Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Agent and the Narrator

According to an old joke about Talisman, the first prototype of the game was actually a single six-sided die. The players would sit down staring at it for four hours, and then roll off to see who won the game.

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Obviously, the joke is still being told by the people who do not enjoy the overall experience offered by the cult classic. They seem uninterested in the heroic stories created by hours of rolling dice, moving around the board and then either drawing a card, or... rolling more dice. And it does not necessarily mean that they hate wizards, dragons and magical swords (although some of them actually do). What it does mean is that they are unsatisfied with the level of agency offered by the game.

Last week I said that a certain level of randomness seems to be a required element of any adventure game. I think we can agree now that if everything can be weighed and measured before the game, there will be no adventure – only an exercise in optimization or, in other words, a German style game. Randomness is, obviously, not only an element of an adventure game. Even Agricola randomizes some of its elements, but only up to a certain extent. The players are first treated to a random distribution of cards, and during the game they have to take into account the fact that the appearance of some action spaces is random – although this randomness is also very limited.

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It is actually quite easy to get randomness right in a Eurogame. Just remember a simple rule: randomness first, decisions later. Shipyard introduces this element by giving players scoring tiles before the game, just like Lords ofWaterdeep which – although plagued with the quest cards random draw which felled many a strategy – supplies each player with a lord card that tells them what they will score points for.

Adventure games are, however, slightly more difficult to calibrate. In optimization games agency is king – but it is narrating a story that adventure games are all about. And here, it seems, erring on the side of caution means that it is better to make a game more random, than one that can be fully planned from the first turn and then flawlessly executed. Does that mean that all adventure games will inevitably boil down to, more or less, Talisman clones?

Certainly not, as some designers have already proven – with Mage Knight being the most recent example of an adventure game that really puts the player in the driver’s seat, while sometimes heavily taxing their little grey cells. What is important to take note of here: randomness is not gone, but it still precedes all decisions made by a player on their turn – just like in many Eurogames.

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As a fan of games with a clear narrative arc, I enjoyed my time with Mage Knight, just as much as I enjoyed a few dozen games of Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, where a random card draw created challenges for players to deal with using their custom made decks and (on a more turn-by-turn basis) their hands of cards. I was, however, surprised that many adventure game fans had a completely different view of those two games, finding them dull, too complicated or simply “not really adventure games”.


All in all, getting an adventure game design right is not only about creating a set of working mechanisms, but about (and perhaps even more so) balancing the player agency and the game’s narrative aspect. It is obvious a single design will not satisfy every gamer, which makes this balancing act, ever interesting from a design standpoint - and exciting for gamers open to experiencing new ideas within their favoured genre.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Road to Adventure

When asked about adventure games, it’s quite easy to give a long list of examples: from the grandfatherly figure of classic Talisman, through its almost carbon copies like Prophecy or the more recent Relic, to progressively more complicated designs like Runebound or A Touch of Evil, the now out of print World of Warcraft: The Board Game and the legendary rules behemoth known as Magic Realm. But what is it exactly that makes them adventure games?

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According to Robert Harris, the designer of the original Talisman, the game was created as a substitute for Dungeons & Dragons. What might be hard to believe to modern gamers, accustomed to slim designs which take an hour to set up, play and break down to neatly put back into the box, Harris wanted to make a game that would create an RPG-like experience in a shorter time and a more manageable form (one of the key points of this simplification being ejecting the time consuming role of the Dungeon Master).

With that in mind, it's rather obvious why the tropes and decorations for Talisman were ported directly from classic fantasy: it was, after all, a cornerstone of the game that started the whole role-playing genre, in turn spawning numerous board games and then MMOs, the majority of which still favour visiting worlds inhabited by warriors, wizards and dragons over any other. 

Consequently, it comes as no surprise that games are often categorized using their settings, with ones featuring characters, enemies and events known from fantasy literature and movies often falling into the Adventure genre (unless very blatantly being something else).There are admittedly some small deviations, but even some of those science-fiction worlds (like the universes of Star Wars or Warhammer 40.000 used as a setting for Relic) have in fact little to do with science, with their defining stories being much closer to heroic epics than the writings of sir Arthur C. Clarke.

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A fantasy theme, however, does not an adventure game make. The dwarves, axes and quests do not obscure the fact that Caverna is a Eurogame through and through. The theme of travelling around mythical ancient Greece in Venture Forth is nothing more than a theme, with the player able to best optimize their movement being the winner every time. The most important experience of playing Magic: The Gathering is not that of coming into contact with mythical heroes and creatures the decks are so ripe with – it’s about coming into contact with your opponent and crushing them. Playing any of those games is rarely an adventure - it's an optimization task or a duel.

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Now, the actual experience of having an adventure is sometimes a difficult one to create. Tabletop role-playing games do the best job here, using the best tool available: the human mind. The imagination of a Dungeon Master creates worlds, characters and surprising twists, exciting the players, and allowing the game world to react unexpetedly to their actions. But how can a board game ever substitute the unpredictability and creativity of a live dungeon master? That is and was simple since 1983 - just use a die or a stack of cards.

After looking at all the games I played, if I were to point to one feature that is prevalent to any game that “feels like an adventure”, I’d probably go with randomness. It is the randomness that allows the game to be different every time. It is the roll of a die that in the end decides of success or failure. It's the flipped card that puts a peril, a stranger or a fantastical event on the road that makes or breaks a hero. Now, am I saying that it is enough to just make your game random, to make it feel like sharing an adventure with a bunch of friends? 

No. But that is something I will have to leave for next week.


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Thursday, August 7, 2014

KISS Your Design

I’ve seen a fair share of prototypes presented by first time designers. Usually, I’ve seen them while attending gaming conventions and since I will undoubtedly see a few more within the next few days, as Avangarda - one of the biggest conventions in Poland - starts on the day this article goes live, I felt prompted to share a few thoughts about one of the fairly aspects some people may find important when designing your own game.

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If I were to point out a few tendencies among the prototypes I’ve seen on conventions, one of them would definitely be a high level of complexity. It’s actually only natural – most first time designers are gamers, some of them inspired by a thought of rebuilding a game they've played into a more interesting, more realistic and – consequently – more complex design.

Let me stop here for a second to say that there is nothing wrong with complexity. Legendary games such as Twilight Imperium or Here I Stand are notoriously complex (and long) and there is nothing inherently wrong with that (well, maybe apart from the length). However, before using them as a simple justification, you should really first examine if your design also needs a high complexity level because, frankly, quite often it does not.

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Imagine, if you will, that you want to make a game of your own. A turn-based, “nothing fancy” resource collection and engine optimization design that would allow players to perform a limited number of actions per turn out of a selection of nine. For ease let’s just number them and proceed to some of the rules governing their use.

Let’s say that every player performs one action per turn (until they use their allotment of three) and that actions can only be performed a limited number of times per round: with actions 1-3 being available once, actions 4-6 twice, and actions 7-9 available up to three times during a single round. Let’s also assume that there is a specific order to the actions: that action 1 must be always performed before 2, then 2 before 3 etc., unless, of course, some of them are skipped, because the players are not interested in them during a given round. To finish off, let’s add another system: unused actions become more valuable with every new round.

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The above system in its rough form is complicated. It would require a detailed explanation, a good player aid and a bunch of people willing to learn its intricacies to actually work. However, if you’re not new to designer games, you’ve already probably figured out that the best way to actually put it in a game would be to use the worker placement mechanism – much like the one used in Carson City or (slightly more recently) in Snowdonia. Just give each player a number of pawns signifying their available number of actions and place the action spaces themselves on a track that would govern the order of their execution.


In truth, I have no idea if worker placement as a mechanism came to be via a process similar to the one above. I would actually wager money that it did not. I However, I hope it served as a simple illustration of how some things in games can easily be made simpler. As I said, complexity in itself is not a bad thing, but before you decide to make your design very complex, and before you say that your game will lose something if you try to streamline it, be reasonably sure that there isn’t a way that will make it easier on your future players and virtually the same when it comes to the feel of the game and the number of options it provides. I assure you that in most cases it’s not a difficult thing to just keep it simple.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Deckbuilding the Genre

I remember 2008 mainly for two things: the somewhat quirky apartment I was living in at the time and a new gaming craze that seemed to be taking over gaming space everywhere any was available. The craze was called Dominion, and it was spreading like a surprisingly fun virus with the sickness heralded not by sticky coughing and thunderous sneezing, but by silent rustle of a shuffled deck of cards.


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I did not stick with the strange apartment, but the base set of Dominion is still on my gaming shelf. The worn out money cards remind me of literally hundreds of games played and all the people around me that had fun with the game. Donald X. Vaccarino’s ingenious child left an impression on many gamers, grew with new expansions and, probably even more importantly, created a new genre of games, with many designers jumping on the opportunity to use this new and hip thing called deckbuilding.

The gaming world needed to wait less than a year to see other deck builders emerge, with AEG’s Thunderstone arriving with probably the biggest splash. The fantasy dungeon romp brought what many people missed in its predecessor: a stronger theme, a flavour and a slightly lower level of dissociation of game mechanisms with what they were supposed to represent; but it also lost some of Dominion's smoothness in the process. Now, six years after Dominion first conquered the gaming market, dozens of deckbuilders inhabit our gaming shelves and it is clear that the genre spawned by Vaccarino’s creation is here to stay – and evolve.

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Thematically wise, DominionThunderstone and many others offered no explanation as to why the mechanism is there – nor did they need one, as building decks, shuffling and playing cards was so much fun, nobody would ask what the system is supposed to simulate. Over time however, designers started to either associate deckbuilding with a specific phenomenon it was supposed to depict in their games, or use it as only one of the elements of gameplay, re-implementing, re-mixing and crossing new boundaries to use all deckbuilding has to offer, succeeding or failing in the process.

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A great example of the above is the tragically flawed A Few Acres of Snow by Martin Wallace – a game, where the growing deck simulated the difficulties a French or English leader had to face while waging war and colonizing at the same time, having to whip their growing, unruly empire of towns and traders into battle-ready submission. The game succeeded almost flawlessly in employing deckbuilding as an abstraction of a specific process – and failed utterly in balancing the two sides of conflict, making it a broken, but nonetheless beautiful thing.

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Finally, we also have games that use deck building as just another element of the puzzle, which do not revolve solely around building a strong deck and make players focus on things other than what next will they buy and discard. Vlaada Chvatil’s Mage Knight serves a great example of how the mechanism can be both prevalent and yet not the centrepiece of an engaging, deeply thematic game. Ryan Laukat’s Cityof Iron proves that deckbuilding has its place in more traditional German style games. Mac Gerdts’ excellent Concordiawalks away from deckbuilding, becoming a fascinating exercise in area control and managing a deck-sized hand of cards.


With its popularity and incredible potential, deck building is something all “people of gaming” should keep an eye on, as there are still opportunities of putting it work in new and interesting ways – or to build upon the simple idea that became a great game, a craze, a genre and finally, a new cornerstone for the games to come.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Cardboard Olympus Part IV: A Matter of Faith

Do you remember Black & White – an old video game created by Peter Molyneux? If you don’t, let me refresh your memory. In Black & White you play as a god, invoked into being by prayers of a family hoping for a miracle to save their drowning offspring. As time passes, your task is to make more people believe in you, for your powers – and your avatar – grow with the unwavering faith of new believers.

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What does this all have to do with board games and the BoardGameGeek ranking? Well, as I previously said, entering the Cardboard Olympus requires a powerhouse publisher and a well known designer (besides an excellent game, which should go without saying). If all that is true however, how is it possible that Twilight Struggle is and has been the number one for some time now?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that GMT Games is in any way lacking, but if we compare it to Wizkids, Asmodee or Fantasy FlightGames, it is still relatively small, with substantially smaller print runs. Now, it is true that Twilight Struggle has been the all-time bestseller for GMT, but if you compare the number of boxes sold to Agricola, you will see how vastly less popular Twilight Struggle actually is. Since we know that just being a great game is not enough to justify a godly position, there must be something more to the seeming miracle of a political wargame reigning supreme over mages, knights, farmers, colonists, dwarves, mystical lands and power grids.

And there is - the loyalty of the people who play games published by GMT Games. Anyone who is a fan of this publisher, knows that it has a business model that used to be quite unique. A game goes through a period during which the fans can look at its prototype components, read designer diaries, ask questions and possibly even become play-testers, and decide to pledge a fixed sum of money towards the game, which guarantees them a copy, if the game is ever produced. If enough pledges are gathered in the time allotted, the game goes to the printers.

The above system is called P500 and if you’re seeing some similarities to Kickstarter, then you are absolutely right. This is why I said this business model used to be unique. It still is actually, but not as much as when GMT started using it years ago, when crowd-funding was merely a glint in somebody’s eye. Still, even now it brings something very unique to the table: a sense of participation and loyalty, usually associated with either the largest and oldest companies, or those who really know how to work their crowd-funding magic.

Obviously, P500 has one more advantage: it lowers the financial risks of publishing a game. However, from the BoardGameGeek ranking perspective, it creates something even more important: the willingness of the fans to invest themselves in the project. And this investment means that they will buy, play, talk and be more disciplined and eager when it comes to rating a game on BGG.

“Hold on a moment”, a hear you ask, “does that mean that a place on the Cardboard Olympus can be secured merely by fans who are a vocal minority?” Well, yes… in a way. Although you may also say, that it’s more of a proof of how much passionate fans can do for a relatively unknown, but nonetheless excellent game. That is why one should never underestimate the power of a happy community of followers, for becoming a cardboard deity is not only a matter of cold calculations but also, to a reasonable extent, truly a matter of faith.

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