Australia and America both have a life form that we mostly recognise for its presence in garbage. One of them is the trash panda, and another is the bin chicken. And with that in mind, I celebrated these creatures that exist in our damaged world refusing to end.
I think a lot about single player games.
I think about them a lot because it’s kind of the main way I have had to play board games most of my life. I didn’t have friends growing up. My sister and I weren’t on the same level – she could see different means to how games like Monopoly worked, and I never got the impression playing games with me was fun for her. This meant that I played a lot of solo ‘board’ games, sort of.
You know Solitaire? That game that we use as an example of a minimally interesting sort of videogame? I played it a lot growing up. I had a desk, I had a deck of cards from a Go-Lo, and I sat and actually played Solitaire, and Freecell, and I learned how those games worked from watching them work on a computer. I had to translate their rules. To this day I don’t know if Solitaire has some secret hidden rule to prevent broken arrest states.
Neither of these games has an ‘AI’ to them, but they’re solitaire games that present resistance. Solitaire itself is a bit like picking a big lock, constructed out of a bunch of parts that have no reason to care about how they were arranged previously. Solitaire is… interesting in that regard. It wasn’t made to make that lock – the game, the structure of it – is part of how that lock comes together. The rules impose on the pieces and create the puzzle. That is, the game is a code that creates the play.
I’ve sometimes murred about coding cardboard. What I find interesting is how do we make games like this, that are interesting solo experiences, where the play can be satisfying, and then, can we make that design space interesting to interface with? Solitaire’s metaphor is sorting your deck of cards, so what other stories can we impose on these complex locks?
And what can we do to make that fiction interesting as we work on it?
Okay, remember cooperative games? Well, semi-co-op games work around that space. They have the basic setup of a cooperative game, but there’s something in the game, some player’s behaviour, that keeps it from being purely cooperative. Usually this means there’s a player who is secretly working against the actions of other players, but sometimes it can mean that there’s just the suspicion of such a thing.
There’s a really different affect to a semi-cooperative game. Semi-co-op games aren’t like ‘cooperative games, but,’ because suspicion tends to become a huge part of the game. It’s less about how to complete the cooperative challenge, and much more about how you can use your actions to either obscure your intentions, or to entice other players to take actions that would evoke their identity.
Semi co-op structures are really good at fighting quarterbacking (as described in the cooperative term). They’re also really good for representing a fairly robust, classical narrative – people work together, then there’s a sudden disruption where someone gets revealed to not be a part of the solution. There’s also just the fear of that. Sometimes players will avoid making optimal communication just because they might be dealing with a traitor in a game that might not have one active.
The other type of semi-co-op can be one with one player an open adversary to the other players. This opposition means you can give the game an oppositional force that has to make decisions, like a Dungeonmaster or Game Master role.
Another, third way to do semi-co-op is to have players form cooperative units. Imagine a game where two players work together on their own small project, at a time, then each of those projects compete to see what they can do.
The problems present in cooperative game design tend to be coded out of semi-co-op. With at least one player adding an element of confrontation, it becomes easier for difficulty to adjust to players’ behaviours. When a game’s opposition is primarily a hard-coded system (like a scenario, or cards, or combinations of those cards) it can make opposition feel a bit blunt and thoughtless. If a player is the one opposing you, they add a different feeling to that experience…
… buuuut then you have to basically make two games at once. Semi co-op games have to have design space set out for the oppositional player and this can often get out of hand. It’s part of the design load, where you need to create content for both forms of contribution.
Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Dead of Winter, the non-co-op expansions to Pandemic.
This is more a personal beef but it is one that I feel connects to problems with videogames in general.
Voice acting, in videogames, is usually handled in a representative way. That is, a character has a line of dialogue, and the voice actor directly expresses that line of dialogue. This means the voice actor is trying to represent that line of dialogue ‘right.’ To do that, the voice actor needs to understand what the ‘right’ version of that dialogue is. To do that, they need to be able to put that line into context, and to do that they need someone who can interpret for them every possible version of that line, based on all available context of the game.
This is obviously not very easy.
The work of a director is then to both understand the game’s fiction on a deep level and how that interacts with the game’s play experience. They then have to be able to rely on what they’re talking about remaining unchanged, so they probably need to start work once the rest of the game’s fiction has been decided upon. They also need some degree of creative control to ensure that if a voice actor can’t deliver a line, or if the fiction has some potential failure state where things don’t make sense, the voice actors aren’t stuck trying to do something they can’t. That means the fiction has to have some flexibility.
Also, voice acting needs to work without pauses but also without crosstalk. Naturalistic dialogue has more problems the more you pause between sounds, which means that for the director’s sake, they probably need all the voice actors at once so they can deliver dialogue around one another easily and make sure lines flow smoothly into one another.
Then for that to work you’re probably going to need a lot of time, time for breaks for actors to recharge, then you’ll also probably want some concealer booths so actors can properly emote based on surprises and none of this is how it gets done. Obviously. You can’t wait until the entire production of a game is done to get voice acting done. As part of the game’s fiction it might get done in the later stages, but you’re just not going to get this kind of outlay and planning for the voice acting, which is largely seen as ‘unimportant’ as a component of the narrative.
The other thing is, all of this is in service of one, representative version of the narrative voice. Doing this removes ambiguity you get with textual dialogue, which may be nice if you want your message to be extremely explicit, but it also runs contrary to the scope of the kind of storytelling you normally get in games. Games tend to run dozens of hours, with a fiction where timing is remarkably difficult to connect to the play experience, so you can’t exactly treat them like movies (David Cage), and because the timing is handled by the player, you can’t treat them like TV Series, either.
Oh, and the inclusion of voice acting makes it so changing dialogue at any point becomes expensive. Star Wars: The Old Republic, being fully voice acted, has to pay for voice acting for expansions, which is hideously pricey compared to the way expansions are meant to go (ie, much cheaper than the original production). Oh, and everything multiplies for each region you intend to release your game in.
None of this is to say that Voice Acting Is Bad. It’s just right now, the way we do voice acting is bad, and the only reason we get to have games voice acted the way we do tends to tie into whether or not voice actors are being underpaid and overworked for what they do, and then blamed for failures of the system around them.
Personally, I think one of the best options for conveying the tone and atmosphere of a line without necessarily relying on a single perfect representation of the dialogue by a voice actor is when you reduce an actual dialogue to vocables, like Midna uses. This kind of non-voice-voice is used throughout Legend of Zelda games (except Breath of the Wild) and it’s really good for allowing the actor to convey a tone without needing them to perfectly frame their dialogue.
It’s also cheaper and allows for ambiguous interpretation of dialogue in a way that’s more akin to books than to movies, but that’s my preference and I understand not every storyteller wants to do that.
Still, textual ambiguity is one of the best friends a writer can have when the director of the total experience might be running around putting buckets on people’s heads and stealing all the cheese.
A cooperative game is a game where multiple players are all working together to achieve the common end of the game. This isn’t the same thing as a game where players can cooperate (like many trading games or war games), but games where the entire point of the game is for two or more players to work together to win it.
Cooperative game designs are great for making games for players who aren’t interested in direct conflict.
They’re also good for making somewhat basic problems much more complicated and engaging. It’s one thing to just lift a box, but if one player has to lift the box, and another player push it forwards, you’re going to make something that wasn’t quite a challenge into a problem of communication.
Honestly, though, cooperative games are excellent for people who just don’t want their games to be about butting heads and would rather work together.
One of the big problems that cooperative games tend to get is commonly called quarterbacking. The idea is that as long as all players are collaborating on the project of the game means that it’s possible that one player can take control of the play – that there is, in any situation an optimal play, and then it falls to one player to make that play as best they can.
This can mean that in any given play situation, one player might not be making many choices, and one player might be making more. There are ways around this, but quarterbacking is the biggest problem with pure cooperative games.
Pandemic, and most of its connected works. Mysterium. Hanabi. Spirit Island.
Inspired by a tumblr post, I made these designs.
What it says, in fancy font so fancy it’s hard to read, is Voregoisie: The Rich Are Made Of Meat.
Note, I do not recommend the literal eating of the literal rich. Consuming human beings is a good way to get yourself sick and run the risk of getting prions, which are all kinds of bad news.
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.
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.
One of those things that happens when you develop some expertise (ha ha ha) in a field, you’re going to see your own expertise as an element in the works around you. You’ll see someone doing something and think oh, if only you knew what I did, and then the next thought, oh you should listen to me inform you of what you’re missing. That is, to say, learning can make you into a meddlesome tit.
But despite that warning, this whole thing about Christmas Presents is an interesting discussion of perceptions of values, of what we can value, but my immediate reaction upon hearing the premise, should you give Christmas Presents, and a question that viewed as a way of making people happy is that it’s a game.
Giving people Christmas presents – or any present really – is a game. It’s a game where I am trying to show you you. Now there are constraints – I can’t spend too much, or too little, and I can’t ask you (I mean, I can, but it deflates the game a little). There could be all sorts of mindsets for this game. I could view it as cooperative, where we both win if I get you something that satisfies you and vice versa. It can be competitive – you might be wanting more than you give, you might be wanting to use this to demonstrate power or competence over me, and you might even view it as a game with minimal participation. You want to get out of the game as fast as possible. That leaves all sorts of different attitudes towards the play of the game, but the time spent within this game is play. It’s creative. You test ideas out, you consider options, and then, crucially, with the thing that makes this game really interesting, you make your choice, make it obscured, and reveal that choice at the end of the game.
This is why giving money is gauche. It says I don’t know you. It also doesn’t have any interesting tension associated with it. We disguise gifts in funny boxes or with suspicious wrapping. We even tease one another with the decision.
Now I am studying play and the making of games, so obviously I’m going to see this. I could be fulla nonsense.
Still, good channel.
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
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.
Enduring, persistent, and easily ignored meme: You see someone else’s final draft and you see your own rough draft. It’s easy to forget you see the whole process and you only see the outcome of others’, so it’s easy to think you’re making garbage and other people are making great stuff.
I make a lot of garbage.
I am right now, up at 2 in the morning, with a notebook open in front of me, because I have assigned myself the task of daily blogging, and I want to make sure I do it, because if I’m not meeting all my goals, I might as well make sure I meet this daily goal. I am thirty seven articles ahead of my schedule here, and there have been times I have been sixty articles ahead.
Today I threw out a bunch of scraps.
- An article about how being Australian means I have to pretend my childhood was like yours, American Reader, even if I know you’re not American, because America has colonised English internet
- Another genders 101 article about how to just, stop talking about sex with trans people if you don’t actually want to have sex with them
- An article about how sharing supportive memes can be really miserable (though not always)
- A twine game about finding your pokemon nature based on your food preferences
- Vague summary of my PhD meeting today. It went well! I think I hit upon wanting to make people centred technology but in this case technology refers to words
- Something about primitives, which is a super useful term when describing design and super awful when describing people
- An article about being angry.
- An article about how sharing memes about how you love people even though you never put any effort into interacting with them is kinda shitty because it’s just saying ‘thanks for doing the emotional labour, and also I expect you to continue because I reblogged a cake.’
- An article about why I don’t know what my swearing policy is on this blog especially because I swear a lot in real life and tried to avoid doing it in MTG articles
- A project document for an RPG concept that I think I kind of want to keep in the oven to cook for a bit
- Some example _plans for mechanics I haven’t been able to actualise
- The story of why I wasn’t at SMASH! this year but you could still buy Senpai Notice me and LFG
None of these got made. None of them will. This is an example of scraps, of things I didn’t do in their immediate form. Maybe when I wake up I’ll feel like redoing one of them from the start. But at the moment? Nah.
I write every day. A lot of what I write I’m not happy with and feels like garbage. If you write something and don’t think it’s good enough, do not feel bad about putting it in the drawer and deciding to leave it alone. The practice of practicing is worth it.
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?
Here’s a thing that taught me something!
This recipe – set aside the laddish racing – is a really nice little dessert to make. I’ve done some experimenting with it and some findings so far.
- The bran cereal can be replaced with muesli or oats. Dicing it up makes it more of a texture than ‘cake with stuff in it.’
- You can put a lot of things in the bottom of the mug! I’ve done it with diced bits of apple, you can use apple saue, but also jersey caramels, or a dash of strawberry jam
- You can stick things in the mix! I put in some chocolate chips and they came out of it nice, if they were small enough
- This thing creates its own sauce with the brown sugar and milk, so you’re best off mixing it with flavours that go well with that, like apple and caramel or vanilla ice cream
What you care about shows in what you make.
Let’s talk about Hacker’s Magic.
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!
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!
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.
Here’s a puzzle I’ve been cracking at for a little while.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hey, it’s another shirt!
You can get it on Redbubble!
I’ve thrown around this term a fair bit recently, in non-academic circles. Part of that is because I want to get familiar with it, and I want to know how to best explain it to other people. As with many concepts, it’s best if you can explain it with a concept.
So let’s talk about one of the most common ways you engage with Autoethnography: Reviews.
You don’t normally get it for things like soup or shoes or teacups but if you’re – like me – the kind of person who engages with the output of Video Essay Youtube or Board Game Review people, you’re dealing with autoethnography. Every games reviewer is an autoethnographer – they play a game, they examine what they played, then they examine that experience, usually, and tell you what they derive from that.
Some models of reviewership want to be dispassionate, remove the reviewer from the review. This is obviously contentious, because some people seem to think they can have a pure, objective, non-biased perception of a game, and also nonsense, because it’s almost always the byproduct of trying to be ‘right’ about a game. Part of why autoethnography wants to ensure the reviewer is a component of the review is because that way, if you understand the reviewer – even generally – you can use that to inform your reviews.
Now, this isn’t strictly speaking true: The model for what they do is autoethnographic, but because they’re not doing it with academic structures and rigor, it’s not really reasonable to call it autoethnography. It’s much more about making this work approachable, converting academic stuff into stuff that you can handle. If I can’t explain it usefully, it’s a sign I either don’t understand how to talk to you, or don’t understand what the thing I’m talking about is.
This was all brought on by doing some old readings and finding responses to Lindsay Ellis’ rather excellent critical series, The Whole Plate. This series uses Transformers, a type of generally shallow trash media, as a base grounding to examine a whole host of film theory concepts, and it’s really good.
One of the ChannelAwesome people, that Doug Walker guy who, apparently, sucks a lot? Put out a video in which he forwarded that there was no point, at all, to ever critically exmaine trash media.
This is, I feel, a good opportunity to put these two positions in contrast. One of these two reviewers uses the experience of watching Transformers as a venue to explain and explore a whole host of film theory, and one of them thinks there’s no value to critical theory at all. And right there, you can use that as a platform to decide which of these two people you should consider when it comes tim to examine media critically.
The Pitch: It’s a hidden identity game where all the players are merfolk princesses, who have surrendered their voices to the Sea Witch. Except one of you is the Sea Witch, and in the midst of the group is a powerful charm that binds all your hexes. If it’s laid upon the Sea Witch, all the curses will be broken and everyone is free, and you each know a little about the women around you.
Except none of you can talk.
Voiceless is made up of cards:
- Identity cards, of which you get dealt one at the start of the game
- The Hex card
The identity cards have an identical back. One of them represents the Sea Witch, and the remaining cards represent roles.
The most basic kind of role is just a mermaid princess. These win if the curse is broken. There’s also a Sea Witch, who wins if any of the princesses gets cursed.
Setup: Choose the princesses you want to include in each game. There should be some proportion of princesses to Sea Witch, and some princesses that complicate the game. Shuffle these princesses, deal one to each player face-down. Players can look at their card at the start of the game. Put the Hex card where everyone can reach it.
Play Loop: Players cannot talk throughout the play.
Starting with a first player, a player looks at another card on the table. They can then take the Hex card and either hand it to the next player (showing they are done), or hand it to another player face up. Players can then vote on whether or not they trust that with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote.
If the players all vote thumbs-up on one player, that player is Hexed, and the game ends. Cards are revealed and then players determine who won based on their role cards.
I mostly need art for this. The game at its core just needs a handful of pictures of mermaids, including at least one that can be The Sea Witch, so with a clearly different palette and style of the others. The aim would be to have the mermaids, as princesses, represent extremely different styles of personality, such as ‘mean girl’ or ‘innocent’ and I would want to make sure these mermaids didn’t represent just one vision of cool mermaidness. They wouldn’t need action shots or physical prowess or detailed weapons or whatever, just pictures of cool, Disney-Princess style mermaids.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.