Game Lab

There’s something that has always irked me about Chess players, and that’s complaints about balance. While not greatly mismatched in any way, shape or form no matter who you ask, many do think that White has a small but undeniably significant advantage, which is proven by the win percentages of the best tournament players. READ MORE

Your humble author pulls off his tinfoil hat and channels the greater psychic flow of the universe to bring you some futurist speculation the likes of which no reasonable person would reliably try to deliver.   

What makes these predictions worthy of your considered attention?  Friends, a magician never reveals how the trick is done; bask instead in the mysterious glow of a tour of a dimly lit carnival sideshow that might pique your curiosity, bedevil your common sense, and perhaps open your eyes to the possibilities.

So check your skepticism at the door and open your mind to a wilder, wider vista of things that could come.


Dynamically Generated Content

You know what’s wrong with every game on the market today?  They’re canned goods.  You get a precisely measured, perfectly manufactured unit of gaming fitted with tightly constrained integrity and completeness.  The most you have to look forward to are bugs and cheat codes you googled on the net – or for the analog side of things some superstrategy analysis that lets you tromp your friends.  And when they try to deliver replayability, the most you get is an alternate ending cinematic and a few more random rolls hidden from sight.

But what about the promise of turning the creation of content over to the users?  Find a clear, easy, reliable system for making the players responsible for entertaining each other while you let the subscriptions roll in – that’s a future worth looking for.  If we can have gangly kid’s cartoons utilize procedural programming for trundling around a boring predictable universe, why can’t we apply that same tech to world spawning, AI actions, and story generation?


Real Social Networking – Gamer Style

You know what’s lame about Facebook?  You never meet anyone.  You have to meet people in real life.  Then, if they pass the test, you’ve gotta get on board with one another on Facebook – so you can what?  Share things you already talk about when you see one another?  Yeah… that’s “useful”.

You know what gamers need?  Gamers need other gamers.  New gamers.  Fresh gamers.  Interested gamers.  People looking to play games.  People you haven’t met yet in real life.  And not anonymous losers and griefers hiding behind crap names like xXSh00taXx and 04BrettFavre.  People rated by previous acquaintances and ranked by games played – if I can thumb a post up, why can’t I thumb a person?  If online matchmakers can put us together for a marriage, why can’t we get a decent crew for an evening of Left 4 Dead 2?  In the future, we’ll put your online presence together and give you a way to reach out and game with someone right for you.


Subscriptions and micropayments and expansions, oh my!

People aren’t going to make great games if they don’t get paid for them.  It takes too much work, too much up front capital.  We’d all like to get something for nothing, but even in the future, no such luck my friend.  Instead, we’ve got at least 2 forms of getting the job done that we don’t see much of today.

First, nanopayments.  Today, too often, people who want to build micropayments into their game end up with payments that sure aren’t very “micro” – US$20 for 5 virtual bucks is digital robbery.  Get that down to US$0.25 – it’s just bits, my friends.  Do you think Angry Birds would have been half as big at $2.99?  Nope.  What’s more, you need to put those little tidbits I pick up here and there into a bundle and charge me once in a while – say monthly? – not run me through PayPal for every dime.  In the future, people like to pay for digital things, but they don’t want to pay much for them or go through a lot of hassle; just tack it on my bill.

Second, advertising.  Yup, everything old is new again.  Not that obnoxious crap before YouTube videos.  That’s just annoying.  No, you’ve got to be more slick and subtle in the future.  A billboard for Geico in the background of my shooter.  A logo on the card backs in my Facebook app.  Don’t just get paid by the users.  Get paid by the people who want to get paid by your users too.



No doubt even in our primitive present we’ve enjoyed some of the rudimentary benefits of cloud computing.  But the future, my friends, takes this to a whole new level.  You’ll carry your data from system to system, evolving it as you go.  You know those charming rigs you can buy at the local console game resale shop that let you play games from when the year started with a 1?  Soon to be charming doorstop antiques themselves – you’ll not need it as all your app needs will be served on every platform that comes out.  You won’t buy that game one platform – you’ll own it for life.  And pass it on to your inheritors.  Along with that totally retro Galaga high score.  Hardware is temporary, but data can be forever.


Cross Pollination

Video games have a lot to learn from the tabletop masters.  Analogs have to deliver on great game play.  They can’t make it happen with flashy graphics and crap mechanics.  It’s gotta have real strategy, great flow.  Today’s games are too often just a song and dance in a pretty dress – a pretty illusion.  Chess didn’t come up through history nor Puerto Rico dominate the tabletop for a decade on looking nice.  They are deep.  They play well.  They stand up to study.  They aren’t going to be thrown to the curb for a new doxy when the bus architecture doubles again down the road.

And analogs have a lot to learn in the future as they move onto surfaces and the web and channel through networks.  They’re charmingly simple and limited, restrained by the necessities of meat brains and meat hands ability to shuffle components on the dining room table in a timely manner.  We have to go beyond instant setup and hidden randomness to serious feedback systems and enriched dynamic simulations with drilldown and zoom out.


Horizontal and vertical integration 

You play EVE Online?  Pretty cool MMO.  Guys who are working on it are supposed to be making a shooter, Dust 514.  Weird thing though – what happens in one will affect the other, even though they aren’t even related genres.  People need to watch that idea; it’s got potential for the future.  What if that stellar empire was populated by farmers your recruited to a Facebook game?  What if your chances for success in a quest were determined by the number of people following your Twitter feed?  Now push that idea another level – today you’ve got bonus content for ordering early or paying extra?  How about for finishing the last title the same designer worked on?  Or being a loyal customer over the past 3 releases? 

Or because you created the most thumbed DLC using the in-game content-as-you-play generation system on the entire cloud community for your virtual region?  And got a nod from the local political candidate for showing his campaign poster in the background sprays?


What’s to come?

Or fevered dream of a madman?  Integration, persistence, leveraging connections, and personal creativity are the big future of games from this little padded cell at the Game Lab asylum… but what does your djinni tell you will be just around the corner?  Look around.  The future comes from today; you can see the shadow of it cast long by the dawning of new things.


The doctor is in!  Here at Game Lab, we’ve rigorously tested, chemically balanced, and finely sifted the gaming field to find relief for an agonizing chronic condition afflicting far too many game players, analysis paralysis!  

If you’ve ever had to sit through interminable turns of players too flimflammed or befuddled by a few too many options and alternatives, you’ve been affected by this condition passively and painfully.  You know the teeth grinding willpower it takes to avoid swinging from the chandelier shouting “TAKE YOUR TURN ALREADY!”  But then those poor victims of this dreaded pseudo-disease!  How much poorer off they are, locked in the icy grip of indecision, desperate to play and unable to bring themselves to it.  Fear no longer!  Let’s take a look at what we can do to combat this scourge and end the menace on game night once and for all.

A brief analysis of the paralysis

All humor aside, let’s take a look at the problem.  One person makes timely moves.  Another person does not.  The game is the same.  So, we’re not dealing with a problem of the game.  We’re dealing with the problem of people.  But, it is wishful thinking to consider that we could easily change the people.  Instead, even though it’s no fault of the game, the game is the thing we can easily change.  People who are prone to AP should work on playing faster, but that’s the work of personal reflection and self-betterment – you do that on your own time.

And of course, we should all be tolerant of the occasional slowdown or intricate situation which requires deeper thought.  From time to time, everyone needs a minute to collect their thoughts, especially after momentous alterations to the game state.  AP isn’t a sometime problem, though, for the sufferers.  It is  an every time problem.  The victims of AP feel it in almost every game… well, every game of certain qualities, perhaps.  With better game selection, I contend you can minimize the impact.

What’s in an AP-proof game?

The first feature we want in a game that will keep people moving is continuous action.  If we have a game where each player takes a long turn of many phases before the next player takes their turn, this is going to be the kind of game that compounds the frustration and delay.  Instead, our AP proof games should have phasing, where each player takes a small action in the same phase – we all draw a card, the we all take one action each, then we all take another action, then the new round begins.  This instead of one player doing all those things before the next.  As much as possible, we’re looking for small, discrete actions and simultaneous play.  Games with a small number of players or asynchronous play can sometimes fit these criteria as well.

Second, a game should strive to avoid confronting the players with many choices at once.  Often, as the game breaks down into simultaneous play, this problem is cleared up – instead of award each player 10 action points on their turn and waiting for them to parcel them all out, each player taking an action in turn breaks up the mass.  The AP prone player has the brief moments while others act to work out a play and the flow is more organic.  The more pieces or complexity the situation has, the more the AP player will sit back and try to build a mental map of the current game state and the future, so games with a smaller game state can be helpful too.

A third quality that can help resolve AP is clarity.  Clear games are those where the actions taken by the players produce clear results directly in line with good strategy.  That is, taking a particular action clearly contributes to the final outcome in an obvious way.  When actions have many complex consequences or tradeoffs, the AP player is prone to puzzle them out before selecting one or another option.  A good play now is better than the best play later, to paraphrase an old saying – be sure the good plays are apparent to make them easier.  A good game selection can matter here, but just as much good results can come from lots of practice!  Practice gives the AP prone player a chance to use experience to resolve issues instead of always forming a fresh plan.

The social angle

Before we get to a list of great games that follow these rules and, hopefully, avoid AP, I would be remiss if I didn’t cover the social angle of this problem.  Because AP is a people problem, not a gaming problem, it falls to us to responsibly recognize the issue and deal with it both as paralyzed and paralyzed co-player.

If people are complaining that you play too slow, you really need to think hard about how you can move along faster.  Recognize that you are removing some of the fun from the game and lessening the enjoyment of others when you take extended periods to plan, think, and resolve.  You might feel you need this time, but you must learn to do the best you can with a mix of intuition, experience, and bravado, not just hard processing.  Don’t rush or be rushed, but keep up a pace.  Like driving, where you go with the speed of the traffic, try to play at the speed others play – even if it hurts your game or you feel uncomfortable at first, I’m sure you can with practice acclimatize yourself.  Lastly, don’t just sit there thinking.  Consider talking out your moves as you consider them.  It can help keep the other players occupied to play along with your line of thinking or follow your progress.

To the person waiting, I remind you of the virtue of patience.  Be conscious of how you may have an easier time in a game through practice or experience; other new players may not find it as effortless as you.  You may have an instinct to try to help things along, but this is a sensitive issue with many gamers.  It can easily come across as judgmental, condescending, or rude.  But worse, all it often accomplishes is interrupting a person already hard at work.  An interruption you can ill afford.  So fight the tendency to interject – a brief, clear reminder to keep things moving should be enough to prompt a play from the paralyzed.

Play on!

So, which games fit our criteria?  Let’s look at a few examples.

Race For The Galaxy and Puerto Rico: These games employ simultaneous game play to keep things clicking along.  Everyone is taking short, direct actions and each phase of the game (selecting roles and playing cards or resetting between rounds) is shared.  By breaking down the actions into a continuous pace, there’s little need for any player to really puzzle over what they should be doing next.  Turns are brief and shared.

Tower of Babel and Settlers of Catan: These games keep everyone busy.  There is a continuous need to contribute to a trade or auction which has very direct consequences.  A player is always participating in the current action, considering offers from other players and only making a simple choice to accept or reject.

Magic: The Gathering and El Grande: Fast action sequence is the main feature in these.  At each step, the player should find it quite easy to make a simple, elemental choice to keep the game moving.  Choose a card, play the actions, improve your state and pass to the next player.  Things are generally up front and strategy is direct.

Wings of War and Red November: Clear, clear, clear. The objectives here are so obvious and the action of play so straight that there’s nothing to really get bogged down in.  “Shoot him down” is your only plan in the first with simple you think I think strategy, yet it is lots of fun even for a large group.  And cooperative games offer a chance for players to collaborate on the outcomes so that one player’s turn is every player’s turn.

Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers and Through The Desert: These games have going for them elements of simplicity.  You turn?  Take a tile and play a tile.  Choose two pieces, play two pieces.  By sporting cumulative small actions and an evolving board position, there is never really a daunting challenge of planning but instead emergent strategy and collective results.

Analysis complete

Avoiding analysis paralysis is something we all want to do, whether we suffer from it or suffer through it.  Do learn to take your time and play well, but remember its part of the fun of a game to play with a light heart and jaunty pace.  Don’t let the situation drag out or grind down… this is just a game!  Every play need not be perfect.  After all, there’s always another chance to play.

That time of year is creeping up on us again fast – the holidays.  You’ll visit with your family and relatives and after everyone’s caught up on the news of another year… what then?  Odds aren’t too bad that you and yours will sit down at the dining room table for a game.  That same old game.  You know the one.  The one you play every year.  The one that you… dare I say it… dread?

Let’s be honest here.  The classics are classic.  But a lot of them aren’t what we might call state-of-the-art in great game play.  So, why not kick your holiday family game play up a notch?  Take these recommendations and find the ones that work best for you.  I’m sure you’ll be delighted that you’ve found such a great substitute, a new family favorite for years to come!


Monopoly -> Acquire, For Sale

Roll and move and roll and move, buy this, land on that… Monopoly is pretty limited in terms of making fun choices.  Why not pump it up a bit, buying and selling hotels in the real estate classic Acquire or try another quality angle on the property game with For Sale?


Life -> Settlers of Catan, Formula D

Whrrr… spin the spinner, move the car, pink and blue pegs.  It’s a yawner isn’t it?  Let this old dog go and play a powerhouse of trading and maneuver that’s a modern classic, Settlers of Catan.  Not getting your driving a little car around a track fix from Settlers?  No problem – switch Formula D in for Life and tear up the track in super fun high speed Formula car racing.


Clue -> Mystery Express

I’m going to confess that I did it with the lead pipe in the dining room to the person who makes me suffer through this bit of the past.  Instead, put on the most excellent movie version in the background and have a game of Mystery Express instead – murder on trains is so much more interesting than a stuffy old mansion, anyway.


Operation -> PitchCar

Bzzt… pop!  It’s noisy, it’s messy… and is this even really a game?  If you want to test your reflexes, upgrade to a little competitive racing with a flick and go action in configurable, expandable PitchCar.  And the noisy part of this one is the cheering of the players, not the game board.


Cranium -> Bausack

The old saw party game has had its day… how about something new and tricky?  Bausack is all about stacking odd shape pieces, picking those you think others are brave enough to try – and fumbling enough to fail at stacking.  It’s tense, creative, and tricky just like the game you’re replacing.  And you won’t have to hear Uncle Kermit sing.


Sorry -> Ticket To Ride

You don’t have to be Sorry if you’re pulling out the award winning game of railroad building Ticket To Ride!  Accessible, easy, colorful, and fun, Ticket To Ride is a great substitute here.


Candyland -> Zooloretto, Gulo Gulo

Candyland is full of charming whimsy, but it’s not really going to pull it together in terms of keeping the adults and the kids at the table and happy – it’s just too basic for the older set.  A great alternative game like Zooloretto keeps the kids with cute animals as well as having engaging game play.  Or something fun and tricky like Gulo Gulo, where little fingers have advantages that adult fingers could only wish for.


Chutes and Ladders -> Forbidden Island

Still rolling and moving after all these years, this game doesn’t have much thought in it.  And maybe as much flavor as the old shoe leather to which it is mostly comparable.  Spice up the holiday game with a co-operative, colorful adventure to retrieve the hidden artifacts on Forbidden Island


Trivial Pursuit -> Wits & Wagers

Tired of losing to the smartest people in the room all the time?  Know-it-all aunts and uncles showing you up in front of your kids?  What you need is some Wits & Wagers, where knowing the answer isn’t as important as knowing who is going to know the answer – a much more lively party game to enjoy, even with a very large group.


Battleship -> Survive!

Is this one a trick to get people to learn coordinate systems or a game?  It had it’s day, but even though it means to represent the excitement of a naval battle, it’s always been a bit flat.  If you’re really looking to get your people out of danger in a fun situation, check out Survive! where you’ve got to get your tribe off the exploding volcanic island before it sinks into the sea.


Uno -> Blokus, Bohnanza

The rainy day standard for many, Uno is all about going out of cards… even if you don’t make a lot of interesting choices along the way.  Blokus is all about playing out all your pieces in a twist on Tetris-like piece placement, just as colorful but way more clever than Uno.  If you’ve gotta get your hands on some cards, why not trade silly beans in fantastic upgrade called Bohnanza instead?


Yahtzee -> Liar’s Dice, Can’t Stop, Incan Gold

Yahtzee is maybe the game of a bygone era, but there’s charm in a handful of dice bouncing on the table; if only you were doing more than just keeping track of what came up in this one!  Why not bluff and push  your luck with great alternatives like Liar’s Dice or Can’t Stop!  Or, for those more inclined to replicating the adventures of one Dr. Jones, push your luck with traps and monsters in Incan Gold.


Cribbage -> Lost Cities

I’ve enjoyed a great game of Cribbage for years so I can’t easily say anything too critical of it – a solid old parlor classic.  But sometimes it’s fun just to switch it up with something else, something with a bit more color, a bit more back and forth instead of just tallying points – and that’s Lost Cities, a modern legend in the two player realm.


Chess -> Through The Desert, Hey! That’s My Fish!

Chess is black and white, plain Jane brain grinding.  There’s a serious game in there – too serious.  If you’re just looking to unwind with your friends and family, why not pick up a little more colorful, playful, thematic sort of abstract strategy game, the kind you can play with 2 or more than 2!  Great choices are Through The Desert, the game of candy colored caravans (don’t eat the camels!) and Hey! That’s My Fish!, a tricksy penguin vs. penguin fish fest that will even hold the attention of younger players… and both games offer the strategic depth and complexity of their more staid brother if you want to play hard.


Scrabble -> Qwirkle

Are you really going to be consulting a dictionary when you play games?  There’s a time and place for some serious verbiage in competitive Scrabble, but for all your relaxing tile laying needs you might want to dial in some crafty matchmaking work in a rising star like Qwirkle instead.


Out with the old, in with the new…

Classics are great.  They’ve got kitsch, memories, and maybe a few of them aren’t even too bad if we put them in the context of the history of games.  But there are so many marvelous new entries in recent years, things that have won lots of awards around the world, lit fires in the video game world as well as the tabletop, and just generally out-fun the old school.  Give some of this new stuff a try the next time you’re with your family.  You won’t be disappointed.

When you build a system, you’ve gotta test it. And a game is most definitely a system. A system of rules. Playtesting is just working out the details, balance, and systems of a game through repeated plays.

Making the game in the first place, that’s design – creating the ideas, foundations, basics. But for most games it’s in the repeated hashing out of the twists and turns of the rules where the real work and long hours come in. Design is easy; playtesting is hard. So, if you’ve ever wanted to be a designer, you’ve probably got to do your time as a playtester first. How should you approach this job? Well, you could go get that degree is systems analysis or quality assurance that you’ve always wanted (right?) or you could read on and pick up some tips that’ll help you at the table.

It’s all about the goals

The first mistake you’re gonna make, because everyone makes it, is you’re gonna think that you know best about what is best in gaming and that what you like or don’t like is all that matters. Guess what? It’s not all about you. A good playtester doesn’t (just) evaluate a game based on their personal tastes and preferences. They think about the goals.

What goals? The designer’s goals! A game comes with some rules, but behind those rules are usually some basic goals the designer is trying to satisfy. Your job is to determine how well it’s meeting those goals. So the first thing you’re gonna want to do is ask about those goals and, perhaps, be prepared to infer them from the game if the designer isn’t present. You won’t be making the same suggestions if the goal for one game is “sell a million units” and another it’s “challenge hardcore gamers”. So… what are some typical goals, some typical conditions on which we can evaluate a game?

Intro to Evaluation Criteria 101

Is this game fun? This is a good consideration to think hard on as you’re trying out a game, but it falls into a strange space between important and deceptive. See, what’s fun for you is not, perhaps, fun for others. When you’re asking yourself this question, it’s always in the context of “fun for the intended audience” – try to get into their heads, try to understand what their reactions will be. If there isn’t a stated audience, try to imagine a group or type of gamer that will like it. If that group is too small or too obscure or just doesn’t exist, you should really start challenging the fun of the game. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because it isn’t your cup of tea, it’s bad. 1835 is a complex historical simulation of the development of trains in Germany. Gulo Gulo is about stealing eggs from a nest. Both of these games are fun. Just maybe not fun for the same people.

Is this game challenging? There’s almost as big a range of skill out there as there are different interpretations of what is fun, so be careful as you ask this question too. But remember much of the joy of a game is going to come from some level of challenge in the game. If there are no clever choices, interesting plays, or tricky tradeoffs, a game isn’t likely to be well-received, even by the intended group. Different games offer different challenges – dexterity, memory, planning, negotiating, calculating – but you should be able to identify those challenges and gauge that they aren’t too hard or too easy.

Is this game innovative? Another difficult question! Innovation is too often a buzzword wrongly interpreted to mean “good”. Often, it’s better to be descended from good stock than it is to be the awkward mutant that people can’t classify. True innovation is rarely successful, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Fresh interpretations are often very welcome. But look for the lineage of a game you are playing. Understand how it shares mechanics, style, or theme with other games for the same group or in the same genre. A good design often builds on the successes of others. For example, Galactic Emperor is a game heavily derived from Puerto Rico, but builds enough on that model to make something new. Civilization defines an entire genre of games, too; following in those footsteps is about the only way to build something in that group.

Would I play this game again? Replayability, the ability find something interesting in repeated plays of a game, goes right to the value and depth of a game. By its nature, with playtesting, you’re going to be playing and playing and playing a game, so you’ll have a great insight into how the game keeps repeated plays fresh. If every run through is turning out the same or one strategy is clearly best, those are great things to bring back to the designer – consistency isn’t always bad though, especially in a lighter game.

Is this game clear? Games are generally better when the players can pick up on the play and nature of the game quickly. Clarity isn’t simplicity nor is complexity the opposite of clarity. Clear really means that the game is intuitive, understandable, and direct in action. A clear game lets players enjoy the action of the game instead of fretting over many exceptions or interruptions or distractions. Often the best way to judge clarity is by looking at the action of the game and the victory conditions of the game – when actions directly contribute to victory, that’s clarity. In Caylus, you use workers to get resources and spend resources to get points. In Space Hulk, it’s marines versus aliens in mission based play. These are both good examples of clarity.

Does the game flow? Flow is a feeling that the game will move from phase to phase, step to step, action to action in a pleasing, easy manner. It should be more or less apparent to players what they should be doing next and that activity should rise naturally from the previous step. A classic example is “move, then fight” in a game like Axis & Allies; a player can expect to put units into action and resolve that battle.

Attitude is everything

The golden rule of good playtesting, though, is to understand that you are here to help, not hurt, to tune, not trash. It can be all too easy sometimes to say something cold, hard, or ugly about a game, especially a game that’s still rough around the edges. That’s wrong. Playtesting is a constructive activity, not an opportunity to deride a design or, worse, the designer. Remember that a big part of playtesting is feedback; you don’t have to be the one to fix what’s off about a game. That’s the designer’s responsibility. Yours is to provide detailed feedback, helping realize the goals of the design. And don’t forget that just about the best way to get good playtesting for your designs is to be a good playtester for others – treat them like you’d expect to be treated in return.

Be a ‘know ’em all’

That’s not “know it all” – nobody needs one of those. Instead one of the most valuable skills you can cultivate as a playtester is to be as familiar as possible with as many different games, especially different kinds of games, as you can. A huge gaming experience helps you understand the goals and taxonomy of games, helps you make good comparisons to what works or doesn’t work. It’s worth learning games that are the best of the best, but also good to study the train wrecks, odd ducks, and mediocre maybes of gaming. Learn role-playing, abstracts, video games, collectibles, and everything in between. The more you know, the more useful you can be.

Is this playtesting gig starting to sound like hard work? It can be, but there’s a great silver lining, a great way to pay yourself back for learning this skill. Just because a game is finished, purchased off the shelf with ready to go rulebook doesn’t mean it can’t be better or more fun. Once you’ve practiced playtesting, you’ll start to see neat additions and alternate options in almost every game you play. Take advantage of that! Make some house rules to tweak a game you like to make it a game you love. For example, I’ve been a big fan of Die Macher for years, but not a play of the game goes by without me unhappy about the auctioning of secret, highly decisive polls at the end of every round. Why subject your deep planning to a flip of a card for the win or lose? So, we’ve worked out all sorts of options to address this, like auctioning the polls face up. A minor change can make all the difference in changing the feel of a good game to an even better one.

Good luck and happy playtesting!