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Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Steve Cole's thoughts on game design:

Back when I wrote my book How to Run a Game Publishing Company I left the chapter on how to design games more or less blank. I just could not get a handle on how to teach what to me was just a natural observation and analysis of the facts combined with a bit of art in producing a way to simulate the result. Over time, I have accumulated a few examples of good game design practices.
1. Start with just how complicated you want the game to be. Game designers speak in terms of playability vs. realism, but what that really means is how much work the player has to do, how many options the player gets to pick from, and how long the game takes to play. I once designed a World War II game that involved no map, no counters, just one die roll. If you roll a "1" or a "2" the Germans win. If you roll a "4" or "5" or "6" the Allies win. A die roll of "3" means a negotiated peace. This actually is more accurate in predicting the outcome than most games, takes about five seconds to play, but isn't much fun. You have to decide what the playing time is going to be (three hours max, two is better), then include enough options to make the game interesting and just enough workload to make the system function.
2. There was a civil war game once where every regiment had two counters, one giving the unit, the other the number of men present in factors of 100. So in theory you said these three units are attacking that one unit. You pick up each unit to check the strength counter below it and multiply the strength times the number on the counter (which reflects the kind of weapons they had, and 80% of units had the same rifle), then add the three regiments together, roll a die, look up a number on a chart, multiply that number times the total for the three regiments, and that is how many strength points (hundreds of soldiers) eliminated from the target. That is, frankly, more than enough work, but that wasn't all. You could attack units two, three, or four hexes away, and the number on the unit counter has to be adjusted for range based on another chart and the kind of rifles carried. By this point, nobody remembered the original math. The game was very detailed and very accurate, but without a computer (not available in that decade) there was no practical way to play it without using a sheet of scratch paper for every attack. The playing time to resolve one single turn (there were a lot of regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia) was several hours.
3. There was a game I loved (but haven't seen in years -- I don't even remember the title) which involved the attacks by Panzer Gruppe Two and Three on the road to Moscow in 1941. The map covered a chunk of Russia from Brest-Litovsk to Minsk to Smolensk. The problem was that the map edges rested on open plains, not on any terrain features, and (in theory) you could keep outflanking the enemy by moving farther and farther from the center. The game worked, however, because all of the Russian reinforcements (and there were a lot of those) arrived on the railroad from Moscow (at railroad speeds, not dirt road speeds), which meant that they were in the central core of the map. Thanks to the fast-moving panzers of the two German generals (Guderian and Hoth) there was no way for a Russian unit to get anywhere near the edge of the map before a German tank unit caught it and killed it. This kept the battle in the center of the map and the game worked brilliantly.
4. Ever play Spades? Nullo (take no tricks but score 100 points, some call it "Nil") exists for a reason, and not just because someone with a terrible hand will at least have something they can try. No, the reason nullo is there is to give you a chance to score a hundred points even when your hand is NOT terrible. (Maybe you want to catch up when the opponents are ahead. Maybe you want to get ahead. Maybe you're 120 points from a win and combined with any decent hand by your partner you can win the game in one hand rather than risking a longer game.) Called "aggressive nullo" this is bidding nullo when you could easily bid two, or three, or four tricks. You can try this when you can "bury" a high card under lower ones. Say you have four hearts: A, 7, 6, 3. Normally that would be one winning trick to bid. But if you bid nullo you can toss the lower cards when opponents play face cards and eventually ruff the ace when your partner can trump it for you. If you get rid of your highest spade in the allowed exchange with your partner and only have one or two winning cards (aces and kings) which you can bury, you can rack up a big score. (Nullo also totally screws up the battle plan of your opponents who bid 8 total tricks.) If you don't have a spade over about 7, you can keep two or three spades (it's dangerous to keep four) and exchange an ace in a series like this: A, Q, 7, 4. Your partner should know that if you gave him the Ace of diamonds it means you have another diamond face card so he needs to lead that ace back as soon as possible and let you get rid of the queen. Now, this digression into tactics for a card game is here not to help you win at cards but to show you that Nullo is really a game design feature which you (maybe) did not recognize.
5. Why does American football include the option to kick a field goal? To create a dynamic choice. If the opponent has to defend against a third-down pass and a run up-the-center to position the ball for the field goal, his job is harder. Why is there an "extra point kick" in the game? So two field goals are not quite as good as a touchdown. Why is there a two-point conversion? To give you a dynamic choice that confuses the enemy defenders and makes the granularity of the scoring system something you can work around. All of those are game design features, not just interesting quirks.