Liquor in the Front, Poker in the Interest of Journalist Integrity

I’m a dealer at Hollywood Casino. A few nights ago, I was dealing to a random poker table on my string and a random player starts talking about how he “used to work at this casino.” Barely interested, I commented with a hasty grunt of indifference and a requisite smile. He continued his story anyway, detailing briefly which games he dealt.

Then, he asks me if I know “so and so” (so and so, is code for a person that I work with). I nodded and expressed that I knew her. 

Without any prompting, he launches into a “warning tale” about how I should watch out for “so and so” because she is not what she appears to be. In my mind, I was hoping that she was really a unicorn and maybe he would prove it with a blurry cell phone pic, but he was sadly, sane. He stated that she was his Ex and that she slept with at least five different guys on the shift while he was there. “Yeah,” he asked, “is she still with so and so?” (another dude). I nodded. “Well good, he can have her. She looks cute, but yeah, she gets around a lot, watch out.”

So, tonight, I was watching my Twitter feed and saw a hashtag #GamerGate. I assumed that this was another #notallmen “trying to be intellectual” plea for men to be able to criticize Feminist Frequency and the release of a new video. I had only recently been made aware that when Feminist Frequency posts a new video to their YouTube channel, the internets go nuts (don’t ever read the comments), while the trolling minority’s eyes light up for a new internet argument to exacerbate. These feminist-focused videos are a mix of psycho-analysis, criticism, and cringe-worthy moments of misogyny and sexual objectification of women found in games that may otherwise have little to none of this content.

I find that most people are indifferent or see the legitimacy of the argument that women are either under-represented in video games or are used as objects for a male-centric AAA gaming audience. Other reasonable parties take offense that developers of these games are implicitly being blamed for the perceived misogynist content. I would argue, however, that no parties are specifically blamed and that it is simply criticism without implication and that the viewer infers this blame if they choose.

BUT, anyway, NO! #GamerGate is a hashtag that spawned as a more reasonable alternative to the hashtag #quinnspiracy which involves a video-game-creating female named Zoe and an open letter to the internet from an ex-boyfriend claiming that she slept with several gaming journalists in order to secure positive reviews and more detailed coverage for her game, “Depression Quest.” It’s a scandal! An accusation of supposed tampering with game journalism by means of sex! And most importantly, it comes from the most trustworthy source, an ex-boyfriend. Oh my god! Did I mention that it involves SEX?

Now that your salivary glands are ejaculating the requisite amounts of fluids into your gaping maws, let’s get more excited. A SEX SCANDAL in VIDEO GAMING! I actually think there should be a flashing golden award made for this event, because it means that gaming has grown up enough that there could actually BE a sex scandal. Can you imagine if a developer from Bonk’s Adventure from the TurboGrafx 16 era would have been caught doing the dirty with those cheesy editors from GamePro or Electronic Gaming Monthly? Actually, just imagine that they did. Imagine that some hirsute fellow with a backwards baseball cap was getting a hummer for a 5-star rating from the lead programmer of Double Dribble while chugging a Mountain Dew. Seriously, at the time, no person would have cared to expose the story. The world wouldn’t have been ready for overweight man-on-man review tampering on their Tandy computers and the 10-16 year old male readership would have just been confused.

But, sadly, #GamerGate is a hashtag trying to be legit and call for an improvement in gaming journalism because of a sex scandal. It’s akin to those involved in the unfortunate and terrible recent events in Ferguson, where a young black male was executed in broad daylight by a police officer far over-reaching anyone’s concept of authority. This event sparked immediate anger in the community and a surge of protestors took to the streets to vent their frustrations. The protestors involved in the movement claim that the entire protest is peaceful, while buildings burn in the background and shots are fired. Rioting ruins the cause, undermines the concept that authority is not needed, and the protestors know this. So, calling for more competent and consistent gaming journalism without censorship while people stand behind in the background spouting hateful messages toward women and sending Feminist Frequency and Zoe death threats, seriously undermines the message. 

Like my random poker player’s warning, which he shared, unprovoked, as an ex-boyfriend, in front of someone who he never met, it carries little weight to just say shit. The most untrustworthy of untrustworthy narrators makes a claim and suddenly it “could be true.” To be honest, this really doesn’t “beg the question.” Could I investigate further? Sure, but I don’t care if some girl gets some action or if there is some ulterior motive behind her shocking debauchery. What am I, in high school? And I’m not going to claim later that the real issue here is that Human Resources is not properly doing their job.

We’ve already talked about the sad state of internet gaming journalism years ago. The atmosphere is slowing improving. Why the fuck does it matter now? The hashtag only signifies misdirection, trying to squelch, brush aside, and rebut the current hate that the internet has for those who identify themselves as “gamers.” With good reason as well. Gamers are proving themselves to be more and more elitist, which is weird because I’m so god damn elitist myself and these douches that play FPS, RTS, and fighting games are calling themselves Gamers? It offends ME. And that’s pretty interesting. You aren’t gamers. Call me when you’re thinking of buying a PS4 just to play The Witness or trying to hunt down an AC adapter for your 7800 or playing QRTH-PHYL for hours and hours on Xbox Indie or search the internet for info on The Last Guardian every month religiously. Call me when you shun video games to play board games. I’m the most elitist elitist out there and I look down upon all of you with disdain. And even I hate the word “gamer” now with a passion. But, I digress.

Gaming journalism, in most cases, is admittedly ramshackle floozies hocking hyped AAA titles with click-bait headlines from major companies that have an advertising budget that includes money for clicky drop-down links and entire site re-skins with breasts and blood geyser dragons. Currently, BoardGameGeek News is more comprehensive than any of the supposed video game news sites. That’s bad.

My point is, the topic is reasonable for debate but stop with the passive-aggressive hashtags and if you really care, spur on a hard change. And make a difference during a time when it is not a hot-button issue. What is video game journalism anyway? Is it People magazine? Is it Buzzfeed? Is it a TV Guide listing? Or is it supposed to be something deeper, with more analysis and substance? I don’t even know. The people on this hashtag certainly don’t spell it out either. They just don’t like it when a perceived “non-gamer” criticizes their hobby. This is also bad.

So, I think we can all agree that most importantly, dudes and chicks, we need to see a little more even distribution on this whole sex scandal thing. Take Poker Dude for instance; he’s complaining that a chick is doing other dudes, wahh, wahh, double-standard, wahh, wahh. What we need right now is more women in top journalistic positions who can then be propositioned by men for good reviews on their artsy indie titles. Because from what I’m seeing, although the data is only correlative, these chicks are really awesome at the sex and these dudes are pretty subpar. Kegels, guys; foreplay; seduction. And remember, it’s all about the angles and the friction. Chicks dig toys as well; mix it up.

Because once we have sex scandal equality we’ll have good gaming journalism. Whatever that is. I think. #GamerGate

7 Reviewer Tactics That Could Kill You

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Reviewing Board Game Reviewers

I’m not specifically blaming board game reviewers.  Everyone is guilty of, every now and then, playing a genuinely Bad or mediocre game and kindly trying to avoid the following question:

"Did you like it?"  

Did I like it? Cough. Well. Contort face in exaggerated “thinking” expression. Well, it’s not really my type of game. Quick, nervous clarification in higher pitched voice. But I’m sure people who like this type of game will enjoy it. I mean, it’s just my opinion, of course, but there’s some interesting things here, right?

This is the noncommittal, friendly, “don’t kill me,” and please don’t stop sending me free games style of game critique. Refreshing. It’s good to read an article about a game that I am specifically intrigued by, and receive a few paragraphs that hesitantly circle around the issue of whether it may be, in some ways, just possibly lacking. Please, feel free to mince words and not offend anyone. This is a review and not your opinion, of course. /sarcasm

Honestly, and I hope most agree, it can be very frustrating. This type of sheepish response is fine when the game’s designer is standing directly in front of you, but not so much in any other circumstance. And this idea of a completely objective and positive spin on each and every game is a serious detriment to the reader/viewer/consumer.

But, as an avid game consumer I read a review because I want to know if a game is bad, okay, worth trying, or worth buying instantly in a fit of crazed Amazon Prime binging. And nearly every review paints every game as worth trying or worth buying instantly. With the exception of the few notable “this game is definitely horrible, let’s pick on it” reviews, there are extremely few gamers that are reasonable and critical and entertaining enough to give an okay game a “not worth trying” rating. If every game that exists is “fun for someone,” that’s fine, but I want to know if it’s fun for you and why and if I would agree with you or if another game came out this year that’s significantly better in the same genre. My favorite reviews are ones that feel as though the author is a friend, nudging me with their elbow, giving me the inside scoop on a new game with that confidence level and full-disclosure that comes with private conversation.

And it’s not always about “beating around the bush” or fear of reprisal. Sometimes it’s a case of group-think, where reviewers see a previously used format for reviews and lapse into a similar mindset. Or absorb catchphrases and common tropes.

So, I compiled a short list of my personal frustrations collected over the years while reading and writing reviews for board games. I don’t write many reviews, because (surprisingly) writing reviews is time-consuming! And I appreciate all the time and effort that reviewers put into their craft.

This, my dear readers, is a list of traps and logical fallacies for reviewers to avoid; some helpful criticism that may jog your creative muscles or make you swoon with indignation. Also, it includes some plain old pet peeves and vitriol for all you friendly curmudgeons like me out there!

Games Are Inherently Fun

"Playing a game is joy enough. I would rather be playing a bad game, then none at all."  ~ quote from multiple sources, mostly soft critics.

Will a legitimate reviewer enjoy a game that is not “good” from time to time?  Of course they will.  Stupid games like Ninja Burger and WurfelWurst and Zombie Dice and Twilight Imperium, can sometimes elicit some maniacally positive reviews despite their flaws.  But, if someone were to state that any of these games were “perfect” their credibility would be lost. On the other hand, it is perfect to describe all the terrible aspects and still have an unwarranted positive opinion.

Games are not inherently fun. And you are crazy if you would rather play Monopoly or Tic-Tac-Toe for the rest of your life as opposed to nothing at all. All games attempt to be fun, but there are far more bad games then there are good games and this is why a game critic is needed. With a reviewer’s help, I may be able to avoid ever playing a game I won’t enjoy! And that is pure blissful contentment!

A game can be good, but just not good enough (except for my games, of course). 

Intro/Rules/Final thoughts

Lazy/Lazy/Lazy. There’s something to be said about the classic board game review format. It allows for a quirky introduction to the theme of the game. It then explains how the game plays. And it allows for clever rumination over the game’s strong points and weak points, with a final recommendation. Such a perfect review format, right?

In contrast, read a review of a movie. Or a review of a video game. Or a review of any other form of art or media. Very rarely do they ever use this format. Previews, however, use this format all the friggin’ time. With the exception of the “final thoughts,” the entire concept of a board game review is actually a longer Preview. An advertisement format for all other art forms. Except in this case, even less stimulating as it is simply words describing the function of components that are being described. 

Final Thoughts. That’s a Review. That’s the key portion. And if you’ve ever noticed, most board game reviews are composed of 95% preview/objective rules explanation and 5% tacked-on review at the end. Good or bad, what purpose does that serve? It’s almost as if the “opinion” portion of a review is deemed as a little too edgy or tacky and must be toned down for logic’s sake. Its kind of interesting, that when someone talks about their opinion of a game, either positively or negatively, someone in our hobby will cry out, “that’s not a review!” As if board games are somehow so special that all reviews require a strict delineation of each rule of play.

Let’s look at the content and from for Reviews in nearly all other forms of media:

Reviews generally have an introduction that relates the author to the subject. Then they move on to the back-story behind either the author’s connection to the art’s creator or bits about the art’s development or scope within the creator’s catalogue. (In other words, a little journalistic work with a few clicks around the internet.) The main theme of the work is then discussed along with comparisons to contemporaries and brief explanations of the main points the creator is trying to make with the work. Interspersed within this are compliments and complaints about the decisions made by the creator. The author of the review is continuously offering facts tainted with their personal opinion and nods to similar works throughout. The conclusion is where most reviews can differ. Some choose a narrative approach and give final conclusive thoughts while others choose to let the reader decide for themselves if the opinions already expressed indicate a possible purchase/viewing/perusal and final thoughts are not present. 

The key is injecting opinion and expertise and facts INTO the review. The format here is similar, but less static. Avoid being completely objective and impartial until the final few sentences or seconds (of a video). Sure, it seems easier to say SURPRISE it’s the opinion part you were all waiting for! But, trust me, if everyone were reviewing actively as they explained key portions of the rules, that would seem like the easiest way to do it. It’s definitely the most exciting.

Don’t fear breaking away from this format as well if the impulse hits or a thematic opportunity strikes. Start with the conclusion. Strike-out an entire paragraph of text. Include a hand-drawn graph. Describe an amazing or terrible gameplay scenario that arose in startling detail. Just make sure that opinion is injected alongside expertise alongside gameplay elements and the review will be successful.

This is why we skip 90% of video reviews. This is why we scroll down to the bottom sentences of written reviews or look for the final score. All that expository, clinical, technical writing makes even the most chilled and intelligent beings scroll downward. This is why Ender’s comprehensive reviews are great, but not really comprehensive.

Don’t make people type “TL;DR” and move on. Engage the audience with expertise, style, and possibly some humor throughout. Don’t worry about phoning in whether or not you liked the game. It’s a much better read and I, personally, will thank you for it.

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The Casual Disease and Spin

I have a copy of Pictionary on my shelf.  Eventually, I will destroy it.  

I bought Pictionary about four years ago during the post-christmas sales, picking it up for a few dollars.  My purchase was fueled by nostalgia, my own affinity for silly drawing games like “Eat Poop You Cat,” and the painfully cheap price tag. I still consider Pictionary to be “fun,” but Draw Something and Telestrations are both exceedingly better games mechanically and in the past four years, I have played the Pictionary zero times. Pictionary has become obsolete.

A possible review of Pictionary:

"Pictionary is a classic game of timed drawing challenges.  We may have not been able to complete an entire game before everyone lost focus, but the simple rules made it a breeze to learn and teach. While, in my opinion, it is not the best party game with drawing as the focus, I recommend it to those looking for a casual trip down memory lane."

Look how nicely I spun my opinion.  It sounds like a kitschy, retro experience.

A real review of Pictionary:

"Pictionary is a classic game, and therefore has all the outdated, nostalgic problems of all mass market games.  There’s a pointless board to travel along, a colored die to roll, turn-by-turn downtime, and teams are required.  The game is still "fun," but If you’ve downloaded "Draw Something" (for free) on your phone, or if you have a piece of paper, there is absolutely no reason to spend actual money on this."

Casual games shouldn’t get an automatic pass.  Most of them suck.  Considering the fact that it takes so much less time to “balance” a casual game, the idea that most publishers can’t even take the time to do minimal play-testing with experienced gamers is atrocious.  

I own very few “casual” games.  I keep around the casual games that I like and I refuse to play the casual, generally party-style games that are lame (unless it would be socially awkward to refuse). Just like children’s games, casual games can be fun and entertaining in a reasonable and modern way. If they aren’t, say so. Casual gamers be damned.

The “Not for Me, But…” Excuse

I’m fine if a game’s existence can be justified as “not for me.” In fact, I use this excuse a lot in order to evade talking directly about my opinion. Sometimes, I say this phrase when a game is legitimately unique and I realize that my own feelings on it are purely a personal preference. Most times, the game makes me want to shove sand under my eye-lids, but I’m sheepishly expressing my dislike to spare feelings. Avoid this.

There should be a line drawn where formality ends and opinion takes over. Compare the experience to other similar experiences that you have enjoyed. Throw in a Shakespeare quote or something to soften the blow and make it appear to be regally “not your cup of tea.” But explain why it’s not for you. Explain the parts that are understandably contrasting to your usual gameplay style and why you were willing to give this one a chance in the first place. 

Notice how Matt Drake sets us all up for why he’s never going to like VivaJava, but makes it sound like a review still worth reading.

If it really isn’t for you, but you expect that others will go bonkers over it, then use a different set of words and explain the type of gamer you are and why it contrasts with your usual play style. To me, the “not for me, but…” excuse to “soften the blow” is akin to adding, “just saying’” to the end of an insult. 

No offense.

"I really wanted to like this game, but.."

I really wanted to read a meaningful review, but… I guess I’ll have to look elsewhere.

Seriously, all reviewers world-wide need to strike this line from their reviews. If you truly want to state that you were excited for this game, but were disappointed by it, please, just spare us this tacky and begrudgingly negative spin line. Use your words to convey actual sentiment; don’t just say “when in Rome…” and expect the reader to understand your meaning.

"I opened the box and nearly pooped my pants! However, after playing it, I realized that the turd was actually inside the box all along." See? A perfectly tactful way of twisting a phrase. 

But, really. Words are tools. Use a set of words to describe your elation to receive said game. Then, instead of voicing dismay and painting the electronic page with frowny emoticons, describe in slowly deteriorating positive prose how the game eventually left you wanting and how it may leave others wanting as well.

Also, please stop saying, "I thought I was going to hate this game, but…" I’m not going re-write this entire section, so just take everything I just said and flip it to the reverse side. This phrase is just as common, and just as cringeworthy. 

I LOVE the Art

This is a compliment. It’s great to love the art. In fact, in a positive review, this is perfectly acceptable as it really does help some make a buying decision.

If, however, you are writing a rare negative review, DON’T ONLY COMPLIMENT THE ART AND COMPONENTS (you dick). This one is more of a personal pet-peeve as a review reader and game creator. It generally pops up because the reviewer has nothing nice to say about the game and wants to appear somewhat objective or again “soften the blow.” Okay, the art is great. Now, you still have to say something constructively nice about the actual game.

Give me something substantial that is appealing about a game. Then, tear into it.  Which leads us to…

The Obviously Biased “Review”

I hate this game. I love this game. Because of either of these qualifications, I cannot see any positives or any faults in a game system. It is perfect. It is terrible.

That’s wonderful. This game is perfect. These types of reviews just trigger my angsty, sarcastic reflex so hard. I dismiss them completely as utter trash, and read the negative ones anyway because I can’t resist a train wreck. Why not, like the countless other denizens of amazon, youtube, and BGG, just rate a game with zombies a 10 or 5 stars quietly, and move on instead?

Here’s my personal review of Fleet where the first line of the review is “So. I really like Fleet.”: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/890982/fleet-best-f-word

Say something good. Say something bad. Don’t just say one or the other in a big, wet, lettery orgasm of approval or hatred. Nothing makes you come across as a teenage fanboy/girl more than a one-sided diatribe. 

If you really have nothing good or nothing bad to say, say it quickly.

"Shit sandwich."

A Few Others That Aren’t Worth Expounding Upon

"You don’t have to play a bad game." Really, you don’t.

"You don’t need to review games to make friends."  (In other words: getting "free" games from publishers isn’t worth it.  There are so many games out there.)

"Lists are stupid." Okay, they aren’t "stupid" but they litter the internet and are clickbait articles. But people read them! So if you really can’t be creative enough to make a legitimate review/critique of a game, make a quick list of positives and negatives.

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The Final Solution

The solution to your worries is actually a simple concept. If you play a bad game, or more importantly a relatively mediocre game in comparison to other recent or existing releases, you are allowed to say that you don’t like it. And as a critic, you should objectively and subjectively deconstruct a game’s strong and weak points for the education and hopefully entertainment of your readers/listeners in defense of your opinion. It’s a marvelous tool, this written language thing.

At this point, I don’t know how often I will write reviews. If I write a negative review or offer criticism, I can expect some form of backlash either from the game designer or publisher and this seriously hinders my ability to continue to thrive within this hobby board game designer world. I don’t want that. But, I hope most reviewers don’t want to become game designers though.

I also realize that some reviewers (video, usually) are just as interested in being a source for “how-to-play” the game as they are in actually providing an opinion. That’s fine. But, it’s also much more precise to completely separate these aspects into two different videos. 

I offer this stream of advice from my aptly named blog “Designer Ego,” because it gives me a voice and I’d like to see our hobby grow. Not as an indictment of all those who work tirelessly to provide these reviews for very little recompense. 

Should I buy? Should I even play? I want to know and I want to know why. And it wouldn’t hurt if I was engaged along the way as well.

Also, feel free to offer me some suggestions as far as new or interesting reviewers that present a differing format for their reviews. I’m always interested. Not just as a reader, but because I don’t mind sending out review copies as well, even from my personal stash.

everything is so wrong if we need to revisit a boardgame after a year to see if it is good or not — cindy tang - Youtube commenter

Drugs and Rock & Roll

(pic lovingly stolen from google search)

Drugs and Rock & Roll

So, I’m writing endless notes on a new game (working title: Underground) which is trying to simulate the experience of being a legendary band. The reason I want to tackle the subject is that I have been interested in music and a hobby musician since high school and have been a member of multiple different rock bands. From my humble beginnings as a drummer for a tinkering lo-fi punk band slowly absorbed into the grunge era, to playing bass in a faux-Death Metal band, to a keyboardist for a Viking Folk Metal band, I’ve had local gigs and seen gigs and listened to all types of weird musics and learned new time signatures and keys and watched my punk-rock-hardcore friends as they toured the country, spreading their message to the masses of geeks and outcasts gathering together in sweaty bars and basements and run-down shacks. 

No game, not even Rock Band, has really embodied the attitude and community that builds in these underground moshpits of excited humanity. What is it about rock and roll that has motivated fans to follow Grateful Dead around the country, to tattoo Slayer into their forearm, to dye their hair and spike it like a duck, to collect all the Vinyl pressings of a garage band a handful of people know about, or to get high and listen to the entirety of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon? 

I want to make a game that represents the positive message of building up a community of devout fans, not just to your own band, but to a lifestyle. No one says, “yeah, I really like The Sex Pistols, but nothing else.” Okay, maybe there’s one person out there, but usually, if you like first-wave 70’s punk, you are listing other favorite bands like Dead Kennedys and The Ramones and some obscure band that had a lead singer that died or broke up and only left demos behind. As you spread your message, that message helps others out and builds a community. That community is what brings these waves of music from the Underground to chart-topping prominence. I want players managing “selling out” and losing support from that community, not just hoping that their hit single climbs the charts and forcefully donates them fame. It’s not about being the next cool thing, it’s about being “legendary,” which isn’t about how famous you are today, but how famous you are in thirty years.

So, a shared area-majority game with card-driven gameplay that unlocks opportunities for other players. Think multiplayer “1960” with a personal tableau to build up your band and album catalogue. Communities will deteriorate over time or change preferences, so its not just important to make it the top, but to also remember where you came from.

With that pitch in mind, I’m not shying away from evocative, adult-oriented content. This is not a game that is intended for family game night. It takes a little bit of insanity and audacity to be the classic Face of a band. People die in music. There are scandals. And this game focuses more on the punk or artsy side of music. Music is, many times, intentionally incendiary or downright offensive. To cartoonily abstract away from that completely would be detrimental to the reality that I want to portray.

And that’s where drugs come in…

Drugs

Drugs are part of the culture of Rock. I’m not talking about the recreational use of marijuana or cocaine or even those that experiment with ecstasy at hip raves. That’s not even worth simulating. But, heroin, crystal meth, crack, LSD, and all the variations of hallucinogens that cause lasting, potentially damaging effects to the user, or are impossibly addictive and eventually lethal. And fucking alcohol. The seemingly harmless social drug that poisons more artists than anything else. 

But this is where it gets hazy for me. In the game, there are opportunities presented to players, usually “sell out” actions or “breaks”, either of which can push the bands into new directions. I’m hesitant to include drugs as opportunities. Once I go down that road, the game becomes something that certain people cannot play either out of virtue or because it hits too close to home. Providing a short-term benefit with possible long-term downsides seems like a great mechanic, but it begs the question, “am I tacitly endorsing drug use as a creativity booster?”

If drugs are handled as a purely negative mechanic though, I am doing the right thing, but am I alienating potential players too much through simply including drugs at all? For example, I could “evoke” the use of drugs by simply adding negative consequences for certain card actions and insinuating it through seedy art on the cards. “New Music Producer Wants You To Expand Your Sound” or something.

If I were to implement it correctly, I would have drugs be a status. Like, a little “Addiction” card or tile placed nearby the afflicted band or person. Addiction is permanent. It can get better or worse. It can never result in good things and it can cause death. Not elimination, but a player may have to find a new “face” for the band or lose possible action. Actions may be used to rehab a character, but randomness (die roll) alone would simulate relapse or the potential for death. Because, seriously, if it gets as bad as what I’m simulating, you deal with the problem for the rest of your career.

As I type that, it doesn’t sound too bad. It addresses the issue, may include positive options at first but results in “addiction” which is bad. The question then would be, can I call it a certain type of addiction? Could I include “Heroin Addiction,” “Alcoholism,” etc.? I know it crosses the line for a family game, but if it is clearly recognized as a complex, adult game, would people be entertained while still being aware of the realistic consequences? Abstraction is difficult.

But, I feel like death and drugs, however unsettling, should be a part of a retrospective music game. It’s part of the culture, for better or worse, and I need to find a middle-ground that allows for it to exist but in such a way that it doesn’t become the main focus of criticism (or the main reason to buy, for some people).

So, let me know. @Puppyshogun on twitter or with a mention below. Where can I draw the line for an adult game? Is a tile or card that states “Addiction” abstract enough to not be offensive? Is “Heroin Addiction” too scarily realistic or is it reasonable, given my design goals? And would you play this game?

Thorsten Gimmler Micro-interview

After watching and responding to Daniel Solis and Kory Heath’s discussion on the iterative process of game creation and different modes of thinking on when a game is complete in my previous post, I decided to send a message to Thorsten Gimmler asking two brief questions.

Daniel had mentioned that No Thanks! is a “perfect” game in his mind and Kory affirmed that this was a very good game. So, after searching around for a while for an email or web presence for Mr. Gimmler and finding nothing, he showed up on a German Facebook listing. So I messaged him there. Here’s what I asked the man who makes games where you politely decline stuff:

"Hi Thorsten,

Do you have a perfect board game? (one that you admire above all else).

And do you think your game “No Thanks” is a perfect game?

Thanks, 😊
TC”

Moments ago (a few days later), I received this response:

"Hi Thomas,
Do I have a perfect board game? I have more than 2000 games at home. I think that there are some perfect board games between. But I can´t say, that this is the one and only! 😉 I have a lot of games that I love!

I think that “No Thanks” is one of my best games. Is it a perfect game? I think that this is something other people had to decide.”


So, is the search for creating the perfect game a fruitless quest? Not really, but it looks like even Thorsten agrees that even picking favorites is difficult. The crushing, soul-defeating criticism of games that we make rests in the hands of those who buy or play our games.

Thorsten has made Daniel’s perfect game and even he doesn’t acknowledge it. It could be humble German designer speak, or it could be that we are our own worst critics and that’s probably good, because we’d probably stop creating games if we already created the perfect one in our own minds.

Kory Heath & Daniel Solis talk about different approaches to finding the “perfect” game design. (excuse the abrupt ending due to connection issues, but the conversation is very interesting)

My Thoughts:

I used to subscribe to Kory’s mantra. I would find myself agonizing over each word in a 10,000 word thesis for my English Degree or constantly returning to the same paragraph in a short story I had written three years previous. I wanted to convey this exacting, calculated, and ultimately intangible feeling to the reader through the written word. I wanted every sentence to flow like poetry.

What I found was, people didn’t get it, in general. A few did though and they understood my mindset and the reason behind the words, but the vast majority didn’t appreciate the work. I thought this was, and still do, a good thing. I’d rather have a rabid and small fanbase than appease everyone and dumb it down. But, the work involved is never worth the eventual reward.

And that’s key. And it is especially true in game design. The work involved is never worth the reward for completion. Hyperbole, I know, but so infinitesimally true that I don’t feel like making exceptions. It’s a big parabola of creation to playtesting to iteration to satisfactory completion. The initial spark of creation is easy, the creation of said spark is harder, playtesting is even more difficult, and then iteration is where the time meter spikes and a designer could spend a lifetime trapped in this loop of spending years to make only the tiniest incremental improvements to the game in question. That’s why the reward for “completion” is never worth the effort. because paradoxically, the game is never “complete” in the designer’s eyes.

I can’t subscribe to Kory’s mantra on the one extreme. I am not a good judge of the merits of my own game. I am my own harshest critic. I could spend forever trying to make my own Puerto Rico, and I would never feel as though I had attained that level of perfection. The best I can do is try my best, improve my knowledge of game design, and present my version of a great product to the community. However, I still choose to spend more time than others may see as “worth it” because that polish will be seen and will improve my chances of creating more projects in the future. 

And in response to a topic that Kory mentions, designers get better with time, so it makes it really hard to be a perfectionist. Unless you never ever release anything ever. Years ago, I taught myself to draw cartoons. Like, I really had to teach myself. I have no natural talent for doodling. My hands also shake a little, so my gestural work and my signature never looks the same twice. And what I initially thought was great work, ended up being terrible in retrospect. Same thing with my game designs. If one of my five earliest designs would have been picked up by a publisher, I’d be looking back right now with complete regret. And at the time, I thought they were great.

But, I also see the issue with Daniel’s mantra of making a hard deadline and pushing out titles. I give myself deadlines and artificial limitations in order to expand my problem-solving skills, but I will also completely scrap a project. There are times, especially when working with existing licenses or completing freelance work for companies, that a “good” game will be put onto the market when it either could have been great with more time or should probably have been left on the shelf as a “good” learning experience but not something worth offering to the consumer. Deadlines cause this.

In my experience, seeing other designers such as James Ernest, Reiner Knizia, Corey Konieczka, Eric Lang, Mike Selinker, Paul Peterson, and countless others, who may have one or two Great games, but have a swathe of shit in their catalogue as well, it makes me not want to be them. Now, all things considered, I would like to be as well-known as them, but I would also like to be more consistent in quality. They have a different mindset than me and it’s not bad, we would just disagree on what constitutes an acceptable level of finish to a game.

It’s a balance. I err more on the side of Kory than I do on Daniel’s. I can be a bit of a perfectionist and I like to lampoon myself in order to keep my ego from going off the deep end. But, that’s not to say that both wouldn’t disagree with my own personal gauge for when a game is ready to be released. When it comes to business though, I’m way more on the side of Daniel. I love the Indie community. I love open source development and yet I still want to make a career out of this stuff. 

There is no such thing as a perfect game, so being well-versed in game design, playing a multitude of games in all genres, and making sure that my games stand out in that crowd is what matters most to me. 

One of the greatest gifts in life is when you have a legacy to work on. How many people just meander, how few really create. — Reiner Knizia via Twitter

Moments of Epiphany

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Earlier this year, I watched the exceptional documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” While the name of the film feels slightly more whimsical, the focus of the feature is on one man’s passion to create Sushi at the highest possible level. And Jiro is deadly focused. In fact, his precision and skill is only matched by his obsession. He is a man of strict routine and gradual iteration, where each delicate (extremely expensive) meal is prepared with attention to every exacting detail. And each plate, each experience will be ever-so-slightly improved from the previous one.

He is tireless and precise. He wakes at the same time each morning, prepares, cuts, observes, teaches, and inspects every minutiae. When he is not working, he dreams of working. When he is working, he is happy. He improves himself each day through an almost robotic, yet loving repetition, and he sees his own imperfections or failures even when no expert could ever spot them.

When I watched the documentary, I too felt an immediate respect for the man and his passion. The way he devotes his life to his craft is inspirational and it reminded me of a fortune cookie, a pearl of wisdom, from Reiner Knizia:

"To become a successful game designer, you must get up at 4 o’clock in the morning, every morning, to work on your designs."

~Reiner Knizia via Twitter

If anyone has followed Reiner Knizia’s Twitter account over the last few years, it is jam-packed with inspiration quotes and sayings. It is filled with ego, most likely unintentional, which, to me, is the best kind. 

I am not Jiro

But, when I made the connection; when I started to compare his drive, his dedication to a game designer, I kept comparing him to Reiner Knizia instead of myself. I mean, it’s not necessarily Reiner Knizia, but a multitude of designers that work in a certain mode. Robotic, loving, iterative focus. 

I am not Jiro. I realize that I don’t work like that. And I don’t really think game design, or at least “good” game design is a process where I create a game, then that same game with a slight difference in scoring, then another that uses tiles instead of cards, and name them all different things, or give them different themes, and push them all into several publishers hands. The argument that “well, people need to eat,” has never rung true to the ears of this low-middle income white suburban child. And if I ever had to work with Hasbro, I think I’d start to hate games.

I don’t wake up at 4am all the time. In fact, I work till 4am most weekend nights. My bed time is somewhere between 1am and 11am. Sometimes I cut my own hair; other times I go to a stylist. I’ve been known to be become so focused on a game design that I don’t sleep for 48 hours. I’m usually sloppy, but every now and then I’ll clean up my home and keep it clean for an entire month before it lapses into piles of games and papers. I generally eat healthy, focus on whole grains, olive oils, good fats, veggies, but ever since my bike was stolen in Myrtle Beach, I’ve lapsed on the exercise front. 

Luckily, this year I bought myself a nice, large, red game design journal, otherwise my notes would be scattered across the room. But, somehow, I always find them.

Respectability is results. Sometimes results are based on complete luck, but many times that lucky break is predicated by a moment of epiphany or determination that causes a person to be in the right time at the right place. Focus is important. Drive is important. But, having and living and experiencing life is equally as important. 

Sushi is not game design. I could wake up and work all day on designs and study the latest trends and iterate my games constantly. I could do this 12 hours every day, each day, and I could still fail miserably. There are so many factors that enter into a creative process and if I’m truly exploring the space, there is no way to become so strict. In fact, I’d probably go insane. Because Sushi is a food and it can be prepared each day, the exact same way only with minuscule, incremental improvement in quality and finesse as years and years go by. There will be moments of epiphany, but these will be few and far between as honing the craft is far more important than exploring the infinite space of cuisine.

Jiro does sushi. He can’t make the best cheeseburgers. He appreciates other foods and the abilities of other chefs, but he focuses on his passion. We take different approaches and achieve similar results.

Analog game design is too wide a space for such a focus. For me, at least. I see the innovation that has happened within the last twenty years and I scream, “I want to be a part of that world!” I like too many different games to be confined to one specific market, and I want to explore all the flavors of the ludilogical culinary buffet. I have my style and my preferences, and that already sets me apart, but I need the freedom to explore and I don’t see anyway that someone could make amazingly diverse games if they woke up at 4am and worked at it all day long. It would just be a bunch of pacing around in circles for hours, wishing I could go somewhere and be inspired.

So, in short, Reiner Knizia can blow (with the utmost respect, of course). His advice sounds good. But it is flawed. It assumes that a creative process is, in fact, an analytical process that can be repeated simply by showing up to work each day, ready to design.

Dedication is the will to see a project to completion. I have that. I am constantly thinking about game design and I will complete many games. I hone my craft each day by reading blogs from other designers, listening to podcasts (a new thing for me), playing as many games as I can, playtesting designs, and writing out my thoughts (and sometimes posting them). And I will continue on in my slapdash, sloppy, disorganized, manic way, allowing the creative muse to strike whenever it pleases. Because if I design like a robot, I will churn out 5000 games, and 5 of them will be good. I want variety.

I think my game Club Zen sums up my mindset the most on how game design should evolve. The point of the game is to become the most “zen” person while vacationing at a resort. It is a brain-burning, medium-weight, worker-placement game about managing stress. As it should be. If you go into the game expecting that the game will relax you, then you miss the entire point of what makes a person Zen. Balance. If you don’t have to temper the chaos, if there is no challenge or surprise, no forces pushing you out of balance or no one else to interact with, then why design games at all? Why attempt to achieve enlightenment if it’s served to you on a small, square porcelain plate?

It’s okay to be inconsistent in an approach to design. It’s okay to sketch out an art piece or sometimes just jump right in with a paintbrush swabbed with acrylic or stare at blank canvas for five hours. I just make sure that when that inspiration hits, I follow it through to the best of my ability. Sometimes maniacally, sometimes over the course of a year. A game designer is not defined by the work he does that no one ever sees, but the end result.

If all you get is positive feedback, the hairs on the back of your neck better be standing up. It means you have friends, not play-testers. — Luke Peterschmidt

Increasing Numbers

Into the Void

The need to create is intrinsic for most human beings. It’s the more socially accepted mutation of “play,” which we embrace as children, and allows for others to engage and experience the same structured play environment. Sometimes creations are purely made for personal enjoyment, but for the vast majority of Things people make, there is a purpose, even in the rare cases where the creator doesn’t even recognize the consequences. 

Stuff people make isn’t just cast into the void. 

Consider a lone post, maybe a twenty word Twitter post, that is sent from your fingers out into the electronic space. No one reads it. No one responds. No one Retweets or Favorites it. It’s like the contemplative unanswerable questions, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” or “If God is all-powerful, can he create boulder that even he cannot lift?” If a Tweet is posted and no one reads it, was it really worth posting at all?

But, if no one creates simply to cast their creation into the void with no recognition or effect, why are there people who post to Twitter or Facebook 100 times each day, recording thoughts and actions as they happen to an audience of nearly zero readers? Is it the hope of possible engagement? Is it obsessive compulsive disorder? I like to think that all this electronic, slice-of-life-spew, coagulates somewhere in the vast expanse of electronic space to create a wonderful and secret vomit rainbow. That maybe there is a purpose to it all other than releasing the voices that exist inside a schizophrenic mind.

Over 9000!

MySpace friend-collecting was my first introduction to the world of “increasing numbers” with no purpose other than to increase numbers. A personal MySpace page was littered with illegible fonts, color-choices, 35 different and separately loading videos, embedded midi files, multiple journal entries, and most importantly a list of all your friends. Collecting friends was a past-time for people. Since interaction was generally reserved to a small message board and private messages, there were very few reasons not to friend someone and just leave them on your list. I never saw the purpose, and in fact, thought it was stupid, but one of my friends had ten or twenty thousand friends. She was a girl; she had pictures of near-naked boobies on her page.

Most famously, Cow Clicker, a parody of both in-app purchase titles and mindless Facebook games, was a game that existed sheerly to infuriate players and increase a number. Every time a player clicked on the cow, the counter went up by one and the cow could not be clicked again for six hours, unless you paid real money for in-game currency. Absurdly, people paid. For a number. To increase a number that meant nothing, required no skill, no challenge, and maybe induced a chuckle or extra comment from a friend.

The sad fact is that when I create a game, I want people to play it and enjoy it, and I want to make money from the game, so that I can continue making more games as a profession. I have altruistic motivations as well, and dreams of oddball fame from pushing board games to new levels, but I have basic objectives. Maybe it’s not “sad” but it’s realistic. Right now, I work a job that is okay, but it pays the bills. I want to work with games instead and there is a possibility that I might be able to do just that. The point is, there is a real purpose behind my creation on top of personal fulfillment.

What I don’t understand is the need to be recognized for creation, specifically creation that is not intended to fuel income. Or shouldn’t be intended as such. It’s fun to engage with an audience. It’s fun to be praised for something, and sometimes it’s even fun to creatively advertise for thing you’ve done. But, if the sole purpose of advertisement or marketing or extra funds is purely to gather more numbers, more friends, more followers, more viewers, then what really is the point? Do I want a plaque that says “Best Podcast” or “Best Reviewer” or “Best ‘Let’s Play’ Video on YouTube” or “Best Game Design Post”? Unless it comes with cash prize and a salary, fuck that shit.

Even this post has an agenda, but it has absolutely nothing to do with making money. It’s specifically to dissuade people from using uninspired and trendy tactics to increase a number for no discernible reason. If you want 5,000 followers on Twitter, take a good long day and follow 10,000 people. Half will follow you back. Then unfollow people. Why do anything else except make good, consistent content and reasonably advertise that it exists for those that may be interested?

Here’s the thing. I like to reward excellent creation and design as most anybody does. If you make a game and I want to play it and you set the price, I’ll probably buy it. If you make a website that supports said game and ALL other games, I will give you a donation. If you review said game really well and ask me for money to support more reviews, I’ll probably be slightly annoyed and say, “umm, no thanks.” And even more singular on the food-chain, if you interview said reviewer and ask me for money, I will become violently angry and probably spew electronic rainbows such as the ones I am spewing currently. But, I still might just give you a Retweet or +1 or Share. This is the reality.

I don’t cast things into the void. I make them for myself. And the reverberations, little ripples of words for the outside world’s viewing pleasure, they kind of flutter about in the electricity for a while. Or for a paltry sum of paper and coin, they sit upon your desk in plastic and hopefully in your grubby, oily fingers as you seethe with delight.

I sometimes watch numbers rise too. I can’t deny that I like the feeling, but it’s just a number. That’s all it is. A subscriber count. A Follower total. I don’t ask my Followers on Twitter for money or pander; I make something they can buy and I provide content in-between. That’s my value. And I don’t like artificially inflating those numbers.

So, buy VivaJava: The Coffee Game and soon-to-be-released VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game. Tell your friends. It took a lot of time and energy and love to make those. And you can have Something From Nothing, podcasts, interviews, blogs, advice, reviews, and all that other bullshit for free. Because if I have to start running contests and crowd funding drives and bake sales just to increase my Facebook friends, fund my trips to conventions, or anything just to do something I enjoy doing and doesn’t cost me anything extra to do, please call the police because someone has stolen my identity and I am locked in a basement somewhere.