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


Gaming with Designers: Trust no one

In which I report on last weekend’s session, during which six game designers played games old and new, although not necessarily all at the same time.


Kill Doctor Lucky — James Ernest (Cheapass Games, 1996)

It is always a problem finding games that play up to 6, if not beyond, and first to the table was my now positively antique copy of the original Cheapass edition of this title. It’s a curious and amusing twist on the familiar Cluedo country-house murder trope: The players are all would-be killers, desperately trying to catch the eponymous Doctor Lucky alone in one of the rooms of the sprawling family manse long enough to kill him. Each attempt — for example, I actually managed to dispatch him rather quickly in the first game by the judicious use of a ‘tight hat’ — can be foiled by the other players, but the trick is try to get the other players to empty their hands of ‘failure’ cards before you do, so increasing the chance that your next murder attempt will succeed.

It’s cute, and played with the right degree of complicity, funny, but it’s not without its flaws. The turn order is annoyingly jumpy, and can mean that some players can sit for a long time waiting for a chance to do anything at all. The card draw is very choppy, so can land you with a uselessly powerful hand, and the game is, usually — unless you have a tight hat, it seems! — brought to an end through collective and lengthy attrition, and firmly outstayed it welcome second time around.

Again, it is a cute idea, and there are plenty of games out there which get by on less even than that. But perhaps it is simply showing its age. Games and gamers have moved on since 1996. I think I have.

Escape — Kristian Amundsen Østby (Queen Games, 2012)

I tried this first at Essen last year, when its name was on everyone’s lips. And this one really is a clever piece of design; the cleverest part of all being it can only ever take 10 minutes. We played with and without the curses and treasures expansion, and were not, as a group, that sure about what it added, other than complexity; possibly necessary complexity, once you’ve explored the regular game enough, but complexity nonetheless.

My question would be, as much fun as it is, is there something inherent in its form that will limit its ability to claim the holy grail of game design: replayability. I think I would tire of it quickly, and I think I know why: Games are, for me, about the journey, and my issue with Escape’s journey is not that it is merely short, but rather that it is, in a different sense, fleeting. The moments of the game come and go so quickly that they cannot be properly appreciated. It’s like skim-reading great literature or skipping to the last page of the mystery novel. It’s just the punchline, and not the joke.

Heimlich & Co. — Wolfgang Kramer (Ravensburger, 1984)

This was another game from my personal collection, this one collected for next-to-nothing from a charity shop, back in the day when you could actually find decent stuff like classic Ravensburger games in charity shops. I had always wanted to give it a try, but never got the chance; and it was useful that I brought it since the chunky wooden pieces were excellent avatars for our games of Kill Doctor Lucky!

For me, this narrowly edged out the next game as the best of the afternoon. And you really can’t knock it. I mean, it won the Spiel des Jahres! In 1986!

To be honest I sensed a certain chill amongst my gaming colleagues when I laid it out in front of them. It’s such a simple, simplistic even, proposition: secret identities and ‘roll and move’. That’s it? Yes! That’s it. And what it demonstrates is how much game there can be in such a small set of precepts (which is another thing that can definitely be said about the next game, too!). And where Kill Doctor Lucky was cute, this is actually smart.

I am — God knows! — a ‘less is more’ man, but I know that less is more difficult than it looks — and Heimlich & Co. makes it look oh so easy.

The Resistance — Don Eskridge (Indie Boards and Cards, 2009)

I was a Resistance newbie, and I am certainly a convert. It takes the well-known Werewolf setup of unknown assailants and group deception, and boils it down to the purest, strongest, but most drinkable of liquors. It provides just enough structure to make the game run, and then stands back and let’s the players get on with it. And by ‘get on with it’ I mean lie and argue and bluster and accuse and generally get in each other’s faces. Saint Francis of Assisi famously sought to bring harmony where there was discord: The Resistance does precisely the opposite. And with the absolute minimum of fuss.

So my advice is: Go play this game! But I have a proviso: Don’t play it with other game designers. As a breed, I can’t help feeling we’re all just a little too skilled in the art of bare-faced lying to ever be trusted.

Coup — Rikki Tahta (La Mame Games, 2012)

Last up was this tiny little morsel which, like Escape, won a lot of mindshare at last year’s Essen, although this one did it with appreciably fewer resources at its disposal. I very much liked the concept — after all, microgames are close to my heart — but not all microgames are born equal. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s not always a guarantee. For the brand new player, parsing the actions and interactions of the money and the different cards is harder than it should be, and I have to believe there is a better way to represent them than the over-sized spreadsheet-like player aid.

The game does begin to run more smoothly once players are up to speed (which is of course an unremarkable observation about almost every game), but once they have, I sensed a sort of procedural nature to our play. To be fair, and this is true of all the games we played, the way a particular group chooses to play could definitely make all the difference, but I don’t think Coup is nearly as generous and as open as The Resistance is, in this sense: that the game feels as though it requires significantly more complicity on the part of the group to be played with the texture and interest that appear to be the designer’s intent.

Which, perhaps, is a rather too self-consciously analytical way of saying something simpler: That, all things considered, I think I’d rather play something else.

Or maybe it was just all the other game designers I had foolishly chosen to play with. Yes, that was it: They ruined it for me!

Add Comment

Playtesting: Get your hands dirty


Over at Gallimaufry, friend and fellow game designer Matt Dunstan has written up a report of the very first playtest of our new collaboration, a mercurial beast of a game that we have called Trinity. As Matt points out, there’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ playtest, and although the version of the game we presented (and our unwitting playtesters endured) is a far cry from where it needs to be, by no means was the playtest a failure.

At the same event — the monthly Playtest Meetup in London — I also got in another play of my own prototype Aegea, with, of course, another set of changes. The design is far more mature than Trinity, but no less in need of playtesting. I was very pleased with how the game ran, and the new texture created by the key change I was principally looking to try out. Mission accomplished?

Hardly. I think I can legitimately claim that the core game idea has always been appealing — there’s a little boat; you move it around; it’s cute — and further that for the past few iterations it has been something more: a ‘good’ game. Good, yes, but not finished. Good, but neither wholly connected nor wholly resolved. Good, in exactly the same way that so many games are, but not more than that; not — whisper it! — great.

You might think — if you were prone to absurd rhetorical flourishes — that some games must be born great, and some must have greatness thrust upon them. But I’d be dubious of any designer claiming to be one who can regularly achieve the former, rather than one with hands regularly bloodied by the folly of the latter. I make no such claim, and if I did you’d be right to scoff. And if you did, then I’d scoff right back.

If achieving greatness was just a case of waiting long enough for the arrival of a happy accident, if it were that… simple — well, we’d all be doing it, wouldn’t we? Greatness is not only an act of will, but one of force.

Get your hands dirty, then we can talk.


The Three Types of Game Designer


Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts.

The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course, it probably isn’t.

The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.

Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it. Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.

But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act; the hardest part. The part we call The Prestige.

Opening monologue from The Prestige. Screenplay by Jonathan & Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest.

The Prestige should, if you ask me, be required viewing for any game designer.

Why? First, because it’s a brilliantly crafted piece of cinema. Second, because it credits its audience with an uncommon amount of intelligence. And third, and most importantly, because it is itself a game, and one that has a great deal to say about game design. It’s something of a riddle, too, of course, but I believe it’s an honest one. It tells you the rules and then it plays by them. The film may be a mystery, but it’s no trick.

It is a story of three men, three magicians: Angier, Borden and Cutter. Each man understands stage illusion differently, and while each comes eventually to understand the others’ methods and secrets, our protagonists are, in the end, consumed by their mutual obsessions. It spoils nothing to tell you this; the tale, as they say, is all in the telling.

Angier knows what the audience knows, that “The world is simple, miserable, solid all the way through.” He wants to fool them “just for a second”, to “make them wonder.” His trick is to create these moments. Angier is the showman.

Borden, his rival, has a secret. But he knows that “The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything.” His trick is his own life, and to fool the audience he must nurture that myth above all else. Borden is the storyteller.

Cutter is the ingénieur, working behind the scenes to design illusions and build the apparatus. He understands that the audience “want to be fooled” even while they know that the illusion must, somehow, be real. He understands the illusion and enables it. His trick is to create the machine. Cutter is the engineer.

I think the film resonates with me because it is both entertainment and exemplar: a show about showmanship, a story about how stories are told, and a machine crafted to tell us something about how machines are made.

And, writ large, are the three types of game designer: Showman. Storyteller. Engineer. Which are you?

Or, to put it another way, what do you make: moments, myths or machines?

Older posts / Newer posts