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!

How To Win Cutthroat Kitchen

Recently, I’ve been watching the Food Network game show Cutthroat Kitchen, a sinister variation of Chopped where contestants bid on sabotages to give the other players during cooking. However, I get frustrated when I see contestants, much better cooks than I am with the ability to change their plans on the fly, make horrible strategic decisions that lead to their self-destruction. I would like to analyze the strategy of Cutthroat Kitchen from a game design perspective and give you the tips and tricks on how to walk out of there with slightly more dignity than the other three.

Part 1: Threat Evaluation

In terms of game classification, Cutthroat Kitchen is a combined take-that/auction game. What’s interesting about it is that contestants bid for sabotages with the money they otherwise would take home. This makes the strategy different from a hobby game, where you don’t care by what margin you win, and even from poker, where you win by completely eliminating every other player. If you scrape through by the skin of your teeth in Cutthroat, you will see measurable losses.

So then, we actually have two goals here. The first and more important goal is that you win. The second, less important but still requiring thought, is that you win while retaining as much money as possible. This is where proper threat evaluation comes in.

In most games, you evaluate threats based on your opponent’s abilities; in Cutthroat, self-reflection on what would be the most difficult for you is more important, especially because cooking talent and experience are intangibles and not as easy for you to see in an opponent as, say, Risk armies. Thus, you need to know what would hurt you the most personally.

Speaking broadly, I would say that weird equipment is the easiest to work with, followed by physical restraints, time-wasters and then by crummy ingredients. It’s rare to see rounds where someone gets assigned weird equipment and isn’t able to work out some ingenious method to cook everything. (The tiny kitchen is an exception and must be avoided at all costs.) Restraints have the most variety in how nasty they are, but generally have workarounds. Time-wasters depend on the assignment and how well you’ve managed your time up until that point; correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe they generally appear mid-round and so you’ll have a good sense as to whether it would be okay or not. Bad ingredients will generally torpedo your entire game plan and are usually the scariest in an episode.

Part 2: Resource Management

How much money with which to bid depends on how late in the game it is, how many sabotages you’ve already been assigned, and how aggressive your opponents are with driving up bids. If you’re cheeky, it might be worth it to trick an opponent into wildly overbidding on something you’d be fine receiving so they can’t match you when it really gets tough. This is most important in the final round, when you know exactly how much your opponent is able to bid and can 100% claim a sabotage through careful play. (This is true for two-player Castles of Mad King Ludwig as well.)

Besides the quality of the sabotage itself, the round number is also worth thinking about. One mistake I see frequently is a contestant blowing all their money on a sabotage during the first round, with four contestants. Beyond the obvious issue of not having money for subsequent rounds, the first round has more contestants, which means more people to get assigned the sabotage and more people who could potentially cook something worse than you.

Part 3: Table (er, Kitchen) Politics

 Once you’ve figured out what hill you’re not willing to die on, you now have to pick a victim.

The best choice is someone who’s already been sabotaged this round. This seems like a terrible idea – it makes you seem like a huge jerk – but it’s the best strategy. Only one person gets eliminated each round, so dogpiling on one person will more often lead to someone other than you getting eliminated than spreading it out. Sabotaging someone who hasn’t been sabotaged yet to “level the playing field” is pure gambler’s fallacy.

The next best choice is someone who’s sabotaged you. Cutthroat Kitchen suffers from the problem of a lot of take-that games where firing the first shot is a bad move, as the other players will then deem you an acceptable target. The reverse of this is that if someone’s already given you a sabotage, sabotaging them back won’t draw aggro from the other contestants. It’s also great TV.

Barring either of those, sabotage whoever has the most money. If you get to the finals with someone with more money than you, you’re at a disadvantage; it’s better to sculpt the competition so you have the greatest odds possible of winning at the end, where you’re the only target remaining.

Conclusion: I Am Not A Pastry Chef

 As I mentioned in my previous article about The Amazing Race, it’s important to look everywhere you can for lessons about game design. I find reality competition shows incredibly interesting because they’re simple enough for a tired person who’s not really paying attention to follow along and create gameplay along axes that are impossible for home gaming to replicate. I will probably never make an exact recreation of Cutthroat in a box, but thinking about its strategy has lead to interesting takeaways that can be used in other – less culinary – applications.

PS. I haven’t watched as much as other people, so if you think I got something wrong here please let me know.

Keeping Your Game Focused (also, horrible puns)

I’m a big fan of ketchup.

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

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

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

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

One Game, 31 Flavors

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

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

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

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

Ketchup Mechanics

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

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

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

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

Ice Theme

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

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

Heinzight is 20/20

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

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

Elven Space Farmers of Ancient Rome

Board games have an issue with theme.

Though exceptions exist, Zach Gage’s bizarre Guts of Glory springing to mind immediately, the majority of board games have similar themes. There are hundreds of (mostly) American board games with extremely similar European fantasy themes, soft sci-fi with aliens, and the ever-present zombies. On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe brims with games about farming and being a Roman with a bunch of bricks and spare time. Even stranger, people don’t really seem to tire of these themes, with the exception of zombies, which have worn out their welcome even among a fairly tolerant audience of geeks.

Instead of complaining, or boasting about how my games are different (so far, their themes are “trains”, “superheroes”, and “Elizabethan England”), I wanted to analyze some of gaming’s most common themes and see why they remain enduringly popular.

Die, Skeletons, Die!

Most of the popular American board game themes involve violence of some sort. In fantasy, this is the classic adventuring party of the fighter, the mage, the cleric, and the rogue running into a dungeon and killing goblins, orcs, and skeletons. Sci-fi games take a grander scale, with gigantic spaceships firing lasers at one another. Zombies, superheroes, mafia – all of these themes require the frequent use of violence.

This is not necessarily because the average American gamer is bloodthirsty, but instead plays into a power fantasy. The ability to inflict violence is developed from significant physical skill, something that the majority of gamers, because gaming is a more mental hobby, either don’t or can’t develop. Violence in games translates mental power, which is often subtle and unsatisfying, into physical might.

Pro Farmer 2000 XP

Let’s turn our attention to the peaceful Euro. The running gag about these games is that they are almost invariably about farming, and indeed, the vast majority of them have very pastoral, almost boring themes: The hard-working farmer, the Roman architect, the peaceful village. How do people find the necessary stakes in these themes?

My hypothesis: Scale.

Eurogames give the players the reins over a domain of any size from a family (Village, Agricola) to a village (Catan) to an entire civilization (7 Wonders, Stone Age). Even games where players represent one person, like Last Will, typically has them in positions where they are capable of colossal things. Generally, time is compressed so that a single turn could be representative of weeks, months, or even years in extreme cases; civilizations are built and destroyed over forty-five minutes.

This is a power fantasy of a different sort, one where players aren’t supernaturally powerful but where they can construct something grand. Day-to-day, the average person doesn’t get to design a city, or build a house, or guide a civilization – the biggest decision they get to make is what to have for dinner. Classic Euro themes forego violence but retain the players’ subconscious wish to be something greater than they are.

Stereotypes And The Tautological Argument

It could also be said that these themes are popular because they are popular. One of the most insightful articles in designing theme for board games is Bruno Faidutti’s Postcolonial Catan, an essay that mostly discusses exoticism and stereotypes in board games, explaining their prevalence in tabletop games with this astoundingly profound sentence:

“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.”

A board game has very little real estate it can use to convey its world. This faces the designer (and illustrator, and graphic designer, if these are three different people) with a dilemma: Do we stick with something familiar, allowing players some insight into how our mechanics work, or do we do something strange at higher risk? Given that theme is not a strong concern for many designers, and most people would prefer to see their game succeed, it isn’t difficult to see that they would immediately jump to something popular.

Conclusion

I don’t know if identifying the reasons board games have fairly homogenous themes will lead to more diversity; some themes just lend themselves better to games than others. However, I feel that theme is a part of games that isn’t talked about as often as mechanics or economics, and one that, if paid attention to more, could result in much wider audiences.

Game Analysis: Fibbage and Quiplash

Up until last year, I didn’t really pay much attention to the You Don’t Know Jack series of video games. The trivia questions were cleverly written about 60% of the time, but the 90’s Kool Attitude tone of the jokes got old quickly. However, in 2015, The Jackbox Party Pack and its sequel, Jackbox Party Pack 2, were released. Along with that year’s version of YDKJ, the game bundles included two games – Fibbage and Quiplash – that I believe are some of the best party games ever designed.

As many of you know, I am currently late in the design phase of Stand Back, Citizen!, my superheroic party pitch game. There aren’t a lot of resources for this type of game, despite its popularity, so I wanted to delve into why Quiplash and Fibbage are so fun and have so much repeat value. Other designers can use the tools they created in their own games, even if not all of them translate well from the video game format.

Fibbage

On its face, Fibbage is very close to the classic board game Balderdash. A factoid is put up on screen with critical information missing, i.e. “The death metal band Hatebeak’s front man is ________”. Each player then creates a fake but plausible-sounding answer that will hopefully get the other players to guess it instead of the real one*. You get points for other players guessing your answer, as well as if you guess the correct answer yourself.

This is already a pretty decent formula. However, the designers included one of the most brilliant mechanics I’ve ever seen in party games: The thumbs-up. After guessing an answer, players may then select any or all of the answers to give a thumbs-up to, indicating that they thought it was clever or funny. At the end of the game, the players whose answers got the most thumbs-up gets the prestigious “Thumbs Cup”, even if they’re in dead last.

Instead of trying to convince its audience that it should be taken seriously, Fibbage instead rewards people who want to goof off and make hilariously bad answers. Players are effectively split into two camps: Try-hards who put in realistic answers that people will guess, and goof-offs who answer “The original name of Kool-Aid” with “It’s Fruit Sugar! With The Glass Intruder” in an attempt to get thumbs. People bad at making jokes will be happy trying to earn points, while people bad at coming up with good fake answers will be happy watching the other players’ reactions to the latest monstrosity they created.

For the record, I am firmly in Camp Goof-Off; the Kool-Aid answer is mine and I included it because I have a huge ego when it comes to joke writing.

Quiplash

In Quiplash, players receive two prompts and write a funny answer for each one. Each prompt is put on screen one at a time (two players compete per prompt) and the rest of the players vote on which one they liked the most. Points are earned for each person who liked your response, plus a bonus if everyone votes for your response, also called “Quiplashing”.

This formula sneakily addresses one of the biggest issues with Apples to Apples-style pitch games: The massive amount of player downtime. I will be getting more into this topic when I talk about designing Stand Back, Citizen!, but the flow of most games like this work as follows:

  1. A prompt is revealed, players select a card.
  2. The judge reveals all the cards and reads them out loud.
  3. The judge selects the best card and awards that player the prompt.

The problem is that the longest amount of time in the game is spent on a phase in which only one player has the power to do anything besides argue pointlessly about how their submission was the best. However, in Quiplash, all but two of the players act as the judge every round, creating a lot less average downtime for each individual player. The rounds are also timed, which helps prevent the problem of the slowest player taking five to ten times longer than the others when deciding on an answer to a prompt.

Unlike Fibbage, which tries to appeal to audiences with multiple tastes, Quiplash is strictly oriented towards people who like to write jokes. Because the prompts are write-in, people who aren’t good at coming up with funny things under pressure might feel alienated, but this is made up for by the escape hatch of writing an in-joke about your friend group.

Conclusion

A good party game is difficult to differentiate from the pack, partially because the review resources aren’t as meticulous as those for hobby games and partially because there isn’t a lot out there saying what makes a good party game. I will be writing another column or two on the subject in the coming months, and I hope it proves useful in buying – and making – social games.

* ”A parrot.”