The Coin’s Other Side: On Losing (and Elimination)

This post is going to be quite basic. Basic does not mean that it will be simple, but that it stands at the base. I may not give you answers here, but I’ll present something that any person who designs a game that is competitive, especially one where people win, should think of – the issue of losing, and the related issue of player-elimination.

You see, if your game has victory, there can be several ways in which you reach it, and many of the examples I’d use are from board/card-games. The question is what happens to the losers, and how they lose. This is more of an issue with story-games because of the length of time they may have to sit aside and the expectation of shared creative activity.

One option for winning is you reaching a personal goal, such as reaching level 10 first in Munchkin. Everyone plays till the bitter end, and everyone is more or less as effective in the end as they are in the beginning. This often leads to “King-makers”, players who know they will not win, but can be the ones who decide whether one player wins or another. In some cases, you need to play the other players more than you’re actually playing the cards.

Another option can be seen in Infernal Contraption, and in most competitive CCGs or war-games aimed for two players (Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer being  prime examples), where you don’t win by what you do per se, but you win by being the last player standing. This is not an issue when only two players play, because the game ends for the two players at the same time – one’s win is another’s victory. It is also less of an issue with games slated to run 15-20 minutes, because the loser does not get to sit idle for long.

However, story games and role-playing games have historically been more akin to the game of Diplomacy, where often players are eliminated in the first couple of turns of the game, which can keep going on for a couple more hours. I suspect this is also partially the reason some groups shy away from character-deaths, because it forces the player to stop being involved in the action, or at least they no longer have an active hand in shaping the story. In some groups the player with the dead character uses this time to come up with a new character, especially in mechanically involved games.

These days, it is sometimes less of an issue. Some games are designed to be of a shorter duration, so if one loses their character they are not out of the action for the whole campaign (at least as that character), or even for the duration of a session of a campaign – the game is meant to be played out in whole in one sitting. But still, I think like in board-games that take longer to complete, even an hour a player has to sit idle is less than ideal.

A “game” where this was somewhat solved which came up in my mind when a friend challenged me to design a truly competitive and cut-throat design was Survivor. Yes, the TV show. There the players eliminated after a certain stage get to be the king-makers in the end-game and little less, but it does require attention after they had been ‘eliminated’ from the running. Likewise, I feel that story-games with a competitive bent who decide on elimination should find a way to keep the players so eliminated not only interested, but let them contribute to the story further, and perhaps shape the competition as well ( if the story and the competition are intertwined, it may be so regardless).

Something done by story-games for a number of years now is that players get to affect the direction of the story even when their characters are not present. They get to reward players whose characters do things they enjoy (Primetime Adventures), or perhaps they don’t even have characters that are ‘theirs’, and all they do is guide the story (Universalis), or the designs  where they have characters and affect the creation of the world and shape the story (the “child” design of Mortal Coil, or Shock:).

But then a new question emerges, if you have competition and elimination: What is the measure of “Victory”, and why would you say those who have been ‘eliminated’ have lost? Perhaps they have just lose their chance to claim victory and their “superiority” over the others, but would you also have their effect on the story lessen? This is a Competitive Story Game, remember. I suspect this is one of the things alluded to by people I’ve approached regarding writing of competition and story’s interaction within their games, when they told me the game only has the veneer of competition, because if someone will try to win the game, it’d crack.

You have choices, whether victory is reached when the victor reaches a goal, or through elimination of all other players. Should you pick the former, you should consider how to solve the issue of king-makers, or keeping it in, unrestrained. Should you pick the latter, you should consider how to mitigate the effect of a player not having a hand in the story and game, and perhaps the issue of kingmaking will creep up again. Whatever you do, be mindful of this. Be aware that this is a design choice you are making, and a critical one at that.

This issue is also tied strongly to Social Contract, and to whether a certain group would play your game (at least as written). The issue of a player being left out of the game is something each party should discuss, and your game may not fit what a certain group is willing to accept. You may also consider adding a module in your game, where one can have elimination if one chooses, and play a somewhat different game if they do not wish for there to be such. Choices to be mindful of.

Story? Really?!

We’ve talked about inclusive versus exclusive before, and in a way, this post will also be about that. We’re also going to stay about fairly basic stuff, which is also very controversial and very important.

We’ve talked about Story’s role, as the focus or the facilitator, but now we need to get down to the bloody mess of Story itself. What is story? What isn’t?

We might want to begin with a definition, due to it being quite lengthy, I’ll repost the first item and simply link to the rest.

sto·ry1   noun, plural -ries, verb, -ried, -ry·ing. –noun

1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.

And to that I’ll add a short exchange between Keith Senkowski and myself:

Keith Senkowski: fuck story.  it is a game.  no game creates story.  story is created in the retelling
Guy Shalev: In a way, I agree, and that’s one of my thoughts. People keep talking about stories, about narratives. But our lives, when we live them, are just a random group of shit, they only become a narrative and gain cohesion in hindsight.

Some people say that a series of events, each occuring on its own is not story; furthermore, building on that, they say that a story needs to have a purpose, a theme or a thread going through it. Games with stories (a certain brand of RPGs included) therefore require a topic to be about, a common plot for it to have a story, or at least, “A good story”.

But if we go based on the above, then we can have any series of events, random or otherwise, and have them in totality be a story. This is not to say that any series of events automatically becomes a story, but when we retell it, omit and add, especially as to the cause of events, it does become a story indeed and not only in name.

When we play, we do not create a story, we create a scaffolding, a series of events (fictitious as they may be), later, when we recount the story, even if we only do so in our minds, going back over it from beginning to end, we create the story. The story is not created by the activity,  the game which occurred, the story is created by the Story-Machines, our human brains.

Competition? What for?

When I asked Ron Edwards to tell me what he thought about Cranium Rats, he had also said the following, reposted from private discussion with his permission: 

“The real question at the abstract, CA level, is what am I demonstrating by winning. It is not interesting to me to “compete in order to tell my story,” and I’m not sure if that’s what you’re working towards, or whether it’s a trap that you’re skirting.”

 And when I replied talking about competition for its own sake, he replied once more.

“I think that competition always has to showcase something – endurance, skill, what I call “strategy and guts” in my essay, in some form. There really is no such thing as a truly random competition – at the very least, you have to show that you’ve got the guts to stick it out until the end.

So I think you’re dodging my question. I’m not questioning the validity of competition or that it’s not fun. I’m asking what do you show by winning, and indeed by playing Cranium Rats. I’m also not saying there’s nothing there. I’m sure there is, and am asking because I’m not taking the time to figure it out.”

And you know what, I honestly do not know how to answer Ron’s competition. I am not sure if I know what the competition is about presenting, and I’m sure that if I do know then I do not know how to put it into words adequately.

Suppose that you’re playing a sports game, it is clear what you are better at by playing. But then again, if people did not enjoy competition for its own sake, why would they play games where they lose? Take Settlers of Cattan, supposing there are four players playing, three will lose. Why do they play? For the chance of winning, and if they keep on losing, why do they keep playing, or will they quit?

I’m going to use Capes as an example, simply because there’s still not much else out there for me to talk about. As far as I can tell, or as I call it, you win in two different ways: The first, you gain control over the narrative in order to tell the story. The second is to gain the type of resources you need and get rid of the ones you don’t, which feeds into gaining your first objective.
What “winning” Capes proves is actually spelled in the text, it’s knowing what makes your other players tick and putting weight on these levers. Finding stories/elements they want to control and bidding them for it.
It’s about proving you know how to manipulate others, though there’s no defined “Winning Condition” so I may be talking in the air.

So, I believe that based on us playing competitive games, the competition in and of itself gives you some fun. But help me figure it out, use your own games, use my game, talk in abstract. What do you prove by the competition in CSI Games, what happens if you don’t have something proven or one can’t tell it (Possibly the game isn’t fun and falls on its face?), how do you tell what the competition is about?

This is our Project Discussion for the next 3 weeks, to end on the 25th of December. Take one of the games on the CSI Game List and try to answer those questions.

Here is another issue, if two people think the competition is over something different, do both win, do both lose, or things fall apart? For example, one that competes for the mechanical win and one that competes for control of Narration in Cranium Rats? By Wednesday I’ll have a post dedicated to the matter linked here, to aid in this discussion.

Edit: There’s a link posted a line or two back, edited in as promised.

Discussion Continues; The Cobwebs Attack.

You may have noticed the recent lack of posts. If you have anything to say regarding CSI Games which you can formulate as an article, feel free to send it, now is the time. I will use them to bridge the gaps in my own posts as I recover from my recent bout of severe tiredness. The next month in the army is promising to be extremely tiring and busy, so bare with me, and please, send me entries.

The voting for the CSI Logo are ended, and with 32% of the votes, I present to you the winning logo:

Winning Logo

This is the second Discussion post, and it is tied into the newest Project we’re kicking off, of finding/creating a “Definition” entry for CSI Games. Like the well-known “What is an RPG” entries other games have.

In order to support the effort it’d be asked that games will use such a “Definition”, each one could use their own, naturally, but I think we’ll do good to start creating them here.

Thus; submit your definition of “What is a CSI Game”, anything from 150 words to 400 words(0.5-1 page seems optimal size), and post it as a reply to this post. Other posters should feel free to post suggestions, thoughts, fixes and so on and so forth.
I am doing this before I’m posting my updated “Definition/Review” because I think this will be telling.

So go on people, and write in “Game-book voice”, what is a CSI Game.

Logo, Label and Cliques; “Who’s Deserving?”; Discussion Begins.

I intentionally intended this post to be only about the Discussion, if you want to skip my thoughts, go to the end. However, I keep having ideas put in my head when I’m thinking of posts, and since these are relevant and may further ferment the discussion to follow, I will post these ideas. It’s not like you can stop me.

So, the current Project is about finding a logo for CSI Games, but once we have it, a new question arises. The question will be put to voting in a future Project, which gives us time till then(a month or so) to discuss the issue here, to bring up whatever you want to discuss regarding it.
The issue is, who gets to use the Logo and/or “Label”?

Some people are against the Logo because it puts a Label on their product, Labels are often associated with Cliques, and this is my personal belief on why people have an inherent resistance to the idea. Often because they may already be part of their own clique.
Most people have no need to belong to more than a couple of social circles, because these fit their needs, and once they settle down they are slow to change. Why accept another label, another clique when you have no need for one?

I currently “Pull” people, I actively approach people whose works I think fit the profile about using the Label(and perchance even the Logo). This is done in order to kick-start the idea, rather than an attempt by myself to form a clique. I will not lie that when published/noted game designers’ games fit, it makes me a little happier, but that is not because I try to form my own clique, but because through them I will be able to extend the word into their social circles, of which I may not be part.

Let’s leave aside that for now, and let us hear what you think should be the way(Leave aside the “For what?”, that will be the next Discussion) people who are interested in applying the label/logo to their game could get to do so; Matthijs Holter, maker of The President is Superf****d, may not have used the label had it not been up for him to decide if his game is or isn’t, free for all and free of commitments. Or at least, that’s the impression I have received.
On the other hand, Andrew Cooper(I think), who’s working on Fantasy Game Engine, raised the issue of “Quality Control”, where if you apply the Label, you’re in part identifying with all games with the label, which requires a certain quality control to prevent “bad seeds” from dropping into the barrel.

A method suggested was a committee, on which all those who already have games identified as “CSI Games” sit, and they “pass judgement” if a new candidate applies or not. I think that idea is cumbersome and unwieldy, and also raises financial questions as those people need to read the text(even if provided in .txt format, they may still opt not to buy it based on that, though Clinton R. Nixon‘s Creative Commons products initiative give us hope there), and thus suggested the idea that you’ll have three members, who rotate(perhaps with one permanent member) who review the submission and decide.

You can always decide that it’ll be decided by one sole person, me, though as you may have noticed, I’m slowly setting this project so it could theoretically survive and prosper without me.

Well, this discussion is open for everyone, those who work on CSI Games and those who don’t, feel free to state your opposition to the Label, to the Logo(as a concept), to give us your thoughts on how the Logo/Lable rights should be handed down, the sort.