More than Maps

In exploration on October 6th, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Exploration is one of the great things in gaming. I am tempted to proclaim it the difference between gamer’s games and casual games, but there are enough games on the “wrong” (Settlers of Catan is the 800 pound gorilla) side of the fence that I’ll hold back. Instead, a few I’ll stick with offering the first of a few short meditations on the whats, whys and wherefores of exploration in gaming.


Typically, gaming discussions about exploration focus on geographical exploration a la sandbox D&D or Traveller. On the computer side, certain CRPGs like the Elder Scrolls games and Red Dead Redemption, plus some of the better roguelikes are standard-bearers for exploration as a compelling game experience. Exploration as I speak of it involves that same impulse to find new and surprising things, but it can occur on abstract levels such as strategy, tactics and (in narrative forms) character and situation. My love of the strategic bricolage in Race for the Galaxy is based in how it creates such a vast plain of viable strategic possibilities (and strategic possibilities that are just close enough to viable to also be interesting). While I enjoy returning to old favorites like a Consumer Markets/Free Trade Association novelty-consume juggernaut, my interest would soon dry up if I only go to play a rotation of greatest hits.

Rules Text as a Design Artifact

In editing on August 29th, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Design is the process of suiting an item to a task (or a set of closely related tasks). Details like shaping a handle to fit a hand seem obvious, but they get overlooked all the time. Anyone that’s sold an RPG or a boardgame knows about game design and book design and has a lot of respect for the people that do them professionally. The idea that the text itself is an act of design may seem foreign, though. Shaping a book to fit the minds of its readers is easier to overlook and harder to accomplish. Some thought goes in to the quality of your prose, but that is the tip of the iceberg. Structure and organization are an act of design and, thanks to the nature of rules, it’s a tricky act of design, too.

The rules text is not your game, it is your game’s user interface. It is the button pad on your cell phone; the remote control to your cable or satellite box; the steering wheel, gearshift and pedals in your car. It is the way players (in the absence of a teacher) connect with your game and it needs to be designed as rigorously as the rules and procedures. Players cannot fall back on mashing your game’s buttons, poking through its menus or clicking hyperlinks at random.

Your rulebook must be more than a technical manual. It is a textbook, instruction manual, rules reference, and as the last chance to fail to convince someone to play your game it is a piece of marketing. Usability, user experience, proportion, rhythm, hierarchy and organization all affect how well your book (or PDF or ebook) conveys your game – your baby – to potential players. Fail at designing its text and your game will go unplayed. Worse, it will end up played incorrectly, condemning you to a lifetime of defending it and providing the same “obvious” tips and guidance and the indignity of a quick second edition.

Unfortunately, theory about designing RPG texts is scarce. We must rely on general design principles – Dieter Ram’s Ten Principles of Design is a good place to start – and dig through the theory of other fields of design for nuggets we can borrow. While no field of design deals with same mix of problems that the writers and editors of RPGs do, many fields touch on important ideas:

Technical Writing
While many technical manuals are a crime against the English language (and the sensibilities of their readers), good technical writing conveys procedures and behaviours clearly and in an engaging manner, an important hurdle every RPG must clear.
Web Design
Web designers deal with complicated hierarchies, focus and attention management every day. Most commercially-designed web pages are also major elements of a comprehensive marketing strategy as well.
Many web design blogs and books focus on explaining new techniques and concepts, and these articles are are quite similar to RPG texts. Sadly, presentation isn’t always given the attention it deserves (sound familiar?) The best designers – the ones who are (1) designers and (1a) coders – are masters who we all can learn from, though.
User Experience
A sub-discipline of web and interface design that focuses on how a user feels about using a website or program. User experience (UX) experts study conveying mood and atmosphere how to ensure users walk away with a positive feeling about a product or website.
Print Design
Your text will end up as a book – or PDF or ebook – so knowing how those products are designed will have a positive effect on the final product. At a bare minimum, learn standard practices for using italics, bold, all caps, small caps and underlining. Also, no whether you think it’s better or worse, use one space after the end of a sentence, not two (and learn what the rare exceptions to this guideline are).

Other fields of design have lessons to share, but these four (and general principles of design) should keep you busy and learning for a while. Their practitioners spend their lives trying to improve at them, so there’s no end of material for you to examine and consider. It’s time well spent, though. Your customers will thank you and so will your game.

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.