Thursday, February 14, 2008

Week #4: Arts & Crafts

Building a game is a lot like making art.

I decided to shift the class schedule back a week so that we can book our "Game Day" into a larger meeting room. That way we can have a catered lunch and invite some people to play with us. On "Game Day," teams will bring their invented games to play, and each student will bring an unusual game to share to help broaden our knowledge of games. We should end up with nearly 30 games to look at and try out.

I urged students to use the extra time to make their games as nice as possible so that they will present well to others. I suggested that some try using Adobe Photoshop to design their game boards, and I demonstrated how easy it is to set up a simple checker board, for example. But most students were enjoying the hands-on experience of "arts and crafts" game design.

Some took the time to create attractive boxes for their games.

The 8x8 checkers game "Power Border"

The box for the card game "Sibling Pains" with
instructions on the box so they don't get lost.

Others took the time to make sure that their games were fully playable and fun. Because if it's not fun, you'll be graded down!

If it's not fun, then something's wrong...

Next time, we will exchange games and do a "peer review." Basically, teams will switch tables and try each other's games, based purely on the set of instructions and the playing board or cards offered to them. We'll see how many puzzled expressions we get -- or how many students who exclaim "Cool!"

Monday, February 11, 2008

Week #3: 8x8 Prototypes and Rutgers Football

Students trying out their 8x8 game ideas

I had not recognized before teaching this class how much game design is essentially an experimental process. Our textbook calls it an "iterative process," which essentially means trying it again and again until you get it right. Basically, you can imagine all sorts of rules in a game, but until you try it out you really cannot know how it will "play." That's because games are essentially complex systems, so changes in even a single rule (however minor) can have all sorts of unpredictable ramifications -- sort of like the idea of a butterfly affecting the weather.

Last class, my students brought in their designs for 8x8 games using the pieces of a checkers game (or whatever additions they wanted to provide). I asked them, by a show of hands, how many had actually tested their designs by playing them. Fewer than 1/4 of the class had done so, which did not surprise me. And so I was also not surprised to find that their groups had a lot of trouble making any one of their designs work -- or, as was the case with one group, they very quickly latched onto the only game concept that anyone had actually tried out ahead of time. The interesting thing, though, was that most of the class period was spent trying out their games, and trying to get them to work through collaborative play and experimentation. If they learned nothing else from today's class, then, it was the importance of play testing!

I have been learning the value of play testing myself, first hand, as I try to develop my "Rutgers Football: The Board Game" concept. Initially, I had tried to make it work as an 8x8 game, but in playing it a bit with my nephew we quickly realized that something had to change. Either we needed a much bigger field or we needed fewer pieces -- something more akin to a backyard pickup game than a full-blown eleven-man squad.

Back to the drawing board!

At first I tried a 10x20 game board, but I also found that too small for 11 pieces. The working prototype turned out to be 20x40 -- or 800 squares! If you had told me when I started that the game would have to be that big to work like football, I would not have believed it. But the more I actually looked at the scale of a football field (which I did quite a bit searching for football field images), the more I realized that the game of football itself takes place on a gridiron of an even larger scale.

800-square prototype of Rutgers Football

I have still not settled on all the rules of the game -- but I also have not played it enough to know what it really needs. I do, however, have a fully functional and playable prototype so I can keep modifying and improving the rules. And I can try it out on other people.

Rutgers Football 20x40 game board

I was most proud of the game board, which I will eventually print out in color and on a larger scale than the black and white prototype I've put together. The way I made it is that I found an image online showing the Rutgers stadium field from above -- but at an angle -- and had to play with the "Edit">"transform">"skew" feature of Adobe Photoshop to get it to look like a bird's-eye view (above). I then added a custom grid to the picture -- creating a "custom pattern" on a transparent background, then stretching it over the image of the field I had created. I was surprised at how quickly the whole thing came together, though it took a lot of experimentation and prototyping -- just like creating the game itself. I then cut the image into three parts and pasted it into Word to create a three-page PDF for easy printing and sharing.
Fiki Football goal post and ball

I am waiting for the Fiki Football goal posts and balls and the green and black "Football Guy" plastic players I've ordered from Amazon before I generate the final prototype. I suppose I'll have to research ways of dying plastic plastic pieces red. But, if the game is playable, I'm very close to having everything I need for the final prototype. Then the real fun of promoting it begins... But at least my students can learn from my experiences -- as well as from their own.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My 8x8 Ideas

Today students were asked to develop an 8x8 game. I decided to take on the challenge myself. Though I've previously developed a chess variant called Dracula Chess, I wanted to do something more accessible and interesting for our class. Originally I thought of just simplifying the Dracula Chess concept and incorporating cards (along the lines of Knightmare Chess). But it still seemed like a rather esoteric game that required people basically to know chess to a significant depth to appreciate. I also wanted to take on the challenge of developing a game that used all four of Roger Caillois's fundamental categories of play: strategic competition, luck, role play (mimicry), and physical activity.

Initially I played around with a number of ideas, including dice to decide battles (on the model of Risk), various card schemes (including one where you could plant mines on certain squares in your territory -- with the proviso that you could not occupy that square yourself without being blown up, which could give away their location to an observant opponent with a good memory), and various interesting movements of the checkers (including having them jump over each other like "chinese checkers" with the goal of reaching the other side of the board).

As I thought about these ideas over Super Bowl weekend, it suddenly dawned on me that a good role play "back story" would be football. Football would provide roles, and would also impose its own rules, which you could try to mimic in a checkers-like setting. What I came up with was Rutgers Football: The Board Game. It still needs quite a bit of work, and would obviously work best on a bigger board (probably 10x10, plus endzones), but I like the basic concept and (based on my research so far) it appears to be original.

Board and Card Games on YouTube

Later in the course, as students begin to develop their final projects, they will be required to do some research to see if other people have developed games that resemble the one they're developing. They can do much of this research online, and I strongly recommend that they actually purchase at least one game with similarities to their own. I will be saying more about this in future posts, but I thought I'd mention an interesting resource that I've been exploring a bit myself, which is, of all things, YouTube.

YouTube actually turns out to be a great resource for learning about games, because you can find people playing the games that interest you or describing and showing the game play, so that you can practically learn as much about how that game works as you would if you had played the game yourself -- and certainly much more than you can learn from a brief description at BoardGameGeek.

I was especially impressed by the series of video board game reviews posted by Prof. Scott Nicholson titled "Board Games with Scott." He makes a fun and interesting presentation and packs a lot of information in a relatively short time. I came across his stuff searching for videos of boardgames with a football theme (mentioned in my last post), and I liked very much his detailed 15-minute review of Pizza Box Football (where you get to hear Scott play his sax). In the future, I think I will make his lecture Board Games 101 (32 minutes) required viewing for the course, especially because it does a great job of covering fun party games, which are not a part of my own expertise. He also talks about a wide range of interesting and unfamiliar games (including the poker-based game "Havoc," which sounds like a lot of fun). I'm not sure I agree with his categories--especially what he calls "Family Games," since his examples involve a lot of death and destruction (he seems to like war games). His videos would be worthwhile viewing for anyone still searching for an interesting game for game day.

Besides occasional game reviews posted by fans, you will also find some high-quality commercial videos for games on the market, such as Card Football (4 minutes), which clearly explains the poker-based mechanics of this game, which is sure to be popular with college students who might like both football and poker. You can even find an occasional series of videos explaining games in detail, such as Magic, The Gathering (also parts 2, 3, 4, etc.) which is discussed in our text as having founded an entirely new type of game involving card collecting.

So if you want to learn more about games, YouTube can be a great resource -- though, obviously, it is hit or miss, since only current games with fan support are likely to be represented there.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Football Board and Card Games

Thinking about the Super Bowl today, I'm developing a concept for an 8x8 football-based game. To help me think about that game some more, and to check if the idea hasn't already been developed, I did a little online research to see what's out there -- much as students will be required to do when they design their final projects. Here were some of the more interesting ones I came across (though I hardly started on the search at BoardGameGeek):
The Paper Football Association
Who knew that the game you played as a kid had official rules and tournaments?

NFL FIKI Football Board Game
The thing that comes closest to my concept.

Football Board Game Patent
Not enough here to judge, but interesting concept.

Pro Draft
I like BoardGameGeek for info on old games.

Interview with the Designers of Card Football
Poker meets football in this game of strategy and chance.

Pizza Box Football - Board Game - Interview
You have to give them credit for the great box concept. The game sounds less than appetizing to me.

Big Sunday Football
Catch the video (a good marketing idea). A board game that tries to cover every rule, including penalties (which, if you ask me, is the most boring part of the game).

Electric Football
They still make this stupid game? Even when I had one as a kid, I thought it was a scam.

Football Guys
Not exactly a game, but hmmmm -- those would make interesting play pieces.

Radical Play TV Football
Football causes fewer injuries on TV than in real life.

Game Design (01:355:375:01)