Archive for August, 2014

Talking about Women in Games

There has been a major stir in the gaming world recently, caused by the reaction to some opinion and analysis pieces about the treatment and depiction of women. There is a problem not just how women are depicted in video games, but how women are treated in the industry, especially when they try to call attention to the issue. There is a lot of crossover between boardgames and video games, and because many of the same issues apply in the boardgaming world, it’s an issue that everyone should take seriously. As a fan of boardgames, video games, and women (not necessarily in that order), I have a duty to myself to join in the fight to defend them.

First and foremost, disrespectful discourse cannot be tolerated. People will argue that if they are being asked to tolerate something they don’t like, then people should have to tolerate their opinions as well. That’s not how it works. Tolerance is not a universal right. If you disagree with something being presented reasonably, you have the right to respond to the issue reasonably. When you start to attack someone personally for their opinions, to the extent of threatening or describing violence, you leave the realm of civilization and lose your rights in the matter. This is especially true if the things you say are the exact same things that complaints are being raised about. That’s why I’m not writing this using sarcasm, so that it can’t be mistaken for a personal attack.

Now to the matter at hand. I haven’t really followed much of the original writing at the heart of this, so I can’t and won’t directly defend it. Fortunately, I can still respond to what people are saying about it, because it is an issue of equality. Women are underrepresented in all parts of the hobby. The creation side (publishers, designers, developers) is still male dominated, especially in the upper management levels, meaning that when women are involved in the development process, their work is always subject to the approval of a man. Many people have their decisions moderated by someone with a different perspective, so women are not alone in this. But the goal should be for balance. The more different perspectives you get on something, the more likely it will represent people from all perspectives.

That breadth of perspective is important for both creators and players. Most games are centered around male protagonists. Including a broader array of characters for players to control can provide an extra experience to games. We should encourage games to present the broadest range of experience possible, not limit ourselves to a single slice. And if you are unhappy that there will be fewer games in which you can identify with the character, that is the exact complaint many women have now. “White male” is the default, and the existence of a default at all is evidence of a problem. If there isn’t a specific plot-driven need, or mechanic-driven need in boardgames, for a player to have a specific identity, then it should be the choice of the player, barring technical limitations. Notice that I stipulate a plot- or mechanic-driven need, because “that’s the way it was” is not an excuse, especially in a game in which other representations of the real world have been made arbitrarily. This doesn’t even say anything about the way women are portrayed in games. I just read a great piece rebutting the argument (and I use the term loosely) of the typical representation of women for the sake of “realism”.

Finally, this all comes around to games journalism. We, as a community, need to recognize these issues and address them in order to grow and thrive. You don’t have to agree with opinions (like “women are too slutty in games”), but you can’t argue facts (like “women are portrayed as sexualized in games much more frequently than men”). Saying a fact isn’t true doesn’t make it so, and ignoring an issue you don’t want to hear about doesn’t make it go away. And when the issue is that someone’s perspective is being ignored, telling that person not to talk about it proves them right. You effectively say “from my perspective, you’re wrong about your perspective.” You are telling someone outside in the cold that they cannot be cold because you are inside and warm.

After struggling to understand why so many people are vehemently opposed to these issues being raised, let alone addressing and correcting them, I can only think it comes down to fear. It is difficult to be told that what you think you know is wrong. It is hard to deal with the idea of something you love being changed. These things are especially difficult when they go to the heart of something that you consider a large part of your identity. Part of the fear seems to be of loss of power. Men have a lot of control over what video games get made, men typically hold the positions of power in video games, and men have power over their own opinions over games. It is no wonder that so many are afraid of losing some of that agency to women telling them what to play, portraying women in positions of power, and women telling them their current opinions are wrong. But changing your perspective to incorporate those things doesn’t mean you lose any of your identity, in fact it makes your identity stronger. You can show how your identity is separate from those around you, in a way you couldn’t before.

As awareness of my upcoming game New Bedford grows, I am starting to encounter people who dislike the game, simply due to the theme. This was a concern the publisher and I both had, and it’s not something we want to ignore or push under the rug. Even though the game presents whaling in an historical context, it still puts players in the role of someone who hunts whales for a living. It strikes me that some of the reactions to articles about women in gaming see the subject in the same light as whaling, that is, a subject so horrible that to even mention it is worthy of insult and violence. Instead of retreating from the issue, we should use the opportunity to learn more. By pretending it doesn’t exist at all, you negate all the work done to right the wrong. If the issue has truly been solved, then there is no harm in discussing it. And if it hasn’t been solved yet, learning about it and talking about it are the only ways it will get solved. Anna contributed some thoughts on women in boardgaming a while ago, and I felt a need to say something now, and add my own personal experience. Every voice that contributes to raising awareness of this issue helps. With enough voices of reason speaking calmly, we can drown out even the loudest of irrational voices.

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Grand Con and a Peek Ahead

After hearing about it on the last State of Games podcast, my wonderful wife suggested that I attend Grand Con. So I’ve added it to the events schedule. It will be the weekend between the Boston Festival of Indie Games, and Congress of Gamers, so September will be busy for me.

The Boston FiG will be all about New Bedford, GrandCon and Congress of Gamers will offer some chances for me to get some new games on the table. I’ll still be working on New Bedford, and Nantucket,  but I haven’t quite decided what other games I’m going to bring, yet. I have several options that I still need to get working including a quick wonder-building game, a more in-depth version of the mining game I started for the 2-player print and play challenge on BGG, and a reworked and rethemed version of Human Resources.  In general, I’m focusing on smaller quicker games, that I’ll talk about as soon as I decide what they are.

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Review: Splendor – All that Glitters is Not Gold

Splendor is a very good game. It was nominated for the 2014 Spiel des Jahres, and I had heard a lot of good things about it. I bought it and played several games, but I have mixed feelings about it. I really wanted to call this review “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” but I thought that would be misleading, because I didn’t love the game. I am very glad I played, because it does a lot of things very well. Overall, Splendor is a good reminder that a game that is interesting is not necessarily a game that is fun.
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Leaving the Terracotta Warriors Behind

Today, I’m performing a bit of a post-mortem on a game design I’ve been working on for a while. Ed Mariott’s post about quitting Brooklyn Bridge was very insightful, and while it didn’t inspire me to quit, it gave voice to some of the same things I was feeling. The game was initially developed as “Terracotta Warriors”, a little over a year ago, as I was first showing New Bedford in public. The theme is about the Terracotta Army of the first Qin Emperor. It’s a fascinating subject that I was drawn to based on a PBS documentary.

At the heart was a great twist on the role selection mechanic. In the established genre, players select from the same handful of roles to perform a variety of actions based on the tableau they have built. Each role has a bonus that the person selecting it receives, while everyone gets to perform a basic action. My twist was to have each role provide a unique bonus. Players build a tableau of the role cards they have previously selected. Into this system, I added resource collection, so each of the basic actions is associated with a resource type, with the unique roles providing permanent benefits, one-time-use abilities, immediate gains in resources, or a scoring bonus. Each basic action was also associated with a paradigm of earning points: slow but steady point gain, occasional multiple-resources to big points, trading for cash worth points, and a bidding/auction for points. (The final category was no points, but had a lot of powerful special abilities) The unique roles were thematically tied to the fact the each terracotta warrior (out of thousands) was unique.
(Fidelitas, now on Kickstarter uses a similar idea of suit plus unique action, but has a much different core mechanic. It’s worth checking out.)

It was initially a bit cumbersome to use, because I had tokens for all of the resources. I eventually switched to a resource track for convenience, but that added some problems with the auction mechanics. I also had problems with setting up the game for various player counts (ambitiously 2-6). It was initially a completely random distribution from the entire deck of 100 cards, requiring a balance between specialization, which tended to be powerful, and generalization, which was important for mitigating risk. But the potential for runaway games based on luck of the draw was too great, so I had to rework setup into something more complicated, but still reasonable for a 90 minute game.

When testing with friends, they seemed to like the initial concept and where the game was going. These are serious gaming friends I can trust to tell me the truth about a game. But the theme just wasn’t working. I didn’t have a clear idea in my head of who players were and what they were doing. I think this is absolutely critical to designing a game. If you don’t know what players are doing, how should they. I attempted to focus the theme more around the actual production of the army, but this didn’t feel much better.I started considering alternate themes, but nothing felt quite right. Based on the relationship between the basic actions and resource types, something always felt out of place.

I spent a while retheming it to something a little more accessible, building a wild west town.  The roles all become unique characters that players select to come live in their towns. While this was more thematically interesting, it presented another problem. The theme was not very tightly integrated with the mechanics. There is nothing wrong with making a more abstract game with a loose theme, but I was having doubts whether that was even the type of game I wanted this to be. I was very fortunate to get this on the table in front of a number of excellent designers,. While the response was generally positive, they echoed some of my own private concerns while suggesting excellent ways to streamline and improve the game. I saw that I needed to simplify the choices to speed it up, adjust how some of the major mechanics work, but probably most importantly, trading needed to be available at any time, to keep players from getting stuck.

The issue with this big change is that I now need to replace that basic action with an entirely new mechanic. So far I have been unable to find something that fits in with the scheme relating actions to resources to scoring methods, that also fits within the larger theme of the game. And so I am left with a rather large hole in an otherwise functional game. As I look back, the game has come quite far from the original concept, but that concept now seems to be holding it back. So I am left in the position where I can drop the remaining parts of the original game to create something entirely new, or leave everything behind.

So I have decided to put the idea on my shelf. The resources need to be disassociated from the roles and scoring. Scoring may even need to be a separate abstraction layer. The current 1-to-1-to-1 relationship between them is too limiting. I think the core mechanic is still great, but I haven’t found the right use for it yet. I need to establish the basic behavior of a game, and then use the mechanic to put it in motion. It’s a great game design lesson that you need a lot more than just a great core mechanic. Even when you have a game that works, you have to ask yourself if it’s the best possible version of that game. If something doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t, even if you can’t identify what specifically is wrong. Following that intuition is crucial to game development. Sometimes it is something you can solve, and sometimes you need to walk away.

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Alchemy!

More boardgames should use Alchemy. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that alchemy was one of my favorite elements of the video game Secret of Evermore. And it plays a large part in Fullmetal Alchemist, one of my favorite anime.  These provide two entirely unique manifestations of alchemy to provide detail and enrich their worlds. But there is still a common thread running through them–a thread that can be woven into a wide variety of experiences. Read the rest of this entry »

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Gencon, Boston FiG, and Congress of Gamers

GenCon (the largest tabletop gaming convention in the US) was last week, and New Bedford was there. Drive Through Reviews sat down with Dice Hate me and recorded a Video overview. You can check it out over on the DriveThruGames website, under GenCon 2014 Coverage, or look at it over on BoardGameGeek.

In other events news, New Bedford was selected for the 2014 Boston Festival of Indie Games (FiG) Tabletop Games Showcase. I will be there September 13th demoing all day. Stop by and play!

At the end of September, I will also be heading down to Congress of Gamers, in Rockville, Md, September 27th and 28th. I will have New Bedford, Nantucket, and some other designs for playtesting. This is expected to be an official Unpub Protozone event, but details are not yet available.

The events page has been updated.

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Review: Fleet and Fleet Arctic Bounty – You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

Fleet, is quickly becoming one of my favorite games. It is a game by the design duo of Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback (collectively referred to as the Fleeples)  about running a fishing fleet in a modern setting. I missed last year’s Kickstarter for Arctic Bounty, but kept hearing good things about it. So purely on the strength of these recommendations, I went out early this year and bought both Fleet and the Arctic Bounty expansion. Then they sadly had to sit on my shelf for several months until I finally got a chance to play. I am so glad that I did not wait to get the expansion. Now that I have introduced it to my regular group, I expect it to become a fixture in our rotation. Read the rest of this entry »

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