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

TGDRT

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 #56: SeaFall, with Rob Daviau

TGDRT

Episode #56 is live!

Jon and Dirk are paid a return visit by first-ever TGDRT guest Rob Daviau to talk about ‘SeaFall’, his new exploration legacy tabletop game, Rob’s company ‘IronWall Games’, and his hopes for further innovation in the genre he helped create.

Whether the red light is blinking or offline, conversations with Rob are always highly entertaining and this was no exception. This was the first time Rob really talked about SeaFall, and I have no doubt it’ll be just as unique and groundbreaking as Risk: Legacy. Hopefully Dirk and I can get him to sneak us one of those test kits in the mail…

The only discussion point that made me raise my eyebrows is that Rob seems to be specifically targeting consistent, long-term playgroups. It’s great when you have a few friends who can meet up regularly, but most of my tabletop gaming is characterized by people coming and going, around some weeks and gone others (a sin I’m guilty of as well!). The legacy elements in Rob’s Risk adaptation are important without being dominating, but it seems SeaFall taking this road quite a bit further.

Rob noted he isn’t leaving these folks completely out in the cold, but at the end of the day you have to decide what your focus is and lean one way or the other. Perhaps that’s the luxury of being in the ‘hobby’ space rather than mainstream. Don’t get me wrong, I have no qualms at all with the direction – hell, the more unique the game the better! It’s just an interesting decision that caught my attention and thought was worth commenting on further.

So how about you? What do your tabletop groups usually look like? Does Rob’s approach offer exactly what you’re looking for, or have your experiences been more like my own?

– Jon

The Game Design Round Table #2

The second episode of the new podcast Dirk Knemeyer and I have partnered up for is now live. Here’s the description from our official website:

Risk: Legacy designer and newly-minted indie game design company owner Rob Daviau joins Dirk and Jon to talk about a wide-range of topics including memory and persistence in games, innovation, and starting your own game company. Spelunky, Stone Age, Lords of Waterdeep, Civilization and other games are discussed.

– Jon