Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Graphic Design and IX/UX

Ramble, ramble, ramble... rant, rant rant...

Recently I had a conversation in passing with people deeply embedded in IX/UX design. I was surprised to learn they considered graphic designers as less promising candidates for IX/UX design. I was so stunned in fact that I was left a bit speechless and frankly a little depressed. So, I have been reflecting on this a lot lately. Perhaps it is my own training that leads me to believe that graphic designers have high potential to be the very best IX/UX designers. My early training included the notion that the "concept" is foundational for any good design. Layered with this were strong emphasis's on understanding systems and semiotics (though I did not learn that it was called semiotics until later). I was taught that understanding design principles allowed a good designer to cross design disciplines. In my undergrad I designed 3D, 2D and time based projects.

The focus on concept was so strong in my undergrad education that student's portfolios coming out of the program were often lacking in visual appeal (at least that was my experience). Developing a compelling concept is a key factor in designerly ways of framing and redefining a problem statement. This pursuit of concept forces a designer to constantly revisit, rethink, re-frame and re-write the problem. It also is a catalyst for iteration as the problem evolves. It creates an integral feedback loop that joins the problem with the design space.

Systems thinking is what sets a good graphic designer apart from a mediocre one. A good graphic designer not only understands that there is a system across visual elements, pages, media and artifacts of all kinds but that the system includes the user, the context of use and the sociocultural context. Good graphic designers understand that designing in-between the elements of a system is crucial — i.e. it's as much or more about the relationships between the elements of the system than the elements themselves. It is in these in-between areas that leverage points can be designed into the system. This is where real and powerful design happens.

An understanding of semiotics is perhaps the most important quality of a good graphic designer. Many may not have an explicit understanding of semiotics. But all have at least a deep intuitive understanding. This understanding is a knowledge that every physical/visual element or system of elements that you create MEANS something. Making sure that users interpret your design the way that you intend is what makes you a designer. If you create a semiotic system that is misinterpreted you have probably failed. Semiotic systems not only create meaning but also enable people to use your design and can evoke emotion. Affordances and signifiers are inseparable — so, a poorly crafted signifier makes a design function poorly or not at all.

Good graphic designers are trained both formally and through experience to think/work in these ways. This makes them prime candidates to move into IX/UX design. These abilities can function for them on two levels. At a low level these skills allow them to work within design teams as a communication hub — crafting custom visual languages that unite the team and move projects forward in unique and powerful ways. On a higher level it makes them a valuable asset. An intuitive understanding that all design is about creating an experience enables a good graphic designer to transfer their abilities into the IX/UX design space.

All this rambling and ranting are based on my personal experience as a designer. I'm not entirely convinced that experience is shared by all graphic designers — I suspect there are many who do not share a similar experience. I believe that many graphic design undergrad and graduate programs fail to provided the foundation that I feel I have been so fortunate to receive. There needs to be a shift in such programs to help students establish a foundation first as designers and second as graphic designers.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Think Like a Designer?

What does it mean to think like a designer?

  • Knowing that the problem can and should be redefined
  • Knowing that there is never a single “best” solution
  • Knowing that abductive reasoning is an acceptable path
  • Understanding that users provide information... not solutions
  • Being able to iterate freely
  • Always returning to and questioning the problem
  • Being able to abandon one line of thinking and take up another
  • Realizing that an abandoned path can always be returned to
  • Understanding that you must make things, many things... quickly and as early as possible
  • Understanding that making things is research
  • Knowing that ideas can come from strange places and looking there
  • Embracing the idea that your design will be picked up by others and adapted for different uses
  • Being comfortable with ambiguity
  • Realizing the need to embrace complexity — simplicity is being replaced by clarity
  • Knowing how to set boundaries — everything is connected but that doesn’t mean your design has to address all the connections
  • Thinking in systems — look for leverage points and design them into the project
  • Understanding that it’s less about the parts and more about the relationships between them

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Playtesting as a Catalyst for Evolution

Over a year ago I started attending these things called "Protospiel." These are events organized by board game designers allowing them to playtest their games with other designers as well as with publishers and gamers. This last protospiel was my fifth and I can honestly say that I love them. Every time I attend one it seems there are surprises. There are always games that are very enjoyable and there seems to always be one that is hard for me to bear as it is just bad. But, it is all done in a spirit of camaraderie. I had been thinking of these events as a venue for user-testing and I guess I never really thought much about that until a few weeks ago.

At the last protospiel I took a bunch of photographs. When I returned home I sat with a professor from my research group and showed him some of these photographs. I was a little surprised at some of his comments and it has stirred my mind. One of his comments was that to him these events seemed more like design sessions than user testing. I like that! And I think to a large degree it is true.

Many of these designers come with games that are very rough around the edges. Some even come with only ideas and a bag full of blank cardboard bits, cards, felt tip markers, colored cubes and other raw game making materials. Over the course of one of these 3 day protospiel weekends games are not just tested but created, changed, designed, re-designed, overhauled, and in some cases fine-tuned. These processes can happen at these events in a very collaborative way and in an environment that is friendly and open.

I am a strong believer in "thinking through making." In the process of making, a designer is forced to think about the structure and behavior of the system that they are creating. Changes to a design can happen on the fly throughout the process of making as the designer thinks and re-thinks the design. But, I believe that in the context of playtesting at a protospiel there is more happening. It is not only "thinking through making." Playtesting and all that it encompasses at one of these events can change the way that a designer thinks about designing and designs. I believe that it can change their personal design philosophy. This happens not only as they work on their own designs but also as they playtest other creator's games and discuss concepts, themes and mechanisms.

The evolution of a designers philosophy can happen through the playing of a prototype. Something not just about the discussion over a game but something about experiencing the mechanisms of the game can change the way a designer thinks. Yes there are those "ah-hah" moments but more often it is an almost imperceptible, subtle shift. These subtle shifts accumulate over time and are manifest as a slow evolution of the designers personal philosophy.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Design, Evolution and Living in the Middle

It strikes me this morning that one of the great lessons to be learned by examining design as analogous to evolutionary biology is that we see ourselves and our designs not as end points but as a platforms that sit somewhere in the middle of a much longer process. As designers we often are focused on that glorious end note of the artifact. We see it as an triumphant ending to our hard work. This is a weakness that we need to leave in our past. If we see our design instead as a mid-point that perhaps will lead later to something else we might design something quite different. We still must try to achieve our objectives but leave the door open for future exploration. Dubberly discussed this somewhat in his article "Design in the Age of Biology..."
I often think of my work, my design and my research in this light. When I write or create some thing, what is in it that I leave behind for others (or perhaps even myself) that might spark new ideas at a later time. I don't worry about what those other new ideas might be but I ask myself — am I leaving the door open for something else later. It requires letting go of my ego a bit. My design will not be the end of something but if it is good enough perhaps it will continue to live through creative work that might happen in the future. I believe this is a powerful notion that can drive me to do interesting things. I stand on the shoulders of past works and if I do it well then perhaps I will create a platform that others can use to do things that I didn't foresee.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Design of Design Methods

Part of my research during the last year and a half has been looking at how new design methods are developed. In addition to reading many academic papers about various methods and observing designers as they have struggled with the use of methods, these efforts have included many interviews with methods developers. It has been extremely surprising to me as I have come to discover that many who are engaged in developing new methods do not use the same process or think the same way when they are creating a method as when they are creating a design for some form of users.

Why would someone who designs artifacts, interactions and experiences not use the wisdom that they have gain from doing that work to create a new method? Why is the development of a design method not recognized as the same exact thing as designing something for someone else? Sure, methods developers use some of those same skills but many of them do not think about developing a method in the same way that they think about developing a new design. Most of these people, in their design work, are huge proponents of "user-centered" or "goal directed design." And yet when they do other types of work they seem to miss the possibility that the same exact processes and ideas can and should be applied to that other work.

I have seen this echoed in other things that designers do. A couple of years ago I attended a symposium in which designers were developing (hello designing!) a system to support graduate and post-graduate designers in sharing ideas and doing work. Many key concepts that they would have insisted upon using and considering in their work for other (i.e. non-designer) users went by the wayside and were completely forgotten. I think this is a universal problem. Human beings (not just designers), when working on things for themselves forget the principles that they hold so highly when working on things for other people.

Erik Stolterman and I are currently working on a short paper that discusses some of this. I'm pretty excited about it but also a bit apprehensive.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Math in Board Game Design — Quick notes on Gen Con 2014

We returned home last night from Gen Con... exhausted but with huge smiles on our faces. Our experience was largely shaped by the fact that I was there primarily intent on doing research that consisted mostly of interviews with board game designers. And indeed I was able to interview 10 designers as well as make quite a number of incredible connections and continued to build some great relationships. Some of the designers we were able to meet with were names that almost any gamer would recognize and all of the interviews and other goings on were awesome.

One interesting event we attended was a seminar called "The Basics of Tabletop Game Design." A question asked by someone in the audience was regarding whether or not they should consider hiring a mathematician to help develop their game. Nearly every one of the five designers on the panel enthusiastically agreed... "screw the math! Do not worry about the math... Math should never be a primary consideration!" My impression from their comments is that, while math might... sometimes... eventually... need to be considered, it is far towards the bottom of the list for the design process.

This has caused me to reflect quite a bit on not just board game design but on other types of design and on research as well. Now, as I reflect on this it occurs to me that, if design is fundamentally the creation of a system, that this non- or  anti-math philosophy works rather well. Get the framework in place first. If we use basic systems thinking as described by Donella Meadows in her book "Thinking in Systems," we can create a system framework. We can work on that framework, refining and adjusting and designing the complete system before we may or may not need to introduce any mathematical considerations.

We can design the structure of the system and represent that structure using visual diagrams — this may require little or even no math. I often think of these diagrams as system maps or concept maps. Then when we begin to examine the behavior of the system we introduce math or perhaps in some cases not even math but rather numerical elements. The behavior of a system over time may be represented using visual graphs. So you can think of it in this way — we design the system using system maps. We can then if we choose to do so or if we need to do so reflect on the behavior of the system mathematically, possibly by using graphs as behavior is over time and graphs provided a useful tool for examining behavior over time.

Throughout my interviews and observations I have encountered many comments similar to those of the aforementioned Gen Con panel about math in the design of tabletop games. For example in one of my previous posts I quoted a designer as saying, "I was thinking about why we are here play-testing. It's not so much to work out the mechanics because you can do that very mathematically or through easily testable means. What we are actually play-testing here is ..." These comments by board game designers that down play the mathmatics has lead me to be very curious and desirous to one day interview Reiner Knizia. Knizia, a full-time board game designer (an extremely rare thing), has a PhD in mathmatics and is widely know for his smooth but extremely mathematical game mechanisms. I wonder where in his design process mathematics begins to play a role?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Instant Artifact — design, film and board games

Last night we watched a documentary film titled "Time Zero: the last year of Polaroid film." As you might guess it's a film about the end of Polaroid film — specifically integral instant film. Like most things I enjoy, this documentary got me thinking. With my roots being in visual design and having done a lot of design for print and advertising I have a great love for the physical artifacts that we create as designers and as human beings. There is something special about the interaction that we have with the made artifacts in our physical environment. To some large and rapidly accelerating degree we are loosing these experiences as they are replaced with the digital spaces where we spend our time. 

I don't completely sympathize with the points of view expressed in the film. But, the thought of leaving behind such a cherished technology is a little heartbreaking. I have spent a significant part of my life working and interacting with artists who use this technology (not to mention the fact that my daughter is a professional photographer/artist). So... much of this documentary struck some pretty deep emotions within me. Integral, instant, Polaroid film is magical even today, so many years after it's invention. This is repeatedly brought home in this film. A Poloroid is a moment capture, a work of art... literally a one of a kind instant artifact that engages all of the senses... you hear the camera's unique series of sounds as it clicks, whirs and ejects the item of interest. You can smell a faint whiff of chemicals as you hold the blank frame in your hand and the photo slowly reveals itself. 

Part way into the documentary the film makers interview an employee of Polaroid. This man was involved at some high level with sales and marketing of their instant film product line. He describes the withering sales that were recorded over many years as consumers slowly embraced newer technologies. In 2005 they decided it was time to end production and phase out instant film. They put together a 5 year plan with a forcast of sales. They built up their stock of the product and pulled the plug on production to initiate their 5 year plan. What happened surprised them — sales leveled off and began to rebound. But, the company stuck the plan and so Polaroid instant film was ended.

It may come as no surprise that as I watch this film my thoughts turned towards board games. Some of you may find it intriguing that the sales of board games has increased by 10-20% every year for the last 10 years. What could explain such a trend? Why is it that I find designed physical artifacts so compelling? Is there some school of psychology to explain this? If it were explained in such a way that I understood it in some rational way would the magic die? I suspect not. In fact I believe that I would find all of it even more compelling.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reflections On A Protospiel

Last weekend I spent 3 days at a Protospiel in Chelsea Michigan. A Protospiel is an event where tabletop game designers come to playtest their games and talk with other designers and playtesters about their work. I started attending Protospiels last summer and this was my 4th. Each Protospiel that I have attended has been fun and at each one I have felt more and more like part of the community. One of my reasons initially for attending these events was to explore the possibility of focusing my research on board game design. While it's true that my research now officially includes the study of board game design my attendance of Protospiel feels like it's as much about just being with these people and sharing in their love for the design of tabletop games as it is about any kind of research.

At this most recent event I was able to record 7 interviews with designers. I can think of few better ways to spend a weekend than, with Vicki at my side, to play board games that are under development and interview the designers of those games. That for me is close to heaven. More interviews would have been nice. But, each interview in the handful that I was able to record was unique and held interesting insights. Here is an excerpt that I think is very interesting...

"I was thinking about why we are here play-testing. It's not so much to work out the mechanics because you can do that very mathematically or through easily testable means. What we are actually play-testing here is ... what is the combination of mechanics that you are putting together? How are the players experiencing that and creating their game from that? You are giving them something to use to create an experience — I think that's what we're touching on here. What we don't know is how they are going to take those tools and how they're going to experience an experience. We think they're going to go a certain way. But, they may find that experience doesn't work for them. There are reasons right? You can't always predict the complexity of strategy's that emerge from a system until the players actually start fooling around with and playing it."

I would not say that this quote in itself was a surprise. For me it is simple confirmation that these designers, many of whom are hobbyists, have a deep understanding of design. This is the type of design understanding that can transcend the limits of one specific type of design. And while there may be many board game designers that don't share this depth of understanding, it is my belief from what I have observed that most of them do even if only in an intuitive way. I have interviewed several dozen board game designers over the course of the past 16 months and most of them have been experimenting with game design since they were in their early youth. It is not uncommon to hear the phrase "well, when I was a kid I started re-designing games that I thought could be better."

This tells me that most of these designers have carried with them a fascination with design processes and design thinking for most of their lives. They have developed a large library of experiences related to design and tabletop games. While in some cases their use of this library of knowledge and experience may be an intuitive process in others it is quite explicit. Many professional, trained designers in other disciplines lack this type and scale of focused toolset of processes and experiences.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Differences and Similarities: board games & software apps

I'm Making A List 
— it is still a work in progress —

Several weeks ago Erik Stolterman and I were discussing my work and he suggested I make a list of similarities and differences between digital apps and board games. There was some discussion speculating on what I would discover. Would I find more differences than similarities or vice versa?

As I wrote the little that you see here, instead of finding clarity, instead of finding separation between the two, I feel even more strongly the similarities between the two. Yes, there are many differences. And yes they are significant. But, through the lens of designing an experience for a user/player the similarities still seem quite striking to me.

I am clearly posting this prematurely. I'm not asking you to do my work for me (as if that were even possible... me being the genius that I am ;)   But, I thought it might be fun to get some comments. Let me know what you think.

Similarities and Differences — Boardgames and Digital Apps


1. Designs often driven by and incorporate user/player objectives... goals... and motivations

2. Design considerations often include...
— degrees of agency — quantity of choices and decisions
— the quality of decisions can shape experience

3. designed artifact (often)

4. there is a stylistic look/feel that is an integral part of the experience

5. bot are designed systems that human interacts with

6.  artifact is a mediator
— signifiers and affordances
— data is manipulated via visual/physical mediators

7. rules create a framework for the experience

8. steps or phases are part of the experience

9. sense of input/output

10. replay-ability and emergent qualities
— users/players often come up with new uses
— outcomes can surprise users/players
— outcomes are different from one experience/use to the next
— outcomes are subject to qualities of the user/player

11. Produced by teams including designers, illustrators, writers and stakeholders

12. not generally considered an activity for spectators

13. rules based activity
— in software apps the rule set is the software program
— in a board games the rules are written in a booklet (or on The Geek ;)

14. both are rules based activity with an objective   

— Differences —

Board Games

1. usually a group activity

2. experience and physical space is usually shared by other users

3. there are end conditions

4. achievements are quantified as well as qualified by the rule set

5. physical artifact
 — three dimensional experience over time
6. rules can readily be modified by users

7. specific objective(s) determined by designer

8. it is not uncommon for luck to be designed into the system  


1. objectives can be sharply adjusted by the user

2. often a solo activity

3. rules are not easily modified by user

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Design and the Stealing of Our Thunder

Some of you may be aware that I am working toward my PhD and some of you may even know of my deep obsession with design (more specifically design methods), evolutionary biology and board games. Indeed I have had one paper published discussing the development of design methods and principles that may be borrowed from board game design. And my current work continues to focus on these three things. Today I read an interesting article by Cosimo Cardellicchio titled "Evolution for Games." Upon first glance it might be tempting for me to say, "well there it is... it's been written, so why should I continue with this paper I'm writing."

Oh ye of little faith... Fear not! While Cardellicchio's article may touch upon some of specific topics that I am researching, his piece fails to explore them from the perspective of design and design methods. I'm not certain of Cardellicchio's background and a brief google hunt proved disappointing. I suspect from the little I could find that he is some kind of chemist who evidently has an interest in board games... cool! So, I actually found his article quite encouraging.

I have learned much here in my academic pursuits at Indiana University. One of the things I've learned is that finding other writings that seem to echo your pursuits is a good thing. It provides several very useful things.

Firstly it lets you know that you're writing about a topic that is of interest to other people. Hey, that's awesome -- there's other people out there nearly as strange and dysfunctional as I am.

Secondly it provides a source of reference -- gotta fill up that bibiography ;)

And thirdly and probably most importantly it gives you a frame of reference or a source that you can use to compare and contrast your own work to. This allows you to refine and improve your own writing.

Yesterday in our research groups weekly meeting we discussed this very thing. One of my colleagues expressed concerns over article he had found that seemed to already say what he was wanting to say. It was clear however that these articles of concern did not say it in quite the same way that my colleague would. I hope that our discussion encouraged him to move forward with his ideas as I think that they are very interesting. And I'm absolutely certain that he would bring a fresh perspective to to topics.

This all, while ostensibly about research and writing, actually is a fine illustration of my ideas about evolution in design. It's unlikely that someone will ever design something that doesn't have some sort of genealogy. You absorb tons of information and ideas every day. These are our raw genetic material for generating new design creations. You are a 100% unique filter, mutator and maker. Seeing what others have done should only compel you to show the world your own spin on things.

Yesterday I read an article by board game design Richard Breese titled "My Life in Games." Breese is rapidly becoming one of my favorite designers. And day by day I am coming to believe that he is "the man" when it comes to the game mechanism of worker placement. Anyhow, in this article he shares some extremely interesting information about himself as a game designer. He lists the 5 things/mechanisms that he enjoys most in a board game. This list is followed immediately by reference to a game that he liked but lacked some of the elements from his list. He then says that this was the catalyst for his creation of the core mechanisms for his game Keydom. This is the game that many believe to be the genesis of the worker placement mechanism.

This illustrates beautifully the ideas that I am working on. Let me break it down:

1. Breese has a pre-existing personal philosophy of design — i.e. his list of 5.
2. He experiences a new game that he likes but it falls short in some of those 5 things that make up the core of his design philosophy.
3. He then takes some of the ideas from that game and by mutating them using his own philosophy he creates a new and highly unique set of mechanics for the core of his new game.

I hope to find many more examples that will allow me to dig deeper into this. I know that many other people have written similar ideas. All I can hope for is to put my own fingerprints all over those ideas until at some point they become something I can call my own.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Circle

This past week I read Dave Eggers' "The Circle." This book is about a large young technology corporation named "The Circle" that rapidly buys up the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. and unites and unifies all of them. The story follows a young woman as she is hired for a low-level position and quickly becomes the company's ambassador. The core ideas of the book are echoed in the Circles three slogans —

"Secrets are Lies" 
"Sharing is Caring"
"Privacy is Theft"

Many of he ideas outlined in the book sound like good ideas on their surface. It's not good to keep secrets — it's almost like your lying to people. It's good to share things — it shows you care. Keeping things from people can be a little like theft. In the begin of the book these ideas are looked through soft lenses in this way. However, by the end of the book it is clear that extrapolating these ideas out to their logical end could easily create a world where privacy is a crime, intense participation in social media is mandatory and sharing literally everything is compulsory.

As with most books of this nature, one of the things that makes it a good, scary read is that it would only take a slight nudge to start our own reality rapidly down a similar path. As I read it I was reminded of Orwell's 1984 and other, similar books about dystopian near futures. This book seems to illustrate how we could rapidly find our selves in such a future. The book begins in a setting very close to where we are at right now and over the course of mere months spirals into dystopian madness. It is written in such a way that as a reader I was unsure of the authors opinion about social media, privacy and other core concepts through much of the book. Good stuff.

In the world of the "Circle," it's offensive to not post your status, share what you are doing, rate, review, offer "smiles" or "frowns" on everything and every one via social media.  So, I found it... well... interesting that as I finished reading "The Circle" on my iPad, a screen popped up asking if I wouldn't review/rate the book and share my completion and rating of it on Facebook and Twitter. That was on Tuesday — so it has taken me a few days to realize that I was not being very caring by not sharing. In fact I was pretty much stealing from ya'll by not posting these comments earlier. Sorry!


I would be remiss if I didn't add a note here suggesting that if this book of fiction sounds good to you that you take a look at Jaron Lanier's manifesto "You Are Not a Gadget." Yes, it reads a bit like the rambling mutterings of a neo-luddite, techno-guru madman. That is partly why it is so beautiful. As a techno-insider, Lanier offers provocative observations, opinions and suggestions addressing sharing, privacy and the state and trajectory of our digital culture.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Mutador Lives! The Genetics of Design.

I have been working with Erik Stolterman on a research paper  that discusses the similarities between a design process and the process of biological evolution. While it may be easy to see that evolution occurs on a very surface level, my interest really lies deeper.

You see in genetic evolution all of the surface stuff — hair color, skin complexion, behavioral predispositions, etc. — is driven by a microscopic, genetic code that lies deeper within the organism. So, while it is possible to examine and analyze the qualities of evolution based on these outward manifestations, if you want to more deeply understand evolution you need to look at the code.

My quest then is to discuss the genetic or "design-code" that lies deeper within the design artifact and design process. If this design-code is analogous to a genetic code then it does not lie on the outward surface of a design. Instead it is almost invisible to unaided physical observation. And yet it is ultimately the very engine deep within the artifact or process. It is the exclusive, elusive thing that determines what we see — be it physical attributes or behavioral characteristics.

So, what is the "design-code?" This is the big question for me. My working theory is that this code is the designer's personal philosophy.

Is the design-code analogous to a genetic code — determining the outward characteristics of a design? Does it move like a genetic code from host to host, generation to generation, artifact to mind and mind to artifact? How do the evolutionary principles of mutation, fidelity, fecundity and fitness apply or work in this analogy?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Evolution, Mutation, Fidelity and

Some time ago I ran across this BGG post by Friedemann Friese. In it he discusses his design process for his board game titled "Copycat."  It is a fine and documented example of the evolution of board game mechanisms. Friese discusses openly the concept for this game — which is to take mechanics from several other designers games and build a new game with them. He went so far as to get permission from the designers of the games that he took the mechanics from. In the box there is a paper "Warning" the players of the games he stole mechanics from. His warnings are because he has taken each of those mechanics and mutated them to his own needs. This is done with a great deal of humor and delight.

I had a chance to purchase and play this game recently. If you have played the games that have been pilfered then the mechanics are easily identified when playing Copycat and at first may seem nearly identical to their origins. But, it takes only a round of play or a reading of the rules to see quite clearly that Friese has twisted the mechanics to his own needs. Surprisingly it feels at once like the other games and also like something entirely different here.

Friese takes mechanisms rather directly from "Dominion," "Agricola," and "Through the Ages." He adapts them, giving them his own little spin and manages to mesh them together in a fun way. Thematically, the games that he draws from are very much looking back on distant times. But, in Copycat Friese uses a contemporary theme. You are running a political campaign. It seems apt in many ways that the mechanics are stolen from other games and you are play a politician doing what ever it takes to win an election.

I enjoyed playing this game it it warrants more plays but I'm not sure it ranks particularly high on my personal list of games. I do believe that it's a very useful game in terms of research in game design. If you're a board game designer and you've played "Dominion," "Agricola," and "Through the Ages" then you definitely need to play this game. Friese illustrates through this game how seemingly disparate mechanisms can be adapted, mutated and combine into a new, interesting and noteworthy game.

It has left me asking questions about design — as nearly everything in the world around me does. I often have students ask, "how much do I need to change something to claim it as my own?" I think that this game is a good example of how to deal with this question. Friese clearly credits the authors of his mechanics and then he takes those mechanics and does something new and interesting with them.

Friday, June 20, 2014

I Like Heavy Mid-Atlantics

"Ore & Labora" — a heavy euro-game by designer Uwe Rosenberg.

There are several "types" or catagories of board games. The two most commonly referenced are euro-games and ameri-trash games. Euro-games are typically considered to be thick on mechanics and light on theme and ameri-trash are the opposite. I have a problem with this generalization. You see I love heavy euros but usually the theme seems to come through just fine for me. If it doesn't then I don't really consider it to be a euro-game — it falls into a different category all together i.e. it's an abstract game (and I generally really do not care for abstract games).

Yup, it's confession time -- I like games that really qualify as heavy eurogames but that are still thematic. I tried to fight it... well... I sort of tried to fight it... a little bit. You see when I first started playing board games I really wanted to like ameri-trash games. It's because the stereo-type of such a game is that they have tons of heart, passion and are intensely thematic. This sounds like the type of game that sucks you and tells epic stories. They sound like a door to another world. YUM! Right?! Unfortunately, for me too many of them seemed to lack depth. To me it seemed that the themes tried to run deep and thick but without a rich, sophisticated framework of mechanics they fell woefully short of my expectations. In fact on many occasions I could not make it through a game.

Please don't misunderstand — I have an enormous respect for many ameri-trash games. It's not a difference in quality — it's more of a difference in genre. But, as my preference for euro-games has emerged and developed it's become harder for me to speak lovingly about ameri-trash games. In my mind it shapes up something like this — amer-trash games tell you a story and euro-games give you a framework but leave you sort of on your own to make up your own story.

In my mind there are other more telling characteristics than the theme versus mechanisms debate that divide these two categories of games. Here are some wild and careless generalizations...

direct conflict — ameri-trash is much more likely to have direct player-versus-player combat.

luck — luck based mechanics are a good and necessary element to any game -- almost all games have some luck. But, euro-game designs usually try to minimize luck based mechanics.

multiple scoring mechanisms — it is not uncommon for a euro to have many ways to score points. Often these are not tallied until the end of the game leaving players uncertain as to where they stand. This forces a player to pay close attention to the actions of other players.

economics — euro-games often have at their foundation economic mechanisms. This can be hidden under strange and/or mundane themes but it's usually there. Economic mechanisms include action drafting or worker placement, resource management and conversion, market mechanics that drive resource or action values.

strategic — while tactical play often holds a critical role in euro-games they are still more likely than ameri-trash games to have strong strategy based game-play.

tactical — while strategy often plays a critical role in ameri-trash games they are still more likely than euro-games to have strong tactical mechanics.

engine building — while this is by no means exclusive to euro-games this is a mechanism that is more likely to be found in a euro-game than an ameri-trash game. Usually it is a combination of mechanisms that enable the players to create small subsystems within gameplay for converting resources. Good examples of this can be found in many of Uwe Rosenberg's games where players construct buildings that generate resources or convert combinations of resources into new more valuable or different resources — the right combination of buildings constitutes a powerful engine for generating desired resources.

player elimination — player elimination is becoming less and less common in ameri-trash games. In euro-games it has always been uncommon. 

Last week I interviewed many interesting game designers. One of them (Corey Young), when asked about theme versus mechanics or ameri-trash versus euro-games, said he preferred "mid-Atlantic" games. I LOVE THIS! The implication here is that somewhere in between american style and european style games lies a better alternative — games that use sophisticated mechanics that are inseparably attached to theme.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Back From Origins

Last night we returned home from Origins. For those of you not "in the know" ;)  Origins is a large game convention. The games you might find there range from LARP, to RPG, to miniatures, to war games and many others. But, primarily they are tabletop games and I would guess that most are board games. This is the third large convention I have been to and so far it has been my favorite. The balance between commerce and game play feels right to me. I like the size — it's large enough to attract some major vendors but small enough to have some personal interaction with many.

I have yet to attend a game convention where I do not have some sort of research agenda. I'm guessing that this will ever be the case and I sort of like that. It began simple enough at last year's Origins — I just wanted to go, get a feel for the design community, make some connections and ask some questions. Since then I have attended numerous events — for each I have been a little more focused on research. So, this past weekend at Origins, the research began to feel even more real. I brought with me a handful of researchy type questions, a recording device, a list of designers I wanted to talk to and my lovely assistant gamer-Vic. Together we were able to arrange and conduct eleven interviews with some wonderful designers!!!

Surprisingly the same set of questions generated interviews ranging from under 8 to over 45 minutes in length. We were able to include designers of many different types of games. It was delightful — so much hard work, so much fun, so many great people. Many of my personal thoughts were echoed in the words of those we interviewed — that was encouraging. But, probably my greatest enjoyment in these interviews was when a designer would say something surprising. And with board game designers this happens a lot — strange analogies, unusual metaphors, startling insights and weird phraseology.

We were also able to play a couple of prototypes and several games from the "Board Room" library. The research is ever present in my mind even when sitting down for a game from the library. This might seem like turning play into work but honestly I really dig it. I was able to pull a few games off the library shelf that I had been wanting to look at. One in particular, I wasn't sure it would be what I thought, seemed like it was designed with my research in mind. I picked up a copy of it at the show and hope to have a few plays with it this week.

So, very likely I will move forward with this set of questions in hand and seek out more willing subjects to interview at Protospiel and GenCon. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Conception — where I hang it all out there and begin to design a boardgame

About 8 or 9 months ago I began seriously contemplating the idea of designing a board game. Life has kept me busy and as a result not much real work was done on the idea until recently. As part of my summer goals I decided that I would get going on this. Yesterday I devoted a good chunk of time to getting something together that might be playable. And last night I sat with arch-nemesis Vicki (aka my "sweetheart," aka "gamer Vic") to give it a whirl. It only took about 10 minutes to see some serious adjustments that needed to be made. It felt really good to be designing something... it's been a while. In reflecting on this it strikes me as quite interesting that, even though I have never designed a board game it felt like home for me. It makes me feel good that I can design a type of thing for the first time and I feel comfortable doing it. It seems that design for me is design. In many ways it's very much the same process regardless of the type of artifact being created. I attribute this largely to my age and the years of experience and education that I have.

Just to be clear — I'm not saying that I'm going to be any good at board game design. In fact after last night's 10 minutes of play and some serious fails I see that I may have a long road ahead if I want to produce anything that's decent. Board game design is hard. It's really hard! I've only been studying this specific type of design for a short time. But like almost all kinds of design... Wow... I really dig it!!! So, I'm not likely to throw in the towel... ever.

Like other types of design the final product, if it's good, can feel natural when it's being used. This leads users to believe sometimes that the design work that went into the artifact was smooth and easy. Not so! In fact the smoother and easier the feel of use the more likely it is that the design process was arduous. At least that's been my experience. I feel a bit guilty that I fell into this same line of thinking as I have enjoyed playing so many board games over the course of the past 16 months.

Today in our research group I shared this prototype (which by the way has already changed significantly).

I was asked where the idea came from.  While I can pinpoint an origin, what you see above is the result of a twisty, winding path including several major adjustments to that original spark. In fact that original spark isn't really anywhere in the current version. Here is a brief synopsis of the evolution of the idea.

The tangled path of chaos leading to my currently broken game...

I read a paper and participated in a discussion on the topic of phronesis and technesis. Oddly... this was the spark. I thought about the importance of both types of thought and how they work together to move things forward. For some reason this struck me as a good idea for a game. I jotted down some notes and doodles. As I did this, at some point I thought about the similarities between phronesis and mutation and technesis and fidelity. Mutation and fidelity are concepts that I relate to evolution which is an obsession of mine. So I did some sketches and notes on how the game might be if it were about mutation and evolution. I thought about how ideas mutate and evolve.. how information mutates and evolves... how information becomes ideas and how ideas are a form of currency.

While taking a class this past semester I tried to work this into a team project I was involved with. It never made it into that project. But, I did come up with a mechanic that I think is unique. It involves laying cards over the corners of other cards to build a patch work carpet of cards. Laying over corners in this way forces the players to sacrifice the resource or ability represented on the corner that gets covered. It occurred to me that this is somewhat like mutation in evolutionary biology. So, that mechanic has become the core of my game.

I struggled a bit trying to find a compelling theme that might drive my design work. I contemplated the Terry Gilliam film "Brazil" and how information is a central character in it. It seemed a very good fit for what I wanted to do and I love that movie. So, for now the game has a Brazil-esque theme. Clearly that will have to change due to copyright issues. For now though it works quite well not only for the game but as a compelling way for me to think about the game. I think it will be easy enough to re-theme later.

So that, in a nutshell, is where this came from.

My summer goal is to have this game in a state that is not too embarrassing to share at the upcoming Protospiel.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

An Evolution and Mutation for Worker Placement

I am extremely interested in the evolution of methods and designs...

Some time ago we purchased a game titled "Keyflower." Most of my game acquisitions are inspired by a mechanic or something unique about the game. And indeed Keyflower has some very unique mechanics — at least two of them are strange and delicious twists on worker placement. Many of my favorite games have some form of worker placement mechanic. So, due in some large part to it's interesting use of that mechanic, Keyflower has held it's place amongst my favorite games.

On the side of it's box are large fields of small text in which the co-author of Keyflower, Sebastian Beasdale, waxes long about the history of the "Key-series" of games. In this text Beasdale credits the game "Keydom" as the first in the worker placement genre of games. Having heard many people site William Attia's "Caylus" as the first worker placement game I found Beasdales claim to be very interesting. Luck for me, Beasdale sites several sources for this claim. Most of those source have been difficult for me to track down but one was easy.

On there is a geeklist titled "The Agricola Advent Calendar" in which we can read short entries by Uwe Rosenberg about some of 2007's games. The entry of interest is number 7. Here, not only does Rosenberg point to Keydom as a primary source for the idea of worker placement but he identifies several branches in the evolution — "Caylus," "The Pillars of the Earth," "Kingsburg," "Tribune," and of course his own "Agricola." Even more interesting to me is that he identifies for Agricola a loose lineage of the mechanic and very briefly describes how he mutated the mechanic for Agricola.

It seems that from entry #7 we can assume a line of evolution from Keydom to Caylus to Agricola. And perhaps even more interesting is Rosenberg's all too brief description of how he adapted the mechanic in Agricola. Good stuff.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Game Mechanics — search for a definition

Had a good meeting today with my research group this morning. I feel so lucky to be associated with a group of such people. I hold each of them in high regard. Anyhow, that's sort of beside the point of this post. As I presented and we discussed the current status of my work we came back to one item several times. What is a board game mechanic? For some of you, this may seem like a silly question, and in some respects maybe it is. I can tell you only of my own personal experience with this topic.

Over the last 15 or so months I have often pondered this question. I have found several definitions during that period of time. Few of them agree and none of them really satisfy my itch.

There is of course the Wikipedia definition — "Game mechanics are constructs of rules intended to produce a game or gameplay." The Wikipedia entry goes on to outline all kinds of rather muddled and confused concepts. While there is good information here, it seems to never really satisfy my definition of a "definition."

On there are all kinds of lists of mechanics and discussions about mechanics. But, where is the definition?

I have perused quite a few very fine books on the topic of game design. Most of them use the term but never provide a definition. I presume it's assumed the reader knows what a game mechanic is. And indeed most game designers regardless of their level of experience could rattle off a list of game mechanics. Most could also describe what the point to each mechanic is or how it might be used in a game. But, I'm less convinced that each would corroborate each others actual definition of what a mechanic is. Being able to list examples of a type of thing is not the same as being able to provided a definition of a type of thing.

Lewis Pulsipher offers a definition in his book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games."  And it's a fine definition. As you might guess... I'm still not satisfifed. Pulsipher's definition is much like Wikipedia's. "game rules..." "methods..." and "for example..." Why am I not satisfied? Well, I guess these only seem to hit at the surface. Again referencing rules and listing examples.

In his book "Eurogames," Stewart Woods offer perhaps the most useful discussion of mechanics that I have found.  And indeed Woods states quite clearly that even amongst the experts there is not much of a consensus. Woods uses terms like "semantic confusion" and "in a vague sense." So, it seems that I am not alone in my quandary.

This is likely to be a long and off/on pleasant journey for me. I like ambiguity. I wouldn't be much of a designer if I didn't. I know what my personal definition of a game mechanic is. But, I'm not going to share it... hehe. Oh sure someday... and maybe soon... but not today. For today I will wrap myself in this lovely robe of warm fuzziness that is ambiguity and ask you... what exactly is a game mechanic?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Design/Game... Game/Design... Design/Game/Design... Game/Design/Game...

People who are into photography understand that a single camera "lens" is actually made up many lenses.

This last week I was in a meeting where we talked about "design competency." That strikes me as a strange topic... but, that's really not what this post is about. One of the things we discussed was how we evolve as designers. Many designers who are just setting their feet to the design path see design in very specific contexts — i.e.  this thing that I am doing or experiencing right here/now is design. Designers who have been around the track once or twice tend to see design in literally everything. For these designers, everything relates to design in some way. Design shifts from being specific and literal to being general and metaphorical.

I don't think that this type of evolution is exclusive to design. I have seen a similar change in people who play tabletop games. Early on gamers struggle to understand simple mechanics, how they work and how mechanic are combine to create a specific experience. As a gamer becomes more experienced they begin to see the broader perspective. I don't feel like I'm quite there yet myself — but, I think I see it in other, more experienced gamers. They sometimes refer to a thing called "gaming the game" or "gaming the ________." They are able to see everything through the lens of game concepts.

As I have grown older, my design lens has become increasingly broad and metaphorical. How does this progress happen? For me, there seems to be several key factors. The first is immersion in the topic. I have a bit of an obsessive personality and this quality helps me to focus. Secondly is making. I need to make something or write something. I may not be very good at the making part but I still have to do it. It is an important part of how I think and how I process information.

As I continue to be obsessed with board games I don't know what will come of it. But, I think it will be with me for a while. Interestingly I feel that I am just beginning to adopt a game lens as a way of viewing things. I suspect that this second lens for me is a powerful compliment to my design lens and I'm excited to see how the two of them might work together. I wonder if perhaps they are are actually two elements of a single lens.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The OTHER Kind of Interactivity

Coming from the field of HCI-D the term “interactive” has certain connotations... that... I am beginning to have issues with. Information, data, pre-programed software, hardware, pixels... these things have no life of their own. And yet we glory in our ability to “interact” with them. Framed in this way it all sounds pretty boring and just a little wrong to me. Here are a few bits from one of my favorite passages in Jaron Laniers book "You Are Not A Gadget." I think they are relevant here...

“Information wants to be free.”
I say that information doesn’t deserve to be free.

Cybernetic totalists love to think of the stuff as if it were alive and had its own ideas and ambitions. But what if information is inanimate? What if it’s even less than inanimate, a mere artifact of human thought? What if only humans are real, and information is not?
Information is alienated experience (Lanier 2009).”

In March of 2013 I became deeply and helplessly obsessed with modern board games. In the world of contemporary tabletop games the term “interactive” means something very specific and very different than in HCI-D. It means two or more people interacting with one another via a system of meditation (e.g. a board game). I don’t think the term “interactive” is ever used in the context of board games to discuss anything but human-human interaction (albeit mediated by the game system).

I think HCI’s notion of interactivity stinks. This is one reason in a long list of reasons that I will continue to be obsessed with board games.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


I’ve been studying the life of ideas — how ideas reside in objects, how they move into our minds and how they move from our minds into the physical worlds. Of course “they” do not move themselves. They are essentially information. We are the movers. But, once they are in our heads strange things can happen. Information in our minds can become ideas. We shift them around. We cut and splice and rearrange bits and pieces to form new or different ideas.

There has been some research about one peculiar notion dealing with ideas in a field referred to as memetics. This notion proposes that once in our minds, information programs the way that we think and do everything. Taken to a rational conclusion we might believe that we are programed entirely by the information we take into our minds — that free will or agency is pure fiction. This is in fact a form or extension of evolutionary biology theory.

The arguments for this are very convincing as they parallel everything we believe to be true in evolutionary biology. The foundational element in biology is the gene and in the world of human behavior it is the meme. Human beings are meme machines (Blackmore 1999). As a side note I believe that this notion has strong ties to the “One Dimensional-Man” theory posited by Herbert Marcuse.

If I were a strong believer in the notion that all truth and reality springs from scientific rationality then I would be completely on board with all of this. But, alas I am not that guy. Neither am I fully on whatever side might oppose these ideas. I think there is truth in theories of memetic evolution. But, I also have strong beliefs that we are each individual, eternal, spiritual beings. Shocking I know! But, pairing these beliefs with memetics means that while ideas do evolve via our minds and bodies they can only do so if we choose to use them. This is the very essence of what it means to be a designer.

Friday, May 16, 2014

It's Not How Fast You Play

It was in the fall of 1983 and I was driving with my brother Owen somewhere on highway 167 near Kent Washington. As we quite often did we were listening to music loudly. I put in a cassette tape of Cream’s Wheels of Fire and Owen began to rant. Not unusual for Owen. But, for some reason I remember this rant. Owen began talking excitedly about Ginger Baker. I don’t remember a lot of details... here is what I do remember...

“Ginger Baker... one of the greatest drummers of all time... madman... above and beyond rock... jazz... Baker... crazy... truly a jazz drummer... rock is lesser... jazz is the higher scale... and Baker is near the top of even that scale.” 

I don’t know where Owen got this information from. He would repeat this rant in different forms a time or two more before he died. I stored it away. That first time I knew little about jazz.

Years later I came to love jazz. I now understand Owen's passion for Baker. This morning I watched a documentary about Ginger Baker. Here is a quote from Ginger Baker from the film...

Independence... the ability to play a different thing with all four limbs. Which is how I play things that sound incredibly fast, when I’m not actually moving anything very fast. Because, all four beats are there in a different place, so what comes out is four times as fast. But, it’s not how fast you play... it’s what you say.

That quote — I’m not sure that Baker intended it as such but for me it is a metaphor. It speaks of life and only incidentally of drumming.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tent Pegs

I am hoping to resuscitate this blog — back from the dead after a couple of years.

For the last year or so I have been a PhD student studying HCI-D. My area of focus has been design methods — how they are created, adapted, evolved and employed. I have at least two side interests that I have managed to cultivate a little. I am often contemplating ways that I might weave them together. These side interests are board game design and the model of evolutionary biology. Using all three of these together in some way may not be as strange as it sounds at first.

The evolution thing is an analogy that I have been reflecting on for several years and I have specifically been interested in mutation and how viruses work. Designs carry ideas like a virus carries a genetic code. The code moves from design to mind and back to design in much that same way that the code of a virus moves from virus to host cell and back to virus. It replicates through this process and mutates and evolves. I am currently writing a paper about this with Erik Stolterman and I'm very exited about it.

Boardgames are a recent passion. I am mostly enamored with eurogames — I love almost everything about them. For over a year now I have been studying them and how they are designed. I wrote a paper comparing board game design to the development of design methods that was publish for the AIGA design educators conference in March. I was able to present it at the conference and it was a lot of fun. If you are interested you can find it as part of this document here.

My interest in design methods, the evolution model and boardgames may or may not come together at some point. But, I certainly do not foresee any one of them waning any time soon. In some ideal and perhaps alternate version of my life in the near future, these three interests form the tent pegs of some unified canvas that makes up my research.