Moves in Mind: The Psychology of Board Games

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Matt Householder, Blizzard North

Another key member of the Diablo II group is Matt Householder, who also shares some comments in Chapter 4. He adds to Roper's discussion on the importance of a design documents and storyboarding of these mega-popular RPGs:

The purpose of a design document is to present the look and feel of the game to the production team (and publisher's management) in an efficient and maintainable way. Begin with a one- or two-page overview, briefly describing the player's viewpoint, gameplay, and controls.

Explain why it will be fun to play. Be sure to cover all the basic issues in brief—single-player, multiplayer, console versus PC, player characters, opponent/enemy characters, animation style, background settings, sound/music, story, etc., and then elaborate on them in later sections devoted to one major topic at a time. Drawings—sketches, character designs, screen mockups—are very helpful to visualize the game. For a large game, the document could grow to hundreds of pages!

A design document is a lot like a recipe for the building of a game, but the best cooks often experiment and modify recipes as they go. Likewise, Blizzard North uses a design document more as a general guideline rather than a "bible" and encourages creative expression by all the production team members—even exploring major design changes during the development process.

And on storyboarding:

It's essential for cinematic production, but not strictly necessary for the production of game code and artwork. One place storyboarding can help a great deal in game production, however, is in flowcharting the user interactions of making choices to start up a game, navigating through game menu screens, and the like.

Both Householder and Roper discuss the art and science that is RPG game design in Chapter 4.

Chris Taylor, Gas Powered Games

The creator of such beloved games as Total Annihilation (when at Cavedog Entertainment) and Dungeon Siege has provided this book with a design document template (see Chapter 6) that you can use as a basis for your own custom document, plugging in the necessary game details to suit your project.

Here, Taylor explains that creating a design document can be approached in many different ways:

Design documents can vary from highly theoretical to very technical and detailed. Over the years I've settled on a system in which I create an overview document and then a series of appendices that add the details. From this I then produce specification documents that break down everything for the person who will implement the specifics. It's great to have a template to work from because then you can just go through and fill in each section. You begin with the high concept, then the feature set. Then you must answer the 10 most jaded and difficult questions that you think someone might ask you about your design. If you can't answer them right from the beginning, you may need to go back and think about why you want to make a game like that in the first place.

Taylor says the importance of storyboarding depends on the type of game:

When there are a huge number of art assets involved, you absolutely must do concept sketches, storyboards, and anything else you can to reduce risk and any chance of doing stuff over and over again. Poor planning will frustrate people and de-motivate them, so storyboarding is a great way to communicate the overall plan, look and feel, style, and scope of the game.

Warren Spector, Ion Storm Austin

In Chapter 4, Warren Spector—best known for games such as the Ultima Underworld series, System Shock and Deus Ex—chats at great length about creating award-winning role-playing games. His suggestions can also be found in Chapters 12, 17, and 21.

Here he discusses the importance of a design doc:

A design doc is absolutely vital to me. I know some other hugely successful developers (who will remain nameless) who insist they never bother trying to document their games. I can't imagine that!

For me, a design doc is many things: It's a roadmap—an abstract, iconic version of your proposed game. If you keep it updated during pre-production and even during production, it's a snapshot, a picture of where your project stands today, right now. If done "right," it includes materials, assets, and information that marketing can use to generate early press coverage of your game (without bugging the development team too much!). Toward the end of the project, a design doc that has been updated appropriately can be a vital tool for manual and cluebook writers, as well as for QA teams looking to generate playthrough and feature checklists. Most important, though, a design doc is a vital communications tool, both internally (ensuring that everyone on the dev team is on the same page) and externally (for publisher, marketing, and even press). I just wouldn't know how to make or manage a game without one.

So, how does Spector—or any game designer, for that matter—write a design document?

Unfortunately, no two projects are the same, no two teams are the same, no two genres have the same requirements, and therefore, no two design docs are going to be the same. You just have to find the elements necessary to describe your game to your team and to your publisher. Figure out what you need to provide to ensure that your team has enough information to implement the vision of a game. Allow each person on the team to contribute to the extent of their capabilities and/or interests, but give one person "ownership" of the doc. (In other words, one person should say yes or no to any idea before it's incorporated into the final doc.) Plan on revising throughout development, to ensure that the doc reflects the changing reality of your game's development. Recognize that a time will come when reality overtakes your doc and continued updating may (MAY) be unnecessary. And then read the book I obviously have to write on this subject! I'm completely overwhelmed by how much there is to say so I better stop. Sorry...

Spector admits that storyboarding has never been a big part of his development process:

It's vital, obviously, when planning cinematics, but that's about it. You always want concept art for characters and locations/maps/levels before you spend a lot of money modeling and creating them, but that isn't really storyboarding per se. I remember reading a fine little book called Behind the Scenes at Sega, about the making of a platform game, that said every aspect of the game should be storyboarded. That idea just isn't applicable to the kinds of games my studio produces (and illustrates the fact that development processes have to be appropriate to the game you're making—there's no single Right Way to make a game...). Storyboarding is probably vital to games where you know exactly what path players will take every step of their journey and where you pre-plan every puzzle and its one solution.

Storyboards were certainly an important part of the Wing Commander games, with their emphasis on cinematics, and I bet the Lucas Arts adventure games use them heavily. But if you're making something more open-ended than that, storyboards just don't seem all that useful. We're not (or shouldn't be) making movies here...

American McGee, Carbon6 Entertainment

American McGee, creative director at Carbon6 Entertainment, has worked on such renowned PC titles as Doom, Doom III, Quake, Quake II, and most recently, American McGee's Alice for Electronic Arts.

For this chapter on storyboarding, McGee gives us his vision for the cinematic intro to Alice. Read on, and enjoy. If you've ever played the game (and you should!), you'll get a lot more out of this having experienced the breathtaking intro sequence.


American McGee's Alice intro, written by American McGee

Alice Story



Snow flurries dot the night sky. Storm has passed.

Camera glides through leaded glass French doors into the library of a comfortable Victorian manor.

[Full] moon's glow, intensified by snow, lights the room. Shelves overflow with books and papers.

Camera moves toward a large fireplace.

A napping cat stands, arches his back, and uses the leg of a nearby desk to sharpen his claws.

Retreating, he catches a claw on a damask cloth, which is decoratively draped over part of the desk.

An oil lamp sits on the cloth.

Trying to get free, cat pulls the cloth. The lamp is drawn to and over the edge. Smashes on floor.

Oil covers the cat and flows towards the glowing embers in the fireplace.

Flame explodes out of the cinders and engulfs the cat and paper-filled desk.

Fire spreads through the library at an alarming pace.

Smoke slithers the door and up the stairs—along the hallway and slips under Alice's door.

Camera moves to sleeping Alice.

A tendril of smoke wisps up her nostril.

Camera follows.


Alice and a small assortment of Wonderland characters—Mad Hatter, Gryphon, March Hare, Dormouse, White Rabbit—having tea around a huge table. Mood is light and playful.

Mad Hatter, pouring tea for Alice, drops the pot, which shatters with the sounds of breaking glass. Suddenly, the ground around the table splits open and fire comes through the fissures.

Smoke billows around everyone. The shadow of the Jabberwock passes overhead. Screams.

Fade back to Alice's moonlit, smoke-filled room.


Alice awakens from her interrupted dream.

The [muffled] screams are coming from inside the house.

Alice leaps out of bed, clutching her beloved white rabbit, and runs to the door.

Hallway is filled with smoke and licks of fire.

She bolts towards her parents' room, and trying the doorknob burns her hand severely.

She pushes the door in a little—flames come billowing out.

Alice, driven back by heat, distraught, screaming in agony and frustration, retreats.

Camera follows as she runs wildly down hall.


Camera watches as Alice exits house through the front door and stumbles down the steps.

Screaming, coughing, covered with soot, she collapses on the front yard in a large snow drift.

House is completely engulfed in flames; a section of roof/wall dramatically collapses.

She curls up in fetal position, eyes locked on the burning house.

Camera flies into the fire burning in Alice's right eye.

Alice faints.




Rain is falling outside.

Camera slowly pulls away from Alice's vacant eye. She's curled on a bed in a private room.

Sterile, impersonal except for framed facing photos of her mum and dad on bedside table. Shares space with a bowl of food and a large spoon. A chair is the only other piece of furniture.

No longer the pretty little girl of earlier sequences, Alice is a drawn young woman; has not seen the sun in ages.

She clutches a dirty and threadbare stuffed rabbit, whose only eye stares off into space.

We see numerous scars on Alice's wrists. Some fresh. One wrist is bandaged.

The night, visible through a barred window, is boiling with bad weather.

A nurse in foreground turns and walks slowly to the door shaking her head, speaking to herself.


Glad I saved that moth-eaten relic [the rabbit] from the dustbin.

(Turns and says, in full voice)

Please try to eat something, dear. Good night, Alice.

(The nurse will resemble the Duchess in game.)

Nurse locks the door behind her as the darkened sky outside unleashes a burst of lightning.

Alice flinches and grasps the rabbit tight.

Camera pulls in again on Alice.

Every time there is a lightning flash, she flinches slightly; exhibits no other signs of activity.

Another flash offers the opportunity to cut to a close-up of her head and torso, where the rabbit in her hand slowly turns its head to look at Alice.

It whispers in a raspy voice, sounding like the worn-out toy it is.


Alice, pull yourself together, girl. You must help us!

Another flash pulls the camera back out; Alice slowly turns her head to look downward at the rabbit.

Another flash and the rabbit is gone from her hand, but something else is in the room with Alice.

Camera pans as if to look out of Alice's eye and finds a large white rabbit dressed in undertakers' garb standing before her.


You must help us, Alice. You really must. Follow me, we haven't much time.

Walking toward to the door, the rabbit pulls a key from its waistcoat and unlocks the door. Pushing it open, the rabbit steps through into darkness and begins to run away, again exclaiming:


Hurry, Alice; we're very late already!

Alice slowly rises from the bed; she takes the spoon (this will become her knife) and shambles slowly to the door. Grasping the frame, she propels herself through the door and into the darkness beyond.


Alice is falling.

Alice cries out as she falls. She is once again tossed down the rabbit hole and through the entrance to Wonderland. But this feels different.

She falls for quite some time, with the images of her parents, her childhood lifestyle, and her years at the asylum blending together. Images twist and warp and several of the twisted Wonderland creatures are briefly introduced here.

The shadow of the Jabberwock flies across Alice. The Mad Hatter rides a Victorian bicycle across her path, only his coattails and top hat visible. Furniture twists and changes, the walls are pure darkness.

       (End Intro)

This feature is taken from chapter five of Marc Saltzman's Game Design: Secrets of the Sages, Third Edition.

The book is available inside Macmillan Software's Game Programming Starter Kit 5.0.

Copyright © 2003 CMP Media Inc. All rights reserved.

The Designer's Notebook

A Symmetry Lesson

By Ernest Adams


October 16, 1998
Vol. 2: Issue 41

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Previous Columns

The VR Gorilla-Rhino Test

In Memoriam: Danielle Berry


Cartographic Cartwheels


The more observant among you may have noticed that my column didn't come out last month. I was on vacation in Oxford, England, where I was studying the art, architecture, history, and sociology of the English country house. You might wonder why a computer game developer would want to be able to tell the difference between Baroque and Rococo decoration, or why a liberal would want to study the extravagant mansions of a group of people who lived lives of ostentatious dissipation while the downtrodden working classes slaved away in the hot… where was I? Well, anyway, the short answer is that if game developers don't learn something new every once in a while, the whole damn industry is going to end up behind the eight ball again, that's why.

One of the things that the Renaissance brought to English architecture was the classical idea of symmetry, that buildings looked better when the left side was a mirror image of the right side. This was hardly a new idea, but until the Renaissance, people hadn't made much of an effort to apply it to houses. Symmetry applies to all kinds of things besides architecture of course; it applies to art and book design and even music, and it also applies to computer games.

This is a column about symmetry in game design.

I've written before about how the essence of game design is balance. In the case of a multiplayer game, balance means the fundamental condition of fairness, the requirement that all the players have an equal chance of winning at the beginning of the game. In the case of solitaire games (like most computer games), balance means that the game must be neither too easy nor too hard.

The issue is less one of fairness than it is of providing a reasonable challenge and a reasonable chance of winning. One of the best ways of guaranteeing that a multiplayer game is balanced at the beginning is by making it symmetric, that is, by making sure that all the players play by the same rules, and start with the same resources. If you're trying to balance both sides of a beam scale, the easiest way to do it is to put identical objects in either pan, i.e. to pile them up symmetrically.

Chess, checkers, Monopoly, and most other simple games are symmetric: they start with identical resources on all sides. Even in a perfectly symmetric game like chess, there's still one unavoidable element of asymmetry, and that's the fact that someone has to go first. In many games, like tic-tac-toe, going first provides an advantage. There are several ways of reducing the effect of one player going first. One way is to set the game up in such a way that the initial move provides very little strategic advantage.

In chess, for example, the rules of the game are such that you can only move a pawn or a knight on the first turn. These are the two weakest pieces in the game, not counting the king. Thus, the advantage conferred is not significant. In addition, the pieces are four rows apart at the beginning, so no single piece can take or even significantly threaten an enemy piece on the first move. Another way to reduce the effect of going first is to make the game a fairly long one, so that going first makes very little difference over the course of the whole game.
Tic-tac-toe is a very short game, so going first is extremely valuable and whoever goes second is usually on the defensive for the whole game. With a longer game like checkers or chess, it doesn't matter so much.

Finally, a game can incorporate randomness to reduce the effect of going first. Monopoly and backgammon are games in which the players throw dice to move, and since the player going first could very well have a bad throw and the one going second could have a good throw, the moves are much more affected by the die roll than by anything else.

In computer games the issue of who goes first is usually moot, since real-time games far outnumber turn-based games. And the few turn-based games that do exist, like X-Com, usually take much too long for it to make any difference in the end. However, I include it here because I think a computer game designer should also be a competent paper game designer, and for paper games it's an important question.

A variant of the simple symmetry found in chess, checkers, Stratego and the like is the "rotational" symmetry found in Rochambeau (rock-paper-scissors). In Rochambeau, two people choose one of three items at random: rock, paper, or scissors. The winner is determined by the following formula: scissors cuts paper and defeats it; paper wraps rock and defeats it; rock breaks scissors and defeats it. If both choose the same thing they play again.

This mechanism was also found in the old Brøderbund game, The Ancient Art of War. In that game, knights had an advantage over barbarians, barbarians had an advantage over archers, and archers had an advantage over knights. An additional element of this kind of game is hidden information: the fact that one player does not know which of the three options the other player will choose to use. As a result, there's more psychology involved than in a simple game of complete information like chess or checkers.

Asymmetry Caveats

As I said, symmetry is the simplest way of making a game fair, but it tends to emphasize the artificial nature of the contest. Games are often more interesting, and feel more "real," when they contain asymmetries. A very ancient asymmetric game is a board game called Fox and Geese. In Fox and Geese, one player controls one piece (the fox) and the other controls 17 pieces (the geese). The fox can move in any direction and can jump the geese as in checkers, removing them from the board. The geese can only move towards the fox and cannot jump it. The geese win if they pin the fox in so it cannot move. The fox wins if it jumps so many geese that not enough are left to pin it.

Wargames, which often purport to be simulations of historical events, are often asymmetric because the manpower, equipment, and field positions of the opposing forces were asymmetric in the first place. As a result, balancing a wargame so that each player has a similar chance of winning is a considerable challenge. Often this is done by giving different victory conditions for each side (which we also saw in Fox and Geese). In the case of a massive army besieging a small garrison force, the victory condition for the garrison is not the defeat of the massive army, which is clearly impossible, but to hold out for a given length of time or number of turns. If the army overruns the garrison in the time allowed, it wins; if not, it loses.

One of the most popular asymmetric computer games right now is Starcraft. Starcraft is a game that requires constructing a series of buildings as you build an army; this is also found in Command & Conquer and Dungeon Keeper. In Starcraft, armies belong to one of three races: Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg. The functions of the buildings are relatively similar between the races, but the weaponry of the units (particularly the high-level ones), their production costs, their production mechanisms, and their durability are all quite different.

In general Protoss units are very tough but also very expensive, while Zerg units are cheaper and weaker, and Terran units are somewhere in between. Zerg units heal themselves over time; Terran units can be quickly repaired, but only by a special repair unit; Protoss units cannot be healed or repaired, but can use rechargeable shields to defend themselves. This asymmetry has, of course, given rise to a great deal of debate about which race it is better to play with. If you read the addendum to the manual, it's clear that some last minute tuning took place to improve the odds for some of the races, because a few features to which the manual refers are not in the game

In computer games it's easier to balance asymmetric elements because the die rolling is kept out of sight, and you can fudge the probabilities without the player(s) knowing about it. I don't know that this was done in Starcraft, but it seems likely.

There's another kind of symmetry, or at least balance, to consider, and that's the balance among the types of tactics required by a single player to win the game. Games often contain design flaws that allow players to exploit loopholes in the rules to win the game by repeated use of a single tactic.

This is particularly true of on-line multiplayer simulations with an economic element. The designer wants, and expects, the players to use a variety of tactics, but because of a design flaw, one tactic works so much better than the others that the players abandon all but it, making the game rather dull. In general you want to force players to adopt a variety of tactics to make the game more interesting. The simulation of a professional football game that I work on naturally duplicates the rules of real football. Football used to be a fairly symmetric game, especially when players played both offense and defense.

With the advent of specialized offensive and defensive tactics, the game has become quite asymmetric, at least during any one series of downs. (Of course, it's not asymmetric in the sense that the two teams play by different rules or have different victory conditions.) As a result, the rules are constantly being revised to try to keep the game balanced between offense and defense. Similarly, there's the balance between running with the ball and passing it. In American professional football, passing is slightly more important than running, but teams really must be able to do both well to succeed. Canadian football rules aim for a different balance, significantly emphasizing the passing game and the offense generally overall.

Going back to the English country house for a minute, another interesting development was the invention of "landscape gardening." Instead of laying out a formal (and often highly symmetric) flower garden, gardeners like Lancelot "Capability" Brown designed an entire landscape of lawns, sculptures, waterfalls, copses of trees, and little buildings - usually imitations of Roman shrines. One of the principles of his designs was surprise. Following a path would lead to an unexpected vista or a statue that was hidden from the main house. The landscape garden encourages - and rewards - the visitor's inclination to explore.

This is another worthwhile principle to consider in game design. The obvious parallel is to adventure games, where exploration is the point, but it can apply to other kinds of games as well. A game need not be exactly the same from beginning to end. An unexpected surprise or an unusual twist that emerges partway through can please, encourage, and reward the player. In a way, they represent an asymmetry in time: the game's beginning is not symmetrical with its end. This is a double-edged sword, however. It's best not to change your style of game too dramatically.

For example, Heart of China started as a more-or-less conventional adventure game, but at one point jumped to a rather crudely implemented 3D tank simulation. If you didn't succeed at that, you couldn't go on. It was frustrating; if I had wanted a tank simulator, I would have bought a tank simulator. Above all the surprise, whatever it is, should fit smoothly and naturally into the game, to seem as if it belongs there. Symmetry in game design is simple, easy, and intuitive, but it often leads to an artificiality, a "game-like" feel that nowadays we're usually trying to avoid. Asymmetry is a very powerful tool for generating interest and realism, but it complicates the design and tuning of a game substantially. Use it with care.

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Ernest Adams is an audio/video producer for Electronic Arts, currently working on the Madden NFL Football product line. Once upon a time, he was a software engineer. He has developed on-line games, computer games, and console games for everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to the Nintendo Ultra 64. He was a founder of the Computer Game Developers' Association, and is a frequent lecturer at the Game Developers' Conference and anyplace else that people will listen to him. Ernest would be happy to receive E-mail about his columns at The views in this column are not necessarily those of Electronic Arts.
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