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April 2011 BGJ – CardBoard Jam – Jam Within A Jam Within A Jam

 

On the weekend of April 9 & 10th, from morning until night, about 30 game developers gathered into 8 groups at GAMBIT Game Lab on MIT campus to participate in a new type of Boston Game Jam. This time around, video and computer games were set aside for board and card game projects. Jeff Ward and Tim Volpe wrote up their enthusiastic perspectives on the Cardboard Jam shortly after. Check back with Boston Game Jams soon for more details and comprehensive coverage of all the Cardboard Jam projects.

Here we offer two unique perspectives in separate posts from members of the one jam team made up entirely of Boston Indies community members. Andrew Brockert’s post shows us the internal experience of the jam and provides a setting and atmosphere with its words; the other, by Chad Serrant, is a play-by-play breakdown of the mechanical and collaborative decision-making efforts that combine during the development of a board game in two days.


From contributing writer Chad Serrant.

Jeff Ward, Andrew Brockert, Tim Crosby and I came together during a weekend in April for a Game Jam. The topic this time: it’s not digital! We had cards, tokens and dice. It was quite a change of pace from other game jams, but it would be pretty boring otherwise. There were many newcomers to this Game Jam, too. Digital vs non-digital attracts different crowds.

The name of the game is what we wrote on the back of the cards. The name changed between Inception, Ensepshun, Inception 2: Incept Harder, Inception 2: Electric Boogaloo before Andrew chose the easiest pun graphic to represent on the back of a card. Now that’s executive action!

This game is cooperative, where four players try to build a path to the goal, pick it up, and head back to the start. They must also deal with Danger, which will boot them out of the game if they or their allies cannot help. The game should last for about 15 minutes tops, depending on how much the team argues.

It begins with an idea (Photo by Rik Eberhardt)

Inspiration
Tim had watched the movie Inception for the first time that Friday and he wanted to make a game based on it. I wanted to make a cooperative game, because I never see enough of those. We banded together with Jeff and Andrew and aimed for a game where you tried to build a path and grab the MacGuffin while avoiding danger. If one person made it out with the MacGuffin, everyone won.

Add some Boston Indies in jokes, and the MacGuffin became Scott MacGuffin became the Viximo. Buy their stuff so they don’t get mad at us :)

Crafting
One big difference between this game jam and other game jams is that we spent most of the day crafting and refining the playable game. Usually you spend two hours designing the game and twenty hours programming it. But this weekend we were designing and tweaking the game play up until closing time. Andrew squeezed some time on Sunday to print out cards on card stock. Iteration is awesome!

As with iteration, we had lots of time to reject ideas. This part is always fun. Limiting resources to the minimum number (e.g. four). One idea was to give path cards unique bonuses and penalties for moving up and down. We decided to keep it simple and leave them blank. Jeff and Tim did not want dice and cards, so the deck served as a luck component. The Gear card probably went through the most changes and is now a risky yet necessary part of the game.

Playing Jam Within A Jam Within A Jam (Photo by Calvin Nelson)

Play Testing
The nice part about fast development is that we can playtest the hell out of our game. We wound up adding personal goals because we found an optimal solution that made the game too easy. We also added a timer to force people along because otherwise the team could Discard and Draw until they have the perfect deck – the Pandemic problem, as Jeff puts it. We used to have a “Move 2” card but ultimately folded it into the Path card.

Long ago when I showed my QBasic games off to people (QBasic for life!) I learned that the games I make are much easier for me than they are for the testers. So I wasn’t surprised when we invited other people to playtest and they had various difficulties playing. One team didn’t embrace teamwork and were wiped out. Another team tried the “Pandemic problem” approach but abandoned it when Personal Goals were added to the mix. Overall, teams were able to win very reliably but it was very tense throughout the game – the perfect difficulty.

Lessons Learned

Jam Within A Jam Within A Demo (Photo by Rik Eberhardt)

The difficult part about programming a game is that it takes a while to get the prototype up and running. You can’t really tweak the game or add new rules on the fly, and then you need to worry about bugs. (Unless you write bug-free code, like I do. Naturally.) There are no bugs when you deal with cardboard, and you get a lot more time to design and tweak your game.

Rapidly iterating a game makes it mutate very quickly. We began with a template close to the film Inception but veered away when we allowed movement in any direction. We use Secrets as currency to fend off Danger and pick up the Viximo, while in the film there is no physical Viximo to pick up – in fact they are searching for secrets.

I had a blast this weekend and can’t wait for the next Game Jam like this. It was good to give my design muscles a workout for once.

The rules for the game, and enough information to build your own deck, are available here:


 

Chad Serrant works as an Escalation Engineer at a computer data backup company. He lives in Arlington and designs games for fun in his rapidly dwindling spare time.

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April 2011 BGJ – CardBoard Jam – Looks Good On Paper

On the weekend of April 9 & 10th, from morning until night, about 30 game developers gathered into 8 groups at GAMBIT Game Lab on MIT campus to participate in a new type of Boston Game Jam. This time around, video and computer games were set aside for board and card game projects. Jeff Ward and Tim Volpe wrote up their enthusiastic perspectives on the Cardboard Jam shortly after. Check back with Boston Game Jams soon for more details and comprehensive coverage of all the Cardboard Jam projects.

Here we offer two unique perspectives in separate posts from members of the one jam team made up entirely of Boston Indies community members. Andrew Brockert’s post shows us the internal experience of the jam and provides a setting and atmosphere with its words; the other, by Chad Serrant, is a play-by-play breakdown of the mechanical and collaborative decision-making efforts that combine during the development of a board game in two days.


From contributing writer Andrew Brockert

You are seven years old, on the playground at recess.

“The ground is lava!”

“But if I run to the swingsets, I’m safe!”

“OK, but you have to get on a swing, and then you can only swing ten times before you have to run back.”

Minutes later…

“This isn’t fair, there aren’t enough swings!”

“You can only swing three times now. If you swing more than that, you burn up and die.”

In our digital medium, it’s easy to get tunnel vision about what play is. At the Cardboard Jam, we stepped into the world of board games for a weekend and got a reminder of the full possibility space open to us as game designers.

It started, true to game jam style, with pitches. Here we were led by Jonathon Myers, as Darren Torpey, the Honorable Boston Game Jams Czar, was occupied for the morning wrangling three wildebeest. The ideas and coffee flowed. Play a senator in a game of pork barrel politics? Work together to deal with a superhuman AI that thinks it’s the Messiah? Be an advisor to the mayor in a SimCity-like government, and compete for the leader’s ear?

For me, the idea of a board game inspired by Inception resonated, so I joined up with Tim Crosby, Chad Serrant, and Jeff Ward to go deeper. We started from a simple premise: begin at the top, build a path to something at the bottom, then retreat back through that path.  The items you lay down on the way make your descent easier, but then they turn into hindrances on the way out. Based that idea, we labeled different index cards as “path”, “secret”, “move”, and “gear”. These cards gathered arcane annotations as we tried different variations, rejecting more ideas than we kept. Rule changes often took place in the middle of play: “You can only place gear on the path you inhabit or the path immediately below it.” We played variations of the same game for hours. I was on the playground again.

When we needed a break, we wandered around GAMBIT, listened to and played with the games of other teams. Of course, we also partook in the sublime results of Vickie’s food jam. I played one of Luther Patenge’s prototypes, which resembled a creative twist on the shell game. Walking through the halls and labs from time to time, I caught glimpses of the evolution of several other extraordinarily original games. GAMBIT’s label as a “game lab” is well-deserved.

It seems repetitive to underscore yet again how original and clever every game was, but the closing presentations of our work did just that. Everyone present (including a few people who showed up just for that — I’m looking at you, K. Adam) got to see the results of a weekend’s work. At the end, everything was still a little rough around the edges, but that’s precisely in the spirit of a jam. Regardless, the thought and effort that went into each and every game was plain to see, and it manifested in different ways. Swamped! had beautiful imagery in its pieces and cards. Light Fuse and Get Away had a deeply intense and fast-paced dynamic between its two players. Everyone there learned a little more about the craft of game design.


[Photos of note card pitches and demos by Rik Eberhard. Swamped! photos by Calvin Nelson]

All game development events in Cambridge must, it seems, end in beer. A pilgrimage to Cambridge Brewing Company was a foregone conclusion, and it proved a cathartic post-mortem. Even after the jam, much conversation was in the future tense (“we’ll have to try it with a larger deck and see if it becomes less swingy”). It wasn’t all about the games, though — there was much passing of a Nintendo 3DS for analysis, talk of current and future plans of the jammers, and, when I brought out our cards, a tiny bit of complaint about the amount of black toner used over the weekend (sorry, Rik!).

You — yes, you, reading this now — can learn something by getting together with friends and jamming on paper. Anyone who makes games, whether as a pastime or for a living, needs to know how to iterate, and going back to the absolute basics of pen and paper can remind us all of how to do that.

Until next time, I’ll be on the tire swing.


 

Andrew Brockert is an engineer, writer, dabbler. As a Massachusetts native, he is thankful to have an extraordinary game development community in Boston. He blogs sporadically at mercuric.net.

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Global Game Jam 2011


 

The premise of the Global Game Jam that took place during the final weekend of January was so mind-blowing that I asked everyone the same question at least once: “Are the games really finished by the end?”

And the polite answer, from everyone not too busy to speak, was “almost all of them, yes.”

I’m not so clueless that I didn’t think it was possible.  I mean, I know how many hours it takes Cactus to make a game, but it’s the sheer volume of content that blew me away.  The intense ratio of playability (or at least entertainment) to time was stunning.  In fact, I could have sworn there were more games at the end than at the beginning, but then again it’s because of that kind of math that I’m a journalist.

The Global Game Jam showcased a lot of Boston Indie talent.  Some participated on the design side, while others like Darren Torpey and Tim Volpe came out to give a helping hand with programming and production. They worked on the flash game Punk is Dead, written in HTML5 platform Akihabara.  The team effort included art from Caroline and Jeff Himmelman, with music from Daniel Perry and Lawrence Lee, all of whom frequent Boston Indies meetings.

This year the space filled up enough that organizer Rik Eberhardt was forced to turn people away lest the Gambit Game Lab become too clogged with developers to actually produce any games.

And what games they were.  Last year saw eight titles, this year 14 with a 15th team participating off-site. The theme of the jam was “extinction” which, as you might expect, meant scoops of death, death, and more death on the banana split of global apocalypse. A few choose to examine extinction in its psychological definition as the unlearning of a conditioned response; they were outnumbered by meteors, zombies, and the grim reaper.

TwitApocalypse Team

That last one featured prominently in a social game (and I use the term loosely) called Twitapocalypse.  You play as the grim reaper, late for his own apocalypse, who must kill the people on his list in the right order, for some reason. This list comes from the player’s Twitter account, but the catch is that their names aren’t displayed; only their last tweet and profile picture are visible. As you slaughter them, the game asks “How well do you really know who you’re following?”

Ryan Kahn, Darius Kazemi and Imran Malek were the programmers,  Shervin Ghaemmaghami voiced the grim reaper himself and handled design. Vytenis Krukonis and K. Adam White were the artists, Akash Thakkar joined the team on day two to add in sound and music. A silly game about a silly service, it is still one of the few social games I can think of that uses a social service to create interesting gameplay rather than use the social aspect merely as a recruitment tool.

Conway's Inferno

Another favorite, which might win the award for most complete, was Conway’s Inferno.  Created by Feras Iskanderani, Alec Thomson and Arshan Gailus, the game is based on Conway’s game of life, though slanted (given the theme) more towards a game of death, with the objective being to eliminate all of the yellow faces populating each level. Arshan Gailus described its thus: “very simple rules ends up being incredibly complex results, so we made more complex rules with more simple, and hopefully more fun, result.”  It’s still a relatively simple game, which left them with enough time to create a plethora of levels for players to massacre the population with fire, ufos or zombies. The simple puzzler that got picked up by a lot of sites, including Indiegames, and it’s playable now on Newgrounds.

A nice little bonus feature of Conway’s Inferno’s sound design is that the game has procedurally generated music that looks at the state of the game board and changes according to what it sees. As the tiny creatures are consumed in fire, expect a slightly darker melody to play, if you can hear it over their dramatic death screams.

I was impressed at how legitimately fun the games were, even the ones that were still rough around the edges. All of the games are up on the Global Game Jam website, and each one is totally worth a go, from the honeybee flight sim by Amanda Cosmos’ team to the reverse space invaders concept by Kirk Israel’s team to the game where you run over cars and are killed by pedestrians.  Enjoy playing, and if you are a local Boston developer, be sure to sign up in advance for a spot next year when Global Game Jam takes place January 27-29, 2012.  If you can’t wait until then, try an upcoming Boston Game Jam.

A few of the other GGJ games that feature the work of Boston Indies include Candescent, Gravity-Got Blues, Lazris the Bunny, Running is Optional and Ice Breaker


 

Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and columnist.  His column, Design Diversions, runs on GameSetWatch and Gamasutra.  His blog, MammonMachine.blogspot.com has occasionally been updated.