Landmark Games, Part 4

What are the landmark games?  Which games created genres?  Or perfected them? Or changed the way we look at them?  Here’s my list.  I’d love to see yours.


Rummy Games

At its core, rummy games are remarkably simple. Draw a card.  Build patterns in your hand (put these patterns into play on the table or hold them in your hand). Discard a card.

Many rummy games allow the player choice of drawing from the discard pile.  but this is not a requirement of the genre.

The rummy format is remarkably flexible despite its simplicity.

Henry Turkel gave us Word Rummy.

Michael Schacht gave us four piles to draw from when he created Crazy Chicken/Drive–two face down draw piles and two face up discard piles.

Alan R. Moon removed discarding and introduced a map to create Ticket to Ride.

Mike Fitzgerald gave us event cards and directly confrontational scoring mechanisms in his Mystery Rummy series.

Satoshi Nakamura melded European rummy with Pacific mahjong in Phantom Rummy.

Sheamus Parkes saw rummy through a Civilization lens to bring us Utopian Rummy and Plato 3000.

So many designers have put their own touch on the format that it was darned difficult to select which most advanced it.  In the end, I opted for a personal favorite…


Wyatt Earp

In 2010, I had the good fortune to contribute an essay to Family Games: the 100 Best.  In that essay, I called Mystery Rummy Case #3: Murders in the Rue Morgue as my favorite of Mike Fitzgerald’s rummy games.  Because I enjoy partnership games so much, my opinion of Rue Morgue game remains high.  However, Wyatt Earp (written in collaboration with Richard Borg) is the better game for those interested in design.

Wyatt Earp offers three four key elements for every designer to examine: card draw, event cards, card rolling, awarding victory points.


Card Draw

During its development, Stefan Brück introduced a variation on the standard card draw rule.  This new rule allows players to take the top ONE of the discard pile (which is face up) or the top TWO of the draw pile (which is face down).  Most rummy games by contrast let you take only one card from either pile.  In those traditional rummy games, it is almost always correct to take a useful card from the discard pile rather than a blind draw from the deck.  In Wyatt Earp, your decisions are more complex.  ‘That discard is juicy. I can use it. Oh, but the top two cards in the draw pile could both be useful! What is a poor gamer to do?!?’ You know that tougher decisions generally make better games.  Wyatt Earp presents you with a tough decision at the start.


Event Cards

Cards in this game come in two types–wanted posters (the cards you meld for points) and sheriff cards (the cards you play to cause a special event).  Among them, these event cards do pretty much everything you’d want to do in a rummy game–steal cards from opponents’ hands, steal cards from an opponents’ melds, block theft, draw extra cards, add bonus points to a meld.

Many games suffer from the inclusion of event cards because the event cards are strictly better than the rest, meaning that the winner is the player that draws more of them than any other player.  Mike Fitzgerald knows this and cut that advantage off at the knees. His Mystery Rummy games only allow players to use one event card per turn.

Since controlling when your hand empties can be critical, you will often find yourself playing one event card and discarding another simply to clear them out of your hand.  Remember those tough choices during card draw?  Many of them appear because your opponent left a helpful event card for you.


Card Rolling

Some of the best event cards in Wyatt Earp are not guaranteed.  In addition to playing the event card, you will be required to roll (flip) the top card of the discard pile.  Only if you roll a wanted poster does the event happen.  This puts an interesting gamble into the game.  This touch is particularly apt when we consider how many westerns feature gambling at the center of their plot (Johnny Guitar jumps to my mind but feel free to insert your favorite western in its place.  It is certain to feature a card game at some point).


Awarding Victory Points

Putting wanted posters into play (melding sets) is no guarantee of capturing a bandit (scoring it at the end of the hand).  Even if the bandit is captured, there’s still no guarantee you’ll get any of getting his or her bounty (victory points).

Capturing a bandit requires that the players have accumulated a minimum of 6 capture points.  Wanted posters only show 2 capture points each so having 3 in play (the minimum needed to open a meld) is actually an invitation to other players to join in for a share of the bounty.  You will usually be happy to see another player get a share if the difference is getting nothing at all.

To get a share of the bounty requires that you make a significant contribution to the villain’s capture.  Any player who lags the leader by more than 4 capture points gets no part of the reward.

One of the event cards in the game allows you to move cards from an opponent’s meld to your own. Careful planning and a dash of luck (this event requires rolling a card) can snatch a contender’s share right into your pocket.


Closing Thoughts

Rummy games are a familiar and versatile game category.  Although its core engagement is focused almost entirely on hand management, Wyatt Earp surpassed all others in showing the breadth of options that can be contained in a single rummy game.

What are the landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  Wyatt Earp is my fourth suggestion.  We move on to other topics Friday but will be return to look at other landmark games in the future.

Have you played Wyatt Earp?  What do you think of it as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Which ones were the (ha-ha) game changers? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Landmark Games, Part 3

What are the landmark games?  Which games created genres?  Or perfected them? Or changed the way we look at them?  Here’s my list.  I’d love to see yours.
Carcassonne it a tile laying game?  Is it a worker placement game?  An area control game?  Carcassonne is all of these.

Carcassonne is one of those remarkable games that changes the way you look at games.

My wife and I discovered Carcassonne in early 2001. It quickly became our favorite two-player game.  At its peak, we were playing it 3-5 times week, usually immediately before or after dinner.  Playing it so extensively enabled us to experience the game in great depth (It also turned us into area-control sharks but that’s a different story).

Each turn begins with drawing and placing a tile. Carcassonne is clearly a tile-laying game.  In most tile laying games, your main decision was where to put the tile (or sometimes, which tile to place if you have a hand of tiles).  Klaus-Jürgen Wrede took that idea further.  After each tile play, Wrede makes you decide whether or not to place one of your meeples on the tile to claim it.

Lots of worker-placement games make you choose where exactly to put your worker and have different implications for each placement option. But how many of those let you decide through the tile you place what those options will be? Carcassonne does.  Through its placement, a tile can be a perfect piece of a castle, or of a road, or of farmland.  Or it can mess up the growth of another player’s castle, road, or farmland.

If a meeple is already on a feature, no other meeple can be put on that feature.  So Carcassonne is also a worker placement game because each meeple claims an area solely for its owner.  Again, Wrede takes that idea further.  Even if you’ve decided to play a meeple to your tile, different parts of the tile have different implications.  And you have a limited number of meeples.  And you can’t get a meeple back until its feature completes and scores. And farms don’t score until the end of the game so any worker assigned to farming is gone for the rest of the game.

If a meeple is already on a feature, no other meeple can be put on that feature.  But wait–the rulebook describes how to split ties and determine majority win areas!  So Carcassonne is an area majority game.  But why are these rules in a game which forbids a second meeple from entering an occupied region? They are there because you can connect bits up through tile placement to horn in on another player’s work! Dastardly!

What about expansions?  Carcassonne has bucket loads of them.  Some introduce a new map feature. Some introduce a new type of meeple.  One–the Catapult–brought a dexterity element to the game, another–the Tower–gave us a tray to manage all those expansions during play.

What about sequels? Carcassonne has plenty of those too: Hunters and Gatherers, The New World, the City (my wife’s favorite), the Discovery (my favorite)

Playing Carcassonne changes the way you look at tile laying, the way you look at area control, and the way you look at worker placement.  It was revolutionary when it was introduced and stands unsurpassed even today.


What are your landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  Carcassonne is my third suggestion.  Come back Tuesday and see what you think of the fourth.

Have you played Carcassonne?  What do you think of it as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Which ones were the (ha-ha) game changers? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Landmark Games, Part 2

Last column related buddy Walter Hunt’s assertion that some games are essential to every gamer’s education.  While he takes the position a bit more strongly than I, he does also have something of a point.  Playing off of his assertion, I put forward Advanced Civilization as a landmark game.  Some of you wrote in with your own lists of landmark games.  It was reassuring to see how many were also on my list and simultaneously exciting to see how many hadn’t occurred to me.

Or maybe Walter and I are full of beans.  Several readers called me out for holding Advanced Civilization above so many other worthy titles.  Some readers asserted that its play time outstays its welcome on the table.  Some stated that the end is anticlimactic.  Some stated that playing its descendants is sufficient to appreciate its contributions.  The goal of every post on this blog is to encourage debate and so I thank each of you for challenging my views and for taking the debate further.

The brilliant PBS Idea Channel expounded recently on the nature of nostalgia with the claim “you name it; someone thinks that the thing that came before it was better.”  And they’re right.  I would like to believe that it is altruism which leads me to write this series on landmark games. It may however be this particular flavor of nostalgia instead.

Whether speaking from my desire to educate or from my nostalgia, I do feel that certain games demand to be played.  Some are exalted because they are pivotal ludographic ancestors many others.  Others, because they changed the game market.  Today, we take a look at…


Trivial Pursuit

Turn Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine to the year 1984.  That year reminds me of three things–a certain George Orwell book, a certain Van Halen album and a certain game by Abbott, Haney, Haney and Werner.  I spent many hours of that high school junior year playing Trivial Pursuit. We played it with friends.  We played it with family.  We bought over 20 million units that year.  For the rest of our lives, we would value trivia in a way no previous generation ever had.

Apart from astounding sales figures, what makes Trivial Pursuit a landmark game?  What can it teach us about modern game design?

trivial pursuit thingyLet’s start with the scoring track.  Trivial Pursuit folded its scoring track into the pawns.  Each time you collect a color, you gain that wedge and put it into your pawn. It would be great to see more games implement this idea.

Trivial Pursuit CardTrivial Pursuit also did an incredible job of tuning in to its target market.  Ray Winninger points out in his essay for Family Games: The 100 Best that Trivial Pursuit questions appear to have been written backwards. The answers are rarely unusual or unheard of. It is the facts about them which are unusual.  Players can take the answers along in their heads and drop them in casual conversation.   Take as an example, the last question from this sample card.  Although you may not be a culinary expert, encountering this question today empowers you tomorrow to drop that Vichyssoise is a creamy leek and potato soup served cold the next time you’re surrounded by foodies.

Writing its questions backwards allows players to leave the game table feeling as if they’ve achieved something more than winning or losing.  It leaves its players with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of success, even after a loss.  No wonder it took the market by storm!

Cant StopWe hear regularly that modern game design is characterized by always giving every player an opportunity to win right to the end.  Trivial Pursuit achieved this as well.  Like SId Sackson’s amazing classic Can’t Stop (column coming soon), it is always theoretically possible to win the game in a single turn.  I actually came quite close to this feat myself once, while playing the Star Wars edition of Trivial Pursuit.  Because it is always possible–even if unlikely–to win in any turn, players are constantly motivated to stay engaged in the game.  Even casual players who have fallen behind know they still have a chance, that a good run of questions could bring an upset win.  This is a feature I truly wish more party games emphasized.


What are the landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  Trivial Pursuit is my second suggestion.  Return Friday to see what you think of the third.

Have you played Trivial Pursuit?  What do you think of it as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Which ones were the (ha-ha) game changers? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Landmark Games, Part 1

I am in Niagara Falls for a convention this week. Roomie Walter Hunt and I have taken to enjoying this weather with a morning walk every day.  The air is crisp. The sky is clear. The breeze is cool. The conversation is engaging and interesting.  We make no effort to discuss games or gaming–and usually don’t since Walter is a history buff and enjoys sharing his knowledge–but today we did.

We were approaching the Rainbow Bridge into Canada this morning when he made an interesting remark. He stated that many boardgame posts respond to the latest product by referencing an older seminal game.  When a follow-up post responds that he has not played it, Walter then asserted that “It’s funny; I do not hear anything he says after that.”

Wow.  that’s a bold statement.

We probed this opinion in great depth while the miles rolled by under our feet.  Walter’s view is that to form meaningful opinions about the latest game, fans should understand its ancestry.  This strongly echoes the position Austin Kleon took in one section of his book Steal Like an Artist (book report coming soon!); that we should all strive to learn from our artistic ancestors.

For me, this raises an essential question: What ARE the essential games?  What are the landmarks everyone should play in order to put modern design into context?

And since you’re reading this blog, you get to read my answers.

With absolutely no further ado, here is the first in my series on landmark games.


Advanced Civilization

Adv CivCivilization was originally released in 1980, designed by Frances Tresham and Mick Uhl. The expansion Advanced Civilization released in 1991.  Civilization is a solid game on its own but I suggest you find the time to try the expanded version offered by Advanced Civilization.  It is a solid example of the right way to create a game expansion.

There are a number of things a twenty-first century gamer such as yourself will learn from playing this 34 year-old game.

The game rules are quite deep.  Avalon Hill rulesets are written in legalese.  They are not an exciting read.  Look past that at the core of the rules.  Reduced to the essentials, they are not terribly long but offer remarkable depth.

Trading brings players into direct contact regularly.  Examining your resources, trying to find a player who has what you need, convincing that player she wants what you to offer, all keep the interaction in the game high.  This is particularly important when you understand that the game generally takes about eight hours to play.

Calamities force players to constantly struggle with the game in addition to the other players .  Advanced Civilization is a game that requires players be proactive and reactive.  Some calamities will strike.  The player who can best prepare for and respond to these calamities is the player who has mastered Advanced Civilization.

settler_of_catan-34-rightHow has Civilization influenced modern design?  International sensation The Settlers of Catan is a perfect example.  Notice how the trading phase and the robber can both be seen as direct descendants of Civilization.

What are the landmark games?  Which titles should every game enthusiast play at least once?  Advanced Civilization is my first suggestion.  Return Tuesday to see what you think of my second.

Have you played Advanced Civilization?  How do you feel about holding it up as a landmark game?  What other games do you see as notable ancestors to newer games?  Which ones were the (ha-ha) game changers? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Game Currencies

One of the wisest decisions you can make as a game designer is to adopt an inclusive attitude.  Look for interesting ways to blend ideas that seem on their surface to be disparate.  Find a trait both share.  Use that commonality as the starting point of a conversation within your game.

Let’s take currency as an example.

Money makes the world go around, or so some say. Our world is filled with overt currencies–cold hard cash and coin.  The pursuit of this cash and coin seems at least at a glance to drive almost all of human existence.

But are cash and coin the only forms currency can take?

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary gives as its first definition of currency “the money that a country uses : a specific kind of money.” When I scroll further down the page, we see a series of similar definitions “something (as coins, treasury notes, and banknotes) that is in circulation as a medium of exchange,” and “paper money in circulation,“ and “a common article for bartering.”  Okay, so those seems to support the argument that currency is restricted to cash and coin.

Wait a tic.  What about that second one again? “something (as coins, treasury notes, and banknotes) that is in circulation as a medium of exchange.”

If we remove the parenthetical statement from this definition, we have the a more expansive “something that is in circulation as a medium of exchange.”

Looking up circulation yields “passage or transmission from person to person or place to place” while looking up exchange yields “an occurrence in which people give things of similar value to each other : the act of giving or taking one thing in return for another thing”

So now we start hitting a definition useful to us game designers.  We have that currency is “something that passes from place to place as a medium of gaining another thing.”

And when this definition is fine-tuned for game design, we get “something that players spend in the game to exchange for something else in the game.”

That definition allows for a great bit more than cash and coin, doesn’t it?

Certainly, players spend cash and coin in many games. What else do they spend?

In most trading card games, each card is itself spent to gain its effect.

In most set collection games, actions are spent to gain goods.

In most athletic games, physical energy is spent to gain points.

The deckbuilding game Ascension uses two perpendicular currencies–only triangles can be spent to gain heroes and constructs while only swords can be spent to defeat monsters.

The king of varied currencies Homesteaders contains a huge variety of currencies–lumber, apples, cows, bronze, gold–and exchanging these even requires another currency; the exchange tokens!

What does this inclusive point of view do for you as a designer?  It enables you to begin a conversation within your game.  Remember than an exchange is “an occurrence in which people give things of similar value to each other.”  Make the currencies in your game a little bit hard to valuate.   Give your players tough decisions about how and when to make the best exchange.  Give your players questions like…

…is it wiser to spend 5 coins now for 6 victory points or should I invest those 5 coins in 3 apple trees which will yield 9 apples over the course of the game?

…should I spend 4 turns building that 8-point statue or 3 turns building that 4-point shop?  What will I miss out on during that extra turn?

…would it be better to feed these apples to my workers and keep them healthy or sell the apples and pay my workers more, keeping them happy?

Fill your game with a steady flow of these decisions and they will thank you for it, believe me.


How about you?  What game do you think used different currencies in the most interesting way? Which one did it worst?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Adaptation Case Study: Schlock Mercenary

A popular game design topic is adaptation.  What is the best way to create a game about an existing property.  The game design threads on BoardGameGeek and pretty much every major thread on the Board Game Designer’s Forum have posts on this topic.

I intend to write a full series covering adaptations soon.  Until then, here is one case study.  It follows the creation of the Schlock Mercenary board game from start to finish.


An Innocuous Question

Hotel rooms at gaming conventions are purely utilitarian.  They are storage units with beds.  A place to stash your latest purchases. A place for a shower. A place to catch a bit of sleep between games. Comfort and leisure simply don’t enter into it.  And since less money spent there equals more money for games, it’s common to share a room.

Walter Hunt and I were splitting the bills at a convention in April 2008 when he asked that innocent question, “Are you familiar with the web comic Schlock Mercenary?

I wasn’t.  Walter was introducing me to Howard Tayler’s rich universe, starring a broad cast of amusing sociopaths and villains only marginally more disagreeable.  Adventure! Humor! Epic space adventure told three panels at a time.  I was hooked and knew this would be a great setting for a game.

Howard was also open to the idea of a tie-in for his comic.  Two months of research into his comic along with extensive note-taking and Howard received a preliminary proposal for Schlock Mercenary: The Board Game.  The design was underway.


Work Begins

The next year was spent playtesting, developing and polishing that game.  It was a huge sweeping epic of a game.  Schlock Mercenary: The Board Game spanned all the events of the first book Schlock Mercenary: The Tub of Happiness. Future expansions would tie to each book in the series while the core game focused on Tagon’s Toughs at its beginning. Their first adventures.  The entire cast.  Missions on the ground, missions in space, diplomatic missions and science missions.  Players could team up or oppose one another.  They could interrupt one another’s turns with plot twists and events.

Schlock Player Mat

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  It wasn’t.

Every mechanism worked as it was intended.  And despite every effort, it was dull and mechanical.  The play time was too long.  Turns were anticlimactic.  I consulted with designers outside my regular group while my home playtest team helped me beat on it with a stick.  When Howard and I met at Gen Con 2010, he got the news.  This was not a game either of us wanted to attach our name to.


Get Knocked Down; Get Back Up

There is a lesson here for every aspiring designer. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work on a design, it simply will not come together.  It’s okay.  We all have those designs.  Believe in yourself and keep at it.

XDS at GoFMy wife Debra wisely asserts that any time you raise an issue you should also have a solution waiting to offer. It happened that there was a second prototype I’d been working on–TacDice–a skirmish-level minis game that was testing well.  TacDice was testing with superhero and Star Wars figurines while deliberately keeping the theme open-ended.  Schlock Mercenary needed a game.  TacDice needed a theme.  It was a match made in the proverbial.

Howard and I spent the next hour going over this game and discussing how it might be implemented as a Schlock Mercenary game.  Howard gave the okay and it was back to the workbench for Kevin…


The Second Try

One year later–Gen Con 2011–Howard and I met again, this time to play a game worthy of Schlock Mercenary.  Fast, intense play. Character-specific attributes and powers. Extra gadgets and weapons. Oodles and oodles of dice!  It was this play Howard relates in the KickStarter video.  He gave the go-ahead. Nich Vitek and Living Worlds Games became the publisher.  Since Howard was creating all-new original art for the game and Living Worlds Games was the publisher for 1955: The War of Espionage, there was no doubt this would be another great-looking game.

We continued playtesting the game extensively.  New scenarios were created and tested.  Existing scenarios streamlined. Characters rebalanced. Rules blind tested and polished.

Closing Thoughts

Three years of effort paid off.  Out of the ashes of a failed design came a great one.  Creating the game was hard but satisfying work. I hope that its story has given you insight into the process.
Would you like to know more about designing adaptations?  What’s your favorite adaptation? Why?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Book Report: Uncertainty in Games

Greg Costikyan has enjoyed a career to make any game designer proud.  He was the locus RPG design when he authored the first Star Wars RPG for West End Games and Toon for Steve Jackson Games.  He defined the fringes of RPG design with his deconstructionist works Paranoia  and Violence. He understands the science of games and he understands their soul. His essay I Have No Words and I Must Design should be mandatory reading in any designer’s apprenticeship.  When Greg Costikyan talks, you are wise to listen.

MIT began the Playful Thinking series of books on game design in 2013 with The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games by Jesper Juul. Uncertainty in Games is Costikyan’s contribution to the series.  This slim volume–just 114 pages of body text–arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago. Let’s take a look together.

Chapter 1 is a brief introduction. Costikyan offers a well-illustrated concept of games as a safe space to explore uncertainty (and even danger, perhaps?) “…in a fictive and nonthreatening way.”

Chapter 2 covers games and culture.  At only 5 pages, this was my favorite chapter in the book. Costikyan goes at the anthropological core of play. We humans touch things and leave them more elaborate than when we found them. “Apes will tap out a rhythm;” he writes “we have the Eroica symphony, and Rock Band. Animals can see; we have the Mona Lisa. Beavers build dams and wasps build nests; we build Paris.”

I have always enjoyed sociology and anthropology (and zoology as Desmond Morris applies it to humans).  Any observation that gets at what we humans are all about intrigues me endlessly.  It had not occurred to me that one of humanity’s distinguishing features was our tendency to make things more elaborate, more formalized, more ritualized.  Costikyan is definitely on to something when he asserts that games are humanity’s formalized form of risk engagement.

Chapter 3 continues the argument Costikyan began in chapter 2, asserting the ways in which uncertainty serves play.  His approach makes here echoes many late-night convention conversations about core engagement and the like.  For me, the biggest insight he offers is simple but expansive–“games thrive on uncertainty, whereas other interactive entities do their best to minimize it.”  This comment left me feeling that some of my broader thoughts about player engagement need revision.

Chapter 4 holds the meat of the book, delving the types of uncertainty.  It is also the most heavily academic chapter.  Costikyan lays out different flavors of uncertainty–performance uncertainty, player unpredictability, randomness, analytic complexity, narrative uncertainty, and several more–through careful analysis of fifteen games ranging from Rock/Paper/Scissors to Magic: the Gathering to poker to CityVille.

Costikyan has an encyclopedic knowledge of games and he leverages that knowledge well here.

Each game discussion includes a summary of gameplay which may be skimmed if the reader is already familiar with the game in question.

Chapter 5 inverts chapter 4 by beginning with sources of uncertainty and then unpacks particular games as examples of each.  Again, Costikyan puts his wide knowledge of games to good use.

Chapter 6 is the chapter most immediately useful to game designers.  Costikyan spends chapter 6’s short nine pages applying his theories directly to game design.  He advises each of us to see uncertainty as a tool in our toolbox.  He pushes both the notion of increasing uncertainty and of lessening it.  He again provides specific examples.  Were he to write another book, devoted solely to the management of uncertainty in game design, it would be assured a treasured place on my shelf.

Chapter 7 offers a conclusion.  It is as short and sweet as this paragraph.

It is difficult to write analytically about games.  At our best, we game design essayists write with a deft and playful use of language that mirrors the fun of play itself.  At our worst, our analysis steal the fun from games bodies like the proverbial dementor delivering its kiss to Harry Potter.

Those who have chosen to write for traditional academia paddle the edge of the whirlpool of overanalysis.  Their need to support intellectual arguments can easily draw them in to increasingly cerebral pieces with no spirit.  Such emotionally dead essays are particularly disheartening because our hobby exists to deliver engagement, not detachment.

Writing this column has shown me that it can be difficult to provide intellectual rigor while resisting the overanalysis trap. My own series Ties, Damn Ties, and Statistics was intended to run two parts.  But each topic led to another and I couldn’t resist tacking on another subtopic until the series had more than tripled in size.  I indulged the intellect but starved the spirit.

Costikyan also struggles with this dryness, particularly in chapter 4.  Press on to the book’s conclusion regardless.  These analyses are the cost Costikyan pays to fully establish his point of view. He collects with interest by the end.

Uncertainty in Games is not perfect.  But it does bring a new perspective to game analysis, it does provide solid academic credentials, it does provide practical advice to working game designers, and it does all of these things in a readable form.

Uncertainty in Games was worth every minute I spent reading it.  At the end, could we ask for anything more?

How about you?  What type of uncertainty engages you in a game?  How do you use uncertainty in your game designs?  Have you read Uncertainty in Games and have thoughts to share? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with wordpress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Icons vs Text, Part 4

You have read several of my design group’s conclusions about the place of icons and text in game components through this series.  Last column examined color, art, and keywords. Today we look at two other methods and get at several concrete examples of published games.  We generally learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.  What can we learn from the games on our shelves?


A Standard Deck of Cards

Is there any more ubiquitous gaming component than a deck of cards? I believe there are probably more homes with a card deck in them than even a set of dice.  And how many games can be played with them? Certainly the number is in the thousands. The repository of all things card game Pagat contains about 30 games just beginning with the letter “A.”

Standard cards have no text.  They have numbers.  They have letters. They have colors.  They have suits.  These are the icons of the standard deck. Each game which uses them defines those cards to its purpose.



X-Wing Miniatures Game

X-Wing uses both text and icons. Pilot cards give all stats, actions and special abilities.  Stats are designated with an icon and a color, actions are designated with an icon in black, special abilities are detailed with text.


y-wing-layoutEach ship in play has a tile on its base which specifies its stats and pilot’s name. The pilot’s name functions as a keyword if you have learned that pilot. Otherwise, you can look it up on the pilot’s card.

Each ship is itself an icon. Every ship of the same type shares the same set of stats. Thus, if my opponent places a Y-Wing on the board, I know immediately that it rolls two attack dice, rolls one defense die, has 5 hull and 3 shields, can focus and can target lock.  I will still need to read its pilot name on the base to know if it also has any special abilities but I know quite a bit simply by looking at the mini.

The X-Wing Miniatures Game did make one major graphic design error–the dice. Fantasy Flight elected to have red attack dice and green defense dice. Red/green colorblindness is the most common form.  This has not been a major issue in my plays with a colorblind player–he simply asks me for the appropriate dice–but the fact remains that FFG would have been wiser to use white and black dice.



Color is used throughout Donald X. Vacarino’s Dominion to indicate card type–gold for treasure, green for victory, white for actions, blue for reactions, orange for duration, red for shelters, brown for ruins. Consistent application of these colors is a handy reference for most of us.  Because each card also has its type printed at the bottom of the card, component color is not mandatory and Dominion remains perfectly playable by the color blind.

Like its booster pack-based forebears, Dominion also uses text to describe most game effects and card art may be seen as an icon for each card.


Gem Dealer

Reiner Knizia’s Gem Dealer From Eagle/Gryphon games is an excellent example of failing to consider the implications of using color to indicate category.  Nate Walker did the side-by-side comparison shown below and kindly posted it to BoardGameGeek.  Under anything but strong lighting, these colors are completely indistinguishable no matter how good the player’s vision may be.  If each gem also had a different shape, no issue would exist.  Color can be an asset to identifying components. It is not good enough to be the only means of identifying them.

Glenn Drover’s Age of Empires III

Era 2 BuildingsAoE III perfectly missed the opportunity to use art as an icon.  To the right, we see the set of Era II building tiles. Notice that Fortress and Military Academy have exactly the same effect–+1 soldier per turn but different art while Privateers and Taxation have completely different effects but the same art. How easy would it have been to use the same building art for Fortress and Military Academy, then use the musket-bearing figure to represent our Privateers. Rather than clarifying, the art here obfuscates the purpose of these components.

John Eyster and I were discussing this blog series a few nights ago.  He pointed out that AoE III also has a mass-o-plastic issue.  The generic workers and the specialists tend to blend together on the game board.
He’s not wrong.  This is particularly troublesome since relative quantities need to be assessed and reassessed throughout the game. To be frank, I’d forgotten this issue since I replaced all the basic units with wooden cubes in player colors ages ago.

These issues are particularly unfortunate in the case of AoE III.  It’s a solid game.  My first plays were of a preproduction copy at Origins Game Fair. That version still used cubes as workers (which was the source of my inspiration to do the same) and was so enjoyable that I made an effort to get in a second play before the end of the convention. There are many games at Origins begging for your attention so finding one you want to play repeatedly is quite unusual.  

AoE III was rereleased as
Glenn Drover’s Empires: the Age of Discovery. I haven’t had the opportunity to try it out but hope that these design issues have been resolved.  It’s quite a good game and deserves to have equally good art.



Lessons Learned

What do these successes and failures teach us?  They show that any method can be used well and it can be used poorly.

So what should you do? I believe the correct answer lies in redundancy. Use multiple methods to reach your players.  Include icons and make them match the card effect.  Make keywords and include brief reminder text.  Give your cards/tiles art and make that art evocative of the item’s meaning in the game. Use distinct minis or meeples that stand out from their neighbors.  Rather than giving each player five different meeples, give each of your five players meeples which have unique shape as well as color.  You will have a much greater chance of being clear when you employ more than one method to convey information.

Nich Vitek did a phenomenal job of employing redundant information while developing the graphic design of 1955: The War of Espionage. Each card conveys information in several ways.  Consider this
Military Transport card.  We see by its flag that it is allied with France.  We see by the number in the upper corner that it has strength 2.  This information is repeated in the lower-left edge by its two blue stars.  The image of troopers dropping from a transport plane implies the card’s special ability, which is also spelled out in the card text.  An icon appears in the left banner and at the top right of the card, both as a reminder of the card’s effect.


How about you?  What game do you think used text, component art, or icons most clearly?  Which one did it worst?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Next time we get together, my second book report! Have a great weekend and I’ll see you Tuesday!

Icons vs Text, Part 3

This series of articles is all about our icons and text in game components.  Our design group has had extensive conversations on the topic and I’m sharing our conclusions with you.  Last time, we looked at the merits and limitations of icons. Today looks at some alternate approaches to icons.  What can we convey without using a conventional icon?


Component Color

Many games use color to indicate association.  Cards may have different color borders, figurines may have different color schemes.  This is an asset to the game so long as color is an indicator but not the only indicator.  Relying on color solely can be a tragic oversight–one bad decision leading to the game’s downfall.  My goal as a designer is to put joy on tables.  Closing off a portion of my potential audience by relying on color defeats that purpose.

My group encountered this situation only a few weeks ago.  I purchased a game on its excellent buzz.  We unpacked the components and John meekly declared the red and green tiles completely indistinguishable.  We packed the game back up and I haven’t reached for it since.

A similar issue arises if component color and player color overlap.  It becomes easy to mistake a community component for one belonging to a specific player.  This happened to me at a recent playtest.  I was playing green (as I often do) and one of the game regions was green.  The designer would ask from time to time, “how many green cubes do you have?” and I mistakenly answered with the number I had remaining in my supply when he actually meant “how many cubes do you have in the green region?” Oh the laughs we had over that one…


Component Art

In many cases, component art is sufficient for a player to know what the component represents.  Much as with color, this approach works fine so long as all components with the same art have the same attributes.  This works particularly well in miniatures games, where a squad of identical units can be represented with several identical minis.

Foreign CardCollectible card games like Magic: the Gathering are particularly good at this. When I was playing regularly in the late 1990s, it was vogue to fill your deck with foreign-language cards, if only to demonstrate your memorization prowess. Returning to the card I’ve been using regularly for examples in this series, several readers told me at a glance that this card is Necromancy and that it brings creatures from graveyards into play.



Some games games use keywords to represent blocks of text.  Keywords do not in and of themselves constitute component text.  They must be interpreted. They are not self-contained in the way that full text is.  Keywords are a useful design element but always remember that they have more in common with icons than with component text.

My frequent design partner Luther Bell Hendricks V is a particular fan of using keywords alongside reminder text.  In this way, the keyword is sufficient for any player who has memorized its meaning but the reminder text remains for players who haven’t.  At his suggestion, we have been exploring this as a way of handling recurring character abilities like flight in Sentinel Tactics (kickstarter campaign running now!)


How about you?  How do you feel about icons on game components?  If you’re a player, what do you prefer to see when you open the box?  If you’re a designer, what do you prefer to put in the box?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Next time we get together, we will look at several more published games to see how effectively each one used icons and/or text.  I will then offer my own advice on each.  Have a great week and I’ll see you Friday!


A Report From the T.A.B.L.E.


Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the T.A.B.L.E. gaming convention in Irving (basically Dallas), Texas.  The event space was Marriott near DFW airport.  Those of you who have attended BGG.Con for three or more years will know this space as its former home.

T.A.B.L.E. was a charming convention. Lead organizer Tiffany Franzoni was remarkably successful considering that this the con’s first run.  The game library was well-stocked (which is to say that it contained Zong Shi 😀 ) and there were quite a few small-press publishers and independent designers testing prototypes on the main floor.

I got to participate in two panel talks–one on game design and one autograph session.

The former was filled with great folks on both sides of the table. Our M.C. kept good questions coming and ensured that everyone had a chance to pose their own.

The latter seated me next to HIS GRAND HIGHNESS STEVE JACKSON who is really and truly a spiffy guy, who donated a large quantity of swag to the con, and who always had the time to chat with his fans.

T.A.B.L.E. was a pleasure to attend.  It was an honor to be a part of it. We should all urge Tiffany to do it again soon.