Player Experience 8: “Feelings”

This is the final installment of our survey of board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. Definitely pop back and give the previous chapters a read, we’ll be tying them all together here!

Feelings is a pretty tough subject (as it turns out), and I found myself quite a bit out of my depth. So I’ve roped in my friend Dr. Elliott Hedman to help us cross the finish line. Elliott is the founder and Chief Experience Designer for mPath, where he helps organizations understand and optimize their emotional experiences. Enjoy!

Games can illicit a full range of feelings in players — joy, challenge, competition, sadness, defeat, and on and on, just as with other entertainment media: movies, television shows, video games, immersive theater …a new thing I’m totally psyched on right now; More on that topic in another post.

Previously in the PX series, I’ve suggested that immersion creates a feeling of being in the situation presented by the board, rules, and situation. Given that our emotional state can color any situation we find ourselves in (think how a person can say the same exact thing to you on separate occasions — if they catch you in a good mood, you may take it in a positive light, but in a bad mood, you might take those same words as antagonistic), let’s take the abstraction of feelings and immersion one level higher, and look at how a board game experience can influence emotions, and then in turn, those emotions can influence that experience, creating a feedback cycle.

Jack Sparrow

Jack Sparrow just invaded Yggdrasil during a game of Bloodrage.

Elliott describes emotions as preparation for action, or anticipation. This drives players as they live out the moments of the game; do they want to take a crazy risk just for the chance of a big payoff on an unlikely die roll, like an adrenaline junkie; do they want to ‘take on the world’ of the other players either by taking the solo role during Fury of Dracula or Scotland Yard, or simply by antagonizing every player until you’ve got a big target on your back; do they put on an air of braggadocio and shit-talking, only to anxiously stop as they are within striking distance of victory, and fear their poker face won’t hide it? Consider the following situational anecdotes from a few games through that lens:

  • I conspiratorially share with another player at the table during a 10 hour Twilight Imperium session (My first ever!) “I think I’m only two turns from winning”. He winks at me and smirks. On the very next turn, he nabs the ‘first player’ option, and wins on that turn, one ahead of my anticipated victory. I felt beaten, a tiny bit betrayed, and soooo close to winning, only to have it slip through my fingers. In retrospect, I thought back on how I’d watched him stoke every other player’s empire into conflict, then sat back and played us all, so I ultimately felt additional respect for my friend’s board game prowess. And for TI’s balance, for us to have played for so long, and yet end up so close in outcome.
  • My trip to Origins Game Fair 2016 was my maiden voyage to the con. I made two friends at the Secret Cabal meetup, and the next day, we sat down to play XCOM — a game full of setbacks, stress, and high levels of decision fatigue. But it was a great bonding experience for us, and we wrapped with a great feeling of camaraderie. Next time we hang out, we’ll no doubt high-five and say “Hey you guys remember that time we got rekt by the alien invasion at Origins???”


Captain Sonar First Mate anxiety.

Commander Riker (Season 1… clean shaven, obvi) reporting for duty! I will definitely fail to have weapon systems ready for you on time, sir!

Through Elliott’s research, he’s come to term this feeling ‘anxiety/arousal’ — similar to being on the edge of a swimming pool. But once you’ve done the action you were preparing for, that emotional experience no longer exists. Games take different approaches to building this feeling, but the most effective way is to have short periods of building to high intensity, followed by short periods of cool-down. XCOM uses time limits and conflicting needs around communication; Mansions of Madness puts a clear ending ahead of you, that you know you might just barely might miss; in Kingdom Death, any roll could be literally (in-game…) fatal; Caverna lets you build a giant system and you just need a single puzzle piece to complete it; Werewolf creates a growing sense of paranoia, as the town’s population dwindles. Captain Sonar does this exquisitely, by giving every station operator ample opportunity to fail on behalf of the entire crew, while never providing quite all the tools they need for success.


The process of learning a game can bring it’s own entire genre of feelings to the table as well. The person teaching needs to make sure that everyone at the table is understanding what to do, and that they’re emotionally ‘regulated’ enough to absorb the information. New players (see PX2: The Familiarity Spectrum) may be concerned about frustrating or letting down the other players, which creates a whole additional input to their anxiety/arousal curve. When tabling Escape the Aliens from Outer Space for the first time, one player remarked “I just feel like you guys all know more rules to more games so this all makes more sense to you.” Not a great feeling for him, especially in a totally hidden-information game like Escape the Aliens, full of mistrust among players. This can crop up double when a design is early, and the rules aren’t totally nailed down yet, players who are newer to hobby gaming may just be getting comfortable with the concepts common to tabletop games, so a ruleset that’s in flux and probably broken can cause additional problems.

Once players are in the thick of things, their anxiety/arousal rollercoaster will likely be augmented by a few other types of feelings.


We already know that the other players are a huge factor in the experience of a game, but beyond that, Humans are incredibly social primates, so we’ve got all sorts of feelings when in social settings. How do we deal with our friends? Do we enjoy competing with them, or cooperating with them? XCOM puts us on the same team with our friends, against an increasingly brutal foe, while Captain Sonar teams us up with some of our friends, and against others. I’ve been in a game of Battlestar Galactica where, immediately after the game ended, the following exchange took place between a player who was trolling everyone all game, and one of his most frequent victims: “So for real, man, were you a Cylon?” “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW <Storms out of room>”. It was awesome 🙂

Victorious, Smart

Additionally, feeling smart can be important to many people (I mean… no one likes to feel dumb, but feeling smart is more important to some than others). This feeling can be invoked by giving a player an obstacle to overcome, a puzzle to solve, or the opportunity to feel like they’ve successfully made something. Elliott likens this last type to the ‘Maker’ movement, and the unbelievable and ongoing popularity of Minecraft. Making something makes feels good.

Uwe Rosenberg's "Patchwork"

Uwe Rosenberg gave me a pleasant opportunity to feel smart this day.

Feeling smart can equate to feeling victorious in some as well — we love challenges; we love to pushed and made to struggle; and it’s more powerful to succeed by overcoming a challenge than to succeed by accident. For me, the connection I always think of is with Trivia (or Pub Quiz in some geographies). The ‘designer’ of the questions for Trivia night could have an incredibly easy job of making it too hard, with the most obscure, ridiculous question you could dredge up on Wikipedia: “How many yards did Barry Sanders rush for with 1997 Detroit Lions? [answer]“, or way too easy: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? [answer]“, but neither of those makes for good trivia. The reason people come to trivia is to feel smart… and questions that are preposterously hard either make people feel frustrated, dumb, or clueless while questions that are too easy, are boring. During trivia, you feel smart when the question is right at the periphery of your knowledge, and you have to reach for it, but you eventually grab ahold of it (possibly with a little social help from your teammates!), and score the point. The excitement of facing that challenge that’s just within reach is well demonstrated in Letters from Whitechapel and Android: Netrunner.


Another space for emotions is story. Stories and storytelling were mostly likely, literally, our first form of communication as humans, and they show no signs of tapering off. Stories are so prevalent, and so similar across cultures, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell was able to distill stories across vast cultures and eras into a predictable arc, which he termed the ‘Monomyth’. And yet, every time we apply story, we can tug at the heartstrings. Watching a movie creates emotions as the story unfolds on autopilot. Board games give the Player an opportunity to step into the story, and hopefully make an impact on the outcome. T.I.M.E Stories is a good example of this. Of course, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 rocked this as well. When players are in the story and making decisions, they can become attached to outcomes. Robinson Crusoe is Elliott’s favorite of these: “Ah shit the monkeys are back!”

“What feeling are players seeking out when they pull your game off the shelf?”

I’ve said many times though this series that it’s not intended to prescribe a specific direction for your game designs, merely to unearth dimensions that are worth considering. If you want to see some of these theories in practice, an interesting, simple experiment you could do is email your friends/post on Board Game Geek. Ask people what their favorite game is and to describe in detail one of their favorite experiences with that game. Elliott says, “Mine would be playing Captain Sonar with my girlfriend recently. She hadn’t played many games yet. She was in charge of figuring out where the other ship was. After about 10 minutes of back and forth, she whispers to me, ‘I’ve found the other ship’ and we shoot it down right there.”

He then broke this down into the various types of feelings above: Socially, he got to feel connected to his girlfriend; Anxiety, they were able to hold off on that ‘edge of a pool’ climax moment until the perfect time to strike for the win; Smart, they figured out a challenging problem.

In my own design, Valour, players play out the final sunset of the Gallic empire. Julius Caesar and the Roman army decimate the countryside, and a rich culture in antiquity about which we know little. In addition to designing according to a few first principles I laid down early in the project, I knew that I was aiming to instill a particular feeling in my players — a little uncertainty about how to interact with the other tribes, a sense of being overwhelmed by an unstoppable enemy, and just a wisp of sadness about the decline of culture.

Designing for People

If anything is the major takeaway from this exploration of Player Experience is that, while games boil down to rules and boxes and cardboard and ‘the industry’ and a community full of ‘shelfies’ and Bloodrage memes and complaints about Cards Against Humanity, we’re really designing for people — whether you game gets tabled over and over, or merely another trophy in someone’s collection — there are always people at the far end of our design process, and they’re the ultimate target of our works. And the closer we can keep that fact in mind as we design, the better our games are going to become.

Want to chat about the Player Experience? Email me: woodardj at gmail, put Player Experience in the subject line to make sure to see it — I also blog here roughly once a week on a wide array of board game topics, plus goal setting, and tips for taking your hobby seriously (in my case, and likely yours, board game design) and treating it like a business, so it can become a thing you get to do more often. So if you’ve subscribed, I encourage you to stay on for more good stuff! Cheers!

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). Continue reading

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:

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.

  • 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.