BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Ah yes… almost everything. Particularly the moustache and the maniacal grins. But perhaps mostly the moustache. The ’70s do have a lot to answer for, after all. Terrible moustaches being a primary example.

This image was recently posted on BoardGameGeek by François Haffner, and he must be thanked for his efforts in preserving artifacts from bygone eras of board gaming! Someone once said: ‘The past is another country: they do things differently there.’ In particular, they have outrageous moustaches.

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Coffee Morning

In which I meet Jackson Pope, and am able to combine my twin passions: board games and coffee drinking!

This morning I had the very great pleasure of meeting Jack, writer of the Creation and Play blog and publisher-in-chief at Reiver Games. We had arranged to meet in a coffee shop in Bedford, although Jack had the upper hand here, since my mugshot adorns these pages; how was I to tell him apart from the crowd of Bedfordian coffee drinkers? In the end we spotted each other simultaneously; the give-away for me was the game board sticking out of his carrier bag. (A shifty looking bloke had come in a few minutes before with a box in a bag, but he really didn’t seem the gaming type, and I was relieved when he left.)

Our mutual ‘show and tell’ session involved Jack taking me through all the materials for his upcoming release Sumeria, and me briskly pitching one of my prototypes.

The Sumeria materials were fascinating; Jack had proofs and plots and ‘white samples’ aplenty. He also had nothing but praise for the German manufacturers Ludo Fact, who sounded the apotheosis of professionalism. It was so nice to hear that they treated him and his business with such care. Perhaps the company is run by true gaming fanatics, and the pleasure of a well-engineered game is bred in the bone?

He also told an illuminating and salutary tale of the benefits of blind play-testing. In Sumeria’s case this highlighted a subtle mathematical truth about the game’s scoring mechanism which surprised Jack and Dirk Liekens, the game’s designer. Perhaps a game design can never really be considered truly complete? And how delightful, in a way, that a game may hold the capacity to surprise its designer! (P.S. ‘Bravo!’ to the playtester in question.)

Jack’s experience of becoming a game publisher — and there’s plenty more about that on his blog! — seems a positive, heartening one. It also sounds like a lot of hard work, of course, but I believe the business as a whole is a relatively benign and meritocratic one. Cream rises; effort is rewarded; and good games, good design and good people prosper.

They say that if you can find a job you like, you’ll never do a day’s work. I’m fairly certain that’s not actually true in most practical cases, and certainly when it comes to more creative endeavours. The personal and intellectual investment necessary is too demanding for the work to be so tritely dismissed as effortless.

I’ve always thought it better to consider the following, hopefully less trite, maxim:

Work is what you do for others. Art is what you do for yourself.

Stephen Sondheim

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Tweet, Tweet, Boom

Remarkable what a little tweet on BoardGameNews does for one’s circulation. Thanks to W. Eric Martin’s efforts my visitors took a healthy fillip yesterday (I know this, because Google Analytics knows this). There was also a bit of a spurt, admittedly from an exceptionally low base, in my RSS subscriber numbers. I have no idea who all these visitors and readers are, but welcome! And I shall try my best to reward your new-found loyalty.

Elsewhere on BoardGameNews, Eric proposes an entirely believable collection of answers to the question Where’d You Get the Idea for This Game? The last answer is perhaps the best, and seems eminently plausible; does Eric know something we don’t?

Everyone’s favourite Syracusian professor (and game review video artiste) Scott Nicholson recently posted his latest review on everyone’s favourite most recent Days of Wonder release Small World and it’s a whole lot of fun. Check it out.

After a nine-month hiatus Mike Doyle has posted a new entry on his blog discussing what he sees as the ‘form follows function fallacy’, at least as far as it pertains to game art design, of course. I had forgotten that he has a second, yet more latent blog, with lots of illustrations of some of his game art design.

I had never heard of Savielly Tartakower until a few days ago (and I’m not sure now what internet byway led me to him); he was a famous chess Grandmaster, playing for Poland before the Second World War. I mention him because it seems he had a nice line in gaming aphorisms, such as the following catchy one-liner:

Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake.

Savielly Tartakower

How true, how true. Those chess players are a canny lot.

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Knizia on Knizia

A discussion over on BGDF about my last post prompted me to go looking for the YouTube video in which Dr Knizia does indeed describe himself as an ‘entertainer’. (Primarily to make sure that I hadn’t simply made this fact up to suit my argument!) I have found it again and include it herewith. There is no need to be put off by the Spanish titles and graphics, the Good Doctor speaks in English.

I now remember discovering it originally on another blog (Mike Compton’s Reflections Across the Board) and I agree with Mike’s analysis that the quirky music and stop-motion animation, although charming, is a little tedious (especially at the beginning). Get past that, however, and Knizia delivers a very lucid and fascinating treatise on his own approach to game design. Great stuff!

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Game Design 101: Theme vs. Narrative

This article continues my occasional series of posts discussing various aspects of game design. For the curious the two previous articles are here:

In this post I will consider the concept of ‘theme’ in modern eurogames, speculate on its definition and importance, and wonder whether the less-discussed concept of ‘narrative’ is actually more meaningful and relevant to the game designer.

What is theme?

Readers unfamiliar with so-called modern eurogames will probably not be particularly mindful of whether the games they play have a theme, but it is a lively topic of discussion amongst people who are. In this context, theme is most commonly used to describe the historical or fantastical setting within which the game is placed.

Tigris & Euphrates, for example, is a true classic of eurogames, and is a tile-based game of territorial control and conflict played on a board that represents the landscape of the titular twin rivers of ancient Mesopotamia. In the game the players represent competing dynasties each attempting to best their opponents by expanding the region’s settlements, temples, farms and markets, building monuments and surviving the occasional catastrophe. The game board and components have a visual design that ties into all these (admittedly rather hazy) historical concepts, as does the terminology used in the game rules to refer to, for example, the players’ pieces (each player has a king, a priest, a farmer and a trader). It is all these elements, taken as a whole, that create the game’s theme.

There are two important things to say about theme:

  1. There are plenty of board games that have no theme at all: these are referred to as abstract games. The architype is the ancient Chinese game of Go, a game of pure mathematical strategy played on a grid of intersecting lines with just two distinct components: white stones and black stones.

The second thing is perhaps more surprising:

  1. All board games are essentially abstract games! Any board game may be reduced to a purely abstract but mechanistically equivalent set of components and rules by ruthlessly removing all the thematic elements.

So, to take a rather simplistic view of Tigris & Euphrates we can consider the board simply as ‘a matrix of spaces of three distinct types’ (in the published game there are land, river and temple spaces), upon which the players compete using ‘markers of four distinct types’ (in the published game: settlement, temple, farm and market). Strip away all remnants of a game’s theme and you will find that the game itself — the core engine defined by its components and rules — emerges unscathed.

The importance of theme

With these observations safely made, what then is the importance of theme? Why create a theme at all? Why not simply publish all games as abstract games? There are many reasons, chief amongst them the desire on the part of game designers and publishers to create compelling, engaging products. Designers may choose specific themes based on their own interests, metaphorically scratching personal intellectual itches. Publishers may impose entirely new themes on existing game designs to match their view of what sells, or to avoid themes used in other games by other publishers.

A criticism levelled at many modern eurogames is that their themes are often rather thin or ill-conceived veneers layered unconvincingly on top of unrelated game mechanisms. The converse view is that games with a closer relationship between theme and mechanism can create more successful and rewarding experiences for the gamer. And given the highly subjective nature of these concepts there is often much good-natured debate about whether a particular game’s theme helps or hinders its success, or adds to or detracts from its replayability.

I agree with the view that a theme that seems utterly disjointed from a game’s mechanisms can create a jarring and ultimately unsatisfying gaming experience, and hence a failed game. And the designer must be both careful and wise here, since there is a risk that in designing a game and choosing a theme he creates the worst of all possible worlds:

  • To create a bad game, regardless of its theme, is a clear and present failure: a failure of the first order. The designer must simply begin his journey again.
  • To create a good game, but ruin it with a bad theme, is a terrible thing, but one with the hope of recovery: a failure of the second order. Here the designer can see his missteps and may perhaps retrace some of them; his journey so far has not been a completely wasted one.
  • But to create a good game and a good theme, and then ruin both by forcing them together, irrespective of how well they fit is a tragedy indeed: this, then, is a failure of the third order. Now the designer has completed his journey, has strained every sinew, wasted every resource, only to discover an empty, barren plot. He has allowed himself to be tricked: his destination is a mirage.

Your game’s theme will make a difference to the opinion of almost everyone who encounters it and is therefore an important part of your design, but it can also be a straw man. The theme is the surface of your game, not its foundation, and should never be treated as such. More simply: the theme is not the game.

The importance of narrative

We come then at last to my concept of narrative which I want to propose as a more meaningful, more inclusive, and more useful way for game designers to think about their own designs, and their own design processes.

The first and most important thing to say is that all games have a narrative. Consider once again the game of Go, which is as pure an example of a themeless, abstract game as you are likely to find. It is nonetheless a tense head-to-head battle of territorial control between two combatants with exactly the same goal, each at once attempting both to attack and defend, at times surging forward, at times waiting patiently in the hope of surprising or outwitting their opponent, until at game-end there is a final reckoning in which one player is crowned victorious.

This, then, is Go’s narrative (one it shares with many other — and possibly very different — games) and is surely a more involving way to describe it than merely to attempt a dry rendition of its rules.

When Reiner Knizia describes himself as an ‘entertainer’ this, I think, is what he means. He means that each of his games presents players with a universe of possible narratives which he, as storyteller-in-chief, has preordained. And yet the players cannot know what stories wait to be told! All they can know is that Knizia’s all-seeing Creator’s eye has somehow seen all these stories, in all their labyrinthine complexity, and has deemed them to be good and worth telling.

The hero path

There are many obstacles in the game designer’s path, but none are as great as simply not being able to see the path in the first place. To consider more practical measures, you may have some dim conception of your game’s theme, components, mechanisms and interactions, but without a crystal clear understanding of the narrative all these things are for nought. You cannot hope to tell your players a story if you yourself do not know its beginning, middle and end in intimate and glorious detail.

I have experienced this special type of ignorance many times when designing my own games, and in a sense it is the overcoming of this specific obstacle — the moment when I suddenly see the game as it should and needs to be — that makes the process of designing a game so rewarding.

Suddenly the story is clear. Suddenly the ‘hero path’ is revealed.

We have not even to face the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us: the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god, and where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence, and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the World.’

From ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ by Joseph Campbell

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Hard Wired

Game designers (and puzzlers) Mike Selinker and Teeuwynn Woodruff of Lone Shark Games have curated a tricky (and in some cases really rather geeky) set of brainteasers for the US edtion of Wired (hence the geekiness!). There’s even a video of Mike introducing the games that he and Teeuwynn put together, and some of the ideas behind them.

Update: It seems the magazine was also laced with a less obvious seam of puzzling goodness, although if you own a copy and haven’t yet worked out the answer, it seems you are already too late.

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Ticket to Ride: Obama Edition™

Errr… well, no, not really. [WhiteHouse.gov via Gizmodo]

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Report: New York Toy Fair 2009

I was lucky enough to go New York this year for the annual Toy Fair, which ran from 15th–18th February (apologies for the rather belated reporting!). Held at the vast Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the west side of Manhattan the fair is the industry’s largest and most prestigious shindig, excepting (of course) the yet more vast and prestigious International Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany.

The first thing to say about the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is that it’s big, really big. It’s clearly designed to allow multiple conventions to take place at once, but the Toy Fair takes up the entire space, on two floors. That’s a lot of space. It seemed almost an order of magnitude larger than the London Toy Fair.

The second thing to say about the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is that it’s pretty ugly, if impressively large in a monolithic, 80s-style, tinted-glass, metal and concrete kind of way (it also clearly has a very leaky roof). As patriotically cheerful as I am that the 2012 Olympics were awarded to London, a benefit of them being awarded to New York would have been that the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center was scheduled to be demolished to make way for a shiny new Olympic stadium (and, I am assuming, a shiny new convention centre). However, the architectural ramifications of alternate sport-based histories is not strictly this blog’s remit, so I shall move on.

It is worth nothing that the fair is strictly for industry professionals, and not open to the general public. I registered in advance, and received a rather nice badge in the post which said ‘Inventor’ in big, friendly letters. Armed with this the cheerful, welcoming staff were all too happy to let me in.

I spent a whole day at the fair, which was long enough for me to scout out all the points of interest I had. It is by definition a toy fair, and board games, especially strategy/eurogames, are not its primary focus. All trade fairs are principally about selling, and so anyone with a badge that said ‘Buyer’ was of course given the most attention. I was initially unsure what to say when approached by anyone, or how upfront to be about my interests and intentions, but as the day wore on I found my typical British reserve falling away, to be replaced with a slightly more confident (more American?) attitude, which went down rather better, and allowed me get much more out of the experience.

The fair was organized into zones, and most of the specialist games companies were downstairs in the basement. Upstairs in the main hall all the larger companies — such as Hasbro, Mattel and Fundex — were there also, of course, and it was fun, if exhausting, just to wander around taking it all in.

I had not gone with any specific objective, or even with the intention of making contacts, but rather just to get a sense of the event and the scale of the industry. In the specialist game section there were a myriad of stalls of smaller companies, including those for stalwarts such as: Mayfair Games, Steve Jackson Games and Looney Labs.

I had a nice chat with a nice lady who had turned out to have been the driving force behind the Xeko CCG (collectible card game), the company website is here. She was giving out cute little wildlife badges so I stopped to talk.

I’ve been aware of the game for a couple of years, and the visual design of the product is top-notch. She started the company herself, with the single idea for a game based on ecology where the rarity of the cards within the game would be related to how endangered each individual species is in the wild. She did have a useful friendship with an ex-Wizards of the Coast employee who developed the game with her, but the product and its success is quite an achievement for someone without any industry experience! More power to her elbow!

I dropped in on the busy Mindware stand, where they were showing off not just the wildly successful Qwirkle but also its new cousin Qwirkle Cubes which is due for release in America this month.

They seemed a very friendly, cheerful bunch, and after introducing myself were keen to ask me about the sorts of games I design; their New Product Development Manager was also very happy to give me her card.

Along the aisle were R&R Games who this year raised eyebrows by announcing a rather out-of-character, and rather heavy-weight, eurogame in the form of Masters of Venice. The board and its componenets sparkled at me from the display as I passed and I went over to investigate. Edward Miller, the company’s Chairman, spotted me and was happy to chat, giving me a brief run-down on the company’s games, and a rather longer one on the merits of the new American administration (and the demerits of the previous one!).

And lastly, in this very quick run-down of a few of my encounters, I stopped at Mindtwister USA and was given a demonstration of their new abstract Element by the game’s designer Michael Richie. He had brought his prototype for the game to the company booth last year, and they had liked it so much that they not only agreed to publish, they also employed him as their in-house Game Developer! The game looked interesting and was a nice product and Michael was a really nice guy. Thanks for the demo Michael, and good luck!

Was it worth the visit and would I go again? Absolutely! But I think next time I would like to go armed with more research, a few formal appointments with specific company representatives and some actual game prototypes. As with most things, the more you put in, the more you are likely to get out!

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Meeples Going Cheap!

Eagle-eyed gamers in the UK might notice that Borders is currently selling Carcassonne online at the low, low price of £14.39. And you really can’t say fairer than that.

Or rather, you can: at Borders in fact! My local bricks-and-mortar Borders here in Cambridge (in the UK) had a stack of Carcassonne boxes yesterday going for the princely sum of just £10. And if it were not the case that I already have quite enough Carcassonne boxes of one variety or another then I might have been tempted. Everyone, after all, loves a bargain.

At those sorts of prices it’s almost worth buying them up just for the meeples (assuming you are the sort of person who wants a stash of extra meeples, say for your latest prototype game design). I recently bought some (very lovely) meeples from the online board game component retailer Spielmaterial and factoring in postage from Germany the cost of simply buying up cheap boxes of Carcassonne (and then throwing away everything but the meeples!) almost makes sense.

Except, of course, that buying up cheap boxes of Carcassonne and then throwing away everything but the meeples would be morally unconscionable!

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Game Review #003: Atlas & Zeus

Atlas & Zeus was designed by the popular French designer Bruno Cathala and published in 2004 by Eurogames as part of their Games for 2 series. It is a light, quick battle of wits in which the players fight to be the last man standing as the islands of a doomed Atlantean archipelago fall into the depths. I picked up my copy going cheap on eBay a while ago and finally gave it a spin with Peter last week.

See more: Game Reviews…

The 16 islands of the archipelago, represented by sturdy tiles, are arranged in a ring at the beginning of the game, with the players’ men (also represented, less successfully, as tiles) placed singularly on the islands. Since the islands and men are both randomly placed, the starting set-up will always be different, presenting a different challenge each time.

The players, representing the gods Atlas and Zeus, have matching decks of actions cards which they used during the game to move their men, attacking, defending and generally messing with their opponent’s plans in a somewhat capricious god-like fashion. After each round one of the islands will succumb to the creeping catastrophe and sink into the sea (that is, the tile will be removed!) and it will take whatever men are standing on the island at the time with it, removing them from the game also. So the game is a speedy war of attrition, and whoever survives longest, takes the victory.

The core of the game is a track of six numbered spaces on which the players place selected action cards (face-down) at the beginning of each round. The player with the ‘initiative’ goes first (the initiative automatically alternates each round), and places three cards from a hand of six. The player must place one card into the first pair of spaces (1 & 2), one into the middle pair (3 & 4) and one into the final pair (5 & 6); in each case he may choose freely which of the pair of spaces to occupy. Then his opponent fills the gaps with three cards of his own. The process creates a ‘program’ of actions which will be taken in order by the players during the round.

This mechanism is smarter and more balanced than it might appear, since it soon becomes clear when playing the game that the first and last spaces are the most influential, and if the initiative player occupies them both he will always create an opportunity for his opponent to place two consecutive actions, which can be an equally powerful play.

So, the initiative player has a choice: go for broke and leave himself open to a coordinated attack, or play it safe and commensurately reduce his opponent’s tactical advantage? It’s a really clever balancing mechanism that is hard-coded into the rules, but never explicitly stated. Certainly, I didn’t see it until I played the game.

There are a good range of action cards, some of which do not immediately reveal their utility to the first-timer. As with all card games, the luck of the draw means that some cards may turn up either too early or too late to be particularly effective, but the range of possible combinations helps to balance this.

However, some combinations are undoubtably more powerful than others, so simple bad luck could stymy even the most strategic of players. And this is probably a good thing, since the game is clearly intended to be a light snack not a three-course meal.

The only real flaw in the components is the way the players’ men are, as I said, repesented by tiles. It seems clear to me that this was a cost-saving move on the part of the publishers, since the gamplay would definitely have been more successful if these were plastic or wooden miniatures. (Surely that is how the designer would have originally conceived the game?)

Simply moving the men is fiddly, and placing them fully on the island tiles (as the rules suggest) means that the island artwork is covered up. This isn’t just a waste of good artwork, it also conceals the visual cues about which island is which — is that a volcano? where are the sacred islands? — and makes the game significantly less fun by rendering the experience visually and physically less engaging than it would have been.

Overall Peter and I enjoyed the game — I narrowly won, but let’s not concern ourselves with such tawdry details here! — and repeated plays would definitely be rewarded, since a better knowledge of the cards and their interactions would create more interesting choices and tension. If you spot the game going cheap, as I did, and have both the motive and opportunity to enjoy light, breezy two-player games then do not hesitate to pick up a copy. The more serious gamer should probably look elsewehere for their god-like kicks.

The in-game photos used in this review are from the BGG Atlas & Zeus Image Gallery, and were originally taken by BGG photography maven gamephotos.

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On My Gaming Radar

Although my reporting has been a little lacking recently, there’s been plenty of new games popping their heads over the gaming parapet. The Nuremberg toy fair had many publishers announcing forthcoming attractions. Here are a few games that caught my eye.

Alea Iacta Est

Alea Iacta Est is another game from relative newcomer Jeff Allers (who has enjoyed recent publishing success in Germany with …aber bitte mit Sahne and Eine Frage der Ähre), here in cohorts with his gaming buddy Bernd Eisenstein. This publication is definitely a feather in their caps, coming as it does from Ravensburger’s classy Alea label.

Alea’s reputation for quality components means that the game will doubtless feel as good as it looks, and it looks very good indeed. Jeff has written up a fascinating backstory of the game’s development on his blog, which is great inspiration for all budding designers.

The game fits into the relatively new category of ‘dice euro’, examples of which range from more strategic dice-fests such as Yspahan and Kingsburg to lighter fillers such as Knizia’s excellent Risk Express.

Maori

Maori from Hans im Glück looks like a new take on the tile game, and my penchant for tile games means it immediately caught my attention. Although the German rules are available on the publisher’s website, at the moment there isn’t an English translation available to allow me to understand the gameplay. However, it appears that players choose from a common pool of tiles and play them to their own boards, attempting to create point-scoring arrangements.

At first glance the game appears to be rather interaction-lite, with the only interaction coming from the order in which you tiles are taken from the pool and therefore your abilty to pre-empt your opponents’ choices. The whole enterprise might not sound ground-breakingly original, and I’m certainly no fan of the multiplayer solitaire phenomenon (one is reminded perhaps of Alhambra, or even Take It Easy! which is the very definition of tile-based multiplayer solitaire), but I’m a total sucker for Hans im Glück’s build quality which will no doubt create a compelling game experience.

Valdora

Valdora by Michael Schacht is something else entirely, a ‘pick up and deliver’ game where the players’ pawns are actually moved along tracks on a central board — what novelty! — albeit without a dice in sight. English rules are thankfully already available on the Abacusspiele website, so we can have a better idea of gameplay.

Certainly the game looks fantastic, especially if you are seduced by exactly the brand of richly coloured fantasy landscapes that Valdora exemplifies (courtesy of popular boardgame illustrator Franz Vohwinkel). The players must collect differently coloured gems scattered at various points around the board and take them to various other points on the board, where they will be rewarded with points and additional victory point tokens. The interaction primarily comes from beating your opponents to the punch, and collecting those victory points first.

The game uses a wonderfully novel ‘book’ metaphor for handling the decks of cards that determine a player’s equipment and objectives: the cards are stacked in lectern-like wooden platforms, and the players ‘turn the pages’ to flip through the deck.

Valdora looks precisely like the sort of well-produced, fast-playing, light-strategy family game that deserves to (and doubtless will) do well, at least within its admittedly broad target market. It’s no ‘gamer’s game’ but then… I am not really a ‘gamer’s gamer’!

Carson City

Finally there’s Carson City, which appears to be a worker-placement tile game, with a common board and tile layout, and a more hard-nosed approach to direct player interaction: gun fights!

There is very little information available about this game, designed by new designer Xaviers George, past winner of the Boulogne-Billancourt design competition with a game later published as Royal Palace.

However, the artwork published on BoardGameGeek looks fantastic and the mix of tile-based city-building and some heavier strategy with a little more bite (read: ‘bullets’) than your average euro sounds good to me.

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