Review: Things We Think About Games

September 4th, 2008 § 2 comments

Things We Think About Games is the first book published by Gameplaywright Press, a joint effort between game industry veterans Will Hindmarch [who I consider a good friend] and Jeff Tidball [who I have met once, a few years back … in the middle of a discussion about television cooking shows, not a subject that I have exhaustive knowledge on.] Both guys have written and designed all around the gaming industry, and the book has dozens of other contributors.

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About the Book

I expected this book to be a series of essays. I don’t think any of the promotions for the books misled me — they just didn’t really specify what was in the book, so I just assumed it was essays. It isn’t; the majority of the book are short “proverbs” about game design, game playing, game teaching, and more. It’s introduced by Wil Wheaton, and closes with am modified version of John August’s Seven Lessons I learned from World of Warcraft and an essay from S. John Ross.

So while a quick flip-through of the book showed me that it wasn’t what I anticipated, that flip-through sold me on the book, as I was able to instantly absorb, agree, and disagree with several of the entries. It sparked instant conversation with the people I was hanging out with, and Rob Donoghue made great use of the book’s format, having various friends and industry people sign his copy of the book … on a page they strongly agreed or disagreed with.

About the Contents

Will Hindmarch was inebriated a few nights ago, and via Twitter gave me permission to quote a few entries for purposes of this review.

001 – The player of any game has, at most, two hands

If your game requires a player to hold, handle, or move more than two things, you should know where the player sets one item while she is manipulating another. You should have a good reason for not including some indication of that place on your game board, in the rulebook, or in the money shot of your game on the box.

In poker, for example, the placement of cards and chips is customary. Even still, a nice poker tabletop has a chip rack and maybe a designated place for hole cards. A board game should provide a designated place for a draw deck, discard pile, and scoring if at all possible.

Hell yeah! I’d pay for an expansion to Ticket to Ride that contained the following:

  • A number of racks suitable for stacking destination tickets again (much like tile holders in Scrabble).
  • A cool board for setting the 5 face-up cards, the draw pile, and the destination tickets draw pile.

That’s it! I’d put down my money for that product right away. It would be great to replace the handmade racks I currently have to stack destination tickets against, and the board for placing the various draw piles would be a nice bonus.

The game is by no means defective without them, but it could be that much better with. I’m actually relatively new to Ticket To Ride [been playing less than a year, have probably played 50-75 times], but each time when I teach it to someone, they find it confusing that they have two different types of cards, and no place to easily put and refer to the destination tickets.

030 – Dollar for dollar, a roleplaying game is very nearly the most efficient entertainment you can buy.

I want to agree with this, but I think for the majority of groups, the majority of the monetary cost and the majority of prep-time/organizational work is placed on the gamemaster. It’s efficient entertainment for players, but not necessarily for the GM.

023 – In a tabletop roleplaying games, the characters are all wearing pants.

This is true even though none of the players informed the gamemaster that their characters were putting their pants on.

Issues such as these–things that any person would do without comment–are collectively “pants issues,” and players in any sane game may always assert that they have done such things if it ever becomes important.

This is one of those issues that makes me stress that all roleplaying groups should talk in advance of the campaign about expectations and defaults. It shouldn’t be necessary to say “I grab my cel phone when I leave the apartment.” each and every time your character prepares to go out, nor “I load my gun.” before going out on a shadowrun. If your character is going to be a goofball unless you “babysit” him during the entire game session, is that really fun?

078 – If a rule is optional, give it a name.

Players should be able to quickly describe their house game to other players by casually citing rule names.

Jargon is good. It creates a culture of player and is just more fun than quoting a rulebook. Part of what makes poker excellent is the swollen insider vocabulary that comes with it. For example, “We’re playing Chicago, Follow the Queen, so high spade in the hole splits the pot.”

If you can get players talking like your game talks, then you’ve got them.

I heavily agree with this, especially as it pertains to RPGS and properly calling out rules that are truly optional. However, this doesn’t pertain to inventing new slang for common terms–this is covered elsewhere in the book, and it’s viewed as a bad thing.

There you go — that’s a quick sampling of the type of material that makes up the majority of the book.

Criticisms

While many of the entries in the book are numbered [as the examples show], the pages aren’t. This bugs me. Rationally, I know I don’t really need page numbers in this book, but it still bugs me.

Most of the pages have tags — just like a blog — in the corner. Samples are “all games”, “play”, “poker”, “history”, “teaching games”, etc. Sadly, there is no “tag cloud” in the book; no reference to tell you which pages talk about game design vs. game teaching vs. poker.

Both of these problems could be fixed relatively quickly in a future print run …

Buy It

Bite-sized and approachable, Things We Think About Games is well worth reading for both casual and hardcore gamers, and especially for game designers. You won’t agree with all of it, and that’s part of its charm: one page may make you smile and nod, the next will have you curling your lip in a bitter sneer. Hopefully, it will help you avoid that sneer during the next game you play.

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§ 2 Responses to Review: Things We Think About Games"

  • Thanks for taking a close look at the book, sir. I was sort of hoping you’d link to that Tweet. And sort of hoping you wouldn’t. And sort of hoping you would. As long as it’s good television.

  • Adam says:

    It’s a cool book, Will. I’m looking forward to seeing what other projects you guys have on the go!

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