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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.

Designing for Art Requirements

Hiring an illustrator for your games cards can be expensive. I’ve had quotes anywhere between £10 per card and £300 per card. The complexity of the art style you’re looking for, the experience and reputation of the artist and a host of other factors play into this figure. Given that a card game could easily have 54 cards requiring an image each that could be the difference between £540 and £16,200 over the course of a game. It’s a big decision.

I’d like to talk about what a designer can do to make this part of the publication process easier, but first I’ll offer an example from some of my past games to illustrate how hard this can be:

Escape the Nightmare raised less than £10,000. If we’d hired a top rate artist then the art costs alone would’ve been greater than the project raised. The art really needed to be on a budget for the project to be successful. Scandinavia and the World raised over £61,000 – we could’ve spent a significant amount on art and still had the project work out overall.

The trouble is this: For each game we had to determine who the artist was (and therefore our art spend per card) before the game was launched. A good project means showing a good game, which means showing some final art. Knowing what to spend on art is dependant upon knowing how well the game does because the cost is divided between all games rather than on a “per game” basis like manufacturing is. So you need to know how well the game will do before launch to make an optimum art decision.

Now in both of these examples we dodged the question on the publisher side. With Escape the Nightmare we used art from artists who’d usually charge closer to the top end of the scale, but we’d already paid for the commissions for another project and (with their permission) didn’t need to use it again. With Scandinavia and the World we were partnered with a webcomic who got a share of the profits but provided all of the art. That’s not always possible though, it hasn’t been for more than half of our previous projects and probably won’t be for our next one – so lets talk about what a designer can do.

Knowing that we weren’t paying a cost per card on EtN and SatW my design brief was “Use as much art as you want” and the design of those games reflects it.

The situation for other games is different. The artist has to be chosen before how well the project is done is known, but the designer has control of the other side of the equation: How many pieces of art does this game need?

There are two philosophies that can work here: “Minimise art” and “Flexible art”

The first is simply to design the game in a way that requires the fewest possible pieces of art. If a game can say “Well there are five types of card and the piece of art on a card will depend on its type” then you can spend almost whatever you want on the art per card without meaningfully impacting the overall budget. This is often the simplest solution, but can make it harder for the game to deliver its theme and is something worth trying at a prototype stage (rather than prototyping with art everywhere knowing damn well it won’t be there in the final thing) to see how testers find it.

The second and more complicated approach is to try to make the amount of art in a game flexible, so that the decision about the amount to spend on art can be made after the amount available in the art budget is known.

This is trickier from a design perspective, but the goal is to have cards that could have individual images or that could all have the same image. For example a game might have cards for “Fire bolt” “Fireball” and “Inferno” that could share an image or could have different images. If the project goes well then they get one image shared between all of the cards. If it goes exceptionally well then the extra budget can be used illustrating them individually.

I think this is fairly common, most likely as a result of designers coming up with games they’ll pitch to several publishers who have different approaches to art. I don’t want to name a game here because while I’d mean it as “Here’s something sensibly designed to make sure gamers get the most out of their work” some idiot will take it as “I accuse this designer of being cheap” – but I’m sure you can generate lots of examples from your own games collection. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen examples of game where cards with titles that imply they could be drawn individually, but that share art in a way that works and feels consistent with the theme.

The opportunity for designers to modify games to suit art doesn’t end at theming cards to permit art duplication if necessary. It’s good for design to magnify every aspect of a game wherever possible.

For instance with the Genesis project 3DTotal is very keen on bringing in a very high quality artist. That means spending a lot of money on art and a design that does the best to really show off and integrate that art is going to be important. There are a few games out there now using tarot sized cards rather than the traditional 63x88mm cards. That’s all well and good – but a game has to be designed for that from the ground up!

The physicality of a card changes how they are used. A game with physically larger cards needs to minimise activities like shuffling that are harder with more cumbersome cards. It’s also important to consider the amount of space a game needs on the table to make it playable in the environments you’d like to see it played. On the other hand it also presents opportunities – you can make more assumptions about what a player can see on their opponents cards from across the table for instance.

The point that I’m driving at with this post is that there are a lot of things that can be thought of as “The publishers problem” that are made easier or harder by the choices a designer makes in building their game. In a good game the design of the game itself and its physical nature and presentation are intertwined. It’s worth being conscious of the pressures facing your publisher and of their strengths and limitations so that you can make the most out of working with them.

Small Boxes and Efficient Components

Last night I was introduced to a series of games by Oink Games. I didn’t get on with all of them, but came away with the impression that for each of them there would be someone who did. One of the things that really stood out for me was the physical efficiency of these games. Take a look at one:

That might seem like quite a lot of counters to pile into a box atop that hand of cards – but that’s only because most of the cards aren’t pictured. The game has a 45 card deck, it’s just not pictured in the photo. The thing is practically a TARDIS.

This is interesting as a publisher and a designer. Lets talk publisher first. Generally I’ve launched games on Kickstarter, but have tried to get a few of them into distribution to some extent. One of the strange things about distribution in the UK is that big boxes sell games. There are people who very vocally hate opening a game to find the box is mostly insert and the game could’ve been fit into a box a fraction of the size, but they don’t reflect what the average gamer actually does when they walk into a game shop. Publishers, distributors and stores know it to the point that it’s part of the conversation. I’ve been flat out told “This is a great game, but it needs a bigger box to sell itself.” I’d always conceptualised this as one of the differences between Kickstarter games and traditional games – in the former creators ask themselves “How tightly can I pack this in? The smallest box is the easiest to ship box” and in the latter “How big can I make this before someone complains? Its essentially an advert and it needs to grab someone’s attention next to all of the other adverts.”

I’m told it’s characteristic of the Japanese market that “compact” is always a selling point and products developed their first are typically as small as they can be while remaining functional. I’ve never made a formal study of it or spoken to Japanese distributors so I’m not sure to what extent that it’s true – but whether related to a specific market or not there’s definitely a sense that this line of games has been built to be as physically compact as possible.

I think this sort of compactness is generally desirable. It’s less wasteful and it makes it easier to carry a game in a pocket rather than a bag. It is the sort of thing that’s good for everyone but disappears in a “tragedy of the commons” kind of a way once the market gets involved. I’d love to see some mechanism that made it easier for more publishers to go down this route successfully.

As a designer this sort of compactness is interesting because it requires the designer to get as much as possible out of their components. Despite this the components of these games never feel busy. Take In a Grove here, which is about identifying a murderer, as an example:

The round counters indicate how many guesses you have remaining before an incorrect. They also indicate if you’ve previously guessed correctly or incorrectly. They also indicate if you’ve ever been successfully bluffed by someone who’s (probably) deliberately made an incorrect guess in the hopes you’d copy them and lose. You can tell how well you’re doing by counting how many counters you have. They are coloured circles with two states.

The people counters indicate who the murderer is. They also are the suspects for who the murderer might be. They’re also your private information about the murderer from which other players must try to derive your secret information. They also indicate whether the highest or lowest scoring character will be the murderer this round. One will also be the victim. They are a silhouette with a single number on.

This sort of design is testament to how much a designer can get out of a simple component, by making use of every attribute. A component can have almost no information on it, but can convey a wealth of different states by where it is on the table, its orientation, whether its face up or face down, whether counters are placed next to it, who’s looked at it.

This sort of game is a challenge and while the nature of the game I’m currently working on will not be to meet it, that doesn’t mean I can’t learn something from the design to take with me.

I’m once again working on Genesis, a game in which players are gods and pick three concepts to be the world they want to build. The theme initially carries well, players like being able to pronounce they are the god of Destruction, Chaos and Death or Drink, Fate and Love – but a theme can only carry a game so far, the gameplay needs to be solid too.

The game certainly has its fans, there are players who keep trying to get me to come up with new editions and push the game further, who can’t get enough plays. However it has a relatively huge attrition rate in the first game. People love it when they’ve played 3 or 4 times, but most people don’t enjoy the first game and a fair portion of them will walk away and never look back. That’s a huge problem since it is true of literally every game that more people play a first game than a second game. Essentially it’s unapproachable.

The main cause for this is that to some extent it’s a bluffing and prediction game, you simultaneously pick heroes and reveal them together. You want your hero to win so want to pick someone who’s a match for what you think your opponent is going to play.

If every card has dozens of icons and a custom special ability that’s got its own timing rules and is different to every other card that offers fantastic play and counterplay opportunities. It also makes the information density such that most new players are essentially playing the first few games almost entirely at random until they’ve had the opportunity to learn the deck.

The challenge is to streamline the components and rules to the point that a new player has some idea what a card does and how it’ll interact with things an opponent might play (and to have some grasp of what an opponent might play). However it is to do this without losing what makes the game special: That a god of a particular aspect will uniquely be able to access some asymmetrical power that others players can’t.

I’m on the way there, the core of the solution seems to be “Here are some standard icons which mean stuff. They do what you might expect. This guy makes people with bitey faces take -3. Highest number wins.” Then each type of god gets an extra icon that does something different, you tell everyone else what your three special icons are at the start of the game. Now cards more cleanly communicate what they do and players aren’t waiting until a card is played to find out what their opponents special trick is and can reasonably attempt to predict and counteract it.

I question whether I could go further. Characters have an icon and a number. Do we really *need* both? Or could abilities target based on the number? Or could the winner be determined by icon in a rock-paper-scissors way without the number?

Perhaps not. There’ll be a level of complexity that’s necessary for the different types of god to feel meaningful as what they are – love must feel like love, chaos must feel like chaos. On the other hand, perhaps it is possible. Maybe just one of those things can carry the weight of the rest of the game. I will probably end up reverting my changes but making the best games means exploring every avenue. I enjoyed last nights small box efficient games so I feel inspired to try.

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 here and I’m sure they’ll be trying to get everyone’s attention sometime down the line 😉

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 😉

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!