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.
This month we’re extremely excited to be joined by Tom Lehmann who joins us to chat about his design philosophy, collaborations with other designers and a few of his upcoming projects including Roll for the Galaxy. There is so much I want to cover so let’s jump right in.
Games Precipice: Welcome Tom, thank you for taking the time to join us. I’m curious, what initially sparked your passion for board games?
Thank for asking. I grew up overseas (Tunisia, Indonesia, and Korea) and around DC. We had very few board games, so we played them to death and invented house rules for them. This segued naturally into designing games when I was 14.
GP: What were your initial steps into a career in designing games? How did you transition into designing full-time?
Initially, I tried to be a publisher/designer, with Prism Games back in the 90s. I was a better designer than businessman, so I shifted to free-lance design, working on games one day a week while working 80% in high tech. With Race for the Galaxy‘s success, I became a full-time designer in 2008.
We’ve got some extra-special topics on deck this month but first a quick re-introduction to where we left off. Earlier this year we introduced the first phase of our framework we call “dimensions of games”. Our initial three attributes you’re probably familiar with as they contribute to the label on the side of every game box: Complexity, Player Count and Game Length.
We concluded with the concept of Utility which is how the aforementioned attributes combine to form the situational value of a game. Naturally some games are easier to get to the table as they are easier to explain to a new group, can fit into a limited time frame or accommodate a wide number of player counts.
Complexity, Player Count and Game Length each allow a game designer control over the intended experience. A designer may start with a design goal of a game that scales well between two and six players or packs a lot of interesting elements into a one hour playing time.
Dimensions of Games Phase II
This month we’re exploring the intersections of these attributes which are interesting topics also under the control of game designers.These are some key elements we’ll cover one by one in the coming weeks. Let’s get a visual:
We’ve been talking about theme this month and I wanted to conclude this month with some questions on how we can evaluate the success of a theme. Matt talked a little bit about how much theme is actually present; let’s look at how we can evaluate the strength of the theme in execution. In this case we’re not necessarily looking to create the “dripping with theme” mindset where we cram as much theme as possible in a game. We’re looking to maximize the benefit of a given theme to the overall experience. Let’s take a look at some basic contributing elements of theme.
What can sell a theme to your audience?
Artwork & Components
More than anything else visuals and tangibles can be the most convincing elements of theme. If all a player observes on the box, cards, board and components are thematically appropriate illustrations you’re off to a great start. If you’re going to have a Star Wars game about space battles it certainly helps to have X-Wing miniatures to move around the tabletop.
My favorite reward for playing a thematic game are the “oh cool, look at that” observations present in names, locations, events, actions and objectives. In a historical context a game like Twilight Struggle succeeds naturally by using prominent Cold War events on cards in the ongoing tension of the game. A game using Lord of the Rings probably needs to represent the essential locations of Middle Earth. Including subtle references and details for dedicated fans of a subject matter can really reward your core audience. These will be the players shouting from the rooftops if you execute it well.
One of our initiatives at Games Precipice is to learn from established game designers and learn from their design decisions and thought process as their latest work achieves publication.
This month we’re excited to bring you an interview with a game designer that has stood out to us for his work with interesting themes. Vital Lacerda has emerged in recent years as a designer of heavy Eurogames with the published success of both Vinhos in 2010 and CO2 in 2012. Vital invests a great deal of time into each of his designs and so I was thrilled when he agreed to my interview opportunity in advance of the release of his title Kanban: Automotive Revolution from Stronghold Games next month at Essen.
Vital lives in Oeiras, Portugal with his wife and two daughters and has been playing games all his life. He works as a freelance graphic designer (he does the amazing 3D artwork for Kanban and his other projects).
Games Precipice: Welcome Vital, thank you for taking the time to join us. For those who are not yet familiar with your published and upcoming work, who is Vital Lacerda?
Thank you, I’m glad to talk to you guys; and I thank you for all the support.
Most of all, I consider myself a gamer. After that I’m a wannabe designer, who had the luck of having a few publishers who believe in my games. I published Vinhos in 2010 and CO2 two years later. Both games were well accepted by a few gamers, so two years later I’m releasing Kanban. It will be my 3rd game in the complex games line and its official presentation will be in Essen.
I have a tendency to design complex thinking games, because those are the types of games I love to play. My favorite game is Brass. I love Imperial, Die Macher, Age of Steam and Terra Mystica. My top games. My designs are greatly inspired by those great games.
Probably the single most important aspect of theme for game designers is how a game’s theme and mechanics interact. As Alex described in this month’s introductory article, it’s possible for games to succeed on various different “levels” of theme, from games that are completely abstract to games that strive to create historically accurate simulations. Adding additional layers of theme can make the game more appealing to players by making it more immersive or approachable, but more theme also comes with the responsibility of making the game’s mechanics and theme fit together.
The ultimate goal of every decision to include theme in a game is to make the players feel like they’re having the experience you’re trying to provide. You want your players to think “yes, I really feel like I’m doing what the game tells me I’m doing.” I’ll describe three areas in which that sense can be achieved: using an appropriate theme, integrating theme with mechanics, and balancing theme with player experience.
Using an appropriate theme
If you’re designing a game with cutthroat gameplay and extensive player elimination mechanics, it might not make sense to give that game bright, cartoony artwork and a family-friendly theme. But that’s gist of Hey! That’s My Fish!, in which players must direct their adorable penguin figures to aggressively overtake the other players’ territory and stick the opposing penguins on isolated ice floes, unable to eat.