Dramatic Structure For The Modern Game Designer, Part 2

The Story So Far

The three act structure is fundamental to story creation and to game design.  In the first act, players look at their position and are compelled to to respond to the game or one another.  In the second act, players develop their game engine, finding new strength.  Players push for the endgame in the third act.

This time, we move closer.  Part 1 of this piece looked at the forest.  Now, we focus on trees.


Creating Subcycles

John Howard Larson in Theory and Technique of Playwriting (1936) noticed that within each play were even smaller cycles of tension and release. “…the principle which underlies the pattern is basic, and can be applied in all cases. The material arranges itself in certain cycles. If we examine each of the cycles, we find that each one is a small replica of the construction of a play, involving exposition, rising action, clash, and climax.”

An overarching three-act structure is not enough.  Not by itself, it isn’t.  A game needs cycles of tension and release within its main arch.  Placing these cycles well will maximize the quality of playtime in your games.


Pivotal Moments

In my design work, I try to build sharp peaks into these cycles.  These are the pivotal moments of the game. This is when things happen; big bonuses are scored, territory is seized, major auctions are won, and underdogs rise.

Pivotal moments are not just about making something big happen.  They are about the opportunity to make something big happen.  You may take a big risk for a big reward, only to have that golden reward turn to ashes.  Making that moment approach and resolve is nonetheless dramatic.

Think about the last time you called Grand Tichu.  That play was increasingly dramatic up to the point you laid your final card.

Think about your last bidding war in Modern Art.  You and your opponent stared each other down, waiting to see who would blink.

Think about that bank shot in 9-ball pool.  If you succeeded, the win was yours but if you failed, you would be handing your opponent an easy layup.

Think about the big engine you packed into your deck in Dominion.  Now remember the look your opponents had when they realized you’d be buying two provinces each turn for the rest of the game.

These are the essential qualities of a pivotal moment–the release of the build, packed into one sharp moment.

Michael Hauge: Pivotal Moments as Turning Points

Michael Hauge refers to pivotal moments as turning points.  Notice how he inserts five turning points into the broad three-act structure.  By including these turning, he is able to keep each act active and engaging.



Robin Laws: Pivotal Moments as Beats

Robin Laws refers to each small pivotal moment as a beat.  In his text Hamlet’s Hit Points, he identifies 115 such beats in Hamlet, 215 beats in Dr. No, and 175 in Casablanca.  In his analysis, Laws describes each beat by its type and by whether the beat points up, down, or laterally.  Laws makes a particularly insightful point here–he asserts that not only must bring heroes toward their goals while others must push them away.  

Why is this?  Why should pivotal moments make players lose as well as win?  the answer is subtle but important.

Games are generally two-sided.  When I (or my team) advances, you and yours tend to fall behind. For a game to flow well, each player must have an opportunity to experience success.  And as each player experiences success, their opponents experience loss (or at least jealousy over a potential loss).  Now think of pivotal moments as opportunities for gains and losses.  By including plenty of pivotal moments, each player can be kept engaged.  In a Eurogame, you might be falling behind in camels but ahead in trade goods. In a wargame, I might be winning all of the skirmishes but failing to capture any of your cities.

Pivotal moments are the key to giving your game life.

What do you think of pivotal moments in game design?  Did I miss any features?  How do you use them?  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.


Cross-Platform Game Design, Part 4

The Story So Far

Luther and I were recently approached to design a boardgame to enhance an existing RPG product line.  This project got me started thinking about cross-platform game design.

This series concludes today with conversions between board games and roleplaying games.


Roleplaying Games and Their Connection to Legacy Games

RPGs share a striking connection with their tabletop brethren; RPGs are the original Legacy games.

“Legacy games” according to Boardgamegeek “are board games that change over time based on the outcome of each game and the various choices made by players. … The changes made in a Legacy game are always permanent, so what is done can not be undone.”  

In an RPG, the actions your character takes have similarly lasting effects on the game world.   Your character–and therefore your starting position in the game–changes regularly each time you play the game.  

If your character saves a town from a dragon, your character has earned a lasting reputation in that game.  If your character fails to prevent the assassination of the star emperor, that character is dead in every future session of that game.  Knights of the Dinner Table is one of the great gamer comics, centered on the the ongoing chaos of the eponymous group and their beleaguered DM.  Throughout the comic, we see the game world this group plays evolving in response to their actions.  When Knuckles the Thief–of the Knights–murdered a beggar, he was sentenced having his leg hacked off at the knee.  Another lasting (if not permanent) effect on the game.


When you design a conversion between board game and roleplaying game, consider ways to include legacy in the game.

Converting a Roleplaying Game Into a Board Game

Converting in this direction might require zooming out to let each player control a group of characters.  Lords of Waterdeep takes this approach by having players control both a lord and his agents rather than a single character in D&D.

Lords of Waterdeep Set

RPG to boardgame conversion cold also be a lateral move as in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game which keeps players focused on a single character just as in its parent game.

Manage the perspective of your game to make a successful boardgame conversion of a roleplaying game.

Consider using your game to expose players to their game world in a new way.  Zoom out to condense epic sequences to a scale players can take in.  Embed players in a world in motion to give them a broader perspective than they could ever get by playing as a single character.  

Or keep the scale personal but cast them as villains rather than the heroes.  Or change their perspective again by casting them not as the heroes who rescue the town but instead as town elders who must recruit heroes.

computer-hacker-alertBoardgames are also good at moving sequences from the RPG’s metaspace into literal space.  Imagine a cyberpunk RPG which includes rules for hacking a company’s datafortress.  The rules of the RPG might have the player make a sequence of skill checks and have the referee use these results to arbitrate the hack.  Your board game might replace these simple skill checks with elaborated card play and introduce a game board to represent the company’s network map.  Your game has taken metaspace–a few die rolls simulating the hack–and made it literal–getting the hacker’s pawn to the key data packet and back out undetected.

Converting a Board Game Into a Roleplaying Game

There aren’t many conversion from board game to roleplaying but one stole many hours which might have spent better outside in the sun. The 1997 title Sid Meier’s Magic: the Gathering shows us many ways this game expanded on its tabletop source material.  The game casts you as a planeswalker–the metagame identity of every player in the M:tG card game–with a starting deck of game cards.  Game world terrain comes in five types, representing the five colors of magic in the game.  Cities in the game world also appear in these colors.  Monsters in the game come from monsters in the card game and each monster’s deck will be built around that monster’s color.  Battle is handled by playing of the card game.  Your life total begins lower than the 20 you may be accustomed to, but rises as your character levels up.  Battles are played for ante–a random card is drawn from each deck, set aside, and the winner keeps both cards.  As you gain levels and build increasingly stronger decks, you can take on stronger monsters until finally defeating the game’s boss for victory.  The game certainly had a number of shortcomings and wasn’t loved by most fans but still gives a look into how we might convert a board game into a roleplaying game.

SId Meier MtG

One More Example

Since there aren’t many examples of roleplaying games based on board games, I’m going create one.  Stop by next time to see which game I would choose and how I would approach it.

Final Thoughts

To write a good conversion, understand the strengths of the original medium and the new.  Understand the best complexity for each medium and its best scope. Among the three, miniatures games are the best for modeling action and combat, roleplaying games are the best for exploring personal experience and emotion, board games are best if you want to simulate a grand scope.  

Choose wisely and give your players a great gaming experience.


What do you think of boardgame: roleplaying game conversions?  Did I miss any features?  Have you written any yourself?  How did you approach 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.


Cross-Platform Game Design, Part 3

The Story So Far

Luther and I were recently approached to design a boardgame to enhance an existing RPG product line.  This project got me started thinking about cross-platform game design.

To engage players in your crossover, it must give players new experiences while staying true to the parent game.

I’m heading up to Dallas for BGG.FAM for the weekend–and my 48th birthday–but first, let’s talk conversions.  This time, we move between miniatures games and roleplaying games.


Converting a Minis Game Into a Roleplaying Game

Well this is where roleplaying games started, isn’t it?  Gary Gygax was a fan of Jeff Perren’s minis rules and together, they created Chainmail.  Gygax and Dave Arneson decided to personalize this experience by playing the same character over multiple sessions rather than simply deploying nameless figurines each play.  The rest–as they say…

MechwarriorMany RPG conversions from minis games fall short of the potential of that medium.  My college gaming group of the late 1980s played tons of Battletech.  It was only natural that they would try out the official Battletech roleplaying game, Mechwarrior.  Although I wasn’t an active member of the group, I did sit in on a few sessions.  The campaign was all about a loose group of mercenaries and their attempts to get by without signing on to one of the clans.  Unfortunately, roleplay consisted of “I climb into my mech,” *spend two hours playing the minis game* “I climb out of my mech.”  They had boiled their RPG down into miniatures game in which you play the same mini repeatedly.  The RPG was quickly abandoned and the group returned to straight-up Battletech skirmishes.  They missed the opportunity to do anything deeper.

Converting from miniatures game to roleplaying game gives you, the designer, a chance to zoom in.  Your players no longer look at the coordinated force of a squad, division, or army.  Instead, they get to focus on a single character.  Play in an RPG is about the internal motivations and external achievements of that character and any RPG design should highlight them.

Converting from minis to RPG lets you take the game new places.   Using minis rules to govern the negotiations between two rival nations would probably be pretty dull but roleplaying is the perfect medium for such diplomatic drama.  Roleplaying games generally better at staging any dramatic scene–business aspirations, interpersonal romance, personal tragedy, visceral horror–than are minis games.


Converting a Roleplaying Game Into a Minis Game

OD&DMinis games are a solid compliment to many roleplaying games.  Original Dungeons & Dragons recognized this; the Men & Magic rule booklet advised players to use Chainmail to handle combat.

Minis games are better at clarifying combat.  They are better at giving each player an immediate  sense of their character and its surroundings.  They are also better at handling large groups of units.  Have negotiations broken down?  Must you lead your battalion to war?  Did you trip a trap and release twenty-eight massive, red, poisonous spiders on your team?  Have you found your way into the vampire den and must stake all of them before their numbers overwhelm you?  Break out the maps and the minis!

Rules and Complexity

There is no particular trend in complexity between these two game types.  There are simple and complex roleplaying games.  There are simple and complex miniatures games.  In general, try to keep the complexity close.  If the minis game is rules-light, create a rules-light RPG.  If the RPG is complex or nuanced, make a meaty minis game.

Malifaux 2EIt is ideal to carry core mechanisms from the parent game to its conversion.  If the roleplaying game uses a D20 system, so should the minis game.  If armies in the minis game roll buckets of dice as in Warhammer 40K, use a buckets of dice system in your RPG.  If the minis game uses cards as in Malifaux, bring that card play mechanism over.  If the RPG is dice-light like Fiasco, employ a similar dice light engine.  Keeping core mechanisms similar keeps the feel of your game familiar to players coming over from the original property.


Closing Thoughts

Roleplaying games tend to have smaller greater scope than minis games.  Any conversion from one to the other should align its complexity with the parent game.

Each can give a great gaming experience to our players.

In the next column, we will tackle board game/roleplaying games conversions.  Until then, keep on designing!


What do you think of roleplaying: minis game conversions?  Did I miss any features?  Have you written any yourself?  How did you approach 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.


Getting The Most From Protospiel, Part 1

There will be two Protospiel events this month.  March 14 – 16 will see its first appearance here in Houston.  March 21 – 23 will see its return to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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.  Although I am not personally aware of any, I would be willing to bet that some are being held by our neighbors to the south as well.  With so many around the continent, I cannot imagine how any designer could fail to attend at least one of these events.

If you’re new to these events, you will probably have some questions.  How does a designer get the best results from these events?  What are the secrets to success?  The three columns in this series will answer the biggest questions heard over the years.

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.

2.  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 alternate events like those the Game Developers Conference hosts.


3.  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.


4.  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.


5.  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.


6.  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.


7.  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 can.

Before we sign off today, much gratitude goes to Gil Hova and Carl Klutzke for their help assembling this list.

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.  It makes this old designer’s heart young again.

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

Asymmetrical Suits in Card Games, Part 3

Our last column looked at several hypothetical cases to illuminate the proper use of asymmetric card decks.  In this column, we look at four examples which are not at all hypothetical. These are published games which feature asymmetry.  I found that each one found an interesting way to make asymmetry serve its core engagement.


Rocket Jockey

James Spurny’s Rocket Journey casts players as tramp freighter captains delivering goods from world to world within our solar system. At its heart, Rocket Jockey is a rail game in the “elaborate = better” tradition. Players make these deliveries inefficient to earn more points.

Early in the game’s development, Spurny decided that the back story of the game should center space development around Earth. For this reason, he concentrated the game cards around Earth. Earth cards are the most common.  Venus and Mars are second-most common. They drop off steadily from there.

James Spurny used asymmetry to support his game’s setting and to concentrate player focus.



Stephen Glenn’s Piñata–first released in 2003 as Balloon Cup–uses complementary asymmetry to balance player decisions. The rarest commodity has only 5 cards but only requires that you collect three of it to score a trophy.  The most common commodity has 13 cards but requires a comparatively massive 7 cubes to score a trophy.  Piñata pushes this asymmetry further with the inclusion of 10 wild cards.

Should you collect common goods, knowing that you’ll need many of them?  Or should you focus on the rare, hoping for a quick win? Stephen Glenn used asymmetry to put players in a quandary.


Lord of the Fries

From the 1996 through 2006, James Ernest helmed Cheapass Games. CAG released a number of excellent games. One of his best was Lord of the Fries. LotF is a hand management game. Players worked with hands of ingredient cards to supply customer demand at a Friedey’s, the fast food restaurant chain in hell. Like Glenn, Ernest uses rarity to imply value.  The common and lowly 14 buns score only 1 point each while the delicious but rare 4 Berry Pies clock in at 6 points each.  Of course, Earnest also made it pretty easy to score those buns and difficult to score the berry pies.  He’s sneaky like that.

James Ernest used asymmetry to keep players looking for the most valuable options.

As an aside, Cheapass Games began releasing new titles in 2011.  Like their classic counterparts, you will be happy you checked them out.


Magic: The Gathering

It’s been more than 20 years since Richard Garfield’s idea to meld trading cards with gameplay hit store shelves.  There are many reasons for its enduring popularity. Player-controlled asymmetry is one of the best.  By allowing each player to construct her own deck, Garfield empowered players to create their own asymmetry.  Players are limited to 4 of each card which is not a basic land but even within this restriction there is plenty of room for the active deck constructor’s play. Cards that formed the backbone of your deck appeared the full 4 times.  If you wanted a certain card for emergency assistance, you might choose to include only a single copy of it.

Richard Garfield used asymmetry to empower his players.


There are a great number of ways in which asymmetry can boost your designs.  Consider the achievements of Spurny, Glenn, Ernest, and Garfield.  Then add your name to that list.


What do you think of these examples?  Do you know another which should have made this list?  Share them with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe.  It makes a big difference.

We will be together again in three days to take a look at game design conferences and how to get the most from them. See you Friday!

The 10 Best Game Mechanisms You Aren’t Using

There are few things which will motivate me to do something more rapidly than being told that I cannot. My parents, high school principal and wife will all testify on this point should any hearings be convened. Seeing a player declare that “games with X mechanisms are terrible” compels me to immediately search for a solid counterexample.

As a designer, you may have a less contrarian attitude than mine. When a player at your table declares that any game with player elimination is bad, you may believe him. Don’t. When your best friend announces that she’s never seen a decent fishing game, you may naturally shy away from designing any such. Prove her wrong by designing a great one instead.

Consider that throughout the 2000s, most every attempt to define eurogames indicated that they did not include dice. Some discussion groups went further by asserting that eurogames COULD NOT include dice. No one told this to the Europeans. They began publishing press-your-luck dice games in remarkable numbers and are still at it.

This series of columns is dedicated to these maligned and misrepresented mechanisms.

Some great game mechanisms have been discovered but haven’t yet received the love they deserve. Some are relatively obscure, others have simply been overlooked.

This series of columns is also dedicated to those underloved mechanisms as well.

I hope you find a great deal of inspiration in them.

10. Memory

There seem to be two camps regarding memory in a game. The first camp claims that memory is a legitimate gaming skill. The other insists that forcing a player to remember hidden information is an irrelevant handicap.

I find myself agreeing with both views.

Games which use memory poorly tend to include several other intricate game elements. A three-hour economic game is diminished by requiring players to remember the various stock holdings of all the other players.

Using memory effectively as a game mechanism requires that memory sit near the center of the design. Effective betting in poker demands memory of each player’s betting strategies–knowing whether Boyd is tight or loose, whether Roger is prone to check raises, which hands Phil chose to slow play–can make a big difference in your performance at the table. Many hidden traitor/werewolf type games similarly depend on memory to sift honest players out from traitors.

Several of my card game designs include memory in the form of card counting. It feels natural to force players to remember which cards have cards gone or which ones are still concentrated in the deck. Rummy designs in particular lend themselves to this kind of memory element. I have been too timid to bring memory as a pivotal game element however. Perhaps this should be a design goal for the new year.

In my estimation, the game which has best utilized memory as a game mechanism is the Shadows over Camelot the Card Game designed by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, released in 2012 by Days of Wonder.

Because SoCtCG puts a strong memory element at its core while simplifying other aspects of play, it actually surpasses its predecessor in some interesting ways.

Cards are played one at a time, face up to a common pile. Most cards add their value to the total value of a quest. The magic numbers for a quest are 11, 12, 13 . Turns pass around the table.

A player may attempt a quest rather than drawing a card. This quest will be successful so long as the total for the quest on top of the deck equals one of those magic numbers. The quest fails otherwise. Because only the top card is visible, memory is critical. Loyal knights will have to do their best to keep these totals straight in their heads. Traitors can claim “Oops!” to cover their nefarious tracks when deliberately causing a quest to fail.

There are a few other twists in the game but memory its still central element. The simplicity of the rules combined with the way in which memory serves both as a motivator for loyal characters and a cover for traitorous ones makes this game the best example of memory as a game mechanism.

I’ll see you on Friday with our next two mechanisms–Evolving Card Decks and Simultaneous Action Selection!

In the meantime, what games have you played which feature memory as a key mechanism? If you’ve incorporated memory into one of your own designs, what were the results? Add your comments below.