Pillars of Design

My father is an avid cigar smoker and tends to listen to music when he banishes himself outside to enjoy his tobacco bliss. One Christmas I decided to buy him a portable bluetooth speaker because he had been cranking tunes on his crappy internal iPhone speaker. At first he didn’t understand its purpose. Now he can’t live without out it!

People are predictable and it’s fun to predict others’ reactions. Gift giving, like the bluetooth speaker, and the act of recommendation are done under the assumption of having an understanding of another’s preferences and, when correctly assumed, provides both people satisfaction. So when a friend describes a board game to me, the best thing they can do to pique my interest is by saying it features:

1) Quick Setup

2) Simple to start yet deceptively deep

3) High replay value

4) Zero customization outside of play

Because those four features are so vital to my enjoyment of any given board game, I’ve made them my “Pillars of Design.” Any game I produce will feature those four things. Why the hell would I make a game that doesn’t appeal to me? And if I were to, that would be a brutish, tortuous task.

Let’s dive into why these are important to me.


Quick Setup


The length of time it takes to setup a game may seem nitpicky, but it’s essential to accessibility and replayability. If setup is a detailed process, you’ll probably have to look at the rulebook a few times to make sure you’ve done everything right. That’s not fun for anyone involved, and since that’s the first thing you do before playing the game, it could prevent you from playing it more frequently.

Puzzle Strike, easily the best deck-builder out there, has a decently long initial setup time (which is especially noticeable if you’ve played the online version because that’s probably the optimal way of enjoying the game), and changing the bank of chips after someone wins is a pain too. I single out Puzzle Strike because that game is a blast, but this prevents me from playing it as much as I ought to (I’d have a dedicated Puzzle Strike table if I had the space!).

On the flipside, Settlers of Catan can be kind of a chore to set up if the pieces aren’t locking together, but its modular, randomized board makes the process of setup exciting. Revealing the placement of each tile keeps players engaged, and then once all are revealed, players can formulate strategies. This makes setup a fun and active component to the design, rather than a solitary act done by your friend-group’s martyr.


Simple yet Deep


Games must be fun the first time played. If that first game doesn’t captivate a player in any sort of way, it’s unlikely they’ll return. You can’t blame them – they invested the time to learn the game and feel that it wasn’t worth the effort. The basic, surface-level fun must be felt immediately.

Carcassone’s scoring system is tricky enough to not be fully comprehended during your first playthrough, yet placing a randomly drawn tile somewhere is a simple choice that’s reminiscent of snapping puzzle pieces together. Packing that one choice–where do I put this?–with nuance and strategy is why the game shines. You don’t need to be able to do a million things in a turn to have depth. When turns are packed with options and limited choices, it has the benefit of reducing turn length. The shorter the turn length, the easier it is for players to grasp a game’s structure and flow.

If the core choice you ask players to make each turn is understood quickly and is fun (even when losing), future rematches are inevitable.


High Replay Value


The two biggest methods of increasing replay value are through mastery of mechanics and variance.

The former is when players don’t have to think about each possible choice, they instead instinctually know what the best couple of options are. This is achieved when players have a stronger understanding of the value of their options. Understanding value is an essential skill to mastery and every new game presents value differently. If a game reveals itself to present players one optimal option each turn, then your game has degenerate strategies, which betrays the notion of depth.

The latter is when there are features in a game that change how subsequent games play. Selecting a new fighter in a game like Street Fighter changes not only how you play, but also how your opponent plays. Then there are randomized features, like a shuffled deck of cards or dice, that make future games less predictable. Puzzle Strike features both – character selection, shuffled chips, and a randomized bank of chips – all of which force players to adapt their strategies.

If you feel as if you’ve seen everything a game has to offer after a few plays, it’s unlikely you’ll return.


Zero Customization Outside of Play


Magic: the Gathering has built a huge following around the concept of crafting your own deck of cards. Players keep buying more new cards to improve the strength and strategy of their deck. That level of customization is certainly interesting, especially when looked at as an unconventional method of self-expression, but also hurts the game experience. Magic asks players to build the best deck they can, or in other words, invest more money to have a higher chance of winning. Customization before play encourages players to stack the odds of winning in their favor, all before the game is played!

This also creates a strange meta-game of rock-paper-scissors at the competitive level. Most decks occupy a known archetype that is strong against some archetypes and weak against others. Knowing this, players try to anticipate what types of decks they think they’ll see at any given competition. Once again, this places more emphasis on the “pre-game” than the actual game.

Zero customization outside of play doesn’t preclude giving players a choice or two before the game begins, as long as those choices don’t drastically stack the odds in one player’s favor. Choices before a game inevitably give one player an advantage, but the extent of that advantage should be minimized with strong design and lots of playtesting, because balanced play is pretty darn crucial.


What About OverRealm?


OverRealm has been designed to feature all four of these pillars. Setup takes about a minute. Turns are semi-simultaneous–players each have their own minion phase, where they can summon one minion from their hand of four, which presents players a simple yet important decision every turn. Combat is simultaneous and happens each turn, further lowering downtime. The replay value is quite high due the six playable heroes and their own unique cards and strategies. OverRealm features zero customization and is all the better for it!


Video Game Preferences


Speaking of preferences, there’s a great online survey from Quantic Foundry that approximates your gamer profile (I’m not sure how applicable it is to board games). They’re, as they put it, “a game analytics consulting practice… [that combines] social science with data science to understand what drives gamers and how to make game experiences more engaging.” You can take the survey here. I took this thing and got these results:

Quantic Foundry Profile

What I like:

  • Action games, specifically the kinds that are “…fast-paced, intense, and provide a constant adrenaline rush”
  • “Competing with other players, often in duels, matches, or team-vs-team scenarios”
  • Challenge, so “games that rely heavily on skill and ability”

What I dislike/don’t desire:

  • Power, or amassing crazy amounts of strength and ability that makes me feel unstoppable
  • Immersion, whether that be through role-playing as a character or a game’s narrative
  • Expressing my creativity or individuality, whether it be making stuff in Minecraft or changing the appearance of in-game characters/locations

This is spot-on. Bloodborne, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Devil May Cry are probably my all-time favorite games, all of which fit neatly into those first three bullet points. Role-playing, stat optimization, creating character builds, creating content, and even narrative all take a backseat to action, challenge, and competition for me. If a game doesn’t satisfy at least one of those itches, I probably won’t like it. So it’s of no surprise at all that I’m absolutely adoring the new DOOM. It feels like an FPS made for me.

I think you all have a good idea of what kind of a gamer I am, which begs the question:

What kind of gamer are you?


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