Alive, or Why I Do It

This Sunday I’m running my now world-famous WFRP LARP, Sunset Claws for the third time. Over the last two weeks I’ve been arranging things, assigning roles and updating folk using the wonders of social media. Yesterday I was explaining that Warhammer is a setting which does not pretend racism doesn’t exist, but rather puts the racism front and centre, but that the purpose of this is to satirize such attitudes, to reflect the smallness of human beings, not celebrate it as a good idea. Thus, I ended, while the game space is safe for all races, cultures, genders and sexualities, we encourage you to watch your purse around those thieving halflings and don’t talk to dwarves they’re all drunken louts who’ve never done a days work in their lives.

Then this happened:

Player 1: it is those poncey tree hugging elvish types to be looking out for, always with their nose in a scroll and you never see one drink a decent beer.

Player 2 (playing an Elf): I beg your pardon?

Player 3: he said “it is those poncey tree hugging elvish types to be looking out for”. I’m surprised you didn’t hear him, what with those big ears of yours.

And like that, it was alive. Like Dr Frankenstein, I laughed to see my creation stand and walk unassisted. And this was all just on Facebook, remember. The spark was lit already. The game had flared into life.

I write LARPs the same way I write table-top adventures: I create strong characters that lead to interesting conflicts. And I do it for this precise joy: to see those ideas come to life. For that moment when a character that was just an idea, in my head, steps out of that prison and walks across the room and talks to other people.

I write RPGs for the same reasons, too. One of my all-time favourite WFRP moments was when my then-GM was describing a village gutted by skaven and I realized he was drawing direct inspiration from my bit in the skaven sourcebook about how spooky said villages are. I also love, more than anything, seeing my art notes turned into art. Part of it is ego: to have ideas made concrete like that is such a wonderful way to reinforce the worth of those ideas. But part of it is also about the wonder of creating life.

All games have this same idea. I love that the scenarios I created for Betrayal at House on the Hill capture the player’s imagination and drive them to act in certain ways, taking simple mechanical concepts and bringing them to life. Many of my other hobbies line up along similar lines. I love the way improv humour can create a whole suite of ideas from nothing. The way theatre can turn a box on an empty stage into a mushroom in a forest, because you want to go there. It’s why I love cartooning, too, much more than other comics, because it’s just a bunch of squiggles, but it’s alive, because of the human ability to look for faces and identity and life wherever we can. I adore puppetry because of how it takes cloth and string and makes it alive. I prefer it to CGI because CGIs too smooth, because then I don’t have to work, and that means I don’t see the act of birth, the transformation into life. The moment when the rabbit becomes the duck.

I LOVE that moment. And that’s the thing, I don’t just love it being alive, I love it COMING alive, and I love things where the two points are close enough that you get to ride the line. And it’s why I love things which break the fourth wall, because then you constantly get to ride that line again. Theatre, even when it doesn’t directly break that line, is always like this too because the actors are right there, you can touch them, they are talking to you, yet they are also in space or Athens or whatever. Theatre lives in the space where the rabbit becomes the duck. So does cartoons, with its understanding that you’re not drawing the object but the idea of the object. So does puppetry where you can see the man working the puppet, even see his lips moving yet at the same time your mind perfectly accepts the idea that the puppet is autonomous. All these live in that same rabbit-duck change-space.

And so does gaming. It asks us – no, better, it FORCES US – to enter a false reality, to accept it totally because the mechanics make us, but at no time do we leave our seats. It takes my simple ideas, and people wear them over their own personalities, and create something new. And because the barrier between the two worlds is so thin and so easily breached, you get to cross it back and forth constantly. One minute you’re the character, then the author, then the audience, then the MST3K bots making fun; you can be yourself playing an actor who is playing a character in a TV show that only exists in the roleplaying game you’re playing. And you get to make this joke nigh-constantly:

A: Right, I think we should attack C, because he’s a treacherous bastard.

B: Me too – oh you mean in the game…

And that’s why I love and play and write games. Because why settle for seeing just one reality at a time when you can see a dozen all at once, and watch them flip back and forth as you move your point of view ever so slightly. A walk between worlds, where every picture isn’t just a rabbit or a duck, but both – and more. Talk about value. And what a rush. And that’s why I do it.

WFRP on Storium: The Storium So Far

A few people have asked for the rundown on the WFRP campaign I’m playing in, and also my thoughts on Storium as a system, so here’s both, in that order.

The title of our adventures is “A Mark On the Empire”, and our initial pitch would be us coming together to ferment rebellion against the Powers That Be, in our home town and elsewhere. Our brave protagonists are:

Violet, kicked out of the Roadwardens for being too relentlessly upbeat
Kannter, House of Cards Francis Underwood crossed with a Mummerset pigfarmer (me)
Wilhelm, ex-soldier with a dark past and grim demeanour
Faragast, paranoid prognosticating Wizard who cannot tell a lie

Violet, Wilhelm and Faragast are all relative strangers to our town of Schoppendorf but no strangers to rebellion and a sense that the Powers that Be shouldn’t. Getting a tip off about a secret society dedicated to ousting the Emperor and his fellow travellers, we met at a farm one morning only to find a dead man and an assassin waiting for us. Killing the assassin in cold blood to cover our tracks let the conspirators believe we hadn’t killed the corpse of their members so they told us their plan: infiltrate a nearby Nurgle cult to steal talismans that spread disease, then use them to poison the highest of the high during an Imperial retreat. We had little choice but to accept and take up rooms the society provided at the inn. Unfortunately we were rumbled there by our local Witchhunter and had to kill him too, then hide the body. Without doing anything revolutionary at all we were up to our necks in it.

The plan was sound but we quickly realized things were far worse in Schoppendorf than just being run by bastard guildsmen who took all the money: there was a cult of Bauseele that had sprung up and was making everyone super-healthy, due no doubt to their being a front for the Nurglites in the forest. But that was also our way in: by pretending to be innocent Boesee cultists from the next town over we could find their contacts with Nurgle. Meeting the head cultist, Tim Berr and some of his young acolytes Andric and Tamla, we went the latter two into the forest to scatter the ashes (Bauseele worships wood and fire, life and death symbolized, we burn wood then we scatter the ashes). There the two young-uns were greeted joyfully by a cellar full of maniacs: Nurgle cultists raging with disease and having the most disturbing birthday party ever. After a hearty game of Pass The Balloon of Diseased-Pus they ripped off Tamla’s skin and applied some hideous goo which caused her to start screaming and sicken. We decided to leave and lock the cultists’ hideout behind us, hoping to come back later with reinforcements. Unfortuntely when we got back to town Witch Hunter Captain Slovane was setting up camp and arresting everyone and we knew we were likely to be burned or hanged by association.

We took cover in the house of one of Vi’s ex-lovers, who wasn’t impressed despite his awesome hat and our adorable piglet companion, but when Tamla worsened we had Andric take her straight to the Sisters of Shallya and went back to Kannter’s to plan. But before we could do much of that the guard was heard in the streets painting doors with plague signs and shutting down the city. We hid in a pigpen until dawn then scampered back to the Sisters only to find Tamla dead and Andric heartbroken. The Sisters thought us suspect so decided to boil us alive as a test of our fervour but around 80 degrees we convinced them we were legit. Finally having the assistance of a group that doesn’t want to murder us (for now) we were granted access to the library to research our enemy…..

As for Storium: I like it. It’s not the second coming but it makes a lot of things easier for online gaming. Since you can ignore the system entirely, I would never play-by-post without it, because it helps you organize EVERYTHING. The only problem is, as its set up, it’s weirdly blurring the role of GM and game designer compared to traditional games. Basically you tend to get rules and world and even adventure-skeleton in one inseparable bundle, so you can’t use like the Warhammer world to do your story the way you can in traditional RPGs. I’m not sure what that does to gaming, but it’s interesting, and I’m interested to see where it goes now the KS is over and they can develop it from beta.

It also has some issue with the formality of it – it’s harder to chat casually in character – but that’s an artifact of all play-by-post, I think. I have some personal issues with the system, but that’s just taste, so I won’t get into them here.

Gaming And Its Future

There is no greater stroke for the ego than an interview. A lovely PhD student from France found my website and sent me some EXCELLENT questions about roleplaying, designing and the industry. Questions I really had to go away and think about. It’ll be great to see what her dissertation becomes but until then here are my answers.

How would you define your work? Do you define yourself as a writer, a game designer, a developer?

It’s a curious mix of all those things. I describe myself as a writer and a game designer. I think in writing RPGs I am thinking like a game designer but in a very specific way that only applies to RPGs.

In your opinion, what can you do with RPGs you cannot do with any other media?

One thing that RPGs do is they really let you get very close to the rules of settings and narratives. Even if you don’t notice them, there are rules in these games that determine the reality of the world you inhabit and the stories that emerge from that, and they are much more present than they are in video games or board games where more abstract rules hold sway.

When you work on a RPG, like Warhammer or Doctor Who, what is your main inspiration? A specific background, the kind of characters players can play, the type of scenarios you can imagine in this universe?

My main inspiration is the players reading the book or using the rules, I try to always focus on communicating to them what’s interesting or cool or scary or amazing about whatever I am writing. In a sense I am a salesman, and I am selling them the world, the character and the scenarios, and I want to make that sale.

How would you define a game system, its purpose, its function, its role?

A game system exists for a lot of reasons. It makes explicit certain social roles and assumptions, it exists as a toy to play with and explore, as a puzzle to unlock, as an inspiration and guide to creative flights of fancy.

How would you define roleplay?

Roleplay involves engaging with a fictitious reality as a participant of that reality.

In your opinion, what are the best RPG(s), in substance and in form? Why?

Hard to pick a few, there are so many excellent ones. Also there are so many genres and tastes, there is the best game for a person but many many best games. I do think the Buffy RPG is extremely close to perfection in every aspect, though.

What are your favorite game systems? Why?

What are your favorite campaigns? Why?

What are your favorite backgrounds? Why?

I don’t really split these up, I think the games are a combination of these things. Rules implement backgrounds and campaigns implement both. Warhammer and Buffy have always had all three working together, and are two of my favourites.

What do you think of the distinction between story games and RPGs?

I think it might be a better name for explaining that not all things under that banner require a total “immersion” into character, and to be a more inclusive term of a whole variety of activities that are part of the same concept. And it wouldn’t sound like the psychological term of roleplaying, which is different. But I don’t think they are two different things, I think we should think of the term as an evolution, not a separation.

What do you think of the RPGs market today?

I think crowdfunding has totally changed the RPG market although it was also in flux for other reasons; the growth of PDFs and PDF-theft hurt the bottom line a lot before crowdfunding came along to help shore that up. I think every time the market has changed, RPGs have changed as well: for example when indie games sprang up as a response to direct marketing through the internet, and I think we’re beginning to see RPGs changing to suit crowdfunding. Part of that is I think we’ll see games being more portable (to other systems) and expandable (to new worlds) because those make good stretch goals.

How do you see the future of RPGs, in substance and in form, economically speaking? (new funding plans like crowdfunding, distribution, Internet, magazines, conventions, etc.)

I mentioned crowdfunding above because I think that’s already here in the present. I think there’s this great hunger to unlock ways to synthesize technology but I’m not sure anyone’s cracked it yet. We have tablet/pad tools to use at the game table, and ways to synthesize as much of the tabletop online, or on the pad, and ways to combine traditional system stuff with the huge field of online roleplaying which we’ve never touched before (the thing where people do shared, in-character fan-fic, basically, that grew up independently of our hobby) – is one example of that last kind. It feels to me like everyone is coming at this idea from all sorts of directions – another one is making video games more story based and more focused on story than shooting things – and what’s going to happen in the next ten years are all sorts of new pinpoints on a graph in this intersection of ideas. Which pinpoints will coalesce into a future is impossible to tell and that’s a good thing, because what’s interesting right now is all the awesome new pinpoints we will get.



Making a Conspiracy Posterboard: The Beginning

I love conspiracy boards. They are my favourite macguffin. Everybody knows what they are, but nobody knows what they do. In an RPG, you could totally get a bonus dice for having one because they are cool. And the hero or the maniac has to have one to prove he is cool. But have you ever seen a film where they actually use one? Maybe back in the 80s they would draw lines on the map. Occasionally they will pull the one important photo off. But what do the lines of string mean? The newspaper clippings? It’s like fins on a ray gun: it exists because the film language has told us it exists, and it means nothing more than what we have come to think it means. It is a referrent with no referrer, which is a wonderful thing that happens in genre stories.

And since I like silly things and I like genre tropes and I need a crafty project, I’m going to build one. And I want to build a good one. So I have some rules.

Rule Number One: All conspiracies must be post-facto. This is important because it’s too easy to develop a conspiracy than pick things that prove it. I want a board that suggests multiple conspiracies and allows the viewer to use his imagination and come up with his own. It’s not about this conspiracy or that conspiracy. It’s about itself.

Rule Number Two: In the spirit of Foucault’s Pendulum, everything has something to do with everything. Everything is important, if only you are illuminated. Therefore it is important to have the most amount of variety on the board. There are some things I definitely need: a polaroid photo, a map with flags in it, a series of strings connecting dots, an inexplicable graph with unlabelled axes, an aerial photograph of something. But otherwise I want it to be as random as possible.

Rule Number Three: The project is alive and ongoing. I will add things to the wall continuously, and then at a fixed point (I’m thinking six months) I will stop and it will be finished. If six months is too long I will cut it down or if it is too short and there is lots of empty space I will expand it. But the project will thus be somewhat random and chaotic.

Rule Number Four: Apart from the corkboard and pins I got today, I’m not allowed to buy anything. I can use things I bought for other reasons but it can’t be picked out and purchased for the wall. That makes it hard and interesting and random. Like a scavenger hunt. It should also help ensure I’m not fudging towards a predisposed conspiracy.

Rule Number Five: It is going to be a bit personal. I want it to be MY conspiracy wall. So I will chose some things that mean something to me. Some of them will be weird things I’ve picked up in my travels around the world. If anyone wants to, they can send me stuff from their lives to go on it because I think that would be super lovely and extra personal.

Because I’m using some personal stuff, I realize this is basically taking scrapbooking and making it as nerdy as possible. But I’m cool with that.


Six Things to Remember When Writing a LARP

Back in 2009 I wrote a Warhammer LARP (aka freeform, although it had a few simple rules) for GenCon Oz called Sunset Claws. You can download a zipfile with all the documents to run it yourself here. Participants continue to rave about it as the best LARP they have ever done, and I’ve run it twice since and there is demand to run it again at another local con. Recently word reached my ear that it has been translated into French and run at the Croisades d’Unnor convention in Lille, France. All of this has prompted me to start work on a sequel, and as I have done so I’ve tried to pinpoint the reasons I think the last one was so successful.

1. Give Everyone Something To Do

Socializing isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially when you’ve just stumbled in from a four hours session of Warmachine and don’t know anyone around you. Yet LARPs thrive on socializing as much as possible. You have to grease those wheels. Costumes help add to the mood as does setting but people socialize easiest when they have something to do. Drinking and eating are two simple examples. I had a game of Pass the Pigs going on (in setting) as well. It was a small thing, but it helped. I also had one character make a speech, so everyone had to gather and listen. Thinking of good things for this example is hard, though, so if you have any ideas or examples of your own, put them in the comments!

2. Give Everyone Something to Talk About

Again, socializing is hard to do, and one easy way to break the ice is to give people things to talk about. That’s what the things to do are of course there for, but barring them, everyone should have big things on their mind. It’s not just another party, or even the highlight of the season, the room should be abuzz with the tempora and the mores going on outside. In Sunset Claws we had the annual pig tossing competition, a serial killer amongst the tavern guests, a masked vigilante causing chaos and a gigantic undead army massed outside the city waiting to kill everyone at dawn. Oh, and the hostess was someone everyone liked to gossip about, because her place was like Ric’s Bar in Casablanca, and word was she had the escape route from the army. Nobody had trouble finding a topic of conversation.

3. Give Everyone Shared Goals

LARPs depend a lot on secrecy which inevitably means a narrow focus. You know what you’re doing but you have no idea what anyone else is, and you miss out on a lot of the story as a result. Yes you can imagine the Scarlett Pimpernell is up to something and some are charged to stop him but it doesn’t effect you that much. In Sunset Claws, with the army outside and the serial killer being hunted down, everyone had an idea of what most people at the tavern that night was after, and almost everyone was involved in those things. In the sequel, a battle has just finished and everyone wants history to remember that they were the one who won it. This makes the game feel like a race, and everyone’s working for the finish line. It engages them with each other and with the over-arching plot. It also makes it easier to find allies because everyone needs one and is on the same page. And you can’t do anything without allies, which brings us too:

4. Give Everyone A Sense of Who Might Be Their Allies and Who Might Be Their Enemies

Everyone knows characters need lots of goals to achieve to keep them busy but too many LARPs devolve into desperately trying to figure out whom, if anyone, might even know what your side is, let alone be on it. Eventually you randomly trust someone and hope it involves only a moderate amount of betrayal. You can’t outright tell people who is on their side or it gets dull (indeed, nobody should be entirely on anyone’s side!) but you should give everyone a road map. Here are people you know you can trust (or so the GM has told you, anyway), here are people you know are likely to be set against you, here are people, based on your best information, that will be able or predisposed to help. A lot of LARPs give people goals with no idea how to complete those goals. Players, I think, like a mud map of how to get there.

5. Give Everyone A Reason To Talk To Everyone, and an Understanding of How They Would Talk To Them

Our LARPs are often filled with people who would naturally group together and some they would exclude, but that makes for terrible game play and it ignores the reality. LARPs start with everyone just standing around and it is literally completely random which PC you will be standing next to. Sometimes you may have a superior or an ally to go and seek out but that player might have arrived late or still be talking to his buddy or any of a million things. Staring at you right now is a guy is a stranger. You need to find something to talk about. You’ve got the tempora and the mores for small talk, and the shared goals. He might be a potential ally. He might be an enemy. He might be neither. But whichever one he is, your character sheet needs to tell you who he is and what you think of him, and how he might be remotely connected to your plans, in even the slightest way. Maybe you have a common bond or a shared enemy. Maybe you hate/respect/fear/love/are easily seduced by people of their class/profession/race/gender. A good character sheet will tell you. Nobody should be uninteresting to you.

6. Give Everything Character

One thing players keep complimenting me on is how their character sheet gave them their character’s eyes. As I said in number five, the sheet should tell you enough information about who you are and how you see others so you know how to react to everyone. All of that information should be coloured with character. Sometimes you want to talk directly to the reader, out of character, when you want to give them directions on how to play something or what kind of role they play in the narrative, but wherever possible, you want to avoid that and speak in their character’s voice. You want to tell them what they think is true as if it is true, because of course they believe it. Your choice of language and style provides them the goggles through which they see the universe and that not only helps them keep and stay in character it helps you write interesting interactions. You don’t say “Your relationship with your husband is failing so you are having an affair”, you say “Your husband ignores you and you’re worth more than that, so you are seeking a new lover, one you deserve.”. And on the husband’s sheet, you write “You love your wife more than anything but can’t find the words to tell her, but deep down, you know she knows – or you really hope she does.” Both players got the same kind of information (the marriage is in trouble) and they have a shared value at stake…but both of them operate in completely different universes with completely different truths.

That for me is the heart of LARPs and indeed non live-action scenario design, or at least, how I do it. Everyone shares goals and stakes, but everyone sees those shared things completely differently. That’s where the friction comes from.


Seven Reasons You Should Never Play Monopoly

I started work on a post about why Monopoly is a goddamn warcrime of game design, but Matt Forbeck beat me to the punch yesterday. Here’s the thing though: Matt Forbeck is a really nice guy who never has a bad word to say about anything. That Monopoly got Matt to be critical is a testament to how godawful it truly is.

I am not a nice guy. I am a critic, and it is my job – nay, my sacred duty – to be to the game craft what the allosaurus is to slow-witted toddlers.

But I am not unfair. Let’s give Monopoly a running start before we take it down.

Mr J points out that Monopoly isn’t that bad, and it’s true, there do exist worse games. If you go into it with your eyes open, Monopoly can pass the time less painfully than being eaten by a bear. At the same time, the game industry and hobby and craft owes a lot to Monopoly. It is the very giant on whose shoulders all of us are standing. Aside from The Game of Goose, Monopoly is the longest-standing oldest and still-published board game ever, and Goose cheats by being a non-licensed game that was eventually taken over by a company (like if Parker Brothers decided they owned Poker one day). Monopoly put board games in every person’s house and with the kind of cultural imprint that even Poker or Bridge have trouble matching. During WW2, Monopoly sets were sent to British POWs in German camps, containing secret information from the British forces. Nobody has shoes with handles that big on them any more but we remember them because of Monopoly. The Gleaming Terrier of Finance being run over by the race car is a joke of esteemed cultural heritage (I also like Jasper Fforde’s character called Landen Park-Laine). There are wild chimpanzees who cannot use tools but know what happens when you win second prize in a beauty contest.

Monopoly is also important because everyone knows the rules (sort of) and it appeals to children because they get to handle money. Kids love to play grown up, and until someone makes a great, mass-market kid’s game about being a Banker and Investor with lots of cool cash, the let’s-pretend factor of Monopoly cannot be ignored any more than you can ignore that climbing frames are cooler when you shape them like a pirate ship or rocket.

And now, with that out of the way, we can turn to Monopoly’s various sins. Now, of course, every time you bring up Monopoly, some asshole says “oh, it’s not so bad if you play by the real rules”. This is a GODDAMN LIE. It’s one of those situations where people are so keen to point out a correction of information they forget any concept of knowledge. I know the real rules, I play by the real rules and although the house rules make it worse, the real rules are still the goddamn crime. Respect me enough as a critic to realize I’m not a fucking idiot.

1. The Snowball Effect

This is the one Mr Forbeck mentions, and it’s the most common and obvious complaint. The person in the lead has both more power and more options to further that power, meaning their lead only increases. It is perhaps the most egregious snowball effect ever, though, because the losers don’t just lose their ability to win they lose their ability to participate in the game. The less money you have, the less property you can buy. Soon enough you exist solely to prove the winner is winning in much the same way as a pinata or a poker machine. You spend four hours as a game mechanic, spitting out coins to prove a point.

The popularity of the Free Parking rule proves how obvious this problem is, because everyone tries to fix it. Many of the house rules, including the ones now officially being added, do the same ($500 for rolling snake-eyes, more money for passing Go). Of course, it just makes a bad game take longer. Which brings us to:

2. The Length

Every game of Monopoly now says on the box “now with shorter play time”. Basically, there are different types of rules that declare the game won after a certain time or a certain victory point is reached. Again, the desperation with which this rule has been added proves how badly it was needed. Your average game of Monopoly takes about four hours, minimum, plus an hour for each player beyond four. That’s not conducive to fun family play. You can play two hundred games of Hungry Hungry Hippos in the same time, and have more control over the outcome and more fun, and you can stop anywhere between with a sense of satisfaction. I’m not saying all long games are bad, I’m saying that length needs to be balanced by strong involvement throughout, no snowballs and a depth of mechanics to make the time expenditure worthwhile.

3. The Knockout

Knockout games are kind of the ultimate snowball. Bit by bit, players are reduced in their agency to the point of totality: they are out of the game entirely. They cannot engage with the experience, which means they no longer really care who wins. For the remaining three hours or so once they are knocked out, they can do nothing. They can’t get back into the game. They can’t start another. They wander off. The remaining players have a game that feels less social and more of an imposition on those twiddling their thumbs. Every turn you take after the first knockout is an exercise in being rude. And it doesn’t feel like you’re beating the other people any more, because you’re not even playing with them.

Again, not all knockout mechanics are bad (Bang! is a modern example that’s not awful) but it’s a dangerous mechanic with a huge potential to be unfun, when combined with other factors, such as:

4. Cruel, Unavoidable Randomness

Monopoly is, for the most part, as random as a game of snakes and ladders. Technically, there are ways to control the randomness. You are in effect trying to spend the least amount of money to make the longest and most frequently visited traps on the board. Like in Settlers of Catan, there are ways to attack the most likely outcomes, and people compete for them, which is fine. But then there are random dice rolls which power you up or harm you immensely. The Income Tax spaces which suck away a lot of cash. The Go To Jail spot/card event, while excellent in the late game since it is free rent, is enormously punishing in the early game where property must be bought as quickly as possible. The cards are scattershot attacks and boons that can’t be shored up against. And if you randomly roll a double, you get extra turns, which is not just more winning power but more game engagement. Which means basically, Monopoly IS Hungry Hungry Hippos: you’re jamming down the lever and praying randomness helps you land on the ladders instead of the snakes before the others.

5. The Puzzle

And make no mistake, there are clearly defined snakes and ladders here. The absolute best properties, by a mile, are the orange ones, because they are six, eight and nine spaces from jail. Red is a close second. The two lowest and two highest are not worth getting because of their small catchment areas, and the stations and utilities are a trap. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a game being a puzzle, with certain strategies offering more return than others, and said strategies emerging through continued game play. As a game for kids, particularly, emergent high strategies are a great idea as it helps kids learn and learn how to learn. But once you’ve spotted these high points, the entire game defaults to a race to grab those high points, a race which is full of random setbacks. And a race that you can stop anyone else from winning by being a spoilsport because of:

6. Chokepoint Blocking Negotiation

It doesn’t matter one bit in Settlers of Catan if everybody is feeling anti-social and refuses to trade. Resources will still come in. It doesn’t matter if everyone refuses to deal with everyone in Diplomacy, the battle moves will still happen. Monopoly doesn’t work that way. The game hovers at a gigantic chokepoint in that until you get a set of properties there’s not much you can really do. Stopping anyone from getting past that chokepoint is always in your interest, even if it is also stopping you. The winning negotiation strategy therefore is about a crushing game of brinkmanship, of making the game so dull and lifeless that eventually your opponents will becomes so bored with nobody moving forward they agree to make a trade that gives you a primary value set and them a lower value set (or worse, just closer to a set). The auction rule most people aren’t aware of makes breaking this lock a little more open, but only to those who have already had better luck, of course.

In essence the strategy of the game is risk management and brinkmanship: it might be worth say, getting yellow and red and purple in return for giving away orange, and the poorer everyone gets the more knife-edge that choice becomes. That is an interesting choice. But there is still nothing that will ever force anyone to make that choice. Players playing to win are generally better of not negotiating, which means – and this is the biggy – activities that help you win go against activities that make the game more enjoyable for you and everyone else.

7. Hating Monopoly Is The Whole Damn Point

Elizabeth Magie designed Monopoly’s first draft, The Landlord’s Game, to make a real-life political/economic point, which was that monopolies destroy competition, crush business and send everyone to the poor house except one person. The fact that is a long, slow, un-fun descent into abject poverty that nobody enjoys because one jerk can set prices so high he bankrupts everyone else is a scathing attack on 20th century finance, particularly in the United States, and it was a hundred years before its time. You could say that if you don’t mind playing the game, then Magie has failed at her goals but I think most people really don’t like Monopoly, they only play it because it is there, and they just don’t know how better things can get. They don’t realize that scattershot randomness and having to wait your turn and playing for four hours and boring themes and crappy little wooden houses and knockout mechanics and blocking negotiations and tedious mathematics are all game design dinosaurs, long since extinct in every other gene pool. Instead, because of its popularity, we make excuses for Monopoly, because everyone knows it or the kids like it, but that is actually the exact opposite of what Magie wanted.

Pointing out that Monopoly is awful is, in fact, playing it how the designer envisioned. It’s what we’re supposed to do. So not only is sticking with and apologizing for Monopoly remaining blind to a world of wonder, it’s missing the point. We should shout from the rooftops every single day about how goddamn awful Monopoly is, because that’s what it was for: to put its awfulness on show to tear down the architects of that awfulness. It’s as bad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more. Not at our game tables, nor from our politicians. Occupy Wall Street, and burn your little silver terrier when you get there.

I’m serious. The world – and more importantly, game design – will get a lot better if we stop pretending we can put lipstick on a pig, and make Hasbro stop producing this shit. Gamers don’t let gamers play, own or buy Monopoly. Ever.

Card Game Design Journal, Part One

I think it was Thurber who said “Immature writers imitate. Mature writers steal.” In that spirit, most of my games start from a game I enjoy but want to tweak. In this case it is an obscure but wonderful traditional card game of Netherlander origin called Thirty One. It’s a great game that kids from eight or so can play and it works for three to nine players, so I’ll take this opportunity to pimp it and teach it to you.

First, discard the 2-6s of a regular pack of cards. Deal three cards to each player and three cards to the middle. Player to the left of the dealer looks at his current hand and chooses to keep it or discard it, taking the three in the middle. Either way the three that end up in the middle are turned face up. Then the next player may take one of the cards on offer in exchange for one of theirs or pass and not trade again. Players are trying to build sets in their hand of matching suit (unlike 21) but adding up the value as in 21. Ace counts as eleven, picture cards are all ten so the highest possible score is A-x-x where the xs are ten-cards, giving a score of thirty one. Players keep exchanging until one player scores 31 and declares it (showing his cards) or all players pass. Then all show their hands and the lowest hand loses a chip. Last one standing wins.

Low cards are of course more often discarded but sets of three matching face are rated as thirty-and-a-half in score. This and the hidden nature of your opponents (and what may not be in play, since not all cards are dealt out) produces an interesting situation I’ve never seen duplicated in other set-building games: your struggle to produce a good hand can end up making the cast-offs in the centre more and more powerful. Actually, that happens in the Canasta family too, but in a different way. There is a rule where if you like what’s in the middle you can exchange your entire hand for said hand, but then are passed, so everyone knows your score.

So anyway, that’s my muse: what if you had a set-building card game like Ticket to Ride but if there was something far more dramatic that happened when there were thee jokers face up. Then I thought, what if as well as building sets in your hand you were building something on the table, and you had to decide whether to make it bigger and more dangerous or improve your own hand. Add in a touch of Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards and Bang! two games I find quite amusing, and then I had some vague ideas for mechanics. The nature of game design seems to be a lot of see-sawing back and forth between mechanic and theme, like music and lyrics in a song. Some times you’ll have the mechanic for years before you find a theme you like.

Then one day these ideas crashed into my obsession with Owlbears, which is kind of a weird in-joke. I just find them hilarious and stupid and an example of the wackier side of D&D and there have been a few incidents with my various gaming buddies where funny things involving owlbears have happened. Like playing a round of Articulate and given the clue “It’s a land mass surrounded by water and its named after a D&D monster” and immediately and with 100% certainty answering “OWLBEAR ISLAND”. Later we freeformed the idea of an RPG set on Owlbear Island, where everything is an owlbear, including you (not to be confused with the island in World of Warcraft where all the monsters are owlbears, but the grass and trees and skies are grass and trees and skies.) ANYWAY. You kind of had to be there. But it’s a thing. Owls and bears, stuck together. Squid panthers. Teleporting dingos. The vulture elephant. The mosquito bird. That time in D&D when we got the druid’s weasel and stacked it with spells so it was a True-Seeing Alignment-Sensing Invisible Hastened Weasel and we used it as the ultimate spy camera. We never needed drugs growing up because Gygax was on them for us.

The two ideas met. Gluing animals together like a mad D&D mage – that could be the thing in the middle. And in your hand, harvesting their bits back into your magical laboratory to make potions of giant growth and alignment sense – that would be the set-building. And so I had a concept, and we were begun….