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February 2017

We Grew Our Gaming Group

By | Games & Life | No Comments

I posted this as a reply to /u/game_doctor’s question on /r/boardgames:


“When introducing games to non – gamers, what’s the thought on throwing the game to get them to come back?”

This is a very situational discussion, but I’m curious what group policy is, or if this comes up? How does an established play group deal with a new player?


My reply:

It’s not a situational discussion, it’s essential to expanding or whittling away at your gaming group.

I’ve thrown a couple of games.

That being said, I do not recommend it. In the same way I also wouldn’t recommend being a complete hardass. I’d rather like to focus on the last part of your question to give you some personal insight.

“… to get them to come back?”

The age-old question. Because it’s not that hard to get someone to try something. At least once. What’s really hard is to get them to want to come back. So why were they willing to try it at all in the first place? I mean, yeah, pure insistence on your part can accomplish wonders. But if sheer insistence is all you’ve got, it doesn’t matter if you throw the game or not, because they won’t come back. You’ve depleted your chips for a while.

On the other hand, if they agreed to sit at the table and try something they’ve never done before thanks to even the smallest sense of curiosity on their part, you have a chance. You just have to make their curiosity worth their while.

To begin with, it might be a good idea to gauge the person. Is he/she your SO? Is he/she a nephew or son? Is he/she a best friend? A brother-in-law? These are very different relationships to have and they establish very different ground rules about a gaming experience. Why did they say “yes”? What are they looking to get out of this? Is it a new activity to share? Is it a fun time? Is it a challenge?

Think about it in boxing terms. Your best friend invites you to spar with him/her. He/she’s been bugging you about it for quite a while, too. You agree, only to get your ass handed to you. How would you feel if he/she drags you to an area outside of your comfort zone only to come back the colour of a blueberry? My guess is that “…thanks, I’ll pass!” will quickly become the default answer. You might once in a while get that rare acquaintance who’d rather learn the ropes the hard way, but he/she’s usually more the exception than the rule.

So first, gauge intentions! Nine times out of ten, your first-timers will want to have a good time and explore something new safely. So don’t play **Battlestar Galactica**. Avoid **Space Hulk: Death Angel**. Give them something nice, simple and relaxing that they can sink their teeth into. Try **Carcassonne**. Too simple? Ramp up complexity and go with **Takenoko**. Needs a bit of spice? Try **Sheriff of Nottingham**. There’s a reason these are considered light gateway games. They’re very good at what they’re intended to do.

Second: do yourself a favour and check if your regular gaming group is newcomer-friendly. I have friends who know how to measure their punches and are just a blast to have at the table when fresh blood hits the table. Others, not so much. I don’t mix my gaming buddies if they can’t play at a similar wavelength. I play like a damn shark with some, and I don’t mind letting my guard down every now and then with others if you know what I mean. Whatever the case, I do make a point of keeping competitive play and just-for-fun play separate.

And third? Don’t sweat it. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. What’s important is that you approach the opportunity from an empathic mindset. They are coming to your turf. Allow them to sniff around. Let them try dumb shit. Have a good time. That’s what it’s all about, in the end.

I don’t have much to back my statements with, except for the following. Somewhere in 2013 my wife, a complete non-gamer, gifted me **A Game of Thrones: The Board Game Second Edition**. It was something done on a complete whim during a trip. Although a hardcore gamer, I hadn’t played board games beyond **Monopoly**, a local variant of **RISK** and I think **Catan** that one time. And although at the time I had a fairly large gaming group, nobody had ever played any board games as well.

… fast-forward to 2017. I play board games several times a week with my wife. **Takenoko** is still one of her favourites. She’s also digging **Agricola** and **Pandemic** to an insane degree. My nephews have just gotten into the hobby and are loving **King of Tokyo**. Board gaming as a hobby has proved to be so successful with my friends that, by and large, it has replaced LAN nights. We broke ground in 2013 with **A Game of Thrones: The Board Game Second Edition**. Then **Avalon**. Now it’s **Battlestar Galactica**, **Dead of Winter**, **Twilight Struggle** and the rest usually split between two or three simultaneous games. We’ve spun off a separate Whatsapp group to avoid spamming the main one. We’re 14 strong. Maybe, hopefully, we’ll get even bigger. I’m happy as I’ll ever be.

TL;DR: know your audience

Wish you all the best!

Game Design: Game

By | Game Design | No Comments

Now listening to: “Pirates of the Caribbean Soundtrack”

So the experience rises from the game. I’d rather not go all Raph Koster on the whole “what is a game” thing. Absolutely no offence meant. I just don’t have the chops to do it.

By far, the most boring job I’ve had thus far was copy-pasting numbers on a spreadsheet. Good ol’ data entry. But the problem with data entry as a job is not the job per se. It’s the frame of mind for the problem at hand. Had I reformulated my approach I might’ve derived some enjoyment from the experience.

Sadly, I didn’t.

I came across a similar scenario, years later. Instead of floundering, I decided to learn Visual Basic for Applications. I just figured that it was either that or shoot myself. The mind-numbing and soul-crushing task was now a challenge of automation through programming. I had no intention to have to ever repeat what I had already once gone through. So I applied myself to learn how to make software do what I didn’t want to.

To this day, it’s been one of my most fun and memorable job experiences.
What is pleasure without pain, though?

What is pleasure without pain, though?

Delight, although not defined as such, is a word that to me stands for unexpected pleasure. Dismay, well, is its opposite. I came up with a small, simple game last week after going through my earlier notes. It’s about fire and survival. Imagine my surprise when I found myself thinking about it more than my original project.

Imagine my delight when the goal, the problem and the methods of resolving it came to me almost effortlessly.

Imagine my dismay when I realised that this was a game that I was actually more interested in playing.

Do I think the game can surprise the players? Yes, for better or worse, it can. Is the story surprising? Not right now, although I haven’t seen other games doing this. Are the game rules surprising? Sort of, yeah. Again, I haven’t seen anyone else doing this. Is the artwork surprising? Not at all. I’ll have to work no that one. Is the tech surprising? Not at all. It’s all cards so far. So, 2/5 says “yes” and 3/5 says “no”. That’s pretty poor, and I’d be afraid if it weren’t for the fact that I feel this is a far more interesting and better game than what I had in mind initially.

I got the important aspect of surprise down. I can work towards the rest.

This fire game is a simpler game as well. Probably easier to develop too. I can already kinda imagine the fun in it. It’s a co-op puzzle solving game. Is it really a puzzle? Isn’t it? Don’t care. That’s what I’m calling it right now. If it needs to be defined better, it will be. This game will have good leap-of-faith moments. It’ll hopefully have just-in-time plays. It’ll have sweet clutch combos. So individual actions will need to be or build towards a satisfying-as-fuck experience.

I have no idea what kinds of questions will arise from the first playtest.

But here’s a great thing. I want to get this idea on the table and see if it has any legs. I didn’t want to, that bad, with the first one. Otherwise, I’d already have done it. Does the game need events to shake things up a bit? Does it have replayability? We’ll see.

Co-op games need to be more challenging to remain a fun experience. It’s a delicate balance. Go the Space Hulk: Death Angel route and you’ll risk alienating the players. Better to go the Pandemic route and allow players to gauge how much punishment they think they’re ready for. Avoid making luck a big thing. Luck spits in the face of careful plans and strategies. Unforeseen events are okay. They are the secret sauce of freshness. Constant random shit is just annoying and allows for no strategy. I think it’s going to be a sort of tile-laying, resource-management game.

Got bored of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. Switched to Red Dead: Redemption. Bored. Switched to Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Bored. They all sound the same.

If the mechanic at the core of the game is not fun, no amount of piling up on top will fix that. Keep it simple. See if it works. See if it makes the internal p-solving mechanism tick. If it does, tweak. If it doesn’t, no problem.

Scrap. Try again.

#4 Surprise

#5 Fun

#6 Curiosity

#7 Endogenous Value

#8 Problem Solving

Game Design: Dungeons, Dragons & Venue

By | Game Design | No Comments

Now listening to: “Greatest Hits”, by Gypsy Kings

Strong Underground Prison Cells & Flying Lizards

So D&D starts too late.

There, I said it. D&D starts too late, and I think it’s a huge problem that makes many things suck for everyone else involved later on. D&D starts too late because, by the time players take control of their characters, the ball’s already been rolling for a good couple of feet.

There’s no “characters living their ordinary lives” scene. There’s no “call to adventure” scene. The characters are, starting right at level 1 and as stated in the Player’s Handbook itself, already beings with a destiny and a cut above everyone else.

And this sucks. It sucks because it removes the gravitas of an adventurer. There’s a reason all “Final Fantasy” games, no matter how bad, start with a tragedy. There’s a reason Wolf Team’s excellent “Tales of Phantasia” makes you dick around a forest with your best friend before launching you into high adventure. A good adventure story needs this sort of warm up.

And D&D, whatever else it may be, is at its core a collaborative adventure storytelling game.

I’ll cut to the chase. Taking a note from an excellent post at /r/dndbehindthescreen, I’ve been thinking of starting future D&D adventures from level 0. What do I mean? You don’t get your fighter, or your ranger, or your wizard. You don’t get your adventurer already having experienced his “ordinary lives” and “call to adventure” scene.

You get a commoner, with maybe a pitchfork, and I’ll pit you and everyone else against a goddamn pack of wolves attacking your village. Or whatever. I’ll give you something to truly worry about, and little to no means of defending yourself. And we’ll see how destined for greatness you really are.

You survive? Good. Now you get to pick a class that’ll firmly place you above the rest of the typical inhabitants of the world. You earned those special powers and abilities. You didn’t just get whacked over the head with the Special Hammer.

We’ll see how that goes.

Venue

So the essential experience of a game should be embedded as much as possible and in as many ways as possible in the game for it to be effective. And given that at least part of the essential experience of a game is affected by the venue one chooses for the game to take place in, it’s important to choose the venue wisely.

This is not the internal venue, but the external venue. You’ve got your Hearth, where TVs and consoles thrive. You’ve got your Workbench, where PCs and intense hours of play take place. And you’ve also got your Reading Nooks (ideal iPad fodder), your Public Venues (Disney ahoy!), the Theater (LARPing), the Arena (hello eSports!), the Museum, the Gaming Table, the Playground and… well, Anywhere really.

My horror game? I think I’d like to choose the Gaming Table. The gaming table is where the players take on the role of gods of the toy world. Not literal gods, mind you. More like observers from above. The Gaming Table is all about intensity. It’s a limited number of players. It’s physical presence.

I think the Gaming Table is a good match for a party who at times hunts and at times is hunted. It brings out the intimacy of the subject matter (treason and tension). It’s where the heated debates can happen best.

I am, however, concerned about the compatibility between the Gaming Table and a horror experience. Kingdom Death: Monster styles itself as a horror game. I do wonder, though, how effective it really is in eliciting that kind of reaction in its players.

And if we’re talking about essential elements, about the tropes and signifiers of a genre, horror usually has a hard time getting its conventions right consistently. So it’s probably best to begin with a venue that’s as compatible as possible with the genre. If the Gaming Table doesn’t work, it must just end up being a solo experience for the Reading Nook or the Workbench.

#3 Venue

Game Design: Emotion

By | Game Design | No Comments

Now listening to: “Spiritual State”, by Nujabes

I want to make a game. In my mind, it’s still a board game. It’s been bouncing around my mind for two years. It’s a horror game.

I want to deal with the issues of separation.

I like “Dracula”. I think it’s a solid gothic horror novel. A classic, through and through. I always thought that I was reading the beginning of a story and the ending of another one. I like the mythologies behind “Dracula”. I like what’s implied by what little information we get about the titular character’s backstory. I also like the possibilities that fan out from the novel’s ending. In that sense, I think that “Dracula” is not unlike Star Wars. A baton pass between characters.

The tragedy of giving everything to fight monsters only to become one.

Every good story has a payload. A story should generate some sort of response from the audience. Euros are usually defined as abstract. That, however, doesn’t mean that they cannot convey an emotional experience effectively. It’s just harder, given their abstract nature.

I want my game to generate what stories like “Dracula” generate.

I think that horror is a really challenging genre for a game designer. Doubly so for a board game designer. There are countless examples of bad horror and there are few examples of good horror.

Anyway.

I like social deduction games. I like hidden traitor games. The problem is that being a traitor or not is usually preordained by the game. I always wanted that to be a human element. I think that to disagree and turn on each other is a very human thing. I want the player or players to choose to betray the group and feel the consequences of doing so. In the end, I think that the best kind of horror that I can offer is the fear of human nature. Of each other.

But fear is meaningless without a counterpart. Dread is meaningless without hope. Dread is the terror of the future. The fear of things yet to happen. Horror is less sublime. Horror is disgust and rejection in the face of things that are happening. But the things that actually do happen are rarely on par with what our imaginations can come up with. The fear of when a player will turn.

But betrayal rarely feels like what it is to the betrayer. It’s more often than not a justified inevitability of consequence.

I want them to feel in over their heads. I want them to feel that sacrifices will have to be made and that they will have to pull the gun. That luck eventually runs out. That someone will probably have to bite the dust and be damned.

#1 Emotion
#2 Essential Experience