Thursday, November 27, 2014

Faculty Lounge: Nick Bentley of Nick Bentley Games

Believe it or not, I found Nick Bentley’s blog on  I was on the prowl looking to find something fun and interesting to read instead of getting some work done on my dissertation.  Impressed with Nick’s passion for abstract game design, I asked him to stop by the faculty lounge to discuss how to thrive as an abstract game designer.

Dr. Wictz: Give me a quick run down about Nick Bentley Games in case folks are not familiar with your blog?

Nick Bentley: Short answer: it's my blog. Slightly longer answer: one day several years ago I decided I needed a release valve for the stew of game-related thoughts bubbling up in my brain, and so I opened the blog on a whim. At first the things I posted were totally tossed off. Now I spend a lot of time writing each essay there. I post two types of things: descriptions of games I've designed, and essays about game design and the game industry.

Dr. Wictz: Why did you start blog for Nick Bentley Games?  What led you to talk about board game design in general instead of just focusing on your own work?

Nick Bentley: Writing helps me think. I couldn't have designed a lot of the stuff I have without writing about game design. Also, it also now serves as a way to make sure my games get noticed. My blog has slowly built up a nice stream of traffic. 

Dr. Wictz: If you were introducing someone to the Nick Bentley Games blog and you could only select one post for them to read which post would you select?

Nick Bentley: Can I do two? Because it depends on who's reading. For a general audience, this one, because it's the only thing I've written which has a chance to change the world for the better. For folks in the game industry, this one. I now work in the game industry and I suspect this essay was a reason I got offered a job. It's also my most-read and most-controversial post. 

Dr. Wictz: How did you come up with the Nick Bentley Games as the name for your blog?  What were the other contenders?  Why use your real name instead of a pen name, like Oak Leaf Games, Black Leaf Games, or Dr. Wictz?

Nick Bentley: Though I've been involved in a lot of carefully planned website projects, Nick Bentley Games isn't one of them. It's the least planned site I've ever worked on, mainly because it started as a release valve, and I felt like I couldn't NOT do it. No planning at all, I just started it one day, and chose the first name that popped into my head. I don't even own a domain for it.

Despite this, it has also been the most useful site I've ever worked on. Which leads me to the following conclusion: passion is more important than every other factor. Passion keeps you working and people can feel passion, or its absence, in everything you do, and will respond or not accordingly. A {poopy} site (structurally, my site is {poopy}) driven by passion is better than a perfectly executed site driven by any other motive.

Dr. Wictz: You have designed board games and video games, what are the positives and negative to working in either medium?

Nick Bentley: Well, I can't code very well, so that makes doing video games hard. I can't participate at the nuts and bolts detail level. I can only do high level stuff. I much prefer table games. Everything is simpler, and playtesting is way more fun. I resent the degree to which we've been enslaved by our screens.

Dr. Wictz: You clearly have a passion for abstract games (Is that an understatement?), what do you see as the future of abstract gaming?  What lessons can you impart onto other abstract game designers?

Nick Bentley: I think abstract games are becoming an anachronism, like pinhole cameras. There will always be eccentrics who work on them, but I doubt they'll be popular, even just popular in the table-game culture, again. I'd love to be wrong of course (and I'm always actively thinking about how to make myself wrong), because I think the best ones are as beautiful in every way a thing can be beautiful.

Too many games are built to be, and will be, forgotten. The focus in the table game culture is on what's new, and the games industry sort of has to promote that atmosphere because you need to have it to sell games. Though and I understand that necessity, it also saddens me because it leads to mindless consumerism, a throwaway culture, and it demeans the games themselves. In addition, it creates an environment where bona fide works of genius slip through the cracks because they aren't commercially viable. My favorite game, bar none, is one of these. It's called Slither. Many people who've lucked into being exposed to it feel the same way about it. But it will likely never be promoted by anyone because it can be played with Go equipment.

I'm hesitant to give advice about how to design, but this method works for me. Specific advice for abstract game designers:
  • Try to design from first principles, as though you'll have no time to playtest (to get you thinking about fundamentals).
  • But DO playtest: abstract game designers often fail to get enough real feedback from real players, and prefer to remain in the crystalline world of abstraction, rather than dip their toes into muddy realities of human reaction and psychology. I understand why, because I'm one of those for whom the former is a far more attractive place to live than the latter. But you've got to live in both worlds to make great games.  
  • Too many abstract game designers are so worried about depth they fail to ensure accessibility. You need both, and it's really really hard to achieve both. I playtest my abstract games with people who don't like abstract games for this reason.

Dr. Wictz: You also have a semi-new curiosity of what it takes to turn a game into a commercial success (gosh darn it, you wrote an entire post on it).  Do you feel you have figured out the formula to broaden the audience for abstract games?  

Nick Bentley: I definitely haven't figured out the formula! I have learned some new things, but I'm hard pressed to put them into words yet. They're still stewing. I think I'll have to forgo answering this question for now.

Dr. Wictz: What can non-abstract game designers learn from abstract game designers?

Nick Bentley: Above all, the value of simplicity and a focus on emergence.

Dr. Wictz: What can abstract game designers learn from non-abstract game designers?

Nick Bentley: Games have to be accessible and fun in addition to being deep. They have to be many things at once! Non-abstract game designers generally know this, but many abstract game designers don't.

Also, physical presentation: the commercial design of abstract games is often unattractive. What would an abstract game published by Days of Wonder be like? The physical design of a game matters.

Dr. Wictz: What is your favorite non-abstract game (I know, this question might be heresy).  

Nick Bentley: I'm not sure I have a favorite. There's a special place in my heart for Finca, but only for two players. There are certain party games I think are really well done, like Time's Up (I also design party games - I have one coming out in January, called Stinker, which will be published by Foxmind Games - so I know how hard it is to design a party game). Also, a half-dozen Knizia games, though you could argue I like them because he's an abstract designer at heart. Battle Line is an example, which feels like Knizia reached up and pulled it directly out of the platonic realm. It feels like it must have existed at the beginning of time, er, something. 

Dr. Wictz: Name a board game designer who does not design abstract games you wish to lock in a room and force to play abstract game with you for hours on end?

Nick Bentley: Knizia, except let's exclude him on the principle that the spirit of his designs are too close to abstract. In that case, Bauza. I don't love all his games (7 wonders = blech!), but he takes risks and his games harbor imaginative leaps. Hanabi is a good example. I'd like to see what kind of design ideas would start popping out of him if he were forced to play a bunch of abstracts.

Dr. Wictz: I know you believe there is not enough good writing on table games on the internet.  (I quote "There’s not much great writing about table games on the internet.")  Where is the best writing taking place?  Do you have hope for the future of tabletop writing?  What types of articles are you hoping to stumble across?  What is overdone?

Nick Bentley: Sometimes Nate Straight on Board Game Geek posts stuff that goes beyond the obvious. The BGG designer diaries sometimes say interesting things, depending on who's writing. But largely, most writing about table games is so shallow I can't recommend any particular thing wholeheartedly.

Overdone: I'm terribly, terribly tired of reviews. I haven't read a review in years that said anything new or interesting about any particular game, or games in general. I'd be beyond ecstatic if nobody ever reviewed a game on the internet again. I don't know how so many people manage to collectively say so little.  

I should note, however, that what I want is probably very different than what the average person would find interesting. I'm so steeped in games, the only things that impress me are things where somebody has gone to the trouble of thinking and writing with great rigor. I'm looking for stuff that would probably come off as too academic for most people. Cameron Browne is spearheading the formation of a semi-academic journal about game design that holds promise for me, for this reason (I will probably write for it as well)

Dr. Wictz: Thank you Nick for taking the time to talk with me in the faculty lounge.  You can read more about Nick’s thoughts on board game design and his designs on his blog, on facebook, and follow him on twitter.

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