Tabletop Network/BGG.CON 2022 – 3

Event dates:
TTN: 6-8 November 2022
BGG.CON: 9-13 November 2022

Day 3 – Tuesday 8 November

Watch day 1 of TTN here:

Oh no, bad sleep and crappy breakfast again, so I was a zombie in the morning. George had to drive to Oklahoma for work, so he was up and out at yuck o’clock, which meant I was also awake from then on. I didn’t feel like going downstairs to eat on my own, so I ordered room service, because I guess I am a slow learner and I thought maybe a different restaurant might provide a better experience?

Well… they provided cutlery? But if you have ever tried to cut up avocado on toast in a cardboard box with plastic cutlery, you will know that’s not fun, even with a full night’s sleep. I got too tired to finish my meal halfway through because it was just so hard – and picking it up wasn’t an option. The toast was served in a closed container with a plastic lid, so by the time it got to me, it was steamed into a strange combination of soft and chewy – impossible to pick up, very resistant to cutting. A delight, basically, lol.

After breakfast, given I still had hours and hours before the official 10am start time, I decided to do some drawing for our presentation. We had joked about calling our pretend game “towels and carrots”, because Waleed was talking about buying some towels from Kohl’s, and Ellie and Fagner had carrots in their part of the presentation, but also because of the “carrot rather than the stick” aspect of positive interactions. So, I kept my word, and made a small illustration. By 9am, though, I was too bored to sit around in the room any more, so I headed down to see if anyone was around yet. They were, so we started chatting.

Once the official part of the morning began, I did my best to contribute to the presentation but felt incredibly stretched – the discussion was awesome, the presentation felt like work, and I was annoyed with myself that I did such a bad job when I had so much good stuff to share. Once I had recovered from the conference and convention exhaustion, I was able to come up with a lot more useful stuff I would have liked to add to the presentation, and I could explain it so much better – I sent feedback that this might be a better way to run things in future, with the conference being a big brainstorm/discussion, then TTN experts collating and presenting the outcomes professionally, taking the pressure off attendees but not losing the value of all that thinking and talking.

Once we had hammered out the details of our presentation, we went and got lunch – which was a rushed affair, because of how tight the schedule ended up feeling.

The good news was that the food was both delicious and plentiful, so I was able to take most of my sandwich back to the hotel for George to have as his lunch the next day. It was also nice to relax and socialise with the group for a bit, after all the pressure of the presentation! I am going to do my best to explain, from my perspective, what the outcomes of our workshop were.

The Presentations

I won’t go into other presentations in details, because this post is already VERY long, but the topics were:
Procedural Narrative in Tabletop Games
Designing for Elegance
Games as Models of Complex Systems
Positive Interactions in Games (ours)
Game Design in Education
Higher Player Counts
Increasing Game Accessibility

Positive Interactions in Games – the Pitch

We agreed that the overall format of our presentation would resemble the pitch for an imaginary game, with a bit of context beforehand and more detail about the different mechanical suggestions we came up with incorporated into it. I gave an off-the-cuff version of how that might look to the group the day before and sold it, but on the day, because of many factors, I didn’t manage to make it as high-energy or engaging as I did the first time around. I think it still came off ok – but make up your own mind! Here’s the video:

The finished video of our presentation

A big thing for us was to narrow our scope, so we chose to look at the type of game that most often has negative player interactions – the competitive game. Of course, when a winner and a loser are required, it can’t be all positive, but if you address the aspects that create a negative experience, it’s possible to change how the whole game feels.

The Power of Positivity

The barriers to positive player interaction start well beyond the game itself, so we also examined the way in which we can create a positive environment through inclusivity, representation, accessibility, and engagement. The social contract of a game starts before the box hits the table, so part of our message was to include wording on the box that would help players create a positive environment.

Ellie looks at games through a strong “family” lens, so we also looked at how positive interaction would help younger players interact in healthy ways – “take that” and player elimination can trigger frustration and melt-downs in adults, so it’s not surprising when children have trouble processing their feelings in a game with a lot of negative interactions.

Of course, there’s no way to force anyone to play a game in a particular way – some players will refuse to take a negative or aggressive action in a game, even if that’s the easiest path to victory, and equally, players who sit down to play a positive interaction game can choose violence – it’s not our job as designers to enforce that social contract, but we can encourage it through language, art, and rulesets that reward positive actions over negative ones.

The Context

As well as being a designer in his own right, Will is an academic who works in educational game design, and he contributed some important scholarly content about the Self-Determination Theory of Engagement:
Competence – Making other players feel inferior can be disengaging
Autonomy – “Take that” actions that disrupt a players plan or remove options can e disengaging
Relatedness – Positive interactions can promote engagement through connection with other players. Backstabbing, direct attacks, and broken alliances can have the opposite effect

A simple example of how to make a negative effect feel positive is for imaginary “longsword proficiency”. In the first instance, when the player uses this ability, it “Removes the -1 penalty for using longswords”. In the second case, the ability “Provides a +1 bonus when using longswords”. Mathematically, there’s no difference, but to the player, one feels more positive than the other – and is easier to understand, too!

New Mechanics

Jeff and Waleed presented the new positive spins they had identified on a variety of existing game mechanics, and how those had led them to come up with a range of new ways to play games.

For example, the opposite of the currently unpopular “Take That” (where you hit other players with a negative effect, like a loss of points, miss a turn, etc) could be “Give That”. It could still provide a benefit for the “giving” player, and probably needs to benefit both participating players (but not necessarily all players) – and would create an environment in which players would give to each other and pay attention to how the other responds, with positive two-way interactions leading to a sort of synergy between players, even though they are not playing a co-operative game.

“Give That” involves a player incentive (for example, once we have had a good exchange, I am motivated to give you something good next time), and when combined with “Wandering Alliances“, alliances that change without player input throughout the course of the game, it means that players also don’t know who they will need in future rounds, encouraging them to err on the positive side and hedge their bets.

To be successful, a Wandering Alliance mechanism needs a certain amount of unpredictability – while players might know that it changes every round, it wouldn’t be helpful if they also knew which players would be in the next alliance, or how many will be in their Alliance each round. For example, if I know that, in round 1, I am allied with player A, but there are 6 more rounds to play, I won’t risk alienating players B and C, because in the next round, they could both be in my alliance.

New concepts

Ellie and Fagner explored the ideas of shared economies and pools of resources, where players had access to communal points in a variety of ways, for example through swapping with the main pool, passive payouts, communal investments, and other ways to redistribute resources. For example, players might all contribute to a shared success, which benefits each player in a different way, leading to the potential for individual success, instead of group failure. Players might also share resources from a shared pool by turn-based drafting or other sharing mechanisms along the lines of “I cut, you choose“, where one player takes part of an action and the other completes it, potentially to both of their benefits.

Resource sharing could come from swapping, gifting, or the ability to make your own excess resources available to other players through “market stalls“. A market stall allows players to make their excess resources available for others to purchase on their turn without the need for negotiation – each item is available to purchase at a set price, as with many games, but instead of the payment going to the central bank, it goes to the player who owns the stall.

The other new concept Fagner and Ellie came up with was the idea of a shared engine builder – as each player adds to the shared engine, the first player to arrive moves along the track, gaining benefits, but the next player to contribute also benefits, and receives a bonus for joining in. As more players join the engine, the benefits increase exponentially, balancing the advantage of being first through other sorts of benefits for the later arrivals.

I made a little animation to try and illustrate the shared engine mechanism that Ellie and Fagner came up with for their positive interaction example. It worked really well on our local machines, but when we actually presented, it wouldn’t play, boo.

If I had had more sleep, I would have thought to make it into a GIF instead!

Luckily, Ellie and Fagner did such an awesome job with their physical game demo section that we, as a group, still looked great – they made giant paper carrots and signs for people to interact with each other as physical representations of the meeples and cards in the game, and it was really effective.

Asymmetry, Equity, and the Strategic Gifting of Excess

As well as presenting some of the ideas, Waleed made an epic PowerPoint presentation to lock it all together, with everyone contributing their content.

I tried to write a segment on the use of asymmetry to model equity and the strategic gifting of excess, which Will and I came up with in our pair the day before – but I made a typo in my draft document, so when Waleed copied it across into the PowerPoint presentation, the typo remained. Unfortunately, I couldn’t concentrate enough to check my section of the presentation, so I was completely disoriented when I tried to do my bit and stumbled on the typo – the word “symmetry” instead of “asymmetry” really threw me! But I think we did ok!

What I was trying to explain was that a game needs to start asymmetrically in order to model equity successfully – every player needs to come in with their own advantages or disadvantages, and contribute to the group goals, whether small or large, as well as work towards their own strategy.

What this looks like is a complex network of interrelationships between players, allowing some to group together to accomplish short-term goals which they could not otherwise achieve, whilst also working as a group to achieve the overall goal.

This sounds like a co-op, but it doesn’t need to be at all – for example, if I have ability A and requirement C, and my neighbour has ability D and requirement B, we can’t help each other directly. But if we work together, combining our abilities A and D, we can create AD, which will get us the CB we need. We can then each use the CB to further our own goals.

Separately, as a group, we all need to contribute our A, B, C, and D skills to create E – but in some cases, A can only contribute 1, while B and C can offer 2, and D has 3 – the asymmetry of our ability to contribute adds to the challenge of the game, and our ability to pull additional resources from side-tasks will help us balance the overall output of E, even if the resources temporarily come from a different source.

The equity aspect of the game is that, regardless of what each player can contribute at the end of the round, between them, all players must find a way to avoid group failure. Those with more can cover for those with less, and as the balance of the game changes, different players can step up while others have to step back. Balancing your personal strategic target against that of the group needs to be justified thematically – for example, the setting might be underwater, so all players must contribute to ensuring oxygen for all every round. Another example is a shared mine, where different skills are needed at different times in the process.

Something that adds interest to the scenario above is the strategic gifting of excess. In general, one person’s unwanted excess can benefit another, and is something you would avoid in the usual competitive game. In this case, excess can help or hinder your opponent, depending on their situation – for example, you might gift more than they can hold in their reserve and force them to discard. If they needed what you gifted, the discard is helpful. If they didn’t, it’s a pain. On top of that, what happens to the discarded resources can also help or hinder the group.

A second application of strategic gifting of excess is when a player has a special skill – let’s say that A is particularly good at managing Green. When A uses Green resources, they are worth double. So player B gifts their excess Green to A, so that A can invest it in a way that benefits the group at the best exchange rate.

A real-world example of this might be a large, temperate country (A) wishing to send aid to a tropical island nation (B) that has been ravaged by a storm. The large country has no idea what to send, so they send blankets and tinned meat, but the island nation needs water and medical supplies. If country A had sent their excess to island B via local large country C, who specialises in tropical aid, the resources would have been allocated in a way that was much more helpful to B.

Anyway, these were very complicated ideas to present in that setting, especially when they weren’t fully developed, and ended up not being very clear. I think if TTN continue with this format, it would be much better to have a dedicated person on each team whose job it was to collate all the materials and information the group put forth, then turn it into a presentation that gets made public after review several weeks down the line, not in a 2-day workshop. The wide range of quality and skills demonstrated in the presentations showed that, as did most people’s experience: day 1 felt awesome, day 2 felt like work. And the anxiety of the presentation hung over everything, making us cut short what could have been really productive conversations. My recommendation would be to either turn this into a 2-day brainstorming session with a non-participant detailed to create the output in a professional manner, or to make the topics we explore create an output that doesn’t stress everyone out.

Jeff Beck’s summary

Jeff did a great write-up summarising our efforts from his perspective as the moderator, too:

All games aim to provide an experience for their players, most of which are aiming for something positive, however most player interaction is designed around negativity – slowing their progress or limiting their ability to win. It might seem like, in a competitive game setting, that negative player interactions might be the only option – however, games can offer players the opportunity to interact positively without diminishing the competitive nature of the game.

While cooperative games are a great opportunity for positive player interactions, the focus of our work was on integrating positivity into competitive games.

What are positive player interactions?

  • Positive player interactions are symbiotic in nature – you are helping another player but receiving a benefit in return.
  • There are different levels of positive interactions: from no, unintentional, passive, to direct

Why would you want positive player interactions in your game?

  • Many people outside of the board game hobby cite negative interactions as a key reason why they are not interested in playing more. Expanding the number of games that feature positive player interactions will help expand the number of people in the hobby.
  • Many positive player interactions increase the engagement of other players – giving them a reason to be invested in another player’s turn.
  • When you are on the receiving end of a positive player interaction, it can be an immediate and strong dopamine hit.
  • Games with positive player interactions can still offer significant tension. Tension comes from uncertainty, an expectation of something not yet resolved; there is nothing inherent to positivity that would remove tension.
  • Positive player interactions provide connections with other people, allowing players to feel included and connected with other players, which is a core component to the element of relatedness, a core element of self-determination theory
  • “Take that games” remove autonomy, which is another core element of self-determination theory. Gifting increases a player’s autonomy, which will be great for motivation

What are some examples of positive player interactions?

  • Many party games are built around positive player interaction, but they are definitely not limited to that space.
  • Cozy games (from the video game space) are a great example of positive games.
  • Often games with an “I cut, You Choose” mechanic can lend themselves to positive player interactions. Similarly, games that focus on trading between players are great for positivity.
  • Games that provide a shared economy, pooled resources, or joint engine builders can be a great opportunity for positive player interactions.
  • The game Indigo is a great example of constantly shifting alliances, where you need to work with other players, but who you are working with can change from turn to turn.
  • Any situation where players need to work together to avoid a shared-loss condition can provide ample opportunities for positivity.

What are the best practices for implementing positive player interactions?

  • Positive player interactions can flourish when the game has dynamically shifting goals, allowing a player to freely give to another player without the fear that they are handing that player the game.
  • Oftentimes when a game forces you to pick one player over another, it can still feel negative (for the non-chosen players). For this reason, you might want to have the game pick a temporary partner for the player, so the choice of who is on the receiving end is taken away from the player.
  • Oftentimes, when a player is forced to give something to another player, they will attempt to give the minimum or the item that will least benefit the receiving player, diminishing or even eliminating the benefits of the positive interaction.
    • One possible solution would be to provide social pressure to give something valuable – e.g. if you don’t give something of value, players won’t want to interact with you in the future. 
    • Another possible solution would be to tie the progress of giving and receiving players together during that transaction, so the giving player is strongly encouraged to give the best option to the receiver. Things like joint-player scoring or multi-player combos are great examples of this.
  • Games that focus on positive player interaction don’t necessarily need a victory condition and instead focus on positive feedback loops.
  • Some games (like Carcassonne) allow different groups to play more or less aggressively, which can be a fantastic way to appeal to a wide number of players. 
  • Ideally when a player wins a game, they should be able to think back to the positive interactions they had with other players and see how that allowed them to win.
  • The theme of the game should support positive player interactions and broadcast to players the type of experience they will be having. On a similar note, the game’s name and art should make it clear to potential players that positive player interactions are part of the game.
  • In order to make it clear that your game includes positive player interactions, you could use words like cozy, gentle, kind, gifting, sharing, considerate, generous, positive, balanced, honest.
  • Games with poor inclusivity or accessibility will have a hard time providing positive player interactions. How to make sure your game is inclusive and accessible is outside of the scope of this document but is worth pointing out.
  • Games should also be aware of how different cultures might interact with your mechanics in different ways – one culture might view an interaction as positive while others might view it as negative.

By about 4.30pm, all the presentations were over, and everyone was tapped out. It was certainly a big relief to have the presentation out of the way, though! And even just posting this group picture makes me remember how much I love these people. What an honour and a privilege to get to meet and work with such magnificent humans!

Play-testing Mycelia

Before dinner, David and William play-tested Mycelia for me, and overall seemed pretty pleased with how it worked – George and I are going to test ending it when there’s only one pile left instead of playing until all the tiles are gone, which fits the “stop when the fun stops” advice I hear a lot.

I felt really good to be getting my first play-testing session out of the way, and I think I did ok. People are being really kind and encouraging, I feel so welcomed. ♡

And I am really quite proud of my games! Mycelia (and my design choices) stood up to some pretty stiff cross-examination. Both Bubble Net and Campfire have attracted interest, too.

Dinner

After some discussion, we decided to head out to a BBQ place, Terry Black’s Barbecue – George was unfortunately caught in heavy traffic trying to get back from OK into Dallas, so we went ahead and chose a place, then Will drove us there, and George got there not long afterwards.

I have never seen BBQ sold in this way – I guess it’s a step up in fanciness from the places we visited during our big USA road trip in 2015. The queue was long but moved pretty fast, and we decided to order a selection of foods and eat them “family style”. It was a bit awkward because everyone had cash to chip in, and no one lets me Venmo them my share of the cost. So that’s a note for next time – carry cash.

Everything got so much BETTER after dinner. I think George being back on the scene was a big help, especially because he got me a gorgeous gay OK souvenir, but also just having a proper meal and getting out and seeing a bit of Dallas – a bit more than we PLANNED to see of Dallas, because WHO DESIGNED THESE ROADS OMG chaos, but then we got back and started play-testing each other’s games and it was SO GOOD.

David tested TWOIT with George, while Waleed and I tested Paleo Vet with Will, then we all played Souk by Waleed.

Paleo Vet is pretty much finished, and I have pre-ordered our copy.

Souk is already fantastic, and the first real-time game I think I have played. I can’t wait to see how it evolves, and order it, eventually!

We discussed Bubble Net and Campfire, but didn’t play them, because I left the fish tokens upstairs, and I don’t exactly know how Campfire works yet. I am looking forward to showing them The Valley and Intertidal Survival, though! And on Thursday, Wordy Laundry with Emily Willix!

Each night, bedtime got later – this time, it was midnight! 🎃 Pumpkin time…

And here is the Day 3 video:

Published by Drayer Ink

Artist, designer, ideas person

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