Analysis Paralysis

Just before deadline

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few pals were fretting over game group peers with analysis paralysis this morning. I wanted to write about the behavior as well as how you as a designer can work to limit it in your designs.

I don’t tolerate much analysis paralysis in my game groups. Honestly, it just doesn’t match my personality at all. I’m not impatient, but I do consider myself very decisive in my play and life. I pick a direction and I go. As soon as I find out I’m wrong, I redirect. Furthermore, I want to win when I play games, but not so much that I’m going to send my friends racing for their phones. I also like to see what happens, because sometimes that’s more fun than winning.

What is analysis paralysis? I define analysis paralysis, or AP, as when a player spends an unnecessary amount of time to make a decision in a game to the hindrance of the enjoyment of others playing the game.

I once took Blockade (which is now Sol Rising) to a prototype event. At this point the game was painfully simple and a player’s turn mostly entailed:

  • Choose which squadron to move (which was limited, so it was only 1-3 choices)
  • Choose where to move them (also limited by engines)
  • Choose a target to fire at (usually quite obvious or simple)
  • Roll dice

Essentially, reasonable players often took their turn in a minute or less. One gentlemen at this prototype event spent 45 minutes taking his turn. 45 minutes was typically the length of the entire game. The result of him doing this was that the other 3 players were entirely disengaged, bored, on their phones. I finally just thanked everyone for their help, told them I had the data I needed, and swept the game into a box.

A second example may be useful. Once, in a casual work league of Magic: The Gathering, a co-worker spent 15 minutes deciding which land to play on his first turn. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Magic, but a first turn is often a matter of seconds. It is often:

  • Play Mountain
  • Maybe tap Mountain to play first creature
  • “Your turn.”

In this case, my opponent spent 15 minutes, played his mountain, though a moment longer, DIDN’T PLAY anything, then said “your turn.” I never played him again.

Why is analysis paralysis bad? Games are meant to be a fun, multi-person shared experience. Games should be social and full of moments of interesting decisions, surprise, and tension.

One of the biggest threats to a board game and the experience are disengaged players. Smart phones, side conversations that don’t involve others, or distracted, disinterested play. If someone is spending an inordinate amount of time making a decision that doesn’t involve anyone else, this leads to distracted play. This will kill the experience. It can be perceived as a pretty selfish and rude way to interact. In a way, it’s like dominating a social conversation and not letting anyone else talk.

The only time I think AP is acceptable is in the context of a tournament. If there are stakes on the line, it’s totally fine to take a moment to make your decision. However, I think the best players are able to play decisively and without a million cycles of thought. Put in a chess clock to limit permanent spinning. The Plaid Hat guys did this after they had a few tournaments end in draws due to time.

What causes analysis paralysis? I consider myself to be a pretty decent observer of human nature and behavior. I think this is a strength of mine that directly benefits my designs when testing and developing. In my experience, analysis paralysis is often a result of a few key symptoms:

  • A strong desire to win: One could argue this strong desire is also unhealthy. Some people want to win very badly and really only gain fun from the experience if they win. A person who is no longer a part of my game group once admitted he was “desperate to win,” which is why he took so long. This is difficult to fix. If someone is hyper-competitive, regardless of the reason, you need to bring it up and discuss it. A simple, “hey dude, this is a friendly game” might do the trick. It might not.
  • Fear of making a mistake: This is a bit of a symptom of the previous notion, but some people are petrified of playing poorly. They can’t stand the thought of making the sub-optimal choice. Or, simple, they are afraid of being seen as foolish and stupid. The key thing you can do here is gently nudge them to make a decision and don’t criticize or belittle their decisions. It’s key to be welcoming, supporting, and encouraging. Still, people should play!
  • Confusion: If someone is confused, they may not make a decision. This could be another instances of fear of making a mistake. Sometimes this is the fault of the game — it could be very difficult or overly cumbersome. Sometimes the player is at fault. If someone isn’t paying attention, won’t get off their cell phone, sure, they’ll be confused. The key here is that as a host you need to know the game and teach it well. You need to work with various players to teach the game in a way that makes sense for them. I have a friend who cannot learn with a rules explanation. We have to essentially play for him to learn, which means I’m constantly introducing new mechanics as they enter the experience. Sure, it takes time, but it’s worth it to ensure everyone has fun.
  • Indecisiveness: Some people just cannot decide. They have too many options, or are afraid, or are a little confused, and they just can’t pull the trigger. There are studies that show people spending hours in the cereal aisle. Indecision can also be a sign of a lack of engagement. If someone doesn’t really care, and the “right” choice isn’t immediately apparent, they may just spin. In that case, it may be simply a case of “Bob, hurry and decide!” to make it clear he’s hindering the group. If someone doesn’t care enough to decide? Then it won’t really matter what they choose.

How can you limit analysis paralysis in your designs? There are a few really great ways to limit opportunities for analysis paralysis in your game design.

  • Uncertain Outcomes: If a player knows that playing X card will always render Y result, and they have 7 of these cards, you’re giving them the opportunity to slowly consider every option. However, if the card says play X card and draw 3 Chits, that is no longer a guarantee. If you say play X card and roll this die, you’re reducing the ability to math it out. I think the best uncertain outcomes have math that is easily understood. Generally speaking, your players should know if they are very likely, somewhat likely, or unlikely to accomplish their goal. When you play Rise of Augustus, you know the general chance of drawing the token you need for an “Ave Caesar!” After one or two rolls in King of Tokyo, you have a pretty darn good look at what’s likely to occur.
  • Imperfect Information: If your game has perfect, fully public information, you’re giving players an opportunity to run mental cycles on everything in the game. However, if someone has a hand of cards, or their perfect actions are muddied with uncertain outcomes, you’re reducing the value of pulling out Excel to run formulas.
  • Real Time: This isn’t appropriate for most games, but if everyone has to play the game at the same time with no breaks, you simply can’t be indecisive. This may be why some people hate real time games.
  • Limited Interaction: If a game is full of interaction, which is something I like, you’re making it very difficult for a player to understand what their opponent can do. This gives players the opportunity to consider not only their move, but the moves their opponents might make in response. I think games like Libertalia and 7 Wonders do a very good job of limiting the interaction. In 7 Wonders, you can only trade or go to war with your neighbors. Therefore, you only have two people to watch, and to do so in very simple terms. In Libertalia, you can only use the sword against your neighbors. Furthermore, cards like the mutineer only affect the top card. By limiting interaction, your reducing the number of possibilities in the matrix.
  • Provide Avenues to Catch Up: If you consider my suggested causes for analysis paralysis, you can also identify potential solutions. If someone is terrified of making a mistake, a clear solution is to provide ways for players to recover from poor play. This leads to a greater discussion of Catch Up Mechanics, but ultimately, I believe that in most cases, a single sub-optimal decision shouldn’t pitch someone out of contention for the win. If players know they are reasonably free to experiment and take risks, they’ll do so, and they’ll do so more quickly.
  • Hide Points, or obfuscate the victory: SAT word! If someone knows precisely how close they are to victory, or precisely how close they are in comparison to their opponents, you’re giving them the opportunity to min/max a great deal of things. Games like Small World make victory tokens private information. In Modern Art, my currency sits behind a screen. Or, put a slightly different way, in Twilight Struggle, only one player can have a scoring card at a time. This gives them the advantage the other must ascertain.

This post has gone on a bit longer than I’d like. Much like a player with analysis paralysis taking their turn! Ho ho, the jokes.

What are some other solutions to curbing analysis paralysis in your designs? Do you think I identified the causes well? Share your thoughts below in the comments!

Your Variance is Showing

5069f793fb04d60a610009a9._w.540_h.361_s.fit_

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Quick Note: Last year I observed many of my blog posts were overly specific about my games. Many of my posts were very specific and assumed a great deal of previous knowledge on the reader’s part. As a result, unless you’d read everything on the topic, a blog post would often feel like jumping in the middle of the season of Game of Thrones. Huh? What the heck is happening?

As a result, I’ve tried to broaden my topics and write about my games as examples for a broader subject, not THE subject. This means I need to wait until an idea hits that I can turn into a larger topic, but hopefully it’s working for you readers.

Let’s talk about variants. 

What is a variant? I shall define a variant loosely as a minor rule change that seeks to modify an experience without a significant variance in overall experience or components. That definition is already suspect as a.) I just made it up and b.) I used words like “minor” and “significant.”

Typically, I’m actually against variants. If I’ve ever read one of your rule sets, you can attest to me leaving feedback to ditch the variant and focus. Variants to me often feel like half baked ideas. They feel like concepts that weren’t good enough to officially add to the game, but were a pet of the designer and snuck into the final rules.

My general philosophy is that a game should have everything it needs: no more, no less. I’m hugely in favor of expansions, so I’m a big proponent of designing games with natural paths to expansion. Expansions are a good way to add additional content, new strategic layers, or even additional complexity that experienced players can appreciate. But, I feel like expansions come later in the life cycle once a game has matured and is needed by its loyal players.

Variants typically ship with the game, in the rules, and have a fuzzy vibe of official about them. Why is this here?

Variants feel like uncertain twists. Instead of draft 1 and pass, you draft 1, keep 1, and pass. Instead of winning the game with 15 points, you instead win when all of your cities are level 4. The thing is, when I see little twists like this, the first thing in my mind is “well, which is it?” I don’t really want to feel like I’m beta testing a final game. I don’t want to find the best way to play. My hope is that you, the designer/publisher/developers have already determined that for me. Tell me how to play. Don’t give me a buffet here.

I approach variants much like I approach mods in PC gaming or house ruling — I don’t want to do it. I just want the right game, the perfect edition, and I will love it to death. Therefore, it may just be a matter of preference?

Should you vary? 

Variants are very appealing as a designer. They give you a community approved outlet to toss in a few things that you think may be better or just happen to personally prefer. But, approach them with caution. Game design is ridiculously difficult. The long-term development process of testing out every rule, every card, every variable, and every player number is very thorough and trying. You need to test your final rule set so many times to find every hole, imbalance, king making opportunity, and exploit. You need to test your final rule set to squeeze every ounce of fun into the game. Time you spend testing variants is time that detracts from making that single, perfect experience.

As learning designers, something I consider myself to be, we must challenge ourselves to create beautiful experiences. To do that, we must focus, refine, test, and be incredibly clever and creative. Use variants to test and find the right solution — don’t stick to the first one that seems to work. But, don’t use variants as a crutch to be indecisive. Don’t use variants as a way to pad your game content.

One of the best places to vary is for player numbers. It is often very difficult to make a game work with 2, 3, 4, and 5 players. Don’t be afraid to add rules tweaks, within reason, to make the different numbers work better.

The Wozzle Variety

Now, to go against everything I just wrote, I’m going to talk about how I’m including variants in WozzleWozzle is my 2-5 player card game that takes some of the core elements of Texas Hold ‘Em Poker and twists and refines them to become and entirely new game. I’m pretty proud of it and it has been testing quite well. You can watch my short video walk through of the game here.

The first variant for Wozzle came about when we began testing a card that every player started the game with. It gave them a one-time use power. The card is relatively simple and it was testing well, but it had a few problems that made me question it as a core aspect of the game:

  • By giving players a starting card, it added an additional thing to learn when playing.
  • It’s an advanced card for players who really know the game.
  • It’s a card that doesn’t get played in every game. It can have a narrow use.

I removed it from some of my tests to streamline them and found that it wasn’t hurting the experience with its absence. Then, I tested it with and spoke to my development partner — it still had value. We decided to make it a variant. This then opened the door for additional variants that use this system of everyone begins the game with 1 card of the same type. We added a second one, specifically to make 5 player games more interesting. In a sense, it’s like a minor expansion that adds just a few cards and light gameplay.

The game also needed some light modifications for both 2 player and 5 player. Due to the economy mechanics, the game absolutely needed a way to slightly tweak the 2 player game to work better. It’s a minor twist and easy to learn. The 5 player tweak was trickier. With 5 players, it’s easier for some players to get left behind and feel like they are out of the game. If everyone is winning, the game can also take a little bit longer. The solution was to add a minor way for players to win points, even when they don’t win.

With 2 player, one blind playtester, the excellent Robin Lees, noted he missed a poker mechanic in Wozzle, especially in head to head games. We discussed it and ultimately came up with a solution that we’re now testing. It adds a single card, which contains one minor rule that works within the game’s framework. As of now I’m worried about the complexity it adds, so I’m tentatively treating it as an advanced variant. But who knows? It could make its way into the 2 player core rules.

The Lesson?

Really, there is no right way or wrong way. I think focus is important. I think you need to create the best, single, perfect rule set for your players. But, some games lend themselves better to micro expansions and variants to tweak complexity and provide different experiences. This works really well for Wozzle and in some ways makes it a bit of a sandbox for me in Wozzle. But, the idea of adding variants for YorkSol Rising, or even Farmageddon just doesn’t seem appropriate.

What are some of your favorite variants? Which games do it right? Tell me in the comments below!

Interaction and Variability

Chaos-800

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This week, I want to write a few posts about some of my personal beliefs that drive my enjoyment of the games I play and fuels the foundations of the games I design. I’m starting with the concepts of interaction and variance, two highly contentious topics that are very important to me.

Last week, I Tweeted this very succinct statement that summarizes this post well: I love interaction and variance in games because it more strongly resembles life. I prefer besting the unexpected to solving stability.

To be clear, I don’t necessarily enjoy games with a high degree of luck. I especially don’t like such games that are too lengthy. I do enjoy the tension in games like 1812 or X-Wing when a critical dice roll can decide things. But, if you play those games enough, you should realize that most of the game is decided by planning and human decisions.

I greatly enjoy variance and the unexpected. I love it when a game cannot be solved or predicted, but the players must simply dive in and use their skill, gut instincts, and a little luck to emerge on top. I’m fascinated by the choices players make when they need to derive success from the hand, metaphorical or real, they’ve been dealt.

Let’s look at Summoner Wars, a game I love. In the game, your odds of hitting in combat are pretty good: 3+. That’s a 66% chance of a hit on every roll. That means you can begin to rely statistically on certain things occurring. But, there are other fantastic variables. You might desperately need an Event card, but you haven’t drawn it yet. You might have no Champions out, when your opponent has all three. How do you solve that problem? The beauty, for me, is using the known and making tough choices to survive, outwit, and outlast.

You can see this notion of “use the tools you’ve been dealt” in my other designs. In Farmageddon, I tried to tune the deck of Action cards to almost ensure there are ways to tackle most situations. Yes, you might get stuck. But, the key is, the board changes often. You will lose Crops. They will be stolen. Therefore, the game is not about “what will I do in 3 turns” but instead becomes “what can I do RIGHT NOW to improve my chances?” It’s about triage and risk mitigation. Terrible things will happen, trust me. But, those terrible things aren’t just aimed at you. Everyone is in that mess together.

In York, I apply this philosophy without a take-that attitude, but still, one that requires taking a chance and doing your best. Every turn you have 5 simple cards (though this can be modified in ways). These cards are, more or less, your fuel. Your resources. What is the best thing you can do with your five cards? Which battles can you win? Which might you lose? Where might you exploit an opponent’s flank or take control of a poorly defended city? How will you best use this round to set yourself up for the next scoring phase?

In testing, some elements of York have always flustered, and will always fluster, certain player types. Some people insist on knowing everything, which is odd for me in a game about war. Turn order is not deterministic, so you cannot make assumptions there. What your one, two, or three other opponents have and want to do also can’t always be ascertained. The only fact is what’s in your hand. With it, I force this simple question: what is the best thing you can do that you control?

For York, and many of my games, I’m driven by this quote from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the great German Field Marshal: ”No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the enemy”).

He also said: “Strategy is a system of expedients.” I love that. There is a purity and a truth to it.

The enemy is sometimes other players. It is sometimes the game pushing back against you. Both, for me, enrich the experience and in almost all cases are a requirement for me.

I’ve begun listening to the Ludology Podcast recently. In one episode, Geoff Engelstein wisely notes that planning far ahead and thinking strategically is one skill. However, he noted that being able to manage unpredictable elements is another skill. Often, I feel people in our hobby think that  interaction and things that interrupt a good plan diminish the game’s skillful input, but I disagree. You’re just choosing a different style of mental exercise.

In his review of Relic Runners, a game with very little luck, Quinns said the following two things that removed all interest I had for playing the game:

Relic Runners is a tremendously tricky game that’s built almost entirely from perfect information, meaning you know exactly what the consequences of your actions will be, allowing you to plan for your next turn. And the turn after that. And the turn after that.”

And:

“In other words, Relic Runners is a both game where the more time you spend telescoping your turns outward in your head, the better you’ll do, but where no other player is invested in your actions when you eventually decide on them. These two factors come together in a tiny disaster- about half of the turns I took felt like compromises, brought on either by social pressure to not slow down the game, or by my own inability to calculate whether – for example – with an ability to move two paths, I could perform a colossal, game-winning Relic Run.”

This element of perfect information, of solving the game, of extreme predictability, just doesn’t excite me. I want my opponents invested in my turn. I want to evoke an “oh no!” or “ah ha!” based on my decision.

I realize that citing an extreme case is a lazy way to prove my argument. Potentially, though, not as lazy as quoting another author’s words to say it for me. But, I’m trying to prove not that you’re wrong, just help elaborate why it isn’t interesting for me.

Some of my favorite games that also demonstrate my points include:

  • Summoner Wars: Order of drawing, dice-driven combat results
  • Robinson Crusoe: Inventions, Event cards, die roll on adventures
  • Ascension: What’s in the center? What is your opponent taking?
  • Dragon Heart: If you draw the worst cards, how can you trick and mislead your opponent?
  • Legacy: So many cards, so many variables. How shall you make this generation thrive?
  • 1812 or 1775: The order in which certain cards are drawn has a massive impact. Key ones include the warships, for you or opponent. Also, dice!

In conclusion, when I play a game, I’m not interested in planning out a strategy and slowly executing it precisely. I want to pick a direction, sure, but react and evolve accordingly based on every tree that falls in my path. I want to be a problem solver or fixer. I’ll leave deep planning to the armchair quarter backs. Me? Put me in the fray.

This is a more comparable model to our world, which games often simulate, and makes for a sweeter victory. Perhaps, I’m just not very patient or intelligent? Feel free to heap derision upon me in the comments below!

Reverse Engineering

24345771_1

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A story theme I enjoy in science fiction is when a supreme species gives a lesser species a technology to wield. The lesser species doesn’t understand the technology. They can’t recreate it or repair it. They just know how to use it and often, with disastrous consequences.

Game designers are often the lesser species. We imitate without understanding.

A great deal of game design is derivative. It just is, and that’s fine. The key is to add a twist, craft a unique whole, or abstract things differently. For example, I saw a opportunity to create a shorter, multiplayer war-game and York, a game with many unique elements, emerged. Will it win an innovation award? No. Well, it might, but I would cock an eyebrow at the nomination.

As we design and create new experiences based on or inspired by existing mechanics, it is essential that we fully understand the source material. To reverse engineer something, you must fundamentally understand the original. You cannot be the foolish lesser species.

This requires patience, study, and thoughtful examination. You can essentially tuck it in with so many other design lessons that are learned through experience, failure, and trying again.

Far too often, especially with the recent explosion in our design community, I play far too many games that just seem to miss the point. I’m guilty of it myself! My first design was a horrid conglomeration of RiskMonopoly, and Catan, but it didn’t pay proper homage to any of them. It was a shallow farce. Blockade used a ridiculous dice mechanic that has nothing to do with space combat and it was so confusing for players. Eventually, I had to recognize what it was, what it wasn’t, and evolve accordingly.

Likewise, in the wake of Dominion came an avalanche of shallow, derivative games that didn’t understand why Dominion is great. Same with the  post-Magic CCGs. You can find this in worker placement, set collection, you name it.

Therefore, how do we reverse engineer properly? How do we gain an understanding of our inspirations?

Firstly, you must play games in that genre to a great extent. Play many of them. Play them repeatedly. You will begin to see a common thread that links the good ones. You’ll also begin to understand the extremes of the mechanic. War games, for example, range from weekend-long, rigorous simulations of a real life battle. They can also focus on a few fictional space fighter craft duking it out during a half hour. Both of these experiences are derived from the same point and it’s important to understand both, at least somewhat, before you can jump in the middle with your own creation.

Secondly, look to the point of decision in these games. Look at where a player is making a choice and what their choice entails. Let’s look at some examples. Note that I’m making some quick, succinct generalizations for the sake of brevity.

  • In a push-your-luck dice game, (Zombie Dice, King of Tokyo), a player is choosing what dice to keep and whether to roll for something risky. They are managing chaos. The joy from these games comes from the adrenaline of “oh my god I rolled that!” and “Should I try to roll for that?”
  • In a worker placement game (Caylus, Lords of Waterdeep), a player is choosing what they want most versus what their opponent needs most. The tension that emerges from potentially losing the spot you desire and the joy of accomplishing a series of unlikely placements is important to preserve.
  • In a CCG (Netrunner, Magic: The Gathering), players experience joy from crafting a deck that matches their style or personality. Players love “breaking” the game and finding exploits. A good CCG should cause someone to shout “I can’t believe this combo exists!”
  • In a tactics game (Memoir ’44, Summoner Wars, Krosmaster: Arena), players enjoy directing a limited number of units to outmaneuver and outwit an enemy. Choices focus on who to move, when, who to target, and in many games, what special (and limited) resources to spend. If you have one devastating artillery barrage, when is the right time to use it?

That is an entirely incomplete listing of game types and it surely isn’t the final word on those game types. But hopefully, I’ve begun to make my point?

Thirdly, you need to examine how your hook or unique twist leverages, strengthens, and preserves the core elements that makes the experience delightful. Your improvements won’t be, ideally, cheap layers, complexity, and fluff.

If your mouse trap still just captures a mouse, but now requires a buffet of 6 different cheeses, a wine pairing, and a velvet coated trap, you haven’t made a better mouse trap. You’ve just added window dressing and complexity. As you reverse engineer, never forget the original intent of the device. Be sure that your new and improved widget accomplishes the same thing but newly so. New doesn’t mean more. New doesn’t mean added complexity.

Fourthly, after your game is relatively settled with core mechanics and a decent tuning pass, sit down and play it side-by-side to your favorite similar game. Discuss with your testers whether you hit the right notes and drive the right emotions.

This is a difficult topic to convey, and frankly I’m not convinced I’ve conveyed it. Perhaps a summary statement will cap this properly?

Seek to understand your inspirations fully. Do not mimic cheaply or thoughtlessly, but embrace that which makes them special and enhance in a meaningful way.

The Cup Doth Runneth Overeth

overflowing-glass-347x285

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This is a post I’ve probably written before, but it’s a lesson that bears repeating. Honestly, it’s one of the most difficult things for junior and advanced designers alike to keep in mind. As I was just reminded of it myself, I wanted to attempt to remind you.

When designing a game, never forget that your players will only be able to process so many concepts and elements. Never forget that their cup, their mind, will fill up. They will be overwhelmed at some point and it is YOUR sacred responsibility to manipulate the contents of their cup so that you go up to, but do not exceed, 100%.

Think of distinct components as a pie chart. Think about all the little elements you have, then consider what you think is most important. If your battle system is your coolest, most unique feature, it may take up 40% of your player’s mind space. It’ll require 40% of their learning efforts. That means you have 60% for everything else.

Here are some common things in games that you may not realize fill your players’ cups:

  • Number of resources or currencies.
  • Number of steps in a turn.
  • Number of phases in a round.
  • Whether the steps in a turn must be taken in order, or in any order.
  • Number of distinct mechanics, unique or established.
  • Number of variables on a card.
  • Distribution of a card in a deck — it matters to some and it’s something to consider.
  • Probabilities of a die roll. Is it 1/6? 1/36? How many types of dice do you use (d4/d6/d6/d10/d10)?
  • Take the previous bullet and twist it up a notch if you use custom dice.
  • Number of different card decks or card types.
  • Number of places to look with their eyes. In York, players examine the board (spatial relationships, changes constantly), their hand of cards (changes every round), and their reference board (used less with future plays, but overwhelming initially).

One of my favorite personal examples of reducing complexity in a design is my turn order choice for Battle for York. My combat system was complex and had quite a few moving parts. I knew I needed to reduce complexity. I didn’t want turn order to be a strong factor in the game, nor did I want it to be a decision point. After experimenting with multiple semi-complex solutions, I arrived at the simplest: purely random. Some disagree with it, and that’s fine, but ultimately, I was able to lower the complexity to the point of not overwhelming my target audience.

The amount of complexity people can handle is entirely relative. I consider myself an expert gamer, yet Terra Mystica was too much for me. I entirely ignored the cultist track, knowing full well it would cost me the game (it did). I just didn’t care, as I was at my maximum capacity. When teaching City of Remnants, at the point I arrived at battles my friend simply asked me to stop. “Can we just play the game? I’m not retaining anything more at this point.” He’s getting his PhD in theoretical computer science. He isn’t stupid. Hell, my mom was initially overwhelmed with Coloretto. It’s not a matter of ignorance or mental capability. People just hit a point at which they can’t take more.

I can’t remember who said this, but I think it’s Eric Lang, Geoff Englestein, and I’ve certainly heard Corey Young promote it. Consider adding only 1, or 2 at most, unique mechanics to your experience. The rest can be twists, or even comfortable classics. If everything is new, even a tiny mechanic, the amount of mind (or cup) space it occupies just skyrockets.

In case you’re curious, the reason for this post came about when I plugged in my last hole for Draftaria’s initial design last night. My game has a few mechanics. The biggest and most complex one is my unique element, a combination of a few mechanics presented in a new way. I think it’s cool. I then use a drafting mechanic, lifted verbatim from every drafting game, but the content you’re drafting is a little different. Remember, even light twists occupy more mind space. Thirdly, I have some light resource management with a single currency. You obtain it, then buy things with it. Very standard.

I needed to figure out how to resolve conflict. The game avoids violence, but there is trouble to resolve and conflict that must be fixed. I wanted a system that wasn’t deterministic and would lead to multiple outcomes. I kept designing and conceiving wild, complex, and new things. However, I recognized that this game already has that. It’s the thing I mentioned in the previous paragraph. So, I went with simple. You’ll roll some dice, they’ll do a thing. The dice will be standard, pipped, six-sided dice.

For the briefest of instants I thought, “man, that’s a bit underwhelming.” Then, I remembered that the rest of my game shall whelm my players. Conflict resolution isn’t the focus and it should be simple. The cup is now full, but not overflowing.

To quickly wrap this up, remember to consider your target audience. Remember that everything slowly chips away at your players’ abilities to play and remember. Remember to go up to the brim of your cup, but never over. Finally, don’t be afraid to simplify and stick to the status quo for some aspects of your design in order to excel and wow with others.

Thoughts?

Catch Up, Now

14700106-athletes-on-the-4-x-100-meters-relay-race-on-the-iaaf-world-junior-championships-on-july-13-2012-in-

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Game design peer and fellow farming game designer Doug Bass of Meridae Games asked me the following on Twitter:

Ask

To this, I answered yes. Free topic? Oh yeah. He then asked:

Ask2

Interesting. This isn’t something I’ve explicitly thought about much, but it’s something I imagine I incorporate quite a bit into my designs. Let’s get into it, shall we?

What is a Catch Up Mechanic?

A catch up mechanic is something that exists in the game in order to keep things close and tight until the very end. It’s also referred to rubber-banding as someone can get stretched way far back, then slung forward to the front.

One of the most obvious examples of this can be seen in Mario Kart, the video game. Often, the player in the lead will get weak power ups when in first place. However, the player in last place will tend to get ridiculously powerful abilities. As a result, if you’re in 1st, you need to be good to stay there. This levels the playing field when unevenly skilled players are at it, adds a layer of strategy when advanced players are at it, and frustrates whiners.

To summarize, the catch up mechanic exists to keep one player from sprinting ahead early and staying there. After all, if everyone knows who is going to win 15 minutes into the game, the next 45 minutes (or more) won’t be fun for anyone.

Bad Catching

In general, a catch up mechanic will be very frustrating for players more interested in player skill and serious competition when playing. It’ll generally make them feel as if their good play was useless as a bad player can simply catch back up by merely failing the most.

I’d also argue that bad catch up mechanics can be gamed or used as a form of strategy. Generally speaking, you want the player who wins to be the one who played the best (augmented by some degree of luck, which is up to the designer). I think a bad catch up mechanic is one that can be gamed such that savvy players deliberately play poorly knowing they can abuse a catch up mechanic skillfully in order to take the top spot. Granted, if you like such a strategy, perhaps implement it not as a catch up mechanic but an alternate path to victory. It’s a philosophical point, but an important one.

Some Simple, Good Examples

A few simple examples of relatively simple, light catch up mechanics in games include:

  • Altering turn order. The value of turn order changes for every game, but it typically revolves around being first or being last. Some games will put the player with the most points in the least advantageous turn order.
  • Target the leader. In the case of ties, you’ll see some punitive game events target the leader, or in the case of ties, the leader will suffer the worst.
  • Light Bonus. If a player has a bad round, he gains a small bonus to improve his chances in the following round. In The Speicherstadt, players get 1 additional coin at the end of the round if they don’t win any auctions. This is usually not by choice and is such a tiny advantage it doesn’t upset the game. It gives them another tool, not a trophy.
  • Incentivize Abilities. In Alien Frontiers, the Raiders’ Outpost costs 3 dice in a straight. It’s not the easiest to pull off. Furthermore, it’s not really a useful action for the player in the lead. It is, however, great for a player who has nothing else to lose and needs to get back in the game.

Avoiding Entirely

I generally don’t think to add catch up mechanics to my games. But, I do generally design for close games that come down until the very end before it’s decided. Typically, I do this by limiting player resources and actions. It doesn’t matter how far ahead you are, if you only have so many actions, you can only accomplish so much.

For example, in Farmageddon, players can only play a maximum of 2 Action cards. This means everyone has an equal shake to upset the game. Furthermore, players who get an early start with big crop harvests (Wary Squash is worth $15) often spend a lot of resources to do so. Foreclosure consumes 1-2 crop cards just to use, Crop Rotation costs 1 Crop to use, Foul Manure often costs 2 crops to use, and Wary Squash requires 4 crops to harvest. That means Bob might be way ahead, but he’s also out of gas. I’ve seen players go 3 full rounds without planting anything in Farmageddon come out on top. Every turn matters until the very end.

I limit players in York similarly. For example, all players have a maximum of 15 Units and only a few actions with which to move them. Sure, you can spread thin to hold more territory, but you’ll be an easy target for wolfish opponents. All combat results in attrition, so even if a player wins a battle, he’ll likely need to slow down to replenish Units before returning to the offensive. Finally, there are only 2 scoring rounds, which are spread apart. You may get ahead early, but you’ll need to continue for 3 more rounds before scoring again. A great deal can happen in that time.

Often, when I play a game that feels like a foregone conclusion for much of the experience, I don’t feel it’s in need of a catch up mechanic, but often a little more balance in its core.

Action cards are often a good way to keep everyone in the game, especially powerful, decisive ones. In Forbidden Desert, players gain really powerful cards that essentially multiply the effectiveness of typical actions, but in a very limited sense. If used properly, these help keep the players in the game without removing a challenge.

Another example are the ship/water movement cards in the Birth of America series, specifically 1812: Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion. One side may be dominating a particular area, making it nigh impenetrable by land. Except, the other side will use a warship to ferry an army around your lines to disturb the stalemate. Was it fair? Sure, you knew they had it and that they could use it. You have them too! But, is it a catch up mechanic per se? No. It just keeps the game interesting and eliminates the runaway leader problem.

Having multiple resources is often a good way to keep the race fair. For example, in Settlers of Catan, players will have good resources for 1 or 2 of the resources, but not all of them. This forces trade or expensive dock trade-ins. A player rich in wood will only be rich for so long. In order to build things, she’ll need to part with it in trade.

Another simple way is to use resources to gain resources. Sure, I have a pile of gold. If you force me to spend it to acquire other things, that’ll cap my lead somewhat. This is largely based on tuning, but if you force a constant amount of inputs, nobody can get too far ahead.

It also may be the case that your game simply doesn’t need a catch up mechanic. If the game is short enough, or the information regarding scoring is hidden, you may not need such a mechanic. Often times, the perception of being in the game is just as viable as actually being in the game. In Modern Art, nobody knows how much money everyone else has. Plus, there are so many ways to win that game. I’ve played many times and revealed at the end thinking I was a competitor, only to find I was hundreds of dollars from the winning slot. Did I mind? No, because I had fun the entire time.

In Conclusion

Some easy tricks to keep things fair are to change turn order or give very slight bonuses. You can also implement bigger, lower level changes like introducing hidden scoring or allowing for dynamic action cards.

At the end of the day, really think about how players will win the game and what is required of them. Focus on mechanics that keep your players engaged for the duration and limit everyone so that no one player can keep dominating everyone unless you want that.

Ultimately, if you feel your game needs a catch up mechanic, look deeper than the symptoms to find the root case. You may not be in need of a band-aid addition, but a more fundamental change to improve the game.

How did I do, Doug? And everyone else? If you have any good examples of catch up mechanics, share them. If you know of some bad ones, share those too. Chime in! 

Public Information and You

PublicInformationHelmetStickerHH0039

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of the most important lessons I took home this year was how to properly use public information in my designs. Battle for York is full of public information, specifically, the abilities of your faction and location of your armies.

One of York’s greatest flaws is a direct result of this public information, magnified by the number of factions. Players are constantly leaning over the table asking “what can you do?” and then 3 minutes later, “What can you do again?” It’s the wrong way to handle public information.

There are some signs of bad public information:

  • The information is critical to all players. If I need to know everything you have or can do, then that info should be in front of me. I define critical as it being something that will greatly impact and affect the decisions of others. For example, abilities for a deterministic battle system (ex: York).
  • There is too much information. If I address the above point by showing you everything…you now know everything. Everything can be a lot. Folks will disagree, but I find Smallworld‘s reference sheet entirely overwhelming.

pic1731030_md

  • The information is text and/or exception driven. It isn’t just a few facets, but a great deal. Soon, players’ cups will runneth over.
  • To complement the above point, the most important thing people need to know IS the text, not other, more easily consumed statistics.

Before I use my own designs as anecdotal examples, I thought I’d point out some examples of good, AAA public information.

Summoner Wars: Basically every card (i.e. unit) has text that grants it a special ability and rule exception. But, there are a few reasons this works just fine.

pic1706462_md

  • A unit’s attack power, and whether it’s ranged or melee, are easy to see. These are really important regardless of the exception.
  • All similar commons share the same information, which means if you learn it once, you learn it multiple times.
  • Movement and attack rules are, by and large, the same across the board (with some exceptions).
  • The cards are on the board face up when in play, not tucked away in front of a player. This makes them easy to view.

To be fair, the first time or two you play a faction, you’ll play a little slower checking things out. But, I do not think that is a problem with how they present the information, but the fact that, hey, it’s an asymmetric, faction-based game.

The Speicherstadt: Over the course of the game, players amass many cards (up to a dozen or more) of varying types. This could be very confusing, but it’s not.

pic1754949_md

  • The cards a player has acquired will influence his future decisions, but they won’t grant new powers or change the core interactions of the game. A contract might inform you “Grant needs green cubes,” but Grant will still interact in the same way (third person apparently).
  • The cards have no text, other than a few numbers. They use very simple, well-designed iconography.
  • Many of the cards, once used, don’t matter for the rest of the game. With the exception of one card (the Port), once a player claims a ship, it no longer factors into the game.

The two most important pieces of public information you need to know are how much money a player has, and how many workers he has left to place.

Applying My Lessons

Looking at York as a guide post for something that wasn’t quite working (but can be solved), I started applying these lessons to my current games. Mars Rising uses a lot of simple tricks to simplify the fact everything is public in the game.

  • When a defensive ability (like shields) is active, you place a token on the board. The other player can still ask for specifics, but ultimately this informs at a glance “This squadron will be harder to kill.”
  • Squadrons that have already attacked (once per round) have a marker, so you know you don’t need to worry about them shooting you in the immediate future.
  • Squadrons that have used an ability (once per round) have a marker, so you know you don’t need to worry about any funny business in the immediate future.
  • Ship classes generally define behavior. Interceptors shoot fighters. Destroyers are very flexible, but not particularly strong in any one area. Battlecruisers kill capital ships. People can eyeball a squadron and instantly know “they do this” without needing to know, specifically, the stats.
  • Current formations are shown with a token on the board. The rules surrounding formations are very simple. If I see a wedge formation, I know what it means.

Most importantly, your opponent’s information isn’t necessarily critical to your success. They can’t do anything on your turn. The goal is typically to destroy the enemy, with some exceptions for scenarios. Therefore, it’s most important to know what YOU can do and decide who to destroy.

Flipped, similarly, has a great deal of public information that doesn’t hinder the game. Yes, I see your properties. If I know you’re heavily invested in downtown, I can use that information to evaluate whether I want to go there and whether our clients’ end goals coincide or conflict. If I can hinder your score, then I might go there. Furthermore, knowing where you intend to develop aids my strategy towards manipulating the contractors. If I know you’re developing in downtown, I know whether we’ll be jockeying over the contractors and the movement penalty.

The other driving factor is that, in line with many euro games, I can only hinder and affect you so much. Yes, we’re vying for properties (timing on acquisition) and trying to support our neighborhood bonuses, but there’s only so much I can do in order to ruin your day. The game is about efficiency, optimization, and taking advantage of opportunities. Not hurting others. Therefore, I use your public information to guide my decisions, not to crush you.

Finally, I found it’s much simpler to place the cards in front of me so I can plan out my improvement schedule and the work that needs doing. I didn’t like holding cards in my hand and referencing them. It was unnecessary secrecy.

In both of these new games, someone with chronic AP could chew on the information for some time. But, that person would do this with a private hand of cards, or even a dice roll. The key in dealing with AP folks is to mitigate their sickness, not seek to solve it. There is no cure, as noted by the World Health Organization and seconded by the UN.

In closing, some good public information tips.

  • Public information works better in games where your decisions revolve mostly around what YOU are doing, not others’ decisions.
  • Good public information is simple and can often be represented with symbols. Lengthy text is best left to private information.
  • Use simple aids and reminders to tell people the most important aspects. Often, they don’t need to know everything. Think of the attack rating in Summoner Wars, or the defensive marker in Mars Rising.
  • Public information tends to work better with fewer players.

What are some of your favorite examples of good public information? Any additional tips? What did I get wrong? Share in the comments!

Make the Experience, Scrap the Rest

stihl-chainsaws-three-little-pigs-small-91596

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Although not conceived as such, I realized this blog post is more or less a continuation of a previous post, Foundationing. By that, I mean being able to do the thing I state at the end is much simpler if the core of your experience is solid.

Earlier today, I tweeted the following (re-arranged here to be read top down):

#1

#2

Experience First

I’ve always designed with my experience goals in mind first and foremost. All designers come at the point of creation somewhat differently, but you can more or less boil things down to one of the two primary approaches:

  • I have a cool mechanic and I want to make a game with it.
  • I really love this theme and want to make a game with it.

Experience first, to me at least, has some of the fluffiness of the thematic approach, with a few of the nuts and bolts of the mechanical. Let’s use Blockades experience for an example.

  • Players are put in the role of a sci-fi fleet commander.
  • 45 minutes or less. That reigns in complexity.
  • Lots of dice – This means dice based mechanics, but also the inclusion of luck that, for my tastes at least, needs to be balanced with non-luck decisions.
  • Can I do something neat with formations?
  • There is a balance between capital ships and fighters, both present.

That was the start of the game. To this day, it continues to be the heartbeat that drives my design and decision making. Hold onto this thought while I briefly segue.

Darlings

“Be willing to kill your darlings” is a common design saying that more or less means: be willing to let go of things in your design, no matter how much you love them, that detract from the quality of the game.

I’ve always boldly thumped my chest about being really good at this. Honestly, I am, but only for a part of it. There are a few kinds of darlings:

  • Scope Creep: Additional features that can be added or lopped off without compromising the game. Example: In York I always wanted to add naval elements or commander Units. I resisted and held them at bay.
  • Means to an End: You may have a really clever mechanic that does what you need it to do. It may not be perfect (few are from the start). But, you tweak, and twist, and massage, and tweak, and try to make it the thing you want it to be. This is where I fail.

This second bullet is a real bugger and it’s something with which I’ve had a massive realization lately. Be it York or Blockade, I’ve desperately clung to some legitimately good ideas by refining them for months (and in the case of York, years), instead of returning to the experience and asking myself: Is this the best, most fun, simplest, and most unique way to do this?

Put another way: Sure, this is good. But is it good enough?

For Blockade, I have a few of these mechanical darlings that I’m killing in favor of ideas that are already better and simpler. For example:

  • My color-based d6 mechanic to convey weapon strength was neat, but it was obtuse for new people, increased the number of components needed, and required additional reference material to explain.
  • I was forcing a lot of awkward, fiddly behaviors into my formation mechanic. There’s a much similar way to get to the same experience.
  • And others…

I always stated that really interesting battles were the focus of York, yet I never fundamentally revised the battle mechanic. I tweaked it, patched it, and added new layers, such as defensive abilities, factions, and unique content. But I never stepped back to ask: Is this the coolest, most fun, simplest battle mechanic for York?

It’s a question I should have asked a long time ago.

The Crucial Bits

At the outset of your design, whether you want it to be about space-ships or have an innovative worker placement mechanic involving yo-yos, think of the experience you wish to deliver.

What is the vibe you wish your game to convey? What is the one thing you hope players will leave the table thinking after a play of <your game>? Who is the game intended to please? Your goals may vary, and there’s definitely a bit more nuance involved, but these are some nice high level morsels to use as a launch point.

If you can answer these questions at the beginning and middle of the project, your end may result in something you actually want to play and, fingers crossed, somebody else wants to publish.

But, be willing to kill your darlings. This means cutting things your design doesn’t need, but also, replacing a mechanic with another one that arrives at the same destination, but better.

If a mechanic just works, don’t settle. Your mechanic should thrive and if a few tests don’t show great promise, scrap it for something different. Most of your ideas are going to be Cs and Bs. If and when you hit the ceiling, be ready to acknowledge that and explore new ways to fill that hole.

Push yourself and your game. Be willing to experiment, especially when your experience is a special one.

What Makes Ze Euro?

lederhol

Post by: Grant Rodiek

During my commute this morning I began thinking about Flipped and realized I may not be fully designing against the principles that make a Euro, well, a Euro. One of my goals for Flipped is for it to be a light, accessible euro, which means it’s something I’ve never designed before.

What is it, then, that makes a euro? This is a well tread topic and something that can be discussed forever. But, it’s always useful to reconsider “solved” topics within the lens of what is pertinent to your needs. I need Flipped to be a fun euro, so I see relevance here. Keep in mind, these are just my opinions based on what makes a successful euro, viewed through the lens of what I want for Flipped. Feel free to disagree (and chime in with comments).

Here are the characteristics I think are most important.

Systematically driven mechanics before content driven mechanics. This means many things, but most importantly, it means I don’t have huge reference cards laden with text, or 50 different cards that cannot be explained with simple icons. Yes, I know many euros use icons in order to be language independent, but it is also indicative of the clean, systematic design principles of euro game creators.

Euros have a few core mechanics with very few, if any, exceptions, that govern the entire experience. You’re learning a system, a simple body of rules in which to play, not details and minutiae. For example, in Ticket To Ride, cards have a color. You use colors to build trains and connect routes. Building trains earns points. Connect long networks earns more points. You don’t have different types of trains, or action cards. You have a narrow set of choices within a system that present a surprising amount of depth.

Interaction driven by scarcity, not aggression. This will be difficult for me! Farmageddon is very aggressive with its take-that action cards. Blockade and Battle for York are quite aggressive as they are war games. I think interaction is important for any game, but for a euro, you need to be fighting over limited resources and opportunities, not engaging in full-on fisticuffs.

By scarcity, I mean there are only so many resources. Only so many cards. Just a few slots to fill. Timing is everything and it really comes down to what you think you need the most and when you think you can wait to take it. I enjoy aggressive games. I think a euro can be aggressive, but really it’s a twist in a very “public relations” style fashion. I bet if you hooked up heart-rate monitors for two identical games, but in one game said “I’m attacking you” and in the other said “I’m buying this before you,” you’d get two very different emotional spikes from your test subject.

A euro is about competition, interaction, theft, and plans gone awry, but is NOT aggressive or mean. It’s just business, really. The Speicherstadt is probably my favorite interactive euro. You can overbid someone or buy something they really wanted. You still get the “you bastard!” vibe but without all the hurt and pain of a take-that.

Friendly, positive, optimistic theme. I’m sure you can make a post-apocalyptic auction game about buying parts to manufacture mutant armies, but I think a good euro is more optimistic, bright-eyed, and positive about the world. I think it’s important to build something, not tear things down.

Good euros let you build a kingdom, build a business, or win an election. These are all positive, spirited outcomes, and I think that’s an important distinction.

One of the reasons euros like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan sell so well is that they are positive and nourishing. This is important for all people of all ages and genders and maturity levels, not just the commonly targeted 18-24 male demographic. Building things is accessible. Tearing things down is more niche.

Player choices determine the winner far more than luck. With euros I think randomness is still fine, but it should serve the purpose of adding variance to choices, not varying outcomes. Euros, to me, are more about out-thinking an opponent, far more than out-drawing and out-rolling an opponent.

Euros reward identifying a weakness in an opponent’s strategy or taking advantage of an overlooked opportunity. Euros reward cleverness, sly rogues, and analytical chaps. They don’t tend to reward the bold, Patton-esque jerk who often quotes Clausewitz and Theodore Roosevelt.

Subtlety. Planning. Strategy.

Multiple paths to victory and/or ways to score points. This is the difficult one. There need to be a few ways to go about the big V, but, in my opinion, these ways need to be thematic and intuitive. Many euros are criticized for being a “point salad” that reward every single possible thing you can do.

How many strategies are required? How many make sense? How many layers are needed to reward advanced players? This is something I can only answer through testing and development. I don’t want players to feel they’ve mastered it after just a few plays, so ideally we’ll identify opportunities for new scoring paths as we test.

What are some things that you think are required for a euro?

Good Theme

midsummer-nights-dream-at-st-elizabeth-1024x682

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Theme in board games is arguably the most misunderstood and conversational topics in our design space. Ignoring the “theme versus mechanics” approach to design argument, many designers, myself included, are constantly flustered and left head scratching when someone says one game is so thematic, yet another is soulless and empty. Or worse, the dreaded “the theme is pasted on” comment.

What does it mean for a game to be thematic? What are the components or decisions one needs to make to ensure he or she avoids the label of “abstract?” I have some ideas and after I share them, I’m curious to know what you think.

Your game should be a theme that people like. People love to joke “add zombies” when commenting on theme. And they are right.

In my experience, when someone says “this game has great theme,” what they are really saying is “This game happens to have a theme I enjoy.” I designed York from the ground up with Napoleonic Warfare guiding every decision. I know this time-period isn’t for everyone, but I feel it’s thematic.

One of my testers once told me the game was “rather abstract.” I had multiple phone calls with him discussing this, trying to get at the root of the problem. Eventually, I found out he just didn’t like the Napoleonic stuff. For a few months the game became the science fiction game Dawn Sector. Changing nothing other than the background story (i.e. instead of a civil war on a Russia-like continent it is factions fighting over a new planet), he suddenly said “great theme!”

People like Cthuhlu, zombies, mechs, super heroes and orcs. If you’re going for theme, if that is a goal, consider using a theme that is widely recognized as something theme-oriented people love. I’ll tell you right now, I’m the only person who considers York thematic as a Napoleonic game and that’s because I’ve read extensively on both the history and fiction of the time. It’s thematic to me. Were it zombies? My game would be more thematic. It’s science.

images

Have great art. I believe strongly that great art is essential for any game, but having great art strengthens a player’s thematic resonance with a game. Board games can and should present players with a story of sorts that is interactive. Imagery helps fill the pages of that story in your players’ heads.

mice

Look at games like Mice and Mystics. There is so much art and it is so good that it just reinforces the thematic nature of the game. Your cards, board, box, and rules are all opportunities to begin the story that your players will experience.

Make sure your art is detailed. Create scenes, characters, and moments. For example, look at the detail on the soldier below, illustrated by John Ariosa. Look at his wrapped shoes and tattered cloak. Look at his beard with dabs of gray. Look at his eyes, on the verge of tears, and creases in his face. This guy has been through the ringer. He has a story.

GreenInf

Another game with outstanding art is Gubs from Gamewright. This game tells a story with every card.

pic1257031_md

On the other hand, here’s a card from Ginkopolis. Beautiful, but it’s just a building. I’m not sure what its story is or why I should care.

Games with theme have great art filled with great characters and moments.

Mechanics exist for a fictional reason. This is difficult to do, and may lead to a fiddly experience, but your mechanics should exist for a fictional reason. They need to be rooted in some sort of fiction or reality (if you’re creating a simulation). This might be a subtle difference.

  • Thematically bad: Players lose 1 coin every round to make the game harder.
  • Thematically good: Players lose 1 coin to pay rent every round. It costs money to live in NYC and create art.

That’s a lazy, quickly thrown together example but perhaps you get my point?

Sometimes this is something you handle in the conceptual stage of a game. Sometimes it is merely a layer you add while refining how to present the experience. Sometimes, for the sake of the experience, you need to create mechanics that may not be as fictionally rooted.

For example, I created a rule in York where players could not build forts on city tiles. This was needed for the fun of the game. However, it’s a bit strange fictionally. If not a fort, couldn’t militants fortify a street in a city? It happens in Les Miserable, right?

There are also cases where a mechanic exists for a fictional reason but the way in which you implement it causes some thematic disconnect. Again, in York, the guerrilla faction has the ability to essentially move units across the map rapidly. This is an abstraction of cave networks seen in places like Afghanistan and Vietnam, but also, it’s an abstraction of the notion that guerrilla militants are always where you least expect them. I think the effect is fictionally sound, but the step-by-step implementation is definitely off-putting to some. “Why can these guys teleport?” testers ask. Le sigh!

Here’s how I tend to go about this question for my games. I consider the setting, the actions someone in that setting would take, then I try to think of the simplest and most mechanically interesting way that could be presented. It’s a bit of a hybrid that I think serves me well, but also won’t earn me either thematic praise or thematic slams. I think I tend to fall in the middle?

It’s a slider. If you create something more for the story, you’ll probably earn more theme points. If you create something more for the mechanics, you’ll probably be less thematic. The goal is to hit the sweet spot of something that’s thematic, but also fun to play and easy to learn.

Give players a clearly established character or point of view. Make it clear through your rules/introduction and also the decisions a player makes that they are a character in the world. Give them a reasonable point of view.

In Ginkgopolis I’m apparently a city builder, but nothing about the minute to minute mechanics really reinforces this. It isn’t a great thematic connection.

But, in Farmageddon, I think it’s clear that every player is a farmer. Plant crops, harvest crops, screw with your neighbors. In Memoir ’44 you feel like a captain guiding your men. In Mice and Mystics you are one of the characters fighting through the story. In Modern Art, you are an art collector trying to profit from buying and selling works. I think Modern Art is actually really thematic, but it isn’t a “fun” theme and its art is a tinge dry, but man, you feel like an art buyer.

Give players a point of view that’s relevant, that’s backed up by the actions you give the player, and makes sense.

Use fun components. People love to rail against miniatures, but they work. So do custom dice, custom cut meeples, and anything remotely 3 Dimensional for your board (see: King of Tokyo). The more you can get away from bland cubes, the more toy-like an experience, the greater your chance for a thematic game.

VA61-layout

I will argue that people who tend to be thematically oriented are also component fiends. Look at Fantasy Flight’s core consumer and you know what I’m talking about. Their production values are off the charts and they don’t release anything that’s remotely abstract.

Plaid Hat Games also takes their components and theme very seriously. Look at Mice and Mystics or City of Remnants. Tons of custom dice, miniatures, glorious art, and more.

If you take your theme seriously, be prepared for a bump in MSRP. Experiment with cool components. Find ways to go beyond the cube. One potential publisher for York suggested we use punchboard squares to represent units. For one, it helps on the price somewhat, but secondly, with every square we can draw the Unit. Think about how thematic and cool Smallworld is visually.

Here’s the Summary: Thematic games look great, are full of design elements driven by the setting and story more than mechanics and are typically about a theme loved by people who love theme.

What do you think?