Tabletop design is all just opinions.

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There Will Be Games

Randy muses on the lack of right and wrong in tabletop design.

I recently got to chat and present Scoundrels to UC Santa Cruz's 'Games and Playable Media MS Program'. One of the things I pointed out was that, unlike the much more closed systems of a video game, a tabletop game usually puts the systems directly into the hands of the player. And when you design a game, a lot of decisions are just decisions, not right and wrong, but better for this or better for that.

In a video game, when you make a decision, the arduous next part is making sure it literally doesn't break your game. That your game does not crash to desktop, or do something super super weird.

Stone Librande showing his games

(Stone Librande showing some of the many games he made once a year for his children as they grew up.)

One of the interesting elements of tabletop design, is that your game always "functions". Board games are closer to the concept of "play" than video games. "Hey, do the Gambler card [where you have a chance of doubling or losing Infamy] and Wench card [where you get bonus Infamy] overlap?" If I don't write down the answer or it's not clear, you as the player can and should just make a decision. In a video game you might be up a creek, as that overlap could crash the game or neither could work or maybe they do just work. But broken-ness in tabletops can be a sign of more shades of gray and an opportunity for more player storytelling and creativity.

The idea of talking out a solution is a really interesting design space that I'd like to explore some day. I love how RPGs explore this discussion and debate space, but I'm also scared of it because I'm terrible at debate and improvisation. Thus, as a designer, I generally try to design simpler more cohesive systems.

I had health 'tokens' and recently tried an alternate solution with a health dial that you tick down. The dial has fewer pieces, but it's a bit bigger and clunkier. I'm going to try something different real soon and give you cannonball tokens if you get shot. You'll receive rather than lose. I prefer the idea of being hurt and numbers going down. It feels more dramatic, versus an arbitrary number of cannons sinks you. Zero feels more conclusively dead. Why do four cannonballs sink you, but not three, or five. On the flip side, when people lose tokens, they often wonder how they might reclaim them. And players assume they lose health in more cases than actually occurs. By changing the token to a cannonball, it will hopefully be clear you only receive it when shot.

In Scoundrels right now, ties are a push. No one is hurt, everyone just sails away empty-handed. Next game I'll be testing how it plays if, in the case of a tie, both players receive their rewards and take associated losses. Neither pushes or two-way successes are 'wrong'. 

When ties push and all the cards go away without win or loss, it creates a pause, a lull, which I personally find refreshing in a game built on aggression. But the game is longer than some players want. If I change ties to result in the dramatic chaotic outcome, there will be more damage dealt, resulting in an earlier end to the game. But it also shifts pacing and reduces the likelihood of a defender surviving or holding on to Treasure. But it also gives them a positive outcome at the same time, as maybe they'll hurt the attacker, or will get to move somewhere.

Scoundrels being played by students

Randomness in games is neither right nor wrong, it's different experiences. Number crunching. Ports re-opening sooner to be pillaged. Tabletop games are so much more about opinions, because the change in the system is often near instant. And when something clashes in an unusual way, you as players can decide how the system should operate. And the best designers are aware of all those decision points.

One reason video games have been stuck in a shitty rut of media and ratings and such is that so many games were literally broken, and we had to develop a vocabulary that included success at the system even working. Tabletops don't have that in the same way. You can vocalize a flaw or fault, and then you can change it. You can play with house rules. Such 'mods' in video games require intention to exist. The creator has to actually design and allow for solutions, and still often has much of the system closed away from the public. So shitty number ratings arose for video games  because we wanted to hear on objective qualities as much as subjective. The tabletop space is cool because of the empowerment it gives to you the players as gods in the machines. It demands more of you. And less of me as a designer. My design decisions are so much of me being a player among players, and deciding where I, as a player, want to be.

I'll leave you with one final decision that I've yet to make: When a player dies, they become the Ghost Ship. I tell them to reset their health, that they once again get four health. (This is so they can't just be obnoxious and pester other players with one card attacks. They actually have to fight.)

One game ending condition is that two players die. The first becomes the Ghost, the second ends the game. What if the Ghost dies as the second player to lose all their health? Is that the game end? Frankly, I have no desire to conclude one way or another. It should be totally up to the players if they consider that the end or not. Maybe that player was stupidly aggressive and the other players are happy to finish without them. Maybe sinking the Ghost was a momentous occasion and it feels right to end on that note. It's never happened in all my games, but if Scoundrels gets released, the Ghost will die in a round somewhere and I'm expected to have an answer. But I don't. In a video game I would have to have an answer. In a tabletop game, I can remain ambiguous and wait for the emails and forum posts.

 

Randy is finishing up Scoundrels, an Ameritrash game about being pirates and shooting and pillaging and boarding and just being as Infamous as possible. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

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engelstein's Avatar
engelstein replied the topic: #198109 22 Feb 2015 16:03
I think your message is off the mark, and a bit of a circular argument. While I agree that randomness in a game is not inherently 'right' or 'wrong', it can be a right or wrong choice in the context of what you, as the designer, are trying to achieve.

Every choice that a designer makes helps create the experience that the players have. And sometimes you see games that are trying to create experience X, but due to design decisions, they undercut what they've done, and push things in discordant directions.

If you write a piece of music there are no right or wrong notes per se - any note can go anywhere, and a musician can play it. But unless you're trying to create some post-modern discordant piece, the notes must be selected to support the melody, harmony, rhythm, phrasing, and other elements that go into music.

Similarly the game designer must select the appropriate tools and techniques and make sure they work together harmoniously.

Your statement that you don't want to decide what happens if the Ghost player is eliminated again is, to be blunt, lazy design. Leaving in known gaps in the rules and letting the players decide is abdicating your responsibility as the designer. Players correctly presume that the game rules are a closed system and that anything that is not clear is an error by the designer.

At the very least you should include both rules as options, and explain which groups might want to use each. But you should come down on one as being 'standard'.
randyo's Avatar
randyo replied the topic: #198122 22 Feb 2015 20:02
Thanks for the response! My viewpoint may be quite naive! But I've been enjoying the thought exercises about how differently I consider game design for every medium. I think entirely differently when making a PC/Steam game versus an iPhone game. And consequently I've been enjoying the social design that I think is more essential to the tabletop experience. With that in mind...

I agree that different rules and decisions affect the experience that I'm creating. The thing that's fascinating to me as a video game designer, is how easily I can push and pull the game back and forth into "casual" or "hardcore" territory. There have been a ton of ideas from players that would've pushed the game in either direction. I am most interested in stuff right in the middle, I love games and books and movies that are neither the easiest to consume nor the hardest. I like the balancing act of mid-core, or whatever you wanna call it.

Yes, I say "no" to most suggestions. You're correct that I want a certain thing for my players. But I guess it's just interesting how many suggestions are not "wrong" to me, they just aren't MY game. There have been tons of great ideas, but they didn't push the game into my opinion of the ideal experience. Certainly, there are wrong suggestions, but there are also a lot of right ones. There are so many possible harmonies or discordancies all so close to each other, so many able to resonate with one of us or another.

Players correctly presume that the game rules are a closed system and that anything that is not clear is an error by the designer.


I disagree. To say game rules are "correctly" a closed system is to argue for " The Magic Circle ". I am excited by tabletops exactly because the Magic Circle feels acceptably more porous than video games, providing more opportunity for player agency over the experience.

No one has died as the ghost ship yet in playtests. I don't want to decide that moment because I, as a player haven't experienced or seen it. If I never see it unless I force it to happen, why is my rule any better than the player's idea of what should happen?

Reasons to end the game if the ghost dies:
-It ends more quickly.
-The player isn't forced to watch a game where they have nothing left to do.

Reasons to let the ghost die and the game continue:
-The ghost/player is being punished for being foolhardy and overly aggressive such that they would die once, and then die again as the ghost.
-The story may not have played out enough for all the other players.

Because Scoundrels does not otherwise rely on discussion, you could call it a flaw that I'd be willing to leave this up to debate. But if I make a choice some day, it would be mostly arbitrary, and is that any better? I don't believe one answer above is "better" than the other. I imagine most players will want to call the game over, it might feel momentous that the ghost has been sunk. But they might say, oh man, the ghost was sunk, we're free to pillage without ghostly threats! Or maybe they'll give the ghost yet another 4 health and reset her score again!

Or maybe if the ghost dies, the person who sinks the ghost gets all the ghost's Infamy! It could completely unbalance the game, but it might be exciting? And maybe that third solution is better than either of the previous. I'll have to think about this. But that would add a new rule, make the game more complicated, pulling it from the cohesion of the smaller set of rules and require one more thing in the rulebook.

There's always plenty to think about, and you've given me yet another possible solution to this rare scenario. Ah, musings.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #198123 22 Feb 2015 20:22

randyo wrote: No one has died as the ghost ship yet in playtests. I don't want to decide that moment because I, as a player haven't experienced or seen it. If I never see it unless I force it to happen, why is my rule any better than the player's idea of what should happen?


Because a player won't understand the game, your goals, or the expectations of the mechanisms. Asking players to adjudicate something on the spot that they don't have any frame of reference or understanding of is precarious at best.

When people are playing your game, they don't want to run into an unknown and hope for the best. They want to trust that you're guiding them in the right direction and leading them to the best experience possible.

What if players make an uninformed decision and the end result really rubs the table the wrong way? What if people at the table disagree how it should be ruled? If I'm part of a play that devolves and takes the game entirely off course I'm not likely to try your game again. I'd be taking a chance with my precious free time when I could play Merchants and Marauders which will deliver 100% of the time.
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #198127 22 Feb 2015 22:23
This reminds me when I was playing Open version of beloved games, such as Open Civ, Open TTD, etc...

They allow players to tweak their own experiences. Great for those who follow the development. Not so for me. I expect the designer to know what's best. Else I'm doing their job.
randyo's Avatar
randyo replied the topic: #198128 22 Feb 2015 22:35
That's fair!

There are design decisions I care deeply about. But there are also moments in any game that one answer is not better than another to me, just different. I can write out "A ghost is a 'new' player, and if they die, the game is over." I'd feel totally comfortable with that as the rule. But I find it refreshing that a tabletop game provides more player empowerment than the video games I usually make. It's as possible for players to keep the game going for the fun of it, or award the ghost killer the win. That player empowerment is cool to me, that contextual decision-making.

It may present itself as if I haven't thought about all of these weird outlier combinations that occur inside my game, and that's why I don't have a right or wrong, but it's more that either answer plays out as valid within my design goals. But I do appreciate hearing how y'all feel about this issue. It's useful.

I'm not arrogant enough to compare my game to Merchants and Marauders, or that Scoundrels satisfies people 100% of the time. But people have enjoyed my game. And it's cool that people can explore their own possibility space. I'd love to explore this concept in the future.
mutagen's Avatar
mutagen replied the topic: #198130 23 Feb 2015 00:22

But if I make a choice some day, it would be mostly arbitrary, and is that any better?


Yes, absolutely. Professionals do this all the time. If I hire somebody to paint my house, and he asks whether he should paint up and down or right to left, I will fire him on the spot. Not because it matters, but because it leaves me with a bad feeling about his competence. I hired him not only to do the job, but to make all the choices, arbitrary or not. Board games are no different. I bought a produce from you, that makes you a professional. Please don't make me decide how your game works. I don't feel I am qualified, and I don't really want to be bothered.

If some decisions truly don't matter, variants are your friend. Put them in the back of the rules manual. I will read them.
randyo's Avatar
randyo replied the topic: #198131 23 Feb 2015 01:08
Wow, glad to hear all this! Though I continue to feel that player agency in regards to systems-control is a very interesting design space (and an interesting topic I'd be willing to debate), the singular response to this is clear here. I will make sure to have a back-page or something to clarify a response to rare events and match-ups.
Colorcrayons's Avatar
Colorcrayons replied the topic: #198132 23 Feb 2015 02:17

mutagen wrote:

But if I make a choice some day, it would be mostly arbitrary, and is that any better?


Yes, absolutely. Professionals do this all the time. If I hire somebody to paint my house, and he asks whether he should paint up and down or right to left, I will fire him on the spot. Not because it matters, but because it leaves me with a bad feeling about his competence. I hired him not only to do the job, but to make all the choices, arbitrary or not. Board games are no different. I bought a produce from you, that makes you a professional. Please don't make me decide how your game works. I don't feel I am qualified, and I don't really want to be bothered.

If some decisions truly don't matter, variants are your friend. Put them in the back of the rules manual. I will read them.


And this is why defending game design with the argument that its a "sandbox game" is relevant only to those needing to rationalize a poor consumer choice they have made in purchasing a board game they feel is lacking, or those who enjoy fiddling around with game design themselves. Or likely both, since they have to do something to eek value from that turd.

Nothing wrong with sandbox games. I buy many games for that very purpose. But only because I know before hand that the design out of the box doesn't deliver what I'm looking foor and I find the components intriguing enough to throw them into something I think is better. I hate D&D adventure system with my very core, but it has components I can use for other games and am willing to do the extra work to put lipstick on that pig. But this type of gamer is rare in my experience outside of internet land.

Consumers expect a basically finished product. They are buying your creativity made real and tangible.
Everyone has an idea. They purchase yours because they want to explore it.
ThirstyMan's Avatar
ThirstyMan replied the topic: #198134 23 Feb 2015 05:11
Absolutely would not purchase a boardgame where I have to decide whether it's a win condition or not.

If I want to do that I'll play D&D. I agree, it should be locked down or people just will not buy it.

I have better things to spend my time on than a half baked game. We have Kickstarter for that.
JEM's Avatar
JEM replied the topic: #198141 23 Feb 2015 07:50
Most tabletop miniature wargames allow for varying game end & victory conditions, by way of scenarios. The core rules determine what happens when players' forces come into contact with each other, but victory points/mission objectives are an adjunct to the core rules. Another fairly free-form game, The Quiet Year, uses a deck of cards to seed the flow of the players' experience and also bring the game to a definitive conclusion. Neither of these preclude the players from making their own scenarios or end-game triggers, but also, what neither do, is tell the players "Just figure it out for yourselves."

Everything I'm reading here suggests to me that you didn't get the feedback you'd hoped for, and you're mostly talking past and dismissing the criticisms you received about your design choices. That's your prerogative, I guess.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #198142 23 Feb 2015 08:01
"an Ameritrash game about being pirates and shooting and pillaging and boarding and just being as Infamous as possible"

If this is the feeling you're going for, ties that do nothing to either side work against it. Lollygagging around until I know for sure I can beat another dude isn't Ameritrash, shooting, or pillaging, and winning a battle you knew from the start you'd win doesn't make you infamous. Ties going to the attacker encourages attacking. Ties doing nothing means there is little point in attacking other than giving my intentions away. If A attacks B and ties, more than nothing happens. Unless A can do something else and attack again right away, when it's B's turn he's either going to get that one little tick of power and then attack A, knowing he'll win (which, if A is smart, dissuades him from attacking in the first place and giving himself away as a target) or B will leave, in which case your game of attacking and pillaging is a game of chasing. This is especially the case if there's no random element in the combat. Then it's just a numbers game, and your thrilling Ameritrash game will be people doing math and not acting until the numbers work for them.

To reiterate what was said above, I can name many games that were clearly going for one thing, but their mechanics work against it. The Battle at Kemble's Crusade thinks it's a white-knuckle shmup simulation but it's a tedious points-maximizing exercise because nearly all of its elements work against its theme. Fantasy Flight's first attempt at DungeonQuest slowed down a ridiculously brutal push your luck game with a weird mechanical card combat system. I recently played a Eurogame called Uruk II that hates its own rules . Maybe that's the game the designer wants, in which case he can sit back an bask in the knowledge that it's truly his game, but it's not fun to play.

And I also agree with the others in that I do not want any part in the rules to essentially say, "Make up your own decision on what happens in this case!" If it happens by accident, fine, but those "emails and forum posts" are seldom phrased as thanks for allowing this bit of flexibility in the rules.

As I told someone in a creative writing class years ago, if you're just singing in the shower for your own amusement, you don't need to take voice lessons. But if you plan to sell the results or even just ask other people to listen, you need to make sure you're on key.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #198150 23 Feb 2015 09:39
Yeah, I'd argue that ties (and maybe even losses) should escalate. Look at the card play in Maria if you want to see stupid warfare in action. Three players on the board, you get the opportunity to escalate battles with one opponent. Each of you do so in full knowledge that the third guy at the table is patiently waiting and watching what cards you're burning so that he can capitalize on your weakness next turn. The result is that you're in a battle you don't want to lose, but weakening yourself if you continue to fight. This puts a solid dose of reality into your decisions, where bouncing off with a tie gives you an "out".

This is a good reflection of reality in a game where ships and men (and frankly guns, something not covered much in seafaring games in spite of the reality) are at a premium and are difficult to replace in a hurry. Maria makes it work beautifully, I'm surprised more games haven't followed its lead.

S.
randyo's Avatar
randyo replied the topic: #198167 23 Feb 2015 12:15
Thanks for all the responses!

Throughout development of the game, there have been a lot of moments where something happens, and I have to make a ruling on which way the game should play. And then, depending on what I'm thinking and intending, I make a decision. Often it feels wrong, and later I tweak the rule another way. For instance, burying treasure has gone through several basic mechanical systems, and I'm happy with how it's settled out now in the last 4-6 months. Really happy.

Everything I'm reading here suggests to me that you didn't get the feedback you'd hoped for, and you're mostly talking past and dismissing the criticisms you received about your design choices. That's your prerogative, I guess.


I really, really hope that's not how it is coming off. Clearly I'm poor at expressing my intent, and that stinks. :/ The stuff I'm talking about here are situations where I don't have feedback from Scoundrels players. Situations that arise rarely enough in the game that some have yet to occur. Or some situations where players are split. This thread is useful because it is giving me feedback on how y'all feel about those moments. Everyone here wants those edge cases to be accounted for, and I'll do that. I have only a small number of things that have yet to be written down completely, and it's clear from this thread that everything be accounted for.

It's also clear that people see the use of house rules revealing a flaw in a game. That the players have to change the game for their enjoyment is a fault of the design. I'm also mostly in agreement myself, but not 100%, and this blog was intended as theoretical discussion on that design space.

@Sagrilarus: Cool, I need to check Maria out. That sounds somewhat similar to Scoundrels, in that during Scoundrels combat, you have to decide after every "volley" whether or not to continue and try to win, or whether you'd like to keep the remaining cards, knowing you may have to deal with future attacks. Thanks for the comments!

-
I'm going to put a rain check on more commenting on this, because I'm clearly doing a poor job at communication. I'm definitely appreciative of the feedback, though.
JEM's Avatar
JEM replied the topic: #198173 23 Feb 2015 13:24
A lot of people have problems with house rules, (try posting on BGG to find just how many). I don't mind house-ruling a game to suit myself or my group, though. The point is that you should at least put in the effort to build a game that "works" as is. Players are free to make their own variants, and you may even include "official" variants in the rules. But leaving a blank page where the rules should be isn't design; it's the absence of it.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #198179 23 Feb 2015 14:53
if a board game, video game, rpg, film or book has an intended audience and an intended message or intended experience then there are right or wrong decisions. If it is experiential individualist art where the outcome of play is completely open then there are no right or wrong decisions. If you judge a video game just on the basis of whether it works or not at a technical level, this is to suggest that there is no intended audience or experience and that the game design decisions do not matter beyond whether it functionally works.