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Ruminations on Types of Games and Game Players, Arising from a Sojourn

(When I started to write this, I had no idea it would grow to exceed 3,500 words. But I think those who are interested in game design, and in why people play, will find it useful. LP)

I have been living in Gainesville, Florida temporarily, and with the advantages of being officially retired - no set schedule - I have been attending a variety of board/card game meetings and contemplating attendance at some conventions.

As my nature is to categorize phenomena to help understand them, there’s a lot of categorization below. That necessarily involves generalization over (in the end) thousands of games and game players. There are always exceptions: no generalization is always true (not even this on).

What I found in Gainesville is a lot of small groups, with almost no crossover in attendance. Even the groups with more than 200 people on Facebook have only 10 or 20 attending weekly meetings. There are three separate student groups, none of whom knew of the other two. Even though the larger group has been around for four years and more, the two new groups thought they were starting the only tabletop club at U. Florida.

There’s a lot of variation in attendance with these small groups; I went to one meeting where no one else showed up (yes, I had the right time and place - and this is the residents group, with the largest number of Facebook followers!).

There is the usual separation of groups for residents and groups for students (University of Florida has over 50,000 students, a very large university, the city population is 127,000). Residents are usually well into adulthood, up to their 50s and 60s, while the students are almost entirely 18 to 22 years old. Residents also usually have their own transportation, while the students are frequently stuck on campus. So the residents tend to meet at the primary local game shop, cleverly named Gamesville Tabletop. And the students meet on campus, usually in the Student Union food court. The one exception is that the residents meet there on Wednesdays.

Game Preferences.
But there’s also a big difference in game preferences. College students tend to like “story games,” games that have a story attached in some way, often one with an avatar representing the player. Betrayal at House on the Hill is very popular. They are also happy with games that are directly competitive, because they are accustomed to playing video games that are often directly competitive if only between the player and the computer opponent. Most of the students (by actual poll) play video games more than they play tabletop games. Many of the students here, and also in Raleigh where I’ve attended the student game club for 9+ years, like RPGs as much or more than board/card games. One longtime member of the residents group here told me that at one time they tried to work with the larger student group but found that people tended to separate into two age groups at meetings. He also thought of the students as role-playing gamers, unlike the residents by and large who play boardgames.

Most of the games I have seen played at the residents group - other than a few of my own - are of the typical Euro parallel competition or multiplayer solitaire game where each player pursues his own course with little to no regard for what the other players are doing. There’s very rarely an avatar in such games. The students are happy enough to do the parallel competititions occasionally but it’s not what they’re accustomed to, and certainly not at all like RPGs, which are the epitome of avatar/story games.

Opposite Poles.
Game preferences have at their poles two kinds of games: races on the one hand, and direct competitions on the other (like chess, checkers, go - many classic games). Parallel competition/multiplayer solitaire is a form of race because as in most races you can do little or nothing to hinder or help the opposition. The opposition cannot oppose you, they can only outdo you. In direct competitions the opposition can oppose you, can hinder you or cause you harm within the game, or help you significantly in some cases.

There’s another set of poles, closely related, between games that have always-correct solutions - another term might be closed games - and games that are open and have no such solutions. The extreme of the closed game is a formal puzzle with one solution. In the open games, if there is a dominant strategy, which is to say an always-correct solution, then we say there’s something wrong with the game design. In the former kind of game a dominant strategy is expected, and “multiple paths to victory” is a way to provide a multiple choice of strategies that would otherwise individually be dominant. When those multiple paths to victory are well-known (which is typical and often deliberately designed), it’s sometimes possible for players to slow down another player following one of those paths, and that’s the kind of indirect competition that one sometimes sees in what are otherwise race games. It’s somewhat like NASCAR or Formula 1 where you can block a car behind you for a while. In open games, the good lines of play often are not obvious, may intentionally not be obvious, supplying the gameplay depth we sometimes talk about but which is not present in pure parallel competitions. There are not “multiple paths to victory”, there are all kinds of ways to achieve victory, and which one works best depends on how the players interact.

The field events in Track & Field are another example of parallel competition. In most cases every competitor knows the correct strategy, it’s a case of who can execute it best. In open games, many players never figure out the best strategies, partly because they change from game to game - they depend heavily on the actions of the other players.

Of course, another word for an activity where you have an always-correct solution is “puzzle,” and for me these closed games are a form of interactive puzzle. Just as in a formal puzzle, the obstacles to be overcome are mostly or entirely provided by the game, not by the players. In an open game the obstacles/opposition are provided more by the players than by the game.

As long-time readers know, I strongly dislike most puzzles, though I have been known to play single-player turn-based video games with procedurally generated situations that alter the puzzle somewhat with each play. If I solve a typical puzzle, I am only doing what I ought to do, so I get no satisfaction from it.

Transparency/Opacity.
Parallel competitions are often quite transparent, that is, designed so that after one play a player can know how to win (or at least thinks he knows). Those “multiple paths to victory” in Euros are usually easy to see. That’s also a characteristic of party and family games. Many of the more competitive games featuring lots of direct action are much more opaque, you have to play several times before you get a good handle on how to win - and many players never do even when they play many times.

Maneuver and Spatial Relationships. Another strong differentiator in game preferences is whether or not the game involves maneuver (or placement) and spatial relationships (M/P & SR). Wargames and many RPGs are at one extreme in this spectrum, actual races (cars, horses) come after (“after” because the maneuver is severely constrained by the track), tile-laying is in the middle, and at the other end are most standard-deck card games and many so-called board games where the board is used as a status tracker rather than a field for maneuver and spatial relationships. (Keep in mind, virtually all ancient and early medieval games were M/P & SR games, dice being the obvious exception, cards and tile games not existing at that time.)

So to come back to game preferences in Gainesville, I think the fundamental divide between students and the residents (though with many exceptions) is a divide between open and closed games. People accustomed to “big” video games are also accustomed to using maneuver and spatial relationships, while many other video game players primarily play games without those attributes. (Yet even “Match 3" games use M & SR.) RPGs usually rely heavily on M & SR. Many of the more well-known Euros include some form of M/P & SR, such as Carcassonne and Power Grid, but most Euros do not.

Exceptions.
I say “many exceptions.” One of the officers of the big student group does not want to feel that he’s opposing and being opposed by someone else directly. RPGs, after all, are unique because they are co-operative games where you have actual human opposition (though the referee/DM is neutral or player-biased). You can almost do that in some video games, except with the limitation that programmed opposition is not as inventive and unpredictable (and downright sneaky) as human opposition - though you can get what Richard Garfield et. al. call in their book “one-and-a-half player games”.

Obviously, many people like multiple kinds of games, just as many people like multiple genres of music. But others want to stick to one kind. And preferences change over time. Such as, for two+ decades I would very rarely play a game against any person, so I played D&D and some single-player video games. Now I rarely play except solo testing my own designs, but I don’t mind a good “screwage” game, yet rarely play RPGs.

Not surprising that the sports I like (and participated in when younger) are team sports, not parallel competitions. Go Panthers!

Another big separation (reward-based vs consequence-based). Some of the students in one of the new groups appear to be party gamers. Here I differentiate between people who are serious about game playing and those who are not. Party gamers expect to be rewarded for participation - that’s what party games are for, after all - whereas many serious gamers expect to earn their rewards. I’m not using the terms hard-core and casual because there are hard-core gamers, in terms of how often they play, who now expect to be rewarded for participation (thanks to MMOs and F2P games), and casual gamers who may not play very much but who still play to earn what they get in a game. If you had to choose groups to connect then I would connect hard-core and serious, and connect casual with reward for participation, but I do not intend to do that.

(MMOs and F2P: the developers must reward players constantly to try to get them to keep playing the game long enough to make in-app purchases. It comes down to marketing and money, as many things in games do.) These students, however, are by-and-large game hobbyists who prefer the party game style, rather than people who only play games at parties.

Going back to Gainesville, the students are used to RPGs and to video games where there is direct competition, and where winning (sort of) matters. (You can use Save Games to avoid losing many video games, but not the ones where two or more players take each other on, e.g. Super Smash Brothers or Street Fighter.)

The differences in meeting times and habits between the three Gainesville student groups, and the Raleigh group, are surprising. Raleigh meets Fridays at 6PM, many are present before then, peak attendance is during 7-8, then it rapidly goes down, occasionally people stay as late as 11:30. One student group in Gainesville meets Mondays 7:20 to 9-something, a short, biweekly meeting. Another group meets at 8 Fridays, most people drift in considerably later, and stay until well past midnight (they often get free meals at midnight (“Gator Nights”)). The third group meets at 5 Saturdays, and by 8 more than half have departed, latest stay I know of was 10:20. Not-free meals are available for the last two groups (Union Food Court). (Does food come into it?) I shake my head, I just don’t see any pattern to it all.

When did the players start playing games?
Many of the older people who play Euros appear to have come to them in adulthood. That is, they weren’t game players while they were growing up. Perhaps they’re attracted to the serious nature of many of the newer-style games. Or they felt that other kinds of games were “kids’ stuff” (or worse, for RPGs), and here we have games that suited adults. (Recall the origin of Euros as “family games on steroids”, friendly games that actually require more brainwork than the typical American family game.)

Most of the students, I suspect, have played video games, at least, since they were small children.

Passion?
If you watch a Euro game (and I have watched many for many years, trying to understand why people play them), they are calm, perhaps even sedate, there’s little outward expression of excitement. The lack of direct action/competition contributes to that, keeping the game on an impersonal basis. Many of the people who are used to that kind of game seem to be bewildered when they play a game in which one player can directly and obviously hinder or harm their position. Contrast RPGs or wargames (or many player-against-player video games), where it’s not unusual to hear someone cheer, where people often stand up and crowd around when the game nears its climax, and it’s not unusual for people to get into “heated discussions.”

Euro players don’t appear to care much who wins - which certainly fits with the puzzle orientation. It’s the activity itself, progress in the puzzle-solving, that attracts. Also not surprising, insofar as it has always been true (I think) that more people like puzzles than non-puzzle games, going back to when there were no video games. Among other things, you’re not putting your ego on the line, and that also characterizes most of the Euro play I’ve observed over many years.

I’ve been known to call Euros “wine and cheese” games for this reason. Kind of like a wine-tasting sessions, too (no, I don’t drink). Another description I’ve seen is “dusty” or “dry”.

This doesn’t mean all Euro players aren’t competitive. Many of the most well-known Euros have gotten away from the parallel competition (Catan itself, for example, Power Grid), really to the point of being a different category (that some people think are the only Euros now). I was recently told that the people who caused the most trouble through being too-competitive at the venerable World Boardgaming Championships are Euro players, not wargamers. It is, though, a tournament convention, so it’s not surprising that those in the Euro tournaments might be highly competitive.

Kinds of Opposition.
We can identify two fundamental kinds of player opposition in games. The simple expression is “blocking and tackling.” The more detailed version is, one kind of opposition involves interference in the progress/plans of another, without harming them or taking anything away from them: such as blocking in a horse or NASCAR or Formula 1 race. Bidding in an auction is this kind of opposition, as well. So is “worker placement”, and many other favored Eurostyle mechanics. Railroad/train games often involve blocking. I often call this “indirect action” or “indirect interactivity.” The other kind involves actually harming the opponent’s assets, or taking something from them (or both) - as in wargames and other conflict games (such as some business games). “Direct action,”

So we can have players who aren’t used to player opposition of any kind, players who are used to only blocking from other players, and players who are used to direct action.

When you play a game without player opposition, you can’t always ignore the other players, but you certainly don’t have to watch their every move and react to it. When you play with blocking, you’ll try to avoid putting yourself in a position to be blocked, and you’ll take the opportunity to block an opponent, but most of the time (as in a standard race) you’re only concerned with progressing as fast or far as you can. When you play with “tackling”, you have to watch every move the opposition makes, and react to it (if only to decide to ignore it, if you can).

Reactions to Direct Human Opposition.
I saw this once again with one of the student groups that appears (from the games they have) to be more or less party gamers. My recently-published game Sea Kings, a "Viking adventure" game, is (in its simpler version) primarily a "go it alone" game where you do your thing and don't worry about what others are doing (though there is no puzzle, it's more or less card-driven). But there are cards that let you interfere with other players. When this group played the simple version of Sea Kings players were visibly taken aback when someone played one of these cards against them. This was a direct action aimed directly at them - though usually blocking rather than destructive - something they clearly were not used to. (By the way, the "Rogue" version of Sea Kings involves much more direct interaction.) When they played my prototype "Off with his Head", which involves no such direct action, they appeared to be quite happy.

Design.
In direct-competition games my design motto applies, because the main competition in the end is between people, not between the player and the game. ("A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove.") I don’t want the game to get in the way of the player competition. I see many puzzle-games that appear to me to be unnecessarily complex, but that complexity may be there to make the puzzle harder to solve.

You can certainly design games that are not primarily direct competitions, but lack the always-correct solutions of puzzles I've talked about, perhaps because the presence of a lot of uncertainty takes them away from the realm of formal puzzles. Nonetheless, the opposition is largely provided by the game, not the players. I recall a time when Euro players appeared to despise dice, though that era has passed. There are other ways to introduce uncertainty, of course, via cards or human opposition (uncertainty of opposing intentions).

Game design is very different from puzzle-game/interactive puzzle design, which is different again from puzzle design, because of the varying focuses of opposition. In game design your job is to find ways for the game to help make the direct competition between people interesting and different. In puzzle-game design, you’re finding ways for the game to provide the opposition yet accommodate several people. Which may be why there’s such a strong focus on mechanics, especially “new” mechanics, for that kind of game. In puzzle design, you focus on providing all of the opposition through the activity.

Often, direct competition involves modeling some reality, which is much more rare in the two puzzle types. Most of the favorite mechanics of Euro games, such as worker placement and role assumption, have virtually nothing to do with the real world, making them useless for modeling.

Why do I need to figure this out?
Given the kinds of games I tend to design - Off with his Head is an outlier that I deliberately chose to try with the party gamers - I have to figure out what kinds of games suit each group, that is, I have to identify what target markets they fit into.

I sometimes contemplate a multi-dimensional diagram for these ideas, but it would become hopelessly complicated to show it all at once.

Conventions
I’m not sure there are big tabletop game conventions anywhere in the wintertime - PrezCon in Charlottesville VA with about 700 is the largest I know of - but certainly not in north/central Florida. February is the big month for small conventions. There is Rapier Con, which has been around a while, in Jacksonville, the first year Prototype Con in Kissimmee, and marginally (because it originated as an anime con) Swamp Con at the University of Florida.

The latter is pretty informal, evidently, with no registration fee though there are tickets, being held in the university Student Union. There’s a tabletop component but I have no idea what that will amount to, probably just open gaming.

The other two are held at hotels. I’m told Rapier has an attendance of about 200, the majority of them Euro gamers. Since Prototype Con is a new convention, no telling how many people will attend. As you might guess from the name, it’s more or less a playtesting convention, and will be attended by at least one very well-known designer, Richard Borg (Command & Colors etc.), and a small number of publishers.

As I’m on a retiree’s income, I’m contemplating driving to each convention for a day, which ought to be enough for me to understand what it’s like, and to talk with people.

END

Comments

What do you call a game in the middle???

I read this and for some reason I fail to understand what CATEGORY "Tradewars - Homeworld" falls in. There is DIRECT conflict because you can choose a Role which can act upon your opponents. Your starships may be used to "attack" and provoke another player.

But it's NOT a "wargame". It's a card game that uses Deck-Building in a "special way".

It's not a puzzle either - but scenarios have different goals. Take for example your idea of "racing" your opponents. This sounds very familiar to the "Days Of Glory" scenario in which the first player to achieve all 5 milestones is the winner.

But then there is "Tradewars" scenario which has an end-goal of 200 credits. This seems more "like a puzzle" game because the outcome is well known and each player is trying to earn that amount of credits.

And then there is the "Spacewars" scenario which forces players to engage their opponents because the winner is the last player standing. It's all about conflict. It's still a card game, but I think it would feel more like a wargame since there is so much conflict going on.

So I'm not sure how to categorize the game... Perhaps only on a scenario basis can this be fully understood???

Update: I guess players can "choose" which scenario they want to play based on the style they prefer. Like "Days of Glory" probably will have LESS conflict since the game is more about the RACE, ie. finishing first.

Spacewars is ALL about conflict. You're fully engaged with you opponents and it's sort of a "battle royale".

And the Tradewars scenario is the happy medium between both, part race, part conflict.

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