05 January 2014

What's your number?

Most games are designed with a specific number of players in mind.  These days, tabletop game often advertise a range of supported players, typically 2-4 players, 2-5 players, or in some cases even more, for example, 4-7 (Bang!) or 5-10 (Resistance).  This is marketing.  In reality, there is often a particular number of players that is better supported by the game format and mechanics than others.  Some games don't scale well, so that adding another player adds another 45 minutes to the gameplay time.  Others are hard to balance with certain player counts--indeed many games offer alternate instructions depending on the number of players.

As I dip my big toe into the water of amateur game design with a game I'm calling "Ice Age", I think my sweet spot is 4 players.  Some games that allow for more either take way too long to play or, in an attempt to avoid long playtimes, are oversimplified.  I have played several games recently that worked well with more than 4 players, including Resistance, Samurai Sword, and King of Tokyo.  But for the game experience I am trying to create, my goal is to optimize for 4 players.  

Even with 4 player in mind for the final product, I am finding that I'm building my gameplay and mechanics for 2.  My reasons for doing so are entirely practical--more players means making more cards and finding more people to help test.  Even so, I've got to keep in mind whether the game will become too clunky or cumbersome when I eventually scale up to the 4-player version. 

23 December 2013

Ruthless Civility

Conflict can be a lot of fun.  It can also make some people really uncomfortable.  I'm talking about conflict in board games, mind you.  You definitely want to choose a game that aligns with the players' desire for conflict.

Conflict is a type of interaction.  Many of the most fun games keep the players engaged even when it is not their turn, often by allowing them to trade with or respond to actions taken by the turn-taking player.  Plenty of games provide player-to-player interactions without conflict, including interactions that can be mutually beneficial, co-operative, or at least not outright hostile. In other games, this engagement comes in the form of falling under direct attack--that's a conflict.  Some conflict roils beneath the surface and can be far more subtle, such as laying claim to territory on the board that limits the options available to another player.

I have found that some players have difficulty separating the conflict in the game from real life emotions.  For example, I've seen a(n unnamed) mother express extreme psychological displeasure in having to attack her opponent (and real-life child) with a volcanic repeating arms pistol (in Bang!).  Fortunately, there are plenty of board games that have player-to-player interaction yet do not require (or allow) players to single out individuals for a thorough thrashing.  When playing with loved ones, sometimes it is better to keep the conflict games in the closet.

19 December 2013

Little Gray Tokens by Another Name

As I started reading this article, I feared I might have sleep-plagiarized it in my previous blog post.  I knew I was safe when the author recommended backgammon as offering the right balance between choice and randomness.  I won't pretend that I've every played backgammon correctly.  Not that I didn't try as an 8 year-old kid when my only alternatives were Monopoly and Chess; however, we always seemed to have the board and pieces but not the rules.  After reading this article, I'm beginning to think backgammon may have been a lost artifact from Atlantis--the last relic from the first Golden Age of board games.

Even if I'm missing out for never having played backgammon, certainly no one can blame me for not getting excited over the THEME, which is non-existent.  Theme and presentation (game pieces, artwork) is an important factor in the gaming experience, and the old standby games have been hit or miss in this category (Monopoly and Life are okay, Chess is passable, while Sorry, Checkers, and backgammon are atrocious).  There is nothing inherently wrong with a simply presented game with a killer game mechanic.  But to me, playing a game that is just colored squares on a board or just cards with numbers is kind of like work.  The game becomes all about figuring out the mechanic, doing the mental calculations and statistics, and trying to optimize (like Poker, which I hate, though maybe also because I always lose).  Those are elements of the experience, but a great board game allows you to do all those things in a way that aligns with the theme.

Part of the fun is building the story around your game play.  Which sounds better to you: being the player that won for collecting the most little gray cardboard tokens, or being the scientifically-minded, inter-galactic species called Hyrda Progress that conquers the galaxy by focusing your research on critical technologies, creating an intricate web of diplomacy, and turning traitor at the last moment to crush a player with an inferior star fleet (after which you earn all the little gray cardboard tokens and win!)?

17 December 2013

Choices and Randomness

Chess is almost always almost no fun to play.  Overlooking the fact that "three's a party," a core problem is that Chess requires very specific skills and knowledge.  When two opponents with different skills and knowledge levels are matched together the result is very lopsided. The game is abundant in choices but lacking in randomness.  This tends to discourage new players, as the ones that are most excited to play with them are often going to beat them up on the game board.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Monopoly.  Okay, its not completely opposite, but I LOATHE Monopoly for many reason (captured very well here).  Monopoly has abundant, if boring randomness (all movement defined by rolling dice), and only a very few choices (buy property or don't buy).  There is the arranging of the BIG trades, but these are so few and far between and so painstaking to orchestrate that it is almost never fun for everyone involved.

Luckily there is an abundance of very fun games, mostly designed in the last 20 years, that fill in the spectrum between these two extremes very nicely.  Over the next several entries I will be laying out my perspective on board gaming in general as well as providing a few reviews of fun games with an explanation of what type of gaming experience they provide.  I hope this might inspire folks to play more games--and help them choose the game with the right balance of choice and randomness rather than merely choosing a game at random.

29 October 2011

No, Thanks (in Advance)!

You've all seen it in an e-mail: "Blahbiddy-Blah. Please do X for me. Thanks in Advance!" How did it make you feel when you read that? Likely, you took it to mean that the person really appreciates you for helping them out. But is that really what they are saying?

Taken literally, they are saying, "I'm thanking you right now for something that you haven't done yet. I don't know how well you will do it, so you may end up not helping me at all, but thanks anyway." That kind of 'thanks' doesn't strike me as very meaningful. Instead, it seems a lazy way of checking a social norm box.

When someone does something exceptional for you, thank them at the point of delivery. If they tried their best but didn't end up being that helpful, you can still thank them (for their efforts, at least). Yeah, it might be one more e-mail clogging up somebody's inbox, but that is a small price for preserving a sense of value in the work that we do well.