Ah, game designer with a PhD in Literature? Yes, I suppose that would be a good person to write an essay for this blog. When he sent it, Alf heavily encouraged me to edit the piece, as it is long-ish, but after reading it I could barely touch it. You’ll see why in a moment. Oh, and by the by, Alf’s latest game, Fantastiqa, will be hitting Kickstarter soon, so keep an eye out for it.
Why I Design Games
Last week, exactly one day after Towel Day, I turned 42. For reasons unknown to me, I was inauspiciously denied a precise commingling of a) my birthdate, b) the official celebration of the life and work of Douglas Adams, and c) the numeric answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Unless I discover an Adams-worthy remedy involving a time machine and contraceptive device, I’m out of luck.
Ah, one must cope, I suppose.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The question Evan Derrick asked me to answer is “Why Do You Design Board Games?” I will do all I can to occupy the high ground here and shake off the temptation to respond with any of several less-than-worthy responses that spring to mind. (“Why Design? To impress Jodie Foster, of course!” occupies the tippy-top of that list of bad answers.) A better answer might be, “Because I’m better at designing games than I am at playing them.” This is true, but doesn’t really hit the mark. I care little for winning in itself, and Reiner Knizia’s maxim (or my reading of it, anyway) applies: the goal of the game is more important than its attainment. But before I say any more, let me offer a few words by way of context—the obligatory “gamer bio.”
Boardgames have fascinated me from a very early age. Candyland, as I remember, rocked my early 1970s post-toddler Head Start world with fierce abandon, almost as much as the film Earthquake did, minus the Sensurround. I also recall that my neck-hairs would stand on end when playing Which Witch and Mousetrap because of how they combined suspense, strange pieces, and risky (or violent!) consequences. During the horrors of early 1980s junior high school, fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls were a safe-haven for me (my friends, thankfully, were fantastic DMs capable of conjuring worlds far preferable to the actual one I found myself in at the time). I became enthralled by Milton Bradley’s electronic board game Dark Tower and in ninth grade I programmed a fully functional version of it into the high school mainframe computer (I used little monochrome ASCII characters to represent each player, the Tombs, Ruins, the Bazaar, etc.). It worked surprisingly well, and I think that the pleasure I found in “reverse-engineering” Dark Tower for the computer anticipated much of my love for games to come, as well as my wanting to make games of my own.
Except for an occasional session of the fantasy game Talisman—which I mostly played to enjoy an “RPG-lite”— the next 15 years saw little time spent with boardgames. Circa 2000 I was spending most of my game time in front of the computer, all by my lonesome. My girlfriend (now my wife) wanted me to play games with her instead of a machine, so we did some research and stumbled on The Settlers of Catan, which proved a potent gateway drug into the brave new world (well, new to us) of Eurogames. Once we introduced Catan to our friends, Saturday nights quickly became a regular and much-anticipated “game night” event, which has continued now for over ten years. (Though, alas, with much less regularity. I loathe this thing called “growing up” and resist it to my best ability.)
Playing such engaging Eurogames eventually inspired me to start designing games of my own. I’ve been designing games since 2001, and over the years six of my designs have become end-round finalists at the annual Hippodice board game design competition in Bochum, Germany (The Vapors of Delphi, Ziggurat, Bridge Troll, Mont Saint Michel, Tembo, and this year, Druid Stones). Three of my games have been published so far— Bridge Troll, Trollhalla, and The Road to Canterbury. My latest game, Fantastiqa, is being launched on Kickstarter by Gryphon Games later this month. OK, bio over and now we know each other a bit better. In line with the appeal that games have for me, a better answer for “Why Design?” might simply be, “Because I can’t help it.” Why can’t I help it? I suspect it’s because that as I grow older I more-and-more want to inhabit the fantastical worlds that I grew up reading—and which I still read. The most formative book of my childhood was The Phantom Tollbooth. Just look at the map!
If you are anything like me, this map will impel you to hit the accelerator in your toy car, drive straight through that Tollbooth and vroom your way into The Lands Beyond, to wander the Foothills of Confusion, jump to Conclusions (the island, that is), enter voluminous Dictionopolis (and there banter words with King Azaz the Unabridged), and lose yourself in the Mountains of Ignorance, ultimately rescuing the abducted Rhyme & Reason from the Castle in the Air… There’s something intensely, playfully satisfying not only in Norton Juster’s story, but in Jules Feiffer’s visual representation of it in the illustrations. (Avoid the animated film version at all costs—it’s disastrous.)
I know, I’m supposed to be talking games here, but you can probably tell that I put games and stories together in a much bigger bin than either one of them, namely, play. And play depends foremost on the capacity for “As If”: the taking seriously of a book, or a game, as a self-consistent sub-world “as if” it were an actual place, one you genuinely care about. Like a children’s fantasy book, a board game offers the opportunity to inhabit, however briefly, a different world—yes, to escape.
In “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien defends the impulse to escape by revealing some crucial nuances to the word. One type of escape is the flight of the deserter—not his advocated course of action. But another type of escape is that of one unjustly imprisoned. I think that most of us belong in this latter category, imaginations imprisoned behind bars which rattle but rarely budge. A fantasy world is the sharpened file smuggled inside the prisoner’s cake. More specifically, something about the miniaturized, bounded effect of a game board evokes fanciful imaginings. Like the endless hallways in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a game board’s world is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recalls something like this effect occurring within the bounded space of his brother’s biscuit tin:
“Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew. What the real garden had failed to do, the toy garden did. It made me aware of nature—not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. I do not think the impression was very important at the moment, but it soon became important in memory. As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.”
As I see it, my own games succeed or fail based on their participation in such enchantment—on whether or not the imaginative world inside the box is bigger than the box enclosing it. Of course, the material in the box only comes alive in the imagination when players actually play. To facilitate that I strive to make it fun for the players to lose themselves in strange characters: horrible, hungry bridge trolls; marauding troll-Vikings; or cackling medieval pardoners preying on pilgrims wending their way to Canterbury.
Image Courtesy Chris Kirkman
I felt my first twinge of that biscuit-tin excitement in one of my own games when I saw Ryan Laukat’s brilliant artwork for the big Trollhalla game board and pieces. Bridge Troll had wonderfully grotesque trolls, but Trollhalla presented a fully realized fantasy landscape, complete with weather gods, Viking ships, panicked peasants and pigs, mortified monks, and hazardous Billy Goats. The Road to Canterbury likewise evoked an alternate world—this one grounded in the history of religion—in the medieval England of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, thanks to some help from an early illuminated manuscript and some mildly anachronistic posthumous collaboration with Hieronymus Bosch.
Image Courtesy Chris Kirkman
My upcoming game Fantastiqa is a case study in why I design because it distills everything I have loved all my life in fantasy landscapes and strategy games.
The result is a design that one Italian game blog has conjectured to be “Talisman meets Dominion.” That’s not a bad characterization, actually—with a couple of qualifiers inserted. First, Fantastiqa harnesses the spatial aspects of a board for deck building in ways I haven’t seen before. The cards you have assembled in your hand affect where you can adventure on the board, and where you are on the board in turn affects the kinds of cards you can draw and the quests you can fulfill. The layout of Regions on the board changes each time you play, insuring a lot of replayability. Second, none of the cards in the game has any absolute value—they instead work like an ecosystem of relationships. In most games, a “10” beats not only a “9” but also all numbers under nine. In Fantastiqa, each card instead has a unique ability and vulnerability, meaning that it defeats one type of card symbol, and is defeated by another type of card symbol. The effect is like a big game of rock-paper-scissors without the simultaneous play: you use your cards in hand to carefully subdue other cards and then add them to your deck so you can use them for further subduing and to fulfill quests. As a player, you will want the benefits of having multiple card types in your deck, but you don’t want a big diluted supply of cards, either. It’s a tough balance.
So although Fantastiqa aims for the charm (and yes, some of the silliness) of a questing game like Talisman, it’s a genuine strategy game instead of a random dicefest. (I’ve ensured that by including no dice in the game.) You’ve got to manage your hand carefully and make hard choices about how to commit your cards: on your turn should you subdue more Creature cards on the board and add them to your deck? Or should you commit these cards to quests right now? Should you draw from your limited supply of magical powers to expedite travel to the Frozen Wastelands and get there before other players do, using a candle and a fire-breathing dragon to fulfill a 3-point quest to Sabotage the Storeroom of the Frost Giant Philippe? Or simply draw more quests to open up more options? Or use your supply of Gems to buy an Artifact or a Beast?
For me, the challenge that board-game design sets before me is to make games that are engaging but streamlined, complex but not complicated: games with high “simplexity.” So with Fantastiqa, I have steered for the “Goldilocks spot” somewhere between the random chaos of Talisman and the brilliant but exhausting complication of Mage Knight. (I’ll have a lot more to say about Fantastiqa in my upcoming Designer Diary on BoardGameGeek.)
OK, enough product promotion. So, why do I design?
I began by writing about my 42nd birthday, and I did it for more reasons than just because of its resonance with the beloved Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When you hit 42, you are old enough to sense that you had better be doing what you’re called to do with the rest of your dwindling life, and not waste your time. But at 42 you’re still naïve enough to take playfulness seriously. So I do. (And I hope I will feel the same way 42 years from now.) Norton Juster, author of The Phantom Tollbooth, says that the secret to his doing anything is to do something else to get away from that—but importantly, “that’s the thing that turns out to be worthwhile — whatever you’re doing to escape from doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” Put another way, your avocation becomes your true vocation, but only if you pretend it isn’t. So, why design? Or why play, for that matter? For that.
Alf Seegert is Assistant Professor (Lecturer) in the Department of English at the University of Utah. He is the designer of the strategy board games Bridge Troll, Trollhalla, and The Road to Canterbury. Visit his webpage at alfseegert.com
Alf’s newest game, Fantastiqa, will be published by Gryphon Games and is set to launch on Kickstarter this June. Find out more at fantastiqa.com
Alf is a member of the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah (bgdg.info).
- whyidesigngames posted this