Friday, April 28, 2006

Oh, the humanity (PLUS!)....

Not to take away anything from the winners, but OUCH! 4th place! I thought I'd finish better than that! And only 6 points!!!! With third place getting 12. Click here to view the carnage. I wonder how much the fact that I bent the rules a little bit by not making my game based around a REPAIR auto shop cost me.

Incidently, my votes went like this:

Game #8 (1st place) 4 votes.
Game #4 (3rd place) 3 votes.
Game #6 (6th place) 2 votes.
Game #1 (5th place) 1 votes.

So I think is also the very first time I've completely missed voting on a topo finisher. Well, at least recently.


And now the (PLUS!) part, back in the real working world....

.....Elvis has apparently FINALLY been installed Vegas, at Gold Coast. It'll be interesting to see how well it performs.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Isla Update finally!

So I've decided to finally get my butt together and finish off some loose end projects. I've finally got the updated Isla Margarita rules and downloadables finished. These can be accessed by the link in PROJECT sidebar. Or just click here.

So, how did we get to this version:

The major update involves each Island starting with a Prince, and placing Bridges and Ports moves the Princes around. At the end of the game, whoever has the most Coins on an Island scores VP for the number of Princes on the Iisland. When there were two Prince pawns moving around, people seemed to have fun with that aspect, so in this version I've taken it...TO EXTREME!!! Well, hopefully not too extreme. The other big thing is cleaning up all of the various point tallying systems of Monopoly/Majority/Tie, which was just a headache.

The core game initially was scoring points two different ways, gaining "pure" known points off of the Ports, or "unknown" points off of Bridges. The goal was to get players deciding if an "only Bridges" or "only Ports" (with a mixture in between) strategy was the best. This is still the main thrust of the game.

However, the game inherently has something which I'm defining as "goal compression". The game starts with main goals to capture (the Bridges and Ports) and winds it's way down slowly to no Ports and Bridges as the game goes. I needed some way to keep the player options open as the game crawls closer to the end; otherwise, completely bought out Islands become worthless, Coins left on bought out Islands are worthless, and all players just zone in on the last remaining parcels of goals. So, the Coin VP scoring mechanism was introduced as a third option. And the three mixed together fairly well in playtesting. Well, aside from the tallying-up-your-points part.

(As a side note to "goal compression," the other obvious choice is "goal expansion". And the corollary thing such as "choice compression/expansion". They sort of go hand in hand, and you could probably make a neat, but worthless chart placing games on a graph. Interestingly enough, abstract games seem to tend more towards compression, while themed games trend toward expansion. Maybe I'll bother to expand on this further later at some date.)

Anyway, I decided to add another feature along the way to further emphasize the Bridge theme, and make them slightly more powerful. So, I included essentially 2 Prince pawns that started on Margarita, which could be moved around solely by Bridge placements. Crown collecting became the goal of the Pawns. And while the small bonuses on the Crowns themselves weren't really big enough to chase after, the whole concept was pretty fun. So now that part has been expanded in this version, as noted above.

The Princes now play a bigger part of the game, and I think, certainly a more interesting part of the game, as they are now tied together between the three main things the player can control. Buying a Port or Bridge now additionally affects the Coin scoring mechanism additionally, which I think will be a fairly neat addition to the game.

There was a middle version here, that included the concept of Pirates, which was an interesting attempt to make the Ports a bit more fluid. Using Pirates, players could steal ports; there was concept of low scoring, but easily obtained Pirate ports, etc. This seemed to break the whole purpose of what the scoring of Ports were about. And the decision to buy a Port suddenly became a bleak prospect indeed. Maybe I'll revisit it later. But it has been removed.

I'll eventually post the link to BGDF for whatever ridicule I can muster.
Saturday, April 22, 2006

A Bad Egg

Yes, you can dye broken eggs, with the appropriate decoration. Not really sure why he's so happy though.

Thanks to the Mother-In-Law for the face. Posted by Picasa
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Narrative, Part 2

So now I'm thinking, why does a game have to follow the traditional story points of a book or movie, for it to be "narrative? " Books and movies NEED to be linear, that's how they've been presented traditionally, and it makes a certain logical sense because that plays to the traditional strengths of those mediums.

However, there have been cases where people have tried to play against those strengths; mess around with linear time, for example, or not bother following a full story arc of a character, and instead follow a shared object that each character carries, and we only get a partial story of each character.

Anyway, I don't thinks that games in general provide as a strength a good, strong, linear story arc that we've all come to have pressed into our collective noggins. In a desperate attempt to make video games "more movie-like," they have lost some amount of interactivity. Maybe, games should try to play more to their strengths.

Below I present a concept I've thought about back and forth for a while now. Sadly, I am now giving this up as the backbone for a future GDS design, but oh well, I think it would be tough to convey this in 800 words anyway.

You are some guy travelling around in space, visiting planets. You start with a rating of 5 on a scale of 0 (hated) to 10 (loved) from each planet. "Leaders" of each planet give you various missions to complete. However, based on completing missions, your ratings can go up and down across multiple planets somehow.

For example, having mission of "Take my daughter to wed the Prince of Altennes (some planet name I just creatively invented)" would naturally increase your rating of both these planets. However, what if you decided to alternatively deliver the Princess to the Dark Lord of the planet Zingobah, the arch-enemy of these two planets. Surely, your rating with Zingobah would increase greatly, while your rating for the first two planets would decrease. In fact, I believe that the King of the planet who's daughter you just gave way would be VERRRRY displeased.

Or, how about another approach, which I think in board game terms would be very do-able. Again, this involves doing missions across planets. But, when arriving at a planet, you could either just take a required element ("Altennes needs a health serum for an outbreak of deadly Oyxbox Flu") from there that is needed elsewhere. This would drop your rating with that planet. Or you could somehow create a built-in trading mechanic, possible requiring some currency, or other items to get that item. This would make it harder to complete the mission, but your rating would go up with the planet that had the serum.

At the start of this game, the grand over-lord of the universe will name his successor based on how well all of the planets love all the players. However, as the game proceeds, his rating of the best player slowly changes from "how well loved a player is" to "how many missions did he complete." The game would end with some way of percentaging between two factors.

Players now have to decide and balance how well they are trying to treat planets with how badly they want to complete missions while screwing the planets over. I think it would be an interesting game. It's replayable and I think to a lesser extent, it FEELS narrative; stealing goods from planets instead of trading for them can create some awful bad blooded relationships with the game. Mission cards and items can be added at will to freshen it up. Granted, I don't think it follows the traditional story-line approach that people think of when they say the magic word, "narrative."

Again, I ask, maybe we are all looking at this the wrong way.

Narrative Games

I'm very interested in this thread. It's a fairly interesting topic, and somewhat of a Holy Grail of Games: Making a game where the player is actually driving a story. Or at least feels like he is doing it.

I'd like to make a note here that, again, my requirements aren't quite as stringent as most people. I think a more advanced choose-your-adventure book (ACYAB) would be just fine. But others, god love 'em, are striving for something more. Which is decidedly good.

Anyway, it's a fairly huge problem. How do you make it feel like the player is actively moving a story along, hitting all the "beats?" Obviously, your typical pen-and-paper role-playing game does this with a nice human DM, who, if he or she knows what they are doing, can be reacting to the player's whims and wishes and improv the new storylines if that's what the other players want to do. But how does one let a non-player game component perform this function? In a board/card/book format no less. And then add the ability of being somewhat replayable?

I don't think it can happen. At least within trying to meet all the requirements that suit this particular Holy Grail.

Let's face it, the video game world, in all their advanced technological glory, hasn't been able to come very close to achieving this goal. The best narrative games, ones that try to tell a story, still make you follow an essential linear path. Sure there are side quests, but you are hardly in control of your own destiny. You can't make your character in Grand Theft Auto decide to go off and join the circus, for example. It does a fairly good job of letting you decide HOW to accomplish your goals along the way. But the goals themselves are laid out neatly in front of you.
Gotta make sure you hit those beats!

The Sims does an excellent job of providing a sandbox for letting you do what you want to do within a given scope; and yet, it is often derided as a toy (like most sim games) since it doesn't have a logical way to "win" the game. Yes, they do provide scenarios where you need to get your amusement park to make XXX dollars. But that doesn't seem to satisfy many people with the game aspect for some reason. Maybe, because the point of the game is to just screw around with your toys and make the thing YOU want, not some arbitary goal set by the game designers...

But wait? I thought that was the whole point of a narrative game? You know, let the player feel like he's the one setting goals. And somehow it's needs a complete story with all the "beats" and peaks and valleys of storytelling that go along with it. Again, I think a good DM can do this; I'm not really sure how well a deck of cards or a library of books can provide this given the infinite variations of a player's actions especially if you are trying to do something larger and cooler than an ACYAB. Then there's the dreaded replayability issue, and what happens if one player replays the "book" with another player who hasn't.

Anyway, I hope one of the guys on the thread can figure something out interesting from it. The use of books, or better yet, I think, of cards somehow to advance the story with expandable capabilites could turn out to be something very cool.

On a positive side note, this has gotten me back into the mindset of working on my "Restless" project again (a twist on an ACYAB). It's a "game" based on too much watching of haunted house investigation shows during 3AM baby feedings. In essense, Restless involves a solitaire player (or more) investigating a haunted house, using a slider card mechanism that hides entries in a book. So, if you are in the Cellar at 2:00AM, you look on the slider card for a reference number. This number gives you an entry in the book, which you then read what happens there. However, there is some stat keeping involved, and as events happen, you can become 'scared,' and getting scared too much forces you to leave the house. Multiple players in the same room can also give different readings as to what is happening. And based on your current stats, different things can happen. The goal is to simply try to determine what happened on that fateful night when the house became haunted. It has some amount of replay-ability, since you are only getting some parts of the story in some rooms at certain times. It's not a true game, but more of an elaborate interactive fiction story, where you have to determine what the story is.

As a side note, there is an interesting blog that talks about interactive fiction at great length, named Grand Text Auto. It's worth a peek if you are into that kind of thing.
Monday, April 17, 2006

Rules, rules, rules

This thread about the rule of halves is sort of interesting. I don't believe in the basic concept, that people avoid certain games based on the rules alone. Most purchases are made by your traditional "looking at the box cover" kind of decision, or "word of mouth" kind of thing. Box cover decisions show theme, and cool looking parts, or lack thereof, not rules. And while "word of mouth" probably does convey some amount of rules complexity, those passing along the their suggestions will most likely take note of badly worded rules, or things like, "once you download the errata, the game is fun" kind of thing. Or the ever dreaded, "Man, if they ever took time to playtest this thing, the game would rock."

So, I don't think you can win or lose players too much by the size of the rule book. You CAN lose a certain market of players based on the theme, or the mechanics of game. Otherwise known as the "I refuse to play a war game" syndrome. But to a player who's into merchant trading, a complicated trading game that fun is probably just as good as a simple trading game that's fun.

On the hand, the games that I've had perform the best in the Game Design Showdowns or probably the ones that I've spent the most time on editing, and re-editing, the rules. Going over them countless times, looking for the most efficient way of wording the rules, keeping things under the 800 word limit, and generally spending a LOT of time reworking the words themselves; the rules remain pretty constant. And I'm talking probably maybe 3 or 4 hours here per game of editing. That's a lot, I think, for a mere 800 words; maybe 20% of those don't even relate to the actual gameplay, which is where the root of the entry SHOULD be.

Then again, the contest is SOLELY about the rules. This is where I think some entries miss the mark. Wasting valuable words describing what each and every card does in the deck when you can uses those words to better describe the gameplay. Putting just a few example cards into a .jpg, even using something like excell to make the "graphic," just gives you so many more words to use to better describe how the game plays. That's what I think the core part of the contest is about; not the clever card list of the deck, which would be changed anyway through playtesting.

Also, being as nebulous as possible about scoring I think is important, beause quite a few people judge the game, and start looking for ways to "break" the game balance based on points or something. This stuff, in general, would be all worked out in playtesting, and should not be part of the voting consideration, but sadly, I think, some people do give it too much wieght. So, it's best to sort of hide some elements of the scoring, and concentrate more on HOW things score, than WHAT those scores are.

So, how do I fair in this month's challenge? I wasn't planning on entering, actually, based on the fact I have VERY limited time this week to work on an entry. Also, the somewhat limited scope of the restrictions leads me to believe that there will be very little variance between entries; I don't think I can add to that. But I had an idea driving home from work, and I had an hour to type something up,and I sort of like what I have, so I have an entry. However, I am sort of scared that since I don't have time to do my now standard 4 hour edit to really polish it up. Hopefully the meat of the design will show through.

And I don't think that my design will be particularily different from many others. But one can hope.
Monday, April 10, 2006

Ridiculously complicated train layouts!

Thanks to going out of business sales at local Toys R Us's (or Uses, or Uss or whatever the plural form of Toys R Us is), we've gained quite a bit Thomas the Tank Engine-like tracks. Well, still generally the good stuff by the likes of Brio, since the really cheap IKEA tracks don't quite fit. And we've also picked up an extra train table. So, with no other chance of developing a hobby currently due to keeping an eye on the little ones, I've developed quite a knack for creating overly complicated layouts.

And, especially the infant, has developed a knack for knocking them down.

Train layout #1.

Train layout #2.

Train layout #3.

Train layout #4.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

How far we've come.

At the website for the game of Adventure, there is a small screenshot of the Black Castle. In game selection 2, within it's icy black and grey claws is where the Grail is held.

In fact, the image looks like this:

For all those eagerly awaiting the upcoming PS3, or playing the current Xbox360, with all of it's snazzy razzle dazzle graphic power, remember, a lot of games owe a lot of history to this game. Running around in GTA:xxx and beating up old folk isn't much different than running around and beating up on poor duck-dragons. Well, except for the fact that the duck-dragons could eat you, forever imprisoning your valiant block inside their invisible tummies. Of course, nowadays, the games have a lot more quests and hidden unlockables (otherwise known as suck-up marketing ploys to magazines).

Anyway, take a good look at that picture. The amount of memory that (uncompressed) .jpg takes up is 31K. That's almost 8 times of memory that the ENTIRE GAME WAS PROGRAMMED IN! Which begs this unusual question: How many Atari 2600 Combat cartridges can fit inside the bump map of Shaq's forehead in the NBA Ballers Phenom?

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Maybe it's time to stop dissing Monopoly.

Sad little Monopoly. It's the game that seemingly most board game geeks hate. Of course, everyone also plays it completely wrong, and just adds to eventual frustration of it. So while placing collected taxes on Free Parking may seem like you are doing everyone a favor, the game only works by the removal of money from the system, not by adding it back into the game.
But, after reading this interview with the US Monopoly coach, I now realize how COMPLETELY wrong people play the game even if they are hardcore rules Nazis.
Most people view Monopoly as a game where you move around a board, collect some property, and build on them, with a little trading involved. When played at the tournament level, however, the game is almost solely based on trading; moving around the board just sort of randomizes which properties you start with, and who you have to pay when you land of other player's properties. The entire focus of the game has changed while still keeping the same rules. This is the equivalent to professional poker players who, after enough time under their belt, don't even care what the cards are, and instead only play player's reactions. You're still playing poker, but playing at a completely different level with access to a whole different set of information.
However, it should be noted that there's a big difference between the two. Poker is a fairly quiet, solitary experience at this point. Studying and reading your opponent intensely requires quite a bit of concentration and understanding of tells. And everyone THINKS they can do it. This can easily be accomplished no matter what the joviality rating is at any table; primarily because it is an individual talent.
Playing a game of high stakes trading Monopoly requires a whole table of people willing to trade. Unless you have the capabilities of the shrewedest, slickest used car salesman alive, trying to spin 3-way deals probably will get you nowhere. If you are trying to give 4 loosely gathered properties to someone just for Electric Company, which you can then bundle with Illinois to someone else, you will most likely end up with a lot of uneasy trust issues and have the deal blocked. I think that everyone who's played Monopoly grew up playing it so straight and conservative are more than willing to lose the game to " that bad dice roll" than accepting the fact that they potentially got "swindled" at some point.
I also suppose the whole meta-game aspect of professional Monpoly plays pretty out interesting, too. After my first playing of I'm the Boss, where the whole game is just completing deals with other players, having an understanding of how your opponent have operated in the past is something good to know. I'm the Boss, incidentally, is also another game where, if you have a crowd who is somewhat timid about making deals, it's not going to work well. But, since players aren't giving things up (trading away properties of unequal value), and instead are building a steadily growing bankroll of cash, it's probably quite a bit easier for the dealmaker to pull off an interesting game. Unlike Monopoly, where he'll just sit there and stew about why Free Parking shouldn't be handing out free cash.
Monday, April 03, 2006

In defense of... player elimination.

A lot of the hobbyist designers on BGDF really, REALLY hate player elimination mechanics. There's quite a bit of absolutism regarding this; people who would NEVER think about playing or designing something that includes this "vile" feature. Which is bad.
First of all, in general, absolutism regarding any kind of game design is bad. It locks you into specific things that you KNOW work, without trying something new that MIGHT work. Obviously, some things are pretty tough to work around, say, like gravity, if you are trying to do a Jenga or Villa Paletti styled game. Bu,t if you don't bother including the laws of physics, the logical creation of game rules and mechanics should never be locked in to "always includes" and "never includes". Player Elimination is something that maybe needs to be looked at a little longer before being tossed away like a three day old Chic-Fil-A sandwich sitting in a car in the hot summer sun.
I can understand why most people don't like it. In most implementations, it's a pretty harmful, even brutal thing. Much like school bullying, games where the sole purpose is to get rid of everybody like Monopoy can lead to long downtimes between game for the unfortunate soul cast aside early. And I don't think I've ever actually finished a game of Risk without the board being thrown off the table, showering the tokens everywhere.
But under the right circumstances, Player Elimination can work.
Case 1:All decisions, in game designs, (and life I guess), come down to making the best choice given the understanding of known circumstances. Your best choice SHOULD be based on the most preferred outcome of these choices. Being eliminated from a game can be just another part of this equataion. Clue, otherwise known as Cluedo, is a prime example of this. On any turn of this game, a player can choose to eliminate himself by guessing the the murder case wrongly. The game begins with a player having, just throwing a number out at this point, a 95% chance of guessing incorrectly. As the game continues, that number slowly decreases as you gain more information until you get to the point where you are 100% correct and 0% of guessing wrong and being eliminated.
However, what if you feel that another player is very close to guessing also? Maybe it's worth taking that 10% of guessing wrong instead of the 95% chance that you won't have another turn? Since you only get one crack at this, and Player Elimination is factored into your decision as a large weight of the percentage (let's face, without P.E., this becomes a non-decision), it's an important feature to have.
Another game to look at, would be Tournament-styles Poker. While going "all in" in a regular poker game would just mean visiting the closest ATM to get back in the game, tournament play is another animal. Typically, in any given poker hand you are comparing expected value with your cards versus what you think other might have versus pot value. This kind of thing let's you determine how you should play a particular hand. Epected value being what it is, even playing CORRECTLY to your expected value, does not mean winning every time; just that over the long haul over many hands in the same situation, you will come out a winner. However, in tournament play, since you just can't buy yourself into the next hand when your correct Expected Value play goes south, you now need to include into the equation what it means to be possibly eliminated from the tournament and watch from the rail. Or inversely, what is it worth to you to try and chase someone out of a tournament by getting your target to go all in? The balance of Player Elimination in this scenario is pretty compelling; enough to make many a TV show.
Counterstike, the Half-Life mod, is also a darn good example of how Player Elimination ca drastically influence how one plays a game. Instead of the typical, run-around-at-a-breakneck-speed-on-automatic-fire multiplayer experience where you simply press a button and re-enter the game at a spawn point, in Counterstriek when you die, you are dead. That's it. You have to wait. And watch. And it's VERY easy to die in Counterstrike. This influences your style of play IMMENSELY. Suddenly your little 3D model takes great care in hiding, aiming, working with your little 3D buddies on screen, etc. Death means something. It means waiting. And the potential to being eliminated is a great reinforcer to doing stupid things.
Case 2: In games like Werewolf/Mafia and BANG! the whole game is about eliminating players, albeit, the CORRECT players. Since players fall like moths near a bug zapper quite quickly, every player is somewhat involved in the decision of who must fall first. The expected value of killing a "good" (in your eyes based on the character you are) player or "bad" player off is balanced between trying to save your own skin, and getting more information regarding what the other player's goals are, and if they are on your side. Much bluffing is involved, and the group dynamics are usually fun to watch. Without being eliminated, however, these games probably fall somewhat flat; and the tension isn't there.
Case 3: Self-imposed Player Elimination!! Try to get rid of your cards faster than other players!!! Hurry, hurry, hurry!!! Great Dalmuti, a presidents/asshole variant, is a prime example of this. Especially nice amongst this type of game is that the first-one-out feature carries over to the next game, where the faster you get out grants you special bonuses, and the game hands fairly brutal penalties to those who are last out. Woe be the low peasant who stis and watches as all the other players dump the pairs, while the measly peasant sits with 6 twelves! An, oh by the way, I would classify racing games to fall into this category, too.
As an aside, the Great Dalmuti deck is tuned rather nicely. It is much easier using the Dalmuti deck to rise out of peasantdom to merchantdom than using a standard 52-card deck. This is due to the ever-increasing occurance of card sets as the deck works it's way down the values (1 card for the 1, 12 cards for the 12). It's a fairly brilliant use of math to balance the game, but not enough that everyone has an equal footing.
Of course, I am probably stretching the definition of Player Elimination on this final point, since most people would claim that eliminating a player from the game is a lot different than winning the game. Which is probably true. But since I am trying to defend it, and maybe wrap some other ideas around a prospective game designer's noggin that maybe it's not such a bad thing after all, I thought I'd include it. Player Elimination can add quite a bit of tension to a game; it just needs to be carefully balanced.