Thursday, November 27, 2014

Faculty Lounge: Nick Bentley of Nick Bentley Games

Believe it or not, I found Nick Bentley’s blog on boardgamelinks.com.  I was on the prowl looking to find something fun and interesting to read instead of getting some work done on my dissertation.  Impressed with Nick’s passion for abstract game design, I asked him to stop by the faculty lounge to discuss how to thrive as an abstract game designer.

Dr. Wictz: Give me a quick run down about Nick Bentley Games in case folks are not familiar with your blog?

Nick Bentley: Short answer: it's my blog. Slightly longer answer: one day several years ago I decided I needed a release valve for the stew of game-related thoughts bubbling up in my brain, and so I opened the blog on a whim. At first the things I posted were totally tossed off. Now I spend a lot of time writing each essay there. I post two types of things: descriptions of games I've designed, and essays about game design and the game industry.

Dr. Wictz: Why did you start blog for Nick Bentley Games?  What led you to talk about board game design in general instead of just focusing on your own work?

Nick Bentley: Writing helps me think. I couldn't have designed a lot of the stuff I have without writing about game design. Also, it also now serves as a way to make sure my games get noticed. My blog has slowly built up a nice stream of traffic. 

Dr. Wictz: If you were introducing someone to the Nick Bentley Games blog and you could only select one post for them to read which post would you select?

Nick Bentley: Can I do two? Because it depends on who's reading. For a general audience, this one, because it's the only thing I've written which has a chance to change the world for the better. For folks in the game industry, this one. I now work in the game industry and I suspect this essay was a reason I got offered a job. It's also my most-read and most-controversial post. 

Dr. Wictz: How did you come up with the Nick Bentley Games as the name for your blog?  What were the other contenders?  Why use your real name instead of a pen name, like Oak Leaf Games, Black Leaf Games, or Dr. Wictz?

Nick Bentley: Though I've been involved in a lot of carefully planned website projects, Nick Bentley Games isn't one of them. It's the least planned site I've ever worked on, mainly because it started as a release valve, and I felt like I couldn't NOT do it. No planning at all, I just started it one day, and chose the first name that popped into my head. I don't even own a domain for it.

Despite this, it has also been the most useful site I've ever worked on. Which leads me to the following conclusion: passion is more important than every other factor. Passion keeps you working and people can feel passion, or its absence, in everything you do, and will respond or not accordingly. A {poopy} site (structurally, my site is {poopy}) driven by passion is better than a perfectly executed site driven by any other motive.

Dr. Wictz: You have designed board games and video games, what are the positives and negative to working in either medium?

Nick Bentley: Well, I can't code very well, so that makes doing video games hard. I can't participate at the nuts and bolts detail level. I can only do high level stuff. I much prefer table games. Everything is simpler, and playtesting is way more fun. I resent the degree to which we've been enslaved by our screens.

Dr. Wictz: You clearly have a passion for abstract games (Is that an understatement?), what do you see as the future of abstract gaming?  What lessons can you impart onto other abstract game designers?

Nick Bentley: I think abstract games are becoming an anachronism, like pinhole cameras. There will always be eccentrics who work on them, but I doubt they'll be popular, even just popular in the table-game culture, again. I'd love to be wrong of course (and I'm always actively thinking about how to make myself wrong), because I think the best ones are as beautiful in every way a thing can be beautiful.

Too many games are built to be, and will be, forgotten. The focus in the table game culture is on what's new, and the games industry sort of has to promote that atmosphere because you need to have it to sell games. Though and I understand that necessity, it also saddens me because it leads to mindless consumerism, a throwaway culture, and it demeans the games themselves. In addition, it creates an environment where bona fide works of genius slip through the cracks because they aren't commercially viable. My favorite game, bar none, is one of these. It's called Slither. Many people who've lucked into being exposed to it feel the same way about it. But it will likely never be promoted by anyone because it can be played with Go equipment.

I'm hesitant to give advice about how to design, but this method works for me. Specific advice for abstract game designers:
  • Try to design from first principles, as though you'll have no time to playtest (to get you thinking about fundamentals).
  • But DO playtest: abstract game designers often fail to get enough real feedback from real players, and prefer to remain in the crystalline world of abstraction, rather than dip their toes into muddy realities of human reaction and psychology. I understand why, because I'm one of those for whom the former is a far more attractive place to live than the latter. But you've got to live in both worlds to make great games.  
  • Too many abstract game designers are so worried about depth they fail to ensure accessibility. You need both, and it's really really hard to achieve both. I playtest my abstract games with people who don't like abstract games for this reason.


Dr. Wictz: You also have a semi-new curiosity of what it takes to turn a game into a commercial success (gosh darn it, you wrote an entire post on it).  Do you feel you have figured out the formula to broaden the audience for abstract games?  

Nick Bentley: I definitely haven't figured out the formula! I have learned some new things, but I'm hard pressed to put them into words yet. They're still stewing. I think I'll have to forgo answering this question for now.

Dr. Wictz: What can non-abstract game designers learn from abstract game designers?

Nick Bentley: Above all, the value of simplicity and a focus on emergence.

Dr. Wictz: What can abstract game designers learn from non-abstract game designers?

Nick Bentley: Games have to be accessible and fun in addition to being deep. They have to be many things at once! Non-abstract game designers generally know this, but many abstract game designers don't.

Also, physical presentation: the commercial design of abstract games is often unattractive. What would an abstract game published by Days of Wonder be like? The physical design of a game matters.

Dr. Wictz: What is your favorite non-abstract game (I know, this question might be heresy).  

Nick Bentley: I'm not sure I have a favorite. There's a special place in my heart for Finca, but only for two players. There are certain party games I think are really well done, like Time's Up (I also design party games - I have one coming out in January, called Stinker, which will be published by Foxmind Games - so I know how hard it is to design a party game). Also, a half-dozen Knizia games, though you could argue I like them because he's an abstract designer at heart. Battle Line is an example, which feels like Knizia reached up and pulled it directly out of the platonic realm. It feels like it must have existed at the beginning of time, er, something. 

Dr. Wictz: Name a board game designer who does not design abstract games you wish to lock in a room and force to play abstract game with you for hours on end?

Nick Bentley: Knizia, except let's exclude him on the principle that the spirit of his designs are too close to abstract. In that case, Bauza. I don't love all his games (7 wonders = blech!), but he takes risks and his games harbor imaginative leaps. Hanabi is a good example. I'd like to see what kind of design ideas would start popping out of him if he were forced to play a bunch of abstracts.

Dr. Wictz: I know you believe there is not enough good writing on table games on the internet.  (I quote "There’s not much great writing about table games on the internet.")  Where is the best writing taking place?  Do you have hope for the future of tabletop writing?  What types of articles are you hoping to stumble across?  What is overdone?

Nick Bentley: Sometimes Nate Straight on Board Game Geek posts stuff that goes beyond the obvious. The BGG designer diaries sometimes say interesting things, depending on who's writing. But largely, most writing about table games is so shallow I can't recommend any particular thing wholeheartedly.

Overdone: I'm terribly, terribly tired of reviews. I haven't read a review in years that said anything new or interesting about any particular game, or games in general. I'd be beyond ecstatic if nobody ever reviewed a game on the internet again. I don't know how so many people manage to collectively say so little.  

I should note, however, that what I want is probably very different than what the average person would find interesting. I'm so steeped in games, the only things that impress me are things where somebody has gone to the trouble of thinking and writing with great rigor. I'm looking for stuff that would probably come off as too academic for most people. Cameron Browne is spearheading the formation of a semi-academic journal about game design that holds promise for me, for this reason (I will probably write for it as well)

Dr. Wictz: Thank you Nick for taking the time to talk with me in the faculty lounge.  You can read more about Nick’s thoughts on board game design and his designs on his blog, on facebook, and follow him on twitter.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thoughts on Winning: Losing

When I think about the design of a new game one of the first questions I ask is ‘How do I win?’  While there are many games that do not force an ending, there is still an end condition. Otherwise how would players stop. So, what I’m really getting at is ‘How does the game end?’ Yes, this mechanical concept is interesting, but to what end? Yes, this theme is engrossing, but where do I stop? A good deal of time can be spent answering these questions, but it is often overlooked, and for good reason.

The end of the game is for a majority of games the shortest section of gameplay. Players spend nearly all of their time focused on gameplay, their turns, and the decision points within the game. No wonder that the gameplay is where a designer will spend most of their time. But the way that a game ends affects a player's perspective on the entire game, and that is what I will focus on.

One cannot help talking about ‘Winning’ without talking about ‘Losing.’  Losing is the common experience had by all who play. In any one game at least 50% or more of the players will lose. According to Matt Leacock, in a properly designed cooperative game all of the players will lose 70% of the time. With the chances of losing so high we must ask why players keep coming back to the same games, when most of the time they will lose those games. If the goal of the game is to win, then players should stop playing after frequent losses, yet they do not.  Instead, they keep coming back for more punishment, implying that winning doesn't matter.

Generally when you lose something, it’s bundled with talk of failure.  I don’t equate losing in a board game with failure.  In other spheres of life where winners and losers are produced, the judgment of failure is a consequence.  But after a game, what I hear people talking about are the mistakes that were made during a game. Not a rush to judgment on the players, even though there is an abundance of ’I told you so.’

The argument can be made that with board games the stakes are lower so these judgments are not warranted, but I don’t believe that’s the reason. Because, even if it for a short period of time, when you are playing a game, locked into that system, devoting your attention to playing, those win conditions no longer become trivial, they become very real with some high stakes.

While players are emotionally invested in the games they play, they are very tolerant to losing.  But win, or most likely lose, what keeps players involved is the gameplay, not the ultimate ending.  So when I begin a game design I need to shift my focus and ask ‘How do I lose?’ And, what I really mean by that is “How do I keep players engaged while losing?’ Next time I'll look at how games manage to accomplish this.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Faculty Lounge: Brian Bremner and Sean Howard of Gamer's Remorse

Here in the faculty lounge I get together and talk to other board game interested podcasters and bloggers to learn a little bit more about what they do.

My first reaction when I saw a Gamer’s Remorse board game video review is ‘why were they reviewing this garbage?  After watching more episodes I realized that they were shifting through the dirt to find hidden board game gems.  They were looking at independent and self published games that no one else was looking at and reveal previously unknown ingenious games to the board game playing community. Fearing that board game fans are missing this gem of video reviews, I invited the creators of Gamers Remorse, Sean Howard and Brian Bremner, to stop by and talk about their reviews in the faculty lounge.

Dr. Wictz: Can you give a quick rundown about Gamer’s Remorse?

Brian Bremner: Gamers Remorse is a board game review group that reviews everything from indie to vintage to mainstream games with a goal of making our reviews informative as well as entertaining.  We seek to show the audience how the game plays as well as our impression of the game. 

Dr. Wictz: Why did you start Gamers Remorse?

Brian Bremner: I had two motivations; I wanted to play more games and be exposed to a wider variety of games but I also wanted to help others have a better idea if they would like a game before they went out and dropped money on it to potentially regret the purchase later.

Sean Howard: We started in early 2012 with a very basic idea, review independent (small publisher) board games from designers few have heard of.  The genesis of the idea was simple-do game reviews of the up and comers. We've all heard names like Teuber, Knizia, and Rosenberg. We wanted to know about designers that people would hear about the next 10 years. That lead us into the seedy underbelly of the gaming industry. Okay, so maybe it's not so seedy and in fact, it's very welcoming. 

We've reached out to many would-be small game publishers and the welcome we received is more than we expected.  Many of these unknown publishers have become the 'up and coming' designers.  Designers like Jason Glover of Grey Gnome Games who recently hit over $50k on Kickstarter with Dig Down Dwarf and Ben Haskett who hit over $80K with Tower, and then finally other designers that are just starting to get their due like Chris Leder who recently signed agreements to get several of his games published including: Roll for It! City of Gears, and Train Builder. 

Dr. Wictz: Why target the independent market?

Sean Howard:  The independent market is just a piece of the puzzle.  We do a lot of independent games, because independent games don't really have much of a following... yet. And we are a great resource for those smaller publishers. But we often take a sideline for several mainstream games every so often. 

Dr. Wictz: How did you come up with the name Gamer Remorse for you blog?

Sean Howard: Gamer's Remorse is an interesting name for a review show. It makes it sound like we hate most board games or our 'thing' is to rip on games. That's just simply not true. Instead, the name came about as a result of the show we originally envisioned where we would pair off several games with similar mechanics and then choose which one was the 'best'. It was a great idea, until we realized that we'd have to find the games with similar mechanics. 

To make it more difficult, it would mean having to obtain 3 games that played similarly and then shoot a review of all 3 - a time consuming proposition. After the first few rounds of games, we opted to maintain the moniker but instead make the claim that Gamer's Remorse is the feeling one gets after playing games all night - oddly enough, an endeavor we maintain to this day. Our last filming was about 36 hours of gaming. That's just something we do!

Brian Bremner: We dabbled in a few names before settling on Gamer's Remorse. Other names I recall toying with were 'Back to Cardboard', 'Back to the Table,' and 'Second Playthrough Games'.

Sean Howard: But who would watch a show where they film a playthrough of the same game twice?

Dr. Wictz: How did you two come together to form Gamer’s Remorse?

Brian Bremner: It all started on January 23rd 2013 when I got an email from Sean saying he had been spending some time thinking about setting up a website to review indie games to which i said "Sounds fun", a few months later the two of us were sitting in front of some flip cameras playing some games. 

Sean Howard: Brian and I are cousins. During the holidays we would each bring a giant pile of games to play. This happened so much so that Brian and I began celebrating our own holiday in between Thanksgiving and Christmas to get all of the games in. We would invite family and friends and then just do a whole day of game playing and in some cases two days or three. Eventually we realized our passion for the hobby outgrew a single time of year. We met up on several occasions to play through games when we were talking about a few game reviews we disagreed with or thought was noteworthy when we realized, we could be doing that. And the rest is history.

Dr. Wictz: It takes a lot of time to make board game video reviews, do your spouses miss you or are they happy to get a little free time to themselves?

Sean Howard: For me, my wife does miss me, but she is always aware that it is happening at least a couple of weeks in advance so there are no honey-do list items and she knows she can stay out of the filming session or join in as she desires. Also she is an Advanced Placement Language Arts high school teacher so she always has tests to grade. But it doesn't stop her from dropping in from time to time on a filming session. But to answer your question resolutely, she does miss me during a longer filming. 

Brian Bremner: There have been weeks where I get home from work, edit until I go to bed and repeat. I know that frustrated some of my friends when they wanted to do stuff, but I needed to pass for the sake of getting a video done on time.

Dr. Wictz: What do you look for when you select games you review?

Brian Bremner: We are almost all inclusive.  As a member of the dice tower anything we film has to be family friendly (anything else will end in a written review). We also have a fun queue set up on our website where we list all the games we have on deck then as we play them games move up the queue; games gain points over time and we play the games with the most points (usually the games that have been in the queue the longest).  

Dr. Wictz: Where do you look to find the games you review?

Sean Howard: Early on we got hooked into finding game from the independent board game community as I am also an indie board game designer. I was able to have a sit down with several folks from The Game Crafter to get on their site as a reviewer. The result is that every so often we are sent a package of so many indie games to add to our queue. At the same time, I've got a large collection of games to review and mainstream publishers are taking notice of us as a viable means of getting the word out. When we play a game anymore, it's because someone wants us to, either to legitimize their game or to get the word out about it. 

Dr. Wictz: Because many of the gamers are independent, is there a benchmark of quality that you look for before you are willing to review a game?

Sean Howard: In general, we don't do Print and Plays. We also do a cursory look at the games to make sure they play out. In some cases additional games are dropped for either being semi-obscene, involving lewd behavior or drinking, and just don't fit our profile. Quality isn't something we really look at though. In fact, we were sent a few games that were duds by looking at their artwork, but the mechanics were amazing. In those instances we reviewed the game and even sent ideas to the designer on how to improve the game.

Brian Bremner :  That said, we have reviewed some games of fairly low quality and I can be a snob in the graphic aspect of a game so that can be evident in some episodes and in one of our episodes a guest gave a game 2 out of 10 (Bad Dragon Pizza Party if anyone wants to see why). What I have found interesting, however, is many independent games have amazing mechanics and game play but suffer from mediocre art - Zombie House is a perfect example of this.

Dr. Wictz: What should someone do if they want to have their game reviewed by you?

Brian Bremner: All they need to do is send us a game and message us via our website (http://www.gamersremorse.com/contact-us/) and let us know the game is en route we will then add it to the queue at http://www.gamersremorse.com/the-game-review-queue/ where the designer can watch their game raise in the ranks until it is on deck then in post-production! On the queue they can even order special editions such as costumes.

Dr. Wictz: You have created a very detailed rating system, you even posted a detailed post explaining how it works to your readers, but can you give us a quick explanation of it?

Brian Bremner: Whenever a player plays a game they decide if they liked it or not.  We tried to break down how we made that decision and put it into a scale; essentially for us it comes down to how the game looks graphically, is it well balanced between skill and luck, do the mechanics interact well, does the game's pace flow well or how does it manage the time when it is not your turn, does the theme fit the mechanics, is the game easy to learn/teach, and is the game repayable.  We have had some people dislike the rubric system but I feel it is key in rating and would argue we all have a rubric we just may not like it.

Sean Howard: In our first 3-5 reviews we posted what scores we would give a game, but as an engineer I could see it was ultimately a gut feel. That didn't sit right with me. Essay gradings have always bothered me, where as a scoring methodology that was broken down into sub categories seemed to work a whole lot better. Our Rubric was created such that each person could modify, create categories and personally weight what they felt was important in a game. Brian and my rubrics are similar but ultimately show what we value in a game and are personal to each of us. Eric's is something entirely different as a gateway gamer his interests go more towards two things - does it have appeal (think curb appeal when buying a house) and replayability (how did it play?).  

Dr. Wictz: Does it annoy you when your guest hosts don’t follow your rubric?

Sean Howard: No, not really. As said, every person views games differently. some may love thrill in a game whereas others could care less. If everyone used my rubric, everyone would be looking at the game through my interests. I don't want the whole world to be Seans.  I often find our guests' opinions to be interesting and valid in their own right as it provides a fresh look from a non-gamer, a mom-gamer, or a young gamer. All of these view points are important and perhaps a viewer might value their opinion over mine.

Brian Bremner: We tell our guests they don't need to comply, but some have then made their own rubric, Eric our most prominent guest did so just recently. Going into 2015, however, we are working on a unified rubric so everyone can comment on the aspects of the scoring in the same way.


Dr. Wictz: Are they are quirks of your fellow reviewers that may not be apparent, especially since there are moments since there are moment not observed by the audience because you fast forward through game play?


Sean Howard: Oh yeah! Absolutely. For one-Brian is a huge opponent to analysis paralysis. In some cases he will make a move in a game to his detriment to keep the game moving. I'm a bit in between where i will probably take a little longer than I should, but ultimately come to the same decision, and then we've had others who take quite a bit longer for a single turn. We often need to plan our filming around the group who is in attendance. Another quirk, Eric doesn't like games with 'fiddly bits'. If there is too much going on, he seems to lose interest and his tolerance for seeing a game through is a lower threshold than Brian or I. Also, just about every guest we've had on the show acts really odd in front of the camera for the first few filmings. They will stare at the camera and just blank. Brian and I used to do that as well. In fact there is a giant clip of us dying laughing as we got the giggles during our first filming ever - hive. 


Brian Bremner: HAHA what am I willing to reveal?! I won't pick on our guests but Sean has some that find themselves often on the cutting room floor.  He like accents... lots of accents... I don't know if he has ever played a game without breaking into a few of them.  He also likes to ad silliness to games; this often is enhanced by the camera; we played a train game once where he brought a train whistle and every turn made a small quip and blew the whistle and in a game of Eldritch he once got into character (a senile old man) and called everyone Wallaby.



Dr. Wictz: If someone was interested in a real “diamond in the rough.”



Sean Howard: Great question. There are two categories for this response. There are games that most people have probably never heard of, but if you saw it in a game store it would look at home, it just doesn't have the funding vehicle to become a properly published game at this time. Those would be Turbulence, Zerpang!, Copper Country or The Captain is Dead. And then there are games that need some love, but if provided the right art and the right publisher they would be contenders for Spiel Des Jahres. For that list I'd say - Rum Run Deluxe, Zombie House, or Realm of Logres.



Brian Bremner: I would recommend 3 games for 3 different types of players. The Captain is Dead is a fantastic co-op game set in a sci fi universe. Turbulence is a great game of action point allocation as players attempt to move their planes from one side of the play area to another as they and other players continually change the board forcing them to change their plane's path midflight. Finally I would recommend (again) Zombie House; it starts as an 1 vs rest but slowly more and more players become zombies until the zombies are eliminated or the humans are; it also features one of the best mechanics I have seen in recent gaming; cards are hexagons with up to 6 options; players choose 1 action on 3 of their 4 cards, order them in the order they wish to resolve them and then take turns resolving their actions and hoping they planned well.



Dr. Wictz: Name a board game designer you wish to invite to a board game night?



Brian Bremner: WOW!  That is a shockingly difficult question if limited to one designer. If only one, I would have to say Christian Peterson.  He has been involved in many of my favorite games and I would love to see how he approaches some of them differently than I do... and I would make him bring the StarCraft Board Game cause I really wanna play it but don't have $200 to drop...



Sean Howard: How about all of them? It's always a very unique experience to play a game with it's creator. You get to see their creation through their eyes. It is both a proud moment for it's creator but also a humbling experience. If at all possible, I plan to invite some of the game designers on our show during a review. This may make the reviewing part more difficult for some games, but I think in general it would become a learning experience for all.



Dr. Wictz: Thank you Brian and Sean for stopping by.  You can see the newest reviews on the Gamer’s Remorse website http://www.gamersremorse.com/.  You can also find Gamer’s Remorse on facebook and twitter.  And you can find their older, pre Dice Tower Network videos at https://www.youtube.com/user/TheGamersRemorse/videos


Monday, November 3, 2014

Market Mechanic Lecture: Retrospective

The Market Mechanic Lecture series examines different market mechanics to explore how to better use them in board games.  The series makes a point to clarify from an economic perspective what is a market mechanic vs. a market theme. 


There is a concern that people are missing out on good economic mechanics in board games because they associated them with bad market themed games.  By better defining how to use economic mechanics, the series highlights how good economic mechanic are fun for board game players.   Below is a link to all the articles in the series with a few sentences explaining each article's topic.


Articles:

Introduction

The Introduction lays out the concern that people are missing out on good economic mechanics in board games because they associated them with bad market themed games.  To be able to distinguish the two, it defines what is the difference between a market mechanic and a market theme.   


Trade

Trade mechanics are challenging to design  in board games because both players must benefit from engaging in the trade.  A trade mechanic must be a voluntary exchange between players, such as in Settlers of Catan.  A trade theme, like in Acquire, is when players do not make direct voluntary exchanges with each other.


Money

Money mechanics are a tool board game designers can use to simplify board game play.  It makes it easier for players to trade and lets designers communicate certain game rules with a small set of numbers versus a long and complicated spread sheet.

Prices

Price mechanics are a tool that players use to communicate information with each other within a board game.  It allows players to compete over who can best mange and obfuscate information.


Auctions (Most Read)

A game designer who desires to use an auction mechanics will improve their design if they understand the strengths and weaknesses of auction mechanics highlighted in this post.


Credit (Loans) (2nd Most Read)

Whether a game uses a credit mechanic or a credit theme, this post explains how board game designers can improve either by better understanding how both are used in the real world.


Property Rights

Property rights mechanics enable players to have meaningful choices and personal interactions within board games.  Without property rights players cannot engage in trade, use price mechanics, engage in auctions, or use a credit mechanic.