Tuesday, 1 May 2018

How to Win at Codenames (Part 2: Field Operative side)

Welcome to the second half of this ruthless, no holds barred, ultimate guide to beating people at Codenames. We’ll cover the Field Operative side this time. (Read Part 1 here!)

I have listened to your feedback. I accept again that Codenames is designed as, and is most often received as, a light-hearted game for casual gamers.

You want to hear another game which was originally designed for casual gamers? Super Smash Bros. Melee. It’s all a matter of how much you want to take something seriously, design intent be damned.

That being said, let’s get into some hot Codenames advice action!

-- Field Operatives --

Field Operative Overview

-- Listen, Listen, Listen --

As with the Spymaster side, keeping engaged with what players are saying is key. I won’t beat this argument to death, but it is worth saying a few things specific to the Field Operative side.

The most obvious difference moving from the Spymaster side to the Field Operative side is that you don’t know which tiles belong to which of the two sides. Your main source of information about this comes from the Spymasters. Your own Spymaster tries to herd you toward correct answers, but the rival Spymaster (and the rival Field Operatives) are actively trying to expose their own team’s tiles.

I want you all to channel the listening skills of this CREEPY-ASS emoji

If you can solve the rival Spymaster’s clues better than your rival Field Operatives can, you will gain some advantage in a crunch. It could mean the difference between a miss or a hit at a critical point in the game. Getting a hard read on your opponent's clues will also help you avoid falling foul of Fucker Tiles (tiles with related meanings that happen to belong to opposing teams) so keep listening!

But one party that we haven’t covered yet are your fellow Field Operatives. If you have them, they can be a help or a hindrance depending on how you all work together. That’s worth considering in it’s own section, so we will.

--  Get your Teammates Talking! --

If you’re playing with some fellow Field Operatives, you’ll probably have a difference of opinion at some point during the game over one of your Spymaster’s clues at some point during the game. You’ll be at an impasse until you come to a consensus.

At this point it can be tempting to turn this discussion into an adversarial debate where your theories about the Spymaster clues are placed in opposition to the theories of the other Field Operatives. This is often not the most productive way to conduct the discussion.

I’m taking huge cues from Edward de Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats when I say that trying to get everyone on the team speak their piece without fear of failure or chastisement is the way to go.  

Image result for six thinking hats book
I overthink casual games, so you don't have to!

Keep a mental note of what proportion of the theories has come from which members of the group and try and get theories on the table. This achieves two big things for your team. First, you are allowing possibly excellent theories to enter the discussion from people for whom the high stakes adversarial debate style just does not work for.

Secondly, it improves the overall quality of the discussion by encouraging people to talk through their theories, which is a lot easier to do in a welcoming environment. Talking through these theories allows other members of the team to benefit from any insights that previously only existed in that player’s head beforehand. You’ll also build up a better toolbox of reasoning for your future sessions with Codenames.

Tl;dr be a co-operative and likeable human being to succeed.

-- Feedback should be Limited, but Constructive --

Playing as the Spymaster is often incredibly frustrating as you cannot meaningfully comment on the guesswork that your Field Operatives are doing. Not so much as a ‘Nice One!’ or a ‘Dammit!’ should be appear on the Spymaster’s face.  Field Operatives, on the other hand can have a field day.

As a field operative, you should have an idea about how well you personally know the Spymaster. How well do you think you can read their clues? Do you know how they think? If you and your team all have a deep psychic link that reliably produces wins for you, then ignore this section of the guide, then ignore this entire guide, and congratulations on your dominance of your local Codenames meta.

For the rest of us, read on. 

You ever have that moment where your Spymaster appears to just give the most outlandish, impossible clue? The kind of clue that makes you say ‘What!?’ out loud? That reaction, on its own, is of no use to your Spymaster. Vocalise your thought process as you struggle to find a valid answer. Don’t just ‘Pass’ the turn huffily. Do your best to enable your Spymaster to do better next time.

tl;dr for this section

When you give this feedback out loud, you are practically giving info away to the other team, but I wouldn’t let this concern you. If your Spymaster isn’t delivering top tier clues yet, the trade-off ends up being in your favour. You’ll not solve your communications problem by letting it fester.

-- Wrap-Up --

The Field Operative job involves a healthy balance between going with your own gut, communicating with your team-mates, and considering all the angles. Overconfidence can lead to missing out on better possibilities, but overthinking clues often leads to talking yourself out of sound intuition. Achieving this balance is something that comes with practice, but this involves some introspection. Do you need to believe in yourself more? Can you listen to others better? Or do you need to hold your horses and practice some more caution? All these skills are worthwhile both in Codenames, as they are in life.

Simply put, playing Codenames, will make you a better person. I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to winning at life.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

How to Win at Codenames (Part 1: Spymaster Side)

Vlaada Chvatil's Codenames is a very bankable board game. If you are going to a board game meet up with a bunch of randos, you could do a lot worse than having the orange Codenames box in your bag. It's a very easy game to teach, and very soon your whole group will have got the hang of it. You'll be playing it all evening.

Then of course, you'll want to fucking win. I acknowledge that a more casual, rules-light, happy-go-lucky game like Codenames probably doesn't warrant a ruthless, expert level guide. But I've made one, and here you are reading it. I'm just glad that there is someone else who also wants to win this fun, friendly game with devastating aplomb as often as possible. DM me.

The guide will be broken into two posts. The first post will cover winning tactics that one should employ as one of the spymaster, and the second post will set out some best approaches when playing as a field operative.

Let's get into it!

-- Spymaster --

The spymaster is often thought of as the ‘harder’ role to play. It’s certainly the more daunting role. The spymaster assumes the most responsibility for the team’s overall success. They cannot confer with an ally like the field operatives can, and the field operatives’ potential for success is limited by the performance of the spymaster. The pressure can get into your head and mess up your game. Here are some tips to prevent this:

-- Eavesdrop like there’s no tomorrow --

James Bond’s spymaster M would relish the chance to be fully aware of their highly irresponsible agent’s movements in real time. They don’t have that luxury, but you do. You’re instructed to maintain a poker face while your field operatives deliberate, but you can ‘react’ through your moves.

An example. Your team misses one of your clues on Turn 1, but also talk about the correct answer at any time before Turn 2, you should know that your team are prepared to hit that missed answer on Turn 2, so it may be wasteful to give them a second clue that points toward that missed clue again. 

Meditate on this image and you will succeed at Codenames

It’s not just your allies either, if you overhear that the opposing operatives are considering selecting on of your team’s tiles on their next turn. Don’t do them the favour of setting a clue that leads directly to it if you can possibly delay it. Why waste a perfectly good opportunity to have the opposing team waste one of their turns and give you the additional tile?

If you’re not listening intently, you’ll miss this stuff. Spymasters don’t get to talk much, but they damn well get to hear an awful lot. Don’t waste this opportunity and channel your inner M.

-- Take Risks If You Are Behind --

Almost every Codenames team that I’ve played with or against falls into a familiar pattern of going for conservative pairs of two words at a time and simply communicating an association between two words. This tactic works if you’re either ahead on points already, or if you can rely on the opposing team fouling up on their turns. In my view, this is less of a tactic to win more games, and more of a tactic to pass fewer turns to the other team.

Tl;dr: Hitting safe pairs is wuss tactic, so try and find opportunities to pull ahead.

All of this being said, it is your job as Spymaster to gauge the bravery of your field operatives by Eavesdropping like there’s no tomorrow. There’s no point giving a bold clue that connects 5 tiles if your team buckle under the pressure and pass the turn. Wuss clues for wuss field operatives, I guess!

If you are going to ‘go wide’ on a clue incorporating 4 or more words, be very mindful of the potential for your Field Operatives to get it wrong. Try and rule out any possibility that a player will accidentally hit the Assassin or a tile for the opposing team of spies. It’s perfectly okay if there’s a slight chance that the player hits a Miss Tile though, as they can recover from that in future rounds. Don’t be afraid of passing one turn if you can potentially communicate over half of your tiles to your team, even if you are behind.

You can do this!

Also, with larger amounts of tiles being connected, you can afford to be a little broader. Cat and Dogs are ‘Animals’, but Beard and Kiwi are not ‘Animals’. However, all could be considered ‘Furry’ with a slight tilt of the head.

Another good way to find connections is to look at all of the other tiles that are not yours and see if there is something that they all have in common, which your words do not. It might be that you give an exceptionally vague clue to your Field Operatives, but they should be able to get the clues by process of elimination. The words 'Well' , 'Fridge' and 'Binoculars' may not have an obvious meaningful connection, but they could be easily be connected by the word 'Manmade' if all of the other tiles relate to things found in nature.

Just try and be on the lookout for larger connections. 3 is a world of difference away from 2 in a game which is first to 8 or 9 tiles.

-- Leave “Fucker Tiles” on the Board As Long As Possible --

This is the last big tip I have for the Spymaster. Before I get to it I have to emphasise that the first two tips are already a lot of work.

Paying attention what everyone is saying and then using that information to formulate a picture of what you think everyone remembers, and how brave everyone might be feeling is a lot to be engaged with at once. This is of course in addition to trying to figure out how to draw connections between tiles of your colour for your Field Operatives!

If you have any room in your head though, I would cast your eye to what your rival Spymaster is going through, because my god they are going through some shit!

If you have time to look at your opposing team’s tiles. You might find what we call a Fucker Tile.

A Fucker Tile is one of your own tiles, which could very easily make it way more difficult for your opponent to make a solid connection between tiles because there is a very good chance that it overlaps with one of yours.

Aim to be the purple guy: victorious and unliked

For instance, you see that the opposing team has ‘France’ and ‘Germany’ as two of their words, but you have ‘Italy’ and ‘Plumber’ as two of yours. You have an easy-ish 2-connection with ‘Mario’ but in doing so you make it a lot easier for the opposing team to get an easy-ish 2-connection with ‘Countries’ if you take ‘Italy’ off the board.

The ‘Italy’ tile in this instance is a Fucker Tile and you should leave it on the board for as long as possible. There’s a chance that the 'Italy' tile will be accidentally selected by the opposite side, and at the very least, you’re making your rival Spymaster’s job just that bit more difficult.

Try to look for Fucker Tiles the next time you’re playing Codenames!

-- Wrap-Up --

I hope that these three tips vastly improve your success as the Spymaster in Codenames. Next time we'll cover the game from the Field Operatives side. Until then, may all your games be good!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Why is the acting in Firewatch so good?

I asked Yogesh Raut for a blog topic this time around. Yogesh wanted to know what made for a good acting performance. Without any further intent on my part to seek clarification from Yogesh as to what he meant by that, I went ahead consent-free and decided to write a blog post about the acting in Campo Santo's award winning mega-smash Firewatch and that was that. In return for my brash sloppiness, I've included a link to his occasional but almost always excellent blog The Wronger Box which contains among many other details, incredibly well analysed and researched posts on quizzing subcultures, popular culture, movies, and TV. It's a better blog than mine is so I'm quite happy to sacrifice some of my attention economy if it benefits his. Go read. Abandon this.

Leave. Go to here.

Still here? Your loss. Let's talk Firewatch

Actually no, let's talk about human (theatrical) actors in video games first. Then we'll get back to Firewatch.

Games have the dubious luxury of not requiring human actors to be present at all. The actor's voice can be replaced by system audio, the actor's body and movements by sprites and 3D models, and the stage is built by artists and programmers working in sync. Further, you don't even need to leave the house. You don't even need to consume the whole story in one complete session. Games by their very nature are theatre without theatre. Games are the dark dual. A void auditorium.

It sounds gloomy but take the much beloved Undertale by Toby Fox. The skeletal comedian Sans is compelling as any character you would have been likely to see in gaming that year. Yet Sans does not have a human voice, or any mo-cap human presence, nor a physical stage to act on. I also consumed it over the course of a week in user defined chunks of time, denying some level of directorial influence over my experience in linear time. Yet through all this, Sans left more of an impression on me than Ultron did in Avengers 2: Man of Steel, which was also released that year.

Although I'm not the biggest anime fan it must be said.

So completely doing away with human led acting isn't all bad, but critics of the medium would be right to point out that games have yet to match cinema, literature, and the theatre in their ability to help us explore the human consciousness. Commentators often boast that games have the inherent advantage that they have the potential to encapsulate all other forms of storytelling, but this potential comes with a cost. It is a lot easier explore complex topical themes at the theatre than it is to produce a game that does it as well in a timely manner. Games are slow, complex, and high-risk. Theatre can be produced a lot faster, a lot more cheaply, and more often than not gets there first, and gets there better when it comes to the challenges of our times. Plus it's cool as shit, and sexy people go to shows.

Proposed Moral: Have hope that games will catch up and enlighten us all in new and exciting ways, but support live entertainment and be in the same room as content creators that are plying their trade and finding their voice.


It is lazy to say that games aren't for the purpose of delivering human performances. Yes, there is a huge uncanny valley to traverse before we can approach anything like the magic of cinema, and a further barrier yet to live theatrics... although the lines between gaming and live entertainment have long since been blurred by innovators. We must remember that it is not an intractable task to deliver compelling human led acting in video games. We've come a long way since Tidus and Yuna laughing after the Blitzball arc in FFX, and we will continue to make progress.

The sound is in your head now

But how do we get there? There are pitfalls in the way and the most obvious one is putting narrative first. As a somewhat experienced junior game dev I can tell you that every project, big or small, is a political struggle that lasts until the game ships or dies, and every dev, board member, client... (whoever!) is a political actor striving to shape the game in the way that they see fit. Sadly, narrative design is usually the department that tends to submit to the greater gods of Tech, Art, Business, and Systems Design.


If we want to tell better stories with the same impact that human actors have in theatre, cinema, and of course, TV, we need to actively facilitate the narrative storytelling aspect of gaming. Some have dubbed this interaction between gaming and storytelling as 'ludonarrative'. I feel that this a perfectly nice word, but I will not be using it in this analysis because I just can't use that word without feeling like a tool, so I shan't.

The question of how we facilitate in-game narrative required us to first ask ourselves how much you want your game experience to serve narrative in the first place. Is it window dressing and mere flavour? Or is it the core of the experience.

In the specific case of human led acting, we need to ask how important that is to the experience.

Say you want to make a game like Firewatch, where the narrative, plot, and characters are the main things that you as the developer expect players to take away from the experience. You would prioritise these features such as the combo system, cutting edge shader tech, or the competitive online meta. You want to tell a gosh darned awesome story like Firewatch does.

Well first you'd have to remember that you're telling a story about people. Firewatch is an intimate tale of two people crossing paths and sharing a lonely and fateful slice of their lives together. First we have to prioritise which aspects of human acting we try and humanise, and how much we don't. This decision is very project specific but we can use Firewatch as a case study here.

Here are some observations about the role of human acting in Firewatch:
  • There is no human-led face acting in Firewatch. The few times we do see any human faces at all, they are represented in stylised cartoon form.
    • From an artistic view, the Firewatch is a tale told through environment and radio messages, so additional face acting (through human or asset) would not contribute meaningfully to any themes.
    • It's also a huge overhead to get any kind of face acting right in video games, and it's really jarring when it isn't state of the art. So it wasn't included.
    • The camera is always first person, and the writing avoids practically all encounters with a third party. Therefore no bodywork needs to be done by human or asset actor.
      • However, the player-character Henry often feels slow and heavy due to some clever camera work, subtle audio cues, and walking physics, lending Henry a sense of age and weight as the player inhabits his mind and body.
  • The voice acting in Firewatch by contrast is some of the best you're likely to find in modern games. 
    • This is helped in no small part due to the voice actors themselves. Henry and Delilah carry the emotional weight of the majority of the experience and elevates the game from walking simulator to an interactive piece of cinema. 
    • Keeping the character list to two main characters, plus some talented extras, allowed Firewatch to remain focused on its human led voice acting direction, which is crucial because entire lines of dialogue were always at risk of being rewritten or discarded, as is the case in most writing in games.
    • Having a small cast list allows for re-writes, redesigns, and other unforeseeables without compromising on quality and minimising risk.
    • It also allows for more investment in recording many alts.
That's the extent of the analysis I can give about the acting in Firewatch without dissecting the performances themselves. I'm in no position to make informed judgements on voice acting, but what I do know is that developer Campo Santo created a game design that facilitated an environment within which a human story could be told with human voices, to the exclusion of everything else about human acting bar some occasional nods to face acting and bodywork to complete the illusion of a human character. 

It is worth stepping back from the human performances of Firewatch and talk about the incredible amount of less obvious decisions that have been made and the work that has been done to enable these human performances to resonate in the first place.

Even a great actor struggles to spin gold from a bad script, but Firewatch has its world, characters, and plot at the front and centre of the experience. Every play sequence is designed to engage you in its pocket universe. There is a great economy of play time, which is a very brave thing to do in a world of entitled consumers and ruthless Steam refunds. Firewatch respects both your time, and the story's time, and there is next to no filler material here.

The assets in Firewatch aren't ground-breaking, but they are well chosen, and well used to create a hauntingly lonely forest location, complete with a lookout tower so lovingly assembled with the attention of a set designer. By the time you've played through the opening visual novella's interactive mini-scenes your suspension of disbelief is assured. You are in Wyoming and you are an embittered man. This is all before you hear one line of dialogue. The human performances serve to keep you locked into that mindset.

Firewatch delivers an award winning narrative, and they do so on a modest budget. Campo Santo did that by applying all of their resources strategically to deliver on the core emotional ideas, sometimes called 'pillars' of the experience. This game is a lesson that the ever increasing triple AAA budgets aren't necessary, or at least could be applied better, when trying to tell a story that resonates with people.


In a more complex product, the importance of human performance needs to be decided very early, and then subsequent decisions need to be made as to what is essential to deliver on the performance. Do you need to see facial movements in conversations? What tone do you need to set with the voice acting? How many characters do you absolutely absolutely need?

Can you then guarantee that these essential aspects can be paid for and delivered well? What if timelines and budgets change? Will you protect the human performance aspects of your project, or will it be among the first things thrown overboard? You should know this if you don't already. Have those conversations!

As increasingly more money is thrown at marketing games to people, and as brand bubbles begin to burst, gamers will be the ones who ultimately decide which kinds of experience survive the crash that is to come and a vital segment of the vast church of gamers will be looking for compelling stories to be told. Human acting is not necessary to tell poignant human stories with games, but ignore the role of human performances in games at your peril, because they still matter. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Emotional Core of Geese

I'm currently in the regretful habit of 'doing requests' for blog content. I asked my good friend Judy for a suggestion in good faith. I've known Judy for years. We have a good strong friendship that will last until the end of time. I trusted that she would offer me a suggestion in the true spirit of jolly cooperation.

Judy's suggestion for a blog topic?


Here's a picture of Judy. Think of her face as you judge her.


Rather than let her revise her decision, I've spent weeks researching a good angle for a game design blog post which centres around the theme of "Geese". I finally found something that spoke to me on a profound level.

The Emotional Core of Geese.

Or more specifically, the emotional core of a single goose.

Before we can get to The Emotional Core of Geese, we first need to talk briefly about emotional design. Real briefly.

Emotional Design is a bit of a semantic rabbit hole, and it's easy to get lost in it. Be my guest. However, the commuters and busy people like me are going to keep reading, ta.

I don't know what this is.

In a nutshell, Emotional Design is a type of design approach which tries to specify a certain target set of emotions, and work backwards from there to elicit those emotions.

Amazon might start with 'The material world is at my fingertips' and attempt to work backwards from there.

Coca-Cola might start with 'I am drinking the most authentic cola there is'.

The Sega Genesis might start with 'I am not playing a kiddy console like those Nintendo nitwits' and try and build a brand out of that.  

Here's a few examples from games themselves. Try and think of the right hand side of these three equations as a crude statement of the Emotional Core of the game.

Candy Crush Saga === "I want to make progress without having to think too much"

The Witcher === "I am Geralt of Rivia, the Batman of Magic Poland"

Agricola === "I want to feel the harsh reality of being a peasant farmer"

You get the idea.

Once you've stated the Emotional Core of the game, it is then incumbent on the designer to deliver on that Emotional Core by creating experiences which elicit the desired emotion as much as possible.

If Candy Crush ever gives the player too much cognitive load, it fails because you're making the player think too much.

If you want to feel like Geralt, the game has to make you feel like a freelance monster hunter that uses potions, debate, and sexual prowess to get what he wants. Just like the books!

In Agricola you have to plan, scheme, and feel worried that you won't have a sufficiently good harvest to feed your family without begging. If you don't feel like a desperately poor farmer, the game doesn't satisfy the Emotional Core.
That's more like it!

If the Emotional Core is not delivered, you might end up with a perfectly functional game. You might even end up with a really fun game! It just won't be the game you designed for emotionally.

Okay... now let's relate this to the Untitled Goose Game by studio House House

Watch this trailer. -- It's got a goose in it!

Think about what you have seen... does it make you feel any... *sunglasses* ... EMOTIONS??

I assert that the Untitled Goose Game is trying to deliver on...

The Emotional Core of Geese

Or more specifically, the emotional core of a single goose.

So what is the Emotional Core that House House are going for?

Here it is: "There is a goose, and the goose is you"

So how do you elicit the emotions associated with being a goose?

Well first off, you need to get the basics right.

The basics are "If it looks like a goose, and sounds like a goose, and waddles like a goose..."

Here is a goose

House House deliver on this in their trailer. The goose appears gooselike when still, whilst in motion, and in the way it sounds. That's a goose to the senses.

That delivers on the 'There is a goose' part of the Emotional Core

But what of the 'the goose is you' part?

Well that's where the mechanics and goals come in.

The idealised comedy goose is at least these two things:
  • Anarchic
  • Obnoxious
And the trailer allows you to realise to inhabit these elements of goosedom.

Imagine you as goose.

You as goose obeys no master, you as goose can do act without the social consequences that man must. You are goose in the way that you wish to be as goose.

You're a terrible piece of shit as goose. You grab the sandwich and throw it in the lake. You ruin crops and confound the landowning class with your lack of respect for their hegemony. You as goose are a radical element and by your very being offend and frustrate the harmony. The joker in the gaggle. 

Perhaps a weakness of the Untitled Goose Game is that it has a checklist of goals. I find these to be more suggestion than requirement. I don't know how you are as goose, but I as goose respects no man, even the man telling me to respect no man. 

I will steal lunches on my terms when it suits me as goose, and so it should be. For the goose knows no master but itself.

*and scene*


Well I hope that was enlightening in some way. I guess I could provoke you all with the following exercise.

Go study a very popular piece of media that you know in your heart that you despise.

Something that clearly isn't for you. 

For me it is the TV show Mrs. Brown's Boys (Too much has been said about that show already) and the X-COM strategy game series (It feels too much like my day job) 

Go check it out and ask yourselves... 

"What Emotional Core is this production delivering on to achieve its undeserved popularity?"

And with that question I bid you adieu.



NB: X-Com is a well designed game. It's just not designed for me.
NBB: Just because something wasn't made for you, it does not mean that is was not well designed.