Fail Better

Gil Hova designs and plays board games

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.

Some thoughts for designers who are worried that someone will steal their game idea

If there’s one question new designers relentlessly ask, it’s this: “What if someone steals my game idea?”

I’ve answered this before. But it seems to come up so frequently, I’ll write it here.

No one.

Is going.

To steal.

Your idea.

For a board game.

Tom Jolly summed it up really well:

But rest at ease; for the same reason it’s hard to protect a game, it’s also not worth the trouble to a game company to steal a game. Most companies have a backlog of games they want to publish; stealing your wonderful idea is not only not worth their time, but it’s also not worth the trouble and expense a pissed-off submitter is likely to cause. There are exceptions; there are always exceptions, but these are very, very rare and not worth losing sleep over.

Let me add some thoughts to this:

1) There’s four examples of alleged IP theft in board games that I can think of off the top of my head (note the word alleged there):

The last two examples aren’t even clear-cut examples: the first one is in the lawyers’ hands, and the second one has been the subject of several heated arguments about whether it was theft or legitimate adaptation. Nevertheless, in both of them, the party allegedly stolen from has felt strongly enough about it to express their opinions publicly, so I’ll include them here.

These four examples have something in common: the games they allegedly stole from were all published, and were all quite successful. Even the least successful example, Knizia’s En Garde, sold enough copies to earn a couple of reprints.

None of these examples involve an unpublished prototype, in any stage of its development.

2) So, here’s a thought experiment: pretend that, for some reason, you want someone to steal your game. You take out ads. You bomb social media. You hold demos. You try to spread word of your juicy, steal-able game out to as many people as you can.

There is a word for this: marketing. And it’s freaking hard. It will take a lot of money and effort before you get even one designer to try to copy your game.

The truth is, there are so many of us designers nowadays, it’s tougher and tougher to even be legitimately heard. So the thought of getting your half-done proto ripped off by another designer because you blogged about it? Man, I’d love to have that kind of social reach!

3) Let’s say someone does steal your idea for a game. But it’s just an idea, and one night the thief has a great thought to make the game better. He spends six months working on it. Meanwhile, one day in the shower, you have an incredible idea of your own that will improve your game. You spend six months working on it.

Believe me, your idea and his ideas are going to be completely different, maybe different enough that your games will be quite distinguishable on the marketplace.

There’s a competition at the Gathering of Friends where a bunch of designers get the same set of bits and a theme, and they’re challenged to make a game out of it. And the games they come up with are all completely different. Like, not even close to each other.

An idea is not a game. People don’t play ideas for games, they play games. And it’s an enormous amount of work from idea to game. No one wants to play an idea.

4) What if someone posts about a game that’s similar to a game I’m working on, but his is further along? It’s happened to me. I’m working on a game with a TV-network theme called Prime Time, and one day, I heard that someone started a Kickstarter for their TV-network themed game called Prime Time. But the gameplay for our games? Totally different. Mine is a tense economic strategy game with drafting of scarce supplies; his is a deckbuilder.

Another example: one idea I’ve always wanted to do is a futuristic sports game that wouldn’t be a war sport; it’d just be an existing sport, like baseball or hockey, but with cyborgs and robots slowly creeping in. I tried it from all sorts of angles, but could never get it to work. Then one day, my friend Mike Fitzgerald shows me his game that Eagle just picked up: Baseball Highlights 2045 . Pretty much exactly what I had in mind (although his actually had, you know, actually-playtested mechanisms).

My reaction? A little jealousy, but mostly relief. He had executed my idea much, much better than I ever did. It was done, and I didn’t have to do any work to do it. Thanks Mike!

5) This is a tiny business, and you can’t really make millions of dollars from it, unless you are lucky and work really hard. I can think of three successful publishers who still have day jobs, and two other successful publishers who only just quit their day jobs. They’re all pretty much single-man operations.

The psychopaths who will take any means to make a fortune? They’re all playing the financial industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and any other business with multimillion-dollar potential.

If someone is in the board game business, it’s not necessarily because he or she is a business savant. But it is absolutely because he or she loves board games.

6) The relatively small size of the business means it’s an echo chamber. There’s gossip, there’s chatter, there’s news. If someone claims to have had their game stolen (and again, this doesn’t happen to prototypes or unsuccessful games, and only rarely happens to the most successful games), everyone knows about it.

I’ll close by saying what I always say: Before you worry about someone stealing your game, come up with a game worth stealing.

That part is unbelievably hard, trust me.

What is a “bad playtest”?

painisjust

One sentence I hear from game designers that I’m not always on board with is, “I had a bad playtest.”

What happened? Maybe you spent a long time preparing a radical new change to the game. Maybe a new playtester tried a completely unexpected strategy. Maybe this is a new game’s maiden voyage.

In any event, no one had fun and you had to cut the test short.

Is that a bad playtest? I’m not convinced it is.

They’re tough playtests, sure. I would love all my playtests to end in wild whoops and cheers, and people telling me, “Gil, you’ve done it again. I expect this game to win the SdJ, a Pulitzer, and a Nobel.”

But we all know that doesn’t happen. Sometimes you have to stop the playtest once you see the game state has stalled. Other times the game lurches to an end, and no one wants to be the first to talk.

These are tough playtests. But they’re not bad playtests. They’re necessary playtests.

These are the playtests you need to have if you want your game to grow. Every game has been through them. You have the patient open on the table. Don’t be squeamish now; go in there and find out what’s wrong.

Did the game stall? Why? Did players run out of money? Were they always taking the same actions? What’s the interesting thing you want them to do? What would have incentivized them to do those interesting things?

Did one player run away with the game, or fall helplessly out of competition early on? Was there an action she did early on that made her unbeatable or made the game unwinnable? What was that action? Was there something the other players could have done to prevent it, or something she could have done to pull herself out of the situation? Does your game need a negative feedback loop to rubberband players’ scores?

Were players simply not engaged? Did they not see their available choices? Were things too opaque? What can you do to make your mechanisms more transparent?

These are all examples of difficult, tooth-gritting playtests I’ve had for Prolix, Battle Merchants, and Prime Time. I needed all of them to figure out fundamental problems with the game, and learn their root causes. Once I acknowledge that the game isn’t going swimmingly, I start probing why players aren’t having as good a time as they could.

The main question to ask during a difficult playtest is: what should the game be encouraging to be doing (or forbidding them from doing)?

It’s tough at first, especially if this is your first game. These games are your darlings, and you have to make the painful acknowledgement that there is a deep, serious flaw with that darling.

But once you do that, the process gets surprisingly easier. Most playtesters will enthusiastically tell you what went wrong for them. Some of them will suggest fixes. Listen to everything. You don’t have to implement all the feedback; in fact, at times, the players may be suggesting fixes to a problem that you can more elegantly fix with your perspective (for example, check out this wonderful post by Daniel Solis that describes just that).

Okay, so with that said… is there such a thing as a “bad playtest”?

Well, of course there is. Here are a few bad playtests I’ve had…

Example 1:

We finish playing. There is silence. I ask, “What did you think?” Everyone says, “It’s okay. Not bad.” I try to get more feedback out of the playtesters, but they just shrug. They lack the vocabulary to tell me why they simply found the game “okay.”

This is a tough case. You’ll see it with inexperienced gamers. You have to watch their body language closely as they play. Are they leaning forward, paying attention to the board? Do they complain when a player takes something they wanted? Do they ask for rules clarification? Do they take their time figuring out their move? These are all possibly signs that the player is actually engaged in the game.

On the other hand, are the players leaning back? Are they texting on their phones, or on social media? Do they make moves without really caring about implications? If so, they are not engaged in the game. It could be the player, or it could be the game.

In these examples, rely on your experience with this gamer, and with other gamers who have played your game. If this is the only player who’s detached, and you don’t know him very well, then it may just be an issue with him. But if you repeatedly see players getting detached from your game, you will want to study your game. Is its core engagement working? Should it be shorter? Should it be more tense and dramatic?

Example 2:

We finish playing. Just like before, there is silence. I ask, “What did you think?” Everyone says, “It’s okay. Not bad.”

Now, these aren’t casual gamers this time. These are playtesters I know and trust. There’s something missing in the game.

We talk. The game works well enough to be playable, and kind of fun. But we can’t figure out what would have pushed it to the next level. The game is at the dreaded good-but-not-great stage.

This is really bad. It’s one of my worst game design nightmares. If you come across this, one of the best things you can do is just put the game down. Work on something else. Maybe take a break from game design altogether; not because you’re bad at it, but because sometimes, creative silences are good. I did comedy for a year and a half, and I returned to game design refreshed and energized.

Whether you work on another game or some new enterprise, you’re gathering new perspectives. When you return to your okay game, you might find some place to insert that missing spark.

Example 3:

We finish playing. But now, everybody LOVES it. They rave about the game. They ask where they can buy it, and act stunned when I tell them it’s still a prototype. They can’t think of any way to improve the game. I feel incredible. Dr. Knizia, look out!

So we go to another game. Maybe it’s a game they’ve never played before. They LOVE this game too. They rave about it. They write down its name, and make sure to buy it when they can.

At some point later in the game day/convention, I see the group playing amongst themselves. They’re playing a game I detest. And they LOVE that game too. They talk about how great this game is, and how, if they never had to play any other game, it would be totally fun. They tell me that my game is just as good as this game.

And I realize, my heart sinking: these guys just LOVE every game they play. Maybe they were being polite to me (I love Ignacy Trzewiczek’s story about this). Maybe they genuinely have no capacity for criticism.

Honestly, this is a waste of a playtest. Your playtesters should know to be honest. If they’re not enjoying the game, they need to say so. They do you no favors when they’re polite to you. And if they’re being honest? Just toss it into the aggregate. Maybe, just maybe, you actually have a loveable game. (Note: I like you and everything, Dear Reader, but chances are, your game isn’t that loveable yet.)

Again, reading your testers is vital. If one player just got unfairly screwed by something, ask her how she feels. If she laughs it off, make sure she understands that you need her to be honest. She should then give you the truth: either “yeah, okay, that was a bit of a raw deal. I should have a chance to…” or “no, really, it was my fault putting myself in that situation.”

In Ignacy’s words, don’t trust your playtesters. Make sure you get the truth from them, even if you have to dig.

Example 4:

You play with That Guy.

You know how it is. Maybe he’s starved for attention. Maybe she was never properly socialized, and someone is bringing her to the group as a “project.” Maybe he’s somebody’s Significant Other, and doesn’t really want to play. Maybe she’s genuinely sweet and nice, but just has no clue how to play a game competitively.

In any event, the session is ruined. This player plays in a way that makes it all about herself, and in order to get any signal, you have to sift through a whole lot of noise.

It’s strange to come across competitive imbalance issues when playtesting, because most gamers understand that the important thing is improving the game, not winning. But this player doesn’t get it. He breaks everything by playing in an unreasonable way.

Should your game hold up against this? Sometimes. But as a designer, you can only make a good game with the assumption that everyone else is trying to make logical, competitive decisions. It shouldn’t break if someone makes a poor decision in an attempt to be logical and competitive. But if someone is deliberately making illogical, game-spoiling decisions? That’s not something you can necessarily address out of the box.

Ask the testers if they’re enjoying the game. Don’t be afraid to cut it short. And remember that if you have any say in the attendance of this event, you may want to leave That Guy out of it next time.

Those four examples are all Bad Playtests.

But a playtest where your game breaks? Whether it’s truly a bad playtest is up to you. It could be the most important test of your game’s development.