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 😉 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 😉 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.

The Paradox of Catch Up Mechanics

Playing Power Grid the other day I thought “I could build an extra house, but I don’t want to, because then I’ll buy resources later and that’ll cost more money than the extra house would earn”. There’s a mechanic that penalises the player who’s ahead so good play becomes – in part – about fooling the mechanic so that the game thinks someone else is in the lead.

Fooling the Game is Good Play

There are a lot of games with catch up mechanics where a bonus is offered to a player who’s losing or a penalty is applied to one who is ahead. Playing these games well often involves manipulating the metric that the game uses to determine who’s winning so that it does a poor job at detecting your progress.

This is true even of “soft” catch up mechanics that have no formal implementation. When Munchkin was popular with groups I played with people very quickly realised that the first player to level nine almost never won. There’s no formal catch up mechanic but players are obliged to draw cards of the form “Play when another player tries to do something, it goes horribly, sucks to be them.” so inevitably the first person to nearly win would face a slew of these. The single skill most consistently correlated with winning was an ability to fool other players into believing that you expended all of your ‘screw you’ cards on the last player’s near victory so that they squander theirs on the current player, you can stop them and there’s nobody left with resources to oppose your final fight.

Whether you’re fooling people or systems, convincing them you’re behind improves your chances.

The Paradox of Catch Up Mechanics

A catch up mechanic needs to determine which players are winning and losing to be effective.

Who will benefit from the catch up mechanic is a factor in determining which players are winning and losing.

I’m convinced that a truly accurate catch up mechanic would find itself in a paradox really quickly. I can see it being of the form “Jeff has the least stuff so we’ll let him buy the cheap resources but if Jeff gets the cheap resources their value exceeds that of the difference between how much stuff he and Sally have. So really Sally is losing so we’ll let her buy the cheap resources, but if Jeff doesn’t get the cheap resources…”

So What’s the Point?

Honestly, I don’t know. We’re all going to die in the end anyway.

But in terms of catch up mechanics they might not achieve “Find weakest player, help them catch up” but they’re still doing something valuable.

If a winning player determines that their best move is to use their advantageous position to break some of their things or trade away useful resources inefficiently in order to get the catch up mechanic bonus – they are still breaking some of their things or trading away useful resources inefficiently.

Consider the following:

We’re playing a game and I’m winning.

I have 8 points and the option to add or subtract 2 from my score

You have 7 points and have used up all of your options for this turn

At the end of the turn whoever has the least points gets a 3 point bonus

If I add to my score I go up to 10 and you get the bonus, also hitting 10 – we’re tied!

If I subtract from my score then I go to 6 but then claim the bonus shooting up to 9, while you’re still on 7 – I’m two points ahead!

So in the surface because I’m winning and have more effective options I can manipulate the catch up mechanic so it benefits me and not you. Leaving me 2 points ahead by abusing a mechanic that was supposed to help you.

Digging a little deeper however, consider what happens if we delete the catch up mechanic: In that instance I add 2 to my score and am leading 10-7 – I’m three points ahead!

So despite the fact that I got the bonus from the catch up mechanic and it didn’t change your score one iota, the mere fact that it existed meant that I’m leading by 2 points rather than 3. Just be encouraging me to make the otherwise suboptimal move of subtracting two from my score.

Catch Up Mechanics as Incentives

The problem that I’d identified was not in catch up mechanics themselves but in how I’ve been conceptualising them.

“A catch up mechanic is a mechanic that identifies the losing player and gives them a boost allowing them to catch up” was the wrong way to think about them.

“A catch up mechanic is an incentive for a leader to make moves that would otherwise be suboptimal to allow others to catch up” seems a better way to conceptualise it.

This way of looking at them leads to some differences in how they’re designed. It seems naïve to go “We’ll assume our players play the same way as if the mechanic didn’t exist and offer people who are behind a leg up” when players are generally pretty good at games and taking advantage of the rules in order to win.

Instead respecting the players capabilities and going “Everyone will try to use the mechanic, including the current leader, who may even have a greater ability to access it if their position has given them more options. The goal is to make sure that when the leader is encouraged to use it the price of doing so is smaller than the reward, but the net effect is that they can’t be a runaway leader because they’re still paying those prices.”

A Good Catch Up Mechanic

Viewed through this lens a good catch up mechanic has these traits:

Stratified: If there are multiple players having the mechanic be effective at each step means careful thought needs to go into when to use it and when to pull ahead. If there’s no advantage in dropping from 1st to 2nd place it won’t work because the boost won’t be big enough to justify dropping 1st to 5th

Positive: If a catch up mechanic is adding to a players progress then each round everyone will progress, even if some players are deliberately losing progress to access the mechanic they wouldn’t bother if the boost didn’t outweigh the loss. A negative catch up mechanic risks creating a game that will never end if the penalty for being ahead is high enough then someone who deliberately backs off and someone who gets hit by it are both behind their starting point and the game may never end.

Manipulable: Players should be able to manipulate the thing that the catch up mechanic is assessing in a timely fashion. If the leader can’t deliberately lose some resources to access it then either it doesn’t propel people past the leader or it was inevitable that someone will be propelled past the leader. In which case they were only ahead on some metric that failed to capture winning since their being surpassed was inevitable.

Costly to Manipulate: There’s no sense in offering a catch up mechanic to whoever has the least cash if players can buy gold, get the mechanic and sell their gold to have the same amount of cash in the very next turn. To work there needs to be some friction in how the mechanic is accessed.

Incidentally you might notice these are all attributes shared by the mechanics of Power Grid and are weak to completely absent for Mario Karts Blue Shells. So I feel like they work for at least those two examples 😉


This week I’ve been testing Genesis and there’s a broad agreement between playtest groups that the most troublesome thing in the game at the moment is if someone decides to be a god of madness. This domain grants the power “This power targets the world, for the rest of the turn any champion with a power that targets one or more champions instead targets only itself.”


It’s a problem because it’s a power that modifies other powers, a metapower, which have two important features:

1) Players get excited about them, they offer a lot of flexibility adding a relatively large number of things someone can do in the game for a relatively small complexity cost. Generally they’re some of the powers that get the most positive feedback.
2) They’re a massive pain in the arse to design because they impact the design of every other power.

The fact that madness exists obliges me to look at every other power and go “What does this power do under the influence of madness? Is it obvious? Is it balanced? Is it interesting?” which is a lot of work for one domain.

It goes beyond individual cards too and into combinations of cards. For instance if there’s nothing in play that can remove a madness wielding champion without directly targeting it then everyone will target themselves constantly all game. This leads to degenerate games where the madness domain might as well read “Stop playing now, the game is won by whoever has the most targetting powers that give bonuses and the fewest that give penalties.”

Metapower Combos

Astute readers may have noticed the construction of the madness power is something that’s necessitated by the existence of powers like it. Having some of the odder powers read “This power targets the world, this rule applies for a turn” means that metapowers that mess with things that target champions exclude them – meaning you don’t get combos of metapowers on metapowers.

Consider a situation like this:

Power1 targets everyone and makes them target themselves.
Power2 targets each players highest level character and makes them target everyone on their own side.
Power3 targets everyone and cancels their powers, making them have no effect.

What the hell happens? Does power 3 make everything have no effect so the other two don’t matter? Or does power 1 mean that power 3 is only making itself have no effect (which means it doesn’t which means it does)? Or does power 2 mean power 1 only applies to its controllers stuff? If that’s true does that mean it then targets only itself so it retroactively doesn’t apply to the rest of its controllers stuff?

You can do metapowers that affect each other, but you either need a rigid framework that makes the ways they influence each other relatively uninteresting or to manage them carefully which creates exponentially more problems the more of them you have.

Implementing Metapowers

Despite the caveats they are neat and offer advantages. Lets agree that we’re going to do them and get into how to implement them.

The main thing to shoot for is consistency of language. This is generally desirable anyway since it makes games easier to learn and rulebooks read more smoothly. For this sort of thing it really matters though. Consider the original wording for the power a player gained if they elected to play as a god of vengeance:

“When this power is in play and a champion dies then the champion with a power that killed them also dies.”

What happens if that power is madness’d? The wording makes it unclear. Consider some alternative wordings:

“This power targets the world. For the rest of this turn if a champion dies the champion with the power that killed them also dies.”
“This power targets all champions. If a target dies, the champion with the power that killed it also dies.”
“This power targets any champion that’s power has killed at least one other champion. The target dies.”

Standardising powers to always start “This power targets X” obliges the power to be worded in such a way that it’s clear. You can see what madness would do for either of these wordings. It opens the way for any number of metapowers of the form “modify target” (So long as there’s some system for how they interact with each other to avert paradoxes)

Astute readers, who get time in the spotlight for the second time this post, will have spotted the problem with all of the suggested vengeance wordings above. Namely that the champion of vengeance always kills itself – since if (say) Water kills Fire then Vengeance kills Water. In that case Vengeance has killed Water so Vengeance kills Vengeance. It needs an exception for itself, but I left that out of the example to keep us on topic 😉

Aside from standardising power wording to make sure that metapowers work consistently there are two other approaches to consider:

The first is to look at every 2 card combination of powers and do a mental “Is this okay? Is it clear what these do together? Does that combination break the game in some critical way?” check.

The second and most important is to do lots of playtesting. You will miss things or a thing will seem clear to you while being obtuse to your players. Always do everything you can that isn’t playtesting before squandering tester time on a thing you could’ve fixed yourself – but never skip playtesting. It’ll catch problems you wouldn’t have dreamed of.

What are We to Do About Madness?

I’ve said what I wanted to about game design in general, but it feels like a tease to discuss a topic on a game I’m working on without describing the resolution.

In reality there isn’t a resolution yet because I’ve written some new versions of the affected cards for the next playtest and that playtest will undoubtedly change things again.

The change I’m looking at is “This power targets each players champion(s) with the lowest level. If they have abilities that target champions they will target only themselves instead of their usual targets. If a champion with this power targets itself its ability is unaffected.”

The reasons for this are:
1) There are some standard forms for the game in there. Opening with explicit target information is standard. “Champion(s) with the lowest/highest level” is standard (and applies a general game rule of “In a tie the thing happens to everyone whose tied”)
2) It moves away from the “targets the world” construction which while hardened against some interactions also makes things less interesting. I’ll revert to targets the world if testing shows this generating more problems.
3) Modifying it only to hit low level champions deals with a lot of the complex interactions. You can’t have degenerate games as easily because someone can drop a high level champion and then a low level champion that targets and kills the madness champion. The most broken combos were madness + domains with high level champions balanced by giving opponents bonuses in some circumstances – these are harder to pull off if the madness card can’t target those high level champions. Low level champions also tend to have more interesting and powerful abilities so hitting everyone’s lowest level champion is likely to preserve the meddling troublemaking options that made people like the madness domain in the first place.

I’ve no idea if it’ll work, but we’ll see after the next playtest.

Incidentally I’m recruiting more testers for this game soon. I worry that my existing testers are too familiar with the game which distorts feedback. If you’re already on the 3DTotal mailing list you’ll get a message about it in a week or two. If you’d be interested in PnPing a version or trying it as a Tabletop Simulator mod drop me a comment or email to [email protected]

Mathematically Equivalent Rules

Why Change A Rule?

Genesis is at a point that it plays great with people who know how to play it and people have started actively requesting it at games nights (Always a good sign that a prototype is approaching being ready for publishing!) However I’m finding a noticeable proportion of new players are having a hard time with the game in places and sometimes it’s a downright unenjoyable experience.

Why Not Change A Rule?

The game is working great. People are really enjoying it and it’s working smoothly and well. The balance is approaching where I want it. Games have emotional high points that I’m pleased to deliver. Feedback is generally good.

How Do We Change Something without Changing It?

We use a mathematically equivalent rule!

Let me give an example:

For most abilities timing doesn’t matter, they can go off more or less simultaneously. However for a few the order makes a difference so these each have a speed from 1-10. You resolve all speed 10 abilities, then speed 9, then speed 8 and so on.

A sticking point for the game was that some players would read the rules, but then treat speed 1 as the fastest and speed 10 as the slowest. When quizzed on how this happens a reason emerges: Players intuited that speed 1 goes 1st and 2 goes 2nd and so on.

So the mathematically equivalent rule in this situation is to simply multiply all speeds by 10. Now cards are speed 10, 20, 30 etc. The problem just disappears, while there’s a reason to intuit 1 is faster than 10, there’s no equivalent to believe 10 might be faster than 100.

Critically this doesn’t change how the game is resolved at all – the same abilities go in the same order under both sets of rules. There is no situation in which using one rule rather than the other changes the outcome (in terms of game state) – but using one rule rather than another changes the outcome (in terms of ability to grasp the rules first time) so it’s clearly a better choice.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the first designer to go through this specific process. In fact as a teenage player some years ago I always thought it was a bit silly that Robo Rally used speeds that were multiples of a hundred. It seemed pointless to busy up the cards with extra digits that were always predictably meaningless. But seeing the difference in how players react: Now I get it.

I wonder just how often designers worry at some problem, hit upon a solution and then realise they’ve seen that solution before but didn’t recognise it as a solution because the problem doesn’t exist in that game?

Another Problem

Presently Genesis abilities often choose targets based on their power and can sometimes modify their power. For instance an ability might be something like “All champions with a power of 5 or less gain +3 power”

Abilities always target based on a cards natural power – under no circumstances will they select a target based on its total modified value. So in the above example if a power 6 card was reduced to 5 by some other ability, it wouldn’t get a +3. The +3 is only for champions with 5 or less printed on the card.

This seemed like a fairly solid rule to me, certainly compared to previous iterations where some things cared about unmodified values and others cared about final values. “Always unmodified” didn’t strike me as difficult.

I dramatically underestimated how complex that’d be for players with different backgrounds. There are a lot of different ways in which people think and some portion of players just can’t grasp “always unmodified” as a rule.

But if we flip it over to abilities like “All champions with a level of 5 or less gain +3 in combat” it becomes easy. It’s exactly the same rule, but moving away from “modified power” and “unmodified power” to two values called different things makes it much easier to intuit.

Alright, but how do we apply this to design in general?

The commonality between situations helped by this sort of intervention is that they have the following traits:

1) The rule works really well for people who understand it.
2) A portion of players play the rule incorrectly.
3) These incorrect plays are due to intuiting a competing rule and the incorrect intuition is known.

From there the rule can be modified to remove the intuited rule as a valid interpretation without changing the thing that’s making it work well for a lot of players.

In the first example the intuition was “1 means 1st” so the modification is to get rid of 1.

In the second example the intuition was “If this alters power I can use it to get the right power to use this other thing that cares about power” so the modification is to stop using the word power to refer to what are essentially two different things.

Sometimes it’s better to embrace the intuition wholesale and actually change the rule to match whatever people intuit that it is. It was an option to change powers to say 1st, 2nd etc. if all powers were in play every turn I’d probably have done that – but in this case avoided it because the notion that 2nd goes 1st (because 1st isn’t in play) might prove equally unintuitive with players trying to execute one of the unmarked powers before it.

So if you’re working on a game, have a quick scan of your playtester feedback and see if you’ve got situations like that. It’s easy to dismiss “We got this rule wrong but then read it again and then it played fine” as something that worked itself out, but it’s perfectly possible to use it to improve the odds that more people will get it right first time.

After all, some players won’t give your game more than one chance 😉