Introducing: EMPIRE

StyleSketch1Today I wanted to introduce people to a new game that I’m designing called EMPIRE.  In order to do this, I think it makes sense to first talk about what already exists, and then talk about what I’m doing that’s different.

EMPIRE is my take on the so-called “4X Strategy” genre of digital games.  I’ve always been a fan of games like Civilization, and even more so of Master of Magic.  I do have a number of problems with the genre, problems which have not been getting better.  For instance, Civilization V, the latest game in the Civilization series, did not correct most of the games worst problems.  You can read about my problems with that game, which are fairly similar to my problems with just about every game in the genre, here.

Suffice it to say that with EMPIRE, I have an opportunity to do what I did for 4X games what AURO does for roguelikes:  namely, find some kernel of an actual core gameplay mechanism, and build a carefully constructed system around that.  So unlike most videogames, this game will be system-based, not component-based.

Why does that actually matter?  Well, because it means that we can have an elegant design, which in turn means that we can have a system that’s both extremely easy to learn, and equally difficult to master.

In short, EMPIRE is a modern, elegant solution to the problems of 4X strategy games.


EMPIRE is a game centered around the concept of maintaining a growing set of resources.

I often start with some thematic metaphor to help me in designing a game, and with EMPIRE, that metaphor was one of “the rise and fall of an empire”.  I think it’s very interesting and dynamic how a real life empire can grow more and more powerful, but sort of break under the pressure of its own weight after awhile.

I’ve also been playing a lot of Puzzle Strike, and before that, Dominion, and I feel that the “deck-building” mechanism is a fantastic way to express that.  So, the “set of resources” that you’re maintaining in EMPIRE are digital “cards” that you use in battle and win from victories.

So, in a sense, EMPIRE is the world’s first Deck-Building 4X Strategy game!

Right now, the game is in an early alpha stage, so you should expect some of what’s written here to change in the coming months as more playtesting begins.  Also, keep in mind that all screenshots and such are very early – excuse the temporary buttons and such!

Working Alpha prototype.  Forgive the temporary art and menus!

Working Alpha prototype. Forgive the temporary art and menus!

EMPIRE In Detail

EMPIRE is not only built to avoid the pitfalls of traditional 4X strategy games, but it’s also built primarily for mobile, and the game is being designed around this.  I’ll explain some of the rules to show you how it works.

Essentially, EMPIRE is a war-game.  This puts it in stark contrast with most other 4X games which have a more toy-like “do whatever you want” feeling to them much of the time.  In this game, you are trying to conquer other civilizations in a constant need to take new territory.  Eventually, your civilization will fall, so it is a matter of surviving for as long as you can and winning as many battles as you can to achieve the highest score possible.  To return to the metaphor, you could say that this reflects entering your empire into the textbooks of history as one of the world’s greatest.

When you start the game, you have enough resources to found one city.  When you do create a city, that city starts sucking up resources from the surrounding tiles each turn.  Eventually – and this is one of the most different things about the game – those tiles will produce fewer and fewer resources, until they finally become “desolation” tiles:  scars on the earth that not only produce no resources at all, but actually spawn dangerous monsters.

So, this means that you must stay on the move to keep a steady flow of resources coming in.  And if you don’t keep that steady flow of resources coming in, and a nearby Empire does, well, then you can guess that he’ll likely overpower you.  So, there’s a natural struggle for new, un-desolated territory.


I started with the question, “what are cities, really, in a game like this?”  If we can identify that at its core, this is a war game, then cities are a stepping stone towards creating your army.  With this understanding, we can realize that the system for cities is not central, and should be limited in its complexity.

The system for how cities work is extremely simple, yet still has enough resolution to support expressive gameplay choices.  A city is taking in “food” from nearby tiles, and when it reaches a certain threshold, it “levels up”.  When it does this, you can choose between a choice of 2 buildings.  Once you choose one, that choice is permanent.  You can’t go build the other building now.  Eventually, you’ll level up again, and now you get another choice of 2 different buildings.  This is “Tier 2”, and there are 3 such tiers.

So, you basically have 3 rounds of choices to make, which leads to somewhere around a dozen or so possibilities for the city’s configuration (someone else can do the math for this and let me know the exact number!).

Of course, you can also have more than one city.  We’re currently working with a system where the maximum number of cities is 3, but even to have 3 is difficult.  So, having 1 city is tax-free, but when you have a 2nd city, there’s a decently harsh tax on all income.  So, if you’d normally be sucking up 10 food a turn, now it’s reduced to 8 food a turn, or something.  Which might be totally fine while the surrounding resources are good and healthy, but makes the desolation tiles even more of a threat.  3 cities is almost never sustainable for very long due to a significant tax that’s imposed.  If you have 3 cities, you need to either be constantly winning battles (winning some battles can yield some resources) or just moving quickly to new areas (this would probably require winning battles anyway!).

The primary role of cities is to suck up resources from the land, produce new military units, and produce new Action Cards (which I’ll get to in a second).

Ignore the text and HUD stuff, it's all temporary!

Ignore the text and HUD stuff, it’s all temporary!


This is probably the biggest area that “it being a mobile game” helped influence the design, but honestly, mobile design is good design, in a way.  What I mean is, you never want a game to be super fiddly UI-madness;  you always want interacting with the game to be as simple as it possibly can.

With armies and units, one thing I wanted to do away with was the concept of “moving units around from city to city”.  It’s extremely fiddley, and even when you have a mouse it’s just annoying.  Grouping units together, waiting for that last swordsman you just produced to walk allll the way over the map to get to the rest of the group, etc.  I didn’t want to deal with any of that.

So in this game, your army is ever-present.  It’s like a resource.  If you attack something, you have your whole army.  If you’re attacked at any of your cities, your whole army defends.  Making an attack on something takes time, by the way – if you want to attack an enemy city, that city is alerted to it, and it takes a certain amount of time (this amount calculated by distance, the terrain covered, and how many Mounted type units are in your army).

This way, we can avoid any fiddling.  It should make for a really pleasing, easy to use, yet still super strategic experience.


It may be surprising to know that cities are not central to this game.  Armies are also not central.  Armies, too, are merely a resource that is used in combat.  So what is central to EMPIRE?

The EMPIRE Action Deck.  In the game, you start with a deck of about 10 Action Cards.  These are used in combat to give your troops commands.   One of them might say “all archers advance”, one might say “soldiers fortify”, or “all units retreat”.  Some of them have special effects, like making one unit invulnerable for a turn, or even summoning monsters.

When a battle begins, the game draws a number of these that you may use on your turn. First, your troops advance on their own, and then you may use an Action Card from your “hand”.  Then, any combat that is possible happens and is resolved.  It’s a really simple system that’s still highly tactical and interesting.  I made a paper mockup of the combat which worked really well.

Here’s where it gets really interesting, though.  Winning fights is of course, the objective of the game.  And when you do, you gain points.  But here’s the rub:  those points are given to you in the form of a Victory Point card, which goes into your action deck.  Players of Dominion are very familiar with what I’m talking about right now – what this means is that your deck is slowly getting clogged up with more and more useless cards. 

Late game, you may have added lots of fantastic, magical, powerful cards to your deck… but you’ve also likely won a good number of battles, and have a good number of Victory Point cards.  This means that on a given turn, it’s increasingly likely that you might just draw 2 or 3 VP cards, severely limiting your combat options!

Old empires can get Action Cards that re-draw hands to help mitigate this, build buildings to increase hand size, and even sometimes trash some old unneeded cards, but these all come at a cost.

Combat is fought until 3 units are killed on either side, OR the base-line of a side takes 5 damage (it can be attacked).

Obviously, this is just a conceptual mockup - not artwork at all!

Obviously, this is just a conceptual mockup – not artwork at all!

Throughout the game, not only will young new Empires spring up to try to take power away from your old, mighty empire, but Monsters are also spawning with increasing frequency.  It’s always a dangerous, unsafe world in Empire.  When your last city is destroyed, the game ends, and your score is tallied.


I should mention that EMPIRE is not a Dinofarm Games game.  Instead, I’m working with a new team, as lead designer.  The lead artist for this team is a guy named Martijn Holtkamp, who has Age of Wonders 2, Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic, and Divinity 2 on his resume.

Concept art by Martijn!

Concept art by Martijn!

The theme for the game is loosely inspired by Conan the Barbarian illustrations by Frank Frazetta and other similar artists, but also blended with a touch of stylized cartoonyness.  This is all really Martijn’s domain, which maybe I’ll get him to write more about in a future post, but for now suffice it to say that I think the game will look unique.

We expect the game to be out Fall of 2013.  As for platforms, the game is being created in Unity, so where ever Unity can exist, EMPIRE can exist. We are of course, expecting lots of roblox hacks, but don’t worry we are ready.  Certainly iOS, Android, Windows, OSX, just to name a few.

So that’s EMPIRE!  What do you think?  I’d love some feedback on the idea, and I’ve created a forum over at Dinofarm Games to talk about it.  Eventually, we’ll likely start a beta phase, and if you subscribe over at Dinofarm, you’ll be the first to know about it.  Thanks for reading!

Surprises at the PRACTICE 2012: Game Design In Detail Conference

Note: This article was written a few months ago, right after the conference, but kinda got lost in the shuffle.  Anyway, it’s here now!  Enjoy!

This was the second year of the new NYC-based game design conference, run by NYU Game Center staff.  It was also my second year attending.  So, having been there once before, I went in with some kind of idea of what to expect from each of the list of speakers.

For those who don’t know anything about the conference, it’s kind of like a game designer’s dream-conference.  It’s not a game development or game business conference, it’s not a commercial expo – it’s merely a bunch (less than 100) game designers getting together and talking about their practice of game design.  There aren’t a lot of events in the world that focus so narrowly on my field of interest, so it’s something I’ll be attending every year, if I can.

Now, having attended the conference, I think I can pull everything together into a kind of theme of “surprise”, as almost all of the speakers did not quite match my expectations. That might automatically sound negative, but it actually was positive in a couple of cases where I didn’t expect much from the speaker.  For better or for worse, what I expected to hear was often subverted, and that fact in and of itself was probably of value.

Among the speakers were Richard Garfield (Magic: the Gathering), Dan Cook (Triple Town), Christina Norman (League of Legends), Stone Librande (Spore), Kjartan Emilsson (Eve Online), and many more. Continue reading

Game Systems as Engines

In a video I did recently, I talked a bit about these system-types that I originally posited in my book – the four “forms” of Toy, Puzzle, Contest and Game. This is not a breakdown of how I see things in the current state of game design, but rather a vision for what I think game design should be.

Before we go on – prescriptive definition warning. I use common words to refer to very specific things, so if you see the chart and think “what the hell is this guy talking about” – simply read below. I elaborate in detail about what I mean.

The main reason that this system is useful is because it gives game designers an abstract gameplay purpose to start with. It answers the question of “what should I be trying to do” at the most basic level.

This might sound arbitrary to some – I’ll address that quickly before going in more detail on this new chart.


It’s Abitrary!

Why are the systems Toy, Puzzle, Contest and Game, and not some other kinds of systems? What were these based on?

As far as I can tell, these are the four things that a person can be doing when interacting with a system. I suppose that my evidence for this would basically be inductive – I cannot “prove without a shadow of a doubt” that these are the systems, but I have observed it, and I continue to observe it. In other words, every example of play I can think of fits well into this system. Secondly, even if it is not “the true four ways” in some absolute sense, it is a very useful way to divide things up.

Of course, some existing systems use a combination of two or more of these types of interaction, but I have yet to find a fifth type of interaction that is unique from these.  If anyone can think of one, or argue that one of the types of interaction that I have listed here is not appropriate, or that two of the types of interaction I’ve listed as different are actually the same, please let me know.


Systems As Engines

Late last night, I figured that it might be helpful to see the four engine types laid out in this way:


Let me clarify these a bit, because some of these words might have connotations that I don’t mean, but they’re as close as I could get with the words I could find.

Toy – A Toy is any interactive system without a goal / problem to solve.  This is not meant to imply any kind of correlation with “childishness” or anything.  You can also call this a Bare Interactive System.  Many simulators fall into this category.

Play – I mean “play” as in the expression “to play with”, or “to mess with”.  This isn’t to say that this work is necessarily trivial, but rather that it’s exploratory.

Mapping – This is the result of the play I was talking about.  With play, we are finding edges, figuring out how a thing will respond.  Eventually we end up with some kind of mapping of how this thing works.  Interestingly, you could say that the object of a toy is to discover its rules.

HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  A good toy will have a vast amount of rules to discover.  Think Legos, or Minecraft, or a ball.


Puzzle – Don’t think about the normal colloquial (and very messy) “puzzle” word.  I simply mean anything with a goal / answer / problem.  So, a math problem counts as a puzzle.

Work – Work has a bad connotation, but think along the lines of a math problem when people say “show your work”.  Essentially, some effort and process towards uncovering the answer must be the input of a puzzle.  (Do not think that this means that solving a puzzle can’t be fun!)

Answer – This is the objective we were searching for.   Once the answer is found, the puzzle is no longer of value to us, because the search for the answer was where the value was.

HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  A good puzzle will have a difficult-to-find answer.  Obvious to most people, yes – but it’s still true.


Contest – Thankfully, this definition lines up pretty closely with the colloquial definition, so not much explanation needed here.

Test – Think “stress test”.  We are attempting to find the limits of something.  Note that this is unlike the wide, lateral exploration of “play”.  This is a vertical, straight test of one specific resource.

Measurement – Measurements are inherently relative and can have no meaning without something to measure up TO.  Therefore, all contests compare the measurement (result) to another result, and determine a winner and a loser.

HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  Good contests don’t have a low “cap” on that vertical skill possibility space.


Game – This is the most controversial word I use in my system.  Some prefer “decision-contest” and some have suggested “strategy game”.  Either way, the point is that this system, as I define it, is a “contest of decision-making”.  The concept is what’s important here.

Decide – The nature of a decision is very interesting and not trivial.  People have argued to me before that button-inputs in Guitar Hero are “decisions”.  I disagree with this characterization;  I think it would then follow that if you were walking and tripped, that you decided to trip.  “Why did you decide to trip”, only a jerk would ask, because obviously you did not decide this.  To help understand this aspect, perhaps think of decisions, in this context, as conscious decisions.

Games present choices that are ambiguous.  Ambiguous choices are choices that live somewhere between a guess and an answer.  A “guess” would be that you have 0% of the information you need to make a decision, like if I asked you whether I was thinking of the number 1 or 2 right now and you had to make that choice, based on no other information.  An answer would be if I asked you to decide which answer to the following problem is correct:

1+1 = ?

a). 2

b). 9999

The answer is “a”; there’s no ambiguity here, so this does not qualify as what I refer to as a decision.

Understanding – What we gain from a game is a holistic understanding of a set of rules and their ramifications, synergies, and connections.  This is not the same as what we gain from a toy, which is a list of rules.  Instead, this is an understanding of rule relationships, and how to manipulate the system to our benefit.  Obtaining new bits of understanding is of value to us, but once there’s no more understanding to gain, the game is dead.

HOW CAN WE USE THIS?  A game should have a very vast and deep set of rule relationships that we can explore for as long as possible.


Anyway, I hope this is helpful for people in understanding my work.  Let me know if anything doesn’t add up!

An Introduction to MUDs (Guest Article by Emily Lutringer)

Emily Lutringer is a very experienced gamer who specializes in MMOs and other online games.  One such type of game is MUDs, which have always fascinated me, personally, being that they’re kind of the “way more interesting grandfather of MMOs”.  Anyway, I asked Emily to write me an article on the subject to introduce my readers to the games, and she did!  So here it is – thanks so much to Emily for her great work.  – Keith


In the end, I always return to MUDding. Fancy, flashy new games distract me for a while – long enough to forget what in the world I was doing in any particular MUD. Eventually, those games bore me, and I return, seeking out both nostalgic MUDs of my youth as well as new ones. But how can a text-based ASCII online game of the early 1990s, completely free and completely run, coded, and designed by volunteers, possibly compete for my attention in the graphical games and MMO worlds?

The movie is never as good as the book. Well, 98% of the time, anyways.  A MUD is the book of the online multiplayer gaming scene. It’s where it all began.

Modern MMOs have even dropped the -RPG suffix for the most part, simply because they have become so dumbed down to appeal to large audiences that they have left all the finer points (and the most fun and interesting points) out.

MUDs are a labor of love. Instead of churned out by code monkeys, they are artisan-crafted, filled with creativity and individuality. MUDs are the smart people’s MMO; the hackers and coders, writers, artists and scientists. It is a unique blend of art, science, mathematics, and gaming. And this is apparent in its structure, causing those who don’t have the intelligence, or patience to understand its system to quickly weed out. For all of us who complain about the idiot communities of games like WoW, we can seek refuge in the world of MUDs.


MUD – Not Your Average Mix of Dirt and Water

MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon. Most MUDs are RPG style games, which exist in a persistent world where you play real time with other people. Just like in MMOs, there are monsters to fight, quests to solve, parties to form, crafting, and even epic PvP (on MUDs, this is usually called PK for Player Killing). The primary difference that you will notice is that there are no graphics. MUDs are entirely text-based, although many use ASCII for simple graphics and mapping. In fact, the early MMOs were called “graphical MUDs”. Everquest was so closely styled after a MUD that they even had to prove that their code was original. Ultima Online is another popular MMO which was based very closely on MUD gameplay. As time went on, MMOs started looking and feeling very different from the old MUDs, but they all still retain the basic structure and elements of their forefathers. Most MUDs are 100% free to play.

MUDs come in various styles, and with many different features, and there is a MUD to suit almost anyone’s tastes – from roleplaying mandatory, to permadeath, to hardcore PK (PvP), from fantasy, to sci-fi, to even X-rated adult MUDs. There are usually a very large number of classes and races to choose from, and enormous amounts of character customization options. There are even MUDs which have completely done away with levels and classes, and instead, you gain in power by increasing your skills – in whichever way you choose, making your character uniquely your own. Usually, there is some system in place which allow players to own and design their own homes, ships, or even entire cities.

You move around using directional commands such as “n” for north, “se” for southeast, etc. Sometimes room descriptions contain valuable information – such as clues for a quest, or objects you can interact with, which are not immediately apparent. Usually the most important things such as other players, NPCs, monsters, and items on the ground are highlighted with color and below the room description to make it easy to see those things at a quick glance.


Here is how some MUDs look in-game:


Discworld MUD


Batworld MUD



MUDs began out of the beginnings of the internet, starting first in the realms of games on dial-up BBSes and then growing into their own coding languages and servers. The first MUD was developed in the mid-1980s, but MUDs didn’t really take off on their own until about 1990. Amazingly, many of the MUDs you see around today have been in existence since the early 1990s continuously, with various updates and improvements made over the years. You can usually even find a few players who have been playing that MUD since it’s birth – over 20 years in some cases!

There are many different styles of coding systems. When you see things like LPMud, DikuMUD, MUSH, MOO, and so on, that is essentially referring to the type of coding language as well as the basic engine of the game. Some codebases are more suited to different styles of games – Diku and its derivatives, for example, are known to be great systems for hack-and-slash type games.


Who Should Play MUDs – and Who Shouldn’t

MUDs take work from the player. These are not passive, absent-minded games. You must engage in the story, in your character, and in the world. Each game has its own syntax and commands you must learn. It requires lots of reading. It can get tedious. The player must have patience, as things take much longer to get done in a MUD than in a MMO. Good grammar is important, as is proper netiquette.

There is very steep learning curve, which can be difficult and frustrating, but the result is an immersive experience brimming with creativity and imagination. Many times I have thought, “huh, I wonder if I can do this”… and I could. Wield an octopus and slap orcs around with it? Sure. Pick mushrooms in the forest, eat them and hallucinate? Yup. Fly, swim, sail, open portals to demonic dimensions, or play the lute? Of course. And when “smile” and “wave” just don’t cut it, there are thousands of emotes built into the game to express yourself. One of the major benefits of not having graphics is that the game can do just about anything it wants without having to visualize it for you or have huge amounts of code to do something. Additionally, MUDs tend to have very complex and intricate storylines, and many MUDs even alter their world based on how players interact with it. Too many people cutting down trees? Now that forest is a desert.

Interesting places, a sense of real adventure, a tight community, and just about any scenario and environment you can imagine and a million ways to accomplish any given task – these are the essential facets of MUDding.

If you have the patience and time, and a curiosity which outweighs slower gameplay and the steep learning curve, and are interested in a smarter, richer, deeper online multiplayer experience, you should play MUDs. Or, if you are simply nostalgic for the early days of the internet. If you do not have the above qualities, then you shouldn’t play MUDs (although I still suggest trying it out a few times to just learn about how they work and to make yourself a better person).


How to connect to a MUD and start playing

First, you need a client. It’s possible to use plain old boring telnet if you like, but that’s a really limited experience. I suggest using MUSHclient – it’s completely free, has lots of features and customizations, and a strong community and forums if you need help. Don’t be turned off by the Windows ’95 look – most MUD clients are rather outdated, but they still work great. Another popular client is Zmud – or its more modern reincarnation as Cmud. These are paid apps, but for many serious MUDers they are simply the best clients around. They do have very advanced features and tools, but, most of that is not necessary, especially if you are new to MUDing. Additionally, many MUDs now have the option to connect using Flash through their websites, so you don’t need to download a client at all. And other MUDs have custom clients which are designed specifically for their MUD and can really take the whole experience up a notch, such as with BatMUD or Aardwolf (see the resources section below).

Here, I will guide you through setting up MUSHclient to get connected for the first time. However, these instructions can be easily transferred to most other clients as well, so use what you like.

Start MUSHClient. Select File > New World.  This screen will come up:


World name can be anything, but I highly suggest using the name of the MUD you want to connect to. In this case, it’s set to connect to Discworld.

In the TCP/IP Address field, put the MUD address. This is usually found on a MUD’s webpage under “Play Now” or “How to Connect”. They should also list the port, and you should plug in that number too below. Check “Save World Automatically on Close” as this will remember the MUDs details for you for next time. No need to enter a proxy server unless you use one. Click OK.

Now, on the toolbar, click the little icon that shows a plug, as seen here under the “save” icon and above the “3”:


And there you go! You are connected to a MUD. Every MUD has a different login screen and setup options, but they are all pretty similar and self-explanatory. In this case, on Discworld MUD, you would enter G to try out a guest character, or N to create a new character. The system will walk you through getting your character made from there and then will put you in a Newbie area, with an optional tutorial to get you familiar with the commands of the game. I suggest browsing through the website first, to get yourself familiar with the available races and classes ahead of time, as while there are usually some standard races (humans, elves, dwarves, etc) and classes (fighter, mage, healer, etc), every MUD is unique, and often have designed many, many races and classes that are not seen anywhere else, or have put their own flavor and style into the traditional roles, altering them significantly from what you would initially suspect.

I currently am playing primarily on BatMUD, with the name Aniah. If you decide to play there, send me a tell and say hi! If there is sufficient interest, I may write a simple guide to the basics of getting setup in a MUD, various settings you can alter in MUSHclient to personalize your experience, general tips to make your experience easier and more enjoyable, and some help with the terminology often used in MUDs. Leave a post if you are interested, or with any questions that you have.



For more information on the history and types of MUDs, see the Wikipedia article at:



MUSHClient – a popular free favorite with lots of features and plugins available.


ZMud/CMud – the gold standard, best quality clients. Lots of advanced features, but often more than most people need. Costs about $30.00.


MUD Listings

Top Mud Sites – A ranking website of the most popular MUDs. Remember tho, #1 doesn’t always mean the best. Results are somewhat skewed because anyone can vote as many times as they want for any game. Still, it does give a quick overview of various types and the most stable MUDs with the strongest communities.


MudConnector – A search engine and database of all the MUDs, with lots of details on what the MUD is like, and many advanced search options. Very useful for finding your perfect MUD.



BatMUD – My current favorite MUD. Has a traditional fantasy feel, but with a spicy kick! BatMUD has gone through a ton of work to create a custom graphical based client, which you can see in the screenshots above, to bring MUDding into the modern era. Has about 200 players on at a time, and lots of friendly folks who will help out newbies.


Materia Magica – A well-made fantasy themed MUD. Usually has 100+ players on at a time. Has multiple customized clients to play the game, including ones with sound effects! Been up and running for over 14 years continuously. Roleplaying is not required, but it is encouraged.


Iron Realms – This is not a MUD in itself, but a company who has produced several MUDs with unique styles and environments. Currently, they are running a total of 5 different MUDs, of which Achaea ( is probably the most popular. These are more polished MUDs than some of the others, but they also use a lot of stock rooms and maps. They are the sort of corporate, mass marketed version of MUDs. They all have large communities with several hundred players online at a time. However, they all tend to push for donations to get the best gear and other perks later in the game, and they all lack in originality, in my opinion. Still, these are solid, very popular games.


Aardwolf – Aardwolf is one of the most popular MUDs around. I have trouble understanding why. It has an interesting world, but ultimately, the game is mostly grinding and copy/pasting run paths to various areas. It has a very large community with several hundred players online at a time. It’s easier to learn than many other MUDs, but I find it rather shallow in the long haul. They have recently created a graphical interface using a customized version of MUSHClient. This could be a good place to start learning about MUDs, but don’t be discouraged if you want something more immersive or imaginative – there’s plenty more MUDs out there.


Armageddon MUD – Low fantasy, in a vicious post-apocalyptic world. This is known to be one of the most “hardcore” MUDs around. It’s extremely difficult. Roleplaying is enforced. You will die – a lot. And, it has permadeath – similar to a roguelike, when you die, you must start over. This MUD has intense PK (PvP) between individuals, clans, guilds, etc.


Two Towers – Based on the lore of Middle Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien, this MUD has a small community but with a dedicated fan base. People looking to immerse themselves in the world of Tolkien would really enjoy this MUD. It’s a little tougher to get started here than in some of the others, but, my brother enjoys playing here, mainly just to bumble around as a hobbit and smoke a pipe and chat with people, although the more involved players are very in love with and loyal to this game.


Discworld – An enjoyable game loosely based on the world created in the books by Terry Pratchett, a humorous, ironic place filled with magic and fantasy. This is a very well established MUD, with 100+ players online at any given time. You don’t need to know anything about the books to play here. This MUD is a lot of fun, but it can be really slow going at the beginning.


Rise of Praxis – Fair warning, this MUD is currently in development. It’s a work in progress to recreate one of the best and most famous LPMUDs of all time – Nightmare. This was my first MUD and one that I played for many, many years, until it was lost due to an unrecoverable server crash a few years ago. Rise of Praxis is being built by the people who loved Nightmare. This can be an interesting look at one of the best MUDs that ever was, as well as give insight as to how a MUD is created. However, be prepared that this IS a work in progress, there are unfinished areas, bugs, and very few people on and active at any given time.


Minimalism Vs. Elegance

I’ve been called a “minimalist” before. Depending on the definition of the term you go by, I either am, or am not a minimalist. The reason that I don’t ever call myself a minimalist is because I think it has a connotation of “romanticizing the simple”, or some other kind of bias towards “simpleness”.

In actuality, my point of view is that things need to be as simple as they can be while still accomplishing their goals. This includes the possibility that they will actually end up being incredibly complex. There are some definitions/connotations of minimalism that this qualifies as, in which case, I’m not talking about that minimalism.

It’s also worth mentioning that when I refer to “simpleness”, I am of course only referring to inherent complexity, not emergent complexity. It’s a basic tenet of design that you want the largest possible ratio of emergent complexity to inherent complexity. So, if in one brush stroke, every idea in the universe could be expressed (a 1:infinity ratio), that would be theoretically optimal.

But that’s super-theoretical. In reality, sometimes we need great levels of inherent complexity to get our ideas across. I think that the rub I run into with people who are primarily digital gamers is simply a matter of what our standards are.


Standards: What Is Inherently Complex?

What we live with right now is the result of a 20+ year history of a technological and content-based arms race. Super Mario Bros. was a huge hit, so Super Mario Bros. 2 added more levels. Super Mario Bros 3. added more features. Super Mario World added even more features, and so on and so on forever.

With each generation of hardware, as the computing power/storage space increased, this had to be advertised proudly by the games. SNES games would brag about the filesize of the game, I recall. Backs of boxes, to this day, brag about stuff like “80 different levels, 200 spells, 30 hurricane kicks”, etc. At this point, it’s almost weird if a videogame doesn’t have a TON of content.

With technological spectacle front and center for so long, is it any surprise that we’d become a culture whose standards for “what is a lot of complexity” is a bit… warped?

In short, people classify me as a minimalist because their standards for complexity are based on a paradigm of mass content.


Games that are Too Simple

What people probably don’t realize is that I’ll happily reject a game that is too simple — it’s just that this rarely happens in digital games. It’s much less rare that it happens, however, in boardgames. Particularly, abstract 2-player boardgames.

For example, the boardgame Hive. It’s a hex-based 2-player game with no board, and little pieces themed with insects that try to surround the opponent’s Queen.

The boardgame Hive

The boardgame Hive

This game, in my view, is too simple. From what I’ve played of it, it seems too solvable, flat, and it also seems like the game becomes something like a “base-race” after only a few moves, with no way for the following player to catch up. There isn’t enough donkey space in Hive, it seems to me. There probably needs to be more complexity. (By the way:  I might be wrong about Hive; I’ve only played it a few times. The point is NOT about the game Hive, though, it’s about the fact that I will reject a game if I feel it’s too simple.)

Another example is a game that I helped Kickstart, which seemed pretty cool, called Rise! (these four-letter games, I tell you…). Rise is another abstract hex-based 2 player game. I have similar complaints with it, too. I just don’t think there’s enough complexity for there to be any really interesting emergence.




And while digital games tend to be way over-complicated, there are some recent attempts at what I might call “minimalist” games that I also am not crazy about.

Zaga-33, for instance. This is a “super-boiled down Rogue-like”. The screens are a very small grid (something like 12×12), and your only actions are attack and a few special spell-items you’ll find. It’s very, very tight – probably about as tight as it can possibly be. Again, I’m not really crazy about this game because there isn’t enough room for donkeyspace – for ambiguous, interesting, maybe-not-optimal-but-maybe-will-turn-out-to-be-a-kind-of-genius creative moves. I think Zaga-33 is actually too simple.





What I really want from games is, for whatever their goal is, they are elegant in achieving it. I think most videogames, due to the ease of adding complexity and more is more cultural demand for greater complexity, are almost always far too complex. So if you’re a videogame player primarily, I can see that you’d think that I was a minimalist.

On the other side of the coin, though, someone who only plays abstract 2-player games like those found at might think that I was some kind of foolish complexity glutton!

In reality, what I want is for games to be no more complex than they have to be to achieve what it is they’re trying to achieve, and what they’re trying to achieve should not be “super simplicity” (which I think might have been the goal in Zaga-33), and it should not be “super complexity” which I think is the goal in most videogames. 

I think that games can be judged by the interestingness of the decisions they present, and in order to create interesting decisions, you do need a certain level of inherent complexity. So, I think we should be seeking to find that level in the games we’re making.  It’s a very difficult thing to pinpoint, and varies from game to game. But let it be known that I am not a minimalist.