Category: Games

I write about games! I write a LOT about games! Everything I do about games is here, in this tab, in some way.

Work Process – Boat Game!

Today I started work on a prototype for a little boat game idea I’ve had kicking around since basically Friday. I thought I’d share some pictures of how it progressed from nothing to something.

Here’s where we started. There’s the basic idea of a boat made up out of cards, and you can slot cargo onto the cards in the middle. Here’s the very first version of the graphic I made. obviously it looks a little sparse so I wanted to make it a little clearer. It’s a little ugly and boxy – back of the boat and front of the boat don’t match up.

One of the things that makes this less clear is the way the two blues look similar. Highlighting blue sky as differs from blue water. So here’s a second draft – adding shadows and waves to the water, clouds to the background, and trying to make the cabin of the ship look a little more shaped.

This will be our boat, the basic structure of it. We also want to make some container cards, for the cards that will be stacked on top. Jumping ahead a little, but they look like this:

Okay, so that’s the basics. A card will have two containers on it, and you can slot one of them into each of your ship slots.

Next up, we have a handful of iterations on the cabin – adding an antenna and a flag, making sure it’s got some personality to it. And hey, maybe add a line to the boat, to give the whole thing a bit more dimension.

Okay, so how’s it look with that, and some containers:

Whoah holy snoot! If that cabin is two storeys (at least), then those containers are something like four storeys tall each! We gotta make them seem smaller, but we can’t shrink them in any way physically. That means we have to adjust the things you’re using as your frame of reference, which means changing those windows and doors.

That’s a way nicerlook and it also makes the boat seem smaller, more kiddy, less of a ridiculous tower.

Okay, so now we have a tidied up boat:

The next step is that we need a currency for this game. Now, I’m a giant currency nerd, so this is easy enough for me to belt out – something that looks currency-ish:

This is basically made up of two parts. The base is a green colour, and over that there’s a white layer of Soft Light. If you put all the white shapes in a folder, then make that folder soft light, you can keep those white objects from being affected by the lines.

Then we jam onto it some basic ‘money details and a symbol. Because this is a card, we don’t want the card to be asymmetrical in any way. When someone shuffles up the cards, we want to make sure it’s easy for them to get them all oriented in the ‘right’ way, and to avoid giving away information when people shuffle. It’s a good principle to ensure that card backs give away as little information as possible and are as easy as possible to interact with.

And now we have a money card, a card back for the container.

Here’s the revised containers, which I didn’t save as many in-pgoress shots of, but it’s the same thing. Start with a basic shape, adjust it, adjust it, adjust it.

Now here’s all the cards I made today, more or less, arranged together. This is a day’s work, and yes, the aesthetic is simple, but this simple look still took a LOT of iteration.

You can do this. You can make stuff that looks like this. Heck, you can make stuff better than this!

I want you to know that these things get made bit by bit, and looked at and reconsidered. Don’t be afraid of having incomplete, or not-as-good stuff. This all changes step by step.

MTG: Why We Cut

You ever spoken to an actual card sharp?

These days you’ll mostly only know that kind of operator as a person who does tricks. Not the people at a bar who knows a trick or two. I mean an honest to god magician, someone who actually knows how to do actual card tricks, the kind of things that you keep well and clear away from card games, because if anyone knows you can do something like that, you destroy the ability of people around you to trust what you’re doing.

I’m serious.

There is a lot of playing a game with cards that rely on a sort of shared fiction of randomness, and most of the time you’re dealing with random enough. There’s a reason people are prone to blaming ‘the shuffler’ on MTGO – quite a lot of people aren’t used to actual randomness, stochastic patterns of what can actually happen when you let a machine run the math that your wobbly human hands of meat and bone can’t quite get done elegantly.

And what damages that even more is learning just how much control someone else can have over a shuffle.

Thanks to my odd backgrounds, there’s a part of my life where I did learn The Olde School of Magicke And Illusion. Not cool stuff with pendants, witches and fishnet tights. I mean the stuff with top hats and coloured wands and fishnet tights. Part of this skill set was a lot of is thiiiis your card nonsense. I was not great at it, and having my cards confiscated multiple times for potential demonic summoning was kind of a damper on practicing. Also, nobody cared to watch as I learned and practiced. But you know one skill that’s really important to that skillset that never goes away once you learn it?

Trick shuffles.

This here is a Double Undercut. It looks like a reasonably natural shuffle. The top card of that deck is the Jack of Hearts, the card cut into the centre. This is not only doable, but this is doable with other shuffling forms. You can make more loops, put the card from the middle to the bottom to the top to the bottom to the top again, over and over again, with a great deal of confidence. You can do this with a riffle shuffle if you know how to reverse a deck. It’s really not hard once you know the techniques, the rest is just practice.

I make a big show of how I shuffle. People tend to be impressed with how I do it, because I riffle shuffle, and I do it faster than they do. I don’t tend to lecture people or show off how to do trick shuffles, because I don’t want people thinking I’m going to do it. It’s important to me to play fair, and to always play fair, and even if I’m not cheating, knowing that I can cheat – in a way other people can’t – is really distressing.

And that’s legitimtae! That’s a really real concern!

There’s another type of player who don’t like seeing you know how to cheat, and that is cheaters.

I chatted with a card sharp this weekend, at a convention. I appreciated their skill, and we talked a little. I was selling card games, he was getting paid to show off his card skills, and it was a fun little conversation. One thing we both agreed on, though, was how many people who play cards leave themselves wide open to be cheated.

You probably already know some basic tricks to protect yourself from cheating in Magic: The Gathering. Cut your opponents’ deck, every time. When you shuffle, offer your deck to be cut, every time. When they shuffle, and don’t offer to cut, interrupt them, explain what you want to do, and do it, every time, even if it annoys them.

The important thing is you make this a rule. You always do it.

If you always do it, even this very modest anti-cheating measure, you remove the ability for anyone to feel singled out. People can’t complain that you’re showing them a lack of distrust.

You set up these gates, and you make it a rule, not because everyone cheats. Barely anyone cheats. Almost nobody cheats. But when you do this, you make it clear to the players who do cheat, who can cheat, that you’re not going to give them the easy ones. You’re going to discourage them from trying.

Are you going to catch everyone with this mindset? No, not at all. Should you do it anyway? Yes. You should do it, and you should do it with your friends for the same reason you should get vaccines. It’s there to protect you and your friends, it’s about the people who make it necessary. And if you’re a streamer or playing in public with your friends? You should do it then, too – because you’re trying to spread the idea that this is a thing you should always do.

Project: All Of the Clams

The Pitch: It’s a small deck auction game with currency cards and a failure state. It’s a bunch of pirates or merfolk haggling over who gets what cool junk they found while trying to offload a cursed coin they’re all stuck with.


All of the Clams is made up of two sets of cards:

  • Treasure cards, that you bid for
  • Currency cards, that you bid with

The Treasure cards are all stuff that matters to the players, so the framing device requires them to be people who want something, or have some reason to want things. I don’t want these things to have a grim tone so it probably can’t be something like post-apocalyptic medicine, or evidence for important criminal cases, so I vastly prefer for this to be motivated by greed or self-importance.

The Treasure cards come in three basic forms:

  • Value cards. These just give you points for the end game.
  • Negative Value cards. These take points from you for the end game, and you have to bid in reverse to avoid them.
  • Box Cards. These cards come with other cards from the Treasure deck, and have some inherent value. Players can choose to leave the box closed or not, but opening the box makes the contents public.

The currency cards come in the following forms:

  • 3 Coin cards
  • 2 Coin cards
  • 1 Coin cards
  • Cursed Coin Cards

Setup: Players get identical sets of currency and it always includes 1 cursed coin. They have fewer 3-coin cards than 1-value cards. Probably a sort of 3-2-1 distribution, but make it so that it’s possible to overwhelm 3-value cards with 1-value cards (so 3:1 ratio). Then, remove a treasure card (or more) from the top of the deck, hidden.

Play Loop: Each round, the top card of the treasure deck is revealed. If it’s a box card, put the proper number of cards in that box. Then, players bid in a round on the treasure, not a value but a number of coins. Players can withdraw their bids and drop out of the bidding at any time, reclaiming all their coins. When all players are done putting cards into the centre, all the cards are flipped over, and the bids are compared.

The player who bid the highest value gets the item and the other players get their cards back. Note: Any player who revealed a cursed coin in this phase has to leave it revealed for any future bids. These coins are then taken from the player and lost.

If there’s a Negative value card, the same thing happens in reverse: Players coins in hope of not getting the coin. If one player withdraws or passes, they can keep their money, but have to take the Negative value card.

If one player has run out of coins, the other player can then claim a number of face-down treasures from the top of the deck equal to their remaining coins. These face-down treasures are worth only 1 scoring unit.

The winner of the game is:

  • The player with the most victory points who has no cursed coin, or
  • If all players have their cursed coins, the player with the most victory points


I mostly need art for this. There are three major concepts for the game at the moment – mermaids vying for human junk, pirates distributing treasure from a raid, or cyberpunks swapping chunks of code and virus-infected bitcoins.

Do you think you have the skills for this? Are you interested in the idea? Feel free to contact me, either via the Twitter DMs or by emailing me!

“Not Endorsing Colonialism”

Recently I bashed Colonialism on twitter as a board game theme. This isn’t referencing a specific event but the odds are really good I said it lately because colonialism sucks and we’re really too okay with it. Anyway, one time I did this someone well-intentionedly pointed out that because the game includes colonialism doesn’t mean it’s endorsing it. After all, games include killing and that’s not to say killing is good.

I looked at the comment, rolled my eyes and moved on with my life, but because I know this stuff is important enough to address I came back to it and made it an article well after the fact because I am both petty and want to avoid directly confronting this person.

Point the first: Killing and colonialism aren’t really all that similar because I can absolutely comfortably say there are times when it’s okay to kill someone and I can’t imagine a time it’s right to do a colonialism on someone. Heck, it’s kinder to kill them.

Point the second: Games can include colonialism without endorsing colonialism, and they have, such as Dog Eat Dog or Spirit Island or my own Middleware. It’s entirely possible to represent a colonised space in a way that doesn’t treat the people being colonised as non-agents, and without treating the colonisers as actors approaching empty spaces.

Point the third: Killing in games is used in games as a metaphor for killing. It’s used to represent that particular action (usually, it’s rarely anything else), and we don’t live in a society where ‘killing’ has had its meaning obliterated by a deliberate campaign to pretend killing is actually almost always a net positive (though you know, some people might say).

Point the FOURTH: Colonialism as a theme is super fucking boring.

I’m so sick and tired of games that say go to a new land and do exactly the same old thing. Even these games with interesting, good mechanics like Archipelago or San Juan are all doing it by taking the player and transporting them into the fictive space of the awfullest humans that existed, the player being put in the shoes where they can only console themselves with ‘well I’m probably not sexually assaulting the slaves, so maybe I’m a good one?’

The role of colonialism in board games is pretty simply one of two extremely basic-ass ideas. First, to make the game ‘historyish’ so you get a pre-established aesthetic and a sort of permissive pass on being boring and legitimisation in the eyes of people who don’t want their hobby of playing with cardboard to be seen as childish. Second, to create a space for a reasonably level playing field for economic games of discovery, so when players all arrive in the new place with nothing to their names but an enormous pile of money, people willing to do murder and the uncontested governmental right to commit acts of fgenocide, it’s pre-explained as to where all the resources are coming for.

And this is boring!

There are a lot of other ways to organise ‘people starting at roughly the same time with roughly the same options,’ lots of different fictions. Maybe everyone is related and a relative died and now you all have the same money to start with! Maybe you’re trying to appease investors who have defrayed their options amongst you all! Maybe you all died at the same time and your options are all the same right there.

Colonialism: Bad, evil, deliberately erased, and super fucking boring.

Cities & Towns Revision!

In May, I launched the game The Road to Springdell, which was known in development for a while as Cities And Towns. C&T was one of the slowest projects I worked on considering how quickly I iterated the mechanics. The type of art it needed wasn’t something I could do, nor anyone I knew – and the free art in the vein wasn’t quite right either.

I’ll probably return to the central mechanic of The Road to Springdell, by the way – it’s a robust little game engine and it can be used for more complicated games with more cards and more variance.

The main thing I want to talk about here is the biggest change in the cards – the way I shifted the mechanics wholesale.

In the final printing of The Road to Springdell, each type of building you can build in your town makes each other kind of building in your town better, a bit. Farms make mills more valuable, mills make wells more valuable, wells make farms more valuable – but you’re also balancing the value of each town component against the buildings in the city of Springdell.

Originally, only four buildings had rules on them, and the other four didn’t. Here they are:

The Woodcutter’s Lodge remained as is – but the other cards went through some big changes.

The Tower was just bad – I thought that mechanic might make towers more ‘disposable’ so you’d be more likely to turn them into forests, while also making towers likely to show up in the city. The farm created awkward play moments where players would wind up getting a forest into Springdell, which isn’t supposed to happen. And the Market wound up being super way too good.

The new design is smoother, and less complex to play, but it makes the play more complicated. Every card that’s played is of a different value to you and each other player, even though it has some value. A card may be worth three points in your town, but five points in someone else’s. You have to decide if you’re going to offer that up or try and block it.

These are dials you can choose to turn. Sometimes, giving players more difficult choices yields better gameplay than giving them faster choices. Players spend the most time thinking over the trick portion of the game as it is – might as well make the time spent thinking more interesting!

Winners and Losers

In game design, you can think of your game as about getting to a winner, or discarding all the losers.

Simplest example, Snakes and Ladders. Snakes and Ladders, one player is trying to be separated from the group by being the winner. Their entire plan is advancing themselves.  That winner has nothing to do with the losers – they’re just trying to take more steps ahead on their own.

You can look at a game like Jungle Speed, which is a sorting engine to find the loser – the winner finishes the game (and can step out) and then the next player to win, and so on, the game intact until the players decide to stop playing or until a loser is chosen by the process of the game.

Red Dragon Inn is a game about knocking out as many players as possible, by as many means possible – you can impoverish them, you can inebriate them, you can beat them up, you can even do some stuff outside the rules. In this way, players are trying to make everyone else lose, and resist losing as long as possible.

In Cockroach Poker, a rare example, all the players together pick one of them to lose. It starts out as a test of wits, then slowly becomes a game of trying to find a hole in each others’ defenses, trying to find the player who’s most convenient to get rid of… and making sure, as sure as you can that it’s not yours.

When you’re dealing with a cooperative game it’s the same basic thing: You want to advance the plan of the winners, which is everyone. And deathmatch games, where everyone is trying to survive the longest, are games where you want to lose the least.

Think about this when you design your game. Think about if your game is trying to push people to advance their own plan, primarily, or if they want to inhibit the plans of others.

MTG: Pet Cards X, Zendikar And Worldwake

Zendikar block! One of the ‘great’ periods of Magic history, a ‘beloved’ set that featured ‘classic’ cards with a ‘challenging’ draft environment, with ‘interesting’ mechanics!

What struck me going back to Zendikar was the general antipathy I had towards it. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t draft it, or maybe it was because this was the era I saw an actual in-the-flesh Magic deck that was worth as much as a car, but maybe it’s also the period of Magic’s history where the wheels came off the Planeswalker experiment in the first big way.

I thought for a while there that Zendikar was a really great set I was misremembering, and I kind of do still like some of the things it did, with the quest mechanic and the small creatures that became bigger threats late in the game. Yet when I go back to look the set over I’m reminded by how much of the set was built around fetchlands and mistakes, and it just kills my enthusiasm for it.

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The Mermay Concept List

This May, I partook in Mermay. I didn’t draw mermaids – I’m not very good at drawing, so who am I kidding – but I was inspired by the variety and lovely artwork to think in terms of the kinds of things I can do, and what I would want to do in the context of just the art produced. I make card games, I make tabletop games – they’re things that exist in a space where still images, often with the game as context, convey game information.

Every day, I wrote a game concept for a tabletop game involving art of mermaids.

Now, I intend to go through some of these game ideas and work on them individually – why, depending on when this goes out, one of them may have already been made – but I wanted to put up some thoughts about examining the thoughts of all the mermaid games at once.

One trend that goes throughout the mermaid games is water – I mean, obviously. Some games care about sinking, about depth, about framing ‘down’ as being dangerous, which is perhaps a view I inherited from Narnia books, of all things. This water theme plays into some of the other ideas; there are games about merfolk views on human trash, how they can cook without fire, the types of currencies they recognise, and also in the time you can hold your breath in some of the games about communication.

Another recurrent theme was royalty and monarchy. There’s perhaps something primitive about the idea of royalty in the context of the merfolk – I don’t like royalty as its own thing, I think it’s pish, but I still was making sympathetic games about mermaid princesses and important noble weddings, and noble houses. That’s possibly just something I like as a setting element, even though I think they’re jerks in reality. Of particular interest was how in Atlantean Guard, the challenge was to cooperatively raise a prince who wasn’t a jerk, as if the assumption was reasonable that they would be otherwise.

I had a bunch of games about theft. Merfolk were often showing up as playful or trickster characters, stealing or hiding treasure. Many of the games were puzzles about locating treasure, treasure that – reasonably speaking – there’s no reason to believe the explorers seeking it are more entitled to than the merfolk.

I didn’t do many games about combat. Of the concepts, Temple, Flooded London, The Dredge, and Conch Of Glory had some kind of combat to them. Of those, Temple, Flooded London and The Dredge were all framed as being against an unjust opponent – imperial London, or polluting capitalists, or invading adventurers, for example.

Finally, most of my ‘merfolk media’ that framed these games were either Aquaman or The Little Mermaid.

Lovecraft, Exploration, and Motivation

The classical Lovecraftian story is set around the time of Lovecraft’s life. Very few of them occur in the deep history, even as they are about the deep history, told through the voice of a person in Lovecraft’s now.

Lovecraft wasn’t a man who saw politics too clearly. I mean, he was a racist, and an anglophile, and he thought World War I was really important because America owed it to England, America’s homeland, but when he looked to the future and around him he was not horrified by the closing entanglements of European politics and the industrialisation of war, nor was he particularly horrified at the coming nuclear age. I mean, from the perspective of a dude born in the 1890s, nuclear power seems pretty out-of-context.

If you look through Lovecraft’s work there’s a strong view towards discovery. There’s the deep sea, there’s the stars, there’s ancient archaeology and there’s the organised cataloguing of unread tomes in old libraries. The protagonists are explorers – they are people who, without needing further motivation, want to learn and discover.

Interestingly, most Lovecraftian stories are kind of one-and-done affairs; someone discovers the edge of the darkness, and then is either consumed and destroyed by it, or they run and escape it, forever scarred by the experience. They are people who start out exploring for the sake of information. Their motivation is intrinsic.

Thing is, that’s not – usually – how Lovecraft stuff works in games. One of the challenges in these play spaces is motivation. Most Lovecraft games want to have multiple encounters, multiple excursions dealing with the unnatural. It’s hard to build a game – especially one about change over time – around singular experiences and that leaves you with a problem of representing a character who has some reason to want to repeatedly expose themselves to this problem.

I think this is a cool idea to work with in character creation. I know Delta Green requires you to build a set of connections that will get worse and fail over the course of the game.  I think that’s a good start because it shows you a think worth losing – but I wonder if there’s also room to build into character building a space for a fatal, consuming drive. A reason to go back.


Game Pile: Virginia

I considered for a while there making some sort of artful statement in how I talked about Virginia by making the entire article about it nothing but images, like the way that the piece uses a lack of speech as a technique for or maybe like, deliberate removal of specific word choices and instead forces you to start doing this Rosetta-stone-like assumption of what you’re going through, so like, you don’t know for sure what’s happening, but you’re left with a very clear understanding of what you experienced or the way that the jump cut, a technique  discards all the intervening space and means that you’re just in on things that matter, instead of

which also means that if you see it or if you hear it or anything like that, then it’s a clear sign that it was something that mattered, rather than just something that the developers had to wedge in, because you know, expected interactions with the world. It’s not like Dishonored, with the maids or Hitman with the strippers, where the game sort of has to know it has an answer for if you point a weapon at them and pull the trigger, because its

a game that’s almost impossible to meaningfully record, too. I mean, the only thing that I can give you when I play the game, showing me playing it as I find the thing in each series that I can interact with, the small number of things that can come together to advance you to the next scene, is the atmosphere, and that environmental atmosphere is kind of the most important thing the game offers you.

You can hang out on a railing with a drink in your hand and feel the rising summer heat and wait until you’re ready to take the next drink. It might be moments, it might be ten minutes. I’m not going to tell you how quickly you should do things. Listening to the band, hesitating at a door, most of the game of Virginia is spent travelling and waiting, and you only see the bits that matter as part of

the thing with the linear sequence of cause and effect throughout the game is fascinatingly twisted where every story can be perceived as a sequence of event after event, with earlier events impacting later events, this game makes the structure of a puzzle game blatant and bare, where your actual agency in the world is just limited to finding the next thing the game wants you to find rather than treating the world as this concrete space with puzzles you can ‘solve’

which is further emphasised by the way the game dips between the real and unreal, showing your character dealing with dream sequences and altered realities, but altered realities that are weird enough that you don’t really need to know what’s going on the imagery becomes almost the only way you can thread between the events of the story that you’re seeing around you

the story shows you a way the story could go but crucially it shows you that you don’t go there, then shows you ways the story might have worked, but doesn’t do anything to convince you it did.

The only definite thing I can tell you about the story of Virginia is that it makes it clear to you how it didn’t end.

Virginia takes about three hours to play.


You can get Virginia on Gog, Steam, and Humble. It’s a pretty unapologetic environmental story game, so if you’re not into that, this isn’t going to be the game that changes your mind. It’s very pretty within its style, with lots of gorgeous shots of a pretty countryside. There is some content to be aware of – drugs, implied sex, maybe some implied homophobia, racism, and scenes of facelessness, blood and non-gory animal harm.

A good comparison is Gone Home. Gone Home has a lot more reading and exploring and incidental narratives you can put together in the story space. This has almost just one, and it’s fairly tight by comparison.


Get it if:

  • You like atmospheric narrative experiences

Avoid it if:

  • You don’t like this entire genre

MTG: Pet Cards IX, Alara Block

Alara was our first taste of Mythic Rares. It was also our first major shakeup of the colour pie since Future Sight, a time when those ideas tested in that previous set were made to bear the burden of an entire expansion. Now, multicolour sets are a pretty cute way to shift some stuff around – you can print cards with a few mutual abilities and see if they play together interestingly, see if they work, and if they don’t really work, you can just let them go, because the other colour could be seen as doing the lifting.

Shard of Alara was also one of the first places we got a modern look at three-colour design. There were a lot of characters who were generically gold, but triple coloured cards didn’t have a strong identity so far. Alara is where we had that stuff encoded for the new, for the now.

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Game Pile: Rhino Hero Super Battle

I’ve already looked at the beautiful, sassy, and funny Rhino Hero by Haba Games, and wouldn’t you know it, after I got it for my mother, I then got it for my sister, and then she – with some help – wound up getting Rhino Hero Super Battle for herself, and played it with her kids. I for one, am shocked, shocked to find that Haba, a games company that’s been making games for eighty years, has managed to, once again, make an absolute corker.

Shut Up and Sit Down did a comically in-depth review of this game where they pretended to take it all super duper seriously on like, an academic level, but I’m kind of… not… really… kidding? when I bring this game up as a wonderful example of the kind of stepping stone you can use to make sure designers recognise the importance of materiality and base assumptions in their game designs.

C’mon, I’ll explain.

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Symmetrical Enfolding

The simplest kind of game you can design is a symmetrical, procedural, player-versus-player game. I tell students this; if all the players engage with the game the same way, you have to design one system that can be properly positioned to oppose itself. Any race game is like this. Almost all traditional poker-based games are like this.

I have been designing, in my opinion, too many symmetrical, procedural, player-versus-player games.

At the time of this writing, this year we have released LFG, Winston’s Archive, Downspout, The Roads to Springdell and Burning Daylight. Of those games, only Burning Daylight is non-symmetrical, where you pick your gang at the start of the game.

One element in all this is that I have of late an audience of two kids, kids who can’t really handle social deduction games, but who can grasp spatial games, and who can handle ‘the rules work this way,’ not ‘your rules work this way.’ When designing for kids, I absolutely recommend symmetry and consistency in your rules. Player versus player is weirdly, an area where they can get along better, because cooperative play involves them arguing and creates space for quarterbacking where one or the other refuses to go along with their plan.

I don’t really have anything more to say about this at the moment except, as of the time of this writing, I really want to make more cooperative games, more asymmetrical games, and more non-procedural games.

We’ll see how that goes.

Miss A Turn


‘Miss a turn’ mechanics are one of the most rudimentary game mechanics we encounter in the games-made-because-we-think-kids-are-dumb landscape. Missing a turn is presented sometimes as a punishment for breaking the rules or failing to properly maintain the game – sometimes a huge deal, too!

Yet I routinely see amateur designers, in their first drafts (and somehow even all the way through to the end of the game), get miss a turn in their designs. Missing a turn, as a consequence of your doing a turn, isn’t interesting, it’s just frustrating.

I can see a place for Miss a Turn: Real-time turn-based games, like Nightmare or Atmosfear. In those cases, missing a turn slows you down but you’re trying to finish your turns as quickly as possible, so you can just fly past a turn where you don’t get to do anything. It sucks but it sucks a little because turns are not spent thinking or testing or trying. They’re spent seeing what happens and doing it as quickly as possible. But those games are secretly cooperative, rather than competitive – the games are too tight and players are really best suited to just working together, avoiding hurting one another, in the hopes that anyone can finish the game at all.

Otherwise? Missing a turn is a really miserable thing. Making someone else miss a turn isn’t quite as bad – you can make some strategic leverage out of effectively taking an extra turn – but the time a player has to spend to wait becomes part of the problem. In Magic: The Gathering, there’s Time Walk and its family of effects, which are far nicer because it just means your opponent has one really big turn rather than you having to pointedly sit back and do nothing.

Either way, this mechanic is a plague and it’s far healthier to remember don’t do them than they work in these situations, when you’re just starting out.

MTG: Mominaria

Moms are great. A lot of fuss is made about moms on their own special day, but Moms are good all the time, or should be. With that in mind, I wanted to celebrate some momness, and the different ways to appreciate and recognise them.

The release of Return To Dominaria (Again) brings with it a whole host of new moms. Let’s meet some of the moms of Dominaria, and their particular values and styles. Here are then, the Moms of Dominaria, Ranked by my entirely arbitary listing of what I think would be funny.

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Symmetrical Juuls

[rules and fiction] are complementary, but not symmetrical.

When you deal with academic writing you’re sometimes left stymied by word choices. It’s one of the reasons the whole affair can feel super arcane, because people spend a month writing a sentence and then another month justifying that sentence to the people overseeing the writing.

This is something I’m finding. Most days I look at a statement and rewrite it, figuring it might look good tomorrow. So far it hasn’t.

This eight word conception comes from Jesper Juul’s Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, 2011, and I feel like I could spend a lot of time – like, say, a whole blog post – picking at those word choices. Why not symmetrical? Why not asymmetrical? Why not ‘they are not symmetrical.‘ It’s easy to conceive that the structure of this one little sentence is that simple.

This is from Chapter 4, which is about Fictions. This chapter is – to summarise roughly – about what we sometimes in games refer to as theme or abstraction, not its narrative. Narrative is a story, and it’s how our brains do things – I’ve long since said that a game is a machine for making stories, and we make stories because it’s a really useful way for our brains to store a linear sequence of cause and effect. Fictions is a good way to establish the idea of the world that the game wants that story to occupy – whether an abstracted world where nothing matters but the order and sequence of a play, or a heavily flavoured world of flavours and sounds and spaces and moistures.

The book itself, I learned about, sadly not from my readings – I mean, I’m working through them at my own rate – but from the Game Study Buddies podcast, which is available here. I’m honestly annoyed because it seems that the people involved are both smart and on similar pages to me, processing text and not necessarily agreeing with or disagreeing with it, playing in the spaces of consideration and being able to vocalise good and useful ideas about how academics can consider games, and they don’t fall down into treating all videogames as alien creatures to tabletop games. Heck, they mention that as something Juuls notices, the way tabletop games break a lot of the rules of what ‘is’ a game and therefore ‘game’ has to keep moving as a definition. I’m annoyed because I was pretty happy not following these people on Twitter and now I wonder if I’m going to have to.

But that word choice, that thing up top, it sits on my head, as a friend mentions she’s dealing with internet that is Very Not Good, which I distinctly and clearly understand as different to Not Very Good. That order of emphasis is a coherent conception, and yet if I tried to feather it out for you I might miss the meaning she’s getting at.

Anyway, these ideas, that fiction and rules are complementary is something I have stumped at hard: If your rules fly in the face of your fiction, you weaken them both. The fiction can encode actions in your mind and make game mechanics coherent where they might otherwise not be. I’ll not go into examples here, but maybe I will another time. This is just a given.

But that last point: They are not symmetrical.

To call them asymmetrical would be to say that they are never symmetrical. To call them non-symmetrical would make their symmetry a function of what they are. Much of game studies want to talk about rules without fiction, to break down Plants vs Zombies into specific, tight details that ignore that this is a game about zombies, and how they vs plants, and how that fiction encodes game rules into player’s minds. Juul forwards the idea in Half-Real that you can discuss rules without fiction, but not the fiction without rules.

And that’s what I’m worrying at right now. Because they aren’t symmetrical. Rules can interleave with one another in places that leave the fiction untouched. Shuffling and stacking a deck in a particular way may have an outcome to the fiction, but the rules of the method are there for the outcome, not for the cause. There are ways the fiction can leave the rules untouched, like decals over a chassis. But I’m not sure I agree with Juuls that fiction depends on rules while rules do not depend on fiction.

But we’ll see. This is the problem with readings.

You’re never sure until you’re done and you’re never done.

This blog post represents notes on my PhD reading of Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, by Jesper Juul (2011), chapter 4.

Print and Play: Adventure Town, Pt 4

Woof, this took a while. I had a post about Adventure Town’s tools and that got caught up because I realised I was hitting a wall for Adventure Town’s scope. So let’s talk about some math.

In Adventure Town, you are all trying to invest in the buildings around your town, building them up to make this town more appealing and generate more money when adventurers pass through. Each turn, there’s a phase of dice rolling, representing economic activity and your own plans as a member of the area’s ruling groups. Then, adventurers pass through the town.

I’m not sure if adventurers pass through the town every turn, or if that’s triggered by dice events, too – and while your town is small, only one adventurer passes per round, growing as your town grows. The adventurers have wants or needs, and that means businesses that relate to those needs get more income, and that income benefits most the people who own those businesses.

Now the question from here is how much of anything does this need?

There are three basic values that will give all the rest of the math in this game shape. How many buildings are there? How many adventurer cards need to be, at minimum? How many types of trigger should there be?

We’re going to assume symmetrical distribution of each, by the way. Unequal distribution is good for games with fewer random elements, as they make the rarer incidents feel more wild; in this case, the dice are going to present a randomness for all players, and we don’t want people to be able to bank on long shots that then fail because the dice didn’t come up from them. I want choices to matter, and in this case that means trying to keep people from getting too far ahead with either lucky long-shots or unlucky crap-outs.

When you’re doing this kind of design, there really is no right or wrong place to start. I want the towns to be printable on an A4 sheet, which gives me a boundary to work within. I drew a few designs for the town as a 3×3 group of buildings, then a 4×4, then a 5×5, and a 6×6. 6×6 got a little small for my tastes as an A4 page, so a 5×5 it is. The central square is the town hall, which nobody owns, meaning we have 24 potential buildings.

With 24 buildings, what do we have that can divide into that equally? Well, one option is 24 adventurers that trigger each building uniquely. That’s a bit dull though – it means that once an adventurer triggers a building, you have to wait until that adventurer loops back around. You can’t have any ‘really good days’ when a building gets triggered once or twice in a turn. Also, do we want adventurers to only have one trigger symbol?

Working on the idea that all adventurers need one or two symbols, that we have 24 buildings, I went to this Combinatorics calculator, and jammed numbers in it for a while. If there are 6 symbols, which can be repeated and where the order doesn’t matter, and you pick 2, there are 21 combinations. 21 is a good number for a deck of cards – it’s not too small to shuffle nor is it too big to handle quickly, and it’s small enough I can add some cards to it if I want to.

That is how it’s done, by the way – how I do it, at least. I jam numbers into things to see how long it takes to work.

This has an additional possible application. If there are 6 symbols, and there are 6 faces on a die, it might be that people can spend a dice to trigger a symbol that corresponds to it. I don’t know if I’ll use that, but it’s an option!

Next time, we’ll talk about tools.

MTG: Pet Cards VIII, Shadowmoor And Eventide

This block – made up of two sets, a design that we’ll see we’re going to get to see a lot more of in the coming future – was a pleasant surprise after Lorwyn. I hadn’t been so attuned to spoiler season that I knew what was coming, but once it dropped it all made a lot of sense: Lorwyn was an experimental contrast, an opposition in design to where they wanted Shadowmoor to get.

The whole set was built around a hybrid colour mechanical theme and a grim fairy tail flavour theme. While Lorwyn was about can you get value out of these cards, Shadowmoor was much more about can you even cast these cards, and then, those cards you could cast were generally pretty good. Play was still complicated – you had to manage a bunch of colours was pretty annoying – but you still didn’t have the same ‘three lords, you’re boned’ draft environment.

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Game Pile: Hyrule Warriors

I have kind of bought Hyrule Warriors twice now, and never played it. It’s a game for Fox, a game that blends together her beloved Legend of Zelda universe – a series normally renowned for kind of tight, expertly designed small-scale adventure problems – and the indulgent, wide-open reckless ridiculousness of a Dynasty Warriors game, known as the genre of Musou. I say it’s a genre because even if nobody else was making Dynasty Warriors-like games, there are enough of them to be a genre.

Content Warning: Will contain spoilers for the plot of Hyrule Warriors.

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Game Pile: Rhino Hero

At some point in the past two years I really did shift my attention as a writer from let’s take videogames seriously to let’s take games seriously, and part of that was an appreciation for tabletop and board games. Videogames were fast on track to become the biggest industry in the world, and the people loudly proclaiming they wanted more, different takes on videogames showed me that even if they did want them, they didn’t want them from me, since they’d much rather renew arguments about ‘are games art?’ and make fun of Ludonarrative Dissonance for being a long term.

Let’s be clear – at no point since this blog existed have I not been playing tabletop games. Mostly, what I’ve been playing have been RPGs and CCGs, but I’ve still been in those game spaces. But it wasn’t until a year or two ago – when I realised the boundary for making board games was so low that I could just jump into it, rather than needing to cultivate a new skillset like code.

And one of the first games I got to watch played, that blew my mind as a maker was this.

This game.

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MTG: Pet Cards VII, Lorwyn And Morningtide

Lorwyn is a wonderful world, and an almost wonderful set. It wasn’t a set well-designed for its high-profile purposes; the draft environment was so catastrophically complex and often so debilitatingly lopsided, where someone would wind up with three lords to your no lords and you’d lose games based on your board being overloaded.

There was a certain awkwardness to making tribal decks in Lorwyn, too! Because the environment was full of cards of a type, but the best cards of each type were pretty similar. There were only so many good soldiers, so many good kithkin. You could try and overlap on your synergies, but even then you just got these very dense decks full of Dorks that Attacked.

What’s more, the Spells – you know, those things That Make Game States interesting – were all a bit weak in Lorwyn block, attached as they were to the Clash mechanic.

I’m also sad about how Lorwyn introduced the Tribal supertype, which is an unsupported type, now. It’s sad because while the rationale for Wizards to never do it again is strong, it means that the only Changeling or Tribal cards we ever see are the ones we got. Sure, for Nameless Inversion, that’s great, a solid card, but Blades of Velis Veil just isn’t in the same league. I love little effects like that, small corner case cards that are useful to a whole variety of decks you might want something like it in later building.

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The Whole Sort Of General Mish Mosh Of Confrontation

If you haven’t worked it out, since I read every day, and I don’t want this blog to just be a nonstop festival of Hey, Here’s Today’s Academic Boring Stuff, I’m doing some of these out of order.

More reading from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop. In this case, this is super useful because it gives me an academic source for just a very simple list, a starting place, for my thesis argument of the idea of confrontation.

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Structure, Hierarchy, Winning and Losing

I’m going to be trying something new here for a little bit. I have to read, every day, for my study. It’s just a rule. I also want to take notes on that reading, to connect what I’m doing and make a history of that work easier to track. As I work on my PhD, expect more of these posts to show up, as I put my work in a broader academic context, and hopefully, make game-writing academia a bit more approachable.

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