Reflecting On My Role As A Game Designer

Well here I am staring at yet another ‘blank sheet of paper’ reminding me of my dilemma, just a short time ago, over having to design some type of analogue game from scratch. I can recall how clueless I imagined I was with little or no idea as to how to go about it.  As I reread my posts written during the gestation, creation and application periods of the game I can see my progression, sometimes meagre and at other times taking amazing leaps and I feel a pleasant sense of satisfaction that I have actually produced an artifact that has not only pushed me way outside of my comfort zone but that I have also manufactured something of value.

What began as a very vague idea based around time travel, my ‘dilemma’ developed into an interesting concept which played with the idea of time travel and about how one could move around in time through wormholes as well as including an environmental strategy. However, even though at this stage I have completed a working prototype, I feel that the mechanics of the game don’t  compliment the theme and it falls short of its goal of trying to convey the complexities of time travel. Playtesting has assisted with rectifying some of its shortfalls but I feel as though time itself is working against me in that I don’t have enough of it to bring this project to a point that I would consider adequate (that could take years).

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First Prototype

I do have a certain amount of wonderment that I managed to implement some mechanics that got the characters moving around the board and the first round of playtesting did just that with the round being concluded in roughly twenty minutes, including the setup. Feedback at this stage was that the game was too simple. This led to a bit of tweaking and the addition of resource sticks. These could be purchased with ‘enersave’ cards which had a numerical value from five to twenty five. It was surprising how this small adjustment could make such a difference to the complexity of the game with the second round of playtesting swelling out to forty five minutes allowing even a little strategizing to occur. What started as a simplistic race game had begun to develop into a game with greater complexity added to an already high level of abstraction.

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Tweaking the Prototype Stage Two

As I have discussed previously, writing the rules was not a task that I really enjoyed and it is one that still needs attention. I imagine that I will try to be as imaginative as possible within the given timeframe as I would like the rules to reinforce and expand upon the wormhole theme. Artwork can be collected from the internet as this is only a prototype and at this point I still need to include new rules that have been created due to design iterations. As I sit here trying to think what else I can add to this reflection, I suddenly thought about the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid) which posits that design is much more efficient and effective if it is kept in a simple form without added complexity. So with that in mind and keeping with the theme of abstraction, I shall finish my reflection.

KeepItSimple

But wait! I just want to add that I AM A GAME DESIGNER after all!.

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Taking The Prototype For A Spin

This week there have been two milestones in my ‘build a board game journey’. Well in reality there were three milestones as I managed to complete my first prototype, yay!

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First Prototype ready to be playtested

The first milestone was that I actually got to play test my Wormholes prototype and secondly, I began to write a set of rules. The play-testing was quite successful with several rounds being played and an actual winner being declared after about 20 minutes of play. The general feeling was however, that this happened too quickly and a little too easily which suggested that more complexity needed to be built into the game. The concept of the wormholes was well received. The theme of an alternate reality is a tried and true narrative trope so as soon as anyone sees anything relating to this, they are immediately clued up, unless of course they themselves have been living in an alternate reality where there is no science fiction.The players were enjoying the game progression until it was suddenly over before it had really developed into any type of flow. At the current point in the game’s development, simplicity would appear to be far outweighing complexity.

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First playtesting of Wormholes

The fact that complexity was lacking in the game allowed for a very simple set of rules which all players followed easily. Jesse Schell comments about rules;

Games have a lot of rules — how to move and what you can and cannot do — but there is one rule at the foundation of all the others: The Object of the Game. Games are about achieving goals — you must be able to state your game’s goal and state it clearly.

I imagined that writing a rule book would be quite an easy task until I actually tried to write one for my game. Schell also says “[a] game is its rules — give them the time and consideration that they deserve” which I can fully relate to having spent days trying to write my rules with a considerable amount of time staring at an empty screen endeavouring to start. After play-testing a suggestion was made to increase the complexity by adding special items which need to be collected in order to unlock the parallel universe. I think this is a valid idea to pursue and will be included in the next iteration.

Following are the rules in their very basic form as were used to guide the first play-testing.

Wormholes

Number of Players 2-4

Earth is on the verge of an apocalyptic meltdown. Wormholes have opened in the earth’s atmosphere that each lead to a ‘safe’ parallel universe, of which there are six in total.The challenge is to escape the present universe through a wormhole and unlock the gateway to another universe by collecting the correct number of ‘enersaves’ for that universe. You will take on the role of one of four protagonists – a doctor, a computer expert, a scientist or an ex criminal.

Objectives

Goal:

  • The goal is to move around the board collecting ‘enersaves’ (energy points) until you have enough to unlock a parallel universe each of which has a different value (measured in enersaves)

Setup:

  • Pick a character
  • Shuffle the deck
  • Deal two cards to each player and then place deck face down in the centre of the board
  • Spin the selector wheel to decide which wormhole your character starts on (1 on the selector wheel is equivalent to wormhole 1)

Play-loop:

  • Spin the selector wheel to move (eg 6 on the selector wheel equals 6 spaces)
  • Begin by moving towards the centre of the board
  • Follow the instructions marked on the space on which you land (pick up, swap etc)
  • You can move in any direction (backwards, sideways etc) as long as you land on a coloured space
  • Each turn (clockwise around the board) spin the selector wheel and move the designated number of spaces following the instructions as you go

End of Game:

  • You win if you land on a parallel universe (located in the centre of the board) and you have enough enough ‘enersaves’ to unlock that universe

Game Instructions:

The player with the lowest scoring wormhole (eg wormhole 1) starts. As you move around the board you must follow the instructions specified on the space on which you land. You must have one card in your hand at all times with a maximum of 5 at any time.

Pick up — Player selects a card from the top of the deck

Swap — Player swaps a card with the main deck by selecting the top card from the deck and placing their card on the bottom of the deck

Vortex — On landing on this space, the player must place themselves in the vortex. Player is released from the Vortex when they have 15 ‘enersaves’ (returned to  the bottom of the deck) or if they spin a 6 on the selector wheel

Trade —  Player can trade cards with another player by asking them if they have an ‘enersave’ card of a certain value. If the other player has this card they must give it to the player who is asking otherwise they say no and it is the next player’s turn.

 

Prototyping- Slowly, Slowly Catchy Monkey

I have been writing about the difficulties surrounding my adventures with game design and now I find that something of a miracle has occurred!  Whilst developing my time travel theme last week, I thought about accessing different time zones via wormholes and I was going to incorporate this into my time travel theme.

Birth of the wormhole concept
More wormholes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to make this work, i was going to have the time ships (like the TARDIS but not) travelling through the wormholes to get to a parallel universe, dropping in there, collecting some universe saving object and then popping back to save everyone from extinction. It was making the brain cogs creak just thinking about it and then I encountered the concept of abstraction and it got me thinking about making everything simpler. The idea of simplifying stuff was very appealing and then it was suggested to me that I had the content for not one but two games. Suddenly all the pieces came together. There was the game about the wormholes as gateways to parallel universes and then there was a time travel game revolving around building time machines and then using them to go a mission to save something. Eureka!

First draft of the board

I was more attracted to the wormholes concept and decided that I would use this to develop as a prototype. I had the idea of a circular board, representing the earth, with the parallel universes located in the centre. I originally had drawn more than 20 different universes but settled on just 6, again trying to simplify things. The wormholes radiated out from these like rays and were made up of a series of steps which a player would have to navigate to get to the centre and unlock a parallel universe. One of my biggest hurdles is to create the mechanics that make the game come to life and now that I have decided on a theme I feel things will start to flow a little more easily. I need to make a puzzle for the player to solve but am not sure what it will be. I know I want the player to travel through the wormholes and the objective is to get to the centre and at this stage I think they will collect something that will  be crucial to saving planet earth, but what they are collecting and how they will transport it are as yet unknown. It is important to hold on to the concept of abstraction and use this to whittle down the elements of the game until just the bare essentials remain. 

My prototyping has been slow to evolve and as yet there are no rules. However, now that I have a basic concept I can start using materials to try and make it materialise. I have all the tools I need such as cards, cardboard, scissors, coloured post-it notes, glue, some suitable images, pencils and a willing participant who is going to playtest with me once everything is operational. I am hoping that the mechanics will develop as the board takes shape. That’s the plan at least! At this stage, I am feeling more confident that I can actually design something that resembles a playable game.

Prototype materials
Getting started on my prototype
Working on the layout for the board
Taking shape

I must remember that after all this – “I am a game designer”.

 

D-OOO That To Me One More Game

Image from http://www.goodreads.com

As I commence writing about the prototyping stage of my game so far, I feel an intense surge of frustration at my inability to produce anything. I am such a novice in the area of any type of game playing that I am constantly fighting an overwhelming urge to give up this crazy quest to design my own game. But then I think of Jesse Schell and say to myself “I am a game designer” and slowly the despair seems to dissipate.Enough at least for me to talk a little about the philosophy of objects or OOO, aka object oriented ontology. OOO is a relatively new term which has only been around since Graham Harman wrote about it in his 1999 PHD thesis. My interpretation of OOO is that objects have their own vibe or presence and it is not just our perception of them that makes them real but that they just exist in their own right. Another modern day philosopher who is also a game designer, Ian Bogost,  talks about ‘philosophical carpentry’ which focuses on the making of things or objects. Through the construction of objects we are better equipped to understand their inherent nature or true value, how they are interrelated and the way in which we experience them.

Playing games is just a fun way of finding out what the objects in any particular game are trying to tell us. Philosophically speaking, my game is trying to heighten the awareness of the players around environmental catastrophes through making them go on a quest ‘to save the planet’. The game objects become edifying tools to elicit deeper thinking on environmental issues (hopefully). The problem I now have with engaging in all this deeper thinking is that my prototype sits on my desk ‘as pure as the driven snow’ with not a mark to be seen!

Finally, after much brain gymnastics, I arrived at the basis of an idea for a game. As I have previously discussed the subject matter will be about time travel and at least now I can add a very sketchy outline of the theme. The name for my game will be Wormholes and it is set in the present day.The earth faces a threat of cataclysmic proportions as the earth’s core temperature is climbing and the atmosphere disintegrating and unless someone finds a solution, the earth’s crust will literally melt and all living creatures will be destroyed. 2 wormholes have appeared in the earth’s atmosphere. These wormholes have the ability to teleport matter either 100 years into the past or to a parallel universe.

I still was playing with the idea of a time machine which I wanted to further explore. Using cards, I started to list different types of time machines and modes of time travel.

It is such a convoluted topic that the difficulty will be drawing something out which I can then apply to my game. There are many ways that one can time travel (theoretically speaking), and many different ways that the time line can be affected or changed once a time travel manoeuvre has been actioned and at this point I am wishing that I was a Time Lord!

Getting the Creative Juices Flowing. Not So Easy!

Jesse Schell in The Art Of Game Design, says “[g]ame design is the act of deciding what a game should be”, a statement which may make you want to throw up your hands in protest saying “what does that mean?”. Schell clarifies this with “[t]o decide what a game is, you must make hundreds, usually thousands of decisions”. This is not the only thing that one must worry about when designing a game. There are “[d]ecisions about rules, look and feel, timing, pacing, risk-taking, rewards, punishments, and everything else the player experiences […] So I wonder how on earth I am going to design a game. As I was brainstorming a list of ten ideas for a game, my brain was screaming out “this is ridiculous! You have no ideas, don’t be absurd”. My entire being was fighting this on every level. I am dumb, I have no ideas. Schell has some answers. He states:

Good game design happens when you view your game from as many perspectives as possible. I refer to these perspectives as lenses …, small sets of questions you should ask yourself about your design.The idea is that even though we can’t have one complete picture, by taking all of these small imperfect lenses and using them to view your problem from many different perspectives, you will be able to use your discretion to figure out the best design.

That sounds great. Schell says that game design is based on the same principles as human psychology and that if you understand the fundamentals you can master any genre. Yippee! But wait, this is just the beginning and I have a long way to go.

Some of the game ideas I generated were as follows. Discover a new planet and populate it board game, exotic animal collection card game, ‘Catwalk Capers’ – discover who killed the fashion designer board game, raise a family role playing game and my favourite, build a time machine card game.

10 Board Game Ideas

Time travel is a theme that I would like to explore further. Perhaps there could be different time machines each with specific attributes that could then be utilised to carry out some type of mission. The mission could involve rescuing a child who has telepathic powers who can either save or destroy the planet depending on which timeline is activated (the basis for this idea was taken from Rian Johnson’s Looper ).

At this point in time I have no idea what the mechanics will be, other than using a board and cards,  but am hoping that the theme of the game will guide me. Did I mention that I was a complete novice at game design. Oh that’s right! I am a game designer-I am a game designer etc. Thank you Mr Schell.

I would like this game to appeal to the over 50’s market as this is an area that is currently under capitalised in the board game industry. The difficulty I will have in creating a prototype will be in tackling the time travel beast and taming it. I am hoping that brainstorming and some solid research will open pathways for the next stage of development.

Lets Pitch a Prototype!

The last five or so weeks of toiling and planning culminated this week in our group presentation of the prototype pitch for Trivial Bullshit. My role in this twisted tale of lies and deception, was to write the rule book. The rules of any game are probably the most important element because without them, chaos prevails. In The Boardtastic Guide to Explaining Rules, Chris J Davis comments;

I have seen it happen too often that a gaming session has been spoiled by a botched rules explanation, with no one enjoying the game because they haven’t got the slightest idea what they are doing. This guide now exists to help reduce the number of those occurrences.

Good for you Chris! The difficulty of writing game rules lies in the fact that one is endeavouring to explain the often complex workings of a game to someone that may never have played it before. I found Davis’s nine step guide very helpful as he clearly laid out everything that needed to be included in a rule book and how it should be dealt with beginning with step 1 ‘the theme’  and concluding with step 9 ‘strategy’. I also referenced the Pixy Games UK Website How To Write A Board Games Rule Book. This site also references  A Board Game Rulebook Template which was very helpful for the prototype process and one that I will use for developing my own game.

That brings me to the issue of my final project – the conceptualisation of my own board game. My experience with board games and gaming in general is very limited so at this stage it feels like a gargantuan task. However, I have learnt a great deal over the past weeks, and I would like to continue with the theme of time travel which I have dealt with previously in my Cybercultures subject last year. Robert Carroll who has compiled a Top 10 list of Time Travel games, states that these were chosen because they “meet all of the following criteria:  (1) focuses on traveling through time; (2) addresses some aspect of time travel in a unique or interesting manner (e.g., paradoxes, altering the past, etc.); (3) compelling “theme” (not too abstract); and (4) fun to play”. Carroll ranks the game Khronos at number 2 as it “succeeds at introducing a novel way to simulate time travel effects”. This gives me a place to start exploring.

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Khronos Time Travel Game – Screen Shot from https://boardgamegeek.com

I also believe that researching the games on this list may well give me some much needed grist for the mill.

Pick A Card – Any Card

Well here we are at the point of no return! It is time to formalise the mechanics of our game That’s Bullshit. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the mechanics of the game in its entirety, so I will focus on one part which is the use of cards (inspired directly by the 1981 version of Trivial Pursuit) and how they produce the movement in the game. Everyone who has played Trivial Pursuit will remember that the cards are the most important part of play i.e. without the cards there is no game.

Screenshot -www.zibbet.com

The cards are the storehouse of knowledge of a very specific nature. In 2010 when co-creator Chris Haney died, Bryan Curtis wrote an essay questioning the survival of Trivial Pursuit in the Google age citing himself from 2005 stating the game ‘was once “a great repository of middlebrow culture“’. He goes on to say: 

The game concerns itself with useless information, yes, but useless information of a very specific sort: detritus from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, which flattered the baby boomer by making his golden years seem vital, even historic.

That’s Bullshit follows through with the notion of ‘useless information’ but with the added twist that it is based around lying. The original knowledge categories as conceived by Chris Haney and Scott Abbott have been kept in play albeit slightly updated i.e.  “Geography” (blue), “Pop Culture” (pink), “History” (yellow), “Science and Nature” (green), “Sports and Leisure” (orange) and sadly, for all those literature gurus, “Arts and Literature” (brown) has been replaced by a “Random” category. As previously described, the player whose turn it is, is the only player who doesn’t know the answer to the question on the card. The correct answer to the question, which is located on the back of the question card, is revealed to all the other players who have in turn drawn another card from a ‘truth or lie’ deck (there is only 1 truth card in the deck). It is their task to put forward a plausible claim to make the card holder believe that their answer is correct. Arguments abound, however the card holder must eventually choose the player they believe is telling the truth. Points are awarded to the player who is most convincing in their lie, or at telling the truth and is chosen as the one who is telling the truth.

I image the audience will be made up of millenials and Trivial Pursuit hanger-ons. It is interesting to note that Curtis comments on the new Trivial Pursuit audience and says:

Gone is the proud generalist of the original Trivial Pursuit, who knew the most common Russian surname (Ivanov) and the international radio code word for the letter O (Oscar). In his place is the specialist, who knows every inch of Return of the Jedi.

Regarding the cost of production, I did some research which was fairly disheartening and I’m glad that we are only taking this project to prototype stage. You can read more about production costs at Plankton Games Journal specifically, Indie game publishing costs, or the grim reality of game economics, and Game Printing Costs.

Also see

Making A Game Part 2: Arguing As A Rule

Group Project: Trivial Bullshit, Mechanics