Saturday, January 01, 2011

2010 In Review

I played about 1000 games in 2010. Overall, it was good year for playing games, but a bad year for new games...

Most Played

Ignoring lighter games and fillers--yes, I think Race for the Galaxy is a filler--my most played games were Go (74x), Loyang (32x), Through the Ages (18x), Shogi (11x), Magic Realm (9x), Tigris & Euphrates (9x), Arkham Horror (8x), Tinners' Trail (7x), War of the Ring CE (7x), Lord of the Rings (6x), Notre Dame (6x), Space Alert (6x), and Age of Industry (5x).

Of these, only War of the Ring and Age of Industry were 2010, although it's kind of a stretch in both cases since they are basically "remakes".

Most Fun

Go: An addictive gem. Despite its obvious abstract physical and mechanical design, Go is a rich game, and probably the deepest game I can imagine.

Shogi: Certainly this gets a bump because I am on the leading edge of the learning curve. If you have ignored Shogi because you think it's just a variant on Chess, take another look.

Through the Ages: Although it's lost most of its learning-curve luster, I play often and enjoy it every time.

Tigris & Euphrates: This game went from an early 10, down to an 8, and is now back up to a 9. For an abstract, it looks nice, it has a lot of tricky plays, and a good dose of bluffing.

ASL Starter Kit: I'm still in the intro stages of full ASL, even after all this time. It's more an issue of getting players together than it is a lack of my own interest. I've tried other tactical wargames (CoH, CC:E, ToI), but they just don't feel right.

Liberté: What can I say that I haven't said before? Not much. If you don't own it already, one of your only options is to pick up the embarrassing new Valley Games version.

Napoleon's Triumph: An unintuitive, yet brilliant design in grand tactics (no line-of-sight or defensive fire, but also no supply). The old adage that it's a cross between chess and poker is right on the money.

Here I Stand: My only play--a 13 hour marathon--was fascinating. It's not a "game night" game, but I'd play again any time.

Paths of Glory: It's been highly rated on BGG since its release, but I've never even looked at it until recently. My first and only play took about 6 hours to get through only 4 turns out of 20. A very clever CDG system that feels so much more open than Twilight Struggle, for example.

Again, nothing from 2010.

2010 Releases

7 Wonders: Everyone around me already owns it and has played it, yet I haven't even seen a copy yet. Everyone is way too excited about it. I've read the rules. I can't see rating this game other than a 7.

London: A very convoluted system for gaining income and losing poverty. The board feels like an afterthought. It feels like a game would feel half way through development, before the chaff was discarded.

Merkator: No theme, high chaos. The little cube boxes are a gimmick. They do not serve their purpose. They are a failed reaction to the physical disaster that is Le Havre.

Haggis: A very good replacement for Tichu when you only have 3.

There are a few that I want to try that I haven't, but there are no "must tries". I think the problem is that the "professional designers" are selling out to the mass market and making video versions of the simpler games, and that there are a lot more small (self-)publishers pumping out crap.

Look at Small World. Vinci is a very good game that's been around for 11 years. It has a rank of 168 on BGG. Repackage it with horrendous graphics, give it a fantasy makeover, and it jumps up 128 points. This is where the industry is going. It's great to get more exposure of games for the general public, but pandering to the least common denominator is destructive to the core.

2010 Flops

Dominant Species: This is a great design, but a terrible game. If I wanted 5 hours of complete chaos with absolutely no control or planning, I would play 2 games of Agricola instead. It also doesn't help that a game with an evolution theme is really about "intelligent design".

Founding Fathers: A really good idea for a game, but approached from the wrong direction. As a player, you never care if you are on the "right side" of an issue (which would make the game interesting and historical). You only care if you are on the winning side. And if you lose, you get points for losing so you don't fall too far behind. All the worst sort of euro mechanisms.

Thunderstone/Ascension: Broken and boring.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Implementations of Theme

What is it that makes a game have theme? Is it the bits? The box? The images and graphics? If you answered "yes" to any of these, then the theme is in your head. There's nothing wrong with this. I'm sure many gamers would enjoy the most abstract games (eg Risk) even more if the bits were in the shapes of their favorite themes (eg fantasy armies, spaceships, Jedi, etc.).

So when, in fact, is the theme realized in the game play?

You are designing a fantasy-themed game of conflict with fighters and thieves. Fighters deal 4 damage, and thieves deal 2 damage. Thematic, right? Now let's make it about space combat. Heavy starships deal 4 damage, and light deal 2. How about Jedi? Masters deal 4, and apprentices deal 2.

My point is that taking a theme and "abstracting out the numbers" is not really implementing that theme. You are--at best--creating a system that uses theme as metaphor. The systems in the game map to some fictional or real world theme in a way that helps you learn and remember them. The abstracted core could to mapped onto any number of other themes. This leads to the inevitable "pasted on theme" comments. Again, there's nothing wrong with games of this kind.

So what does it really mean to implement a theme? Is it possible to be taught a game using no metaphor, using only abstracted bits, yet have the game play be still unmistakably linked to something so strongly that most players immediately spot the connection? And if so, what designs do this the best?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Magic Realm

I remember a college friend buying Magic Realm back in 1983. All of us D&D folks were thoroughly impressed, but completely baffled. I don't think anyone even attempted to understand this beast. I recently stumbled across it again on BGG, and have decided to make at least a minimal effort to understand it, despite the game being 24 years old (as of the 1986 second edition), obviously out of print, and used copies going for high prices (ripped boxes, missing pieces, $90).

The unofficial third edition rules--rewritten by dedicated fans--are only 122 pages long. There are some excellent teaching videos at Book Shelf Games, along with many full examples of the various characters playing solo games.

I don't even understand a tenth of what I need to know in order to play the simplest game of Magic Realm, but I am still amazed by it. I tend to think of my hobby as being in its heyday, but perhaps that is just a reflection of my own sense of discovery within it. The 70's and 80's also seem to be brimming with gaming design creativity.

Take this one example. Many rolls in Magic Realm are 2d6, taking the higher of the 2. Think about what this simple mechanism does. Out of the 36 possible rolls: 1 results in a 1, 3 result in a 2, 5 in a 3, 7 in a 4, 9 in a 5, and 11 in a 6. If you want something to occur very infrequently, set it to the 1 result on the table (1/36 = 2.78%). If you want something to occur half the time, set it to the 4 and 6 results (7 + 11 = 18, 18/36 = 50%). You can get just about any rough statistical breakdown using this method provided you have, at most, 6 outcomes. Brilliant!

I've never played any game that uses this system, yet it is 32 years old. Maybe it's time for a reincarnation.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Rules 4: Use Your Words

Many innocent words and phrases may be interpreted differently by different people. Even within a given context, meaning may not be clear. It's virtually impossible to avoid this completely, but at least be aware of your words, and learn to see all possible meanings.

If condition A occurred in the last round, score 2 bonus points.

Does "last" mean "previous" or "final"?

If there's a token at either end of the road, score it.

Does "either" mean "one or the other", or "both"?

In software, programmers are acutely aware of the difference between inclusive and exclusive "or". "A inclusive or B" means A or B or (A and B). "A exclusive or B" means A or B, but not both. So what does the simple use of the word "or" mean in game rules without further qualification? Do you think you could come up with a rule to its interpretation? Try it, then try to apply it to these two sentences:

On his turn, a player takes action A or action B.
The game ends if condition A or condition B occurs.

Instinctively, you will likely assume the first "or" is exclusive, and the second inclusive.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Rules 3: Terminology

This topic is closely related to the previous one. Using consistent language in your descriptions of game components, actions, and processes can mean the difference between clarity and confusion.

The game takes place over 5 turns. Each turn, players will take turns selecting a single action until everyone passes. A player may not move a piece more than once per turn.

How often have you seen rules like this? Define the hierarchy of sequence carefully, and stick with it.

Another example. Say we have some kind of wargame with the following phases:
Now say some rule or card allows an action "before combat". Taken literally, this could be during the Movement Phase, but obviously that is not the intent. In effect, there's an unwritten phase where certain things can occur. It would be much better to break down phases where this sort of issue may occur, adding new terminology as necessary:
---before combat
---after combat
Even with this, there's the possibility of ambiguous order or multiple "before combat" effects. But that is not the subject of this post.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Rules 2: Under/Over Specification

As we see from the previous post, induction leads to elegance. However, games often require special cases beyond a simple set of base rules. This can provide a certain amount of texture or theme.

State the general rules first. Then enumerate the exceptions using an amount of detail so as not to imply anything more or less than intended.

A player may choose one the following actions: A, B, or C. A player may never take action B followed by action A.

Huh? What is the meaning of the second sentence? Is it extraneous? Is it an example? Is it implying that a player may take action A followed by action B? Even though it isn't technically in conflict with the first sentence, its presence makes the reader wonder what they are missing. Exceptions imply things. At a minimum, players will make logical inferences.

Roll a die and move that many spaces. However, if you roll a 3, you must move exactly 3 spaces.

Again, huh? Does the second sentence imply that you may move other than your roll when you don't roll a 3? This is another example of a rules writer perhaps thinking they are being specific, but only confusing the reader.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Rules 1: Induction

This is the first in a potential series of shorter posts discussing rules writing. An appropriate subtitle might be "How Not To Confuse Your Customers". Each designer, editor, publisher has their own strengths and weaknesses. Clearly a great deal of time is spent on various aspects of many rulebooks (eg detail, examples, art, images, component list, sequence of play, index, etc). However, ignoring some of the most fundamental aspects of rules is like spending all of your time and effort on the paint job of a building that is going to collapse. The best service you can do for your customers with regards to the rules is to makes them clear, concise, unambiguous, and elegant.

Today's topic is induction. In the most general sense, induction is the process of finding a pattern or general rule that describes a set of data. It can make a complex aspect of a set of rules an order of magnitude easier to understand and remember. Consider this generic example of a game:

We have a basic wargame. There are 3 different nations represented by the colors red, green, and blue. Within each nation, there are 3 different unit types A, B, and C. The rulebook lists their respective attack values as follows:
red A 5
red B 6
red C 7
green A 6
green B 7
green C 8
blue A 7
blue B 8
blue C 9
Obviously, there's a pattern here, but presented like this, would you not try to remember it like this? How long would you consult the chart before memorizing the numbers? How would you go about teaching this part of the game? Would you list all 9 elements? Would you just show the chart?

Now consider the following description of the above chart: The base attack value is 7. Red units are -1, and Blue are +1. A units are -1, and C units are +1.

Now you are able to state the attack value of every unit without the chart. The nations now have a "thematic" sense, as do the units. You could also add a new nation or unit type to the system simply by describing how it fits in (eg unit type D is +2, nation yellow is also -1).