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PAX East Panel explores the impact of video game tutorials and co-op on board game design

At a PAX East panel today, a group of designers and players discussed how built-in tutorials in video games influenced board game design.

"When I first played video games, they were all based on board games," moderator Russ Wakelin said.

"Now, an unthinkable number of years later, it's gotten to the point where many of the games designers, and of course many of the young players, all grow up on video games."

That role reversal has created an evolution in board game design, he said, where board game designers now look to video games when creating their products. Part of that evolution has been in-game tutorials, video games' inherent ability to teach players how to play them. The barrier to entry in a board is higher. Designers have to deal with modern players' expectations.

"A video game has that computer to do all your calculations and all your bookkeeping for you."

"A video game has that computer to do all your calculations and all your bookkeeping for you," Matt Morgan from Wired GeekDad and MTV Geek said. "If you want to have a deep-thinking game, you have to go for depth, not complexity.

"It's not 'I'm going to configure 100 inventory items and they all please me ... because I want to sit here and do that math.'"

Mind Bullet Games' president and designer Geoff Engelstein pointed out that it wasn't always that way in video games, either.

"One of the key things that the gamer today is expecting — based on video games, that you couldn't get away with before — is the ease of entry," Engelstein said. "Way back in the day, video games used to come with these thick manuals you had to read through."

Video games have come a long way since the first Civilization shipped with a giant manual, he said.

"Now with video games, the expectation is that you're going to be able to sit down, and the game will walk you through that manual stuff. Whether it's XCOM or a comparatively complex game, it steps you through the process and builds it up. People don't have the patience anymore to do that in a board game setting.

"I think that designers can adapt to that with a couple of different techniques, some of which have been used by some of the designers up here."

Engelstein said his "personal favorite" is "information hiding," which keeps the complexity of a card game constrained so that players don't have to deal with it until they absolutely have to. Like a tutorial level, the idea is to fold in complexity slowly.

Board games have also been incorporating co-op play in recent years, which has coincided with its rise in video games.

Co-op's success is a way to disprove the stereotype that gamers are disconnected, Sentinels of the Multiverse designer Christopher Badell said.

"Look: we're at PAX. People like gaming together."

"Look: we're at PAX. People like gaming together," Badell said.

When designing a board game, he's not writing if/then statements like he would if he were programming a game. But many of the same concepts are built into the deck.

The key to making them resonate is designing them to be meaningful, Geoff Engelstein said.

Geoff Engelstein said there are a couple of different ways to approach co-op AI. As he built Space Cadets, he realized that the tricky part was "dealing with the uncertainty." Designers allow randomness, but leave enough uncertainty to give the players' action more meaning.

Summoner Wars designer Colby Dauch sees the uptick in co-op gameplay as a function of diversification, a way of "adding variety to the scene" and a "really fun to come together and high five when you together overcame this adversity."

Though the medium is different, Dauch said that the players aren't.

"We're all gamers — video games, board games, we're all gamers."

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