Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Dr. Wictz List: 9 Board Game Prototype Problems

In light of the success of early access in video games, I wondered if board game players are willing to pay to play a board game before it has been finished.  To give you an idea of the joys of playing a brand new, untested game that has yet to be tested by anyone (including the designer), I have constructed a list of common experiences for a first prototype play testing.

1.  The rule book has rules that contradict each other.

2.  There isn’t enough physical money for players to play the game.

3.  There are parts included for the game that are not mentioned or explained why they are there.

4.  The game designers tells you to ignore a rule of the game when it becomes inconvenient.

5.  Play testers discover the game is either unwinnable or is decided after two moves.

6.  The game pieces, board, and anything else glued together becomes unglued.

7.  The spaces on the board are too small for the pieces.

8.  There is no standard iconography, and the rules miss some of the icons.

9.  There is a disagreement between players on what constitutes “winning the game.”

If this calls to you, I am sure we can arrange to build you an untested game to share these moments with you, for a price of course, say $50.00.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Game Design Philosophy: Iterative Design

Last Game Design Philosophy lecture I used the Controlling idea to craft the XYZ’s of Olympic Snowboard Cross.  Even though I have a core concept, the game is far from ready for prototyping, because I have yet to test the XYZ to make sure the game actually works.  

To put my ideas to the test I use the process of iterative design.  In iterative design new versions of the game are created one after the other. During the iterative design process I take the first stabs at balancing the game, making sure the game is not broken, discovering if the game is fun to play, and making sure the game flows from one moment to the next.  Problems arise and problems are solved with each version of the game.  

To give you a better idea on how the iterative design stage works, I am going to walk you through some of the iterative designs I have gone through with Olympic Snowboard Cross.

In my first iteration of Olympic Snowboard Cross I wanted to hew closely to the original theme. I decided the game should consist of several heats of elimination that lead to the final race to the podium. Each player was to control six racers from a country, and each racer would give a player five dice to make it through 7 jumps in a heat. This meant the more racers you had in a race the more dice you could roll and allocate to your team. The more races you are able to move on to a later heat the better chance you had of getting to the podium.

In this iteration the way to seed heats changed depending on the number of players.  I discovered that the seeding processes lengthened what should be a fast dice game.  Even worse, while I liked the idea of sharing dice among multiple racers, I learned the amount of dice needed was quite large and players had to spend most of their time competing bureaucratic tasks for setup instead of playing the game.

It was time to change the game. To do this I looked to solve the problems of the first iteration, while keeping the aspects I liked. Continuing the irritate process I began working on the second version of the game.

To guide this process I went back to my controlling idea, the experience of Snowboard Cross. What I have discovered is that my Controlling idea itself is too vague. What I care about is not replicating Snowboard Cross, but the racing experience of Snowboard Cross. An experience that dynamic, fast, has twisted turns of fate where first place can fall to last. Where people get too aggressive and wipeout taking others with them.  This narrowing focus of my controlling idea allows me to change the theme of the game to make the experience stronger.
I want to remove the bureaucratic elements of the Olympics, and focus on the race. To that end I changed the theme to underground street racing. Instead of multiple heats, the game will depict one race on one track. Each player will have three racers in the race and will position themselves around turns to come out ahead without crashing.
Having changed the theme and controlling idea I then turned to the mechanics. The main element in this game is throwing dice, and I wanted to strike a balance between the amount of dice needed vs. the number of turns the race contains. Because I liked a player having to split the dice between their racers I need a good amount of dice, but also feel short on dice so they will want to hit the target number and gain some back. After a few iterations I settle on 15 dice and seven turns. Obviously this is more art than science, and a number that will need to be heavily playtested, but I now feel that I’m in the right ballpark.  

This process continues as I get more detailed with the game, the changes will keep coming as problems are solved on how to handle things like movement and crashes. This is the essence of iterative design, nothing is sacred, and all changes are made to serve the Controlling idea, enhance and simplify the X,Y, and Z’s. It is true that all of these issues would have come out during playtesting, but in the last few hours I just saved myself what could be weeks worth of work building, playing, rebuilding, playing and rebuilding again. So now that this is done, there's one last step I need to take before I’m ready to unleash it upon the world. I need to put it on paper.

*Thank you to Michale Karg (@michaelkarg on twitter) for correcting/pointing out that I meant "iterative" and not "irritative" design.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rule Writing Tip: Cross Referencing

I discovered the importance of cross referencing while running a blind play test of a game for a fellow designer.

What do I mean by cross referencing?

If you are undertaking an action that has a constraint on it elsewhere in the rulebook, you need to cross reference the section that talks about the constraint while you explain the action.  For example, imagine a board game where you are only allowed to take three action movement in a round.  This constraint is started at the very start of the rule explanation under the title Action Movement Constraint.  Now imagine you have a section of the rules on how to execute the different actions.  Say one of the actions you can do is pick an apple.  A cross reference will say that the picking an apple action counts as one of the three action movements mentioned at the start of the rule book under the heading Action Movement Constraint.  If there was no mention in the section that picking an apple cost one of your three actions in the pick the apple section, then there is no cross reference.

Why is cross referencing Important?

What I observed in the blind playtest is if there was no cross reference to a constraint on an action said elsewhere in the rule book, players learning the game assumed away the constraint.

Take a trucking game with a trailer component.  The trailer has little squares where you place the cargo it can carry.  Assume that the rules mention that each space can only hold one cargo in the game component section.   However, assume a page or two latter there is a section on loading the truck.  If the section on loading the truck does not cross reference the earlier mention that the truck only has room for one cargo in each space, then some players will not recall that was mentioned earlier in the rules and will be unclear on how many goods a truck can carry.

I observed in the blind playtesting that even when players were lucky enough to connect the dots without the rule being cross referenced, there was a large delay in learning the game.  The players had to pause, think, and flip back in the rule book to the section they thought they remembered had the important rule.

Cross referencing in board game rules gets rid of that down time for lucky players and prevents other players from leaving a rule out all together.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Game Design Philosophy: Translating The Controlling Idea Into Theme and Mechanics

Game Design Philosophy: Translating The Controlling idea into theme and mechanics.

At the base of any game is a simple structure.*

Every turn players do X, so that they can sometimes do Y, which eventually achieves Z (usually winning the game).

examples can be simple.

X= move a piece
Y= Capture pieces
Z = Capture King

Or more complex with multiple X's and Y's.

Sid Meier's Civilization: the Board Game (2010)
X= Build Technology buildings -OR- Build culture buildings -OR- Raise Armies -OR- Seek gold
Y= Gain technology -OR- Move up the culture track -OR- Attack enemies -OR- Get gold
Z = Get 15 technology -OR- Reach the end of the culture track -OR- Take another persons capital -OR- gain 15 gold

When designing a game it's very important to remember that every time you give players a new X, you have to have a corresponding Y and Z. It's too easy for designers to create many X's and leave out the rest, or design an exiting Y with no way to build to a Z.

I will use this structure as a guidepost to turn the controlling idea of Snowboard cross into something resembling a game.

The X, Y, and Z of Snowboard Cross

This stage is the where the first thoughts start to jell. During this phase I am looking at the controlling idea, theme, mechanics, and seeing how to best to translate it into an X, Y, and Z.

The controlling idea I want to capture the most is the element of risk vs. reward in the jumps. I noticed that when a snowboarder lands a jump poorly they stall, when aggressively they gain speed but become unstable, when they land it perfectly they don't immediately move forward, but gain momentum into the next jump.

X= roll dice

The basic mechanic then is a dice rolling push your luck game, where players use and loose dice to make jumps, but need to last through several jumps.

Y= gain dice

Each jump will have a target number, and players will use the result of a number of dice to make the number. If they choose an amount below, the player will slow, if above they will speed up, but if they have the exact amount they get a die back. To make gaining dice meaningful the player does not start out with enough dice to complete all the jumps.

Z= pull ahead

If a player tries to conserve too many dice they will slow down and their racer will drop out, and if they are too aggressive and go too fast they will crash, potentially taking others out with them. A player will need to use timing and luck to stay in the race.

This is far from over, and next time I’ll go into the refinement of this idea.

*As with any creative formula it can be broken. But to break it you need to understand it, and know how breaking it will benefit what you are trying to achieve.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Faculty Lounge: Roger Hicks of Today in Board Games

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 first stumbled upon Today in Board Games when I noticed an uptick in readers being directed to the Dr. Wictz blog from its website.  Out of curiosity I went to the web site and pleasantly discovered that someone was organizing daily board game blog posts links into an easy to skim format.  Since that day I have been a regular reader of Today in Board Games, but I have always remained curious about the motivation and the folks behind the site.  Luckily, I convinced Roger Hicks, founder of Today in Board Games to stop by the faculty lounge and talk about his site.

Dr. Wictz: Roger, can you give a quick overview of Today in Board Games for someone for familiar with it?

Roger Hicks: Sure.  Today in Board Games offers a thrice weekly curated newsletter featuring links to the latest news, Kickstarter projects, articles, and giveaways.  We also have a regular podcast featuring interviews with influential members of the gaming community.  To round out our offerings we have a team of reviewers and article writers that provide regular original content on the Today in Board Games blog

Today in Board Games strives to be an organized source for gaming information. The goal is to immediately connect gamers with the latest items that are most relevant and interesting to them - from publisher announcements, to game reviews, from deals and giveaways to behind the scenes interviews and previews.

Dr. Wictz: how did you come up with the name Today in Board Games?

Roger Hicks: I honestly think it was the first name that popped into my head.  Today in Board Games started with the idea for the newsletter (which was originally published 5 days a week instead of 3), so when the name "Today in Board Games" came to mind and I saw the .com domain was free I jumped on it.

Dr. Wictz: What inspired you to create the format for your newsletter series?

Roger Hicks: I've long participated in the tabletop gaming world. From 2001 to 2006 I operated and (both now defunct) a store and online trading platform for CCGs and TCGs.  In 2006 I opened which is still in operation and provides a place to play pen & paper RPGs via forum posting.  In the past few years my interests have shifted more toward hobby board gaming so I knew I wanted to start a new project that more closely related to my current focus.

I started getting more involved by subscribing to several dozen board gaming blogs and podcasts.  Last summer (2013) I started which I intended to be a daily blog about game design.  In an effort to come up with enough content to fill each week I decided to do a weekly "top posts" column where I linked to the best game design articles from the previous week. The idea of posting daily content soon fell by the wayside but the idea of assembling a regular curated set of links stuck.  I opened Today in Board Games and shifted gears to focus on collecting and sorting through all the gaming information I could find to publish on a regular basis.

The first issue of the Today in Board Games newsletter went out on July 15, 2013 to just 15 subscribers. Today (165 issues later) each issue reaches about 2,500 gamers.

Dr. Wictz: How do you keep track of all the blogs/podcasts you cover in your newsletter?

Roger Hicks: The secret is  I'm subscribed to over 600 RSS feeds of various gaming blogs, publisher websites, youtube channels, etc.  Each day I sort through several hundred new posts - categorizing them and picking out the best for inclusion in the next newsletter.  I set up some automation with Google Spreadsheets and If This Then That ( so it's not quite as daunting as it sounds.  I used to read every article but unfortunately due to volume I have to skim through most and be more selective in what I read now.

Dr. Wictz: The newsletter comes out 3 times a week, where do you find the time to reliably put it together and get it out the door?

Roger Hicks: Time travel. No, seriously - it only takes me an hour or two a day to put everything together thanks to the automation.  I used to do everything manually and that took quite a bit more time! Since the newsletter issues are only one piece of TiBG, I did hire a Virtual Assistant to give me a hand getting everything done - so many thanks to Diana who republishes each newsletter to the Today in Board Games blog and to Board Game Geek. I also want to thank Charlie, Michelle, and Chris who handle all the review requests we receive and publish great articles and reviews to the Today in Board Games blog.

Dr. Wictz: What do you look for in a blog/podcast to include it in the newsletter?

Roger Hicks: I'm not picky. I think everyone who takes the time to create a blog or podcast probably has some good things to contribute.  The only requirements for inclusion on my list are:

1) You have to have an RSS feed that is focused primarily on tabletop game content.
2) I try to keep things PG / PG-13 rated, so I don't include sites that are designed to be offensive.

Once your site is on the list then each of your future articles will be considered for publication in the newsletter. Typically, any article that has broad appeal to readers will be included.

Dr. Wictz: How does a blog/podcast catch your attention?

Roger Hicks: I used to go hunting for websites to include in the newsletter.  I still add new sites all the time as I stumble across them.  It seems there are still a lot of good sites not on my list though because I learn of new ones almost every week.  If you would like to have your site included just drop me an e-mail (

Dr. Wictz: After reading/viewing so many blogs/podcasts, which one is your favorite (beside mine of course) no seriously, which ones are your favorite, no offense is taken if it isn't Dr. Wictz.

Roger Hicks: It's tough to pick a favorite because I'm always finding new and interesting articles across a wide variety of sites.  I'm fascinated with Kickstarter so I enjoy almost everything Jamey Stegmaier publishes at  Inquisitive Meeple has become a new favorite with their regular interviews.  Of course, the Dice Tower has me hooked for game reviews and their various podcasts.  Other mentions also include I Slay the Dragon and League of Gamemakers - though I feel like I'm leaving quite a few out.

Yes, Dr. Wictz is one of my faves too! I've really been enjoying your Faculty Lounge series - lots of sites do interviews with game designers and publishers, but I haven't seen many interviews focused on bloggers and podcasters! I really enjoy reading interviews because I like getting to know people.

Dr. Wictz: Is there a board game designer/blogger/podcaster you want to have as a guest blogger?

Roger Hicks: Uh....Aaron and Austin from Dr. Wictz Board Games?  I know that's a cop-out answer, but really I'd be glad to have you.

One of the things I love about the board gaming hobby is how down to earth everyone is.  Even the "mega-stars" (haha) are friendly folks that are happy to sit down and play a game with just about anyone.  There's a lot of diversity in board gaming - gamers come from all walks of life.  So I'm honestly quite fascinated to hear most everyone's stories and opinions on games.  I don't know if I'd feature everyone as a guest-blogger (as good writing isn't everyone's specialty) but I do think everyone has something good to contribute to the hobby.

Dr. Wictz: What do you foresee as the future of board game media?

Roger Hicks: Specialization.  Right now the major media platforms for board games are fairly broad-based - miniature games, abstracts, wargames, euros, a huge variety of themes, mechanics, publishers, and weights all jumbled into one.  I foresee a future where gamers can get just the info that's most relevant to them and the types and styles of games they play.

That's where we are trying to go with Today in Board Games next.  Instead of getting a newsletter with links to 100 items that you have to sort through to find what interest you we are hoping to deliver a tailor-made experience providing each reader customized list of the top items that will interest them each day.

Dr. Wictz: Do you feel like board game media is becoming more competitive?  Is there someone out there who you feel is a competitor to "Today in Board Games?"

Roger Hicks: There are a number of great news sites out there.  I don't tend to think of others as competition, since everyone offers something different.  I like the term "coop-etition", because I like working with others in gaming media rather than against each other.  Lots of sites offer gaming journalism in various forms that I would recommend as highly as Today in Board Games: The Dice Tower News podcast gives you small audio bits 3 times a week.  I contribute a segment, but real props go to Joseph Fisher, Paul Owen and Elliott Miller who put the time and effort in to make it all happen.  The Dice Tower and Cool Stuff also have a news website coming soon coordinated by Rob Searing.  Other great media outlets include Cardboard Edison (for designers), Game Bugle, Purple Pawn, and of course the BGG News.  That's not counting the many smaller blogs that do regular news updates as well!

The nice thing about so many options is the variety it offers. Not everyone will like the format of the Today in Board Game newsletter - which is OK! Find what you do like because there are so many great ways to keep up with this hobby.

Dr. Wictz:  Before we go I want to know if you were to introduce someone to your blog and you could only have them read a single entry, which entry would you have them read?

Roger Hicks: Well, as I mentioned - Michelle, Charlie, and Chris post a great articles and reviews, any of which I would be happy to recommend.  However, if folks were limited to one page I'd suggest they visit our contest page - because we are usually giving away some great games.  I think we run more giveaways than any other board game site (with the possible exception of BGG). Many thanks to the awesome publishers who have partnered with us to make that happen!

Dr. Wictz: Thank you Roger for hanging out in the faculty lounge with me today.  If you want to learn more about Today in Board Games you can visit where you can subscribe to its newsletter either by RSS or E-Mail.  

Roger Hicks: And don’t forget that if audio is your thing check out the Today in Board Game Week in Review podcast on either ITunes or Stitcher Radio.

Dr. Wictz: Today in Board Games can also be found on twitter @BoardGamesToday and on facebook.