food, bed, games

What is a simulation anyway?

I say a lot of games I like have a simulation aspect to them, but often people don’t get what I mean.  When I say simulation, most people think complicated war games, with lots of specific rules for shooting, hitting, damage, plenty of dice, etc.  But, I think that kind of superficial simulation–seeking to replicate real world events in the most direct ways possible–is not very interesting to me.  What I do like is psychological simulation.

The game Acquire is the kind of simulation I enjoy.  You won’t really learn anything about the stock market or running a business you can readily apply to the real world, but it captures something higher order, the feel of being a big shot, deciding the fates of lessers.   It models this core anxiety of being usurped, of having the rug pulled out from under you, of having your investments rendered valueless.  Agricola isn’t really about farming.  It’s about scarcity.  It’s about doing what you can when you have very little.  In that way, it’s a simulation, but of feelings, not of situations.

I think the best art captures some aspect of the human experience.  I am not sure if games are art.  To me, most games are systems in which creativity can take place.  The artists are the players, the game the medium.  If this is true, then the “art” of game design is creating a system that allows players to experience and express something fundamental.  Because games are often about a problem, about obstacles that players must overcome, they often really about worry or doubt, rather than farming, the stock market, power companies, or whatever other subject the game seems to be about.  I’m not sure it makes sense to try to design games from a psychological perspective, but it might help revise and improve games to reflect on the experience of the players.  It also might help to be ok with making players uncomfortable at times.  If you want players to have a satisfying experience, you might need to allow them to wade into something worrying or difficult.

Why it’s hard to improve Magic: The Gathering’s resource system

Magic is a great game.  It’s enduring popularity is a testament to that.  It created a new genre and continues to inspire game designers.  We can see the influence of Magic in collectible card games, boxed set card games like Netrunner, and deck-building games like Dominion.  However, there are a few aspects to Magic that frustrate players.  In Magic, players have a pre-constructed deck that’s about half resource cards (or “lands”), which generate mana, which is used to play cards in the game.  Not drawing enough lands (“mana screw”) or drawing too many lands (“mana flood”) can decide games.  Many of Magic’s followers have sought to revise the resource system.  Even Magic’s creator, Richard Garfield, abandoned the land system for subsequent card games he designed.  If you’re interested, Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Magic, wrote an article discussing the virtues of Magic’s resource system.

One of the things Mark Rosewater discusses is how the resource system in Magic adds variance to the game.  Drawing the right mix of lands and other cards is good, and even one or two missing or excess lands can mean the different between victory and defeat.  From a game design perspective, creating a system with luck like this helps beginning or less skilled players defeat better players some percentage of the time.  For experienced players, it creates interesting tensions in whether to play cheaper, more reliable cards or more expensive, but riskier cards (risky because you can be defeated before drawing enough lands to play them.)  Often games try to remove the luck of drawing lands by giving you an additional resource each turn (e.g., Hearthstone), letting you play any card as a resource (e.g., The Spoils), or giving you a fixed number of resources or plays each turn.  Other games, like Dominion, give players a greater control over the resource composition of their deck.

These fixes mitigate the luck factor, but sometimes move the variance to another place.  If drawing resource cards isn’t where the luck is, then it becomes more important to draw the right card one after another.  In other words, if I know I’ll have one resource turn one, two on turn two, etc., it becomes more important to maximize those resources.  So removing the variance in drawing resources doesn’t always eliminate luck; the real source of luck isn’t in mana, but in the cards themselves.  Although it would be possible to design a card game without luck, most card games involve shuffling or randomizing the cards a player has access to.  If it’s not important to draw resources, it becomes important to draw something else, and because the cards are randomized, there are better and worse draws.

Additionally, when gaining resources is probabilistic, like in Magic, the “difficulty” of playing cards is not linear.  The difference in difficulty between playing a 1 and 2 mana spell is less than the difference between a 4 and 5 mana spell.  When resource gain is linear, like in Hearthstone, then the difference in difficulty is the same.  Practically speaking, this means that the more expensive cards in Magic should be relatively better than in Hearthstone.  This ties into the next thing, the psychological impact.

The worst part about the mana system in Magic is that it feels bad to lose when the cards don’t go your way.  Although in some of the other games I’ve discussed, like Dominion, you can still lose to suboptimal draws, but it doesn’t feel as bad because you still get to execute your game plan.  Often the advantages your opponent is accruing over time in Dominion aren’t really visible until the end game when you get crushed under a pile of Provinces.  Magic has some advantages too though.  Because the mana system is probabilistic, you can have powerful end-game cards because they have substantial risk.  These cards are quite exciting.  They have powerful effects in the game, and can often turn a losing position into a winning one.  This is basically Mark Rosewater’s point number three.  The probabilistic resource system creates tension and drama over time.  Are you going to draw that last land to play the game-winning dragon, or while you die amongst your puny goblins as the trolls attack?

So, I think a lot of designers try to eliminate the feel-bad aspects of Magic’s resource system, but don’t appreciate what it does.  Eliminating luck in one place in a card game often doesn’t remove the impact that the randomized deck of cards has on the game, it just moves luck to a different place.  Furthermore, it also can remove some of the fun tension and risk/reward from Magic.  Balancing risk and reward is a skillful activity, and even if you were to remove luck, it could also reduce skill.  I’d like to write another post sometime about the luck vs. skill (false) dichotomy, so that discussion will have to wait until later.

Fixed Move Games

Lately I’ve been working on designs for what I’m now calling “fixed move games.”  These are games in which the player knows all of his or her possible game moves in advance.  So far, I’ve been working on card games.  Most classic trick-taking games are fixed move.  In Hearts for example, you have a hand of cards, play one per trick, and so you know all the cards you can play in the game.  The strategy comes from deciding the order of moves.

I like the containment of these games.  They naturally limit the anxiety of choice.  I also like the way the tempo of the game changes.  In the games I’ve been experimenting with, players can choose to play multiple cards per round, creating an interesting challenge of managing resources.  They are a natural fit for card games, where the possible actions can be written on the cards.  The ideas so far seem promising.  I am trying for “easy to learn, hard to master” and putting the challenge of the game on bluffing and hidden information.

How do I decide on the costs for various effects in my game?

You’ll probably fail the first time.  It’s quite difficult to discover the right cost formula a priori, so you’ll need to experiment and revise.  You just want a reasonable starting point somewhere “in the ballpark.”  The first thing to do is to list your “knowns.”  Maybe you want a certain effect to have a certain cost, and you can use that as a benchmark.  However, let’s assume you think you know nothing.  How do you start to get a handle on the costs?  Well, usually it turns out you know more than you think you do.

I’m going to use an example of a game with giant robots battling it out.  I’m going to call it “Drone On”. In this example game, you have a resource, credits, that you use to buy “mechs.”  Some mechs are “vanilla,” they only have combat related stats, some have special abilities, like the ability to generate more credits.  Each mech has an attack value and a defense value, indicating how strong it is in those areas. Ok, so how do I begin to figure out what a basic mech should cost?

You want to get some benchmarks, and the best way to do that is to get them from the basic structure of the game itself, or what I want the structure to be.  Let’s say I want the game to last about 20 minutes.  In Drone On, let’s say, dealing an opponent 20 damage means you win.  Ok, so if I think a basic turn will take 1 minute, that means the game should end in about 10 turns, giving each player 10 x 1 minute turn = 20 minutes.  Ok, so that means that over 10 turns, a player should be able to generate at least 20 attack power.  Now lets assume that resource generation is fixed, you get 1 credit per turn.  If attack = cost, then on turn 1 (t1), I generate 1 attack, t2 I have 3 attack (1 + 2 for the turn), and so forth.  I also assume some mechs will be destroyed either in combat or due to other effects, so let’s say that only half the attack power I generate actually counts.  Ok, so I divide the attack generated each turn by 2.  That looks to be pretty close.  The way I did it, I added half the cost to the attack from the previous turn, giving me 28 attack by t10.

You could get more complicated, but the basic principle is to work from what you know.  In this case, I know I want my game to be about 20 minutes.  I made some assumptions about the amount of damage needed to win, resource generation, and the way destroying mechs might work.  I then tried a solution, attack = cost, and it seems pretty close to what I want.  You could complicate things by, for instance, making resource generation probabilistic instead of fixed.  You could also tweak the attack = cost formula so it’s not linear.

While attack = cost seems a reasonable starting place in this game, I might want to do a bit more before I begin designing a lot of sample mechs.  One dynamic I like in strategy games is for there to be an aggressive, short-term strategy and a more patient, long-term strategy.  To do that in Drone On, I want my lower cost mechs to be more efficiently costed than my more expensive mechs, but have those expensive mechs be more powerful.  In other words, what I want is not a linear cost to effect relationship, but a curve.  I want something close to an exponential function, where the lower units are closer in power level than the later units.  I did this in Google Docs, and just tried a few values for the exponent in attack = cost^exponent.  Just eyeballing it, it looks like attack = cost^1.35 looks close to what I think I want.  That means a 1 cost mech has 1 attack, a 2 cost mech has about 3 attack, a 4 cost mech has about 6 attack, and so forth.

Remember, the point isn’t to discover the right answer, just give yourself some guidelines to begin costing the mechs you want to design.  The next thing to do is try to peg costs for abilities.  At this point, you know how much 1 attack is worth, and hopefully, you can use that as a guide for how to cost other things.  For example, you know how much attack 1 credit is worth, and maybe you can tell how much destroying a mech of cost 3 or less should be worth.

In testing, you should pay attention to what feels right.  The numbers and math can hopefully get you closer, but ultimately, what makes games fun is how they feel, not how elegant your math is.  So play it out!  I might discover that my aggressive, short-term strategies aren’t going well, so I might want to introduce a 1 cost, 2 attack option to power that strategy up.  The game might feel more fun when aggressive strategies are good.

Another thing to pay attention to is interactions.  If you have a lot of effects that destroy mechs of 3 attack or less, then having 4 attack has a special premium.  These kind of interactions can add a lot of satisfying texture to a game.  I tend to think that basic cost to effect ratios for a game are relatively easy for players to discover.  Especially in the age of the internet, if your game is successful, it will be analyzed by players, and the kind of costing math I’ve discussed is relatively transparent.  Even if players don’t do any math themselves, they can intuit what’s a good deal for the cost in your game.  Interactions complicate things, make things situational, and throw off the math.

So in summary, base your costs off what you know.  Maybe you know some effects should have a certain cost and can base other costs off that.  If you don’t, think about how long you want the game to last, how players will progress from the beginning to the end, and use basic assumptions to arrive at some initial costs.

Three essentials

I love games and gaming, and I’ve started this blog to discuss games I’m playing, making, or thinking about.

Games are difficult to define.  So rather than do that, I’ll say what I like about games.  I like games with structure, with rules.  The structure creates equality for the players.  Though I may play someone older or younger, richer or poorer, or from a different cultural or ethnic background, we all play under the same rules of the game.  I like how games can bridge differences in this way; though my life might be different from the other players, in the game, we share a similar experience.

I tend to prefer strategy games, imagination games, and social games.  Strategy games are fun to me because of the challenge.  I like to play competitively and the mental challenge.  To win the battle of wits is thrilling.  Most strategy games require understanding the system, the costs, benefits, returns on investment, and optimal moves.  I find these skills in games are fun practice for real-life challenges.

Imagination is sometimes part of strategy games.  I like games with a simulation aspect.  Though Acquire is fairly abstract, I like pretending to be a corporate overlord deciding the fate of lesser peons.  I also like other imagination games, drawing games, games with word play, and acting.  These games are fun to play with children.  I like how these games contrast with my sometimes routine day-to-day life.

Finally, my favorite games have a social aspect.  I enjoy playing games with my friends.  Having a history of knowing how they will play, and sharing experiences in the game with them.  I am mostly a board and card game player, and the games I like let players express something of themselves in the game.  The game itself becomes a facilitator of a social exchange.