Saturday, August 13, 2005
The Problem with Indie Games
Last Thursday I played my first game ever of Mall World. It's a game that I was really enthused to pick up when it was released by Rio Grande Games. The tile-laying was probably what appealed to me first; I like building games. However when I saw the first pictures of it, with its geomorphic tile designs, I was totally won over. It looked neat.
It arrived at my door as part of a large box of games. I quickly ripped through all of them, ogling pieces and reading rules. But afterward Mall World began to gather dust as it sat atop my to-play pile, for days, weeks, and eventually months. I took it out a couple of times to play, but it was rejected each time. At least once this was because I didn't want to play an auction game with the minimum number of players, but more often there was another reason that I couldn't bring myself to play the game: the rules.
Mall World: A Tough Game
Charitably, the rules to Mall World are tough. It was one of just a few games I read in the last year where I got done with the rules and I didn't have any idea at all how to play. (Princes of the Renaissance and Oriente are the only other two that spring to mind.) As I worked through the rules a second time (and later a third and a fourth) I came to realize that they weren't entirely to blame.
Mall World's biggest problem turns out to be terminology. You're building a mall, you see. And as you do you process "approvals" which allow you to designate types of shops to go in the mall and which also allow you to rent to stores of the designated type that are targeting a specific demographic. You do this in order to fulfill "use orders", which are a set of shop types that someone wants to be adjacent, "rent orders", which are specific shops (type + demographic) that someone wants to see in the mall, and "special orders", which are sets of specific shops that someone wants to be adjacent. (Who "someone" is, I dunno; I assumed gangsters in my last game. Why this sort of micromanagement is important to them is an entirely different question.) When you confirm an order you may also receive a bribe or pay a bribe. Most payments are made from and to your swiss bank account, but when you're bidding on approvals or taking new approval cards you instead spend "liquid capital" and those go into a "slush fund" which is later distributed back among all the players.
It wasn't clear at all to me. The terms "use order", "rent order", and "special order" were almost meaningless when I tried to apply them to the theme. I still don't entirely understand what "confirming an order" was supposed to represent, and why you get or give bribes at that point, nor am I entirely sure what the "approval" cards really mean, nor why they might be auctioned. And the whole idea of paying in cash that was then redistributed among all the players, although a great game system, didn't make any real-life sense to me.
In other words, the theme of Mall World fell flat. But, this wasn't Reiner Knizia or Leo Colovini flat, where the theme was a paper-thin facade but the system was elegant enough that it didn't actually need the theme to support it. Instead this was a much more disastrous falling flat where it felt like the theme & mechanics were really intended to be deeply integrated, but where they seemed to pull against each other so strongly that the theme actually detracted from the understanding of the mechanics.
Mall World had some other sharp edges. The one that threw players the most was a (simple) mechanic where the order cards got cycled if every one passed in turn without taking one. It was annoying to players because this was represented by each player putting a pawn on a board if they didn't want any face-up cards, then the cards cycling if everyone's pawns ended up on the board, or alternatively everyone's pawns getting returned if anyone took a card. One player said, "Why didn't they just say, if everyone passes, cycle a card", and I started to say "That's not quite the same thing" (because the current rules has a few subtleties that an everyone-passes rule misses), but then I bit my tongue. (Ow.) I realized that my defensive answer exactly matched the problem I have with many indie games. It was a sharp edge that could have been simplified with some slight change in mechanics and little loss of theme or gameplay.
But more on that in a sec.
Before I close out on Mall World, I should say that it's a game with great potential. It has a neat tile-laying system where you can change tile values once after they're down, potentially screwing up other players. It also has a decent auction system that has a lot of tough choices implicit in it. There's some great ideas and some great systems here, and it might be a great game among players who'd played it several times and were all familiar with it.
But the system is full of sharp edges, the worst of which is the bad terminology & theming, which makes sufficiently little sense to make the game harder to play (and even more so, harder to learn), rather than easier.
Most players who try to play are going to get cut.
The Problem with Indies
Mall World is a classic indie German game. It's produced by Andrea Meyer and Bewitched Games on the other side of the pond. There are a number of other notable indie designers who fit into the same category. Martin Wallace (and Warfrog), Richard Breese (and R&D), and Friedemann Friese (and 2F) are some others who I consider among the best and most innovative.
Inevitably these four designers (and others I'm neglecting) produce exciting and innovative games with neat game systems that you don't see anywhere else. However, also inevitably, these games are full of sharp edges that should have been filed down.
Martin Wallace's Princes of the Renaissance was another one which had rules that I found almost impossible to understand (though it turned out that was partially because they forgot to include vital information, like starting positions). But I also shook my head at some of the more minor game design, like the fact that the game alternatively uses unfriendly ties (wherein two cities which tie for the same influence are each bumped down to the next level) and friendly ties (wherein two players which tie for the same amount of gold at the end of the game each stay at the higher level). One or the other would have been a smoother edge, which would have resulted in a clearer game. It's a minor, minor issue, but exactly the sort of problem I see in indie games.
Struggle of Empires, also a Wallace design, was another game with similar issues. The rules were better here, but still some of the game systems were unnecessarily complex. Here's what I wrote when I first played it: "The movement rules were the ones that really got me here. You can, for example, move a land unit to an adjacent space or to a space which you have any sea unit adjacent to or to a space in Europe where you have a control marker or to a space in Europe where you have an adjacent control marker. Which all goes to say that can move a unit just about anywhere, except you have to have a boat to move to a colony. A rule that said that you could move a land unit anywhere in Europe or to any colony with a boat would have been much simpler to understand, would have taken 5 minutes off the rules explanation, and wouldn't have changed the game a lot."
Inevitably I've found indie games to be a little too complex, a little too inconsistent, and generally not up to the more polished standards of a production houses like Hans im Gluck or Kosmos. And, that really bugs me because the core ideas and designs behind the best indie games are good enough that these games could be top-10 material. Princes of the Renaissance, Struggle of Empires, Mall World, and others have the potential to be as great as Puerto Rico, El Grande, and some of the other classics. But, they miss those marks, and I think it's largely because they're being produced by indie companies.
The problem: development.
Design v. Development
Game players tend to follow the cult of the game designer. We bow before Reiner Knizia, we kowtow to Klaus Teuber, and we raise Alan Moon up on a pedestal. And, make no mistake, game designers make games happen. Without their innovative ideas and their hard, original work, there would be no games.
But I think we all too often neglect the role of the developer. This is someone working in-house at a game company who looks over proposals, pulls out the ones he likes, and then works with the original designer to, well, develop the game. He may retheme it. He may suggest changes. Or he might get out the sandpaper himself and wear down those rough edges.
He'd pick up Struggle, he'd look over the intricate web of movement rules, and then he'd say, "I see you've set this up to be thematic and realistic, but if we just simplify these rules, how much do we lose?" Or, he'd flip through all various weird card types in Mall World, and at each one he'd say, "What does this really mean?" And when he was done he'd have revised the terms and maybe the game system itself so that it worked with the theme instead of against it.
Developers may be somewhat invisible to us as game hobbyists, but on the other hand we understand that Hans im Gluck, Alea, and Days of Wonder each have a great reputation for producing superb games. That's not just about picking the right things out of the slush pile. It's about very skilled developers working with designers to make their games shine.
And that brings us back to indie games. Here, a designer might do any amount of playtesting, but if he ends up being his own developer too, he's probably not going to be able to see all the rough edges in his game, because he's too close to the piece.
And so we end up with games that could have been exceptional, that are instead only good. Or, worse, we end up with a Mall World which might actually be very good already, but which I'm not sure I'll ever have the strength to explain again.
So, though I have every respect for indie game designers, though I think they're some of the most innovative designers in the business, and though I'll keep buying their games, I dearly, dearly wish that more of them would let go of the reins just a little, and submit their games to professional development houses, because I think that their very good games would become very great with just a little bit of additional TLC from someone not as close to the project.