A Perfectly Normal House! Design Diary

The inspiration for my new game, A Perfectly Normal House!, came on the Monday before Halloween, when I was alerted to a buck-wild 3D real estate walkthrough that was making the rounds across the more online parts of Twitter. What struck me is that it was scary, not because it put together a horrifying narrative, but precisely because of the opposite – it was the surreal nature of the house from the eBay DVD warehouse adjoining a baptismal font to the bizarre architectural layout. I’m very fond of liminal spaces and areas that feel like they don’t belong without being overtly supernatural, so I knew I wanted to create a game that captured the experience of exploring this house.

Then I realized, hey, Halloween’s coming up! Since this is a horror game, I should release it on Halloween! This sound line of thinking had one flaw: I had to make an entire game, start to finish, in 5 days. Not being the kind of person who usually does things like game jams, this was a way tighter deadline than anything else I had made before. This is the story behind the 5 days it took to build A Perfectly Normal House!

Tuesday: Brainstorming

When creating a top-down design – that is, a design inspired from a genre or real-life concept – the main goal is to capture the “feel” of something, whether it’s Camp Grizzly‘s tribute to sleepaway camp slasher films or Twilight Struggle‘s recreation of the Cold War. In this case, what I wanted to capture was the sense of shock and dread you discovered when looking at the rooms of this house that shouldn’t exist.

My first pass on APNH! was pretty close to the final version, where you randomly generate rooms with things that could make you lose composure points. I used “composure” instead of the more popular “sanity” because the concept of “losing sanity” is harmful to a lot of people, and everyone has times where they’ve lost their composure, so it was a more relatable experience. Originally, I had a press-your-luck element, where you could leave the house at any time and calculate its value based on the rooms you discovered. I didn’t even need to playtest this without realizing the issue: The player was incentivized to not experience the weirdest parts of the game, which was where all the enjoyment was.

The solution I came up with in the time I had was to make the game fully deterministic, and have the player’s only function to be rolling for room contents and arranging them as they see fit. This flies against common game design knowledge, but I ultimately went with it because APNH! is an experiential game, and the golden rule of good experiential design is “create the right experience.” This way, I could force the player to get really weird and use Composure as a timer to make sure it wouldn’t go on so long it would become boring.

So if the game’s deterministic, what’s the value in requiring the player to go through it at all? I could, with some aid or research, create a weird real estate generator that you could just load all at once. While there were time constraints here, I felt that wouldn’t give the same effect because the one-by-one production of each item in the room created a building sense of…”dread” isn’t the right word, but maybe “bafflement” – that you can’t get with an all-at-once approach.

Wednesday: Creating Lists

I used to think I was good at math until I made a bunch of dice result tables for A Perfectly Normal House!. It turns out that, when I want a result to occur about 5 percent of the time, and it starts from 05, I am very likely to commit a fencepost error and make it go from 05-10. I wish there were an automated tool I could use for something like this – there’s a table generator online but it doesn’t let you input ranges, unfortunately,

Beyond my inability to count, the biggest challenge was just coming up with enough stuff to fill out the tables. Much like party games, which I cover in The Arty of Party, the bulk of the design work on APNH! was finding lots and lots of items that fit the spirit of the story I wanted players to tell through the game. As mentioned, I didn’t want to get overtly supernatural, but I had a few other limits too. I didn’t want to get overtly scatological or sexual, both because that would be too easy and because I want Phantom Knight Games to mostly stick to a PG rating.

I also didn’t want to do anything that crossed the line from “creepy” to “scary” – no dismembered body parts or murder evidence or things like that – because that would turn the narrative into “the pieces of some slasher movie monster slowly come together as you explore the house.” I didn’t want a narrative at all, to be frank – I wanted the game to reflect the absurdities of a house that’s been lived in a little too much. There shouldn’t be any form of plot or progression, only weirdness upon weirdness until your player-avatar can’t take it anymore.

My listmaking was mostly arbitrary, but I went into it with targets for how often you should lose Composure in a given room. I absolutely didn’t want the game to end at the first cuil (level of weirdness, of which there are three), and preferably not the second either. I ultimately settled on having about 15% of the objects at cuil 1 making the player lose composure, followed by 30% at cuil 2 and 50% at cuil 3, when all hell breaks loose.

Thursday: Playtesting

I normally prefer to playtest more than twice, but I was on a very tight schedule, so twice it would have to be. The first playtest was with an online D&D group made up of some of my college friends, and took place over Google Drawings. One of the members of this group was my friend Christopher, who took it upon himself to reorganize the Google Sheet where I had my list of objects, as well as calculate the average amount of Composure loss per cuil. He did such a service to the game that I gave him a Special Thanks credit. In any event, the playtest went very smoothly and ended with the hapless realtor discovering a room filled with unloaded submachine guns. My main takeaway from here was the starting Composure for the player should be much higher than I already had it, and I settled on 20. I also made it a bit more likely to roll bathrooms and kitchens.

The second playtest was with my dad. I tried to be more hands-off, since this would be my only chance at something approaching a “blind” playtest, and we used pencil and paper this time. I came very close to having to explain what an anime hug pillow is to my dad. THESE ARE THE SACRIFICES I MAKE FOR MY ART. Anyway, the playtest worked great, and had a weird number of bathrooms considering he didn’t roll up that many kitchens. Satisfied, I started on the final part of my project: Laying it out in InDesign.

Friday: Creating the PDF

This was mostly boring behind-the-scenes work, so I’ll spare you the details. InDesign’s ability to carry over text across multiple boxes proved invaluable, as I was constantly tweaking the font size and whatnot. Getting everything to fit on one page with no weird hanging boxes onto the next page was a real challenge, but I was eventually able to get all the content looking at least fairly nice.

I did end up with some white space in cuil 2, so I included a coupon for pizza and a poetry corner. Want to see them? Get a copy of A Perfectly Normal House! and see for yourself!

Saturday and Beyond

On Saturday, I successfully launched A Perfectly Normal House! on itch.io, and got more downloads than I expected for a company as tiny as mine.

On the whole, I think working on APNH! within the deadline I gave myself was a good idea. I haven’t been able to get a lot of work done on my games since quarantine began because it makes playtesting much more cumbersome, so it was nice to be able to shake the rust off and remind myself that I can use my skills to make people happy. Once things go back to normal, I don’t expect I’ll be making a lot more small projects like this, but if the circumstances arise I might do so.

I’ll close this design diary with one more exhortation to get the game – it’s free, and if you’re the kind of person who likes looking at a space and wondering “what the hell?”, you’ll have a great time. Good luck, and happy house hunting!

The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything Irrational

The salt air stung my eyes as I awoke, tied to the mast of an anachronistic sailing vessel. Five pirates, with about 7 eyes and 8 legs between them, stared back at me. “Please don’t kill me,” I begged them. “Haven’t I praised Libertalia enough?”

“Yarr,” the oldest one said in a perfect West Country accent. “We need your skills, matey. You see, we had a dilemma with a chest full of gold, and thought it would be interesting to turn it into a board game, but our initial playtesting didn’t turn out well and we threw it into Davy Jones’ locker out of frustration. Fix it, or walk the plank!”

“I’ll help you, then,” I said. “What was the dilemma?”

“Well, there be a chest with 100 pieces of eight, and all of us be rational pirates who operate by the pirate’s code…” My blood froze. It was going to take all of my wits to escape this situation.


Tabletop game design stands with one leg in the bucket of psychology and one leg in the bucket of math. Many big-name game designers, like Reiner Knizia, Richard Garfield, and, weirdly, John Nash, all have substantial experience in mathematical fields.

It then stands to reason that a lot of games, especially older games and European-style ones, are based off math problems and logic puzzles. Most notable is the traveling salesman problem, which sparked the venerable “Pick Up and Deliver” genre and encompasses games like Spiel des Jahres winner Elfenland.

However, not every logic puzzle is as easy to adapt to the tabletop environment as the traveling salesman problem. This article talks about the famous pirate game, why board game versions of it have run into issues, and how to fix them.

The “Pirate Game” Game

To break down this logic puzzle as a game, it roughly goes like this:

  • One player is the “chooser” each round – this role usually rotates.
  • A number of random rewards are drawn from a deck or similar; the chooser distributes these rewards among the other players.
  • The other players then vote on whether they like how the chooser distributed the rewards; a majority of “yes” votes confirms the treasure distribution, while a majority of “no” votes does various things including eliminating the chooser, electing a new chooser, and so on.

That’s the base, but of course any game is going to embellish it with various other mechanics to add complexity.

The highest-profile published game that uses this mechanic is Goodcritters, but I’ve seen numerous prototypes at playtest events that used this mechanic, and I’ve probably taken a crack at it once or twice myself. It’s a very appealing game on its face because it combines things that make for great gameplay – greed, group psychology, and shocking moments where the vote goes completely opposite how everyone expected. But in reality, the 5 Pirates Problem has a lot of issues that make it not that fun to play.

The Problem With The “Pirate Game” Game

  • Over 50 percent of gameplay is just one person choosing stuff with no input from other players. You know when you’re playing Apples to Apples and the judge takes forever? It’s incredibly frustrating, especially because you know that speaking up with your own opinion will actively prevent your answer from getting chosen. Conversely:
  • Being the chooser feels really bad. When you’re the chooser, you often feel like you don’t have any good options. Either you try to benefit yourself, and the other players instantly vote to disapprove your division, or you don’t benefit yourself whatsoever, don’t advance your victory plans, and even then there’s a chance the other players will vote no just because.
  • The distribution ends up being roughly the same every time. In order to ensure that nobody votes against the distribution, the chooser is often forced to divide everything up as evenly as possible. While some games can make this difficult or impossible, it doesn’t produce the variety of game states that make a game interesting to play repeatedly.
  • People aren’t rational. The 5 Pirates Problem assumes that all of the pirates involved in the transaction are perfectly rational and make decisions that result in the optimum benefit for them. However, no human is truly rational. Even when presented with the theoretical best option for them, people will often vote against the chooser for emotional reasons or even arbitrarily. Besides, even if people were rational, it wouldn’t be an interesting game as there would only be one obvious answer to each distribution round.
  • A lot of point-scoring mechanics get constrained. There aren’t a lot of interesting point-scoring mechanics that you can use when someone arbitrarily decides who gets what kind of loot. Set collection doesn’t really work because nobody would let people have a meaningful number of set items, negative effects will unanimously get voted against, etc.

The Solution to the Problem With The “Pirate Game” Game

This section has some proposed solutions to the problems outlined above. I don’t think that these are necessarily guaranteed solutions, but they’re ways of exploring the premise and producing a game that’s fun and still recognizably based on the logic puzzle.

  • Too much downtime: The two issues associated with this concept are “one player acts at a time” and “that player has too many choices, so it takes a while.” The first issue could be resolved with simultaneous choosing, or with voting happening one-by-one instead of all at once after everything has been distributed. For the second issue, the game New York Slice (a member of the adjacent I-split-you-choose family of games) neatly solves this by making the “treasure” a pizza that can’t be moved or rearranged – only split differently. This significantly collapses the potential decisions into a few that, while still tough, are much quicker to puzzle through.
  • Being the chooser feels bad: There has to be some way to reward the chooser that can be affected by a smart distribution, but that doesn’t feel “greedy” on the part of the chooser. Alternatively, some sort of hidden information element might make it easier for the chooser to feel like they can get away with something.
  • The distribution is roughly the same: The only way to get your players to take risky or uncomfortable actions is to make them. In the case of the pirate game, equal distribution is the “safe” tactic, so you have to disable the chooser from doing so, at least easily. “Parceling” treasures or otherwise making distribution less granular is a good start here.
  • People Aren’t Rational: No matter how much you try to force people to be rational, or to reward rationality, people just will not be rational. Instead, reward your players for identifying exactly how their competitors will be irrational, or at least make the consequences for irrationality funny and memorable.
  • Constrained Scoring Mechanics: If a scoring mechanic rewards players for meeting some condition, and the chooser has total control over how rewards are distributed, that condition will basically never be met. It’s better to either leave an element of hidden information or randomness, so these conditions can be better achieved unknowingly, or force them to happen through some other system. (For example, if the chooser has to impress one specific player, they may choose to do that by eg. grouping set-scoring rewards together.)

These are just surface-level thoughts on all of these issues, but you can clearly see that how, though flawed, the pirate game can be changed into something better oriented towards the flow of tabletop gaming.

Avast!

Math and strategy are irrevocably linked, so it stands to reason that classic math problems might be inspirational to game designers. Not every classic math problem can be transferred 1:1 into a strategy framework – however, that doesn’t mean that there’s no value there.

I’m orienting this article as an example of how to take a non-mechanical influence and turn it into a good game. Vlaada Chvátil once noted that game designers aren’t movie directors, and neither are they logic puzzle writers, storybook authors, or anything else. There’s a gap between inspiration and execution, but it’s a gap that can almost always be bridged by good design.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: A Love Letter

This is not a game analysis. Game analyses cover both the positive and the negative an an effort to create a more holistic view of the game, and I have zero interest in writing anything negative about Sentinels of the Multiverse. This isn’t to say that Sentinels doesn’t have flaws – it has some significant ones – but it is to say that this article will not be covering them.

With the exception of Magic, which I don’t really sort into the traditional board game category anyway, Sentinels pushed me further down the path of game design than every other game I’ve played combined. In this article, I’ll be discussing what makes Sentinels unique among its peers and what makes it one of my favorite games of all time.

A Heroic Legacy

One of the big draws of experiential games is resonance, the ability for the game to draw you into its world and make you feel like you’re a part of its story. Betrayal at House on the Hill, for example, uses its first half of the game to build a sense of dread, which makes it more resonant with the classic B-horror movies it emulates.

Moreso than its competitors in the genre, Sentinels feels like a game about superheroes. All of the playable heroes are similar to, but legally distinct from the Marvel and DC heroes we grew up knowing, and they play like them too. The Wraith, Sentinels‘ version of Batman, relies on gadgets to be effective, and has a lot of ways to draw exactly what she needs to solve a predicament. Meanwhile, Legacy, the Superman/Captain America equivalent, plays much more simply, with powers that punch enemies and use leadership skills to make his allies more effective.

The villain decks benefit from each villain card having two sides and its own conditions for changing from one side to the other. These frequently reinforce the comic book narrative of the game. The classic example is Baron Blade (a Doctor Doom/Lex Luthor equivalent), whose front side is the Baron concocting an evil scheme to slam the Moon into the Earth, and who, when defeated, flips his card over to reveal an angry Baron in a power suit. When running Sentinels for new players, I always start with Baron Blade, because revealing he’s back and out for revenge after the players think they’ve won is an incredible piece of theatre that has won over a substantial number of people.

The varying flip conditions also help differentiate the villains. Omnitron (Brainiac equivalent) flips back and forth every turn, while vengeful avatar of nature Akash’Bhuta flips according to the neutral Environment deck. This very simple action gives each villain their own personality while not adding too much complexity to what’s already a pretty complex game.

There’s things I could write about the Environment decks as well, but this section is getting long as it is – the best thing it has going for it is adding an element of chaos into the game. I still remember hearing about the game where Baron Blade got his hit points reduced to 0 by a pack of velociraptors and (presumably) got dragged screaming into the jungle.

Never Fear!

When co-op games began gaining popularity in the hobby game sphere with the release of Pandemic, the dominant school of thought of co-op game design was that they should be extremely difficult, with players only being able to win a fraction of the time they played. The main justification for this is adding replay value to the game: Players are more likely to come back to a game if they lose and think they can get it right the next time. While I mostly agree with this logic, it’s a fine line to draw, and players are unlikely to come back to a game they lost because bad luck caused a bunch of stuff to happen that the players had no chance of solving.

Sentinels was one of the first prominent co-op board games to be relatively easy. Unless you’re playing against the hardest villains in the game, your party has an above 50 percent chance of being able to pull out a win. With some of the starter villains, like, again, Baron Blade, it’s actually kind of hard to lose.

This normally goes against my principles of challenging players, but Sentinels does something very clever: Even the easiest villains provide the players with an illusion of challenge. There’s enough going on and enough damage being handed out that even though the players aren’t always in a substantial amount of danger, if often feels like they are. If the narrative is strong, the players feel powerful (something I’m writing an article on in the near future), and there’s a reasonable amount of choices to make, a game doesn’t have to be a brain-burner to be engaging. It’s a lesson I took to heart when designing the similarly easy Tiny Trainwrecks.

You’re The Real Hero

I’ve heard Cosmic Encounter described as a “designers’ game” because of its popularity among game designers. I’d argue that the real “designers’ game” is Sentinels because it turns everyone who plays it into a game designer.

Sentinels inspires a significant amount of fan-made content. Whenever I’ve seen a hardcore Sentinels fan at a convention or game store, they usually have two or three homebrew heroes that they’ve made themselves. This applies to my copy too: My friend and Great Designer Search playtester Christopher, with whom I co-purchased most of the expansions, took it upon himself to tweak some of the weaker heroes. (He described the process as “the only time I’ve had a good reason to use Comic Sans.”)

There’s plenty of games that use similar standalone decks to Sentinels, like Smash Up and my favorite two-player game, BattleCON. So why does there seem to be so much more fan stuff with Sentinels? The answer is because of the simplicity of the core mechanics.

“Simplicity?” you may ask. “But I heard Sentinels is incredibly complicated!” While there is a lot to keep track of in the game, the actual base of the game is fairly simple: Deal damage, prevent damage, draw cards, destroy things. Everything’s written in plain language that even someone learning the game for the first time can understand immediately. This simplicity makes the balance between hero and villain decks easier to understand and to manipulate on your own.

Furthermore, unlike many other games with asymmetric powers, Sentinels decks are truly standalone. As a counterexample, Gloomhaven has many separate classes, but these classes can buy items and apply stickers that are universal across the classes. Thus, if you’re designing a fan-made Gloomhaven class, you have to keep all the items in the game in mind, as well as figure out the inscrutable logic about what powers can be modified with stickers and which can’t.

Compare that to Sentinels, where every deck is static and can’t be changed. Self-sufficient decks are much easier to tweak, as you don’t have to worry about a player finding a broken interaction with a large number of potential modifiers.

These things add up to a game where it’s incredibly easy to pop open the hood, see what makes all of the decks work, and use that theory to make decks for yourself. Sentinels is a game that not only inspires fan-made designs, it almost welcomes them.

And Now, The Thrilling Conclusion

My first serious tabletop game design was a Sentinels ripoff where the players co-piloted a Voltron-esque combining robot. Although the idea was discarded after I realized it was too large a project to take on for a beginner, the excitement that two years of Sentinels playing instilled in me became one of the keystones for much of my experiential, narrative-focused game design.

One of my favorite overheard definitions of a 10/10 game is “a game you love so much you’re willing to overlook it’s flaws.” Sentinels is that kind of game for me, and it’s so important to me I thought I’d write a game design article about it. Hope you enjoyed it!

The One About Expansions

As of now, I have not been lucky enough to experience demand for a game that pushes me to create an expansion. However, I’ve certainly played many games with expansions, and the idea of releasing expansions for successful games is universal enough that I decided to put effort into thinking about what makes some expansions better than others.

Cognitive Load

Although I don’t know the exact statistics, I think it can be mostly assumed that most gaming groups are not the exact same group of people. Many are public meetups, clubs at universities or companies, or events at game stores; even with private groups, if they grow large enough, it’s unlikely that the exact same group of players will play a game more than once.

This means that a substantial percentage of people playing your expansion will have to be taught everything from scratch, which decreases the chances the game will make it to the table. In general, the more rules that have to be explained before a game begins, the less often that game will get played. If the game owner feels like the expansion makes it too cumbersome to explain repeatedly, the game is going to collect dust on their IKEA Kallax. (You could argue that since the owner has already bought the game, it doesn’t matter, but I’m assuming most game designers want people to enjoy their game, not just give them money.)

Thus, the goal for an expansion is to increase the possibilities of play while limiting cognitive load as much as possible. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, and I’ve detailed some of the common ones below.

Limit the number of components that show up at once

Some games have modular components that can be swapped in and out from game to game; expansions for these can just add more components without increasing the number players have to know at a time. As an example, Kingdom Builder‘s board is made of four interlocking mini-boards, each of which adds a special power to the game; the base game came with eight boards and expansions added more. Players only have to know the four powers on the boards they’re currently playing on, no matter how many expansions the game owner has.

It’s also helpful if the expansion includes components that are relatively simple for beginners to grasp but interesting enough for veterans to like. Sentinels of the Multiverse released a number of expansions with extra heroes, villains and environments. Heroes are rated by “complexity” on a scale from 1 to 3, indicating how much work they take to pilot. Greater Than Games was disciplined about including a number of heroes with complexity 1 in their expansions and not succumbing to “designer fatigue” and increasing complexity with each new release. (This is true for heroes; the villains and environments mostly got more complex in later expansions.)

Replace rules instead of adding new ones

An expansion can change the existing rules of a game instead of just adding new rules. This is more often the case for “patch” expansions that are designed to fix problems in the original game, but there’s no reason you can’t do it to limit complexity.

The RPG Monster of the Week introduced new actions in its Tome of Mysteries expansion themed around weird powers. The way these work is that during character generation, instead of the “use magic” action, you can choose a new weird power (just one) that’s appropriate for your character, ranging from telekinesis to receiving ghost whispers to just being preternaturally strong and swift. This limits the number of actions players have to remember, which makes it smoother for them to navigate the system and tell the story.

Work within your game’s vocabulary

Your cognitive load becomes heavier if you include components that are hard to parse with your game’s vocabulary, especially if they introduce new keywords that have to be memorized.

Small World‘s sequel, Small World Underground, was standalone and had to introduce a whole new set of races and special powers. However, the designer was careful to limit the complexity for these: Many of them are remixes of the original Small World‘s powers, and the rest used comfortable mechanics that Small World players could grok easily after seeing four or five other powers. This way, the components from both games could be mixed with reasonable success without increasing cognitive load.

Compare this successful to the game Smash Up. Smash Up was essentially designed out of the gate for expansions: New half-decks that could be mixed with the decks from the base game. However, it also tried to be a “gateway game” with simple text on the cards that was easy to parse for people who hadn’t played a lot of games. This meant that as expansions were released, they had to include difficult-to-understand phrasing like “choose a card that’s played on a minion” instead of employing keywords to make understanding the cards more manageable. It’s a tough balance, and I don’t fault the designer for choosing to make the base game as entry-level as possible, but it resulted in cards from later expansions having a higher cognitive load than they might have otherwise.

A Case For Odin

Let’s look at an expansion that succeeded tremendously – A Feast For Odin: The Norwegians.

The idea of an expansion for A Feast For Odin was tough to begin with. The base game is one of the heftiest Euro-style games ever made, with dozens of potential actions, special abilities, and side rules. Explaining the base game can take up to 30 minutes, and adding more content would just make teaching it harder. The Norwegians applied some of the principles described in this article in an incredibly intelligent way that resulted in lots more content for game owners and very little added cognitive load for new players.

  • The original Feast for Odin had four island boards that players could claim and fill with goods. Norwegians introduced an extra four, but advised that they be switched randomly one-for-one with the originals. This way, players still only have four boards to work into their strategies.
  • Norwegians also introduced a new action board, with fewer options (so it was actually easier to teach than the original), more balanced strategies, and an extra column that could be explained in a sentence or two.
  • With the addition of more irregularly-shaped “treasure” tiles, the treasure board from the original (which had individual spaces for each unique tile) couldn’t be used anymore; Norwegians split up these tiles into low-cost and high-cost tiles to make eyeballing which tile you want easier. (There was also a new action that only let you acquire tiles under a certain cost, and these tiles got their own board so you could tell at a glance what was available.)

Despite beginning with a daunting cognitive load already, The Norwegians managed to add a lot of interesting content to A Feast For Odin while only slightly increasing complexity. It’s a masterclass in expansion design and something to draw lessons from, no matter what kind of game you’re working on.

Conclusion

Even if you’re not in the business of designing expansions, playing games with expansions and thinking about their designs are great ways to understand the balance between content and complexity.

The next time you encounter an expansion, whether it’s for a game you’re very familiar with or one you’ve just been invited to play for the first time, think about what it adds and what it costs. Are you more likely to play the game with the expansion added, or less? Is the fun you’re having worth the length of the teaching period? Does the expansion material feel integrated or like a sideshow? You’ll be surprised at what insights you can glean.

Eat Your Vegetables

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. – Albert Camus

Games create a unique dynamic between the designer and the players. With most design, the designer and audience have aligned goals: For instance, with an app layout, the audience might want to use the app to easily access their bank information, while the UX designer in charge of the app wants the audience to use the app to easily access their bank information.

Game design is the only medium where the designer’s goals and the players’ goals are frequently at odds. Take Pandemic as an example: the goal of each player of Pandemic is to win the game by curing all four diseases, but the designer’s goal is to make it as difficult as possible for the players to cure the diseases while still having a chance. This split lies at the core of all game designs, no matter what medium or target audience.

In this article, I’ll go in depth into this precarious dynamic, how it can complicate the journey from “player” to “designer”, and why it’s critically important that you make your players eat their proverbial vegetables.

Game Design For (K)nitwits

A few years ago I purchased Matt Leacock’s party game Knit Wit. The game combined a simple, Scattergories-esque premise (write down things that fall under several categories and try not to write the same thing as someone else) with delightful sewing-themed accoutrements including string, tags, and wooden spools. It still remains one of the best-looking games of the past decade, and it was easy to teach and to scale up.

And yet, after a few plays I ended up stashing Knit Wit in my closet with a lot of other games that didn’t quite make it there for me. Why is that?

It’s because, though Knit Wit was a lot of things – engaging, simple, gorgeous, even funny – it wasn’t the one thing that every game needs to be, which is difficult.

In more depth, the basic premise of the game is to come up with a list of concepts that fall under one to four adjective “tags”: For example, I might have to describe something clear, bitter, and disappointing. There’s a Boggle-like scoring system where if two people come up with the same concept, neither earns points for it. The issue is that even with a large number of tags, it was fairly easy to use your imagination to come up with concepts that nobody else would guess – in our example, I put down a cucumber water-flavored popsicle. These don’t exist (I hope), so nobody else was able to think of it and I breezed through the round. Most games of Knit Wit ended with people winning by a small margin because almost everyone was able to come up with things that other players would never be able to guess, every time.

The game didn’t provide enough challenge, so it fell behind other, harder party games.

Danger Makes Me Feel Alive

Why do people play games? You could say as a social tool, but there’s plenty of other activities, like watching movies or going out to eat, that are just as suitable and require less investment on people to teach.

The primary reason people play games – of any variety – is to encounter challenges in a safe environment.

In real life, challenges are often hard to understand, disproportionate to our abilities to achieve them, sometimes wholly reliant on luck, and come with severe consequences if they aren’t resolved correctly. Games are different: We pick games that we believe we have the skills to attempt competently and it doesn’t matter how well or badly anyone did once the game is over. We can experience the tension of a tough situation without being in one for real.

Take soccer as an example. Soccer would be much easier if you could pick up the ball and drop-kick it into the goal, but the reason soccer’s popularity is so enduring is precisely that you can’t do that. By simply requiring the players to use their feet to maneuver the ball, soccer adds a level of difficulty to play that captures the hearts of players of all skill levels around the world.

A Sidenote on Difficulty and Complexity

People sometimes conflate difficulty and complexity in games, partially because complex games take more learning and are more difficult for first-timers. However, these things are different. All games should be difficult, but many games shouldn’t be complex.

As an example:

Build a desktop computer from scratch, using this guide. A very complex task, but not so difficult that someone can’t accomplish it.

Now eat the desktop computer. Much less complex, but much more difficult.

Because I Said So

The issue is that, although players unconsciously crave difficulty, at a conscious level they hate it. Challenges in a game are painful and hard, and they can make you frustrated and upset. We shy away from risks and try to pursue the path that will give us the victory with the most certainty, even if that’s boring. (I describe this more in depth in this post.)

Thus, it’s the game designer’s job to know better than the players and to make them eat their vegetables. How exactly to do this depends on the game:

  • Euro-style games place limitations on what you can do each turn, either through resources or by some kind of action rationing mechanism like worker placement.
  • Party games usually restrict information, either by limiting players to a certain subset of communication (impress-the-judge games, charades variants) or by making information unreliable (social deduction).
  • Co-op games like Pandemic use random elements as an antagonistic force against the players.

An important step to providing enjoyable difficulty is making the experience not feel like you’re limiting the players. If you hear a game described as “punishing” or “cruel”, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harder to succeed in that game than others, but more often that the game doesn’t try to hide its challenges very well. It’s not surprising that the games that usually draw these labels are co-op games, which typically have the most “obvious” divisions between design and player goals.

A well-designed game in regards to difficulty makes a player feel like they achieved something, win or lose, but not feel stupid if they don’t live up to the challenge set by the game. There are dozens of techniques to accomplish this – I wrote about one, guardrails, in depth – and many ways to strike the balance between “boring” and “frustrating” that are unique from game to game. However, every good game, to a one, has to strike it in some way.

Conclusion

Some people, myself included, are afraid of making games too hard because we associate it with memories of ourselves struggling while playing other people’s games. This is the biggest difference in perspective between someone who just plays games and someone who wants to design them, and bridging it will come as more of a challenge to some people than others.

Politics & Poker

Territory control games like Risk or Game of Thrones and take-that games like Red Dragon Inn face a common issue. At various times in the game, especially right at the start, all the players are roughly equal, barring starting powers and whatnot. But the game encourages you to be mean to people, whether it be by invading their territory or playing a card on them. So what do you do when the decision of who to target is arbitrary?

(No actual poker discussion here; this article is named after a song from 1960 Tony Award-winning musical Fiorello! I didn’t expect you to get it, but if you didn’t want dense references to things that only eight people are familiar with, you wouldn’t read this blog!!!)

With many of these types of games, what you do is pick someone at random, and frankly, this sucks. Picking someone to target for no reason can feel mean, like you singled them out because you like them less as a person. But making it clear that you’re being arbitrary, by rolling a die or whatnot, can also be just as bad – though your opponent may care less, choosing at random removes what agency you had from this decision and turns your turn into a miniature bean machine.

While this issue is common, it certainly isn’t unsolved. There’s a number of games in both genres that implemented ways to balance targeting decisions between “random” and “obvious”. Let’s check some of them out!

Always Incentivize Decisions

Some games solve this issue by making decisions of who to target have meaningful incentives from the first turn and for the rest of the game. The trick is that the “right” decision can’t be too obvious – otherwise we end up in the opposite problem where choices are so obvious it’s boring.

The take-that game Epic Spell Wars (which I’ve written about in more detail) does this by giving the players benefit for matching cards from the same “school” of magic. Each card targets in a different way – some a specific player to your left or right, some the player with the most HP, and so on. But the benefit from casting a higher quality spell generally outweighs aiming your spells at a particular player. This also adds a chaotic feeling to the game, making spell resolution wilder and less strategic (a good thing in this case).

Some war/territory control games resolve this issue by making the players’ locations asymmetric. Diplomacy puts each player in control of a major power during World War I, forcing them to negotiate and betray each other in order to gain control of a majority of Europe. Because the map of the game is literally a map of Europe, with some players starting the game farther apart from others, decisions of who to target and coöperate with are thus influenced from the start of the game by your neighbors. A player controlling Turkey is going to more likely target its neighbors, Austria-Hungary and Russia, while it’s more likely to make alliances with the player controlling France in an effort to catch Austria-Hungary in a pincer attack. (Caveat: I’m terrible at Diplomacy and haven’t played in 10 years, so forgive me if I got the strategy wrong.)

Compare this to a game like Eclipse where each player has exactly two neighbors at an equal distance to each other. This symmetry makes the decision of which sector to expand into and which to broker a truce with largely arbitrary until players start developing different ship technology, meaning the political interplay stays static and largely uninteresting for most of the game. (That said, Eclipse primarily focuses on Master of Orion-style empire management and technology, so not being great at something it’s not trying to do isn’t the end of the world.)

Don’t Let Players Choose

The territory control game that does the best job of handling arbitrary targeting decisions is Cosmic Encounter. That’s right, fool, I’m praising Cosmic in another article and you’re going to have to read it!!

Cosmic‘s solution to the issues of players not knowing who to target cuts the Gordian knot by simply not letting players choose who to target. Instead, on each player’s turn, they draw a random color from the “destiny deck” and they have to deal with them, for better or for worse.

This accomplishes several things. First, it makes the politics in the game much more fluid. If red is targeting purple, even though they worked together in the previous round to gain colonies, their previous actions mean nothing now and they have to re-establish relations from scratch. This may not appeal to people who enjoy building coalitions long-term, but it keeps player dynamics fluid for the entire game.

Second, assigning random opponents takes the blame away from the players. Choosing a target frequently carries hurt feelings with it – if you chose to attack me instead of my opponent, and both of us offer functionally identical options, you’re essentially just picking on me. It’s much healthier to have a deck of cards to blame for

Third, the destiny deck allows matchups to be uneven. Some alien powers are much, much better than others in combat, so if people had their say they would just attack aliens who weren’t useful in combat. This would make it less fun for people assigned these powers as they would only be able to use them on their turn, while other people with diplomatic or resource-generating powers could see benefits throughout the whole game. This way, combat-power players get their time in the sun without requiring their opponents to make decisions vestedly not in their self-interest.

Other games use different systems to randomize targeting; for example, Tournament at Camelot uses the trick-taking genre as a randomness mechanism. Each trick results in the player who played the lowest weapon card taking the combined weapon cards played as damage. Since you can’t control what cards are in your opponents’ hands, the best you can do is make sure that player isn’t you.

Small World: Hard to Categorize

Days of Wonder’s classic territory control game Small World addresses this issue in an interesting way that doesn’t really fall in the previous two categories.

At the start of the game, and roughly 2 to 3 more times during the game, you select a new fantasy race and send it rampaging onto the board, conquering your opponents and “nameless” NPC tiles. You can choose to launch your attack from anywhere, so who do you pick on?

Small World does the opposite of many territory control games by not encouraging players to fight each other; instead, it incentivizes fighting as little as possible and requires fighting to happen due to the size of the board. Each space you occupy with your civilization earns you 1 point at the end of the game, and spaces containing your opponents’ civilization require significantly more forces to conquer. Thus, in order to maximize your points per turn, you’re encouraged to find empty space on the board and only attack if you have to.

You will have to. The game’s called Small World for a reason; after the first turn or two you’ll have to attack someone in order to expand. Fortunately, the game offers lots of things to balance besides just playing kingmaker and attacking whoever’s in the lead. There’s a large number of different race and class powers, some of which benefit the attacker or defender; additionally, players can send their faction into “decline,” allowing them to pick a new race/class combination while earning passive income. This makes timing just as important as player selection, as you may want to wait to attack your opponent if you think they’ll go into decline on their next turn.

This article isn’t a game analysis of Small World so I’ll leave it at that for there, but the point is that it spends a lot of its complexity budget (especially considering the publisher primarily aims at a casual audience) making “who to target” an interesting question with many different answers.

Conclusion

Every genre has baked-in flaws: For example, deckbuilding games often have very little player interaction, and social deduction games reward being loud and pushy. “Who to target” is one of the biggest issues with take-that and territory control games, but some of the most stellar games in the genre are able to take on this issue and partially fix it in an interesting way.

In a sense, a good game design lesson to learn from this is to not take anything for granted. It’s great to work on a game in a genre you’re passionate about, because you’ll have a better understanding of the game’s appeals to an enfranchised audience, but by questioning the flaws that seemingly come part and parcel with the genre’s strengths, you may be able to create a game that nobody’s seen before.

Thrown To The Lions: Is Accessibility Everything?

This post was inspired by the game Glory to Rome, in particular its Colosseum card.

When you play the Colosseum, you can steal some of your opponents’ “patrons” and throw them to the lions for points. It’s a crushing play and one that will frequently win the game for the player who builds it. In fact, in a game defined by broken interactions between various cards, it may be a little too strong.

There is a mode of playing GTR that doesn’t include the Colosseum, and that’s generally nicer on new players, but veterans claim that playing “playing around” the Colosseum, by ending the game before someone can build it or by protecting yourself in various other subtle ways, is possible, and that the “advanced” version of GTR is better enough than the “easy” version that you might as well just start with it.

For a long time, I disagreed with strategy notions like these, thinking that all games should at least try to focus on accessibility and that complexity was a price paid for better gameplay. But it occurred to me that this is only true in a framework defined by numbers – sales number, or copies sold – and that the true estimate of a game’s quality is much more nuanced.

Spells For Beginners

Ironically, despite Magic: the Gathering being difficult to learn and the community being filled with hardcore gamers who love as much complexity as possible, the design team’s focus on accessibility straitjacketed my thinking from before I even knew I wanted to play board games.

Magic is designed at a large scale, which makes sense, because the playtesting for a trading card game is incredibly rigorous. most smaller companies (with the exception of Level 99, which has a huge network) can’t handle playtesting at a rate that would balance the game even slightly. This means that for a trading card game to remain a high-quality experience, it needs to constantly acquire enough new players to justify its operating expenses.

In order to acquire these players, Magic designers focus very heavily on the game being easy to pick up and play. A lot of the design team’s focus is on making the game relatively easy to parse; the New World Order design paradigm was one of the most important steps forward for the game. Comprehension is one of the most important metrics for evaluating a set of cards, even for products that are more aimed toward enfranchised audiences.

I think in terms of Magic design, all these things are good; however, I assumed that “accessibility is king” applied universally to all games, an assumption that might not be correct. Magic is in a situation where sales or community size really are good measures of success, because without large numbers of both the game would cease to exist. But that’s certainly not true for many publishers, let alone many games.

Going Dutch

Is “lots of people play it once” the end goal of a game design? Hell, is “it sells good” the end goal of a game design?

There’s plenty of reasons someone would pick a worse designed game to buy over a better designed one. Maybe the cover art is more appealing, or the theme is something they relate to; maybe their regular game group is 15 people large and they can only play roll-and-write games. Similarly, games might be inaccessible or turn off people glancing at it, but could be defined as “great” by many metrics. Princes of Florence is challenging for new players and has unreadable graphic design, but still comfortably resides just outside the BGG top 100.

There’s plenty of games that specifically aim for a niche audience and don’t care if there aren’t a lot of new blood. The venerable 18XX genre is one of these, as are war simulation games. (Twilight Struggle managed to find crossover success.) War game publisher Hollandspiele specifically decided not to balance strategies for first-time players, preferring instead to focus on a game with strategic depth after weeks of playing. In doing so, they found a small base of profoundly dedicated wargamers. Their article on the subject was enlightening and helped me codify this post. (The Thoughtful Gamer goes into more depth in a different post, which is also good reading.)

The goal of a game should be to be best it can be. For some games, like the aforementioned trading card games, “best” means that it has a large enough community to maintain organized play and develop strategies through the metagame. But for many others, “best” might mean that it has enough replay value to still be engaging for years and years of repeated play. If, for one of these second types of games, replay value comes at the cost of a steep barrier to entry, it’s worth it.

What We Owe to Each Other

To whom exactly do we “owe” our designs? Is it people playing the game for the first time, who might need convincing to give it a second shot? Or is it the people who are going to stick with your game through dozens of plays who want complexity, emergent strategy, and something they can really sink their teeth into?

It’s all well and good to shrug your shoulders and say “all of them,” or “strike a balance,” but in a lot of cases you have to pick one or the other. This is most common with “newbie crusher” strategies, like the Colosseum from the beginning of this article, which can be difficult for new players to overcome but can be countered or outpaced by veterans. What if a “newbie crusher” strategy is good for the game otherwise?

Also troubling is limits on component count and complexity. The more individual cards/powers are available in the game, the more replay value you’ll have, as more interesting strategies can be built. But by adding more components, you’re also setting the expectation that a decent player of your game should know what all of them do, along with their strengths and weaknesses. It’s pretty easy for someone to grasp the “good cards” in Love Letter because there’s only eight of them; for Terraforming Mars it might be a lot tougher. But on the other side of the coin, there’s a lot more combinatorics in Terraforming Mars that make the game so good for repeated plays.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to what makes your game good, but it should be defined by your game and your ideals, not necessarily by business terms. Capitalism’s constraints on “good” being a quantifiable value that can be defined by sales or community isn’t the only way to look at it, and that board games have masterpieces that can be only appreciated by a few people, just like with movies or music. Accessibility is, primarily, a means to achieving this conventional definition of success, and not a de facto measurement of quality.

Conclusion

Regrettably, there’s no such thing as a perfect game. My favorite game, Cosmic Encounter, is loathed by other players for its randomness and imbalance, while I certainly have games I like significantly less than their objective valuation (like Caverna, which I bounced off of). But the only way to truly know whether your game is inching closer to perfection is to set your own standards and not simply accept the easy answers put forward in front of you.

Because my work for Phantom Knight Games is in party games and in light thematic games, accessibility still remains a significant concern for me. But writing this article helped me realize that my definitions of quality aren’t universal and have a fairly commercial bent to them, and will help me recalibrate how I analyze games going forward. And one day, I hope to play the famously out of print Glory to Rome so I can judge the Colosseum strategy for myself.

Pat Lawlor: A Lesson In Impact

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

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

Defying Norms

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

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

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

Narrative Resonance

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

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

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

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

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

Easy to Explain

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

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

Conclusion

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

Nonsense Potential

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

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

What Is Nonsense?

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

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

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

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

Getting Up To No Good

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

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

The question was “where do babies come from?”

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

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

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

Example Time, Baby

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

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

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

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

Impactful Nonsense

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

In Defense of the Meta

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

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

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

Onboarding

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

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

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

Relatability

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

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

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

Experiential Vigor

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

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

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

Conclusion

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