Shortly after the countdown to 2020, the guests at my New Year's Eve Party wanted to start the year by playing games, and of course I was happy to oblige.
The attendees would not qualify as "gamers" under the community's somewhat stringent standards, but they have played the occasional party game with me previously.
That being said, I wouldn't feel super comfortable exposing them to 90% of the games in my collection, because they are just a bit too complex for players with their limited experience.
So with relatively limited choices, I chose a few games that offer, what I would consider, a unique and interesting experience but with very little rules overhead.
The 4 games I introduced my friends to were a couple of Wolfgang Warsch games (Illusion and The Mind) and a pair of Japanese indie games from Keiichi Suzuki (Color Sense and 1mm Sense).
All 4 of these share a number of features, but before I get into that, let me explain a bit about each game individually for those of you who are unfamiliar.
Illusion is a small card game in which each card has 4 colors on it. The colors could be in the form of random blobs, shapes, typefont, patterns, etc.
Each color consumes a certain percentage of the total card (whitespace included). I don't want to spoil percentages of the actual cards in the game, so I quickly made this custom card for reference, it contains roughly 17% Blue, 17% Red, 17% Yellow, 17% Green.
Here are some examples of the actual cards you will see in the game:
The object of the game is to put the cards into ascending percentage order of one specific color as determined by this deck:
Players will take turns adding the top card from the deck into the location so that ascending order is maintained, until eventually someone says "I don't believe it."
That person then flips over each card to determine if the order is indeed wrong. If it is, they get a point, otherwise the person that played the last card gets the point.
The game continues until a player has gotten their 3rd point.
Color Sense is a game that consists of cards that are shades of color. The cards all fall somewhere on a scale from red 100 to zero to green 100. Each card along the scale represents the percentage of that color's presence, and cards are separated by increments of five percent.
The cards will be shuffled and splayed out face-down on the table. Players then take turns flipping cards over 1 at a time.
The object of the game is to flip a card that is within 5% color presence of another face-up card. If you do, then you collect the cards that are face-up.
Some of the cards have stars on them that are worth points at the end of the game.
Play continues until all the cards have been flipped face up. The winner is the person with the most stars at the end of the game.
1mm Sense is the same game as Color Sense, except instead of judging colors, we are judging size.
Each card has a plain white back but is a specific square size ranging, in 1mm increments, from 6.1mm to 9.9mm.
The gameplay here is virtually identical to the aforementioned Color Sense, except instead of trying to pick a card within 5% of a face-up card's color presence, you are trying to pick a card that is within 1mm size difference of another face up card.
The Mind is a small cooperative card game consisting of cards numbered 1-100. You and your teammates will need to play all the cards in your hands in ascending order. Seems easy right?
Well, the catch is, you cannot communicate at all, you just need to play the card when you feel it is appropriate.
Let's look at some simple examples:
If you have the 1, you obviously play that card as soon as possible since it is the lowest card in the game. If you have the 100, you obviously wait, as long as you have to for the other players to be void of cards.
But what happens when you have a card in the middle? This is where the brunt of the game will reside seeing as how there is only a 1/50 chance of having the 1 or the 100 (at least during the first level).
If your team manages to play all the cards in ascending order, you move on to the next level where everyone will play again except this time, each player will receive 1 additional card than they did during the previous level.
If you play something out of order at any point, you lose a life and the game continues until you are either out of lives or until you have completed all 12 levels.
These games all have a few general things in common that make them extremely accessible:
1. Small rules overhead
2. Few components
3. Quick playtime
4. Language Independence
5. Small box size
The 2 designer's points of focus contribute to these common trends and also make these games unique from a lot of other games on the market, which I will highlight over the course of the next few sections.
Creating an Experience
All of these games offer a relatively small amount of replayability, with the only potential exception to this being, The Mind, which features enough of a gameplay arc, structure, and difficulty scale to encourage the repeat play.
Replayability is just a generalized buzz word thrown around in our hobby. In my opinion, it is a bit of a misnomer, but that is another article for another time.
For this article's purpose, just think of replayability simply as "after you've played it once, would you want to play it again?"
These games focus much more on offering a unique and interesting experience rather than offering a deep game warranting continuous investigation and plays to master.
However, because these games offer more of an "experience," they are extremely great to introduce to new people, especially non-gamers. It can be eye-opening just how unique and interesting games in the modern hobby CAN be.
These games, despite their small footprint, are some of the best at offering that type of food-for-thought both to those unfamiliar with the hobby, and those in the hobby alike. They may even cause some people to pose the question "is this a game?"
Is This a Game?
For those who follow along with my writings at Game Hungry, you may have stumbled across my article highlighting the Japanese game/art exhibition "Is This a Game?"
This exhibition featured 17 prominent Japanese designers and their "games." These were designed to expand the definition of what is a game, often by utilizing a person's preconceptions against them in a way that makes them see games in a potential new light.
I won't delve too much into detail, but feel free to check out the full article here. I highly recommend it, not to toot my own horn, but it may be my best article since I started blogging just 6 short months ago. This article even got mentioned by Dice Tower's Tom Vasel during a Board Game Breakfast segment and it helped to get BoardGameGeek on board with hosting an Is This a Game? at BGGcon in 2020.
What I want to mention here is that many of the designer exhibits experimented with player perception. Just as Illusion, The Mind, Color Sense, and 1mm Sense have done.
For example, Daita, took a standard game of the classic Reversi, which typically features black and white discs, and turned it on it's head by simply replacing a majority of those discs with a spectrum of brown shades between black and white.
What occurred was an abstracted ruleset that was highly dependent on the players. Most players inherently knew they were playing Reversi, but even then, their color perception was called into question by uncertainties about which disc belonged to which player.
Then there were people like me, who saw these pieces and a gridded board and did not see Reversi, but instead decided to create my own game out of it. I wrote up a ruleset for fun which can be seen here:
Please note, I don't think that my design is a good example of utilizing a player's perception well, in fact, it is quite bad for that purpose, but at the time I was happy to have created a game on the fly in just a couple of minutes.
It may seem like I'm incessantly rambling here, but please humor me, I promise, I do have a point, a lesson in fact, one that I will eventually tie in to the rest of the article (hopefully) seamlessly.
For now, I'd like to explain the first part of my lesson:
The PLAYERS are the single most important part of any game.
Yes, they are more important than innovative mechanics, more important than a unique theme, and yes, more important than table presence and production quality. Of course, having these things will definitely help to make a game successful, but if a game does not create an interesting experience for the players, it's all for none.
So how do we create a dynamic, player-focused game? Here are just a few of the ways that I would like to highlight.
Think about Chess for a minute. Chess has been around for nearly 1500 years and is the most well-known game in the world, played by students, mathematicians, computers, game-theorists, and non-gamers from all walks of life. Success in the game comes down to four major things.
a. Understand and utilize your pieces strategically.
b. Know your opponent, their available moves, and their most likely maneuvers based off the current situation.
c. Puzzle out how you can stay ahead of them over the course of an extended period of time; two, three, four+ moves in advance.
d. Capitalize on an opponent's mistake, should they make one.
This game is distilled down to a grid and some pieces with a clearly defined set of movement rules. The rest, is entirely up to the players and the interaction between them.
In fact, many abstract strategy games rely heavily on this type of player interaction. The reason this works so well in abstracts, is because you can provide that distilled experience, and allow your players to evolve the puzzle themselves.
This plays a critical part in social games because they naturally rely on the players to create the drama, tension, or humor that makes those games enjoyable.
A players words, actions, and tone can completely change the game state just as much as moving a piece during a game of Chess.
Believe it or not, you can create dynamic player-focused experiences in games that feature little to no direct player interaction.
This is naturally more challenging from a design perspective because you cannot rely on interaction alone to produce this result. You typically need to include some of the following to really make this work:
a. Create a feeling of natural self-progression.
b. Create a challenging but satisfying individual puzzle.
c. Have a tight player loop.
d. Offer large amounts of positive-reinforcement.
e. Offer uniqueness from other players and a sense of unbridled power.
One of my favorite examples of this is the 2018 Kennerspiel des Jahres Winner Quacks of Quedlinburg which manages to incorporate most of these into one of the most dynamic multi-player solitaire games ever made (this is of course, my subjective opinion only).
If you would like to know just how highly I feel about this game, be sure to check out my rankings and commentary on games that I played in 2019.
You may recognize this section's header from the title which means we are finally coming full circle. The final method to create a dynamic player experience that I'd like to touch on, once again relies on the players, but not their interactions with each other as much as with their own internal perceptions of external stimuli.
Do you remember way back when I mentioned introducing games to my friends at that New Year's Party (seems like it was last year)? Well, in case you forgot, they were Illusion, The Mind, Color Sense, and 1mm Sense. Well the final common denominator among these games is sensory perception.
Every single game relies on the individual players and how they perceive the world around them in relation to themselves and to other players.
Let's take another look at these games individually in regards to perception.
This game focuses on how players perceive space.
Every card in the game has the same properties and boils down to the same mathematical equation:
red % + blue % + green % + yellow % = 100% - white space %
Your 1st task as a player is to be able to look at a card and interpret how to fill in that equation. Your 2nd task is being able to then interpret how an individual card relates to a set of other cards.
What this game offers is agency for the players, each with unique perspective and interpretations of space, to progress the drama of the game with those very perceptions.
There are some relationships that are extremely obvious, in spite of the apparent differences between individuals. For example, (disregarding vision and color vision impairment that may affect the ability to play this game), it is highly unlikely that any player would think that a card with 1% red has more red in it than a card with 30% red.
However, a majority of the relationships are not so obvious, in fact, most are separated by somewhere between 0-10% difference and this is what causes the players to call into question their understanding of space.
In the beginning of the game, each player, will be on the edge of their seat waiting for an opportunity to unveil their unflappable certainty that their interpretation is correct, that is of course, until it isn't. Their confidence will be shaken, and they will start to be a little more cautious, while others may move in the opposite direction, or even waiver in between the two.
One step further, a game that starts with little player interaction, starts to have a very evident amount of social interaction. Specifically, players begin to doubt each other or gain confidence in each other. For example, a player may be much more likely to challenge someone that had just made an inaccurate decision, whereas challenging someone who has shown consistent accuracy in their spatial awareness, may be avoided, even if a mistake is evident.
It manages to come together to create a very dynamic experience that is both player-focused and surprisingly interactive.
This game focuses on how players interpret color.
The focus here is interpreting the amount of color that is present in a particular shade. From an equation standpoint, this is actually more about opacity than it is about color.
Imagine you are making a multi-layer background in Photoshop, GIMP, or whatever your go to image manipulation software is. The first layer would be yellow with 100% opacity.
The 2nd layer is red and the 3rd layer green. Our equation would end up looking something like this.
red opacity % + green opacity % = color presence %
In this game, however, red and green are mutually exclusive, meaning no card will ever have a percentage of red AND a percentage of green simultaneously. Therefore in our image manipulation software, only one of the red and green layers will be visible at a time.
So the 1st task players undergo is to interpret, which side of the spectrum a color is on. Starting from zero (100% yellow background), is there a green or red layer visible on top of it? The follow up task is to determine the opacity of that top layer.
Now what separates this game from Illusion in terms of testing your perceptions is that there is a level of allowable variance, and so being precise with your estimations is not entirely essential. Since you have 1 card that is face-up with a known percentage, you just need to find 1 card (out of a possible 2) that is within 5% of that face-up card.
Comparatively, this is a much less complex exercise in sensory perception because you can often deduce an accurate solution based off what cards are face-up and which are face-down. You can even hedge your bets, so to say, if there happen to be multiple face-up cards.
As the game progresses and mistakes are made, you will end up with multiple cards face up at a time. Let's propose this example.
Player A flipped over 10% on the red spectrum. Player B flipped over 25% on the red spectrum. Player C now has a much easier task, because now their number of acceptable solutions has increased. They will be successful if they manage to flip over any of the following cards in the red spectrum: 5%, 15%, 20%, and 30%.
As the game progresses however, cards that are "won" will be removed and therefore less cards will be available to select. This is where the player interaction starts to ramp up. Players will begin picking cards whose companion 5% cards are already gone, forcing the next player to lose.
The tension caused by this is relatively light, but it does make the game more than what it is, meaning that, what was a game about simply interpreting color presence and using situational deduction, becomes a bit of an abstracted multi-player drafting puzzle. Which card should I select to make sure that when it's my turn again, I can pickup those face-up cards? Or even, how can I make sure the current leader, doesn't get to pickup these cards?
The natural game arc that is created by the increased emphasis on decision making in the late game allows the light-hearted sensory perception game to feel like it is more than it is, even though this bit is again, quite brief.
Eventually, when enough cards are gone, it is impossible to successfully select a card within 5% of another face-up card and the game will end, anti-climatically, with players just taking turns flipping over cards despite there being no obvious remaining 5% differentials available.
I have spent a lot of time writing on this game, but the takeaway here, is that because players are the source of both the sensory perception and the resulting decision-making, an incredibly simple game, actually feels like a unique and dynamic experience.
This game focuses on how players interpret size.
This game is almost mechanically identical to Color Sense and therefore this section will rely a lot of comparing the two to show how they manage to stand on their own.
Here is a look at our equation, with each game, these seem to get more nondescript:
6.1mm + size difference = card size.
The equation has a constant of 6.1mm because this is the smallest possible card. However, the relationship to the smallest card is not the most important factor in this game. Similar to Color Sense, it is all about relationship of the face-up cards and the face-down cards.
So just for consistency, let's propose another example:
Player A flipped over the 6.4mm card. Player B flipped over the 6.7mm card. Player C could be successful if they flip over the 6.3mm, 6.5mm, 6.6mm or 6.8mm.
So as you can see, like Color Sense, the potential success increases following failure. In addition, the game arc also includes that same, short-lived increase in strategic decision-making, and further yet, includes that same potential for an anti-climactic ending.
However, all that said you may wonder why both games exist, is there really ANY difference? Why yes, and if you understood this article so far, you would know that the difference once again lies in the players.
Size perception is not only dependent on the actual size of an object, but the distance away from the object you are and the angle at which the object is seen.
What I failed to mention in both the original game introduction and thus far here, this game requires that you remain in your seat and reach to flip the cards by extended your arm only, I.e. you can't lean over or stand up and look at all the cards from the same perspective.
However, there are some special cards that break the rules; one that allows you to stand and lean over the table, one that forces you to cover up one eye therefore throwing off your depth perception, and another that forces you to step back away from the table.
What the designer did with 1mm Sense, which he (likely intentionally) neglected to do with Color Sense, is to emphasize the complexities of size perception. He placed additional restrictions, penalties, and bonuses that shed light on how size interpretation has dependencies beyond individual perception.
In addition, the increments between cards is merely 1mm. Extrapolate that over a percentage, assuming a range from 0cm to 10cm, it is a 1% increment in size. However, in Color Sense, he used 5% increments which tells me two things.
1. It is harder to differentiate subtle differences in color.
2. That Color Sense was deliberately designed to be easier, and perhaps even as the introductory game in the series.
To corroborate that, some notable differences in the player's success were documented:
In Color Sense, there were only 4 occasions where anyone selected an incorrect card at a time when there was a correct card available to be selected. Whereas, this happened 9 times in 1mm Sense.
Determining whether or not 1mm Sense is more or less dynamic than Color Sense will require another couple plays, but the use of size and the deliberately designed difficulty adjustments in 1mm Sense definitely makes it feel different than it's companion game, despite very little designed difference between them.
This game focuses on how players interpret time.
The cards are very simply numbered 1-100 and the players only task is to determine whether it is time to play a card or not. Our equation for optimal play is simply:
Your card number = most recently played card number + amount of time passed
However, this equation is only theoretically accurate because there are external factors which impact how you actually apply it.
This blurring of the theoretical and the practical applications of time perception is due to the non-communicative cooperation mechanics employed by the designer. There are many examples that can help to emphasize this, but let's focus on two.
1. Despite your internal perception that "enough time has passed," if another player reaches for a card the same time you do, it may make you hesitate and cast your perception into doubt.
The thing is, unless all the other options are completely eliminated, you can't possibly know what that player's movement meant. It could mean that person is playing too fast and you need to hurry up to prevent their mistake, or it could mean just the opposite. This creates an extraordinary amount of tension and a lot of unusual looking moments.
It's like watching a shoot-off in the wild west stylistically filmed like a fight scene from the movie 300: Both players hovering their hands over their cards, in slow motion, one player grabs their card ever so cautiously, gradually inching the card closer to the center of table, and then all the sudden. BAM! In full speed, the other player grabs their card and nearly flings it across the table rushing to play it before you play yours.
2. Your internal clock gets disrupted and adjusts with nearly every played card. Let's look at a more concrete example of this one:
You have the number 50 and the currently played card is 10, you may naturally find yourself thinking that you can wait 40 seconds, and play the 50. Then you count, likely subconsciously, but you wait, and after only 10 seconds, someone plays the number 30.
What do you do? Is the right answer to adjust your internal clock or not? If so, by how much?
a. Do you go so far as to follow along with the previous played card, and now every 10 seconds = a number increase of 20? Therefore, in 10 seconds you need to play that card? Sure, that is one option.
b. Instead, maybe you split the difference and speed up your internal clock just a little so so that you wait 15 seconds to play your card.
c. Or maybe, you know that Susan played that card way too fast and you need to try to set the pace back to what it was so you don't adjust at all. But does everyone else know? Is everyone else on that same page? Will Susan get the hint when you wait another 20 seconds to play your 50?
There isn't really a right or wrong answer here but I know what I would do, and I'm assuming from reading those options so do you.
Even if 100% of the people agree that theoretically, you should do blank, it doesn't mean it's the correct answer, because it is completely situational and group dependent.
Now take that same example, and imagine another card is played in between 30 and 50, and another. Every time the cards are played a little faster or slower than your internal clock would dictate and you must adjust. It is also important to note, that EVERY player at the table is going through this exact same thing at the exact same time.
Let's go a step further down that rabbit hole, is it even possible to do this? Do we have the ability to so quickly and methodically adjust our perceptions of time on the fly like this?
Yes and no. Yes, because a lot of this is just an instantaneous reaction to visual stimuli, the same way we instinctively slam the breaks if the car in front of us comes to a sudden stop.
Let's hypothetically throw instinct out the window for a second and instead assume you had to run all those calculations in your head before properly coming to a stop. You'd have to know the distance between you and the car in front of you, the speed of both cars at the point of stopping, how quickly the car in front of you comes to a complete stop and the distance the car travels during that breaking, the amount of force to apply to the breaks, your reaction time, not to mention any amount of other conditions, worn down break pads, road conditions, weather conditions, incline/decline, etc. Bottom line, there is no chance you manage to avoid that collision.
What I'm getting at here, is that within the limitations of human computational skills, you will never truly be able to get to the right answer without missing your time window to actually apply those results, and instead you must rely, almost exclusively on your instincts.
There are only three opportunities to truly feel confident playing a card in The Mind:
1. If you have card number 1 which MUST be the first card to be played.
2. If you have the 100 which MUST be the last card to be played.
3. If you are the last person with a card remaining which means you MUST play your card(s).
Other than in those three situations, the only thing you have to go on is your instincts, which for all intents and purposes, are pretty darn good at being able to make these subtle changes on the fly.
Some people have claimed this game could be broken, by setting up a clear counting system that everyone is aware of, but even then, you cannot rely on every person to count at the same exact pace. Also, you'd be taking away a large chunk of the fun and turning it into a game merely about simultaneous counting.
When I play, I do a quasi countdown strategy, I wait until I feel like it's close to the time to play my particular card, and then I perform a countdown to myself *5,4,3,2,1...* then I'll play my card. But even this is so far from an exact science or a specific strategy. More than half the time, I doubt myself and I do the countdown and then another countdown, and then finally play. Sometimes I even countdown like this 3 or 4 times because of my doubts, and other times yet, I don't even have the opportunity to countdown at all, because I need to rush to play something.
Don't get me wrong, this game's core IS about how players interpret time overall, but adding in the social and non-communicative cooperation transforms this into a game about taking external stimuli from other player's non-verbal clues and allowing yourself to subconsciously make temporal adjustments intuitively on the fly.
With merely 100 cards, an ultra simple ruleset, and a prioritization on the PLAYERS, Wolfgang Warsch has created one of the most accessible and dynamic games ever made.
What Does it All Mean?
Well, I think this entirely depends on you, the reader.
Whether you are a designer, a player, or someone with both feet completely outside the world of gaming, there is still a take away to be had here.
For The Designers
It is interesting how often designers get stuck in the trap of focusing on mechanics and theme, sometimes to the point of neglecting the players themselves.
One really good way to make sure the player involvement is there, is allowing the players to utilize their own sensory perceptions to dictate the game progression. This can be done by focusing your core game on something that is open to interpretation, for example, space, time, size, color, shape, volume, scent, flavor, weight, balance, distance, area, abstraction, angles, perspective, point-of-view, value, texture, focal point, and the list goes on and on.
By internally giving players this agency over the game state, you can shrink the overall design space substantially. You can make a game that is relatively simple in terms of mechanics and components, and yet still offer your players a unique and dynamic experience.
I would recommend that every designer should attempt to design a game like this at least once. Whether you are experienced or novice, professional or amateur, even if it is just as a thought experiment/design challenge, you can learn a lot about your players and their value to the design process.
I am very much hoping to be a part of next year's "Is This a Game?" exhibit, in which I plan on doing an experiment based off the effect of sensory input and lack there of. I have the design in mind and am working on it as time permits. I will give more details as the year progresses, however, for now, just consider this bit a teaser.
For the Players Within the Hobby
This hobby has potential to be one of the most naturally diverse hobbies there is, however, a large amount of exclusion, discrimination, and bias still exists. I won't go into the harsh realities about the lack of diversity in gaming today (again, another topic for another time). However, I do want to briefly address the cliquishness that exists and how these games (hopefully) can promote some cross-clique interactions. Some of these cliques include, but are not limited to:
Every single one of these groups has open, inviting, and friendly people, and between those people and more crossbreed designs being published all the time, the lines between these groups are starting blur. However, like most prejudice and bias, progress takes time. At this point, there are still many people who will refuse to play some games and maybe even trash talk a game they never even played before, just because it isn't their style of game. It is a bit unfair, don't you think?
I believe the types of designs I have discussed tod