I haven’t done much blogging since my last “update” post in December 2017. So what have I been up to?
A lot! Here are some cool things I’ve worked on in the past 1.5 years that I’m very proud of.
1. Relic Chasers
Funkitron has been hard at work on a brand new game called Relic Chasers. We’ve been developing it for about 2 years and we’re shooting for World Wide Launch later this summer!
On this game I have had the great pleasure of contributing design (feature, systems, puzzle), programming (UI, map gameplay), and production. It has been an incredible learning experience and I can’t wait to share more about this project.
2. Roc Game Dev
I have immersed myself in the Roc Game Dev community as a member and teacher. Some programs I have put on include:
Rapid Prototyping for Game Designers (lecture, Spring 2018)
Fantastic Feedback Loops (lightning talk, Spring 2018)
Paper Prototyping for Digital Game Design (workshop, Fall 2018)
Game Dev for Absolute Beginners (workshop, Fall 2018)
Think FTUE! (lightning talk, Spring 2019)
These experiences have made me a stronger speaker and educator. This year I hope to find new ways to contribute as a founding member of the RGD Board of Directors.
3. “Finding the Fun” Podcast
This was the biggest surprise! I met indie dev David Kilmer at Roc Game Dev, and we hit it off quickly. He mentioned that he had the sound equipment, and before we knew it we were recording a design podcast!
So far we’ve covered a range of design and culture topics like Game Reviews, Violence in Games, and The Role of Difficulty in Games. This new hobby is the main reason I haven’t been blogging; I find the podcast format is much more natural for me. But we’ve only just begun and we’re still learning!
Those are just a few of the game dev related things I’ve been working on. Of course there are personal accomplishments too, like buying our first home!! All in all it’s been a great 18 months and I’m excited to finish out 2019.
Have you ever struggled to explain a new game to a group of friends? Or have you ever been totally lost listening to someone else explain tabletop rules to you?
It is extremely tough to teach new games to a group. Every game, group, and individual is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. And I’m no expert either – I’ve had some spectacular teaching failures myself!
But by seeing (and making) a lot of mistakes, I have begun to notice some techniques that appear to help along the process. I hope that you will find them useful!
When you are explaining rules, there are two basic goals you are trying to achieve:
1. Get started as quickly as possible.
People just wanna play! It’s boring and frustrating to listen to rules being read. But on the other hand, it’s also frustrating to play a game and not understand what you’re doing. Which is why I say as quickly as possible, because the right approach is a delicate balance.
2. Give the game its best shot at a good first impression.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely for a tabletop game to be at its best on the first go. Some players just won’t like this game – no matter what! Maybe it’s just not a great fit for them.
But the good news is that if you teach the rules effectively, you will increase the players’ chances of a good first time experience. And that is all you can really do! Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by expecting everyone to fall in love on the first go.
Tips for Effective Teaching
Assuming the game you’ve picked is a reasonable fit for the majority of your group (that’s a whole other topic…) here are some tips and techniques that have worked for me.
1) Learn the rules ahead of time.
I understand that for some tabletop enthusiasts, there is a satisfying feeling of discovery that comes with learning a new board game for the very first time.
But for many players… listening to the rules read out loud is the worst.
Even the best-designed rulesets have to serve multiple masters. They need to be concise, thorough, scannable, and unambiguous all at the same time. Reading rules out loud will often come off dry and doubtful. Why should your teaching adhere to those same constraints?
Instead, if you take the time to study the rules ahead of time (or even better, try it first with a willing gamer friend), you can speak confidently, and you will have the flexibility to customize your explanation in real-time to fit the needs of the players.
Think of yourself as a salesman trying to convince the players that this game is worth playing. You should be iterating on your approach with each successive explanation.
2) Give only the minimum necessary rules. No more or less.
How do we know what is and is not necessary?
Your explanation should focus on:
WHY (goals): What is the object or goals of the game? Usually it’s best stated with alongside a very-generic summary of action.
Example (Monopoly): “Eliminate the opponents by bankrupting them.”
Example (Carcassonne): “Earn the most points by the time the tiles run out.”
HOW (actions): What are the core actions I can take on my turn? How do those actions connect back to my goals?
Example (Monopoly): Roll & move, buy properties/buildings, pay rent.
Example (Carcassonne): Place tiles, claim features, score features.
WHAT (objects): What are the core types of objects and resources that I will interact with?
Example (Monopoly): Tokens, Money, Properties, Houses, Hotels.
Example (Carcassonne): Meeples, Roads, Cities, Cloisters, Fields.
Your explanation should avoid (or be wary of):
Rare edge-cases: If it’s relatively rare, does not punish the player, and can be easily explained on the fly, then there’s no reason to spend precious time on it up front.
Example (Monopoly): If a card sends a player past GO, they can collect $200 (unless it says otherwise).
Example (Carcassonne): If a player draws a tile that cannot be placed, they discard that tile and draw another one.
Overly Specific Details: Whenever you can, let general knowledge inform specific applications. That might mean letting players figure out slight variations of a card type as they are drawn, or discover combo possibilities as they emerge.
Example (Monopoly): The specific instructions on each Chance/Community card can be figured out in real-time.
Example (Carcassonne): The different shapes or iterations of each tile type can be discovered in real-time (or an individual player can reference the “cheat sheet” in the box if they like).
Strategy: Strategies will emerge naturally during play as the rules start to click. Advanced players may choose to help by lightly explaining their actions on their own turns.
Example (Monopoly): Defensive purchases, bidding value, build timing.
Example (Carcassonne): Blocking, stealing.
Highly Complex Mechanics: In some cases, a mechanic is sufficiently advanced that you could gloss over it or leave it out altogether. This can be a great way to simplify the game so players can learn the simpler core mechanics. However, this only works if the game is still playable without that mechanic, and if the experienced players are willing to play the simpler version of the game.
Example (Monopoly): If playing with kids – you might leave out Auctions.
Example (Carcassonne): Claiming and scoring fields.
3) Keep repeating the goal.
It is critical that players understand the goal, above all else. Starting with the goal is obvious. But it can also help to reiterate the goal between other mechanics, to give each mechanic context. Then one more time, at the end of the game, just to hammer it in.
It’s a balance, but extra repeats might be worth the slightly increased speaking time.
4) Make use of visual aids by giving examples
Whenever possible, your explanation should be reinforced with visual aids.
For example in a card game, you can explain a card by showing how it might be played from an open example hand. An example setup can give extra context to possible player actions, in a way a verbal explanation cannot.
Tip: Try and get the necessary card types up front. It can break the flow of your explanation to suddenly have to dig through the deck for the specific card you need.
5) Try a “throwaway” round.
For many gamers, things won’t click until you start playing.
If it doesn’t take too much effort to break down and redo the setup, consider a lightning quick “throwaway” round, where everyone gets to practice going through the motions and seeing the cards in context. For example, I have used a quick throwaway hand to teach people the “drafting” mechanic in a clean way.
“Don’t worry about the cards – I’ll explain them in a moment. Just pick any card from your hand, and hold it out in front of you on the table, face down. When everyone is holding out their cards, I will say “3-2-1-FLIP” and we will all reveal our choices. Then, you place your card down (you now own it) and pass your entire hand to your LEFT.”
Also, be willing to restart a “real” round if things are clicking and some players are regretting their initial moves. For a quick casual game, they’ll get another chance in the next game, so regret can just be part of the learning. But if it’s still early in a longer game, players might appreciate a fresh start now that they get it!
6) Refer to similar mechanics in other games known by the audience.
When appropriate, consider referencing a similar mechanic in another game. For example, recently I introduced Sushi Go to players when we had just played 7 wonders earlier that night.
“Sushi Go is like a quick casual version of 7 wonders. Just like 7 wonders, there are 3 rounds of drafting, except instead of buying cards with resources, you’re picking sushi for sets….”
But be careful: If at least one person has not played one of the reference games, then this tool may just isolate certain players and confuse the overall explanation. I have seen many teachers gloss over important details because they lean too heavily on references.
7) Respond appropriately to questions
One of the hardest parts of teaching board games is responding to different kinds of confusion in the form of questions.
Maybe it’s a new player fixating on a specific detail. Other times it’s an experienced player who is wondering why you “left out” or haven’t gotten to X. Sometimes it’s just totally out of left field.
The first and more important thing is to stay positive, by responding with something like “Great question!”. Confusion is expected, and being dismissive of a question will just sour the experience.
After that, the best response is highly situational. There are a few options:
Answer the question: A question can nag at the player’s head, distracting them from further rule explanation. So sometimes, it’s worth breaking your flow to directly address the confusion.
Delay it: Other times, you feel that the answer is easier understood in a different context. In this case you might say “I’ll get to that in a moment” or “I’ll cover that when we get there in the game.”
Push it on the game: In some cases, the answer is just not relevant for reasons the players don’t yet understand. In this case you can try “I know it sounds weird, but I promise it’ll make sense once we start playing”.
An Imperfect Process
The best teachers and mentors are always flexible. They have a personalized style, but they are comfortable enough to suddenly break their own flow for unique situations, then pick it back up again.
So my final piece of advice is: Do not mistake any of these techniques for silver bullets.
Instead, just give them a try, see what works, and adjust your approach as needed. See if you can get really good at explaining your favorite games. Try explaining new games to your parents, or to little kids. Try and see if you can take on a new game every game night!
And if you learn anything useful, please let me know!
My primary focus through 2018 will continue to be Funkitron and and our new unannounced project. But it’s important to me that even when I am off the clock, I do as much as I can to keep growing as a game designer.
So to kick off the new year, here are some of my indie game development goals for 2018:
1. Personal Tinkering
I’m bringing this one back from last year, but bumping it up to top priority on my list. This year I’d really like to dive in, and use my rapid prototyping skills as a healthy creative outlet. I want to test out some crazy ideas that have been banging around in my head, screaming for attention.
My wife (who is a great listener) anticipated this goal jumping up my list and gifted me a Paper Prototyping Kit (shown below) for Christmas. How cool is that?!
Success here looks like a personal collection of digital and paper prototypes. Many will be one-and-done, but each will make me a better game designer.
2. Broaden My Play Experience
Last year, I framed this goal as “Shrink My Games Backlog”, but I now feel that was a misguided approach. My true goal is to broaden my perspective by playing lots of different games of all different types.
This means trying out games old and new, digital and tabletop (and other), with preferences towards games that meet one of more of the following criteria:
Takes bold risks with innovative new mechanics.
Has made a significant impact on the game industry and/or gaming culture.
Executes its gameplay (whether innovative or not) at an extremely high quality.
Lives outside of my personal preferences and comfort zone.
Success here looks like a variety of memorable new play experiences to draw inspiration from, and a more open mind!
3. Develop my writing and presentation skills.
In the move to Rochester, I did a lot of reflection on what I wanted my longterm community contribution to be. I realized that in the end, I hope to pass on my learnings to next generation through teaching and public speaking at conferences like GDC.
But it’s a long road to get there, and a major friction point is my ability to articulate my ideas. So this year, I’d like to heavily focus on improving my writing and presentation skills with more practice.
Success here looks like 1-2 blog posts per month, and 2-3 presentations (lectures or workshops) this year.
Although the three goals above will be my primary focus, I also have some other smaller rollover goals from 2017:
Contribute to Roc Game Dev: Continue to actively participate in meetups, offer advice and support to aspiring indies, and give some talks.
Level Up My Game Design Toolbox: Take more online courses, read more books and articles, clarify my thoughts on how it all fits together, and build a quick-reference toolbox.
At the start of 2017, I came up with some professional development goals in this blog post: Goals for 2017. Specifically, these were “off-the-clock” goals (outside the scope of my Funkitron work and goals).
Now that 2017 is over, it’s time to reflect. How did I do?
1. Level Up My Game Design Toolbox
“Success here looks like a vastly improved toolbox by 2018; one that lets me quickly and effectively solve game design challenges.”
This year, I managed to consolidate and organize my existing notes. I also added some great new tools from Daniel Cook’s Lost Garden, Ian Schreiber’s Game Balance Concepts, and I am currently soaking in the many wisdoms of Kobold’s Guide to Board Game Design. I feel like I have a pretty solid framework for how my game design knowledge all fits together, and can confidently and efficiently draw tools from my toolbox.
However, it is a drop in the water compared to the ocean of knowledge and reference I need to amass. I need to find more tools by playing more games, reading more books, and just overall having more experiences.
Grade: B. Useful progress, but I need to do much more.
2. Shrink My Games Backlog
“Success here looks like an smaller and more sustainable backlog by 2018. I hope to be well-versed in 2017 hits, and get a few major classics under my belt too.”
I only made a small dent on my backlog this year, playing only a fraction of the games I hoped to play. However in the second half of the year (since moving back to Rochester), I have managed to play a bunch of tabletop games, both new and classic. These experiences have opened my mind to new kinds of play, have inspired me, and helped me deal with some of my inhibitions around learning new games. Best of all, they were a ton of fun.
Some other good news is that I recently purchased a gaming desktop and a Steam Link, so I am in a great position to shrink my backlog in 2018.
Grade: B. Not enough digital games, but way more tabletop gaming than I expected.
“Success here looks like a personal collection of microscopic digital and paper prototypes, spanning a range of genres and taking interesting risks.”
On the “personal collection” side, this has been a failure. I spent most of my free time in 2017 vegging, socializing, or dealing with major life changes such as the move to Rochester and getting to know my new baby nephew.
The silver lining is that I did manage to take some time to rapidly prototype some casual game variants for work, which I developed on my own in HTML5 then pitched to my boss as possible new projects to take on. This hyper-focused creative brainstorming and problem-solving was extremely satisfying, reaffirming my desire to specialize in this area. And the reception was positive enough that my boss let me take a full work week to iterate on one of the prototypes with his guidance, which was a blast.
Grade: D-. No personal tinkering, but some rewarding work-inspired tinkering.
4. Get Involved With The Community
“Success here looks like a strengthened bond with the Boston community, improved presentation skills, and a positive impact on some younger aspiring game developers.”
I’m gonna give myself a bit of a pass here. Moving to Rochester mid-year made it near-impossible to strengthen my bond with the Boston community. I did however manage to:
Cement some important relationships so they could continue in long distance.
Give two lightning talks for Boston Indies, one of which I am very proud of.
Serve as a judge for the Mass DIGI Game Challenge.
Dive headfirst into Roc Game Dev and meet a ton of new people.
Grade: B. Given the circumstances, I am very proud of my 2017 community contributions.
Overall, 2017 was mostly productive… just not in the ways I expected. The big move to Rochester definitely disrupted some goals and shifted the targets of others. However, I am proud of my progress in spite of those hiccups, and feel positioned for success in 2018.
Like anything, the only way for me to get better at blogging is to practice. But I am often hesitant to publish new posts because writing is a challenge for me, and I am self-conscious about my website which also serves as my portfolio.
So as a temporary solution, I present a pinned Directory of Posts! Here is a list of my higher quality stand-alone posts:
Game Design podcasts are a fun way to learn about game design while driving, taking the train, or exercising. Here are some game design podcasts I have really enjoyed (and have taught me a lot) over the past few years:
Another Castle was my first podcast, which I fondly remember listening to on the E and F trains in NYC. It has a wonderful “New York indie” vibe to it, with a each episode focusing on a single game designer and their work. Guests lean either indie or academic, but there is a nice variety of perspectives and the discussion is strong.
Highly Recommended – especially if you are an indie or love the indie universe.
A long-running podcast, The Game Design Round Table is hosted by video game designer Jon Shafter (lead designer for Civilization V) and board game designer Dirk Knemeyer.
Episodes span from discussions around the hosts’ current work, specific topic explorations (eg – “Experience and Replayability”), and interviews. I like that with each topic, Dirk and Jon bring different perspectives from the tabletop and digital worlds, respectively. With their combined experience, the hosts also serve as a strong authority on how to design quality strategy games.
I must admit that I stopped listening toThe Game Design Round Table after a few dozen episodes. The podcast can be meandering at times with tangents, additional hosts all talking at once, and not enough time on the actual specified topic. However it is strong overall, and I intend to return.
Recommended – especially if you are more digital-focused like me, because the lessons from Dirk/tabletop gaming will change the way you think about your work.
Designer Notes stands out because it has such clear focus. In each episode, host Soren Johnson (lead designer of Civilization IV) interviews a single designer, and dives deep into their life experience and journey through game development. There are a few overlapping guests with Another Castle or The Game Design Round Table, but Designer Notes generally goes more in-depth.
It can get very personal at times, such as Amy Hennig’s war stories on crunch, or Chris Avellone’s heartbreak leaving an IP he loved. But it always serves a larger theme of how the road to design is never straightforward.
Very Highly Recommended – especially if you, like most of us, are still figuring out your path in the creative world.
In Drive To Work, Mark Rosewater will riff on a topic, telling stories and giving lots of great examples, all during his roughly 40-min commute to the Wizards office.
I initially avoided Drive To Work, because it’s very intimidating with its 400+ episode count and its focus on Magic: The Gathering. I thought that I would be unable to enjoy it because I’ve only casually played MTG a few times in my life.
But it turns out if you avoid episodes named after sets or blocks (which are the most hardcore), then the remaining episodes are surprisingly accessible, and full of juicy design lessons.
Many of the accessible episodes can be grouped into the following categories:
General Game Design & Psychology (eg – “Randomness”, “Psychographics”)
General Magic Card Types (eg – “Creatures”, “Artifacts”, “Lands”)
General Magic Concepts (eg – “Bad Cards”, “Rarities”, and my favorite three episode trilogy – “The Trading Care Genre”, “The Color Pie”, and “The Mana System”)
Development & Process (eg – “Codenames”, “Development”)
History (usually named after the year, eg – “1995”)
The system isn’t perfect. Every now and then I will start an episode, then realize after a few minutes that it’s too hardcore or just not a topic that interests me. But most episodes are great, and some are enlightening.
It helps that Mark Rosewater is an fun and enthusiastic host, who delivers his content like a storyteller. And because of his experience – leading one of the most successful games of all time – his words carry extra weight.
Highly Recommended – especially if you are interested in systems design. It requires a basic understanding of MTG rules, but you can avoid episodes named after sets/blocks if you are a casual player.
I hope to find some more great game design podcasts. I tend to avoid those that don’t involve at least one experienced game designer, because they often cover very broad topics (like “what is a game”) with little depth.
I’d love to see podcasts that focus on or feature designers from:
Other AAA genres (sports, action, adventure, narrative etc.)
Mobile / F2P game design
If you have any suggestions, please comment below or reach out to me on Twitter!
I am a huge advocate for game jams. Whether you are a fresh novice still finding your way in games or a seasoned AAA veteran, there is a ton of value in participating in a game jam.
However, there are already plenty of articles and resources detailing the potential benefits of game jamming. So instead, I want to discuss how game jams served as a turning point for me personally. When I was at a scary low point in my life, I did 4 game jams in 4 months, and it jumpstarted my career.
Now, I know that is a strong claim. So to ground it in reality, here are some important disclaimers:
My game jamming experience is just one of many factors that helped me get started.
Game jamming is not a guaranteed path to success. Like anything, results will vary depending on approach, timing, and luck.
Game jams are not a replacement for personal projects. Rather, they are something you can do in addition to (or to take a break from) your personal projects.
Getting those out of the way, I stand by my claim. Today I am a happy game designer/programmer hybrid on a healthy career path, and I truly believe that I wouldn’t be here without game jams. Game jams gave me the confidence, skills, and portfolio to jumpstart my career.
In 2013, I graduated from RIT with a B.S. in Game Design & Development. But due to my poor performance as a student (the details of which I can cover in another blog post), I returned home to Long Island with a sparse portfolio and zero job prospects. Meanwhile, some of my fellow RIT graduates were getting hired by the likes of Bungie, Zynga, and Microsoft.
It was a tough time for me, and I questioned whether or not I was on the right path. Slowly I began to realize how many opportunities I passed on at RIT, and how many great resources (professors, game lab, etc.) I no longer had access to. How could I turn things around on my own?
The Turning Point
One night, at the height of my frustration, I decided to try and make one of my simplest game ideas: a top-down puzzle game where you control two characters simultaneously with arrow keys. I described the idea to my gamer friend Marco, and asked him to design a level on graph paper while I set the code up.
Once I had the absolute basics – a red and blue dot moving simultaneously with the arrow keys – I asked Marco show me his level. I must have described it poorly, because he misunderstood and thought the characters were supposed to keep sliding until they hit something (like a sliding ice block level in Pokemon or Zelda). Instead of ignoring or correcting his design, I ran with his interpretation, and the result was a fun spatial reasoning puzzle!
Though not officially a game jam, this mini jam-like experience gave me a fun, playable prototype in just one evening. It was an incredibly empowering experience, and I found myself compelled to keep iterating on the prototype (that would later go on to become Brain and Brawn).
With this boost of confidence, I decided to try some game jams in NYC.
4 Game Jams in 4 Months
In a period of about 4 months (October 2013-January 2014) I participated in 4 different game jams.
First there was the New York Gamecraft, where we were asked to make a game about “Lost Doorways” by the end of the day (7.5 hours). I planned to team up with a friend but he did not show so I was forced to improvise and meet people. Somehow we managed to build Purgatory: a simple arcade-style game where you must avoid enemies/obstacles and get to the door in a rotating room.
The whole experience was a blur, and I couldn’t believe it when we won “Best of Show”! This was my first hint… maybe I could be good at this after all?
High on the success from Gamecraft, I asked my Purgatory teammates Andrew Kelley and Anthony Nguyen to join me again for Indie Speed Run, an online game jam that generated a unique theme for each participating team. For this we built an action platformer called Face the Music, which attempted to convey “procrastination” (our assigned theme) via its mechanics.
However, sloppy platforming physics and a mismatched rock & roll theme (which came from the required element “microphone”) got in the way of our mechanics-driven metaphor. It was an early lesson in unification: the different parts of your game should all be working towards a common goal.
I managed to do Indie Speed Run a second time, this time with my artist friend, David Wallin. We made a puzzle game called Corporate Pie, where players attempt a “corporate takeover” of a literal pizza pie by strategically placing and removing toppings with different abilities. We were never quite able to solidify the core mechanic, so we were making huge changes all the way to the last minute, and the result was a bit sloppy.
I learned from this how important it is to find the fun in your core mechanics as early as you can. Otherwise, if you try and make everything click only at the last second, you run into the risk of never finding that fun at all.
For Global Game Jam 2014, I teamed up with David again and with another programmer Altay Murray, and we built an art game called Negative Space based on the theme “We don’t see things as they are we see them as we are”.
Once again I was making a game using mechanics as metaphor, but this time we did everything right. Our team had great chemistry, we had a fun prototype by Saturday afternoon, and I even had some opportunities to run around with my laptop and get feedback from external playtesters.
Our success in this game jam reinforced the hard lessons from earlier jams. Unlike Face the Music, everything from gameplay to aesthetics were all working towards clear goal of how different the world seems to an introvert and an extrovert. And unlike Corporate Pie, we found a fun core less than halfway through the jam, which gave us plenty of time to iterate on the delivery.
What I Gained
In addition to the lessons I learned from game jam individually, what did I gain from the overall experience of doing 4 game jams in 4 months?
First and foremost, game jamming gave me an incredible amount of confidence and validation. I went from feeling like a failure in September to a legitimate aspiring developer in January. It’s hard to quantify these qualities, but they absolutely contributed to my overall drive and willingness to take creative risks in 2014 and beyond.
Second, game jamming quickly set me up with a portfolio of several 1-3 minute web games. It was hardly ideal, but it was great starting point that I could improve on over time. And it turns out that short web-playable games gave me an edge, even over some large scope games that took many months or years to make, because employers are starved for time and do not want to download software of any kind.
Third, through game jamming I discovered that I had an affinity for level design. I was responsible for designing the levels for 3/4 of my game jams, and each time I had a blast and felt like I made a meaningful contribution.
Last, but not least, I discovered that I can code! I had a mixed relationship with programming at RIT, because I had a naïve understanding of what game design was, and it felt more like a graduation requirement than anything. But through game jamming it became crystal clear: programming enables iteration. And rapid iteration is integral to the game design process. So while on some level coding will always be a “means to an end” for me, I am fully capable of delivering production quality code, and I am happy to do so for the sake of improving a game.
What should readers take away from my experience?
Quite simply, game jams have incredible potential to jumpstart your career. When I go to meetups, I keep hearing aspiring indies and fresh graduates looking to break in complain about this catch-22: you need experience to get a game job, but you need a game job to get experience.
But game jams are, in part, a solution to that issue. Game jams require zero experience to participate and contribute. And they are probably the quickest method for an individual to build confidence, skills, and a portfolio of game prototypes. It may not be equivalent to industry experience to an employer, but it is very productive use of your unemployed time.
So if you are looking to turn things around and jumpstart your career, there is nothing stopping you. Go participate in a game jam!
Game Jam Resources
Regularly scheduled game jams:
Global Game Jam (biggest jam, once a year – usually in January, sites around the world).
Ludum Dare (online, worldwide from the comfort of your home, once every few months)