Friday, December 27, 2013

Bonus Dice: Designing Tabletop Games for Better Game Culture (Part II)

In Part I, game researcher Mark Chen takes a look at what might create better game culture, i.e. a community of consumers and creators who think critically and reflectively about games. In Part II, he argues that tabletop gaming should receive the same level of academic interest as digital gaming.

The High Fashion Phenomenon

And yet BGG is only a small part of tabletop gaming. It may seem that the tabletop community is pretty monolithic given how much a one-stop site BGG is, but, outside of the net, tabletop gaming is surprisingly scattered. I’m reminded of this every week as I attend meetings of a local board game Meetup group. The regular attendees come from all walks of life. Among others, there’s techie people (which could just be because we’re in Seattle, though there is an interesting intermingling between tech and board games), a lawyer, and a bunch of service industry folks. Very few are academics, and most of them don’t really know BGG exists.
Toshiyuki Hashitani’s wooden board by Wolfgangs SpeileParadies for Settlers of Catan
Still, I suspect the movements and fervor found on BGG trickles down. It’s like high fashion setting certain trends that eventually trickle down to Walmart shoppers. The games that become popular were popular on BGG first. Maybe another analogy is with digital gamers who buy AAA games and new hardware every season: They push (perhaps too uncritically) the industry in certain directions and generally make it grow, which then allows for a whole slew of other players to follow in their wake (who may not even know there’s a wake they’re following).

A Disconnect?

Most of these players also don’t know about the recent rise of games journalism, criticism, and activism (love Ligman's TWIVGB). For all the work we’ve seen in the last couple of years pushing for inclusivity in gaming and examining games deeply, none of it is hitting on-the-ground gamers… Wait. Is that true? Admittedly, most of the work being done is on the digital gaming front, so looking at local tabletop meetup groups and saying something about the work with digital games’ reach is probably not fair. Okay, so I’ll just say this: Tabletop criticism and journalism is massively threadbare, and I hope places like Shut Up & Sit Down herald a new trend in rectifying this. Hopefully, more academic research will also look to tabletop gaming.

Serious Leisure and DIY Gamers

Jared’s Magic Realm build using carthaginian’s redesign
One of the most fascinating pockets of community on BGG are the hobbyists (a huge “serious leisure” literature repository that everyone should learn about) who make their own versions of out-of-print games. Take a look at all the cool remakes of Magic Realm (MR), for example. It’s a game with a cult following for its intricate simulation of a fantasy setting and its detailed and nuanced combat system. What’s really cool about MR is that a BGG user, Karim “carthaginian” Chakroun, wanted to try the game but discovered that he’d have to make the game first. It turns out, he’s a graphic designer and he decided to produce a set of PDFs with new artwork that anyone can download to make their own copy of MR! (Game rules can’t be copyrighted, but artwork is protected, so, to recreate a game, players have to change up the art.) As it happens, carthaginian has made lots of custom artwork for out-of-print games *and* he’s moved onto professional graphic design for games, such as Alien Frontiers!

Alien Frontiers

Carthaginian and other BGG users who engage in this DIY practice represent an interesting intersection between tabletop gaming and crafting/making. They share tips and tricks and how-to guides, much like what you’d find on Instructables. There’s also a number of BGG users who are amateur designers, releasing their own “print and play” games through BGG as PDFs.

Use Tabletop Game Design to Understand Games Better  

This, then, represents a different way games scholars and critics can get into making games. Tabletop design can be a more approachable pathway for non-techie people. It’s easy to grab a deck of cards and think through new game mechanics or to grab a used game from a thrift store and mod the rules or write new rules using the same components. It becomes more important to think about the manual for a designed game (something which is often absent for digital games), and this forces a different kind of dialog between the designer and players. I believe this difference pushes the designer to think about the boundaries of the game and cohesiveness of theme to rules in a different way than what’s afforded by digital game design.

So, yeah, (if you’ll allow me to switch to 2nd person…) make your own games! Make both digital and tabletop games! And, yes, the first game will likely suck. Learning is most effective through failure. This is as true in designing games as in playing games.

[This article originally appeared on Critical Gaming Project’s new blog series, Better Game Culture]  

Mark Chen is an independent researcher of gaming culture and spare-time game designer. He also holds appointments at Pepperdine, UW Bothell, and UOIT, teaching a variety of online and offline courses on game studies and games for learning. He recently wrote a book, Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. Currently, Mark is making games to promote critical thinking and cooperation and researching the communication practices of users. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bonus Dice: Designing Tabletop Games for Better Game Culture (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game researcher Mark Chen takes a look at what might create better game culture, i.e. a community of consumers and creators who think critically and reflectively about games.

image from barefootliam at deviant art!
I’m going to make two statements (interleaved with ideas) that converge later.

What is Better Game Culture?

One is that, as we argue for better game culture, I think we’re basically arguing for more critical and reflective consumers, creators, and scholars of games and gaming practice. “More” in the sense that we just need proportionally more people who do think critically and reflectively about games and gaming. But also “more” in the sense that who we do have are continually learning and making connections and generally becoming better at what they do.

Use Game Design to Understand Games Better

And one of the best ways to learn how to think about games, their structures, and experiences is to make them. By making games and thinking through player experiences as they navigate rules and systems, a designer really starts to pay attention to cohesiveness and the internal logics of a game’s space. Equipped with this experience, the designer starts to also see other games differently, understanding that sometimes intent just doesn’t match up with underlying mechanics whether that’s due to technical limitations or something inherently flawed with the design structure. When the narrative or theme is supported by the game’s rules (sometimes in place as a holdover from whatever genre tradition the game is following), it can be an extremely beautiful experience, such as with the case for some players of Depression Quest or Lim.

Speaking of Lim, Merritt’s previous article speaks to a diversification and inclusion of gaming (which really can’t happen fast enough… and I don’t think is going to happen unless we continually fight for it), and something that should be stressed is how relatively low the barriers to making small digital games are these days (once you get past the initial barriers of social structure and disparate everyday experience, as Merritt aptly points out). Indeed, the hardest part of making interactive fiction games in Twine or Inklewriter, is the writing! Even 2D platformers, top-down JRPGs, and point-n-click adventure games can be made pretty easily these days with GameMaker, Construct, RPGMaker, and Adventure Game Studio.

The Rise of Tabletop Gaming

The second statement is that tabletop gaming (i.e., gaming with and around board and card games) is experiencing a massive growth and golden age right now, and, just as with digital games, a lot of community and culture around tabletop games is supported and afforded by the net. It’d be very easy to get lost in the forums of BoardGameGeek (BGG).

In fact, BoardGameGeek has a crazy extensive database of tabletop games. If a game is played with physical material and had some sort of distribution (as in, it’s not just a game cousin Jane made up and shared with her brother), it’s in BGG’s database. Each game has its own set of forums that cover reviews, strategies, house rules, clarifications, news, issues, etc. Then there are non-game specific forums, such as regional ones to help people meet up with other players, general boardgame news, reviews of iOS and Android ports of favorite games, etc. (A whole bunch could be said here about affinity groups and literature on digital media and learning.)

[This article originally appeared on Critical Gaming Project’s new blog series, Better Game Culture]  

Mark Chen is an independent researcher of gaming culture and spare-time game designer. He also holds appointments at Pepperdine, UW Bothell, and UOIT, teaching a variety of online and offline courses on game studies and games for learning. He recently wrote a book, Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. Currently, Mark is making games to promote critical thinking and cooperation and researching the communication practices of users.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Auctions as a Game Balancing Tool

In this article, game design instructor Sebastian Sohn gives a summary of different auction types used in board games.

Auctions are widely used in board games as an in-game mechanic or as a meta game.

Auctions are how conflicts are resolved in life. Auctions deal with the what economists call "unlimited wants yet limited resources." Auctions are also great for game design for several reasons including:
  1. Realism and use in day-to-day life.
  2. It’s a balancing tool; allowing the designer the ability to offer asymmetrical starting resources, yet places game balancing in the hands of the players.
  3. Finding the right price is an enjoyable game of its own. 

Auction Use in Board Games

Axis & Allies 
English Auction used as meta-game balancing tool.

In this WWII-based board game, the Allies tend to win more often due to historically accurate (Allies won) but poor game balancing. In many tournaments, players bid to play as the Allies. The winning bid is paid to the low-bid player, who then begins the game as the Axis Powers. This allows for a more balanced game, as the Axis player can now use this influx of resources to strengthen his strategy.

No Thanks! 
English Auction used to avoid a penalty.

No Thanks! has an interesting twist to auctions. In normal auctions, players pay to win something, while in No Thanks!, you pay to avoid penalty points. Every round, a card with penalty points ranging in 3-35 points is offered. In turn order player may take the penalty points or bid one chip. If you take the card, you take the penalty points and the chips on top that you can use to avoid other cards.

Vegas Showdown 
Multiple English Auction occurring simultaneously
Play Vegas Showdown AI for free, costs to play with people 

This game’s auction offers a multiple items simultaneously. Players bid in turn order. If one gets outbid, that player is bumped off auction block and can bid on something else next turn. Being bumped usually triggers a chain of bidders being bumped from item to item until everyone's ideal price is reached. This is similar to the rules of a White Elephant Gift Exchange, a holiday party game used to distribute gifts.

Modern Art 
Multiple types of auctions

Modern Art is a pure auction game where you act as buyer and seller of modern art painting. Continuous turn-based English, once around English, sealed, buyout auctions are featured. When you sell a painting, money goes to the selling player, not the bank. This is a great game to play to learn how different auctions work.

Auction Basics

Most auctions end when the highest bidder pays for and receives an item. Auctions have two prices--the bid price and ask price--as well as two parties: the buyer (bidder) and the seller (asker). When the bid and ask price are equal, a sale is made. Where the payment ends up is important in a game's economic system. Some examples where the proceeds end up:

Monopoly: when a property is auctioned off, all proceeds go to the bank. And yes, Monopoly has auctions if you play by the official rules.

Modern Art: the seller receives all proceeds for paintings sold unless she buys her own offer. If one buy their own offered painting, then the seller pays the bank.

Hollywood Blockbuster: the proceeds of the auction are distributed equally to all other players.

Common Auctions

English auction
Any bidder may offer a bid at any time until the auction’s close. Each bidder can bid or rebid at any moment. This is the most common auction in life and can be emotional, causing people to become irrational and overbid.  

Turn-Based English Auction
Since English auctions can be hectic, loud and highly emotional, many games use a turn-based approach: each Player raises the bid in turn order or passes. To shorten the auctions, most games will not allow a bidder to reenter the auction once the bidder passes. English auction may be continuous, each bidder keeps bidding higher multiple times in turn order or may be once around, declare one and only one bid in turn order.

Sealed (first-price) Auction
Bids are submitted secretly to the seller; participants do not know each other's bids. This style is commonly used in real estate sale and by the US government to procure contractors.

Vickrey Auction (sealed-bid second-price auction)
A sealed auction, the highest bidder wins but pays the second highest bid. Used as quick auction that has similar results to a English auction. Proxy bid by Ebay and US Treasury securities sales use an auctions similar to Vickrey. War of Attrition, uses an auction similar to Vickrey to simulate and analyze human behavior. War of Attrition is used in branch of mathematics called game theory as a scientific model.

Exotic Auctions

All-Pay Auction
Auction that has the highest bidder winning, but all bidders end up paying. This is used as model for political campaigns or lobbying. It’s good for auctioning abstract resources like turn order (initiative). In Age of Steam game, turn order is auctioned in this manner, but only the top two bidders pay.  

Top-Up Auction
This is a variation of the all-pay auction. Winner pays as usual but the losers pay out the difference in between their bid and the next lower bid. Top-Up Auctions are commonly used by charities as fund raisers.  

Dutch Auctions
A high asking price if offered and is steadily dropped until a buyer accepts. The dutch tulip market and the US Treasury both use this style of auction. Ebay used to offer this type of auction as a way to sell multiple, identical items to multiple buyers. It has a similar effect to sealed auctions, as only the winner’s bid is known. Buyout Auction The seller offers with a fixed price. Ebay uses Buy-It-Now on top of their standard auction as way to purchase immediately at a preset price, rather than wait for the end of an auction.  

Reverse Auction
The roles of buyers (bidders) and sellers (askers) are reversed. Asks are lowered until a bidder accepts. In traditional auctions, multiple bidders usually compete for one good or service offered by one seller, while in a reverse auction, multiple sellers compete to provide goods or services to one buyer. and Lending Tree use this model by acting as brokers in pooling large number of sellers to few buyers.

Walrasian Auction
In a Walrasian Auction, both bid and ask prices are adjusted for in batches, until an equilibrium priced is reached. This is similar to how the stock market works. A similar auction style can be found in the video game, M.U.L.E.

[This article originally appeared on Sebastian Sohn’s personal blog.] 

Sebastian Sohn is a "well played" game player, critic, and game design instructor. He is especially fascinated by the use of games as an experiential teaching aid and constantly on the lookout for tabletop games, videogames, and roleplaying games that teach life skills.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

December 2013: Board Games

Hello and welcome to December 2013's topic:  Board Games!  This topic is just a reminder that while the IGDA Game Design SIG and this blog does favor digital games, we also are interested in board games and other types of games. 

After all, many computer game designers, as Erin Robinson described in her article, Building Treehouse, first conceptualize their design prototypes as board games.  While pitching my design for a game to help young adults realize the importance of saving for the future, called Rainy Day Castle, I set up a table with a crudely drawn tower and various stand-in pieces for gold and monsters.  Not only did this help by-standers understand how to play the game, but this set-up also provided me with future insights about how to improve my game design.  Game design instructors often ask their students to design board games, as was mentioned in this recent article on GDAM

Renowned game designers are interested in ALL games, not just video games.  Brenda Romero, game designer in residence at the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Center for Games and Playable Media, designed several board games, including Train, for a series called The Mechanic is the Message.

So let me know about your board game experiences!  And remember to follow the submission guidelines.