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Chat Transcript: Design Reviews

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Joined: 12/31/1969

We had an enjoyable partial chat on Wednesday, January 28, 2004. The topic was Design Reviews. Unfortunately the server crashed partway through the chat. I'm sure we'll take this topic on again.

Design Reviews

FastLearner: Lately I've been trying to review some of my own games, to try to see them as an outsider, a bit more objectively.
FastLearner: I've tried to approach them both as a publisher might, and as a game reviewer might.
FastLearner: All in an attempt to get some perspective.
Scurra: Is that possible?
Scurra: I mean, you always end up too close to your own games
FastLearner: I don't know if it's truly possible, but it does seem like it's worth attempting.
Scurra: Oh, indeed.
FastLearner: There are a variety of criteria I'm trying to use, and I thought that tonight we might run through some of the criteria we can think of and how we might go about applying them to our own games.
FastLearner: So my thought was that I'd put together a little "review worksheet," a sort of questionnaire that I'd try to answer as the designer.
Scurra: Sounds interesting
FastLearner: I have a variety of questions on my sketched-up one so far, some of which are previous chat topics or stuff we've discussed in the forums, others are some we haven't hit too hard yet.
Setarcos: Do you have something started already?
FastLearner: Yes, but it's pretty free-form, so I'd like to use tonight's chat for all of us to try to brainstorm through what such a thing would look like.
FastLearner: With the ideas I've already got as conversation boosters if we run into snags. Make sense?
Setarcos: Sounds good.
Scurra: I assume we're talking "generic" here, as opposed to things related to specific game designs
FastLearner: Aye, indeed.
Scurra: I know that some specific things have to come up


FastLearner: I mentioned a couple of them in the chat topic. Here's one that I've been working on quite a bit with my games: Games that are too repetitive tend to become uninteresting, especially after a few plays. Does the game have a beginning, middle, and end game?
FastLearner: That is, are there different game strategies that can be applied at different times? Is there a feeling of changing progress?
FastLearner: And then I have a couple of examples.
FastLearner: For example, in Puerto Rico there's a beginning game where folks are jockeying to select strategies.
FastLearner: There's a mid-game where folks are working to make their strategies pay off.
FastLearner: And there's an end game where folks are working hard to eke out those last few points while actively preventing others from doing the same.
FastLearner: While some of the same kinds of things are done mid- and end-game, there's a different "feel" to me.
Setarcos: ... a "story arc"?
FastLearner: Aye, story arc is a viable way of discussing it.
Oracle: A story arc would just be one way to do it. PR doesn't have a story arc but has distinct phases as you said
Scurra: I'm not convinced that a game has to necessarily have a "middle" - but I certainly think that a distinction between the beginning and the end is good.
Scurra: What I mean is that I think all games have at least those two stages
FastLearner: How might one go about trying to figure out if one's game had these kinds of "stages"?
FastLearner: That is, what kinds of questions might you ask yourself about each part?
FastLearner: Or is maybe a better way of explaining the concept.
Joe_Huber: After playtesting a few of my games, Tom Lehmann has impressed upon me the importance of the "big finish".
FastLearner: Yeah, "big finish," I like that way of putting it.
Scurra: I certainly think that a "visible" end-game is crucial
FastLearner: When the game just kind of "trails off," it leaves a bad taste.
Scurra: although I'm not sure that it needs to be "big"
Setarcos: IMHO, the beginning should be distinct from the middle.
Scurra: So you should be able to point to a transition moment, Setarcos?
Setarcos: Yes. At first one is taking those first steps to implement the strategy.
FastLearner: Personally I don't think you need a transition moment, per se, but I do like the feeling of "ok, now I'm off and running" to come over me at some point.
Setarcos: That's a good way to put it.
Joe_Huber: I'm not so sure the beginning and middle need to be distinct, in a shorter game. But when a game doesn't progress toward the finish, you end up with comments such as seen with Linie 1 / Streetcar.
Scurra: Joe, yeah, that's what I was sort of getting at earlier
FastLearner: I agree about a shorter game -- not really as necessary (though I think a distinct ending period is still good).
FastLearner: Ack, yeah, Streetcar. Great example.
Scurra: Linie 1 certainly doesn't have a proper endgame indeed
FastLearner: What kinds of things help encourage an "endgame" or "big finish" in a game?
FastLearner: That is, how can you insert that tension and the denouement?
Setarcos: FL: That's a good way to put it.
FastLearner: (I know it's specific to each game, but I'm looking for overall ideas.)
Joe_Huber: Scoring acceleration is a common method...
Setarcos: Joe, I agree about the "Big Finish" concept. It also can give you one last chance to catch up if you're behind.
Scurra: I've got one design with a specific transition point, at which you switch from the build-up to the "run for the finish line"
Scurra: that seems to work for that game
FastLearner: Joe, describe that, if you will.
Joe_Huber: Sure - let's see how about an example. Acquire works well enough. Early payouts are generally small, while as the game progresses payout get larger leading up to (usually) the biggest payouts at the end.
Setarcos: I'm sorry to admit I'm not familiar with Acquire. (I have no excuse!)
FastLearner: An example in a shorter game -- and one that includes scoring acceleration -- is 6 Nimmt
DonovanLoucks: "6 nimmt" only has a sort of accelerated score if you're a new player. More seasoned players take small penalties early to avoid larger ones later on.
FastLearner: That's probably true. I can see that.
DonovanLoucks: Like Spades or Hearts.
Joe_Huber: Another example: Stimmt So (or Alhambra if you prefer). There are three payouts, each with a greater potential gain than the last.
Scurra: What you have to be careful of with that is to make sure that the payoffs for the later stage don't make the earlier ones pointless
Scurra: so that it all just ends up hinging on a big point score at the end
Scurra: Alhambra does seems to have it nicely worked out
FastLearner: Acquire feels that way to me, but that's because I'm terrible at it and I watch everyone else zoom way, way, way past me during the last 1/3 of the game.
FastLearner: (That is, that the acceleration is too great... I don't think it is, I think it's just me.)
Joe_Huber: Re: All at the end - it's usually not too tough to balance. Though some have complained that Kreig & Frieden got it wrong...
FastLearner: I haven't played that.
Scurra: An interesting method is the diminishing VP pool (cf Puerto Rico)
Scurra: so you can see the end of the game looming, and have to take that into account too
FastLearner: I like that, good example.
Oracle: Pacific Northwest Rails has the opposite of a big finish (or a big negative finish). There are 10 tax cards that come up at random, and the tax for the nth card is multiplied by n. The game ends when you get the 10th card, so near the end everyone is
Oracle: losing money very fast
FastLearner: That's interesting. Does it feel funny, like the game ends desperately, or do the rewards of good planning make it all feel ok?
Oracle: The tax is based on the stock you're holding, and the stock is generally rising (and you get dividends), so there is some non-distinct point where the stocks become more of a liability than an asset. The key to the game is to know when to start selling stock
FastLearner: Interesting.
Scurra: That's a wonderfully nasty concept to build into a game though
Oracle: Yep. and the one time I played, I got burned by it really badly
FastLearner: Bare-bones Carcassonne feels like that to players who are unfamiliar with it (that all the scoring occurs at the end and that the early game didn't matter), yet for those who understand the game well it doesn't really feel that way at all.
Joe_Huber: I think it's easier to get things wrong when the exhaustion of a resource ends the game. It's a fine method in Puerto Rico, but I've seen lots of prototypes where the game froze because no one who wanted to end the game could.
FastLearner: Ah, good point. Yeah, that's an important thing to watch out for.
Scurra: I'm sure it does cause those sorts of problems often
Setarcos: Joe, what game in particular comes to mind?
Setarcos: Or are you talking about games that never got to the shelf?
Joe_Huber: That's the problem - I've seen it often in prototypes, but can't think of a good example of a released game offhand...
Joe_Huber: Sorry - games that never got to the shelf, yes.
FastLearner: I know there's at least one published game that I played that had that effect (the guys who could end it didn't want to)... I'll try to dredge my memory.
FastLearner: Anything else on "game stages" or the "big finish"?
Scurra: What I hate are games where some random element causes the game to double in length suddenly
Scurra: so you think you're on the last turn and something outside your control wrecks everything
FastLearner: I would imagine that breaks the "story arc" or flow.
Scurra: (my personal bugbear is a 4-hour game of "Air Baron" which I had won after 90 minutes... and eventually came trailing in last )
Oracle: The tax card in the empire builder games can suddenly add a lot of turns right at the end
FastLearner: Ah, excellent point. So that suggests that something else to look for in a review is checking to see if the players can have a clear idea of the "status" of the game's ending.
Joe_Huber: I don't find random near-end adjustments as big a problem as games that don't progress - Gammarauders being a good example, as there's no incentive to do things.
sedjtroll: What about game end triggers are we interested in? I have come to like the way PR and Citadels has the trigger happen, finish out the round, then count the points
sedjtroll: I realize that's somewhat contrary to what I said to Jeff in his Disciples thread
DonovanLoucks: Some games don't accelerate to a conclusion nor have game segments, but cause tension merely by all players approaching a visible goal.
Scurra: seth, not quite (but I'll write it all up for you)
sedjtroll: You know FL, Everest has a neat effect (the way I see it) where the begining is sort of at one pace, then as people start to get up the mountain, it's like the camera zooms in and the slo mo kicks in... everything gets a little more intense
sedjtroll: it's great
FastLearner: Thanks.
Scurra: I find it interesting when writing a ruleset to try and see if there are obvious "division" points

Meaningful Decisions

FastLearner: Ok, so here's another thing that I try to look at objectively when reviewing my design: What are the sources of tension? Who experiences them (the leader, etc.), and when?
FastLearner: I believe Jonathan Degann had an article about that in the Games Journal recently, IIRC.
FastLearner: But how -- beyond seeing it in your playtesters -- can you examine your game for tension, fun but difficult decisions, etc.?
Scurra: I don't entirely understand what you mean by "tension"
Joe_Huber: I look at the same problem a different way - where are the meaningful decisions?
Scurra: that makes more sense, Joe
FastLearner: I think of them as different things. Let's talk about that one first, and then I'll explain.
Joe_Huber: Or, put yet a different way - did the players feel a sense of control?
FastLearner: Aye, when games play themselves then there's little fun involved.
Scurra: one of the things I admire about PR is that you can often point to the moment when you made a "wrong" choice but it's only wrong in retrospect
FastLearner: Sometimes only in retrospect, though often only realized in retrospect, I think.
Scurra: but the game also has to be short enough for that not to feel like a wasted game!
FastLearner: So Meaningful Decisions: How can that be defined?
Joe_Huber: One of the things I enjoy about Bridge is the ability to look back at a hand and see how you could have done things differently.
Scurra: Well it depends on the game
FastLearner: Ok, it depends on the game... how about examples of meaningful decisions?
Joe_Huber: Meaningful decisions - at the most basic level, a decision is meaningful if you can make a clearly wrong choice. A decision is interesting if there are multiple "acceptable" choices, and players can imperfectly choose from among them.
FastLearner: Excellent definitions, I like them.
Joe_Huber: Meaningful short-term decisions (a.k.a. tactics) - trades in Settlers, roles in Puerto Rico...
Setarcos: How about the Role Cards in PR?
Joe_Huber: Meaningful long-term decisions (strategy) - road building plans and card purchases in Settlers, building/plantation combinations in PR...
Scurra: whereas Carc tiles are usually "interesting" decisions but rarely meaningful
Scurra: (although when Carc placements *are* meaningful, you do remember them)
Oracle: Then a "meaningful decision" would be every turn you have to decide if you want to destroy all your in game assets or not?
Joe_Huber: I'm not sure I understand what you're asking...
Oracle: it's a decision with a distinct wrong answer, but it's not meaningful since you always have to choose no
Joe_Huber: Ah - I see. No, it is meaningful, but not interesting.
Scurra: But then there isn't a clearly "wrong" choice, is there?
Scurra: since there isn't really a choice at all
Joe_Huber: Meaningful because it materially affects your odds of winning; not interesting because every player will always make the same choice.
FastLearner: So "meaningful" can simply mean that it has an understandably concrete effect on who will win, yes?
FastLearner: Even if there's no obvious wrong choice at the time.
Scurra: I'm not sure that's always true FL
FastLearner: Ok, 'splain, Lucy.
Scurra: What I mean is that it is possible to have a meaningful choice that affects the outcome of the game without the player necessarily having control over that choice (and not quite so extremely as Oracle's example)
Scurra: I've got a design with blind bidding for multiple auction lots. The players cannot bid for all the lots, so their choice is meaningful, but the circumstances may dictate that they shouldn't bid for certain lots anyway (IYSWIM)
DonovanLoucks: "If you see what I mean."
FastLearner: I would argue, then, that a game needing to have "meaningful choices" is from the perspective of the player making the choices, not from an overall game outcome perspective.
Scurra: Ah
FastLearner: Ah, I do see what you mean.


FastLearner: Here's Tension: a feeling of excitement, possibly mixed with dread, about what will happen next in the game. Tension is often about the other players' decisions.
Scurra: Well, I suppose that's good - if there is a conflict between the two that suggests that the game design is interesting too
FastLearner: Tension exists in Puerto Rico when you find yourself "saying" to another player (in your head) "Don't choose that role, don't choose that role, don't choose that role" as he's making his decision.
FastLearner: It could be because you think the choice will help another player, or help that player, or hurt you, or that you'd like to be able to choose it because it helps you. In some other game it might be "I hope he doesn't build there" or the like.
FastLearner: This, to me, is tension, and it differs from "meaningful decsions" and "interesting decisions," both of which are key, of course.
FastLearner: (Sorry, yeah, good point, too.)
Scurra: Ah - so "tension" is really "another player's meaningful decision"
Scurra: Joe seems to be using it that way (doesn't he?)
FastLearner: Aye, mostly, yeah. Or at least "another players' decision that's meaningful to you".
FastLearner: Though it's not limited to just other players' decisions.
Scurra: Drawing random event cards is quite good at creating tension
FastLearner: For example, there's lots of tension in Union Pacific when you have that feeling that the scoring card is going to appear before you're ready. The game is providing the tension.
Scurra: without invoking a "decision" of any type
Scurra: (although, to refer back to an example Joe made; Alhambra (or Stimmt So) has two scoring rounds triggered randomly - but because the scoring ramps up for the ending, which isn't random, that is alleviated somewhat)
DonovanLoucks: I don't think I care for the terms "meaningful" and "interesting". A player could make a completely idiotic play and I might still consider it "interesting". Are we using "interesting" to mean "non-trivial"?
FastLearner: Good point about interesting. Is it something that can be objectified, or will it vary by how much the player is "into" that particular game?
Joe_Huber: My problem with tension is twofold - one, it has a negative connotation, and two, I tend to think of such effects as just "the situation as it presents itself". Now, I do prefer it to present some problems for me to deal with...
FastLearner: On the negative connotations of tension, is there a word you think would be better?
DonovanLoucks: The term "tension" is already in common use in describing narrative and gameplay. Personally, it doesn't have a negative connotation for me.
Joe_Huber: Yeah, I know - I'm not trying to fight against "tension", just noting that I don't worry about it.
Joe_Huber: Which I suppose means I'm not tense...
FastLearner: When it's "the situation as it presents itself," doesn't that bring it back to your decision making?
Joe_Huber: No, unfortunately - the concept is really "the bad things the game and other players throw at you", but it doesn't scan...
FastLearner: Gotcha.
Joe_Huber: Exactly - that's why, from a design standpoint, I just worry about the decisions...
Scurra: If you are in a position where someone else's choice can completely derail you, then that's got to be a bad thing, hasn't it?
Scurra: (although i suspect that's bad game design really!)
FastLearner: I don't think so. I think that might be the definition of interaction. (Though if they completely foil you, causing you the game, then yeah, that could be broken).
DonovanLoucks: I first played "Union Pacific" last weekend with my wife and started thinking about levels of player interaction again. There's no direct interaction in that game, so we didn't really care for it.
FastLearner: True, there's not much direct interaction, but with moderately experienced players there's a TON of indirect interaction, where you're intentionally foiling other players' plans.
Scurra: FL, but if that's all the "tension" the game has to offer, there's something wrong
FastLearner: I agree.

Theme and Mechanics

DonovanLoucks: Also off-topic, it occurred to me that I like games that have a complexity less than or equal to their theme. That is, if a game is strongly themed, I can accept a correspondingly high complexity.
DonovanLoucks: However, if the theme is weak, I want the game to be very simple. I tend to like themed games, but I'll accept abstract games if their ruleset is simple.
Joe_Huber: I think that's because (as was noted in the forum recently) theme can be important in reinforcing the rules.
FastLearner: I agree.
FastLearner: I'm big on "theme supports the mechanics," ideally making the mechanics easier to understand and remember.
FastLearner: That seems like a viable thing to consider when reviewing your own game.
Joe_Huber: Absolutely - if the players have trouble remembering the rules, there may be an opportunity to tie them better to the theme...
FastLearner: There's probably a balancing point, though.
FastLearner: As usual, there's the "it's not a simulation, it's a theme" discussion, which we don't need to go into here.
DonovanLoucks: Joe, you're absolutely right that the theme can help to reinforce the rules. But even a game like "Tikal" that isn't at all realistic has enough tie to real-world activities that the rules are easy to remember.
DonovanLoucks: Not so for "Java" or "Mexica", its sister games.
FastLearner: Thinking about it, "Does the theme support the game play" is an excellent question to ask if you're trying to decide if a game is lightly themed.
FastLearner: Ra being a great example of where the them only adds color.
Joe_Huber: I don't think the ties to the theme have to be realistic, just logical.
FastLearner: I agree, and that's a big part of the dividing line between "simulation" and "theme" to me.
DonovanLoucks: Yes, the ties should make some sense, even if the game isn't a simulation, provided it's themed.


FastLearner: Another reasonable question -- and it certainly ties into the "stages" we discussed earlier -- is "is the game repetitive?"
FastLearner: In short games the repetition isn't as much of a factor, I believe.
FastLearner: But in longer games repeating the same action again and again is simply mind numbing.
DonovanLoucks: I guess that depends upon the effects of those actions. Look at the game of Go, for example.
Setarcos: IMO, *how* it is repetitive matters too.
FastLearner: Aye, both of you hit the same thing, I think.
FastLearner: In Go, for example, you're performing the same physical action each turn, which is no biggie, but you're not doing it for the same reasons every time.
Joe_Huber: Repetition does have some positive effects - keeping the rule set simple, for example...
Joe_Huber: ...and if the choices are the same but the situation changes significantly, the same actions can feel very different.
Setarcos: What kind of repetition bothers you, FL?
FastLearner: The repetition that bugs me is if I'm making the same "meaningful decision" again and again. I'll think of a game, one sec.
Joe_Huber: As Peter Sarrett puts it - lather - rinse - repeat.
FastLearner: Aye, lather, rinse, repeat.
Setarcos: For me, it's Monopoly (aka Monotony).
Setarcos: Or dice rolling as in Risk.
FastLearner: So far I'm only coming up with some of my early games. I have an election game, for example, where you're polling the voters and changing your stances (or trying to influence their stands). The problem came in where you were basically just "undoing" what other players had done, as they did the same to you.
DonovanLoucks: Monopoly can be a great game if it's played correctly with good negotiators.
DonovanLoucks: I was thinking of the die-rolling in Risk.


Joined: 12/31/1969
Chat Transcript: Design Reviews

Very interesting. I liked the subjects, they are pretty much the issues I deal with when making a game. Mostly tension, theme, and repetition.

Sometime I am going to make sure I can visit at least one chat.

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