Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Mathscades… and the Nine Structures of Game Design

I discovered a game design on Christmas day of last year, and after playing it through a few times I actually got it to the point where I felt like I could “inflict it” on real-life players. My family obliged my request for an impromptu session and it became my first original game design to receive a real playtest. I was pretty happy to get something that far. Here are the very rough rules notes that I had made at that point:

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.

Jimmy Anderson dropped by and asked me if I had a name for this or typed up rules… but I had neither! I checked through the listings at Board Game Geek and it seems that it is de rigueur for an educational game to have a dumb name. “Mathscades” is not taken, so I will adopt it as a working title for now– we’ll see if it sticks or not.

There’s more work to do here, no doubt.  I wasn’t sure what to do next… but it turns out that Dr. Lewis Pulsipher has a powerful tool just for this stage of the game. We’ve already seen that breaking down the things you like and dislike about an existing design provides a great starting point for brainstorming. (It works well enough for guys like Jay Meyer and Steve Jackson, after all.) But what about when you have a roughly playable idea…? Just what exactly are the dials you can turn to start honing it into an actual game?

Well here they are. These are the nine structures of game design… and if you want to know more about these… let me point you to part five of the Learning Game Design course. I’m going to use these with my own game as an exercise so that I don’t go into my next live playtest unprepared.

  1. Theme-Atmosphere/History/Story/Emotion/Image — The initial idea for the game was that of a dice pool that changes over time. I actually had to put that part of the game on hold during the initial stages because it proved too unwieldy at the start. But after the first five plays, a new overriding image emerged: the cascade of objectives being reached one right after another. This is the source of the game’s working title: a Mathscade is what the game is about. There is no theme or story here… the math and the dice are front and center and I don’t plan to “paste a theme” onto this.
  2. Player Interaction Rules and Number of Players — The draft above is only with six sided dice. I really want to move this towards using more of the polyhedrals… just because it’s fun. BUT… you can’t just use bunches and bunches of these because they’re so dang expensive. Now… the basic idea of this game is pretty much a race game with almost no interaction. I don’t like that myself… so my idea at this point is to address both of these things at once. Players will start with a specific dice pool probably consisting of six dice. Whenever they score a target number by using the FOIL method (_ x _ +/- _ x _), they may trade one of their dice with another player’s. This rewards a specific skill that will be in great demand during 8th grade algebra… and hopefully solves several other problems concurrently.
  3. Objective/Victory Conditions — Currently the victory condition is that the first person to twenty wins the game. I’ve considered some fiddly scoring methods, but this kind of seems to work. I’ve bumped the game up into a longer one that goes up to thirty, but this seems to be just a but too long for most peoples’ attention spans.
  4. Data Storage — The main data storage element involved here is not only what your current target number is… but also how much you will lose if you attempt to reroll the dice and fail to come up with the next target number. This Farkel-like push-your-luck element of the game is a key ingredient, but it only seems to work during certain phases of the game. (The teens is where it’s most evident.) There may be a need for some sort of play-aid to help keep up with this. Right now… I take notes throughout the game and that probably won’t work with a more general audience. Probably… I need a scoring track… and two markers per player.
  5. Sequencing — Okay, there’s nothing fancy here.
  6. Movement/Placement — And nothing remarkable here that I can see.
  7. Information Availability — Everything’s public at this point… but I can see things getting spiced up with some cards that remain hidden.
  8. Conflict Resolution/Interaction of Game Entities — This is a race game, so there doesn’t seem to me to be any conflict or even much interaction.
  9. “Economy” and Resource Acquisition — This is something I’ve given some thought to, but it doesn’t seem to actually work with the game in practice. I would like certain dice results to produce resources, but when I play this, all I care about is crunching the numbers to find a target number. I’d thought about having to have your operations be produced on 1’s or doubles or something… and then maybe players would run out before they finished their runs… but this may be too fiddly for what this is. I dream about this, though.

If I was going to embellish this game… it seems to me that movement, information availability, and economy are the places to go. Perhaps if I make a scoring track for this then something will turn up. For now… here is the next draft that I hope to get through a playtest this weekend. (And I post this with the caveat that this is nowhere near a finished product.)

Each player’s initial dice pool consists of 2 four-sided dice, 2 six-sided dice, 1 eight-sided die, and 1 twelve sided die. You throw your 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. Special rule: if you can make a target number by using the FOIL method ( _ x _ +/- _ x _), then you may trade one of your dice with another player at the end of your turn.

If you  have any questions about these rules, please post them in the comments. If you would like to playtest these rules for me, please tell me about your session and any problems or ideas you’ve uncovered– but I wouldn’t suggest attempting a playtest until I’ve run a few more sessions at home, though. Stay tuned!

Update: Played this tonight. Smart kid seems to love the chance to be smart… but has to have the order of operations rule explained to him. (From a teaching standpoint, that’s a win.) Changing the dice pool to use the polyhedrals increases setup time and really changes the game. There seems to be a lot more adding to get to targets… also the runs don’t seem to go on as long. The game can get messy when fumble-fingers starts pushing dice around. I think some sort of mechanism or play aid that shifts your target-making dice to the side as you declare them– and disallowing undo’s– makes sense, but it would undercut the puzzle-solving aspect of the game. I’m not sure how to respond to all this… and need to play this some more. But a random kid will cheerfully sit down to play this thing, so I’m happy with that at least.

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3 responses to “Mathscades… and the Nine Structures of Game Design

  1. Jimmy Anderson January 16, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks for reposting this! I’m going to share it with my math teachers and see what happens… (and test it out myself too)

    • jeffro January 16, 2014 at 4:22 pm

      This game is getting attention far sooner than I had anticipated. Hopefully I haven’t shot myself in the foot by jumping the gun… or mixing metaphors!

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

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