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Choice Timeframes

Reading old blog entries some of my attitudes have changed since I started writing and others remain. I’m still partial to the “Games are a series of interesting choices” school of game design. Today I wanted to talk about one way in which that leads me to look at games, both in terms of designing and playing them.

One way in which I understand games is in how many timeframes I’m considering when I make a choice.

If I’m playing Mr Game I’m really only thinking about right now. What move will my friends find amusing or interesting this turn? The way we play it the game is so chaotic any attempt to plan for next turn is utterly pointless, the rules will be too different.

If I’m playing Cube Quest I’ll be thinking about three times. Can I flick my cube to knock an opponent’s piece on the table this turn? What options will my opponent have if this goes well or badly for their next turn? Am I contributing to a long term position that will mean I win in the endgame if neither of us manages a kill shot on the king while the board is still busy?

If I’m playing Race for the Galaxy I will be thinking about at least five. Can I choose an action that lets me play something I want to this turn? Might I play something desirable by the end of this turn? Can I leave myself in a position to have a meaningfully useful turn next turn? Are the cards I have to discard to make this happen ones I’d rather keep to play in the medium turn (say sometime in the next 3ish turns)? Does this play contribute to my end game scoring? Depending on the decision and situation there might be more time frames I could usefully think in, but at around five I’m starting to run up against my cognitive limits.

If I’m playing Gloomhaven I’ll do slightly more. On a tactical level I might still be thinking in about as many times: Does this work for my next turn? What might my partner do in their next turn that will compliment/disrupt it? What might the monsters do in their turn that will disrupt it? If it works do the cards and positions I’m left with work for next turn? Do the cards I expend leave me with useful pairs until I’ve played out my hand over the next few turns or am I risking resting early to avoid a dead turn? However I find it easier to throw in an extra couple and also be considering “Is it worth a tactically suboptimal move to grab some xp for levelling up a scenario earlier?” “Is it worth a tactically suboptimal move to make progress on an objective that has to be completed over several scenarios?”

Thinking about games in this way leads me to some observations:

More levels isn’t necessarily better. I enjoy all of the games mentioned above in different contexts. It is something that defines the sort of game being played, like genre or weight, rather than a variable to be maximised.

It doesn’t matter much how far apart the levels are. In Chess the levels might literally be one move apart and I’m just describing how many turns ahead I can think (Both a a function of my limits and the extent to which the game rewards forward thinking). In a legacy game one level I’m thinking of might not matter until several months later. The distinction doesn’t matter much – thinking in several time frames does similar things to my experience of the game.

It matters a lot how finely balanced the options are. I find it interesting to wrestle with a decision of short term pain for long term gain only if they feel close enough for it to be a judgement call. The closer the choice, the more interesting the decision.

Different players will operate effectively (and have preferences for) different numbers of layers. In playtesting a player with a preference for a lower number of layers will often simply ignore the longest term one.

From a designers point of view these observations have implications:

Knowing explicitly what you want your playesr to be thinking about and making those decisions close and tense as often as possible is worthwhile.
Highlighting, indirectly, what a game expects will help it to attract the players who will most enjoy it.
A game that rewards thinking in an extra frame but is robust enough to still play well if the players aren’t can serve a larger variety of groups.
The number of frames a player can operate in are influenced by how the game presents them. Classic games like Chess and Go do well because it’s easy to improve one frame at a time and makes the distinction obvious to its players. Legacy games also do well because the deliniation of short vs long term is so critical to their function. Both have features that can be adopted in other genres

This isn’t the only way to think about games. It’s highly reductive and represents just one lens to consider a design through – but I think it’s an interesting one, both as a designer and a player.

The unhelpful hand of fate

In Wizard’s Academy I wrote a rule called the helpful hand of fate. It’s a simple rule: Whenever the rules are ambiguous the players may choose what happens. Rules like this are pretty common in cooperative games. The much lauded Gloomhaven will allow the players to choose where a monster goes when its AI generates ambiguity. This sort of rule allows the designer to cover a host of situations that emerge from more complex rule sets without needing a lot of edge case rules. They also give the players an extra decision point, which can come with the opportunity to demonstrate skill if which outcome will benefit the group is ambiguous enough.

I’ve never seen the alternative used. I cannot think of one game that uses the ‘unhelpful hand of fate’ which asks a group to pick whichever outcome will benefit the group the least.

I can imagine how a game might benefit from it. It could be used to establish an hostile atmosphere, which suits games like Dark Souls. It could narrow the difference between the high-skill and low-skill experience, as a more experienced group would more successfully identify the resolutions that would harm them the most.

I have ideas about where it might go wrong. I think players might attribute mistakes differently – in “pick the best” if someone winds up picking something that makes the game harder then at worst they’re bad at the game. Conversely in “pick the worst” if someone winds up picking something that makes the game better they might be cheating.

I suspect players judgements of themselves will be more relevant here than the judgements of others. Few players are willing to make an accusation of cheating, they are even reluctant if someone at the table flagrantly is. On the other hand relatively many players may punish themselves asking “Did I really resolve that in the manner that was worse for me or on some level did I make it move East because I knew it would work out?”

There may also be problems if it asymmetrically affects different players. If you’re picking the best then “A bad thing happens to me or to someone else” can be talked about. You can argue why it’s best for it not to hit you and how you will benefit the group. On the other hand trying to argue that you could easily deal with it and it’d be worse for it to hit the other person just seems…mean? It seems like something that might undermine the spirit of a cooperative game and group cohesion. In “pick best” confidence leads to sacrifice for the group, in “pick worst” confidence leads to saying you have to kick the less confident player when they’re down. And argue the case for that. That feels like it might be off.

That said, I have to say “I suspect” and “feels like” because I’ve never actually playtested an unhelpful hand of fate rule. Instinctively I feel like it wouldn’t work. More I feel like I’d find myself uncomfortable playing such a game, cursing the designer for not making a less ambiguous resolution method. On the other hand I’m perfectly happy playing games with the opposite rule and objectively I can’t think of a reason that picking the best should be any less difficult or ambiguous than picking the worst.

I’d be interested to know if anyone has ever heard of a game using such a rule or if anyone has ever had direct experience of playtesting one


Last weekย I wrote

“The next test is to consider whether it would be sufficient to just have a 3 point scale in which each champion either has a bonus, a penalty or neither (or both). I suspect here many more outcomes will change as hard to acquire bonuses that are presently coded as +4ish (or โ€œbonus bonusโ€) in the retest will be weakened to match easy to acquire bonuses โ€“ but it is best to carry out the test anyway rather than assume.

So I carried out that test and the results were surprising in a way that lead me to change the game for the next month of playtesting. The exact details are interesting to me, but not what this post is going to be about – the part of this process that I think is interesting is that I’m not sure I’d have run the second test at all if I didn’t mention to you that I was going to.

Game design is very often about doing a lot of work. Anything that helps in terms of motivation to do that work or impetus to get something done “now” instead of “eventually” forms an indirect part of the designers toolkit. I was sufficiently confident about the outcome of the test that I almost didn’t do it and just assumed the result, which would have knocked on to a fairly dramatic change in direction for the game this week. Writing about it here was part of what nudged us onto an alternate timeline.

Thinking on it I reckon that the important part of this is accountability. I am accountable to a network of people and institutions in my life and these shape the way that I work on games.

I’m accountable to myself. I know what I want to get done and what I achieve, I notice if there’s a discrepancy and it affects how I feel about myself and thus my quality of life. I also have standards for the quality of game I’d like to produce and take pride in some while feeling shamed by others – not everything I’ve made has met these standards. On the flip side I’m also fairly invested in myself outside of the context of game design so don’t feel any great impetus to prioritise game design over other important life goals.

I’m accountable to 3DTotal. They pay the bills and keep the lights on. Beyond that there are debts involved – when my spine failed and I was stuck in bed for 7 months they kept paying me as if I was showing up for work. The boss says we look after people here. Beyond that there’s a moral dimension from the nature of the company, I’m not meant to advertise on it but 3DT gives what I’d describe as an absurd portion of their profits over to charities which I approve of. Heck everyone who works here gets to choose some of them. Sometimes you work for a company for a paycheck, sometimes you genuinely want it to succeed, this is the latter. Of course 3DT is still a business and it can’t do any of the things that it does if it doesn’t turn a profit. Some of the times I’ve failed in what I’d call accountability to myself were because I was meeting an obligation to 3DT and business and art were in conflict.

I’m accountable to players. I design games because I want to bring people joy, whether that actually happens makes a big difference. When people tell me they’re excited to play something, then I’m excited to work on it and make sure it suits them. I’ve read every user review for every game I’ve designed, cried over some of them, experienced deep satisfaction from others. Some I reread from time to time to remember to avoid pitfalls that’ve brought trouble in the past or to build on strengths. On the flip side some people in the world are genuinely awful and criticism is abrasive rather than helpful. Some days players make me want to stop designing games, but fortunately those days are rare.

I’m accountable to you. Through this design blog. I know people read it because I see the little likes or chat with people about ideas in the comments. If I say I’m going to do something here I like to make sure it’s done – the thing that predicated this post! The downside is that I get excited writing about ideas and can commit carelessly, which would lead to me squandering time better spent elsewhere.

I’m accountable to a wide network beyond that, some of which are invested in my success as a game designer, some of which really could not care less. I’ve friends and family and girlfriends and colleagues and a whole ‘nother job I need to do things for – they all have an impact positive or negative.

I guess the point of this post is that this network exists almost entirely by accident. Almost none of these commitments were taken from a point of view of “If I adopt this thing it’ll make me a better designer” though some are doing it by happy accident.

So my advice for this week is not to let it be an accident. Start a blog, get some people reading it and use it to make commitments you’ll be proud to have kept. Or whatever other approach works for you ๐Ÿ™‚

Modifier Precision

In games it’s not unusual to have to compare two values and to modify these based on bonuses or penalties that players have accrued throughout their actions. There are good reasons for this: It allows a designer to make a broad range of player actions meaningful, while still paring the result down to a single important outcome – whether a battle is won or lost, who gets the item, does this hero live or die. These combine creating drama with making previous meaningful decisions have a coherent reward.

When implementing modifiers in a situation like this there is an important design decision to make: How fine grained should the modifiers be.

Because of how numbers work, there are an infinite number of modifiers that can be applied to any test. Even if players have a level of 0 or 1 and will never be outside of the 0-1 range a bonus could be +0.5 or +0.05 or +0.005 … you get the idea.

You should see the strengths and weaknesses of a fine grained system right away. In a system that is too fine grained the modifiers add unnecessary complexity. It’s slower to do “10 + 5.65 + 3.21 + 4.5” than “10 + 6 + 3 + 5” You’d also have more trouble tracking the game state, requiring a better memory or fiddler counters.

On the other hand a system that paints in broad strokes is unable to encapsulate things that should have a different level of impact. At its most extreme you might have a system that only allows a +1 modifier, no other value is possible. Imagine you have spent the whole game working on your city, collecting resources and trading them to develop new technologies and defences. Your laser walled sci-fi super-city gets a +1 to defence. Meanwhile your opponent decided that he’d give one of his be besieging pikemen a shiny rock. that gives him +1 attack. The battle is even despite your greater investment, both mechanically and thematically, in winning this sort of conflict.

As a designer it is usually very easy to detect when you do not have a high enough degree of precision. Playtesters are usually very quick to point out when something is unsatisfying, either because it gave them too little or gave their opponent too much.

It is harder to know where a lower degree would be useful. The only real way to find out is to trial a system with less nuance and see how it goes.

I tried this earlier today with Genesis. The current build of the game allows champions to get modifiers to their power, ranging from about -6 to +6 (Though some are in the form of “1 per character that died” and can theoretically hit higher levels).

Players are expressing difficulty in keeping track of what bonuses and penalties apply to a champion. According to their feedback forms some have proxied additional components to keep track of transient bonuses and penalties. There are suggestions that the game might embrace this, but I wonder if we could go one better and make it easy to remember, or at least easy to track with the components available.

My test is this:
Any modifier providing +1 or +2 now provides “bonus”
Any modifier providing +3 or higher now provides “bonus bonus”
Similarly negative modifiers provide “penalty” or “penalty penalty”
When a character gets a bonus they’re rotated 45 degrees right (unless already at 90 degrees)
When a character gets a penalty they’re rotated 45 degrees left (unless already at 90 degrees)
At any given moment a card can be in one of five states: Upright, one bonus, one penalty, two bonuses, two penalties.
These are assigned values of -5, -2, 0, +2 and +5
The question is “Does playing the game this way, with all modifiers reduced to bonuses or penalties on a five point scale, produce different results to playing under the current rules?”

Obviously I started playing with myself at once. After 3 games of 9 turns each the bonus/penalty system produced a different result on only 1 turn. The totals were very often slightly different, but in terms of game outcomes this often changed the margin of victory without changing the victor. It was rare for a character to miss out on a bonus or penalty because they’d already had two and when it occurred it tended not to change the outcome. Ultimately a hard to track 13 point scale is providing almost no additional nuance over an easier to track 5 point scale.

The next test is to consider whether it would be sufficient to just have a 3 point scale in which each champion either has a bonus, a penalty or neither (or both). I suspect here many more outcomes will change as hard to acquire bonuses that are presently coded as +4ish (or “bonus bonus”) in the retest will be weakened to match easy to acquire bonuses – but it is best to carry out the test anyway rather than assume.

After that the next step will be finding a sensible way to codify and explain the alternative rule. I think I’ve made a bit of a meal of it in this post, there’s probably a much simpler way to put it.

I hope that gives a good idea of why it’s meaningful to talk about how much precision modifiers have and shows a useful technique for determining if you should change yours in practice. Let me know in the comments if you think there are any games that are good examples of getting precision very precisely right or hilariously wrong.

Finding The Minimum Viable Game

Conventional wisdom dictates that it’s best to start with the most refined, precise possible example of your game before adding extra stuff. There’s a logic to this: Your extras depend on the core game and altering the core game will often mean discarding or at least mutilating them. If you design a really cool movement special ability before you’ve made sure your system for movement does the job then you’ll put yourself in a position of either deleting something that’s working great or having bad decisions at a lower level locked in.

To counter this you build the minimum playable version of your game, test and refine that until your core is great, then add things to the working core.

A lovely idea in principle, but how do you decide what the minimal viable version of your game is?

Let’s pretend you are the designer of Dominion (Unless you are Donald X in which case you don’t have to pretend) and have decided to work on the MVG before designing all of those fiddly special actions. What exactly is that?

Is it a game with only copper and estates? That’s enough to have a choice of what to buy every round and shows off the core tension between “I need points to win but points make it harder to buy stuff”

Or does it need to contain gold too? So you get that effect in which adding a lower value treasure is helpful early on but its presence will become detrimental later?

Or does it need at least one action card because they’re a fundamental part of the game and also running out action card piles is part of the game over condition.

Or does it need at least two action cards because the limit on how many can be played is part of the game and having one that allows +action and one that doesn’t is part of the core game?

The minimum viable game is a non-trivial problem. If you tried to refine the game from just having a copper pile and estate pile you’d either find you couldn’t make your supposed core fun to play no matter what or copper and estates would become complex in ways that mutated the game beyond all recognition.

On the other hand you could just as easily justify to yourself that you have to include everything for one reason or another which defeats the point of the exercise.

Personally I reckon it’d be somewhere around having the treasure and vp cards and 3-4 action cards that are intended as archetypical examples of common things players will do (Say Village, Smithy, Remodel, Militia and Woodcutter). But there’s no hard and fast way to say “Yeah, that’s the right amount of fancy actions for the game to be enjoyable so I can test and refine on that without getting bogged down in making others that might be made redundant as I change things”. It’s obvious that having none leaves you with something that’s not really much of a game, but for any particular list you could almost always justify removing some member from it.

So given those limitations how do you find the MVG for your own design?

Coming back to your games interesting decisions is never a bad move. If a game is a series of interesting choices, then the minimal viable game is the parts of the game sufficient to produce its most interesting choice.

Start by asking “At what moment will a player of this game go ‘I want to X and I want to Y, but if X then not Y but if Y then not X” Then once that’s identified look at what’s needed for that choice to work.

That’s not limited just to creating the choice, but also in making it have payoff. Sure the player has to have (at least) two options, but there has to be enough going on that it’s not trivially obvious which they should pick. There also needs to be a result that’ll let a player look back and see if they made that choice poorly or well.

Sometimes this requires things that are like the icing on the cake. It could be that the core of your game doesn’t work unless everyone’s got a special power or there are cards that create exceptions or whatever. That’s fine, your minimum game doesn’t have to be about “Destroy everything that looks like a sprinkle”, but it should manage “Use the minimum number of sprinkles”. If two different powers are enough to test that the core of your game is up to holding the weight of everything else you want to put on it then you don’t even need to design enough to get the game going at its highest player count.

Your minimum viable game might not be that minimal, in order to be viable, but it’s worth knowing what it is. Having a clear idea of what your core is, why it works, what’s critical to it and what’s you expanding on it will help with every other thing.

What does the minimal version of the last game you played look like?


I had an interesting experience working on Genesis the last couple of weeks. It involved spending money on things we turned out not to need and making changes then reversing them and did something to make me think of icons differently. I thought I’d share it in the hopes of preventing other people from making similar mistakes.

In this game the players are gods, each god has several purviews (Like mastery over water, death and animals or whatever) and each purview has a champion. Here’s Ripple, the champion of water, as her card appeared at the start of that time:

Obviously this is prototype time. The final thing won’t look like this and that’s not our art. It’s getting nowhere near a finished product. Just something to fill the space till we’ve paid an artist to draw something specially for the game.

I want to draw your attention to the icon at the bottom left. That’s a free icon from game-icons.netย  which is a fantastic resource for any designer in the process of prototyping a game. The icons can even be freely used on a finished commercial product if you like, though generally I try not to.

Anyway do you see how its flecks are escaping the boundaries of the icon? That’s because it’s an icon that’s designed to go onto a square that I’ve put onto a circle. A lot of the games icons are like that, they annoy me every time I look at them.

It also looks bigger than the circle next to it. That’s an optical illusion, you can print the card and cut it in half and match up the circles to prove it to yourself if you like ๐Ÿ˜‰ That they’re different styles makes them look different sizes which is all kinds of messy.

So I asked a designer to get an icon together for me that would fit the imagery of the rest of the card, looking to improve it with some more consistency. This is where I ended up:

Well not quite here – this time the left circle actually is smaller, but that’s my mistake. I don’t seem to have an image from after it was fixed but fixed it was and I got it in front of playtesters.

The feedback was immediate “The old version was better” “We actively liked it that the icon overspilled its bounds”. I figured maybe people liked what they were familiar with so tried playing it with some brand new people showing both sets of cards and saying “We’ve not settled on a direction”. It was unanimous – the coloured icons were preferred.

There was other feedback too and I continue to work on the game, changing the design in accordance with things people suggest and working on balance tweaks here and there. Here’s Ripple in the version I’m testing at the moment:

So what did I learn from all of this?

Well firstly that I need to be aware of my own perceptions. A lot of designers get games wrong for colourblind people because they’re not colourblind.

Conversely I am colourblind and pay little attention to it as a signifier. Moving all of the icons into the same palette significantly increased the time it took players to figure what did what. Only by seconds, but an increase in seconds for a task that’s done a lot of time in a game can be the difference between something which plays smoothly and something which feels juddery and uncertain.

Just because I recognise icons by shape first doesn’t mean other people aren’t seeing colour first and having them all be different colours makes it easier and faster for players to recognise them and make judgements.

Secondly I would never in a million years have asked a designer to draw me an icon using an instruction like “I need a 15mm circle with an icon inside it, but the icon should overflow the limits of the circle going up to 3mm over the line” but the proportion of players who thought that was a deliberate design choice and liked it is somewhat mindboggling. I’m sure someone drawing to make that an interesting style on purpose can do a better job than I did by just putting a square peg in a round hole – but I’ll get someone to knock together some icons like that deliberately drawn and see if we can’t improve the process while taking advantage of a happy accident.

I’m still not sure how to face the “optical illusion makes coloured icon next to the other icon look bigger” thing, especially if the icon overlapping its bonds is part of that, but I’m going to try a bunch of stuff.

When we test something we don’t always wind up testing what we intended to, but I think it’s good to be open to new ideas.

Double It

In the back of one of the manuals for the Civilization computer games – I forget which one – there’s a section that talks about how the game was designed. This contains a nugget of wisdom for game designers of any stripe: “If something isn’t working, double it or halve it.”

I think that this principle is a very sound one. Suppose you have a situation like “The penalty for juggling while skateboarding isn’t high enough – nobody feels its that difficult in game, though everyone agrees it would actually make it quite a lot harder in the real world. Plus the guy who can force people to skateboard feels way underpowered because putting people on skateboards is barely impacting their juggling at all.”

It might be tempting to increase the penalty by one and see if it makes a difference. The problem is that playtesting tends to produce a fairly limited set of data points, because of random variance (Even if the game has no randomness the skill of the players you have is a factor and even if you are testing with the same players over and over they will have good days and bad days). It’s fully possible to have an experience where something is weak, so you make it more powerful and then to play a half dozen games in which it does even worse. Just by chance.

So to actually see the difference there’s a sense to making big changes. We’ll not increase the penalty by one – we’ll double it! It may well be that doubling makes it waaay too hard to juggle while skateboarding, but if that’s the case you know the undoubled variable was a little too small and doubled was far too high and that gives you information to pick the right point in between. Compared to the very real chance of learning nothing with a one point bump, there’s a good argument for doubling.

The thing about doubling is that you really have to understand where your zero point is.

Imagine two systems for a game.
In system A I roll D6 + 3 and need to get a 7+
In system B I roll D12 + 3 and need to get a 9+
The chance of success in both are the same. But if (for whatever reason) we double that +3 then they change a lot. I don’t know about you, but I’d be super confident of rolling 7 or higher on D6+6.

The trick is to understand what doubling something actually *is*, specifically it’s making it twice as big relative to zero. However in our first game zero is clearly not the default state, presumably when we set the target as “7+” we anticipated that under normal conditions the player would have some sort of bonus to the roll. Perhaps in the average situation a player has +1 to this roll – in that case we should treat that average case as zero and double relative to that. So when we want to double our +3 modifier rather than doubling the number itself we double the difference between it and the zero point, making it a +5.

If you’re feeling fancy you could look at the ratio of success to failure and aim to double that rather than doing anything with the raw numbers. D6+3 will have a ratio of 1:1 between successes and failures, so we might want to double that to 2:1, which means wanting a 66% chance of success. That means we want 3/6 sides of the dice to result in success and so can make the modifier D6+4 – it turns out that the random factor and target numbers we’re working with are sufficiently small that in this case a one point bump does make a big enough difference!

I’ve been doing a lot of this with Genesis recently, having built up datasets to the point that they show me which things it’s great to be a god of (Fire, Showmanship) and which ones tend to lead to failure (Madness, Undead) I wanted to make a new version to rebalance things. However it takes a *lot* of plays to get a decent amount of data for Genesis since a lot of the gods aren’t used in any given game so keeping the number of iterations down is important. That means adopting a policy of making significant changes that are going to show enough of a difference to meaningfully drive decisions, but doubling the level of a card in this game isn’t something that makes sense. A card is level 1-10 so fully half of them can’t be doubled without extending the range. It’s been better to look at “How many other cards in the game will this beat” and to aim to change that number significantly, though of course changing any card slightly changes that number for every other card ๐Ÿ˜‰

The point is that while doubling a thing feels dramatic making big changes during testing is healthy. You learn more than small changes and sometimes it turns out that a big change is what you needed and you can keep it as is. The rule of “double” isn’t necessarily important so much as the overall philosophy, but if you do want to keep it the trick is to be mindful of what you’re doubling and relative to what zero point: Raw numbers often don’t tell the whole story.

Thematic Dice Rolling Systems

A while back I wrote an article comparing different ways to roll some dice and get a result that produced the same average result but had different probability profiles. Today I wanted to talk about a way to make use of some of those features: Making the method of dice rolling tie into the theme of a game.

Consider Zombicide. If we grab ourselves a precision rifle and fire on a zombie we roll 1D6 and will kill it on a 3+. One the other hand if we go for the submachinegun we roll 3D6 and will kill it if any of them work out as a 5+. The rules never explicitly state “Accurate weapons roll fewer dice but need lower numbers to hit, inaccurate ones do the opposite” but the pattern is established through repetition on most of the games weapons.

This is a good feature for a game to have. Ideally a game should have a lot of little things that are needed for the game to progress and serve other gameplay purposes building on each other to establish links between the theme of the game and what the players are actually doing. Even if the probability is the same if you set off some kind of huge explosion throwing a large pile of dice is more satisfyingly “explosiony” than throwing a small pile.

However as well as the visceral feel we should also remember what different systems do to the probability curve. Thematically you might want an explosion to be and feel chaotic compared to – say – a sniper. Throwing a boatload of dice has that visceral feel, but in terms of what it actually does the “many dice” thing tends to be more reliable because when you roll several dice together you get a bell curve. That is to say that the average result occurs more often and the extreme result less often, compared to rolling one dice where rolling a middle number and rolling the highest or lowest number all have the same chance to happen.

So are we stuck in a situation where the visceral feel of a thing is directly opposed to its actual effect on the game? Of course not!

We can think about how we apply modifiers. If someone is rolling some D6s and needs X+ on each one to get a hit we’ve got three levers: We can change how many dice are rolled, we can change what result is needed for a hit and we can change how many hits are needed.

On a side note, it’s generally desirable to modify as few things as possible so that when someone sees “-1” they know what it applies to because the game is consistent – but it’s still worth considering which one to modify.

If a modifier applies to the number of dice it has a more profound effect on “1D6 3+” than “3D6 5+”. Adding an extra dice increases the chance of success by 23% for the first pool, only by 9% for the second. Taking one away is even more profound since with zero dice the first pool can’t succeed at all.

By contrast if it applies to the number that has to be rolled it will affect the “Big dice, high number needed” pool more dramatically since that target number applies to every dice and it has more dice to be affected.

So if we’re looking to make it so that we can use a big pile of dice for explosions or shotguns or risky behaviour in general but also have the probability profile make those things riskier rather than more certain – where does this mean we put our modifiers?

The answer is “It depends”. Specifically it depends on why you might be modifying a dice roll. If the most common sort of modifier is a positive modifier because the character doing it is really skilled it makes the most sense for it to be a dice modifier. That way a skilled character gets the most out of doing a precision activity – the game will “feel right” when a champion marksman adds more to a sniper rifle than a scattergun.

On the other hand if the most common modifiers are negative situational modifiers because the weapon’s old or you moved or whatever then applying them to the target number may have the desired effect. The chaotic weapon will break down when the circumstances are against it but the reliable one will – well – be reliable.

Modifiers aren’t our only option either. A lot of games use rerolls as a means to provide reliability. If you’re happy that your game won’t be slowed down too much by the extra decision and roll step involved in having one then providing them can be a way to distinguish risky but dynamic actions from reliable less dynamic ones. That way we can still give our grenade a huge dice pool but make our sniper rifle’s smaller dice pool stick more closely to the bell curve – if the pool is smaller but less than half the size then providing one reroll makes it effectively larger in terms of reliability – so it can be small for the visceral action of picking dice up and doing things with them but large in the abstract mathematical sense of how it actually behaves.

Finally – the most important thing to consider is how a game breaks free of a fail/success binary. The examples above talked about “Roll one hit to succeed” but even in the Zombicide example, there’s a reason to roll more than one hit. If the player scores several hits they kill several zombies – good times.

This feeds into the theme as well. It means that “3D6 5+” has an advantage over “1D6 3+” not only in having a better average and being able to more consistently score a success – but also in that it can potentially kill up to 3 zombies where the other version will only ever kill 1.

It didn’t have to be this way – the rule could have been “Look at only the highest dice, if it’s below the target number nothing happens, otherwise it kills a zombie plus an additional zombie for each point it exceeds the target by”. Then a 3+ could kill up to 4 zombies and 5+ could only get 2 even if it had lots of dice.

The rule makes sense for that game – it’s intuitive that a spray of automatic fire could kill several zombies were one very well placed shot usually wouldn’t – but perhaps your game isn’t about shooting zombies. Perhaps your player is rolling for their ad campaign to convince the nation that keeping the planet inhabitable to humans is more important than saving a few quid on groceries. If your critical success is “Convinced some persuasive celebrity” then maybe a “Brute force the campaign with lots of money” approach should roll lots of dice and be consistently effective, but you want the best chance of a critical effect to lie with a “Carefully targetted ads” approach.

There’s not only one way to do these things – the point of this article is to remind us to be conscious of them. There are a hundred ways to resolve “I’d like the player to throw some randomisers to see if this works” into a rule. It’s worth taking the time to pick the one that not only makes your game work best as an abstract mathematical model, but also the one that’ll help players to be invested in the theme and for the things that happen to seem like they intuitively make sense from the actions the mechanics are describing.

Know what you don’t want

A brief apology for missing last week’s update – my spine failed while I was swimming and made a semi-convincing attempt to drown me (but it’ll have to try harder than that!) I’ll write a bonus post next week to make up for it ๐Ÿ™‚

Genesis Icons

I recently hired a graphic designer to put together some icons for the upcoming Genesis game. I told them that I needed icons for a number of different domains, which would be things gods had power over. So a water icon for the god of water, a death icon for the god of death and so on. Specified the size of the icon, showed the graphic design it was going to slot into, provided some hex codes for the colour palette I wanted to use and left it with him. Here’s the first draft that got sent to me for approval:

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Artists Brief

During 404:Law Not Found I wrote a post about how well it worked to give artists a really broad brief. I’d asked the guy doing the cover of the game “Draw something with robots, during the game they will do these 15 visually interesting things, pick 3-5 and put them all onto a cover.” The result was great so I wrote about how good it is to give artists a broad brief and trust them as experts to create something fantastic!

Other Approaches

I’ve finished another five games since then and worked with a variety of artists under a different conditions and would like to update my thoughts with the benefit of greater experience.

Famously the Dunning-Kruger effect describes a phenomenon where the more you learn the less you think you know. This accurately describes my experience in this field! I no longer think that I know the best way for working with any artist, because I’ve seen a much greater variety of artists and worked in a greater variety of styles.

The trick is to find the right style for the right artist. You’ll typically pick an artist to work with based on their previous portfolio and being impressed with how well they can do work in the style you’re interested in for your game. Unless you have very good information you’re really unlikely to pick an artist on the basis of the approach they have to working with you.

This is also a reflexive problem because artists will show a portfolio of their work but won’t show something saying “I like working in this way” because they’re doing the same in the opposite direction ๐Ÿ˜‰ Each one has had a range of clients and have worked differently with different clients and are trying to pick the right approach to suit each client.

So you tend to pick artists knowing a lot about their art and relatively little about how they work best and have to figure that out later. And that’s okay, since the art is the main thing, but a good way to work goes a long way towards getting the best art for the game (or other project).

Art Brief

Once you’ve hired an artist they’ll expect you to tell them what to draw. Let’s pretend we live in a world where the idea of King Arthur doesn’t exist and we’ve made him up for a board game and are trying to express how to draw him. How do we describe that to an artist?

“I would like you to draw a tall man in his late twenties early thirties with blue eyes and straight blonde hair down just past his shoulders. He should have an athletic frame, though largely obscured by plate armour. The armour should be metallic and shiny, reflecting light towards the viewer. He should have a sword and shield, the sword in his right hand. The sword should be large, have a golden crossguard, but be pointed into the ground – the image is of him standing at rest rather than attacking someone. The shield should be white with a red cross. Rather than a helmet he should wear a golden crown.”

“I would like you to draw King Arthur. First an foremost he’s a knight, honourable, pure, righteous. He is Christian and he is king of England. He has a magic sword that was bequeathed on him by the lady in the lake. He is a just ruler and tries to make sure that all of his knights voices are considered equally around his round table. He wasn’t born into the king thing, it’s something he came into from a common background, at the time the game’s set he’s pretty new to it.”

“I would like you to draw the leader character for my game. The power their player gets it to be able to choose another player to draw a card each turn – so the big thing really is being able to contribute to the successes of the characters followers. The art also needs to show that the character is a “knight” type. That means that cards which affect knights can affect that player. These are typically themed around stuff which plays on a knights honour or stuff to do with the physical trappings of being a knight (Like “broken sword” or things like that)”

“I would like you to draw a character for my game. They should look like this:
The blonde anime character has the best hair, the armour with the cross has the best heradlry, the guy with the mace has a good face structure but is too dour. The first one has the best armour. Just put those together and make a new character.”

Consider how the same artist might draw different things in response to those different requests. The first one might get you the closest to what you’re imagining, but is also something of a straightjacket – the artist may have had a better idea that gets lost because it’s so specific.

The second means you get something that symbolises what you’re looking for, but it might be totally different to what you’ve imagined and you’d have no basis to complain if it were. For instance the sword might have sea serpent imagery because it came from the lake. Or he might have armour that looks like he’s got a stylised collar like a catholic priest. Or any number of other ways those words could be interpreted.

The third focuses on mechanics and means that you’ll get a consistency between your mechanics and art. If you’ve told your artist “This is a knight type” and what that means in game about a half dozen characters then there’s a good chance there’ll be visual similarities between all of your knights that makes it feel more intuitive when the knight affecting cards hit em. This is something that’s changed in how Magic commissions art over the years – in the early editions they didn’t tell artists whether creatures they were drawing had the “fly” mechanic or not and there were loads of depictions of flying creatures that could not fly – something they explicitly changed down the line. Of course only talking about mechanics has resulted in a brief that could be wildly different to how the designer might have imagined him: There’s nothing there to say this isn’t a middle aged female asian leader like Cheng I Sao (but less pirate and more knight).

The fourth has the advantage of overcoming a designers inability to describe things. A picture says a thousand words – describing a face in just words tends to result in a childs finger painting at best (police sketch artists are wizards) – being able to point and say “That one. Ooh with that guys moustache. And that ones shield.” is pretty good. Most artists can blend inspirations like this well, a few don’t like it because it feels derivative, though that’s the minority.


In reality you’re going to combine approaches. Say a little about appearance, show an image or two, mention relevant mechanics (especially if they’re recurring) and say a little about story (since some artists get inspired to add things) and so on.

But each artist likes a different mix, some want loads of reference images, some want really detailed physical descriptions, some want to be told a story of key personality traits and to make up their own details (So long as they feel comfortable you won’t balk and declare something not what you wanted after a lot of work).

As far as I can tell the best thing to do is treat it like you’re about to have kinky sex. You both know what you want and have some oddly specific expertise, but don’t really know what the other person wants and are aware there’s a variety of tastes. It’s a little awkward to stop and talk about it rather than just jumping into what you came here to do – but well worth taking the time to communicate in terms of how things turn out.

I try to let artists know that I’ve generally been delighted with what’s come out of letting high quality artists draw what they want to draw and that so long as they run it by me first – up to and including major changes like flipping a character’s gender or race. I tend to engage an artist before I’ve finished the final balance pass of a game so that I’ve got some wiggle room if a piece of art makes me go “Wow, that is such a cool detail, there really should be some small thing about that in the game proper.”

I like to show a brief for something that’s got a bit of a balance between different types of information and ask for feedback on the brief itself. I think a lot of artists find that odd or unexpected – I’m paying them so in theory I can just say “Hop to it” – it’s unsettling to the natural order for someone to say “Is it okay if I ask you to do it like this” I’ve generally had good results from it though. It’s amazing how many people will think “This brief sucks, I needed those details and this crap is irrelevant” and grumble about it to their mates but won’t tell the client. It’s a good place to actively solicit feedback because 20 minutes spent discussing what sort of information this particular artist likes emphasised in their briefs can save a phenomenal amount of wasted time and money down the line.

If there’s one takeaway I wanted to offer writing about this – it’s that! Don’t jump straight into talking about the work, talk about how to talk about the work first ๐Ÿ˜‰ Not all artists are the same, not all projects are the same, the very best approach for your game will depend upon the individual game and the individual artist. And you want to make the very best game you can, right?


This blog is generally aimed at game designers (and gamers who are interested in how the sausages are made) but I think I’ll cross post to art and graphic design to get some feedback on these ideas from artists. I’ve made a few games and worked with a few artists and that’s made me aware of the scope of things that I don’t know. There are many more games and many more artists out there and I would therefore predict untold vistas of things I don’t know! If you’re an artist reading this I’d love to hear your thoughts, both on the subject in general and in what you personally find to be a really useful brief.