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?