Better Digital Board Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

In my professional life I’m a producer/designer of iOS and Android games. Prior to that, I worked on PC games. As a consumer, I spend a great deal of time and money playing mobile and board games, which is why it’s often so frustrating that many of the digital versions of print games don’t turn out so well. 

I wanted to provide some high level suggestions to any designers and publishers interested in this space in the hopes it helps you create better games. Truly, my motives are purely selfish; I want to buy better games!

It should come as no surprise that many of the elements that make a great game, scratch that, great product, are the same elements that lead to a great mobile experience. Before I provide specific tips, it helps to frame this discussion under one overarching piece of advice, which is to understand the customer need you’re fulfilling. Stated another way, you need to understand what customers are looking for in a mobile game. Here’s a hint: It’s different than other games.

With a board game, you have a captive audience who have set aside time to play the game, learn the rules, and interact with friends. On the other hand, players experiencing your game on a mobile device are probably walking somewhere, on a bus, using the restroom, waiting for a meeting to start, are in a meeting, and so forth. They are distracted and don’t have a great deal of time. Sometimes they only have 60 seconds at the most!

Mobile gamers are looking for satisfaction in a bite-sized package. Once you understand and accept this, your job will be far easier. Let’s go through some tips!

Respect your players’ time: This is a continuation of the comment just before this, but you must respect your players’ time. They are busy and distracted. A game that does this really well is Ascension: It takes me literally 30 seconds to load into a game, take a turn, and turn the game off. A game that does this very poorly is Hero Academy. It often takes 2 minutes just to load into a game, let alone finish my turn, then another 10+ seconds to submit my choice.

That’s tedious! As a result, I always pick other games over Hero Academy when I’m on the go. I pretty much only play Hero Academy when I’m at home and have plenty of time and a TV to watch. You never want somebody avoiding your game because it takes to long to have fun.

In addition to game loading wasting a player’s time, you should also think twice before adding animations and lengthy transition sequences. Think back to playing a Japanese RPG on your Super Nintendo. The first 20 times you cast the elaborate fire spell it was cool. Then you cast it 200 more times and the 5 second animation that you could not skip became the bane of your existence.

The Elder Sign app grew really tedious over time for me as every move came with a transition and a flourish. It’s stylish, sure, but it doesn’t add to the experience beyond the third time. In fact, it detracts from my enjoyment.

Avoid the flash. Simplicity is king: No, I don’t mean Flash as in Adobe Flash (though you cannot use it without building a pipeline for it on the iOS platform). It’s important to remember that the iPhone’s screen isn’t much bigger than a playing card. You’re trying to cram an entire game onto this one screen!

Every animation, cool effect, and wacky color you add is distracting. It becomes harder to see the numbers I need to see, read card text, or shift my card to the precise space. Function before flash must be your guiding principle.

Furthermore, use fonts that are easy to read, avoid unnecessary flavor text, and orient your screen in a way that’s easy to process. By this, I mean you should avoid arcs and strange orientations. Left to right, up and down. Keep. It. Simple.

You have incredibly limited space on such a small screen. Use it wisely and only fill it with things that mater.

Teach me to play: The tutorial is one of the most difficult things in all of gaming to implement. Bad tutorials are sadly not particular to digital versions of board games. However, I think a bad tutorial on a board game is worse as the games are often more complex and reading a rule booklet on a mobile device is less than ideal. Remember: I’m distracted, don’t have a lot of time, and want to have fun NOW.

It’s essential that you teach people how to play your game, unless you are completely uninterested in acquiring new customers.

A good tutorial is interactive and lets me learn how to do something. Focus on the word interactive, as it’s what separates games from other mediums. If you can engage a new player as early as the tutorial you’re on the right path!

Don’t preach to me and force me to read long rows of text! I can tell you from personal experience that mobile gamers routinely skip sentences as short as 5 words! It’s maddening as a designer, but it’s also reality. Use arrows to draw a player’s attention to the important element, highlight things, and make them animate and pulse.

Introduce new elements in layers: Teach me how to control the game, then teach me about what everything is on screen(health is here, cards are here, etc.), then teach me how to use things.

Throughout the experience, pop up a game tip in specific situations. For example, in the introductory tutorial you may not need to explain a particular card strategy. However, the first time I draw a particularly interesting card or encounter a specific situation in a future game (which the code can do!), tell me about it. Explain it. “Did you know you can do X, Y, or Z with this card? Try it!”

Most importantly, keep the tutorial brief. When designing tutorials for games, I write out every step and the text I intend to use. I count the number of steps. I then tweak and edit the tutorial until I strip away every unnecessary step and every unnecessary word.

You must test your tutorial. Show it to random people on the street or friends. Don’t assume that because YOU, person who knows the game inside and out, think it’s good, it’s good. It’s so easy to quickly test someone with a mobile device, so do it.

Use the code to enforce rules and provide useful information: A key way to simplify the tutorial and reduce the complexity of the overall game experience is to use the game code to enforce edge cases and more difficult rules. If your game lets me spend currency to buy things, highlight my purchasing options. When I click on something I cannot afford, tell me I cannot afford it. A ha! I learned something AND I cannot cheat.

If your game has multiple phases, perhaps tell me the phase I’m in. Another great dynamic teaching tool is seen in Hero Academy. The player can tap the “?” symbol then tap anything on the board for a brief explanation. I use this ALL the time and I wish a similar feature were in many other games.

Pick the right revenue strategy for your game: Just because everyone seems to be charging $4.99 for a board game on the iPhone doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the right strategy. But it might be!

Are you catering to your existing fan base? If so, $4.99 is a steep price for people who already bought the physical version of your game. $4.99 may not seem like much, but on mobile it’s a small fortune relative to the 50,000 free games. Consider lowering the price so that they play your game on every platform. Or, if they’re on your mailing list or show a proof of purchase, let them unlock the game for free.

Are you trying to grow your player base? If so, charging anything up front is going to be very prohibitive to this strategy. Again, consider the thousands of apps on mobile. It is incredibly difficult to be discovered on mobile unless you’re a huge company (you aren’t) or get ridiculously lucky (you probably won’t).

There are ways to make money with a free game! For example, let everyone download the game for free and play against the easiest AI level. If the player likes the game, they can spend $1.99 within the app to unlock online multiplayer, more difficult AI, and additional factions or scenarios. Or, give the players a limited demo or limited turns. Check out Triple Town. I get a lengthy demo, after which time I must wait for new turns to generate OR I can permanently unlock the game for a few dollars.

With either of these free options you have far more people downloading your app (which helps your stats on the iTunes charts) and you can still generate revenue. Plus, you can push players to your print games from within the app and drive them towards your main money maker.

Don’t waste time with expensive technology! I’m going to make the assumption that you aren’t an experienced software development company. Seeing as how board games are a low margin business, you probably don’t have the resources or expertise to go about becoming one. No problem!

There are TONS of free, high quality software solutions for your games. Seeing as how board games are low on animations and complex 3D modeling (you should just have 2D cards!), these tools are outstanding. Hell, Angry Birds was built with  free, open source physics middleware.

Check out Cocos2D for your game engine. Use Apple’s GameCenter for player login, leaderboards, achievements, and multiplayer. On Android, use OpenFeint. If you want analytics to track player behavior, look into Apsalar or Flurry. Quickly build interactive mock ups for your UI using Balsamiq, then test it out on the device using LiveMockups.

You don’t need to start from scratch as there are tons of great tools readily available.

If you have specific questions for me, put them in comments below and I’ll answer them to the best of my abilities. I hope this helps!

My Six Recommendations for Video Gamers

A friend just sent me this Kotaku post, in which they recommend six board games that all video gamers should play. Their list was comprised of:

  • Cyclades
  • Risk: Legacy
  • The Fury of Dracula
  • Descent
  • Catacombs
  • The Resistance

I don’t really agree with this list, at least not entirely. Perhaps the problem is that I’ve only played 2 of the 6 games on the list (though I’m pretty familiar with the other four). I thought it’d be fun (while I’m still working on longer, more serious posts) to create my own list.

My recommendations are based on a few assumptions; Video gamers are used to playing immediately and having constant satisfaction. A game that has really long, clunky rules or a really lengthy play time will not appeal. I also think board games that are richly thematic will be far more appealing to video gamers used to normal maps and Unreal 3 Engine graphics.

Essentially, I believe video gamers would prefer lighter, more accessible, highly thematic games. Here’s my list of six:

Ascending Empires: This game is really easy to learn and is quite elegant. It has many of the elements of a good RTS (build an economy, scout, tech trees), direct conflict, and a little bit of table negotiation. Furthermore, it has great game components and the dexterity feature is really entertaining. I think Ascending Empires provides the tactile and visceral satisfaction that really makes board games stand out.

Elder Sign: This is a great co-op game that’s oozing theme. It plays rather quickly with up to 8 players, which is no small feat. I think video gamers would be drawn to the art, the dice rolling, and the ornate game pieces, yet be comforted by how easy it is to play.

Memoir ’44: I think this list absolutely needs a war game. If I have to pick one, especially one that’s accessible, Memoir ’44 is the obvious choice. This game is ridiculously easy to learn, has great elements that will remind gamers of RTS games, and has amazing game components. Its direct head-to-head nature will also appeal to the Xbox Live generation. Let the smack talk flow!

Discworld: Ankh-Morpork: This game is easy to learn, ridiculously thematic, a little funny and juvenile, and confrontational. It has just enough strategy to keep you interested, but not so much you really need to pay that much attention (at least not to just have fun). This is a good gateway game that I’ve used many times to entertain folks more traditionally interested in video games.

The Resistance OR Nanuk: I think The Resistance was a great recommendation, actually. It’s dirt cheap, takes minutes to learn, and plays with up to 10 people. It also involves a great deal of hilarious shouting and accusations. Jerks used to calling each other horrid things via Xbox Live will feel right at home.

I also want to offer up an alternative, which is Nanuk. This is also a richly social game filled with bluffing and backstabbing and shouting and constant use of the word “dooooooom.” Both games make everyone laugh and they’re easy to learn. I think the FPS sniper addicts will have fun here.

Risk: Legacy: I haven’t played this game, but I want to. The game is ridiculously innovative with permanent choices that affect the board and the rules. People who imported their Mass Effect characters to the sequels take note.  It’s also a familiar and comforting presence: Risk. The one thing all of my video game friends have in common is that when I say “board game,” they say “Risk.” It’s true — people love Risk. I agree with Kotaku yet again here.

What would be YOUR six recommendations?

Introducing Field Marshals

I think it’s best for all creative types to have side interests, whether that’s cooking, or brewing beer, or anime, or comics, or what have you. For me, that side interest is history. I love it. The heroes, the villains, the war, the diplomacy, inventions, triumphs, and great sadness. All of it.

War, for better or worse, is a big aspect of history and something of incredible interest to me. It also makes for some really excellent board games, including Memoir ’44, Stratego, 1812: The Invasion of Canada, or the Conflict of Heroes series. I’ve been pining to create a war game for a really long time.  Field Marshals is my entry into the war gaming space and I’m really excited by it. But, before I talk about what Field Marshals is, I want to write about my design process.

My initial big idea was to create a team-based game in which one player on each team focused on the strategic side of play and the others focused on the tactical side of play. Basically, a Secretary of War in his capital giving orders to his Generals to carry out. I failed to solve a few problems with this design, including:

  • How to make the game fun with fewer than 4 players?
  • How to limit player communication in a way that was interesting but not detrimental to the social, board game experience?
  • How to not over-complicate things, but provide enough interesting things for each player role to do?

I moved away from this idea, which is for the best, as it turns out Richard Borg has already done this with Memoir ’44: Operation Overlord. My mother always told me to never compete with Richard Borg in war game design.

I also wanted to do something interesting with custom six-sided dice. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that this is one of my obsessions that always keeps getting knocked aside. Alas, I couldn’t quite figure out something compelling that other great games haven’t already done. One idea I had was to roll a number of dice and choose a number of them IN order to carry out some sort of dramatic battlefield maneuver. For example, inspired by Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, what if I played an Artillery die, then two Infantry die for an Infantry Charge (i.e. bombardment followed by massed infantry advance).

This idea was neat but again, I couldn’t get the overall battle system mechanic to gel. I tucked this idea away (which  was smart, because it evolved into one of the coolest parts of the game).

For a while I was obsessed with strange components, like magnets and white boards. What if a player wrote out his orders on a white board and passed them to another player? What if I placed the arrow to indicate my advance and then…something? This was silly, but while scrounging for neat components I stumbled across this set of numbered wooden tokens at an Aaron’s Brothers Frame Store.

I became obsessed with these numbered tokens. One idea I had was that players would draw 3 tokens from a bag of 20 (numbered 1-20) and would use them sequentially to plan their turn. Marching into certain countries would require you play a token above or below a certain number. Same with Diplomacy or other things. So, I might play a 3 to march over the mountain pass, then a 10 to negotiate with an NPC country, then finally an 18 to battle my opponent.

I liked the element of planning in a sequence and of being allowed to do some things, but choosing which things to do was difficult. However, the system was somewhat inflexible and too gated on chance. I hated the idea of players having multiple turns pass where nothing happened.

Last week, I finally had a breakthrough, which is good, because in 5 months of thought it helps to have a breakthrough. I played several games of Dragonheart with friends. Dragonheart is a 5-10 minute 2 player game where you play cards from your hand to complete sets and collect cards to score. It’s a game about timing, gauging probability, and luck. It’s probably one of my favorite games.

I thought about how interesting it was to hold onto a pair of cards in the hopes of drawing the third to complete a set, or playing one card in hopes of an opponent not having the second one in his hand. It just makes sense and it’s compelling.

The other game I played was Nanuk, a highly social bluffing game about Alaskan hunters. The game reminded me that social gameplay is some of the deepest, most satisfying gameplay you can design. It also reminded me that in Risk, even though there are no rules about diplomacy and alliances, it’s one of the best parts of the game.

Player 1: “Hey, if you let me have Africa you can have Europe.”

Player 2: “Sure thing!”

Player 2: “Hey…what are you doing in North Africa with all those units?”

Player 1: “Those? Don’t mind those. I’m going west to Brazil, you see.”

Player 2: “Oh, sure, that makes sense.”

And, the next turn Player 1 sends 60 units into Europe.

Cards and probability…social gameplay…and those damn numbered tokens from before…eureka!

Field Marshals will be a game that plays 2-6 players, in about an hour, and without dice. The game will be based on a fictional continent that features the Manifest Destiny obsessed soverignties such as the Green Federation, the Gray Republik, the Rot Protectorate (rot = red in German), the Yellow Caliphate, and others.

It has a few really cool features I’m excited to share:

  • All players draw a numbered token, which they keep secret. This will determine the player order when all tokens are revealed. You’ll need to plan based on when you think you’ll take your turn. Over time, the used tokens will be placed on the board so the probability of things will become more precise.
  • Each player has his own deck of 30 cards which feature just a few types of cards: Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, the Emperor’s Own, a General, and Fog of War.
  • On his turn, the player will play up to 4 cards from his hand. Cards let you add a certain number of Units to the board, but if you play a set of cards (i.e. 3 Cavalry) you an activate a powerful Tactic. There are 5 Tactics in the game that let you fight and maneuver more decisively.
  • Battles are decided in a predictable way, however tactics and sudden reinforcements will shake things up a bit.
  • Certain territories convey a bonus to the player or players in control of it. There are 6 bonuses, but only 3 are randomly selected and allocated each game.
  • I’m hoping there’s some excellent backstabbing and negotiations that result.

Here are the current rules for Field Marshals. Please keep in mind the game is in progress and far from finished. Here is the current distribution of cards in the decks. You can also view my collection of visual reference on my Pinterest board.

I have only conducted a single test, though it went well. Here are the things that I will be refining and solving in the coming months as I continue to test and refine this game.

  • The map or maps: I want this game to work with a wide number of players. I may need to create a variety of maps (like Smallworld), but I imagine refining the map will be the hardest thing I do. I completely re-designed it after the first test!
  • Designing and creating reasons for players to negotiate. I think that tweaking the initiative token/card probability features will really tie into this.

Stay tuned as the game develops.

The Joys of Youth (Part 1)

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of my favorite things about board games is their tactile qualities and toy like nature. The joy of holding cards, throwing dice, and moving little figures around the play space. It’s fun to touch and hold the pieces and imagine a greater world before you (as opposed to having a video game dictate things to you).

I had a great childhood and I loved games and toys. Still do! Because of this, and the fact that every year I draw closer to having my own children, I’m really interested in designing games for children. There’s something really compelling about crafting an experience for a father to enjoy with his little girl, instead of putting an iPad in front of her and watching TV.

But. Designing games for young children is difficult. Really difficult. It’s less that you need to design a game full of subtle strategies and multiple paths to victory and much more that you need to design something that appeals to a 4 year old who may not be able to count, read, make complex choices, or even handle losing!

In this post I’m going to share the data from a small survey I conducted with parents who game with their children. In a follow-up post I’m going to share a design I’ve written as well as the early feedback I’ve gathered from parents.

Many months ago I asked the parental nerds who follow me on Twitter about the games they play with their children. Eight parents with a total of 16 kids with an average age of 6.0625 years old rose to the challenge! Here are the questions I asked:

  1. What are the ages of your children?
  2. What are the genders of your children?
  3. What are your children’s favorite games?
  4. What are YOUR favorite games to play with your children?
  5. What are the most important factors for YOU when you purchase a game for your children?
  6. What is the important factor for your children when buying a game?
  7. Do your children enjoy a particular mechanic more than others?
  8. What themes excite your children the most?
  9. Do you want your children to learn something when playing a game? Do you prefer a game to be overtly educational, or is it okay for it to be more subtle?
  10. How often do you buy games for your children?
  11. How often do you play games with your children?
  12. What do you think is the right length for a children’s game?

If you’re interested in a spreadsheet with a distilled take on all the data, click here. However, here are some of my high level takeaways from the data:

  • The three most important factors in your design will be simplicity (easy to teach), short play time (10-20 minutes), and an exciting theme.
  • Avoid blatantly educational design decisions! Most children can smell a rat — they’ll be disinterested in playing homework and parents agree. Try to weave things like decision making skills, basic math skills, pattern recognition, risk taking, social skills, and learning to win and lose gracefully into your design.
  • Find a way to incorporate decision making into your game, no matter how simple it is. One example I was given is to draw 2 cards in Candyland, then let the child decide which one to play.
  • Parents are only purchasing games 3-4 times a year! Here’s where it gets even harder — you’re competing with smiling Disney and Nickelodeon characters on box covers for these rare purchases.
  • The interests and capabilities of young children grow and change almost as quickly as they do! Knowing how rarely parents may make purchases AND how children will be learning new skills in school as they age, future proof your game and add value by incorporating layers into your design. Said more succinctly, if possible, design your game so that it can appeal to a child from the ages of 4-6.

A few parents noted that playing cooperatively against the game just wasn’t very compelling for their children. However, one had this to say:

“[My child] loves games like Pitch Car and Jungle Speed, but even the light competitive factor can bring out an ugly side with young players. Survive is fun for him until you start eating his guys. We try to focus on “there’s always another game to play” and “at least you got to play a game”, but it doesn’t always work. So solo and co-op games tend to make more sense.”

Here’s one response I found very interesting: “There’s a fair number of TV programs that are able to attract both adults and children (Spongebob comes to mind).  Games seem to do a poor job of it.  For me, playing games with my daughter is a bit of a chore.  I do it for her, not because I think it’s fun.  Maybe it’s an impossible nut to crack, but I wish someone would figure it out.”

Finally, as I’m not (yet) a parent, I forgot that a significant aspect of raising a child is not just teaching them to read and count, but also to be a successful human in society. This response really resonated with me when I asked about games with educational value:

“Honestly, I am more interested in teaching them to follow directions at this point, i.e. play by the rules. Sometimes Shoots and Ladders turns into just moving any which way or “No I don’t want to go down the slide”. Also, that it is ok to lose. You don’t have to win EVERY time.”

I look forward to the discussion this generates! Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Check back later this week for my children’s game design and an early analysis of it.

I’d like to thank the following nerds who took time out of their busy schedule to help make this post possible: Cyrus Kirby, Jonathan Liu, AJ Porifiro, Corey Young, Kevin Hogan, Tom Krohne, Justin, Michael Harrison, Nolan Lichti, Chris Uriko, Kevin O’Gorman, and more!

Poor Abby Progress Report

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve reached a minor milestone with my newest game, Poor Abby Farnsworth, and I wanted to take a moment to write about its development so far. I just ordered my first print version of the game with nicer cards and some rough, but passable graphic design and iconography. I decided to spend the time and money to do this because my testers are sick of index cards. Furthermore, I think the game is far enough along that it’ll be useful to send it out to blind testers for feedback.

Simply put, I believe the foundation of the game is strong and I need a great deal of independent testing to verify the rules are well written, the foundation is strong, and the game is full of interesting choices. I hope my testers can verify that a.) the game is fun (or can be) and b.) it’s unique. If these are mostly answered in the affirmative, we can begin diving deeply into card balance and strategies.

You can read the game’s rules and see a full list of content here.

I believe the game can sufficiently stand on its own at this point. By that, I mean it’s not a <insert deckbuilding game> clone. The game is definitely iterative and firmly on the evolutionary side of the spectrum, but I think it can grow to ultimately be a worthy addition to the growing library of deckbuilding games.

Neat Features

  • Cards are drawn from a central deck in placed in 4 stacks of 2 cards each. Players can vie for each of these sets by essentially bidding on them with Influence cards (the game’s currency), or buy the top card of a set outright for 4 Influence. The bottom card is then trashed and the set is replaced.
  • The central deck, referred to as the Trial deck, contains 45 unique cards. I sought to make all 45 cards useful and powerful AND there’s no cheap take that gameplay. The work of designing these cards to provide several viable strategies is by far the most challenging thing still before me.
  • The game has various entities (Judge, Magistrate, Witch, Witnesses, Jurors) that can be bribed for powerful actions. Bribes are bought with coins and each player only has 6 for the entire game.
  • Witnesses are obtained like the other cards from the Trial deck. However, the Witness that is currently summoned provides a new Bribe action.
  • Points are primarily earned by playing Argument cards, which require certain conditions be met before they can be scored.

Art Style

I’m a HUGE fan of the work of artist Brett Bean. He was the primary illustrator for Farmageddon and I couldn’t be happier with his work. Obviously, I’d love for Poor Abby to find a publisher, which means the art and graphics are out of my hands. But, that doesn’t mean I cannot dream about my ideal art style!

I love Brett’s human characters. Check these out, especially the colonial gentleman on the top right:

Drawn by Brett Bean

I thought those humans were pretty snazzy, until Brett posted these two characters to his blog:

Drawn by Brett Bean

Drawn by Brett Bean

These characters make me squeal with delight. They are beautiful, hilarious, and overall outstanding. They remind me of the Walt Disney animated Robin Hood…ooo da lalay! Just imagine the jackass (donkey) judge, the fox prosecution attorney, the defense attorney as a pig, all Jurors are sheep…all with wigs, of course!

I’m drawn to humor, imaginative worlds, and overall, silliness. In my ideal world, Brett would be the one to make that happen.

Interesting and Bad Ideas from Previous Iterations

While preparing to write this post, I thought about all the interesting and bad ideas I’ve had throughout the course of Poor Abby’s development. Some of the neat ideas listed above may very well find themselves on this list before it’s all said and done!

  • Originally, players rolled dice to determine their purchasing power. I tried to counter the randomness by making it such that Influence could augment dice rolls. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the tuning right and the dice were clunky. Note to Designers: Taking a genre and swapping out components is not an innovation. (As a result of removing the dice, I thought to remove cost from cards entirely and players must bid to fight for them based on their perceived value. I think this has been great for streamlining the game AND differentiates it from other deckbuilding games.)
  • At some point, certain Jurors, when controlled, would provide a special benefit. It was implemented in a clunky way, but I believe was the forefather to the current Bribery feature that I really enjoy. I tried a bad idea and it evolved into a good one!
  • All cards in the Trial deck used to belong to one type of evidence: Spiritual, Physical, and Hearsay. Cards within an Evidence type tended to lean towards a particular strategy, but they also dictated which Jurors could be affected. The idea was somewhat neat and I may bring back elements of it, but ultimately it added an insignificant layer to the game that just added unwarranted complexity.
  • During one test, Jurors all had abilities that could augment the state of the Jurors adjacent to them in one way or another. This would have been neat if players controlled Jurors in a more permanent fashion. But, as the game is tuned currently, the feature was entirely ignored. And again, it added undue complexity.
  • The game used to feature Objection cards, which were randomly drawn global modifiers. I couldn’t get them to fit into the game well, which is typically a sign the feature needs to be removed. The idea appeals to me, still, so I’ll keep it on the back burner.
I apologize (only slightly) for this shill worthy post. Hopefully it was interesting to you. Questions? Thoughts? I’d love for you to read the rules and provide your feedback!
Note: If enough interest is shown for a print and play version I’d happily spend the time to prepare the files for download.

 

On the Take (That!)

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A Take That! mechanic in a board or card game is essentially griefing that’s allowed, encouraged, and promoted by the rules. Take That! is typically defined by overtly aggressive player actions that are performed to the detriment of one’s opponents. Some examples of Take That! mechanics include the Raider’s Outpost in Alien Frontiers, many cards in Discworld: Ankh-Morpork (kill an opponent, burn their building), the entire game of GUBS, and about 88% of the cards in my own game, Farmageddon. One more: Uno. All of it.

The inclusion of a Take That! mechanic in your game design will be one of the most controversial decisions you will make. It will be incredibly polarizing for the audience and as such, you shouldn’t include such a mechanic in a frivolous manner.

Many designers seek to add more player interaction to their game and their first stop is often Take That! It’s the obvious choice, but perhaps not the right choice. Subtler mechanics are not the focus of this post, however.

The purpose of this post is to discuss the merits of Take That! mechanics, the downsides, and provide some tips on integrating Take That! into your designs if you’re feeling sassy.

Why Take That?

Take That! is really great for a few reasons, namely its accessibility as a mechanic and the thrill it provides.

The application of a Take That! mechanic is often blatantly obvious to players, which means Take That! mechanics are inherently accessible. These mechanics are fundamentally aggressive and as a species we understand aggression. If you do Action A to player T, X will occur. People understand and enjoy Take That! mechanics and the sales seem to indicate this: Munchkin, Uno, GUBS, and Fluxx have all sold well.

I cannot imagine a universe in which I successfully explain all the actions, structures, and values of Agricola to my younger brother. I  can envision one in which he blows up my crops in Farmageddon and enjoys every second of it.

Take That! is also exciting. Knowing that something bad will happen, but not when, and not to whom, creates a sense of anticipation and excitement. Not being struck by the devastating action of another player is thrilling! Of course, being struck is less so, but we’re on the good side at this point in the post.

Finally, remember that some people don’t play games for intellectual stimulation or intense competition. They want to zap each other, laugh, and pass the time. I think this is the strongest argument on behalf of Take That! — it makes people laugh.

Why Not Take That?

Take That! often feels cheap or unfair, especially to the victim. It’s not fair that you were targeted (again). It’s not fair that your opponent drew the card instead of you. You didn’t have a choice or say in the matter. It’s just not fair.

Take That! devalues strategic play. Games that require a great deal of planning, strategy, and careful decision making are made intensely frustrating when one action from an opponent entirely and unpredictably undermines your entire strategy. This is especially frustrating when the win is snatched out of your hands on the final turn!

Because they are often so overt and aggressive, Take That! mechanics stand in contradiction to the more subtle and thoughtful mechanics preferred by many players who seek a more intellectual game experience.

Finally, Take That! mechanics can be very stressful. I fully realize that above I said they were thrilling, but it’s possible for a single mechanic to elicit several emotions from players, especially different players. One player’s exciting thrill ride is another player’s tedious or terrifying “It’s a Small World.” Just imagine the animatronic children your game may cause.

How to Take That?

There are some high level guidelines to help steer you towards the right level of Take That! for your game.

Firstly, you must understand your target audience. Who will be playing your game and when will they be playing it? I designed Farmageddon for casual gamers who might play the game after a small dinner party or in the evening with family. No brains will be burned while playing this game. If you seek to design a deeply strategic game, Take That! is not the correct choice. The more casual your audience, the more acceptable Take That! will be.

Secondly, how long is your game? The longer the experience, the more frustrating Take That! mechanics are for all players. Discworld would be far less enjoyable if it lasted even 15 minutes more to play. There are many cards throughout the game that can dramatically swing things in and out of a player’s favor. But, at 30-40 minutes, it’s a great deal of fun! The longer your experience, the less acceptable Take That! will be.

The frustration of Take That! is mitigated further if you provide your players a way to defend themselves. The Raider’s Outpost in Alien Frontiers loses its potency as the game continues because of the decoy card that protects you from theft, or the fact that you have so many resources that losing a few is no longer a crushing blow. In Farmageddon, Foul Manure cards protect players’ crops from all the terrible things in the game. You need to give players peace of mind, an eye amid the storm. Take That! is less frustrating if you give players a way to protect themselves.

Finally, give every player an equal chance to force their opponents to take that (or this?). Don’t allow one player to dominate through lucky draws or unfair turn order rules. Don’t make it so the player who is the leader is always the one to attack. Take That! is less frustrating if you distribute the chaos uniformly across all players. 

I find Take That! less appealing as I grow and experiment as both a player and a designer. But, it absolutely has its place and it often makes me laugh. It’s a tool for you to wield, albeit a very controversial tool. In this case, think before you come out swingin’!

Crafting a Story through Design

Benny and I have been design peers for a while. Both from his Twitter feed and his interview with Bellwether Games, it’s clear Benny approaches design from a different angle than I do. Benny’s all about story and theme, whereas I tend to be more mechanically driven.

I don’t necessarily agree with Benny’s approach, but I appreciate the perspective. Furthermore, it’s important to note that many of our customers purchase games based on theme alone! For this reason, I asked Benny to walk us through his approach using his game Streets of Laredo as a backdrop. If you’re like me, his post will get your mind whirring!

Guest Column by: Benny Sperling (@Benny275)

Game design and storytelling often reside at opposite ends of the creative spectrum.  Some gamers would have you believe that games should be abstract creations where the players push cubes to score points. Or, at the very least, they find such things perfectly acceptable.  I disagree whole-heartedly!  I like the idea of creating a story and telling it as the game progresses.  To be clear, I’m not talking about storytelling games, although Daniel Solis’ Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is brilliant. I’m talking about bringing story to your board and card games.

As a designer, I want to weave a narrative from the players’ experiences that THEY can change with THEIR choices.  As a child, I was drawn to Choose Your Own Adventure books for this very reason.  At the onset, it is important to decide on a theme to help tell your story.  Is your theme something that has never been done?  Is it a theme that is near and dear to you?  Or is it a theme that capitalizes on an existing mechanic?

For me, Westerns are interesting. I admit I’ve fallen in love with my new home in Texas because it’s just as Larry McMurtry (the writer of Lonesome Dove) described: sweeping plains, cowboys, and good cheer. My latest game, Streets of Laredo, is about telling the story of the old west from my own perspective. Laredo came out of my desire to tell the tale of land developers hiring and building within a single town and making an effort to dissuade their competitor’s efforts… usually through gunfights.

In telling your own tale, be sure to avoid thematic holes. Thematic holes are gaps within the story, elements that are missing or done incorrectly.  These gaps create problems with flow and disrupt the narrative.  In game design, thematic holes represent a part of the story that doesn’t make sense or is missing, which can be disruptive to players who are really into the theme.  With Laredo, there were plenty of thematic holes early in development.  The game featured Bandits and Rustlers, but no way for the sheriff to “take care of them” and prevent them from hindering players. As a result, I implemented the Jail. The Jail allows players to kick the Bandits and Rustlers behind bars when they are causing trouble (if the player chooses to do so!).  Be very mindful while playtesting to look for those gaps in realism and the story.  Players will pick up on them if you don’t.

“Hiring a new sheriff to keep watch on your street? I don’t think so! That sheriff needs to come work for me.”  It’s great fun, because the players can actually act out their stories while they are playing Laredo.  Each card played represents a new chapter in the player’s tale. The Deputy helps a player by modifying a rolled die to create a matching pair of dice.  This is extremely helpful for players to create pairs, three of a kind, or four of a kind, not to mention it reduces the randomness that comes with dice rolling. Luck plays a role in games with dice and a random draw of cards.  The Deputy and many of the other cards in the game feature ways to reduce the luck and increase the strategy.

Essentially, if you’re taking pains to create a fiction and a world, make sure the fiction is sound enough to stand on its own.

How does one go about designing a mechanical framework for this story to dance upon? If you recall, I noted that game design and storytelling rest at two opposite ends of the creative spectrum.  Game design is about thinking of ways to layer this story onto mechanical parts.  For Laredo, I chose poker dice, which are six-sided dice with a 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace.  They’re thematic, obviously, as cowboys played poker in saloons.  The players roll dice on their turns to attempt to form the best poker hand after 3 rolls.  Each of the cards features a poker hand and rolling that poker hand allows the player to play that card onto their street. By playing a card, players construct buildings, hire folks, or bring in livestock.  On the following turns, cards played to a player’s street provide a benefit to roll more dice, modify rolled dice, or affect the game in other ways.  For your design, ask yourself what would be an interesting thing in the world for players to do that also supports the fiction?

Next, I chose cards instead of pawns or figurines, because I knew I could convey the information more easily with cards. The theme comes alive with card art! Even when you’re using cheap clipart for early prototypes, you allow your players to connect to the game thematically: the dashing sheriff, the sly bandits, the pristine bank.

I then had to ask myself how the cards would make it to each players’ street to represent their hiring’s and holdings?  Back to the dice! In Laredo, business deals are made in the saloon. Rolling a poker hand of a set value (i.e. a pair, a straight, etc.) allows the player to play a card to his street. The card represents someone the player hired, a building the player constructed, or animals that were purchased.  Each card has to feel thematic!  The bandit cards copy existing buildings to indicate the bandits are robbing the building.  The sheriff cleans up the gunfight cards and takes one for his land developer.  The Bank supplies an extra activation for a price.

The last mechanic I chose to add was the gunfight mechanic.  Initially, it was too easy for one player to get lucky with their rolls and run away with the game.  When gunfighting, the players are trying to improve their own street, but also disrupt the streets of their opponents.  Each card was given a gunfight value which gave every card multiple purposes and the player a choice: You can gunfight or play the card to your street.

Consider your next game from a thematic perspective.  What kind of story are you going to have the players tell?  What elements fit that story?  How can you fit mechanics into the theme of your story?  Should you use meeples or cards?  Poker chips or dice?  What will help draw players into the story and make them feel like they are telling a story with the designer?

Once you find answers to these questions, you may find you’re not only creating a game, but a rich story.

Mechanically Sound #1

In addition to writing as ideas come to mind and posting guest submissions, I have a handful of semi-regular features I’d like to introduce. Mechanically Sound is the first.The idea is to share interesting mechanics from existing games in the hopes of providing inspiration for your own creations. One of my biggest goals as a designer is to create more unique and innovative designs. One of the best ways to attain this goal is to immerse myself in the cleverness of others.

My other hope for this feature is that it’s easy for readers to submit mechanics they encounter. If you encounter a really clever mechanic, contact me! Explain the mechanic and tell me why it stood out to you. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

For this inaugural post of Mechanically Sound, I thought I’d detail mechanics from 3 games I’ve recently encountered and enjoy: Discworld: Ankh-MorporkConflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel! Kursk 1943, and Navegador.

The Card Choices in Discworld

Each turn, the active player must play one card from his hand. Above are three example cards from the game. There are approximately a half dozen Actions, represented by symbols (look at the top of the cards above).The player may choose all, some, or none of the Actions to take, with the exception of the pentagram Action, which must be executed.

The other twist is that players must execute the actions from left to right. You may want to take the second Action before the first Action, but too bad. It’s to the right.

Finally, if you see the Scroll symbol (shown on the left 2 cards above), you can choose to execute the Action written at the bottom. This allows the designer to creep outside the relatively small number of Actions when necessary.

The iconography is excellent and players generally learn the handful of Actions shortly into their first play. The fact that most cards have multiple Actions, some you want, some you don’t, and some you cannot at this time, makes most turns really compelling.

Damage Counters in Storms of Steel!

In Storms of Steel! every unit is represented by a small token like the one on the left in the image above. These markers convey the cost to take a Move or Fire action, the direction the unit faces, the range of the unit, its attack strength, and finally, its defense. That’s a lot of information!

In many war games, as units take damage they suffer a penalty to attack and effectiveness. That’s the case here, but the designers make it far more interesting, varied, and thematic.

All units in the game can absorb 2 hits, at which point they are destroyed. When the unit takes its first hit, the player draws a face down token from a pool, like the one on the right above. These tokens convey the feelings a unit in combat might experience, such as panic, cowardice, or like the one above, suppression.

Instead of forcing the player to memorize several stats for several states, the designers instead give you a token that displays the modifications to the specific stat in the same location as the unit token.

For the unit above, Suppression increases the Action Point cost for firing to 4 (the +1) and reduces the unit’s firing effectiveness against infantry and armor targets by -2 (bottom left).    I love how this mechanic introduces a little randomness and variety into the game without complicating things too much. Such a great idea and great component design!

The Rondel of Navegador

In Navegador, the player takes one Action each turn. To determine the Actions available, the active player looks at the location of their player piece on the rondel (see the blue token in the image above).

In the image above, the blue token is currently on the orange sliver: Building. For the player’s next Action, he may choose Shipping, Workers, or Market, i.e. any of the three Actions in front of his token.

The beauty of this mechanic is that your future turns are predictable and your choices are limited. On some turns you may take a less ideal option to move yourself along the rondel more quickly in order to cut off an opponent seeking the same goal, or slowly move around it while taking every Action possible. It was so simple, yet so compelling.

Do you find these mechanics compelling and innovative? Comment below! Post your submissions in the comments or contact me.

The Idea Machine

When I wrote Chasing Inspiration last week, I almost thought of it as a throwaway post. I almost didn’t put it on the site. However, the reaction to it was incredibly strong (check out the comments). Writer and game designer Todd Edwards, who is a peer of mine, fellow San Franciscan, and occasional running partner, wrote this follow-up to my original post. 

I thought his post was so well written, thoughtful, and interesting that I had to give its own space on the blog. Conceiving great ideas is half the battle and I for one am glad for every weapon I can add to my arsenal.

Guest Column by: Todd Edwards (NerniAndFriends.com)

When I started writing my first novel 18 years ago, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, but I was good at research. I read lots of books on writing back then, and when I read Grant’s article Chasing Inspiration, one particular bit of advice jumped to mind. Orson Scott Card (of Ender’s Game fame) wrote a wonderful book on writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. One section was all about ideas. His method was to jot down ideas as he got them and then put the slips of paper in a box. If an idea ever flashed in his mind, he wrote it down. Ideas are everywhere, and by writing down every fleeting one, he trained his Idea Machine to always be on the lookout. I forget exactly what he called it, but the “Idea Machine” is what I call it.

Most of his ideas were incomplete, cliché, or boring. The magic happened when, periodically, he dumped out the box and read all the accumulated ideas. His point was that no one idea was great enough to carry a novel, but if he combined a few unrelated ideas, he would come up with something amazing and original. And by training himself to constantly be on the lookout, he had plenty of ideas to work with.

To put it in gamer terms, it’s like training yourself to see everything as potential parts for your prototyping collection. “Oh, those chopstick holders would make great walls for my wargame!” Editor’s Note: I plan to write an entire post on just this point.

I went through a sci fi/thriller phase. To train my Idea Machine, I read science news articles every day. When one sparked a plot idea, I summarized the punchline and jotted down my idea in a long-since-abandoned blog. I just checked, and it is still around:http://doctortodd.blogspot.com/.

It turns out that I kept at it for almost two years. Most of what I read didn’t lead to ideas, but I have 80ish plot ideas stored there. And even if I never use them, the process of writing them down trained my Idea Machine. Now I see stories every time I hear the news, overhear a bit of conversation at the airport, etc. Just about everything sparks a plot idea.

When my daughter asked me to make up a bedtime story for her one fateful night, it was easy to tell her something original on the spot. I kept doing it until I stumbled on the story that eventually became my first kid’s book. Then more stories which became the second book, and so on.

The bottom line is that if you train your Idea Machine for game design, soon you’ll have more ideas than you know what to do with. Granted, most will be incomplete, cliché, or boring, but some will be golden. Or maybe you’ll pull several together and you’ll come up with the Next Great Mechanic.

But that is all general touchy feely rhetoric. Here is a concrete plan of action. I’ll spare you the bullet points though. Every day, starting tomorrow, create a quick pitch for a game. It doesn’t have to be complete like an elevator pitch (see Pitch Like a Pro); you just want the core game nugget of interest. Don’t worry about implementation, balance, etc.  All you need is a quick pitch. Also, don’t limit yourself. Pitch all sorts of games. Mobile, board, browser, social, card, RPG, sport, kids, etc. Focus on themes sometimes, and focus on mechanics other times. You never know which two ideas will fit together perfectly.

Here’s my quicky idea to get the ball rolling: A wargame for kids. Consonants vs. Vowels. Consonants are more plentiful but weaker. Vowels are few but strong. W and Y are mercenaries that will fight for either side. [Note: You don't have to post your ideas here, but do write them down. In your head doesn't count.]

Editor’s Note: If you need another prompt, consider participating in the April 2012 Game Design Showdown on the Board Game Designer’s Forum.