Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

The saga of the Jersey City Monopoly board

I live in Jersey City, NJ. It’s a unique environment, because it combines its own energy with that of New York City, which is right across the Hudson River.

It’s not often that I get to talk about a subject that crosses board games with where I live, but last month, Jersey City commissioned an artist to draw a giant Monopoly board in the middle of a busy pedestrian plaza, about seven blocks from my house.

We first heard about it from a tweet from Steven Fulop, Jersey City’s mayor.

Fulop Monopoly Board

Let’s take a moment to set aside how we feel about how good or bad Monopoly is as a game. Many fans of board games, myself included, have very strong feelings about Monopoly, and how it affects the perception of modern board games. But this post will focus on Monopoly’s cultural effect on people at large, and its unique position to influence our culture as the world’s most famous board game.

As you can tell from the tweet above, the Jersey City Mural Arts Program commissioned artist Gary Wynans, aka Mr. AbILLity, to paint a 33-foot floor mural in the form of a customized Monopoly board. It was to be painted in a busy pedestrian plaza, a block from the heavily-trafficked Grove Street PATH subway stop that links Jersey City to New York City and Newark.

Then things went south.

Cool Statue

Some people took offense to the “Cool Statue” space. This was a reference to the nearby Katyń Memorial, which commemorates the gruesome killing of thousands of Polish war prisoners by Soviet troops under the order of Joseph Stalin in April and May 1940.

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Wynans dutifully renamed the space to “Katyń Memorial.” But then public attention focused on the figure painted in the Jail space.

Jail

This drew criticism from Pamela Johnson, who runs the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement. She objected to the depiction of a minority in prison, on the grounds that it reinforces negative stereotypes.

Wynans defended the space by saying that the image was a self-portrait, acknowledging the time he himself was arrested. The city took matters into its own hands and painted over the self-portrait, turning all but the “safe” area of the Jail space a solid orange square. Wynans quipped afterwards, “I wish they had come to my rescue the time when it actually happened”.

orange-square

Image credit: ncac.org

Then the public learned of one more peculiar encounter. It turns out that a representative of a property developer who contributes to the city program had requested that his company be included in the mural. In Wynans’ own words

On almost my final day out there, I ran into a fella named Paul. He asked me if I could put his name on the mural. I jokingly asked his name and said I’d add “Paul Avenue” right away, and just continued to work. He stopped me again and said, “No, I meant my company.” This guy wasn’t joking! I told Paul that all the squares were already taken, and that City Hall had made the decisions quite some time ago. He then got on his phone for about ten minutes. Fifteen minutes later, Brooke called me. “How can we incorporate ‘Charles & Co.’ on the board?” she asked me.

What the hell is “Charles & Co.”?  Well, apparently they’re the company that has been building condos, and they help out the city with funding. Sponsored squares. Wow, is this what its come down to?  I would have calmly explained what a terrible idea that is, but at this point the butting of heads had peaked and no rational discussion could take place. Paul got his square. Take a chance on Charles & Co. Know you know who’s really in charge of your fine city. And my heart broke.

Wynans renamed the “Take a Chance on Love” space to the “Take a Chance on Charles & Co” space. But he drew a crack in the heart to show how he felt about the change.

monopoly-board-silvermanjpeg-03935db45623ce1f

Image credit: nj.com

It seems that the project had generated too much controversy. So on July 25, the city painted over the mural.

Painting over

There’s a lot to unpack here, and the incident has raised discussion about exactly how Jersey City decides on commissions for its mural programs. There also seemed to be a disconnect between the city’s desire for a harmless, family-oriented mural and the artist’s intent to comment on the city’s inexorable gentrification. But what I’m interested here is why this all arose over something from a board game.

Jersey City has many murals gracing the area. What is it about an element from a game that draws this kind of reaction? Why didn’t we get this reaction from other murals, even murals that referenced films or TV shows?

I think there are two reasons behind it. First, games demand interaction. While a mural showing a scene from a movie is content to simply be observed, a game board, especially one drawn on the ground, literally invites people. It wants to be interacted with. There’s something so compelling about a game board, especially one with a form that almost everyone is familiar with, beckoning us into its magic circle.

Second, I think that interaction extends to the design of the board. One element of Monopoly’s success that Parker Brothers and Hasbro has profited from immensely is how adaptable it is to specific locations. You can theme Monopoly from your local city to a massive sci-fi franchise like Star Wars.

This brouhaha wouldn’t have happened if Wynans had simply painted a chessboard on Newark Avenue. A chessboard didn’t have the cultural resonance he was looking for, because it lacked flexibility for him to adapt it to our hometown.

So as the board started to take shape on Newark Avenue, it was inviting everyone to have a say in its formation. And trust me, as a game designer, I can tell you: there are many directions in which you can take a game. A good designer knows when to say “no.”

This project suffered from a lack of a unified vision. Perhaps the city should have trusted the artist. Perhaps the artist underestimated the city’s appetite for subversiveness. Either way (or both, if you’d like), I’ve discovered that if you don’t have a single person calling the shots, or a small team running the project that knows how to work together and compromise, the end result suffers. When you create a large-scale, highly-visible art project with a huge dependency on a well-known game and the creative vision behind the work is compromised, the whole thing is going to go pear-shaped.

Games need to be taken seriously, as seriously as film and literature. They are cultural artifacts, providing commentary and resonance. Most of them may not instill the emotions that people feel from other forms of art, but I’m starting to understand that other forms of art are incapable of making people feel the way they do after having played a game. That’s why we play them.

There’s one more angle to this. As Eric Zimmerman (one of my favorite thinkers about aspirational game design) says, “Enshrining something as art is death.”

We should only look forward to games becoming art when we really are sick of them and culture has already moved on. Once games are just another department in the academy, just another section in the newspaper, just another kind of festival or marketplace or catalog then they no longer have the disruptive power that makes them so special.

Art is the name for establishment culture – works that have ceased to challenge and offend.

Rather than trying to figure out how games can become more like art, we should do the opposite. We should be desperately trying to rescue them from becoming art, delaying their installment into the hallowed halls of art.

This whole episode resulted from the vitality of games as a cultural medium. Games are alive, and they reflect us in a way that other forms can’t. Which is not to say that games are “better” than other media. But right now, they have a vibrancy that few other forms have. 

We need to listen to games on a frequency that is unique to them alone. And those of us who are game designers need to keep paying attention. The better we understand how games reflect who we are, the better we can hone our craft to resonate with our players.

In the meantime, Mayor Fulop, if you haven’t lost your appetite for large-scale board game adaptations in the Newark Avenue pedestrian plaza… how about Age of Steam: Jersey City?

Puppy

Formal Ferret at Gen Con 2016!

Gen Con 2016 is next week! And Formal Ferret will be there, with an exciting and packed schedule.

What games will I have?

I’ll be showing The Networks mainly, along with Bad Medicine and Prolix Redux.

Wait, what about Peak Oil?

I recently announced on Twitter that I’ve handed US co-publishing duties for Peak Oil to the fine folks at Leder Games. It’s simply because I’m so slammed with work ever since The Networks blew up at Origins (and I have no complaints about that!), I won’t be able to put the time into co-publishing the game. Leder Games will treat the game better than I would.

What will I be selling?

You’ll be able to buy The Networks from me for $50. This will also be the first opportunity for people who didn’t back or pre-order the game to buy the mini-expansion On the Air. It consists of new cards with crazy and special powers (unlocked through stretch goals in the Kickstarter campaign), as well as some nice stickers you can put on the turn order and score markers.

On the Air will be available for $12. You can also buy The Networks and On the Air together for $60.

Also: I was very surprised to come across a few copies of Bad Medicine! I will be selling them for $30 each. I don’t expect them to last very long!

Finally, if you’ve always wanted a Formal Ferret t-shirt, now’s your chance! I’ll have most sizes, up to 4XL. They’ll be $10 each.

Where can you find my games?

First, there’s the Formal booth, #3058. It’s going to be in the far corner of the Exhibit Hall. Formal Ferret BoothTrust me, we’ll make it worth the walk!

In the booth, we’ll be running demos of The Networks all convention long. We’ll also demo Bad Medicine until we run out of copies to sell, at which point we’ll switch to demoing Prolix Redux.

Second, we will be running games of The Networks as Gen Con events in the Event Hall. These events sold out a while ago, but if you want to get an idea of how the game plays, come on by!

Third, there will be copies of The Networks in the Gen Con library, as well as the newly-announced BoardGameGeek Hot Games room at the Hyatt, in Cosmopolitan B.

Fourth, I will be running demos of Prolix Redux at the First Exposure Playtest Hall on Thursday and Friday at 2 pm and 4 pm. It’ll be a great time to check out the game!

Finally, I hope you were able to get tickets to my sold-out game design seminar. I will try to film it, so you can all check it out.

I hope I get a chance to see all of you at Gen Con!

Last week to back Bad Medicine: Second Opinion on Kickstarter!

BM-Second-Opinion-Cover

My party game Bad Medicine is back on Kickstarter, and there’s less than a week to back it! This campaign will fund an expansion as well as a reprint. The expansion will have at least 100 new cards (expandable via stretch goals), as well as a new mechanism that adds surprise cards to your pitch.

I’m also offering PNP versions of the game in French and German. The campaign could use some help, so please check it out!

Prolix Redux: March update

Finally getting around to making new bits for Prolix Redux, in 4 different languages.

A photo posted by Gil Hova (@gilhova) on

I’ve been hard at work on a bunch of things. One of them has been refining the rules to Prolix Redux.

The rules have stabilized to a point where I can share the most current version. This version of the game seems to have gotten the best reception from playtesters; it is quick, intuitive, and fun.

The general difference from the previous version (from my last post) is that there is no more “active player.” Instead, everyone reads the board at the same time. The first player to finish writing their word flips the timer, giving everyone else 30 seconds to write their words.

During scoring, anyone whose word scored better than the player who flipped the timer gets a +1 bonus for the end of the game. If the player who flipped the timer had a word that was equal to or better than at least half of their opponents, that player gets a +2 bonus for the end of the game.

Here’s the current scoresheet. And here’s a more thorough rules explanation…

PROLIX REDUX

In each round of Prolix Redux, players will come up with what they think is the best word for the current board. Each player whose word is better than the fastest player gets a small bonus, while the fastest player gets a larger bonus for having a word equal to or better than half of their opponents. The player with the highest score after 7 rounds wins.

Playing a round

All players look at the board simultaneously. The first player to finish writing their word on their scoresheet flips the timer (if they have flips remaining; see below). All other players have 30 seconds to finish writing their words.

Scoring a round

The fastest player scores their word first. Then score other players’ words, starting with the player to the fastest player’s left.

Each player whose word’s score is higher than the fastest player checks the +1 column for the current round. They will get one bonus point to their final score at the end of the game.

Once everyone has scored their words, if the fastest player’s word is equal to or better than half of the opponents at the table (round up), then the fastest player checks the +2 column for the current round. They will get two bonus points to their final score at the end of the game.

In other words…

In a 2-player game, the fastest player gets the +2 bonus if their word is equal to or better than their opponent’s word.

In a 3-player game, the fastest player gets the +2 bonus if their word is equal to or better than 1 other player’s word.

In a 4- or a 5-player game, the fastest player gets the +2 bonus if their word is equal to or better than 2 other players’ words.

In a 6-player game, the fastest player gets the +2 bonus if their word is equal to or better than 3 other players’ words.

After scoring all words, move the rightmost four chips off the board. Move the remaining four chips to the right side of the board, and draw four new chips.

The flip limit

In a game with 3 players or more, each player only has a limited number of times they can flip the timer. Players keep track of the number of times they have flipped the timer in the bottom-left of their scoresheets.

(There is no limit to the number of times a player may flip the timer in a 2-player game.)

In a 3-player game, a player may only flip the timer 4 times.

In a 4-player game, a player may only flip the timer 3 times.

In a 5- or 6-player game, a player may only flip the timer 2 times.

Once a player is out of flips, they may no longer flip the timer, even if they have the fastest word. Players must cross out flips regardless of whether they got the +2 bonus on that turn.

Challenges

If a player’s challenge reveals a word to be invalid, that word is considered to be 0 points. The player who tried to use the invalid word checks off their -2 box for the current round.

If the player with the invalid word was the fastest player, they check no further Penalty boxes for having an invalid word, but of course, all other words get the +1 bonus.

If a player challenges a word but the word turns out to be valid, the challenging player checks off their -2 box for the current round. The challenging player’s word is still considered valid, though.

More Thoughts and Miscellany

For those of you who have been following Prolix’s journey since December, first off, thank you! Second, welcome to game design, where things can always get better…

The version of the rules I posted in January were good, and tested well. But they didn’t sit right with me. Why did active player keep moving around? What did that have to do with flipping the timer? Couldn’t I try combining those two? It seemed so natural.

I’d tried a version of the game like that before, but testers didn’t like it as much as the rotating active player. But back then, there was a significant bonus to your word for being fastest. What if the bonus applied to your final score, but only if your word was good enough?

So I started messing with these rules, and I was surprised to find that testers preferred them greatly to the rotating active player. It’s just a more natural fit.

Still, there were some surprising ripple effects from these changes. First, the game is much more mentally strenuous now. Before, if you weren’t the active player, you could relax a bit. Now, you’re “on” for each round. So I needed to cut it to 7 rounds. 7 pretty exciting rounds, though!

Second, I found players trying to rush other players by writing down any word and flipping the timer quickly (I didn’t have a timer flip limit then). That tactic failed more often than it worked, but it was a bit of a bummer for the other players when it kept happening. I kept an eye on it; it only happened with competitive players in the mix. Was it a magic circle problem, or was it something I could address?

Third, I still felt the game was missing an arc. Not a narrative arc, of course, but a game arc. There was no opening, midgame, or closing. Each round felt exactly the same, then the game ended. What could I do to make each round feel a little more interesting?

I tried a few radical solutions, like keeping letter chips instead of scoring bonus points, and then making a word out of your collected letter chips. Nothing really worked. Then one tester suggested limiting the number of timer flips in a game.

I love tweaks that fix multiple problems! Not only did the flip limit address the people trying to rush the game and made each round last a more rational length of time, it introduced just enough arc into the game to make it more interesting. Players now have to consider if their word is worth spending one of their precious flips. It’s a compelling decision!

(If you’re wondering why I chose these numbers of flips, it’s because I want to avoid the situation where only one player can flip the timer in a round. For example, in a 3p game, if each player only had 3 flips, then two players could conceivably be out of flips by Round 7. This would not be interesting.)

So there we are, the most current rules to Prolix Redux. They’ve been working really well lately.

Are they done now? I’ll get back to you in a couple of months about that…

In the meantime, I’ve made some letter chips with distributions that work in different languages. I now have a set in Spanish, French, and German. I know Spanish and French are just a matter of tweaking the letter distribution, but German presents a fascinating problem. I have no idea if it’s going to work, given the language’s affinity for huge compound words. I have a few ideas I’d like to try, like limiting each word to 15 or 20 characters, but only playtesting will tell me if this is something that is realistic.

And finally, the app. I’ve made progress; I now have a version on my phone that features local multiplayer with AI! It’s too ugly to put in the app store, there’s no online multiplayer yet, and there’s still a few lingering bugs, but the core of the app is done.

How much longer will it take? Who knows! I’m about to hit a very busy summer, but hopefully I’ll have a “juiced” app (that’s the industry term for an app with a slick and polished visual presentation) by the end of the year. If you’re interested in becoming a beta tester, I suggest signing up for my mailing list. I’ll put out a request for iOS testers sometime in the fall (maybe), and then another request for Android users (maybe) a few months after that (maybe). It all depends on stuff and things, of course.

And of course, there’s the question of if I’ll ever release an updated physical version of the game. To which the answer is, of course… maybe.

Still, I’m continually amazed by how much this little game has taught me. It’s not done with me yet, and for that, I’m eternally grateful!

 

Prolix Redux

Screenshot 2016-01-07 at 07.43.43 AM

 

Let me start with the lede: I have a new set of rules for my 2010 word game Prolix that I think represent a huge improvement over the original game. I have plans for these new rules, but for those of you who own the game, you can try it yourself!

All you need is to download the prototype scoresheet. (Please forgive its look; it hasn’t been seen by a proper graphic designer yet.) The only difference is the new rules assume a 30-second timer, and the original game shipped with a 45-second timer. You can look for a replacement timer, but the new rules will probably still work fine with a 45-second timer.

(You may also want to discard down to 2 letter Fs in your set, and make them worth +1 each, like Ws and Ys. I did this by marking up my set with a blue sharpie. This change isn’t technically part of the new system, but I think you’ll find the game better this way!)

I’ve tested these rules about 12 times, so while they’re still subject to change, they’ve settled enough that they should be fun and enjoyable for you.

Here are the new rule changes for Prolix Redux. They assume familiarity with the original rules for Prolix Classic.

I’ve tested these rules with a maximum player count of 6. The game may take more players than that, but I haven’t tested that yet.

PROLIX REDUX

Overview

In Prolix Redux, Interrupts have been replaced with a new mechanism, currently named Interjections. So one player will be the “active player” taking his turn. The other players are allowed to Interject when it’s not their turn.

Interjections do not stop the active player’s turn; players simply write their Interjections on their scoresheet. At the end of each turn, each player compares their Interjection against the active player’s word. If it’s higher, they get a bonus. If it’s equal to or lower, they get a penalty.

Players will score the sum total of their 6 best word scores, regardless of whether they were Interjections or not. They then add bonuses and subtract penalties to get their final scores.

Prolix Redux takes about 20-30 minutes to play; almost half the time of Prolix Classic.

Playing a turn

Each turn, one player is the Active Player, and the other players are all Interjectors. Everybody looks at the board to try to find a single high-scoring word.

If you think you have the best word, write it down on your scoresheet, next to the current round number.

If you’re the first player to finish writing a word, start the timer, regardless of if you’re the Active Player or an Interjector. All other players now have 30 seconds to write down their words. Do not start the timer until you have completely written your word.

Interjectors are not obligated to Interject; they may pass without penalty. But the Active Player will be penalized if he fails to come up with a word on his turn.

There’s no limit to the number of players who may Interject on a turn. It’s possible that everyone may have a word in a given turn.

If the timer runs out on any player still writing their words, they’re allowed to finish writing it out, but they may not change it or cross it out.

Scoring a turn

The Active Player scores their word first, using Prolix Classic scoring rules. Then each Interjector will score their word in clockwise order.

If an Interjector’s word’s score is greater than the Active Player’s word score, the Interjector checks off her +2 box for the current round. This shows that the Interjector will get a straight 2 point bonus applied to her final score.

If an Interjector’s word’s score is equal to or less than the Active Player’s word score, the Interjector checks off her -1 box for the current round. This shows that the Interjector will get a straight minus-1 point penalty applied to her final score.

If the Active Player did not come up with a word this turn, he checks off his -1 box for the current round. Again, that is a minus-1 point penalty applied to his final score. If any other players Interjected here, they all get the +2 Bonus.

There is no penalty for not Interjecting. The Active Player scores no bonuses or penalties other than the minus-1 point penalty for not coming up with a word.

After scoring, move and redraw letters according to the rules of the original game. (Note: when playing with 2 players, discard and draw 4 letters instead of 2.) The next player clockwise becomes the new Active player; rotate the board to face her.

In Prolix Classic, it’s possible for a player to get a second turn after being Interrupted. In Prolix Redux, a player is never Active Player twice in a row, regardless of how many players Interject on his turn.

Challenges

If a player’s challenge reveals a word to be invalid, that word is considered to be 0 points. The player who tried to use the invalid word checks off his -2 box for the current round.

If the player with the invalid word was the Active Player, he checks no further Penalty boxes for having an invalid word, but of course, all Interjecting words this turn get the Interjection Bonus.

If a player challenges a word but the word turns out to be valid, the challenging player checks off her -2 box for the current round. The challenging player’s word is still considered valid, though.

Game end

The game ends after 12 rounds, regardless of the number of players.

To score, each player adds the values of their 6 best words. Then each player adds points from +2 Bonuses and subtracts points from -1 and -2 Penalties. The player with the most points wins.

Changelog

1/3/2016 – Reduced length of game to 12 rounds for 3 and 4 player game.

1/7/2016 – Streamlined scoreboard into single column, fixed game to 12 rounds regardless of player count.

Thoughts and miscellany

In 2010, my first game came out. It was a small word game called Prolix. It got critical acclaim, getting named as part of the GAMES 100 that year. It went out of print only a couple of years later, a casualty of Filosofia’s purchase of Z-Man Games.

For years, I’ve been wanting to make a mobile version of Prolix. With Bad Medicine finally out and The Networks almost at the printer, I can finally do this.

I have a decent amount of experience in C#, so learning Unity has not been a huge obstacle (though it’s weird to have so many public variables!). But one thing that I realized need to change was the game’s rules.

When I first tested Prolix years ago, I found that the game needed some sort of timing element. It was fun at 45 minutes, but was a drag at 2 hours, and yes, there were 2-hour playtests!

I ultimately settled on an “Interrupt” mechanism that allowed a player to say a word when it wasn’t their turn, interrupting the current player’s turn. So if you take too long to come up with a word, another player can halt your turn.

At the end of the game, each of your Interrupts replaces one of your regular words, so you don’t want to interrupt with a low-scoring word.

It was a cool system, but it was polarizing. 5-player games were especially brutal, with players getting interrupted a lot! And it’s synchronous, which means that everyone needs to be paying attention all the time. That doesn’t translate well to an asynchronous mobile game, where people will take turns logging on.

One morning, I found myself mulling over an alternative set of rules. Let’s face it, the Interrupt system was fairly clunky, difficult to explain, and was probably just as much of a reason why the game didn’t take off as its mis-sized components.

I’ve tried the new Interject system with old Prolix hands and players new to the game, and both have loved it. But why?

First, the system is smoother. The interrupt system had to deal with all sorts of exceptions. What happens if two players say a word at the same time? What happens when a player is interrupted once? What happens when that player gets interrupted again? What happens if a player uses all their interrupts?

Second, the original game’s endgame scoring wasn’t terribly difficult once you had a game under your belt, but it was tremendously difficult to explain because of all these edge cases. Wait, your Interrupts… replace your words? How does that work? It was really tough to understand without trying it first.

The new Interject system is much easier to grok: everyone gets one turn, and you’re either trying to score more than the Active Player or trying to keep the Interjecting Players from scoring more than you. Endgame scoring is much simpler too: just score your top six words, throw in your bonuses and penalties, and voila!

It’s great that Prolix Redux takes half the time of Prolix Classic to play, but I’m just as happy that Prolix Redux takes half the time of Prolix Classic to explain, and no one is confused as we start playing.

But wait, what does this have to do with the app? Isn’t the Interject system also synchronous?

It is synchronous, implemented this way, of course. But for the mobile app, I plan to detach the timing mechanism. Assuming I can pull it off, all players will get a chess clock, à la Ascension. When you log in to take your turn, you’ll see all the other players’ boards first, and will get an opportunity to Interject or pass for all of them. So you’ll have much of the interaction of the physical game (at least, under the new rules), but with the convenience of digital.

And now the big question: will there be a new physical version of the game?

My answer: I don’t know. It depends on a lot of things.

Nevertheless, I think amazing things are in store for the game. I can’t wait.

I have a LOT more to discuss here. You’ll see it here soon!