Crushing Hopes and Dreams

Last week I was invited by friend and gaming buddy Aaron Pavao to judge two groups of student game designs last week at the high school where he teaches — among other things — game design and theory. While I can think of several people in the area who might have been better choices — they having actual board/card game design credits to their names — it’s likely none of them could have spent an entire day doing so as I did. In my defense, I did spend several years writing reviews about boardgames for a number of publications including Scrye and Games Unplugged magazines, and have literally played hundreds of boardgames — many of them more than once! I’ve also written material for a number of tabletop roleplaying games, so it’s not like I’m unqualified. Aaron himself has a number of designs to his credit, including co-creating the Let’s Kill card game, published by Atlas Games, and extensive work on the Shadowrun universe for Catalyst Game Labs, and even some work on a support book for the Leverage RPG for Margaret Weis Productions.

When I arrived at the school prior to my first judging session at 10 AM, I had to speak into an intercom to be let into the building. After signing in, I was given a sticky badge with “VISITOR” marked on it, and a student was sent to escort me to the classroom. After the morning’s announcements, the students split up into their teams, all ready to demo their games for me and several other judges. I have to say I was impressed; the amount of thought and planning that went into most of the games was laudable, and several of the designs I would be more than willing to play again. A few needed tweaks here and there, and none of them were actively bad. I found out later that each group was assigned a random theme to give them somewhere to start; I think this helped tremendously, though some students seemed less than thrilled with the subjects with which they were saddled.

A stack of blank judging sheets was provided for me to fill out, and while I didn’t actually savage anyone, I was as honest as I could be about any major flaws we discovered. One or two designs were more complex than was strictly needed, which may have had more to do with the judging criteria than with the idea behind the design. Chance was a major factor in most designs — not a flaw, but certainly an unpredictable element. When coupled nicely with strategy, chance can be a delight; when left to its own devices, chance is more likely to bite players in the ass, so I like games that work at blending the two elements.

Class two was two hours later, so Aaron treated me to lunch from the cafeteria – which was delicious, by the way — and we went back to the classroom to eat, enjoying a quick game of Dominion while we talked and munched on our tacos.

In a couple of the groups, it seemed that one or two people had done most or all of the work; they knew the rules and could explain quirks easily, while other team members deferred to them on nearly every question. This wasn’t always the case, but I found myself spending nearly as much time analyzing group dynamics as I did judging their designs.

If I was disappointed in anything during the experience, it was that there weren’t many women in the class — two in the first session, one in the second — out of roughly two dozen students in each. Game design is not a guys-only thing, but in my admittedly unscientific observations, guys seem to be more interested in exploring games at that age.

I had a great time, and want to thank Aaron Pavao and his classes at Waunakee High School for having me as their guest judge. Even if the students decide that game design is not for them, I hope they continue to enjoy games as a hobby throughout their lives.

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