The new year is upon us and I’d like to take a moment to make my game design resolutions for 2008. In no particular order, here they are:

I will only work on a fixed number of new games.

This resolution will be a hard one to follow, but it is important. Having a fixed number of games means that I will only be allowed to spend a certain amount of time on any particular game. Sometimes I move on too quickly after designing a game before I am actually done with it. Other times I spend way too much time on a game and neglect my others. Having a fixed number of games will help me divide up my months so that I will know where I should be and what should be finished. This is important especially when designing rulebooks. So often I neglect writing down important details and end up forgetting them when I pick up the game after a hiatus. I haven’t determined how I will handle the number of games, or if my existing prototypes will fall into the mix, but I do have an idea for what is on tap for the coming months.

I will enter more game design contests.

I found that entering contests this year has helped me a lot. It has given me focus with themes and deadlines to work around. Next year, I plan on picking a few contests, like Lucca or Hippodice, and being committed to them throughout the process. Too often I let the deadlines pass for contests that I should be entered into. Usually that is because my games are in a troubled state or they are being currently reviewed by a publisher. With that in mind, I hope to start planning ahead of time to make sure I have a game ready well in advance.

I will do more blind playtesting.

I can never get enough people to blind playtest my games. Having someone who has never seen my game before learn the game solely from the rules gives me great insight into how well I am conveying my game. Ultimately, I want to see if the game is ready enough for a publisher to look over. As long as the testers were able to play the game without much trouble, I consider it a good test.

I currently have a system worked out with our sister design group in Oklahoma where we will be sending our games back and forth for each other to playtest (it just so happens to be blind). Right now, they have one of my games, and I am waiting for them to ship it back piggybacked with their prototype(s).

I will collect more playtest data.

I nearly always forget to time how long it takes to play a prototype. I don’t write down the scores as much as I should. I really ought to be collecting stats on how often certain strategies win over other ones, or which items are used most frequently. Most of the time the info isn’t useful on the spot, but it sure makes a difference when you want to prove a point to yourself later on. This is a bother to do, but I think if I prepare better before the playtest begins, I will have a better chance of capturing this info.

I will listen more to my playtesters’ advice.

I often get defensive after a playtester offers some advice about one of my prototypes that I don’t agree with. I immediately counter their opinion with reasons why things are designed this way or that way. Sometimes they offer suggestions to add mechanics I’ve tossed two versions ago, other times they want to add arbitrary chunks of gameplay to the game. Well, it turns out that all feedback (whether I like it or not) is useful. It doesn’t mean they are all right, it just means that they have their place.

When one player says that my bidding mechanic is clunky, I need to write it down and remember it! I may scoff it off now, but when a few months later another player says the same thing, then there might be something to it. Part of listening is capturing it all down on paper. Filtering that info into good and bad advice can be done later. The more opinions collected, and the more I reflect on them, the more likely I will see perceived problem areas in the game.

I will be published in 2008.

By this, I mean I will have signed a deal to be professionally published. The actual game may come out whenever, but next year, I’m going to make it happen. Now, I’ve said this year after year, and haven’t done it, but this year I can see it happening. My backlog of working games is getting bigger and better, and one of them is bound to be noticed.

OK. That’s enough for now. I don’t want to give myself too much pressure.

~ Dan

Dec 112007

The latest game design that I’m working on has spawned from a single mechanic into something really fun to work on. I won’t go into the mechanic now, but I will talk about the theme of the game: Sci-Fi!

The game’s setting is inspired by Mos Eisley from Star Wars. The central board of the game depicts a spaceport where there’s lots of hustle and bustle amongst the lowlifes and smugglers. You play as the equivalent of a Hutt Crimelord. Your job is to get your shipments of goods and contraband to where they need to go. You loosely control pilots and their ships to do your dirty work. Yes, this game could just as well be played in the Mediterranean with your typical traders with weird hats, but who wants to play that yet again?

By setting this game in a familiar place, I can infuse theme into the game by asking WWHSD? Han Solo would find business at the Cantina. Han Solo would do anything for the right price. So far, that seems to be working. Those ideas translate into: You can convert goods into contraband at the Cantina. You can use your opponent’s ships by paying the other player off. As I hone down the rules and mechanics, I’ll be adding more thematic elements like these.

Last night I refined my prototype to make sure I had enough pieces to play. When I threw the game together initially, I just grabbed some wooden cubes and said to myself “This looks like enough.” So, I looked through my box of game bits and found some colored cubes for the shipments. I took some small wooden milk bottle things and made them into rocket ships. My board, which is just a circular ring of docking bays, needed some cantinas, so I just added some gray blocks to the board. I put the board on a black cloth just to add to the space-faring theme.

The individual planets that a player controls were fun to design. Right now, they are just denoted by what cubes they produce and what cubes they require. Since there are only three types of planets and three types of goods, it was a bit tight to design them yet still make them interesting. Also, one of the planets is a Rebel planet. It is where all of your contraband needs to go once you acquire it. I still need to make the individual planet place cards because as of right now the cubes will be sitting on post-its.

Right now, I’m still in the design phase, but certain rules are starting to congeal into permanent ones. I’m still experimenting with ideas and trying new techniques out, which is where most of the fun is when working on a game. I’ll try to keep you posted on my progress.

Last night I had some friends over to play House of Whack. Most of them had played the version that comes in the box, but I wanted to show them the version that comes *outside* the box. This was the version I had always wanted to play. It’s not something that can easily be explained in a manual as you really have to experience it firsthand due to its emergent, organic game play.

Before we set up, I asked each player to describe what made a game fun for them. Nick said he enjoyed player interaction. So I then asked for another player to take on the responsibility of making sure Nick had player interaction. Julia volunteered. Next, Jen said she really enjoyed being able to hoard money in a game. So Cory volunteered to introduce financial tension in the game. Jake liked games with bidding. Nick offered to oversee that aspect. In fact, when Julia said she wanted a game with multiple end goals, Nick made everyone bid for the right to manage that. Jake won by bidding two blue beads (at this point Cory had yet to reveal the value of any of the beads in play). Finally, Cory said he liked games where player actions had lasting ramifications. Jen took on the responsibility of making sure that element was in the game.

Everyone then chose a playing piece from a selection of D&D minis and HeroClix figures and placed them on the Start tile. I then said, “The rules say you start out with three Drama cards each, but what do YOU say?” The players proposed that everyone should get five cards instead, except for Nick, who got only two. He was outvoted.

I explained that the information printed on the cards should be used as a last resort, if the players had difficulty inventing an alternate purpose for a card. I said that the name of the card and the artwork were actually more important than any rules they might find there. Nick immediately played the Destiny card, but called it the “High 5” card as it showed a hand on it. He announced that whenever two players high-fived, they got two gems. I pointed out that Nick had now made an offer to the other players. The players then had the opportunity to agree with this new “rule” or modify it. I discouraged outright vetoes.

The players began exploring the House. They decided to ignore the movement rules and say that you could use an Action to automatically move to an adjacent room. When a new room was revealed, I asked the player to tell everyone about the room and if there was anything special we should know about it. For instance, if someone entered the Clone Chamber, they had to face a horrific clone duplicate of themselves. One of my favorite inventions was the Whack Ball room. Nick decided that players could engage in a gladiatorial sport called “Sun Fighting.” Each player started with an arm extended above their head. You won the battle by pushing down on your opponent’s fist so that it went down past their shoulder. At one point, Nick and Cory got swallowed by the Dire Frog and discovered a room inside the Frog’s belly. But then Julia played the Impostor card and switched their position with Jake.

I should point out that Nick never chose a playing piece. It was discovered that Nick and Cory were somehow grafted together like conjoined twins. Wherever Cory moved, Nick was there too. This also gave each player access to the other’s Drama cards. When they tried to high five each other to gain 2 gems, the other players protested, saying it was actually just clapping, given their circumstances.

A few rooms were in play before Cory realized that he had no idea how to win. Jake, thinking of Julia’s desire for multiple end goals, proposed that there be multiple ways to win. This was put to a vote. Each player then came up with a way to win or end the game. So, in this instance of the game, a player could win by having the most money (but Julia could win if she had the least), or if they rode the Walking Room, or if they ever had 15 cards in their hand, or if they recovered all four of the Sacred Artifacts, or if there was no more room on the table for more room tiles, or if someone sang the best rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

During this game, most of the action was in the Drama cards. Only about five rooms made it into play and about six Whack cards were drawn. The Guest cards were never used. Jen caused a tower to rise up in the middle of board. Jake used the Architect to build himself a tiny green house which allowed him to charge rent for anyone who landed in that room. And I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but Jake sent an army of ninjas off to retrieve something that Jen was trying to steal, but they ended up getting destroyed in a war. Cory played the Scarf Trick card on Nick, who had recently taken up knitting and was literally knitting a scarf during the game. His trick was to instantly change his sad face to a happy face behind the scarf. It was one of those things where you had to be there to appreciate it. This applies for the entire play session too.

I was really happy with everyone’s inventiveness concerning the Drama cards. I felt that each of the players was able to tell an interesting story with their cards and make convincing cases for actions they were trying to perform.

The game ended when Nick entered The Gate and discovered the Walking Room, which he was able to ride. Jen won the game because she had the Hope card in her hand, which granted 10 Gold Hearts at the end of the game. Cory revealed that the hearts were indeed the most valuable currency in the game, worth much more than the red, blue and gold beads.

Overall, I couldn’t have been happier with how the game went. It was exactly how I imagined the game would be played. The actual “rules” that come with the game were rarely referred to. So hopefully this account will inspire you to try playing the game in a completely different way.

Dec 072007

On Tuesday, it was just me and Ian at the design meeting. We played a several iterations of my new Space Port game. We took it from a bunch of clunky mechanics and turned it into something that was interesting and playable. It still has a lot of work to go, though. Besides that, we also experimented with some new rules for Monkey Lab intended to reduce the chaos in the game. That led us into a discussion about what chaos is, why it exists, and why some games have it and others don’t.We defined chaos as the feeling a player has when he has little to no control over significant changes in the game. This can come into play when your opponents mess with neutral playing pieces, as in Wiz-War, or your playing pieces, as in Wiz-War. In Fluxx this occurs a lot, and you might as well not even pay attention when it isn’t your turn because the game will have changed dramatically by the time yours starts again. Consider yourself lucky in either of these games if your plans haven’t been entirely disintegrated after one round.

Chaos is something that can be amplified when the number of players increase. In a two player game, you have one guy who is always doing his best to slow you down. In a six player game, you have five guys that can all potentially choose to work against you. Even when there are not direct attacks possible in the game, multiple players simply means that the percentage of choices you make in the game is smaller.

Werewolf is the perfect example of demonstrating the chaos/player relationship. In a hundred-player game of Werewolf, the results are very chaotic. Your vote to kill a villager is almost insignificant. The odds that you get what you want are very small. Once the game gets down to a small handful of people, you feel much more in control because there are less people to convince and less opposing arguments to overcome.

RoboRally is another game of chaos. The chaos exhibited here is in the form of unexpected and uncontrollable outcomes. As a player, you do have a lot of control over where you want your robot to end up on the board. However, one unplanned bump from another robot will make the rest of your moves nearly random. Planning for this, players can choose to “take the long way” to the goal and avoid interactions with other players thereby reducing the amount of chaos. So, with RoboRally, players can control the amount of chaos they want to encounter. They are effectively “in control” with their risk management plans.

My game Monkey Lab has a similar problem, except it does not have a strong “risk management” solution to the chaos. Your plans can be messes up no matter what you do. The solutions we came up with allows for players to take actions such that they can avoid chaos in the short term. Chaos will still exist, but players should feel more in control of whether or not they want to subject themselves to it.

Chaos is something I never really though about until now, and I plan on being more aware of it. Chaos can exist, but the key is all about keeping your game under tolerable levels of it.