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Hiya and welcome to the 3DTotalgames website!

We’re constantly building new things so there’s a lot on. If you’re looking for recent news, game design articles and stuff like that, just scroll down. There are hundreds of posts on the subject! At the bottom right you can see some categories if you’re interested in particular ideas or projects.

If you’re interested in one of our games the bar along the top links to pages about particular games. Each page has an overview of the game, shows off some of the art and lets you know where you can get it.

Orbit

I ain’tn’t dead!

I’ve been missing for months because my spine exploded and left me unable to walk or do very much of anything. It’s not the first time it’s happened, it probably won’t be the last. I’m bored of it. You’re bored of it. Let’s get on with talking about games!

After a long absence I’d like to come back with something positive for someone else, so since I was at the UK Games Expo (Running roleplaying games for children – who are vicious!) and spent a fair bit of time at the Playtest UK Stand I thought I’d take some time to analyse the game design decisions in what I thought was the best prototype I played all weekend (including my own!).

Orbit: The International Space Race is a game in development by Juniper Games. You play as a national space agency interested in building rockets and flying out to our solar system to explore planets and do science.

Each turn you do one thing: Upgrading technology, accepting missions, building a rocket or launching a rocket. Then all of your existing rockets barrel haplessly through space in whichever direction you launched them. You can steer a little, but doing so uses up fuel and your ships carry very very little of it. If you plan to land on a planet and then return to Earth you have just enough fuel to change course 0 times so you’d better aim in the right direction first time.

You get points for each thing (Land on this planet, orbit that planet, etc) that you do. You also get a free upgrade if you do it first. You might have missions that give bonuses for taking particular actions or taking particular actions first.

When everyone’s had a turn the planets all orbit the sun, as planets tend to, so the relationship between your launchpad and your target is constantly changing.

So what makes this game work?

I’ve argued before that meaningful choice is critical to good game design and Orbit offers plenty of choices. Very often you can get the first one to a place by going there now – getting the free upgrade for getting there first – but you could do using less fuel if you wait for the planets to align – leaving you more fuel to orbit and then land and generally do more stuff and pick up more points when you get there.

The “What to do on your turn” also matters. The upgrade options are all meaningful – you always *want* your ships to build faster and move faster and carry more fuel and score more points – but you upgrade those things one at a time. All of these are balanced against other actions, perhaps the best course is not to upgrade at all but to build and launch as many ships as you physically can with no regard for quality.

Missions do well here too. You start with a couple of “Do X first” missions which inclines you to get going and make sure you do the thing before anyone else and pick up the bonus. However you also might want to draw more missions so that you know what you’re trying to achieve before you launch your first ship or choose your first upgrade. The extra missions you can draw can be worth more points but may be harder (possibly involving multiple planets) and come with a penalty if you fail to achieve them.

In the time I played I took very few “automatic” turns, finding something interesting to think about more often than not.

The mechanics fit together well with the theme.

As an abstract mathematical concept “Get to these places while everything is moving relative to each other all the time” has the attributes necessary to make a good game – but orbitals theme makes it feel right and natural. You never feel cheated that your objective moved further away because your objective is Jupiter and it moved round the sun in the same direction it did last turn and that’s what gas giants are supposed to do.

What could be seen as a convoluted series of mechanics in abstract terms are easy to learn. “Your piece gets free moves if its in study mode, but switching to study mode costs one of your steering opportunities per trip” sounds like a mess of exceptions. “Your ship moves with the planet if it’s in orbit, but establishing an orbit costs one fuel” is obvious. I’m not sure if the designer even bothered to mention that you moved with a planet if you’re in orbit or landed on it – or if we all just assumed the rule because it’s so intuitive that you would!

Something that might not have come across so far in my description is that the game is quick! You do one thing on your turn, it takes seconds to do. Then all of your ships fly on, predominantly in the way you already told them to. The turns just fly by.

A game like this could be in danger of creating a large downtime problem. Interactivity is limited to “being first” or “not being first” so you don’t do a lot during someone else’s turn. That would be frustrating if the turns were long, but I found they were suitably short. I also didn’t notice the first half of them because I was busy going “Okay if I build this turn I can launch next turn and Earth will be there, so if I head towards the edge of the solar system then I’ll intercept Neptunes orbit in three turns by which point Neptune will be there – so I need to be a turn slower or spend fuel to turn to face it. Spending the fuel is bad, but I’ll pass Saturns orbit in two turns and it’ll be right there so I’ll score points for a flyby if I do it this way…”

Do I have any concerns about the game? Sure! It’s in playtesting after all so there are bound to be rough spots around the edges.

The “First to X” obejctives can be a bit unsatisfying in a game with no randomness. If another player decides to go there first and is in the right place in the steating order there is literally nothing you can do to stop them getting there first. If the game needs a mechanical tune up somewhere, a stronger system for resolving what happens when several players reach the same planet on the same turn would be where I’d start.

It’s also in danger because it has low randomness and low interaction. The planets move at a fixed speed and direction, your ships fly a predictable distance, other player’s actions cannot prevent (or even inconvenience) your ship building and movement. Given that it might be that if you become experienced at the game you start planning all of your moves in the first few turns and don’t make any meaningful decisions for the rest of it.

The tools that the designers have to prevent this from happening are the “First to X” objectives and the “First to X” free upgrades. If the bonus points for the initial objectives and the amount of advantage that getting those free upgrades provides are significant enough then every game will be different. The “initial objective” randomiser pushing all players in a different direction and the “first to X” restriction then causing those initial moves to have a knock on impact on what players are willing to do for the rest of the game could drive every game to be different. An important part of the game’s success will be how well the team balances those elements.

Overall I was enjoyed the game and was delighted to play something that didn’t feel like a slight variation on something I’d played before. If you want to check it out their website is hereย and I’m sure they’ll be trying to get everyone’s attention sometime down the line ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you went to the UK Games Expo and tried anything good drop a comment and let me know what I should be keeping an eye on!

Special Rewards: Behind the Curtain

Since my first Kickstarter campaign I’ve almost always had a pledge level that allows backers to create a card or other game element and add it to everyone’s copy of the game. These are always marked so that purists can remove them, but I love doing it and backers seem to love it too. I’ve had some nice comments about how affordable I make it compared to other creators, so I wanted to go behind the curtain and talk about how these pledge levels happen and why they cost what they do.

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Cooperative Character Abilities

Sorry there was no post last week – I was launching the Scandinavia and the World Kickstarter. If you enjoy this blog then please take a look and see if it looks like your sort of game. In return I promise not to talk about it for the rest of the post and tackle a game design issue instead. Today’s topic: Special abilities for characters in cooperative games.

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Making a Game Shorter

I find that more games would benefit from being shorter, than from being longer. It’s very rare to hit the end of a game and think “I wish this’d go on for another dozen turns”. Sometimes “I wish this’d go on for one more turn” but I think that’s intentional on the part of a designer who’s hoping to transmute that into “lets play again.” So, since we’re more likely to want to make a game shorter rather than longer, let’s talk about how to do that!

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A Game Designer at a Comics Convention

So a little while back I went to Comicon to show off the Scandinavia and the World game. Since we’re launching in just a couple of weeks now seems like an excellent time to talk about that – but what I really want to talk about is how to be a fish out of water. I’ve done plenty of board gaming conventions, but the comic convention was something entirely different. I may have been the only person demoing a board game in the room (I might not have been – but in any event there weren’t many). So let me tell you the ways in which it was different and what I’d recommend to a game designer who’s going to be the only board game person at a convention in the future.

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I’m so random

Discussing the removing luck post, we wound up talking about sources of randomness. It’s suggested that players are a source of randomness in otherwise deterministic games, that’s an interesting idea I’d like to dig into.

Let’s start by getting to the root of what a random factor is. When people say “random” they don’t mean it in the literal sense – the roll of a die is deterministic. You throw it at a certain angle with a specific force onto a particular surface. A physicist with a lot of time on their hands and nothing better to do might be able to simulate the outcome of your roll, given enough information about it.

The most common crutch is to say that when people talk about something being “random” in games, they mean that it is “unpredicatable”. However I don’t think that stands up either, I cannot predict my opponents 48th move in a game of chess from the starting point, but it a game that most people are happy to call “no randomness” and practically everyone will call “low randomness”.

I’d be inclined to define it as factors that are beyond the control of either player – but that’s cheating since I’d be including a conclusion (“Players aren’t random factors”) in a premise (“Where random factors are defined as things that are not players”) which is extremely bad form.

When people think about randomness I’m not sure that there is a consistent logical construct that can be defined. It’s more a combination of unpredictability and uncontrollability, viewed with hindsight – where players don’t see something coming, don’t have the ability to meaningfully influence it and (once it’s happened) don’t feel like they even could have seen it coming or have influenced it – then they experience that thing as random.

At very least this fuzzy definition would explain why people will argue about whether cards are “more random” than dice or not ๐Ÿ˜‰

So, looking at another player.

Hey you! You’re one of those.

Looking at another player: Are they unpredictable and uncontrollable?

Let’s start with unpredictable. Two things are immediately and obviously true: It is sometimes possible to predict what another player will do, yet it is not always possible to make that prediction.

More interestingly the degree to which they can be predicted varies depending on the attributes of the game in question. I can predict whether my opponent will open with their rook pawn in chess with much more accuracy than I can predict whether they will throw “scissors” in rock, paper, scissors.

Even in the most extreme examples, people are some degree of predictable. Opening moves in rock paper scissors are not distributed 33% 33% 33% – you may not be able to predict this specific opponent with complete accuracy, but nor are you completely blind.

Since how people perceive what counts as random, I question whether people’s beliefs about randomness in other players are correlated with their ability to predict what people will do. I’ve written before about how different players will sometimes experience probability differently, with some players experiencing quite deterministic systems as being quite random because they struggle to understand them.

Most people don’t understand most people.

Which is probably the cause of most of the things that are wrong with the world. My point is that I tend to know the people I play games with quite well and have got used to their habits. I’m also a doctor of psychology. It’s possible that one reason for differences in opinion over whether players are randomisers is down to differences in capacities to predict players which in turn leads to their behaviour being seen as “predictable” or “random” as viewed through different lenses.

Moving on to the issue of control – most games give you the capacity to indirectly control your opponents actions. The concept of a “forced move” is almost as old as gaming, sometimes your opponent must take a particular action or you will win. A game may even go as far as to codify a hard control of the form “If you make this move your opponent must respond in this way”.

Obviously an opponent is providing no randomness if they don’t make any actual choices because you have forced them all. Equally obviously a game in which that is actually possible (if one exists) is barely a game and is at best a solitaire game with an observer who’s not permitted to leave. However once you move away from forcing a player to do something towards persuading them to, more realistic games come to mind.

This sort of soft control is particularly easy and impactful in high interaction multiplayer games. There are a lot of ways to influence people. Some of these are pretty subtle (Check out my first post in my geek of the week thread for an example of a relevant psych study that’s pretty neat), others can be as blatant as saying “Cid is winning, you should attack Cid, all of the cool kids are attacking Cid.”

Even in a two player game there are soft ways to manipulate an opponent. A lot of players will visibly react to their opponent considering actions that do or don’t suit their plans. A smaller number of players will look for those reactions and base decisions on them. A subset of those will fake those reactions in an attempt to control the prior group. Heck, I’ve played in a game where a player has faked a reaction to a fake reaction in order to persuade the original faker than their faking has worked and to drive them towards a slightly suboptimal move in order to continue their bluff.

So where does all of this leave us?

At the seemingly unsatisfying conclusion that whether players should be considered a random factor depends upon factors that change depending on the game being played and the nature of the players. Some players are better at predicting and controlling others, while some are not. Some groups have it as part of their social contract, where others expressly forbid it. Some games lend themselves to producing predictable, controllable behaviour – while others are the opposite. The question “Are players a source of randomness?” must be answered “Sometimes”

But I don’t think this is an unsatisfying conclusion. Let me draw your attention to the important part: “depending on the game being played”

Thus we have yet another glorious spanner for the designer’s toolbox. The extent to which players are used as a source of randomness is something we can mess with. Furthermore it is subject to the same effects as every other type of randomness, which has some neat features. For instance if you want to get that “Somewhat random factor that players think is a result of their skill” effect that some games use so well, this is a great way to do it.

Earlier I mentioned that the distribution of throws in Rock-Paper-Scissors isn’t perfectly even – there’s some non-random behaviour going on there. However it’s still very largely unpredictable and here’s a second statistic on that game: The average player believes that their win rate to be above 50%.

It’s much harder to study and to see in playtesters (and a common cause of the ‘tested on the same group of playtesters too often’ problem) but if you can get your head around how your game is interacting with your players predictability and controllability you’ve got a neat tool to play with.

Happy random gaming!