Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Breaking out of my comfort zone with Circular

These days, I’ve been aiming to try new and different things with game design. I think there’s a lot of potential to do new and weird things with games, and I’m not doing myself any favors by sticking to designing only one kind of game.

There are a bunch of challenges I’ll be taking on in the next few years. To help get me out of my comfort zone, I decided to make something I’ve never done before: a large-scale game, playable by anyone in the general public.IMG_1916

I knew this would be the kind of thing that I would endlessly procrastinate on, so I challenged myself. I live in Jersey City, and every year, we have the Jersey City Art & Studio Tour, in which artists all over the city show off their works in studios, galleries, and restaurants.

Now, I don’t consider myself an artist, and the question of whether game design is an art is one that I don’t want to get into here (those of you who want to read more on the subject, check out Eric Zimmerman’s spot-on take on the matter). But this was a public event with a lot of people milling about, checking out various sites. It was perfect for my needs!


So this is Circular, a game I made for JCAST 2014. It consists of 18 flyers that I hung up at various local galleries, shops, restaurants, and other public places.

Each flyer consists of a single instruction. If you can find all the signs, you will be able to piece together a single instruction you can execute to win the game. For this game, you were to mail a postcard to a specified address (a mailbox I had set up).

As you can see from the above image, there’s a twist: some of the signs lie to you. Other signs will point out which ones are incorrect. But you’ll have to see them all to get the correct set of instructions!

There’s no way a single person would have been able to win this game alone. The only way to win is to team up with others to figure out where all the flyers are. I’ll check the mailbox later this week to see if anyone won the game.

There’s another challenge too: I didn’t publicize the game. This was for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted the game to be a little cryptic. The core engagement of this game was not really to win it; it was the moment a person discovers the second or third sign, and realizes there’s a game going on. I wanted it to feel a little like knowing a secret; some kind of secret structure happening just under the skin of the festival.

So to me, it wasn’t really important that anyone try to win the game. It was more about allowing people to discover this secret.


The second reason was that Circular was more of a personal project. I am actually an incredibly shy person. People might be surprised to hear this, but before I started playing board games, I had a really hard time interacting with people. They freaked me out; I was never able to say the right thing. I was never socialized properly as a child, and had to learn people skills much later than everyone else.

Board games gave me a structure in which I could interact comfortably with people. At first, I was the kind of person who would finish a game and then demand to play another immediately (and okay, I still kinda do that). But I slowly started to open up to people. I started to see how to interact comfortably with others outside the structure of a game. It was an enormous confidence boost, and it made me much more extroverted than I ever was.

But I still have little tendrils of insecurity around people here and there. One of those leftover tendrils is the idea of repeatedly approaching people cold to ask for something. And when JCAST asked me to not hang Circular up on telephone poles, as I’d originally wanted, but to request permission from shopkeepers instead, I was filled with dread and horror.

In the past, I would have folded and let my shyness win. But I wasn’t going to let that happen this time! I went on with the game, and on Saturday morning, I went out with my flyers and tape, and started talking to people.

I was amazed that almost all of the shopkeepers I appreached were enthusiastic about the game, and happy to help. I’d like to thank all the stores, restaurants, galleries, and artists that let me hang their flyers: 9th and Coles, Fussy Friends, Torico Ice Cream, Gia Gelato, Tea NJ, Shop Rite Jersey City, E. Tittlemouse & Co, Another Man’s Treasure, Jersey City Art School, Modern Sage, Iris Records, Panepinto Galleries, Rustique Pizza, Basic Coffee and Deli, and Phil from Studio 134. This wouldn’t have been possible without your help!

Circular may have only been 18 flyers, but it gave me enormous courage and confidence to do something bigger, braver, and bolder next year!


My forthcoming seminar at Metatopia: “Wait, THAT player won?”

I’ll be running a seminar at the Metatopia game designer’s convention in Morristown, NJ on Sunday, November 9 at 11 am. The name of the talk is “Wait, THAT Player Won? Opacity, Transparency, and Player Incentives in Your Strategy Board Game”. It’s event D078 for those of you who want to register for it.

Here’s the full description:

“Do people understand what’s going on in your game? Not just the rules, but can they tell who’s winning? If they should watch out for a dangerous player? If they know exactly how their move will impact their next few turns? Join designer Gil Hova as he discusses transparency and opacity in strategy board games. We will discuss what makes a game mechanism transparent or opaque, how they work (or fail) in existing games, and how to use them to incentivize players to make interesting plays.”

It’s going to be a great talk! I’m going to share a lot of insights I’ve gained over the years. Transparency and opacity are things that usually mess with first-time designers, so if you’re new to game design, you’ll definitely want to attend.

And sign up for some other panels while you’re at it! Metatopia is a very good convention that targets RPG and board game designers. There’s a lot of smart people talking about interesting subjects, and there will be many opportunities to playtest.

See you there!

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.


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!