Category Archives: Game Design

Game Design #44: Flight Risk

Introduction: In this speedy game of international globetrotting, players race around the planet to be the first the visit the hottest ten destinations and make it back home without running out of money or into trouble.

Players: 3-5


  • One six-sided die per player, plus one extra die held in common
  • Pawns or tokens to represent each player
  • Pencils and papers for each player, for scorekeeping

Setting Up: All players first discuss and choose ten real-world locations for use during the game as Destinations. Major US or worldwide cities are recommended. Record these on a piece of paper in large, bold lettering and place it where all players can see it. Once the destinations are chosen, each player chooses one of the ten cities to be their Home Town, and records that secretly on their scoresheet.

How to Play: The goal of each player is to be the first to visit all the destinations and return to their home town. The game consists of rounds that have the following sequence:

  1. Assign Flight Risks to the Destinations
  2. Purchase Tickets
  3. Fly!

Phase 1: Assign Flight Risks: At the start of this phase, designate a player to roll the common die for each destination city. The number rolled represents that city’s Cost of Entry, in thousands of dollars. If a six is rolled for any city, roll again and add the second result to get that city’s cost of entry. If a one is rolled for any city, that city is Grounded, and no player may enter or leave the city by plane for the rest of the round.

Phase 2: Purchase Tickets: At the start of this phase, players roll their own die: the value shown is the amount of money they gain that turn, in thousands of dollars. Players may then spend as much of their money as they wish on as many tickets as they like. The player records each ticket bought in the order in which they wish to travel, secretly, on their scoresheet. During the Fly! phase, their movements will be revealed in the order they choose here. Players may also choose not to purchase tickets and hold over their money for use in later rounds. There is no limit to how much money may be saved from round to round.

Phase 3: Fly! During this phase, players reveal their ticket choices simultaneously, one destination at a time. After each reveal, players move their pawns onto the name of destination city they have just revealed. Under ordinary circumstances, players simply move from destination to destination according to the sequence of their bought tickets. However, under some circumstances more actions are possible:

Waylaying: If two players have flown to the same city at the same time, both have the option of Waylaying the other on their way out of town. Before the next reveal occurs, the player crosses out the next ticket on their list and writes “waylay” instead, followed by the name of the player they are targeting. A player may also add a waylay action to the end of their list if they have no more tickets lined up for the current round, but they may only add to the end in this way once per round. Upon the next reveal, the player announces they are waylaying their target: the targeted player is held in the city and the ticket they revealed is lost. The waylaying player also remains in the city, sacrificing the ticket they would have revealed to enact the waylay. Any combination of waylays may be declared among players in the same city, but no matter how many times a player is waylaid they lose only the current round’s ticket.

Overland: A player who finds themselves in a grounded city may escape by traveling Overland, or by ground transportation. At the time of their ticket reveal, a player may declare they are attempting to travel this way. The player rolls the die — if they can immediately pay the showing amount in thousands from their supply of money, they may move to the destination as if they were flying like normal. Players travelling overland cannot be waylaid.

Once flight tickets, overland travel, and waylays have been resolved and players pawns have been moved or held as appropriate, destination revealing continues until all players have revealed all the tickets they purchased. And unusable tickets are lost and the money spent to acquire them is not recovered.

Winning the Game: Each new destination a player visits earns them a check mark on their scoresheet. Once a player has visited all ten destinations, they must make their way back to their home town. Note that a player’s home town may not be the last city they visit to win the game. The player must travel from another city to their home town after collecting their tenth checkmark for the win to count. At the moment a player has successfully travelled back to their home town and revealed their scorecard to verify that it is their home, they win the game.


Game Design #43: Airlock

Introduction: In this hectic game of duck and weave, players race to escape a crippled, labyrinthine space station before it collapses around them.

Players: 2-5


  • Some number of cups or bowls, recommended one per player with two extra. Fewer bowls usually means a harder game.
  • Pawns or tokens to represent each player.
  • A generous quantity of identically-shaped, multicolored candies (such as M&Ms or Skittles) to use as counters. A 1 lb. bag is usually sufficient for a 3-4 player game.

Setting Up: Place the bowls in a grid orientation in the center of the table. Any grid configuration may be used, but symmetrical or even-sided grids produce the most balanced games. Players then take turns to choose a bowl in which to place their token — only one player may occupy a bowl at the start of the game. Once all the tokens are placed, players again take turns to blindly draw two candies from the bag to place in their bowl. Designate a player to choose candies to place in any unoccupied bowls. Designate a first player, play proceeds to the left.

How to Play: All the cups or bowls represent chambers, connected together they to compose the Station on which the players are trapped. Each turn, players attempt to contain the disasters emerging in the station and secure one of the chambers long enough to escape. On their turn, players take actions in the following sequence:

  1. Danger: the player adds to the problems aboard the station.
  2. Reaction: the player makes a move and an action to contain the problems and/or escape the station.

Danger Phase: During this step, the player draws two counters from the bag and places each one in any of the available bowls on the table. Counters have effects for each bowl according to their color:

  • Yellow: Toxic Gas — players in this chamber must eliminate all counters of this type within one turn or immediately leave the chamber.
  • Red: Hull Breach — players in this chamber cannot leave while any counters of this type remain. These trump Toxic Gas counters when determining if players can or must leave the chamber.
  • Green:  Chemical Spill — when eliminated, these are moved to an adjacent chamber instead. Only remove Chemical Spill counters from play when they are moved to chamber with a Hull Breach.
  • Blue: Electrical Overload — players entering this chamber may not make an elimination action on the turn they arrive. If a Chemical Spill counter is also present and there is not currently a Fire counter present, replace the pair of green and blue counters with a single Fire counter.
  • Orange: Fire — all players must immediately leave the chamber and may not re-enter while the Fire counter remains unless there is also a Hull Breach counter present.

If counters of other colors are present, they are considered neutral and have no effect when drawn. For harder games, eliminate neutral colors from the bag before beginning play.

Reaction Phase: During this step, the player may move their pawn to any adjacent chamber (assuming the conditions in that chamber allow movement) and may take one elimination action: the player selects any of the counters in the chamber and removes it from play. A player may elect to pass either or both of these options. If a conflict arises between a player being forced to exit a chamber and there being no adjacent chambers where movement in is allowed, the forced exit takes precedence. If a chamber has been isolated (all adjacent chambers have collapsed or been jettisoned), ignore all forced exit effects in that chamber.

Chamber Collapse: If any chamber ever gains one counter of every color, or the chamber gains more than ten counters in total, it collapses and is immediately removed from play. Any player pawns inside the chamber are killed and returned to the relevant player. However, these players still take their  turns to draw new counters and add them to the remaining bowls in play.

Escaping the Station: If at any point one of the bowls is completely empty of counters, any player with an available action may use it to jettison the chamber. Return any player pawns in the chamber to the relevant player, and then remove the bowl from play. These players have escaped and no longer make moves or elimination actions on the station. However, these players still take their  turns to draw new counters and add them to the remaining bowls in play.

Winning the Game: All players who escape the station in a jettisoned chamber have won the game, and any players killed in a collapsing chamber have lost the game.


Game Design #42: Powerless

Introduction: Power to the weak! In this game of resource “acquisition,” the players with the fewest dice hold the greatest strength.

Players: 3+


  • Six-sided dice, five to ten per player. Feel free to adjust the quantity to adjust difficulty.
  • Decks of standard playing cards, enough to provide a complete suit of thirteen to each player.

Setting Up: Distribute all the dice in equal quantities to each player. Each player then takes a complete suit of thirteen cards (Ace through King) from one of the decks of cards. It doesn’t matter which suit is chosen for each player.

How to Play: The goal of each player is to get rid of all their dice. Each turn, all players choose a die from their collection and all roll them together in the center. Based on their rolls, the players pair off to roll against each other for the round like so: the two highest rolls compete, then the next highest, and so on. Ties always compete against each other, and if there are multi-way ties the odd players compete with the next lowest rolls and so on. If there an odd number of players, the player with the lowest roll sits out for the turn. In situations not described here where the pairings are ambiguous, players are invited to institute on-the-spot criteria to resolve the issue :)

Once the pairings have been established, players compete like so: each player chooses some number of their dice to wager (minimum of one). The players then roll off against each other, one pair of dice at a time. Play must begin with each player rolling one die, but for every pass thereafter the player may elect to play a card instead of rolling another die. Cards are played on dice already rolled to modify the result (see below). This continues until both players have rolled all their wagered dice, at which point the rolls are tallied and the dice reallocated.

Example: Stan and Joe are paired. Stan wagers two dice and Joe wagers five. Both roll one die to begin the round — Stan rolls lower than Joe. For the next pass, Stan elects to play a card on his first die and reserve his second die, while Joe chooses to continue rolling his second die. On the third pass, Stan rolls his last die and Joe rolls his third. Now, since Stan is out of dice, he can only play cards while Joe continues to roll. Once Joe rolls his last die, the round ends and the dice and cards are tallied. If Joe continues to roll without playing cards, there will only be two more passes in the round and thus two chances for Stan to play cards. However, if Joe decides to pause his rolling and play cards instead, the round will continue and Stan will have more chances to play cards, continuing until Joe rolls his last die.

During the tally, each player chooses one of their rolled die to match against their opponent. At face value, the lowest result wins and the winning player gives their dice away to their opponent, who must take it into their collection. However, if any cards have been played on the dice, the players may choose to reveal the card and take its modification into account. Player reveal cards in turns (the player with the fewest dice reveals first), and players are free to reveal all, some, or none of the cards they have played. Note that players don’t have to reveal the same number of cards as their opponent — a player can continue to reveal cards after their opponent has stopped, but once a player chooses not to reveal on their turn, they may not change their mind and reveal more later for the same die.

Players continue selecting and matching their rolled dice against each other in this way until one or both run out of dice, at which point the round ends and the next pair of players may begin.

Card Play and Effects: Each card played on a rolled die can modify that die’s result like so:

  • Even-numbered cards modify the result down by one.
  • Odd-numbered cards modify the result down by two.
  • Face cards cause the die’s value to be one regardless of any other modifiers.

Any number of cards can be played on a die, but cards can never modify a die’s value below zero. After each round, played cards are removed and collected in a discard pile. These may not be used again until all thirteen cards have been used and discarded. When that occurs, all thirteen cards are recovered and can be used again in the same way starting with the next round.

There is one more special modification cards can have: if the value of the card, when revealed, matches the current combined value of the matched dice — including the effects of all currently revealed cards — that player immediately wins the match and gives away their die.

Winning the Game: The first player to give away all their dice wins the game.



A recent blip on touched on the decision of Hello Games to release their hot little action game Joe Danger on PSN because they considered XBLA to be “a slaughterhouse” for small developers. This caught my eye on the feed today because I’ve been following Hello since I found their blog some time ago, and especially since they showed up at the IGF this year. They didn’t win the festival but their game is making money, so one out of two ain’t bad. Anyway, the blip reminded me of a talk at the Serious Games Summit at the same GDC, wherein the speaker boldly challenged our faith that digital distribution channels like XBox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, and Steam were going to save the game industry by being the proverbial Green Party to the Triple-A world: the upstarts-fulla-heart that would keep it all honest by being the eternal haven for the underrepresented and niche. The term he used for this phenomenon was “The Indie Paradise,” and according to him, it was a lie. A myth, actually, is the term he used, and the argument he gave was pretty compelling.

Channels like XBLA were heralded as being indie paradises because we believed an impossible dream: that they would be open to all developers big and small, yet somehow controlled so that junk product didn’t make it past the gates to compete with the truly salesworthy selection and dilute customer interest. The inevitable reality was that no channel could hit a true balance between these competing needs. On the one hand we have portals like Kongregate, the iPhone App Store, and Facebook (eventually) that erred on the side of openness. As a result they were flooded with garbage that people very quickly learned to ignore, and in the case of Facebook the platform developers themselves had to step in to groom the product line and restore some credibility before newborn giants like Playfish and Zynga could take their first steps. On the other hand we have channels that clamped down hard to keep quality up. XBLA, for one, quickly realized what chaos would ensue if everyone really did try to start making games for them, and they ensured that their portal would always be curated to present the best of the best. Indie devs became indie in name only as licensing deals for XBLA became necessary to get to the sales front.

The trouble with the former strategy is that competition is oceanic — games only shine and only sell when their production value crosses a certain threshold, one easily identified as “major funding from a publisher.” The trouble with the latter is the same, except in this case games of mediocre polish get shut down by the gatekeepers before they even see the marketplace. In both instances the lesson is the same: digital channels are no friend to the micro-project. Big money goes into these games, money that can mean only one thing: publisher backing. And the bars are getting higher.

Hello Games’ director Sean Murray commented in greater length in the article, giving stats that draw the same conclusion my SGS speaker did. A big one: 17% of titles on XLBA sell more than 200k copies. 43% sell fewer than 25,000. That means at average prices your game better cost less than $250k or you’re not even breaking even. My speaker quotes a stat from Kongregate that the top 1% of their titles get 50% of all playing time on the site. The sad truth is, the world of indie game development that began to escape the need for big budgets and greedy publishers still has not succeeded, at least not yet or in any significant way. Whatever Hello Games needed to get on PSN must have been sweet cause it seems they broke even on the first day. They made a great game, and they deserve it. But if you’re an indie interested in being unconventional, experimental, radical, or in any way not appealing to a traditional publisher, salvation is not at hand. Sorry.


Game Design #41: Railroaded

Introduction: Four hapless rail riders need to beat it out of town, and fast! Compete to make it the furthest from the starting point while your time and supplies last, but watch out! Pick a lucrative route and your opponents could piggy-back onto your success and leave you in the dust.

Players: 4


  • Two identical decks of standard playing cards, shuffled together.

Setting Up: Shuffle the cards and deal nine to each player. Place the remainder in the center in a pile, face-down. This deck is called the Terminal. Draw four cards from the top of the deck and place them face-up about twelve inches away from the deck at the cardinal compass points (one card each to the north, south, east, and west of the deck). These peripheral cards are each called Stations, designated by their compass point (e.g. North Station etc).

Designate a first player. Beginning with them, each player chooses one of the suits to be his or her own. To choose a suit, the player selects a card from their hand of that suit and places it face-up beside the Terminal deck in line with one of the cardinal points (north, south, east, and west). Thus, to choose a suit a player must have at least one card of that suit in hard, and once all players have chosen the Terminal will have four cards in position around it. These four cards represent the start of the path for each player. The fourth player, due to the fact that they are left to choose whichever suit was unclaimed by the other three, gets to take the first turn. Play proceeds to the left.

Note: if any player is unable to claim a suit with a card from their dealt hand, they announce their choice and then reveal cards face-up from the Terminal deck until a card of their chosen suit is revealed. This becomes their beginning card — the other revealed cards are shuffled back into the Terminal deck.

How to Play: The purpose of the game is to build the longest path out of town by creating chains of cards in sequence. Along the way, player can Link Up at the Stations to get a boost in speed and open up chances to Jump Trains.

Players create paths by playing their cards in sequence to form chains. Starting from the Terminal, players lay one card a turn on any of the sequences extending from the side of the deck. New cards are laid overlapping the current card in that position such that the chain of cards cascades out and away from the deck. The player can play on a chain if one of the following conditions is met:

  • Their card matches the color of the current card and its number value is either one higher or one lower than the current card.
  • Their card is of a different color than the current card, and its number value is the same as the current card.
  • Example: if a chain ends with a Seven of Hearts, a player may play any red Eight or Six or any black Seven to continue the chain.

After a player makes their play, they draws one card from the Terminal deck before concluding their turn. Players must play if they can, but if a player is unable to play on any of the current chains, they draw two cards from the deck before concluding their turn.

Linking Up: As the chains approach the Station cards, players may Link Up with the Station to gain a boost in speed. Once a chain has at least ten cards in it, it may link with the Station in front of it. To do this, a player must play a card on that chain that fits both the chain itself and the Station card. For example: if a Station card is the Ten of Spades, the chain approaching it must grow until a player can legally play a black Nine or Jack or a red Ten — the three cards that can legally connect to the Ten of Spades.

Once a linking play has been made, place the Station card on the end of the chain turned lengthwise to denote it is still a Station. From now on whenever a play is made that could legally extend this chain, any player may move it to the end of that chain instead of making their own play. However, plays made to link up other stations are exempt from this rule.

Jumping Trains: If at any point a player holds the Ace of their chosen suit, they may play it to swap control of a chain for another chain. The player swaps the beginning cards of their chain with the one they wish to acquire, then they swap their beginning card in its new position with the Ace from their hand. In this way the player shifts their control to the new chain, and the player’s card they displaced is swapped to their old chain.

Winning the Game: Play continues until the Terminal deck is depleted. On the turn when the final card is drawn, after the final play is made, the player who controls the longest chain is the winner.


Context is King

I was intrigued by a post on WaterCoolerGames, discussing a Tetris clone made where the blocks are textured to appear like ethnic cleansing internment camp prisoners and the play-space resembles a mass grave. Apparently, a team of Brazilian game designers took a claim from Raph Koster about how context can dramatically alter games and decided to put it to the test. Functionally, the game is still Tetris - it plays exactly like the Pajitnov original. But it appears to be a game about the best way to efficiently dispose of genocide victims, and that is huge difference.

As in all things, context is king. “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” says Shakespeare. On their own, games are simply math and logic chains, and for the most part we can strip away or reinvent the context applied to a game without altering play. We could restyle and rename all the pieces in Chess to strip out the references to medieval warfare and the game would be wholly unchanged. We could replace the suits and ranks of standard playing cards and people could still play Poker, Hearts, Bridge, and Solitaire pretty much exactly the same way they do now.

But is this always the case? If we changed Doom to simulate dispensing candy to hysterical schoolchilden we could do so without changing any of underlying system that makes Doom work. But is it still Doom if we do that? Of course not. The context is indivisible from the game. Killing monsters is somehow so integral to what makes Doom exciting that it cannot be changed without destroying it. So what makes Doom different from Chess and Poker? Why can we get away with stripping the context off those games but not from this one? I think it comes down to potency.

Because Doom has such a visceral, emotional, potent context, the context is too easily missed when it is removed. It’s like smelting an alloy – using trace amounts of a tougher metal would make the new metal stronger, but it would still be only marginally distinguishable from the original material and the tougher metal could be taken out of the recipe without much loss. However, using high concentrations of that superior ore would yield a much better alloy, but now the alloy is utterly dependent on it and cannot exist without it. Doom is like an alloy formed from equal parts simulation and context. The game is too far from a pure simulation or a pure system – it was made with a context that was so highly developed it completely covered and repackaged the mechanics that made up the system, and now we cannot think of Doom without viewing it through that context. If it had a different context it would obviously still be a shooter, but it wouldn’t be Doom in the way that Chess would still be Chess even if we changed the pieces to characters from The Simpsons rather than knights and bishops. Doom with a different context would certainly still be a “shooter,” but it would be a different game. Hence why innumerable shooters can exist with virtually identical mechanics: they have vastly disparate contexts that cover and repackage those tired old mechanics so well that we view them as entirely different experiences. Indeed, the juggling of contexts is what makes genres possible in the first place.

Yet I argue that this isn’t enough. What we do with contexts in video games isn’t close to realizing their full potential for meaningful play. Having a rich context isn’t right for every game, certainly, but under certain circumstances it can take an otherwise simple, mundane experience and truly make it profound. My professor and mentor, Brenda Brathwaite, recently completed a game that illustrates this potential better than any game I know. Without going into detail, she presents a game that on the surface appears simple, straightforward, even a tad dull. Players play the whole game believing there is little more to the game than its mechanics. But upon completion, the game reveals its context in one jaw-dropping moment and suddenly the entire experience is transformed. Everything the players just completed, the seemingly-uncomplicated system and basic decision-making they participated in, it all suddenly has deep and disturbing weight and consequence. All from the context! Brenda is debuting the game at the Game Education Summit at CMU in June, and I encourage you to check it out if you can (otherwise look for posts about it on her blog) – you can see what I mean about the power of context.


Virtual Cities Just as Crowded and Dirty?

This article from Raph’s website the other day about this article from the Boston globe raises a couple intriguing questions:

If the prefrontal cortex can be so easily bent under the strain of overstimuli from urban existence, then do we indeed, as Raph suggests, have something to consider when building crowded virtual worlds? Most virtual worlds run on the “more is better” paradigm, and they inundate their users with flashy attention-grabbing attractions the same way storefronts do on city streets, should we not then also expect users to succumb to the overload and “splurge” on virtual assets they don’t need. The difference is there’s no cost involved with acquiring virtual assets except time – so does this present a problem? Obviously the system is powerfully effective and dispersing product, so if the product is worthwhile then what do we have to complain about? I think about things like Democracy Island in Second Life, areas that are designed to educate, inform, and entertain visitors with socially pertinent issues. If we set up that kind of island like a busy city street and get people to travel it, and if those people find themselves consuming the content from the same sort of willpower failure, is that then defensible because the content they are consuming is noble and altruistic? Seems like a number of value judgments to add up.

If we consider open-world games or MMOs that offer players a huge environment in great variety, can we predict, track, and even manipulate their play path using this information? I think about World of Warcraft, a game with massive and beautiful natural environments that can have profound emotional impact on the player – people love Strangelthorn but hate Silithus, love Elwynn Forest but hate the Burning Steppes. The difference between these “natural” setting is obvious and the preferences are unsurprising. What is remarkable is the way it alters their play – they avoid the ugly zones even to the exclusion of beneficial quests and rewards. And given this data about overstimuli, it makes me wonder how players react to the game’s urban environments – the capital cities, places everyone must visit regularly for skill and gear management. Do players feel overwhelmed in these dense, complex, bustling places? Do they feel pressured and irritable, eager to leave and return to the rural zones? If so, that raises some interesting points about level and world design and how to immerse the player in a positive way. Perhaps we should consider the ways in which a city produces stress in real life when building cities into our games.