Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Category: Game design

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None of these examples involve an unpublished prototype, in any stage of its development.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

Gathering of Friends 2014

I first heard about the Gathering of Friends about thirteen years ago, when I first got back into serious boardgaming. Three years ago, I realized that I knew enough people over there to have a shot at attending. I finally made it in this year; one other new attendee said that he had an easier time getting into college!

All this to say: I don’t want to gloat or boast, but I did have a tremendous time, and I wanted to write out a few thoughts about the event.

(Oh, and if you want to know about specific board games I played, check out my GoF 2014 GeekList. I’ll keep this post to general impressions.)

Stress-testing

The most amazing thing about the convention is that I could playtest one game repeatedly with a bunch of really sharp gamers. I played Prime Time 12 times in all over the ten days of the convention. The first few plays revealed that its economy was too loose, and players had so much money that they wanted money to have more meaning.

Interestingly, they suggested things like “I should be able to spend my money on bigger endgame events” or “I should be able to open up a new timeslot.” But having seen how the game worked in the past, I knew that they were really saying that they found money meaningless at the end of the game. I scratched out a bunch of text on the cards and sloppily wrote some new numbers in. I occasionally crossed out out replacement, writing out a second replacement, then crossing out that second replacement and writing a third replacement that matched my original value. Game design!

This kind of testing meant that I could iterate faster than I ever could before. Prime Time is now really close to done. I know, I’ve said that before…

Contrasting schools of thought

I playtested Prime Time with a bunch of razor-sharp game designers from Maryland, like Dave Chalker, John Cooper, and Jacob Davenport. They subscribe to an ethos of elegance in game design, which I find admirable and shrewd.

But while elegance is an outstanding goal to shoot for, it is not the only way to design a game. A few tables away, CGE were testing their newest games. CGE games aren’t exactly Advanced Squad Leader in terms of complexity, but they are usually complex games. CGE feels that if a rule supports the game’s theme and is fun, it should be in the game. This winds up with games that are occasionally tough to teach, and CGE is usually careful to include well-written tutorials in most of their products as a result.

But I feel if the Maryland folks had gotten to games like Galaxy Trucker or Last Will during development, they usually would have struck out half of the rules during playtesting. This is not a criticism of either school of design, of course! There is room in the world for many different kinds of games. It was fascinating to see so many contrasting approaches in the same room.

Networking

I printed out about 25 business cards before the convention. I figured I’d only hand out a few, but better too many than too few, right?

I wound up using almost all of them! I got to introduce myself to a few designers, publishers, and bloggers I’ve only known about by reading their posts or playing their games. They were all modest, approachable, and friendly.

There were a few other people I had not seen in over ten years. Catching up with them was downright beautiful.

A question I’ve always wanted to ask

I mentioned elegance versus complexity before, and how some designers and publishers are more eager to embrace complexity (assuming it serves the theme or gameplay) than others.

My home playtest group trends towards elegance. This has made me a better designer, and my games are the better for it. However, I have a confession to make: there are times when I play a game like Terra Mystica, and I wonder how those designers get away with it!

So I got to ask Vlaada Chvátil (Through the Ages, Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, Dungeon Lords, Dungeon Petz) and Jeroen Doumen (Roads & Boats, Antiquity, Indonesia) how they got away with it. It turns out that they just have playtest groups who have settled on more complex games, and they’re okay with accepting a certain level of rules density. Although Chvátil admitted that sometimes when he works on a game, he wonders if he’ll be able to get away with it this time…

Sid Sackson and me

One of the highlights of my time at the convention was going on a tour of the board game collection at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. They have a collection of vintage board games (and an impressive collection of well-maintained classic video games as well!), and my group was lucky enough to be allowed behind the scenes to view the games in storage. It was amazing to see stack upon stack of classic 3M and Avalon Hill games.

Even better was going to the archives and viewing Sid Sackson’s diaries. Sackson was a monumental game designer, creating classic games like Acquire and Can’t Stop decades before the age of the Euro. He kept diaries of all his gaming-related activity, from sales of his games to communications with other influential gaming figures of the time like Bob Abbott and Martin Gardner.

A couple of people came across his playtest notes for Acquire, and dove headfirst into them. There were a bunch of gems in there, like alternate rules Sackson tried (like awarding extra shares for a merge), and his playtest notes for the extra powers he included in a later version of the game.

Getting in touch with this figure from the past was extraordinary. It was easily one of the highlights of the week.

Artemis!

And of course, there’s one of my favorite video games, Artemis! This is a spaceship bridge simulator that is really a social game in disguise. It takes up to six players. Five of the players have computers, with each computer showing the different stations of a spaceship, like Helm, Comms, Science, Weapons, and Engineering. One player does not have a computer; this player is the Captain, and will order the other players around.

This means that each player has a tiny amount of information and a tiny amount of control over the entire game state. Science has perhaps the best perspective on what is happening, but cannot actually change the game state. Weapons can shoot other players, but cannot fly the spaceship. Helm can control the spaceship, but has no idea where to go without Science’s input. Engineering has the ability to preserve valuable energy on the spaceship, but may deprive some stations of energy at a critical time. And the Captain has full authority over the crew, but without a workstation, can only issue orders verbally.

It is a marvelous game. I was excited when someone suggested setting it up. As a first-time attendee, I was forbidden from officially running the event, but I acted as an (ahem) “advisor”.

We only ran for a few hours; most of the crew were morning people, it turns out. But I got an idea of how the game fits in with the Gathering crew, and I will most likely run it next year.

This was my first time playing Artemis with multiple spaceships, and it was amazing. I loved seeing how the two ships could work together, even if they technically were not allowed to communicate. We could have also gone for a deathmatch, but opted not to. Maybe next year?

Dropping out of time

One of the most amazing feelings at a convention is the sense of “con time.” It’s almost like dropping out of time, and living outside the world for the length of the con. Until the Gathering, the longest I’ve gone was 5 days at BGG.CON. But being able to drop out and live in the world of games for 10 days was beyond extraordinary.

Man, I hate to sound this gloating or pretentious! But I hope that all board game designers one day get to experience the Gathering of Friends for themselves.

How so-called “lazy themes” actually help some games

(Note: This post is adapted from a comment I made on Oakleaf Games‘ fine blog. Go follow it, then come back. I’ll wait!)

I’ve seen a few references to “lazy theming” in board games lately. Anyone familiar with board games knows what this usually means: trading in the Mediterranean, bloodless colonization, building a city/church/castle to curry favor with royalty, and so on.

There seems to be a view that these common Euro themes are just an example of a designer and a publisher not applying themselves to think of a really cool theme for their game. If only they spent some time thinking about a really interesting theme, maybe they could have come up with something really different!

I agree that these themes are tired and cliché, and I’ve already decided that I’ll never design a game using them. But those well-worn themes have a purpose: they inform players that the focus on the game is not its theme, or its theme-mechanism integration, but some new and interesting mechanism.

Dominion is a perfect example. When it came out in 2008, there was nothing like it, other than CCG deckbuilding, which is technically “outside” the CCG. Dominion’s almost-absent theme of medieval territory-building informed players that its theme wasn’t important, and encouraged them to focus on its mechanism, which was unique at the time.

Stefan Feld’s games are also excellent examples. They’re pretty polarizing for a few reasons, but most of his games have the lightest of themes. This seems very deliberate to me. Trajan is not about Roman politics, it’s about managing your mancala-like board. Amerigo is not really about colonizing a new world, it’s about trying to best take advantage of cubes coming out of the tower. He has some games with slightly more applied themes, like Notre Dame or In the Year of the Dragon, but even in those, the emphasis is more on the mechanism than the setting. I completely understand disliking Feld games because of their lack of theme (or because there are so many ways to win them that it can feel arbitrary, but that’s another story), but as a philosophy teacher once told my class, “I’m not asking you to like it. I’m just asking you to understand it.”

I think if you have a mechanism-first game, and it’s not tied to any specific theme, it’s better to give it a light, familiar (albeit tired) theme than to try to force a gaudy theme onto it. Of course, it’s better to tie it to a specific theme, but that’s riskier than it might seem.

A great example of a mechanism-first game with a poor theme is the Reiner Knizia tile-collecting game Zombiegeddon, which is just Knizia’s tile-collecting game Jäger und Sammler with a zombie theme. It’s proof that you can’t just take a dry, mechanism-first Euro and just slap on an engaging American theme. JuG is about its mechanisms, not about its theme, so Zombiegeddon just never feels right. It just doesn’t feel like a zombie game. It’s about moving pieces, not about survival.

A personal favorite example is Monkeys on the Moon, a wonderful bidding game that new players tend to struggle with because its cool, unique auction clashes with its gaudy theme of civilizing lunar monkeys and shooting the most cultured ones back to Earth(!). I really like the game, but it’s a tough sell to new players because the theme and the mechanism just don’t work together. If its theme was about, yes, trading in the Mediterranean, it would go down much easier.

I wrote about this a few years ago, and my feelings haven’t changed since then. Of course, a few years after I wrote that post, I ran into a theme/mechanism issue with the game that eventually became Battle Merchants. It’s why I’m sensitive to the notion that simply slapping a more “interesting” theme onto a game will improve it. Theme/mechanism integration is hard, and if the point of your game is its mechanism, I don’t believe there’s any shame in using your theme as a frame instead of as a core element.

So those boring Euro themes serve a purpose. It’s completely understandable to not like them, and seek out games with a stronger theme-mechanism integration. As a designer, I try to avoid using them in my own games. But they’re not “lazy” themes; their use is quite deliberate.