Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Game Design and Economics

I begin this article with an experience I had with one particular product I had to sell as part of a previous job. (The product I'm referring to and my previous job are in no way associated with the realm of board games but I choose to start with them because the principles I learned there apply to the subject at hand.) The decision to buy the product in question was made by other people higher up in the company after being given some sales pitches by the manufacturer. However, the eventual task of selling this product was handed to me.

Now, usually in retail of any kind, the MSRP (manufacturer suggested retail price) is around double what a retailer pays for the product from either a wholesaler or directly from the manufacturer. In this case, we were purchasing the product directly from the manufacturer and, because of the cost involved for the manufacturer to produce the product, their eventual asking price from us as a retailer was around $500 per product. This cascaded into a retail price of around $800 to $1000. The product was put on display at our retail location and I was given the assignment to sell it.

For the most part, the product was proclaimed a very good idea by every customer that I introduced to it and it might have actually sold well if our asking price was around $300. However, because there was a strong mismatch between our asking price and what most consumers would reasonably pay for a product of that type, it simply didn't sell.

Game Design and Economics

What does that have to do with game design? Well, I submitted a game design this past year to a respected publisher who was willing to take a look at it and see if there was something there. They ultimately decided not to publish the game and one of the points made to me as part of their feedback was that the publisher saw my game as being a game that would be suited for a particular price point but that the number and type of components in my game made the publication of the game cost prohibitive for the level of play that it offered. Thus, publishing the game would be an unwise idea. Now, I was aware before I submitted the game of how it's important in general to keep the total number of components down in any game design - thus making the game a more likely candidate for publication. However, I had not actually asked myself "What is the specific price that this game would/should command in the marketplace?"

The Price of Games

Right now, a game like, say, "Caylus" sells for about $50.00 while a light card game such as "No Thanks" sells for about $10.00. This makes sense because Caylus is a very component heavy game while "No Thanks" is not. However, the level of play offered by a game like Caylus allows a manufacturer and a retailer to have an asking price that allows them to make profit off of selling the game (many people are willing to pay a larger price for a game that offers the type and amount of decisions that Caylus offers). If someone has designed a game that plays with about the same amount of weight as "No Thanks" but the component structure is on the same level as "Caylus", then the game is probably dead in the water up front - regardless of whether or not the game is fun. People will look at the game, perhaps play it, maybe even say it was fun, but there's no realistic economic viability in producing it because people simply won't pay that high of a price for it.

Thus, in general, how heavy a game is with respect to weight of decisions and how component intensive a game is are two aspects of design that need to line up for the publication of a game to be a reasonble business decision. There are obvious exceptions (Crokinole, for example, is a very simple game that requires lots of work to produce a board and pieces). Nevertheless, in general, if the game is going to be expensive, it needs to offer a level of play that will allow a consumer to justify the expense.
Evaulation

All of this brings me to my main point: judging one's own game design purely on the basis of whether or not it is fun to play is simply not a complete evaluation. It's easy to let one's self indulge in partial evaluation (after all, it's the publisher that will be dealing with the dollars and cents...right?....). As a game designer, one has to look at one's game as a "product" and take into account the economic viability of the game as a "product". The product I was assigned to sell at my previous job was a good idea in terms of what it offered but a terrible idea in terms of the economics involved. Games are the same way.

With this perspective now in place of "designing a game" = "designing a product", what are some things a designer can do to keep a game's component structure appropriate for the level of play offered by the game?

Simplification and Consolidation

I've found that, usually, simplification of processes within a game tends to equal consolidation of components as well. This is because most components are simply physical objects used to keep track of something going on in a game. Again, using "Caylus" as an example, there are lots of wooden pieces and components in the game. However, there are also a lot of things to keep track of (who built which building, how many sections of the castle were built by any one player, where the Provost is, whose workers have been placed and whose have not, turn order, etc.). A game with that many things to keep track of results in lots of components while a game with fewer things to keep track of results in fewer components. Thus, to make a game an economically viable product, simplification of rules and processes within the game is usually a very good idea as that simplification will tend to equal a consolidation of the components required to play the game. It's important to ask one's self with each and every component in the game "Is this absolutely necessary to have?" If the answer is "Yes because of rule X", then the next question should be "Is rule X really necessary?"

Most of these points deal with games that are being designed with a Eurogame audience in mind as gaming publishers that take the opposite approach (i.e. Fantasy Flight with their $80, bit/component intensive games) don't accept outside game submissions. Their designs come from in-house designers and their audience is looking for a component-rich gaming experience with "epic" game design (i.e. lots of rules to facilitate a very highly thematic game), not a simplified, Eurogame design.

Some Math

So, how much is your game worth? What would be a price that others would be willing to pay to have a copy of your game? Doing some mathmatical generalization, whatever that price is, divide it in half because that's most likely what a retailer will be paying for it from their wholesaler. Then, divide that number in half again because that's probably what the wholesaler will be paying for it from the manufacturer. Now consider that that's where the publisher's cost needs to be per unit to make a profit off selling it to a wholesaler. Let's spell this out using a game like "Carcassonne":

-Carcassonne sells for about $25.00 retail.

-Dividing that in half for the price from the wholesaler to the retailer can be estimated as being around $12.50

-Dividing that in half again for the price from the manufacturer to the wholesaler can be estimated at around $6.25

Now consider that a publisher like Rio Grande will have to produce copies of Carcassonne for less than $6.25 per copy to make money off of it.

Print Runs

The next issue one encounters in this process is the issue of print runs. Printing companies will charge less per unit if there are more total units in the print run. Printing enough copies to make the cost of the game worth it leads to the issue of now having to sell that many more copies of the game to make a profit. So, if you play it safe and do a small print run of 500 copies of a game (assuming a printing company will do a print run that small) then your per unit costs will be prohibitive. If you make your per unit costs more acceptable by doing a 2000 copy print run, now you are under pressure to sell a lot more games to turn a profit. Now consider just for a moment that making a game at even $4.00 per copy and printing 500 copies of that game equals a $2000 investment. It's no wonder that game publishers have to take into account the components involved in a prototype they are looking at. Every piece of the game is going to cost money to make.

The Focus of Design

Many of us who try our hand at designing games can get caught up in the smaller particulars of design and, in the process, lose sight of whether or not our game is an economically viable idea. I've presented a few thoughts on the matter here simply to help remind all of us, myself included, that we can't ignore the economics involved when we are creating a game. We owe it to the publishers to give them as slick of a prototype as we can so that they have all the more reason to say to themselves "Alright, let's invest our hard earned money in this guy's game because we believe we can make money off of it."

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Quick Look at Audiences and the Acclaim of Puerto Rico


At present, Puerto Rico is the highest rated game on Board Game Geek and is so by a wide margin. Why? What is it about the game that causes it to be rated so highly? What elements of appeal are involved in the game so as to evoke such a positive response out of so many gamers? This article offers a quick look at these issues.

Audiences

First of all, let’s look at audiences within the gaming community. Audiences tend to be aggregates of people who have some similar dispositions with regard to their gaming tastes. If these audiences grow to a certain critical mass, they tend to be identified and classified with a label. These labels are imperfect mental groupings at best but, despite the imperfections inherent within the type of generalizations that come from using labels, they can immediately conjure up lots of information in the mind of a person when they are used. Calling someone a “Eurogamer” for example carries lots of implications – some of which may be accurate and some of which may not. Nevertheless, the term can be a useful term despite it’s imperfection.

With all of that said, my main argument in this article is that the primary reason why Puerto Rico appeals to so many people is because it has a mixture of elements in it that appeal to audiences who normally don’t have all that much in common with respect to their tastes in gaming. Let’s see why this is.

The “Eurogamer” Audience

The term “Eurogamer” generally applies to a person who tends to like the following elements in a game:

-Fairly simple/streamlined rules set

-Minimal amounts of luck involved

-Interesting mechanics and systems – regardless of how strongly or poorly they reinforce the theme of the game

-Balance in the game play (i.e. prevention of a run-away leader problem and so forth)

The Amerigaming / “Ameritrash” Audience

The label of an “Ameritrasher” is one that still carries some ambiguity. However, there are a few characteristics that can be identified as generally applying to someone who chooses to identify themselves with the Ameritrash label:

-Theme and thematic immersion is the primary goal of a game

-Balance, luck, mechanics, systems, and relative simplicity of rules are all subservient to the goal of having a strongly thematic experience. Exceptions to rules or specialized rule-breaking abilities are seen as being positive or negative within the framework of the question “do they reinforce the theme?”

-Usually, the more direct player interaction in a game, the better.

The “CCG” Audience

One of the main points of appeal of CCG’s (Collectible Card Games) is that a gamer gets to be a quasi game designer as they acquire various cards, build their deck and, through deck building, are afforded the opportunity to use their creativity to determine how the game plays. They are like a painter having access to a wide palette of colors to paint the rules and privileges that they want to try using in a particular game.
Aspects of Appeal

Puerto Rico has the following aspects that allow it to reach out and appeal to a wide variety of gamers:

-The variety of buildings available and the different possibilities for interaction between buildings affords a player the opportunity to create what their gaming experience will be like within the game – much like how CCG gamers create their gaming experience through deck building.

-Unlike CCG’s, and unlike many “Ameritrash” games, the amount of luck in Puerto Rico is minimal at best. This aspect of minimal luck appeals to many Eurogamers.

-The elements of managing a workforce and the different amounts of exceptions to rules provided by the buildings in the game allow an Amerigamer to find some areas of thematic appeal.

-Often times, when you have lots of exceptions to rules in a game, the game can become convoluted if one player’s modifiers have to be reconciled with another player’s modifiers due to direct player interaction. For example “If I attack you with character A using Modifier X but you respond with character B using Modifier Y but I counter with an additional Modifier Z and you realize that if you counter with Modifier…etc.” When games become convoluted, they bog down and the fun of the game can be lost in the math or in the keeping track of some sort of clunky set of protocol. Puerto Rico offers lots of exceptions to rules and benefits through the buildings available for purchase but those privileges and exceptions apply to the owner and only on their turn and don’t have to be reconciled with other player’s buildings because there’s no “combat” per se in the game. Thus, there’s no messy sets of detailed orders of operations that have to be processed.

-On the other hand, even though there is no combat in the game, there are opportunities to really “stick it” to other players. Taking the Captain and requiring someone to ship a crop that they desperately needed to trade is one example. This aspect has potential appeal to Amerigamers because Amerigamers tend to prefer the ability to directly impact other players through one’s own choices in a game.

I’m sure there are other aspects of appeal that cause Puerto Rico to come off positively to a wide variety of crowds but what I’ve listed here are a few of the main points. The number of different privileges the buildings afford their owners allow a person to really play with a wide variety of possible combinations in their approach to the game and the luck of the plantation draws offers just enough variety to keep Puerto Rico fresh over time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Triangulation Issues in Resource Attrition Games

It's been a while since I've posted but it's good to be back at it. Recently, after a hard day's work at the fiendly local game store where I'm employed, a couple of friends of mine agreed to stay afterwards and play a game with me. One of them had just bought the game "La Citta" and was anxious to try it out:



It's currently ranked number 72 on BoardGameGeek and it's pulling a rating of about 7.5 out of 10 in its rankings. That seems like a pretty safe bet to make if you're going to purchase a game before playing it. Well, he opened up the game, read through the rules, and off we were.

After about 20 minutes into the hour long game, we came up against a fundamental aspect of the game's design that illustrated a glaring problem. Even though La Citta isn't a player elimination game, the mechanics result in quasi player elimination (you're not out of the game, but after a certain critical point, you no longer have any realistic shot at winning). This problem only became worse as the game progressed.

It's a simple matter of there being an inherent problem with any game (note: any game) where the possibility exists for more than two players to play the game and where the game implements a resource attrition mechanic that is dependent on direct player interaction as the main source of points. This is because of basic triangulation attrition issues that can take either one of two possible forms:

1. Player A and Player B beat each other up while Player C waits, remains strong, and then, once both of the other players are sufficiently weak, comes in and cleans up.

or

2. Player A gets an advantage over Player C. Then Player B joins in and beats up on Player C because Player C can't fight back now and it's more advantagous to pile on Player C than to attack Player A as Player A is a more formidable direct opponent, thus putting Player C out of contention at a certain point and making the rest of the game tedium for that player.

In games with only two players, resource attrition due to direct player interaction is perfectly fine. War games are all about resource attrition (the resources being troops). It's when you introduce a third player into the mix that it becomes a problem.

In La Citta, the second of those two dynamics I just discussed is at work. If player C finds his citizens being sucked out of one of his cities early by player A, player C becomes an easy target for player B as well. This is because limited citizens limits the number of colors that the city can develope and, thus, limits that city's abilities to suck citizens out of other cities. Because of these mechanics, there is no real incentive for player B to not take advantage of the situtation. Thus, the game can very quickly devolve into an exercise in pillaging the guy who got picked on early simply because there's no real incentive not to do it.

What this creates is a situation in which player C can never recover because, once you're down, there's not really a viable way to get back up in this game (assuming the maraudering players have taken steps to account for growth of their cities via markets, public baths, and having enough food to feed the new citizenry). This is because once a city has been robbed of citizens enough times early on in the game, it becomes nothing more than a source of easy citizens/VP's for the other players who will already have larger cities with multiple colors developed. Those larger cities will tend to suck away citizens from the smaller city consistently before that smaller city is ever able to reach a critical mass of functional competitiveness.

It's a classic case of the "rich get richer" while the "poor get poorer". This results in a broken game where the basic reward system inherent in the game design motivates me as a player to help contribute to a situation where another player is having to suffer through the game even though he knows after some early events that he has no shot at winning. Either that or it creates a situation where I'm the one suffering through tedium. These criticisms wouldn't necessarily apply as strongly in a 4 or 5 player game as there are enough other players to possibly "cannibalize" each other and keep one person from developing a massive city.

The problem might not be so critical if citizens were simply lost out of a city. (i.e. a player is having a net loss of -1 citizen when losing one). However, because a citizen switches places from the losing city to the winning city, it's a net swing of 2 (-1 for player A, +1 for player B). The game implements a food/feeding-your-people mechanic that should make it harder to accomodate a larger number of citizens but, if the player is savy, he or she can account for that somewhat easily and still keep their city sufficiently large to suck points out of the small city managably. Granted, you could "house rule" the game into playability by changing some of the basic aspects of the game play but that's not the state one wants a game to be in when one purchases a game.

None of us at the table could believe that a game that's been around for so long and was published by a respectable company like Rio Grande was so fundamentally flawed. Granted, the one who had purchased the game had read some feedback on BoardGameGeek about it and he indicated before we started the game that, in the past, it was noted that the game had a runaway leader problem that was supposedly fixed. Well, it wasn't fixed. It can't be fixed when the basic system of the game is the inherent problem. If points were awarded independent of resources switching hands, then you've got a game that might work - but this game's system simply isn't sound.

This issue of triangulation in relation to resource attrition is the same thing that makes Risk a game that is, in my opinion, a fundamentally broken game. It suffers from the first possible scenario I listed above: that of one player waiting while two other players slug it out and weaken each other - thus allowing the third player to more easily come in and clean up.

What defies my understanding is how La Citta has achieved such a high rating on BGG. As I glanced through the comments made by various people who had rated it, there were some comments acknowledging problems with the game even though the ones making those comments had rated it a 10.

Ultimately, La Citta was an exercise in tedium for one of the players and offered an unrewarding victory to one of the other players. I'm personally glad I didn't ever consider buying this game and that I was allowed to try it because of another player's copy. Unfortunately, that other player is now looking for a way to get rid of it (like Ebay or at BGG's marketplace).

Friday, October 12, 2007

General: Priorities

I'm posting here today to let everyone know that I've been dating a wonderful person and I am now engaged. As a result, I simply haven't had time to devote to this blog. Rest assured, more content will follow - it's just not my top priority right now. :)

In fact, one thing I've discovered is that, when you meet the right person, other things take a truly secondary place in terms of one's personal priorities. I still love gaming, but its role in my life is now much further down on my priority list.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Game Instruction: Where to Begin

Introduction
From personal experience, I’ve discovered that many gamers are lousy game teachers. I’ve already written previous articles on general principles of effective game teaching but this article is a specific look at what I perceive to be a big stumbling block to many game instructors – namely: where to begin.


This may seem like a simple subject. However, where a person begins their explanation of a game can have a profound impact on the receptiveness of their learners to the teaching process. Too often, gamers just start in by describing the first rule that comes to mind or the rule/mechanic that is their favorite rule or aspect about the game. The problem with such an approach in the beginning is that many rules need to be described within some sort of perceived context. In other words, a groundwork of understanding has to be established first before certain rules or mechanics will make any sense.

My Personal Approach

To ensure that I always establish that context in the beginning, I’ve personally adopted a somewhat consistent formula that I tend to use when I approach a teaching session. Using this formula helps me remember the essentials of establishing a foundation of perception for the game first and it helps me describe rules and mechanics at their proper time and in a proper context. Here is the general formula I follow:

The name of the game is (game name).

The theme of the game is that each player is (provide player role description) trying to (describe winning conditions in general terms) by (provide general description of methods).

(Identify the nature of the game. Ex. Cooperative, teams, etc.)

(Describe the flow of game: rounds, phases, turns, etc.).

On a player’s turn they will (describe what happens on a turn).

(Continue to describe details of the game, always beginning with the big picture first and then narrowing that big picture down to what happens on players’ turns - defining what a term means before using it and describing what different components and areas are called before referring to them by their proper game names.)

The game ends when (fill in conditions here).

Any questions? (Have brief Q & A session before beginning).

An Example:

So, let’s look at an example of this formula in action using the game “Saint Petersburg”:

The name of the game is Saint Petersburg.

The theme of the game is that each player is an investor spending money to try and gain the most prestige. Prestige is obtained by scoring points in various ways.

The game is competitive – meaning that each player is out for themselves.

The game takes place over the course of a number of rounds. Each round is divided into four phases:

-The Worker Phase
-The Buildings Phase
-The Aristocrat Phase
-and The Upgrade Phase

You will notice that there are four decks of cards – each corresponding to one of the four phases. These four phases proceed in order from left to right beginning with the Worker phase and concluding with the Upgrade phase.

….(continue description)…

On your turn, you may chose one of the following three options:

1. Buy a card off of the board
2. Take a card off of the board and put it into your “hand”
3. Pass

…(continue description – explaining what each of the three available options on a turn mean and how they work)…

…After you have taken your turn, the next player to your left takes their turn and play continues in clockwise order…

...(describe how a phase ends)…

…(certain exceptions to basic game structure often need to be covered) For example…

…if you have previously bought the “Observatory”, and if the game is currently in the Buildings phase, you have a fourth option available to you on your turn. If you choose, you may turn your purchased Observatory over so that it is face down and then select the top card from one of the four decks (continue with description of Observatory)…

Without continuing on, this example should help clarify what I mean by starting the explanation with laying a groundwork of understanding. This is important to grasp because, if a gamer has played a particular game a lot, it can become all too common for the gamer to have lost any perception of what it means to not know the terms and names of the game. For example, if the explainer begins teaching the game by discussing aristocrat endgame points first (perhaps because it is that aspect of the game that most engages the interest of the gamer who is doing the explaining), then here is an example of what is said versus what is understood/thought by the learner.

What is said:

“Okay, let’s begin teaching. With this game, you want to make sure you get a larger diversity of aristocrats because you will score more points at the end of the game if you do...”

What the learner is already thinking:

“What are aristocrats? How do I ‘get’ them? What does he mean by ‘diversity’? Is he referring to just the total number I ‘get’ or does he refer to unique types? Are there other ways to score points?”
Forecasting

The previous example of questions that can arise in the mind of the learner brings up the topic of a good habit to have when explaining games. One might refer to it as "forecasting". Here's what I mean:

When explaining a game, there will always be questions that come up in the learner’s mind and there are times when explanation and clarification of those questions will have to be delayed until enough information has been presented such that the answers would make sense. However, teaching in an ineffective manner raises too many questions too quickly such that the learner is distracted by all of those questions and, thus, isn’t as open to new information. By "forecasting", the explainer helps the learner positively anticipate future information by providing a "forecast" of explanations to come. In other words, you actively help the learner know where you are going with your explanation. Here is an example of forecasting in explaining the game "Ticket to Ride":

"On each turn, you will have three specific options available to you - from which you will choose one on your turn. Your options are:

1. Taking cards
2. Playing cards
3. Taking tickets

Now let's look at what each option means. You can take cards by..."

By forecasting, the learner knows that you will be addressing a topic that they may have a question about - thus allowing them to focus on your current explanation. Without forecasting, the learner may be distracted by trying to make sure that they remember to ask you about that one thing they had a question about.

The opposite of forecasting is simply mentioning each item as it occurs to you. Such an approach can come off as scattered to the learner which makes it more likely that the learner will be distracted by questions that they will need to ask later as they will not feel confident that you are going to cover all of the topics about which they have questions.

The "Story" of the Game

Taking a larger, big picture approach that couches new terms and concepts within some sort of context helps the learner make sense of the new information a lot faster and much more effectively. Essentially, you help establish the "story" of the game from the beginning. Unfortunately, establishing that all-important context at the beginning of the game is something that many gamers neglect when explaining a game. That’s why I have come to use the general formula that I do. It requires me to understand the game’s context well enough to present it in an organized fashion. For example, how would you describe the “role” the players are playing in “Ticket To Ride”? I usually describe it like this:

“The name of the game is Ticket to Ride. The theme of the game is that each player owns a railroad company. Your goal is to establish your railroad company as the most successful by scoring points. You do this by….”

Later on, I might describe “tickets” in this manner:

Think of tickets as contracts that you have made on behalf of your company. By taking a ticket, you have promised someone - be it customers, investors, whomever - that you will connect those two cities with your routes before the game ends. If you have successfully fulfilled your promise at the end of the game by connecting the two cities indicated on a ticket, you will gain the points on that ticket. If you fail to connect the two cities on a ticket, you didn’t uphold your promise and, thus, you lose points.”

This is simply one way of describing what’s going on in the game. The point with this example is that it is an attempt at helping the learner think of the game in terms of some kind of story being told through the game. It provides a context for understanding the mechanics in such a manner that the player’s imagination is more fully engaged in the process. Granted, there are exceptions to these points. If you are explaining a purely abstract game, then there is no story to tell. Nevertheless, appealing to metaphors from time to time during the course of the explanation may help certain mechanics make more sense or at least can make the workings of the rules easier to remember.

The Beginning

If a person begins their explanation of a game by laying the important, initial, contextual groundwork in a logical manner - making sure to use forecasting such that the learner can focus on current explanations with the assurance that as yet uncovered topics will be covered in due course - the learning process can "get off on the right foot" so to speak and the natural flow of the explanation will be greatly enhanced. Where and how a person starts with their explanation can make a big difference.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Game Design: Theme and Mechanics

Designing a board game is a lot of work. It involves lots of trial and error, starting over, and tweaking. After a while, the process takes on a life of its own as playtests move from just experimenting with initial ideas to exploring further aspects of development such as trying to break specific aspects of the game or trying to see how well the game scales and what needs to be adjusted to facilitate scaling. This process is exciting, challenging, frustrating and educational. Yet each process, each long, laborious undertaking begins somewhere. It occurs to me that there are essentially two main, obvious starting points:

1. A mechanic (or set of mechanics)
2. A theme or story

It is about the interworkings of these two aspects of a game that this article seeks to explore.


The Initial Design Process

Some designers start out with a specific story they want to tell in a game. This story manifests its self in what we refer to as "theme". When beginning with theme, it is in trying to tell the story of the game that the mechanics make their way into the experimentation that is the game design process and it is upon the criteria of how well they tell the story that the mechanics are evaluated. Do they evoke the "feel" of the theme or not? Do they reinforce the role the player is playing or do they strike the player as disconnected from that role?

Other designers begin with a specific mechanic or system and then they try to match a theme with that mechanic. From this perspective, it is the theme that is being evaluated rather than the mechanic in the early stages of development. Does the theme help establish some emotional attachment to the decisions involved in the mechanics or does it feel disconnected? If the theme feels disconnected, then what other type of theme would serve as a stronger cohesive force to provide the mechanics with some emotional tie-in?

Granted there are exceptions to these ideas. Specifically, the pure abstract games (i.e. the games that are all mechanics and don't try to have a theme at all) stand outside of these descriptions. However, for the most part, in the beginning stages of development, one element or the other (theme or mechanics) is dominant over the other in the design process.

Becoming a Game

After a while, the game begins to gain an identity all its own. However, before arriving at this point, there is usually at least one critical threshold that is crossed in the designing process wherein the previously more dominant motive finally gives way to the less dominant motive for the sake of improving the game. In other words, when a mechanic finally gets discarded or significantly altered in the interest of serving the theme - or - where the theme finally has to be slightly altered in the interest of having a tighter relationship with the mechanics, the game has crossed into a more interactive, dynamic stage of development. It is at this point where the prototype is ceasing to be mechanics in need of a theme or a theme in need of mechanics. Instead, it is finally growing into a game.

Flexibility

After crossing this crucial threshold, it is my position that the designer needs to begin adopting a more flexible stance in terms of evaluating what needs to remain the same and what needs to change about the game. In other words, if a specific mechanic was what inspired the game design process in the first place but, now, the game has grown to the point where that original mechanic is precisely what needs to be discarded, the designer needs to be flexible enough to let go of that original driving force, that impetus at the genesis, and let the game grow. To appeal to metaphor, the game needs to discard its cocoon as wings are now part of the picture and cocoons don't help the game out anymore.



This flexibility underlies a larger part of designing that was expressed eloquently by a friend of mine named Alf Seegert who is a fellow member of the Board Game Designers Guild. He described it in this manner (paraphrasing)...

"Paint in the beginning. Then begin to sculpt."


The beginning stages of designing can be guided and motivated by trying to find mechanics for our theme or a theme for our mechanics. In this process, we may try out a lot of ideas. In other words, we are painting.

However, after a while, we begin to see what is working and what isn't and, instead of adding more things into the picture, we may begin to simplify things in the interest of making the game better. At this point, we shift from "painting" to "sculpting".


In this respect, the following two quotes from Michelangelo help provide some perspective:

"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

There can come a point where any new thematic or mechanical addition made to a game will actually make it worse instead of better. Knowing when to add and when to simplify can make the difference between an "ok" game and a great game.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Game Design: Triangulation and Scaling in Game Systems

Let us start with this premise: designing a game is essentially designing a system of distribution. Any game, no matter how complex or how simple, is essentially a distribution system. Whether it is distributing points, means to obtaining points (i.e. resources), or positioning of various strengths, each game is, at its core, a system and the basic nature of any system will highly impact the extent to which that system can accomodate a larger vs. a smaller number of players (i.e. how well it can scale).

One thing many a gamer will notice as they explore a variety of games is that some games have a broad range of scaling and some games do not. Usually, I find that if a game can play two players it tends to max out at 4 and, if a game requires a minimum of three players, it can scale to five. Granted there are plenty of games that scale larger. One of my personal favorites - Caylus - scales from 2 to 5 players. Puerto Rico, though the 2 player varient isn't included in the rules at present when you buy the game, can scale from 2 to 5 players. Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne both scale from 2 to 5 players. Fearsome Floors can scale from 2 to 7. Citadels can scale from 2 to 7. That's some serious scaling. But, for the most part, games fall in either the 2 to 4 players category or the 3 to 5 players category of scaling.

What dynamics come into play (pardon the pun) in a game's system such that allowing the possibility of a two player game tends to restrict the game's upper range of player scalability and vice versa? This article is an attempt at finding at least a few answers.

Natural Limits

First of all, let's look at the classic game "The Settlers of Catan".




As anyone who is familiar with the game has noted, the game only plays 2 to 4 players as is. To allow a fifth and sixth player into the game, you have to change the basic nature of the board (it has to be larger). Add to this the need for two additional sets of settlement, city, and road pieces and you've got yourself a viable, purchasable product that can be sold seperately from the base game:




Looking at things from a publisher's standpoint, it makes sense to do things this way. Getting people to try Settlers requires a certain non-prohibitive price point. Attempting to include all of the components that allow the game to scale from 2 to 6 players in the base game as a standard product would create a more prohibitive price point such that many people out there who bought the base game might not have done so if it was an additional $20. However, by including the expansion seperately, Mayfair creates a product that is affordable to someone who isn't necessarily sure if the game is for them.

In terms of scaling, there is a natural limit to how the base game can play out with 2, 3, or 4 players. Moving beyond that natural limit requires changes to the board for the game to remain playable. The board simply becomes too small for a 5th or a 6th player unless the board is expanded. Also, extra rules involving when players can build have to be implemented for the system to not break down under the weight of a 5th or 6th player.

This example of Settlers illustrates an important point: most game systems have natural limits with respect to their player capacities and most systems need to be altered in some way for them to expand upwards or downwards from their natural limits with respect to the number of players they can accomodate. It's possible that many games put out on the market that are 2 to 4 player games could be made into 2 to 6 player games but the alterations to the game's basic system are such that offering a base game with that level of scalability is simply not financially a smart move. The publishers would have to put a higher price on the game because of the extra components needed to allow the game to scale.


Crowding

In terms of a game's upper range with respect to scaling, some game systems simply become too "crowded" if you add too many players - thus the player range remains restricted. Let's take Saint Petersburg for example:


In this game, there are four distinct phases: workers, buildings, aristocrats, and upgrades. There are also 8 slots for cards on the board. With Saint Petersburg's game system as it stands, it comfortably plays anywhere from 2 to 4 players. However, if you were to try to include a 5th player, the problem of starting first in a phase each round comes into play. With only 4 phases and 5 players, one player does not get to start first in a phase which could be considered unfair. Also, with a 5th player, the board would have to be made larger to allow more slots for cards. Further, the number of cards in each deck would have to change as the depletion of any one deck is a trigger for the end of the game. Thus, the game system as it stands has a natural limit of 4 players and, to go beyond that, would require some significant changes to the game's basic system.

Triangulation and Non-Triangulation Mechanics

Now let's look at the other side of scaling. Some game systems have a natural limit on the lower end - meaning the game breaks down unless there is at least a minimum number of players. If a game has to have at least 3 players for it to be realistically playable, then it's probably due to a "triangulation" mechanic forming a key part of the game's basic system. Graphically, here is the difference between a triangulation relationship and a duelistic one:

Duelistic:





Triangulated:




What becomes immediately apparent is that adding one additional player greatly increases the interactive complexity of the system. Such interactive complexity is necessary for certain game systems to function. Let's look at two specific examples of this:


Auctions
Many Eurogames implement some kind of auction. Most games that incorporate an auction as a fundamental part of that game's system will have, as a requirement, at least 3 players. There are exceptions (Power Grid is the first to come to mind) but, for the most part, auctions are only realistically interesting if there are three people involved.

Large Payout due to Attrition
Certain games offer a large payout if a player does not succomb to attrition. Examples of this include such games as Diamant/Incan Gold and Cloud 9. You will also notice with these games that a minimum of 3 players is the case. Again, the reasons for this are obvious. If there are only two players, the opportunities for big payoffs are too easy to come by and the competitive tension of the game is tremendously crippled.


"Locked" Systems
Some game systems require a specific number of sets of resources in play in order for the game to work. I'm specifically thinking of Blokus in this respect. To anyone who's played the game, it makes sense that four sets of pieces must be in play for the game to have the tension that it does. Otherwise, if there were fewer players, then either each player would have to have extra pieces that they wouldn't use in a game where there are a larger number of players, or the board would have to be reduced in size (which explains why the game Travel Blokus was published). So, those four sets of pieces remain in play but the rules about who controls which set at which time allow the game to scale from 2 to 4 players.

Most common examples of "locked" systems in games are of the two player variety: Chess, Yinsh, Go, Lost Cities, etc.

Large Group Games or "Party" Games
Some game systems depend on a much larger number of minimum players to work. Werewolves, for example, really needs at least 8 players to have the proper amount of tension it needs. Most party games in general usually need a larger number of players to really work. Otherwise, with only two or three players in a typical party game, the socially interactive element is not robust enough to carry the time and, thus, more pressure is put on the game's intellectual intrigue to provide fulfillment. This can be a problem as most party games are built around the concept of achieving fun via amusement rather than through intellectual intrigue.

Further, many party games that are built on a duelistic system incorporate the idea of competing teams - which implies a minimum of at least 4 players to make the game viable. Other games rely on a triangulation system to work. Apples to Apples is a prime example of this (imagine playing it with only two players).

Impact on Game Design
Regardless of what kind of game system a designer has in place, it's important for the designer to recognize which aspects of his or her prototype need to adjust in the scaling process and which aspects need to remain the same. It's easier to identify those aspects if the designer is aware of the inner dynamics at play within a game system so as to preserve the tension of the game as each new player is added to the equation.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Jay Tummelson and "A Gathering of Strangers" - the Utah Game Convention


Our annual gaming convention in Salt Lake City, called "A Gathering of Strangers", was a tremendous success in its second year of existence. The Convention this year was sponsored by:

ICon - the Idaho Gaming Convention



Game Night Games

Out of the Box



and Rio Grande Games

This time around, we were specifically glad to have Mr. Jay Tummelson - owner of Rio Grande Games - visit us and spend some time demoing some of the new releases coming out from Rio Grande. The night before the event, Mr. Tummelson came to Game Night Games and spent some time with our local gamers. He demo-ed several upcoming new releases and brought some prototypes of potential games that might be coming soon. Here is Jay (far left side) with some of our regulars at Game Night playtesting one of his prototypes:



The Convention started the next morning and lasted until 10:00 that night. Here is Ryan McLelland, the main organizer of the event, at the check in table:




The convention was held at the Student Union Building on the campus of the University of Utah.


Greg, the manager of Game Night Games, helped at the games check-out booth early on. Here he is (far right) teaching Zooloretto:




One of the more popular games played at the convention was the new Ca$h 'n Gun$ game:




A wide variety of games saw the table during the day including: Axis and Allies, Arkham Horror, If Wishes Were Fishes, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, Notre Dame, Cosmic Encounter, The Princes of Florence, Puerto Rico, Zooloretto, Shadows Over Camelot, Wings of War, Can't Stop, Crokinole, Fairy Tale, and Through the Ages among others. For a complete listing, check out this list at BGG:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/22691/page/1

Also seeing the table were several prototypes from members of a local club of game designers called The Board Game Designers Guild which also helped sponsor the event and of which I am a member. Greg, pictured previously, is the primary organizer and founder of the club. Here is Steve (far right hand side), also a member of the club, playing one of his prototypes with some friends:


Here is myself (far left) also playing one of my prototypes with some friends:



Jay Tummelson, in addition to providing demos of upcoming games, was also willing to spend time with members of our game design club in providing feedback on many of our prototypes - which was greatly appreciated. Here is Jay with another member of our guild, Alf Seegart, discussing one of Alf's prototypes:



During the convention, Game Night Games had a table set up with games for sale. As usual, our selection was quite diverse including everything from simpler titles such as "Zooloretto" and "Bohnanza", to dexterity games such as "Pitch Car" and "Tumblin' Dice", to larger scale games such as "Roads and Boats" and "Antiquity". Behind the table is Tim - owner of Game Night Games:




During the convention there were several events of note. One of which was our charity drive to donate games that will be sent to the troops overseas. Phil Kilcrease, another member of the Board Game Designers Guild, was the organizer of the charity event.

We also had a raffle give-away for various games including titles such as "Incan Gold", "Taj Mahal", and "Canal Mania".

All in all the convention was a great success, not only because of all the wonderful people who came, but also specifically due to the presence of Jay Tummelson. He spent much of his time demo-ing games, answering questions, and just making sure that people were having a good time. Here is a picture of Jay and myself:

If anyone is interested in visiting our convention next year, feel free to check out the convention website for updates:

http://www.utahgamecon.org/

Friday, June 29, 2007

Review: China


Overview of Rules and Game Play
China is a quasi-territorial control game involving component placement through card usage. With regards to scoring, there are in-game and end-game scoring mechanisms. Here's how it plays:
The board is a map of China divided into 9 regions. Each of these regions if of one of five colors. So, two regions are yellow, two are green, two are red, two are orange, and the largest territory is purple. Any two regions of the same color do not border each other on the map. There is also a "great wall" of China scoring track which is fun as it reinforces the theme quite well. The board is also double sided with a different setup on each side.
Each player starts off with three cards in their hand. Each card is of a single color corresponding to one of the five region colors and each card has listed on it the names of the territory or territories it can be used for. When a player plays a card, it allows that player to place either a "house" or an "emissary" in a region. A player may place up to two pieces on their turn (their cards permitting) but they may only do so in a single region. The rule books provides an easy way to remember this with the 3-2-1 idea:
Three cards may be used to place up to two pieces in one region.
When placing pieces, if you have two cards of the same color, they may both be played as a "wild" - allowing you to place a piece in any region you wish. Thus, a player may use all three cards in their hand on their turn.
At the beginning of the game, after everyone has their cards, the top four cards from the draw deck are layed out. After placing their pieces each player replenishes their hand back up to three at the end of their turn by selecting cards from either the four that are layed out, blindly off the top of the draw pile, or both. After replenishing their hand, any empty spots left by cards taken from the four that were layed out are filled again off the top of the draw pile. The card replenishment is important because going through the draw deck twice triggers the end of the game.
In placing pieces on the board, one of the interesting rules is that no player may place two pieces in a region that doesn't have any pieces in it already. What this creates is a situation where some of the players are hesitent to place a piece in a new region because all of the other players would then have a chance to place multiple pieces in that same region on their turns.
Houses
There are a specific number of spots in each region for a house and there are roads connecting these spots. You may place a house on any spot in a region that you wish (if you have played the appopriate card or cards to allow you to do so). Once any region fills up, the scoring works in descending order like so:
The first place player (the player with the majority of houses) gets a number of victory points equal to the total number of houses in the region regardless of who placed them. The second place player gets a number of victory points equal to the total number of houses in that region placed by the first place player. The third place player gets a number of vp's equal to the number of houses placed by the second place player and so forth. Ex:
Player one plays 4 houses in the purple region
Player two plays 3 houses in the purple region
Player three plays 1 house in the purple region
Player one would get 4+3+1=8
Player two would get 4 points
Player three would get 3 points
What this creates is the interesting dynamic of trying to get others to help you out. 8 and 4 is a fair amount of distance between a first and second place player with only one extra house placed by the first place player. However, if a smaller provice broke down like this:
Player one plays 4 houses in the red region
Player two plays 1 house in the red region
Player one gets 4+1=5 points
Player two gets 4 points
In this example, player one did all the work and player two, with only one piece, got only 1 point less than player one.
Roads
As I mentioned, there are roads that connect the housing spots. If a player connects four of their houses in a row or more along a road (regardless of whether those houses are all in the same region or not) that player gets a number of victory points at the end of the game equal to the total number of consecutive houses on the road.
Emissaries
Emissaries can be placed on a region in a black circular symbol in the middle of each region. The total number of emissaries that can be played in a region (regardless of who plays them) is always less than or equal to the total number of houses in the majority in that region. For example, if a region has two houses from player one in it and one house from player two, then that region can only hold two emissaries in it because two is the number of houses in the majority in that region at that time. Emissaries can by played by anyone. They do not have to be played by the majority player.
Between each region is a small black spot with a number on it. There is a black game piece that represents the emperor and, at the end of the game, the emperor piece starts out on the spot labeled "1" and continues through until he gets to spot "15" - at each spot "checking the relationship" between each region. In a given relationship, there is only scoring if one person has a majority of emissaries in both regions of the relationship and that player gets a total number of points equal to the total number of emissaries in those two regions regardless of who played them. So, if you choose to place an emissary in a region, you had better win the majority in that region or you're just handing more points to the eventual majority winner in the end game scoring.
Fortifications
A player may, on their turn, choose to play a fortification (represented by a small black square) in a housing spot for their first piece (remembering that they have to play a card or cards to do so) and then a house on top of that fortification as their second piece. Each player may only do this once in the game. The fortification piece doubles any scoring in which the house on which it is built is involved - meaning, region scoring with houses and any road scoring.
Thoughts
So, now that we've covered the rules, what about the game? Is it fun? How deep is it? Who would like it? etc. Well, I personally like the game. In spite of the lengthy dissertation I just made on the rules, it's not really a very deep game. In fact, even though I may play China occassionally with my gamer friends, I believe the game really shines as an "introduction" or "cross-over" game (what I mean by "cross-over" game is a game that has enough options to keep a genuine gamer interested but has enough of the right elements to appeal to a non-gamer.) Here's why:
-The board and the game components are colorful and visually appealing.I know this may not sound like a big deal but non-gamers tend to need something more in a game's appearance to have a good time as they are probably not as interested in mechanics.
-The turns are short and the game moves quickly. New players don't have to wait for a long time for it to be their turn to play again. Also, because the placement of pieces by the other players can affect multiple scoring opportunities, other players' turns are more interesting to watch.
-Even though there are multiple scoring options, what you do on your turn is pretty simple - play cards and place one of two types of pieces in a single region. This element helps reduce "turn fear" on the part of newbies/non-gamers (you know, the idea of a person hating it when its their turn because they have no idea what to do).
Conclusion
If you are looking for a game to add to your collection that would appeal to your non-gamer friends yet is still fun to play on its own merits, then China just might work for you. I personally enjoy playing it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Review: Colosseum vs. The Princes of Florence

Vs.


Overview
I'm writing this review of "Colosseum" as a comparison between it and "The Princes of Florence" (hereafter abbreviated "Princes") primarily because the game play in Colosseum almost demands the comparison. Usually people use the term "stark" in conjunction with a reference to differences as in the phrase "stark contrast". With Colosseum, I would say that there are "stark similarities" between it and "Princes". However, I find in comparing the two games, that "Princes" is a hands down winner on pretty much every level except for the beauty of the artwork (and even then I have some issues with how Colosseum is laid out). Perhaps the easiest way to summarize the comparison is to say that Colosseum is like "Princes" but with baggage. So, let's look at why this is.

Similar Mechanics
Both games last for a set number of rounds (Colosseum: 5, "Princes": 7)

Both games have competitive auctioning as well as purchasing possibilities from a limited market.

Both games have a number of point scoring goals you work towards that are each unique in the things required to score the maximum points possible (Colosseum has attractions/programs - each requiring a unique tile set of different performers to achieve maximum points while "Princes" has Works with a unique requirement set for landscapes and buildings) - this is the strongest similarity between the two games.

You can play an attraction in Colosseum or a work in "Princes" without having all of the required items but you score less points for it.

If you have the best attraction / work of everyone in a round, you get three points for it (in Colosseum, those points count towards latter attractions and represent a recurring form of point scoring. With Princes, the three points are added immediately and are not recurring.)

You can acquire items that can, for one time only, increase the total value of your attraction or your work (for Colosseum it's Medals while, for Princes, it's Bonus Cards).

You have to make choices as to which actions are the most important to you as you only have a small number of opportunities to purchase things.

Because of these similarities, it comes as no surprise that the same designer, namely Wolfgang Kramer, was a co-designer for both games. Granted there are differences. Specifically, there is the Emperor as well as various Senators in Colosseum that may or may not attend your attractions depending on luck (you roll dice). With "Princes", the luck in the game is mitigated by drawing 5 cards and then picking the one out that you want.


The Auctioning System
The auctioning system is more complicated and less satisfying in Colosseum than it is in "Princes" for several reasons. First, you are not bidding on a single item or tile. Instead, you are bidding on sets of tiles (three tiles per set). This might seem like an improvement over "Princes" as much of the tension in the game "RA" comes from having to decide how worth it it is to you to bid on something with a mixed set of variables. However, the fact that tiles can replenish after a bid is taken makes the auctioning less interesting and more random. Further, the tiles only replenish and other players cannot bid again after they have won a bid until the initial bidding player finally takes a bid. Also, the auctioning can continue in Colosseum such that a person could win two or more auctions in a given round.

The auctioning system in "Princes" is less complicated and more tense because people are fighting over more similar things and, once they have won a bid, they are out of the bidding. This means that the decision to raise a bid and potentially take it carries a lot more weight in "Princes". In Colosseum, it's too easy (even with 5 players) for everyone to be going after different things (which dramatically reduces the tension involved in the auction).

Attractions vs. Works
With Colosseum, you can only play one attraction per turn. You may, however, play that same attraction over and over again over several turns if you choose to - which lessens the tension of playing it. With Princes, your actions are limited as well but you can play multiple works in a given turn. However, once you've played your work, you can't play it again unless someone recruits it from you and you then recruit it back. Thus, you have to decide if you want to play your work early and take less points for it or play it later and get more points for it - a decision with decidely more tension involved than what Colosseum offers.

Player Interactivity
The one main criticism of "Princes" is that the player interactivity is low. Colosseum does have more player interactivity. You can make trades and exchanges with other players involving tiles and money. There is also some indirect interactivity in that how the players move the senators and the emperor on their turn can impact the other players' abilities to score more points on their respective turns. However, the movement of the senators is not that interesting of a decision making process.

The main source of interaction in Princes is the auction and the limited market (not having enough of everything for every player to acquire one). So, what other players do on their turns with respect to purchasing items in "Princes" is more interesting than what other players are doing on their turns in Colosseum. Because everyone's tiles are out in the open in Colosseum, you can reasonably deduce what attractions they are most likely gunning for. With "Princes", by having less variables, there is actually more intrigue because you honestly can't always figure out exactly what the other players will be buying next. There are simply more possibilities that might be reasonable for them as the smaller number of variables at play have a wider range of possible solutions. Also, the works that other players have in their hands is secret and each player's money supply can be kept secret - both of which are aspects that add more intrigue to the game when compared to the open resources of Colosseum.

Components
Ok, the artwork on Colosseum is typical Days of Wonder: very colorful and attractive. However, the functionality could have been slightly improved. The auctioning mechanism of how turn order flows and who can bid and who can't is quite clunky in my opinion. Some additional components could have easily helped make this mechanic a lot smoother by helping the players to keep track of things. Also, there are various tiles that award bonuses if you have the most of them but not all of the tiles are eligible for this bonus. Just like how RA incorporates the use of a symbol to remind the players of which tiles stay and which tiles are discarded at the end of a round, it's my position that Days of Wonder could have included symbols on the tiles to indicate which ones are eligible for a majority bonus and which ones aren't. This small addition won't make much of a difference to experienced players but it would help out a lot in trying to teach new people how to play the game.

Conclusion
The bottom line here is that, in my opinion, if you are looking for the kinds of decisions and intrigue offered by Colosseum, then "The Princes of Florence" offers many of the same kinds of decisions but does so to a greater, more fulfilling degree and in a more streamlined, less complicated fashion. Colosseum has more pieces involved in it's structure, but "The Princes of Florence" has stronger depth. Perhaps the easiest way to say it is that, sometimes in life, "less is more".

Monday, June 25, 2007

General Gaming: Why Some People Play Board Games (and Why Some Don't)

There are a number of valid forms of entertainment and recreation out there. However, with respect to board games, the question about why some people play them and why some people don't comes down to a fairly straightforward distinction:

-Some people like to think for recreation
-Some people want to do anything but think for recreation

Board games (well, the good ones at least) are a way of engaging one's imagination in a creative way - but you have to meet the hobby half way. Most board games require some level of mental engagement and it is precisely that requirement that turns some people on and some people off. Sure, there are varying weights of board games - some very light and some very heavy - but usually they require some mental energy.

Also, there is the realism factor that must be considered: meaning that some people are unwilling to use their imagination or at least don't really derive satisfaction from doing so to the extent that a board game really requires. Here's what I mean:

Let's say a person reads a book like, oh, Harry Potter. Now, the enjoyment of that book depends on the reader's ability to pretend that, for a while, there are some characters named Harry, Ron, etc. and that these characters are wizards - which means that you have to pretend that wizards exist as well - and so on and so forth for the story to be any good to you.

Some people are so unable or unwilling to use their imagination that they get stuck right up front: "Well, since there are no such things as wizards, this is just a 'stupid' story." The same person would read a book like Lord of the Rings and, rather than focusing on the emotions of the characters or on the conflicts of the plot, they stay hung up at the beginning on basic premises such as "elves do not exist so, therefore, this is a 'stupid' story." It may sound ridiculous but it's the truth. A person's ability to imagine and envision things that are not immediately within their personal realm of experience is directly proportional to their ability to appreciate and enjoy genres of literature such as science fiction, fantasy, and the like.

You could tell a story of two lovers who are not able to be together and yet want to be (a very typical romance story) and do so twice in exactly the same manner but with one difference between the two tellings: in one story the lovers are elves and in the other they are ordinary people. The person who gets stuck on things like "elves do not exist" will hear both stories and would most likely say that the one with the elves in it is ridiculous and the other is not even though the plot would be exactly the same. Why the difference? Because there are no elves in the second story. This is what I'm getting at. Some people can't use their imagination in a way that they find satisfying outside of anything other than within the scope of their immediate, personal experience.

So it is with board games - some people enjoy using their imagination to envision themselves and the other players as master builders competing for the honor of best builder in the land and some people will just see pieces on a board much like a person would look at an assortment of knick knacks on the top of their dresser - lacking in any sort of significance.

Granted, a person can go overboard with their imagination such that they aren't keeping their feet on the ground. However, good lighthearted fun via recreational thinking is one of the main sources of appeal for the hobby board game player.

Review: Die Macher

What follows is a review I posted on BoardGameGeek some time ago. Enjoy.


Die Macher - BoardGameGeek game I.D. #1. I'll admit that I had eagerly been anticipating the reprinting of this game simply to see if this longstanding member of the top ten and pioneering entry on BGG was really as good as its ratings indicate. I have played the game a number of times since acquiring a copy of the new Valley Games reprint. Here are my conclusions.

Overall Impression
Various adjectives that communicate a lot of information very quickly can be ascribed to games . I've heard the term "elegant" applied to games with as few rules as possible yet books and books can be written about their strategy. The game "Go" would fall into this classification. One might say that "clunky" could be applied to a game that has lots and lots and lots of rules such that the game really resists being played in a variety of ways and can only be approached in a few reasonable ways. The term "chaotic" might be applied to a game with lots of dice rolling, blind draws, random cards, and unexpected turns of events created out of some unknown element(s) in the game.

Though Die Macher is not an "elegant" game in the sense of the word I previously described, it is not "clunky" in spite of the many rules in the game and, even though there are lots of random elements in the game, I wouldn't necessarily classify it as truly "chaotic". Perhaps the best term to describe the game is "majestic" in that the game's rules all serve to reinforce the theme and the chaos of the game makes sense within the political theme presented. Each round is composed of a series of mini-games that all come together to create a truly majestic whole. Bottom line, this game lives up to its mystique.

The "Time" Factor
About 4 hours at least is required on a first time run through with new players. When you play the game for the first time, don't be fooled by the length of the first round. The time goes by extremely quickly after getting through that first round as the rules become reinforced by their repitition in each subsequent round. The first round took about 1 1/2 hours to get through. Round 2 took about 45 minutes. Round 3 took about 30 minutes, etc. etc. Not only does the time intensity decrease but the absorbtion of the rules allows for the intrigue of the decisions offered by the rules to increase. In spite of the initial awkwardness that comes from a first time play of the game, everyone I've introduced Die Macher to has responded positively to it and has stated that they would like to play it again - the time intensity notwithstanding. In fact, as one begins to grasp the rules and begins to see the mixing of the game's "gears" the time moves quickly such that, after you are finished, you might ask yourself "was it really four hours I just spent?"

I would however strongly suggest that, if you want to make Die Macher run smoothly, you will have to invest some prep time in making player aides or downloading some off of BoardGameGeek simply to help the players keep track of where they are in the round and to help people have a vision of all of the elements going on in the game. Simply copying the summaries provided by the rule book is, in my opinion, insufficient.

Components
The components are "okay" at best. I had some problems with the boards bowing up on me on my second run through of the game and the cards also tend to suffer from a bowing problem (i.e. the material the cards are made of is pretty stiff and tends to stay bent after shuffling). However, the tiles and cubes are okay. I had to make some clarifications out of the rule book on the second time through the game with further new players as some of the graphic designs in this edition are really lacking. The theme of the game is that each player represents a political party and, in keeping with that theme, each party has a certain number of "issues" that they take a stand on (determined by cards that you are dealt initially and that you acquire during the course of the game). In designing graphics for these various "issue" cards there are two issues ("Nuclear Power Development" and "Economic Redevelopment") that are both symbolized with a picture of a building and a crane. The crane, in fact, is the same picture. It's just been copyed and pasted and the buildings themselves look very similar. The game its self takes up a lot of table space and, with that in mind, looking at an issue card from across a larger table magnifies the problem of two issues having extremely similar graphics. After the first playing of the game, which was with a pretty "game savy" group of people I might add, I had to take a permanent marker and make distinctions on all of the cards of one of the issues (I chose "Nuclear Power Development") simply because the players were consistently confusing the two issues for each other.

Game Play
Without going into a tremendous amount of detail about the rules, here is a list of the elements that go into the game:
-You take stances on certain political issues.
-You can change your stances on political issues but only one at a time per round.
-There are seven rounds (six of which involvs a series of decisions and the seventh is purely a scoring round). Each round represents an election that is held within a particular state in Germany.
-Elections are won by the player with the most number of "votes". Votes are acquired by paying to hold party meetings within the state, having a platform that matches up with the public dispositions within that state, and by how popular your party is in that state (the people in the state may disagree with you on issues but they may like you and vice versa).
-Elections also offer a certain number of "seats" based on your total number of votes. In other words, it's not a "winner take all" type of election. Even if you don't win, you still can get a certain number of seats in a state. However, winning the election allows you to obtain certain benefits in the form of end game victory points and leverage in affecting the opinions of the nation as a whole.
-There are opinion polls that are auctioned that can impact your popularity in a state or your party membership overall.
-Players can purchase a media presence or multiple media presences in a state to help them stay immune from bad opinion polls and to help that player persuade the people in that state to change their viewpoints about certain issues.
-Players may accept monetary contributions to their party from outside sources and run the risk of losing party members in the process or they may reject contributions and gain party members as a result.
-You have a personal group of henchmen who are referred to as the "Shadow Cabinet". There are essentially your own personal secret service and they can be dispatched to a state to get things going in your favor (for a price of course).
-There are auctions for opinion polls, blind bids for the right to choose who the starting player is in a round, territory control issues with media markers (there can only be so many markers in a state), competition over majority of votes in a state, competition over affecting the national opinion through winning elections, opportunities for your henchmen in certain states to make deals and create coalitions between parties in a state, in essence - there is a lot to the game.

Victory points are a culmination of the seats you win in the elections, bonus points in the form of national media presences you may receive for winning elections outright in some of the states, your total party membership, and how much your party platform squares up with the viewpoint of the nation overall at the end of the game.

Conclusion
This game is a heavy game that takes up lots of table space and takes a long time to play but the investment is worth the reward and the time you spend won't feel as long as it really was once you're done. I strongly advise making player aides to help the game move more smoothly (I created several necessary score sheets that were larger and easier to understand than the disposable sheets that come with the game and laminated them so the players could use dry erase markers instead of pencils). I recommend that you have a calculator on hand for the final point tabulation to speed it up.

The theme of the game works really well and has appeal in that many of the elements in the theme can be applied to a variety of political systems - not just the German one. In other words, you don't have to have lived in or be from Germany to appreciate the theme.

Bottom line, this is a game that will tend to have great appeal for gamers but will more than likely not appeal to casual gamers and will probably not work at all for non-gamer (i.e. primarily party gamer) types of people. I personally have enjoyed playing the game and I look forward to playing it again.

Game Design: Categorical Aspects of Games

What follows is a listing of various categories of different mechanical and organizational aspects of games. Rather than being an article, it's more of just an informational listing.

Information Type/Level of Luck:

-Perfect Information
-Limited (Some public, some private, some hidden from everyone)
-Private (Know your resources but no one else’s)
-None (No one knows what is coming next – “Sorry”, “War”, etc.)

Participation:

-Non-elimination
-Partial elimination (possible but not required– “Shadows Over Camelot”)
-Elimination (one person left – “Risk”)

Opponents:

-Everyone for themselves
-Teams/Partners
-Changing Teams
Random (“Kings”)
Chosen (“Teams of Enemies”)
-Co-operative (against the game)
-Variable co-op (possible that someone is helping the game)

Scoring:

-Most points
-Most amount of pieces played
-Most amount of pieces acquired
-Balance (least = your score – “Tigris and Euphrates”)
-Larger amounts of small scoring moves
-Smaller amounts of large scoring moves
-Exponential scoring (“St. Pete’s”)
-Mixture of in-game and end-game scoring
-Most consecutive pieces (“Ticket to Ride”, “Settlers”)
-Bonuses for certain accomplishments in the game (“Princes”, “Puerto Rico”)
-Bonuses for certain accomplishments in a given round (“Princes”)
-Limits (“Ingenious” – no more scoring for a color after 18 points)
-Thresholds (“Lost Cities” - must score over 20 to score positively)
-Prisoner’s Dilemma (blind, dual choice conditional scoring)

Mechanics:

Card Playing:
-Sets, Runs, Suits,
-Trumps
-One time action modifiers (Offense and Defense)
-Long term action modifiers (Offense and Defense)
-Short term action modifiers
-Trick taking
-Cards act as resources (“San Juan”)
-Cards act as monetary measurements (“San Juan”)

Piece Placing
-Moving (“DVONN”)
-Non-moving (“Blokus”)
-2D
-3D
-Adjacent
-Non-adjacent connected
-Non-adjacent, non-connected

Game Boards
-Collective board (“Risk”, “Blokus”)
-Individual game boards (“Princes”, “Puerto Rico”)
-Combination of individual and collective game boards

Dice-Rolling
-Various amounts of dice (“Risk”)
-Multiple options for using dice results (“That’s Life”, "Can't Stop")
-Bonuses for certain combos (ex. doubles)
-Actions occuring via dice ("War of the Ring")

Direct Attacking
-Known outcome (“Chess”)
-Unknown outcome but fixed (“Stratego”)
-Unknown outcome but random (dice rolling - “Risk”)
-Capturing through replacement (“Chess”)
-Capturing through surrounding (“Go”)
-Capturing through jumping ("Checkers" "Zertz")
-Attacking via proximity (“Wings of War”)

Auctioning
-Closed system ("RA")
-Blind Bid ("Die Macher")
-Sequential
-Non-sequential

Resource Acquisition
-Single payoff (“Princes of Florence”)
-Continuous payoff (“St. Pete’s”)
-Resource upgrading (“St. Pete’s”)
-Trading ("Settlers of Catan")

Role-Playing
-Various attributes, strengths,
and powers for different characters

Role-Taking and/or Variable Phase Order
(“Puerto Rico”, “San Juan”, “Citadels”)

Territory Control
-Only player ("Risk")
-Majority player

Tile Placement
(“Carcassone”, "Tigris and Euphrates")

Collective Influence (on a single area or item)
(“Pirhana Pedro”)

Indirect Influence on another player
(“Robo Rally”)

Plan Setting / Prediction
(“Wings of War”, "Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit")

Continuums
-Thresholds that trigger events
(“Industrial Waste”)

Deduction
(“Sleuth”, “Clue”, “Mystery of the Abbey”)

Negative/Positive Turn Requirement
(help opposition, then yourself - “Shadows Over Camelot”)

Additional actions for crossing a threshold
(“Ingenious”)

Simultaneous Choice
(“Diamant”, "Cash n' Guns")

Motor Skill / Dexterity
(“Polarity”)

Supply and Demand
(“Power Grid”)

There are numerous mechanics that can be used in games. I find that trying to list them and see what they are can help build a vocabulary of useful solutions to gaming problems in the design phase. However, it's also useful to know what's out there so you can have some perspective on your own designs (i.e. are they truly unique or not).

Game Design: Game Evaluation Criteria

I recently created a tool that can be used to help make feedback more efficient and effective following a playtest session for a game. Here is a link to a PDF of that tool:

When giving a score from 1 to 7 on the points listed, it is not enough to just give a number. The idea is that the playtester will give the game a score and then briefly explain why they felt the game should be given that score.

After every playtester has had their say using this tool, then a more organic discussion can ensue. Having gone through the points on this tool before starting that discussion helps make that discussion more effective as all of the important talking points can be brought up first. Thus, the conversation will have a more focused direction.

Review: Caylus vs. Puerto Rico

Vs


After all of the hype and the anticipation for the first printing of Caylus, we now find ourselves on the other side of the second major printing for the game, it's on BSW now, and it currently resides at the number 4 spot in the overall BGG rankings.

This review is not designed to be a thorough explanation of all of the game mechanics. Instead, it is intended purely to provide a comparison between it and the current #1 game on BGG: Puerto Rico.

In addressing this comparison, I do so mainly from the standpoint of "balance" in the game play/design for both games. I love Puerto Rico (and this is by no means and anti-Puerto Rico review), but I find Caylus to be a more balanced game and I do so for the following reasons:


The Effects of Seating Order

In Puerto Rico, the determined seating order remains a static influence on the game's strategy throughout the course of the game. Though this is true for any game where turn order remains consistent throughout, with Puerto Rico the choices of the players to your immediate right and immediate left have a profound impact on your capacity to compete. The person to your immediate right, if they decide to produce the same cash crop as you, can severely hurt you throughout the course of the game. The seating order then becomes an advantage in their favor that does not change (i.e. there are no situations where you would find yourself able to sit "to the right" of that player later on in the game). With Caylus, because seating order is something that can be directly competed for, the potential for a static advantage built in to the game's mechanic is removed.


Alliances

With Puerto Rico, as often happens, there can be some consistent pseudo "alliances" that occur during the course of the game (i.e. you find yourself as a builder competing against an unspoken "alliance" of two shippers). The overall "alliances" created in such scenarios are not necessarily going to change as the role choices of shippers will tend to help each other. With Caylus, because what is important to you as a resource on one turn may not be important to you on the next and because of the continuing movement of the Baliff, player A may find himself working with player B on one turn to move the Provost such that both secure crucial resources and, on the very next round, that same player A may be working with player C to completely hose player B. Though Puerto Rico can present opportunities where you are hurting one player one turn and hurting another player the next, it isn't as dynamic as it can be in Caylus. This, in my opinion, offers more flavor and variety in the game play.


Randomness

Barring seemingly random moves made by newbie players, there are four random aspects in Puerto Rico:

1. Seating order at the beginning
2. Who the Governor is on the first turn
3. The plantations that come up in the plantation draws
4. Potential plantations acquired through use of blind draws via an active Hacienda


The randomness of the plantation draws can result in some pretty drastic consequences for certain players (i.e. being denied a cash crop plantation for a signficant length of time). Also, because plantation draws continue to factor into the game for a significant length of time (potentially determining which crops specific players go for in their production), there is the potential for randomness to present a greater obstacle for one player as opposed to another for a longer period of time. This also holds true if the randomness of the blind draws made by an active Hacienda owner turn out to not be very helpful at all.


Again, barring random newbie moves, there are only two random aspects of Caylus:

1. Seating order in the first round
2. The order of the pink buildings at the beginning.

After that, it's purely what the players choose. There are no other elements that serve to continually introduce randomness into the game after the initial setup.


Kingmaking potential

Because of the role taking mechanic of Puerto Rico, one wrong role choice taken by a newer player can completely "give" the game to another player due to a sequential advantage (i.e. Crafting at the wrong time). In Caylus, though newbies can make mistakes that help other players, the potential for such drastic, inadvertant kingmaking isn't there to the same degree. Also, because the turn order sequence can change, a newbie isn't necessarily going to help the person who happens to be sitting at the table to their right or left consistently throughout the game. Don't get me wrong, there are opportunities for kingmaking in Caylus but they aren't as drastic or consistently available like they are in Puerto Rico.


Other Minor Observations:

Both games offer lots of options. With Caylus, you have a progressively larger number of buildings to choose from regarding where you can place your workers. With Puerto Rico, you can obtain more and more buildings for your city, thus giving you more options/priviliges within the different role phases of the game.

Both games also include a "multiple paths to victory" element. In Puerto Rico, there is shipping and building. With Caylus, there is working on the road or on the castle. With Puerto Rico, you usually have to pick one area (i.e. shipping or building) and focus on it above the other. With Caylus, you can either focus exclusively on the castle, exclusively on the road, or you can do reasonably well in both aspects of the game via favors.

One area in which Puerto Rico has a slight advantage over Caylus is in the overall length of the game as Puerto Rico, from my experience, tends to be shorter. However, the flip side is that, if you are playing a face-to-face game, Puerto Rico can take a longer time to set up.

Caylus seems to present a better atmosphere for learning when compared to Puerto Rico as the sequential role taking choices can have much more drastic consequences when compared to the turn by turn individual placing of workers that takes place in Caylus. In other words, it's much more likely that a mixture of experienced and newbie players in Caylus will not result in the more experienced players getting frustrated with the choices of the newbies as can happen with the choices made in the role selections of Puerto Rico.

Finally, I've found that, because of the shifting alliances aspect of Caylus, it's actually possible for a player to rally back from an early "mistake" whereas, with Puerto Rico, one early mistake seems to carry much more drastic consequences.

Conclusion:

The points I've made here in this review are mainly intended to illustrate how, in my opinion, Caylus is a more balanced game than Puerto Rico. However, both Puerto Rico and Caylus are great games and both are fun to play.