Friday, January 23, 2015

Faculty Lounge: Gil Hova of Formal Ferret Games (formerly Fail Better)

I first started reading some of Gil Hova’s blog work because Gil had left some insightful comments on a post I wrote on prototype problems and gave me great advice on whether or not to include play money in prototypes I send to publishers.  Gil Hova…

Gil Hova: Who is also a game designer.   I've been designing games for over a decade. My games from 2000 to 2004 were pretty horrendous, but I slowly got better; I had a game make the Hippodice Recommended list in 2005, and my first published game, the word game Prolix, came out in 2010. My newest published game, the economic strategy game Battle Merchants, came out in September 2014.

Dr. Wictz: Thank you Gil for finishing the into for me.

Gil Hova: I blame the parasitic worm that is now controlling my brain who also has decided I need to self-publish my own games. I'm releasing them as Formal Ferret Games. My first self-published game, the party game Bad Medicine, will have a Kickstarter that should begin on February 12.
Dr. Wictz: And has that parasitic worm explained to you why you are going to take on all the extra work of self-publishing your own work?

Gil Hova: For years I told myself I'd never do it. But times have changed, and so have I; I feel that my work style is better with me controlling publishing, instead of letting someone else publish my game. Don't get me wrong, having someone else handle publishing has some incredible advantages! I just don't think they suit me anymore.

Dr. Wictz:  Let me redirect your energy to your blog because I really want to focus on your writing, but before we get into too much detail, can give people not familiar with it a quick run down.

Gil Hova: So, the blog. I've had the blog for awhile now. It was originally called Fail Better, after the Beckett line "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Which I think suits the iterative nature of playtesting. I renamed it a few months ago to line up with what I'm doing now. And if I don't make it as Formal Ferret, then the name will be even more apt!

Dr. Wictz: How did you come up with Formal Ferret Games as the name for your blog?

Gil Hova: I've owned ferrets for 20 years. Yes, I'm one of those people! They're my favorite animals in the world; not as needy as a dog, not as contemptuous as a cat. They love to play, they're affectionate, they're fun to be around. Imagine an animal that has the exuberance, energy, cuteness, and gracelessness of a kitten or a puppy, and keeps it for almost their entire lives!

For a long time, I had an avatar of a ferret wearing a bowtie that I "borrowed" from a now-defunct ferret-focused webstore. But it was pretty pixelated, and I didn't really have rights to it. As a personal avatar, that's not a huge deal, but since most of my online friends knew me as "ferret with a bowtie guy", I figured I'd keep things consistent. And so... Formal Ferret Games.

Fellow NYC game designer and artist extraordinaire Scott Hartman drew the logo for me; he's also doing art for Bad Medicine. I'm really happy with how it came out!

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

Gil Hova: I think one of the things that makes the board game design community so amazing is its transparency. I've been lucky to meet all these amazing designers, these people who have mentored me and inspired me, and they're all so easy to approach! There's a lot I've learned about game design simply by reading and listening.

So blogging is a way I can pay it back, and maybe forward. I hope my rambling about game design helps in some ways.

Dr. Wictz: If you were introducing someone to the Formal Ferret Game blog what would you recommend?

Gil Hova: Probably my post about Transparency and Opacity. This is something I struggled with a lot as a young game designer, and I wish I could have read it back then. I've learned so much since then about how a simple mechanism that gives players meaningful decisions is so much better than a gimmicky mechanism that matches the theme but obscures any real choice.

Dr. Wictz: You took a three year break from blogging, how do you feel the blog is different after the three year break from before the three year break?

Gil Hova: A lot happened to me in that time. I got divorced, I took a step back from game design to try comedy out, and I moved a few times. I had to find myself again, as clich├ęd as that sounds.

I feel so much better as a person these days; I feel like I've really gotten my mojo back. And I feel like I'm a much better game designer.

Of course, in three years' time, I will be even better still. The moment I stop improving is the moment I should hang up my rotary trimmer!

Dr. Wictz: You hit on a variety of big topics on your blog (Party game design, Women in Board Gaming, Tips for play testing etc.), what inspires your divers set of topics?

Gil Hova: I blog about the things that strike me in board gaming. They're generally things I don't feel are discussed enough, from competitive imbalance to what I feel keeps women from being more present in the gaming scene.

What helps is that I don't just design games, I play them. Like crazy. I'm a huge fan of games, so they really occupy a central part of my life. So this is stuff I am genuinely passionate about.

Dr. Wictz: How did you first become intrigued about the lack of women in board games?

Gil Hova: Someone once told me that he wanted to keep a 75% ratio of men to women in his game art, because it reflected reality. I wasn't sure he was right, because I felt like I played games with a lot of women. But I didn't know exactly how many. So, I started logging it.

It turns out in 2014, 26% of my opponents were women. So it seems he was pretty close. But interestingly enough, if I played games in private (like someone's house), or if the game I was playing was published, that number rose to 31%.

But if the game I played was in public (like at a game store or a convention), that number dropped to 21%. And if I was playtesting a prototype, it plummeted to 17%!

Of course, these numbers don't prove anything other than whom I get to play with; I'd expect they'd be wildly different for other people. But it feels much better to know them, for some reason.

It also opened my eyes to the subtle things that keep women from our hobby. Not big offensive things, but tiny behaviors that don't do anything in and of themselves, but added up, from a bunch of "invisible ropes" that can wall some women off.

It's a very strange subject, of course, because I'm not a woman. Sometimes I feel unqualified to even bring the subject up; what the hell do I know about any of this anyway? And is my focus on women pulling away from gamers who don't identify with binary gender? And what about race and gaming? None of this is easy to talk about, and I feel so unqualified bringing it up.

But the conversation has to start somewhere. All I know is that I see exclusion a lot more than I used to, and I feel like someone has to bring it up. May as well be me.

Finally, even if only 26% of my overall opponents were women, I feel that sticking to a 75/25 male/female split in your game's art is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You're telling women that they don't really belong in your game's worlds. I'd like to keep art in my games closer to 50/50. Representation matters.

Dr. Wictz: I notice your series on women in board game has inspired you to change how you play board games with people; has it also change how you want to design future board games as well?

Gil Hova: In terms of mechanical design? No. I play with too many women who play crunchy games like Arkwright and Aquasphere to believe some inane generalization that "women like lighter games". It really depends on the woman.

I'd rather focus on a game that's fun and interesting to play, where players can easily imagine themselves in the game world, regardless of their gender.
Dr. Wictz: If you were to hold a podcast round table talking to others about women in board games, who would you invite and why?

Gil Hova: A bunch of women. I would want them to talk about their gaming experience. Specifically, I'd want to have everyone who commented on my women in gaming posts. They've already taught me so much.

I think it would be good to include women who are non-white and non-binary. Those are important but rarely-heard perspectives.  My role would be to shut the hell up and listen.

Dr. Wictz: I have a soft spot for market mechanics and I also know you have played a number of Michael R. Keller's games, so I wanted your thoughts on what you see as the future of market mechanics in board games?

Gil Hova: I remember a notable designer speaking at a Protospiel a few years ago, promising us that the age of the cube pusher was over, and people would be sick of playing Euros with weird mechanisms and bland themes. This was a few years before Agricola and Dominion came out, though! So I'd rather not make blanket statements about the future of any kinds of games. I don't have that kind of precognition!

That said, I'm really happy to see market-heavy games staying strong in popularity. They're my favorite kinds of games; they tend to involve snowballing mechanisms and really fascinating game arcs, which I enjoy greatly. And I don't think I'm done designing them yet!

One thing I will say: I think you'll see more games integrate apps into their gameplay. I don't think it's ever going to take board gaming over, but it's going to be a definite genre, like co-ops and deck builders. The only issue with that is playing them in 25 years is going to prove tricky.
Dr. Wictz: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.  You can read Gil’s writing on the Formal Ferret Games blog and you can also follow Gil Hova on twitter.  (Warning-Gil tends to be more verbose on twitter)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Trade Mechanic Equilibrium in Board Games

Ever reach a point in a trading game when players no longer trade?  That dreadful part of Monopoly where all the properties are traded into monopolies and all there is left to do is to chuck dice until someone wins the game.

Why do trade games freeze?  Trade games freeze because players no longer have any trades that make both parties better off.  When I engage in a trade both the person I trade with and myself are better off from the trade.  But, it is possible that there are a limited number of transactions within a game where that is true.  

If there is a fixed amount of resources in the world, trade makes people better off by sorting the resources to the people who value them the most.  Imagine we are splitting two bags of M&M’s in a room full of board game players.  Initially, we randomly distribute the M&M’s to the players. Then we assign each player a different color they should collect.  If a person who only wants green M&M’s trades 3 brown M&M’s to a person who wants as many M&M’s as possible in exchange for one green M&M, both are better off.  In this world, their trade does not create new M&M’s, their trade only redistributes the M&M’s, but the players are richer as a result.  

As long as no new additional M&M’s are created, and assuming people maintain the same preference for particular types of M&M’s, eventually there will be a point where no one can make a trade that will make someone better off.  If I only want yellow M&M’s and I have, through trade, gotten ahold of all the yellow M&M’s, then there are no more trades that exist that will benefit me.  At some point, every person trading M&M’s will hit this constraint, be it from the lack of having something to trade for what you want or from collecting all of the M&M's you desire.

Economists consider this point when there are no longer any possible trades that make people better off to be an equilibrium.  When equilibriums occur, trading ends.  If trade is a phase in your game, then equilibrium is when players should move onto the next phase of your game, if you do not move on then basically your players are sitting around doing nothing.  

But what if you don’t want to move on?  What if trade is not a phase, but the main mechanic of the game?  What can board game designers do to keep players trading?

Designers options can be broken into two broad categories.  Category one - change the preferences of the players playing the game.  Category two - change the amount of resources available to trade.  

Changing Players Preferences

Players reach an equilibrium because their current set of preferences have been fulfilled.  If I can only earn victory points by collecting sets of five bricks and two wheat then I no longer have any motivation to trade for anything else (unless it helps me get three stones and two wheat).  Furthermore, if I successfully have traded for all the possible sets of 5 brick and 2 wheat, I no longer have any motivation to engage in trade whatsoever.

But what if something happened that changed my preferences?  Say I also have the ability to exchange 3 wheat and 2 stones for victory points.  This changes what sets of resources I want in my hand and pushes me back into the trading market to attempt to acquire the goods I need.

Variability in players trade preferences can also come from varying the payouts of preexisting actions.  Lets say a player always was able to exchange 3 wheat and 2 stones or 5 brick and 2 wheat for victory points, but what changes is how much victory points each sets earns relative to the other.  This change in relative value changes the value of cards in a players hand and potentially stimulates more trade.

How a game shifts players preferences can vary.  Some games may give players exogenously varying goals where the game instructs the players what is the change in the payout for particular actions. This can be done with dice, cards, etc.  Take the game of Compounded.  Each player has the opportunity to trade elements with other players.  The value of having a particular element will change because the compounds available to be created to earn victory points vary throughout gameplay.  New compounds, dictating the value of each element, become randomly available as they are drawn from the deck.

Other games, like Post Position, alter goals with an endogenous mechanics.  An endogenous mechanic is when players actions empower them to manipulate the victory point value of certain actions/positions/holdings through gameplay.  

Players in Post Position engage in trade by making bets for or against a horse.  For one player to bet a horse is going to do well, they have to entice another player to make a trade with them by betting a horse is going to do poorly.  These bets are based on each player’s expectations (aka preferences) on how they think the race is going to play out.  

The expected outcome of the race comes from inputs by the players.  Before each betting round players secretly submit 2 or 3 horses they wish to move up in the race.  The ability of players to endogenously manipulate the position of the horses alters players preferences for which horses they wish to bet for or against and keeps players trading with each other until the end of the game.

Altering Resource Availability

Another, more settle way, to stimulate trade is to alter the availability of resources within the game.  Altering resources has the benefit of changing the value of actions without explicitly changing the price for said action.  The price for upgrading to a city in Settlers of Catan may remain at 3 stones and 2 wheat, but the cost to players of achieving that goal and acquiring the 1 VP that goes with it, will vary due to the availability of stones and wheat for them to trade.

Altering resources can occur both from mechanics that increase the number of resources in the game as well as mechanics that reduce the number of resources within the game.  When the robber removes cards from a players hand, say brick, it increases the cost to that player of constructing roads and alters the value that player places on brick.

You might have noticed that altering resource availability motivates trade in two different ways.  First, it changes the overall cost of acquiring a resource.  When there are more or less places where I can acquire the resource, the cost of earning victory points through collecting different sets also changes.  Second, it changes the preferences of players of what resources they desire.  If I lost all of my wood to the robber and I need to build one more road to guarantee the victory points from having the longest road, then my value for wood will dramatically increase because the resource is now scarce within my hand.  These two effects combined potentially changes what combination of goods in players hands where they do or do not benefit from trade.  This variability provides an opportunity to move from a point in the game where player no longer benefit from trade back to a point where they do benefit from trade.

-Thank you to Kevin Kulp and T.C. Petty III for motivating me to write on this topic with our conversations at Congress of Gamers.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Thoughts on Winning: Goals Besides Winning

“When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.”
― Reiner Knizia
This is one of my favorite game quotes, it encapsulates what designers need to keep in mind when thinking about what keeps a player engaged with a game long term. When playing a game, attempting to win that game will get a player to the end. Having a goal besides winning will bring the player back to the game again and again.
Players create goals in-game and out of game that affect players attitudes towards a game. They can be categorized in two major ways.

Game Created Goals

These are goals that are created by the game itself. These goals are created by the major mechanic of the game. When planning a game around a mechanic, keep in mind the challenges you are presenting to the player to overcome on the way to winning.

For example, in a dexterity games and sports, the players attempt to increase their skill in playing the game. By honing in on physical skills involved with playing the game, the players can keep a competitive edge over opponents and have a better chance of winning. At the same time the desire to overcome physical limitations and acquire new skills will keep players interested and returning to the game.

Mental challenges to the player is far more predominantly in board games. Puzzle elements in games need to walk a fine line between being challenging, and solvable. In an attempt to win players will learn to solve the puzzle faster. The design challenge is if the puzzle is too complex, no one will solve it, or want to, and if it’s too easy, then experienced players lose interest when the perceived difficulty is removed.

For games that create an engine of some sort, economic or otherwise, the players goal to win the game becomes optimizing the system. Designers challenge the player to find every way possible to make their engine as efficient as possible. Where the reward of efficiency is winning the game. Experienced players find continued challenges with the system through conflict with other players attempting to do the same thing.

Player Created Goals

These are goals that are created by the players, but facilitated through the game. In these games the interactions between players is the major determiner as to who wins the game. Players need to having knowledge of the gaming group to outperform each other within the scope of the game. For example, negotiation games create an extra layer between players to play off each other strengths and weaknesses. Knowing the other players can create better deals over the course of the game to bring victory. Players remember how they treat each other in trading games, creating expectation for future trades that affects play-styles along with altering the conditions they need to end the game on favorable terms.

Games that allow for a heavy ‘take-that’ element rely on players desire to cause grief to their fellow players which allow them to win the game. One note of caution though, these external motivations can find their way into game that tries not to have them. A designer needs to imagine a player coming to the table with the strict goal of making someone miserable. Or to try and exploit a non-game winning loophole just to see if they can get away with it. Because if we don’t want players doing it, we have to make sure they can’t. Because if they can, some one will.

These goals besides winning exist, being aware of them and crafting those experiences create richer experiences for the player.