Thursday, June 21, 2007

Five Game Design Don'ts

If you're designing a game, here's a short list of five things that you shouldn't do:

Don't Reward the Last Man Standing. This is one of the things that Eurogames do right, so it scarcely needs to be said any more. However, it's still an important point. Unless your game is really short, you shouldn't allow player elimination, and you especially shouldn't decide who wins your game based on the same. After all, what are the eliminated players supposed to do until the game ends?

Although, as I said, most Eurogames don't use last-man-standing mechanics, nonetheless there are some who allow players to be effectively eliminated. Mare Nostrum is an example of this from the warfare side of things: you can get to a sufficiently bad state that you just don't have the resources to come back. Likewise there are any number of games where you can look at your score and quickly realize that you have no chance of winning.

This is one of the great benefits of hidden scores. Even if the information is all technically trackable, a losing player is the player least likely to take advantage of that ability. It's the old happier-if-you-don't know idea that your parents used to love.

Otherwise, you need to have some way that a player can catch up. Risk-reward systems usually allow this. If you have a big risk that has almost no chance of paying out, then the big reward might get you back into the game ... and it gives you something to do until the game is over, anyway.

Don't Confuse Complexity with Depth of Strategy. This is another one that Eurogames tend to get right ... usually. Lots of modifiers to die rolls, lots of different options, or generally a game that's more complex than others out there isn't necessarily better ... and may well be worse. There's much to be said for cutting out complexity until you have the shining gem at the core of your game design, and only then looking to see if anything else actually added to your gameplay.

Unless you're trying to write a simulation, and you know your players want to play a simulation, complexity is usually not the right move.

Don't Support False Strategy. False strategy is a somewhat hard thing to define, but I know it when I see it. Unfortunately, it also seems pretty hard to convince a game designer that his game includes false strategy ... and I've tried. False strategy involves including choices in your game that are essentially meaningless.

Nautilus was one of the games that I tagged with this label. There you make really careful choices about where to go and where to explore, but the actual results are so random that any strategic gameplay is largely outweighed by whether you got lucky or not. I think that having luck weigh considerably heavier than strategic choice is probably the easiest way to introduce false strategy into your game.

Don't Include Rock-Scissors-Papers. I think games that include important rock-scissors-paper mechanics are fine examples of the idea of false strategy that I just mentioned. These are usually blind-bidding games where you have three essentially equal choices, in which there is no way to choose intelligently between the choices.

A game like Basari where there is a meaningful difference between the rock (points), the scissor (gems), and the paper (die roll) is different because you can try and balance what choices people might make based on the options presented to them, but without that difference ... people are worrying about a choice that has no actual meaning.

Don't Develop Your Own Game. My heart aches every time I see a game that could have been a contender, but isn't because someone insisted on self-publishing. Unless you've already gotten 20 or so games under your belt, you don't have the ability to remove yourself from your game design and see its flaws, and you don't have the fortitude to cut out those beautiful subsystems that don't really improve the game. An external developer does and he will make your game better.

If you consider these points, game reviewers and game players alike will thank you.


Dave said...

I think your point 1 is very wrong. Anytime players with practically no chance of winning are left in a game, then you typically wind up with Kingmaker situations. If I wanted to play Kingmaker, that was published 20 years ago.

When players do have realistic chances of winning no matter what decisions they have made, it seems you have an even more serious flaw, since decisions evidently aren't that important.

Elimination solves that problem. Obviously, it might be nice that as players are eliminated, play accelerates so that the game won't last weeks after that, but I know lots of players who are far more willing to play games with elimination that play kingmaker games.

Unknown said...

I think Dave has a point. I certainly would agree that player elimination is something to be avoided in general, but there are also certainly games which are better served by elimination than by dragging along someone who has no chance to win and instead must content him or herself with going through the motions (and in some cases elimination is thematically appropriate, like Nuclear War). I'd certainly say that having player elimination will reduce your potential audience, and should be avoided if not a core necessity, but many classic and good games do have player elimination, and could not easily be designed to eliminate that feature because it's at the core of the game (Titan, Monopoly, Liar's Dice, Knizia's Lord of the Rings. If Knizia used player elimination once, it can't be a totally bad idea in all situations). The choices players make in the game have to have consequences, and sometimes it's appropriate for that consequence to be elimination. It's just a particularly extreme consequence.

Your "false strategy" complaint is a huge issue of mine with a lot of small-press games. You can tell the difference between a pro designer and an amateur because the pro doesn't include choices in the game that don't matter or are non viable. If a strategy has no chance to win, it is eliminated from the game. My favorite example is Princes of the Renaissance. A lot of the tiles in the game are so underpowered that they should never be bought, but they lead a newcomer to believe that there are more viable ways to approach the game than there really are. This is bad.

My big kick currently is trying to get people to think in terms of player choices rather than game mechanics. Players don't care about mechanics; they care about choices. In my opinion so many designers seem to be too focussed on clever mechanics, that they lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day games are all about player choice, and those choices should be meaningful and transparent but difficult and/or interesting to make. That is to say, the game should only have me make a decision if that decision really matters, should not present those choices in a way that is confusing or misleading, and the the immediate results of the choice should be apparent, even if the long-term consequences and implications are not. If game processes and mechanisms are such that they obscure or cloud the impact of player choices, that's not good.

Unknown said...

Oh yes, and I totally agree on your last point (get a real developer). Even experienced game designers get in trouble when they don't have solid development oversight. GMT is an interesting case study, because they're more printing house than game company and don't generally develop games, they leave it to the game designer. Look at Mark Herman's Empire of the Sun. Mr. Herman is far from a game design lightweight, but when he was both the designer and the developer on that project, there were a lot of problems with the "finished" product (which turned out to be not so finished after all). Combat Commander is another recent game that really needed a strong developer; as it is it's a decent, even pretty good game but it had the potential to be a lot more if the design team had some experienced development oversight.

Gerald McD said...

I don't play games that have player elimination. It's the worst part of any game I've ever played and is the primary objection I have to the old games of Risk and Monopoly. A well-designed game of modern ilk doesn't need to eliminate players and keeps everyone in the game to the very end, without creating the helpless, no-way-to-win feeling. Not all "good" games do this well, but the best of them manage it.

Shannon Appelcline said...

I wouldn't have guessed player elimination would be the contentious part of this post.

A few comments:
* I never said that players had to have a realistic chance of winning to be kept "in" the game ... just some chance of winning.
* Yes, kingmaking can be a problem. However I think that kingmaking usually arises from *other* problems in the game, namely providing too much information to players to make their decisions.
* Yes, Lord of the Rings has player elimination, but it rarely comes up except for very late in the game, and even if you're eliminated you can still participate in the decisions since it's ultimately a cooperative game.

Friendless said...

Complexity is a big gripe of mine. In a game such as Caylus how are you supposed to know whether what's you're doing now is going to help you win in 3 hours? Many people seem happy not knowing, but I need to know. If there's enough complexity there may be false strategy - who can tell?

Smatt said...

I think whether a game involves elimination or simultaneous game development is irrelevant. Like Chris said, sometimes it's called for.

Bang! is a great light game using elimination well. You might sit around for ten minutes (that being the major complaint), but that's about it.

Carcassonne, with just a handful of expansions, is quite a painful experience because all players have to play to the end; in that one, I wish players would get eliminated somehow to speed up the game (the base game is timed perfectly, though).

L-C-R is a semi-elimination game that patrons of World Games (our local game store) go nuts over. No complaints there.

In other words, it's not really an issue, at least not to me. It's a fair thing to do, if done well.

I pretty much agree with the rest, Shannon. Thanks for the post.

Unknown said...

Basari does not have a RSP mechanism.

[Pauses to bang head on table repeatedly.]

Basari does not have a RSP mechanism. The three actions do not beat each other. They are just three actions. If two players choose the same action, they must barter for it. Gems does not beat dice. Dice does not points. There is no RSP mechanism in Basari.

There is a RSP mechanism in Frank's Zoo and in Kurier von Zaren. But not in Basari. There just isn't.

And yes, I can't stand it when people make this mistake.

Anonymous said...

A few answers to the "what should players who are eliminated do while the game continues without them?" question-

A. watch the rest of the game, kibitz, learn how to do better next time

B. Go do something else- play another game, play some video games, talk with each other, get something to eat, etc.

Being eliminated isn't anywhere near the end of the world. Most children, and certainly all adults should have the maturity to be eliminated without being a poor sport. Plus games without elimination lose a great deal of the tension that games with them have- frantically fighting for survival, begging for mercy, or finally wiping out a rival can all be very fun parts of a game.

David (of P.G.s) said...

I just wanted to chime in on the last point. As a starting developer none of the larger companies seem to have an interest. Maybe I'm erroring because of my financial situation (lack of transport to big gaming conventions being another one.) and can't be accused of properly networking, however...

It sure seems like the only approach for a new game designer is to go independent. Perhaps a more constructive point could be to seek out other young entrepeneurs + game designers so that your on firmer ground.

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