“COVER ME!”: Convenient covers for things you don’t know how to do

This is a second little anecdote about game design I absorbed during undergrad, while studying video games, which I think have some crossover consideration with board game design. See the entry Bonus! for the first.

My takeaway from “Bonus!” was that even if you can’t make something work, or there’s a technical hurdle between you and your exact design objective, sometimes a little wallpapering over it with theme or dopamine can make for an even better experience for players.

The story related below is third hand, and so may be apocryphal. If anyone involved in the design choices described ever reads this, please reach out so I can correct my memory and set the record straight here 🙂

When the Quake series of games came out, they were a technical marvel. When the code was open-sourced years later, things were discovered in it that were still considered remarkable at that time. However, for all it brought, “bots” were still an incredibly hard feat to accomplish in first person shooters – there wasn’t a whole lot of “I” in the AI.

The Quake designers wanted to make it appear as if the computer-controlled AI bots were actually communicating with each other in coordinated attacks on player. Which, at this point in game development, was pretty impossible. At least by any standard we’d expect today. True, they were built into the game, thus they had an edge on the player, and could actually read perfect information about each other directly from the game engine. Their algorithms also had access to other shared information about game state, stored in system variables or registers. Continue reading

Socializing with a purpose

A few weeks ago, Andrea and I were sitting at a brewery discussing the ‘why’ of various things — when she asked:

“Well, how often do you stop to think about why you like the things you like?” and she threw out board games as an example. Luckily for the conversational repartee, this is a topic I have spent at least a modest amount of time thinking about.

To me, board games provide a framework for socializing, in a way that we don’t often get in our modern lives. Sure, it’s easy to have friends over for dinner, discuss the meal, catch up on each other’s jobs, or any of the usual idle chatter, but at the end of the day, I think we all feel, at least subconsciously, a little bit hollow in it, as the Eleanor Roosevelt quote goes: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” And, I’m going to posit, orthogonal to this to create a space to analyze, is the idea that creativity is born of constraints. These types of gatherings don’t provide constraints, which can lead to a lack of creativity in the interactions. Continue reading

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 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 (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

Yearly Goals 2015 Edition

The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.

—Bill Copeland

I know a lot of folks who poo-poo “New Years resolutions”, and with good reason. Firstly, New Years itself is fairly arbitrary: there’s nothing intrinsically special about one spot in the Earth’s trip around the Sun compared to another (well, there are technically two unique places, but New Years is neither of them) and secondly, and more importantly, they don’t actually work.

But what to do, then? Continue reading

Handy Bike Tip #1

When you get a flat, make sure you check not only the tire for burrs, pokes, nails and bits of glass, but also the rim & rimtape for damage, holes and rough bits. I’m on my fourth tube since swapping my rear Kenda out for a road tire, 100% due to the fact that there’s a hole in the tape. Even the wrenches at the bike shop missed it. (It’s not a puncture issue from the end of a spoke — just as pressure point for the tube.) Wasn’t a problem at 80psi, but became one quickly at 120psi.

Halloween Costume Considerations

Now that it’s October, it’s time to start thinking about that greatest of all holidays, Halloween.  And thoughts of Halloween inevitably lead to thoughts of costumes, that most important aspect of that greatest of holidays.

After several years of careful observation of costumes at various Halloween parties, I’ve discovered that there are several important rules to consider when choosing and assembling one:

#1: The Costume should not interfere with your ability to use the bathroom.

This really ought to go without saying, but we all need a sanity check when we get excited.  Take a step back, and think to yourself “Can I really take care of everything I might need to do while strapped into this iPod costume?”

#2: The Costume should not inhibit your ability to consume beer.

This, too, really ought to go without saying, but time and time again, people overlook this important consideration.  

#3: The Costume should not rely on any ‘unstowable’ props to be recognized.

Props are an integral part of many costumes, of course, but if you need them for character recognition, and can’t attach them to your body in some convenient way, they will only serve to frustrate you.  Plus it will end up violating Rule #2 before too long.  NB: This rule also covers Other People.  Now, don’t get me wrong, partner and ‘team’ costumes deserve all sorts of bonus points, but if your cadre wanders away, and suddenly your costume doesn’t make any sense, then what?

#4: The Costume should not hinder your ability to ‘hook up’ during a Halloween party.

This includes any and all potentially embattled interpretations of the colloquialism ‘hook up’ (looking at you, Katie, Lauren.)  This kind of situation might be the furthest thing from your mind when costume inspiration strikes, but it never hurts to be prepared.  Keep in mind that this isn’t limited to physical encumbrance… I don’t care how long you spent meticulously crafting your Geordi LaForge unitard and VISOR, there are very few parties you could attend where you aren’t violating this rule on both counts.

Of course, there is some overlap to these; violations of #1 are likely concurrent with violations of #4.    I welcome photographic evidence of these considerations being ignored.  I also welcome examples of the Geordi LaForge clause of #4 that are less Heteromasculocentric.