Friday, November 30, 2012


I've often wondered why video game endings are typically terrible or at least not satisfying.  In some older games it was obvious - Rampage's ending was a single Congratulation, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 gave you a Game Over screen after the credits.  For some reason it didn't hit me until a couple days ago that it's because video game endings are almost always lacking a denouement.

If you're not familiar with this concept, there is a typical flow stories should follow that can be summed up with something called Freytag's pyramid (or Freytag's triangle).  To sum it up briefly, the story should start (exposition), build action (rising action) up to a high point (climax) and then fall back down (falling action) and close up everything nicely (denouement).

Freytag's Pyramid
I think video games tend to fall apart after the climax.  Everything leads up to a final boss battle or big confrontation.  You defeat said boss and the story gets wrapped up super quickly and then credits roll.  The video game endings I like the best are the ones where you get to see how the world changed because of your actions, what your crew is up to afterwards, and how life returns back to normal.  This (I believe) is the denouement of the story.  Very few games (that I can remember) even give the players the resolution.  Those that do typically do it in a credits roll or through a cinematic at the end.  But how is that different from a book or movie?  Video games have one special thing they can do that no other medium can do: be interactive.  Why not let the player explore the world after saving it?  Let them revisit old towns and see how they are rebuilding it and how their actions changed things.  If the player doesn't care, make it obvious how to trigger the conclusion of the story (a.k.a. the credits roll) so they can just skip to that point.  Obviously, this would be a bit trickier to pull off if your main character died, but that can be worked around.

When thinking about this for video games, I also started to ponder how a denouement would work for board games.  Typically, someone flips a card, rolls a die, or moves a token and declares victory and that's that.  I guess the falling action takes place during the cleanup (or setup of the next game) while people discuss what they could've done better or how they should have won.  In other games the falling action is playing for second, third, fourth, etc. place.  If you want your board game to tell a story, you should definitely keep this triangle in mind.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Games I Grew Up On: B.C.'s Quest for Tires

I remember playing B.C.'s Quest for Tires on the Apple IIe when I was really little.  I honestly don't remember too much about this game, but after watching a gameplay video (embedded below), there really isn't all that much to remember.  You are a caveman (Thor) who is trying to rescue a girl (his girlfriend the Cute Chick) from a dinosaur.  You ride your stone wheel unicycle with obstacles (such as rocks in the road, ponds filled with turtles, and other cavemen with clubs) that you must jump or duck to avoid.

The thing I do clearly remember is that this was the one game that we could hook up to our portable 16" color TV screen and play in full color.  All our other Apple IIe games were played on the black and green computer screen.  I'm not sure why only this game was playable in color or why we didn't play other games in color, but I do remember learning on my own how to plug in the right cables into the right spots on the TV to get this to work.  So this game was educational for me despite being such a silly game.  I guess on its own merits it does help teach children timing and can be a good way to teach them how hitting the spacebar harder does not make you jump better.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Review: Dominion - Intrigue

Dominion: Intrigue is both an expansion to the original Dominion and a stand-alone version of the game allowing the game to (officially) be playable for 5-6 players together or 7-8 players separately.  (The rules explain how you should play with those numbers, but I think it's possible to play with up to 8 players in one game with a few house rules).

In both Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue, players start with a 10 card deck made up of money and victory points.  The object of the game is to have the most victory points in your deck at the end of the game.  The trick is that victory point cards (typically) don't serve any purpose during the game, so filling your deck with too many of them makes your turns less effective.  Each turn, the player draws 5 cards, can play one Action Card (unless the actions say otherwise), places down how much coin they want to spend (using Treasure Cards), and buys one (unless their played actions say otherwise) card from the supply pool shared between all players.  There are a limited number of each card, so players are competing with each other to purchase the more useful actions and Victory Cards.  The game ends when either all the Province Victory Cards (the cards that give the most points) are gone or a set number of stacks of cards (determined by the number of players) are gone from the supply pool.

What Intrigue adds to the mix is a lot more options.  It adds three type of Victory Cards that are also Action Cards, so they are now doubly useful.  There are a few cards that give you a choice of how it works when you use it (e.g. Choose 2 of the following: +1 Card; +1 Action; +1 Buy; +1 Coin).  I also learned that with some cards there is a big difference between something being optional (saying you may do something) and not.  There is one card that has some good effects, but you must trash (permanently discard) one card with it and possibly not gain anything in return.  The upside of all this is it makes your turns more strategic and flexible.  The downside is that it can make some turns take a lot longer for the more strategic players.  If you have played Dominion and find yourself with more than 4 people wanting to play at once, I would recommend you get this game.  If you have not played Dominion, I would recommend getting that first because it's simpler and easier to learn with.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Game Design Concepts Course

Game Design Concepts is an online course in game design in blog format.  When the course was live, there was a forum and wiki page that participants had access to to share their game designs and critique and playtest each other's work.  Unfortunately, that was 3 years ago, but Ian Schreiber (the author) has left the blog up as it is still a good source of game design information.  It's especially useful if you can go through the course with a group of friends and have time to do all the readings that go along with it.  The original course was a month long, with two blog posts occurring a week.  If you just want to read the blog, there are 20 lessons available, but if you want to design a game (as the course is designed for you to do), then I would advise taking your time a little more as some of the "homeplay" (nice word for homework) is to have playtests of your game and as I have found out repeatedly, that can be very hard to do sometimes.

The course itself is very thorough and well written for being such a short course and the reading samples are useful for getting more in depth in some of the concepts.  It is a very broad course covering many different game design concepts without getting into too great detail on some of them.  The wiki, forum, and blog comments are all still up so you can read what the participants were up to after the fact.  The wiki also contains many projects with print and play instructions, but I have not tried any of them and these were all students of the class so I don't know the quality of the games.  All in all, it's a good source for those more interested in getting a little more in depth in their overall game design knowledge.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Games I Grew Up On: Think Quick!

I was blessed growing up to have parents awesome and capable enough to have an Apple IIe computer. One of the games I distinctly remember playing on that computer was this game: Think Quick!

I guess there was a story to it, but honestly I don't remember knowing it or caring as a kid.  I just know that I was tasked to find puzzle pieces to form a map that led to a lock, find the key to that lock, and find the pieces of a suit of armor all while avoiding getting eaten by giant worms.

Being a game from The Learning Company (one of my favorite game development companies), there is learning involved, but you wouldn't even realize it because of how fun the game is (which is why the Learning Company is one of my favorites).  Kids learn pattern recognition, obstacle avoidance, cause and effect, planning, and many other incredibly useful life skills from playing this game.  I think this game is one of the many things that led to my love of puzzles and puzzle solving.  The game even comes with a level editor that I remember messing around with to build my own mazes.  If I remember right, I used it like most other level editors and just made things to goof around with the game's systems (build a room filled with worms and try to escape or build a room filled with worms and flowers to put them to sleep just to see what would happen).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review: Bang!

The Sheriff looks at the men around the table, unsure of who is on his side.  Takes a swig of beer to steady his nerves.  He's suspected Pixie Pete has wanted him dead for awhile now.  Trusting his instincts he quickly pulls out his gun and takes a shot at Pete, but only manages to shoot his hat.  Having run out of bullets, the Sheriff ends his turn.

Bang! is a large group game (7-10 people in my experience) where each player has a different goal based on their assigned Role.  The Outlaws just need to kill the Sheriff.  The Sheriff and Deputies need to kill the Outlaws and the Renegade.  The Renegade needs to be the last man standing.  Problem is, the only role that gets revealed at the start of the game is The Sheriff.  Everyone else's roles are revealed by the actions they take.  And by actions they take, I mean who they shoot at.

Players get character cards as well as Role cards that give them certain abilities.  Maybe you draw 4 cards per turn.  Maybe you can use any card in your hand to avoid getting shot.  The more powerful the ability, the less maximum health you have during the game.

On your turn, you draw two cards, put any equipment cards down in front of you to help you reach other players or get farther away from them.  Your ability to shoot someone is based on where they are sitting at the table in relation to you.  If they are next to you, they are 1 away and you can shoot them by default.  If they are sitting next to those people, they are 2 away from you.  And so on and so forth.  You can use one Bang! card per round to shoot at someone within range.

I love playing Bang! because of its asymmetric goals and its character abilities.  It's a lot of fun trying to figure out who is what with as little information as possible.  The downside is in games where you know who is who, but just don't have the cards to do anything to help your team out.  Or if you're the Renegade.  It's really hard to win as the Renegade.  Especially for me, since people almost always point out I'm the Renegade before I even get my first turn...The other downside of the game is that it is elimination based, so it's very possible for one person to get knocked out of the game very early and then have to watch everyone else have fun until the game is over.  There is an expansion with a few cards to help fix this problem, but it still sucks to get knocked out because someone went on a successful killing spree early on.  One of my personal rules while playing is that I refuse to ever kill someone on the first round because of that.  The other thing to keep in mind is that just like you always get jokes playing Settlers of Catan about people needing or getting wood, you will hear plenty of jokes about someone banging someone else (especially if there is a married couple playing it seems) and I guarantee someone will start to sing "I Shot the Sheriff" before the game is done.

Friday, November 16, 2012


You can never please everyone.  The first thing I do in every game I play is go into the options and turn on subtitles.  Some people like super challenging games.  No matter how many times I insist no one likes it, I keep finding fans of Monopoly.  Maybe players have gotten bored of the base game and what to add in a new twist.  All of these encourage the need for options, whether in your game settings, game rules, or game cupboard.

Having designed a number of tools and editors for various projects, I have learned over and over again that the more options you have (even the ones that seem like super easy and simple options), the more complex the software.  Whether this means it's complex to setup and use or the code internally is extra complicated due to all the flags that needed to be added and checked throughout the code, it doesn't matter; the system has gotten complicated.  Not to mention that that's one more variable that needs to be tested and who knows if a certain combination of seemingly unrelated options can interfere with each other?

It's not much easier on the board game side of things for adding optional rules.  You have to playtest each one of those optional rules to make sure the game stays balanced.  And each rule you add only makes things worse since you have to test all possible combinations of play using the various optional rules.

One reason I'm bringing this up is to illustrate one way that game design/development can be work rather than fun.  The other reason is that you should think about these things early and often throughout development.  For the software options, write a list of definite options you want in the game (difficulty, subtitles, etc) and make accessing these settings easy from anywhere in the code, while also making sure to keep your checks for these settings from exploding all over the code.  For the board game options, one way to come up with possible optional rules is while you are playtesting the game.  Did some rule you tested not work out, but not completely break the game?  Maybe with a little tweaking, that could be an option.  Did some players want to eliminate each other from the game even though you know that shouldn't be how your game determines winners?  Make it an optional play style and stick it in your rule book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Statistics (not the mathematic kind)

Nearly every video game has statistical models determining the outcome of any random event.  Did your attack hit?  How much damage did you do?  Did they save against that spell?  Games that display these statistical models to their players are typically what people mean when they label a game an RPG.  Your character has this many health points, this much energy/mana/magic points, does this much damage, has this percent chance to hit, etc.  These type of games are ideal for the min/maxers out there (like myself) because they know exactly how and what to put their emphasis in to maximize their effectiveness in their play style.  This has gotten to the point for me where being able to put an extra point in one my stats is infinitely more rewarding than getting a new weapon that does extra damage or hits more frequently.

Many RPGs that let you create your character from scratch let you determine the starting stats of your character to help define how you are going to play from the beginning.  They can determine these values in a few ways.  Some games work like D&D where a number of dice are rolled to determine your starting stats, you may then swap those numbers around or take points from one stat to put into another, but you will never have more points than what you rolled.  Another method is where you are given a set number of points and must distribute them all yourself.  Some games will mix these two styles and make sure that (unlike the D&D method) you always have the same total number of points distributed, but the computer can randomly distribute them for you.  I don't remember if I've played a game that does this, but another method I've thought of is having the player start as a blank slate and based on how they deal with the first few opening situations in the game, that determines their stats.

Each method has its pros and cons: the D&D method feels a lot like gambling, so when the player gets a bunch of high numbers, they feel like they win already.  However, since the total number of points is determined by the numbers rolled, not every one of their characters will be as good as the others (which is more realistic).  The point distribution system has a psychological con (at least for me) where I feel like I'm failing at something already since you can't make all your stats as good as possible (although I did learn years ago that making every stat slightly above average is no good either), but it gives you the most control over your stats letting you really maximize your play style.  The game determined method completely takes away any control over your stats, but it means the game designers, who know what all those stats mean better than you do, can allocate the right amount of points so you will be as good as you can be at your play style as possible.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Eliminating Elimination

As I mentioned (very briefly) before, designing a card or board game where players eliminate other players to win is a bad thing.  The obvious reason is that once you are eliminated from a game, you are no longer playing the game, so what are your options?  Go home, sit around and watch people playing a game (even worse than going to a restaurant with friends when you've already eaten), or start up your own game of something else with other people who have been eliminated.  None of those options are that great and they definitely aren't why you got together with your friends to play games.  The other reason this style of game is bad is that it fosters friendship destroying behaviors since you have to be a jerk to your friends or you lose the game.  Or as Demetri Martin put it: “There’s so many board games with so many different titles, but I feel like they could all have the same title: Which One Of My Friends Is A Competitive Prick?”

There are some exceptions to this rule: if the game is ludicrously short a la We Didn't Playtest This At All, if you all agree that being super competitive jerks won't destroy your friendship, or if you and your friends are all griefers and enjoy the misery of others.  There are also ways to have this win style and tweak it to make it work.  Maybe being eliminated doesn't take you out of the game, but changes what role you play in the game.  Maybe there is a way to be brought back in to the game (especially good for the first person knocked out of the game).  Maybe the eliminated player gets to determine the winner of the game somehow as in Survivor.  You could also completely turn this on its head and make being eliminated the goal of a player.  "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine."  I have a sudden urge to make a Jedi Knight board game...

Friday, November 9, 2012

Amazing Race Challenge Design

Just like Survivor, The Amazing Race would be a terribly boring show if there were no challenges every episode.  Each episode would just be watching people take taxis/tuktuks/airplanes/boats/cars places and yell at each other and their drivers.  As it is now, that's only about half the show.  The other half of the show is where the meaningful choices and skill come into play: the challenges.

Every episode has at least two challenges: one Roadblock (one of the two team members must perform a task alone, the team member is chosen before the task is known) and one Detour (teams may choose to do one of two different tasks).  Sometimes there are other tasks as well: either puzzles (the clue is a picture and they must figure out what it is and go there) or just random tasks teams must perform to earn a clue.  Generally the tasks are related to their current location and are something the locals do regularly or something to help the local community (I feel REALLY bad for the people in India who got their TV antennas put up by people on the race since they clearly weren't concerned about doing a good job, just doing it quickly).

The meaningful choices come into play with the Detours since they get to choose the task.  Generally, one task is a physical task that requires a lot of strength and energy, but will be finished quicker or in a known time frame.  The other task will either involve a lot of luck (find the teacup with the red dot on the bottom out of these 1000 tea cups), mental skill (build a motorcycle from these parts using this example motorcycle as a guide), charisma (sell 20 of these local items as fast as you can), or take a long time (take a Turkish bath).  So the players have to know their strengths and weaknesses and weigh them with the time spent on the task.  If it's going to take them 3 hours to do the physical task and anywhere from 1 minute to 4 hours for the luck task, they should probably try their luck.  If they are a physically strong team, they just always pick the physical tasks and just shoot through them quickly.

Any competitive skill based games should have some method of balancing between players of differing skill levels.  Smash Brothers has items to give players with less fighting skills a chance at winning.  Cranium has a whole array of game types so if you're not good at Charades, you can do a word challenge or a Pictionary challenge.  Letting players choose the challenge with some other balancing mechanism (other players throwing roadblocks at you, each consecutive time you do the same type of challenge you go up in difficulty, etc.) lets players show off what they're good at as well as keeping the game fair for everyone.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Master Chef Game Design

I'm not sure why I'm on such a reality TV competition show analyzing kick, but I think it's interesting to figure out why I'm so easily addicted to certain types of shows and others drive me away.  Maybe this is so I can avoid being hooked to a show I'll never admit I've watched or so I can at least get some good game design ideas out of something that is mostly a waste of my time.  Another reality show type that seems to stick with me are cooking competition shows like Top Chef and Master Chef.

The overall game of Master Chef is pretty simple.  Lots of chefs compete in various challenges.  One is eliminated each week until only one remains.  However, the interesting thing about Master Chef is its format on any given episode is based on the number of players remaining.  When there are odd numbers of players, there is a Mystery Box challenge (make something with the ingredients found in a box) whose winner gains an advantage in the subsequent Elimination challenge.  The next episode will have the even number of players left over compete in teams with the losers competing in a Pressure Test (some very specific cooking challenge like cooking one rare, one medium, and one well done steak or make a souffle) to determine who is eliminated.

I think it's very interesting how the game switches from an individual competition to team and back throughout the competition because it's a very simple way to really change up a game.  Unfortunately, it's harder to design a board/card game like this because in most cases, eliminating players while playing a board/card game is a bad idea, which is a topic all its own.  Even without elimination, this constantly changing format can still be used quite effectively, as evidenced by games like The Resistance and Are You the Traitor? where your team and allies are constantly changing.  Imagine a game like Pictionary where some game element causes the teams to change mid-game and your score was based on how many times you were on a team that got a right answer.  How would that change the strategy?  Maybe you wouldn't guess the right answer because someone else with a lot of points is on your team.  Depending on how often teams change and how new teams are picked, this might be an interesting twist on a classic game.  Or maybe you could alternate between 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Survivor Challenge Design

Designing the main flow of a game is an important first step to creating a game.  However, as the saying goes the devil is in the details.  We know how a player is going to win or lose, but what does each individual turn look like?  What actions do players take to get eliminated/eliminate players or gain points/resources?  How do we make sure each player has a fair chance?

In Survivor, we know that every round of the game, one player is eliminated.  But it would be a terribly boring show if it was just a bunch of people talking.  And how would they decide who should be eliminated? This is where the challenges come in to play.  Challenges expose the weak and strong players, it chooses which team must lose a player, and it gives the audience something exciting to watch.  There are two tricky obstacles the designers of Survivor had to overcome.  If the game was individual competition the entire time, that would be almost as bad as not having challenges since players wouldn't have too much information on who to eliminate.  Secondly, they cast people from all walks of life, so they have to have some way to make the competition fair between man and woman, nerd and jock, country and city dweller.

One solution to both of these problems is to have the first half of the competition be team oriented and the second half be individuals competing.  This means strong players can make up for the weak players.  Weak players can be blamed for losses.  But they can't just always eliminate the weak players because at some point, they will have to compete with individuals and being up against weak players at that point is crucial to winning immunity.

But if that was the only solution, then poorly made teams would make for a bad season.  The other solution is in the individual design of the challenges themselves.  Early on, all competitions are either relays or turn based games.  The relays always have at least two parts: a physical component and a mental component.  A race to collect puzzle pieces and solving the puzzle.  This lets teams divide their strong physical players and their strong mental players (and the trouble lies in if they only have one and not the other).  The turn based games (shooting a coconut slingshot at a wall of tiles, a variant of basketball with three players of each team at a time, etc.) are all designed so it's near impossible for a single player to do so poorly that they make the team lose.  Just because you missed the shot once doesn't mean everyone else is forgiven for also missing their shots.

Once the competition is slim enough to go to individual competition, they alternate between challenges from one of the following categories: strength (races), endurance (keep a ball on a platform for as long as you can), mental (puzzles), social/knowledge (trivia about what other players have said).  This variety once again makes it very difficult for one player to dominate and keep gaining immunity.  It doesn't make it impossible, but if that super strong player EVER loses a challenge, you can pretty much bet they will be eliminated.

The best way to balance any game and keep it fair for all players is to have that balance built in to the game.  Whether this is through a variety of ways players can excel (in Settlers you can build more settlements, upgrade existing settlements, or use certain development cards to earn points), giving everyone an even chance of success despite skill (everyone has the same chance of drawing a high card in War), using groups (you can still win Pictionary if you aren't good at guessing as long as others on your team are), or some other way you can come up with.  The more built in balance a game has, the less you have to work at shifting numbers and probabilities to keep your game fair.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Review: The Fool and his Money

So I previously mentioned a game I had pre-ordered for what I estimated was 5 years (turns out it was 7 years ago).  It finally came out last Friday and long story short, it was well worth the wait.  The Fool and his Money is a sequel to the game The Fool's Errand.  I'm not sure if you have to play the original to understand the sequel, but it's free and it's awesome, so there's really no reason not to play the original, especially if you like puzzles.

The game is set up much like an Usborne Puzzle Adventure.  There is a page of story text with an associated puzzle to solve.  One difference is each page only shows a few sentences until the puzzle is solved.  It's ideal to play the puzzles in order so you can understand the story, but it's not necessary.  The game starts with around 10 puzzles unlocked with a new one unlocked for every puzzle solved.  So if you get stuck on one puzzle, you can move on to another and come back when you're ready.  Each puzzle solved unlocks a part of the Moon's Map.  Once all the pieces are unlocked, they will have to be arranged appropriately to unlock the final set of puzzles.

All told there are well over 150 puzzles in this game that need solving.  That's not counting the fact that you will have to figure out what the puzzle is in many cases.  For example, there are 5 different card games whose rules you will have to learn through deduction and trial and error.  Once you learn the rules, it's a whole other matter to defeat the other player.  The best part of all the puzzles is that you can trust them to be fair.  You don't have to worry about any trick questions, any hidden pixels, or any scattered information.  Everything you need to solve a puzzle is on the page you find it or has a link to send you to where the information is.  The clues are also subtle while still being obvious that there clues to be found.  If you're really stuck on solving a puzzle, the main menu has a link to a very well crafted hint page that can guide you to a puzzle's solution without necessarily ruining the answer.

For $40, this brain buster is a grand bargain for anyone who loves having their smarts challenged.  It's especially wonderful for fans of word play.  However, be warned, you better really love anagrams.