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On Game Design: Go Play Outside

I wrote a little bit over at Rattlebox Games about playing games outside:

This might be a bit of a conundrum.  The old stereotype of nerds huddling inside on nice sunny days isn’t entirely without merit, in part because of all the valuable cardboard bits our games have — we don’t want chlorine from the pool on them!  But just because you’re in fresh air doesn’t mean you need to leave the hobby at home.

Read the rest…

Head on over there to see what I wrote.

May music roundup

It’s been a good month, music-wise.  The albums I listened to were all pretty good, with a variety of styles that kept me on my toes.  Here they are:

Emusic

  • Great Big Sea, Play – This album was an instant hit for me, as it is the album GBS was touring for when they recorded their amazing live album Road Rage.  It’s cool to hear the studio versions of these songs I know so well.  On top of that, I got to know some songs that weren’t on the live show setlist, especially “Seagulls” and “Recruiting Sargeant,” the latter of which is a depressing tale of hundreds of young men who went to World War 1 and didn’t come back.  “Beggar Dude” is a weird last song that turns on a repeated refrain of “do dah dah.”
  • The Soul of John Black, A Sunshine State of Mind  – A nice mix of soul and blues sounds with a contemporary feel, I like this album quite a bit.  The more bouncy tunes like “Johnny Bear (Give It To Me)”, “Shake it Off”, and “Lemon Tree” are joyous looks at the world, while the smoother songs like “Beautiful Day”, “Lenny Love Cha Cha”, and “Summertime Thang” are fine love songs.  My favorite, though, is “Magic Woman,” which lands at the venn diagram in the middle of the songs on this album.  Very enjoyable.
  • Don Giovanni Records Sampler – A mix of songs from this publisher.  Lots of straightforward alt rock that didn’t do a lot for me. There are a couple standouts like “Swan Dive” from Waxahatchee (which is more of a meditative ballad) and “Old Friends” by Noun.  I’d also point to “Switched On” from Stormshadow as a miss, for me.
  • Pete Seeger – four songs. All pretty much standard fare, though “Souix Indians” sure didn’t age well.  Yeesh.
  • Garfunkel and Oates, three songs from Slippery When Moist – “Google” is a funny take on online dating, and “Go” is a longer version of their show’s theme song.  I like the re-take of “I Would Never” shifted into the realm of science class too.

DanC Best 2014 – Every year, my friend Dan sends out a compilation of the music he’s been listening to.  It always takes me a while to get it into the mix, but it’s a delight once I do.  Here are a few favorites

  • “Shake it off” by Taylor Swift – The woman knows how to write a catchy song.  It’s good.
  • “Rattle My Bones” by The Secret Sisters – good harmonies, good rhythm.  A little close to modern country for my taste, but on the right side of that divide.
  • “Home” by Dolly Parton – I like this song a lot.  A good tune to put on a “feeling bummed, want to feel better” playlist.  Parton talked about this song in her interview with Jesse Thorn on Bullseye, so it’s fun to hear it in full.
  • “The Trailer Song” by Kacey Musgroves – full-blown country, but damn funny.

and a few songs that didn’t work for me.  These are songs that grated on me every time.  I really didn’t like:

  • Suzanne Vega, “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain” – two moments (one singular, one repeated) drive me nuts in this song: the mention of Macklemore wanting to “pop some tags” and Vega’s urging that you have to go on stage because “page or the stage is the cage for that tiger rage that you feel.” Like fingernails on a board.
  • RuPaul, “Sissy That Walk” – This is a catchy song, with good humor (his voice pops in from the side at :16 to scoff “bitch!”) and a nice message.  I like it as I listen until it gets to the chorus.  Right after RuPaul says “Now Sissy That Walk,” there’s this weird break with an electronic beeping sound and this weird pattern.  AWFUL.
  • Toni Braxton, “Sweat” – I just find this song annoying.

Anyhow, it’s always great to have another DanC compilation to listen to.

Tweets from 2015-05-24 to 2015-05-30

Broken Time

Broken TimeBroken Time
by Maggy Thomas

When Siggy gets a job at an interplanetary supermax prison, she doesn’t know she’s going to become a conversational pal with a pair of serial killers.  Or that this relationship will hinge on the fact that she’s one of the few people who has encountered time pockets more than once.  Also, ballroom dancing.

Broken Time is an odd book, with lots of interesting ideas but not tight enough to work well.  A few thoughts:

  • There are a bunch of great ideas and sketches of great ideas that the book doesn’t follow through on.  Among the ideas we don’t learn enough about: a Lost Fleet that is trapped in time, showing up occasionally to attack a planet long after the war is over and an interstellar economy that’s brutal and punishing but we only hear about a little bit at the beginning of the novel.  The book also features an alien species, the speedies, who move far more quickly than we do.  It’s a cool premise that could also have had more attention.
  • I like the novel’s focus on Siggy’s interest in ballroom dancing, and it has a nice payoff later.  The novel also takes some solid narrative steps to give Siggy the skills and ideas she will need later.
  • The references to differences in planets gives the book the feel of grandeur, but in practice the planets don’t get enough descriptions to really show how they’re different.  Siggy might just as well have been in two different cities or countries on Earth.
  • I like the insight that in times of war, we will do whatever it takes, including science that destroys the people it aims to help.
  • Last, it’s a little off-putting how much Siggy’s job in the supermax prison feels like The Silence of the Lambs.  From the hallway she has to walk down (passing rude and awful prisoners to get to the most horrible one) to his temperamental interest in her to his habit of standing very still, one can’t help but see that famous film.  Adding just a few touches to make it feel different would have helped this part of the book a lot for me.

Overall, this wasn’t my favorite.  It took a long time to capture my interest (I actually said “If I don’t like it a lot more tonight, I will put it down”), but the main character is nicely developed and the book focuses more on her character than on techno-wizardry.

On Game Design: Yes, and…

I’ve written a bit about the improv rule “Yes, and” over on the Rattlebox Games blog.  Check it out.

…Like Improv, RPG storytelling takes real trust between the game master and the characters. And like Improvosational comedians, they need to remember the “yes, and” rule.  (“Yes, and” refers to the philosophy that Improv performers should pick up and add to the ideas offered by the previous person, rather than negating them or leading off in a different direction.  It goes back to trust.)  In RPG design, “Yes, and” is a useful and necessary mechanic.  In Board Game design, though, I think it’s pretty underused. (link)

Tweets from 2015-05-17 to 2015-05-23

Comics roundup – Chimichanga, Kabuki, Locke & Key vol 2

Some comics I’ve read in the last month.

Chimichanga by Eric Powell kabuki-vol1 locke-and-keyvol2

 Chimichanga – The last few times I’ve been to cons (C2E2 2014, SDCC 2014, C2E2 2015), I saw Eric Powell, the smart and friendly writer of The Goon.  I usually buy a new comic from him and ask him to sign an old one.  This time around, I bought Chimichanga, a bizarre comic about a bearded girl from a circus who befriends a monstrosity that reinvigorates the circus’ flagging attendance and generally makes friends with her.  There’s a side plot about evil pharmaceutical companies too.  It’s generally enjoyable in the way that the Goon is.  Worth reading.

Kabuki, vol 1 – I also read volume 1 of David Mack’s Kabuki, which is about an assassin in a dark-future Japan where a public-secret cabal keeps the people in line, but really works to keep the balance between the corrupt government and the vile gangsters even.  It’s a good comic, but hampered by its age and style, which feels distinctly 1994.  It feels of a piece with Snow Crash and, perhaps, some 1980s comics like American Flagg.  Mainly, its art is a bit exploitative in a way that was completely standard in the 1990s but would be limiting for the comic today.

Locke and Key, Vol 2: Head Games – The adventures of the Locke family kids and the monsters haunting them continue in this edition.  While some bad things happen here and there, the protagonists don’t quite realize how the villains are lining up against them, so Volume 3 looks like it will be especially terrible.  The side story about the teacher from the school is great, giving depth and feeling and some drama to an edition that’s chock full of creepy ideas but not that tense.

Last, I read the first issue (not trade paperback, but good ol’ single issue) of The Fiction Squad, which wasn’t very good.  It was about nursery rhyme detectives investigating — wait for it — the murder of humpty dumpty (an idea that’s done much better in both The Big Over Easy and Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse).  On top of that, many of the female characters are drawn in the worst style, with pneumatic breasts and tiny waists.  I won’t be reading more of this one.

Shake us and we rattle…

Some friends and I have been working at some board games, recently, and we’re very near to putting our first print-n-play game up for people to see, try, download, and so on.  As part of the project, I’m starting to tweet and blog over on that website occasionally, so that there’s content there, and stuff.  Please head over and check it out:

Rattlebox Games

Rattlebox Games

Anyway, when I post on the blog over there, I’ll do a little snippet here to let y’all know.  Here’s the first one…

attempt to move to a new tile

…The crux of the problem is a single word, part of that rule.  It says “a mouse can attempt to move to a new tile.”  The other half of the problem for me was that at other places in the game, when you ‘attempt’ something, you have to roll a die, trying to get an asterisk.  Since the rule said “attempt,” I presumed this was something you could fail.  And we spent much of the first game playing with my made-up ‘attempt’ roll in place.  Since Mice and Mystics also punishes you for going too slowly on an empty board, we encountered way more monsters than we should have, and the game took a lot longer than it was supposed to.  All from one word…. (link)

I hope to see you there!

Tweets from 2015-05-10 to 2015-05-16

On Game Design: The Kitchen Sink

I am an unabashed sucker for Kitchen Sink games.  I don’t know where I first heard this idiom applied to game design, but I definitely can’t claim it for myself.  I’m using the term to describe the following kinds of games:

  • They have lots of complex, interconnecting rules
  • They have multiple game mechanics to learn, often that affect one another in weird ways
  • They allow players to use different play styles
  • They are usually pretty thematic (which is probably the only way to hold all these pieces together)

Some examples of Kitchen Sink games I like:

  • Dead of Winter – This collaborative ‘survive in a village after the zombie apocalypse starts’ game has several different awesome mechanics in play: there’s a saboteur in your midst, maybe, which means you can vote people out of the colony; the group has to manage resources for each crisis and for the overall health of the community; each player has their own secret goal which will allow them to win; you can play defensively against the zombies or offensively; dice play both a mild role (determining what kinds of actions you can take) and a major role (the exposure dice can be brutally punishing).  Then there’s the cards that ask the group to make moral decisions as well.  So there’s some role-playing.  Awesome.
  • A Study in Emerald – This anarchist 19th-century Cthulhu-bombing mystery area-control deck builder is just as complicated as it sounds.  There are hidden roles, three or four ways to end the game, all sorts of secret information, cubes, cards, permanent effects, a few cards that radically change the game.  Then, when the game ends, you really don’t know who won until you reveal roles and tally points.  It’s amazing.  Also, Sherlock Holmes!
  • Vampire: The Eternal Struggle -is the first kitchen sink tabletop game I really learned (and loved).  Players can win by subterfuge, by politics, by brawling, through minor chipping-away actions or major bloodletting.  There are many factions, each of which plays differently, and even more skills to choose from.  It’s too rich, by half.  And awesome.

Of course, as board games get closer to RPGs, they get closer to the all-encompassing kitchen sink that is a good pen-and-paper RPG.  But I still find the contained aspect of these games very satisfying.

As a designer, one has to think carefully about what all these interconnected mechanics can mean.  Do the overly-complex rules turn off players (some, certainly).  Do they add to the overall experience and theme?  (Study in Emerald works particularly well this way, because it’s supposed to be about the madness of the Elder Gods.  And Dead of Winter tries to provoke the tension of living in this embattled colony, so having tons and tons of rules that you have to keep track of stimulates some of the same anxiety the characters are dealing with.)

One question I’m wrestling with is whether to cut a rule because it doesn’t get used very often — but a player who makes use of it well can radically alter the game, perhaps.

Which Kitchen Sink games do you like?

April Music Roundup

I review my music playlist for each month, compiled from albums that drift across my transom and tunes I download from eMusic.  This month, my ‘reviews’ of the albums tell you almost nothing about them.  Enjoy.

Emusic

  • four songs from Syl Johnson, Complete Mythology.  I didn’t know Syl Johnson until I heard about him on Bullseye, and he’s a great member of the classic soul music movement.  I downloaded four songs, with the idea of getting his “Complete Mythology” collection bit-by-bit from emusic over the next couple months.  Alas, now it’s gone, so until I pony up somewhere else, I’m stuck with only these four classics: “Falling in Love Again,” “Different Strokes,” “Dresses Too Short,” and “Is It Because I’m Black.”  The last song carries particular resonance these days, but all four are great.
  • Silent Majority, Based on a True Story.  This kind of late 1990s growly punky music is the sort that I would have scrunched my face up at when I heard the deejay before me playing it at our college radio station.  (For the record, I would have followed his punk set with Bob Dylan, modern folkies like Ani DiFranco, and a bunch of They Might Be Giants.  His set was probably more popular.)    I came upon this group when one of my podcasts featured someone talking about “Knew Song,” which I like very much.  It’s a lighter, more melodic one, so I thought I’d give it a try.  Overall, doesn’t do much for me, but it does make me think of Perry Lamson.  (There’s a deep cut for you UF readers.)
  • Fat Cat Records Winter Sampler 2013. These samplers are, obviously, a mixed bag.  The only song I liked enough to mention here is “Edward the Confessor” by Breton, which sounds like a missing track from a Killers album.
  • Pete Seeger, Spike Jones, and Garfunkel and Oates — I’m almost out of these songs, so I’ll only be mentioning them a few times more.  “Ox Driver’s Song” from Pete Seeger is pretty good, and “My Apartment’s Very Clean Without You” is a surprisingly heartfelt and sad song from G&O.

Other sources:

  • The Script, No Sound Without Silence – A gift for Avery from her grandpa, I put it in my music queue too.  I imagine this will be harder to do as her tastes tend toward whatever tween girls are listening to.  That said, The Script is decent light radio music — something that you’d hear between Maroon 5 and the latest Kelly Clarkson son.  “The Energy Never Dies” is pretty good; “Never Seen Anything ‘Quite Like You’ ” tonight is pretty great, though I found myself imagining it as a song being sung by a Lovecraftian cultist to a lugubrious half-human monster.  In their better moments, it seems like they could reach toward Mumford and Sons or toward Great Big Sea, but they aren’t as good as either of those bands.
  • Wu-Tang Clan, A Better Tomorrow – The guys from ReplyAll like Wu-Tang, and I have been feeling like the absolute gap in my music knowledge that is ALL OF HIP HOP is a glaring problem, so while I plan to make a more orderly entree into the genre, I also just picked up an album I could get easily and cheaply.  “Mistaken Identity” resonated significantly with recent highly public police killings; I really like the sample on which “Keep Watch” is built; “Preacher’s Daughter” is an interesting take on the classic “Son of a Preacher man” that still holds with the idea of the titular character being, well, experienced. But the song I kept returning to most was “Necklace,” which seems to be a meditation on the nature of fame and status, and has both a great sample from an old timey movie and excellent use of the vibraslap.  (Also, it gave me the motivation to look up the name of the Vibraslap.)

NOTE: Wu-Tang song is NSFW.

Tweets from 2015-05-03 to 2015-05-09

Game Design: The Rules that used to know

Have you ever had a game whose rules you didn’t know as well as you thought you did?  Discovering that the rules are different than you thought can be a real blow–suddenly that game you thought you had all figured out is something else altogether.  It’s like somebody you used to know.

Three stories:

  1. Nearly everybody who reads board gaming news has encountered the Jonny Nexus essay arguing for the real game of Monopoly, in which you trick people and try to buy properties at auction.  I have to say, I still think Monopoly sucks, but he makes a cogent argument for why it’s better than we all remember.  The takeaway from this essay and the seven-years-later Internet freakout about it is that Monopoly is not the game we thought it was.
  2. A bit closer to home, Finn and I got out Forbidden Island for the first time in several months to give it a whirl, and I couldn’t remember how many cards we each get at the beginning of the game.  So I opened the rulebook and scanned the “setup” section, at which point I discovered that we’d been playing the game wrong THE ENTIRE TIME.  For the whole time we’ve had this game (at least three years), we’ve played by setting the game up and beginning with all tiles dry.  The rules indicate that three tiles should begin the game flooded.  This makes a HUGE difference in how the opening turns begin, as you’re already behind on upkeep when the game starts.  The Island’s treasures just got a lot harder to claim, I must say.
  3. Playing Last Night on Earth with some friends I hadn’t played with before, things were going swimmingly until we got to our first fight.  We rolled the dice and then tried to determine who won the fight.  Different ways.  As we realized that there was a fundamental disconnect between our understanding of the rules, we had this “oh shit” moment.  One of us–and both of us have been playing this game for a long time–had been resolving fights incorrectly.  For years.  When you discover that a fundamental rule for a game is different than you thought, it can be pretty disorienting.

Last-Night-on-Earth-title

So, dear reader, what rules have you mis-read?  Have you ever discovered that you’re playing a game wrong, and what happened when you did?

As a designer, we need to ponder, carefully, the way we communicate our rules.  And have people who haven’t played the game before read them to find the hidden rules we forgot to share.

Directive 51

Directive 51

Directive 51

Directive 51
by John Barnes; narrated by Susan Eriksen

What would happen if all the people who hate the “big system,” for the many, many different reasons that people do, decided that their differences of opinion about why they hate it were irrelevant, and all bonded together to do something about it?  Technological apocalypse, that’s what.  Barnes tells the story of a worldwide technological meltdown, brought about by a concerted sabotage campaign among tens or hundreds of thousands of activists around the world.  They seed the world with rubber and plastic-eating nano machines, and things very quickly fall apart.  The tale is told from many perspectives (nearly all American), and traces many paths people might take through the chaos.  A few thoughts on the book:

  • The book feels like it has a significant Libertarian bent, though it takes care to recognize the dangers in extremes of any political philosophy.  There was an awful lot of “smart people would do just fine, but dumb people would die off quickly” attitude, and often the ‘dumb people’ part equated to urban poor.  So that part grated a little bit.
  • But there’s hope at the heart of the Libertarian mindset, the idea that people will work hard and, when the system gives them a chance, will do well.  The “regular people pulling things together and doing it right” part of the book was downright nice.
  • I also really liked Barnes’ approach to politicians, skilfully interpreting the old canard that power corrupts, and viewing how easy it is for well-intentioned leaders to push us into war.
  • Last, one of the concepts of the book is the idea of a “system artifact,” a collection of ideas that gain power and a kind of agency despite not being steered by anyone in particular.  It reminds me of two things: first, Dawkins’ original idea of ‘memes,’ as sticky ideas that evolve like genes in our collective intelligence matrix; and second, like the smart spam in Maelstrom that evolves in the information ecology of the new web.

Susan Eriksen does a nice job with the narration, using a few kinda-voices to add some depth, but generally hitting it straight and clear.  Overall, a pleasant diversion, if you like your stories with apocalyptic megadeaths.

 

On Game Design: Is It Luck?

As I started to get more serious about the board game hobby, I learned a number of amusing terms for different kind of games.  One that I enjoy quite a bit is “Ameritrash,” a seemingly-derogatory phrase for games that a) have tons of little fiddly bits, b) have a strongly developed theme, and c) rely heavily on luck.  There are more detailed descriptions of the term, of course.  The opposite game style is “Eurogame,” which is generally a) tightly constructed, b) focus on mechanics and play more than conflict, and c) use balance far more than luck.

While a developed theme is a big deal for me, and I love the little fiddly bits, I think the reliance on luck is the biggest divider between the two genres. While you can have bad luck in Settlers of Catan, the statistics of the dice rolls generally work out okay, and any failure you have in covering the various resources point back to your poor choices in the land-grab phases of the game.  By contrast, you can do everything right in Last Night on Earth, have a couple bad rolls, and find your hero being eaten for dinner.

So how do you decide when to rely on luck in your game?  I’d suggest three questions:

Is it thematically appropriate?

Figures an Ameritrash fan would focus on theme first. But really, luck amps up tension because you don’t know how things are going to come out.  In Last Night on Earth, which prompts players to imagine their characters in a zombie film scenario, luck plays a huge role.  It’s a common staple of the zombie movie for a character to do everything right, to beat back a zombie horde, only to get bitten on the ankle by a zombie laying under an overturned bookshelf.

Other games have themes that accommodate virtually no luck.  In Mammut, players are part of a primitive tribe, just returned from their hunting expedition, sitting down to divvy up the results of the journey.  They take turns taking piles of goods, either from the communal pot or from one another, until each has a share.  This system relies on hardly any luck at all (except for the handful of mystery tiles in the pool and the player’s secret amplifier card).  This fits the theme well, as the scenario doesn’t involve a narrative where surprise or mystery would be part of the tale.

So designers should ask if the luck they’re building into their game fits the theme they’re using.

Is it about skill and strategy?

Some games reward skill and strategy to the detriment of nearly everything else.  Games of perfect information, such as Chess, provide all the possibilities to players up front, and all moves are made in public.  Other games use complete information, meaning that you know all the things your opponent could do, but can’t always see what they do, or may have some options arrive by chance (such as a card that determines possible game states but appears randomly).  Battleship is an example of a game of complete information.

Games that rely on luck have an inherent information gap.  Neither player knows how a dice roll will come out, or which card will be at the top of the deck.  Additionally, games like Magic: The Gathering or Android: Netrunner have the additional issue of mysterious game elements — each player has information about elements in the game (her own deck) that are missing from the other player.  Games like this usually achieve balance through statistical averaging (the ‘best of three games’ rule, for instance, mediates the ‘luck of the draw’ aspect of CCGs).

So designers should ask how much they want to reward skill and strategy in play.  Should newbies have to grasp lots of complicated interconnections among many different features to compete with veterans?  Should one or two moments turn the whole game?

Does it add fun to the game?

Of course, this is the most subjective question to ask.  Some people find the churning-gear machine analysis of 7 Wonders intriguing and interesting, while others delight in the Elder Sign moment when a beleaguered investigator rolls the one crucial result on her last die to fulfill the task and prevent Cthulhu from waking and destroying the Earth. So it might come down to taste.

But we’ve all played games where the dice just aren’t on our side. For example, after a particularly bad game of Elder Sign, my daughter refused to play the game for months.  She only recently realized (or admitted to herself) that it wasn’t because she didn’t like the game, but because she’d had such a bad experience that one round.  We hadn’t kept the theme strong enough to offset the sour experience of luck going against her.

The question a designer should ask is: can the player do anything to change the game if the dice aren’t working in their favor?  If the answer is no, then that player is probably going to have a crummy time of it.

What’s the right balance of luck and strategy?  Which games do you think master this balance best?