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Posts Tagged ‘card game’

I’ve been dabbling in game design again.  It’s just one of those things that I do to keep myself from stressing too much, and since this whole “being unemployed” is really stressful, well, I’ve been doing a lot of creative things to destress.  I suppose I could have played more games to get through my backlog, but creative pursuits just seem more wise in the long run, since there’s at least some potential to make some money to pay a portion of the bills.

That’s part of why I did the Tinker Gearcoin Kickstarter.  It turned out really well, so thank you, all of you, who were a part of the campaign!  Despite the pretty numbers that we posted there, it’s still not a career replacement stream of revenue, though, so I keep on creating.

EleChromaroundBack

Anyway, this Chromaround game may someday turn into a project that we put on Kickstarter, just to get them professionally printed on spiffy paper, complete with a nice box and shrink wrapping.  We may put them up on TheGameCrafter.com before that as well, like we did for the Tinker Deck prototypes, but the whole point of taking it to Kickstarter is to get a bulk deal going to leverage the economy of scale that we get from printing a large quantity of decks.

For the moment, though, we need to really put it through the wringer and playtest the game to make sure it’s ready for release.  I’ve ordered some sample decks from Artscow.com for testing here, and I may send some out to other interested parties.  We’re also offering this “print and play” version of the game (again, like we did for the Tinker Decks).  It’s technically based around color, so printing in black and white won’t give the full effect of the game, but I’ve tried to make it possible to work for colorblind players with the elemental logos.

Rules for the core game are below.  This is where we really would love some input, if you’re up for some experimentation.  These cards could be used for several different games, actually, especially if we make them hexagonal and have the outer gems sliced in half (so they could be placed side by side to create a whole gem, making for puzzles and position-based games), but for now we’re just looking to develop this one.  (The game is playable by 2 to 8 players, though there are special rules for two players.)  Words that are bold are key terms for the game.

Thank you everyone!

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Chromaround 1.0

Card Components

Each card has a Core (large colored gem) that consists of one or two colors, and a set of smaller outer Gems that indicate what colors of opponent Cores that card can defeat.  A dual color Core is considered to be both colors, and therefore may be defeated by any other card that could defeat either of its colors.  The grey “chips” around the perimeter are placeholders and do not affect either offense or defense.  Each color has an attendant elemental logo to help identification, especially for color blind players, but these logos do not have a direct impact on play in this game.

Goal

Players are trying to collect the most points.  Each trick you collect is worth one point.  (For a more complex game, score by counting the Cores that you collect in tricks that you win.  Single color Cores are worth one point, dual color Cores are worth two points.)  A trick consists of the stack of cards after every player has played a single card.  (Two cards per player if playing with two players.)  

A round is completed when all players have exhausted their hands.  A game may consist of one round or several, depending on how long you’d like to play.  We suggest letting each player be the dealer once (change the dealer each round) as a simple baseline.  Record your cumulative score after each round.  The player with the most points after all rounds is the winner.

Setup

For each round, shuffle all the cards and deal 5 cards to each player.  (10 for each if you’re playing with two players.)  ***This is an easy place to suggest variation.  Odd numbers of cards make scoring less likely to produce ties, and fewer cards make play faster and decisions easier.  Two player games tend to play better when each player can play two cards per trick.***

Set aside the rest of the deck.  The rest of the deck is only used during play in a two player game.

Basic Play Structure

The first player plays any card from their hand.  This is the lead card for the trick.  (If you are playing with two players, for each trick, flip over the top card of the deck as the lead card, then proceed as usual.)

Each player must then play a card from their hand (see below in Card Interaction for how this works), taking turns in sequence.  After every player has played one card (two if playing with two players), the owner of the top card on the stack takes all of the cards in the stack.  (This is a trick, which is relevant for one style of scoring.)

The player who took the trick starts the next one, playing the next lead card (or card after the lead card if playing with two players).

Once all players have played all their cards, it is the end of a round, and you should record your scores.

Card Interaction

When a player must play a card, they may play any card they have in hand.  If the card played can defeat the top card already in play on the stack, it is placed on top of the stack and becomes the new top card.  If the card played cannot defeat the existing top card, it must be placed somewhere under it (order does not matter), and the existing top card retains its position on top.  (Keep track of what you play, since the player who played the card that remains the top card at the end of the trick claims the cards in the stack.)

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And that should cover it.  It’s designed to be fairly simple and quick, at least before you start trying to plan a few plays ahead.

The big question we have is, well… is it fun?  Also, is it actually simple and quick?  Does it allow for any sort of strategies or interesting decisions, or is it so easy to play that there’s not much mental meat to it?  (That’s not enough to kill the game, but it could constrain its appeal to children learning colors and how to play card games… more of a gateway game rather than one to break out in more serious settings.)

We have two big structural questions beyond that, though.

One is about the cards and their Core-Gems system.  Presently, they are designed in two “paper rock scissors” triangles (primary colors clockwise and secondary colors counterclockwise) such that:

  • Blue always defeats Purple and Red
  • Red always defeats Orange and Yellow
  • Yellow always defeats Green and Blue
  • Purple always defeats Blue and Green
  • Green always defeats Yellow and Orange
  • Orange always defeats Red and Purple

This was a simple rule to allow for some element of memorization and planning, to see if it’s possible to force others to play into your longer term strategies.

It might prove more interesting to make the perimeter gems more varied by making the perimeter gems more arbitrary and not follow a pattern.  This would make planning almost impossible, but it may make for more varied and unpredictable play, for better or worse.  Would you like a more unpredictable set of outer gems on each card?  (This has considerations for alternate game rules as well, like card placement games, if we can get them made as hexagonal cards.)

Two, do the dual color Cores help or hinder the game?  There are some clear tiers of efficiency among color combinations, but dual color Cores might make the game too easy, meaning the last player in a trick is almost always going to be the one to win that trick, since most can defeat a wider array of other Cores, and each in turn can be defeated by a wider array of attackers.  The hope was to make the game more varied but still allow some planning, but they may not actually be performing that function.  They also make scoring more varied, with some more subtle decision making about when to play them, but maybe that effect is also not working, or is not interesting enough.

If the answer to the first question is “yes, make the perimeter gems more arbitrary and unpredictable” it would naturally affect the approach to the second question, as the cards could be balanced along different lines.  The dual color Cores are inherently a “more options on offense and more weaknesses on defense” sort of system, but they need not stay that way if the color defeat cycles are broken.

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Thank you everyone for your interest and feedback!  Comments here or via email to tishtoshtesh at gmail will be most appreciated.

I can’t help but feel that there’s something here, but the game really needs to be put through the paces to see.  I look forward to any opinions or data points you might offer!

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The deck is designed as a standard-ish 54 card deck.  That means you’ll print one of each of these and then three more copies of the simple single color Core cards (so there will be four copies of the single color Core cards and single copies of each of the dual color Core cards).  The backs are optional, of course.

ChromaroundPower ChromaroundSA1Pri ChromaroundSA1Sec ChromaroundSA2 ChromaroundSimple ChromaroundWeak ChromaroundBacks

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It’s been a great 2013, with our two Kickstarter projects doing well, thank you everyone!  We’re still shipping out the Tinker Decks and the Tinker Dice, but we’re also looking forward to what else we may be able to do.  To that end, we’d like to get some feedback from those of you who might be interested in what we’re plotting.  (And if you’re one of the kind souls who come here for my other assorted posts about gaming, game design, art and photography, I’ll do more of those, too.  I’ve been itching to do some “regular” blogging.  Lots of ideas rattling around here.  This Kickstarter stuff might just be static, sorry, but we’ll get some more signal in here, too.)

So, first and foremost, we’re planning a new campaign just for the Gearchips that we offered in the Tinker Deck campaign.  We do have a few leftovers, but there is some interest in more.

These Gearchips are poker chip sized, ready for play with the decks… or whatever else.  My kids just love playing with little metal gears, and they can serve well as tokens in a variety of games.  They are 39mm, so they can even stand in as wreck markers in WarMachine for 40mm base units or the like.  We’ll fire that up in the next month or so, since a lot of the groundwork is ready to go.  We need to run a campaign because we still have to make sure we have enough interest to get a “print run” of the coins.  We’re not yet far enough ahead of the curve to just go get more coins and hope the demand happens later.

Secondly, we’re planning a set of Gearchip-like game coins.  Specifically, they will be gear-edged coins, all built to mesh with each other, no matter which denomination.  They will have square holes in the center for use either as driver gears with a square axle, or to be able to turn freely on a round axle.  They can function in any game or situation that calls for coins or chips of different denominations (say, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy or Magic the Gathering), or as parts to a machine, albeit a simple, low powered one.  These won’t be highly hardened, tempered, true machine-ready gears, just toys.  Still, that’s enough to have fun with.

We have some questions on these, though.  What sort of metal finish?  How to simplify the sale of them in batches, while still allowing some customizability to allow for use in a variety of games and situations?  We’ve been very impressed with the Gearchip coins, and we want to see how we can riff on the idea.  If you’ve a moment, we’d love some answers to this survey or comments down below.  (For all the surveys, you can select more than one option if you wish.)

Third, we’re looking at producing another deck.  We had a lot of fun with the Tinker Deck, and have other ideas we’d like to experiment with, if it’s worth it.  We’re not at all sure that we’ll go with Bicycle as the printer again, though.  They do good work, no doubt, and they are really good people to work with, but the print run of 2500 or so decks is a significant monetary hurdle.  It’s not impossible, to be sure, but there are other options that we’re considering.  These, of course, don’t carry the brand name or the instant quality assurance and recognition, which can be a different sort of barrier.  If you’ve an opinion (or recommendation) on printers, please let us know.

Also, while we’re brainstorming, how about these options?

We’ve also considered making the Tinker pair of decks available in plastic, though that will definitely mean going with a different printer.  We’re not seriously looking at Kem custom cards, as their prices are prohibitive.  We’re looking at non-US printers for this (unless someone in the ‘States can compete).

Speaking of reprints, we did order some extras of the Tinker Dice, but if there’s enough demand, we may well do another campaign for those to get another batch going… though we’d spice it up a bit by offering new finishes.  We’d simplify the ordering scheme, though, since it was overly complex this last time.

We’re also seriously considering rebooting the initial, failed, plastic Tinker Dice campaign, though we acknowledge that metal dice just seem to fit the theme better… and are in some ways, just plain cooler.  Still, plastic dice have their charms, and are less likely to destroy your gaming table.  They would be less costly, too.

There’s also a temptation to do some sort of token set for wargaming… but we need to figure out the best approach for that.  Some of those templates are big, and might get prohibitively expensive to do in metal.

So thanks for chiming in, and for your support thus far!

…and we’ll get back to a game design post here in a little bit.  There’s this one on worldbuilding I’ve had in mind for a while now…

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I’m a gamer.  I define that as “a guy who plays games for fun”.  Some might define it as “I play video games for a living”, or “video games are my hobby” or “I simulate wars with little action figures and dice” or “my life is meaningless without video games” or even “I spend all my welfare check on slot machines”.  It’s a very fluid term.  For me, games are something I play in my few bits of free time, just one option among many ways to spend my time.  There are a lot of different reasons to play, though.

Sometimes I want to be intellectually challenged.  This is when I’ll play a Professor Layton game, Brain Age, Portal, Cogs or Safecracker… something in that vein.  I enjoy a mental workout and the joy that comes with figuring something out.

Sometimes I merely want to be entertained.  This is when I’ll play LEGO Batman with my kids, Arkham Asylum/City, Audiosurf, Rock of Ages, A World of Keflings, or World of Goo (or maybe an Uncharted if I had a PS3).

Sometimes I just want to mindlessly plow through bad guys and collect loot.  This is when I’ll play Torchlight, a DIKU MMO, Kingdom Hearts or even a JRPG like Chrono Trigger or a Final Fantasy.  (The bulk of which really does tend to be “grinding” and killing tons of baddies for cash and experience.)

Sometimes I want to explore and take screenshots.  I love WoW for this, but Allods Online, LOTRO, RIFT, Portal 2 and many others are great, too.  (This is one big problem I have with console gaming; I can’t take screenshots.  Yes, it’s possible, I just don’t have the tech.)

Sometimes I want to smash digital stuff.  This is when I’ll play Burnout Revenge or Boom Blox, TMNT 2: Turtles in Time or Super Dodgeball… or maybe fire up a fighting game like Soul Calibur, Super Smash Brothers or Marvel vs. Capcom 2, or even River City Ransom as a weird sort of hybrid game.

Sometimes I want grand adventure, and only a journey to Hyrule can scratch the itch.

Sometimes I want a great story with simple game elements, so I’ll dig into something quirky like Ghost Trick (a fantastic little game with a very well-wrought story) or a Phoenix Wright game, or fire up an old Sierra or LucasArts adventure game (currently playing through The Dig, then the Indiana Jones games).

Sometimes I really want to get creative and tinker, so The Incredible Machine or Minecraft are the best.

Sometimes I want a good card game, so I’ll play Magic the Gathering, the WoW TCG, Rook, Rage, SET, the Monopoly card game or even UNO.

Sometimes a board game is best, so I’ll play Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Chess, Mancala, or my new favorite, Blokus.

…and with all of these, there are at least dozens of other games that easily come to mind, but I’m trying to keep it somewhat concise.

There is some overlap, to be sure.  The Portal games are both mentally interesting and entertaining.  JRPGs sometimes have great stories too.  RockSteady’s Batman games are great for exploration, story and fun brawler combat.  Blokus is great for flexing puzzle thinking and having fun with my kids.

Still, even with this wide variety, sometimes I just want to play something I’ve played before, that I know I’m good at.  This is the “fuzzy slippers gaming” from the title.  It’s like that old dog-eared worn out copy of I, Jedi that I read every few years because it’s one of my favorite books.  Sometimes, I just want a familiar game to go play for a while, maybe because it’s about revisiting old, cherished memories that are tied to the game.  Maybe it’s because I won’t have to think too much.  Maybe it’s because I want to share the game with my kids.  There’s something valuable about a game that is worth playing again and again.

So, that Star Wars invocation isn’t an accident.  What of Star Wars: The Old Republic and the familiarity that it’s perhaps trying to invoke?  As Brian Green and others have noted, it’s largely “more of the same”, and can fill that niche of “familiar” for a lot of players.  I think there’s value in that, to be sure.  Not enough for me to pay anything more than $10 for an always-online game, and certainly not enough for me to pay a subscription for.  Also, there’s a distinction between gameplay and the game itself.  I’d happily accept a new Miles Edgeworth or Phoenix Wright game because of how they play; that scratches the “familiar” itch while still providing a new story to enjoy.  Ditto for a new Professor Layton.  Still… I’d get them on sale, simply because if I just wanted the nostalgia, I’d play the older game I already own for free.

Of course, sometimes there are other motivations.  I’d buy an English release of Seiken Densetsu 3 because I loved Secret of Mana and want to tell Square that SD3 is a worthy successor.  I’d buy a new Chrono game because they dropped the ball by stopping with Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger is incredible.  (It was the first game I wanted to make a direct sequel to, and even wrote up some design documents for it.)  Sometimes I do want to tell companies that their trendlines are good and to keep up the good work, though with a side order of “keep this trend, but keep experimenting around the edges”.  That can be a hard message to send sometimes.

All in all, though, I value innovation and new experiences.  That’s why I play a lot of different games instead of welding myself to a monogamous MMO.  (Even beside the annoyance I have with the subscription model.)  There’s value in familiarity, but if I have to keep paying for it, well… that’s usually something I’m not interested in doing.  Tangentially, this is a great article on Frozen Synapse and their business model; my favorite “single pay” model.

Ultimately, I have other games to scratch that itch for familiar gaming, so I’m not going to buy into a new game that does the same old things but asks a premium for it.

This is also why I strongly resist games that require me to be online to play.  I don’t trust that they will always be available, or that I’ll always have a usable internet connection.   If the idea is to make me want to go back to play the game, I need to be able to do that on a whim.  Similarly, this is why portable games are so great; the low overhead of the DS version of Chrono Trigger means I’ll play it more than my old SNES version or PS1 version, and I played those a lot.  The easier it is to just get in and play, the better, if you’re trying to get me to put your game in that “familiarity” slot.  Otherwise, I’m going elsewhere.

As for why this is important when I’m not a continuing stream of obvious revenue via a sub, well, I do occasionally buy DLC, and I do talk about and cheerlead for games that I love.  I strongly recommend Chrono Trigger, Minecraft, Frozen Synapse, X-Com, Professor Layton, Recettear, Ghost Trick, World of Goo, Cogs and a whole bunch of other great games.  Other people have purchased games I’ve recommended.  I’ve purchased games other people recommend.  If I didn’t have that positive experience with the games, then that free advertising goes away.  Maybe it’s hard to quantify that, but there’s value there, and trying to mine it with RealID shenanigans or subs will make it evaporate instantly.

The last thing I want when I go for familiar gaming, my mental Fuzzy Slippers of Comfort +5, is to be hit up for money or a need to login to a server.

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The Play This Thing article on Mythoria questions the value of games, specifically a video game that would work well as a physical game.

The notion of making money by selling real, tangible stuff is one that I’ve toyed with, and it’s interesting to see it noted elsewhere.  I still need to finish Alpha Hex‘s video game iteration, but I’ve long had ideas for making it a physical card game as well.  I printed up some cards to playtest it during design, and it proved to be very helpful… and it plays fairly well in tangible form.  I’d love to use the Game Crafter to sell a base Alpha Hex set and expansions if occasion permits, but leave the digital version free and open source (if they ever support hexagonal cards, I’ll jump on it).  I’ve even made card designs for both formats, and written some story and lore with an eye to making physical card-specific art, not unlike that MTG thing.  It might even be a “wheel within a wheel” for some other game designs I have in mind.

To me, having a physical game, ready to play if the digital world goes offline, is a valuable thing that I’m willing to pay for.  There’s a retro appeal to buying stuff with my money, instead of… digital, ephemeral… nonstuff.  (Especially when draconian DRM means the providers can deny me the privilege of playing at a whim.)

My wife and I have collected many board and card games, and many times, they are more fun to play than popping in another video game.  We don’t need electricity or a connection to the internet, just some light, a level surface and somewhere dry to play.  There are no patches, no permissions, no waiting for the Dungeon Finder to work its magic. That freedom can be good for the soul, even if it’s just a periodic thing, another tool in the toolbox of the larger world of “gaming”.

I’ve designed three board games and two card games in the last year or so, and I’d love to get them out there and make a bit of money from them.  There’s even a place for making one of my board games into a nice hardwood coffee table offering… even if it’s just something I do for Christmas gifts.  (Though it would be great if they were commercially viable.)

These video game things can be good fun, to be sure, but sometimes, it really is great to hold game cards in your hands, to move pieces on a board, and to play with people face to face, rather than through anonymous filters, monitors and cables.  It can even be instructive when trying to design games for the digital realm.  Offline games have been designed and played for thousands of years; there’s a lot of good data there to sift through with an eye to why games work.

Paper Dragon Games has a tangential take on things; their headline offering, Constellation, is a game that is designed to have a “board game” feel, but is entirely digital.  We can certainly automate setup and some mechanics digitally, making some game mechanics easier.  The digital version of Alpha Hex benefits from automated ownership tracking and attack resolution, for instance, and the XBox Live version of Settlers of Catan is far easier to set up than the board game.

It can be very useful to make a game digital… and it can be useful to go the other way, too.  It’s harder to pirate a card game, for one.  Sure, photocopiers work, and I’ve even offered a PDF version of Alpha Hex, but if the cards offered for sale are of sufficient quality and the game is good, there will still be a market for the “real thing”.  I probably won’t ever make a living purely on card game sales, but it’s worth offering the option to anyone interested in the game.

There is certainly room in the “game tent” for both digital and physical games, sometimes even different iterations of the same game, as with MTG.  When I look at monetizing my game design hobby, though, I can’t help but think that it might be a good outlet for me to take some of my game designs that could work in either format (or both!) and offer a physical version.  It’s one more way to break up the demand curve and reach out to different people.

Parallel product lines can also help build a brand, which can be useful for indies.  We even see things like the merchandising efforts of the Blizzard WoW team, what with the card game and the miniatures game.  They didn’t pan out to be as popular as their parent game, but they are solid offerings, and likely at least partially profitable for Blizzard.

Sometimes, it pays to make the game real.

…even if it’s only because you get to use house rules…

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What is a game, exactly?

There are a lot of different types of games, to be sure, but to my eye, the heart of what makes a game is the possibility of making choices.  Games are differentiated from passive entertainment like TV or film by allowing the end user to have some input that changes the experience.  Exactly how much control devs give to the player can vary wildly, but giving the user choices is important.  Of course, when you give the end user the ability to make choices, they may make mistakes.

I’ve come to believe that mistakes are what make a lot of games tick.  Part of this is the notion that experimentation and punishment-light mistakes are a significant part of how I define “play”.  Mistakes are part of learning, and if learning itself is fun, it’s usually because those mistakes aren’t backbreaking.  Take chances, get dirty, make mistakes!

I’ve been experimenting with board and card game design for a while now.  I’m close to having two more PDF games for download, like I presented Alpha Hex.  (I’d love it if I could make a bit of money on the side with these, but since I’m a rookie designer, I’d be pleased with feedback.)  Card and board games tend to be Player vs. Player, while video games tend to be Player vs. Environment.  Sure, there are the occasional cooperative PvE-like board games like Pandemic or Lord of the Rings, and there are many PvP video games like Street Fighter or Counter Strike, but I’m just talking in generalities.

The PvP in Tic-Tac-Toe is trivial.  The game can always be played to a draw with two sufficiently competent players.  (The level of competency is low, as well.)  PvP in Rock-Paper-Scissors is mechanically trivial, though there is a layer of “yomi” when it comes to the psychological games played between players.  PvP in Othello is a bit more mechanically involved, as well as strategically and tactically varied.  Go and Chess are a step further than that.

In most PvP scenarios, games between equally competent players tend to come down to mistakes.  Perfect execution in Tic-Tac-Toe means you always get a draw.  A player with better mastery of mind games will do better in Rock-Paper-Scissors.  Perfect execution of  a strategy in Go or Chess is a different thing, though, since the opponent has more opportunity to throw a wrench in the works.  More choices for each player tends to provide greater strategic and tactical depth, largely by giving players more opportunities to make mistakes.  Savvy players will capitalize on opponent mistakes while avoiding making any of their own.

In these more complex games, player choices tend to have multiple effects.  A knight in Chess, for example, can be used to “fork” an opponent, forcing them into choosing between two (or more!) pieces threatened by the knight.  If one of those pieces happens to be the king, the other piece must be sacrificed (or the knight captured).  In other words, players can use pieces that have multipronged influence to force decisions on opponents.  Force enough of those decisions without making too many yourself, and you can break an opponent.

To a lesser degree, that’s exactly how you can win Tic-Tac-Toe, by creating a choice for an opponent; block here or there… but if both are winning positions, the opponent cannot win since they don’t get two turns in a row.  Connect Four is a step beyond, extending the grid and allowing for more opportunity to force bad decisions.  Chess and Go do a similar thing, just with much more effective pieces and a tendency to need to think more than one or two moves ahead.  Greater piece and rule complexity allow for increased depth.

OK, so none of this is exactly rocket science.  It’s Game Design 101 kind of stuff.  This is just the sort of thing I find myself thinking about when I try to distill my own game designs.  I want to make games that are relatively simple to play, but with tactical or strategic depth, not unlike Go or Othello.  The game mechanics are simple enough, but thanks to large decision trees and yomi layers of move-countermove, tactics and strategy have plenty of room to breathe and develop.

On one hand, we have “games” like Candyland, where the entire game is decided by the initial state of the shuffled cards.  Players make no significant decisions, they just go through the motions.  The “game” is an exercise in foregone conclusions, and players are just seeing what will happen, their biggest decisions being when to turn over the inevitable card, or when to simply quit.  (OK, they could also choose to cheat, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at here.)

On another hand, we have “games” like Roulette, where the player makes two initial choices (what number to bet on and how much to bet), and random chance does the rest.  Slot machines are even worse.

These really aren’t games in my mind, but I’m not sure what to call them.  Still, people “play” them, and somehow derive fun.  Perhaps, like Avatar‘s popularity despite a weak “story”, the fun is derived from the window dressing and the experience.  Would a 3D holographic Candyland sell?  Perhaps it’s all about the payoff or the achievement, where the ends somehow determine that the means were fun.  Or maybe it’s all about the payoff, and the “game” is just something to suffer through.

On another hand, games like Rock-Paper-Scissors are all about the mind games.  David Sirlin’s Yomi card game digs even deeper into the yomi layers.  The actual conflict resolution is less about the very deterministic mechanics (Paper can never beat Scissors), and more about the player choices, especially since every player can choose rock, paper or scissors at any time.  These games can be very satisfying if you find fun in outguessing another player.

Tangentially, PvP in class-based MMOs tend in this direction, albeit more simplistically.  Rogues beat Mages who beat Warriors who beat Rogues.  There are some ways to alleviate this rigid dynamic (panic buttons like Ice Block for a Mage, Spell Reflection for a Warrior and so on), but for the most part, we’re back in RPS territory.  Pokemon is similar, just with an extended dependency/elemental heirarchy.

I tend to find this sort of rigid design less than satisfactory.  Sure, it might feel great to always beat on the class that you are inherently superior to, but it stinks to lose continually to a class inherently superior to yours.  This is one reason why I keep asking for more flexibility in MMO combat (BBB has a great article up on this philosophy), even allowing every player to shift to their own Rock, Paper or Scissors at any given moment.  To me, that’s more interesting game design, and far more satisfying to pull a victory out of, since it hinges on my choices in the moment, not an irrevocable class choice I made a long time ago.  I don’t like approaching a RPS game if I’m stuck being Scissors.

On yet another hand, there are the relatively simple two player games that tend to give one or the other player an advantage simply by the way they are designed.  Chess gives a slight edge to White, but a game like Y or Hex might have an even stronger advantage for the first player.  (Alpha Hex, strangely, gives a fairly strong advantage to the second player.  That’s the natural result of the capture-countercapture nature of the game.)  There are even games that, given perfect execution of a “determined” winning strategy, do not allow one of the players to win.  Ever.  Sometimes a draw isn’t even possible.

These games are where mistakes are especially important.  Perfect execution of an invincible strategy makes for a tedious “game” for the player who isn’t going to win.  The strategy-stealing argument suggests that the losing player cannot “steal” the winning strategy as long as the winner maintains the strategy.  The best they can hope for is a draw, if the game even allows that.  The game could effectively be declared finished when the initial turn order is decided; it’s all just going through the motions at that point.

Unless the winner-to-be makes a mistake.

This sort of strong bias for one player or the other can be a handicap mechanic for players of widely diverse skill levels, but it’s not much fun for players who both know the strategies and who can execute them perfectly.  That’s where a number of fudge factors come into play.

Increasing the opportunities to make mistakes by increasing the number of decisions to make is one way to fudge this bias.  That’s effectively how Chess evens the playing field.  Some games hide information, like Stratego, forcing players to make decisions with imperfect knowledge, effectively playing the odds and trying to outguess the opponent.  Many games use a random element, whether it’s shuffled cards, dice rolls, variable goals or even just each player holding cards only they can see (until played, anyway).  Whatever the case, these fudge factors allow mistakes (or force them!), thereby disrupting the formation of a perfect strategy.  The lack of perfect information is a benefit to these efforts to make the game more interesting by inviting mistakes.

Alpha Hex does give the second player an advantage (which messes with the psychology of gamers, since it’s usually the first player with an advantage), but the fudge factors of an unknown opponent hand (which cards they are holding, which may be magnified when you’re playing with random cards rather than sticking to a purely monoelemental deck)  and the ability to play any given card in six different orientations (more choices) help alleviate the bias. The optional elemental rule (especially if randomized) throws another variable into the mix.  The also-optional chain rule makes the game very swingy, but gives the opportunity to make up for past mistakes (or even lets players use fake “mistakes” to manipulate the opponent into making their own mistakes… more yomi gaming, there).

Also, the first player can control the pace of the game.  A timid player going first might start in the corner, but that gives the second player an advantage.  An aggressive player starting on an edge or in the middle will start in a cell that has an even number of cells around it, setting up a sort of “game within a game”.  (If the board were only ever 7 cells in a circular pattern, the first player playing in the middle would have a very strong advantage.  If the first player can manage to win this minigame before filling out the board’s other 5 cells, they can come closer to parity.)  Even so, the game tends to be decided in a few key points, rather than at any point in the match.  The first play is crucial, the 7-cell minigame is important (even if it means you build differently from the seven cell circle), and the transition from the 7-cell to the “endgame” can be a backbreaker.

This is why I’ve toyed with different board geometry, with more cells in different shapes.  I want to disrupt the formation of a perfect strategy, in an effort to make player choice crucial to the game.  I want to give the players more chances to make mistakes (and make correct decisions).  Alpha Hex isn’t a perfect game, but it’s been fun to design and to play.  I hope others have fun with it as well, and mistakes are a big part of that.  (So if you’re interested at all in a hex-based card game with shades of Triple Triad, please download the Alpha Hex Paper Beta!  I’d really appreciate some feedback on it, too.)

Mistakes are important in game design, too, which is why testing is such a huge component of polishing a game.  Mistakes can provide critical feedback, whether it’s for the player or the designer.  This is also why it’s important to learn from mistakes, rather than just blithely go on making the same ones over and over.  We are guaranteed to make mistakes, since we’re not omniscient.  We simply have to learn from them as we try to develop our own perfect strategy.  (Interestingly, it’s the designer’s job to prevent perfect strategies, at least with some games.)

That said, I’ll admit that if I do manage to devise a perfect strategy for a game, I almost immediately lose interest in it.  A solved puzzle just isn’t as much fun.  Likewise, “solved” PvP, if dominant or perfect strategies exist, just isn’t all that fun to play, at least not for me.  It’s just going through the motions, convincing myself that I’m having fun doing the same thing over and over.  The interesting part is that I get tired of it whether I’m winning or losing.

Perhaps variety really is the spice of life, and making mistakes is a part of that.  It’s certainly key to making a game interesting in my book.

It should be noted that I’m talking about mistakes that can be learned from, not a Random Number Generator forcing mechanical “mistakes”, thereby destroying any sense of control and progress.  It’s a crucial difference; I don’t mind mistakes that I make and learn from, but I can’t stand mistakes that the game makes then forces me to live with the consequences.  I love game design that makes all mistakes hinge on the player choices… because those are the ones I learn the most from and have the most fun playing.

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Alpha Hex proceeds in our spare time, but life being what it is, that spare time is a bit constrained.

Still, we would like to get the game out there for people to play with, both because we think it’s a fun game, and because we would like feedback.  To that end, this is the “core” game of Alpha Hex, free for printing and play.  (There are potentially several thousand card designs; this is a small selection of 36 to tinker with, with a board and rules.)  This is copyrighted material, but it’s free for personal use.

I’m no DRM proponent, so there’s no sneaky skullduggery afoot.  I’m just trusting that people will respect the work we’ve done here and try not to pass it off as their own.  Please check it out, play it, and give us feedback (the email and some sample questions are on the last page of the PDF file).  We’d also appreciate it if you would pass it on if you know someone who might appreciate it.  The more the merrier!

We do reserve the right to build on this, potentially making commercial products.  This Paper Beta will always be free, though, and the core digital version under development will be open source.  Please enjoy the free version of Alpha Hex!

Alpha Hex Paper Beta

(Of course, we wouldn’t complain if you did decide to send us big bags of cash because you like the game so much.  Small unmarked bills are best.  Non-U.S. currency welcome.)

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This is the distraction that I wrote about.  Howard Smith and Ryan Carper, formally known as Black Triangles, put out a call to the GameDev.net forums, looking for game designs for what they called a “40 hour game”.  I submitted my design for a two player card capture game, and after sifting through the other submissions, Howard and Ryan decided that my design was the one they wanted to work on for the project.  (I have no idea whether that means I’m the best of two, or two hundred, so bragging rights are limited.)  The official announcement of the project is at the bottom of that forum thread.

If you want to take a peek behind the curtain of game development, this is a great project.  The whole premise of the project was to provide a chance to flex our muscles in the game development world and demonstrate rapid development.  It’s a bit like running “ladders” on a football field; quick, explosive, decisive (where possible), and a bit of a blur.  It’s way more fun than running, though.

Ryan and Howard are engineers, I’m an artist with delusions of design competency, Kyle (actually Gabriel Jimenez) is another artist to bounce art and design ideas off of, and Jonathan Geer is the soundsmith.  We’re all volunteers on this project, stretching our skill set while trying to make a fun game.  The project will be developed open source, and we’ve maintained a fairly descriptive wiki for the project (which savvy stalkers can use to derive how I rather unsavvily derived my blog handle… but don’t tell the Channel Massive guys).

Of course, I wish this is the sort of thing that I could be making huge royalty checks with, but it’s been a blast to work on, and I’m hoping that the game itself will be  a lot of fun to play.  I made a paper and matboard mockup of it months ago, and that version is a lot of fun to play, so I’m hoping that carries through.  I also hope that it can serve as a good example of relatively rapid prototyping, which is something that can benefit a company who is interested in producing something other than vaporware.  With luck, it might even demonstrate that I actually do have at least a slight inkling of a clue when it comes to game design.  Y’know, for those who care.  (Thanks, Mom!)

So… without further ado, perhaps it’s best at this point to just say “go poke around the wiki” (but please don’t muck up the place).  I’m happy to answer any questions that might come up, but bloviating further on what happened and how cool the game is just isn’t going to serve the same purpose without you knowing at least a bit about what I speak.  And, to be fair, if you think the game stinks, well, I’d actually like to know why and how you’d fix it.  That’s sort of the point of this whole exercise.  Ditto if you think it’s cool.  It’s a bit late to be going in different directions for this particular project, but as it’s open source, it’s possible to tinker with the code and mold it a bit post-40.

I’m excited for the game to get to a working state, and to get people playing it.  There’s still a fair dose of art and a bit of design to do (UI, mostly), so I’ll still be busy.  It’s a good busy, and it’s fun working with these guys.

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