Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Talking to Anthony Conta (Funemployed!) about party game scoring

I’m continuing to work on Bad Medicine (formerly Side Effects – thanks to Rishi for the new name!), and it’s still really interesting to survey the difference between the mindset (lusory attitude) of a party game player versus that of a strategy game player, from a designer’s point of view.

I recently had an email exchange with Anthony Conta, designer of the recent party game Funemployed! Anthony’s game is a fun and silly Apples-style party game where players are trying to interview for a job. They must use all their cards, but before they pitch, they’re allowed to swap cards in real-time with face-up cards on the table.

Anthony’s email was fantastic, so I’m posting excerpts here with his permission, slightly edited to make sense as a blog post. I asked him about a design decision in Funemployed that I wrote about last week for Bad Medicine. He chose to handle it differently; he kept pitching and scoring open, but forced the player who won the last round to go first. Why? And does it result in favoritism or throwing votes?

That was a balance issue – it makes it so they have a worse interview next time. Going first is difficult because you get less time to perfect your pitch, you can’t play off other pitches, and people can play off your pitch. You get to set the pace for the round, but generally, breaking the ice is detrimental (think how stand up comedians have a warm up act, or bands have openers, or movies have trailers, etc – it’s very pervasive in the entertainment industry to have warm ups that set the stage).

I’d say no one’s ever complained about favoritism except for the hardest of hard core gamers–usually, the winner “deserves it”. There’s a lot of social pressures in the game (don’t give it to your girlfriend JUST because she’s your girlfriend, give it to her because she had the best round). I’ve found that people don’t play Funemployed just to “win”, though they certainly try their best to win individual rounds. Funemployed’s atomic length is basically a round, and I’ve found people keep playing until they’re ready to do something else.

For Funemployed, you “win” by playing with a good group of people that think like you do and by maximizing your fun through acting crazy and saying silly things. It’s a party game, and the audience for those is drastically different. I don’t play Funemployed with my friends that want to play Dust because they want the experience of Dust; likewise, my fiancee doesn’t play Twilight Imperium because she wants something light. Introducing complex scoring systems in party games just isn’t required; the experience of play, not the explicit reward for playing well, is how these games are enjoyed. I’ve struggled with the scoring system for Funemployed, but honestly, people just play the game until they’re sick of it – I’ve rarely seen it played to its end game state (which is you flip over a specific job, which is seeded at the beginning of play).

Party games like Apples, Cards, Funemployed, etc. are excellent because the emergent situations are excellent. Winning isn’t the main point, the journey/play is. They’re spectator board games that emphasize the jokes/community rather than the actions within. They’re excuses to have a good time.

Thanks to Anthony for a great discussion!

A serious look at tackling a design issue in a party game

Update 9/11/2014: I have renamed Side Effects to Bad Medicine (thanks to Rishi for the name!). I’ll update the document throughout with the new name.


 

This is a pretty long read, and it doesn’t culminate in any single strong outcome. It will give you some theoretical background, then introduce a design problem I’ve encountered with Bad Medicine. Then I’ll lay out possible fixes to the problem, and why I’m rejecting all but one. 

It won’t end with me saying that I think my final choice is the best. But I wanted to give an illustration of how an experienced game designer takes on a design problem, using theory, experience, knowledge of other games, and the obligatory barrage of playtests.

So I’m having this problem with Bad Medicine.

Many party games use voting for their scoring system, either with a single judge or by having all players vote. But a tricky thing about having a judge or open voting in a party game is if players choose their “favorites” based on in-game scores. Like, “I think Ralph’s entry is the best, but he’s in the lead, so I won’t vote for him.”

Is this a problem? It depends on the player. The casual player won’t mind. The serious player will probably not touch the game with a ten-foot pole.

Apples to Apples (and by extension, Cards Against Humanity) works around this by having all submissions secret. So you may not want to vote for Ralph, but you probably won’t be able to tell which card he submitted. A player may still choose to vote or not vote for a player because of metagaming or extra-game reason (the player who will always vote for his S.O., the player who will never vote for his ex), but at that point, we’re in spoilsport territory, and I don’t believe a game designer is obligated to fix that.

But Bad Medicine is a game about publicly pitching. Each player pitches his drug, and then the players all vote for their favorite drug. Each player gets one point for each vote they got. The player with the most votes gets 2 bonus votes (1 in case of a tie). After five rounds, the player with the most points wins.

My problem was that as of last week, it was totally fine for a player to not vote for another player if he felt that she was in the lead. The game did not disincentivize that behavior. This rubbed some testers the wrong way.

Like I said, this is not a problem to a casual gamer, but it’s anathema to a serious gamer. I’d say only 5% of my playtesters complained, but it’s stuck with me. Can I do better? Is there a system I can use that will incentivize always voting for the best player each round, regardless of score, and still keep the public pitches?

First, I decided to hide players’ scores. I had one playtest with open scoring, where the game ended when one player hit 10 points. That was ridiculously bad; I was just about inviting players to get political with their votes. Hiding players’ scores makes the leader non-obvious.

This was a decent start, but it alone wouldn’t work. First, it’s hidden trackable information. Scores don’t get very high, so some players might not have a problem recalling everyone’s scores, especially in a 3-player game. Second, some serious players detest hidden trackable information. Third, even if you’re not score-counting, almost anyone can track who got the most points each round, and will avoid voting for a player who’s won two rounds.

Second, I thought of a lottery system. Players still get their points. At the end of the game, players put tokens representing all their points into a pool and shuffle them. Then one token gets drawn. The player whose token it is wins. So, each point you get increases your odds of winning.

This is the notorious, polarizing Killer Bunnies scoring system. The idea behind it is that as long as you have at least one token in the pool at the end of the game, you have a shot at winning the game. It also reinforces the idea that the outcome of the game isn’t as important as the actual play.

But I rejected it pretty quickly. First: people hate Killer Bunnies, because the scoring system is so opaque and capricious. Second: it won’t actually do what I want it to do. Players will still know who’s won various rounds, and will still avoid giving them votes, which would give them valuable tokens during endgame scoring. So there are all these extra mechanisms, but they don’t actually pull their weight. It comes off feeling like a gimmick.

Third, I could reduce the “atom” of the game. According to the book Characteristics of Games, an “atom” is “The smallest complete unit of play, in the sense that the players feel they’ve ‘really played’ some of the game.” For a board game, an atom is a single game. For D&D, it’s a single session in a campaign. For a video game FPS, it’s a level.

Bad Medicine is five rounds. What if I made one round an atom? So you play a round, vote on a winner, then that’s the game. You can string together as many rounds as you’d like, and then the player who won the most won the game.

This is what people do for the new party game Concept. I’ve never seen anyone actually use the game’s scoring system. Instead, everyone plays a round, then another, then another. Each round is a self-contained atom, and people can leave and join the game between rounds.

But it wouldn’t work for Bad Medicine. One round isn’t enough; it just doesn’t feel right. Five rounds feels right. So this wouldn’t work.

Fourth, I thought of doing something similar to what Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim did for their newest party game, But Wait There’s More. Like Bad Medicine, this is a game about pitching, except it’s more like late-night television ads. But they did something interesting: they hid the scoring. So after each round, players distribute point cards face-down to all the other players. You don’t look at or reveal your points until the end of the game. So you can’t decide to vote away from the leader, because you don’t know who’s actually in the lead.

This system does fix the problem. You can’t throw your vote away, because you don’t know who to throw it to. So you may as well vote for your favorite! It’s typical of Jay and Sen; they are extremely thoughtful game designers, and I’m sure they put this system because they came across this very problem.

However, I will not do it for Bad Medicine for a few reasons. First, I’m worried about Bad Medicine resembling BWTM too closely. So I’d rather not use a scoring system that echoes theirs. Second, I want to keep my component costs down, and this system would almost double the number of cards I’d need. Third, Bad Medicine as it stands is quite elegant, and this scoring system would feel out of place; also, it’s a bit fiddly, as there’s a point halfway through the game where it’s tough to recall which scoring cards you’ve earned and which you have to distribute. This doesn’t harm the experience of BWTM, but I would rather take Bad Medicine in a different direction.

Finally, my fourth reason is the biggest. There’s a feeling game designers shoot for. I’ve heard Jane McGonigal call it “fiero”. It’s the rush of a triumphant moment, some point where everything comes together and you’ve Done Something Awesome. Armchair biologists will link this to the idea of a dopamine release in the brain. Even if that doesn’t have actual scientific veracity, the idea is important: one of the reasons we play games is to experience this rush of a feeling called “fiero”.

And when a player wins a round of Bad Medicine? That’s a fiero moment. It’s a moment where the winning player cheers. I have a mechanism where the side effect of the winning drug is the malady to cure in the following round. It’s not something that has mechanical heft or an quantifiable effect on the outcome of the game, but it feels awesome.

If I were to implement secret scoring, that fiero moment vanishes. That moment of swapping in the winning drug’s side effect for next turn vanishes. A big part of the fun of the game vanishes. Sure, I’ve satisfied the 5% of gamers who have complained about this, but I’ve reduced the fun factor for the 95% of other gamers who didn’t think it was a problem.

So I’m trying something else. It’s this: if there is an outright winner of the round (no ties), then every player who voted for the winning player gets a point.

It’s not much. It means that if you vote for the winning player, you’re no longer sacrificing your own point. You get it back by voting for the winner.

Also, there’s an important psychological effect. Now, if you’re thinking of throwing your vote, you are possibly sacrificing a point. It’s no longer an automatic optimal move.

Some gamers might still be turned off. It’s something I’ll have to watch for in playtesting.

Like I warned you at the top, I’m not convinced that the one-point rule will fix the problem once and for all. It’s my leading candidate for now. If it works? Excellent! If it doesn’t? I’ll see how it doesn’t work, and use that knowledge to try something else out.

Game design is many things, but it’s especially trial and error. Even with a seemingly-simple party game like Bad Medicine, you can use the same tools of theory, experience, market knowledge, and playtesting to hone your game. And as long as you’re aware of the differences in core engagement, you should be fine.

But my next game will definitely be a heavy economic strategy game!

How many women…? August 2014 update

Over half the year has gone, and I’m still diligently tracking the genders of the board gamers I play with.

These numbers are fascinating.

Women gamers August 2014We’re now at a total breakdown of 74% men, 26% women (out of 299 games, 664 opponents). That’s 3/4 of my opponents being male. It’s about what I expected, depressingly enough.

But it’s the splits that are really interesting, and that are starting to confirm my earlier hypotheses. If I look at only playtests of unpublished games (125 games, 299 opponents), the ratio jumps to 80% men! Whereas if I look at only sessions of published games (174 games, 365 opponents), the ratio drops to 70% men.

It’s honestly not as much of a difference as I was expecting, but it’s still a sizable 10% swing, and it confirms my casual observation that the world of board game design tends to be even more male-dominated than the world of board game play. More on that below.

The next split, public versus private, is just as revealing. In public (162 games, 369 opponents), 77% of my opponents are male. But in private, that drops to 71% (137 games, 295 opponents). Again, not a large split, but big enough to show that women prefer to play in private settings.

Now that I’m looking for this, I see it everywhere. I saw one of my friends, a woman, play against two men I’d never met before. This woman organizes board game groups and has a deep, enthusiastic love for games. And yet when she played with the two men, they kept stopping the game to detail out all her strategies for her. This wasn’t just someone helping out a new player; it was talking to her as if she’d never played a strategy game before.

She’s a tough woman, and I could see she’d developed coping mechanisms for this. It bounced off her skin, no doubt like it has many times before. But how many women would have been pushed away by this behavior? How many women would have asked the men to let them play their own games? How many women are tired of having to do this every time they sit down with a new group?

I know the men didn’t mean anything nasty by this; they were just trying to help. But it does show casual, unconscious sexism in action. My girlfriend doesn’t play many board games, and when she does, she admits that she feels left out, like she’s sitting in on a “boys’ club” and that she isn’t really taken seriously by the rest of the table.

My biggest regret about this anecdote is that I was in a position to do something, and I didn’t. I kept quiet. I saw my friend take it all silently.

Would my speaking up have changed anything? Would it have alienated the other men at the table? Even if it was just, “Guys, she knows how to play the game. Let her play her own way”?

I don’t know. But I know that if I want to be a better ally, I should start speaking up. And if more of us recognized this behavior in action, no matter how well-intentioned, and we spoke up, even if just to politely ask some people to correct course, would we eventually start to see these numbers get closer to 50%?

EXTRA SPECIAL BONUS PROJECT: What about women board game designers?

My flight to Gen Con a couple of weeks ago was delayed, so I had some time to work on a project I’ve been meaning to mess around with. I downloaded the BoardGameGeek Gen Con 2014 preview using the BGGXMLAPI, parsed out all the names of the board game designers, and figured out if they were men or women.* Using this, I got a representative (albeit not very scientific) percentage of male to female board game designers.

There were some designers of non-American nationalities whose genders I couldn’t figure out, and who didn’t have enough of an internet presence for me to gain a definitive answer. So the number I’m about to give you may be biased a little towards American designers. Nevertheless, it’s a number, and the first I’ve seen in the space:

Of the 284 designers from the 2014 Gen Con preview whose genders I could discern, 16 were female. That is 94% male, 6% female.

6% female.

Now, you might be wondering how this stacks up to other game design forms. I haven’t been able to get a list of female roleplaying game designers yet, but I did find some interesting data from the video game space. According to a 2014 study, 22% of all video game developers are female, up from 11% in 2009.

(Note that video game developers and board game designers are not exactly equivalent. A “video game developer” could be a dedicated game artist, a level designer, a coder, a producer, etc. But it’s close enough to be interesting.)

So, by my rough numbers, 22% of all video game developers are women, but only 6% of board game designers are.

Why?

That’s something for me to try to tackle in a future post…

* I know that gender and sex are not simple binaries, and there are plenty of people out there who don’t fit into the neat male/female dichotomy. I’m deliberately choosing the word “gender” instead of “sex” because I find it easier to go with what people identify with, instead of what they’re born with. So in my research, I would consider the legendary game designer Dani Bunten Berry (of M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities of Gold fame) as female, because that’s who she identified as.

I also know there are genderfluid people out there. But I haven’t been able to cleanly identify any of them in my research. Maybe this is due to social stigma regarding speaking out about one’s true gender identity (EDIT: by “true gender identity”, I mean the gender a person identifies with), maybe it’s the awkwardness of the conversation, or maybe it’s my own lazy research. Maybe it’s all of the above!

Quick Gen Con report

I’ve just come back from my first Gen Con! It was absolutely amazing.

Here are some quick, scattered thoughts:

  • I always used to avoid Gen Con because it seemed like it focused on roleplaying games, CCGs, and thematic or take-that board games. And there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of games, but they’re not really my thing.

    But when I was there, board games of all stripes were everywhere. I’d say the con was 50% board games (including plenty of those crunchy Euros I love), and 50% everything else. I heard a few industry vets note how much the con (and gaming in general) has tilted towards board gaming in the past few years.

  • I’m used to game groups and smaller regional conventions, where it takes some serious arm-twisting to get people to play new games. It’s only cons like BGG.CON and the Gathering of Friends where I get to play with folks willing to try new games. I was expecting Gen Con to be full of people who would rather play established games.

    I was wrong again! Gen Con is where people go specifically to try new games. I had no problem getting people to try Battle Merchants.

  • I ran four Battle Merchants events in a tournament plus a final. I got a total of ten people across all those events, plus two people who came to the last full event without a ticket. I also ran two impromptu demos for four extra people.

    That’s 16 people total across two days of events. It wouldn’t be bad for a 500-person con, but I think I can do better at a 50,000+ person event.

    Meanwhile, I had to briefly set up the game at the BGG booth in Gen Con’s massive exhibit hall on Sunday for a demo livestreamed on the internet. I got the game ready on a table next to the video area, so I could just carry it over when I needed to. During those 30 minutes I had the game set up, I had five people come up and ask me about the game.

    Sadly, Minion Games had no booth this year, so the only demo presence the game had was in the gaming hall, which didn’t get as much foot traffic.

    So: I will have a booth at Gen Con next year! It’s the best way to guarantee that my games will get exposed to as many gamers as possible.

  • I did video demos for three vloggers. I already mentioned the BGG livestream, but I also did videos for Spooning Meeples and Game and a Curry. I’m really looking forward to seeing them online!
  • I met a ton of people I only know through the internet, and they all turned out to be fantastic!
  • Also, I got to briefly say hi to a guy I know from college, whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to in 20 years. This was back in 1993; we both had long hair and watched Doctor Who (which was unusual in those pre-timey-wimey days). He taught me Magic: The Gathering back then.

    We’ve both been busy since then; I worked in film, then tech, and got into board game design. Meanwhile, he co-founded Paizo Publishing. It’s so great to see people I know being successful!

  • I finally saw the game The Emperor’s New Clothes in action. It’s really gotten me thinking about the academics of game playing (what Suits called the “lusory attitude” and Huzeniga called “the magic circle”). I would love to write about it in a future post.
  • My gods, the cosplay was incredible.
  • The Indiana Convention Center is right next to Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts. On the Saturday of Gen Con, a bunch of football fans in Colts jerseys wandered into the ICC, and found themselves amongst a bunch of nerds dressed as Deadpool and drow elves. You’d think this would become a nasty scene, but I saw some of the football fans asking for photos with the cosplayers. It was really great to see.
  • I have some big plans. I talked to some people at the con who also have big plans. 2015 is going to be a very interesting year…

A simple taxonomy for recreational games

Over the past year or so, I’ve been playing around with a simple categorization scheme for recreational games. It’s helped me a lot in analyzing games, what makes them tick, and what makes them different from each other.

Disclaimer: This isn’t a comprehensive or authoritative approach to defining all games. There are all sorts of edge cases that won’t fit this system. In fact, I’m only going to focus on games that are commercially available for recreational purposes: mainly tabletop games and video games. These are the games I’m most interested in playing and designing.

So this system may not handle things like physical sports, childhood games, ARGs, and transformative games. Those are all valid examples of games, and I might revisit this topic in the future to see if I can come up with a more bulletproof version of this taxonomy.

But even with that disclaimer, I think this system is quite solid in how it works.

One more thing: this post will not go into defining what a “game” actually is. Plenty of people have tackled this necessary question. For an excellent breakdown of those approaches, check out Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. It’s a question that every game designer should ask themselves, but it’s out of scope for this particular post.

I see these recreational games breaking down into three categories:

Contests

contest is a type of game in which the outcome is quantitively defined and objectively measurable, typically with a score. It is possible to win or lose a contest, although the victory or defeat may be assigned to a single player (as in a competitive game), shared by all players (as in a cooperative game), or split into teams. Other contests don’t have a specific win condition, but simply ask players to score as many points as possible, and a player’s performance will be judged on how her score compares to everyone else’s.

Almost all boardgames, card games, miniatures games, and wargames are contests. Many video games are also contests; like any “Deathmatch” kind of video game (Titanfall, Counterstrike), most casual games (Bejeweled, Diner Dash), and most classic arcade games (Pong, Pac-Man, Asteroids).

Puzzles

puzzle is a type of game that has no specific win condition, but only a small amount of correct solutions (typically one); a “typical” player will be able to finish it at some point, given enough time. This solution could be a mental puzzle, or it could be a series of dexterity challenges.

Whether a traditional jigsaw puzzle is actually a game, I’ll leave open for another time. But I would consider most video games’ single player modes, like Half-Life, The Last of Us, and Portal, to be puzzles. These games don’t punish players heavily for dying in-game, so there isn’t really a concept of “losing”. You keep trying until you get through it. When you do, there’s no real score to measure your achievement. If there is a score, it’s considered secondary to actually completing the game or its individual levels.

Worlds

A world is a type of game that aims to simulate or model another environment. Players play the game by either constructing the world, or immersing themselves in the world by playing characters living there. Most world games are sandboxes, so they have no end, although they sometimes have contests and puzzles encapsulated as minigames.

Most roleplaying games, from D&D to Fiasco, are worlds. The Shab Al-Hiri Roach pretends to be a contest, in that one player will “win”, but even the rulebook admits that winning the game “is like winning a mustard gas battle”. The point of the game is to tell a story, not to win; the victory condition only exists to help nudge the players towards telling that story, by encouraging them to match their characters’ abilities to the plot. Same with a game like Once Upon a Time, which most of its players agree fails if you try to play it like a contest.

Video games like SimCity and The Sims are worlds, as are sports GM sims, like Out of the Park or Championship Manager (while winning a single season may be an objectively-measurable outcome, the appeal of the game is to maintain a team through generations of athletes). And of course, MMORPGs are worlds, although they are chock full of contests and puzzles as minigames.

Key differences

These three types of games are very different from each other. Each can do things that the others can’t.

For example, a world game is extremely immersive, but also tends to take  long time. Its open-ended nature means that there’s no defined time when the game will always end. So whether it’s someone grinding away at World of Warcraft, a group of people playing Pathfinder at a convention all night, or a person delicately arranging a new terrain in Minecraft, time will pass very quickly.

Worlds also tend to produce a lot of work. Detailed, custom D&D campaigns, working calculators in Little Big Planet, scale replicas in Rollercoaster Tycoon… these are all labors of love that world games seem to inspire.

Finally, world games can be incredibly meaningful on a social level. You can take a social situation and turn it into an immersive game, whether it’s a Nordic LARP or a brutally realistic RPG like Grey Ranks. People looking for artistic meaning in games can find a lot here.

Puzzle games are more addictive than immersive. They keep people wanting to go just one more level, just one more try. So while you can play a stage of a puzzle game in a few minutes, lots of people enjoy playing them for long stretches as well.

A disadvantage to puzzle games is that once you finish them, they’re solved. The puzzle will not change, so going back will not give you any new challenges in and of itself. Designers sometimes like to slap a contest on top of the puzzle (finish this level using fewer than X steps, in under Y minutes), but the thrust of the game is complete.

Like world games, puzzle games can also have artistic meaning. It’s pretty common to see a narrative weaved into a puzzle game, giving it an almost cinematic feeling. This works better than it should; I’ve seen friends moved to tears at the end of some of these games!

Contests are the most social of the three. They usually require multiple players, but much less setup time than most worlds. They don’t take a long time by themselves, depending on the game; most contests are over in a couple of hours, and even the longer ones, like Twilight Imperium or Advanced Civilization, have a much shorter running time than any good RPG campaign. So these are the easiest and most convenient for most people to get into.

But contests have a peculiar disadvantage: they have a very hard time carrying artistic meaning. It’s difficult to have them evoke narrative as a puzzle would. There are lots of games that are crafted to create a narrative, like Arkham Horror, Talisman, Android, or Tales of the Arabian Nights. Some people prefer this style of game. Others (disclaimer: like me) dislike how little control these games offer over a player’s fate. You have to surrender a lot of your agency to let the game tell its story. So a contest designed to evoke a narrative will usually polarize gamers.

And there are very, very few contests that successfully move people emotionally. A contest doesn’t happen in the real world. It happens in its own space, where the players’ only concern about their next action is how close they will get to victory. Everything they do hinges off that single criteria. You can’t make players feel emotions from the plot of the game if it conflicts with their pursuit of victory; and if you do, you marginalize the pursuit of victory, and the game is no longer a proper contest.

This is why “art games” like Train that try to shock the players into a message aren’t really contests; victory is not the point of those games. If it was the point, then the message fails. You can’t have both; the player must either be in the spirit of the contest or the real world. Never both!

There are games that come close. Freedom: The Underground Railroad seems shocking at first, and beginning players feel awful about sacrificing slaves for the greater goal of abolitionism. But I’ve noticed in practice that the effect wears off. An hour into the game, there are no more slaves or slave catchers. There are cubes and tokens, and things players can do to get closer to winning. The game is very well-designed, carefully developed, and is immensely rewarding; but at the end of the game, it’s clear that its rules and pieces are just a metaphor. Players will eventually see the pieces as game pieces, and not real people, because that’s how a player has to model a contest in his or her head.

It’s a strange transition, to be sure, but one that I can’t help but think is inevitable in any contest. Contests are mechanical by nature, and they are defined solely by the players’ efforts to win. Anything that clouds that effort is a distraction.

In the future, I’ll be referring to these three types of recreational games, and I’ll probably have more thoughts on why contests have such a hard time carrying an artistic message. The distinction has already helped me in the games I play, test, and design; perhaps it will help you too.