Sunday, October 25, 2009

Introducing my Son

The past few months have been some of the busiest of my life. Here's a quick run-down:

-After organizing the Bridge Troll Release event, there was the Gathering of Strangers board game convention here in Salt Lake that I participated in. I helped run the Game Night Games booth at the event.

-At the end of July, my wife and I closed on our house.

-August and September were essentially go-to-work/work-on-moving/eat/work-on-projects-for-the-house/sleep/repeat.

-At the end of September, our son was born. His name is Neal.

Since that time, my wife and I have had our hands full getting settled into our new routines and roles as parents.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

BGDG Intro Video

I just finished shooting and editing an intro video to the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah. Here it is:

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Recap of "Bridge Troll" Release Event

In the interest of celebrating the publication of Alf's game "Bridge Troll", we planned a release event for the game at Game Night Games. The Deseret News ran an article on June 30th discussing the event and interviewing Alf, Ryan, and myself. Here is a link to that article:
The event was a great success. I've posted a recap of the festivities along with pictures in a thread over on Board Game Geek. Here is the link:

Monday, April 27, 2009

Television Appearances

I've been on television a few times in connection with my role as manager of Game Night Games. What follows are two clips from appearances on KJZZ and KUTV here in Utah.

This first clip was back in October as part of KJZZ's "This Morning" show. Tracy Harris (one of our employees at Game Night Games) was there with her two kids who were playing Gulo Gulo as part of the presentation. The anchor mistakenly refers to them as "my family" at the beginning of the piece but, other than that, the interview went very well. Tracy continues to go on the show once a month to do short presentations featuring different games. Here is the clip:

This next clip is from an interview that I did recently in connection with KUTV's "Unplug and Play" week. Instead of being at the studio, this was done at the store.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

GAMA 2009

Well, this year's GAMA experience was very different from the last. Last year I went for the full show. This year, I flew in to Vegas early in the morning on Wednesday and then flew back to Salt Lake later on Wednesday evening. It was quite the whirlwind trip. While there, I met up with Phil who was there on behalf of "Gameology".

We attended a quick workshop on game design by Andrew Looney of Looney Labs (i.e. the company that makes "Fluxx"). While going to the workshop, I met Seth Jaffee with Tasty Minstrel Games. Those who spend time on the BGDF will know Seth as he is a very active member of that forum and his company is publishing Alex Rockwell's game "Homesteaders". After talking about game design for a while, it was off to the booths.

There were some notable differences for GAMA this year versus last year in that it seemed as if this year's convention as a whole was smaller with respect to both attendees and exhibitors. There were some notible absences with respect to exhibitors. However, it was a good convention and I got a chance to meet with the guys at FRED Distribution, Mayfair, Flying Frog Productions, Twilight Creations, TableStar Games, Playroom, etc.
Even though my trip was brief, I got the chance to play a few demo rounds of the new game coming out from Steve Jackson Games called "Revolution" and I got the chance to pose for a quick picture with Mr. Munchkin himself:

All in all, I had a great time.

*One quick note is that, in the dining area last year, there was a bird that had gotten into the building and it was entertaining to watch that bird fly around while having lunch. This year, again, a bird had gotten into the building. I guess some things never change.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The "Music" of Game Design: Part 3

Okay, first let me apologize for how long it's been since my last post on this subject. I've been quite busy with other things and simply haven't made enough time to actually finish this series. That having been said, let me go back to an idea I put forth in the first of these three posts as a review:

"...a person can go through a lengthy trial and error process and eventually arrive at something decent. Or, if they understand basic principles of theory behind the work they are engaged in, can save themselves a lot of time and compose/design much better works a lot faster than if they were ignorant of those principles."

That premise captures why I am comparing game design to music as I find the same types of dynamics in the creative processes of both fields. In music, one sketches out a theme and then creates a textured structure to help support that theme with many interworking lines and parts. The various concepts of music theory help a person do this a lot faster than if they were relying purely on trial and error. In game design, a person can do the same thing and save themselves a lot of unnecessary trial and error in the design process. There will of course still be trial and error - just not unnecessary trial and error. (ex. I don't have to waste a lot of time trying to figure out why my musical composition isn't working if I'm already aware of how voice-crossing and parallel fifths tend to create problems and how parallel thirds tend to work much more smoothly.)

So, the "Tri-Level Resource Exchange Model" was, in essence, a game analysis pattern that I arrived at after studying a number of specific games - looking for their common traits (just like how a person begins to understand how similar construction patterns occur in many types of musical pieces). Now, I want to look at a different model, the "Tri-Stage Resource Transition Model":

For a larger view of this image, click here and then zoom in.

The three main phases are Phase 1 or "Dormant", Phase 2 or "Ready" and Phase 3 or "Active".

The idea behind this model is that your choices don't involve how to convert one or more Level 1 resources into some sort of other types of Level 2 resources which are then converted again into Level 3 resources. Instead, your choices depend on what phase needs a resource transitioned into it from a previous phase more than any other phase at that particular point in the game. Here is an example:

In the card game "Loot", your cards are your resources. However, you aren't trading in different types of cards together in various combinations to receive secondary types of resources like in Settlers. Instead, you are making a choice on your turn of whether or not you want to move a card from the "Dormant" Phase 1 (which would be the draw pile) into the "Ready" Phase 2 (which would be your hand) or whether you would prefer to spend your turn moving a card from the "Ready" Phase 2 (your hand) into the "Active" Phase 3 (by playing it on the table).

The choice of moving a resource from Phase 1 to Phase 2 I have labeled as option "A" and the choice of moving a resource from Phase 2 to Phase 3 I have labeled as option "B". The greyed out boxes represent resources that were already in that phase before a player's turn.

Now, before going further, I want to point out that most traditional card games actually don't fit into this "resource transition" model I'm describing here. This is because, in most traditional card games, you are doing both Option A (drawing) and Option B (playing) equally - all within the same turn and usually in that order (not always - but usually). There is no choice involved in whether or not you want to take Option A over Option B. Instead, they are simply compulsory "steps" in your turn.

Whereas the tension is a Tri-Level Resource Exchange Model game tends to come from the choices of having to figure out "apples and oranges" types of situations in the conversion processes of which resources should be exchanged for which others, the tension in a Tri-Phase Resource Transition Model game tends to come from the fact that you can only do so much on your turn and you have to figure out which transition or transitions are more necessary at that point in the game.

Before going on, an important component in this Tri-Phase transition model is that Option B involves two or more options for "where" or "how" you could make a resource "active". For example, in Loot, if you want to transition a card from "Ready" to "Active", you then have to determine whether or not you want to make active a "ship" card (by playing it in front of you) or a "pirate" card (where you play it on another player's ship).

Let's look at another example:

In Tikal, you can perform both Option A and Option B in the same turn. However, unlike traditional card games, these options aren't required steps on your turn. You could spend your whole turn on Option A by transitioning a bunch of guys from their "dormant" phase into a "ready" phase on one or more of the camp sites if you wanted to. At the same time, you could also spent your whole turn transitioning guys from their "ready" phase at the various camp sites into an "active" phase by moving them to various areas up from grabs on the board. However, how much or to what extent you want to invest in Option A and Option B on your turn is up to you.

So, in essence, this type of model is not about trying to deal with "apples and oranges" types of situations. Instead, it boils down to the dilemma of how often or at which points in the game you deem it more necessary to get resources ready to go into action versus activating resources on the board to try and secure an advantage. To borrow a cliche, with this model you are essentially trying to decide whether to "fish or cut bait".

My "Heavens of Olympus" game utilizes this model. In the game, you are either moving planets from their "dormant" phase into a "ready" phase by paying to have them made (i.e. forged) for your turn, or you are moving them from their "ready" phase onto the board to receive payment. The trick is that doing the same thing as another player carries an added cost if you both choose to do it on the same turn. There are other aspects to the game, but it fits strongly into this model I'm describing.


In these three articles about "music" and game design, I've touched briefly on some generalities or "models" of design that I've noticed in various games. Though there are more than just these two main models I've discussed, I point these two out because they have distinct differences from one another while the games that utilize them share some interesting commonalities. I highly suspect that the game examples I used were not designed while necessarily thinking about these models I'm describing. Instead, my suspicion is that the designers were simply trying to design good games and hit on some game play dynamics that worked. The thing is, by studying these models, if one is aware of the generalities that have proven true in already successful game designs, one can then begin to pick up on potential weak areas in one's own designs more quickly and one can articulate exactly what the problems are more clearly.

Just like how studying the common trends in various Mozart compositions can help a person learn about fundamental principles of good music composition, studying the common trends in various Knizia or Kramer designs can help a person learn about good game design.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"The Heavens of Olympus" mentioned in Rio Grande Newsletter

Hi all. I just wanted to post a link here to the latest newsletter from Rio Grande Games as it mentions my game "The Heavens of Olympus". There isn't any information other than mentioning it as an upcoming game but I thought it was worth including a link to the article here:

and here is a link to a PDF of the same article:

Friday, January 9, 2009

A quick post about Feedback Loops

Since I mentioned feedback loops in my last post, before moving on to Part 3, I thought it would be appropriate to include a link to a YouTube video by Scott Nicholson where he includes a discussion of feedback loops by a gentleman named Joris Dormans. In this video, Mr. Dormans uses Power Grid as an example of what he's talking about:

The "Music" of Game Design Part 2

(The diagrams I posted in my last entry were too small to be seen well. So I'm going to offer some clarification/review in this post by using close-ups of the main diagram.)

The essence of the Tri-Level Resource Exchange Model is that you take resources, convert them to intermediate resources, and then convert those intermediate resources into resources that actually feed into the winning condition. So, here I have a diagram of the "Alpha Node" or point of choice where the players choose how they want to go about using their Level 1 resources to acquire Level 2 resources:

After the Alpha Node point of choice, the players then have to decide how they want to convert their Level 2 Resources into Level 3 resources, thus creating a second point of choice or Beta Node:

Now, from the decisions in the Beta Node regarding how to use one's Level 2 resources, come one of three possible types of Level 3 resources:

The VP resources feed into the winning condition:

The "dynamic" Level 3 resources actively feed back into the system:

The feedback loops are of one of three possible types and one of two possible sub-types:

External Game Generated types include situations where the game actively influences what a player can do based on that player's Level 3 resources.

External Player Generated types are where one's Level 3 resources in some way interact with or prevent what other players can directly do to you at the choice points.

Internal Player Generated types are where you simply help yourself in some way that doesn't involve a decision by other players or a "conditional decision" by the game.

Some examples will help illustrate my points:

-A perfect example of an external game generated feedback loop would be the changing of turn order in Power Grid. It is a direct influence from the game exerted on the players based on the amount of Level 3 resources they have.

-An example of an external player generated influence would be situations where you obtained cards or some other sorts of protections or mitigations from the direct attacks of other players.

-An example of an internal player generated influence would by like the "Hacienda" in Puerto Rico. It gives the player a chance to make a choice that can influence one of the interactions in the game - but the player doesn't have to do so.

The two sub-types are either Conditional or Random. With the Hacienda, it is an internal player generated influence but it's subject to randomness. With turn order in Power Grid, it is a game generated influence that is strictly conditional based on a set of criteria.

So, the Alpha and Beta Nodes are not only decision points where player choice is introduced into the system, but they are also points of entry for influences:

So, now that the context of the model has been established, two more assertions I have about what makes for "good" game design will make sense:

-Postive feed back loops for players should be counter-balanced in some way by some other aspect lest a run-away leader problem emerge.

-In situations where External Player Generated influences result in direct loss of resources by one player, having more than two players presents a situation where the game can suffer from triangulation problems (I've written previous posts on this concept).

Edit: One more thing to include with this model before moving on is that Internal Player Generated Feedback influences don't always simply influence the choice nodes. Sometimes the manifestation of this type of feedback influence... the fact that a Level 3 resource doubles as a Level 1 Resource:

Examples of this include how Settlements in Settlers of Catan, Buildings in Puerto Rico, and Buildings in Caylus are the results of Beta Node choices regarding Level 2 resources but they also serve as Level 1 resources in helping create Level 2 resources.

*In part 3, I'll discuss a second model of design called the "Tri-Stage Resource Transition Model". It's a model that is decidedly different from the Tri-Level Exchange model in its form.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The "Music" of Game Design: Part 1

Board game design and music composition are actually more similar than one might at first think. Both are artistic endeavors. The results of both are judged by others as being "good" or "fun" or as being "bad" or "unpleasant". There are many different types of board games just as there are many different types of music compositions. I assert that, just like how music has fundamental principles behind what tends to make for "good" music and what doesn't, game design also has fundamental principles behind what makes for a "fun" game and what doesn't.

I minored in music while in college and, in my spare time, I'm a drumline instructor for a local high school. In my studies, I've spent some time developing an understanding of many basic principles of music theory not only for personal improvement but also because I occasionally compose percussion features for the ensemble I help instruct (which involves writing parts for mallet percussion as well as drumline "battery" parts). These principles manifest themselves as generalizations that tend to be true of music that people find to be "good" or pleasant. By knowing about these principles, I save myself lots of time. I can identify why certain passages won't work with the rest of the piece before I get very far into composing them.

Contrast this process with someone who is isn't aware of these principles and who is working purely from a trial and error basis. They try some notes and find out that they aren't working very well. They don't know why but they know they don't sound good. So, they try some more notes and they, again, don't work. They keep going and keep going and keep going. Perhaps many months later, they have something approaching a basic skeleton of a piece that could work but still has many problems with it. For me personally, I can sketch out basic arrangements fairly quickly as I am already aware of basic chord structures, inversions, typical chord progressions within a key, pivot chords, cadences, four-part voice writing "rules", generalities for what makes for good arrangements, etc. Though there are others who are definitely more talented than me in this area, I have a huge leg up on those who are approaching it from a trial and error basis.

The same idea can be applied to game design and its challenges. In both endeavors, a person can go through a lengthy trial and error process and eventually arrive at something decent. Or, if they understand basic principles of theory behind the work they are engaged in, can save themselves a lot of time and compose/design much better works a lot faster than if they were ignorant of those principles.

In one of my game designs recently, I found that the game was "okay" but that it simply lacked that extra dimension that I wanted for it. The trick was, I didn't know what that extra dimension was. I found myself trying to articulate a vague notion that I couldn't, at first, quite verbalize. The same thing can apply to music. If a person doesn't like a piece, if they have the vocabulary, terminology and jargon to call upon, they can express themselves much more precisely than by simply voicing vague notions. So, I set upon the task of verbalizing my notions with respect to my prototype.

What I arrived at was a series of "discoveries" or "conclusions" about specific models of game design that I assert can help one in the process of identifying not only problems in a game design but also what may be lacking or not present yet that could help a game reach the next level. As I arrived at these conclusions, I found that they felt very much like many of the typical principles of composition that I encountered while studying music.

As I said before, there are many types of music and, accordingly, there are many types of game designs. Just as music has its concertos, arias, symphonies, four-part choral arrangements, and percussion features, game design features many types of models that we often describe from the standpoint of one of the game's mechanics (i.e. economic, pick-up-and-deliver, negotiation, etc.). I assert here that one particular model I have been able to identify in many successful games is what I have termed the "Tri-Level Resource Exchange Model". Here is a graphic of it:

For a larger version of this image, click here and then zoom in to see the details.

Though this model is an attempt to capture all of the elements in a game of this type, not all games that employ this model incorporate every element.

Basic Elements
At its core, the "Tri-Level Resource Excange Model" is exactly what its name implies. It is a model where the players use "Level 1" resources to acquire "Level 2" or "intermediate" resources which are then used to acquire "Level 3" resources. The winning condition in games that implement this model are usually based on the acquisition of certain types of Level 3 resources.

It is the presence and use of "intermediate" or "Level 2" resources that creates the intrigue within the system. Having intermediate resources results in there being two interaction "nodes" or points of choice where the players have to make plans and account for "interference" as well. Let's look at the first node:

The essence of this first node is using "Primary" or "Level 1" Resources to acquire usable secondary or "Level 2" resources either through direct production or through exchange. Something that is critical to understand about this model before going on is that certain resources can act on multiple levels but the model still holds true.

The key to the definition of secondary or level 2 resources is that they are merely acquired means to an end. Secondary resources do not pay directly into the winning condition, they simply facility the process of acquiring the resources that do.

Tertiary or level 3 resources are typically of three types:

They are either:

-Static VP's (these types of resources simply serve as points and don't serve any other purpose)
-Dynamic VP's (these types of resources serve as points but also feed back into the system and dynamically impact the processes that are in motion)
-Dynamic Non-VP's (these types of resources purely feed back into the system and affect the process that are in motion but don't serve as any sort of points in and of themselves)

Perhaps a couple of examples would be useful:


Puerto Rico
In the game "Puerto Rico", you use primary resources such as buildings, plantations, and workers to acquire secondary resources or "goods". These goods do not count directly towards the winning condition of the game (i.e. having the most points) but they do act as a means towards acquiring shipping points (a Level 3 Resource which contributes to the winning condition) or towards acquiring money which is then used for purchasing buildings (a Level 3 recource which also contributes to the winning condition).

Notice, however, that buildings act as a level 1 resource and as a level 3 resource. They are a means to acquiring the intermediate resources that lead to more acquisition of the resources that will win the game and they are also part of the resources that will win the game. In this respect, they act on multiple levels. However, shipping points are purely level 3 resources. They do not contribute to the acquisition of more money, more goods, or more buildings. They are simply static VP's.

Buildings, on the other hand, are dynamic VP's. They not only contribute to the winning condition by representing points but they also dynamically feed back into the processes of the game.

In Puerto Rico, there are no truely Dynamic Non-VP's. However, despite the fact that Puerto Rico doesn't utilize one of the three possible types of Level 3 resources, it is still a "Tri-Level Resource Exchange" game.

The Settlers of Catan
In the game "The Settlers of Catan", we again see the multi-level nature of certain resources. Settlements, Cities, and Roads are all level 1 resources which facilitate the acquisition of level 2 resources (the wood, brick, ore, wheat, and wool cards). These level 2 resources are then used to acquire Level 3 resources which are of one of three types:

-Static VP's The occasional development cards that grant 1 Victory Point serve no other purpose than to simply represent a point for the player.

-Dynamic VP's The creation of more settlements and cities results in more points for the player. However, cities and settlements dynamically affect the number and types of secondary resources the player can acquire. Thus, they dynamically feed back into the system in addition to their serving as points.

-Dynamic Non-VP's The developement cards that allow for acquiring more resources or for moving the robber dynamically feed back into the system but don't serve as a direct source of points.

Some Observations and Assertions:

Part of the enjoyment of music is the creation of tension and then the release of that tension through resolution. In other words, you establish a tonal center, stray from that tonal center, and then return to it in a pleasant way. With respect to games, a friend of mine named Peter aptly phrased part of the "pay-off" that players get from playing a game in that a game grants them the chance to formulate a "plan" and then attempt to execute or carry out that "plan".

In Tri-Level Resource Exchange games, the plan players get to formulate comes from their attempts to acquire various types of intermediate level resources and to then creatively convert those secondary resources into Level 3 resources in the best way possible. If I look at my previous prototype from the standpoint of comparing it with the "Tri-Level Resource Exchange Model", I realize very quickly that there wasn't a second or Beta decision node. Players made choices about acquiring different types of secondary resources but those secondary resources were then simply converted into points at the end without the opportunity for the players to make choices about what to do with the resources they acquired. It was just a straight up acquisition game. Thus, it lacked that second level or second node of choice I've termed the "Beta Node" in my model.

Also, with respect to forming a "plan", there must be a sufficient diversity of second level resources to pursue in the game such that there is a "palette" of choices the players can use to create a unique plan. If there are too few types of secondary resources, then the players don't get the opportunity to exercise some individuality or creativity in the process. If there are too many, the players can pursue parallel courses and never get in each other's way.

The Power of "5"

A pattern I've noticed among several games that implement this model (as well as among other games that don't use this tri-level exchange model) is the number "5" with respect to the types of resources that players can go after in the game. It seems to serve as a natural number in that having 5 types of secodary resources allows for sufficient creativity and diversity in pursing a plan while not providing so many options such that the players don't get in each other's way. Here are some examples from well known games - including some that don't use the Tri-Level Resource Exchange Model:

-Puerto Rico uses 5 types of goods (corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, coffee)

-Caylus uses 5 types of goods (food, wood, stone, cloth, gold)

-Settlers of Catan uses 5 types of goods (wood, brick, ore, wheat, wool)

-RA uses 5 types of tiles for in-game scoring (God, Pharaoh, River, Civilization, Gold)

-The Princes of Florence uses 5 factors that contribute to points scored via works (Buildings, Landscapes, Freedoms, Jesters, and other Work Cards)

-Power Grid uses 5 types of sources for powering the power plants (coal, oil, garbage, nuclear and "wind" - for the free power plants)

-Lost Cities uses 5 colors that players attempt to score points on.

-China uses 5 types of colored cards for playing (red, orange, yellow, green, and purple)

-Niagara uses 5 types of colored gems (purple, white, brown, blue, and pink)

-Transamerica uses 5 different colored cities you are trying to connect each round

Now, I'm not saying that a designer has to incorporate 5 different types of secondary resources into his game for it to work. I'm merely observing that this number comes up a lot and that it's worth paying attention to as it works for a number of games that have proven successful in their appeal.

Some games use 4:

-Saint Petersburg uses 4 types of cards (workers, buildings, aristocrats, and upgrades)

-Tigris and Euphrates uses 4 types of tiles (red, black, green, and blue)

-Loot uses 4 pirate colors (orange, blue purple, green)

-Carcassonne allows for 4 ways to score using meeples (thief, knight, farmer, monk)

-Blokus uses 4 colors (red, yellow, green, blue)

...while others use 6:

-Ingenious uses 6 colors (red, blue, yellow, green, orange, and purple)

-Ticket to Ride uses 6 colors (red, orange, yellow, blue, green, and pink)

...but 5 seems to be the most common number I encounter in these games. Thus, if I'm trying to create a game that uses mutliple types of resources, I'm probably going to start out with five as a safe starting point and then alter it based on feed back and playtesting.

*Part 2 to follow. In it, I will complete my discussion of the Tri-Level Resource Exchange Model by going into the "Feedback Loops" one finds in games of this kind. I will also introduce and discuss another model of game design called the "Tri-Stage Resource Transition Model" - which is slightly different in its construction.