Monday 30 July 2012


My thoughts on game expansions have changed over the last few years. I used to consider elegance the most important aesthetic virtue, I believed that every concept should be expressed in its simplest possible form (but no simpler, of course). Expansions necessarily add more to a game than is essential, and so were not to my taste. Content-based games are a separate category of thing - finite content is eventually exhausted and must be replaced - but a systemic game can last indefinitely, and so never needs to be expanded.

I particularly disliked expansions for board games. They tend to make the games longer. They drastically increase variance and streakiness by increasing the size of card decks (a larger deck is less reliable even if the proportions of card types are kept constant), destroying the delicate balance of the base game. They usually have more complex rules, making them harder to teach and slower to play, for little (if any) gain.
Carcassonne is a particular offender in my experience; manifold expansions churned out for profit with no respect for what makes the core game good. A lot of the strategy in base Carcassonne revolves around knowing what tiles exist and forcing your opponent into configurations that are impossible to resolve; the expansions weaken this by making all configurations possible - you can still try to play the odds, but the strategy largely reverts to maximising your own score rather than spoiling your opponent's position.

But I've learnt that this isn't the whole picture. Many expansions are poor, but this doesn't invalidate the entire concept. Elegance is important, but it can be worth sacrificing some to gain in other areas. Expansions can be done right if you're careful. Add things because they're worth adding, not just for the sake of having more stuff. Understand what's good about it in the first place and preserve that, enrich it, don't break it.

Race for the Galaxy is a perfect example of a game that didn't need to be expanded - it starts with a beautiful system, finely balanced, stable under hundreds of plays - but which grows even deeper with the expansions. This is the game that really sold me on the concept. Designer Tom Lehmann has written about the thought that went into the expansions. Powers that played well but were complex to learn were withheld for later expansions, allowing players to master the depths of the core game system first. The power level of strategies in the base set was skewed slightly towards those that were more difficult to grasp, to encourage players to persist with them - and then balanced back to the centre in the expansions. Close attention was paid to the problem of increasing deck size - expansions add more "explore" powers allowing players to select from more cards, and the third expansion adds a "search" action which allows each player to trawl the deck for a card type of their choice once in a game.

In my own work, I'm finding expansion-type design delightful. Inventing new games from scratch is more important to me overall, but there's a playfulness to building on top of an existing structure that's very satisfying. And it's a lot easier to get into when motivation is at low ebb.
What makes a good expansion depends entirely on the game, but there are some general questions I've been asking myself. Where can new content fit into this? What regions of the design space are so far unexplored? What parts of this system are static that we could make variable, give the players control over? What unexpected corners of the rules can we interact with? What things aren't connected; can we join them up somehow?

I've been messing with Glitch Tank again in the last couple of days. Similar thoughts to when I patched it before. Should have a patch up soon with some bug-fixes and a little bit of new stuff. It's a very tight game, it doesn't have a lot of room to expand, so I have to be careful.

Where can we inject new things?
- Through the initial state. Different map features. The update I mentioned before added walls and teleporters generated at random. I'm not adding any more map features, there are enough.
- New game modes. Started with just one mode in the Kompendium version, added AI and explicit support for turn-based play for the iOS version. Added the 6-hp mode in an update.
- Action cards. In addition to the eight standard actions (forward, back, left, right, fire, jump, mine, replicate), there are an undisclosed number of rare actions. The most common of these flips all positions on both axes; the others you'll have to find on your own. They're not a major feature - you might never see them at all - but they add a bit of occasional variety, and enrich the "glitch" theme. I've added at least one more action, which I'll explain when the new patch goes live.
- Random events? It probably wouldn't suit the game very well to have events happening independently of player actions, but it's a possibility.
- Events triggered by an obscure game event, an unusual corner case in the rules - something that players have control over but wouldn't normally do. Like the glitch that happens when both players die simultaneously.
- Metagame structure: a tournament mode, deck customisation, character progression. Might not suit the game, but worth thinking about.

I'm very happy with the things that have been added, they're definite improvements. There's a real value to leaving a design to simmer for a while, you can come back to it with fresh ideas and deeper understanding. We've been playing this game for almost a year now, so I know it quite well.


The first Race for the Galaxy expansion came with some blank cards making it convenient for players to mod the game. I spent some time a few years back experimenting with these, trying to make cards that did things that hadn't been done. Modding someone else's game is a similar kind of design to expanding your own.

The phase-selection system affects the rest of the game but nothing directly affects it, so I tried to make things interact with it - letting you restrict your opponent's options, see their choices, restrict your own options or reveal your choices as a cost. None of the cards I came up with worked very well, but I'm quite pleased with a tournament variant. Apparently the designer had some similar ideas - the third expansion contains Psi-Crystal World. (Part of the reason this works better than my attempts is because it's on a world rather than a development - the effect is balanced by opportunity cost, not just by numeric cost.)

A lot of the game revolves around building engines that produce and consume resources. Different powers on different cards form engine components - producing goods on one world with a power from somewhere else, triggering a card draw from another power, then converting them to points on a different world. Resources come in four different flavours, with different powers synergising with each. I had the idea to have a "wild-card" resource, which would count as any flavour and allow you to connect up powers that wouldn't usually interact. Through a competition, this actually ended up in the official game as Alien Oort Cloud Refinery, which I'm still totally stoked about.
(If you know the RftG rules: the reason it's a windfall world is to allow more powers to interact with it, the reason it can't be traded from even though that would allow even more interactions is that otherwise it would have to cost so much that you couldn't afford to take advantage of all the interactions anyway.)

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Short Games

I've had a draft of this sitting around for a while. Then this post by @potatojin showed up and made this a lot easier to finish because now I can just refer to that for half of what I wanted to say: I Like Short Songs.

To summarise his post:
- Short games are awesome.
- A short game is one that you can get good at, because you can play it over and over again. Replayability is excellent.
- Designing a small game, you can hold the entire thing in your head and really make sure it works, rather than just building up a structure and hoping.

I've heard a few times recently games the length of movies described as "short". Let me be clear here: 3 hours is not short. A short game is one you can play multiple times in one sitting. If you play a game and it takes 3 hours, you're not about to play it again today. It's much harder to get good at a game if you can't play it more than once in a row; a tight feedback loop really helps with learning, being able to try out different approaches, see how they work, rethink them, and try again while the previous attempt is still fresh in your mind.


Let's use the classic Sid Meier aesthetic for games; "a series of interesting decisions" - for different aesthetic goals the following is going to be largely meaningless. What makes a decision interesting? I see two aspects: ambiguity and consequence. If there's no ambiguity, if it's obvious what the correct option is, there's no real choice at all. If there's no consequence, if a decision has no real impact on the game, it's similarly a fake choice.

It's implicit in the word "decision" that there's some level of ambiguity and consequence. These aren't binary values though; a decision can be more or less ambiguous and more or less consequential. So we can ask how much ambiguity, how much consequence a decision should preferably have. This is going to have different answers for different people, but for me: I like decisions ambiguous enough to not be obvious, but not so ambiguous that I'm just choosing blindly; there need to be clear reasons to pick one option over another. I like decisions to be quite strongly consequential, to feel like they have a significant impact on the game; I don't enjoy micromanaging for incremental gains.

This last is a reason I like games to be short. In a smaller game, there's room for more consequential decisions. Shorter games have a higher density of decisions; either you cram the same number of choices into a smaller amount of time, or you have fewer choices but more consequential.

Consider the board game 7 Wonders: it lasts for 18 turns, and on each turn you make one main decision. So on average, each of these decisions contributes 5.6% of your total influence on the game. There are 3-7 players, so each turn you're determining about 1% of the outcome of the game. That might seem like a small number, but it's a big chunk compared to a game like Civilisation, where you make thousands of little decisions across hundreds of turns and several hours of play, and most of them don't matter in the slightest. (It's odd that for all that "interesting decisions" are famously Meier's idea of what makes a game good, I find his own games pretty terrible in that regard, being over-long and riddled with tedious micromanagement.)

There's a possible counterargument here that I'd like to acknowledge. I'm measuring the consequence of a choice by what proportion of the game it affects, how much it affects the outcome. But in a longer game, there's scope for pivotal decisions with a larger absolute effect, that still have an impact hours later because the game is still going. However, there can't be many such decisions; I'll take big decisions in a small game over a few giant decisions mixed in with hours of micromanagement.


I'm going to make an analogy with chaos theory, and I'm not going to be very precise - vague and inaccurate analogies to chaos are traditional, even among chaos theorists themselves. Roughly speaking, the study of chaos deals with systems that are neither easy nor completely impossible to predict. Systems balanced between order and disorder, that produce interesting complex behaviour according to deterministic rules. As you evolve a chaotic system, you get feedback effects - positive feedback amplifying perturbations, or negative feedback damping them. There's a delicate balance there, it's easy for them to fall into order or disorder.

Similarly for games, they're best when balanced between predictability and randomness. Positive feedback helps whoever is winning to maintain their lead, and negative feedback helps their opponents to catch up. Both of these are valuable effects: If there's no way to catch up, then the outcome of the game is determined near the start and there's no consequence to subsequent decisions - order. But if it's not an advantage at all, if it's too feasible to make a comeback, then the outcome ends up being essentially random - disorder.

This balance pushes games towards being short. It's easy enough to make a game behave chaotically for a little while, but it's very difficult to maintain it for an extended period - to have whoever's in the lead benefit from it, but still have their opponents having a chance of dethroning them; to have the game continually progress without falling into order or disorder.

But even if you break the balance in either direction, it's not so harmful if the game is short. When positive feedback kicks in and the winning player can't possibly lose, that's dull for them and horribly frustrating for any opponents, but it doesn't matter if the game's over pretty soon after that - it's when it drags on for another hour that there's a problem. Similarly, if there's no way to hold onto a lead and the game constantly swings back and forth, that's frustrating if it goes on for a long time and nobody can make progress, but it's okay in a short game because you only need to be ahead for a short time to win.

Friday 6 July 2012

The Sea Will Claim Everything

Jonas Kyratzes is one of my favourite designers. I don't believe there's anyone else right now doing story-focused videogames better. Playing his games makes me question my entire approach to game design, makes me want to forget about trying to generate "meaningful" decisions with game mechanics and focus instead on actually meaningfully meaning something.

His Lands of Dream games are special. The colourful hand-drawn graphics (drawn by his wife Verena) make them resemble children's books, and like all the best books for children they're not aimed at children at all. They deal both with childish things - philosophy, politics, economics - and with serious grown-up topics like what you get if you cross a squirrel with a fox. (A squox, of course - and they're unbearably cute.)

The stories cover the full spectrum of human emotion, not just what fits into the action-movie hero-saga mold videogames usually cling to. They've made me cry, not because of hackneyed tragedies, but by honestly expressing something that was personally meaningful to me. They've also made me laugh, and smile a lot; there's a sense of joy and playfulness to them. For all that games are naturally about "play", they usually take themselves so seriously, as though they're trying to be accepted as "art" and they believe that's a prerequisite - these games don't take themselves seriously at all, and because of that are far worthier artistically than any SERIOUS ART about death or whatever. They're made with love, and I love them.

I highly recommend The Sea Will Claim Everything, the latest entry in the series and the first being offered as a people-directly-pay-money-for-it-rather-than-being-subjected-to-advertising-thing.

Jonas and Verena have also been doing a series of pictures and short stories set in the Lands of Dream: The Oneiropolis Compendium. They're nice.