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Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Steve Cole's thoughts on game design: Back when I wrote my book on 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. (This is a continuation of Random Thoughts #270.)

6. When I wrote my article for the Zones of Control book by MIT Press, I noted that the key decision in designing a game is the comparison of range of weapons, rate of fire, and movement speed. For example, in Star Fleet Battles ships can fire quite a distance but to actually score damaging hits you had to be within four hexes, while the ships move around 20-24 hexes per turn. Weapons (for the most part) fire once per turn. In SFB this created  a very dynamic game of maneuver. A friend of mine tried to do his own Trek game and had speeds of about eight per turn and effective weapons ranges of 15. His system wasn't workable because there was no maneuver. Anywhere you went, the enemy could seriously damage you before you got where you were going. Back in the 60s and 70s I played a lot of Avalon Hill land games. Those units (often divisions or larger land units) had a range of one, a speed of four, and could attack once per turn (after the movement phase, not during it).
7. You have to limit the impact of luck without eliminating it. Recently I compared two game designs. In one case, a single d6 die roll might destroy anywhere from 20% to 35% of the enemy. In the other, that same die roll might destroy 10% to 60% of the enemy. Obviously, the second is going to be far more luck dependent. Luck is an element of pure games (such as poker when there are a few dozen possibilities for the next card and only a few of those cards will get you a full house) but not of simulations. Lucky die rolls that change the whole game make for unsatisfying experiences as the gamers think it was the die roll, not their skill or strategy, that decided the outcome. It is far better to limit luck. A phaser-3 at short range has a 5/6 chance of killing a standard drone, but there are always other things you can do to stop the drone you did not kill (they just come at a cost).
8. Someone asked me once why the SFB damage resolution system is so long and labor intensive. You roll two dice for each damage point (and a major attack can have 100 of which 60 penetrate the reinforced shields) and look it up on a chart, including "one time per volley" hits and things you ran out of and had to go to the next column. My answer was "it is part of how I build drama" which is part of what made the game so popular.
9. Fifty years ago, my mother watched a soap opera called As the World Turns. She found a board game based on the show (well, not really) and gave it to my brother and me one Christmas. Home from school during winter snows, we sat down to play it. In the game (which I barely remember but there is a nice description on BoardGame Geek) there are a bunch of customs seals of various costs, which the players buy somehow. You roll a die and move some spaces to another city on a path around the world and pay whoever holds the customs seal for that city. You can also draw random cards, go off course, and other things can happen. After playing the game four times in a couple of hours, we realized that there was never a decision that the players made. You just did whatever the die or the card said. "I was only following orders!" (At the end of the game came the only decision: you could avoid ending the game if you thought you were not the player with the most money, but as you didn't know what others had, this was a guess.) We realized that we were not playing the game, the game was playing us. This is a problem with some game designs. A very good friend came to me at Origins with a great game idea. ADB could, he theorized, spend a ton of money having custom poker chips made with pictures of starships. When it was your turn, you stood one of your ships up on edge and flicked it with your finger. It would spin and dance and eventually fall flat. If you were pointed at a target you could (he theorized) shoot at it by some damage system I would have to invent. The problem I saw was it was all random chance. There was no such thing as a skill to flick the chip in just the right way that it would move behind the enemy flagship and fall down facing it. What targets you had available were purely up to chance. I said I didn't print games that play the customers but games that the customers played.
10. I use a lot of techniques in my games for creating game mechanics, trying to keep costs down for me and my customers. Obviously, we use six-sided dice, and avoid trying to use any other type. I pioneered the concept of "running totals" where you roll a die every turn and when the total reaches a certain point something happens. I like using a pack of playing cards and a chart to generate random events rather than trying to sell people a deck of special cards. Everybody has a pack of cards in the house.