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Through the Ages

Bar ChartYou’re hungry. You go to the store and, being a health conscious and overall enlightened person, you buy an ecological carrot. You eat it. Now you’re full (did I mention that you’re a real small eater, too?) and your carrot is gone. If you grow hungry again you need to go back to the store and buy another one. That’s the “buy once, use once” business model.

You’re a hockey fan. A big, big fan. You buy season tickets the moment they’re available. You buy season tickets for your entire family. You’re a great customer, someone who’s a pillar of support for your team. But once you’ve bought your season tickets you can go and see all the games without paying anything extra. That’s the “buy once, use many” business model. (more…)

Through the Ages, tabletop game coverThrough the Ages is one of my favorite board games of all time. Yes, that is saying a lot – but no matter what new games come out I always come to the point where I’m in the mood for yet another game of Through the Ages.

On the surface Through the Ages is a 4X civilization building game. It’s like Sid Meyer’s Civilization on a board (no, I don’t mean the Sid Meyer’s Civilzation Board Game, I mean the real Civilization, the computer game that’s responsible for more lost sleep than coffee and sex put together). Except that it’s nothing like Civilization, not really.

See, here’s where it gets interesting from a game designer’s standpoint. Through the Ages is a game that manages to take a very bare-bone Eurogame mechanic and infuse it with an amazing amount of theme. I’ve played the game for about eight years now and while I can see what’s going on under the hood the theme still tends to grab me and get me to forget that I’m dealing with numbers and efficiencies (and that makes me lose to my hyper-optimizing, Euro-crazy friends). (more…)

5 Must Play Analog Games for Every DesignerIt happens. You look at your game and feel that, with all the bells and whistles already there, something is still missing.

It’s easy to simply shrug, thrown in another type of unit, another element, another dude with spikes on his huge shoulder pads. Sometimes it works. Mostly it doesn’t.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of, amongst others, the children’s classic “The Little Prince” said: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

It’s a wise way to look at it. Not what we can add, but that we can subtract. And the way to learn how to do that is to look for good archetypes, games where there is little, if anything, to subtract. And in the tabletop game industry paring down has been the leading star for the past 20 years (or thousands – see the end). So here, without further ado, are five tabletop games that every designer should play at least once. (more…)

ClockThere’s one thing that’s always in short supply amongst players, whether they realize it or not: time. Not timed actions time, not AP time but the good, ol’ fashioned, 24-hours-in-a-day time.

Time is the one resources one can never get more of. You can hire an army of maids to clean your house, a horde of accountants to run your business and any number of personal assistants to take care of your needs but you’ll still, never, ever, be able to get more than 25 hours in a day. Sorry, Freudian slip.

Time to play is rare for most people and there’s lots of things clamoring for it: media, friends, that unfinished project in the corner. So when players take the time to play your game they expect that time to be well spent. They expect to get a certain amount of enjoyment out of their invested time, whether social, intellectual or physical, and if we fail to deliver they’re likely to refuse to play the game again.

Thus we need to take care not to waste our players’ time. We need to make sure it’s well spent, that every moment in the game is engaging. (more…)

Dice graphicImagine that someone forced you to complete difficult tasks of uncertain value while others were actively trying to disrupt your work.

Now imagine that you chose to do it of your own free will.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly what we’re doing when we’re playing games. And the single word “chose” is the difference between fun and toiling under a sadistic taskmaster.

The rest is the same: the rules, the limitations, the work and the stress. But when we choose to do it it’s not bad stress, it’s good stress. (more…)

Writing fiction is a fun craft. It allows you to create anything you want. Anything, capital A, no restrictions.

Writing fiction for money is a demanding craft. It allows you to create anything you want, and then you have to justify why it’s there and how it interacts with the rest of your world.

The best advice on this I’ve ever heard is from a Writing Excuses worldbuilding episode with Mary Robinette Kowal (if you haven’t listened to Writing Excuses, and are in the least interested in writing or reading science fiction and fantasy, you should check out Writing Excuses, it’s worth it [/shameless fanboy pitch]).

There are three things that have been really fabulous tools for me when dealing with new magic or new technology in a world: that I should look at how that magic or technology affects the poorest class, how it affects the richest class, and how it can be abused.

The rich, the poor and the abused. Doesn’t have much to do with designing games, right? (more…)

Duco, a great gateway gameThere’s a prime requirement for gateway games. It’s not that it should look cool, although that helps. It’s not that it should have a high production value, or many dedicated players or easy rules or a small footprint. All of these things help but there’s one thing that beats them all:

A great gateway game should feel familiar. (more…)

Finish signpostThere’s a big difference between novels and short stories, beyond the obvious ones. It goes beyond word length, beyond character arcs and sub-plots. It resides in those final moments when you know that the story’s ending but you see that the ending will leave you wanting more.

In a novel that’s mostly fine, in fact it is desirable. Wanting more is all right when you’ve gotten a major emotional payoff from the resolution of the main, and possibly sub, plots. It’s the feeling of “I love this restaurant but I’m so stuffed that I don’t want more right now”; it’s what makes readers come back and buy the sequel. But as short stories that give that kind of major payoff are rare (and a lot of them go on to win multiple prestigious awards) the short story ending often end up feeling lacking.

The same is true for games. Most games are short stories. Only the largest, most complex games, can assume the mantle of being the play equivalent of novels. And those games don’t get played a lot, or at least not by many people. Even here on the Geek, where the most rabid gamers come, how many of us sit down to 20+ hour games on a regular basis? (more…)