Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.
You can see the #GDWW introduction for a list of previous exercises.
This week, I’ll be applying what we’ve learned so far by playing a simple game and then identifying the major elements of it.
The exercise first asks us to play a game of 3-dot Sprouts.
I’ve never played it, but it reminded me of a game I used to play in school, which was apparently called Dots and Boxes. It felt like a more challenging Tic-Tac-Toe in that there was always an expectation that I could figure out the trick to winning consistently.
In Sprouts, you connect dots with lines, taking care that no dot has more than three connections coming out of it and that no lines cross each other.
So, my first attempt at playing the game was a failure because I didn’t realize I had four lines connecting to a dot. Whoops.
My second time, I created a loop, connecting dots with a line that circled another dot. I found that even though I had a dot with only one connection outside of that circle, I couldn’t connect it to any other dots due to the limitation on connections and the inability to create crossing lines.
My third session, I started with a triangle, and then I started bisecting the triangle. Eventually, I found I had one point within the triangle that couldn’t connect to any other points, and one point outside of the triangle in a network of arcs I had to create to try to match up free points.
Applying the Lessons Learned
Ok, so I’ve played Sprouts, a game created by John Conway of Game of Life fame and Mike Paterson, one of the people who recognized computer science as a science. The exercise now asks me to identify the formal elements and the dramatic elements of the game.
First, let’s look at the formal elements.
- Players: There are two players. Each needs access to a pen or pencil and the ability to count.
- Objective: To be the last player to make a valid move.
- Procedures: One player needs to be designated as first, and three initial dots need to be drawn on the paper. After that, each player takes turns drawing a line and then putting a new dot in the middle of that line.
- Rules: The actual rules are described as part of the game. Players cannot connect lines involving a dot that has three existing connections, which limits the potential lines that can be drawn. A new dot can only be placed on a newly drawn line. A player can only take his or her turn when the previous player has finished a turn. The rules must be followed; otherwise, the players aren’t playing the game anymore. Similarly, if players drew their lines and dots whenever they felt like it, or added more than one dot on a line, it would be a different game.
- Conflict: The act of drawing the lines between dots reduces the number of potential lines that can be drawn. Any new dots drawn already have two connections, which means they only allow one more connection.
- Boundaries: While the exercise mentions a piece of paper, the play area is fairly abstract in that it consists of wherever the dots and lines are. The assumption is that the dots and lines are on a single plane. That is, if the game was three dimensional, it would be trivial to draw arcs from one dot to another without crossing previous lines.
- Outcome: Either the first player or the second player will win. There can be no draw.
Now, let’s look at the dramatic elements.
- Challenge: Sprouts is a solved game. That is, it is possible to play a perfect game, resulting in a win for the first player or for the second player depending on the number of initial dots. With three dots, the first player can always win. There is no challenge once you know how to solve it, similar to Tic-Tac-Toe. In that absence of such knowledge and pattern recognition, the challenge could come from the limiting of choices as turns are taken.
- Play: As turns are taken and dots are eliminated from consideration, it can get quite limiting. There might be some choice at the beginning, but a given turn will eventually eliminate two dots at once while adding only one back, and so eventually there is only one choice to make. There isn’t much room for play.
- Premise/Character/Story: There isn’t anything inherent in the rules that provide a story. It’s a fairly abstract game. The name itself might imply something that is up to interpretation by the players.
Now the exercise asks me to identify types of dramatic elements that might add to the experience.
I’ll take them in turn.
- Premise: instead of connecting dots with lines, you could be engineers tasked with building roads between settlements, or you are plumbers laying pipes between houses, or miners digging tunnels between veins of gold. Maybe you’re digging trenches to try to capture the opposing mole in a garden. I’m sure ideas can be spitballed indefinitely here.
- Character: Each of the premises had some characters associated with them, but what if we started with the players as dinosaurs? They could be competing for scarce food resources. Thieves? You can only rob a bank so many times before it becomes too risky. As above, more ideas can always be generated here. Names and biographies could be created for characters, and even though there are only two players, perhaps giving the players a choice of more than two characters to play might provide some flavor, even if the choice doesn’t impact the game in any more meaningful way. For instance, one of my nieces likes the color pink, and I’m sure she would be very happy to play this game as a character who dresses in pink who has the same name as a favorite cartoon character. Each character might have a uniquely colored pen, allowing each turn to alternate colors. Princess Fiona provides a pink pen, Prince Bob gets a green pen, and Sir Erdrick gets a purple pen.
- Story: I can see coming up with a traditional story involving the characters above, but what if each turn required the player to give a line of dialogue explaining the turn? Suddenly it can be a party game, in which wackier explanations are better. “I drove this herd of meerkats to the Statue of Liberty, avoiding the Pit of Despair on the way.” “Well, I drove a meerkat from the Statue of Liberty to Chicago in a taxi, dropping off a hitchhiker at the Outhouse of Tomorrow.” “And now I shut down the Statue of Liberty and forced everyone to go to Florida, and I launched a space station.”
Wow, this story-based one gets ridiculous pretty quickly.
I learned quite a bit about Sprouts, and I had some fun with thinking about the dramatic elements that could be applied to what is otherwise an abstract math game. It makes me wonder how much I underappreciate a good theme and story in games.
If you participated in this exercise on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.
Next week, I’ll skip ahead to Chapter 7 and work on a prototype.