Category Archives: graphic design

Reading the Room with Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 4


Community Improvements


This is the fourth in a series of posts about retraining myself in how I watch for trends and preferences in the gaming community. 

Writing rules is hard. I know; it’s part of my job.

Naturally, the more complex the game, the more difficult it is to write the rules. Game complexity can come from a whole slew of places, but when actually writing rules, one of the most challenging types of complexity to explain comes when a game has tons of little sub-routines.

Games that get their complexity from strategic depth can actually have very simple rule sets. The difficulty in comprehending chess, for example, comes from the fact that on any given turn, the number of choices presented to a player are huge, and each possible outcome will each affect that many more possible outcomes on the opponent’s turn. Every choice opens up a geometric expansion of further game states.

chessboard_wiki

Source: Wikipedia

The rules for chess though are elegantly short; they account purely for the game’s setup and the rules for moving the various kinds of pieces. Chess also includes a short list of additional rules for various game situations and movement exceptions, but in total, chess can accurately be explained in fewer than 1,500 English words and only a handful of simple diagrams. These can all reasonably fits onto a single sheet of standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper, using both sides.

The depth of Chess’s strategy however is a subject that has been the subject of tens of thousands of books and articles over the course of more than 1,000 years of play. A child can learn the complete rules of chess in a matter of hours, but the study of the game’s strategy can consume a lifetime.

Then there are games where the gameplay can be entirely open-ended, but also less strategically complex in their play than chess. The rules for these games might still require dozens of pages (if not more) to explain.

gloomhaven_box

Source: Gloomhaven Kickstarter campaign, Cephalofair Games. Image used without permission.

Gloomhaven is a tactical “campaign” style adventure game with deep roots in narrative exploration of a city and its surrounding world. It is huge in every sense of the word.

The box measures around 17″ x 12″ x 18″ and weighs 20 pounds. There are 18 sheets of 11″ x 17″ heavy chipboard punchboards, including literally hundreds of map tiles, monster standees, tokens, and markers. There are 17 little paperboard boxes for different unlockable character classes, each with sculpted plastic miniatures and over two dozen cards, markers, and other pieces of paraphernalia. There are at least 1,500 different cards covering a range of purposes — player actions, attack modifiers, monster stats and actions, equipment and other treasures, randomized events, randomized side-quests, and more. There is a book with 95 playable campaigns. There are envelopes with secret content to be opened at various stages of the game. There is a board showing a map of the city of Gloomhaven and a chunk of the continent surrounding it, and a sheet of stickers to add to the expanding range of known locations on it.

And there’s a 52-page rule book.

The community response to this game has consistently been incredibly positive. When Isaac Childres of Cephalofair Games first launched Gloomhaven’s first printing in September of 2015 on Kickstarter, he went in seeking $70,000. He finished the campaign with over five times that funding goal, and after the orders were closed, demand on the retail and secondary markets far exceeded the supply.

A second printing was announced in April of 2017, and at that point I knew I had to back the game. This time Isaac placed the goal at $300,000.

He hit the mark in five minutes. By day 4 of the campaign he had over 16,000 backers, nearly all of them in for at least $95. The next day the pledges totaled over $1.6 million, and over 2,000 of the backers were actively participating in a Gloomhaven mini-adventure Isaac was hosting through the Kickstarter updates.

gloomhaven-spread

The unboxed contents of Gloomhaven. Photo courtesy The DM’s Apprentice, link in footnotes.

After all was said and done, Gloomhaven’s second printing raised $3,999,795, coming in only $205 shy of the 4 million mark. The guy I shared an office with pulled his own $105 pledge just hours before the deadline because he was putting in an offer on a house and opted for financial adulting. (Sadly, the bid on the house was not accepted and he wound up kicking himself for withdrawing on Gloomhaven).

The backers of the second printing had largely received their copies of the game by late November 2017, and a retail release date was quickly set for mid-January 2018. At the time of this posting, the number of remaining retail copies is dwindling to a point where copies regularly sell online for around $200, significantly higher than the $140 MSRP. The current placement on BoardGameGeek.com’s all-time board game rankings and the user ratings back up the hype; Gloomhaven holds the number one slot, recently edging out Pandemic Legacy, and boasts a remarkable (and yet fully-deserved) 9.0 out of 10.

The game is largely narrative-driven, despite not actually being a role-playing game. Some reviewers categorize it as legacy game, though that’s up for debate. There’s a very good case for it being a turn-based strategy game — in a similar way to how a lot of video games are categorized as such — themed as a dungeon-crawl adventure. There’s no question though that the 52-page rule book covers a lot of technical/mechanical ground, and this is where the game’s complexity becomes apparent.

Gloomhaven_Rules

The Gloomhaven rule book, Cephalofair Games, 2016. Image used without permission.

As I said earlier, part of my day job is to write rules documentation for games. Writing rules for themed strategy games with lots of parts and sub-routines is really hard. I have a number of tricks I fall back on to help push clarity in my rules (I’m not averse to repeating a paragraph if having it in two different places helps people get through a process without having to cross-reference), but I’m always looking for ways to improve the information design that goes into writing rules.

And that’s ultimately what it is; information design, the place where my career and professional training began. It’s not an easy skill to build, and it‘s something that can make or break a player’s first experience with any game, let alone one as complex as Gloomhaven. Isaac and his graphic designer Josh McDowell did an amazing job pulling all the rules together in that book, and presented them with a visually beautiful and well-designed structure. Still, even with 52 pages to get everything in there, there’s a lot of stuff that players have found a need for beyond those rules.

Usability through information design extends beyond rules too, affecting the design of individual components. Great components are intuitive in their purpose, and take into account the way the audience is likely to interact with them. Weak component design can stifle the play experience before the players even get to the heart of the gameplay.

This is where the story fits into my Reading the Room series; Gloomhaven is a prime example of the game’s community coming together to listen to questions other players posed, looking at how to better present information for players and then building better tools with which to learn and play the game. It’s not my own research and synopsis about usability and product design, but it’s definitely about improving a product based on community feedback, and in that, it’s something I can carry forward in my own rules-writing and component development process.


By this past November, before I had even received my own copy of Gloomhaven, I had spent hours upon hours reading through discussion threads on BoardGameGeek.com about the game. My goal was to know as much of the workings of the game as I could, so that when it arrived I could dive right in. It’s entirely possible that I did more active studying for the arrival of this game than I did for the arrival of my son.

BGG_Gloomhaven_Forums

At the time of the writing of this article, there were 6,207 discussion threads about Gloomhaven on BGG

Despite the amount of reading I’d done within the community threads, I never read the actual rules until I had the game in my hands; a PDF of the rules existed on the Kickstarter campaign page, but I tried to stay as unspoiled as I could about the actual game components. That included the rule book.

Instead, I followed discussions on the merits of pre-fabricated storage inserts, do-it-yourself options, painting guides for the starting characters, miniature landscape accessories, and so on. I read about common mistakes made by new players, and the methods for adding and removing players from the game over the course of a campaign (because not everyone in the party will always be available to play ever time). There were minor spoilers, but it was worth it to me to have a general understanding of the kinds of things I’d be able to do and the ways I’d be able to share the game experience.

At one point, Isaac posted a link to a set of graphical assets that he and Josh were making available to the community for the purposes of creating new home-brewed dungeons and quests. Isaac’s only stipulation was that if anyone wanted to use the assets for anything other than making their own campaigns for personal use, that they request his permission first. A chorus of gratitude and applause for the move followed from the community. The assets were embraced and immediately put to good use, evidence of which can be found in the many web-based tools, third-party apps, and printable materials that can be found in the BoardGameGeek Gloomhaven Files forums.

BGG_Gloomhaven_Files

The Files forums for Gloomhaven on BoardGameGeek.com

The kinds of files available range from schematics for home-made storage inserts to tuckboxes and envelopes for components to rules reference materials. Subscribing to any of these threads will quickly demonstrate how much the creators of these files care about their usefulness. Dozens of them show multiple stages of curation with periodic file updates and version tracking numbers. The originators frequently take and respond to questions in the forums, incrementally making the utility of those files more attuned to the needs of the end users.

With the availability of the art assets, the creators of the files are able to build things like full rules and campaign books translated into different languages that look just like the original. Players can also create appendices to the rules that summarize game sub-routines in formats that the rule book wasn’t able to devote space to.

Erik_Nillson_OneSheet

Bill Norris’s “Gloomhaven One-Sheet”

For example, Bill Norris (BGG username Harleyguy) was able to create a one-sheet summary document with key game information for use as a quick reference guide. It begins with the full back page of the official rule book, but adds a reverse side with brief summaries of key combat-related conditions, effects, and sub-routines. Because Bill had access to the iconography, stylistic elements, and typefaces that Isaac and Josh had used, he was able to make his player aide visually tie in to the original game materials seamlessly.

BGG user Gekey took advantage of the art assets to create a simple, attractive board for setting out cards relevant to players’ visits to the city of Gloomhaven through the game. It’s a nice accessory piece that adds some flavor and focused visibility of thematically connected game components. I’m personally already seeing ways I’d like to use this in a constructing a physical tool for storing armor, weapon, and item cards available in the game’s marketplace.

Gekey_Visit_Gloomhaven

Gekey’s “Visit Gloomhaven board”

Takeaway Number One for me: As long as there’s little concern for counterfeiting, trust the community and provide them with digital assets for creating supplemental materials. It’s impressive how much the community can add to the play experience when provided with elements that help them create accessories and player aides. Better assets will only help them build those pieces in ways that tie into the game’s existing richness and environment.


One of the most useful kinds of user-made appendices that I’ve found is flowcharts. While Isaac and Josh are thorough in explaining in the text of the rules how every process works, with a few exceptions, most of those processes are shown only as text. Given the enormous number of multi-stage procedures in the game, properly parsing and executing all of the rules text for those procedures is difficult. Even with decent quick-reference indexes (the rule book actually includes two of them, and each character box holds a simplified turn guide), it’s easy to miss or misunderstand key steps in any of those processes. Flowcharts have shown to be an excellent way to get from start to finish without overlooking anything.

There are many of these flowchart documents available in the Gloomhaven files forums, with varying degrees of detail in their step-to-step writing. One of the most useful flowcharts I’ve used is also one of the simplest. Erik Nilsson (BGG username Arne_Sven) created a clean, bare-bones four page set that explains the process of setting up and playing the game. They are elegant in their brevity, and were indispensable for my first dive into character creation and playing of a campaign.

Erik_Nillson_Flowcharts

Pages from Erik Nilsson’s “Gloomhaven Flowcharts”

Takeaway Number Two for me: Any rules document I create from now on for games with moderate or high complexity will include one or more flowcharts as appendices to help players quickly understand the flow of rounds and/or turns.

(Assessing the quantifiable meaning of “moderate or high complexity” remains to be worked out.)

Even in some of the lighter games I’ve designed and developed, I’ve seen time and time again that text alone often isn’t enough to explain concepts that play out within the game. Every game experience has moments where a choice or choices will create branching paths that the game process can take from that point. Static paragraphs of text can’t account for or accommodate the changes in procedure that the choices create.

Even visual diagrams will come up short when describing sequences with a set of interconnected or nested decisions and results. Diagrams nearly always need accompanying text to explain what’s going on in that diagram, which then in turn necessitates a structured system through which the text and diagram components are connected. Diagrams tend to be absorbed by the eye as a whole, while the text or copy that correlates to the diagram must be processed — in part or in whole — in a segmented, linear manner.

This is all to say, once again, that good information design is hard. Using flowcharts in the rules I write will reduce my own headaches and those of the people trying to play the game I’ve put in front of them. Why has this not occurred to me before? No idea.


Much of the fun of Gloomhaven is the discoveries that happen as the story unfolds. One of the first things you’ll notice when you start digging into the community’s conversations and home-made tools is how often the words “spoiler warning” appear, and how emphatically they hold others to respect that concept.

All of this can make discussing rules and asking questions about specific in-game situations very tricky.

Luckily, Isaac and Josh came into this prepared for some of the biggest potential spoilers. Within the game, there are points in which certain boxes are opened to reveal new characters. The game needs a way to tell you to which box should be opened, without ruining the surprise for players as to what kind of character they should be expecting to find.

Gloomhaven_classes

The 17 character class tuckboxes included in Gloomhaven.

Six of the characters are available right from the start of the game — The Cragheart (broken diamond), the Scoundrel (stacked daggers), the Tinkerer (gear), the Brute (three horns), the Spellweaver (swirling star), and the Mindthief (brain). Eleven others begin the game locked, and are brought into the game as previous characters complete objectives and are “retired”. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the names of those eleven other characters are, and I don’t want to know.

The real beauty of the icons Josh made for the character classes is that they provide only the most minimal information I need right now, and spoil nearly nothing that I don’t.

Beyond that, they give the community a way to identify them without ever mentioning their names directly. When I reach the point that I’ve opened the character box with the Cthulhu–looking symbol and I have a question about the way something in that box works, I can go to the forums and post a question with “Cthulhu-looking symbol” in the title without spoiling a single thing for anyone who hasn’t gotten there yet. Other users familiar with the contents of that box can then click on my question and respond with full confidence that they’re not unnecessarily spoiling things for me. Anyone who hasn’t opened that box yet can glance at the title of my question and walk on by without concern of seeing something they don’t want to yet, and feel assured that they’re also not missing critical information that would be valuable to them right now.

There is clarity in the obfuscation.

The game also keeps plenty of information under wraps through the use of decks of cards, kept separate from the main game components and accessed only when directed. Some of these are numbered so that a game event can tell players to go retrieve a certain card (and be surprised by the results), and others are kept in stacks that are shuffled so that they can produce randomized results (that will also keep users surprised by the results).

numbered_treasures

Numbered treasure cards from Gloomhaven. No spoiler alert necessary; these are available to players at the beginning of the game.

During a campaign’s setup, the campaign book may show you that there’s a treasure chest to be looted. It may even say that the treasure chest contains an item — but knowing that that particular item is shown on card #070 won’t ruin the surprise until you’ve looted that chest, retrieved card #070 from the box, and read what kind of item it is. And much like the character class symbols, the numbered card system allows players to reference and discuss items, treasures, and events without ever risking spoiling other players’ experiences.

This is not to say that the game’s creator and designer did a perfect job of hiding things that players want to discover gradually.

The particulars for setting up any given campaign are shown in the campaign book. It’s a static document; it would be impossible for the creator and graphic designer to hide any or all of the setup for any given dungeon from the players once they’ve turned to the campaign’s page.

There is a deck of cards that comes in the box meant for generating randomized dungeons, so a system of cards that might only reveal dungeons one room at a time is theoretically possible. It would be exceedingly difficult to organize and produce though — the sheer volume of cards needed to hide each room’s contents, along with story introductions, event descriptions, special instructions or conditions, and other relevant information for all 95 scenarios (in just the base game) would number in the high hundreds. That’s on top of the more than 1,200 cards already in the box. The book, while an imperfect delivery system for hiding spoilers, is the most practical option available.

But then the community showed up, and they found a way to improve on Isaac’s design in a way that fully maintains and respects the thought that went into the initial design.

BGG user tds_gaming went above and beyond, working his way through a PDF of the entire campaign book and adding opaque blocks that can be toggled on and off. The result is an interactive digital campaign book in which users can hide and reveal information as their campaign progresses.

app

The iOS Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer, by RVG Software Ltd

RVG Software Ltd (Roy Goncalves, BGG username Riggert)went one step further, bundling the interactive campaign book into an app, available for Android and iOS devices. I’ve used the app to play through campaigns myself, and while visually the covers are a bit choppy, the overall effect on play experience is exciting and well worth the download. Not knowing quite what’s going to be behind the next door adds both challenge and atmosphere to the game in a way otherwise lost in the physical book.

The app and PDFs also have the benefit of obfuscating story points that couldn’t be considered as anything but spoilers. It’s tough to pretend you can’t see a full paragraph of “future” story text when you’re scanning the spread to make sure you haven’t missed the information you need right now.

Takeaway Number Three for me: When keeping information back is critical to the enjoyment of the game, having elegant ways of hiding, revealing, and — in particular —discussing that information makes a world of difference. Numbers are functional and accessible when dealing with a high quantity of hidden information, but the are clinical and devoid of flavor. The iconography created by Josh for the character classes is exceptionally flavorful, mysterious, and exciting, and it serves its function incredibly well.

I’d like to use a similar iconography system if I ever need one for a future project, but I need to keep in mind that each icon will eventually be described by players as a tool for spoiler-free discussions. Icons built for this purpose must be vague in the sense that the contents are a secret, specific in the sense that they flavorfully represent the contents are known, and specific and distinct from each other so that players can accurately reference them when speaking with each other in open forums.


The final question after all of this is whether the community finds these tools as valuable as I do; after all, this entire article series began because my own personal read on what a game’s greater community liked and disliked didn’t line up with the actual likes and dislikes of that community.

Gloomhaven_FB

Poll in the official Gloomhaven Board Game Facebook group, February 1, 2018

Facebook polling has proven relatively useful for me in this regard. The sample size I was able to gather within the official Gloomhaven Board Game Facebook group was smaller than the ones I’ve been able to put together in Magic: The Seatlling, but it was informative none the less. 62% of respondents there reported having used community-made tools when playing Gloomhaven. One group member gave recommendations on the apps and sites he’s found to be most helpful — John Tonkin’s Arcane Library is just one website that frequently comes up in community discussions of useful sites to have bookmarked.

BoardGameGeek.com also keeps statistics on the number of times files posted to the site are downloaded. This makes it even easier to evaluate how often community members see a need for a supplemental accessory or aide created by another community member. While the raw numbers don’t speak to whether the file was used or not or how the user might rate the usefulness of the file they’ve downloaded, they do tell us how often a community member felt they had a need for or interest in it.

Among the most downloaded file types are the flowcharts and the interactive/hidden scenario viewers (both PDF and app formats). Tds_gaming’s interactive campaign PDFs are broken into 13 different files to account for BGG upload limitations; the file for campaigns 1 through 10 has been dowloaded from the site more than 1,400 times. The most recent version of Eric Nillson’s flowcharts has seen almost 2,000 downloads to date. Roy Goncalves’s Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer has had over 5,000 downloads just on the Android platform alone; I wasn’t able to find publicly available numbers for his iOS downloads.

Gloomhaven has roughly 21,000 “registered” owners on BoardGameGeek.com — and this doesn’t include those who own the game but haven’t tracked their ownership on the site or don’t have an active BGG account. It would be easy to look at the numbers put up by Eric Nillson and tds_gaming and assume that when 10% of registered owners or fewer are downloading a file, the demand is not high. There are over 150 different files available for Gloomhaven just on BGG though, and several popular websites that have features that help players track game states and effects; using only a small sampling of the various community-built tools to assess the larger picture underrepresents the overall supply and demand for these tools.

(Which is to say that, in all honesty, I have no quantitative way of reporting how frequently players rely on these kinds of accessories and aides, but I haven’t seen any evidence that the community would rather “commando” their way through the game without them.)

Even if the larger community wasn’t finding the tools other community members were offering to be useful, all of the takeaways I’ve outlined are still valuable to me. The community has found ways of explaining and distilling complex game content that will continue to inform my own design philosophy and methods.

The community looked around saw holes where things they wanted and/or needed would fit, and they made those things. I continue to learn how to watch the community so that I can improve the things I’ll make for them down the line.

 


Special thanks to DM Apprentice on WordPress, and Bill Norris, Erik Nilsson, Gekey, tds_gaming, and Roy Goncalves on BoardGameGeek.com. Thanks also to Isaac Childres and Josh McDowell for the game and information design and illustrations that went into Gloomhaven and the digital asset kit.

Link to DM Apprentice’s image: https://dmapprentice.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/gloomhaven-kickstarter-unboxing/comment-page-1/#comment-89

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Filed under Adventure Games, Board Games, Community input, Do It Yourself, graphic design, Kickstarter, Strategy Games, Uncategorized

Small Pieces — G.D. via G.D.


Let’s lean back into the “arts” part of Arts and Gamecraft for a moment, shall we?

It’s almost a cliché at this point to do a post about people asking how to get a job in game design; every game designer has answered the question (persistence and luck), and written about how often they get asked the question (constantly).

There are a ton of game designers — many of whom I respect a lot — who will point out how valuable math skills are in the process of making games. You’ll hear a lot about how writing skills (both creative and journalistic) are helpful. You’ll see a lot of people with engineering and/or computer science degrees in the business. Some game designers will advocate taking an improv class or two. I’m always a little disappointed though to see my own field of study get overlooked as a phenomenally valuable asset in the gamecrafting business.

Before I was a Game Designer, I was Graphic Designer. Got a BA in Graphic Design from RIT, Class of 1999.

Side note, Elan Lee, the guy who made Exploding Kittens was there at the same time as me. We worked together for a couple of years on the campus Tech Crew. He taught me how to not accidentally detonate Kliegel lamps.

So yes, math is important (and I’ve got that covered), and writing is really useful (working on it). I’ve never taken an improv class, so I can’t speak to that personally. I can say without a doubt though that my knowledge of graphic design and the software associated with it accounts for a good third of my Value Proposition as a game maker.

Why?

When you make a game, you have to start with a prototype. When you make a prototype, you want to see how the game plays, and how quickly people grasp it. When you want to see how quickly people grasp it, the last thing you want is an awkwardly constructed prototype slowing down or hindering a tester’s ability to make sense of it. My entire career pre-games was as someone who took complex visual concepts and streamlined them into something accessible and attractive.

Accessible and attractive are really good qualities to have in an early prototype. When you first put a new game in front of someone, the entire experience begins with a fog of obscurity, and sometimes with an intimidating overload of information. By knowing how to help contain and organize that information visually from the very first prototype, I can get a faster read on the strengths and weaknesses of the game, without wondering if poor usability is what’s making it all suck.

It’s also incredibly useful to know the digital tools of graphic design when you’re dealing with something mostly comprised of printed paper. Cards, boards, tokens, chits, character sheets, rules, instructional diagrams — these are all things that will inevitably need to be processed through a graphic designer before they’ll ever get published. Having all of your components in “designer-ready” file formats will earn you considerable points with the illustrators, designers, and art directors you’ll eventually hand things off to.

Lastly, I can not say enough about how useful things like master templates and style sheets are (ask a graphic designer) when you’re creating bulk components with common elements. Being able to set up a single attractive card template, then fill it in with copy from a spreadsheet in seconds is one of the most stupidly satisfying pieces of my job. My prototypes can look close to finished before the first test even starts. Forget Sharpies on card blanks, I can output a PDF and have perfectly duplexed cards in minutes. Clean, clear iconography to help create a visual shorthand for frequently-used information? I’ve got that covered.

You want to make games? Study a lot of different things. You want to make awesome prototypes?

Learn Adobe InDesign.

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Filed under Do It Yourself, graphic design, prototyping, Uncategorized

Mr. Fletcher Goes to Essen


Sadly, not in person. I wish. Someday. Probably better that I wasn’t, as my wife would kill me for dropping too much cash on souvenir games.

I had two games I designed for Forrest-Pruzan showing at Essen last week, and a third that was being pitched to prospective publishers. The third is still well under wraps, but the first two were in full demo mode, and one was for sale. It’s worth noting that the games have been licensed out by Forrest-Pruzan under the Prospero Hall imprint/pseudonym; All of my most recent published games will show Prospero as the designer (company policy), but not all Prospero Hall games are mine.


Kero, published by Hurrican

This one began as an empire building game, and has evolved under Hurrican’s fostering and Piero’s illustrations into a really badass post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque game of resources and wasteland survival.

(Images originally posted by Ludovox_fr)

http://ludovox.fr/jeu-de-societe/kero/

kero_Packaging

Kero packaging

kero_at_Essen

Kero on display at Essen 2017

https://twitter.com/search?q=ludovox%20kero&src=typd

kero_Timers

Close-up of Kero sand timers


 

CONEX, published by HABA

CONEX is a light family strategy/card game that plays out like an irregular game of dominoes. The origin was a game I created for FPC called “RIVIT!”. Here’s the finished game that was on display at the HABA booth at Essen (shown here on a less-than-trade-showy card table in my office) along with a look at the original prototype I built.

CONEX_final

Final CONEX packaging by HABA

CONEX_play

The final component build and art from HABA’s CONEX

Rivit_Prototype

For comparison, my original prototype of RIVIT!, which eventually became CONEX

It’s interesting to see how similar the finished product is to the original. I suspected this would be the case, since I’m an awesome graphic designer and they wouldn’t have to do much work. Also, because in development, I discovered that just about anything other than a fairly flat tone for the color space created all kinds of visual dissonance, and HABA’s testing bore out the same findings. (In all fairness, HABA’s graphic designer Benjamin Petzold did a great job updating the visual design of the cards, rules, and packaging once we handed it off.)

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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, Dice Games, Essen, Family Games, graphic design, Published Games, Strategy Games, Trade Shows

Ludum Videtur!


Or, “Teaching a Confusing Game Mechanic to the Uninitiated Through Subversive Design”

HPHB

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (2016, USAopoly)

This is the story of how Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle came to be. Sort of. I was the lead designer for a collaborative deck building game engine built by Forrest-Pruzan Creative. That engine was later licensed by USAopoly, who then in turn combined it with the Harry Potter license to make a really awesome deck building game. What you’re about to read is an account of the design processes that got us to the point where USAopoly decided put our engine to use. 

Around the spring of 2013 I had an idea for a collaborative deck building game that I pitched to my bosses at Forrest-Pruzan. I described it as a backbone that we could apply a license to and show to a publishing partner (other than USAopoly) that we knew published lots of licensed mass-market games. That it would eventually become Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle wasn’t even a blip on our radar.

What I did know from the start was that I wanted to build a system that would ease non-gamers (or at least the kind of consumer that buys a handful of games a year through mass-market retailers) into the deck building genre. Deck building hadn’t been done with much success in mass-market to that point — and generally speaking still hasn’t — so I knew I had to distill the genre down to something that could be taught in about two pages of rules. It would also need a strong theme with characters players would immediately recognize. Those characters had to have intuitive connections to the cards they lived on.

We didn’t go with Harry Potter. That came later, once USAopoly licensed the game structure from us. We began with another well-known set of family-friendly characters that occupied an enormous world that gave us fertile ground for expansions. I won’t spell out exactly what the property was, since we didn’t ultimately partner with them, but if you want to guess, you’re welcome to. There was little doubt that the theme would catch peoples’ eyes when they were wandering through the game aisle at Target, Walmart, or Toys ’R’ Us, but whether those consumers would understand what a deck building game was from the box was another question entirely.

Something to always remember about games that sell at mass-market: consumers are far less likely to buy a game if they don’t immediately understand what the components do, even if they love the theme. To a complete layman, deck building games look and sound like collectable card games, and collectable card games are generally considered to be a much bigger investment in products, time, and mental energy than most people want to jump into. Games purchased at mass retail are predominantly impulse buys, and a product that confuses or intimidates that impulse buyer doesn’t help itself much in the sales column.

walmart_games

Typical board game aisle at Walmart

All of this meant that even with the universally loved theme we were building our concept prototype with, there was a trap sitting in between us and the consumer. If a customer didn’t understand right away what it was — or at least what we wanted them to believe it was — they’d walk right past it. We needed to take the deck building game and make it look, at a glance, like something anyone with absolutely zero understanding of deck builders would still see as a “typical” board game.

You do that by giving whatever game you’re making, regardless of genre or category, the trappings of mass-market family strategy board games.

It needed a board.

And dice.

And movers.

To your grandmother or neighbor or gym teacher who’s only ever played Monopoly, Scrabble, and Yahtzee before (apologies to gamer grandmas, neighbors, and gym teachers), games have these specific things. Boards, dice, and movers are, in one combination or another, in (unscientifically calculated) roughly 98% of the games you’ll find on mass-market shelves.

Boards and dice and movers aren’t generally necessities in deck building games, but we weren’t designing a deck builder for a crowd that already knew what they were looking at. We had to hide something that was likely new and foreign inside a facade they were comfortable with. So we made this.

co-op_deckbuilder

One of the first prototype boards that eventually became Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

There’s not a whole lot of revolutionary design in creating a play mat that shows the setup for a card game, but it checks off the “has a board” box when grandma looks at the back of the package. After we determined that the board was an aid for setting up the game, we saw that we could also use it as a scoring track; something else that mass-market game consumers are familiar with. Most other deck builders counted Victory Points at the end of the game, but the majority of the board games this audience was familiar with had transparent scoring that tracked turn-by-turn. We steered into that.

The idea was that as the team of heroes played the game, the villains they fought against were slowly marching up their side of the track in the center of the board towards the crown. You and your partners scored points and climbed up your own side of the track by defeating villains. Whomever got to the crown at the top first won.

This covered the board and the movers, though the latter was eventually dropped from the final Harry Potter build. Now we had to figure out how to make dice relevant to the game. Once again, I’m going to stop short of laying out the full mechanics of the die integration. My initial build didn’t make it into the finished Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle game that USAopoly published, so I’ll keep that under wraps for now. Instead, I’ll offer you a sidebar that’s probably more interesting than the initial design itself.


HPHB_Dice

The House Dice from Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle


In early 2016, the Forrest-Pruzan team had a meeting with the USAopoly product team that was working on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. USAopoly had secured the rights to the Harry Potter license, and had brought along a rough (but surprisingly polished) prototype of the game that they had built. Late in the meeting, one of the USAopoly designers pointed to the dice, which even at that point looked a lot like the House Dice that appear in the game now. “We’re not entirely sure that we like these though,” he said. “I don’t know for certain if the game needs them. Was there a reason you included dice in the initial build?”

“Honestly?”, I asked. “It’s because if someone who doesn’t know what a deck building game is turns over the box, they’ll see dice and say ‘oh, I know what dice are, this must be a game’ and put it in the cart. Seeing dice makes people think they know how to play it right away.”

The USAopoly group laughed, entirely amused at how subversive the real function of the dice was. Later that year at GenCon, one of their designers told me that this revelation led them to look a little deeper at how wide they thought the audience might be. Thinking of the game as something that would likely be the first foray into deckbuilders for many consumers led them to breaking the game into seven sub-games, starting with a super-simplified “intro game” and progressively ramping up the mechanics and challenges as the sub-games went on.


USAopoly did use dice in the game, though not the way I’d planned. I think their execution was done really nicely within the game, and at the end of the day, my whole reason to use them at all was literally just to have them on the box. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle stayed true to that, and stepped it up in its execution.

Now we had our board, our movers, and our dice, all there to disguise a deck building card game as a standard-issue “roll and move” game. The next step was to start baking in things that would help new players get started once they’d bought the game.

Thinking back to the first time I ever played Dominion, I knew there were a few places I could see new players having trouble. First, there was the idea that you’d have a fresh set of cards every turn. Second, I knew it would feel foreign that you didn’t draw your cards at the start of the turn, but instead at the end, when you couldn’t use them. I also wanted as many aides as I could fit in that would help players set up and put away the game. Lastly, and this may have been the biggest challenge, the tracking of resources in deck builders can be brutal for someone who’s never even heard of a deck builder before, let alone played one.

Co-op_DB_Player_Boards

Color-coded player boards, starting decks, and tokens

The turn flow issues were simple to solve (or at least alleviate). I knew right away that I was going to give every player a basic player board to use as a cheat sheet. “Put your deck here.” “Discard your cards here.” “If you need to draw a card but there are none left, shuffle your discard pile and put it back where your deck was.” It’s hardly something worth taking any credit for as design innovations go.

Next, resource tracking. I wanted a game where players could gradually chip away at villains, so that meant having a physical counter of some kind that could be placed on villain cards on the board. Working backwards, that meant that rather than just counting up damage that could be dealt with cards in your hand and checking them against a villain’s threshold, I could just have players gather tokens on their player board before allocating them to villains. This also gave me a simple currency system for buying new cards from the board; play your cards, get tokens, spend tokens to buy stuff or fight bad guys. At the end of your turn, unspent tokens went away.

Co-op_DB_Prototype_Cards

Early prototype cards for the collaborative deck building game

Using tokens, I realized, also gave me a way to make collaboration matter. Since I had a physical accounting device, I could have effects where resources could be given, taken, or carried over from one turn to another. Card effects could go beyond giving you resources for your current turn, and could branch out into ways to set your teammates up for theirs. It was something I’d never seen executed quite this way before, and it felt incredibly intuitive as a way to encourage players to work together and help each other navigate through their first few games. From that point on, the cards were all mechanically designed with this kind of teamwork in mind.

Setup in deck builders can be a little daunting to newcomers. There are typically dozens if not hundreds of cards to sort through and keep properly arranged. In order to simplify this process as much as possible, I built several visual cues into the prototype. (This is my background as a graphic designer showing through.)

The players’ starting decks would have obvious, color-coded faces. This meant that players could pick the starting cards out from the full hero cards deck very quickly, and that there was no counting of different kinds of cards when assembling starting decks. Each player had three “attack” and seven “money” cards, but unlike in other deck builders where setup included counting out three-and-seven for each player before the game, here you just handed the red player all the red cards.

Once the starting decks were sorted out, the only cards left to sort were the purchasable hero cards and the villain cards. Keeping these visually distinct was easy; the card backs for heroes had a light color and the word “HERO”, and the villain cards were dark and said “VILLAIN”. Additionally, the layout for the card fronts were very distinct; hero cards always used a “portrait” orientation, the way most playing cards are viewed on a table or in hand. The villains were set up using a “landscape” orientation, leaving no room for confusion.

Lastly, I used some mechanical shortcuts to make setup faster and easier. There would be no “always available” step-up resource cards like in most other deck builders. This once again reduced sorting when setting up and putting away the game. I also decided early on that the hero and villain decks, respectively, would be entirely random. This meant that setup was a simple as shuffling the deck and placing it on the board. No sorting of card stacks needed at all.

It went over like gangbusters in playtests, especially with folks who’d never seen other deck building games before. Together, the whole package was one constructed with them in mind. I’d built a game engine and prototype that had all the trappings and touchstones of a “traditional” board game, while maintaining — and building on — the depth and comparative novelty of a deck building game, and it flowed intuitively.


While the game design goals and the prototype construction decisions were all my own, I owe gratitude to several other FPC team members and contractors who gave feedback and helped build parts and mechanics. It was an early-stage concept pitch meeting with Andy Forrest, Alan Pruzan, and Jay Wheatley that made it clear to me that introducing an advanced game structure to a mass-market audience would require disguising it as a more basic game model. Our contractor Dan Emmons pushed for more clarity in how players needed to win as a team rather than as individuals with a common goal. Eric Duffy ground through days of editing art files, painting tokens, and cutting hundreds cards for the prototypes. All of us, plus the entire in-house staff at FPC played through dozens of games to see where we had to add, dial in, or abandon various mechanics.

I also have to give enormous credit to Andrew Wolf, Kami Mandell, and so many others at USAopoly who paired our prototype with the Harry Potter license and kept designing the game towards that property. They did an amazing job of turning our engine into a finely-tuned performance automobile.

Thank you to all of you!

*Ludum Videtur: Loosely translated, it’s Latin for “appears like a game”.

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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, deck building games, Family Games, graphic design, Published Games, Strategy Games, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Board Games, Card Games, Do It Yourself, graphic design, redesigns, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Card Games, graphic design, Social Theorists

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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