TGDRT #67: Game Phases & Pivots

TGDRT

Episode #67 is live!

Rob joins Jon and Dirk to discuss phases (the early game, the late game, etc.) and ‘pivot points’, which are moments when focus shifts from one aspect of a game (such as economic engine building) to another (scoring points). Some of the titles brought up during the conversation include Chess, Monopoly, Dominion, Lords of Waterdeep and Zimbabwe, the game that got Rob thinking about this topic.

Pacing is one of the great dark arts of game design where you have to work almost entirely on gut feel. Should a game wrap up in a 60 minutes or 30? Should the ‘end game’ comprise the last quarter of a game, or simply the final turn? It’s almost entirely personal preference.

We also got touched on one of my favorite punching bags: victory points. It’s certainly possible to have major pivots without them (e.g. an RTS where you build up economically in order to craft an invincible army), but their extreme abstraction often leaves a bad taste in players’ mouths.

The most poignant example I brought up during the episode was Dominion, which is particularly bad. Once you shift over to the ‘grab as many points as you can’ phase the whole strategic fabric unravels pretty quickly. Because points rarely have any gameplay value a point chase for its own sake is rarely very interesting.

I do admit that VPs are probably necessary in certain types of games, but I’ll still always be attracted by the design purity of victory conditions.

- Jon

TGDRT #66: Diplomacy in At the Gates

TGDRT Episode #66 is live!

Jon and Dirk cover many a topic in this episode, but the main discussion revolves around Jon’s plans for diplomacy in ‘At the Gates’, how they’ve changed, and why. Also covered are game structure in Starbound, the business of games and a brief update on Dirk’s projects.

I’ll be sharing my thoughts on diplomacy in AtG in much greatly detail shortly so not too much to say right now, but hopefully this podcast whets your guys’ appetites in the meantime!

- Jon

TGDRT #64: Conflict

TGDRT Episode #64 is live!

Jon and Dirk are joined by Soren Johnson once again, this time to discuss conflict in games. Topics covered include: What is a conflict? Why is its representation in games nearly always violent? What other types of conflict are there, and how can designers best utilize them?

Most games prominently feature conflict of some sort so this topic was probably long overdue. As such, we covered a lot of ground from different types of conflicts (military, economic, diplomatic, political) to how conflict plays out during a game (symmetric, asymmetric, lopsided).

I’ve long wanted to see a good game about political conflict, but the sheer immensity of this task is hard to overstate. Humans are naturally very attuned to the traits and mannerisms of other humans. Most of us are familiar with the disconcerting ‘uncanny valley’ resulting from a close-but-not-perfect visual representation of a human, but less obvious is the existence of an uncanny valley for behavior as well.

Over the past few years I’ve become more and more sure that it’s impossible for a game AI to come anywhere close to passing the Turing test. The task is simply too demanding, as even the tiniest flaw will be noticed and judged mercilessly. On top of that knowing ahead of time that your opponent isn’t a human might make the task actually impossible. We’re wired to regard human behavioral quirks as ‘personality’, but computers are not afforded that luxury – for them it’s simply random or flawed logic. Nearly all of us understand computational mathematics at a basic level, but human thoughts are inscrutable and forever unknowable. At least, that’s what most of us believe, and that’s all that really matters to pragmatic game designers.

Is it possible to make a game that roughly matches what we think of as politics or diplomacy? Sure, but it’s not the same. Representations of war in a game can truly feel like fighting a war. Armies take casualties, terrain is captured and lost, a daring flanking maneuver can turn the tide of battle. The same is true of economic simulations, where amassing a massive pile of eMoney feels very much like having a big wad of real-world cash in your real-world pocket.

But when it comes to representing human interaction we have no choice but to veer into the truly abstract. I’d say that King of Dragon Pass and Crusader Kings II are the titles which have come closest, but they work because they construct a fairly rigid framework of decisions around the human player rather than trying to make their AI characters seem truly alive.

I have no doubt we’ll see impressive breakthroughs in academic AI in the coming years, but I do doubt those achievements will ever trickle very far down into gaming.  It’s not a matter of feasibility, but economics. AI programming is quite difficult and the vast majority of players are just as happy with a mediocre AI as they would be with a nearly-sentient one. I’ll still be holding out hope though, as success here will mean nothing less than a revolution in game design.

- Jon

TGDRT #60: My Games of 2013

TGDRT

Episode #60 is live!

Jon and Dirk hand out awards for the mechanics and games they played in 2013 that stood out – for better and worse.

Now a yearly tradition! I should note that these are indeed our games of 2013. Hell, most weren’t actually even released during 2013. However, Dirk and I tried to pick games and mechanics that stood out to us as having an important role in game design in 2014 and beyond.

This is why both of us chose David Dunham’s venerable King of Dragon Pass as ‘Most Innovative’. The title may now be entering its fifteenth year, but the way it models interesting and realistic characters in a truly living world is incredibly… fresh. The lessons KoDP offers us have long sat dormant, but I’m confident they’ll soon be given due attention and praise. A large chunk of the diplomacy in At the Gates is directly inspired by this little gem.

Anyways, I won’t focus too much on KoDP. We also talk about many other interesting games, so make sure you give ye olde episode a listen!

- Jon

TGDRT #33: Unity of Command

Episode #33: Unity of Command. With Tomislav Uzelac

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.

- Jon

TGDRT #32: Don’t Starve, Shogun & More

Episode #32: Don’t Starve, Shogun, Wiz-War & Updates

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:

 

Wiz-War

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.

 

Don’t Starve

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.

- Jon

TGDRT #31: Tactics & Repetition

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!

- Jon

TGDRT #30: Design Lessons & David Sirlin

Episode #30: Design Lessons & Sirlin Games. With David Sirlin

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.

- Jon

 

TGDRT #29: Solium Infernum & ‘Futbol’

Episode #29: Solium Infernum, ‘Futbol Strategy’ & More

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.

- Jon

TGDRT #28: Scoring & Victory

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.

- Jon

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