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.



Accountability

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.


History of Games

There’s a project that may or may not happen, that I can’t talk about in detail at the moment, that has an odd requirement: We need to take the development of board games and split it into four “ages” each of which contains games that modern gamers would recognise and at least have some inkling of the rules of. Let’s give it a go!

The Oldest Game

For a long time I had it in my head that the oldest game is Go. Board game geek lists it as being invented in -2200, Wikipedia says the earliest written record of it is -400, I’m not sure what the definitively pinned down date is, but that game is old!

It’s not the oldest though, at some point in the past I was misinformed and never challenged my assumptions. I’m confidently informed that Senet is older and we’ve found some wicked neat sets in old tombs. That game is looking at -3500.

It’s probably not the oldest game was, because we found these beauties. Those are from 1500 years before our oldest copy of Senet so, the oldest game was, uh…whatever that is. Maybe. Or they really are some sort of counting stone and not a game at all. Or “ritual purposes” ๐Ÿ˜‰

Chess and Cards

When Western non gamers talk about old games they’re usually thinking about chess and a variety of games played with a 54 card deck. Chess is 1450, thousands of years after the really old games and cards got started around 850 but they didn’t mutate into what we’d recognise as a pack of playing cards until they came to Europe and went through various mutations over the 14th to 19th centuries.

Classic Board Games

I tried asking a few people a generation older than me what they thought classic modern board games were – as in stuff that wasn’t ancient and part of anything they’d think of as “history” – but that has been around forever. The answers I got were Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders and Risk. Huh, there’s no BGG article for Snakes and Ladders, a few specific variations are mentioned, but the main one is missing. Does that seem like a weird gap to anyone else?

In any event as I’m sure most of your know S&L technically fits in with the ancient games, being derived from an Indian game that’s at least a thousand years older than chess. But they’re probably thinking of the Milton Bradley thing that got ported over in 1943 – which would fit with the dates of the other two (1933 and 1959 respectively). Basically they’re naming things that were already in the house when they were kids.

Games that were already in the house when I was a kid

I remember growing up with the 80s bookcase games. Technically I they might have entered the house after me (I was born 1984) but they predated my ability to form memories which amounted to the same thing. Also the sort of boxes that people manufactured back then were weak – after a couple of years of regular play they looked like some artefact from the before times and my parents liked games.

So mentally, on some level, old games to me means gems like Titan and atrocities against gaming like Outdoor Survival. Some of these games would be recognised by folks who didn’t grow up with them on account of Fantasy Flight deciding to publish a bunch of old games in shiny new formats.

Modern Games

Getting into things that people would talk about as actually modern games I can observe the development of that over my lifetime. Catan rocking up in the mid 90s and people wondering if maybe it wouldn’t be terrible forever if Euros had some randomness, or Ameritrash games had some theme. Dominion swaggering up in 2008 saying “Maybe we haven’t found *all* of the genres yet followed shortly by everyone losing their shit and making a million clone babies. Pandemic jump onto the stage around the same time and raising “Cooperative games are a thing” to volume that eclipsed some muffled cries of “But we’ve had those for years”. Followed by Risk Legacy announcing “I’m too much game to only appear in a potted history of game development the one time!”

Alongside all of this Kickstarter waggled its eyebrows suggestively and whispered “What if you could support games you wanted, even if they were too niche for a publisher to pick up? What if you got to talk with the designer before it was printed and could make sure it’d grow in the way you wanted? What if you got more components per pound because the distributor doesn’t get a cut? All of this could be yours!” and people saying “Yaaaay” but suddenly sometimes money disappears with no game showing up and also minis everywhere whether you like them or not. So some of the people were sad and swore never to do it again. But enough people loved the promise of a million minis and kept Cool Mini or Not printing as much money as they wanted.

Parallel Developments

As all of this happened alongside board gaming, war gaming and roleplaying were also growing up. Wargames asking questions like “What if we had models instead of counters?” and then “This is a lot of painting, can we use fewer models?” While roleplaying asked questions like “What if as well as killing everything we did some role playing?” and then “Do we need to kill anything at all?” (With a side order of “Yes you have to kill everything and also what if there were a million supplements to help you do more of that”)

The project I’m looking at doesn’t need to deal with either of those things in detail, but it might be worth leaning out of the window on the drive past and grabbing an idea or two from each.

Putting it All Together

History is messy and things overlap. It’s also really big, I’ve barely scratched the surface here, you could fill tomes and tomes with a full history of board games developing over the years. Though I’d like to see a board games history presented in the manner of this history of the world.

What I need is four distinct “ages” of board games that are nice and neat and that each one contains at least a few games that’d be iconic and recognised by the average gamer who doesn’t care at all deeply about the history of things.

What I’m considering at the moment is this:

Ancient Games
This covers almost all of human history, right up to -5000 to 1900. I’m aware this is misuse of the term “ancient”. While historically there are thousands of years between things like Chess and Go I think that a lot of players mentally dump them into the same category. Despite its absurdly broad time catchment I suspect this grouping will feel natural to most gamers.

Classic Games
This covers 1900-1945, pulling in the classic Milton Bradley stuff like Monpoly and (modern) Snakes and Ladders. Things that people will perceive as “too recent to be history” but also “too dated for most people to remember them being invented”. There’s a possibility of doing something a bit messy here and treating the dates like guidelines and assigning games based on the sort of school of design it feels like they’re from – by date Risk doesn’t belong in this category but people may feel it fits here more naturally.

The Divide
The Ameritrash / Eurogame thing feels less clear cut these days than it used to, but having an explicit age in which we’ve got those streams of development happening in parallel seems like an important note not to miss. Also while it’s not really how game development is today (partially thanks to the internet) the consequences of it are still echoing. So having an age that goes 1945-1995 to capture how that is before global communications really get going seems like a neat thing to do.

Modern Games
And finally 1995-present covers everything in boxes that still look nicer after a decade than the bookcase games did after a year (Though I suppose I should acknowledge that as a child I looked after games less well). This age has a dual problem of being too narrow (in that it covers the smallest number of years) and too broad (in that it covers the largest number of games people will recognise if I name them). I suppose its inevitable that whichever age that includes “present” will wind up that way.

I’m not sure that I’m completely satisfied with this way of looking at things, but as a guideline to do a first draft of something it’ll do. Like most of the things I do as a game designer having a starting point is the most important thing because the main process of the work is endless testing and improvement ๐Ÿ˜‰

Resource Asymmetry

Introduction

Lately I’ve been playing a computer game called Tales of Maj’Eyal. I wanted to talk a little bit about how resource management in that game works and what lessons we can take away for board games. Let’s dive in.

Description of Resources in ToME

Characters in ToME all have some sort of resource that they use in order to activate their abilities. The resources vary considerably but they’re all used in the same way, you click on an ability and it uses the appropriate amount of resource. Let’s look at a few:

Stamina. Click the ability, stamina is reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. It comes back over time.

Mana. Click the ability, mana is reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. Depending on who you are it might not come back naturally and you need to use another ability to restore it.

Souls. Click the ability, souls are reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. Comes back each time you kill someone while close enough to hoover up their soul.

Equilibrium. Click the ability, equilibrium is increased by the cost. Then there’s a %chance roll to see if the ability happens or if you’ve wasted your turn – the higher your equilibrium the higher the chance of a missed turn. It falls over time.

Paradox. Click the ability, paradox is increased by the cost. Then there’s a %chance roll to see if you get a paradox backlash instead of your ability – the higher your paradox the higher the chance of a backlash and the more extreme the backlash. Your current paradox level also acts as a multiplier for the power of your spells, so high paradox makes you more powerful. It returns to a level of your choice over time.

Insanity. Click the ability, insanity is reduced by the cost, if you don’t have enough then you can’t use the ability. The higher it is the greater the random number added or subtracted from everything you do. It falls over time and can only be restored in combat by using abilities that generate it on hitting enemies.

There are a bunch more: Hate, Vim, Positive Energy, Negative Energy and Psi – but you get the idea.

Why do we care?

The consequence of this variety of resources is that similar abilities can feel very different because of the resources they use. You can have two abilities that fundamentally do the same thing – say shoot a beam damaging everything along the beam – but the resource it uses depends on how you apply it.

If it uses mana then it makes sense to use it early and often, but you want to keep a plan in mind to escape combat and recover if you run short. If it relies on insanity then your opening gambit needs to include some insanity gain to make it useful, so you’re trying to find a way to combo with another ability that both generates insanity and pulls opponents into a line to get the most out of the follow up. If it’s using paradox then you can use it an awful lot, but there’s an associated risk – do you start at a high pardox so your opening salvo hits hard or a low one so you get more shots before you risk exploding yourself?

The fact that the ability/resource combination is meaningful allows a game to have a lot of skills. In the same amount of time you could design ten abilities, you could design five abilities and five resources – generating a total of twenty five possible abilities. Not all of those would be any good, some would surely be eliminated through playtesting, but it’s a way to put a lot of variety into a game without having a huge amount of rules to learn.

Asymmetric Resources in Board Games

There are plenty of games that’ll let you arrive at the same outcome through different

expenditures

. Race for the Galaxy has cards that’ll allow you to play a some planets by discarding cards or by having enough military. Descent will let you move a space using a point of movement or a point of fatigue. You can hold a territory in Game of Thrones using a unit or using a power token.

Doing the same thing using different resources that function in different ways is a great source of meaningful decisions – but in these games it’s not the core of the game, it’s a neat extra thing.

There are also games that let you simultaneously manage several resources in order to buy things using their combination. Something like Splendor offering the player several types of gem to make their purchases. But in these games the resources all behave in fundamentally the same way.

I can’t think of an example of a tabletop game that’s really embraced the possibilities of concurrent asymmetric resources either as a way to create distinctions between players or to produce meaningful decisions in how players progress – but I’d be really interested to see one attempted. If I don’t find one perhaps I’ll give it a whirl some day.

How about you, have you heard of one? Is there a game I should try to see how this works in practice?

Orbit

I ain’tn’t dead!

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what makes this game work?

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

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

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

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

The mechanics fit together well with the theme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m so random

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, looking at another player.

Hey you! You’re one of those.

Looking at another player: Are they unpredictable and uncontrollable?

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

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

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

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

Most people don’t understand most people.

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

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

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

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

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

So where does all of this leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

Happy random gaming!

 

Kickstarter: How to get the word out

In about a month I shall be launching my fourth Kickstarter campaign. Before I launched my first I received a lot of advice about how important the month in the run up to launch was and that has shaped my thoughts as to what will happen next. So today’s post will be sharing what’s worked for me in building the crowd, what I intend to do this time around and ends with an idea for something I’ve not tried before but would be interested in hearing your opinion on.

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