Writing a Compact Majority Game

Small games are obviously the big trend in game design right now.  The Love Letter effect is still rippling across the tabletop industry.  Publishers want a compact game with deep play and designers want to sell it to them.

One subcategory which intrigues me are the simple majority set collection games.  Like many other games, they feature a set of scoring tokens and players compete for majorities.  Nothing new there, right? the distinguishing feature comes from the scoring mechanism. Each scoring token has a number. This number is both the quantity appearing in the deck and the point value for holding their majority at the end of the game.

Choson 2I’ve seen this type of game several times throughout the years–Reiner Knizia’s Cheeky Monkey and Tutankhamen are good reference points–but two stood out for me recently–Koryo and Choson, both by South Korean designer Gun-Hee Kim.  What particularly interested me about Gun-Hee Kim’s approach is that he compressed play into just to a deck of cards and a few additional tokens.

Kim inspired me to try and build on his work with a Kevin G. Nunn flair.  The first goal was to streamline the components even further than Kim. This game must get by on nothing but cards.

What shall be the theme?  Theme, theme, theme.  Theme should compliment the game mechanisms.  At the same time, the choice of theme should inform future game design decisions.  And I’m stumbling to find something engaging.

Reaching back to my pastoral childhood, farms and farm animals become the theme.   Always be prepared to revisit every decision.  My choice of theme was later overturned in favor of a sorcery theme which better fit the flow of gameplay.

I love card drafting but seldom get a chance to incorporate it into a game.  Let’s take this as a chance to begin with drafting.  Players will get dealt a hand of cards, pick one, pass the rest, and continue this process until their hand has been fully drafted.

What to do with the drafted cards?  Do players reveal the at each stage of the draft as in 7 Wonders or will they be held until the end of the draft, as in Fairy Tale?  Let’s put that decision on hold for now.

So what about that game play?  The goal is to win pluralities in a variety of sets.  Drafting is the method of acquisition.  These elements may be a good foundation but they’re not enough. Cards in this game will have multiple uses; each player has a play mat with three locations. Each card must be assigned to one of these spots when it is drafted.  Ah–now the solution to the earlier question has revealed itself.  These assignments are made face down, not to be revealed until all positions have been drafted.

And since the cards are going multiple places, they should have multiple uses.  The first location is scoring; any card in this space goes to your score pile.  The second location is activation; each card will have its own special abilities which are used only if the card is in this space.  The third is turn order; cards in this space set the order in which players carry out their special abilities.

Player Card

What kinds of abilities will the cards have?  I wanted this to be a dynamic game, highly tactical, with a touch of screw-your-neighbor.  Abilities let trade your cards with the deck or with other players. Abilities let you negate other people’s powers.  Abilities let you replace bad cards.  Abilities let you extend your majorities.  Abilities let you use the abilities on other players cards.  Obviously, these abilities will need to be revisited throughout the development process but they were enough to get something going.

Card Example

With these abilities in place, we began playtesting with three-card hands.  This wound up being a bit dry so we expanded to four-card hands.  The first three drafts fill your three spaces.  The fourth draft may be used to replace any one of the cards you already drafted or may be discarded directly.

We also found that alternating the direction of the draft between rounds relieved the counterproductive tension of consistently sitting in the same player’s shadow.

As of this writing, the card deck has undergone five major overhauls.  The last two tests have led to only small changes however–tweak an ability here, clarify a power there.  It seems to be closing in on its final form.  It’s time for a big test with players outside my normal group.  Grand Sorcery will be travelling with me to Protospiel this weekend to be abused by some of the sharpest designers out there.  Let’s see what they think.

What do you think of this game’s design?  What is your favorite game in this genre?  Why?  Have you created any games like this one?  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.

What Are the Odds to “Draw 2?” Part 3

From last time we have that with

Probability Part 3 Equations 1

The change in odds when your opponent plays a special card and thereby draw two cards is

Probability Part 3 Equations 2

If this difference is positive, the odds go up.  If this difference is negative, the odds go down.  Let’s expand this formula and see where it can be simplified

Probability Part 3 Equations 3

Notice that the fraction shown in the first set of brackets must be positive.  We can set that aside for now since what we’re really interested in is when this formula is equal to zero.

Probability Part 3 Equations 4

Notice that the fraction in the left hand brackets must be positive.  Again we can set that aside for since what we’re really interested in is when this formula is equal to zero.

This leaves us with the formula and the information we need.  When a “draw 2 cards” special is played, the odds that this player holds another are…

When Probability Part 3 Equations 5 < 0, the odds decrease.

When Probability Part 3 Equations 5 = 0, the remain unchanged.

When Probability Part 3 Equations 5 > 0, the odds increase.

Hopefully, all this math will put a useful tool in your designer’s toolbox–and all arose from an off-handed comment I made about probability.

What do you think of “draw 2 cards” cards?  Have you incorporated them into your designs?  What did you learned from the experience? Do they improve a design or weaken it?  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.

What Are the Odds to “Draw 2?” Part 2

Part 2.  The Extension

The next questions was, how do these results vary from one game to the next?

With questions like these, it’s often useful to explore the extremes first.

Extreme #1.

Imagine a deck which only contains one special.  In this case, playing a special means that none remain and you have 0% probability of holding another.  Not very useful but worth noting.  We’ll bring this up again later.

Extreme #2.

Imagine a deck of seven cards which contains two specials in which you are dealt five cards.  If you play a special, you draw the rest of the deck and thereby guarantee that you’re holding the other one.  You have 100% probability of holding another.  This is actually more useful to note than Extreme #1.  Strategy in deckbuilding games like Dominion frequently revolves around building an engine that maximizes your chances of drawing all of your deck every turn.

So we have one extreme case in which the odds drop to 0%, and another extreme case in which the odds jump to 100%. What’s going on in the middle.  That’s what I set out to discover next.

The Restrictions.

To avoid ridiculous cases like Extreme #1 or Extreme #1, let’s set out a few assumptions.

First, we have a deck of size N and your starting hand size is n.  This deck contains a quantity k of special “draw 2 cards” cards.  To avoid the ridiculous extremes, let’s agree that the deck contains at least two specials and that the deck is large enough that after playing the special and drawing the extra two cards, there will be at least one card remaining.

Put mathematically, we have that

Probability Part 3 Equations 1

How much do the odds change when your opponent plays a special card and thereby draw two cards?  The quantity of specials which could be in her hand decreases by one.  The quantity of cards you have not seen decreases by one.  The quantity of cards in her hand increases by one.

The Formula.

The change in probability is given by these formulas:

Probability Part 2 Equations 2

Example:

The deck has 60 cards.  10 of these cards are “specials.”  Players are dealt 6 cards to begin.  When a player uses one of these specials, the odds drop by approximately 6%.

Probability Part 2 Equations 3

Example:

You are playing Dominion. Your deck has 25 cards.  10 of these cards have “Draw+2.”  Each round starts with 5 cards inn hand.  When you play one of these cards, the odds you are holding another drop by approximately 3%.

Probability Part 2 Equations 4

What do you think of “draw 2 cards” cards?  Have you incorporated them into your designs?  What did you learned from the experience? Do they improve a design or weaken it?  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.

093 User-Friendly Games, Part 3

The Story So Far…

Deep games are cool.  Complex games can be awesome.  Many excellent games are excellent because they are complex and deep.  But when these elements aren’t well conveyed, good games get glanced over.  They get a single play but little more.  Rules complexity or obtuse play become an impediment, preventing the game from ever gaining the following it deserves.

This post takes a look at depth.  How depth be presented to our players and in accessible ways?  How can depth be user-friendly?

What Does Depth Mean

In his fantastic book A Theory of Fun for Game Design,  Ralph Koster opens with an examination of engagement.  Games need to be in the “Goldilocks zone,” in order to be engaging.  When a game is too easy, it bores us.  When a game is too hard, it confuses us.  To be Fun, a game needs to challenge us without overwhelming us.

Depth is not rules, nor is it card text, nor is it victory conditions.  Depth is in the ways rules, card text, and victory conditions interact.  In a deep game, each element you add brings new implications for your players.

DominicAdding game elements does not grant a game depth, however.  Adding elements and rules brings complexity but depth is as much about the elements you choose to leave out as the ones you choose to incorporate.  Designer Dominic Crapuchettes once remarked to me that “every rule must justify its existence.”  Dominic embodies the designer seeking depth.

Chess is the quintessential example of depth, of course.  The rules fit on the inside of the box top but thousands of books have been written on the subject.  Depth will keep players returning to your game long after its contemporaries have been “solved” and abandoned.

The Danger of Depth

Depth can be a trap for designers as well.  Inherent in designing for depth is the danger of unseen depth.  A Theory of Fun for Game Design cautions us about engagement–when a player cannot see the good ways to play, she will throw her hands up in frustration rather than keep looking for unseen depth.  You can hardly blame her; thousands of games come out every year.  Each of these begs for her attention.  If your game is inaccessible, she will quickly move on to the next one in line.

To the designer, who is intimate with each element of the game, this depth is transparent but working strictly from the rules, the depth is too great for many neophytes.  If the designer were included with the game to give new players guidance, its depth would become clear.  We call this designer in a box syndrome.

Designer in a Box: 1955, The War on Espionage

My first-hand experience with designer in a box syndrome happened in 2011 when Living Worlds Games released 1955: The War of Espionage.  Early reviews were solid.  Blind tests indicated that the play was clear.  We were hopeful that the game would be well-received.  Before going further in this story, it should be mentioned that 1955 is a card-driven  game and that each card can be played four different ways and that knowing which way to play each card is essential to victory. When we released to the public, we discovered that many players had trouble seeing through its depth.  I had stumbled into the land of designer in a box.

So how do we deal with this issue?  How can we put you–the designer–in the box?  I have identified three ways: Sidebars, Play Hints, and Strategy Guides.

Sidebars

SidebarRightSidebars are the margin notes in a rulebook.  Sidebars are principally used to remind players of key rules or to provide examples of play.  Sidebars can also be used to present play hints.  Use these play hints to give your players insight into your game’s depth.

To see examples of particularly good sidebars, take a look at rulebooks from Alea.  Their editors regularly use sidebars for all these reasons.

Play Hints

TipsThese are small tips to the players.  Play hints should be short and sweet–a quick sentence or two and nothing more.

Use your play hints to emphasize the play elements you believe should be obvious.  Remember that you are intimate with each element of your game.  Play hints are your opportunity to share your vision with your players.

Strategy Guides

When you feel verbose–as I often do–strategy guides are the place to exercise for that verbosity.  Play hints are terse.  Strategy guides can be exhaustive.  Use them to give players broad guides to play.  Use them to walk players through the major strategies you discovered during your game’s development.

Some players prefer to explore a game on their own.  Discovery is part of their core engagement.  These players plan to give your game multiple plays and discover their own strategies.  They may feel cheated when you show too much to them.  Because strategy guides may be seen as “spoilers” by these players, I recommend that they be saved for the end of the rulebook or put on the game’s website.

Deep Games on the T.A.B.L.E.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of returning to the T.A.B.L.E.  convention.  Several attendees were aspiring game designers looking for feedback on their prototypes.  Talking with them was a pleasure.  Few things are more enjoyable to me than talking design with someone who’s passionate about their craft.

One game in particular caught my attention for its potential depth, Roller Derby Final Jams (image included with designer Steve Bissett’s permission).
RDFJ layout

RDFJ focuses on the closing minutes of play.  This is a wise decision on Steve’s part.  It allows him to focus gameplay on the most exciting parts of a match and dispense with the humdrum.

There were some areas that were still a bit clunky in this design and this was an opportunity for Steve and I to discuss his game at length, looking carefully for opportunities to streamline play, to increase its depth, and to convey depth through its components.  If you see a man dressed as a referee with “Tom Green” on his back at your local convention, I urge you to grab him for a play.

Closing Thoughts

I confess.  This entry kept me stumped for weeks.  Where the first two entries flowed out rather smoothly, the topic of depth keeps slipping out of my grasp.  Ironically, this is much like how game depth itself functions.  Depth in a game relies on a certain amount of subtlety and so too does describing it.  My instincts tell me that there’s quite a bit more to be said on the subject.  Hopefully, others can pick up where I am leaving off.

One good piece that helped me to clarify my thinking appears on Wikipedia. Unlike many other articles out there, it looks at the broader issue of usability, not just software but anything a human interacts with–books, tools, machines, processes.  I recommend checking it out.

What do you think of depth and its impact on user-friendliness?  How do you convey depth in your designs?  what have 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.

User-Friendly Games, Part 2

The Story So Far…

Deep games are cool.  Complex games can be awesome.  Many excellent games are excellent because they are complex and deep.  But when these elements aren’t well conveyed, good games get glanced over.  They get a single play but little more.  Rules complexity or obtuse play become an impediment, preventing the game from ever gaining the following it deserves.

This post takes a look at complexity.  How each it be managed to engage our players and keep them engaged.  How can complexity be user-friendly?

 

User-Friendly Utilities

webopedia mentions Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), online help systems, and menu-driven programs as examples of ways to achieve user-friendliness.  What do these look like in a tabletop game?

GUIs

Graphical User Interfaces allows computer users to interact with devices through icons instead of text.  With the spread of the eurogame revolution and its emphasis on language-interdependence, board game companies have excelled at GUI implementation.

So long as the icon is an intuitive match for the game action it represents, your GUI will be smooth and your players will thank you for it.

NavegadorEuro games are filled with excellent examples
of GUI icons.  Shown to the right is the player mat from Navegador.  It’s easy to see each icon explain its function.

Even text-heavy American style games benefit from well-planned GUIs and recent editions of Magic: the Gathering are an excellent example.  Not only is a picture is uniquely associated with each card, Wizards of the Coast has gone one step further by ensuring that the images be closely linked to the actions or creatures they describe.  For example, wings are only depicted on creatures that can fly.


Menu-Driven Programs

Our first instinct might be to think tabletop games cannot be menu-driven.  It’s not as if we can choose our play by tapping on the top ribbon of the game board and selecting from the pulldown, is it?  But some games do have fixed sequential turns and many of them do use menu-driven systems.

Mexica CardPlayers in Mexica spend action points each turn to carry out actions.  Each player gets a reference card and this card works exactly like a menu.  The indicator in the upper left corner reminds us to take 6 action points at the beginning of our turn.  Each row on the right shows icons for the actions and their corresponding action point cost.  Reference cards like this empower our players without sacrificing complexity from the design.

We similarly chose to guide players through their turns in Dragon Tides by printing the turn sequence on each player mat.  From top to bottom, each player carries out Lights → Camera → Action, selecting from the menu of options at each step.

Online Help Systems

There is always a chance of misinterpretation no matter how diligently you test, retest, blind test and blind retest your game.  Online support keeps you in touch with your player base and allows you to answer each question publicly as it arises.

 

Every game published in the twenty-first century should have this kind of online support.  Even designers who self-publish on a minimal budget have access to bandwidth at fan sites like the Geek.

Put a pdf of your rulebook online and update it as needed.  Keep an additional FAQ at the same location and update it even more regularly. Put these documents on the publisher’s website and link to them on fan sites.

If you have the resources, make instructional videos that cover setup and show sample turns.  I recommend making several small videos that highlight key elements rather than a single long video.  They are for your players to access and download when away WiFi isn’t accessible.  They are also more likely to answer each player’s specific question quickly and get him or her back into the game.

Introductory Scenarios

Play almost any new game on a smart device and you’ll first be led through sequence of introductory scenarios.  Why are those there?  You already know why.  Carefully sequencing the first scenarios in a game ensures each player gets a complete introduction to the game while simultaneously getting him or her into the play as quickly as possible.

  • A sequence of introductory scenarios gives players an opportunity to settle into the setting of your game.
  • When your rules harmonize with your setting, introductory scenarios gives players an opportunity to feel like active parts of your game’s setting.
  • Well-sequenced introductory scenarios limit the number of rules the player needs to take in at a time.  This in turn temporarily reduces the complexity of the game.
  • Well-sequenced introductory scenarios embed tutorials. Highlight critical elements of play by making victory in the scenario depend on mastering those elements.

Tune in Next Time

Our next post in this series will focus on conveying game depth.  In it we’ll discuss designer-in-a-box syndrome and continue asking how user-friendliness manages players experience and keeps our players engaged.

What do you think of the complexity and its impact on user-friendliness?  How do you convey complexity in your designs?  what have 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.

User-Friendly Games Part 1

Merriam-Webster defines user-friendly as “easy to use or understand.”  Okay.  How do we apply that concept to tabletop game design?  Do we say that user-friendliness measures how easily players can understand the rules of the game?  Sure, that’s a good starting point.

Rules Clarity

Video games have rules and art.  They also have the advantage of programs to prevent players from violating any rules of the game.  This polices play and frees players to explore.  Tabletop games have rules, components and art but no rigid coding to prevent accidental misplays.  Our players must self-police their play to make sure that all rules are followed.

 

Clear rules clearly go a long way toward making your game user-friendly.

 

User-friendliness is an evolving idea for me.  Over the last few years, it’s become evident that clear rules are an objective but not a sufficient endpoint; a checkpoint but not the finish line.  We must also consider questions of complexity and depth.

Rules Complexity

The complexity of a game is essentially the number of choices players get each turn.  Complex games overwhelm many players when they cannot take in all the options set before them.  Complex games can be made user-friendly if we develop them diligently. Make sure the components are clear.  Include reference cards.  Provide illustrated examples of play.  Provide a living rulebook and FAQ on the publisher’s website (and link to these documents on fan sites like the Geek).

Play Depth

Making choices easier to understand isn’t always enough to make the game user-friendly however–not if the game is also deep.   When a game is deep, it offers early choices with big implications later in the game.  Deep games seem obtuse when players cannot perceive the implications of their actions.

Distinguishing Depth From Complexity: An Anecdote

A gamer was visiting from out of town a few years ago and a member of our club offered to host gaming for him that night.  My wife Debra and I joined in to bring the total to four (that being a good quorum or many games).  One of them brought an area control game.  The rules were taught and off we went.  It should now be mentioned at this point that Debra and I had been playing area-control games most every evening after dinner.  By the middle of the game, she and I had each recognized that some areas had been secured by their current holder and were essentially unassailable.  We ignored those and exerted our efforts elsewhere.  When one of our companions attempted to go after one of these regions, we eyed each other and happily gobbled up the rest.  When the dust settled, our scores were literally half again that of the other two players.

 

Everyone at that table completely understood the rules and their components.  Any issues of complexity had been solved.  Its depth however, eluded the other players.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I love deep games.  I appreciate complex games.  Many games are great because they are complex and deep.  But when these elements aren’t well conveyed, good games get glanced over.  They get a single play but little more.  Rules complexity or obtuse play become an impediment, preventing the game from ever gaining the following it deserves.

 

Over the next few columns, we will going to take a look at complexity and depth each in turn and discuss how each can be managed to engage our players and keep them engaged–by making them user-friendly.

What do you think of the complexity, depth, and their impact on user-friendliness?  How do you approach them in your designs?  what have 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.

Games, Gamification, and North Korea

I’ve been the watching games coming out of Japan for the last dozen years.  Particularly fascinating is the way in which Japanese design responded to eurogame design–a cultural exchange leading directly to the microgame renaissance we’re seeing today.

As early as 1994 and only 650 miles to the east, North Korea’s greatest game designer was already exploring eurogame design in his own way. And we never even knew it because his game was the nation’s economy.

The recent documentary Money And Power in North Korea: Hidden Economy covers not only its economy but also how this economy has influenced international politics.  It’s a solid documentary and I recommend you watch it for yourself.

Kim_Jong_il_Portrait

At roughly the eleven-minute mark, the narrator explains its basic workings–the economy designed by Kim Jong-il.  The narrator explained that North Korea actually has two economies.  First, there is the People’s (public) Economy and second there is the Royal Court (private) Economy.  The public economy is a familiar communist economy; the government assigns jobs to citizens in exchange for distributing goods and services.  The private economy is more classically monarchical; the supreme leader awards gifts to citizens and higher-ups in exchange for their loyalty.  And where does the Royal Court Economy get the funds for such pursuits?  It gets these funds by skimming them off the top of the People’s Economy of course.

Does that structure seem familiar?  It should.  You’ve likely played dozens of games with exactly this structure.  Let’s take a look.

North Korea Tabletop Game
Government dictates to citizens where they will work. Player assigns workers to locations on the game board.
Citizens supply services, harvest resources and produce goods. Workers harvest resources and produce goods.
Supreme leader gives a portion of goods and services to citizens. Player pays upkeep on workers.
Supreme leader uses a portion of goods and services to purchase gifts for subordinates. Player uses a portion of resources and goods to purchase prestige items.
Subordinates give supreme leader their loyalty. Prestige items give player Victory Points.

These parallels disturb me.  Could it be that games of this type have a darker subtext?

 

The Ethics of Gamification

Gamification is the use of game mechanisms and game thinking in areas not traditionally thought of as games.  Gamification is often applied to analyzing reward structures so that these rewards lead to desired behavior.  Gamification is not inherently objectionable.  It can be a powerful tool for understanding human motivation, to improving morale, and to increasing productivity.

By offering bonuses to employees when they reach fixed goals, workplaces can use gamification.  By playing to their constituent base to earn re-election, politicians follow the logic of gamification.  By offering unlimited opportunities to correct previous work and earn credit, a classroom can exemplify gamification.

But while gamification empowers us to design a more engaging world, it still must be applied ethically.

Employers go too far when game structures are used to coerce workers into exhausting or unsafe work.  Politicians go too far when they cater to their vocal minority or to supporters with the biggest bank balance.  Classrooms go too far when students are pitted against one another in an exclusionary ranking system.

When we play the latest tabletop game, it’s perhaps not an issue that we have unilateral control over our workers.  They literally are only inanimate objects carved from wood or molded in plastic after all.  But what about the case of Kim Jong-il who applied the same design principles to living people?  He designed an economy from the most amoral corner of game design.  His citizens have no agency–treated only as objects to be assigned and reassigned at his discretion.  His citizens have no opportunity–earning only what he chose to give back to them.  And when he shows his appreciation, the appreciation is false–more properly a bribe for loyalty than any real attempt to acknowledge or inspire his people.

For the next 24 hours, I challenge you to look at each process in your life through the lens of gamification.  Watch the traffic in your commute.  Watch the line at the grocery store.  Watch your coworkers.  Watch your managers.  Watch the news.  And as you watch each of these, ask yourself the crucial questions.  What are the reward structures in place?  Do they align with the intended outcomes?  Are these reward structures moral?

 

What do you think Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il’s game design?  Do you see any other game analogies in North Korea?  How about in your own nation?  Or in your own neighborhood? 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.