Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Design Thinking Exercise and the Stories of Redirected Edges

I've written occasionally about how I use an adaptation of George Kembel's design thinking framework in my teaching and research. Back in April 2016, I gave an overview of how I use it in CS222; today, I will give a few more details, since I saw something new happen this semester that I haven't seen before.
A Design Thinking Framework
I introduce this design thinking framework during the third iteration of the CS222 final project. I tell my students about how I use it and how my teams have used it, usually by leaning on the story of my VBC seminar—a story that is repeated in my Meaningful Play 2012 paper. The short version of that story is that, even though that team knew this reference model ahead of time, they fell into an Ideate-Build-Test loop that brought them further and further away from the community partner's needs and an understanding of the audience. It wasn't until an outside force pushed on them that they were able to recognize the problem and realign themselves.

The CS222 exercise has each team start by drawing the model on the whiteboard, and I challenge them to trace their paths through the different phases, starting with what initiated their project pitch. I encourage them to annotate each arc with evidence, noting how they know that they shifted between phases. I have to be careful to tell them that no path is wrong, especially since they didn't have this model ahead of time; rather, we are using this reference model to describe different kinds of activities and consider the transition between them.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of working at the whiteboard, a student team might come up with something like this:
The above diagram is from a team who decided to create an Android project, and they did not know what kind of challenges they would face by having to learn a new platform. It's not uncommon for these teams to have no activity in the Empathy area: it wasn't required, and teams usually jump in with Ideate. After all, my CS222 class is the first place in the curriculum where I empower them to make what they want, since I'm evaluating the processes they follow rather than looking for a specific implementation detail.

Some of the teams take a bit more care in laying out and labeling the diagram, producing something like this:
This happens to come from a team that is building a tool to assist students in scheduling classes. Again, it's not so much the content of these figures that's important, but the form. Once everyone has completed their diagrams, we go around the room and ask for an overview of the process. This usually leads to some interesting discussions, for example about the role of empathy, or the difference between identifying problems and coming up with solutions.

On Tuesday, I noticed something on the board that I didn't remember seeing before. Check out this diagram from a team that is creating a Dungeons & Dragons character generator:
In particular, look at the arc coming out of Ideate and how it heads toward Build and then spins back around to Identify. I asked the team about this to make sure I was reading it right, and they confirmed: after coming up with ideas, they were prepared build a model... but then they realized that they weren't really sure what problem they were solving. In pure graph-theoretic terms, it's just a directed edge from Ideate to Identify, but it's clearly so much more than that: the team felt a force on them, they felt a shift, and they pushed themselves purposefully in a particular direction. I am not sure what to label this phenomenon. I thought about "storytelling arcs" but that sounds like three-act structure, and I thought about "narrative arcs" but that's even worse. I'll call it a "redirected edge" for now.

I talked to this team as they were working on the diagram, and a few minutes later, we had the class presentations. The first team to present is working on a tool that aggregates online information for people who are moving to a new city, and their diagram looked like this:

Look at the black arc from Identify to Build: it's another redirected edge! In this case, the team identified the problems that they would like to solve and had planned on using the Zillow API. When they sat down to start building experimental code, it was only then that they realized the API would not work, and so they bounced over to Ideate to come up with new potential solutions to their problems. Now, one might argue that they had in fact been in the Build state, or that they were not really coming from the Identify phase because they had ideas of how to solve the problems, but that's not relevant here.

I'm not so interested with how well the students understood the design thinking framework after a thirty-minute introduction, but rather with how they are using the diagrams to build a visual narrative of key events in their project. The rest of the arcs in all the diagrams I have shared are drawn in a pragmatic way, with some care toward making the lines clear and reducing edge crossings. These redirected edges are different: they are capturing a feeling the teams had. In the case of the D&D team, they had a feeling of moving in one way and then being pulled in a different one. In the case of the Moving Cities team, they felt like they "bounced" off of one phase and landed in another.

I am not entirely sure what all this means, but it strikes me as interesting. I don't remember having seen it before, and the fact that I saw it twice on Tuesday struck me. If nothing else, I want to keep my eyes open to this kind of phenomenon, where the team is breaking out of the genre norm to express something meaningful to the team. Maybe there's even something there that could be used as a seed of a team retrospective meeting. The diagrams reminds me in some ways of when I used to use mind maps in CS222, that most of them would be somewhat perfunctory but occasionally I would see one that told pieces of a coherent story. I have since cut that exercise primarily for time's sake, although I think about bringing it back in.

Thanks for reading, and if you're reading this on the day it was published or its anniversary, Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Painting Massive Darkness: Base Set Heroes

Let's talk about priming. I'm coming up on the four year anniversary of my return to the miniature painting hobby, and regular readers may remember that I just don't like rattle can priming. I've gotten past the early hurdles to a point where I can do it with confidence, but it still seems awfully fiddly. The narrow temperature and humidity requirements mean that I cannot always spray prime when I would like to. Of course, the smell is terrible, too. I've had some success brushing on Vallejo Surface Primer, as recommended by Brant "Ghool" Benoit. This approach has some benefits, including the sort of pre-painting meditation that gets me familiar with the model. It takes quite a bit of time compared to spray priming, and occasionally I have had problems of—for lack of a better word—hydrophobia on the primer layer. I talked to Benoit about this, who acknowledged it as a problem of the technique that is overcome by using relatively thick base coats.

Lately I have been intrigued by the potential of zenithal priming, wherein a model is primed in black, then in grey from roughly 45 degrees, and then in white from above. The result is a sort of brightness map, showing where highlights and shadows lay. Like so many of the techniques I have tried, it was watching Sorastro's videos that really pushed me to explore this idea. Zenithal priming can be done with rattle cans or an airbrush. We're heading into winter here, which means I'm out of rattle can season. Also, after a bit of a stressful run at work—some of the stressors of which have clearly eaten into my blogging time!—I ran a successful event and received some other good news. I decided to take the plunge and buy myself an airbrush set-up. Another inspiration for the airbrush is that my two older boys and I have been having a surprising amount of fun with Massive Darkness. There are way too many miniatures from the Kickstarter for me to even consider paint-to-play, but the fun we've been having means it merits some beautification.

Step one was cleaning my hobby table, which was long overdue. I needed to make room for the portable booth that I bought, the same type Dr. Faust reviewed. It does indeed collapse down into a tight package. However, that doesn't take into account the huge and awkward exhaust duct. Also, it's much louder than I expected, so loud as to drown out any reasonably-volumed music or podcasts. However, it has great suction. The first time I used it was during the day, and the natural light combined with my desk lamp were perfectly adequate for lighting; the second time was at night, and if I could go back, I would pay a little more for the model with embedded LED lighting.

I did a fair bit of research, and it seems to me that there are two philosophies about the airbrushes and compressors themselves: either you should buy a nice one from the get-go to avoid the problems associated with cheap airbrushes, or you should just buy a cheap airbrush because it will be fine. I am primarily [pun intended] interested in priming and varnishing, although I hope to expand to some other techniques once I learn the basics, especially for some of these enormous Massive Darkness monsters. I ended up buying a cheap Master G22 airbrush that came with a small tankless compressor.

Once I got all my materials, including the cleaning pot shown in the photo, I eagerly set to, and I got about a minute's worth of puffing air before the whole thing stopped. I referenced this particularly useful customer comment on Amazon to ensure I had set up everything correctly, and although I had indeed forgotten that the pressure gauge would only be accurate while spraying, this didn't explain why my airflow had stopped. I kept my chin up and started searching the Web. After some time, I found this crystal-clear video about how to disassemble and reassemble a Master G22. There was a minor difference between his and mine, but this gave me the confidence to follow along. Unfortunately, even after lubing up the moving parts with some sewing machine oil, I wasn't getting more than about two seconds of air before it stopped again. There was a part of the airbrush that the video didn't cover: the assembly where the hose meets the brush. This required getting pliers to loosen up, but it led me to the discovery that my valve was a bit wonky: there's a pin that opens the valve, and mine was getting stuck. After manually fiddling with the pin and reassembling twice, the problem went away. I don't know if maybe some of the lube worked its way in there, or if it just needed to be jostled into alignment, but I was grateful to get regular airflow.

I decided to start with the six base set heroes from Massive Darkness, and here's the result of the zenithal priming:

Six heroes, zenithally primed
I remember when I finished them worrying that there was still too much black showing, but looking back at the photographs, I don't feel that way. This approach really does help show the model's details better than priming entirely in white or black. I have read about a "speed painting" approach where you put thinned paints directly over the primer, and I may try this with some of the dozens of Massive Darkness minions; however, the heroes deserved a little more careful attention. Without further ado, here are the finished results in the order I painted them.

I decided to start with Bjorn, which has a great variety of textures and details but without having an overwhelming number of fiddly details. Also, he looks like Conan, which seems like a powerful way to start. I took several work-in-progress photos as I tried to sort out the effect of various techniques. For all of these figures, I followed the color scheme on the card art where possible. The flesh was painted in a solid base color, a mix of VMC Medium Fleshtone along with some Buff and Ivory. I used the same mix on Siegfried. Here's an early WIP:
Barbarians receive two or three layers of base color on the flesh
Even with just a few layers of a thinned base color, the zenithal priming doesn't seem to make a dramatic difference. The difference diminished as I worked with it, adding a wash and layered highlights. However, it did provide an excellent surface on which to work, in two ways: it was a smooth surface that accepted paint well, combating the hydrophobic effect I've had brushing on the same primer, and it was very clear where the model's features were and highlights should be.

Here's Bjorn after finishing the flesh, hair, and some leather bits, with the solid base color for his green skirt in place:
Bjorn WIP
I finished up the skirt with wash and layered highlights, leading up to this potentially-finished version:
Bjorn, unaware that he's a work-in-progress
As I continued to work on him, I started thinking about another technique I've been watching Sorastro use: different colored washes and glazes to introduce tonal variation to large, monochromatic areas. The skirt here is a good example: could I make it even more interesting by adding some other colors to it, without ruining the paint job I already had laid down? That question was actually what made me capture the image above, which I sent to my brother. By the time he sent his reasonably conservative response, I had already jumped in with a purple ink glaze. This led to the actual final version:

If you compare the WIP to the final image, you can see the subtle difference, and the final result really has a lot more visual interest. It especially helped the folds on the rear of the skirt, although I don't have a WIP photo from that angle. Looking back, I could have done the same thing with the flesh, adding some tonal variation there as well. I did not go back and alter Bjorn, but working through these thoughts and techniques gave me courage to practice these approaches on other heroes.

The axe, by the way, is just OK. Compared to the incredible motion and detail in the muscles, pose, and skirt, it's just a static instrument of destruction. At first I was unhappy with it, but now I'm looking at it as a material contrast. I am still not sure what I could have done to make it bit more visually interesting, though, since it's not clear that runes or gore would make it significantly better.

A quick word about the bases: I decided to just do simple grey and black bases in the interest of time. I wanted to minimize the time these would have to be off the table, although my boys and I can generally only play Massive Darkness on weekends. I figure I can go back and add texture and flock later if I wanted to, but I opted to keep it simple: these are just Americana Slate Grey and Lamp Black.

Next up is Bjorn's pit fighter friend, Siegfried:


Siegfried has a lot more detail, with his hair and beard weaving around his chest and the adjacent cloth and metallic details on his ... battle apron? Billowing cloth seems to be a visual theme in Massive Darkness, and with Siegfried I decided to try something a little different. You guessed it, I decided to take yet more inspiration from Sorastro. In his videos, he has started using wet blending to block in the base colors. I figured I would try that with Siegfried's dark blue skirt. In fact, I ended up wet blending the whole thing, with just a little highlighting touch-up at the end.

His hammer struck me as being like Bjorn's axe [pun intended]: it's a lump of plastic on an otherwise fantastic figure. His card art looks like a shining gold hammer, but the sculpt has cracks that suggest stone. There's not a clear way to add runes or other effects, so I decided to wet blend colors to suggest a kind of granite texture. Like Bjorn's axe, it's passable but not that interesting.


Next up is Sibyl, not to be confused with Sybil. Oh, I know, people get them confused. Sibyl's card art suggests a soft blend from pale green to deep purple, and I was very excited to sit down and try to paint that. I mixed up the endpoint colors with some Liquitex Glaze Medium to extend the drying time, and I made a half-and-half mix of those to get the mid tone. After carefully wet-blending the two, I ended up with what I consider an excellent gradation along the skirts. Once that was dry, I was able to go back in and accent the shadows with the next tone darker. The rest of her armor is a brighter variation on the base pale green color that was given a medium green wash and then highlighted in layers.

Her hair is fairer than Bjorn's or Siegfried's, and it provides an example of how zenithal priming was useful. Most of the highlights you see on the hair are the result of using thinned browns to paint the hair, which let the bright white primer show through. I did also work in a few darker shades into the shadowed area along with a modicum of manual highlighting.


Who doesn't love a blue-robed, white-bearded wizard? He breaks the stereotype by wielding a longsword rather than a spellbook. Good for him. Elias is mostly one color, and I decided to continue some of the new techniques from the rest of the series. He provided an excellent case study for wet blending, which I did for the entire blue robed areas and hat, along with a bit of edge highlighting in near-white. After that, I mixed up another dark purple ink glaze and painted it into the recesses. This gave some real visual interest by getting away from the simple blue gradations.

The staff is a mix of blue and silver, and at first I left the orb atop it pure white. I had thought about object-source lighting, but at this point I had not taken into account that light source in my highlighting, and I certainly didn't want to re-work the areas that would be hit by it. It didn't work to leave the orb white and not make it look like it was shining. My son offhandedly suggested adding a warm color to contrast with the cool ones, but I decided to add contrast in a different way: I tried reusing similar colors but in a marble texture. I think the result is nice, suggesting a magical stone or dragon's egg at the end of the staff.


Owen is basically two colors aside from his armaments and small details. My first pass at the gold armor was a bad match with bad coverage, and I probably mixed six different combinations trying to get a good color. For all of these, I was using one of my gold metallics as a constituent in the mix. It wasn't until I broke away from this that I was able to make some progress: by mixing yellow, buff, and ivory, I was then able to add Metallic Medium to give it a metallic sheen. A brown ink wash added depth, followed by layered highlights. The robes were painted like Elias', using wet-blending for the basic colors, additional layering of highlights, and deepening of shadows with a violet ink glaze.

The sword hilts originally looked very much like the gold armor color, but I wanted more variation here as is present in the card art. On a whim, I tried hitting it with the same P3 Armor Wash that I used on the swords and shield, and this worked perfectly: it brought the color down more than I expected, and a touch of highlighting got it right to where I wanted it. I mixed a very thin blue glaze that I used on the swords and shield to add some tonal variation. It's barely perceptible, but you can see the effect on the lower-left side of the shield. I probably could have taken it further, but I'm going to leave fancier metallics for another technical experimentation session.


Silence is mostly cloak. He's more cloak than man, that's for sure. This one has the most significant differences between the sculpt and the card art: in his drawing, he has a bare fists with spiked armbands. In the sculpt, obviously, he's wearing gloves and has one hand completely wrapped within his cloak. Why is he doing this? Is he hiding something? A gold coin? Eczema? Nobody knows.

With this much cloak, the only reasonable way to proceed was with more wet-blending, a full-cloak dark purple wash, layered highlights, and additional purple ink glaze for color variation. I thought about doing something like green to really vary the palette on Silence, but I decided to go all in on the cool blues and purples. He has a few spots of shiny metallics where I reused the approach I used on Owen, applying P3 Armor Wash to bright gold elements to get a bright but not overpowering tone.

Completed Base Set Heroes
The final technical experiment of this project was airbrushing varnish. I used my Vallejo Matt Varnish straight out of the dropper bottle, and it worked fine. I think I had the pressure up to high originally at 20 PSI, which created some pooling on the first ones I varnished. Once I turned that down I was able to get a more careful and deliberate coat. A few needed a second coat, in part because the glaze medium lends so much shine, but this was all very easy to do, and it was no harder to clean up the airbrush afterward with that than with the primer. I think I actually used more varnish this way then when I brush it on, but this might also be from my inexperience with the airbrush; time will tell.

I really enjoyed painting these six heroes, and I'm excited to get them to the table during Thanksgiving break. The characters have wonderfully dynamic poses and fine detail. The casting was also top notch, with very little cleaning required and only one tiny bit of Elias' hat where I needed a dab of putty. My only criticism is something that I may not have noticed if it weren't for having recently watched Dr. Faust's storm giant video, and that's the fact that every piece of fabric is frayed. Bjorn looks like he should have a worn and tattered skirt, but what about Owen? Shouldn't a Paladin of Fury be taking more care of his appearance? It's a minor quibble. Maybe I should be taking the time to add more weathering to the fabric, to really send home the "tired and tattered" theme. However, for now, weathering is in the same bin as improved metallics: a project for another day.

I'm sure that part of the reason I had such joy in painting Bjorn was that he has such wonderful exaggerated detail compared the last thing I painted, the tiny 15mm figures of The 7th Continent. It wasn't until I was working on Elias that I thought: these miniatures don't just have great details because they're bigger than The 7th Continent, I think they're just plain big! My Descent heroes were handy, so I grabbed Avric Allbright and set him up next to Bjorn, in what looks like a heated dispute that's about to come to blows.
Go ahead, make my day.
Yes, definitely bigger. Despite the extra quality that can be put into the larger figures, I was a bit disappointed to discover the scale difference. One of the reasons for my backing the Kickstarter was to get a quantity of miniatures that I could bring to the table for a hypothetical fantasy tabletop roleplaying game, but these guys would be all out of scale. The unique monsters will likely be fine, but Bjorn and Avric would look a bit silly side by side, and who ever heard of seven-foot goblins?

By the way, you may have noticed that these photos look a bit different than recent ones. I'm still using my collapsable lightbox, but the biggest difference is that Google finally released a patch for the Nexus 5X that includes manual exposure control! Now I can shoot these similar to how I shot my old minis on my Nexus 4, although the controls are more fiddly now than they used to be, requiring resetting between shots. Still, I can happily say that the figures on my table actually look like the figures in these photographs. Progress!

I have nine more heroes already primed that should have me painting through the end of the semester. My pocket notebook is filled with thoughts to blog about, but if I don't get to those you can be sure I'll devote time to my annual between-semester reflection and planning posts. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Painting The 7th Continent

I have quite a backlog of ideas I want to blog about, but I've been a bit stressed with other things lately. These stresses also got me into a bit of a painting funk. The full story starts at the end of August or beginning of September---right around the start of the semester---when I received my copy of The 7th Continent. I was quite excited about this Kickstarter project, in part because it explores a modern, narrative-rich variation on classic "Choose Your Own Adventure" gameplay, similar to some of my recent work.

The game comes in a beautiful and well-designed box.

One of the reasons for backing the Kickstarter was to get the exclusive plastic figures, whereas the standard game comes with cardboard standees. I was eager to see how the miniatures look for painting, and I was a bit surprised to see how very miniature they really were.

That's Eliot Pendleton from The 7th Continent next to a standard reference Runebound Master Thorn. Wow, that's miniature. It took some of the excitement out of the whole package for me, but I was still eager to play, so my wife and I did our first foray into the wilderness with the standees. We followed the suggested starting curse and must have been very near the end of that story when we lost. With one completed play under our belts, we were able to look a little more carefully at the characters and pick two that seemed they would work well together. We had barely used the special abilities of our chosen characters during our first play. Our second trip to The 7th Continent would be with painted miniatures, which surely would change our luck.

I started by painting the four campfire miniatures:

This was fairly standard stuff, but I had been in a little painting lull before working on these, too. Believe it or not, I painted them upside-down to start with: newbie mistake, putting red on the bottom. Fortunately it was an easy repaint, after a little self-deprecation on Facebook. I did try something different here: using a little dark gray on the ends of the fire to imply soot. I saw this in someone's fire paintings, I cannot remember where, and I thought it would be fun to try. It's OK, but I'm not sure if I didn't give it the attention it needed or if it's not for me. Honestly, the whole bonfire probably could have had more gradation, now that I look at it: more white and yellow at the bottom, more orange up top.

Above are the two characters my wife and I chose for our second adventure: Eliot Pendleton and Dimitri Gorchkov. I let her choose the curse for them, so she picked one based on its interesting fiction. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that she chose the one that's basically a locked box, and you have to try to open it. However, unlike the first curse, there was no map or clues or anything. This made the curse a bit uninspiring: it would make a good second curse perhaps, but there's not much reason to go forward into the jungle if all you have is a locked box. We haven't actually picked up the game since. I got base coats on two other figures around that time, but then I went a few weeks without feeling the call to sit at the painting table. I finally broke out of the funk two days ago and got the rest of this set completed.

And so, here they are!

The colors are taken more or less from the cardboard standees. They were all primed by brush with Vallejo gray, basecoated, washed, and then highlighted. It's a fine tabletop quality for the tiny miniatures that they are, many of which will likely never hit the table anyway. Still, you know it's nice to have a completed set.

As I was painting, I found myself wondering how they compared to some of the smaller miniatures I've painted before, such as halflings. I happened to have my Descent heroes nearby, so I set up a quick shot for scale.

Yeah, they're small. Note that they fit nicely on the game map at this scale, so they are certainly fit for purpose.

You know, if you have a set of adventurers and some bonfires, it's tempting to set them up in a circle around a bonfire. Then, you might notice that it looks like one of them has just had enough of creepy H. P. Lovecraft there and tells him to get lost,

so then you take another photo from a low, dramatic angle of poor Howard going off to meet his accursed fate.

A few more words about the game are in order. My wife and I really enjoyed playing it as a two-player game while the eldest son was tinkering on the laptop. There was tension and excitement as we explored and got to understand the systems and the world we were exploring. The second visit lost some of the glitter since we very quickly ended up on the same little island that we were on before, so that felt more rote. I think it would be fun to set it on the shelf for a little while and come back to it in some months, or even years, when one or two of our sons might join in and we've forgotten some of the details. Even writing this, I want to go check out what those other two core set curses are and see if one looks like it would draw us in more dramatically.

It felt good to break out of my painting rut. I have some responsibilities this week that, hopefully, I'll be blogging about soon---though as I said above, I have a backlog of ideas I want to write about and a shortage of working hours to do so. The good news is that I have an ace team recruited for Spring's immersive learning Game Production Studio, and all my Fall responsibilities do seem to be falling into place. Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 13, 2017

A novice game designer's self-assessment instrument

Yesterday's meeting of my game design colloquium was where the students and I developed a schedule and expectations for the remainder of the semester. We have finished the foundational material of the first half of the semester, and we are shifting into final project mode. I might write more about that meeting later, but for now, I want to share a small piece of the meeting. Most of these students have no prior game design experience, and some seemed a bit nervous about the final project. Of course, I think the source of their nervousness was grades and not quality of outcome, but let's leave that alone for now.

One of the students posed a question to me that I don't remember being asked before. They wondered if I had some kind of self-assessment that they could use to determine if they are "moving in the right direction." I believe that was the phrasing, although it may have been "doing the right thing." In either case, there was a clear assumption that there is a right way to move forward in game design and, furthermore, that I could grant this.

My instinctual reaction was "No," but then I immediately thought, "Why not?" The students have spent most of their time reading Ian Schreiber's Game Design Concepts, along with some other of my favorite readings as listed on the course schedule. We have talked about design as a cyclic process—a feedback loop where testing results inform design modifications. However, in the student's defense, we have talked about a lot of things. It's easy to see how a novice could feel lost.

Here's what I came up with as a suggestion for a self-assessment the student could apply:

  • Is the goal clear?
  • Is there conflict that prevents you from meeting that goal?
  • Are the decisions meaningful?
I don't think that's too bad for an off-the-cuff response. A couple of things were floating through my head as I articulated this. One was the very first exercise I gave them, which was the 15-minute game design challenge from Schreiber Level 1. The challenge walks you through making a simple race-to-the-end board game, and he walks you through four steps: draw a path; come up with a theme or objective; define movement rules; add conflict. Another was Sid Meier's famous quotation, "Games are a series of interesting decisions," tempered with Keith Burgun's assertion that these decisions must be endogenously meaningful.

I offer this as a thought-piece and the draft of a tool. If you try using it in, let me know how it works out. 

What questions would you put onto a self-assessment for novice game designers?

Saturday, September 2, 2017

MDA, Cheating, and Levels of Analysis

One of the early-semester assignments I give my students is to read the Hunicke et al. paper on MDA analysis, and then to analyze a familiar game within this framework. This works best after I have introduced the concept in class with an example, usually Buffalo since that game is worth studying in its own right. Re-reading the classic paper reminds me that although it has had undeniable impact, being one of very few pieces to transcend the games research / games practice divide, it is not very rigorous. I think the core idea of it is quite brilliant: that we can, and should, consider the differences between what designers control and what players experience. Years of using this model have led me to internalize it with my own variant, which I explain to the students roughly thus:

  • Mechanics are all those elements that the designer directly controls.
  • Dynamics are what happens when the mechanics enter a play experience.
  • Aesthetics are the sensations that arise from the dynamics.
By this framework, which I believe resonates with the original paper, then we can see that the rules, story, art design, physical components, etc. are all mechanics—leaving alone for the time being whether these ought to be called "mechanics" or "mechanisms", though it's almost certainly the latter. The dynamics would include phenomena such as strategy, bluffing, and negotiation, and the aesthetics are all the sensations: fear, joy, shame, kvell, and the satisfying tick of a meeple hitting cardboard.

I have met with this year's game design class four times so far, and I have a good feeling about them, and about the changes I've made to the course structure. In their MDA analyses, several brought up cheating, which I honestly don't remember coming up before. It came up in three different manifestations, all of which were framed as "cheating" by the students. Two students brought it up in terms of card games, engaging in activity such as looking at opponents' hands. One mentioned stream sniping in online games, a phenomenon afforded by the trend toward modern gameplay technology and culture. One other student mentioned "glitches", referring to taking advantage of defects in software to take actions in computer games that were—presumably—not intended by the designer.

It is interesting to consider at what level cheating exists within MDA. Cheating is, by definition, a violation of the mechanics. However, I agree with Koster's assertion that if you change the rules of a game, you are playing a different game with the same pieces [although right now I cannot find his essay that states this, so if you do, hit me with the link so I can update this]. The classic example is that many people play Monopoly such that money accumulates on Free Parking and is gathered by players who land there—but this rule is, of course, not in the rules of Monopoly. Hence, we could consider them to be playing a Monopoly variant with the same pieces as Monopoly. From this perspective, then, cheating means you are playing a different game. I think that's an important observation that emerges from this kind of formal, ludological study of games. Note that it's different from a game that permits "cheating", such as the variant of Cosmic Encounter that says you can do anything not in the rulebook as long as you are not caught. From the formal perspective, though, what's really happened is that we've changed the rules of the game to include all possible activity as mechanics, most of them tagged with the caveat that if you are caught, you pay the price. That is, it is not cheating as such since it is actually part of the game variant's mechanics.

I have been listening to Jordan Peterson's lectures on personality, and it has been interesting to learn more about Piaget—a superstar of educational theorists, which is where I have previously seen his name and theories—from a personality psychology perspective. Piaget seems to have framed practically all interesting developmental human activity as a game, which certainly resonates with my experience and research. From Piaget via Peterson, I have been thinking about the game of being invited to play games, which for simplicity I will call the social game. Why do we say "It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game"? We do this because each game is instantiated within the social game. If you are ungracious in victory, if you are bitter in defeat—or if you cheat—you lose at the social game. Hence, we can assert that "cheating" is actually a mechanic of the social game: it is a move that is allowed, but it is almost always a losing move.

The idea that there are multiple levels of analysis has also come up several times this semester. For example, it has given us a way to think about the sometimes-toxic communities around online games: there is a poorly-regulated social game around these which was brilliantly skewered in Koster's most grave presentation, his GDC 2017 talk "Still Logged In". We applied a similar form of analysis to consider the game of competitive Magic: The Gathering, that there is the embedded game that is a round of MtG, but that is within the context of the gambling-and-trading-game of buying packs and chasing rares. Both are also simultaneously within the "meta", the game of knowing what decks are popular, locally or globally. Some of my students were surprised to consider these higher-order games as also being designed; they had previously considered that the designers made a game and that the community somehow made the rest. However, MDA gave us an important tool here too, to look at the mechanics of rarity, legal deck sizes, and distribution, and how these designer-specified mechanics led to dynamics such as chasing rares.

Peterson's lectures frequently bring up the concept of multiple levels of analysis, and this seems to be a critical concept in understanding personality psychology. I suspect that it was my studies here that have influenced my looking at games from this lens. I suppose this speaks again to the power of interdisciplinary, since I know that some of my best scholarship has arisen from my seeking out novel ideas and integrating them into my areas of specialization. Even studying games themselves, it was a journey from Summer 2006 that shaped how I think about all the work I do today. Seems Piaget had it right.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Painting Emergence Event and Emergence Event: The Awakening

And now for something completely different: Space Ships!

I didn't know much about Emergence Event when I backed the expansion on Kickstarter, but I have enjoyed Myth (painted), and so I was eager to support local game designers and publishers Megacon Games. The Kickstarter provided an option to get both the base set and The Awakening expansion, with an option to pay for shipping only once and receive both at the same time. Turns out, the base set still came a few days in advance of the expansion, so I was able to play it a few times before the expansion arrived. My son and I have enjoyed it, although it is a bit fiddly at times—there are a few things you just have to remember, because there is no visual representation of them on any of the bits.

I primed all the figures by brushing on Grey Vallejo Surface Primer after giving them a good scrub. The expansion add-on captains required an extra layer: something about the plastic repelled the primer more than the others. Overall, though, no major difficulties with the prep for the base set ships, with very few mold lines to clean up.

Masking tape: Not my greatest idea.
The base set ships all came pre-assembled on clear plastic bases. I didn't want to get paint on these bases, so I wrapped them in masking tape. Seems like a good idea, right? Turns out, it wasn't. The masking tape left some sticky residue all over the base. I posted a question about this on DM Scotty's Facebook group, and several people recommended either Goo Gone or isopropyl alcohol. I happened to have some 91% isopropyl alcohol at the hobby desk, and this worked fine for removing the residue, combined with an old brush and my dental scraper.

For all of the ships, I tried to match my color scheme to Keith Lowe's excellent character art with an emphasis on the captain's token color. I'll start with the base set ships.

Star Racer Vinh
Star Racer Vinh
My first ship was Star Racer Vinh, who uses faded green tokens. I also pulled in the complementary red that is featured in the character art. One of the decisions I had to make was how to light the models. Even though they are in space, I decided to go with a traditional overhead light source. I suppose one could think of them as hovering over a planet that is reflecting some light back up to the underside.

For almost all the ships, I used a two-brush blending approach. I have a wonderful Winsor & Newton Series 7 #1 that was the workhorse for the whole project, and it's kept a fine tip on it. For the second brush, I'm using my old WN Series 7 #2, which has lost its tip but not hooked. It's not ideal since it's so broad compared to the #1, but it's good enough for now. I've tried two-brush blending with synthetics as well, but I think the advice I read somewhere on the Internet is right, that natural fibers do feel better for this technique. 

On to more ships!

Commander of the Evolved 
Commander of the Evolved

The Commander of the Evolved was fun to paint, with its high contrast and focus on cool greyscale with a spot of brilliant blue. I used just a little bit of OSL to imply shining light, but I don't think it photographed very well here.

Ambassador Jolal

Ambassador Jolal
The other morning, I was up early and decided to base coat Ambassador Jolal's ship. This is the only organic ship of the set, and so I opted for some wet-blending to get smooth transitions across the bumpy surface. I was so happy with how that went that I just kept on mixing more colors, highlighting, and shading. I ended up finishing this ship in one sitting, and I'm happy with it. It is much stranger than the other ships, and I think the fact that I painted it a bit differently adds to its foreign appearance.

Matriarch Evans
Matriarch Evans

Matriarch Evans' ship is all greys offset by crimson. Reds are tricky to highlight, and I really didn't want to take this one toward orange or yellow. This happened to be the ship I photographed when I posted on DM Scotty's Facebook group about the sticky residue, so I have this picture of my original paint job:
Matriarch Evans, Before the Finishing Touches
Even with the slightly-blue panel in the front, it turned out to be all too similar in tone. I showed it and the character art to my wife, and we agreed that it needed a little something extra. I'm glad I took the time to add the bright banding and alter some of the grey tones around the front.

We move now to the four expansion captains. The Kickstarter campaign called for two captains in the expansion, with two extras available as add-ons. Never having played the game, I wasn't sure I wanted to throw another $20 at a pair of captains, so I opted against. After playing the base game a few times with my son, I kicked myself for not having splurged on the extra captains. This feeling was exacerbated by the current somewhat uncertain future of Megacon Games. They announced a while ago that they were under an NDA as the Myth IP was under negotiation for sale, and their recent post on the Myth: Journeyman Kickstarter confirms their somewhat shaky current state. This might mean that those two extra captains may never be available for retail sale, so I was out of luck.

Lo and behold, when I opened my Awakening expansion box, there are four captains—the two promised ones and the two add-ons! The guys from Megacon posted that they decided to simply add them to each box, which I'm sure greatly simplified production and packaging. Naturally, this led to some sour grapes from people who paid the extra $20 for add-on captains, in a weird twist of human psychology (they got what they paid for, after all). When I look at the comments on their Kickstarters, I cannot help but feel that a lot of people forget to read the clear statement that Kickstarter is not a store. Maybe guys like Megacon and Kickstarter-giant CMON give the wrong impression, by talking about orders and add-ons, but the fact remains, any Kickstarter can simply go south. That's how I approach it, anyway, and look, I got two free captains.

But I digress! Back to the ships.

The two add-on captains for Awakening were made of a different kind of plastic, and possibly probably a different scale than the other ships judging from how they did not fit neatly onto the pegs. Unfortunately, my ships were quite badly cast, particularly Xeron & Xoron.
Xeron & Xoron have seen better days
I wasn't quite sure what t o do about this much damage. I briefly considered requesting a replacement, but again, those guys from Megacon I think are dealing with enough right now. I ended up turning to my old standby, Milliput. I was able to press it into the deepest gaps and then try to smooth it over. I also thinned it out and tried brushing it over the rough areas, but I don't think that was particularly helpful.
Xeron & Xoron, patched up with Milliput
Here's what the back-end finally looked like painted. From across the table, I don't think you can see the anomalies.
Back-end of Xeron & Xoron
But more on them later, because it's really important to me that I post my miniatures in the order I tackled them.

Explorer Laris Latee
Explorer Laris Latee

Explorer Latis Latee was one of the add-on captains, and he has the smallest and sleekest of the ships. His character art also features cyan and yellow, which I know are everyone's favorite subtractive primary colors. The rounded features of this ship made it more interesting to shade than some of the other, more angular ones. It was also fairly quick to paint, given the relative lack of detail.

Hive Queen Zalex
Hive Queen Zalex

When I worked on Hive Queen Zalex, I pulled out what I thought were her character tokens, only to discover later that I had the wrong ones. The purple tokens went with San'Du, not Zalex—hers are grey. Turns out it wasn't a problem since I had featured both purple and grey on the paint job. Zalex is the only figure where I used an ink wash to make the shading a bit easier: those magenta stripes have finely sculpted vertical slats, which would have been a horror to paint by hand. Mixing a dark purple ink wash made it much easier to help them stand out a bit, although it's not very strong in the photos here.

Xeron & Xoron

Xeron & Xoron
Every captain in Emergence Event has two special abilities. I like this idea that Xeron & Xoron are a pair of captains, and so you have one Xeron power and one Xoron power. It's a small bit of fluff, but clever nonetheless. One is wearing an orange jumpsuit, the other a military green, and so I brought those colors in to the ship. The orange jumpsuit was a bit more faded than the orange tokens used by this captain (these captains?), and I opted to match the tokens so that it would be easier to tell who is who. The character art is barely visible during the game, after all.

San'Du, VP of Acquisitions

San'Du, VP of Acquisitions
The last one of the set is San'Du, VP of Acquisitions—the one that actually uses the purple player tokens. I wanted to make sure his purple ship was distinct from Hive Queen Zalex, so I brought the bright white to the fore. It's a little chalky, as whites can be, although this doesn't show in the photos so well. (See my Twin Shadows painting post for more about my frustrations with miniature photography and the black backgrounds in particular. Still, seemed right to use black here, because SPACE.) The slightly chalky white top and a few other spots could be touched up, but as I was wrapping this up, my Clank! expansion showed up in the mail, and I took that as a sign that it was fine to be done with this. (Another parenthetical: my 10-year-old, my 7-year-old, and I have been having a blast with Clank!, which followed nicely after the younger one was able to learn Star Realms and Dominion.)

Front row: Base Set. Back row: Expansion.
That's it for Emergence Event and Emergence Event: The Awakening. I'm looking forward to playing again with the painted miniatures instead of the wooden pawns we've been using as proxies while these have sat on my painting table.

Thanks for reading!