Against Tactics and the Connect-Four CCG

How did you become a game designer? What was the path you took, going all the way back to your childhood, that lead you to want to design games? I expect that most of us can at least loosely define some "stages" of our game-design-development, and while we all have our differences, I think it's probable that many of us reading this article (and who therefore are more likely to be systems-design-oriented) have had something of a similar path. Like most, I started in videogames - Street Fighter, Doom, Final Fantasy, Zelda, and later, WarCraft 2, Starcraft, Fallout, Super Smash Bros. and Final Fantasy Tactics. And of course, I played Chess. From the vantage point of a videogame player, it's natural to see the ancient abstracts as these untouchable titans of history. We see games like Chess and Go like the classical music to our modern pop songs, or like the ancient Greek philosophers. Maybe they weren't entirely applicable to today—for as much as I talked a big game about how great these games were, I never found myself enjoying them the way I enjoyed modern videogames—but they always maintained this air of "brilliant design" and even a kind of perfection. At some point, probably around 2010, is when I dove deep into the world of designer board games, which really opened up the field for me in terms of what I think of as possible in games. Around the same time, Rogue-likes also took off somewhat and entered into the public consciousness. I have come out of this big soupy not-very-designed world of videogames, and entered into a world of highly abstract, usually grid-based, procedurally generated systems, with designer boardgames as an inspiration, but always with the great gods Chess and Go looking down on all of it. It is in that environment that I developed much of my theory and created my games.  

Indie Games on a Small Grid

In the last decade, we've seen the rise of these small, often solo game designers. And I don't mean "designers" to say "developers"—I mean designers. People like Michael Brough, Brett Lowey (I interviewed him on episode 36 of my podcast), Happy Snake, One Man Left, myself, and others. I call these the interactive merit chasers: people deeply involved in the problem of "how do I make a deep, semi-evergreen, elegantly designed system that's fun to play just because of its rules alone?" Recently, I would also add the FTL developers to this list, with their release of Into the Breach, which is part of what really spurred me to finally write this article. (more…)

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Jon Shafer on pushing the 4X genre forward

Today I have an interview with Civilization V designer, Jon Shafer. Jon's an experienced 4X strategy game player and creator, and I wanted to talk to him about the design issues these kinds of games tend to face. Here's a few subjects we talk about:

  • Diplomacy systems
  • Lack of dynamics in the late (and often mid) game
  • How combat should be resolved, if it exists at all
  • Match length
  • Victory conditions
... just to name a few. Jon is currently working on the successfully Kickstarted At the Gates, which you can play an early access version of here. Note: Jon's audio is a little bit spotty in the first 10 minutes of the interview, but it clears up! Enjoy!   Thanks for listening! If you enjoyed the show, please consider supporting my work at Special thanks to Jean-Marc Neilly, and a big thank you to all my patrons for making this show possible.

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Designing Strategy: Rushdown, Economy, and Defense

Hey everyone! Today I have a good-old-fashioned formalist-ish game design article. It's been a little while since I've really done one of those, unless it was attached to Push the Lane. This article is also a little bit different than a lot of my other work because I usually talk about rulesets: what the actual rules are. I tend to talk less about, within a set of rules, what players can do. Today, I'm talking about designing strategy space, and a specific way to think about the strategies that players can pursue in your game.

"The triangle"

If you're into strategy games, you probably at least loosely know the basic idea behind "rushdown" (or "rush"), "economy" (or "econ"), and "defense". A lot of us first heard these terms in RTS games like StarCraft, wherein the "zergling rush" was a very common and easy-to-understand manifestation of a "rush strategy". Terrans building a ton of bunkers and missile turrets and siege tanks was a pretty clear example of "defense", and expanding (getting another base with another source of minerals) was an "economy" play. In some games, it can be seen as a triangle, or rock-paper-scissors relationship, with rush beating econ, econ beating defense, and defense beating rush. It's worth noting that "rushdown" is not, itself, a strategy, but rather a family or style of strategies in a given game. There may be many different rushdown strategies. Also, it's spectral. You may pursue a strategy that's like 60% rush-y, or 80% rush-y, etc. (more…)

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Arcs in Strategy Games

It is common to hear players talk about "tactics" and "strategy" in games. In this case, the colloquial understanding of these terms happens to be pretty useful, in that it maps well to something that actually goes on in playing strategy games. With that said, it's worth taking a moment to clarify these terms: "Tactics" usually refers to "short-term decision-making". Questions like "should I move this character two steps forward, or three steps forward" are questions of tactics. Tactics are micro-level decisions in strategy game play. "Strategy" usually refers to "longer-term decision-making". Questions like "should I be aggressive early, or be defensive now and attack later on" are longer-scale choices about a game that players make. Strategies are macro-level decisions in strategy game play. In both cases, we are talking about a grouping of gamestate information over time and how it changes. I refer to this grouping as an "arc". (more…)

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The Default Number of Players is One

I did a Twitter poll recently:

Most people (almost half!) voted that there "is no default/ideal". That probably sounds like a safe, reasonable choice, but it's really a pretty bold claim to say that there is no default or ideal - certainly at least as bold as any of the other options. In second place was "2 player", which did not surprise me. What did surprise me was how close the margin was between "2 player" and "3+ player", though. I would have expected the breakdown to be more like 40% "unanswerable", 40% "2-players", 20% "3+ players" and basically no one voting for 1 player. Actually, I still kind of think that if more people took the poll, it would probably head more in that direction. (more…)

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