The Writing’s on the Blog

A while back I tweeted that I’d enjoy reading some “returning to blogging” blog posts:



Well, here’s another such post for my collection. I’ve felt for some time that I needed to get back on some kind of writing, somewhere. (There are a lot of great choices these days.) But I’ve been stopped by all the things that stop people: what will I focus on, do I have the time, can I commit, why can’t I get this damn WordPress theme to work right (not this one, actually), etc., etc.

None of that’s a good excuse. And even if it’s many months between this post and the next, at least I’m scratching some kind of itch. The writing’s been on the wall for some time — time to get it out there. See you soon (I hope).

Help Bring the Cardboard Renaissance to South by Southwest

I had the good fortune to attend GenCon a couple of weeks ago (which I’ve written about for Shut Up & Sit Down), and it’s only made me more excited to try to bring some hot cardboard action to South by Southwest. I’ve proposed a panel there for March about lessons that cardboard and electronic games may have for each other, composed of three of the most interesting publishers in board gaming:

  • Mark Kaufmann, co-founder of Days of Wonder, which publishes the best-selling Ticket to Ride
  • Kristin Looney, head of Looney Labs, which publishes the Fluxx games
  • Cory Jones of Cryptozoic Entertainment, which publishes a lot of licensed games, as well as a few interesting originals such as Gravwell, which I need to break out at game night.

You can help make it happen by voting for the panel over at the SXSW panelpicker. It would be great to get a panel like this going at SXSW, as we’d probably also do a n open play lounge with a bunch of board games and other fun stuff. I really want to see it happen mostly because it would be fun! So drop us a vote over there, will you? Thanks!

Boy Scouts to Offer Merit Badge in Game Design

It’s a measure of how deeply games in general have penetrated our society that the Boy Scouts will soon offer a merit badge in game design. Scouts can apparently design any kind of game they like, from dice games to board games to smartphone games or more. They don’t need to code up a mobile game, but they do need to produce and present a design, and, notably, iterate on it in response to feedback. The program was created with the help of a handful of game design professionals. In a slightly weird twist, the Scouts will roll it out at South by Southwest Interactive this coming week. I’m not sure that would have been my choice, but I’m also not sure I can think of a better one. In any case, I like the spirit of the new merit badge. Helping entertain others can easily be seen as part of the Scouts’ mission to train young people in “the responsibilities of participating citizenship,” among other things. After all, we’ve seen how making board games can be a “better philosophy of life” — if the program can manage to be about the games themselves, that is, and not about the marketing. SXSWi, I’m looking at you…

Your Favorite Board Games Were Evolved, Not Designed

Well, maybe not your favorite board games. But Yahoo! Games, of all places, has a blog post on the shady origins of five popular board games that looks at the genesis of Monopoly, Life, Clue, Scrabble, and Chutes & Ladders. All of them have origins that are cloudier than you might think, and none sprang from the brows of their creators fully formed — that is, no one sat down to design these games, they were all modifications and refinements of games that had previously existed — some borrowing elements of board games that had existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Interestingly, many of them originated in games with a darker tone than the ones that become popular — Monopoly was originally a cautionary tale, not a celebration of capitalism, until Charles Darrow got his hands on it; Clue was somewhat more gory; Life was a bit of a downer (it included a “Suicide” square); Scrabble languished through 16 years and several refinements before finding its sales niche — at Macy’s.

Having been dreamed up for the most part in the early 20th century, it’s no surprise that these games didn’t get the intentional design treatment that games get today. But in a way, the process was similar. Most board game publishers today employ what are known as “developers” to take a designer’s version of a game and refine it for the market. It’s impossible to say, of course, whether those refinements are always improvements. I’d love to see “designer’s editions” of board games — akin to the “director’s cut” of a movie. In Monopoly’s case, you can just about piece together early versions into playable games, thanks to sites like “THE HISTORY OF THE LANDLORD’S GAME & MONOPOLY” and others. And in other cases, board game publishers are bringing out updated versions of older games — and including the originals in the same box. Fantasy Flight Games’ Merchant of Venus (which I reviewed recently for Shut Up & Sit Down) is a great example of this, as it includes both the original 1988 design from Richard Hamblen, and the updated (somewhat more playable) version from Rob Kouba. I’d love to see more…

Gaming Began With Ameritrash

It’s just now struck me that the however-many-thousand-year history of gaming began with a very distinct class of board game known as Ameritrash. Don’t believe me? Consider the evidence:

  • Senet, commonly mentioned as the oldest known board game, features the movement of each player’s units around a track toward a goal; along the way, superior tactics can cause an opponent grave setbacks — Ameritrash often features unit movement and some kind of conflict or combat among units
  • Movement in Senet is determined by the casting of lots, i.e., the throw of some anciently flavored dice — Ameritrash games are notoriously more dice-heavy than their Eurostyle counterparts
  • Ameritrash is also often strongly themed — Senet has its theme as well: its board seems to depict the soul’s journey to the afterlife, and results of games were thought to carry a certain amount of soothsaying weight.

So there you have it. The first proper board game was Ameritrash.

Take that, Eurogames!

Though to be sure, all it takes is a loose portal token to set you back on the right track…

The Time For A Digital “New Journalism” Is Now

Frédéric Filloux had an interesting post this week on The Need for a Digital “New Journalism” in which he calls for “an urgent evolution in the way newspapers are written” online. Among other points, Filloux — who writes the Monday Note, an insightful weekly column about “media, tech, and business models” — winds up by exhorting digital media to “invent its own journalistic genres.”

The web and its mobile offspring, are calling for their own New Journalism comparable to the one that blossomed in the Seventies. While the blogosphere has yet to find its Tom Wolfe, the newspaper industry still has a critical role to play: It could be at the forefront of this essential evolution in journalism.

While I’m not entirely sure that a kind of New Journalism isn’t already at work on the Web — and it may well have its Tom Wolfe already — I appreciate Filloux’s broader point: instead of decrying the “death of journalism,” newspapers and news reporters of whatever stripe would be far better off to simply reinvent it. Stalwart institutions like The New York Times still carry enough weight to have a serious influence on the future of electronic journalism, should they so choose. But that won’t last forever.

The Board Game That Led to the First MMO

Richard Bartle's Wizards & Heroes board game

In our book on virtual worlds and online games (The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse), we give a lot of attention, fittingly, to the first persistent multiplayer online world. Known as MUD1 and dating from 1978, the Multi-User Dungeon was designed and developed by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle — the latter of whom had an interesting post on Google+ last week about a board game he designed that had influenced the computer game.

The game, originally called Wizzards & Heros, was “inspired by a make-your-own game article I’d read in the magazine Games and Puzzles,” Bartle writes. As he describes it: “The basic idea was that you were a wizard or hero (or, later under D&D influence, priest) who was out seeking treasure. You would get treasure mainly from killing monsters, [but] simply killing a monster didn’t get you treasure: you had to have an advice card telling you that the monster had the treasure. Advice cards were acquired by ending your turn in a village (red circles on a road) or in a city (red hexes). You couldn’t sit in a village to get more advice but you could in a city; however, in a city there was a risk of plague, so you wouldn’t want to stay there long.”

There’s a great description of the game in Bartle’s Google+ post, including a very cool “corpse run” mechanic that’s common in electronic MMOs but which I’ve never encountered before in an analog game.

One misconception that Bartle corrects: The game predated his and his friends’ knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, which is often cited as an ancestor of MUD1. D&D had an influence, but perhaps not as much as many writers (including myself) have assumed. “Much has been written about the influence of D&D on the development of MMOs, but in MUD‘s case at least there wasn’t a lot. I drew far more on games I’d made myself,” Bartle says. Another argument for grabbing your magic markers and scotch tape and getting started making board games.

Strategy Game Gets Book Deal

The most interesting part of this press release announcing that Ireland-based game company Digit raises US$2.5m is not the financing news, but the last sentence of the release: “Kings of the Realm [Digit’s free-to-play strategy title] is due out later this year, along with the first book in a series from Penguin.” [Emphasis mine.]

Though it doesn’t seem to have originated as an intentional package deal (news of the book deal was first released last fall: Digit and Penguin ink Kings of the Realm book deal), it’s a smart move nonetheless, and I expect to see a more such deals in future, and more projects that are envisioned as this kind of true “transmedia” marriage right out of the gate.

Rather than cobble together an adaptation after the fact, or take advantage of a property’s popularity to piggy-back a game or other add-on, it makes a lot of sense to craft a number of components as pieces of a larger, more integrated whole, letting each medium take advantage of its own strengths and feed into the strengths of the others involved.

It will take a lot of vision to do this right, and a lot of talent. But it’s coming. And it’s going to be really cool when it gets here, seamlessly reaching into unexpected corners of your media-consuming life to bring you a richer, more immersive style of entertainment than we’ve seen before. I can’t wait to see this happen, and be part of bringing it to life.

Fitting Mobile Games Onto a Board

Temple Run Danger Chase: fun?
This is cross-posted from the Quora blog I recently started as an experiment. Why am I cross-posting this here? Who knows…

I love the idea of board games based on video games. But I’m not sure whether I like that idea better, or the idea of board games based on mobile gaming apps — like the Temple Run Danger Chase game, a review of which I stumbled across the other day.

The idea of tying board games to licensed IP in this way is very appealing. It doesn’t absolve the game of its burden of fun (the Temple Run game sounds like it may or may not have accomplished that), but it does give the games a leg up in a market in which few original titles see any appreciable sales. I know that games for properties like the Walking Dead and others have done very well for themselves, probably much better than if they’d just been pushed out into the market as games qua games.

This, of course, is the same avenue that a lot of electronic game publishers go down, not always with good results. Licensed video games run the gamut from fantastic (some of the Star Wars games) to abysmal (too many titles to list). But then, so do adaptations of books into movies. The license doesn’t make the product any better, it just makes it draw more attention, from a more qualified audience. And in the low-margin world of board games, that’s important.

The reason I like the idea of games made from apps is that the interaction footprint of an app is generally so small that you can extract a nice tight core mechanic from it for use in a game. What’s an interaction footprint? It’s something I just made up; like it? It’s a term that’s meant to characterize the number of possible interactions you can have with an app, or with anything, I suppose. Temple Run has an exceedingly small interaction footprint: you can swipe up, you can swipe down, you can swipe right, or you can swipe left, and two of those do essentially the same thing. In fact, the interaction footprint of Temple Run is so small that it sounds like the designers of the board game saw the need to add some.

Mobile games, especially those playable on a phone, are often forced by constraints of form factor to boil their experience down to a few key interactions. That’s not the only way to design a good board game, but it can be helpful, especially in a game for the mass market. Board games have other constraints, of course, in that feedback happens much more slowly than in electronic apps, and so more variety may need to be built in. But my top-of-head thought is that there must be a ton of mobile games out there with small enough interaction footprints that they would translate well into analog games. I’ll be right back, after I hunt up a few.

UPDATE: Forgot to include the news that board games for DOTA2 and Team Fortress 2 are on their way. Cool!

Blogging at Quora

For some reason, I’ve started a blog over at Quora. Back to Analog will (probably) look at what I refer to in my first post as the Return to Substance: the current trend toward the tactile and physical, toward the substantive and meaningful, that I see going on all over the place these days. Not a rejection of technology, but a more reasonable relationship to it. Go check it out and let me know what you think.

I do like the blogging interface over there, it’s super-smooth. And I can’t find it now, but on the page where they urge you to start your own blog there, they have some great assertions about how easy you’ll find it to immediately garner a huge and productive audience. Which at this point in the history of the Internet, no matter how cool your Q&A site, is a laughable thing to say.

In any case, I’m already up to five posts:


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