientist/wizard who was collecting body parts and workers and buildings, and using them to create zombies, which could be used as workers, and made money for more buildings, all powered by some kind of drafting mechanic (which I spent far too long in love with). Basically, one thing lead to the next, lead to the next, lead towards a victory state, and it was up to the players to grab the right stuff. But the game ended up feeling totally arbitrary and frustrating from the player side, and the player interaction was minimal at best.

It ended up feeling like sitting with your opponents at one of those conveyor-belt sushi bars, trying to get full the cheapest (god dammit, that sort of sounds like a doable game). But my point is, it was a clever machine, and you were competing, but it wasn't much of a game.

The 2-Player Monster/City Experience
Recently, its mostly been the theme trap that's been messing with me on the 2-Player Monster/City game (any name suggestions? this is getting ridiculous). I realized I wasn't getting the gameplay I wanted out of the top-down city map, and kept shrinking the board, turning the easy knobs, without looking at the root of the problem. Shouldn't it be more interesting to maneuver around the city? Why wasn't it?

I realized that I had decided on the city unit types/abilities/stats basically for thematic reasons, but not because they actually figured to lead to interesting gameplay. There should be artillery, it should have infinite range. There should be infantry, they should basically be canon fodder to slow the monster down.

Even monster rules came about this way, and I fell into traps of things that seemed to have nice synergy, but that didn't necesssarily contribute to overall gameplay. I want infantry to slow down the monster, and thematically it seems like the monster should be able to stomp right over human units, so I'll say he can kill the first unit he gets to, but then has to stop. This, lead to other decisions that were made in similarly willy-nilly ways.

This wasn't wholly responsible for the failings of the design, but it wasn't the right way to make the decisions. I wanted, at one point, for the game to be about containing the monster, but I made decisions counter to that. Artillery as a unit made no sense at all in this game, but I liked the image of artillery shooting at a monster, and in the unit went.

I've cone to realize that player interaction is crucial as a starting inspiration point and evaluation criteria, especially in a 2-player game, you would think. Further, I've started to see designing in terms of tensions. The core of a game is establishing tension and providing satisfying resolution. You have to create a situation where 1) the outcome is in question, and possible results fall into categories that are more or less advantageous to the player, 2) where the player is able to affect the outcome in a way that makes its resolution satisfying. I won't go into a long string of examples, but I think this is present in nearly any good game I can think of.

Conversely, games where the outcomes aren't forseeable enough to be hoped/pushed for, or where the possibility of outcomes produce tension but the resolution is so arbitrary that the player loses interest, abound - and can blame many of their problems for this failing. I was working on a list/taxonomy of game problems, and many of them fall into here in one way or another. A game with too much luck is an obvious choice, but the runaway leader problem is on a larger scale; it is an inability to maintain tension because while the short term outcomes are still predicatable and affectable, players are so far behind they aren't compelled to care.

So can your mechanics yield tension in the short term, on a move by move basis, and maintain it over the course of the game? And, on repeat plays, does the game remain unpredictable, yet controllable enough that it remains compelling. I think the double-sided loop game Chad and I worked on in Seattle last year was actually well designed in the sense that we put move-by-move tension as a first priority, but its most-pips-wins aspect eventually killed it, since the overall result no longer seemed to resolve satisfyingly (there's still something in that game).

Anyway, this has gone on quite long enough, I'm going to try to rethink this monster game drastically, get back to the kinds of tensions I'm trying to build, and make my choices around supporting them. Interestingly enough, I think there might be futures for both the top-down and side-scrolling games - at least if I get stuck on one I can work at the other for a bit. Cheers to you if you read this far!

Thursday, November 15, 2007


I am totally stuck on this Monster/City game (pictured here). Basically, originally, the monster started at the top, and worked its way to the bottom, with some potential for lateral movement. I found more and more that I wanted to narrow the city, since the lateral movement just wasn't interesting. If I turn it all the way into a single column, I have all this unused space. If there's only forward and back, why not make it side scrolling?

Alongside this, I jotted down some priorities I had for how the game should feel, and working with those came to what I'll call Monster/City 2.0. Basically, the monster Roborally-commits a number of move cards, then the city player gets one move, alternating with a pre-chosen monster move, and so on. The monster deck is "predictable" [man, that ended up being a key concept for me], and certain types of city attacks can counter certain types of monster moves, so it becomes a bit of the city player trying to outguess the monster player's moves.

I still like it, but I just can't seem to get it work right in practice. I think I have the right monster moves, but can't find city player gameplayer that hooks into it well. I'm going to run it all by Robin at some point, he may be able to jar me out of my assumptions a bit.

Stepping back, I wonder if the reason that the lateral movement felt wrong was the building thing. I had it set up in a set grid of buildings, each surrounded by street spaces. But this lead to weird choke points. I wonder if I need to reexamine that assumption to make the lateral movement more interesting. For example, do we need bridges that can serve as interesting options? Also, I wonder if my (very simple, elegant, even) morale/damage solution is really quite right. I think maybe it needs some gold-type effects along the way. And I wonder if the basic monster-can-stomp rule isn't causing some of the problems. But, I'm rambling, these are notes that aren't likely to make sense except to myself. Welcome to my thought process. Still working on this design, in any case.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Portal is good

I don't want to get too review-heavy on this blog, but I just finished Portal, which is part of Valve's friginexelent new Orange Box half-life 2 comp. Portal's a short game, clocking in at a couple of hours, but it's really good. When I played it, I was strongly compelled in a way I've rarely been in a game. When I finished it, I was totally filled with joy, to similarly unexplored degrees. Granted I had been drinking. But still!

You've probably heard of its basic gimmick: there are portals that you make and go through. It pulls that part off well; going beyond the jumping puzzles I saw in Narbancular Drop and the 2d Java Portal game. They got pretty creative.

But that isn't even the point; the things that Portal does right are things that I wouldn't normally even think to look for. Something in its tone, its pacing, its feel.. it got something right. The game swept me up the way a movie or piece of widely-accepted-mediumed-art-proper might.

It seems like a lot of the time the game development process is: 1) make an engine that enables killer screenshots; 2) bang together some levels that will take "long enough" for people to complete to justify the game purchase. Portal could have gone that route, and used the gimmick to bang out some portal-jumping levels. But instead the designers demonstated a lot of creativity and a great attention to detail. There's a craft and vision to it that seems rare these days.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Zombie Trivia - A mini-game design

Edit: Ack! Fixed questions link

The weekly Escobedo game night has started having a pub quiz, where one person writes some questions and brings a prize, and everyone else tries to answer them. Angela took it up a notch by adding a bingo element, where the question numbers cooresponded to a bingo grid. After all the questions were read, the answers were read in random order, and if you got one right you could mark the appropriate spot on your bingo grid, trying to get a bingo. It was a nice twist, and worked really well.

The next week it was my turn, and I came up with 13 zombie-inspired questions for Halloween. The side game took place after players wrote down their answers, as follows:

- Each round, each person gets 2 zombies.
- An answer is read. If you get it right, kill 3 zombies of your choice.
- Each player gets one card off the top of a traditional deck of cards for each zombie they have left in front of them.
- Repeat.

Cards are face-down, but when a player gets 5 red cards they die. Dead players' zombies go away, but their future allotment of two zombies are split among their neighbors. So it can be in your best interest to kill adjacent players' zombies and keep them alive. Or just be sitting next to better trivia players :)

In my case, whoever survived the longest won the side prize, though the main, do-the-quiz-next-week winner was still whoever got the most questions right in the end.

Balancing it was tricky, since the whole game could be over in like 4 rounds if nobody got the first handful of questions, and I didn't want everyone to survive to the end - but I didn't know how tough my questions were going to be for people. But everyone died around question 9, which was acceptable, if a little bit too fast. Once the first person dies, things get out of control fast, but that seems about right. It might need tweaking to really work.

Anyway, you could theoretically play it with any old trivia cards, competitively or cooperatively, but I don't know if its really all that fun, execpt as a twist on just-trivia. It does sort of make me want to build a cooperative trivia game, somewhat in the spirit of the cooperative pictionary game. On some level, the basic premise is the same: each turn each player succeeds-or-not at some test, then outer game conditions get better or worse as a result.

As a bonus, here's my notes I jotted down, containing my questions and the answers - Robin was the winner with a score of 9 out of 13, beating Garik on the tiebreaker, though Garik got the last laugh by winning the Zombie portion by a nose. It seems like there should be a joke there, but there's not.

Questions - Answers

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Some Reviews (Off Topic!)

I want to make an update about my new direction for the monster/city game, but its a little tough to get my head around. So I'll settle for exorcising some reviewerly thoughts that have been bumping around. If you just want game content, skip it, come back in a bit.

Game: The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
I just finished this game, and I liked it a lot. It was a legitimate return to the things I liked about the classic Link to the Past on the SNES. The game reminds me a bit of Diablo. It uses the DS touch screen in a click-to-go, click-to-get-item, click-to-attack-monster way that quickly becomes invisible, and keeps me in that flow sweet spot. Also, its good at capturing that almost-there feeling; you feel like you're always almost going to accomplish something new, and multiple, overlapping goals come and go in a way that keeps you engaged.

It's sort of a sequel to Wind Waker, and has a similar boating/island hoping thing going. But its 2d, and that combined with the genius control scheme, makes it much, much more imersive and fun for me. I'll give you the short version of my rant against 3d games, in particular those with free cameras:
1) Moving the camera is not an avatar action. Every time I have to move the camera in a game I'm no longer associating myself with my avatar, and my immersion is broken. If I swing a push a button to swing a sword and jump and whatever, that is invisible enough that I feel like I *am* my character. But when I have to dick around with the camera to get a look at something standing right in front of me, I quickly become some clumsy jackass trying to peer over the hero's shoulder, and that's not any fun.
2) Relative motion breaks immersion. When up-right doesn't mean move Northeast, but rather, "move in a direction 45 degrees to the right of the direction the camera is pointing", I am distracted ever so slightly. When I do this 50 times a minute, I don't have fun.
3) The camera can lead to cheap level design. I was unable to get into Wind Waker for a bunch of reasons, but what finally killed me was playing some level where I had a big leaf that could blow gusts of wind. I couldn't figure out how to proceed, and eventually found that there was some big fan/gear thing that I had blow. But you couldn't see it unless you craned the camera around in some outlandish direction. Once I saw the gear, it was obvious what to do, but the challenge was added by making it hard to see. I'd rather have the cards on the table and try to solve the situation, not screw around with the camera. I'd rather play freecell than 3-card monte. Not to mention, my character could have seen the stupid gear easily, so strike 3 for immersion.

Phantom Hourglass kept me completely immersed with actions that stayed invisible, and puzzles that I felt like I had to solve, not use the game to notice.

It is a little too easy, and it seems to end before you really have a chance to take advantage of all the bonuses and things you've spent the game earning. To the extent that I almost wonder if there's a later post-game-ending phase that I'm missing. In any case, a good use of your ds, you will wholly get your money's worth.

Television: Arrested Development
In a compromise to several people I know who insist that Arrested Development is the Bee's Pajamas, I agreed to watch the first 6 episodes in order (one DVD's worth). Having done so, well.. I like it better than I did. And I did laugh, and I appreciate the writing more. But my mind is generally unchanged. I still deeply dislike the characters, and find them completely unbelievable - and I generally have to either like the characters I don't believe in (30 Rock?) or believe that bad people like this could exist (Sideways?).

And while some of the plots are very clever, sometimes I just feel like I'm watching the writers show off. I mean, the stair car allows for some opportunities that are well exploited: getting people into trees, getting people out of jail, allowing people to be mistakenly lead onto a tarmac at the airport. Laughs ensue. But that car SCREAMS being written into a script so that it could set up jokes. It shouts that fact right in my face. And there are enough plot points like this that I have absolutely no sense of an actual story unfolding; it feels like the writers are trying to work more and more absurd devices into the plot that they can exploit. And even if I laugh now and then, the whole show gives me a growing sense of soullessness that is tough to get past.

It occurs to me that this is not all that unlike Seinfeld, which I like at least a bit. That show also felt very written, and also had characters that were tough to like. There's something subtle here though, I still liked the actors, and the creators. I felt like they were performing for me, that they wanted to make me laugh. In arrested development, there's something strangely snarky and hateful about the tone of the show. I feel like the show is laughing at me, not with me. I don't know how what that means, but it somehow sums up how I feel watching it.

Music: Gang of Four - Entertainment!
Somewhat relatedly, I've had this album for years, and while I like it, I never really got what all the hype was about. This week I decided to turn it up so loud it hurts.

I've always wanted to describe the guitar parts as "stabby", and there is definitely something violent about the metallic, staccato guitar sub-chords they use. When you get that shit cranked up, it makes you rhymically physically uncomfortable and angry, makes you identify with the songs' screeds against everything. And you grab onto those rolling bass parts for dear life, trying to ride your way out of the clusterfuck factory. To listen to this album, I think maybe you have to feel as pissed off as the songs do. Wearing a suit helps too. (This might seem at odds with my dislike of the discomfort in Arrested Development, but I guess there are some things I want in my post-punk that I don't want in my comedy television.)

Book: Scott McCloud - Understanding Comics
I (finally!) picked this up, and have been digging it something fierce, so far, two chapters in. There's something in his ideas about associating oneself with comics' protagonists that I feel like can be applied to games. I'll be keeping an eye on it.

I swear there is something about games in each of these, believe it or not. But I'm too pooped to go there for now. Also, is it just me, or is there something unpleasant about this post? I'm a hypocrite. Or maybe this post is more post-punk than television comedy.

Monster game update soon!

Friday, October 5, 2007

2-Player Monster-City Game Playtests

I spent a few solid hours creating and solo playtesting a prototype of my 2-player monster-city game today. I think its coming together fairly well, I made some early changes, but it seems like the game plays quickly, and with a lot of variety between runthroughs, which is a good recipe for one-more-time gameplay.

I'm a little concerned about:
A) strategy vs. luck - seems like sometimes one player just gets hosed.
B) ensuring that the game doesn't get stale over time - it needs a little more pop, that rare game-event that is exciting to hope for - the equivalent of shooting the moon, or a well-executed chess maneuver.

Also, right now, the Monster player is losing nearly every time, but I think I have enough knobs to turn to fix that eventually.

One thing I've started doing is taking a picture of the board state at the end of the game, along with a card with the result and game version (sort of like a little clapboard). For example:

I don't know if they will be useful artifacts in the long term, but it makes me feel more like I'm accomplishing something as I clear the board, change the rules, and start over.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Back! I made some progress on the 2-player monster game while I was gone, leaning towards a series of modes for the monster, which will support certain strategies, and require certain responses from the city player. Once a mode has been entered and subsequently left, it cannot be returned to, so the choice of when to change modes, and which to change to, could be nicely dicey.

Also, I've long pondered how to modify the board game Tales of the Arabian Nights. I really like some elements of it, but it also has some pretty serious problems. I've been reading this book about travel and transformation in the original 1001 nights stories, and its giving me some interesting ideas about the game. Specifically:
- It talks about travel being for religion, trade, knowledge or love. These are some interesting motivations for encouraging player travel, something the game currently lacks.
- It talks about the nature of political boundaries in the stories, and how there are not solid, real, guarded borders, but rather that you need to visit a ruler in the capital in order to have truly arrived in a given location. It got me thinking about breaking the board into regions, establishing capitals and creating a concept of each player's influence in a region.

This ties into some previous ideas I had about changing the basic scoring and victory systems, so this might seem a little vague. If I finish the variants, I'll of course post them on boardgamegeek, and link to them here. Its a game with a cult following, that deserves a better outer game to go along with its stunning book of paragraphs.

Friday, September 21, 2007


I'll be out of town until Friday night - y'all pick up the slack and make sure blogger gets its full dose of ideas.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Drawing game prototype

I had an interesting experience with this prototype. In the back of my mind, I sensed that the game was a little bit too complicated, but I made the conscious decision to stick with it. But when it came time to make a prototype, I wanted to do a little proof of concept, something simpler that would be easier to teach, just to test the basic mechanics of drawing, moving, escaping monsters. The resulting, as-streamlined-as-possible design might actually be a better design.

This might be a good principle: try to create the simplest possible version of your game, and ask yourself if its really any worse than your original design.

Here's a pic with a sampling of the prototype materials. These cards and their illustrations don't really capture the tone I wanted for the final game, though the Madness injury, Grand Parade event, and Sphinxling monster are getting close in their crude way. In particular, I see the injuries as more mental/emotional, but for now I went with physical injuries, which I think will more easily win over my audience for this early prototype. I'll try to get a game in soon.

Three Hundred

Another quick link: this guy is working to outline 300 video game concepts. He's only up to 55 so far, but there's something appealing about the endeavor, and browsing the concepts is fun. I like the way he really digs down into some of these ideas, and illustrates them effectively - I really need more pictures on this blog.

I like to try a lot of flash/casual games, just to absorb their concepts, the interesting ideas behind their design. By just posting the ideas, this guy gives me half the enjoyment I'd get from a completed game, at a tiny fraction of the effort. That's my kind of equation I can get behind; it reminds me of The Shiteasters, that most groundbreaking of modern bands.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

NYC Gamer

Just a quick link to another game blog I stumbled upon:

It appears to be defunct, and its mostly session reports, but there are some interesting theoretical discussions in there. In particular, I like his last post, pointing out the dilema of the most-powerful move, and the risk of waiting too long to pull the trigger on it. I wish he had gone into a little more detail about the implications of that mechanic, but then his is a game blog, not a game design blog. It got me thinking just the same - a simple idea with delicious tension.

Also, his photomontage of his collection over time is a feast for the eyes.

Finally, between my last post about dexterity games and Mr. NYC Gamer's post about some custom Crokinole boards, I am closer than ever to pulling the trigger on a board for myself. 150ish bucks seems like a god damned lot, but I continue to hear nothing but good things about this game, and it seems in line with what I'm looking for these days. I doubt I'll bring myself to do it any time soon, though Tumblin-Dice remains a cheaper, similarly intriguing dexterity-oriented proposition.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dexterity Games

Oh, nothing nips at the back of my mind like dexterity games. All too often, when I'm playing a real board game, I find myself thinking about how it might be a dexterity game instead (I just had an idea on how to do Masons, while I was typing this). Why is that?

I think the main thing is, in a board game setting, you divide your attention between 3 things: decision-making, enacting, and storytelling. Decision-making is the actual game playing, the actual choosing from among choices, and is usually the fun part when it doesn't become overwhelming. Storytelling is also the fun part, where you associate the events in the game with a larger, thematic, metaphorical plotline that you can derive enjoyment from. Enacting stands in between, its the actual movement of pieces, looking up results in tables, shuffling cards - its not the fun part.

Different games make each of these easier or harder. Some games give you horrifyingly complex decision trees that are no fun to decide. Some games have rules so at odds with reality that its hard to keep your mental story connected to them. And some games make you spend forever screwing around with enacting the decisions that you're making that you're trying to tell a story with, to the point of ruining your fun.

This gets to the heart of what I like about dexterity games - their enactment is handled for you. You make a decision, apply force skillfully (which might be a new step), and stuff just happens. Sure you might have to do some setup and teardown, but during the game, you can work between decision and outcome, and therefore overall story, fairly seamlessly. Look at Pitchcar - rather than having to roll a dice, check your gear, and look up items in a chart in order to see if you make a turn, you flick a disc, and it either does or doesn't.

Its instant gratification, and when it comes to games and play and staying in a flow state of sorts, thats a good thing.

Two developments I'd like to see in dexerity games:

1) More story. Too many dexterity games are just about flicking discs or stacking blocks, without any thematic conceit on them. I like the idea that when a tower falls, that represents a tower of some kind, in some larger world, rather than just "my blocks fell!". Pitchcar remains a notable exception.

2) More real-time dexterity. There's an image in my mind of a game, Crokinole-like, with players sitting around a central area, flicking objects into the middle. They are on two asymetrical teams, and each has a reason to go quickly, generally to outpace the other team in establishing positioning, or achieving some other goal. Thematic punch is attached, and players have to balance rushing with lining up their shots well. This is vague, but its been kicking around in my mind for years - I'll try to dedicate a post to it some time.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Cooperative Drawing Adventure Game

I'm nearly finished with a preliminary verion of my cooperative drawing adventure game. I've got a basic framework in place that I think I like, that captures much of the coolness I had in mind when I first hatched the idea. The basic steps in front of me now are:

- Nail down a board design and final version of the rules
- Playtest the basic drawing mechanic, which can be done independently of an actual prototype by just using pictionary cards.
- Produce an actual prototype and playetest it

I'm not quite ready to publish the details yet, but assuming the game's not as good in practice as I'm envisioning (they rarely are), I'll likely lay out the problems as a retrospective look at the design process. My process has grown a lot since the designs described in my previous Mistake articles, but I still sense that I'm stumbling down a flawed path. I'll see if that's true soon.

In the meantime, I still like the setting, which is an embodiment of mental states to be explored and escaped, in the form of gloopy forests, shadowy forms, sniggering imps and flashes of clarity. That's a vague description, but I've started to see the world as being several things at once, resisting the urge to lock it into a wholly consistent metaphor. Such an approach won't hinder the game, and is perfectly in line with the feel that the game is likely to evoke.

I've been mulling names while I write this, just as a way to refer to the project. I may well just call it Vague.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mistake 3: The Hand Passing Mechanic

Years ago, I spent a week's worth of inconsequential grad class sessions pondering the idea of a hand-passing game. The basic idea was that you had a hand of cards, each of which could be played to achieve some effect. At some point, you would pass your entire hand to the player on your left, thereby affecting their choices.

The Appeal
At the time I created this game, I was mired in creating game systems that had interesting interactions with the player, but didn't necessarily provide interesting opportunities for interactions between the players. I was finding ways to force this back in.

What a nice, fundamental way to affect someone else than to wholly provide them with all of their options. You would have to balance what you wanted to do against what you were providing them with. You could theoretically set them up with dangerous situations, different combinations of cards that might be disadventagous to their paticular situation.

The Office Idea
The original concept I used for this was that cards were tasks to be performed in an office. The board was, predictably, an office, with a series of spaces representing rooms. Each card told you a place you had to be, and a number of negative points (effort) that were incurred by playing that card. Your goals was to make a move that caused you to move onto another player's token, at which point you could shirk all (or some?) of your cards onto them, absolving yourself of the need to actually take on the negative points you would have gotten if you had played them yourself.

The Problem
Well, the basic problem was that there was no real game here. It was a cute idea, where I lept onto a conceit that took advantage of it, but nothing in terms of gameplay or fun really emerged.

More fundamentally, the problem with this mechanic is decision trees. You have enough on your plate worrying about you want to do, to have to get into another player's shoes, figure out what they want, balance not giving it to them against what you want. Its too much, especially in what is supposed to be a light game. It's not any fun.

Is the idea salvagable? I think maybe so, but I need:
* Very simple cards, which other players might be forced to use
* Your primary goal needs to be to mess other people up. If you're going to have to spend all this time looking at what the other players are going to do, that should be the main thrust. That's hard enough to play your moves, planning what someone else might do is really, really hard. It can't be something that you do as a side goal to advancing your own options.

I'm not sure what that would look like. I'm picturing something like Roborally, where you pass move cards to a player, trying to force them to hurtle into bad situations.

But how much control does the recipient have when they receive cards? If they can order 7 cards as they see fit, its pretty tough to really overtly enact your will on them in any effective way.

And is it any fun to have something forced on you this way?

My verdict for now: its an idea that sounds nice, but its flawed. Its a bad combination: you make basic choices, while another player makes the final choices. Trying to make that fun for the passing player is potentially impossible, and if you succeed, the recieving player is making false "final" decisions, and may not be having any fun.

Maybe its a thematic switch we need. Maybe you pass cards to a player who makes final choices with them, about *your* piece. But still, not all that fun.

Still a nice idea to have in the arsenal, just in case a situation ripe for it arises.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I'm suddenly awesome at playing bass!

As far as games, still on the wiki mostly. Will make a proper post soon. For realsies.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Social Games (again)

Lest you think I'm slacking on my designerly duties, I've been dumping hours of work into a Social Games wiki Orion set up. We're using it as a place to flesh out a new game genre we hatched when I visited the Bay Area; its not public yet, but here's a bit of a preview.

- - - - - -
[From the intro page:]
Social Games are multiplayer games played as part of a social gathering.

The basic premise of a Social Game is that players arrive at a party, and are free to socialize normally, but a series of goals underlie the evening, and the actions of players throughout the party affect the result of the game. Ideally, the social and game parts of the activity support one another: the game inspires social interactions, while the social setting provides a rich mode of game playing.

The closest existing game concept to the Social Game concept is the How to Host a Murder series, or other murder mystery games, where a mystery-based game underlies a party. One or more game masters (usually the hosts) organize the game and distribute information and game materials to the players that are supposed to have it.

- - - - - - - -
[From one of my initial game sketches:]
In the Secret Amnesiac game, there are [[secret roles]], among which there is a single “amnesiac”, and no-one knows who. Specifically:

- The game is different every time you play it, perhaps using the [[combinatorial variation]] idea. Every time you play the game, the theme is somewhat different, the basic mechanics work a little differently, and the victory conditions are different, especially for a special player, called the Amnesiac.

- One player is the amnesiac, tasked with finding out what's going on in the game, who they are, what their victory conditions are (from among a set of possibilities, determined each game). Other players have partial information on these matters.

- Other players know that there is an amnesiac, but not who it is. Some of these players want to help the amnesiac, some want to hurt him - but all have other victory conditions that have nothing to do with the amnesiac, to drive the action. Each of these players is secretly assigned a role from a pool of possible roles when the game is run, and not all roles are used.

The “normal” players go about their business of playing the game as normal, trading, stealing, gambling, whatever - while keeping an eye out for the amnesiac.

The amnesiac tries to learn what they can, but most importantly tries to remain hidden. They should try to appear to be playing the game normally, maybe going so far as pretending to have one of the “normal” roles (though this has its own risks). This can be tricky when they know so little about the game, and it may be safer to try to find one person they think they can trust, who can tell them enough to get by on.

The problem with this game is that the amnesiac might be revealled very early on. The game will have to either be designed so that it can be played many times in an evening, or will have to continue to be compelling once the amnesiac is revealled (simply becoming a Bourne Identity-like game as mentioned on the [[secret roles]] page).

- - - - -

I don't know if that all works out of context, but I wanted to provide a taste. The wiki is actually getting quite robust - I'll get a guest account set up soon, so let me know if you're interested in checking it out.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Social Games

I love the way that games, especially board games, have the power to provide a social experience. The giant joystick in this clip certainly got me thinking about that idea:

Part of why I'm down on video games lately is that, while they can provide a heck of an experience, its generally not a social one. That often makes the experience empty, somehow, if you ask me.

Mankind's earlier games, from board games to general acts of vaguely organized frollick, were inherently social, at very least by nature of involving one or more people. One could argue that this was out of necessity.

Let me back up a step: one major difference between a game and a non-game activity is unpredictability. You don't know what's going to happen next when you play a game, and trying to affect that outcome, and experiencing the results, is part of the joy of it. This is why we don't play games that are "solved", why we shun the broken strategy, why a game without depth loses its appeal quickly. We don't want to go through the motions, we want the thrill of uncertainty, and the challenge of affecting it.

So, early on, the easiest way to provide challenge and uncertainty was to pit players against one another. You want X, he wants not-X, conflict ensues, the outcome is uncertain.

But computers can do a bunch of stuff under the hood, can cut decision outcomes along time-discretions so fine that our performance is at the mercy of our more base reflexes, they can provide an uncertain outcome in our interaction with them.

And sure, a deck of cards for solitaire can provide uncertainty. A ball-and-cup game, through the finer points of physics can provide the unexpected bounce and twitch.

But for many people, the social end of gaming has become the exception.

Some people are fine with all this, I'd reckon. 'Gimme uncertainty, via a person or a magic box or whatever, I want to impose my will on the world. Thank god I'm not at the mercy of having other people around to get my game on'. I can't imagine anyone actually uttering that statement, ever. But you get the point, I don't think some people see the loss of a human element in games as a problem.

For me though, I feel like I need that social element. Believe it or not, this isn't even meant as some screed in favor of social interaction, its just what I'm finding I want from games lately. When I play video games, I strive for coop gameplay when I can find it. Even when I play a video game alone, I find myself looking for games that are going to promote social interaction after-the fact. I like my ownership-of-experience games (I don't think I've done my rant on this yet here) where I can tell someone a story of what I did that is different from the experience that every player has. I want something where I can compare achievements and high scores. Bioshock's coming out, and I'm stoked to play it, but its at least partially because I want to talk about (what's shaping up to be) a landmark game, with other game lovers.

Side note, I played the demo, god damn. An enormous, abandoned 1950's underwater city, ready to collapse under the weight of the ocean at any moment, filled with period propaganda, magestic architecture, and crawling with maniacs. Abandoned, underwater, 50's, metropolis. Jesus! Best video game atmosphere ever? So yeah, I'm still a sucker for the solo elements.

This comes into board games too. They're inherently social, but I'm finding I want to weild this in ways other than outright competition. Not just because of my game-based neuroses, though I'm sure thats part of it, I feel like there are other kinds of interaction that can be inspired by games than I-win, you-lose. I'd like more cooperative games, and even games that encourage creative expression, for example. That's a lofty enough goal, I'll stop short of games that let you share your feelings.

To get back to the initial inspiration, I love the idea of the giant joystick. It's collaborative, but furthermore, it allows people to choose their own approach to the collaboration. Its cooperative, but there's a negotiation there, I can imagine. Its a creative act, just playing it, just deciding how to play it, and one that multiple people participate in. All this despite being a video game. Delicious.

I can only dream of a board game design like that: one that allows people to choose their own mode of interaction, while providing enough of a framework so that the whole exercise doesn't fall into disarray.

It seems impossible, but as if often the case with these posts, I'm warmed by the promise of the idea's distant glow.

The Euro RPG

I've worked out the begginings of a list of attributes for Chad's suggested approach to the drawing game. Perhaps I'll post it here for discussion in a bit.

On the subject of RPG's, one more time, I've been considering how RPGs, at least as I know of them, have been distinctly American.

That is to say, in the American tradition of fringe board games, often wargrames and fantasy games, there is an emphasis on ensuring that every case is covered, usually by piling on rules as needed. Meanwhile, Euro-style games demonstrate an efficiency of rules, even if this means streamlining away certain choices or themes.

Its strange to me the way that every RPG I've come across (and I've seen my share, just as research, if nothing else) is distinctly American-style. To some extent, in a game where any action is supposed to be possible, and you are up against a subjective game master, having rules for every case doesn't seem like such a bad idea. But there is this weird lack of:
- Efficiency in rules
- A willingness to allow for abstraction and improvisation
- A willingness to adopt an elegant solution that might provide slightly less realistic results
- Challenging, subtle decision-making during combat or other moments of crisis

There's a couple counter-examples: the luck-point system in Battlestations, and some improvements in 3rd edition DnD, but its not great out there.

The assumption in RPGs, shared with many 80's style American games, is that you want answers, even if the game's willingness to provide them hinders smooth, elegant gameplay. The fact is, I want a system where I can keep every rule in mind, without ever having to refer to a book or chart. If anything has been guiding my design process, it is that I don't want you to have to ever stop playing the game to look something up. Such moments are killers of board-game sessions, and I don't think RPG sessions are any different - RPG'ers have just come to accept them.

No! I say.

Maybe this is all nonsense to anyone who hasn't given any thought to RPG design, I reckon its an especially esoteric interest. Just to entice said folks, possible upcoming subjects:

- The pass-your-hand mechanic: its alure and pitfalls
- Scoring card/tile configurations: Rummy vs. Koi Koi vs. Scrabble
- A rant about shallow fantasy sports systems

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Twin Peaks

I just finished Twin Peaks, part of an impromptu scouring of Lynch's stuff I've been doing recently. I really disliked large parts of the 2nd season, but man, the last couple episodes really pulled it together, especially the last one. It's surely hyperbole to say that that its the scariest thing in the history of TV, but I found it pretty intense (albeit at 4am after a couple drinks), and can't think of anything offhand that matches it. While I couldn't quite call the final wrapup satisfying, I was somehow pretty stoked by it.

Just to give a little bit of game-oriented content, I found myself really inspired with regards to the RPG system / setting I've been working on, now and then, for the last year or so. It started as a swashbuckling kind of game, focusing on over-the-top acts of derring-do. But I find myself adding an undertone of pseudo-Victorian high-society, whose members include gatekeepers of places beyond reality. The players, as duelists, brawlers, inventors and great orators, seem powerful compared to the coddled controllers of the port towns they visit. But these patricians and magistrates know of realms long lost, and the forces that dwell therein.

It would be fair to call the concept Lovecraftian, but I'm thinking less about chaotic realms of unseeable geometry and more about Twin Peaks' subtly twisted dreamworlds, or House of Leaves' merciless infinities. I'm hatching icy worlds with internal logic stronger than reason. The endless streets of identical, stark white pueblo-style houses. The long, clean hallways, leading to the well-dressed artisan, who crafts hundreds of marble statues of you. I want to build worlds inside the world, and ensure that they have their own compelling consistency, however strange.

This long-term RPG thing is less of a real project than a mind-occupier for dull moments, an exucse to dump out world ideas without being constrained by devising elegant game rules. But Twin Peaks certainly did a great deal to make me think bigger, and provided some inspiration about how to tease and trouble.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Artist - Album (Favorite Song)

I don't really have a personal blog these days, so I guess this is where I have to let the music overflow trickle. These are right rocking me lately:

Los Campesinos! - Sticking Fingers into Sockets EP (We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives)
Blitzen Trapper - Wild Mountain Nation (Sci-Fi Kid)
Genesis - A Trick of the Tail (A Trick of the Tail)
Dan Deacon - Spiderman of the Rings (The Crystal Cat)
Je Suis France - Afrikan Majik (California Still Rules)
Queen - A Night at the Opera (I'm in Love with My Car)
Ratatat - Remixes Vol. 2 (Glock Nines)

Edit: Fuck! We Throw Parties, The Crysal Cat, and Glock Nines make up my definitive 10 minutes of love transpastic right now.

Random long-held passionate game desire:

Man, I want a decent game that revolves around drawing things. I think it was looking at the latest posts on Mary's blog earlier today that reminded me of how strongly that is the case, and how it has haunted me for years. There are certain ways that playing games and drawing are at odds with eachother, but I feel like there's overlap that lingers just outside my grasp.

I don't want something quite like pictionary, where someone draws and everyone else watches. I think I want something where everybody draws something and then presents them towards some end. I want more drawing time than 1 / (numPlayers) of the time.

And not something where your drawing abitility necessarily gets you the win, as should go without saying. I want to reward creativity, though that's no small challenge, no?

- - Motivation - -

To backtrack my motivations, as they become clear even to myself, what I really want is a game that encourages people to be creative, and to revel in eachothers creativity. To let people share their ideas with one another, to enjoy having their ideas appreciated, and to enjoy appreciating others' ideas.

This already exists, its called conversation. But I think there's the potential for a game to spur people on, to encourage interaction and participation, and even creativity (von Oech reminds us that restrictions spur creativity). I don't want a situation where the game is "The rules say you have to invent something right now!" - it needs to seduce. So I think of those vocal-style parlor games (or my growing repatior of no-materials car games), but that's not quite it - though somewhat in the spirit, perhaps.

Drawings appeal to me much more. There is that explicit phase of thought, creation, elaboration and adjustment, where an idea can be developed in private, before being revealed onto the others at hand. And besides, we talk plenty, and draw far too little. Finally, I like the idea of a record of the game, the fact that the drawings can persist.

- - Competitive? - -

But I don't know of any game that gets it quite right yet. I think the hardest decision is how formal to make this. I feel like some sort of reward system is in order - some concept of success to be achieved. But I don't want something overly competitive either; I expect the game is going to be pretty subjective, and I don't want to necesarily reward the besty artist unduly, and hurt feelings need to be avoided at all costs - a recipe for minimal winner-declaration.

I think that Apples to Apples is a good analog here, where points are gained, but nobody really tracks them or feels a strong sense of victory upon acquiring the most.

- - Success Measures - -

Ah, but the hard part. What do you draw? What makes one drawing better than another? So right now I'm working under the high-level model of "everybody draws, then presents their drawings, some notion of success is assigned". I don't think that having a set judge of the drawings (theApples to Apples model) is quite right, its too flippant for the amount of work a drawing is (vs. throwing out a red card). I also don't quite like the idea of everybody just voting, it seems too subjective still somehow. And yet, I don't quite like the just "Yay! We're all winners! Lookit our radsome drawings!" model either. I think a little bit of structure is needed to inject some drama into the situation.

A nice semi-subjective approach is still the "can I successfully convey something with this picture" measure, as employed in pictionary. You need to motivate the guesser and the drawer, and I vastly prefer the informal pictionary model of "correct guesser gets to draw next" / "a point to the guesser, a point to the drawer, upon success" - as opposed to just putting the drawer and guesser on a team as with pictionary proper.

- - The Taboo Effect - -

I think of the most satisfying pictionary moments I've had, and many of them revolved around a certain amount of outside the boxism, where people go "I see what you did there! Delightful!" The latter part not so much said, as implied by the curious, outright glee that squeaks out in these moments. The party game Taboo is a word-based game that accomplishes this nicely. Sometimes people tiptoe around the forbidden words with various synonyms and do ok. But the game was much more fun when people would just come at the problem from outlandish, personal angles. "We had a great one of these at June lake... - Cobbler! Hey man, nice... - Shot! Being one of these totally sucks ass! - Pilgrim!".

I don't necessarily want to find the direct drawing analog, but I like the way this encouraged creativity and quick thinking by knocking people out of their comfort zone. They couldn't take the road, so they had to improvise. I think a similar factor might be at play in trying to encourage creativity and avoid over-rewarding the best artist.

- - Some game sketches - -

Multiple word, round-robin guessing
(somehow) each player gets 3-5 words from a very large pool of possible words. A timer is set, and everyone draws. Time runs out, everyone reveals, looks at eachothers pictures for a bit, ideally laughs. Time to analyze player A's picture. The player on their left says one word, and if it's one of the drawer's designated words, the guesser and drawer get points. Then, continuing clockwise, each player says a word, trying to guess the drawer's words.

Why do I like this better than a single word? First of all, it means that multiple people can guess and participate in the judging. Even if one person guesses a word, others remain to be guessed. Also, I like the idea that the drawer has to create a drawing that sums up more than one word, that has to incorporate more than one concept.

The main pitfall here is, of course, that people will just draw 3 different sub-scenes, one for each word. Ideally it would be something cohesive. Several possible solutions. There could be an initial vote for which scene is most cohesive, the winner getting a bonus, anyone failing to get at least one vote being ineligible for the (big) got-all-your-words bonus. Not great though. The answer might also be in word selection - that is to say that you get some mix of nouns, actions, settings, moods, styles, background events, whatever, lending the proceedings towards a single scene trying to evoke many angles. Or there might just be an honor system of trying to make a cohesive scene of some kind.

I feel like its not quite right, that its still going to lead to score-mongering and precision rather than innovative approaches. This might work as a seed of an idea though, or when combined with some of the other ideas below.

Also, its probably too hard, perhaps people get multiple guesses, or the words are kept simple, or its multiple choice, or you're allowed a caption, or - not sure, would have to playtest probably.

(Splashier scoring)
The first time one of the designated words is said, both players get 1 point. The second success awards 2 points to the guesser and drawer, the 3rd 3, and so on, with a possible non-linear big bonus for guessing the last word / getting all your words guessed. So guessers are rewarded more strongly for getting the less obvious words, and the rewards to the drawer ramp up for great success.

(Cooperative Gameplay)
Man, I love cooperative gameplay. In this case, it might be a nice way to bring drama and inspire performance, but without the negative effect of competitiveness and bitterness. What theme could a super-round of guessing-each-player's-pictures-rounds be couched in?

I love the idea of a simple board where the players (individually, or a single group token) are represented in a dreamlike world, where only their ability to create otherworlds that evoke the correct notions can allow them to escape eldritch horrors that pursue them. The handicaps I discuss below could play into this too. I see a scene where the players have moved across the dreamworld board, are near the end, with darkling creatures in pursuit, and know that they need to have X much success in communicating their drawings to one another if they are, as a team, to escape and win. Maybe that's just Mary's blog talking, though. I can't quite articulate it, but I have an image in mind that is extremely compelling to me right now.

My initial thought of drawing rounds as holes of golf (surprisingly frequent as my initial thought in games), seems downright stupid by comparison.

Some editions of Pictionary have a dice that incurs handicaps, like drawing with your off hand, drawing with your eyes closed or not lifting your pencil. I've always liked this idea, and have flirted with incorporating it as "injuries" in my cooperative swashbuckling pictionary/charades game.

In this case, I like the idea of a deck of cards, each with a penalty on them. I might add to the above list such things as: no curved lines, no stick figures, reduced time, smaller piece of paper, big fat crayon as tool, random portion will be obscured upon completion (I have a couple mechanisms in mind), viewers can only see it for a moment before guessing, guessers can't hear eachothers' guesses. You get the idea.

As cards, they have a lot of power; they could be used in a number of ways: Maybe you draw one at some point as a penalty for everybody on a given round. In the competitive game players might get them and be allowed to keep them face down, to be incurred on another player, handicapping the target for a single round. They might be automatically evoked on a runaway leader, distributed as special rewards, or given to a losing player as a consolation. In the cooperative game, monsters might attack the players, causing a given handicap to be incurred on one or more of the players, rachetting up the tension and forcing people to improvise.

But broadly, why do I like these? I like that they put people outside their comfort zone. They will sometimes (hopefully) result in drawings that are delightful in their clumsy, clever attempt to work around the restriction. They help to keep the game from getting predictable.

I especially like them in the cooperative version, where trying to overcome adversity and still have a productive round of drawing and guessing could be quite dramatic, I think. At its most ridculous I see it like "Oh no! The spitting lizard of self-doubt caught up to you, and has sprayed you in the eyes! Can you still convey your thoughts without your ability to reflect on them? Draw with your eyes closed this round."

They might be really obnoxious, and be more frustrating than they are fun to work with, but its an idea with promise, I think.

- - - -

Most of this came to me just as I was writing what was meant to be a single paragraph. Not sure if any of this is quite what I'm looking for. But I think the power of games to nudge and inspire, and the power of drawings to express and delight, have not yet been symbiotically harnessed to the fullest of their potential. I sense there's a really original, interesting game out there somewhere.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Six 2-player monter game approaches

Here's six quick sketches of idea for a 2-player monster-in-the-city game, as described below. No rules in mind yet, just broad directions.

1. Simple dexterity - City player usese blocks to build buildings and defenses in some fashion. Monster player gets some turns to flick a monster token into them, or otherwise do something dexeritous to try to knock them down. Carnage! Fun!

2. Channel-Based Dexterity - A little trickier to describe, but the board would have some channels in it, little lowered grooves, that the defender uses to flick units onto the board, from the side. These would be layed out like streets, with raised, vulnerable buildings between them. The monster player tries to flick along the flat surface, avoiding the defenders that have been flicked into place, to knock down buildings. Seems like the gameplay might be too simple for the expense of producing some insane shit like this.

3. Flick/Magnets Dexterity - The monster player flicks the monster around on the board, while the defending player uses a magnetic stick to control his units from below, trying to impede the monster's progress. This might even be real time!

4. Closed-eyes drawing - One more dexterity one, these sort of lead one to the next to the next. There's some board game that uses this for ship navigation. Basically, the monster player closes their eyes and traces a path across the board, as their move. Depending on what the City player has done, this might present some negative effects, places where the monster player's turn might end, or allow the city player to screw with the drawing process in one way or another. I like the way that the monster might be stiffled for turn after turn, but then just bust out and wreck everything in one splashy go.

5. Memoir 44 Lite - Now lets move into non-dexterity ideas, just a couple for now. The city player has cards that allow them to activate different kinds of defenses, in different ways, in different parts of the city. For example: each plane unit on the board can move any number of spaces in a straight line; move any tank squad up to 4 spaces; fire a big bomb on any space (damaging the monster and any surrounding buildings). The monster, meanwhile, has a series of basic and special moves. For example, move 5 spaces in any one direction; knock over an adjacent building; grab an adjacent unit and throw it at any other unit in sight, destroying both.

I generally like this card model for these reasons:
- A way to differentiate and balance asymetrical sides
- Limiting a player's options on a given turn, allowing for many possible effects with a mimimum of anaysis being possible.
- Similarly, allowing for a wide variety of moves, by being able to summarize their effects on the cards.
- That does-he-have-the-card-he-needs-to-wreck-me calculations.

That last one leads me to the big sub-decision of this approach, whether to have a predictable deck or not (see previous post). There could be big splashy decks with lots of splashy effects, but ability to strategize about your opponent's possible reactions would sure be hurt, especially early on.

On the other hand, it could be sort of a compelling strategy game with set decks, where you had to reason whether your opponent could reasonably be holding a 9 or 10 card, after all the chances he had to use one in the last few turns, for example. Not sure what predictable decks would look like in a game like this. Perhaps something like this for the city player:

- 3 each of Tank-1, Tank-2 and Tank-3. Each allows you to select and move the appropriate number of tank units and attack with them. Similarly, there would be Rocket and Jet cards, 1-3. The 1 cards might provide some bonus to that one unit, to allow for those cards to be more tactically interesting.

- 2 each of 2 kinds of special cards. Bombs, which hit the monster and wreck everything nearby, and Assault, which allows you to choose any 4 units, move them each one space, and attack with each.

You could do a monster deck this way, with move cards 2-4 spaces, charge in one direction cards 4-6 spaces, jump 3-5 spaces, with a couple specials, but it doesn't feel right. It seems sort of boring, especially because you only have one guy to work with. There could be some hybrid solution, where the city player has a hand of 5 fairly standard cards, from a 30 card deck. Meanwhile, the monster player could have a 2-card hand, basically 2 choices on a given turn, from a mere 10 card or so deck, and the city player has a reminder sheet about them. And each provides an effect with far more options left to designate afterwards.

I mean, we are getting deeply asymetrical now, but I think building this concept around a clean-as-possible core could provide a really interesting experience, doing justice to how different it really is to be a rampaging monster, versus a general in charge of the defending army.

Aside: Pacing Philosophy
I wanted to raise 2 underlying principles when I think about this design, at least with regards to its non-dexterity versions. I like the idea that the City player will eventually win, if the game goes on long enough. They just need to thwart the monster long enough, until either the monster is slain via accumulated damage, or some timer harkens the arrival of magic technology or a savior defender monster, or whatever. So they try to contain and control the monster, while the monster makes increasingly desperate gambits to destroy the key building, or break through to the other side of the board, or otherwise achieve some goal that might be achieved at any moment.

The second principle stems from this, and that is that the City player should never be truly sure that their line or formation or plan is safe. They might feel like they have set things up pretty well, but should be saying "as long as he doesn't...", and must strategically decide which risks to take. Perhaps this might be enacted with a 15 card monster deck, 5 of which are removed from the game, and the game is over after 10 turns, when the monster has used the remainder. For example, just a thought.

6. Asymetrical Robo-Rally - After that marathon, one last one. Each player has their own deck, draws some number of cards, chooses some subset of them, and commits face-down, in order. Each player, then reveals their first card and enacts them simultaneously. So, yes. Roborally.

Philisophically, it is similar to the previous suggestion, in that each side has a very different deck, and wondering what cards your opponent has can be cause for worry. It also adds an additional level of outguess each turn, and it allows for more big, splashy turns, improving on the inching-along, I-move-a-little, you-move-a-little, feel of the previous direction.

Not sure what the deck composition would be here, but it would likely be fairly predictable, with a couple splashy special cards worked in to keep people on thier toes. Certainly, each player should have some reasonable notion of what is in their opponent's deck, and what they need to worry about.

I think there might be a good game here. Some of the dexterity games could be fun, but sort of trashy, lacking in depth and replay value, as least out of the fairly primitive things I've come up with so far. There are still a lot of little details to square away in the more traditional approaches, and it might be difficult to keep those designs elegant in the face of such a tantalizing thematic situation, but I like both of those directions in some intuitive sense. Asymetry is fun, if you can pull it off.

Sports-Golf 2 - Grid or Not?

Getting back into action after a weeklong getaway. A couple quick posts planned.

Here's the fundamental difficulty I'm having in designing this golf game; whether to go with the discreet or continuous model, as I've started thinking of them. In the continuous model, a given hole of golf is depicted as a simple image, with each pixel representing a given location on the course, and the color of that pixel determening if it is fairway, green, rough, in the hole, etc. The player's ball is at a given coordinate. When they decide to take a shot, they pick a game, a winner and an angle, to the nearest whole degree. Then, math is used to get to the new location, with distance determined by the scores, and angle deviation caused by the wrong team winning.

The problem with this approach is that figuring out where the ball's new location is, and visualising locations, are difficult. I'd really like this game to be really painless, since you are ideally supposed to be playing it every day. Ideally, you would just make your picks, and the rest would happen. But now, we've introduced a math equation of mild complexity. Furthermore, just knowing the coordinates of your opponent's ball doesn't provide a really satisfying depcition of its location, its sort of something you have to hash out. I could write some kind of web app to handle all this, but it seems against the spirit of the exercise somehow.

I suppose this approach could just be a slightly more complex exercise, your daily experience with it would involve calculating the result of your last shot, possibly locally drawing the results of your shot and your opponent's, and making your next guess for your next shot. It wouldn't be all that much more involved than taking a turn of play-by-mail chess. Actually, that could be the model, a jpeg that is emailed back and forth, where each player charts their progress via a line drawn on top of the course map, so that there is a shared artifact, however electronic, that is passed between. Heck, I could make up an excell spreadsheet that could do all the requisite maths for you without all that much trouble.

- - - -

I actually think I've talked myself into this approach, and might be seeing a way to do it that would be doable, which is the sort of outcome I suppose these posts should strive for. Just for reference, here's the short version of the discreet model. In short, I wanted to make something with easier maths, and easier visualization. Basically, I wanted to up the granularity, so that you were working on a grid of spaces, much larger than the pixel levels. There would be no angle caluculation maths, you would somehow just end up at a space. This grid would be course enough that you could say "I'm at space 5-H" and your opponent could look at the grid and reasonably visualize that.

Instead of angle selection, you would choose a target space, your options limited by the sport you chose, and would deviate from it based on score difference and winner picking. For example, if you want to target a space really far away, you need to pick a basketball game, where your chances of deviation are greater due to the higher scores. If you want a baseball game's consistency, you aren't allowed to select a space more than X spaces away. You might even be limited to choosing certain sports when trying to hit over trees or other obstacles, or when hitting out of the sand or rough. Its a little more coarse, as an approach, but it might be a lot easier.

I suppose now I'm not quite sure which of these directions I like better. Comments appreciated.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Principles of Score-Golf Design

God damn blogger. I somehow lost some huge post about the sports golf game. The short version is, you pick a game and a winner, your distance is your winner's score, reduced by the difference between the other team's score. If your team doesn't win, you also get a left/right, hook/slice penalty. So you want a close game for a lengthy shot, but failing to pick the winner will cause you to deviate left-to-right. I'll try to rewrite this properly tomorrow.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Predictable vs. Unpredictable Decks

Can't sleep tonight, and I definately don't have the patience for finishing my big theoretical thrust. But I did want to jot down some thoughts about decks of cards.

When you want to simulate a variety of effects, its tempting just to assign each to a card and throw them into a deck. Want to make a game where players can attack eachother with fire spells and lightning bolts and mind control? Make a deck with one card for each of those with the details, and let players hold a hand of them!

My trouble is with unpredictable decks. In particular, I have a problem because I'm lately rather taken with the mechanic where the success of a given strategy relies on your opponent not having a given card or type of card. Lost cities is an example, where your willingness to discard a given card or start on a given color depends on what your opponent has. Gin Rummy has a similar dynamic. I like decisions that are nearly-calculable. That is, those decisions where you can derive some heuristic of the expected overall value of a given move, but can't truly know much anything. Your opponent "probably" doesn't have that card, but you likely can't math out the exact odds, much less use them to determine your "best" move. And what has your opponent told you by the way they've played thuse far? Are they playing like they have that card? Are they cagey enough to be actively deceiving you on this matter?

I think its a rich class of effects, and it fits nicely with my own sensibilities as a player, in terms of what kind of games I can play without overanalysing them.

But these rely on some easily considered concept of the deck's makeup, usually summarized in terms of a number range and suit range. As soon as you have a deck of random effects without overriding rules governing them, it gets a little more complicated. The guesses so thoroughly defy calculation as to step outside the realm of reasonable guesses. And furthermore, and perhaps most damningly, your ability to make any kind of guess depends on knowing the deck. Someone can't just tell you what the spread of values are, you have to know the fireball, the mind control, the lightning bolt and the summon: troll. Its difficult to reason with, and the experienced player holds a huge advantage, if this "what's he got" comes into play strongly with decks like this.

(More broadly, this is another of my themes, immediate accessibility of strategy)

I guess my point is, the custom deck, with an effect-per-idea is an easy out, but there's something to be said about a deck with easy description, and easy understanding. Suit-value decks are the obvious answer, but 7-Nimmt and No Thanks! have just-number decks that work. An even better example is Heave Ho! There's a learning curve there, but mostly you just need to know the basic spread, that there's a dragon, and a kill-you-if-you-got-the-dragon card. Knowing about the switch sides card helps to. But my point is, there's a deck that is heterogeneous, but that has a readily describable distribution, and that lends itself to the immediate engagement in the sort of has-he-got-it strategizing that I'm seeking.

Definately a tradeoff, and I think the virtues of a predictable deck are often underappreciated.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mistake 2: Monsters in the City

So this isn't actually a continuation of the big theory described below, just a side philisophical point that was occuring to me today. I was thinking about premises for 2-player games and happened upon "monsters attacking a city" from my 100 adventurous themes list. I've dismissed this idea in the past, the problem being that everyone wants to be a monster, and its really a matter of monster vs. the city, not monster vs. monster. In short, its not a theme thats really that compatible with player interaction. But in a 2-player setting, we can have an asymetrical game of monster player vs. city player, and that might actually work.

But the important thing is, it reminded me of my first attempt at designing a game about this theme. A couple years ago I got this vision in my head of a game where players monsters and can destroy buildings, knocking them over into eachother, causing some to explode, potentially causing chain reactions. Stuff flying all over the place. I then proceeded to design a terrible game around this premise. I added army units that each player also had a complement of. Players would choose move cards that let their monsters and armies do special things. A variety of scoring systems were thrown at it. In the end though, the whole thing was terribly fiddly and arbitrary. It would be a game I would hate to play.

Worse still, I didn't detect the problems with the game early on, and spent far too much energy in a fruitless direction. I ended up mocking up boards and pieces in Illustrator so I could simulate movements, and even wrote a simple card shuffling and dealing java app for handling cards.

I'm not saying I necessarily regret the effort, but it was a lot of work, and the only payoff it yielded was in lessons learned. I think I'm finally ready to learn those lessons. Where did I go wrong in that game?

Goals and Outcomes
I think a lot of your success in design relies on your goal setting, on the qualities you use to guide your idea generation and selection. In board games this is tricky. Your goals are usually on the order of the game experience you want to create, either in terms of tension, socialization, enacting a given theme, creating an envisioned situation, etc. Your ideas are usually on the order of specific mechanics, rules, cards, physical components - the elements that make up an actual game design.

The problem is, outcomes in board games are usually emergent: they are the result of several, subtle interacting ideas. If a game has tension, that might be the result of some finely tuned interactions between the actions players can take and the victory conditions. If a game really captures the feel of exploring a haunted house, that might be the result of streamlined mechanics, well-designed physical components, well-considered card designs and an objective system that drives players to play in the "right" spirit for the game. So you have to come up with ideas that mesh together well, and that serve a variety of purposes.

And there are so many ways that an outcome can fail. If the strategy is too obvious, if there isn't enough player interaction, if there is too little control, if the rules are too complicated, if the pieces are too fiddly, if there is a runaway leader, if the game takes too long, if the game is too physically bulky, etc etc etc: then that kills the design. So you're trying to meet these emergent outcome goals, while ensuring that you don't fall into one of dozens of pitfalls.

In a way, you have this idea, and you're just trying to get some approximation of it out there without falling into some pitfall. (I see something similar in software design, and I find myself wanting to refer to them as "negative design fields". I think it is an artifact of having an information-based product.)

So what does all this have to do with my old Monster game design? I didn't have good goals. My goal was to enact a particular sequence of game events, and I met that goal. The problem was, the resulting game was not any fun.

On some level, I need to consider the player experience when you're designing a game. I can't get wrapped up in some vision of the board, or the way the pieces move around, or the situation that I want to create. At the end of the day, what you are creating is an experience, and you need to have goals that reflect that.

Now, its tough to just keep in mind "I want my players to have a good experience" and expect that to guide you towards good designs. Rather, there are some subgoals that I think you can keep in mind.

I've begun to develop a series of "step-back exercises". There's nothing formal about them, they're just patterns I've noticed in my own thinking that demonstrate a tendency towards giving me insight and getting me past blocks. And from them, I've started to hatch some goals and ways of thinking that will help to ensure that I can work my way towards successful designs, without falling into problems. In a way, I think a way to be successful in game design is to flit between different perspectives, ensuring that you don't paint yourself into a corner. If you can sense problems of a given sort developing early, you can prevent getting yourself into a dead end that will be psychologically disheartening, if not cognitively impossible, to back out of.

Here's and early stab at goal-based approaches that I've found useful so far:

Component Reality Check
This was the first one I started with, back in the day, which I suppose says something about the sort of bloated designs that I made back then. Basically, when I sense that I've reached a certain critical mass on a game's component, I list them out and imagine whether they seem reasonable laid out on the table or as a manifest for a mass-produced game. Sometimes this is relative - if the gameplay is fairly light or if each game is pretty quick, it seems silly to demand a lot of component, either just in terms of setup time or (eventually) the marketability of the game relative to the cost of production.

I think in the past I was a bit to lax with this in the past, but then my focus has been on cleaner designs lately, and generally more disciplined. Beyond setup time and production, I think this can be a warning sign that your design is getting inelegant, as you tack on a deck of cards or board to track values. Ensure that all of the physical elements of your design are pulling their weight, and you might get some insight into your conceptual efficiency as well.

Explain this to a New Person
This is another simple one that I've increasingly used lately. Too often I accumulate assumptions about how things should work, check them off as solved and spend hours trying to mentally tackle the remaining issues. I start rearranging the established stuff to fix the problems with the remaining stuff, shifting pieces around in response to local threats, sort of stepping my way through things. Its like trying to solve a sudoku puzzle by slamming in a bunch of numbers and trying to spot-correct the inconsistencies: you end up chasing your tail. Sometime's I'll feel like I have just one more issue left, but when I look at the finished product, its a mess.

I've found the problem is an inability to design with the gestalt, the elegant whole of the design, in mind. This is no small challenge. But something that helps is envisioning myself trying to explain the design, as I have it so far, to someone who knows nothing about the game. I try to imagine what their reaction is likely to be as I progress. Are they nodding and following the logic of what I've said thus far, or are they getting overwhelmed with ambiguities, details or exceptions? For the parts that are still difficult, how might I more elegantly explain them.

On the surface, its important that players a game understand it easily the first time they play it. But I also think there is a connection between the initial understandability (or explainability?) of a game and its overall playability. Sure, there's many a game that seems easy once you get the hang of it, certainly and defininitely granted. But the game that you immediately understand usually remains understandable (though there is the issue of strategic confidence, which I get into below). I find taking this step helps me get my head around the state of the design, where it's straining, where there are details that I might need to prune. Performing this step a little earlier in the process seems to be helping me back out of directions destined to spin into unworkability.

Interaction Checks
A more recent, even nacent, approach. I realized that too many of my designs were basically focused on creating interesting sets of interacting mechanics that the players' actions were variables in. Or I effectively came up with an interesting, puzzley situation and allowed multiple people to participate in it. But I believe that the heart of a good game is very often in its ability to provide a medium for compelling interactions between players, and this will rarely emerge on accident.

In short, I've started to focus my design process on player interaction. This has primarily manifested itself early in the process, as a way of evaluating initial designs or thinking of direction to take a given theme. In short, if you aren't going to have an interesting interaction mechanism, your design's liable to be doomed. Games are much more interesting when your ability to pull off your plans depends on your opponent's actions, and when your goals must be balanced against efforts to thwart those of your opponents. I think explicit focus on this aspect of a design will do me good.

Fundamental Decision Structure
This sounds fancier than it is. Somewhere in the back of my mind there's a model of the decision trees that players face over the course of a game, and which are more appealing than others. But in the meantime, I've started using a basic version of this concept to evaluate the experience provided to players. After all, its a player experience you're really hoping to create, the game is just the means.

During a game, a player will be faced with a large number of decisions. In most games, there are certain patterns that govern these decisions; each decision is unique, but they are of certain constant types. For example, in backgammon your decisions revolve around which pieces to move with your roll for the turn, and possibly how to handle doubling decisions based on board evaluations. In Puerto Rico, you are looking at questions of role selection, as well as decisions within role-turns, such as which boats to ship on, where to place colonists, and what buildings to buy.

The issue is, which of these kinds of decisions are fun? I think there is some value in Knizia-like designs, where the the player has limited options at any given moment, but where the implications of those decisions are sublte enough that choosing between them is difficult. I think games where you have a great many decisions can be ok, as long as you can categorize them as being productive to your goals or not, and quickly prune your search to those that you're interested in. For example, there's a veritable ton of things you can do on a turn in Arkham Horror, but you generally end up deciding between a few, reasonable alternatives, as you take advantage of the opportunities the game presents you.

This approach is really about avoiding pitfalls. For one, there's analysis paralysis. If you give the players a ton of information to work with, and a ton of choices, trying to find the best one can be daunting. For example, imagine that on a player's turn of Carcassonne they received 4 tiles from the player to their right and one from the stack. They played one, and passed the other 4 to the left. Sure, the game might be more strategic, but the enormous number of options it opened up would mostly just grind the game to a halt. Players would have to look at tons of possible plays, and also worry about what they were giving their opponents. Downtime would increase, and I reckon it would often just give players a sour taste of feeling like they missed the best move. The same goes for playing Metro where you can play tiles in any direction, or games where nearly-un-memorizable past information is kept open for people to consider.

On the other hand, there's the problem of lack of control. If a player's decisions don't affect their chances of success in remotely predictable ways, they're likely to see the whole exercise as not worth thinking about. This is often manifested in terms of large amounts of luck or hidden information, but it might just be an issue of the complexity of the system in which the players are working. I find the initial chaos of a game of Tigris and Euphrates to be daunting to this day.

What it comes down to is, what is the basic decision you are asking the player to make, and does this represent a fun challenge, or at least a means to exert control over the game situation? This is about as close as you can come to the question "is the game fun?", at least from a purely mechanical standpoint. Or at least, recognizing this aspect of a given design helps me to avoid situations where I've managed to simulate something, or even create an interaction, where the basic activity of playing the game just isn't any fun.

Side Note
I might be hatching a new theory here, where a game is essentially decision structures, interaction structures and theme. That is, enjoyment from puzzling out answers, enjoyment from interacting with others, and enjoyment from the story told by the events the game simulates. I'm not sure if that's a complete list, or if there's an elegant way to encapsulate them, but they seem related somehow.

Initial Strategy
Finally, a small observation of a quality shared by many members of the upper pantheons of successful lightweight Euros. I've noted that many good games are characterized by brand new players' ability to learn the rules and immediately say "I think I'll try to do this". That is, rather than blindly performing moves, or sort of needing a prod from the experienced players (T&E, Acquire, Battle Line, I'm looking in your direction), players can hatch at least a rudimentary overall strategy that will guide their initial moves.

For example, the tickets in Ticket to Ride provide an imputus to some initial train placements and interest in certain areas. In Settlers, interest in certain expansion points, the allure of development cards or the kind of resources you happen upon in the early turns can definately guide you towards certain approaches.

I'm not sure what to do with it yet, but it seems like creating a game where the player is immediately seduced by their own ability to have a plan is a quality to strive for. Its something I've tried to keep in mind in some early designs these days.

In conclusion, game design is certainly not as simple as starting with a theme and creating some mechanics around it. Nor can you come up with some mechanics and make a terribly fun game out of them. It sounds obvious, but this was too often the way I ended up approaching things. Rather, there's a variety of qualities you need to converge upon, and its a process of careful triangulation.

A final note on themes. I'm finding I need to avoid getting hung up on a particular approach to a theme until there's some mechanical groundwork that provides a basic level of interaction and compelling decision-making. I need to avoid getting seduced by thematic, cinematic events, they're very demanding on the rules, and can create cracks all over the place, and aren't usually necessary to make a game truly fun. Assuming you want to start with a theme: I think its more a matter of finding a theme that will inspire some interesting possible mechanics, massaging those until they work pretty well, allowing the theme to poke in when its welcome, and then allowing it to act as a coat of paint at the end. The basic mechanical inspirations, and the naming and art and sheen, should be enough to tie the game to the mechanics, and if those are sound the game just might work. Its a tricky balancing act to say the least, but I'm hoping by better acknowledging it to end up with more designs that are fully successful.