Game Design Tip: Don't alliterate game terms.

We had a tornado warning over our city early this morning. I'm still a little woozy, so forgive the blitheness of this blog post.

See, blearily waking up to a blaring weather radio, tornado sirens, and power flashes is not the best time to distinguish the finer details between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. One means "oh, I can sleep a little bit longer" and the other means "get to shelter now." Kinda important, so you'd think they would be more distinct from each other. Nope.

Thankfully our city was spared, but this incident brings up an important tip for any game designer:

Do not alliterate your game terms!

For example, if you are designing an RPG and you have stats representing how much your hero Kronk can lift, go ahead and call that Strength.

But if you need a stat representing how much of a beating Kronk can sustain, do NOT call that Stamina. It's too close to "strength" and has the same mouth-feel. Try Bulk, Health, Constitution, Armor, anything that doesn't start with "str" or rhyme with strength.

Another example, Heroclix has three defensive powers called Invincible, Impervious, and Invulnerability. All three powers are apparently slightly different from each other, but close enough to be confusing.

My Rules of Thumb for Game Terms

  1. Game terms are verbal icons. Just like icons, they should be distinct.
  2. Use a different initial letter for each key term.
  3. Make each key term short and easy to say out loud.
  4. If you must break any of the above rules, don't group similar key terms in the same part of the game. For example, if "strength" is most often used in a combat system, you can use "strain" or  "strife" or "straight-laced" in a completely different system.
In short, your game terms should be as different from each other as a square and a circle.

Game Design Outside the Euro-American Binary

Here's a cool article from about a year ago about "weird" human behavior researcher Joe Heinrich discovered when he played perception and fairness games with indigenous and non-Western cultures. (Here's a link straight to his paper.)

What's Fair?

In the Ultimatum Game, anonymous separate participants play for cash. One player gets all the cash and must offer an amount to the other player, but if the recipient declines the offer, then both players don't get any money. What we would expect is the giver to offer a 50-50 split because it's fair. Anyone greedy enough to offer less than that risks losing the whole pot.

Here is what happened when he played with the Machiguenga, the indigenous Peruvians of Machu Pichu:

Photo Source
"When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”"

Turns out that North Americans have a peculiar set of cultural circumstances that make our cognitive development statistically uncharacteristic compared to the rest of the world. Therefore, the psychology tests, perception tests, studies of fairness, economics, game theory, and all that other stuff we believe to be universal to humanity is in fact just idiosyncratic. Shocking!

Photo: Gold West Prototype, mysterybaer

The Euro-American Binary

Okay, maybe not so surprising to game designers. In the hobby industry, we're already familiar with stereotypical differences between "Ameritrash" and "Euro" games. Those divisions are becoming non-existent, as more North American designers employ streamlined sense of design, while European designers adopt sillier, action-packed themes.

So you might ask why Heinrich's findings matter to you if your audience is typically familiar with American and European sphere. Sure, if you were designing a game for the Machiguenga, you would have to do a bit more research to see which "difficult" choices are actually all that difficult in their culture, but otherwise why look outside of our cultural environment?

To do so ignores how selective the data is in current psychology, with little representation outside of the Western academic context. According to Psychology Today:

  •  96% of subjects come from Western industrialized nations, which contain only 12% of the world's population.
  • 67% of American subjects and 80% of international subjects are undergraduate psychology students.
  • An American undergraduate is 4,000 times more likely to be a subject in a psychology experiment than a random person outside the West.

Not exactly the most representative sample, eh?

Photo Source

Design from the World

No culture is monolithic, and strains of differences thread through any community. Certainly on an individual level, people have different senses of fairness and equitable trade. That makes games fun!  That also makes Heinrich's findings all the more pertinent for all game designers.

There are many logical fallacies and behavioral trends we might consider universal elements in ludology, including loss aversion, sunk cost fallacies, prisoner's dilemmas, and so on. How much of our understanding of these phenomena are compromised because their source data comes from a tiny American sub-population?

I look forward to the days to come when game designers outside of the Euro-American binary bring a fresh perspective to our craft . We already see inroads...

  • ...from Japan in the form of Seiji Kanai's Love Letter and Lost Legacy.
  • Masao Suganuma's Machi Koro should prove to be a big hit when it finally gets an official translation stateside.
  • Taiwan's Ta-Te Wu has published a handful of card games through Z-Man Games, including Mountain of Inferno.
  • And of course perennial party game Mafia was designed by Dimitry Davidoff in Moscow way back in the '80s.

I'd love to hear about any more designers from outside Europe or North America. Any to share? What new insights into game design and player behavior are coming from around the world?

Monsoon Market art, inspired by Jamini Roy

Here's a quick preview of the art I'm putting together for the cards in Monsoon Market. I was really inspired by the style of Jamini Roy, so I tried my hand at emulating his geometric and quasi-cubist rendering in vector. Specifically, I wanted to try my hand at the radial symmetry of traditional playing card art.

My aim at the moment is to have four different goods as a primary suit depicted by the top icon and unique piece of art; varying quantities of coins based on rarity, which may also tie into color schemes or a background pattern; and maaaybe a tiebreaker letter if it becomes necessary in playtests.

I've hired another designer to do the icons for me so those are just placeholders in her hand at the moment. Rest assured, mashed potatoes aren't a suit in the game. :)

Inspiration: The Art of Jamini Roy (1887-1972)

In searching for artistic inspiration for my card game Monsoon Market, I came across the work of early Modernist Indian painter Jamini Roy. His distinctive style of large eyes, simple geometric shapes, and flat perspective still feels fresh. He also sometimes depicted Western subjects in an Indian context, which makes him sort of a postmodernist, too.

Maybe I like his work because it would make pretty cool playing cards, too.

Geeking Out about Card Distribution: Multi-Triangle Card Deck

I like playing around with unusual deck distributions and seeing what potentially thematic confluences emerge. You've seen me do this with my wabi-sabi method and my crystal mandala method. Here's a card deck inspired by James Earnest's triangular deck, in which each card has one number, which represents how common that card is in the deck. So one 1, two 2s, three 3s, and so on.

I tried making a card deck in which each suit was its own triangle, ranging from 1-4. One suit would be a traditional triangle, while each other suit would have 2, 3, or 4, as the most common number, shifting all subsequent numbers in the sequence up one position in rarity. To further distinguish cards within a suit, I gave each a unique letter rank A-J. Also, regardless of what the actual number was, I labeled each category of rarity by a precious metal, from copper to platinum.

Some interesting things happened as a result, which are easier to see when the spreadsheet is reorganized.

Organizing by number, you can see that each number appears exactly ten times, with the suits being the triangle in their case. And again, it seems that each letter rank only appears once for each number.

Organizing by letter rank, we get another interesting result. The rarity groups are organized by alphabetical order! All the coppers are ABCD, silvers are EFG, golds are HI, and platinum is J.

Also, if you add up all the ranks in copper, you get 40. All the silver ranks are 30. All the gold ranks are 20. All the platinum ranks are 10. Iiiinteresting.

This doesn't have a theme to it necessarily. I used the suit names based on Monsoon Market, but you could as easily make them Hearts, Spades, etc. Maybe because it's multiple triangles, you can call it a "mountain" deck? Make each suit a famous mountain range, with each numeral representing an individual mountain? I dunno! What do you think you could use this deck for?

Game Design Conversation with Kory Heath, TC Petty, Daniel Solis

Since our last conversation was abruptly cut short, Kory Heath and I scheduled another hangout and invited TC Petty to join us. This time we go deeper into our respective game design processes, how those vary due to our long-term ambitions, and when we decide to stop working on a game. It's a really fun and lively discussion that opens with TC pitching a silly dexterity challenge game that makes me stick cards in my afro.


Cargo-Themed Trick-Taking for Monsoon Market

The last several tests have shown me that my darling drafting/trading mechanism in Monsoon Market just isn't working out the way I hoped. It might work another time, for another theme... but for this game, it's just gotta be put aside. The main issue was that the mechanism just played itself. Choices were too simple and rote. Any way I could think to make the drafting more interesting just tread well-worn ground already covered by Sushi Go, Among the Stars, or 7 Wonders.

The Good Stuff
However, the Boom/Bust cycle actually works out really well. It makes some nice ebb and flow in commodity values. So I need to find a more interesting method of card acquisition, one that remains simple enough for a light strategy experience, but deep enough that even a two-player game is satisfying.

So I'm thinking about a shift in perspective. Instead of each player representing their own port along the Indian Ocean trade route, they might all be playing in the same port, with multiple ships headed to different destinations like Srivijaya or Calicut or Mombasa.

Playing a bit of Chronicle, Was Sticht, 6 Nimmt, Poison and SmashUp has clearly deeply infected my brain, because I'm just swimming in trick-taking ideas lately. Here's a simple one that has been on my mind lately.

Loading Cargo
Let's assume a simple deck of cards with numerical ranks. The game begins with each player having a hand of five cards, and four cards in the middle of the table face-up, as shown below. Imagine these are boats, and their rank is their cargo capacity.

Four boats, with cargo capacity of 12, 8, 2, and 3.

On your turn, dump cargo or load cargo.

Dump Cargo: Discard a card from your hand onto the discard pile.

Load Cargo: Place a card from your hand on any one of the three piles. (Resolve any Actions.)

After loading cargo, you may deliver cargo...

Delivering Cargo: If you cause the total ranks of cargo cards to exceed the boat's capacity, then collect all cards presently in that pile and replace it with the card you just played. This new card is a new boat in that dock. (Note: The first card in a pile only counts as a boat, not cargo.)

You cause the cargo to exceed this boat's capacity,
so you collect the 12 and 10, replacing it with the 5.

Then draw back up to a full hand from the top of the discard pile or from the deck.

That's a simple easy-peasy trick-taking mechanism similar to what you'd see in Poison or SmashUp, but with strong potential for Kanai-style action cards coupled to each rank, triggered by a Load action. Here are some examples.
  1. Load again.
  2. Move card from one boat to another, as if you had loaded it.
  3. Take a card from a boat into your hand.
  4. Immediately collect this boat.
  5. Take a card from any player's collection into your hand.
  6. Discard this boat.
  7. Place a card from your hand directly into any player's collection.
  8. Draw an extra card at the end of your turn, discard back down to five.
  9. Increase this boat's cargo capacity by 6.
Anyway, that's what I'm testing this week, paired with the boom/bust set collection mechanism. We'll see how it turns out!

Conversation with Kory Heath: Game Design Process and Standards [Video]

Last week, I got into a little discussion with Kory Heath (designer of Zendo and co-designer of Criminals) about his preference to spend more time on a single game to make sure it meets his very high standards, rather than releasing more frequent games that may be of a lower standard.

My internet connection at the time was really dodgy, so we get cut off at around the 30min mark. Still, the short conversation covered lots of tantalizing topics, including the different goals of game design when it is a hobby vs. when it is a business.

Eventually we got to talking about our "perfect games." For Kory, it's Take It Easy. For me, it's No Thanks. We got to wondering if the designer of No Thanks would himself consider his game to be of a very high standard. Well, industrious friend T.C. Petty actually contacted Thorsten Gimmler on German facebook to ask the man himself!

Check out Thorsten's response on T.C.'s blog:
"Hi Thomas,
Do I have a perfect board game? I have more than 2000 games at home. I think that there are some perfect board games between. But I can´t say, that this is the one and only! šŸ˜‰ I have a lot of games that I love!
I think that “No Thanks” is one of my best games. Is it a perfect game? I think that this is something other people had to decide.”
Seems like a very nice fellow!

Anyhoo, I hope I can record more of these conversations with other designers in the future.

Bird Bucks

Sometimes I have a silly idea and I just have to see it through to the end. Last night I was thinking about all the cool dollar redesigns I used to see in college. Then I remembered a while back that I had planned on making a deck of generic currency/point cards since I so often need them in my own games. (Chips are fine, of course, but I wanted something fancy.

Here is my initial stab at this. I'm not sure if there's a game here per se, but at least they can be handy as generic point counters. I'll refine these a bit and put them up on DriveThruCards soon. And maybe I can come up with a game that uses these, too? Hm!

Mentoring Jaren Maddock's Card Game Graphic Design (Google Helpouts)

Graphic design student Jaren Maddock is designing a card game for his class and asked me to mentor him on icon design, card design, and art direction. It just so happens I've got a Google Helpouts service for just such a subject! Jaren was kind enough to let me record our meetings so I could use them as examples of my Google Helpout consultation. Hope you dig!

If you need a quick graphic design consultation for your tabletop game, schedule a Google Helpout with me!

"Are you STILL not afraid of someone stealing your idea?"

In a huff, I wrote about how I'm not worried about my ideas being stolen. I claimed ideas are overvalued by the mystique of the auteur, which also undervalues the plain ol' hard work and time it takes to turn ideas into actual buyable things.

The post got so much attention that Open Source Way asked if I'd write up a slightly modified version for their site, which I did, and which became one of their most-read articles of 2013. Not a bad run for a rambling little rant.

Well, now it's up for a People's Choice Award! Go vote for it, please! Voting is open until April 14!

Okay, one caveat
I'd also like to add a caveat to that post, in case it wasn't clear originally. I can only speak to my own experience as one fish (independent designer) in a tiny pond (POD card games) that is itself part of a relatively small biome (tabletop games) in an immense ecosystem (the games and entertainment industry as a whole.) We're too tiny and bony to eat.

The Big Scary Cloud
Suffice it to say, anyone who wants to steal ideas likely has financial goals in mind, and those goals are easier to achieve in other media.

Namely, mobile apps. Alas, over and over and over there are stories about alleged copycats large and small, allegedly taking a modestly successful mobile game and spinning it as their own without attribution to the original source.

As I noted in my original post, this process is normal part of cultural diffusion and iteration. No ideas are original, they all come from what came before, and only have value once work has been applied to make them a viable product. Parallel evolution and homages happen all the time without any malicious intent.

What is unfortunate is the ease and speed with which mobile apps can be cloned, before the original creators can get their admittedly tiny reward for their immense amount of work. In the case of Threes, the app was copied by 1024 and later 2048, in a matter of days. Though Threes is a better designed experience, the fast, free, accessible clone got a bit of mainstream attention.

That's a nightmare for any creator and an understandable cloud over the hobby game market. Yet...

What are we selling here anyway?
Here is what hobby game publishers literally sell: Objects. The actual game design is not protected by copyright or trademark or even any patents (well, sort of). Only thing that's protected is the expression of those ideas, and even then that protection is only worth the amount of legal fees the owner of those expressions is willing to shell out.

If you have the idea for tortilla golf, great, but the people making money are the ones making, selling, and delivering tortillas. 

Hobby game designers and publishers are somewhat protected from the hassles experienced by our digital counterparts. Our works have the rather dubious honor of being too costly and slow to be a tempting target for theft. Even in cases of overseas counterfeit products, they seem to me more like a convenience-driven business, originating in response to the high cost of shipping or products going out of print.

That may change with the advent of 3d printing and other technologies that make high-resolution objects easier to manufacture at point of sale. In my case, that technology is print-on-demand card decks, and it's been a boon to my own livelihood. I can fast-track card game ideas that I would've kept languishing on my shelf while I waited for the right publisher to have room on their development and production schedule.

A Brief Aside
This slow process is ironically what lends credibility to any publisher's catalog. Because the publishing process is often glacial, a publisher's reputation is based on which products they choose to develop and bring to market. The objects are what is actually being sold, but that rep is what compels a buyer to pick that publisher's objects over another.

For now the tradeoffs of POD are increased cost per unit and lower market visibility, but those can be resolved in time. When manufacturing becomes perfect and instantaneous, then I'll be worried about my ideas being stolen. Maybe.

But for now, nah, I'm good.

(Image Source)

More Game Icons on Patreon!

I'm still making new game icons on Patreon! I uploaded a new batch a couple weeks ago based on patrons' suggestions. If you have any recommendations, feel free to join the project! Oh! I also added a premium tier that gives you access to my grab bag of Photoshop Actions, textures, layered files, and more stuff I use on a daily basis. There's some really good stuff here!

To clarify the intent of this project, I'm really focusing on icons for in-game actions, reflecting actual real-world verbs. If your game has swords, space cannons, hit points, and that sort of thing, I'd recommend hitting up the Noun Project or Game-Icons. They both have plenty of thematic icons that cover those bases.

But if you need icons stuff that happens at the table – flipping a coin, stepping a die up or down, or drawing a card from an opponent's hand – then this project is for you! 100% vector icons for real world game actions.

"Boom and Bust" Set Collection Mechanism

In Nine Lives, one of the central scoring mechanisms is "scratches." You're trying to rescue stray cats without getting scratched too much. Whoever is scratched the least scores 1 point per scratch they've collected. So there is a really strong incentive to undercut other players in that set collection mechanism.

The Basic Idea
I'd like to explore this even further by tying it to player-controlled valuations and rarity. Here's the idea... Let's assume we have a game about rare metals and gems. Call them Gold, Silver, Diamonds, and Rubies. Each 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 of each resource will be converted to 1 point depending on how rare that resource is in a player's collection. So for example...

  • Player with least Gold scores 1 point per Gold
  • Player with second-least Gold scores 1 point per two Gold.
  • Player with third-least Gold scores 1 point per three Gold.

And so on, with the same structure for all other resources. So Bob might really value Gold while Sue is facing a glut of the worthless stuff. Okay, sounds simple enough. Now I want to take this one step further.

One Step Further
What if collecting the resources in a game-round didn't just score your points for that round, but also adjusted the value of those very same resources in the next round. And the next round after that. And on and on... For example:

  • Player with least Gold will score 1 pt per Gold in the next round.
  • Player with second-least Gold will score 1 pt per two Gold in the next round.
  • Player with third-least Gold will score 1 pt per three Gold in the next round.

So the first round of set-collection doesn't even earn you points, it just sets your values for the next round. In the image at the top of this post, Bob gets the best rate of return on books and leather. Meg gets the best rate from wood. Sam gets the best rate from gold.

Boom and Bust
Going into the next round, Bob will want to get as many books and leather as he can while the price is good. But then books and leather are going to be worth far, far less for him in the next round. Everyone goes like this, in boom and bust cycles.

I'm incorporating this into Monsoon Market as an elegant method of valuing and revaluing various sets.

TEN PEN the Card-Sliding Game is now on DriveThruCards!

Look out below! My brand new card-sliding game TEN PEN is now available on DriveThruCards! I'm so pleased with the response this game is getting already. I managed to get quite a few playtests of this at game stores and out-and-about since it's such a portable idea. All you need is the cards and a long table, suddenly you've got a shuffleboard anywhere. It's so easy, I made a Vine of how it works!

Slide your penguin at the melting iceberg. Whoever is closest gets first choice of the tasty treats that emerge! It's a really simple game great for kids or closing out a long game night. Hope you dig it!

March 2014 Sales Report

When I decided to do monthly sales reports on the first day of each month, I didn't think about April Fool's Day. Ah well, just rest assured this post is good ol' boring number crunching. As you may recall, December had a huge spike in holiday sales, followed by a precipitous drop in January that rolled into the short sales period of February. I was wondering when (or whether) my plan for monthly releases would create enough overlapping long tails to save a rough first quarter. Let's see.

12x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game +4 from Feb
7x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) +4 from Feb
7x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) +4 from Feb
11x Koi Pond: Moon Temple +2 from Feb
3x Suspense: the Card Game -4 from Feb
9x Nine Lives Card Game +7 from Feb
15x Penny Farthing Catapult -1 from Feb
15x Regime (New!)
$740.05 Retail
$270.67 Royalties

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
180 Products Sold
$1648.84 Retail
$619.05 Royalties

In last month's sales report, I anticipated a big opening debut for REGIME. It released earlier in the month than any prior release, so it simply had more time to make more sales. It has an art style that really captured a lot of people's interest. I'm hoping to continue that trend releasing products earlier and earlier in the month, to ensure a more complete record of sales strength. The goal next month: Monsoon Market!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.