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

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Board Games in the Age of Chivalry

The Age of Chivalry - Reiner Knizia's Kingdoms by Fantasy Flight Games

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
 As he rode down to Camelot.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott

This isn’t a post about anything very profound; I just wanted to interrupt your regular viewing to report on the entertaining but doubtless unintentional similarities between two new board game cover designs: Donald X. Vaccarino’s Kingdom Builder by Queen Games, and the new edition of Reiner Knizia’s Kingdoms by Fantasy Flight.

The Age of Chivalry - Donald X. Vaccarino: Kingdom Builder, Reiner Knizia: Kingdoms

The illustrations share so many cues — a red-cloaked knight overlooks a gleaming white citadel amongst an impossibly mountainous landscape — that I couldn’t let them slip by unnoticed. Both are prime examples, I would say, of a familiar mythic representation of the age of chivalry, rooted in Arthurian lore, that directly evokes “the saintly days of yore” (as Poe once put it).

And when I say familiar, I really mean it! It took me five minutes on BoardGameGeek to find the examples below, so there are probably plenty more out there. When it comes to chivalry in board games, it does seems as if there’s a lot of it about.

The Age of Chivalry - Domaine, Condottierre, Battle of Westeros, Im Auftrag des Konigs, Rheinlander

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Playtesting: Landscapes, London and Laundry

Yesterday I had the honour and privilege of attending the playtest group organised by Rob Harris (@playtestuk) in the unassuming corner of a London pub borrowed from the London on Board crew. Rob and I were joined by Jonathan (@joffwarren), Chris and Brian, and after drinks, a light lunch and some introductory banter, we got down to business.

And first to the table was my own prototype Mēxihco, the new take on my old tile-laying game Terraform, now with added LEGO. The game does take rather longer to fully explain than I would like, and it’s not a game that lends itself very well to a ‘learn as you go’ approach so start-up time is relatively long for new players. But since this was the beginning of the session Rob, Chris and Jonathan were alert and patient and took in most of the rules (at least the ones I actually remembered to explain!) with sage nods.

Prototype snapshot: Mexihco - Example tile layout

The game mixes card drafting with tile laying and area control, so is likely to seem relatively familiar to the average eurogamer in terms of structure and mechanisms. This means that most players will come to it with a number of expectations mapped from other games, and it’s only, of course, where these expectations conflict with the game that things can get tricky.

However, overall the playtest was a success and I think everyone enjoyed the game, but that’s not to say there weren’t plenty of interesting wrinkles and keenly made observations from the playtesters. Was the set-up a little too fiddly? How necessary was the split of the tiles into two phases? Could the card drafting be made less frustrating? Can you clarify the scoring — for example with a player aid — please? Should the variable game-end timing be made, well, less variable? And finally, why did the game forbid the player from taking (apparently) reasonable actions?

That last one, for me, was the most interesting, although the others are certainly no less important. Players lay tiles to create and expand territory, but can also (in certain circumstances) overlay tiles, meaning that territories once created are not necessarily immutable. Players can (again, in certain circumstances) protect some of their territory, but in doing that territory becomes ‘locked down’ and, in the words of the rules, “cannot be enlarged or reduced by any player”.

I thought my rules were clear, and that they accurately reflected both the law and the spirit of the game. But — rather excellently — Chris was, in one turn, in a position where two apparently possible and equally desirable moves directly challenged both of these concepts. My intent, in formulating the game, was to render a protected territory inviolate. Players are able to choose to protect their territories and stop others from interfering with it, but the ‘cost’ of this choice is that any further expansion is explicitly forbidden. Hence the phrase “cannot be enlarged or reduced”. That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Well, as it turns out, not so much. Or rather, it is a clear instruction, but it is not one that completely describes the intended limitation. There is a loophole! At the end of my post Game Spaces: Why Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory, I explained the nature of loopholes as follows:

In this case the possibility of moving outside of the game space is neither explicitly forbidden nor allowed, rather the rules have created a ‘grey area’, a crack in the boundary drawn by the rules through which players can choose to play. Often players themselves will veto expanding the play space in this way by reasoning that to do so would break the ‘spirit of the game’, but there will always be others who seize the opportunity and point out, correctly, that no rule forbids it.

What is the loophole? You may be ahead of my here, but saying that a territory “cannot be enlarged or reduced” says nothing about the legality of an action that leaves its area unchanged. And, as it happens, there are very good reasons why a player might seek to do this and Chris quite rightly asked why he shouldn’t be allowed to. Much discussion ensued!

At the same time — in the very same turn — another possible move highlighted how explicitly preventing “any player” from enlarging or reducing a protected territory, though unambiguous, directly challenged the spirit of the game intuited by the players.

The intent of the rule was to draw a very clear line around these inviolate territories, and everyone accepted that it did indeed make perfect sense that expanding your own protected territories ought to be forbidden. But what about expanding a protected territory belonging to another player? Did it make sense to forbid this when there could be circumstances — as aptly demonstrated by Chris — when to do so was the consequence of an entirely reasonable and desirable move? Much discussion ensued about this one, too!

Chris’s turn, which probably created a 15-minute hiatus in the game while all the options, expectations and ramifications were closely scrutinised, only goes to show how difficult it is to create truly bullet-proof rules and why, as a designer, you need to take into account not just what your players can and cannot do, but also what they would, all things considered, wish to do.

All games might be said to set up a series of playful obstacles for the participants to overcome. Rules codify these obstacles, and are therefore primarily designed to stop players doing whatever the hell they want whenever they want to. When people choose to play they enter into a contract: they agree to play their game by your rules. And I think the designer has an absolute duty to make a fair bargain in return: to respect and reward the player’s faith in your game by demonstrating more than a little faith in your players.

And so, when Chris challenged my game — challenged me, indeed — to defend the logic of its internal law I found that I could not, in all good conscience, do so. I could not wag my finger and deny his entirely reasonable and reasoned request, and so we agreed that the move — which safeguarded his own territory while expanding Jonathan’s — should in fact be allowed and played on.

The game ended with a surprisingly close win for Rob: 26–25–25–23, and the dissection of its vices and virtues continued. Exactly how variable the variable timing of the end of the game should be, and what mechanism should be used to achieve it, remains an open question. My first playtest last week resulted in a 400-to-1 ‘play till the bitter end’ result; yesterday’s was a more modest 7-to-1 result in the other direction that led to a shorter-than-average game. But was it too short? That was the question! I need to go back to the maths on this one and make sure I really do know what I am letting myself (and my players) in for. Personally, I don’t mind the idea of unpredictability, but I appreciate that it won’t be to every player’s taste.

I won’t dissect the other games we played in quite so much detail (you will probably be relieved to hear), but next up was Rob’s London Game, which I have played before and which, delightfully, continues to defy obvious categorization. Is it a deduction game? Possibly. Is it a casual or gamer’s game? Both. Are there meaningful strategies? Perhaps. If so, what are they? Ah, well, now you’ve got me! Is it, in the final analysis, even a game? Yes. And possibly no, depending on what you mean.

You see, it really is the most mercurial of animals! We played twice. And I won twice. But I couldn’t tell afterwards if I’d played the game, or if it had played me. Don’t get me wrong: I like it, as did the others, but exactly what ‘it’ is remains shrouded in mystery.

Finally — provided, that is, we don’t count my other prototype, Rumba, and I would prefer not to — we played a round of Hung Out To Dry, a prototype designed by Jonathan in collaboration with his trans-Atlantic design partner Rebekah Bissell. This was a very neat and nicely thematic set-collecting card game, designed for children and families. We all enjoyed it, but agreed that it was over a little too quickly with four players. Jonathan already knew this, and Rob confirmed that in with two or three players the game allowed more time for the more interesting aspects of the game to emerge. There was a lot to like about the game’s theme and colourful artwork which will both definitely appeal to children, so I wish Jonathan and Rebekah all the best with the game’s continued development.

I did get Rumba to table, but it was a rather inglorious and disappointing experience which I, Rob and latecomer David endured rather than actually played. Somewhere this design has got lost, and every attempt to take it forward has failed (yesterday was no exception). It’s not that there’s nothing there, it’s just that I haven’t figured out what it is yet. The latest prototype was just too fiddly and ungainly and inescapably dull. There’s too much of it, and it collectively delivers far too little. Less said the better, to be honest.

Does any of that sound like fun? (Apart from the last bit.) If so, and you are either a game designer with a prototype in need of playtesting, or a gamer willing to suffer the slings, arrows and outrageous fortunes of unfinished and thoroughly rough-around-the-edges gaming experiences, do keep an eye on Rob’s website for details of future get-togethers and feel free to come along.

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Prototype Snapshot: Mēxihco

Prototype snapshot: Mexihco - Example tile layout

Mēxihco is a strategy tile game in which you play the part of Aztec rulers, competing to develop and protect districts of maize and bean crops, irrigation ponds and city precincts during the rise of the Aztec empire in the Valley of Mexico.

So reads the introduction to my newly written and wholly revised ruleset for the latest incarnation of the game that started out as Terraform (of which more can be found in the BrettSpiel archives). It’s always been a favourite of mine, and I have returned to the design often over the past few years. There are absolutely nothing wrong with Terraform in its final form, a form which Jackson Pope of the erstwhile Reiver Games seriously considered for publication, but the more I went on to design other prototypes, the more I realised that Terraform could be and do something more, and I have since tried out various ideas to elevate and enliven the player experience.

Yesterday was the first playtest of the new Mēxihco and as playtests go, it was a pretty satisfying and reassuring experience, even if probabilistically arresting — but more of that in a moment.

The idea of shifting the theme to something more Earth-bound was the beginning of this process, and the first thing to change was the name. The play involves landscape building and definitely classifies as an ’area control’ eurogame, but the game itself — the core of it — is actually rather more combative than the average eurogame and is really one of constant brinkmanship. My earlier attempts to ‘fix’ the game missed the mark, serving only to stab at its very heart, injuring the thing that made it interesting in the first place: the cycle of tension and resolution. Never forget the good stuff when attempting to exorcise the bad!

Another key aspect of change — which I discussed at length in my Game Design 101: What Are The Odds? article — was changing the timing and tempo of the game by introducing an (appropriately constrained) degree of unpredictability into its progress. The game has a stash of tiles, which the players claim and place to build the landscape. Terraform simply ended when these ran out, which led to flat and anticlimactic endgame. My solution, as discussed in the article although now implemented slightly differently, is to add a small population of special tiles to the main stash. These tiles emerge randomly, but once they’ve all been played the game is over.

With a little bit of combinatorial and permutational maths you can work out the likelihood of any particular number of tiles turning up before the game can end. I’d done the maths and thought I knew what to expect. But the Universe, it seems, likes to solve its own equations and yesterday delivered a result that was roughly a 400-to-1 long-shot. Thanks, Universe!

In a way, this result only goes to show how careful and respectful the game designer must be when dealing with our old friend Lady Luck. Since just one playtest has the capacity to deliver even the most aberrant of outcomes, any game designer without a meaningful understanding of the maths could be easily deceived into thinking either the best or worst of their creation. I am confident I have a handle on the numbers, but to experience what an edge case actually feels like was very useful.

As I said in my original article, when you hand over any aspect of your game to chance you can no longer rule out the genuinely shocking outcome — everything not forbidden is compulsory, remember? — but actually, that’s part of the fun. And last night’s playtest managed to reinforce that message while highlighting the value of an almost Orwellian ‘ignorance is strength’ credo. Let go the reins a little and learn to love the chaos!

Plus — and this was a very important aspect of the playtest — my little LEGO Aztec temples did the job very nicely, thank you very much!

Prototype snapshot: Mexihco - LEGO temples

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Being Played: Why Gamification Sucks

In the past couple of days two articles came at me on different vectors, and both of them were about Gabe Zichermann.

A friend emailed me this interview with Gabe on Publishing Perspectives (‘the BBC of the book world’ no less!), and over on Twitter @tiedtiger tweeted this review by Sebastian Deterding of Gabe’s book Gamification by Design.

The interview is short, but quite long enough to tell you everything you need to know about Gabe Zichermann. And the review, though long, is absolutely worth the read, since, as a byproduct of dissecting the book (of which — spoilers! — Sebastian is not a fan), it gives an excellent overview of the entire subject, and includes lots of pointers and references to other material, all of which is hot sauce for the game designer.

And when I say that the interview is ‘quite long enough’, I mean that it contains this singular quote from Gabe:

“The question I posed myself was: Can games be more than mindless entertainment?”

Right. OK. So… you kinda lost me there, Gabe. I mean, what, exactly, is a ‘mindless’ game? Truly, what do you mean? Now look, I’m not saying games can’t be trivial or ephemeral or ‘merely’ entertainment, but mindless? Really? Seriously? That’s what you’ve got? That’s where you started? That’s the predicate for your whole design philosophy?

It’s like wandering through the Louvre and announcing, after having actually stopped long enough to consider your surroundings, “I wonder if art can ever be more than just paint on a wall?”

So I was not — how shall I put this? — predisposed to take up Gabe’s cause when I came up against Sebastian’s book review. But I wasn’t expecting such an exhaustive and well-written take-down either. There’s lots to enjoy in the review — including a shout out for BoardGameGeek! — and I urge everyone who might be reading this to read it too. For one thing, its author is far better read.

I shan’t rehearse Sebastian’s arguments, but here’s my take on them and, by extension, on the tenet of Gabe’s book and on the nature of gamification as a discipline.

Gamification, at least within the terms chosen by those who currently most vociferously define it, seems to assume the smallest, least imaginative reading of human behaviour — and of game design too — and then proposes to do as little as possible to engage with it. Sebastian highlights in his first paragraph that gamification’s been called an ‘inadvertent con’. That’s generous. And I guess it would be a con if it wasn’t so bloody obvious.

I’m no marketer, but I am a consumer, and you know what? I, like the majority of modern consumers, ain’t no fool. Gamification may call upon the cosseted semantics of words like ‘loyalty’ and ‘engagement’ (and these notions are entirely valid metrics for the marketer) but so-called loyalty schemes aren’t really loyalty are they? — not when they’re just an elaborate form of financial coercion. And it’s hardly genuine engagement if it simply relies on behavioural inertia. By all means try and sell me stuff that I don’t want, but let’s not pretend that I am anything less than wholly complicit if I actually turn round and buy it. And if I do, it’s not because I’m acting against my best interests, it’s because I’ve reconfigured my own notion of my best interests to include something previously alien.

Here’s the failure at the heart of gamification: It assumes you can take something that’s actually work — something apparently against my best interests, something I don’t want to do (but that the ‘gamifier’ does want me to do) — and render it a game simply by wrapping it in the language of play. And that then, as if by magic, my relationship with it will be, quite literally, transfigured. And that suddenly, that which I did not want to do — principally: give you money — I shall find myself doing! Not because I want to — no, I shall do these things quite in spite of myself! — but because, well, you know, now it’s a game! Look, it’s got badges and points and scoreboards and everything! And suddenly this thing that I don’t want to do is fun! (It must be, it’s a game!) Oh, look at how much fun it is! Oh happy day!

I’m not that dumb — and I’m optimistic enough to believe that the majority of other people aren’t that dumb either. So if that’s really what gamification is predicated on, if it’s really a ‘price of everything, value of nothing’ proposition, then it’s all just lowest common denominator stuff and (almost) beneath my contempt. It’s an abuse of language, an abuse of intelligence and fundamentally cheap.

And, which is just salt in the wound, it’s got nothing at all to do with game design.

Gamification: Even the word itself has the most grating and inelegant of syntaxes. But it tells you everything you need to know. It tells you that the process is not about creating something actually playful, but about deconstructing something that isn’t, and then artlessly rendering it mechanically similar to something that is. It’s not about making something fun, but about making something that looks like fun. But that’s the huckster’s best offer, I guess; indeed, that’s all they’ve got. It’s snake oil. It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s a pig in a poke.

Scratch that: This time around there’s not even a pig! Gamification is nothing, hidden in plain sight: It’s the emperor’s new clothes.

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Ticket to Ride Map Design Contest: Here, There and Everywhere

Ticket to Ride: Around the World

Devotees of such things will no doubt have noticed that Days of Wonder have announced the twin winners of their Ticket to Ride Map Design Contest. Fulsome congratulations are due to the winners, who will see their maps published later this year: Ian Vincent of the UK (go Ian!), and François Valentyne of Canada. Readers interested in the delicious details of the new geographies offered in the forthcoming Map Collections can find out more on the DoW website.

When I first heard about the contest I, like many, many others, immediately set about the task of designing my own map, but before doing so publicly speculated on what Days of Wonder, in creating the contest, might be looking for. Ian Vincent read that blog post (without realising who I was, although we had previously met) and has, graciously, been kind enough to credit me in the rules for his India map.

Not, I hasten to add, for inspiring any specific part of his design, but rather, I think, for helping to articulate the nature of the Ticket to Ride brand itself. It’s genuinely gratifying to know that my words were helpful, and a geek thrill of another kind to see my newly minted nickname — Brett “Spiel” Gilbert (thanks Ian!) — up in metaphorical lights. Commensurately small lights, of course, but lights nonetheless.

But what of my own design? News of the winners has reminded me of how much I enjoyed the challenge of designing a map, and I thought you, dear reader, might be interested to see what I came up with — Ticket to Ride: Around the World.

The year is 1925. A quarter-century after our five old friends met to commemorate Phileas Fogg’s famous journey, they meet again. Within the past decade, great transport projects such as the Panama Canal and the Trans-Siberian Railway have opened up the world to the adventurous traveller like never before, and now, with the Roaring Twenties in full swing, and inspired by their dynamic spirit and industrial fervour, our friends agree to take on their grandest challenge yet — to recreate Fogg’s impossible journey for themselves!

That was my pitch, and the principle conceit of the map was that some routes would wrap around the left and right edges of the map, creating an entirely new geography and the possibility of true ‘Around the World’ tickets. These ‘long route’ tickets feature two cities as usual, but require them to be connected by a single, continuous, circumnavigational series of track. Other than that specific addition, the game preserves all the familiar concepts of the existing games and added no new mechanics or scoring bonuses.

I do wonder, of course, whether anyone else who entered had the same idea. It’s impossible to know, although since when I mentioned the contest to my maze-designing sister, herself a keen TtR online player, she independently expressed exactly the same idea, I can’t help but think that other entrants had it too!

Anyway, I began by looking at the different world map projections, and quickly settled on the Robinson projection as being a good fit for the standard Ticket to Ride board size. After that I roughly scaled the projection, overlaid this with a scan of the original Ticket to Ride map (of the United States) and, working in my favourite graphics package, began to pick out a selection of world cities that might form the basis of a workable map.

Ticket to Ride: Around the World - Map 1

I deliberately set out to create a map which would have (roughly) the same scale and density as the US map, partly because I was looking to create a map that would similarly fill the rectangular board space, but also for pragmatic reasons. I knew the US map ‘worked’, in terms of its balance of route lengths and colourations, and I didn’t want to set myself the additional challenge of reinventing that part of the system. To me, the geographical conceit of the map was the key idea.

Ticket to Ride: Around the World - Map 2

Soon enough I began to add routes to the map, using the background US map as guide to how large the train car spaces needed to be. If you compare the first two versions of my map you will see that I quickly ‘zoomed in’ on the Robinson projection, cropping the Arctic, Antarctic and Pacific regions as much as possible to focus on the main continental landmasses. This maximised the usable portions of the map and allowed more room for longer routes to be fitted between cities.

Ticket to Ride: Around the World - Map 3

The overall form of the map began to take shape quite speedily, although many details remained to be worked out. I had to pick junction cities for the wrap-around routes, and work out how dense or otherwise all the ferry routes demanded by the abundant oceans ought to be. Inevitably, of course, I started to take rather preposterous liberties — What’s that? A trans-Atlantic tunnel between Africa and South America? — but I was still playing around with ideas and figuring out where more routes would be needed for the map to be suitably connected to support 5 players.

Ticket to Ride: Around the World - Map 4

Ah, now things are starting to come together! This was an early attempt at colouring the routes, but established some useful conventions: Note the rounded lozenges for ferry routes, where dots indicate necessary locomotives, the heavy outline on tunnel routes, and the six differently coloured routes that span the board edges. Things would continue to evolve, but I wanted to make sure that the Pacific routes would be clearly readable during the game to avoid any confusion, so decided upon a limited number, all differently coloured, which would be as disparately located as possible: top, bottom and middle.

Ticket to Ride: Around the World - Map 5

Here we catch the map in the middle of being re-coloured (something that I did repeatedly, each time trying to balance the mix and density of routes). Note that the routes within Africa and Asia have been visually tided up — I didn’t like all those kinks! — and that there is a new Iceland-Africa ferry route, that there is (at last) a ferry from Dakar to South America, and that some of the place names have now changed.

By now I had begun to think more carefully about the time and place of this map (the very thing I counselled readers about in my original post) and realised that I needed to pick a specific year and cross-check world place names with that era. I eventually settled on 1925, and so Brasília was out (not founded until 1956!), and Jakarta, Ulan Bator and Chennai all needed to revert to their erstwhile monikers.

Ticket to Ride: Around the World - Map 6

Playtesting continued to reveal more things that needed to be fixed, such as relieving the congestion around Panama, and also demonstrated that simply forming a circumnavigational route was actually rather hard work! Not that that I wanted the map to make things easy for the players, but I did moderate the challenge by contracting key routes such as Tokyo-Panama, and completely removing the need for a trans-Pacific stopover in Hanga Roa (goodbye Easter Island!). Meanwhile, South America, which I had never been happy with, changed again to more accurately reflected the local geography of the cities, and elsewhere some of the tunnel routes shifted, again to better match the placement of large mountain ranges.

Rules mavens should note that the necessarily large number of ferry routes mean that the game is played using the ‘three card’ joker rule from Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries (where, when completing a ferry route, three matching cards can be played in place of a locomotive).

Ticket to Ride: Around the World - Map 7

Another complete re-colouration of the routes and — at the very last! — the sudden disappearance of Beijing and appearance of San Juan (plus another nudge to South America) brought the map into focus. Personally I really enjoy both the detail and the whole, and was pleased with how the varied geography created different challenges for the players at different points on the map.

My favourite part (if I were forced to choose) is the array of routes in and out of Panama, which features regular, ferry and tunnel routes, and all 9 route colours (if you count grey as a colour, that is). That one city offers everything in the game in one place!

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