Stop. Look. Want to see more.

Clever is good. Clever makes you stand out. Clever leads to innovation and originality.

Clever can also confuse people. This is a story about that.

One of my primary clients over the last two years is a creative agency here in Seattle that designs games — board games, card games, party games, and so on. Being that I’m a nut for games of all kinds, this client is able to put projects in front of me that are right in my wheelhouse. They also have access to projects with well known licenses and retail destinations, like Pokémon and Toys-R-Us.

Last summer I was tasked with creating the art assets for a new game called Pokémon Battle Poppers. It’s a skill-based strategy game with some elements of customization. Basically, advanced tiddly-winks with unique abilities and tricks for each piece. My job was to design the packaging, rules, and game pieces around…

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Small Pieces — BrettSpiel


I stumbled onto Brett J. Gilbert’s blog, BrettSpiel, this morning while trying to find a decent image of Smallworld on the iPad for my own blog. So far I’m really enjoying his writings, and I like that he seems to have a similar stance to my own regarding the importance of design and aesthetics in game production. BrettSpiel is now a permanent link over in the right-side column, so give it a look some time.

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The Mods


There’s nothing like an original… except when there’s something very much like the original, but just a little bit better.

mod·i·fy
[mod-uh-fahy] verb, -fied, -fy·ing.
1. to change somewhat the form or qualities of; alter partially; amend…

-From Dictionary.com

Reasons for graphical board/card game mods:

  1. Restyling or retheming
  2. 3-D customization
  3. Improved playability

Graphical modifications in board and card games happen because the user sees some way to improve their enjoyment of the game through effort and artistic inspiration. Sometimes the mod is a simple retooling of pieces to add a new aesthetic or incorporate a theme that would otherwise be unrelated to the original game. Some mods add dimension – literally – to the game by reinventing the board and/or pieces in three dimensions where there had originally only been two. A third variety of game mod – and perhaps the most interesting from the perspective of game designers – is the modification that directly improves the playability of the game through improved graphic presentation.

Mod #1: Graphic Restyling and Retheming

This is by far the simplest form of graphical game modification. The game stays effectively the same but it gets a new paint job, either to add a new level of flavor or to simply bring a different artistic angle to the design of the pieces. Anyone with some pens, a decent printer, a pair of scissors and some glue can create a functional board or card game mod this way, and the results are almost always enjoyable for the proper audience. This form of mod is also incredibly profitable for established board and card game publishers. Adding a licensed intellectual property or brand to an existing board game is a fast and easy way to produce a collector’s item with a pre-built consumer audience. Just look at the number of sports-franchise-themed chess sets, Movie-franchise-themed trivia games, pop-culture-themed Uno™ sets and region-specific Monopoly™ boards available. Seriously. A search for the publisher USAopoly on Amazon.com nets over 1,000 different results.

Eventually I’d like to write a piece on some of the most successful, most innovative and most unusual commercial mods of this variety. If anyone has input or access to actual NPD data for this project, by all means, write to me and I’ll gladly give you some co-authorship credit for the column.

Meanwhile, I’ve found the following examples of user-created restyle mods.

Marcus Kellerman’s Simpsons-themed Battle Line set. Photo by Marcus Kellerman, posted to http://www.boardgamegeek.com.

Marcus Kellerman, also known as Sharkus on BoardGameGeek.com, created this Simpsons-themed “homebrew” version of  Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line. The activity became an almost communal effort when he opened his creative process to the BoardGameGeek forums. Other users of the web site were able to help him edit and refine his ideas as he worked on it, even suggesting materials and processes that helped Sharkus deliver a more authentic feeling presentation in the end.

Cards from Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line, published by GMT Games.

Battle Line seems to be an incredibly popular game for restylers, and when you look at the simple presentation of the original cards for the game, it’s easy to see why. The cards feature a name, a number value and an image. Apart from the historical relevance of the particular units and their tactical relevance in relation to one another – which even within the game is taken loosely – the game is already something of a blank canvas waiting for new themes. In fact, the game can still function if the cards are reduced to nothing but a number.

Mark Mahaffey, who posts at BoardGameGeek as West2, is actually a professional designer and mapmaker who has worked on the production of numerous board games. His own blog, The Mapologist, documents his creative process of the design of several game boards, both original and reworked. I discovered Mark’s board designs through a gallery he posted in the BoardGameGeek forums, and was particularly impressed with his minimalist take on the Vinci board.

The original Vinci board, published by Descartes Editeur.

The official Vinci board is completely fine by itself. the spaces are clearly defined, have easily recognized terrain attributes, and feature well designed icons. The scoring track is simple, but perfectly functional and impossible to misread. If the board has any weaknesses, it’s simply that the function outweighs the aesthetic. The broad palette of colors and textures can be a bit jarring, and the title typography doesn’t exactly speak to the game’s “dawn and growth of civilizations” theme, but none of this hinders the way the game plays, only how it looks.

Mark Mahaffey’s Vinci redesign. Artwork created by Mark Mahaffey, posted to http://www.boardgamegeek.com.

The redesigned board presented by Mahaffey quiets the cacophony by replacing the textures with muted color washes over a subtle stone-like texture. The typography has become far more elegant and suited to a game of European history. Even the icons within the spaces have been simplified to basic black silhouettes against the earth-toned colors. The sum is a map that, while less detailed than many of Mark’s other creations, has the look and feel of a classic European fresco. A new richness and depth of style is given to the game simply by visually modifying an already playable board.

Mod #2: 3-D Customization

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then a well-crafted three-dimensional customization of a board game is nothing short of a labor of love. The investment of time and materials alone would be enough to deter anyone but an absolute devotee of a game from taking on this challenge.

A hand-made 3-D Puerto Rico board created by Doctorfaust.

Take, for example, the hand-crafted centerpiece for Rio Grande Games’s Puerto Rico created by a Korean gamer who goes by the moniker “doctorfaust”. While I’m unfortunately unable to translate his blog entry, he does a wonderful job of documenting his creative process through photography. Because Puerto Rico is primarily a resource drafting game, Doctorfaust’s elaborate center staging are makes for an incredibly creative way to present the various pieces. What begins as an already deep and rich strategy game takes on a whole new layer of richness in the historically inspired depiction of the game’s setting.

3-D adaptations of Rio Grande Games’s Leader 1, Days of Wonder’s Pirate’s Cove, and Fantasy Flight Games’s Talisman. All images from http://www.boardgamegeek.com

Racing and dungeon games are also popular targets for gamers with a penchant for model building. These kinds of games are often structured so that the “negative space” of the board offers plenty of room for creative license and embellishment. The supplies to craft these game adaptations are often readily available through hobby shops, or can be cannibalized from landscape features from various tabletop miniature war games. Trees, terrain and even buildings originally intended for model railroad landscapes become features of road races, shipping ports and long-lost catacombs with relative ease for a seasoned model builder.

Conventions seem to be popular places for craftsmen to show off their creations and adaptations. To the audiences at these gatherings, the work that goes into the reinvented boards is immediately appreciated, as the function is as apparent as the form. These modified games are sometimes even used at events by publishers to draw attention to their more affordable retail-ready counterparts. Whether created by fans or professionally commissioned by publishers, the most successful 3-D adaptations must take care to fuse attention to detail with the same standard of playability the original game is known for.

The Catan 3-D Collector’s Edition, published by Mayfair Games. Photo from http://www.boardgamegeek.com.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the potential drawback to such creations is that the addition of sculptural elements can occasionally create difficulties with the playability of the game. In 2005, Mayfair Games released a special limited-edition 3-D 10th Anniversary edition of Settlers of Catan. While the overall response to the set was quite positive, a number of reviewers pointed out the less-than-spectacular compatibility with other Catan products.

Part of the appeal of the Settlers of Catan games is their expandability; while the basic game is made for three to four players, expansion sets allow up to six players, and the complexity of the game can be enhanced with the strategic expansions, Cities and Knights of Catan and Seafarers of Catan. Where Mayfair’s 3-D set does include pieces for four players to play the Cities and Knights expansion, the results of trying to integrate any other Catan sets – available only in the traditional “2-D” cardboard materials – can only be described as “aesthetically clunky”. The combination of sets creates a situation where each terrain type is effectively represented by two different visual presentations, and roads, settlements, and cities built at the juncture of the two different tile types just don’t set quite the way they should.

By itself, the special edition of Settlers is a phenomenal success. Taken in the context of the entire franchise? Not quite as much.

Mod #3: Improved Playability

Of the three types of board game modifications, this is the one I personally find most interesting. What would otherwise be a fantastic game can be virtually crippled by a poor visual presentation. The designers of a game may give so much attention to refining the mechanical aspects that they completely overlook flaws in the aesthetics. Sometimes a persistent fan finds they can fix the offending game with a retooling of the graphic elements.

Once I set out to find a prime example of this issue, it didn’t take long to settle on the ultimate case study. At a party where several professional game designers were getting together, I lobbed the question out for debate: Do any games come to mind that would be greatly improved simply by reworking the graphic design of the board or components? Almost immediately, the answer came back with multiple confirmations: Medici.

The offending Medici board, published by Rio Grande Games.

When Rio Grande Games first published Reiner Knizia’s Medici in 1995, it was nominated for a Spiel des Jahres award. Mechanically, it was a solid auction and set collecting game. Right away though, players had issues with the components of the game. Crucial symbols on the board were small enough that player markers could completely obscure them. Foreground and background colors all fell in the same range, causing the overall readability of the board to be a bit muddy. The colors chosen for the pyramids representing the five traded commodities were very similar to one another. The confusion the color scheme caused was only compounded by the design of the cards for the game, which didn’t quite match the board. Some reviews even critiqued the size and weight of the game’s cards; players felt they were awkward to hold and difficult to shuffle.

Kilgore’s rework of the Medici board and cards. Image from http://www.BoardGameGeek.com, art by Sampo Sikiö

Fans took matters into their own hands. Numerous players of the game were known to take paints and markers to their boards to help make the colors more distinguishable. Several even threw the board away entirely, opting instead for their own creations. As photos of these home-brew versions made it on to the forums at BoardGameGeek.com, other fans began taking these new versions even further, creating even more stylish components and even packaging for the aesthetically new-and-improved game.

Click the llama to visit Sampo Sikiö’s game design portfolio. Artwork by Sampo Sikiö.

Perhaps the most popular of these custom redesigns was that of Finland’s Sampo Sikiö, known to BoardGameGeek users as “Kilgore”. Kilgore’s board was hailed for its bold colors and incredibly clear readability, and still had a beautifully stylized graphic presentation. His cards were larger and easier to associate with the colors of the board. If there is any weakness in Kilgore’s design, it would simply be that the black numbers on the blue and green cards are a little tricky to read due to low contrast, but the overall result of Kilgore’s effort is a vast improvement on the commercially-available version of the game. Where Rio Grande gave us a muddled board, Kilgore made absolute clarity. Where Rio Grande created a round space, making it difficult to compare positions at a glance, Kilgore fixed the issue by orienting all tracks in the same direction. And where Rio Grande gaffed on the size of the cards, Kilgore replaced them with a standardized card size known for it’s for easy shuffling.

Kilgore’s Medici tin and game components. Image from http://www.BoardGameGeek.com, art by Sampo Sikiö.

To top it all off, Kilgore used an antique-looking tin to package all of the smaller components of his home-made set. (Author’s edit: since the intital posting of this article, it was brought to my attention by Kilgore that the tin was actualy created by fellow BoardGameGeek member Gary Garison.) The full effect is a visually rich and creative deconstruction and reconstruction of a game hampered only by the original publisher’s poor choices in design. Out of the box, Kilgore’s version of the game is bright, clear, and full of style. Inside the box (or tin, in this case) it appears to be the kind of treasure you’d find forgotten in a dusty attic, just waiting to be rediscovered and played.


There are, without a doubt, plenty of striking and innovative methods and reasons for graphically modifying games; most of them though, I believe, would ultimately fit into the three major categories I’ve described above. If I’ve committed any major oversights in my presentation, by all means let me know. I can always use more to write about!

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Friedrich Nietzsche and What Looks Like a Game


My sister Melissa emailed me the other day to tell me that she and her colleagues in the Sociology department at the University of Notre Dame (she’s working on her Doctorate there) were looking at a stack of trading cards with pictures of famous thinkers on them. I guess one of them had bought them during their grad studies, and now the department was getting a good chuckle comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the various social theorists. Melissa mentioned it was too bad there was no set of rules to play with the cards as a game, “like have them have points or whatever so I could pit my Pierre Bourdieu against your Michele Foucault”.

This got me thinking. I scanned Wikipedia, and in about 15 minutes time, I produced this:

Custom-made Friedrich Nietzsche card. Not from a real game.

I posted it back to Melissa’s Facebook page with a couple of goofy one liners (“in the online version, the card text actually says ‘God is pwned’’, “once he evolves his PokéSkills, he can filter krill like a whale”), hoping that that would be enough to tip her off that this was not a real card from a real game. By all logic, I’d have guessed that she, knowing I am both a graphic designer with the capabilities of producing such an image as well as a gamer geek with a warped sense of humor, would immediately put greater odds on the possibility that I’d just made this on the spur of the moment for her amusement.

She didn’t. Her next post back to me was, “Where did you find this?”. In fairness, she did quickly realize that there was a good chance it was a fake, and then asked if I’d made it.

We then chatted about the possibility of a game that would use a card like this, and I suggested that what we were looking at was a game in which social theorists banded together to form a Barnum-style traveling circus where they competed to one-up each other through daring feats of physical (and metaphysical) and intestinal fortitude.

What I really find interesting in all of this though is the notion that if it looks like a game, there must be a game. Melissa knows enough of the non-standard board game world (by which I mean the games you won’t find in WalMart or Toys ‘R’ Us) that she doesn’t balk at the thought that someone, somewhere has made a game like this. I haven’t gone looking for it, but even I would guess that some twisted goof out there has devised a game that features these sorts of (occasionally questionable) geniuses of social theory as the primary characters. In this case, the suggestion of evidence of that game – my fake Nietzsche card – not only convinced someone, however briefly, that the game existed, it started a line of thinking that could ultimately bring that game into a real existence. So what about the gag gave it this much credibility?

Call me self-serving, but I believe it’s in the plausibility of the card’s visual design. The card bears a resemblance in its layout to other popular trading card games. It features a real illustration of the title character – borrowed from Wikipedia. it has three arbitrary number values on it’s face, arranged to appear to have some greater meaning in the context of a game. These alone suggest that it’s a game, but may not be enough to convince the audience that it’s a “real” game. I think that what puts this image over the threshold of plausibility is the subtler details of the card – the big-top radial burst in the background, the color toning, the drop shadows, gradients and lighting elements. As a designer, these visual elements are second-nature to me; in the right context, they’re what move a piece from rough concept to polished, finished work. Where I saw a few quick “tricks” to make the card look more aesthetically pleasing, even when it wasn’t necessary, my sister saw the fingerprints of an actual “studio-produced” game.

It may seem to be completely backwards; that a game should start with a concept and mechanics and gain aesthetics through it’s evolutionary development process. In this case, the theoretical game came from first an unlikely visual presentation that simply put strengths and weaknesses on pictures of people. This led to the question, “Why isn’t this a game?”, then to a joking mock-up of a piece of a game that never was. Ultimately, there’s now enough of a base to build the real thing from these ideas.

To a gamer, the more it looks like a game, the more likely it actually is a game — even when it’s not.

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Chutes and Ladders, Part 2


Chutes and Ladders teaches young children more than morals; it’s also been proven to be one of the most effective games for teaching counting skills. Compared sided by side with other board games aimed at the same age group, Chutes and Ladders consistently teaches counting faster than other games, and even helps kids “learn to learn”. Why? The design of the board.

Results published in 2009 from a study by Carnegie Mellon University and University of Maryland researchers showed that preschoolers who played games with a board with numbered spaces (Chutes and Ladders) learned counting skills faster than those who played games with a colored board without numbers (Candyland). This alone didn’t particularly surprise the researchers, but when they compared the results of the children who played Chutes and Ladders to those of children who simply studied counting through traditional classroom methods, they found that the students playing Chutes and Ladders outperformed the classroom-taught students. The results seem to indicate that the presence of numbers on the Chutes and Ladders board combined with it’s snaking path over a ten-by-ten grid give children a very visual way of understanding counting concepts.

A related educational study showed the progression of numerical estimation abilities in children between preschool and the second grade. Researchers presented children a line with the number 1 at one and 10, for preschoolers, or 100, for second graders, at the other end. They then presented the students a number that would fall on that line and asked them to guess where on the line the number should go. What they found was that while children were typically comfortable estimating numbers within their given range, when a number above the given range was presented, the amount that the estimate was off by increased significantly.

The research has revealed that children progress through a consistent developmental sequence. Young children generate logarithmic patterns of estimates, in which estimated magnitudes rise more quickly than actual magnitudes (e.g., the number 15 is estimated as being around where the number 60 should be on a zero – 100 number line). Older children generate linear functions (e.g., the number 15 is estimated as being around where 15 should be.)

Fig. 1: The basic 10x10 Chutes and Ladders path

The overlap in these studies comes down to the visual layout of the board games given to children in the first study. Using the Chutes and Ladders board as a control, researchers also studied how boards of other shapes affected the learning process. Compared to a circular board with numbers, Chutes and Ladders still taught the children to count faster. The difference lies in the visual presentation of structured groups of ten.

Fig. 2: A circular alternative game board

The square board with the snaking path, shown in figure 1, has a clear beginning and end, and well-defined groupings of ten spaces. The circular board (figure 2) is less clear about where the start and end are; even with a defined start space, the path loops back on itself. It also lacks the rigid ten-at-a-time structure found in the square board. Where the turns in direction on the square board give constant and regular points of reference to the child playing the game, the round board has only a single point of reference: the dividing line between the finish and the start.

Fig. 4: Clearly defined groups of ten on the square board

A child playing on the square board can easily isolate their focus on the single row their piece occupies. Rather than seeing one board with one hundred spaces, they can effectively look at it as ten boards with ten spaces each. The smaller frame of reference is easier for preschoolers to process, and the act of counting out spaces each turn is made easier by the clear sub-structure of start and end points. Understanding the relationship between the number ten and the number four (or six, or one, etcetera) comes naturally over time on the square board.

Fig. 4: Groups of ten spaces are far more arbitrary on the round board

Unfortunately, the round board simply can’t teach such a numeric relationship as easily. Without the pre-defined groups of ten, there is nothing for the child to compare the number of spaces they move to. As seen in figure 4, even if we artificially define a group of ten spaces on the board, those ten spaces could realistically start or end anywhere, or even overlap another group. Both boards will still teach the child that six is more than three, or that rolling a four means you move (one, two, three, four!) four spaces further along the path, but it’s the added element of spatial relationships that makes the square board a far more effective tool for teaching counting skills.

It’s no wonder the Candyland board doesn’t teach counting skills the way a traditional Chutes and Ladders board does. Candyland, with its colored, meandering path, lacks both the elements of number identification and spatial relationships. The layout of the traditional 100-square Chutes and Ladders board, whether it was intended or not, was designed in a way that inherently has ideal visual cues to help kids not only learn to count, but learn to learn.

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Packaging Board Games for the (Retail) Masses


I stepped into an Uncle’s Games today and had a minor brainstorm: more board games need to be packaged in software-sized boxes.

Now, I’m probably biased as I’ve spent several years making software and DVD boxes for retail, but there are some very smart things DVD and software packagers are doing to merchandise their products at retail that board game companies are not.

The issue became clear to me as I spoke with the store’s regional manager about a game he had on display at a table near the front of the store. I was observing the fact that while the game looked great out of the box and set up on a table, inside the box it didn’t fare so well. The cube-shaped box was awkward to handle and less visually appealing than either of us expected the publisher would have wanted.

“It’s terrible on the shelf,” said the manager. I could quickly see why. The unusual dimensions made it an odd fit on a standard display rack, and the cube shape made it very easy for browsing customers to put it back on said shelf sideways, backwards, or even upside-down. There was absolutely zero chance of placing it on a pegboard, like similar predecessors of the game had done. The box, despite stylish and flavorful graphics, was a merchandising mess.

Board and card games tend to appeal to a similar audience as software and DVDs, so it’s reasonable to say there’s something to learn from the latter product categories about merchandising. Software and DVDs are sold in all kinds of stores; non-mainstream games typically are not. A game like Carcassonne has enough wide-appeal that it bridges the gap for many gamers, moving users from the world of Monopoly and Scrabble to games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. Marketing a game like Carcassonne in a store like Target or Walmart could be an incredible move for game publishers in that it could expand the gaming audience significantly. But how and where in the store does Carcassonne fit? Not with the toys. With the DVDs, video games and computer games.

And what is the number one reason people don’t generally explore new boardgames? They’re unfamiliar territory. Working in software and DVD packaging, it was my job to give the consumer reasons to buy titles they might be unfamiliar with. It all came down to informative packaging.

Game publishers might consider using the DVD/Software packaging model for a number of reasons:

1) Location. Big Box stores already have shelving fixtures perfect for 5.25″ x 7″ boxes. They keep them all in one location, where teenage-and-older guys tend to congregate. The gamer types are already browsing in that part of the store. And in most cases, the electronics department isn’t particularly far from the toys, either. Convincing a big-box retailer to allocate shelf space to unproven, irregularly sized boxes that don’t display well spine-out is tricky. Convincing them to give some space to a face-out product designed to conform to their existing fixtures is notably easier.

2) Information Presentation. People pass on games because they don’t instantly recognize what they’re about or how they work. Many of the more “hardcore” board games out there (and non-collectible card games — generally speaking, games under the umbrella of “eurogames”) don’t do a particularly good job of familiarizing a browsing consumer with the product. You don’t learn about games from the box, you learn about them from other gamers, and without other gamers around, you don’t sell the box. There’s typically tons of flavor expressed by the packaging, but even on the back, not much that illustrates the actual experience of playing the game.

I learned all about solving this very same issue by designing for retail digital media. Use a bookflap on the front to create a full “center spread” to really show off both flavor and features. Show consumers what the product is really like and how easy it is to learn the game. Give us pictures of people enjoying it. And on the back, make it plain as day what it’s about, what it’s like, and who’s going to want to play it. Several game publishers already use a basic grid to show number of players, age range and duration of a typical game. This is a good place to start, but not nearly enough on it’s own to get grandma to pick it up as a birthday gift. If she feels like she “gets it” though, it goes straight into the cart.

3) Economy of Cost of Goods. Turned-edge laminated slipcase boxes are not cheap. These days, most are printed and manufactured overseas. Standard-issue software boxes can easily come in at less initial cost than a traditional board game box, can include features such as embosses and foil strikes that help draw consumers in at the point of sale, and are readily produced domestically. Additionally, if multiple games are being put to retail at once (and most big-box store corporate buyers are looking for assortments of products when they fill their resets), then the cost of printing the boxes gets mitigated by ganging multiple boxes into one print run. If all your boxes use the same die, then the cost of cutting, folding and assembling is also lowered.

It won’t work for every game. Some games could substitute a cloth or vinyl board for the traditional turned-edge laminated board, but others will just lose too much perceived value. Still, for many tile based games including Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan, all of the key components can already be packaged to fit inside a box 5.25 inches wide by 7 inches tall. Even if the box needs to be ever so slightly deeper than the typical 1.3 inches to house the game, you’re still delivering a product that retails cleanly and easily, and lives neatly in a gamer’s bookshelf or cabinet.

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Chutes and Ladders, Part 1


This is one of the first game boards I remember from when I was a kid:

Chutes and Ladders board

Milton Bradley Chutes and Ladders, c. 1952

It’s not that it’s the first game I remember, it’s just that it’s one of the first game boards I remember in vivid detail. Chutes and Ladders: a ten-by-ten grid with alternating white and gray squares, numbered in an upward snaking order, with distinctly 1950’s era illustrations. I remember that my younger sister and I would play multiple times through just to see who could hit the biggest ladders along the way, and that we dreaded going past space number 80 into that minefield of all-chutes-no-ladders squares. And I particularly remember wondering why the kid on space number 16 was trying to cut his fingertips off with scissors. Serves you right, space number 6, you’re a dummy.

Now, any child who’s played a version of the game with illustrations like the copy above can tell you that Chutes and Ladders is about making good or bad choices. Land on a space that shows someone doing something good, and you get to go up the ladder. Wind up on a space with a picture of somebody doing something bad, and you get sent back down the chute. Ladders good, chutes bad.

The Indian predecessor to Chutes and Ladders

Traditional Indian Vaikuntapali board

Apparently this game goes all the way back to India some time prior to the 16th century, where it was known as Vaikuntapaali or Paramapada Sopanam (the ladder to salvation). The board was similar to the version we know today in that ladders connected virtuous deeds to rewards, while snakes, corollary to our chutes, connected vices to punishments. Snakes outnumbered ladders to help illustrate the difficulty of leading a truly virtuous life. The overall effect was a lesson in morality — or karma — that appealed to young children. The message and format were important and enduring enough that the colonial Brits eventually usurped it and handed it down to board game publishing capitalists of all other nations and creeds.

In my own experience though, I realized fairly early on that the game was ultimately random. In life, if the cat messes up my face because I yanked its tail, I learn pretty quickly to not yank the cat’s tail. In the game though, by going backwards down a chute, it creates the possibility that with a couple of bad rolls of the die I’ll be stuck riding the same chute over and over again. Effectively, the game says I’m an idiot that needs to get messed up by the cat a few times before I figure out to just leave him the hell alone. There’s no decision making involved, for better or worse; I can’t choose to say, “Hey, I’ve landed here four times already, this time I’ll opt to walk around the cat and ignore it”. The sad irony of this game is that while I may be learning the value of making good choices and the perils of bad ones, I’m never actually in control of my own destiny — at least not in the game.

And maybe that’s fine when you’re three or four. Little kids don’t have the maturity to handle all-out free will. So we learn what we need to, and fail to figure out that a die roll has more to say about who’s going to win than we do, regardless of whether we learn morals or not.

Now, if we look at a more complicated game like, say, Monopoly, there’s a definite element of decision making, and it has a measurable impact on the outcome of the game. It’s still a game largely determined by luck (as will be attested to by anyone stuck in jail for rolling three sets of doubles), but the options presented to the players along the way — buy the property or hold your cash? — go far to add some strategic depth to the game.

Chutes and Ladders offers the players a grand total of zero choices, and yet the game is about making wise choices.

In his book, The Art of Game Design, author and game designer Jesse Schell describes what he calls the “elemental tetrad”, or the four basic elements that make up every game. These elements are, in no specific order, Mechanics, Story, Technology and Aesthetics. Mechanics are the rules and devices of the game. Story is what happens through the course of the game from start to finish. Technology is basically what your game is physically made of and how the story is told, be it through cardboard or circuit boards. Aesthetics is the sensory component of a game — the sights, sounds, smells, etcetera that the players experience along the way.

In this case, the Mechanics are basically limited to a die roll and a set of fast-forward and rewind spaces. The Technology is just cardboard and a die. As far as the morality lesson goes, the Mechanics and Technology serve the Story and Aesthetics — the journey to that blue ribbon on space number 100, the “before and after” illustrations, the chutes and the ladders. The meaning of the game comes from these latter elements. If the illustrations were taken away, the symbols of virtue and vice removed, then the point of the game would be completely lost. With the artwork, the fast-forwards and rewinds are an illustrative demonstration of causality. Without, they are simply aberrations in a sequence of die rolls.

Schell’s model of the elemental tetrad is generally sound. Chutes and Ladders does indeed use all four elements. His premise is based on the idea that all four elements exist in balance though; that no element outweighs the others. I suspect that there is a slight miscalculation here. When the intended audience is too young to properly comprehend the concepts of materials or mechanics, then aesthetics and story must make up for and often overshadow the other two elements. Kids need to learn the simple things first, and story and aesthetics are the most palatable of the elements in the early stages of development. It’s been that way since, well, at least since Paramapada Sopanam.

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