Insider 12-14-2011

Now we get to my favorite of the topics I outlined in my last Insider: social interaction in games. Remember, the definition we are working from is a game element that lets one player do things that matter to another player.

Some of my favorite games are built around strong social mechanics, and I lean towards highly interactive games when I’m deciding which new games to try. That tendency manifests when it comes to designing a game, too. The social interactions are usually one of my main concerns, and they’re what I tend to pay a lot of attention to.

One of the most important parts of a game when it comes to social interaction is what the rules allow and don’t allow. It doesn’t always have to be an explicitly written rule; it can be the way certain mechanics function. As an example, let’s look at diplomacy in an average board game about large-scale war.

One of the things about these games that keep players involved, even when a single player’s turn can be pretty complicated, is rivalries and alliances. The freedom to “wheel and deal” and potentially double cross other players is something the rules of a game can actively encourage or unintentionally restrict.

Two players can decide not to attack each other no matter what the rules say, but there are ways that the rules of a game can shape the way those players make alliances. If two warring neighbors want to negotiate a treaty, what can the stakes be? Almost all these games have resource mechanics so you can research tech advances and build armies. But the way that resource mechanic is implemented can mean you don’t actually have any way to give money to another player. Most of these games also have some sort of territory ownership, but even trading ownership of a space on the map can be done in a variety of ways. Let’s say the stronger of our two rivals above agrees to not attack the weaker for the rest of the game. The weaker offers to give up an area along their common border. How does that zone change hands? Is the only option for one player to abandon it without a fight and for the other to capture it? It makes a big difference whether the player taking over the territory can use any improvements it may have, or if he is just receiving what amounts to a new space, he has to build up from scratch.

Getting the balance of the social options right in a game is the part that most strongly depends on good playtesting. The balance of skill and luck can be determined to a great extent when the game is still in your head, but how it will be played is sometimes hard to predict. Watching a group of playtesters try and make sense of your rules, and the things that they want to do within those rules, can help to create the social dynamics of a good game.

And that’s some of what we think about when we’re making games.

Next time, I’ll change gears and talk about one of my hobby projects.