Keeping Your Game Focused (also, horrible puns)

I’m a big fan of ketchup.

I was raised by a Midwesterner and, for much of my childhood, ketchup was the only condiment I’d accept anywhere. Even to this day, when I go to gourmet burger establishments, I’ll dump a bunch of ketchup on everything after my carefully constructed order arrives.

This is a shocking opinion, but I’m also a big fan of ice cream. It’s delicious! Cookies and cream is my favorite flavor.

So given that I love ketchup, and that I love ice cream, obviously putting ketchup on my ice cream is a great idea, right?

Today’s article is about avoiding the design equivalent of putting ketchup on your ice cream.

One Game, 31 Flavors

It’s pretty easy to tell, during playtesting, that your game is bad. People get bored or frustrated, individual mechanisms are overpowered or useless, the game lasts for longer than it should. That’s because these are things that give you immediate feedback, the equivalent of a big siren going off.

When your game isn’t necessarily bad, but unfocused, it becomes a lot trickier to detect. The individual mechanics of your game might be excellent by themselves, but combined they create a confusing mess. This isn’t something that you can detect by examining final scores, and some players may even give you confusing feedback – depending on the person, they might not mind something unfocused if they had a fun time playing it.

The best example I can think of is TIME Stories, which combines an intriguing premise – co-op mystery solving as you play through the same story repeatedly in an attempt to unravel more of it – with dice-rolling mechanics. The thrill of advancing your group game by game conflicts with the issue that you can easily lose the game, even though you did everything right, through a series of poor dice rolls. In a different game, the dice-rolling would be acceptable, or even fun, but here the unfocused mechanics make the game less satisfying.

Games can also be thematically incoherent. The game El Grande was originally Troy-themed, with a big Trojan Horse that players could drop their cubes into to hide how many they’re going to puke onto the board at the end of the round. But during production, the publishers changed the name to the political conquest of Spain, with the incredibly thematic Horse changed to a generic “castillo”. El Grande is still one of the best territory control games ever made, but if it had stuck to its original theme the impact would have been dramatically improved.

Ketchup Mechanics

The best solution to focusing your game is to have a clear statement in your head of what you want the game to be. However, the problem is that humans aren’t computers, and we design as much on instinct as we do by writing down several paragraphs in a design document. Your “statement”, might be fuzzy daydreams about some players laughing and having a great time, or a looping gif (pronounced gife) of a character in your game doing something dramatic. In this way, it’s hard to keep a game focused when you don’t even know what to focus on.

There’s two ways to approach this, depending on how you’re constructing your game: “top-down” or “bottom-up”, to borrow terms from Magic design.

“Bottom-up” designs are created when the designer thinks of one or two interesting mechanics they’d like to explore. In this way, you develop these games by weaving supplementary mechanics and theme around your core concepts in a way that creates a complex, challenging design. The issue arrives when the supplementary mechanics are lifted from more popular genres – for instance, creating an interesting way of placing tiles on a board but deciding that the way to acquire them is through simple drafting because you can’t think of anything better.

The best way to keep your bottom-up game focused is to think about what the core mechanic wants. For instance, in our theoretical tile-laying game above, how would it be a challenge for you to get the arrangement that you want? What would generate a feeling of satisfaction when you arrange your tiles in just the right way to shoot past your opponents? What mirrors the core mechanic in a satisfying way? Once you’ve answered these questions, the focus of your game becomes clearer.

Ice Theme

“Top-down” designs are based primarily on theme. My Happy Daggers, for instance, was made as a way to capture the feel of melodramatic swordfights as you might see in The Three Musketeers or Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet. This makes focusing with your mechanics simultaneously easier and harder: You have a clearer statement of what you’d like to design, but because you’re starting from scratch mechanically it’s a lot easier to drift away from where you started.

The most important part of designing a top-down game is its “feel”: That is, making players feel the same when playing your game as they do while watching a movie or reading a book of the same genre. Mark Rosewater, Magic head designer, talked about this approach when designing for Innistrad, the game’s gothic horror/movie monster expansion. The primary feeling you get from a good horror movie isn’t necessarily shock, but dread – the creeping feeling that something’s wrong right before the skeleton pops out or whatever. So the mechanics of Innistrad were aimed at generating the same feelings: Humans which could turn into werewolves on the next turn, any creature’s death triggering a powerful “morbid” effect, spells which could return from the graveyard when you least want it. Innistrad is considered by many to be one of the best Magic sets ever made, which speaks to the power of this approach.

Heinzight is 20/20

Your game will be much better when everything – every tiny mechanic and every scrap of design – is all precisely focused on a core experience. By keeping this in mind while playtesting, the process will probably be more painful – you’ll have to throw out otherwise good concepts because they don’t jazz with the other things you’re doing – but will result in a clearer, more fun, and more impactful game for your players.

This article went on forever, so as a reward for sticking with the whole thing here’s a picture of Pikachu with a bottle of ketchup. See you in two weeks!

17 Weird Themes For Your Board Game

I’m tired of going to the game store and seeing the same three themes over and over again. Here are 17 weird themes. Feel free to use them!

  1. Assembly Guide/Warning Label. Featureless human shapes assembling/being attacked by geometric shapes in a stark, right-angle-aplenty abstract space. Great for light games!
  2. Vegetable Collage. Penguins made out of eggplants! Mighty warriors carved from, I don’t know, a carrot or something! A mountain range in a pumpkin!
  3. Fortune Teller Machine. Go to the nearest tacky fortune teller machine and get a fortune. Use the aesthetic of the card as the basis of everything in your favorite project.
  4. Yellow Submarine. Not the actual movie, but the same idea of a queasy psychedelic art style and weird critters.
  5. What People In The 19th Century Thought The 25th Century Would Be Like.
  6. The Everglades. There’s a bunch of cool animals there!
  7. 1930s Shanghai. Did you know that Shanghai in the 1930s is a rich setting for noir fiction and intrigue? Now you do.
  8. Antarctica. Either “cool ice science” or “blizzardy horror” could work here.
  9. Playstation-era 3D graphics. Enough 16-bit throwbacks! Blocky approximations of the human figure or bust!
  10. Content Aggregator Site. Collect sets to form an ad-sponsored slideshow! Or take the safe option and make a listicle.
  11. Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s a giant fish market with a bunch of loud auctions going on all the time. The potential here should be obvious.
  12. Marché Bastille. While I’m at it, how about the gigantic outdoor market in the middle of Paris?
  13. Interior Design. Take your tile-laying games to the small time as you passive-aggressively rearrange furniture in one or several houses!
  14. Ballet. There’s several theatre-themed games but ballet, IMO, lends itself to board games even better, as it’s easier to judge whether something is following the script.
  15. Protestant Reformation. The spread of Protestantism is fascinating, and could have design space for a COIN-style 2 player wargame.
  16. 1910s College. Back when football players wore stripy shirts, all professors wore caps and gowns all the time, and the Marx Brothers terrorized the land.
  17. Aaaaaaaaaand trains.

Design Spacespacespacespacespacespace

(For those of you wondering what the title joke’s about)

I spend a fair amount of my idle time reading/listening to the design philosophy of Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Magic: The Gathering. One topic he expounds on frequently is the concept of design space: How many viable cards* can be made using a certain mechanic or theme. For a long time, I thought this was one of those things that really only applies to a CCG model, where components are made constantly with no foreseeable end.

Then, several months ago, I began working on a board game with Cosmic Encounter-style powers and realized that if I wanted to be able to make as many powers as I want to, I had to think about how much design space I was creating using my core rules. It’s a surprisingly useful topic, but one that isn’t discussed by most tabletop designers, so I thought it appropriate to write about it here.

* Design space in Magic can also refer to things like card names, expansion symbol designs, and border colors, but I didn’t want to unnecessarily complicate things.

 

MOOOOREEEE

Creating design space in your game is, in a sense, the opposite of the principles of elegance and minimalism that have benefited a lot of modern board games. Having a lot of options to alter the core rules of your game must be preceded by having a lot of core rules to alter, and rules bloat is something to watch out for. However, there are three types of game that do nothing but benefit from having more design space:

  1. Games with a lot of cards/tiles. Games like Race For The Galaxy hide much of their complexity within the components. Cards and tiles can have special powers – meaning they don’t have to be taught up front – or otherwise provide you some kind of benefit.
  2. Games with a large number of asymmetric player powers. Fighting game simulators like Yomi and BattleCON are obvious examples.
  3. Party games. As I mentioned in The Arty of Party, one of the most important parts of designing a party game is having hundreds of prompts so players can play many games without encountering repeats.

So how do you ensure you have enough design space in your game to make it successful?

 

Clearing Some Space

After deciding to make a game with a lot of exception cases, as mentioned above, you will do a lot of good simply by thinking hard about your game. Look at each rule and say, “If this were replaced or enhanced by something else, but the rest of the rules remained intact, would the game be pretty much the same experience?” If a rule is so crucial that it can’t be altered in any way, it means there’s no design space available for it. The fewer of these present in your game, the more room you have to explore.

The previous paragraph is a little abstract, so to use an analogy, it’s like that tired meme about what counts as a sandwich. If you take the top slice of bread off a sandwich, it’s still arguably a sandwich (albeit an open-face one); take off both slices of bread and spread the contents on a bed of lettuce, now it’s a salad. Similarly, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for how much you can alter your core game and have it give the same experience, but rather you have to keep iterating to see what keeps you comfortable. You’ll get better at it the more you keep designing for the game.

Finding design space for a party game is more about keeping your prompts diverse. While developing Stand Back, Citizen!, my superheroic pitch game, I found that if I wasn’t careful, I was including too many Noun cards about food and animals. While both food and animals are hilarious, because I wanted to retain a reasonable balance of cards I had to cut down to the funniest of them. In this way, even though I hadn’t technically run out of ideas, the demands of the game at large lowered my design space in these categories.

 

Expanding Your Mind

You’ll notice that one topic I haven’t touched on is clearing space for an expansion for your game. This is primarily because I don’t believe in designing anything under the assumption that it’ll do so well that it gets an expansion. With Kickstarter stretch goal content becoming more and more popular, it seems tempting, but creating a game that operates well if a player buys all the content is essentially creating half a game.

The other reason I didn’t talk about space for expansions is that most games can find something to add, no matter how rigid the design space. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar literally has no space on the board to put additional content, yet CGE managed to later release the expansion Tribes and Prophecies, which to my understanding was received fairly well. Design space is more important when you’re designing your core game.

 

Conclusion

Your main benefit over current Magic: The Gathering designers is that you don’t need to work in the design space boundaries set by someone else in 1993. You can now apply modern design sensibilities to actively create enough design space for your components to fit in comfortably. By looking ahead and responsibly adjusting the amount of space you have to work with, you’re going to save yourself a lot of hassle later.

Communication Breakdown (Get it? It’s a Led Zeppelin song? Get it? I’m cultured?)

I’ve seen a number of posts discussing the art of designing for specific genres, like worker placement games or deckbuilders, and find their information fairly useful. However, there is one genre of game I see little to no discussion about, yet its products – Codenames, Mysterium, Ugg-Tect, and Hanabi, for example – continue to be the talk of the town full of board game enthusiasts. If you couldn’t tell by now, these all fall into the fairly narrow category of communication games.

While I don’t have any personal experience designing a communication game, and therefore won’t be talking in terms of what you “should” do, I’m comfortable enough exploring the psychological side of game design that I feel I’m qualified to at least discuss the genre. Communication games are great, and I want to see more people working on them.

WHY DID YOU PICK THAT CARD AAAAAAUUUUUUGH

The core of every communication game is a giant “but.” Stop snickering.

Mysterium is “I want to tell these psychics what suspects to pick”

“I can only communicate with surreal illustrations.”

Codenames is “I want to tell my team what words to pick”

 “I can only give them a one-word clue.”

Ugg-Tect is “I want to tell my workers to assemble a shape using these blocks”

 

“I am a caveman and therefore can only talk via grunting.”

Because the vast majority of communication games are team games, they share a lot in common with co-op games like Pandemic. Both genres generate enjoyment from the fun frustration of watching helplessly as your carefully constructed plans fall apart. However, whereas most co-ops disrupt your plans through random effects, in communication games people most likely lose because someone at the table – not necessarily the person doing the communicating – beefed it. Being the spymaster in Codenames and watching helplessly as your well-intentioned clue sends your team into a death spiral of confusion is a special experience.

(10 years later) WHY DID YOU PICK THAT CARD

One of the guiding principles of my design is impact, which I wrote about here. In brief, impactful games are emotionally moving and memorable. The reason I bring this up is that communication games have a disproportionate level of impact compared to other genres. This is, in part, why the genre has met with such a high amount of acclaim – a good, impactful game is going to make more waves than one that’s only good.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons why communication games, as a whole, are very impactful. The first is the emotional ignition I mentioned in the last section. Oftentimes, the emotions communication games stir up are negative, but media – including games – are places to feel negative emotions in a safe environment, and the frustration is often balanced out by the rush of adrenaline you get when you give a brilliant clue to your Codenames team and they make a miracle rally to win the game.

Second, one of the major components of an impactful game is being able to use lateral thinking to win. People really like feeling smart, and the best way to feel smart is to feel like you outsmarted the game designer. Most communication games encourage this by design, giving players a pile of clues from which to construct a win. Comparing more conventional strategy games to communication games is like comparing a chair from IKEA to a big box of Legos.

Finally, most communication games are really easy to summarize in an elevator pitch. This reason isn’t as important than the other two, but being able to broadly recollect why a game was so interesting is part of what makes it stick in your mind. It also leads to a higher influx of more casual players, who are likelier to be interested in a game because of its hook than because it has a 7.8 on BoardGameGeek.

On a scale from 1 to 10, how confused were you, exactly?

As cool as communication games are, their biggest pitfall is that they’re very difficult to playtest. In a game with a more mathematical basis, it’s easier to make small adjustments when a particular strategy is too strong or weak. With communication games, it’s much harder to adjust the game’s difficulty because so much of it depends on human comprehension.

Probably the most effective technique is merely to brute-force playtests with a wide variety of players. After your game has been refined, you can also develop a sort of sixth sense for whether something is working or not and make an educated guess toward fixing it. It’s also feasible to simply give up on achieving the perfect level of challenge, especially when your game has high variance, and try to keep it within a reasonable range.

I’m keeping this section short because I don’t have any real solutions. Once I start working on a communication game – and I’m sure I’ll give it a shot at some point in my career – I’ll be able to come back to this topic with more confidence.

Conclusion

Because communication games have so many benefits, I hope to see more local designers trying their hand at creating them. The design process is fairly challenging, but the end result is something that cuts very close to the core of tabletop gaming’s purpose: Putting a unique experience in a box to be shared by other people. The genre is still very much in its infancy and I have high expectations of it in the future.

AUTOMATIC MODE ENGAGED

Here’s a fun experiment you can try at home. The next time you’re in the middle of a board game with your friends and nobody’s having any fun with it, suggest that you all quit and play something better. Nine times out of ten, everyone will refuse, citing that they “just want to finish it.” This isn’t borne out of some kind of dogged grit-your-teeth wish to push through it – it’s a board game, so there’s rarely any kind of stakes. Instead, it’s more like the game has some kind of hold on them, an unspoken contract that won’t be complete until the game ends.

My theory is this is the result of something I like to call “automatic mode,” a mental shift that some 95% of people, myself included, go through when they sit down to play a game. A lot of my game design stumbles have been because I don’t consider automatic mode, and keeping it in mind has made me go through iterations more quickly than before. It’s a very useful concept and one that will vastly improve the amount of information you get from watching playtests.

TARGET LOCKED ON

Automatic mode is essentially a single-minded desire to win. Once the rules have been explained to you, your mind immediately starts processing the best way for you to get the most points, or eliminate everyone else, or whatever. It pushes out thoughts of having fun, injokes with your friends, and what you had to eat for dinner that night. All you care about is winning.

There are a couple of exceptions to entering automatic mode. Once your group has played a game enough to get bored with the initial strategy, you start drifting away from winning into finding new strategies that might give you a chance to win. Party games de-emphasize victory enough to keep your brain thinking more about the “funniest” option, not the “best” one. And there is the uncommon person who is able to remain in manual mode in any game, mostly so they can do whatever weird goofy thing they prefer.

This behavior does share a few things with the concept of “flow” – a term referring to entering a blank state of mind when deeply engaged in a task at which one is skilled. But it’s a different concept for two reasons. First, people of any experience level can enter automatic mode, while flow is reserved for people who are reasonably good at the game. In fact, it’s the opposite – people with less skills are more likely to turn on automatic. Second, people still have conscious thoughts in auto mode – they’re just focused more on their goal.

INCREASING EFFICIENCY

The first feature of automatic mode that’s important to designers is that a player on automatic will try to win using as little effort as possible. If they can win without using a feature or two in the game, then they’ll go for it.

To illustrate my point, let’s talk about the game Condottiere. During each round, players play soldier cards of varying strengths in an attempt to control different parts of Italy. The gameplay of this is rich enough already (I discussed part of it in an older post about zugzwang), but buried in the rulebook is an interesting note: It says that players may talk and make deals freely.

This is interesting, because of the numerous games of Condottiere I’ve played with different friend groups, none of us made any deals with each other. We paid attention to who was about to win, of course, but nobody really ganged up on anyone else. Because each player saw a way to win that could be achieved without relying on the table talk aspect of the game, we ignored it and focused on having our knights flex their muscles as hard as possible.

If a mechanic in your game can be safely ignored by players looking to win, it might as well not exist in the first place. If you want players to do something in particular, make it absolutely fundamental to victory instead of a suggestion. This becomes more of a problem with “soft” mechanics like trading, negotation, and betrayal, as suggested above, but anything that seems extraneous could be a problem.

DEFENSES ACTIVATED

If there’s one thing an auto-mode player likes more than winning with as little effort as possible, it’s winning as surely as possible. Faced with a choice with higher risk/reward and a reasonably safe choice that could still help them win, they’ll choose the safe one almost every time.

My example for this comes from the playtesting process for my own Happy Daggers. In Happy Daggers, players attempt to push each other around a map, with more pushing being better for the player on offense. One of my defense cards in an early build of the final game allowed the defender to be pushed exactly 2 spaces. I figured this was a good idea, because other cards granted the ability to defend perfectly, but in playtests, players would always choose to be pushed 2 spaces. The card was quickly replaced with something better.

Designers of games that use variance in part to create a fun play experience should be careful not to offer a choice that’s too safe. That isn’t to say that some choices can’t be safer, but they should offer a small enough reward compared to shooting the moon that the choice should genuinely present some difficulty, even to players on automatic.

SHUTTING DOWN

Sitting down to play a game is essentially handing your brain over to the game designer to have them take care of it for a while. This is where automatic mode comes from – we trust that we’ll have fun on the way to victory and don’t want to put any more effort than we have to. As game designers, instead of trying to fight this behavior, we should tailor our games for it and try to create experiences that players can discover easily. The next time you run a prototype, or even play someone else’s game, thinking about what your players – or you – are doing while on automatic has a lot of value.

The Arty of Party: Part 2: Playtesting Your Party Game

In The Arty of Party: Part 1 I wrote about the party game genre in general and described some of the subgenres. This week, I’ll go into the nitty-gritty of designing your party game, in particular running it through playtests. If you’ve primarily worked in strategy games or similar, you’ll find the experience to be fairly different. However, it doesn’t require any special skills – you just need to evaluate the game in a different way than you’re used to.

“Writer’s Room” Playtests

As I mentioned, the majority of your work in a party game will be coming up with funny prompts. The average game will only use a tiny fraction of these, so to make sure that the majority of your prompts are funny, you’ll want to have two kinds of playtests: Regular ones where you show your game to people you don’t know, and what I call a “writer’s room” playtest.

To do this, you’ll need a group of friends and/or interested people who want to help work on your game. First, run two or three games with them so they understand how it works. Then, read off the list of prompts you’ve developed and, with their help, sort them into “Yes,” “Maybe,” and “No” piles. Throw out everything in the “No” pile and look at the “Maybe” prompts on a later date. Having a lot of people with different senses of humor is especially useful as you get more perspective on whether a prompt works or not.

For pitch games, it’s also important that all the cards flow grammatically with one another. Pick out five or so cards and, for each new one you create, briefly check to see if it sounds weird when combined with any of the other five. As you work alone and with your writer’s room, you’ll find yourself coming up with cards that meet the requirements more and more quickly as you get used to the constraints of your game.

It’s good to hold “writer’s room” playtests every couple of weeks as you continue to test your game and develop additional prompts.

Engagement

When you do your regular playtests, the most important thing, obviously, is that everyone has fun. However, there’s a more scientific approach than constantly interviewing your players to see if they enjoyed it.Though it’s difficult to quantify fun, it’s much easier to quantify engagement, and if your game is good enough, engagement should be fun anyway.

Engagement is a concern for strategy games, as well – it’s no fun to wait helplessly for several minutes as Slow-Play Steve spends forever thinking about his turn – but even a short period of nonengagement in a party game can be fatal. The best way to tell how engaged players will be in your party game is to create a time diagram, mentally or on paper, of how a round passes.

Within this diagram, create three categories: Action, where the player makes a choice or otherwise does something; Entertaining Inaction, where the player isn’t doing anything but is being entertained by another player; and Inaction, where the player is just twiddling their thumbs and waiting for something to happen. Then, run your prototype for a few rounds and create a rough graph of how long a player spends in each state and when. Here’s an example graph for a round of a non-judge player playing Apples to Apples:

These graphs are inevitably very rough but they help you visualize how much each player gets to participate over the course of a round.

Also important is the number of players engaged at one time. As you can see from the graph, only the judge gets to be active for the majority of the round of Apples to Apples. However, in the game Quiplash, all but two players serve as the “judge” for each round, meaning that, although the selection/judgement flow is essentially the same, many more players are actively participating for the majority of the round. In this way, even though the engagement chart would look similar, the game overall is more engaging and fun.

Diversity

Making sure your party game appeals to a wide audience is one of the best ways to ensure it’s a good game. Bring the game to places with a wide variety of age ranges, senses of humor, and experience levels with games to make sure everyone has a good time. This also applies to setting: A bar or a party is a different place than your weekly game night, and it will be more challenging for anyone to focus on a game there.

Even within your friend group, you can test for whether the game appeals to a diverse audience. Think about the shiest, most quiet person playing: Are they enjoying the game? Are they winning about as often as anyone else at the table? If the answer is yes, your game is essentially accomplishing what it’s supposed to by allowing everyone to participate in the generation of jokes.

As you test for wide outreach, you may find that parts of your game aren’t accessible to everyone. For example, when I tested Stand Back, Citizen!, I found that the real-time gameplay, which emphasized being able to put together a combination of cards as fast as possible, was difficult for people who didn’t fluently understand English. If there’s any way that the core concept of your game can expand to be more accessible, make it a priority.

It’s Time To Party

Even if you aren’t interested in creating a party game, I hope these two essays have at least convinced you that party games require just as much rigor as any other game design. If you’re mostly used to games that involve a lot of silent thinking, you might want to dip a toe into the pool of making your players laugh. A peek into player psychology can benefit anyone!

The Arty of Party: Part 1: Designing a Party Game

If you ask the average American what their image of a board game is, they’ll give you two examples: “Classic” strategy games like Monopoly, and the ever-present party game. Indeed, the party genre is among the most mainstream in a hobby only beginning to leave its niche, and the most popular games can be found lining the walls at big-box retail stores. While some designers ignore or disparage party games, others, including such stellar talents as Matt Leacock (Knitwit), Friedemann Friese (Terra), and Richard Garfield (Hive Mind), have combined the mass appeal of party games with the rigor of modern tabletop design.

Compared to more conventional hobbyist genres like deckbuilding and worker placement, there isn’t a lot written about designing or playtesting party games, so I wanted to venture into this uncharted territory. Much of this is based off the experience of playtesting my superheroic pitch game, Stand Back, Citizen!, which as of this writing is still looking for a place in the market. My prior experience as a script and comedy writer aided me greatly in that project, and provides me with the perspective necessary to discuss the topic.

 What is a party game?

 The definition of a party game is very easy.

Party games are comedy Legos.

There.

Every single party game ever made is designed with the intention of making it easier to be funny. This is useful because there’s a lot of reasons someone might not be making other people laugh in a large social group: They might be shy, they might not know the others that well, or they might not have the ability to think up jokes on the fly. Party games even the playing field, allowing anyone, no matter who they are, to score some points with the rest of the people playing.

To accomplish this, party games give you individual components of jokes. all you have to do is click them together to create something that’s at worst recognizable as a joke and at best hilarious. It might sound like I’m overgeneralizing, but the comedy Legos come in all different shapes and sizes, depending on the game.

Pitch games like Cards Against Humanity, Snake Oil, and Stand Back, Citizen! have you inserting punchline tab A into setup slot B. Some of them require extra effort on your part to sell your joke, while others, like Say Anything or Quiplash, give you a blank space to write in the joke yourself.

“Know-your-friends” games, including Polemic, Scattergories, and Hive Mind, don’t make formal jokes per se but generate funny situations based on the table’s interactions with each other. It’s less the satisfaction of matching up two perfect cards and more the cosmic circumstance of everyone thinking of eighteen different ways to finish the phrase “Double ______”.

Trivia games are essentially a fun trivia book like Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader chopped up and placed within a game framework. The best trivia games don’t require anyone to know the exact answer but instead rely on approximate knowledge (Wits & Wagers) or being able to bluff something that sounds right (Balderdash).

There’s other games that don’t fit these rough categories, like charades-with-a-board Concept or hybrid party/strategy game Codenames, but surely by now you see what they all have in common.

Designing Your Party Game

 The biggest difference between designing a strategy game and designing a party game is the amount of time you spend on mechanics. The bulk of your time in strategy game design is spent refining and polishing your mechanics; however, you’ll only want to dedicate about 5% of your energy to mechanics in party games, spending the other 95% generating lots and lots of prompts.

At a rough estimate, I’d say that most party games have about 400-500 cards; some games will put up to 6 prompts on each one. The idea of having to write several thousand funny things seems daunting, but your prompts exist independently of one another, so you don’t need to worry about gradually increasing complexity like you might with a strategy game. You can also get your friends, family, and playtesters to help you out. Pitch games are a little different, as all of your setup cards need to work at least semi-well with your punchline cards. Creating prompts gets easier as you hammer out a system for them, which I’ll discuss in Part 2.

Not all of your prompts will be winners, but try to keep your hit/miss ratio at least above 50%. The game Telestrations, a combination of Pictionary and Telephone, suffers from this problem: the mechanics are fun, and the good prompts are great to work with, but there’s so many mediocre and easy-to-guess prompts that the game kind of falls apart if your luck is bad. My play group tried using the highest level of Pictomania cards once instead and we had a great time.

Most party games arrive in small boxes and cost less than $40, so discuss with your printer/publisher how many cards you can fit in the box on a limited budget and aim for the highest number possible.

Now For That 5%

 All good party games share two qualities: They’re easy to learn, and they have tons of replay value.

The main way you add replay value is through massive amounts of prompts, as discussed above, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure that your system doesn’t encourage the repetition of the same joke over and over again. For example, in Cards Against Humanity the white cards have essentially self-contained jokes, which means that people who play it a lot (and most people do whether they want to or not) will end up getting bored as they see the same thing over and over. Meanwhile, Snake Oil creates jokes by combining two standalone nouns, meaning the same card can create a near-endless amount of comedy just by picking different partners.

What you need to concentrate on, primarily, is making your party game simple. Very simple. No, simpler than that. The average player of your game is at a distracting party and two drinks in. If you can’t explain how your game works in thirty seconds, you need to cut some rules. On the other side of this coin, think very hard if you want to add a new mechanic: It needs to revolutionize the way the game is played before it can justify another ten seconds of the game owner blabbering about how it works.

See you in two weeks for Part 2: Playtesting A Party Game!

Magical Passover Land

The Magic: The Gathering community has a useful term called “Magical Christmas Land” that also has some value for game design. It’s a derogatory phrase used to describe decks or cards that are very powerful under ideal circumstances, but in most other cases (and there are many, as Magic is a high-variance game) they’re bad. For example, in Magical Christmas Land I might draw the specific seven cards I need to activate a combo and win on turn 1, but if I live in the real world and draw even a slightly worse hand, I’ll get run over and lose.

Living in Magical Christmas Land is a major problem to a game designer, but I don’t want to include a Christian holiday in my game design philosophy because I’m Jewish and our holidays get overshadowed enough as it is. So instead I wanted to examine this habit in the lens of a different holiday: Passover.

For those who don’t know, the most important part of Passover is the telling of the story of the Jews’ escape from Egypt in the book of Exodus. Now, it could have been assumed that everyone would just perfectly understand this story and its meaning, and would leave the seder table informed about their own peoplehood. But this would be a problem. Some people don’t want to be there, some don’t get the meaning of the ritual, and some are young and need help. So we assume that four “children” are at every seder, and provide them with the answers that they need.

This is surprisingly translatable to the art of tabletop design. Living in Magical Passover Land is assuming that everyone’s going to get your story as-is; that is, that all your players are going to catch on to your game and be enthusiastic about it. This is a major problem, but a deceptive one: You can make a game that works great if you or your friends are playing it, because it’s tailored for you, but doesn’t work for wider audiences.

To counteract this, think about the four children (of any age) who may be playing your game.

The Wise Child

“BoardGameGeek states that the average score for this game is 75, which is pretty high for the designer…”

The Wise Child has 1000% enthusiasm for your game and its genre. This might be the hardcore Euro enthusiast, the armchair general with their gigantic Warhammer army, or even the president of your local Liars’ Club who plays 20 games of Mafia a week. Even if your game isn’t the best, they like it so much that they dive deep into the strategy. Normally this is good, but their enthusiasm can translate into unbeatable skill, which is a problem for groups of mixed ability.

For the Wise Child, we thank them for enjoying our work, but try to add systems through which the other players can occasionally nab a game or two. This can be by the inclusion of randomness, adding a low skill floor to the game, or, in the case of co-op games, a restriction on communication. Not every game needs or wants this, but everyone should be aware that the Wise Child may be at your table.

The Wicked Child

“Oh, my turn already?”

The Wicked Child in the Passover service isn’t actually wicked; they’re just a little selfish and don’t want to participate. They don’t understand why they have to bother with not eating bread and going through all this ritual, so it has to be explained to them why going to all this hassle is important for the survival of the Jewish people and them in particular.

Similarly, our Wicked Child isn’t acting out of malice; they just don’t want to be there. They’re playing this game because their friends wanted to play and it was better than sitting alone and doing nothing. The Wicked Child pretty much understands the strategy; they just don’t want to put any effort into enjoying the game because they don’t think they’re going to get anything out of it if they try.

For the Wicked Child, we design games where you still get what you need to even if you don’t care that much. This is kind of an abstract way of describing it, so let me use an example: The game Gloom is a fairly simple take-that game, which you’re supposed to spice up by role-playing how everyone’s Gorey-esque family dies horribly. However, if you don’t like the genre or don’t like storytelling, you’re reduced to playing cards at random on people. On the other hand, this is why I suspect Apples to Apples and its cousins are so popular: You can participate by simply choosing a card out of your hand.

The Simple Child

“What?”

The Simple Child is a little out of their element. They don’t really understand the more nuanced strategies of your game, and will usually stick to things that are more laid-out by the rules or components. Not thinking about this child leads to one of the biggest traps in game design: That everyone who plays your game will “get” the complex strategic portions of your game that requires a lot of thinking and investment.

One might also assume that this only applies to heavy games, but there are plenty of light ones, especially with social elements, where the strategy goes over people’s heads if they aren’t familiar with the genre. Skull, which has very few rules but requires deep psychological analysis, fits the bill here, as well as many social deduction games like Werewolf. Be careful that the way to get ahead is laid out by your rules, not just by your assumption that everyone is a mindgame genius.

The Child Who Is Too Young To Ask Questions

I actually have nothing here – at this point, you’re supposed to start telling the story of Passover. I could try to make some link, but at this point I think it’s more respectful to my faith and my audience if I admit this wasn’t a perfect metaphor, but instead a cute way of addressing a part of game design that I don’t think has been talked about very often.

Afikoman

It’s not your audience’s fault if they aren’t a perfect fit for your game, and to assume that everyone is is to live in Magical Passover Land. I hope this article taught you about a new perspective on your designs, and, for those gentiles reading this, a little bit about Judaism. Make sure that you have all the children covered when they sit down at your table, and they’ll treat you well in kind.

 

Game Analysis: Epic Spell Wars

The Take-That genre finds itself in an uncomfortable position between pure party games and strategic games. Games like Red Dragon Inn and Room Party have very light tactical elements but are mostly used to generate funny situations, with players attacking each other more for the hell of it than to gain an gameplay advantage. If you couldn’t tell by the past couple of sentences, I’m not a big fan of the genre, but there is one that stands out to me: Rob Heinsoo’s Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards series. Though it does suffer from some of the gameplay issues endemic to the genre, it creates a great deal of genuine play value that its brethren don’t. Why is that? Let’s find out.

KRAZZTAR the BLOOD-O-MANCER

I’m a big fan of unusual themes in games, but even for me, it’s difficult for a game to cover up lacking mechanics with a theme. If Epic Spell Wars had more of a conventional fantasy setting, I’d probably play it once at a friend’s house and forget about it, but its over-the-top gory ridiculousness piqued my interest.

The first thing you see when you open the manual is a two-page-long screed about endlessly regenerating wizards in a horrifying (but awesome) tournament full of blood and lightning and skeletons, the sort of thing a thirteen-year-old boy would scribble on the margins of his notes in English class. All of the spells you can cast have names like “GORE-NADO,” and the playable characters include the aforementioned KRAZZTAR the BLOOD-O-MANCER and Hogs the House, a giant wizard who uses a staff with a normal-sized wizard inside it.

Compounding this is Nick Edwards’ illustrations, which looks like art from MAD Magazine or one of several Adult Swim shows. Most of the spells and treasures have cartoonishly exaggerated blood and/or facial expressions on it, but even the ones that are more down-to-earth are funny: My personal favorite is The Slow Roller’s Throne, which features a fat guy asleep on it while someone off-card bellows “YOUR TURN!”

Game illustrations should do two things: They should be distinctive enough to recognize, and they should contribute to the overall feeling the game wants to generate in its players. Epic Spell Wars is a prime example: No other game has art like this, and the art helps generate a feeling of light-hearted malice that is essential to Take-That games as a genre.

Just Spells Flinging Everywhere

Despite its loud, magical grandstanding, Epic Spell Wars also subtly fixes a common problem with the genre: Who are you going to target?

In normal Take-That games, even in multiplayer games with political elements like 3+ player Magic: The Gathering, it’s difficult to decide who you should attack. This is worst in the early game, where nobody’s really developed their powers; most people just target whoever has the highest HP. Epic Spell Wars partially fixes this problem by not letting you choose, for the most part, who your spells target.

Many of your magical attacks have predetermined targets. These are frequently the player sitting to your left or right, while some target the players with the highest or lowest HP. While there are some spells that allow you to pick a target, they’re in the minority, so you’ll often find yourself targeting people because you want some other benefit from the spell – playing spells of the same type makes them stronger, and some give you treasure, so you’re making choices not on who you want to hit, but the strength of the hit itself.

This lends a fun, chaotic atmosphere to the game similar to Super Smash Bros. or indie superstar Duck Game. Spells will often switch targets to different people after you’ve prepared them, so someone might get stormed down from half health in a single turn, or suddenly find everything missing them by pure coincidence. There is room for strategy here, but similar to Libertalia, the strategy falling apart because your opponents zigged when you thought they would zag is part of the appeal of the game.

Conclusion

In writing this essay, I’m reminded of the way Roger Ebert reviewed movies: Instead of whether they appealed to his personal tastes, he evaluated movies on how well they accomplished their own goals. Epic Spell Wars isn’t meant for people to develop intelligent strategies and grow their skills: It’s a light, social game intended to make players laugh as their characters die to spells with ludicrous names. By accomplishing its goal in a better way than almost any other game in its genre, even if it doesn’t work for everyone, Epic Spell Wars is a successful design.

The Unbearable Lightness of Theming

 

Some designers are of the opinion that theme is secondary for a game: That as long as the mechanical backing is suitable, you can basically slap on whatever theme you want and you’ll get something good. I’m not so blind as to think the exact opposite – that you can make a terrible game with a fun theme and get something you should be proud of – but I think theme is more important to a cohesive game experience than it’s given credit for. There’s lots of things to think about when creating a theme for your game, but the most important axis is weight.

The Scale Scale of Theme Weight

The Scale Scale is named after the “scale,” a device that can be used to measure the weight of objects and living things. Just like games can mechanically be light (shorter play time, fewer tough choices, lower complexity) or heavy (the opposite of those things), themes can be light or heavy as well. Unlike my 1 to 10 impact scale that I described in a previous article, I want to use vague terms to describe theme weight because I don’t feel quantifying it is going to help anything.

Thematically light games generally take themselves less seriously. The graphics are often bright and cartoony, and the beings depicted in it are drawn with less realistic proportions. The art for Imperial Settlers is a good example, with a spherical, bemoustached man on the cover rolling along a bright field with his little dog. On a writing/narrative level, jokes are much more common, especially overt ones: that is, ones that essentially tell you “hey, I’m a joke!” This doesn’t necessarily mean that thematically light games are happy. for example, Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards is goofy and fun, but also filled with exaggerated bloodsoaked carnage between wizards in an apocalyptic hellscape.

Thematically heavy games attempt to be more serious. Keyword here is “attempt,” because only the grimmest tabletop game will resist the attempts of gamers to turn it into comedy. Aesthetically, realistic proportions and a more restrained use of color are common. Note that I said “restrained,” not “dull,” as plenty of more serious games (Pandemic, for example) will use bright colors as an accent or as a way to indicate information to the player. Narratively, the game doesn’t make fun of its own premise and intentional jokes are used sparingly, if at all.

A Light Filler Game About The Gallic Wars

Some themes lend themselves both to light and heaviness; fantasy and “soft” science fiction, for instance, can be as goofy or as serious as you’d like and work fine for your game. However, other themes, even common ones, work much better on one end of the spectrem than the other.

As you could tell from the title, in my opinion, real-world history is much more suitable for a serious, heavy theme than a light one. I don’t know the exact reasons why: Maybe it’s the influence of grandiose games like the Civilization series, maybe people subconsciously don’t like their feeling of power over some cardboard Romans to be poked fun at, or perhaps because history is more of the realm of people who also prefer their games to be heavier. History-themed games also trend towards thematic heaviness the later the game is set, which makes sense, because it’s easier to cartoonify Caesar and Cleopatra than the Russian leaders who loomed over the West during the publisher’s lifetime.

There are plenty of themes that are more suitable for light games, but the clear standout for me is food. This one makes more sense at first glance – food is inherently a silly subject, and delicious-looking food is bright and colorful. Food is also consumed over the course of fifteen to thirty minutes, associating that time span with the appropriate length of time to play a food-themed game. Finally, there’s just not that much about food that can be taken seriously*, making the uphill struggle to get gamers to take you seriously even steeper.

* There’s many serious things about the food industry, but that’s more the realm of Brenda Romero-style educational games, which are beyond the scope of this blog.

Get Me A Hamburger Or So Help Me God

So the more mechanically dense my game, the more I want the theme to be heavy, right? Wrong. Let’s look at an example: Splotter Spiele’s Food Chain Magnate.

Food Chain Magnate is one of the densest, heaviest games available in your local game store. Games last several hours, there are hundreds of difficult decisions to make, and screwing up early can cause you to slide into defeat as your opponents deftly snatch your points away from you. However, its theme – 50’s style cartoons depicting people serving burgers and lemonade at a fast food joint – is pretty light. There’s even a goofy paragraph on the side of the box featuring a CEO yelling at an underling to start serving beer to their dumb, terrible customers.

This actually works really well, because though Food Chain Magnate is mechanically heavy, it’s trying to generate an emotion in the players beyond “thinking”: It’s trying to make you cutthroat and competitive with each other, acting cartoonishly mean to your serving staff and customers so that you can have the most money at the end of the game. Because the theme is light, you won’t feel bad about wrecking your corporate infrastructure to turn a few bucks. You will comfortably step into the shoes of mister Cigar-Moustache-Dollar-Sign-Tie on the cover blurb for two to four hours and have a great time, one you might not have if you were expected to take the lives of your employees more seriously.

Theme weight, therefore, can be a great help in reinforcing the feelings you want your game to generate. Are you making a social deduction game where the players experience nailbiting tension? Grim, serious theming will help you stay on point. What about a dexterity game where things falling down is half the fun? Anything other than something bright and goofy would just be weird. Maybe something more cerebral that challenges players’ minds to the fullest? You may want to go to the middle of the scale and find something that won’t intrude too much on the players’ calculations. (Fantasy Flight’s editions of Tigris and Euphrates, Samurai, and Ra are good examples of this.)

Thinking about this from the start of your design process will help you create a more coherent experience for your players and a more appealing product for your publishers and/or backers.

Conclusion

Designing games in the Bay Area with a degree in theatre sometimes feels like running into a biker bar, adjusting my golf-themed tie, and bellowing loudly about the virtues of motor scooters. To compensate for my lack of programming and math experience, I think much harder about theme and player psychology, usually considering art and flavor text at the same time my designs take their first few shaking steps. I intend to write more about theme in the future as it’s an under-represented subject in tabletop writing, and I hope you’ll read those as well.