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.