Thursday, November 28, 2013

Classics Lecture Series: Telling a Story - The Game of Life and Clue

A grand party held on a dreary night is ruined as the homeowner and organizer of the festive event winds up dead, worst of all his murder is one of the fellow party goers. This scene, which could come from a classic Hitchcock movie, is in fact played out in a board game.

Board games can invite people to partake in a story adventure where their choices make the difference.  A game can tell the story of a persons life. The Game of Life is an epic story where you are taken on a journey making important decisions that affect your life. You start as an 18 year old deciding if to go to college, and finish as a 70 year old with god knows how many grand-children picking a place to retire.

In life you have some pivotal moments where you think you control your destiny only to discover Life has a different path for you.  Don’t you find yourself naming your twins and wondering who is your wife sitting next to you in the car, especially when your real life wife is also playing the game and is married to some other random jerk.

But don’t feel sorry for me, I’m a happily married accountant with twin boys, every tax season people need my services, it’s a living, but I want more. I see an add for the community college, sure I still need to pay off the rest of my student loans, but for an opportunity at a more exciting career, the $10,000 doesn't seem that bad. After a few classes in computer science, I decided to dive headlong into my passion for painting and get my arts degree. My wife is screaming at me what in the world am I thinking but I ignore those beautiful pink plastic lips and risk a family life of destitute confident that I will hit it big and we will spend our golden years a millionaire estates.

The game gives you circumstances.  You, the player, take those circumstances and turn it into a story.  

Story events do not have to be a predetermined path.  Stories can be made through game play actions.  In the game of Clue you create the events by bouncing off a series of theories with all the other people who were in the house during the murder.  Each theory is an opportunity to tell a story.
Mrs. Peacock snuck into the library after an argument with Mr. Green about returning to her letters she wrote Mr. Body’s wife prior to their divorce.  Fearful Mr. Body would force her out of high society after he read the letter she concluded her only hope of maintaining her privileged position was to grab the candle stick off the table and beat him to death without him ever knowing her motive.

Each time a player moves another player the player asks “What do you have against me Mrs. White?”  “Well, Ms. Scarlett, I saw how you approached my husband in private.  If you were willing to flirt with a married man then you lack the moral capabilities to stop yourself from murdering poor Mr. Body.”

Clue and Life give us events to weave tales.  They show board game designers that turning a mechanism into a tangible action empowers any game to be more than an abstract competition.  The game becomes real in one’s senses and imagination.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Random Lessons in Prototype Shipping

If you don't read the rest of the post and are getting ready to mail out a prototype for blind playtesting remember these two lessons:


1. Include your contact information in many different places with your prototype.
2. Americans, ship your prototype using a U.S. Post Priority Mail Flat Rate box.
Of course, to find out why, you need to keep reading.
Last October my board game Post Position left the safety of my home to travel and visit others for a series of blind play tests.  To keep prototype costs low, I was circulating a single prototype between different playtesting groups.  For this to work it needed to be easy for the host play tester to receive the package and to forwarded it on to the next destination.
My solution was to package the game in a flat rate size medium #2 United States Postal System Priority Mail box.  In the box I included pre-print labels with paid postage for each destination.  That way the host play tester only had to tape the next label onto a new free U.S. Priority Mail flat rate box and drop it off at the local Post Office. 
With all the pre-printed labels and an instruction sheet packed together I was on top of the world.  I didn't even have to worry if the postage was off due to a random weight change.  I thought to myself I was prepared for anything that could go wrong.
That was until I received a frantic message from the first play tester.  Post Position apparently wanted to make a side trip to Georgia.  The game hypnotized the host into thinking it was a t-shirt and not a board game.  So under a hypnotic trance the host placed a pre-paid shipping label onto the Post Position box to a t-shirt company in Georgia.
At this point we convened a crisis committee.  The host quickly contacted the t-shirt company and arrange to get the prototype mailed back to him.  Weeks past and still no game had returned from Georgia. 
I was prepared to write the prototype off as permanently missing in action when a human resources manager at Alpha company sent me a message saying they had Post Position.  Something had gone wrong with mailing Post Position back to the host and the U.S. Postal Service returned it back to the t-shirt company.
That is how I discovered the best things I did putting together the prototype for blind play testing was to include a lot of documents with my e-mail on it.  The t-shirt company found my e-mail and reached out to me.  
After thanking them profusely for contacting me and promising to say lots of nice things about them (you should all buy one of the t-shirt brands from I learned the other benefit of mailing the prototype using flat rate U.S. Priority Mail boxes with pre-paid labels.  I was able to e-mail a pdf copy of the pre-paid USPS shipping label to the t-shirt company.  Since the rate was a flat rate from any destination I had no worry about the package having the wrong postage.  And, if the Post Office had trouble delivering the box to its next destination, I would get the prototype game back since the return address was to me.
Now I eagerly await to see what sort of hypnotizes it performs next.  If only I could train it to hypnotize publishers to pick the game up instantly.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Classics Lecture Series: Dexterity- Hungry Hungry Hippos, Pick up Sticks, and Jenga

The innocent marble takes a pleasant stroll not knowing a great herd of hungry hungry hippos are carefully stalking its movement.  As the marble thinks to itself, “boy the sun sure looks nice today,” it finds itself in the bottomless stomach of a very hungry, hungry, hippo.

Hungry Hungry Hippo teaches us that board games do not have to be limited to games of mental strategic interactions.  Board Games are also a place where we can hone our skills to achieve a physical feat.

Why expand beyond strategic games?  What do designers get out of adding competitions of physical dexterity?  

Not everyone wants to compete over who is the best thinker.  In Hungry Hungry Hippos there is no ambiguity to the goal of the game.  You see the marble, you eat the marble.  People can play it when their mind is not fresh enough to handle complex calculations or strategy without feeling the game is a fancy coin flipping game to see who wins.  Players get to compete over who has the best hand eye coordination.

Games based on achieving physical goals let designers build new games with limited parts.  Take the game of pick up sticks.  The game is literally just a collection of sticks.  Yet by dumping them on the floor you have created a large minefield for the players to defuse.  

Being a game of physical skill does not mean the game has no strategic mental skill.  Winning Jenga is not just about who can best identify which piece to take and having the hand motor skills to successfully take it.  The game is also involves strategizing over which piece to take to make your opponent's turn harder while still leaving you a block to grab in the future.  The same sort of thinking ahead that someone uses in a game of Chess or Checkers.   

All games are made up of mechanics that award one skill over another, be it your ability to do math in your head, read your opponents, or memorize what cards are still in the deck.  Games that combine mechanisms push board game players to embrace strategies that play to their strengths and compensate for their weakness.  

When I play Loopin’ Louie I compensate for my lack of hand eye coordination by just focusing on defending my chickens.  I let the other good players knock each other out and take my chances with the last remaining player.  The moment is tense, yet my fingers hunger to strike the lever for the crown just like a hungry hungry hippo yearns for one last delicious marble.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Faculty Lounge: David Palay of Random Access Podcast

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.


Today I talk to my friend David Palay who co-hosts Random Access Podcast with Andy Low.  I have known David and Andy since middle school and David was kind enough to be my first victim...cough…I mean first interviewee.
Dr. Wictz: So David could you give a quick breakdown about RA Podcasts in case someone is not familiar with your show?
David Palay: Hmm.  You'd think with 6 years behind us, this would be an easy question.  It's a weekly topical show that focuses on technology and games, but really it's whatever Andy and I have found interesting or want to talk about.
Dr. Wictz: Why did you guys start the podcast?
David Palay: We wanted to do something new and exciting, and have some way of telling other people about all the cool things we were seeing.  At least, that's what I recall.
Dr. Wictz: If you were to introduce someone to your show and you could only play for them one episode, which episode would you play?
David Palay: Wait.. which of the THREE HUNDRED PLUS episodes should someone listen to?
Dr. Wictz: Yes, you have to pick one. 
 David Palay:   Probably one of the early PAX10 episodes...  I think those were some of our best work.
Dr. Wictz: What is your favorite type of board game and why?
David Palay: That's really hard to say.  I like a wide variety.  Particularly games that pit you against the board (Pandemic, Forbidden Island, etc.) or where there is a hidden traitor (Shadows over Camelot, Pandemic w/bio terrorist, Resistance).  Maybe the latter category, if we just expand it to "unknown alliances", then it could include things like Twilight Imperium and Diplomacy too.
Dr. Wictz: If I wanted you to review my board game on your podcast what should I do?
David Palay: Just ask.  You can e-mail us at .
Dr. Wictz: Do you ever have any guest board game designers?
David Palay: We had Dave Schrader on a few times from Shrader Heavy Industries.  (web: twitter: @SchraderHeavy or @LightWeightRPG)  He came on to talk about the Light Weight RPG that he's been working on, which sounds really really cool and everyone should go check it out..
Dr Wictz: How do you invite guest onto your show?  Is there anything I could do (as a board game designer) that could get me invited to by a guest on your show?
David Palay: Andy and I knew Dave from PAX, so he actually approached us.  Get your name out there, send email to press, and if possible go to conventions.
I know Andy mentioned to me there have been a handful of times when he has reached out to people to get them on the show, but most of the time we get an e-mailed about somebody willing to do an interview.
Again I want to thank David for taking the time to talk to me today.  Random Access Podcast comes out once a week every Monday.  You can find the podcast at or by searching for Random Access Podcast on itunes.  You can also follow the Random Access Podcast on Twitter @RAPodcast .

Friday, November 1, 2013

Classics Lecture Series: Game Etiquette - Candy Land

If I come across a young person who wants to play Candy Land I will play it with them.  But Dr. Wictz you say, the players make  no choices.  The entire game is one really long fancy dice roll to see who wins.  There is no reason you should torture a kid by playing this game.


That, my friend, is where you are wrong.  Because Candy Land teaches important skills needed to build a “good game player.”   I know you are thinking I am crazy, but hear me out on why Candy Land builds a good board game player.


Do not change the rules…follow the rules.  Admit it, as a child you were tempted to change the rules mid game if you thought it would help you win.  This temptation is even worse for kids playing Candy Land today because the game now includes a series of optional rules.  Must a player send their piece back to the beginning by drawing the Plum Gingerbread Tree card or can we ignore it because it makes the piece move backward?  
Once we agree upon the rules of the game that is it.  Success and failure in the game is going to come from how well each player responds to the constraints placed in front of them.
Learn to wait for your turn.  “I want to go.”  I am sorry little Jack but you have to wait your turn.  Playing board games requires a certain level of patience.  Patience is not something everyone is inherently born with, it is something that is taught through practice and repetition.
Don’t be a sore loser. (don’t flip the table).  When you play a board game you do not always win.  This is particular true in Candy Land where there is no skill.  If everyone plays the game enough times they will eventually lose and they will have to deal the emotions of not being victorious.
Don’t be a sore winner. (Don’t rub it in their faces) Winning brings good feelings, and expressing one's’  joy over a hard fought match is warranted. But  just as in losing, winning is only for that game session. So celebrate, but extended victory dances are frowned upon.
Finish the game.  Just because you are not doing well does not mean you should quit.  Not finishing the game when you are going to lose is unfair to the other players who in the past have finished the game when they themselves face a long shot of coming back in the game.  

These qualities are not easily taught, and any chance I have to pass them on playing Candy Land to the next generation of gamers is time well spent.