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!

This post’s about IMPACT!!!!!!!!!

The most formative experience so far in my career as a game designer came the first time I tabled at a convention. As it happened, I was seated next to the only other tabletop game company selling there (name withheld to protect the innocent (me)). The first day, someone came up to my booth and I told her about my games. Afterwards, I observed her as she went over to the other booth. As soon as she saw it, her eyes lit up and she grinned. “You just made my day!” she said, “I’ve been having a hard day and you just made it way better.”

I immediately thought, my games need to inspire that reaction.

The experience taught me something incredibly valuable that I feel a lot of designers don’t pay attention to. Games can’t be evaluated strictly on the basis of “quality.” There’s actually two ways to measure a game’s appeal, and while quality is one, the second, the one that made that person’s day, is something I call IMPACT!!! (Pretend I punched the air while I was saying that.)

Impact is a qualitative measurement, so it’s hard for me to put it in words, but roughly speaking, it’s how much a game sticks with you. After playing an impactful game, you’ll want to rush over to your friends who haven’t played it yet and talk their ear off about this cool thing that happened or that hilarious mistake that cost you the game. You’ll be so excited about what you just experienced, you’ll think about it as you’re driving home or drifting off to sleep.

It is my responsibility as a designer, someone who makes things that he wants people to buy, to make excellent, high-quality games. However, it is my goal as a designer to make games that are also extremely impactful.

 

How To Make An Impact

So what gives a game impact in the first place? There are a number of factors at play, some of which might not be obvious.

Theme: You can usually tell whether the theme of a game has impact by giving a sales pitch to someone who hasn’t heard of it before. “You’re a farmer in 12th-century France” isn’t going to be that exciting; “It’s an eating contest set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland” is.

Art Style: Merely having quality art isn’t enough to give a game more impact if the art is similar to a lot of other games out there. For example, if you showed someone a gorgeous piece of realistic-looking fantasy art, they probably couldn’t tell you where it came from; show them one of John Kovalic’s cartoons from Ca$h n’ Gun$, on the other hand, and they’ll know the answer immediately.

Gimmicks: These are aesthetic or mechanical ways of approaching the game that don’t actually change the strategy very much, but make it more fun. The aforementioned Ca$h n’ Gun$, with its goofy foam guns, is an obvious example, but even serious strategy games use them, like Alchemists’ app and Tzolk’in’s rotating gears.

Storytelling: Games that tell some kind of coherent narrative through their play are going to stick in the players’ mind much more than ones that are essentially multiplayer puzzles. RPG-lite games like Mansions of Madness are obvious, but theme-first mechanics-second games like Camp Grizzly and Sentinels of the Multiverse use storytelling techniques for impact as well.

Lateral Thinking: The other way mechanics can make an impact is when there’s a lot of room in the rules for a player to use lateral thinking to make hilariously unexpected plays. I can still, for example, name some of the famous/infamous plays from Codenames games I played a year ago. This is also why card-matching party games like Apples to Apples are popular, as they’re essentially “Lateral Thinking: The Game.”

Humor: The funnier a game is, the more likely it’ll impact you. I’ve already written about humor in the context of board games, so go read that!

Games can be impactful by doing reasonably well in a few categories or by smashing through the ceiling on a single one. There’s also probably ways of achieving impact that I haven’t thought of.

 

The Impact Scale 

Ever since I came up with the concept, I’ve started scoring games on their impact with a scale of 1 to 10. I wanted to share some of my thoughts on it to illustrate how I think about impact.

At the very bottom of the scale sits the game I use as an example of nonimpactful games, Glass Road. I want to preface this by saying that I think Glass Road, like most of Uwe Rosenberg’s games, is an extremely good and challenging game that gives players a lot of options. In fact, this is also a good example of how “impact” and “quality” are on completely separate axes, as there are terrible games that are still quite impactful.

But returning to my main point, Glass Road is a game about glassblowing set in rural Germany, but you don’t even have to blow glass most of the time! I’ve won multiple games by ignoring glass entirely, making a lot of bricks, and using them to buy buildings. There’s a fun gimmick with some production wheels, but I just don’t remember anything about the gameplay except that it was good.

The other game that immediately springs to mind as a 1 for impact is Hansa Teutonica, which was very deep and well crafted but so dry I forgot what it was called a few days after playing it. It has cute little dinner plate tokens, though.

Games scoring 2, 3, and 4 are usually dry games that focus on mechanics. Just having a small gimmick or distinct art is enough to rescue a game from being a 1, like Splendor’s thick poker chips. (Splendor is a 2.) At the high end of this part of the scale is Castles of Mad King Ludwig, where the gameplay is pretty mathematical but at the end of the game you look down and find that, because you focused too much on getting points, the only bathroom in your castle is at the end of an elaborate system of catacombs.

To reach a 5, 6, or 7, there has to be something in the gameplay itself that’s memorable and exciting. Very exciting Euro strategy games belong here, as well as thematic games that didn’t quite hit the mark. This is the realm of games like Munchkin, Exploding Kittens, and Red Dragon Inn, which enrage some entrenched gamers with their weak gameplay but attract a lot of casual players through their impact. Libertalia, my favorite game about burly men punching each other off a boat, is a high 7.

8s, 9s, and 10s are the true champions of impact. Games at this level need to really generate great stories, whether intentionally or unintentionally. A few examples I haven’t mentioned yet: Betrayal At House On the Hill, Spyfall, Cosmic Encounter. Special mention goes to Cutthroat Kingdoms, an incredibly impactful game I’ve had the pleasure of observing at various cons over the past few years; I’ve actually discussed the topic of impact (without mentioning it by name, as this was before the concept solidified for me) with the designer a number of times.

This might be a controversial opinion, but I also think Magic: The Gathering, especially its Limited side, scores at least a 9 for impact because of how many memorable games its variance and capacity for lateral thinking generates. Almost every Magic player, including me, could tell you stories about games from a decade ago with almost play-for-play recollection.

“So if you’re so cool and good at judging other people’s games, then what about yours?” Tiny Trainwrecks is a 5, Happy Daggers is a 4, and Stand Back, Citizen! is a 7 or 8. Let me know if you think differently!

 

Conclusion

For a long time, I’ve searched for both the kind of games I want to make and the kind of games I think I’d be good at making. By thinking about games in terms of their impact, I feel like I finally have a metric to judge whether an idea is worth pursuing. Hopefully, by the time my next game comes out, it’ll score at least an 8 for me.

Have some opinions about impact? Want to ask where on the scale I think some game lies? Please let me know however you’d like!

 

The New Generation Of Introductory Games

If you’re really into board games, odds are you want to get lots of your friends into board games too. One of the main strategies towards this goal is to get them started with an “introductory game” like Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Carcassonne. However, a lot of more experienced gamers tend to look down on these games. Is there a way to arrive at a compromise and suggest games that will get new players into the hobby while still allowing more entrenched people to have a blast?

What Makes A Good Introductory Game?

Let’s look at what the three games I mentioned above have in common.

The thing that immediately jumps out to me is all three games give the player a very small number of decisions. Carcassonne especially stands out in this aspect: All you get to choose from is where to place your tile and whether or not you want to jam a meeple on it. It gets more complex as the game develops, but by then you have a grasp on which plays are good and which are bad. Ticket to Ride gives you a small number of options and guidance through the Route cards. Catan is a little more complex but restricts what you can do through its resource system.

Additionally, none of the games have the complex engine building that punishes early mistakes and trip up new players. Complaints are occasionally leveled that poor settlement placement in Catan can ruin a player for the rest of the game, but it’s not hard to at least do an okay job when the best terrain hexes have bright red numbers on them. If you screw up early, it’s not going to stop you from being able to catch up through aggressive road placement or cutthroat trading.

All three games also use “roll-then-choose” luck, where players are able to make decisions after the element of random chance acts. (As opposed to “choose-then-roll” luck like in Risk.) Chance is important to make sure that more experienced players don’t always crush newbies, but allowing players to make choices afterwards makes their actions more meaningful.

In summary, good introductory games:

  • Give players a small number of decisions to make each turn.
  • Have catch-up mechanics or ways to compensate for bad starts.
  • Use a medium-heavy element of chance, preferably a “roll-then-choose” style.

What are some games that meet these criteria but have a little more excitement and fun value?

LIBERTALIA

Summary: The players are pirates raiding ships and dividing up booty. Players play pirate cards simultaneously, each of which has a different rank and special ability. Higher ranked pirates get first pick of the treasure. The catch is that each player has exactly the same hand of pirate cards, so everyone knows what everyone else could play.

Libertalia has a lot of things going for it as an introductory game. The base mechanics of the game are easy to explain, as most of the complexity is on the individual cards. This allows new players to understand the flow quickly and immediately jump into forming strategies. Additionally, because the game effectively “resets” between rounds, having a crummy round where your best pirates get killed doesn’t necessarily mean losing the entire game.

The best thing about Libertalia, however, is that it’s incredibly funny. The introductory games I mentioned above don’t stir up much emotion besides unbridled fury after some jerk ruins your perfect 25-point route in TTR. As an introduction to European-style strategy games, they’re also an introduction to the experience of quietly puzzling out your strategy. Libertalia rejects this approach, choosing instead to make players laugh uproariously as six brutes punch each other off the ship or six cabin boys swab the deck to a mirror sheen.

The downside of introducing Libertalia to new players is a substantial amount of choose-then-roll “luck”; someone can make the best play and still be ruined by what your opponents happened to pick. If your friends happen to not like this kind of thing, it may be wise to pick something else; however, I think the benefits of this game vastly outweigh the drawbacks.

HANABI

Summary: Players are fireworks manufacturers attempting to play fireworks numbered 1 through 5 in order for five different colors. Each player has a hand of firework cards, held opposite so everyone else can see what’s in their hand but the player can’t. The table as a collective gets “fuse tokens” that they can use to communicate to each other about what’s in their hands. At the end of the game, players are given a grade based on how many cards they were able to assemble on the table.

Non-gamers usually aren’t that familiar with co-op games, which are a fun and rewarding challenge that play much differently than their competitive counterparts. However, the vast majority are blisteringly hard and often lead to quarterbacking and/or hurt feelings, even including ones that are intended to be introductory like Forbidden Island.

Hanabi solves a lot of the genre’s obstacles for new players while being a great and elegant game in its own right. There’s no quarterbacking because players literally can’t talk without spending a token, and even then can only point out a few specific things. Even though getting a perfect score is really difficult, the scaled system allows players to feel good for doing just okay.

All the boxes I specified in the prologue get checked off as well. You have a fairly small amount of choices on your turn, and the ones you have are narrowed down by what cards the group needs to play next. There’s also room for you to make a couple (well, two) big mistakes without the game completely shutting down, allowing for a smoother learning curve. Finally, though the contents of each player’s hand is random, you know what everyone has before you decide what to do on your turn.

The kicker is that the card-based version of the game is about ten dollars, meaning that players who like it can pick it up for a miniscule financial investment.

TOKAIDO

Summary: Players are travellers crossing Japan, trying to have the most fulfilling vacation. The board is a straight line dotted with dozens of tourist stops; players may go as far as they like on their turn and land on whichever space they like. However, the player farthest in back always takes the next turn, meaning strategy is divided between snatching the best spaces for you and hanging behind to get more turns. There are about ten (optional) characters with their own starting money and powers.

Tokaido is a good introduction to the passive-aggressive genres of Eurogaming like worker placement. There’s no real engine-building (your only resource is money) and your choices are more short-term, both meaning that you don’t have to look multiple rounds ahead to make the best decision and that if you screw up it won’t punish you for very long. It’s a gorgeous game, too, with nice graphic design and really cute characters (and monkeys).

With new players especially, I recommend using the player powers. Many of them give you a bonus for going to one specific space or another, so it gives people more direction as to what to do at the start of the game when otherwise they might be confused. It also feels really good to be able to exploit your specific ability and get a huge bonus.

What do you think?

Though pretty much all of my articles are just a series of opinions, this one’s the seriesest of opinionsest. I’d love to hear from you about what game you think works well as an introduction to the world of strategy games. Also, if you think there are better criteria for introductory games than what I described, please elaborate! A concrete set of standards will make it easier to find more games that meet the definition.

 

 

 

 

Ghost Of A Chance

The question of whether luck is appropriate in board games is a subject of frequent debate. Those in favor say that chance adds more variability to the game, and strategy arises from being dealt a poor situation and being able to respond to it successfully. Detractors say that any game where it’s possible to lose despite being a better player is a bad one.

I mostly stand in the former camp, but for this essay, indulge me as I become that irritating person from your least favorite college class who has to be devil’s advocate for everything. In my opinion, the way designers discuss chance makes assumptions about players – about human beings – that aren’t true. Specifically, I’m talking about how “chance” is referred to as a single lump, ignoring that people treat different mechanisms for delivering chance differently.

The Medium Is The Message

A number of my college professors liked talking about Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher who raised the idea that the way in which a message is delivered is more important than the message’s actual content. My opinions aren’t as extreme as McLuhan’s, but I do agree that changing the way in which information is delivered will have significant effects on its reception. It’s why you’re not supposed to break up with someone by text.

I want to spend most of this article discussing this concept in terms of chance, but similar effects can be seen in many aspects of game design. For example, let’s say you have two choices, A and B, where A gives you more of a certain kind of resource. Now let’s say we have two situations:

Situation 1: If you pick A, you lose three victory points.

Situation 2: If you pick B, you get three victory points.

People who haven’t developed the cold, calculating logic that strategy game veterans eventually get will stay away from option A more often in the first situation, even though the net loss of points is exactly the same. Losing points signals that you’re not “supposed” to do that action.

Let’s look at three common ways games use chance and the way we percieve them as players.

DICE

Among more serious players, games with dice in them have developed a reputation of being too random to be fun. The few exceptions, including Castles of Burgundy and Roll For The Galaxy, give you a large number of ways to manipulate your rolls, meaning that there’s only a few situations where a bad roll can screw you over. Rather than argue about whether dice being “more random” is true or not, let’s look at some of the reasons this stereotype exists.

  • Existing dice games: A majority of dice games, whether standalone or adaptations of a more complex existing property, are frequently very simple and luck-based. Of note is the dozens of reheated Zombie Dice press-your-luck games in weird containers picking up dust at your local game store.
  • No card counting: Let’s say you have a deck of 30 cards, with 5 copies of the numbers 1 through 6 in it. If you draw a 4, you then have a slightly smaller chance of drawing a 4 on the next turn. However, if you roll a six-sided die instead, you have just as much chance of rolling a 4, maybe more if the die isn’t balanced well. There’s simply no way to predict how fortune will unfold.
  • Feel: Rolling dice just isn’t as classy as drawing cards. It’s loud, messy, and them bones frequently roll off the table or end up tilted on a stray coaster or piece of terrain. Don’t even get me started on electronic dice.

CARDS

Cards are cheap to produce, easy to fit in a box, and people loooooove them. That said, if we look at our 1-6 deck up above, there really isn’t a significant difference between drawing from than and rolling dice. So why do entrenched gamers tolerate luck more when it comes to drawing cards?

  • System complexity: There’s only so much information that can be fit on a die. Decks of cards can be packed with details, and can be edited more easily (deckbuilding, etc.)
  • Card counting: As mentioned under the dice section, if one card is drawn from a deck, it makes it that less likely for that card to show up again. Even though the actual difference is fairly low until you’ve gone through a lot of the deck, the way the probability changes is more in line with the “feel” of the audience.
  • Hidden information: Excluding the use of screens, if you roll some dice, everyone gets to see the result. Cards allow you the use of hidden hands, letting your bluff your way even through a run of bad luck.

SIMULTANEOUS ACTIONS (aka Rock-Paper-Scissors)

This one’s tricky because it frequently isn’t categorized as an element of luck at all. A lot of games claim that because acting simultaneously opens up the opportunity to read your opponent and pick a counter, very little chance is actually involved. This may be true in some cases, but there’s no way someone can win a six-player game of Libertalia and claim with a straight face that it was all skill, baby.

  • Doesn’t feel like luck: That said, simultaneous actions certainly don’t feel like rolling dice or drawing cards because you have 100% control over what action you pick. This applies double for when you get a good outcome because it makes you feel like a smart person who can read minds.
  • Symmetry: Simultaneous action also prevents complaints that a player dealt a bad hand has no chance of winning. When the only “random” factor is what actions players choose, it allows complete symmetry at the start of the game.

Conclusion

The way I wrote this article may make it seem like I think that, in all cases, simultaneous actions>cards>dice. What I’m trying to get through, however, is that these are the ways that entrenched gamers – and I sincerely hope that any game designer is fairly entrenched – view these mechanisms of chance. As you design your game, look at it through two different lenses: How luck actually works in the game, and how luck appears to the players. This way, you’ll be able to (depending on your goals) sneak variance into a game that doesn’t want it too obviously or make a more strategic game exciting to even casual players. It’s another tool in a toolbox that always needs to be growing.