Episode #33 is live!
Jon and Dirk are joined by Tomislav Uzelac, designer of the amazing WW2 strategy game ‘Unity of Command’ and studio lead for 2×2 Games. They dig into the title’s superb AI, its innovative supply system, building a streamlined strategic experience and the challenges of running a game studio from Croatia.
Very excited to have the designer of my favorite strategy game of recent years on the podcast. And he didn’t disappoint.
Over many years I’ve managed to train myself to always step back and factor in what the end user experience will be when making a decision, but this skill just comes naturally to Tomislav. He’s probably the most pragmatic and focused designer I’ve ever met – and this clearly shows through with Unity of Command. Definitely someone whose work you’ll always want to keep an eye on.
Posted by Jon Shafer on June 25, 2013
Episode #32 is live!
Jon and Dirk discuss a few games they’ve played lately which make good first impressions but ultimately fall short: ‘Don’t Starve’, ‘Shogun’ and ‘Wiz-War’. They then transition over to talking about what they’ve been working on, including AI character personality and AI design in ‘At the Gates’, getting into the meat of development with ‘Futbol Strategy’ and switching developers for ‘War Stories’.
We covered some interesting games in this episode, all of which I’ve really enjoyed, but also ones I have serious concerns about. I’ll go over each of them briefly:
This game can be forgiven if only because it’s a very old design, and the fact that it still holds up today is a testament to how well-designed it actually is. There are some interesting things going in with the environment, as the board is somewhat randomized and players have the ability to alter it with spells.
The two big problems I have with Wiz-War are its failure to fully capitalize on the theme, and the fairly bland map pieces. You might be able to do interesting things with it, but the board pieces themselves are nothing more than a generic underground labyrinth.
Shogun (the board game)
The best way to describe Shogun is “Risk with an interesting economic system.” It’s probably my favorite of the three games we covered in this show, but its incorporation of victory points makes me cry inside. I’m also not a big fan of how it ties victory and strategy together in a more general sense: laying low is usually the recipe for success, and like most such games it is often decided before players have made any decisions.
I was really, really enamored with this game for a week or two, but my interest rapidly dissipated once I got past the 15-hour mark. Given how much fun I was having, it took me some time to identify why this happened.
The issue with Don’t Starve is that it doesn’t force players to adapt enough. The game has a decent amount of variety, but your strategy from game to game tends to become fairly rote. There are new opportunities each time you play, but no real reason to leave your comfort zone. A lesson I’ve come to learn is that content is often wasted when you don’t force players to experience it.
Posted by Jon Shafer on June 18, 2013
Episode #31 is live!
Jon, Dirk and David discuss tactics in a more general sense. What is a tactical game? What problems does the genre have? Why does Jon hate basically all of them? And is it the players’ fault if their tactical choices aren’t as interesting as they could be?
As much as I want to like tactics games, I feel that the vast majority don’t offer interesting decisions. Instead of dynamic environments and interesting unit abilities, you’re often left with generic pieces on a bland or empty board.
That having been said, I think the games are getting better. The new XCOM game is much better than what you typically see, and part of what makes Unity of Command so amazing is the limited but highly-differentiated unit set.
I know not everyone will agree with me on this topic, so feel free to leave a comment and explain what I’m missing!
Posted by Jon Shafer on June 11, 2013
Episode #30 is live!
Jon and Dirk are joined by David Sirlin, designer of tabletop titles Puzzle Strike, Yomi and Flash Duel. The group discusses his past games, future plans, building a tabletop company, David’s interesting journey from the Street Fighter community into design, and the vital importance of balance and asymmetry.
Dirk and I have both really enjoyed Puzzle Strike and have wanted to get David on for a while. His style very much differs from Dirk and I (particularly when it comes to theme), but he’s one of the best designers out there, so you don’t want to miss this episode.
Posted by Jon Shafer on June 4, 2013
Episode #29 is live!
Jon and Dirk finally get around to discussing ‘Solium Infernum’, a tabletop-digital “hybrid” strategy title where you aim to become the lord of hell. They wheel around and talk about the light worker placement game ‘Stone Age’ and why it might be a great entry point for casual fans. After our hosts wrap up what they’ve played with a brief revisiting of ‘Command and Colors’, Dirk reveals his newest tabletop project, ‘Futbol Strategy’, and Jon provides an update on ‘At the Gates’ and his plans to revisit the game’s victory conditions and strategic trade-offs.
Solium Infernum is one of those games that makes you scratch your head as a designer. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s good. It grabs you not with flash or spectacle, but tabletop-like rules and interesting systems. The game almost provides that roguelike feeling of exploration, mystery and harsh consequences. Like most titles of that sort, it takes some work to get into, and is not something you can enjoy casually.
And that’s where the head-scratching comes in. The game is fun and has a passionate audience, but it’s also unforgiving in many ways. As a designer there’s always a tension between trying to produce games that as many people as possible can enjoy, while also unapologetically covering new ground and accepting that the most beloved games are those which took chances.
We’re hoping to have Vic Davis on at some point in the near future, which is really exciting as I really admire his ambitious and unique designs. While his style is quite different from my own, in many ways I see his company and the games he’s produced to be be a model for my own endeavors with Conifer.
Posted by Jon Shafer on May 28, 2013
Episode #28 is live!
The usual three-man crew discusses – debates, even – the ways in which we win games. The first half of the show is dominated by dissecting the pluses and minuses of victory points, whether they’re inherently arbitrary, and if they might even be a sign of lazy design. In the second half our hosts talk specifics, analyzing how victory does (and could) work in ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘At the Gates.’
Although it’s not something I’ve talked much about here on the site, anyone that’s listened to the show in the past should be very familiar with my dislike of victory points.
I don’t find the use of VPs to be inherently evil, as they do come with benefits and I’ve enjoyed many a game that’s included them. However, I find VPs to be so much of an abstraction that anything they’re associated with loses all connection to the “theme.”
Sure, you don’t need a great theming in order to have great gameplay, but without it you’re raising the barrier to entry and making it much harder to tell if you’re on the right path. As such, I try to avoid them whenever possible.
Of course, that’s just my opinion! Check out this episode to see what Dirk and David think.
Posted by Jon Shafer on May 21, 2013
Episode #25 is live!
David Heron, Jon and Dirk noodle over the role of information and obfuscation in game design. Why does ‘Persona 4’ work when the BioWare games do not? And when can hiding info be GOOD for a game?
The role of information, and its cousin abstraction, is something I’ve already written about, and it was great to discuss it with a larger panel. I honestly had some trouble thinking of more modern games that didn’t obfuscate enough, but I think David’s suggestion of the BioWare titles is spot on.
In thinking about this topic especially, it’s really become clear to me that game design is much more about “feel” than many mechanical designers (and those trying to pump up its value by applying a form of scientific method or standardized process to it) like to admit. What the game does and does not give away is a fundamental decision the dev team makes very early on, and it may not even be done consciously.
Yet another feather in the cap of, “There are certainly good and bad ways to design games, but you’d have a harder time arguing that there are good and bad game designs.” It’s almost like baseball – every season is a long grind filled with dramatic ups and downs. Sometimes you’ll have a week where every at bat you hit the ball hard but right at someone, and at other times you’ll flail, break bats and loop game-winning hits over the infield. All you can do is hone your fundamentals and trust that good process will win out over luck eventually. Fortunately, it does.
Posted by Jon Shafer on April 30, 2013
Episode #24 is live!
Trademark specialist and actual lawyer-type Dave Fitzgerald joins the show to discuss legal issues relating to games development. Topics covered include the difference between patents, trademarks and copyrights, what you need to set up a company and common mistakes made by developers.
I really enjoyed this episode, as it provides detailed answers for legal and business questions that I’m sure every indie developer has wondered about. In addition to setting aside a couple hours to chat with us, Dave has also generously offered to field questions. You can reach him at DFitzgerald@WHE-Law.com.
Posted by Jon Shafer on April 23, 2013
Episode #23 is live!
Dirk shares his first ‘Magic’ drafting experience, and why the game and format now has its hooks into him. He and Jon then step back and evaluate the drafting mechanic and ponder whether the reason why it works is BECAUSE of a steep learning curve. They then go on to discuss the recent re-release of ‘Age of Empires 2’ and ‘War of the Roses’ before providing brief updates as to what’s new with ‘At the Gates’ and ‘Tomorrow’.
I was worried Dirk wouldn’t enjoy his Magic drafting expereince, as it’s one of those things you either love it or absolutely hate it. I’m glad that he had fun, because while there’s an incredibly steep learning curve, if you can get up over the top there’s some great gameplay to be found at the peak.
Posted by Jon Shafer on April 19, 2013