Initiative-Based Battle Test

When I played Final Fantasy X years ago, I was taken with its focus on manipulating the turn order during battles. Jockeying to get more turns, and delay the opponent’s, was a great mini-game. Every little victory felt enormous, and was rewarded with the coolest thing possible–more play. Setbacks were punished with similar vigor. The system wasn’t subtle, but the enormous stakes certainly made it engaging!

I’ve long thought that there’s an entire game in that system, just waiting for its time to shine. This prototype (Mac build) is a quick-and-dirty exploration of the concept. There’s a broken strategy right now; can you find it?


25th Hour Projects: The Game of Waltzing

Games about movement are everywhere: most wargames, vehicle racing games, arguably even games like Pandemic. Their success makes it all the more surprising that we haven’t made more games about other kinds of movement. For example, wouldn’t a game about waltzing be neat?

Think about it. You have to act in coordination with your partner, but you’re not allowed to talk (we’re in a competition, after all!). Right there, the theme provides a strong justification for a co-op without the risk of a dominant player.

Furthermore, the actions being taken are tense moment-to-moment. Each step has to be perfect, or disaster could strike. As in Pandemic, no one can afford a wasted move.

Dance is a universal human activity, yet–like so many universal human activities–games have yet to explore it in any serious way. I hope we see that rectified soon. Maybe I’ve even got an iron in the fire along these lines . . . .



One of my classes this semester involves using new programming concepts each week. The current assignment involves using file I/O to create simple objects and spaces.

I’m sure it says something about me that I couldn’t help but try building a giant fighting robot.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 11.25.44 PM

25th Hour Projects: The Dead Man’s Hand

No one likes a cheat. That’s good; you don’t want them to like you.

It would be easy enough to win this game. An ace in the hand, an ace in the river, and an ace up your sleeve pretty much guarantee that you can take the pot. With four raises behind you and more ahead, it would be quite a haul.

The money, though, isn’t what you’re looking for. No, you need to show them that you can fool them. That you have been fooling them, all along. You need to win and win, so that they know you must be cheating, and then you need to let them see how, so that they see without a shadow of a doubt that you did cheat them, and that they couldn’t catch you until you let them.

Of course, that final reveal has to be perfect in every respect. It must reveal the trick while also proving that you’re in total control of the situation. That they’re only realizing what happened because you wanted them to.

They won’t be happy. It’ll still be worth it.

Theory: Non-Simulative Minis Game Rules

Occasionally I return to the idea of a story-driven, Dynasty Warriors-inspired minis game. Here’s an interesting way to think about the goal of that design:

RPGs fall, roughly, into two categories. In some, the rules are a simulation of the physics of the universe. FFG’s Warhammer 40K RPGs work this way; when a player rolls to hit, the target number is based on in-world factors like distance, visibility, and the characteristics of the weapon.

Other RPGs direct the rules toward the narrative rather than what’s happening in the fictional world. A lot of indie RPGs (without trying to get into a debate about what counts as an “indie” RPG) are of this school. Polaris’ rules, for example, are all about which player gets to decide what happens rather than whether her character can then carry out the decision.

Current minis games fall into the former category. The rules are designed to simulate the in-universe rules of the world. Admittedly those rules might be strange, because the world is a magitech kingdom or an alternate dimension, but they’re still meant as a simulation.

The proposed minis game takes a completely separate tack. The rules aren’t about simulating a character’s attacks. They’re about driving the narrative forward and wrestling for control over the story.

Three Days to Retirement

You work for Big Bad Evil Guy. You don’t really do anything evil yourself; you’re just the security guard in a hallway. What? Everybody’s got to eat.

Tonight you’re working an extra shift. Somebody needed to swap. Two shifts, back-to-back. You’re a little tired, and your mind is wandering.

There are rumors going around that a ninja clan your boss angered is coming for revenge tonight. If so, they’ll have to go right through the hallways you’re guarding. In the process, they’ll have to go through you.

Rumors like that start all the time, though. Nothing ever comes of them.

You’re three days to retirement.

Something Completely Different: A Party Game that Feels Like a Party

A friend of my wife’s loves throwing parties–the bigger the better. Since these events frequently involve a mix of people who don’t have much in common beyond knowing the hostess, she uses a game as an icebreaker. Frequently that means Werewolf.

I understand why she chooses Werewolf. It’s capable of accommodating a large number of people, and it’s quick to learn. Furthermore, it creates a focus, something that everyone can get involved in and then talk about later.

However, while Werewolf is often characterized as a party game I think it has some issues when played at an actual party. Put simply, Werewolf stops the party. First everyone has to sit down and be quiet. Then people get to talk, but primarily to accuse each other of things. Finally somebody gets removed from the game, and they have to sit separately and hope the next person to be removed is interesting to talk to.

A better party game, I submit, keeps the party going. It has Werewolf’s positives–easy to learn, fun to chat about–but allows the event to continue around it.

Here’s a first swing at the concept:


  1. Get lots of blocks. These can be anything that players can build with–wood blocks, Legos, folded-up 3×5 cards, etc.
  2. Write some goals for what the players should build on 3×5 cards. Feel free to make the goals wacky, but they should relate to the final structure the players build. “There are no rectangular pieces touching the table,” “there are three arches,” and “the structure is at least three feet high” are all good goals.
  3. Put the goals and the blocks on a table near the door. Make sure there’s enough room on the table for the players to build the structure–two or three feet square is plenty.


  1. Give each attendee one goal card when they arrive. This should be random, but feel free to keep some goals aside for specific guests (e.g., very easy goals for small children).
  2. Tell players this: “You can add one block at a time, or take away one block. You can do this as often as you want, but you can’t go twice in a row–someone else has to take a turn before you go again. If the structure meets your goal at the end of the party, you win!”
  3. Let people play as much or as little as they like! Take a photo when everyone’s left, and put it up on Facebook or email it around so that those who left early can see if they won.

I’m pretty sure that, with the right goals, this accomplishes what Werewolf does without requiring people to decide between following the rules and preventing their toddlers from overturning the dip bowl. If you get a chance to try it, let me know!

In the Workshop

I’ve been in the workshop recently, prototyping something new. The project is in the very earliest stages and subject to enormous changes/complete scrapping, but I’m excited about it. Much of the fun of game design is the beginning, when you can imagine that an idea will work smoothly. 😉

(Mental note: “in the workshop” sounds much better than “at an old desk in the utility room.”)

This game’s concept is no more than two weeks old, which means that not only is it possible to prototype it, it’s high time to do so. Many if not most design problems cannot be solved just by envisioning how a game will play. Only putting the game on the table will tell you how it’s really going to work. As Yogi Berra put it, “[i]n theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

Now, back to the workshop. I still need to finish up some cards . . . .

Something Completely Different: Weather-Influenced Board Games

Organic food advocates point out that being able to eat any fruit or vegetable at any time of year is a new phenomenon. For most of history, foods rotated in and out of season, available only when they were ripe. What if games tried a similar dynamic?

Sports, of course, already do this. Baseball is great during the spring, summer, and fall, but is nigh-unplayable in winter. (American) Football is tremendous fun in wet, mucky weather, but all that equipment gets uncomfortable when it’s hot. Hockey, when played outdoors, demands temperatures below freezing.

Yet, there’s no reason why the change of seasons can only influence physical games. A board game, for example, could use temperature-sensitive ink for its board; imagine a survival game whose board only appears when it’s very cold. Having to bundle up to play the game might really help set the mood!

Or perhaps the pieces themselves are temperature-sensitive, so that the game is different depending on when it’s played. A wargame about ancient Greece, for example, might model the changing roles of the era’s soldier-farmers using that technique; when it’s warm the pieces are ready for combat, but as the temperature cools they lose interest in combat and have to return to the home front. There’s a market for grand-scale games like World in Flames; how much more epic would a game about the Peloponnesian War be, if it actually played out over the course of a year?

These games might not even be playable in some places, owing to the local climate, whereas they would often be playable in others. Is that frustrating, or is it awesome? I can see a lot of valid concerns, but I can also imagine great stories coming out of people going to the Grand Canyon or the Great Pyramids in order to get the right environment to play a game.

Certainly, these would be niche products. It’s hard to imagine a game store shutting off the heat so that the players can get down to the sub-zero temperatures that activate Ice Floe Survival’s board, or parents letting their kids mess with the thermostat in order to speed up their game of Real-Time Ancient Greek Conflict. Still, I feel like there are interesting results to be found pushing out the boundaries of “what can influence a game” in this way. Is anybody already doing something like this?

Something Completely Different: Context-Sensitive Fighting Game Controls

File this one under “projects for a 25th hour in the day” . . . .

Years ago I saw a really excellent post—I can’t remember whether it was on Shoryuken’s forums or elsewhere—regarding the challenges of learning fighting games. The poster argued that one of the major issues for new fighting game players is that the buttons aren’t labeled in a useful way; they have thematic names that don’t express what they should actually be used for. At the time it was difficult to resolve that in a satisfactory way, but it strikes me that this problem could definitely be addressed with current technology.

The concern goes like this: most fighting game characters have attacks that serve defined tactical purposes. By and large they will have a long-range strike that controls the opponent’s movement; a quick and unpredictable attack that probes for weaknesses in the opponent’s defenses; a slow but powerful smash that’s meant as the last move in combos. One of the major hurdles for players who are new to the genre is recognizing that the moves available have these specific uses.

Part of what raises that hurdle so high is that the various attack buttons aren’t labeled “control,” “probe for weakness,” and “smash.” They’re “medium kick,” “light kick,” and “heavy punch,” which sound thematic but don’t do anything to explain how they ought to be used. New players thus find themselves without the information necessary to make decisions about which attack to throw out, and are obliged either to button-mash or to figure it out on their own. Either way, it’s a substantial barrier to clear before they can start to get full value out of the game.

Moreover, the knowledge a new player gains from one character isn’t transferable to another. Millia controls with kick and probes for weaknesses with crouching kick; Ky controls with slash and probes for weaknesses with kick. Picking a new character means starting from about 50%; the new player (hopefully) knows that different moves have different applications, but has to figure out which move is for which use all over again.

When controllers just had whatever markings they had, and the labels needed to be appropriate for all characters, this was a very difficult problem to solve. However, today we can do context-sensitive controls. Imagine something like this:

The controller is a tablet or smartphone. Instead of being labeled light, medium, and heavy kick, buttons have descriptive labels appropriate to the character. Not only is there a button marked “control opponent’s movement,” it’s the correct button for that character. New players immediately see that each attack is for a specific purpose.

What’s more, the buttons change. If the opponent jumps, attacks that aren’t useful in that situation have their buttons greyed out—the attack will still work, but it’s clear that that’s a bad button to press right now. Attacks that are useful will stay their normal color and will get new labels, like “anti-air.” In single player mode, the game can be paused so that players can look down at the controller and find out what might be useful to do.

Fighting games are, I feel, one of the hardest genres to get into—but also one of the most rewarding. Context-sensitive control labeling would make it a lot easier to access both what a specific character can do and how new players should think about their moves generally. And it’s so doable now . . . if there’s time . . . .