Sunday, September 21, 2008

Game buyers want the advantage of your game design skills

As an exercise ("challenge") in my beginning game design class I gave each group a large vinyl chess board and some "Clout Fantasy" pieces. And I said "Make a game". I also had a great array of other kinds of pieces, in case a group just didn't get along with the Clout pieces. The vinyl boards can be written on with wet-erasable markers, so some variety can be imposed on the square array.

I was watching one group play their game, which involved troops retrieving pieces to bring back to their home spot. It was a little like capture the flag, but with multiple flags, and each side had their own set of flags to capture.

At some point I remarked that I couldn't figure out the pattern of "flag" placement, but it seemed to be working pretty well. The group admitted to me that their method of placement was to drop the pieces on the board at game start and let them scatter! My jaw dropped.

If all players started in the same place then random would be OK, as it wouldn't give an advantage to one player. But in this game, with set starting positions, a random setup could be so one-sided that there'd hardly be any reason to play the game, the winner would be fore-ordained.

Think about this. If you're the professional designer, you should work out a set of excellent and interesting positions for the flags, rather than depend on chance placement. Why trust enjoyment of your game to chance? Furthermore, why would a player, if he or she had purchased your game, want to trust their enjoyment to chance rather than to the skills of a professional designer?

Yes, it's more work for the designer, making up and recording the patterns of placement, playtesting each one multiple times. But the result will be a better game.

In other words, you're the designer, use your brain, let the buyer take advantage of your skills and smarts, don't rely on chance to make for a good game.

(If you prefer a small element of chance, you can subdivide a board into areas and randomly place (by die roll, not by dropping) the flag within the area. I have designed a game where I've done something like that. The additional variety increases replayability without giving too much advantage to one player over another.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Speculation on Electronic Britannia

Speculation on Electronic Britannia

Some of you know that nowadays I teach in a college video game degree program (game design especially, of course). That and the recent question about electronic Britannia have started me thinking about what characteristics would be desirable in such a game. It seems very likely that sooner or later there will be an electronic version of the game (and of most well-known boardgames, in general).

So what would be desirable, what would be most important. I'll give my take, then I'm interested to hear what you think.

1. The game must be playable for one person, that is, you against three computer opponents. Or with two humans or three, and computer opponents to make four. Hence the most important aspect of the game will be the "AI", the computer opponent. The electronic versions of Diplomacy have suffered from awful computer opponents, as I recall, which is a little curious. There is more symmetry and simplicity in what the opponents do in Diplomacy than in Britannia, so I'd expect a computer opponent to be easier to write. My guess is either 1) really bad decisions by designers or 2) too much of a rush to get the game out.

2. The game should be usable for online play, whether with four humans or fewer.

3. I think it's desirable to include the shorter (6 turn) version of the game I'm working on, but this would increase development cost significantly, so it may not be practical. Perhaps it could be offered as a not-free expansion if the electronic version sells well.

Well, I've already run out of ideas. What I do know is, the "AI" will make or break the game; why would most people buy an electronic version of a boardgame if not to have computer opponent(s)?

Ken Agress has said he'd like to be able to play with four humans but have them roll the dice and input the results into the game, to display the board on a large-screen TV. (Or, I'd add, one of those table-like LCDs that Phillips and Microsoft have been working on.)

So what must the AI do? The best Brit players can look at the board, at a particular time of the game, and predict with some accuracy what the final score is likely to be. I don't know how a computer opponent is going to do that, but if it can, it should be able to play well.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Review of Britannia

I recently ran across a review of Britannia from Archair General magazine, published November 19, 2007, by Bill Bodden.

"Now produced by Fantasy Flight Games in a stunning new edition, Britannia looks ready to continue on as one of the great titles in the world of games."

Wizards card game

Recently I played the card game "Wizards". I'd heard that this variation of the traditional game "Oh hell" had sold millions of copies. I played a German edition with strange pictures and symbols, which to me only made the game harder to play. Two suit colors were red and green, indistinguishable by the two color-blind players in the game. So we had to use the weird symbols that don't even have obvious convenient names. The designer is Canadian, and I suspect most editions are closer to normal cards.

We were using a weak translation of the German edition of the rules, so conceivably we did not play everything correctly.

I don't play cards much, and the only traditional card game I play is Oh hell, with my wife and in-laws. H is a trick-taking game, dealing increasing and then decreasing numbers of cards in each hand, trump randomly determined, must follow suit. You bid how many tricks you will try to take, and fail to score if you do not get exactly what you bid. You score 10 plus the number you bid if you're successful. Hence the game removes some of the chance factor, if you have poor cards, you bid low. I tend to bid rather low because it's easier to avoid taking tricks than to take them. "Quack quack" is often my bid (a duck, meaning a bid of zero--ducking).

This game is a "randomized" version of OH. There are four "Wizard" cards that beat all other trumps and can be played out of suit. There are four jesters that are "nothing", but can change the suit that must be played in the rest of the trick (I may not be recalling correctly) in mid-trick. I suppose that by taking some of the skill out of the game, you make it more "family-friendly" for kids.

Further randomization comes from playing hands of up to 15 cards. You can't do much to plan with such large hands--I'm used to playing up to 7 cards, then back down to 1--so at that point you bid something a little below average, say three out of 15, and hope you can manage it. Of course, if you have a couple wizards and good trumps you'd have to adjust.

The scoring is different from traditional OH scoring. You score 20 if you make your bid, plus 10 per trick, and lose 10 per trick by which you miss a bid. This rewards trick-taking (as opposed to bidding zero) more than the traditional version. (I still played the Duck most of the time, and won the game.)

There were other variations, such as forcing bids in the round of two cards so that someone will miss their bid. There was something about, when you have one card, you hold it in front of you so everyone else can see it, and then bidding occurs; but this is so randomly unfair we canned it (you don't know what card you've got, so how can you bid intelligently except in obvious instances?).

I'll stick with the traditional form, though the scoring is worth considering.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Mecca of Competitive Boardgaming

While I wrote this for a different venue, I may as well put it here...

At the Mecca of Competitive BoardGaming
Lewis Pulsipher

Early August in Lancaster, PA is the time for the “World Boardgaming Championships” (WBC), the Mecca of competitive boardgaming. Unlike Essen, the Origins Game Fair, or GenCon, WBC concentrates on tournaments in about 150 board and non-collectible card games, ranging from:
• simple games like Liars Dice (as seen in the second “Pirates” movie)
• complex 8-hour games like Civilization (the boardgame that preceded the computer game)
• two-player wargames
• well known “Euro” games such as Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, familiar to some video gamers through Xbox Live

There are relatively few exhibitors, who are there Friday through Sunday morning, though the convention begins Tuesday. There’s also the traditional game auction on Tuesday.

WBC was originally “AvalonCon”, in Camp Hill, PA and then Hunt Valley, MD (a suburb of Baltimore). It was started for Avalon Hill, the big board wargame company that was bought by Hasbro in the late 90s, and the convention is now run by the Boardgame Players Association and Don Greenwood, who was “Mr. Avalon Hill” to most of us even though he did not run the company. It is now at the Lancaster Host convention center that also hosts Historicon, the big miniatures wargaming convention, a week or two before.

Don told me that WBC emphasizes community rather than the commercial side of gaming, hence its concentration on organized tournaments that consistently attract reasonable numbers of players. This contrasts with conventions such as Origins, where an “event” can amount to a few people playing one session of a game. Further, you pay one fee (similar to the Origins or GenCon fee), then play in as many events as you can manage without further charge. In effect, WBC offers highly organized play, where other large conventions can be seen as “open gaming” cons with a few well-organized tournaments.

WBC has a core of 100 “Century” tournaments, modified each year by vote of the members of the BPA and a formula involving number of participants and hours played. A tournament such as Britannia, with more than 35 people playing in up to three 5-hour preliminary rounds, is solidly ensconced in the Century, though there are larger tournaments. There are also trial tournaments (again subject to vote), and tournaments organized by sponsor members or by game manufacturers, adding up to 150 to 160 tournaments each year.

To enhance the competition, not only are small prizes such as plaques and T-shirts awarded to winners, there is an overall winner for the entire convention, the “Centurion”, and a team competition. These awards depend on very successful participation in several tournaments.

Many of the players have been attending since the 90s, and are middle-aged, but there’s a strong proportion of younger players as well, and perhaps 20-25% of the attendees are female. There is much more a sense of community, of “coming home”, than at the much larger non-electronic game conventions, as many of the 1,300 or so competitors return year after year to play in their favorite tournaments.

This year’s convention was from August 5 to 10, next year will be August 4 to 9.

For information about the BPA and next year’s WBC, see PrezCon, at the end of February in Charlottesville, VA, is organized much like WBC, but smaller:

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Article on GameCareerGuide

My article "Pulling the Plug: In Defense of Non-Digital Teaching and Learning"

was published 2 September on Game Career Guide, the major Web site for people wanting to learn video game creation. This is an edited version. My title was "Why we use non-electronic games to teach game design", they wanted something more provocative.