Pat Lawlor: A Lesson In Impact

I visited Disneyland for the first time in 1998, when I was 6. I went on a few rides, but what I reallycared about was the Starcade, a massive two-story arcade plopped in the middle of Tomorrowland. Only one game from the Starcade remains in my memory, 20 years later: A pinball where you could shoot the ball into the vertical “backglass,” normally a static panel reserved for the score display, and challenge a bunch of mean motocross racers. 

What I didn’t know at the time is that this pinball, Banzai Run, was one of the earliest works of the celebrated Pat Lawlor. Lawlor is a pinball designer responsible for Addams Family, the best-selling pinball of all time, Twilight Zone, considered by enthusiasts to be the greatest pinball of all time, and numerous other tables that rewrote the course of the pastime’s history. Most interestingly to me, Lawlor’s pinballs all have high levels of impact, leaving a profound impression among even the most uninvolved or inexperienced. This article is an examination of the techniques Lawlor used to create impactful games in a medium that mainly colors within the lines.

Defying Norms

When someone plays a pinball for the first time, they pretty much know what to expect: A small silver ball that you bat around with flippers to try to make it go up ramps and into holes. There’s a plunger, or sometimes a button or gun trigger, that you can use to shoot the ball into play, and some devious outlanes on either side of the table that make you lose your ball. Of every medium I’ve explored, pinball is by far the most resistant to innovation, and a table made in 2020 primarily differs from a table made in 1985 by how fancy the screen is.

Many of Lawlor’s pinballs tried, in varying degrees of intensity, to buck the trend of normal pinball tables. Banzai Run, as mentioned above, is one of the earlier examples; a few other pinballs like Cirqus Voltairemake use of the backglass, but none other to date has actually sent the ball up there. This wasn’t just a gimmick, either; the increased gravity of being on a fully vertical surface created a unique challenge unlike other tables. Funhousehas two plungers, one of which is used for bonus shots. Twilight Zoneplayed around with the material of the balls, introducing a white ceramic “Powerball” that was lighter and faster than the standard metal model.

However, Lawlor’s greatest departure was 1996’s Safecracker, which challenged the “X balls and you’re out” model that every other pinball uses to this day. Safecrackerinstead used a timed system, where your game ended after around 2 minutes of play. If you were able to break into the vault before the end of the time limit (which used an interesting board-game like system in the backglass), you received a special token that started a bonus round when inserted into the machine. While Safecracker wasn’t particularly well received, it certainly stands alone as one of the most challenging examples of a cookie-cutter medium.

Narrative Resonance

In Postcolonial Catan, an essay that was one of the most formative to my design philosophy, Bruno Faidutti explains that the recurrent orientalism in board game themes is in part due to the fact that board games have a limited thematic palette, so they have to stick to understandable clichés:

“The game designer, like the painter, cannot enliven his work by complex and subtle storytelling, and must do it only by winks and nods – a camel here, a helmet there. As a result, he makes heavy use of orientalist, « medievalist » or « antiquist » clichés.”

Pinball is in much the same scenario, only with additional levels of abstraction. Board games are good at simulating certain scenarios, mostly economic ones, while all pinballs have to wrap the theme around gameplay that’s mostly the same from table to table. There’s a reason so many pinballs, especially recent ones, are about movies – the player can apply their preëxisting knowledge of Star Wars or Terminator 2 without the pinball having to try so hard.

One of Lawlor’s strengths is his ability to convey his source material in interesting, resonant ways. Many of his pinballs are based on natural disasters, and contain simulations of them: Earthquake-themed Earthshaker has a motor in it that shakes the table, and Whirlwindhas not only spinning discs on the playfield but a fan that blows wind into the player’s face. His underrated CSI pinball features a centrifuge that spins the ball around when shot into it, an interesting way of using pinball’s limited set of options to remind players of something that happens in every episode of CSI.

Lawlor’s highest achievement in resonance is the Caddyshack-esque No Good Gofers, which challenges the player to complete 9 holes of golf. The player earns more points the lower they score on each hole (completing certain tasks marks off strokes), and the key feature of the pinball is a “hole in one” placed high above the playfield that can only be reached by launching the pinball off a metal ramp that only lowers for a second or two. This action gives the player the feeling of driving the ball – especially as it’s likely to carom everywhere, including off a plastic golf cart nearby – and makes getting a hole in one immensely satisfying.

Easy to Explain

For the most impactful games, the factors that make them stand out in your memory are often very easy to explain to other people. To use a tabletop example, Betrayal at House on the Hillis more impactful than other games because it’s easy to describe what happened in your game to someone who doesn’t know how to play. Compare “I managed to escape the mansion right before it collapsed into Hell” versus “I was able to link my cotton plants to my harbors in order to have a big sell turn that increased my income to a level that I could build a shipyard.” 

Similarly, Pat Lawlor’s pinballs are impactful because it’s easy to explain their appeal. Some pinballs are prized by enthusiasts for their interesting geometry, promotion of flow, or tricky challenges, but the problem with this is that it’s very difficult for an outsider to “get it”. On the other hand, show someone Banzai Run’s backglass, or Road Show’s talking redneck construction workers (Road Showwas very popular at truck stops), or even how Addams Familyoccasionally makes the flippers do the show’s trademark “snap snap,” and they’ll immediately be interested.

Conclusion

I finally got to play Banzai Runagain earlier this year when I went to Free Gold Watch in San Francisco. (Once the coronavirus has run its course, I heavily recommend you go there too!)  I was about 20 years older, and a lot of my childish enthusiasm has turned into obsessive analysis. But my sense of sheer glee at seeing the plastic motocross racer pull my ball into the backglass to finish what I had started at the now-defunct Starcade took me back, and inspired me once again that all of my games in the future should try their hardest to make players feel the same way.

Nonsense Potential

Anyone who’s played tabletop games for any amount of time has encountered one of the most delightful feelings in the hobby: Laughing, putting your head in your hands, and saying, “this game is ridiculous”. Having a game careen into the territory of the absurd is amazing and is one of the most common features that make me want to replay (or buy) a game. So as designers, how can we make ridiculous games more often? Can we intentionally create a, to mince a swear, clown fiesta with some regularity?

To help reach this goal, I would like to introduce a term called nonsense potential.

What Is Nonsense?

In game terms, I have most frequently seen “nonsense” used in Magic, usually referring to decks or cards that win in slow, elaborate, usually ineffective ways. Thinking about the use here, and thinking about the standalone games I’ve played that have generated similar feelings, my best definition of nonsense is:

When a game enters a highly unusual, unexpected, or funny state.

So nonsense potential is the ability of a game, on average, to generate these game states.

Just by having a vague definition of what nonsense is, our goal changes from an impossible task to capture an indescribable state of mind to something that’s difficult but can be achieved. 

Getting Up To No Good

There’s many ways to increase a game’s nonsense potential.

Being able to use components in unexpected ways is an important generator of nonsense. Of the numerous impress-the-judge games I’ve played, Stinkerhas the highest nonsense potential because it allows you to use its provided letter tiles however you like. You can misspell words; flip an E tile 90 degrees to become an M; even, if the group allows you, use multiple letters. Here’s a spectacular example:

The question was “where do babies come from?”

Stinkeralso awards more points to people who use more tiles, meaning it encourages players to be less conservative and try to find weird ways to use them. Nonsense being at least a semi-viable strategy, or arising from people trying to play the game to win, is also important because it doesn’t draw competitive players in multiple directions.

Coming from a different angle, strategies that strongly deviate from the rest of the game can generate NP. Most of the time, in Trains, you want to link your rail system to as many high-value cities as possible, with the rest of the board mostly serving as an obstacle. However, Trains: Rising Sun features the Mining Train, which generates money for every mountain space you’re on. Suddenly, three players are playing a normal game of Trainsand the fourth has covered the mountainside with cubes. 

Randomness, of course, helps create nonsense, but has to be a specific type. It’s okay if there aren’t a lot of random components in a game, but those components that do exist need to have a huge variety of outcomes. It’s the difference between random draw in Azul creating stations with different colors of tiles and the event deck in Arkham Horrorsometimes being a cult encounter and other times containing a beleaguered librarian.

Example Time, Baby

I don’t want to use a very strong scale for nonsense potential (NP) because this is related to humor in games and explaining humor kills it. But having a vague sense of which games really succeed in this way is useful when monitoring your own games, so I’m sorting games into low-NP, medium-NP, and high-NP.

Low-NP games keep strategy within a confined range, with not much room for unusual game states. Terraforming Marshas a wide variety of available strategies, but because every card and action contributes to the overall game plan of either terraforming Mars or generating VP, things can’t get particularly weird.

Medium-NP games have a core game state that actual play often resembles in some distorted way. Castles of Mad King Ludwignever strays away from “purchase the room that gives you the most value and price gouge your opponents just enough,” but situations arise fairly often where one person keeps building corridors endlessly or creates a single long chain of rooms.

High-NP games frequently end up in game states where everyone’s confused how it got there in the first place. While not the best High-NP game, Fluxxis probably the purest example, with the endgame frequently devolving into players drawing 7 cards, discarding 3, and stealing the winning Keeper from their neighbor’s hand.

Impactful Nonsense

Impactis a broad term that covers a lot of different components of a successful game, but you could say it applies to anything that makes a game memorable and exciting. Obviously, the higher a game’s nonsense potential, the more memorable the game will be.

This is most visible over multiple plays of a game. The highest-impact games are not only ones where you remember the game, but each individual play of the game stands out as unique to you. This is most common with games where the players or scenarios differ each game, but that’s not a 1:1 link; Pandemichas different player roles but doesn’t have a huge amount of nonsense potential. Additionally, having too much variety can actually be detrimental: The high-NP Tournament at Camelothas dozens of Godsend cards, but because 6 or 7 of them can be in play at a time, it makes all of them less memorable. 

 Having story-based elements can be very useful in this respect: Tales of the Arabian Nights’ mix-and-match Arabian Nights story elements make it a high-NP, high-impact game. When pitching this game, I regularly tell people about a single game where a player was exiled to Europe, met an angry djinn who broke his arms and legs, and crawled back to Baghdad…and won. This is partially a great story because there are lots of things that can happen in TOTAN that create these situations, but because they’re also couched in a narrative beyond “Kevin had his speed reduced to 1 but was able to gain enough Destiny Points at the end of the game.”

Conclusion

All of my favorite games have a very high nonsense potential, and I think it’s one of the best things a game can have. More than just offering an intellectual challenge (though that’s important too), games should be personalizable and generate conversation, even after the box is put away. NP is one of the best ways to achieve this. Despite it making the game sometimes look strange or even untested, the benefits of nonsense vastly outweighs the benefits.

In Defense of the Meta

Keith Burgun is a game designer, and like most game designers, he has some very strong opinions. One of his most famous articles discusses asymmetric gameplay, especially gameplay where the asymmetric powers are chosen before the beginning of the game (like choosing a character in Street Fighter). More specifically, he intensely dislikes these systems, claiming that an asymmetric game can never be truly balanced and that it limits strategic options on the part of the players.

I read this article a couple of years ago and I tried extremely hard to disagree with it. If you’re reading this, you most likely know me from my work on Magic: The Gathering (or you’re a personal friend who saw me share this on Facebook, thank you!), and Cosmic Encounter is my favorite game, so obviously I’m fond of asymmetry. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was right to an extent. Asymmetry, and the concept of a “metagame” where you pick a character or build a deck before beginning your games, bring very little to the table strategically and can often make games that are supposed to have high stakes feel flat.

But that doesn’t mean that asymmetry is useless – in fact, outside of the realm of strategy it serves many valuable purposes.

Onboarding

A common response to Burgun’s article is that using asymmetric player powers makes an easier learning experience because it sections off game elements so new players only have to master part of it to play competently; for example, in fighting games, a player can choose to practice a single character over and over again instead of learning the ins and outs of the whole roster. Burgun’s response to this argument is that achieving true understanding of the game system requires players to know what all the characters can do in detail anyway. Though this counterargument is sound, it doesn’t take into account the amount of information a player needs to retain at the same time, which asymmetry can significantly alleviate.

Even in games with low asymmetry like Chess, the sheer number of possible moves is so high that players beyond absolute beginners parcel them into typical opening, midgame, and endgame tactics. High-level gameplay becomes less about making the right decision at the right time and more about memorizing as many possible “decisions” as you can, upon which the “right decision” will frequently be obvious depending on player skill. 

What asymmetry provides in games is the ability to only have to concentrate on a tenth or a twentieth of all of the possible moves, which, in a system with an already large enough degree of complexity, could already pose a substantial cognitive load to the average player. We’ve seen that games where all moves are available to players in every game have a high skill ceiling, but they also have a high skill floor. Not every game is going to want that, whether for commercial viability or for the sake of a more casual play community.

Relatability

People wear shirts with their favorite Magic color, favorite Street Fighter character, or favorite Pokémon…uh, pokémon. Despite Go being a game with more strategic depth than any of the three, nobody wears shirts with their favorite Go opening move.

This is because of a combination of two things: First, separating game elements into discrete packages, especially ones represented by a character or faction, allows players to pick a side they like. Second, people LOVE picking sides. I don’t know whether tribalism is something baked into human psychology or if it’s the product of a competitive society, but if you give players the option to decide between multiple distinct factions, they eat it up. I’m pretty sure a huge part of the appeal of the Harry Potter franchise is the Sorting Hat.

Games are frequently more appealing, more impactful, and better able to retain players for longer when the player can fold an element of the game into their identity. Discrete asymmetric elements, either in the form of a defined style of play or in a character or faction with a personality and visual aesthetic, go a long way into a game appealing to the heart as much as it appeals to the head.

Experiential Vigor

A while ago I wrote a post separating games into “strategic” games and “experiential” games. Strategic games are evaluated among the lines that you most commonly hear from reviewers: Is this challenging? Does it offer a lot of different lines of strategy? Can you play it repeatedly without finding a “best” strategy that makes it boring?

Experiential games, on the other hand, are judged based on whether they produced an experienceBetrayal at House on the Hillis the game I most frequently use as an example of a successful experiential game that’s fairly poor on a strategic axis: It doesn’t matter if the game is mostly about luck if it creates an engaging story about a motley crew trying to uncover the terrible secret about the house on the hill. Asymmetric character stats help with this, making the elderly professor feel like an elderly professor and the dimwitted track star feel like a dimwitted track star.

Asymmetry is very useful for experiential games because it defines a “side” or “character” in a clean way that prevents confusion. If you have every option in the game available to you at all times, it’s more likely you’ll make inconsistent choices in the name of strategy that muddy the narrative. That said, there are ways that a “side” can be developed by choices supporting like choices – for example, in Terraforming Mars, if you build projects that give you titanium, you’ll probably want to spend it on more projects that want titanium, cementing you as the “titanium strategy” for the rest of the game. But start-of-game asymmetry is a seamless way to make the player feel like they had a real identity for the entire play experience. 

Conclusion

If super-deep gameplay with a huge number of options was all it took to make a successful game, we’d all be in a room playing Tigris & Euphratesover and over again until the end of time. Games have more to offer than being able to scratch your chin and go “ah, good move,” and asymmetry is a very useful way for your game to reach these alternate goals. But be careful that you don’t create a system that’s so hard to balance, the whole thing falls flat, and consider other options than just “deal each player a power at the start of the game.” Don’t take anything for granted and discover what works best for your game!

The Tyranny of Numbers

A few months ago, I read an excellent article by Kim Foale about how victory points are often uselessly abstract within the narrative of a game, sometimes promoting a colonialist viewpoint by unconditionally rewarding morally fraught actions. I enjoyed the article, but it also made me think about the use of numbers in general – not just victory points – in tabletop games. The medium of sophisticated hobby games is still in its infancy, and one of the most telling signs is its limited vocabulary. As 3D animation could once do no more than move a few spheres and cubes, board games today are only capable of conveying systems if they can do it quantitatively. 

Math Geeks

Most of the designers that brought tabletop games into today’s renaissance had a mathematical background, most famously Dr. Reiner Knizia. Some early hobby games are explicitly throwbacks to famous mathematical problems; for example, 1998 Spiel des Jahres winner Elfenland is a gussied-up version of the traveling salesman problem.

This is all well and good, because a mathematical background gives a designer a lot of ways to make games tense, balanced, and engaging. But as theme and aesthetic gradually became more important as the board game hobby picked up in the early 2010s, holes started to appear in the seemingly impenetrable mathematical landscape of design. 

The Head And The Heart

Board games are very good at representing systems and relationships that can be easily measured. Many of the themes and mechanics of the best board games are essentially economic in measure, and track things that can be quantified. In Concordia, everything important has concrete numbers – the geographic borders of each region, the quantities of grain and cloth in the player’s possession, the amount of money required to install a trading post in Londinium. 

However, when it comes to determining the unquantifiable, board games often stumble. How can you use a pile of cardboard to measure a concept like “beauty” that each player may view differently, or a complex philosophical idea like “happiness”? Games usually either do the best they can with the tools they have (so you get games like The Pursuit of Happinesswhere “long-term happiness” is a numerical, objective thing that works the same for all people) or try to convert these concepts into something that can be measured (like Modern Art’s artist popularity). Neither really captures the concepts the theme tries to encompass.

These problems are not inherent ones to tabletop games; they exist because designers as a community haven’t yet found ways to metaphorically convey these thorny concepts to the players. In much the same way, video games are just now beginning to figure out how to tell stories that don’t look similar to movies, and Internet media is slowly exploring the space available to it with works like Jon Bois’ 17776.

Measuring the Unmeasurable

Just because unquantifiable systems in board games are rare and in their infancy doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Let’s look at a few of them.

The most common qualitative system in board games is the impress-the-judge system popularized by Apples to ApplesCards Against Humanity, and Stand Back, Citizen!. You can’t objectively measure “humor” or “suitability” for fuzzy concepts such as words, so a player is chosen to arbitrate with the understanding that their judgment will be biased. This is pretty narrow design space to explore, and many of the innovations within the genre are more based on how you construct your answers instead of who decides the victor. A few games have tried getting most of the table to vote, like Quiplash and The Champion of the Wild, but having all players simultaneously perform a fiddly action that often requires point markers is cumbersome without digital intervention. 

One of the most interesting forms of non-number based mechanical resolution is the simple horror RPG Dread, where all skills are measured via Jenga tower. Whenever you want to do something that’s not assured, simply pull and place a brick from the tower – if it falls, your character is eliminated, whether they got torn apart by werewolves or realized they had to go teach a class. This is a way of expressing a feeling in a way that is neither numerical or based on player opinion, and it does a great job of conveying the tension of a horror movie – you know something awful is going to happen but you don’t know exactly when. 

For a less thematic and more strategic example, Treasure Island elevates the math conversation from arithmetic to geometry. The win condition of the game is delightfully simple – draw a circle around your miniature, and if you nail the exact location of the treasure, you’ve outwitted Long John Silver! By mostly eschewing numbers and relying more on physical locations and shapes, Treasure Island possesses a rare viscerality and impact that makes a huge impression on first-time players.

Conclusion

In order for tabletop games to take their next step artistically, they need to explore the mechanical and thematic options available in a craft format where not everything has to be determined numerically. I am certainly not going to swear off numbers completely – they’re too valuable to cut away just because I want to be a contrarian – but as I continue my design career I will be keeping an eye out for ways for people to win that don’t necessarily involve accounting. 

Scaling Food Chain

About a year and a half ago I became acquainted with Korean reality television show The Genius, which quickly became my favorite TV show of all time. I had already enjoyed elimination-based shows like The Amazing Race (which I’ve written about before) as a guilty pleasure, but The Genius cut out all the unnecessary gristle – the drama, the discomfort, the weirdly personal grudges – and replaced them with juicy strategy.

The games on each episode varied in quality, some of them trivially solvable and some of them incredibly deep. (One of them was literally just the game No Thanks). My favorite of them all was a social deduction game called “Food Chain,” where players draw the roles of different animals, each with their own powers, habitats, and win conditions, and do their best to make it to the end of the game without dying.

I’ve wanted to run Food Chain myself, but getting exactly 13 people to play it would be prohibitive. So why not scale it down?

Well, “why not” is because Food Chain’s interlocking roles make it almost impossible to scale it down without unbalancing it. This article explores this issue in depth.

If you aren’t familiar with Food Chain, I’ve prepared a companion article that goes over the rules. You may want to keep it open in a separate window.

The Problem

Much like a real ecosystem, if you remove one species from the ecosystem of Food Chain, the whole thing collapses. Some of the roles, like the Crow, seem extraneous to the main puzzle of predators and prey each trying to survive, but secretly represent key resources to other roles. Here’s some of the issues lurking beneath the surface of Food Chain that make it so hard to rescale:

  • For predator roles like the Lion, player count is a resource. If there are fewer players, it will be less likely for a predator to be able to meet their feeding requirements, so life will be significantly harder for them.
  • The Sky represents an asymmetric benefit on behalf of the Eagle and similar bird roles. If a bird is removed, it makes life significantly harder for the Eagle, who now has to leave the Sky more often and dodge the Lion and Crocodile.
  • Every role cares about every other role, both for predator/prey reasons and for more nuanced ones like habitat or opposing victory conditions.

The Approaches

Here’s some approaches to scaling Food Chain down to a manageable 8 or 9 players, in roughly the order I thought of them.

Trim extraneous roles

As mentioned, some of the roles just sort of…exist on the fringes. The Crow doesn’t really have much to do with the game, the Mouse and Plover are “nice to haves” instead of “have to haves”, and the Chameleon’s only purpose, on its face, is to mix things up a bit.

But as soon as I thought about a Food Chain without these roles, I realized: there are no extraneous roles! Cutting the Plover would make life significantly harder for both the Crocodile and the Eagle (who can eat the Plover if it goes to the Sky), removing the Chameleon would make it trivial for predators to avoid the Snake, and removing any prey animal makes the Four Stooges (otter/deer/rabbit/mallard) more likely to die, making starvation at the end of the round due to indestructible prey animals exponentially more of a concern.

Remove predator/prey roles symmetrically

This approach focuses on maintaining the predator:prey ratio by taking out both roles at roughly the same rate. The current ratio is 4:9, so if I were to remove, say, the hyena, I’d also want to remove two prey, perhaps the chameleon and the crow. 

The issue with this is that every predator except the Lion also counts as prey to animals further up on the food chain, so if we remove the Eagle and some other roles, the Crocodile and Lion are significantly more disadvantaged than the prey animals, who know have fewer adversaries and a higher chance to make them starve to death. 

Remove prey and make predators less hongry

You can avoid some of the issues of the game becoming too difficult for predators if you change their win condition requirements while removing some of the extraneous prey animals like the Crow. For example, the Lion only has to eat 3 out of 4 rounds instead of every round.

While this is more likely to create a lower player count game with roughly the same balance than simply chopping away roles, the “knobs” that you have to adjust are pretty meager. You can change predators’ eating requirements, but getting a whole extra round where you don’t need to eat can make the game less stressful and therefore less fun on the whole, and there’s no granularity to this adjustment. (The game’s complex enough so that’s fine.)

Change the roles entirely

 What if the food pyramid was entirely different? Different roles would be used in different player counts, and maybe even different habitats. Instead of the current Lion-Mouse-Hyena triangle we have now, we could have a different apex predator with different needs, powers, and adversaries. We could also eliminate the Sky entirely, or make it so that animals can access it more easily (by jumping really high?). We could even change the number of rounds.

But at what point does this game stop being Food Chain and start being Food Chain 2? If the attack mechanic is the only thing that stays the same from player count to player count, Food Chain with 8 players and Food Chain with 13 are as much the same game as Clueand Parcheesi.

The Solution

Here is my galaxy brain solution to solving the scalability issues of Food Chain: Maybe there isn’t a perfect way. Does a game need to have the same balance and gameplay experience for every player count?

At some level, you want to know that when you bring a game to the table, you’re going to roughly know what you’re getting into. Some games, like Gloomhavenand Sentinels of the Multiverse, put a lot of effort into making the lowest player count feel as challenging as the highest player count.

But with others, you’re going to have a wildly different time depending on how many people you’re playing with. Libertaliaand 6 Nimmt!are tense mechanisms of risk and bluffing at 3-4 players and gradually become more of a lunatic circus where nothing matters as more people arrive to complicate things. Roll for the Galaxy at 2 players involves hard-reading your opponent’s plans and jamming your hand into them, while at 5 players it mostly involves doing your own thing and occasionally benefitting from your opponent choosing to develop technology.

And frankly, social deduction games are both the most likely to feel different at different counts and the most likely to have a huge range of player counts, topping off at 8-10 players. With some of these, it can become trivial for one side or the other to win – in A Fake Artist Goes to New York, for example, the fake artist is extremely likely to win at high player counts, but players still get a lot of fun out of the game’s base mechanic of one-stroke-at-a-time drawing.

Put Down That Controller And Go Outside And Go Back Inside And Pick Up That “Stand Back, Citizen!” Deck!

Why would you ever see a play? Movies are more affordable, have higher budgets, can be seen anywhere, and let you eat snacks in the theater. 

Most arguments for the productivity of seeing Our Town over Die Hard are based on intangibles – that visual metaphor is more possible in theatre, that you’re experiencing the magic with real actors in real time, that certain abstractions of time and character are available. How accurate this is, and how much weight it carries, depends on the individual, but these are the most common arguments. 

The competition between board games and video games has a similar dynamic. Video games are more portable than board games, and (depending on your buying habits) easier to purchase cheaply. They have animation and sound design, and the computer behind the game allows for complex calculations and radical mechanics that humans can’t do by hand. I’ve certainly heard arguments, with some validity to them, that any scoring-track based game would be better accomplished on a tablet. So in this, too, we must turn to intangibles*.

One of the most common intangible arguments for the benefit of board games over video games is that they create a more social atmosphere than sitting in front of a TV. I’ve found that to be true myself, but I didn’t want to state a claim without exploring why. In this article, I will detail a few reasons why I believe board games are often more social than video games.

*For a designer, board games have many concrete advantages. For example, it is much cheaper to produce a board game, and you don’t have to know how to code, animate, or compose music. But this is about players.

I Demand Your Attention!

The first reason is more a quirk of design than something inherent to the two media: The vast majority of multiplayer video games are played in real time, while the vast majority of board games are turn-based or otherwise broken up by pauses.

In a real-time game, your attention is inevitably drawn to the game instead of the people playing it. You can’t afford to not think about the game for too long, so while there may be some conversation, much of your mental effort goes to winning the game. 

When astonishing moments happen in a real-time game, you don’t get a chance to celebrate it. If you’re playing, say, Street Fighter, and you parry your opponent’s entire Chun-Li super, the game is still going aftewards unless that cool moove instantly ended the match. Not even “ended the game”; unless you can take a break to appreciate what a good move you just did, Street Fighter’s merciless announcer will make you go on to round 2.

Pace of Play

This theory doesn’t fully hold up under scrutiny, because there are board games in real time (Magic Maze) and turn-based multiplayer video games (Pokémon). The underlying mechanism that makes video games less accomodating to social interaction is a bit subtler: The pace of a tabletop game is determined by the group as a whole, while the pace of a video game is determined by the program.

As an example, let’s take the game Quiplash, an impress-the-judge game played on phones. Quiplash is a very well-constructed game, and its questions are more consistently funny than any other of the numerous party games I’ve tried. However, the results of these funny questions don’t necessarily generate as much impact from the players as they could, because even if an answer is so funny the whole room is laughing for a minute straight, the game skips merrily onward to the next question, cutting off the reaction that the previous one might have deserved.

When an exciting or funny moment happens in a game where progress is determined manually, the players can stop for as long as they want until they mutually feel it’s time to move on. When progress is determined by a computer arbiter, it can diminish a moment of excitement that might have been developing for most of the game. 

Communication

For the third reason, we can look at the exception that proves the rule: Video games that are successful in engendering communication among a group of players. The best example is the infamous co-op game Overcooked. In Overcooked, players are chefs attempting to fill a rapid series of food orders by chopping ingredients, assembling meals, and washing dishes; levels include gimmicks such as cooking on two moving trucks, in a haunted castle, or in the hot lava level that is legally obligated to appear in every video game.

The secret of Overcooked’s success as a social game is that it is impossible to win without in-person communication. Orders fill up fast enough that the only way to keep up is for players to work together to expedite the cooking, serving, and dishwashing process, and the only way for everyone to coordinate effectively enough is to talk. 

Normally, the demands of video games outweigh the ability of players to talk to each other, but because role division is such a critical part of Overcooked, the rapid pace of play actually encourages the players to interact. And this is the main difference between it and many other games, even party games: Talking to other people is part of the flow of play, whereas in many other cases it’s a distraction from winning.

In board games, interacting with other players is a distraction, but unless they’re deep in thought and you interrupted them, distractions are forgiveable. It’s mostly when arbitrated by a computer that taking your mind off the game for even a short period of time can lead to big problems.

Conclusion

Despite the ubiquity of digital games, board games have experienced a renaissance over the last decade, growing significantly both in number of hobbyists and in the number of quality games. There must be a reason for this, even if that reason is an intangible, and this post was my way of trying to puzzle out reasons people choose to manually adjust VP totals instead of letting the Nintendo box do it for them.

Guardrail Safety With Professor Geist

Since the 1940s, the humble guardrail has protected drivers all over the world from themselves and each other. This critical piece of highway infrastructure helps prevent deadly head-on crashes, and comes in a variety of styles depending on the needs of your transport system. For the rest of this article, I will go into detail on the history and uses of guardrails.

Just kidding. But did you know that games have guardrails too, and they’re just as important? Only instead of preventing you from dying in a fiery car crash, they prevent you from being frustrated for 90 minutes.

The Perils of Leonardo da Vinci’s Advertising Budget

The game that inspired me to write this article, ironically, is one that has a significant lack of guardrails: The Princes of Florence.

Princes of Florence is an auction game with some tile-laying elements. Players bid on various buildings, landscape features, and clowns to get better work from the artists in their colony, which they can then sell for more money. What’s significant about the game, however, is that when you sell a work, you can choose any ratio of victory points and cash that you want, and that this is by far the most common way to get VP.

So although this means there are a lot of ways to play the game, it’s also very easy to shoot yourself in the foot. If you don’t grant yourself enough money after selling a work, you won’t be able to catch up with the other players or the slowly increasing point minimum for works. If you aren’t VP-greedy enough, you will never be able to catch up to your opponent. The fact that this game was made in 2000, when games were significantly less user-friendly, is apparent in the lack of mechanics that constrain players’ choices in favor of dangerous liberty.

The Goal of Guardrails

A game’s “guardrails” are its mechanics that allow players to remain in the game with the ability to take meaningful actions until the end. What this actually means depends on the type of game.

An example of a game with good guardrails: In Concordia, a slow start can price you out from building trading houses. Fortunately, the Prefect card (which allows you to get any good available on the board) and Mercator card (which lets you exchange money for goods and vice versa) mean you’re never in a position where it’s impossible for you to participate in the game’s economy. Concordia especially demonstrates the nuance of a good guardrail mechanic, because the Prefect card rewards players who built all over the board while allowing someone who needs two cloth to get back into the game their out.

Strategy games construct their guardrails in many different ways. Here’s just a few of them:

  • Tzolk’in: You need corn (currency) to place workers. If you don’t have enough corn on your turn, you can lose VP to beg for enough corn to continue. This normally accrues a penalty, but if you’ve gotten into such a bad situation that you can literally take no moves without begging for corn, the gods (and designer) take pity on you and you can get the corn for free.
  • Galaxy Trucker: The “Ship Insurance” mechanic caps the amount of credits you lose at the end of a round for your ship’s components getting blown up.
  • Ra: You always have four opportunities to win auctions each round. Having no high-numbered Sun tiles means you’re less likely to win large pots, not that you can’t belly up to the table.

Some very common guardrails are making actions more valuable in later rounds (Modern Art) and keeping rounds entirely separate so that an early mistake isn’t a disaster (Libertalia and the aforementioned Galaxy Trucker). 

Designing Guardrails

Guardrails have a lot in common with catchup mechanics, but the big difference is that a guardrail doesn’t care if you can’t win the game anymore: In the games mentioned above, you can easily put yourself in a situation where victory is wildly unlikely. A guardrail mostly cares that you can’t play the game anymore. In a sense, it’s more about preventing pseudo-player elimination.

If your game has any kind of economy, try to notice in playtests when players get locked into non-action. Is there a situation where a player has no equity that can be turned into resources somehow? In that case, consider adding an emergency action (like discarding cards for money in Terraforming Mars) that can allow someone to claw their way back into empire-building.

If you’re building a combat game, can someone never fight back against a vastly superior opponent, but at the same time be able to keep playing the game in a futile struggle? You may consider making the game more gentle, so this player still has a chance, or more brutal, so the game’s over more quickly. As a case study, Nexus Ops’ guardrail is that the method of gaining victory points is through individual achievements instead of board dominance, so whether you’ve conquered the board is only sometimes relevant to whether you’re able to win.

Essentially, assume your players will make the worst decisions available to them and see what situation that gets them in. Can they still laugh and have fun, or is it a frustrating grind? Try to skew your game more towards the former.

Conclusion

 This article was mostly written as a historical examination, as guardrails are so common in modern board games it’s the exceptions (Food Chain Magnate, for example) that are notable. However, situations involving guardrails or lack thereof appear frequently in early builds, and recognizing when you need to create a floor for how badly a player can do is an important step in the development process. If this article helps make those situations more visible, it’s a success.

The Most Beautiful Cards, Part 1

It’s the little things that make a difference.

The beauty of a game’s design can sometimes be condensed into something as small as a single card, a tiny packet of information that revolutionizes the way it – and games in general – are played.

In tribute to Mike Selinker’s blog The Most Beautiful Things, I am writing a series about the most beautiful cards in tabletop games. Here’s the first installment, with three cards that made an outsized difference in the games they represent.

Libertalia: Brute

The mechanic at the heart of Libertalia– that everyone gets the same randomized hand of pirates – is genius and elegant, and would stand alone as a brilliant design innovation no matter what pirate cards it ended up using. But without the Brute, Libertaliawould be a lot more easy to parse, and a lot more polite.

Most of the other player-versus-player interaction in Libertalia is various shades of passive-aggressive. The Beggar steals money from the person with the highest-ranked pirate, the Monkey dumps cursed Incan gold on the player to your left, Granny Wata cancels other Grannies Wata, etc. Not the Brute. When you play the Brute, you are actively choosing to punch another player in the face.

The best part about the Brute is that it’s a fairly low number in the booty-acquiring order and does nothing else of value. So you only play it when you really feel like saying “screw you” to whomever you suspect is going to be greedy and go for the treasure.

No, wait, the best part about the Brute is when multiple players play them at the same time and it looks like this:

Wait, wait, wait, the best part about the Brute is guessing when your opponents are playing theirs and playing a low card to counter it – or better yet, a Parrot so you can play the exact right card to get first pick of the treasure without getting punched overboard.

Hold on, the bestpart about the Brute is holding onto yours for two rounds, until everyone’s forgotten that there’s a Brute left in play, until you punch out the opponent’s Captain they were relying on to win the game and smugly help yourself to a 1-point barrel.

I could probably find more things that are the best about the Brute, they just never stop! A cracking good card.

Dead of Winter: Sparky the Stunt Dog

Dead of Winter is a grim co-op game about the last vestiges of humanity desperately clinging to life as they’re threatened by both the walking dead and the bitter cold. If Plaid Hat had thrown it out there without any levity to it, the experience would be so heavy and personal that only the hardiest players could stomach multiple plays. But varying the tone on the “crossroads” cards could backfire, creating goofy moments when they aren’t called for.

But what if all of the crossroads cards could be goofy in the right context? Here to the rescue is Sparky the Stunt Dog.

Sparky questions the unspoken assumption of crossroads cards: That they are all performed by humans. Sparky erects a barricade against the walking dead! Sparky researches the undead plague! Sparky plays some Johnny Cash on the guitar! Good dog, Sparky!!!

Through just one card, the tone of the game can dramatically shift. And the brilliant thing is, for those groups who want a consistent tone, it’s as easy as putting Sparky back in the box during setup.

Cosmic Encounter: Negotiate

Brute and Sparky are cards that elevate their respective games from “decent” to “great”, but the humble Negotiate card is what changed Cosmic Encounter from a run-of-the-mill space combat game into one of the most influential – and most impactful – games of all time.

The Negotiate card does several vital things. First, it increases the variance of each player’s hand strength in combat. This seems like a bad thing off the cuff, as more variance means more instances where player skill can’t affect the outcome of a round, but Cosmic’s strength is, as described by the box, that it’s a game of infinite possibilities. It’s the times when you have a grip of 5 Negotiates that make you appreciate the times you have three double-digit Attacks.

Second, it provides an element of player interaction that goes beyond “shoot each other with pew pew guns”. Cosmic’s emphasis on alliances, going so far as to allow multiple players to win the game at the same time, is enhanced by the ability to create mutually beneficial deals.

Finally, and most importantly, it creates gameplay that isn’t strictly fettered by rules. What players do or say during negotiations is pretty much anything goes – for example, you can claim you have an attack 40, offer to trade it, then grimace and decide against it when you really never had an attack 40 in the first place. 

Narrative Equity: The Direct-To-DVD Sequel

Note: Regular articles are still on hiatus. Depending on what happens in the coming months, I may or may not be able to continue it. That said, enjoy this article!

Last week, Magic: The Gathering head designer Mark Rosewater wrote about a generic game design tool he termed “narrative equity” in his weekly column. I found the topic immensely interesting, both because it aligns to a great degree with my thoughts on impact and because it codifies an aspect of design that people mostly attempted to add through instinct.

I wanted to use this article as a commentary on the methods Rosewater suggests to generate narrative equity–primarily through the lens of designing for standalone games–and discuss a few additional points that weren’t brought up in the article.

Note: You should probably read Rosewater’s article before mine.

  1. Create components with enough flexibility that players can use them in unintended ways

This is essentially “providing players with tools for lateral thinking,” which is a significant part of building impact at a mechanical level as well. The ability to take a component and reuse it in a way that’s uniquely yours makes for a positive, memorable experience.

Surprisingly, a game doesn’t need to be complex to be flexible. Hanabiis a very restrained game where the only method of communication is to indicate which cards in a player’s hand are a certain number or a certain color. However, you can use this to communicate a great number of things, like “you can safely discard these cards,” “play this next,” “wait on playing these but don’t discard them,” and “for the love of God, don’t do that thing I know you were thinking of doing”.

As you might be able to figure out from this, a “component” could just as easily be a game rule or mode of setup, and doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to physical objects.

  1. Create open-ended components that can be mixed and matched in unforeseen ways

This is a common feature of trading card games, of course, but they’re also present in the ever-popular “impress the judge” genre. As I mentioned in The Arty of Party, party games are primarily tools for comedy, and comedy is built out of people doing the unexpected. When building Stand Back, Citizen!, I made sure that all of the nouns, powers, and crises generated funny results when used together so players would create new superpowers every time they played.

  1. Design unbounded challenges that allow the ability to create memorable moments

This is something that is much easier to achieve within the boundaries of Magic’s ruleset than in a standalone game. Magic is a fairly interactive game, and its mana system gates players from doing anything too ridiculous until their opponent is able to answer it. Thus, while ridiculous things like the Chameleon Colossus example Rosewater mentions in the article occur every so often, it doesn’t happen enough that a player who knows the trick could style on newer players every time.

The other benefit of Magic’s system is that when something absurd happens, the game usually ends quickly. Make a 5000/5000 creature? You win. Deal a trillion damage? You win. Draw your entire deck? Okay, you might lose that one. Even in a circumstance where meeting an unbounded challenge doesn’t result in your victory (like gaining an absurd amount of life), your opponent feels like they can concede. Under a different system, you might go off when the game’s half over, and everyone has to feel like you have an unreachable advantage.

Besides these issues, many systems are just too numerically fragile to justify the existence of cool unbounded challenges. But I’m not a math guy so I’ll leave it at that.

  1. Create near-impossible challenges that can become a badge of honor

This is easier to accomplish in some games than others. Many co-op games offer very challenging difficulty levels that provide these “bragging rights” challenges by themselves. While it has the problem that everyone on the table has to be on board to attempt the challenge, it also means that everyone is invested in it and will rejoice should they succeed.

  1. Create alternate ways to win

“Shooting the moon” is a tried-and-true design tool that can be incredibly fun if implemented correctly. Some players, when they see an opportunity to score big if they jump through enough hoops, will beeline in on it and won’t regret trying even if it fails. That said, the boundary of difficulty has to be balanced carefully: If it’s too near-impossible, players will mostly ignore it, but if it’s too easy, it won’t be narratively engaging.

One of my favorite uses of the high-risk, high-reward strategy is the map booty tile in Libertalia. One or two maps do nothing, but three together are worth a whopping 12 points. Collecting map tiles means you’ll often forgo goods and jewels, which are worth less but are far safer, and if in the chaos of the game you can’t get all three, it’ll cost you dearly. In a group of 5 players, three map tiles are acquired  about once or twice per game, but the effort required is so huge it’s still massively exciting if you can pull it off.

In the right game, effects that outright say “you win the game” (or lose, or tie) are a great method of generating narrative equity. Nothing quite makes one’s eyes bug out of their head as seeing those four beautiful words out of nowhere. Sentinels of the Multiverse uses this sparingly, but when it does, it uses it flavorfully (A self-destruct sequence, a helicopter rotor for a flying fortress that causes everyone to fall to their deaths, a Bat-Mite-esque imp villain) and sets up the possibility for great stories.

  1. Allow players opportunities to interact with other people where the outcome is based on the interaction

This is a great idea, and a keystone of some of the best psychology-based games like CodenamesDixit, and Chinatown. One of the keys that Rosewater doesn’t mention, however, is that the same opportunities should have different outcomes. One of the big selling points of Cosmic Encounter is that players can negotiate with each other in a relatively freeform structure, and penalties for not coming up with a deal require them to actually interact. However, among less experienced players, trades end up being the same thing almost every time: A colony for a colony or, when that doesn’t work, meaningless cards for meaningless cards.

If you have a player interaction component in your game, but it’s very obvious what the right and wrong decisions are, players aren’t going to feel like they have the ability to think laterally to exploit a situation that would otherwise be a good opportunity for narrative equity.

  1. Give players the ability to customize, allowing them opportunities for creativity

Obviously, a standalone game can’t hope to achieve the level of customizability Magic and other trading card games boast. But there are ways to make players feel like the choices they make and the experiences they go through are uniquely theirs.

In games with asymmetric player powers, my rule of thumb is that there should be at least one and a half times more powers than the maximum player count. (Thus, in a 4-player game there should be 6 powers.) This way, assuming players get to choose their roles and they aren’t assigned to them, you can feel like your abilities were what you wanted and not what was left to you.

Even in a game where the design doesn’t allow for asymmetric powers, simply having distinct player colors or factions can help. Epic Spell Wars has a fair number of different wizards in each of its three boxes; even though they have no gameplay effect, the wizard you choose helps cement the narrative and complement your individual style.

Narrative Equity And Theme

The theme of your game is also an important way of assuring that players have more opportunities to get stories out of it. Generally, the more mechanics you have to explain, the less interested your audience will be. (This is partially why it’s hard to tell a story about your RPG campaign in an interesting way, because a lot of what happens is couched behind dice rolls that interrupt the narrative.) So a game like chess, which nails the first four numbers on the list, has lower narrative equity because the meaning of what you’re doing is buried underneath layers of theory.

Thus, the games with the most narrative equity are ones where the theme is so seamlessly resonant with the gameplay that you barely have to mention what gameplay actions you took. If I told you a story about how I played a Betrayal at House on the Hill game where I played a jock that kicked an alien hypno-spaceship with his powerful legs until it exploded, I wouldn’t have to interject with what my dice pool was or how well I rolled for the story to make sense.

Conclusion: Narrative Equity And Impact

Reading Rosewater’s description of narrative equity made me realize how broad my definition of “impact” is. An impactful game doesn’t necessarily have to have the players come away from it with stories to tell; it just has to leave an impression in their minds. Thus, a game like Jenga, which proceeds in much the same way every game, is still impactful because of how much the idea of it remains with you when you leave the table.

Both impact and narrative equity have their uses, much like how a bread knife and a petit knife have their uses while cooking. Narrative equity has the benefit of being a significantly more focused term, which allows a designer to add it in a more concrete, methodical way. I hope that narrative equity makes its way into the general design vernacular – entwining the psychological and the mechanical is the best way for game design to move forward as a craft.

All Of My Great Designer Search 3 Essays

As most of you reading this know, I was accepted into the finals of Wizards of the Coast’s Great Designer Search. The first step towards doing that was writing some essays.

Today, I was informed that WotC will not be posting the essays on their website and that it was fine for me to share them, so here they are.

These won’t be particularly comprehensible unless you know how to play Magic, so I apologize. Feel free to ask me for meanings of stuff.

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