Board Gaming, Game Design

Design Part II: Rise of the Machines

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” – Carl Sagan
Well said, Carl.

Okay, okay, I’m still talking about design stuff here, but after writing this post, I had to come back to the top here and offer a disclaimer that there is less design talk here than originally promised.

Next time, Gadget. Next time.

There is no argument about it, we are living in a Renaissance Age for board games.

There have been huge evolutionary strides in the world of design (and of gaming in general) and games of every type are infiltrating the mainstream.

Sure, video games are leading the charge here and when most people hear the term “gamer” they think of the guy staring at a screen with an intense focus powered solely by Mountain Dew, shouting into his headset. That’s not really my scene, but I recognize that it’s a vital part of the culture at large.

More and more, some of the games we know about are sneaking out into the non-gamer world. Someone commented on an earlier blog post that their Target carried Ticket to Ride. I was very pleased by this. Facebook has an app in the works for Thunderstone. Ascension is already an app for tablet users.

This is actually something mildly distressing to me, that so many games that require physical presence are being converted to remove the social aspect of it. There are valid reasons for this happening.

First and foremost, price. As I am learning, games are prohibitively expensive to create. Publishing can be a very fickle business. Were it not for things like Kickstarter, someone looking to self-publish more than some print-and-play PDFs would be taking a huge risk with a lot of money. Secondly, technology marches on.

As a culture we are becoming increasingly immersed in (and dependent upon) on modern technology. My 4 year old daughter knew how to use an iPad to do the things she wanted to do at 3. I think I could probably turn it on.


All studies indicate that more people will be accessing the internet through their tablet or smart phone by 2015 than people using actual computers.

I’m no exception to this. Until very recently, I had a phone with…let’s say a very poor education level. My girlfriend’s kids were bewildered at the lack of a touch screen or games.

It died after years of faithful service in harsh conditions, and I joined the modern world where my phone is concerned. I know I am doing approximately 2% of what my phone is capable of doing.

Computers won’t go completely by the wayside. I can’t imagine trying to update the blog from my phone. I know I *can*, but ugh. I’m getting pretty far off topic though, so time to rope it back around.

Part of design nowadays is wondering how your product is going to translate to that medium, because if you want the game to be ultimately successful in reaching a lot of people, you’re going to have to consider electronic versions of your game. Some games, I feel while mechanically they would work fine online, you would miss a lot from the social experience. A couple of games stand out in my head.

A Game of Thrones is currently my favorite war game. Not just because I’m a huge A Song of Ice and Fire nerd either. Though I totally am. I haven’t picked up the 2nd Edition, and it’s unlikely that I will, it doesn’t seem that enough has changed to warrant the investment.

I’ve heard many comparisons to Diplomacy, though I have not played that one myself so I can’t really speak to the comparison with any personal experience. For those of you unaware of the series or the game, SHAME ON YOU. Once you’ve been suitably punished for your negligence, come on back. I’ll wait.

I can’t even look at you right now, but I’ll go on for the people in the know. The game is based off of the fantasy book series by George R.R. Martin.

In it, control over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is fought over by the six noble families of the land. Each family has their own feel and starts in a different position on the map. Any game mechanics that can duplicate some of the joy I feel when I play Chaos in the Old World rock.

While not so radically different as the Ruinous Powers,  the families do play differently enough to create a completely new game experience every time around. The most interesting part of this game (and why I brought it up) comes when it’s time to take actions. Players discuss their plans for the turn.

They will forge alliances and temporary truces, make agreements to move out of the way, or give support against a greater foe, etc. The orders given to your armies are given in the form of cardboard chits that are placed facedown on the board. After all orders are given, they are all simultaneously revealed.

Time to see who actually lives up to the agreements made just minutes before. In my personal experience, I’ve lost count of the number of betrayals. The number of plans that went through as agreed upon I can count on one dynamite-maimed hand. Your mileage may vary, especially if you aren’t friends with a bunch of duplicitous a-holes.

Anyway, I could totally see this game being played on a computer, but I’m very glad it isn’t. Yet, anyway. The social aspect of this game is a crucial element. The game could be played without it, but I can’t imagine it would create anything akin the same feel.  Knowledge of the books isn’t necessary, but I find it adds a little flavor to the game.

One of us always tells the truth. The other one tells nothing but lies.

The other game that immediately jumped to mind is Battlestar Galactica, which is one of my all-time favorites.

I should also mention I have a penchant for masochism. In Battlestar Galactica, all of the players are co-operatively trying to spare humanity from total extinction by running like hell from the genocidal Cylons.

The problem is, one of the players is secretly a Cylon and working against the other players. Every turn, the humans have to make choices about how to deal with various problems and the choices are always Bad or Also Bad.

If there were any good choices, it would be entirely too easy to out the rat bastard toaster and move on with your life.

Forced to swallow only bad choices, it creates a lot of tension among the humans, and whenever choices are made, everyone is trying to decide if the bad choice made was truly the lesser of two evils, which creates a very real sense of paranoia.

This bit of fun is compounded by the notion that the humans start with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, so when the humans start fighting among themselves, another bad choice can easily spell their doom.

You can throw someone you suspect to be a traitor in The Brig, which limits the influence they have on the game. It also limits the help they can provide, so if an innocent human is imprisoned, it seriously hampers the humans, who already had it bad to begin with. A savvy Cylon player often has to do nothing but sit back and watch the humans eat each other.

Again, this is a game I could see being played in an online format, but the social aspect is even more important than in A Game of Thrones. Body language is important in BSG. Being able to convincingly act as stressed as the rest of the players when you really don’t have anything to worry your robotic heart over is a coveted talent.

Also similarly, knowledge of the series isn’t required, but it adds a considerable amount of flavor to the game. It’s also a bonus that my girlfriend totally loved this game.

Both of these games I could see on a PC, but I think both would suffer huge losses from doing so. Online gaming will not replace physical presence entirely (at least hopefully not in my life time), but there’s no doubt that this is where the industry is going, which is something that needs to be considered in your own designs.

Next time: More actual design-y stuff.


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