Cross-Platform Game Design, Part 1

ADnD Players HandbookYou know Dungeons & Dragons.  You probably encountered it first in school.  Perhaps you played.  Perhaps a boyfriend/girlfriend played.  My first exposure to was in the fall of 1980.  Attending a new school and knowing no one, a classmate and I became fast friends over classic dungeon crawls and the occasional wild west shootout.  Roleplaying games are still a geeky passion.

Luther and I were recently approached to design a boardgame to enhance an existing RPG product line.  We are not currently free to discuss this specific project.  However, it got me started thinking about cross-platform gaming.  

We’ve seen a few board game tie-ins to RPGs like
Dungeon!  and card game ties-ins like Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.  We’ve seen tabletop tie-ins to Minis Games like Chaos in the Old World. We’ve even got a fair number of RPG tie-ins to minis games like Mechwarrior or GURPS Autoduel.  Making these conversions must have been challenging.  Changing game platform tends to hit you with a shift of pace or tone. Fans of the original game are likely to judge every element–how well does your design measure up to their precious? You can be certain that they’ll tell you.

Why go to the trouble?  Why work on a conversion when you know your work will be judged as much by its faithfulness to the original game as by your own work?  Why work so hard when you know you’ll be scrutinized for your efforts?

Sentinel Tactics-main
The biggest and best reason to cross platforms is brand recognition.  Would the same number of people look at
Chaos in the Old World without its tie-in to 40K?  Would we be playing 1977’s Dungeon! were it not tied to the biggest Fantasy RPG of all time?  It was certainly a big part of the plan that Sentinel Tactics bring fans of the original SotM card game to our table.

Another good reason reason to cross platforms is to expand player experience.  Autoduel enabled Car Wars players to expand their relationship with SJG’s setting.  Chaos in the Old World  shows players the world of Warhammer from the perspective of a god.  Sentinel Tactics let Sentinels of the Multiverse fans see their battles play out across the spires of Megalopolis.


Considering Player Types

To make a cross-platform successful, it helps to think about what brought players to the original game.  Most gamer folk have experimented with board, minis, and roleplaying games.  Many gamer folk define themselves by their favorite category.  This is interesting when we consider that the mechanical distance between them is pretty small.  Each allows players to choose from a set of available actions and include rules for interpreting the results of those actions.  Want to build a University in Puerto Rico?  Want to lob a grenade at those MERCS?  Want to trick the super villain into monologuing in Mutants & Masterminds?  Each game has rules to cover its actions.

What separates players?  Why does one gamer identify as wargamer, another as boardgamer, and another as roleplayer?  As with many areas of design, it all comes down to core experience.  Roleplaying games are best at providing engaging social experiences and engaging settings.  Minis games are best at offering engaging tactics and engaging strategy.  Boardgames can expediently show off engaging mechanisms.

Preference in core experience motivates choice of game type.  Does this make writing a cross-platform game a fool’s errand?  Not so!  Plenty of minis games have an engaging setting.  Roleplaying games often draw on engaging knowledge.  Cross-platform boardgames simply require cross-platform engagement.

Player Engagement

Earning player engagement requires that the game highlight elements common to its counterpart.


Order of the Stick is a webcomic about a meta-aware D&D party.  Most of its humor comes from references to its genre conventions.  When Kevin Brusky developed the OotS board game, he mirrored the first story arc–an extended dungeon crawl–and included lots of original humorous art from the comic’s creator.

Sentinels of the Multiverse is a game of collaboration.  When we developed the board game, we made sure that characters were complementary.  Each character had particular strengths and weaknesses.  Success in the SotM game would then require players to collaborate and cover each other.Star Wars Epic Duels


Star Wars Epic Duels proclaims its appeal on the the box.  “Did You Ever Wonder…” Yes I did, Mr. Daviau.  Yes I did, Mr. Van Ness.  And thank you for helping us all find out.


Closing Thoughts

In future columns, I will take on the main traits of conversions between board, minis, and roleplaying games.  Until then, keep the main points in mind.

Taking a property across platforms can be difficult.  Changes of tone and player expectations are both traps any designer could slip into.  But if you identify our target players and we find opportunities to give players a new experience, you will write a great cross-platform games, perhaps even exceeding its parent.
What genre or setting would you try in any game type?  How would you write any such a game?  What did you learn from the experience?  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.

Dramatic Structure For The Modern Game Designer, Part 1

Good writers know that stories need good pacing.  They also understand that there is no one correct pace. Each story requires its own pace.  Think about the best movies you’ve seen, the best television shows you’ve watched, the best music concerts you’ve attended, the best standup comedy you’ve heard, the best meal you’ve eaten.  Each of them has a pace which maximized your experience.

Good game designer is the same.

A Brief Overview

Our understanding of dramatic structure begins with Aristotle’s observations in his text Poetics.  It was here that he asserted tragedy must have a beginning, a middle and an end.  The beginning–prologue and parados–is for exposition, to introduce the major players and their interrelationships.  The middle was filled by alternating short scenes–episodes–and songs–stasimon.  The end–exodus–brings resolution to the story.

A modern view of the three-act structure uses the first act not only for exposition and introductions but also to confront the protagonist(s) with a major event.  The protagonist is now moved (or even forced) to respond.  Big Jake’s grandson has been kidnapped.  Walter White has cancer and no way to pay for his treatment.  Alex Parrish has been framed for a terrorist attack.

Three act

Image from Lydia Kang

The second act is filled with rising action.  Will Luke rescue princess Leia?  Will Ellen kill Herod and thereby avenge her murdered father?  Will Inigo find and defeat the six-fingered man?  Will Simon steal the statue or will Nicole’s father’s forgery be detected?  The protagonist usually begins the second act unable to resolve this issue.  She must learn new skills, build new alliances, or find new strength within herself.

Resolution arrives in the third act.  All forces are brought together into a focal point.  The protagonist faces her greatest challenges.  Dramatic questions from the second act are answered.  The protagonist achieves a new sense of her abilities and her identity.  Cage has defeated the alien invasion by becoming the hero the world needed him to be.  Rocky Balboa has lasted 15 rounds with Apollo Creed and embraces his beloved Adrian.  Batman defeats his surrogate father Ducard and rescues Gotham City.

Kenneth Thorpe Rowe justifies the three act structure beautifully in Write That Play (1939) by asserting that it is “clearly more basic to the fundamental structure of a dramatic action than Horace’s five. There is an attack, a crisis, and a resolution. . . . There is a natural symmetry and balance with adequate flexibility inherent in the three-act form, with the first act introductory and springing the attack, the second act developing the action to the crisis, and the third act for the resolution.

Extending the Three-Act Structure to a Game

In a game, the player is the protagonist.  This makes every part personal.  It is you who is confronted with challenges.  It is you who must learn new (in-game) skills and build new (in-game) alliances.  It is you who must overcome your greatest challenges (often in the form of the other players).  

Is a three-act structure a useful model for games?  I believe that it is.

DOOM consumed many hours of my college life.  Its play was more compelling than any action game I’d seen before.  And its play follows the three-act structure fairly closely.

DOOM Act 1 (exposition and introductions, you are forced to respond): What is that? Hey–it wants to kill me!  Hey–everything wants to kill me!  Hey–even the green water wants to kill me!

DOOM Act 2 (learn new skills, finds new strength within yourself):  I see better and better weapons.  I’m learning to strafe.   I’m pushing forward and defeating all of these nasty and disagreeable creatures!

DOOM Act 3 (final conflict and resolution):  That is one nasty level boss!  This is the moment I’ve been playing for.  I have bigger guns.  I have sharper skills.  Either I will destroy that monster or it will destroy me!
Zong Shi is a worker placement game I began developing in 2004.  My design skills were less sophisticated than they are today but I happened to stumble my way to a three-act structure.

Zong Shi Act 1 (exposition and introductions, you are forced to respond): Players draft starting material and event cards. Players decide which projects to build first.

Zong Shi Act 2 (learn new skills, finds new strength within yourself): Completed projects give each player special powers.  Secrets of alchemy enable players to trade one material type for another.

Zong Shi Act 3 (final conflict and resolution):  Players push for endgame.  Any player with a sixth project completed triggers the endgame but final victory is in the point value of those projects.
So some games do exhibit a three-act structure.  And as time goes by, I find it increasingly useful to look at each design from this point of view.  Must every game fit this structure?  I don’t think that’s necessarily the case but if a game does deviate from this structure, it should do so deliberately and thoughtfully.

In part 2 of this article, we look at how to maximize the impact of your game by mapping its tension.  We will also look carefully at maximizing the quality of playtime in games.

What do you think of the three-act structure in games?  Would you pace games differently?  Did I miss a step?  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.

Great References

This series been one of the most effort-intensive articles I’ve yet written.  Three sources were particularly valuable.  Jennine Lanouette wrote an excellent summary of the history of the three-act form for a post on Screentakes, her defense of the form in this later post, and Wikipedia’s article on the three-act structure was also a valuable resource.

Taking It Further

Valley of the Kings AfterlifeTodd Rowland of AEG did a video at Gen Con 2015 with W. Eric Martin, showing off  Valley of the Kings: Afterlife. In describing the game, he called it an “expandalone.” This term was entirely new to me but what a delightful compound word it is–a perfect description for game expansions which can also be played without its core set.

Ava Jarvis and I begin discussing this concept and through this discussion, we came upon a range of ways to build upon an existing game.  In the industry, we generally lump all of these ways under the generic term “expansion” but palpable differences exist between the types. Today’s article is an attempt to begin codifying those differences and to assign a term to each.

Caylus Premium EditionReskins

Because they involve no rule changes or new components, reskins are the lightest type.  Most reskins are fan projects and there are some great ones out there such as the 8-Bit Mario version of That’s Life. Some are official versions, as in the case of Mike Doyle’s gorgeous Caylus Premium Edition.


What about the case in which a designer revisits an earlier work, changes the theme, and also introduces new components or rules?  These are the rethemes.  

A retheme is more than a reskin because it offers new play through new rules or new components. Rethemes are not extensions because they are ready to play out of the box.  Rethemes are not expandalones either; they are not cross-compatible with their forebears.

Let’s take Reiner Knizia’s Schotten Totten as an an example.  In 2008 he rethemed Schotten Totten into a movie tie-in for Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.  Each game stands alone.  Each is clearly built on the same engine but they are not cross-compatible.

Michael Schacht’s China is similarly a retheme for Schacht’s earlier Web of Power.

Another good example of retheming is in the many licensed versions of Risk.  Its core mechanism has proven flexible enough to support Star Wars, Doctor Who, and even Plants vs. Zombies.


Extensions are small additions to an existing game.  This could be a couple of new cards to play, a new character to play, a new treasure to collect, but no fundamentally new ways to play. A single booster pack in a Magic: the Gathering set would be an extension for that set since it extends that set without introducing introducing any mechanisms unique to it.  The expansions section of the BGG Store is filled with further examples of extensions.


For me to be willing to call something an expansion, it’s got to offer a new way to play the game.  There don’t have to be a large number of bits but there needs to be a great deal of play.   It is weight of play caused by these changes which makes them expansions, not the weight of the box in which they arrive.

vEXATION eXPANSIONThe Vexation expansion for Transamerica/Transeuropa consisted solely of 18 wooden links in player colors and a small set of directions–but what a difference this modest addition made!

The first expansion maps for Rolling Freight introduced multiple new mechanisms–canals, caravan routes, and dropping prices.  If these were new maps without correspondingly new rules, they would be extensions.


And now we return to the beginning of this piece, the awesome expandalone. Like the pop idol on any teenager’s wall, expandalones are what all designers dream of creating. And why not? It is at the same time an expansion of gameplay for experienced players and an introduction for new ones, marketable to fan and neophyte alike.

Valley of the Kings Afterlife
coined the term for me but other expandalones immediately come to mind; Dominion: Intrigue, Ascension: Heroscape MarvelDawn of Champions, and any preconstructed theme deck for Magic: the Gathering.  Card games utilizing deck construction clearly lend themselves to to the creation of expandalones but the list needn’t end there.  The Heroscape Marvel tie-in is a wargame expandalone, for instance.

It’s a big world of boardgames.  that world is multiplicatively bigger when designers and publishers expand, extend, recycle, and repurpose their games.  And this was an attempt to codify these works.

What do you think of this spectrum?  Would you classify game expansions differently?  Did I miss a category?  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.

Primal Games

Primal games are so clean, so clear, that they seem ancient even when they’re new.  

Go is primal.  Its rules are immeasurably concise while its components are simplicity itself.  So are Blokus, GIPF, and Qwirkle–AKA Scrabble for cavemen.

Chess is not primal.  Its rules are littered with patches–en passant springs to mind.  Furthermore, its components fail to justify their existence–consider how many equally good abstract games start by changing the pieces of chess.

Primal games needn’t be trivial or simple however.  Consider for instance that while Deep Blue defeated Yuri Kasparov in 1997, organic Go masters are still undefeated by their silicon counterparts.

It can be difficult to overcome the desire to add a twist here or a wrinkle there.  Nobody But Us Chickens has been my best attempt so at this style far and even it has a few too many twists to truly call it primal.

Or is it that no one truly creates primal games?  Have they truly always existed?  Are their designers uncovering them rather than creating them?  Modern artists in the twentieth century faced such dismissive accusations as well.  Elegance is hard work.  It’s even harder work to make things look easy.

So where do we begin?  Where does a person begin when setting out to create primal games?  Dominic Crapuchettes once asserted that every rule in a game should fight to justify its existence.  What if you took that attitude further–to insist that every game element, every rule, every component–justify its existence?  I believe this would be right way to start.

Adopting this mindset can be a major challenge.  Us designers generally start charmed by game structures.  We want to create our own structures, to impress other game aficionados with our clever mechanisms, to spread our flourishes across the hobby like magic dust.  But to create a primal game is to deliberately step into the background, to create an experience so pure that it feel more as if it always existed rather than being a contemporary product.

I’m absolute rubbish at writing primal games but I enjoy playing them and admire the style of any designer that can pull them off.  Please show me how it’s done.

How about you?  What’s your favorite primal game?  What game came close but didn’t quite make it?  Have you created a primal game?  what was your process?  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.

Having Something to Say

My annual pilgrimage to Gen Con harvests bushel upon bushel of ideas. I generally meet with at least six publishers and shoot for ten. Each is looking for games to fit certain needs and I want to supply as many of those as possible.  We do a large amount of brainstorming, looking for the best idea to fit each need. If we find something promising, it becomes my job to take that idea home and develop it.

As I work to develop these ideas into worthy games, some energize me while others drag me down.  This led me to a discovery about myself – not necessarily a good thing – to really get a project moving, it has to have something to say.

What does that mean?

It means that the game has to go someplace new. It has to speak up for itself and say you haven’t seen this before or you may have seen this before but I’m doing it better.  Offering anything less leaves me feeling more photocopier than designer.

For example, my first published game reverted to me about a year ago and started searching for a new home. While I’m still proud of this game as it is, I also challenged myself to recreate it. Twelve years of experience let me look at the game in new ways. This was where the project began to have something to say–it wanted new play experiences from the same core experience.

This understanding guided the brainstorming which followed. We focused on ideas that updated play and scoring mechanisms. I created several different prototypes, each with these ideas in mind. Of course most of these prototypes failed.  Some were flat, which is bad, while others were convoluted, which is even worse.  But because I knew what the game wanted to say, it was much easier to spot the prototypes that had real potential.  And out of this, one solid contender emerged.  Today, that contender is in the queue with a major publisher.  Because it has something to say.

To be clear, innovative elements alone do not give a game something to say.  I’ve seen hundreds of eurogames with creative–even baroque–elements that still saying nothing. For a game to say something, its elements have to serve its core engagement. It has to energize players. It has to feature interesting decisions. It has to flow.

So what does all of this have to say about me?  Am I artist or elitist?  Visionary or fool?  Honest or hung up?  I’m not entirely sure.  

How about you?  What does it take to get you excited about playing a new game?  What does it take to get you excited about writing a new game?  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.

Gen Con 2015 Schedule

This week is that special week–the week when gamers across the country and around the world converge on Indianapolis for Gen Con. For my part, I’ll be running a number of demos and would love to see you there. Drop by for a game or simply to chat–look me up!

Dragon Tides   10:00 AM – 12:00 PM   Hall D, Table Green 56
Rolling Freight  12:00 PM – 2:00 PM    Puffing Billy Area
Dragon Tides   5:00 PM – 7:00 PM     Hall D, Table Green 57
Rolling Freight   7:00 PM – 9:00 PM    Puffing Billy Area

Rolling Freight   12:00 PM – 2:00 PM     Puffing Billy Area
Dragon Tides   6:00 PM – 8:00 PM     Hall D, Table Green 56

Dragon Tides     10:00 AM – 12:00 PM   Hall D, Table Green 56
Dragon Tides     6:00 PM – 8:00 PM     Hall D, Table Green 55

Dragon Tides     10:00 AM – 12:00 PM     Hall D, Table Green 56

Protospiel 2015 After Report

Last weekend was the Protospiel main event, organized by all-around spiffy guy David E. Whitcher.  It’s a great opportunity to see some creative folks in action, to have them dissect my work, and to get a sense of the general trends in design.

Courtesy toward other designers’ work forbids discussing most of the games in detail, but I’ll share will all of you what I can.

Mayfair has a license to create a series of Star Trek games and Protospiel organizer David is also the author of Star Trek: Five-Year Missions.  He kindly gave us all a full playthrough.

ST Five Year Missions at PS

The Crew of the USS Protospiel

Star Trek: Five-Year Missions is a fully cooperative game.  The eponymous missions are events and players roll dice to satisfy them.  This is definitely a family game–think of it as a notch or two up in complexity from Catan and should therefore be a solid addition to the Mayfair line.

Francois Valentyne brought an excellent design which contained a tile-laying element, a pick up and deliver mechanism, and an economic element.  It’s a testament to Francois’ flair as a designer that all of these mechanisms fit into something that still qualifies a a family game.

The majority of other games at Protospiel were instead in the “gamer’s game” category–Kennerspiel candidates if you will.  Magic and magic users were a recurrent theme.  Some were abstract, as a eurogame might be.  Others were quite literal, like a magician’s duel.

Another common theme was global war a’ la Risk or Dust.  Some were serious, some were ironic–to be played only with tongue firmly placed in cheek.

Racing games were rare, although Michael Brandl brought one of which I am quite enamored.

Two of my own prototypes also hit the table this year.

The Grand Sorcery drafting game (described last column) was tested with three different groups.  Their feedback was overall positive.  Everyone agreed that the game needs more development but the flow of the game interested several players as did the multiple ways in which each card could be used.  One publisher even made an unsolicited request to see it!

Grand Sorcery at PS

Grand Sorcerers hard at play

The other game was Muster & Battle–the working title–a civilization game in the spirit of Manifest Destiny.  I’ve been developing this one for about three years and Protospiel has been a consistent touchstone throughout.  When it was little more than an alpha, it was the Protospiel crew that dissected the underlying engine.  When it was one year older, it was again the Protospiel crew which gave the critical outside opinion and helped keep it on track.  Now in late beta, the Protospiel crew again stepped up to analyze its moving parts.  I cannot imagine M&B would be half the game it is were it not for all of their assistance.

M&B at Protospiel

Muster & Battle shown here at its first Protospiel

Have you attended a Protospiel event?  How was it?  What did you learned from the experience?  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.