Category Archives: Games and Family

Game Design – Mechanics First Design

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?

Game Design – Theme First Design

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?

Game Design – The Beginnings

I remember one of the first games I created. It was a game about professional wrestling. I used stand-ups from cut out from the back of a WWF action figure package. I made a ring out of a fancy old box I found in a closet. I had an “energy” counter made from legos. I had a Crown Royal bag filled with dozens of wrestling moves written on paper. I was 12-14 at the time and I thought I had created something amazing. Then it got thrown away. (by accident?)

I made games throughout middle school and even high school. I made them as a diversion the time during school. Another friend of mine also made games; his games were better than mine. We loved to play them. They were about everything from wrestling to Star Trek. We played other games together, but my best memories were when we played our own creations.

My own children have done this as well – but they’ve started earlier. My oldest started making games before she started school. They were simple “roll and move” games, but games nonetheless. They played them together and enjoyed the process. We even got them old games for Christmas one year, so they could use the parts and pieces.

Where does this inherent game-making come from? I think it’s in our nature to create. I also think we like to share the things we’ve made. You don’t have to teach a child to build things with blocks, nor do you have to teach them to show you when they’re done. They love to do both from birth. When my children finished their games, they wanted me to play with them.

Board games fascinate me with their intricacies. This fascination stems from my desire to create and show. When I play, I think about ways I could use that same mechanic in another game idea around a theme I enjoy. My current project, Heartland, is a mash-up of several games I like. I included ideas from Scythe, Cyclades, Stone Age, and a few more I forgot. The point: play more games. In turn, you’ll want to make your own games.

What creations do you have in your mind? What are your game-creating stories?

Luck and Board Games

I used to fancy myself a pretty good Monopoly player. The reason I was good at that game had nothing to do with the rules. I was good because I was a good dealer. When it came to seeing the long-term value in a property, I was usually best at the table. At the end of the day, though, I could still lose. I would still land on Boardwalk through no fault of my own. I would still only land on two properties my first two trips around and have nothing to trade. Why? Bad luck.

My ability to be good at a game like Monopoly had nothing to do with my skill. It had to do with if the dice were in my favor. Then, it had to do with how well the dice rolled for my friends. I could always best the best decision and still lose. This is why I had to shelve Monopoly for the foreseeable future. In general, the more a game depends on luck, the more I will avoid it.

Does that mean that luck in board games is a bad thing? I don’t think it is as a rule. King of Tokyo is a great game that uses dice. What makes it different from Yahtzee? It’s the fact that there are interesting decisions for the player to make. Sid Meier, the creator of the “Civilization” series, says, “A game is a series of interesting decisions.” If there are no decisions for the player to make, there isn’t much of a game.

When choosing games to play with the family, there is a balance to be had. Random elements in a game create balance. A die roll has nothing to do with strategy. Kids and parents alike can roll a 6 on a die. To that point, some random gives the children in the family an equal footing. If there is too much random though, they may get frustrated. Too much random doesn’t give a feeling of satisfaction when making the correct decision. It’s this risk/reward balance that has to you need to watch in family games. A game like Terra Mystica is punishing to new players because of the lack of random. In contrast, a game like Settlers of Catan is friendly to beginners. The random (and social) elements of the game keep good players in check. That also allows the newer/younger players to keep up.

What games do you think do a good job at balancing random elements? Do random elements in games matter to you? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts


Gamification of Life: Personal Fitness

 Gamification is the idea that one can take the basic ideas of games (points, competition, fun) and apply them to different areas of life. For instance, a popular thing to do in businesses is to have an annual weight-loss competition. Why? Because competition, rules, and points motivate us. Some parts of life (like weight management) aren’t fun, so why not make a game of them?
I’m starting a series about gamification. In it, I’ll take a basic facet of life and introduce some games associated with them. For this first installment, I’d like to talk about games associated with personal fitness.

Zombies, Run

This is an app for your phone that tells you an audio story while you run. Sometimes the runner has to increase their pace because of the zombies. Sometimes the story involves the running saving someone. Though I’ve never used it, I can imagine it being lots of fun


This one requires a Fitbit device. This one provides benchmarks in several categories like steps and calories. You are then encouraged to beat those marks. There are achievements that can the user can gain and colorful displays that motivate the user.


Strava is an app that connects you to an online community that tracks running and cycling via GPS. It also allows you to track other non-GPS activities. You can establish personal goals and compete against athletes from around the world.


FitRPG is a great app that treats your fitness endeavors like a role playing game. You get experience points for exercise, which make your character better. There are quests to go on, and even sleeping allows you to revitalize your character. This is one of my favorite fitness “games” because I love RPG so much.
What games do you use for personal fitness?

Things I Read This Week – 1/22-1/28/2017

This week, I focused my reading away from gaming. The current political climate, along with other interests.
As a part-time pastor, it’s always important to consider how to keep my preaching skill sharp. Articles like these are always helpful.
One thing the political season taught us is how to accept new definitions. “Taught” is the wrong word. And we never have to accept them.
Again, the pastor thing. I’m also a church planter. This requires reading and learning because I’m not particularly good at it.
A big thanks to my friend, Barrett Young, for this post. He is an aspiring powerlifter. I’m an aspiring board game designer. The “aspiring” part is what keeps us going. 
A simple read from an aging study at Harvard. Gaming fits this niche for me and my wife (and family) well. 

“Should I Let Them Win?”

My wife took the above picture of me and my oldest daughter. It was 2005 – which seems like yesterday and forever at the same time. I worked as a youth pastor in Mississippi at the time, and much of the world I know now was a distant truth. I knew it existed, but didn’t want to accept it. My child, who I could then completely wrap up, would eventually grow up. She is now 11. It isn’t like she’s getting ready to leave the house tomorrow, but tomorrow will soon become 10 years. There are many things outside the safety of our home and family that I wish she didn’t have to come against. However, she will eventually see those things. One of them, and chiefest of calamities, is failure.

How can we get them ready for this? Many of the games outside the home (school, summer sports, etc.) have eliminated losing and reward participation rather than victory. While I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to reward participation, it might be wrong to eliminate losing. Losing is a part of failure – and failure is a part of life. What we do with failure and how we react to it defines who we are. If we quit all the things we fail, we’ll be lonely and broke. Who wants that?

To that end, I’ve created a short list to help us work through the question, “Should I let them win?”

Beat them…gracefully.

In a word, “No. We should not let them win.” Again, winning is secondary to the game itself. The process of learning the rules, playing well, and being a good sport are much more important than the outcome of the game. There are few better ways to learn all those things than to lose. However, when you beat them, guide them along.

Teach them.

As you work through the game, make sure they see their missed steps, and even guide them to the proper way to make decisions while playing the game. I do this by asking questions. I’ll say, “So, what do you think will happen if you take that action?” or “How do you think I’m going to respond to you doing that?” It helps them to see the results of their actions, which is something often difficult for younger folks (and older ones).

Show them how to win.

When you win, show them that winning is just as much a part of the game as losing. Win well by thanking them for playing, complimenting their play, and offering to play again (if it makes sense).  Show them the normal behaviors of a winner include making the loser feel like they did their best.

Cradle them when they lose.

Lastly, account for their hurt feelings. It’s okay for them to mourn. Losing sucks. Don’t let them wallow in their loss – there is no need to make this their last game. Give them encouraging words and give them to opportunity to try again when they are ready.

Eventually, when they do win, the win will be that much sweeter.