Theory: the Dark Side of Computer Assists

Computers can help during the ideation phase of design, and can also point out new strategies to players of what might otherwise be considered a game past the point of innovation.

On the other hand, they can also enable a rate of play that forces a major design firm, with testing resources most can only dream of, to ban a card 48 hours after release.

I suppose we have to take the bad with the good.


Theory: the Value of Being Explicit

Magic’s designers have known for a long time that theme helps teach a game. Sometimes the game’s flavor is in the background, helping players get an intuitive understanding of complex mechanics. In the most recent set, though, the Magic design team has chosen an even more direct approach–one that I think is a good move for new players.

Theme has been helping teach Magic since its first set. Fireball, from way back when, is an elaborate card from a rules perspective. Nevertheless, it plays easily because everyone gets how a fantasy fireball works. This is the classic Magic use of theme: tapping into what players expect,so that they follow the rules just by playing cards intuitively.

Now compare that to italicized helper text on this forthcoming card:


“Your artifacts can help cast this spell” is the key line. Those few words accomplish at least two things:

  1. They create a framework for the text. Even though it includes intimidating, precise timing (“after you’re done activating mana abilities”), the rules are easy to understand because it’s clear that the critical part is “pays for 1.”
  2. They give new players a reason to use the ability. Tapping my own stuff is bad, right? Because I can’t use tapped cards? Oh, but it’s making bigger stuff cheaper–I get it!

It’s hard to emphasize enough how important both of those are. New players often don’t do powerful things because they have a drawback (e.g., painlands) or because one has to have a deep understanding of the game to know why an effect is strong (e.g., Timetwister). Clarifying why new players should use an ability with an apparent drawback and potentially unclear value is huge.

The framework for understanding also must not be underestimated. New players could be forgiven for thinking that Improvise’s timing is central; it appears immediately after the ability’s cost, where one might look for its effect. Thanks to the key line, though, we understand that we haven’t gotten the point of the rule until we find out how it helps pay for things. Complicated timing recedes, appropriately, in importance.

I’m curious to see how the Magic community views this kind of explanatory text. There are tradeoffs; if nothing else, it takes up valuable card real estate. On balance, though, I think it’s great for the game. Here’s hoping others agree, and that we see more of it in sets to come.

Theory: Computerized Brainstorming

There’s something to RoboRosewater. It’s fair to say that this isn’t a great card:


Or that this one isn’t even coherent:


However, this automatically-generated creature is a cute idea:


This one might even have a valid role in some conceivable metagames:


While one clearly has to take the good with the bad, I think the interesting aspect of RoboRosewater is that it’s at least capable of putting together cards that are interesting. Its cards suggest weird possibilities that might be worth following up on. For example, I wouldn’t have thought of representing your creatures’ negative effects on opponents’ creatures with bonuses rather than penalties if RoboRosewater hadn’t tried it, with very thematically satisfying results.

I can imagine this sort of tool being useful for many games that use exception-based design. We humans can have trouble getting out of our own heads in order to find new and interesting exceptions. Computers, though, can do it easily. For a game that’s going to be around a while, it might be worth designing a script that can toss out new player powers and the like.

Theory: Build a Knowledge Base

This article is interesting, for two reasons. First, it has some Kickstarter-related advice that might be of interest. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it has this to say about good design:

Pro Tip: Play a f*** ton of games before you try to design one.”

While I wouldn’t put it in those terms, I think the message is spot-on. Having a broad familiarity with games helps one avoid reinventing the wheel, and all the struggles along that path.

We’ve been down this road before

A lot of people have made a lot of games. That means that someone has probably at least attempted something similar to what you’re looking to do. In some cases, they discovered something your game would greatly benefit from knowing.

The current mousetrap

In some cases this might be a mechanical innovation that you could put to use. Magic: the Gathering, for example, left-right-left pattern of drafting to a huge new audience.*

(For those unfamiliar with Magic drafts, each player opens a pack, chooses a card from it for her deck, and then passes the remaining cards to the left. Everyone keeps choosing one card and passing until all the cards from all the opened packs are gone. Everyone then opens another pack, but passes to the right for this second round. Finally players go through a third round, passing to the left once again.)

The left-right-left approach makes card picking decisions much trickier than they would be in a left-left-left draft. For example, in a Magic draft a player might intentionally pass cards of a color he doesn’t want to play to the player on his left in round one. Hopefully the player to the left will focus on that color–and will therefore pass cards in some other, more desirable color to the right in round two. Since the left-right-left pattern makes “signaling” in this fashion important, and since signaling makes weighing one’s pick choices quite a bit more interesting, the left-right-left system has been widely adopted (see, e.g., 7 Wonders). If you’re making a card-drafting game, it’s far better to know about that pattern–whether you adopt it or react to it–than to spend hours upon hours figuring it out from scratch, just so you can get to the design stage that someone who’s drafted Magic cards would’ve reached immediately.

The dark paths

It might also be that your idea has been tried before . . . and didn’t work out quite as planned. Learning from past mistakes can save a lot of time and heartache.

One sees this at play every time someone says they want to create a new CCG. Immediately someone points to the endless ranks of failed trading card games. Each of them sought to recapture Magic‘s lightning in a bottle, but were brought low by some combination of complex packaging requirements, enormous distribution costs, overwhelming design challenges, and an inability to develop a player base large enough to generate useful network effects. Better to redirect the design early to a model that’s going to be more workable.

There are warnings to be found in the digital realm as well. Online multiplayer, for example, is exceptionally hard to implement. AAA studios have made it seem like a de rigeur inclusion–but of course, they have AAA resources. Smaller studios and independent designers have run into trouble after promising it, and might want to focus on single-player games while they build up money and expertise. Playing games with shaky online play, or where the “multiplayer” button has been greyed out since release, or even very successful games that have struggled with rocky launches (which is to say, just about every multiplayer game, even those with the backing of huge enterprises) might help developers realize that they should think carefully about whether and when they’ll commit to online play.

On the Shoulders of Giants

Playing lots of games doesn’t mean that one has to go back over old ground endlessly. Nor does it mean the accepted ways of doing things become constraints. Rather, knowing what’s out there makes innovation easier, by enabling one to know which design approaches are actually innovative–and which are well-trod paths, or worse, are rife with land mines. Don’t use play-for-research as a substitute for progress on your own work, but recognize the importance of that research, and make time for it.


*I’m not sure if the pattern originated there, but it may well have.

So You Want to Try Game Design

Welcome! Game design is an endlessly fascinating and exciting field. It’s awesome that you want to try it out, and you can get involved without needing to invest anything more than your time and curiosity.

A lot of people will tell you start by learning something like Unity or GameMaker. Those are both good programs, but there’s a certain amount of lead time involved as you learn them. My suggestion would be to start by creating some games; once you’ve gotten a sense for where you want to go with your first design(s), you’ll be better positioned to judge which tools will help you get there.

Instead of working on the computer, begin by learning with Magic: the Gathering. Try making up some cards, and then play them and see how they work out. (Don’t worry about making them pretty–just cut up slips of paper and sleeve them with normal cards.) Expand that into a full set, or design a cube for drafting. Get used to reaching into a game’s systems.

While you’re doing that, play some games that will give you a sense for just how vast the genre is, and how limitless the opportunities for creativity are. Gone Home, Proteus, Beyond EyesPapers, Please–the list goes on. Challenge yourself to see games in new ways.

Don’t neglect to read, either. There’s a lot of great writing about game design out there. The links page above has some; when you’ve exhausted that, I’d recommend Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play.

Game design is sometimes fun, always challenging, and incredibly rewarding. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and that the advice above helps you get started. Again, welcome!

Theory: The Unsolved Problem of Ongoing-Release Games

Warmachine recently unveiled a new format: Champions, in which only certain pieces are legal. Champions is probably a great solution to some troubles Warmachine has been having. It also, however, points up an interesting design problem: how to keep games that have more and more content released manageable without resort to rotation.

By way of background: up until now every piece ever created for Warmachine was tournament-legal. It didn’t matter whether the piece’s rules just came out a month ago, or whether it was the first piece ever released for the game. Absolutely everything could be put on the table.

Over time that system has become less and less manageable for players. The sheer number of pieces and combinations has become overwhelming. Can your army handle a general like Morvahna, who can manipulate dice in her favor? What if she instead focuses on endlessly resurrecting her army? Deneghra can flatline your army’s stats for a turn; will you survive? Bradigus and the High Reclaimer both block line of sight, but in entirely different ways; can your army see through both? Saeryn’s army can’t be engaged in close combat for a turn, while Vlad can shut down most ranged attacks; you’ll probably want both options so you can always get through losing one. Sorcha will freeze you in place if you don’t have a way to become immune to ice attacks . . . .

The list goes on, but you can see the problem. It’s impossible for any one army to deal with all of these threats. As a result, players inevitably started to get into rock-paper-scissors matchups, wherein they didn’t have ice immunity or the ability to stop resurrection or whatever. Unsatisfying games invariably followed.

Magic: the Gathering had a similar problem of multiplying complexity, and answered it with rotation, a system in which older cards are excluded from tournaments as new cards come out. Rotation proved so effective at keeping complexity manageable that it’s become the accepted answer to the problem of “how do we keep releasing product for this game without rendering it incomprehensible.”

Warmachine will, I think, benefit from having a rotation; only needing to think about Saeryn without also needing an answer to Vlad will be a big help. Privateer Press’ form of rotation is even especially generous to players, since older pieces will rotate back in over time; Magic forces players into “eternal” formats when they want to use their old cards.

Nevertheless, I find I’m a bit disappointed. Rotation is a good solution, but it’s only one solution. I have to think that there are others, if we’re imaginative enough to find them.

The specific form of rotation Privateer Press has chosen demonstrates that there’s still thought to how it should be implemented. I’d still like, though, to push out the boundaries in this area. We know rotation is a good tool; now let’s put our energy into finding some equally good alternatives!

Theory: Make Concessions a Part of Your Game

Concessions are generally viewed as disruptive, and a while back I talked about how to discourage them. However, there’s a little-explored alternative: embracing concessions, and making them part of a broader strategy. Backgammon and Magic have both taken this approach, and they’re better for it. It’s worth exploring for your games, as well.

Magic has a problem as a tournament game: there’s a fair amount of randomness, and only limited time in which to play rounds out. If a player gets a bad draw in game one of her best-of-three series, she can end up losing valuable minutes in a match whose outcome isn’t in doubt. Those minutes might end up being decisive, especially if one or the other player is piloting a slow deck that won’t allow all three games to be played. It’s disappointing for tournament results to be decided by luck and the clock.

Fortunately, Magic has long since solved this issue. By allowing players to concede, Magic gives them the option of reallocating time that would be spent in a doomed enterprise to games that can still be won. Players can now focus on the interesting games.

What’s more, conceding goes from being aggravating misconduct to being a valid, accepted strategy. It can even lead to interesting choices; it’s not always easy to know whether it’s better to concede and try again or to play a game out. By accepting concessions and giving them a purpose, Magic fixed them.

Backgammon goes a step farther, making the possibility of concession important in every game, not just lopsided ones. Modern Backgammon is played with a “doubling cube.” At the start of your turn, before you roll the dice, you may offer the cube to your opponent. If he accepts, the amount of money or points at stake is doubled. The six sides of the cube mark the six times the stakes can double, going up to 64 times the original pot.

I’ve played a lot of Backgammon recently, and I can tell you from experience: the decision as to whether or not to concede is hard. Probability, the board state, the number of points at risk and how they compare to the number needed to win the tournament–all of these things factor into a single fold-or-raise decision. The choice is tense, vital to good play, and all-around fascinating.

Concessions are usually thought of as a letdown: a game was going on, and then it just ended. Magic and Backgammon demonstrate that they can instead be meaningful and even exciting. When you’re trying to concession-proof your game, give some thought as to whether it might be possible instead to put a bridle on concessions, and make them work for you.

Theory: Test with a Random Robot

Here’s an easy test that can help determine whether your game has meaningful decisions. It’s boring and silly, but it can be very effective. All you have to do is play entirely randomly.

By “entirely randomly” I mean exactly that. Use a die or a deck of cards in place of a human player and then go from there. Let the random mechanic make every choice.

Your game passes if a person can get better results than random play. At that point you can be confident that the player’s decisions are relevant to the outcome. It might be that those decisions are boring, obvious, or otherwise not very satisfying, but the player at least needs to be involved.

Your game fails if random play beats a human who’s (a) reasonably capable of playing the game and (b) trying to win. Wins for random play mean that human players have no significant role in the game; their strategies, tactics, and choices are superfluous. They’re just there to carry out the physical steps required to move the game forward.

It’s worth noting that this test can be performed even on relatively complex games. Magic, for example, involves a lot of decisions, but you can still set up a random opponent. Does the opponent play a land? That’s a binary decision; flip a coin. OK, it does: which land? Assign each one a number and roll a die. Now it’s time to see if it casts spells, so assign each spell it could play a number, tack on an additional number for “no spell,” and roll again.

This sanity check for meaningful decisions might seem unnecessary. However, sound and fury at times signify nothing; it’s possible for the challenge of managing everything a game has going on to obscure the fact that none of it influences the outcome. (I’ve heard of at least one commercially published game where this turned out to be the case, such that a random player had the same chance to win as anybody else!) It’s worth taking an hour just to make sure you haven’t gotten lost in your own game’s complexities, and that the choices you think matter really do.

Theory: The Last Step on the Age of Sigmar Road

I read the Age of Sigmar rules over the weekend with great interest. Even knowing some of what to expect, it was certainly disorienting when I realized that there’s absolutely no limitation on what players are allowed to put on the table. I don’t mind that, though; in fact, I think it’s possible that Games Workshop didn’t go far enough.

That probably sounds insane—there’s nothing about balance, how could they go further than nothing—but hear me out. Over the weekend a friend likened Age of Sigmar to Magic: the Gathering’s Commander format. Commander is a casual approach to Magic that only works when the players sit down in advance and discuss what kind of game they want to play: super-competitive, slow and casual, etc. So long as the players do that, though, it’s great.

Age of Sigmar seems to be built on the same principle as Commander: the game allows players to make what they will of it, and trusts them to figure out as a group what that’s going to be. Does everyone want to play a story-driven narrative game, with scenarios based on an overarching plot and armies that grow and shrink with their nations’ fortunes? That’s fine. Would the players prefer instead instead to play regimented armies marching in formation? That’s supported. Just want to play a bunch of dragons that breathe fire on everything because it’ll be SO METAL? Awesome, you can absolutely do that.

For all of that to work, however, the players have to be on the same page—and the Age of Sigmar rules never actually suggest that the players should talk. Every new-player article about Commander makes it clear up-front that groups picking up the format need to decide on their own ground rules, and that people coming into a group must find out what the group’s rules are. The Age of Sigmar rule sheet lacks that guidance, and given how outside the norm that kind of discussion is in miniatures circles I think it’s going to be sorely missed.

I’m excited to give Age of Sigmar a try. As I read over the rules, though, I can’t help but wish that Games Workshop had taken a page from recent paper RPGs by stating not just what the rules are, but why they are that way. I want Games Workshop to take the final step on Age of Sigmar’s road: having built a game that puts players very much in the role of scenario designers, be open in telling them so.

Theory: Doing RPS Right

Rock-paper-scissors (“RPS”) dynamics are sometimes held up as fundamental to game design, a core principle that makes balance possible. Taking rock-paper-scissors too far, however, can lead to reductive games that are only interesting during character selection. It’s vital to understand that what’s interesting and valuable isn’t the RPS, but the interesting decisions a good RPS setup can contribute to.

The Story So Far

To my knowledge, the popularity of RPS comparisons in game design started with an article on Sirlin’s old website. It’s worth reading the article in full (and I’d love to see it preserved on the redesigned site), but his core argument went something like this: rock-paper-scissors, as we all played it as children, has little to no strategy because there’s no basis for preferring one move over another. The opponent is probably choosing more or less at random, so there’s no way to predict what he or she will do, and you’ll just have to play randomly, too. However, it’s possible to inject strategy into rock-paper-scissors by giving each move different payoffs; if rock is worth 2 points and everything else is worth 1, you know that both players want to play rock, and you can use that knowledge to craft a plan.

Sirlin followed up with another article, this one on how RPS is implemented in fighting games. Again, it’s excellent and well worth your time (and also worth preserving). While I can’t trace the spread of its ideas, I can say that this article was extremely influential among fighting game players, and that in the years since its publication I’ve seen its arguments and conclusions repeated many times. I think it’s fair to say that after this article, RPS was off and running.

Today, RPS has become ingrained in game design thinking. However, saying that RPS with differing payoffs can be interesting doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be executed correctly. In particular, it’s not great when the only meaningful RPS decision is made early.

RPS Done Right: Interesting Decisions that Support More Interesting Decisions

Go back to Sirlin’s second article for a moment. He describes a series of situations in which both players make a choice, and one of them just loses. Attack beats throw, period, with the attacker doing damage and the thrower accomplishing nothing. It’s a hard counter, just what we would expect from RPS: rock doesn’t sort of beat scissors, it SMASHES scissors and gets ALL THE POINTS.

However, that decision isn’t the be-all and end-all of the match. Rather, a match will involve many such choices. Indeed, much of the interest of the game comes from the choices building on each other: “last time he went for the throw and got me, I think he’ll try that again even though it doesn’t do as much damage as an attack.” Evaluating moves becomes a multi-layered process, as one judges not just their value in the abstract (rock is worth 2 points) but also how the opponent seems to be responding to those values (this opponent is being tricky by playing lots of paper).

We see the same building of decisions in other good RPS games. Starcraft, for example, has units that beat other units—but players build many units over the course of a game, and can expect to skirmish several times before the match is decided. As a result, players will make a number of important and engaging building decisions. Over the course of a game one might shift gears in response to what the opponent is building, feint, condition the opponent to expect one thing before building something else, and otherwise make interesting choices throughout the game’s duration.

Magic has only one RPS decision, but it still uses that choice as a springboard for more decisions later. It does this by incorporating RPS into an important, but not definitive, early choice.

It used to be said that there were three broad strategies in Magic, and that they interacted in RPS fashion:

Aggro (“aggression”) beat Control, because it won before control could lock down the game.

Control beat Combo, because control stopped combo from assembling its Rube Goldberg victory condition.

Combo beat Aggro, because aggro didn’t stop combo from assembling the Rube Goldberg machine.

While the model spoke in definitive terms, however, making the right choice at deck selection (e.g., playing aggro against someone who was playing control) never actually decided the game. Rather, it provided an advantage which had to be carried through in play. The player on the winning side of the RPS decision still had to manage random card draws and the opponent’s resistance, which could still be potent even coming from a position of disadvantage. Making a good RPS choice thus offered advantage but guaranteed nothing, and so the game’s in-play decisions remained meaningful.

RPS Done Wrong: One and Done

For a contrast to Starcraft, Magic, and other good RPS implementations, consider a fighting game where some characters beat other characters RPS-style. That might be balanced. If Ryu beats Zangief, Zangief beats Dhalsim, and Dhalsim beats Ryu, then everyone has about an equal chance of losing and the game is fair.

However, that game has only one important decision: which fighter to choose. It’s all downhill after that, as one plays out the inevitable result of the character select RPS. None of the decisions in the actual game are very interesting, because Ryu is just going to clobber Zangief no matter what their players do.

Weighted RPS mechanics, then, are not an inherent good. They can in fact be very dangerous, locking in results and turning the rest of the game into going through the motions. If RPS is going to be used, it’s critical that the game not hinge on a single, early RPS choice, but rather that the RPS decisions create further interesting decisions as the game goes on.

This problem is not strictly theoretical. Several miniatures wargames have wrestled, or are wrestling, with the problem of an early RPS choice that dominates the game.

Minis games’ RPS issues revolve around how in-game armies are built. Broadly speaking, minis games have a system wherein heavy armor (tanks, flying tanks, whatever the game’s setting has) is largely invulnerable to infantry; infantry is good at dealing with anti-armor specialists; and anti-armor specialists destroy heavy armor. As a result, games can be decided as soon as the players show each other their armies; if one player has way more tanks than the other player has anti-armor specialists, the tank player will pretty much have the run of the field. It’ll be particularly egregious because that game will probably still take two hours to finish; two hours is a long time to have no interesting decisions.

We’ve seen a number of solutions to this problem over the past decade: allowing pieces to serve in more than one role so that players can always use all three of rock, paper, and scissors, for example, or trying to opt out of the RPS situation entirely by flattening the differences between armor and infantry. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more in the future. Even if the problem is entirely solved, however, its persistence over many years will stand as a reminder that leaning on the RPS tripod can leave a designer flat on the floor.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Rock-paper-scissors isn’t the ultimate in game design; it isn’t even a good summation. What it can be, if done right, is a source of fascinating choices for players. The key to using RPS well is to always keep focus on the decisions, asking whether the RPS is making them more interesting—or less relevant.