PX 7: Theme v. Mechanics

This is the seventh entry in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. The earlier installments set up some an awesome baseline we build on below, so head back and check them out!

49861595I’ve written before about how I like to approach designing — and I know that there’s a spread of opinion on the matter, some of which doesn’t agree with me. I also think it may be one of those topics that I ascribe way more contention to than actually exists in the game design-o-sphere :). But, nonetheless, the forces of theme and mechanics — most effective when optimally balanced — factor heavily into the Player Experience. Consider a game with ‘fiddly’ or complex mechanics, which intend to simulate a simple interaction, or to generate a simple outcome? (I can’t even come up with an example, because this would be a terrible game…) This would take away from the experience, and remove the player from the immersion. Contrast with a game like Onitama, which abstracts a complex martial arts showdown between two schools of kung fu masters in an arena-style duel. The theme is incredibly understated (which, cleverly, is further on-theme by reflecting an asian minimalism); the mechanics are also about as simple as can be, with an average teaching time of two minutes. This balance leads to players experiencing not only a sense of lightness as they control their pawns as “in-game”, the pieces are making moves they’ve rigorously trained, representing balance, concentration, and a similar ‘quickness’. There’s also a sense of zen, where choosing moves to make are like a koan: after making moves, they’re available to your opponent, and no longer available to you, until your opponent chooses to make it in reply. Here, the mechanics and the theme slot together perfectly, making the player experience incredibly tight, and ‘fight-like’: It’s short, the exertion is high (here in a mental sense rather than a physical on), and the flow between players is quick and fluid. Continue reading

PX 6: Player Experience Beyond the Time Box

This is the sixth entry in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. We’ll reference a few earlier installments below, so maybe peek back at them before coming back here!

During early research of this topic (the Player Experience / PX) I discovered an earlier research paper by a group out of northern Europe. Their paper was focused on video games, and in general mobile, but included a great deal of interesting inquiry.

One of the concepts which struck me first, was how their concept of the “Experience” of a game extended well beyond the literal time boundaries of the session. A player begins experiencing your game from the moment it’s brought to their attention, and will continue well on into the future after the game is put away.

A different kind of time box. (Photo Credit: Flickr user rooners)

Everyone’s favorite time box. (Photo Credit: Flickr user rooners)

In Agile development and workflow, there’s a precept while running meetings to “respect the time box” — if  meeting is scheduled from 2–3, end at 3. Don’t let it drag it out. (There are likely volumes to be written about board game “play time” estimates, but this article is not that.) Here, we’ll focus on developing the context of experience reaching beyond the time before the moment the first die is rolled, and beyond when the components are packed away in the box and returned to the shelf. “Outside the time box.”

Clearly the core of the player experience is the time while the game is on the table, but let’s run through some examples of experience outside this ‘time box’:

  • How does someone hear about your game? Through a website like BoardGameGeek, an excited friend, a board game group? The way a thing is introduced to us becomes a powerful part of our memory of it, our willingness to try it, and how we view it when we do.
  • When I’m planning a session of Battlestar, while everyone coordinates their schedules, I’m reliving stories (both in my mind and in the email thread) from all previous tablings of that game — because for me, the shit talk and the paranoia begins the minute the invite goes out. In fact, I’ll sign off “—not a Cylon, Jonathan”.
  • All the buzz surrounding a regular poker night. The experience of that game includes the morning-of when your buddy texts you: “Can u believe Nate took all our money last week? I’m totally getting him back this time”. And the one the day after: “Shit, why did I fold on my pocket fours[1], I should have known that jerk was bluffing!”

Continue reading

PX 5: Determinism, Information, and Hedging Against the Future

This is the fifth topic in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. This entry references several key concepts from earlier installments, so you’ll either want to start at the beginning, or else drop back as they’re linked!

Spilled scrabble tray

Scrabble tray accidentally becomes “perfect information”. Photo Credit: Flickr user whiskeytango (CC-BY)

Beyond all the things we’ve discussed so far, players will all be bringing a certain set of gaming preferences with them to the table when they play your game. These may have basis in their personality types, experience levels, or brain chemistry, but these preferences also grow through the types of games they play and the life experiences that they’ve had.

Some players enjoy having perfect information about the game state, while others may have either a tolerance, or even a preference, for hidden information — finding fun in the need to deduce unknown aspects of the game state, or the hidden situations of the other players (think: ‘Cat & Mouse’ mechanics, such as Scotland Yard, Fury of Dracula, or Clue: The Great Museum Caper). Information may become un-hidden in a variety of different ways and rates, making a continuous gradation from “fully hidden” to “fully public”. (e.g.: secret drafting, simultaneous reveal like Robo Rally, or Revolution! in contrast to the trickle of revelation in the cat & mouse games listed above).

Another axis of the ‘unknown’ has randomness at one end, and determinism at the opposite— games with dice, shuffled cards, tiles or pieces drawn from bags, or flipped coins all introduce randomness — while many games provide players with ways to manipulate the random outcome in their favor, no matter what, any random event becomes a singularity beyond which a player cannot perfectly predict, but is only able to estimate the likelihoods of outcomes.

On these two axes of the unknown, players may fall anywhere along either — but in contrast with the spectra of familiarity, there isn’t necessarily a natural trend in any direction over time. It’s easy to begin categorizing games or specific mechanics within games for their management of the unknown, and it’s also easy to start seeing where some games fall on these axes:

Chess is perfect information, perfect determinism. Liars Dice might make up the diametric opposite of chess in the space: complete randomness, totally hidden information. Magic: The Gathering leverages several types of each ‘unknown’ on both sides of the table. Excluding some types of tournaments, a M:TG player has perfect information about what is in his or her deck — but they come out in a random, unpredictable order (and then to willfully mitigate this, players have the option of cards which influence Library order!) An opponent’s deck is hidden information, as is their hand, but one has perfect information about the state of the battlefield, the specific cards they have out on the table.

Polyhedral dice

Singularity generators. Photo Credit: Flickr user belle-etoile (CC-BY-NC-ND)

A game in the ‘war game’ might embody perfect information, with random outcomes — as the board and units are publicly visible, but the outcome of any particular engagement is dictated by the rolling of dice. This might appeal to a player who wants to think strategically, who can map the non-deterministic space of results caused by dice in their head, and attempt to effectively hedge the odds in their favor by playing a more effective strategy.

Chess, or another perfect-information, perfect-determinism game like Go, can be incredibly intimidating to a beginner, with the outcome of successive match ups providing a clear stack-ranking of skill, where a new player will naturally land near the bottom for some time as they learn the strategy.

Low-information, low-determinism games can be a cinch to jump into, without fear of alienating new players, but when players lack a feeling of agency through multiple plays, the allure can wear off quickly — a gamer buddy and frequent play-tester of my games who most often advocates for added randomness, has a copy of “Killer Bunnies” he’s been trying to do away with for years because he’s sick of it and how arbitrary it feels.

A game with some hidden information and low randomness can enable a highly experienced player to spring a final strategy to seal up a win, but may be easily thwarted by a newer player who has been holding on to an “Interrupt” card the entire game. In the right circumstances, this can prove exciting, spiking the adrenaline response, and a lasting memory of the dramatic game occurrence in both players, but the allure can wear off quickly, as with the end of a game of Munchkin.

Intentionality in a design here is critical — asking of a design, broadly: “Who is this targeted to?”, as well as situationally: “Why is there a die roll here?” or “Should the cards a player draws be face up so everyone can see, or face down?” all become incredibly important lines of inquiry for tuning the design to properly appeal across the spread of preferences you’re targeting.

Next, we take a ride with The Doctor, as we explore outside the “time box”, or the specific bounds of beginning and end of a gameplay session!

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PX 4: Neuroscience and the Thinky Bits

This is part four in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” The earlier posts aren’t prerequisites for this one, but I recommend checking them out anyway 🙂

This week, we’re going to tackle brain chemistry, neurotransmitter hormones, and some of the deeper psychological aspects of what’s going on during a board game, and how the Player Experience is molded by those things. Full disclaimer, I’m wholly unqualified to discuss this aspect of the PX topic; I’ve done my best to research each of the aspects I’m presenting below, but if your areas of expertise overlap what I’ve got down here, I’d love to connect and revise this a little bit. Please reach out!

BPx7OA lot of popular press these days seems to be covering the hormones that influence our moods, feelings, and reactions — sometimes in fairly simplistic ways: I needed a dopamine hit, so I ate a cupcake. The science, however, appears to be painting an increasingly complex picture (he says, as he’s about to lay out a super-simplified worldview). The “heavy hitters” in your brain that we can cover at a high level here include, with very simplistic explanations:

  • Dopamine — regulates the reward center of the brain. Something good happens, and you get a little hit of it. You feel good.
  • Serotonin — has a major influence over mood regulation. The vibe at the gaming table likely is tightly connected to the players’ Serotonin levels. But that’s actually just a hypothesis; current science doesn’t actually know the exact purpose it serves, only that it’s definitely important.
  • Oxytocin — sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’ (because it appears to be generated in high quantities during cuddling) contributes to the overall feeling of bonding among people. Ironically, it is also turning out to be related to high-stress situations as well, with research finding that extended stressful childhood experiences can lead to anxiety issues later in life.
  • Adrenaline — causing the ‘fight or flight’ feeling — released by danger or during competition.
  • Cortisol — Adrenaline’s arch enemy, released during stressful situations to lower Adrenaline levels, and has big impacts on digestion and other bodily systems.

Continue reading

Player Experience is Other People

This is the third topic in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” You don’t have to read the others first, but it does reference several concepts from before, so I highly recommend it.

“L’expérience, c’est les autres”

— with apologies to Sartre

When designing a game, there is one major factor which is nearly impossible to predict, and accurately accommodate for, all combinations of: The other players around the table. Since most games are competitive, players are attempting to beat one another, overcome the obstacles put into place by each other, etc. Therefore, a huge aspect of Player Experience is necessarily who is sitting across the table from a player[1].

A troll player who disregards the intent of a game, or intentionally goes out of his or her way to grief the other players is going to cause a negative experience for them. Likewise, a player who never wishes to “step on toes” may also impact the game negatively by failing to drive in-game battle economies as expected. Continue reading

PX #2: The Familiarity Spectrum

This is an installment in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” I highly recommend you start at the beginning, but it’s certainly not required 🙂

The experience a Player has with your game is going to vary based on a lot of factors. Imagine someone brand new to your game. Thay have no familiarity with any aspect of it, though perhaps they have seen the box. Maybe they have read the rules, but there’s no way to know. At the other extreme, lies you, the designer. You’re not only familiar with all the aspects, but also the history of each component, and the full evolution of each mechanic and each system. Anyone who sits down to experience your game is going to fall somewhere along this spectrum of familiarity. Continue reading

Player Experience (PX) Series #1: A Primer on User Experience and Interface Design

This is an installment in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX” feel free to start at the beginning, or just jump right in!

Valour with TeapotTo begin our exploration of Player Experience (PX), I feel it’s important to take a step back, and understand some underlying concepts. Luckily, there have been decades of research on human-centered design (and, turns out, board games are intended for consumption by humans). So to set down some vocabulary around fundamentals, we’ll begin with an analysis of board games from a raw “User Experience” or “UX” perspective.

No discussion of User Experience or Human-Centered design is possible without a peek at the research of Don Norman. In his seminal work, The Design (‘Psychology’, in some printings) of Everyday Things, he lays out a series of terms for describing an experience a user can have with a system. He’s gone on to clarify many of these topics through successive editions of the book, and a great online presence. Continue reading

Designing the Player Experience (PX)

IMG_4515When designing, it’s easy to get hung up on the details in front of us — the mechanics, the theme, the components. But ultimately, the point of designing games is for others to play them.

And why do they play them? In my view, it’s to facilitate a rich human-human interaction, unique from just about anything else. Competitive, fun, a centerpiece for conversation, a reason to get together with people you may not see frequently, and so on.

Because these interactions are fundamentally human in nature, we designers have a responsibility to understand the user experience, or, as I’m going to not exactly coin, (as there is a bit of previous research on this) but to champion the term “Player Experience” or (PX), even if that’s a bit on-the-nose as an adaptation from the software world, where the emphasis by good product teams is the “User Experience” or “UX”. Continue reading

Yearly Goals 2015 Roundup

A few folks have been harassing me about the open loop I left from last year’s goals, and want to know where things landed. Seems appropriate that this should come out in February, given that the original post didn’t make it out until February either :).

I sent 9 monthly Valour updates, out of 12 months. Oh, were you not signed up to get them? Start here: flightless.co/valour

I did not sign with a publisher, but got really promising feedback from one, and I learned what that process looks like, so now I know how to move on that.

Production delays in Q4 for SSRPG meant that we didn’t hit the holiday launch window I was hoping for, nor did it launch with two stories, but a focus on building the process while publishing the first story, and getting authors queued proved more efficient, and now the process is practiced and more stories are coming.

  • Mobility on Demand
    • Sell out our first run of inventory.
    • Get our second product underway.

Mobility on Demand sales were slower than anticipated during the beginning and middle of the year, owing to a lot of factors. But I think we’ve learned that we have a product people want, and that each of several parts of the marketing machine each work at an effective level, and it’s a matter of connecting dots.

Most of the Ignite Boulder events in 2015 didn’t sell out until the very last minute, so the secondhand market didn’t necessarily need a ton of facilitation, making the value prop for optimizing ITS’s user flow wasn’t totally there.

  • Travel to Sweden
    • For years I’ve been fantasizing about a really unique trip to Sweden, and this year it’s finally going to happen.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that the Sweden trip I’ve been planning in my head might be more of a …something I want to do mainly because I decided long ago rather than something I genuinely still want to do… I bet the Germans have a word for that. With Andrea’s help, I did, however, make it to Europe for the longest vacation I’ve taken as an adult.

  • woodar.dj blog (here!)
    • Weekly posts.

I missed posting on thirteen weeks out of fifty two in 2015, (includes two the two weeks I was on vacation). Which means I posted thirty-nine of those weeks. 75%

  • Crossfit
    • Sub-7 minute “Annie (Nailed it Jan 13!)
    • Clean & Jerk 225# (Gotta clean up the clean form a little and I’m sure it’s there.)
    • Muscle Ups (Need to speed up the transition.)
    • Pistols (Ankle flexibility is the pits.)

I hit my Annie goal in January before the post even went up, and I’ve since repeated, so I know it wasn’t just a fluke or mis-counting Annie’s 300 reps :).

I Clean & Jerked 225# during workout 15.1 of the Crossfit Open, nailing my goal. I later repeated that weight from the hang (which I’m told is occasionally easier? :-]) while prepping for the 2015 Highland Games.

I also hit seven muscle ups during 15.3, though I haven’t been able to repeat anything like thae since :-[ But Coach Dave saw it, so I know I wasn’t dreaming :).

Pistols remain elusive as ever.

  • Financial
    • Eradicate the last of my debts.
    • Rescue my Michigan house from the piece of shit bank that owns the mortgage on it.

Credit cards balances and loan debts from my startup founder days are all history. There are still some back taxes from the same timeframe, but those are almost gone as well. The default payment plans the IRS makes up are ridiculously slow.

House is SOLD, so is definitely free of any sort of tomfuckery from the assholes at Ocwen and Greentree, who long ago acquired the loan from my original mortgage company. With all that shit out of the way, money is an awesome topic :-$.

Not a bad year, all-in-all. A few things didn’t make it across the finish line, but with a focus the future rather than mistakes, I think things landed in a good place. I have some equally challenging 2016 objectives lined up, but I’m excited about them.

Lots of games this weekend!

Big weekend for gaming! I hit the trifecta on Sunday: Worked on my game, Valour; tried out a new game; taught an old favorite.

Got all the components for Valour uploaded to The Game Crafter, so now I’m ready to start sending out blind test prototype copies to those far-flung fans who have been asking to give it a try! This week is also your last chance to get on the Valour mailing list if you want the February update!

Then, got a chance to try out A Study in Emerald (2ed), a Sherlock Holmes / Lovecraft crossover game (…I know, right???) which just came out with its second edition. The rules were dense, and there was a lot that may have been peripheral, but overall, it combined several modern game mechanics in a really elegant way. None of us at the table had ever played before, so I think the strategy began to dawn on everyone just as The Old Ones were cinching a victory, but I would absolutely play this one again. See my friend Dave’s review, which was based on this play session.

Afterward, I introduced a group of (mostly) new players to Battlestar Galactica — one of my perennial favorites. I love how well it captures the tension of the series: The paranoia about Cylons among the humans, and the continual panic while fending off attacking ships. I do tend to forget the rules for most of this, like space combat and details around warping the ship around, since it’s usually tabled so infrequently, AND because, in my opinion, all of that ‘stuff’ in this is merely backdrop for the real game: sowing mistrust among the humans, and throwing Cylons out the airlock. I knew my feeble poker skills left me out of my league with this crowd after the following exchange (which I know won’t make sense if you haven’t played… but count that as one more reason to try it):

Nick: “You’re card-counting the Destiny Deck, aren’t you?”
Megan: “Of course I am.”
Nick: “HOW??”

Cylons ended up winning by a hair, but only because an ‘outed’ Cylon served up a crisis card to the still-hidden Cylon who was able to use it to drain the final Population from the Human fleet 😐 Good stuff!

I’m working on a slightly larger post where I’m going to put a stake in the ground around some game design concepts, but it’s going to require a little more research than most of my posts based on experiential learnings. So count this week as a multi-game “review” week 🙂

A Study in Emerald: Worth a try if you can get your hands on a copy, but I’d recommend playing with others who have all either never played, or are all experienced. N00bs would get worked by even second-time players.

Battlestar Galactica: Why haven’t you played this yet?? If you’re in Boulder and want to give this a go, hit me up and we’ll try and get it tabled 🙂