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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Could Jamie Learn to Excel?

I’ll work another angle of Chris’s notion about playing games by email and/or by web. I like to play games in Excel, the spreadsheet favorite of millions. I mostly play solo, with games of three to six players. I also use it for playtesting my own prototypes all the time.

So I developed Excel sheets for a bunch of big games like Funkenschlag (the original version), Roads and Boats, Torres, Autoscooter, Metro, Bus, Fresh Fish, and ZooSim. It’s a good way to learn a game before playing it with other folks, or learning in order to teach. I’ve also used excel games to try different strategies, in general see what works and what doesn’t.

I’ll admit right off that if you don’t use Excel much, this game play method probably isn’t for you. The thing I like best is that you can come back for the next player turn anytime you want, since you’re not waiting on other players. No emails, no reminders needed.

I got started in this when the Splotter website showed a bunch of sample games on very small boards played out a step at a time. I thought “What a great way to learn the game’ since we hardly ever get it on the table in our group – it takes a pretty big time slot. Since Roads and Boats is hex-based, it’s easy to lay out a couple different ways. One is just to use offset rectangles (think of bricks) where each brick touches six others. Mine are more or less 2x1 shape and offset by a half brick. Then you get to use line tools (think expensive crayons) to lay out roads, and a bunch of small graphics to simulate player pieces like donkeys and trucks.

Play of the game just follows the regular playsheet, and as each player’s turn comes up you put yourself in that person’s shoes and assess the current game position. I try to give each player a “basic strategy” of some kind that is unlike everyone else’s, so that as the game plays out it’s a little easier to try to take that player’s point of view.

The nice part is the ability to save a sheet after a turn, and later load ‘em up in sequence as a game teaching aid, or as a sample game. I can also keep game notes on a turn by turn basis, if I’m looking for improvements to the game, developing payer aids, etc.

Truth be told, I use Excel for pretty much everything – including graphics for game design (which might be a later topic.) Excel has simple line graphics which can be filled with color, patterns or cool images like stone, wood, marble, etc.

While one can import a graphic (like a scan of a board or a card) directly into Excel, these have to be small if you want to keep reasonable file sizes for games. So I mostly just simplify graphics and draw a board or a set of cards with basic line tools.

For cards I use a separate worksheet (page), Sort of like in the days of BASIC, I make a list of cards (tokens, tiles, etc). If your titles are in black type, then fill the cells with black and voilá! the cell contents are hidden. Place a cell in front of each with a random number, secure it in place when you’re ready, and sort the list for shuffled cards. The same approach works for dice and other random events. For dice I usually run a couple hundred “rolls” in a stack to give it a better chance to be random but balanced over the long haul.

The only susbsystem that doesn’t work so well on these Excel games is bidding. It’s hard to have any kind of true bidding system when you play all the players, unless you really have that split-personality thing perfected. And random bids, except on some games, is also not quite right. Still working on this one.

I theorize that you could send a spreadsheet back and forth among players this way to play by email, but I’ve never tried it. If you think you’d be interested, let me know.


  • At 1:43 PM, Blogger Jon said…

    I'm not sure how the spreadsheet thing works but I'd like to give it a try.

  • At 12:38 AM, Anonymous Matt said…

    Hi KC

    Having spent an unreasonably large portion of my recent existence in Excel, it sounds like an interesting experiment. Count me in if you don't mind only a turn a day (Matt L on BGG).

  • At 6:55 AM, Anonymous Marshall said…

    I too have programed games in excel and would be interested in trying yours out. (mdp4828 on BGG)

  • At 6:01 AM, Blogger Iain said…

    I'll give it a go.



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