Ever since I’ve known about and played video games, I’ve always wanted to work in the video game industry in some aspect. More recently, I’ve managed to narrow that aspect down to working in game design or games journalism. And now with degrees in both and the crippling student debt that accompanies it, I’m happy in the knowledge that it’s still what I want to do. While I feel like what I do on this website is the main focus of what I want to do with my career, I still love to dabble in game design side projects from time to time, as well as attend the monthly talks held by my local game development group. To coincide with a local tabletop design competition, our latest talk was helmed by professional tabletop gaming writer, Steve Dee.
During the talk, Dee discussed the topic of why video game designers should also make tabletop games. One of the first points that he discussed was that to make better games, video game designers shouldn’t ignore tabletop games just because they aren’t directly related to the medium that they work with. It was a sentiment that I completely agreed with. Game designers can’t ignore everything that isn’t video games, including but not limited to things such as philosophy, poetry and both classical and modern art. But on reflection, I realised that, in the context of tabletop gaming at least, I’d never really put that sentiment into practice in the same way that I try to look at games as a designer.
What I mean by this is, as a game designer, you don’t usually play videogames for fun; rather you play them for the purpose of analysing and studying them so as to influence how you design your own games. I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense that you’re supposed to attempt to be a high-level player or master the game, otherwise we’d have loads of designers still trying to master every RPG Bethesda has ever released. As someone who tried to do that with Fallout 3 last year, I can tell you from personal experience that it gives diminishing returns for the effort that you put into it. What you’re actually meant to be doing is carefully looking at how all the moving parts of the game work: what the rules are, what is being used to trigger specific events, and what I feel is the most important, what makes the game fun/not fun and what makes the game work/not work for you personally (eg: writing, specific mechanics, exploration, combat, etc).
The same thing can be done for tabletop games as well, which is what I did at my most recent board game group while we played the Game of Thrones tabletop game.
Thankfully, being so atrocious at strategy games that I quickly became the bottom player with no way to claw myself to a comeback turned into a helping hand for me. Being basically unable to play the remainder of the game allowed me to analyse what was going on a lot more effectively, and I can tell you that it was an interesting and refreshing experience.
In a tabletop context, I was able to see a lot of the game’s working parts much more clearly. I could see first-hand how tight the rules were for the game, the functionality of pieces in various scenarios, but also something I’ve never really factored into what can make a game fun: the dependence on face-to-face social interaction. This interaction affected how players worked with/against each other and how it influenced their actions based on the behaviour and characteristics each player knew about each other. An example of this could be seen in regards to one player who the group knew to be merciless and brutal when it came to competitive games of this nature, which as a result led the group to distrust any alliances they made with him, as well as any statements he made about his future turns.
Overall it was an eye-opening experience that prompted me to think a lot about just how much video game designers can learn from the design of tabletop games. After all, it’s not too hard to notice the impact they have on modern gaming when you look at Hearthstone and the Civilisation series, which both borrow heavily from tabletop design.
In fact, it seems that the skills for both are pretty easily transferable between one another when you consider that both require the use of storytelling and theming to keep players engaged, systems that players interact with and utilize, and the use of rules to dictate what players and in-game characters can and can’t do during gameplay. So, here are just a few things I believe video game designers should learn from tabletop games.
1. Communication between designer and player
More specifically, communicating the rules and mechanics of the game to the player in an effective way. When it comes to tabletop games, the player is basically required to do everything involved with setting the game up and following the rules. Tabletop designers understand that when the player purchases the game, they are left with nothing but the rulebook and game components before being left to their own devices. As a result, a tabletop designer needs excellent communication skills in order to explain everything about the game in the rulebook, including how to set the game up, the functionality of each component, how to play the game and the win/loss conditions. If any of these aren’t communicated properly to the players, the game either becomes confusing or breaks the game by making the overall challenge much easier or much harder. As such, all of these things must be communicated by the designer in way that is crystal clear to the player, while also making each part flow coherently to the next so that everything makes sense and leaves the players with little confusion as to how to play.
In terms of video game design, learning these communication skills can provide excellent tutorial and level designs. When it comes to tutorials, having these skills could allow designers to create much more engaging and easily understandable tutorials through their design and on-screen prompts, letting each new piece of information flow easily into the next so that the player can process it more effectively. Much like in tabletop games, if this is done correctly, the game can become quicker and easier for players to pick up and play.
As a result, designers can create more free-flowing and understandable tutorials like those seen in Portal that slowly teaches the player something new while building on what knowledge the player has gained previously. It can also help designers to avoid complex tutorial styles like the ones seen in games like Resonance of Fate; introducing its very complex combat system to players through a disjointed menus, quick slideshows of pictures and in-game terms before telling the player to try out what they’ve seen without any kind of reminder of how to do it. From personal experience, I can tell you that’s what made me put it down and never pick it up again because of how overwhelming it was to process.
2. Testing mechanics in a physical context
Like I mentioned earlier, being able to see all of a game’s mechanics in a physical sense brings a whole new experience to thinking about how they work. In game design, sometimes it’s a lot harder to see the bigger picture of the game when you use certain mechanics. A cool or interesting idea can make your game fun or maybe a bit more immersive, but sometimes it can quickly turn into something that makes the game frustrating, make no sense at all in the long-term, or in worse cases, break the game when combined with other components and mechanics of the game. An example of this that springs to mind is the condition mechanic in Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas, in which the constant use of weapons and armour would decrease their condition, and thus their effectiveness. While I think this mechanic adds a bit more realism to the world, it eventually just became a nuisance that felt like it was punishing me for going into necessary combat. Not to mention it doesn’t even feel like I was ever making my stuff better again, considering that the in-game sound effect for repairing weapons just makes it sound like I’m taping two or three of the same guns together.
Thus why I think it’s a good idea to try and make the main mechanics of the game you want to show off into a tabletop version and have people test it out. By physically being able to see the game’s working parts, you can also see how they work in the grand scheme of the game more effectively. By doing this, a designer can see if a mechanic is too complicated, if it can be improved or simplified and ultimately teach them to identify which parts of their game will make the game better or worse, allowing them to essentially “remove the faff” to make a game that’s much more fun.
3. Setting limitations to inspire better creativity
I strongly believe that giving limitations to game design inspires much more creativity from designers than what they would have when given total creative freedom. I’m not saying creative freedom is by any means a bad thing, but I feel like working within limitations inspires one to use clever lateral thinking to get around said limitations, which in turn can bring about interesting design ideas.
When it comes to tabletop games, designers are physically limited as to the type of game they are working with. In the broadest sense, they’re essentially only allowed to work within the context of game boards, dice, cards and game pieces. If they want to create an inventory system, they need to think about how they can use all of those components to track things such as classed-based items and weight, while making sure players don’t equip too many items that can over power them. Good examples of these systems in practice can be seen in games like Munchkin and Mice and Mystics, both of which use card-based inventory systems that inform the player of what items, weapons and armour their characters can use, while limiting what they can equip on their character’s body.
In a more specific sense, if a tabletop designer wants to create a dice game with a combat system, they need to think about how they can create that within the physical limitations of dice. Take the game Zombie Dice for example, which puts players in the shoes of zombies hunting for human brains. The game includes nothing but a rule book and 13 dice, 3 of which are picked at random for each roll in a player’s turn. Each die is colour coded to let the player know the difficulty of successfully rolling a kill (thus gaining them points) vs taking damage. If the player takes 3 hits, they must end their turn and lose their collected points, or alternatively, they pass their turn onto the next player and keep their earned points before they take 3 hits. Using nothing but the physical limitations of dice, the designer found a way to create a combat system which includes an easy to understand chance of success mechanic, while also rewarding cautious play and punishing overzealous players.
Alternatively, video game design is given a lot more freedom when it comes to designing and implementing game mechanics. While that that kind of freedom can lead to the design of interesting game mechanics, it can also lead to lazy implementation, or even outright copying of other mechanics to fill in other parts of the game. An example of this can be seen in the critically “meh” The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, which I think an interesting travel and resource management mechanic; giving the player different routes to travel that would have different pros and cons, such as more opportunities to scavenge for supplies, but at the risk of using up more fuel.
However, when it ended up dragging along the lazy and fairly broken first-person shooter gameplay, a great design idea in theory became one that fell apart quickly in practice.
However, this could happen a lot less often by teaching video game designers to give themselves mechanic limitations. By taking out certain things fairly well known to a certain genre, designers will need to apply lateral thinking to their mechanic and level design in order to work around these limitations, possibly leading to new and interesting design ideas as a result. Take for example Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, a puzzle platforming game that removed the player’s ability to jump, resulting in clever and tricky level designs that allowed players to traverse each level despite the limitation in how they could get around a level.
Obviously there’s a lot more about tabletop design that video game designers can learn from, but these were the ones that I found to interest me the most. When it comes to modern gaming, tabletop design experience and game design experience is incredibly important to the other. Tabletop designers want the help of game designers to help bring their games onto handheld devices, such as Smallworld.
And game designers want the help of tabletop designers to help combine their games with more tabletop mechanics such as Hand of Fate and help video games gain that essential tabletop face-to-face experience that video games lack, as seen in Werewolves Within, which will hopefully be finding a release date on PlayStation VR.
Both camps of design have a lot to gain from the other and when they’ve combined, they’ve lead to the creation of some amazing games. Personally, I can’t wait to see what else this combination can bring to us in the future. Just so long as it’s nothing as friend and family dividing as monopoly.
If you also want to see some of Steve Dee’s work, you can check out his blog, D-Constructions. He has some great stuff on game design theory and really entertaining writings on games in general.
Are you ready, players?