December 29, 2014

The Stars My Destination – An Armada 2526 Retrospective

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The quest for an exemplary space 4X game feels like chasing a ghost. Just when you think you have it captured, it glides through your fingers and disappears back into the closest. Or under the rug. Or whether else spectral spirits like to go.

You see, we 4X gamers are a fickle bunch and are knowingly unwilling to have our cake not be able to eat it. The cake, by the way, is a deliciously complex and multilayered affair – and the act of eating it is to be wrapped up in an amazing and evocative space opera while simultaneously getting our deep strategic gameplay fix. Unfortunately these dueling desires are at often at odds with one another. So the poor schmucks charged with creating these games are left in a sort of limbo state where it is hard to satisfy the fan base across all of their clamoring, confounded demands.

If its sounds like I’m ripping on 4X fans – I assure you I’m one of them too, embattled in my own internal conflict between wanting a wondrous narrative to open up before my eyes while also taking no substitutes for challenging strategic gameplay. I have a pet theory that there are in fact two camps or mindsets among 4X gamers:

Camp 1: 4X gamers that are drawn to the simulation aspects of watching their empires grow and unfold over a long period of time, at an epic scale, and at relatively relaxed pace.

Camp 2: 4X gamers that are drawn to interesting, consequential, and challenging strategic decisions where players are fully in control and games play out in a competitive and concise manner with lots of varied strategies to pursue and refine.

It’s possible (even likely) that any individual 4X gamer will have a hand or foot in both of these camps at the same time. And while not strictly speaking opposites, the gameplay and design implications of satisfying the two camps are often at odds. What makes a game more appealing from a simulation and narrative perspective tends to make it overwrought and weakens the strategic dimension of the game.

What’s a 4X gamer to do?

November 25, 2014

The Player’s Point of View: Theme and Framing the Experience

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So a while ago I started a Google spreadsheet file dubbed the “Game Tracker,” wherein I keep list of games that I’m interested in playing in the future. As the list grew and grew; and then grew some more – in concert with my available time shrinking and shrinking; and then shrinking some more – putting the games into an assortment of buckets so that I could prioritize my interest among like-seeming games became important. But hold onto this thought!

Now rewind back two years (give or take) when I was working more actively on the Game Genome Project. If you need a refresher, the Game Genome Project is a BGG guild comprised of various individuals looking to develop a nomenclature and/or classification scheme for boardgames. The basic premise of the project is this:

The Game Genome Project is a comprehensive and collaborative effort to identify the full range of traits (aka genes or characteristics) that can be used to describe board games along with the corresponding tools and practices for assessing and assigning these traits to individual games. The purpose of these activities is to provide the board game community with a more effective and commonly understood lexicon (vocabulary) for discussing board games and support analytical investigation of the boardgaming hobby.

One of the “traits” to investigate relates to the theme of a game, and we quickly arrived at two major distinctions: the theme as it relates to mechanics (level of abstraction vs. fidelity), and the theme itself as a subject and frame of reference for the experience. Theme as it relates to mechanics is a highly fascinating topic, and will be covered in more detail in the future. Till then, and to satiate your burning desires, I’ll direct your attention to this most excellent post by qwertymartin: How do you wear your theme sir?

As for theme as subject and frame of reference, there are a few key dimensions we considered: Scope, Setting, and Subject (yes, I deliberately made them all s-words!). To discuss how these work and apply, I’m going to bring us back to my little “Game Tracker” conundrum and see how these dimensions of defining a game’s theme might be used as a frame for understanding different experiences. Here we go!

November 17, 2014

Culture Storms and the Evolving Medium of Games

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I’ve been wanting to write something on the culture storm within the video gaming community that’s been brewing and raging over the past many months. On one hand, I’ve stayed relatively silent on the issue because it hasn’t been clear how best I, and this blog, would make a useful contribution to what has become a total quagmire of internet vitriol. On the other hand, my own thoughts are sufficiently confused on the subject that writing about it at least forces me to articulate the thoughts I do have and try to work towards resolution in my own mind. It’s therapeutic on some level.

The culture storm I’m talking about is related to #GamerGate. If you are aware of the controversy, you probably have some of our own opinions and thoughts. If you haven’t heard of it – wikpedia’s GamerGate article appears to provide a fairly detailed account of the issues in play. I’ve taken to calling this a “storm,” as opposed to a war or conflict, because I think it’s far messier than what a war with cleanly divided sides might suggest.

Ultimately though, I don’t want to talk about #GamerGate directly. My feelings, after reading far too much (from both sides), is that trying to sort out the root causes, motivations, and rationales for pro-GG and anti-GG camps is like trying to fight your way through Minos’ Labyrinth. Except instead of facing the Minotaur you face a never-ending stream of photo collages of retrospective twitter posts, the authenticity and context of which is routinely unclear or absent. Its total confusion on both sides of the fence, with the extreme contingents on both sides screaming conspiracy, causing whatever facts or salient points might have been raised in the middle ground to be completely lost. Phew!

So, I’m not talking about #GamerGate. If you are looking for another voice, Erik Kain wrote a nice piece back in September that encapsulates my frustrations with the whole situation rather eloquently. Instead, I want to focus on the issues that have come out of the controversy that ARE important topics to discuss relative to the health and future of gaming culture and industry overall.

You are probably asking “what are these ‘issues’ that we can pull out from the fire and talk about?” I’ll frame each one below, and try my best to frame the different perspectives that come into play on each, and then include some of my own thoughts based on my own experiences and what I’d like to see happen.

November 5, 2014

All Roads Lead to Amber

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So has anyone read Roger Zelazny's Amber novels? For those that haven't, or need a refresher, here is the gist:

The Chronicles of Amber is a 10 book sequence split into 2 parts. Part 1 was written between '70 and '78. And Part 2 was written between '85 and '91. These are fantasy novels set in an alternate reality, of which Earth as we know it exists as one of many different worlds/realms. The basic universe exists as a sort of continuum between chaos and order, with the Courts of Chaos and the Logrus on one end and Amber and the Pattern on the other. All of reality is spread between these two poles.

The stories are quite engrossing and all 10 books are about as long as one book from the Games of Thrones (for reference). The major plots revolve around various Lords and Ladies of Amber (or Chaos) going about their power grabs in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The books mostly focus on the political intrigues and dynamics between the characters, and not the usual fantasy trappings - its almost the progenitor for something like the Game of Thrones in that regard. But better and more concise in my opinion.

Other than a rather odd (diceless apparently!) RPG set in the Amber universe, there haven't been many games using the Amber setting (although I've heard rumors of it being difficult to license). This is about to change!

November 4, 2014

Fall-time Spectacular: The State of the Blog!

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It's been too long right? I know, I know, you are wondering, where has he been!? The answer my friends is that I've been here, just not writing as much as I've been intending to. In fact, I'm starring at a virtual stack of half-finished term papers ... err blog posts ... that I'd love get finished and submitted to the interwebz professors; but life has been hectic lately. I'm sure you've all been there.

Part of me is also a little torn about what direction in which to take the blog. One thing I'd like to do is have more frequent blog posts, which of course requires me to actually write blog posts more frequently. This conundrum is somewhat at odds with the fact that I haven't had a lot of extra time lately in which to write said blog posts (hence the lack of posts over the past few months). Sigh, it is a circular and terrible circumstance. What to do?

August 12, 2014

Defined by Committee: Games and the Language Thereof


The Challenge of Talking About "Talking About" Games

It's futile. That is what a lot of people say when I, or many others, start to get all big-wordy when the subject of game analysis or critical review, or other forms of game-related theorizing and pontificating take root. The argument is that (1) we're never going to agree on terms, or (2) this topic has been endlessly debated before, or (3) why do you think you are right, or (4) even if we all agree on terms not everyone is going to use them correctly, or (5) what a waste of time.

My opinion is that without talking about the language we use to discuss games, we are going to be challenged to actually talk about games in a way that opens the door for critical analysis or discovery If we don't advance the language we are in a holding pattern. And even if any particular conversation doesn't yield something tangible and applicable, the discussion nevertheless helps with knowledge building and working towards a common understandings - or at least framing our disagreements and differing perspectives.

July 15, 2014

Towards a Grand Unified Theory of Boardgamery

There has been an interesting series of articles on the League of Game Makers about the whole mechanics-first or theme-first approach to designing games (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3); and in turn how important theme is or isn't in terms of shaping a game's overall experience and long-term success or failure. That debate is always interesting and illuminating, and arguments for or against one approach over the other simply underscores the diversity of approaches and methods for working on a design.

Part 3 of the series, Theme vs. Mechanics: The False Dichotomy, presented an interesting Venn diagram showing how "theme" manifests in relation to a game's rules, its components, and what we imagine about the game at hard. The blog post I'm writing today started off as a desire to refine the concept Mark Major proposed; but consequently has cascaded into a watershed moment for me. This moment has coalesced a number of threads of game design and theory I've been wrestling with since starting this blog. For my thinking at least, this moves me a few steps closer towards a Grand Unified Theory of Game-Stuff. No way! you say? Yes way!

July 8, 2014

Emissary's Thematic Conundrums

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Emissary was originally designed for the PnP Express/In-a-Tin Design contest using the Decktet. It was envisioned as a card game "express" version of Hegemonic transplanted into the fantastic and odd world of the Decktet universe. If you are curious about the gameplay of Emissary, check out this prior post on the topic: Emissary: A Study in Brain-burn and Emergence

As much as I love the Decktet, using the Decktet cards posed some playability challenges. Players had to mentally map the card's ranks into a Tier structure used in Emissary, each of which had certain implications for the cost of using those cards. It was hard for players to keep it all straight in their mind (and required a reference card at a minimum) and as a consequence the flow of the game bottlenecked a little bit.

If the game was to mature beyond its roots I felt it had to deviate away from the Decktet. Custom cards could facilitate learning the game and streamline the play considerably by using clear iconography to identify the various ways of interacting with the cards (costs, build allowances, etc.). But this opened up a whole separate question, what to "theme" it around. I was torn whether to embrace the games forefather (Hegemonic) and go with a spacey theme, or do something more subdued and landscap-y. I couldn't decide so I did both!

Onward to the eye-candy!

July 7, 2014

Designer Diary: Hegemonic, or Reimagining the 4X/Sci-Fi Empire Genre from Sketchbook to Publication

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This Designer Diary was originally published at BoardGameGeek News on January 14, 2013.

The Short Version

I've always enjoyed tinkering with and designing games. In the summer of 2010 I started designing a space empire game called Hegemonic, inspired in part by the many sci-fi authors I enjoy. I endeavored to break the mold and create a space empire game with a big open decision space, lots of room for creative and dynamic gameplay, and mechanisms appropriately abstracted to match the theme of galactic domination.

The first prototypes were tested in early 2011 after spending months in a sketchbook working out the concepts. With the help of space artist Alex Skinner, I had an attractive prototype to use and share with willing test subjects. I then spent the next fifteen months, until mid-2012, developing the game, testing with external (blind) playtest groups, and polishing the gameplay.

Towards the end of the summer of 2012, with the help of some BGG friends, I began pitching the game to interested publishers. Minion Games was quick to pick up Hegemonic, and we've been working feverishly this fall and winter getting the game ready for production!

Hegemonic is a space empire game wrapped around an area-control style game. It is has a high level of direct conflict and interaction in the game, yet also feels more "Euro" than many of other space empire games. It is distinct because players' industrial, political, and martial systems all contribute toward their economy and area control, and all of them can be used to initiate conflicts.

If you like big, deep, conflict-driven Eurogames, please continue reading!

June 17, 2014

Schools of Design and Their Core Priorities

One of the regular topics on this blog has to do with the classification of games and the pursuit of a theory or framework that describes the operation and resulting experience of playing board games.

This interest is not driven by the assumption that we'll ever find a perfect system for actually classifying games. Rather, I feel the pursuit of such classification efforts and building a framework for understanding generates interesting discussion, builds knowledge, and creates insights that can be of value on their own.

I've discussed, in an earlier blog post, the idea of trying to define broader categories of games (e.g. What makes a euro a euro?). I want to return to this topic but bring in some other insights and references that I've come across, which will hopefully provide a more tangible and comprehensive picture.

This is a monstrous post ... you have been warned!

June 16, 2014

Dynamic Balancing Acts - A Perspective on Ginkgopolis

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This review was originally posted on BoardGameGeek.Com April 8, 2013.  As of this reposting, I've played Ginkgopolis over a dozen more times.  The below review still applies.

Ginkgopolis is Xavier Georges’ fifth (I believe) game, following Royal Palace (2008), Carson City (2009), Troyes (2010), and Tournay (2011), along with a smattering of expansions for some of the above. This is the first of Xavier’s game I have played, and is currently ranked 325 in BGG (April 8th, 2013). Both Troyes and Carson city rank higher (39th and 167th respectively).

I admit that I have not played Ginkgopolis exhaustively – as I only have 3 plays under my belt at the time of writing (one each at 5 players, 3 players, and 2 players). Despite this, I found myself enamored with the game, both its flaws and its successes, and spent considerable time thinking about it.

Reactions to Ginkgopolis seem a bit of a mixed bag. The primary criticisms of the game being lack of theme integration with the mechanics and the high level of apparent randomness and uncertainty in the game. I decided to write this review to explore these two criticisms and examine the overall gameplay dynamics at work. I will conclude with my thoughts on how Ginkgopolis “fits” into the overall gaming scene and why I think it will be a compelling but underappreciated game.

June 6, 2014

Big Game Theory! Expands into a New Universe

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The Big Game Theory! blog has a new, dedicated home in an alternate reality where BGG, impossibly, doesn't exist! What you say!?

The Big Game Theory blog launched at BoardGameGeek (BGG) to discuss boardgame design and design theory. The blog has been running at BGG since September 2011 and has generated a ton of great discussion and dedicated followers. So worry not, it will continue to be updated at the original location in full.

So why the dedicated site?

May 19, 2014

The Wondrous Ages I Have Known

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It’s been a while since the last post, and I feel an update is in order so you all don’t think I’ve succumbed to a game avalanche tumbling down out of my closest or that I've been dragged into Real-Life by some demon spawn. No – it’s been far more ordinary than that: family, work, deck (re)construction, traveling, and general chin scratching. All this, plus Age of Wonders 3 and some trepid steps towards a possible expansion for Hegemonic (more on that in the next blog post). As for this post - it's all about my reflections of Age of Wonders 3, a PC 4X game I am enjoying more and more by leaps and bounds.

Orc Sorcerer owns you!

April 25, 2014

A Call to Arms!

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Hello all!  It's been a little while since posting, and among other reasons was the most prominent one: last month saw the birth of our second child and all that entails. Things now seem to be slowing down on the crazy-factor scale, so I'm crawling out of the cave with a little request!

I've talked about Emissary in prior blog posts (Emissary: A Study in Brain-burn and Emergence) but I wanted to more formally open up the doors for broader playtesting of the game. It's been tweaked and developed quite a bit more since the last time I talked about it, and I'm now at a point where getting a broader set of opinions and reactions to the game would be just stupendous!

March 5, 2014

15 Years and Worlds Apart - Autumn Dynasty: Warlords & The King of Dragon Pass

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I've been playing two games on my iPad recently, Autumn Dynasty Warlords (Touch Dimensions) and King of Dragon Pass (developer A Sharp for iOS on ITunes or PC @ While the two games are quite different in their intent and are separated by a mere 15-years of time - I can't help but draw comparisons between the two. In many respects, the merits and failings of each game may underscore a shift in game design over the years, or perhaps a shift in my own expectations and gaming desires in relation to the wider gaming audience.

In short, I feel that King of Dragon Pass does so many things right and creates a deep and captivating experience. And it really showcases and embodies the fleetingly lost art of game design. AD: Warlords on the other hand, like so many games in the Civ/4X genre today, seems more interested in having players "just do stuff" because once upon a time some older game had "players do that stuff" and established expectations. Yet in reality the stuff you do is trivial and dull, despite it hiding behind an otherwise intoxicating level of production polish.

Beware, harsh criticisms ahead ...

February 10, 2014

Game Format: Competitive, Cooperative, and Semi-Quasi-Collaboration Games

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One of my interesting side projects has been working with a few other BGG’ers in the Game Genome Project Guild. I’ve referenced this earlier on the blog, but the Game Genome Project (2.0) is an effort to start mapping all of the various characteristics of games across a number of different traits. One of the topics that’s been a fascinating source of speculation and reasoning has been the “Game Format” traits.

The “Game Format” trait is an attempt to describe the structure of a game in terms of its possible win conditions and teaming arrangements. Broadly, this trait can be used to define whether a game is cooperative or competitive (or in between), and whether formal teams are allowed and whether those teams are known, hidden, dynamic, or static over the course of the game. The effort to map all of this has led to some interesting observations – most notably that there are a lot of gaps where there do not appear to be many (or any) games that exist. Designers, get motivated!

This blog post will present the game format flow chart (enlarged at the end) by way of explaining the approach and key ideas that the brain trust developed. I should note that two fellow BGG’ers have been instrumental in developing this, and are equal collaborators on the effort. So big a shout out to FlyingArrow and Selwyth.

January 22, 2014

Crossing the Digital Veil

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Given that iOS Boardgames has been posting their 2013 year-end wrap ups and best of’s, it seems appropriate timing to tackle the subject as well. Back in August, I was gifted, courtesy of my wife as a birthday present, an iPad Mini – which I had hinted at wanting but assumed it wasn’t in the cards. So imagine my surprise when opening that up!

I had been using an older iPod touch for a few years, and managed to find a few boardgame App’s that worked on the older iOS version, but not many. With our growing family, I’ve been finding opportunities for face-to-face boardgaming becoming more sporadic as expected. There are a lot iPad only boardgame apps, and most needed a few version of iOS than the old iPod would support. So the iPad Mini would provide a way to play a much expanded library of games with friends (or other gamers) online, or even solo against the AI.

As a general note – while I do enjoy gaming (or boardgaming) on the iPad, it certainly isn’t the same as being face to face. For some games, it isn’t a huge deal breaker on my enjoyment of the game – but for others it can be. And yet other types of games are just never going to work as well in an online format.

January 16, 2014

The Gulf Between: Civ vs 4X Games

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I am always interested in 4X or Civilization style boardgames. I was thinking earlier about what aspects of these games makes one game a 4X game and not a Civ game. Or another Civ and not 4X. And another game a bit of both, or neither. I took a stab at outlining some of the key traits that distinguish and these two genres from one another.