Thursday, December 19, 2013

Announcing a new gaming blog

After a year and a half of blogging about all things gaming at Ludi Berkeley, Alex and I are excited to announce something big that we've been planning for the past few months. We're launching a new blog, Games Precipice, where we'll be delving even deeper into game design. If you've been following us at Ludi Berkeley, we hope you'll follow us over to Games Precipice!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fantasy Terrible Television Update September/October

After two months of disastrous premieres it is time for a recap of what we've seen so far. There were some odd full season renewals, a few early dismissals from prime-time and plenty of sub-par programming that is barely hanging on.

David: 73 Points
Scoring Changes - Lucky 7 (First Cancellation of the Season: 51 points), Ironside (Cancelled: 41 points), Mom (Full Order: -19 points)

Jumping out to a strong lead with two of the four cancellations so far this season, David made two strong selections and only missed on the full season order of Mom which has been speculated as a renewal candidate for next season. The Tomorrow People has trailed off since a strong debut and Dracula is up in the air since a premier in late October.

Yet to Air: Rake (FOX) - January 2014

Angela: 41 Points
Scoring Changes - Welcome to the Family (Cancelled: 41 points)

With a perfect batting average on her only network premiere, Angela has four more draft picks yet to air. With the unpredictable outcome so far this season there is plenty to be decided.

Yet to Air: Believe (NBC), About A Boy (NBC), Growing Up Fisher (NBC), Chicago PD (NBC) - January

Jeff: 33 Points
Scoring Changes - We Are Men (Cancelled: 41 points), Back In The Game (Not Renewed: 10 points), Dads (Full Order: -19 points)

An unfortunate turn of events for the wildly underwhelming sitcom Dads diminished a strong showing so far for Jeff. The Neighbors is hanging on for some unknown reason and shares a likely cancellation fate at the end of the season with Nashville.

Yet to Air: Nikita (CW) - November

Matt: -19 Points
Scoring Changes - Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Full Order: -19 points)

Its unfortunate the timing of this update for Matt as he has the greatest potential for cancellations among active shows. Betrayal, The Carrie Diaries, The Mentalist, The Good Wife and Once Upon a Time In Wonderland are all near certainties for cancellation at least at the end of the season. If one or two of those continue tanking in the rankings this could be a quick turnaround.

Yet to Air: Crisis (NBC), Community (NBC), Enlisted (FOX)

Richard: -29 Points
Scoring Changes - Sleepy Hollow (Renewed -10 points), Trophy Wife (Full Order: -19 points)

Still plenty to be decided despite a quick renewal from Sleepy HollowSean Saves the World premiered extremely weak, Grimm is battling weak ratings and Revenge has not managed to retain its viewership as the season goes on.

Alex: -62 Points
Scoring Changes - Bob's Burgers (Renewal - 10 points), The Goldbergs (Full Order - 19 points), The Millers (Full Order - 19 points), Super Fun Night (Partial Order - 14 points)

An unfortunate start seeing as The Goldbergs and Super Fun Night likely probably won't exist next season but were extended to fill the schedule for ABC. I'll stop making excuses as I certainly missed on some others.

Yet to Air: Mind Games (ABC)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Walking Dead: Review and Discussion


Zombies have been popular culture's undead of choice for a while now. They've spawned hit TV shows, popular movies, more video games than we know what to do with, and even a handful of board games whose main selling points seem to be "hey, this game is about zombies!" I never climbed aboard the zombie bandwagon, but when Alex recommended The Walking Dead (a video game inspired by the same comic books that launched the TV series), I decided to give it a shot. Besides, I'd wanted to play a good point-and-click style exploration game in the vein of Broken Sword or Monkey Island for a while.

The Walking Dead fit the bill pretty well, even though it became clear in the first few minutes that this game is not King's Quest: Survival Horror Edition. Point-and-click games have a set of tropes and conventions that players expect. You need to thoroughly comb old areas after you've explored a new one; you're supposed to try every single item in combination with every other item, and then use the new thing you made on every possible character. The Walking Dead dispenses of those conventions in favor of making the narrative move faster, and while that change in emphasis makes sense given the style and themes of the game, it also emphasizes just how much it pushes the boundaries of being a "game".

If the purest definition of "game" is a thing of decision-making and optimization, then most of the "game play" in The Walking Dead occurs in the narrative instead of in the mechanics. The bulk of the decisions you make are not ones about how best to defeat a certain monster or approach a tactical objective, but ones about which direction you want the story to go. As the game reminds you every time you start a new chapter (and they're called chapters, to emphasize just how much focus is on the narrative), the story is decided by the way you play the game. Ironically, it's really easy to criticize an "open narrative" game like this for not being open enough. As soon as you realize you've been given the freedom to decide which character lives and which one dies, you want the entire story to be malleable, and it's occasionally disappointing to realize the game would have played out basically the same way no matter which one you picked. (That's no knock on the game, because it would be impossible to program a game that was infinitely nonlinear.)

The "everything that rises must converge" realization was most true at the end, during the climactic conversation with the kidnapping stranger, which went more or less like this:
Stranger: Hey, I don't like this one thing you did.
Me: Well, I had a good reason for it, so chill out.
Stranger: Oh yeah? I don't like this other thing you did either.
Me: That was literally the only thing I could have done, and you know it. Get over yourself.
and so on, until Clementine showed up to whack the dude on the head with a lamp. Probably, the stranger still would have found some way to criticize all my decisions even if I'd done things completely differently, and Clementine still would have whacked him on the head with a lamp after he had berated me sufficiently.

Overall, Lee in my game was the compassionate, nonviolent, and honest sort. It would be fascinating to play through again making the exact opposite decisions, playing Lee as a conniving liar and kicking people out of the group as soon as they wronged me or proved themselves a liability. The biggest problem with that approach is that the game is so engaging and the dialog writing so realistic that it would actually be difficult to do, ethically and morally. And that's the one of many things that The Walking Dead does very well, drawing you into its universe and intriguing you to see how it might play out otherwise. Plenty of "moral choice" games sell themselves on the possibility of playing through again on the "other side," but realistically, most games are far too long to make subsequent playthroughs palatable. At between 10 and 15 hours, The Walking Dead is the perfect length to revisit: it's short enough that experiencing it again wouldn't seem like a terrible burden, but not so short that you've memorized the entire game after playing it once or twice.

A second strength of The Walking Dead's "moral choice" system is that there is never a "right" choice. In contrast to other games that display morality as a black-and-white spectrum (or blue-and-orange, if you're Mass Effect), decisions in The Walking Dead are more like your mom telling six-year-old you to choose between your Legos and your toy cars. You want them both, and it doesn't seem fair that you're being forced to make that choice, but there's no way around the decision.

Some of the smaller decisions that The Walking Dead forces you to make were a touch more subtle but still well-designed. There's one in Chapter 4, where you're in the sewers, and a zombie grabs you. The default option is to shoot it, which attracts the rest of the zombies and essentially gives you a countdown timer to figure out what to do next, but if you have the presence of mind to switch weapons and bash it with a wrench instead, you can explore the next section at your own leisure. But with the screen turning red, you need to make that choice very quickly, and it pays to keep a cool head and not freak out. Scenes like this one show how good the game is at creating a sense of urgency and rewarding not panicking.

Outside of the narrative, one of the best things the game does is portray Clementine as an actual character, something that games (and TV, etc.) are pretty reluctant to do with kids. There's so much legitimate development to her personality! Contrast her with Aaron from Lost, who, although much younger, was always a human plot device rather than a real character. And it's impressive that the quick-time events added to the game--they usually just annoy, but here they served the purpose of reminding you that in this world, you need to be ready to react and fight for your life at any minute.

Frankly, it's tough to call The Walking Dead a great game for a couple of reasons. The first is that there's not much "game" there. There is no real difficulty. You can't "win" or "lose". You can die, but only during certain scenes--and even if you do die, you restart and have an immediate chance to try again. The second and more important reason is that calling The Walking Dead a game is doing it a bit of an injustice. It's an immersive experience, and a surprisingly poignant one at times, whose strength is in the narrative and the setting rather than the mechanics or the challenge--and that's exactly what it is trying to be.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Quick Reviews 3rd Quarter 2013

The following are quick reviews for new games I've played the last three months. I've ordered them from most anticipated to least anticipated.


Back in August I stopped by to visit Matt while on the west coast. While on the trip I was able to play several two player games on Castles of Burgundy, an absolutely delightful game.

On each turn in the game I am optimizing among many good decisions and each tun feels meaningful as the game approaches a pleasant final scoring. I'd be interested in seeing how it plays out with more players.

One of the very best games I've had a chance to try this year.

The Castles of Burgundy Verdict: 9.5 out of 10


With high anticipation off its record breaking Kickstarter Campaign in March, Dungeon Roll delivered on its highly anticipated delivery date in August.

Over a series of rounds, players loot a dungeon while attempting to maximize the resources of their party and push their luck to the deepest levels of the dungeon.

The game play is a fun experience but as one player takes their full turn at a time it has some downtime with multiple players and lacks the opportunity to really engage with other players.

A solid game that does what it is asked for a reasonable price in a short amount of time.

Dungeon Roll Verdict: 6 out of 10

A social "take that!" card game that whose experience be defined by the group you play it with.

Players take turns putting a hit out on opponent's mob members which will periodically culminate in mob wars which will turn those hit contracts into casualties.

I really enjoyed the mechanism by which playing a defensive card means gives you the next turn. It creates some strategy in which you may defend a player you don't actually support in order to either skip the turns of other players who may be targeting you or just to put out another hit on someone else.

Certainly worth a try with the right crowd.

Family Business Verdict: 5 out of 10

I've only had a chance to play a digital version of Kastell-Castello so far which probably doesn't deliver the same charm the tangible version would appear to provide.

Players take turns placing Tetris pieces on the board until one player cannot place a piece. Their opponent is then declared the winner.

There are a lot of great things going on in a short amount of time in this game. I get the feeling of a cut throat two player Blokus while playing it. Like many abstracts, this game is decided several turns before it actually plays out. I'm not usually fond of games where we are playing out the inevitable conclusion just to finish the game but it works well here as each player only gets around four to six turns and it plays in just a few minutes.

Kastell-Castello Verdict: 5.5 out of 10

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

2013 Fantasy Terrible Television Draft Analysis Part II

Last week I began the list of criteria that can be considered in drafting for our Fantasy Terrible Television League. I'll pick up where I left off at number six.

6. Returning Series with Declining Ratings

As discussed under the earlier measure of longevity, a returning series has an advantage of a returning audience. This was accounted for in scoring by awarding 8 points per previous season if it gets pulled off the air.

This scoring adds new valuation to sluggish shows who somehow managed to return to air for at least one more season. Participants responded by picking many of the shows that were speculated for cancellation from last season.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Blaine Gabbert (JAX)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 

Grimm (NBC), Community (NBC), The Carrie Diaries (CW)

2013 FTT Weak Picks: 

Any Returning Hit Show

7. Target Audience

Sometimes it can't be explained but shows can debut with a audience in waiting. Often premiering on a certain network can be responsible for this occurrence. Airing a thin plot underneath on a pop culture trend such as vampires or werewolves can certainly help your chances.

Where this creates a problem is drafting a series that looks awful but inexplicably has an adoring fan base by relation. I'm looking at you, Betrayal, targeting a Desperate Housewives fan base rabid for the next thing to watch. Only time will tell.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Tim Tebow (FA)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 

Killer Women (ABC)

2013 FTT Weak Picks: 

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (ABC), The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC)

8. Powerful Time Slot

This measure is more of a deterrent that guide to selecting an awful show destined for cancellation, but it can be important to account for the debut time slot.

The Millers (CBS) could probably have gone in the second round from talent and scouting reports alone but I passed until the fifth round out of concern of scheduling between The Big Bang Theory and Two and A Half Men. The new series Mom (CBS) finishes off a prime time Monday evening which is lead by the final season of How I Met Your Mother and immediately preceded by 2 Broke Girls. A truly weak show will shine through no matter how strong a lineup it is in.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Matthew Stafford (DET)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 

 Most Friday Night Premieres

2013 FTT Weak Picks: 

The Millers (CBS), Mom (CBS), The Crazy Ones (CBS), Rake (FOX)

9. Limited Plot

Television used to be in a simpler time where a series could start with a premise that ordinarily could be resolved in one season until the writers managed to stretch the premise. Need to break out of prison? That needs four seasons. Did your plane crash on a mysterious island? Lets give this six seasons. Did everyone on earth lose consciousness for a couple minutes? I wonder what we'll write about next season.

I've watched more than a week of Jack Bauer's life in real time. Did the planet lose power? The light bulb came right back on for season two. Many of these have been enjoyable shows but eventually an idea can run its course and a limited plot is conducive to an early ending.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Blaine Gabbert (JAX)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 

Revolution (NBC), Hostages (CBS)

2013 FTT Weak Picks: 

Crime Solving Dramas, Law Dramas, Sitcoms

10. Spin-offs

Remember when Friends ended and Joey kept going? Spin-offs play on the success of the mother-ship without the nuances that make them great.

There is a reason NBC passed on a spin-off of The Office based on Dwight's Shrute Farm. If ratings have declined on the original series, success of a spinoff is severely limited.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Matt Leinart (FA)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 

Once Upon A Time In Wonderland (ABC)

2013 FTT Weak Picks: 

None

My 2013 Fantasy Terrible Television Dream Team:

The Goldbergs (ABC)
Dads (FOX)
Super Fun Night (ABC)
Sean Saves The World (NBC)
The Trophy Wife (ABC)
The Millers (CBS)
Back In The Game (ABC)
The Carrie Diaries (CW)
About A Boy (NBC)
Grimm (NBC)

My Practice Squad (Mid-Season Replacements)

Mind Games (ABC)
Rake (FOX)
Gang Related (FOX)
Mixology (ABC)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

2013 Fantasy Terrible Television Draft Analysis Part I

Last month we created the latest sensation in Fall Fantasy games of skill, with the objective of identifying the most futile of television offerings.

Six of us spend the last four weeks drafting from new and returning shows, trading draft picks and discussing the viability of late round picks such as The Millers and Once Upon A Time In Wonderland.

Every fantasy sport needs a Matthew Berry Fantasy Draft Analyst and so I will now review the key criteria to analyze while identifying the least successful shows that will air this Fall. We will start with the most important criteria and finish with the least important.

1. The Eye Test

The most important criteria in selecting a top draft pick in Fantasy Terrible Television is quite simply the most subjective. Some of the best research one can do is to spend an hour on Youtube watching three minute promos of new series.

The downside to this criteria if you fail to evaluate a show for its intended audience. I'm don't pay attention to many crime dramas but a show like Ironside (NBC) could turn out to successfully hit a spectrum of viewers that love it. On the other side  of the ball a show like The Goldbergs (ABC) looks so bad I traded up from 6th overall to 3rd just to grab it.  I just don't think anyone wants to revisit the 80's in a goofy sitcom. Case closed.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Mark Sanchez (NYJ)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 
The Goldbergs (ABC), Sean Saves The World (NBC), Dads (FOX)

2013 FTT Weak Picks:
The Blacklist (NBC), Ironside (NBC), Any Returning Hit Show


2. Longevity

The second most important criteria is how long a show has been on air. This seems clear as there is a strong correlation between number of seasons on the air and series renewal.

What this means for FTT of course is that new series are a goldmine for draft talent. This mindset is emboldened by the knowledge that in recent years 65% of new shows have been cancelled after one season.

It makes sense that 32 of the 42 draft picks selected this year in the LudiBerkeley FTT draft were premiering for the 2013 season.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Geno Smith (NYJ)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 
Welcome To The Family (NBC), Growing Up Fisher (NBC)

2013 FTT Weak Picks:
Any Returning Hit Show


3. Early Reviews


Seth MacFarlane seems to have run out of sitcoms to mock for Family Guy and created more material with his new sitcom Dads (FOX). The show has been crucified by the critics.

Of course in some cases there is no such thing as bad press. Television often isn't the right industry to use this justification.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Geno Smith (NYJ)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 
Dads (FOX)

2013 FTT Weak Picks:
None that I can find


4. Promotion

If a network fails to spend adequate time to promote a new show it may as well go ahead and start digging a spot in its network graveyard.

I have no idea what this is but I drafted it in the second round.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Jeff Tuel (BUF)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 
Super Fun Night (ABC)

2013 FTT Weak Picks:
The Blacklist (NBC)


5. Network

To reiterate the startling statistic from our second criteria, Longevity, 65% of new shows are gone after one season. NBC leads the way with nearly three out of four failing to achieve a second season. FOX even elects to cancel shows for no good reason. Not that I hold a grudge or anything.

On the other end of the network power struggle is annual top network CBS which seems to always finds its audience for every show in its lineup. It seemingly cancels a series every year that garners ratings everyone wishes they could have. That's the power of demographics.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Matt Flynn (OAK), Terrell Pryor (OAK), Any QB for the Raiders since Rich Gannon.

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 
NBC, FOX

2013 FTT Weak Picks:
CBS

Part II Continued Here...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Design Lessons from the D&D Next Playtest (Part 3)

The last post in this series examining the design overlap between tabletop roleplaying and strategy games will discuss the third installment of the Against the Slave Lords playtest from July 19 and podcast from July 23. Catch up on the first and second posts in the series if you missed them earlier. As always, we'll focus on interesting design decisions reached over the course of D&D Next playtest and how they might relate to more general design principles.

1. Expendable and constant-effect abilities need to be balanced carefully and in general, the formula of "effect equals probability times consequence" doesn't necessarily hold true. An effect that always works but is nominally less powerful is often more useful in practice than one that has a massive effect if successful but only a small chance of working. Therefore, effects that incorporate mechanical variance--die rolls, card draws, or whatever else--need to both be substantially powerful and have a way to mitigate that variance (or have a lesser effect even on a "failure") to be worth using in comparison to "always works" abilities.

The classic D&D example of this sort of balancing is the low-level wizard spell magic missile, which always works when it's used. Often, there's no need to use any other spell of the same level because magic missile is so reliable that it's automatically preferable--even if there are other spells that might be nominally more powerful. Among strategy games, Ascension does a pretty good job of constant-effect (construct)/expendable (hero) balancing: not only are construct effects not overwhelmingly powerful compared to heroes, but they do a good job of complementing hero abilities in creative ways.

2. The "flow" of a complex game has a large effect on its perceived complexity. Even though the same time might elapse over the course of one very long turn as in a few shorter turns, more shorter turns tend to feel faster as there's less time spent waiting for another action. There's an implication for actual complexity as well: fewer actions can be accomplished in a shorter turn than in a longer one, making turns more straightforward but at the potential cost of some strategic depth.

In both roleplaying games and strategy games, the best designs have enough turn-by-turn strategy that each turn features interesting and important decisions but little enough time between turns that time doesn't feel wasted. And regardless of how long a game actually takes, it's rare to walk away from the game wishing it had felt like it lasted longer. Rodney and Mike discuss this point in the context of a particularly climactic fight that took a few hours, but through sufficiently short turns to keep the action moving, the fight never felt bogged down yet offered enough complexity for the players to accomplish their goals.

3. Gaming should be fun. Always. It's a fitting point to end on because it's the most important design rule of all. Mechanical, strategic, and aesthetic considerations exist only to make the game more enjoyable. While designing a game, every decision should be made in the spirit of increasing how much fun the game will be to play.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Whodunnit? Post-Mortem

I've been missing the TV show The Mole for a long, long time. Since it seems like we'll probably never see another US season of it, my Mole withdrawal has sent me to the depths of streaming the Australian version from possibly legal websites... and watching Whodunnit?

Pitched as something between The Mole and Clue, Whodunnit was (ostensibly) about a closed-room murder mystery, where the killer was among the players, and the winner would be the one who unmasked the killer before he could himself be killed. It's a great idea, Agatha Christie meets reality television, but unfortunately Whodunnit fell far short of what it could have been. 

As a crime-themed reality show, perhaps the first game-show take on CSI, Whodunnit did a lot well. The idea to play at being crime scene investigators is novel and intriguing, and it was fascinating to see the meta-game emerge around the fourth week, where players began planning strategies around getting other players eliminated.

Evaluated as a game, though, Whodunnit's biggest flaw is that its narrative is about one thing (identifying a murderer) but its mechanics are about something else entirely (figuring out how the murders were committed). The winner won the game by being good at solving crimes, not by suspecting the correct person--in fact, his guess about the identity of the killer was wrong until the end. The analogy would be winning a game of Settlers of Catan without building any settlements, or Go without capturing any territory... and either of those two would be poorly designed games. Here are three ways Whodunnit could improve in terms of game design.

1. Better define the killer's in-game role. In The Mole, the job of the eponymous mole was simple: sabotage the game, but do it subtly, so that none of the other players catch on. In Whodunnit, it's much less clear what exactly the killer is supposed to be doing. Should the killer mislead the rest of the players so they couldn't solve the puzzles? Lie low and avoid detection? Put a lot of effort into the game and control the flow of information?

If yes to any of the above, the next question is why? What's in it for the killer to avoid being targeted (other than to maintain the conceit of the murder mystery)? Why does the killer care who stays, who gets killed, and who the other players suspect might be the killer? Aside from the psychological shock value, there's not much mechanical reason for the killer to be among the players at all.

Again drawing a (possibly unfair but probably inevitable) parallel to The Mole, players need the in-game chance to be able to say "hmm, person A acts so strange whenever circumstance X arises" or "isn't it funny how person B's team always performs the worst?" Giving the character of "the killer" a more defined relationship to the other players and to the events of the game ratchets up the tension and ensures that the players never stop wondering who the killer is.

2. Give the meta-puzzle some teeth. Whodunnit is--or should be--first and foremost a murder mystery, so the focus of the drama should be first and foremost on solving the mystery of who's committing the murders. But the day-to-day of Whodunnit is more often about the riddles and the manner in which each murder was committed. Geno might have said it best in a post-elimination interview: most of the time, it's more about the "how-dunnit".

The concept of Whodunnit made it seem like the weekly murder mysteries would eventually lead to identifying the killer. And how cool would it have been if there were a couple of random red herrings each week that, while totally irrelevant to solving a particular murder, gave some little hint about the killer? If the murder weapons or distribution of Scared cards encoded some pattern? If there were tiny clues scattered around the house that the players could find in their non-murder-solving free time? Or if the solution to each week's riddle provided a fragment of a larger meta-riddle that would reveal the killer's identity?

The idea here is to make the murder mystery something that can be solved instead of something whose solution will be revealed at some pre-determined point in the narrative.

3. Better integrate the murder mystery with the rest of the game. Once the killer's role is better delineated and the murder mystery is actually solvable on its own, the best improvement Whodunnit could make would be to give the identification of the killer some mechanical weight. To make one last comparison, the elimination quiz in The Mole is entirely centered around questions about the mole's identity, while by all accounts the Whodunnit quiz doesn't even ask about the killer's.

The Mole's system has a couple of intriguing strategic implications. Of course, it allows players more keyed in to who the mole is to remain in the game longer. But it's also useful in the metagame: as people get eliminated, their theories about who the mole is are likely to be the least correct, allowing the players still in the game to refine their own. No larger strategic plan is possible in Whodunnit. A player who is good at crime solving and plays the social game adeptly could accuse Giles the butler of being the killer every week and still win.


Other gamers and game designers seem to share the same critiques: the puzzling blog Clavis Cryptica has its own three criticisms of Whodunnit, which might sound a little familiar. Whodunnit was definitely worth watching, especially in the drought that is the summer television schedule. It might be worth watching again, now that it's clear that the real game is about crime-solving. Since it was pitched as who-dunnit, though, the game was disappointing in that the murder mystery carried basically no weight at all.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Design Lessons from the D&D Next Playtest (Part 2)

Continuing from last week's post, today we'll talk more about some of the design decisions made in the D&D Next open beta playtest and how they relate to strategy game design or design in general. This post will cover the live stream game from July 12 and the ensuing discussion on the July 18 podcast.

A well-designed game is reasonably intuitively able to be played even without looking at the rules. It's an interesting point, one that dovetails nicely from our recent discussions of approachability. Rodney and Mike assert that a marker of good game design is that if you open the box--literal for board games, more figurative for roleplaying games--you have at least some idea of how to play the game. You don't necessarily grasp all the complexities of the rules, and you certainly don't understand optimal strategies. But you have a decent idea of where pieces might go and how the board might look in its setup, early game, and end game.

There are two important implications of this design principle. First, it explains the enduring popularity of certain motifs in game design: moving spaces around a track by die rolls, winning tricks from hands of cards, completing sets of shapes or colors. Games that contain those elements make it relatively easy to predict the rules or gameplay just by looking at the parts. Second, making sure that games play the way you think they should play simply by looking at them removes barriers to approachability and encourages players to dive straight into the mechanics.

Two strategy games that do very good jobs of this intuitive leap into playing are Kingdom Builder and Carcassonne. Both games have boards that are easy to set up and pieces that clearly go places on those boards. If a new player opened the box to either game for the first time, she'd be able to reason through what the game was supposed to look and feel like almost immediately, even if she didn't instantly grasp the scoring or strategic nuances.

Mechanics should feel like tools in the hands of the players and not limitations. In some ways, this is an expansion of the previous point; if you feel like you should be able to do something in a game, the best games give you ways to do that. In roleplaying games, this is relatively simple: even if a situation isn't covered by the rules, the game master can pretty easily make a decision or institute a rule on the fly. For strategy games, though, rules tend to be harder coded, meaning good design requires a better forecasting of what naturally follows from a game's theme and mechanics.

For example, Settlers of Catan is about building a civilization, but it's not really a war or conquest game. There's no way to invade someone else's territory or steal their cities--but given the focus of the game, players don't really expect there to be, so it's not a limitation. At the same time, it does feel like there should be a way to defend your territory, which is why the knight/soldier card is so common. Settlers also handles resource trading exceptionally well, since it's natural for competing civilizations to want to specialize in what goods they produce. In contrast, when other resource management games that don't allow trading, that mechanic (or lack thereof) feels like an artificial limitation on something you'd naturally expect to be able to do. In this example, disallowing trading isn't necessarily a wrong design decision, but it's one that needs to make both mathematical and thematic sense before it's included in the game.

A game's numbers should mean something inside the game. Here's another nod toward theme, without which we'd just be throwing dice or drawing cards with increasingly abstract and complex rules constructions on top of them. Many, perhaps most, design decisions are made simply because it makes mechanical sense to do so. Maybe you draw three cards at the beginning of your turn to deplete the deck and to replenish your hand. That's fine; to be a good or even a great game, not every element of every turn needs to have deep thematic significance.

But it never hurts--and often greatly benefits--a game for its mechanics to have an in-universe, narrative reason to happen. In La Citta, citizens move from city to city because those citizens think they'll be better educated if they live elsewhere. In Tongiaki, ships sink if there aren't enough experienced captains among them to navigate the seas, and some routes are tougher than others. Perhaps Antoine Bauza designed 7 Wonders to have three ages because he thought that gave the right combination of brevity and strategic depth, but as a player, it's a lot more fun to think of it as pre-modern history getting divided into the ancient, classical, and medieval eras.

Next week, I'll be back with the third and (for now) final post in the series as the live stream game wraps up and the D&D design team offers its perspective on the game's conclusion.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

2013 Fantasy Terrible Television

It is nearly that time of year again. Old friends reconvene like a cult at the end of each summer to draft from fan favorites and formulate a team made up of the very best. If you've been following this blog you've taken notice that we tend to have a similar ritual we handle in an unorthodox fashion.

Last year some of us cheered with Croatia and some of us laughed with the Arizona Cardinals but now we must create a new trend-setting fantasy league. Welcome to Fantasy Terrible Television.

The Objective

This September Americans will be exposed to a whole new round of entertainment options provided by television networks. Our mission is to determine the success rate of these new offerings even before the general population has seen them or the network executives can see the mistakes they have created.

Victory is determined only by a persons ability to judge how quickly a show will crash and burn. Can we predetermine a show that may be added to the Fantasy Terrible Television Hall of Fame of shows who have been cancelled after a single episode


The Guidelines
  • We will have a draft to select available shows. Following the draft we can sit back and watch the season unfold.
  • Shows will score based on news releases that affect their future status on air. There is a predetermined scoring criteria below.
  • Shows can hurt your score. If it is announced that my show is getting an order for an additional season this will score against me.
The criteria for eligible shows:
  • Series must start and finish between 8PM and 11PM
  • Series must be scheduled to air on American Television, this includes all major networks, cable and premium channels but excludes any online-only content via Netflix, etc.

The scoring criteria:
  • Shows are eligible to score from the moment they premiere until January 31st 2013.
  • If a show is removed from primetime hours entirely it will be considered cancelled for scoring purposes.
  • Shows that are returning to the Fall lineup are eligible to score additional bonuses. These are noted by "[1+ Season]".
Positive Scoring:

(+25 pts) - Show is cancelled (removed from air).
  • (+1 pt) - per un-aired episode ordered
  • (+8 pts) - per previous season [1+ Season]
(+15 pts) - Network issues surprising announcement that this will unceremoniously be the final season. [1+ Season Only]

(+10 pts) - Network announces the series will not be renewed.

(+5 pts) - Series moved mid-season to Friday or Saturday nights.

Negative Scoring:

(-10 pts) Season extended or given full order.
  • (-1 pt) - per additional episode
(-10 pts) Series will be renewed for another season.

(-5 pts) Series moved mid-season to Thursday nights.

Bonus Scoring:

(+6 pts) First Strike - Series is first show cancelled or part of the first list of shows cancelled by a network. This is a separate bonus active for each individual network.

(+5 pts) Angus T. Jones - A lead actor or actress has a bizarre rant or controversy related to their show.

(+10 pts) Christina Applegate - A lead actor or actress leaves a show prior to any network announcement about the future of a series.

(+25 pts) Charlie Sheen - A lead actor or actress is contractually removed from a show prior to the end of the season.

Note: "Cancelled" in FTT scoring refers to shows that have been removed from the air with episodes that remain unaired. In general, all other uses of "Cancelled" should likely be interpreted as "Not Renewed".

Example Scoring from 2012-13 fall line-up:


You may vaguely remember the onslaught of advertisements NBC pushed for this show last summer during the Olympics. NBC thought a cute monkey could save its fall line-up but it was cancelled by November after only six episodes. 

Cancelled (+25 pts) 
Three un-aired episodes (+3 x 3 pts)
Total: 34 points


ABC originally put in an order for thirteen episodes. In November they announced the series would not be renewed but the remaining episodes would air as scheduled.

Network announces season not renewed (+10 pts)
Total: 10 points







After a relatively successful 2011-12 season, ABC gave it a second season. After a drop off in ratings it was cancelled in January with eight episodes remaining.

Cancelled (+25 pts)
Eight un-aired episodes (+1 x 8 pts)
One previous season on air (+8 pts)
Total: 41 points

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Design Lessons from the D&D Next Playtest (Part 1)

As part of the ongoing playtest for the next edition of D&D, Wizards of the Coast's designers and developers have broadcast playtest sessions and recorded some fascinating podcasts delving into the design decisions underlying the current iteration's mechanics. While most of the discussion focuses on roleplaying games, and D&D in particular, there are a few principles discussed that are good points for game design in general. This is the first post in a series describing the application of the D&D Next design principles to strategy game design, covering the July 5th podcast and the June 28th live stream.


A mathematically perfect game is not the same thing as a perfect game particularly if it's not fun to play. This blog has covered design principles like approachability and theme quite a lot, and a game's aesthetics, mechanical flavor, and difficulty have just as profound an effect on a game's quality as how sound the scoring system is and how well the game scales for multiple players. If every die roll, card draw, or move of a token needs to be modified based on the number of players, the stage of the game, and the outcome of the previous turn to ensure mathematical balance, then you may have created an exquisitely designed game that nobody wants to play.

Good playtests operated in different "modes" to achieve different results. Most strategy game players and designers are familiar with "standard" play testing, where the game is played without a particular goal in mind, letting the action unfold and potentially confusing situations occur organically. Rodney Thompson and Mike Mearls describe a second "mode" of playtest, called a "stress test". A stress test strips away the theme, continuity, and other trappings, dealing only with the troublesome situations that showed up during the standard playtest. These trouble spots are worked through repeatedly and without context to smooth out the underlying math or contradictory rules.

Mechanics that tend to arise together should be analyzed together. Sometimes, mechanics that seem innocuous enough on their own can synergize in unexpected ways. In the podcast, Mike Mearls describes a monster that can make more attacks than an average monster, though its attacks are weaker. That's fine balance, except that the attacks can also cause paralysis; if an attack paralyzes its victim, the relative weakness of the remaining attacks is rendered moot because the victim is defenseless.

The situation described in the podcast is similar to my biggest critique of Seasons, a game I otherwise like very much. Plenty of cards in Seasons allow you to reduce the cost of paying for other cards--again, by itself, that's a fine mechanic, and it exists in probably every other resource-based card game from Magic: the Gathering to 7 Wonders. But in Seasons, the relative rarity or abundance of certain resources is a central mechanic. In effect, the "pay less cost" mechanic changes both the number and the rarity of the resources required because it doesn't discriminate among which type of resource you get a discount on. It's a subtle combinatorial effect, but a powerful one, and an unfortunate one because it skirts a central motif that most makes the game distinct from other tableau-builders.


It's fascinating so far to see roleplaying game and strategy game designers speaking so much of the same language and teaching so many of the same lessons, even if the application of those lessons is a bit different depending on the type of game being designed. And it's obvious that guys like Mike Mearls and Rodney Thompson are talented game designers in general, not merely roleplaying game designers, because they've capably balanced the need for strong narrative with the need for strong mechanics that is essential in a roleplaying game. Check back for discussions of the other podcasts in the series as we continue to explore the overlap between board game and roleplaying game design.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Action Economy in D&D Next

A few weekends ago, I finally fulfilled one of my long-standing gaming goals by playing in the D&D Next open beta as part of D&D Worldwide Game Day. As a roleplayer, I couldn't have been happier with the new rules--my wonderful and patient non-roleplayer girlfriend got to endure at least five minutes of me singing its praises.

Many of the mechanical and narrative high points in D&D Next are really only relevant in the context of roleplaying game design, but a few mechanics have some interesting implications for strategy game design too. In particular, the way that "actions" work in Next, sometimes called the "action economy," is vastly streamlined in comparison to D&D's earlier incarnations.

The 3rd Edition of the game, released in 2000, came with a veritable smorgasbord of them: standard, move, swift, immediate, full-round, free. 4th Edition kept most of them and added minor, interrupt, reaction, and the maddeningly vague "no action". Next simplifies things a lot. Most of those action types do indeed still exist in Next, but in keeping with the "modular" theme of the rules, not every action type is necessarily attached to every character, so the core rules don't assume every player needs to understand all the action types.

For example, the core rules account for exactly two "actions," the action (what used to be called the "standard action") and the move (which is no longer an action proper but a distance). Swift actions and reactions exist in Next, but not every character has something that can be accomplished in a swift action, so the swift action isn't described in the core rules. Instead, the description of how it works is included in every ability that needs it.

Going along with our recent discussions of complexity and approachability, the takeaway here for strategy game design is that if a game must be complex, it's better to move complexity to where it's required than to assert it in a game's basic rules. How many times have you unwrapped a new Euro-style board game to find a twenty-page manual describing every corner case of each rule variant that might exist but that doesn't tell you how to determine who goes first?

Of course, in designing a game, those rules variants and corner cases are important. It's essential to think about any situation that might possibly arise during both mechanical balancing and playtesting. But if a given piece of information is only relevant some of the time, the best games find ways to introduce that information when it is needed and not a moment sooner.

Quick Reviews 2nd Quarter 2013

I didn't get to try as many new games in the past three months as I would have liked, but I did get a few in. The following are my quick reviews, ordered from most anticipated to least anticipated. I hope to cover a few favorites in depth in the months to come.

Rarely do I feel a movie, TV show, book or game delivers on the hype I overhear before experiencing it for myself. But it sure feels great when it does.

The Resistance is more of an experience than a game, and that is the ultimate compliment. Five to Ten players act as a rebellious group attempting to undermine an oppressive government. Some of them however are spies attempting to work against the group. This game offers a simple rule set anyone can pick up in five minutes and forces the players to make each game an experience, full of double thinking, suspicion and empty offerings of trust.

I can't recommend it enough.

The Resistance Verdict: 10 out of 10

I remembered when Gra-Gra Company was originally brought to the US by Z-Man Games in and thus when I saw the re-titled Stack Market at a discount retailer for under $4 I figured it was worth a try.

Players stack wooden dice into buildings that represent their growing investments in companies and are rewarded for increasing the height these buildings and punished when a building collapses.

There are some interesting ideas as two people can be working on the same building at once and players can switch buildings at the end of their turn. The problems are insurmountable though as the rules are clunky (the average player is likely to end up with less money than the started the game with) and it lacked the hold-your-breath anticipation and fun of a game like Jenga. I'm glad I gave it a try but it simply won't be revisited by me anytime soon.

Stack Market Verdict: 5 out of 10


We shouldn't judge a book by its cover and neither should we judge a game. But abstracts can often be the worst offenders as they lack any imaginative presentation. I gave Atoll a try simply because it puts in the effort to make the game play intuitive and easier on the eyes.

If you look a the board to your left and took a guess  as to how it is played you'd probably come pretty close. Something should be said for the importance of graphic design for this month's topic of approachability. Players take either black or white pieces and alternate turns in order to strategically place their pieces to connect to diametrically opposed sides on their color in one continuous line.

It has some interesting ideas in regards to blocking your opponent and requires the forethought to think many turns ahead. This is a quality abstract, but unfortunately it just isn't for me.

Atoll Verdict: 4.5 out of 10

After Atoll I gave another abstract a shot, this time with a light theme called Tricky Safari. Players move their camera (the red or yellow piece in the lower left and upper right corners in the picture) orthogonality or diagonally around the board to capture photos of each of the area's diverse species.

Players each take one turn trying to position themselves in front of (relative to the animal's arrow) or beside an animal, scoring up to one point per animal. After each has taken a turn, all ten animals move forward, with delicate rules in place in cases where they run into water spaces or brush.

Tricky Safari really grew on me as I became more impressed with each game. A good player has to think not only about this turn but similar to billiards, how they will set themselves up for the next turn. I'd guess this might be a tedious game to play in person (constantly moving ten neutral pieces) but it is a wonderful little abstract available on Yourturnmyturn.

Tricky Safari Verdict: 7 out of 10

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Game Ratings Follow-Up: Abstract Aesthetics

My third and (for now) final follow-up to the game ratings scheme I published a few weeks ago deals with the aesthetics of abstract games. Alex touched on the topic when he discussed approachability, citing the relative simplicity of the rules of chess as part of its beauty. My friend and fellow gamer Josh agrees and puts it more strongly: "abstract aesthetics [like those in] chess should not necessarily be a detractor; I think chess can, in its own way, be very beautiful."

I defined "aesthetics" as a (mostly arbitrary) combination of a game's sensory elements--typically visual and tactile--and its theme. It's tempting to sub-divide the aesthetics score into "sensory" and "thematic" sub-scores, awarding perhaps up to one point for each, to better describe the contribution of each to the game's overall aesthetics.

But I deliberately avoided that level of granularity. It's useful to take a more holistic approach to evaluating aesthetic quality because there's also an implication of integration between the two: the visual design should reflect the theme (the mechanics should too, but that's a more complicated consideration). And sensory and thematic design are in that statistical murky ground of being neither perfectly correlated nor truly independent.

Based on the way I've defined aesthetics, a game needs both an attractive sensory design and a compelling theme to earn a high aesthetics score. It would be tough to argue that chess has a compelling theme because it doesn't have one at all--it's entirely abstract. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it has no sensory appeal. As both Alex and Josh both point out, plenty of people find chess not only visually pleasing but among the most beautiful board games that exist, precisely because of its iconic abstractness.

Since this blog is focused on important considerations for game design, what are the takeaways from trying to evaluate the aesthetics of abstract games? First, it's a much tougher task than it appears at first, and in many respects, appropriately evaluating aesthetics becomes tougher as a game becomes more abstract. In a strongly themed game, it's relatively easy to determine how well the visuals fit the theme. In abstracts, particularly the "classic" abstracts, that determination becomes a trickier--and more subjective--proposition.

A related point: only a few games flourish as complete abstracts. Chess and go and backgammon have been immensely popular for centuries, but that continued popularity shouldn't give contemporary game designers incentive to avoid the responsibility of coming up with a suitable theme for their games. As this blog has discussed before, a theme is an essential component of developing and marketing a game successfully.

Finally, the prospect of applying a contemporary rating scale to a classic abstract might involve faulty logic on its face. Modern games are often the product of a single designer or team of designers, while the much older games are products of hundreds of years of cumulative development. Chess has apparently been played in Europe since the 1200s, while its rules weren't finalized until the 19th century; Go took more than a thousand years to become the game played today. What does that mean for contemporary game design? Avoid drawing comparisons to classic games, because they've had centuries of playtesting that you haven't.

So was I incorrect in using "completely abstract" as reasoning for giving a "0.0" aesthetics score? I don't think so, but I think I erred in picking chess as the "complete abstract" to illustrate the point. The real lesson here is how difficult it is to use such a well-known and immensely popular game as a basis of comparison. In his rating scale, Alex stipulates that he doesn't rate games played with an ordinary deck of cards because a from-scratch game is necessarily a better design achievement than one used with standard cards. I still believe that, all else being equal, a themed game is necessarily a better design achievement than a pure abstract, but in the future, there's wisdom in avoiding the traditional abstracts as bases for comparison.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Quick Semantics Question

Or: what do we call this hobby?

I'm a bit of a linguistic prescrptivist. I believe that language needs to play by the rules, and unusual or nonstandard usage tend to bother me more than most people. But I suspect I'm not the only one who's occasionally put off by the term "board games". After all, plenty of the games we play have nothing to do with boards.

Despite the argument against it, board gaming might well remain the best description we have. BoardGameGeek, by far the hobby's most popular and influential website, hosts reviews, discussion, and information for thousands of games. Many hundreds of those games don't use a board at all. Even the linguistic argument against "board game" might be losing steam as it's increasingly commonly used to refer to any non-roleplaying analog tabletop game. But what might some alternatives be?

A term like board/card gaming brings the Dominions and San Juans of the world into the fold, but it's a lot clumsier to say yet doesn't add too much information. What about games that use both cards and boards like Agricola or Settlers of Catan? How about games that use neither, like Carcassonne or various dice games? If the distinction between "board" and "card" game is slowly fading, then this term doesn't necessarily make too much sense.

A much better alternative might be tabletop gaming, the term favored by Wil Wheaton in his TableTop web series. This one is better--it doesn't limit the games to a certain medium, it's descriptive in that many of the games in this genre are in fact played at a table, and it emphasizes that we're not playing party games or video games, neither of which typically involve tables. The biggest argument against "tabletop" is that it's already used in RPG parlance to differentiate analog games like Dungeons and Dragons from video game RPGs. "Tabletop" might actually be a better term to describe a class containing both analog RPGs and board/card/whatever else games.

If "analog" is a good retronym to describe non-video games, then how about analog gaming for the class as a whole? It's probably worse than "tabletop," as it's less specific and could feasibly refer to RPGs or party games or basically anything else that's not electronic.

We might be tempted to use Euro gaming, but that term suffers the opposite problem that "tabletop" and "analog" do: it's too specific. There are plenty of high-quality, well-designed games that are not European or even particularly Euro-style; popular ones include Pandemic and Blokus among many others. There's the added disadvantage that people who don't play Euro games likely don't know what a Euro game is.

Moving away from media or surfaces entirely, strategy gaming might work well, since it doesn't discriminate by style or medium. Gaming purists might balk at some games playing fast-and-loose with the moniker "strategy game"--Betrayal at House on the Hill proudly describes itself as a "strategy game," though compared to games like Power Grid, Betrayal's strategic depth might leave a little to be desired. On the other hand, compared to something like Sorry, perhaps Betrayal counts as a strategy game after all. One cause of hesitation with "strategy game" is that it too already has a definition; war or territory-control video games such as Starcraft or Age of Empires are often described as strategy games.

A possible compromise might be tabletop strategy gaming, though that's a bit of a mouthful, and it might have the unintended consequence of making people assume we're always playing Starcraft in board game form, or Risk.

Finally, just plain gaming might not be as bad as it seems at first. Video gaming, roleplaying, (standard-deck) card gaming, and party gaming are already content to use the narrower, more descriptive labels, so can we get away with simple "gaming"?

What do you call your gaming hobby? Is there a standardized term that the community has already agreed upon? Do we need one at all?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Complexity Redux

In his recent post, Matt covered a few thought provoking items about complexity in game design that I hadn't considered before. One of the most significant was that realization that a game design can approach a point of optimization and after this a plateau can be observed where increasing complexity really only increases complexity.

The idea of the plateau in design is quite intuitive in hindsight, and at some point all designs form (and should form) an asymptote where they have achieved the design goals and by adding more, one in receiving diminishing returns at the cost of overwhelming the audience. Once we've "maxed out" a game design we can approach it with an emphasis on parsimony - the idea that all else being equal, the simplest explanation (the ideas and mechanics) that can be used to interpret the data (the game design) is best.

Since depth and complexity are two sides of the same coin and abstract in nature, how can one measure how a design fares? There are many variables to account, but a game analysis can largely be formed by a consensus of many players in the aftermath. A successfully balanced game leaves players thinking "I didn't do it quite well that first game but I can see how my decisions can have benefits and repurcussions for next time". A poorly balanced game leaves players failing to see the forest for the trees and feeling that they just didn't know where they went wrong.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Game Ratings Follow-Up: Complexity

A few weeks ago, I described my system for rating game quality. My "five axes" had two important qualities. First, the descriptors are orthogonal, which is a fancy mathematics word for "independent". A game with a given strategic complexity has equal chances of being aesthetically beautiful as aesthetically bland, and aesthetic quality doesn't correlate at all with strategic quality. Second, all the descriptors are "per se" good things; all other things being equal, a game with greater strategic depth is better than one with shallower strategy.

Of course, no system can capture each and every trait that makes a game good or bad. Two that Alex and I discussed after I published the article are approachability, which Alex and I posted slightly different takes on last week, and complexity, which is the subject of this post. We'll define complexity as the number of things "going on" in a game: the sum of all the rules, mechanics, decisions, design, and implementation.

Complexity works a little differently than the traits I use as my five axes in that it's not orthogonal to the other axes, and it's not per se desirable for determining quality. Complexity is in fact highly correlated to strategic depth (strategically deeper games tend to be more complex) and adaptability (more complex games often have more variety for ways to play), in addition to approachability (more complex games can be less approachable simply because there's more happening).

Further, a more complex game is not necessarily a better game. Sometimes, more complexity makes a game better. For example, tic-tac-toe and Connect Four are nearly identical in aesthetics, mechanics, and general feel, but Connect Four is a better game because it's strategically deeper, and most of that strategic depth comes from its increased complexity.

On the other hand, sometimes more complexity makes a game worse because it makes a game more difficult to play but doesn't improve its strategic experience. I came down pretty hard on Ascension: Rise of Vigil because it takes a good game (Ascension) and adds a mechanic that makes things more difficult to keep track of while simultaneously increasing the game's variance.

And often, a greater-complexity game is neither markedly better or worse, it's just more complicated. For any given play style, there's probably a complexity optimum that's sometimes undershot, sometimes overshot, but often on a complexity plateau where all you're doing by adding more complexity is adding more complexity. In that case, the simplest version of the game that provides the same quality is the best.

A situation that lends itself well to examining where the complexity optimum lies is in games with lots of expansions. Maybe you've noticed this yourself: in your favorite thirty-seven expansion game, you really like playing with a handful of them, there's a few you never want to see opened again, and most of them you could take or leave, right? I'll illustrate the phenomenon with my own favorite thirty-seven expansion game, Dominion.

Logical extensions to existing mechanics promote "good" complexity. That's most evident in Dominion's first expansion, Intrigue. It's loosely themed around secrets and conspiracy, but it mostly contains cards that would be at home in base Dominion. Unlike in later expansions, there are no card types or wildly different card effects added, simply existing mechanics (and tweaks to existing ones) that can be played in different ways. Intrigue adds complexity to Dominion, but it does it in a way that adds strategy without drastically changing substance.

Making the numbers bigger promotes "neutral" complexity. Nothing illustrates that better than Prosperity, whose central theme is "more is better". There's a bigger, better Treasure card (Platinum) and a bigger, better Victory card (Colony) and a handful of other cards that would destroy the ones in the main set by how overpowering they are. Because of the extra tiers, it's certainly more complex than base Dominion, but it's a complexity that almost makes it feel like a different game. Where I'll never hesitate to throw Intrigue into my Dominion game, I think harder if I want to play with Prosperity--not because I dislike it, simply because it's more to account for.

Rules exceptions, conditionals, and single game-altering mechanics promote "bad" complexity. Probably the only Dominion iteration that comes close to "bad" complexity is Alchemy, which relied on entirely different ways of thinking than any of the rest of Dominion. Cards costing multiple types of resources, situations where you can control elements of your opponents' turns, and cards that force you to make dozens of different decisions per turn all turn Alchemy into a high-complexity game without necessarily making it more fun or strategically deeper.


Having said all that about shades of complexity and a hypothetical quality vs. complexity curve, Alex brings up an important point: people tend toward games that are as complex as they like them to be. To a non-board gamer, maybe Dominion in any capacity is too complex. To a chess player or war-gamer, maybe Dominion in any capacity is too simple and too inclined toward variance.

How does that affect a game's quality score? On one level, it subconsciously inclines players away from games that might deserve a higher rating. I rate high-concept warfare games like Diplomacy fairly low in general, ostensibly because I find they take too long and don't feature intriguing mechanics, but really because I find it difficult to wrap my head around every single player's tree of strategic possibilities. In other words, it's too complex for my tastes.

On the other hand, given that I know high-concept warfare games aren't my thing, I tend not to seek them out. Therefore, I'm prevented from polluting their ratings pools with what would be artificially low scores to legitimate fans of the genre. Both are effects designers should be aware of. And although complexity isn't an attribute that's easy to score directly, it has an effect, subtle or overt, on practically every measure of quality.

In conclusion, here are some important considerations on complexity for a game designer: does a mechanic enhance the strategic depth of the game or is it merely clever? Is every decision the player is required to make both interesting and meaningful? Have I made my game so complex that it's no longer approachable? Does changing the number of players substantially alter the rules and the game's ease of implementation?