Friday, November 24, 2006

Deja Vu All Over Again

The most recent good new game that I’ve played is Mykerinos. It’s a decent middle-weight strategy game that plays in an hour and a half or less. All of the Appalachian Gamers who tried it thought it was a quality game that forces players to make hard choices.

It was an area majority game.

What? Haven’t we had enough area majority games? I mean, c’mon. El Grande is a classic game, one of the all-time greats. But then came San Marco. Capitol. Web of Power. Liberte. Louis XIV. Attila. Aton. Mission: Red Planet. Twilight Struggle. And still to come is Midgard.

And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. I’m sure there’s more.

When does a gaming mechanism wear out its welcome? Isn’t it time for designers to give area majority a rest?

I’m not sure it is.

For one thing, a mechanism is usually just part of a game. It’s the relationship between the mechanism and the rest of the game that helps give a game its own unique flavor. As long as each game combines familiar elements in new and innovative ways, then each individual game may seem fresh and creative even if details of the design evoke other games.

After all, wargamers don’t usually complain about too many games having zones of control or ranged fire. Lovers of economic games don’t complain when yet another game features play money. Fantasy gamers don’t write complaining e-mails to game companies about yet another monster-stocked dungeon game.

In fact, there’s loads of evidence that gamers value the familiar over the innovative. Columbia Games specializes in wooden block wargames, and many of their recent games seem to be Son of Hammer of the Scots, Cousin of Hammer of the Scots, Maiden Aunt of Hammer of the Scots. In the GMT winter catalog, the company claims that gamers are demanding more card-driven wargames, not less.

Of course, I’m as guilty as the next guy of wanting familiarity. It was just a couple of blogs ago that I was urging game designers to make more manhunt games using the Scotland Yard/Fury of Dracula system of hidden movement. I argued that this was one gaming mechanism that designers hadn’t exploited enough. I still feel that way.

In truth, gamers are often like those Hollywood development executives that screenwriters joke about—the ones who demand that scripts be new and innovative and just like (insert this year’s highest-grossing movie).

Why do we like familiarity? Why are so many games like other games?

1) The familiar is easy to learn. A wargamer playing his twentieth movement-allowance-and-zones-of-control wargame will have an easier time learning the system than a Euro-gamer who is coming to the system for the first time. Even as the rules of Mykerinos were being explained to me, I began to think about the tactical implications of the game system. This was possible because area majority is such a familiar mechanism.

2) The familiar is easy to design. Some designers may try to create game systems unlike any other. But often, game designers are willing to adapt pre-existing systems to new subject matter. This saves time because they don’t have to re-invent the wheel, and allows them to focus on the game’s theme.

3) The familiar is easy to sell. Game companies get some peace of mind if they know the basic system of their new game works, and will be accepted by the gaming community. The GMT folks know that there is a core market for any card-driven wargame they make. Days of Wonder can feel confident that an Alan Moon train game will always have a certain high volume of sales.

In the end, I judge a game less on whether its systems are innovative than on the overall experience of playing the game. Does the game force me to make hard choices? Does it reward long-term planning? Does it embody the theme in believable and meaningful ways?

If the majority of answers in these areas are yes, then the game has captured my interest.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

Nice. Good thinking.


Pawnstar said...

The way many describe "area majority" they might as well say "dice". I mean, there are so many different ways dice are used in games - from simple random movement to complex action allocation (as witnessed in Railroad Dice, for example) - one shouldn't direct criticism at a game for simply using dice.

The same is true of "area majority"; though I suppose most criticism is directed against those games which simply use the basic "most tokens in a space" mechanism.

Coldfoot said...

Bring on the Civ-lite games... and a few more Monopoly clones.

Scratch that last thought.

huzonfirst said...

Excellent article, Kris, and I agree 100%. "Area majority" is just a blanket description, like a "card game". The games you listed are very different from each other. New and excellent area majority games are introduced each year and I think there's plenty of room for more. For me, it isn't so much that I crave familiarity, but that I'm open to any good gaming experience, whether it uses what already exists or not. I think the people who cry, "Not another area majority game!" badly miss the point.