The Nerdstravaganza weekend has come and gone. It was a blast as usual, and this time we had over 20 students join us for the festivities. All in all, it was a successful mashup of old gamers and new. I had several major takeaways from the weekend.
Games are Exhausting
My gaming began when my friend showed up Thursday evening at my house. He joins us for every event and stays with my family. We played several games that night. Friday started early and ended close to midnight. After two games of Feast for Odin on Saturday, the games completed their conquest of my brain. This is a good thing. The alternative is to do nothing with my brain on my days off. I’ve written before about the benefits of gaming for your brain. My hope is to stave off mental decay as long as possible. I think brain workouts like this weekend are essential in that task.
New Gamers are Exhilarating
I love gaming with my friends. We’ve been gaming together on many platforms for many years. I prefer playing games with them because they are a known variable – they love games and love playing them. What place do new gamers have in my life? Being able to teach new games to eager and excited students was a great joy that I haven’t often experienced. When I teach games, it is either to my family or my friend group. I enjoy teaching them, but there was something different about teaching the students. My favorite moment is when they would choose to play a game that I had taught them. As they left, they were talking about their favorite games of the weekend. To me, that is a solid victory for my soul, and for board gaming in general.
The Game and the “Gamer” are Evolving
I’ve been playing board games for a long time, but only in the last 7 years have I considered it a hobby. In that time, designer games have evolved from basic euro games to the board game equivalent of a thrill ride. Games are more flashy and colorful – and more expensive. The new breed of gamer has taken up the mantle and is now demanding more flash, more color, and more cost. Gamers don’t mind paying over $100 if they can get a cool dragon miniature or some nice metal coins. Where does that leave a game like Castles of Burgundy, which is an incredible game with low production value? Sadly,it leaves it unplayed.
Some games are revamping. I read that Brass is getting a polished new look. Maybe other greats will as well. What do you think about the new turn in board gaming? Good or bad for the hobby and why?
In recent perusing of Facebook, I’ve come upon the same picture over and over. It is a picture of a plaque that has 110 empty spaces for meeples. To their left, there are whiteboard spaces for names of games. The idea: play 10 games 10 times each. Some have called it the 100-Game Challenge. I called it an immediate buy. (click picture for your own)
The title “In This Home We Game” of course caught my eye because of my love of gaming with my family. We bought it and decided that each of us would choose 2 games. We wrote them all down and proceeding to plan our strategy to make it through the challenge.
We chose the following games:
- Terra Mystica
- Castles of Burgundy
- Feast for Odin
- King of Tokyo
- Small World
There is a mix of heavy and light, leaning toward the heavy side. My family tends to play heavy games though that doesn’t mean we don’t like light ones.
I plan to update the status of the challenge as we go through it. Which games would your family play in a similar challenge?
This is part two of the interview I had with Geoff Engelstein. I encourage you to go back and read the first part. His insight into design and gaming with family was helpful and encouraging.
What gets a new game design started in your family?
Literally anything. There are like 8 different prototypes in different stages scattered around the house. And hardly any car ride goes by without someone throwing some type of idea out there.
What advice would you give a family that wants to start gaming together?
Play games that they want to play, at least at first. Don’t push them into games that are too complex for them. Also, don’t be afraid to change the rules if you need to for younger kids. We played Monopoly when the kids were very little with everything costing a dollar. Just play and have fun.
Having said that, my second piece of advice is, don’t let them win. They should earn it. You don’t need to crush them – by all means keep it close – but don’t deliberately throw games.
What advice would you give to budding game designers?
Just do it. I see a lot of people that have ideas, but aren’t always willing to put them out there and test, and tweak, and throw out the bad ideas. It’s a long road but can be very gratifying.
Also don’t expect to get rich. You’ll need to put out a lot of games each year to make a living at it, so do it, at least at first, because you love it.
The last bit of advice he gives about not making money was good for me. Several years ago, I considered getting into game design, but I was afraid I would be “unsuccessful.” We all understand the fear of failure. For some reason, I had linked making money with my desire to make games. I heard many designers share Geoff’s advice here. After that, I became convinced that money and success in this craft aren’t tied together. Sure, there are the Alan Moons and Richard Garfields of the world, but most designers have day jobs. That was encouraging and empowering for me as a designer. My hobby didn’t need to make me money. I just needed to make me happy. And it has.
Full disclosure: Rather than a traditional interview, I sent Geoff a list of questions. He answered them at his leisure. I also felt a bit starstruck by even contacting him. He was happy to answer my questions. Like me, he has a family that loves to play games together.
Geoff Engelstein is the designer of several published games, but my favorite of his is definitely Space Cadets. My friends and I have shared moments with that game that we still belly laugh about today. When I discovered that Geoff designed it with his family, I couldn’t wait to talk to him about designing with his family, and about design in general.
If you had to narrow it to 4 steps, describe your design process?
Wow – tough one. My process tends to wander around and loop back on itself over and over. But if I had to pin it down:
Inspiration – the core idea that you want to convey. For me it usually starts with an experience or emotion, and then I go from there. Sometimes I start with what I think is a neat mechanic, but not often.
Core mechanic – Identify the core mechanic to support the experience. Lots of rapid iteration to try (and usually discard) ideas.
Mechanic Explosion – Add lots of things to the core – effects, dice, cards, whatever. Use the ‘hooks’ that the core gives you to allow things to be changed. Then trim, trim, trim and get back to what really works.
Tuning – Final playtesting and tuning to tighten everything up, deal with balance, play time, etc.
How did your family become a part of the design process?
We always played together, whether it was board games, video games, or whatever. And we always talked about why we liked particular games, what worked, and what didn’t. So when I came up with the idea to take Starcraft (which we enjoyed) and turn it into a card game, it was natural that I would involve the kids in the process.
I also wanted to teach them that you could come up with an idea, and – with a lot of hard work – carry it through and actually see it on a store shelf. That creating things was not some mystical far off process that was out of their reach, that it was something that they could and should do.
What is an example of “kid advice” you’ve used in a game?
In “The Ares Project” we were challenged by Z-Man to come up with a fourth faction for the game. My son immediately wanted to do a giant robot. Because giant robots are cool. But we had absolutely no idea how that would fit into the framework. But we worked and worked and figured out how to do it, and it turned into one of my favorite things in the game.
Another way to design a game is to design mechanics-first. By “mechanic” I’m talking about specific ways the game works. For instance, in Monopoly, designers call the movement mechanic “roll-to-move.” In 7 Wonders, the way you get cards is through the “drafting” mechanic. Mechanics represent the way we play the game. If the theme is the story, the mechanics are the math problem behind the story. A good game needs both.
I have a small design project that I’m working on that started with mechanics. Using the Gamer Deck: Mechanics, I drew out a few random mechanics. They were area control, resource management, bidding, and point-to-point movement. Area control is like the game of Risk, taking over a controlling a part of the map. Resource management involves gathering and budgeting particular resources. Bidding is offering a price for a service or resource. Point-to-point movement can be as simple as Candy Land.
So what can you build around these mechanics? I chose a game about mowing lawns. “Lawn Mowers” is about a group of kids who canvas a neighborhood in the summer. Each one is attempting to control the most amount of yards and make the most money. To do so, they have to budget their time and fuel. They also have to choose the best route through town. They must also manage their clients and outbid the other players for their yards.
Sound like fun? I went through that exercise to prove I could design a game mechanics first. My usual process would be theme first because that is how I think. I just wanted to travel outside my comfort zone a bit. There are lots of mechanics that one can use to make a game. The best way to learn these mechanics: play more games. All designers will say that gaming is the best inspiration in their design. If you plan to design, you have to play games, and choose different types of games.
What do you think? What draws you to mechanics-first design over theme first? Why is it easier/harder for you?
I designed my first project – Heartland – theme-first. Theme-first design is the idea that you design the game’s story first. Next, you worry about the mechanics. Many games don’t need their themes to be good games. The designer or publisher pasted their themes onto a solid set of mechanics. In Heartland, I derived the mechanics from the theme.
Heartland is set in an alternate-history Mississippi-Ohio Valley. Heartland’s theme involves farming, gathering resources, and buying water. My first thoughts surrounding the theme were, “How can the players get water?” Since water is scarce, it will be a high commodity. I decided that is must be a regulated commodity. That is when I settled on a bidding mechanic. The players must bid on water rations to plant their fields and feed their livestock. Bidding makes you ration your money and plan well. That makes for some interesting decisions.
A second thematic decision had to do with how the seasons affect the struggle. In a world where resources are scarce, the events of the seasons would have a greater effect. They would affect all players, and the player that prepared the best would make it through. This is when I came up with the idea of season cards. The game lasts three years or three sets of seasons. Players draw the season cards during every round. They affect the game right then. There is also an effect that takes place in a later season. For example, a tornado is destructive at the time, but it could present a future opportunity.
Those are two mechanics in a game full of mechanics I’ve enjoyed from other games. I’ve also tweaked a few for my own spin on them. No matter what I add to Heartland, the theme remains at the center of those decisions.
How does theme affect your design decisions? How much value do you place on the theme?