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.

MTG: Pet Cards XV, Theros Block

Oh man, I remember this set! I got to draft this set for the first time in years. We sat down and did an in-home draft with a friend’s box, and it was super interesting. There was a wide variety of skill levels, and I lost – hard – to a runaway lifelinker with my mono-black aggro devotion deck. It was a lot of fun to play, though, and I remembered feeling that it was time to reboot my online account and get back to playing.

I have quite a few staples from Theros block. As with Charms, and Cluestones and Gates in Return To Ravnica, there are plenty of perfectly good cards in this set to build around or to always have on hand, and the Gods of Theros represent some of the better bulk mythics you’ll fine.

Except Keranos, weirdly.

You’ll never be wild about using Temples in your mana base, but you’ll also never be that unhappy with them compared to most of the lesser alternatives. You’ll not always be able to make the best use of cards like Heliod and Pharika, but having them around as potentially useful cheap threats in midrange and control decks works out well.

Oh, and Content Warning: I will show a card with a spider on it. Sorry!

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MTG: Vintage Turning Room

I talk about materiality of games, and I’ve talked about how Magic: The Gathering has this invisible materiality that impacts how the games get designed. Now in some cases, this materiality is things like deck size and tournament duration and things that keep players shuffling and interacting with the material object. I’ve said that Commander, the format is transformed in terms of speed if you simply ban every single card that says search’ and ‘library,’ or roughly 600 cards. No land-out-of-library based ramp, no more tutors, no more repetitive gamestates.

There is, however, another type of materiality that Magic: The Gathering tries to make invisible, and that’s cost.

Magic isn’t, despite what you may hear, an actually expensive hobby. It can be – you can spend a lot, but to play the game itself has a lot of really cheap venues. Digital versions of the game can be played at the highest level of access for literally nothing, for example, and then there’s MTGO, where cards’ values are largely deflated, so if you want to play (for example) a deck with Bayous, there’s a marked price difference: Continue reading

Project: The Pipesman Conspiracy

Hey, this is kinda a cool one.

I’m working on this little game. It is, as far as I understand, never going to be for sale anywhere. It’s going to be available only as a charity option in Desert Bus. As I write this, I’m finishing up the first round of beta card faces.

The game is a secret goal, area control game about the city of Nsburg, the setting of Loading Ready Run’s QWRPline, and I’m making it so you can bid on it, and win it, for charity!

This is a really weird feeling? Like I wish I’d gotten into that space of making fan games, when people would think it was reasonable that I was making not-for-profit free games which built in spaces people liked already, like Star Wars amateur card games or the like, before I vaulted into making proper games, games with concerns like copyright and stuff, because I was selling them for money.

I mean I don’t regret it, but still. It’s nice to work with someone else’s concepts, someone else’s art. I really liked the way that the game came into being as I tried to express this idea of a slightly crap, but very funny conspiracy.

Anyway, with that in mind, here are some examples of card faces in production!

This game is almost a wallet game – the town of Nsburg can be made with as few as 16 cards, and the goals can be a few more cards on top of that, to make sure they’ve got some variety to them. You don’t want the game to be about the same end-goals every time, right?

The two goals are meant to represent two different options – one that’s kind of easy to do, if nobody is messing with you, and one that’s a lot harder to do, but much more specific. The idea is that you’re meant to be able to arrange the city of Nsburg based on your particular interpretation of the incredibly vague plan of the Pipesman.

Now, the game that remains might get stripped down a little bit and rethemed maybe a little bit to be a different game, but there is going to be at least one feature that definitely only exists in the special Nsburg version of the game.

Now, when this goes up, odds are good the game is on its way to Canada. We’ll see how this goes!


The reason that perpetual motion machines don’t work is friction. No matter how little energy you think is being expended in the process, there’s always a part of it that’s losing a little bit of that energy, a little bit of that effort, in the process of just working. If a wheel turns, some of the energy it’s using turning is gone thanks to being spent on the process of turning. No matter how clever or cute your system may look, if it’s not getting energy from somewhere to overcome that energy that’s going somewhere, you are running down.

This happens in games, too. I’ve been playing some old dos games, and the interfaces are often the things that I really struggle with, because just the mental effort of getting used to using those buttons to do those things and get used to how it wants to work is a flipping chore. War Wind is a real prize of an old RTS – heck, almost all RTSes are like this – where the lack of things like shortcut keys or even a map that responds cleanly to ideas like dragging and dropping is a huge pain in the ass. Memorising all the shortcuts is the best option but then that’s the same kind of labour. It’s friction.

In tabletop games this exists too. The math you have to do to resolve a combat is friction, and I think that 4th Edition D&D does have a bit too much fiddly friction in its feat system. Specific clausal conditions generate that friction, they lose player energy and effort.

Shuffling is friction. I love Sector 86, but no lies, every few minutes every player sits around waiting for the deck to have a good ole shuffle. Fetchlands in Magic: The Gathering are awesome, but they also add seven minutes or so of time to an otherwise unremarkable match of the game.

In games, you are asking your players to put in effort, and some of that effort is spent in places. If I am losing effort on the things that don’t feel rewarding, I am spending energy managing existing.

This is, incidentally, part of why depression is so rough on people’s lives, in case you needed another useful metaphor to help you not treat people with depression badly.


Ways To Fail And Be Failed

Trying to be concise with a concept. This time, the concept is from Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay On The Pain Of Playing Video Games.

In this, he describes three different types of failure that you can encounter:

Failures of Execution. You messed up.

Failures of Motivation. You weren’t encouraged to do the right thing.

Failures of Function. You did the right thing, but it didn’t work.

As a player, what does it matter how you fail? You may have no idea why you’re failing, or what the type of failure is. Watching Lucy Morris play The Witcher 2, I watched all three happen in quick succession, without any indication that they were at all happening.

The section of the game is a stealth section in the mission The Search For Triss Merigold. First of all, the game has a failure of function – you can be stuck in a place where you can’t earn any money, and your only alternative to the stealth section is to spend a lot of money. This means you’re presented with a choice that can’t be a choice; you didn’t have any reason to turn up with your pockets bulging and you can’t go do anything else to earn money.

Then there was a failure of motivation. The correct course of action in the game was to sneak into a camp, avoid several guards, sneak to a location, dose a chef, then sneak out through a path that opens up. This particular sequence of events was so obscure, so utterly without, that Lucy didn’t even know she wasn’t doing the right thing. When she messed up in this stealth section, at all, she was killed without any recourse – which meant anything she tried that didn’t work was immediately discarded. She wasn’t getting a clear feedback on why she was failing, and that meant she had no idea what the right thing was to do.

Eventually, Lucy opted for a walkthrough, because what other alternative was there?

And then, then there were failures of execution. Lucy knew what she had to do, but still died a few times trying to get there. This was extremely frustrating, but the knowledge that she was working towards the correct plan was better than nothing.

Alright, fine, The Witcher 2′s stealth section sucks, but what does this mean for me and my life, you wonder?

Well, As a designer, what does it matter how a player fails?

First, failures of function are on you – the player can’t make the game behave right, you’re the one that does that.

A failure of motivation lies more on you than on them, too – because you want to induce them to do things in your game. A player might not care enough to pay attention, sure, and that’s not entirely on you, but you can do more to guide players than you think, and plenty of games have messed up letting players know what they should be doing.

And failures of execution, if they happen regularly, may be a sign that you’re expecting too much of a player. They’re also the kind of failure that players find the most satisfying to overcome. Succeeding despite a game failing is less satisfying than succeeding despite your own previous failures.

Game Pile: Fallout 2

Sometimes when you talk about a game, it’s easy to fall into the same model of examining the thing based on what it’s trying to do (like with Deus Ex) or its place in history (like with Ziggurat). You can sometimes examine a game based on its themes or its story, and those are all valid ways to examine a game.

Yet I have made the case that games are too large to have single defining characteristics. That I found Deus Ex: Mankind Divided hollow and dull isn’t the same thing as saying that the game was bad, not really, not in any kind of definitive way, it just tells you that I found it kinda dim and if you care about things I care about in games, you will probably find it unsatisfying. Anyone could find something in the work and take that perception in its own direction and so on and that’s the glory of media criticism and games journalism.

When examining Fallout 2, not only is that game now far too large to have a single defining trait, it’s also part of a piece of gaming history, a legacy that also destroys the ability of the critic to meaningfully give a truly broad perspective of it in a meaningful context. To write about Fallout 2 comprehensively would be a book, not an article.

Instead, what if we focus on something in a game?

What if we dug down into just one thing about a game?

Let’s talk about The Highwayman. Continue reading

Kobold Testing Your Dungeon

This is going to feature some meanspirited conversation that implies kobolds are dorky, nebbish little critters invented to be dungeon fodder and their lives are disposable.

Anyway, have you considered using piles of kobolds to failure-test your dungeon designs? The principle is pretty simple, based on these assumptions:

  • Kobolds will never get something right the first time
  • Kobolds die really easily

For a kobold test, you have an arbitarily large number of kobolds. A number of them comparable to an adventuring party – four or five – proceed into your dungeon, with a line behind them of other kobolds.

When the line of kobolds reach the first point of making a decision, have them make the worst decision, or at least, ensure they don’t commit to the right decision. Kobolds are remarkably inefficient wiith buffs as well, so if there are things in the dungeon that protect or insulate kobolds, the lead kobold will take it, but the kobold can then die going onwards.

Kobolds fall into every trap, and they will kill a kobold.

Kobolds will eat every thing you put in the dungeon, they will mess up on every puzzle, and they will die every time they fail.

Kobolds trade their lives – dearly – for the lives of an enemy. Every five kobolds can defeat an enemy of roughly equal skill to a player, dying in the process. If an enemy can defeat five kobolds at once, with area effects or the like, then the kobolds will pour infinitely to them andyour dungeon is not kobold safe.

Kobolds can learn from one another though: Once something kills a kobold, no other kobold will fall for the same problem. So a trap that kills one kobold and doesn’t change or do something different as a follow-up, will not kill any more kobolds.

What’s the purpose?

Well, you can treat this count of dead kobolds as a measure for how frustrating your dungeon can be. It’s a way to estimate the ‘worst case’ scenario for your dungeon. It’s able to find ways that your dungeon can become a frustrating arrest. And it’s a way of disposing of an arbitarily large number of kobolds.

Game Pile: Commander Keen 2

Okay, I’ve burrowed down on some specific points in games. Like how I used Hyrule Warriors to discuss hyperintertextuality, which sucks, or how I’m going to use Skyrim to talk about Rick Astley (that’s a teaser). And I’ve done a bit of a historical thing on Commander Keen 1, based on the video about stimulated recall, and if you get into it, Commander Keen 2 isn’t really a tangibly different game.

If I wanted to explain to you how Commander Keen 2 worked, or what it was doing or its values, I’d have to really pull out the shovels and get into it, to dig deep, to really go out of my way to pick at some seriously tiny nit, and you’d have to be pretty weird, and pretty obssessive about the details in old videogames to care about that kind of thing. I mean, you’d have to be a real dork and isn’t this just overthinking, isn’t this the kind of obssessive detail-oriented comma-fricking that we disdain when people do it of high-faluting fancy academic books and frame-by-frame movie analysese.

Anyway, so I’m going to do that.

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Arcing Ruck

During July 2017 I went on what I can only really think of a bit of a bender working on games. Specifically I was working on games pretty much constantly for a few weeks there, and as a byproduct, made five titles in about three weeks.

You’ve heard hype about some of them. Sector 86, the little push-your-luck blackjack-a-like that I played a bunch of times. Good Cop, Bear Cop. Pushpins. There were quite a few titles that I tried out and shared on Twitter. Some of them became proper, full blown game releases, games I happily play now with my family and advocate for you to buy, with money.

One of these games was Ruck. Continue reading

Project: Urban Magecraft

The Pitch: Urban wizards fighting terrible conspiracies while petitioning strange entities for their magic, except you’re not just playing one of the mages, you’re also playing one of the other player’s power sources.


It’s a Blades in the Dark hack where you’re playing urban mages in a modern urban fantasy setting. Rather than that Vancian, science-y view of magic, though, everyone has a unique magic type and source, which works by interacting with some otherworldly entity. Some mages petition fae sources, some channel an animal totem (?), some make deals with demons and some learn secrets from the Stars.

The thing is, every one of those entities is played by another player in the group. You get two sheets at the start of the game, where one represnts a power source for another player, and one represents your own mage. You get to concept how your mage relates to their power, but when you want to use magic, you petition the player who plays the entity your magic flows from.

Obviously the incentive system would need to be set up so that while the otherworldly entities don’t want to just give up power. The entity might be like a fun faerie party buddy who wants to collect secrets, or an ineffable entity that can’t communicate meaningfully and has to make exchanges with beads or something, or it might be your own werewolf nature, and accessing that power has to be more of a tussle or a struggle. But the point is, that a player is using a character sheet to make choices rather than a DM. The entities want to bequeath power, but they want to do it in exchange for the right things.


Oh jesus christ, a ton of stuff.

See the thing for me is that I’ve never made an RPG before. I’ve made RPG content, but never an RPG from the ground up. Even one as a hack.

I’d want a template for Blades in the Dark to fill in, which I understand some people have out there already.

I’d want some art, and some playtesters.

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!

MTG: Pet Cards XIII, Innistrad Block

God, I love this set. I love Innistrad for its flavour and its aesthetics, and also because it sort of represents the reality I understood of the world growing up. Trust the masters, trust the pastors, because they know what’s going on. Outside is dark, outside is lonely, do not go outside, do not risk the night.

There are wolves.

And they will make you one of them.

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Game Pile: Wolfenstein 3D

You know what Wolfenstein 3D is. Probably. if you don’t, here’s your basic rundown.

Wolfenstein 3D is a classic first-person shooter game that was both pretty good and thanks to shareware, widely distributed. One of the games made by id Software, as part of their arc of changing the face of PC gaming, Wolfenstein 3D was a spiritual successor to an old stealth game on the Apple II and other platforms, Castle Wolfenstein. The game started with you trapped in a dungeon full of nazis, with a limited toolset to escape that was, basically, killing nazis.

There, okay, we all done with the basics? Don’t need me explaining graph paper and stuff? Cool. Moving on!

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Design Teleology

Today (when I’m writing this) was a Note Revision day. Basically the way I’m doing my PhD research is mostly reading things and taking notes, then one day a week I’m just crunching all those notes into something coherent. If I can’t explain it, I didn’t get it, so if my notes have a hole in it, I have to go back and re-examine them. This is in my opinion, a good practice to get myself in the habit of re-examining what I knew, and to treat this study as a marathon rather than a sprint. I can read a book and parrot back a few things in it from memory pretty easily, and, since my field of study is relatively obscure and even quite fragmented I can even make it look like I’m super smart just by wavering around on something I read and then give you a mangled explanation, but that’s not understanding it. The ACE system taught me to read a text and quote a few lines, after all, and anything I can do to annoy those miserable arse-wombles, I will do every chance I get.

Anyway, today’s notes were on a book I’ve mentiond before, called Game Research Methods, which was compiled and edited by Lankoski and Bjork, and it’s a book primarily about introducing some tools for researching videogames.

This is a solid book and it’s particularly solid because the opening chapters start with ideas like ‘what is research‘ and ‘how do we prove research,’ and by the end it’s talking about the idea of Grounded Theories where you start by gathering a heckton of data about game, then assemble your theories out of what interesting patterns you see in it. That’s different from conventional research where you start with a hypothesis and then try to gather data that will prove what you’re hypothesising is wrong.

Anyway, one of the things this book does that I’m not wild about, but which isn’t strictly speaking bad, is that it suggests that one of the mandatory things for researching a videogame is playing it exhaustively to ensure an understanding of the systems.

This is something that bugs me, because games do tons of stuff under the hood and you don’t know how it’s doing it. This vision of game design is kind of muffled, because I can go through any game, any game I love, as many times as I want, and I won’t know what the design is trying to do, I can only deal with what the design does in my experience of it. This leads to a problem with gamer mentalities where having played a lot of a game is seen as proof you understand the game, where buying a lot of games makes you informed on how games get made.

It’s a pretty well known fact that games do stuff you don’t know about and won’t understand. You can throw a brick and hit a story about this. Sometimes it’s a bug that people got used to. Or how about the ways games deliberately lie to you, not just about plot, but lie to you through interface.

But here’s the thing.

Is the experience of playing the thing we call a videogame, or is the device designed to give you that experience the thing we call a videogame?

3rd Ed D&D – The Whale Monk

We talk a good game about how weird balance was back in Dungeons and Dragons but sometimes it just made a kind of sense. Druids were really good because they could shapeshift into animals and also cast spells. Fighters were bad because they had to stand in one spot and whale on something to get the most of their abilities, and no amount of hit point damage compared to ‘dead on the spot from having your soul ripped out.’

There are however, some odd places that the balance of the game just blind-spotted. It’s a bit of a canard, back in 3rd edition that every book had a broken thing in it, and the more stuff in the book, the more chance you’d find something that slipped up and had more broken stuff in it. Almost every splatbook in 3rd edition featured a class that was busted weak and another that was busted strong, and another that just didn’t work properly. Yet nonetheless, it was in a published book, and that means that it has some reality to it, some unvirtuality that leaves the creative mind of the DM fit to examine the option and decide if it’s okay, or not.

Let me show you something extremely silly and extremely powerful that a reasonable DM might give you a funny look over.

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MTG: Hallar Great

So, there’s this enby.

I love making commander decks. Even the ones that get stomped a fair bit. It’s kind of hard to call a commander deck good, or bad, because Commander 1v1 is such a swingy format with nonsense flying around. It’s like a slightly more splashy vintage where the early turns don’t tend to matter quite as much. You can sometimes just get infinited out by a god draw that the other deck is never planning on actually doing.

What’s more, there are usually a lot of different ways to build a commander deck – my Wasitora for example is nothing like the Wasitora’s I’ve seen online, where I made a value Jund deck and other people make a dragon tribal removal-heavy deck. I’ve been looking

Hallar, the Firefletcher is my latest passion.

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Print and Play: Adventure Town, Pt 5

Today, I wanted to try and finish a prototype of Adventure Town. One sit down session where I hustle my tuchus off and come out of it with something I can present like a real game designer. I honestly feel bad about how long it’s taken to make Adventure Town because part of the point of it was to make something I could hammer out in less than a month as a side-project and distribute freely to my Patreon sponsors as a purely digital product.

Still, what is experimentation if not for the experiment!

Nonetheless, progress. I sat down and tried to think about what more I needed to finish Adventure Town’s first printing. The systems are all in place, really, for what I consider a ‘basic run’ of the game.


The system of Adventure Town is a little bit like a sort of Machi Koro like game. You buy parts of the town, and then adventurers come to town, spend their money, and the businesses in town react to those adventurers. They’ll give you money, or prestige, or maybe they’ll work on your personal quests.

There’s the common sheet, your personal sheet, and then the game has dice and cards. The idea is that for a print and play game, the cards are easily made and reused for each game, and there aren’t many of them – maybe 25 or so.

These cards are all meant to represent adventurers that come to the town at the end of each turn, and that means the card space is going to feature some visual stuff, a picture of the adventurer so that people can focus on that character and know when they show up. So, ideally, they want to be pretty diverse and distinct from one another.

This means the game is built between three different aesthetic spots: The board, the cards, and the player boards, and now

Now I have a problem.

I don’t want to spend a ton of money or time on Adventure Town. I have some art assets I can use already, and now I’m wondering if I should use existing art assets. With that in mind, I’m going to ask my Patreon subscribers for more specific opinions, but the basics are am I going to use the art of FinalbossBlues, which is pixelly, and make the game more like running a JRPG town, or will I use the ink art of the Terrible Character Portrait Pack?

We’ll see how it goes!

Next Step

We’re in what some people are calling a Golden Year for roll-and-write games, which is nice but I’m trying to not let what those games are doing influence me too much. Some of the things you can do with good production values include booklets that change one another, or sequential pages or rules changes, while I’m trying to make a game you can print out and conveniently.

Still, because I have free distribution and production costs (more or less) I can afford to give players a lot of options if making those options is relatively easy. And thus we come to my next thought – offering multiple town maps. The first thought was using cards to represent the town, but part of the point of this game design is to make it so players can draw on and deface the board itself. I was thinking I might want to allow – if the design allows for it – oddball things like being able to blow up or change rules on some locations.

But I’m getting distracted. The point is: Card based board is not an option. Especially because the point of the board is to be replaceable with a simple printing! We’ll talk more about alternate board stuff once I’ve printed out and played with some more boards!

Game Pile: Commander Keen 1: Marooned On Mars

This is an experiment. I explain it in the video, but the basic gist is this: There’s this idea called Stimulated Recall. The idea is that in research, you often want a participant to do something, then you ask them questions about that something. Stimulated Recall involves recording the task, and then getting the participant to watch the video and explain what they’ve seen on the screen.

This is a small experiment in doing this solo, and we’ll see if I have more to do in this vein. But we’ll come to that later.

‘Broken’ Games

With SGDQ under our belts, one thing I keep hearing is ‘broken’ games. “Break the game,” the term, mostly relates to being able to give a game something that shouldn’t work, and then have it work. Rolling out of bounds, jumping atop things you can’t normally, bouncing off surfaces that are meant to stop you, the way we talk about these behaviours is that the runner has broken the game.

I don’t like this expression.

Look, when you break the game, the game *stops*. That’s a break. That’s when the game comes into pieces. If you want a game to break let’s go to boot up some old DOS4GW games under windows and watch them immediately fall apart as they try to allocate into memory that literally does not exist. That’s a broken game, and hey, I got the game to conclude in record time.

No, what happens when you tell Strider or Pokemon or Super Mario World that you’re writing into some godforsaken region and clipping into a wall and swimming up and down a dirt track, is here’s something you weren’t designed to expect, so handle it. And the thing that’s amazing about a lot of these games is they do.

Making levels back in Quake days meant I got really sensitive about how you triggered things. It was entirely possible that you could design a level that was unwinnable because you put the trigger for ‘finish this level” on the subtly wrong side of a button. When you call a game that can be told you’re approaching the end point from Angle Q at a jajillion units per second, and it reacts to that by going okay boss then the game is the absolute opposite of broken.

It might be permissive. It might be forgiving. It might even be a bit dopey. But you didn’t break the game. You asked the game to do something ridiculous and it didn’t break.


Half Life’s Empty Promises

I think about @Campster‘s take on Half-Life 2 a lot.

There’s absolutely a line of conceptual continuity between Half-Life and Half-Life: And The Rest and Portal Babies. The first games were experiments in linear in-game storytelling, where rather than seize control, fix a camera and make you see things by conventional cinematives, the storytelling of Half-Life was being done while you acted in the space, and rather than concern themselves with how to frame the scene, they recognised that you would frame it yourself, naturally, if they just made it something you wanted to look at. This was really bold, and involves giving up a lot of control, which is something as a designer, you’re always loath to do. Letting players come up with their own stuff is very exciting but it can mean you literally waste effort.

Back when videogames were more like puzzle boxes, and you were expected to sit there nagging at one for months at a time instead of ditching it for another distraction, it was not uncommon to put more stuff in the game than you’d see on one natural playthrough. There are people who played Commander Keen who have no idea that they had secret levels. Small teams can do this – especially when they’re confronted with some ideas that don’t work or things that wind up being too hard getting junked and moved to other parts of a game. Some stuff that’s ‘too hard’ can get thrown into the content but made hard to get to, as a way to warn you about what you’re getting into. Hey, this level was hard to find, do you really think it’ll be easy to win?

Anyway, this mindset isn’t how things work when videogames cost as much as they do, and it’s harder to carve out exploratory stuff. When you make a linear sequence of narrative, you don’t have a lot of time to break between the game time and the narrative time. Half-Life always tried to keep those two time scales wedded to one another, even if the wedding was entirely illusory. You can go AFK at almost any point in the ‘time sensitive’ story of Half-Life and the game will pick up as you left off. You will always arrive just in time for the events you’re heading towards.

Do to that kind of thing you need to plan ahead, you need to make sure you have teams working on A, B, C, and D with the right priority of effort and the right control to make sure that D and C don’t fall flat because of something with A. That kind of planning just means that you’re going to have to get rid of all the uncontrolled stuff you can, shave away the ways players can create uncontrolled reactions in that extra space. This uncontrolled reaction space, by the way, is known as play.

So Half-Life is essentially a game that wants to minimise your ability to play it.

Pretty weird when you think about that, isn’t it?

This is honestly why some of the decisions and timing in Half-Life don’t make any sense. They’re always trying to minimise ways you can mess up the plan, and the big thing in the core of those plans is that you will advance. The only thing they let you do to break the plan is to die, and then you can come back for more. In essence, Half-Life creates an experience of a corridor, as per the above video.

The thing with this plan is as you shave bits off it, as you drop piece after piece of ‘play’ options, you wind up making this experience that’s focused more on continuity than on content. Anyone who’s worked on a draining project will tell you, when something is hard to make, you find every reason to ditch on the things that don’t matter, and you ditch on them hard. It’s why Half-Life is a corridor escape from a single room, and Half-Life 2 is a corridor escape from a single room that pretends it’s actually an open world with a destination. Look at Xin – a few drifting islands you explicitly can’t travel around or learn anything about.

I guess what I’m saying here is I don’t think there ever was meaning behind anything in Half-Life.

I have this idea, fuelled in part by the existence of expansions like Blue Shift and Opposing Forces that at no point at all did anyone involved in Half-Life really have a ‘point’ for the story. If you can hand the work over to a stranger, and not care if they introduce an entire new enemy faction to your story, you clearly don’t have a vision for what should be in your story. If there was content worth expanding, you could have given them that.

The story of Half-Life, told in one long sequence, rings of someone who is really, really worried you’re going to get bored before they get to the ‘end,’ and so they keep inventing things that it might be. There’s no real foreshadowing – that you can spot the G-man in the background of early stuff doesn’t mean anything because the G-man doesn’t mean anything. That the G-man offers you a choice is meaningless because the choice itself is meaningless. That the G-man shows up periodically to put you on the right part of the plot screams of a storyteller who keeps painting themselves into corners and wants to try and convince you it was good, actually.

Like a taupe Tardis, Half-Life is a series of increasingly unimportant boxes inside unimportant boxes, ever pulling you onwards with the promise there’s some thing at the end, and there never is.

In the end, total silence is Half-Life 3, and it’s the best Half-Life 3 we could ever get.

King Hits in Poker

I’ve been watching poker videos lately. No good reason. But there’s something that fascinates me about poker as a strategy game.

First of all, poker is a strategy game. Set aside the actual money values, make the betting with markers or tokens or whatever. Treat them like hit points. Whatever. The point is, while playing with and for money makes poker more intense it doesn’t make poker not a game of strategy. While there are books on the topic, veritable libraries full of information about how to play poker, what to do when you’re playing poker, reading people, the particular generational behaviours of poker eras, all that stuff doesn’t work if there’s nothing to the game but the money aspect.

The money does connect it to a super interesting kind of materiality, but that’s for another time.

There are very few times in Poker where you’re compelled to give up money. Next to the dealer there are two players who have a forced minimum bet – known as blinds. Usually you’ll hear of two – the big blind and the small blind, and these are there so players can’t just constantly sit out of hands until they have something they want to play with. Blinds also mean that if you do have a good hand, thanks to your automatic bet, you can ‘hide’ it in the blind bet. After all, other players seeing you bet don’t know if you’d have bet if not for the blind.

What this means is that you do have to defend small bets (your blinds), you never have to defend your entire pool of money unless you choose to.

Back in The West Wing, Vice President and sex lizard John Honyes remarked that in Hockey, nobody knows what’s going on during the play. In Leverage, Elliot says he doesn’t like any game where you can’t score on defence. In poker, both of those things are true: As confident as you are, you can’t be sure of what your opponent is doing, and when you’re being the aggressor, you can lose everything.

It’s fascinating though, precisely because you can’t lose what you don’t risk. Your opponent can’t go after your bankroll, can’t make you bet. That means that most of the game is about back-and-forth cajoling, jousting with your opponent. Behaviour changes as your bankroll changes, and the game has a back-and-forth to it as chips change hands, but at the core, your opponent cannot control you, and you can only lose when you put yourself in a position to lose.

The game handles this by giving you a powerful incentive to make sure that you sometimes want to put yourself in a position to lose.

The Invisible Orient

Board games have an orientalism problem. This is just a given. If you want to try and talk about the ways Asian nations are perceived and treated in board games, that’s just a given. The problems of Orientalism are about ways that Asian nations are reduced to inhuman archetypes, given alien explanations for their behaviour, or treated as fundamentally exotic.

But that is to me a boring bit of background radiation. It’s not that it’s not a problem, it’s that it’s a problem that you have to completely misunderstand to not recognise. Like, seriously, if you claim there’s no Orientalism in board games, you must not understand what Orientalism is. Representation in media is always going to be carrying its colonial baggage and the only way to address that is to acknowledge it, understand it, and fight it. But again, this is boring.

Instead, think about why this problem is the way it is.

Right now if you look for ‘Asian’ games in board games, you find a lot of things. You can find some really beautiful, elegant, fun, good games, games by great designers. The problem is, if you want games that seem Asian, you find games that are French, German, Belgian, British. They’re designed in Europe, produced in Europe, drawn in Europe and playtested in Europe, and then they’re sent to China to get manufactured, and sent back to Europe to be sold in European stores.

But when you talk about the people who get to make games, the names overwhelmingly show you this problem.

I don’t have a problem with non-Asians making games about Asian things that inspire them. If nothing else I’d be a huge hypocrite to do so. I found the symmetrical nesting of the Chinese Zodiac appealing and created a game that spoke of an Asian-inspired culture. But while I was there I bore in mind that I was dealing with a tiny game, with one artist (me!) and with a minimal toolset.

The problem is that these games are being made and produced and made to represent the market, made to be Asian-ness in games, and the games made by Asian people are not.

The sad truth is there are only so many jobs out there with the title of ‘Board Game Designer.’ As big as the market is, there’s only so much room in the current model for how they get made (and yes, Kickstarter defies this model but we’ll get to that). This is why you’ll see the same ten names if you go through any serious boardgame collection – the companies that produce board games of a certain material quality have already got designers on deck, artists they know, and manufacturers they rely on. This is all infrastructure of board game development.

A single meeple will cost me something like 60 cents. If I buy 10 of them, each will be like 42 cents. If I buy a hundred, twenty cents. If I buy a thousand, well, I don’t rightly know. The things you can do at scale are very different. If you’re a company making a dozen games and you can buy all the meeples for all your games at once, you can get really low rates for them. The same with boxes, cards, plastic components. The companies in Europe that make board games are set up to make lots of board games, and that means that Europe produces a lot of our board games.

This is a real problem! The problem is that this means that when you go into a store, it’s actually difficult to find ‘Asian’ games made by Asian people (and yes, the term ‘Asian’ is massive and it’s encapsulating about three billion plus people) because those people live in countries where they don’t have this infrastructure that’s about scooping them up and connecting their work to the work of the markets that we, in the west can observe. There isn’t a meaningful communication between the two.

If you’re like me, you’ve looked at a lot of amateur Japanese art. Amateur Japanese art that is absolutely, absolutely what we consider professional quality here in the west. These artists are often younger than you think, and getting paid less than you think. And they’re almost always terrifyingly good. When I was learning to draw I was stuck by how excellent these Japanese students, younger than me, were, and I for a time there had this idiot idea that ‘Japanese people are better at art.’

Now that’s nonsense.

On the other hand, Japan has a cultural infrastructure for the fostering, examining and creation of art, and that’s something students can get into when they’re young, care about while they’re young, and stay caring about the whole time. My art is just not very good – I’ve been trying for twenty years, but I know it’s still very bad and sloppy, but I know part of that is that I’m not surrounded by people also doing art, I don’t have stores full of specific tools in regular walking distance, there aren’t regular conventions about examining or learning about this stuff.

It’s infrastructure. It’s the stuff we’re set up to care about.

Now there are a ton of great Asian games. The few I’ve seen direct from the source have been excellent and have included A Fake Artist Goes to New York and String Railroad.

The trick is, from the west, finding them.

This is the real invisible ink of this Orientalism problem. We do not have a default view that we should look to Asia about Asia. We do not think, as a natural thought oh, what do the Asian Game Channels know about this, or really, more specifically, What do the Japanese cons think, and the Indian cons and the Malaysian cons and the Singaporean and –

Now there are things breaking this up – Kickstarter is letting people shortcircuit the publisher system. But kickstarter is a way of converting attention and luck into money. And that attention is almost always best refined through cultural groups. You get the people who care about your work to back your kickstarter. You’d think this means you’d widen your audience, but odds show it’s kind of not the case. If you want to make a Kickstarter Friendly game, which is a male-targeting miniatures-driven grim aesthetic game that hovers around the $60-$80 mark, you can tap that audience with a kickstarter that’s already getting some traction. But if you want to do something out of that type, well, your odds are best relying on the people who already liked your work.

Good news, though, there are some solutions to this. A big one is finding what we call media capitals: These used to be spaces, but these days they’re people, who exist in both worlds. People who can connect these non-Western markets to the Western markets. This means listening to Malaysian game nerds, Japanese game nerds, Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians and all these people because they have some awareness of and connection between these spaces.

That’s not to say any given Asian American is going to be an expert on Japanese games, for example. But you’ll find the first place to start with asking people who can see themselves easily in games about people like them.

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MTG: Notstalgia

Look, I know it’s Magic: The Gathering‘s 25th birthday. I know that it’s a year when the game is going to do a massive victory lap for its own persistence. I don’t mind that. I celebrate that! I love that this game has shown that its particular combination of components and concepts has underneath it all, longevity and excellence in design. I love that I can show my students this game and they can come up with whole games that just use one of the mechanics in Magic. It’s a dizzyngly deep game, and it deserves to spend some time thumping its chest.

There have been, in this year three major dips into the well of nostalgia, between Masters 25, Dominaria, and the hype of returning to a Core Set, yielding Core Set 2019 with a headline of classic Elder Dragons. Woo, 1995!

One of the all-purpose lazy content vehicles you can get out of Magic: The Gathering is the set review. I liked doing them back in the day, in part because new cards excited me but also because I had a gimmick that not many other folk I was reading did: I ignored a lot of cards. There were a lot that weren’t good enough to play with in a deck in the formats I liked.

Since doing this on my blog, however (and I have been doing it now for a bit over a year), I realised I kind of don’t want to do these set reviews in a big part because I don’t want to be too negative. I like Ixalan’s flavour, but my set reviews of it yielded a disconcolate grumpiness, a dispassionate disinterest in the cards themselves. I’ve since shifted a little bit on Ixalan – I certainly regard it more fondly than I did at the launch, and there are still cards from Ixalan I haven’t played with yet that I wanted to.

Yet here I am, looking at the now of Magic, that’s focused on the past of Magic, and remembering that I’ve been there. That wasn’t great. I wanted to leave.

It’s just awkward. Right now, a lot of Magic: The Gathering is about reverence to the past that I hold in disdain. Even my favourite set of the time, a home of some beloved cards, cards that are out of even modern for being Too Something, Onslaught block, has been shown over and over to be full of mistakes. It would make me happy to see the cards of Onslaught brought back to thrive without the pressures of Psychatog, Counterspell, Astral Slide or Goblin Warchief, and yet, those aren’t the parts of the past we remember.

Then again, they brought back Goblin Warchief from that block.

It reminds me of Time Spiral, a block about the history of Magic. A block where we were told we could see anything, see anywhere, we could get a glimpse of Magic’s future, and I hated it because it didn’t show me the future we are in now. I didn’t get to see things like Bestow, or the mindset behind the creature removal of Murder, or the new, interesting and fun ways games can be about stuff other than the draw step.

It’s weird. I love this game but the things of the past five years have shown me greater and more fervent love than anything before it.

I guess what I’m saying is Khans rule.


In June, I did not ‘release’ a game, as per my usual schedule. I made, and had plans to release, the Nyarr, a supplement for tabletop roleplaying games, which as I write this hopefully is out by now. It should be. This represents the first month where I did not release ‘a’ game in two years.

When I was a child, I found that certain dates and times passing gave me enormous anxiety. At uni, I was dreadfully afraid when assignment dates passed in case I missed one or mis-delivered one. Reporting my income to the government comes with an absolute throat-tightening terror, because I’m afraid of doing it too late. This is naturally a great combination with things where I feel guilty about my lack of productivity so I want to avoid confronting them.

With the Nyarr, though, I don’t feel… bad.

I don’t feel great about it, but I do feel peace.

The first thing is: I know I did the work. I worked on the Nyarr in June and before, I had a plan and a schedule and funds set aside for work and the things that kept the Nyarr from coming out could not be changed without hurting people. If it’s me under pressure, that I can meet; but I cannot force creativity from other people, from other friends. I cannot make people deliver, and the idea that I can shows an ownership of their labour that I simply don’t have.

Second, a game a month is kind of a raw deal if the games are all too similar. If I make two town builder games back to back, they are in direct comparison and it’s unlikely, if you like town builders, you want both. I want to keep making varied and different game types, and so if I put out a game in one month you don’t like, the next game might interest you. That variety means that there will be experiments and unforseen testings.

Third, I have made more than a game a month. Some of them didn’t get released – games like Ruck and Clout got test prints and then got put away. The game Blackjack Dungeon is absolutely a do-over. Then again, in addition to the other games I’ve released as official releases, there were times I released two or three games a month. Games getting time to breathe in development prevents me from making big mistakes and releasing games I’m sad about later.

Alter Access for example, for Middleware, for example, is a small rules patch which was meant to form the first of five expansions for that game that simply haven’t gotten made because I felt bad about them. Maybe tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and hammer those out, who knows, but I do feel that Alter Access as a release unto itself is just a bit weak.

Finally, the Nyarr isn’t just my work. It is an experiment in that kind of RPG content, testing the market and making sure the product is valuable to non-mechanical purchasers – but it’s also huge, some 50 a5 pages long. Since that content includes the flavour writing and artwork of people who aren’t me, I want to make sure it’s good and it shows the care for those people’s work I can.

So in the end, I didn’t release an actual game, officially, in June. It was delayed a little.

And I’m okay with that.

That feels like a big deal.

MTG: Pet Cards XI, Rise of the Eldrazi

After the discomfort of Zendikar, a set I never realised I disliked, I figured Rise of the Eldrazi would be suitably bothersome. After all, it had one of the worst creature combat mechanics of all time in Annihilator, it wanted to clog up the board, it filled the world with little 0/1 tokens and was hard to approach. Not to mention that it introduced us to The Eldrazi, or MTG’s response to Cthulhu, Just Please Without The Racist Baggage.

That the Eldrazi were imprisoned on a plane populated by humanoids who were chalk white is kind of funny in hindsight.

Yet despite this, when I went to get a list of pet cards from Rise I was shocked, shocked to see how many cards there were in this set that I loved. So much so that I felt like I could do a pet card from this set for each major mechanic in the set.

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