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, but in some cases it’s simply impossible to include everyone.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Top Ten Games

Because it’s been a busy couple of weeks with the holidays, I thought that this week I’d bunt and write a column about my top ten favorite games. Two things to note:

A) Everything below second place is vague and could shift up or down several places depending on my mood.

B) A lot of these games start with the letter C for some reason. I don’t know why.


10. Sentinels of the Multiverse

I haven’t played Sentinels in a while, partially because I’m burned out and partially because you can’t play it with people with uneven experience levels, but it’s the game that, more than any other, got me into game design. It also opened me up to co-op games; most co-ops before it were blisteringly hard by default and Sentinels had a much wider range of difficulty levels. The idea that co-op games can be fun while not being incredibly tough was something I brought with me to Tiny Trainwrecks. It’s also an incredibly thematic game; I really felt like a superhero fighting a villain when I was playing.

  1. Roll For The Galaxy

I play a fair number of engine-building games and something I like about Roll in particular is how powerful it makes you feel. Some games tax you or make you deal with resource scarcity; in Roll For The Galaxy, you’re only limited by the number of dice you have on your turn, so even if you have a lean turn you don’t feel like your engine is irreparably behind. There isn’t a lot of interaction, but the interaction that exists is very interesting and rewards careful observation of your opponents’ situations.

  1. Trains

Deckbuilders aren’t my favorite genre, but I make a special exception for Trains. The actions you take will genuinely affect your opponents in one way or another, and while it’s easy to figure out the basics, there’s a huge amount of space to grow as a player. I also appreciate the diverse strategies in the game; you can charge towards valuable cities, spread out as fast as possible, or stay lean and purchase VP cards. Trains: Rising Sun is a little messier, and I don’t like attack cards in this system, but it’s still fun.

  1. Citadels

Citadels was an impulse buy from a local game store in San Mateo and one that I’m deeply grateful I made. It’s a very clean, elegant game that somehow proves to be both tense and hilarious; the draft segment makes you think and the economy always keeps you hungry. Despite never having won a game of Citadels, I’m a huge fan of it (and basically every Faidutti game) because it keeps me in the game the whole time.

  1. Castles of Mad King Ludwig

There are several things Castles has going for it that I enjoy. Strategies vary greatly depending on the available tiles and bonus cards, requiring you to improvise for every game. Additionally, even if you’re in last place, building your castle is fulfilling and makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something. However, Roll For the Galaxy does these two things a little more tightly, so why is Castles ranked higher? The answer: Theme. Castles’ (slightly) more grounded theme makes games a little more impactful and adds a dash of humor that gives the game a slight boost above Roll.

  1. BattleCON: Fate of Indines

BattleCON isn’t an objectively better game than the five previous ones on the list, but it is a game that was practically made for my specific enjoyment. I’ve always been a fan of fighting games, and BattleCON preserves the strategy and bluffing from the genre while removing the need to practice combos over and over again. It’s also extremely anime. Fate of Indines’ comparatively small cast of characters is more of a benefit than a drawback, as it gives you more time to master one and doesn’t intimidate new players with variety.

  1. Codenames

There are only a few games that made me excited just from hearing a description of the rules, and Vlaada Chvatil’s masterpiece Codenames was one of them. As soon as I purchased a copy, I ran game after game for any group of friends I could find, and all of them appreciated the game’s simplicity, tension, and massive amount of room for lateral thinking. Add the short playtime and near-infinite replayability, and you get more than an excellent game: You get a modern classic.

  1. Libertalia

In addition to having low player downtime and a unique puzzle to solve, Libertalia is one of the funniest board games I have ever played. There’s very few moments that top, to name a few examples, everyone at the table revealing a Brute and punching each other off the ship, everyone dodging a series of cursed Incan pendants by attacking a ship with all cabin boys, and defeating a Captain by surrounding him with beggars and draining the hapless Captain’s player for fifteen doubloons. As I mentioned previously, Libertalia is also super easy to teach, as the game’s complexity is limited to the cards. There’s very little to complain about this game, except that, similar to Citadels, I have never won a game in the 10 or so I’ve played.

  1. Conspiracy: Take the Crown (Magic: The Gathering)

During the summer of 2006, I asked a friend to teach me how to play Magic, which introduced me to a hobby that I continue to pursue to this day. Conspiracy: Take the Crown is an expansion designed specifically for drafting, featuring heavy multiplayer and political elements. The set has a lot of things that I adore, ranging from the fun and interactive draft segment to the over-the-top combat. There are probably other expansions that are more challenging at a professional level, but I have never had more fun playing Magic than when playing Conspiracy: Take the Crown.

  1. Cosmic Encounter

I’ll keep this brief because I already wrote an article about Cosmic Encounter, but this is a game that was 40 years ahead of its time. Some of the ways it fixed the problems with the political game genre haven’t been replicated since, and the varied alien powers make it one of the most impactful games ever created. I own every expansion of the Fantasy Flight edition, along with an aftermarket box insert, and it’ll probably take me half my life before I get tired of playing.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it, my top 10 favorite games. If you want to discuss, that’d be cool. Thanks!

Rough Drafts

There’s basically two kinds of game mechanics: Ones that are hefty enough to require the game to be about them (hidden movement, worker placement) and ones that are usually added in a small amount to a more complicated game (bluffing, dice-rolling). Falling half-and-half into both camps is my pet mechanic, card drafting. When used properly, drafting can be a tense and challenging mechanic that adds a lot of strategy; when misused, it obscures information about the other players’ plans and leads to a lot of blind fumbling in the dark. This week, I want to go into what drafting adds to a game and how it can achieve that goal.

The following is a description of the most common kind of draft, for those unfamiliar: Each player has an identically sized hand of cards. Acting at the same time, each player selects one card out of that hand and passes it to a player next to them. The process repeats until there are no more cards to draft. In some cases, the process ends once each player has two cards, and the remaining card is discarded. Notable drafting games include 7 Wonders, Sushi Go, and Shadow Throne.

Arts and Drafts

Good draft elements in a game should do the following:

  1. Signposting. When you draft, you should have enough guidance as to what to pick (especially early in the process) to make the process manageable without being easy. There’s multiple ways to accomplish this: You can make some cards more valuable to pick early, like the resource cards in 7 Wonders, give players larger hands than player count so many of the cards “wheel” around back to you, or simply make some of the cards more powerful than others.
  2. Information on your neighbors (and ways to make use of it). One of the best elements of drafting is it allows for games with high player counts without making players have to keep track of what everyone’s doing; because almost every hand is going to be filtered through your immediate neighbors, they’re the only ones you really have to pay attention to. Therefore, good drafts make it so you know what your opponents are doing and you can capitalize on it, either by pursuing a different strategy or cutting them off from what they need.

Side note: Magic: The Gathering drafts give you very little information on what your neighbors are drafting, but this is mitigated a little because the starting hand size for each of three drafts is a massive 15 cards, giving you many more data points than other drafting games. Still, this frequently results in newer players creating unusable decks because they misread the signals, and creates a steep learning curve.

  1. Wheeling. This is the most optional rule of the three, but not making use of it means forgoing one of the most interesting parts of having a draft system in your game in the first place. When the starting hand size for a draft is larger than the number of players, some of the cards from the hand you started with will end up back at you eventually, having “wheeled” through the entire table.

Wheeling combines elements of both luck and strategy, rewarding people who successfully predict what’s going to be passed back of them and giving players some idea as to what to expect in the later parts of the draft. It’s certainly possible to create good drafts without wheeling, but it makes the game a lot deeper and more interesting.

My Favorite 1970s Electronic Band Is Draftwerk, Creators of the Hit Song “Pro Tour de France”

I wanted to call especial attention in this article to games that use drafting as a small-to-medium part of their total system, because part of making a good drafting game is making the draft a meaningful part of the game and creating a game solely about drafting accomplishes that by definition. Here’s some games that missed the mark on drafts and some that folded it in beautifully.

One of the biggest offenders of misusing draft systems is Council of Verona, an otherwise lovely betting game about throwing characters you don’t like from Romeo and Juliet into exile. The game starts with each player getting dealt a character card, then having the remaining 12 or so characters get drafted facedown by the players one by one. Because you don’t know what hand anyone else is assembling, your only strategy is creating weak combos between the cards you picked, which are frequently invalidated because of what your opponents play in between turns.

The game Seasons suffers from many of the same issues. At the start of the game, each player drafts magical artifacts using 9-card starting hands. The major problem is that every artifact is a) unique and b) possesses intricate powers, meaning that it’s difficult to choose what artifact you want even through which ones are synergistic together. It’s also difficult to change your artifacts once you’ve started, meaning some players can lose the game before it starts

So what games include drafting in a good way? My standout example is one of my favorite games period, Bruno Faidutti’s Citadels. At the start of each round, whoever has the start player marker gets a hand of 5-6 out of the game’s eight roles, and the players draft one role each. This sounds fairly ordinary, but what makes this special is how the game handles information. You will desperately want specific roles – perhaps the merchant to get lots of money, or the architect to build lots of buildings – but it’s very easy for other people to tell what you want, and being predictable will result in you getting punished hard.

A single round of Citadels will make you think endlessly about what to do. Is it worth getting targeted to pick a role that’s more valuable to you, or do you get smaller gains by picking something less predictable? How much do you want a specific card that you’ll pick the King and grab the first player token, at the cost of a more impactful role? And what roles did your opponents pick? Faidutti is the master of games about reading your opponents (Mascarade and Mission: Red Planet also use these in great amounts), and Citadels is his drafting masterpiece.

Also of note are the mini-drafts that Bang! and Stone Age use as a reward system. In both of them, a group of resources/cards are determined, and everyone drafts one face-up. I’m a big fan of these because they make everyone feel good (and that’s really hard in a game like Bang!) while giving a significant bonus to someone: The right to pick first. It’s helpful in mini-drafts for some of the cards/resources to be better or rarer than others, both to provide guidance to the first player and to make them feel better about starting it in the first place.

Conclusion, or, I’m Glad This Is Over Because I Had To Type “Draft” Into A Rhyming Dictionary

Drafting is one of the most volatile elements of conventional tabletop games. When used right, it can provide an incredibly interesting challenge and make everyone feel good; when misused, it leads to an uninteractive mass of guesses. Your design doesn’t necessarily have to make use of my guidelines above, but I hope this article will inspire you to take a look at your system and think about whether drafting is really the best option for what you’re creating.

The last person to finish reading this article…MAY be eliminated

I have a bit of a taste for competition-themed reality shows. Many of them are very hit-or-miss in terms of season quality (Top Chef Las Vegas compared to Top Chef D.C. for instance), but the good seasons are fun to watch, with larger-than-life personalities demonstrating skill in an entertaining way. Today, I wanted to talk about The Amazing Race, which is both one of the best reality shows and filled with a surprising amount of lessons for game designers.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, allow me to briefly summarize it: A dozen or so teams, beginning the US, race around the world. The race is divided into usually 12 legs, between which teams get a chance to rest. Teams that finish last on each leg are eliminated, though two or three are secretly “non-elimination legs” in which nobody has to leave. Each team has to complete two kinds of tasks on every leg: A “Detour,” which gives the team a choice between two different tasks, and a “Roadblock,” a task that only one member of the team can perform.

The Catchup Mechanic

When I wrote about TCG design several months ago, I mentioned that one of the benefits of learning about it is watching the designers make mistakes, learn lessons, and implement changes in public instead of having to read about the process second-hand. The same logic applies to The Amazing Race’s course and challenge design, particularly in the way it stops a team from rocketing so far ahead that nobody else could ever catch up to them.

This was a major problem in the finale of the first season, which saw the three remaining teams so far away from each other that it was a foregone conclusion as to who would win. Since then, the show has included several measures to stop this from happening.

The most obvious way The Amazing Race allows other teams to catch up is through mandatory transportation. For example, early legs frequently require the teams to travel using three specific flights, each of which depart an hour or two from each other. In this way, faster teams get a slight advantage that isn’t crushing and the weakest teams don’t immediately fall off and become completely unable to catch up.

However, putting the entire race on rails isn’t something the audience – or the producers – want to see, so a lot of ways The Amazing Race handles its catchup mechanics feel more natural. The most common way is, once again, transportation: Even without the show mandating which flights to take, there aren’t too many last-minute flights from Prague to Harare on any given day, so teams will naturally settle into two or three flights.

Making some tasks take place in museums or other locations with opening and closing hours also creates a bottleneck of leading teams that arrive there before hours. Sometimes, this completely equalizes teams; in other cases, it shortens the last team’s eight-hour gap to one hour. It also provides the fun visual of all these cutthroat teams sleeping on the street in front of the task location and getting stared at by locals.

The U-Turn

The other thing I wanted to discuss with regards to The Amazing Race’s game design is how it handled the U-Turn, a recurring feature meant to add more politics into the course of the race. From Season 5 to Season 12, the show used something called a Yield instead; in both features, one team may nominate another team to be delayed, but have to “sign” it so the other team knows who backbit them.

When a team got Yielded, they had to turn over an hourglass and wait for about half an hour to continue. When a team is U-turned, they have to go back and do the second task of a Detour. Realistically, these both take about the same amount of time and don’t change the basic strategy and composition of the race to the racers. So why was the change put in?

This is where The Amazing Race’s peculiar situation comes in. The vast majority of games are made to be fun for the people playing them, but because it’s TV, the main group the race is meant to entertain is the audience. Therefore, the Yield was changed to the U-Turn not because it was causing problems to the contestants but because it made for more compelling television. After all, watching a team struggle to complete the Detour task they didn’t want is a lot better than watching two people impatiently tap their feet in front of an hourglass.

One might expect that this has nothing to do with games, but there are several genres where attention isn’t paid to if one or more players is having fun. Most notably, role-playing games sometimes put too much of a burden on the GM, expecting them to not only entertain the other players but keep track of a huge amount of fiddly rules. Knowing who’s supposed to be having fun at all stages of your game is important, and U-Turns serve as an interesting lesson about it.

Conclusion

I heartily recommend The Amazing Race if you’re filing receipts, working out at the gym, or performing some other task where you’d like to be entertained. But if you’re a game designer, there’s a surprising amount you can learn from Phil Keoghan’s international gauntlet of pain. Don’t brush it off just because it’s a reality show – the producers have ridiculously high stakes that they have to meet, and they pay attention to the details of the race as much as any designer you could care to name cares about their game. Take what you can, and enjoy the race!