My Imperfect Children

Over the years, I’ve banged the drum quite a bit in favor of perfectionism in board game design. Whenever I do so, I try to emphasize that, while I think “perfection” is the correct target to aim at, I don’t believe that any of my own designs have actually hit this target. “Perfection” is like an infinitesimal point at the center of a fuzzy circle. The point is real, and it’s the correct thing to aim at, but it’s unreachable in practice. The fuzzy circle represents the threshold that each of my designs must cross before I’m willing to call it “good enough”. And the moment I conclude that a design will probably never cross that threshold, I shelve it.

Over the course of about 15 years of hobbyist board game design, I’ve ended up with exactly five published designs that I consider to be “good enough”. I have a sixth design that I’m pretty happy with, but I haven’t worked very hard on getting it published. I’ve also designed a few party-style games that are probably “good enough” by my standards, but feel so slight that I’ve done nothing more than post their rules here on my site. On the flip side, I’ve had a few of my designs published, in one form or another, which don’t quite live up to my own standards. It reminds me of a line by the comedian Jonathan Katz: “I have a wife and two beautiful children. And a couple of other kids who aren’t so attractive.”

My beautiful children are Zendo, RAMbots, Why Did the Chicken…?, Criminals, and Blockers. Although these designs are “good enough” by my standards, they aren’t perfect. I thought it might be fun to write up a blog post detailing their imperfections as I see them.

Zendo

One of my biggest complaints about Zendo is that mondos and guessing stones aren’t meaningful enough. Mondo feels satisfying, and it unquestionably improves the experience. It adds a bit of tension, and provides players with intermediate rewards throughout the game. Furthermore, it creates an intimate communal feeling, and allows you to get a glimpse of what other people are thinking.

The problem is that most of the time players end up with more guessing stones than they know what to do with, and at that point calling mondo is kind of pointless. Of course, it’s still fun (which is why people continue do it), and it helps you gauge how well other players are doing, which may have some (very negligible) effect on your winning chances. But overall, its primary purpose of doling out guessing stones has become irrelevant. All else being equal, calling mondo slows the game down, and one can argue that it’s not worth doing when every player already owns a pile of stones.

Over the years, we’ve tried many, many alternatives to the current mondo rules, including making each guess cost more than one stone, making people lose stones when they guess incorrectly, eliminating the mondo rules completely, etc. None of the resulting games have ever felt quite as good as the current ruleset. Zendo seems to lie at a local optimum. Every small tweak we try makes it worse. I don’t doubt that there are deeper changes to consider, but the results are probably different enough from Zendo to count as new games.

Another possible complaint about Zendo is that the downtime can be extreme. A related problem is that people sometimes find it very painful to wait for their turn to come around once they’ve figured out the rule. Some people even play with a variant that allows anyone to spend stones and guess the rule at the end of anyone’s turn. Although that’s a fine idea, I’ve never been willing to make it into an official rule, because it’s complex and unwieldy if you try to write it out (which I have).

Beyond this, there’s a whole cloud of problems relating to the fact that when you’re the Master, you need to know what you’re doing. You need to come up with a rule that’s not too easy and not too hard. You need to mark koans correctly. You need to build counterexamples correctly, which can be difficult even for experienced Masters. You need to make silent judgement calls about ambiguous koans, and you need to communicate correctly with players when they ask about them. Overall, it’s relatively easy to ruin a game when you’re the Master. It all feels a little brittle.

One could argue that some of these flaws—especially the ones in the last paragraph—are inextricably bound up with the goodness of the game. I agree. But I insist, ruthlessly, that they’re still flaws. It sucks that Masters can ruin games so easily, and if I could eliminate that possibility while retaining everything else that I like about Zendo, I certainly would. I see no reason not to call a spade a spade in these situations, and I see a really good reason to do it: a concerted effort to solve these problems could lead to some new game that’s as different from Zendo as Zendo is from Eleusis. I’m not currently working on that problem, but maybe I or someone else will someday. This is part of what I mean by problem-driven game design.

RAMbots

The basic problem I have with RAMbots is that it’s too complex. I doubt I’ll ever create another board game that contains this many rules. Actually, it’s probably simpler than the average board game, but it’s still pushing the edge of my personal complexity threshold.

One specific problem that’s always bothered me relates to the red “damage” beam. The red beam damages other RAMbots, but doesn’t knock any objects over. RAMming damages other RAMbots, but also tags and knocks over upright RAMbots and beacons. This inconsistency often confuses new players. The obvious solution is to allow the red beam to also tag and knock over beacons and RAMbots, but the resulting game simply isn’t as good. We can allow the red beam to knock over objects without tagging them, but that’s even more inconsistent and confusing. We can say that RAMming only tags and knocks over upright objects, and the red beam only damages other RAMbots, but again the resulting game is a lot less interesting.

Recently Jake Davenport suggested scraping the red beam action entirely, and replacing it with a “sideways slide” action. Just like the blue “push” beam and the yellow “pull” beam, the red “slide” beam now moves any object it hits by one, two, or three spaces—but it moves the object sideways away from the beam, and always towards the center line of the board. I have played this version of the game exactly once, and I thought it was great. I didn’t miss the old damage beam at all, and the new slide beam was useful and made the game more fun. Even though it hasn’t been tested much, I’ve gone ahead and updated my RAMbots rule page.

The resulting game still isn’t perfect. It remains more complex than I would like, and there are probably other inelegances that I haven’t quite put my finger on yet. Nevertheless, it does lie comfortably within my fuzzy circle of “good enough”.

Why Did the Chicken…?

I’m only half-joking when I say that the main problem with Why Did the Chicken…? is that it’s a party game, and all party games are broken.

More seriously, many party games break down if the players care too much about winning. For instance, when I’m the judge in WDtC, I can often glean who wrote certain answers based on their word choices and style of humor, and if those players are ahead, I can avoid choosing those answers. Another problem is that it’s possible to get so far behind in the game that you know you can’t possibly win.

A more general complaint is that this game asks its players to be creative and funny on demand, and that’s scary and stressful for many people. This game has provided me with some of the biggest belly laughs of my life, but it’s also generated some of my most awkward gaming experiences. Again, one can argue that this “flaw” is an unavoidable side-effect of what’s great about WDtC. I agree! The flaw is unavoidable given my design goals, but it’s still a flaw. Recognizing it as a flaw doesn’t mean I have to try to fix it. I’ve never been able to see a way to fix it without sacrificing what I love most about the game, and the flaw doesn’t push the game outside my fuzzy circle of acceptability, so I’m happy to call it “done”. However, if I could find a way retain the core that I love while making the game easier to play for many people, I’d certainly do that.

The excellent Cards Against Humanity can be viewed as one possible solution to the problem of making a joke-writing game that’s accessible to a wide audience. Of course, there are always trade-offs, and Cards Against Humanity exhibits a flaw that’s almost the polar opposite of WDtC’s: it makes players feel clever and funny, but it’s often the game itself that’s writing the jokes. Cards Against Humanity is to comedy writing as Guitar Hero is to guitar playing.

I’m not suggesting that either game is better than the other, nor am I suggesting that the designers of Cards Against Humanity were influenced by WDtC. (I have no idea if they even know of WDtC’s existence.) My point is that if you were to start with either one of these designs, take its flaws seriously, and try to fix them, you might very well end up with something like the other. And that would be a good thing, because both of these games deserve to exist! On the other hand, simply claiming, “It’s a feature, not a bug!” will never suggest interesting new directions in design space. This is problem-driven game design in action once again.

Criminals

One minor complaint I have about Criminals is that players are sometimes eliminated. However, it doesn’t seem as bothersome as it does in many other elimination games I’ve played. Criminals is usually pretty short, and if you do get eliminated, you’re still allowed to hang around and take part in the game discussion. It’s also possible to play a full game without any player getting eliminated. Nevertheless, I do consider the elimination aspect to be a flaw, albeit a minor one.

Beyond that, my main complaint about Criminals is similar to my complaint about RAMbots. It’s too complex. Actually, I would say that Criminals is simpler than RAMbots, but that RAMbots is more elegant.

Criminal’s inelegances are related to the existence of the Crime Boss—an extra crime card in the deck that’s not attached to any player. Adding this extra crime created some breathing room in the design, and fixed a bunch of problems. Nevertheless, the mechanism necessitates a number of special-case rules that make the game significantly harder for new players to learn. For instance, accusing the Crime Boss requires a unanimous vote by the entire group rather than the normal vote of “at least half the group”, and a successful accusation ends the game and invokes special win-conditions. There’s even a special rule that says that when a crime comes up and everyone except you has an alibi showing for that crime, you are considered to be accusing the Crime Boss perforce. The fact that such a rule is even necessary is a sign that something’s not quite right.

Co-designer Dave Chalker and I worked on Criminals on and off for years, and at this point I don’t have any new solutions to suggest. The current version isn’t perfect, but it still manages to claim a spot within my fuzzy circle.

Blockers

Like almost every abstract game that supports three or more players, Blockers can be kingmakerish in the endgame. Sometimes you know you can’t win, and sometimes your final plays will determine who does win. This is obviously a flaw, but it’s a flaw that’s impossible to eliminate completely in most games of this type. My design goal in these situations just to make sure that it doesn’t happen too often, and that it doesn’t feel too bad when it does. Some of the earlier rulesets had unacceptably bad kingmaker problems. I can live with the current version, but your mileage may vary.

As much as I love its overall design, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with Blockers’s capture mechanic—specifically with the fact that you’re not allowed to split another player’s group. This restriction is certainly necessary given the current ruleset, and it generates a lot of juicy gameplay. Nevertheless, virtually every time I play the game with a new group of players, at least one player accidentally tries to split a group, and I have to step in with a correction. Since a copy of me doesn’t come packaged in every box, I can only assume that most new groups who are figuring out the rules for themselves are making game-ruining mistakes (whether they realize it or not) during their first few games. Maybe the emergent juiciness of the rule makes the problem worth putting up with, but I’m not as happy with the whole thing as I used to be.

In fact, I’ve recently begun to theorize that the capture rule in general is indirectly responsible for the game’s failure in the marketplace. (Although you can still find copies of both Uptown and Blockers for sale out on the web, no version of it is in print at the moment.) There were actually two very different productions of Blockers on the market. Briarpatch’s North American version had a nice plastic board, with raised ridges to keep the tiles from sliding around. This production caused the price of the game to be higher than we wanted it to be, and I’ve heard a few claims (by people who know more about the game business than I do) that the price hurt the game’s sales. Amigo’s European production contained a warpy plastic grid riveted to a flat black board. It was an attempt to cut production costs, and it showed. I don’t actually know whether or not this hurt the sales of the game, but I sure wouldn’t have been happy with it if I’d been a customer.

The important point is that these problems were ultimately caused by my game design. Blockers has players placing tiles into a tightly-packed grid, and then awkwardly trying to pull them back out again. Although this generates some juicy gameplay, it also creates a logistical problem that forced the publishers to produce overly expensive or disappointingly substandard game boards. I would love to see a production of Blockers that’s as elegant and functional as that of Qwirkle or Ingenious, but I don’t think it can happen with the current ruleset.

Of course, the capture mechanic was added in order to address a tough design problem. Although some people might think I’m nuts, I occasionally toy with the idea of returning to the root of the design and branching off in some other direction that doesn’t involve moving pieces once they’ve been placed. I even have a few ideas about what directions I might try, but I’ll save those for another time.

Beyond all of this, I’m also willing to consider the possibility that Blockers didn’t do so well in the marketplace for marketing reasons, or because it just isn’t as good as Ingenious or Qwirkle. Maybe it’s too abstract, or too dry, or too heavy, or too something else that I can’t put my finger on. I can live with that!

Conclusion

I want to reiterate that, in spite of all of their flaws, I’m really happy with all five of these designs, and I don’t regret letting any of them loose in their current forms. It’s possible to be a crazy perfectionist without going perfectly crazy, and it’s possible to find flaws in your best creations and still sleep well at night.

I’d love to drive a stake through the heart of that old vampire, “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” but something tells me that all I’m doing here is holding up a pathetic, fleshy cross. So be it!

Problem-Driven Game Design

In my experience, a problem-driven approach is the only reliable generator of high-quality game designs. The more time I spend focusing on specific, well-articulated problems and questions, the more likely it is that my final design will be novel, deep, and valuable.

This approach pervades every stage of my design process, including the initial choice of what to work on. I won’t even start a project if I don’t have at least one clearly-stated problem or question in mind. Maybe I dislike something about an existing game or genre. Maybe I have a question about some game system that I’ve never seen in action before. It doesn’t need to be an earth-shattering question. It just needs to be well-formed, interesting, and unresolved.

The desire to get rich is unlikely to generate a high-quality design. The desire to create a new game in a genre that I truly love is equally unlikely to generate a high-quality design. The issue is not one of ethics or aesthetics. The issue is that the design space is mind-bogglingly vast and only sparsely populated with high-quality games. I’m standing in a desert, and I need to know which way to go. Neither love nor money helps me in this situation.

Problems provide direction. They point. They’re features of the local environment that say, “There may be water over there.” Success isn’t guaranteed, but this methodology succeeds more often than random chance would dictate, which is not true of any other approach I’ve tried.

An Example

Werewolf is a great game, but there are things I don’t like about it:

  • It requires a moderator and a logistically awkward eye-closing phase.
  • It doesn’t play well with fewer than seven players, and is often long.
  • Being a werewolf is unpleasantly exhausting.
  • Players are often eliminated early and must either leave the room or sit in silence.

Not everyone is bothered by these problems. That’s fine. My unique design sensibilities determine which problems I choose to work on. The important point is that my problems are specific enough and unambiguous enough to suggest a direction.

Indeed, on the day I clearly articulated these problems to myself, I had the following game idea: assign a hidden character card to each player, and then try to discover the owner of a different card each round.

This hypothetical proto-game addresses all four of my problems, to varying degrees. It requires no moderator or eye-closing. It works with as few as three players. It doesn’t put an individual player on the chopping block for an entire game. And if players are ever eliminated, they’re allowed to stick around and keep talking, because they don’t have any game-ruining information.

This isn’t a complete design, but there’s enough there for an initial playtest. We tried it, and the results were promising. Of course, we then had a new list of problems to solve. Good! Problems are our signposts in the vast and trackless land of game design.

We iterated on this cycle of problem-solving and playtesting (with Dave Chalker doing much of the heavy lifting) until we didn’t have any more problems to solve—or at least, until we were able to live with the remaining unsolved problems. The result is a cute little card game called Criminals.

Money, Love, Originality, and Fun

With this concrete example in place, it’s easier to see why the desire to make money is unlikely, in isolation, to lead to good game design. That desire will never help me come up with a specific idea like the one that lies at the core of Criminals, because it doesn’t (and can’t) tell me where in design space to search. The desire may be an excellent motivator, but it’s a terrible navigator.

If I declare that I love Werewolf and would love to design my own psychology game, my desire is also unlikely, in isolation, to help me design Criminals or any other interesting game. There are millions of ways to modify Werewolf, and almost all of them are bad. I need some methodology that actually helps me figure out what to try, and why.

The honest desire to create something original is similarly useless, because it has nothing to say about how to find non-derivitave moves through design space. If the only clear problem I can articulate about my current rule-set is that it’s too much like some existing game, my solution is not to search for ways to differentiate it. My solution is to scrap the project. Otherwise, I’ll end up with a derivative result which differs from its inspiration in ways that exist only for the sake of differentiation, and likely make the game worse. I want an actual methodology that helps me find unexplored, high-quality regions of design space.

Finally, the honest desire simply to create a fun game fares no better than any of these other motivations. If the only clear problem I can articulate about my current rule-set is that it’s “not fun enough,” I’m strongly inclined to return to an earlier, better iteration and branch out from there, or scrap the project entirely. “Not fun enough” is navigationally useless, unless I can translate it into a specific, unambiguous problem-statement that doesn’t include the word “fun”. If I can do that, great! Now I have a problem to focus on which will likely suggest new ideas and directions. Otherwise, I’m just wasting my time.

Closing Thoughts

Why might I design a game?

  • To make money.
  • To pay homage to an existing beloved game.
  • To create something original.
  • To create something fun.

There’s nothing wrong with these motivations, but they’ve never helped me design good games. I’ve always obtained my best results when I’ve ignored these motivations and focused on solving interesting problems and answering interesting questions.