Potemkin Empire Designer Diary #2

Opening gambit of an unassailable lead.

Potemkin Empire was one of the designs I took with me to Protospiel Ann Arbor earlier this summer; one of my newer designs. It’s been on the table a few times in a previous iteration that crashed and burned spectacularly. After rebuilding essentially from the ground up, I felt it was good-to-go for Ann Arbor. I’m trying the Joshua Buergel / Grant Rodiek method of iterating in public on this design; in case you missed rules google doc come through my Twitter feed, here it is.

The suits remain the same as the first iteration: Government, Espionage, Science, Culture, and Industry, and their relative impacts on the in-game economy also remain largely similar; government is for ‘first player’ and final points, espionage is for attacking, science is for advantaging building, culture is for protection from attack, and industry is a secondary avenue to victory.

The first tabling at Protospiel revealed a large “runaway leader” problem involving combos with the Culture suit. Shannon McDowell identified the value of Culture’s unlimited protection from spying, and built an unassailable lead in that suit. This also proved that “exceed the current leader by 1” is too drastic a hurdle for a second-ranked player to ever overcome a current leader in any suit. With the shield firmly in place, she bluffed her way into an Science lead as well (for an additional card draw / building opportunity each round!), then went on a building spree of point-scoring Government buildings with total impunity as the other players spied each other to death. Continue reading

Bandwidth

What’s the ideal number of designs to be working on at a time? There’s a lot of wisdom in focusing on one single thing at a time, making it amazing, completing it, then using the completed project as a pillar to step to the next thing. Creative pursuits though, don’t always progress cleanly in a straight line from start to conclusion, so it often (for me) feels valuable to have additional ‘active’ projects waiting in the wings so if I ever run into designer’s block, or get frustrated trying to work through an issue, there’s something else to context switch to and at least make some progress, even when the primary project is in a bit of a furlough.

Splitting focus comes with all sorts of disadvantages — there’s an additional cognitive load even choosing which design to work on, given a free block of design time. Then each design is only progressing at 1/n the pace that could be possible with only one design as a focus. The marketing side also becomes more challenging — which do you talk about? Which do you blog, and send people updates about? The complexity compounds like a network effect with each added design in flight.

For many years, knowing my inclination to scattershot on a thousand different shiny things, I made a deliberate choice and clung tightly to the first approach — I only worked on Valour, anything else was a distraction, and went directly into the catch sheet, not into the brain cycles. It largely went well, though with some periods of extreme productivity, and others of frustration. And once I started shopping it around to publishers, I found myself in a strange spot; I would make new contacts at other publishers, and I didn’t have anything to pitch them, since I didn’t want to double-dip with the evaluations and risk burning bridges if one ended up signing it out from someone else reviewing.

So in one of these lulls, I started grabbing some other (smaller!) designs and making bits of progress on them as well, eventually getting one and then a second working prototype together. An awesome thing started happening, where I always had a prototype ready for a test when in an opportunity arose, and there was something to pitch while waiting on word about Valour.

Do these advantages counteract the negatives of a split focus?

I’m not sure, but I’m starting to feel like 3-4 is a good number of designs for me to have actively circling. How many designs do you have in flight? Do you find yourself more productive with more or fewer? Have you experimented to find an optimum? I’m really interested to hear the process other designers follow in this regard.

Protospiel Ann Arbor 2017

Take out that Storm Generator at all costs!

Protospiel Ann Arbor, the testing event that launched a thousand other testing events, is an easy stop on the annual circuit for me, (though I sometimes end up missing the anniversary party for one of my favorite Colorado breweries 😟), since I can combine with a visit to my hometown and the fam.

I’ve written about it before (maybe thrice), and got in a great set of tests this year as well — I got Valour tested, got a not-yet-public project I’m working on with Josh Sprung beat to hell, and got my new card drafting/bluffing game Potemkin Empire to the table twice: the second test was a great opportunity to shore up some issues that presented strongly in the first test. Fixed a runaway leader problem, and doubled down on the parts of the game players said were the most fun.

It really feels like Valour is rounding a final corner; the game only overstayed it’s welcome by one single Gaul turn this time, and a two hour playtest (Yay! Hit my target duration!) prompted a full hour of discussion among the players. Felt really good.

Josh and I also got some good news about an externality we were waiting on for our not-yet-public project, which I’ll either be talking about soon, or continuing not to talk about… So cloak & dagger🕵️🗡!

Now that we’re over a hundred words into this post, what I really wanted to discuss was the Protospiel “Karma” system, which, as you might imagine from a gathering of game designers, is a set of casual game mechanics governing how the event itself run. How meta!

The crux of the system (the primary resource, if you will…) is time; The economy of time is how it’s spent on your designs, and how your time is spent on others’ designs. Since that’s zero-sum on its own, there’s a little bit of give in the system, and it’s overall purpose is to prevent people from being total moochers, rather than landing in an exactly perfect balance by the end of the weekend.

An all-truthful build strategy in Potemkin Empire v2 is no match for a wildly imbalanced protection mechanic.

If you test a one hour, five player game first thing in the morning, (a total of five person-hours) you ought to sit in on other players’ games for the next five hours. Pretty rad system. And if you’re doing the math on  above and wondering how I possibly got all that in in a three-day event, and still came anywhere close to achieving a karmic balance, a secondary part of designer registration is that you can bring along free “tester” attendees — one day my dad came by to check it out, and play a few games, so his time in-game helps push the needle to balance out my scale.

It’s pretty cool, and seems quite equitable if everyone is honoring the rules. I’m working on gathering a critical mass of designers for a playtesting ring in Boulder, and if I get a group together, I’ll definitely be using a system like this to keep it fair.

Origins 2017 Roundup

I got back from Columbus (a tough destination for a Wolverine alumnus…) last week from the Origins Game Fair. Earlier in 2016, I set some ambitious goals for Origins with regards to ‘designs ready to pitch’. I didn’t hit every goal, but aiming for the ambitious targets ended up landing me in a good spot, further than I probably would have been without them.

Some highlights of this year’s Con:

First and foremost was meeting long-time blog reader become internet friend Conor McGoey and getting to play his debut game Summit — for sure the black sheep hit of Origins; every time I wandered by his table to get to the UnPub room, he was running another session with another crowd of engaged players. The production quality is top notch, the gameplay is great, and the whole thing has that je ne se quoi we’re all looking for as designers. The mountain is savage, without being disheartening, and the take-that is well tempered. Continue reading

“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

“BONUS!”: Clever game deceptions

I’m going to talk a little about video game design today, but think there’s a lesson in it for board game design as well.

3D animation frame.

A poorly-textured Josh plays cards… in an animation project for a different class. [1]

An anecdote that I think about at least once a month:

It’s my senior year at UMich, and I’m one of the apex classes of the computer science program “EECS 494: Computer Game Design & Development”. This was the class I’d been champing at the bit to get into all four years, because this is what I was hoping to do professionally after I graduated. I’d convinced a few of my nerd housemates to take the class with me.

One of our assignments was to develop an “arcade-style” game — simple user interactions, on the level of complexity of 80’s classics like Missile Command, Space Invaders, etc., to get a handle on concepts like ‘event loops’, ‘collision bounds checking’ and all that good stuff. I embarked on a JezzBall clone, and my roommate Josh set about building in the Bust-a-Move/Snood style.

Josh had built some data structure atop an C++ STL container, which he was using to keep track of all the “balloons” in the playfield. It implemented a clever formula for determining when three or more balloons were adjacent and should “pop” to score points for the player. There was just one problem. The code would occasionally glitch, and the data structure would “forget” about some of the balloons on the field. He’d narrowed down the bug such that his code could consistently determine that it had happened, after the fact, and it didn’t seem to cause a crash, or break anything else. Continue reading

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: 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 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