Tabletop Analog Game Design

This is the title of a book of game related essays by Greg Costikyan and others. (There is lots of white space in the front of the pdf…).

Reading the story about the newb that stuck his dagger through a Troll’s eyeball scrambling his brain in a DragonQuest game…and the memory it cemented for all participating, I could not help recall a game of D&D I played with my Dad back in the day… I used him as a guinea pig to practice DM’ing and he would run two characters. In one such adventure he had a hulking fighter of exceptionally bad looks but 18+(something decimal) strength. This hulk had a partner who was a cleric of exceptional Charisma. On one adventure the charismatic cleric was turned into a donkey by a wizard. For several weekends, back in 78 or 79, we laughed hysterically at the antics of this ogre-like fighter and his ultra-charismatic Donkey sidekick. How ridiculous, but funny.

Then came Shrek…an Ogre with a donkey sidekick…we laughed about what the odds were that one of our favorite gaming memories would have such a close movie parallel. The world is strange sometimes 😉

And the connection to the professional side is the idea of the power of narrative. Why are memories like this so strong and long lasting? How can we orchestrate moments like this to purpose? Is it possible, or is it the fact that they are spontaneous and NOT “set up” what gives them their power? Even is not a story of desperate odds overcome by phenomenal luck, I am still taken by the power of narrative that while contrived, resonates with the players. I’m a bit of a storyteller at heart having spent many hours in my children’s elementary school classrooms reading to the class “doing voices” and trying to demonstrate the power of a well told story to draw an audience in.

This is an aspect of gameplay I know Ed McGrady has championed for some time, but one which professional wargamers are tough to sell on. I’m not sure how or with what, but like Ed, I’m convinced that professional games that do not pay attention to the narrative “super-charging” a game are not getting nearly as much from their games as they could.

Some of the essays in Greg’s book reinforce that notion.


About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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11 Responses to Tabletop Analog Game Design

  1. Jon Compton says:

    This is an interesting post, and brings up a point worth considering. Throughout my life I’ve had a memory disability. I’m largely incapable of remembering certain kinds of things, particularly decontextualized abstract things like mathematical formulas, or, as my wife will sardonically verify, phone numbers. It was so frustrating to me that some years ago I had myself tested for it, and sure enough, it was a real issue. Yet somehow I’ve managed to get myself through a graduate program in mathematical modeling. To overcome this problem, I had to find ways to get things committed to memory via some other mechanism. What I did was to essentially write songs for number strings. I remember my SSN simply because there’s an associated tune (a rhythm, actually) in my head that conjures up the numbers.

    When I was studying for my qualifying exams I was understandably worried about how I would get through them given the number of citations I’d have to remember, etc. But the solution turned out to be what I’d done all along to get through school: I incorporated things into a broader narrative. The narrative, or the story, was what I could remember, and the associations with that narrative allowed me to access details that I’d otherwise stand no chance of remembering.

    As it turns out, this is actually a commonly employed memory technique. While my solution is a bit different, most memory training programs teach you to create stories (narratives) around facts that you want to remember. So, the power of narrative is actually huge. Professional wargamers are a tough sell on anything that can’t be quantified, and it’s definitely hard to quantify a narrative. But the real insights of wargaming are gleaned from exactly that; the unfolding narrative of the exercise. Given new and emerging theories on how cognition and intelligence actually work, especially the memory/prediction paradigm, we might do well to think a bit harder about the ramifications of narrative vs. quantification.

  2. Skip Cole says:

    Stories are powerful, and I agree that there is a value that is hard to quantify.

    But is there some way to at least ‘rank’ the different stories that may emerge from a simulation? If one story leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy of inevitable conflict, and another story offers an escape from that, can we call the second story better? I guess these are value judgements, so all will apply their own set of values to them. But I think we need to unpack the value of narrative better to be better able to convey its true value.

    Jon: Thanks for your comments. I always find it interesting that many things we consider as ‘defects’ in our selves really turn out to be assets.

    • Paul Vebber says:

      Unfortunately I think one man’s triumphant narrative, is another’s tragedy, others may not care one way or the other. Rather than “rank” narratives that come out of gaming one has to tease out what the various plot lines, characters and endings are and what reasons people with different agendas have for assembling their story the way they do.

      Like earthquakes, sometimes a small dust-up sooner is better than letting the pressures build up until you have “the Big One”. Brinksmanship can have deterrence value that conflict avoidance now may set the stage for later.

      Wargaming can’t tell you what story is the “best” but it can help you sort out what the different stories might be and understand why some people might understand them to be “better” than others.

      At the end of the day if you know what criteria make a good story going in, then doesn’t that make the game a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy? one of the purposes of wargames is to “play out” the situation and see if the narratives we bring into the game, work out the way we think they will and learn what the plot twists are we hadn’t thought through.

      I’d be happy if we simply became mindful of the narratives being created during a game and including that in the analysis. Once we get good at that we can see if we can achieve the wisdom to tell a good ending from a bad one 😉

  3. Jon Compton says:

    Reminds me of a corollary point which is that any wargame is only as good as the people who play it. Getting diverse participants from multiple POVs is incredibly important in trying to find those divergent narratives. Understanding your participants in the after-action analysis is something I’m a big proponent of in order to identify particular biases that may manifest due to institutional, cultural, or personal alignment. One of the things I try to do when I can is to not allow uniforms or rank insignia during play (unless that is part of the game design). I also seek to have multiple alpha personalities. I like teams that argue a lot. Of course, all games (and game designs, and game purposes. YMMV.) are different.

    As for ranking, the very process of ranking a set of narratives is a bias inducing one. Our valuation of one outcome over another must necessarily be based upon some desired outcome set given an understood outcome continuum. The game designers and after-action report writers are not necessarily completely aware of what those desirable sets are. Where they are obvious, ranking is meaningless. Where they are not, ranking is subjective and not necessarily contextually relevant. If we accept that the narrative generated is a possible future, then we must realize that an infinite number of teams will generate an infinite number of futures that is still a subset of the actual possible futures (what I call the 1/0 problem). What we likely seek to understand are the potential pitfalls and benefits of a particular CoA; so any result is a useful one, and the worst result may be the one that requires the closest scrutiny.

    The real-life likelihood of any given outcome has a cumulative probability function that is asymptotically limited at 0 and 1, not bounded by 0 and 1 (this is a philosophical point, not a mathematical one). What we sacrifice for mathematical tractability is solid understanding that outcomes are substantially more unpredictable than we’d like to think they are. The desire to quantify a wargame is firmly rooted in a need for control and certainty in trying to navigate the threat environment. It’s an understandable desire, but I don’t think it’s a realistic one.

  4. Skip Cole says:

    Hi John,
    Your comment reminded me of this book, “The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600.” I have not read it, but gamer once explained to me that the quantifying was what really gave the Europeans an edge over other civilizations of the time. So while it may seem unrealistic to quantify some things, I think that the more we try to the better.

    Along the same lines, the answer to every question used to be ‘God.’
    Why do crops grow? God. Why does it rain? God. Why did Tommy get sick? God.
    To a certain extent it seems that games are now being ranked by ‘Quality of Players.’
    Why did the game go well? High quality players? Why did it go bad? Poor quality players.
    This smacks a bit hypocritical to me, since the sponsor pays for the game and sends the players. So if the game is bad, it is ultimately the customer’s fault. (But if the customer is happy, then everyone is happy anyway, right?)

    Can better than this be done? It might not be possible in the current environment, but if we were starting out fresh, what would be the ideal solution?


    • Paul Vebber says:

      When you do not have a disciplined approach to wargaming methodology, then you are left blaming the participants. One of the things the ‘M&S-ification” of wargaming has done is eliminated the understanding of the need for “rules” or even a written process beyond “putting on the game”.

      This gets to the issues in the post about games vs simulations. We confuse “simulating process” with “understanding the use of the process” and simpy expect the players to “know”. Several recent events (some games some seminars) have suffered from this, and I have fallen into the trap myself. Posing a situation to “fleet operators” and saying “OK, what would you do next” is not an effective game construct.

      In this situation they not unlike actors , who need to understand their motivation for “what they do next”. Otherwise they default to one of three things: attacking the nearest target of opportunity, if one is there; set up a defensive umbrella over their stuff if no targets are immediately available, or , if there are no ready targets, and the pucksters appear to be hnadling defending their stuff, ask for an intel brief. The latter being the default – when in doubt, ask for the latest intel update.

      Then when the player request for intel outstrips the ability to provide it, the players criticize the game and the umpires criticize teh players, and everyone is surprised that the whole thing never gets to “decision-making”.

      You need a disciplined approach to establishing and maintaing a level of abstraction the players operate in so they don’t respond to a need to make an important decision with requests for mind-nmbing levels of detailed information they would likely not have in real life. This requires a focus in game design on the decisions you want the players to make, not simply gauging their reaction to being put in a situation with only the barest context, and no motivation.

      Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there was a bunch of really smart wargaming experts out their who could work to solve this sort of problem and create a forum for discussion on how to advance the state of the art of wargaming art and science 😉

      • Jon Compton says:

        Some might object to the appearance of “really smart” and “wargaming experts” in the same sentence….

    • Jon Compton says:

      Hey Skip,

      I don’t think I was saying anything about quality of players equating to quality of game, but rather to bias in outcome. Fairly different ideas, and I hope it’s clear which one I’m speaking about.

      As for that notion, I think it is quite true that a set of bad, unmotivated, and disinterested players can ruin the best design. But part of the work in setting up such an exercise is insuring that you get actual professionals involved to participate. Failing that, a failure of game due to bad players is still the fault of the organizer, not the players.


      • Skip Cole says:

        Hi Jon,
        Thanks for the clarification. Sorry if I was putting words into your mouth.
        I’m really still trying to figure out what objective measures are useful in assessing these games. I know a lot of people balk at that. To completely be unfair and put words into the mouths of others, “Success is like porn. I know it when I see it.” But I think it would be convenient if we had some kind of standard yardstick.
        Of course then, everyone would want that ‘agreed upon’ yardstick to indicate that their work was beyond reproach – so it will be hard to get agreement on the yardstick in the first place. Also, market valuation does not work here to evaluate the war games since the playing field is essentially a monopsony. Maybe the real answers will have to be imported from other fields. Its a conundrum.


    • Jon Compton says:

      As for the quantification aspect, I’m actually a big proponent of quantitative research (I spent 5 years in grad school working on a PhD in formal mathematical modeling, after all). In no way do I object to its use. What I object it is its use as a substitute for thinking.

      • Skip Cole says:

        I see your point.
        But it gets to something that I think (and I take the blame for this if incorrect) Mikey put into a presentation years ago. It is the joke about a lamp post either being used for illumination or for support. Trying to quantify things can be thinking. But it is not always so.

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