Posts Tagged game design


There was an event tonight I went to called Bring Your Own Wingman that was actually a pretty clever design for getting single folk together. I ended up going with Paul, Sophie and Ginger, although we made a dinner stop at Umi Sake House first (nom nom sushi so delicious).

The rules were simple:

  • You must be single.
  • You must bring a friend – a woman if you are a man, a man if you are a woman – and this friend must also be single.
  • During the event, you talk up your friend to other folk who are interested in them!

Really a brilliant idea, even if this one’s execution was lacking. You get a bunch of interested singles, plus the benefit of reference/perspective information from a friend of theirs RIGHT THERE in the room, plus the ratio of men/women is excellent. In thinking about it, I thought maybe pairs would stick together so there’d be a fair bit of 4-person chatting, which can be unfortunate (maybe two halves like each other but then the other two halves are left twiddling thumbs). A good addition to the system might be a way to get people moving around to talk with more folk?

This brings me to the execution part: when we got there, it was packed like sardines and very uncomfortable! (General rule: if I can’t walk to your bar without pushing people around, I probably don’t want to be in your bar.) So, testament to the event’s success! But I think a bigger venue, or just a better distributed venue – smaller rooms connected around – would have been waaay better. Plus it would have encouraged more movement! I’m interested in trying to do something like this again, but hopefully not as overpacked as it was last night.

(We ended up going to karaoke instead, obv.)

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Credit Card Game

Let’s say you are out to lunch or dinner with a group of friends. Maybe this is even a subset of the people you normally go out with. Unfortunately, not everyone has cash on them! Splitting the bill is a hassle for the server and for the group, so instead: use the Credit Card Game (sometimes called “Credit Card Roulette”).

Each player puts their credit card in the middle. Players may opt out – they pay cash to the central pot instead. The cards are shuffled and removed one by one, usually with the most recent player out to name a number (1 through “number of cards left”) for the next player out. Whoever remains at the end pays the entire bill for the table.

(Remember the cash in the middle? The original version of the game gives that cash to the “winner” – so that the game is only for the amount owed by all players – but since then, the popular “next level” game has taken hold, and instead the cash goes to the second-to-last player. In the next-level game, you can actually MAKE money! I’ve been trying to get the next level of variance – recruit other tables in the restaurant and add their bills to the mix – but nobody’s biting.)

The credit card game is an interesting risk study, because assuming everyone orders comparable amounts, the expected value between playing and not playing is equal – you pay the cost of your meal – but the variance in playing is MUCH higher: a (N-1)/N chance of paying $0 and a 1/N chance of paying the full N times the cost of your meal!

I’ve had the credit card game on my mind because we are eating pre-Cruise tonight at famous Brazilian Steakhouse Fogo de Chao, and I expect I’ll get pressured into playing this particularly high-stakes and ill-timed game. Can I afford to? Can I afford NOT to? (In terms of excitement and hilarity, that is!)

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Travel Advisory

I take more than a few trips (which is awesome, and I am grateful I am able to do so!) but I always am unsure exactly how much stuff to bring along when I fly. This mostly boils down to: how am I going to spend my time on the airplane?

I bring my iPad on basically all trips these days, so either e-books or games are reasonable plans. I tend to get a bit bored after a while, distracted. I could watch an in-flight movie but quality (both in terms of movies available, and the audio/video components) makes this kind of painful. And since I’m on a redeye this very night, sleep could be an option, but I have a really hard time sleeping on planes.

I wonder if I could design myself a game to keep me entertained on a flight. Maybe a system of incentives for puzzles that other friends could create the content for? Not sure. I’ve tried the “game” of programming a website/game before, but the incentives for work don’t line up right in my head. It’ll take some further thought to diagnose the problem. I’ll take some notes on the flight!

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Economic Epiphany

(An epiphany about economics, not an affordable epiphany.)

As I was thinking about some of the discussions I have about government, markets and utility with Lee, Max and others of my libertarian friends, I was trying to resolve in my head how I believe systems built on top of people should handle externalities. This led me to thinking, “what is an externality, exactly?”

I think of externalities as side-effects of otherwise normal transactions. If you and I make a deal about something, generally speaking we affect each other and probably the good/service in question (since we transacting about it). But many times, as an unexpected, unintended or ignored consequence, others not involved in our deal become affected. Generally speaking, you are I aren’t concerned with those people – we are making the deal for ourselves. Even if I’m particularly magnanimous and include other people’s happiness in assessments of my wants and needs (i.e. what I would be making deals about), there will potentially be folk affected I didn’t include.

The core problem is not that “external” parties are affected, but that we don’t factor that into our calculations. And that led me to these parallel conclusions – what libertarians see wrong with government and what I (and many other liberals/government-supporters) see wrong with regulation-free market agents is actually very close to the same probem!

  • Government folk who represent folk are insulated from those folk. They are not incentivized to care about those folk, and therefore (by default) they act in accordance with their own regular interests (power/happiness/what-have-you), or those interests who do properly incentivize them (lobbyists, reelection donors, etc.)
  • Free market folk who provide products/service to those who want them and can pay are insulated from the folk who the product/service could impact as a side-effect. They are not incentivized to care about those folk, and therefore (by default) they act in accordance with their own regular interests (profit), or those interests who do properly incentive them (one could argue the customers who are not affected by these externality costs, because they are deriving benefit without paying as many costs themselves, and so it’s a good deal for them, naturally incentivizing them to incentivize the provider and so on).

I hope I communicated my thoughts here in a way that makes sense. They aren’t the same, clearly, but they seem more parallel than I had originally expected.

It’s interesting (as a psychological quirk, or indicative of my mindspace) that I basically extended this idea to game design immediately in terms of designing the right incentives: games are in essence structures that incentivize potential players to take into account indirect consequences (effects on a game board, as opposed to e.g. dollars or happiness) for their direct actions (their own interaction with the game) that in turn leads to direct reward (fun) – a method that directs them to incorporate “externalities” into their mind-model.

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“All things serve theme.” This is the basis of one of the 50 lenses in Jesse Schell’s amazing book Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses (I highly recommend reading it if you have any inclination toward designing for the enjoyment of others). It’s stuck with me, because I think it’s easy to lose sight of the vision when you are down in the weeds, trying to solve problems rather than trying to design the best experience (or game, or whatever).

So, when I set out to do blog-a-day in 2010, I quickly found I was somewhat adrift without a theme. So I ended up doing one theme a month and basing my posts around them. Some worked, some didn’t, but it sure made the work and the decisions about what to write easier. :)

I’d like to do themes again, starting with next month. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them! Three I am definitely planning on doing are My Favorite Things (each is something I love and why), Memories with Friends (each is a random friend and a memory I shared with them), and What If? (each is an alternate reality, similar to ours, that I’d love to explore and why). Please comment here or on FB if you have an idea!

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#15: Game On

I wrote previously about the creation of game systems, but I haven’t talked more about the running of game sessions – your classic GM role for role-playing games, although I could imagine other ways to do this, like Mafia Narrator (the classic game of finger-pointing and betrayal), or some sort of Hero Quest-esque run where I set up playthroughs that “basically” play themselves with the group.  In some senses this is like setting up a game day with friends, but I do enjoy putting together stories and worlds in the “shared storytelling” way and I haven’t done it in a while, specifically not from the angle of GM/Narrator.

I think the best way to do this, for people with very busy lives (like me!) is to plan a series of sessions (like three) in what many of us have called a “manyshot” (as opposed to “oneshot” for a single session).  In a 3-4 session game, you can do quite a bit of story development, and play a significant amount of “game” too, for RPGs.  It also ends up feeling episodic if people like it enough – you can always bring back a world/story again later.  This is kind of convincing me to consider what an episodic strategy board game might look like.

15. I resolve to run at least one “manyshot” game campaign of my own design (probably RPG), with an eye toward doing it episodically (so like three-four manyshots over the course of a year).

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#6: Game Generation

I really like to work on “small games,” by which I mean the creation of smallish game systems that are for a few people to play.  I discovered this fully when I worked with Nate to make Evil Geniuses for Todd and Tory, and since then I have tried to take on a couple other projects like that (making a game for a small audience – it’s much harder without Nate’s serious skills!).  One of the reasons it’s so rewarding is obviously because it’s dedicated to a particular group, or at least to a particular kind of individual, and seeing that group or kind of person excited is a great feeling.  But another, equally important reason to me is the thrill of making something interesting and engaging that fits wholly inside my head.

I think I’d like to make a formal stab at exploring this skill and its output (more “small game systems”) over the course of many months, both because I have a lot of half-formed ideas floating around my head, and also because I have more friends I wish to surprise and delight with said games in the next year.  I also haven’t spend enough time trying to create digital versions of some of those games, which seems like a good focus for my current frame of mind and for keeping my technological skills at the ready!

#6. I resolve to spend time fleshing out a game system every other month and creating workable prototypes for said systems, for a few months in a row.

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Early Game Design

I wanted to do a review of Epic Win today (the task list app that Monty suggested to manage my time using quests, loot and XP) but I haven’t found time to download and try it yet.  So maybe tomorrow!  This evening, however, I gathered some folks to help me playtest version 1 of a game I am making for Kelly and Laura as a wedding present, after the fact.  (Shh, don’t tell them!)  There are some interesting properties of early game design I wanted to explore here with the playtest fresh in my mind.  (Also, huge thanks to Dylan, Nik and Rebecca for their help!)

The first is that you need to know which mechanics to be attached to, and which ones to let go.  When an aspect of a game isn’t pulling its weight – either because it isn’t fun, or it isn’t working quite right – then it’s time to take a hard look and ask “how fundamental is this aspect to my vision for this game?”  Two different mechanics in my prototype came up as concerns early on, and upon reflection, I am sure that mechanic A is “core” to the game and mechanic B is not.  Which is totally sweet to know this early, because it means I can devote my attention to finding a new, better mechanic (B’) and not waste any more time (other than post-mortem) on original B.  This is the part of playtesting where I think it helps the most to be aware of your playtesters’ revealed preferences because sensing when fun is missing is so huge in understanding when to focus on fixing a mechanic.

The second is that too much variance can be just as bad as too little.  Assuming your game has any strategic component at all (and the ones I play and/or design always do), then you need to be sure the variance doesn’t drown out the ability for a player to predict and act accordingly.  For example, and this is purely hypothetical, if the game has both cards and dice at the same time, that could be too much swing.  Mitigating one or the other will swing it further to the side of strategy, but not so much that you have a Puerto Rico or a Caylus where the more skilled/informed player always wins.  The variance knob is usually easy to turn, but hard to determine the effect of until you have played a number of times, so I generally vary it only slightly across playtests.

Of course, if I had my way, we’d be more scientific about it and only change one thing at a time (to understand exactly what effect each change has) but game design is (1) more of an art than that, due to all of the interconnectivity and emergent properties of multiple mechanics, and (2) usually more time limited than that.

But yeah, going well, and we ended up finding some new stuff as a group that’s definitely pushed it into Design Phase 2.  Woohoo!

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Review: Castle Ravenloft

Today I played the new smash hit board game from the D&D side of Wizards, Castle Ravenloft.  I was an Eladrin Wizard, obviously, and although it was a lot of fun, I’m not sure there are many games I could have played with that group of folk (Aaron, Mike, Doug, Jenna) that would not have been fun due to the group.  I’m still kind of collecting my thoughts about it, but I thought I could give a quick hits and misses on it in a review here.


  • I felt like overall it captured some good D&D flavor and mechanics.  Party of adventurers, dungeon crawl, move-attack, random encounters.
  • There were some awesome moments, like when we figured out we could freeze the gargoyle in place by moving far enough away from it.
  • I liked the tile generation for the game board, it really made it feel like we were exploring.
  • Good use of miniatures, probably even better than how regular 4th Edition uses them (since here the game is about the movement, and sometimes in the RPG the figures can get in the way of the RP.)


  • Some of the D&D stuff was not well implemented, and it stuck out like a sore thumb to me: leveling up, for example, and the lack of overt incentives to stick together while walking around.
  • It was very odd that when you sprung a trap or found a monster, it would (a) be yours to control, but (b) immediately attack you.  Kind of a “stop hitting yourself” moment, over and over.
  • Each dungeon tile could have had a lot more flavor to it – instead of a generic “encounter” deck, there could have been named places with stuff that triggers when you find the place (like in Betrayal at House on the Hill).
  • Too many fidgety pieces to the game, and like five different decks of cards.
  • Too close to a straight-up representation of D&D’s rules – I feel like this could have been abstracted down for simplicity’s sake and would have made a better game and also a better stepping-stone toward D&D.

I definitely want to play it again sometime.  It’s probably not the best game to pick up for a more casual board game audience.

Overall: B-
Potential as a Substitute Evening for an RPG Group: High
Magic Missile: +8 to hit and 1 damage, pulls enemy if you miss

  • Way, way too many pieces.

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Not for Me

Today Paul posted an interesting read on the internal R&D folder, which was the lead designer of League of Legends talking about some of their design lessons.  It was an excellent read (find it here), lessons that I feel like I have learned through experience of my own or of those I work with, and certainly some of the points he makes are ones that Wizards strives to enact in its design and its production.  An even more interesting read, if only because I see it so much on our own community site and am now coming to understand it, are the comments on his post by players who attempt to refute his points.

First off, it’s pretty goddamn difficult to use one’s own motivations and reasoning to refute the time-tested, profit-driven experience of a company.  They are not going to make decisions that sabotage them financially, and a regular human might because regular humans (a) sometimes make bad choices and (b) often do not understand their true preferences.  Of course, because a lot of regular humans don’t understand this about themselves, they take any opportunity they can to point out the error in reasoning of designers who are trying to design fun-for-all (or fun-for-target-audience, sometimes) and end up being very frustrating for designers like me to listen to.

I applaud Zileas’s straightforwardness and honesty about game design, but since game design is essentially psychological engineering for activities, it makes sense that those who are the intended target of the engineering would refuse to believe in its ability to influence them.  We humans can be pretty dogged about what’s “not for me,” and extend it quite easily to “therefore, not for anyone.”

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