“Hidden Mechanics” in Video Games — and in Tabletop Games?

Last week, a video game designer I’ve been following on Twitter for a while now, Jennifer Scheurle posted asking game developers to post tricks they use to optimize for fun, versus coding a perfect simulation of an environment:

The responses were great, and the thread is being picked up by all kinds of video game press. Kinda makes me wish I’d chimed in when I saw the tweet come by amidst the political dumpster fire I generally consume on Twitter, though I don’t specifically have my of my own inventions to post about, so maybe just as well I didn’t. Though I have written about a couple related topics here previously.

The thread kicked off a discussion in a FlightlessCo Slack channel as well — my Terraformist collaborator who is taking the lead on game design for that project found it on Polygon and wanted to discuss; this being his first foray into this type of design.

I love these tricks, both as a designer and a player, but I think it’s telling that many of the responses are about single-player games; in a multiplayer PvP situation there are humans trying to have fun on both ends of the equation — and in a direct head-to-head, thumbing the scale for one of them might have a negative impact on the other. For instance, in Terraformist, a player sending a swarm of combat units against another can’t necessarily just result in warning shots ‘across the bow’ to get their attention, because then the attacking player may feel disadvantaged. Continue reading


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.

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 #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

The Hazard of Scheduled Posts

After jotting a note in my Catch Sheet to write a blog post about the Five Thirty Eight/Twilight Struggle article, it took a while to get it put together, which, as already noted in my post, gave time for the WSJ to drop the Green Bay Packers/Catan bombshell before it was even completely written.

And then I dropped it into the posting calendar[1]… which gave time for internet superhero The Oatmeal to drive his kitten-shaped juggernaut through not only Kickstarter, but the table top game community, and the internet at large. So yeah, there’s that. 120,000 Oatmeal fans who will now own a card game that isn’t traditional playing cards, and who are now in the Kickstarter ecosystem and may well go looking for other games and projects to back. Kinda makes my post yesterday feel almost quaint in scope.

Damn. Pretty exciting time for table top games when an article can feel timely one week and like ancient history the next.

[1] Why schedule it, you ask? I wanted to make sure the play-testing tips post made it up before the Feb. 2 Valour update went out so I could include it.[2]

[2] Valour update, you ask?? Don’t miss out on the next one: https://woodar.dj/boardgame 😉

“Golden Era of Board Gaming” — 538

At the end of last year, this morsel came across my radar several times… (shout-outs to Andy Stone, Eric Budd, and Mitch Hulse for passing it along! I love that so many of you thought of me when you saw this). You should go take a moment to read it now.

Designing The Best Board Game On The Planet | FiveThirtyEight

While there may be a few somewhat spurious claims made throughout, [1] this article’s mere existence signals something larger to me. This hobby is going mainstream. Continue reading

So I guess Google Maps includes ski trails and chair lifts now.

Andrea got caught behind a Berthoud Pass closure today on her way back from the mountains, and cotrip.org was a little vague on the situation and options, so she called me, and I pulled up a map to try and help out. While on the phone, she said she was going to stop in Winter Park and wait it out, so I zoomed in a little bit on Google Maps since my familiarity with the area is zero, and suddenly I was presented with this:

Winter Park detail on Google Maps

Winter Park detail on Google Maps

I thought it was pretty cool — they have not only the chairlifts, but also all the runs, and (I assume) they’re color-coordinated with their difficulty. I peeked at Vail,  Copper,  and just to confirm it wasn’t an Epic/Vail/Colorado thing… Nubs Nob in Michigan, which was NOT mapped, but nearby Boyne Mountain was. I was duly impressed. And then I dragged the yellow “Street View” guy onto the map…

Update: I did a little digging and I guess this got rolled out last Feb/March, so I’m a little late to the party. Still rad though.