A meditation on game box sizes

At work, we recently had a discussion about box sizes. I wrote a whole essay to get to my thoughts on the matter, and then, as sometimes happens, the essay was not really relevant to the final, relatively short comment. So I thought I’d put it here.

The original question was: Does the American market want big, fancy boxes? My argument was basically, no.

There are a few standout party games (Apples to Apples, Scattergories, Pictionary, Taboo… you can think of a few more) and they do come in unnecessarily big boxes. And they sell very well! From the outside it’s hard to deconstruct how much of sales is due to oversized, bright packaging. But everybody does it, so even if you think it doesn’t work, you can’t not do it, right?

Except interestingly, the big boxes aren’t so big any more. I’ve got an “updated for the ’90s” version of Pictionary that comes in a crazy size: 18″ long, 7.5″ wide, and 3″ deep. That was 20 years ago. A more recent edition shaves the length down to 10.5″ and basically leave the other two dimensions alone. I checked product specs on Amazon, and the most recent version of Cranium is 10.5″ x 10.5″ — and that’s a game full of stuff, not just air! Party games just don’t come in big, stupid boxes of air like they used to.

That’s mass market though. What about hobby market?

In the US market, they’re OK with big boxes as long as the size is justified by the contents inside. No one had a problem with Ogre in a box that measured nearly 4 square feet because it weighed 15 pounds. American hobby gamers do not want a big box for marketing purposes, just to take up shelf space or just to be “American.” For instance, Guildhall‘s box is not large. 10.5″ x 10.5″ (~26x26cm). But at AEG we got many complaints about the box size because it only contained 120 cards and some punchboard tokens. The thinking at the time was to make boxes bigger so they would stand out on a store shelf.

I see the wisdom there, but it doesn’t hold up to experience. Looney Labs is doing great with Fluxx in a small box, for example. The hardcore customers order off the internet and would rather pay less shipping for a smaller box. They’ll never see it in a store anyway. You don’t want to cater to those guys, but their money spends as well as anyone’s.

Customers also want consistency within a line. They’re happy to have the boxes stack well on a shelf or for travel. So even expansions that come in a smaller box should have at least two dimensions the same as the base game so you can hold them all together.

I know Fantasy Flight has sworn by having an entire line of games that uses the same size boxes and inserts. I don’t know if that was a really successful choice for them…. Maybe! It was definitely an inexpensive choice for printing and design costs.

But cheap and commoditized is not the Iello way. We make fantastic looking games. That should be our primary decision-maker in box size. Who cares if it’s big–does it look amazing?

Under that rubric, smaller boxes are generally better, regardless of market. Currently, my favorite box trick is Castellan from Steve Jackson Games. The retail box is big with a plastic shell, but the game contents are neatly packaged within a smaller interior box which you pull out and actually keep. Big for the store, small for the storage.

Other tricks include:

  • plastic windows to show off cool internal components (Fun Farm, Dicecapades)
  • varnish print layer (every Iello game has one of these)
  • tins instead of cardboard boxes (Forbidden Island/Desert)
  • lenticular sections (haven’t seen a game do this yet, but it was all the rage in comics 20 years ago)
  • holographic elements (haven’t seen this outside of an occasional sticker)
  • textures like faux snakeskin or fake fur (never seen this, probably not cost effective and nightmarish to stock)

Any other ideas? Leave me a comment.

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Project: Dark beta run

I backed Will Hindmarch’s Kickstarter campaign for his first-person sneaker RPG, Project: Dark. It’s an RPG in the way of computer games like Thief, Dishonored, or say, the sneaky parts of Metal Gear.

Though the full game won’t be done for a few months, Will pushed out a beta kit to backers after the end of the Kickstarter campaign. I was unusually excited for this game. In reading snippets of the rules, it seemed like it captured the feel of a PC sneaker well. You have limited resources. You need to stay hidden. Your main job to get your objective and get out alive.

It’s easy to say that’s how you want your game played. But if the mechanics don’t back it up, then players will probably just treat it like D&D. Dark delivers.

I duly read the beta kit over printed out all the assets. It wasn’t as clear as one might have hoped for, but a G+ group sprang up to answer questions.

Then we played it. It went well. Well enough. We probably won’t get back to it unless I really push it. But I think that says more about us than it does the game.

How It Works

Each player has a set of playing cards as a personal deck and builds his or her deck based on character abilities. Your final deck might be 20ish cards, most of them low. I might have a 6 of diamonds in my deck, but the best you have is a 4 of diamonds. But you have a jack of spades with a special power that I don’t. That’s nice.

Your hand size is based on the Stealth Level of your environment. The darker it is (on a scale of 2-6), the more cards you get and the more options you have to get stuff done. If it’s bright, it’s tough to sneak, so you get fewer cards.

The gamemaster never tells the players the difficulty number to succeed. Generally, it’s a number between 2 and 12, hovering around 7. The gamemaster tells some details about the obstacle and opposition and lets players make judgment calls from there. They won’t know whether they’ve been seen until they’ve been seen.

At the outset, after a stumbling trip through the basic mechanics, someone asked, “How do we fight?” And I explained that combat is a bad idea. And it is. But even when they’ve seen how the machine works, players still want to take it outside and open up the throttle. End of the night, only one character made it out alive, and he was one hit from death. I stopped using the mechanic to complicate their lives. They didn’t need any more complications.

A lot of improvisation necessary. A lot of sensory narration required. A little more than the normal amount of group trust needed to play well.

What Worked

The card mechanics. Clever and reflective of the genre. You only have resources to do one or two big actions before you need to take a moment and refresh your hand. The game makes you dart from shadow to shadow because you are not capable of more.

Mid-game Q&A. An important NPC was introduced in the second act. Before meeting him, I asked the players a series of questions about their characters’ relationships with him. For some reason, this roleplaying beat took. Maybe it was because they didn’t have to do it all on the fly. Maybe it was because the questions were more  compelling than “What, specifically, do you do to sneak?” Regardless, once one guy knew him for a long time but didn’t quite trust him, and one guy had a cousin married to his sister-in-law, and one guy had worked a job with him that went sour… suddenly, character ideas popped up like mushrooms after the storm. A++ would buy again.

Good first adventure. I bet writing good adventures for Dark is a process. The rules in the beta kit were sketchy in places, but the adventure was thorough. No player took knowledge skills during chargen because they wanted to spend points on cards. But skills would have paid out, and the adventure took pains to specify where and how that happened. Unlike most RPGs, Dark rewards you for taking Craft or Religion or Culture.*

What Clunked

Set your power fantasy to “low”.  Dark is not our group’s favored style. We are unapologetically not-Indie. Whatever the term is for that. There must be a term. We’re that. Our roleplaying is limited to what my wife charitably calls “just acting like yourselves.” It’s more involved than that though. We act like ourselves with super powers and our ethics filed down. As we saw, that kind of play gets you killed in the climax of this game. Possibly earlier.

Eavesdropping. Several exposition bits are provided in the form of “eavesdropping” scenes. While the characters lurk in the shadows, they overhear people saying things to each other. It’s provided as a handout, but you shouldn’t hand them out. It draws players to huddle around the prop and make fun of the dialogue. The alternative is for the gamemaster to haul out all his stock NPC voices and talk to himself for a minute. Which game stopper will you choose?

Players are cornered into narrative. You’re encouraged… no, goose-stepped… into providing narration for you character’s actions. There is no, “I sneak over and open the door.” You’re meant to describe how and why you sneak over. There’s palpable let-down when you don’t.

People who produce these sorts of games seem to think that overt narrative is an unalloyed good. But not only is it not everybody’s thing, it’s not most people’s thing. This is why people name their MMO characters “Elfchick69.” Not only is immersion not their joy, it’s in the way. Most of us want to share relationships more than we want to share pretend movie scenes. So damn many smalltime RPGs insist on “color” and “detail” and every one misses roughly 80% of the audience with that kind of talk. Fellas (and ladies): it’s a niche hobby to start with. There’s a lot of you scrimmaging for that 20% and only one of you is Jason Morningstar. Think it over.

High anxiety. Not knowing your target number leads you to overshoot your card play just to be safe. Any time you come close to 7, you start to sweat it. That’s fun at first. And then, catastrophically, it’s tiresome.

In Conclusion

I like Dark a lot. It does what it set out to do, and it’s fantasy without being heartbreaker D&D. High fives for that alone. The mechanics are genuinely novel and play is tense.

Our group will probably never get back to it. In the post-game analysis, it was generally agreed that Cortex is our preferred forced-narrative system. But none of us is clamoring for that either.

I wish Hindmarch the very tip-top best with this game. He’s got my attention for whatever he does next as well.

 

*I’m reminded of a Call of Cthulhu campaign I played in with Bruce Cordell. His character was a vulcanologist, and Bruce put just a really unsupportable number of skill points in Vulcanology at the beginning of the campaign. Never came up once. We all knew that would happen. But it would have been nicer for that not to happen.

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State of Curiosity 2014

CowPiedPiper

Having a kid has not slowed down my gaming at all. In fact, it’s picked up a little bit. Most of this is due to my highly supportive wife and friends. Thanks wife and friends!

It has slowed blogging about games, however. That, and work.

In January I began working as a project manager with Iello, makers of King of Tokyo and Steampark, among others. The experience has been excellent. Iello is a great company with a supportive atmosphere and a solid stable of games. I think you’ll see increasingly fun stuff coming out of the company this year.

Second Saturday game night rolls on and continues to pick up speed.  I’ll post about that soon, I hope.

One thing that has dropped off since Player 3′s arrival is progress on my own game designs. At the end of last year, I pitched some children’s co-op games to an under-respected game publisher. They passed on my favorite idea, one I like so much that I plan to pitch it other places. It’s a children’s RPG for kids ages 6-8. I’m a little in love with it, so that’s bad for objectivity, but I have non-rose-colored vision.

I was also working on another game with the inestimable Curt Crane who started a fantasy dungeon-crawl dice game and asked me to work with him. Naturally I said yes. I hope to get back to that in Q1.

I’m headed up to Toy Fair next week. That should be interesting. I haven’t been there in almost 10 years, and then as press, not as an exhibitor.

All in all, 2014 remains an excellent time to be curious. I hope to share some of it with you this year.

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February 15, 2014 · 1:09 pm

Welcome Player 3!

Now I have someone new to get mad at when I lose!

Posting will resume in the near future.

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Tynon, the game that plays itself

I’ve been playing cow clicker games on my ipad lately and have seen the banner ad blitz from several similar F2P games on the Web: Evony, Tynon, whatever that one is that bills itself as exclusively for male gamers.

They all strike me as ochre-jelly slimy. But somebody must think there’s money in them. So I investigated Tynon.

There’s plenty of T&A, but it’s not very… sexy. I can see the lens that allows me to see the female characters as sexy, but the game doesn’t even really work all that hard to objectify. And the figures are tiny most of the time, so you can’t even get all that excited over tiny sprites with what would be proportionally big boobs. Most of the NPCs are mammarily gifted females, but they’re static images. They’re just half-naked drawings telling you to kill ten rats. The sex is almost purely marketing. That’s objectification, but it isn’t porn.

tynon.revolutionarychinaface1

I never learned how to go on the offensive, but this Chinese-revolution-faced siren would try to lure me into it occasionally.

I’ve been watching it for about 20 minutes, and it seems to be less related to an rpg and more closely related to combat guessfests like My Brute.

I let the game name me “Madisyn”, one of several stripper-esque choices. The general populace had the usual doggerel of fantasy-ruiner names, such as “Monkeybutt” or “TigOlBitties”. I could have made a dude avatar, but I wanted to get the full experience.

tynon.yourchoices

Madisyn in her natural habiTIT.

“Auto-Navigation” walks you through what we’ll call “the story” on technical counts. This means it does nearly everything for you. It finds the next quest giver, walks you over there, clicks on him/her, and gives you money for showing up.

In fact, it’s playing itself while I’m writing this. I think I’m fighting zombies right now. Ultimately, this is the best choice because 1) you do a lot of boring things repetitively to grow (without money), and 2) the UI is cluttered like a 5-year-old’s room. You don’t have to mess with that when the game plays itself.

tynon.cluttered UI

What do I click to check on my character stats? Trick question! All of them!

As I spent more time with Tynon, I began to see how deep it runs. It has dizzying complexity in equipment, henchmen, and skills, all of which pour into a central stat called “Power”. You want Power to go up so you can win more fights. Not all the math behind Power is transparent, so if you want to get at Tynon, you have to join the community and research.

What I would think of as the game environment—theme, graphics, my avatar, etc—is revealed to be entirely window dressing. Accordingly, they haven’t dumped just a whole ton of resources into that.

The real “game” is metagame. It involves management of Power-gaining resources, guild management, and a weirdly hands-off PvP, where you don’t control the fight — you just line up your guys beforehand and pick your opponents from a small pool. Protip: Try to pick the ones with lower Power.

tynon.fightVS

You can successfully pick fights with slightly higher-powered opponents.

The game is dog-simple to start and play. If that appeals to you, it’s got quicksand-like capacity to keep you around with numerous clever little F2P touches: rewards based on clicking every 30 minutes, negative reinforcement based around checking in every 24 hours, an announcement of the dollar value of the “gifts” the game gives you so you understand what stuff costs, a crawl that tells you when other players get lucky.

tynon.textcrawl

The box on the lower left gives you server chatter, but when something big happens, everyone sees it in a crawl across the screen.

There’s a business model underneath all of this that doesn’t need quality or even, apparently, a game to lure in money. I can’t tell how much of this bad design/good business is intentional, but I’m thinking, most of it.

I came into Tynon wanting to revile it and left with a begrudging respect. Not for the barely extant game, but for the sharp gamification from uCool, Inc. In addition to Tynon,  uCool operates two different versions of Evony, and a Facebook game called Sunnytown, and yet has no customer-facing website of their own. If you work for uCool or know someone who does, get in touch.  I’d like to see how this watch works.

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Fighting Is Dumb

High Command

Played High Command last night and got a solid fourth place out of four. I accord my sterling performance to several factors, such as forgetting to use all of my resources, letting myself get rattled and making dumb decisions, and the usual first-time-you-played-so-you-don’t-know-how-to-play issues.

The main problem though was that I spent a lot of resources fighting instead of winning. Most board games are about fighting. Drama needs conflict, and the best way to engineer conflict in tabletop games is to explicitly pit human players against each other.

However, as in real life, fighting is the absolute least efficient way to get what you want. If the arbitrary circumstances of board game rules didn’t make attrition warfare the only way to achieve victory, no one interested in winning would try it. It sucks down all your resources, is fraught with unmitigated risk, leaves very little to act with once the smoke clears, and the worst sin — it’s kind of boring and samey after a while.

If you ever read The Art of War, you might remember that Sun Tzu spends most of his words telling you how to win war by making sure you don’t have to fight. Many other military strategists write long books full of insights that basically amount to, “Here are all the things you should do before you have to break down and actually start killing each other.”  Games frequently skip past all of the maneuver though, the interesting part, the real war part, and cut to the stabby bit at the end.

On top of all of these things, this session was a particularly pernicious example of how dumb fighting is, because I spent a lot of time fighting one other player over one territory. Every once in a while I have to relearn this lesson it by losing hard: when you challenge a single player in a multiplayer game, you are handing fractions of victory to the non-participating players because they can spend resources winning instead of fighting.

Put another way, the winner is the player who contrives to fight least.

One reason for the rise of co-op board games is that as people come into this hobby, ever-more of them do not spring from the hobby’s wargaming loins. Customers want interesting games that don’t involve new complex ways to beat each other up. High Command is a decent game with some nice touches, especially for a deck builder. But I’d rather see (and make) more games that look for more clever conflict.

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Good Enough Games

pic517933_mdA couple years ago I was repping AEG at boardgamegeekcon and had a great time. When the show ended, we had  inventory left over. Among other things, a couple of cases of Monkey Lab, a game about monkeys. In a lab.

During breakdown, I was over at the Funagain room, trying to sell leftover stock at a discount so we didn’t have to ship it home. I brought the full list of everything we had left–Thunderstone, Infinite City, Nightfall, some other stuff. The Funagain guy picked some, rejected others. He wouldn’t take any Monkey Lab.

I asked him why.

“It’s an OK game,” he said. “That’s the problem. There’s plenty of OK games.”

Monkey Lab is probably nobody’s favorite board game. It’s not a bad game. It was good enough to get published. It’s a decent kids’ game. But by some measures, that might be a step worse than being an outright bad game. 

Every game company that’s been around for long has a stable of these. Games good enough to publish, but not good enough to flourish. Games that will roughly break even and then sink to the bottom of the catalog.

Reminds me of the apocryphal story of when Sony bought MGM studios. The formerly-MGM execs presented their slate of movies for the year to their new bosses.

“We’re going to make 40 movies this year. Five will be blockbusters. Ten will do OK. Twenty-five will lose money.”
The new bosses ask, “Why don’t you just make the five that will be hits?”
The movie types say, “We don’t know which ones they are.”

Some of that happens in any creative endeavor. Nobody wakes up and says, “I’m going to make a sufficient game today!” But it can be surprisingly difficult to tell what’s really good until it gets out there. Your bullshit detector loses its calibration unless you take pains to keep it accurate. When you’re running a business, that calibration easily falls down the to-do list.

More often what happens is that you MUST put something out. Cash flow is desperately important to a small business, often more important than high-quality product. A game that you’re confident will break even keeps cash moving around until the real moneymaker shows up.

But as we’ve seen, it can be hard to tell the moneymakers from the money-not-losers. A lot of companies jump from sufficient game to sufficient game for a long time. I guess that’s really just called “business.” Nearly every game company would like to operate like Blizzard or Days of Wonder, only putting out excellent games on an excellent schedule. But in most cases, that is neither feasible nor desirable. One that I know of intentionally operates the other way, publishing good enough games as a wildcatting strategy. It works too.

Ultimately, I wrote in praise of the OK games. They have a place, although not an honorable one.  We would love for all our games to be Tickets to Ride, Agricolas, and 7 Wonderses. But thank the Lord there’s room for Monkey Labs too. Monkey Lab keeps us all here in ways that Power Grid cannot.

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