Lily is the lead designer on Build. She is currently 13.
As a business which designs games, we go into as many games shops and board game cafes as possible. We play games there to learn from other designers, we build relationships with the staff and clients and we love the community. As a result we’ve been in most of the ones close to us: Here is a guide to some of the board games cafes we have been in.
The first games cafe is Game Knight in Derby.
6 The Spot, Osmaston Road, DE1 2JA.
Game Knight was recommended to us by a gaming friend. We rolled up one afternoon and it was very full. The clientele were a mix of young men gamers and a few families. As they were pretty full, we were offered the VR suite. That’s right, they’ve also got a VR video gaming room. The selection of games was good. We played Big Potato’s Weird Things Human Search For. The overall feel of the cafe is community-focused with competition events and evenings dedicated to certain games. Like many in the community they were very enthusiastic to help us out with play testing and publicising.
The second is Ludorati in Nottingham.
72 Maid Marian Way, Nottingham NG1 6BJ.
Ludorati is a big, open, modern-looking games cafe with the largest amount of games you have ever seen. They call it ‘The Wall’. They also have an escape room behind a sealed glass room and they often host competitions and events. We did an escape room activity for my 13th birthday. It was more like an ‘escape room in a box’ game than a fully physical escape room. It was very hard and we failed miserably.
They have nice food and drink. It also has a small shop attached where you can buy some of the more popular games on the market. They run a membership scheme too, which gives you a discount on games from the shop.
The serving staff did not seem very well-versed in games but there were a few gaming advisers circulating who really helped us to choose a game, set up and play.
The third is The Treehouse in Sheffield.
41 Boston Street, Sheffield, S2 4QF.
The Treehouse is a games cafe mostly aimed at the students at the university as it is located right in the middle of the student accommodation area. It offers free/cheap gaming to students and not very expensive (but still really good) food. It also has a modern feel to it which is inviting and professional. Recently they have been doing up the shop so at the moment they don’t have a shop but soon there will be one attached to the cafe. Their selection of games is good, with a nice ‘taster menu’ to guide you through them. The Treehouse offer a neat selection of imaginative gaming alternatives lie their ‘Solken’ D&D campaign based on the evocative artwork of Katie Ponder or Bring Them Home – a retro Sci-Fi ‘megagame’. In their calender are events like ‘Rainbow Gaming’ for the LGBTQ community or ‘Burton on Board’ which works with a charity for disabled gamers aimed at involving a wider gaming community.
The staff were helpful and knowledgeable about the games. We really enjoyed their charming and quirky take on the business.
The Dice Cup
Next is The Dice Cup in Nottingham
68-70, Mansfield Road, Nottingham.
Occupying a different niche to Ludorati, The Dice Cup is a fully vegan cafe with a dizzyingly large selection of games, with a full games shop on site as well. They also have nice gaming tables to play on. Initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign and defiantly DIY, the cafe fills a huge space in what was once a furniture store.
Jack in a Box
Finally, our first friendly local games store: Jack in a Box in Ripley
7C Church Street, Ripley.
Jack in a box is hidden down an alley behind a gift shop. Squeeze past the potted plants and ornamental gifts and the shop blossoms out into a treasure trove of tabletop games. It is kind-of a games cafe because there is a great selection of games open and available in the cafe area. There is also a shop attached with a wide selection of games. The staff are warm and inviting and are willing to talk about the selection of games and help you pick one.
Stormy Waters Ahead.
Here I am, launching my blog-ship into some stormy waters. I am writing about the experience of women in gaming. That’s right, a white, mid
dle class, middle aged, heterosexual man. Only I’m not going to write about women’s experience. I can’t, not with any veracity. But I am going to
write about my feelings and opinions, which I can give with some weight.
It is the first Con season after the Weinstein thing and the #MeToo thing. A shake up and wake up to the male psyche. Secret acts have been dragged out into the open. Previously normalised behaviour is being re-examined. Women seem to have a new courage to stand up and speak out about behaviours which make them afraid, humiliated, endangered. I for one, think this is a good thing. And those who speak up should be supported.
We, the gaming community, have not been immune to these winds of change. We are perhaps sheltered from it a little bit because we’re not, on the whole, alpha-male types. Nonetheless, reports are rising of harassment and even assault at gaming events. This is shameful for all of us and can’t be ignored. No man is an island and all that. That which diminishes one, diminishes all.
I think it is even more shameful for us because we pride ourselves on our inclusivity don’t we? I think of my own observations at gaming meets. People with physical disabilities, learning difficulties, overweight, awkward, a whole rainbow of genders. The geeks welcome all comers. Many of us have experienced the sting (or even the crushing blow) of outsiderdom and don’t want to inflict that on others. The women in our community deserve the same.
This isn’t easy to do of course, we’re good people, we don’t want to have to critiscise or block out other people, right? A gaming friend of mine guided me towards this article which explores more eloquently than I the social fallacies we fall prey to.
The attitude of modern youth
A small aside. Double L Games’ first game, Build, is designed by my 13 year old daughter, Lily. She has accompanied me to almost all of the gaming meets I’ve been to this year. Some of you may remember her from the UKGE. She has her own firm opinions (see the insert bar). When we talked about these issues, she thought that it seemed almost unbelievable that the acts which are reported are still going on in today’s enlightened world. We discussed the context of this. That the world she lives in is very modern, very recently created. You only have to watch an episode of Friends to appreciate how quickly attitudes to difference have changed, or consider the world’s responses to Trump’s anachronistic sexism to triangulate where our current level of normal i
s expected to lie.
We are still building this world, still fighting for the world we want the next generation to live in. We can influence it. My day job is as a teacher. We have a saying that the teacher sets the weather in their classroom. An authoritative leader can define the rules of discourse around them without anyone else even being aware of it. We are social creatures. The unspoken rules of our groups are constantly being monitored by the group’s members, constantly shifting behaviours to fit in. We have a role to play in setting the weather in our game groups: in defining the rules.
When I offered support to the female voices on a social media forum, the greatest quantity of replies were supportive but there were a few who denied the problem, “I’ve never seen this happen so it doesn’t exist”; some who were dismissive, “I’m a good person, so I must be already doing the right thing, I don’t have to listen to this”; yet some – a minority – attacked the victims. This last group used arguments like “toughen up, grow a pair, quit your whining, maybe you’re part of the problem”. Not enormously helpful commentary. I hope that those people aren’t the ones nearby if Lily feels threatened and ever needs backup or support from an adult.
Also, “Be tougher?” It is a scientific fact that on average men are bigger and stronger than women – yes and the beards, skull t-shirts and tattoos are as intimidating as they’re meant to be. Women at gaming events are outnumbered and outgunned. All of us, even the deniers and dismissers need to come out on the side of women here. We cannot afford to allow complacent blind eye turning. Each time the rest of the table says the nothing, the message we give is, “I’m OK with this. I accept this behaviour.” We are a community: we are complicit.
Our challenge is three fold.
On a social media post I wrote that there are 3 things that people like me can do.
Firstly – don’t be a dick. Choose not to make sexist commentary, not to make jokes or comments which might make others uncomfortable; choose not to prejudge; and certainly choose not to harass.
Secondly – challenge others who are being dicks. Every time we allow someone else to get away with it we are complicit (see above).
Thirdly – put the next generation into gaming. Make them wonderful. Make them confident, inclusive, clever, witty. Make them expect and aspire to a better world.
What will be our reward? A stronger community. I recall a post from the incomparable Jamey Stegmaier in which a survey of his customers revealed that only 8.5% were non-male. We games designers, organisers of meets, proprietors of games cafes and FLGS have access to a growing sector. If Jamey’s survey results are repeated across all our businesses (and I suspect they are) we have a lot to gain through inclusivity. Both Lily and I have identified (among stiff opposition) that our favourite local game store (FLGS acronym fans!) is Chimera Games in Beeston, just outside Nottingham. It is open and welcoming, light and spacious. They have a great selection of games and comics, offer informed advice and super organised events. Crucially for the points I’m making here, though, female staff are high profile and front of house. This made a big, albeit subconscious, impact on Lily, identifying it as the sole games shop or club that she knows (and there are plenty) that she’d feel confident to visit by herself. Think about that. How many potential members of our community turned away and didn’t join in?
But more than growing our community, much more. We will be in the right. We will be the white hats. The Good alignments. We will be in the right when all the Lynx smelling locker room banter will be in the wrong. We will be in the right when the boorish loudmouth will be in the wrong. We will be in the right when our friends, sisters and partners need support, and then we, the geeks, shall inherit the earth.
I’m writing this blog post and listening to BBC R5’s ‘Let’s talk about Tech’. The presenter is chatting with exhibitors and visitors at the UKGE 2018.
You can tell from everyone’s voices just how hyped up and excited they all are. That’s exactly how we felt when were there too! But that’s not how I felt at the start of the show.
This was our first Games Expo, in fact it was our first visit to a big event at all. I’m sure that, like a lot of you would have been, I was nervous and unsure. I did not know what to expect. The information which flowed from the organisers was non-stop, sometimes technical and often strict. As a result I was pretty scared rolling up on Thursday during the set up phase. Luckily, it pretty much all turned out OK! But, to spare any future newbies from the jitters I experienced, I’m sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned from the experience.
We took advantage of the opportunity at UKGE to have an affordable small stand. My wife is an old hand at trade fairs in other sectors and she was amazed and delighted that UKGE offered entry level stands for small exhibitors. The organiser’s info seemed to imply that a shell scheme was de rigeur. A shell is the flimsy walls, often white which surround the stands. We booked a 3-sided shell which opened at the front. When I arrived on Thursday, I was pretty horrified to see that our little stand was standing lonely and obvious as the only one with a shell. As the hall filled up with other stands, though, our stand became less ‘sore-thumby’ and settled in to its neighbours and I became more comfortable. We found that the shell gave us more control of our environment – we had walls to decorate; a lovely clean white space; and a bit of shelter from the noise and air-con wind. I knew I had booked a 2x2m stand and was quite aware of how small that was so before the show I mocked up the space with masking tape on the living room floor and set up all our gear. At this point it became clear what we could and couldn’t fit in, which helped us plan what to take. Our main priority was to encourage people to play Build, so our prime piece of furniture was a table and four chairs. We set these up ‘end on’ to the entrance so that there was access to the table and it didn’t block the public out in a ‘headmaster’s office’ style. Playtesting was a huge success. It was important to have a playable version to engage people.
Lesson 1: Stands are affordable
Lesson 2: You don’t necessarily need a shell
Lesson 3: Mock up your stand in advance
Lesson 4: Have a ‘welcoming’ stand
An army of volunteers
My small experience of other trade fairs was that they were tedious and exhausting. So, to combat both of these I invited a gang of friends from our gaming club to help out. We timetabled a rota so that everyone had plenty of free time to experience the expo and also had a pal on the stand with them for company. As an exhibitor we got 2 tickets for free and 2 more exhibitor passes for £10 each. I bought an extra young person’s pass for Lily and a 2-day pass for another volunteer who was coming on Saturday. My youngest child got in for free. And hey presto! A 7 – person team! I offered the volunteers, tickets, food and lodging and they leapt at the chance. Before the Expo we created a pack of information based on what UKGE organisers had shared with all the information they needed for the weekend. This included:
- Instructions on collecting tickets
- Parking information (we were only allowed one free parking pass but did blag another one from the exhibitor services).
- Team mobile phone numbers
- Priorities for the weekend
- Accommodation details
- Maps and location of our stall
- Rota and timings over the weekend (playtest zone slots, seminars etc)
Lesson 5: A small army of volunteers worked well.
Long before the Expo, my head was a-buzz with worries, questions and ideas. As they occurred, I wrote them down on a single document. These were things like, ‘When is our playtest zone slot?’ How do we provide food at the accommodation?’ and ‘Where do I unload from?’
Closer to the date, this information began to arrive from the organisers and I was able to plan a response to issues that were in my purview.
I also sketched down a list of things I wanted get from the event from ‘Playtest Build 10 times’ to ‘Talk to retailers about placing products in shops’ to ‘Play a load of games and have fun’. Later, I put these in a priority order.
Both these processes allowed me to download the chatter in my head into an organised format and feel like I had control over it. This reduced my stress and also actually gave me control over it!
Lesson 6: Make plans well in advance
Lesson 7: Find a system to keep control of all the information
Take every opportunity offered
As well as being a chance for gamers to walk round, spend money, meet gaming celebs and try out lots of cool new games, UKGE also had the ‘Publisher/Designer track’ organised by Playtest UK who had seminars, panels, networking events as well as staffing the playtest zone. This was a magnificent source of advice and support for small (and not-so-small) companies like ourselves. I attended everything I could and soaked up all the information. Some of these required booking on before the event – the deadlines for some were a month beforehand – so watch out for that.
Lesson 8: Grab every chance you can. Carpe those Diems!
Our obligations for GDPR
Just before the Expo, my email tray and the news reports on my radio were full of GDPR: General Data Protection Regulations. People appeared to be panicking left, right and centre about their obligations. As we were hoping to collect names and email addresses for our mailing list as well as encourage folk to follow us on social media, these regulation clearly applied to us. Luckily my wife is level headed and read up on these. The basics came down to consent, protection and transparency. Our duties involved: getting people to sign a form to say they were happy for us to include them on the mailing list; keeping their personal information (email and names) private; and telling them what we do with their data. This was all pretty straightforward so we printed off some individual forms (we didn’t want to create a long list as previous entries would be visible to the next person) and took along a lockable strongbox to keep them in on site and we made sure to remove them all off site at night. Later, back at base we kept all the personal info in a locked filing cabinet.
Lesson 9: Our responsibilities for GDPR weren’t too onerous.
Talking to the public, colleagues, networking
Early on in the expo it became clear that, in some people’s eyes, we weren’t a very sexy game. At the busy press preview, no-one wanted to stop and talk to me. I made a decision on the spot to break my habitual discomfort, come out from behind my table and engage people. It worked! And it carried on working all weekend! If I imagine how it must feel to be in a huge hall of people, overwhelmed by it all, paralysed by choice, then it must be a relief to have someone else break the ice by smiling and chatting to you. Lily was particularly good at this and got all sorts of people to stop, talk and even playtest Build. Speaking to the exhibitors, everyone I spoke to was a useful contact offering advice, the story of their game, further contacts and invitations.
Lesson 10: Be brave; talk to folk. It totally pays off.
Prototype making and game iterations
After Friday, we had already achieved my playtest target of 10 sessions over the weekend. It was clear that it would be a waste to merely present the same version of the game again on Saturday and Sunday. As a result, on the Friday night and Saturday morning we reviewed the feedback comments, changed the game, made some new prototype materials and started to playtest the new version. On Saturday night we did it again – only this time not such a radical change. As a result the game accelerated through a series of iterations which were thoroughly playtested very quickly. The game improved dramatically over the course of the weekend.
Lesson 11: Have all the printing, cutting, laminating gear with you.
On the NEC site there are a number of hotels, many of which had UKGE fringe events on in the evenings. I quickly dismissed these as accommodation for our little volunteer army as they were way too expensive.
I looked elsewhere for alternative accommodation:
We eventually settled on an Air BnB as this was the most cost effective for a group our size. I was aware as we left that some of the gamers were just about to begin some epic gaming sessions and that we were missing out, but at least we had a quiet, comfortable house to retire ot for a good rest.
Lesson 12: Look wider than the expo campus for accommodation.
“What keeps you coming back to a game?”
I’ve read a few articles recently chewing over the question of how the world of tabletop games could learn from video games, or vice versa, or which was better. Firstly, I totally refute the idea that one is better than the other. Let’s not even look at that. But the question of one industry learning from the other…now that’s intriguing.
The thoughts coalesced recently during a conversation. I have a good friend who is an experienced video games designer, both for big budget productions and his own indie games. I was telling him about a tabletop game I’m working on. He asked a simple question, “What makes it replayable?”
Normally, our thoughts turn this question into, “What makes this game different every time you play it?” These aren’t the same questions. As an aside, dear reader, I was very confident that my game had oodles of replayability! In fact the question should be, “What keeps you coming back to a game?”
I bounced the question back to the video game world. Take a game like Super Mario. Surely that’s the same each time you play it? And yet it was wildly popular – arguably it still is. I considered the video games that I have replayed many times and looked for analogous experiences in tabletop games. What was it that kept me coming back? How can I transfer that to a tabletop experience?
My Personal History of Playing Video Games
At the start: Elite
At the top of the list is my first immersive, obsessive game. I recall playing Elite on my Commodore 64 way into the night on my 80s bedroom, certainly long after I should have been in bed on a school night. It was probably the first open-world game. It allowed exploration, trade, combat, upgrades to your ship, secret missions and deeply frustrating docking procedures. Why did I love it? The freedom. The sense of discovery and the gradual accrual of wealth and resources. For the first time, a video game seemed boundless and yet you were in a fully realised universe of pirates, traders, mining and shady deals. In retrospect, though, it had to be based on a simple set of parameters – the computer systems just weren’t up to handling more! How is this analogous to a tabletop game experience? The open worlds of RPGs spring to mind, games you can form relationships with and sink into for long periods. Equally, the simplicity of the game mechanics can be a thing of beauty. Just a few simple parameters that express themselves as endless gameplay. I’m endlessly in awe of the simple beauty of Pandemic. A feeling that I’m told scientists get when they consider a well-made and economical equation. E=MC2 .
Lessons: Immersion. Simplicity of mechanics can = complex gameplay.
The Playstation Years
Years later, as my housemates splurged on a first generation Playstation, I had a second phase of video gameplaying. This time we were regularly in awe of the visuals that the technology could produce. Also, we had entered a new arena of storytelling. During this phase, it was clear that video games could soon rival films as an immersive, storytelling artform. Metal Gear:Solid and Silent Hill wowed us with their atmospherics and set pieces. To this day the sound of crows squawking reminds me of the long elevator descent towards Vulcan Raven. Not to mention the endless fear as you avoided the undead in Silent Hill. But the pinnacle of gaming at that time was the obscene amount of my life I poured into Final Fantasy VIII. This was the first time I’d encountered a game which didn’t tie you to a linear path. There was a story – and it was well told – but you had the freedom to explore, take detours into side quests and win the game through a number of routes. All these three games had strong, cinematic plots with distinct characters, depth and humour.
Lessons: A strong narrative with clear characters.
The Later years: gaming with my kids
Now there is a big gap in my video gaming. Essentially it restarts when my own children begin gaming. Games have matured, new genres have proliferated. I play Need for Speed: Rivals in which I revel in the crazy stunts and cool manoeuvres. Lamborghinis and Ferraris corkscrewing through the air or sliding sideways through street furniture. Minecraft absorbed us for hours, exploring, creating, cooperating and battling beasties. Subnautica’s absorbing exploration and crafting. All these games gave my son and I stories of our own to tell. We shared the cool things we’d done. We built a common experience of scrapes, stunts and wonders.
Lessons: We like to share our stories. Experience cool narratives.
This final lesson is interesting. YouTube is full of films showing gameplay: Fortnite, minecraft, Star Wars Battlefront. People enjoy watching other people play. They enjoy each other’s game narratives. They laugh at the pratfalls and thrill at the action. Let’s transfer this to tabletop games. Sites like Geek and Sundry do a mighty fine job of televising tabletop gaming. Wil Wheaton works hard to overlay a narrative on tabletop gameplay in his rightly popular Tabletop series. Unfortunately, placing train carriages or removing coloured blocks isn’t a very compelling narrative format. RPGs are better fit as a game format for storytelling. Witness the success of critical Role.
If one of the most satisfying aspects of video games, is strong characters, compelling stories, cool events you can share and retell, then where is the equivalent in tabletop gaming? ‘Role playing games!’ You cry with one voice, and I concede the point. But what about in board games? Maybe board games aren’t the place for a cinematic narrative. Maybe strong characters and plots are superfluous. Board games are a broad, broad church and these themes I’m emphasising won’t enhance every game. Would Sagrada be better this way? Characters in board games are at best a collection of stats and a special ability; a piece of artwork; seasoning at best. Plots are often dictated, linear.
The growth in legacy games indicates a change here, and one we should watch with keenness. Legacy games give us, at their best, a board game you can live with, one to which one an form a relationship, invest in. A game in which we see characters and stories develop in satisfying ways. At our Wednesday night gaming club, Betrayal at House on the Hill is our most replayed game. While the characterisation is non-existent, the plots are endlessly surprising and engaging. We often end with the players sharing their ‘best bits’ replaying key moments and enjoying the emotional journey.
Video games and tabletop games have loads of synergy. This isn’t news. It has been fun to critically evaluate my video gaming experience and to examine how this can transfer to tabletop games. What has been most eye-opening is to feel my thoughts coalesce around this idea of plot and character; of stories we can tell of our exploits. There is a growing movement towards depth, emotional complexity and an almost novel-like sense of narrative. I, for one, welcome it and aim to bring it directly to my game design.
We took our game, Build, to a local(ish) board game club for a playtest recently. Nothing unusual there. We’ve spent quite a lot of time on tour of late. What caught our interest, though, was that a surprisingly large proportion of the group were colourblind gamers. Build uses colours quite a lot to code the players, the settlement cards and the resources so colour choice had been in the back of our mind for a long time. I had been aware that colourblind compliance was something we’d need to address. On the one hand they were genial and helpful (and wonderfully complementary about Build), on the other hand they opened my eyes (sorry!) to a number of questions.
Are many gamers colourblind?
How does it affect their experience?
What do I, a game designer, need to do?
Are many gamers colourblind?
According to the good people of Colour Blind Awareness, about 4.5% of the population experience a form of colourblindness. The 3 people in the games club on Thursday represented 15% of the club. So no wonder it felt like a high proportion. It is nearly twice as common in males as in females. A recent survey by Stonemaier games found that only 8% of their respondents were female. If our hobby is so male and these males are more likely to have colourblindness then Yes, we ought to be paying attention to colour issues. Mental note – consider the demographic issues in a future blog post.
How does it affect their experience?
One of the playtesters in the group we visited repeatedly leaned over to his daughter, with his resource cubes in his hand for clarification about which was which. The only difference between the cubes was colour. Clearly, in the absence of a friendly face to help, this would totally spoil the game experience. You would not be able to judge your relative wealth. You would not be able to plan your next purchases. And, possibly worst of all, you’d put the cubes back in the wrong boxes.
Returning to the Colour Blind Awareness website, I find that they have a great set of tools for helping me to solve this problem.
Firstly, they show a slideshow which simulates the effect of the three main types of colourblindness. This clearly shows the complexity of the issue. In some versions, the yellow has faded, in others it is clearly visible. In fact all the colours are problematic for some people. Hmmm. I can’t just choose, for instance, yellow, green and red to use in Build because some people won’t be able to tell some of the colours apart.
Of course the colour of our game artwork is not merely practical, it also has aesthetic purposes. Many of us relish the immersive beauty of game art. But how would a person with colourblindness view it?
The excellent blog Colblinder offers a useful tool. You can upload your own files and filter them according to colour blindness. This gives us a really powerful opportunity to see what our game looks like through colourblind eyes.
I uploaded a picture of Build. I filtered it by Red, green and blue blindness. Take a look at them. You can see that identifying the coloured cubes is really hard, almost impossible and that the settlements are also almost indistinguishable. Of course, all the shapes and the textures are there but the cues we gain from bright, distinct colours are taken away.
What do I, a game designer, need to do?
Top of the list of answers: I need to consider it carefully, especially for a game like Build which relies on colour as a code for its resource cubes. I need four colours which are distinct from each other by all gamers, no matter how they perceive colour. Well, hello! Here, to the rescue comes cog5games, who shared this wonderful chart on Twitter. And look! It uses cubes! It couldn’t be a better fit for my needs.
If I examine this carefully, I can see that white always looks white and black always looks black. So that’s 2 colours chosen. From the remaining palette, there is always going to be an element of compromise but I can choose as wisely as I can. Yellow almost always looks yellow – although under Tritanopia it can appear violet or grey and blue always looks blue either purple-y or blue. Either way, they appear to be distinguishable from each other.
Next on the list was a suggestion made by one of the playtesters from our Thursday visit: Don’t use colours to distinguish, use shapes instead. You can imagine the accompanying forehead slap and “D’oh!” noise that I made. Of course! if we use shapes and icons to represent the resources, then the colour perception issue is moot.
I chose these icons to represent the four resources used in the game. Much clearer, I think you’ll agree. These were sourced from the excellent Noun Project which curates a collection of clear icons for almost everything.
Food: Manufactured goods: Knowledge: Wealth:
In the light of these findings, I have some further tweaks to be made to Build. The colour of the cubes will, I think, be chosen using the decisions I made above. The players are identified by coloured boards and by the stands used to hold their cards. These, too, will have to adhere to the black, white, yellow, blue choices I made. The settlement cards now bear the icons above to show their value and trade income. I will need to adjust the colour of the green food icon to white in order to match my new discoveries. Then, Further playtesting to check I’ve got it right!
I’m very grateful to the playtesters who brought these issues to my attention. I must also admit to a bit of melancholy that so many of our game playing colleagues are denied the full joy of so much great artwork to be found in games.
I’ve been wrestling with event cards of late. Not actually wrestling. I’m not in a blue leotard sweating a poker-sized laminate to the games table surface. No, of course I mean metaphorically.
Event cards, you know – event cards – you draw them during a game turn. They introduce some random event into the game which can enhance or totally muck up your plans. In pandemic, you could draw a ‘One Quiet Night’ event and bless your stressed scientists with some time to push their glasses up onto their foreheads and rub tired eyes while breathing a deep, shoulder melting sigh. Or you could draw the dreaded ‘Epidemic’ card and then the excrement really hits the the ventilator. Or consider a game like Munchkin which could be described as ‘nothing but event cards’. Even that old relic Monopoly had ‘Chance’ and ‘Community Chest’ cards.
Wrestling with Event Cards
I know there’s a bit of discussion back and forth about whether event cards are a good thing or a bad thing. Mostly it revolves around how much randomness gamers are comfortable with in their games. I think my thoughts on the design process might be useful and interesting.
My wrestling has all been in the context of our game ‘Build’. A quick bit of background. Build has elements of worker placement, area control and cooperative play. The players take a ruined, corrupt and broken nation and build it into a thriving, robust and sustainable one. Hopefully. It has its feet firmly in real world economics and development theory. And it has event cards.
In defence of randomness
To my mind, the world has randomness built in and event cards are a handy mechanism which reflects this. Embrace the randomness! They can also be a hold-all for carrying some useful thematic ideas which don’t need a separate game mechanism of their own. Corral! Organise! Simplify! In Build, they encompass ideas as diverse as terrorist attacks, coup attempts as well as export bonanzas.
Right, down to my wrestling. I’ll just pull on this lycra…
I introduced event cards because, in the early versions of Build, gameplay was linear and predictable. Event cards served to mix things up a little. At the end of the player’s turn they drew a card which could be good or bad. It lifted them or knocked them back. We found that in the early stages of the game, when the young nations were weak, a ‘bad’ event could knock a nation totally sideways. I quite liked this, as the other players often rallied round to help the stricken country get back on its feet. Then it could re-establish trade. Then we could get back to developing. But sometimes the knock was very great and a country would be put so far back that they were obviously in no state to win the game. And then you’ve got the lingering death of a runaway leader – or runaway loser in this case.
Later, the gameplay changed slightly and then every player drew event cards every round. Suddenly we were awash with event cards which were having an enormous effect on gameplay. Because they were random effects, the players felt annoyed that they couldn’t ameliorate effects much.
Mathematics to the rescue!
At this point I delved into my mathematical thinking and described the problem as follows:
Affect of the card = Frequency x Severity
The effect on gameplay of drawing an event card is a function of how often cards are drawn and how hard those cards hit. Horrid card effects which happen all the time can be devastating and will block your ability to get started and make any game progress. On the other hand mild, infrequent effects are probably not worth including. The satisfying middle ground lies in the area of infrequent and hard hitting or regular yet mild. And yet, if an effect is happening all the time but not really impacting on game play – why bother including it. Simplify!
Thinking this through to its logical conclusion lead me to decide that the event cards in ‘Build’ ought to have significant gameplay effects in order to stimulate a change in behaviour or a change in the plans of the players. As I said earlier, I liked it when the players rallied around a country that had been struck by a natural disaster. It was thematically secure and a dramatic moment in the game.
What remained was a method of giving the players an opportunity to plan for and overcome the effects of ‘bad’ events. We tried all sorts of solutions to this. We created an ‘international aid fund’ for countries to contribute to to help other countries in need. We allowed countries to buy ‘contingency plans’ which allowed them to ignore the effects of ‘bad’ events – this one caused the unexpected strategy of allowing a leading player to hoard the contingencies and punish the other players. Mean! Eventually, valuing simplicity and respecting the thematic strength of ‘Build’ we subsumed the’contingency plans’ into the victory conditions. Victory is made by collecting ‘achievements’ for your country, such as developing a health service or investing in social equality. Achieving these gave the in-game effect of ignoring ‘epidemic’ cards or ‘crimewave’ events. This pleased me greatly. Simplify! Thematic strength!
Here at last we had a system which recognised the occasionally random nature of the world; balanced severity and frequency; allowed players the opportunity to influence and control their game more all while being true to the theme of the game. Nice.
Addendum 17th April 2018
I’m adding this on after a conversation with a friend in which he separated ‘luck’ from ‘chance’ in which ‘luck’ was something which happened to you and ‘chance’ was influenced by (and influenced) player strategy. I’m not sure his choice of wording is quite right, but the concept is useful. As game designers, we want a game system which is satisfying to play and in which the players feel they have earned their victory. A game of luck doesn’t give us that.
This brings me on to my second addition. We playtested ‘Build’ recently at a very friendly game club in Congleton. Sadly we didn’t see any Um-bongleton being drunk but we did get some excellent feedback. On the subject of ‘event’ cards, we tired a few options. The first was to have a number of cards face up for the players to see in advance and to plan for. This was good, it made the event cards a source of interaction and negotiation. The second idea was suggested by one of the playtesters: that each player ‘inflicts’ an event card on another player. Again, the events become a subject of interaction, but also a subject of strategy. Hmm interesting.
Over a series of posts, the Make Them Play blog uses economic ideas and models to make a theoretical framework for game design. It has made fascinating reading. Over four blogs (growing all the time!) the writer, Bastiaan has outlined how game elements can be identified as assets or liabilities and looked at cost and value in-game. When I happened across this series, I was at a crucial time in the design of our game. My last blog post tells of the feedback we received from the Cardboard Edison Award. A key point was that the game needed a more complexity of game play. I will write later about the decisions we made in response to this, but suffice to say that Bastiaan’s blogs gave me a structure for my thoughts that proved invaluable. So thank you Bastiaan!
Economics in Ecology
Hot on the heels of grateful feelings, I started to wonder if other academic fields might offer us useful insights into game play. My own academic background includes the study of ecology. That made my brain cogs turn. There is some overlap between the two disciplines. Ecologists often talk about species having an economy – a metaphor that illustrates how a species uses its finite resources of energy and nutrients to its best advantage. For example poppies invest very little energy in body mass, they germinate, grow and flower very quickly, taking advantage of being the first on bare ground. On the other hand, oak trees invest loads of energy in body mass and so can flower repeatedly over many many years.
As I thought further, my feeling was that there are a number of parallels and useful analogies to be had from ecology. I’m going to fire out some initial ideas and thoughts. Further depth and density can follow. Perhaps you can add a little perspective.
Ecology is the study of organisms and their relations to each other and their environment. Straight away we can see that the ‘organisms’ in question can be read as ‘players’ or their in-game personae and the ‘environment’ is the game board, cards, pieces and rules.
Dynamic Game Ecosystems
The game can be thought of as an ecosystem. Ecosystems are dynamic, changing systems of interactions between organisms and the environment. It is an important point that over time, the ecosystem changes and behaviours change to meet it. A classic example is the development of forests. From bare ground, weed species arrive first and colonise. They need few resources and can grow quickly, stabilising the soil and trapping moisture. They provide shelter and food for other species that follow. Next come grasses and bushy species in who’s shelter tree saplings grow and eventually dominate all.
Let’s look at Catan in this light. The environment consists of the island. The first signs of colonisation are the villages. In their wake come roads. These are quick and easy to build and are essential for the structures that follow. Later, like the succession of trees, players look to the more sophisticated strategies of ‘longest road’ or ‘biggest army’ as well as cities. Some players, dependent on the resources available might choose to be weeds: building roads and villages quickly and easily. Others, with access to stone and wheat, might decide to be oaks and invest lots of resources over a longer time and build Cities. These players, like oaks are playing a long game and risk being over run in the early stages but are looking for big payouts in the future.
Like ecosystems, the game is dynamic. Players are influenced by each other’s decisions and change their strategies accordingly.
Competition and Mutualism
Ecologists also talk of competition and mutualism. Think of a snake hunting a mouse. It may be in competition with an owl for that mouse. They have different hunting strategies and, once caught and consumed, the mouse cannot be shared. They are in competition for that resource. On the other hand, bees and flowers don’t compete, they have a mutually beneficial arrangement. Bees get lovely sweet nectar full of sugar energy and the flowers get pollinated. That’s mutualism.
If I take this example back to Catan, some activities can be seen as competitive. The players compete for limited space on the board – the clever ‘nearest neighbour rule of village building; or they compete for the longest road or largest army. On the other hand, you can’t win a game of Catan without a bit of mutualism, in other words trade.
In response to competition for resources, species often become specialists. They are the very best at one skill. They can out-compete all other species in their own small niche. Darwin’s famous finches on the Galapagos Island are a classic example. He noted teh diversity of beaks in the finches he was observing. He went to spot that the beak shape of different species was linked directly to exploiting their own particular food source. Nut eaters had strong beaks, grub-eaters had long sharp beaks for pecking and so on.
Picture in your mind’s eye the various roles in Pandemic. The Medic can heal more efficiently; the contingency planner allows the team to exploit special cards more effectively. This mechanism gives each player a niche. Not only does it make them feel valued and special as unique team members, but it also means that gameplay has variety from one play through to the next.
In the recent rethink of Build and its evolution into Build 2.0 we considered niches. We had found that players made the same sorts of decisions time after time. So we added niches, specialisms. Some characters were natural traders, others were better farmers. Soon we had a balanced yet asymmetric game which lent itself to both competition and mutualism. Nice.
I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this analogy, still yet to build it into a framework as strong as Bastiaan’s economic model. I think, if I lay this out for public consideration, then maybe you will have a perspective that will help me.
This year, in January, we entered the Cardboard Edison Award for unpublished games. We submitted Build. This was a first for us in many ways: our first game; our first competition entry; our first video promo.
We made our submission and waited. Breath bated.
My attitude was philosophical. There was no way would win it, surely? It’d be great to shortlisted. We could put ‘shortlisted for the 2018 Cardboard Edison award’ on our box and on the Kickstarter page. If nothing else, if we didn’t even get shortlisted – it had been a great motivator to produce a finished, polished version of the game.
At the end of February, the organisers emailed us.
“We have finished evaluating all of the submissions to this year’s Cardboard Edison Award, and while Build wasn’t chosen, we have feedback for you…”
We couldn’t help but feel a bit of disappointment, but we were being, you know, philosophical about it.
After the initial slump of our shoulders we read on. Each Judge gave feedback in a ‘best bit/worst bit’ format. The positive stuff was, of course, great to read:
“I like the simplicity of the game.” That was good, one of our target audience is secondary schools – we wanted a game that was quick to pick up.
“The theme integration (was strong)”, “I really appreciate the level of research and real-world economic theory and policy went into the design of this game.” We were glad to know that the game was thematically strong. As an education tool to be used here and abroad, the theme needed to be at the front of the game. Also, as a player it bugs me when the game mechanics don’t make sense in the game’s world.
“This looks like a solid and fun game. I love the interwoven mechanics. Gameplay appears engaging with very little downtime”, “Seems like you put a lot of work into having lots of mechanics that can interplay.” Yes indeed – all good stuff. It was certainly pleasing to hear that our carefully designed mechanics seemed to work well together.
Lily and I high fived, slapped each other’s backs and did a complicated Dad and daughter handshake. Of course we didn’t. We’re British. Philosophical and British.
Lessons to learn
So then we moved on to looking at the ‘worst bits’ feedback. A good thing to remember when hearing feedback is that you don’t need act on all of it. Some of it you can choose to ignore. You’re the designer and ultimately the final arbiter. You can make the choice of which bit of advice to take and which to leave.
Obviously, though, the positive feedback is bang on the nose and the product of a clear mind and a wise voice.
It fell into one main group: depth and complexity of gameplay.
“I’m not sure if there is enough to compete in today’s market”; “The diplomacy phase needs work. Making agreements is fun, but many players need a reason to make a deal, not equal gains but unique bones that help each player differently”; “I wonder if there is way to get more into the game play?”
Another one that stood out was, “Seems to be fiddly with a lot of time spent moving components around.”
The thing was when we heard these two comments, we realised that the judges were expressing some things that had been hanging around at the back of our minds already. Maybe it was a thin on gameplay options? Maybe the ‘creating buildings’ bit was redundant and fiddly. We had been wedded to the turning over of building cards since the start. That was one of the initial ideas of game design. Did we really want to get rid of it?
A bit of perspective
You see, I think at this point I was suffering from a lack of perspective. I’d been staring at Build for so long in such close detail that I couldn’t see the whole picture anymore. Which bits were fun? Which parts were integral.
The clear mind and wise voice would advise us that this sort of sentimental attachment had no place in grown up game design. I decided to let the playtesters have their say and see which they preferred.
Back to the issue of depth and complexity. As I said, I had this unspoken niggle in my mind that this was the case. As the judges expressed it, the thought took shape and I had to recognise its veracity. This was clearly feedback we needed to listen to.
What next then? How do Lily and I build in more depth without losing the ease of play? Some tough choices to be made there. I suppose it is important to stay philosophical.
The BBC News website recently ran this story about an Appalachian village and its own native card game: Pig. The reporter tells a story of competitive spirit and giving kudos for skill; of an event at the social heart of a community – old timers telling their stories and news being exchanged; of cross generational common ground and a sense of belonging. It struck me that this simple human interest story told a lot about why we play games and of what the benefits of board games are.
I play games, always have. All sorts of games. I don’t imagine that makes me much different to other people.
Video games and board games; role playing games and quizzes; escape rooms and laser tag.
It is such a commonplace thing in my life that I’m surprised to be asked “Why?”
“Why play games?”
Er..because they’re fun!
But there’s more to it than the quick answer. There always is. The question made me give it a good think and a bit of research too.
Thinking about games
What makes them fun? From a purely personal point of view, I enjoy immersive games. Psychologists identify a state of mind called ‘flow’ in which you are focused and immersed in an experience. ‘Lost inside the game’ as it were. I’m sure you can identify with the feeling of losing hours being lost in a game. Recently during an Escape Room experience at the excellent Deception in Matlock, Derbyshire, we had an hour to complete the challenge. We threw ourselves into it. Afterwards every member of the group said, “It didn’t feel like an hour.” We were in the flow. Immersed.
Crucially, we experienced the escape room challenge as a gang. A social entity. Afterwards on the comfy sofas, we analysed our performance – we wanted to tell the story again straight after experiencing it. Gaming gives us the chance to create stories. It is also a forum for socialising and social skills. An evolutionist might frame it as a safe place to learn critical survival skills. “Games with frontiers, war without tears,” as Peter Gabriel sang.
I also enjoy the challenge, the very achievable challenges. Games are designed to be beaten. Challenging but beatable. At least most of the are – one notable exception you may remember is The Tomb of Horrors D&D adventure from the 70s. An adventure which seemed to delight in randomly killing the player’s characters. I’d lose motivation for that pretty quickly. Equally, if a game isn’t challenging then you lose interest. Who still plays the simple childish boardgames of their childhood? The best challenges are those that keep pushing until the very end. In which there is always the chance to win or lose right up until the last minute. Pandemic is a classic example of a game which keeps your adrenaline running until the last card turn.
Learn through games
And it is this idea of beatable challenges that brings me on to my next point. Recently, my young son was stuck on an end-of-level boss in a well known video game. He was fed up and cross. He chose to put the game down and do something else for a while. Later, he returned to the game with a more analytical mind, tried some new tactics and won through. He appeared at my office door full of bright smiles and proud of himself. Like me, he knows that games are there to be beaten and that with perseverance and imagination you can beat them. He also learned that a frustrated head isn’t a thinking head. A valuable lesson. He’ll carry that lesson into life. He’ll have a more positive attitude to managing failure.
I’m not the only person to have seen someone develop soft skills through gaming. As a parent and as an educator (I teach primary school age children when I’m not playing), we use play to teach all the time. I have a personal mantra that there’s nothing in the primary school curriculum that can’t be taught through Minecraft. All this learning comes through associated with positive emotions: curiosity, achievement, creativity, affection even.
Affection? Really? Yes! Affection for the characters in the game. People who play games identify with the character they are playing. I reckon the extreme example of this would be RPG characters because you inhabit them and invest in them. If you’ve ever been part of a game where a PC dies, you’ll know what I mean. In a recent D&D game, a much beloved comic-relief NPC betrayed the team. You wouldn’t believe the outrage this caused. But also affection between players. Folk who share an interest, share time together and build friendships.
Backed up by Research
Not just kids, either. While reading a little around the subject I saw research which suggests that seniors who stay mentally active are about 2.6 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia. Mentally active like through play.
My anecdotal observations appear to be backed up by the researchers I found: Nick Yee an academic who studied motivation identified the same 3 things that I’ve mentioned. Achievement – wanting to advance, to compete, to succeed; the social component – the desire to form connections, to chat and to cooperate; finally, the immersion part – creating characters and escaping real life.
It is nice that the I’ve been thinking along the same lines as the great and the good. Why do we play? Because its fun, of course but these frivolous past times sit right at the heart of some of the processes that are the best of humanity.
I’ll sign off with Friedrich Schiller from his “Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man”, he states that “Humans are only fully human when they play.”