Point of Reference
I frequently hear designers, players, and reviewers complaining that some game mechanism or system is imbalanced, and that this imbalance negatively affects the game design. However, often it's actually not the imbalance hurting the game, rather it's the way that said mechanism/system integrates with the rest of the game systems. I find these complaints to be disheartening, because by throwing around blanket statements of imbalance "breaking" games, we A) paint a wholly negative picture of unbalanced systems, and B) fail to understand and learn from what the real problem is: Poor integration.
An Alternate Perspective
I'm going to make some statements that might elicit shock and awe (and probably some derision): Game system balance is not always a good thing. Intentional systems/mechanisms imbalance can be a very good thing, and a fantastic game design tool, if applied properly.
Let's consider why perfect balance isn't always the best thing for a game system. If every mechanism in a system held equal weight, the entire system would suffer from homogeny--the system would be "flat". There would be less room for player innovation, less potential for surprise, and less chance of impressive victories over daunting challenges. As one small example, we have all played a game in which we (or another player) played a card and hollered, "Woop, take that!" and came from behind to score an impossible win. This kind of moment is precious and memorable, and makes us feel heroic--it's the kind of moment that defines the experience and emotion of playing tabletop games.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a practical real-world example of significant imbalance greatly benefiting a game. In Arkham Horror: TCG, players are up against an almost impossible set of enemies. Players must cooperate deeply just to figure out how to barely scrape by--but, most often the players will be slaughtered. The enemy is numerous and powerful, have greater initiative in combat, limit the players' options, have completely deterministic attacks and damage dealing properties, and more horrible things. The players are always overwhelmed and overpowered--the epitome of an unbalanced system. But, this is what makes Arkham Horror: TCG so dang compelling! The game is an absolute blast to play. The feelings of lost causes and fist-pumping victories are palpable. The memories I've forged while playing are numerous. All of this would never be possible if the game were designed with nothing but balanced systems.
The Real Issue
Now, let's put aside our balance lens and pick up our integration lens. The more important goal of game systems design isn't perfect balance: It's perfect harmony. A harmonious game design is one in which every system and mechanism are perfectly integrated with one another, helping to achieve the game designer's goals.
Every game designer has in mind a big picture of intended play experience: What is the common tempo of play? What does the pacing "wave" look like? What is the average game length? How does the end-game unfold? Etc. etc. Answers to these questions become design goals as the game designer works toward wrapping up. The only way for a game designer to ensure that these goals are met is to design harmonious systems and mechanisms. The cause/effect of each system/mechanism should always integrate in a manner that doesn't break from the established design goals, but instead contributes greatly to those goals.
In Twilight Imperium, it's not uncommon for a player, late in the game, to suddenly amass a set of options that see him/her snowballing to victory, quickly ending what had been unfolding as a long, brain-burning game session. This end-game often plays out to a feeling of disatisfaction, even for the victor. The problem here isn't imbalance of the player's options: The problem is that these systems/mechanisms shattered what were, up to then, very satisfying tempo and pacing. This is a case of unharmonious systems at play. The cause/effect of these systems don't integrate with the designer's intended play experience.
It's encumbant on us as game designers to dig deeper into why a particular game system doesn't work, instead of immediately pointing a finger at imbalance. Don't forget to consider how we can engineer a "broken" system to be more harmonious with our design goals. If we aren't careful with our game designs, and fall prey to "balance-fever", we run the risk of diluting the game experience and robbing the design of some potential high points:
* Variety in play experience
* The impossible foe
* The unlikely heroe
* Handicaps for less skilled players
Until next time!
Justin D Leingang
If you haven't already read through the "mother post" for this discussion, please do so before continuing, as it will provide you with point of reference.
Communication is the foundation of every other component of your game design. No matter how amazing is any facet of your game systems, if it's not communicated clearly to players, it will be lost or fall apart.
Now, good communication extends far beyond the game rule book. In fact, as incredibly necessary good communication is for the rule book, good communication is even more important for the game components. The best game designs have all of the key information to play the game communicated directly on the game components.
Celestia is a game that executes this idea very well - mostly - yet has a couple shortcomings. Looking specifically at this game, we can see the direct contrast between good and poor communication, and the effect it has during a game session. (I'm singling out this game not because I don't like it, but because I really love it.)
The play field in Celestia does a phenominal job of clearly communicating the game flow (pacing), the short-term/mid-term/long-term goals (motivation), and the increasing challenge and reward (balance). Once you have a general idea of how the game works, it's next to impossible to not have a clear picture of what's going on at any given time. More importantly, you always have a clear picture of what are your intentions - your meaningful choices. All of this is displayed in a digestible manner directly on the game components.
This great communication has a significant positive effect on a game session. The game progresses at an incredible tempo - smooth and brisk. Players feel less friction and therefore are more confident to make interesting decisions - which really ups the entertaining table talk! "Failure" and "loss" feel as though they're the result of poor player judgement, rather than players lacking important information - resulting not in frustration that might make a player want to discontinue playing, but instead resulting in motivation to continue and make better choices next time.
Unfortunately, the cards in Celestia don't do such a great job of communicating the game design. There is a type of card called a "Power", which allows a player to reach outside of the primary use of cards (which is to overcome obstacles) and directly interact with other players. There are two communication issues with the Power cards: 1) The Power cards look exactly like Equipment cards (which are the cards used to overcome obstacles), so it is hard to discern at a glance when you have a Power card. 2) Secondly, Power cards each have their own rules for use and their own rules for affecting the game - yet these rules aren't written at all on the cards.
This poor communication can at times throw a wrench in the game tempo. In fact, sometimes the game comes to a screeching halt for a few moments. Often, a player will have to pick up the rule book and read about what a card they have in hand does - even after playing the game a few times. It's hard to memorize a matrix of rules! What this means is that the rest of the players sit there watching one player analyze the rule book before the game progresses again. Imagine this happening more than a few times in a game session that typically lasts roughly twenty minutes...
There is another problem caused by the Power cards' lack of information: Players often feel cheated when they don't use a Power card in a beneficial situation, just because they forgot when they can use the card, and what the card does. This can lead to a feeling of frustration and resentment toward the game.
I highly encourage you to analyze your game components and discern whether or not they're doing everything they can to communicate your game design to players. If they aren't, then what can be done to fix this problem? Do everything in your power to directly display the game rules on the components themselves. Your game design, and your players, will thank you for it.
An approach to a solution
Start by creating a matrix containing every single one of your game rules, affording you the ability to assess the rules' interactions with one another. This will then help lead you to building out a bullet list of every single game rule and every single rule interaction. Now, you can do down this list, rule-by-rule, interaction-by-interaction, and ask yourself, "Does at least one of my game components communicate this rule/rules interaction?" And, if the answer is ever, "No," then, "How can I remedy this?"
Until next time!
Justin D Leingang
Point of Reference
I've been incredibly fortunate to have worked with some first-class designers and producers over the past 15 or so years (people from Sony, Nintendo, Blizzard, Riot, and more). And thankfully, all of these people have been open and willing to share a wealth of knowledge. It is with this absorbed knowledge that I've been able to wrangle, organize, and formalize a clear way of thinking as I approach any new game design (or work to improve a current game design).
Over the past few years, I've been trying to crystallize my approach into something tangible--something that can be articulated both verbally and visually. Recently, I have achieved this goal, and would love to share my methods with other designers.
(NOTE: I realize that every designer thinks differently, and has his own way of approaching game design. I am in no way trying to claim that my method is better than anyone else's. But, this method might help some game designers who struggle with organizing an approach or pathway to a complete, bulletproof game design.)
After spending a lot of time with many game designs (playing the games and/or analyzing the games), most designers can begin to find flaws in some area of the design. Also, many times, players can easily find these flaws (even if they aren't able to articulate them, they can "feel" them).
However, it's not often that an entire game design can be claimed flawed. In fact, most game designs that see their way into players hands are solid and have many merits. It's not these merits, though, that we tend to focus on (an unfortunate flaw in human nature). We focus on the flaws, the scuffs, the dents in the game design...
An Alternate Perspective
There must be some way that we, as game designers, can shield our game designs from delivering hiccups to players. Even if we can't fully shield the designs, we can at least highly mitigate the possibility of flaws. We just need to approach design with a plan--a structure--a purpose. We need to recognize every facet that makes up a game design, how it fits in, how it ramifies to every other facet--and, most of all, how it affects the player experience.
First of all, we need to approach our game design as our game design. This is absolutely imperative. If we approach our design through a lens crafted by our experience and understanding of some other game design, we almost guarantee that our game design will be flawed (and also not feel fresh to players--which is a whole other issue on its own).
Once we have a head to dive into our design from the ground up, without reference from prior game designs, we can begin to look at the structure of a game design--and how to build our own design on this framework.
So what are the key components of a game design?
A fascinating fact about these game design components is they all have a very clear structural relationship to one another:
Communication is the "foundation" of any game design, and supports every other facet. If this foundation isn't rock-solid and level, all other facets of your game design will topple.
Motivation, Learning, Balance, Pacing, and Feel are the "pillars" that rise from the foundation, making up the player experience. If these pillars are uneven or weak, they will not properly support the Engagement you desire of your players.
Engagement is the "roof" that sits on top of the pillars. Engagement is the singular expression of whether or not a player enjoys the game ("engagement" is a better word for "fun", as it covers more broadly the type of positive experiences we can have while playing games). Engagement is the result of properly building all of the former game design facets.
To follow is a visual depiction of how all these things fit together, along with short-form information about what each of them specifically mean. (You can also view/download this diagram as a .pdf file from this link.)
By approaching your game design through this structural lens, you can focus clearly on each and every facet. As a result, you can ensure that each facet properly plays its role, and that no single facet is lacking.
I am currently creating separate blog posts to cover each of the key components of a game design, along with examples of good and bad execution:
* Motivation (coming soon)
* Learning (coming soon)
* Balance (coming soon)
* Pacing (coming soon)
* Feel (coming soon)
* Engagement (coming soon)
I hope some of you find this information helpful. Until next time!
Justin D Leingang
Point of Reference
I came across a post that seems to be striking up a bit of controversy, regarding the difficulty of designing tutorials for tabletop games. This is a subject I'm very passionate about, so instead of just chiming in the comments of that post, I've decided to take a deeper dive and include my thoughts in this blog post. I'm here to look at tutorial design from An Alternate Perspective, hopefully to add some insight as game designers work toward hitting a home run with tabletop game tutorials.
Your Fault, Not Theirs
There are a lot of users chiming in on the aforementioned blog post, who are negatively pointing fingers at players whom "don't get" the idea of a tutorial. Here's the hard truth of the matter: It's not the players' fault they don't like the tutorial, it's the designer's fault.
Looking specifically at Charterstone (the game acting as the primary subject of the linked blog post), the issue resides in the stripping out of what experienced players feel are meaningful, complex choices--in order to instead introduce those choices over time. I give credit to Jamey Stegmaier for thinking outside the box on this one: It's a smart, innovative approach to teaching. Who would have thought to use the currently-hot ideas of Legacy game mechanics to teach players! However, this method clearly alienates a good number of experienced players.
A good analogy of how this system works:
* You go and buy the sweet new car everyone is talking about.
* When you first fire up the ignition, the car won't let you do anything except flip on the turn signal.
* After you've toggled the turn signal a bunch of times, the steering wheel is unlocked.
* You turn the steering wheel a bunch of times, then the horn is unlocked...
The obvious good point about this scenario is the fact that someone who has never driven a car can be safely introduced to the process. However, the obvious flaw with the scenario is the fact that anyone who has driven a car before is now forced to wade through familiar activities just to get to what they bought the car for in the first place: Driving really fast!
So, we have lowered the barrier to entry for inexperienced people, but have also raised the barrier of entry for experienced players--an unwelcome, unintended consequence.
Another issue with this tutorial design method is it prevents players from experimenting in the front game. Experimentation is one of the strongest tools a person has in the learning process. Experimentation allows a learner to understand the "why" behind how things work. Understanding the why is what separates true learning from simply memorizing.
An Alternate Perspective
So, how do we design tutorials that aren't limiting, overly-didactic, and mostly boring? How do we keep our tutorials from being barriers to entry for experienced gamers? The answer is simpler in concept than you might think:
Use motivation and goals to teach players about your game.
Instead of stripping down your game rules up front, go ahead and leave it all in there. There's no harm in having a bunch of cool, complex things a player can do--as long as the player is made aware of the merits of each of these things, in a digestible manner. We can accomplish this by giving players explicit goals--focal points to keep them from being distracted--designed specifically to teach about a single rule/small set of rules. Keep these goals optional, but provide ample motivation for players to accomplish them, via meaningful rewards upon accomplishing the goals. If your motivation is properly designed, you'll be hard pressed to find many players ignoring these goals. The result being that your players are not only learning, they're having fun because they're accomplishing things, being rewarded, and feeling as though they're discovering instead of being guided.
An easy way to accomplish this is to break down every one of your game rules into an actionable item. Then, design a goal for accomplishing that actionable item, and a reward for the success. Now, find a way to present to the player these optional goals, one-at-a-time or a few at a time, depending upon how complex the goals are. When goals are accomplished, new goals are presented, all within the framework of the core game rules. The challenge is in keeping these goals as subtexts to your game, rather than them becoming the key focus of the game.
Never forget: Your responsibility as a game designer is to provide guidance to players--not put them on rails--so they can smoothly learn, not memorize. Explicit goals/rewards is an amazing tool: It's the only ongoing direct communication pipeline between the designer and the players--inside the game, instead of inside the rule book (Designer to players: "Hey, this is important, and here's why! Try it out and I'll give you a gift.")
The Basis For My Argument
Tutorial design is something I've been challenged with for years in video game design. It's from experience that I discovered players' positive reactions and skill/knowledge improvements being fueled by goals and rewards. It can be tricky to translate this method into tabletop game rules, since the play experience and environment is so dramatically different. However, with careful attention, you can weave this method of teaching into any tabletop game design. (It's even possible to retrofit the method into existing games. So, if you have a complex game you love and want someone else to learn, you can apply this method and get the other player in and having fun really quickly.)
Thanks for tuning in! Until next time,
Justin D Leingang