2014 Year in Review Mailbag – Trial & Error

Written by Alex Harkey

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:

The Comments:

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?
– Rob

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.

Your post [game length and maximizing time] really hit home on a game I’m working on right now […] I agree with the other comments that the post leans toward the strengths of shorter length games. I find this ironic since you certainly wrote a long post in order to tell us that…
– Aaron

We tend to write a lot. The most common feedback we received this year was about the length of the our blog posts. Initially we wanted to cover topics comprehensively before moving on to the next topic but we’d still love to hear your thoughts as we look forward to 2015. Feel free to leave a comment, message us on social media or email us. Maybe we’ll include it in our next mailbag.

The Motto of Mailbags Artist: Emily Flake

The motto of all mailbags
Artist: Emily Flake

The Questions:

In reference to the player motivations [what motivates us to play games?], what about the dark side of gaming etiquette? What motivates rules lawyers? It has to be Personalized Power, doesn’t it?
– Eric

It’s hard to say whether the motivations transfer as cleanly with the “negative gamer-types”. It was a short post but here is a quick review before we try some classifications.

need theory summary

Need for Achievement:

“The Rage-quitter”

This player quits the moment things go wrong for them or the scoring deficit becomes too great. Sadly, the need to achieve victory overcomes the experience of playing games and nothing else really matters.

“The Analysis Paralysis Prone Player”

As Matt wrote recently, some players are just prone to over-analyzing a turn. The need for achievement creates a tunnel vision that blocks out other motivations that exist in playing games.

Need for Affiliation:

“The Sore Loser”

We’ve all met a sore loser in one activity or another. At first glance they would appear to be driven by the Need for Achievement, because after all, they didn’t win and now they are making excuses and complaining about it. But I actually don’t think this is the primary motivator.

I’ve always felt these players are more driven by reputation than achievement. Sure, they probably want to win, but they often seem overly concerned with how others perceive them. Perhaps they feel they have a reputation to keep; they are smart, talented or successful. Perhaps they enjoy socializing and impressing others. The game then isn’t just a matter of defeat, it questions their self-reflection and they fear it will cause others to think less of their abilities.

In short, sore losers are probably overvaluing how others perceive performance in games. I don’t think these players are nearly as interested in winning as they are affirming their abilities to a group and unfortunately they express themselves exactly the opposite way that they mean to.

Need for Power: Personalized Power

“The Rules Lawyer”

We may have different definitions for many of these player-archetypes but I’d consider a rules lawyer to be someone who goes out of their way to interpret rules favorably for themselves. Maybe they conveniently forget a restriction or they argue relentlessly about the interpretation of a rule affecting their next turn. These players do have a need for achievement but even more than that, they’ve created their own meta-game. They want to have power over others, they’re outspoken and they want to control your decision-making as well as their own. The don’t just want to control their turn, they want to control the environment in which the game is played. These players are manipulating opponents over a tangible game while winning an unspoken one.

“The Power Gamer”

They don’t want to just win, they want to crush you. These players min-max every opportunity to not only win but wipe the floor with the opponent. For this reason I’d consider their need for achievement to be secondary to their need for power over other players.

“The Noncompetitive Kingmaker”

When things go south this player creates a new mission. Maybe they target a random player. Maybe they go out of their way block everyone just because they enjoy watching the world burn. This player failed to exert their influence over the victory conditions and now they want to exert their influence over others.

Need for Power: Socialized Power

“The Quarterback”

This player has become the common complaint against cooperative games without a traitor mechanic. This player frequently has good intentions; they wish to share their expertise on the best play and they want to create mutual benefit for the group as a whole. Since it usually involves a team-first environment there would seem to be some need for affiliation involved as well but in practice this person is putting their interests in front of the experience of others. So while they want to help others, they also enjoy the level of control over the game they feel entitled to based on experience.

The designer ego commentary [Vanity and the Downfall of an Aspiring Game Designer] is reflective of creative development as a whole. […] I’m not really much of a game designer but I am interested in the music industry […Doesn’t holding back seem backwards when giving your music away is a common practice?
– Barrett

The fear of having ideas stolen among game designers seems to be a recurring concern no matter how much it is written about. I thought the music industry was such an interesting contrast I wanted to include it with Barrett’s permission. Maybe the comparison can help open up some new ideas. I’d say there are a few reasons the fear to share ideas perpetuates:

Lack of familiarity. The inner workings of the tabletop industry are a complete mystery to the average gamer. A new game designer probably . By contrast the average music fan probably realizes how challenging it is to get signed to a label and how much you probably have to put yourself out there in order to get noticed.

Musicians need an audience to achieve success. I hate to draw comparisons to crowdfunding but all too often we’ve seen an “If I build it, they will come” approach by game designers on Kickstarter and elsewhere. Sharing your work and creating an audience is essential to emerging from obscurity as a musician. Adopting this same motivation can help aspiring game designers gain traction prior to publication as well.

What do you think is the relationship between [Pacing] and the number of players? Or is there one?
– Greg

dogfullThere is a relationship between pacing and player count, but it doesn’t seem to carry a valuable pattern in design. As players are added, games tend to (predictably) slow down in both the progress of play (rate of advancement toward the final objective) in addition to game length (number of minutes it takes to play).

The reason is usually that things are divided among more players, so while a three player game of Monopoly offers opportunities to create monopolies, the same number of properties are divided among more players in a five player game. Since creating a monopoly is a catalyst to push opponents into bankruptcy, the extra time and number of turns it can take to create a monopoly among more players will slow the pace of the game. One solution to eliminate this problem is to provide additional starting resources to players in order to cut out the first few turns of the game. Ideally this would start players in a similar position as with fewer games.

A rare counter-example is Indonesia where the game can actually move at a faster pace with more players. During the game players are bidding on companies which can be acquired and merge with the companies of opponents. An interesting restriction exists as players have a limited number of “slots” with which to hold companies. The game moves forward when the available companies get acquired and the next group of companies come out on the board. Initially players start with one slot so naturally a game with five players starts with more “slots” to acquire companies (and progress the game) than a three player game. The marginal number of slots increases at a greater rate through the remainder of the game as players can upgrade the number of slots.

We don’t receive very many emails but when we have they’ve frequently lead to some pretty great conversations. We’d love to hear from you on what you games you’ve enjoyed most this year. We hope you have a wonderful end of the year!

Our Favorite Articles of 2014

Internal Balance
Approachability – The Learning Curve
Game Design Analysis – Terra Mystica
Game Defining Concepts – The Doubling Cube
Integrating Theme with Design


Top 3 “New to Us” Games of 2014

Alex: 1. Concordia, 2. Hanabi, 3. Francis Drake

Matt: 1. The Resistance, 2. Twilight Struggle, 3. Terra Mystica


2 comments on “2014 Year in Review Mailbag – Trial & Error

  1. Matt Pavlovich

    I an shocked that I only mentioned Power Grid nine times. There’s no question that it’s THE go-to game when discussing Positional Balance or catch-up mechanics in strategy games, and I think the other articles I wrote (Scaling, Theme/Design) just happened to highlight some of Power Grid’s better or more interesting design choices.

    The Noncompetitive Kingmaker on one hand is incredibly frustrating to play against and on the other hand led to one of the most memorable games of Settlers of Catan I’ve ever played. Any time the phrase “trade embargo” comes up and you’re not playing Twilight Struggle, you know it’s gotten out of hand.

    Don’t forget Downtime at the intersection of Player Count and Game Length!

    Concordia was a close runner-up for me and would have made the list had I not been so late to the party on The Resistance.

    1. drillvoice

      I find “Noncompetitive kingmakers” so frustrating – Risk is another game in which they can really throw a spanner in the works. But it can be great fun turning players against each other (and crucial to Catan!). My sister was furious after I convinced other players to give me three roads and a settlement just so I could block her longest road while she was on the brink of victory…

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