When an individual states that they are a gamer, the first questions that comes to mind for most people include:
However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in tabletop games thanks in large part to the development of Eurogames such as Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride and many others. These games tend to require a short period of time to play, contain lots of social interaction, use simple (and a wide variety of) game mechanics and lack player elimination during gameplay. And, unlike video games, tabletop games have a longer shelf life as they are not dependent on hardware that quickly becomes obsolete. You can still play tabletop games that originate from hundreds of years back but have great difficulty playing the popular console games from even just 10-20 years ago. In fact, tabletop games have grown so popular in recent years that many popular video games have been converted to the format. There are highly acclaimed tabletop versions of games like XCOM, Portal, Gears of War, Bioshock, Street Fighter and even World of Warcraft. And that is not to say they fall into the genre of roleplaying games.
One of the things a game designer needs to keep in mind when converting a digital title to tabletop format is how to keep the feel of the original game. This becomes an interesting balancing act for designers because the rules, procedures and mechanics need to be significantly simplified due to players officiating the game instead of a computer. But, it must still remind the player of the gameplay they experienced on a computer/console. For this post, I want to examine how this was recently accomplished with a classic game many will remember from their youth: The Oregon Trail.
For those who do not know, The Oregon Trail is a video game title produced in the early 1970s by a couple of student teachers and has often been used in schools since its creation. The game has continued being wildly popular since then with new releases coming every few years covering a variety of platforms (Macintosh, DOS, Windows, Wii, and 3DS) and as recently as 2012, when it was ported to the Windows phone platform. The Oregon Trail video game was designed to teach students about life in the 19th century as pioneers traveled by covered wagon along the Oregon trail from Independence, MO to the Williamette Valley along with the hardships they endured along the way. The goal of the game is simple: move your character to the Williamette Valley without being killed by starvation, disease or any other peril along the way. So, how did they measure up with the card game?
So, why/how do I use tabletop games in my classroom? By examining and creating tabletop games, young designers have to think critically about the various components that make up games including: objective, conflict, rules, procedures, resources, probability, and boundaries. And, there is often a faster turnaround time to create a board/card game as well as see problems with the overall design. Because students need to think about the limitations of people officiating their game instead of a computer doing it for their players, examining, playing and creating tabletop games forces them to think more critically about what will make their game fun for other people to play. If a game is too difficult or too easy, players will stop playing the game so it is important for young designers to grasp the concept/techniques of carefully balancing the components that make up all game formats.
So, the next time a friend says let's play a game and you see them pull out a box and dice, don't come up with an excuse to do something different or mock them because it's not on a computer/console. You just might learn something about design techniques and have fun along the way!
This week's post is a little late. I have been visiting relatives in SC since mid-last week and this morning was my father's regular bocce ball club meeting and I was invited to play as well. So, why not learn a game I haven't played before? But now, on to this week's post.
One of the biggest problems that students in game design often have is coming up with original game ideas. They have often played lots of games and selected a genre, maybe two, they consider to be their favorites and often stick to those experiences for their design inspiration. They have also followed a number of tutorials to learn about game engine basics using applications such as Game Maker or Unity. Quite often they take a tutorial they completed, make one or two minor changes, but basically submit the same game as their original work. And when I tell them that it is too similar to the tutorial, it needs some major work to make the game their own, I typically hear "I can't think of anything" as their response.
Writer's block is nothing new and yes, it happens to game designers just as much as authors. However, game designers have lots of ways to combat it. The first way is by playing lots of games. However, by playing lots of games, I am referring to different genres, not titles. By playing different genres and thinking critically about them, young designers learn what works and what doesn't. They can experience a wide variety of mechanics and formats. This is true even (heck, I would argue ESPECIALLY) when the young designer doesn't like a particular genre.
However, one of the best ways to find inspiration is simply exploring the world around you away from the console. This is often the most recommended form of inspiration that I hear repeated when speaking with professional game designers. Look at the world around you an draw inspiration from it. Visit new places and try new activities, then think about how those experiences can be used in your future games. This is not the fastest way to draw inspiration, but keeping a notebook with you at all times (or better yet, make a note file on your phone) to jot down ideas about what you see and experience can be useful. Make some quick sketches to help you remember how you experienced something in your mind's eye. You might not use an idea immediately, but it gives you something to go back to when you hit that designer's block!
So, how does this work? Let's examine an exercise in drawing inspiration from experience:
Just yesterday, I was sitting on beach at Isle of Palms in SC with my parents. They noticed a hole in the sand and knew right away there was a crab in it. We began watching the hole, trying to capture a picture of this busy worker each time he came up to throw sand out. How could this become a game? Well, I used to enjoy playing Dig Dug when I was a teen. Can I merge the mechanics of Dig Dug with the experience of watching the crab? Sure.
In my game, you play as a crab digging a hole to forage for food and hide from predators. You need to remove sand from the hole and throw it onto the beach while avoiding predators such as seagulls and people. While digging, you also pick up bonuses in the way of foraging for food or finding hidden treats in the sand. I could implement different mechanics to help the player like side crawl, run, dig, and claw pinch. Does a game like this need work to make it functional? Of course. But...it gives me a good starting point. I know some of the art assets I will need to create (crab, seagull, food, sand texture, people in some form, foraged items) and an idea about some of the mechanics being used. I can then flush out the rest of the gameplay from that point forward...but I have broken ground on a new game that uses both new and familiar gameplay in an original manner.
So the next time you need some inspiration, put down your controller and take a walk. Examine your neighborhood or be creative in thinking about somewhere you might visit more regularly like a restaurant or the mall. Doing so can really be the start you need for that next great game idea!
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.