Archive for the ‘game design’ Category

The Trouble with Trias: a Malfunction at the Intersection of Craft and Reward Mechanics

In boardgames, game design, mechanics on June 23rd, 2011 at 2:30 pm

In the comments to my last post, Ben Draper asked me if I knew of any board games with (by my definition) bad reward mechanics to match the RPG example of the old World of Darkness games. I knew there was one floating around the back of my mind, but it took me a couple of hours to remember what it was. I’d even committed to writing about it once already, as a negative example of craft in game design.

Trias is a game about dinosaurs and continental drift. Played on a modular hexagonal board with three types of terrain: mountains, forest and plains (the board’s origin is probably a couple of cannibalized Settlers of Catan sets) which the players seed with herds of their respective dino species. During the game, the players breed and move their herds around the board and break the board up into sub-continents by drifting hexes outward into new positions.

It’s a straightforward area majority game in the mold of El Grande or San Marco with the continents the players create acting as scoring areas. Whenever a continent is broken in two by drift, one of the new landmasses is scored. The player that has the most herds on the new landmass receives two points and the second-place player scores one. At the end of the game (after the asteroid strikes, destroying all dinosaur life) there is a final scoring of all the continents where the winning species receives one point for each hex making up the continent and the second-place species earning half that many points. Read the rest of this entry »

Good Reward Mechanics

In boardgames, game design, mechanics, role-playing games on June 13th, 2011 at 12:28 pm


Over the last couple months I’ve developed a new view of what makes a reward mechanic good. It’s arisen from viewing, in close proximity, and thinking about this excellent Extra Credits video about achievements in video games and an old blog post by Dogs in the Vineyard & Apocalypse World designer Vincent Baker including an interesting discussion in the comments).

I believe that a good reward mechanic acts as a giant landmark or sign post, drawing players through the fun ways to play the game offers while helping them avoid viable but boring (or downright painful) options. If you, as a player, pursue well-designed rewards you will use the other mechanics in ways that are fun. Ideally, the more aggressively you pursue those rewards, the more fun you have, although roleplaying games have complicating factors which keep this a theoretical ideal. Boardgames or video games which violate this principle are missing the point and are much more likely to be outright broken. Often, designers of these games argue that the people that break them aren’t playing the game in the right spirit, but I would argue that the designer doesn’t understand what a game is.

Other factors – rewards that also serve as currency, largely – can be added to reward mechanics, complicating the picture. Good game design is more complicated than getting this aspect of the reward mechanics right, too. Nevertheless, I think any game that falls down on this front fails, or is at least horribly weakened, as a game design, and bells and whistles will not cover it up. Read the rest of this entry »

Linnaeus’s Four Principles of Dice Game Design

In boardgames, game design, mechanics on October 18th, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Like most people in my generation of gamers, I love rolling dice; big handfuls of them when possible. Unfortunately, this clashes with a lot of other elements of my taste in games, and there are very few dice games that I love as much as I love rolling dice. While I don’t think I have all the answers for what makes a brilliant dice game, I do have some thoughts; principles, if you will.

I choose the word principles advisedly. Principles should be followed but, unlike laws or rules, they are provided with the expectation that they will be broken *when there is sufficient justification*. I’m not sure how much the designers of the recent spate of dice games (To Court the King, Kingsburg, Pickomino, Roll Through the Ages, &c.) considered these problems, but all of them, as far as I know, break one or more of these principles, and I don’t think they have sufficient compensation for it. Read the rest of this entry »

Supers RPGs and Comic Book RPGs

In game design, gaming society, mechanics, role-playing games on October 14th, 2010 at 11:09 am

WARNING: An uncharacteristic amount of namedropping occurs in the following anecdote. I’ve done my best to keep it to a minimum, but some is necessary for context.

I was fortunate enough to attend DexCon 13 in July, partially as a birthday present to myself. My first session was an experimental session of Marvel Superheroes run by With Great Power… designer Michael Miller. Darren Watts, president of Hero Games (publisher of the Champions RPG) and Indie Press Revolution (the latter newly minted at the time) was just closing up the IPR booth as we started up, and when someone mentioned we were playing MSH, Darren expressed nostalgia for the game. That inevitably led to us wheedling him into taking the last available seat for the game. Seriously, supers gaming with Michael and Darren was too good an opportunity to pass up. Read the rest of this entry »

Strategic Bricolage

In boardgames, game design, mechanics, race for the galaxy, techniques on October 5th, 2010 at 10:32 am

One reason why I love Race for the Galaxy so much is the strong exploration element. You find new combinations of cards and powers regularly – even after hundreds of plays – which keeps it a fresh, fun experience. The reason Race for the Galaxy maintains this for so many plays when other games are exhausted after a handful of times is that it demands strategic bricolage. Read the rest of this entry »

Narrative Arc in Boardgames

In game design, mechanics on September 23rd, 2010 at 11:26 am

The concept of narrative arc in board games was (to my knowledge) first described by Jonathan Degann in an essay he wrote for the (sadly moribund) Games Journal as part of his Game Design 101 series. It didn’t find a lot of traction for some reason, though, and it doesn’t come up much in the analysis of board and card games. I think it’s an important analytical tool so I thought I’d dredge it up from the depths, clean it off, and see if I can offer a few extra notes about it. Read the rest of this entry »

Bohnanza: the RPG

In boardgames, game design, mechanics, role-playing games on May 28th, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Okay, not literally. But I ran an idea up the flagpole on Twitter and got a reaction from a few people, including a request to expand a bit and, well, here we are :)

My original tweet said:

The hand management in Bohnanaza is crying out to be used as a conflict resolution system in an RPG. Read the rest of this entry »

More to Come on Craft

In game design, mechanics on January 19th, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I didn’t intend for my post on the role of craft in game design to be the start of another series of articles, but it appears that there is some demand for more on the topic. Well, from Ryan Macklin and Seth Ben Ezra anyway. I guess I’ll try writing a couple more pieces and see how it goes.

Seth suggested that I dissect a few games, looking at the craft (and lack thereof) in their designs. Doing an adequate job of this for an entire game would require a pamphlet, not a blog post, though, and I’m not up to taking on such a large project. Instead, I’m going to pull out individual rule systems, or clusters of closely-related systems, and discuss them. So far, I have four subjects in mind, and we’ll see if there is demand for more after that. Read the rest of this entry »

Craft and Game Design

In game design on January 5th, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Large swathes of the gaming community devote themselves to finding new mechanics and (for roleplayers) new techniques of play. Games are routinely dismissed with the simple statement that they offer nothing new. I am something of a neophile, so I understand this position, but I also feel that it misses the point. Often, these games do not suffer from a lack of novelty, as their critics say. Instead, they are poorly crafted. Craft is something you have to feel, though. You cannot (easily) point to it in a rulebook or explain in a review (let alone a quick, dismissive comment), so it’s easier to fall back on something superficial like a lack of novelty.

This, of course, begs the question, what is craft? Read the rest of this entry »

[D&D4] Skill DCs Rebuilt From the Ground Up

In game design, role-playing games on September 8th, 2008 at 8:00 am

As I said in my last post, I am less than impressed with the skill check system in D&D 4th edition. Most of these problems are rooted in the idea of resolving checks using d20 roll + skill modifier. The high variability and flat probability curve are a nightmare to work with. Actually fixing the problems would require starting from zero, and pitching the d20 heritage, though.

Instead, I just want to hack the skill system a bit, to get it working well enough to be fun. There will likely be several stages to this, but the first starts at the foundation. The baseline DCs in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and in the first batches of errata released for it just do not match the game’s mathematical structure. They need to be replaced. Read the rest of this entry »


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