New Game Smell (Part 3)

A couple of blogs ago, I started a series about how game companies keep things fresh for their existing game lines. The three methods I wanted to focus on in this 3-part series were errata, expansions, and editions. This third blog covers game expansions, a fairly hot topic in the world of gaming.

Many games these days release new editions of their game in some fashion. Games we haven’t seen for decades are showing up on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms after a decade or more of silence. Some of the longest-running miniatures games have released new editions in the past couple of years. And yet other game companies are looking to break the mold of what a new edition looks like.

I had a great deal of involvement in the most recent versions of Warmachine and Hordes. Their new edition has made quite a splash, with a great deal of positive feedback as well as some negative feedback. New editions always invite controversy. No matter how careful a game developer might be, there will be changes that disappoint or upset some subset of their players. BUT… the key is that they generate discussions and shake up the meta. Models that used to be sub-par have a new lease on life while models that used to impress now pale in comparison to other options. This generates new discussions, new army list options, and (most importantly for the game company) new sales.

Some companies use edition “resets” as a means to refresh their catalog, heavily revising their actual product lineup. Other companies pledge to keep all current models available in the future edition. Models might be more or less attractive in the new edition of the game, but all purchases remain an option in theory if not in practice.

Video game companies like Blizzard have long used a system of “dynamic updates” to their games. This allows on-the-fly adjustments to game balance and the rules behind the scenes. Traditional game companies have started to use some of the power and potential of a dynamic update system. The aforementioned Warmachine and Hordes game lines have pledged to begin annual balance updates while games like Guild Ball already introduce a new “season” each year allowing for incremental change that shakes up the meta.

No matter your opinion on new editions of a game, the fact remains that they create an opportunity to reinvigorate a franchise. New editions initiate new discussions which then initiate new sales that allow the game to continue for years to come.

Feel free to share you thoughts on new editions and which companies are making effective use of the edition change cycle in the comments below.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

My last blog talked about the basics of mathematical models and how they can be used in game balance. Almost universally, when players play a game, they’re encouraged to look for “powerful” cards, characters, abilities, etc. to reach certain goals. Even in fully cooperative games, players gravitate to what they perceive as strong and shy away from weaker options.

Since the goal of the game, by definition, is to accomplish the goal of the game, it makes perfect sense for players to seek out the tools that will be most effective at helping them reach that goal. It also makes sense for players to stratify the available options. It even makes sense for them to critique certain options as “overpowered” or “underpowered” when those options continuously rise to the top or fall to the bottom. It also makes sense, however, to dislike a game because it is too balanced.

I’d be willing to bet that most readers have never claimed a game was too balanced or heard other gamers do so, but without some differentiation between the capability of different cards, characters, abilities, etc. in an asymmetrical game, there is very little meaningful player choice. If playing any given card, miniature, tile, etc. in any way it could be played had no net impact on whether a player won or lost the game, the game wouldn’t be enjoyable. There needs to be some differentiation to encourage players to interact with the game, to explore its possibilities.

Too-balanced games aren’t typically criticized for being “too balanced,” though. They’re dismissed as “boring” or as not having “meaningful player choices.” Given that games need some degree of imbalance to be enjoyable, it begs the question “how much is enough?” The answer depends on the game in question.

For casual games, the degree of imbalance should be very small. Games like Lanterns and Sushi Go give players choices, but the difference in score between a player making the right choices and a player making the wrong choices is typically fairly small. Scores are very close, options are narrowly balanced, and that suits these games very well.

For intermediate games, there’s more leeway for imbalance between game components. Players want their various characters, monster races, kingdoms, etc. to feel varied in their strengths and weaknesses. Some might excel slightly or lag behind slightly, but having lots of flavor is more important than perfecting the balance. Plenty of board and card games fall into this middle category, as do most dungeon crawl games and role-playing games.

For hardcore games, the balance pendulum swings back again. If a game has frequent large-scale tournaments, it qualifies as a hardcore game that needs tight game balance. The various games that fall into the category of “esports” certainly fall into this category as do many hobby miniatures games and collectible card games.

With such an emphasis on balance, though, how do such games avoid the trap of being boring?

First off, they recognize that only the top choices truly need that razor’s edge of game balance. In a pool of 100 player options (deck builds, heroes, army generals, etc.), it’s difficult if not impossible to make all 100 choices truly unique and truly balanced. But you only really need the top choices among these player options to have such finely tuned game balance. “Lesser” options should still be interesting, creating more diversity in the game and generating additional appeal for gamers approaching it as an intermediate-weight game rather than jumping into hardcore tournament-style play.

Second, though, they recognize the power of situational effects. If one option is more powerful in certain positions, match-ups, combinations, etc., while another options excels in others, it creates additional depth of gameplay without creating an option that is strictly “more powerful” or “less powerful” than the alternative. Collectible card games embrace this direction. Games like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone have plenty of cards that are more or less powerful than other options based on some aspect of the game state – what you have in play, what your opponent has in play, what you have in hand, etc.

Third, they shake things up on a regular basis. New gameplay formats, new releases, new balance updates, and new editions all force players to reassess the strengths and weaknesses of the tools in their toolbox. Sometimes, players resist or even resent changes to the status quo, but those changes are necessary to keep the game fresh and to keep gameplay engaging.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look at how a little bit of imbalance is critical for good game balance. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Getting Started with Mathematical Models

In an earlier blog, I briefly mentioned mathematical models and how they’re a great tool for game development. Some folks are already familiar with mathematical models in the context of gaming. For those who aren’t, however, I’d like to take a look at the basics in today’s blog.

The goal of using a mathematical model during game development is to assist game balance efforts by creating a formula to help determine the value of similar components. Those components are most often cards, but they can also be miniatures, dice, tech upgrades, treasures, or any other game component that we wish to present as a viable option that is not an overpowered option relative to other choices. A good mathematical model behind the game can save a lot of time in the playtest process or even lead to a better balanced final product.

As noted in the asymmetrical game balance blog, not every game has components that need to be balanced against one another. Even for the games that do, some games are a better fit for mathematical modeling than others.

For our look at a few building blocks of a mathematical model, let’s assume we’re talking about a card game with lots and lots of different cards that fight against one another (a very good type of game for which to use a mathematical model). We’ll assume they have some sort of Attack stat, Health stat, and Mana cost. The most basic place to start our mathematical model is with ADDITIVE terms in our formula. We could, for example, say that “Attack + Health = Mana.” It’s not a terrible place to start, and it could even lead to some decent game balance. We don’t typically see games use this as-is, because the in-game math surrounding the Mana resource would become unwieldy for players. Unwieldy math behind the scenes is fine, but not in front of the players.

So let’s add a SCALING term to our formula. Let’s move to “(Attack + Health) x (Scaling Factor) = Mana.” A scaling factor of 50% is a decent starting point. It’ll reduce the mana our players need to track, but it also introduces some new questions. We’ll have to figure out how to handle rounding, for one. We also need to consider whether the game in question values Attack and Health comparably. We might need to go to “(Attack x Attack Scaling) + (Health x Health Scaling) = Mana.” If the game favors min/max-ing your Attack and Health stats on different cards, we could even start squaring, scaling, adding, and then taking a square root, scaling that, and then… hmm… I seem to be getting ahead of myself.

There’s something else to consider in our cost beyond just mana, though. Playing a card costs mana, but it usually also costs a card. Most card combat games allow just a single free card draw per turn, so let’s put an OFFSET into the formula to account for the cost of the card. This brings us to “(Attack + Health – Offset) x (Scaling Factor) = Mana.” Now we’re cooking. For those who are familiar with Hearthstone, consider “(Attack + Health – 1) x 50% = Mana.” Glance through a few Hearthstone cards, and it sure won’t take long to find one that fits this formula.

On the topic of Hearthstone, we know there’s more to a card than just Attack, Health, and Mana, but the tools we used in our foundation of mathematical models will continue to serve us well! Cards with a specific minion type (like Beasts or Dragons) have card synergy that increases their value. Well, let’s just add a “Minion Type Scaling Factor” customized for each Minion type (typically in the 105% to 115% range). Cards that belong to each Class could also have an additional scaling factor by Class (typically 85% to 95%). Then we’ve got abilities. Yikes! Some simply add to Attack or Health, which keeps things simple, but others get quite a bit more complicated. Some are direct damage. Some are conditional increases to Attack or Health or are conditional direct damage. We’ll ultimately need a lot more terms in our formula.

We’ll also need to add quite a few more tools to our toolbox before we’ve got a comprehensive mathematical model for Hearthstone or for our hypothetical card combat game. This gives an idea of how to start the ball rolling and hopefully gives a slightly better idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. By the time I completed my model for High Command, I had dozens of individual terms in my formula, and some of those terms had separate mathematical models generating just one term.

I hope you enjoyed scratching the surface of mathematical models for game development. The next time you look at the numbers on a card, I hope you can catch a glimpse of the mountain of numbers behind those numbers and appreciate how that card came to be.

Three Element Alchemy

Most games can be broken down into three elements – Skill, Luck, and Social. These three elements are mixed together in vastly different ratios and with vastly different results, but the basic building blocks are always the same.

Skill game mechanics take innumerable forms, but the essence of such mechanics is always player choice. The choices you make building an army or constructing a deck, the choices you make when positioning your pieces or tiles, the choices you make when determining the right card or spell to use at a given time – any player choice that can impact the outcome of the game falls under the umbrella of skill-based game mechanics.

Luck game mechanics are the simplest of the three elements to identify. Their core essence is randomization. Rolling dice and shuffling cards are extremely common luck elements, but spinning a spinner, mixing face-down items on the table, blindly pulling an item from a bag, and various other means of randomization are all luck-based game mechanics.

Social game mechanics have a core essence of player interaction. Any time you need something you can only get from another player, it’s a social game mechanic. Voluntarily trading cards, resources, or information is a very common and easily-recognized social game mechanic, but any game mechanic that requires players to read one another or bluff is also a socially-based game mechanic.

Let’s look at a few examples that focus on just a single element.

Chess is a great example of a pure skill game. There are no cards or dice providing luck elements. You can play a whole game without ever communicating with your opponent, so there is no intrinsic social element. Chess, Go, Mancala, Checkers, and the like are games of pure skill.

War, the traditional card game, is a pure luck game. There are no decisions the players can make or social interactions the players can have that will impact the results of the game. War, Bingo, and Chutes & Ladders are games of pure luck.

Some Diceless RPGs fall into the category of pure social games. Some include player decisions that impact the outcome of encounters but others are a purely social experience. And naturally, the big draw of diceless RPGs is the lack of randomization that typically comes from dice. Diceless RPGs and various story-telling games are some of the rare games that are purely social.

Chances are, your favorite games are some alchemical admixture of at least two (if not all three) of these elements.

Most Hobby Miniatures Games lean heavily on skill-based game mechanics when it comes to constructing an army, positioning your figures, and engineering favorable trades. There are typically luck-based elements, though, and even occasional social components requiring player interaction in order to resolve the game.

Most Dice Games lean heavily on luck-based game mechanics since the entire genre is based around a randomization mechanic – rolling dice. The popular dice game King of Tokyo, however, incorporates some critical player decisions as well as lots of player interaction if you’re playing with three or more players.

Most Co-op Games lean heavily on socially-based game mechanics. There is typically no chance of success without working together toward the common goal. But randomized cards and/or dice are common, and individual player choices (skill-based game mechanics) greatly influence the outcome of the game.

The three core elements – skill, luck, and social game mechanics – come together in some ratio to form the greater whole. The biggest piece of the pie varies greatly from game to game, but (nearly) every game out there boils down to a mix of these three elements.

The game mechanic of card drafting is particularly noteworthy, here. This increasingly popular game mechanic is one of the few that is intrinsically skill-based (card choice), luck-based (card draw), and socially-based (card passing).

Do you favor one element above the others? What games do you think have the best balance of skill, luck, and social elements? What mixture of the skill, luck, and social elements leads to the best games? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or via email at

The Science of Playtest

I’m pretty passionate about playtesting. More specifically, I’m passionate about establishing and maintaining good playtest practices. I’ve had the opportunity to playtest many different products over the years for a number of different game companies. I’ve participated in playtest sessions as a playtester, as a playtesting coordinator, and as a game developer, giving me a broad perspective on playtesting and plenty of opportunities to see what works most effectively.

When I sat down to write this article, one of the article names that appealed to me for a moment was “The Art of Playtest.” The other side of my brain, however, immediately rebelled at the thought. I’ve mentioned in blogs and podcasts in the past that I love how game development merges analytical and creative pursuits. That’s true of playtesting just as it’s true of game development, but playtesting requires far more objectivity and critical thinking than people might realize.

It’s easy to think of a playtest session like a normal gaming session – you hang out with friends, and you play a game. Then, because it’s a playtest session, you talk a bit about how you felt the game went and what aspects of it you feel could be a bit different. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of playtesting, but that’s not enough.

Playtest games are essentially experiments. I’ve often said that “playtesting is light on play and heaving on testing.” The goal of players is to compete for victory in a game. The goal of testers, however, is to help create a better finished product. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses. You’re not testing player skill. It doesn’t even matter if you finish the game. What matters is what you learn and how effectively you communicate that information to the game developer. Shifting your mindset from working against other players as competitors to working with other players as fellow scientists performing an experiment will go a long, long way toward increasing the value and impact of your playtest feedback.

Thinking about your playtest session as an experiment will help in all sorts of ways beyond that first step of working with your opponents rather than against them. Taken to heart, it helps alleviate some of the following playtest pitfalls in a way that comes as second nature.

1. Don’t play favorites. When performing experiments, you need to test a variety of outcomes. Even after you find your favorite character, faction, play style, etc. in a playtest game, don’t get hung up there. There’s a ton more variables to consider, and you should take this opportunity to experiment. Your goal should be the balance and fun of the game as a whole, not one specific element of the game.

2. Expect change. It’s very easy to form opinions about a game mechanic or a character or a rule and then stick to that opinion. As gamers, we do it all the time. As playtesters, however, it’s a trap! Playtest games are constantly changing, and it’s absolutely critical to look at the current version of the game rather than relying on outdated impressions.

3. Consider the big picture. It’s easy to get hung up in the current revision of the game and your own playtest group’s experiences. After all, your feedback is the piece of the picture you see. In the big picture, however, lots of other folks are submitting playtest feedback, and the current revision of the game is changing all the time. Your feedback will be heard and considered, but it won’t always result in immediate and visible change.

So those are some of my thoughts on the science of playtest. In the next blog, I’ll be continuing the topic of playtesting to talk about how to maximize your playtest feedback. Being an effective playtester not only helps to make great games, but working smoothly with game developers can frequently lead to additional opportunities in the gaming industry.

Origin Story

Game development has always been one of my passions. I can remember all sorts of game designs I kept in notebooks or folders even in early childhood. The aspect of game development that drew me in so thoroughly is its combination of analytical and creative thinking. I’m very mathematically-minded, and I take genuine joy from solving complex equations or unraveling the secrets of a mathematical proof. On the creative side of things, I love envisioning unique characters and weaving tales of crazy adventures.

Though there are other ways the analytical and creative can join together in delightful synergy, game development is a prime example. I like to find ways to draw players into a game’s setting and characters, and I have numerous massive spreadsheets of the mathematics behind a game’s balance and combinations.

For many years, I pursued this passion as a freelancer for a number of game companies. Eventually, that led to full-time employment at Privateer Press Studios where I worked on miniatures games, board games, and card games for years. And now, I’ve taken a new step. Clockwork Phoenix Games is the tiny new company under which I’ll be publishing some of my own game ideas.

At the moment, I’m running a Kickstarter project to learn a bit more about the ins and outs of the crowdfunding platform and am working on the first Clockwork Phoenix Games release. I’ve also created a Facebook page for Clockwork Phoenix, and before long, I’ll be hosting a podcast, Your Turn Next!, that you’ll be able to find on the Your Turn Go! podcast page.

Thank you for following along. I hope this will be a long and exciting journey.