From Microphone to Ploughshare


Episode #70 is live! And it’s with a heavy heart I share the news that it will be my last as co-host of The Game Design Round Table podcast.

I talk at length about the reasons behind my decision to retire during the episode, but it basically comes down to having the time and energy to ensure At the Gates is the best game it can possibly be.

I’ve talked about my unique work patterns in the past, and how they can be a double-edged sword. Diving head-first into incredibly complex projects (like building a hardcore 4X with a team of yourself plus a few part-timers!) is what I live for, and I’m very fortunate that this passion allows me to have such an amazing career. The price I pay for this is that I’ve never been good at keeping more than a couple plates spinning at once. And it goes without saying that AtG is a really, really big plate.

Deep down I always knew this day would come, the question was just how long I could go before AtG was at a point where it would need my full attention. I love doing the show, playing and talking about games with Dirk and interacting with our awesome community. It makes my day every time I get an email thanking us because one of our silly discussions actually helped someone. But with AtG’s final big features coming online, the beta starting up soon and the project as a whole transitioning into its final phase we’ve finally reached that point.

It’s tough to leave something behind that you’ve invested yourself in for years, but I know the time is right. I’m really, genuinely excited about where At the Gates is going – especially now that the pieces are starting to fall into place. I won’t be talking about it on the podcast any more, but you can be sure I’ll have a lot more to share over the next year both here and elsewhere across the Internet. Stay tuned!

– Jon

TGDRT #67: Game Phases & Pivots


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 #65: Real-Time

TGDRT Episode #65 is live!

Dirk and Jon are joined by Geoff Engelstein to talk about his work, design philosophies and podcast. How do you create a real-time tabletop game? What makes inspirations special? How important is theme compared with mechanics?

Geoff’s career really spans quite a gamut, and it was great hearing about his experiences as both a gamer and designer.

Plus, I got to geek out a bit about the venerable Napoleonic wargame Empires in Arms, which in many ways was the seed for my love of strategy gaming. The combat system in that game was fairly simple, but involved some extremely tense rock-paper-scissors style decisions when it came to what general strategy your army was going to employ.

RPS might not sound terribly interesting, but David Sirlin does a great job outlining how uneven payoffs can really spice things up. This was a prominent feature in EiA where the ‘best’ tactic was ‘outflank’, as it had the greatest potential to damage the enemy, but of course both sides know this, and thus a bit of a mind game ensued as each player tried to suss out what the other had at stake and how everything fit into the broader strategic picture.

Anyways, that’s probably enough about a game we only discussed for a few minutes! Go give the rest of a podcast a listen too.

– 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 #63: Theme (Plus, My Thoughts on Abstraction)


Episode #63 is live!

Rob Daviau pays a visit for a discussion about theme. How much theme is enough? How much is TOO much? How do you actually translate theme into gameplay mechanics. And heck, what IS a ‘theme’, anyways?

We jumped around all over the place in this one and, alas, didn’t get around to even describing what we think a theme is until the very end. This is an interesting topic that deserves more time, so I’ll be expanding on it a bit here.

As I noted during the podcast, my own definition for a “theme” is basically an element that evokes a feeling. Or, to be more specific, how our  brains translate abstract systems, names and numbers into a relatable experience. I would say that a game has a theme of discovery if it relies heavily on mechanics where you explore and make use of your surroundings. This differs quite a bit from the opinion shared by my co-hosts that “theme” is simply the story or background, and has no direct relation to mechanics.

The reason why I’m willing to blur this line is that regardless of what kind of game you’re making the goal is always to make your players feel something. This could be feeling like you’re living inside the familiar Star Wars universe, maybe even a specific battle therein. Or your objective might be for players to feel like bold explorers laying claim to mysterious territory filled with potential.

Stepping into the shoes of a 16th century conquistador or a 23rd century star admiral in particular is indeed more ‘thematic’, but these are simply deeper layers of theme. The added specificity is nice, but even the basic term ‘explorer’ evokes a clear feeling of what sorts of challenges and accomplishments await. ‘Explorer’ and ’16th century explorer’ are members not of different universes, but a single continuum.

Some might argue that to call something ‘thematic’ should mean it exhibits an especially high level of specificity, but you run into fuzziness even at the extreme end of the spectrum.

Let’s say our theme is playing as that 16th century explorer we’ve talked so much about. Within short order we realize we need to get a bit more specific as to what we actually mean by “a 16th century explorer.” Are we a violent conquistador willing to slay any native for an ounce of gold? Or are we a man of the sea, driven on by the unmatched thrill of being the first to lay eyes upon virgin landmasses on the horizon? Are we playing as one particular explorer from history?

Most likely we’re actually playing as a not-really-all-that-specific amalgamation of careers and highlights from several different individuals. Even if you are in fact assuming the role of Hernan Cortez from May 26th-August 13th 1519, you’re probably not forced to deal with the sticky and unpleasant the summer humidity, or how your horse’s injured front-right leg makes it impossible to reach a full gallop on rocky-but-not-too-rocky ground.

Reality is a mesh of near-infinite complexity. A supercomputer with the brainpower of every human that has ever lived would have no chance of fully representing even a tiny sliver of our universe and the physical forces which define it. Our grey matter doesn’t even bother wasting time on such tomfoolery, and instead very intentionally throws out the vast majority of data it collects. Rather than actually experiencing reality we swim within a model created internally containing only the tiny fraction of stuff we find important or interesting. This is virtually identical to, you guessed it: a game.

(As an aside, the same is true of dreams, which is why the passage of time within them feels so odd. If you’d like to learn more about this topic and how the brain works generally I HIGHLY recommend reading David Eagleman’s Incognito. I listened to the superb audiobook version narrated by David himself.)

Anyways, the takeaway here is that when you’re talking abstraction it isn’t a question of “if” but instead “how much?” Even the most thematic games are highly abstracted, and it’s up to our brains to flesh out what’s there.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my more general way of defining ‘theme’, or is the narrower interpretation held by my partners more in line with your own? What does the term mean to you?

– Jon

TGDRT #62: Cheating

TGDRT Episode #62 is live!

Why do people cheat? What can designers do about it? SHOULD they do anything about it in non-competitive single-player games?

This is a topic that has touched many of our recent conversations, and I figured it was time to take it head-on.

A great point was made during the episode that I hadn’t thought about before: at its core cheating is another element of a game a developer can choose invest in or not just like gameplay features, cut scenes, bugfixing or anything else. This is especially true in non-competitive games where cheating affects no one but the person engaging in it.

Under this umbrella lives reloading any time something bad happens, and AI exploits, where the player willingly uses knowledge about the AI’s shortcomings to expedite victory – and ruins their own enjoyment of the game. A designer has to decide how important these issues are to address.

Unfortunately, strategy game designers in particular have given very little thought to reloading. And for obvious reasons: any simple cure you can think of is nearly always worse than the disease. Do you prevent players from saving whenever they want, inevitably inconveniencing a large portion of your audience?

Even if you hedge and create an autosave every turn but allow no other saving the ability to ‘scum’ is only slightly hampered. Disincentives to reload, or even more extreme, the complete inability to do so must be a core part of your game. Much of the popularity of roguelikes is built on the unbeatable mandate of ‘no mulligans – ever’.

The only answer I’ve been able to come up in the strategy genre is for a game to be very clear about when a player is crippled and the game is over. This is a big problem in 4X games especially, as it’s easy to lose a city or two and end up in what I describe as the ‘middle zone’. You’re not dead, but you’re probably too weak to win, and in many cases, even enjoy continuing.

Restarting and reloading is built into the DNA of 4X, and it won’t be easy to root out. There’s a good chance At the Gates puts up a good fight on this front though, as failure is obvious and unforgiving. If a middle zone does manage to survive it should at least be much smaller than Civ’s.

– Jon

TGDRT #61: Don’t Starve


Episode #61 is live!

Jon and Dirk are joined by Kevin Forbes of Klei Entertainment to talk about Don’t Starve. Topics covered include environmental cycles, crafting, and the unique challenges and perks of developing a systems-based game.

Kevin and I have a ton in common, so it’s no surprise that Don’t Starve is one of my favorite titles from 2013. It also reinforces a growing trend: the rise of systems-based games.

I’m convinced this ‘genre’ will continue taking big steps forward in the coming years, now that graphical fidelity has basically maxed out and more gamers are clamoring for nonlinear experiences. My hope is actually that At the Gates isn’t innovative so much as simply part of an ever-growing wave. It won’t take long for us to find out!

– Jon

TGDRT #60: My Games of 2013


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 #59: Race for the Galaxy


Episode #59 is live!

Board game designer Tom Lehmann joins Jon and Dirk to talk about Race for the Galaxy, co-designing on existing games, and his design methodology.

Race for the Galaxy is one of the most interesting card games I’ve come across. The copious iconography is a major hurdle to those playing for the first time, but it’s well worth the effort as Race for the Galaxy is deep, varied and unique.

Dirk and I actually brought up the game’s tricky symbology and learnability about halfway through the episode, and I enjoyed hearing Tom’s perspective on the issue, if only because it’s clear that this is a topic he’s given real thought to – and that’s certainly not something you can say about most games.

One of my favorite gameplay elements in Race for the Galaxy is how it asks you to choose between a few big, meaty strategies and forces you to make extreme trade-offs to pursue them. This certainly isn’t Agricola, where your goal is to be the most average and dabble in everything. In Race for the Galaxy the cards in your hand aren’t just the planets you can colonize and developments you can build – they’re also the resources you spend to do so. Translating one opportunity into reality requires you to literally trade away several others.

I know this pains some people, but as both a designer and a player I personally love it. Games rarely put the screws to players, instead telling them (true or not) anything is possible, and that every last one of us is a perfect, beautiful snowflake. Tough decisions are the core of the strategy genre, and I honestly can’t think of many games that require me to make tougher decisions (particularly ones where you can pound out a playthrough in under a half hour!).

Now then, if you’ll excuse me. I just finished unwrapping presents and have a couple of new Race for the Galaxy expansions to give a ride, and I can’t wait to see what new goodies Tom has added!

– Jon