Friday, April 25, 2014

Game Design Philosophy: Avoiding the trap of Theme Vs. Mechanics

Do I like Ticket to Ride because it is a set collection game with an important timing element to remain efficient? Or do I like it because I am building an epic rail system over the Continental USA? It's both, and I can't see myself doing one without the other. And if one changes, then there is no way you can convince me I am playing the same game.

What we see in a good game is the seamless blending of theme and mechanics. Not all games do this, (Despite all its goodness, Dominion comes to mind) but once again what we are aiming for is a good game. Having a well executed game can be very good, having a controlling idea coming through will make that game even better.

But first we need to clear up the concept of 'Theme Vs. Mechanics.' Like the Yin and Yang symbol one is inexorably tied to the other. One should think about it as 'Theme and Mechanics.'

Theme is what you are doing in a game.
Mechanics is what you do in the game.*

What makes this formula difficult is that people have a tendency to approach it from one side or the other. They come up with a good mechanic or a twist on a current mechanic, but then are left scrambling to find an original theme. Or, like in my case many, (many, many, many) years ago, I came up with a very detailed world for a game, but could never place a mechanic with it (currently on the 5th attempt).

The way out of this trap is having the controlling idea bind the two elements together. The controlling idea is the nub that the designer will keep returning to see if the game they are building matches what they are attempting to create. 

The controlling idea still needs to be translated into theme and mechanics. Put another way, the experience of the Controlling idea needs to carry over, but everything else can change.

For example, the controlling idea for Post Position is for players to have the experience as a day trader on wall street. But look back at my description of the game. Players are members of the mob betting on a horse race. That's a long way away from trading stocks on wall street. But at it's core players are buying and selling (all with a lot of insider information) on items that have an un-programed fluctuating value in a trading floor environment. As long as the game contains those elements (and they still do) then I consider the resulting design to be true to the controlling idea and a success.

At any point during the design process as the theme and mechanics are developing side by side, the easiest way to keep those elements in line and working together is by referring back to the Controlling Idea. Next time we'll look at the translation process of the Controlling Idea into theme and mechanics.

*I am not discounting Abstract games. In an abstract game the theme and mechanics are exactly the same, what I am doing is what I do. I do not have the mindset to pull that off, but I applaud those who do.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Dr. Wictz List: 8 Ways to Annoy Someone in a Board Game

Have you been playing too many board games with your friends, but you cannot just tell them no when they invite you to board game night?  Well, don’t you fear, Dr. Wictz (and whoever else adds more in the comments section) is here with a list of ways to annoy your board game playing friends that will make sure you are never again invited back to board game night.

1. Add a marble to Hungry Hungry Hippos that no Hippo can swallow.

2. Lie when someone hits (or misses) your battleship in Battleship.

3. Ask if anyone wants to play war, and if they say yes, sign them up for the military?

4. Spend the entire game of clue going between the Lounge and Conservatory accusing the same player that they used the candlestick the entire game.

5. In Stratego wall off all of your entrances with bombs, and taunt your opponent by moving your 9’s diagonally.

6. Refuse to make any word longer than two letters in Scrabble.

7. When you are the dispatcher in Pandemic, spend all of your moves moving your teammates away from where they need to be on the board.

8. As a werewolf, go rouge and out all the other werewolves in Werewolf.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Conversation on Trade Mechanic in Board Games

Michael Keller of Visible Hand Games and 1/2 of Dr. Wictz got together to talk about the market mechanism in my game Post Position and his game Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice. 

We get into details on what you need to do to balance a board game centered on players trading.  You can listen to the interview on Michael Keller's Blog Game Designer Wannabe.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Game Design Philosophy: The Controlling Idea

This is a series of articles on the philosophy of board game design, thinking about how to think about game design.

We all want to create good games. No-one goes into designing a game saying they want to create a poor game. A good game is defined as other people wanting to play, numerous times. Following that, we have to ask ourselves the following two questions.
What makes a good game? And how do I make a game good?

To answer that first question, I have spent the last several articles looking at classic games that are good. The elements called out in these articles are what I believe to be elements of good game design. Player choices with strategic impact, players interacting with each other in meaningful and unique ways, and allowing the players to play the game, opposed to the game playing the players. The elements may be simple but this question is more difficult because many times, for the payer the answer is simply, "if it's fun."

The second question is a lot more complicated because the act of creation can travel an infinite number of paths. We know the process of making a game. Build it, play test it, tweak it, then repeat until it is unable to be tweaked. This series of articles focuses on the process of creation that comes before the 'build it' phase of a game. What designers can do to make that first build of the game require fewer subsequent tweaks, and much closer to their vision then jumping right into the building phase.

The first element, the major element, around any board game is the controlling idea. This concept is taken from other forms of experiential mediums (books, movies, plays, video-games, ect). Each medium has it's own emphasis revolving around the controlling idea. For example, in a book there is a central thought that permeates throughout the book. In a piece of art, the artist is conveying something specific to the audience. A board game’s controlling idea is the experience that the designer wishes to impart onto the player.

When I think up a controlling idea, I think about an experience that would be fun if I could participate.  I distill what about that situation I find most enjoyable and work to impart onto the players this experience during gameplay.  This experience is the controlling idea I keep in mind while creating the game because that experience is the nub of my design.  I will repeatedly return to it during the creative process to shape the rest of the game.

When I look for inspiration for a board game, I look at the world around me and find that things that people do not normally get to do, but would be fun if they could. For example, during the Winter Olympics I watched the finals of an event called Snowboard Cross. Six snowboards race a course of jumps and obstacles against each other trying to be in the top three to move onto the next round, and eventually the podium. It's dynamic, fast,  and it has twisted turns of fate where first place can fall to last. Where people get too aggressive and wipeout taking others with them. You have to be good to win, but need to have some luck to come out on top.

Over the rest of this series I'll go into how I take that controlling idea of a Snowboard Cross experience, and move it into a prototype. Next time, the Yin and Yang of Theme and Mechanics.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Classic Lecture Series - Retrospective

The Classic Lecture Series is about great game mechanics in older board games.  Each lecture highlights a specific mechanic/concept and talks about what makes that mechanic great.  Below is a link to each article in the series with a one sentence summary about its topic.


Introduction - Learning to Think Ahead - Tic Tac Toe, Checkers, and Connect Four
The Introduction explains the goal of the lecture series and how simple games, like Tic Tac Toe, teach new players to strategically think ahead.

Game Etiquette - Candy Land
Game Etiquette highlights the importance of using a simple game like Candy Land to teach proper behavior to board game players.

Dxterity - Hungry Hungry Hippos, Pick Up Sticks, and Janga
Dxterity explores what are the benefits for designing a game with a dexterity mechanic.

Telling a Story - The Game of Life and Clue
Telling a Story emphasises that board games are an opportunity for the players to create a story to share with each other .

Moves That Mess With Your Opponents - Sorry
Moves That Mess With Your Opponents points out how interaction with players comes from both corporation and by hindering other players from being able to succeed.

 Secrete Information - Clue (Most Read)
Secrete Information breaks down the three central questions that must be answered in a game that uses a secrete information mechanic.

Hand Management -UNO
Hand Management explains how card games, like UNO, is really a combination of multiple mechanics.

Communicating With a Partner Through Game Play - Euchre
Communicating With a Partner Through Game Play highlights how players can interact by working together through just their actions taking place within the game.

Real Time with Simultaneous Moves - Soccer, Speed, & Boggle (2nd Most Read)
Real Time with Simultaneous Moves demonstrates how to use the mechanic to create tension and relief within a board game.

Negotiations - Risk
Negotiations lists the ways that negotiation mechanics alters a board game.

Conclusion - Diplomacy
In the Conclusion I explain how and why the topics for the Classics Lecture Series originate from the game Diplomacy.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Classics Lecture Series: Conclusion - Diplomacy

We have discovered, as I argued in the first lecture, that even as Alpha gamers, we can look back at “old standards” and discover they do not have inferior mechanics.  Instead, they contain the mechanics that we rely upon today for the great games in our board game Renaissance.

What you may not realize is that I was not teaching you about great old mechanics just so we can play one of the games from the Board Game Renaissance.  Instead, I have quietly been subverting your defenses to draw you to a game that was around when Avalon Hill was still in business.

From the get go, I have been listing all the mechanics that drive the game Diplomacy.  That’s right, I used Candy Land to trick you to play Diplomacy with me.  Without practicing good play etiquette prior to playing Diplomacy, there was no guarantee you would still talk to me after we play Diplomacy.

Diplomacy is not a bland game where we just roll a bunch of dice.  Diplomacy is a game, like Life, where we collectively tell a story about our rise and fall as great leaders. Where brilliant negotiators actively mess with other players heads before crushing their armies on the board.

Each turn is tense.  Tense because each player has secrete information.  Tense because you only have so much time to negotiate with all the other players what you are going to do.  Tense because you have a hand of units to manage, each must move at the same time, and often in precise coordination with other units outside of your control, or your plans will fail.

You must look at the board before you submit your final orders and decide if you need to keep building trust or if the time has come to mess with your opponents.  You will be eyeing the board, thinking ahead of your next move, and eyeing to see what other players are communicating to you with their own game moves. What one says and what one does can be very different, and you have to decide at that moment who you trust.

And after all of that tension.  All of that thought.  After committing to paper your irreversible decisions, you become a pawn to fate as each player reveals their orders.

Why do I want you to play Diplomacy?

I want you to play diplomacy because I want you to acquire the skill to emulate the mechanics that make Diplomacy a great game and for you to learn from it how to engage me on how I can design a great game.

Diplomacy is an example of great game design. I want to make great games; and through Diplomacy I understand that great games are based on tension, strategy, interaction, and thinking in new ways.  In Diplomacy players achieve complicated outcomes with simple mechanics.  The game comes from people playing each other, not the game playing people.    Good mechanics are used in Diplomacy to reinforce other good mechanics.

Diplomacy is not the last great game.  Nor is this discussion about Diplomacy the last word on how to make a great game.  Quite the contrary, this discussion on what makes Diplomacy great invites a longer conversation about what can still be done to create a great game.