2016’s Lessons Of Gaming #4: 31-40

31. Physical Notes

Physical note-taking lets me scribble out things in relationship to one another. This is especially important when I’m making games that care a lot about numbers, having the ability to scribble sets/values helps me out. Especially when you can do it quickly; noting things down on a computer so they can be interpreted later tends to slow me down and since the process is rarely as important as the result in this kind of design that matters.

32.  Grid Paper

Grid paper is also super useful – just so you can give satisfyingly similar sizes to things as you work on them. Usually, your notes won’t matter to anyone but you. Me, I find my notes really comforting to check over when I can look at a card and tell it’s meant to be a card.

33. Scope Creeeeeep Is The Worst

Just how much of your game’s design is just throwing together a lot of things you like? (lookin’ at you, Scythe). It’s easy to make a game that’s got to have twenty systems in it at once, but making every one of them good will take you time.

When you’re working in print-on-demand, work with things you can finish first. Cat & The Mouse could be a stealth system in a bigger game, no problem. But I can build UP better than I can strip DOWN. Sometimes you’ll pare a game down and find it doesn’t have enough stuff. That’s okay. You can always add to it.

34. Materiality Is Important.

If you’re working with cards and boards, you’re dealing with actual objects people have to handle. Hecatomb is a neat game but it’s really hampered by the way that shuffling five-sided big ole cards work. The currency in Millions of Dollars feels crap and it plays into how it lasts.  If you’re dealing with a thing that tracks information, do you need to use counters or tokens for that? Can you use a single card, being turned?

When do you use a currency vs an invisible value? Magic The Gathering makes mana invisible, even though lands aren’t. Currency is best used if it’s something that gets handed over to people, make it so the object of the currency is something nice to handle. Invisible currency is fine, if it never leaves one player’s control – ‘I give you five points’ versus ‘here, have these five cards.’

A victory point tracker may have the hated term ‘victory points’ in it, but if those values from different players don’t interact, it’s a good way to track that value rather than using a currency.

35. On Sexy

There’s nothing Wrong with Sexy Games, or Sexy Stuff in Games, just know you’re doing it and why. Sexy As Default is creepy weird. You know what I’m at. A game about barbarians dueling and The Girl is in a bikini because, well, what else would we do? Knock that shit off.

36. Cats And Dogs Are Your All-Purpose Excuses For Anything.

Seriously, theming games around them is a huge cheat. You want players to be selfish, aloof dicks to one another? Your game is about cats. Players will get it. You want players to be needlessly friendly and cooperative with everyone? Make it a game about dogs.

37. Feeding Instigators

If you build your game with a PRESS BUTTON TO FUCK EVERYTHING UP mechanic, ~5% of players will slam that button every fucking time. I sometimes shorthand these players as Instigators.

It can be really useful to tap this resource of player behaviour but don’t do it carelessly. Giving the instigator an inviting button to push when things are getting boring is good; giving them something that keeps anyone from being aware or certain of what’s going to happen next is bad. Consider these effects as a bit like pulling the lever on a slot machine.

38. Theme Pulls Play

If you design your game well players will fall into the theme hard. I have seen a massive bearded man stuttering out ‘s-senpai!’ You can tell players ‘be nervous’ or the game can make them nervous.

There are lots of war games that tell you ‘this matters,’ but the reason the 40k armies get people so invested is because players being able to sculpt their own force makes it matter to them.

Put it simply: You can tell people to act as if candy is good or you can make candy taste good.

39. Look At Your Defaults

Look at the things you assume as default in characters in your game and change it to see how it feels. Put in a vegetarian character. You might find in this process, shit makes no difference to you. That’s good, it broadens your realisation of ‘normal. ‘

40. Having Enough Or Having Anything

Scrabbling for resources is okay, but scrabbling for _specific_ resources is better. I’ll use ammunition as an example, and heck, Doom (the PC game) uses this model really well. If you’re scrabbling for any ammo at all, you mostly can’t do anything while you hunt and search. In Doom, that’s… un-fun. But if you’ve got plenty of bullets but what you REALLY NEED to handle your problem is rockets, you can waste bullets while hunting rockets.

Basically you don’t want your mechanics to say ‘well, don’t bother, you can’t do shit right now. ‘

 

2016’s Lessons Of Gaming #3: 21-30

21. Play Simple Games.

Every game mechanic you play with is a possible game mechanic you can repurpose and reuse. Build a library. There are a lot of traditional games, like Briscola and Klondike and Freecell and Pyramid that all teach you ways cards and components can interact with one another. Look at Uno. Look at Cribbage. Can you redo Chess? Can you make Checkers interesting?

22. Themes Are Usually Pretty Shallow.

You can usually take any game and strip off its theme and still have an interesting mechanical heart. If you do that you can see different ways to use those same ideas. Bang! and Werewolf and The Resistance have similar cores, not themes. When you shift theme, you often can shift a lone mechanic to explore that.

23. Try To Design At Least One Game Which Uses Just A Standard Deck Of Cards

Do this so you can appreciate games with rules mostly in your head. These are games where the theme is explicitly resisted by the cards – whatever abstraction you choose, you’re not quite dealing with it.

24. Your Complexity Has To Live Somewhere.

Magic: The Gathering’s rules are a massive sprawl but they hide it by putting the complexity in keywords. Sentinels of the Multiverse, which doesn’t exist, tries to put all the explanation for things on rules with very little keywording or rules chunking. Magic: The Gathering is a 25-year old game that’s never stopped growing. Sentinels of the Multiverse is a pretty decent phone game.

When your game gets complicated, you have to put that complicated stuff somewhere. It can be in the manual and people reference, or it can be on the game pieces where people can check it. Recognise when you’re wasting space.

Oh and if other people are using game terms from another game to refer to your mechanics that don’t have that kind of keyword term? You probably need a term for it.

25. Recognise Ragequits

If your game is too frustrating, players will just say ‘fuck it, whatever’ and ditch it. That’s on you. not them.

26. If Players Don’t Want To Play Your Game A Second Time, You’ve Probably Made It Too Predictable/Boring.

That is, of course, not counting artwork reasons – people have an attachment to objects and if your game looks like ass, it’ll put people off. Not every game is for everyone, naturally, so that’s a factor, but if players who are Into This Thing don’t want to play again, that’s bad.

27. Print And Play Players Are So Much More Dedicated Than I Thought.

Fuckers will sleeve stuff, they will cut out 90+ cards, they will use chips and cups to make printables work. There’s a real ethic to them. There are numerous print-and-play aficionados who want the majority of their money to go to the game makers rather than publishers.

28. NEVER NEVER NEVER Use JUST COLOUR To Convey Crucial Game Information.

Your entire game will just SHAKE TO A HALT for ~10% of players. Like, access is its OWN huge umbrella, but colour is the BIGGEST one I see we make mistakes on in a big way. Blue meeples and cyan meeples? Not a good look. Red meeples and green meeples and they need to stand next to each other? Also not a good look.

Look into tokens. Flat, visible tokens with a symbolic design, then make those designs distinct.

29. Gender Stuff!

It’s invisible ink for a lot of guys who make games. Be mindful of it, you can encourage more people to play. Don’t use all guys for your examples. Don’t use Just Male pronouns for players in the rules. If the cast of your game is all dudes diegetically, why? Istanbul is a lovely game which avoids being racist and exploitative and yet it has literally no women in its art or coverage – which is one of those problems that comes up when you assume and assign a default.

30. There Is Literally No Idea Too Silly To Make Into A Game.

In 2016, I saw games about:

  • Being a Jane Austen novel protagonist
  • Dating monsters
  • Bamboo farming
  • Hacking The Man
  • Quashing Uprisings in the Colonies
  • Trading salt
  • Having the best harem of maids
  • Giant Robot Maintenance & Repair

Teaching just one semester I saw games about:

  • Betting on horse racing
  • Being the most beloved chicken
  • Growing illicit turnips
  • Being a Mary-Poppins style supernatural Nanny for toddlers including a young Lovecraft
  • Fighting the Heartless from Kingdom Hearts
  • Dismantling an enormous cybersquid
  • Pitching movies while drunk

Tabletop is the wild goddamn west. YOU DO NOT NEED TO MAKE ZOMBIE SHIT HERE

2016’s Lessons Of Gaming #2: 11-20

11. There Is No Game Idea Too Small To Be Worth Trying To Make Interesting.

The Botch is 24 cards. Pie Crimes is 20 cards. Love Letter is 16 cards. You don’t need a lot of cards to make your game worth playing. Good ideas can pack a lot of fun into a small space. Think about what you can do with a small amount of space, or if you can make a game that’s as simple as mods to another game.

12. Corollary To 11, At Drivethrucards, You Can’t Buy An Order That’s Less Than 20 Cards.

Games that are 1-5 cards can be good ‘filler’ then. Basically if you try to buy 9 cards DTC will say ‘hey, why not these products to fill your order out.’ If you like doing artwork, but don’t want to sell specific products, you can also put up say, Magic: The Gathering tokens you devise for people to use as filler.

13. You Can Patch Rules But You Can’t Patch Cards.

Players who buy your cards can’t get fixed copies very easily. If it’s on a card, you kinda have to stick to it – players who change their opinions. Write rules accordingly.

14. Oh My God Writing Rules Is So Much Harder Than You Think.

Programmers complain about their jobs but they at least get reasonably consistent interpreters. Rules is trying to code random humans. You will not be able to communicate them clearly in just one way. Text rules, diagram rules, video rules – every one of them you can make is useful.

15. Rules: Get Your Theme For The Game Down And Let It Come Out In Rule Writing.

Rules have a character voice, you can use it. The Botch is written like it wants to fight you, Middleware is written very precisely and technically. This helps with the tone of both games and at the same time can give players a feel for the rules and how precisely they need to track them.

16. Players Have Limits On What They Can Track.

Ideally, use boring things to track boring things. Counters and tokens are not particularly interesting. Having them track boring things like money or distance is fine. But if a player’s doing something super interesting like a live-or-die counter or a extra chance reroll kinda thing, put that on a card.

17. We Have Mechanics To Overcome Quarterbacking.

They are worth designing. Hidden information is the best start, BUT, Some players are just gunna quarterback and try to argue about rational actions with hidden information. Burn these players. More accurately, make it so the hidden information in anti-quarterback co-op mechanics can have a really distinct effect.

18. Moving Numbers Can Confuse Players.

try to make numbers move EITHER:

  • In one direction
  • Not Much

If your game has players tracking a value like 13+3+1+3+8+9+1 that’s awkward but okay, or 12-4+3, that’s fine too. But a value like 13+4-8+1+1+1+3-3+12 is asking players to do Harder Math and More Of It, it makes it easier to make mistakes.

19. Minimise The Opportunities For Innocents To Cheat.

In Love Letter, some cards give you actions you must do, and then react based on hidden information. An unaware player may not understand; You can design these places where a player might (for example) accidentally break the game by hiding a ‘wrong’ card. Try to avoid that.

Edit: Whoops, missed one:

20. Players Will Get Your Rules Wrong

With that in mind, try to make your game rules so they can handle some mistakes without falling into mush. In Magic: The Gathering, the game doesn’t break if you play lands over critters, or tap lands THEN pay costs. That kind of thing as acceptable ‘wrongs.’ That’s a game with a super tight set of rules, a really hard codebase for rules, and it can handle things being ‘done wrong.’ Make your rules robust.

2016’s Lessons Of Gaming #1: 1-10

Late 2016, I put together a twitter thread of random tips, thoughts and ideas based on my experience spending a year making games. To make them accessable and readable, I’ve expanded on them and posted them here and will continue to do so until I run out of the original list.

 

1. Time Spent Reinventing The Wheel Does Teach You How Wheels Work.

Some mechanics just work and you don’t need to mess with that. A good example is deck building. Designing a deck builder is a ‘lot of work’ and deck building works so well you don’t need to get cute with the basic mechanism. Do try building one and see what it teaches you about the process.

2. Free And Cheap Resources Are Out There.

www.game-icons.net provided the art for ~110 cards from Middleware or the core of them. On itch.io there are a lot of options for game assets that are usable in card games provided you’re willing to dedicate the time to look through them. You can avoid a game looking ‘cliparty’ by making sure the game either has a lot of varied art styles or that the game has one single art style. Several

3. Player Attention Follows Patterns.

Just as a single example, the way players parse information on a card follows a pattern, from top to bottom. When people handle cards, their eyes follow an intuitive path down them. It’s literally the flow of information on the card. Learn it, use it. Basically the information players use the most wants to sit in the middle, and information that’s not as important sits out to the edges. Use this when you represent each card – just leaving a face mostly alone and changing one big detail in the centre will make it easier for players to know they can ignore that other information.

4. Lead Times For Print-On-Demand In Australia Are About A Month.

Finish November’s game in August so you have time to fix print problems. This is true for DriveThruCards, and mostly true for GameCrafter. If you want to work on multiple projects, view the order/lead time as development time for the next project.

5. Print-On-Demand Is SUPER CROWDED.

In the DriveThruCards store for us, some of our games have sold literally zero copies; any copies sold are to us, for physical distribution at conventions. That’s not to say the market isn’t reasonably active — when one of our projects gets attention, it gets a lot of attention. There are casual browsers but they’re swamped with options. This makes reviewers, like DiceTower and Shut up and Sit Down and their ilk generally disinterested in your work: the market is simply too crowded for them to open their doors to print-on-demand games.

6. A Lot Of That Print-On-Demand Crowding Is SUPER GARBAGE.

I have to compete with Bible collector cards using clipart and broken HTML ads. If you like that stuff fine, I mean, they’ve got kickstarters that made them a few grand, they’re ahead of me in the game. But the high quality stuff is rarer than the low quality stuff. Literally, there is a strong place here for someone who can do quality control/review and consideration for this marketplace. Hint hint.

7. You Don’t Know Enough About Fonts.

I’m not kidding, not at all. Go to font places. Build libraries of fonts. Get every free novel font you like. Get font maker’s contact info. AND KEEP YOUR FONT INFORMATION STRAIGHT. We almost had a disaster when we released a game with a font we weren’t commercially permitted to. Whenever I make a game now I save the games’ fonts in a directory with it just for ease of reference and version control.

8. Your Game Wants To Have Three Fonts AT BEST.

One for body text, one for title text, one for the logo. A gold standard font to look at for game cards that want to convey text nicely is Beleren. It’s the MTG font (almost). Do not use Beleren (as a matter of taste, not legality), but look at how it handles being made small OR large. This is a huge area to dive into but at the same time: There are special kinds of font nerds who want to chip in and give you advice for your card designs as if you’re writing a full document. There are good, basic principles of font management and text, but they are all flexible and mutable. Know what you’re trying to do.

9. Fonts: Your Logo Font Can Be As Fucky As You Want.

It’s basically a piece of visual art shaped like words, rather than ‘text. ‘ per se. A totally hecking weird logo is generally a bad idea but it’s not a dealbreaker if it makes you feel good about it.

10. Your Comfort With Your Work Matters.

You’re not going to get rich in the Print-on-Demand market. Making Perfect is not as good as Making Content — ‘content’ in this case as in ‘whatsoever state I am’ rather than ‘media churn. ‘ There is a Good Enough. It is better for you to get a bad version of something you want to exist than to never ever see that thing exist ever. The best thing about Print-on-demand card design is you’re very agile. Ideas that don’t work This Time can be implemented Next Time, and games that are appealing to two people are still games worth doing.

 

Gamecrafting Skulk: Some Notes

I try to tell people about the tools I’m using fairly aggressively, which is in part to make sure people around me can make measured, reasonable responses and judge whether they’re good tools for their own projects, but it’s also because my memory is just awful. Yesterday I received my art-proof copy of Skulk from The Gamecrafter (hence TGC), and I wanted to put some info down here on that front.

First of all price. TGC say they make their money on manufacturing, so the profits per unit are mostly mine. Skulk is a small game with a few mats, a pile of tokens and a small deck of cards, and it cost me ~$21 to get made, and ~$12 shipping. This is broadly speaking, a good rate; Australian shipping prices are a bit rough, but by comparison, a copy of One Night Ultimate Werewolf in my local store is about $40.

Second, time frame. TGC shipped me the game in nineteen days total: this is too slow for a one-month turnaround (for me), but if you plan ahead and aren’t on a schedule like me, this is a robust option. After manufacturing it took two weeks to arrive, so there’s a basic breakdown of the time distribution.

Third, quality. the box, mats and tokens are all very reasonable quality – definitely standard for a mid-level board game. Nothing seems cheap, but at the same time you don’t get the indulgence of things like embossed inlays like Ra or custom trays like in Lasceaux. I am however pretty happy with it, though I will continue to use DrivethruCards for all my pure card games; their card quality feels subtly better, though I can’t put my finger on why.

Fourth, user friendliness. The interface for TGC is pretty good for me; it behaves reasonably intuitively. I did make a project with a lot of replication in it, though: Skulk has a large number of tokens with repeated designs, and not a lot of matter to the orientation. It’s certainly a decent website for me as someone who primarily generates flat images with GIMP rather than using some fancier exporting program service like I’m sure other, better programs can do.

Also included here is this, a little video of my unboxing the product, so you can see how it looks in hand. Sorry about the judder, hanging camera and all:

Victory Points

I really don’t like the term victory points.

I get why it exists; it’s a useful crossgame metaphor, it’s a very utilitarian idea for what you want to do in a game, it explains itself decently well – these are the points that get you victory.

Thing is, it’s such a bald metaphor. If your game can have no idea of how to describe ‘the thing that makes you win,’ you’re kind of tipping your hand about what you’ve spent time and effort thinking about. In The Botch, you’re fighting over Diamonds. In Dark Signs, you’re trying to control nightmares. In The Dragon’s Favour, you’re trying to earn favour.

In any of these games, just having an idea of the metaphor of what you’re trying to encourage the players to do lets you step away from the name ‘victory point.’ I don’t even mind the mechanic! Victory points are a good mechanism for representing a variety of things!

Just don’t call them victory points! It’s a half-way measure!

Life Is Strange Is Strange

Art of Chloe and Max
Life Is Strange, Together; fanart, by Sakimichan

With the announcement that Life Is Strange is getting a sequel (what, why), commentators I respect (though mostly just Angus) have brought the strangely positive critical echo of now to bear on the original impressions of then. Specifically, the idea that now, we seem to think better of LiS than we did at the time, and that maybe that’s for a good reason.

One thing I’ve found unifying the commentary and reaction to Life Is Strange is ‘I really liked it, but it had problems,’ a meme that most writers seemed to arrive at independently when they weren’t rendering other forms of Hot Take upon the work or using lenses of queer theory to broaden what the game Wasn’t Really Actually Saying Because The Authors Are Dead But Also The Living People In Question Are Sort Of Ninnies.

Anyway, with this in mind I realised if I wanted to show people what I thought of Life Is Strange I’d need to link them to four articles, which was inefficient when I could link them to one article, now, here, and have the links to those articles within, just like with my Hotline Miami series. And so:

Initial Review
Deeper Look 1: Themes Are Hard
Deeper Look 2: Endings Are Hard
Deeper Look 3: Meaning Is Hard

If you’re interested in seeing more of this kind of writing, driven more by a desire to help you connect to work you like from a critical perspective, and to examine things for their own sake than by an urge to sell units, I don’t know, maybe tell me sometime if you liked it, or how.

The Sierra Death

Tonight, I got to see this:

As with all such things I found myself overthinking it. Particularly, in this case, I got to thinking about the Sierra Death.

they were content, y’know?

It was pretty evident when you first played an early Sierra game that your character was pretty limited in animation. You only ever got to see a character the same way, and most of the time, any action only yielded an [okay] or maybe a joke, which was definitely content. But if you wanted spectacle, if you wanted visuals, if you wanted to see something on the screen change or do something, you usually had to die.

I think that’s the solution of the Sierra death. Yes, it sucked to lose progress – and these days, a good autosave system should cover that. But it’s not just a fail state. It’s a tiny little moment of comedy spectacle. Somehow, dying in a ridiculous way that’s funny is a lot of fun. Dying a lot of times, frustratingly for things that aren’t discernibly your fault (like I’m looking at you, Souls games), that’s not a ton of fun. But the more I think back on it, the Sierra games were at least putting their deaths after interesting or comedy things.

Not that they were blameless, too. The maze in Space Quest ][ was breathtakingly bad.

Maybe something to bear in mind, developers.

Game Anatomy

I’ve mentioned this a few times, so let’s make it somewhere easy to read.

A game anatomy is a simple, readable list of what goes into your game. It can be detailed, it can be simple. Here’s an example for a really simple game of mine, Queer Coding:

  • 1 Front-cover card (rules link on back)
  • 25 Player cards
    • 5 sets of:
      • Q card
      • U card
      • E card
      • E card
      • R card
  • 1 Back-cover card (blank back)

This gives me a simple plan for what I need to put together to make the game. Here’s another example, from Skulk:

  • 1 Top box design
  • 1 Bottom box design
  • 15 Thief tokens
    • Numbered 1-5, coloured 1-3
  • 8 Dragon tokens
  • 40 cards
  • 1 rules booklet
    • 8 pages
  • 48 gold coin tokens

You can fill these in with as much detail as you want, or as little. It’s a simple form of a plan and you can fill it out with specific card/rules text too, if you want to sort that out. Here’s an example from Dark Signs:

  • 1 Cover face card
  • 16 Grid Cards
  • 24 vanilla number cards
    • 4 1 Rune
    • 4 2 Rune
    • 4 3 Rune
    • 4 5 Rune
    • 4 7 Rune
    • 4 11 rune
  • 4 Offering – choose next dream
  • 9 Special low-impact cards
    • 3 Awakening – end nightmare now
    • 3 Restless – ditch best card
    • 3 Touch From Beyond – regrow card
  • 6 Special mid-impact cards
    • 2 Haunting Loss – cards all give 1 st
    • 2 Jealous Rage – card swap
    • 2 Final Word – double card value, withdraw
  • 3 Rares
    • 1 Omen – start weak, strong next time
    • 1 Invoke The Spider – make an egg sac of problem
    • 1 The Sign Of Un – always 13
  • 1 cover back card

So here are some examples of notes of how a card game can come together. I hope this is useful advice!