Category Archives: Game Design

What’s Your Hook?

I read an article online a while back that the “upcoming” fifth Indiana Jones movie still has no MacGuffin. At first I thought, “What in the world is a MacGuffin?” Then I realized that I knew what it was but hadn’t heard that term before. From Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation.

This got me thinking about an analog in board games. While it’s not exactly the same in terms of purpose I think the closest analog in board games is the hook.

In my article, “How to (Speed) Pitch Your Game,” I characterized the hook in a few different ways. The hook refers to the thing that’s different than any other game.

  • Are you utilizing components in a new way?
  • Are you using a new mechanic?
  • Are you modifying an old mechanic in a new way?
  • Is your theme so amazing?

The hook should be a driving factor of your game. It should be the thing that’s constantly manipulating player’s decisions. It should exist to create moments of tension and reward. Like a MacGuffin, the hook is something that may not be the main plot, but it’s always there steering the narrative along.

When I designed Scoville I didn’t think there was a hook. Then I actually played it. The hook of Scoville is the great interaction within the field and the way cross-breeding opportunities open up throughout the game, and get blocked by other players. The important thing about this is that the hook wasn’t something that was apparent until I actually playtested the game.

So I’ve been trying to keep this hook concept in my mind while designing other games. My current game, Ziggurat, has a visual hook in that the ziggurat actually gets built as a 3D building during the game. But I don’t think that’s a big enough hook. While it looks appealing it’s too superficial. The game needs a bigger hook.

In my article, “My Board Game Design Philosophy,” I mentioned five things that I keep in mind while designing. These included that the game is quick to teach/learn, has few “exception” rules, a limited decision tree, a natural buildup or progression, and that players should be rewarded. I think I need (want) to add a “Hook” to that philosophy.

Playing Hookie

I checked out some of the popular games to see what their hooks were. Here are a few that I came up with:

Agricola/Caverna: The hook is how worker placement is utilized and optimized during the game. In each of these the difficult decisions are when there are several options that seem appealing but you know you won’t likely get both of them. Other players may choose one you wanted. So when it is your turn you have to try and make the best choice with your worker. (Plus Questing, i.e., upgrading your workers, is really awesome in Caverna).

Puerto Rico: The hook is not simply due to role selection, but that the selector gets a benefit. This is similar to the role selection in Race for the Galaxy.

Power Grid: The hook here is that you are racing toward creating the network and it offers a first-come-first-served mechanic of controlling the cities. When a player chooses to build more cities it is both good (More money) and bad (Worse turn order). That’s what gives Power Grid it’s hook.

Tzolk’in: The obvious hook here is the gear system for controlling the game as a time-based worker placement game.

Dominion: As the “father of deckbuilders” the hook is pretty obvious. At the time it was released the idea of deck building was novel and new. The hook is that players diverge in their capabilities each game depending on what they purchase.

Ora et Labora/Glass Road: Yes, more Rosenberg on this list. The hooks here are the resource board wheels that show what resources are available.

Alchemists: The hook is that you can use the digital app to help you mix potions. It makes for fun moments in the game where you aren’t always certain what result you will obtain.

You may disagree with these hooks, but you can’t argue that these help set the game apart from others.

What’s your Hook?

Are you designing games? Have you considered what makes your game special? I urge you to keep a focus on the hook of your game. Keep it in mind when designing. Keep it in mind when playtesting. See what your playtesters think makes the game special. Does that feedback match your hook?

The thing that brought this all up was that I changed a major mechanic of Ziggurat. When I was working on the design I realized that this change would have a dramatic positive effect on the interaction of the game. I wasn’t expecting that. Changing the mechanic basically added a hook to Ziggurat in that now players have the chance to essentially steal opportunities from other players. I can’t wait to get it to the table.

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Impossible!

No, the title doesn’t refer to your shock that there’s actually a new blog post on Boards & Barley. Instead it refers to a new abstract game design of mine.

Waterfall (1961). Photo Credit: mcescher.com.

When I was a child I found a small print of M.C. Escher’s Waterfall Lithograph in my dad’s at-home office. At first I thought it was kind of neat but after a few minutes I realized how truly awesome the artwork was. There is an impossibility in the physical concepts of a waterfall flowing uphill. But yet this artwork makes it actually appear possible.

M.C. Escher has long been an inspiration of mine. I love trying to wrap my mind around the 2D artwork that portrays 3D impossibilities.

So I decided to make an abstract tile placement game around that concept. It is based on an impossibility that occurs in the waterfall lithograph. That impossibility is known as the Penrose Triangle. While I’m not using it exactly, I am using the fundamental idea of the Penrose triangle. I’ll show you below.

But first, because I have an illness where I must create a logo for any game design I am working on, here is the prototype logo:

Impossible Logo V2 - White Background

The game is currently still in the concept phase. I have been trying to work out some “Euro-y” type scoring conditions but I’ll have to playtest it before I decide if they should be public goals or private goals, or a combination of both.

Here is an example scoring condition:

Nodelink-3 Scoring Condition

If players build a nodelink matching these colors then they will earn the points shown on the card. The first player to build such a nodelink would earn the 4 points while the second player would earn 4 points.

I currently have a bunch of different scoring conditions based on the nodes that will be built during the game. I’m looking forward to playtesting it and figuring out some of the balance about these cards.

The basic gameplay is simple. It’s sort of a mix between Carcassonne and Qwirkle. Players will play 1 tile anywhere that it fits onto the board. Nodes will be built up this way. Once a node is completed, it’s color is determined by whichever color is of a majority at the node.

There will also be one-time use bonuses that allow players to play more than one tile at a time. These should allow for players to make awesome moves in the game and have rewarding moments. My hope is that it also allows for some “take-that” type action where you can mess with something that other players are working on.

That’s the current status of Impossible. I will be bringing the prototype to Gen Con and I’m hoping to get it in front of some people. Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions.

Game Design Starter Kit

My Game Creation Process

Move beyond the Concept phase!

One of the barriers to game design is a lack of components. If you had blank cards sitting around, you would be more likely to start designing a card game. If you had some dice, you might design a dice game. The point is that if you had game design components available to you, then you are much more likely to move your game designs from the Concept phase to the Prototype/Playtesting phase.

Today I am listing some of the items that I find most useful in putting together a prototype. The hope is that you can find what you need to move your game design along.

Getting to the playtesting phase is often the biggest hurdle, but it’s the critical step in determining if your game design has any potential.

Before I get to my recommendations, which are brief, I want to remind you of the series I wrote about sourcing game design components. These articles are much more thorough:

So check those out and then come back here for the basics to get you from the concept phase to the playtesting phase of your game designs.

Here is my checklist of excellent items to have in case you are ready to move from concept to prototype. To make it easier for you I have provided two lists, one for Amazon, and one for EAI Education (my preferred source). This way you can choose one and buy everything you need from one place.

Amazon:

EAI Education:

With cards, dice, meeples, and cubes you are basically ready to roll out your game design prototype. Of course there are other things that you may want, but as for a Game Design Starter Kit I recommend these four items very highly! Please let me know if you have any questions.

Set Phaser to Stun – A discussion of Phases vs Turns

When designing a game I usually start by picking a theme that I think would be fun and unique. Then I start to build some mechanics around that theme that seem to fit it well. Eventually I get to a point where I have to figure out how the game is actually played. That’s where today’s article comes in.

There seems to be two main ways that games are played. Some games have turns and some games have rounds with phases.

What follows is a discussion on each of those as well as some of my opinions about how to choose which option is right for your game design. But first I wanted to make sure we are all on the same wavelength in terms of terminology. In this article I refer to “turns,” “rounds,” and “phases.” The best succinct definition I found online was in this thread and is a quote by Sen-Foong Lim, co-designer of Belfort among many other games:

Players take turns executing phases within a round. A game is comprised of several rounds of play.

That’s how I am understanding each of the terms I use throughout this article. Thanks Sen-Foong!

Horizontal Rule

Turn Based Games…

A turn based game is one where a player takes their turn and then plays proceeds to the next player. Each turn is performed in a similar manner as the previous turns.

Turn based awesomeness.

Example: Ticket to Ride

On your turn in Ticket to Ride you perform one of three actions: building a route, drawing train cards, or drawing destination card.

Every turn presents you with those same three choices.

Every turn is the same.

The game builds from turn to turn, so the choices you make vary, however, the options are always the same.

This form of gameplay is usually more accessible and easier to teach and learn.

Horizontal Rule

Round Based Games…

Round based games can further be separated into two main categories:

  1. “Pause” Type – Games where rounds separate the gameplay for a special event.
  2. “Seasonal” Type – Games where rounds establish differences in available actions.

Pause Type

A Pause Type round based game is one where players perform a standard action on their turn. This repeats until all players have performed as many actions as they are allowed. Then the round ends and an intermediate event occurs.

Round based torment of making sure you can feed your family.

Example: Agricola

On your turn in Agricola you place one of your family members on an action spot and perform the action. This continues until all players have taken their turns with their associated family members. Once all players have done so, the round ends.

The intermediate step between rounds is often a harvest where players gather crops and feed their family. Then a new round begins.

The turns are the same, but there are breaks that separate the gameplay, dividing the game into rounds.

So while each turn itself offers the same choices, the game is broken up to include more than just the turns you take. Players must deal with the requirements of the intermediate events.

Seasonal Type

A Seasonal Type round based game is one where players take actions specific to the current phase of the round. These are games where only specific actions are available depending on the current phase of the round. So each turn a player takes offers different options.

Auction, Buy Fuel, Build Network, Exert Supremacy!

Example: Power Grid

What you do on your turn in “Seasonal” games like Power Grid depends on the “season” you are in. Power Grid rounds begin with a power plant auction. So this portion of a round involves deciding if you want a power plant, which one, and how much you are willing to pay. After that players purchase fuel and determine the type(s) and how much fuel they will buy. Then players must decide if they will expand their power grid by building on the board. After that phase comes a sort of “clean-up” phase where players use fuel to power their grid and earn income.

In these types of games each round offers a series of different types of choices for players.

Seasonal type games are usually the least accessible in terms of teaching and learning the game. However, they often offer greater and deeper strategy.

Horizontal Rule

Choosing Turn Based vs Round Based

This can be a difficult part of game design. On one hand most designers would agree that they want their game to be as easy to teach, learn, and understand as possible. On the other hand most designers would also like their game to have a nice deep level of strategy that present difficult and interesting decisions to the players.

I want to make it clear that turn-based doesn’t necessarily equate to “easy to teach, learn, and understand,” and round-based doesn’t necessarily equate to “deep strategy and interesting decisions.” But I would say, in general, that turn-based are simpler to teach and learn, which makes them more accessible.

So how do you decide if your game should be turn based or round based? In general I always start my designs as turn-based and then modify that if it becomes apparent that round-based would be better. But let’s take a look at a few things that might help you make your decision.

What does the theme call for?

If you are designing a game where there is no reason for phases, then design for turns. Qwirkle and most other abstract games are deserving of being turn-based.

Sometimes a theme makes it obvious that round-based play would be better. If you want players doing different things throughout the game it might make sense to have phases where each player works through the different aspects of the game.

I recommend that you choose turns or rounds with your theme in mind. If it fits thematically then you’re on the right track!

What are your desired mechanics?

The things you want a play to do during a game can help you make the decision. If you are using a worker placement mechanic, most often you will have a round based game. Stone Age is a great example. In each round players put there family members on different spots. Once all are placed then the next phase begins, of bringing your family back. Then there is a phase of feeding your family and resetting the board.

But that’s not always the case with worker placement. An exception is The Manhattan Project. In that worker placement games there are no rounds with phases. Rather, once your workers are out on the board you will spend a turn bringing them back.

It’s important to consider what you actually want players to do during a game. This can help you choose the mechanics and whether you want the game to be turn-based or round-based.

What’s more fun for the game?

One of my game design principles is to make things fun. That may seem obvious but I’m surprised by how often I pick a theme or a mechanic that ultimately would not be fun. So throughout my design process I continually ask myself, “Would this be fun?”

As the designer I recommend you ask that same question about your game. Would turn-based be fun? Would round-based be fun? Which option would be more fun?

We are designing board games here, not water bottles or bicycle gears. What we are doing is all about fun. So don’t forget to include that in the design!

Horizontal RuleWell I hope I’ve provided you with at least something to get you started. The bottom line regarding turns or rounds is that both can be fun, interesting, and can make for a good game. How do you choose which one works best for your designs?

Ziggurat: Building the Game

I designed Ziggurat the Thursday evening before Prototspiel-Madison in October. I prototyped it the Friday of Protospiel. It was played four times during Protospiel. And I am finally putting together the pieces to turn it into an awesome game!

So today I want to share a little bit about the game and the basics of how it plays. But first here’s a history lesson:

What is a Ziggurat?

Ziggurats are like the Sumerian equivalent of Egyptian pyramids. They are basically a huge brick structure with several levels. They served as the focal point of worship in those ancient cultures. Often it is believed that a temple was built atop the ziggurats.

And since I’d rather focus on the game rather than the history, here’s the Wikipedia link: Ziggurat

The Game…

The thrust of the game revolves around building the Ziggurat. As the design currently stands you have two options on your turn:

  1. Purchase resources (bricks, laborers, special abilities) from the courtyard marketplace.
  2. Spend bricks and laborers to build the Ziggurat.

One of my design goals is to come up with games that are accessible and easy to teach. Ziggurat is like that. The simplicity of limiting what actions can be taken makes the game accessible for non-gamers.

The region of interest, in terms of adding strategy, is to design compelling and interesting decisions into those two options. For example, when purchasing from the courtyard market, would you be willing to pay a higher price for a better card? Also, when building the Ziggurat, does the location where you are building matter?

These are the sorts of things I’m trying to design into Ziggurat. Let’s take a look at the prototype.

The Prototype…

I had previously obtained some components from The Game Crafter at a prior Protospiel event. It turns out that the components I had worked perfectly for what I wanted to achieve with Ziggurat. Here is a first look at the bare prototype:

Barebones prototype demonstrating the 3D nature of the game.

Bare bones prototype demonstrating the 3D nature of the game.

The Ziggurat is composed of three levels. On each level there are platforms that need to be built. Players will build the platforms by spending the appropriate resource and then placing one of their player cubes onto the platform. Once the first level is completed it will be scored. Then the large square tiles for the second level will be placed on top of it. Here is a look at the Prototype with more details on the tiles and platforms.

The Ramp lists what the scoring conditions are for the current game.

The Ramp lists what the scoring conditions are for the current game.

One thing of great importance in the game are the platforms. Each platform requires 4 cubes. When any given platform is completed, each player who helped build the platform will earn some reward. The rewards available are shown on the corners of the tiles. This is a way to ramp things up in the game and loosen the tightness of the resources. It also incentivizes building, which is the whole idea of the game.

Here’s another picture of Ziggurat at the end of a Protospiel playtest:

Ziggurat Completed! Time for final scoring.

Ziggurat Completed! Time for final scoring.

In the bottom left of the image above you can see the courtyard market. In the current version of the game there are six cards in the market. Players may purchase up to two cards. The card at the end costs zero and the costs ramp up as 1, 1, 2, 3, 4. The image has different costs, which I have since adjusted.

The Latest Prototype…

I’m a sucker for creating decent looking artwork and graphics. I use Inkscape, which I recommend. I mocked up some cards and placed an order with TheGameCrafter.com. Here’s what they look like:

Each card represents a laborer OR the resources on the back.

Each card represents a laborer OR the resources on the back.

With a deck made I decided it was time to upgrade the tiles and platforms as well. So I did. Here’s the final result which shows the current state of the game:

Not too shabby, for a prototype!

Not too shabby, for a prototype!

I have some big plans for the game. I want it to be slightly less singular in terms of your goals so I’ll be adding a few other paths to victory. But I solidly enjoy the game as it is.

Feel free to ask any questions. I’m excited to hear what people think and I’m just as excited about the future of the game. This one feels like Scoville did when I designed that. I think there’s a lot of potential here. Thanks for reading!

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