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Decision Space in Game Design

New Belgium Brewery offers a nice decision space! Photo via Flickr user quan ha @2009

Decision Space:

     – the range of options at the decision maker’s disposal

That simple definition is from a paper titled Supporting a Robust Decision Space from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. It is a nice definition for what I mean by “decision space.”

Decision space is an important concept for game designers to consider when working on their designs. One of the best things a game can offer is a plethora of interesting decisions. One of the worst things a game can do is limit your decisions or take them away completely. There’s nothing worse in a game when it’s your turn and you only have 1 option. It’s as if you have become a robot just going through the motions.

Today I’m going to cover how game designers should consider Decision Space in their designs. At the forefront of game design is the notion that games are supposed to be fun. With that in mind, let’s cover 3 examples of Decision Space in your game can make it better.

  1. Unlimited Decision Space
  2. Limited Decision Space
  3. Tailored Decision Space

Some times it’s good to offer a lot of choices. Some times it’s good to limit a player’s choices. But the point of this article is that the decision space available to players is an important concept to consider in your game designs.

Unlimited Decision Space

Okay… first off, “Unlimited” is a bit of a misnomer. I do not believe there are any games with a truly infinite decision space. Rather, this is meant to point out situations where the decision space is so large that the players do not feel limited in any way. The world is their oyster, in essence.

Build as you see fit!

One great example of an unlimited decision space is the route-building aspect of the classic game Empire Builder. There is a huge map and you have your special little crayon. You can stare at the board and your cards for a long time while yielding the power of the unlimited. Where should you begin your route? Where should the route go? Should you cross the rivers/mountains or go around? How much track should you lay? There are a lot of decisions you could make about the route you want to build.

How is “Unlimited” Fun?

There is a nice liberty in having an unlimited decision space. Players often enjoy being able to choose freely, to mess up freely, to make an awesome move freely.

Consider utilizing an unlimited decision space in games where you want players to have full control and to be fully accountable for their decisions.

Limited Decision Space

Sometimes it is prudent to limit the decisions a player can make. These situations are common at the start of a game.

Starts “Limited,” ends “Awesome!”

Two great examples are Dominion and Eminent Domain. These are both deckbuilding games. In standard deckbuilding games you start with a very limited hand of cards. One your first few turns you will be limited in what you can do.

Limiting the decision space early in a game can be beneficial to help a player get used to how the game operates.

Another example of “limited” decision space comes from the popular game Ticket to Ride. In the game you have three options on your turn. You can draw more route cards, play trains to the board, or draw train cards. And even the choices within those options are limited. You can only play trains to the board if you have the right cards in your hand. You can only draw train cards from the face up cards or the face down pile.

How is “Limited” Fun?

One of the ways that Limited decision space can be fun is by adding tension to  game. Using Ticket to Ride as the example again, players have tension due to the limitation. Maybe they just need one more green train to claim that big route. But perhaps another player has already built near the green route. Not that first player is hoping that the other player doesn’t take that green connection that they’ve been working on. But because the decisions are limited, the player has a slight feeling of helplessness.

Limiting the options on a player’s turn can also speed up the game. Sometimes (or perhaps often) the Unlimited decision space games tend to get into the Analysis Paralysis (AP) regime. Limited decision space games tend to decrease the amount of AP in games.

Tailored Decision Space

Tailored decision space refers to situations in games where the decisions you previously made will shape the decisions you have available in later turns in the game. Often games with tailoring offer multiple paths to victory where once a path has been chosen it is better to continue following that path than to start working on a different path.

How will you shape the countryside?

Some of the best examples that I can think of are Uwe Rosenberg’s games Le Havre and Ora et Labora.

In Ora et Labora players start with a plot of land that they are looking to develop. Throughout the game players will add buildings to the land that provide new actions. Then on their next turn, those previously placed buildings add to the decision space available for the player.

This is actually a common thing in engine building games. Engine builders are games where you build something and increase your skills/options/capabilities. In most of these games you can build something, that let’s you improve it, and then make it really awesome. All along the way you can either diversify and build a bunch of stuff that might be mediocre. Or you could possibly build one type of thing and make it really awesome.

The card game 7 Wonders also has a “tailored decision space” feel to it. In each of the three stages you can play cards to tailor your wonder in one of several different types of things. By adding resource production you can set yourself up for different types of things. For example, if you produce the manufactured goods (gray cards) then you can usually do pretty well with the science cards (green). So the cards you choose throughout the game will tailor the decision space that makes the most sense as you move your way toward victory.

How is “Tailored” Fun?

I think having a tailored decision space in games allows players to feel like they are really accomplishing good stuff throughout the game. In Scoville the field acts as a tailored decision space. Each round as new peppers are added you are creating new opportunities for breeding peppers. Each new spot opens up the number of decisions you can choose.

Tailored decision space is also a way that you can steer your strategy in a game. By choosing card A it might make card B much more attractive. Then by choosing card B it might make card C more attractive.

Why Should You Care?

As a gamer none of this really matters. Just find a game that you think is fun and play it.

As a designer, it can be worthwhile to consider the way decision space works in your game designs. Are you limiting players? Are you allowing them freedom of choice?

Decision space is an easy thing to neglect when designing a game. Normally we’ll pick a theme or pick a mechanic and start designing. But I wonder how things would go if a designer chose the type of decision space they wanted and then added a theme and mechanic after the fact.

What are your thoughts about decision space in games? Did I get it completely wrong? Does it make sense?

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Design Me: Press Your Luck

It’s been a while since I posted a Design Me article. I blame that on awesome things like Thanksgiving and BGG.con. But today I’m back with a new Design Me challenge.

As a reminder I do these Design Me articles to exercise my brain. Like soccer players exercise their bodies during practice I think it’s important that if our brain is what we use to create things, then we should exercise our brains.

Using Boardgamizer.com, this is what it came up with for today’s challenge:

At least it didn't choose zombies!

At least it didn’t choose zombies!

Abra CadAlien

Abra CadAlien is a mini game for 2-4 players using only cards. The goal of the game is to cast the right spells in the right order into the sky to eliminate the aliens that are approaching Earth.

Each player is a witch or wizard with their own special book of spells, or grimoire. These are specialized player decks composed of different cards. Each card shows two different spells that can be used. During your turn you will cast a spell from one of your cards into the pool of Aliens set up on the table. Your spell will have a certain effect given the type of Alien you are facing. To determine whether or not your spell succeeded you can “drop” the rest of your cards from above the table. Each card dropped will work like a coin flip. To be successful you will need to have a greater number of “heads” or “tails” based on the spell that was cast. Some cards will be “heads” on both sides and others will be “tails” on both sides.

So the press-your-luck aspect comes in from dropping the cards while using spells. The more spells you use, the fewer cards you have to drop.

Components:

  • Alien Deck – 16 double sided cards
  • Spell Decks – 9 double sided cards per player (36 total)
  • Rulebook

Alakazam! – How to Play

Poof! I just created some artwork. The game setup includes taking 9 of the alien cards and placing them in a 3×3 grid for 2 players or 16 cards in a 4×4 grid for 3-4 players. Players are working toward eliminating the aliens. They will have to work together toward the goal, but there can be only one winner. The first person to eliminate 5 aliens in a 2p game or 6 aliens in a 3-4p game is the winner.

The idea is that you will cast spells that allow the aliens to be grouped in certain patterns. Those patterns are required for you to be able to eliminate them. The spell cards are two sided. One side is green and the other is purple in the examples below. If you cast a green spell, for it to succeed you will need to have more green sides land face up during the card drop. If you cast a purple spell, then you will need more purple sides to land face up during the drop.

Each turn you can continue to cast spells and work toward your goal on the turn as long as you keep having successful card drops. Here are two examples of spell cards that manipulate the alien cards:

You've got to get the Aliens in the right order before they can be eliminated. These cards would help.

You’ve got to get the Aliens in the right order before they can be eliminated. These cards would help. (Book icon from game-icons.net)

There will be other cards in the player’s grimoire (deck of spell cards) that can be used to eliminate an alien once certain conditions have been met. The idea is that on your turn you may cast a manipulation spell to get aliens where you need them, and then cast an elimination spell to eliminate an alien. You can keep casting spells as long as you keep having successful card drops. If your card drop fails you must undo one of your cast spells from that turn.

The grid will be composed of aliens of different types on different color backgrounds. For simplicity this image shows two types and two colors:

The Alien grid that must be eliminated! (icons from game-icons.net)

The Alien grid that must be eliminated! (icons from game-icons.net)

The idea is that your spells will manipulate and rearrange the grid to get the aliens right where you want them. Once you’ve got them in the right spots you can cast an elimination spell that allows you to capture one of them. Once the required number have been captured by a player the game will be over.

Your Designer Perspective…

What did I miss? Is this a concept that could work? Are there any glaring holes in the design? Anything broken?

These are some of the best questions you can ask other designers at designer prototype events like Unpub and Protospiel. I like to ask them of myself and step back to take a birds eye view of my game designs from time to time. That’s all part of these game design exercises! Thanks for reading.

Designer Doldrums – And how to get out!

What do you do when the wind stops blowing?

It’s usually this time of the year that I don’t put much effort into game design. Between Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas each about a month apart there’s always something to be looking forward to during these months. And that also typically means I travel more than normal to make sure I visit family.

So I find myself in the designer doldrums. A place no designer wants to be, yet I’m guessing we all find our way here at one point or another. My visit to the doldrums is aided by the upcoming Kickstarter campaign for Scoville. There’s been a lot going on behind the scenes and it has captured my attention like going on a first date. Never-the-less, I am adrift in the game design ocean and the wind has stopped blowing.

Today’s self-help article is all about how to get inspired and out of the doldrums. I am presenting 5 ways to get back in the game. So when you find yourself without inspiration or desire to design, try out these five things:

Play New Games

This one is a fairly obvious option. By playing games that are new to you you can get inside the mind of other designers. New games often have new quirks to mechanics that you may not have seen before. Those quirks might inspire you to try out a new mechanic of your own.

Read a Book

Often when you enter into someone’s creative world you can pick up little things that might inspire you. By reading a book you may find that you love the story and could be inspired to design a game that fits the theme. The other benefit of reading a book is that you get whisked away from everything else on your mind. You can get lost in the world inside the story. It’s often these moments of escape where you brain gets inspired!

Watch a Documentary

For inspiration I prefer documentaries over normal movies. Documentaries often share the nitty gritty of some topic that you otherwise might not find interesting. And often it is the nitty gritty that can give you inspiration. My first hand example is with my design for Brooklyn Bridge. I was watching a BBC documentary about it and the whole idea of sending workers into a caisson while risking caisson’s disease was really inspiring. It seemed to be something that could be a fun game mechanic. So find an interesting documentary and see if it reveals any interesting game mechanics!

Visit a National Park

One of my favorite ways to get inspired is to simply get outdoors. Despite the cold weather moving in, if you can get to a park and let your mind relax and forget about all the other stuff that makes your life busy, then you might be able to get inspired. While nature itself isn’t necessarily the thing that I look to for game mechanics, it is the place I can go to do some clear thinking about game mechanics. Plus, who doesn’t like to smell the fresh air and get away from things for a while?

Clean Your Workspace

This last one isn’t nearly as fun as the first four, but I find it can be just as inspiring. My workbench and design area often fills up with clutter, game components, tools, and more. The result is that it becomes a non-useable space. The clutter ends up hindering my design abilities. So every once in a while I like to spend an afternoon and completely overhaul the space and get it cleaned up. Once that workspace is pristine I find that I can sit there and really think about game design. If your workspace is cluttered, then perhaps your brain is cluttered too. Clean up your desk and your mind will be able to work better.

***

Those are some of the ways that I like to break out of the designer doldrums. Where do you turn for inspiration and ambition?

Design Me: Tile Placement

Two weeks ago I started this new bi-weekly feature called Design Me. The idea is that I come up with a random game design on the fly in an act of basically barfing a design into words that you are now reading! For the first Design Me I came up with a dice drafting/worker placement game called The Rolling Wort Boil. Today, after soliciting theme suggestions on Twitter and receiving none (I assume you all were at lunch) I have decided to collaborate with an awesome new tool available.

The tool is called Boardgamizer. It is a website that punches you in the gut with ideas for game designs. The way it works is it randomly chooses Mechanics, Themes, Victory Conditions, and Constraints. Then it’s up to you to let your mind plug away and come up with something. That basically makes Boardgamizer the perfect tool for these articles!

Here is the result for today:

Distopian Flight Tile Placement? Sounds good to me!

Distopian Flight Tile Placement? Sounds good to me!

Hou-ti-son Basin

I’d fly in that!

The concept behind Hou-ti-son Basin is that the world has undergone massive changes. With the invention of flying automobiles, referred to as aircars, the road infrastructure has been completely neglected and mostly destroyed. There are only a few roads left that can be landed on. The other development is that with the aircars came aircar accidents. In the air there are no roads, so people would fly wherever they wanted, however fast they wanted.

Unfortunately when aircars crash in the air, they fall to the ground, often on houses or buildings. That’s not so good.

The other problem with the future is that supplies are very limited. People have to make death-defying flights to scary locations where they are put at risk so that they can purchase the supplies they need. But at the same time, they must be careful not to stock too many supplies at their “base of operations” lest they become a target of theft.

How To Play

At it’s heart, Hou-ti-son Basin is a tile placement game. Each turn players will draw and place a tile like they do in Carcassonne. However, the main thing that differentiates Hou-ti-son Basin from Carcassonne is that the tiles will be used for movement. This probably makes it more similar to Tsuro or Cable Car.

But there’s a catch. Players may place tiles on top of already existing tiles. The tiles themselves will show the flight paths that you are allowed to take with your craft. But flight paths are expensive to register with the recently founded Hou-ti-son Basin Aerial Flight Commision Ministry of Aerial Convenience. That means you’ll likely have to share the cost burden with your opponents by adding and sharing your flight paths. That save money, but opens the door to thievery and aircar accidents.

To win the game you will have to defend your base. That means you have to successfully fly out and procure the correct types of resources and return them to your base. This also means that you will have to protect your base from thievery. If other player have a flight path that connects to your base, they then have the capability to fly in there and steal some of your resources. To prevent that you will need to be close enough to your base to eliminate their flight path that gives them access.

So each player will have a secret card that shows their victory condition. These are different combinations of resources that they need to procure. If at any time their victory condition is met, all of the players will have one more turn to try to also meet their victory condition. If there are multiple players that meet their victory condition on the same turn, then the player with the most resources will win.

Tile Placement

The tiles themselves represent the different resources in the game. For the sake of simplicity for this article I have created three different types. Let’s pretend they are water (blue), corn (green), and biomass (brown). Here are the available tile types in this quick design exercise:

The six types of tiles in Hou-ti-son Basin.

The six types of tiles in Hou-ti-son Basin.

There are a few rules to how tiles can be placed:

  • White flight paths must line up.
  • A tile can only be placed over a tile of the same color.
  • Tiles can never be place over one’s starting base.
  • Tiles must be placed orthogonal to already existing tiles.

The resources a player earns in the game are a direct result of their flight path. If a flight path has three or more of any type (color) of resource in a row, you earn one of those resources when you fly your aircar. If a flight path has 5 or more of the same color in a row, you earn 3 of that resource. So players will need to carefully place their flight paths so that they can earn the resources they need.

Here is the starting map:

Warning: ugly prototype art!

Warning: ugly prototype art!

More Details…

I’m not a huge fan of the “defending your base” victory thing. Nor am I necessarily a huge fan of the hidden victory conditions for this game. But my brain already spewed those words into this article and therefore they shall remain.

I prefer this option: There are 8 flight paths into/out of your base. That means you can create four loop paths during the game if you fly out of one and into another. So I would have the game played where players can complete up to four loops. You earn resources for each of those four loops. Once a loop has been used, it’s “into/out of” spots are used up and unavailable. So players cannot just keep using the same flight path over and over.

The game would end when someone has completed their fourth loop. Each other player would have the chance for one more turn. The winner would be the player who has earned the most resources from their completed loops.

Your Thoughts?

Remember that the point of these Design Me articles is to basically “practice” designing games. It’s fun to use a tool like Boardgamizer to choose some random mechanics and themes and see what you can come up with. So the game design thoughts above aren’t necessarily meant to become the next awesome game design, though I think this one could particularly be fun.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts or comments about this game design or about the Design Me concept.

Thanks for reading!

Sourcing Game Components: Meeples

A Mash of Meeples!

Last week I posted the first in this series of four articles about sourcing components for your board game designs. That article was about sources for cards. Today I’m covering my go-to sources for meeples to use in games. Here’s the list of what I’m covering in this whole “Sourcing” series:

  • Sourcing Cards – 9/5/13
  • Sourcing Meeples – Today!
  • Sourcing Chits – 9/19/13
  • Sourcing Dice – 9/26/13

So that’s the list I’m working with. Those are probably the four main components you are likely to use in a prototype. When I refer to “Meeples” I am referring to the components that are used to mark your spot or location on the board or player mats. Meeples can mean different things to different people.

As I wrote last week I want to give credit to the list that inspired me to write these articles. This list is much more exhaustive than mine since I am just highlighting a few of the major suppliers. But here’s the list so you can check it out yourself:

http://spotlightongames.com/list/design/component.html

I have picked a few of those sources to add to the ones I also use. And like last week I’ll start with The Game Crafter since they are my go-to source for these things.

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The Game Crafter

First things first: If you order pawns or anything that doesn’t have to be printed, you still need to wait your turn in the production queue. I recently placed an order for 30 pawns that cost a total of about $5 and I started out as #550 in the queue. The estimated ship date was October first. I know that they have the pawns just sitting over there. I bet I could drive over and simply ask if I could buy the 30 pawns and get them the same day.

The avatar pawn

Here is their page for pawns: The Game Crafter – Pawns

I like to use the Avatar pawns. They cost 14 cents each and are not ugly. These have worked well for me in the past and I’m looking forward to getting my set of new pawns so that I have enough for a few more prototype copies of Scoville. They are just simple and easy. No need to get complicated for a prototype! But if you want to mix things up, this next source might be the right one for you…

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Meeple Source

My favorite is the pirate with the peg leg!

I’ve never bought from Meeple Source, but after giving their site a long, drooling look I think they might serve me well in the future. They offer the following categories of meeples from which to choose:

Wow. And if that wasn’t enough, you can also check out their Plush Meeples!

This site has a TON of meeples to offer and I’m afraid I should have listed them lower in this article because I feel there really isn’t any sense for you to continue reading. But please continue anyway!

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SpielMaterial.de

Is that Gandalf the Red??

If you happen to be an awesome reader from Europe, I’m glad you’re here. If you are interested in meeples or pawns, then you might be interested in ordering from SpielMaterial.de. They are a European vendor of board game component awesomeness.

Here are some links:

SpielMaterial – Pawns

SpielMaterial – Persons

They have so much to offer that it’s worth just browsing on their website. You might get inspired for a game design simply by looking at all the things they can sell you.

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Boards & Bits

I have ordered from Boards & Bits in the past and was pleased with the service I received. Boards & Bits must have a HUGE warehouse to accommodate all the products that they carry. Their options go well beyond pawns and meeples. Their website isn’t the greatest since it is a little difficult to navigate, but they just offer so many things that I can easily look past that.

Boards & Bits – “Bits” page

You will mostly find typical meeples and pawns at Boards & Bits. They don’t offer the painted meeples the way that Meeple Source and SpielMaterial do. But if you want a cheap source for prototype worthy pawns, then perhaps Boards & Bits is for you!

Horizontal RuleCraftParts.com

What a lovely little meeple family!

If you are only interested in little wooden people, then maybe you should check out Craft Parts. They offer a small assortment of wooden people figures that might work great in your prototype.

CraftParts.com – Little Wooden People

These components range in size from 1 1/8th inch to 3 9/16th inches. So these are quite a bit larger than your standard meeples. But maybe that’s what your looking for because you typically play games with giants. These will help those giants grab onto the pawns much easier!

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So there are a few of the numerous online sources for meeples and pawns. If there are any major vendors that I have overlooked, please let me know and I will update this list. Thanks for reading!

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