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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.


  • 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.


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?


Tweets from 2015-04-26 to 2015-05-02

April 29, IN HISTORY – labor relations

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken. For some reason, lots of photos from Aprils 29th were available, we have Presidents, Writers, Opera Singers, plus bombs and wreckage.  Enjoy!


Teddy Roosevelt speaking in Illinois about currency 4/29/03

Teddy Roosevelt speaking in Illinois about currency 4/29/03

Opera Singers

Mary Garden, 4/29/13

Mary Garden, 4/29/13

Geraldine Farrar 4/29/13

Geraldine Farrar 4/29/13


Upton Sinclair, 4/29/14

Upton Sinclair, 4/29/14

Upton Sinclair was arrested for protesting the conditions of Colorado Miners, 1,200 of whom were attacked in their camp that very morning by the Colorado National Guard in what was called the Ludlow Massacre.

The Ludlow Massacre 4/29/14

The Ludlow Massacre 4/29/14

Lieut. Scott's Aero Bomb 4/29/12

Lieut. Scott’s Aero Bomb 4/29/12

On Baltimore

Thinking about Baltimore this morning, I recall this Martin Luther King Jr quote I read a few years ago:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. (link)

To be clear, Dr. King isn’t advocating violence.  In fact, his commitment to nonviolent protest got stronger in the face of the 1960s riots.  But to condemn violent protest or violent action as a simple matter is, I think, a kind of intellectual dishonesty.

My thoughts are with Baltimore today.

Koko Takes a Holiday

Koko Takes a Holiday

Koko Takes a Holiday

Koko Takes a Holiday
by Kieran Shea

Shea’s novel is a light romp through a dark future where most of the Earth has been ravaged by economic and environmental collapse.  Many people live in floating cities high above the Earth, and a few others vie for the limited slots among the global elite.  Just making her way in the world is our titular vicious mercenary, who has been working as the owner of a brothel for the last few years.  Alas, her past comes back to haunt her and she must make a run for it.

  • Koko is an enjoyable adventure, if a bit light on the plot arc.  The main character is empathetic in as much as someone who used to be a mercenary can be, but the future Shea describes is so bleak that we need not worry too much about particular bleakness facing individuals in the world.  Yikes.
  • One of the plagues of the floating cities is a kind of suicidal depression that’s diagnosed as an incurable disease.  There’s an implication in the book that this sort of depression is just in one’s mind, which could imply some deeper readings of Shea’s view of modern mental health issues, or it could just be the view that the overlords of the future might employ a cynical terminal diagnosis to control population growth. (And thus, I just realize, I build a link between this novel and the under-rated Tom Hanks / Meg Ryan film Joe vs. the Volcano.)
  • Shea seems to have an equally dark view of corporations of the future — global capital has not been all that good for people in the world.  That said, there’s an implication that the world collapses under some other malady and it’s only global capitalism that gets us going again, so maybe these vicious corporations are good?   I would love to read another book written with a Margaret Atwood-ian seriousness in this particular world.  (Actually, without too much tweaking, you could see this as a version of the Oryx and Crake world.)

This book comes as close as I’ve found to the edge of the nickel.  It doesn’t offer enough, to me, to push it onto the recommended pile, but it has a few enjoyable facets that make it hard to recommend against.  It’s a fine beach read, but that’s about it.

Tweets from 2015-04-19 to 2015-04-25

Dispatch from the Age of Electracy: C2E2 edition

One of my prized possessions (thank you, Joe Hancock and Joy Sperling) is a Dawn of the Dead poster signed by George Romero, Ken Foree, David Emgee, Scott Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross.  Among the various bits of stuff that the seller provided were photos of the signings — attesting to their provenance.  With C2E2 today, I now find myself in the position of preparing to seek photos and autographs from luminaries and scribblers, so this seemed an apt time to offer a few comments on signatures.

Paintings or It Didn't Happen

Paintings or It Didn’t Happen

The signature attests to presence and agreement.  It used to be ubiquitous on contracts and love letters.  It had to be witnessed (the more important the contract, the more crucial the witness).  We have special people whose job it is to watch other people apply their signatures.  In encounters with celebrities, we ask them to sign things as a souvenir, as an agreement (I was here with this thing).  It’s a tangible thing we can take away from our encounter with them.  I can imagine two teens in high school in the fifties:

Teen 1: You’ll never guess who I met when I was in Los Angeles last weekend.  Maryiln Monroe!
Teen 2: Autograph or it didn’t happen.

Of course, the signature only stays reliable as long as we want it to.  In the age of the digital manipulation, it’s but a matter of moments to scan, copy, paste, and render a document that looks as though it was signed by someone who didn’t sign it.  One of the more bizarre ways we maintain a belief in the integrity of the signature is in the use of Faxed, but not emailed, documents.  Two different financial organizations I work with accept faxes as legally binding documents, but NOT email.  Of course, the easiest way for me to fax things is to scan them and use a PDF to Fax service to send them.  We’re approaching angels on pinhead territory here.

With the rise of ubiquitous cameras, the autograph has given way to another form of “I met a celebrity” — the selfie or posed picture.  When we were at Comic-Con last year, we were far more interested in getting photos with recognizable celebrities than autographs.  First, they’re much more compelling as something to share.  Second, they document the human interaction — I met this person — rather than the human/object interaction — this person touched this thing.  Third, for the celebrity, the photo attests to true fanhood because it’s not a commodity.  No one will want to buy a copy of my photo of me and John Hodgman, though there might be people who’d pay slightly more for my autographed copies of his books.

It will be interesting to see if the photograph of the signing makes its way back into legal spaces.  I can imagine photos embedded as part of legal documents showing all the signers and witnesses together, holding up the signed document.  There would be joyous photos (the shared signing of incorporation papers, for instance) and grim ones (I can imagine a thread somewhere highlighting the most depressing divorce-papers-signing photos).

Someday, we’ll have to upload a photo to attach to our e-filing of our taxes, face next to the screen.  It will be automatically updated as our driver’s license picture, and the circle will be complete.


On Game Design: You Gotta Spend Money to Make Money

Don Cruez

Don Cruez – spends blood to do stuff

One of my favorite things a game can do is to make spending money (or currency) draw from your victory pool.  Some examples:

  • Smallworld requires you to spend victory points to bypass races you don’t want to play.
  • The Sheriff of Nottingham doubles the effect by encouraging you to bribe opponents with coins, which increases their score directly while lowering yours.
  • The TV Show Cutthroat Kitchen requires players to spend their prize money to screw over their opponents

My all-time favorite version of this comes from the Vampire: The Masquerade CCG.  In this incredibly complex card game, you play as an elder vampire, controlling a stable of younger vampires by giving them your life force, blood, from your pool.  Each thing you buy costs you blood from your pool, reducing your life force and hastening your death (and the other player’s victory).  In my memory, it wasn’t uncommon to end the game on a knife-edge, gambling many of your last pool on a play that *should* put the other player out of the game.

I think the tension created by making players spend their own victory is an excellent way to augment a complex game.  What other ways can we make players weigh victory and defeat against one another?


Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt is a really good memoirist.  He has the deft touch of a seasoned comedian, a keen eye for metaphor and the important detail, and a strong sense of storytelling.  Silver Screen Fiend imbues his early standup years with a strong narrative arc, one of artistic stagnation and malaise, a lesson he learned and a cautionary tale for us.  It’s also damn funny.  A few thoughts:

  • I couldn’t help but recall Steve Martin’s amazing Born Standing Up in light of this book. Martin spends much more time on his thoughts about technique, whereas Oswalt does so mostly in service of the larger questions about artistic endeavor generally.
  • I love Oswalt’s metaphor of the Night Cafe.  He relates the story of Picasso’s first venture into work from memory rather than from sight, and how painting that vibrant red room made him into a different artist.  Oswalt calls these moments (or rooms or experiences) “night cafes,” and explores how his own such experiences shaped his life as an artist.  It recalls Gregory Ulmer’s assertion of the guiding image, an idea that shapes who we are and how we work as a creative or intellectual person (see Internet Invention).
  • I love the inside-baseball stuff about the comedy scene in LA in the late 90s.  One of the overwhelming impressions I have of L.A. is that people circulate in their own bubble there, and we have no sense of how it works.  The tales about how the one particular comedy club insulated and ruined comics were a great sense of how Oswalt maintained his sense of perspective.
  • The one negative thing I have to say is that Oswalt occasionally gets a little too elaborate with his comedic metaphors.  They overflow the first half of the book like a clogged toilet in a punk bar.

The audiobook is especially good because, as a performer, Oswalt knows the nuance and flow of the work, and knows how to make the beats land well.

See also: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Tweets from 2015-04-12 to 2015-04-18