Friday, January 4, 2019

The Emperor's New Clothes & Activity Analysis

Years ago, just as KickStarter was realizing its potential in the board games market, a concept game full of blank components funded and I thought it was all a big joke. At XOXO 2018, I got to play it with its author, Jonathan H. Liu, a gamer so generous and trusting he lent out his game collection for the hundreds of strangers at the conference to borrow and play, unsupervised. Jonathan reviews game at GeekDad and, I now understand, is brilliant. As is the delightful Emperor's New Clothes.

The game comes with a scoring marker for each player and a score track, 10 cubes for each of the three resource types (dignity, gold, and gullibility), 13 role cards, a deck of action cards, three normal resource dice, and a fourth special resource die. Except they're all completely blank.

To begin, players draft role cards a bit like Citadels. We each get one turn to roll the three resource dice (each earning you 1 or 2 Gold, Dignity, or Gullibility), re-rolling up to two times, and collect those resource cubes. Then we each reveal our role cards in turn order, score points, and start a new round until everyone's been starting player once.

The four required roles that make that all click are
The Emperor, who collects 1 gold from each player, loses 1 dignity for each gullibility they have, then scores points for any remaining dignity,
2 Swindlers, who take half the Emperor's gold if they have any gullibility, then score their gold,
and the Child, who discards all gold and dignity, scoring for each gullibility among opponents.
There are a bunch more roles and the order player roles are revealed matters in the fully-printed game (which is a thing you can make happen), but especially in the blank game because of the thing that makes it all work, and on a profound level:

Emperor's New Clothes works with blank components because the players agree to the reality they fabricate together. This happens without the game ever mentioning it because it's what we do in every game we play. Every game functions solely because all the players agree to play by the rules set forth and exist in the same fiction together for a time. ENC just makes our implicit agreement explicit. When you roll your dice in ENC, you don't immediately proclaim to have gotten 6 gold or 6 dignity; that's implausible, it's boring, it doesn't use the game's mechanics (at least reroll into your windfall!), and it's not actually strategically sound (because it telegraphs the role you intend to claim, which is enough for other players to counter it).
As I was listening to the rules explanation, I kept expecting Jonathan to explain how we challenge bluffing in the game, but he never did, because you never do. There is no bluffing. Yes, we're fabricating every single event, but ENC isn't a bluffing game, so there's nothing to challenge. I was planning to claim to have drafted the Emperor, but you revealed your role before me and claimed it just so I couldn't. What am I going to do, call you a liar? A cheater? Ha! The social contract requires me to acknowledge that you are now and therefore always were the Emperor, and that I'm some as-of-yet-unclaimed role and the reason I doubled-down so hard on dignity was simply that I was confused, or playing the long game (you keep unscored resources between rounds).

And that social contract is the heart and soul of every game, no matter how little you associate it with the word 'social.' Hell, even solo games leave it to the player not to cheat themselves out of the intended experience.

Emperor's New Clothes is two games in one sitting. It's the game the rules describe and that the components fail to disambiguate, but it's also the game we play as we sit around a table rolling dice and moving cubes about and 'reading' cards, all of it one big lie that we've agreed to. Which is a freaking amazing execution on the theme and an experience I highly recommend.

Why do I mention it? All year I've been ruminating on a new design lens I'm calling Activity Analysis. It's a perspective on games where the observer takes a step back from the fiction of the game* to see what players are really doing as they play. It's not that we're looking solely at the mechanics and ignoring the theme—though that's another fair lens—but that we're most interested in what the players are physically doing and thinking about at a somewhat abstract level: What experience does the game create?
*And by fiction of the game, I mean the story of being players playing the game (and abiding by the social contract to live in the same game-reality together) more than the story the game is telling us about the characters in the game. That's the connection.
In Chess, players are strategically moving pieces around a board according to those pieces' individual movement rules, capturing their opponent's pieces, in an effort to corner the opposing king. Players can force particular choices by sacrificing pieces, and are incentivized to think as far ahead as possible. Skilled players memorize lines of play, both to use themselves and to recognize and counter as their opponents set them up. As a luck-free game of direct conflict, those who enjoy Chess get to pit their skill against others, feel smart when they win, and enriched when they learn.

In Magic, players are dueling wizards who build decks of cards they've collected and then draw from that randomized deck, playing spells and the resources required to play those spells, attempting to reduce their opponent's life total to 0 (or find an alternate win condition). It is an engine-building game that rewards synergy and luck-mitigation. Skilled players memorize hundreds of new cards and dozens of decks every season in an effort to build the strongest deck and counter opponents' choices. Magic players enjoy the combinatoric challenge of deck-building, and the excitement of a very random but still high-skill game.

In Apples to Apples, players take turns submitting and judging noun-adjective pairs from a limited hand of cards. Judges choose what axis on which to judge submissions, usually strength-of-connection, often comedic value, and sometimes stranger criteria. Submitters try to anticipate the judges' criterion, as well as their personal knowledge and opinions. You won't find many competitive Apples to Apples players; while it is a legit game, most players focus on the social fun of sharing associations.

It's easy to think of this lens as looking at the game without the window-dressing (theme), but theme is relevant (Space: the Convergence is different from Magic: the Gathering is different from Love: the Cohabitating), and we're less interested in the rules and components than we are what behavior and experience they're generating.

If aliens who understood none of our language or imagery observed us playing this game, what would they see? Now add a layer of understanding to how and why players are doing it: Are they bluffing? Are they cooperating or competing? What are they imagining? How are they engaging?

Let's dive a little deeper into the Magic example. A year ago I wrote about Non-Games and explored the toy game Draw Pairs, which is the most you can boil down the act of playing a Magic game. To build a Magic deck, players weigh the strength of available synergies against the cost to include them in a single deck (the opportunity cost created by their CMC and color requirements, with respect to the other choices necessary to support them—land types/counts/fixing, support cards, etc) with an eye toward dominance in the metagame. To elaborate slightly: Do you build a one-color deck to completely prevent color-screw or a five-color deck to maximize power and options; How many expensive cards do you play, and what else do you do to help you last long enough to cast them; How many narrow haymakers do you play versus flexibility utility cards; Do you rely more on threats or answers; What sacrifices will you make to include smoothing and increase the consistency of your deck? Those are fun questions to answer for players who enjoy analysis and synthesis. Playing the game is fun because you then get to test your hypothesis against others'.

Playing Magic is also frustrating because so much is out of your control and how frequent non-games are. Check out this tweet from a couple months ago:
The action+resource system fundamental to almost every CCG is an A•B mechanic, meaning it doesn't work fully unless you've got both kinds of cards. Hence Draw Pairs. If you wanted to make a game like Magic, without as many non-games, one very strong option to consider is breaking from the action+resource system default. Hearthstone and Kaijudo do it while preserving the mana curve by removing resources from decks and letting you have/play one each turn regardless. Keyforge does it by removing the mana curve and resources entirely, instead giving you a choice each turn between playing all your faction X cards, all your faction Y cards, or activating the cards you've already played.

I don't want to talk all day about this specific example (and I could) because I'm much more interested in the application of Activity Analysis as a means to evaluate and improve games. Another way to think about is to consider not one particular session of a game, but every session of a game in total. What is true about the experience, about player behavior, and about the nature of gameplay across the board? It's important that Chess is so defined by opening moves, not whether you try a Ruy Lopez or Italian Game. The impact of combat tricks in Magic affects the game as a whole more than the difference between Giant Growth and Ranger's Guile. That players get to choose how they judge Apples to Apples rounds is up to them is what spawned Cards Against Humanity and the pair's countless imitators.

In Emperor's New Clothes, players incorporate the social contract into the core gameplay, telling each other nano-stories about what they're doing in the game and how the game works (those blank action cards can do anything, remember). It's a secret-role and resource-collection game where nothing is true until you make it true. Players might anticipate lines of play and cut them off, or just engross themselves in the game's fiction without regard for winning. The experience illuminates what it means to play games.

How do you use this analysis to improve your game? Once you figure out what your game is really doing, you can decide what you don't love about that, state how it could be better, and then speculate what changes you could implement to achieve that. Then just do your normal iteration process (actually build the prototype, playtest it with actual people, get feedback, repeat), making a fresh activity analysis again to see if you got where you wanted to be.


  1. Are there any videos of folks playing the game together? I watched the very amusing video review on the kickstarter page but I'm very curious to see how it plays out when there's more than one person involved.

    1. ENC went out of print before Live Plays became a thing, so probably not.

  2. I love this article and I would love to take a crack at ENC.

  3. Even though it's now out of print, ENC is one of the easiest PNP to make for those interested in trying it. They sell all the components on Amazon