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Cromwell in the Backyard: Semiotics in Games

August 29, 2008

If you’ve been following this blog the last little while, you know that I’ve been spending the last week or two building the actual game Where my people come from which is based on the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland, the subsequent plantation of Irish lands and the shipment of many Irish to slavery in Barbados.

Yes, I know. It’s not your typical game material. It’s what you might call an “art game”, though it’s also a fun tactical strategy game if you don’t know the narrative when you’re playing it.

As you might imagine with a game like this, the symbols, colors and objects that I’m using in the final piece are important. The two sides of this game mark the heritage of my family and my husband’s family (he’s a “redman” in the Caribbean, the descendant of both African and Irish slaves). Because this game is non-digital, I’m forced to consider all kinds of things in a different way than I normally would have considered them.

I spent about 2 months looking for just the right bits. Over the last two weeks, I’ve fought with various colors of green to get just the right tint, and just the right amount of stain onto the pieces. I have a small army of green guys in varying shades that will come in tremendously handy when I make a game about… an explosion in a green paint plant, I suppose (and I am kidding about that). This week, I’ve hunted every store in the area for an orange that wasn’t florescent or horrifying. It had to be just right.

Tactile considerations were today’s big hit. How to the pieces feel? How much do they weigh? Do they look all right next to the other pieces? What do they represent? Cromwell’s invading forces, pictured drying in my backyard below, are purposefully abstracted and impersonal (read more about the Plantation if you want to know why; they rarely lived on the land, and instead mostly rented it back to the Irish they took it from).

Video game designers have similar considerations. If you’ve ever attempted a move in a game that felt phenomenally awkward, you know what I mean. While tactile considerations are something I’ve worked with for a long time, this is the most up-close-and-personal the decisions have ever been. In saying this, I am not referring to the subject matter, either. Usually, there’s a whole team involved, and the feel is as much the programmer and artist as it is me. If any one of us is off when the punch lands in a video game, you’ll know in a second.

I wish you – yes, you – would try something like this: a full non-digital game from concept to camera-ready. It’s been a great experience, and made me think of some video game design stuff that I would typically not think nearly so much about.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2008 7:24 pm

    Very interesting.

    The look and feel of the board and pieces is doubtless very important, and I’m reminded of a recent aborted attempt to design my first board game using a RISK set as the foundation. While I tried to think of possible original mechanics for the game I was unable to shake the feeling that using the board and pieces from RISK would lead to a generic and unoriginal game. That may be partly true due to the layout of the board, but I think it also involves an irrational element due to the fact that whenever I looked at the board it still looked exactly like RISK, regardless of the actual mechanics.

    I’ve put my first attempt at a board game on hold for now, mostly for lack of a mechanic that fits the concept I have in mind. This is no doubt due to inexperience, and I’m therefore waiting eagerly for my copy of your book, Challenges for Game Designers, to arrive from Amazon (they shipped it out just yesterday). I also ordered a copy of “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses”, which looks very promising. Hopefully I can learn to become a good board-game designer.

  2. August 29, 2008 7:26 pm

    “… an explosion in a green paint plant, I suppose (and I am kidding about that).”

    Of course, this is all I can think about now.

  3. August 29, 2008 9:39 pm

    I have to agree, when you get a board game to the point where it’s worth taking pictures, it’s something pretty special. Figuring out where to put the pieces, where to put the camera… a real life screenshot basically. Plus you get to capture shots you would never see in an actual game.

    As for tactile considerations, I came across that recently actually. I had the choice between making the player double tap to perform a move, or just press the key once. I went with the single-tap since the double-tap felt weird without a single-tap move backing it up. I probably wouldn’t have figured this out if I hadn’t made so many board games in Crit (and the big one in Studio/this summer), since you really learn to take little things like limitations into consideration, and later when you start programming an entirely new game, you figure out how to use those limitations to make a more cohesive experience.

  4. September 1, 2008 9:15 am

    I’m also dying of anxiousness waiting for my copy of Challenges for Game Designer. And I’m pretty sure that I’ll be crafting some non-digital games while reading it. 🙂

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