Post #Airecon Report/Interlude

I was going to write a designer diary here, thanking Bez for his competition inspiring me, but first I want to do a quick Airecon report, mainly consisting of telling you who you should be liking:

Mark of Wreck and Ruin game fame is an absolute star. Check out his game here:

It’s a post-apocalyptic dice chucker which loads of people love, and I urge you to check it out at the next big convention (UKGE I guess, but I’m sure he’ll be at others). Mark is a fantastically friendly guy who would love to talk to you about the game (or any game, including Top That!)
James Naylor, who’s game Magnate: The First City  I actually got to play, with terrible-at-rolling-dice Richard from We’re Not Wizards. It’s a city game which actually feels like you’re building a city. Not making a tableau of cards, not laying down tiles, not collecting sets, but building a city. It’s about time somebody finally nailed that, and James really has. Including the point where all the landowners sell off their buildings to foreign investors essentially scooping out all the profit and leaving a ghost town in its wake. It’s coming out on Kickstarter, so look out for it!
Ayden from Granda Games (half panda, half dragon) was there with Solar Storm, a beautiful co-op in which you have to escape man’s greatest enemy: the sun. I didn’t get to play this one unfortunately, but heard a load of good things from the people who had. If you like your co-ops thinky check this out (they’ll be at the UKGE this year, KS later this year).
Still some more shout outs to the denizens of Demo Alley: Keith from Coffee and Cardboard games: https://www.facebook.com/CardboardAndCoffee  ; Bez with his amazing Cat Wall, who is one of the greatest ambassadors of gaming, whether you’re a player or designer, https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgamepublisher/29655/stuff-bez. And Emma was their with Quirk!, a lovely looking family card game full of strange expressions and noises.
I was also lucky enough to be there as part of Playtest UK, and we playtested a whole bunch of games. If you’ve never playtested a game at a convention before I urge you to do so. It feels incredibly rewarding, and everything you play will have something unique about it. Not all of them will see release, some of them will be hugely flawed, but behind those flaws there’s almost always a spark worth discovering. Similarly, it’s a puzzle in itself to search out problems, try and break games, and suggest massive changes just to see what happens. For more info on playtesting, the website is here: http://www.playtest.co.uk/

Finally a massive thanks to all the reviewers/podcasters/bloggers who took the time to have a chat, and perhaps even stop and play Forks. I’m not going to go on about them, because I’ll just repeat myself, but they were all welcoming, easy to talk to and just great people. All of the following deserve a follow and a subscribe: We’re Not Wizards , Boardgame Opinions, The Game Shelf, Ross from More Games Please (who is an excellent Avalon liar it turns out). And a super thanks to Behind the Box: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC37TG_LOCXyCLr0kxzLrpuA who have done a lovely video showing Forks, and giving their thoughts on the game:

And another massive thanks to Unlucky Frog, who I just had a wonderful chat with on Sunday, and also talked about Forks in their Airecon podcast here: https://www.unluckyfrog.com/

I caught up with Peter from ITB, we chatted about Newspeak, and how thrilled we both are that it funded and will be in people’s hands next year. He also pointed out that will mean I’m a published games designer, which feels like a dream at this point.
Finally Forks got a load of plays. A load. If I wasn’t playtesting I was playing that (or a ridiculous game of Sidereal Confluence which we timed to the bell- thanks to https://herefordshireboardgamers.co.uk/ for joining in, and sorry I didn’t get to see your giant games the following day). Forks finally feels like a real game which is a real thing which is happening, and I couldn’t be happier with how it went. If you stopped to play, or even just take an interest in it, thank you.
As for the Con itself, Mark smashed it out the park again. More people than before, and one of the best atmospheres in any convention. Chock full of gaming, with anybody looking for a game finding one in minutes. Bring on 2020!

Stop getting Britain wrong!

I saw a game advertised yesterday, Walls of York, which prompted me to write this. But I want to emphasise, for all of this post I’m just talking about theme, not mechanics (but I will explain why it’s important).

I live in York. Love the city, probably one of the best places to live in the UK, or even the world. Steeped in culture and history, it’s a fascinating place, and would make a great thematic setting for a game. If anybody sets a game in York, I’ll be interested. So when I saw “The Walls of York” advertised I clicked through to see what it was about. I’m not an expert in the city walls, but I know they have a fascinating history (originally Roman, which were left to ruin when they left, palisades were built upon those foundations by the Vikings, and finally massive medieval walls were built on those foundations and beyond), and those walls you can walk around today, looking at the Bars (gates) and Gates (streets) with pubs (bars) on them. They’re ripe with thematic and mechanic possibilities, so someone making a game about them is a good thing, yes?

Well it should be, but I’m really disappointed with what Cranio Creations has done. Not mechanically, I haven’t played it so don’t want to comment on that, but thematically it’s really lazy. Watching the video I’m not sure if anybody involved has even been to York. Where are the rivers? The construction of the wall is lacking without the rivers, and the fact they damned the Foss to make the Kings Fishpool and changed the City is a lovely bit of history which would fit in. But nothing. And even worse, why are we walling out the Vikings? That bit makes no sense. The Romans didn’t wall against the Vikings, the Vikings certainly didn’t, and the famous medieval walls in the game, which really are ‘The Walls of York’ were constructed much later. It feels either lazy and ignorant, or jumping on the waning popularity of Vikings. In fact there’s nothing here which ties it to York at all. Could be the Walls of *insert literally any place*.

Some people are probably thinking this doesn’t matter, a game lives and dies on its mechanics but there’s a couple of reasons why I feel this matters. If a designer puts no effort into a theme, how much effort are they putting into the rest of the game? If they can’t even be bothered to do any research into where there game is set it doesn’t bode well for the effort put into the rest of the game. It’s not zero-sum. Effort in one reflects in the other.

As someone who knows and likes York, this lazy rewriting or ignorance of history put me off the game. You’re using the setting without delivering on the promise. I’d rather it had a fictional theme, than a butchered one.

And finally, I don’t want to have something which spreads ignorance, or doesn’t care about facts or history. If it’s not important to the designers, than don’t use it in your game. If it is important then get it right.

There are a couple of other games which just have a weird idea of Britain. Cornwall, a tile laying game in which you build Cornwall, has you placing all the mountains and swamps of Cornwall for points. Now as someone who spent just under 20 years in Cornwall, I’m not sure what Cornwall they’re thinking of. Trencrom Hill and Brown Willy do not a mountain range make. Again, just lazy and ignorant. Why not towans? Cornwall has them and other places don’t. Just a simple name and art change to actually make the theme sing. And the less said about Ticket To Ride UK not having York the better.

Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that these are nice places easy to visit. I can’t imagine how mangled some of the games about cultures and places further afield, designed by people who’ve only seen it in photos, must be.

So if you’re making a game set somewhere, please actually set it somewhere you know (Cornish Smugglers did this), or research it (see Feast for Odin for a fantastic almanac of research, or the upcoming Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr, in which Michael has told me they spent hundreds of hours researching the real life places and events which occur in the game). It’s just showing some respect to the consumers, showing them you actually care about all of the game.

Teaching Maths with Games

A bit of synchronicity the other day when I listened to a really interesting podcast (http://thespiel.net/node/1159 ) about teaching using games, and then immediately read a post on the Shut Up and Sit Down forums about using games to teach maths. Here I have some experience (about 10 years of teaching maths and an accredited PD Lead for maths teaching. Running chess and boardgames club (or both) throughout this time. Also some games experience, a lot playing, some designing. Not as much as teaching maths though). So rather than a blog post about pretty much nothing, here’s the best blog post I’ll do given it’s about something I actually know.

Read the mug
see?

So, what’s the key to using modern boardgames to teach maths?

 

To not do it.

A qualifier here: I’m specifically talking about maths. Games can definitely be used to help teach soft skills successfully, and I’m not an expert in other subjects. Indeed, listen to the podcast above to hear how games are used successfully in other parts of education. Secondly, there are some games I use for teaching, but these are in no way modern boardgames or even in the style. And there are some games I play which are in a modern boardgames style, but they don’t teach maths.

Why not? Well I’m speaking from experience here. These are some of the games I’ve tried to use to teach concepts:

  • A Puerto Rico style game about factory production to teach negative numbers.
  • A dividing up a cake game to teach fractions.
  • A worker placement game about dividing into a ratio for baking.
  • A tile laying game for polygons (names and angles).
  • An area control probability game.
  • A quarto variant with number properties

There are probably more. These games had varying levels of success with engagement, but consistent levels of success with learning: little to none. There were two reasons for this:

  1. they relied upon a level of procedural fluency which meant that the students were already confident with the topic, and whilst they were engaged with its application, there was no depth or stretch. These students were learning how to win the game, which was wholly irrelevant to the topic at hand.
  2. the games themselves were too complex. As a games designer I tried to make games which had interesting choices, but this is completely counter-productive when trying to teach. It introduced significant amounts of cognitive load, reducing the students ability to focus on what was really important: the maths. (For more information on cognitive load theory, start with Greg Ahsman’s blog here: https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/new-report-on-cognitive-load-theory-aimed-at-teachers/).

Now stepping back, it’s obvious from the outset that both those issues would occur. How could they not? If I’m playing a good game I’m focusing on winning that game, and I wanted to make good games for the students. But it was because I was chasing the elusive beast that is engagement. But as Professor Robert Coe argues here: http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf   engagement is a poor proxy for learning (aside: I love the title ‘A triumph of hope over experience’).

Engagement is easy to observe, and learning isn’t. So when I had lessons with a lot of engagement that the student’s loved I thought I’d succeeded. Clearly, as described, I was wrong.

I was wrong to use modern style boardgames to teach maths, but that doesn’t mean I don’t play games. But there are two different situations when I do this:

  1. Extremely simple luck based games to assess fluency or to draw out some deeper thinking.
  2. Interesting games used as a reward at the end of term. I don’t even pretend to myself that I’m teaching maths during these.

The extremely simple games are just as described. Games like Bingo, the decimal ladder game (ordering random decimals on a ladder), the Factors and Multiples game or even the Ten Ticks roll and move substitution:

 

These can be used to draw out students understanding with pertinent follow up questions (which square do you want to roll a low number on? On which square does it not matter what you roll?). But the key thing here is the games are simple. They don’t introduce cognitive overload and as a teacher I know what understanding I want the students to draw out from playing them.

The final one is spending an entire lesson playing a game. There are a few I’ve created (the Smoothy Game, which is a worker placement game with resource conversion; an Elf Game which uses simultaneous action selection on the iPad; and a variant of Masters of Commerce for a class of 32). These all go down incredibly well, enjoyed by all students and I even have fun running them. But they’re not about teaching maths, they’re just about having fun playing games.

All of which isn’t particularly nice. As a gaming maths teacher it feels as though there should be a game which can be used to teach maths whilst also being a great game. But then perhaps if there were all we’d end up doing is putting kids off playing games, rather than enticing them into learning maths.

“Why are you doing it?”

It feels like a long time since I posted here, and I guess a month is long (work and games. Playing lots of games), but I got asked this question the other day about why I design games. A fair question, it’s not like I’m launching onto kickstarter will an ill-thought out clone for $$$, so it’s not for money. It’s also not for praise- although don’t get me wrong, sometimes praise sustains me. Hearing playtesters and publishers say your game is exciting, or puzzles are some of the best they have seen, or witnessing professional critics enjoy your design is a phenomenal feeling, a high I could ride for days. But that’s not why I do it, it would be odd if it were- the praise follows the design, the design doesn’t chase after it.

It’s an intrinsic motivation. I simply find the practice of designing a game enjoyable. Designing a game is akin to solving a puzzle which you also set up. Of course it gets harder the further in you go, and sometimes you end up with a puzzle that can’t be solved, a game that’s just not fun no matter what. Sometimes a thought will get stuck in my head (a 4X game based upon Alpha Centauri *cough cough* ) which I feel compelled to work on to the detriment of everything else, which I’ll accept is an unusual proclivity, but I’m useless at working on anything else when I’ve got that bug. So that’s it. I do it because I enjoy it, and like all things worth doing, as it gets harder it also gets more rewarding. In fact, I don’t understand why people don’t design games. Now you may be thinking this is a completely obvious point, but it does make me question why I get asked it.

In other news, had a fantastic playtesting session earlier this week, looking forward to doing it again in a fortnights time (if anybody is in the Yorkshire area come along- super cheap pub prices as a sweetener). Shout out to all playtesters everywhere- you are great.

The Shorter Variant

I played two games last weekend which had an alternative time length variants- Civ: A New Dawn, and Lords of Xidit. Whilst I really enjoyed both of them, the optional time changing variants seemed odd to me. I’ve written about pace for a while now, the length of time a game takes is more important than just being how much time until the next game. It changes everything about how the game feels. That both the games have a time altering variant in the box is odd enough, that one is shorter and the other longer is more unusual still.

With Civ we played the normal variant. It’s a really efficient Civ game, and although the first time you play you perhaps miss a little something in the efficiency of it all, that’s a better feeling than one of the game dragging out. In fact, because of it’s brevity we managed two games in one sitting, something which would be unheard of with Nations, Through the Ages, or even the original Civs. It’s a streamlined game and knows it’s a streamlined game, even if the board felt a little too big (going to try with only a couple of pieces in the middle next time). So the optional ‘epic’ variant is a bit baffling to me- it’s the same game, but played a little bit longer. Whilst I’d be happy with some expansions which add to the experience, the thought of just playing longer doesn’t appeal to me- the elegance doesn’t do to be drawn out.

Lords of Xidit, by contrast, comes with a shorter variant. Now that’s usually a red flag screaming ‘the first time you play this game it will take 7 hours’ and it was our first game so we opted for the shorter variant. Probably a mistake. The game was quick, incredibly quick, by the time I figured out what I was doing there were only a couple of turns left. Whilst I feel I experienced the game, and could tell I enjoyed it, I didn’t experience the game the designers had intended. Rushed through 3 fewer rounds may not sound like much, but the tempo was much quicker and there was less time for strategic play. Essentially it became a semi chaotic mad dash for points, no matter where they came from. It left me wanting more, but I hadn’t felt I’d actually played the game proper, more a demo version. Really didn’t think the shorter version was necessary here.

 

That said, I’m still sticking to the shorter variants when I first play a game. Both Le Havre & Dominant Species play differently without them, but I’d never have got them to the table for the first time without that introductory game in there.

Shorter version of this: designers have faith in the length of your game and refrain as much as possible from putting in a longer or shorter version unless it’s a 4 hour epic you’ve baited with a 2 hour variant.

Monotremes! Cardboard! Pins! Betrayal! Letters! Codes! All in the tune of the post-Expo Blues.

I’m pouring my brain out from the recent Expo so I don’t forget and to help me move on. Hi everyone, what an Expo. Seriously, what an Expo. If you were there and you came to the SUASD stand on Friday you probably even met me, I was the one who wasn’t one of the famous ones you wanted to see (unless you were picking up Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, in which case enjoy it!) and I probably sold you some pins. That was my Friday, and it was brilliant.

Oh and I bought Wibbell++ from Stuff By Bez, actually from Bez as he passed the stall, and it’s great fun. Wibbell++ is really just a really cleverly thought out card system for playing all sorts of games. Each card has one of the more popular letters at the top, and a less popular letter at the bottom, meaning you’re never really stuck with a shoddy hand of letters, and the possibilities spiral out. We played Wibbell and Phrasell, but we’re already coming up with new ways to play. Definitely a recommendation.

Saturday! Some more pin selling and then I got to play Lifeform from Hall or Nothing productions, with SUASD. I had a great time, not because of the game (although that sounds too dismissive, it appeared fun, but with so much overhead by the time the designer had finished teaching it we only got to play a few rounds. Also everyone wanted to be the cat), but because I got to play a pre-release game with SUASD. Woop woop! Then it was straight over to enter the Tinkerbot Games Arts and Crafts competition and playtesting From The Ground Up.

 

As always the playtesting was time well spent, but unfortunately during a discussion with Foxmind games the vening before, I’d already decided upon a few changes I wanted to make, and playtesting with the non-current setup always feels worse. However, I still got a lot out of it, and the people playtesting all had a great time and gave valuable feedback, so thanks to them and to the volunteers and Rob Harris for making it possible.

Whizzed off early because SUASD were going to play NewSpeak, but due to timings that didn’t happen. Instead I had a rest and caught their show, played a couple of games of Kingdomino (perfect filler gaming. Still waiting to see if I need Queendomino at this point). Then off for an incredible evening- drinking with SUASD listening to Martin Wallace tell anecdotes, none of which I can repeat, followed by meeting the Heavy Cardboard group- incredibly friendly, I hadn’t heard their podcast before and now I subscribe, they are just that nice- and getting them all to play NewSpeak. My weekend was made when Quinn said he was having fun then. Poor Matt though, Paul and Jess broke him through simplistic codes.

Sunday! The first day I really had to play games and not shill various things! The games were:

Echidna Shuffle. We all know echidnas and platypuses are the only two monotremes (egg laying mammals) on earth, but what you may not have known is that Echidna Shuffle from Wattsalpoag is a lovely family game with satisfyingly chunky echidnas. Players move echidnas out of the way trying to eat bugs, and the whole thing plays like a competietive car park exit simulator but cuter. Unfortunately Wattsalpoag have a habit of selling everything at the UKGames Expo for ridiculously cheap, and they’d sold out by the time I could play (the perils of Sunday gaming).

Also played House of Danger. Imagine an old school Fighting Fantasy gamebook, but all the pages have been torn out and shrunk into cards, and instead of writing down equipment and status you have cards and markers. Now you’re imagining House of Danger. I had fun, I really did, but I’d honestly balk at the price point given when I asked, considering the best FF gamebook of all time, House of Hell, can be bought for pennies from most charity shops in the country (I would also accept Creature of Havoc, or Legend of the Shadow Warriors (side side note, I’ve just googled these and they appear to have gone up in price massively, maybe the suggested price of this game isn’t too bad)).

Finally it was the Tinkerbot competition. If you were the guy with the bee box then congratulations, and we were the people behind you who kepton shouting ‘Betrayal!’ everytime you put something on it and opened it. That shouldn’t have kept us as entertained as it did. To the lad with the safe cracking game- you were robbed, no pun intended. As for me, I was really happy with my entry. Really happy. It’s something I’m definitely going to work on and take as far as it will go. As for entering another one of these? Not for me. Luckily my game took about as much time to explain as it did to create, but I really felt for some of the groups who had spent ages making stuff, but for naught. If you do enter next year my advice would be to make the gosh darned best arts and crafts project you ever did make, and use all packaging materials for decoration. And then write down some game thoughts.

Other stuff- my mates played Ghostel and really enjoyed it, so that’s one to watch, but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance. Holding On- the Life of Billy Ker, was vetoed by one of our group on account of theme, but I managed to sit awkwardly close to Michael Fox when he was running a game and vicariously feel part of the experience. I can understand people’s personal reluctance given the theme though. And the designer speed dating was really good fun. Useful no matter what, but as always fingers crossed. And I late pledged Chronicles of Crime after seeing it in action. No Regrets!

UK Games Expo for designers

This started more as a to do list for myself, but figured it’d probably be worth blogging about. So after the last post about (possible) great games at the Expo, here’s some stuff for designers to check out/ do:

Playtest! Playtesting your game is always the most important yet often most troublesome thing to do. Playtest UK will have tables and signup forms. This is a really valuable opportunity for all designers- get your games in front of people and find out what they really think. Better still, those nice volunteers will find people to play your game for you, and everybody understands it’s prototype time. Obviously, after (or before) having your game playtested, try and playtest someone else’s!

http://playtest.co.uk/

In addition, Playtest UK are running the Speed Dating, Networking and Wyvern’s Lair events. Whilst the dating and lair are way (way) too late to enter, you might still be able to join the networking event. Most designers will want to pitch to publishers, but not whilst they’re trying ot market their own games. The networking event (and the speed dating obviously) are the perfect times for this).

Seminar’s. Here’s the design seminar timetable from the Expo’s website itself:

There’s a lot of great information and advice there, being doled out for free. Obviously you can’t make everything, but I always find it worth going to one or two seminars and talks.

Tinkerbot Hackathon (2-T8). Sounds fun. If you’re one of the 10 who manage to make it, good luck! The redesign contests in the past were really popular, so I predict a queue for this. Will probably be proved emphatically wrong now.

Manufacturers, distributors and artists on the floor. Thinking of going down self-publishing and/ or kickstarter? These people are the ones you need to speak to. I’ve made a quick list here of just the manufacturers and distributors (no judgements, just c&p from the expo programme), but if you are self publishing you will need good art. Don’t neglect it:

  • Burley Games 1-A4
  • Spiral Galaxy Games 1-J6
  • Gamesquest 1-H16
  • Grand Prix International 1-K20
  • Fabryka Kart 1-E18
  • BoardGamesMaker.com 1-M1
  • Gibsons 1-B20

(there are probably others I’ve missed- Wingo have tweeted about being there, but I can’t find them on the list for example)

Let me know if there’s anything else I’ve missed, and I hope this expo is a fruitful one!

UK Games Expo 2018 preview- a few new things which stand out…

It’s the UKGames Expo 2018 soon, and as always this time of year I can’t wait. It’s the oasis of calm within exam season, and by oasis of calm I mean even more frenetic bargain hunting, demo playing run-around-as-many-stalls-as-you-can chaos. Love it. This year I’ve actually looked ahead to avoid the headless chicken approach, and thanks to this geeklist on BGG:  https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/240841/uk-games-expo-2018 I’ve found a number of things which interest me.

So, in no particular order!

Chocolate Factory!

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/240567/chocolate-factory

As much as I like chocolate, theme wouldn’t swing me to a game, but this apparently has “a physical conveyer belt mechanic and wooden chocolate pieces! Although still at an early stage of graphical and art development, the game is a great blend of physical tactile pieces and euro mechanics.” I love the idea of a conveyor belt style logistics game with tactile pieces, so I’m intrigued to see what this is all about.

 

Escape Tales: The Awakening

I’m a sucker for escape room games, and I’ve been saying (and prototyping) for a while that Escape Room games shouldn’t mean no theme or story, but in fact should be smashing them. Again, only heard of this from the publisher, but I want to see what they’ve got.

 

Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/245444/holding-troubled-life-billy-kerr

“All you know is this: His name is Billy Kerr, he’s 60, and he was admitted to your hospital following a massive heart attack on a flight from Sydney, Australia. Doctors give Billy days to live, but he’s hanging on as if he can’t, or won’t, let go.

Piece together Billy’s troubled past to finally reveal the three hidden memories that keep him holding on. Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a co-operative worker placement game featuring a compelling storyline that will be revealed as you play time and time again, but also allows players to replay all previous scenarios to learn more and improve upon past attempts.”

Really excited about this, a worker placement story game lives and dies by its story, but I have faith here. Not only that, but it sounds so refreshing, and I’d love to see boardgaming story telling mature into non-traditional realms. Super excited to play this.

 

Newspeak

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/221298/newspeak

“Newspeak is a tense game of dystopian subversion in which you take the role of either the ‘dissidents’ or the ‘moderators’ in a mind-bending battle of wits to determine the reality around you.

Will you challenge the status quo and shatter your fragile reality or seek to protect the safety of what you know?”

Apologies for the shilling, but if you haven’t had a chance to play this yet you’ll be able to at the Expo! Fantastic new setups to help ease players into it at a gentler pace, come along and give it a crack. Code making and breaking with hilarity and some really beautiful artwork.

 

Chronicles of Crime

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/239188/chronicles-crime

I purposefully didn’t join the Kickstarter for this, which was difficult because I love the idea so much- a detective game with so much replayability without needing new cases. However, I wanted to try it out first, to see if I would find the QR scanning annoying. This is my chance to probably regret not backing that Kickstarter in the first place.

 

Stuff by Bez

No particular game here, but if you haven’t encountered Bez and played any of his card games I encourage it. I understand he’s drawing cats now, although I have no idea what’s actually going on there.

 

A couple of other things- apparently there’s a big box of Agricola All Creatures Big and Small, which I love, but one of the reasons I love it is because of the small box so that’s out. And I’ll be there playtesting, and also manning the Shut Up and Sit Down stand somehow. More of that nearer the show!

So let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed, especially anything new, that scratches a different itch.

Keeping Turns On Point

At the moment I’m talking about pace in games. Last post was about making sure there’s not massive gaps and doing whatever we can to reduce the game killer- downtime. Today I want to write about something else- the structure of a player’s turn.

The structure of a player’s turn has a massive impact on the pace of a game. If you’ve ever played a game where someone has sat around not knowing if it’s there turn, that’s a pace issue caused by either a lack of structure to a turn (or player’s not paying enough attention). I know from playtesting some of my old designs, if a player could do too many things during their turn, or rounds weren’t structured enough, the game can dissolve quite rapidly. Some of the causes are: excessive admin during a turn, being able to do multiple things in any order; & spending resources/ action points to do an action, but also being able to do multiple additional actions on top, or stockpiling resources to have an exceedingly long turn when they choose. Now unfortunately I don’t want to turn this into a slagging blog where I criticise other games, so I guess I’m talking in abstracts here when highlighting the bad, but hopefully I can illustrate excellent turn structures in (non-simultaneous play) games.

The ‘you can only do one thing’ turn. In so many superb games. Agricola- place one person and do the action, Splendour- either take some tokens, a card, or buy a card, and so on and so forth. A quick an easy Euro mechanism to make sure everyone can stay on point. You’ll know it’s your turn because the player next to you has just had there’s. The structure will game the game progressing smoothly, provided no AP, and makes it simple for people to see what’s happening.

The ‘you do these things in this order’ structure. Think any game which comes with a list of instructions for players to follow, such as Cosmic Encounter or Good Cop, Bad Cop. Or even the finality of buying a card in Dominion. Clearly less intuitive the first time then just giving players one thing to do, but with a clear list and order to follow, players can understand the flow of a game, and get to the point where it’s not needed. In Dominion the importance of buying a card is emphasised through it’s place in the turn structure- everything you do is to build up to this action. The changing of the aim in Good Cop, Bad Cop, is cleverly placed at the end of the turn, catching out most new players who want to change and then shoot, but that delay gives the game a lot of its tension. Not only does clever turn structure elegantly draw attention wherever the designer wants it, but a final full stop to a turn lets other players know the turn is finished without having to announce it to the table.

In 3 Districts* I have tried to follow the second of these structures. I’m toying with the idea of only allowing players one action, but even with that restriction there still needs to be a ‘tax’ phase at the beginning of every turn. But the turn structure is written on the player mats and allows for clear progression from player to player.

*thinking of changing the name to ‘From the Ground Up’, which I’m growing fonder and fonder of.

You can always go…

Downtime.

(AKA Maintaining the Pace pt 2)

In my last post (before I lost the internet for over a week. What a calamity!) I talked about why pace is so important, and that I’d revisit the three things I consider key to maintaining a good pace. So here’s the first one from the list: Downtime (as well as some stuff about 3 Districts because that’s what’s compelling me to write all this stuff).

Downtime is, at best, an unfortunate necessity in a lot of games. If there’s meaningful choice there has to be meaningful time to consider the options. But there are things games can do to alleviate the downtime.

  • No cards filled with text. If most cards have an array of new rules, conditions, events etc, then every time a card is drawn the game comes to a halt whilst people work out what it means. If the mechanics are too complex to describe with symbols or a few words, then question whether they’re worth disrupting play for. It may be the case that some exciting cards are needed to make the game what it is- but make sure when playtesting that you measure the downtime induced by these cards, and always look for ways to streamline their explanation.
  • Keep player’s turns as short yet meaningful as possible. A players’ turn should never consist of just boring admin, there should always be a decision to make. But if there are several then split them up, interleaving each player’s actions. Better to wait 3 minutes to make a 1 minute move, than 15 to make a 5 minute move.
  • Ensure the players are involved on other player’s turns. Even if you love solitaire Euros, there’s still some element of interactivity (I hope). The more there is, even if it’s passive, the more engaged players will feel on other players turns.
Some icons designed by Mike Brown on BGG for prototypes of 3 Districts.

In 3 Districts I’ve worked hard to get the amount of new information on cards down to a minimum. There are a few which are still worded- special cases which only occur once, and iconography would be overkill. The card effects have become simpler, but are no worse for it. The game now moves a lot faster and is much more fun, as well as being better balanced. Is there room for more complex cards? Probably, but only a few, no more. As for the other two points, the game is definitely interactive, people visiting you can be advantageous or disadvantageous, and your city stays open for everyone else’s turn. And the turns are short and sweet, yet meaningful.

As always, let me know any thoughts or even just rant about the plain wrong things I’ve said. Next time: the other things I said on the list.