Friday, 16 August 2013

Tabletop Theming

Theme on the tabletop has been the topic of discussion for me over the last few days and it is an interesting element that seems to be more complex than I first thought. Lets start with a quick look at theme and what it means in terms of boardgames and cardgames. For this discussion we could break these games down into 3 primary elements: mechanics (game rules); sociality (I made up that word to represent the player interaction) and theme (the level of abstraction and narrative).

Looking at games with respect to mechanics, sociality and theme reveals that there are many games that we could argue are comparable in their joyful realisation of mechanics and sociality but differ greatly in theme - or more specifically the amount of theme present (how abstract is the game). Othello and backgammon are highly abstracted while King of Tokyo and Snakes and Ladders have a stronger theme, they craft a scenario or a world. What are the merits or otherwise of these approaches...

Since I, generally speaking, enjoy visual thinking and the idea of strange worlds or physical situations I have a real leaning towards the thematic end of this spectrum. A game like Stratego could be played in exactly the same way with the same mechanic and sociality if the pieces were just the numbers and a few abstract symbols to replace the flag and the bombs. For me, keeping everything else the same, it is a more attractive and enjoyable experience to flavour the game with the level of theme that it does. Now I am sneaking my general around and pushing forward with disposable troops into devastating bombs while on the lookout for the spy.

Theme can play a few roles in a game, it doesn't just have to be putting pretty pictures on all the components. Themes can help players understand the game and its mechanics, if there is a logical link between the theme and the rules then players will learn and remember the rules more easily. It is easier to conceptualise climbing ladders and sliding down snakes than going up blue ribbons and cascading down red ribbons.
This gets more important as the complexity of a game increases. Our brains like to tie memories to narratives and real objects and so creating a large sweeping game full of alternative mechanics all working like a well oiled machine is just hard when the theme is abstracted away. However if you embellish those ideas with a strong theme for a game like Warrior Knights then we can not only play the game but really enjoy it.

Theme can also provide something of an initial spark of interest. Ticket to Ride is a lovely game where there is a certain level of abstraction and you could quite easily convert the game to a fully abstract version which still had colour matching and set collecting and denial and all the fun player interaction. Giving the game this amount of theme however (at least for me) provides an initial jump-on point for wanting to find out more.

Even a very thinly themed game can allow for a different set of achievements that transcend the win-lose mechanics of more abstracted games. If you are playing Agricola and you come last in points, you may still be happy that your semi-abstracted farm has some nice pens with happy sheep in them. Similarly, if you win a game of Pandemic, then you have saved the human race (a pretty nice sense of achievement)

Some games are all about theme of course, they are about bringing a world to life, include role-playing and story telling and complex narrative-based gameplay. Games like Mice and Mystics, Arkham Horror and Descent 2E are simply flush with theme - the mechanics are there to push that immersion further.

Even games that aren't dripping in theme as much as these are easier to talk about with friends afterwards. Recounting a moment in the game where your fireball card slew my Ice Queen card just before I was going to win the game could have been broken down into abstract set collecting and card values and so forth, but is certainly easier to chat about.


What I am realising though is that theme is something of a double-edged sword. Themes are specific, the mechanics of a particular game may be a precise match for your little gaming group but the theme may be off-putting. People might not want to be a giant city-destroying robot, or a little-pony-unicorn, or a zombie or a race-car driver or even a galaxy spanning race of purple aliens. Here is one of the real risks with theming a game - it can alienate people in the same way as it can appeal to them.

Maybe Chess has hit some sort of sweetspot here, it is quite abstract in some ways, but you are still moving and 'attacking' with your knight, your powerful queen and all those pawns in an effort to protect your weak king. Apply a different theme to chess and you get a variant that appeals to different players. A Simpsons themed chess set has identical mechanics, but is doubtless more appealing to some and less to others...

It is time to look at the humble yet mighty standard deck of cards. This is where this long blog post sprang from - a discussion about card games. There is no question that there in an armada of wonderful games created with this one standard deck of cards covering many mechanics and different player interactions. They are portable and generally unthemed and focus the game purely on the mechanics themselves and commonly players attempting to master them. The entire offshoot of gaming into gambling makes those games very serious indeed - there is real money on the line. Poker is a marvelous game of bluffing and risk taking and reading people and snap is a fun/silly game for kids and both use the same deck of cards.
Clearly the approachability, portability and adaptability of a deck of cards is very high and that has great appeal to many people who wouldn't consider themselves gamers at all. There is also that appeal of honing attention onto a nice mechanic in abstract games.


So where does this leave us, probably in a place where the more options a gamer or a gaming group has the better. People can hopefully find their own sweetspot in terms of the games they enjoy best. If there is a nice range of abstract through to heavily themed games then people can taste and consume things from all across that continuum.

Perhaps we also shouldn't be uptight about reskinning games. I get the impression that if FF reskinned the Star Wars X-Wing game using zany dwarven submarines vs aquatic monsters that they would get flack for reskinning. But Dwarven Subs vs Kraken Hordes could be a super game and may appeal to those that weren't drawn in by the Star Wars theming.

On a final note, I do love theme and the narrative it generates, looking over at the pile of games sitting here - they are all pretty theme-rich. Based on that, no doubt I will continue to inject a healthy dose of thematic goodness into games I create like that for Loch Maiden. Speaking of which I will post up in the next few days some ideas around continuous worker placement and other mechanics that are in the current design.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Monster Pieces

When I last set about remaking the Monster model it was with a sturdy eye on being able to rig it for animation and use in things like CryEngine. So the geometry was neater and the flow of the shape was working for the more snake-like feel. So I took that 3ds Max model and cut it up a little to create the pieces needed for a new 3D print test.

What I discovered was that my perception of the monster on-screen was quite different to the reality of the physical object. It was very skinny indeed and didn't balance on its own and all up had a less than pleasing aesthetic - not as cute as I was wanting.

Here you can see how the newer Makerware software now creates a neater 'raft' and a nice hex pattern for the infill. You can also see some of the filament feed inconsistency that I am hoping is better now that I have tightened the feed head screw etc etc. The single manual support for the monster's chin is still just a quickly added and poly-edited cylinder in Max.

A quick application of the push modifier and hey-presto a cuter and chubbier monster. After another round of cutting, a single smooth and then printing things were better. Alas still not the awesome stylised monster geometry I was after though. The humps in the print look like semi-circles and lacked a more interesting feel (very deceptive).

One more round of stretching and base expanding and minor tweaks and things were close, but still not quite there.

Ok, exaggerating things further still and while it looks quite dramatic onscreen, the Replicator 2 print is looking really good at 30mm high for the head. I may still do a little more to the hump and the head will feel different when all the Mudbox detail is applied - but I think things are back on track. (Still intrigues me how the screen isnt quite conveying the 3D form as well as I thought it would for me - is it my brain??)

I do like that I am using the 3D printer to actually iterate a design here, it isnt just a final printout device but actually a 'rapid prototyping' machine which is very cool. I am learning about the look and proportions, the feel, the size and critically the balance.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Mechanics, Mood and Paralysis

Here are a few more concept sketches for the monsters (Galaxy Note 8 using Sketchbook Pro) before we dive into mechanics and design etc.

I have been working through a suite of specific little mechanics for the Loch Maiden game both in terms of large sweeping changes to tiny tweaks. While this design process has been consistently revealing interesting ideas, quirky mechanics etc, the complexity of a board game design has led to a little analysis paralysis. This term is often used in game play itself where players end up spending too much time thinking about their moves due to the complexity or amount of options before them. Whether it be chess and trying to see a horde of moves ahead or a game with many players and options like Descent 2E this problem can drag things out. As for my game design I think I need to get a version into a playtestable form so the ideas can escape from my head and my notes and get input from fellow players on the elements they like.

One example of this evolution of the mechanical design is how the Maiden's mood works. Things started out with a Mood deck or Maiden deck, the advantage here is that the cards were tied directly to the central character and moved the focus to her, though it was really the simplest solution - just make another deck to control her state. Then when looking at simplifying the game and the number of decks the Mood cards merged in with the event deck - to become a special event type that would show the different mood colours in order of her preference. This ties in with how players pay for charms using resources the value of which is impacted be their colour in relation to the maidens mood. At the same time other triggers and changes were folded into the events which had the potential to streamline things and move the learning of the game a little more to the cards themselves.
The most recent idea around the mood is to still have the mood controlled by events, but rather than the mood card itself moving to the board with all of the colours represented in order, the mood card just states which colour the maiden now likes most and on the board separate little markers are moved to reflect the change. This means her mood swings aren't quite so dramatic, allowing players to at least try and collect resources she might like. If multiple mood swings come up in quick succession then she is still going to feel very moody which is good.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Angelstorm Pencil Art

Hmmm, this post isnt so much about digital art as perhaps a post on this blog might intend to be. While the mighty Allan (Angelstorm) does bring a computer into things here and there he is essentially a master of the pencil. Some of these pieces are just so luscious, so detailed, so full of character that they warrant far more attention than any photo you may mistake them for - simply gorgeous in every way.
While I have been enjoying the digital creation with the Note 8 (and I should play more with the SurfacePro) - I am hoping to bring inspiration from the likes of Angelstorm-82's Gallery into the minutes I get with stylus in hand.
Check out this first image 'The Soulcatcher' which is simply stunning, how to get those light, dark wrinkles, hairs and more - zoinks (plus the WIP images to prove it is really pencils)