International Games Week October 29 – November 4

International Games Week

Game Profile: Qwirkle

Posted on August 25, 2014

The prolific Hannah Tracy is back again! She brings us another profile of a game that works well for audiences of all ages, such as those likely to attend your International Games Day event... 

Qwirkle is a board game created by MindWare which has won numerous awards. It is designed for two to four players and play time is usually about a half hour to forty-five minutes.  I like to describe it as sudoku meets dominoes meets Scrabble.

The game is made up of 108 wooden blocks with a color and a shape on each. Each tile is one of six different shapes in one of six color options (so 36 different possibilities, and 3 copies of each).

To play, each player builds in a Scrabble-style grid off what is already on the board, to make lines of either matching shape or color. So it might be six squares, all of different colors; or one of each shape, all in the color blue. Each block that is added to a line scores points, and if they can make a complete line it is called a qwirkle and scores an extra 6 points. The player at the end of the game with the most points wins. For a fuller description of the rules, and to see some actual game play, check out the TableTop episode.

This game has become a favorite at my library. It is easy to pick up, and is pretty quick to play, so it is easy to squeeze in a game at the end of the day before I have to kick all the teens out. The actual play is pretty basic, but the strategy can become quite involved. There are any number of choices you can make each turn and you need to decide which will benefit you the most. But you are not playing in a vacuum - other players’ decisions will affect what you will be able to do. You can even specifically make moves that will block or stop another player from being able to make a good move. This leads to much yelling in both triumph and frustration. The game is simple enough for children and offers enough complex options for the strategy-minded player. One of my favorite parts is simply getting to shout “Qwirkle!” really loudly every time I complete a line.

I have also become a big fan of the travel edition, which plays exactly the same and comes in a nifty little pouch which is just the right size for Qwirkle plus a deck of cards or Fluxx.

Game profiles: Hanabi, or, Theory Of Mind In A Box

Posted on July 28, 2014

Hi folks! Thanks to life not running according to those famous Other Plans, we've been caught a little on the hop by this month's Game Profile piece. So rather than another survey of a genre, like the superb effort Ben gave us last month, we're going to concentrate on a single game.

But whooo-ee, what a game.

Hanabi, which Australian donors Good Games are donating to Aussie participants, is like a haiku - or perhaps something a little less sparse, like a sonnet. It has a tiny number of components and systems, but they are arranged so artfully that they are more even than the product of their parts, let alone the sum.

Hanabi is Japanese for fireworks, or literally "flower fire". The story of the game - and it's largely decorative, with little connection to the mechanics of the game - is that it's New Year in a Japanese village, and the players are the fireworks crew who are about to put on the annual show. Some klutz has knocked over the carefully sorted fireworks and muddled them all up, and you're all frantically working together to reorganise them before the show starts - but if you make too many mistakes, the fireworks will blow up and take you all with them.

I'm going to skip over a detailed rules recap at this point - like many games, it's hard to grok from a description and I would just bore you. The key point is that this is a co-operative game of hidden information: you hold the cards facing away from you!

Yep. When you're playing Hanabi, everyone can see the cards in your hand but you. And there are strict rules that govern what players can tell each other.

This means that you are constantly thinking about what's going on in your teammates' minds. What do they need to know? Why did they think you needed to know that these cards were blue? Should I play them, discard them, or hang onto them and wait for more information?

And, as you get more advanced, you start thinking about how to convey information indirectly: if I discard this red 3, even though we still need one, will my friend work out I only feel safe to do that because I can see that her "unknown-colour" 3 is the other red?

You'll also start using negative information ("if these cards in my hand ARE blue, then all the other cards are NOT blue"), card-counting-style probability juggling, and more.

Just this surprisingly sophisticated level of puzzle-like logic, theory-of-mind, attempting to read other players, etc. is enough to make the game a keeper. But the real value of the game comes one layer deeper. In addition to those other skills, you're also receiving a lesson in the fundamental unknowability of other people. And you're doing it in a framework of co-operation.

Emotionally, it is far easier to engage with the "other people" problem in a competitive or even hostile mode. Our more basic natures reflexively resent the things that make us exert ourselves, and that meshes well with a goal that involves somehow triumphing over them. (One could argue that this is at the root of many modern socio-politico-economic ills - for starters, the rabid anti-intellectualism of large pockets of mass culture.) This is part of the pleasure of competitive play: expressing that basic egoistic subjective sense of the self’s defiance against the world, but doing so in a consensual context where that hostility is licensed, constrained into forms that contain the possible harm, and channeled in ways that mean that even the journey to defeat can still be a pleasurable and educational experience.

But real life – especially a good life – is much more about getting inside other people’s heads in order to help them, whether because doing so helps us too, or simply because we love them. And that’s what Hanabi is all about.

The puzzle that you are collaborating to solve – sort cards drawn randomly into sequences of 1-5 in 5 different colours – is childishly simple. But the fact that you know nothing of the cards you hold except what your partners tell you – and vice versa – plus what you can see of cards in other players' hands and on the table, and what you can deduce from all that information, makes other people not only a crucial part of the puzzle but utterly indispensible to the solution. Failing to trust your fellow players to tell you what you need to know can completely paralyse you. Failing to consider how even the slightest action will be seen by your partners in the game may well lead to you sending false signals. And most importantly, feeling antagonistic towards other players only distracts you – and probably them; most humans are incredibly sensitive to even slight inflections of blame – from the problem at hand.

This forces the higher functions of the brain not only to engage with the intellectual problem at hand, but to examine and control those resentful lizard-brain “how dare you make me work” impulses. In other words, you are not only practicing being smart but being good; blaming other people for not automatically conforming to internal expectations is at the root of evils ranging all the way from petty to genocidal.

It's a lot to read into a simple game, I'll admit. But play it - with someone you're close to, and with someone you're not - before you dismiss it. If a handful of words, well-chosen and perfectly arranged, can detonate in the mind and force a re-evaluation of an entire life, why can't a tiny bundle of choices and rules, actions and consequences, take us deeper into human nature than we even know how to recognise in "just a game"?

And if that's possible, isn't it our responsibility as libraryfolk to try and make sure it happens? It is our duty, I would contend, both to seek out the playful works that offer these kinds of possibilities, and - even more importantly - to provide the context and the vocabulary that enables our communities to realise them.

That this vocabulary is still in development, that our culture as a whole is only starting to wake up to the power of play - surely that only makes it more exciting, not less... and more important that community-minded, culture-minded, people-minded voices like ours be woven into the conversation right from the start.

Game profiles: The art of simulating imagination

Posted on June 23, 2014

And from tabletop RPGs we go to electronic RPGs with another fantastic piece by one of our volunteers: Ben Manolas surveys the meteoric rise of the Western RPG, a form whose time came with the rise of the computer.

The evolution of roleplaying games (RPGs) is a subject which could easily fill volumes, from children role-playing as other people or fictional characters to the most detailed and complicated pen-and-paper RPG. There are an almost endless number of ways for individuals to create an entirely new persona and explore places that may or may not exist. For this game profile piece, however, I will be looking at the evolution of Western RPGs on computers and consoles from text-based adventures to fully immersive graphical epics with the potential to last for hundreds of hours.

Computer RPGs found their beginnings in Text-based RPGs in the mid to late 70s, heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. From this starting point, basic quasi-graphical symbolic interfaces soon started to appear, with ASCII characters representing objects and characters in the game world; probably the most famous of this type of RPG was Rogue, the game which lends it name to the entire genre dubbed ‘roguelike’. These games featured procedurally-generated levels where players could explore, find treasure (loot) and encounter enemies in an effort to level up and get as far down the dungeon as possible. These games had a massive influence on later action RPGs (ARPGs) such as Diablo, Sacred and Path of the Exile.

The next step in the evolution of the Western RPG was the introduction of full graphical user interfaces (GUIs) which allows developers to create games that can be easily identified as the ancestors to the games we enjoy today. In the Ultima and Wizardry series players find the introduction of plot, parties, colour graphical representations of players, objects and enemies in the game world and, beginning with Ultima III, the ability to use keystrokes to move a character rather than having to type out commands. While Ultima stayed with the traditional top-down view found in roguelikes, the Wizardry series used a first-person perspective to attempt to more fully immerse the player.

From this point many beloved franchises continued to produce sequels and new franchises emerged including Might & Magic and my personal favourite, Lands of Lore (this being the first game I ever purchased). Gameplay was improved, graphics continued to get better, sound effects and speech were introduced - I can still remember sitting at the computer with my father and going crazy when the noise of a horse’s hooves changed as it went from a dirt road to a wooden drawbridge in the first Lands of Lore, or Patrick Stewart’s amazing voice work. Unfortunately, over time, the Western RPG marketplace started to stagnate with many sequels not showing enough improvements over previous instalments to warrant interest and new franchises feeling much like carbon copies of more popular entries in the genre.

Then along came arguably the most influential studios in the history of Western RPGs, Black Isle, BioWare and Blizzard. Together these studios released some of the greatest RPGs and ARPGs ever including Baldur’s Gate and Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Fallout and Fallout 2, all three entries in the Diablo series, Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2, Planescape: Torment, World of Warcraft, Mass Effect etc. The list is large and almost all of the games these studios released were instant classics, redefining how people approach not only RPGs but games outside of that genre, while also pushing both technical and artistic boundaries.

Arguably the most revolutionary of these games was Planescape: Torment. In this game the player wakes up in a morgue with no memory of who they are or where they have been and quickly acquire a talking, floating skull as a companion. What made this game so revolutionary was not only the amount of script created for the game (approximately 880,000 words) but the amount of choice players are given: the focus of the game isn’t conflict, but rather the story itself and the question that underpins it - "What can change the nature of a person?". Planescape: Torment helped RPGs move away from the "dungeon crawl" past exemplified by roguelikes and showed what can be achieved if a game focuses on storytelling, allowing the action to be a plot device rather than the plot itself.

One of these studios is also responsible for the leviathan of a sub-genre known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). World of Warcraft (WoW) is an online RPG based in the world of the Real Time Strategy series Warcraft, both of which were developed by Blizzard Entertainment. Since its release in 2004, WoW has been the biggest MMORPG in existence; there were others before, such as Ultima Online and Everquest, but it was WoW that really pushed the MMORPG genre to the front of stage, gaining it attention from gamers and non-gamers alike. This is due largely to the number of subscribers peaking at 12 million individual players in 2010, something that has never been accomplished by an MMORPG before. Many large MMORPGs have been launched since, such as Guild Wars 1 and 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls Online, each with their own features to try and set them apart, but none has come close to repeating the success the Blizzard found with WoW.

Modern-day RPG enthusiasts are spoilt for choice, with Steam and GOG.com allowing them to reach back (almost) to the start of the Western RPG and play all the classics right up the present. There are a huge number of quality modern RPGs out there such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, The Witcher series, the Mass Effect series, the Dragon Age series, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, Grimrock... and with Kickstarter allowing developers to resurrect the classic franchises of the 90s, such as a new Torment game, Wasteland 2 and a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate in form of Pillars of Eternity. Even better is the ease with which fans are modding games, creating whole new stories and even entirely new games based on the engines of the original (of particular note are Skyrim and Dragon Age: Origins). RPG elements are bleeding in to other genres more than ever, with quest and levelling systems now found in everything from First Person Shooters to Strategy games. I don’t think there has been a better time to be an RPG gamer, so maybe it’s time to lose yourself in another world for an hour or 300.

 

Ben Manolas is a Children’s and Youth Librarian at the City of Melbourne. He has been playing RPGs since he was 8, has lived in far too many other worlds for his own good and considers himself a chaotic good battlemage.

Game Profiles: The art of the imaginary stroll

Posted on May 26, 2014

Back in the early days of massively multiplayer online games, Richard Bartle, one of the developers of MUD1 - one of the first multi-user online virtual spaces - developed a taxonomy (later turned into a test) to describe which activities most motivated individual players. It assigned each player a score in four areas: Killing (character vs character combat was one part of the game), Socializing, Achieving and Exploring. Still used today (though not without criticism) the Bartle Test's categories are pretty recognizable even to outsiders - or most of them are.

Two of these four activities are, of course, readily compatible with popular conceptions of games: competition, or "Killing", and Achievement are perhaps central to how most people understand games. (This is perhaps why "gamification" is often equated with "awarding points and publishing a leaderboard".) Socialization is increasingly understood as part of the draw of games - though it should perhaps rather be recognized as part of their inherent nature. But not many non-gamers understand that exploration is also a key element of the appeal of games. (Though, to be fair, "non-gamers" is a steadily dwindling population.)

Yet just as a novelist will include details that reward close reading, or a television series might include recurring characters or throwbacks to previous episodes as a kind of insider's wink to longstanding fans, a game will have hidden details - or even hidden areas - which are only accessible through extreme luck or careful exploration (or, of course, walkthroughs or other spoilers) to reward those who are engaging closely with their fictional worlds.

From very early on, games have told their stories through environmental details - the discovery of notes and recordings from past inhabitants of a space, often hidden away in caches and crannies where their authors had sought to conceal themselves, frequently provided a layer of backstory and narrative meaning. Titles such as the System Shock games, and their inheritors the Bioshocks, in particular relied on this technique to explain the contrast between the apparent purpose of the environments you navigated and their current state.

However, those games still had a healthy dose of recognizable game mechanic layered over the top of this exploratory play: RPG-style character customisation, and some form of combat. But in recent years, independent designers have experimented with pure exploration as the core of the experience - to notable effect. This post covers what you might call "first-person promenade games" - games where you play simply by moving around.

Dear Esther, the first such game we'll discuss here today, was one of the early trailblazers in the recent resurgence of exploration games. The game consists entirely of wandering around a mysterious, and rather stark, Hebridean island, noticing the curious details scattered around the landscape, and being rewarded as you cross various trigger points with readings of fragments of a strange sort-of-correspondence addressed to Esther that drop tidbits of information about the island, various inhabitants, the author, and of course Esther herself. Playing the game is done purely by walking around and discovering these audio samples. I don't want to spoil the experience - or give away the story that is gradually revealed as you explore the island - so I'll just say that it could be a mystery; it could be a ghost story; it could be a one-sided epistolary novel; but it is certainly atmospheric and - despite its decidedly sombre tone, and the fact that literally all you can do is move around - intriguing.

The next game in this vein is The Fullbright Company's recent indie darling, Gone Home. Set in 1995, in an isolated mansion in Oregon, a young woman called Katie returns home one stormy midnight to a house she has never seen before - during her year in Europe, her family has moved into a residence inherited from her uncle, known locally as "The Psycho House". When Katie arrives, the house is mysteriously empty, and the letter she wrote home to tell her family to expect her is waiting there unread. As she explores, she begins - inadvertently, at first - to learn a little about the secrets her parents and her little sister have been keeping and the tensions that have been brewing in the house... and to worry about what exactly has happened to her family.

As with Dear Esther, the absence of other characters with whom to interact drives a close attention to the environment and the clues about its inhabitants. Unlike Dear Esther, Gone Home does allow some degree of interaction with the environment, with some of the traditional game elements of gathering keys and clues, and the ability to rearrange and fiddle with quite a range of objects. But the basic process is the same: wander around a single environment, learning as you go. It sounds straightforward... but by clever pacing of the information and the possibilities it suggests, there is a distinct and well-crafted emotional arc to what you learn. Again, I don't want to offer spoilers, so I'll leave it with a recommendation: if you're interested in storytelling technique you should definitely check it out; it's a novel expression of timeless principles.

The Path, a game by Tale of Tales based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, also has a degree of environmental interaction; it also adds the twist of changing the character controlled by the player. The game features 6 sisters, representing 6 takes on (or ages of?) Red Riding Hood; different sisters interact with the environment in different ways. Each play of the game, you choose a sister and walk to Grandmother's house along a path... whether or not you stray from the path, and whether you meet that sister's Wolf, is up to you. If you're interested in the symbolic power of fairy tales, The Path explores a number of permutations of this particular myth in a way no other medium could. (Note that this game has obvious overtones of horror; this fairy tale is not for children... though the Brothers Grimm might disagree.)

The final promenade game for today is The Stanley Parable, a game that explicitly plays with the tension between narration and action in interactive media. You play from the perspective of Stanley, an office worker whose office is unexpectedly devoid of colleagues, and whose adventures are narrated as you play them... or don't. Unlike the previous two games, where the gameplay consists of uncovering the story embedded in the virtual environment of the game, in The Stanley Parable, you are exploring a possibility space mapped out by your relationship to the narrator of the game (and other elements that define game expectations, such as Steam Achievements). The narrator has a story he wants to tell... but what happens if you decline to play [sic] along? And, of course, what does it mean that the game's able to tell that you're doing that, and has responses prepared? A sort of videogame equivalent of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler..., The Stanley Parable explores our relationships to the systems and contingencies thereof that make up a game... and, in my view, manages to transcend the specific context of games to get players thinking about their relationship to the systems around them in their own lives. It's also, at times, rather funny.

It is interesting to compare these sorts of titles to books. In some sense, they are passive in a similar way: fixed sets of preordained stimuli requiring the active involvement of the reader/player in order to proceed. In others they are quite different; depending on the game, the player has a greater or lesser ability to "steer" the course of events. But then there are of course books like this too... perhaps a conversation to have with a Games Club at your library?

Monthly game profile for September: Exception-based rules, rules-play and nomic games

Posted on September 26, 2013

Hi everyone! This month we're looking at games where you play the game by messing with the rules: games with exception-based rules.

This superficially sounds like a contradiction - aren't games defined by their rules, and isn't messing with them cheating? But in fact this is precisely the charm of these sorts of games: you get to shift the ground under yourself and your opponent as well as maneuvering the pieces over that ground.

(The rise in computer coding - itself a business of establishing rules that produce desired outcomes - and other careers in procedure-based design is almost certainly a key influence here. Games with fixed rules still have their charm, but for people used to creating rules it was inevitable that this would become a key locus of play.)

Exception-based rulesets are those where there is a general framework that applies unless some rules element says otherwise, with the specific overruling the general. (For instance, under the normal rules of a game, as a disincentive against drawing too many cards too quickly you might lose if you are required to draw a card but have none left to draw. However, if you have previously played a card that changes this rule and causes you to win in this situation instead, you might actively seek to empty your deck as fast as possible - regardless of your ability to play any of the cards.)

Perhaps the simplest of these games is a little card game called Fluxx. At the start of the game there is only one rule: on your turn, you draw a card and you play a card. Yes, if you're paying attention, that's correct - there is in fact not even a way to win the game. That comes with play.

The cards you play are of 4 types - Keepers, which are unique named cards that sit in front of you until something causes them to be moved or discarded; Actions, which have an effect and are then discarded; Goals, which establish victory conditions (such as "have these two specific Keepers in front of you", "have this many cards in hand", "have this Keeper and not that one" and so on) and cause previous Goals to be discarded; and Rules, which change some aspect of the game - such as turn order, how many cards to draw or play, and more.

What this means in effect is that both the objective of the game and the rules by which you seek to achieve it are subject to constant manipulation by your opponents - and, of course, you. It sounds complex, but in fact after a single playthrough or two you will have the hang of it and will be gleefully stealing your opponents' Keepers, swapping your hand of zero cards for their hand of five, and changing the Goal just before your opponent matches its conditions and wins the game.

It also, when you reflect upon it, teaches some interesting lessons about opportunities and information, but I'll leave that discussion for another time (or maybe the comments).

This is the most basic form of rules-play, but there are many other examples. Calvinball is of course worth mentioning in this regard (among others; Calvinball is often worth mentioning). Then you have the games Nomic, and (for those wanting to test their deductive reasoning) Mao... but perhaps the best-known games of this type are the entire new genre they enabled, the collectible card game, or CCG.

The CCG genre was first originated by mathematician Richard Garfield with his 1993 game Magic: the Gathering, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year and currently has somewhere over 12,000 different cards (and is also Turing-complete, meaning that with the correct arrangement of cards and gamestate you can simulate the logic governing the functioning of a Turing machine, aka a computer). Our sponsor for this year, Yu-Gi-Oh!, is one of the more popular entrants into this field, running regular local and international tournaments - an upcoming guest post will discuss one library's experience of hosting Yu-Gi-Oh! play.

CCGs are especially predisposed to exception-based rules and rules-play, because the nature of the medium (cards, easily printed with rules text; sold in randomised boosters, conferring little ability to predict which cards a player might receive) means that the best place to explain how each card affects the game is on the card itself. Many times the card will simply perform standard operations within existing rules frameworks, negatively affecting your opponent or improving your own position, but when the rules are on the card it's possible for them to overwrite the standard rules, so that for instance you might have a card that prevents your opponent from taking certain actions, or doubles the effect of some of your own actions, or even means you can't lose until it's removed from play.  The ability to change the normal rules of play also prolongs the life of the game, because it allows you to add new rules elements in addition to printing variants within existing rules.

All this, combined with the possibility of prize money worth thousands and international competition, and the evolving backstory created to support (and be told on the cards of) the new sets, makes CCGs a potentially endlessly absorbing hobby. Their susceptibility to theft and damage makes them difficult for libraries to hold in our collections, but they can form the basis of terrific programs with a great deal of fun to be had in the library. They are also terrific for developing not only traditional numeracy (since most games require basic number-juggling) and literacy (since you have to read the cards), they also give players incentives to read more traditional forms of tie-in fiction. And lastly, they foster the ability to process basic procedural logic and the ability to read systems - a topic we'll discuss further in a couple of weeks.

 

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