Sunday, May 12, 2013

Leaning on what's logical

In this post, I’d like to riff off an idea that emerged in my last one:  designing games that mesh theme with mechanics in such a way that the game becomes more accessible to the players.  I used Fresco as my example, since I think it’s a moderate weight Eurogame that is easy to learn because the mechanics “make sense” in the context of the world it inhabits.  In other words, some of the more intricate rules are logical, which in turn makes them easier to remember and integrate.
Last night, my wife and I had another couple over for a lovely evening of scotch, conversation, apple pie, and boardgames.  The kind of event I wish we had more time for but which is regrettably quite rare.  As for game choice, I didn’t want something too meaty or mathematical – just fun and vicious, with some light social elements.  I’ve been looking forward to getting Survive: Escape from Atlantis and The Downfall of Pompeii to the table, so we went with a “survival” theme for the evening.  I've decided I love games that let you really screw with your opponents, and encourage pleading, cajoling, and outright threats.  That's good times.

Our experiences with these two games last night bring to light the importance of making rules “logical,” within the context of the game’s theme.  Let’s start with Survive.  In Survive, you’re trying to save as many of your people from a sinking island as possible before the volcano erupts.  You can try to swim to safety, but it’s a lengthy and dangerous process.  Instead, it’s more efficient to load up on boats – but you might need to share space with another player or two.  This in turn makes you a target for the “creatures” of the game:  sea serpents, whales, and sharks.  Your opponents can move these creatures onto the tile your ship inhabits, potentially sinking the ship and gobbling up your poor little meeples.  Needless to say, Survive is a blast to play, as long as people get into the spirit of the game and don’t take getting attacked too seriously. 

Survive (picture from

One great example of how Survive successfully meshes theme with mechanics is its rules for sea creatures.  Sea serpents can only move one space at a time, but they destroy and kill anything they land on (boats and people).  Sharks can move two spaces, eat swimmers, but can’t do anything to boats.  Whales can move three spaces, don’t affect swimmers, but can capsize boats, dumping all the people into the water.  I only had to explain this once to everyone around the table and that was it (it doesn’t hurt that a nice visual summary of these rules is printed on the game board itself!).  The rules are silly (in the sense of being based upon a fantastical setting) but perfectly logical.  Sharks can’t tip over boats but can eat swimmers.  That’s easy to remember!  And that’s part of what makes Survive accessible to new players, such that they can start having fun and strategizing sooner, rather than struggling over half-remembered rules and exceptions. 

In contrast, I’d argue that Downfall of Pompeii, while equally light and unburdened by complex rules, is not as intuitive to learn – and therefore not as satisfying on a design level.  Downfall of Pompeii is a game of two acts.  In Act I, the players populate the city’s buildings with their game pieces.  In Act II, the volcano erupts, lava flows down the streets, and the players compete to get as many of their pieces out of the city before time runs out.  Thematically, it sounds great.  In fact, there’s even a three-dimensional volcano on the board where you dump the citizens who have been overcome by the lava.  

Downfall of Pompeii:  now out-of-print, I believe.

However, some of its rules regarding piece placement in Act I and movement in Act II are unintuitive and frustrating, especially for non-gamers.  Here’s a quote from the rulebook regarding the movement of your pieces once the lava is flowing:

“On his turn, a player has two moves, with which he can move two different of his game pieces. He may move a game piece forward by as many city squares as the total number of game pieces (his own and/or other players’) on the square on which he begins his move. Note: In those buildings which stretch across two city squares, game pieces now count as being in two separate squares…
Usually, a player must move two different game pieces on his turn. Exception: If a game piece is alone on a city square at the beginning of the player’s first move, that player may move the same piece again with his second move.”

So there are a few confusing things here (and these aren’t even all the rules governing the movement of pieces).  First, players typically will be moving two pieces – unless you’re not.  I hate “exceptions” in rulebooks – nothing’s more frustrating when you’re explaining rules to novice gamers than having to go through a rule, and immediately follow it up with “except when…” statements.  People’s eyes just glaze over, and they’ve already forgotten the original rule as well as the exception.  So, in Pompeii, you usually will be moving two different pieces – and once you move a piece, you can’t move it again on that same turn.  However, you can decide to move a single piece twice – but only if it starts the turn in a space all by itself.  There’s nothing intuitive, logical, or thematic about those rules.  It’s just a game design mechanic existing in the ether.  Why not have the rule simply be:  you can make two moves each turn.  End of story.  That might be with two different pieces, or the same piece two times.  Did play-testing reveal that being able to move the same piece two times was "over-powered" unless it started in a square by itself?  I doubt it.  Pompeii is too light and random of a game for such a rule to matter.  

And there’s another confusing rule in there:  the number of spaces your piece can move is determined by the total number of pieces on its original square.  So, if it started on a space with 3 other pieces, it could move a total of 4 spaces this turn. Why?  What’s the theme underlying that mechanic?  You panic more and run faster when you're in a crowd? There isn’t any logic to it, and as such, I find it harder to teach and less interesting to play.  

Throughout our game of Pompeii last night, a couple of our players continued to struggle with these rules on piece movement and it significantly interfered with the entertainment value of the game.  It also made it impossible for those players to really grasp the strategy of the game, since they couldn’t get a logical hold on the base mechanics.  Now, I know a lot of gamers are going to scoff at that and argue that rules can’t always be over-simplified to the point of being obvious.  If you play enough games, you grok rules like those found in Pompeii and can roll with it.  But my point is that meshing theme with mechanics always makes for a better game design – one quicker to grasp and play with, for novices and experts alike.  I’d argue it’s especially important in so-called “gateway” games, but it’s never something you should avoid entirely – which is perhaps why neither thematically vacuous Euros nor abstracts have ever appealed to me.

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