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

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Hippodice 2011: Submission Deadline

Just a quick reminder to the hobbyist boardgame designers, like myself, who fancy submitting a design or two to this year’s Hippodice design contest in Germany: the deadline for submissions is November 1st. The contest is open is designers from all over the world, but you can submit via email provided you can send along a full ruleset, a description of the game and a photo or two of your prototype in action.

If your game is selected for playtesting then there’s a modest entry fee of €5, although you will additionally need to pay for shipping your prototype to Germany (and possibly back again after the contest is finished).

Last year I submitted two designs, Archipelago and Jukers!, both of which were selected for playtesting, and both of which (I mention in passing) made it onto the final shortlist. I doubt I shall repeat my double-hitting success this year, not least because I have so far only submitted one design — although I guess I have four days to change that if I want to!

My primary entry this year is the cryptically titled Oracle Pathway, seen here. It’s a simple, if cunning, family strategy game for 2–4 players and, rather like last year’s Archipelago, has a certain Germanic feel to it (in boardgaming terms, at least).

Above you can see a detail of the board and some of those omnipresent meeples. Below are the little ‘money boxes’ I made from some clear plastic puzzle blocks and hand-cut paper inserts, which I think turned out really well and work like a charm.

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I Love the Smell of Prototype in the Morning

A game designer can never have too many spare bits, nor too plentiful a supply of small coloured stickers in various sizes. Gold stars can come in handy, too; as can the obligatory plain cardboard sheets.

The coloured plastic chips, and the wooden discs, dice and pawns, have all been harvested from different second-hand games picked up at charity shops — ‘thrift stores’ to our American cousins — over the past few years. Those large wooden pawns are particularly nice components. But I do have a rule to stop too much hoarding: if the game costs more than £2 then I leave it on the shelf.

£2.50, you say? What am I? Made of money?

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Let’s Play: Why Games Might Not Be What You Think They Are

In which I tackle, once again, the central question of games and game design. My personal realisation of the answer is new, although I cannot claim the answer itself to be. Plus, it might not be the one you were expecting.

First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?

Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs

What is a game? A long time ago, soon after the beginning of my boardgame blogging career, I wrestled with this question and my proposal for a workable definition was this:

Game (noun): a competition for the acquisition of value.

It isn’t, to be sure, a particularly good definition, but part of its purpose at the time was to support my argument that ‘games’ and ‘puzzles’ were demonstrably different things; I believed that beginning by defining what a game is not might help in the long run. More recently Lewis Pulsipher, writing on his blog, had this to say on the same subject:

Many Euro-style games are actually puzzles. And that is probably one reason why people don’t play them very many times (with exceptions, of course) before they move on to something else, they’ve figured out the puzzle and they are done. A game that cannot be solved by people, such as chess, or Britannia, is one that people can play 500 times and still enjoy, because the major interest in the game is figuring out the other players and how to outdo the other players. In a Eurogame the purpose is rarely to figure out the other players and outdo the other players

Another way to put this is, in puzzle-style Euro and video games players ‘play the system’; in ‘real’ games the players ‘play the other players,’ though they have to be good at the system as well.

It’s easy to disagree with parts of Lewis’ argument, but the observation that some Eurogames are essentially ‘puzzle-like’ in nature is undeniably true. After all, the phrase ‘multiplayer solitaire’ — itself so often used as a stick with which to beat the Eurogame crowd — is an entirely accurate description of games such as Matt Leacock’s Forbidden Island or Knizia’s FITS in which the players, as a group or individually, play the game to ‘solve’ what are unarguably puzzle-like game-states.

Eric Hanuise, writing in a comment on Lewis’ post, offered this rationalisation:

The point seems to be that many eurogames boil down to an optimisation exercise [and that] once a player has explored enough avenues of optimisation, he'll eventually reach a point of diminishing returns between the effort/time invested in mastering the game and the overall improvement in his score from game to game.

I can’t wholly agree with that assessment either, but my argument is not to artificially square-off on one or other side of a ‘Eurogame vs. [insert game genre of your choice]’ debate. Nor to observe that if ‘optimisation exercise’ is indeed a good classification of many Eurogames, then that is only because it is surely a workable classification of almost any competitive endeavour, including every other game.

No, my argument is that the definitions of what constitutes a game that are implicit in Lewis and Eric’s comments suffer from precisely the same flaw that my original definition did. I wanted to draw a line between ‘games’ and ‘puzzles’; Lewis wanted to draw a different line between what he considered to be ‘puzzle-like’ games and ‘real’ games. But the problem with these definitions is not that they lack specificity — that they do not somehow say enough about what is and is not a game — the problem is that they are all far too limiting.

It is a hoary old cliché of the entire subject to quote Benjamin Franklin, but I do so without irony; everyone confronted with this statement understands the truth of it, even if it is, I think, a truth that we sometimes forget.

We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

When very young children play they do so joyously, with an artless, atavistic freedom. What is curious is how naturally that playful freedom becomes ordered, and how instinctive it is for children to accept limits on play proposed by their peers or elders, or to impose their own. So the child stops merely playing, but rather learns, very quickly, what it is to play ‘by the rules’. And when we, as adults, play a game, we are essentially continuing the tradition of this childhood experience, albeit with the acceptance of often far more deliberate and complex intellectual limits.

None of this is particularly profound, but my reason for rehearsing these arguments is to attempt to highlight something fundamental about games that I think is often lost when we speak of them. I have myself spent much time in these pages talking about games and game design, often in an attempt to analyse and classify their constituent parts. These discussions are valid, as are discussions about what is and is not a game, but too often when I revisit my own words and the words of others I find the words themselves just a little too mundane.

This is what I mean when I say that the definitions are too limiting: they attempt to prescribe the nature of games and the experience of playing them in purely rational, analytical terms, almost as if the very purpose of a game was to allow just such a description. We talk about mechanisms, components, theme and interaction; we talk about perfect and hidden information, balance and optimisation, conflict and cooperation, turn order, role selection, king-making, action points, victory points, resource management, worker placement and multiplayer solitaire.

All of which — to borrow a poet’s derision — is an entirely politic, cautious and meticulous vocabulary, and hardly one that the playful child, if somehow gifted our adult sensibilities, would choose.

What, then, is a game? A game is any activity, or design for an activity, that offers, or has the potential to offer, ‘structured play’.

What this definition means is that the concept of a ‘game’ is far broader and more inclusive than I had thought, and that it can and should be freed of the artificial constraints of our often technical and prosaic language. Games may have objectives, competition, conflict and victory; they may have winners and losers, allow only a single player or a multitude, and be experiences undertaken in the playground, at home or solely in the mind; they may contain any or all of the design elements that I have already listed, but they are not required either to be or to contain any of these things to remain games.

Everyone knows what ‘play’ is, and what it means to them — it is both completely universal and utterly personal. And for ‘play’ to become a ‘game’ it requires only structure: a degree of formalism that may be represented, in some sense, by ‘rules’. The nature of the play and its structure is unimportant; but if you have both, then you have a game.

I am neither the first nor the most eloquent to make this argument, and, indeed, I now realise that I have made parts of it before. When I wrote about how game designers should avoid creating actions without adventure, or made the bold, if curious, statement that no-one eats cake to taste the flour, I was making precisely the same argument, although I didn’t recognise it at the time.

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

My plea, then, is this: let us strive to remember something important when we play games; let us remember, truly, to play. Do not confuse, as I have done in the past, the game with the playing of it. Feel free, of course, to ask questions of the game and to interrogate its construction and intent, but do not forget that the answers to those questions and the experience of playing the game are different things.

For the game designer this distinction is everything; I cannot overstate how important I believe it to be. Reiner Knizia has said of playing games that “the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.” I agree whole-heartedly with his sentiment, but his language, in my extremely humble opinion, exhibits precisely the failing that I have here been seeking to expose.

The goal is indeed important, but it is not to win — it is, quite simply, to play.

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One Balm For Many Fevers Found

My recent exercise in picking over all of my game designs has been paying dividends, since it has spurred me on to revisit a couple of old designs and take a critical and creative look at them.

One of these is Amongst Thieves, which in its original incarnation has several failings. Although I originally billed it as a game that supports 2–6 players, it is inescapably weak for only 2. Adding to this flaw was the way in which I had scaled the deck to fit the higher number of players. The deck split was into several ‘core’ suits, plus one smaller ‘special’ suit, and with more players more of the suits were used. But it was impossible to do this and create a deck that would always contain the correct multiple of cards, and the solution meant a fiddly removal of cards when playing with 5 players.

This part of the game was always inelegant and annoying; a part of the puzzle of designing the game that I had never properly solved.

Strokes beard

So, I had an idea. What about throwing out the requirement for supporting 2 players altogether and, at the same time, raising the upper limit to 7 players? The core of the game worked incrementally better with more players, and stretching the game to 7 certainly wasn’t going to break it.

The original deck had four core suits (each 18 cards) plus the smaller special suit (6 cards). With 2 players, two core suits plus the special suit were used, making 42 cards. With 3 or 4 players the game deck added another core suit, making 60 cards. Each player plays one card per round, so these numbers yields a neat 21 rounds for 2 players, 20 rounds for 3 players, and 15 rounds for 4 players.

You have probably noticed that 60 cards is actually a nice round number for 5 and 6 players aswell — indeed, 60 is the smallest ‘lowest common multiple’ (LCM) of 3, 4, 5 and 6 — so you are perhaps wondering what the problem was? I’d say that the problem was this: with 5 or 6 players the number of rounds would be reduced to 12 and 10 respectively, and that’s just a little too few to be interesting. That’s what the extra suit was for in the first place. But the next smallest LCM is 90, and that’s too many! (And would have necessitated a fourth suit of 30 cards.)

So, in my original game the fourth suit of 18 cards created a complete deck of 78 cards, which was fine for 6 players (13 rounds) but required an ugly 3 cards to be removed to make things square for 5 players (75 cards, 15 rounds).

Different problem…

Once I had decided to drop 2-player support and include 7 players an entirely different set of limitations presented themselves, and I began to realise that I might be able do something much smarter, although it took me a while to get there (a process not helped when I spent several hours labouring under the false impression that 7 × 12 was actually 94).

My inspiration sprung from looking again at that difference of just 3 cards between the 5- and 6-player decks (75 vs. 78 cards). I deliberately wanted to keep the new deck made up of, at all times and for all player numbers, complete suits. And there was also the need to keep the special suit, whatever its eventual size, part of the deck for all player numbers, so I couldn’t use that suit as a prop to support the switch from 75 to 78 cards.

The only possible solution, then, was to throw away another assumption about the solution, and create a deck with unequal core suits. They still need to be roughly the same size, but there is nothing in the game that demands that they are exactly the same. Combine this new approach with the obvious requirement for a fifth core suit to raise the complete deck size to support 7 players, and all the parameters of a new solution are in place.

…different solution

It’s worth stating that there is nothing in the definition of these parameters that means an acceptable solution is even possible. After all, there is essentially a set of simple but incompletely defined simultaneous equations at the heart of the problem, and exactly what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ solution is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

However, at length — and only after realising that 91 rather than 94 was a multiple of 7! — a suitably acceptable set of numbers dropped out, and here they are:

A: 17 B: 17 C: 16 D: 15 E: 13 X: 13

A, B, C, D & E are the core suits. X is the special suit. The two 17-cards suits (A & B) plus the special one (X) are part of the deck for all player numbers:

3 players: A B E X = 17 + 17 + 13 + 13 = 60 (20 rounds)
4 players: A B E X = 17 + 17 + 13 + 13 = 60 (15 rounds)
5 players: A B D E X = 17 + 17 + 15 + 13 + 13 = 75 (15 rounds)
6 players: A B C D X = 17 + 17 + 16 + 15 + 13 = 78 (13 rounds)
7 players: A B C D E X = 17 + 17 + 16 + 15 + 13 + 13 = 91 (13 rounds)

These numbers are, however, not the only possible solution. Since the A, B and X suits appear in all decks, the split of cards between them can be altered arbitrarily. It certainly makes sense to keep A and B equal in size, but they could both be 18 cards and X only 11 cards and the sums would still all work. Similarly I could drop A and B to 16 cards each (raising X to 15 cards) and better equalise the size of the five core suits, but the function of the special suit militates against this. I don’t want the proportion of cards in the special suit to begin to swamp the core suit cards with the smaller player numbers.

In conclusion

So there you have it: a rather long-winded explanation of a small problem and the even smaller victory of discovering its solution. But this is the game designer’s lot, and setting myself arcane puzzles that only I can solve (principally because I am the only one interested in solving them!) is part of the true joy of the design process. But it is a curious form of creativity, since one must visit the destination first — or at least get close enough to take a good look! — before returning to the beginning and deliberately choosing to go the long way round, as if reaching the destination without taking the most labyrinthine and intricately mapped of routes would be an abject and dishonourable failure.

And so to other designers embarked on similar journeys I say: Happy trails!

P.S. The post title, by the way, is taken from a poem called ‘An Epitaph’ by English poet A.E. Housman who, it must be said, was never the most cheerful of lyricists.

Stay, if you list, O passer by the way;
Yet night approaches; better not to stay.
 I never sigh, nor flush, nor knit the brow,
 Nor grieve to think how ill God made me, now.
Here, with one balm for many fevers found,
Whole of an ancient evil, I sleep sound.

A.E. Housman

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