Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Game Design is Problem Solving

There is a section on Monopoly in here…. The author does not pretend that it is some sort of redheaded step child of gamerdom, either.

Game design is problem solving. If you haven’t even chosen a particular problem in gaming to solve, then I have no clue what it is that you think you’re doing. It may be neat or interesting or something, but it isn’t game design.

You know… maybe I was being a bit snarky when I first said that, but I actually got some push-back. The folks on my Google+ feed weren’t quite buying it. But really… if you have an idea for a game, even if you get to the point where you can muddle through it you’re liable to be swamped with problems to solve. If you get it to the point where you’re willing to inflict it on someone else, your sessions with them will surely flush out things that you need to work on.

Somewhere in the ensuing discussion, Jason Packer of Rpg Snob remarked that “game design from the ground up is just house ruling writ large.” We went back and forth on this point a couple of times, then my head nearly exploded as I resorted to this:

The number of people that can design a game worth developing is much smaller than the number of people that can develop an existing game… THEREFORE, these two creative activities are qualitatively different.

Ah, that may prove the point, but it does so by backing into it. To be clear, though, house ruling a game in order to compensate for some sort of perceived problem is pretty easy. I don’t know of many gamers that can stop from doing that. Indeed, they’ll start before they’ve even played the games straight a couple of times and then charge off to invent solutions for problems that emerged as a result of their not knowing of existing rules that already dealt with it!

But designing a game… starting from scratch… you might have ideas for different game mechanics and then see them completely fail to cohere when you try to make your first prototype. It may not even be clear what is needed to fix things. You might try to run with it anyway and then see the overall tempo of the game wind down into nothingness as the gameplay gets consumed by an unanticipated dominant strategy. You might start swapping out chunks of game in reaction to this, cutting things out completely, or else trying to add on something to counterbalance all the issues. But every choice closes down an infinite number of paths even as they are replaced with new potentialities.

Houseruling is more like solving an algebra problem– everything’s already set up for you. Game design is closer to attempting to intuit the axioms of Euclidian geometry before geometry has been invented yet. Of course, there’s a lot more to go by if you’re working within an extremely well defined genre– a text adventure, a hex n’ chit wargame, or even a role playing game. But yeah, that whole process where Steve Jackson went from taking David Martin’s suggestion for a game about the Illuminati… and then ending up with an “evergreen” card game that is in print to this day… that’s all very mystifying. But, hey that’s all the more reason to take a course on the subject…!

Ah, yes. Back to class. You know, I mentioned before that we had to fix Monopoly as part of a class assignment for Dr. Lewis Pulsipher’s class on game design. It could be me, but this whole thing really bamboozled me. I was never quite clear whether we were supposed to houserule monopoly, create an all-new Monopoly themed game for Parker Brothers to hypothetically sell, or come up with an all-new game that doesn’t have the problems that Monopoly has. They probably have nothing to do with what Dr. Pulsipher intended for us to do as part of the course, but here they all are anyway:

  • My first idea was to take it back to being more of a Landlord’s game. Players bid for properties and then fix them up and rent them out. Each house has a different chance picking up renters for each month of the year that it’s pitched. Choosing who rents and for what duration they’re offering would be vaguely like handling the passengers that are picked up ion stops in Traveller games. Houses also have varying chances for developing problems. I was thinking something like Pandemic as far as the broad stroke game mechanics go: you have action points that you can spend on repairs, showings, and so on. Possibly there could be actual service sidelines that people could get in that the other players would then avail themselves of. The level of overall “brain burning” that I’m going for here would be less than Power Grid’s, but I’d still want some sort of loan and interest system. The game would be about taking risks by reducing your liquidity and (hopefully) allow for different styles of play. It could conceivably even become an actual simulation of “house flipping” businesses.
  • Monopoly “fix” number two… I’m thinking have the eight Monopoly colors laid out in order. There are tiles on them that are steadily revealed… or maybe not. The players are basically betting on the colors… some people might put their stuff on just a couple of places, others might spread out more. If your color comes up on the die roll, you split the winnings with whoever else is there. The player interactions elements and the tiles are whatever it takes to make this work.
  • For my third reworking of Monopoly, I’d want to do something with the trains. There’s stuff “growing” on the board like in Pandemic… but you want to move it around the board to collect points. Some of the stuff can go stale, other stuff can be worth more due to market fluctuations…. There’s maybe a deck of “hurt” cards that you can play at any time against the other players…? Maybe there’s a property management element to this, too…. I have a sequence of play to go with this idea: secret and simultaneous bidding, production/events, actions. Looking at my notes for this, I’m not completely sure if I even nailed down a real concept, but… trains. The trains!

After spending a good hour or so brainstorming on these ideas, I checked back with Dr. Lewis Pulsipher’s notes and videos to see if I was at all on track with what he was looking for here. I think I was way out in left field. I think he was looking for something along the lines of a significant variant… while I went with either a really stripped down reworking or else came up with proposals for some sort of “euro” edition of Monopoly. At this point I abandoned this Monopoly exercise in order to hack on a game design I’ve always wanted to work up… and which did not turn out at all how I expected.

One mechanic I’ve always wanted to do something with was having a pool of dice that grows and changes– you might have four eight siders and then one of them would turn into a ten sider. Something like that. I always thought to put it in some sort of M.U.L.E.-like game, but playing with the idea… I just couldn’t keep up with it or figure out how to make it work. So then I started cutting stuff out trying to focus… and then I cut more things and simplified… and then there was nothing left but the dice. But then I wasn’t getting anything useful out of having the dice change so much. And then they all stayed as six-siders the whole time… and I tried multiplying, adding, and subtracting the numbers. Then I had something that was sort of working– it was some sort of Farkel variant maybe. I played it by myself four times in a row and it changed every time…. But there it was, I had a game that was at the point where I could run it past my family. I called them in and asked if they wanted to play.

Here’s the game as I taught them. You throw six dice and from them, you try to make your target number. You can do the basic arithmetic operations on the dice, but you don’t have parentheses. Your target number starts at one and goes up by one each time you make it. If you use all of your dice in a throw to make target numbers, then you can reroll them all and keep going– but if you can’t make the next target number from that throw, then you lose all the numbers you made that turn. The first person to 20 wins.

My son was excited to play a game designed by his dad. My daughter didn’t want to be left out. My wife was skeptical. We got through it together as I coached them through it. I played, too, but made sure not to try too hard. My daughter got irritated and started complaining about it… but then my wife got to twelve or so. From there it turned into sort of a puzzle… and she got the hang of it and then quickly made a run all the way up to twenty. She was pretty into it then…. The effect was not too different from when she’s playing a “Candy Crush” type computer game.

So the game has this emergent property where it gets easier to make your target numbers as you hit the teens. It’s is sort of a race to get to that point… and then to hopefully not fumble at the end. There’s enough game for maybe a tournament in a middle school math class, say. But there’s not much there beyond that. It might also work as a single player computer game. If I played it five more times… I might experiment with having different skill levels addressed. One way to change it up would be to have decks of cards with target numbers or other tasks on them. There might be easy, medium, and hard tasks on the same card. Another thing that could be done would be to alter the dice pool based on the skill level.

Hopefully that was something that could work for an exercise answer for after the first third of the class. Has anyone else in the course come up with anything so far…? If so… please bring it to show and tell…!


7 responses to “Game Design is Problem Solving

  1. dither001 January 13, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    I really started losing interest in … everything about halfway through high school. I started playing D&D the year I graduated, and began house-ruling and fixing things after taking a couple years to try and play it “correctly,” taking into account all the rules (assuming there were rules that would handle the problems we experienced in play).

    Once I realized that game design meant I could not only choose the problems I wanted to solve, but CREATE MORE PROBLEMS TO CHALLENGE MYSELF, I basically dropped zillions of other hobbies to focus on gaming. I began to accumulate hobbies again after a few years of game design when I began to realize that more hobbies gave me inspiration for better problems!


  2. lewpuls January 14, 2014 at 9:26 am

    I had not thought of it in terms of “house ruling”, but I certainly recommend that aspiring game designers start out with broad variants of existing games, as this is easier to accomplish. If they try to come up with new-from-scratch games they usually end up emulating an existing game anyway.

    • jeffro January 14, 2014 at 9:38 am

      I was sort of watching the videos passively at first, but when it got to the part where you showed your face, looked us in the eyes, and asked us how our class project was going… man that scared the &$#@*! out of me. I am certain that if I was not part of this class, the various game design threads I’ve been noodling with would have gotten far less attention.

      For a first third of the course, I’m actually pretty happy to have gotten a game to the point where I felt comfortable getting input in person from live playtesters. That was a first for me… and I don’t think I would have done that in the absence of structured format of your class.

      On to the next milestone…!

  3. Jimmy Anderson January 15, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Jeff – your dice game sounds interesting! I’d like to share this with the middle school math teachers, if that’s okay. Do you have a name for it? Typed rules, etc.?

    • jeffro January 15, 2014 at 3:57 pm

      Holy cow!

      The stuff in the “Here’s the game as I taught them” paragraph above is the only existing rules draft. I’ll be happy to answer any questions or take any feedback– I have some more ideas for this. If I can get some more playtesting in at home, I’ll put up another blog post about it.

  4. Pingback: I De-clare War! | The Rhetorical Gamer

  5. Pingback: The “Learning Game Design” Online Course from Lewis Pulsipher | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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