Unoriginal Mechanics?

I hear something quite often in reviews or dialogue that has bothered me for some time now. That is the type of comment like, “The game is good, but the mechanics are nothing new.” “Recycled mechanics” comes up or something to that extent. Or, “[such and such] stole the mechanics from...” I have heard this complaint repeatedly with Caylus, where many “standard” mechanics have been applied. These comments and complaints bother me because I think there is an unappreciated element of the creative process of game development.

Firstly, let me qualify that I am not a game designer, but a visual artist. However, all creative endeavors tend to follow certain patterns that I think I can certainly relate to and will describe here.

For me, mechanics are tools, tricks and techniques that a game designer can use to mold a larger product that is a game. Mechanics like auction/bidding, area majority, cooperative play, card pulling, die rolling, etc are such tools that have been created by designers. These mechanics exist to solve all sorts of problems from random generators to player order to hidden information and so much more.

Compare this to a painter who uses his or her tools and tricks to craft a work of art. There are fundamental tools of balance, contrast, color hues and color saturation – to list a few – as well as executional techniques like blending, washing, glazing, foreshortening, perspective, etc. Once in a while a new technique is developed, like the splattering of paint with Pollock, where the technique itself is the work of art. Most of the time, however, it is the particular combinations of tricks a painter uses that can make a work of art special or unique. Such artists look to achieve a goal, whether it be to create an emotion, an atmosphere, render on object in a particular way or perhaps do something completely new.

So then we have the game designers who begin with an overall goal, which may be to create a quick playing civ game, or perhaps to have a resource development area control game, or whatever it may be. From there, they have the many mechanics that have been developed as tools to paint the overall texture of the game. Occasionally, the designer, too, may come up with a new mechanic which may become the centerpiece of the gameplay. Most of the time though, it is the particular combination of mechanics, carefully crafted that can breath life into or, as Mark Johnson puts it, put “the spark of life” in the game. It’s that something we often can’t quite put our finger on, but somehow something magical happens to elevate a game above the combinations of stock mechanics. Such it is often for paintings. We may not know why we really like a particular painting, but it does something for us. What is really happening is the special combination of techniques which have been carefully exploited to create an overall effect are stimulating us often in a deliberate way.

As we are now in the exciting time of the rapid development of new mechanics, it's important to reflect that generally such inspired explosions of creative originality are followed by a decrease in such innovation. Instead, what follows is a period of time of great exploration of already established things. For example, in modern art, we had a huge explosion of newness around the turn of the century. While new innovations have continued, more and more creative energy is spent on refining, testing, refabricating, combining, reinterpreting etc techniques that have already been done to form something new. It is no surprise then that we see games like Caylus – or whatever they may be – borrowing from existing game’s mechanics. Here, we have the continued exploration and application of mechanics uniquely combined to form something new.

I submit that while new mechanics can be a delight, they are by no means a measure of what makes a game good or a game designer great. Instead, it is the careful crafting of a game, using all the tools at a designer's disposal that can elevate a game to great appeal.

– Mike

The Phuture of Gaming. It's sooo Kewl. should be. After all, I saw Star Wars. They don't use wood in the future. No cardboard either. Way too... primitive.

That's why our friends at Phillips are hard at work developing a product they call Entertaible. Eh, not the coolist name, but look at it! A shimmering 30" touchscreen LCD panel embedded in a plexy table and plastic cube bits that the table can track. No wood here, so it must be the future. The imagination soars. Technophiles salivate at the prospect of adding a new gadget to their favorite hobby. On the other side, purists cry; their fingers already anticipating the lack of fiddling stimuli. For the moment, this is for public use (restaurants, etc), not home use. If not this Entertaible, perhaps, as a Danish student posted on BGG of late, an epaper device might elevate this hobby to a more fitting place in our households. In the present day, Ravensburger/Knizia have experimented with conductive inks to create interactive boards and games.

Sounds exciting. Maybe. Ward Batty is excited. So are a lot of other people. Right now I feel the need to reflect on what we have, what we might lose and what there is to gain. Then I'll get excited. Maybe.

Um, if this is the future, I'm going to be pretty pissed. I need more bits. Uggg. Not another basted computer screen with garish colors.

So how will the future measure up? You're guess is probably better than mine. But here's my thoughts.

:) - NOW: Variety of materials: cardboard, wood, plastic
:| - FUTURE: Plastic and epaper (tiles?), Perhaps custom wood?

:) - Supplied custom for each game title
:( - Cost associated with this restricts designer's options
:| - Comes with system (perhaps with upgrade options through publisher or 3rd parties)
:)) - Drastically cuts costs for publishers of games who don't have to supply for each game which allows for:

:) - More games released?

:) - More chances to be taken?

:( - Could limit designer who must always think in standard few presupplied shapes

- Upgrade options great for individuals looking for show off value of their sets
:) - Upgrade options can address individual's aesthetic/tactile needs

:) - Wood bits are often stock, sometimes custom
:(( - Wood bits an optional upgrade? Most probably never avail. custom made for a title?

:)) - Plastic bits are mostly custom and very thematic
:(( - Generic plastic bits standard. Most probably never avail. custom made for a title?

:) - Cardboard tiles are always customized (printed) and can be a variety of shapes and sizes
:( - Limited space for graphic information
:| - Static. Though placed bits on top of tiles can change tile's state
:| - Epaper tiles? Comes with system?
:) - Tiles can have multiple states/screens allowing for secondary information to be revealed
:(( - Publishers might not go to the trouble of programming for epaper tiles (if this is infact more work). In that case, all tiles are on screen, which is a big tactile loss. Maybe there won't be epaper tiles in the first place. Bummer.
:)) - Dynamic. Tile status can change state.

:)) - Coated paper, sometimes with weave texture and can be a variety of shapes and sizes
:( - Epaper? Can they be coated to feel like cards?

:| - Static state
:)) - Dynamic state

:) - Cardboard board sometimes in weave texture with printed art
:( - Mostly static boards (graphics are set), exceptions being Tile placed boards
:) - Board size can vary widely
:| - Needs adequate light to view
:( - LCD screen illuminates image. Sleek look but harsh on the eyes (lacks mellowness of printed board).
:| - Epaper board closer in finish to paper, but still lacking in feel

:)) - Dynamic boards

:(( - Board size set by system
:(( - If the Phillips unit is any indication, board size might be quite small, constricting graphics and creating some challenges for certain games.
:) - (LCD) Can be played in a dark room (allowing for mood lighting)

:| - Almost no computations built into game
:| - Occasional lookup tables of varying complexity (Amun-Re, Power Grid)
:)) - Computational power opening a whole world of possibilities
:)) - Information only provided for players to assess possibilities/chance not for implementation of results

:( - Gameplay has many static elements
- Dynamic elements can include:
- Variable board setup (Settlers/Carcassone style)
- Card order
- Tile order
- Different scenarios
- Multiple boards
:)) - Gameplay can be very dynamic
:)) - The state of anything can change

:( - Whoever shows up for game night/day are the one's available for play
:) - Perhaps a player might pop in remotely

:( - Games must be played during the session or left out for the next time (which never happens)
:) - Games might be stopped and stored to resume again at another time

Dice (when applicable)
:)) - Wonderful, tactile rolling action
:| - Almost always combinations of 6 sided dice to cut costs
:(( - Limits designers as they must think in terms of 6s
:( - No dice? Certainly, they won't be needed
:(( - Immediate results? No player interaction (roll dice, etc)
- Can something be developed to give player a sense of control here?

:) - Variables don't have to be developed in terms of 6s

:| - Generally a give and take between mechanics and theme
:| - Low theme often = purer mechanics
:| - Richer theme often = more rules (chrome)
:| - Requires great designer skill to keep rules from becoming too unwieldy
:) - Theme can be richer as complexity can be handled by computer

:( - Slowly absorbed through careful reading of printed material – usually multiple times
:)) - Multimedia potential. Demo walkthroughs.

:(( - Bulky, requiring storage
:)) - Wonderful childlike feel of opening a gift
:) - Satisfaction of punching chits out and organizing pieces
:) - No packaging; downloadable; storage issues removed
:( - Lack of physicality reduces some emotional attachment to game

:( - No ritualistic experience attached to acquiring game

:( - Individual games are relatively portable, though hauling multiple games can be prohibitive at times, particularly on longer trips.
:)) - 'Soft boards' – epaper – could be extremely portable allowing for whole collections to travel at a time.
:| - 'Hard boards' – LCD options – would be more troublesome, requiring care for travel, but whole collections could travel at a time.

:) - A variety of levels to create prototypes starting from bits of paper and pencil/pens to simple computer executions. Post-Its and other simple techniques can be used to make quick changes, on the fly.
:( - Testing with others demands either their physical presence or multiple prototypes be made and shipped to parties.
:( - Testing with certain individuals may be put off until a con where they will meet.
:( - If seeking a publishing company, separate prototypes need to be created for multiple publishers as they might not be returned promptly.
:( - Creating prototypes might demand more specialized knowledges in programming. It would be ideal if developer packages were created which allowed for quick, easy programming of the board and components on the fly.
:)) - Prototypes can be downloaded by others who can play remotely, if necessary.
:)) - Prototypes can be sent to unlimited publishers at one time with ease.

Game production
:| - Graphic designer/artist needed for thematic art and informational design
:(( - Very expensive initial costs needed for materials and shipping from multiple countries
:(( - Production restricts distribution (fewer sets made)
:( - Graphic designer/artist and programmer needed for thematic art, information design, motion graphics
:( - Graphic design is going to need more care as the board and possibly tiles and cards will have different states/screens. This could get really unwieldy if not handled well.
:)) - No materials needed drastically reduces costs
:( - Development costs go up as more art will be needed (additional screens) as well as a programmer
:( - Resolution will vary depending on device. LCD might not be so great. Epaper might approach what we have now.

Customized components
:(( - Custom sets of favorite games are generally very difficult and costly to make. Examples are wood versions of boards, new graphics and found stock bits.
:)) - With standardization game units, 3rd party companies might offer a variety of standard upgrades for game systems. This could include: wood housings for boards, tables with recessed units for boards, cabinets for bit storage and a variety of bit types.

The game purchase
:(( - Online: wait for shipping
:) - In-store experience immediate gratification, if they have in stock
:(( - Need to purchase before going out of print.
:(( - Out of print games run the risk of never being published again or long waits to subsequent runs
:)) - Online with immediate download – instant gratification
:)) - Titles will always be available, years after release

:(( - Purchased games are fairly locked down. New rules may be posted, but might take some searching. Changes in game cannot effect artwork or components very easily, if at all.
:| - Fans can create additional or supplemental player aids, maps, scenarios, etc, but these generally need some construction and don't feel like the 'real thing'.
:)) - Patches could be automatically sent to owners of the game which can address any problems, graphical or otherwise which would seamlessly be integrated in the games.
:)) - Fans could potentially create new patches for game variations, etc.
:)) - Fans could potentially create new 'skins' or graphical looks which would require no user assembly.

Popular opinion of boardgaming
:(( - Old fashioned, childish or freeky geeky, not cool, boring
:)) - Modern, trendy, hip ???

It would seem that options made available with the technologies could open up whole new spaces/mechanics for boardgaming or a new type of gaming. It will be interesting to see if these new forms of boardgaming would gain wider appeal. Also, for the hobbyists, how will they view the ‘old stuff’ – the games we’re playing now? Certainly, our Eurogames are wonderfully crafted products worthy of longevity. One might argue simplier games like Chess and Go have stood the test of time so why shouldn't the best Euros? I would say Chess commands more skill and is a lifelong pursuit. Such games also have had a massive player base which is difficult to dismiss. Wargames seem a natural fit for these devices given their complicated rules, intricate setup and computations needed, though board size is going to be an issue.

For me, I tend to go with the flow of things, but I really won’t be happy if the aestetics take a nose dive. I imagine much will be defined by the needs of mass market games in terms of establishing standards. Let’s hope we don’t lose too much in the process.

- Mike

Grumpy about Grumpy

There is a heck of a lot of 'great' in the world of boardgames now. Infact, I might say 'outstanding.' From the intricate, sophisticated latest generation of game creations, to the overall high production values associated with games, to the rich content available online to the everything-at-your-fingertips-and-a-culture-to-boot of BGG. Our expectations are incredibly high these days, feeding on our insatiable need for 'better'.

Darned if there isn't a lot of grumpiness around, tho’. Much has been said of this for some time now – the sourpusses of ’ol of yesteryear (which this relative newbie has only heard of), the negativity building in the forums of the last few years, the drive to blogs to escape the ‘noise.’ As a graphic designer, critiques are a vital part of my job. I can say from great experience that dishing out critisism is much easier than actually creating something good.

Fleshing out something from nothing, whether it be a poem, a painting or a game and making it good is often a long, hard process. Occasionally, it can come with ease, but those are golden moments of inspiration. The act of creation, whether it be carving together a game through the delicate balance of mechanics and rulesets to the covering of a blank canvas, is nothing to be taken lightly. There are the nagging insecurities that initially tug at the artist when tackling a whole new direction, the struggle for balance, harmony, contrast, counterpoint and all that makes the creation sweet, the difficulty of plotting a course that is fresh and new and, after the artist has encountered the exhilerating rush of having given birth to their creation which seems so good, there is that little voice that says... “Hmmm. I donno. Is it good enough? Am I just a ‘hack’ for reusing some established conventions? Or is this particular blend of conventions – mechanics, colors, paint style, etc – enough to seem fresh, new and magical?” I’ll say here that on some level everybody is creative and takes part in creative efforts, whether one is programming or trying to talk down an irate customer. So none of this is a foreign concept to grasp. This extent to which a profession demands pure creativity or the creative process is what I refer to here though.

Now, the tough thing for an artist of any kind (including game developers) is that the aggregate of their work is all out there in the open. It’s a very humbling thing to have one’s passion and good part of self identity exposed like that for all to see and pass judgement on. Contrast this to most human endeavours (and this is not in any way to put them down or pass judgement) where facts, figures, research, development, testing, etc, etc is part of a larger group effort where mistakes, inaccuracies and imperfections can be fairly hidden from general view or may not be attributable to any one person. One can say that this exposed experience is the downside to the upside of praise and adoration that can come from being in the spotlight. Nonetheless, it can be disheartening to see some individuals works needlessly cut down as they can be.

There’s an aweful lot of grumpiness, and I must say that I’ve probably contributed to that from time to time. It’s not a good thing. It would seem that it is certainly mighty easy to pick away at the ‘imperfections.’ That said, the criticism that I appreciate hearing and hope I will use if criticism is even appropriate is tempered in proper context. For example, ‘a small niggling detail that doesn’t much matter..., or the game’s not too fun for me, but may be for you if you like... ’

Fortunately, there is a lot of good in this industry. The designers of these games are truly artists who reach down in themselves through the creative process to carefully craft and mould products that tickle our brains in just the right way. These products, while not always perfect and are open to criticism are, by in large very, very good and are – I believe – getting better. Another part of the goodness are the many, many personalities who bring a lightheartedness and fair consideration to the experience. Tom Vasel and his Optimist series of interviews, for example, celebrate individuals in the industry to bring us a wonderful positive force and reminder of goodness. Aldie pours away at perfecting what, to my mind, has been for some time a truly unbelievable site by any measure. Lots of people have of lots to say on the details of the site, but in context, such fussy matters shouldn’t detract from the standard of excellence that is exhibited here. So much more that I can’t all list here. Certainly, there’s not much one can do to change the tide of ‘attitude’ that can seem to swell up save personal responsibility and consideration for those who put themselves out there. But, for me, I certainly can do well to taper my criticism or provide a more gentler approach from time to time.

...And now and again, I allow myself the right to get grumpy about grumpy.

– mike

Settlers of Catan Board Design Part 4

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this project. I ran out of steam a bit on this one following a break from design during the holidays. I’ve looked at it a few times, but can’t seem to pick up the pen to finish it off. I know the next steps will be to revisit the resource tiles. I’m not convinced the celtic weaved medallions are the way to go here. Time to try something else.

LudoNJ Game Day - Caylus, Boomtown and Railroad Tycoon

Yesterday was game day at LudoNJ game group run by Gil. As usual it was a really great time with good attendence around 15 people or so. I was able to play a game of Taj Mahal, Caylus, Boomtown, Reef Encounter and Railroad Tycoon. Boomtown and Railroad Tycoon were both new to me and Caylus was my second play having played it the night before in our own game group.

Caylus is truly a wonderful game. A resource management game with elements of PR, Goa and Keythedral, Caylus is fantastically well balanced with a myriad of options each turn. Basically, players have income which acts like action points to place workers in buildings. The workers in turn will do one action depending on the building chosen, each building being unique. Because the buildings are built through actions, the actions available each game are dependent on the accumulation of choices players make. Thus no game is the same. Players accumulate presigue points (the game's VPs) primarily through building buildings and sections of a castle. About the only complaint I have for the game – beyond the terribly mediocre cover art and a few art details – is the game length, which seems to run past 2 hours. That said, the time is only a minor 'complaint' as there is absolutely no downtown the entire session. Play moves very, very quickly. This due to the fact that players place their workers on buildings one at a time and execute the buildings actions in order that the buildings fall on the board. So, one is always doing something or watching others hoping they won't make this move or that one. Again, one of those games where there is not enough to do everything one wants – not even close to it – and each play is a tough choice. In this game at LudoNJ, my score was 1 point behind Kevin's 79 score with another player a bit further behind. Wow, talk about tense! I very much look forward to another game.

Boomtown is a nice little game. It is one of Bruno Faidutti's collaberations (which I usually tend to shy away from). That said, I had a terrible headache from Caylus and from a previous illness earlier in the week, so I thought a light game would definately be in order. And it was. It was fun and I can see this working for those who need a bit more die rolling and lighthartedness.

The game is a bidding game for cards that pay off on common die rolls much like Settlers. Each turn, players bid to have the first pick from cards pulled. The winner pays the other players in a specific manner and the other players then choose a left over card of their choice for free (mostly). The cards, which are primarily mines, come in five colored suits. The first player to accumulate a set of three mine cards in a suit gets a "mayor" token of that suit's color. Now, any time a player picks a card from that suit they must pay that player an amount equal to the number of cards in that person's set. This makes for some interesting bidding as players are as much looking to get the first bid to avoid certain cards than to get others. When another player accumulates more cards of a suit than the player with the mayor, they now become the mayor of the suit. As with other Faidutti games, there are plenty of 'take that' cards in the deck and some power ups that I won't mention here. After players have taken their cards, the winner of the bid rolls two die. All cards with matching totals pay off according to the value on the cards. This is the main source of income for players.

In summary, this is a light one, playing under 45 and having some interesting decisions. After one play, I purchased it as I'm a little low on entertaining light games.

Railroad Tycoon
We finished the night off with this, in which Brian explained to the other 5 of us who had not yet played. As usual, Brian did a great job explaining (he also taught me Boomtown), so it was easy to get into this one. While I've not played Age of Steam, I've read enough to know what it is about and that I probably won't like it. With Railroad Tycoon, on the other hand, Martin Wallace has repurposed much of the 'good stuff' from AoS to tightly fit in this mammoth sized game. I'm not a big fan of Eagle these days, but this game shows how much the company has turned from its American style play to a leaner Eurostyle feel (well, mostly). Glenn Drover still hangs onto his original vision of massive game boards with this one which has been garnished with Paul Niemeyer's artistic flair. The size, while astonishing, is very cumbersome and uncomfortable to play, forcing players to get out of their seat up high to view the far ends of the board. This and a small nitpick with two close colors is about the only negative I have as the game is wonderful! Each turn, players have only three actions which they play in sequence. Actions are building railroad lines, upgrading engines, delivering goods, getting some action cards and changing some cities' status. There is never enough time to do what one wants and certainly not enough money. This is really just lots of fun. It's also a great pleasure to see the rail networks snake out from city to city. With 6 newbies, this clocked in under 2.5 hours which was impressive. I thoroughly enjoyed this one!