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March 14, 2011

INTERVIEW: Alessio Cavatore in the Designer's Corner

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Hi folks.  Alessio Cavatore has graciously offered to follow up on his last interview with BoLS and chat a bit more about game design.  Lets see what this interview brings.




Q: It is often said that there is no "correct" rule design for a particular design challenge.  That an infinite number of rule mechanics can be produced that lie along the dueling spectrums of realistic-abstract, and faster-to-slower to resolve, and detailed-to-macro in scope.  Can you give us a sense of where you like to design within that framework and why?

A: I totally agree that there is no 'right' and 'wrong' answer to designing (war)games rules. The true answer there is that the 'right' design is the one that fits the product the rules are being written for and the target customers.

As to where I like to design, I think the answer is fairly obvious if you look at the latest stuff I've written, like Kings of War and Shuuro. I'm in the minimalist camp, definitely. I'm trying to design games that have radically simple core rules, so simple that it takes very little to learn them, and then, once learned, they disappear completely in the background. This leaves you free to concentrate 100% on gameplay.

As an example, think of a chess game. When you play chess, do you think about the rules? Not for a second. You know the rules. What you think about is how to win, how to move, how to react to your opponent's moves.

Obviously, with wargames it's impossible to reach that extreme, but I'm trying my best to get a lot closer to that kind of experience. Wargames, as they need a lot more detail than abstract games will always be more complex, but I believe the complexity should come from the many races involved in the game, and even then mostly from their different profiles and very very few unique special rules. Too many of those and the game becomes heavy again.

Too many times I hear marketing spiels along the tone of 'super simple rules!' and then I get to the rulebooks of the games in question and realize that it was just that, a sales pitch. Maybe it's because I'm growing old and the capacity of my brain is reducing as the neurons go bye-bye, but I find systems with a lot of rules a lot less fun than those with few.

You see, writing complex systems is much easier than truly simple ones. If you can solve a design problem by cutting rules out of your system rather than adding them to it, you're on the right path!


Q: Following up, how does one define "fun" as a designer, and how would you recognize or test for it in early drafts of rules?


A: Oh! There is no answer to this question! The fact is that different people like different type of games, so you cannot write a game that everybody would enjoy. Ultimately, you can either be professional and follow the brief for the game you're writing (e.g. we want this game to appeal to fluffy players, or to power players, or to kids of a certain age...), or you can write the type of game you enjoy and share it with other like-minded people.

Testing the game with people that clearly belong to the category of customer you have in mind is definitely essential to see their response and hear their feedback – so choose your test groups carefully!

Q: It is a truism that players will always complain about any single ruleset, due to its size and complexity.  How does a designer draw the line between "background noise" grousing, versus the possibility that something is truly amiss based on player feedback? 

A: Yes, there are people out there whose hobby is not to play wargames, but rather to complain online about wargames!

You say they complain because of the size and complexity of wargames systems, but some people will even complain about the lack of size and complexity if they have nothing else to gripe about! It happened with Kings of War, that was at first dismissed as 'simplistic' by some players, just because of the tiny size of the rules. Surely, such a simple system cannot be challenging and interesting!

Most of these were people that did not try to play it first. When they tried, most of them have gone: "Oh! It's actually quite sophisticated..." and, especially with timed games, it definitely is a unique, and quite exciting, experience. Listen to me banging my own drum! All I can say is 'try it'.

Going back to your question... how to tell griping for gripe's sake from good, honest feedback? Tough one. I begin by deleting all of the rude feedback. I have no time for rude people, even if they're telling the truth. Then I read the rest, or have people I trust 'filter' it for me if there is so much feedback that it would take all of my waking life to read it all (it happens...). I suppose the best way to single out real problems with the system you're trying is to act mostly on those points that a lot of people are questioning and not worry about the more unique points. In the end, however, it always comes to making a choice between making the change and holding firmly onto your position. Knowing when one is being too stubborn or instead too shaky and malleable, too proud or not humble enough, is always difficult. I guess it's a mix of experience and character that will guide you to you final decision.

Q: What are the core responsibilities a player should bring to the table, without which there can be no effective game-design?

A: -Will to try things before judging them?
-Open-mindedness?
-The ability to put oneself in the opponents' shoes and trying to see one own's behavior from their point of view?
-An insatiable desire to fritter away untold amounts of cash to support people in the industry? Yes, this last one above all!

Q: Tabletop games evolve alongside societies like all other endeavors. Is there a single rule-mechanic or concept in any major tabletop wargame that you think was truly revolutionary, bring the industry as a whole forward?  What was it and why? 

Real line of sight!     (ducks)

OK, I admit quoting this one again just for the fun reaction it caused during my last interview on BOLS...

Seriously speaking, it's difficult to pinpoint a single one... but it will have to be something that happened at the beginning of Games Workshop... something that turned the idea of using a few miniatures for role-play into the colossus that is Warhammer.

I'd say the invention of the slottabase. Or perhaps the concept of Warhammer 4th edition of putting rules, plastic armies, dice etc. all in one box.

Q: Finally, a thought experiment for the readers to get inside the head of a wargame designer. Lets take one of the most simple design concepts seen in almost any game system - a machine attempting to traverse an area of dense terrain.  Can you give us 3 quick mental notes of what a rule mechanic that is "too hot, too cold", and "just right" might look like.

A: No, I cannot, unless you mean 'in my opinion' or 'to my taste', because as I said, there are no right and wrong answers, but only answers that work with some people and answers that work with others.

So, let's look at three examples off the top of my head:

1) The machine crosses the area safely, but slows down to half speed.

2) The machine is not slowed down at all, but must roll a dice and on a 1 it breaks down.

3) The machine can choose to either slow down to half speed and cross safely or cross at full speed, in which case it has to roll the 'break down' test.

I have now stared at these three examples for far too long and I can't choose one. It really depends what kind of game I'm designing.

1) I like it because it's simple, but it does not have the gambling element, so it's not as much fun.

2) This one is also very simple, but it's very random and some players might not like that. It's also opens another question: what are the effects of breaking down?

3) It's a nicer simulation of reality, as it allows the player to immerse themselves in the game, 'becoming the crew' of the machine and having to decide under fire whether to slow down and take it easy or to put their foot down and risk it! The drawback of course is that, given a choice, some players take forever to make their mind up and that might slow gameplay down. Too many choices will definitely do that, but on the other hand, if you add a chess clock to the equation...

Once again, it depends on the kind of game that is being designed, on its amount of detail... but my guts like the third option, as it quite characterful and still fairly simple.

Thanks,
Alessio

After studying biology at Turin's university, Alessio Cavatore has moved to the UK at age 25 to work as a translator for Games Workshop.


One year later he became a games developer, and has continued to do that job for the last fifteen years. For Games Workshop he has worked on several game systems and supplements, like Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000 and the Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game.


He is now the managing director of the company he co-founded River Horse Ltd , in order to publish games of his own making. The first one is Shuuro, the game of creative chess, Soon followed by its four-player expansion Turanga.


He also hires his games-design skills as a consultant for many gaming companies out there, like Mantic (for which he has written Kings of War) and Warlord Games.

~I'd like to thank Alessio for taking the time to have a design chat with us here at BoLS yet again.  The floor is open folks. 
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