A few things Mark Wallace

Tag: board games

Storytelling Together (Not Bowling Alone)

I’ve always been really interested in the kind of collaborative storytelling that emerges from tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons and the like, and I keep enough people in my Twitter feed to occasionally notice new stuff going on in the space. At the moment, things seem particularly rich, with a ton of interesting Kickstarters and other stuff popping up:

  • Microscope is what I think of as a “historytelling” game, which lets you “explore an epic history of your own creation, hundreds or thousands of years long, all in an afternoon.” Ben Robbins, the game’s creator, is now Kickstarting an expansion set. Worth the $10 for the pdf, I say.
  • Downfall (currently being Kickstarted) sounds like a very interesting historytelling game. You don’t so much create a society as briefly describe and define it — and then narrate its collapse. Awesome.
  • The publishers of Fiasco, a really cool take on tabletop roleplaying (catch Wil Wheaton playing it here), are now Kickstarting The Warren, which essentially turns Watership Down (one of my favorite novels) into an RPG. Such a great idea.
  • There’s a new edition of the Blue Rose role-playing game of “romantic fantasy,” a loosely defined genre that focuses more on character development and interaction than on swordplay and dungeon crawls. Its Kickstarter reaped more than $85,000.
  • A Patreon from Tracy Barnett, who created the School Daze role-playing game about being an awesome high schooler a la Buffy, or whatever other kind of awesomeness you can think up.
  • I noticed Cheat Your Own Adventure via this blog post and this Tweet (or maybe this one), complete with a fun after-action report. It’s a collaborative storytelling take on the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood. Definitely want to play this with my stepkids, who are 13 and 16. Grab the two pages of rules here.
  • Plus, a game about life with migraines.

One of the things that’s interesting to me about this is that, like board games, these are experiences that all but require people to be in the same room at the same time. (You could, of course, play these games via Skype or the like.) That’s one of the things I love about analog gaming, and it’s also part of the reason I think it’s important: It’s an activity that brings people together at a point in history when technology makes it ever easier to remain in our own little orbits, talking to and seeing each other less and less and less. (Not that it requires that, it just makes it easier.)

I have a hard time envisioning tabletop roleplaying games becoming popular in a really significant, mainstream way, a way that cuts across generations, genders, and class divides. (I could be wrong.) But in a world where people are still afraid of bowling alone, it’s nice to see so much activity around a pastime that requires participants to build and engage with their community.

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 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.

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!


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