A good and varied set of dice is an invaluable tool for prototyping tabletop and video games. A Pound-o-Dice is a very worthwhile investment, but in a pinch you might want to use this dice simulator that I wrote. Unfortunately the simulator is Flash-based. I intend to port it to HTML5, but in the meantime a non-Flash alternative would be Wizard’s of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Dice Roller.
Tabletop Game Design for Video Game Designers comes with a copy of Hive that readers can cut out (or photocopy) and play. As Hive‘s designer, John Yianni, explains in the book, the game grew out of a desire to create a Chess-like game that is played using only pieces and no game board.
Hive‘s design lends itself to expansion by way of adding new insect types to the game. In fact, the John Yianni has created Mosquito, Ladybug, and Pillbug expansion pieces that can be added to the core set of Beetles, Grasshoppers, Soldier Ants, Spiders, and Queen Bees. In addition to these official add-ons, the BoardGameGeek community have come up with several unofficial add-on insects, as well as rule variations.
If you want to take a gentle step into tabletop game design, a good way to do it is to experiment with creating an expansion to an existing game, such as a new insect type for Hive.
Balance of Power (1985) is a cold-war themed geopolitical video game from the mid-1980s in which the player takes on the role of either the President of the United States or General Secretary of the Soviet Union.
The game was created by Chris Crawford, among whose accomplishments was founding the Game Designers Conference. The year after the game came out, Crawford published a book by the same name. Balance of Power the book provides a rare insight into the inner workings of a video game’s design, algorithms, and intent. You can read the book in its entirety (and with recent annotations that puts some of the 1980s era design constraints into context) on Crawford’s website.
Novice game designers who have not played many tabletop games have a tendency to create “roll-and-move games” along the lines of LIFE and Snakes & Ladders; games in which players spend most of their time moving pieces as dictated by dice rolls. Creating these sorts of games usually involves little creativity; they use what is essentially a prefabricated game mechanic.
Setting aside concerns of originality, roll & move games are a bad starting place for game design because they offer players little choice in regard to what actions can be taken. Giving players multiple pieces to move (along the lines of Pachisi and Sorry!) or grafting on other mechanics that offer some form of choice can help to a degree, but almost invariably the resulting game is one of monotonous rolling and moving that is only occasionally punctuated with interesting choices.
Designing roll-and-move games is prohibited in the classes I teach. Even so, roll-and-move mechanics often sneak their way into my students’ designs because this sort of game structure looms so large for people whose tabletop playing experience has been largely limited to childhood board games.
Making It Interesting
For any readers of Tabletop Game Design for Video Game Designers who find themselves designing a roll-and-move game, here is an approach for reworking the game into something more interesting.
Start by asking yourself what there is to do in the game besides moving pieces. Is the game entirely about rolling dice (or flicking a spinner) and moving pieces? Or does all that piece movement culminate in the players getting to do something more interesting? For example, perhaps there is a combat mechanic that occurs whenever a player lands on a space occupied by a monster.
If the game is entirely about rolling dice and moving pieces, then it should probably be considered a false start and scrapped. However, if there is something more to the game than just that, see what happens if movement is eliminated entirely from the game. In the case of the monster combat example, maybe the game shifts to become one in which players fight a monster every turn. Or perhaps some new, more compelling mechanic becomes the central experience of the game (e.g., striving to have the best monster zoo) and the monster fighting remains a secondary mechanic. In any case, a roll-and-move-ectomy will probably require a major overhaul of the mechanics that remain, but the potential payoff in terms of a more fun and more original game makes the effort worth it.
macro language can be used in digital prototyping. By way of example, here’s an Excel file that recreates the action of The World’s Most Boring Tower Defense Game. This means it can be played as a turn-based strategy game (i.e., the player manually advances the turns by pressing a button) or as a real time strategy game (i.e., the turns advance automatically).
The World’s Most Boring Tower Defense Game is a web-based “game” that I use to demonstrate to my students how a video game’s “real time” action actually takes place over a series of discrete turns (what programmers call “ticks”). The game is also a useful example of what a digital prototype might entail.
You will need to enable macros in order to play the game (this mean it is unplayable in the Excel 2008 for Macs—that version of Excel does not allow Macros). If you run into trouble getting it to work, let me know—the code is a bit of a hack and I wouldn’t be surprised if it runs into problems in various versions of Excel.
In particular, the timer events that drive the sprite animation required jumping through some coding hoops. I wanted to use Excel’s VBA macro language’s “OnTime” event to cause the game sprite (the animated character) to move multiple times a second. Unfortunately, OnTime cannot respond faster than once per second in the Mac version of Excel. I got around this by using the Timer function, which returns the number of seconds since midnight. I use this to have the animation occur within a while-loop that pauses a specified number of milliseconds (more-or-less) as measured using Timer during each loop. Oddly, Microsoft’s documentation for Timer states that it will not return fractions of second on a Mac. But on my Mac it does, so I was able to get the animation to work. I’m not sure if the undocumented ability is due to a change in the Mac OS or in Excel itself, but it does work (at least, it does for me).
All that is to say, this Excel spreadsheet is a bit fragile and may not work for you. Caveat emptor!
Sprouts is a nodal game invented by the mathematicians John Horton Conway and Michael S. Paterson that is referenced in Tabletop Game Design for Video Game Designers. What makes the game unusual is that instead of playing within an existing set of nodes and paths, the players create their own.
Yut Nori is a Korean game that comes with Tabletop Game Design for Video Game Designers. It is an elegant circle & cross game (a class of racing games that take place on circular or cruciform-shaped tracks). The best known cross & circle is the traditional Indian game Pachisi and its modern derivatives (Ludo, Parcheesi, Trouble, Sorry!).
Yut traditionally uses tossed sticks to determine the number of spaces the pieces can move, but this version of the game substitutes coins for the sticks. This does change the game’s dynamics a bit. The outcomes of a fair coin flip are identical in likelihood, whereas tossing a Yut stick results in flat side up approximately 60% of the time.
For many years I struggled to teach my students how to make the leap from designing tabletop games to designing video games. In particular, students without a programming background would consistently have problems defining a video game design as a series of concrete steps that do not leave gaping holes in the game algorithms.
Then one semester I taught my students flowcharting and had them create a flowchart that could play a simple game theory style game that I had designed. As if by magic, these students had no problem creating video game designs. Ever since that semester, I have always introduced students to video game design by starting with flowcharting. It has become my magical “turn you into a game designer” wand.
All this is covered in detail in Tabletop Game Design for Video Game Designers, but I wanted to share The World’s Most Boring Tower Defense Game, which is one of the tools I use to demonstrate how a video game’s “real time” action actually takes place over a series of discrete turns (what programmers call “ticks”). The game is also a useful example of what a digital prototype might entail (see The World Most Boring Excel Spreadsheet for a version of the game that runs inside of Excel).
The World’s Most Boring Tower Defense Game can be played as a turn-based strategy game (i.e., the player manually advances the turns by pressing a button) or as a real time strategy game (i.e., the turns advance automatically).
Conway’s Game of Life provides another example of how “real time” is in actuality very a series of very rapidly occurring turns. As with The World’s Most Boring Tower Defense Game, Conway’s Game of Life can have its “generations” (aka turns) advance either manually or automatically (using the “step” and “run” buttons, respectively).