Tableau Design Notes: The Power of Constraints

(forgive me if you’ve seen this post elsewhere — I really am interested in a conversation with game designers and other creatives on this topic, and just have not found the right venue for for broader discussion.)


“The Power of Constraints: Embrace limitations and boundaries as a source of inspiration. Appreciating the obstacles helps you see more fully how to overcome or adapt to them. Accepting constraints, they can morph into useful forms that open up new possibilities, spurring creativity.” [^1]

I’d like to discuss some design choices in my Tableau game system (just launched last weekend on Kickstarter) that set it apart from other storytelling games you may be familiar with.

One striking difference is the presentation of the entire game’s rules on poker-sized playing cards. This idea was inspired by a periodic challenge I set for myself as a designer, in which I picked a design constraint (usually length & size) to explore my creativity.

One of my early examples of this is my free Monster Smash game that I originally wrote in 1994, where Play-Doh creatures grow fangs, legs, wings, tentacles, poison stings & more, and players compete for the right to smash them. My goal was just to see how simple and elegant I could make a board game. All the rules, table of costs for the “monster parts,” a monster tracking sheet, and even the ruler needed for range attacks, all fit on a single sheet of paper. It was a huge success over the next few years at various Bay Area local game conventions and became so popular that in 2001 I wrote “The Next Page” on the back side of the page, offering some optional rules. Almost 30 years later, the game continues to be a convention favorite. I will walk in early in the morning and smell Play-Doh filling the halls, and hear both adults and kids yelling, “Smash! Smash! Smash!”. A few kids I played the game with in early have shared with me that they are now bringing their own children to conventions to play!

In 2019, I challenged myself to create a small, elegant RPG game. I discovered an interesting price break at 18 poker-sized cards (probably because that is the size of many sports trading card decks), so I decided to work within that constraint. This led to a successful Kickstarter campaign for my original Gate Watch game. Its rules fit on 6 cards, with the remaining cards dedicated to a random card drama mechanic and storytelling prompts. Since card backs are just wasted space, I put 18 different inspirational images on the backs of the cards.

Initially, my plan for a 2020 sequel, Twilight Road , was to create another 18-card game. If Gate Watch was about living on the borders and edges, Twilight Road would be about the roads that pass through them. However, the lockdown halted not only my gameplay but also my playtesting efforts. The constraints of lockdown and revisiting my game designs over and over led me to realize that the two games could be intertwined. After discussions with my colleagues Aaron Reed and Shannon Appelcline, I discovered even more kinds of of story playsets were possible, each with different sets of cards, which could be all interconnected. This idea culminated in the two Tableau playsets offered in this Kickstarter, with more to come later this year.

Another constraint I encountered was the limited space on each card. I found that I could fit a maximum of 350 words on both sides of a card. As a naturally verbose writer, I would repeatedly trim the text of each card down to about 250 words, only to have it expand again during revisions. However, after multiple iterations, the essence of each card emerged. I hope that the final result is as powerful and inspiring for you as it is for me.

So, how have you used constraints in your creative life? Time limits? Size limits? Did they result in success or frustration? I’m curious to hear about your experiences.

– Christopher Allen

“The best stories are the ones we tell together!”

[*1] Quote from CC-BY

  • Image credits: Bonsai by Dyogi , CC-BY;
  • Monster Smash Family by [USER=1149]@ChristopherA[/USER], CC-BY, permission granted by mother to include her children in photo;
  • Stone Arch Photo by Max Pixel, CC0.

Since I’m seem to be in a Tableau card state-of-mind, I captured some of my recent thoughts on Constraints, in order to apply them as a possible future Tableau Core optional rule for “The Table 𐃄”:

Any better, more concise wording for these items? Any better idea than I list as possible examples?

– Christopher Allen
“The best stories are the ones we tell together!”

I haven’t got a better wording.
Regarding linguistic restrictions, that is the door to a lot of fun games, that would be a whole 18 cards deck in itself.

  • Only in the protagonist’s first person is a constraint that makes scenes in Nerves of steel by Simon Pettersson and Catherine Ramen very powerful.
  • Characters can be defined by a concept that constraints everything they say #neurodiversity. The constraint can be either positive (it’s all about me myself and I) or exclusive (never say a negative). This can be pushed to 11 in fantasy or SF settings (a character that doesn’t get the concept of chronology or who sees stones as conscious beings).
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I definitely enjoyed the OG caveman role playing game at a con. Players are limited to a 17 word vocabulary (you, me, rock, water, fire, tree, hairy, bang, sleep, smelly, small, cave, food, thing, big, sun, go), and if you are smart an 18th word: verisimilitude :wink:

I’ve been tempted to print a set of OG cards to facilitate this.

In my book on the design of collaborative board games, I have a whole major chapter on theory of cooperative games, on how how perfect cooperation can make for a poor game:

“The problem with these perfect games is not just that players can work together in fairly unrestricted ways. It’s that doing so produces simplistic and unsurprising gameplay. It sucks the excitement out of a game.

In order for cooperation to be interesting in a game, it should be flawed. A game should let cooperative players make mistakes; it should let them purposefully work against the common good; it should let them be surprised by an unexpected result; it should let them misinterpret, misevaluate, and misanalyze; and ultimately it should let them make the wrong decision as a result. When these elements are put together, cooperation becomes hard, and so cooperating becomes a major accomplishment.”

It continues to offer ideas for introducing flaws in 4 sub-sections:

  • Restricting Information. The easiest way to isolate players from each other is to reveal information to individuals rather than to the group, then to make that information hard to distribute.
  • Restricting Communication. Problems with information distribution arise when each player knows hidden information, but it remains somewhat private because there are restrictions on how players talk about it.
  • Restricting Assistance. Talking about hidden information is just one way that players cooperate; they can also actively assist each other. Thus, it’s also useful to restrict how characters interact in a game.
  • Restricting Competency. Preventing one player’s competency from helping out everyone in the game makes each player responsible for some part of the game, which has additional benefits down the road.

Now this was for design of cooperative board games, but offers some ideas for another dimension of constraints.

— Christopher Allen

PS I’ve also thought about a word list somewhere between OGs 17 words and XKCDs “Thing Explainer” with 1000 words (See “Up Goer Five”

Maybe 100 root words on cards with few prefixes and suffixes? Not sure.

— Christopher Allen

Writing with constraints also makes it easier to set the text in layout. It’s a hassle if the monsters in a monster chapter are between 200 to 3000 characters in length.

I mostly write with layout in mind - not just trying to put words down but thinking of how the text should convey the message through typography.

Hi, I have experienced that perfect collaboration narrative games is possible and fun for a lot of people. Acknowledging one person contribution by reincorporating it is often all it takes.
Still, the 4 ways of playing on collaboration you name are great to find new game ideas!
Also, constraints to play with language in game:

Agreed! Thus the “Yes, and…” Drama Rule that is in the Tableau:Improv playset. (it is free this month)

I’ll as as somebody that studies professionally collaboration, I’ve found that the best groups have considerable diversity, and if not, have explicit roles that intertwine with others.

As an example of diversity, one of the best Tableau playtests has a woman who had professionally been a clown for children’s parties. We early decided that that silly was ok, but thoughtful silly. I’m not silly at all (I’m better with a dry humor as a reaction), but her skill not only was unique, she also knew how to draw silliness out of us.

As an example of specific roles, I’ve used both professionally as a facilitator and as an educator a 4 chair speaking circle, each chair with a role and a totem for that role. The rest of the audience are watching these 4 chairs.

For instance, one chair was “Speaker for the Seventh Generation”, whose role was think very long term, and for the future children of children. If you had something to say about that, you’d stand behind the person sitting in that chair, and they’d pass you the totem and let you sit in the chair. If no one was behind them and they were done, they could hand the totem to someone in the audience. The dialogue between the speakers filling these roles was quite powerful.

There is a part of Tableau Games that are inspired by that experience.

– Christopher Allen
“The best stories are the ones we tell together!”

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I had not seen that one!

This is one place where computer-mediated play is powerful. In an online game I designed (and still available, and the code is now open source) Castle Marrach, the players can learn languages at various levels. If you knew “Northern” at 100%, and someone else also knew it at 100%, both of you would see your speech prefixed with “[Northern]:” and your full text. Everyone else would just see garbled nonsense words that were consistent such that you’d know that they were probably speaking Northern.

However, if you only had “Northern” at 50%, and someone else had it at 50%, you’d see the text 75% garbled with those nonsense words. Non speakers would also see 6% (25% of the 25%) of the words in “Common” that everyone knows, leaking information.

Even at 90% and 90%, a few words between the Northern speakers would be garbled, and a few words would leak in common.

This was also linked to the learning system, so if you spent a lot of time with people speaking northern, and you at least knew the basics (10%) your skill would slowly get better. If you were specifically trained by someone, it would go faster, but no more than 10% per real-time week.

This has lead to big events in the game just teach languages :wink:

– Christopher Allen

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I knew about using a special chair or spot, but multiple chairs to represent more ideal characters is a very cool idea. I agree in full: a group with a diversity of perspective and tempers is, in my experience, the main key factor in a game’s quality (provided a safe, firendly frame has been set up).
Having the words scrambled by a computer can sure provide an interesting experience, as it makes the mechanic easier to manage. I had a similar one in an online game where ebriety affected your wording an vision, and I enjoyed it. It was a fun experience of subjectivity.

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