Tuesday, April 27, 2010


A friend of mine linked me to the Phylo Project, presumably to ask my opinion. I always presume people want my opinion; it entitles me to give it to them. At length.

If you haven't heard of it (probably) and if you don't feel like clicking through and reading up on it (also probably) let me give you a brief synopsis. A bunch of biologists, or zoologists, or some other related ologists (I got my degree in Physics. I have strong cultural reasons to disdain any "science" that needs to say ology so you know it's a science. Also, any science or field of study that isn't Physics.) Where was I? Oh yeah. A bunch of "scientists" realized that the same eight year olds who can't tell the difference between a badger and a wolverine could rattle off about a hundred different species of Pokemon. So, to promote knowledge of things that actually matter, they're trying to make a trading card game (TCG) out of real world species. Theoretically, if a bunch of eight-year-olds play this game rather than Pokemon they'll actually learn something.

I can see their point, I remember being a twelve-year-old with obsessions. (I don't recall being an eight-year-old with obsessions so well, but I imagine the cases are analogous.) I read the entire Lord of the Rings series in seventh grade. Twice. I saw Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail so many times... I could quote more than half of the movie, and would do so at any opportunity.

Let me share a lesson from my barren, fruitless Junior High love life: People don't want to hear about your obsessions. (If you're wondering how well I learned it seeing as I'm writing this blog, well so am I) If they're already Monty Python fans they'll laugh and quote a line themselves, but if they aren't; you aren't winning any converts. You can persuade people that what you have is worth obsessing over, but you don't do it by quoting the lines, you do it by showing them the movie.

Which is why I get nervous when I read some of the lines on the website. "inform the notion of biodiversity" "minimize biodiversity loss" "environmental challenge". These phrases come dangerously close to technical jargon; if you're trying to sell the game to somebody who hasn't already bought into your obsession then you're going to want to use words that don't sound like they came out of a dissertation. If we're assuming we're trying to get your average bored fourth grader to play this game then you don't want to overburden them with the heavy language right off the bat. Wait till they start wanting to learn this stuff on their own. You'll do ok selling it to the teachers since they speak your language already, but remember those teachers still have to sell it to the fourth graders to have your desired effect.

Which brings me to another lesson, one that I had definitely learned by the time I got to fourth grade. Educational games tend to be great on education and terrible on being a game. You can make educational games, and you can make them fun and playable, but you can only do it by treating it as a game first and an educational tool second. Which is why I suppress a shudder when I see that you've got the cards all designed with no rules behind them. Educational? Very. Fun? It's anybody's guess at this point. Mine is that your eight-year-olds are going to go back to Pokemon as soon as that bell dings recess.

Which is another point; rules are important. With the rules you determine the structure of the game and thereby everything about it. Especially how fun it is to play. Imagine I came up to you and said "I just designed the best sports car ever", and then I showed you my drawing. Nevermind that the lines of the car and it's aerodynamics are important for things like speed and fuel efficiency, if I haven't paid any attention to the engine of the car then I can hardly call it fully designed. But engines are reasonably modular; I don't know much about cars but maybe I could slap one into my "best sports car ever" and it'd work out. Lemme try a different analogy.

When I was in sixth grade I designed a robot that would kill viruses. A nanite scale thing, it was designed to recognize viruses, interface with them and drill into their protein coat and extract/destroy the DNA. Pretty neat. Thinking about it now I can see dozens of problems that I simply hadn't accounted for as a sixth grader. In the past decade I've learned quite a bit more about robots, computers, and proteins that make me realize that my early attempt was naive. In the same way I look at the Phylo project and I see that there are a whole host of complications that just haven't been dealt with.

I'm not trying to say you're a bunch of sixth graders; it's just outside you field of expertise. I've spent years studying games while you were learning biology. It's like comparing a film school graduate's work with some random video off of youtube; the graduate's youtube video is going to look a lot more polished since he knows a thing or two about how films are actually made.

Which brings me to crowdsourcing. Yes, in general you can get some pretty good results with the technique, but you're depending on it too heavily here. To get the results you need you've got to find the intersection of two populations; "people who know enough about game design to make a good game" and "people who are interested in working on your project." If the second population doesn't include anybody in the first population, then your game is going to suck and nobody's going to play it when their teacher isn't forcing them. The way to get around this is to increase the size of your second population. And then you have to deal with the problem of selection; how to sift through the random cranks and their half baked designs to get the one done by a caring professional.

There's an additional problem; having multiple, disconnected people working on the same game will lead to confusion quicker than concord. Imagine if, instead of an encyclopedia, Wikipedia was about creating collaborative works of art. You'd have people bickering about how the paintings were supposed to look. You might get something resembling modern art, but you'd fall dismally short of Renaissance paintings. If you even managed to complete a picture it'd be bland, homogenized by the disputing artists trying to take it in the direction of their own vision. "Homogenized" works for an encyclopedia article where you don't want to overrepresent one particular viewpoint but it's less salubrious in terms of art. Wikipedia works in part because the articles are measured against an already extant idea. However one feels about the American Revolution, I think we can all agree that George Washington was an important figure in it. Hence if we saw the Wikipedia article on the revolution and it didn't mention him once we could say that it needs editing. But if you're making a work of art there's nothing but your own creative intuition to tell you that a certain person needs to be in the picture, or what color or location the background should be, or any one of a hundred details about it.

So let's say that I, as a game designer, want to fiddle with your game. And furthermore, let's assume that I'm as good at game design as I think I am. (Please?) I dig through your rules, play a couple games and send you a couple suggestions. At a minimum you have to decide whether my suggestions are worth implementing. If you don't spurn them outright you have to play a couple games with the new rules to evaluate them. In the meantime somebody else has sent in their suggestions, which also might need to be incorporated. And the two sets of changes aren't necessarily compatible. Much better if you have an already extant game, and you let people design their own variants.

(Nevermind the possibility of sabotage, I'm tempted to draw a wind power plant on a card and call it Environmental Challenge: Alternative Energy. Rules text: Destroy target bird. It'd be hard to argue that card can't exist from a rules or realism standpoint.)

What's that? You do have an existing game framework? Lemme take a look at it for a moment.

It looks... playable (There's a whole game worth of structure there, the rules don't obviously contradict. Not yet willing to state whether the game has any strategy involved, or is even fun to play). I can spot a number of issues right off the bat (Barring a well placed Environmental Challenge there seems to be no way to get much of an advantage on another player. Also, if you start with two players with their own decks building off of the same structure in the middle, what happens when someone scoops up his cards at the end and accidentally mixes an opponent's card into his deck? What if someone jostles the table and the cards move around. Was that wren half adjacent to the forest or fully so?). Fundamentally, well, I'd have to play the game before I passed final judgment.

Strategy consists of deck construction and piece placement. Piece placement is constrained by the availability of legal spots on the board and the possibility of a food chain being wiped out. Both of those can be dealt with by proper deck construction. Matter of fact, by giving it a moment's thought I've got the best deck designed. You want to hear it? Good:

8 Urban
32 Policeman's helmet

The proportion might be off but that's not important. You want it as close to 1/6 as random chance and the necessity to protect against challenges allows; each habitat can have six species next to it. You want a minimum number of habitats so that you'll go first and so that most of the cards you lay will be species. On your first turn (and most subsequent ones) discard and draw twice, then drop an Urban as your third action, or a helmet on a later turn. The discarding and drawing ("looting" in Magic the Gathering slang) allows you to bring the game to a close more quickly. The person who ends the game first has the advantage, since they'll have seen more of their deck than the opponent. Unless neither player did any looting. Since the number of cards increases by 1 each turn (losing a card to the discard makes looting neutral), there's no reason to rush putting your cards down; better to hold them in response if someone tosses an environmental challenge your way. You can always lay down your hand in the last turn or two of the game.

You'll usually win. You'll get relatively more species played (and hence victory points) because you'll always have a slot to place them on. If your opponent tries to flood your habitat you can always respond by placing another Urban next to your helmets. Go for a soccer ball pattern; you can always block a flood since any two helmets will be between two cities. That makes them much less vulnerable to attack. If your opponent isn't using the exact same deck he'll lose time and actions by trying to get his bees to connect with his helmets and his predators to eat his prey. You'll almost always have the advantage over less homogeneous decks. Nevermind the risk associated with making food chains longer than one link. (You mean all I have to do is kill the bottom link and everything else dies? At this point there is absolutely no reason to put any species higher than 1 in a competitive deck.) If your opponent does play the exact same deck then you've got a really boring game, functionally equivalent to war. Yeah, that war, with the playing cards and the fact that nobody over the age of three wants to play it, ever. Your deck even has a theme: Bridging Nature with Industry.

Please don't try to argue that people won't build competitive decks because they're not as fun. Winning is fun, and people are willing to do some pretty boring things to win. Ask any Magic player about prison decks. Well, any Magic player who played ten years ago; Magic developers have rightly tried to steer decks away from this category since then. But the point is, you can try to prevent this sort of thing by fiat and it won't work very well for you. You might be tempted to mandate deck construction into several pre-built types. If you do that you're sacrificing a lot of the inherent strengths of the TCG genre. I'd suggest that you shore up the game fundamentals before you let that happen.

Before I go, I'd also like to criticize the card design. Because this bit doesn't really fit in with the rest of the blog, and because I like criticizing things. Do you really need to put the scientific name of the species on the card? It doesn't help you identify it, the cards already have unique English names. I guess you want to teach your players these scientific names, but is that really necessary? I mean, is it ever used for anything other than technical reasons? (Or to make people look smart?) The rest of the information serves a useful game function in addition to being something worth learning, I'm not sure the scientific names pass either of those tests. And could you make the habitat information a little more prominent? I'm used to "grayed out" equaling "less important". Additionally, a number of the habitat types aren't intuitively obvious. If you saw the tundra graphic without having seen the grassland graphic first, would you be able to say definitely that it was tundra? It'd help if that was defined explicitly on the card, or at least you put a picture next to the listed terrain types at the bottom of the web page.

So bottom line, after entirely too much text, I think the Phylo project needs to do oh so much work on their game before they do anything else with it.

You're trying to build a game that does something other than just be a game. In the times that it's doing that something other the game will be less fun. Think of an Ayn Rand novel; the parts where the novel digresses from the plot into essays make the storytelling aspect of the novel function poorly. It might make her message more explicit but it does so at the risk of alienating otherwise sympathetic readers. By making your game educational you're almost certainly making it less fun. If the game isn't fun, the prospective audience won't play it. If they won't play it, they won't be educated. It's a self defeating cycle. You're focusing on the education part to the detriment of the game. But if you don't do your work on the game you won't be able to educate people with it. Furthermore, you've got to sell your game to the players as if it's only a game, or at least mostly a game. People don't buy things because it says "educational" on the package. Moms buy things because they say that, and then wonder why their kids don't play with them. Unless you're pitching the game in a way that'll interest your students they'll resent having to play the game, and they'll learn less. Your game has potential to be an effective teaching tool; you don't want to waste that potential by making a game that sucks.


  1. This is great feedback. Can I put it on the phylo forum (Especially the part about the winning decks being simple and homogeneous)?

    It would be great to hear what others might do to counter some of the weaknesses you've discussed (i.e. stuff like instead of a single point per species card, the rank of the food chain is actually the points - i.e. if you build up, there is net gain in both points but also risk).

    dave ng

  2. Sure, feel free to repost.

    Yes, I do like the idea of summing food chain numbers instead of just species.

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