Archive for October, 2013
I just put the finishing touches of paint on the ships for 2 extra copies of New Bedford. This means that we are ready to send it out to gamers interested in playtesting it (or playing it again.)
We are especially looking for players to test learning it from the rulebook. If you are interested in helping with this, please get in touch!
This is the first post in my series of Game Theory topics. Today, I share my thoughts on isomorphism in game design. What is that? Read on to find out.
Recently, TC Petty III wrote a post about a new game he was developing about isolating the element Xenon.
The game looks like it is off to an interesting start, but there was something in the post that stuck with me. The post talks about the author’s dislike for games which add a rather bland theme to complement what is essentially a bland mechanic. Then I read this sentence:
“I’ve been challenging myself to design games that absolutely cannot be transposed into other themes without drastically altering the gameplay.”
This got me thinking about isomorphism. Isomorphism, in the mathematical sense, is the ability to map relationships between sets. Game design is typically interested in mapping the relationships between the elements of the theme to the relationships between game mechanics (excluding abstract games with no theme).
A mapping can be bad in three ways. The first way is when relationships between thematic elements are not preserved when applied to the mechanics. Most theme versions of Monopoly are very close to this, by simply renaming pieces without changing how the game works. The second way is when relationships between mechanics are only trivially related. Many role playing games fall into this category, by relying heavily on card text and imagery to drive the game and using a generic playing field and dice to add random elements.
The third bad mapping is more complex, in which some relationships are maintained, but some thematic elements seem forced to meet the mechanics, or some mechanics seem arbitrary to meet the theme. Games in the third category are more rare because this type of bad mapping typically makes something “seem” wrong.
There are different degrees of mapping that can occur in a game. The more the theme and mechanics reinforce each other, the more isomorphic they are, and the more “natural” the game feels. Agricola is often cited as a game that is very natural, because the farming mechanics (mostly) make sense with farming in real life. A game like Settlers of Catan contains much less mapping, because although wood comes from a forest and ore comes from a mountain, the elements are somewhat arbitrary, as shown by the existence of Star Trek: Catan.
Here is where the challenge of isomorphism comes in. Not only can ideas be mapped onto mechanics, but ideas can be mapped onto other ideas, and mechanics can be mapped onto other mechanics. (For instance, 36 Cards used in place of 2 six sided dice.) The downside of isomorphism is that for any given mechanic, there is more than one theme that can be applied, and vice versa. But, there is also a side of isomorphism that works for the designer. The more the theme and mechanic are isomorphic, the more the game begins to act like a model of the world. The more isomorphism there is between the two, the more detailed the model becomes, and the harder it is to separate them.
As a designer, any theme will help suggest mechanics. A theme that is isomorphic to the mechanic will make this step easier. Likewise, new mechanics will be easier to fit into the theme. It becomes easy to see how different elements will fit into that model. Due to the isomorphism, both the real world and the model will be affected very similarly. This is how I do a lot of my own design, creating mechanics and finding thematic elements and matching them up. All of this is not to say that games need a high degree of isomorphism between theme and mechanic, or any theme at all. Several highly rated and popular games are only lightly thematic, but are good games on the strength of their mechanics.
The goal of designing a game that cannot be separated from its theme is really just the goal of finding the perfect theme for the mechanics. In the end, isomorphism is just another element that should be considered when designing a game. When done right, it can make both designing and playing the game easier. It can make a game that is powerful in its flexibility or a game with a strong identity.
Oakleaf Games will be at EuroQuest, demoing New Bedford as part of the Designers Den!
This is a convention focusing on Euro-style games, and they have set aside 3 tables to feature new games from their designers.
New Bedford is currently scheduled from 10 AM to Noon on Saturday, November 16.
Then, at 12:30, Nat will be participating in the Game Designers Forum. There are already several great designers ready to contribute their unique points of view, so it should be an interesting discussion!
More convention news!
We are happy to announce that a copy of New Bedford will be at BGGCon 2013 in Dallas.
A big thanks goes out to Darrell Louder, designer of Compounded from Dice Hate Me Games and co-host of the State of Games podcast, for mentioning New Bedford in the podcast and offering to take the game along.
Darrell and New Bedford will be in the UNPUB Protozone. Look for the Big Blue Noodle.
We are honored by the favorable comparison to Puerto Rico and Le Havre. In fact, we are are especially impressed by being called
…cleaner and more elegant than Le Havre.
Thanks, Paul, for the great write up. Looking forward to getting a production copy in your hands, as well.
I chose the word “goods” for this game for two main reasons. First, it is shorter, so it is easier to fit the text on buildings. Second, I think of them as produced items, rather than raw materials, like a “natural resource”. Although wood is arguably more a resource than a good. It also feels more thematic to me to sell goods at a general store.
Wood and food were the two first goods I included, since you need them to build ships and stock them with supplies. Bricks were added for buildings. Money was another obvious need for the game, both based on theme and on gameplay. Several other types of goods were considered.
Because of the game time and setting, iron seemed like a great thematic resource to include, in the form of tools, harpoons, and buildings in a society on the verge of the industrial revolution. Sadly, it was tried and rejected at the very beginning. It worked like brick, it cost the same as brick, it was obtained the same way as brick. (As they say, if it walks like a brick and quacks like a brick, it’s a brick.) So it had to go.
Iron was replaced by Lumber, which made it through most of development. Lumber was effectively worth 2 wood, and could either be gained like brick, or at the Lumber Mill, making it potentially cheap and easy to get. My reasoning was that the wood had been converted to a more valuable form that was easier to work with. Although lumber and wood were two completely separate resources to me, most people found it overcomplicated. So, I took it out to simplify the game. The fact that it was removed so easily is proof that it it wasn’t adding much to the game.
I looked at possible other goods, but there would need to be something that couldn’t be accomplished with the existing goods. Stone would have the same use as brick. And although sheep were important in the time and area, their purpose in the game would have shared elements of both wood and food, so sheep didn’t really add much. I considered using different goods in expansions, but all of the ideas changed the focus of the theme, rather than contributed to it.
When choosing money, I had to do a little research. Paper money was hard to come by, and was not standardized until the 1860s. Coins, on the other hand, were common, relatively standard, and are much more fun to throw around in a game. It also made sense to have a larger denomination coin, and since points were $5:1, a $5 coin also made it easy to count points at the end. In addition, it is a very natural addition based on modern currency.
I looked at using plastic US coins, but realized that Abraham Lincoln could not be pictured on the currency. So I went looking for some pictures of old coins, hoping to find $1 and $5 coins. Unfortunately, I only found $1 coins from the right era, and they were gold. I wanted the different denomination coins to have different colors and sizes for easy identification. Moby Dick references silver coins several times, so the $1 coins became silver. For the $5 coins, I reversed the front image to help distinguish them more. I added a darker 1 and 5 to the backs.
Observant players will notice that although the $ symbol is used in text on whale tokens, buildings, and in the rules, it does not appear on the coins, just like modern US currency.