Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Shelves are Small

Image from www.analoggames.com.

This is the fourth article in my series for new game designers. In previous articles I’ve discussed the use of rules, time, and math in games, and how to avoid common pitfalls. In this installment, I will address the actual, physical space your game fills. In the age of Gloomhaven, Ogre, and other massive Kickstarter-fueled beasts, you might need to give some sober thought to the size of your game.

Observation #4—Shelves are Small
The now commonplace “game shelfie” gives players an opportunity to show off their vast collections. This might give one the impression that storage space for games is vast and limitless. However, this is far from the truth. For every hobbyist with a dedicated game room lined with hundreds of games, there are many other gamers of more modest means. And even these alpha-gamers face the cold reality of running out of space. The periodic game purge has become as ubiquitous as the shelfie.

The situation for individual gamers represents only the tip of the iceberg. Bright, colorful store shelves in game and big box stores present a cheerful front but disguise a cut-throat struggle for the attention of shoppers. Every inch of space must fight tooth and nail to earn its exalted place before the eyes of consumers. Games that don’t sell are quickly shifted to the bargain bin. And we have yet to mention the rows and rows of crates in distributor warehouses across the world. With a thousand new games flooding the market every year, finding a place on a shelf can be a real and ever-increasing challenge.

So what has all this got to do with designers? The bottom line is that, generally speaking, your game needs to be as small as possible, while still delivering your core experience. This is not to say you can’t make a solid table-hog miniatures game in a boat-sized box. However, each and every last component must pull its weight. Publishers, and ultimately, gamers, want to get the best bang for their buck. Do everything you can to reduce the production cost of your game while providing good value and matching the expectations of players.

The best way to get a sense of this is by looking carefully at published games. While games can come in nearly any shape and size, the industry has a few standards. A tuck box card game (Uno) will retail for around $10. This is expected to be fairly simple and last around 15-30 minutes. A more expansive card game (Exploding Kittens) will come in a small two-piece box and sell for $20. This size game may only have cards, but can also include a few small components. Players are still expecting a light, quick experience. Next we have a slightly larger box (For Sale) selling for $25-30. Now players are expecting a game that can last up to 45 minutes. This brings us to the most popular board game size, the 12”x12” square box (Ticket to Ride) retailing for $50-60 ($70 if there are extra components and the game is longer). Players now want to see a board (or large shared play space), a fair amount of additional components besides cards, and a play time of 45-60 minutes (or a bit more). Finally, we come to bigger boxes (Scythe, Eclipse, Thunderstone Quest, Gloomhaven). We expect these games to cost $70-100 (the price will go down if the game becomes popular enough to print in high quantities). Often the “all-in” pledge on Kickstarter for these games will be as high as $200-300 or more. Players expect many hours of content and session times of 90-120 minutes or more. They will also accept longer rule books and more convoluted mechanisms in games of this size.

As you can see, there is a pretty close relationship between the size of a game, its complexity, its play time, and its cost. Designers would do well to stay within these bounds. Much like a wrestler might need to shed a few pounds to qualify for a lower class, a game often needs to be more condensed to hit the right note in the marketplace.
It has taken me a while to learn this lesson. I once designed a game with loads of cardboard hex-shaped tiles where players were building and exploring a map in real time. The game would have needed a large square box and a retail price of $50. The problem was that the game only lasted about 15 minutes. While the game was fun, it was simply too big for the experience it offered. Regrettably (and stubbornly), I repeated this mistake with another real time train game a few years later.

How can you decrease the size and component count of your game? Here are a few ideas:

First, consider the parts of your game that are not used as much. Maybe there are special tiles that only come into play during certain times. These might need to be shrunk or eliminated. Often, the solution is to combine the component with another part of the game. While you don’t want your players to run out of a component such as cubes, many of those cubes will not often come into play. Think about ways to alter the rules to allow a reduction in the total number of cubes needed.

Second, think about the scoring system. One common solution is to replace money or tokens with a scoring track (often found around the edge of the board). Some games solve this problem by using a dials built into the player boards or the board itself (although this can also be expensive). This method can also be used to track other stats in the game—health, damage, morale, resources, etc.

Finally, cards are cheap. Wooden, plastic, and metal components look sharp, but they can add considerable expense (as can dice). Figure out ways to use more cards and fewer of the other types. Cardboard is also relatively inexpensive, but it can sometimes add too much weight or command a larger box size to accommodate too many punch boards. Cards magically provide loads of design space for a fraction of the cost.

One final caveat: while it is vital to keep your components to a minimum, you might want to keep an eye on table presence. A game needs to look impressive and interesting once it’s set up on the table. It needs to grab the attention of people walking by. The “toy factor” of a game can be an important selling-point. In this case, extra material used in an innovative way can pay dividends in a memorable player experience. Sometimes more is more, if you do it thoughtfully.

I hope this has been helpful. It takes real creativity to condense a prototype into a smaller and smaller size. The more you can do to reduce the production cost for your game, the more attractive it becomes to publishers and the more value players will enjoy. Thanks for checking out this series of articles. I may think of others from time to time, but this will conclude the series for now.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Math is Hard

Thanks for checking out the next article in my series for beginning game designers. If you missed them, the previous articles were Rules are Bad and Time is Precious. Today I’ll be talking about math in games--specifically, why you should have less of it. I’ve noticed quite a few games recently where the amount of math required greatly detracts from the overall experience. If I have to spend my turn adding and subtracting stats modifications (+1 strength, -2 defense, resistance to spell damage of 4, plus the upgrade for being an elf . . .), I can become overwhelmed. Instead of playing a fun game, I’m doing math. This can be a problem in published games, but it seems especially rampant in prototypes from new designers.

Observation #3: Math is Hard
As a game designer, you need to know some math. I spent the first several years of my design career flying by the seat of my pants and mostly getting through the math-intensive parts by instinct. I will concede that instinct can take you surprisingly far—if something feels right, it’s probably close enough. However, I decided it would be beneficial to spend some time studying basic probability. This has helped me tremendously, cutting down the amount of time it takes to get the right mix of components in my games. I recommend that you do the same if you are a little fuzzy on the concept of probability. Deep down, math is the bedrock of most games. That doesn’t mean that your players should be forced to confront heaps of math to play your game.

The first big problem is that people hate math. Whether due to bad classroom experiences or wider cultural biases, some people break into a cold sweat just thinking about math. It’s a significant challenge for math teachers, and as it happens, for game designers. If you are a game designer, you probably aren’t as aware of this as the average person. I’m guessing your tolerance of math is much higher, particularly if your background is in computer science, engineering, or math education.

A few years ago, I was playtesting a new train-themed dice game with a publisher. The game required players to roll dice simultaneously, in real time, to collect enough money to win. The other twist was that players had to keep track of how much money they had (in the form of chips) so they would know when they had enough to claim victory. I had played a number of times and thought the game was quick, simple, and reasonably fun. The publisher burst my bubble by pointing out how difficult this game would be for many casual gamers. Not only did the game force you to do math, but you had to perform that math under intense time pressure! Needless to say, I had a significant problem to fix.

Another challenge facing designers is dealing with short term memory. Psychologists have found that most humans can store between 5 and 9 items in their short term memory (or working memory) at one time. We can keep this information in our heads for about 15-30 seconds. This is why phone numbers are seven digits long. The more information required, the more difficult and prone to error the task becomes. A related concept is called cognitive load. People can only pay attention to so many things at once. If you require your players to consider too many options at one time, things will grind to a halt and the dreaded analysis paralysis will set in.

One other problem is that people just don’t understand probability. The human mind is simply not great at intuitively grasping the probabilities of events. Instead, our brains pay too much attention to frightening events and too little attention to harmful events hidden in the background. One person recently had this advice: if you read about something in the news, you don’t have to worry about it (plane crashes). If it’s not in the news, you do need to worry about it (cancer). Games that require too much knowledge of probability can become too difficult for most players. Instead of being fun, they will seem arbitrary and opaque.

So must we remove all forms of math from our games? How can this situation be addressed? Here are a few ideas for your next design:

First, try to remove as much math as possible. Instead of using standard dice, consider using custom dice with symbols. Counting symbols is easier than adding pips and then modifying based on other factors. In my game Black Orchestra, I originally had players roll standard six-sided dice, trying to hit a target number based on adding together two tracks of information (Hitler’s military support plus his level of safety). This was clunky and needlessly difficult. One of the developers encouraged me to change the system to something using icons instead. In the final game, players simply roll some custom dice and count the cross-hair icons. This works so much better.

Icons can also help with short term memory problems. While it’s true that humans can only remember about seven things at once, there isn’t as fixed of a limit on how big each “thing” can be. This is called chunking. Sometimes one icon can represent several different factors or pieces of information. Once players learn the icon-based language of your game (which hopefully won’t be too taxing), they will be able to deal with more complex information more easily.

If your game does still need a good bit of math, try to push it all to the end of the game and provide players with a score sheet to help tally everything up. Many popular games have used this technique to great effect.

Finally, cognitive load can be decreased with solid graphic design. You might notice that playing published games is easier and more pleasant than playing prototypes. While much of this is due to the quality of the game itself, a significant factor is the ease with which players can identify and interact with all the components of the game. Generally, new designers are advised to make the first version of their game as quickly as possible. However, once the game begins to take shape, you would do well to spend a bit more time thinking about the layout and accessibility of all the various icons and text. You don’t want bad handwriting to affect people’s perception and ability to perform well in the game.

So unless you are making the next Advanced Squad Leader, try hard to get rid of the math in your game. Players just want to play your game—they don’t like doing math. In the next article I’ll address the size of your game. Thanks for following along!

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Time is Precious

Welcome back to my series of articles for new game designers. In my last post, I talked about how rules are bad. You should strive to have as few rules as possible. In my work with new game designers, I’ve noticed several common pitfalls. Today I will address another important element.

Observation #2—Time is Precious
I recently played a published game where players needed to first build up their characters and then start to attack powerful monsters for rewards (good luck guessing what game that was!). The monster-attacking part of the game was fun, but it took many turns to gain enough strength to pull it off. We felt as if we were wasting our time at the beginning of the game.

In game design as in life, time is precious. No one enjoys sitting in traffic or waiting for a child to find her shoe. This is also true of board games. Players don’t generally want to be sitting around waiting for the fun part of the game to happen. New designers often lose sight of this. First, they tend to overestimate how fun their game is—or at least certain parts of it. Second, they tend to underestimate how long it will take to finish the game. Then, I end up looking at a two-player card game with a playing time of two hours. While it may be possible to design a successful two-player card game that lasts this long, it’s not going to happen too often.

Generally, your game should be as short as possible. Time is expensive, and game designers should use a little of it as they can. Does this mean you can’t design that new three-hour dungeon crawl game? Not at all. However, every bit of extra time must be painstakingly justified. My go-to advice when looking at any new design is usually something about the need to streamline. The operations in the game take too long to perform, serve no clear purpose, or can be done in a more efficient and elegant manner. So how does one go about cutting a game down to size? Here are three good places to start.

First, does your game have player elimination? Most of us grew up playing classic games like Risk and Monopoly, so we understand the disappointment of getting eliminated from a game before it is over. While player elimination can sometimes be appropriate, especially in shorter games, modern games often end the game at or before the moment any player would be eliminated. Many of these games depend on victory points to determine the winner.

However, there is a fate worse than outright elimination: essential elimination. A player might be so far behind, she might have no realistic (or even mathematical) chance to catch up. And yet the game continues. Instead of being able to watch TV or make a sandwich, the essentially-eliminated player must sit at the board and struggle through to the bitter end. The most common way to address this is to somehow obscure the score—usually with some hidden points or endgame points based on the shifting board position/game state. Even if your players are essentially eliminated, try to keep them from knowing it!

Second, consider downtime. Downtime is any time where players are not interacting with the game. The classic example of this is waiting for your next turn. In a short game, this might only amount to a few seconds. But in longer games, this could be several minutes—or even longer! Downtime might be a factor from turn to turn, but some games have extra downtime at various points along the way. For example, the game might enter a state of downtime when two opponents have to resolve a battle that doesn’t involve you. Sometimes players may even want some downtime in very complicated games or real-time games. But, in most situations, you should try to reduce it as much as possible.

There are several ways downtime can be minimized or mitigated. Note how downtime is addressed in a game like Settlers of Catan. Players have important considerations even when it is an opponent’s turn, in this case watching to see if resources will be collected based on the opponent’s dice roll. Card drafting games and games with simultaneous action selection also eliminate nearly all downtime. If this does not apply to your game, there are still a few things you can do. Even if there is nothing for me to do when it’s not my turn, I might still want to strategize about my next turn. This will make the downtime more bearable. Do all you can to help players do this. Have players draw new cards at the end of their turn instead of at the beginning so they can think about how to use them during downtime. Imagine how much worse Scrabble would be if you drew your tiles at the beginning of your turn instead of at the end! Many wargames address downtime during battles by making them interesting to watch. Even if I’m not in the battle, I might still be interested in the outcome, especially if exciting dice rolls are involved.

Finally, your game might include too much busywork. Busywork is just like downtime (you are not really playing the game) but with actions. Just like those worksheets you got when you had a substitute teacher in school, busywork in a game can ruin your whole day. Busywork can include setting up the game, replenishing resources at the start of a round, checking for endgame conditions, and even tallying the score. But there are less-obvious (and more troublesome) forms. Any action in the game where you don’t have a choice—or don’t have a meaningful choice—is actually busywork. So if I can choose option A (worth 5vp) or option B (worth 10vp), I will obviously choose B even time. This is a form of busywork. I am going through the motions of a game but not really “playing” it. This is a huge problem for beginning game designers.

The solution is mostly a matter of presenting your players with meaningful choices—something at the very heart of game design. For more obvious forms of busywork, try assigning the work to players who are already experiencing downtime (perhaps because it’s not their turn). In the example I talked about at the beginning of this article, the leveling up of my character was actually busywork. Only when my character began to fight did the “game” actually start.

This leads me to a last bit of advice. If you notice that players always have to do X, Y, and Z at the start of every game before really getting into the experience, consider removing X, Y, and Z. Instead, give the players all the resources they would normally acquire during the boring part and skip it altogether. Begin the game later. This also works at the end of the game. You might notice the game slowing to a crawl at the end. The winner is all-but-certain, yet the game lumbers on. Instead, cut off this tedious ending portion of the game, and end the game sooner. In the best games, players often feel like they needed just one more turn to complete their plans. Don’t let your players do everything they want, or your game will lack tension.

Nobody wants to make a boring game. We want to make games that have tension. The way to achieve this is to respect players’ time and use as little time as possible while still maintaining your core experience. So always be looking for ways to cut down the playing time of your game—your players will appreciate it! Next time, I will talk about math in games.