Alle Beiträge von Moritz

New Names for Games – 2: “Loud Games”

Transcript of the podcast published on August 2nd, 2011.

Continuing my talk about new names for game genres I will now introduce a second genre, the “loud” game (as opposed to the “Schweigespiel” or “silent” game from the last segment).

Let’s immediately try a definition:

Loud games are games that not only encourage verbal communication between players but also make it a central part of the game, either because it increases the enjoyment of the game or because a specific verbal communication has to be heard and understood by a greater number of players.

There are several subdivisions of loud games in my opinion. One is obvious: party games. Party games very often involve quiz or guessing elements, very often the player to most quickly give a certain piece of information is rewarded, so they tend to be loud as players make themselves heard over others. In addition party games often involve humor or hilariousness, and they encourage the socializing aspect of mutual laughter, for example by using jokes. Examples of this would be “Wits & Wagers”, “Apples to Apples” or even the rather grim “The Resistance”. An interesting variation is “Werewolf” which has alternating silent and loud phases. The werewolves usually kill in silence, but then the accusations start and the game suddenly becomes very loud.

The second subdivision is trading phase games. Here very often the goal is to make oneself heard with a very good offer or to demand a certain combination of goods from another player. For this one has to be loud. A prime example for this is “Settlers of Catan”, in which the trading phase is usually very loud, so shy or meek players don’t stand a chance. The first game in which a non-organized, non-sequential trading phase became the central part of a strategy board game is probably “Civilization” by Francis Tresham, a game which can be considered the godfather of Settlers in many ways. Trading is actually the vital part of “Civilization”, as it not only enables players to buy advances but it also introduces the mechanic of deftly trading catastrophes as well. As long as the trading phase goes its course a catastrophe received by another player can still be traded to someone else, so the trading phases of “Civilization” tend to get louder towards the end, when players realize it’s their last chance to get rid of the epidemic card.

Auction games can be loud, but only if they have a free-for-all auction phase in which bids can be made non-sequentially. Sequential bids, like in “Modern Art” or “Princes of Florence” don’t get loud usually.

The third subdivision is chatty games, games in which the description of things plays an important part. “Such A Thing” is a case in point, or also last Spiel des Jahres winner “Dixit”. Very often the chatty game involves comments of other players, like in “Anno Domini”, when everybody tries to use their limited historical knowledge to influence others. “What? Beer is around for millennia, not only since the Middle Ages!” would be a typical “Anno Domini” comment.

An interesting case are games that are not chatty by nature, but which become chatty because a great number of players has nothing to do from a certain point on and the game doesn’t hinder them talking with each other. Take “Citadels” – once you have selected your role you can do absolutely nothing until all players have selected their role. One player after the other will join the growing group of players who have already selected their role, and selecting can sometimes be beset by analysis paralysis in this game, so all these players usually begin to chat with each other out of boredom. I found that most games of “Citadels” are spent talking about something not even game related, like also in “Liar’s Dice”, where the players who have been kicked out of the game because they lost their last die begin to chat with each other.

Bluffing games are another subdivision – the bluffing itself is usually silent, but once the bluff is out the players usually react with a verbal burst of “I told you!”, “You liar!”, “I can’t believe it!”, etc.. These shouts can even be heard in pro poker games on TV.

Another subcategory is what I would call “anger games”, games like “Risk” for example in which trashing one player often results in whining, complaining and the inevitable table flip

Finally we have a very special subcategory, one which I would call the “cheering game”. Here players become loud because they either have to cheer on somebody or simply because there is nothing else to do really. The best example is “Battling Tops” – once the tops are spinning wildly you can do nothing but watch what will happen, so people usually begin to cheer their top, which of course doesn’t make any sense at all. Strangely enough “Battling Tops” is the loudest game of them all, something that any visitor to Boardgamegeek Con can attest to.

All in all the effective loudness level of a game is very dependent on the group of players – if they are very social or more introvert, if they know each other well or not. For most gamers though the so called “trash talk” or cheering and screaming are an important element of their enjoyment of games, so it should play a role when describing a game.

Next show I will talk about “Greedy Games”.

New Names for Games – 1: “Silent Games”

Transcript of the podcast published on July 5th, 2011.

I think that newcomers to Boardgamegeek probably find it increasingly difficult to understand what the heck we are talking about. The forums are proof to this, with newbies asking eternally the same questions: what is a “Euro”? What is “Ameritrash”, and why do so many people love them? What is AP (Analysis Paralysis), is it some kind of gamer sickness? What is a grognard, what is a meeple, what is a Kramertrack?

In addition there are a huge number of genres – anyone who ever tried the advanced search engine of the geek can attest to this. There are roll-and-move games, war games, empire building games, tile laying-games, crayon games and so on. There is a problem with all these terms, though. Although they describe exactly what a game uses as a mechanic they say very little about how it feels to actually play the game.

To give you an example: In a way “Groo the card Game” is an empire building game, like San Juan or Puerto Rico, as one tries to lay out cards to form a village with different buildings. But in contrast to these games Groo is a chaotic affair in which you randomly attack your neighbours and in which there is no perceivable strategy to how you build your village, because Groo will come and destroy it anyway. The most useful term for these kind of games is of course the good old “Beer & Pretzel”, a term which simply says: “relax, venturing gamer, this is not a serious or brainy affair, it is just a free for all entertainment in which the main goal is to annoy your fellow players and have fun”.

For some gamers this exact description is a caveat, for others – especially for lovers of the game “Munchkin” – it is a badge of excellence. Whatever the case, the limits of the term can quickly be demonstrated by mentioning a very different game, ”Junta!. “Junta” is – at its heart – a chaotic Beer & Pretzel game, as there is no dedicated strategy to win, there are lots of random events and decisions, and very often you will be at the whim of other players’ decisions. But at the same time “Junta” involves real diplomacy, backdoor dealing, and in parts it is also a real war game with meaningful tactical decisions. So what is it?

I find we are missing terms for what games really are, so I would like to start a little series where I will try to invent some new terms for the BGG database.

My first term is simple, “Schweigespiel”, which means “silent game” in German.

What, you may ask, is a “Schweigespiel”? I try to give a definition: silent games are games that tend to inhibit verbal communication between players because of their sometimes secretive and brainy nature and also because of the moves of the players themselves ARE the communication. Silent games will very often be played with little to no talk during the game.

I don’t know if you ever had this experience: you play a game and suddenly you notice that you are so much in your own little world of thought that there is this all-pervading silence all-around. Every time we notice this in our gaming group we call out – “Schweigespiel!” and everybody knows immediately what is meant.

To give you some examples of a silent game, let’s begin with the most obvious prime candidate, and that is Chess. Chess has never been known to be a particularly chatty game, but this is because communication between players is abstracted and only takes place through the movements of pieces on the board. Also a lot of the strategy of chess comes through the fact that one doesn’t want to have the opponent know your secret plan. Chess is such a silent game, that there are actually rules which force you to talk and announce certain threats, lest you forget.

But there are also examples of games that are more our fare. Let’s take “Agricola” – a good example because it is also somewhat of a multiplayer solitaire game as well. Or “Euphrates and Tigris” – a game which gives you so many possibilities where to place your tiles and what to do with them that actually the Analysis Paralysis alone will keep you pretty silent most of the time. Or “Carcassonne, at least in its basic version. The excellent Carcassonne iPhone app has a chat feature, but most of the time one doesn’t know what to say except perhaps “wow”, when a huge city has been finished. Most of the time the communication is through the game, in a complex sign language of tile-laying. Most players hesitate to state the obvious, like saying “Ha, look, I just placed a meeple that will threaten your meadow domination in a very surprising way”. This is why iPhone Carcassonne players mostly use the chat for insults or complaints about lag (the many Dice Tower listeners I met through this app are absolutely not fitting in this category but have been friendly and ready to chat).

You may ask yourself: Are there any “loud” games? You bet there are, and I will talk about them next show…

Mansions of Madness and Lord of the Rings Card Game

Transcript of the podcast published on June 3rd, 2011.

With the theme of the current show it seems appropriate to interrupt my musings on game design and talk about two new games from Fantasy Flight that have something in common but that also have many differences: Mansions of Madness and Lord of the Rings Card Game. Both games have deep roots in established works of literature: Mansions of Madness is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s fantastic Cthulhu Mythos and even more by the many games that developed this world, like Call of Cthulhu the roleplaying game or Arkham Horror, both originally published by Chaosium Games. The new Lord of the Rings LCG is of course based on the great stories of J.R.R. Tolkien, truly the founding father of contemporary fantasy.

Fantasy Flight has made its name as a publisher mostly of epic fantastic games in which the experience – meaning the immersion of the players in an imaginary world, often helped by elaborate graphic design and high quality game material – is more important than the Euro-pondering of action optimization and victory point collection. I don’t know about you, but I know many players who will never be satisfied with storytelling experience and who will never get into games like Talisman or even Twilight Imperium because there are moments when players relinquish control of the game to dice rolls or event cards. Even fantasy aficionado Tom Vasel has problems with the mostly freefall and luck-driven Talisman because he feels that the players choices are too limited. Other players can enjoy Talisman as a modern variant of the roll and move journey games that were so common in the 19th century, just with added fantasy, more choices and more excitement.

Mansions of Madness has its detractors and critics, but for fans of storytelling games it is a great experience. Anyone who has ever played the great role playing game Call of Cthulhu in its original non D-20, non-munchkinized version, will immediately see the design success in bringing the feeling of exploring a house occupied by evil beings to the boardgame table. The game really feels like a horrific and sanity-threatening adventure without outstaying its welcome. The rules go so far as telling the Keeper – who plays the house against the investigators – to play so that the investigators have a good time, instead of only playing for winning the game.

It has been said that the game gives the investigators too little, the Keeper too much to do, but I personally find Mansions of Madness great fun, even though it is quite a chore to keep track of all the little cards and counters. Most of us don’t have time to play long role-playing campaigns anymore as adults, but games like Descent and Mansions of Madness give us the fix that our role playing heart yearns for. If you loved Call of Cthulhu, you will love Mansions of Madness, otherwise you should stick with Puerto Rico or Caylus.

The Lord of the Rings Card Game is the newcomer to Fantasy Flight Games new series of expandable but not collectable card games, of which the “Game of Thrones” LCG is so good, that I am actually still playing it regularly. The Lord of the Rings Card Game is different though in that it tries something new, being designed specifically for solitaire or cooperative play, which has rarely been tried extensively in the CCG world, except for the failed game “Ruinsworld” and some scenarios for the old Middle Earth CCG.

I have played the new Lord of the Rings card game quite extensively in the last days and can already say that I like it even though I am yet unsure of its durability as a deck-building game. Deck building is most fun against an unexpected opponent, if one would know the opponent’s cards exactly it could be less fun. Fantasy Flight has tried to make the game interesting by making it quite hard to win – I have yet to win even a medium difficulty scenario with Gimli and Legolas in my group alone, because they are so weak in adventuring potential and usually are beaten by the deck if one draws too many locations, overcome by the shadow treat even though they can kill opponents left and right – people who know the game will know what I mean!

Basically the Lord of the Rings card game feels like a puzzle that has to be solved- each advanced scenario can only be beaten if the players learn the cards well and optimize their strategy, so in a way it is like a learning process against a programmed opponent. In that respect the game actually is similar to the Lord of the Rings board game by Knizia, which also felt more like a puzzle than a genuine story experience, with the card game having the advantage of being infinitely variable and quicker to play and setup then Knizia’s game.

Every player has to decide for him- or herself. If he is more of the adventuring or analytical type – I can say that I personally enjoy both styles of playing very much and could not really live without one of them.

By the way – Mansions of Madness has a great fan made solitaire conversion where the keeper is replaced by an ingenious paragraph system – I can very much recommend it!

Gaining Speed – Part 2

Transcript of the podcast published on May 7th, 2011.

Last show I was talking about the necessity to get the right speed rating for your game when designing it. This time I want to give you some examples.

Take ”7 Ages” for example, a great if still unwieldy game of empires and conquest – when reading the designer’s diary one will find a statement by Harry Rowland, that in its original form the game had each empire go through all possible phases in its turn – production, movement, combat, fate, progress, etc.. This of course meant that the other players would idly watch while one player spent a lot of time doing fiddly things with often no consequence to the other players. At one point Rowland decided that he would limit each empire action to only one of these – this already was a great idea, if not a radical design decision. But this was still not good enough. So Rowland decided to make the selection of actions simultaneous and secret for all players involved. Simultaneous selection of something is always a good idea, as it means that all players can mutually do something that is of relevance, even if it is not in direct communication with another player. It adds two interesting aspects: speed, of course, and also mystery, as in a good game design one should always be guessing about the other player’s motives.

This worked great for “7 Ages”. While I select my empire’s actions I ask myself: will my neighbor be peaceful this turn? Or will he attack me? Should I attack first? So even though I don’t necessarily talk with another player during this selection it is an indirect form of competitive communication, and this is an important element in any game.

I had a similar problem with my game “XX”, formerly known as the “20th Century” until some evil usurping Eastern-European-game designers stole my title. In its original form the game was just mega-long, and each player had a lot of actions to ponder while the others were waiting and doing nothing. Some BGG con visitors of four years back might remember this version painfully.

One of the main design goals is of course elegance and speed – in reworking the game concepts I tried to think about what elements I deemed important and what not. Many ideas were neat, like the effects of population or catastrophes in my game about the history of the 20th century. But I could go two ways – either keep them and develop them, which meant the game would become longer and more complicated, or leave them away and concentrate on the things I really liked. In a painful process I whittled down the possible player actions to only three different ones: getting involved in wars, using diplomacy to place influence in countries and playing a card as an event.

Now I still had the problem that this would mean that each player would have to ponder this decision when it came to his or her turn. The game state might have changed in a way that would make a new pondering period necessary – and again non-involved players would have to wait. I decided to create action cards that had all three actions on them, and how you placed them in front of you (meaning how you would orientate the card) would show to other players what action you would play. With these cards I could now introduce a simultaneous selection phase, like in “7 Ages”. Each player would secretly select his card action for the turn at the same time as the other players and then turn the card over to show his decision when it was his or her go. This introduced second-guessing and mystery and an immense speed gain to the design. You still had the freedom about how exactly you would play your action – this is important as nobody wants to be on autopilot when it comes to an individual action – but you had already made some of your choices. It is a simple insight for game designers that choices are good, but too many choices bog down a game and might make it too brainy or ultra-competitive, like chess or go, games which are sciences in itself and in which sometimes you can wait for a long time until your opponent has done a move. If ever. Finding the sweet spot between too limited decision trees and too many options is the biggest challenge of a game designer.

It is interesting that simple house rules can have a great effect on speed. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t play Carcassonne without one simple house rule that is not stated in the original rules: don’t turn over a new tile when it’s your turn but draw it secretly at the end of your turn instead and place it at the beginning of your next turn. This makes a huge difference, as it gives you the complete turn to think about your placement. Even though last-minute plays by your opponents can ruin your plans you still will have a much better grasp of the situation than if you simply reacted to a completely new tile on the spot. It’s a house rule that I strongly recommend!

“Pantheon” is our Game of the Month

Many prude American gamers are put off by the cover of the game (I can only say: honi soit qui mal y pense), but they are missing out on a great new Tummelhofer game that really rocks! “Pantheon” is a game that is easy to get into. Like in all good games there are several ways to victory, and through the effects of various people and the gods there is also a slight flair of “History of the World” involved (even though there are no battles). A bit of luck is also needed, but skillful play is rewarded, in so far the game has to be viewed as an advanced family game more than a game for hardcore eurogamers and VP counters. But as a whole the feeling is fresh, not entirely the usual fare, and most important: fun to play!

“Pantheon” ist unser Spiel des Monats

Viele prüde Amerikanische Spieler lassen sich seltsamerweise vom Cover des Spieles abschrecken (honi soit qui mal y pense, sage ich nur), es entgeht ihnen aber ein echter neuer Tummelhofer-Knaller, der es in sich hat. „Pantheon“ ist ein Spiel, in das man sofort hineinkommt, wie bei jedem guten Spiel gibt es mehrere Wege zum Sieg und durch die verschiedenen Völker und Auswirkungen von Gottheiten kommt sogar ein Hauch „History of the World“ ins Spiel (obwohl es keine Schlachten gibt). Ein bisschen Glück muss man auch haben, aber gutes Spiel wird belohnt, insofern ist das Spiel eher im Bereich der gehobenen Familienspiele anzusiedeln als im Bereich der Hardcore-Eurogamer. Aber das Ganze ist frisch, nicht ganz gewöhnlich und macht einfach Spaß!

Gaining Speed

Transcript of the podcast published on May 1st, 2011.

One of the biggest challenges in game design is the creation of speed. Each game has its own sweet spot of length. 10-16 hours of playtime might be the ideal length for an immersive and narrative game like “Here I Stand”, but it would kill a game like Carcassonne if it was that long. It would just fall flat.

Most Euro gamers perceive 2 hours as the maximum ideal length for a game – and this includes explaining the game! I know many German gamers who will – no matter how much you coax them – flatly refuse to play anything even 1 minute longer. 2-3 hour Euro games like Agricola are actually extremely rare. I would compare it to the ideal length for a film – many people think that 1½-2 hours is the best length for a film, and anything beyond that is either Lord of the Rings or boring. Or both!

It’s interesting to note that films longer than 2 hours are usually sprawling sagas with more complex narrative or boosting amazing special effects to keep you entertained – this can be compared to the much longer American style games, which usually fall in the 3 hour or more range. Think of games like Arkham Horror or Talisman – even hardcore fans would immediately admit that these games take a lot of time, not to speak of war games, which are the kings of the hill when it comes to length!

The speed of a game has two aspects, though. It is a mixture of two conflicting perceptions: the length of the game as a whole and the length of downtime that you experience while it is not your move. Some early war game designs featured a lot of downtime as your opponent pondered moving his hundreds of counters over a cluttered board. Games like ASL with their more complicated turn structure made sure that this downtime was separated into little chunks, but still, as an opponent you were mostly rolling dice while your opponent had something to do.

Even though the game is actually one of my personal favorites, History of the World in its old versions is a good example of bad downtime. If you ended up first in one epoch and last in the next one you theoretically could look at up to an hour waiting, with no meaningful decisions at all and some dice rolling at the best. A game like Cosmic Encounter was actually not only deemed revolutionary in its time because of the changing player powers but also because it attempted to keep everybody constantly involved by giving them the ability to ally with attacking or defending players. This involvement outside your turn was actually a very fresh idea at the time, people tend to forget this.

Nowadays most game designers try to create a mix of interactive elements to keep players involved who are not active at the moment. Classical basic strategies for this can be easily named: bidding, negotiation or trading. This always involves all players and is mostly easy to pull off design wise. Newer interactive strategies would be card drafting (like in 7 Wonders) or role selection, where players in turn select roles that then affect all players, like in Puerto Rico. All these game design strategies are usually perceived as giving the possibility of interaction. An additional strategy which is more difficult to pin down could be called “reaction window”. What this means is that a player has the possibility out of turn order to insert an action into the flow. A good example for this is for example having a “bomb” in the card game “Tichu”. With a “bomb” you can interrupt the card play anytime, but it also involves the risk of other players having bombs as well. Or take “Cosmic Zap” in Cosmic Encounter – any card that can be played out of turn order gives players a reactive game element. But of course there are also real ”reaction” moves, when players react to each other’s actions. But there is a difference between meaningful and a “lucky reaction”: Let’s say a player attacks a space you occupy with troops in a war game. Usually you would roll dice to determine the outcome. Even though rolling dice can be fun it is not what I would call a meaningful decision. If all you do as a reactive action in a game is rolling dice it can become dangerous for the game experience. But now imagine this dice rolling results in a retreat of your troops, and you now have the decision to retreat them to hex A, B or C. This usually would be a meaningful decision, as this will set things for your next turn.

Don’t worry, most war games involve this kind of decisions, and newer designs like “Combat Commander” go to great pains to make the game flow as interactive as possible, with both players constantly being involved in meaningful decisions. But in a way the worst game possible would involve a convoluted and long turn order which only involves one single player. But luckily the time of these games seems to have passed.

Some thoughts on game development

Transcript of the podcast published on April 5th, 2011.

It seems game designing is all the rage at the moment. I get many emails from avid listeners who are in the process of designing games inspired by something we said on the Dice Tower. There are currently hundreds of small game companies who – with the power of state of the art Desktop Publishing – publish their own games. At the Westpark Gamers Aaron Haag as well as me are involved in the design of new games, and we often host test sessions for other designers who test their new material. If one goes to a convention chances are high that you will bump into someone who is currently working on a new game. Rare success stories of freelance designers like Martin Wallace and Reiner Knizia attract thousands of new designers who want to follow in their footsteps. It seems every gamer one meets nowadays is also a game designer. Hey, half of the guys working on this show are game designers, including Tom Vasel himself!

But what sets apart good games from just games? It’s a difficult question to answer, as it is rare that a game captures that elusive lightning in a bottle: being balanced, accessible as well as unique and innovative at the same time. Granted: not all games try to invent the wheel anew, in fact only very few do, and perhaps that’s not even a bad thing, as some ideas set into motion a huge host of variants and spinoffs that can actually be equally interesting.

But one thing is never a rarity: and that’s the ideas for games. I am sure every single listener of our show has once thought: Hey, that would be SUCH a great game idea, and some of them might even have started working on such a game. But anybody who ever dabbled in game design knows one thing for sure: It is hard, hard work. And it is not always fun work. Once you’re up to your umpteenth prototype, where you had to graphically redesign everything again from the scratch to incorporate your new ideas, and while playing it you feel that it still doesn’t work yet, despair can set in. Also playtesters can be harsh. Your family or your spouse might love your game and think you’re a genius, but the average gaming geek will have a totally different opinion, if he thinks something doesn’t work. And to be a good game designer you actually HAVE to listen to your playtesters, even if they are very critical, because the things they don’t understand will be something that average people without strong gaming expertise will have even less understanding of.

So while designing a game one has to be prepared to start again and again from the basics. Your ideas might already be great, your concepts unique, but they just don’t gel yet, they just don’t go together to create an engaging game.

This is where the mysterious “game development” sets in, which I think is the most important part of game design in a way, next to the idea itself. Game developing is not necessarily testing – that can be done by anybody, especially if it is about blind testing rules and such. No, game development is about finding the hidden strengths – and weaknesses – of a game and bringing them to the fore or removing them. People rarely take notice of the guys listed under “game developers” in a rulebook, but hey, these guys are more important than you think! In fact most successful publishers have a great development team.

I have already told the story about “Puerto Rico” having originally been an SF game – this would have meant it had not sold as well in the German market and probably not become the international success. This was a development decision, and this also meant changing the effects of buildings in the game to fit the new theme.

“Carcassonne” in its original form had no limits on meeple placement. One just placed the meeples wherever they wanted to score, even in an already occupied city. One can imagine that this makes a HUGE difference in the whole gaming experience of Carcassonne, and this decision came out of the development process.
I think one can compare game design to the musical genre of opera, which is always a team effort. One needs not only composers but also librettists, directors, stage designers…. Game design should not be a lonely job, it is a mutual effort.

So next time you pick up a game you like check out the guys who developed it as well as the original designers. They might be the very reason you actually like the game!

Where do we go from here?

Transcript of the podcast published on March 7th, 2011.

Let’s just take a break and reflect on the past developments in the gaming world. Where do we go from here? It is clear that board gaming as a whole is a very healthy hobby at the moment. It might not have the breakthrough fad or trend of past decades, like a new concept to sell huge amounts of cards like in Magic the Gathering, but all in all there are lots of very good companies who each have found a niche in which they have a relatively healthy life. Fantasy Flight Games has basically grabbed the Fantasy, Horror and SF niche market, GMT is catering to the Euro-influenced and opinionated war gamer, Days of Wonder successfully delivers great accessible family games and so on. Also in Germany the game market has been relatively stable – the old great companies can still exist and deliver good product and there has even been a possibility for young and upcoming companies like Argentum games to grow and prosper somewhat. The same is to be said about the European market as a whole – Eastern Europe has expanded as a market with many of the best games of the last years coming from the Czech Republic for example, but now also from Poland and other places. Italy, France, Holland and England are also strong as countries in which game design is practiced an art and the population is increasingly interested in it, not to forget Belgium, Switzerland and Austria. Essen attendance is still growing every year, and the number of published games as well.

If there is any kind of problem it is the problem of over-saturation. At the Westpark Gamers we have already found that we return to older games that we like instead of playing the new Essen games, which is unusual, because the last Essen is not that long gone. Usually we were busy until at least the middle of the year before a certain expectation for new games kicked in. But we are already returning to established games for entertainment.

It’s not that last Essen’s games were a worse than usual – quite the opposite! In fact 2010 was quite a good year most remarkable for a high level of general quality and relatively few disappointments. That it was not the year of a standout game like Dominion should not be something to be expected every year – that would just be silly. Still – we have super fantastic games like 7 Wonders or Dominant Species, and that’s really something.

In fact if you took any, and I really mean ANY of the top games of 2010 and put them in a time machine to travel back to 1980 or even 1990 they would all be huge hits that the whole gaming world would talk about. But today they just go under in a huge torrent of quality. It is very difficult to get noticed with a game when already even small companies or DTP publishers manage to bring out product that is equal to the best games of the past years in both production values and content.

In a way we now repeat the situation that computer games found themselves in a couple of years back. When the computer game market emerged, many new and spectacular ideas for games were born: the RPG’s, the RTS games, the Adventure games, the Ego-Shooter games, etc.. All these genres were defined like the different board gaming genres, even taking cues from them in many ways. But looking at computer games now one seems to notice that there are very few new ground breaking ideas anymore, it is just the technology like the graphics of games that is still developed. Another area is bringing games to where there have been no games before. I was once told that the fastest growing market in electronic games is the so-called social games market, where people play games via facebook or through their browser. These games are quick and accessible and don’t need any preparation to jump in.

This does not surprise me as I see the time-factor as the biggest enemy for physical board games in the future. Once the electronic game table market really kicks off in the near future – and I firmly believe that this will happen – board games with physical components will increasingly have a difficult time except perhaps with spectacular miniatures. But already many Fantasy Flight Games like Arkham Horror for example are clustered with so many card decks, counters and paraphernalia that I for my part would welcome if a computer all set it up for me in a millisecond and I could start right in. Even FFG themselves have realized this and start publishing ipad and iphone apps that actually reduce the time needed for playing their games.

The games of the future will also use sound effects and videos to enhance the game experience, I am sure.

But fact is: We are at a crossroads right now. Not a moment to despair, but a moment to take note of what we like about gaming and to pave the roads for what gaming will become in the future. One thing is sure: the social aspect of gaming, the table banter, the camaraderie, the real people with which you interact will always be the biggest asset of face to face gaming. Let’s try to preserve that!

Game Companies of the past, part 11, Gray Giant Games

Transcript of the podcast published on February 25th, 2011.

After 10 segments about game companies of the past I want to add a bonus segment about a company that nobody of you has ever heard of, probably: Gray Giant Games.

Gray Giant Games was the brainchild of Tim Bedford and Lisa Peterson, 2 students of MIT who were caught by the Fantasy Roleplaying game craze of the 70s. They both became avid game masters to their game group, the MITfits, and revered for their colourful and literary campaigns that spanned whole worlds. Soon enough they became tired of some of the clichés of D&D, especially the munchkin like amassment of XP’s and levels. This is how “Foragers into the Unknown” was born, their first roleplaying game, a radical reinvention of the RPG genre with an ingenious combat system that was elegant and realistic at the same time. “Foragers” had some success in gaming circles and soon Tim and Lisa began to professionally package their product, naming their company after the first monster they had invented for their game, and to sell it at gaming conventions. This was about the time their first daughter was born, so they lacked time and especially money to really run the publicity that sells a product to a bigger audience, but in specialist circles their fame increased. Soon 2 supplements followed: “Foragers into Space”, and “Foragers into Horror”, both equally excellent RPG’s.

At this point they noticed that they had less and less time to be GM’s, but their players wanted to adventure on in “Bellaphon”, their fantasy roleplaying world. Long before paragraph adventures were invented they thought of a role playing game that needed no Game Master and could be enjoyed by a whole group. This is how “Endless Adventure” was born, a truly unique fantasy board game that could be enjoyed by 1 to many players, and that is only rivaled by “Magic Realm” in atmosphere and scope.

In “Endless Adventure” the game simulates a complex dungeon expedition. The dungeon is randomly created during the game, but there are also certain predetermined quests that fit into the bigger game, much like today’s fantasy computer games are designed. “Endless Adventure” could be played either in short or continuous sessions, as a never ending campaign that also enabled players to develop characters, an idea that was later also realized in “Warhammer Quest”, but in a much simpler way. “Endless Adventure” is a truly magnificent, albeit complex game. Its biggest bonus was its expandability – in later supplements players could explore the wilderness, cityscapes and the sea. It was also possible for them to engage in world politics, to wage wars or to found a shop and sell their treasures. With each expansion – all of which are hard if not impossible to find nowadays – the game became richer and deeper, nearly reaching philosophical dimensions. Some players are still playing this game and have not yet explored every part of it.

Encouraged by this success the now husband and wife team thought about new ways to use their creativity. This is how one of the weirdest games in existence was created: “Serenade”, a game with a completely empty board and no rules to start with. Through a complex web of secret decisions, bidding and alliances the game was literally created on the spot – when you started the game you didn’t know yet if you would end up playing an economical game, an abstract strategy game, a historical simulation or a racing game. The only thing one could set up at the beginning was the game length, which could be anything from 30 minutes to many hours. The theme of the game would be decided by the wishes of the players, so that every player would play the game he or she liked the most in the end. “It’s an experience, not a game” was the tagline, and the revolutionary concepts behind this game were never equaled. Unfortunately a great part of “Serenade”s first print run was burnt in a mysterious fire and only a few copies have survived.

But Gray Giant Games was just starting it’s great run: The next game was simply called “Euro”, and was the pinnacle of European board games design: an elegant, incredibly thought-through design that gave each player the possibility to win until the very last moment without invoking the least of luck, but which was also – a feat that not all Euro Games manage – highly thematic and full of weird and crazy humour, with players trying to create the perfect European parliament, an impossible task as every European knows.

Tim had dabbled in wargames now and then, so he started a new project that was supposed to revolutionize the wargaming world: “Waterloo 3000” was the most ambitious wargame ever produced: a double blind game using ingenious hidden movement and doing away with any combat tables and odds, instead using an intricate paragraph system like in fantasy gamebooks to decide the outcome of a battle. The accompanying “battle book” indeed had 3000 entries, and few players have explored them all.

After that Lisa Peterson approached another, nearly impossible task: to create a witty party game for intelligent people that doesn’t embarrass and doesn’t bore. The result of this was “Betty Boop”, a game so fast and furious that it was impossible to not break out into wild laughter during it. One reviewer literally said that this game was so much fun that it could revive a coma patient.

Slowly a trend became clear: Gray Giant Games took on established game genres and tried to create the best possible game for it. But there were factors which always stood in their success: Tim getting a professorship at MIT and Lisa getting the Nobel prize for her work at the decryption of the human genome. Not out of failure but simply because they had no more time for their games, Gray Giant Games closed business in 1987.

And they lived happily everafter, like in a fairy tale. Like in this segment.