Tuesday, March 31, 2020

MORE great games to play using video conferencing

I've been continuing my investigating into which games work best for Zoom and other video conferencing systems. My friend Fletcher, who has been experimenting with OBS (Open Broadcasting Software*) came up with a set of guidelines for types of games that would work:

- have small footprints
- limited to no hidden information between players (unless players a
re willing to play with open hands)
- aren't super fiddly
- don't require players to pay a large amount of attention to other players personal spaces or tableaus.

Good advice, Fletcher! So taking this into account, I've expanded my list to several more games that could work well, depending on your set-up. Games that require a moderator to run the game and manipulate the components are marked with an *. Games that are best played with 2 more or copies of the game (with each player possessing a game at their location) are marked with an #.

I've divided the list into three categories depending on your camera set-up.
  1. Games that work well with just out-of-the box Zoom and a single computer (built-in) camera. Keep in mind that while Zoom can support many viewers, (up to around 300 or so) but you cannot see more than 42 of them on screen at one time. I would avoid playing with groups larger than that.
  2. Games that work well with a "duel camera" or a "roving camera" set-up (Personally, I use my computer's camera as well as a Sony Eye-Toy from my PS3 in the USB port - you can find an inexpensive driver here: https://codelaboratories.com/products/eye/driver/). With this set-up, you can switch between the computer and the more portable Eye-Toy. 
  3. A dedicated multi-came a set-up. This requires more than one computer to run a dedicated system and camera. IMHO, this is the best way to go as you can look at the board, different components and cards and even the face of the player... As Ferris Bueller says, "if you have the means, I highly recommend it."
Click on the game's name for it's BoardGameGeek.com link

Battleship #
Dungeons and Dragons* (and pretty much almost any other RPG) (players will need dice and a character sheet)
Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space#
Game of Phones*
Pictionary (requires use Zoom's whiteboard function)
Reverse Charades (requires use of private chat function)
Say What (requires use of private chat function)
Taboo (requires use of private chat function)
The Game of Things*
Think 'N Sync*
Trivial Pursuit*
Werewolf* (requires use of private chat function)

Chess #
Diplomacy #
Fearsome Floors*
Nuclear Destruction#
Railway Rivals*#
Red Dragon Inn
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective*
Survive: Escape from Atlantis*
Wits and Wagers*

Dead of Winter*
Kingdom Death: Monster*
Rise of Tribes*

More games will be added to this list as I go. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 27, 2020

10 More revelations about gaming and video conferencing...

My friends and I recently tried played a board game via Zoom. This time it was Rise of Tribes, an excellent worker-placement game by my friend Brad Brooks and published by my friends at Breaking Games.

Breaking Games had a unique set-up: three computers running three camera simultaneously - one showed the game board, the second showed the player's ability cards, resources and tribal affiliation. The third showed the host's face during the game.

The game is pretty simple. Players roll two dice and "plug" one of them into one of four actions. Actions allow players to move or gain more meeples, resources, or cards. Cards provide abilities once their cost has been met. You may also build villages that provide points. The first player to reach 15 points first, wins.

Here's what we learned from the session:

  1. In Zoom, the moderator may change the name of an attendee. We changed the name of our players to the color they were playing. You could also rename the player to the character they are playing, if you were playing that kind of game.
  2. Zoom supports multiple cameras, which comes in very helpful. I think to effectively run a game, you need at least two camera. I have a PlayStation EyeToy hooked up to my own computer but I can only switch between the two cameras rather than have them run simultaneously. In order to have multiple cameras displayed at once but you need multiple computers to run them. If anyone knows differently, please post your knowledge in the comments!
  3.  You can also run Zoom from an Iphone or Ipad, but the image will only appear on main screen – it cannot be run as smaller side screen.
  4.  We found it very helpful to mark the board, grid style – A1, B4, C2 - Battleship style.
  5.   Despite everyone being orderly, it was hard to hear several people at once – try not to have music in the background. Instead, I suggest using a sound board operated by the moderator to punctuate events infrequently.
  6.  Having a moderator leading the gameplay was a huge help - especially one who knew the game ahead of time.
  7.  Players should be well-versed in the game ahead of time (watch a “watch it played” or read the rule book although playing the game is best.)
  8. Keeping track of your own resources and information helped greatly. We also had it being tracked by the moderator, which was pretty helpful but slowed things down as players checked in to make sure their own stat tracking was correct.
  9. Is there a way to bring player boards or tableau into view? We discussed using a Lazy Susan or Foamcore tray that the moderator could bring in and out of camera view.
  10. Seeing the player's faces was much more appealing than seeing their tableau or a board. Gamers are social people and it was a nice change of pace seeing all of my friends who I hadn't seen in awhile.

Many of the finding from this session weren't extremely revolutionary, but as I close in on what Zoom can and can't do, I find every bit of information helps. I hope you found this helpful too. The exploration continues!!


Monday, March 23, 2020

Designing games for video conferencing systems (a work in progress)

I wish this were my set-up, but I borrowed the image from online
We all know that tabletop games are best played with other players. But what happens when circumstances don't permit that from happening? What if your gaming partner moves to another town or country? What if someone in your gaming group gets sick and shouldn't be around other people? This is where video conferencing systems come into to the rescue.

This past week, I've been experimenting with different types of games that I think are best played over video conferencing systems (I have a list of recommendations here). As a game designer, I've been interested in discovering what factors that make for a good and bad game to be played over video conferencing. With the help of my Systems Literacy class at the New York Film Academy (hi guys!), here are some guidelines to making games for video conferencing so far. I'm sure there will be more discoveries in the coming weeks and months...

ISSUES when designing remote games

Here were the issues we found when playing remote games. 
  • Rule books. Players might not have access to the rules or not have them easily in front of them. The other players could use a digital version of the rules, but I find juggling between a digital rulebook and the video of your players to be cumbersome. Either play a game "light on rules" (Werewolf, Qwixx, etc.) or use a physical print-out of the rules seems to be the best solution.
  •  Lack of visual feedback. Players will have a hard time seeing cards, dice, miniatures, due to the limited view. They might have a hard time comprehending what is happening during the game because of it.
  •  Limited view of game board. I have found that a single camera doesn’t show all of the angles of the game board. In a perfect set-up there would be at least two cameras - one for the board and components and the other on the face of the player. If you can set up a top-down camera (as seen in the image above) that's great, but the other players will still be missing out on seeing what their opponent is doing. This set-up works much better for cooperative games where one player is "operating" the game (like Pandemic or Fearsome Floors) than it does for competitive ones.
  •  Physicality. If players don’t have access to components, how will they roll dice, move pawn, etc.? We experimented with a few games that use components to see how they played. Admittedly, we had too many players for that King of Tokyo game we played, but players reported feeling disassociated from the game because they couldn't roll the dice, couldn't handle the energy cubes, didn't have a good look at the cards. They missed the satisfaction of rolling the dice for themselves. When I asked them (they are all college students) what made this different than watching a "let's play" video on Youtube or Twitch, they replied "we're supposed to be playing the game and because you were doing everything for us, it didn't feel like we were playing the game." A fair point. We tried again with a game where everyone (almost everyone) had their own dice - Farkle aka Bupkiss - but the game progressed so slowly, that it was again unsatisfying to the players. Once again, the player count might have made a difference there - we had 12. But even with their own dice, they still complained about the speed and the immersion in the game. They had played it in a class room setting earlier in the year so they knew the difference between how the game felt "in person" and remotely.
  • Components. When we played King of Tokyo, the lack of physical components contributed to lack of immersion. The Game ended up relying heavily on verbal input (or chat) than those from the other senses. The conclusion was that unless the game was "word" or "verbally"-centric, it was inferior over video conferencing. (As I am one who prefers the scientific method, I am going to continue testing this with a smaller sample size of players - who wants to join me?)
  • Secret info. Keeping track of personal or secret information like cards is tricky - without a secondary camera (like on a phone) this might be even harder. This is where the "two-sets of games" solution could come into play. This is where both players have the same game and use the same parts to play the game - much like Chess or Diplomacy by mail used to be played. I have yet to test this out IRL.
  • Cheating. Easier for a player to cheat if other players cannot clearly see them. Fortunately, the solution is "don't cheat."
  • Turn Order. Turn order is less intuitive – especially since “clockwise” is such a common conceit in games. This is fine for two-player games, but anything more than three and it starts to become a juggling act. I wonder if games with a fluid turn order might be the solution here. Need to do more investigating... Post game suggestions in the comments.
  • Stats. Players will have difficulty tracking stats. This one I need to do more testing with. I think that games with "common and shared information" - like Qwixx, Bingo, Karuba, Dixit, etc. - might play better over video conferencing than games that require more individualized information.
  • Table Talk. Players miss out on “table talk”. Granted, my students were very polite and none of them interrupted me while we were playing, however even though I encouraged them to engage in table talk, it was still limited and not as robust as it was in person. I think part of this is the culture of phone/video conferencing conversation - people are just used to letting other people have their say before saying something. Which is in contrast to the more boisterous conversations that happen in person.
  • "Alpha Gamer". The video format can unintentionally cause “Alpha Gaming” to happen. "Alpha Gaming" is the phenomena when one player takes charge of the game and instructs the other players on how to play the game. By the nature of me "being in charge" of the game, I found that the other players deferred to me (it might have been also because I was the teacher) and I ended up doing most of the talking. I think this might change if I were playing with my regular gaming group or if each player had access to their own copy of the game.
  • Urgency. Some of my student players said that they missed out on player agency, engagement and urgency. By not being in control of their own pieces, they didn't feel like they "belonged" to them and therefore they didn't care as much what happened during the game. They felt detached and felt like the game didn't matter. This disassociation is to be expected as the players are merely "ghosts" in relationship to the physical game.
SOLUTIONS to designing remote games

Here were a few of the solutions that were determined based on the play tests.
  •  Design to the format: Since remote gaming utilizes a camera and a mic, design something that uses its strengths. Games that have strong visuals, sound or discussion in the game play work much better than cards, dice and components. Your tools are a camera, microphone as well as your player’s voice, facial expressions and gestures.
  • Compensate: Designers might have to make rules that compensate for these deficiencies, but be careful, the solution might create as many issues as the problem. This happened when we were playing King of Tokyo. Because we had so many players, we added a rule that the first time a player died, they reset their health. Many of the students reported that this would be "hard" to keep track of. Granted, this is not the way the game was meant to be played, but rather than having a half-dozen students knocked out of the game early on, it seemed like a fair compromise. Whether it was a good design change, I am still considering...
  • Camera Set-Up: Unfortunately, most of us don't have a multi-camera set-up.Make sure your camera set-up shows the important most thing in the game – for example, if you are playing a dice game, make sure the players can see the dice. In a strategic board game like Pandemic, show the board. 
  • Breakout Rooms and Chat: Don't forget to use chat and breakout room for game play. These are both great for public as well as secret knowledge.
  • Use Online tools: There are lots of apps and browser based dice rolling programs. Many games have digital versions that can supplement or replace your physical copies.
  • Camera Set-up: The best way to play many board games via video conferencing is to have a multi-camera set-up. This way players can see the board, their tableau or hand of cards and the other player's face. However, this can be expensive as you need multiple cameras and/or computers to run them and if you aren't tech-savvy, it can be tricky to set up. When setting up your cameras, think about what the player needs to see the most during the game. Make your primary camera focused on whatever that is. An alternative is to place each player's pieces or tableau on their own separate tray or board (some stiff cardboard works just fine) and bring them in and out as it is each player's turn.
  • The Moderator is there to help: If you game has a board with components like resources or miniatures or unique dice that cannot be replicated with an online roller, the host of the Zoom meeting should "run the game" and act as the player's hands. As moderator, you have control over other functions like muting players, turning off their video, sending private chat messages and sending players to and from breakout rooms. Use these tools to help run your game. It will go a bit slower, but it will eventually make things run smoother.
Unfortunately, at this time, the list of "don't" is still longer than the "do's" at this time but I'm hoping more play sessions will bring more design rules to light. Why not post your own realizations and discoveries in the comments below?

Monday, March 16, 2020

10 Print and Play Games to Play at Home

We're all going to be spending a lot of time indoors, so why not play some games? Because... some of us don't have a lot of spare cash to spend on games right now. Or maybe you don't own too many games. Or maybe you are sick of all of your existing games and want something new. Valid answers. Might I suggest a Print and Play game?

Print and Play games are games that you print out and make yourself, in some cases provide a few components like dice, pencils or tokens and you are ready to play*! In this first article (of two, collect the whole set!) I will be focusing on games that either are print and play versions of existing games or come from established game designers. Here are 10 Print and Play games worth playing:

1. Decathalon is a roll and write designed by none other than the King of the Tabletop, Reiner Knizia. It's actually a series of 10 short dice games with the loose theme of the events of an Olympic Decathlon: 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter dash, 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1500-meter run. And it's free on the good doctor's website: https://knizia.de/wp-content/uploads/reiner/pdfs/Knizia-Website-Decathlon.pdf

2. Monikers
(Palm Court) is a party game based on Celebrity, where players take turns attempting to get their teammates to guess names by describing or imitating well-known people. And if you are currently social distancing yourself, Monikers still plays great over video conferencing.

3. Out of the entire "Tiny Epic" series, Tiny Epic Galaxies (Gamelyn Games) is my favorite. This little dice game packs a big punch. In Tiny Epic Galaxies each player controls a galactic empire, aiming to expand their influence by acquiring highly contested planets and increasing their cosmic armada. Granted, you won't get the ginchy custom dice that come with the commercial game, but it's totally worth playing. Download the files at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/geekdo-files.com/bgg135282

4. Red 7
(Asmadi Games) is a speedy card game similar to Uno. It's fast (most games last a few minutes, it's colorful and it's free here: http://asmadigames.com/RedPrintAndPlay.pdf

5. WizWar (Jolly Games) - While Tom Jolly's classic "Wizards battling in a dungeon" game first came out in 1983 (and out of print since 2012), you can print and play not one, but two charming versions of the game. One features art by Ilya77 (pictured) and the other by artist Kwanchai Moriya. You can download either version here:https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/589/wiz-war/files

6. Barbarian Prince (Dwarfstar Games) - Barbarian Prince is a game of heroic barbarian adventure like they used to make in 1981. The Event Booklet takes you through a pre-programmed sequence of encounters which is different each time you play the game. You must make decisions which will make your quest successful - or may cost you your life. It's a great game, one I played many times as a young gamer. However, Barbarian Prince been out of print for decades and it's many fans have clambered for a reprint. What happens when game designers get disgruntled? They make their own Print and Play version of the game! You can download it here: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1631/barbarian-prince/files

7. Dune Express (Book Ranger) - The classic game Dune is a much-loved strategy game designed by the team that made Cosmic Encounter and was famously out of print for decades. Dune has since been reprinted in a lovely edition by Gale Force 9. But we are talking about Dune Express, a faster, shorter version of the classic game. Designed by Felbrigg Herriot and art by Ilya77, you can download the files here: https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/60687/dune-express-complete-redesign-ilya-77

8. The Resistance (Indie Cards and Games) - The social deduction game, The Resistance seems to be one of those games, like Werewolf and Love Letter, that fans love to make their own versions of. So, once you buy the official version of the game from Indie Cards and Games, you might want to check out the wide selection of the fan-made versions including Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and the video game Team Fortress 2

9. Evolution (North Star Games) - Often, a publisher will release a Print and Play version of a game so that players can get an advanced look, provide feedback and find typos before the final game's release. In this instance, the Print and Play version of Evolution remains here: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/filepage/102112/evolution-print-and-play-files-version-10 on the BGG.com file section. I suggest if you like what you play, buy the version published in 2014.

10. The entire Cheapass Games library!!!! Those many exclamation points are no hyperbole. This is a treasure trove of games by designer James Ernest! So many great games! Kill Dr. Lucky, Give Me the Brain, Unexploded Cow, Before I Kill You Mr. Spy and many, many more! All you have to do is print out the paper and supply the components like dice, pawns and tokens! Just like you had to do in the 90's! All the games can be found here: https://cheapass.com/free-games/originals/

I hope you enjoying not just making, but playing these games! If you have any more suggestions for great Print and Play games, leave them in the comments below!! And stay tuned for part 2 of these recommendations!

*In some cases, you will need to be a member of Boardgamegeek.com to access the files. However, it's free and the best board game site on the interwebs!