BrainGoodGames Design Commandments

I started BrainGoodGames last year because I felt a certain type of game was missing from the landscape. Over the years I’ve ravenously read watched and played as much varied game design thinking as I could, and I’ve come to some conclusions about the types of games I’ll strive to make. I call these the BrainGoodGames Design Commandments.

I may not meet all of these goals all the time, but they are the target that I’m aiming at. Also keep in mind that these are design guidelines for a specific type of game, and not applicable to all designs.

1) The complexity of the game should be in the strategy, not in rules comprehension (the player should know the rules!)

2) The game should have a clear win/loss state (match based play)

3) The player should be having the fun, not the designer (related to 1)

4) The game should always be moving towards its conclusion

5) The game will feature enough ambiguity to remain strategically interesting

6) The game will reward and encourage skill, learning and growth

7) The player should always be playing near the correct challenge level for them

8) The most interesting/fun way to play the game should also be strategically best

9) The game should not cease to be interesting without new content

10) The game should treat the player’s time as valuable

I plan to write a series of articles going into a bit more detail on each of these commandments, so stay tuned!

Chillout Games

Been playing a bit of Stardew Valley as a way to unwind from release, and I’ve come to really value the way it provides a relaxing atmosphere. 

Like a soothing piece of music, or meditative poetry, I think this chillout vibe is something I want to explore more. Puzzles like Sudoku already demonstrate this kind of thing in a way, and I imagine the decreased rigidity in games may allow for even more of this. I’m curious to see what playing around with winrate %s, rank presentation and a couple other things does to de-emhpasize learning, growth and calculation and emphasize meditation, relaxation and the feeling of things “falling into place”.

I have a couple ideas in the tank for an experience like this, and I’m excited for when I’ll be able to show you guys more!

SkyBoats Released Today!

Today (Aug. 23) SkyBoats is released on Steam! We are super excited for everyone to try it out and can’t wait to see what everyone thinks! If you want to discuss any of the mechanics or strategies in the game feel free to do so here! Happy Sailing!

Steam1 totally final absolutly golden perfect version 1

SkyBoats Upgrades – Design Philosophy

(The Kickstarter for SkyBoats is live right now, and we just passed 95% funding! We’d love it if you’d check it out and consider backing!)

In SkyBoats there are a number of different upgrades that ships can start with, and that can be purchased at the SkyCities. These upgrades give boats different powers in place of a basic fuel providing cargo hold. The basic cargo hold in SkyBoats provides one fuel if used when empty or it can use the wind creation power of the good inside the hold. Most of the SkyBoats start with one upgrade.

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(Top to bottom: Clone, Magnet Grab, Blink)

When we were designing the upgrades we wanted to come up with mechanics that could be easily learned, but would provide players with a lot of different ways to use them. A lot of these upgrades are related to movement around the board. For example, the blink upgrade allows you to jump over a space, which can be useful to avoid a wind blowing a direction you do not want to follow. The blink upgrade can also be used to grab goods a little distance away and blow back to where you were, or to get yourself onto a long wind pattern to increase your wind meter! We aimed to create a number of different upgrades which can all be used in a number of different situations.

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Finally, we wanted the upgrades to function together to create even more interesting choices. We believe that this system creates a lot of interesting decisions to be made by the players, without adding a ton of complexity to the game. It is always a difficult balance between complexity and depth. I think the upgrades we have created do a great job of using up a small amount of complexity, while creating a lot of strategic depth.

Thanks for reading and as always I encourage anyone to share comments, questions, critiques etc.

 

The Most Fun Way To Play (And The Most Strategic)

(The Kickstarter for SkyBoats is live right now, and we just passed 50% funding! We’d love it if you’d check it out and consider backing! We would also love your support on Greenlight)

I think its been said before that the best way to play a game (strategically) should also be the most fun. I’m not sure who first came up with that, but I think they are mostly right. When most players sit down to play a game they would like to get into the world of the game and make choices they feel fit the game. I am sure there are some players who just think about the strategy, and don’t care about the world the game is set it, but likely most of us want to make choices that seem “cool” or fun.

It often seems that the most memorable gaming experiences are when you played a game and you did something that created a cool story. Some games do a lot to enable this sort of experience by creating extremely thematic worlds, so that almost any way the game is played it comes out as a cool story. For example, War of the Ring is dripping with theme, and it is hard to make a choice that doesn’t feel perfect for Middle-Earth. This becomes more difficult when you are playing a game that is less theme-focused.

war of the ring

There are also times where a certain strategy is very effective, but is also very boring. DotA 2 has this issue some of the time in high-level matches. The best play is often to sit back and farm, growing your advantage, but many players find this strategy boring and so they run into fights and end up losing an otherwise winnable game. Ideally, the most fun way to play a game would also be the best strategic choice. This is ideal because it would mean players are constantly encouraged to have fun.

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In SkyBoats we thought about this when we were designing the game. SkyBoats is exciting and gives you a great feeling of adventure as you fly around the map, and we’ve done our best to try and tie strategic choices to fun choices. One of the main mechanisms we used to do this was to reward players for making the plays we found the most fun. In early development we realized it was exciting to pick up goods in a far corner of the board, and find a way to sail them across the sky to a city demanding that good. Even better if it was the last points you needed on the last round! The game now rewards players for sailing along winds, and for taking goods long distances! I will discuss our wind mechanics in more depth in my next post!

I would love to hear what you think about how fun and strategy tie together in games!

 

Creating A New Mechanic/System – The SkyBoats Winds

(The Kickstarter for SkyBoats is live right now, and we just passed 50% funding! We’d love it if you’d check it out and consider backing! We would also love your support on Greenlight)

As a game designer it is a dream of mine to create a truly new or novel mechanic. This goal is incredibly difficult for a couple of reasons. Firstly, so many things have been done before, I often find myself coming up with what seems like a new idea only to realize someone already made a game using that mechanic (or something very similar). Secondly, it is difficult to think of something new when you have so many old mechanics in your head. It is difficult to think of new things, and not to just base your thoughts around the framework that already exists.

I have no doubt that old mechanics can be used in new and interesting ways, and there is nothing wrong with doing so. Many or even most games I have loved in the past decade have been based on other things, and have either innovated or improved on the mechanics used before. There is however something very exciting about the idea of creating a truly novel mechanic.

agricola

Many mechanics are based on real life systems. For example in Agricola players use various different actions to create their own little farm and family. The player with the best farm at the end of the game wins. Growing a farm and starting a family has many different parts which all work together. Agricola simplifies some of these, and sets them all up in such a way that you have to make many choices and prioritize your options. Finally, it uses the worker placement mechanic to allow for players to compete with one another. Real world systems are commonly used in board games to create mechanics. The representation of a system that works in a certain way is often strategically interesting.

When we started working on SkyBoats the conversation about a novel mechanic was again brought up and we went to work. What we eventually came up with is a wind-sailing mechanic which we are both really happy with. I don’t know if it is a unique mechanics that has never been seen before. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game using this mechanic. Either way, at the end of the day it is really fun and creates cool strategic choices, so I am happy with the outcome.

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The SkyBoats wind mechanic allows players to sail along winds based on the amount of glide each boat has. Winds are played by the players based on a number of different shapes that correspond to different goods. As your boat sales along the winds it gains “prowess” which makes the goods it sells worth more points or “glory”. This rewards players for making long journeys across the world to sell goods. We felt when we were first playing that long journeys were cool and fun, so we wanted to encourage that sort of gameplay. The winds played by the players also stay on the board for a couple rounds, so you can use previously played winds to sail your other boats along as well. You can even set up routes from city to city to create a sort of trade route.

The wind mechanic is one of the core mechanics of SkyBoats and we’re super excited for everyone to try it out!

As always I would love to hear any comments, questions or critiques!

Single-Player Skillcap – Game Design

One of the tricky aspects of creating single-player games is that the game has to slowly get more and more difficult for a long period of time in order to keep the players challenged. In a multiplayer game, a good system can allow players to all increase in skill, and constantly provide a challenge for each other through competition. With single-player games we have to replace the competition provided by other players with rising difficulty. Where this might max out has been a concern for us. A game doesn’t necessarily have to scale forever, but we do want to provide great value to our players.

gif Apr 21, 2016 15:01 (And I thought rank 18 was high!)

A discussion about the skill cap in Axes and Acres came up a number of times during development, and of course in theory it has to cap somewhere. We eventually decided that the skill cap was high enough it wasn’t something we really needed to worry about. The vast majority of players would never get to a high enough rank for the game to be impossible. Recently we have implemented Steam stat-tracking features so we could get an idea of what ranks people have achieved. We were shocked to learn how high people have reached! I personally doubted that ranks lower than what people have achieved were possible. It really makes you wonder if there are strategies people have developed that as a game designer you never even dreamed of.

? rank

Considering all of this I feel that Axes and Acres was a success with regards to a skill cap. I’m sure it still exists, but it is so far away its existence feels trivial. Ideally, we would like to come up with a system that has no skill cap, but we are still debating whether such a thing is possible in a single-player game.

Anyone have opinions on this?

Mechanics vs Theme – Game Design Discussions

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Here at BrainGoodGames we have thus far put a focus on mechanics in our games. We feel that mechanics are what keep games interesting over a long period of time. Mechanics are the core of most games, and are what makes you think when you are playing. Strategy games in particular rely heavily on mechanics to create ambiguous situations for the players to ponder. Manipulation of the mechanics in various situations create varied situations which the players may find more or less familiar. This is all part of building a heuristics tree for the game, and for games in general. I think this sort of thinking and heuristics generation is what makes many strategy games so satisfying for people. While theme can be very immersive it will give you a different sort of satisfaction.

Some games have extremely engaging stories or themes that can create intense feelings of immersion. This can be extremely enjoyable, and in fact I think many people play games mostly for that sense of immersion or for a feeling of escapism. The theme of a game will probably not be enough to keep someone playing a game for a long period of time. A story is never the same as the first time you experience it. Some stories are very interesting and can stand up to multiple playthroughs, but in my opinion the games that will keep players coming back over and over are games with interesting mechanics. This is not to say however, that theme isn’t important.

Immersion and engagement of players is part of most games and can be extremely enjoyable. A great theme can do wonders covering up lacklustre gameplay. Ideally though a game will not need its gameplay to be covered up. In my opinion the best games are those where the gameplay and theme work together, reinforcing each other. Some games have mechanics that feel thematic – they remind you of the theme and feel like an accurate representation of the action depicted. This method helps to immerse players in the game, but also makes the rules of the game more memorable and intuitive. If a game has a series of actions players must take, with a bunch of little rules they must follow it can be very confusing. If however all of these actions and rules relate to ideas a player already has, then they may more easily remember the rules.

theme vs mechanics

Mechanics also come from themes in some ways. Many game mechanics are based on real world situations. This is especially a popular method in the design of Eurogames. For example in Puerto Rico the game is based on creating and shipping goods. There are a lot of steps to go from having nothing to shipping a good. You must first harvest materials, turn the materials into the goods, find a boat that will hold all the goods you want to ship, negotiate a price for the goods and so on. Puerto Rico focuses on some of these steps and they create a wide variety of situations which players must navigate. The mechanics of Puerto Rico are representative of the theme of shipping goods and they tie together nicely. Most people have a general understanding of the process and this helps players remember the rules. Certainly, many people will find the theme or storyline to be quite dry, but the mechanics create extremely interesting strategic decisions.

Further, sometimes when a game has mechanics and theme that are very tightly intertwined sometimes you can encounter something I like to call emergent theme. The way some thematic mechanics interact can create situations that feel very true to the theme of the game. This is a rare situation in my experience, but is very valuable. If a game could regularly create emergent theme it could create its own stories without the creators of the game adding extra content. In theory you could create a game that had satisfying mechanics and a new story every time you played. Some day I hope to make a game like this!

Once again I would love it if anyone had any comments or would like to discuss any part of this post. Reply here or tweet @BrainGoodGames!

Caleb Friesen

A Discussion on Ambiguity in Games – Part 2

So, we know that we must have ambiguity in our games, and that the amount of it is important, but that’s not all. There are different ways in which ambiguity is put into games. Some of these seem to be more or less satisfying than others. Some of the ways we create ambiguity in games are with input randomness, output randomness, hidden information, time limits (maybe), incalculability or complexity (maybe) and other players. In many strategy games (especially board games – think puerto rico), the main source of ambiguity is the other players at the table. You can look at their board state and have some idea about what they might do, but you can’t know for sure. This form of ambiguity tends to be quite satisfying (at least for me). However, it can sometimes be less interesting if one player is significantly more skilled than the others, or if a player does not take the game seriously and makes seemingly random decisions.

uncertainty

Randomness is also used in many games to create ambiguity however it can often create a feeling that players lack control or agency in the game. If you made all the correct decisions in a game, but you still lost because dice rolls or card draws went poorly you will likely not feel very good about the game experience (there are other factors which might allow you to enjoy the game despite this such as theme or immersion – more on this in another discussion). I like to further distinguish randomness into input and output randomness. I define these as randomness that happens before your decision (input randomness) and randomness that happens after your decision (output randomness). It is possible to get unlucky with either, however since with input randomness you make your decision after the randomness there tends to be less of a feeling that you didn’t control the outcome (and in fact in many cases you did control the outcome). An example of input randomness is in Axes and Acres at the start of every turn your worker dice are rolled and you will have a certain set of faces to use. You make all your decisions after the randomness has occurred allowing you to mitigate the luck of the roll (at least to some extent). An example of output randomness is the dice rolls in Risk. You choose to attack another country and then you roll to see if you are successful or unsuccessful. Output randomness is poor from a strategic standpoint, but I think the reason many people enjoy it is because of the excitement of not knowing what will happen, similar to the feeling people get from gambling. It also prevents the game becoming too deterministic – there is always a chance the outcome could change no matter how far behind you are. Input and output randomness can both be overused, but are also very useful tools for creating ambiguity in a game (especially input randomness).

Hidden information is another form of ambiguity used in many games. For example in Magic: The Gathering each player has a hand of cards that is unknown to the other player. As the player plays cards you gain a little information to make a reasoned guess at what other cards could be in their deck. For example if they play a Swamp on their first turn you know (in all likelihood) that they have black cards in their deck. As they continue to play you may come to tentative conclusions about other cards that would synergize with the cards that you have seen them play. Some information is hidden, but you have some to base your decisions on as well.

treasure-map

Here at BrainGoodGames we have so far focused on making single-player games (and our next game is going to be single-player too). Ambiguity in single-player games is especially difficult. There is no player interaction, it is difficult in many cases to distinguish hidden information from randomness, and output randomness rarely feels good in a strategically deep game. Input randomness is definitely a weapon of choice, but it is a delicate balance preventing the feeling of the game just being a randomly generated puzzle and also leaving control over the fate of the game in the player’s hands.

This brings us to time limits and incalculability which I feel are both related to one another and both create something that seems like it isn’t truly ambiguity, but is perhaps functionally equivalent for our purposes. To explain the ambiguity created by a time limit we could look at the maze example. Solving a simple maze when you can see the entire thing in front of you has no ambiguity. If however you had to solve the maze in 20 seconds you might not be able to determine the outcome in the time allotted. You might then look at the entrance and the exit of the maze and determine the direction you needed to move in. Each time you come to a junction in the maze you could base your decision for which direction to go on whether it takes you closer to the exit or not. Of course this is sort of the trick of many mazes, you sometimes have to move away from the exit to get closer to it. Anyways, the imposed time limit could create some ambiguity in the decisions since you would not have the time to calculate the correct decision.
maze

Another way to go about this is to make the decisions practically incalculable. For example in Chess there is theoretically always an ideal move, but the calculations required to figure it out are practically impossible. Even the most powerful computers can’t compute all the possibilities from the beginning of a game of chess. If a player cannot calculate the best decision they must make a (sometimes reasoned) guess. If you can give the player a lot of information to base their guess on, while still leaving the solution out of reach this can be another form of ambiguity. There are a couple main dangers with this form of ambiguity. The game can sometimes feel like a calculation rather than a game, or the rules of the game can become so complicated that it is difficult to teach and remember them all. If the player cannot keep all of the rules in their head, the decisions they make will not be based on the actual information they are given. It is very unsatisfying to lose because you forgot one of the rules of the game. To go back to the chess example, it is strategically advantageous to calculate as many moves into the future as possible to give yourself the best chance of winning, but it may not be fun or enjoyable to spend time doing this.

empty-chessboard

With Axes and Acres we used primarily input randomness and incalculability as our forms of ambiguity. I think a combination of these different methods may help avoid some of the pitfalls inherent to each method and create a better game overall. There are likely other forms of ambiguity in games, and I would love to know about any you can think of!

Thanks for reading,

Caleb Friesen