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This is the fourth installment of a series by Brian Powers. To catch up, see these:

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Math, Art, and Game Design

A Series by Brian Powers

Part 4: The Initial Play Test

Game Design is a bit of a paradoxical form of art. Games are by their very nature social, yet the game design process can be quite a solitary activity. I’d bet most game designers get into this mess because they love playing games, yet they may spend ten times as long (maybe more!) in design mode as they do actually playing the games they design. But we eventually come to the moment: the first time we bring other people into the processand hopefully bring some joy into their otherwise miserable lives.

Well, that’s an exaggeration, but I wouldn’t be lying if I said that play testing is my favorite part of the game development process. Ideally, when creating a new game, you’ll want to test the game yourself before bringing other people into the mix. This is when having dissociative identity disorder comes in really handy, because you have to jump from chair to chair, taking the turn of each player and trying to see things from his/her hypothetical point of view. Unfortunately I couldn’t do this with my game because at its core lie the decisions that players Red and Blue make (without knowledge of each other’s decisions). I needed some actual human beings. Fortunately, I know some of them!

Five of my friends came over this past Sunday afternoon and I showed them what I had been working on. After explaining the rules and the goal of the game, we played six rounds. How did it go?

Let me first go over the rules with you:

We set up the game board with a random assortment of red, blue, and green stones:

We next laid out the Reward Action cards and Modify Action cards, in this way (there are a few more Reward and Modify actions that I haven’t included here, but you should get the idea):

Reward Actions

Red

Make Red XO decision and receive red reward

Blue

Make Blue XO decision and receive blue reward

Green

Receive green reward

X-Seller

Take 1 point from each player who chooses “X”

O-Lover

Receive 2 points for O or O, 5 points if both are played

Thief

Take 1 point from a player of your choice

Modify Actions

Add 2 stones of any color(s) to the board

Remove any 2 stones from the board

Move 2 stones on the board

Add 1 stone of each color to the board

Remove 1 stone of each color from the board

Swap the positions of 2 stones on the board

To begin, one player is given the “Round Leader” card. This just symbolizes which player gets to choose first during the first round of the game. This card is passed clockwise after each round.

Then, starting with the Round Leader and continuing clockwise twice around the table, each player chooses and takes an action card from the table. Thus, each player gets to take two action cards. Each player must choose one Modify action and one Reward action, and the Red and Blue actions must be taken. So if all but two players have chosen their Reward actions and Red and Blue remain on the table, the last two players are forced to take these two cards.

After each player has two action cards, players exercise their Modify actions, beginning with the Round Leader and following clockwise. You can imagine that, at this point, players each have their own agendas, and they will hopefully be able to modify the board to set things up for themselves to receive a lot of points.

Finally, the two players who chose the Red and Blue actions each get a pair of cards, one with an “X” and one with an “O” (both in their respective color) which allows them each to secretly choose one. They simultaneously reveal their choices and points are awarded. Thus ends a round of the game!

Overall this was a tremendously fun experience for all of us. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly everybody got into the game, how easily they understood the rules – and yet the game was anything but simple. We felt like Fezzini and the Man in Black locked in a battle of wits.

This is exactly what I was going for, and to say I was pleased is putting it lightly.

We played for six rounds, like I said, because it became clear that certain aspects of the game weren’t quite balanced. For example, the “Thief” action allowed a player to take one point from an opponent, but this ended up being pretty weak compared to the other Reward actions. And the “neutral” Green player worked out well too, although I want to balance out the number of green stones on the board so they are more on-par with Red and Blue. Also, I realized that for six players I would want at least eight Modify and Reward actions, so that there are both more options and more opportunities for incentive points.

I would like to mention that, although I have successfully tackled the challenge of making the game fun for more than two players, this has opened up a new problem. Because it was so fun with a group of six, I’m not sure how to capture that same sense of strategy with only two players. We’ll see how this goes.

OK, so, enough about that. My next step is to do more testing! Tweak a few things and play with a new group of people. Test and tweak, test and tweak. This cycle will continue until I get a polished game design that doesn’t need any more changes. Along the way I will, ideally, bring this game to a board game Meetup here in Chicago and have some strangers play while I watch. This is an important step, especially to see how well I’ve written the instructions! I can also give them feedback questionnaires! Ooh, I’m getting all tingly just thinking about it.

I’ll try to get some more testing done soon so that I can come back with my next installment. It may be a few weeks, but I’ll be back as soon as possible, fellow artists! As Chloë would say: “Huzzah!”

(But I would never say that. Not ever.)

P.S. I would also like to mention that I lost pretty miserably. Of the six of us, I came in last with about 9 points.

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Brian will be back with another installment later. Until then, cheerio!

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This is the third installment of a series by Brian Powers. To catch up, see these:

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Math, Art, and Game Design

A Series by Brian Powers

Part 3: The Playable Prototype

During each stage of the game development process it is key to keep perspective of what the short term goal is. Here’s a map of how to get from zero to a finished game:

  1. Concept: Figure out what the game is about.
  2. Game Design: How is the game played? What are the rules (game components, goal of the game, etc)?
  3. Initial Prototype: Make a playable rough draft of the game.
  4. Play-testing: Test out the game to see what works and what doesn’t work. Make changes accordingly. (Repeat this step until you don’t need to make changes anymore.)
  5. Publish: Either self-publish or get a publisher to buy your game from you!

An elaboration of the process can be found at the Board Game Designer’s Forum (a fantastic resource for board and card game designers!)

As tempting as it may be to start illustrating the game or adding color (in the general aesthetic sense, not in the purely literal sense), we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. Right now we need to make a very basic playable prototype. We want to make sure that the game works before we invest time into illustrating it and making it pretty. The prototype doesn’t need to look great; we want to get to the first play test and find out what about the game design is fun and what is clunky and needs to be tweaked or fixed—that is, what ambiguities we didn’t foresee and need to delineate. Moreover, we face the truth: does the game work or is it a dud?

Some games will be duds! Not every game idea we have will be brilliant, and that’s OK. But you need to create and get practice. The more you do that, the more easily you’ll be able to visualize the end in the beginning, to identify a great game concept when it comes.

So let’s make a prototype! My game is pretty simple and doesn’t rely on a lot of fancy game parts, but, even if you imagine a game with bells and whistles, making a prototype is quite doable and shouldn’t cost you much time or money. Here are some of the essentials for a game developer:

Blank Cards

You can use index cards if you want to keep things super simple. If you want your cards to be a little more durable and easier to handle and shuffle, you can buy blank playing cards. At the moment, you can get a box of 500 blank playing cards from Amazon for $7.20 (USD).

In my opinion, this is a must-have for a game designer. Index cards are OK, but to really enjoy the play-testing, you will want cards that feel good to manipulate. You can write with pencil or permanent marker on these cards, and they will get the job done!

Game Boards

You can get some stiff whiteboard from your local craft store and cut it down to size. If you don’t care too much about thickness, however, card stock or even paper will do fine.

Dice

You can probably get by with the average 6-sided die, but you may develop a game that uses dice with 4, 8, 10, 12, or 20 sides. You can buy dice for pretty cheap at game stores or from many online shops. At my local dollar store, they sell a pack of 10 dice (5 white and 5 colored) for $1.

Counters, tokens, money, pawns

For the prototype you can use pretty much anything for game parts, but if you’ll be developing a lot of prototypes, it might be worthwhile to have a little library of game parts. You can buy these from a store like The Game Crafter, if you want them to be fancy, but game parts can be found on the cheap, too! I needed colored tokens, so I went down to Michael’s Arts and Crafts for some bags of rainbow glass gems (they were on sale for $1 per bag!).

Another great option is to buy a big container of colored cubes. Colorful, 1cm cubes are are sold as learning resources to teachers, but they are great as game counters, tokens or whatever (you can do a Google shopping search for “centimeter cubes”). Plastic discs are also sold to teachers as learning aids, and they make great counters or coins and can be used to score points. Translucent and opaque are easily found online.

It didn’t take long to make my prototype. Rather than explaining how I did it, I’ll just show you a photo:

I wanted to keep things super simple for the prototype. I have two sets of Action cards; the top set are the modification actions, which allow players to modify the rewards shown on the game board. The second set are the reward actions, which are how players get points.

Then there are the strategy action cards, a set of X and O for both Blue and Red. (You’ll notice that I used O and X rather than “passive” and “aggressive” – terms I used in my last two posts to describe the players’ action options in my game). These cards allow the Red and Blue players to secretly choose an action and then reveal it simultaneously. Lastly there is a deck of game-board setups for Red/Blue and one for Green, and finally a “Round Leader” card, which is passed around the table to each player so that different people have the opportunity to pick their actions first.

I just needed a few Sharpie pens to put this together. I didn’t do anything with the card backs. You can see how simple it is. Yet this is all I needed to get my friends together and test the game out.

Tune in next time to see how the first play test went and what I learned! [Here it is.]

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[Editor’s note: how funny that I tweeted about this post and noticed a tweet, shortly afterward, from a friend whose friend is making another board game—about pizza and dexterity—and trying to fund it on Kickstarter. He’s almost at his goal, and there are only a couple of days left to help out! If your interested, check it out: Top This! on Kickstarter. See you next time!]

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Brian is back with his second installment of posts on designing games. You can catch up by reading the first one here: Part 1: The Game Concept.

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Math, Art, and Game Design

A Series by Brian Powers

Part 2: The Game Mechanics

At its core, a game is a an interaction comprising a certain number of players who are trying to reach some sort of goal, so two fundamental questions to answer about your game design are:

  1. How many players can play?
  2. What is the goal of the game?

As far as the number of players goes, I suppose you can classify games as:

  • Individualistic competitive games – each player is trying to win, and there is only one winner.
  • Coalition competitive games – players form 2 or more teams which they compete, one team being the winner
  • Fully cooperative games – the players all work together to overcome some obstacle inherent in the design of the game.

I love the idea of fully cooperative games, although I haven’t played many fun cooperative games. And though I may include some aspects of coalition-building, my game is going to be strictly competitive.

With regards to the game’s goal, I’d say the most common goal is to simply get the highest score of all players. Score could be based on cash, property, or just simply abstract points. Other games are designed such that players are eliminated as the game goes on with the winner being the last remaining player. These games have an inherent drawback in that the game ceases to be fun for a player once he is out of the game. Another winning condition could be a goalpost – a race to be the first to reach some milestone (this could be a certain number of points, for example).

Different people have different qualities they look for in a good game. For some people, Monopoly is a wonderful game. However, I’d posit that these are the qualities of a good game:

  • Self-Balancing: If someone is in the lead the game should be harder for him. Likewise, we want opportunities for underdogs to triumph.
  • Choices: The game should present players with interesting and challenging decisions to make.
  • Fun for All: The game should be as fun for the winner(s) as it is for the loser(s).
  • Replay Value: Mastering the strategy should take a long time (if possible at all), so the game is fun to play over and over again.

Hopefully you agree that Monopoly has NONE of these qualities. The rich get richer in while the poor wither and die. The game is only fun for the rich, while the losers are eliminated one by one. The game is, in essence, rolling dice and buying as much property as you can afford with almost no decision-making – besides choosing whether to be the doggie or the hat. (Obviously you want to be the battleship! It has guns, duh! And if you go broke you can sell it for millions of dollars!)

Before going any further, I want to show you a page from my brainstorming for my new game. This is just to show you that although my thoughts in this article are relatively organized and coherent, brainstorming the design of a game does not have to be!

Essentially my game consists of two aspects:

  1. Players take turns making strategic choices to receive scored rewards, and
  2. Players modify rewards that result from strategic choices.

I’m imagining a simple game board that looks like a grid, with Red’s and Blue’s rewards represented by little markers within the grid. These colored baubles can be added, moved or removed during the game to modify rewards.

Red and Blue simultaneously but secretly choose an action each, of two that I will call “passive” and “aggressive” for simplicity’s sake. The reward for each combination of actions is then doled out accordingly. In the above scenario, let’s say both Blue and Red choose the “aggressive” action; Red will receive 3 points and Blue 2.

To extend this type of game to more than two players, I imagined what role a third player might take. What if the third player did not have control of his own fate, but instead just received a reward based on the actions of players Red and Blue. Let’s call the third player “Green” and show his rewards with little green baubles:

After Red and Blue take actions, green is rewarded with known rewards – perhaps this will influence the decisions of Red and Blue. Things are starting to get interesting!

Clearly the players should have some sort of way of alternating who gets to be Red, Blue and Green… and we should extend this to allow for more players than just three. Sure – we’ll get to that. But we also have to think about how to modify the rewards game board.

Modifying the game board could be done in one of two basic ways: with small changes or by resetting the board. Small changes consist of moving one bauble, swapping two, changing the color of one, adding or removing one, etc. For resetting the board I thought of applying some archetypal scenarios to the game. Because I think these are interesting I’ll show you the reward matrix while providing a brief description. Also, to normalize the scoring of the game, I decided that these archetypes will have rewards ranging from 0 to 4 for each player. Thus we can expect points awarded each round to be roughly in the same ballpark. The numbers in each quadrant of the grid are ordered pairs: the first is Red’s reward, and the second Blue’s reward.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

3,3 0,4
4,0 1,1

Joint passivity is highly rewarding, but each player has a temptation for aggression. However, joint aggression puts both players at a disadvantage. What a dilemma!

Stag Hunt

4,4 1,3
3,1 2,2

Both players are highly rewarded for passivity. Players are only tempted towards aggression if they suspect their opponent will do the same. This is similar to the prisoner’s dilemma but slightly different because the temptation towards aggression is not as strong.

Awkward Sidewalk

0,0 2,2
2,2 0,0

This game can be thought of as two people walking towards each other on the sidewalk. If they both stay the course then they have to stop awkwardly. If they both step to the side then it’s awkward again. Both players are only rewarded if one keeps walking while the other steps to the side.

Chicken

1,1 0,4
4,0 0,0

Two people drive their cars towards a cliff. The last person to brake wins. The actions can be thought of “brake early” and “wait for the other person to brake”. The chicken brakes early and gets nothing (just shame) while the brave one gets a big reward (fame and praise). But if both players wait for the other to brake then they both drive off the cliff, and neither gets a reward.

There are other archetypal scenarios that I’ve identified and would like to include, each with a different psychological profile and strategy set for the players. I imagine the overall structure of my game is this:

The board starts with a basic archetypal scenario, and the players modify rewards; Red and Blue choose actions, then points are scored. This is repeated twice more before the board is reset to a new game archetype. To throw Green’s baubles onto the board, we can have some way to somewhat randomly place them on the board. This could be done with a deck of cards that provide layouts of the green baubles, or it could be done randomly by rolling dice. That’s not too important to decide right now.

The game mechanics that I want to employ (and discuss just a little bit) are Limited Actions and Unpopular-Action Sweeteners.

Limited Actions

This is not an original concept really; it’s certainly been done before in many cool games such as Agricola, Puerto Rico, Citadels, and Meuterer (to name a few). Basically the players are presented with a limited set of actions and no two players are able to take the same action during a game round.

Unpopular-Action Sweeteners

A few games I’ve played employ something to this effect. If nobody takes an action during one round or turn, then the action is sweetened by placing a reward on it, to be received by the next player to choose that action. Every round that nobody takes the action another reward is placed on it. This way all actions will be attractive at different times and players have to decide at what point a non-strategic action has been sweetened enough to make it worthwhile.

I think it’s fine to employ game mechanics that have been done before. It would be extremely difficult to make a GOOD game that is original in all respects. However, I think it is important to do something novel in your game: perhaps the interaction of tried-and-true mechanics, or perhaps inventing something new. The modification of rewards is something I haven’t seen before, so I’m interested to see where this goes.

Without boring you with TOO many details of my brainstorming, I would say that I’m about ready to put together a rough prototype of the game and start testing it out in practice! So you can look forward to my next episode: The Initial Prototype. [But I want to read it now!]

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Today’s guest post is the first in a series of posts to come and was written by my pal Brian Powers. He has guest-posted for Real Life Artist before, on topics including surnames that are verbs and getting hit by an egg. is also heavily featured in “This is your Brain on Egg Puns”, the post that is the lifeblood of this blog. Today Brian offers insight into his process as a game developer and designer. (FYI: he’s into card games and board games, not so much video games.)

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Math, Art and Game Design

A Series by Brian Powers

Part 1: The Game Concept

When Chloë asked if I’d be interested in writing a guest post on Real Life Artist about game design, I FIGURATIVELY jumped at the chance! Although I’m a mathematician by training, a banker by experience, and a teacher by occupation, I consider myself an amateur game designer.

As with many forms of media production, game publishing has become more and more feasible for the individual with a small budget in recent years and we’ve seen a burgeoning burgeon of amateur game designers coming onto the scene. In 2008 there were essentially no options for an affordable small run of a card game (one or two copies), but now websites like Superior POD and the Game Crafter make it not only possible but relatively simple to publish your own game. This does NOT, however, mean you will make money from the game or become famous! Haha! We don’t do this for money! We are artists! We do it for Zeus!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—before we publish a game, we have to design it, and before we design it, we need some sort of concept. The concept can come from anywhere—the most boring place is a flash of inspiration, but as Ze Frank nicely explains, we shouldn’t wait for inspiration before we make something. We can look for ideas everywhere.

I’ve had many ideas for games: some I’ve acted upon, and some are on the back burner.

  • Pensacola: A strategy game where players run competing retirement homes and try to make money before their residents “move on”.
  • Crazy Celebrities: A card game where players are celebrities trying to become crazy (like Tom Cruise, Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen) without destroying their careers.
  • Get Sick: A card game where you try to fake diseases to fool your boss into letting you take sick days.
  • Cult Classic: A card game where players compete to found cults and lure the most followers they can.
  • Pathways: An abstract tile-placing game where you build a connected path between points A and B.
  • Element Tower Defense: A novel tower defense computer game I made a number of years ago, to be played in Warcraft III.

And the list goes on.

The game that I want to discuss here is a concept that I’ve been playing with in my head for a while now. I’m not really sure what to call it but we’ll hopefully see it evolve as this series of blog posts develops. The game involves players manipulating the rewards they receive from various actions and then strategically taking these actions. That’s the simplest way I can describe it, but I want to talk a little bit about Game Theory in order to delve further into it.

Game theory is a branch of mathematics with heavy applications to economics, political science, international relations, sociology, biology … any situation that involves one or more individuals or collectives making strategic decisions in order to maximize some sort of positive result for themselves. These situations are abstracted into a ‘game‘ and represented using mathematical tools such as matrices for analysis, and often we can find the ‘solution’ or ideal set of strategies for the game. The name “game theory” is a bit of a misnomer because the theory really isn’t so much focused on the games we play for fun, but that’s the name it’s stuck with.

This may all seem pretty dense, so let me present a classic example (in fact, the inspiration for this latest of my game concepts):

Consider two individuals. Each person has two options: be nice or be mean. If they are both nice then they are rewarded with 3 points each. If they are both mean then they are given 1 point each. If one is nice and the other is mean, then the meany gets 5 and the goody-two-shoes gets nothing (out of whatever deal they make – the meanie takes advantage). We can depict this situation as a matrix, with each box showing the points for player 1 and player 2 as an ordered pair:

Player 2

Nice

Mean

Player 1 Nice

(3, 3)

(0, 5)

Mean

(5, 0)

(1, 1)

This situation has come to be known as the prisoner’s dilemma. It is a dilemma because although you can see that collectively the greatest benefit for the pair is when both are nice to each other, both players have a tasty incentive for meanness. If both players are mean, however, they are stuck with each getting a low reward, a third as much as they would have got if they had been nice in the first place.

The prisoner’s dilemma has been studied and written about A LOT. Although I think it’s completely fascinating—and I can’t recommend enough the book The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod—I don’t want to dwell on it. What I’m interested in is how this could be turned into a board game.

The game becomes a lot more interesting if the rewards could be adjusted through repeated plays of the game. As you begin to recognize your opponent’s strategies, perhaps you can re-balance the rewards to favor yourself, or choose actions that will give you the upper hand.

The challenges I’m facing are:

  • make the game fun for 2 or more players,
  • make the game interesting strategically,
  • make the game aesthetically pleasing (in other words: fly!),
  • design it in such a way that it doesn’t rely on extraneous game pieces.

Calling these “challenges” may be too dramatic – they are just steps that need to be taken, and that I haven’t taken yet. I feel good about this game idea, and I’m eager to see it through. Hopefully the process will be interesting enough for you to want to read about.

So we have a concept. The next step is to figure out the game mechanics! What are game mechanics? Obviously they are little grease monkeys who play checkers all day. (If you have an infinite number of grease monkeys with an infinite number of checkers boards, would they design Monopoly? Maybe they need an infinite number of typewriters too.)

In our next installment we’ll get all into game mechanics and some of the nuts and bolts of game play design!

(You can go on to Part 2: The Game Mechanics now if you like!)

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