GDC 2014

Since I posted last year’s GDC badge, I figured I’d do it again. Be sure to scroll down for some of my thoughts about the conference this year, as well as being a speaker for the first time.


Being a speaker at GDC was definitely a double-edged sword. All bets are off if I get any consulting work out of it, but if you break down how long I spent preparing for my talk, I definitely invested more of my time than the cost of GDC admission. On the other hand, there were certainly less tangible benefits as well. I got to go to the speaker party, for instance, which was really only “valuable” in terms of meeting other speakers and making some industry contacts. I spent quite a while there talking to Chris DeLeon, for example, who runs Hobby Game Dev. (I finally decided to check out his site, and got completely sucked in, btw. Be careful, there’s so much content over there you can easily lose an afternoon!)

A bit about the process of being accepted as a speaker: When my talk was provisionally accepted, the organizers made some suggestions for directions they’d like to see the talk evolve, and made it clear that my acceptance was contingent on those changes. I (of course) had the opportunity to bow out at that point, but chose to work with them and make it the talk they wanted rather than the talk that I’d submitted. I would definitely like to be a speaker again if I have opportunity to present something I’m very passionate about, but that revision process is not something I think I’d like to participate in again, not because it was unpleasant in any way, simply because it really sapped my enthusiasm for speaking. In this case specifically, my talk was initially not so much about usability, and while I think usability is definitely an important aspect of game development, it’s not a topic that I’m super passionate about. If I speak again, I want it to be something I can get fired up about. (Certainly mobile board games are a topic that fits that qualification, but specifically because that aspect of the talk was deemphasized, my enthusiasm also suffered.)

GDC, for me, has always been about soaking in as much of the panels and content as possible. Performance anxiety really put a damper on that goal (certainly on the day of my talk, but it had ripple effects the day before and after) so that definitely felt like another downside. On the other hand the added prestige associated with the speaker ribbon was a definite plus, especially in terms of talking to and meeting people I would not have otherwise.

The other big difference this year was that I attended GDC from the perspective of an igdatc organizer. I went to various meetings and talked to quite a few other chapter organizers from around the world. My take-away from this is that we are doing just the right amount of stuff, I think. There are definitely chapters WAY ahead of us in terms of volunteer effort and event planning, but there are also chapters that put in way more effort and have less events and fewer attendees. Our new Multiplayer Extravaganza series is humming along, and many of us are super excited to create our own local multiplayer games to showcase there.

Finally, the other thing that felt different about this year’s GDC was that there was a lot more opportunity to PLAY there. In addition to the IGF booth (that has existed on the show floor for years AFAIK), as well as the “doing it on the table” (boardgames exhibit that I believe was new as of last year), and GDC Play (which is a paid exhibitor space where you can show off your game), there was also: the Mild Rumpus, Indie Megabooth, alt.ctrl.gdc, and a Killer Queen arcade cabinet randomly positioned near the expo hall entrance. All these were welcome additions, and made for relaxing interludes that definitely helped with that speaker anxiety I previously mentioned.

I feel like this entire week has been “coming down” from GDC. (Which probably explains my high-frequency blog postings.) I definitely feel more energized about game development after this year’s GDC than I felt after last year’s. I don’t think industry events like GDC are required to be a game developer, but if you are developing a game, attending GDC will feel like a giant room full of 24,000 people with whom you already have something in common.

Primitives and Hex Primitives

As a sort of follow-up to yesterday’s post on small-grid games, I realized that I haven’t made this pair of games public anywhere yet. (That I remember.) That post led to some Facebook discussion, where we got to talking about hex grids, and I mentioned that I haven’t seen any small hex grid games… but then I realized that I had worked on a design for one on-and-off last year!

Primitives is a relatively simple game where you place a card or one of your makers, or otherwise manipulate the gameboard. (I believe the last rules I playtested said you could do one of those per turn.) Manipulating the board means you could change a single card without a marker already on it, either by moving, rotating, or flipping it. By claiming a card, you “lock” it into place, and subsequently receive points for its symbols (and any matching symbols on adjacent cards) at the end of the game. The point values are dictated by the symbols on the center of the cards, either plus (+1 point) or minus (-1 point). Each card is double-sided, so flipping a card means it will change that symbol from + to -, or vice versa. The game ends when everyone has placed all their markers and all the cards are out on the board. More playtesting is probably needed, but I may need a rule that says something like: “If only one player has markers remaining, they MUST place it on their turn, and if everyone has placed their markers, the only available action is to place a card onto the gameboard.”

The first version was played with standard playing cards in a hex-like configuration. But I realized I could get more symbol matching in there (and more rotation) if I switched to hexes for the cards themselves. I also went from six symbols to three, for essentially the same reason. Here are some photos of various paper prototypes.

Primitives (version #1)

Hex Primitives (version #2)


These games were inspired by my playing Love Letter for the first time, and wanting to design a game that used a similarly ridiculously small number of components. (Love letter is played with a deck of 16 cards. Primitives is played with only 7.) I may try and bring this game to a Game Designer Sessions meetup tonight or in the future.

A Brief Survey of Small-Grid Games

I can’t decide if I should write a GDC wrapup post, but I cobbled this post together from notes I sent to a colleague discussing 4×4 grid games, as well as my thoughts after seeing Asher Vollmer talk about Threes! at GDC.

All games are programmed on a grid of some kind. Fundamentally, even oddly shaped maps are generally reduced to a grid at programming time. But what I want to look at here are “games set on a smaller square grid”, presumably either 4×4 or 5×5 or maybe 6×6. This greatly reduces the search space.

There are games where the grid space contents move, and games where they do not. In the games where they don’t, you are still changing something about the grid, either marking a path or changing the state of the space in some other way. One category of games like this that comes immediately to mind are logic puzzles like nurikabe, numberlink, or nonograms. (I don’t think they all start with ‘n’ tho!) Another category might be games where you place specific pieces onto the game board, as in one of my favorite chess variants, Tic-Tac-Chec. Stacking games like Rumis might also qualify.

It feels like, at least in video games, games where you move the grid might be more common. The hole puzzle is, I think, the oldest. Although the ‘sliding a whole row’ mechanic is also pretty common, there was an early NES game called Yoshi’s Cookie that used that one. I am tempted to break these types of game down by mechanic and make a whole list. (This is the kind of thing I really like to do, and one of my favorite examples of thinking about mechanics is this cool family tree of matching tile games put together by Jesper Juul.)

Recently there has been a really interesting category of these games with a huge spike in popularity started by this game called Threes! launched recently in the app store. You can play it online too at There are now a ton of clones, and some of them have (slightly) different mechanics, creating a whole new branch of small-grid games. My favorite is this one called 2048, also playable online (though it appears to have not one but three app versions — no doubt because the original is open source). The main new mechanic here is that tile states “combine” to form a new more valuable state. An additional mechanic is that in Threes! as well as the variants I’ve played, the entire game board is moved at once, whether it’s only one space as in Threes!, or to their farthest empty position as in 2048.

I’m not doing a good job of remembering the details of Asher’s talk, but one was that in at least one previous version of Threes!, there were negative numbers. It’s worth noting that I haven’t seen a clone/version that adds those.

This is nowhere near comprehensive. Let me know what I’ve missed in the comments, thanks!

References / further reading:×4-grid

Usability Lessons from Mobile Board Game Conversions – Notes & References

I gave this talk at GDC (Game Developers Conference) 2014.

Update: Note that the talk was recorded, and you can now watch the video (and slides!) on the GDC Vault.

Here are some notes:

(The numbers below correspond with the side number.)

1. This talk was adapted from a previous talk I gave at Mobile March in 2013, titled Case Studies in Mobile Board Game Conversion (2013). That talk was much more about features of three games in particular, Carcassonne, Ascension, and For the Win.

2. This slide contains a screenshot from Doom (1993), the book cover for Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (a book by David Kushner about id Software), and a movie poster for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (from 1984):
Notably, it contains no gloom.
Notably, it contains no gloom.Notably, it contains no gloom.

4. I wanted to include a photo here of a glass bead game, or maybe glass chess set, but didn’t find a good one.

5. In case you haven’t played it, here is QWOP.

8. Arnold Lund’s Usability Maxims were first published in 1997. “Expert ratings of usability maxims. Ergonomics in Design, 5(3), 15-20. A study of the heuristics design experts consider important for good design.” @ArnieLund Oddly enough, this list of “maxims” used to appear on the Wikipedia article for Usability, but was removed before I gave this talk. (Not by me!) Here’s another site that has them:

9. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the For The Win application created for Tasty Minstrel Games appears to be no longer available in the app store.

10. I mention here that Usability is a two-way street, even though it is generally thought of as the player communicating with the application, it is far more relevant what the application communicates to the player. This first section is titled “Usability Lessons for the Game Screen: Effectively communicating game information to your player”, and features the following recommendations / lessons, giving each its own slide.

  • Highlight possible actions.
  • Clearly show whose turn it is.
  • Always animate AI turns.
  • Hide “extra” information.
  • Provide linear context.

11. This slide features a screenshot from Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, put out by Playdek.

12. The screenshot here is Carcassonne, by the Coding Monkeys, which I call out as the “gold standard” of iOS board game conversions.

13. Here is a screenshot for Day’s of Wonder’s excellent Ticket To Ride application.

14. More screenshots from Ascension and Carcassonne.

15. Here is another screenshot from Carcassonne, as well as, in the foreground, a screenshot from Suburbia, put out by Jeremiah Maher.

16. This introduces a brief section on gestures and the other half of the picture, allowing the player to communicate back into the game.

17. More Carcassonne and Ascension screenshots. I recommend you support both tap and drag when drag makes sense as a gesture. Tap and drag are the two gestures you probably don’t need to explain in detail.

18. Here is a screenshot from Playdek’s latest masterpiece, Lords of Waterdeep. I talk about other gestures that probably do need to be explained: double-tap, long-press, and swipe. As well as some classes of gesture that I recommend not using at all: Triple (or more) tap, and multi-finger drag/swipe.

19 & 20. I’m not sure I feel like I managed to get my points across about undo and confirmation buttons. Essentially, undo is a good idea, and if you have complex actions, you should always give your user a confirmation step. I guess what I feel less certain about having effectively communicated is WHY those are important. Screenshots from Ascension and Carcassonne.

22. Here is a screenshot from Reiner Knizia’s Samurai (developed by Conlan Rios), as well as another from Carcassonne and For The Win.

23. Screenshots here to illustrate Game Center’s GKTurnBasedMatchmakerViewController, from Reiner Knizia’s Qin, and Cafe International by Application Systems Heidelberg.

UPDATE #1: Here’s a direct link to download the slides: Usability Lessons from Mobile Board Game Conversions (9MB PDF)

UPDATE #2: (2014-03-24) I added additional notes as well as the original session description and takeaway from the GDC Schedule.

UPDATE #3: (2016-05-10) I added a link at the beginning of this post to the video recording of the talk, which is available to watch for free at the GDC Vault.

Session Description
Martin Grider looks at user interface specifics related to touchscreen ports of modern board games. He examines common touch interface paradigms that have emerged in the genre, making in-depth examination of some particularly good mobile board game conversions from the perspective of their UX and UI decisions. Martin also talks about working with Tasty Minstrel Games on the For The Win board game application for iOS in 2012.

The following questions are addressed: What interface elements and control schemes are useful for board game conversion? What UX paradigms apply to board game interactions in mobile, particularly as they apply to the game screen and multiplayer game creation screens? How do these lessons apply to all mobile game development?