Thursday, July 3, 2014

Faculty Lounge: Oliver Kiley of Big Game Theory

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 stumbled upon Oliver Kiley’s blog Big Game Theory after Gil Hova (@gilhova) shared Oliver’s post on the “Schools of Design and Their Core Priorities (  Right away I was impressed by the thought and depth Oliver put in his posts and I am happy he was able to stop by and talk with me about his blog.

Dr. Wictz: Thank you Oliver for coming by the faculty lounge, before we get started could you provide a quick rundown about your blog Big Game Theory.

Oliver Kiley: Big Game Theory! is a blog I started on BoardGameGeek (BGG) late in 2011, with the tagline "Musings on games, design, and the theory of everything."  Big picture: I'm interested in discussing boardgames AND boardgame design in a more academic sense.  Much of the blog's content is about building a framework for how we can better understand boardgames, the player's that player them, and experience that results.

Dr. Wictz: What motivated you to start Big Game Theory?

Oliver Kiley: I joined BGG in 2010 and kept coming across interesting articles or discussion threads that debated topics like the classification of games, lists of types of mechanics, different ways player interaction manifested, etc.  Some of this was general discussion from a "player's" standpoint, and some of it was coming from a designer's perspective. 

As a player AND a designer, I thought it would be great to pull all these fascinating threads together and discuss the topics more directly through a blog.  Nate Straight's BGG blog Straight Talk on Strategy Gaming ( was one my big inspirations that made me think, "I can do this too!"

I love knowledge building efforts, and across all of these discussions I felt that so many of them degenerated into arguments about semantics and language.  If my blog could play a role in better clarifying the language we use when talking about boardgames, then I felt I could make a contribution to advancing the quality of the discussions.

Dr. Wictz: How did you come up with Big Game Theory as the name of your blog?  Were there any other contenders?

Oliver Kiley: I knew I wanted a fun, pithy name for the blog.  The content was "serious stuff" but I didn't want to take the whole thing too seriously either, if you know what I mean.  I wanted to keep the atmosphere open and friendly, despite the relative heaviness of the content. 

Sadly, there were no other name contenders (at least nothing I can recall).  It was all just really bad, dry, or boring potential names, and I actually held off starting the blog because I couldn't come up with a name I liked!  

Eventually, I struck on the idea of Big Game Theory! as a name, since the blog was going to be about a lot of theorizing and conjecture and the play on the Big Bang Theory made sense in that regard.  I'm a sucker for bad puns, but it makes for a recognizable name (I think).  I also love science and science-fiction, particularly theoretical physics and space operas (respectively), so the name was perfect from that standpoint too.

Dr, Wictz: You recently created a website separate from boardgamegeek and mentioned in a blog post that you hope the website will help you broaden your audience beyond board gamers to other types of gamers, like video.  Why the urge to branch beyond board gamers?

Oliver Kiley: Good question.  I've played tabletop games of one sort or another throughout my entire life, from mass market stuff, to hobby games, to CCG's, to miniature games, etc.  But up until the past 5 years had always played video games (specifically on the PC) significantly more.  A few years ago I got burned out on PC gaming, and like many people wanted more face-to-face interaction with my friends in our gaming.  So I (and my friends) dove far more purposefully into the boardgame hobby.

Fast forward to the present. I'm currently at a moment in life where I'm pressed for time to organize and/or attend boardgame meet-ups. But I still need my fix!  So I've turned my attention back towards video games, but those that are more of the turn-based strategy sort (and hence more analogous to boardgames).  This also includes iOS titles and boardgame ports. 

Regardless, I've always enjoyed talking about video games, so bringing that perspective to the blog seemed like a reasonable fit.  However, with this addition to the scope of the blog, having it only on BGG (predominantly a boardgame audience) seemed like it might alienate non-BGG members and limit the discussion as a result.  Plus, I really wanted to play around with an alternative visual look and feel for the blog and have more personal control over the content. 

I'll continue to cross-post everything in both places.  The discussions that occur on BGG can't be matched and I don't want to jeopardize that at all.

Dr. Wictz: I notice that there are a ton more articles on boardgamegeek, is the long term plan to port all of them to your website?  

Oliver Kiley: Long-term, I'll move all of them over.  It's a bit of a pain as the formatting needs to be reworked, but it's not too terrible.  I'm enjoying the process somewhat though, because it's giving me an opportunity to look back on many of the older posts and reflect on what has been learned, what stuck on the wall, what was not as well-received, etc.  I've been adding commentary to the header of some these older posts as I move them over to document those thoughts.  The posts that generated a lot of discussion and interest I'll typically tweet about when I move it over and see if it restarts the conversation at all.

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

Oliver KIley: One of the earlier posts, "Towards a Science of Boardgames (Part 1)" ( would be the post to read.  It lays the groundwork for game theorizing that much of the rest of the blog digs into in more depth. 

For example, that referenced post had a section on "player interaction" in terms of both team structures and competitiveness.  Both of those topics have been expanded upon and refined in dedicated posts as I've conversed with others.  That post also led to the creation (or pseudo-hijacking) of the Game Genome Project - which is the longer term effort to map and categorize the various attributes of tabletop games.  Here's a reference for that:

Dr. Wictz: I know you are passionate about the classification of board games.  I too am passionate about board game classifications and game play--specifically economic mechanics and genres.  I want to know how you distinguish between the economic genres and economic mechanics?

Oliver Kiley: I should mention two things first.  One: I studied environmental economics as a sub-focus during my graduate studies, so I have some interest and familiarity with economics (I mostly dealt with evaluation of non-market goods and services).   Two: I unfortunately haven't actually played that many "economic" games - given that my main playgroups are not terribly interested in the genre.  So where does that leave your question?

I'm freewheeling here, but my sense is that there are lot of economic-like "mechanics" that are employed in a great number of games.  Auctions, supply-demand tracks, stock holding, bidding, investment, etc.  But these mechanics don't necessarily make the game an "economic game" as a whole.

An economic game (as a genre) might employ those specific mechanics, or it might not.  But principally an economic game would be about modeling (abstractly or realistically) some sort of market dynamic or set of incentive structures.  The only game I feel like I can point to with any knowledge (even though I haven't played it) is Container - which as I understand it results in a player-driven market being created over the course of game.

The discussion following Nate Straight's post on Train Games ( discussed this very notion in more depth - and constitutes the sum of my knowledge and thoughts on economic games.  This is still a nebulous idea to me and needs more thought.

Dr. Wictz: As you might guess, I would call the examples presented as the "supply and demand mechanic" as the  ( as the "supply and demand theme mechanic" because exchange is set by the game and not negotiated between the players.  Why might I be wrong, why might I be right?

Oliver Kiley: Before I answer, I should mention that I LOVE Selwyth's alternative classification / boardgame taxonomy system.  He really put a lot of thought and diligence into it.  Here's the culminating post for reference:
If BGG could adopt that instead of it's totally messy mechanics/categories field things would be a lot clearer for everyone! But I digress....back to the question.

Selwyth's classification and definitions are meant to be taken as literally and directly as possible, if I can speak for Selwyth.  The definition he uses for the "Supply and Demand" mechanic is "The cost of assets become more expensive/cheaper as players buy/sell more of it."  Whether this is used in some other way for some other thematic purpose, or used in an "economic" game more specifically to model/simulate some type of economic behavior is another question.

I'll also mention, that for MANY of the mechanics discussed in that taxonomy, there are probably multiple different variations or sub-classes within it.  One could easily imagine Supply & Demand mechanics that used game-fixed values (e.g. the market in Glen More for example), versus other games where the mechanic has player's setting the prices (Container?  Acquire?).

Dr. Wictz: Are trading, stock, and auction mechanics better suited for Euro or Ameritrash games? 
Oliver Kiley: While some mechanics "tend" to be common with certain genres of games (e.g. consider at all the auction/bidding games among German Family games), I'm of the opinion that mechanics are mechanics, and whether they work or not within a certain genre depends entirely on the specific game being created.  So I would assert that NO mechanics are inherently better or worse suited for ANY genre of games - it all just depends.  How's that for a cop-out answer?!

Dr. Wictz: Is there someone out there--other than me of course-- you wish to talk more about board game classifications?

Oliver Kiley: I read Lewis Pulsipher's blog and have gotten into many heated (but still civil I hope) debates with him about game classification.  While I disagree with a lot of his perspectives (particularly as they relate to the conflation between German and Euro games), I nevertheless come away learning something important from the conversation.  And while I used to disagree with him often, I now find myself agreeing a lot more with what he has to say.  Talking about classification with him in more depth would be illuminating.

Dr. Wictz: You do not review too many games, but you review the ones you do in incredible depth.  Why the deep reviews? 

Oliver Kiley: Why the deeper reviews?  Jesse Dean and QwertyMartin on BGG have both made the call for more in-depth reviews, or perhaps more specifically "critical analysis" of games.  QwertyMartin has launched two "Voice of Experience" contests, asking people to review/critique a game after that have played it many times and go beyond the usual, "hey, this game is fun, you should buy it!" type reviews.  I've been a judge on that contest both times and it inspired me to write more of my own reviews (one has to be able to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, right?).

I'm also slightly saddened that so much of the emphasis on reviews has shifted towards non-written media (podcasts and video reviews).  Those can be great for people, but love reading a well constructed analysis of a game and those seem to be fewer and farther between as the years go by.  So if I can write a few reviews to help stem the tide, I will.

Dr. Wictz: How do you select which game to review?

Oliver Kiley: If I'm going to write a longer review (really I'm writing "critical analysis" because I'm directing the writing towards a buy / not-buy decision), then it's typically for games where I feel like there is something important to say that hasn't already been said.  With the Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers review I wanted to speak to the layering of depth that comes out of playing a game a lot with the same person.  For Ginkgopolis, I think the game has been largely underappreciated and the review was a chance to talk about the high points of the game and provide some insight on it's theme.

In summary, I'll write reviews about games I'm excited about and where I think there is something important to uncover or reveal about the game.  I also strive to put the game in the context of the time when it was made and the time when I played it.  Those are important parts of good review writing and critical analysis.

Dr. Wictz: What is your favorite type of board game?

Oliver Kiley: I like games with big open decision spaces, a lot of room for direct player interaction, where spatial positioning matters, and where the gameplay is player-driven (politicking welcome) and emergent.  Some of my favorites in this regard are Tigris & Euphrates, Illuminati (yes the old Steve Jackson), Taluva (almost an abstract), Game of Thrones, Cyclades.  And of course Hegemonic, the one published game I designed, which hits the mark quite well for me.  Beyond that, I also like science fiction themed games, but really any theme is great so long as it meshes well with the mechanics.

I've grown to avoid most modern complex euro's for the same reason, as they tend to focus too much on specific paths to victory (I want to run in the field, not the path!), have constrained player interaction, emphasis on number crunching and optimization (instead of spatial positioning), and mechanics that are beholden only to themselves (and not the theme).

Dr. Wictz: Before we wrap up, I must ask where should someone go to learn more about your blog?

Oliver Kiley: To the blog of course!  The "about" page describes a bit more about the rationale for the blog and my gaming background.  But this interview is now the most I've talked about the "why's" of the blog - so maybe they can just read this :)

Thank you, and as always, cheers!

Dr. Wictz: It was my pleasure.  You can also follow Oliver on twitter @OliverKiley.

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