2d6

I love dice games. The feel of rolling dice is very satisfying and they can simplify a lot of mechanics into quicker playing games. Custom dice are great. Rolling a huge handful of dice for a big attack is exciting. The many combinations of polyhedrals for RPGs is fascinating. But my favorite use of dice is 2d6. That’s two standard six sided dice.

I love using 2d6 because it provides a nice bell curve of possibilities while remaining in a relatively tight space of results from 2 to 12.

The 2 and 12 are exciting rarities, each occurring less than 3% of the time. While a 7 is common, occurring almost 17% of the time. The numbers in between are easy to estimate while playing. The closer to 7 the easier it is to get.

In Catan players can easily see which resources will hit more often and use that knowledge to value their trade potential.

Can’t Stop uses 4 dice that then must be paired to make two 2d6 results. Choosing how to pair them gives you some choice in the game. And the board layout balances the difficulty of rolling certain numbers with the length of the path for those numbers. So you could try for the easy 6, 7, and 8 but you will need to hit them a lot more than taking the shorter but riskier 2 and 12 paths.

Machi Koro lets you choose which buildings to build that will trigger on different numbers. You can build a lot of things to trigger on common numbers or spread out your abilities so you always get something.

Even Monopoly uses 2d6 creating a somewhat predictable pattern of movement which you could study to improve your odds if you felt like investing the time.

2d6 provide an interesting design space where you can be somewhat sure of the results over time as opposed to the pure randomness of a single die but not have to deal with the more complex math of larger amounts of dice. For me, it’s the perfect balance of chaos and control.

Dead Ends and Going Back

As you work on a game design you identify problems, formulate solutions, test, and repeat. Sometimes the solution is right and you move forward, other times the solution is wrong and you try something else.

However, sometimes several successful iterations can hit a dead end. In these situations trying to fix a problem and move forward can be impossible. You can waste a lot of time and energy trying, but the only solution is to go back and take a different path.

Sometimes you’ll have to go back several iterations and this can feel like all of those versions were a waste of time. But any thought put into a design is not wasted. You either learn something that works or you learn something that doesn’t.

Things that you incorporated while on that dead end path could still become useful on your new path. Lessons learned can still apply and things that didn’t work before may have a new chance to work.

I recently went down a dead end path with Plutocracy. I’ve written before about my idea to add player pawns to give players a more definite sense of who they are in the game. While this solution did exactly what it was intended to do, a side effect was that it changed the feel of the game.

Player interaction was almost entirely lost. Economic manipulation was no longer a thing. Combat was never entered intentionally. Even though the core of the game is about not being tied to a single empire, players usually chose one empire and just worked with that one. Each exploring out in a different direction and gathering points until the game ended.

I was very tempted to move forward and fix the problem. I started working on grand design changes that would essentially make a different game. Then I stopped. I realized my solution wasn’t really what I wanted this game to be. So I’m backing up a few steps to before players had pawns on the board. I’m incorporating some of the things I learned along that path and trying to fix the original problem of player incentives in a different way.

Game design isn’t a linear path that you travel down from idea to completion. It is an endlessly splitting labyrinth with many dead ends and many possible exits. Don’t be afraid to back up and try a different path.

How Small Can A Game Be?

This is a tough question without some parameters. First, when I talk about a game’s size I’m not necessarily referring to its physical dimensions. Anything can be made pretty small. So the more practical question would be what is the minimum number of pieces needed to make a game?

The answer to that is zero pieces. Many games exist as simply a physical or verbal act. Some of these are even based on rules that are remembered instead of written. So there are no pieces at all.

But let’s say we want to sell a game with very few pieces, but more than zero, because people are hesitant to pay for nothing.

What are the fewest pieces we can make a game with where the pieces add value to the game experience that could not be achieved without them.

I want to say the answer is one. I tried making a small game a while back. I tried working with a single die and a single card. It didn’t really work out for me. Then I worked towards using a single tile. I made Flipped. Game play consisted of flipping the tile and then performing the challenge that was pointing at you. Each challenge involved using the tile to perform some dexterous feat. So the game was all about this one integral piece. Except that it needed a rules sheet to explain what all the challenges were. And since players earned points, you really needed to keep track with some coins or tokens. So 1 tile, rules, and a handful of tokens. Not the single piece game I hoped for.

There are a lot of small games out there. Many are a single card, but they also require some tokens or dice. Or the card is really just a set of rules for a game that needs no pieces.

When you add a few more cards or pieces, the world of micro games opens up. But I’m going to continue trying to make a single piece game.

Patreon Fee Changes

By now you have probably heard of the changes Patreon is making to its fee structure this month. Patreon says they are changing the structure so patrons pay the fees and creators get a larger percentage of the pledge. The more accurate version is that they are having patrons pay the fees and adding a 35 cent fee to each pledge. So with this change, at lower pledge levels, if you include the fees in the math, creators are getting a lower percentage of the price a patron pays.

This is an especially big change for people that support a lot of creators for 1 or 2 dollars a month. If you make 20 $1 pledges each month your price will jump from $20 to $27.60. If this is a financial burden for you, you would need to stop supporting 6 creators to lower your pledges to the previous level. That’s 6 creators that are losing a piece of their community.

Here is a useful comparison chart posted by Ben Wolfe.

 

Because the changes are not as drastic for larger pledges I think this may be a bigger hit to creators’ communities than their finances, though that really depends on the distribution of their patrons.

Right now it looks like creators and patrons are upset about the change and many are looking for alternative ways to financially support creators. Hopefully everyone can find a way to continue supporting and creating. And if you do find yourself dropping support for a creator that you still enjoy, reach out and let them know that you still enjoy their content. For many creators, myself included, a kind word about their hard work is worth much more than a dollar.

Your Game is Harder Than You Think

If you’ve been reading the blog or following me on social media you are familiar with my game Plutocracy. I’ve been working on it for about a year now and it has been a difficult problem to solve, but one that is so intriguing I can’t let it go. I’ve written about the trouble of making player incentives and my attempts at streamlining the rules. My dead ends and my redirections. This post isn’t about Plutocracy, though my play test of it last night is the inspiration and will serve as an example. This post is about how difficult it is for a designer to understand how complex their game is because they understand the complexity of their game.

I wrote previously about my idea to give players a better stake in the game by adding pawns that represent the player and limit their area of influence. I implemented this change for last night’s test. This was the major change of this version. It also had a different board structure and modified scoring, but the majority of mechanics were almost identical to previous versions.

The group play testing was one of my regular groups. They have all played Plutocracy many times before. They are all game designers and experienced players. I had high hopes for this version. I felt it would solve the incentive problem and allow me to move forward to adjusting numbers to fine tune the game. So I was surprised when the game mechanics gave them so much trouble.

As I said, the majority of mechanics hadn’t changed. They just had a pawn on the board that meant they couldn’t affect planets too far away. But this one change made the game different to them. So they kept questioning how things worked and my answer was usually, “The same as it did in the last version.”

In the end, the game went alright. It did a lot of what I wanted, but there were some big issues with the initial setup that caused some problems for the whole game. The concept I was reminded of during our discussion was that when you design a game, it makes sense to you in a way that no other person can quite grasp. This can lead to the issue I had.

The changes I made were minor to me, the game still had the same mechanics, but a game is much more complicated to anyone who is not the creator of it. So if you make a design and it is simple and clear in your head, everything fits together, is intuitive, and flows well. It’s probably more complicated for players than you realize.

It’s hard to notice because it’s a matter of perspective that you, as the designer, can’t have. Perhaps putting a design away for a year or two so you completely forget about it could help. But I think the best thing to do is realize it will happen, and play test until it works for your audience, not just you.

Board Game Sales

It’s Black Friday and pretty much every retailer is having some kind of sale. This includes game stores and game websites. When I first entered the hobby a few years ago I was a sucker for board games on sale. I would buy anything that seemed vaguely interesting and had a big discount. For the most part these ended up being OK games from big publishers. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the Queen Games’ sales on Amazon.

I never had time to play all of these games. So now I have more games than I can store and I’m not particularly interested in playing the OK ones when I’ve also been paying full price for some great games. Now I have a few piles of games I’ll be trading, selling, and giving away.

Besides cluttering my house with unplayed games, what is the result of board game sales? The MSRP of a game is usually as low as it can be to cover the production, transport, marketing, and sale of a game, and allow for some profit at each stage. So there isn’t a very large margin to lower for a sale. The discount is also usually at the retailers step.

The games that go on sale are therefore games that the retailer wants to get rid of at a lower profit or even at a loss to recoup some money and free up retail or storage space. So the majority of games on sale are not that good. This is why I bought so many OK games on sale. The good games didn’t need to be discounted to sell.

But there is another reason games go on sale besides not being good enough to sell. Sometimes more are produced than the market cares to buy. So you have very good games end up with steep discounts so stores can free up space.

A problem that arises from these two different reasons for a sale is that the perceived value of a game can be lowered. If a $60 MSRP game is regularly available for $30 it isn’t a $60 game anymore even if it’s a great game. In the ongoing struggle of online stores vs brick and mortar stores this is the biggest divide. Online stores have much lower overhead to pay for, so they can manage a larger discount and still make a profit. Brick and mortar stores usually can’t afford to match that discount even on games they want to get rid of. And no one wants to pay $50 for a now $30 game. This can also be applied to other, similar games. Game X and game Y are of similar weight and quality. Game X is on sale at 50% of MSRP. So game Y is also worth only 50% of MSRP. So an over production of game X can lower the perceived value of game Y. This can be quite frustrating to the producers of game Y.

These steep discounts can also lead to buyer’s remorse. For example, I preordered Seafall.

I’m still looking forward to playing it, but my copy is still in shrink and it’s now selling for half price. Some companies like Fantasy Flight Games have introduced minimum sale prices for their games to protect the games’ perceived value and help brick and mortar stores. Does this actually help? I’m not sure.

In short getting things you want cheaper is great. But be careful of buying things only because they are cheap and be aware of how discounts can warp the perceived value of designer’s and publisher’s hard work in creating a game.

Who are you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about player incentives in Plutocracy lately. At Metatopia I got similar feedback to what I have been getting from my local play tests. The core of the game, players not controlling a single empire, grabs people’s attention. This part of the description was the reason some people chose to try it out. The mechanisms work well, at this point they are pretty streamlined. But players continue not to care about any of their actions. It becomes a repetitive slog of “what is the most beneficial move on this turn?”

I’ve written about player incentives a few times before and specifically in Plutocracy where it has always been a problem. I believe this is the secret to getting Plutocracy to the next level.

Unique hook that goes against traditional game systems + Actually making it work when people play = Success. The question is, how can I get people to care?

A question I have heard asked about many games is “who are you?” Who are the players in the game? This is an integral part of building immersion and key to having players care about their actions. If they have an avatar in the game that could succeed or fail, they are more likely to care about the consequences of their actions than if they are just a decision making entity removed from the narrative.

In Plutocracy I’ve always known who the players are. They are powerful influencers working from the shadows to sway the fate of empires to their own benefit. It sounded great in my head, but when people sit down to play, they are just a decision making entity removed from the narrative. They have no representation of themselves in the game, and as a result don’t have an emotional connection to the events. The strongest attachment I saw was a player that liked blue, so they worked to improve the blue empire. This was not ideal.

So my next step is to put the players in the game. They will lose their current godlike powers of manipulating the galaxy. Instead, they will have much more restricted influence over a smaller area of the game based on the location of their character. They will need to make more personal decisions for their character in order to influence the galaxy.

Hopefully this can start to make the connection with players that the game is missing.

When it comes to player incentives, it seems that winning the game is too abstract of a concept to build engagement. The way you win the game needs to be thematically linked to who the players are and what they want as characters. So, define who your players are then define what those characters want. Only then will you know what incentives you need to use.

What if you don’t?

Game design is an iterative process. You have an idea, you build a prototype, you test it, and repeat. Usually many times. Through this process it’s easy to forget to remove pieces that no longer belong. A rule that was a fix for a mechanism that is no longer there or a clever idea of how to distribute resources when you no longer need resources. It becomes an artifact of the game design. You forget why the piece is there. It’s become part of the design and that’s just how it is. 
Several times with my designs I have gotten feedback from testers that starts with some variation of “What if you don’t…”. It’s usually in reference to one of these artifacts of game design. You had become so accustomed to it being there, but a new perspective can easily see that it doesn’t fit.

This has been some of the most revolutionary feedback I have received. It’s a moment of clarity when a player says “What if you don’t have credits? They just add a step to exchanges.” Credits made sense before. But the thing that made them matter had already been removed. The game had always had credits though, I couldn’t fathom a world in which it didn’t have credits. But as soon as someone mentioned it, it all made sense. 

Make sure you look critically at every aspect of your game, and have new players look at your game with fresh eyes. They may notice something you’ve missed. 

Metatopia

Just a short post this week because I’m at Metatopia. 

I’ll be presenting Plutocracy, Pod People, and Vanilla. The show has a lot of interesting talks lined up and I’m booked pretty much constantly every day. It’s going to be an exhausting weekend but so far it’s lots of fun. 

If you ever get the chance I definitely recommend attending. 

If you’re at Metatopia, be sure to say hi if you see me. 

What Makes Your Game the Best?

The Jones’ Theory is a system used to cull a board game collection. The basic idea is that you only need one of each type of game in your collection. So you choose the best of that type and get rid of the rest. This could be interpreted in different ways depending on how granular you want to be with your types. You could use deck builders as a single type or differentiate deck builders that start with stacks of cards like Dominion from deck builders that shuffle and have a buy row like Ascension. So the theory can be quite flexible.

When designing games a question that comes up is, “does anyone want another ______ game?” This question ties in perfectly with the Jones’ Theory. Except instead of asking if a game is good enough in its type to keep or buy, you are asking if it is good enough to make.

I think this is an important question to ask yourself at the beginning of a design. What about the design justifies the time, effort, and money you will need to invest to create the game?

Just like with culling a collection with the Jones’ Theory you can have a lot of flexibility on how you define a type. Are you designing a worker placement game that you are comparing to every worker placement game, or are you designing a family weight worker placement game which would only be compared to other lighter worker placement games? So it’s important to define your audience to make this decision.

You could compare on genre, theme, price, anything really. But once you decide on your criteria you have to prove why your idea will be the absolute best thing in that type. If it isn’t going to be the best, then it isn’t worth making.

You can certainly get specific enough with your criteria that any game is the best, and that’s fine. But if your goal is to publish the game and sell it, your criteria should be something that a large enough group of people agree with.

What makes your design the best?