A Short Defense of Negative Feedback Loops

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I. Update

I’m still working on that tabletop game I keep talking about. Soon I’ll have a web link for you, and then (hopefully!) a Kickstarter project page.

Until then, I’m dumping some design journal thoughts here.

II. Negative Feedback Loops

I love negative feedback loops. I want every player to feel the other players nipping at their heels. It makes the game more exciting for me and hopefully for the other players.

The trade-off is that negative feedback loops seem to punish thoughtful players. A game without many negative feedback loops (ala a classic Euro worker placement game) lets players plan well, place their pieces, and reap rewards that increase over time. A player who made bad choices early on has no chance of winning.

I say “seem to” because I argue that a negative feedback loop should be considered in a thoughtful player’s strategy.

III. Consider the Loop

Just as the thoughtful player in our hypothetical Euro game has taken into account resource management, board layout, worker placement, etc. s/he SHOULD be taking into account negative feedback loops that may come into play throughout the game.

If the player does not take these things into account, I have no sympathy for them. I’m not suggesting they have no right to dislike the game, but I do think that negative feedback loops are no less a strategic element than others in a game, and thoughtful players should take them into account.

Violence in games

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I’m still working away on this tabletop game. Its theme is morphing, and its mechanics are streamlining, but one thing that keeps bugging me is that the game has a violent component.

As someone coming out of a pacifist tradition, I find this hard to reconcile. I want to tell a good story, one with conflict and emotional intensity; that’s one thing that games, particularly games involving violence, are good at. But I also don’t want to be complicit in the cultural myth that violence is the only path to excitement, conflict, conflict resolution, etc.

In the game itself, this is still an open question. I haven’t been able to work the violent aspect out of it entirely, and I’m not sure that I want to. I’m working on mechanics and situations that allow for a violent resolution, but ensure that the violent resolution is, more often than not, the most costly and least strategically useful option. For now I’m OK with that.

As I grappled with this, I stumbled across this piece on Board Game Geek: https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/36087/morality-war-games

While the writer here is arguing about a slightly different issue, it was encouraging to see someone else in the game-making and -playing community take such an honest look at these things that so many gamers are willing to gloss over.

Stability As a Design Element in Tabletop Games

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I’ve been designing a pirate-themed board game. I have mixed feelings about it (do we really need another pirate-themed board game? Do we really need another semi-simulationist game with a combat mechanic?), but it’s in my craw, so I’m going to work it out by making the game.

The basics are this: The board is not a board, but a bunch of tiles, played face-down as players’ ships move off the edges of the board (ala Betrayal At The House on the Hill). Players can then turn tiles over to search for islands, treasures, other ships, sea encounters, etc.

Making this game has made me realize why so many tabletop games have boards: Boards create stability. In-game text in this game cannot reference set points on the board, because the landmarks (or in the case, sea-marks, I guess) appear in a different place and at a different time each game.

Thus, the stability of the game needs to come from other sources — in this case, primarily numerical distances from the central island, which is visible and placed at the start of the game.

I tend to like tile-placement games; games with less stability than a more “standard” board game. I like the replayabilty and the surprise element that comes from starting with almost nothing on the table at the game’s beginning. The question I ran into while making the pirate game was “How to provide enough stability for the game to run itself without a board?” One easy answer is to assign one player to be the “Dungeon Master,” as in Dungeons & Dragons. This, however, removes a player from play, and requires one player to commit more time and energy to the game. This also breaks some of my unduly idealist notions about games as a self-contained set of rules and items.

I’ll list a few methods of providing game stability below, but mostly as a record for myself, as I may expand on this post later.

Board Games: The board provides stability. No matter what happens as the game plays out, the board is not affected (or affected in small ways) by players’ actions.

Tabletop RPGs (ala D&D): The Dungeon Master or similar entity provides stability by narrating, moderating, and maintaining the situations that occur on the table. This solution, however, eliminates a player, as discussed above.

Betrayal At The House on the Hill: Stability comes from the Event cards, which are fairly text heavy, and allow players to have adventures in the haunted house regardless of how that house is laid out. Most tiles have an Event occurrence, and while the nature of the event is unpredictable, the frequency of events is fairly common.

Carcassone: One of the more elegant instances of non-board stability (at least in the main game — the expansions get a little messier). The stability is supplied by the matching rules: tiles must be laid with like features touching like features, creating a predictable pattern for how the “board” develops as the game plays on.

Ingress: Hate The Player, Not The Game

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The writers of “Pervasive Games: Theory and Design: Experiences on the Boundary Between Life and Play” write in their introduction that “playfulness is seeping into the ordinary. Everyday life is becoming interlaced with games.”

This post isn’t going to sum up what a pervasive game is and is not, though it will seek to expand that term, so some familiarity with the notion of pervasive games is assumed. Check out the book’s site to learn more about pervasive games.

I. What Is Ingress?

Ingress is a smartphone game from Google’s Niantic Labs. Players download the app, which uses location information to place the player onto a map of the area. Players join one of two factions, competing to control “portals,” set by players at points of interest (ie, a mural, a statue, a famous building), and by linking those portals. The players can only act on portals within a 50m radius, so the game motivates exploration of the local area.

Ingress is a textbook pervasive game: It uses the extant world, represented by maps and interpreted by players’ selections of points of interest, as the backdrop for a game. While playing Ingress, you are both in the real world and in the game world.

This aggressive liminality is the status-quo for pervasive games — the examples cited in “Pervasive Games: Theory and Design” all explore “the boundary between life and play,” as the subtitle puts it.

But Ingress is also pervasive in another dimension: Time.

II. Time Pervasive & Endless

The notion of games that are what I call “Time Pervasive” is not new or even that exciting. Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, for example, do not stop when one player stops playing. The game-time runs on, whether the player is playing or not.

For a player of this sort of game, when to play is not merely motivated by desire and circumstances (as, for example, playing a board game is), but by the realization that absence from the game is an in-game decision. That is, choosing not to play the game will have in-game ramifications.

Additionally, games like WoW and Ingress do not end. Unlike a console video game, which has an arc and can be “beaten,” regardless of multiplayer modes that give the game legs beyond its primary arc, the story (if any) in a game like Ingress is endless. There is no victory condition. Both factions will continue battling over portals until… Google alters the format of the game? Smartphones are eclipsed by another technology? The apocalypse occurs?

WoW is ten years old, and spawning competitors and spinoffs every year, so the idea of a game being both time-pervasive and endless is not new, even if the use of the term “time-pervasive” is (and some brief googling suggests that it).

III. Space-Pervasive & Time-Pervasive

Ingress is interesting in that it is both space- and time-pervasive. It is certainly not the first game to combine these traits, but it is the first one that I have played, and it may be the most popular of the group.

As noted earlier, pervasive games (or, as I’ll call them going forward, to differentiate, space-pervasive games) blur the boundary between the physical, “real,” world and the game world by mapping meaning onto real-world places. For example, a mural in my neighborhood was not just a mural, but a portal, which I had to fight to control when I was in the Ingress game-world.

By adding a time-pervasive element, Ingress pins the game not only onto the map, but onto the clock. Game strategy in Ingress takes into account real-world schedules and actions (ie, during rush hour, I need to make sure my portal near the bus stop is well-guarded).

This synergy is useful to the game, and unusual, as far as I know. Most space-pervasive games tend to be on an “event” model: The players arrive, the game begins, the game ends.

Ingress is made more interesting by the fact that it is always on — new players are entering and leaving the space and time continua of the game. I went on vacation and found that my neighborhood had been overtaken by the enemy faction. My playing of the game had not changed from the perspective of my own input (while on vacation, I captured enemy portals, etc.), but because of the game’s pervasiveness in time and space, my physical presence at the appropriate time(s) made an impact in my gameplay.

IV. Endless & Space-Pervasive & Time-Pervasive: Ingress’s Undoing?

I really enjoyed playing Ingress, but ultimately, I stopped. The game’s endless quality made it begin to feel like work — and not quite the same kind of work as “grinding” (performing easy in-game tasks in order to level up).

Rather, the game, in part because of its space- and time-pervasive-ness, became a chore. On my way to the train, I checked all the portals in my neighborhood, restored links that had been destroyed, shored up shields where necessary. The conflict only occurred when I left my routine routes.

Perhaps this is the game’s intent: to motivate breaking of routines. This is often a goal in (space-)pervasive games, and it is an admirable one (see my post on Journey to the End of the Night). But for me, at least, the game’s time-pervasive nature undermined it. I knew that if I wasn’t maintaining my neighborhood, it would fall to the enemy. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend every waking moment playing Ingress, so when I broke my routine, I didn’t boot up the game. I only played when I was in my familiar areas. As such, the game became boring.

V. Ways of Playing 

Ultimately, I think my boredom with Ingress was my fault, not Ingress’s. The game is well-designed enough, motivating engagement with real-world objects and creating opportunities for conflict between the teams (notably, it is easier to destroy a portal than it is to control it).

The problems I had with Ingress were mostly with the ways I chose to play it — not deviant ways, ways designed to break its rule structure, but in a fairly mundane way. This undid one of the game’s central attractions: Exploration of new parts of the city. By playing in this fashion, I only undid my own play experience.

Ultimately, the experience of playing Ingress confirms my dislike for digital gaming (even when it cleverly interacts with the real world) and pushes me towards a more active engagement with analog gaming.

Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

 

Skeuomorphism and Demographics in “Star Wars: Assault Team”

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I. A Digital Deck-Builder?

The impetus for this post game from the strange occurrence of my playing of a digital game. Unlike many game thinkers and writers, I have never been very attracted to playing video games. I will as a social thing of course, and I’ve tried one or two big-title games, but I don’t own a game console, and haven’t ever bothered to soup up my PC enough to run serious computer games. The last video game I played with any intensity at all was Roller Coaster Tycoon. I was 11.

But I was browsing the app store and noticed in the headline bar, a Star Wars title. I love Star Wars, so I tapped, and found the game described as a “deck builder.”

This intrigued me. Deck building is fundamentally a real-world, analog pursuit. You build a deck, and the bigger and better that deck is, the better you do in the game. Think of games like “Dominion,” or “Magic: The Gathering.”

I was intrigued enough to download the (free) game and play it for a while.

II. What is Skeuomorphism?

A brief term check: Skeuomorphism is a design term for the decorative repurposing of that which was once functional. For example, the Apple watch has hands and a face. It doesn’t need those things to function, but having them reminds us that Apple is entering their product into the line of things called “watches.” Car hub caps sometimes have spokes. They do not need spokes as wagons once did, but they remind us of wagons, and bring up the relevant cultural associations.

The connection here is obvious: “Star Wars: Assault Team,” with its digital cards and decks, is skeuomorphic.

III. Gameplay in “Star Wars: Assault Team”

The game unfolds in a few parts. The most “play” oriented part of “SW:AT” is the battles. The player’s characters (at first, just Han Solo) enter an animated world where they engage in turn-based combat with computer-generated enemies or other players. This part is minimally skeuomorphic. These characters appear in small card-like boxes at the base of the screen, while enemies appear as animated figures in the middle ground. Gameplay animations do not hearken to the idea of cards. Minimally skeuomorphic at best.

The notion of skeuomorphism gets interesting, however, in the “secondary” sphere of the game: Team management. Once you’ve played a few missions, you have earned credits (in-game money), characters, and training items. Between missions, the game encourages training and reorganizing your “assault team” to better take on new missions.

This part of the game is where the card feeling comes into the design and the text. Your mission team consists of four slots at the top of the screen, and you drag and drop boxed images (cards) of other characters into and out of your team. “Cards” in the “team area” appear as “cards” at the base of the screen during the battle phase of play.

Some of the training items even include text self-describing as cards! “Train a Rebel Medic to Level 5, then use this card to promote him to Tier 2,” says the text associated with one “card.”

This level of reference to the game as a card game astonished me. The design of the game works well enough without explicitly referencing the play of games like “Magic: The Gathering” (although the strategic  placement of the colon in “Star Wars: Assault Team” can’t be entirely coincidental). Why retain the skeuomorphic conceit?

IV. Nostalgia

My contention is that “SW:AT” is a game of nostalgia. Set in the Star Wars diegesis between the first (Ep. IV) and second (Ep. V) films to be released, it aims at an older audience than other games might. As such, it uses touchstones that those players might recognize. Those touchstones are non-digital: Card games.

The recent release of “Star Wars: Commander,” set in a similar diegetic timeframe, bears this out. “SW:C” is a mirror of smartphone phenomenon “Clash of Clans,” and contains no (in the brief time that I spent exploring it) mention of cards, decks, boards, or other analog gaming paraphernalia.

By setting both games in a diegesis more familiar to older fans, Star Wars (and Disney, who now owns it) signals its fidelity to the original trilogy as it moves to release its new trilogy. As one of these fans, this shift away from the silliness of the prequel trilogy makes me more excited about the upcoming movies.

As someone who thinks about games, I was glad to see game designers using such subtle formal cues to attract and hold my attention. I’m not even that old, but I am someone not very comfortable in digital gaming spheres. The skeuomorphic notion of the “deck builder” caught my interest long enough to make me a player of “SW:AT.” At least for a little while. I’m starting to get bored with game, and will move on to other non-digital games soon.

First Nations of Catan: A Revisionist History Game

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 – NOTE: This post formed the basis for “The First Nations of Catan: Practices in Critical Modification,” which was published in the Analog Game Studies Journal, Vol. II, Issue VII. I’ll leave the original post here for now, though the ideas and the rules are more fleshed out in the Analog Game Studies version. –

I. Ideologically Suspect Games

Unlike my post on Monopoly, I’m not setting out to fix anything that’s wrong with Settlers of Catan, at least not from a gameplay perspective. Rather, I’m setting out to add a little more racial/historical awareness, and hopefully, a little more gameplay complexity, to Catan.

The genesis of this line of thinking came from a conversation I had with a friend about Puerto Rico (the game, of course, not the U.S. protectorate). Gameplay criticisms aside, the game is ideologically problematic. Basically, the goal of Puerto Rico is to generate the most resources to send back to your colonizing masters, exploiting the local (read “non-white”) people as effectively as possible. As progressive folks, this rubbed us the wrong way.

That conversation got me thinking about the troubling political implications of another game: Settlers of Catan. The myth of the “empty” frontier contributed to the genocide of Native Americans / First Nations through North America. Settlers of Catan, with its focus on settling the empty island, reinforces that myth. When I first thought about this, I had a hard time concentrating on my gameplay, as I was too busy trying to push aside the thought that, in playing this game, I was basically enacting genocide on the invisible native people of Catan.

I’m not saying that I’ll never play Catan or Puerto Rico again. I am saying that, as someone who is interested in games and racial/historical politics, I felt it was my duty to at least try to rectify what was making me feel weird about playing them.

I’ll probably reflect on the relationship of ideological concerns to the fictional worlds of games later, but for now, we’ve got a long post ahead, consisting of an alternative rules set for Settlers of Catan that lets one player play as the First Nations of Catan. If that interests you, read on…

II. Rules Changes to Catan

When the settlers arrive at Catan, they quickly encounter the First Nations of Catan, a semi-nomadic people who begin competing with them for the resources that, until their arrival, had been their undisputed right…

These rules are designed for the basic, 4-player Settlers of Catan, and require only a piece of paper and a pen in additional materials.

II.A. Setup

Once the island tiles are arranged and the numbers are placed, the First Nations Player (FNP from here on out) draws a map of the island, noting which tiles are which resources. This will allow her to use her primary gameplay mechanic: secretly moving her “tribe” around the board.

The FNP places the first settlement, not at the axis of three hexes, but directly on one hex. The FNP uses the center of the hexes throughout the game.

II.B. Win Condition

The FNP wins in the same way that the other players win: by accruing 10 Victory Points. She accrues Victory Points as follows:

-By playing Development Cards that have Victory Points on them

-By building settlements & cities

-By acquiring the Largest Army tile

-By defending territory (see II.F.)

The FNP may not acquire the Longest Road tile, as she does not build roads.

II.C. Movement

On her turn, the FNP may move her tribe. The tribe is not marked on the board by a token, but is marked on the FNP’s secret map with a pen or pencil. On the first turn, the tribe starts at the FNP’s settlement. The tribe moves following this formula:

Number on the dice / 4, rounded down. 

Thus, on a dice roll of 1-3, the tribe cannot move. On 4-7, they move one. On 8-11, they move two. On 12, they move three.

To mark this movement, the FNP uses turn numbers. At the game’s start, she marks a zero where she has placed the first settlement — the tribe starts from its settlement. On her first dice roll, the ending position of the tribe is marked as a 1. Thus, if her first dice roll is an 8, the FNP may move the tribe 2 hexes (remember, FNP uses the center of the hex, not its edges and corners). If she moves 2 hexes NW, then, in the landing hex on her map, she writes the number one. She should write the numbers small enough for multiple numbers to appear in one hex, since the tribe’s path may pass through the same hex at multiple points in the same game. OPTIONAL MOVEMENT RULE: The tribe moves at half speed through mountains (ore) and hills (brick), thus, it cannot move into mountain or hill hexes until 8-12 are rolled. Moving out of mountain and hill hexes costs normal movement.

The tribe does not move, or gather resources (see below) on other players’ turns

II.D. Resource Gathering & Exchange

The FNP’s settlement (and any future settlements) accrue one resource per roll of the number that that settlement is one. For example, the FNP’s settlement sits on a wheat hex with a number 8. Thus, every time an 8 is rolled, the FNP takes one wheat.

Additionally, the tribe gathers one resource per hex where it lands, regardless of dice roll. So, if the tribe ends its turn on a mountain hex, the FNP takes one stone.

The FNP is given another advantage to counter the low number of resources she receives: The resource type of her first settlement works as “gold” — it is a wild card resource that can count as any resource in the game. So, if she places her opening settlement on wheat, for the rest of the game, she may use wheat as any resource.

The FNP may exchange 4:1 with the bank, but she may not use ports, even if she settles in a port-accessible hex.

II.E. Building

The FNP uses the same building cost tile that the other players use. She may buy development cards and upgrade her settlements to cities (which then yield two resources per number rolled, as normal cities do). She may build new settlements when 1) she has the proper resources, and 2) when the tribe lands on a hex that can be settled.

If a settler-player occupies the edge (with a road) or corner (with a settlement/city) of a hex, the FNP may not settle on that hex, though she may move the tribe through it. The FNP may choose to defend the territory (see II.F.). If she successfully removes settler-player buildings and/or roads, she may settle the hex on the same turn.

Similarly, if the FNP occupies a hex (with the tribe or a settlement), no player may build on any of that hex’s corners or sides. If a player attempts to build on a hex where the tribe is located, the onus falls on the FNP to deny that player the chance to build by showing her/him the secret map.

If the tribe lands on a hex that is undisputed, the FNP may discard the appropriate cards and build a settlement. If the FNP successfully clears a hex using “defending territory” rules, she may discard the appropriate cards and build a settlement, remember to mark the hex with a “defended territory” marker as well (see below).

II.F. Defending Territory

The First Nations of Catan are understandably wary of the settlers swarming their island, and they may, should they choose, use violence to defend their land.

If the tribe arrives on a hex that has settler-player buildings or roads along it, the FNP may choose to defend that territory by spending the cost of a development card (wheat+sheep+ore). On her turn, after the tribe is in place, she informs the player whose item she is attacking that she is about to attack, and discards the requisite cards.

The FNP and the defending player each roll one die. A tie goes to the FNP. Should either player want to dispute the outcome, however, they may use an unplayed Knight card. Each Knight card will be counted as a 2-point increase in the die roll. Multiple Knight cards may be played in one combat.

For example, the FNP attacks Blue’s road. The FNP rolls 6. Blue rolls 3. Blue, who has been buying development cards, plays 2 Knights, bringing his total to 7, and overpowering the FNP. The FNP then has a chance to respond and play her own Knight(s). Having none, she cedes, and Blue’s road remains on the board. If Blue’s road had been removed, it would not have gone back into his stockpile, but would be removed from gameplay.

A hex with multiple items, whether belonging to one settler-player or many, must be cleared item-by-item.

The FNP’s goal in this is to clear territory: Any hexes that had settler-player items bordering them, but were cleared, are considered “defended territory.” The FNP should use her “road” items as “defended territory” markers, placing them in the center of the hex to denote one victory point. If a settler-player builds anything on the defended hex, the FNP must remove the marker, and re-fight the territory in order to reclaim the victory point.

An empty territory that never had settler-player items adjacent to it is not considered defended territory.

II.G. Robber & Other Rules 

If a rules changed is not mentioned here, assume that basic Catan rules apply to the FNP. The hand limit, the rules about playing Development cards, etc. all apply.

If the robber occupies the same hex as one of the FNP’s settlements, it takes effect as if it were a normal robber, and the FNP can use knights in the usual way to dislodge the robber. The robber does not affect the tribe.

III. What I Hope To Have Accomplished

I don’t think I’m righting any sort of big historical wrong by doing this, nor am I making any sort of statement about Native Rights — the game still features a conflict of settlers v. First Nations, and the First Nations could lose.

What I hope to have done is to create a meditation on the myth of the empty frontier — to make the playing of Settlers of Catan have a little more resonance with history, and to make it occur in a less troublingly Euro-centric alternate universe.

If you get a chance to playtest this rule set, drop me a line and let me know how it goes!