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.

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