Fail Better

Gil Hova designs and plays board games

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 If I look at only playtests of unpublished games (125 games, 299 opponents), the ratio jumps to 80% men!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.

Side Effects (and doing something I promised myself I’d never do)

So, I have a new game I’ve been testing lately! It’s a party game in the vein of Apples to Apples called Side Effects.

I got the idea for the game from a conversation with my girlfriend’s dad, who works at a copywriting agency in Big Pharma. We were discussing drug names, and we agreed that it would be nifty to have a game where the players were trying to come up with silly drug names.

That got my mind in gear. I started bouncing ideas off my girlfriend on the way home. How would the game work? What would it be like?

Like my friend and mentor Kevin Nunn, I’m a big believer in starting with core engagement when working on a new design. So what would the core engagement here would be? If the appeal was coming up with funny drug names, then a strategy game would be unlikely. Perhaps I could fit it as a light tactical game (and I had a couple of sketches in that direction), but ultimately, the core engagement pointed me towards a funny party game.

The problem was, simply coming up with a funny drug name didn’t seem fun or interesting enough to last a whole game. Any sort of strategy was out, so I kept brainstorming. One day, I wondered what else I could add to the drug names to make it interesting. It suddenly hit me: powers and side effects!

I immediately went to work and came up with 20 cards. Each card had a bit of a drug name (like “LEX” or “ZY”), a little bit of copy (what the drug does, like “enhances metabolic function” or “regulates body temperature”), and a side effect (everything from “taste of copper in mouth” to “anal leakage”).

With those cards, I just played. This is a good part of early playtesting; before thinking about balance, art, or anything, just open-play it. My friends and I call it “Calvinballing”; we find cool things we can do with the cards, and we come up with rules that would allow those things to happen. So I conned my girlfriend into joining me (a “silent tester”, as Ignacy Trzewiczek would say), and we played a few rounds.

We played with different hand sizes and play rules, and soon came up with a nice one. Every turn, we get six cards. A round started by flipping a card to the middle of the table. We had to come up with a drug that would remedy its side effect. We would choose three of our cards for their drug names, and arrange them to form a single word. Then two of our other cards would be the drug’s actual effect, and the last card would be its side effect.

At one point, the malady to cure was “constant flatulence”, and I was able to concoct a story about my drug in which it combined all the day’s gas into a single, powerful explosion. Its side effect, naturally, was deafness. It was then that I knew I had something.

It’s been a while since I’ve worked on a light game instead of a strategy game. It’s incredible how much lighter my touch needs to be. I don’t have any room to put in fiddly rules that enforce fair scoring. If there’s an exception to the rule, chances are, I don’t need the exception.

Thankfully, the core engagement of the game isn’t maximizing one’s score, it’s coming up with crazy-funny pharmaceutical drugs. So I don’t actually need complicated tiebreaker rules, or anything like that.

Like, at one first, I had only two people pitch at a time, and everyone else would vote between the two. Then the winning pitcher got five points, the losing pitcher got points equal to the number of votes he got, and the players voting got points if they voted for the winner. Bah, too complicated!

And too much downtime. After a few playtests, I realized that I needed either one judge (like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity), or everyone needed to play, and then everyone voted. That got everyone in the game every round. It also meant a lot of pitches to take in each round, but that seems better than not being able to do anything for a while.

But what happens if everyone votes, and there’s a tie? The fair thing would be to give it to the tied player with the fewest points. But what if there’s multiple players with the fewest points? This is the point in a party game where I feel things get too complicated; I’m too far from the game’s core engagement.

So my current thing is to have everyone vote, but designate one player as the Surgeon General. In case of a tie, the player the Surgeon General is voting for wins the tie. But what if that player isn’t in the tie? So what! It gives the Surgeon General some power, and encourages players to play to her tastes. That works much better for a game with this sort of core engagement than a fiddly tiebreaker rule.

I’m not very far in the design of the game so far; I’ve only playtested the game about six times or so. But people immediately get into the spirit, and some of their pitches have been sidesplitting.

I’ve also been surprised to see that I’ve been able to take the game to just about any gamer. Normally, I reserve a new, raw design like this to only game designer friends of mine. But I quickly saw that it was strong and simple enough to play with other gamers. That’s another nice thing about working on light games; less time in the garage, more time on the track!

So now that you’ve made it this far into my post, I’ll let you in on a secret: I am strongly leaning towards self-publishing this game. I’ve been against self-publishing for a long time, but things have changed. It’s not easy, and it’ll never been easy, but with Kickstarter and Amazon Fulfillment, it’s gotten easier, and I think it’s at least approachable for someone like me, especially for a component-light card game like this one.

No promises yet, of course, but I’m going to continue to learn the field before I embark on this new adventure! In the meantime, if you see me at a game convention or game day, don’t be surprised if you get yourself roped into pitching pharmaceutical drugs. It’s quite fun, and you might come across a cure for constant flatulence!

Announcing Designer Demo Night at The Uncommons in NYC

This is just a quick update to announce that I am working with The Uncommons, Manhattan’s first board gaming cafe, to arrange an excellent new event: Designer Demo Night.

This event will give folks a chance to try out the latest new games from the best possible teachers: the game designers themselves!

Check out the July/August schedule here.