DOUBTS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

When my first few games were published, I wasn't very sure of myself, my abilities, or my judgment. I was constantly afraid that a game would come out and gamers would immediately discover some glaring and obvious hole in the rules that had somehow gotten overlooked. Then I'd be the guy who had designed a broken game. But you do enough of these things and you'll start to build up your confidence. After six years of working in the games industry, I have worked on nearly fifty games in some capacity or another, mostly as a designer or as a developer, so by this point I generally operate from the assumption that I have some idea of what I'm doing.

This has been bolstered somewhat by the fact that my last several games have reached a somewhat broader audience - for very particular, very niche definitions of "broader" - and have been fairly well-received. Outside of my train games, my first few designs were created in something approaching a vacuum, released to little fanfare. Few people played them, and of those that did, even fewer people talked about them online. I had no idea if what I was doing was working or not, and that of course just fed those doubts.

But as I said, I'm not creating in a vacuum anymore, and when I have a new game out, there is generally a decent amount of feedback from our customers. It is as you can imagine validating, and it helps me figure out which things to emphasize in future designs. For example, I probably wouldn't be focusing on tempo, momentum, and deadlock if it wasn't for the positive reception of earlier designs that played around with those concepts, and customer feedback that highlighted those features.

Not every comment is positive and validating, of course, and it's not surprising given the increasingly niche direction into which I'm pushing some of my designs that there will be some negative commentary as well. And in a way this is just as vital as the positive feedback, precisely because it gives me useful doubts about my work and my process.

Table Battles is a good example of this. It's a game (and system) that's been a commercial and critical success for Hollandspiele, and has probably done more than its fair share of elevating my profile as a designer. A lot of people dig it, and have said some very nice things about it. But there have also been people who very much don't dig it. When someone says that the game always comes down to rolling dice, it creates a doubt in my mind: is the game too luck-dependent? When someone says the game's mandatory reactions devolve the game into endless and frustrating loops, I wonder if maybe they're right. I've had folks tell me that this scenario or that one is hopelessly imbalanced for Side X (and sometimes, for the same scenario, someone else tells me it's hopelessly imbalanced for Side Y), and I wonder, is there something that we missed?

And in the end, no, I don't think the game is too luck-dependent, I don't think the mandatory reactions force that pattern (bad play does), and I don't think the scenarios are hopelessly imbalanced (though different scenarios are harder for different sides, or require different play-styles). I don't think they're right and if I want validation I can always look to all the positive feedback the game has received. That's not the point, however.

The point is that those comments and the doubts they inspire are very useful, because it gets me asking those questions. Even if I've already answered the question before, the very act of asking it, and of grappling with it, will influence my decisions for future games (both in the series and outside of it). I ask myself if it's too luck dependent and I start to adjust the way die results are distributed among cards and the way cards are divided into wings. I ask myself if I really know what I'm doing with the mandatory reactions and it forces me to take more care with the way those reactions are doled out. I wonder about the balance of the scenarios and I do little tweaks here or there, shifting the emphasis ever-so-slightly.

That last part is hard because so many of my games in general are balanced on the tip of a pin, so that the slightest push in one direction or the other will cause the whole thing to turn into a steamroller. In that way, my games are lopsided - or rather, they're designed to become lopsided, so that red wins decisively without blue having a chance or blue wins decisively without red having a chance. Because I'm interested in working in that kind of design space, it's especially important that I keep questioning myself and that I keep doubting myself.

The trick of course is not to wallow in it, not to get so absorbed in the negative feedback that it puts me off-kilter. And as a human being, I will admit, that certainly can happen from time to time: for example, the mixed reception of For-Ex utterly wrung me out. Generally, however, I'm able to use my doubts constructively - not to second-guess but to double-check.


  • Thanks, Slava, and no apologies necessary.

    Tom Russell

  • Well, if in any way I gave an impression that I am sceptical or do not ‘dig’ any of designs – I have to give my apologies for misrepresent myself.
    I never regret buying any Hollandspiele games because each one of them appeared to be leaving “piece of art” aftertaste. There is golden section of apparent simplicity with modelling depth that never cease to amaze me.

    I believe that any real life dynamic system have either positive or negative feedback loop. And all games fall in to those categories to some degree . Positive feedback loop with pinpoint and roller coaster might loose end game intrigue. The opposite variant with uncertain result until the game end might make all game meaningless making everything being result of a final dice roll.

    Slava Zipp

  • Slava – I don’t know what to tell you; this is something that reoccurs in a lot of my designs. I talk about it a bit in some of the other blog articles:






    Some of my games are more like this than others – it doesn’t feature as much in the hex-and-counter battle games for example. But some of my more unusual games get a lot of “oomph” out of this kind of decision space, where the slightest mistake can lose you the game, and therefore both players need to work hard to not make that mistake.

    I completely understand that this might not be something that you dig or find enjoyable, and that’s okay. If everyone wanted the same thing out of their games they’d be very boring. :-)

    The rationale for the slight asymmetry in Napgammon is that I wanted it to be asymmetrical – it felt right.

    Tom Russell

  • Dear Tom, I always read all your posts. They are always interesting, especially for a simple gamer like I am. Up today I got three of your games: the Scheld because it was your first game as Hollandspiele
    And I wanted to support you. The second has been horse & musket because I love the subject: p&p because I’m in Europe and shipping is killer.
    Third table battles to play it with my 6 y.o. Son.
    Out from outstanding game experience, which is always hard to get, I’m addicted to someone who is able to stream from American revolution to wwii, adding something related to the for ex: said like it seems that you are a psychopath editing the first game he has in mind. The reality is that you’ve been able to build a “hollandspiele” concept, which is recognisable in all of your games!!!
    I will go on for P&p and in some case will buy the boxe: please keep it straight, you’re going really great!!!

    Andrew Mozzati

  • Also I have a very itchy question if you allow. What is the reason behind asymmetry of the napgammon board? Traditionally it is expected from backgammon-ish design to have a perfect symmetry.

    Slava Zipp

  • 1
  • 2

Leave a Comment