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

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Microgames: Small is beautiful

Good Little Games

It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.

Arthur Conan Doyle

The wheels are in motion for the launch of my new project Good Little Games: which I am describing as a showcase of free print-and-play microgames. You can point your browser at (although there’s not much to look at just yet) or follow @goodlittlegames, which will be the primary (and, I promise, not too shouty) news feed for the site once it’s on stream.

What’s a microgame? As with all neologisms, that probably depends on who you ask. I’ve chosen to adopt Alan Paull’s definition of a microgame as a card-based game in which the only bespoke, printed components are 18 or fewer cards. Why 18? Why not! For starters, you can fit 18 Poker-sized cards on two sheets of paper, making delivering the games as print-and-play games straightforward, and keeping the amount of printing needed before the actual playing bit can kick in to a minimum. (The card images will all be sized so that they can be either pasted-up or sleeved with regular Poker-sized or M:tG cards.)

One of the core attractions of the microgame for players is, I think, portability. You can fit an 18-card deck into the smallest of spaces, and conceivably have your favourites with you at all times, ready and waiting to be brought out almost anywhere, to deliver a quick blast of fun during the briefest of downtimes.

For the designer — at least for this designer — their attraction is also in the intellectual challenge of creating something small, but perfectly formed; the distillation of something larger to discover its essential nature. There’s nowhere to hide; no room for lazy thinking or rough edges; no room for anything other than that which is vital. Indeed, you might think there’s barely enough room for a game at all — and there’s the rub! Just how much game can you fit into such small a box?

Microgames also very much feel like an idea whose time has come. The success and sheer presence of the smallest of gems — Love Letter and Coup: I’m looking in your direction — at last year’s Essen was undeniable. And it’s hardly gone unnoticed by the great and the good of the design community. Abundant designer Daniel Solis has been documenting the recent development of his microgame Suspense on his blog, the game-design tweeters are all a-chatter, and over at TMG, Michael Mindes is busy plotting (and blogging about) something which is not-so-entirely-dissimilar (although definitely more organised!).

The microgame has arrived. And little wonder, you might say.

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Pretending to Pretend

Inception: Cobb's Totem

Over at Futility Closet, Greg Ross recently wrote about a problem posited by philosopher David Lewis.

A singer sings this song:

I’m a stockman to my trade, and they call me Ugly Dave.
I’m old and gray and only got one eye.
In a yard I’m good, of course, but just put me on a horse,
And I’ll go where lots of young-uns daren’t try.

He goes on to brag of his skill in riding, whipping, branding, shearing: “In fact, I’m duke of every blasted thing.”

There are two fictions here: The singer is pretending to be Ugly Dave, and Ugly Dave is telling boastful lies. But why doesn’t this collapse? How are we able to tell that the fictional Ugly Dave is lying (which is essential to the song’s meaning), rather than telling the truth?

“We must distinguish pretending to pretend from really pretending,” writes David Lewis in Philosophical Papers. “Intuitively it seems that we can make this distinction, but how is it to be analyzed?”

I cannot answer the philosopher’s question, but the phrase ‘pretending to pretend’ has stuck with me.

When we play games what are we doing? Are we pretending? Or are we pretending to pretend? These feel like very different endeavours, yet both are predicated on the same falsehood: that the game world is real.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand
in the desert…”

So begins Shelley’s famous sonnet Ozymandias. Like almost all fiction it is written in the first and third person: a story told from the author’s perspective about somebody else.

And we know that every part of it is a lie. No reader imagines that the poet actually met a traveller (although he may have done), nor that the ruins described by that traveller are real (although they might be). We ‘know’ this because we are armed with an understanding of the nature of storytelling, and so assume without concern that the events are fictional, even though none of us have any direct way of establishing if the author’s words are genuinely false.

Games are different. They may begin by declaring “You are a traveller from an antique land.” This is a fiction of an entirely different order. It is not just the inventive retelling of some unexperienced history or some unvisited world, it is a lie told in the second person about the reader themself.

If I play that game, I know that I am no such thing, and yet if I am truly to play it then I must be willing to become, at the game’s invitation, that very traveller, and explore those antique lands for myself. To do this I must deliberately, genuinely, honestly pretend; if I can only muster the will to pretend to pretend then I — and surely the game itself — have failed.

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Play nice. Test nasty.

El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco de Goya

Our weekly playtesting and game designers’ get-together in Cambridge had a good start to the year on Tuesday with the genuinely grand total of 8 designers in attendance. This week including such design luminaries as TerrorBull Games’ Andrew Sheerin, newcomer and designer of Convoluted Adam Brooks, and a coterie of other sparky, creative and generally fun-to-be-with tabletop game designers. If you’re one of those, and in the Cambridge area (or don’t mind the journey on a wintry Tuesday night) do get in touch.

Any designer will tell you that putting a new prototype on the table in front of new players is often a daunting proposition. An audience of game designers only makes this worse, because they will typically start questioning your design choices before you’ve started playing (or even finished getting all the components out of little plastic bags). This is entirely to be expected, absolutely necessary and just as it should be, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take.

Playtesting needs to be a brutal, challenging, revolutionary, transformative event; if it’s not you’re probably not doing it properly. Or, at the very least, you’re not making the most of the opportunity.

The fantastic thing about sharing this experience with other designers is that no-one minds if you change the rules halfway through, start a game without really knowing how it’s going to end, unilaterally jettison some key part of the game without warning, or simply stop when everything falls apart.

After all, if your game is exactly the same thing at the end of a playtest as it was at the beginning, what’s the point?


2013: Future imperfect?


In which I welcome the new year — happy 2013! — and talk about Digits in a Box, a packing puzzle designed by Eric Harshbarger, produced by Popular Playthings, and given to me at Christmas. The puzzle is many things: clever, compact, tactile and immediately engaging, but it’s certainly not perfect — and that’s what makes it so good.

You can’t invent a design. You recognise it, in the fourth dimension.

D.H. Lawrence

The trick with Digits in a Box is simple: fit the 10 sturdy plastic pieces, the shape of the digits 0–9, back into the little box and close the lid. You know it must be possible, since that’s how the puzzle is delivered, and the box tells you that there are over 4000 solutions, so it sounds easy. And getting 8 or 9 of the pieces back in the box is easy. But the final one? Not so much.

The odd thing is that, unlike almost every other packing puzzle on the market, there seems to be ample spare room in the box. The designer Eric Harshbarger makes this point in his own excellent exposition of how the puzzle came to be: the box’s dimensions are 5×5×5 ‘unit squares’, so contains space for 125 ‘unit cubes’. But the pieces themselves occupy 107 unit cubes, only around 85% of the space.


The puzzle was an immediate hit with my and my family. The pieces were satisfying to handle and simply fun to play and experiment with; and a solution, when it came, elicited a pleasingly wry smile of recognition. One down, only 4328 to go!

Most packing puzzles rely on filling all the space available with a specific arrangement of the pieces, which themselves have been designed to make any other arrangement impossible. And one can imagine how designers usually begin at the end: imagining the whole and then carefully dissecting it into impossibly devious constituent parts. Eric did the reverse: he wondered if an already present set of pieces — the 10 digits, albeit rendered into consistent geometric forms — could possibly fit into a specific container, whose dimensions merely suggested that a solution was likely, and that it would be neither impossible nor trivial.

But what do I mean when I say that the puzzle isn’t perfect? I mean only that some of the hallmarks of perfection are absent. Where is the completeness? Where is the purposeful, deliberate precision of a thoughtful and thorough creator? For one thing, there’s all that infuriatingly unused extra space.

There was nothing inevitable about the puzzle or its multiple solutions. In a sense it might be considered merely an accident of mathematics, history and the origins of Arabic numerals, but that would be to miss the point that it took Eric’s creative insight to notice it’s potential. And to yearn for ‘perfection’ would be to miss something equally profound: that the ideal isn’t necessarily as much fun as it sounds.

Or, to put it another way — and to begin 2013 with a new design maxim — if the Devil is in the details, then God is in the gaps.

Quote via Quotes on Design.

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