Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

The Formal Ferret game design manifesto

I don’t have a lot of time to write today because I’m tending to my Kickstarter campaign. But in one of the many interviews I’ve done in support of the game, I brought out a manifesto I’d been working on.

Why a manifesto? I wrote it after playing a game that ran counter to everything I love in games. It left me unhappy and agitated, but it also made me wonder what I value in games. So I wrote it down.

  • Games played for recreation should be fun.
    • I’m carving out space for transformative games here, which aren’t played for recreation, and don’t have to be fun to be effective.
  • Games should reward players for accomplishing interesting goals.
    • Sounds obvious, but can never be emphasized enough. Games are about incentivizing players to do cool things.
  • Games should not expect players to target or punish the leader.
    • This is a dynamic I personally detest. My favorite games are about planning and building. There are a few games about bashing other players that I like, but most of them have such an awkward balance between building and attacking that they lose my interest.
  • Players should always feel mostly in control of the game. Never full agency, but never none at all.
    • This goes back to opacity and transparency. I’ve been playing a lot of Camel Up lately, and I find the math behind the race beautifully done. You always have a good idea of who’s leading and who’s trailing, but rarely do you have the full picture, and the mechanisms serve that opacity with incredible precision.
  • Games should have lively, refreshing themes.
    • This is a tough balance to hit. On one hand, I don’t mind playing games with the same retreaded themes (and I feel that a lot of them have those familiar themes for a good reason), but I’d rather not design a game with them. I just don’t find them compelling enough, and I think the theme of bloodless colonization in particular is dangerously disingenuous. On the other hand, if you make a game with a crazy theme, you risk distracting players and losing your game’s focus. But I think it’s possible to walk the line and deliver a game with a fun theme and well-integrated mechanisms.
  • Elegance is useful, but is not a goal in and of itself. Complexity has its place.
    • This is a big one for me, personally. I admire elegance and I try to use it when I can. But a heavier game gives me more flexibility, and I enjoy playing games with interesting wrinkles in their rules. I’d rather have a fun but dense game than a game with a few rules that feels disposable. The first game may appeal to fewer people, but they’ll be much more passionate about it. I want to make something that stirs that passion.
  • All board games should look beautiful. Even stodgy economic games.
    • We’re in a new age now. Economic games don’t have to look like prototypes anymore. I’m so happy that Battle Merchants is an example of a great-looking economic game, and I think we could use more.

I don’t expect other designers to write their own manifestos, or to agree with every item here. But it’s a cool exercise to go through. What’s your own manifesto?

Bad Medicine is now LIVE on Kickstarter!

4P wasn’t the only thing I did in January. This is now live on Kickstarter:

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Let’s make Bad Medicine a reality!

On talent, failure, and giving up

Note: There’s no huge announcement behind this post. I’m not giving anything up, or experiencing any setbacks. Perhaps failure is on my mind because I’m about to launch a Kickstarter campaign for my first self-published game in a month, and this stuff is on my mind. Maybe I’m just in a reflective mood. Maybe I just ate some bad fruit.

In any event, I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days, and I felt like sharing it here. Nothing more!

If there’s one thing I absolutely believe in, that’s to believe in no absolutes.

Here’s an example. No one likes to fail. Too much failure is a problem. Too much failure disheartens us. There’s a point when you realize the mat of the boxing ring is more comfortable than any other position you could be in at this moment. And all the pep talks in the world won’t get you back onto your feet.

I’ll be honest: The idea that “if you put your mind to it, you can do anything” is complete garbage. No one is good at everything. There are some things in this world that you and I just will never be able to do.

I found a bunch of things I couldn’t do when I was a kid at school. Sports. Foreign language. Singing. I just couldn’t do them at any level of competence, regardless of how much time I put into them. My life became immediately better the moment I gave them up (or in the case of foreign language, the moment I was allowed to give them up, which was when I passed the mandatory state test by one point).

It’s not self-deprecation to realize you can’t do something well enough to be competent. We are all mortals; we all have our limits. Acknowledging them, and working around them, is huge.

If there is something in life that you can’t do, then the sooner you realize you can’t do it, the better. Giving up is not always a bad thing. It doesn’t always mean admitting defeat. For me, it usually means gathering reinforcements.

But, on the other hand…

I’ve seen people discuss “talent” in the past. Like, a person either has an innate talent at something, or they have no ability. I’ve seen people quit new creative endeavors almost immediately after starting them, claiming they were “no good at it”. They figured if they didn’t feel like a natural at first, what’s the point?

One thing that is important to me is failure. This blog was originally named “Fail Better”. Failure is at the core of iterative design. It’s all about failing, and failing quickly. It’s about exploring the ways you fail. It’s about embracing failure, and figuring out why you’re failing. Because if you do that enough times, you find yourself not failing.

I recently cracked open a box of my oldest game designs from 15 years ago, and it stunned me how bad some of those games were. What was I thinking? If I knew how bad those games were back then, would I have continued plugging away at designing games?

If you’re a game designer, and you’re feeling the boxing glove of failure repeatedly striking you in the abdomen, you can take some time to reflect on your life decisions while you’re lying on the mat. It’s part of the process.

If you feel like you’ve had enough, and you’ve given things a fair shake, no one will blame you for staying on the mat.

But don’t decide on that nap too early. Getting up is part of the process too.

How many women…? Final 2014 statistics!

2014 is history, and so is my year-long project to track the genders of all the people I played with.

Here are the final numbers…

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  • Overall, 26% of my opponents in 2014 were women.
  • If I was playtesting an unpublished game, then 17% of my opponents were women. If I was playing a published game, then 31% of my opponents were women.
  • If I was in a public space (like a game store or a public convention), then 21% of my opponents were women. If I was in a private space (like someone’s house), then 31% of my opponents were women.

I hope no one sees these numbers as authoritative. They only show my personal experience. If anyone else takes up this project, I’m sure their numbers will differ, and they may differ by a lot!

But this project has opened my eyes to the invisible ropes that I feel keep some women from participating in the hobby. I think, in a perfect world, board games could be split more evenly across genders.

It’s also made me think about privilege and status. In order to play and design board games as a hobby, a person needs lots of time off to play games, to design games, to go to conventions, to playtest, to talk on the internet, to network. That person will also need a strong, steady income to afford new games, supplies, and conventions. Finally, if that person has a family, they will need some sort of support in covering family roles while they play and design their games.

In order to have that sort of time and income, that person is going to need a whole lot of privilege. It means a good job with good benefits and lots of time off. It also means passing off familial obligations to loved ones. It’s something that men are more likely to be able to do than women.

I believe that sort of privilege is the primary reason why there are so many more men than women in our hobby, and especially why there are so many more men who design board games than women. I know that’s a pretty big generalization, and there are going to be tons of people who are exceptions. My hope is that we start seeing more and more exceptions as our hobby develops, and we get closer to an even gender split.

Finally, this project has also opened my eyes to people who identify as nonbinary; that is, people who do not identify as traditional “male” or “female” genders. This is still quite a taboo subject, and there are even more ropes and walls blocking me from tracking that as well. Many nonbinary people don’t publicly share their stance out of fear, and I felt uncomfortable asking friends who were just over to play games.

So once again, please forgive the lack of nonbinary data here. Perhaps one day, someone can handle this kind of information much more thoroughly than I have.

I know I’ve been hammering on gender topics on this blog lately. If you’ve found it tiresome, I understand; but I urge you to consider that there are plenty of people who don’t get to ignore things like exclusion and discrimination, because it gets rubbed in their face every single day. The lone woman in an otherwise all-male gaming group. The woman working at the game store who has to deal with customers either hitting on her or ignoring her. The woman who feels pressured to make a move in her game, before the other players start peppering her with unsolicited advice. The woman who has the nagging feeling that she should be doing something more “productive” while she’s playing a game.

I’ve learned so much during this project, and I’m really grateful that I see more people sharing their views. I feel weird bringing it all up, because I’m not a woman, and I don’t want to say anything untruthful, inaccurate, or hurtful. I hope I’ve succeeded there, and I hope you will grant me the privilege to keep writing the occasional post on this topic from time to time if I find something worth discussing.

With all that said, I resolve to talk more about game design in 2015!

Announcing my 4P 2015 game: Meltdown, co-designed with Richard Gibbs!

4P is almost upon us! So here’s the game I’m working on: it’s called Meltdown, and it’s my first co-design. I’m working with Richard Gibbs of 64 Oz. Games. (Note: ferret not included.)

In Meltdown, the players are all workers at a nuclear power plant. You’ve all had a long night last night, and someone decided to close their eyes for a few minutes’ rest, and then next thing you know, the lights are out and the sirens are blaring.

The game consists of a bunch of polygonal pieces, some of which fit into others. You want to fit three pieces into each other. But since the lights are out, you’ll have to do it all blindfolded!

Fortunately, you have a computer to help you. Unfortunately, the computer has suffered a bit of damage, and its announcements to you may not always make sense.

This is going to be an app-based game; you will need a mobile device to play. The app will instruct you as you play, directing you to valuable pieces. It will also rave about your hair, inquire about the meaning of life, and ask what it’s like to wear pants. It will be a pain in the rear.

I’m really excited about this game, but I know how much games tend to change once they’re actually played by other people. Still, I think this game is going to be a blast.

Of course, I will still be testing Bad Medicine. I need to, because its Kickstarter date is coming up really soon, and there are still a bunch of cards, player counts, and rule updates I’d love to tweak.

I’ll periodically update this blog during the month to tell you how my playtests are going.

What about you? Are you in for 4P?