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.

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