Category Archives: Board Game Design

What They Don’t Know Can’t Hurt

Loopdy, my game that’s currently in development, has been play tested many times. One common complaint is that in the 6 player game, player 6 is at a significant disadvantage to everyone else.

Easy fix, just give player 6 some bonus points and all is good. So, I got to testing. I played the game 10 times over, calculating averages. My best estimate is a 3 point bonus to player 6, and I am certain the correct number exists between 2 and 5.

However, in my research I also found many other advantages and disadvantages in player position. The disadvantage of player 6 is no more significant than some of the others I’ve found, but the most appropriate thing to do now, is pretend I didn’t see it.

What the Eye Don’t See, the Chef Gets Away With

Player 6’s disadvantage is obvious. In a game where everyone gets 6 turns, player 6 only gets 5 turns. As for the other positions, you’d think they’d be the same. They’re not, but it took me ten games of playing against myself to see it.

Suppose I were to fix all the problems. Suppose I added a complex chart determining which player should have what point advantage depending on the number of players, as well as the most appropriate order for breaking ties in each case. Would it really be worth it? In Chess, white wins 55% of the time, but this problem never seemed to bother anyone, because it doesn’t look like white would win 55% of the time. Such a complex chart turns something that was once a fun and simple game into a mathematical game with pauses to look things up. Imagine everything was set up for a 4 player game and an extra player wanted to join, forcing everyone to look up the new chart for how to make the game fair.

Another advantage of my game that would be lost is age accessibility. My game is perfect for people who can count but not read, (providing you have someone who can read to teach you the rules.) Suppose I had a setup chart, the age of reading charts comes much later than the age of reading numbers and playing games. Now the game requires adult supervision to set up.

Suppose I Fixed Nothing. But player 6 clearly has a huge disadvantage! Can’t you see!? Having one tile less, that could cost him 16 points perhaps! How does he have any hope of catching up? Have you considered that? Did you put any effort into design when you made this game at all? Shouldn’t player 6 just give up now?

In my 10 sessions playing against myself, player 6 won once which is no more than I’d expect in 10 games, but reviewers don’t know that and customers don’t know that. I imagine a noteworthy reviewer saying, “The designer hadn’t considered that player 6 essentially has no chance of winning. I played it three times with my group and the person who was stuck with player 6 didn’t win any of them! I like what the designer is trying to do, but clearly more polish is required.”

By adding a point bonus to player 6, I’m saying to the players “I know player 6 is at a disadvantage, but it’s nowhere near as big as you think. Also, because of this rule, it no longer exists at all.” Sure, other players have a big advantage/disadvantage you don’t know about, I’ll mentally add to myself, but they haven’t received any complaints yet.

Moral of the Story

Perceived problems are worse than real problems. Real problems, no one will ever know exist, but perceived problems will hurt sales, cheapen victories and render the whole experience meaningless. Sometimes, instead of spending ages lecturing your child about the probability of monsters under the bed being the least life threatening risk he takes every night, it’s much easier to wave a stick under the bed and have him sleep comfortably knowing any monsters that could’ve been there are now scared away.

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Good Games Make Players Feel Smart

A puzzle can make someone feel smart once they’ve solved it. Trouble is, it only makes them feel a certain level of smart, that is, the amount of smart required to solve the puzzle. Many puzzle collections solve this problem by having puzzles at different difficulties, which requires a different amount of smartness for each puzzle.

A game between two people doesn’t work in quite the same way. This means that one game must make everyone feel smart, regardless of how experienced they are with the game.

To help an inexperienced player feel smart, the game must have obviously bad moves available. That way, instead of playing randomly while learning, the player can say, “Well I’m definitely not making THAT move!” or if they do make that move, they can say, “I see what I did wrong there. I’ll play better next time.” Either one of those situations results in the player feeling smart, as the outcome of the game feels related to their choices rather than their random guesses.

Once players become experienced, they stop making obviously bad moves. If the game is well designed, a new category of bad moves should now be visible to them. Bad moves that aren’t quite as obvious.

Games like chess achieve this quite well, with more and more bad moves becoming visibly bad as the player progresses. Sometimes, a move that looked bad to a beginner turns out to be good in a way that only an experienced player can appreciate.

If a game designer is lucky, their game will have levels of bad moves that even they haven’t noticed yet. I say lucky, because the only way to know what an advanced game of something will look like is to watch advanced players play it. Maybe the game will be fun for advanced players, or maybe it will become boring.

Although a game designer should strive to be very competent players of their own game, I don’t think the designers of chess would have stood a chance playing against the skilled chess masters of today. If people can outsmart you at your own game, it may mean you’re a poor player, but it can also means you’re a brilliant designer.

What do you think?
Do you agree? Did I miss something? Let me know.

Good Games Avoid Work

From an outside perspective, it may look like rolling dice, moving pieces, shuffling cards and adding numbers is fun. People seem to have a lot of fun while doing it. However, if that were the case, you wouldn’t even need a game. You could just have a grid, some game markers, some dice, a deck of cards and some math questions. People could gather around the table to move markers, roll dice, shuffle cards and calculate simple problems. However, this is not where the fun is.

Physical Work

If there’s no good reason for it, just the act of moving a piece can be annoying. You may argue that moving the piece is the fun of the game, but if this were true, you could double the fun of your favourite piece moving game by placing two pieces next to each other and moving each one separately. The fun is in what the piece signifies, not the motion of it. Good game designers keep the number of pieces that must be moved to a minimum, and it’s a design victory when they discover a way of achieving the same goal with less piece movement.

(Moving a physical piece can sometimes be more fun than watching a digital piece move. The fun still doesn’t come from the moving of the piece. The act of moving it symbolises “this is my piece and this is where I want it” in a way that watching a digital piece never could.)

Fiddly Work

In a game like Jenga, fiddly work is fun, because if someone knocks the pieces over, everyone else wins. If the same thing happens in chess, it’s not quite the same feeling. Fiddly work is similar to physical work, in that it takes time and energy, but fiddly work takes concentration also. Fiddly work issues can usually be solved by making the game bigger, and designing pieces such that they don’t fall over.

Mental Work

This will feel like a bit of a paradox, because mental work is the entire point of most games. Similar to the Jenga example, a game can be fun if the person who makes a calculation error loses. If the calculation error means the game no longer works and one player is suspected of cheating, the game stops being fun.

Shuffling

Not necessarily of cards, but shuffling has its own set of problems. Shuffling for too long causes the game to slow down. Not shuffling for long enough causes predictable distributions. This isn’t as much of a problem in a game where all the shuffling happens before play begins.

Setup

This is where most of the work usually is, and should be. It can be any combination of the above, but it can be done before most of the players arrive. This is particularly useful because all of the work can be performed by the eager host rather than the reluctant guests.

Communal Work

This can include all of the above, especially setup. Communal work is any task that doesn’t specify a player to perform it. It wouldn’t be a typical game of chess if the player playing black offered to move the white pieces also. In a game like monopoly it is normal for someone to, as well as play the game, perform the tasks of “banker”; managing the game’s supply of cash, deeds and houses. It is better, where possible, for work to be communal, to help the “eager host and reluctant guest” scenario.

Final Thoughts

I must stress how minor this issue is. Work is not like a pest to be eradicated, but more like a resource to be spent efficiently. Whether designing or purchasing a game, it’s good to be mindful of work and weigh it against the benefit it brings.

What do you think?

Is there any types of work I’ve missed? Do you disagree with anything I’ve said here? Let me know in the comments.

Good Games are Thematic (sometimes)

Theme can sometimes help, but sometimes hurt a game. It will probably do both, and it’s just a matter of comparing the two.

What is Theme?

Theme is the layer of meaning applied to a game. It is the story the game is trying to tell. Some games have more theme than others.

An example of a lightly themed game is checkers. This game is about two competing armies, with each soldier trying to live long enough to receive a promotion. Still, most players enjoy the game without even knowing it has a theme. Looking closely, it seems the theme was built around the game. Making a good game and adding a theme later is called the “bottom up” approach.

In more heavily themed games, the designer thinks of a theme and then tries to invent a game around it. This is the “top down” approach. A good example would be historical war games. In these games, the designer started by researching a real conflict and shaped the game to fit the facts.

Some games have no theme at all. If you try hard enough, you might be able to think of a real world situation where two enemies fought to get four of their objects in a row by dropping them down their choice of seven shafts, but the creators of Connect 4 didn’t bother with this. This game doesn’t come with any science fiction or fantasy explanation for what is going on in the game, but the game is still enjoyable. Games without theme are called “abstract games”.

How Can A Theme Help?

A Theme Can Make A Game Meaningful. As fun as it is to have five out of ten dice roll sixes and therefore remove five of your opponents markers, it’s even more fun to discover that a small squad of soldiers under your command managed to destroy five enemy tanks. The former is an interesting and improbable result. The latter is an epic tale to be remembered and retold in the years to come.

A Theme Can Make Rules Easier To Learn. Try to memorise the following rules:

Red pieces can move five spaces in a turn and if they land on a white piece, they can capture it. White pieces can move four spaces per turn, cannot capture red pieces, but can capture orange pieces. Green pieces can move one space per turn, cannot be captured, but can capture orange pieces. Orange pieces cannot move at all.

Those rules were a lot to take in, weren’t they? Try memorising them when I explain this way:

Foxes can move five spaces in a turn and if they land on a rabbit, they can eat it. Rabbits can move four spaces per turn, cannot eat foxes, but can eat carrots. Tortoises can move one space per turn, cannot be eaten, but can eat carrots. Carrots cannot move at all.

By adding theme, I made the rules make sense. Now that the rules make sense, they’re easier to remember.

A Theme Can Sell a Game. Imagine yourself shopping and see two games sitting side by side. One game is named “Vectors and Trajectories!”, showing arrows, circles and triangles. The other is named “Battle for Tortuga” and shows a man with a wooden leg, a hook, and an eye patch, wearing a large hat with the jolly roger logo. He is on an old wooden ship, yelling at the operator of a cannon, and he is pointing a sword in the same direction the cannon is facing.

Both boxes could contain exactly the same game, just with different artwork and differently named pieces. Even if you knew both were the same, you may still have a strong preference between them, depending on your own personal taste.

How Can A Theme Hurt?

A Theme Can Confuse. Perhaps after lots of testing and experimenting, I discover that my game is the most fair and the most fun when a fighter jet can fly one space per turn, and a military tank can move two spaces. The fast tank and slow jet now make the rules even harder to remember.

A Theme Can Be Too Complex. I can fix the example above by saying this is a distant planet where jets fly slower and tanks move faster, but that makes things worse. Now you can’t play the game until I’ve learned the story about the new planet, the political struggle that led to the war, and the science behind the technology.

A Theme Can Make The Game Too Complex. When dealing with the above problems, a designer will often write more rules. Maybe it’s okay for the jet to be faster if the tank can take more than one hit before it’s destroyed. Maybe the game would make more sense if each were equipped with different types of weapons, and limited ammo, and limited fuel, and limited turning circles, and limited coffee, and limited resistance to influenza, and so on. Eventually, what started as a simple game now requires 100 pages of rules and each turn takes 20 minutes.

In situations like these, it’s much easier to call them squares and circles without explaining why.

What do you think?
Do you find themes tend to help more or hurt more? Do the have any costs/benefits I’ve missed?

Good Games are Elegant

To understand elegance, you must understand complexity and depth.

Complexity

Complexity measures how long it takes you to fully understand all the rules of the game.

An example of a low-complexity game would be a coin flip. I toss a coin in the air, and if you can predict which side up it will land you win, otherwise I win.

Even if you have never played that game before, that last sentence should give you enough information to run the game and teach it to others.

An example of high complexity would be Dungeons and Dragons. (This is doesn’t even come close to being the most complex game, but it is arguably the most popular complex game.) There are hundreds of pages of rules and hundreds of pages of statistics. The game even has a Dungeon Master, who’s tasked with remembering most of the rules and looking up the rest. It takes so long to learn how to become a Dungeon Master that players who possess this skill are often given free entry into paid gaming events.

Depth

Depth measures how long it takes you to learn “perfect play”. Perfect play means you know a strategy that no other strategy can beat more than half the time.

In Rock Paper Scissors, perfect play is choosing randomly. (This can be achieved with a computer, a dice, or secretly looking at the second hand of a clock.)

In Noughts and Crosses, a player who knows perfect play will always win or tie, but will never lose.

In Chess, mathematicians know that perfect play exists, but no one has any idea what it is, or what would happen if it played against itself.

Once perfect play is known, the game is “solved”.

Note: The problem with this definition of depth is that there is no way of comparing unsolved games with each other. Because of this, some people define depth to mean “how likely a skilled player is to defeat a less skilled player”. Although many people prefer this definition, such people also have to accept that any game becomes deeper when it’s played “best out of three”. I prefer to compare the depth of unsolved games by estimating how long it will be before someone constructs a computer powerful enough to solve each game.

High-Complexity + High-Depth = Heavy

Heavy games are popular among “hardcore gamers”. Normally they are themed. This means that instead of the game being about numbers, shapes or game markers, it could be about a great battle, business managers, ruling a kingdom or taking over the world.

Low-Complexity + Low-Depth = Light

Light games are ideal for playing with people who don’t normally play games. When introducing people to games, you should start with a light game and gradually teach them heavier games as they gain confidence. They are also ideal for players who are feeling tired, or don’t want to be too distracted from their conversation.

High-Complexity + Low-Depth = Broken

It’s only “broken” when this happens by mistake. This happens when the designer was unaware of a very simple yet powerful strategy that can only be defeated by itself.

Sometimes a game has high complexity and low depth because the designer was more interested in making the game into a simulation than a test of skill. The designer may have even worked out the best strategy ahead of time and is trying to teach the players a valuable life lesson.

The Game of Life falls into this category. There are rules for skipping college, but there is never a situation in the game where this is a good idea.

Low-Complexity + High-Depth = Elegant

Elegant games aren’t so much created as discovered. The only method that really guarantees an elegant game at the end, is to create lots and lots of different simple games, and then try to figure out which one is the deepest.

All game designers try to improve the elegance of their game, but this can only be done by deleting anything inelegant, or adding stuff randomly and testing each one.

The most elegant games in the world generally don’t have a theme. Examples include Go, Othello, Checkers, Chinese Checkers, Connect 4. All but chess and checkers have no theme at all. Chess and checkers are about opposing armies, but they’re not realistic enough to satisfy a hardcore war game fan.

That said, if a super-elegant game had a theme that truly fit and felt realistic, it would make its designer millions of dollars, easily.

What do you think?

Is there a better definition of elegance, depth and complexity? Is there anything my article has missed on the topic?

Five Star Game Ranking System

Whether it’s a game you have purchased or a game you’ve designed, knowing what people think of your game can be difficult at best. The game’s greatest fans may be very vocal about its flaws, while people who truly detest the game may not want to hurt your feelings.

Because of this, listening to what people say can be a very poor way of determining if the game was well designed/purchased. This is why I invented the five star game ranking system.

1-Star Game: A game that will be played

To get your first star from someone, they must listen to the rules and begin playing. Don’t take their excuses into consideration. If you believe you have produced the greatest game ever made, but everyone who knows the rules to it just happens to be too busy to play it with you, you might want to reconsider your purchase/design.

2-Star Game: A game that will be finished

To get your second star, players must finish your game. Again, ignore excuses. The player may have a perfectly legitimate emergency to attend to, but if they don’t organise a time to finish or restart the game later, your game has not achieved its second star.

Do take game length into consideration, however. If your game takes multiple sessions to complete, and your players stopped playing after five six-hour sessions, that doesn’t necessarily make it worse than the two minute micro game that everyone always played through to the end.

3-Star Game: A game that will be played twice

The end of the first game is usually the point where players have made up their mind about it. They may have made up their mind much earlier, though most people are willing to suffer a game they don’t like through to completion out of respect for the other players. The next test is if the game is ever played again after it is completed. As always, ignore their excuses. If the game really was the most exciting and amazing thing they’ve ever played, they’ll find a way of organising a second game at some point in the future. If not, your game only achieved two stars from them.

4-Star Game: A game players will ask to play

Your game earns its fourth star when players ask for your permission to play it. I chose the word “permission” very deliberately. A game your friends play to cheer you up, return a favour or spend quality time with you isn’t necessarily a 4-star game. If you’re already spending quality time with them when they ask to play, it’s a 4-star game. If they’ve asked to borrow your game in to play with someone else, it’s a 4-star game.

The simplest test for this is to finish playing the game, then start chatting as you normally would. If they are content to keep chatting, and don’t seem disappointed when you eventually start packing the game away, your game is definitely not 4 stars. You can still ask them if they want to play once more, but their “yes” only gives you a third star, not a fourth.

5-Star Game: A game players want to play continuously

Much like the second star, the fifth star is much easier to achieve with short games than long ones. Does the player delay before asking your permission to play again? It’s hard to define exactly how long an acceptable delay is. If the player doesn’t delay at all, the game has definitely achieved 5 stars. A 30-minute discussion between sessions definitely means 4 stars.

What Do You Think?

I know my system is overly simple, but did it hit the mark? What factors do YOU use to determine if someone likes a game or not?