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Game Designer Eric Lang Talks about Board Games

June 23, 2016       Gameplay
Game Designer
Eric Lang
A talk about making board games
and keeping design ideas fresh

We got a chance to attend a recent talk in Manila hosted by Gaming Library featuring Eric Lang, THE renown board game designer who has designed a slew of franchise products like The Godfather, Game of Thrones: The Card Game, X-COM: The Board Game, and his own properties  Chaos of the Old World, BloodRage and The Others.

Eric Lang's own journey into game design has inspired plenty of local board aficionados into spreading the hobby among young adults, family and friends as well as use the hobby as a jump off point for design work creating locally flavored board games.

The most memorable ideas and insights that we got from Eric Lang at the toy convention, discussing the way he works designing board games are:

Eric Lang:  How I Got Started in Gaming

Dungeons & Dragons changed my viewpoint on what games can be--they can be creative and dynamic even with just paper instructions, a stat sheet and a story guide.  I got to be any character I wanted and do anything I liked so I went off to kill my own character just for the heck of it.

When Magic the Gathering hit the market, I thought, this is dumb, it's just cards in a box.  But when I played the game, I saw the professionalism and level of research and thinking that went into designing the game and decided that game design was what I want to do for a living.  I played and designed my own game systems. It's not fun if its not broken.

I started my own game company for a while, then worked with Fantasy Flight Games for a board game called Disk Wars and since then have had a really good relationship with them.

As a game designer, I have worked the entire line from design to prototyping, playtesting, storytelling, mechanics design and even product distribution--the most boring but still a necessary part one must learn about the industry.  I've worked with licensed property and with my own property games.  I've worked for a while in Nintendo retail, designed D&D, paper-and-dice games, MMO games, digital games on Facebook, and trading card games, before settling on board games full time. 

Over the course of my career, I got to design and create 7 games every year.  Now, that has gone up to 12 games at a time.  One game usually takes from 9 months to a year to make, from prototyping to playtesting to final design.  There are companies that used to offer opportunities but with impossibly short deadlines, so I turn down those offers. 

Sequels are good for your wallet as a designer, but this has to be planned from the start if a game hits big enough--some games have limited replay value.  As a seasoned designer, when working on my games, I can turn away from something I'm doing and come back later with a fresh perspective--one of those games I set aside and worked on was

For tips on creating the perfect game--some games turn complicated like Role Playing Games, so when a game you're working on takes that turn, make an RPG!  You can do whatever you want with a game.  When you create mechanics and story and a game doesn't seem to work out--which I've encountered myself you can try what Roman Polanski, the famous director advised Joss Whedon when he asked the same story--how to make a story work:

Polanski advised Whedon: Dig deep into your heart why you want that story--The Heart of the Story.  Once you find that, whether it be a theme, a plot, event or a character--remove everything that isn't part of that heart. 

There's a point during the design process where a game starts telling you where it wants to be--you keep putting in mechanics, rules, but it doesn't work--so find how the game naturally grows.  If the initial guidelines and restrictions do not apply, throw them out.  As long as the game is fun, as long as you enjoy it run with it. Mechanics are not everything in game design.  Put time in playtesting.  Make a good game because we who are gamers are an industry based on passion.  But if you want a game that will sell on Gamestop--that requires different parameters of its own.  Make games you really want to play.   Make a game that works 5 percent.  Your game has to be balanced with a variety of strategies.  Ask yourself who is the game going to be for no single game is attractive to everyone.  When in the design process, assign the theme (traveling around the Philippines) as a metaphor (commuting) then work off that--it can be a cooperative game, don't worry too much about mechanics and work off challenges in the game, player interaction, object interaction, and a game cycle of beginning, middle and end.

I am in a position where I'm not forced to work on any kind of game.  I can choose the projects offered to me or work on my own game properties. (questioner in audience exclaims: That's the life!)  Yes, but it took a long time to work on to get to where I'm at.  Worked on a lot of stuff I didn't want to to learn the craft and to know what works and what doesn't and design successful projects.

Games based on properties that I work on function on the premise that we are fans of the movies or TV show from which the game is based on.  When I finished The Others, my own board game, my producer came to me with a look that said "I got more games for you." so I told him I was finished for the year and The Others had me tapped out and I was taking time off.  Then he mentioned that they got the license to make a Godfather board game, so I said "Okay, I'm on it! There's no way I would have let that opportunity pass because I was a big fan of the movies and I immediately had a concept for how the game would play out."  The Godfather game started writing itself.  Original properties don't design themselves, they start as a blank sheet of paper.  Licensed games tap into something you already got.  Don't start with too many ideas.  Watch or read the property again.  The starting point is easy.  Middle point is dealing with expectations which is the toughest part.  Fans will want to experience something from the movie property in your game.  Original IP games are like a blank page that can be as awesome maybe as good as a licensed product.  But you need to have an internally consistent IP world with no expectations, and no one cares about your game until you start selling like crazy.  Most licensed property are like Hollywood, you can narrow down the theme and concept, impying how it works in exactly 2 things.  Like Star Wars meets Three's Company--that's how Hollywood works their story pitch.

Blood rage is one of my original property board games.  It has a theme that is easy to understand and is translated well into a game.  Making more original games is something I want to get with. 

Eric Lang: How Do I Go About Game Design?

I don't really buy into the idea that some games are more punishing or challenging than others, I don't see any meaningful difference between those terms, but I do believe in the psychology of negative reinforcement in game design.  There is a school of game design where you can't succeed without giving negative stimulus or rewards. 

Though some may see this as a heavy handed design structure for giving penalties for game accomplishment that engage the player more and provide part of the fun. One game, Puerto Rico is a Euro-style strategy game where players own plantations and compete shipping their farm corn production but it has a dynamic where players gain game bonuses on their turn that become minor bonuses to other players so social interactions happen where get better mileage by bluffing, peer pressure about the choices that affect everyone else in the game.  In the game, players can deny advantage to another player, or create situations where everyone benefits.

One of my own IP games: The Others is a horror-themed, existential game where there are werewolves and demons (the good guys, would you believe?) versus character embodiments of 7 Sins of the Apocalypse.  My personal design philosophy behind games is: I'm not a fan of having lots of things to do, although I play such games.  I have an older game  called Chaos of the Old World where there are lots of things happening but since that time, I've worked towards more straightforward gameplay.

When I design, the best way for me to play a game is to streamline the mechanics.  Playing the board game:
The Others is like being on the receiving end of a Wes Craven movie--you are either one bad-ass versus many players.  There are games that work with an asymmetric nature: In The Others, one player (a malevolence) versus demons and werewolves where negative reinforcement is the engaging element of the game.  Even though the "Sins" player as the malevolence aka boss level character--his side "seems" not have ability to do enough but the opposing players don't see what he can do and he can't see what the opposing players can do.. Such games--"punishing" and asymmetrical game design force players to go all out.  Asymmetrical games require delicate balance so that either side has a fair chance to win.  These are games that come out of nowhere and allow a single player to sweep everybody else in the moment and win it all if they coordinate play just right or perform moves exactly the right way similar to card combinations that win in Magic. 
Do you guys know about the site Extra Credits?  There are online magazines like The Escapist, Zero Punctuation and Extra Credits, that are like workshops for game design.

There are different spectrums of skill and dedications among players.  Life can sometimes be an inspiration for games--I traveled to Thailand and got into a situation with a tuk-tuk driver where he wouldn't let up on driving us around the  custom tailors around Bangkok until I bought a suit and I found out that sort of tourist trap was prevalent everywhere if you were not aware of it--and it inspired me to design a game called Tuk-Tuk Driver where you played as the motorized rickshaw cab driver and fleeced foreign tourists with a variety of tricks.

Eric Lang:  Is Politcal Correctness in Games a Bad Thing?

[This writer inquired about a game called LapDance and asked if political correctness was a major hindrance in game design] Political correctness at a certain degree takes things too far.  When I design my games I want the play experiences to increase the level of inquisitiveness among players. Everybody loves games.  Even those who don't play.  They just don't know it yet.  Let's look at Cowboys and Indians as a game.  Everybody has a gamer in them, but nobody wants to be marginalized because of circumstances they can't control; such as race, gender, religion, cultural background.  By the mechanics or flavor in a game. 

A game should not meaningfully diminish somebody's experience because it may contain elements that may slight cultural or moral sensitivities.  I'm not a fan of a certain game: a First-Person-Shooter of Arabic people.  On the other hand, a game like Silent Hill (supernatural torture porn--a genre of horror where victims are taken captive and brutally tortured) is pretty disgusting and scary. And it features a lot of crazy weird stuff. 

My game,
The Godfather has car bombs, (priest assassins), uncomfortable subjects but everything in the game exists because in the historical context and environment or theme of the game those elements actually exist.  There is one game, Paper's Please, where you are a border-crossing agent trying to stop illegals from crossing the border which features game elements that show the boredom and banality of evil--nasty things people would do if they were in a situation where they need to feed their family and need to make bad decisions.  But that isn't being politically incorrect.  It is a game design based on a certain theme and situation, and is art.

Eric Lang: A Story on Designer Burn Out

Like writer's block, creative burn-out among game designers is a constant hindrance to productive work.  It happens because creative people tend to juggle too many ideas in the course of their design work and Eric Lang mentioned that every project or idea that a game designer has running tends to sit in the back of one's mind that keeping track of all those ideas can be exhausting and a game designer can lose interest and even get bored with work.  Getting bored is a sure sign that creative burn out is upon you.

Eric said it happened to him while he was at a board game trade fair in Essen around three years ago, the biggest game convention in Germany and Europe.  Given that these days are supposed to be the golden age of gaming, Eric found the games at the trade fair unexciting  and was bothered why he was having that reaction to a jungle hoard that would normally be giving him creative inspiration.  He figured out that he was exhausted mentally and he needed to start afresh.  So Eric purged his computer hard-drive storage of all pending design ideas he had and even threw out all game prototypes he was working on for himself.

Eric did mention that there was a certain psychological condition where a creative person tends "to pay a mental tax for every unfinished project you have."  So making a list and getting stuff done is a better work method for anyone doing creative work.  In the back of one's mind, unfinished ideas take up space. 

After wiping his hard drive clean, Eric found that it was re-energizing to start from scratch with new ideas and it revived his interest in his work.  His friends said wiping his hard drive was an insane thing to do, like flushing money down the sewer drain.

But Eric recommends that designers should never let stuff you are working on keep hibernating in one's mind.    He advises designers to: "Just go out and make it.  Do it on paper make it.  All games suck until they don't. I hate all my games until they're done."  After wiping out his to-do list of around 500 board game prototypes from his computer drive, Eric came up 100 new ideas that have revived his drive to finish and do the best he can t make them great games.

In one instance, Eric mentioned that he cut one game idea prototype back to its original theme, ran the idea with a friend and found himself a collaboration working out.  Reducing a skeleton of a game back to the original theme or concept can also be a great creative exercise for bridging relationships and working with other equally good designers and artists. 

Eric Lang:  What Games Work Best for Cognitive Dysfunction?

Game Designers need to have skills in Math, Linguistics, and most importantly in Psychology to design good games.  Games are an interaction and reward systems and you can gauge how players to react to stimuli when they interact with the game and with players they play with.  Cognitive dysfunction is a broad field where patients have problem understanding basic cause and effect or mind mapping relationships, they dissociate concepts so have a problem learning.

Games help people with cognitive dysfunction because of the challenge, interaction and enjoyable experience players get while socially engaged within the game.  All games translate to challenge.  Your selection criteria need not be a rigorously tested study to make a list of choices.  Just play games.  Games that already exist.  You can separate cognitive dysfunction patients into groups and assign games that have worked well with that group, for example:  Bridge (card game) is popular because it allows players to share strategies and work simple math problems that can help them overcome dementia.


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