Category Archives: Games

Blogs about all sorts of games, as well as game design.

Card Game: Tactical War

One of the advantages of a good vacation where you can really unplug is that your mind can focus on things you wouldn’t normally have time to consider. Naturally, as folks who work on games professionally, my wife and I think about games.

So on our recent cruise, when we had some time to kill, we bought two decks of cards and set about writing a new variation on the game “War” that didn’t suck as much. This new version (tentatively titled “Tactical War”) attempts to reduce the randomness of the original game, add a layer of player choice, and remove the “death spiral” design of the original. It’s been through a few iterations, but if other folks want to play it and give more feedback, I’ll be happy to keep this post up-to-date with the latest rules and clarifications.

Tactical War Rules

Setup

  1. Each player starts with their own deck of playing cards (two Jokers included.) Ideally, each deck has a different back, to make sorting the decks back out easier.
  2. The players also need some marker to show who sets the battlefield. The box the cards came in works fine.
  3. Before play begins, each player shuffles their deck, and presents it to their opponent to cut. Each player then draws a hand of five cards.
  4. The first player to set the battlefield is determined by random determination for the first round, or with whomever lost the last round.

Turn

  1. At the start of each turn, both players draw their hands up to five cards.
  2. The player who has the marker can decide if they want to “set a battlefield” for the turn. If they choose to, they play a card from their hand and declare what limits are on the battlefield.
  3. The “battlefield” is limited by the suit or color of the card played, depending on what the player declares — for example, a Two of Hearts can be played to limit the battlefield to “red cards” or “Hearts.” If there is no battlefield card in play, there are no limits on the cards for that turn.
  4. Once a battlefieldis played (if any), each player must try to play a card that fits within the presented limits. If they have no cards that fit within the limits, theymust play any card from their hand instead.
    1. The highest card played that fits within the limits wins the turn. If one card fits and the other doesn’t, the card that fits automatically wins.
    2. If neither card fits the limits, the highest value card wins.
    3. If the cards are of equal value, a second card is played that also fits the limits. If these cards tie, a third card is played, and so on.
    4. If both hands are emptied and the cards are still tied, the top card is revealed on each deck until a winner is determined.
  5. Once the turn is won, the winning player can choose to put their opponent’s card (not the card that set the battlefield) into their hand instead of putting it into their score pile.
  6. Any cards not put into the winner’s hand (including the card that settle the battlefield) are then put into the player’s score pile. The market then moves to the player on the left.
  7. Play continues until one player runs out of cards in their deck. All other opponents then put all their cards into their own score pile.

Scoring

  1. The score piles are counted, and then the total written down. The decks are divided back out, and play continues until a set score is reached (typically 200). That player is the winner.

Player Skill vs. Character Skill

Recently I’ve read various games I own that fall into the vague class of “Old School Renaissance.” OSR-style play exalts the skill and intelligence of the player over that of the character. And it’s got me thinking about player skill vs. character skill. What do they mean? What’s the difference between the two?

“Player skill” refers to the player’s own abilities, not translated through a game mechanic. In a tabletop RPG, this is the player asking questions and trying to discern things. In a LARP, this is the ability of a player to sway a room purely through the portrayal of his character. In a video game, this is the player moving his troops based on his own strategy, or shooting someone with by testing their own reflexes.

On the other hand, “character skill” refers to the character’s abilities inside the game, which has little to no connection to the player.  In a tabletop RPG, this is rolling a die to see if your character asks the right question or discerns things. In a LARP, this is playing rock-paper-scissors to see if your character sways a room. In a video game, this is activating your character to see what strategy he enacts, or relying on random chance to see if a character shoots someone.

Arguments can (and have) been made for and against both kinds of skill. However, what interests me is that both sides frame the discussion as if the two kinds of skill are mutually exclusive. And yet, in my own experiences with a variety of games, I’ve found that every game requires some player and some character skill. In your tabletop game, some things are abstracted through dice, and some things come from player discussion. In a LARP, some things require mechanical resolution or arbitration, and some things are purely based on player personality. In a video game, some things are handled by computer code, and some things are handled by player input.

In fact, I would argue that any game that is purely player skill or character skill ceases being a game. Too much player skill, and the game becomes nothing more than a puzzle — there is no outside factor that changes the player’s input, and it is either solved or unsolved. Too much character skill, and it becomes a movie — the player simply watches, having no agency as the game plays itself to its conclusion.

Certain games can (and should) emphasize player skill over character skill, or vice versa. It’s good to know going into a game or going into your design what you want to emphasize, where, and why. But you can’t have one without the other.

Dopamine and Zeigarnik: Game Loops

One of the best insights I’ve ever had into game design came from a lunchtime conversation with a marketer who had quit drinking.

Said marketer had done some research into addiction, and got really interested in dopamine. We got to talking about it one day, and what really struck him was how our brain seems to like getting addicted to anything it can. Particularly, he noted how his own propensity to obsessively check email and text messages seemed to stem from dopamine. And it turns out he’s right — further, the shorter the stimulus, the better. One of the reasons why Twitter is so addictive to many people is because it’s a very quick fix, so you can trick yourself into thinking it’s not much.

Which got me thinking about video game design. That moment-to-moment gameplay can be compelling if it’s short and Pavlovian. Hell, most of the early wave of Facebook games were designed around this principle. While everyone has their own preferences, I suspect many people playing Farmville were doing so because it was compelling and not because they actually liked it. But you can see this in more traditional designs — the random JRPG battle or MMO battle, particularly. If it’s unpredictable, short, and can produce a reward, it’s likely to compel the player to keep playing that snatch of gameplay again and again. Let’s call this the “short game loop.”

Continue reading Dopamine and Zeigarnik: Game Loops

Seattle 2054, Part 3: Outline and Asset List

Now that I have a rough idea of what I want to write, it’s time to turn those rough ideas into something resembling a structure. The goal here is to go from potentially doing anything to some concrete needs so I can start writing a script.

Continue reading Seattle 2054, Part 3: Outline and Asset List

Seattle 2054, Part 2: Brainstorm and Script Structure

In the last blog, I posted my goals from creating a Shadowrun Returns scenario, and roughed out my pitch and high-level GDD. Now I move to brainstorming and overall script structure.

Brainstorming

I prefer to do brainstorming through hand-written notes than on a computer. There’s something about the process of writing things down that helps with my initial creative process. When I was at CCP, I used to use whiteboards and Post-It notes a lot, but when necessary I use my ruled notebook to brainstorm on. I then take a picture of the brainstorm on my phone, which I use as a reference when I get to the writing phase. I don’t know if people will understand my shorthand or read my handwriting, but here’s the picture I took (note: after this point, potential spoilers for my scenario). Continue reading Seattle 2054, Part 2: Brainstorm and Script Structure

Seattle 2054, Part 1: Pitch and High-Level GDD

Since I was laid off from CCP, I’ve been understandably focused on my job search. One barrier I’ve run into is work samples: while I have some writing examples for potential employers, I don’t have full game design scripts to share.1 I kicked around the idea of creating a scenario using a middleware game engine as a work sample, and more and more it grew on me. I settled on a Shadowrun Returns scenario for a number of reasons (which I’ll get into below).

My scenario may or may not contain basilisks or Indiana Jones references.
My scenario may or may not contain basilisks or Indiana Jones references.

A couple of people have asked if I would be willing to share my experience in making such a scenario.  I decided to try and document the steps of making a scenario from start to finish, approaching it as I would approach making a professional game. It would give me a chance to illustrate how such games come together, and I would have some design documents I could use to illustrate my own skills.

A few caveats to this series to start:

  • It will be irregular, and may never finish. If paying work comes up, I have to focus on that.
  • This isn’t going to be a guide on how to use the SR editor. There’s already a fantastic wiki for that, which I’m in the process of reading through to educate myself on the tools. Using industry terminology, this is a series of scripts and game design documents (GDDs), not technical design documents (TDDs).
  • By the very nature of this project, it will contain spoilers to my scenario and potentially those of other published scenarios. If you’re still playing through Shadowrun Returns, be wary as you read these.

Pitch and High-Level GDD

The first thing I need to work on is the audience for this game. While I’m not pitching this to a publisher or studio, the pitch/high-level design format is a good way to show where the boundaries of my project lie, and what decisions I need to make in creating it. I have a pretty firm idea of what I want to make in my head, but writing it down helps — not only to showcase the process, but also to give me a guideline down the road when I have to make scope decisions.

GDDs should be living documents that are constantly iterated on. As such, I’ll be keeping my GDD on Google Docs, and it’s available for anyone to read. However, for historical purposes, my first pass at the pitch and high-level design is at the end of this post (after the cut).

Next Steps

Next, I would normally start designing how the gameplay would work and focusing the core experience. Since that work is already done for me by my decision to use Shadowrun Returns, I can jump to constructing the narrative. The initial brainstorming and design of my story will be the focus of my next post. Continue reading Seattle 2054, Part 1: Pitch and High-Level GDD

  1. And to head this question off at the pass: no, I’m not allowed to upload my World of Darkness writing samples for public consumption.

The Out-Of-Character LARP

(No one in this picture is an asshole. At least, that I know of.)

One of the more popular sections of my presentation on LARP playstyles “Your Game Sucks” is my slide on assholes. Some of the reason, I suspect, is because it’s funny to use profanity in a serious presentation. But some of it is because….

Can we be honest here? I mean, just between you and me? Live-action organizations… they can get a little dramatic. And I think there’s a reason why. It’s because of the Out-Of-Character LARP.

You see, I have a hypothesis that arguing OOC is indicative of a “corrupt” version of a LARP playstyle. Specifically, there are people who find the OOC infrastructure as or more fascinating than the in-game one.  Perhaps it’s because the stakes are higher: not actually life-altering, because the “players” could (theoretically) leave at any time. However, they get a level of “real” intensity they don’t get inside the game. This could be why some of these players seem like they play OOC organization politics better than in-game politics.

Edit: Since I posted this, it seems I was a little unclear on this point (as I mention at the end, this was a bit of a kludge of random thoughts), so let me clarify here: I position “arguing” here in it’s destructive, non-cooperative form. The people who spend time, energy, passion, and money to run our games are amazing. Some people aren’t amazing and make things worse. These are the people I’m largely talking about here.

I call this “corrupt” because, because this level of OOC politics is ultimately a destructive playstyle, not a constructive one. At its core, it’s not one that lends itself to collaboration, and it’s part of the sweeping area of destructive playstyles I labelled in my presentation under the heading of “asshole.”

If we take the idea that some players are playing the “OOC game” as a working hypothesis, some interesting conclusions result.

  • If some players are actively playing this OOC game, other players aren’t. In fact,  not everyone is even aware of this game.
  • Those players who aren’t are therefore losing, and possibly couldn’t engage in it if they wanted to.
  • The OOC game naturally impacts the IC game, so even players who don’t know or play in the OOC gamer are impacted by the consequences.
  • Ergo, you either have to engage the OOC game, or you burn out because you’re trying to fix something in the wrong arena.

When I discussed an early version of this hypothesis with some friends, it was pointed out that only officers and other authority figures can play. However, I disagree — even untitled “trolls” are playing the game. The most vocal asshole makes a noteworthy impact on the game, and changes it due to his toxic presence.

It’s easy to see this at a local game (as people slowly stop showing up due to that guy), but I think it can extend beyond the local. As you introduce communication systems to communicate between games, those forums can (and often do) project those toxic elements. At some point, it becomes common wisdom to avoid certain email lists or Facebook groups. Communication between games breaks down as these avenues are made unattractive or unavailable, and the games all suffer, even in a small part.

I originally entitled this post “assholes are ruining your LARP,” but I decided against it because that’s not helpful. Rather, it’s good to understand that when you have an organization devoted to putting together a game, sometimes there is bleed between the two. Some people can find it hard to keep the two separate. Some may end up “gamifying” the infrastructure. And, just with the game itself, there are a few who will be assholes about it. Being aware of the potential for bleed, and being aware of toxic elements within that, can do a lot to keep each side of politics where it needs to be.

Just some random thoughts I’ve been kicking around for a while now.