Friday, October 4, 2013

Game Design Corner : Cosmic Kaboom

Sorry about the radio silence for the past month, life got pretty busy and since I'm new to blogging, it was the first thing to get pushed to the side.  But now I'm back with a renewed focus, and I'd like to start a series of posts called "Game Design Corner" where I talk about specific game designs that I'm working on.  If I've never brought up a game here before, I'm going to lay out a background to the game, the design goals, the general rules, and then what my current feelings and playtest goals for the game are.  When I follow up with a game, I'll let you know what has changed.  With that said, on to the first post in the series!

Origin Story:
Earlier this year, I got an itch to try and design a microgame.  For anyone who is unaware, there have been a few wildly successful microgames this year in the vein of Love Letter and Coup, along with some lighter games that have seen great success like Dungeon Roll.  Once I found out about the concept of a minimalist design with a low number of components, I couldn't get the idea out of my head.  I started with a brainstorm session that encapsulated my free thought for the better part of three days where I was trying to figure out what I could accomplish in a design space with these limitations while still making an interesting and engaging game.

Any good brainstorming session should come with a little research, and what I found out is that microgames are really not all that new of a concept.  There are dozens of pocket versions of games that have been created in the last few decades, but it isn't really until now that I've seen anyone even make mention of the concept.  After thinking about it awhile, the only thing that I could determine as to why the two microgames above were exploding in popularity while the others have not is this: a common genre of  Hidden Roles/Social Deduction.  With that figured out, I did the only reasonable thing I could think of and made sure that I didn't have any of hidden roles/social deduction in my design at all.  So what genre did I decide to try?  Flicking/Dexterity games!

Flicking/Dexterity games have always been a mystery to me, mainly because I was over-thinking the design process.  I always wondered how you could make the decision between a 3/4" disc and a 1" disc.  How did you determine which was better to flick?  What about the surfaces that you are flicking on?  What about the different materials your discs are made from?  The different materials of what they're going to impact?  What I learned, is that you don't know the answer to any of those questions before you start.  You just try something and it either works or it doesn't, there isn't a magic formula.  Many variations of components are going to function close enough to one another that you don't need to be very precise.

Through playing with some different components, I came up with the base idea for Cosmic Kaboom.  What I was hoping to accomplish initially was do something with a micro-game that hasn't been done successfully yet.  I think that Cosmic Kaboom has gone past the "micro-game" level to some extent, but the component footprint of the game is still fairly small.

In Cosmic Kaboom, each player pilots a spaceship for a different alien race who is trying to collect energy cubes to power a space bomb that is powerful enough to eradicate all life on a planet.

Design Goals:
  • Dexterity/Flicking mechanisms
  • 2-4 Players
  • 30 minutes or less
  • Low number of components
  • Easy to learn and play
  • FUN!
  • 12 Planet tiles (3” wooden disc/4mm chipboard)
  • 16 Energy cubes in 4 colors
  • 4 Energy spawn markers
  • 4 Faction tiles (2.5” triangle)
  • 4 Spaceship discs (1” wooden disc)
  • 1 Bomb tile (3” wooden disc/4mm chipboard)
  • 24 Advancement cards
  • 1 smooth surface (not included)

Game Summary:
You will use the 4 triangular faction tiles to four corners of a "board" on the table.  Inside these 4 corners will be the playing area where each player will place their faction's planets.  During the game, energy crystals will move from planet to planet that need to be collected to power the Space Bomb.  You collect the energy by flicking your spaceship disc into the planet.  After a player has collected 4 energy cubes, they are able to throw the Space Bomb onto the table to try and blow up enemy planets.  The last faction with planets still alive is the winner.

It does need a smooth-surfaced table to play on, and the larger the table you're able to use, I feel the game plays better, but it can be played in area as small as about 18" by 18".  To add some variety to the game, I've created a small deck of advancement cards that slightly change the way the game is played by giving each player special powers.  Whenever a player's planet is destroyed, they draw another advancement card to help them out.

Current Feelings:
I think the game has been fun in nearly every incarnation of the game past the first.  I've been super-excited about working on the game since the start.  It's been a real treat in this design not needing to balance a bunch of math and figure out how to make that feel fun for the players.  This game just generates it's own fun.  I've been able to see genuine emotion from someone when they miss/make a critical shot or throw, and of course a ton of banter from the players teasing each other when other players fail.  Even though this is a simple game and will never be in the top 10 on BGG, it is still currently one of my favorite designs.

Current Playtest Goals:
  • Cramming more FUN! into the game!
  • Trying to involve a story arc so players aren't doing the same thing from beginning to end.
  • Ensuring the pace of the game stays the same from beginning to end.

Does this game sound interesting  to you?  What about it sounds awesome/terrible?  Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Why Balance in Games is Important

I recently listened to the Bonus Episode 23 of the Building the Game Podcast and found myself as the un-named subject of a meaningful discussion at 41:50 of the podcast.  Most of what they say is true.  I did have a fair amount of valuation feedback on all of the cards in Rob Couch's design of Rocket Wreckers, although I wasn't trying to come across as saying that the game was a piece of crap.  I've heard this before, it has to do with a combination of my delivery and the fact that I will usually be brutally honest with criticisms.  For anyone who plays my games, I expect the same in return.  I'm glad that Rob didn't take it personally and was able to take the feedback for what it was, which was trying to be helpful criticism about the balance of the cards in the game.  I really like the concept and the theme of Rocket Wreckers and it was one of two unpublished games that were at the top of my list of games I was hoping to play at GenCon which I'm really glad I was able to play.

In regards to what the general concensus was in regards to my player type not being the target audience for the game, in general, they are correct. I agree that 99% of players aren't going to look at a game the way that I did, but I don't think that means it's unimportant.  There was a concept that was brought up shortly after the discussion in regards to interpreting the feedback from the players who are playing your game which is encapsulated by the following quote:

"The customer rarely knows what they want."

-Steve Jobs

I think the same thing can be said about balance in a game, even one intended for a lighter audience.  If things are designed correctly, the player will never wonder if something is balanced or not, because it will be, and the nagging question of an imbalance will never enter their mind.  Players don't know how your game should be balanced, that is supposed to be the job of the designer and the developer. How many times have you heard, or even said yourself any of the following about a game:
  • "This card sucks!"
  • "I would never take that action, it's just terrible."
  • "Whoever uses that strategy always wins."

These are all examples of people who are expressing an imbalance of power levels in a game.  All of the above thoughts can all be perceived imbalances, but as I've previously written, perceptions are just as important as reality.

The concept of player not being a part of your target audience is a common response to feedback given in regards to balance.  But I think it's short-sighted to assume that the type of player you are trying to attract will never think about your game on a deeper level.  That statement may be true for 98% of your players, especially considering the current "cult of the new" boardgame culture, but I don't think that is a good reason to leave imbalances in your design.  Using that rationality to not fix an imbalance in your design is just attempting to hide the flaws of the game instead of correcting them.

This is not to say that a game should never have flaws, or that a game with flaws is unable go on to be a commercial success.  Every "take that" game on the market has the flaw of being able to gang up on a leader.  Every cooperative game on the market has the flaw of an alpha player trying to dictate what all other players should be doing.  Every social deduction game has the flaw that not all people are created equal in their ability to hide their true intentions.  Your game is allowed to have flaws, but if you are designing a strategic game where player decisions are supposed to have meaning, I don't think that imbalance between players should be one of those flaws.  Unless that is the point of the game, such as a historical wargame simulation.

In the end, it is up to the designer to determine what the game is attempting to accomplish, decided which flaws are acceptable and which are not.  There are a ton of imbalanced games that can be fun to play, but I believe that the best games are those that are balanced.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The importance of Graphic Design

So this post comes from a topic that is often discussed in the game design industry when it comes to game prototypes.  The question is generally "How much time/effort/money should I spend to make my prototypes look good?"  Most recently, there were two good blog posts in regards to subjects with opinions and reasons for or against a good-looking prototype.

The Benefits of Crappy Prototypes
This post goes on to explain how you're better off having a prototype that you don't invest time into making it look better because you're less likely to change the game based on the amount of time that you've invested into making it look good.

The Benefits of Pretty Prototypes
This post goes on to explain how you're better off having a prototype that looks amazing because you are more likely to get players to play your game with a better looking prototype, therefore getting more feedback on your game in general.

Both posts have their merit, and I agree with points made in each one.  As long as you're able to throw away the hours that you pour into making something look good, I agree that you're better off with something that looks professional and amazing based on the fact that visual appeal is important to getting people to playtest your game.  I'm aware that there are examples of dozens of great games being developed with crappy prototypes, but honestly those are the exceptions, not the norm.

However, what I'd like to discuss isn't just making the prototype look good, as that can be done by slapping some art by an amazing artist onto your board and pieces and calling it a day.  No, what I'd like to discuss is using good graphic design on your prototypes to make your games better, regardless of the art.  This goes further than just making something pretty.  The purpose in graphic design is to assist in understanding the information placed in front of you.

The excuse of not having enough time to make a game "pretty" when you really mean "functional" is just good enough.  We all have limited time, and that includes the people you want to be able to playtest your game to help you in making it better.  Spending time making the information easier to digest will improve the feedback that you receive about the mechanisms and interactions of your game.

Adding graphic design to your protype does not mean just adding artwork to your prototype.  Remember, we're trying to make the information that you present to players easier to understand.  Take the following example:

This is a section of the first iteration for a playerboard of a game that I'm currently designing.  A stack of cards would be placed over different 2x3 sections of this square to portray different game states of the stack of cards being available/unavailable for purchase as well as the related ability being locked/unlocked for use.
I put this together as quickly as possible to get a prototype printed and playable.  I thought this was a clever way to portray the information, and it is functional in the sense that all of the information that I needed to play the game is present, but there are a few things that are wrong with this design.
  • The font is all the same size
    • Whenever possible, you should use different sizes or types of font, including using bolded words to effectivly direct the eyes towards the different portions of information.
  • No visual groupings
    • Breaking up information into groupings through shapes, colors, or font types is very effective when it comes to assisting in digesting information visually.
  • Too many words
    • Using symbols or pictures whenever possible to convey messages will reduce the time it takes to process the information.

This is what the second pass of that same section looks like.  It's not perfect, but it is certainly an improvement over the first.  You can see where I've changed the sized of the font, grouped the information together and reduced the amount of text for things that were just titles of units.  Using this version was easier for the players, but the different card orientation was still more confusing to players than I wanted it to be. 

This is the third pass of the design that doesn't change the orientation of the cards, and instead places a token on top of the stack to signify if it is available for purchase or not.  The stack starts on the green box and slides to the left when the ability has been unlocked and is available for use.

If this version of the design still proves to be confusing for the players, which ultimately detracts from the game play, I will likely create something a bit more standard in concept.  I was trying to do something visually different from what people might expect, but if it turns out that this is still confusing, I will eventually go towards the familiar.  Possibly a placemat that has the abilities listed on them along with the costs to unlock them, and use tokens to signify locked/unlocked status.  This would separate the text on the cards and the text on the abilities from one another, which may clarify the situation.  I could also potentially use 2-sided tiles with one side having the ability and the unlock cost, with the other side just having the ability.

I didn't go to school for graphic design, these are just things that I've picked up along the way while designing games.  At first I just wanted to make my games look better, but at this point I use the information to improve the functionality of my designs.

Here are some resources that you may or may not be aware of:
Between these 5 items, if you're not able to create better looking and more functional prototypes, then you're probably doing something wrong.
Thousands of fonts to use in your games, completely free.  Different fonts have different licenses, so please review those upon your choice to use them.
This is a completely free vector image program.  If you're not sure what a vector image or vector program is, it's simply an image format and the subsequent manipulation software for a style of image that can be shrunk or expanded to any size without losing any of the details of the original.  Vectors treat the images like objects, whereas raster images (like jpegs) convert everything into pixels.  For more information on different types of images, I would recommend a few Google searches as there are plenty of overviews on the topic that will inform you better than I would.
Over 1000 icons that were created specifically to be easily recognizable as spells/actions/things on a button in a game.  Downloadable in either SVG (vector) or JPG (image) formats, this is an invaluable resource for placeholder images on your prototypes.  The reason that this and the following site are great are because your prototypes don't need professional artwork to improve their functionality, often just adding simples images is all you need.  Images serve as a way to distinguish cards/pieces/locations at a glance, instead of forcing your brain to compute some text on a card.
Another resource for placeholder vector images, but spanning past the game-world into more standard objects, and not necessarily in all the same style as the game icons site.  Still another great resource for graphics in your prototypes.
This is a completely free raster image manipulation software equivilent to Adobe Photoshop.  Having never used Photoshop, I can't really compare the two, but I'm told they are similar.  I rarely use Gimp except to cut out pieces of an image, or to create textures.  This software is more to make the game "pretty" instead of functional.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

GenCon 2013 Recap

I write this after a week of rest, coming back from the convention that has the best 4 days in gaming.  I played a few dozen games I had never played before, saw some people in awesome costumes, met a lot of people that I had never met before and played catch up with old friends that I haven't seen in years.  Yet as much fun as the convention is, it's tiring all the same.  I'm excited to go every single year, but by the end of it I'm happy to be going home.

As noted in my last post, I spent a lot of time preparing prior to the convention.  Part of this preparation involved reaching out to publishers to set up meeting times to talk to them at GenCon where it was most convenient for them.  This is a piece of advice that I've heard from numerous designers, and yet, it just didn't pan out for me.  The responses I got, if I heard a response at all, were generally "Come see me at the booth and we can take a look if we've got time."  Now that could sound positive, if it wasn't for the fact that there are 40,000 people at GenCon, the exhibitor hall and every booth in it are usually jam-packed with customers looking to buy games and exhibitors looking to sell them.  There generally isn't a lot of free time to just "drop by" to show them your games.

 So I went to GenCon with exactly zero meetings scheduled, which was a little disappointing, but that just meant I was going to have to put some more effort into getting my games in front of publishers.  When I arrived on Thursday, I met up with an old friend to catch up and we walked around the dealer hall for a few hours.  I knew I had an event that evening which was the Publisher Speed Dating event, so since I didn't have any scheduled meetings, I was going to try and use that little bit of face time with each publisher to allow the walk-up ask for a meeting scenario to not be just a complete cold call scenario.

Publisher Speed Dating
I arrived at the event before the first time slot even started, just to get a feel for how the event was going to go.  It was really fascinating from a designer standpoint to see how other designers present their games.  The event started at 7pm and I had slots for the Euro/Medium game track at 8pm and the Light/Party game track at 9pm.  I think the 8pm time slot was fantastic.  The event had a chance to warm up and everyone was in the groove of how the event was going to continue for the rest of the evening.

I decided before the event that I was going to try the impossible and present two games every 5 minutes instead of just one.  The idea being that if the table had no interest in one of the games, but did show interest in the other, that I would be able to spend the time talking about one game over the other.  Of course, this made the task more difficult on myself, but some preparation beforehand instead of just deciding to "wing it" made it possible.  The main preparation was ensuring that I was able to do a 45 second elevator pitch for each game flawlessly and without skipping a beat.  Crafting the pitch is nearly as important as designing the game.  You need to be able to say something within a 45 second window that sparks someone's interest in playing your game.  Sometimes that can be done with visuals, but words are going to hold a lot of power as well.  This should be blend of theme and the key mechanics that make your game special.

8:00 - Euro/Medium Game Publisher Track
The gamble seemed to pay off.  I finished all of my 5 minute slots having pitched not one, but both of my games, with plenty of time to spare to ask questions or go into further details about rules or any questions the publishers may have had.  Essentially I took the first 90 seconds to pitch both, and asked them to choose one, then I would go through a very brief rules explanation and a sample turn.  Out of the 10 slots, there was a 7/3 split in the interest for the two games, which was almost exactly what I expected.  I received a lot of praise in the professionalism of my presentations and my pitches, and publishers seemed genuinely impressed that I attempted the two game approach given the short time.

9:00 - Party/Light Game Publisher Track
After going through the first hour, I felt this was going to be easy in comparison, and really it was.  Since the games were lighter, there was very little pressure to be had in the delivery of the presentations.  4 of the 10 slots already had the publishers leave by this point, so that was slightly disappointing, but I still presented my 2 games to around 12 publishers total for the time slot.   My themes got a lot of laughs, and I generally was able to discuss both games in full detail since one was a party game, and the other's mechanics are able to be learned in under a minute.  

After the event, I was feeling pretty good.  I accomplished what I set out to do, and I didn't fall completely flat on my face in the attempt.  There was various points of interest in games, and I ended up using that interest over the rest of the weekend to talk to publishers at their booths and by the end of the weekend I had 3 different meetings, one request for me to reach out to them after the convention and one publisher who has reached out to me since the convention, and left the convention missing one of my prototypes.

Of the meetings that I had, the games that I presented were always well received.  I got a chance for full games of whatever I happened to be pitching (probably a benefit of designing games that play in under an hour.)  I wont break out each meeting in detail, but I do feel like mentioning some of things that we discussed about publishing a game in general.

Games need a hook.
Even if you have one of the most ground-breaking mechanisms that the world has yet to see, you still need to get people to try the game to find that mechanism.  If the theme of your game is dry and boring, change it!  Even though Rite of Passage did get taken for further evaluation, I've heard a few times "This is a great game, but I'm not sure how to sell it."

Games with lower price points aren't generally as attractive.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but there are so many games that are "just a deck of cards" which have clever mechanisms.  Trying to stand out in the sea of games like that is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.  The components of your game should be something that attracts people.

What a publisher likes will often surprise you.
I realized mid-way through the speed-dating event that what I thought a publisher would be interested in and what they actually were interested were often different.  Just because a publisher has never published a game like yours, doesn't mean that they never want to.  Give publishers the opportunity to make the decision for themselves and understand that they may have motives that you may not understand.

So, in the end, I would say that another successful GenCon is in the books for me.  I played some great games, met a ton of cool people, and I took some shots to get my games published without completely falling flat on my face.  I hope to make next year even better, but that's always the idea, isn't it?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

7 Days to Judgement Day

...or at least that's what my wife told me this morning.

In a mere 7 days there are going to be over 40,000 gamers gathering in the wonderful city of Indianapolis, Indiana for the largest gaming convention in the US that is not related to video games.  That's right boys and girls, it's time for GenCon which really is a great time of year.  They call it the biggest 4 days in gaming, and if you haven't ever gone, it is something that you need to experience.  For myself, this will be the12th time attending the convention in just 13 years.  I look forward to seeing old friends, making new ones, playing awesome games and having a great time doing all of it.

This is also the time of year that I get the most anxious.  It used to be that I went to GenCon to participate in the largest tournaments for whatever card game I happened to be playing at the time.  However, in the last two years, I've switched that focus from playing collectible card games into designing board games.  So now I'm competing in a very different arena in trying to convince a publisher to publish one of my games.

Now it isn't that I'm unprepared for this event, I've been getting things ready for the past 6 weeks.  I've got one game already under consideration, and one game that is completely ready for publication in addition to five (!!!) more that I will be bringing with me to GenCon in various stages of development.  This is completely different from last year when I was completely underprepared but didn't know any better.  No, this year I've upped the ante, overcome my rookie mistakes and I've plotted a course for success.  But even now, there is a chance that I don't succeed.

"Always know if the juice is worth the squeeze."
- Kelly, The Girl Next Door

I've competed on some of the biggest gaming stages in the past, numerous times.  It's not the stress of the competition that is affecting me, it's more the idea that even in all of my preparations, I've missed something that causes me to fail.  When I played cards, I would playtest for hours.  Build different decks, play different opponents, over and over and over again.  I would analyize the results, change the decks, and do it again and again.  This was natural to me, but in the publishing "game" you don't get to playtest like this.  You don't have a great feel for what the metagame of the field is going to be (aka - what the publishers want.)  This makes it exciting and terrifying all at the same time.

"You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take."
- Wayne Gretzky

Now hopefully you're not reading this and thinking that I'm going to choke, or that I'm going to sabotoge my chances to succeed because that isn't the case at all.  I'm just writing this more as a reminder to myself, as well as an assurance to anyone else out there who happens to be in a similar situation to remind them that they aren't alone.  Also, this is what you get for a blog post instead of me skipping a second week due to spending as much free time as I possibly can in preparation for this event.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Understanding Texas Hold'em

As a huge fan of the game of Texas Hold'em, I inevitably get into discussions with people who tell me that they just don't get it, or try telling me that the game is all about bluffing.  The reality is not as hard as people make it out to be, and what they're really talking about is hand reading.  Trying to figure out what your opponent is holding is not actually a mystical skill, but really a case of deductive reasoning and a little bit of math.  I'd like to discuss some of the basics of poker fundamentals for anyone who might be interested about the topic.
Card Combinations
The first thing to know is that there are 169 different two card combinations that a player can have as their hole cards:  13 pocket pairs, 78 unsuited card combos and 78 suited card combos.  This might seem low, but you keep in mind that the suits of the cards don't have any value over one another (Hearts have the same odds of appearing as Spades.)  After that, we need to roughly rank the 169 hands from top to bottom to be able to figure out what percentage of total hands they encompass.  I'm not going to list them out here, because exact math will rarely come into play during an actual game, instead you need to have a good feeling for general ranges.  I've listed out some ranges below along with the percentage of total possible hands that is included in the category, followed by the odds of being dealt one of those hands.  There are other combinations that can be calculated, but if you're looking for a place to start, the list below will do you well.

  • Pocket Pairs
    • AA or any specific pair (0.45%)(220 : 1)
    • AA, KK, QQ, JJ, or TT (2.26%)(43.2 : 1)

  • Suited Cards
    • Suited cards, 10 or better (3.02%)(32.2 : 1)
    • Suited connectors (3.92%)(24.5 : 1)

  • Connected Cards
    • Connected cards, 10 or better (4.83%)(19.7 : 1)
    • Connected cards, all (15.7%)(5.38 : 1)

  • Big Card Combos
    • Any 2 cards with rank at least queen (4.98%)(19.1 : 1)
    • Any 2 cards with rank at least jack (9.05%)(10.1 : 1)
    • Any 2 cards with rank at least 10 (14.3%)(5.98 : 1)
    • Any 2 cards with rank at least 9 (20.8%)(3.81 : 1)

So what this means is that you can choose a number of hands that you want to play, and match that up with the number of times that you'll be dealt those hands.  If you want to play tight, maybe you will play any 2 cards with a rank of Jack or better.  That means you'll be playing about 9% of the hands that you are dealt, or about 1 in every 10 hands.  The more hands you're playing, the more the average value of your hands drops.

Player Profiles
The next step is understanding the type of player that you're playing against.  Again, this isn't rocket science, it's really just deduction and math.  If the player is a maniac who is playing 90% of the hands that he is dealt, he isn't the luckiest guy in the world, he's playing a bunch of garbage hands!  If you only enter the pot with him when you are playing the top 9% of the hands that you're dealt that means that before the flop, your hand is going to be stronger than his hand 90% of the time.  The remaining 10% of the time you're not necessarily beat, but that portion of his range is the same as the cards that you are playing.

Subsequently, if a player is super tight and is only playing 5% of his hands and you're playing 10% of your hands, whenever you two are in the pot together, 50% of the time he will have a better hand than you do.

Bringing the two together
So the part that tends to lose people, is trying to answer the question: "How do you know that he doesn't have Aces?"  The true answer to that question is: "You don't."  What you do know, however, is that there is only a 0.45% chance of someone being dealt Aces, and you know what percentage of their total range includes Aces.  If someone is the tightest of the tight, and you know they only play pocket pairs of 10 or better, they are only going to play 2.26% of hands.  If you act before them in an unraised pot, you will get them to fold to a bet when you hold any two cards 97.74% of the time.  Then, whenever they call or raise your bet, you know that they are holding one of 5 possible hands, and you can play accordingly.

If you are playing against another player where their range is the top 15% of all hands, the odds of them having Aces when they play a hand against you is 3% (0.45/15).  Knowing these odds, and being able to characterize the people you are playing against are probably the two most important parts of the foundation for becoming a good player.  

Power of Position
There are generally 9 seats at a poker table, assuming the table is full, and the player who is first to act will rotate around the table with each hand.  This is very important, because acting later in the hand is far more powerful than acting first.  If you are last to act in a hand, you get to see what every person ahead of you does before you have to decide what you want to do.  Now this doesn't mean that everytime you act last you're going to win the hand, but it does mean that you should rarely be losing money when you're beat and you should be able to maximize what you gain when you're winning.  For example, if you have pocket 9's and you're first to act, you raise the hand, and two people behind you call.  The flop comes Q 10 4.  Now there are two over cards to your hand on the flop, since you're first to act, if you bet, it's easy for someone with either of those cards to call you and you have no idea what they have.  If you check, it's easy for someone with any two cards to bet their hand, and you have no idea what they have.  They could easily have a Q or 10 in their hand, or they could have a smaller pocket pair than yours, or even something like KJ.  Being able to see what another players interest in the pot is before you have to decide what to do is always going to be better then needing to act first.

Avoid being results oriented
If you've played poker before, I'm sure you've heard someone recant some horrible bad-beat story about how someone beat them in a pot when they had pocket Aces when their opponent only had pocket 7's.  So now, to make sure that no one calls them, they always overbet whenever they have a big hand to make sure they get all the "garbage" hands to fold.  This type of player is being results oriented, and he's losing a ton of money when he plays like this.  You want people to call with worse hands when you have Aces, you've got them beat!  You also want to try and get them to put even more money into the pot when they are beat, because this is how you make money!  Understand that about 15% of the time, they will win the pot with a smaller pocket pair, that's just the way the odds work.  But that means in the long run, you will be ahead whenever you bet with Aces and get called.  You have to think of poker over the long-term, not just an individual session.

For more information on probability in Texas Hold'em:

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Most Common Feedback for Board Game Designers

Designing board and card games is harder than it looks.  Just like everything else it life, it gets a lot easier after making a ton of mistakes and learning from them.  Here are some of the most common things you’ll hear from veterans in the industry that we can all easily avoid with a little bit of work.  This is not intended to be a list of rules that can never be broken, but instead a guideline of common occurences in designs that may not be an intentional choice.

If you are new to the industry, welcome!  There are some great resources that have been around for many years to assist in your journey.  Yes the site may be a little confusing and difficult to navigate at first, but consider the time spent a cost of entry to the hobby.  It’s worth it! 

No Roll and Move
Unless you have a time machine and are travelling back to the 1980’s to design games before anyone knew better, don’t use a single roll of the die to determine movement in your game.  It’s frustrating to the players and uninspiring design.

No Paper Money
This is simply a component that publishers and players alike just don’t like.  It wears out quickly and is harder to handle than the alternatives.  Don’t use it!

No Collectible Card Games
This is a distribution model that just is not feasible for any new game these days.  If you want to try and make a CCG, you’ll need that time machine again and go back to the 1990’s to get in on the fad when it was cool.  We can’t all be as lucky as Richard Garfield.  Many very large companies have tried and failed, these days a publisher would prefer a static expansion model instead.

Don’t use classic game parts
These are not attractive to publishers or to players.  If your game uses a chess board, or chess pieces, or a standard deck of cards, this is not a marketable game because people already own these items.  A game that combines chess and rummy is not a new game; it’s a variant of existing games.

A game is different from a simulation
The best games almost always use abstract representations to signify events.  It certainly takes more than 1 wood and 1 brick to build a road in real life, but it works just fine in Settlers of Catan.  Don’t bog your game down trying to simulate reality.

Do not create game effects that cause other players to lose their turns (literally or functionally)
This style of design is what I like to call a “negative play experience”.  This isn’t fun for the person that it happens to, it’s only mildly interesting for the person doing it, and the game is never better because it exists. 

Avoid linear dice rolls when possible
If you want to balance a random event to happen a certain percentage of the time, try using two or more dice to force the dice into a bell curved average instead of a linear one.  The sample size of dice in single play of a game is usually not enough to realize the true average of a linear roll.

Perception is just as important as reality
Just because a mechanism or event may be balanced on paper, or “fair” in the long run, doesn’t change the perception of the event when it takes place.  Just think about the old saying of “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

Avoid player elimination
In general, you should avoid player elimination from your game.  If it is truly an essential or unavoidable part of your game, ensure that the time between a player being eliminated and the end of the game is not longer than 15 minutes.

Games need to be able to be taught
Hour long explanations are generally not something that anyone looks forward to when trying to learn a new game.  Think about what you can do to assist in teaching the game to new players by lowering the initial number of decisions or complexity, and ramping it up as the game continues.  Games should be interesting or fun to play the first time you play them.

Don’t have players make decisions that will impact the outcome of the game before they play
Trying to add variety to a game with a card draft is cool, but you need to have a way to play the game outside of using a draft as so people can learn it.  Even if it’s just playing with a random set for a few rounds before restarting the game with a draft, make sure this is an option for players, as well as the preferred way to teach your game.

If players start the game taking the same actions every game, start the game from there
If there are obvious first steps in the beginning of the game, build it into the setup.  You should always start the game from the position where players begin to make unique decisions from each other.  The exception to this advice is when it makes the game easier to learn.

Make decisions meaningful / Remove non-decisions
If I can always spend $1 to gain 1 point or I can spend $2 to gain 3 points, I will never spend $1 unless I am forced to.  This is a non-decision, and does not make the game more interesting if the player understands basic math.

Payouts should not always be linear
If you balanced your game in a spreadsheet, it is either going to be cleverly hidden, or transparently obvious.  Be aware about what side of the coin your game is falling into, and make sure that the balance is transparent to everyone who isn’t looking for it.  Keep in mind that a curved payout line is generally more interesting than a straight payout line.

Stealing from another player is twice as effective
Stealing 3 points from another player is better than gaining 5 points from the game.  The first gives a net gain of 6 points whereas the second is a net gain of 5.  Understanding this simple concept will prevent hours of wasted play time to fix simple imbalances.  The increase in your margin may be less with multiple players in the game, but the impact for the two players involved in the theft will be greater.

Edge cases will happen, if they ruin the experience, they need to be fixed
If there is a 1 in 100 chance that one player will get absolutely screwed, or one player will completely dominate the others, then it will happen sometimes.  If it happens sometimes, it’s going to happen to a player playing your game for the first time, and they will have a terrible experience.  You need to fix these issues.

If you need to make an exception to a rule, question the inclusion of the rule
If a player is always able to do something 98% of the time, but 2% of the time they are prevented by an arbitrary rule, this was likely an attempt to balance something.  Make sure that the situation that caused the 2% is really necessary for the game.  Try to avoid special case rules whenever possible.

Sometimes less is more
Games are not always about what you have included into the game, most often the game is about giving the feeling of an event in the simplest way possible.  The best games are the ones that express great complexity through simplicity.  Once you think your game is done, try taking something out.  Study which parts of the game people enjoy most, and which feel more like maintenance.

Graphic design is more important than people like to admit
Players need to be able to process the information in your game to be able to understand it and play it.  Anything you can do visually to assist with that goal is going to make everyone’s life much easier

Know your target audience
You should have an idea about what type of player your game is going to appeal to, and how long you expect your game to take.  This will help you in making decisions between various changes in your game.  If it is supposed to be a light family game, you probably don't want heavy math involved.   If it's supposed to be a tight economic engine game, you probably don't want heavy random swings based on dice.

Consider publication costs in your designs
Everything has a cost.  Games with 900 cards, 50 custom dice, or 400 wooden cubes are going to be expensive to produce.  When designing, think about ways to simplify your designs to remove components that don’t need to be there.

Be able to accept feedback
This should go without saying, but it’s easy to be offended by someone who is giving you feedback about your game.  Make sure that you separate yourself from the situation and look at the comments objectively.  They are trying to help, and they are talking about the game, not about you as a person.

This list was started and discussed on a trip back from with James Mathe (@MinionGames) and Dustin Oakley (@CrassPip).  This list has been reposted with some additional commentary by James on his site:

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Levels of Thinking

Have you ever made a decision in a game that wasn't necessarily the de-facto "best" decision to make at face value, but you thought it was the correct thing to do based upon how your opponent would respond?  Congratulations!  You've experienced a metagame.

Metagaming can be defined as any aspect of strategy that involves thinking about what your opponent is thinking.

I'm going to assume that you've played the game Rock-Paper-Scissors (RPS).  The "game" of RPS is almost entirely a metagame.  You are trying to figure out what your opponent will throw so that you can throw whatever will beat it.  This is the simplest form of a metagame, but it's a great way to introduce the concept of Levels of Thinking.

  • Level 0 Thinker

"I'm going to throw rock, nothing beats rock."

  • Level 1 Thinker

"I know my opponent is going to throw rock, so I'm going to throw paper."

  • Level 2 Thinker

"I know my opponent thinks I will throw rock, and so he's going to throw paper, so I'll surprise him and throw scissors."

Adding additional levels will continue to change what you throw based on about what you think your opponent thinks you think your opponent thinks you will throw.  Follow that?  Good.

This general thought process is used in nearly every game, and for most people, it doesn't go past the first or the second level of thinking, because anything beyond that requires that you have great judgement on the true level of thinking of your opponent.  In the case of RPS, the choice of a third level thinker is the same choice that a level zero thinker would choose, which illustrates how there are times where genius can look like ignorance and vice-versa.

In fact, if you judge your opponent as a 3rd level thinker who is going to throw rock, so you should throw paper, and he is really a 2nd level thinker who is going to throw scissors, you've obviously made the worst choice possible because scissors beats paper.  Since RPS only has three selections to choose from, the levels of thinking are overly simplified as they will circle themselves very quickly, but they illustrate well both the benefits of higher level thinking, as well as the pitfalls of poor judgement.

The poker variant of No-Limit Hold-em is probably one of the most major, yet recent, example where a new metagame has greatly changed and evolved in the last 10 years.  If you've watched any recent poker tournaments on TV, you've no doubt seen people re-raising a player with some very questionable hands.  This is due to the evolution of the poker metagame and the players understanding that the cards don't matter if you can get your opponent to fold.  It used to be that a re-raise meant that you had Kings or Aces in your hand.  Eventually, players started to use that line of thinking to their advantage, being able to represent those hands far more often than they were actually dealt them.  When their opponents realized this fact, they had to adjust their play accordingly, and push back with hands weaker than they used to.

In the end, all forms of competition will benefit from higher levels of thinking.  From video games to board games to sports to poker and even business, knowing what your opponent is going to do, or knowing what they think you are going to do is going to give you a huge advantage in your decision-making.