Author Archives: Doug Orleans
Jon Blow, author of the hit indie videogame Braid, gave a talk about game design in January 2010. The talk is short, about 20 minutes, but the Q&A that followed was about an hour, and I found it to be even more interesting than the talk. In particular, he answered a question about the stars in Braid, which is a part of the game that he is usually silent about. So I thought it was worth excerpting the question and his answer (about 9 minutes total). But, if you have time to listen to the full talk and Q&A, it's got other interesting stuff too. (He initially blows off the question and takes another question, which I edited out; that question, by the way, was about Wulfram, a team-based first-person tank shooter game with some pretty cool strategic elements that he co-wrote in the mid-90s.)
Last week, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about indie videogames, featuring Jason Rohrer (Passage), Jenova Chen (Flower), and Jon Blow (Braid). Here are some of my favorite quotes:
- "Ebert said video games can't be art," Rohrer said. "He issued all of us a direct challenge. And we need to find an answer."
- "Other media are capable of masterpiece-level works of art," Rohrer said. Behind him, a slide showed Picasso's "Guernica," a poster for the movie "Blue Velvet" and the cover of "Lolita." "The question we have to ask is: How can we follow in their footsteps?"
- "I like technology," Chen says, "but the blockbuster games use it for the same thing over and over again. What we tried to innovate was the emotional content." Flower has an environmental message, about the fragility of life, but more important is the primal experience of playing. You can experience it like a film, passing through a whole range of emotions from beginning to end. "Flower," Chen says, "is about the sublime." It is a game to be played in one sitting, he said, and preferably "alongside your lover."
- "People are starting to realize that games can't survive on narrative and character," Rohrer says. "It's not what video games are meant to do. It doesn't explore what makes them unique. If they are going to transcend and have real meaning, it has to emerge from game mechanics. Play is what games offer."
- "Braid is something you could show to Roger Ebert and say, 'Here is a work of authorial intention,' " Rohrer says. "It captures something about the modern zeitgeist."
Speaking of Braid, Blow pointed out on his blog a video walkthrough of a game suspiciously like Braid, Time Travel Understander. The Game Helpin' Squad also made video tutorials for two other games, the MMORPG World Quester 2 and the sports game Severe Running. All three are very helpful, with excellent attention to detail. You might need to watch them multiple times to get it all!
This seems like a good place to spread the word:
The How They Got Game Project at Stanford University is currently seeking papers that explore the connections between mapping, cartographic practices, electronic gaming, and virtual worlds for an illustrated book that will be published in 2010.If you have an idea (or maybe just a collection of your old hand-drawn game maps?) send them a one or two page proposal by April 25th. Read the full CFP for more details.
My old friend and college roommate, Jon Blow, has been working on a video game called Braid for the last 3 or 4 years (with the help of artist David Hellman), and this Wednesday, August 6, it's finally being released for Xbox Live Arcade. It's superficially a side-scrolling platform game a la Super Mario Bros., but the central mechanism of having infinite rewind, even after dying, turns it into a thoughful puzzle game. And the art is beautiful.
It's more than just brain and eye candy, though. To quote the game's home page, "Braid treats your time and attention as precious. Braid does everything it can to give a mind-expanding experience." Jon is a deep thinker about the role of video games in society; for a brief taste of some of his ideas, check out his Short Essay About Serious Games. He has also given a number of lectures about game development, which are available as either video or powerpoint-plus-audio in the Appearances category of the Braid blog. These talks range from advice about making game prototypes to philosophical discussions of how the design of World of Warcraft is unethical. All of his lectures are worth checking out; some of the same slides appear in two or three different lectures (and I think he manages to mention The Marriage in every single lecture), but the lectures come at their topics from distinct angles and are full of thought-provoking (and sometimes incendiary) statements. Several of them also include Braid previews, if you want to see the game in action or get a glimpse at the history of its development.
Although the Gameshelf television show covers tabletop games and computer games in about a 2:1 ratio, this weblog has been skewing towards the latter for a while now. In the interest of balance, I am posting a session report I wrote up for a game party way back on March 15. I only ever posted it to a private mailing list, but I think maybe it would be appreciated by a wider audience. I hope you enjoy it. (I hardly ever write session reports, so I don't have anything more recent. But it's not like there's anything out of date. I still haven't played Container again.)
Jeff M. requested that I post a session report for Saturday's Ides of March game party at my place, so here goes.
Attendees: Stephen M., Karl v.L., Jeff M., and Greg L., plus Chris L. showed up for about 3 minutes before leaving to get food and never coming back. I guess something spooked him, or else he was waylaid by knife-wielding senators before he could return.
Games played: Fairy Tale, Pickomino, Marco Polo Expedition, Zark City, Tongiaki, Wits & Wagers, Saboteur, Tashkent Domino, Container, Carcassonne: the Castle.
Food consumed: pretzels filled with peanut butter, pretzels filled with honey mustard (both of these were brought separately with no apparent pre-arrangement), kung pao chicken, "champagne" duck, Singapore-style rice noodles, and Jeff was brave enough to try my homemade sausage-and-turkey chili.
Fairy Tale: Stephen, Karl, and Jeff showed up in quick succession soon after 2pm, and we jumped into this short Japanese card game of simultaneous drafting. Usually in this game, especially with four players, everyone ends up concentrating on one of the four clans, but this game we all ended up with multi-clan tableaus. We also had very few flipped cards, and no one really went for the big asterisk-card collections. Consequently the scores ended up pretty close; Stephen eked out the victory with 54 points, Karl had 50, I had 49, and Jeff (the only one who hadn't played before) had 36-- and if I hadn't purposely held onto a card that he wanted, he'd have gotten another 12 points (face value 3 plus 9 conditional points from the matching story card).
Pickomino: Greg showed up as we were starting the final round of Fairy Tale, so I was glad we had begun with a short game. We settled on another short game, this time a push-your-luck Knizia dice game. We had what seemed like an unusual number of bust-out turns-- Stephen never once took a tile, and I only took a tile on my last turn. I don't think we were being particularly risky, either; many times we had no real decisions, e.g. the current total was too low to take a tile and there was only one legal number to keep from the current roll. Maybe we had made bad decisions on earlier rolls, or maybe we just had bad luck, I dunno. Greg seemed to be in the lead for most of the game, but Karl ended up winning with 6 worms; Greg had 5, Jeff had 3, I had 2, and Stephen had 0.
Marco Polo Expedition: Jeff pulled this game from my shelf while looking for 5-player games. This is one of those games that I always enjoy but I can never seem to win. It's a somewhat light but solid set-collection/racing game, one of Knizia's underrated titles. Like most racing games, it's usually better to be following than leading, but you don't want to fall too far behind the pack. I can never seem to remember this, though, and twice in this game I jumped out to a lead but then got overtaken by the rest of the pack before I could collect enough cards to advance again. Still, I managed to get to the 6-point location near the end before the game ended, which was enough to put me in a tie for second. Jeff won with 12, Greg and I had 11, and Stephen and Karl both had 9.
Zark City: Karl suggested this one, a new Andy Looney game that was recently posted online. It's a streamlined version of Zarcana/Gnostica, played with Icehouse pyramids and a deck of cards (preferably Lost Cities cards, which is what we used). Like its big brothers, it's an abstract wargame of territorial control, but in this version your choices on each turn are severely restricted so the turns move very quickly: either add a pyramid to the board, add a card to the board, move a pyramid, attack a pyramid using cards from your hand, grow a pyramid (for defense), or draw three cards. The goal is to have your pyramids control a set of three connected cards that form a suited run or a three-of-a-kind. After a lot of back-and-forth maneuvering, I made a boneheaded move that I thought was blocking Jeff from winning, but then he simply attacked my pyramid and converted it to his color for the win. I do think that this game is deeper than it first appears, but really I was just careless.
Tongiaki: I was out of the room when this game was selected, but it's another game that I think is underrated so I was happy to see it hit the table. This game of South Pacific exploration can be a bit chaotic with 5 players, but sometimes you can make a clever series of moves that substantially improves your position, and if you're careful you can avoid having your efforts easily undone. I took the opportunity to end the game while I had presence on a nice big spread of islands for 24 points, thinking that Stephen was my main competition with 23, but it turned out that Karl had 25 points which gave him the win. Greg and Jeff both had 16.
Wits & Wagers: At this point, Greg said that he had to leave in about an hour, so I suggested this game from his bag. I'm not a big fan of trivia games, but I enjoy this one because it's more about estimation than knowing precise facts. It also doesn't outstay its welcome: a whole game consists of just 7 questions. I stayed the chip leader for most of the game by winning a few 3-1 payouts, but Greg won big on the final no-limit bet when he was the only one to pick the right range for the percentage of US Presidents who had been elected to two or more terms. Final balances were $125 for Greg, $70 for me, $10 for Stephen, $5 for Karl, and $0 for Jeff.
Saboteur: Greg had time for one more, so we played this hidden-roles game of dwarves mining for gold. I was a saboteur in all three rounds, and twice I was the lone saboteur, which seems nearly impossible to pull off in a five-player game. When Jeff was the second saboteur we managed to win, but that just meant Jeff was on the winning side in all three rounds, which gave him the game with 6 gold total. Greg had 5, Stephen had 4, and Karl and I both had 3.
Tashkent Domino: After Greg left, we ordered some Chinese food from Wu Loon Ming, but it turned out that they didn't deliver, so Jeff and I went to pick it up while Karl and Stephen stayed behind and played this little-known pocket-sized game by Kris "Gipf" Burm involving special dice with domino-style faces. In each round, the players start by rolling all the dice, then taking turns placing them onto the board, matching domino edges and trying to have the fewest pips unplaced by the end. I think they didn't finish the full game (best of three sets of best of seven rounds), but it sounded like Karl had a pretty big lead by the time we returned with food.
Container: After our dinner break, the remaining four settled down for the only really meaty game of the day. Container, a posthumously published game by Franz Benno "Transamerica" Delonge, is a pretty pure business game: factories produce raw materials that are turned into finished products that are sold wholesale, shipped to distributors, and finally sold at retail. One of several twists is that you can't use your own materials to make products, you have to buy them from someone else; similarly, you can't sell your own products at retail, you have to pick them up from other players' wholesale warehouses with your container ship and deliver them to the center island where they are auctioned off in a lot, where you can in theory buy your own products but in effect you'd have to pay 3x the cost due to a matching government subsidy for selling to other players. Another twist is that each player has his own hidden chart of prices that the products will be sold for at retail at game end, so you're never really sure who's willing to pay how much in the distributor auction. And, strangest of all, you have to discard the product you have the most of at the end, so you often want to buy products that aren't worth much to you at retail to protect the products that are. All of this is complicated by the inefficient markets: you can only set or adjust your selling price when you produce materials or make products, and the distributor auction is blind. This seems to have the effect of driving down prices of materials and wholesale product-- you can't respond quickly enough when a competitor undercuts your price, so you have to preemptively set a low price-- and driving up the prices at the distributor auction, since the buyers have to guess how their competitors value the lots and can't just bid to maximize profit. I was just starting to figure this out near the end of the game, when I switched from trying to sell scarce materials and products at high prices to making all my money at the distributor auctions, but by then it was too late because Stephen had amassed a big inventory of products to sell at retail. His final bankroll was $117, mine was $70, and Jeff and Karl were in a virtual tie at $46 and $45, respectively. I started out not liking the game because it seemed like the value of everything was purely relative so it was impossible to figure out how to set prices or choose actions, but once I started to see how the (very long!) supply chains were playing out, I was getting more into it. I still think it might be a little too artificially convoluted for its own good-- the inefficient markets in particular are frustrating-- but I'd like to try it again now that I have a better feeling for how the economy works.
Carcassonne: The Castle: We finished up Container by about 10:30pm, which was late enough to send Stephen and Karl home, but Jeff stayed behind for one more game. I'm a huge Carcassonne fan, and for two players this Knizia variant is my favorite. Jeff jumped to a big lead on the scoreboard by taking lots of quick 2-3 point scoring opportunities, which let him scoop up all of the bonus chits, but once I managed to cash in the big regions I had been working on I started to catch up. I managed to merge into one of his large tower regions to neutralize its value, and the early investments I made in some market-rich courtyards ended up giving me my first and only win of the day, 76-68.
With that, we called it a night. Thanks to those who showed up, and thanks to you for reading this far!
Hello Gameshelf viewers! I'm Doug Orleans, Friend of the Show. I have not actually appeared in any episodes, but my copy of Acquire was in Episode #6. I was also mentioned by name because a game I designed, Pylon, was the winner of the Summer 2007 Icehouse Game Design Competition. The IGDC is the topic of this, my first post to the Gameshelf weblog.
The Icehouse Game Design Competition was started by the Icehouse mailing list community in 2004 as a way to encourage people to design (and play, and give feedback on) new games using Icehouse pyramids. It was inspired by similar game design competitions run by the Piecepack and Interactive Fiction communities, which had been pretty successful in generating and maintaining interest in creating new games. I don't remember who actually suggested the IGDC first (the mailing list was not archived back then) but the Gameshelf weblog's own Andrew "Zarf" Plotkin got the ball rolling by serving as the first competition administrator. Zarf ran the first four competitions; in 2005, the fifth competition was run by Jonathan Leistiko, but it was abandoned and the votes were never released.
After a couple years of apparent non-interest, the IGDC was revived in 2007 by David Artman, who ran the sixth and seventh competitions. The eighth competition was recently announced by the new administrator, Dale Sheldon; game submissions will be accepted until June 20th, 2008, which will be followed by a one-month open judging process in which anyone can vote on the games by ranking them all from best to worst. If you want to try your hand at designing an Icehouse game for the competition, create a page for the game rules on the Icehouse Games Wiki and send mail to IGDC.Coordinator@gmail.com. (But first you should read the full competition rules.)
One of the main goals of the competition was to encourage people to give feedback to game designers about their games. To that end, I am going to post my thoughts here about the games in the Winter 2008 competition. I did manage to play all 8 games, but most of them only once, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. I'll discuss them in the same order I ranked them on my ballot, from best to worst, along with my ratings on the Boardgamegeek.com 10-point scale (10 being "outstanding", 1 being "clearly broken").
Virus Fight - 8. The old programming game Core War involves writing computer programs that run in a shared memory space and attack each other by overwriting each other's code. Translating this idea to a turn-based strategy board game turns out to work surprisingly well! Each pyramid represents an instruction based on its color: yellow is "move", green is "write", blue is "jump", and red is "erase". Each player has a program counter, a small pyramid that moves around the board executing instructions one at a time. Unlike Core War, which is completely deterministic after the initial selection of programs, in Virus Fight the players have choices of how to execute the current instruction; for example, a "write" instruction lets the current player place any spare instruction onto any empty square. A player can also choose where to move his program counter after executing an instruction, using the two-dimensional nature of the board instead of the linear memory model of Core War. Despite these differences, much of the spirit of Core War is still here: players' programs start out in separate regions of the board, but can move and expand and merge with each other, allowing players to invade each other by moving their program counters into each other's programs, and the "erase" instruction allows players to remove certain instructions from the board, reducing the other players' options. The goal is to force all your opponents' programs to die by having nowhere to move their program counters.
Aside from the initial simultaneous selection of programs, there is no element of chance in Virus Fight, and when played as a two-player game (which I think is the best way to play, in order to avoid the negotiation and king-making that can occur in multi-player games with no chance) this is a pure abstract strategy game akin to chess or go. I can appreciate most pure strategy games for their elegant mechanics, but in general I don't actually enjoy playing them—I don't have the patience to mentally search the game tree looking for the optimal move. For some reason, though, I really enjoy playing Virus Fight. Maybe it's because it's quite difficult to look more than a couple moves ahead, due to the way the turn order can change based on the relative sizes of the pyramids currently under the program counters, so you have to just play by intuition most of the time. Or maybe it's just that, as a programmer by vocation and avocation, the theme is a natural fit for me. In any case, the game works well, both as a well-balanced strategy game and in capturing the essence of Core War, and for me it was clearly the best game of the competition. Sadly, it did not fare well in the voting, perhaps due to its somewhat intimidatingly complex rules (which are nonetheless quite elegant, in my opinion). But if you like pure abstract strategy games, or programming, give it a try.
WreckTangle - 5. It's very difficult to design a simple abstract board game that has an element of chance without the chance element overwhelming the strategy. Backgammon is the canonical example of this kind of game, and I think it succeeds in part because the chance element only serves to randomly restrict your options at the beginning of your turn rather than to randomly determine if you succeed or fail after performing some game action (like in most wargames). (This distinction is sometimes referred to as "situational luck" vs. "resolution luck"; I can't find a citation for who came up with these terms, but I think I first saw them in The Games Journal.) WreckTangle uses the same idea: on your turn, roll the die (a Treehouse die), then make two moves, one of which is partially determined by the die roll; for example, "dig" lets you move a pyramid, either yours or an opponent's, one space diagonally away from its home row, and this can be done either before or after you move one of your own pyramids. This system works out pretty well: you still have a wealth of options on your turn, but sometimes you have to play the odds and hope that the next player's roll doesn't let him ruin you. This sort of blurs the distinction between the two kinds of luck, however, since these situations can feel more like you're randomly succeeding or failing, especially because, unlike in backgammon, your captured pieces are permanently removed from the game. And a single capturing move (by forming a rectangle—of any size—with four of your pyramids) can capture multiple pyramids, so this can be pretty drastic. Still, I liked the basic idea of WreckTangle, and maybe with some sort of tweak to reduce the potential for drastic swings of fate this could become a solid game.
Hunt - 5. Hunt involves moving a stack of pyramids around a maze of dangerous obstacles, trying to stay alive while positioning the obstacles to kill your opponents' stacks. This game is in the same general class as Wrecktangle, and most of what I wrote about that game applies to Hunt as well—Hunt has slightly less chance of a drastic swing of fate, because sometimes the damage to your stack can be healed, but it also has slightly more of the feel of resolution luck: sometimes your die roll dictates that your stack immediately take damage because you can't make the required move. Fortunately, your stack is immune to damage caused by obstacle pyramids of the same color as the top pyramid in your stack; each time do you take damage, though, you remove the top pyramid of your stack, which means you become immune to a different set of obstacles. There are also ways in which the order of the pyramids in your stack can change, which also changes your immunity. This is a clever mechanism, leading to some tactical positioning options, but you still don't have quite enough control over the element of chance to implement any kind of long-term (or even medium-term) strategy. The rules also seem to be a bit more convoluted than they need to be, which is why I decided to rank this slightly lower than WreckTangle.
Martian 12s - 5. A push-your-luck gambling game, like Blackjack with a few twists: there are essentially three different "decks", and you can choose which one to draw from; also, "card"-counting is not discouraged! This game is simple and to the point, and it works perfectly well for what it is, but it just doesn't excite me at all. I'm not a big fan of push-your-luck games, but that isn't really my problem with Martian 12s; it seems like there isn't much else going on besides calculating the odds and deciding the appropriate level of risk to take. This turned out to be the winner of the competition, which I'm okay with—I would have preferred Virus Fight, but Martian 12s is a solid game that works as intended, and that's really the main goal of game design, isn't it?
Timelock - 3. Here we start getting into the games that had serious problems. Timelock is structurally quite similar to backgammon: your dice roll determines how far you can move your pieces towards the goal, and you can sometimes interfere with your opponent's progress. The problem is granularity: in backgammon, rolling high numbers is generally better, since you can make further progress towards your goal, but sometimes you want a specific smaller number so that you can land on a particular spot; in Timelock, however, rolling higher numers is always better, and for the most part it's simply a matter of who rolls the highest total over the course of the game. There are some slightly non-linear decisions about whether to make progress towards your goal or to block (or undo) your opponent's progress, and some Treehouse die results are better in some situations than others. But most of these decisions are obvious, and there's really not enough of this non-linearity to matter, so it pretty much boils down to a dice-rolling contest.
Timberland - 3. This hybrid of Treehouse and Volcano seemed like it had promise, but turns out to be overwhelmingly random—even moreso than Treehouse, which aims to be the Fluxx of Icehouse games. Volcano is a Nim-style game, where all the pieces on the board are shared between the players and you're trying to arrange for the best captures to be available on your turn. But when you add the randomness of rolling two Treehouse dice on each turn, it's pretty much impossible to arrange a configuration that will have any chance of surviving until your turn, even in a 2-player game; it's difficult just to minimize the next player's chances of making a capture on his turn, even if your options weren't restricted by what you rolled. In theory, I like the idea of adding an element of chance to Volcano, but this isn't the way to do it.
Chicken Run - 2. This game is similar to Timelock (and backgammon), but it has the same problem: higher rolls are always better. In fact, you only get to move at all if you roll higher than your opponent, which makes it boil down to a series of dice-offs, rather like War. The only interaction comes from moving neutral pyramids to block your opponent or unblock yourself, but they can only be moved if both players roll the same number, which only happens one sixth of the time on average. This means they play a very small part in the game, and in fact the first time I played I think we only got matching rolls once before the game was over. I won't go so far as to say this game is broken, but it would need some significant changes before it would really work.
Martian Gunslinger - 2. There are some interesting ideas in here, sort of a resource management/exploration/dueling card game with an intricate Western theme (...on Mars). The problem, once again, is the overwhelming amount of luck, especially resolution luck: when you "attempt a plotpoint", you draw two cards, and you succeed only if the first is higher than the second. Also, it feels like an afterthought that this game involves Icehouse pyramids at all: one part of the rules suggests using them to keep score, encoding numbers based on stacking configurations, while another part talks about using dice to keep score. (There are pyramids on the board as well, but these could just as easily be pawns, or painted miniatures.) The rules are also ridiculously complicated, with each playing card representing a different action, resource, and event, based on three lookup tables filled with text descriptions of what they do. Even if this were a custom deck of cards, there probably wouldn't be room on most of the cards for the explanatory text! There might be the germs of a decent game buried in here, but it's probably not an Icehouse game.