One of my favorite games of all time is Fallout 2. I’m sure that this is at least in part because I happened to be at an impressionable age when it came out, but I still think that it did a lot of things very well. I enjoyed the feeling of freedom, while I often give up that freedom and play the game “in order” the fact that you can run straight to the penultimate area from the start of the game made those decisions meaningful rather than something the game forced me into doing. On top of all of that, the game had style.
I sat alone and unprepared as uncertainty raged on. It was a day lacking in inspiration and the task loomed ahead, the computer was repaired and there was no excuse for not resuming regular work. It was Monday. There had to be a post. Inspiration was absent but then a voice spoke from the heavens, filled with certainty and light and bade me consult its wisdom.
The best games give players a constant feeling of choice. I personally enjoy being confronted with options such that each one feels like an excellent decision, but involves sacrificing other equally good options. I like the feeling of mastery I get out of making a tough decision and seeing the rewards (and penalties) associated with that decision later in the game. It can also make the off turn more exciting, if the decisions that other players are making are more interesting and trying to derive what hidden information (e.g. the contents of their hand) can be inferred from them making particular decisions. Choice is great!
Last week I wrote about the decision to use models in Wizard Academy and received a number of nice comments on the work so far (which really should go to the artists). One of them mentioned how nice it was to see models falling outside of established tropes, which was lovely but possibly somewhat generous. I not only use tropes, but I use them a lot!
I’m fairly confident as a game designer, while I’ve still got a lot to learn I’m very happy with the work that I’ve done and have good reason to feel that I’m writing rules that make for an enjoyable experience. On the other hand I’ve only been in games publishing for a year and feel that I’ve got much further to go in this respect so I tend to use this blog to write about design topics rather than publishing topics. Today I’m going to break that pattern and write about a publishing decision: The inclusion of models in Wizard’s Academy.
I ran a playtest of Wizard Academy last week, in which the group played a good portion of the rules incorrectly. I think that the problem was that we started quite late in the evening, when people were a little tired and that a rules confusion during setup strung out the setup sequence to take a very long time. By the time the game had started nobody had much patience and the group had played the basic game before, so skimmed the advanced rules and just got on with it.
This week I’ve entered a four card blind Magic tournament, which is an interesting spin on an existing game that might have some neat design lessons in it. In Magic players usually use 60 card decks, starting with a hand of 7 random cards and drawing one each turn. The game continues until one player has used their cards to defeat the other or someone runs out of cards, at which point they lose. Much of the skill of the game is in deck construction, coming up with a combination of cards that can ensure victory whichever order it is drawn in.
When I think about the things that add the most to my life I think about hugs, time spent with friends, time spent creating things and stuff of that nature. Most of it has a common theme that I think is important in a well lived life: They’re often interactions from which everyone gains. If I take a pound from you then you are one pound poorer, but if we have a hug then we both gain one. Which lead me to think about the nature of trading, something that should be an activity by which everyone gains. Different things have different value to different people and so it seems obvious that it’s often possible to make exchanges such that everyone involved leaves with more than they started with – in a sense that’s meaningful to them. Usually.
Trading well involves a lot of skills, being able to identify what you have that’s of limited value to you and what your partner has that’s valuable to you but worthless to them are tricky things. There’s also a need to adopt some moral framework, or at least to convincingly fake one, if you intend to trade with the same group more than once. Which in turn makes noticing that your partner hasn’t traded with the same group more than once worthwhile too. On top of that sit all other aspects of negotiation as a more general skill. With so much inherently involved it’s proven a fruitful area for game designers, as a fairly minimal set of rules can evoke quite complex thought and behaviour.
Like it or loath it almost everyone who’s into games has at some point played Settlers of Catan. It gets a lot out of its trading mechanic, which emphasises all other elements of the game. The choice between getting the resource you need for two goods and making another player more powerful and getting it for four, but without aiding a rival is an interesting one. The need to keep a small hand size in case the robber moves acts contrary to accepting otherwise desirable trades. Trading helps to mitigate against a starting position that’s lacking in some critical element. There are also times it can tie into the mechanics in the other direction, such as the reluctance to trade wood or bricks to a player who is racing against you to build a particular road, which can wind up in “I’ll match that offer for you to not give it to him.”
Trading mechanics can differ substantially from game to game, the sort of trading that occurs in the real time game Pit is very different to the more considered options that occur in Settlers. There’s also a need for game designers to consider things outside of the strict rules. I had a memorable game of Twilight Imperium in which one player started offering to loan people trade goods, for a greater return on the following turn.
Nothing in the rules supports this, but nor does it prohibit it. Any of his trading partners could have just kept his goods on a subsequent turn and the game would have done nothing, but the need to have other players trust your word kept most people honest most of the time. This provided a fairly significant advantage, as he would make his offers just as players were realising they’d need (for instance) just a few more resources to take advantage of the secondary research power or some similar opportunity. It also provided a strong board advantage, as he made more generous offers to the neighbours of his neighbours, giving them more to worry about in terms of the quantity of forces on their immediate borders. It was an interesting play that shaped the game
Which of course doesn’t make you a good person if you do it outside of the gaming table. My point is that game designers need to account for the unintended consequences of their rules as much as for the intended ones, “the players are playing it wrong” is rarely if ever a valid response to playtester criticism. This is particularly important for trading mechanics, as any time players are allowed to trade resources, ‘future behaviour’ becomes one of the resources to be traded unless expressly prohibited (and sometimes even then!)
A server in Holland exploded and took out most of the 3DTotal Games site and its backup. We’re in the process of trying to get it back, but in the meantime this site will be somewhat bare bones. If you’re looking for one of my old articles, the entire blog is mirrored on board game geek where you can still find my first 176 posts.
Whether we get the old updates back or not I’m going to continue to make posts here once a week, as it was before the Christmas break. I hope you’re all having a good time and designing things I’d like to play