Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Importance of Mechanics

Awhile back I talked about the importance of Theme.  In it I said I would talk about Mechanics, so here's that discussion.

If theme is what draws someone to a game, mechanics are what keeps someone coming back.  Let me take a step back here and define game mechanics. Game mechanics are what makes a game work.  They are the things that players do on their turn, and the things they must do in order to win.  In a very simplistic take, they are the rules of the game.  Some general mechanics in games are dice rolling, worker placement, set collection, auctions, trading, and resource management.

So that's what mechanics are, but I still haven't addressed why they're important.  Mechanics are what make a game tick.  If there isn't much there, you have Candyland, or any of the mindless dribble that fills your local box box store with the release of some big movie.

Let's look at some well known games.  I'll start with Ticket to Ride.  The mechanics are rather simple, either draw cards, play cards, or take more tickets.  Even though they're simple, there are options.  Do you use that wild card to take a route now, or do you chance it one more time?  Can you afford to risk more tickets?  Those choices keep the game interesting, and give it a lot of replayability.  It's an excellent example of a game that doesn't have deep mechanics still using some simple concepts to be great.

Another popular game to look at is Dominion.  In Dominion players create a deck of actions money and victory cards.  At the end of the game, you want to have the most victory points.  However, you can't accomplish this by only buying victory cards, you have to use action and money cards to build an engine that allows you to buy more expensive cards.  The basics of Dominion are rather simple thought.  Play cards, buy a card, discard everything, draw 5 new cards, next player goes.  All the mechanics come from the cards themselves.  Each action card does something different, and with close to 200 cards currently, and only 10 in each game, there is a lot of replayability.

Simple mechanics can create a great game system.  They allow for the game to add complexity in different forms.  Sometimes it's with modules or different expansions.  Other times the depth is created by the players.  Regardless of how things are accomplished, a game without good mechanics is doomed to the bargain bin and dust collection.

Great mechanics alone do not make a game, but they sure go a long way in people coming back for more.  Theme is great too, but mechanics are the great necessity.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

An Interview with Peter Olotka (Cosmic Encounter, Dune)

This isn't my standard fare, but seeing as how BoBG is lagging a bit right now, I thought I'd change things up with an interview.  Please welcome Peter Olotka to the BoBG world.

D: You’re probably best known for Cosmic Encounter, both the board game and the online site, what else have you worked on game wise?
P: Well, with our company Eon Products we designed: HOAX, QUiRKS, RUNES, BORDERLANDS, DARKOVER. We also designed DUNE for Avalon Hill. In my archives there are probably a few dozen un published board games. Over my entire career, board games are a small fraction of the design work. see
D: Here’s a question about origins from reader Chrissa M.  What made you want to design a board game in the first place, and then can you describe the process of how Cosmic Encounter came to be? 
P: We wanted a science fiction game because we couldn't find any in 1971. Science Fiction has no restrictions. Crafting underlying principles are an important place for the designer to start. I mean, really start here. Draw up a list of principles to follow and /or elements for your game to have. Then design with them in mind. Here were ours:
  • No dice allowed
  • Everyone had to be different
  • Play would offer compromise and conflict
  • No one would be eliminated 
  • Players could win together
  • Each game would be different (re-playability)
  • License to cheat. Pretty much all players in all games would just love to be able to peek. Just a little. Woot! Almost all the early Cosmic aliens were hatched from a player wishing “If only …”
  • I could see what she has (Mind)
  • I could get a do-over (Chronos)
  • I could get rid of this junk (Philanthropist)
  • I couldn't die (Zombie)

I think it can be profoundly liberating to make a list of things you want your game to be and to not be and then stick to them. Think about your likes and dislikes in the games you've played and then try to settle on what you want your game to feel like.
D: That's a great help for aspiring game designers such as myself. I think that so often people get overwhelmed by what could be in a game that they try to do too much. I feel that a lot of the basics in Cosmic make it easy to learn, but that variety leaves room for so much depth.  
Why do you think that Cosmic is stilled played today, and is perhaps more popular than it ever was?
P: The alien(s) are really controlling us all and they think it's necessary for the Human race to mature before we can be let off the planet.
D: I have to ask this, what is your favorite alien power and why?
P: Philanthropist, because it can control the deck by giving away it's junk, getting a new hand, keeping others from getting new hands, and it can give an ally a winning card, give a player an artifact to that players advantage and no one ever zaps it. After all its just giving away stuff. How scary is that?
D: I think it is often the seemingly innocent powers that give players the most room to work. Everyone will try to stop Virus, Warpish, even something like Pacifist, but background powers like Philanthropist, Chosen, Xenophile, and Observer kinda go unnoticed. It's a very interesting dimension that power variety brings to the game.  
I think the power of the Philanthropist is something many players overlook. Still to this day, my original play group who has had the Eon edition since 1977 will see that someone has Philanthropist and say "I'm sorry." I sit there and smile when it's me because I know I have control over my hand.  
Following up on that idea: This comes to us from Nick M.   Was a core mechanic always going to be hand management the way it is now, or has it come a long way from its initial design?  To clarify, what Nick is talking about is the progression in learning Cosmic.  Many new players fixate on the powers that they neglect the core of the game.  Then at some point people seem to learn that the game focuses on hand management.
P: Hand management was there at the start since there were aliens that won low, won with compromise (now negotiates), took the other players used card (filch) kept its own Clone. On and on.
D: This comes to us from reader Roger S. Did you ever intend the game to be played with multiple powers per player? 
P: Yes we suggested multiple powers in the Eon editions. But I think the idea was generated by players at cons. I have seen players play 5 aliens at a time.
D: Wow! I often played with three powers in the Eon set, now two with FFG. I could see a 5 power game once in awhile, but not as a steady diet.  I think that speaks to the variety in Cosmic. Players have so many different things to add in to make it their own. In the Eon edition you had Lucre and Moons, in FFG you have Tech, Defender Rewards, Hazards, and Team Play. That's not even scratching the surface of fan developed content. 
Did you and your design team ever imagine that Cosmic would grow in the multitude of ways that it has?
P: I don't think we foresaw where it was going. But I do know that once we decided that it could have more than 6 aliens (the original prototype) we felt that it was unlimited. It did, however take us three years to realize the expansed alien potential. More expansions can be developed as long as there is demand. With the current Fan Expansion that players are working on in Facebook,, we are trying to design content that pushes the cosmic envelope as much as possible.

D: I’ve been involved as a cross-checker for the fan expansion.  If anyone has ideas they’d like to contribute, feel free to stop by and help out.

Peter, thank you so much for your time and great responses. It was a true pleasure talking Cosmic Encounter and games in general with you.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Magic: Cost, Fun, and Balance

Back in the April Update I offered that anyone could take some time and talk about something related to gaming. One of my friends, Chris, took me up on the offer.  Chris and I played games in college, but he has a fairly different gaming history than I do.  I won't spoil too much, just know that his words are well thought out, and unedited.
A couple of weeks ago, David and I were talking about games and other stuff when I suggested to him that it might be fun to hear from people who play tabletop-style games other than boardgames.  To my surprise, he remembered that I have played Magic: The Gathering for some years now and invited me to write a guest post on trading/collectible card games (TCG/CCGs).  Since Magic is pretty much the only TCG I’ve played I’ll write about that, but I’ll try to make general comments about the genre and relate the discussion back to the theme of BoBG, namely boardgames.
For those unfamiliar with Magic, it is a collectible/trading card game published by Wizards of the Coast.  The premise is that two (or more) players take on the role of dueling “Planeswalkers,” drawing on the land to cast spells represented by the cards in their decks.  The last Planeswalker to avoid exhausting either lifepoints or cards in their deck wins.  So far, except for the mention of decks this could describe any boardgame just as well as a TCG.  The obvious difference in the two genres comes from the fact that boardgames are typically completely encapsulated in one package, whereas TCGs are purchased in packs containing quasi-randomly distributed cards.  The consequence of this game model is that, relative to the boardgames I have played, Magic (and I suspect most all TCGs) features far more dynamic gameplay.  
What I mean is that since the game designers don’t know what elements will be present in any given game, the cards in the game establish many of the rules.  Some readers may be thinking of Cosmic Encounter at this point, and for good reason; Cosmic was one of the major inspirations for Magic.  However, Magic goes further than Cosmic in that the entire setup of the battlefield will change over the course of a game of Magic, whereas the landscape is essentially set at the beginning of a game of Cosmic.  To prevent a game of Magic from changing uncontrollably quickly, players are given a lot of freedom to interrupt each other and a player’s turn is therefore far less sacrosanct than in a boardgame, which tends to induce a lot more player interaction.  Control of the way the game changes and hampering opponents’ actions (two sides of the same coin) are therefore really the heart of the mechanics of Magic.
Now, while this setup makes for some of the most enjoyable gameplay I’ve experienced, it has some rather deep pitfalls.  The first is that, to be quite honest, Magic is an expensive hobby.  Coming in at about $4 per 15-card pack, it takes a moderate amount of money to build up a collection of decent cards.  Singles can be purchased, but they are typically more expensive for the good cards.  To make matters worse, about once every two years all the cards currently on the market cease to be tournament-legal.  That means that a player is either reduced to playing informally with friends or must start over and build a new collection (one reason, I suspect, that people sometimes refer to the publishers as “Wizards of the Cost”).  I personally never play in tournaments for this reason and because I like to play with many of the old cards, but this cuts me off from a lot of the Magic-playing community.  This also explains why I have only ever played Magic among all the TCGs out there: it is simply too expensive to purchase the cards needed to play multiple systems.  
The other major downside to Magic is that it is pretty complicated.  There are quite literally hundreds (if not thousands) of rulings to pore over if a player wants to learn the nuances of the game, and every expansion adds more to the mix.  This means that a new player must invest a substantial amount of time in achieving fluency in the game mechanics in order to construct a superior deck.  Achieving a sufficiently wide knowledge of cards is also necessary to understand what is possible.  These are significant barriers to TCGs in general and I suspect commonly prevent people from playing these games.
What may surprise some people is that I actually like almost everything I’ve written here about Magic (except for the price).  I like learning complicated systems, and I like that the strategy of Magic relies on both constructing a good deck and having a deep knowledge of the rules.  Many times I have seen a bleak situation turned into a win and vice versa by knowing (or not knowing) the details of a specific rule.  That strategy and knowledge goes into building a deck before ever playing, and the creativity it allows is incredibly satisfying.  
For better or for worse, this becomes the standard against which I often judge other games I play, including boardgames.  Often when I find myself consistently unable to meddle with my opponents’ plans my enthusiasm for a game begins to cool.  Similarly, when I begin to perceive that a game doesn’t allow for innovative ways to achieve my ends, I find my interest waning.  David once quipped that I never win at Cosmic, and he’s right, but that’s because at some point I start to grow disinterested in merely winning: I want to find out just how many ways it is possible to win.  Often enough my strategies fail, but if I get to try something new then it’s enough for me.  Are there other mechanics that make it fun to play games?  Certainly; finding traitors in one’s midst (a la Mafia/Werewolf) is a good example, but even without these mechanics I will happily keep coming back for more as long as a game continues to let me innovate.
I think this is a good point to wrap things up since this post has already become longer than I had intended it to be.  Clearly I cannot convey the actual experience of playing Magic here, but I hope that anyone reading this has at least found some interest in seeing boardgames through the eyes of someone who primarily has played TCGs.  Big thanks to David for letting me ramble on his blog, and happy gaming.

Thank-you Chris for taking the time to write thoughtfully about an often debated topic in the gaming world.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Importance of Theme

This is in no way meant to minimize the importance of game mechanics, their day will come soon, but I find myself drawn in by a theme before the mechanics, so that's why theme gets the first post.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we?  Games like Candyland, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Chutes and Ladders, Hi-Ho-Cherryo, Mousetrap, etc., all have fun themes for young kids.  They box covers are vibrant and engaging, and the game continues the motif.  I doubt many of us would call those games with great themes, but they do engage the target audience.

Let's look at my top 20 games.  Games with high theme are Cosmic, Battlestar Galactica, Eminent Domain, Star Trek Fleet Captains, Shadows over Camelot, Rattus, Forbidden Island, Pandemic, Catacombs, RTtA, Space Hulk, Small World, and 1960.  That's 13/20.  All the other games do have a theme, but they aren't as crucial to the game as the theme in the prior games.

Before I go any further, let's look at what theme does for a game.  A great theme draws people in.  You don't often hear someone say "come over and play that great roll and move game!" You hear "let's play that new space game, or that new civilization building game." The best of themes tell a story.  They lead to stories you can tell days, months, even years later.  You rarely hear a story about say Agricola that goes, "yeah, it was this awesome game, I won by 2 points because I got 1 more sheep than the other guy."  You want grand tales to tell, like that one time in Shadows Over Camelot where everyone thought the traitor was going to win, and the knights pulled it out right at the end.

Now, theme caries a vast risk.  If a game is built around a theme, several things can happen.  First, the theme can fall flat for a group.  I tried played the Game of Thrones game with my group last year, and it just didn't work for a couple reasons, but the theme was part of it.  Being able to play the game at a high level was helped if one knew the source material.  Second, if there are no mechanics to make the game interesting, you end up wanting a real game, regardless of the theme.  For proof, look at the countless movie and tv tie-in games that exist with no real game behind them.  Yes, there are some that shine, but the vast number of them end up on Goodwill shelves.

Theme isn't everything in a board game.  If it were, the whole abstract genre wouldn't exist.  Theme isn't even the most important thing in all games, but it is a nice bonus.  Ideally, I like my games to have a mix of theme and mechanics.  Basically, let there be a theme, let it not turn me off the game, and then have a solid game structure.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Star Runner Part 2 The Why

I think the first question any aspiring designer has to ask themselves is why do I want to design x?  Without a reason, designing something is essentially meaningless.  So one must ask themselves some questions.  What do I want my design to do?  Who is my target audience?  What is different about my design?

Ok, that's all the abstract thought going on.  Let me swing it back to Star Runner.  Why Star Runner?  Why have I chosen to spend chunks of my free time since the summer of 2010 on one game?  Well, the short answer is, because it's been fun.  The longer answer follows, just stick with me.  Star Runner started as a board game version of the TV show Firefly.  It was a fun theme to work with, and there was maybe one game about it that wasn't very good, so I thought it might be fun to try and make it work.  One of my friends had a book with charts and stuff about the verse, names of people, and a lot of the goings on behind the show.  It was great and all, but the design fizzled for two reasons.  First, it was the middle of school and I was terribly busy. Second, I knew that getting the license to use anything officially in Firefly would be a huge pain, especially for a first time designer.

New plan.  I should also mention that I never had a name for things, it was just this nebulous game.    Let's keep things in space, keep each player as their own entity running a ship, but let's have some more options.  I still wanted patrols to keep players on their toes, as well as a Black Market, it's just more fun that way.  The thing that really changed was eliminating the jobs.  I still wanted to move cargo, but having jobs on planets seemed like an unnecessary complication to the design, and also a way to make things longer.  (More on length later.)  I also thought that by eliminating the "petty" jobs or the "iffy" jobs, it would open up more lines of work for the players.  I find that having options in a game makes them more interesting.  So that's what I did.  No jobs on planets, simply moving goods and people between planets.  Why, because that made it streamlined, and gave you less to worry about.  Could I see on planet jobs becoming part of things, sure, but it's not in testing, and I don't think it needs one more thing.

Ultimately, I wanted to design a game that I wanted to play.  I love space games, I think it gives the designer a lot of freedom in terms of location and what you can actually do.  Aliens or just humans?  How do ships travel? Militarized ships or transports?  Lots of options.  Star Runner has a blend.  Right now, all characters are humans, but there is a lot of space out there.  Ships travel quickly, but the specifics aren't really defined, so pick your favorite method.  All ships have weapons and defenses of some kind, but some are better than others.  Any patrol ship would still crush a player's ship if it came to a fight, thus the only combat in game is between players.

You can't set out to make an epic game.  Those games are written by players.  I'm not sure that Star Runner has the ability to tell great stories, but maybe that's because I'm not a great storyteller.  I think a game represents the person or people creating it.  I like things being calculable, but I also like chance.  I like having a lot of things to do and trying to keep them all straight.

So that answers some of the whys of Star Runner.  It's also a bit twisty and turny, but that's some more info on Star Runner.

Hopefully more tests coming soon.  I've been working on the rulebook a lot.  If you'd consider reading it and giving me some feedback, I'd love to hear it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

April 2012 Update

Welcome to May! Wow, a third of the year over already.
April was a slow month for games, mostly because I was working on Star Runner (my game).  If you're interested in providing feedback on the rules, send me an e-mail or a direct message on Twitter @boardgamer89  

The biggest news of the month was the first test of Star Runner, which was fun, but revealed several problems.  I've been messing with things and plan on testing again shortly.  I did get a couple of game days in with the gaming family, so that brought up the play total to 11.  Sad that it's a lower total than February, but happy days are soon to come.  My sister returns from school in a week, and that should lead to the return of weekend games with my family once in awhile.
The running total is now 93 which puts the projected year total at 279, which would be 21 plays short of my goal of 300.  (Looking at 2011, my highest set of 4 months of plays was April-July, so plays pick up with summer)

I acquired two new games, Star Trek Expeditions, which I got in a trade for Star Trek CCG cards, and Lemonade Stand from Kickstarter.

My unplayed game count is now at 15 due to gaining ST: Expeditions, and selling Descent.

  • Tales of the Arabian Nights (soon)
  • RoboRally (soon)
  • ST: Expeditions
  • Zooloretto 
  • Coloretto (Soon)
  • Elder Sign
  • Descent  Sold!
  • Scrabble Slam 
  • Monopoly Express 
  • Clue Express 
  • Battleship Express 
  • Crappy Birthday
  • S'quarrels 
  • Risk 2210 AD (Risk Legacy takes precedent)
  • Settlers of Canaan (no rush since I have other means of playing Catan)
  • High Bid 
April saw the 4,000th page view for this blog which is incredible in under 6 months, thank-you all so much for that.  
I didn't get as many reviews as I would have liked done. (This is kinda a running story)

From the March Update
"April should hold a full review for the following
  • 7 Wonders - DONE, see the videos
  • Star Trek Fleet Captains - Not Done
  • Cosmic Alliance (Cosmic Encounter Expansion) - DONE.
I'm going to try to get a few done in May
  • Star Trek Fleet Captains
  • Lemonade Stand
  • Pizza Theory

State of the 2012 Resolutions
  • Play every game I own that I've yet to play at least once (Current count is 10 15) 
  • Finish Risk Legacy (15 plays total, meaning 11 to go) 
  • Log 300 game plays (not counting expansions. This was originally 250, but I realized that last year my count was 292, so I aim to go higher) 93/300
  • Trade/give away the games I won't ever play (Looking at you Android) (Sold Descent)
  • Introduce at least one new person to Cosmic Encounter - DONE
  • Organize a micro tournament of Dominion with my friends, most likely online.  DONE
  • Finish design work on my own board game design and start playtesting by June.  SOMEWHAT DONE
  • I will also predict that Eminent Domain will be my most played game of the year.  - VERY WRONG
Game plays in 2012 are
Scary Tales - 12
Pizza Theory -10
Cosmic Encounter - 9
Eminent Domain - 4

The final item of note.
I'd like to start a new segment with some guests.  Now, no one famous at first, but that gives you, yes YOU, person reading this blog a chance to come on and talk about games.
We can do a review of a game we've both played, see the Battlestar Galactica review I did with my friend Josh.
We can talk about a type of game (dice, word, puzzle, co-op, etc.)
We can talk about gaming in general.
So, what should you do?
Send me an e-mail ( with what you'd like to do for an article, and I'll do my best to make that happen.  It may take a little while to get it together, but I think getting some reader input makes things more fun.

Thank-you all for reading and comments.  You keep me energized to post articles, and continue talking about games.