One 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.
We like to start off each year tackling the big questions in game design. This year we’re going to look at fun and specifically the ideas that generate enjoyment in games. Our challenge is that no matter how much discussion we have, we’ll never come to a consensus on a definition of “fun”; we all enjoy different things and that is part of what makes this hobby so great. Fun is in the eye of the beholder and we won’t try to disturb this reality.
We still think there is an opportunity to look at lesser explored areas of gratification in games so this month we’re going to look at Satisfaction. These are tasks, ideas and emotions that can provide a sense of fulfillment in gaming even if it may not lead players on the gigantic roller-coasters and thrill-rides we might ordinarily identify as “fun”.
So what is the value in satisfaction? These are some basic building blocks that can lead to fun in games. Some of the examples we’ll talk about might even be exactly what you find fun in game and this is where personal preferences chime in. More than likely, I’ll be describing some of the things that break up the monotony of games you don’t like or bring a smile to your face even if you don’t ever want to play that game again.
When it comes down to it we think this categorization has merit because whether you love or hate games, there is a middle-ground to find appreciation for a well-designed or aesthetically pleasing game even if you and I don’t find it to be fun in any traditional sense.
What is Satisfaction?
When I think of satisfying tasks both inside and outside of gaming I think of completing a big project like a large area in Castles of Burgundy. I think of checking items off a list like developments in Roll Through the Ages. I think of barely pulling off a risky proposition like completing an entire column in a single turn of Can’t Stop.
These things don’t necessarily fill-up my metaphoric Fun-O-Meter on their own, but they are some of the little things that add to my appreciation for these games and contribute to my willingness to play again next time. Whatever the end result is, I can point at something and say “I built that“. Sometimes “that” ends up being my eleven tile unfinished city in Carcassonne, but still, it’s about the little things.
To finish out 2014 we’ve been examining dependent characteristics of games: Downtime is driven by the number of players and length of a game and Pacing is determined by the length and complexity of a game. These are typically secondary considerations of game designers but they deserve attention since they are quite often the primary consideration of players when we reflect on how much enjoyment we find in a game. Our third dependent characteristic encompasses a factor that shows up in many gaming complaints; how much control do players really have over a game?
“There is too much luck involved in that game.”
“I hate how this game always leads to kingmaking situations.”
“There was nothing else I could do that turn.”
In one form or another we probably have said, thought or heard at least one of the above phrases. While each thought comes from a different cause, they all lead to the same effect: a player feels marginalized in their role. Games are usually played to make interesting decisions and achieve some sort of result. It is this cause-and-effect that can be a motivation for some types of gamers and this can be a decisive factor for how much enjoyment players find in a game.
But when a player doesn’t feel like they have any control over their surroundings their experience diminishes from playing a game to observing an activity. Player control is at a crossroads of old and new for us as we’ll touch on some new topics like luck and skill and revisit some old ones like positional balance and player engagement. Player control is an intersection of a plethora of ideas and it also functions as a subset of player interaction, another topic we’ll look at in the future.
Do players really hate luck in games? A good design offers opportunities to mitigate risk or effectively manage risk so I don’t think this is even what they mean. Players simply don’t like the idea that randomness exerts just as much or more control over their final position as they do. Who wants to feel disempowered in an activity you’ve spent the last hour participating in?
This year we’ve had a lot of fun writing about game design, exchanging ideas with designers and conversing with the board game design community. We’ve been thrilled with the response we’ve received over the past year and we’ve received plenty of great comments, criticism and questions. As part of our year in review we thought it would be fun to look back at some of our favorite interactions.
Games Precipice: Evaluated by a jury of our peers.
We were hoping for a lot of feedback and criticism in 2014. Game designers are by nature our own greatest critics. It turns out that when you write a game design blog you find out game designers are everyone’s greatest critics. Fortunately a few of our readers have a great sense of humor and engaged us in some valuable discussion. 2014 was a year of trial and error for us and so I present to you our favorite responses this year:
I love the examples! I’ve been reading your blog over the past month and I enjoy reading about these games the most. I’ve noticed you tend to use several favorites as examples. What would you say is your favorite game and why is it Power Grid?
Games Precipice: We had several readers who noticed Power Grid was our go-to example. One of the challenges in our writing is citing attributes in popular games alongside games that demonstrate really strong examples of an idea. Power Grid seems to be a little of each.
To be fair I’ve only mentioned Power Grid in 17% of relevant articles. On the other hand Matt has mentioned Power Grid an astounding nine times over the past year. In fact in articles posted on a Sunday after 4PM, Matt has an astounding 1.89 PGMPTW (Power Grid mentions per thousand words) which ranked #1 among bloggers over the month of August. Gamermetrics would be proud.
Recently we’ve been looking at several impact areas of game design we like to call “dimensions of games”. One of the critically underdeveloped topics in tabletop is the concept of Pacing. In the context of our greater framework, pacing is driven by the complexity and structure of a game and the intended length of a game. As we’ll discuss, the opportunities to implement pacing increase as games increase in complexity and game length.
The Value of Pacing
One of my favorite things about hobbies and outlets for creativity is learning a new vernacular. Every hobby creates its own buzzwords and phrases, and once you understand them the hobby can seem a bit more inclusive; you’ve experienced the rite of passage. Board games and tabletop game design share this same trait; we discuss games in terms of mechanics, components and strategies.
A few of these phrases are common when describing the player experience in games: gamers and reviewers often describe the “feel” of a game and game designers frequently use expressions like “structuring the narrative of a game” as a design goal. These phrases do have value – after all, we probably understand the intent of the speaker even if we never get to find out their exact interpretation. “Narrative” and “immersion” are terms that usually get brought up early in the discussion of theme and we touched on their value during the topic several months ago.
Pacing is a topic that doesn’t get brought up often in tabletop but it is a contributing factor to the definition of the “feel” or “narrative” of games. Pacing has the ability to build focus and motivation in a gaming experience so that the next turn feels more important than the last turn. Pacing can help lay the foundation for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological theory of flow. The theory of flow is a state of mind in which a person is completely absorbed in an activity.
By designing a game that encourages increasing levels of interest, focus and motivation, pacing is one of many opportunities to create this sense of immersion we’re always trying to create. Two key ideas to consider before we break down the topic of pacing:
The value of Pacing is weighted heavily toward longer games
Since pacing has a tendency to play out over the timeline of a game, a shorter playing time can preclude the effectiveness of many interesting approaches to pacing. The longer a game lasts the more options it can potentially employ to implement pacing.
Pacing is usually more influential in games of less complexity and more interesting in games of greater complexity
Pacing is largely determined by what players are doing, how efficiently they do it and how they approach the end of a game. In less complex games there usually isn’t much to be distracted by; you target the end objective. In games with more complexity, there is more time to create interesting secondary objectives, plot twists, new variables and unorthodox mechanics that can create pacing.
This week’s dimension of gaming is Downtime. We’ll define downtime simply as the portion of the game for which you’re not actively playing. Downtime can happen during other players’ turns, during setup or cleanup, or during intermediate steps of a game like dealing cards for a new round. This dimension of gaming exists at the intersection of Game Length and Player Count: longer games increase the risk of downtime because as the length of a game increases, the length of time a given player is not doing anything increases. And as games are scaled up to include more players, designers need to keep in mind not only how the mechanics balance but also how adding more players affects the player experience, especially as it relates to taking a longer time before any individual player gets to take his next action.
Downtime is a great opportunity to discuss the paradox of choice, which plays out in the context of game design as analysis paralysis.
The Paradox of Choice
When presented with multiple options, game theory suggests that a person, as a rational actor, will make the optimal choice. Given the choice between a hot dog and a hamburger at a cookout, a person who really loves hamburgers will pick the hamburger almost every time. With more options, it seems reasonable that a decision-maker could be even happier: suppose someone else at the cookout leaned slightly toward the hot dog camp but wasn’t crazy about either option. The addition of grilled chicken as a third choice would allow that person to optimize the decision he had to make.