Author Archives: Thought Check Games

Hey there!

If you’re reading this, you probably found a truly ancient (5+ years old!) link or URL. In the fullness of time, I should probably re-frame this page entirely, so that it just redirects you where you’ll want to go.

But for now, I’m just going to drop a link to my more recent web site, at

In my younger days, I went through brand identities a lot, but I’m trying to get over this. should work for the foreseeable future.



We are moving hosts! If you could kindly re-direct your eyes and bookmarks here, you’ll see all the new stuff.

Synanthropes: Big changes, big changes.

I have made a huge, huge, mega-huge update to Synanthropes; I have stripped out and completely replaced the central dice mechanic. Once it was all about collecting a dice pool, now it’s about rolling 2d6 and adding bonuses; for every +1 die in the earlier system, it’s now simply a +1. Other than that, it’s operating on what might be recognized as the Apocalypse World standard, where results of 10 or more accomplish the task, 7-9 accomplishes partially or at some sort of cost, and 6 or less means that not only do you not get what you want, but something bad happens besides.

Admittedly, I’m a LOT less codified than the Apocalypse system, as I have no such things as Moves, but the core remains the same.

Okay, why would I do such a crazy thing? It was not an easy decision! And yet, I am confident that it was the right one.

Why? Well, let’s consider some things.

Probability curves:

I spent some long nights on AnyDice, rolling and rolling and looking at curves, and trying to come up with ways to ensure that success when you didn’t have any bonuses wasn’t nigh-impossible, while success when you stacked the deck in your favor wasn’t as sure thing, and eventually I came up with something that looked perfect:

On a d6, 4 or 5 counts as a success, 6 counts as 2 successes, and 1 is a botch which removes one success from your total. You need a total of 2 or more successes to fully resolve the task, but a single success will let you partially accomplish your task, or accomplish it at a cost.

Oh lord, I didn’t need to playtest that. Just look at it! For criminy’s sake, it’s ridiculous! It’s so far divorced from the world of numbers that I might as well ask folks to buy a damn spinner or other truly esoteric randomizer.

(Note to self: what sort of interesting things can I do with a spinner? Makes it really easy to create an “I succeed IF I’m using an Artifact” or “I succeed IF being helped” option. Interesting and useful… the more bonuses you have, the more slices which count as successes. Interesting… but not for right now. Save that for next Game Chef maybe.)

Anyway, a standard 2d6 makes a familiar probability curve. I lose that “no math needed” thing, which is unfortunate because I really like not having to rely on even basic calculation, but adding 2 dice and a few random +1s isn’t much of a hardship… you can do that on your fingers (and if you run out of fingers, it means you have succeeded, so, that’s a tangible bonus).


Finding Clues is a central part of Synanthropes. It’s something I really want to be unexpected… a random occurrence, indicative of an interesting thing stumbled across. First edition: Clues came when you rolled to find them, which I didn’t much care for. Second edition: if you rolled extra successes, you turned them into clues, which was a little better, but still frustrated and didn’t work so well. Third edition: Any doubles turned into Clues, which was better (in that it meant you could fail your way into finding Clues) but still troublesome (in that the odds of finding Clues were still tied, very closely, into how many dice you were rolling and therefore your likelihood to succeed; I instituted a “one Clue per floor” policy to help mitigate that, but it honestly felt like a little more trouble than it was worth).

Now, it’s still doubles… but it’s doubles on 2d6. Odds of that? 1 in 6. Period. If there are six rolls on a given floor, one of them is guaranteed to dredge up a Clue. (Note: Edward does not understand statistics). Clues are equally likely when you’re flinging around wildly, as when you’re rocking a basically sure thing.

It also means I get a little more freedom to play around with species-specific bonuses and Hoard points… Roaches can roll an extra die, for instance, and count only the two highest, when going into situations when they might get hurt. Raccoons working with technology don’t change the dice they roll, but the “partial success” range is dramatically increased. This gives the different species unique mechanical attributes, which is something I always wanted (but since they’re Hoard-point activated, they’re still minor enough to keep things reasonably balanced.

Initial tests look promising.  Which is important, because the Wheels of Publication are starting to turn.

(They’re self-publishing wheels, to be sure. but they ARE turning all the same.)

The 5 best video games of 2013

The following is a list of video games; indeed, one could make the argument that they are the Five Best Games of 2013.

In fact, I will be making this argument. This is my year-end games list! Now, a note beforehand… my game budget is not large, which means that the games I buy I choose carefully, and most brand-new AAA titles are outside of my grasp. That is to say that the set of games I’ve played that actually came out in 2013 is small, and doesn’t include, say, GTA V or certain other industry notables. Whether that means they would make it onto my top 5 is something we can never know.

Shall we begin?

5: Antichamber


3: Gunpoint

2: The Stanley Parable

1: Gone Home.

Very good. The decision has been made, and there can be no debate, these are the games of the year.

What’s that? You want more elaboration? Ugh. FINE. Continue reading

This site is in the process of transferring to a new host. It may take a little while; I am but one person and I know very little about in internal mechanisms of this whole Internet thing. If things are flaky, rest assured, they will unflake in time.

This is just to say

I have taken down

the rules

to Synanthropes

that were on the navigation bar

and which

you might have considered


for your own personal interest.

Forgive me

I have big plans

for a big release

in the near future.


Okay, that was a bit silly. BUT I have removed the link to the current iteration of the game. Why? Because I have Plans, dear readers. Long-term Plans. More details will be forthcoming, but the short of it is, next year, if I can get all the logistics sussed out, there will be a Kickstarter. Oh yes.

Aperture Science Sokoban Testing Initiative

Last week I mentioned a game that I was working on in PuzzleScript. There was a link to the game in progress.

To-day, there is a link to the game which is done: Aperture Science Sokoban Testing Initiative.

It’s Portal, told as best as I can through the game engine. Which, honestly, came out pretty great, given that my last experience attempting to code a game happened on a TI-83+ graphing calculator. 

I’m quite proud of myself. For designing levels which people have found challenging but possible, for punching out bugs wherever I discovered them, and for writing which, in my mind, serves as a pastiche of what made the Portal series so entertaining, without simply hitting identical beats; in the same way that Portal 2 featured some callbacks to the initial game (companion cube, cake, etc.) without simply repeating the bits which had become memetically entertaining.

I gave myself a challenge to do something relatively new with “cake,” and I honestly think I achieved it. But that’s a spoiler, technically, and this isn’t a post-mortem analysis. This is an announcement that a thing has been completed!

Go, play Aperture Science Sokoban Testing Initiative! Push some crates, fling some portals, eat some cake, and enjoy!

Synanthropes, simplification, and emotional beats.

Hey there folks; it seems like it’s been a dog’s age since I last mentioned Synanthropes. Let’s me fix that.


It’s been a while, but I finally started working on the game again; you’ll note that the versions in the sidebar have been UPDATED.

With Synanthropes Lite, I didn’t have too much to do; I changed some of the wording, I altered the Roach’s attitude toward the Artifact to encourage a bit more fussing, and I dropped the timer down to ten minutes, which is a bit more reasonable than fifteen for pure arguing. There’s a semblance of mechanics there as well; indeed, I’m pretty sure I’ve created the world’s simplest game engine: you can do anything that you say you can do, unless someone says you can’t do that, in which case… you can’t.

(I’m sure I’m not the originator of this game engine, which owes a lot to the third grade “Nuh uh, ’cause I have a laser shield” brand of narrative construction).

As far as Synanthropes proper, there have been a few more changes, one of which is a baby-killer: no more career dice.

I think one of the advantages of not looking at this game at all for almost two months is that it allowed be to clear away some of the assumptions that I had been making, and instead throw a fresh pair of eyes into the problems. Before, players had a Career; it gave them a bonus which they could use once per floor, allowing them to either re-roll a failed roll OR allow another player to re-roll a failed roll, if that roll had some sort of relationship to their career. It’s… it’s fine enough, I guess. It’s really useful, at times! It does some of what it needs to do: gives players a meaningful way to work together AND to have a sense of self-identity not tied solely into their species. Plus, it seemed like a great idea when I made it, which was at a time when characters were nothing more than their species.

Also, it was a fiddly thing to track. It wasn’t commonly used. It was often unhelpful. In playtests, I would make an effort to use it every floor, and other players would… not often remember it existed. Sometimes they would take advantage of it, usually because I prodded them. It may have been useful, but it wasn’t memorable and it wasn’t FUN, so it wasn’t used. I had to have a bit of a think about why that was, and that think happened subconsciously over the course of October, springing forth the instant I clapped eyes on it this week.

“If I am a soldier,” I thought to myself, “I can use this re-roll when I fail when I’m fighting. But, if I’m fighting, shouldn’t I… not fail? Shouldn’t being a ‘soldier’ be something that helps me do well, not something that fixes it when I don’t do well?”

Consider it an issue of emotional beats. If you haven’t read Ryan Macklin’s commentary on this, well, you should, but the hyper-brief summary is this: every action you take produces an emotion, and you should ensure that the emotions created by the mechanics are able to work with the emotions created by the fiction. Career dice were producing a toxic situation here.

In the fiction, I set up to do a difficult task, attempt it, and (hopefully) succeed because I had the skills and resources. Call that the narrative progression. Mechanically, I gather my pool (which re-enforces the idea of marshaling my resources, a positive or at least appropriate emotional beat). I roll the dice and count the successes (it’s an analysis moment, so it disrupts the emotion but only very briefly… call it almost neutral). I see I have sufficient successes, and accomplished the thing (hooray, I did well) or I do not, and I failed (oh no, what goes wrong?), either way my reaction as a player to the roll of the dice matches and re-enforces my reaction as a character to the situation.

But with career dice in play, there’s an extra step: I fail, and I have to ask myself if I can use my career here, if I have already used it, if the situation is important enough TO use it, so on and so forth. Emotionally, I am already disappointed by my failure, and the flow of the narrative is even more disrupted by another round of the “what resources do I have” game, with a resource that is more rare and finite than Artifacts, allies or even hoard points. Even if I do re-roll and succeed, I succeed having already been irked by my failure earlier; emotionally, it becomes a toxic moment, destroys the flow of the game, makes me dislike thinking about my career, and does not bring the fun.

Damn! No wonder everyone ignored their career dice! If anything, being a soldier and trying to do soldier-ish things is actively DETRIMENTAL to feeling like you’re good at stuff. Not only are your odds of success only slightly improved, but often those successes don’t FEEL good.

So what do I do? I get rid of it. Oh, there’s still a career die, but now it gets put in your pool like everything else; simplicity, consistancy, and now the awareness that “hey, this is the sort of action I’m trained for” is a part of that marshaling of resources which is where I want it to be!

As for giving someone else a boost with your career, that’s been folded into Hoard points. Again, one less thing to track (now, the only mechanically-limited resources you have are your hoard points, which you can track easily). You can’t re-roll for yourself (which means that for the actual roller of the dice, there isn’t an additional hiccup), but you CAN offer your career-based boost to other players; this is a different emotional response. For one thing, it means that, in a situation in which you are otherwise outside of the roll, you can still be invested in it and participatory in it. For another, the emotional journey of “Oh no, I failed! Wait, Seneca is here to help me? Huzzah!” MAKES SENSE; it’s a case in which the mechanics track with the fiction, instead of fighting against them, while simultaneously re-enforcing the theme of working together (or attempting to work together) which flows through the piece. At the same time, if it’s tied to Hoard points, it still remains a relatively valuable commodity (which means I might need to consider awarding Hoard points more often, in light of their increased value and necessity).

The question is whether this will make careers more useful; my gut says that it will mean players can have a greater investment in their careers, which will translate into an increased tendency to show them off. Whether that is true or not, time will tell.

GMotW: Push Crate

PuzzleScript is not a game. It is, indeed, an engine for creating games, but here I am, treating it as IF it were a game, and porting it into my Game Mechanic of the Week.

(There’s a huge discussion to be made with respect to “What is a game?” and frankly, it’s a kettle of fish I don’t want to get into, but you know. Maybe it is a game. Whatever.)

If you’re not familiar with PuzzleScript, it is an open-source scripting language for creating Sokoban-style puzzle games; that is to say, it’s turn-based, tile-based, and naturally structures itself around requiring players to move crates onto targets without getting them boxed into corners. You can create different kinds of crates, different kind of targets, and different kinds of walls, but the game, as an engine, is really made for that simple sort of interaction.

But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s simplistic. I don’t just mean with respect to the complexity of the puzzles… Sokoban can be tricky when it wants to be. I mean… well, here’s what I mean. Today’s mechanic is a rule that loads up as soon as you open the editor to the fresh template:

[ > Player | Crate ] -> [ > Player | > Crate]

The language is a series of cells and arrows. The cells represent tiles, if they’re bracketed together, they’re adjacent. The “>” indicates intended motion, so ” > Player” means “The player character is attempting to move in this direction.” The “-> ” is an order for the game engine; it says “Whenever you see the situation on the left side of this arrow, turn it into the one on the right of the arrow.”

Taken together, it’s like this: “Whenever the player character is next to a crate, and attempts to move into the crate, try to move the crate in the direction they’re pushing.”

What do I love about this? I love how simple it is. I love how intuitive it is. I love, love, love how intensely VISUAL it is.

Look at it! Of course that’s what it means! How could it mean anything else? There’s a player next to a crate, you can tell because he’s NEXT to it. He moves toward it, so he gets a little arrow moving TOWARD it. If you want a player to pull crates as well, it looks exactly as you might expect:

[ < Player | Crate ] -> [ < Player | < Crate]

If you want players to crush crates against walls, then you just need to define a few extra things:

[ > Player | Crate | Wall ] -> [ | Player | Wall ]

Three tiles in a row, with an empty cell that means, well, “empty that cell, PuzzleScript.” But honestly, did I need to tell you that? If I say

[ > Player | Crate] -> [ Crate | Player ]

isn’t it clear right off the bat what that means? You can come up with any number of ways to interact with crates.

PuzzleScript, to me (that is to say, someone who does not code things for a living or for funsies) exists in a perfect point between “easy enough to be approachable” and “complex enough to get things done.” Certainly, I’m limited to a handful of 5-by-5 pixel objects, and rules regarding where they exist on a square grid, and exactly one action button, but within those limitations not only can I decide what happens, I can lay things out in a perfectly clear and comprehensible sort of way. If I don’t understand why the player and the crate keep switching places, I just have to look at the cells when I mention them, and realize that, oh hey. That’s what’s going on there.

Of course, it can be used to create complex interactions, with hundreds of little rules, and all sorts of crazy additional twists, but even at its most convoluted, the game boils down to looking at groups of tiles, and changing them to other groups. Even at its worst, you can go through the rules and SEE what’s going on.

Anyway, a week ago I sat down to try and make a game about a princess escaping from a tower, and then I figured out how to let her toss fireballs, and then things sort of fell apart and the long and the short of it is that I more-or-less accidentally recreated Portal as a sokoban-style puzzle game.

Here, check it out, why don’t you?

GMotW: Overlord and the Button.

Let’s talk about Overlord.

Well, more specifically, let’s talk about Overlord II, which is what I’ve been playing lately. It’s the sequel to the original, one which improves upon its progenitor in numerous ways, sharing enough of the original’s DNA to be What We Liked, but containing sufficient nuances in play to be But Different, which is pretty much what sequels are supposed to be. For those unfamiliar, the protagonist of the Overlord series is, well, an Overlord, one in a series of Overlords who rule over hives of Minions–small, gremlin-like creatures with vague elemental attunements–and in so doing amass evil empires. Yes, evil. Intensely, parodically, self-aware evil. It’s a game about being evil, which is right up my alley. And the most important thing is that… oh wait, let’s me put this in traditional Game Mechanic of the Week bold italics, the rule from the manual itself:

To Send an individual Minion, use [the left mouse button].

You see, you are always surrounded by minions. Well, not always, there are a few plot points where the poor Overlord is alone, and you can lose all your little friends through severe mismanagement but the BASE state of being an overlord is being surrounded by twenty to fifty little monsters. And when you face a thing, and you press the Button, and one shoots off and goes to interact with the thing. If you hold the Button, then minions will flow off of you, toward the thing you want to interact with. You can send them all off into a frenzy of destruction, if you want.

Why is this interesting? Well, for one thing, I can never get over the primacy of the Button; I’ve yammered about it before, and the way that keying a particular action to the left mouse button (on a PC) or a trigger or the bottommost face button (on a controller) is an effective way to tell the player that THIS is the most important interaction of the game. Whatever the player will be most naturally inclined to do, whatever the most convenient point of interaction is, that’s the Button. When you pull the trigger to shoot the gun, then this is a game in which shooting guns is your most important skill. When the Button jumps, then it’s a game about jumping. Certainly, there is a hierarchy here… on a PC, I would say that the second most important action is whatever is bound to space, for instance (in this case, that is bound to swinging your weapon, because this is just That Sort of Game). But there’s a Button, and for the Overlord, that means your primary way of interacting with the world is by making something else interact with it for you.

This, coupled with the fact that the minions move much, much faster than the Overlord, has an interesting side effect. See, Overlord is far from the only game in which there are crates to break and chests to open because they contain potions and loot. That’s… that’s like an entire genre: games with loot in crates. But your speed is slow, and trundling over to crates takes a while, and since minions will break open crates and grab their goodies for you, if you send them forth, the player is less-inclined to have the Overlord walk over and grab the loot himself, and more likely to stand in a central place in this loot-filled room and direct minions to get to work.

This is great. Unlike in battles, where using minions is essential (they do piddling damage individually, but can gang up on enemies and succeed by being to numerous to effectively attack, or by sweeping around and getting enemies from behind), this isn’t a necessity, but it is a natural reaction; it’s easier, and players will tend to do things the easy way unless they have a good reason not to. And that’s fine and dandy.

But why do I love it? Because it means that my Overlord strides imperiously into a room, raises his arms, and sends minions to destroy everything! That’s what the game is about, not just being evil but being in command of a force! A force–and this is the important distinction between Overlord and, say, an RTS where I send tanks against my enemies–a force which I use for entirely petty ends as well. It sells you on your power as an Overlord, as a leader of these creatures: they do anything and everything for you, and you take advantage of that. Without thinking, it becomes nature to make the minions do it, not just when it’s necessary, but when it’s convenient. It’s a game, in other words, which mechanically encourages you to take advantage of those in your command for entirely selfish reasons, which, given that being an imperious and evil ruler is rather the point, is absolutely perfect.

Plus, there’s something wonderfully evil about being so evil that you don’t even smash things anymore, you just have people to smash things, while you stride forth, calm as the breeze. It makes for a beautiful moment.