Choice Thoughts on Game Design

gaming_diceGames are all about choices. The famous game designer Sid Meier is often quoted (or misquoted, depending on who you ask) as saying, “Good games are a series of interesting choices.” That’s great in the abstract, but I’ve recently been asking myself, “What’s an interesting choice?”

As often happens when I ask myself questions, I give myself answers. I would say that an interesting choice is meaningful, informed, and limited.

  • Meaningful Choice: Some choices in games just don’t matter: whether you’re X or O in tic-tac-toe; or the color of your character’s eyes in a computer RPG. None of these choices move you a step closer to victory. Other choices do move you down the victory trail, but are so obviously the correct choice as to be no choice at all. (“Do you want to play the card that will score you 10 points, or give it to your opponent?”) These are two extremes, but neither are particularly meaningful.

  • Informed Choice: The players should know what effect their choice will have on the game. Asking a player to blindly choose between Door #1 and Door #2 with no clue as to what’s behind those doors is unfair to the player, and unfun if the door she chooses has a hungry tiger behind it. (A real challenge with this issue is that new players will never be as informed as experienced players, and some choices that look blind to newbies actually have effects that become clear over the course of the game. You can address this by adding more tips and examples to the rulebook, but that adds to rules bloat, so that’s not always the right way to go. Like I said, it’s a real challenge.)

  • Limited Choice: Ah, the classic problem of analysis paralysis — that phenomenon when a player is so overwhelmed with choices, his turn takes forever as he ponders the ramifications of every choice he could make. Now some players are just slow (*sheepishly raises hand*), so you can’t avoid this altogether, but it’s something to keep in mind. If possible, don’t front-load the choices, but let the player’s decision tree grow over time.

Obviously, I’m just scratching the surface here, mostly talking to myself as I try to turn vague game-design proverbs into somewhat practical advice. Have I succeeded? Try out the newly-repaired comment box below and let me know.

Happy Birthday, Baby Jax

Recycle me!It’s the baby’s birthday, and he’s crying. He’s often crying, though rarely for very long. He’s a happy child, full of smiles and laughter and silliness, with more personality than I’d expect from someone who can’t speak and barely walks. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since he was born.

It doesn’t feel like a year. It feels like… well, like it’s always been this way. I vaguely remember a time when he’d stay put when I put him down, and a time when he was asleep more than he was awake, but the time before he was here is all shadows and smoke.

Spending all day with a baby is humbling. He has problems I can’t fix (“Why are you crying?”), issues I can’t understand (“Why are you crying now?”). Biological needs that, regardless of my schedule, need to be met. Diapers. Bottles. Burping. He’s gross, needy, and unbearably cute; I’m stripped of all dignity in his presence.

There are sacrifices involved in working from home with a baby. Contracts and projects that take me out of the house during the day (or over multiple days) are a challenge. Long-term on-site contracts are out of the question. And there are days when my productivity is a joke, and I find myself scrambling before dawn the following day to make up for time lost to caring for a clingy, screaming infant who refuses to nap even though he’s so very, very tired.

But he’s bold, curious, and fun to have around. He’s never really been sick. No ear infections, no colic, no signs that the trauma of his first few days outside the womb has had any lasting effect on him. And like I said, he’s happy far more than he’s not. Healthy and happy. I can’t ask for more, and I’m infinitely grateful for what I have.

Happy birthday, little man. I’m looking forward to see what the next year brings us.

But Why?

Why did we add blindfolds? Check the change log.You know what aspect of game design is so boring, no one likes to talk about it? Documentation. You know what aspect of game design I’m going to touch on today? That’s right, documentation. Now, it’s true that there’s not a lot of pulse-pounding excitement in docu-land, but I’ll try to keep out of the snooze-zone while we visit.

One part of documentation that’s often overlooked (by me, at least) is the reasons behind changes in design. It’s one thing to track the evolution of the game through some sort of change log, but another to annotate those changes with why they’re being made.

Obviously, all changes are made in order to make the game better, but it’s important to note how they make it better. Is it shorter? More interactive? More generous with catch-up options for players who are behind? Or, to put a finer point on it:

What problem does this change solve?

For example, you might find that in a tabletop game, players keep running out cards, so you change the rules to say that players draw four cards a turn instead of just one.

Tracking the “why” of design changes is useful in three ways:

  1. It provides a more complete picture of the changes the game goes through during its development.

  2. If the problem that it solves comes up again, you can refer to the change to see how you (tried to) fix it the first time, allowing you to seek a different solution or double-down on what you’ve already tried. (“Players are still running out of cards! Let’s try drawing eight a turn and see how that goes.”)

  3. Most importantly, long after your short human memory has filled up with other things like song lyrics, and you find yourself asking, “But why did we make the game this way?” you can refer to this record and remember.

The question “But why?” usually comes up when an issue arises with that part of the game. (“Player turns are taking 10 minutes apiece because they have so many cards. Why are they drawing eight cards a turn?”) By looking back at the problem you were originally solving, you can decide whether that problem still exists, or whether a better solution is now available. (“Players were running out of cards because cards were too easy to play. We fixed that, so we can reduce card draw back down to one a turn.”)

If you don’t track the “why” it’s a lot harder to tell what changes are there as support, and what are essential, load-bearing rules.

Jam Hands

ggj3I was going to fill this, the first post of the new year, with predictions and promises and (oh yes we mustn’t forget) solemn reflections on 2014 and resolutions for the future. It was going to be beautiful and heart-felt. Funny, but with a core of passion and longing. But… meh. It’s one thing to lie to myself the first week of January. It’s another to lie to you, dear readers.

So instead I’ll tell you about the upcoming Global Game Jam, January 23-25.

Game jams are thick as ticks on a hippie’s beard these days, but GGJ is one of the big ones. It is, as the name cleverly suggests, an international affair, with jam sites around the world. Game jams are also predominantly focused on video games, but GGJ is very open to games of the tabletop variety; board and card games are in the minority but still encouraged.

I participated in the GGJ two years ago, and had a blast. Last year, I had to miss it (something about a newborn baby) but I’ll be back this year. If you want to join me, either literally or metaphorically, check out the Global Game Jam website and find a jam location near you. Let’s kick off 2015 with a burst of game-creating energy!

It’ll be educational. It’ll be fun. It might even be on a secret list of resolutions.

Punching Harder, Harder to Punch

gp_rpg_logoWhenever a new book comes out for the Savage Worlds RPG, some of the first things I look for are the new Edges and Hindrances. These are the things that can make characters more interesting (“You can dodge chickens!” “You’re afraid of insurance salesmen!”) but also tie them more closely to the the genre or setting. (Just don’t ask me what genre dodges chickens and fears salesmen.)

So of course, as I continue to flesh out the details of the Ghost Punchers RPG, part of that process is coming up with a batch of fun Edges and Hindrances. While you could use them in any setting, I think they feel like they fit best with ghost-punching heroes. Here are a couple of each I’ve got so far:


Occult Bookshelf
While some ghost punchers dream of wood-paneled rooms filled with books of forbidden lore, those books are expensive and hard to find. Most such dreamers must content themselves with a much smaller selection of tomes. For every four hours they spend studying with their bookshelf, those with this Edge may add +2 to their Knowledge (Occult) or ghost-related Investigation rolls, to a maximum of +4.

Font of Trivial Knowledge
Some folks are the kings and queens of trivia night, and the undisputed champions of shouting correct answers at contestants on TV quiz shows. Heroes with this Edge add +2 to their Common Knowledge rolls.


Nightmares (Minor or Major)
Those who punch ghosts have seen some crazy, disturbing stuff—the sort of stuff that comes back to torment them when they’re trying to sleep. A hero who suffers freaky dreams as a minor Hindrance must make a Spirit roll each night when she sleeps. If she fails, she starts the next day with a Fatigue level that can only be removed by getting four hours of sleep. As a major Hindrance, the hero makes the Spirit roll at -2, and must make Vigor rolls during slow, tedious moments throughout the day to keep from falling asleep. (Fatigue levels from nightmares aren’t cumulative; no matter how many nights the hero fails the roll, she still only starts the day with a single Fatigue level.)

Queasy (Minor)
Some people don’t have the stomach for dealing with blood and gore. When a hero with this Hindrance makes a Fear check, he does so at a -2 penalty if the subject of the check is particularly gruesome. He’s also subject to violent nausea at the sight of such things, and must make a Vigor roll to keep his lunch down upon encountering them (even if it doesn’t require a Fear check).

Yes, there will be more where these came from. And yes, I’d love to hear your suggestions. Please add them in the comments (the sad little comment box that no one ever uses) or drop me a line on the Book of Faces or the twittery thing.

More One-Sheet Rules

hc_sampleAs you may recall, last week I offered up a collection of one-sheet rules for card games to serve as examples of “what has been done” for game designers and graphic designers looking to do their versions of such rules. This week, I’m updating that collection with an additional set of rules, provided by game designer and RV aficionado Seth Johnson.

Seth’s one-sheet rules are for HeroClix, rather than a trading card game, but since HC is a collectible miniatures game, its rules hit many of the same notes as it cad-based cousins. I’ve played my share of HeroClix, and I’m impressed they were able to fit the key rules onto a single page and still have that page look good. Thanks for the rules, Seth!

If you have or know about other, similar one-sheet rules files, please let me in the comments or on Twitter (where I skulk about as @HardyTales) and I’ll gladly add them to the list!

The Creator’s Dilemma

Yesterday I tweeted about what I termed “the creator’s dilemma,” which is this: We need to consume in order to create, but consuming doesn’t pay the bills.

To put a finer, more personal point on it: If I don’t take the time to play new games, read new books, and watch new (quality) movies and TV, the games and stories that I create will begin to suffer. If I don’t want my work to stagnate, I need to invest the time in refueling my creative reserves.

But time spent consuming is time not spent creating. Creating is how I get paid. I could take two hours and watch that movie, or I could draft a short story, which I can sell. I could take 200+ hours to play that that new video game, or I could work towards finishing this game design for which the client will pay me upon completion.

Yes, as one of my Twitter friends pointed out, every hour of consuming is an investment in higher-quality creating… but it’s hard to convince myself of that when the mortgage is due, the kids need braces, and the car’s back in the shop for brake repair. Sure, learning to master that hot new Euro game will make me a better game designer in the long run, but I need brake pads right now. Consuming might be an investment, but it feels like a guilt-inducing distraction.

But it’s not all whining and angst. As sometimes happens when we shout into the Twitter void, the void shouts back words of encouragement and helpful tips.

  • Daniel Solis tweeted that he has had success dividing his time between creating (during official work hours) and consuming. Jeff Tidball and Rachel Kahn seconded that idea, implying that by declaring evenings “after hours” they’re more able to watch, read, and play things without so much “should be working” anxiety.

  • Will Hindmarch offered a tip that I think will help trick my brain into letting me watch more on-screen entertainment: go ahead and watch that movie or TV show, but keep a notebook nearby to capture any “work-related” ideas inspired by what you’re watching, (or as is often my experience, jogged loose by zoning out while watching).

  • As a game designer for both digital and tabletop games, I’m constantly wracked with guilt over my lack of time spent playing games. Seth Johnson, a fellow game designer, has found a solution to this problem in game stores and cafes where you can sample a lot of games quickly. Podcasts and video reviews, as Daniel pointed out, are also great for getting you up to speed on the the new hotness without needing to coordinate the schedules of multiple players.

It was encouraging to hear from these creative professionals that I wasn’t the only one torn between the need to create and the need to consume. And it was even more encouraging to hear their strategies for balancing the two sides of the creative life. If you find yourself wrestling with the creator’s dilemma, I hope you’ll find this encouraging as well — and that if you’ve got your own strategies, you’ll pass them along so I can add them to the list.

Sample One-Sheet Card Rules

tcg_onesheetsAs I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a graphic designer. I can create InDesign styles and lay out a rulebook with the best of them, but when it comes to combining images and text in anything more attractive than a series of rectangles, I’m out of my depth. So when I started pondering how to lay out “quick-start” rules for a card game on a single sheet, I turned to the Internet to find samples of what other, real graphic designers had done.

My Google-fu isn’t as strong as some, but I found one-sheets for

  • Kaijudo
  • Cardfight Vanguard
  • Weiß Schwarz
  • Chaos, and
  • Wixoss. (No, I’d never heard of it either. I’m assuming it’s Japanese.)

Because I thought these might be useful to others looking for similar samples, I’ve taken the liberty of collecting them here, in a convenient 8 Mb zip file, for other real and would-be graphic designers to reference. Just my way of giving back to the games-making community.

(If you have other samples of such things, please drop the link in the comments below, and I’ll add them to the list!)

Prototyping Tip: Laying Out Cards

please stand by for new gameI’m not a graphic designer, but in the process of putting together game prototypes, I like to play with the tools of graphic designers and pretend I have more talent than I actually do. In the spirit of giving back, I’d like to share a couple tricks I’ve come across that might be useful to you, the game designer in the same position.

Turning Spreadsheets into Cards

When I discovered the “data merge” function in InDesign, it turned my card-prototyping upside down. With the power of this digital wizardry, you can dump the card data from a spreadsheet into an InDesign template, and the program will create all your cards for you.

I had to figure it out on my own, using help files and outdated tutorials, in a snow storm, while walking uphill, but you — You can learn these arcane secrets with a handy video tutorial from Daniel Solis (who actually IS a talented graphic designer, and a super-nice guy to boot).

Turning Pages into Sheets

If you use the technique described above, you CAN end up with nine cards per letter-sized page, in three rows of three cards, perfect for cutting out and sleeving for all your prototyping needs. However, depending on the project, you may have only one card per page, and each page the size of a card. This is great for sending to an actual printer… but how do you get them nine-up for your own printing and cutting?

First export the cards to PDF. (It’s under the File menu on InDesign.) Then open that PDF in Adobe Acrobat (not Reader).

If you want to print those cards nine-up right now, print the document, but under “Page Sizes and Handling” select “Multiple” and tell it to print 3 pages by 3 pages per sheet.

If you want to save the cards in this nine-up format, do the same thing, but select “Adobe PDF” as your printer. This creates a new PDF you can give to someone else to print. (Yes, you’re using Acrobat to “print to” PDF. Add your own Inception sound effects to taste.)

Like I said, I’m not a graphic designer. But if you find these tips helpful, please pass them along to the game prototyper in your life. If you have your own prototyping tips, please share them here, and we’ll all be a bit wiser.

Another Puncher Joins the Fight

gp_rpg_logoSince I’m counting down the days to my Thanksgaming session of the Ghost Punchers RPG this week, I’ve decided to share some of the player characters who will be dishing out spectral violence on Saturday. We’ve already met Monica Harper. Today, let’s meet some of her team.

Eva Valdez

Private investigator Eva Valdez thought she’d seen it all. Murder, corruption, a thousand different types of abuse—she’d seen so much evil while serving on the police force that it drove her to private practice. Investigating cheating spouses and insurance fraud offered lower stakes, but left fewer scars on her soul.

Two years ago, Eva realized she hadn’t seen everything the world had to offer. She was hired by a woman whose ex-husband was stalking her. He would sneak into the woman’s house while she was out, trash the place, and scrawl threatening messages on the walls. When Eva dug into the case, however, she discovered that the ex-husband had been dead for months. Nevertheless, she staked out her client’s house and watched as invisible hands tore up photo albums and smashed the good china. Eva confronted the ghost. She threatened him with an exorcist, and convinced him to leave his ex-wife in peace.

Exhilarated (and well-paid) by her victory, Eva studied ghosts and how to fight them. She expanded her services to include “weird” cases such as hauntings. Such cases are often more dangerous than normal, so she charges double. Her clients don’t seem to mind.

Business has been slow this season, so when Monica Harper—some trust fund brat dabbling in ghost-hunting—offered her a contract, Eva accepted. She’s not much of a team player, but for the right price and a just cause, she’ll wear the jersey. At least, until business picks up again.

Tyler and Tamika Sloane

Tyler and Tamika Sloane are twins. They grew up deep in the mountains, cut off from virtually everyone but their mother Eunice. Their whole lives, their mother has told them about the spirits that plague humanity, how to see them, and how to fight them. By the time they were 10, and forced by the government woman in the gray suit to go to public school, the two had seen their share of ghosts, and even fought one or two.

School was hard. The two worked to fit in, and even made friends. But when they told those friends about their experiences with the supernatural, the friends told their parents, and within six weeks the twins were in foster care and their mother was in jail for child endangerment. A year later, she was committed to a psychiatric facility. Tyler and Tamika became wards of the state.

Today, the twins are 22 and trying to find their place in the world. Their mother is out of the facility and under their care, but she’s not the woman she used to be. She was damaged in the psyche ward. She’s weak and forgetful and needs her children to look after her.

Tamika has learned to use her ghost-hunting abilities, along with some con artistry, to make a profit from both those who are haunted and those who are merely gullible. She uses the money to support her mother… and her brother.

Tyler took to drinking before dropping out of high school. He still drinks, but has his mother to take care of, so he keeps it under control while he helps his sister fight her clients’ ghosts for money. Tamika says he has a lot of anger and guilt issues. Tyler says she’s lucky she’s his sister or he’d smack her.

Normally, the twins wouldn’t have anything to do with a rich bimbo like Monica Harper. But when she talked about ghosts, she knew what she was talking about. And when she handed them an envelope of cash, she showed that she meant business. Mama still wouldn’t approve of her, but maybe Monica wasn’t such a bimbo after all.