Grammar of Game Design

Posted on June 27, 2016 By

By Tjo3ya - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

While noodling around on some more ideas for Spider Siege, I found myself pondering the game’s verbs and nouns. This let to further noodling, which I’m doing right now, and sharing with you.

Verbs are the actions that players take when playing a game:

  • Play a card.
  • Score a point.
  • Move a unit.
  • Deal 10 points of Jello damage to your opponent.

Nouns are typically the objects of those player actions. These are game elements that are in play on the table, such as:

  • units,
  • cards,
  • abstract pools of resources, or
  • the players themselves.

(Okay, I’m not sure if the players themselves count as nouns. It probably depends on the game. But I’m just trying to be thorough.)

Of course, seizing any opportunity to wield my English degree, I must now extend the metaphor to include some more parts of speech.

Adjectives are how you differentiate different types of nouns:

  • Melee, Ranged, or Magical Units
  • Land, Creature, or Artifact Cards
  • Small, Medium, or Large Bowls of Jello

Which I guess means adverbs are how you differentiate different types of verbs:

  • Move a unit aggressively (attack) or defensively (retreat)
  • Deal fire, water, or Jello damage
  • Score a red, green, or yellow point.

Hmmm. Not sure this “adverb” thing works so well. Each modified verb could be its own verb. “Attack” and “defend” certainly seem like their own verbs.

Meh. Whatever. This whole “grammar” thing is just a metaphor to help identify the different parts of a game system, and should only be used insofar as it helps you make a better game anyway.

While I was originally thinking about this in terms of tabletop games, it works really well for video games too. In that case, I’d say that nouns are things that appear on screen (player avatars, levels, enemies, etc.), and verbs are the player’s inputs (walk, run, jump, shoot, talk, etc.). Such things are truly valuable in video game design because when programming them, you need to have a list of everything that must be included. If I don’t put “jump” on the verb list in my design doc, the programmer won’t programming jumping.

I didn’t invent the grammar metaphor, and don’t know who did. Probably a Magic designer. But I hope that my noodling around with the idea can help your own game design efforts.



Game Design     , ,

The Cost of Killing Spiders – Part 2

Posted on June 24, 2016 By


“So we’re spending these ‘points’ of resources on units,” says my hypothetical reader, picking up the conversation from where it dropped earlier this week. “What does that get us? How many points is each type of unit worth?”

It’s at this point I admit that early prototyping is as much art as science. Ideally, there’s a formula for such things waiting to be formulated, playtested, and perfected. Truly I hope that there is; formulas make my life easier. But for now, all we have a baseline and a rough guide.

The baseline I’m working from is the weakest unit, the Milita. I want it to cost 1 Population. Thematically, you’re recruiting Joe Farmer, handing him a sharp stick, and pointing him at the invading spider army. He’s not very effective, but he costs you nothing in terms of training or equipment.

1 Population is worth 1 “point,” so this is what we’re looking at for our base:

Militia: +0 Attack, 3 Defense, 1 Life, no special abilities / Cost: 1 pt.

The next “level” of unit is what I’m generically calling the Soldier. His stats are a bit better, reflecting some training and oh, I don’t know, a sword or spear or something. So I’m thinking he should cost a Population and a Metal, which puts him at 3 points.

Soldier: +0 Attack, 4 Defense, 1 Life, simple special ability like “On a 6, deal +1 damage” / Cost: 3 pts.

(Game Design Note: I expect this to be the bread-and-butter unit of most armies. As such, I kept the Attack at +0 because adding even a small modifier can be cumbersome when you’re rolling multiple dice.)

At the top tier are the Specialists. These probably vary from one player faction to another, and players probably have different types of Specialists to choose from within their own ranks, but I reckon they’re all better than Soldiers. Most require Milk to pay for them, but some might just need a lot of Metal or Population. If they cost 1 Population, 1 Metal, and 1 Milk, they’re worth 6 points. Some surely cost more, but this seems a good place to start.

Specialist: +1 Attack, 4 Defense, 2 Life, some sweet special ability / Cost: 6 pts

That seems really expensive, especially compared to the Militia. But then I remember that the original concept of the game included trading, and I’m okay with it. Your heroic Spider Slayer costs 5 Metal but you only have 1 Metal? Trade some of that Milk you’ve been hoarding to the player next to you; she’d love to give you some of her Metal in exchange.

So now we’ve got a board, a combat system with basic units, and a basic economy. Looks like we’re ready to build a prototype and — oh. Oh, right.

I still need to figure out how the game works for the spider player.

Oh, we could just have the spiders use the same resource system as the humans, but that feels wrong. Thematically, the spiders might have an interest in resource, but those resources don’t drive their war-making efforts. Besides, in an asymmetrical game, the two sides should play asymmetrically.

I’ve got a couple ideas for this. I’ll let them germinate over the weekend and see what sprouts next week.

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The Cost of Killing Spiders

Posted on June 20, 2016 By


In today’s episode of “Turning Spider Siege into a Real Game,” we’ll be looking at the intersection of board resources, unit value, and econom — wait! Where are you going? I promise, it’s not nearly as dull or confusing as I’m making it sound.

Okay, let’s try this again.

This is a war game, right? With different types of units, some of which are better than others. Better units should “cost more,” but since we don’t have a universal currency in the game, it’s going to take a little brain-work to figure out how that’s going to function.

Let’s start by looking at how to “pay for stuff,” i.e., resources on the board.

Rare resources are more valuable than those that are more common. (That’s the “supply” part of the classic “supply and demand” gimmick.)

As we established earlier, our rarities look like this:

  • Food is the most common resource, since it’s produced by Fields, of which there are 15 on the board.
  • Population is #2, with 12 Villages on the board.
  • Metal is third most common, with 9 Mines.
  • Milk of the Earth is the rarest resources, bubbling up from just 6 Milk Caves.

I’m going to remove Food from the equation since it’s mainly spent on moving dudes, not making dudes.

So ignoring Food and going strictly on scarcity, our resource values look like this:

  • Population is worth 1 point.
  • Metal is worth 2 points.
  • Milk is worth 3 points.

“Um… points?” you may ask. “Why are you adding yet another resource, on top of the stuff on the board?

“Because we need to have a universal currency,” I answer. “This way, we can balance units and game effects on one scale across the whole game. And yeah, it might look like it’s just added complication right now, but this is the sausage-making part. The players won’t see this messy underside; they’ll just see a bunch of balanced units that cost varying amounts of Population, Metal, and Milk.”

“Ah,” you may say, still skeptical. “So different units cost different numbers of points?”


You may nod, letting it sink in.

“So what do these units look like?” you may ask. “What do we get for our points’ worth of resource?”

I glance at my watch and grimace. “We’re out of time today, but I’ll totally show you if you stick around for the next blog entry.”

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A Unit of Awesome

Posted on June 17, 2016 By


I’ve been spending some time this week pondering how to put the war into the Spider Siege war game. As I mentioned on Monday, it’s complex because combat and economy are (not unlike the real world) totally connected. Okay, yes, better units should cost more, but in order to do that, I need to know what “better” looks like, and how much cost is “more.”

Order of Battle

First things first! If we’re going to give units stats, we need to know how combat works, so we know what stats to use and how they affect things. Here’s the first draft of combat rules for Spider Siege:

At the end of a player’s turn, if that player has units in the same space as an opponent, the opposing units must battle.

Both players roll one die for each of their units in the fight. The players then take turns assigning their dice to their respective units.

When you assign a die to a unit, you activate that unit. An activated unit can’t be activated again.

When you activate a unit, it attacks an opposing unit of your choice. To attack…

  • Add the value of the die to your unit’s Attack score.
  • If this total meets or beats the opposing unit’s Defense score, the defender takes a wound.
  • If a unit takes a number of wounds equal to its Life score, it is destroyed. (If it has a die on it, that die is set aside.)

When all units that haven’t been destroyed are activated, the battle is over. Remove all wounds from any remaining units. To determine the winner of the battle, add up the remaining dice on both sides of the battle. The player with the highest total of dice is the winner. (Ties go to the attacker because aggressive play is more fun than realism.)

The losing side must retreat into an adjacent space that is empty or occupied only by friendly units. If there is nowhere to retreat to, all those units are destroyed.


Stats for the Stat God!

As you can see above, units have three stats: Attack, Defense, and Life. Your average “Dude with a stick” has zero Attack, 3 Defense, and 1 Life. Most units have only 1 Life, since tracking wounds on lots of guys is a hassle.

Some units also have special abilities that are triggered when they’re assigned certain die values. For example, if you assign a Priestess of Trax a die with the value of 6, she not only attacks with that 6, but also heals a wound off of a friendly unit.

(Game Design Note: Special abilities are triggered by high rolls, giving us that “Hoody-hoo!” moment of rolling a crit – you not only succeed, but you do something awesome too. But I’m considering switching it to low rolls, which gives us more interesting tactical decisions. If a unit’s special is triggered on a roll of a 1, you might assign it that terrible roll even though that means its attack misses, in order to use its ability. I’ll play it as written for now, but will keep this idea in mind.)


Now that we know how the combat system works and what the units’ stats are, we can figure out how much each of those units costs. That will take some math, some guesswork, and more time than I have right now. I’ll meet you back here next week and we’ll see how it turns out.


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Posted on June 13, 2016 By


After working up the game board for Spider Siege, I went back to the original design docs to see what I needed to do next. That’s when I remembered: oh, right, my war game didn’t actually have any way to resolve battles.

What I did have was a checklist of stuff I wanted to include in the combat system:

  • Dice
  • Different types of combat units
  • Single-round battle resolution

The first bullet point was easy enough to deal with: “Let’s use six-sided dice,” I announced to my cat, who was wondering why I was designing games and not putting food in his bowl.

“Let’s roll one die per combatant. Yes, it’s a cliche. Yes, it might mean too many dice, But it’s a good place to start.”

The cat nodded, then gestured towards his bowl.

The second item, though… Different types of units? That was — that is — a real rabbit hole of a design challenge.

You see, it’s all connected:

  • Different types of units have different stats.
  • What are those stats? How do they relate to the dice?
  • Units with better stats need to have higher costs.
  • What’s the basic economy? How much is a unit of “population” or “metal” worth?

All these things — dice mechanics, unit stats, resource economy — are interwoven in a way that makes it hard to focus on just one thing while ignoring the rest.

I’ll be diving down that rabbit hole this week. But first, I should feed this cat.

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Web of Pinsperation

Posted on June 10, 2016 By


(Get it? Pinterest + Inspiration = Pinsperation! I’m so clever I think I’ll go play in traffic.)

Earlier this week, I showed off Eric Lofgren‘s awesome-creepy spider designs for Empire of Venom & Silk. Eventually, I expect to have similar original designs for the various types of characters and landmark locations.

But for now, I’ll just refer you to the Pinterest board I’m using to collect cool, inspirational imagery. (Don’t worry, arachnophobes, it’s not all pictures of spiders.)

Speaking of arachnophobes… as I start transitioning EVS from A Fun Idea to An Actual Product, I wonder how much its spidery imagery will keep people from even looking at it. How about you, person-who-hates-spiders? Would your phobia keep you from checking out a Venom & Silk game or book? Let me know in all the usual places!

World Building     , , , , ,

Visions of Venom & Silk

Posted on June 7, 2016 By


One thing that truly defines a storyworld’s setting is its unique imagery. This is something I’ve been wrestling with in regards to Empire of Venom & Silk: as a low fantasy, bronze age setting, it inherently looks similar to many other such settings. It needs something unique, that looks like nothing else. And obviously, that something should be its giant freaking spiders.

The problem with giant spiders, however, is that every fantasy setting has them. For EVS, I needed a spider that looked truly unique.

Enter artist Eric Lofgren. I’ve worked with Eric on numerous projects over the years, and I really like his creature designs. So when I realized I’d need to commission some unique spider imagery, his was the first name that came to mind.


Eric’s first sketch gave me a couple options. I decided to go with the top design because it was more threatening than its counterpart with the spindlier legs.

For the next pass, I told him, “I love the ‘helmet’ look of the head. I’d love to see more details (spikes? horns? Carapace plates? something cool I’m not thinking of?) that identify the beast as not just A Spider, but as a specific spider from a specific setting”… and just turned him loose to go crazy.


I was pleased with the results. I really liked the “horned crown” look of the head, and asked him to duplicate that look on the spider’s abdomen. Since real spiders’ abdomens are smooth, I figured giving ours more texture would make it stand out as “not just another spider.”


Oh yeah, that’s the ticket!

The distinctive face, along with the thorny abdomen and plated legs, give this thing an aura of weirdness that suggests that it’s not exactly a spider, but a alien thing that just happens to look sort of like a spider.

I think I’ve found my spider.

If you like the look of Eric’s stuff, check out his website, his regularly-updated Facebook gallery, and his collection of art that’s available for licensing.

World Building     , , , , ,

Return of the Machete Strikes Back Wars

Posted on June 6, 2016 By


There was a very specific, geeky pride that welled up in my chest when my eldest daughter said, “I need to watch the Star Wars movies.”

Oh, she’s seen them before. Sometimes whole movies at a time. But mostly just out of the corner of her eye, while playing with LEGOS or doing some other wholesome (and not at all geeky) activity.

Now that she’s 14 and watched The Force Awakens, she figures it’s time to seriously watch the previous six episodes… Which is a great opportunity for me to test out the Machete Order.

For the uninitiated, the Machete Order was proposed back in 2011 by Rod Hilton. He suggested that by watching the Star Wars movies in the right order, you can create a better, more cohesive and dramatic experience. That order?

Episodes 4, 5, 2, 3, and 6.

No, there’s no Episode I on the list. As Hilton says, he doesn’t skip it because it’s bad, but because it’s irrelevant; nothing that happens in that movie actually matters in the later films. (Actually, he says a lot of very insightful things about the order, and if you haven’t read the post, you really should.)

Anyway, now that summer is here, I’ve decided this is the week we’ll tackle the Star Wars saga. Will I be creating another life-long fan? Or will she just roll her eyes at her old dad’s silly obsession and return to more important things, like top 10 lists on YouTube? Follow me on Twitter to find out!

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Behold the Board!

Posted on June 3, 2016 By

The image is bigger than it looks.

As I threatened earlier this week, I’ve actually put together a rough draft of the Spider Siege game board.

And I do mean rough draft. Even as I was laying this thing out, I saw where some resources might be better off somewhere else, and realized the board needed another river or body of water. I’ll probably run with this map at least once just to make sure the mechanics don’t burst into flame when touched by human hands, but after that I expect to be making lots of changes.

That’s the point of prototyping, by the way. It’s a lot easier to modify a thing than an idea. Staring at a blank slate and pondering all the factors is a great start, but the sooner you start filling that slate with playable stuff, the better.

Game DesignWorld Building     , , , , , ,

Creeping Ever Closer

Posted on June 1, 2016 By


Despite taking a short break to publish a small Pathfinder RPG sourcebook, I’ve been slowly hacking away Spider Siege, the Venom & Silk board game. Most recently, I’ve been nibbling around the edges of what the game board actually looks like. I mean, yes, it’s a map, but more importantly, it has to be good game board.

I don’t have anything to show just yet. Okay, there are pencil marks on a sheet of paper that, if you look at it with your eyes squinted almost shut, what you see through your tears might resemble a map. Or a circuit board. Or a child’s drawing of the sinking of the Titanic. But it’s definitely not ready to show.

What I can show you are my notes.

They’re mostly just lots of question marks and reminders to myself, but if you like to watch the sausage being made, there’s some serious meat-grinding going on here.

Board Basics
The board should lead to interesting decisions (equidistant resources), fun game play (choke points and the like), and games that are balanced without being dull. We definitely need rivers that block spiders but only slow down humans. Probably some mutually-impassable terrain too (mountains?). Actually, you could make an argument for spiders nimbly clamoring over mountains that would block humans, but such obvious symmetry makes me frown.

Resource Quantities
How many resource icons on the board? Should be a good amount of Population, since that drives the players’ ability to recruit troops, and even more Food, since you need it to move troops, which is a big part of actually playing the game. Milk should be rare, and Metal somewhere in between. Let’s try this:

* Food 15
* Population 12
* Metal 9
* Milk 6

Definitely not perfect, but a good place to start. Oh, don’t forget that some spaces have multiple resource. For example, I’d expect a number of Population spaces to also have Food or Metal. Milk’s always by itself, though.

Set Up
For maximum fairness and variation, the players–especially the spider player–should set up their starting forces as they see fit, according to some rules (“No you can’t put your HQ next to the enemy”) to keep it from getting too crazy. But that puts major game decisions right up front, before new players have had a chance to even see the game in action. Probably better to have a specific set up for at least the first few games. Maybe have multiple set-ups, and have them be scenarios? Cool idea, but maybe make sure the core game works first.

So, that’s what I’m working with. Hopefully it will have turned into something a little more visual for next time, but I’m not making any promises. This summer’s turned out to be pretty hectic, and we’re only in the first week.

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