El Tiddly starts here

So here's a really stupid idea that got stuck in my head and I'm just going to have to try out in case it turns out to be fun.

The other day there was a comment on BoardGameGeek which mentioned grabbing a couple of game mechanics to mash together in a game.  If I remember correctly, there was a flippant comment about maybe combining area control with dexterity.  Over the next couple of days my brain started thinking of various things...

One of my all-time favourite games is El Grande, a game from the mid-90's by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich that set the standard for area control games and still stands up (in my mind, at least) as one of the best games out there.  Or it is when you have four or five players -- fewer and it doesn't really work as well.  Anyway, the game involves sticking cubes on a map, bidding for use of action cards, and periodically scoring points for the players with the most cubes in each region on the map.  It probably doesn't sound it from that description, but this game is great!
Mashing up one of the best games there is with a bunch of tiddlywink flipping... What could possibly go wrong?

I have also recently been thinking of dexterity games.  You know, games that involve flicking, throwing, rolling, stacking and other skills as major elements of play.  Games like Pitch Car, Tiddlywinks, or Jenga.  I can have fun with many of these games, but they are outside of my comfort zone and I have certainly never designed anything of this type, so I have taken it as a personal challenge that I should design and play one as an exercise.

So that's two very different things: a game (and style of game) that I very much enjoy, and another that isn't really my "thing", but which I want to explore.

Right now I am picturing a game of El Grande, but instead of placing cubes on the board in the normal way (each turn you can place a number of cubes dictated by your action card on regions adjacent to the King's location), there is a dexterity challenge to place them.

At first I thought of some sort of catapult arrangement (see Coconuts).  This would be fun at first, but I was quickly picturing spending half of the play time spent picking cubes up off the floor or out of people's drinks if the launchers weren't calibrated exactly right.

A second thought was to use tiddlywinks instead of cubes and hop them on from the edge of the board.  I like this idea: it is using a skill that many children develop fairly early in their game playing career, the counters have limited range, and skill plays a definite part but it is always possible to play a bad (or good) shot by accident.

And then I had a more refined idea, of rolling discs (initially I thought of coins, but coloured wooden discs may be better) onto the board, probably using a ramp to roll them down.  This really appeals to me from the aiming point of view and the fact that it can be easy to control direction, but not distance of travel.  Plus wooden discs can look really nice.  One problem with wooden discs could be that they are quite likely to stay stood on their edge when they complete rolling, making their final position unstable, though there would be no such problem with coins.  Tiddlywink counters would probably be too light to roll properly.  One additional thought would be poker chips, but I think they would be far too large for the game.

If I wanted to stick with cubes, the natural approach would be to flick them.  This could make for an interesting snooker-like game where you could knock other players' pieces out of the way, but on balance I feel that controlling the flicking of cubes (particularly small ones, which I think would be necessary) could be too difficult, especially to start with.  Plus there are quite a few flicking games that are currently popular.

Of course, another way to get things onto the board, whether cubes, coins, discs, or whatever, would be simply to drop them.  This would have to be from a reasonable height (but not too high) to provide the right level of unpredictability.  My instinct says that I wouldn't want that to be the main part of a game, but perhaps it could be an option that comes in to play from time to time.

Thinking of that, El Grande has the action cards which allow you to place cubes in the "normal" way, alongside the special action. Some of those actions allow different ways of getting cubes onto (and off of) the board.  Working from that as a starting point for our new game, maybe the standard placements are by doing a tiddlywinks flip onto the board, but there are actions that allow you to drop additional counters on.  That could do it.

Now, with counters being dropped or flipped onto the board, some of them will inevitably land touching the lines between regions, so I need to consider what happens then.  I can think of a few options:
  • Counters touching lines are dead and removed from the board.  This seems a bit harsh and potentially unfun.
  • Counters touching lines can be moved by the owning player to sit wholly on one side or the other.  Or perhaps moved by an opponent for additional lulz.
  • Counters touching lines are considered to be in all adjoining regions, so counting towards multiple tallies, making the borders very valuable.
  • The lines are made into wide border zones, sufficiently wide that a counter cannot simultaneously touch the regions on both sides.
Anyway, all this is very theoretical.  I wanted to play.  Luckily, with this idea it is very easy to start testing.  I pulled out my El Grande board and a heap of tiddlywinks and got...  what's the correct word here?... tiddling.  I didn't try playing a game as such, just flipped counters about onto the board to see what it was like.

Some thoughts and discoveries...

  • Wheee!  Yep, this is actually quite fun.
  • It was also a bit frustrating at first as tiddling (!) on the board itself means that the counters don't get much off the surface, so they generally scoot across the board and fall off the table.
  • I tried launching off a quilted dinner mat, which made the counters fly off in all sorts of random directions.
  • Next off, I switched to a small towel for the launch surface, and this worked well.  I could get a little height and felt I had some control over the counters.  I suspect a piece of felt would do quite well too.
  • Once I had a decent launch surface I ended up having so much fun that I shot off all the rest of the counters that I had.
  • As it turns out, the El Grande board and the regions marked on it are a really good size for flipping these counters (which are about 22mm diameter).
  • I definitely want to progress this.
So what now?

I am planning to make some action cards to use with this as I think the original cards are probably too tricky to adapt to fit this new game, and I think that El Grande's bidding and action selection mechanics might not be right for us here, so I'll think about alternate ways of handling the actions.  Scoring will have to be handled separately as the score track around the board is bound to come to grief with all the flicking going on.  I like the idea of keeping El Grande's king and Grande pieces in somehow, so I'll also work on that.

Somewhere down the line, the game should get its own board (and maybe a theme), but for now we have something that works well.  I will report back again when something has happened.


Space Station 7 almost gets off the ground

I am pleased to report a little progress.

Over the last few weeks I have been slowly tinkering and, while I still don't quite have a game, I have actually managed to construct enough of a game to stumble through a couple of turns to see the basic mechanics starting to work.  A bit.
A few meeples, cubes and bits of card and you too can have a gorgeous looking prototype just like this.
So, what I have at the moment is a dozen or so cards, each of which nominally has two available actions, but in practice are about half way there.  I have prepared these using a basic template in the nanDECK software, so now if I want to add a new card, or add/change an action on an existing card, I can quickly edit a text file and then print off the new cards with almost no effort.  Apart from that I have player mats for a couple of players, which allow for agents to be placed on either a homeworld or a colony, a central board with four key locations onboard the space station itself, and a score board allowing scores to be tracked in Prestige, Political Support, Economy and Military strength.  Several of the actions I have prepared manipulate these four scores in assorted ways.

I just spent a little while placing agents, playing cards, and so on for a dummy two-player game.  The basics seem to work OK but, of course, there is a long way to go here.

Some observations...

  • Some of the actions that look most interesting to me are the ones that require you to affect multiple players (e.g. giving a bonus to two players, likely to be you and another player).
  • I don't think this game will work well with two players (I want politics and negotiation to be a major feature), so future tests should take this into account.  
  • Aside from negotiation, etc., I think this game should play fairly quickly, which is something I very much want.
  • Some actions get played covertly (i.e. face down) and can use further actions to boost their effect before they are revealed at an appropriate time.  This looks like it should work well, as it can allow some bluffing and misdirection (we can see this guy is up to something -- should we worry).
  • A very useful action would be to look at face-down cards, but it will take some thought (and playtesting) to figure out how much information should be gained for how much effort.
  • The game desperately needs events to happen.  I envisaged having an external threat that players need to interact with (and this is what the C&C location on the space station is about), and without this the game looks like it would be a bit dull.
So... So far, so good -- if rather slow.  I need to fill out more of the cards (if necessary I can expand the game at this stage by just printing two of each card, but I still need to get rid of the gaps) and set up a small deck of event cards.  Then I need to do some form of test with at least three players -- probably just me pretending to be three people at first.

More on this later...


Trying to learn from clever people at UK Games Expo

This weekend we had a family day trip to the UK Games Expo, and had a grand old day of it, trying out a few games, buying a few, and generally nosing around the place.  I was planning to spend a little time in the playtest area and try out some of the games other folk are working on, but unfortunately other things got in the way.

One of the things that got in the way, however, was a great seminar entitled "The Science of Board Games", with prolific game designer, Reiner Knizia, science journalist and Radio 4 presenter, Quentin Cooper, and mathematician, Andrew Brooke-Taylor.  Quentin presented his gaming bona fides (I think playing Battle Line with his 9-month-pregnant wife counts for both of them), before setting Reiner off on an interesting talk on his approach to game design, and then rounding off with a decent Q&A session which brought Andrew nicely into the mix.
More of my trademark terrible photography, but there's Dr Knizia explaining something or other.
The main points I took away from Reiner's talk were:
  • He talked about restricting degrees of freedom for players.  Effectively a game that allows too much leeway for player action is probably a poor one.  The game should constrain what can be done at any given point, thus forcing interesting decisions.
  • Something that came up a few times was the concept of a "magic point" for a game, that spark that makes the game from a mathematical exercise into a fun, interesting game.  This is, I think, where my own work is somewhat lacking.  I think this is probably a similar concept to the "core engagement" that game designers often talk about.
  • The other key thing that interested me was discussion of auction games.  Specifically that auctions are related to a mathematical area of "election theory", which is something I will look into.  He also discussed one particular type of auction where both the first and second placed bidders have to pay; this has interesting implications in that there can be strange bidding patterns like, for example, a £10 being sold at auction for more that £10 as bidders try to minimise their losses.
Aside from this talk, there was some interesting discussion, but I was particularly pleased to hear Andrew giving a shout out to Dobble from a mathematical point of view.  The game is effectively a supercharged version of snap, where there are many cards, each bearing a few symbols, but the point is that any two cards has exactly one symbol in common, and the game is in trying to spot the match as quickly as possible, which can be very hard.  Simple as the game is to play, the mathematics of getting the cards set up just right is a thing of beauty that I would never have either thought of or been able to execute on, and it's great to see someone acknowledging this stroke of genius in game design.

Later in the afternoon there was another seminar entitled "Gaming With Children".  Most of this was actually just talking about games that people would recommend for playing with youngsters, but it did touch on some interesting discussion about some points of game design in the context of child-friendly games.  I think this might have developed into something really good, but the session was very squeezed for time due to the previous seminar overrunning quite significantly.

For me the most interesting points came from Nigel Scarfe from Imagination Gaming, which is the group who run the Family Zone at the Expo and who, as their main work, bring boardgames into schools to play with the kids.  I know a lot about playing games with my daughter, but Nigel knows an awful lot about what works with children in general.  He said he has three key rules for games that he would start children off with:
  1. The rules need to be explainable in 30 seconds.
  2. A game should be playable inside about 15 minutes.
  3. Forgive me on this one, but I got a bit mixed up and can't remember if this is the third point, but I think what he said was that the game must make the kids laugh.  It may have been something different, but this is a good rule anyway.
I think that as a gateway game, rule 2 is a very good one.  It's great to have a game that is over quickly and leaves the players saying either, "Let's go again!" or, "What can we play next?" rather than being worn out.

Rule 3 is one I like too.  Not all games need to be funny, but most of the memorable gaming moments in my life are ones which involve a lot of laughter (often, actually, due to someone -- often me -- suffering some crushing calamity).  Games don't need to be designed for comedy but when there is the space for surprises, glorious successes and epic fails, there is great potential for laughter.

My favourite of these, however, is rule 1.  It's not something I have really consciously thought about, but I really should have.  While you don't need to be able to explain everything about the game in 30 seconds, you should at least be able to ground the players so that they know what is coming and, preferably, are able to start playing.  Some games, clearly, will be such that none of this is actually possible, and I'd hate for the bigger, more complicated games to not be around, but I would like to propose a rule that I intend to work by.

Rob's game design rule number 1: The core of the rules should be explainable in 30 seconds. If this is not possible, there should be a damned good reason.  I'll try to stick to that.  I don't imagine I'll make many games with actual 30 second rule explanations, but I will aim to end up with games that have a 30 second summary that, even if there's still a lot to explain, will at least have players about ready to go.

Something that occurred to me at the time, but there wasn't the space to bring up, is that game components can make a huge difference to how easy it is to explain rules.  Carcassonne, for instance, needs almost no explanation for how you can place tiles: you just put them down so they look right. Most games won't have this sort of mechanism available, but the more components that give you solid clues as to their use, the better.