January Guest Interview – Professor Chris Hlas

Written by Alex Harkey

chalkboardOne of the most amazing benefits we have as a game design blog is the chance to talk with individuals from all corners of game design. When we saw an opportunity to learn more about an academic approach to game design we jumped at the opportunity.

We are thrilled to be joined by Professor Chris Hlas who has given us a chance to learn his approach to teaching game design. Chris is professor of mathematics and also teaches a course in game design. Let’s jump right in.

Games Precipice: Welcome Chris, thank you for joining us. You might be my new favorite professor, and I’ve never been fortunate enough to take one of your courses. What can you share with us about yourself and how did you get involved in board games?

Thanks for the compliment. I am a professor of mathematics education at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. My background in mathematics means I teach the typical mathematics classes (algebra, precalculus, calculus, modern geometry) and my background in education allows me to work with preservice teachers (math for elementary teachers, technology for teachers, math methods). My research focuses on motivation in mathematics classes. As such, I have turned to games for inspiration about what is motivating in the classroom.

I have always been interested in board games. My father taught my brother and I card games like Pepper, Blackjack, and 5-card draw at young ages. I also remember learning chess from friends at elementary school.

Lost Cities

In college, I was looking for a good two-player game for my girlfriend (and future wife) to play. The game store suggested Lost Cities. We played it and were not impressed. I went looking online to see if I missed something. Through BoardgameGeek (BGG), I learned that I had missed a rule that we could take cards from the discard. This opened up the game substantially because now you could control when the game ended. I guess you could say that BGG led me down the rabbit hole of modern board games.

GP: What inspired you to create a course structured around game design, and how did you initially prepare the course?

One of my colleagues knows that I am into board games so he recommended that I create an honors course for the university. We met over lunch to discuss how to make such a course rigorous by having students develop a survey and collect data on their games.

Early on it was decided that the course would be 3 credits so I knew that we would need to meet once a week in order to have time to play games in class. Once the proposal was approved, I began collecting articles, blogs, books, videos, and anything else related to game design. After the collection process I tried to group readings around a central theme for each week’s class. Some themes we focus on include: What is a game?, What is fun?, Is conflict necessary? (leading to co-op games), etc.

I also met with a reference librarian, who is a board gamer. We expanded the library’s game collection to pick interesting games to study for the class. Further, he is a published game designer so has some interesting insights to game design process.

Finally, I looked over Jesse Schell’s syllabus for his game design course (at that time the materials were available online, now they are not). He had some practice game design projects and mentioned in an interview that his grading focus was on communication. These ideas made sense so I adapted them to my course.

GP: I’d imagine the value of a course on game design would be heavily influenced by the passion of the person teaching it. What do you find intrinsically rewarding about teaching game design?

I like seeing students try to figure out how to make their games better. Unfortunately, there is an infinite amount of ways to create or change a game so it is up to the students to make useful choices. One of the games this semester had a player elimination issue—players were not having fun once they died in the game. Using “Werewolf” as an example, the design team incorporated ghosts into their game to give eliminated players something to do.

I also like sharing different examples of all the games that are out there. Many students come from a Monopoly and Game of Life background so player elimination or random movement is all they know. I hope students walk away from the class with an appreciation of many types of games and knowledge of how difficult it is to make a good game.

GP: The ability to learn by observation certainly seems like one of the best opportunities for learning game design. What modern games do you feel make for the most interesting case studies?

The first night of class we play the following games:

  • Loco, Thor, Botswana
  • Diamant, Incan Gold

Incan Gold

These games provide an interesting case study because each set is mechanically the same, only the theme and/or the presentation of the rules have changed. What is interesting is that students have favorite games even for the “same” game. For example, some students like the animals in Botswana and others like the added variants in Thor. Aesthetics matter. Mechanics are difficult to narrow down.

Pandemic

Besides the games above, “Pandemic” is often cited as a good case study game. One reason for this is the theme, which is relevant with headline news like bird flu, SARS, and Ebola. The other reason is that Matt Leacock has many presentations and articles online about how he designed the game. It is useful for students to see early prototypes using regular playing cards and how Days of Wonder gave him feedback about player pawns and roles. See Cooperation and Engagement (Matt Leacock, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdTVcFo2EQw) for more information.

GP: Your class has an interesting approach in that students design in teams. Is there anything that you or your students tend to find frustrating about collaborating to design a game?

For clarity, students form groups of 1-3 students to design a game of their choosing. This past semester we had 9 game design projects in the class, which translated to 2 solo projects, 2 teams of three, and the rest in pairs. For the students, the frustrating thing that I saw was that they had a hard time letting go of an idea. Each playtest they would receive feedback that something was not working, but the students were so invested in that idea that they struggled to change or remove it.

For me, I find the lack of time to be the most frustrating thing. It would be great to have students read more, play more games, and have more playtests. Unfortunately, there just isn’t time in a semester to have more of all those things.

GP: What are some of the most valuable observations you’ve made from students pursuing the objectives of your class?

The goals of the class are:

  • Exposure to different types of games (specifically “Eurogames”)
  • Design a survey instrument to collect data regarding player experiences
  • Collect survey data via the experience sampling method
  • Design a game through iterative prototyping and playtesting

For goal 1, students are often surprised by the variety of games that exist. One week we are playing Carcassonne, the next Hanabi, and the next Lords of Waterdeep.

class

For goal 2, it is difficult to design anything as an entire class. The survey we designed did give some useful data to the design teams, but they could have been better. Some feedback I received from students indicates they would have liked to design their own surveys for their own games. This might be something we focus on the next time the course is taught.

For goal 3, the students do well completing surveys, which also illuminates how slight wording changes can change the meaning of a question. For example, early on our survey had a question about “What do you enjoy in a game?” This question proved to be too focused on the player and not the game so it needed to be changed.

For goal 4, students (hopefully) learn to accept critical feedback about their game without becoming defensive. One of my favorite quotations on this subject is “Everyone who dislikes your work is right” (Raph Koster, http://www.raphkoster.com/2013/10/14/on-getting-criticism/). This quotation indicates that all feedback is important, but it is still the design team’s job to deal with feedback in productive ways.

GP: Have any student-designed mechanics really impressed you? What is the biggest success story you’ve had from an instructor’s point of view?

My first semester a student designed a hockey game. He loved hockey and knew a lot about how line changes work, and advantage, and so on. I don’t know much about hockey so very little of this made sense to me. When we discussed his game, I asked him to think about how the Wii handles complexity. Wii sports games are fascinating because they distill a complex game down to one or two basic actions. Baseball, for example, is reduced to swing the bat or pitching the ball. Many aspects of more “real” baseball games are lost like stealing bases, fielding, pinch hitters, etc.

For my student’s game, he decided to include a dexterity component where players could use little hockey sticks to shoot on goal. Besides the dexterity aspect, teams would play cards to shift players around on the board and do some of the strategy stuff the student really knew a lot about. This game was a good compromise between the heavy strategy of hockey and the physical aspect of the game.

GP: One of our upcoming topics is identifying what generates “fun” in games because that can be a common goal in game design. What are some things you look for in a game that help to generate fun (or, on the other hand, perhaps reduce enjoyment) while playing?

This semester the students had difficulty identifying what fun was. On the last day, I asked the students to provide six words about what a game designer does. One group’s answer still sticks with me, “They create ‘fun’ … whatever that is.” Part of the reason for why students had difficulty identifying fun was that “surprise” seemed to be one of the key traits they zeroed in on early in the class. Surprise is a difficult thing to accomplish in a board game so students interpreted this as random events, which turned out to be a theme for the semester.

For me, I focus on two theories of fun. First is that fun is a form of learning. To explain why Tic-Tac-Toe is not fun, but new experiences are, Raph Koster says, “Fun is just another word for learning”. Sebastian Deterding expands on this idea when he states, “Fun is another word for learning through interesting challenges”. This later quotation indicates that not all learning is fun, but when the environment promotes self-determination (autonomy, competence, relatedness) then people are motivated to learn.

Of course there is more to fun that just games or learning, which brings us to Caillois’s theory of paidia and ludo. My understanding is that Caillois thinks that fun spans between two poles: paidia (play, creativity, spontaneity) and ludo (games, skills, rules). Put in other terms, fun is a continuum between being playful and being gameful.

GP: You’ve been able to observe plenty of game designers teaching their fellow classmates new games, and this is probably something we can always be improving at: communicating our ideas.
What qualities or characteristics can game designers continue to develop to make teaching a new game a better experience?

Students in the class had to teach their own game and had to teach two different existing games. About half of the time the students were well prepared and half the time the students were not. When students were not prepared, it was usually because they merely watched a video about the game then tried to teach it. This did not go well because the teacher did not actually experience playing the game. Games are something to be experienced, not watched.

My general guidelines for teaching a game are the same as my guidelines for teaching in general—start with big ideas then work to the small ideas. First, start with an overview of the game. Next, get to the goal. The biggest mistake I see when people teach games is introducing the goal at the end. Next, go into any big structures of the game, if applicable (e.g., “Power Grid is played over three steps”). Now go into what a player can do on his or her turn. The player has an idea of what the goal of the game is. Thus the player actions now have purpose and the player can begin strategizing how to achieve the goal. Without knowing the goal the player actions are just a bunch of rules without purpose. Finally, I go into rules exceptions and other weirdness that is relevant for a player to start the game.

If I can, I will delay some rules to when they are relevant. For example, in Ticket to Ride I only discuss the three locomotive rule when there are two face-up locomotives. The rule is not relevant for a new player so I only introduce it when important. Also in Ticket to Ride, I give the last round conditions about half way through the game. My idea is that I want a new player to get comfortable with the flow of the game before worrying about how things will end.

Last comment about teaching rules: expect questions. Anticipating questions is tough but an important aspect for learning. First, questions allow players to clarify the mental model of the rules they are building in their heads. Second, players often ask questions to see if there are loopholes they can exploit to win the game.

GP: You’ve been able to see many of the benefits a person can gain from working on games. Before you leave us, what are some of the best takeaways you feel students can gain from studying game design?

From a grading point of view, the class focuses on communication. I do not grade whether or not the games are “good” or “bad” or anything in between. Instead grading focuses on how well students discuss their intentions (the desired player experience) and what changes they are making to encourage that experience.

From a class point of view, I hope that students appreciate the idea of “design thinking”. The idea of creating something, testing it, getting feedback, making changes, testing again, and so on. Too often a student’s first draft of something is their final draft.

The Precipice of Conclusion: The Lightning Round

  • If you were only able to use examples from three games to teach game design which games would allow you to prepare the best course possible?

Carcassonne: no board, tile laying, area majority, introduces term “meeples”

Pandemic / Forbidden Island / Castle Panic: co-op games

Ticket to Ride: set collection, goals (destination tickets), managing randomness (face up cards versus face down, draw destinations and keep at least one)

  • Thinking about the games you’ve played recently, what is your favorite mechanic you’ve come across?

Cards with multiple purposes (Race for the Galaxy, Mage Knight, Fleet, Blue Moon City)

  • What resources (books, lectures, etc) would you recommend for someone who wants to learn more about game design?

Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell

A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster

The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, by Mike Selinker

See my calendar for a list of what I have students read online.

  • What is the most common type of game that students design in your course?

Random events were popular this semester. Last semester, two groups designed deep sea exploration games.

  • What is one idea you feel is underutilized (or overutilized) in game design?

Under-utilized: Cards with multiple purposes. Such games can drive interesting decisions about how to play the cards.

Under-utilized: Dexterity. See my hockey example earlier where a game had a strategy component and a dexterity component. Most dexterity games are just that, only dexterity games.

Over-utilized: Random movement, which was forbidden in my class.

Over-utilized: On a personal level, I am getting a bit tired of games classified as “point salads”. Castles of Burgundy is popular, but fits this definition for me (possibly because it was taught to me with the goal at the end, instead of the beginning).

Alex: We want to thank Chris for sharing his experiences as an instructor of game design. We hope you enjoyed his answers as much as Matt and I did and if you are interested in learning more about game design be sure to see his calendar which lists some of the resources he uses in his classroom. We certainly caught Chris at a busy time of the year and we are extremely appreciative of his time with us.
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