Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Accessibility in boardgames

A central issue in game design is accessibility.  Meaning, how easy is it for someone new to the game to “grok” it and begin extracting fun from it.  I’m going to focus my thoughts on boardgames, since this is a big issue for me.  Here’s the problem (and I know this is common):  I’m the person in my social circle who buys and collects boardgames.  It’s my hobby – it’s something I’m passionate about.  I love the social aspects of table top games, I love the physical presence of cardboard components, and I love learning the intricacies of a strong design.  However, most of the people I play with are not regular gamers, although they are often interested in trying a game every now and then.  So when those situations occur, I have to think very carefully about what game to pull off the bookshelf.

People often call these “gateway” games.  Games that are attractive, accessible, and, often, not too cognitively taxing.  I’ll use Ticket to Ride as the prototypical example, in part because I have used it successfully to introduce new people to the hobby.  Ticket to Ride (all of its many manifestations) features a lovely map upon which players place tiny train pieces, as they attempt to form routes from city to city.  There’s a visceral pleasure in manipulating the train pieces, there’s joy in imagining the traveling you’re representing as you play the game, and there’s just enough strategy and competition to make things interesting.  At least for a few games.  Personally, I’m fairly tired of Ticket to Ride – not because I think it’s a poor design at all, but because I don’t think it hits that sweet spot of combining accessibility with strategic depth.
In Ticket to Ride, you basically take one action per turn.  That’s absolutely lovely if you’re looking for a game that you can teach in 10 minutes and that even young children can play competitively.  However, the design space of the game is limiting when it comes to strategic options and choice.  And here’s the important bit – I think even “novice” gamers often detect this and walk away dissatisfied. 

Ticket to Ride Europe:  pretty but shallow

People sit down to boardgames for many different reasons.  Sometimes, it really is just to socialize – and if that’s the case, I suggest you pull out some paper and play Eat Poop You Cat (or Telestrations, if you must).  Or for something a little more polished and hip, Dixit.  But a lot of the time, people play boardgames to exercise their minds.   Certainly, that’s my primary motivator.  Sure, I love boardgames that tell a good story (Castle Ravenloft) or let you be a hero (Talisman, Relic).  But I especially love games that let me feel smart. And that’s my biggest issue with most “accessible” games.  In the interest of keeping rules simple, elegant, and quick-to-learn, they sacrifice cognitive challenge.

Not all “accessible” games do this, however!  And those games are among my absolute favorites.  I’ll just give one example here:  Fresco.  Ha!  You probably thought I was going to say Settlers of Catan!  Well, that’s for another entry, I suppose.  No, Fresco.  Fresco is a “eurogame” in which you play a master painter working to restore a fresco in a Renaissance church.  Each turn you take several actions in an attempt to most efficiently paint sections of the fresco and thus score points.  You need to buy paint from the market, mix paints into different colors, and ensure that your apprentices are happy.  There’s a fair amount to think about and good decisions pay off. 

Fresco (thanks to ckirkman on BGG for this image)

The reason why I think Fresco works as an accessible, gateway game even though it carries a heavier weight is that the theme is well-integrated with the mechanics.  Buying and mixing paints makes sense thematically.  Yes, those are “just” actions on the board that your workers take but they make intuitive sense, and I've found that new players "grok" Fresco after a single turn.  Including beginning to see the basics of good strategy!  And that's important - players need to feel that hook of "Ah!  This decision I'm making is meaningful" quickly when playing a new game.  Fresco is also very good at giving you immediate feedback on whether you've made some poor choices; sometimes players send too many (or too few) apprentices to the market, for example.  And by the end of the turn, you've seen the consequences - which means that you can improve your play on the next.

Too many euros utilize mechanics that are just too far dissociated from the theme to make sense to non-gamers.  As an example, consider the feeding mechanics in Agricola.  I’ll quote from the rulebook here:
“At the end of this phase, each player must feed his or her family by paying 2 Food per Family member. Offspring that were born during the current round (“Newborn offspring”, typically from a Family growth action) only consume 1 Food for this round, but will require 2 Food in future Harvests. Each unprocessed Grain or Vegetable may be converted to 1 Food at any time. Fireplaces and Cooking Hearths, as well as other specific Occupations and Improvements, allow players to convert Vegetables at any time, at a better exchange rate. Improvements with the ___ symbol can be used to convert animals to Food at any time. Improvements with the ___ symbol can be used to Bake bread, but only when the player takes a Bake bread action during a round. Unprocessed animals have no Food value.”

Uggg.  Try explaining all that to novices.  Sure, some of it is thematic and intuitive (you can’t just eat an unprocessed cow), but there are so many exceptions and minor rules in there, it’s a bear for people to remember.  Which is one reason why no one would call Agricola accessible.

How does this inform my own game design?  Well, I should first say that I don’t want my games to be niche products – for example, I don’t want to design hyper-complex wargames that appeal to only a small subgroup of hardcore gamers.  I want my games to be accessible insofar as everything makes sense – the mechanics fit within the theme, so that new players can approach the game with pre-existing notions (based upon their understanding of the theme) that are useful.  For example, I’m designing a post-apocalyptic Road Warrior-esque card game.  One way that players can lose the game is if they are “decked” (their draw pile runs out).  I call this running out of gas.  And there are a number of card effects that cause you to lose gas (discard cards). 

Meshing theme with mechanics well means that you don’t need to sacrifice strategic depth or cognitive challenge.  Instructions can even expand beyond 10 pages (!), as long as the rules are logical, there aren’t a million exceptions, and the basic gameplay (what the player does on each turn) is straightforward.  If you give people an accessible game that also makes them feel brilliant when they’ve won, you’ve created something quite special – and something more likely to bring them back to the table in the future.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dawn of War II Retribution - Pacing in Real-Time Games

I just finished a second campaign of Dawn of War II: Retribution, playing as the Tyranids.  Never mind that Retribution came out in 2011, and don’t worry that I’ve never played a single online match (well, unless you count the entertaining but forgettable Last Stand mode).  Dawn of War II has become my go-to blow stuff up and relax game.  You need something like that on your hard drive.  The single player campaign is designed to make you feel like you’re playing with miniature agents of destruction in a bounded playground of pandemonium.

The focus is on squad-level tactics.  You’re typically controlling 15 or fewer units that travel together, and I much prefer that scale compared to RTS’s that require you to maneuver dozens of units on numerous fronts. There’s a greater sense of personal attachment to individual heroes, and more importantly, the pace is slower.  This allows you to design simple attack plans and actually execute them effectively.  At its best, Dawn of War II feels like controlled chaos.  You’re giving orders to individual units, to better position them or activate their special abilities, and you’re watching the enemy units closely to see what kind of attacks they’re using and how you should best counter them.  If you, as a game designer, want players to use all the tools at their disposal, please give them the time to think, plan and decide!  A menagerie of tactical options is worthless if the game is moving so quickly that you can’t respond intelligently.

My Tyranid menace

Late in my Tyranid campaign, I found myself using the following load-out:  Hive Lord equipped with venom cannon, Zoanthrope, Tyrant Guard, and two squads of Genestealers (fully upgraded).  I’d typically send in my Hive Lord and Tyrant Guard to new terrain first, since they’re armored and regenerate health well.  The Zoanthrope would set up from a distance and start shelling the area with artillery.  Once I got a feel for the best approach, and softened up enemy ranged units with a couple Bio-Plasma bombs, I’d send in the Genestealers for clean-up.  I loved how the design of the Tyranids supported thematic play.  Meaning, when I played the Tyranids, I felt like an unstoppable horde.  I didn’t pay attention to cover much at all (actually, I usually used my Hive Lord and Tyrant Guard to knock down cover and bust through walls as often as I could, making a direct path to enemy units), and I didn’t rely on ranged attacks.  It was more an in-your-face, swarm approach.

This was very different than how I played through my first campaign as the Chaos Marines.  That was a more prototypical DOWII experience – slow and cautious approaches, using cover effectively, laying down suppressive fire before pushing heroes and infantry into the field, etc.  It required a more patient and methodical style of play, and one that was quite gratifying (especially since I finished that campaign on Hard difficulty).   The fact that the Chaos Marine and Tyranid campaigns felt and played so differently, even though the maps and scenarios were identical, speaks to the exquisite unit and race design in Retribution.  You can give a player the same battlefield conditions and the same goals, but the process will feel agreeably different if you allow choice and diversity in army composition and combat "style."

My Hive Lord

Retribution also features a robust leveling and equipment system that lets you design your Hero to support your play style and overall strategy.  I beefed my Hive Lord up with biomorphs that enhanced regeneration, armor, and reinforcement for all nearby Tyranids.  This allowed me to just throw my Genestealers in the fray without too much worry.  From a design standpoint, I appreciated the ability to take a breather in between campaign missions at the strategic map.  Again, pace.  Play around with my Hive Lord, futz with my squads, and consider my options.  Since missions typically took 15-20 minutes to complete (on Medium difficulty), Retribution is a game you can dip into for a quick play and then quit if you need to get back to work, kids, life-responsibilities.  As I get older, I’ve come to appreciate game design that allows for this kind of quick-play experience more and more.  Which is probably one of the many reasons why iOS games are doing so well – at their best, they can offer compelling play experiences in short bursts of time.  Dawn of War II: Retribution certainly succeeds by this criterion.

First Principles

I'm starting a new blog - something a bit more focused that my previous attempts, but still nothing too serious.  As I get deeper into game design as a "semi-professional" hobby, I'd like to maintain a space where I can think out-loud about games I'm playing, various game design concepts, gameplay mechanics - basically brainstorm - as well as feature some of the boardgame and cardgame designs I'm currently working on.

Here are some principles for the blog (always good to have principles!):

  • A focus on design, mechanics, and play.  I don't want to write reviews or session reports.  Which isn't to say I won't be sharing my opinions on various games that I'm playing (either on my PC, iPad, or tabletop).  But I mostly want to focus discussions on what makes a good game work.
  • I don't promise regular content.  I'm not writing this for a huge potential audience or to get hits.  I'm writing this for myself and also for those individuals who might be interested in hearing about some of the ideas and iterations, processes and procedures that lie behind my own game designs.
  • Play broadly, think broadly.  I love games and have ever since my Mama taught me how to play Spill & Spell and Boggle.  Even though I'm a boardgame designer, great ideas can come from any genre of gaming (or entertainment, for that matter).  So, for example, I'll be talking about computer games a fair bit here, even though I have no aspirations to design in that market.
  • Write well and show pretty pictures.

Hope you visit periodically and enjoy the read.