Form Versus Function

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

I learned several valuable lessons at Metatopia a few weekends ago.

Firstly, there is no such thing as bed-time. You will be up late. Every night. And you will love it.

Secondly, making connections—the kind that lead to dream jobs—isn’t as hard as I thought. Basically, you just need to show up, be friendly, and be generous. There are tricks and nuances, of course, that’s true of everything. And, as with any attempt, you can’t succeed if you don’t try.

Thirdly is a theme that came up three times across three different games over the weekend. I tweeted about, but it’s worth discussing in-depth.

The Last Planet

I’ve hinted several times on Twitter that I’ve been working on a StarCraft deck-building game. I played Fantasy Flight’s StarCraft board game with some friends earlier this year and was reminded quite viscerally how painfully slow the game is. So I set out to make a StarCraft game that better captured the video game’s feel, primarily by playing faster. I somehow latched onto the idea of a DBG being an interesting expression of base development and built an intentionally very literal interpretation of the game. As expected, it worked but not particularly well. I intended to recreate it, but got distracted with other projects.

Last month, my friend Josh pushed me to pick it back up. I had one new idea to try before completely rebuilding it so I brought that to Metatopia. The fix helped, but was like a drop-in-the-bucket. It took easily 100 minutes before one player successfully attacked another. The game is too complex and has too many steps to accomplish by a complete order of magnitude. And that’s really not surprising: It’s a complex video game with millions of moving parts all being handled seamlessly by the computer. Take out that super-fast helper and it’s up to the players to handle everything. Even simplified as it was, it’s still preposterous.

Despite that massive problem, there is fun in the game and I have not given up. I will rebuild from scratch, divorcing myself from StarCraft and creating a new SciFi theme, not because I know I’ll never win the game rights, but because I can’t let the conceits of the video game dictate the paper game’s path. I know if I keep this exact theme that I will be distracted from the better possible game by what StarCraft has done and how.

It’s entirely possible the end result won’t be a DBG, but a real-time puzzle or who knows what.


After that, I saw some of my designer friends playing with an early game prototype. Kevin’s game has an awesome theme: The players are experimental test subjects of a mad scientist trying to escape his dark labyrinth before he kills them. The game starts with an interesting mechanic where you play cards to form the edge of the dungeon and your character moves like a magnet to cards that match your player color. Once you reach the inner dungeon, you instead lay dungeon tiles that dictate the directions you can move from that space. Because the dungeon is dark, you don’t decide how to orient the tiles, you just place them however you flip them.

This leaves the end-game entirely up to chance. It does fit the theme and really puts you in your character’s shoes. On the other hand, you’re suddenly not playing the game you started and probably not enjoying feeling your character’s frustration so personally. The reason for placing the tiles with a random orientation was to fit the theme of a dark dungeon, but it removes the fun from the game. My suggestion was to let players choose the tile’s orientation to improve the play, and then modify the theme to justify the change. Maybe the dungeon isn't pitch-black or maybe the doctor gave them infrared vision as part of his experimentation. The former doesn't really hurt the core theme and the latter fits it pretty well.

I know Kevin is working on this game because I saw a very nice graphical tease for it, so I’m eager to see what the next version brings.


The next day I joined what turned out to be a brainstorming session rather than a playtest. You might be pretty disappointed at such a thing elsewhere, but at Metatopia it was cool. Yeah, let’s bounce ideas off each other to help the designer—Jim—reach a good starting point. Honestly, that’s almost more fun for me than actually playing. The premise is that the players are corporations competing to alter a planet’s atmosphere so that it’s ready for colonization. Jim had the kernel of a pretty neat mechanic for this part of the game as well as a dice mechanism to determine player order and the amount of resources available each turn.

As we were proposing possible directions for the game, we occasionally hit a hard stop in the form of a pre-established theme. What if there’s a conflict with resident aliens? There are no aliens. How can we add variance to building placement? Wind. There’s no wind on Mars! There is on Venus. Are dice the best way to determine how much a player can do each turn? They represent the fickle budgets of your corporate overlords. (Note that one of those over-wrought preconceptions was mine, not the designer’s.)

Form vs Function

If you've read my earlier stuff, you know that I’m a huge advocate for theme in games. There are great games with no theme, but there are so many more great games with theme. Ultimately, a game can’t fire on all cylinders without an engaging theme. The flip-side is that you can make a game great through the theme alone, but it’s much more likely to be garbage without fun mechanics. And a thematic game can’t reach it’s greatest potential without awesome gameplay.

Some designers approach games from the bottom-up, completing the game by perfecting the gameplay and mechanics, and then finally pasting on whatever theme seems to fit best. Some approach design top-down, finding a neat theme and bringing it to life, going with whatever mechanics express that theme more fully. A lot of designers are versatile enough to use whichever technique feels right for a new game. I put it to you that none of these are ideal.

Integration through iteration is the holy grail. Start where you like, whether it’s bottom-up with a clever mechanic and some fun gameplay, or top-down with an engaging story and a gripping atmosphere. Just don’t go too far without switching hats. Even if you’re idea is still amorphous enough that you need a quick test to figure out where to go with it, you should already be imagining how to express your idea from the other side of the camp. After your first test, when you understand the basic game well enough to start the next step, shift your focus and ask how the theme could best serve the mechanics, and vice-versa. If something needs to change, change it. Kill your sacred cows or they will eat your game.

If you do this throughout the design process, the final result will be so tightly integrated that players won’t be able to imagine your mechanics with any other theme, nor will they wonder if the flavor could have been stronger with a few more/less dice.

A fantastic example to demonstrate this is Magic: The Gathering because the game has been remade so many times using every model we've discussed. A big part of what made the game take-off was the excellent fusion of flavor and mechanics in the original design. There were many years of bottom-up designs to follow where the designers were exploring mechanical possibilities and the theme suffered. Many years later, they let the creative team dictate the world and built the set around that, but the gameplay wasn't satisfying. They rebooted the core set with Magic 2010 using a new strategy—the original one: Make cards that are fun to play and deeply resonant. It was a huge success and breathed new life into the game. They haven’t looked back since and they have done amazing things that just weren't possible in the old model.

StarCraft is a video game because it can’t be done as a board game. It can’t be done as a board game because it’s a video game. The Zerg are what they are because they play differently from the Terrans and Protoss. And they play so differently because they are the Zerg. These sound like poser-wise tautologies, but the point is that both sides were developed toward this state together and couldn't have done otherwise. I can make a game that plays like StarCraft, but with a different theme or I can make a game with StarCraft’s theme but plays differently, but the vast differences in the media prevent me from making the same game. And ultimately, what would be the value in that if I succeeded? Why play StarCraft the board game, when you can play the same game with better graphics on your computer? That was the impetus for adding the deck-building-game conceit but I didn't go far enough. DBGs don’t have a tech tree or, if they do, it’s nowhere near as deep, specific or complex as StarCraft’s.

My work on Intrigue (Editor's Note: This is another game of Jay's) is another interesting example. In theory, all I had to do to convert the theme from Fantasy war to Renaissance spycraft was to change some art and names. But where quests are perfect for Middle Earth, they make no sense in Venice. Scoring points by killing your enemies is natural in war, but would attract a bit too much heat in a political race. And where’s the scheming? Spies scheme! So I changed some mechanics to fit the new theme. Playtesting proved that the mechanics could be better, so I fixed them and then adjusted the theme to fit the new mechanics. Having agendas is great, but being invested in particular factions is good too. It’s a give and take where everybody wins in the end.

You have examples of successes and failures along these lines. Let’s hear them.