Month: August 2014

Storytelling in Games: Summer 2014 Edition

I’m always looking for storytelling elements in the games that I play. Here are three games I have not written about before, and some more thoughts about a game I discussed at the beginning of the year.


Takenoko is one of those games for which the words “charming” and “delightful” could have been invented – it’s a game about a garden, the gardener who tends it, and the panda which has been let loose amongst the bamboo to eat its fill of the gardener’s work. Your goal as a player is to guide the panda, the gardener and the (unseen) architect of the garden to satisfy goal cards you draw which dictate bamboo colors to be eaten, bamboo formations to cultivate, and tile arrangements to lay out.

The game is played on a board constructed as you go from hexagonal tiles which come in one of three colors and with various improvements that affect how and whether the bamboo grows, as well as whether the panda can eat the delicious shoots. There’s a consistent aesthetic around the components: stylised Japanese artwork enhances the storyline presented in the game booklet, and the individualized player cards and turn counters make for a unified gaming experience. These components support the mechanics very effectively – it’s easy to follow the rules, because the components and the play card design remind you of them.

All this talk of consistency should make it clear that this is a game with a story: a slice of Japanese Imperial life which starts from the short comic strip in the game booklet and continues throughout the game.

Good for kids, too.


One of my favourite arcade games is Missile Command, not because I enjoy it – on the contrary, it makes me panicky and claustrophobic if I actually play – but because I love the way that its design engenders those emotions. It’s a pressure cooker: limited resources, increasingly dangerous attackers, and ever more hopeless odds.

Pandemic is like a board game version of Missile Command.

The players take on the roles of researchers and operational staff working for the Center for Disease Control, seeking to contain and ultimately cure a set of diseases that are plaguing the world population. It’s a cooperative game designed by the same talented designer who made Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, and it shares some of the same mechanisms.

First, the infection deck. This is the part of the game that routinely makes things worse: it dictates where the next infection occurs.

Secondly, the player deck. This is place where the players collect the treasures they need to defeat the diseases, but also contains the escalation mechanic: there are a number of epidemic cards in the player deck which, when picked, increase the rate of infection and then resets the infection deck with the cards already played shuffled and put back on top. This is the same mechanic I adore in Forbidden Island, where bad things that have already happened are the same ones that are going to happen again.

The third mechanic in Pandemic which meshes with the first two is how diseases spread. When a city is drawn from the infection deck, you put a disease cube on it. You can do that up to three times per city per disease, but when it happens a fourth time then there is an outbreak where disease spreads to connected cities – a disease cubes goes to every connected city. This can trigger chain reactions, and when that happens…

Well, let’s just say that there is only one way to win at Pandemic, but lots of ways to lose.

Red November

Drunken communist gnomes on a sinking submarine: it’s not a situation you’d actually want to be in, but it’s a highly entertaining game.

Your goal as players is to survive on the failing sub Red November long enough for rescue to reach you. To that end, there is a time track which the character markers needs to traverse: once everyone’s gnome has consumed all his* time, then the whole crew is saved. You use time by doing things: moving from room to room, picking up items, wading through flooded rooms, fixing things. For repair jobs, your base chance to succeed is linked to how much time you spend with bonuses for having helpful items.

Where it all goes wrong is that as time passes, Things Happen. On the time track there are markers for drawing an event card, and when your gnome passes over one of these a fire will start, or a room will be flooded, or a hatch will block, or the missile countdown will start. Some of these just make a bad situation worse, but things like the missile countdown set a time limit so that if no gnome can fix it before the time is exhausted then the sub is lost.

And I think this is the brilliant storytelling mechanic in Red November: the goal is use up time, but if you use up too much time on one action then too many events will occur while you’re doing that – spend ten minutes fixing the engines, and the reactor could overheat or go critical in the meantime. More than that, the time track is traversed by every gnome, not the team as whole – three players get three sets of event triggers, four players get four. So many, many disasters await you.

Recommended, as long as you can handle the messaging around alcohol in the game. Drinking is not without consequence (a dead drunk gnome can easily end up dead) but the up-front effects of laying into a bottle of grog in the game are beneficial**.

Elder Sign

Having written about Elder Sign at the beginning of the year, I have now played it a couple of times and I wanted to report back on how story-laden it is.

And it is: the locations are atmospheric, and it’s easy to get the feeling that one adventure or another is cursed as every investigator tries to resolve it but fails messily.

There are a couple of problems with the game, though, which prevent it from being quite the immersive experience that one would hope.

Firstly, the colour text on the adventure cards is unreadable. Even on the large format cards that the adventures are printed on, the text is tiny which makes the “atmospheric” font used almost impossible to decipher. All of the game relevant text is perfectly readable, but in neither game I played could I find someone who could actually read the adventure text comfortably.

Secondly, although the basic dice rolling mechanic is terrific at raising tension, the over-abundance of tokens rather gets in the way of play. As you play, you collect and spend stamina, sanity and clues. The clues never abound (you spend them on re-rolls pretty fast) but both stamina and sanity could have been better handled with some kind of counter rather than the tokens. One player said that he’d used d10s in lieu of these tokens in the past, and I think that’s something I will be doing too (although I will need more dice).

It’s still an excellent game despite these hiccups, as long as you understand that the box is simply lying about how long the game takes. It took us three hours to defeat Shub-Niggurath the other night, rather than the 1-2 hours claimed.

[*] this is not a diverse game.

[**] for example: a gnome can only fight a fire if he has a fire extinguisher, or if he drinks a bottle of grog.

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Track discipline

I’ve mentioned a few tracking tools on this blog, and I wanted to write a little about what I am using at the moment: of all the things I have tried, which tools have stuck?

Burndown Chart

The most complex tool I have been consistent in using is the burndown chart. I use this both for my writing projects and my day job.

I find this tool useful for two reasons:

  1. it helps be more realistic about what’s achievable in the time available
  2. it gives me visibility of when I am running out of time for a task

I use two burndown charts:

  • for my writing projects, the OpenOffice version has lots of auto-updating formulae and load calculations. I need these features here because I’m only in this sheet for a few minutes a day – the writing projects are managed on scraps of time rather than great gobbets, so I want the lowest cognitive load to keep things current that I can manage.
  • my day job tracking is done in a text file burndown. This needs fully manual updates, but the benefit is that the burndown is right alongside all of my other tracking files, and the blank template for a new sprint is created alongside other temporal artifacts.

The single biggest improvement I’ve made to my use of this tool is to log time off as a task in the burndown, and more critically to include time spent not writing in the writing projects sheet. The usual issue I have had in the past with my writing is that I had not been making allowances for time when I would not, realistically, be able to write which leads to annoyance when I don’t complete my writing goals. I now have a category on the writing sheet for “not writing” into which I place time for weekends away and the like.

Word Count Goals and Other Checklists

When I am in word-mining mode, I usually have a spreadsheet with word count goals in it into which I write my current word count after each writing session. This helps me to see how I am doing per day, the average word count, and how far adrift I am from the nominal goal.

In other contexts, I use lists and tick things off as they are completed: when editing a manuscript I have a list of scenes to work on; for example.


Making notes of what I’m working on and how I’m doing it is such a fundamental part of my working style that it’s hard to imagine how I could function without it. The problem I am working to counteract is my poor conversational memory: if I see something written down or if I write it myself then it tends to stick (to the point where I may not even need to look at the note again to recall it) but if I don’t write it down then it’s simply gone. The bonus with writing this stuff down on the computer is that it is searchable.

Anyway, writing logs in the day job is something I have been doing consistently for a long time (I started in 1997 or 1998) and it’s tremendously useful.

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Swimming in Story

Our big trip for the summer was a visit back to Britain. We hadn’t been over there since Christmas 2010 – almost four years. It was going to be the first time we tried to travel around the country a bit with the boys*: we had a short trip down to London planned, although we were still going to be staying largely in the North.

Being a tourist in the west of the US seems to be about traveling large distances to see attractions**. You can spend a few days in one city of course, or go to a resort like Disney, but for the most part you are going to be (usually) driving a long way between things. Between the things there tends to be a lot of landscape: farmed fields in some areas, mountains, deserts or forests in others. The stories are concentrated: Lewis & Clark’s camp at the mouth of the Columbia or fossil discoveries in the John Day fossil beds, for example. Often, the point of the excursion is the landscape itself: a national park full of canyons in Utah, or hiking a wild and wind-blown coast in Oregon.

Britain feels different from that. You find things to look at, but the story you seek is often on the other side of other stories on your journey. Travel to a museum in London and you can’t help but have a conversation about the tube map on the way (“why are all these stations named for different words for a dock?”). You walk past so many things to do on the way to your destination that it seems impossible that anyone could ever see everything.

Even the museums seemed more narratively focussed. At the Natural History Museum, many of the exhibits are arranged to tell a story of how a particular lineage of animals would have developed, or how the Earth has changed over the eons. I’ve not seen that kind of story-based exhibit so much in US museums – exhibits tend to be grouped by subject or time, in my experience.

But story is everywhere there – mills reused as artist’s studios; follies built as a chimneys for factories miles away; an attempt (apparently successful) to put up the world’s longest string of bunting***; a 900-year old abbey destroyed by Henry VIII. There is a density, a layering, of story that I just haven’t seen in the States****.

Even though I grew up there, It seems strange to me now.

[*] there would have been no trouble doing this the last time we visited because the boys were certainly good enough travelers then, but moving around Britain at Christmas time is miserable enough without piles of snow all over the shop as there were at the time.

[**] hence the American concept of the road trip.

[***] up Cragg Vale on the Tour de France route.

[****] although, as I implied, I have not been to the Atlantic coast.

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2014 Goals Post: Lughnasadh Edition

I’ve missed two of these – the Beltane and Midsummer editions fell by the wayside with the various exigencies I mentioned the other week.

Still, it’s worth seeing where I am and what can be salvaged for the year. Despite the extended delay, I’ll see how I did on the goals from Ostara.


No traffic light colours for the two missed updates. How does it look despite that?

Finish Songn/a1/2n/an/a4/12
Complete Shapesn/a3/3n/an/a1/2
Look for an agentn/an/an/an/an/a
Be productive in fictionn/a1/3n/an/a1/2
Run Hood To Coastn/a1/4n/an/a2/4

Hmm. That hole in the middle is pretty ugly. With any luck the table will look nicer once there’s more filled in later in the year.

1. Finish Song

Here is the plan:

  1. To complete the outline.
    Last time: I concluded that I had completed the outline, but I have since understood that this was a false impression. I have been working on a more detailed outline based on thinking about character goals and asking critical questions about the setting.
    Next action: complete detailed outline.
  2. To complete the second draft in line with the outline.
    Last action:
    continue second draft process.
    Last time I was supposed to be starting on act three and perhaps even finishing it.
    Instead, the other priorities pried me away from the story, and when I came back to it I had no idea what to write. Reconnecting with the story only confirmed that I was wandering lost, with no understanding of what the characters wanted and hence no sensible way to figure out their actions in the clinch scenes.
    Hence the restart on making an outline.
    Next action: continue second draft process.
  3. Edit that second draft. Pending completion of steps (1) and (2).
  4. Make submission materials. Pending completion of step (3).

I appear to be going backwards.

Goal Assessment

Goals from Ostara were:

  • complete draft of act three – twelve scenes. Yellow for substantial work on this (50% of the scenes written, say), green for a completed draft.

Total: I have touched only about four of the twelve scenes and most of that is going to have to be discarded, so I have to call this red.

Goals for next update: the outline I am building is making progress. The point is to dig down into the specifics of the scenes to capture both the necessary action and the foreshadowing of future events that needs to be included for the story to make sense to the reader. Once that’s done I will continue with the third act – fixing up the first two acts to match the outline will be a task for when the total draft is completed.

My goal for the Mabon update is:

  • complete detailed outline – five acts
  • restart draft of act three – half of the outlined scenes.

Metric: Yellow for finishing the work on the outline, green for completing draft of half of act three.

2. Complete Shapes

Here is the plan for Shapes:

  1. finish reading of draft – once for readability, once for errors.
    Last action: complete draft reading and markup.
  2. apply corrections from draft read.
  3. give it to my wife to read.
  4. restructure outline. Pending feedback from step (3).
  5. second draft – make existing material match outline; add new material. Pending step (4).

Goals Assessment

  • receive feedback – when I started writing this post I had had no feedback, but in fact my wife had been reading the book without telling me! Now I have had some feedback from my first reader. I am delighted to report that it was generally positive with the criticisms mostly being around the rushed last act when I ran out of time in November last year.
    Anyway, feedback received. I will update the outline once Song is drafted.
  • revise outline to reflect setup change – no work on this.

Total: 1/2 – yellow

Goals for the next update: Shapes remains on hiatus. I am delighted to have received feedback on the story, but I am not going to plan any goals for this next period since I think Song will probably occupy all of that time.

Metric: n/a.

3. Look for an agent

Last action: finish a novel so I have a manuscript to query.

This goal is pending having a manuscript I can shop around.

4. Be productive in fiction

This last few months have not been productive for my fiction. I’ve been doing good outlining work recently, but not much production of words.

Goals Assessment

  • get up to write in the morning – I’ve been getting up early at least, although not always to write. Still, this has been happening since we got back from Britain (time zone changes can be your friend…) so call it achieved.
  • write at lunch when I ride – I haven’t ridden into work, so this doesn’t apply.

Total: 1/2 – yellow

Goals for next update: I need to continue both to get up early and to do writing tasks first thing, and the lunchtime writing goal still applies since I will be doing some cycling at some point over the next period.

  • write early in the morning
  • write at lunch when I ride

Metric: Yellow for writing in the morning, green if I write at lunchtime on cycling days.

5. Run Hood To Coast Improve Fitness Level

Here is the plan for the original goal, although the goal itself has changed:

  1. lose some weight.
    Last action: actually lose weight.
    This did in fact happen, albeit by dint of suffering a bout of stomach flu. At least I haven’t put it back on despite travel plans. The problem is that I seem to merely be stable at the slightly lower weight.
    Last action: lose more weight.
  2. figure out a team training plan.
    Last action: kick off team training
    I’ve dropped out of Hood To Coast, so this is moot.
  3. races.
    Last action: ride to work a couple of days a week.
    Last action: maintain distance base,
    I haven’t ridden in to work at all.
    This extended period encompassed the Helvetia Half marathon and the training for that actually went quite well so I am inclined to say that I maintained my distance base, but then I had that illness and the whole thing fell apart. No Hood To Coast for me this year.
    The next race is the Beat the Blerch half marathon in September. I will be training for that.
    Next action: ride to work a couple of days a week
    Next action: train for Beat the Blerch.
  4. injuries.
    Last action: remain uninjured.
    Quite apart from falling ill, I also turned my ankle and banged up my knee when we were in the UK. So, fail.
    Next action: no new injuries, thanks.

Goals Assessment

    • lose five pounds – I did in fact lose five pounds! Even if it took me three periods and stomach flu to do so, I did actually lose five pounds.
    • start team training – abandoned.
    • maintain distance base – didn’t do a bad job of this until the illness, so calling this a success.
    • ride to work a couple of times a week – again, didn’t do this at all. It seems to be incompatible with building up running distance.

Total: 2/4 – yellow

Goals for next update: having missed Helvetia and abandoned HTC, my only remaining goal for the year is to participate in the Beat the Blerch half. I’m going to recast this goal as general fitness improvements instead.

    • lose another five pounds – because it can only help.
    • train for Beat the Blerch – my conditioning is largely shot, so need to build things back up again.
    • participate in Beat the Blerch – this will be my last race of the year.
    • ride to work a couple of times a week – there’s really no excuse for not riding in to work now.

Metric: yellow for 1-2, green for 3-4


Things that may sabotage these goals –

  1. unfocussed writing time – I have some short periods carved out for writing, but I need to actually use them for writing rather than, say, Facebook. This is particularly difficult with the early morning time because I am still waking up, although being on UK time for a couple of weeks has helped.
  2. roleplaying – I have no immediate plans to run A New Dawn, but it seems likely that this will have another short season in September before NaNoWriMo.
  3. projects and parenting – the is household project list still needs attention as do the children: projects suck up weekend time while thinking about parenting issues tends to encroach on the writing periods. Well, we’ll see – I try to include these specific tasks in my burndown sheet which helps with feeling less angry, even if not so much with getting the writing done.

Having largely abandoned writing for two periods, I count it as a success that I have completed anything since I last did a goals update. Still, hard to call this a good update really.


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