Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Kids and knowledge

So far this semester, I have learned that designing games is a lot more difficult than one might initially suspect. It doesn't help, either, that we are all 20-somethings designing a learning game for kids between 8-12. It got me to thinking: what's different between designing a game for adults versus one for kids, or games that are purely entertainment-oriented versus ones with clear learning objectives? Is there any difference at all? 

So far, here's where my thoughts have lead me: 
Kids think differently than adults...but not completely. I've been looking into some things about learning and development stages of children, and while it's difficult to be exact, we can take into consideration a few generalities. The most notable out of all of these is that, until about 12 years and onward, abstract reasoning is often difficult. In other words, a ten-year-old may be able to classify, observe, experiment, order, and problem-solve, but there's a good chance they may not yet be able to strongly empathize, analyze, forecast, or consider possibilities or solutions in an abstract situation. 
That shouldn't affect game design too greatly...unless, of course, you're trying to design a game that evokes empathy and self-analyzation. In that case, it might not be the best choice for the 12-and-under crowd. 

Even more important than that is the question, "What makes a game fun?" Once we have a sense of the stages of development, what do we do with it? Koster hypothesizes a game is fun when we learn from it and ceases to be fun when we have mastered the skills that make up the game mechanic. Going off of that, we have a very basic problem:
How do you incorporate learning into a game when a game is already about learning?
A game is fun when you can learn directly from the gameplay. It's about learning skills, experimenting, assimilating knowledge through trial and error. It's important to note that learning a skill is a different from learning a fact.
One of the problems with many educational game is that they place knowledge on top of the gameplay--instead of being part of the game, it's tacked on as a sort of afterthought. The wonderful thing about games is that you can experiment in order to learn; you don't need to be lectured.
With this in mind, simply theming a game to a particular topic is not enough to create a learning experience through the game. If you want to have a teaching game about chemistry, for instance, you can't just have a game with a chemistry element. If you want someone to learn from it, it's best to include what you want to learn in the game (e.g. if you want to teach them about changing molecular structure, give them a few molecules and let them manipulate it themselves and see the results of their decision). The knowledge should be something that's discovered through the player's choices or, if you absolutely have to explain a concept, make sure they have to use that knowledge in order to intelligently advance or strategize.

Hopefully this will add some insights, or at least keep these thoughts in light while we're prototyping. These thoughts were collected over the course of a few days, so sorry if they're a bit disjointed, and if anyone has anything to add, it'd benefit! 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Defining the "Wow" of Skyrim

The other day we read the MDA Framework for Game Design. MDA describes games as the combination of three things: mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics. The mechanics are the rules of the game, the dynamic is the system that the rules construct, and the aesthetics represent the emotional response that the player feels.

As I was reading the framework, one section in particular caught my eye. It read:
Fundamental to this framework is the idea that games are more like artifacts than media. By this  we mean that the content of a game is its  behavior - not the media that streams out of it towards the player. 
I was immediately taken aback by this section and after contemplating my own feelings I went to talk with Paul and Josh about what this meant. One game that I thought broke this rule, was Bethesda's Skyrim. To me, that game is completely defined by it's media. When I move around the world, it is it's beauty that moves me forward. One of the experiences that I described to them was of emerging from a cave to see a beautiful blue sky with sun streaming down over the mountains. It was enough for me to take a screenshot before moving forward.

But now we were faced with the following question: was it the views or the exploration itself that made this "wow" moment possible? How is Skyrim really defined for me? Paul's argument was that it was the mechanic of exploration facilitated my awe, not the media. I disagreed and thought that it was purely the media on the screen that left me feeling amazed.

Upon further consideration, I think that we were both right in a way. I believe that in Skyrim, there exists a circular model that facilitated me being blown away.

I found that I explore to find the best view, and upon finding a great view, I then work to explore other places to find new scenes. To me, this validated both our (Paul and I) views on what caused me to feel the "wow" moment. In my case, the media plays just as much of a role in defining the content of Skyrim as does the mechanics. 

In writing this, I cannot help but be reminded of Brad King's lunch discussion with us about how it it a very bad idea to design the mechanics of a game separately than the narrative of the game. In the same way, I believe that as we move forward, we should consider the impact that our media will have on the player as we try to give them their own "wow" experience.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Baron Munchausen on Character Generation

As part of last week's introductory workshop on game design, all of us at the VBC engaged in a session of tabletop roleplaying. We played Michael Sullivan's Everyone is John, a short-form RPG recommended by one of my other students. The point of the exercise was primarily to expose students to what I call "proper role-playing games," in which the point of the game is the creative exercise of playing a role. That is, the playing of the game is its own reward. This is to be understood in contrast to those tabletop role-playing experiences that more closely resemble an analog session of a hack-and-slash computer game than any improvised collaborative narrative. (It may be worth noting that the amount of "role-playing" in a "role-playing game" is a matter of execution, but the mechanics can facilitate or burden such execution.)

This evening, I came across a brilliant statement that crystallizes the distinction between role-playing and minmaxed orc-slaying extravaganzas. This comes from James Wallis' brilliantly-written The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen (2008 edition), which is entirely from the perspective of the Baron himself. In the section on character generation, it is clear that all one needs for a character sheet is a name on a sheet of paper. The Baron's justification:
For character, as the most oafish baronet's son can tell you, is not generated but forged on the anvil of life. It is only when the blows of experience ring in our ears that we move another step on life's path, becoming by stages more rounded or sharpened, our corners knocked off or our features more pointedly defined; and not by some artificial process of tossing teetotums or juggling figures like some ink-stained clerk in a windowless cellar hard by Threadneedle Street. Our souls are formed by first doing and then recollecting the experience of those deeds so that we and others might learn from them, and that is the very process which my game—nay, my life—describes. Character generation? I'll have none of it!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Monopoly Game Critique

Hitting the shelves in 1934 was the originally titled The Landlord’s Game. Hasbro & Parker Bothers’ Monopoly is a classic, multi-player board game dating back to 1904 America. Its design intended to explain the single tax theory’s negative aspects of private monopolies on condensed land.

Suggested play recommends two to six players, in turn, roll a pair of die, advancing forward x number of spaces based on the sum of the two numbers. The square on which the players token landed on will command a player to purchase the property on which he/she landed (which is otherwise auctioned to interested buyers), go to “jail”, or draw a card from either the “Community Chest” or the “Chance” card piles.

As each player collects property of one monopoly, he/she may build houses and hotels to collect income from other players who pay rent when landing on said property. As players attempt to build monopolies, trades may be made with other players. The board has 28 spaces with properties, three Chance spaces, three Community Chest spaces, a Luxury Tax space, and Income Tax space, and four corner spaces: Go, (In) Jail/Just Visiting, Free Parking, and Go to Jail.

The effectiveness of player interaction primarily depends on each player’s responsiveness to the competitive nature of the game. Players may refuse to trade with another player or form alliances. Though it may make the game more challenging or seemingly “unfair”, such tactics do not hinder the primary game play. The game will continue to be affect each player with the choices and chances provided throughout game play.

Monopoly has a good replay value. Though it provides long game play, because of the dependency on the variables (rolling die for movement, Chance/ Community Chest cards, individual play, etc.) the outcome of each game will be different from the last.

The target audience can limit the purchasing market, but is necessary for the comprehension of the game’s philosophy. A variety of themes have attracted specific target audiences (Disney, Seinfeld, Nintendo), but each kept the same rules and principles.

Fun in a game is greatly based on good company and sportsmanship. Monopoly has its own elements of fun to bring players together socially. The unpredictable roll of the die, and the thrill of survival lie within each roll. Aside from teaching the negative effects of forming monopolies, the game is ultimately a game of chance and a temporary illusion of an equal opportunity to being the final player who finishes the game in the black


The game mechanics of Carcassonne, designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, were different than any other board game I've played in the past. The set-up consisted of a variety of tiles that were placed to create the board. These tiles had four sides and an image composed of combinations of roads, cities, fields, or a cloister. Each player also received eight "meeples," or small, wooden, humanoid play pieces, one of which was used on a score tile to record the number of points that player had.

The rules are as such:
At the beginning of the game, a starter tile was placed. The game play was turn based, and at the beginning of each turn, the player drew a new tile and placed it next to an existing tile. The player could only place the tile so that its edge matched up with the edge of the existing tile (so that a road was next to a road, a city next to a city, etc.). When they place this tile, they were also given the option to place one of their meeples on that tile under the condition that there were no other meeples in the area connected to it. For example, let's say a tile was placed so that one side connects to a city, but the other three edges were part of a field. If the existing tile to which the new tile was attached already had a meeple in the city, the player could not place their meeple in the city as well. If, however, the connected fields did not have any meeples, the player could place a meeple in the field.
When an area is complete (a city closed, a road connected in a loop or between two end points such as cities or crossroads, or a cloister surrounded by tiles), the meeples are scored and removed according to the value of that feature (a road is worth 1 point per tile, a city is worth 2 points per tile plus two additional points for each tile with a pennant, and so on). If two players have meeples in one feature (such as might occur through clever placement of tiles), then either the player with the most meeples gets the points, or, in the case that they are tied, they both get the points. At the end of the game, all additional, incomplete features are scored, and field meeples are scored according to the number of finished cities they are adjacent to, with the player with the most meeples in a connected field getting the points.

That's the quick summary of the important aspects of the rules. Reading them was a bit daunting, but game play proved to be a little easier than the instructions implied.
The dynamics of the game were interesting, given that the board appeared over time and through the collaborative efforts of the players. The strategies that emerged tended to be both cooperative and competitive, with a tension between the two. Obviously each player sought to increase their points, but they also had to keep track of the number of points their opponents had. It was inevitable that at some point your tile placement would be beneficial to another player, and there were times where a tile would be drawn that would be of no help to the player that drew it, so you had to be aware of how you were helping others as well as how you would hurt them. The player had to be aware of how much attention they were bringing to their placements, especially as far at the famers (or meeples on fields) were concerned since they were scored at the end of the game and could significantly help the player.

As far as aesthetics go, I found the game to be enjoying. The game had components that created fellowship, challenge, and expression due to the fact that you had to work both with and against people in varying degrees, and you were building something of your own in the process. This made the game intellectually absorbing, but it was not so complex as to become unappealing. It required concentration, thought, and careful consideration to multiple variables, which created an absorption into the strategy and the game. The competitive aspect of the game created an emotional investment where you had a clear goal of winning and adversaries in the way.
In short, I'd quite enjoy playing again. 

The Games Canon

Regular readers will know that a few students have posted critical game analyses in the last few days. The format for these essays comes from Ian Schreiber's Game Design Concepts Level 3. For most (if not all) of the students, these are their first critical analyses of games. I am a strong advocate of writing to learn, and so the main point of the exercise is for the students to develop deeper knowledge about the formal elements of games. Posting these on the blog provides an opportunity for discussion within our group while also opening it to anyone else who might be interested.

The games that the students are analyzing are part of our VBC Games Canon. I was inspired by the extensive lists in the appendix of McGuire's and Jenkins' Creating Games, in which the authors present games that should be familiar to anyone claiming expertise in game design and development. For the seminar, I developed a canon of games to expose the students to formal and dramatic elements that they may not have considered previously.
The Games Canon
These are all physical games despite our target platform being digital. In interviewing the students for the semester, each has a reasonable background in video games, though generally as consumers rather than designers. Board games provide a convenient format for exploring game design while also helping build community, and they're very simple to lend out and repurpose for physical prototyping.

Here's a summary of each of the games and why I chose it for the canon.
  • Matt Leacock's Pandemic is a cooperative board game in which the players work together to stop the spread of disease. This is a great example of players-vs-board, and it elegantly supports varying levels of challenge. Leacock's presentation at Google is definitely worth the time for those who are interested in the relationship between game design and human-computer interaction.
  • Go is an ancient two-player game of spatial relationships. It is notable for the robust dynamics that emerge from a very limited set of rules and, of course, for its historic and cultural impact.
  • Donald Vaccarino's Dominion was the first deck-building game to rise to prominence in the games community, initiating the deck-building phenomenon as other publishers and designers picked up on the mechanic.
  • Klaus Teuber's The Settlers of Catan was critical to the German-style designer board game revolution. It is notable for its place in modern game culture, in part because it has broken out of the hobbyist and collector circles.
  • Bruno Fiadutti's Citadels is a classic example of a modern card-drafting game.
  • Klaus-Jurgen Wrede's Carcasonne is a brilliant tile-laying game. It is easy to learn but permits considerable strategy, and most outside the designer games community are shocked at the notion of a board game where one builds the board.
  • Mancala (Oware) is an ancient seed-sowing game. Like Go, it is worth playing for its non-Western historical and cultural impact.
  • Monopoly is the world's best-selling board game. A student and I were engaged in research on Monopoly a few years ago, specifically with respect to artificial intelligence. In our informal surveys, we found that no one played by the printed rules. Sadly, the house rules—such as the common "Free Parking Windfall" rule—break the economic simulation.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Monopoly: Return to the Gilded Age

The classic board game Monopoly gives a group of players (2-8, to be exact) the opportunity of fulfilling the American Dream of moving up the economic ladder. Represented by iconic tokens, players take turns rolling dice and moving around the board with game spaces named after the iconic streets of Atlantic City, NJ. Each player, upon landing on these property spaces, are given the opportunity to purchase them from the Bank, and thereafter charge rent on them (and thus increase their wealth). If a player chooses to not buy a property, that property is then sold at auction to the highest bidding of the players of the game. The addition of houses and hotels, once a player has acquired all the properties of a like-colored group (setting up their Monopoly), only increases the value of the property and the overall net worth of the player. That said, there are many ways that a player can just as quickly lose that acquired wealth by traversing the board - they run the risk of landing on other players' properties and paying rent, having to pay income tax, ending up in jail, or having to donate money to the community or losing it through chance.  An added mechanic of the game is that players are free to buy, sell, and trade properties among themselves to further try and increase their controlled territory of the board. However, a player can run into trouble when they find that they do not have enough money to pay rent, which can ultimately lead to them having to sell their hotels and houses and mortgage their properties to try and pay off their debt. A player is finished with the game when they can no longer do so and must declare bankruptcy - the winner is the last player remaining.
The game state changes on every turn, which means that each player's resources (the money and property they own) and the information (who owns which properties and which ones can still be purchased) also change on every turn.

The resulting combination of these formal elements creates a gameplay that is focused on pitting player against player. The design of the game creates a positive feedback loop, and once a player begins to get ahead, it then becomes very difficult to catch them, and more often than not, a clear winner emerges relatively quickly, leaving very little reason for others to continue playing. That said, the first couple of rounds of the game, when every player is more or less on even footing, do create a suspenseful and tense atmosphere. Typically players begin to pick up property very early on, as it is the only way to make money, but until players begin to own entire color-groups, the damage that one takes in paying rent is relatively minor. Because the amount of spaces that a player can move is determined by the roll of the dice, where one lands (and therefor which properties a player can purchase) is almost entirely random. This means that the decision making process of each player is fairly consistent from round to round: do I buy this property? Which spaces do I want to avoid? What owned properties do I maybe want to trade for? This aspect of the game can be entertaining, but as previously stated, once a clear winner is determined and players start losing their money faster than they can make it, the game loses its appeal and it becomes a dragged out affair as one by one, players declare bankruptcy. 

In looking at the game and the message that it was trying to send, it is relatively clear why the designer chose the elements seen in the current game. The game is a reflection of the times in which it was created. The "American Dream" of everybody having the ability and opportunity to climb the ladder of success was fading away. It was becoming more and more apparent that only those who got ahead early and could build up their empires would become successful, while gradually everybody else would lose everything. The game is a critique of the Gilded Age - apparently golden on the outside, but rusty and broken underneath it. Owning property is one of the greatest of all American values and ideals, and this game highlights that. It also highlights the change made during this period to where people gave up the freedom of owning their own property in order to make ends meet (seen in the game as having to mortgage your property to the Bank in order to pay rent). The player vs. player structure intensifies the feeling of competition, and there is a sort of resentment that builds up towards that one person who is being positively reinforced by the game itself. That said, I don't think the game would nearly be as fun if that structure didn't exist - or at least it would not be as historically accurate. The idea of everybody having equal opportunity to build up their wealth is a great one, but let's be reasonable, it has been a rarity throughout American history. Had the designer instated a negative feedback loop, the game would have been perhaps more equal for all the players involved, but the fundamental mechanic of rolling the dice to determine movement around the board would have had to be changed or altered so as to not be rewarding to those who simply got lucky. A long game as it is, trying to keep the players together longer would more than likely have the effect of drawing it out.
It was interesting in playing the game this time, because I have not played it in several years. Reading through the rules fully, I realized that there were several aspects that had been missing from my family version of the game - most notably, the auctioning off of properties if they were not wanted by the player who landed on them. Ironically, this one rule that was never practiced in my family's rendition of the game didn’t come up in this most recent playing. We all simply had enough money that whenever we landed on a property, we would simply buy it outright. In reflection, it makes me wonder if it would have been more to our advantage to decline the offer on the properties, only to auction it for a lower price. That said, something that didn't change was the onset of boredom once it became clear who the winner of the game was going to become. In the family version, it was customary to just quit at this point, rather than drag the game on and on. So while there is a point where it is no longer entertaining, Monopoly does teach about resource management and the value of property, as well as provides a small look at a fundamental era in America's history.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Critical Analysis of Citadels

Citadels consists of relatively few formal elements. The game physically consists of four elements: district cards, character cards, a crown  token, and gold tokens. District cards detail the districts name, type, cost to build, and special ability (if applicable). Character cards detail the character’s profession, their placement number in the round, and their special ability. The gold tokens are used to pay for the construction of districts within the player’s city. They can be gained during the player’s turn or through special abilities granted by certain characters. The crown token goes to whichever player is currently the king. This player announces which character will play next by counting from one through eight. Whenever the king character is called, the crown token immediately transfers to the player with the king character and that player takes over as king. At the beginning of the game, the crown token goes to the oldest player until the king character is called.

At the beginning of each round, the character cards are distributed among the players, with all players receiving either one card or two, depending on the number of players. One random character card is discarded before the round by the player with the crown token. After that, the king begins calling character numbers. The player turn consist of three phases: acquire, where you draw district cards or gold tokens, build, where you can build a district for the number of gold tokens displayed on the card, and ability, where you can use the character’s special ability. Only one district can be built per player turn unless the player has an ability to change this. Only one district of a given name may be built by each player. The game ends when a player builds 8 districts. At the end of the game, each player gets points corresponding to the value of all their districts, as well as bonuses for being the first to have 8 districts, to have 8 districts by the end of the final round, and for having districts of each of the five types.

During the game of Citadels that I played I noticed that these mechanics lead to a few interesting dynamics. When playing with three people, each person manages two character cards. This leads to what I would call “character seeding” in which players choose their first character to compliment their second character. For example, when someone had  larger number of districts, we saw that it was advantageous to choose the bishop first in order to protect their districts. The second move, the player would choose a more offensive character, like the merchant or the thief. Another common dynamic was for someone to pick the merchant first in order to supply extra gold for their second character to use. In addition, having two rounds of picking characters lets you know who has what cards with more certainty. This allowed for targeting; doing damage to a specific player by knowing which character they are likely to have. I thought that this took away from the aesthetic of the game because it limited the mystery and the element of surprise.

I believe that the fact that my group played with three players rather than 4+ (as it was ideally meant to be played), I was able to see why the designer chose to make the game for four or more players. Having more players hides the identity of the player characters and makes for fairer play. In addition, it enforces a more even distribution of power by not allowing the character seeding that I saw in the three player game. I also think that the designer’s choice to have the characters go in a specific order is beneficial. The characters that grant a higher personal gain tend to come later in the round, while more defensive characters are first. This allows for players to neutralize threats that might come their way later in the game.

As a final wrap-up, I believe that Citadels maintained a consistent level of fun and competitiveness. It encourages players to modify their strategy for both the beginning and the end of the game. It did, however, become obvious that the three player option is unbalanced and removes critical elements that help to create the pleasing aesthetic.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dominion Game Critique

Formal Elements:

Dominion is a deck-building game designed by Donald X. Vaccarino which centers around players expanding a small starting hand of cards into a large deck of various cards with differing effects. Two to four players are supported, with several rules (such as quantities of certain cards in play) changing according to the number of players. Dominion Cards are the only physical objects in play (no board, tokens, etc.) and they come in different categories: Treasure, Victory, Kingdom, and a small handful of cards that were not used in the variant I played such as Curse cards. Treasure cards are used as currency and come in three denominations. Victory cards grant victory points at the end of the game if they are in the player's deck. Kingdom cards have a variety of effects which are listed directly on the card. All cards types, including currency cards, can be purchased with currency and added to the player's deck. Each card has a certain cost which is listed on the card. Not all card types are used in every game type, for instance only 10 of the 25 available Kingdom card sets are used in a single game.

Turns are taken one at a time and consist of three phases (taken in the order listed): Action, Buy, and Clean-up. Players use action cards from their hand during the Action phase, buy cards during the Buy phase, and during the Clean-up phase discard their hand and the cards they played, finally drawing five new cards from the deck. The players can only play one action card and make one buy per turn, but many action cards increase this limit. Cards that are bought during the turn immediately get discarded. When a player runs out of cards in his deck, his discard pile is shuffled and is placed face down as the new deck.

The game ends when the supply of any one type of victory card runs out, or any three card supply piles run out. At this point each player counts the number victory points in their deck. The player with the most victory points is the winner.


The rules of Dominion could be understood in a few minutes, while the strategy of which cards to buy took much longer to understand. The two strategies I considered during my first game were buying lots of Kingdom cards and buying lots of currency/provinces. The former would allow for effective "chaining", where the first kingdom card played during a turn allows the player to play/draw additional kingdom cards, sometimes allowing the entire deck to be in play on a single turn. The downside is that this strategy only becomes effective in buying provinces towards the end of the game. The currency/province strategy would involve buying lots of silver and gold, making it easy to buy expensive provinces throughout the game. This would allow the player to stockpile victory points early and attempt to deplete a province pile, ending the game before the other players could buy many provinces. The downside is that province cards have no effect until the endgame, meaning they just take up space in the deck (a sort of negative feedback loop). Both seem viable ways to play, although I'm sure other effective strategies exist.

I also noticed that choices (what cards to buy/play) were relatively limited during the early turns, but the number of options continued to increase as the game continued. This made early turns fast and later turns slower with more thought involved.

Finally, I thought it was interesting that the number of victory cards a player owned was not visible to everyone, but all card buying was public. This means you don't exactly how many points a player has (barring some difficult card counting), but have a rough estimate of how well each player is doing.


At the beginning of the game, I had no idea what any of the kingdom cards did or which cards to buy. I started out simply buying one of each card to see how it worked. While a bit daunting at first, the player quickly gets a feel for how each card functions. I felt playing with experienced players was actually helpful in this case. Since all moves are made in full view of the other players, modeling other players' behaviors seems to be the quickest way to learn the game. I thought the design decision to make all moves public knowledge worked well in making the game accessible to new players.

Unlike many games, Dominion has a very limited "chance" element. No dice are involved and all players start with identical hands. The only variability comes from shuffling the cards when the deck runs out. This means doing well is almost completely dependent on strategy instead of "luck". This might have the effect of removing variation from the game, but the designer included a set of 25 kingdom cards, while only 10 are used in a single game. Variation is achieved by using a different set of kingdom cards each game.

Representing kingdom building through cards instead of a traditional board (like Carcassonne) resulted in a more abstract concept of a kingdom. The artwork on the cards was impressive and detailed, adding to the aesthetics. The endgame acted as an "unveiling" of the player's kingdom, in which all the victory points are laid out and tallied. It wasn't until this point that I felt the "kingdom building" aesthetic really hit home. More traditional kingdom building games allow the players to see the kingdom as it slowly expands, but this moment is saved for the very end in Dominion. While I still prefer the traditional approach, the "hidden kingdom" approach makes the endgame much more exciting and suspenseful for the players.

I felt Dominion was a well-designed game with simple mechanics that lead to deep strategies. Having never played a deck-building game before, I found it to be a unique experience. I look forward to playing it again and would recommend it to others.

Critical Analysis of Monopoly

Formal Elements
Monopoly consists of a square board with various unique spaces around the edges that represent real estate properties and a few other elements. There are cards that correspond to each property which can be bought by players with the in-game money. Each property has a color which designates which properties that form one group, with two to three in each group. House and hotel figures can be bought and placed on properties if a single player owns the whole property group. Players take turns rolling two dice, moving a plastic figure clockwise around the board, and interacting with the space they land on. If the space is an unowned property the player can buy it for the listed price, or else it gets auctioned off to the highest bidder. If the space is an owned property the player must pay rent, determined by the value of the property and the number of houses or hotels on it, to the owner of the property. Other possible spaces include having to draw cards that trigger a random event or give a random penalty/bonus to the player, having to pay money to the bank, or going to jail. When a player runs out of money and properties they are out of the game. The goal of the game is to be the last person standing.

The formal elements combine to create an interesting, although mostly boring, gameplay experience. The randomness of the dice rolls denies the opportunity to make decisions about what actions to take. There are a few choices, but mostly obvious ones. You can choose whether or not to buy an unowned property, which is almost always a good idea since it is the only way to make money. You can also choose how to sell off and/or mortgage your various assets in order to pay your bills. This is a little more meaningful as it creates some strategy, but overall the amount of money you owe dictates your actions in that circumstance. Deciding if and when to trade properties is a very significant decision and can greatly impact gameplay, but the game would not progress very well if players held out for great trade deals. Usually a trade comes from necessity, or from the abundance of resources giving a player little fear of failure.
The dynamic of the game involves a very prevalent positive feedback loop. Once a player accumulates property and money, they gain money from rent and therefore have more potential to improve their property. Similarly, once a player is forced to mortgage their properties to pay debt, they lose their ability to produce income and are therefore more susceptible to debt. This positive feedback loop means that one player usually ends up way ahead of the rest, at which point the game becomes almost hopeless for the other players. While there are some exceptions, those exceptions are purely based on random die rolls and involve little to no skill. In fact, the game in general requires little more than the ability to count money, and even that can be avoided with calculators or friends. Monopoly is designed to simulate the economy, and for the most part it succeeds at this. All of the formal elements follow from the economic simulation idea, except perhaps the emphasis on random events and outcomes. It lacks the decision making influence that is integral to the real economy and the outcomes of individuals finances.

It makes sense that the designer would choose a game of real estate and money to simulate the real life effects of income and expenses. While some people may never own their own property, the concept of being paid for a service or good, and in turn paying for other services or goods, is central to everyday life. Even the reliance on randomness makes sense, because a game that involves all of the intricacies of the real world economy would be much too complicated for the general market. Taking away the need for complicated skills makes the game accessible to almost anyone.
The choice of resources seems less significant. While the use of real estate makes sense, as it is a basic part of economics, some alterations have had great success. For the most part these changes seem to be popular because they create an emotional connection to they game. Most people do not care about owning the state of Kentucky, but they might care about owning a resource that relates to one of their interests or hobbies. Star Wars themed Monopoly and Cat-Opoly have therefore become quite popular, along with almost any other theme you can imagine.

While I enjoyed this game more than I did when I was younger, probably because I played by the correct rules, it still lost my interest rather quickly. The lack of skill makes the game boring, and the positive feedback loop makes it frustrating for everyone but the leader. Although this game does a good job of conveying the sometimes brutal nature of the economy, it fails at challenging a player in any way.

Monopoly was created by Charles Darrow in 1934, and was published by Parker Brothers starting in 1935.

Critical Analysis of Carcassone

Carcassone is a game of controlling terrains to try and score more points than your opponent. 2-5 players can play each with a unique color, consisting of 7 people-like tokens (called"meeples") to be played on the game tiles. The tiles are square pieces that consist of different terrains (road, field, city, cloister). Tiles are drawn at random from the collection and played in turn order. The players decide who gets to go first and, from that person, play continues clockwise until the last tile is played. Points are scored immediately when a terrain is completed and any meeples on those terrains are returned to the player, with differing points depending on the size and type of the terrain. The farm scores only at the end of the game along with any unfinished terrains. Play starts with a predetermined tile on the board. Tiles can only be played orthogonally along any open tile on the board, as long as the terrain on all edges match the terrains of the pieces next to the desired play spot. If a tile is drawn that cannot be played anywhere on the table, it is immediately discarded and that player draws a new tile to place. Once a tile is played, the player may choose to place one of their remaining meeples on any unoccupied territory on that piece. A terrain is considered occupied iff there is already a meeple anywhere on that terrain on any of the tiles it runs through.

Generating the board of the game as you play is what makes this game shine. An interesting thing that happens is vying to control for territory. Since meeples cannot be placed in a territory that is already occupied by a meeple, it is a challenge to get more meeples into a single territory so you can have the majority and control that terrain for its points. This is done by placing a tile with the same type of terrain near the terrain that is already occupied and placing a meeple on that just-played tile. Later, a piece can be placed between those two terrains that will connect those terrains and make it one large terrain. This is good for players trying to get in on a large terrain and share the points with another player, or for players that wish to try and get the majority and own all of the points of the territory. Sometimes it's possible for a tile to played near a terrain that makes it impossible for that terrain to be completed, locking that meeple in place for the rest of the game. This is a good strategy for opponents roads which don't score as much as other features but can be simple to block off if the right tile is played in the right place.

Playing the game, itself, is a creative process. Pieces can only played where they fit (which also makes the game more aesthetically pleasing than if the terrains didn't have to match orthogonally) (not that different from Pipe Dream (apparently originally known as Pipe Mania)). Overall the rules are relatively simple. I'm sure they went through many iterations to get the scoring just right, but there isn't a lot behind it. Like Dr G mentioned about Triple Town, the designers designed the process, but the players can then take that process and find the patterns that work best within the given rule space. The resources are the meeples that the players, themselves, control. Each player has 7 different meeples which is a good number. Most of the time, that is enough to play on any desired terrain, but as the game draws on, the players have to decide if it's better to hold on to their last (couple) pieces or decide if they might have a better spot to play if a better tile is drawn for the next turn. If the designers had picked a smaller number of starting meeples, I feel like players wouldn't be liberal enough with their meeples and withhold too many until the end of the game.

Overall, because of it's randomness and simple intricacy, Carcassone makes an excellent game.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Entering the Citadel

Citadels is a card game for 2-7 (sometimes 8) players. Its resources include character cards District cards and Coin tokens. The goal of the game is to be the player with the most points at the end of the game. The game ends when one or more players have played 8 (7 with "Bell Tower" card in play) District cards. The game is played using turns within rounds.
Character cards are chosen in secret by players at the beginning of each round. A round is over when all of the players (who get one) have taken their turn. Regardless of the amount of players, during a turn players must first: take 2 coins or draw 2 district cards, keeping one and discarding the other, second: Either play a district card or end the turn. Players may use their character's special ability at any time during their turn. Characters are always played in the same order (ascending numerical rank) which dictates the order of the turns of players. Character choice order starts with whomever was "King" in the previous round or in the first round the oldest player. No player knows which character the other players have chosen until that Character's turn is called.
I played with 3 players, myself included. There is an additional subset of rules for playing with only two or three players which is that every player gets multiple Characters (3 for 2 players; 2 for 3 players) and therefore multiple turns per round. The theme is that of citizens trying to create the most valuable city. That be said the visual aesthetic of the Character cards is sinister and foreboding, as if the Character cards themselves are wishing ill will on the players.

After having read all the rules of the game the option to have multiple Characters and by association turns and powers was much more appealing than having only one of each of those things. It seemed to me that more fun could be had in the combing of different Characters's powers. I also liked the fact that you are supposed to use the District cards and coins received from each character to construct one City as opposed to a City per character. I also thought that playing with this many players would increase the speed of the game. After having played, I have to say none of these expectations were met. In fact I now have made a complete 180 and hold all of these expectations and new ones for a game with 4 or more players.
My expectations have changed because finding the best combination of Character cards was different every round because another player might choose one or both of the cards you need/wanted therefore destroying your predetermined strategy. On the other side of that even if you were able to choose both Characters you wanted, another players combination of Characters could have still been better than yours rendering your strategy for that round moot.
Also choosing or attempting to choose the best 2nd card took up a lot more gameplay time than I had anticipated. Trying to determine which Character would best complement the first Character often lead to choosing characters that could protect the first chosen character from negative effects.
There were also a lot more unevenly matched rounds than i thought there would be I.E. players either dominating the round or getting rocked. However, the replay value is through the roof. Gameplay with less than three players or more than three players is changed dramatically because you then have three Character cards or one Character card respectively, per round. Furthermore the game came with extra Character and District cards that can be swapped out with some of the original cards in order to breathe new life into the game if the players feel it becoming stale.
I don't believe I have enough authority on Citadels to say "yes it's fun" or "no it's not fun", but I can say I was very excited about the prospect using multiple Characters (3 players) and was disappointed at the outcome. However, I liked the fact that it was so different than any other game I have ever played because of which, I still had a good time playing. Now I'm excited to play it again with more people (4-7) and experience how much the strategy, player interactions, and progression of the game are different.


Pandemic - Keeping the World Safe One Game at a Time

Pandemic is a cooperative game about the unfortunate spread of 4 disease types across the world. The world itself consists of various cities on our home planet Earth. Before the players get into the game, they are dealt their roles in the game which consist of the Medic, Dispatcher, Scientist, Researcher, and Operations Expert. Each player will also receive a pawn that they will place in the North America region on Atlanta, Georgia. A research station also goes here, thus why all the players must start at the first research station. There are two gauges on the board for infection rate and an outbreak indicator. Outbreaks start at 0 and the infection rate starts at 2, which represents how many infection cards are to be drawn on each turn. Players then receive player cards based on the number of people in the game. A four player game is two cards, three player is three cards, and two player is four cards. The remaining player cards are then taken and divided into piles based on the level of difficulty your team chooses to play at. Introductory games get four piles, normal games have five, and the heroic game mode has six. For each of these piles an Epidemic card is shuffled in. The piles are then put back together to form the main draw pile. The final setup moment is when the infection sites are established. Three cards are drawn from the infection pile for the first three cities to be infected. Each of these cities gets three cubes to indicate infection. Three more infection cards are drawn and each of those cities receives two cubes. The last drawn set of three then gets one cube per city. Play order is determined by who was most recently sick.

Every player on their turn has three tasks to complete. They must take four actions, draw two player cards to add to their hand, and then take on the role of the infector. The infector’s role is to draw the current infection rate number of cards and then add a cube to each of the cities they draw. Cities may each only have three cubes. If a city already has three cubes then one cube must be added to each city around or connected to it, indicating an outbreak has occured. If an outbreak happens, the outbreak indicator must be moved up one. The basic actions a player can take per turn consist of driving straight to a connected city, using a player card to directly fly there, move directly between research stations, and use a player card to fly anywhere. There are also special actions as well consisting of building a research station, discovering a cure, treating a disease, and sharing knowledge (a player card). Curing a disease consists of a player taking a single cube off of the space they are on. Sharing knowledge allows players to trade player cards they currently have to help with curing the diseases present in the game. When a player has taken four of these actions, they may draw two more player cards. The player cards are predominantly locations on the map in which a team member must collect five of to cure a disease, which may only happen at a research station. There are a few other special event cards one may receive that can be saved to help the team effort when needed. As mentioned earlier, the third step is to become the infector.

The driving force in the game and the reason for the difficulty levels is the epidemic card. These are the cards that can turn up randomly at any point in the player card deck and cause some serious game drama. When a player draws this card they must first increase the infection rate meter. It starts out at two but can easily go up to three or four, meaning cities will be infected faster. The next step is to infect more places. The player must take the bottom card from the infection draw pile and add three cubes to that city. Finally, all the infected cards that have been discarded must be shuffled and added to the top of the infection draw pile. That’s right, places that have already been infected can be infected again. There are actually three ways to lose the game, two of which are when you run out of either the disease cubes or the player cards. The third is when the eighth outbreak occurs. To win this game, all four cures must be discovered.

This game is fascinating simply because it is a cooperative board game. That still kind of blows my mind that a cooperative board game exists. Not to mention the fact that it is an excellent one. For starters, you are presented with a map of the planet you live on. However minor it may be, I do feel that it invokes empathy to the whole situation. It’s a real place that you have to protect. The actions you take on your turn have can affect the other players. For example if you want to give a city card to another player, you both have to be in that city for one person to get the card. The roles everyone receives are also very important to this game. I was the Scientist both times I played which allowed me to only need four player cards for a cure. Quite a bit of both games were focused on transferring more cards to me. Equally to getting cards for the Scientist to cure diseases was getting the Medic to as many places as possible. The Medic has the ability to remove all the disease cubes from a city in one action. There is also a Dispatcher which can move any other player where he likes. Basically the whole dynamic of having different roles is the strategy. You have to know what others are capable of and how to work together. Hence, it is a cooperative game.

This game was published by Z-Man Games and designed by Matt Leacock. If you would like to take a further look, even check out the rule book, all can be found at this website: .

Friday, January 6, 2012

A welcome from the faculty mentor

Greetings and welcome

I am Paul Gestwicki, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Ball State University and, in Spring 2012, a Fellow with the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative  Inquiry. The VBC is a unique center in higher education: since 2000, it has brought together multidisciplinary teams of students into high-impact immersive learning experiences under the direction of a faculty mentor and in collaboration with community partners. The students earn 15 credit hours for participating, making it their only obligation for the semester, and the faculty fellow is assigned to the project full-time.

During 2011, I recruited a multidisciplinary team to join me for this Spring 2012 seminar. I am bringing in a few of my best Computer Science students, including a few who already have significant experience through Morgan's Raid and the Digital Archaeology Project. The team also includes some junior developers and a critical team of content experts. We will be meeting away from the main body of campus at the Kitselman Center, a renovated mansion that feels more like a retreat house than a traditional teaching space.

In September, my colleague Ronald Morris and I presented our work at the Association of Indiana Museums conference. We discussed the relationship between games, fun, and learning, showing Morgan's Raid as an example of how museums might use video games as alternative ways to showcase their collections and expertise. This led to discussions with a few organizations about potential collaborations, one such organization being the Indianapolis Children's Museum. If you have never been to the Children's Museum, you owe it to yourself to go. My family loves it, and the chance to partner with one of the jewels of Indiana was certainly too good to pass up! They are serving as our community partner for the seminar, and my students and I are thrilled to be working with them.

I have prepared an intensive game design workshop for the first week of the semester. This will serve to bring all the students up to the same level of competency in fundamentals such as the common terminology and challenges of game design, and I am basing much of it on Raph Koster's Theory of Fun for Game Design and Ian Schreiber's Game Design Concepts. After the first week, I'll be turning over the reins to the students, following best practices of agile software development to create some great new games.

I have been using blogs as a form of reflective practice for a few years now. This has helped me personally and professionally, and it has also demonstrated to my students the value of public reflective writing for academic inquiry. This blog was created for the team to use during the seminar. You'll see a few posts coming up this week as the students start engaging in critical analysis of our games canon, and I'm hopeful that over time you will find increasingly mature perspectives on the relationship between games, fun, and learning.

Thanks for reading, and welcome to our immersive learning experience!