Thursday, July 19, 2007

Game Instruction: Where to Begin

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?”

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.


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.


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:



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:

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:

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: