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What do we play?

In this video William looks at the structure of games and how game mechanics can be tied to theme to deliver a unified message.
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Board game designer and game journalist, Kevin Maroney, came up with a nice definition of games. Games are a form of play with structure and with rules. So let’s break down those things based on the three keywords that we have there, structure, play, and rules, starting with structure. The structure of a game is how the players interact with it. So what game material they have, be that cards or dice that they can roll, how many they can roll. What that then– how that then translates into the game world. If I play a card, where can I play it? What effect does it have? How many times do I get a turn?
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And then after it’s my turn, whose turn is it next, and how does the game world respond to my actions? These are often fairly tightly defined, certainly when it comes to talking about board games. But if you were to look at the games that school children will play in a playground, you’ll find that the structure is much more loosely defined. If you think about fantasy role-playing games, for example, there’s a nice balance there between tightly defined rules in some areas and very loosely defined in the others so that we don’t stop people from expressing themselves from role-playing. The goals of the game is how you win.
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So the first to get 50 points or to capture the opponent’s king or put them in a position where they can’t move away, for example. Goals are important because typically, they are what drive the player forward. You know when the game will end because the goal is achieved. And what we need to do is game designers is to make sure that the goals are very well described. That we can say to players specifically, this is how you win, and this is how you make progress towards that victory. So that they can then use the actions available to them to drive their position forward to get closer to that eventual goal. Not all games have strictly defined goals and that’s OK.
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Think back to the player types we spoke about in the last video and the immersive player, who wants to just live in a world and get lost in the game and in the narrative. These types of people typically don’t really need games with goals so much, they just need a game that allows them to be in this space for a time and to escape. Finally, play then, as we’ve spoken about, it’s active. We are playing this game. It’s something that we are doing as opposed to the passive mediums we’ve seen before, whereby we’re watching or reading. You have to interact with the game world to be playing with it.
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Game mechanics are a particular, small part of the game’s design which describe part of the structure or part of the goals. When you play games, you may have seen in the past, you may be playing a game that’s very similar to another. They may be variations on a theme. Typically, this is because they share certain core game mechanics. We’re going to talk about some game mechanics this week. We’re going to give you an idea of what they are, how you can use them and what kind of ways you can tie them in thematically to the game that you’re trying to play.
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It’s really important, certainly with games for change, that you tie together the mechanics that you use with the theme that you’re trying to portray. Because you want– we want our players to inhabit the actors and to take on board the themes that we’re trying to convey with our games. And to do that, we have to think carefully about what mechanics, what ways in which the player is allowed to play or is asked to play the game, is going to make them really sympathise with the story that we’re trying to tell. And to do that, I’m going to show you an example. So this game, Undaunted Normandy, is set in World War II.
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I’m playing as the Americans, and Charlie here, is playing as the Germans. It’s a fantastic example of thematic game design. They’ve tied mechanics to the theme so well here. As an example, on my turn, I’m going to draw four cards from my deck, and they may not be the cards that I need. So these cards represent soldiers in the various units on the board. It just so happens that I’ve got the rifleman that I wanted, and I can now say that I want this rifleman to attack that scout over there. Again, to represent the uncertainty of war, I roll the dice to resolve combat.
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If I get a high enough number, which I did, then I can say to Charlie that I’ve shot one of her scouts. And she must remove it from the game permanently. This is obviously the same as in war where things are lost and you don’t get them back. Here’s an example, just one, of a really well-designed game where they’ve clearly thought about the mechanics and how that ties into the theme. What we’d love for you to do when you make games next week, is to do the same. Be careful and consider how you can create games which allow players to take actions which are really going to let them inhabit the roles that you want them to take on.

In this video William looks at the structure of games and how game mechanics can be tied to theme to deliver a unified message.

Can you think of any examples of games with particularly thematic game design?

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Design Board Games for Socio-Political Change

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