Darkest Dungeon, from Red Hook Studios

Addictive. Which surprises me, since I spend most of my time failing at individual missions, struggling desperately to keep my adventurers from succumbing to madness. And yet I keep coming back for more.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • Art and sound design go a long way to selling the game. The mechanics of the thing can be familiar, while the art and the sound (that narrator!) really immerse the player in the world.
  • Failure can be fun, so long as the player can anticipate it, and recover from it. With those two pieces, failing becomes a continuation of the play experience, not a detriment.
  • Don’t be dismissive of old game forms. Even the venerable dungeon crawl has some life left in it, yet.

Mad Libs: The Game from Looney Labs

It’s Mad Libs crossed with Apples to Apples. What’s not to like?

Easy to learn, quick to play, and fun even if you’re losing.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • Pulling mechanics from two successful games and combining them is a perfectly viable way to generate a new game.
  • You don’t need anonymity for voting mechanics to feel fair. In fact, letting the players present their choices can be very entertaining.
  • Unplayed cards should present options to players; played cards should record choices they’ve made.

Loonacy, from Looney Labs

Awesome. Easy to learn, quick to play, and ye gods, addictive. Reminded me a lot of Egyptian Ratscrew, in all the best ways.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • A little chaos is ok, so long as it’s not borne out of confusion.
  • The simpler your rules are, the greater freedom you have to explore variety in the expression of those rules (e.g., the many, many different images you have to match against in Loonacy).
  • A strong theme is important. We found the Retro deck to be more enjoyable than the normal deck, simply because the theme was 1) cool, and 2) strongly expressed.

Lord of the Fries, from James Ernest

Fun game with a hilarious premise. Rules were a little hard to wrap our heads around — when to pass cards, and who to pass to — for the first game, but each turn went fairly quick even so.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • There’s room for all kinds of games, even ones about zombies running a fast food joint.
  • You can take a familiar game, like Go Fish, and — with a few gentle twists — make it into something new.
  • Streamline your rules. Multiple paths to reach the goal make it harder for players to pick up and learn.

Shadows Over Camelot, from Serge Laget and Bruno Cathala

Involved, complex, and tough.

We spent our time rushing around the board, from crisis to crisis, trying to stay one step ahead of the many enemies around us. In the end, we won, but barely. Victory felt more like a staving off of defeat than outright success.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • For a complex cooperative game, leave out betrayal. It’ll increase the difficulty without increasing any enjoyment.
  • Tying your character classes to individuals (real, fictional, or mythological) is a great hook into the game world.
  • Having enemies refresh after defeat is a good way to generate a siege mentality in your players, but it makes the game as a whole feel darker. Use it sparingly.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf, from Ted Alspach, Akihisa Okui, and Gus Batts

Took longer to explain the rules than to play the game. Not that the rules are complex, just that the game itself is so quick.

Had a good time, but it always seemed like the werewolves had the hardest job. They have the most reason to talk during the day, if only to throw suspicion on someone else. In the games we played, whoever spoke first was probably a werewolf.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • If you build discussion and argument into the game, set a time limit. Otherwise things can get bogged down, and drag on long enough to not be fun anymore.
  • It is basically impossible for players to properly execute a team-based strategy if they don’t know what team they’re on.
  • If you design gameplay that rewards players for screwing over their teammates, they need to be able to win on their own.

Flash Point, from Kevin Lanzing, Luis Francisco and George Patsouras

A bit complex to setup and rather awkward to learn. First game was really slow as we tried to figure out what we could do and what the best way to beat back the fire was.

Once we got the hang of the rules, though, the game’s speed picked up and we had a good time knocking out flames and rescuing pets (I mean trapped humans. Yes, the humans definitely took priority).

Three things I learned about game design:

  • If your game is cooperative, you can get away with more complex rules. Everyone will be helping out each other on their turns, so it won’t be as intimidating.
  • Beware using tiny markers for important game mechanics. Unless they’re anchored down, they’ll shift too easily during gameplay (dice rolling, moving pieces, etc) and players will lose track of where they’re supposed to be.
  • Design your co-op player classes around the actions available to every player. The simpler your basic actions are, the easier it will be to balance those classes.

Splendor, from Marc André and Pascal Quidault

Easy to pick up and learn, tough to win.

I made the mistake of playing it like a deck-building card game, only picking up mines that had victory points on them. These were few and far between, though, so I ended up with a lot fewer gems to use to purchase the more lucrative mines that opened up later on.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • Don’t rely on just color to distinguish sides or types in the game. I’m color blind, and had a hard time telling two of the gems apart, because their colors were so similar.
  • Even a rather simple mechanic — gems buy mines, which give gems to buy more mines — can yield an interesting game, once randomness and competition enter into it.
  • Introducing an unbalancing element can be ok, if it pushes the game towards a conclusion