“Wow I have never met a game designer, how did you get into that?”
“Well I was looking for a new creative career and I play a lot of games and always tinkered with them and thought hey this is something that I will be happy I did, even if I don’t make any money.”
All of which is true, but to really explain why I now spend the majority of my waking life thinking, making, discussion and designing games I need to go farther back. When I was young my father taught me and my brother to play chess. I can’t remember exactly how young but I am sure that by age 5 or 6 I was moving my pawns, sliding the bishops and hopping about with my knights. My dad would play us without his queen, he would offer us a hundred dollars if we won, and all the while he taught us the basic openings, how to control the center, the value of the pieces. Later he taught us exposed checks, forks, trades for positions and everything he knew.
One of my most profound experiences with chess happened when I was traveling in Nicaragua and met another traveler named Tim. He had a chess board and we played a game. I clobbered him. I was one or two steps ahead the whole time. After we played he wanted to play again, and moreover he wanted to learn. He asked me to teach him and explain my moves and help him see his options. He was very attentive and very into learning. After 5 or 6 games we played and it was a close game. I learned as much as I taught in those games and through teaching reconnected and realized a lot about the inner workings of chess that I knew intuitively but hadn’t really consciously processed.
Chess more than any other game instilled in me the love of the logical interconnected nature of games. The precise mathematical alignment of games. I continue to learn more about chess and revel in its complexity, beauty and challenge.
My next great love affair with a game came about through my mother and father’s cribbage rivalry. During elementary school my parents would play a game of cribbage every day and keep a running tally of wins and losses. Cribbage was fun in a way that chess wasn’t. Cribbage had random chance and guessing. It had a fun track and was quick and light. It to me epitomizes a near perfect balance of luck and skill. I have played cribbage for over 25 years and played probably 1000 games at least and it still confronts me with new hands and situations, forcing me to choose which cards to put in the crib and which to keep.
Cribbage is an excellent game for many reasons but the aspect of the design I love the most is the dual nature that your hand has. Not only do you count the points present in your hand, you also use it to peg which brings it to life and makes the game full of interaction, second guessing and bluffing. I think games that have multiple uses for game components offer a more complete experience and really make you involved in the game.
When I was 13, after a half year of him talking about it my brother bought us each a starter deck of Magic the Gathering 3rd edition. This changed my life. If cribbage and chess had laid the foundation for a love of games, Magic took that and transported it beyond my wildest expectations. Magic is a great game, it is fun, diverse, full of art, it is logical, complex, fun and exciting. It is also not the best game ever. It is not chess or cribbage. Many times playing magic it is one sided and not a really fun game. Other times it is a universe unto itself with heroic comebacks, vicious losses and near legendary plays. The greatness of Magic is more in the fact that it taught me what a game is. Magic is always evolving, it continually has new rules and cards added to it, it occasionally has cards removed and rules changed. It is a live game. Chess and cribbage are thousands and hundreds of years old, respectively, and so approaching them you don’t see the rough edges (many have been worn down by the centuries), you take them as they are. Through playing magic and reading about its design I began to realize the possibility of creating games.
That’s all for now. In the second in this series I will talk about Catan, Improv theater and what it means to play.