2017 Year in Review

 Posted by (Visited 86 times)  Misc, Open thread
Dec 312017

As usual, I’ve promised to post more on here, and as usual, what used to become

Tiny Castle

blog-length posts instead become a bunch of individual and usually shallow Tweets instead. Twitter, what hast thou wrought?

But here’s a little bit of contemplation of the year anyway.

Almost everything I have worked on this year has been other people’s projects that I cannot tell you about. Which has been a bit concerning to me, honestly — it’s been quite a while since something of my own went out there for people to play. That’s something I plan to fix in the new year. Doing consulting, in particular, has taken up a lot of the creative bandwidth and space to think and work on things.

Board games

A lot of my project time has gone towards tabletop games. This year I only worked on four and finished one, which is a slowing pace for me. Over the last few years I have been making new abstract strategy games at a pretty steady clip. The new one that is actually reasonably finished this year is currently nicknamed Tiny Castle. It was originally a “tiny game” using only 16 tokens, but I took it in a bit of a sculptural direction; two players build a castle together, trying to satisfy one of several victory conditions. It’s a small game, with a decent sized possibility space, and it’s very bite-sized. I got to show it to Tim Fowers and he suggested skinning it with the Town Musicians of Bremens. I kind of like the castle though, as I suspect four stacks of animals may not really look as appealing as it seems on first blush.

Besides that one I am also working on something I am calling Seven Temples but I haven’t quite cracked it yet, also abstract strategy, but in an attempt to get more towards stuff that can be themed. I have a little card-based dungeon crawl with a tiny deck where part of the strategy lies in card selection and sequencing from the available unplaced pool, and another concept called Ouroboros where you each play snakes that move around a ring-shaped board trying to eat each other from the tail up.

There’s a backlog of many of these board games, and the good news is that it looks like 2018 may finally be the year where some will see the light of day. Paperwork isn’t signed or anything, but there’s the possibility that as many as three or four will find homes.

A screenshot from MVEM Build 15, the Microvision emulator I worked on this year


In contrast, I didn’t make a single digital game in 2017 for myself (I did make one for other people but it will likely never see the light of day). I started several, but sitting down to solid weeks of coding is exactly the sort of thing that consulting gets in the way of. I’ve got one all outlined that is basically a videogame market sim called App Store Crash, and another called Consensus that is a puzzle game that is rapidly evolving into something larger.

My big videogame release of the year was instead the Milton-Bradley Microvision emulator that I put out last May. Most of the work I did was actually on UX, not the core emulation, which was already complete. Some folks have even gotten this running on the Raspberry Pi recently!

I also built a couple of Pi-based bartop arcade machines, including one for my nephew’s birthday. I find myself playing the bartop one in my office far more often than the full-sized cabinet with robotic rotating monitor and all that jazz, because it’s close by and not so fiddly. For those who want to try the rotating monitor project, however, my how-to post is a sticky over at the BYOAC forums; that was also something I accomplished this year.


One thing I did do a lot of was music. For the second year in a row, I wrote, arranged, recorded, mixed, and mastered a full album of music and then didn’t release it. This time, it was a set of attempts to inhabit the lives of people from specific different parts of the country. Each song has the name of a town or place. I shared some of the audio tracks as they developed, like this one:

I even made a music video for one of the songs. I was thinking of holding it back until I actually released this album… but hey, it’s the end of the year, there should be a time limit on holding on to stuff. This one is about the Central Valley in California, and was written before the rains broke the drought… but I am sure that drought will come back around and make it all relevant once again.


Writing and speaking on games

Here are the things that appeared on the blog that you should take a look at, IMHO, if you missed them:

Of course, I also did a catalog of the best posts of the last five years, if you missed that.

My favorite video and interview of the year (and there were a lot of them!) is this one by Zoyander Street on Abstract Games.


I wrote exactly one poem, “Made of Moon.” It is here.


I ended up feeling this year like I spent far too much time looking backwards at past achievements — so much talk about Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, after all these years! I’d rather be more relevant today, but that requires shipping some stuff (and having people like it). In the last five years I have designed well over a dozen tabletop games, around a half dozen digital ones, published two books with my little press, written and recorded four albums, done a lot of talks, and helped a lot of teams… but shipped nothing but the books. Time for that to end. I want to both make and ship games, games of my own. So if there’s a resolution for 2017, that’s probably it.

Contributing in a more permanent and impactful way to the game community also means that I want to get these game design books done. In many ways, Theory of Fun has felt more impactful than any of the games I have made, because MMOs are in many ways perhaps the most impermanent type of game. You build a city, then it gets abandoned and demolished, or other people take it over and grow it in both awesome and unexpected ways, and it becomes no longer yours, but rather just a place where you once lived. As of right now, I have a pretty decent outline of Grammar of Gameplay and (I shudder to say) two more companion books that feel like they go with it.

Looking backward, however, was also because of some rather lousy feelings about the state of online community and our society. Watching warnings I have given come true, one by one, about individual rights online when in the hands of faceless tech gods, about cliquism and tribalism going too far in Internet communities, about surveilling and datamining ourselves to death, about fragility of relationship webs and dependencies and complexity, about the ease of tearing down institutions and the incredible difficulty of building, about the weaponization of attention… long ago, I said that we were headed for “the world, virtual” and this was the year that everyone figured out that they were logged in and paying a kind of subscription fee that no one expected.

One reason why I have been writing less and less on the blog is because so much of what I say sounds a bit like a rehash to me, because so many of these lessons have been repeated so many times now that I grew weary of doing it each time some wide-eyed technolibertarian optimist thinks that some new bit of tech (head-mounted displays! blockchains!) will solve basic issues with human societies. It’s gotten to the point that I reply to long Internet debates with a link to a single article from ten years ago. Sometimes I even wonder if I should be in games at all, or if instead I should find some way to jump on these new technology trains to try to get them to switch tracks before they head off some very familiar cliffs.

On the other hand… when I look back at everything I put in this post, it’s clear I’ve actually been fairly productive, in a lot of ways. And people do listen… you’re reading this, after all. The site went down due to traffic because of some of those warnings. So… not irrelevant yet. 🙂


  2 Responses to “2017 Year in Review”

  1. Hey Raph,
    Per your closing note on your frustrations with problems in tech culture recurring, and predictable mistakes coming to pass, and whether you should stay in games… I want to at least say thanks for the work you’ve done. Today in my research I went from reading a 2008 Project Horseshoe report that referenced your 2004 game grammar work, to watching your UX Summit talk from November, which then led me back to your site and this post. I don’t know what can be done about larger cultural trends to ignore history, but at least within game design I’m glad you and others took the time to write and give talks in the first place.

    Anyhow, thanks for doing what you do, and hopefully 2018 turns out to be a good one 🙂

  2. I have read your article. it is very informative and helpful for me.I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles. Thanks for posting it, again!

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