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.


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.


Getting Ready For Protospiel 2015, Part 3


You prepped and polished your prototype.  You made the trip to a Protospiel event, an Unpub event, or some other awesome playtesting event. You put it your design in front of a bunch of total strangers.  They gave you tons of feedback.  Now the convention is ending and your next steps lie before you.  Where should you go next?

Successful design has three parts.  You had good preparation.  You had good execution.  Now you need good resolution.  What will you do AFTER the convention is over?

  1. A publisher expressed an interest in my game.  When should I contact her?

Your first step when a publisher expresses an interest should be to establish a timeline.  If you haven’t, there are a few general rules you can follow.

It is most likely that the publisher either took your prototype with her for in-house testing or asked you to send a prototype.  Send this within a week of the request and follow 3-4 business days with an email to confirm that they’re received it.  After that, my experience is that it takes publishers about a month to have a reply.  If you haven’t heard anything by then, send a short, polite message asking if they need any adjustments or have any questions.

  1. “They said it was awesome! How do I get it published? Should I publish it myself?”

Me? no.  You? Maybe.

I personally self-published one game–The Great Migration–for the experience.  I’m glad I did it.  Going through the whole process taught me a great many things about that end of the industry.  But I wouldn’t personally do it again.

Kickstarter and other similar crowdfunding platforms are opening new avenues for distribution and advertising however.  If you’re considering the self-publishing route, I would urge you to contact some of the folks who have already gone that route.  Folks in this industry are sincerely supportive and will give you solid advice.

  1. The playtesters wanted to completely overhaul my game.  If I take their advice, is this still my design?

This is a question I struggled with for quite some time myself.

The short answer is “yes.”

The long answer is that playtesters will give you every manner of idea.  It is your job as the game designer to analyze each suggestion, to carefully pick which ones to incorporate and which ones to set aside.  It takes a great deal of work to do that kind of fine-tuning.  It is that work which entitles you to put your name on the box.

  1. I got contradictory feedback from two different groups.  Now what do I do?

Congratulations!  Having too many ideas is one of the best problems a designer can have.

In this case, I often try to temporarily pursue both approaches.  This may go so far as to assemble two distinct prototypes.  I then alternate tests of each approach.  Eventually, one of these designs will reveal itself as superior.  When that occurs, you can drop the weaker design and focus on the superior one.

  1. But I have limited time and other responsibilities.  I can’t be working on two (or more) different versions at the same time.  Should I quit my day job?

In a perfect world, we have all the time and opportunity needed to pursue every avenue.  That nasty devil reality does tend to assert itself from time to time however.  Do not quit your day job.  Instead, pick the one(s) about which you feel most strongly and focus there.

  1. Was this playtest a “bad” playtest?

Gil Hova contributed this question.  Rather than trying to answer it myself, consider the response he offers.  I think it’s better than anything I could possibly say.

There are playtests where the game breaks down and everyone tears it apart, but I don’t think those are bad playtests, just difficult ones.

To me, there are three kinds of bad playtests…

First: The playtesters only say “Yeah, I liked it, it was okay,” and you can’t read any more feedback.

Second: The playtesters all LOVE the game. Then you play another, less polished game and they LOVE that one. Then you play a totally broken game and they LOVE that one too. And you realize that they’re cheerleaders, and they like pretty much anything they play.

Third: One playtester spoils the test somehow. Perhaps he is a high-maintenance special-needs kid who isn’t adjusted enough to social situations to play a game, or he is actually, literally insane and only offers lunatic ravings. These have both happened to me. They throw so much noise and static into the test that it makes the session tough to parse.

  1. This game just isn’t working. I’m afraid it’s a dead end. Now what do I do?

Mistakes and dead ends are all a part of the design process.  Take a step back.  Let the game rest for a little while.

This question of what to do with a dead end design hits one of the reasons keeping a journal in some form is so very important.

Your design journal is a repository for all those other game theme and mechanism ideas you may wish to return to.  It is also a place to look for inspiration if a project stalls or if you wish to go back and look at options you set aside earlier.

Take a look at your options.  Have you tried each approach you considered?  Perhaps there is an idea you had, an idea which didn’t seem useful at the time but now fits your situation perfectly?

  1. I set this game aside for months, then returned to it, polished it up and brought it to Protospiel.  It still isn’t working. Now what do I do?

It might be time to retire this design.  Perhaps this one simply doesn’t work.  That’s okay.  You will have plenty of failures along the way.  Keep working and keep trying new things.  Your successes will far outdistance your failures.  I promise it.

  1. “How can I keep in contact with all the wonderful people I met?”

Apart from trading email addresses with everyone you met, become an active part of the design community.  Facebook has a Protospiel group.  Boardgamegeek has its game design forums.  Board Game Designer’s Forum is another great place to commiserate and to exchange ideas.

If you’re an experienced designer, what do you like to do after a playtest event?  Do you have a question about playtesting that’s still searching of an answer?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create and account with wordpress and follow this blog.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

Next week, you folks get a look into the creation of Dragon Tides, the martial arts action movie game featuring Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee and a host of other familiar faces. See you then!

Getting Ready For Protospiel 2015, Part 2


Protospiel Houston (March 13 – 15) is only is five weeks away and Protospiel Milwaukee is just one little month behind it.  Designers–aspiring or otherwise–five hundred miles in every direction are scrambling to prep that game that just almost ALMOST works and get it in front of the crowd with the skill to push it through.

Successful playtesting comes in three parts–good preparation, good execution, and good resolution.  Last Friday’s column focused on questions of preparation.

Both JT Smith and Brett Myers weighed in on my claim that ugly prototypes are better than pretty ones.  I must confess to letting a bit of hyperbolic emphasis in this case.  JT pointed out that test groups in general respond better to protos that are more attractive.  JT is absolutely correct about this.  I would suggest that Protospielers are not the norm, however.  They are more design-focused and more able to focus on the game itself rather than its appearance.  The best advice might be Brett’s assertion that “functional” is preferable to “beautiful.”

Carl Klutze added his “must bring” list of game bits:

  1. Spare game parts so you can make changes to the game on the fly.
  2. Centimeter Cubes
  3. An ultra fine point Sharpie
  4. 3×5 index cards
  5. Clear plastic card sleeves (all my prototype cards are in these)
  6. Polyhedral dice, with some extra d6 (why would you leave home without these?)

Carl also mentioned that The Game Crafter brings prototyping materials to Protospiels in the Midwest.  This is a class move on their part.  If you have a chance, make sure to thank those guys for doing your fellow designers a solid.


Now let’s move our focus on to execution–what will you do during the event.


  1.  How do I keep someone from stealing my idea?

You don’t.  Seriously.  Your idea is a starting point and nothing more.  It is in your execution of that idea that the value emerges.  It is in polishing that idea until is is smooth and flows cleanly that your idea which was once nothing more than a rock gets polished into a valuable (and publishable) gem.

Everyone in the room has several dozen ideas of their own to wrangle with.  They haven’t got the time to think about stealing yours.  Free yourself of that fear and put your game out into the world.  The feedback and support you get will prove you made the right decision.


  1.  Should I have my playtesters fill out NDAs?

This is entirely up to you.  As a matter of etiquette, attendees should never discuss a prototype in any public forum without the expressed permission of the author.  NDAs make your wishes on the subject explicitly clear.


  1.  What if a publisher asks me to sign a NDA or similar release form?

Sign it.  Publishers have a variety of reasons to employ NDAs.  They have their own worries and need their own protections.  You want to build a good relationship with every publisher you can.  Being agreeable about an early request like this one will get you good karma with them.


  1. Does my game have to be finished? How close to being finished does it have to be?

A prototype can be at any state of being.  Testing is critical at every stage of the design process.

Many freshman designers talk about wanting a game to be “ready to test.”  This belief and all the reasons underlying it should be carefully researched and written into a large leather bound book. That book should then be thrown into a bonfire.  Aspiring designers should be made to encircle that fire and chant “playtest, playtest, playtest” until this demonic belief is exorcised from each of their minds.

No good design comes without playtesting.

Game designs are meant to be tested. Get your ideas on the table.  Do it every chance you get.  Make new chances and test it then too. Denying your design table time will delay its development and nothing more.


  1.  Is there anything I should tell my playtesters before we start?

You should tell them where your game is at in its development cycle.  Is the game new or have you been working on it for some time?  Is there any particular part of the game you’d like them to focus on?  Be candid. If you feel something isn’t working, tell them.  Let them take a look at it.  New perspectives bring new solutions.


  1.  What sort of questions should I ask my playtesters?

The answer to this may depend largely on where your game is the development cycle.

For an alpha prototype, my questions focus on the basics–is this fun?  Does the overall idea work?  Is this idea worth pursuing? What would you say was the core engagement of this game?

For a beta test, I’m hitting those questions of overall balance and asking players to pay close attention to their experience.  This is where I return to the question of core engagement and say things like “this game is supposed to be about ______. How well would you say the game reached that goal?”

During final testing, I urge players to look for every sneaky trick they can play, to find every loophole they can exploit, to try and rules lawyer the game out of whack..  Final testing is stress testing.  Just like with a new model of car, you want to slam it into a few walls to see how it survives.


  1.  Should I playtest a prototype the same way I’d play a published game?

People play games for a number of different reasons.  The purpose of playtesting is to test the game.  Players may try more extreme strategies than they normally might or actively seek loopholes to exploit.  The pace and the experience will likely differ radically from a normal game play.


  1.  What if they don’t like my game?

This is possible.  Different players have different tastes.  Every designer in the room has had that experience however.  Most of them are also able to separate themselves from their feelings to provide constructive feedback regardless.


  1.  What if I dislike their game?

This situation falls clearly The Golden Rule.  Much as you may hope people will be considerate of you, so must you be considerate of them.  Be respectful. Also be honest.  You do your fellow designer a disservice to be any other way.  Tell him exactly what you didn’t like.  Be as specific as possible about your emotional response to that game element as well as your intellectual response.  Offer suggestions and any changes that occur to you.  Trust that he will do the same for you.


  1.  What if I love their game?

Providing constructive feedback to a game you adore can often be harder than providing it for a game you hate.  Do your best.  Remember that the designer depends on you to describe exactly what you liked about her game, again being as specific as possible about your emotional and intellectual response. At any playtesting session, try to keep your mind on constructive feedback.


  1. What do I do if the game is bad and its really long? Is it bad form to gnaw my arm off so I can get away?

As Jame Mathe pointed out recently in the Facebook Protospiel page, a game does not need to be played to completion for it to be tested.  Some games need to be played all the way through but others can end early.  If the game elements are front-loaded, a half play can show all the major parts.  Sometimes, only a few rounds are needed.

If the game is truly dreadful, the polite way to express it is “I’m ready to talk about this game.  I’m not sure that we need to play any further before I offer my thoughts.” Or something along those lines.  From there, you can move on to discuss the issues you had with the game.

If you’re an experienced designer, what do you like to do during a playtest event?  Do you have a question about playtesting that’s still searching of an answer?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

Our next set of questions cover the take-away–what to do after the playtesting ends. See you Friday!

Getting Ready For Protospiel 2015, Part 1

Protospiel events are big game design parties.  Most of the attendees are authors, carrying work that varies in completion from “heading to the printer” to “thought of it this morning.” Playtesters–people who attend to play and nothing else–will be milling about.  Publishers will be scouting for the jewels among the mass.  No matter what your role, everyone will be playing a variety of games, offering feedback, impressions, and suggestions.

Design events like Protospiel have become increasingly common both as stand-alone events and as part of a larger whole.  In the last year, Origins, Gen Con ( and BoardGameGeek.Con all featured “designer alley” or “designer/publisher speed dating” or both.  There are playtesting events scattered across the US and Canada.–check the main page at to find one in your area.  With so many around the continent, I cannot imagine how any designer could fail to attend at least one of these events.

There is a Protospiel event coming up here in Houston is March 13 – 15.  Another one right around the corner from ours is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin April 10 – 12.  There are even more this summer.

How do you get the best results from these events?  What are the secrets to success? Let’s take a look.

Successful playtesting comes in three parts–good preparation, good execution, and good resolution.  Today, will focus on questions of preparation.  On Tuesday, we will focus on what to do during the playtest.  Next Friday’s column will resolve resolution.

  1.  What is the most important thing to bring?

An open mind.  Each person you meet will have ideas for your game.  Some will take your game places you’ve never considered.  Some criticisms may make you uncomfortable. Take them all in.  Remember that their only wish is to see you and your game succeed.  Prepare yourself to that each person for her time and feedback.

  1.  What kind of game can I bring?

Protospiel events are primarily about tabletop game design.  Board games, card games and party games are the most common but Carl Klutzke did bring, test, and publish a roleplaying game.

Computer games are extremely rare, however.  For those, you may want to look into GDC (Game Designer’s Conference events.

  1.  How many times will my game get played?

The answer to this varies wildly with the event.  Some events are structured and plan specific schedules for each game.  Some are freeform.  In the case of the former, the number of plays is limited only by the time you have been allotted.  In the latter case, I find that my own games get played only once or twice a day.  Your mileage may vary however, as I often treat these events as a chance to get a peek at other people’s approach rather than a chance to hammer on my own designs.

  1.  How long should I expect each playtest to take?

Give yourself plenty of time.  Playtests generally run from 50% to 100% longer than the normal play time for the game.  Post-play feedback can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.  This means that your 15 minute card game will need about an hour to test and discuss while your 2 hour game will need about 3 hours.

  1.  I’m not that experienced at designing games. Will my feedback worth less than someone more experienced?

Designers need as much feedback as they can possibly get.  Come to the event with that firmly in your mind.  Plan to be honest.  Plan to be brutally honest.  Your honest feedback is priceless, no matter how experienced you are.

  1.  How nice should my prototype look?

When it comes to prototyping, uglier is usually better.  If you’ve invested a great deal of time making your game attractive, you may find yourself unwilling to make needed changes.  But you MUST be willing to make changes on the spot.  When a player makes an excellent suggestion, you are going to want to get that idea into play as soon as possible.  If that means altering, defacing or even destroying existing components—do it!

A good general rule is that you should be willing to take a sharpie to any component you bring.

  1.  Uglier is better?  Really?!?

Yup.  Experienced designers and publishers tend to view suspiciously any game which looks “too good.”  Several experienced designers have told me off the record that when a beautiful prototype comes onto a nearby table, they immediately head the other way.  Add to that the horde of horror stories among publishers who decided to give a beautiful prototype a try–and discover that the game was all flash and no substance–is astounding.

Keep your focus on core engagement and gameplay.  This will impress the people you meet much more than any flashy component ever will.

Before we sign off today, much gratitude goes to Gil Hova and Carl Klutzke for their help assembling this list.  They are Protospiel veterans and all-around solid people besides.

Our next set of questions get to the heart of good execution–what to do during a playtest. See you Tuesday!

If you’re an experienced Protospieler, what do you do to prepare for playtesting?  Do you have a question about playtesting that’s still searching of an answer?  Share with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe.  You keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

R&R Has Released a Great Family Game

A year ago, I wrote my take on the best games to play with non-gaming family.

R&R Games donated one of their new releases to a convention in Houston. When I showed it to a friend, he immediately told me how much fun it was.  And he was right.  Now,  Strike a Pose has jumped directly onto my top five list in its category.

A good game to break out when surrounded by non-gamers should have enough going on that you as a gamer don’t mind playing it but its complexity is not out of the reach of your non-gaming social circle. With this in mind, I contend that four criteria are critical:

(A) The rules needed to play can be taught in three sentences or fewer.

(B) The components teach (or at least reinforce) the rules.

(C) The victory condition can be stated in one sentence.

(D) The game must contain an engaging dexterity or social component.

Let’s take a look at Strike A Pose against these criteria.

(A) Can you teach Strike A Pose in three sentences?  Yup.

A selection of statues has been delivered to a museum.  The curator has a list of the statues in the shipment but they arrived unlabeled!  We will take turns being the curator, trying to identify all the other statues.

(B) Do the components of Strike A Pose teach or reinforce the rules? Yes, with a caveat.

The game comes with category cards, number cards and not much else. The main game component (if I may take a little bit of latitude with that term) are the players themselves.  Players work to manipulate their bodies into an example of their assigned role.

A friend of mine remarked that he’d seen the game being played from across the room, asked someone nearby what was going on and immediately understood once they gave him a rules synopsis akin to the one I gave in part (A). His response?  “Yeah, I see it now.  That makes sense.”

When we include the players themselves in the component list, I would say that the components do reinforce the rules.

(C) Can you teach the Strike A Pose victory condition in one sentence?  Easily.

Each round, the curator and each correctly identified statue get points.

Like many of the best games of this type, the real victory lies in simply having fun.   In none of my plays have we actually kept score.  We simply had a blast.

(D) What is the dexterity element in Strike A Pose?

In our effort to strike the best poses, we often found ourselves in ridiculously contorted positions.  And we had to hold these positions.  The Strike a Pose subgame is trying to figure out what each other player is modeling, all while holding your pose.  And did I mention that gaming doesn’t really do much for the core muscles? Strike a Pose may actually be a new form of yoga disguised as a game.’ve played Strike a Pose with three different groups so far.  In the last session, we roped in players simply by handing them a card and telling them the object.  There was angst and victory.  There was success and sorrow.  There were straightforward poses and there were contorted poses to do Escher proud.  And who would have thought that one of our group was a dead ringer for the muppet Grover?  In all, Strike a Pose is fun. And that’s all we ask of a party game.

Have you tried Strike a Pose?  What do you think of it?  What’s your favorite game for non-gamers?  Why? 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 Chefs Can Teach Us About Game Design

Since the emergence of the celebrity chef concept, we all have a high level of exposure to many of these ideas.  Names like Anthony Bourdain, Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse and Gordon Ramsay invoke associations in the masses in a way they never did before.

Because I grew up up in the Cajun food Mecca of southern Louisiana, relocated to the fusion Mecca of Houston, it was inevitable that I’d be a foodie.  Its aromas, texture, flavor, science and preparation all intrigue me.

Watching a program on chefs recently led me to wondering how food science could inform game design science.  The concerns of chefs and game designers align in three major areas–Spicing, Coursing, and Presentation.

(A) Control Your Spices

Spices are meant to enhance, not overpower.  Spices stimulate the palette.  Spices make a meal memorable.  Master chefs control and balance each flavor.  They know that overspicing leads to a confused palette and a poor experience for the diner.

We must be the chefs of our games.  Dice, cards, bags of chits, cubes, our own mechanisms–there are so many elements at your fingertips that the urge to add all of them can be almost irresistible.  Remember always that overspicing leads to a poor experience.  Control and balance each element.  Add twists, turns and variation only where variation is needed.  Add exotic mechanisms only where they lift the game experience and stimulate play.  Keep the other elements simple and familiar for your players.

(B)  Plan Your Course

Is your game an appetizer?  Or is it a dessert?  Or should it serve as a main course?

Appetizers should be light and spicy.  They should build anticipation.  In other words, appetizer games will tend to be lighter, shorter, and feature prominent random elements.  A list of appetizers would easily include Easy Come, Easy Go, Can’t Stop, Cthulhu Dice, or TransAmerica.

Main courses can be spicy–featuring multiple new mechanisms–or mild–focusing on the perfection of classic mechanisms–but they must be solid and filling.  They are the center of the day’s gaming and they should be memorable.  Main courses can be longer. They can heavier rules.  They can have deep gameplay.  My list of main course favorites would feature Tichu, Ingenious , and Power Grid.

Desserts should be tranquil and pleasant.  They bring the meal to a close and provide opportunity to reflect.  they feature little, if any, spice.  Dessert games should feature familiar mechanisms and play.  The best ones often include a strong social element as well.  Carcassonne, Say Anything, and 6 Nimmt! are all good dessert games.

(C) Presentation

“You taste with your eyes first” is a common adage among chefs and they are absolutely right.  This means that the dish should visually announce what the diner will experience.  This is why modern American chefs layer ingredients on the plate; to foreshadow the layers of flavor to come.

Our games can similarly announce their flavor.  When elements like the timing track, scoring chart, turn order, or placement effects are prominently labeled on the game components, our players will have a good idea of the game to come well before the first rule is taught.

Eurogames have been particularly good at this kind of foreshadowing. Because language-independent components have remained as a major design objective throughout the last 20 years, their designers and graphic artists are extremely skilled at offering game components which strongly imply their function.
Designers interested in good component design should take a look at Eine Gegen Eine, Ticket To Ride and A Castle for All Seasons.

What do you think of the analogy between chefs and game designers?  What analogy might you have chosen instead?  Why?  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.

Tricky, Tricky, Part 3

The Story So Far…

Trick taking games are defined by the following criteria:

(A)  Each player has a hand of cards.

(B)  These cards are played in a series of rounds (tricks).

(C)  Each player in turn must play to the trick.

(D)  Each player plays to the trick exactly once.

Trick-taking games were in a slump but they’re coming back.  We’re looking at how to write one that stands out from the crowd.



People across the world play trick taking games.  As this game type spread, local variations appeared.  These variations give modern players a range of experiences, both broad and nuanced.  For the modern game designer, a cornucopia of elements ready at hand.  There are great opportunities to any designer who’s willing to explore the design space.

(E)  Team Play

Many trick taking games put players in teams.  The most common version of this features four players who sit across the table from one another and share a common point total.

In four handed Njet!, the start player chooses a partner with the other two players automatically forming the opposing partnership.  Each player in the partnership shares the points earned but the partnerships dissolves at the end of the hand, allowing for new partnerships in future hands.  This means that you may be seated across from your partner or you may be seated alongside him or her.

In three handed Njet!, the start player again makes a choice but this time, whether to play with a partner or alone.  The players in the partnership share the points earned just as in the four player game while the solo player scores double.  It’s a great variation on standard three handed scoring which I’ve admired for years.

 is particularly exciting with 5 players.  After an initial round of bidding, teams are divided asymmetrically. One partnership has three players, the other has two.


(F) Bidding

Many trick-taking games derive their score strictly from the cards collected through the hand.  Classic Hearts falls into this category, for example.

Many others bring additional depth by forcing the players to make a declaration before play begins.  Classic Spades includes a fairly straightforward–but critical–bidding mechanism.  Bidding in Bridge however is deep and rich.

From a design perspective, I like bidding elements quite a bit.

Asking your players to think through the play of their hands in advance pushes them to fully think about how your plays rather than simply playing cards more-or-less at random and hoping for the best.

Bidding gives you as the designer an opportunity to adjust for the luck of the deal.  When I was developing The Great Migration in 2006, we quickly discovered that one weak hand could leave a player significantly behind. Two weak hands in a row could eliminate you completely from contention.  The bidding system I introduced offered greater rewards to low bids.  Now, you could still be successful in the game, provided that you made your bid exactly.


(G)  Trump Suit

The vast majority of trick taking games include a trump suit–a suit which automatically beats the others.  Spades derives its name from its fixed trump suit.  The revealed card in Euchre declares trump for the hand.  Bidding in Bridge includes the assignment of trump. Opening play in Njet! involves selecting both trump and supertrump (which beats the all other trumps).

Games which dictate trump and games which allow the players to declare the trump can both be satisfying.  The major difference between them is the time players to spend on each hand.  There are exceptions but in general, player selection of trump leads to longer hands which requires that you have relatively fewer hands in the game and that the play of those hands be more straightforward.  Conversely, game assignment of trump leads to shorter hands which requires that you have a greater number of hands in the game or that the play of those hands be more elaborate.

When developing a trick taking game that includes trump, you will also need to carefully evaluate the fundamental questions of trump play.  Your response to each question will have a strong effect on the flavor of your game.

Are players allowed to lead the trump suit if that suit has not previously been played?

Are players required to follow the led suit (i.e. to play a card of that suit if any cards of that suit are in their hand)?

Are players required to play a trump if they cannot follow the led suit?

Sticheln is a perfect example of the impact of these decisions.  In Sticheln, there is no declaration of trump suit as such but each player begins the hand by declaring their penalty suit.  In Sticheln, there is no requirement to follow the suit which was led but every nonzero card played outside the led suit counts as a trump card. These simple design decisions make Sticheln one of the most interesting–and aggressive–trick taking games I’ve ever experienced.

(H)  Objective Inversion

A game which generally asks the player to win many tricks offers a boon to the player who takes none.  A game generally which asks the player to take few tricks offers a boon to the player who takes them all.  These are examples of play inversion.

Both Hearts and Spades include objective inversion in their play.  Point cards in Hearts are generally bad and to be avoided.  Unless the player takes them all in which case it is the other players who are made to suffer 26 penalty points each.  The player who declares “nil” in Spades has made a 100 point bet with the opposing team that she will win no tricks whatsoever.

Objective inversion is one of the strongest elements a designer can include in their game. It can also be one of the most difficult to implement.

Standard play of the game must be focused around a single objective.  Games which already offer many paths to victory do not lend themselves well to objective inversion.

Playing in the inverted way must be remarkably difficult, requiring a rare hand or high level of skill.  The reward for inverted play must then be proportionately large.  The 100 point reward for going nil in Spades is 20% of a standard game’s 500-point goal.  The 26 penalty points passed out are 26% of a Hearts game’s 100-point game end.  Although it is not a trick taking game, Tichu includes two slam plays, each of which pay 200 points which is 20% of Tichu’s 1000-point goal.  Following a 20-25% rule is probably a good starting point.

(I)  Card Passing

A last common variation is card passing.  In this, each player gives one or more cards out and in turn receives an equal number from the other players.

My first exposure to Spades included a two-card partner swap.  Hearts includes a three card pass whose target changes each hand.  Several games–including Tichu–feature multiplayer swaps.

Card passing allows players to short-suit, to pass spoiler cards to opponents, and otherwise mitigate the luck of the deal.


Closing Thoughts

That’s our overview of the many variations on design in trick taking games.  When writing one of your own, it’s wise to adopt a conservative stance.  There are so many variations for us to play with that we are often tempted to include all of them.  Resist that urge. Include only those variations with serve your design.  Careful balance and harmonious play are all that is needed to make your game stand out.

What do you like to see in a trick-taking game?  What makes them so special to you?  Which ones do you dislike?  Why?  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.

Rewards, Not Penalties

Luther Hendricks has a design philosophy he regularly invokes: rewards, not penalties.

Give players a choice.  Ask them “would you prefer to earn a reward for jumping through a hoop or would you prefer to receive a penalty for doing nothing?” Luther contends that players will choose the reward every time.  He believes that players will generally make this choice even if the structure of the penalty is smaller than the reward.  Luther believes in rewards, not penalties.  People play games to enjoy a sense of success. Avoiding failure is dreary. They want accomplishments. They want the sense of harvesting the fruits of their labors.  They want rewards, not penalties.

And he’s right.

The analytical side of my brain is often numb to this point.  As far as the mathematics is concerned, these two options are the same:

(a) This 6 die attack loses 3 dice when the range is greater than 1.

(b) This 3 die attack gains 3 dice at range 1.

Luther sat me down and explained it to me in small words my addled brain could understand. Setting aside that (b) is a shorter rule, Luther explained that it is also the better rule.  It is better because it empowers the player.  If she chooses to move his character in closer, she will earn a reward.  Rule (a) by contrast penalizes her for failing to move in closer.  Rewards, not penalties.

Contemplating his theory revealed the importance of this design decision throughout the world of game design.

Attacking starfighters in the X-Wing Miniatures Game roll an extra die when the target is at range 1.  Defending starfighters roll an extra die when the attacker is at range 3.  No one loses dice in either case.  Rewards, not penalties.

Every missing animal type incurs a penalty at the end of Agricola.  This was not clear to me the first time I played and it soured me to the game.  How might my experience have been different if players earned bonuses for each animal type rather than a penalty for their absence?  Rewards, not penalties.

What makes gambling games so addictive to so many people?  Small losses coupled with big rewards.  Humans will endure setback after setback so long as a reward is within sight.  This trait gave us the perseverance to cross continents, fly into space and cure polio.  For good or bad, we have a drive to gamble because we’re hungry for that payout.  Rewards, not penalties.

What is it about a CRPG that makes us grind through the same monsters again and again? it’s because those little piles experience points pile up to make us powerful and those little piles of treasure accrue to buy the shiny prestige items.   Rewards, not penalties.

Traditional classrooms give students the feeling that they begin the year with a perfect score.  Every quiz, assignment and test is an opportunity to fail.  Should a student be ill, their strongest hope is to be excused from all missed assignments.  Classrooms that use a gamification model start students off with a score of zero.  Every quiz, assignment and test adds to that score.  Missing an assignment is equivalent to earning a zero because no points have been earned.  Which of these classroom models best reinforces positive academic behavior?  That’s right.  Rewards, not penalties.

How do you employ rewards and penalties in your games?  Which do you employ more?  Can you think of a game that benefits more from penalties than rewards?  Which do you prefer?  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.

Designing Microgames–Duel, Part 8

The Story So Far…

A new microgame is in development.  Duel supports two players, each with a deck of about 20 cards.  Players have a hand of 4 cards and may (1) play a card into an empty space, (2) play a card onto an enemy card, or (3) move a card one space.  After this, the player refills her hand.  The game ends if a player is down to 3 or fewer cards in hand and chooses to end it.  The player controlling the majority of a 3×3 grid wins.

Kevin Brusky has given the prototype a look and wants to proceed together.  APE Games will release the game in two-player packs containing two unique armies.

Several sets have been created. The first core set will be Pirates vs. Sea Monsters.  These two decks have therefore been receiving the most attention. Let’s check in on these two core factions…


Change is the Only Constant

Iteration is the heart of design.  Constant cycles of playtesting and tweaking sessions between each cycle are the best way to home in on something that is both balanced and fun.  Throughout this test cycle, we’ve been using a randomizer (from has been used to set matchups.  This data is helping us to identify the relative strengths of each deck. Because we’ve also used this randomizer to set the starting deck, we are able to look for any player order advantage as well.


Checking In With The Pirates

The last time we discussed the Pirates, they were being toned down a bit.  We lowered the power level of both the Dagger and the Cannon.  Since these changes came in, there’s been no need to adjust the deck any further.  The Pirates are sailing high.


Checking In With The Sea Monsters

JellyfishRecent testing indicated that the Sea Monsters had failed to keep up with the overall power level of the game.  They were beefed up a bit but still fell behind in general.  Even worse, one card–the Whirlpool–has been described as counterintuitive by players.

WhirlpoolOur last iteration gave the Jellyfish a limited first strike ability.  At the time, this first strike would immediately eliminate any card of strength 3 or lower, regardless of its position as attacker or defender.  When this ability was conceived, I’d kept the option open to raise this threshold to Strength 4.  This option has been activated and a similar version has been given to the Whirlpool.


With that all having been said, here is the latest cardset for our Sea Monsters faction:

Faction Sea Monsters Page 1Faction Sea Monsters Page 2Faction Sea Monsters Page 3



Checking In With The Ruleset

The biggest rule debate has hung on the ability to rotate revealed cards.  This rule matters quite a bit to the Pirates since their fiercest weapon is an array of support arrows.  We tried playing the game both ways–first where rotation was allowed as an alternative to a normal move action, second where rotation was disallowed.  These tests were met with mixed feelings.  Some testers enjoyed the extra option.  Others felt that the ability to rotate a card was a massive force multiplier.  For the moment, I’ve elected to deny card rotation once revealed.



Closing Thoughts For the Moment

Overall, Duel seems to be progressing well.  Its core decks are focused but still interesting to play. Next, time, I’ll be posting another faction for your gameplay pleasure.

What’s your favorite Microgame?  What do you like best about it?  Have you written one? How did your players respond to 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.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.

Triggered Effects, Part 5

The Story So Far…

Triggered card effects all fit under a general “when TRIGGER occurs, do EVENT” template. They can make a card situationally powerful.  They can give cardsets a mechanical theme.  They can create opportunities for counterplay.

We have taken a look at several categories of trigger and effect, including several from our insightful readers.  We have also taken a look at four different combinations and suggested a game which might might best serve each.

For reference, here is our working list of triggers and events.  Let’s try four more combinations.

Triggered Effects in Columns





Combination 05: B + E

Trigger (B): Receives Damage

Event (E): Cardplay

Here’s another combination that feels right for Duel.  Since battles can last over several plays, it would be interesting to create a card that grants cardplay each time it is damaged.  One of the deck concepts being developed for this game is “Gamers” and the idea of playing cards each time one of your cards is damaged certainly seems like a gamer-y kind of effect to me.

TCG PlayerTCG Player is my attempt at such a combination.  Strength is fairly high in Duel–to date, there are only two cards in nine decks with Strength greater than 10–so this should ensure that its ability kicks off at about twice on the average.  Since this card’s ability is reactive, there’s also good incentive to play it face down to entrap your opponent rather than simply playing it for its Strength.

Taking a second look at the card, there’s a rising concern that this card is overpowered.  Playtest will confirm or refute this concern of course.  Should the card indeed be too powerful, there are multiple ways to address the issue.  The TCG Player could be weakened or it could be left strong while the other elements of the deck are weakened to counterbalance its power.


Combination 06: A + H

Brushfire WarTrigger (A): Critical Mass

Event (H): Game State

This combination evokes thoughts of a card-driven political tension game and Twilight Struggle by Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews is one of the classics.

I confess that it’s been a few years since I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy this game but I believe a card of this type might look something like this Brushfire War.



Combination 07: I + G

Trigger (I): Forced Discard

Event (G): Component Condition

Right on ScheduleThis combination makes me think of a two player card-driven game about breaking out of prison. Perhaps it’s because we recently saw Guardians of the Galaxy and its delightful prison break sequence?  In any case, one player will play the guards while the other plays the inmates.

In an environment like this one, the Guard player’s deck would likely include a number of cards which counter Prisoner player’s cards or force the Prisoner to discard cards.  A classic trope of the prison break movie is the moment at which the prisoners subvert the Guards standard operating procedure, turning their plans against them.  In this spirit, we give the Prisoner deck this Right On Schedule card.


Combination 08: D + F

Trigger (D): Revelation

Event (F): Component Quantity

The idea for a theme is somewhat thin on this one but how about a worker placement/blind auction/deckbuilding hybrid in which the workers are cards?    In the majority of worker placement games, all workers are identical (Leonardo da Vinci and my own Zong Shi are exceptions) but if workers were cards, they could vary quite a bit.

Harbor MasterEach player is given a small deck of mediocre starting workers and the like–Copper and Estates for you Dominion fans out there. The central gameboard features spaces from which actions, goods, better cards can be drafted in a worker placement manner.  Cards (workers) are played face down with a marker to indicate ownership.  More than one player can choose the same space.  Once all cards have been played for the round, each space resolves.  The player with the best worker gets the full effect of the space while everyone else gets a minor, lesser, effect. Ties would be broken in favor of the lower–and therefore first–card

One card players can acquire in this environment might be our Harbormaster shown here.


Another Project

Continuing our back to school adventures, here’s another a nice homework assignment for you.  This time, I’m giving you the trigger, the event, AND the type of game this trigger must be used in.  See what you can think up and submit your ideas to our comment section.  Constraints breed creativity.  Go for it–you can do it!

Trigger (A): Critical Mass

Event (H): Game State

Game Type: Pick Up and Deliver


Gen Con 2014!

In addition to back to school season, it’s also Gen Con season!  Luther, John and I will be in attendance, primarily at Greater Than Games–booth 1949.  We’ll be running demos of Sentinel Tactics all weekend.  Come by, say hello, and let’s play a game!


We have now looked at eight of my “when TRIGGER occurs, do EVENT” examples.  How did I do?  What combination did you find most interesting?  What made you like it so much?  Which one did you like least?  What keeps it from being more enjoyable?   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.  You keep reading. I’ll keep writing.