Thursday, February 27, 2014

Faculty Lounge: Gary Dahl of Sugar Pill Studios

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.

I was introduced to Gary Dahl’s writing when his article on how understanding experimental economics can help game designers was picked up by Cardboard Edison.  I pleasantly discovered that between updates on his own game designs he periodically blogged about understanding probability in game design.

Gary Dahl: Hey Dr. Wictz, thanks for the interest in interviewing me :).  It sounds like these articles on probability may have prompted this interviews, but I’m curious to hear if there were any other influences.

Dr. Wictz: I have to admit, you hooked me with your articles on probability and experimental economics.  I have a soft spot for writers who help bridge the gap between economic thinking and game design.  But before we get into too much detail, you should give a quick overview about Sugar Pill Studios for people not familiar with it.

Gary Dahl: Sugar Pill Studios is the game development company that I organized back in 2004 while living in Minnesota.  I’ve been developing video games under this moniker ever since.  However, about a eighteen months ago my focus began shifting toward tabletop games.

Dr. Wictz: How did you come up with the name Sugar Pill Studios?

Gary Dahl: The name was inspired by the psychological phenomena known as the placebo effect: that we are so susceptible to the power of suggestion, that we can get actual medical benefits (objective and reproducible) from just believing that we are being treated.  In pharmaceutical research, sugar pills are often given to control subjects to convince them that they are being treated and provoke this placebo effect.

Similar to sugar pills, I think games can be seen as relatively inert collections of cardboard, wood, and plastic (or digital bits in the case of video games) that can provide players with all kinds of surprising benefits.  I also enjoy that the name sounds fun and tasty.  At this point, I honestly can’t remember any of the other contenders from ten years ago.

Dr. Wictz: What inspired you to write articles on probability and irrationality in game design?

Gary Dahl: I think it was a combination of wanting to sort out some of my thoughts on these topics, and wanting to share them with others in the process.  Part of this sharing was an effort to help designers with issues that I see frequently misunderstood, and part of it was to crowd-proof my own understandings.

I’ve really enjoyed writing the probability in games series, and I want to write some more of those soon.  If you or anyone who reads this has any requests or suggestions for topics, I’d love to hear them.  Tweet me @SugarPillStdios

Dr. Wictz: Has your article writing attracted people to check out the games you design?

Gary Dahl: That’s a good question that I don’t have any data on.  I suspect they might capture the curiosity of a few readers, but that hasn’t really been my objective in writing them.  I’m expecting/hoping that my first professionally published tabletop game will be hitting Kickstarter this summer.  And between my games and my articles, I think I’ll be more flattered to see the games raising interest in the articles than the articles raising interest in the games.

Dr. Wictz: If you were to introduce someone to your articles and you could only have them read one entry, which entry would you them read?

Gary Dahl: Without any more information on their specific interests, I’d probably point them to the first article in my Probability in Games series: “Why is the Monte Hall solution so counter-intuitive?”  I think this article does a nice job of shining some light on one of the biggest difficulties in understanding probability, and it does so in the context of a widely familiar and often misunderstood problem.

Dr. Wictz: I know you always had an interest in topics on video game design, when did you start getting into board game design questions?

Gary Dahl: I started getting into board game design about a year and a half ago.  At that time, I was really interested in designing a computer game about the influence of money on politicians; not about criminal scandals but about the routine and legal bribes of and extortion by our elected officials.

One of my biggest concerns was preventing players from thinking the simulation was rigged to make things look a certain way.  I eventually stumbled onto the idea of designing a tabletop game so that the players would have to understand and drive the simulation in order to play the game.  My hope was that this would help them see how a system of unassuming incentives could lead to many of the frustrations that people are having with their government.

The more I learned about modern board game designs, the more I was hooked.  Aside from working on some digital ports, my focus has really been on designing tabletop games for the past year and a half.

Dr. Wictz: Did moving from Minnesota to Maryland alter your design focus?

Gary Dahl: I think the biggest difference for me design-wise has been the network of people that I have been working with and soliciting feedback from.  Although I have reached out to and met with some local video game developers in this area, I have had much more contact with tabletop designers.  In Minnesota, just about all of my game design friends were working on video games.

Dr. Wictz: Do you have your students read your articles when you teach college computer game design courses?

Gary Dahl: I’ve never assigned any of the blog style articles that I’ve written to students, but many students have stumbled onto things I’ve written… mostly on which is a resource for video game developers.  Most of their comments have been short and positive, although a few have followed up with me in person to clarify some aspects of the article.

Dr. Wictz: Name a board game designer you want to have a discussion with on board games?

Gary Dahl: I enjoy discussing board games with just about everyone.  But if pressed to choose just one name, I’d probably go with an unoriginal choice like Dr. Knizia.  He’s been such a prolific designer who has worked on such an huge number of games spanning so many different types and styles.

Dr. Wictz: He has a PhD in mathematics, worked in the banking industry, has over 500 published games and has won a Spiel des Jahres (top award for a board game), who cares if he is an unoriginal choice.

Gary Dahl: I’d love to learn about what kinds of insights his experiences have left him with.

Dr. Wictz: You and me both.  Out of curiosity, what type of board games do you like?

Gary Dahl: My favorite is the type of games that surprise me: either by introducing me to an interesting new mechanic, or by presenting a system that leads to unexpected and interesting decisions.  I try to experience a variety of game types to learn what they have to offer to their biggest fans, but typically find myself most enjoying games on the medium-light end of the spectrum that play in 30-60 minutes, and that do not shy away from random elements.

Dr. Wictz: Thank you again Gary for talking with me.  If you want to learn more about Gary Dahl and Sugar Pill Studios checkout the webpage, like the Facebook page, and follow the Twitter feed @SugarPillStdios.  Also keep an eye on the events page for upcoming demos of Gary Dahl’s games.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dr. Wictz Question: Hidden Tips for Newbies

Many games, old and new, have hidden hints to help newbies play the game better.  I want your help to create a list of hidden hints for Newbies in board and card games. I will kick the list off by explaining an old Euchre adage: “Turn down a bower and lose for an hour.”  (With a Michigan accent bower and hour rhyme).

To understand the adage you need to know the adage is a hint on when to violate the four Euchre commandments taught to new Euchre players:

1. Do not over trump your partner.

2. If you are starting a round lead with your highest non-trump card.

3. Do not draw out your partner's trump if you cannot take enough tricks on your own to win the round.

4. Do not call trump unless you have 3 trump cards and at least one is either the left or right bower.

As I mentioned in my Classics Lecture: Communicating With a Partner Through Game Play - Euchre, New Euchre players are taught a set of conservative Euchre strategy to help them better communicate with their partner.  I also mentioned that while useful for first time players, the four Euchre commandments are not always the best strategy.  “Turn down a bower and lose for an hour” is a hint to new Euchre players on when to violate the 4th Euchre commandment.

“Turn down a bower and lose for an hour” is an adage repeated every time a player flips up the right bower.

Normally when you are the dealer and your partner rejects a trump that means they do not think they have a very good hand in that suite.  This is particularly true when you deal since if they had a mediocre hand they would still call trump since they would know their partner at least had one trump card to support them.

The exception is when the dealer flips over the right bower.  Why, because an advance partner knows that if they cannot go alone and earn 4 points there is a higher expected probability that their partner can go alone.  But, for their partner to go along their partner has to call the suite up to be trump, so many times they will pass to give their partner, the dealer, the opportunity to call a loaner hand.

The advance player appears to violate a key rule of communication by not signaling their strength by calling a suite.  But tactically they are making the correct move.  Hence the need for the old adage “turn down a bower and lose for an hour” telling the new player to call up the bower as trump.

The adage is a hint to the new player when they are the dealer  that you should consider picking it up even if you have a weak hand with less than three trump cards.  This adage is not just an old Midwestern superstition.  The adage is a hidden strategy hint for newbies in case they do not realize there is a good chance I passed not because my hand is weak, but because there is a chance your hand is even stronger than my own.  So feel risky newbie and call trump since there is a good chance I, your partner, can support your weak hand.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Classics Lecture Series: Real Time with Simultaneous Moves - Soccer, Speed, & Boggle

Taking turns is as old as board gaming, I go, and you go, wash and repeat.  Chess - I move my pawn you move your knight.  Tic-Tac-Toe - I mark X, you mark O.  Pretty Pretty Princess - I put on my earing, you put on your necklace.

But the most popular game in the word--soccer-- is played in real time and has simultaneous moves.  But wait you cry, soccer is a sport.  Sports have rules and victory condition just like any other board game.  Sports tend to be dexterity games that happen to be played on some of the largest tabletops in existence.

Soccer, like other board games, relies on players making simultaneous moves and a clock to increase pressure on players.  Great real time games with simultaneous moves use either simultaneous moves, a timer, or both to increase pressure on players. What are the benefits of pressure on players?

Rewards Quick Thinking And Punishes Analysis Paralysis

Simultaneous moves in real time are the anti Analysis Paralysis.  In Soccer you have to make strategic decisions in real time.  Real time games with simultaneous moves rewards players who can read a situation quickly and act.  If you pause, your opponent will jump and take advantage of your hesitation.

Mental mistakes are more likely in real time simultaneous games like Soccer and Speed than a sequential move game because pausing to think gives your opponent time to react.  In Soccer, if you pause to think, you risk missing your opportunity to act, it gives your opponent the time to get back on defense or prevents your defense from reacting fast enough to counter your opponent's offense.  In Speed if you hesitate your opponent might play a card and take your spot on the discard pile.

In sequential board games a mental mistake only results from you making the wrong move.  You never lose the chance to make the move in a sequential board game.  Unlike a real time simultaneous move game, an opponent or a timer does not take away your opportunity to act.  The game sits and waits for you to make that move.

Mental mistakes are so prevalent in real time games that players even devise strategies to increase the probability their opponents will make a mistake.  Soccer players understand that their opponents are more likely to make a mistake when they are forced to play a style they are not comfortable with.  Soccer teams built on speed and athleticism are not as comfortable methodically moving the ball down the field.  Opponents that recognize this will attempt to force the speed team to be slow and methodical. Why?  Because when you are force to doing something you are not comfortable with you are more likely to hesitate and make a mistake.

Creates Moments of Tension And Relief

Soccer, like all simultaneous moves games, perfect the art of tension in game play.  A clock is ticking, a team is down by one goal and is throwing everything they have to get the equalizer.  Even their goalie has moved out of goal to help his team as it desperately fights for the tie.

The crowd is tense.  The players are tense.  And whoever wins the battle, be the team up or the team down, is going to be in a state of euphoria when all is said and done.

These moments happen in sequential games, sure.  But not at the frequency, and rarely with the intensity as a simultaneous move game.

Just the act of having to reveal a decision at the same time creates tension and relief. In The Resistance players negotiate with each other in real time and the leader selects who will make the team for the mission.  After the team members secretly submitted whether they will support or sabotage the mission, the room is tense until it becomes apparent if the mission succeeded or failed.

Putting it All Together

Look at the real time simultaneous move game Boggle.  Boggle has a sand timer.  You are on the clock racing with the other players to find words.  If you panic and just sit staring at the board you give your opponents an edge by giving them more time to put words together relative to you.

As the timer starts getting close to the end you feel tension as you try to fit in as many words as possible before time runs out.  At which point the score is reviewed and the tension of the moment is relieved in either glorious victory or humiliating defeat.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Faculty Lounge: Paco Garcia Jaen of G*M*S Magazine

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.

I admit that reaching out to G*M*S* founder Paco Garcia Jaen for an interview is bit of a reach for a board game designer blog less than a year old.  But, I figured as I wrote my tweet to G*M*S Magazine, what was the worse that could happen, he could say no.  To say I was ecstatic when Paco Garcia Jean replied Yes to my interview request is an understatement.  Saying I panicked I might lose the interview because I took so long to get back with him is also an understatement.

Paco Garcia Jaen: Don't worry about the delay. I have been really up against it this week anyway, so I wouldn't have been able to reply on time.

Dr. Wictz: Thank you for the reassurance, or maybe I should be thanking you for being busy. Either case let’s get on with the questions.  I know G*M*S Magazine has always been an online platform, but with magazine being part of the name, I have to ask if you ever been tempted to turn it into a print magazine?

Paco Garcia Jaen: Actually when I started G*M*S Magazine I wanted to make it a printed venture; the website was a quick start for what I hoped would become a "real" magazine, hence the name. Back in the day when I still live in Spain I became involved in gaming in the early 90's and some friends and I got together and started a small run magazine called "Enrolate" and we loved every second of it, so I thought I'd replicate the formula and have a good time.

These days things are not as easy, though. I couldn't find a team of people  who were able to commit the time needed to create something professional and managing all aspects of a printed magazine production on top of a very busy job was not an option. That difficulty, joined with how easy it became to create my website using Wordpress as a platform dissuaded me from continuing the printed avenue. I would still love to have a printed magazine because I am very passionate about design and love flipping pages, but as things stand, I really can't afford to make that desire a reality.

Dr. Wictz: You have mentioned in previous interviews that you were not happy with the state of writing by other on RPG, board games, etc. when you started G*M*S magazine.  Where were other folks doing wrong that you are doing right?

Paco Garcia Jaen: The thing that bugs me is how people make do with amateurish work and pay no attention to detail or make an effort to produce outstanding material. That applies to a lot of blogs and also publishers' websites. With the incredible amount of resources the Internet can produce today, I feel there's no excuse to create a badly designed product. A few hours of Internet browsing will give you all the ideas you need to turn a manuscript into a decent looking document.

We live in a visual world and companies spend a lot of money creating the right visuals for a reason: it works and they have to stand out because that's the way to get one up over the competition. Now, I don't expect people who write as a hobby to either become proficient in graphic design or spend a lot of money to make their blog look amazing; that would be too much to expect. However I do expect people to look at their website and do some sort of semi-objective assessment of its looks and feel. Also to look at other, good looking sites, and get ideas and inspiration from them. That doesn't happen anywhere near often enough.

The second thing that bugs me a lot about reviewers and reviews is when people give unsubstantiated opinions. I read very, very often "This game is very bad because it didn't do what I wanted it to do". Some reviewers write their reviews without any objective or constructive criticism and that is a blight, as far as I'm concerned. A blight that hurts the hobby a great deal. And it hurts companies too.

When we write a review and people read them, those reviews help make a decision of buying or not buying. If people decide not to buy because of a badly written and badly thought-out review, that review is doing both the reader and the companies a disservice.

Dr. Wictz: You have a large staff of writers.  How did you recruit them?

Paco Garcia Jaen: I must admit I have been blessed with a wonderful number of people who contribute wonderful material to my site and I can't be grateful enough to them. I am seriously lucky! Finding them, though, has had its ups and downs and it hasn't been easy either!

I firstly started to find reviewers by reading reviews. I would go to the Boardgamegeek, or similar sites, read reviews and, if I liked them, I'd contact the author and I asked permission to republish. Some said yes and some said no. I kept track of people who said yes and asked again when they produced another review. It hasn't always worked out and people come and go, though I can't say I've ever had a problem with any of my contributors, they're fantastic people.

One thing I've always made very clear is that my website doesn't make any money and I can't afford to pay. The little money that comes in every year through some advertising goes to pay for the hosting of both the website and the podcast. If there is any left, it's spent in equipment. This means I never make any demands from anyone. People produce what they want, when they want to. If that is one review a month, great. If it is a review every two months, great. If it is 10 reviews a week, like the incredible Endzeitgeist does sometimes, great! Sometimes I manage to get them some things, like PDF books, sometimes physical books or games - I must admit it doesn't happen as often as I'd like!

Dr. Wictz: With so many writers how do you manage all of the diverse topics you talk about?

Paco Garcia Jaen: As for how I manage, the truth is that I don't. I trust the contributors I deal with completely. They are extremely professional, honest and knowledgeable and I don't feel I have to be on top of them to make sure the content is up to scratch. I read what they produce and, from time to time, do very minor edits - typos, spell checking, that sort of thing - but overall they know what they're doing and I trust them to do it the best they can.

Dr. Wictz: What do you think is the future of board game media?

Paco Garcia Jaen: If with board game media you mean board games themselves, I think we're about to see a few very interesting stuff. Firstly we'll see a huge increase in offer and demand - thanks in no small part to Kickstarter and Crowd Funding. Creating miniatures is easier, printing is easier, reaching an audience is easier, self-publishing is easier... I'm not saying it's easy, just that it is easier than it was 15 or 20 years ago.

We will see a lot of attempts to incorporate tablets into gaming. Some will be more or less successful, but I doubt there'll be a revolution in that area until we get really big tables that can act as boards. I know there are a few, but they're expensive and not many applications for them, so that won't happen for a while.

If with media you mean TV, websites, magazines... We'll also see a lot of new stuff, but with different formulas. Tabletop has set a really good frame and formula for what a TV series could work and look like. They understand there is not enough money within the industry itself to pay in advance for the advertising and they have found a different way to make money that benefits them, the games and the viewers.  Eventually a TV station will take on the idea and they'll run with it.

We will also continue to see the popularity of podcasts and blogs grow. There will be a lot of them coming and going. The good ones will stay and the bad ones will go. Some good ones will go because of difficulties or simply the people behind them get tired, and some bad ones will remain because the people behind them will be determined and passionate. Kind of like any media today, really! :)

Dr. Wictz: I heard you first got into RPG games, any particular favorite?

Paco Garcia Jaen: Well, Dragonlance will always have a very special place in my heart because that game helped me out through some very, very difficult times. Dark Sun was a bit of a revelation for me at the time because it had an incredible art direction and the setting was just wonderful.

Dr. Wictz: What drew you into hobby board games?  What is your favorite hobby game?

Paco Garcia Jaen: The thing that got me hooked to boardgames was the realisation a few years ago that they're actually pretty good! We only had Monopoly and that sort of games when I was growing up and, as you can imagine, they're not the best game to grow up with, I ended up disliking sitting around a table with my family. Then RPGs took over and I didn't feel the need to look for anything else. Also I lived in a very small-minded town in the south of Spain and we didn't have any games shops outside toy shops... not great.

Then I discovered the likes of Carcassonne and Battlestar Galactica and that was it for me! As for a favorite, I'd probably keep either Alien Frontiers or Fleet. Having said that, if I ever had to choose just one favorite game, I would probably have a nervous breakdown! :)

Dr. Wictz: What single article or video do you recommend to a new G*M*S Magazine reader?

Paco Garcia Jaen: That's a very tough one! "Going Cardboard" ( by the wonderful Lorien Green is a terrific documentaries about Boardgames. Really worth watching. For RPGs there's a documentary currently on production after a successful funding on Kickstarter that will be worth watching. Until then, choosing just one article or video is much too difficult! :)

Dr. Wictz: Who is your favorite interviewee?

Paco Garcia Jaen: Now you put me under the spotlight! LOL I would have to say Margaret Weiss. She was wonderfully gracious and generous with her time and her honesty. A truly charismatic woman who produced some work that helped save my life - quite literally - so I'll always have a special place for her.

Dr. Wictz: Which board game designer have you always wanted to interview?

Paco Garcia Jaen: That is another difficult question to answer. I'd love to interview Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, but, for obvious reasons, I can't. Reiner Knizia is a good one and I'll have the chance to host a panel with him at the UK Games Expo, so that'll come. And the reason why I am looking forward to it is because I am curious about his thought pattern and ability to keep creating without getting bored or producing the same time and time again. I think he's quite a remarkable man!

Dr. Wictz: I really enjoy your Unboxxing the Game videos.  What inspired the segment?  What are the best and worst games you have unboxxed?

Paco Garcia Jaen: Why thank you sir! One thing about boardgames is that it's very difficult to actually see what you're buying. More often than not it's almost impossible to see what's inside the box other than in photos, so disappointments do happen because, like it or not, we prefer to have good quality things.

However what inspired it was a good experience! Pelgrane Press is one of my darling RPG companies and they produced a limited edition of Bookhounds of London, for their Trail of Cthulhu Game. I paid for it before I even asked what was going to be in it. When I received it, the whole thing was so absolutely fantastic that I just had to show the world, so took my hand camera and asked a colleague to record me opening the bag and showing what was inside. I got very good feedback from that video and decided to do it again with Therion 011 and Cave Evil. Then my partner got involved because he likes to do video editing and, a few thousand pounds in equipment and two and a bit years later we're still making them!

Dr. Wictz: If I wanted you to review my game what should I do?

Paco Garcia Jaen:  If anyone wants me to review a game, they just have to say hello and we'll get talking. We do have some requirements for reviewing games, though. For example I don't review PDFs - or do it very rarely - or print and play board games. This is not because I have anything against them - at all - but because when I review games I do taking into account the production value as well as the game value.

In terms of RPGs, I get a ton of PDFs pretty much every day and I just can't deal with them all. I am a bit dyslexic and a slow reader at best, so dealing with a lot of PDFs is an impossibility. So I prioritise the companies that send or give me physical products because they've invested money in giving me something to review.

Dr. Wictz: What is the best way to reach you?

Paco Garcia Jaen: The best way is probably Twitter. I try to be very active and communicate with anyone who says hello. Facebook and Google+ are also good places I keep up with as often as I can.

Dr. Wictz:  Thank you again to Paco Garcia Jaen for letting me interview him.  You can follow G*M*S magazine on twitter @gmsmagazine, facebook, and google+.  G*M*S Magazine can be found at