Airport Rush – Part 2

This is part two in a series about the ongoing process of creating a board game. (Part one is here.)

Generally when you ask a game designer what kinds of games he or she likes to create if the answer is anything but “The kinds of games I like to play, duh” then he or she is lying. Even when we attempt to stray outside that comfort zone, so much of game design is based on feel. What dynamics “feel” right are the same dynamics that “feel” fun in others’ games. It is a tough trap to escape and can really only be tempered by enjoying a wide variety of games lest one be resigned to creating the same things over and over again.

So back to the experience of designing a board game. I generally like the medium-heaviness European-style board games, so it should not surprise you that Airport Rush is designed to be a medium-heaviness European-style board game. What does that even mean? Well, it is wonderfully vague. “Heaviness” is generally defined as the amount of complexity in learning and playing the game. A light game would be Uno. A heavy game would be one of those tabletop wargames that takes eight days to play. A medium game falls somewhere neatly inbetween.

There’s a subgenre in this culture of board gaming called “gateway games” which is generally used as a pejorative. These games are light enough to attract players who wouldn’t normally play more complicated games, but offer enough interesting choices to at least be passibly interesting to the hardcore board gamers. Hitting this sweet spot was a goal of mine simply because I wanted to simultaneously create something others would enjoy and create something with tactical depth. Unfortunately, the game fell to a complexity creep that drags it a bit heavier than I’d hoped, but in the end, this complexity made it a better game. I still have time to strip out nonessential elements if I get the desire and inspiration.

One of the most successful gateway games is Alan Moon’s Ticket to Ride. Where most railway games (yes, that is indeed a busy subgenre!) deal with very heavy mechanics: bidding, terrain types, stock, loans, and so forth, Ticket to Ride strips everything but one-dimensional track laying. In doing so it is able to do something elegent with the order of play that I think is part of its success. Every player gets to do one thing on their turn: draw cards, lay track or claim tickets. There is no action point system and thus no long turns where players sit and wonder what they can accomplish in a single turn until their opponents pelt them with bricks. The game moves quickly while giving a menu of decisions from which the player can choose one entrée. (Experienced players will note that the victory point border I use in my prototype is lifted right from a Ticket to Ride board.)

On the other side of the coin is a game that is only known on these shores in highly enthusiast circles: Hansa Teutonica. The game is much heavier than Ticket to Ride. Players have a variable amount of actions per turn from which they can perform a number of actions – the potency of which change throughout the game. I found Hansa Teutonica fascinating. There were a lot of mechanics in the game, and some worked quite well. One action a player could take on their turn is to take cubes that represent merchants and redeploy them throughout the map of the game. In the context of the game, this has very interesting effects. Places opponents once thought were “safe” or had no danger of being occupied could in one move change to show a complete shift in that player’s strategy. This was the central mechanic that I built Airport Rush around.

One of the other design philosophies in Euro-games is the minimization or elimination of elements of chance. It is a founding ethos of these gamers that skill should be sufficient to determine the winner. “Bad beats” as they say in Poker makes for a poorly designed game to them. I disagree with the knee-jerk application of this philosophy, but I decided to adhere to it to make something that gamers of this ilk would enjoy and not dismiss outright.

As an aside, there are types of chance that these hardcore gamers do allow. In Le Havre (my favorite Euro-game) the majority of the buildings that are available for purchase are the same in every game but the time in which they can be bought is pseudo-randomized. In Hansa Teutonica, the bonus chips are drawn randomly, but then placed on the board tactically. In both cases, the element is randomized before any decisions about it are made. This continues to allow skill and strategy to rule the day and is generally seen as acceptable. You will see that I favor a similar mechanic in Airport Rush. Once Airport Rush begins, there is no randomness.

So without much more jibber-jabbering, an explanation of the game itself. I’m going to do this in a spiral – I’m going to give kind of the Need to Know stuff first, and then pound into the actual in-depth rules later.

The game board itself consists of three parts: the Airport (Bottom-Left), the Departures Board (Right) and the Initiatives (Top).

The airport contains six gates where the players will try to move their passengers onto flights. The flights are listed on the departure board and are randomized each game. In some games, the valuable international flights will come up early. In some, these will come late. In some games, these come at the same gate. In others, spread apart. You get the idea. The initiatives are cards that come up throughout the game that players can dedicate resources to in order to gain additional victory points or options for their turn.

Players get passengers into the airport by moving them through security. Once a passenger cube makes it through security, it gets moved to the lounge. Passengers can only get through security by being literally pushed through by another passenger. Thus, passengers can sit in security forever unless a player pushes more cubes into the security line. The number of cubes a player gets to push is called their “Passenger Interest”. When a flight leaves players can either gain Passenger Interest at the cost of victory points now or take the Victory Points and lose Passenger Interest. It is a mechanic that has allowed most of the playtested games to remain remarkably close down to the buzzer. More detail on that in the next post.

When a gate is full for the next flight or when a player chooses the Departure action, the flight leaves and the cubes at that gate are returned to their owner. Every other flight a new Initiative is added to play. When all twelve flights leave, the player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

Additionally, just to fully explain everything you are seeing on the board here, each gate also has a 3×3 grid of squares called the Service Desk. If a player can get three cubes in a row (Tic-Tac-Toe style), then he/she “owns” that gate and can reap valuable rewards from anyone wanting to move there.

So a player essentially gets to choose one of these as their main action every turn:

  • Move passengers through security.
  • Move passengers en masse inside to gates or initiatives.
  • Move one cube to try to claim a service gate.
  • Depart the next flight if someone has a clear majority.

Now that you have a basic idea of the concepts, I will weave them all together with the complete rules in Part 3 and then write a few words on the dynamics of the game. Then Part 4 will be about the process of prototyping – both the physical and the creative aspects.

Airport Rush – Part 1

This is part one in a series about the ongoing process of creating a board game.

A long time back, before I got paid as a game designer, I used to prototype out different board and card game ideas. Actually, “prototype” is the wrong word here. I was just creating games to create games because that is what I enjoyed doing.

One of my favorites, I remember, involves a bunch of D&D dice on the pool table in my parent’s basement. The table is covered by a thick plastic sheet that binds fairly tightly, so there was a nice gradual grade between the table and the edges, creating essentially a tiered bowl. You would flick a die between other pairs of dice and try to get them to land as close to the edge as possible without going over. You scored whatever was on the closest dice to the edge. It was a great example of triangulation before I knew what that meant. Regardless, it could pretty much only be played in my parents basement which really limits its exposure. Somewhere in some cupboard in my parent’s house is the rules to that game, likely stuffed away with all my 2nd edition D&D paraphernalia.

In 2006, I was at EA and we were in pre-production on what would become Superman Returns DS. We were looking for a developer to partner with and so all we could do is design on paper. As a result, while the business people were doing long contract negotiations, we were designing essentially a board game paper prototype of the multiplayer mode using cards, dice, figures, post-its and a Gamecube copy of Mario Party 6.

Since no one who owns a copy of Superman Returns DS actually knows another human who owns a copy of Superman Returns DS, the best part of the game was pretty much never played. But it did teach me a lot about board game design: going back day after day, trying new ideas and throwing 90% of them out. Like most designers, I was learning by doing. And the cost of iteration on paper is so minuscule compared to the cost when done on a big digital game project, that you get 10x the learning in an equal amount of time.

I kept up the paper prototyping idea, but it was not well-supported at EA. I worked on a new IP project where the main mechanic was heavily tested via paper prototype but it was cancelled before we could even get anything real on a screen. As I was basically told that paper prototyping was witchcraft and a waste of time, I eased away from it, which in retrospect was unfortunate.

When I rediscovered board games recently (specifically Euro-style board games) I also rediscovered my love for designing with just some paper, dice, cards and so forth. For one, you don’t get compiler errors. And as long as you aren’t trying to sell it, no one is telling you are wrong and stupid stupid awful when it is half-done or not working correctly which was a needed emotional crutch at the time. But additionally, at the end of the day you have something physical in your hands which is always quite nice.

So over the past year I’d get inspiration regarding a theme or a mechanic and I would scribble in a notebook or on Google Docs about it, try to put together some basic rules and try it myself. I have the awful tendency to never want to show people anything until it is done. But with games, if you keep that attitude it will never be done. It needs the exposure of real players. Nonetheless, there must have been six or seven ideas that got to the “write stuff on cards” stage where I schizophrenically played three or four players at a time to assuage my ego. These ideas were ok, but nothing great. Soon I lost steam and tried to come up with something different. The goal was not to vainly get something published, but to create something good enough that others could enjoy it without having me there to sell it.

In March, I was stuck in an airport – there were snowstorms across the country and it was affecting the whole network. Planes were being delayed or cancelled with malice. If mine was cancelled, I would have been stuck in Orlando, so I wasn’t sweating it. Every time the public address announcement would come on, everyone would clam up, stay still and listen. If the PA would say “JetBlue Airways Flight 6789 to Kennebunkport will now be departing from gate 45” then all the folks would pick up their bags and make a mad dash over to Gate 45 in the hopes that even if they didn’t have a ticket they could weasel and bitch their way onto a flight, any flight, back home. They’d get to the counter and start screaming at the ticket agent. All around the airport, the same song and dance.

That image of the passengers rudely shouldering their way to rush across the airport to make a flight is the inspiration for the board game I am working on tentatively titled “Airport Rush“. It is a highly strategic game in the European style and in the next few posts, I will talk about the design and the process.

Continued.

Yes, It Does Look Cool

Dear Kinect devs: I do not want to do simple binary actions with complex interpreted gestures.

Let’s say you have a menu select gesture where you have to wave your hand and hold it up for a second. If I have a n step-depth menu tree and it takes two seconds to select with a gesture versus 6 frames to select via button press, it is likely to take 10*n longer to get anywhere I want to go using gestures versus the old button system. If your menu tree takes six steps like a “Play Now” game of Madden, then you’ve increased my time to get into the game by ninefold, not to mention any additional interpretation time or false interpretations.

I can use a gesture to open a car door in Forza. Great. Why do I want to do that? To show off the technology or for increased enjoyment?

How about button presses versus gestural gameplay? We’ve seen this on the Wii already. Shaking the sword in Twilight Princess was inferior than the button presses used in the Gamecube version. Shaking to spin in Madden/NCAA Wii was vastly inferior to the button presses on its next-gen brethren. But aiming via tilting the Wiimote with our bow in the aforementioned Twilight Princess or using the MotionPlus to putt in Tiger Wii were much better applications of new tech. The tech is not good or bad, but applications of the tech can be.

Let’s learn from our mistakes. Gestural methods can create new outlets for gameplay. You can’t do EA Active with button presses and it was a creative success. If Kinect creates new gameplay methods, like it seems to in Dance Central, then the tech is being used appropriately.

There’s some great stuff being produced, just don’t let the tech tail wag the gameplay/usability dog.

Extra Lives

Extra Lives’ subtitle is “Why Video Games Matter”, which is sort of inappropriate because the text itself does a fairly poor job of making any kind of argument. The book is at its best in the early chapters, particularly the one about Resident Evil, exercising what is awkwardly called “The New Games Journalism”. Bissell unfortunately plays up to the stereotypes of gamers: underachievement, mixing real and artificial relationships and addiction (the tepid Grand Theft Auto IV chapter also details his addiction to cocaine).

The book is essentially a collection of essays, one of which was published in The New Yorker and which I complained about last year upon reading it for being too gee-whiz. His chapter on Braid falls for the same sort of fetishism, but the Far Cry 2 chapter which interviews Clint Hocking is surprisingly adroit at addressing what was unique about the underrated title.

If the thesis of the book is “Why Games Matter”, then it is only touched upon in a very meta way. Indeed, the quality of the prose in the book is vivid. If game reviews read like this, I’d be more apt to actually read them. A better subtitle might have been, “Why Games Are Trying to Matter”, because the pathetic swings at trying to rationalize his addiction leaves a sorry-feeling miasma over the whole book. But I don’t think the book was for me. It was for non-gamers. So perhaps I am unqualified to take his book as a softcore polemic towards the Eberts of the world.

I’m being hard on it.The book is entertaining at times and I found myself highlighting all over the early chapters for its more general insights.

Here, on my arch-nemesis, tutorials:

It would be hard to imagine a formal convention more inherently bizarre than the video-game tutorial. Imagine that, every time you open a novel, you are forced to suffer through a chapter in which the characters do nothing but talk to one another about the physical mechanics of how one goes about reading a book.

On Resident Evil and utterly stupid stories:

[It] helped to create an unnecessary hostility between the greatness of a game and the sophistication of things such as narrative, dialogue, dramatic motivation and characterization […] But most gamers do not care because they have been trained by game designers not to care.

On quantity of detail not being the definition of story:

For many gamers […] and game designers, story is largely a matter of accumulation. The more explanation there is, the thought appears to go, the more story has been generated. This would be a profound misunderstanding of story for any form of narrative art, but it has hobbled the otherwise creative achievement of any number of games.

When the author tries to dig deeper and find some interconnecting bonds, he fails. Perhaps the author is too ashamed of his addiction that he is desperately trying to attach meaning to it in oblique ways. Overall, the work is entertaining despite not really addressing a core thesis in a meaningful way.

Awake

Many games are justifiably criticized for having a “thrown-in” story. You’ve played these before – games where the story is so full of holes, or presented so poorly that it seemed like an afterthought. These games start with the play mechanics and once a fun experience is wrought, a story is shoehorned in to add context. These can still be good games, yet the converse is rarely held highly by gamers and reviewers.

Some very successful games are like this – putting the gameplay cart before the story horse. Do you think that Rockstar started with the idea of the plight of an eastern European immigrant learning to adapt with a foreign culture? Or did they start with mechanics: a living city, carjacking, police chases, helicopter rides, etc. and add the story later? It isn’t pejorative to say a game’s development starts with mechanics – it is simply a different development strategy.

In Alan Wake the story is front and center – so much that the game’s “episodes” add punctuation points to gameplay setting up “cliffhangers” at key story points. This is interesting. Cliffhangers make sense in television. The story in television dramas has to fit in a predefined time block and it cannot be guaranteed that the viewer will return for the next episode. So they leave with a question that must be answered in the hopes that the viewer will come back. Games like Alan Wake don’t have that limitation. The consumer has already bought the disc. There is no predefined episode length. They can play right through.

But the cliffhangers serve an important psychological goal – or at least they did in my case. Despite it being a device used specifically to draw player attention, it is where I stopped playing. Was this a mental cue that I picked up from years of watching television? Perhaps. But these episode breaks served as a cue to portion out the experience evenly. Many reviews that complain about the “sameness” of the gameplay may have rushed through and ignored these natural stopping points. Throughout the day after playing it, I’d wonder about the cliffhangers and come back with a renewed interest and drive to continue.

Back to the issue of story preceding gameplay. The gameplay is repetitive. But this serves the story in the same way the repetitive gameplay serves the story in Half-Life 2. Alan has a particular problem he is facing and for him to swap genres or wildly increase the breadth of mechanics in order to increase the breadth of gameplay (as happens in GTA, RPGs, etc.) would be putting gameplay before story.

You play as the plumber Mario and your goal is to save the beautiful Princess from the evil Koopa menace. Only Alan Wake isn’t as sacchrine. Mario is a New York writer. The Princess is your nyctophobic prize. The Taken are just as ill-defined as the Koopa Troopas. But it is a maturation on the same beats.

Some have complained that the game doesn’t follow the same horror tropes and is thus less scary. But these tropes apply in different ways to games that are story then gameplay versus games (like Resident Evil) that are heavily gameplay then story.

Additionally, the game is self-described as “thriller” not “horror”. Horror is meant to scare, first and foremost where thriller is meant to cause anxiety. So the string cues that let the player know that Taken are coming actually help the cause. They aren’t meant to be scary surprises – they are meant to make the player say “Oh shit, what now?” Alan Wake succeeds in spades.

Many words have been spent comparing Alan Wake to Heavy Rain and the comparisons are apt. Both are story-first, gameplay second. Both are console-exclusives that spent a considerable time in gestation in European development studios. While I enjoyed both a great deal, I believe that Alan Wake provides a better game experience.

When you play a game you make mental models to explain a number of highly strange things. For instance, let’s say I am playing Team Fortress 2. I need to explain that making a certain movement with my finger will cause my character to shoot a grenade. I need to explain what my target is by seeing it on screen and making a judgment that it is a “bad guy”. I need to explain that my “avatar” needs to move to the “control point” to win. I need to explain that a movement with my thumb translates to movement of my avatar. I need to explain that these things together will help me achieve my goal, which is standing on the control point.

The point I am trying to illustrate is that we have a lot of abstraction in something that we consider very familiar. Heavy Rain changes those abstractions. In order to open up a drawer, I have to make an odd swirly motion with my thumb. Why am I opening it? Uh, well, I’m not sure, but there is an icon on the screen telling me so. Where Heavy Rain fumbles is that the abstractions aren’t congruent with what we’ve expected. That is fine in of itself – every innovative game has, by definition, messed with our models of how things work. But when your entire presentation scraps the conventions, you have a lot of explaining to do – not literally, of course – but to the models we create internally. I have no problem moving a stick to walk my character to a car in Grand Theft Auto IV, pressing Triangle to carjack and then pressing R2 to accelerate away. It melds with our models and isn’t that strange. To do the same thing in Heavy Rain requires moving your character in a unique way, interacting with the door handle in a unique way, and driving automatically without input from the player. Our models are all frazzled!

Alan Wake, however, sprinkles its innovations amongst things that confirm our mental models. To say “it controls like an action game” is to say that it conforms to our models of the mechanics and dynamics of an action game. But does it really play as an action game? Not really. I’ll leave it to the reader to list all of the ways action games are vastly different than Alan Wake.

Let me thwart the straw man response that would assume that I am saying that breaking mental models is bad. Indeed, it is the only thing that provides us any growth. But look back at Alone in the Dark (the old one) for example. Games before that generally looked at player characters from the side or from above or from a subjective viewpoint. This game changed the mental model by making the camera a third-person observer. But we can answer the question ‘why’. The designers did this because it could create generally creepy moments. The payoff for breaking this model was a new presentation of emotion (fear) that helped further the game’s themes. There are numerous examples of changes that are just for the sake of change that do not further the games themes and these are less compelling and thus harder sells.

So here are two games that choose to eschew the common gameplay-then-story development process. Both are essentially “on rails”. Both are excellent games. But one breaks down nearly all of the common mental models for players. The other keeps you on edge by mixing the comfortable with the new. The new here is integrated with a way that dovetails with the game’s themes. Neither is essentially “right”, but I think this explanation is, for me, why one was more enjoyable than the other. I’m interested in hearing others’ opinions.

Just Add Points?

Sebastian Deterding’s “Just Add Points?” is, among other things, an exercise in showing how the delivery of ideas (in this case, beautifully-designed slides) can highly augment their stickiness. If you would have told me I was going to read through a 90+-slide presentation twice today, I’d have called you a liar, sir.

The point of the presentation is “Here’s what UX designers can learn from game designers”, but I think moreso it can be “Here’s what game designers can be reminded from a UX designer perspective on game design.”

I have issues with Koster’s analysis, so his quoting him makes me cringe a bit but it is otherwise fantastic. I’m posting it so I remember to go back and read the related Slideshare presentations at the end.

Come Out and Play 2010

One of the few things that I like about New York City is the density of unique events. On Friday, I read about the Come Out and Play festival in Brooklyn and figured that would be some good times for Glo and I. It was!

The essence of the festival is a mix of ARGs and impromptu sports. The above picture is me playing the awfully named “OMMRPG” which should really be called “Laser Football”. The idea is that each team has one laser pointer and a number of players with mirrors and must direct the laser to a “goal” while avoiding the other team’s defenders. It is wildly chaotic and actually works without a lot of rules. I stealthily hid behind an “official” and scored three times before the opposing team caught on and I was marked for the rest of the game. Once you are marked, there is little you can do to score, which is a weakness of the game (in basketball or soccer you can out-finesse someone to shake off a defender, in this, due to the precision required of angling a mirror, it is less possible). After I was sufficiently frustrated by a defender, I passed off my mirror to another player. I think more organization would lead to these kinds of strategies – passing mirrors to confuse defenders. I was surprised at how well the game worked.

There were a number of games that took place over the entire weekend. One was hosted by Scvngr. Since they have no vowels, you know they are Web 2.0. You download the Scvngr app for Android or iPhone and you are led on a photo scavenger hunt around town. It is the perfect melding of an old game with new technology and if AT&T’s network wasn’t such balls, it would have been very clever and smooth. Scvngr allows you to set up your own scavenger hunts for others. They are partnering with museums and such to offer these sort of ludically-guided tours (I just made that phrase up, sorry).

You can see on the above picture a bandanna tied to my leg that says “Human”. It was part of another of the whole-weekend games called simply Humans vs. Zombies. It is essentially Massively Multiplayer Thematic Tag. One player starts out as Subject Zero and by tagging humans (those with bandannas on their arms or legs) can turn hapless humans into flesh-eating zombies (indicated by bandannas worn on the head). Humans can stun zombies by hitting them with socks or nerf guns at which point they must wear their bandanna around their neck and cannot tag for ten minutes.

Gloriana and I were on our way to an event on Saturday morning when we saw a Zombie across the street in the direction we were headed. I paused and we made eye contact, yet he smiled and continued walking away from us. Were we safe? Was it a trap? I peeked around the corner. No Zombie there. But by then it was too late. The Zombie was hiding behind a trash can. I was taken, but Gloriana survived by spiking me and the attacker with socks.

My attacker (left) and the decoy (right).
My attacker (left) and the decoy (right).

Now, this led to an uncomfortable situation. I was a shambling shell of humanity while Glo was still pure. Nonetheless, she felt like she had a hand on the situation. She set her phone to go off in ten-minute intervals. When it would ring, she would instantly spike me with a sock. Hmph. I felt like in the last scene of Shaun of the Dead where Ed is chained to the shed and can only play Timesplitters instead of eating flesh.

Glo was protected in safe zones like the park (the game was suspended if you were in the park playing another game, in a business or crossing a street). Also helpful was the overprepared Nerf-based militia that patrolled Park Slope looking for zeds to shoot. Not pictured above is the guy who had a bandoleer of socks and a belt of Nerf cartridges.

But as in the precautionary zombie movies, a split second of indecision can upend an entire life. I was on the phone talking to a friend who were we going to meet for the day. While Glo thought I was distracted, she crossed the threshold of the park and was no longer in a safe zone. I tagged her “undead” and she was upset! Geeze, you would have thought that I did something bad like forget her birthday – I only converted her to a mindless automaton of insatiable hunger!

We continued on with the games. “Field Crumpets” was a lively variation on field hockey that was just wacky enough to be novel. We participated in a horde event where we Zombies milled about trying to trap helpless humans (we won!). And we also took great efforts to complete the SCVNGR hunt. We used props for extra effect. The prompt was to hug a tree in Prospect Park. Instead, I prosposed to one:

It said no.

Our pictures were pretty good (Glo is a creative photographer) and in the end thanks in part to our funny pictures, we won the SCVNGR hunt! Our prize? A new 3G iPad! Whoa! Supposedly, they are ordering it today and it will be in the mail.

If it doesn’t show up, I know a horde of flesh-rending abominations that I can send to the SCVNGR headquarters.