Today we’re thrilled to be joined by Dominic Crapuchettes of North Star Games. Almost ten years ago, my introduction to Wits & Wagers was one of the key experiences that unlocked my own pursuit into the mystical world of modern board games. I’ve had the chance to learn a lot about Dominic over the last few weeks, but I’ll let him describe his own journey as a board game designer and publisher:
My family did not watch much TV. We played board games instead. I still have a copies of several games I designed when I was 11. When I was 13, one of my games (Kabloogi) was banned from school because too many students were playing it during class. My final project in high school was a business plan for the game company I dreamed of starting.
I became addicted to Magic: The Gathering in college, but after taking home $15k from the 1998 New York pro tour, I realized I was more passionate about creating games than playing them. So I jumped ship as the captain of an Alaskan salmon fishing boat and started North Star Games. I’m glad I did – our three most popular games (Wits & Wagers, Say Anything, and Evolution) have sold over 2 million copies combined.
North Star Game’s latest project, Evolution: Climate is fully funded on Kickstarter and currently knocking down stretch goals at it approaches the final days of the campaign. Dominic sat down with us to answer our questions about his latest design work, game development and his thoughts on trends in the industry:
Games Precipice: Welcome Dominic, thank you for joining us! For those of us who may not yet be familiar with it, what is Evolution and how did its ideas hatch into a game?
Dominic: Evolution is a family of games that builds upon the ideas of a Russian biologist, Dmitry Knorre. It has made a name for itself in the scientific community because of the vivid way it simulates an ecosystem. An article about Evolution was recently published in the journal Nature, the world’s most prestigious scientific journal. It was written by Stuart West, a professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oxford, who is currently using Evolution in one of his classes.
Previous attempts at evolution-themed games have approached the subject by applying mechanics from one of two genres: area control wargames, or civilization games with tech trees. Both of these frameworks don’t quite work for evolution. The heart and soul of Evolution is an ever-changing ecosystem where players continually adapt in order to survive and thrive.
Earlier this year we launched our Mid-Game Structures series; a few perspectives of how games change their environments to keep the experience engaging. This article is part of our ongoing series titled Game Structures in which we continue to build on a foundation of game design concepts.
Building on Concepts: A Quick Review of Player Interaction
When we last left off, Matt looked at Player Interaction in games, which used a multi-category approach to help define the type and significance of interaction between players:
Degree of Interaction: This is an assessment of the degree of overlap or intensity players have with one another within the game environment. It creates spectrum ranging from No Interaction (which is akin to individual players quietly working on puzzles in opposite corners of a room) to Direction Interaction (which would be more like if the players needed to steal pieces from one another in order to finish their own puzzle).
Our topic today is Player Strategies and we’ll be pairing this axis with a second criteria to help us categorize how games influence the starting strategies of players. Let’s look at that second criteria:
What is a player’s time horizon to plan actions?
The next thing we want to examine is how short or long-term oriented player decisions tend to be in a given game, or what we call our Time Horizon. If you’re more comfortable with it, you can think of this as our comparison of Tactics vs Strategy; strategy being the large scale focus or objective(s) needed to achieve success, and tactics being the specific steps or tasks you need to perform to implement your strategy.
We’re excited to return to our ongoing series titled “Game Structures”, a series of topics we’ve organized to help understand the foundations of successful game design. Our initial run of articles covered “Early Game Structures”; aspects of games such as initial starting positions and resources, the value of turn order and key decision points that help to generate replay value and keep players coming back time and time again.
Our follow-up titled “Mid Game Structures” focused on prolonging player engagement the core of the game experience. We covered topics like player ecology to help drive player motivations and player interaction and player strategy which allow player choices to pivot and create new and interesting decisions during games.
During the next few months we’ll be tackling “End Game Structures” which help to drive player satisfaction and help to bring players back to the table again and again. As part of the series we’ll be looking at end game conditions, scoring methodologies and otherwise satisfying elements of game design we’ve encountered in games. To help guide us, we’re going to look at two key questions, how do players factor into the end of the game, and how do the ending conditions of the game factor into the game’s design? Let’s get started.
Question #1: How do player’s factor into the end of the game?
Longtime readers of Games Precipice might have noticed my enthusiasm for mapping design problems to a couple of orthogonal dimensions, and I think the same sort of analysis is useful here. The first axis might be the more obvious: to what extent can the players control when the game ends?
Players have No Control
No Control: Players take the backseat while the game grabs the wheel and drives to the final destination. The “Uber” of end game conditions.
Games at this end of the axis end when they end, and the players can’t do anything about it. The most common way to implement this condition is to have the game last a fixed number of rounds or turns, then the game ends, and a winner is crowned. Terra Mystica lasts six rounds, period. Small World lasts between 8 and 10 rounds, depending on the number of players. Of course, this doesn’t mean that players have no control over the flow or pacing of the game: each player may accomplish a different amount of stuff each turn, and each turn may last a different amount of time. But each player gets only a certain allotment of turns to accomplish their strategy.
“No control” may sound like a bad thing given how much we’ve focused on player control as a per se good in game design, but there are a lot of advantages to having a mechanically enforced end point over one that the players can control. First, it’s completely objective and happens the same way every time, so it will not come as a surprise to any players (assuming you remember to slide the round marker down the track). This means there are no “mah jong” moments where one of your opponents suddenly fulfills a victory condition that you thought was at least three turns away, abruptly ending the game for everyone and creating a lot of satisfaction for one player but confusion for the rest.