Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Dr. Wictz List: 11 Similarities Between Board Game Designers and Economists

1. It takes two to four years to find a publisher for your latest paper or board game.

2. You can never find enough people to read your draft or play test your prototype.

3. Your significant other gets a glazed look over their face when you talk about your latest project.

4. Same male-female ratios at conferences and conventions.

5. There is only a small alpha audience interested in your work unless you hit the jackpot and stumble onto something that appeals to the mass market.

6. You are thrilled after years of work over what you have made till one guy figures out a single little thing that completely breaks your economic model or board game.

7. You can only count on your family ever reading you work or playing your game.

8. No one recognizes you on the street, but after one good publication you are mobbed by fans at conferences and conventions.

9. You are constantly worrying if your theme fits your paper or board game and if anyone else finds it interesting.

10. You have studied game theory.

11. You would be living in a cardboard box if you had to rely on living off the royalties from your published work.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Classics Lecture Series: Introduction - Learning to Think Ahead - Tic Tac Toe, Checkers, and Connect Four

We are alpha board gamers.  Alpha gamers have grown beyond old standards with inferior mechanics.  We decry them as being poorly designed and loath the uninformed for still insisting we play these mass market "classics."
Well stop your loathing!  Today I kick off a new series called Classics Lecture Series where we look at the positives of classic games.  Classic games are "classic" because the designers did enough things right that people want to play these games even today.  Whether we like to admit or not, a number of us got into board gaming by playing these games.  Nor should we forget that classic games have inspired the mechanisms and qualities we cherish in today’s modern board games.
By breaking down the good parts of classic games I will be identifying the qualities and mechanics that we should be utilizing as modern board designers.  Where shall we start, well with the first game I ever learned...Tic Tac Toe.
I cannot estimate the countless hours my parents were spared trying to find a way to entertain my sister and me while we played with a simple piece of paper and a pen.  The classic knock against Tic Tac Toe is that if everyone plays the correct strategy then no one should ever win.  Well go try and tell that to a five year old.  Go ahead...I can wait...the article will still be here after you get back.
Don't believe you do they?  As a kid, predicting your opponents next move is like predicting what the stock market will do tomorrow.  Only through many...and I mean of Tic Tac Toe we learn no one should ever win the game.
Why does it take many games for little kids to realize the futility of playing Tic Tac Toe?  Because little kids are learning the skill of thinking ahead.  When kids first start playing Tic Tac Toe the game feels more like flipping a coin to see if the person who called heads wins.  I put an X in the left corner, my sister puts an O in the middle, neither of us are initially thinking about the next strategic move.  All we know is that sometimes something magical happens and one of us magically wins the game.
Instincts driven by sibling rivalry pushes us to start looking further ahead in game play to increase one's likelihood to win or at least prevent the other sibling form winning the game.  Trial and error will teach us that certain combinations of X's and 0's will ensure a victory over the inferior sibling.  But as soon as the other sibling learns to recognize our tactical secrete our competitive edge will be lost and every game will end in a tie.
By playing Tic Tac Toe and competing we learned our decisions have consequences and we need to think ahead in the game to ensure the game ends in a tie.  We are now ready for bigger and better games.
Depending on your household that game is either Checkers or Connect Four.  The drawback to both games is that the conclusion is pre-determined for perfect players.  The great thing for young board game players is that no matter what our parents may think, we are not yet perfect.
Like Tic Tac Toe, good Checker and Connect Four players look to set up traps that guarantees their victory no matter what move their opponent makes.  Achieving this requires thinking ahead and anticipating your opponent's moves.   Checker and Connect Four provide a whole new universe of traps to be sprung onto your opponent.
Traps that are discovered partly through trial and error, but partly through the lessons learned in Tic Tac Toe.  Once a player masters the concept of looking ahead, then players can start looking ahead in new surroundings like Checker and Connect Four without even playing their first game.  They start asking themselves before their turn what their opponent will do if they make a particular move.
Looking ahead is a key part of what makes any modern game fun.  Having a strategy to win a game of Agricola means that you are anticipating which resources your opponents are going to take before you make your move.  You, as well as your opponents are looking ahead.  In repeated play you are competing by seeing which one of you does the best job of reading the board and looking ahead.   Without looking ahead there is no strategy.  There is just a random dice roll to see who wins the game.  That is the lesson of Tic Tac Toe, Checkers, and Connect Four.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What To Ask On a Blind Play Tester Feedback Form?

My game Post Position is traveling across the country so playtesters can test the written rules for the game.  Players will be participating in a blind playtest - learning and playing the game with just the rulebook.  Usually after a game I get feedback on that specific game through conversation with other players, and some written reviews.  Without being present to observe, I need a feedback form that lets me know how well the group understood and implemented the rules. 

To help construct a good feedback form I am breaking down some of the questions on my form and explaining why I think I should ask them.  The word think is underlined because I do not know yet how well my form will work. I will write a follow-up blog later this year on how well each question worked.

There are many good feedback forms other folks have already put together.  UNPUB has a very good standard form they use at all of their game testing events.  The challenge is the UNPUB form is used at UNPUB events where the designer is personally teaching the rules to the player...aka not a blind play test. 

Also, the UNPUB form is used in situations where you can watch the play testers play the game.  So I need a feedback form that really tries to capture what actually took place within the game. These are the questions I think will tell me if the rules are working. 

Feedback From Questions

Were you able to play the game?
Silly? I think not.  The whole purpose of sending the game out to people who have never played the game before is to learn if they can play the game using just the rule book.  You pray the answer to the first question is some sort of yes, otherwise you can stop reading the survey at this point and start burning your current rule book so you can start over.

How long did it take you to learn the game?
Just because someone learned the game did not mean they learned it in a fast enough time for other people to enjoy it.  For example, I love the game Diplomacy, but I spent over 4 hours learning how to play the game with my high school friends.  If we were not dedicated board gamers then there was no way we would have the patience to spend so much time to learn to play the game.  (I know, you are rolling your eyes because only dedicated board gamers know of the game, yet alone consider playing it).

In your own words summarize how to play Post Position?
"Wait," you say, "didn't you already ask them if they learned to play the game?  Why do you need to ask them to summarize how to play the game?"  Just because they think they learned to play the game does not mean they actually learned to play the game I designed.  I am not there to see them play it, so I need to find questions that will reveal to me how they actually played the game.

What was your mood before learning the rules?  What was your mood after learning the rules?
Yes, I am asking questions about emotional stuff.  Why, because I want to gauge how emotional wearing it was to learn the rules.  Rules not only exist to make sure everyone keeps in line when they play the game, rules exist to entice people to want to play the game.  If my rules drains the fun out of the room there is a decent chance that the game goes back into the box before a single horse moves along the race track. 

What was the hardest rule to learn and why?
Notice I assume that a rule was hard to learn.  This will bias their answer to find a rule that was hard.  I am ok with this because no matter what they will identify the most frustrating rule explanation in the rule set.  Odds are improving that one rule will by itself make people much happier with your rule set.

Did the graphics make it easier to learn the rules?  Please explain why or why not.
Post Position includes some graphics to help explain the game.  That said, we need to know if the graphic made it easier to learn to play or just created more confusion.  I ask why or why not because it creates another opportunity to let me know if they created their own house variant of the game or if they actually learn to play the game I intended to teach them with the parchment in the game box.

Did you understand the rules better after finishing your first game?
Some people learn by doing versus reading.  Everyone has a friend who never reads the rules and relies on someone who knows the game to teach them.  I want to find out if those who could read the rules were able to teach the other players how to play by playing the game with them.

How comfortable would you feel teaching someone else the game, why?
Confidence in your ability to teach the game is a measurement in how much you think you know about the game.  I ask why because it tells me which part of the game they are the least comfortable with.

Describe what strategies worked or didn't work for you in the game?
I find it a good idea to ask the same question in a different form.  Details may come out that helps clarify players answers on previous questions.  By describing in this question what strategy did or did not work for the player they are also describing the rules of the game they used when they played.


So are these the only set of questions that you should be asking?  No, you should also include a number of the standard questions found on the UNPUB game review form.  Do you like the game?  What was your least favorite part of this game? etc.

And now we wait.  You wait to see if my forms succeeded to illicit useful feedback. I wait to see if Post Position's rulebook needs minor tweaks or a trip to my fireplace.