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Game Designers and the 2002 Oakland A’s


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Fun, yes. Glamorous, no.

I am a professional game designer. Somebody pays me to do it; I don’t need to work another day job, I don’t scribble notes for my next Kickstarter as a creative outlet, I have a full workshop and supplies at my disposal paid for on the company’s dime rather than mine. I have an excuse to play and read about board games while I’m on the clock at work.

I’m incredibly lucky in this. My wife reminds me all the time, and rightly so. I get to do something I love, to a degree that many, many people don’t and maybe never will. Sometimes I forget this.  I happen to have had what many people would consider a “dream job” long enough that it’s become normalized, not quite “just a day job” but something that’s a basic, foundational part of my day-to-day routine. I don’t really think about it beyond knowing that it’s what I do.

If you’re ever going to have any work/life balance, every job eventually becomes, at least partially, internally normalized; “just part of who I am”. It’s not unthinkable to forget about the uniqueness of the role you play. Even when you know you’re good at what you do — that you deserve and have earned your place in that role — it’s possible to look at other people in similar roles and wonder if you stack up.

New opportunities are scary, even when you know you’ve got a 20-pound bag full of qualifications. That is a near-universal truth.


Hello, internet world. I’m going to trust you with a something personal. Right now I’m working on broadening my horizons. It’s not really a secret, even within my current job, that I have an interest in exploring new kinds of projects with new kinds of collaborators and teammates. I want to surround myself with other game designers with ideas and visions I haven’t had the chance to learn from yet.

In sports, this would be a lot like going into free agency, particularly if you’re aware you’re not necessarily J.D. Martinez or LeBron James. Even within the narrow “dream job” world of professional game designers, I’m no Eric Lang, Alan R. Moon, or Freidemann Friese. In baseball terms, I’m a veteran utility player with a solid on-base percentage (OBP). I am the moneyball player, one of the guys in the Oakland Athletics (A’s) 2002 lineup. For most of those guys, they each knew they had strong proven value, but after their time in Oakland they went into free-agency situations still knowing that any team they joined likely already had more known superstars than the one they were leaving.

For me, this is the knowledge that any team I eventually join already has people with years of experience navigating their particular terrain.

There’s some irony in my sense of intimidation; as I’ve said, I know I’m good and I want those new surroundings to learn from. I’ve also spent the last year or so working in a department where my projects have largely been solo ventures, and I want to get back into the realm of collaborative design. It’s at the very top of what I want from a job in game design. Well, that and a commute less than the 90-minute one I have now. Seattle traffic blows.

I like tossing ideas around with other designers. I love debates rooted in design philosophy and theory. I like sometimes stepping back from the weight of needing to initiate a concept from scratch and instead being one of the guys who helps paddle someone else’s canoe. (I still love you, Nick Offerman.)

Knowing those other designers have had more time to develop and practice the theories relevant to their particular projects is still heady stuff to walk into. Striking the balance between being respectful and humble enough to let them guide you into their process and walking through the door confidently from day one is far from a no-brainer. It’s something that, when I stop and let myself think about, is pretty daunting. And I know I have what it takes to do what they do, because I do it every day, and have done it for years.

“Dream jobs” are tricky that way.

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The 2002 Oakland A’s, celebrating win number 20 in their 24-game win streak

Pro athletes have dream jobs. Millions of people want to play for the Lakers or the Seahawks or the Red Sox or Real Madrid, but only a tiny handful of people ever actually will. I am absolutely certain that with very few exceptions, every single one of those pro athletes facing free agency does so with a nervous twinge when they think about re-acclimating and adjusting to match the pre-existing chemistry of a new team.

I don’t need to worry about not being J.D. Martinez. I need to remember that in the world of professional game design, the things I value most are found in teams built like the 2002 Oakland A’s.


Less about my own journey and goals. More about today’s lead: game designers and the 2002 Oakland A’s.

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The second time a picture of Brad Pitt has shown up on my blog

To say that the Oakland A’s did it with no “stars” is misleading. The story Aaron Sorkin and Brad Pitt told in Moneyball was a functional retelling of a pretty amazing modern-era sports story, but it left a few details out. Moneyball glorifies (justifiably) the value of a team built to be a team above all else.

If you want to get picky, Sorkin left out the fact that Oakland’s pitching staff was a group of guys who were really good, and pitching is probably the least “team performance” process in the sport. One good pitcher sets the tone of the entire game, limiting the average number of runs any opposing team can score in a single game and setting a threshold for the number of runs their own team needs to score to win that game. The pitcher does that with a single arm and the help of a well-versed catcher. After that, there are seven other players on the field who have virtually no bearing on whether the hitters the pitcher is facing make contact with the ball. The real Beane knew this, and that’s the part the movie glosses over.

For my purposes today, I will too. Mostly.

Baseball is a strange mix of personal and team performances, and Billy Beane demonstrated that handily in building his team. If you know the movie, you know most of the story. Beane was the General Manager of a team that was hemorrhaging whatever A-list hitting talent they had into organizations that could pay more, and had little budget for new headline “mashers” (guys who are exciting to watch because they hit the ball really, really hard. Like, inhumanly hard.). He realized that the math of the game proved that the mashers weren’t actually the guys that won games though; it was the process of consistently getting a lot of players on base that produced slightly better-than-average runs per inning than most other teams.

Let me clarify for the non-baseball readers I may have brought in today; “masher” is not a technical baseball term or position. It’s an archetypal kind of player, someone whose performance as a hitter is not directly tied to their role on the field. I’ll use the term quite a bit in the next few paragraphs, so it’s worth getting that all cleared up now.

Mashers typically come up to the plate to hit every two to three innings, and need players ahead of them to be on base in order for the big hits to be most effective. An opposing team’s pitchers can often stifle that sort of strategy by pitching around the masher, giving them intentional walks and limiting the hitter’s production to only a single base instead of a potential four. This is especially transparent when the masher doesn’t have another ultra-threatening hitter right behind them in the batting order, since the prospect of an extra runner on the bases (the walked masher) when a weaker hitter comes up is less scary to the pitcher than the prospect of seeing that masher let it fly.

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Partial listing of the 2002 Oakland A’s roster. Not a lot of “A” grades on the hitting power assessments, but a TON of .300-plus OBPs, and Slugging Percentages, one after another after another…

The moneyball strategy is, primarily, to forget about putting a dedicated masher in the order. One masher necessitates further threats, as well as players who can reliably get on base in front of the masher. Moneyball argues that by just having more of the reliable singles and doubles hitters, the home run hitters aren’t necessary, and your lineup gives opposing pitchers fewer opportunities to pitch around tricky situations. When you get three guys on base with little, un-flashy, productive hits, the opposing pitcher is put with their back against a wall. They absolutely need to induce outs if they’re going to prevent runs; there’s no allowance for error on them at that point. Pitchers make mistakes and get fatigued though, which means that, ultimately, the team that slowly grinds guys onto the bases faster than they make outs will be able to score more runs than a team that relies on a few huge hitters.

My experience is that game design works the same way.

Most games begin with a single idea, often from a single person. I suppose we can look at that idea and person as the equivalent of a pitcher in baseball. Fitting, because the first thing the originator does when they bring the idea to a team, a publisher, or backers on Kickstarter is to pitch it.

Apart from that, much of game design is a team effort, and a really good game has more to benefit from having many well-rounded contributors than it would gain from having a single genius on a metaphorical island.

Consider the stages of making a game: inception, concept, initial design, development, playtesting, cyclical iterations, production, publishing, sales and marketing, distribution…

Yes, there are games, even some incredible ones, that have, visibly, a very small number of superstars that carried multiple phases all alone. Cephalofair is a very bare-bones, hyper-efficient operation. Stonemaier Games is another. The era of Kickstarter has allowed more of these studios to exist, but the really successful ones — the “quit your old day job because game design is your new one” ones — are few and far between. They’re the exception to the rule. Most in-it-for-the-long-run studios and publishers run with very deep support staffs that cover a lot of bases through being consistent short-hit, high-OBP team players. Although, in the context of this article, “covering a lot of bases” might be a mixed metaphor.

One person can conceive the idea for a game. I’ve invented several games that way myself. Conversely, the inception of a game might just as readily come from a group discussion, where the primary kernel of that idea would never have happened with multiple people discussing a different concept from the one that ultimately arose. I have a list of games I’ve worked on elsewhere in my blog archives; see if you can figure out which ones I came up with “alone” at my own workstation, and which ones came from a bunch of people around a lunch or conference table.

Concepting is a stage that comes just behind the inception. It’s the process of determining exactly what kind of game the idea is best expressed as. This can be done by a single person, but examining all the options and determining the ideal one is generally faster and more thorough with several veteran designers kicking those options around together. I would personally rather have the right concept to fit an idea arise from another designer in my team than the wrong one emerge when I’m working on it alone.

Initial Design is the process of fleshing out that concept with mechanics, either original or reimplemented from other games in a new way that fits the themes or goals of the new game. It typically includes creating a prototype so that the design can be workshopped and tested in a practical space. Almost by definition, the workshopping and testing of any competitive game require a collaborative mindset, as the designer or designers are creating an experience meant to be an experience for multiple players at once. One person sitting in all of the players’ seats at once will never accurately approximate multiple players seeing different aspects of the game, and considering those different views is critical to good game design.

Development uses a completely different set of skills than designing; one tends to be more intuitive, the other is more analytical. It’s possible to have a single person tackle both processes, but that increases the chances of blind spots and retention of “precious” designs that an separate developer would objectively question. Thorough development benefits significantly from having a different team member (or members) than the one (or ones) who’ve been focused on the design.

Playtesting for every rich game (with the possible exceptions of games meant for cooperative or solo play) is functionally impossible without multiple team members. The team for this stage will need multiple well-heeled players with broad experience in gaming. Usually this is the part that benefits most from a really large list of team members and participants, and it’s the part that most closely resembles the theory behind moneyball. The most valuable playtesting results are the ones that provide enough data to properly see consistent patterns emerge under different circumstances, and that means you need a lot of data. Gathering  lot of data means you need a broad team.

It’s also useful within the playtesting cycle to have multiple people observing the players. As much as you want the players to find and stress-test the mechanics and processes of the game, you want the observers to catch significant moments and variance in the way the game is being played by the testers. Different observers will see different aspects of the players’ responses and recommend improvements to the game accordingly.

Cyclical iteration is all about crunching the numbers after each round of playtesting to optimize any incremental changes being made to the design. It requires the designers and developers to quickly and efficiently balance their contributions into a cohesive new prototype or set of rules. The collaborative process of iteration is probably the single phase that most resembles the moneyball philosophy; changing a lot of things at once in one huge jump in the game’s design is a far riskier proposition than relying on a consistent, longer sequence of smaller clusters of adjustments.

Production is all about dialing in the physical components, from materials and ergonomics to artwork and styling. While it’s usually important to have a single shot-caller to tie all of the physical elements together, visual design for complex games can quickly become a team effort. Visual content is time-consuming, and the workload for something with a lot of visual content can keep a designer or artist under pressure for a while. Understanding materials is a whole other sphere of knowledge that comes into play, and without solid execution can ruin the end user’s gameplay experience. Production is often a headache best shared in a divide-and-conquer manner rather than one person trying to hulk through it by themselves.

Publishing, sales and marketing, and distribution are components of game design that generally occupy a different kind of head space than the prior stages, but they’re not entirely unrelated. Knowing the best business practices that will go into getting the game to the intended audience, or the current interest trends and preferences of that audience, can help inform key decisions all the way back to the initial concept phase. These last parts are generally outside of my own range of experience in the overall process, so I can’t speak directly too much to them. I can say that, as someone who’s worked on games without needing to do the publishing/marketing/distribution lifting myself, I feel I’ve been able to put in more focused work on any or all of the prior pieces’ teams.

Moneyball. A broad team with multiple experienced players, all capable of keeping the line moving at a regular pace. Fewer superstars whose absence would cripple the strategy. The notion of valuing consistency over flash, with a welcome allowance for flash to happen.

Is there risk of too many cooks? Absolutely. That’s a problem for team managers to handle. But if you’re in it for the long haul, you need to know you can keep the pressure on the competition longer than they can rely on big, explosive moments.

I want to play on a moneyball team. I want to know that I don’t need to outperform another team player to show my value, or outperform completely different team all alone. I understand how all of the pieces fit together, and I’m in it to support all of them with the knowledge that they collectively help shore up my own weak spots. My skills and experience aren’t those of Martinez, James, Lang, Moon, or Friese, but they’ll add to the sum total and keep those averages up where they need to be in order for the team to rack up wins.

24 wins in a row in 2002. The A’s were a team that knew how to get it done.

 

 

 

 

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Reading the Room with Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 4.5


Community-Centric, Globally Meta


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

Jumping in with another post about the state of the blog, just because I’m finding this stuff pretty fascinating. The post last week about the Bulgaria and Italy bumps (still haven’t figured out the Italy one) has some of the fewest reads of anything I’ve ever posted, so I don’t expect this one to imprint itself on anyone’s heart. Regardless, it speaks a little to the reach of various gamer communities, so it’s still pertinent to the stuff I’ve been writing about lately.

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Global distribution of unique visitors to my blog on Feb. 7th, 2018

Yesterday I posted an article about the way the Gloomhaven community has contributed new tools and features to improve the game experience for other players. It was part of a series I’ve been writing called Reading the Room with Someone Else’s Eyes (though I’m strongly considering “officially” going back and shortening name to just “Reading the Room”). The series began as an introspective lesson for myself on looking for game community trends, but a through-line has begun to emerge about how communities create those trends in the first place.

The traffic on the site blew up, comparatively speaking. The Reading the Room articles (let’s go with RtR for now) have been the most popular posts on my blog lately — back in 2011 and 2012 I used to get hundreds, if not thousands of hits, but those seem to have been mostly bots. Most of my RtRs have pulled in 60-80 reads, but yesterday’s had 170 reads. For me, that’ll qualify as “blowing up”. For now, fingers crossed.

The difference maker this time is in how I got news of the new post out to the world — “world” being the operative word here. This time the net was cast a bit wider than normal, and it made a huge impact.

I typically spread the word of new posts through Facebook and a small handful of groups I’m a member of there. My personal Facebook feed and Twitter always put up alerts about posts, but I suspect fewer than 10 or 20 people are ever reaching the site through those links (I don’t tweet enough or have enough interesting things to say on Twitter that anyone’s following me anyway). I don’t have many actual followers of the blog itself (and I suspect that most of those are bots), so the traffic certainly isn’t coming from there. The majority of the click-throughs are coming from the Facebook groups and a modest number of shares in a modest number of friends’ networks.

The first three RTR posts were specifically about Magic: The Gathering and trends and preferences within that game’s community. A lot of the research for those posts came from my interactions with a local Facebook group called Magic: The Seattling. Naturally, Magic: The Seattling has been the primary outlet for me to announce past RtR articles, and they make up a majority of my readers (so a big thank you to them). Those posts have more or less established a baseline for the kind of traffic I generally expect.

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Global distribution of unique visitors to my blog on as I write on Feb. 8th, 2018

Yesterday, since the article was about Gloomhaven rather than Magic, I felt justified in sharing the new article in other Facebook groups. The most obvious was the official Gloomhaven Board Game group, created and moderated by Gloomhaven’s inventor Isaac Childres. Isaac’s pretty hands-off about what goes up on the group’s wall, and there’s no approval delay when someone posts there, so I was confident that an article about the game and its community, devoid of any questionable content, would post and stick without moderation. It did, and traffic to my blog immediately jumped accordingly. The post itself is steadily accruing “likes” on Facebook, but the real metric I care about is the reads on the blog.

I went out on a limb and shared the article with the Magic: The Seattling group as well. M:tS is sort of “passively moderated”; the moderator will remove posts and content he doesn’t feel belong on the wall there, which is fine and fair. That’s what a moderator is for. I prefaced my post there by stating that the article was part of a series that had been going over well there and that it might be considered “continuity” for those readers. Happily, I’ve seen that the moderator has not yanked it yet and there have been consistent “likes” by group members there, so maybe we’re past the cutoff and it’ll stick. I figure that I’ve probably gotten 30-40 clickthroughs on that in-road.

Overall though, I feel like the majority of the reads had to have come from the Gloomhaven group. It’s a much larger group — 7,300 members to M:tS’s 3,500 — with a far more global base than my other networks. We’ll say around 130 of the hits likely came directly from there.

I also submitted the article to the BoardGameGeek Facebook group (a whopping 48,000 members), on the premise that the article looked specifically at the way the Gloomhaven community has contributed to the “files” database and forums on the BGG site. The article is about users of BGG and members of its own community (albeit a sub-community therein), so I figured I had a modest shot at having the moderators approve it. The BGG gatekeepers tend to be pretty active and picky about blog content they’ll approve for posts.

This morning — specifically around 1:00 AM PST — the article was approved for the BGG Facebook feed. Since then (it’s currently almost 10:00 AM as I type), I’ve seen 70 more hits on my blog, 60 of which went straight to the article. How many of them came from BGG, I can’t say; I know some are still coming in through the Gloomhaven group because people are still adding “likes” over there.

What I’m finding really interesting about all of this though is the global distribution of hits the blog is seeing. I’m used to seeing some traffic coming in through international channels (again, look back at Curiouser and Curiouser), but the patterns over the last 16 hours have been different, something that I feel has to be a product of the global communities built around Gloomhaven and BGG. It was obvious right from the start that there’d be more global interest in the content from the start, as the community members I’d focused on in my writing were an international group all to themselves. I’d featured pieces created by players in the US, the Netherlands, and Sweden, so I already knew there was going to be spread in the origins of the readers.

What stuck out for me when looking at the traffic stats behind the scenes was not just that I was getting a lot of readers from English-speaking countries (that’s not surprising at all), but that a full 10% of the traffic was coming from Australia and New Zealand. According to the Gloomhaven Second Printing community stats on the Kickstarter campaign page, only about 2% of the global distribution of the game went to Australia and/or New Zealand. What this shows me is that the Australian/Kiwi community engagement in the online Gloomhaven (and BGG) community runs much deeper than in other parts of the world.

Side note: I should probably take an analytic look at the engagement of Aussies and Kiwis within the BGG Gloomhaven forums, but I’m cramming this post in between other responsibilities.

Comedian Norm Macdonald use to say that “Germans love David Hasselhoff”. It looks like Australians and New Zealanders really love getting together over board games. Not just playing them, but involving themselves in communities built around them.

Remind me if I ever venture to launch my own original game on Kickstarter that, despite their smaller quantitative numbers, they seem to spend a disproportionately high amount of energy reading about and discussing games. I really need to reach out to them.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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

Ten Essays of Questionable Worth


This past Monday I got the email from Wizards of the Coast telling me that I’d washed out of the competition in this year’s Great Designer Search. The round that saw my demise was a 75 question multiple choice test that put contestants’ knowledge of Magic: The Gathering’s history and design through the wringer. If anyone tells you that the test was easy, they’re fooling themselves. I’ve written about the Dunning-Kruger effect before, and denying the challenge thrown at us would be a prime example of it.

Those of us who’d been eliminated from the final round learned exactly how difficult it was to make the cut — only 94 people finished with 2 or fewer questions wrong — but not how  we as individual recipients of the email had scored. The correct answers to the test will be revealed officially some time in March, but there’s been considerable (if not slightly controversial) effort put in by some of the over 3,000 participants that were cut via the test to extrapolate the correct answers. Based on this data, combined with the research and verification of my own answers, I believe I missed the cutoff by only a single question — and I know exactly which three they were, if that’s not a total kick in the gut.

That’s beside the point of this post though, and I intend to dive into the story of the community’s sleuthing for the answers in some later post, including my explanation as to why “the wisdom of the masses” is a logical fallacy. I may not have a degree in applied mathematics, but I can show two specific cases in their aggregated selections in which I was in the minority and, despite the community’s collective agreement on a different answer, I was right and the community was wrong.

Ballsy, I know. We’ll get to that some other day soon.

EssayToday is about the essays.

In order to qualify to take the test in the first place, participants needed to write ten essays, each between 250 and 350 words, answering ten questions posed by Magic R&D. These questions served primarily as a test of will rather than one of de facto qualification; the general idea is that if you’re not willing to grind through the essays, there’s not much point in taking the multiple choice test. In the event of the multiple choice test not narrowing the field to exactly eight finalists, the essays would become the tiebreaker. Ain’t nobody in R&D that wants to read 30,000-plus essays to pick the 300 people who should take the multiple choice test.

I wrote ten essays to move forward to the test round. I did not move past the test round. My essays no longer serve a purpose in the competition. There is no reason for them ever to be read by the judges in the Great Designer Search.

I’ll be damned if they never get read at all though. See, I’d put money on it that out of the over 3,000 people who wrote those essays, nobody sacrificed more to write them than I did. It was a calculated value proposition for me, as the potential reward could well exceed the expense, but make no mistake, the time it took to write them did come at an expense.

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I think I might have blinked. Honey, we need to go back and take the picture again.

I wrote the essays over the better part of two days, alone in a hotel room, while my wife, our two-year-old son, and my wife’s parents spent that time exploring Walt Disney World. I skipped Disney World. In order to write ten essays that would otherwise never be read, I gave up seeing my son, who idolizes Figment the Dragon, ride on Journey Into Imagination for the first time. It may sound petty, but this genuinely stings.

In all fairness, I was also sick as a dog on those two mornings, so maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed my family vacation in the Most Magical Place On Earth anyway.

Ouch.

C’est la vie, though. I knew what I was getting myself into. Missing the cut on the test is all on me, and I willingly gave up those days.

After all that though, I still have those essays, and they make for a nice, fat, 3,200-word chunk of a blog post about game design. Multi-purposing is a thing. Double-dipping, sort of. Making lemonade. Recycling for blog traffic. Whatever.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you… The Essays.


Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.

For about 36 years, I’ve been training to design Magic.

No. Scratch that. That’s not entirely accurate. It’s almost ridiculous; Magic hasn’t even been around that long. But 36 years is a pretty good ballpark for how long I’ve been studying and designing games.

My name is Sean Fletcher. Since I was a kid, deconstructing board games has been one of my favorite hobbies. Somewhere in the last decade, I went pro, and I’m currently a full-time board game inventor, designer, and developer with a studio in Seattle. In that time I’ve created games that went on to be published by at least a dozen publishers all around the world. Throughout the course of creating themed and abstract strategy games, card games, word games, and family party games, much of the design philosophy I’ve come to follow has its roots in the history and workings of Magic.

In 2006, I was invited by Mark Rosewater to join the Shadowmoor design team as a contractor. Through Mark and the work I did for Wizards of the Coast, my wife and I have built strong personal connections to many of the folks who’ve worked there (and still work there). Even after my contract had ended and Shadowmoor was on shelves, the extended family we have found within WotC has only grown.

You’re looking for a new game designer. When it comes down to it, I’m a known quantity; I’ve worked on Magic once before, I’ve got a successful track record of making fun and exciting games professionally, and I already have a positive rapport with many of the people I’d be working with. Speaking as someone who’s had to interview and hire new game designers for my own department before, I’d take that kind of known quantity any day of the week.

———

An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?

Evergreen mechanics earn their status as “any set” tools by being easily understood, highly versatile, and benign in relation to aesthetic themes any given set may have. The nature of evergreen mechanics is that they work in literally any setting, without a need to justify how they fit thematically into that world.

When Equipment made its debut in Mirrodin, it was easy to see how the Equip mechanic was going to be a permanent mainstay of the game. Armor, weapons, and tools are a natural part of any narrative world, so it follows that a mechanic like Equip, which is obvious in its granular intent without steering other layers of narrative, would become an instant evergreen mechanic.

Vehicles and the corresponding Crew mechanic seem to be poised to be the next addition to the evergreen roster. If I were to choose any existing keyword ability to bring up to the primary tool set, I wouldn’t have a single doubt about whether Crew could hold its place reliably. Since its second appearance in Ixalan block, it’s proven to be a mechanic that takes the flavor of its setting, rather than the other way around. It is generally intuitive, and it can be applied in a functionally limitless number of interesting ways.

There are strong connections that tie Equip and Crew together; both were key thematic showpieces within the sets they premiered in, both have pushed the limits of reasonable balance in their early days. I believe that those connections give credence that Crew will also find its footing quickly, like Equip, and be something we can expect in nearly every set moving forward.

———

If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?

Shaving a keyword off of the evergreen roster isn’t easy; there’s not much fat to trim on that roast. The mechanic that stands out most to me in this regard is Prowess, and frankly, I think it’s a shame that it does. Don’t get me wrong; Prowess is a good mechanic, and outside of academic debates I wouldn’t have given it a second look, but here we are and here Prowess is.

Prowess is one of only a handful of keywords that produce no effect without a secondary independent action happening within the game. A creature with Flying is always flying, regardless of what other creatures are doing. A creature with Lifelink is always ready to start padding your life total for you. A creature with Prowess is always, well, waiting for something else to happen. Prowess does absolutely nothing all by itself.

Evergreen mechanics need to be unambiguous and straightforward enough that new players will understand them quickly in any context in which they might reasonably arise. Mechanics that appear on creatures need to be even more “self-aware” in this regard. To this end, I’ve come up with a simple litmus test for whether a keyword ability is clean and straightforward to a degree that justifies being evergreen:

If a creature loses or gains a combat-relevant keyword ability just before combat begins, it should be immediately apparent what the impact of that change will be.

Adding or removing Prowess from a creature, without other effects applied afterwards, does absolutely nothing to any combat interaction that may arise around that creature. Meanwhile, this change in the creature’s abilities can leave questions for inexperienced players as to whether the creature’s power and toughness are changed. If the Prowess ability had already granted bonuses this turn, and then the Prowess ability is removed, do the bonuses go away? If Prowess was granted to a creature by way of a non-creature spell, does the creature get a bonus for that spell?

In these regards, Prowess is too fussy for the expectation of everyday inclusion in Magic sets.

———

You’re going to teach Magic to a stranger. What’s your strategy to have the best possible outcome?

Magic is just plain difficult to explain and teach to absolute newcomers. Its play patterns subvert a lot of common assumptions audiences would have based on its themes and components, which can make any common reference points to hold as foundational cornerstones difficult to find.

I believe there are three key elements that make critical differences when a Magic veteran tries to introduce a new player to the game: Environment, Complexity, and Pace.

Environment is about helping a player see the nature of a Magic community. Magic is a social game, and this is a feature that many outsiders don’t recognize right away. Avoid overwhelming a new player with unnecessarily large crowds. Introduce them to a group of 6-8 players at most, whom they share other common interests with. Show them how several one-on-one matches can happen at once, and explain how Magic is simultaneously a group activity and a game played head-to-head.

Complexity and Pace are more controllable once the Environment is accounted for. New players often fear judgment, and the complexity of the game leaves a lot of space for judge-able errors. Reducing fear of judgement begins with demonstrating the right environment; limiting the opportunities for judgement comes through limiting the depth of a player’s first game.

I prefer teaching by presenting the new player with a mono-green deck, while I play mono-white. Limit decks to common creatures and sorceries, with no abilities or effects that would be played at instant speed. This caps the Complexity of interactions to moments when spells are played and combat exchanges, and allows the new player to focus on those moments individually. Play with the new player’s hand face up, so that choices can be discussed along the way.

Keep the mana curve between 1 and 5 CMC for all cards, and include redundant copies of cards with evergreen mechanics. This should help keep the Pace of the game quick and give the new player a sense of familiarity when subsequent copies of cards come up.

———

What is Magic’s greatest strength and why?

Magic has maintained a robust audience for 25 years now by constantly evolving and growing in how it presents itself. It is a game that can take on whatever creative flavor is applied to it without thinning that flavor or losing itself into it. It has a set of components that are equally as accepting of new themes as the full game is. Everything about Magic has enough rigidity to always be internally compatible and familiar, but is also porous enough to let new settings permeate the entire game.

The openness of Magic’s underlying framework is by far Magic’s greatest asset as a game system.

On the most basic level, Magic’s architecture allows for very transparent mapping of new worlds and narratives. The construction of a set uses the game as a theater and the rules as a stage. Characters, both primary and background, can be cast (like actors) with creature and planeswalker cards. Surrounding elements can be built like scenery and costumes with lands and enchantments. Props are brought into the story via artifacts, and dramatic plot points come into the story through instants, sorceries, abilities, and other broader game actions.

On a more granular level, Magic gives itself the space to illustrate an infinite number of concepts through variation and recombination of its various components and rules. When a designer wants to build outside the current set of known ingredients and tools, the game’s framework allows for new design space to be defined at will. A prime example would be the double-faced cards introduced in Innistrad; designers saw an opportunity to use the game’s components in a brand new way that better illustrated the duality and changes in the world’s pieces. Responsively, the game rules afforded and helped define new systems of framework to build those concepts on.

Without a structural system so resilient and yet so flexible, Magic could not have sustained the degree of growth and change it has seen over a quarter of a century.

———

What is Magic’s greatest weakness and why?

Having worked in a board game invention and production studio for seven years, I can attest to the greatest weakness in any game being its production schedule. It’s an invisible factor to most audiences, but the results of a rushed schedule are ultimately always visible.

I’ve seen this with my own eyes. As a project manager, an inventor, a developer, and an artist, every step of the way, I’ve always felt that there were just a few more things I could improve with more time. And that’s often just small, low-threshold kids games with no plans for expansion.

Magic is hundreds of times more complex. At least.

Magic’s primary set releases, not including supplemental products, land roughly every three months, with around 250 brand new cards each. Even with a nine to twelve month active production schedule and the efforts of dozens of staff members moving it along, it would be impossible for a set to reach players without flaws. The game — and the system needed for producing it with such regularity — is simply too complex for a 100% success rate.

Compounding this, the global Magic community is enormous, and contains some of the most analytical gamers ever. With myriad intricacies of mechanical interactions presented by so many cards, there is no way for a limited pool of staff members, no matter how skilled, to catch every abusable combination of cards in any given environment.

If a flaw in a card or mechanic’s design exists, players will find it and exploit it. Quickly.

The options available to Magic R&D in response to these exploits are limited. Bans can be put in place relatively quickly, but are tremendously unpopular and difficult to appropriately gauge for optimal effectiveness and efficiency. “Silver bullet” cards can be added to subsequent sets, but these get stuck in the same slow production cycle that any release is bound to, and could take months to catch up to the cards and strategies they’re meant for.

Production schedules are the bane and biggest weakness of every game. Magic is no exception.

———

What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?

Oh, Surge, you lost puppy, you.

When Oath of the Gatewatch came out, the conversation was much about comparisons to the original Zendikar block, and the comparisons were not kind. BFZ and OGW had some problems with dilution once the latter arrived, and the new Eldrazi were hellbent on warping Legacy and Modern. It was easy to miss the quiet little mechanic that never had a chance.

Surge was simple, and it worked in an “I like it when it happens, but I’m probably not going out of my way to make it happen” sort of way. It was a great flavor match for the “we need to work together” theme of the set and story, and it doubled-down on that theme by kicking in when a teammate played a spell on the same turn.

The problem was that apart from a handful of modestly-promoted events, we were never given a strong incentive or opportunity to play them with teammates. Surge lived in a weird space where it wanted to be played in Two-Headed Giant games, but still needed to be playable in a one-on-one match. Making the value proposition more difficult, it was often tough enough to rally players up for BFZ/OGW limited in general, let alone specialty format events.

Surge was made to be a gift to fans of 2HG. It showed up in a block that was widely perceived to have been made for fans of things that were not fun.

If only we had limited edition draft environments where something as gimmicky as always playing in teams was the focus.

Oh, wait, we do. Two Conspiracy sets in, we’ve seen proof that supplemental “multi-player limited format” sets work. They’re fun, and they’re successful enough that we should generally expect to see them continue. Surge would be a slam-dunk centerpiece mechanic for a supplemental set intended for 2HG play (or even other fringe multi-player formats like Star Magic or Emperor).

There’s a home for Surge. Just not in the beleaguered wastes of Zendikar.

———

Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.

Poking holes in Ravnica is like serving up melted ice cream: you’re only doing it to prove that something awesome can be crappy if you try hard enough.

I know I’m not distinguishing myself from the pack when I say I loved Ravnica (Original Recipe), but that’s the truth. So now, it’s painful to have to look back at it and figure out which rib I want to kick it in.

Sadly, you don’t need to dig deep to find the shame under all the shine.

See, while Ravnica was absolutely revolutionary, a true watershed moment in Magic design, in retrospect it’s not as internally consistent as I recalled. For all the style that went into personifying each color pair as a guild with purpose and goals, the mechanics associated with those guilds are kind of spotty matches.

Ignoring cards with the Radiance mechanic, Boros’s cards are aggressive, precise, and swift, and they tell the story of the guild well: “We are righteous retribution. You can’t stop us.”

Radiance though is a mess. Half the time it’s inconveniently comfortable with collateral damage, so you’re often holding a weapon it’s not worth using. Not exactly a precision machine fueled by hubris and militaristic justice.

Dimir is a similar story. “We’re so shadowy, you’re not even sure we exist. We’re going to siphon away your mind before you know it’s disappearing. This card? It’s not particularly useful right now, so I’ll show you one I can use. Now forget you saw that, because we’re sooooo sneeeeaky.” The Dimir cards seem to indicate that they intend to mill you, but Transmute has nothing to do with this at all.

Selesnya embodies consistency, with the power-in-numbers “go wide” strategy matching perfectly with the Convoke mechanic. We’ll skip them.

Dredge fits Golgari’s story and flavor well: bottom-feeding compost recyclers. Despite that, their master goal is a little fuzzy. It seems like they just want respect, so I guess they’re “in it for the long game”?

Me though, I’ll ignore all that. Ravnica’s still the best. Ever.

———

Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.

Not a fan of Theros. Not at all. Took nearly the full year off from drafting. My teeth itch thinking about it.

At least the silver lining of that set is fairly easy to find. And it’s almost literally an actual silver lining.

Before I knew much about the design of the set, my wife and I attended the Theros World-Building panel at PAX Prime (née West). Both of us came out blown away by the visual distinction of the Gods and all things ethereal.

In particular, we loved the star field motif that appeared in the shadows and folds of cloth surrounding the Gods. Magic is a game where the other-worldly is commonplace; Jeremy Jarvis and his team found a way to make Theros’s version of it both clearly tied to that world and not of it’s natural order.

The distinction carried through into the card frames, which was a really nice touch. Thematically, there was an element of “gods bestow gifts and blessings upon mortals” in the block, so it was cool to see the sparkly aura-state Bestow cards attached to the traditional card frames of ”earthly” creatures.

We’d seen worlds with “mortals versus the spirit world” stories before in Kamigawa, so the fact that so much attention went into finding a new presentation for that narrative is impressive. Theros’s creative direction took a far more holistic approach, going beyond designated creature types or sub-types. The art direction was more meaningful than in most other sets, and the results were remarkable.

I may never reach a point where I want to play more Theros block (I will try to reserve judgment should we return there), but I will never cease to be impressed with how integrated the art and creative direction were with the mechanical design and development of the block.

———

You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change and why?

Pssshoooo. Change one thing about Magic? That’s dangerous. I’ve seen that movie. Things do not end well.

Squint. Clench fists. Tighten the gut. Here we go.

Narratives. I think that as a whole, Magic is a little too fixated on advancing a narrative storyline. We don’t always need them. Let’s see fewer of them.

Blink. Crickets.

Did the world end? No? Good.

One of the best sets (and blocks) ever was Ravnica. Did Ravnica have a story? Probably. I’m sure of it. Does anyone outside of Wizards remember it? Not so much. Ravnica did such a great job of painting an environment and society (or web of societies) through its cards that we just didn’t ask what any order of events was. Ravnica was a plane-wide “slice of life” snapshot that just nailed it.

And yet when we went back to Ravnica to hear what happened to the guilds after we left them the first time, things weren’t quite the same. The story that culminated in Dragon’s Maze was generally superfluous; players simply wanted to recapture the experience of seeing the guilds in action. It didn’t help that Dragon’s Maze as a set was overfilled with too many things — a design necessity driven by the narrative being told.

The general response to Story Spotlight cards has been, as far as my limited research has shown, blasé. The advent of them is evidence that Magic’s brand puts a high degree of importance on the story of each set. I just don’t believe this is always necessary.

While I think that there are plenty of strong stories told in Magic’s sets, I also believe that some planes should be allowed to exist without an unnecessary narrative. Places can be fascinating to explore without existential threat or intrigue. Not every set needs an epic arc; sometimes the scenery is compelling enough on its own (think of this as the “National Park” theory).

Ironically, in my GDS2 essays, I specifically supported revisiting Ravnica to get the story. How’s that for a story arc?


 

There. Somebody finally read them.

Worth it.

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Curiouser and Curiouser


I’m getting a bit “meta” this time. Not so much about games or game design or visual design, just about this blog itself.

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Not shown: It has a tail.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted anything. This is largely because for a stretch of ten days or so, I was on a vacation (or “holiday”, for any of you not reading this in the US)  with my wife, our son, and her parents at Walt Disney World in Florida. The trip itself is mostly irrelevant to my blog, but I will say you haven’t lived until you’ve tried riding on Dumbo the Flying Elephant in 40˚ weather (Farenheit, again for the non-US team, it’s not much above 0 degrees celsius) wearing a t-shirt and a lightweight hoodie doctored up to look like Eeyore.

It was brisk. My next stop was to buy a long-sleeved semi-thermal shirt in a gift shop. They had carted some in especially for the brisk weather for a few days. The extra layer made things better.

Because people will ask, given this article’s title, no, we did not meet Alice while we were there. Saw her, but didn’t want to wade through that crowd.

While I was there, two unusual things happened on (with? to?) my blog. There were spikes in traffic that didn’t resemble my previous experiences with the blog.

The first was on the 23rd. It was a small spike in traffic compared to other spikes, but out-of-place none the less. Normally, I see spikes on the days that I post new content. This makes a lot of sense, since I share links to the post on Facebook and Twitter in the various groups I’m a member of. People click them, and I get hits. Outside of those, I’m used to seeing maybe a half-dozen hits from random google searches; I’m not exactly a high-demand site with a massive base.

WordPress has a stats page that can tell me where in the world, generally speaking, people are coming to my site from. The majority of overseas hits come from India, since some of my earliest posts reference India as the origin of the game Chutes and Ladders.

This time the spike came from Romania, and it all centered on one of my more recent posts. The spike was also concentrated; there were 20 or so hits within a span of about ten minutes. This was really unusual.

I must be something of a cynic, because my immediate thought was that I must be getting  hit with some peripheral from a DDOS attack on something I’d linked to. I’ll confess I’m not much of a techie, so if your response to that is “that’s not how that works”, I won’t fight you on it. It was the first thing that came to mind though; something was up and I didn’t know what.

Not long into this, while waiting in line for the Tea Cups (hey, finally a real Alice in Wonderland tie-in) I realized that my site’s stats page had a metric that showed where incoming clicks originated. There was a “.ro” site that lined up with all the hits. I followed it, not surprised to see that, since I can’t read or speak Romanian, the content was all unreadable to me. It was pretty clear right away though that it was a board game forum, like the Romanian equivalent of BoardGameGeek.com.

The discussion was about Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, and linked to my article on it. This made way more sense than some bot infiltration. I copy-pasted as much of the forum discussion into Google Translate as I could, and was really happy to read what they were all chatting about. Turns out that there are plenty of fans of the game in Romania, and one of the things that they liked most about it was that the people who worked on it — myself, Andrew Wolf, Kami Mandell, and many others at FPC and USAopoly — were all Potterheads.

The fans loved the game, and loved that the game makers truly loved the theme, and love went all around. Love love love. Among gamers, knowing that the folks who make games care as much about the property/theme as they do counts for a LOT.

Yay!

The second spike was on the 27th. It was significantly bigger. Like, bigger than the days I actually post, but I hadn’t posted anything that day.

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The site statistics page for Arts and Gamecraft

If you look at that timeline, you can see the spike on January 5th. That was the day I posted my most recent Reading the Room article. I had a little over 50 visitors that day, whom collectively read a little over 60 pages worth of content.

On the 27th, I had 95 hits.

93 of them came from Italy. And all of those hits went specifically to the front page of the site, not to any of the articles (which would have done a little more to tell me why the hits were coming in).

Immediately, I checked to see if WordPress could tell me what the specific link was that was driving people to me. Unfortunately, all it could give me was “Facebook.com”. There was no way to see who in Italy first found me and my blog so interesting, or what element it was they wanted to share with their social network. I have no new subscribers that would suggest an origin point. I’m baffled. Happy with the traffic, provided this also wasn’t just a bot, but still completely puzzled by it all.

The traffic from Italy spilled over into the next day, the 28th, with the same vague Facebook link, so I’m inclined to say the pattern reflects real people coming here to read something, but again, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of any given article that was getting their attention.

So, yeah. Stumped. Hopefully if the source of the first “share” was a real person in Italy, they’ll see that I’ve thrown some new content up and will drop me a line to say “Hi”. I’d love to know what it is I’ve written that has so many people eager to read my thoughts from 5,500-odd miles away.

(That’s nearly 9,000 kilometers for them.)


GDS_chatter

The unofficial discussion of the test has begun…

Anyway, stay tuned. I’ve got some stuff about my recent dive into the Great Designer Search that’s currently being hosted by Magic: The Gathering’s R&D department that I’d like to look at. I washed out of that contest yesterday morning, but I’ve been fascinated by the speed of the analysis that others who participated have put together. Mark Rosewater, the guy running that particular event, has been asking people who took the test to not share the content. Sharing is considered grounds for disqualification from the contest/event — but since those talking about it have also been eliminated from the contest, there’s not much for them to get DQ’ed from.

We live in an age of immediate response and shared information networks, and that kind of thing is sort of futile to try to control. Given that this particular bottle is open and the genie’s not getting pushed back in, I’m going to cover that story of a community’s shared curiosity in a timely manner, relevant to the discussion that’s already happening.

Later, but soon.

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Reading the Room with Someone Else’s Eyes, Part 3


Entry Points Onto the Autobahn


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

The Autobahn is the federal highway system in Germany. If you’ve never heard of it before, know one thing about it: it has a reputation for being fast and full of aggressive would-be F1 drivers. Overall, the general, uninitiated perception is that it’s really intimidating for newcomers.

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The German Highway system known as the Autobahn. Image from http://www.young-germany.de, used without permission (sorry.)

If you’re looking at getting on the “fastest highway in the world” for the first time*, you may do well to take some advice from a native.

That native is not me. Go talk to these guys.

Many games are the same way. Games with high complexity and depth almost always go hand-in-hand with a high barrier to entry, and the initial view can look a lot like full-speed highway traffic from the shoulder.

If you’ve been reading the other posts in this series, it should in no way shock you that I’m now going to talk about Magic: the Gathering — this time specifically about the ways players experience it in their earliest stages of introduction into the Magic “lifestyle”. It’s a game I know well, and while my own entry into the game was back in 1994 (at risk of making it awkward, I’ll admit I’ve loved the game longer than I’ve loved my wife), I’ve seen and helped other players find their way into the game hundreds of times now.

For first-timers, Magic is often a surprisingly social game. The richest aspect isn’t actually the depth of card interactions, it’s the depth of interpersonal interactions. Magic is a game that thrives because of the tight-knit communities that form around it. Ironically, as close as the smaller communities are – often defined by the games/comic stores they meet at — these groups are almost modular or interchangeable in their structures; since the language and “customs” of the game are the same everywhere you go, it typically doesn’t take long for a player to migrate from one store/community to another.

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Pro Tour Austin, 2009, and Pro Tour Philadelphia winner Samuele Estratti, 2011. Images from http://www.aintitcoolnews.com and http://www.wizards.com, used without permission

Magic as a brand has recognized this for a long time, but has recently begun to put even more special emphasis on it, shifting some of the “outreach” efforts from promoting large, high threshold things like the Pro Tour and Grand Prix events back to the local shops where people congregate. The Magic brand has seen and encouraged a return back to its grassroots-style person-to-person viral origins.

The large-scale events are still around and thriving — the 2017 World Championship event alone paid out $350,000 in prizes, and prize payouts for the 2017-18 Pro Tour season total $2,600,000 over 8 events. The Magic Pro Tour requires players to qualify for events through a series of qualifiers, limiting the field to a global elite, best-of-the-best pool.

Mid-tier events like the Grand Prix tournament series are open to all Magic players of any skill level, and carry prize payouts in the hundreds and thousands of dollars, as well as Pro Tour invites and points that can be accumulated to qualify for inclusion on the Pro Tour for top finishers. Each Grand Prix is a massive weekend-long convention-like spectacle, with a main event surrounded by dozens of smaller side tournaments. 2018 will see 60 Grands Prix held all over the world. Any one of these can attract well over 1,000 players, there for games, prizes, trading, celebrity appearances, exclusive Grand Prix souvenirs, and more.

The Pro Tour and Grands Prix have spawned side industries like websites that stream tournament coverage with full, professional production crews and commentators. These sites often sponsor teams of pros, and roll that visibility into selling content subscriptions, accessories, and single cards used by players to build better decks with. Magic, even outside of the sphere that Wizards of the Coast inhabits, is a multi-million dollar engine of commerce.

This is the fast lane of Magic. Getting here is certainly doable, but the first-time player can come in facing an overwhelming cacophony if they attempt it without a guide of some kind. One does not generally attend a Grand Prix hoping to learn the game from scratch.

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Some of the contents of a typical Prerelease Pack. Image from http://www.wizards.com, used without permission

Pulling onto this Autobahn begins at the first game of Magic someone plays. In all likelihood, it’ll happen at a kitchen table or in one of those aforementioned thousands of shops with small grassroots communities. And with the depth, complexity, and history of Magic, even that can make for an intimidating view. Just learning the game in the first place is an undertaking best done with a living, breathing person there to teach you. Wizards of the Coast has embraced this rite of passage by creating an events schedule aimed at the local scenes, where new players can meet and learn from other more experienced local players. Building upon the weekly “Friday Night Magic” series held at participating shops, players can now jump into the game through novice-friendly events like Open Houses, Prereleases, Draft Weekends, Leagues, and Store Championships.

The tournament scene is in itself a product, carefully designed to create comfort zones for players of all types and draw them more securely into the fold. That’s about the brand though. We’re here to talk about the design of physical products.


When I recently interviewed for a job at Wizards of the Coast with Mark Globus (as discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this article series), one of the questions he asked me was how I might improve an existing product aimed specifically at new-ish Magic players in the early stages of learning how to build a Standard-format deck. I admitted that I’d never purchased a Deck Builder’s Toolkit, as the product first launched in the spring of 2010 — a full 16 years after I first learned how to play and build decks for Magic — and I never really had a need for one. I’d looked at the product several times at retail though, and was generally familiar with what came in them.

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Two editions of the Deck Builder’s Toolkit. Images from http://www.wizards.com, used without permission.

The Deck Builder’s Toolkit (or DBT) has undergone some changes from its first version almost eight years ago, but the overall makeup and purpose are essentially the same. It’s aimed at players who are just beginning to build their own decks, rather than using borrowed or pre-made decks. The goal of the product is to present the player with enough cards to build a deck that can be brought to and played at a typical Friday Night Magic Standard event. While the specific components vary across the editions, all of them contain a pre-selected set of semi-randomized and fixed content comprised of common and uncommon cards, four booster packs from recent sets, a stack of basic lands, a “learn to play” guide, and a storage box. Recent DBTs have scaled back on the amount of random card content and include small “seeded” packs of cards that all fit a specific theme to give users a choice of visible paths to start with.

Beyond this, I didn’t know much about how well the DBT actually jump-started a player’s collection or deck building stock. I asked Mark if I could take a few hours after the interview to refresh myself with the product and send him some written notes on improving it.

With such a short turnaround time, setting up online polls or directly interviewing players at a local shop wasn’t going to be a viable means of research. Google pointed me to several video reviews on YouTube, including some from Tolarian Community College. The Professor’s a pretty watchable guy, and his reviews are consistent and well-balanced. After running through a couple of videos in which he examined the whether buying a DBT was worthwhile (the videos each cover a different edition of the DBT), I had a pretty good idea of what was going on inside the product.

Overall, The Professor’s assessment was that some of the DBTs were worth the $19.99 MSRP when looking at the individual contents (four booster packs purchased individually would cost someone $16). That judgment varied slightly from year to year, as the expected return value of the sets represented by the packs rose and fell based on the secondary single-cards market. When he looked at whether the DBTs provided new players with a viable entry point into learning how to build a deck — evaluation based on effectiveness in its purpose — his findings were less promising. In his estimation, it was very unlikely that the contents of a single DBT could provide a player with anything resembling a competitive deck that would keep pace at a Friday Night Magic event. Further, he noted that by including packs from multiple sets, it meant that at least a quarter of the cards in any given DBT would be obsolete within a very short time, which would almost certainly prove frustrating to new players.

The problems presented seemed to me to be the exact place to start building in improvements to the product. My gut said that by narrowing the range of the cards and packs in the product, players would get a more focused set of thematically and mechanically linked cards and packs. This would mean losing some of the DBT’s ability to reflect the breadth of the current Standard environment, but it would keep more cards relevant within that Standard environment longer. And in fact, after writing my recommendations to Mark later that night, I went back and watched more of The Professor’s reviews. In fact, it turned out that he had drawn some very similar conclusions in his other YouTube reviews.

What I’ve learned recently though is that, much like with movies, the opinions of the reviewers and the opinions of the masses are not necessarily simpatico with one another. Just because The Professor and I were seeing the DBTs along the same wavelength didn’t mean our takeaways matched those of the larger audience. Our opinion came from the perspective of two Magic veterans who weren’t actively in the process of supplying a new player with the tools to construct their first deck. So I turned once again to the community within the Magic: the Seattling Facebook group to see if the “narrow DBT” plan resonated with other players. I was particularly interested in seeing what an experienced player would recommend to a friend whom they were introducing to Magic for the first time.

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Poll responses on Magic: The Seattling Facebook group, November 28, 2017

In an effort to minimize any skew that might come from respondents whom had preconceived opinions on the DBTs, I shifted the context by looking almost solely at the makeup of the booster packs. In retrospect, I realize that my posed scenario used six packs rather than four, but I have no reason to believe this error had any significant impact on the poll results.

When faced with setting up a friend with the cards needed to build a deck for Standard format events, 86% of experienced Magic players felt that a new player was better served with the more thematically and mechanically concentrated card pool.

Several of those who responded in the comments noted that they’d prefer to simply hand their friend a deck that they’d built themselves, but I felt that this circumvented the actual question at hand. My goal was not to find out the best way to teach someone to play a proven competitive deck, or to find out what that ideal pre-built deck was. This stage of the research was purely about optimizing the tools to allow a new player to learn the process of evaluating cards for decks and building those decks. The answer seemed clear; the community agreed with the evaluation that The Professor and I had come to.

As I saw the results come in, I realized that a DBT built from just a single set began to bear a strong resemblance to a supplemental product that already had strong traction in Magic’s larger community: The Bundle Box (formerly known and now frequently mis-referenced as the Fat Pack) is a product aimed at more enfranchised players.

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The original Mercadian Masques Fat Pack, 1999

In the 18 years since they were first launched, Bundle Boxes have undergone numerous configuration changes to get to what we currently know them as. In 1999, when the first Fat Pack was released to coincide with the Mercadian Masques set, the product included three booster packs, a tournament pack (a 75-card box of rates, uncommon, commons, and basic lands typically used for certain tournament formats), a randomly selected foil basic land and a randomly selected foil common card, a visual guide to the set, and a paperback novel. Over time, notable changes included the discontinuation of the novels and tournament packs, the addition of a spindown life counter (see Reading the Room: Part 2), an increase in the number of booster packs, and the inclusion of a storage box capable of holding a few hundred cards.

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Ixalan Bundle components, 2017

The current configuration has become particularly streamlined: ten booster packs, an assortment of basic lands and token cards, one spin down life counter, a visual guide, a one-sheet “how to play” guide (common to all Magic supplemental products), and a storage box. There is also a smaller box that purports to be for holding dice, since it’s too small to hold actual cards. The smaller box is often maligned in reviews as less than useful, though I suspect the true purpose of the dice box has more to do with simply making the Bundle look larger on a retail shelf than with any kind of usefulness as a game accessory. All in all, while a Bundle box offers a fine return-for-MSRP value, they’re not particularly exciting in their array of components.

Ironically, there is another product in the Magic line that is effectively no more than a smaller Bundle, but that generates a ton of excitement for both new and veteran players: the Prerelease Pack (a picture of which can be seen earlier in this article). Prerelease Packs are available only at specific events, but apart from a premium foil rare or mythic rare card with the event’s date stamped on it, typically have very little exclusive content that players will want to hold onto after the event. Otherwise, the Prerelease Pack amounts to a six-booster Bundle rather than a 10-booster one. In the past, Prerelease Packs for some events included packs from two or more associated sets and/or special seeded packs that allowed for a higher concentration of cards that showcased the set’s themes. Barring any seeded content though, future Prerelease Packs for the new “single-set block” structure will have little reason to be much more than 60% of a Bundle.

Compared to the DBTs, Bundles somehow manage to promise less than and still likely deliver more of what a DBT promises. The simple concentration of card themes and strategies makes virtually any deck built from a Bundle’s pool more streamlined and potentially competitive than a deck built from a DBT. On top of this, a higher percentage of the cards acquired in a Bundle will remain playable in the associated Standard format longer than would in any in a DBT.

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Poll responses on Magic: The Seattling Facebook group, January 4, 2018

My polling has shown me that more than 80% of new players learn from another human being rather than through their own reading of printed materials or video game tutorials. With either product, a new player will still get more mileage from sitting down with a friend who can teach them deck building basics in a one-to-one setting than they would from simply buying the product off the shelf and reading from an impersonal guidebook/sheet. This means that, given a friend with any Magic experience to learn from, the Bundle is almost ALWAYS going to be a better value to the new player learning to build their first deck.

This doesn’t mean that the Bundle is any more apparent in what it offers a new player or the quantifiable value it provides over a DBT. The DBT talks a good game, while the Bundle more or less says “here’s a bunch of packs and a spindown”. The former sounds more instructive and function-driven, while the latter sounds flat and unremarkable. The difference comes down to external messaging.

I believe that the two products could be merged into one and, with a few new features, be as attractive to — and functional for — both audiences at the same time. This is, as Magic Head Designer refers to the principle, Lenticular Design; one thing that has two different apparent purposes when viewed from two different perspectives, but that provides significant value to both. It is the ideal vehicle for both the inexperienced driver looking at the Autobahn from the merging lane as well as the fearless one doing 200 kph in the left lane.


There is no official special term for the moment when a Planeswalker (a mythical wizard-type character who can travel from one Magic world to another) actually arrives on a plane (one of those worlds).

I had this conversation with Gavin Verhey, a Senior Product Designer at Wizards of the Coast a few weeks back. What is it called when a Planeswalker gets to where they’re going? Airplanes and birds land. Cars and trains arrive. Boats dock or run aground. Planeswalkers “walk” between planes in the multiverse, and it could be easily be settled upon that they “arrive at” or “walk to” Ravnica, Zendikar, Ixalan, or any of the other planes that they may be visiting. Still, there’s no special or exciting term for that exact moment when their feet (or whatever they have) touch the matter of a new world. Gavin was as stumped by the question as I was.

That moment is a fairly significant one with different meanings for different people. As players, we each have a first experience with Magic, and it’s the biggest introduction point into the game we’ll ever have. Veteran players still experience fresh arrival points whenever a new set is released. To have a word that specifically references that experience through the eyes of a Planeswalker would be pretty handy.

It would also be a perfect name for a product meant to introduce players to a new game and/or a new setting, depending on their experience level.

For now, we’ll go with The Planeswalker Arrival Kit. It implies an entry point into the game to those new to it, while also referring to something veteran players expect Planeswalkers to do all the time.

I’ll take a second here to revisit the purpose of this article series: I’m retraining myself to look closer at how people use (or don’t use) the products available to them. It’s easy for me to explain why I like or dislike something, but when it comes to understanding someone else’s preferences, it’s easy for me to forget that there’s an underlying “why” in that preference. When I say I like “A” and you say you like “A” and the conversation goes no further, I only have partial information. It’s likely that my confirmation bias will kick in, and I’ll assume you like “A” for the same reason that I like it. This isn’t necessarily true, and recently it’s been the case that my personal preferences take some really random routes to reach the same places other peoples’ do.

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Brad Pitt is totally into product design.

That is to say, if I wanted to build a better DBT, or a better Bundle, or something that hybridised the two, I had to be sure the stuff I put in the box wasn’t just stuff I’d want in the box. Since half of the potential product I was thinking about comes from something I’d never used (or had an immediate need for), I had to get a better understanding of how other players felt about each component of the DBT. Since the Bundles have been gradually stripped down to the barest of essentials, getting breakdown data on those was less pressing; there’s very little fat on that particular steak. If there was something that players outright hated about the Bundles, it would most likely show up alongside the data I wanted to mine regarding the DBTs. Somewhere in the data was, hopefully, an ideal and exciting product that served a wider audience than either the DBT or Bundle does on their own.

Now, before we get into the nuts-and-bolts of this, please bear in mind that I’m no marketing guy. I know that specific price points and the surface area of a product’s shelf facing have an impact on the way the product is viewed by various consumer bases. I have no idea what those ideal price points or surface areas are. I make games, and I’m good at figuring out how to optimize the play experience of those games within a pre-established budget. Any product proposal that follows in this article comes purely from my ability to ask questions, apply some pretty rudimentary analysis of data, and make logical assumptions as to which components make others necessary or obsolete.

After my initial poll on Magic: The Settling regarding the mix of packs that a new player should be presented with, I decided to get a little more granular in what they felt a new player really needed in order to get going. I proposed a list of potential components that they might put into a kit for newcomers, along with typical or estimated MSRPs on those components, and asked what they’d give a friend new to the game. If the popular components were ones that veteran players also had frequent use for, the odds of making a viable Planeswalker Arrival Kit that met the needs and interests of both player subsets would go up.

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Poll responses on Magic: The Seattling Facebook group, December 21, 2017

Based on aggregated component costs (estimated based on other products and MSRPs) over selections made by at least 83 respondents, I was able to see that the average price a player would pay to offer a friend a “startup” kit topped out around $22.90. Since the MSRP for the Ixalan DBT is $19.99, the price point arrived at through the polling wasn’t too far off the mark. The price was right, but the components needed some adjustments.

The top component selections actually bear a strong resemblance to the DBTs. However, prior polling indicated that veterans preferred to give friends a more concentrated pool of cards, and the popularity of the Fat Packs/Bundles, leads me to say that the overall product built upon this data would get more traction among both new and veteran players with a single set mix than with a multi-set “Standard” mix. I believe that by tying the hypothetical Planeswalker Arrival Kit to only one set at a time and including features that players can only get in the PAK, Wizards could have a product that would not only be giftable to new players, but would have quarterly relevance to enfranchised players looking to buy a “kit” product for themselves.

Several people who commented on the poll said they’d like to see basic introductory decks included in the product. Some recommended what amounts to an “after-market” pre-made deck product sold by local and online game stores made from cast-off common and uncommon cards, like the Card Kingdom Battle DecksWelcome Decks (free decks given away by Wizards of the Coast as training tools or at open events) are an existing Magic product that would easily fill this role. These would allow for newer players to either play the Welcome Deck right from the box, or to modify and tune it with other cards from the included Booster Packs. Veteran players may not see the same value in such a feature, but with a few notable alternate art cards and mid-tier rare cards included in the deck, this could still have appeal for them.

Within the poll, the closest analog to a Welcome Deck is the pre-assorted mix of 120 Standard format cards. If the Welcome Deck-style feature were substituted into the build-out of the PAK in place of the 120 cards, the estimated price point could stay about the same, if not drop slightly. Alternately, the PAK could include five 30-card mini-Welcome Decks designed to be shuffled, two decks at a time, into ten possible two-color decks with a slight increase in cost.

A Welcome Pack–style component would also be a way to pack additional basic land cards — a piece that those polled felt were a critical supply for new players — into the PAK. If the cards in the pre-built decks included roughly 60 basic lands, the remainder of the 100 basic lands requested could include more alternate art or full art, providing a little more novelty and exclusive content in the product.

There are several other possible components I’ve thought of since posting the poll that I’d be interested in putting into a PAK. The most significant of these would be a sign-up form for a DCI number. This low-cost feature would provide new players with a nudge to attend officially sanctioned Magic events and reinforce how easy it is to become part of the “card carrying” Magic community.

So here is my proposal for a new DBT/Bundle hybrid product, with an MSRP coming in around the $30 mark. I offer you the Planeswalker Arrival Kit:

  • 1 Card Storage Box
  • 1  Plastic Deck Box with key art from the associated set (example)
  • 1 Spindown Life Counter with set expansion symbol
  • 5 30-Card Mini-Welcome Decks built from the associated set
  • 6 Booster Packs of the associated set
  • 1 “How to Play” foldout insert
  • 1 “Deckbuilding Tips” foldout insert
  • 40 Full/Alternate Art Basic Lands
  • 1 DCI Membership Sign-up Card

If response to the price point proved too high for new players, I’d recommend dropping two of the booster packs and cutting the number of full/alternate art lands down to 20; this would push the MSRP to or below $25. The overall appeal to veteran players may drop when fewer packs are included, but part of the goal with the PAK is to improve upon the very dry build of the current Bundles with something that carries a wider variety of exciting product-exclusive features still attractive to veterans.


The challenge I gave myself was to retool one or more products into something that better serves the stated purpose — providing a new player what they need to really get started in Magic — and, if possible, still holds appeal for enfranchised players. I may never actually know if the Planeswalker Arrival Kit would do that job as intended, but once I started figuring out what it would look like, I had to see where that road would go.

On-ramp and travel lane.

 

 

 


* While I can’t personally speak to how scary the first approach onto an on-ramp on the Autobahn may be, I can say that if you need a more domestic thrill-ride, try US Route 6 on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. There are literally entry “ramps” that are no more than a T-intersection with a stop sign between a residential neighborhood and the 60 MPH highway.

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Filed under Card Games, consumer research, Product design, redesigns, Uncategorized

Small Pieces — The Worst from Whence We Came


I started this blog as a way to examine the ways visual design impacted game design, and sometimes I actually stick to that theme.

Today in Game Art 103: What not to do.

  1. Don’t point fingers and laugh when something is visually awful. Laughing at someone’s work is akin to laughing at them, and laughing at them is not the same as laughing with them.
  2. Let someone else do the “laughing at” for you, and laugh with them.

The critics over at Tabletop Tribe recently posted a list of the 20 Worst Board Game Box Art offenses ever, and it’s brutal in a Cracked.com sort of way. And phenomenally funny. Does it make me a slightly awful person that I’m sharing this with you? Probably, but I’m too busy laughing to care.

I won’t spoil any of it for you, except that there’s a dog. DEAR GOD, that dog.

Remind me to tell you about Rob Liefeld’s comic book illustration career some time…

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Filed under Board Games, Box Art, Illustration, Uncategorized