Thursday, August 14, 2008


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

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

Monday, August 11, 2008

Victory Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

regarding the real world

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

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

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

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

gosh but designing games is hard

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


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

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

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Drama of Dice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Strategizing

I think the clues were all there. This will maybe be no big epiphany to most of my readers, who mostly know me well. But the full realization came as something of a surprise to me: I like talking about games more than I like playing them. In fact, I think one of the main reasons I even bother playing games is so that I can talk about them afterwards, or even during.

Whatever it might be, the design of the game itself, the way the game played out, or the strategies that one might employ. The latter of these was what really got my attention yesterday. I was playing a bit of this flash game proximity, and was mulling over the strategies one might use. The game was fun, but it was mostly a testing session to puzzle over what the overall strategies might be. And when I came to interesting tradeoffs, about defensive moves vs offensive ones, for example, I wanted to chat over them. If I'd been playing with a person, I would have found that much more interesting than continuing to play the game in isolation of one another.

What does that mean? Some offshoots:
1) It help explains some of my issues with being chatty during games.
2) This explains why I like games like Magic, where discussing new cards, decks, strategies, formats, are totally part of the game. Similarly, I like that Apples to Apples is mostly about discussing the choices (at least for me), and can see how I might come to like an open-ended game like Race for the Galaxy once I could talk competently about the cards.
3) Maybe this means I'm cut out to design games, in that I like thinking about games and externalizing said thoughts. But maybe it means I'm a lousy choice - I mean, if I don't even like playing games, just theorizing about them, does that disqualify me from doing it right?
4) Is there a way to leverage this appeal into a game? Cooperative games are a start, where you discuss strategies. Nomics are a start, but sort of too fiddly. I guess the problem is that it can't be competitive, at least not openly. Maybe what I want isn't a game at all, but a conversation. Is there a way to structure an activity that would scratch this itch? Now I'm just getting out there. Maybe there is room for something like this in a Social Game (a topic I've not really touched upon yet properly here, but likely will some day).

Games are more interesting than they are fun, for me, these days. A troubling realization, perhaps.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I'm a bad blogger

Just been too busy. I think the monster game is really coming together. It is COMPLETELY different than when it started, much cleaner, though still evolving out from under me all the time.

I've also rekindled ideas of a software design game. Uh oh.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Stuff I've been doing

I made a pretty substantial post over on my brain dump blog about some of my recent non-game projects, which might be interesting to some of you.

The Origin

In case you were wondering about this blog's name...

It comes from a fairly perfect (educational?) sign that Chad got me back in the day. Trivia for when I'm famous.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Monster City

Just a quick update. I playtested a new, action-point-based version of this with the Tigris and Euphrates components, featuring a much smaller-scale city, and it seemed to go well. There are some interesting, emergent things that I'm liking. It still needs something, but its the best I've felt about it so far. Something special is happening with it, I just need to hone that into a proper game without losing that.

Don't have the time to do a proper update now, but will soon.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


I continue to wrangle with ways of thinking about designing games, looking for metaphors and perspectives that might shed light on which approaches are most promising. One perspective that has seemed promising is Challenges, that is, looking at designs in terms of the challenges they present to the player. Does the play have a way to translate their overall goal of winning into lower level strategic and tactical challenges? Ideally, a game has a variety of cycles of goal-setting, goal-pursuit and resolution.

For example, a game of Puerto Rico might involve a player who says "I'm going to pursue a factory strategy", "I need a coffeee roaster", "I need to get more money", "I need to get that last small market", "I need to sell my goods", "I need to make sure I sell my goods before Ted, who aslo has a sugar and would clog that market slot". Etc. There are challenges that have subchallenges, and a player can pursue them.

Challenges are good. They give the player something to strive for, and even feeling like you have chosen the right goal is itself satisfying. Plus, whenever you have a challenges, you have an opportunity for drama. Either you have victory or defeat, either you meet your challenge or fail.

So a challenge is:
- Setting a goal
- Making decisions in an effort to achieve that goal
- Resolution of the challenge, as success, failure, or a bit of both.

Challenge Establishing
It would seem that all games would have challenges, but some are surprisingly lacking, and suffer as a result. In a game like Fresh Fish, where results are largely emergent can defy challenge-making, at least the first couple of times you play. You have the challenge of "get your production facilities close to the delivery spots" but it can be hard to translate that into lower-level challenges. Strategies are not readily apparent, so you blithely throw down cubes. If you fail, you don't feel as if you're failed to meet a challenge, but rather just shrug at the situation.

An unexperienced Go player will see opportunities to surround enemy groups, and establish their capture as a Challenge. But more experienced players will know to look for sublte aspects of eyes, sente and aji, carefully choosing which battles to fight, setting up areas of power, and psychological ploys. Their challenges extend to higher and lower levels of abstraction, giving richer gameplay.

So its important that the gameplay provide opportunities for players to establish challenges in the first place. Ideally, this happens from the first play. For example, in Ticket to Ride, tickets suggest the challenge of completing them, and beneath that there are the challenges of finishing particular routes, and therefore challenges of gathering the necessary cards. The game is such a successful gateway game because it provides a rich challenge structure, right off the bat.

Challenge Pursuit
Once a challenge has been established by a player, they need to have the tools to satisfyingly pursue it. There should be uncertainty about whether you will succeed, but you should have some control over your fate. If you don't feel like your efforts affect your consequences, you're going to stop caring about the challenges before you.

A lot of well-known problems with games can be related to this idea. If a game is too luck-heavy, you can find yourself establishing challenges, trying to meet them, but being arbitrary thrwarted. Eventually, you're liable to lose interest. Similarly, there's the "runaway leader problem", where once a player gets ahead there's little other players can do to stop them (often in a racing game). This means that other players' challenge of "winning the game" might not have any subchallenges that could reasonably lead to success. Players end up disengaged from the game without challenging challenges.


So this is a perspective on ways you engage the player, and provide them with opportunities to engage themselves in the gameplay. The encouraging thing is, I can look at a lot of my failed designs and see how they didn't present viable subchallenges. They gave the player win conditions, and choices, but not any interesting nuggets of intermediate goals, success and failure. Conversely, I can see how nearly any game I like has a good challenge structure. I hope that by seeing things this way, I can have a better concept of how to separate promising designs from unpromising ones earlier in the process.

One direct offshoot is that I think the current Monster City design has some real problems here. But the good news is that I have some ideas, albeit drastic ones, on how to fix it. More on that soon.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Malleable Monster and Branches of Power

I talked with Chad a bit about the Monster City design, one thing we batted around was having changable sides. On the city side, there would be six possible factions, each with their own unit and set of cards, and you would choose three of them to use during a game. This would give each game a different feel. Similarly, the monster would choose a number of parts to its body, each of which provided specific move cards. The overall balance of attacks and movement would be preserved by associating them with "leg", "arm" "head" etc, card types, which would tend towards certain types of moves, and each monster wounld choose on of several options from each category.

There's a part of me that likes this for the replay value. The balance would be wonky at times, but this isn't an abstract asymetrical strategy game, its just meant to be fun. More Memoir '44 than Fox and Geese. Players would have more ownership over their abilities, and would be able to try drastically different approaches.

There's a part of me that is aesthetically repulsed by it though, it seems so messy. I'd want to really clean up the basic mechanics down to nearly nothign, and keep the cards themselves very elegant.

Also, because I would no longer be trying to perfectly balance the game, some games would be a little lopsided. So I would design it more as a "one more game" game, with a quick play time.

The end result being, I need to really streamline this down. I think shrinking the board *way* down might also be in order. The district idea might go away.


Also, I realized I need some kind of drama that rises and falls over the course of the game. Something that makes each turn different than the last, and provides a secondary concern. I know this is at odds with what I just said, and if I streamline the game down enough, maybe I can avoid this. But everything seems very linear these days. A "rage" value that rises and falls might be a step i the right direction, where more powerful moves are enabled by a higher value. Conversely, there might be a "morale" value for the city troops. Some secondary concern to strategically balance against, to carefully judge the importance of at a given moment.


I wonder if cards are even still the way to go for the monster. Dice, in a particular way, are starting to become appealing again. Its a long story.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Monster City update

Still working on this design. I've got some stuff in place that I think is generally working, but I think I need some outside input. I am just too damn involved in the design to be able to think about it rationally any more, too invested in particular avenues and concerns, and I need a fresh set of eyes to say "well, obviously this part is the problem."

The basic innovations of this version are:
- A more interesting city map. No more straight grid, but a series of city blocks and alleys with some character. I should have done this in the first place, it is already much more interesting.
- An unconventional movement model. The city is broken up into 6 districts. Each unit can undertake "normal movement", moving X spaces on the board. But they can also use "strategic movement": if they are outside the district the monster is in, they can move directly to any other space outside the monster's district. What this means is, your units are never completely out of the fight, they're always a move away from the border of the area where the action is. So far this looks to have some very nice emergent strategy as the monster considers when to change districts, and the city player tries to prevent or anticipate these changes. Credit Europe Engulfed for inspiration on this matter: thematically it means that its easy to move through uncontested areas, but a lot tougher when you're implicitly being careful, being attacked, or otherwise moving through a warzone.
- Finally! The "damage" model. As I mentioned previously, the monster can't destroy buildings when its within range of a unit's attack. This feels really right, giving the city player just the right amount of control over the monster mechanically and thematically.
- Card-based movement. This is giving me the kind of semi-predictability I wanted, I think, though this is the part of the game I am least certain of.

The game feels a little slow right now. but I need to playtest a bit because:
- Games always seem slower and more boring when you're self-playtesting, need to see how much that carries over.
- I think the basics are in place, and I think it could just be missing some changes to the board and cards, rather than fundamental rule changes. This is something I definitely need another head for.

Things I'm looking for:
- Keeping the pace brisk
- Balancing the sides
- Avoiding a runaway winner
- That pop. Right now, each turn is a bit like the last, needs some ramping tension, som buildup of power, some unexpected turns. This is probably my biggest issue, but one that should be fun to try to fix.

Maybe I'll employ Robin for this, though I will certainly bring the prototype to Seattle for some poking on my visit.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

slow days

Between the holidays, workshop papers, and general turmoil, I've not been on the game design train lately, but hope to be back next week. In the meantime, I started this blog. It's everything this one isn't, and will hopefully help keep the toxins away from here. Until soon - Alex