Monthly Archives: February 2013

#3 Writing Session at the Unperfekthaus

24. Feb. 2013

Hello everyone,

as some of you may know, I’ve re-started working on my novel in June 2011. Every weekend, I’m meeting up with my best friend Frank for a few hours during which he is perfecting his poems, while I am adding a page or two to my book. Typically we meet up in the city of Düsseldorf, but every once in a while we like to mix it up a bit. I’ve already hinted at it in my last blog entry – yesterday the commitment to our respective projects led us to the city of Essen. Specifically, we stayed at the Unperfekthaus for five hours.

It is quite an intriguing place – the entry fee entails as many non-alcoholic drinks as you would like, so in comparison to regular coffee places it is not expensive. They have this policy that as long as you are not barring any spectators, you may reserve a room free of charge for activities that are “interesting, creative and legal”. Since it was just Frank, myself and one of my writing buddies from NaNoWriMo, we didn’t need to reserve a room, but just found an empty table.

Here are some pictures that I took with my phone camera. The sign mentions that you don’t need to ask for permission, but that you should play on the guitar, if you feel like it.
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The second picture is presumably skull pillar art.
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I did manage to write another 400 words. It could have been more, but I was tired and decided to instead refill the well by reading a few chapters of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. It’s an excellent and captivating fantasy story, set in a beautifully crafted, internally consistent, world. If you’re into fantays and haven’t read it yet, I can only highly recommend it.

As for my own story, the section I expanded dealt with one of the antagonists, who had to fight some vampires (not sparkling vampires, mind you. I still couldn’t help it, but have some blood suckers in my novel…) to further his agenda. It’s one of these things that’s going to annoy some readers – that particular antagonist is always doing interesting things, essentially stealing the lime light from the protagonist. Ah well, no use worrying about that now. Besides, I’m just having too much fun writing his chapters.

See you all later,

Kai

#2 The traits of great board games

20. Feb. 2013

Hello everyone,

in order to design good games, it is important to know the qualities good or even great games possess. I’ve looked at different ones and came up with a list of common traits. Although I have examined and voiced this before, I have not yet written it down. Certainly there are great games that do not have some of these traits and having them will not guarantee that your game is going to be awesome. Still, I’m of the opinion that you’d rather want to include them. I’m going to use the game “Settlers of Catan” as an example.

If you haven’t heard of “Settlers of Catan” and have about half an hour of time to burn, go check out Wil Wheaton’s show tabletop.

I’m going to omit a few details, but basically, Settlers of Catan works like this: The map is randomly generated by placing hexagonal tiles that correspond to different resource types. Somewhat randomly as well, numbers from 2 to 12 are assigned to each tile. Every player starts with two settlements. The objective of the game is to aquire 10 victory points. You score victory points for building things. In order to build new structures, you need resources. When it is your turn, you roll two dice. All the tiles with the number that matches the sum of the dice yield resources for anyone, who has a settlement or city adjacent to it (settlements and cities are always built on corners, so they are adjacent to three hexagonal tiles). Then you can trade with other players, but they may only trade with you and not with each other. After trading, you get to build. If you haven’t won the game, it’s the next person’s turn.

Sounds simple, right? That’s the beauty of Settlers of Catan and of a lot of other great games: They are very easy to understand, allowing a broad section of people to play. Also, reading the rules doesn’t take that long. If there are few and simple rules, the danger of forgetting an important rule, thus invalidating the playing experience, is less pronounced.

In Settlers of Cataan, even if you are walled in by other players’ roads and do not have spots to migrate to, it is still theoretically possible to win, most of the time. Also, even if your chances of winning might be slim, at least you are not out of the action. A lot of the great games have abolished player elimination these days. At the very least, recent games with player elimination like Nexus Ops are designed in such a way that shortly after a player is forced to leave the game, the match ends. Making sure that everyone is sitting at the table, playing the game is very important. It’s just no fun to be kicked out of a game early, just to have everyone else continue for an hour or two.

The resource collection system and barter phase of Catan are a stroke of genius, in my opinion: It’s annoying when you are engaged in a game, but then have to sit around for minutes until it is your turn to play again. In Catan, everyone can receive resources during other people’s turns. Also, you can offer a deal to the player, who rolled the dice. These two mechanics help to reduce the downtime between turns. However, even if you don’t get any new resources and don’t have the necessary stockpile of resources to propose an offer in the barter phase, the individual turns are so short that it’s not as problematic as in other games.

The dreaded “multiplayer solitaire” (I actually don’t know, who coined that phrase. Please let me know if you do, so that I can provide a link) is something to be avoided. Settler’s trading phase nicely fulfils the role of providing player interaction. There is other interaction due to certain cards that you can build or simply by competing for the same spots to settle on.

As a last point, I have identified “meaningful decisions”. In some games it is fairly obvious what the optimal move is going to be. The game effectively takes over, making the input from the player unnecessary. Settlers provides the players with the opportunity to follow different routes. That kind of decision making is a key point of the best games.

The replayability due to the randomization, as well as the short playing time of 75-90 minutes are further strengths of Settlers, but aren’t vital.

So, to summarize, these are some of the traits of great board games:

  • Simple rules
  • Minimum downtime
  • Meaningful decisions
  • Player interaction
  • No player elimination

The next blog post will probably be about creative writing, as I will be working on my novel at the Unperfekthaus on the weekend.

All the best,

Kai

First!

19th of February 2013

Welcome to my blog!

Thank you so much for stopping by and reading this. At the moment, it’s all a bit empty around here. However, the plan is to update at least once a week, so before long this place will be filled with lots of stuff to read. What kind of things will I write about? Well, let me quickly introduce myself and then answer that question.

It is the year 2013 (wow, that sounds futuristic) – I am a thirty six year old scientist, emerging writer and game designer. Let me elaborate: I completed a Diplom in electrical engineering at the RWTH Aachen and earned my PhD in electrical engineering at Imperial College London. Currently I am working as a researcher for the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, whose claim to fame, among other things, is MP3. In my spare time, I’ve always written stories, having taken part in two open calls hosted by Wizards of the Coast. I have won my game design spurs with the PC game “XPLOSIVE“, which is a dynablasters clone developed by Mark A. Hillebrand, Christian Heuser and myself in 1995.

Considering my hobbies, I will mostly write about the art of writing, game design and my life. Specifically I will comment on my work in progress, a fantasy novel titled “Age of Torridan”. Other than that, I am designing games every now and then. Since you cannot be creative in a vacuum, I also tend to play a lot of games. In one of the next blog posts we’ll take a look at what makes games work and then how other people have implemented this. Eventually I’ll show some of my own designs, once I have new material.

Until the next time,

Kai Herbertz

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