Tuesday, December 9, 2008
What does this have to do with game design? Well, designing a game is a lot like moving. It involves task management, time management, and coordiation - all of which are organizational skills. Even the most creative, artistic person will never get their game design off the ground without some kind of organization to the process - especially when the process involves utilizing the willing time commitments of other people.
The long, tedious process of trial-and-error that is playtesting can try the patience of even the most committed designer - sometimes resulting in a designer having to leave a project for a while so as to reapproach it with a fresh perspective later on. However, the gracious people in our lives who are willing to help us play-test our games are, in most cases, nowhere near as committed as we are to the process. How can they be? It's not their game design. They are simply helping us with our project. If one sits down with playtesters to playtest a game, it's usually with the understanding on everybody's part that the game could go on for a specific amount of time (perhaps a half hour to an hour for example). Thus, some time will have necessarily been set aside by all involved in order for a playtesting session to occur. If a designer has not done any solo playtesting of the design before asking for the help of others, then I assert that he is being disrespectful of the other playtesters' time as basic problems (such as turn-order sequence problems, basic ambiguities in rules, etc.) are problems that can often be discovered in simple solo playtesting sessions first before ever needing to bring other people into the process.
People will often feel more committed to a project if they have confidence in how the project is being managed and will often feel a greater sense of satisfaction with respect to their contributions if they see that their efforts are being utilized effectively. If your playtesters feel like their time and contributions were meaningful and well utilized, it's more likely that they will sit down to a future playtesting session. Solo playtesting in advance makes that more likely as one is more likely to "catch" many of the basic problems that would have come up in the playtesting session and, thus, can allow for playtesting sessions to become more effective and informative. Thus, solo playtesting is important and (I would argue) necessary in the process of designing a game.
However, there are also problems that solo playtesting can't solve. In fact, if one is doing too much solo playtesting without bringing other people into the process, a form of "myopia" can develope in the design process which, if allowed to persist for too long, can result in a lot of wasted time on the part of the designer and a lot of problems that group playtesting would have corrected. Let's look at three of these problems.
Often, a designer will spend so much time thinking about his game design that certain mechanics or rules seem more simple to him than they would to other people who haven't been spending hours and hours deliberating on how the game should be structured. I've experienced this before where a rule I felt was fairly simple was actually very counterintuitive or was simply more fiddly than I was giving it credit. Having the perspective of others to alert one to these aspects of a game's design is important.
Because solo playtesting requires one to think through and keep in mind what all of the players involved would have to consider with respect to their decisions, it can create the illusion that the choices facing the players in the game are actually more involved and deep than they really are. If a person settles down into the role of one of the players instead of trying to play as all of the players, one might find out very quickly that the choices facing any one player are actually not that interesting or, even worse, are overly simplistic.
When solo playtesting, I've found that it's pretty easy to make decisions within the game based on assumptions of value in certain paths, items, rewards, etc. within the game's design. Thus, solo playtesting sessions can create a self-fullfilling prophecy where the designer's assumptions about the values of different resources, objectives, or paths lead to decisions that reflect those assumptions and the game works in the solo playtests as a result. However, if other players sit down to play and don't have those same assumptions of value in mind, the game might actually not work at all. Having the perspective of others helps eliminate this tendency in the testing process.
So, solo playtesting is, from my perspective, both necessary and insufficient. It's necessary to engage in so that we don't waste other people's time or try their patience but it's also not sufficient as certain problems can only be solved via group playtesting sessions.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Yesterday at the "Gathering of Strangers" game convention, I had the chance to pitch one of my game designs to Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games and he accepted it for publication. There is no immediate time table for its release as the art work and other pre-publication work still needs to be done on it. Nevertheless, it is indeed an honor and I want to publicly thank Jay for his generosity. The name of the game is "The Heavens of Olympus" and I have submitted a short description of it to Board Game Geek. Once it's approved by the admins, I'll post a link to it here.
Like last year, it was in the Saltaire Room at the Student Union Building at the University of Utah. Ryan was at his usual spot at the front registration desk:
The attendance for was fairly strong for both days:
There were all kinds of games being played. The Math Trade and general trading tables will filled with games. The game library was manned by members of the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah. Game Night Games helped sponsor the event again. Here was the booth we had set up at the convention:
There were also demos put on by several people. John and Kristi Colaizzi (a.k.a the local "Men in Black" for Steve Jackson Games) did some demos of "Munchkin" and Phil Kilcrease did demos of the hot new game "Agricola":
We also had Jay Tummelson from Rio Grande Games attending. He was demoing one of the new games that will be coming out soon from Rio Grande called "Dominion".
Overall, the convention was a lot of fun for everyone.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Often, in game design, by simplifying one aspect of a game, it eliminates the need for excessive components, wonky rules, and other sorts of weird mechanics that are all designed to compensate for the troublesome area in question. Once the simpler solution is found, the previous solutions with all their complex "creativity" look very silly in comparison.
So, in honor of all the game designers out there who, just like myself, have engaged in game design "chindogu", here is a youtube video just for you:
Thursday, May 15, 2008
GAMA stands for Game Manufacturers Association. Every year, GAMA holds a convention in Las Vegas where various game retailers, publishers, manufacturers and distributors can get together, meet each other, and exchange ideas. You can visit their website at: http://www.gama.org/
There were plenty of booths set up for the various game manufacturers and publishers:
A wide variety of companies was represented including CCG companies like Upper Deck:
Major board game companies like Fantasy Flight were there showing many of their new soon-to-be-released games:
The Steve Jackson Games booth was a lot of fun as well:
I was able to take a look at a life size "Orc-Be-Gone" while visiting the Steve Jackson booth:
Inbetween all of the workshops and meetings, we had the chance to eat in the dining hall where we also listened to presentations from new up and coming companies describing their new products:
Overall, the convention was a great experience and a good chance to meet many of the people you work with in this industry face-to-face. I had the opportunity to try some new games that people have self-published as well as play some of the games that are about to be released.
One thing that was pretty sad to me though was the fact that there were several people there at the convention who had taken the time and money to publish a game, bring it to the convention, set up a booth, and attempt to pitch it to people who are savy with respect to the industry and the game that they had designed was simply another Monopoly, roll-and-move, clone:
However, the convention was a great time and I learned quite a bit. I had the chance to meet with the guys from Mayfair, FRED Distribution, Fantasy Flight, Steve Jackson Games, Flying Frog Productions, Out of the Box, Educational Insights, Zev from Z-Man Games, Upper Deck, Wizards of the Coast, WizKids, as well as many other game publishers, manufacturers, and distributors.
In this clip, Matt Leacock discusses the overall process of designing his game. There's also lots of good information in this clip for game designing in general as he hits on some really excellent points to consider with respect to "fun" in a game, the prototyping process, issues with replayability, accessibility of a game, etc. Enjoy.
Monday, April 28, 2008
1. There are many people out there designing games.
I attend a monthly meeting with a group of local people who get together and playtest each other's game prototypes as well as discuss various issues in the realm of game design. On a larger scale, on the Board Game Designers Forum website and on the game design forum on Board Game Geek, there are many many people having conversations about game design. There are also many more people out there unfamiliar with these venues who are also trying to design games on their own (either with a serious intent on making quality games or simply out of curiosity). My point here is that there are LOTS of people out there trying to design games.
2. Very few people out there are designing really "good" games.
With this second premise, I automatically introduce the question of "What really represents 'good'?" In my game evaluation criteria I mentioned six specific areas of evaluation that an evaluator can rank on a scale of 1 to 7. These six areas are:
Many game designs are simply in the early stages of their development and, thus, have not "matured" yet into good games. They are still in the "the - game - stinks - but - has - the - potential - to - be - good - after - lots - of - refining" stage (for more actual specifics - sans humor - on my scale of the various stages of game design click here). However, even with refining, many game designs still don't truly progress into the "6" or "7" ranges with respect to the categories outlined previously. They simply remain average or mediocre games. True, the first challenge is to get a game out of the lower ranges (i.e. to try and get the game to a point where it's not fundamentally broken or completely a chore to play) but many game designers don't progress their designs to a truly great level (myself included). Why is this?
A quote from Adam Smith applies here. Before writing "Wealth of Nations", Mr. Smith wrote a book entitled "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". In that book, he makes the following statement that is applicable to our current discussion:
"In all the liberal and ingenious arts, in painting, in poetry, in music, in eloquence, in philosophy, the great artist feels always the real imperfection of his own best works, and is more sensible than any man how much they fall short of that ideal perfection of which he has formed some conception, which he imitates as well he can, but which he despairs of ever equalling. It is the inferior artist only, who is ever perfectly satisfied with his own performances. He has little conception of this ideal perfection, about which he has little employed his thoughts; and it is chiefly to the works of other artists, of, perhaps, a still lower order, that he deigns to compare his own works."
It takes a lot of work to make something truly great. And, lots of work equals lots of time. Also, to get something to a truly great level, one must be willing to listen to harsh criticism - not with the intent to be defensive - but with the intent to learn. We also must be able to have a correct set of standards in our minds so as to be able to properly apply our own set of criticisms to our game designs - lest they languish in the realm of mediocrity.
My recent epiphanies concern the development of theme in European game design and how many of us are "lazy" in our theme development. We allow ourselves to be satisfied with sub-par themes. This relates to the "Integration" category in my game design criteria but it deals with issues greater than just integration within the game's inter-relating parts. First, let's explore why theme is so important and then we'll look at why many of us justify our own "theme laziness".
From the standpoint of potential publishers, manufacturers, and game players, they need a reason to play your game. They need a solid answer from within themselves to the question "Why should I take a look at this person's game?" For many game designers, their internal rationale concerning the answer to that question goes something like this:
"I designed this game - isn't that reason enough? I've nurtured this little game design since it was just a baby and I know in my heart just how awesome it is."
Unfortunately, other than in the case of automatic "yes men" such as immediate family and friends (who will usually just offer you encouragement on your game design instead of actual useful, critical feedback) others out there who are making decisions with respect to which games to look at and which ones not to (as well as which games to invest in financially and which ones not to) will not find such rationale as providing a sufficient enough reason to spend their time listening to you pitch your game - much less sitting down to play your game.
Game designers must master the critical art of empathy - the ability to look at their game design from a removed perspective and not merely from the "eye glasses" of their own experiences and biases. So, what kind of "reasons" for trying a game or are worth appealing to in other people?
In a previous article I wrote on the theory of what makes for "fun" in a gaming experience, I detailed some of the many specific reasons why someone may derive enjoyment out of a game. I listed 17 different motivations or purposes that people apply in their rationale for why they are participating in a game or what they are trying to get out of a game. Also, in another previous article, I detailed a variety of mechanics that can be used in the process of designing a game.
It must be kept in mind that game mechanics are a means to an end. They are used as vehicles to help convey a fun experience to an audience. Unfortunately, we as game designers are often misguided in our perception of mechanics because many of us have inferred the wrong things from games we have seen that have been published out there in the realm of European games. These incorrect inferences we make can cause us to begin the process of designing games with the completely wrong approach. What type of inferences am I talking about? Well, let me present a quick scenario and then I'll discuss how it relates to our topic.
Imagine working at a lower level job where there are a lot of rules and restrictions in place. In that setting, you find that occasionally you work alongside the owner's son. You notice that the owner's son doesn't always follow these small rules and restrictions that your manager strongly emphasized to you when you began the job. You also notice that the manager doesn't criticize the owner's son for breaking these smaller rules. In your mind you make the inference "if it's okay for him to do it then it's okay for me to do it and the manager must not have been too serious about those rules in the first place". Then, you start letting yourself lapse in your adherence to these rules and, almost immediately, your manager says "Hey, do you want to get fired? You had better shape up!" Shocked, you wait until your shift is over and you approach your manager. In a very honest and genuinely curious fashion you ask your manager why he reproved you. He responds "because you were breaking the rules". You then reply "but so was the boss's son". Your manager then drops his head, rubs his eyes, puts his hand on your shoulder, looks you in the eye and, almost as if explaining a concept to a very young child, explains "but he's the boss's son".
The point of this story is that we as game designers look at many of the games that have been published out there and infer the wrong kinds of things from them (much like how the main character in my story didn't understand that different rules apply based on who you are in a given scenario). Unless your name is Knizia, Kramer, or Seyfarth, mechanical game descriptions alone will not be enough in most cases to sufficiently inspire potential publishers to look at your game. Without the benefit of name recognition, you have to reach out to their imagination and give them a "reason" for looking at your game and that can most easily be achieved by developing an interesting theme.
The ironic thing is that theme is often an afterthought in the minds of those who are trying to design European games. It's looked at as a required necessity - but not a priority - and, if the game must have a theme, it's slapped on. This type of theme-being-an-afterhtought type of thinking is justified by inferences designers make based on other games that have been published by major publishers that employ themes which are, quite honestly, pretty lousy.
Here's an example of what I mean. Take the 2006 Spiel des Jahres winner: "Thurn and Taxis". It was designed by Andreas Seyfarth - the famous designer of the top rated game "Puerto Rico". What's the theme of Thurn and Taxis?
Now, I want you to imagine yourself - someone who is not on a first name basis with a publisher - trying to pitch your game to a publisher by saying, "Hi. You don't know me but I've designed a game I was hoping you would look at. It's about...... delivering the mail......"
Doesn't sound very interesting does it?
If you were to only be allowed to describe your game's theme and you weren't permitted at all to describe the mechanics, would your game sound interesting to play? Would you want to play it? Honestly? Further, would a complete stranger want to play your game based on the theme alone? If not, then good luck trying to get a publisher to look at your game.
Many game designers who are trying to design European style games are studious with respect to their mechanics but lazy with their themes. They think their mechanics are what will sell their game, that the theme isn't that important, and then they justify their rationale by citing plenty of examples from the field of published games where the themes are uninteresting or where there is no connection at all between the theme and the mechanics of the game. I'm here to tell you that, from my perspective, if you're not the boss's son, you have to play by the rules. And, if you're not Andreas Seyfarth, you're probably not going to sell your game based on it being about delivering the mail.
This my friends is the water in which we swim. The theme of one's game is really its best selling point unless one is a well recognized designer. We must invest more time in developing a theme that is interesting and that naturally invites others to want to play our game. Unfortunately, most of us don't invest enough time or creative energy in this process. I would also contend that, even if most designers consider theme to be important, they don't have the acumen to truly see what makes for an interesting theme and what doesn't. For example, does your game have a generic "business" theme? If so, can you see why that immediately saddles your game with baggage? A theme needs to reach out and capture the imagination of your potential audience. Does "business" really do that? In very few cases it does but not for many people.
A theme needs to engage the imaginations of the players - but don't take my thesis too far in the other direction either. A game's theme doesn't have to be an in-your-face epic of explosions, space aliens, massive planetary wars or galactic conflicts to be effective. It may simply be an amusing little story about ants in a colony - but it must appeal positively to a person's imagination in some way such that they will want to play your game.
I would also contend that, unless our intention is to design a purely abstract game, we must select a theme as early on in the process of designing a game as possible so that the theme can serve as a guiding light to help us determine which mechanics should be in the game and which ones should not.
Further, if someone says, "Hey, that sounds like an interesting game. I'll try it." and then sits down and is introduced to a series of mechanics that really don't reflect the theme at all, you're going to disappoint and perhaps even annoy the people who decided to give you the benefit of the doubt. If your theme is a "stretch" - meaning something like "yeah that bidding mechanic 'could' represent ants gathering food - but it's really abstract" then your game's ability to inspire people's imagination will immediately lose its momentum.
For many people to really appreciate a theme, they need to feel a sense of what their "role" is in the game and it needs to "make sense" to them. If a person is asking themselves "Why would I do this if I were in that position? If my goal is to build walls in a certain way, why is the fictional person in the 'story" of the game awarding points in the manner that they are?" There needs to be a sense of empathy that can easily be evoked from the players. If there is a "king" that awards "points", can the players easily see how, if they were the "king" in the game, that the way the king is awarding points is by using a system of judgment that, if the players were in the same situation, would seem reasonable to them as well? Just pulling an example out of thin air, does it make sense to the players that the king is awarding points because of how many different horses a player has ridden in a given week? I know that may seem silly but it's not too far removed from the logic many designers of European games settle for when determining their theme.
So, is there a lack of connection between the mechanics and the story your game is trying to tell? If your theme appeals to a potential publisher's imagination in a positive way, they may listen to you pitch your game. But then, afterwards, if they don't feel a connection between the theme and the mechanics as you pitch your game, if they can't visualize the "story" of the game, they will probably not try your game. (For a good discussion on theme summarizing a game, check out Jonathan Degann's article over at the Journal of Board Game Design.)
Even if a game is a "good" game with an interesting story, getting noticed is yet another step (if a game is designed in the forest and no publisher is around to see it, did it really get designed)? The fact of the matter is, many game designs out there are simply not original enough to break out of the baggage that naturally results from our pre-existing gaming environment. In other words, someone designing, say, a role-playing game with a fantasy theme is not designing their game within a cultural vacuum. This world we live in is a world where Dungeons & Dragons already exists. Were it not so, a fantasy based role-playing game would maybe have more traction in getting noticed. As it is, natural comparisons will be made between any fantasy based RPG and D&D. Unless the new game offers something that has here-to-for not been seen, it's unlikely that the game will "win" the natural comparison that will be made by many out there in the audience of potential game buyers as well as potential game publishers and manufacturers between the game design in question and an already existing industry standard. (The irony in this process is that it's likely the ideas for many of the games being designed by aspiring designers were conceived of and nurtured within a realm of experience with the industry standard games the resulting game designs will be ultimately compared with.)
One final thing to consider with respect to theme and European game design is how Eurogames tend towards a certain standard of "simplicity" in the rules. Usually, to evoke a theme more and more, there is an assumption that there needs to be more and more rules to help flush out that theme. Another one of my epiphanies is that this is not necessarily the case. Are the mechanics in the game "Hey, That's My Fish!" thematic? Yes they are. Are they simple? Yes they are. The point is that the mechanics in "Hey, That's My Fish!" don't ask the player to make a huge leap in logic so as to accept a real stretch in associating the mechanics with the game's story. A game doesn't have to have tons of rules to be thematic. It just needs to be "true" to its story and its story needs to be something others will consider worth taking the time to experience.
Thursday, March 6, 2008
On the bottom left hand side of the course's page will be a link to various projects - one of which is entitled "Board Game". Click on the "evaluation rubric" link in the middle and it will pull up the criteria. (The reason why I'm having to provide directions here is because the interface on the webpage doesn't provide me with unique addresses to each of these items. It's a different format so all I can provide here is a link to the main page.)
There is also a link I found that is part of this course which details the process of game designing. It is done with the intent that the game be some sort of educational game so keep that in mind as it details the process. Here is the link:
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
The introduction and some of the artistic work in this video at the very beginning tends to drag a bit but after getting past that, there are some good ideas presented by the good doctor. Enjoy:
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Thursday, January 31, 2008
I was looking forward to this game and was intrigued by what I had heard about it (that each player controlled their own group of superheroes and a supervillan as well that can attack the other players' teams). The game seemed to have been well received here at BGG so my hopes were high. I also collected comic books for a while when I was younger so there was some nostalgia for me coming into this game. I really wanted it to be good. Nevertheless, I found myself disappointed overall with this game.
Brief Overview of Game Play
Each player controls one of four possible groups of Superheroes (composed of four superheroes each):
The Marvel Knights
The Fantastic Four
The game takes place on a quasi-New York inner city map. The map is divided up into six districts and there are four subsections within each district. The flow of the game is divided up into a series of 5 rounds with 5 rotations of turns within each round. At the beginning of each round, there are a number of “Headlines” that come out for each district. Essentially these "headlines" represent combat scenarios in which you may encounter bad guys and have to fight them. These headlines are of several types (Mystery, Crime, Danger). There is also a certain skill listed underneath the main description (such as science, mystic, protection, etc.). The skills listed correspond to specific character skills that can be found on the character cards for the various superheroes that can be used in the game. There are also "plot points" that are used by each player to get their superheroes ready for action before each round begins.
On a player’s turn within a round, they can do things like move their superhero, give medical attention to a superhero, or begin "troubleshooting" a headline (which is really where most of the action is). Each headline has a certain "trouble" rating – which is essentially the number of dice you roll to determine, in broad terms, how many bad guys or extra problems there might be as part of fighting the headline. A superhero may move to an area and may fight the headline alone or they may have a "support" hero along with them. Each headline grants a number of victory points to the person who successfully defeats any villans involved in that headline.
Combat consists of a series of dice rolls that have to be processed through a series of modifiers present on the villan’s card, any modifying cards for the villan, and the superhero’s modifiers on the superhero’s card as well as any modifiers on the "supporting" hero’s card. There is some simultaneous decision revelation prior to combat but it is essentially a choice of which set of dice modifiers your character – be it villan or hero – will use in combat. And, here we come to the source of my disappointment. In essence, the game pretty much mostly just dice rolling in which the rolls have to be tediously processed through the various modifiers. When looked at from a larger view, all of the mechanics in the game - including the card drawing - strike me as simply serving as window dressing for the dice rolling.
The main aspect of the game that had intrigued me was the concept of controlling a supervillan as well as a set of superheroes. Herein, again, I was disappointed as the supervillan you control is not able to actively engage the superheroes. What I mean by this is that you cannot, for example, on your turn declare that Dr. Doom will now attack the Fantastic Four. Instead, you control Dr. Doom only after the Fantastic Four decide to go after a headline. In other words, you have to wait for the other player to initiate any combat and then, again, combat is simply a series of dice rolls being processed through a series of modifiers. There are other familiar "sub-villans" that can be played in the form of cards that can be drawn by the players during the course of the game (e.g. Venom, the Juggernaut, and Dr. Octopus among others). However, these cards are, again, simply a set of dice modifiers and, in that respect, I found combat to be an unfulfilling experience.
In general, the strategy of the game seems to pretty much be the same as it is with any dice-driven game: hedge your bets with the dice rolling by trying to stack modifiers (of whatever form) in your favor. Granted, there are various ways that this can be accomplished and there are also some resource management skills involved with how and when you use your plot points but, again, a game that is this dice driven does not tend to be my style of game. There have been dice driven games I have played in the past that I have liked but this was not one of them. I won the game of Marvel Heroes I played (all of us who played were new) but I didn’t attribute my win to any great acumen or strategic cunning. I just hedged my bets as best I could and hoped for the best.
With respect to the components, it’s been stated before that the map is lacking in its appearance. However, I don’t really dock any points from the game for that as the art work of the map seems to be presented with the intention of making it look "comicbooky" and, in that respect, the map works. I also liked the miniatures and the art design on the various character cards as well as art design for the rulebook. I also liked the plot points being small chips with speech windows in them (you know, the circles above the characters’ heads in a comic book where their dialogue is written). I also liked the quirky-ness of the "trouble" counter being a very "comicbooky" exclamation point. However, all of the components simply served to reinforce my disappointment that, behind the chrome, the game is pretty much just a "dicefest".
In terms of time, the game I played took a little over 2 hours which was mostly due to the fact that we were all new to the game. I can see how, with players who have an understanding of the rules, it could move a lot faster. So, my perception is that the time factor can be alleviated by having experienced players. Each player is provided with a game summary that is serviceable in design. However, I can also see how a self-created player aide that simply integrates the various sections on the summary into one cohesive round outline would result in a more understandable aide for a new player.
Who will like this game
I suspect that the main group of people who will like Marvel Heroes are the same people who tend to like games where dice are the predominant driving force of action. This game will more than likely not appeal to casual gamers simply because of the amount of rules that go into processing the various modifiers for the dice rolls.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Here is the link to their submission letter:
Steve Jackson Games:
Out of the Box:
North Star Games:
There is the German board game desgin competition known as Hippodice. Here is their webpage:
There is a convention for board game designers in Michigan known as Protospiel. Here is their website:
Other options include companies like GameWright. But, it's through their regular "Contact Us" page/template that you can submit your request. They will respond with the procedures for submission but it may take a while for them to get back with you after you submit your request for info. Here's the link to their contact page:
Other companies go back and forth on accepting ideas or ceasing for the time being. For more information, one can visit the Board Game Designers Forum:
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I recently played "1960: The Making of the President" a few times and I was hoping it would be a fabulous game. However, I found some serious flaws with it. Granted, the production quality is top notch and I like the thematic titles and tid-bits of info on the cards. However, the general luck of the draw in the game (or, to put it more accurately, the sequence in which certain cards are drawn and by which player they are drawn) can be too significant (i.e. they can take away much of the significance of player choice because of the power of certain events and/or the sequence in which they happen).
What's funny about the dynamics of play in this game is that the number of interactive influences inherent in the cards and in the structure of play create the illusion of one's choices being more weighty and meaningful than they really are. Instead of being a game where each player makes small strides that all add up to a larger conclusion (as the game appears to play at first), this is actually a game where each turn can potentially represent huge swings in what would be the final score if the game ended on that turn. This is a reflection of the average power inherent in the design of the events on the cards and the (admittedly thematic) distribution of points for control of different areas on the board. There are simply too many events that can have a large impact given the fact that there are unequal distributions of points for cubes played (different states have drastically different values). Though this is thematic, this also results in a game where the luck of the draw can actually trump planning.
This criticism of vast swings in play is also due in part to the fact that the area control aspect of the game in the states is mostly a zero sum game (with an exception being in the case that the "unfaithful electors" card is in play). Therefore, each electoral point I'm able to completely take away from my opponent will get added to my side. Thus, each swing must be thought of as being double what you lost because not only did you lose it but your opponent gained it. For example, if by playing a card, I can swing New York away from my opponent and over to my side, that's a 90 point shift (-45 for him, +45 for me) in a game where there are a total of 537 electoral votes in play.
Another example: I played a game once where I went through on one turn and cleared out a lot of my opponents cubes off of states that would swing my way if they had no cubes on them at all. That resulted in a 140 point swing (-70 for him, +70 for me). Then the next turn, he got an endorsement in that area which swung the whole thing back in his direction - a 140 point swing the other direction. In a game where there are, again, 537 electoral votes at stake, that's some massive swinging of points happening in just the space of two turns. Such vast swings would be objects of criticism in a game like, say, Power Grid. It would be like on one turn I have 12 houses and my opponent had 6 and then the next turn my opponent took 4 away from my side while adding those 4 to his side leaving him with 10 while I have 8 and so forth.
These massive swings of influence maybe would have been tolerable or even enjoyable for me if the game had some scoring in the middle to reward early plays. However, since all the scoring happens at the end (which is, admittedly, thematic), and because the swings of influence can be so dynamic and significant from turn to turn, the early part of the game doesn't really feel important. The winner of the game can potentially be determined on the last play just as easily for both sides depending on the last few cards drawn by either player. Though this is thematic, it's not what I would prefer in a game like this. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that a person can play poorly and win this game. What I am saying is that, because the swings of influence are so dynamic and drastic from turn to turn, much of the tension that this game is touted as having simply isn't there. Assuming both players play capably, this game is more like watching a pendulum swing back and forth where you hope that it just happens to be on your side at the end of the turn when the game ends. In this respect, the game feels more like a long, drawn out coin flip than a strategic exercise.
If the possibilities for influence inherent in each individual card were lessened by several degrees, if the distribution of points on the board were more balanced, or if there were possibilities for mid-game scoring, then the game would be more strategic and less luck driven (however, balance in point distribution on the board and mid-game scoring would both run counter to the theme). Nevertheless, despite my criticisms, I am not that surprised that very few people who have rated this game are picking up on these problems. As a player gets involved in the moment to moment decision making of 1960 and in the thematic appeal of the game, it can be easy to get caught up in the process of trying to decide which card to play without taking a step back to look at the general patterns of massive swings that are happening on the board. The type of board analysis I'm talking about can be obscured by the fact that the amount of surface area control on the board is not at all equal to the amount of electoral votes for each player.
These criticisms wouldn't be a problem at all if the game played in only about 20 to 30 minutes but this is an hour-and-a-half to two-hour long game. I really wanted to like this game (and I do like the theme) but there is no real emotional pay-off for me in a victory won in this type of game because it's hard to feel like one has "earned" a victory. It's more like one "received" the victory (which is thematic given that the game is about an election). However, this is a great game if a person wants to experience what an election feels like or if a person wants an experience that is historically immersive. The theme is solid.
In spite of my criticisms of the game play in 1960, most of the reviews on BGG for this game are glowing and the only really negative review focuses more on humor than it does on offering enlightening criticism. This has been a source of frustration for me. Surely I'm not the only one who sees things as I do?
Saturday, January 26, 2008
I'm sure most if not all of us are familiar with the Dilbert comic strip. What follows is a clip from the short lived Dilbert cartoon series. In this clip, Dilbert changes jobs to a rival company called "Nirvana Company". Everything works at this new job (there aren't any of the usual problems found in most companies) until something very unfortunate happens.
What does this have to do with board game design? Well, I think you'll get the picture.
Note: After the 4:54 mark, this clip loses its relevance as to why I posted it here. However, this was how the clip was submitted on YouTube so I'm making the most of it.
Dogbert: "You're now well known in your industry."
Friday, January 18, 2008
Eurogames, on the other hand, have often been saddled with the label of “multi-player solitaire” by the detractors of the genre. Though there is player interaction in Eurogames, it is not of the same type as what can be found more commonly in American style games. Many European style games feature indirect player interaction through mechanics such as limited markets and auctions. These mechanics create situations where many players are going for similar goals and have to compete in terms of the price they are willing to pay to achieve certain goals or the opportunity cost they must forgo to acquire certain resources before another player does. This results in mechanics where all of the players are focusing on some goal or goals that represent common aims toward which the different players are competing that do not lie in the path of direct conquest of another opponent. Instead of directly attacking another player, Eurogames tend to be more about who can achieve a mutually sought after objective better, quicker, or more cheaply than another player.
These tendencies beg the question of why more direct player interaction tends to be shunned as a trend in game design by European style game companies but embraced by American style game companies?
To the reader, if you will go back a few articles on this blog and look at my discussion about problems with triangulation in games that feature resource attrition due to direct player interaction, many of my points there relate directly to the current topic. The more direct the player interactions are in a game’s design, the more intrinsic potential exists within that design for mechanical broken-ness and runaway-leader problems. These tend to be natural consequences as games that feature direct player interaction often produce as the winner the player who was least “picked on” by the other players. Thus, American style games such as Risk, Twilight Imperium, and Nexus Ops, when more than two players are playing, tend to be more about who can talk whom into attacking other players. It’s more about the metagame of trying to persuade others to use their resources in certain ways rather than who can make the most mechanically strategic decisions on the board. Often, the winner is the player who most fully persuaded the other players to leave him or her alone so that they could gather up enough resources unmolested. These games tend to offer much of their emotional pay-off through successfully negotiating with other players in the situations that the game creates. In other words, the board merely presents a context in which players can implement negotiating and persuading skills. It’s more likely in an American style game than a European style game for a player to be a superior mechanical planner and yet still get beaten by an inferior mechanical planner who happens to be a much better persuader or negotiator.
When persuasion is the name of the game, the mechanics of the game don’t have to be held to standards of whether or not they are intrinsically balanced, whether or not there is a runaway leader problem, or whether or not it’s a concern that a player can be eliminated from the game. However, when mechanical strategy is what the game is seeking to feature, then the game’s design usually needs to be held to these standards. Eurogames tend to be more about mechanical strategy while American games tend to be more about persuasion and interpersonal strategy. One style rewards a manager, the other rewards a salesman.
It is important to note that games featuring more direct player interaction are not devoid of mechanical planning. Far from it. However they also suffer from the potential for players to arbitrarily take other players out of contention simply because they want to. If I’m playing a game of Neuroshima Hex and I just decide arbitrarily that I want to focus on hurting another player come what may then I can realistically take that player out of contention if it’s a three or four player game. I may not win but the possibility for ensuring that someone else doesn’t win is much more likely. With games that feature indirect player interaction, such arbitrary decisions don’t have the ability to be carried out to the same extent. If I choose to play poorly by overpaying for items or for taking an item that would have helped another player much more regardless of whether it helps me or not, then such decisions are much more likely to hurt me and mostly me much more than the other player. If I choose to play poorly in an American style game by attacking one player over another, it can much more easily lead to kingmaking situations. This possibility can undermine the enjoyment of the game for people who are more interested in mechanical planning because they can just arbitrarily be taken out of the game – their planning notwithstanding – simply because another player wanted to ensure that they didn’t win.
It is for many of these reasons I believe that European style games have moved away from direct player interaction. Eurogames often feature indirect player interactions because the games are seeking to feature mechanical planning as the emotional pay-off for playing. The design tendencies are meant to produce games where the problems that come with triangulation in direct player conflict scenarios are eliminated by establishing goals that are common to all players but that are not achieved through directly attacking other players.
There are many people who find the almost obligatory salesman tactics required to win certain American style games as being annoying and distracting to having a fun experience. They want to mechanically plan without having to be bothered with persuading (and in some cases pleading) with another player to do a particular thing on that player’s turn. At the same time, a person who gets a “charge” out of the persuasive challenges of an American style game or who really gets “fired up” when they can really “stick it” to another player, would find the choices presented by Eurogames as potentially being “dry” or “boring”.
Eurogames usually provide opportunities for the players to be mechanically clever without having to be bothered with the salesmen tactics that can pervade the table discussions during an American style game while American style games tend to almost require implementation of salesman tactics by the players due to the confrontational nature in many of the basic designs in those kinds of games. Although I can personally be an effective persuader, I don’t necessarily want much of that in my gaming experience. I want to tactically and mechanically plan without the potential for being arbitrarily attacked by another player simply because they “felt like it”. Thus, Eurogames tend to be much more congruent with the values I have regarding what I personally look for in a game – but that’s just me.
On the other hand, direct player interaction is not a problem at all when there are only two players or only two sides. In many games, particularly historical wargames, few to none of the issues raised in this article have any footing. Attacking and conquering the other player or other side is the whole goal of the game.
However, once a third player or side is introduced into the mix, the potential for cross-cutting and all of the accompanying baggage of triangulation in direct conflict scenarios immediately becomes a problem. What’s ironic is that many mechanics in European style games that feature indirect player interaction often require at least three players in order for the mechanics to work properly. (For a discussion about that topic, look back a few articles - I discussed how certain mechanics simply aren’t viable with only two players.)
From a game design standpoint, it is my opinion that a designer needs to be aware of these issues so that he or she can design the kind of game they are intending to design.