Thursday, April 26, 2007

Elegant Games, Elegant Components

Remember back to days of playing Monopoly? Did you ever actually read the rules? For myself I'm pretty sure the answer is, "No", because in more recent years when I have gone back and looked at the venerable Monopoly rules, they looked entirely unfamiliar to me.

There's a reason for that.

Now, I would never be one to call Monopoly an elegant game, but the Parker brothers did know how to do one thing right: they made good use of their components. In Monopoly's case, practically everything you need to know about playing the game is right there on the board and the cards.

"Collect $200.00 Salary as You Pass Go" the Start space says boldly. "Community Chest," another space states. "Follow Instruction on Top Card." Sets of property are color coded, and the cost of each property is clearly state on the board. The ownership card for each property displays all possible rents, a mortgage value and the cost of houses and hotels.

Now some game designers (and publishers) think that the primary purpose of components is beauty, so if they want to impress you they use quality materials and plaster artwork wherever possible. The results of this can be very positive. I've found that French games in particular, including Asmodee and Days of Wonder, often wow me with their artistic sensibility.

However any publisher that stops there has only gone halfway, and is omitting the other great advantage that components can offer, the one that the Parker brothers knew: elegance.

A Wargaming Interlude

In 1953 a man named Charle Roberts designed a game called Tactics. It was the first commercial wargame and it is an ancestor of any gamer's game that you might play today. It allowed for the creation of games with more strategy and thoughtfulness than the luckfests that dominated the game scene in the hundred years prior.

However in their quests for simulation and strategy the many designers that followed Roberts at Avalon Hill, SPI, and elsewhere lost track of the idea of elegance. I actually suspect that the problem was that many wargamers didn't really understand game design that well, and thus they were reinventing the wheel. Instead of encoding rules in components--as Monopoly does--wargame designers insteaded filled books with complex charts, requiring constant referencing and re-referencing. When a superb graphic designer like Redmond Simonsen came along, standardized a lot of wargame design, and innovated a lot of practices it really was a notable change ... but it probably shouldn't have been.

Now Eurogames don't exactly come from the wellspring of wargaming, but it's clearly one of several ancestors, particularly in French designs and in new Anglo-American games being published based on German ideals. As such an increasing number of those games we play face a dilemma, as they try and mix more simulative American gameplay with German elegance ... and sometimes they fail, with the result being that charts, tables, and calculations occasionally slip into These Games of Ours.

Catan & Component Elegance

Fortunately Eurogames enjoy another ancestor which moved in the exact opposite direction as those chart-filled, inelegant wargames: The Settlers of Catan. I have long thought that one of the primary reasons for Catan's success has been its superb component design.

The Settlers of Catan could have felt like a complex game with the constant need to reference rules. After all, you have a number of different land types, each of which produces a specific resource, and a number of different potential buildings, each of which requires different resources to build.

What Catan did well--perhaps even brilliantly--was that it linked together all of this information in simple pictorial form via the components that were constantly in front of all the players. This isn't just about the player aids--though those are clearly a crucial part of the game's success. Equally important, however, was the decision to largely color-code the land types and match those up to the resources they produce. That simple fact made it so blatantly obvious that, for example, a forest produces wood, that you'd never even consider looking it up. However, it would be very easy to imagine a game where that wasn't the case.

Because Catan has been so successful, many Eurogames have followed in its footsteps, and tried to make their gameplay simple and elegant through good component design. Some have been successful, while some think the answer is simply to print muddled icons on everything and hope that players will eventually figure everything out. Clearly, one approach works and the other really doesn't. Memorizing a set of unintuitive icons is really not much better than memorizing a set of specific rules in the first place.

Extending the Envelope

The possibilities of improving gameplay through component design are many and varied, and sometimes you don't even realize their usefulness until you play a game without.

For example, many a game has the good sense to place the cost of purchasing a good right on the good. If a card costs a gold coin, you put a picture of a gold coin on the card. It's simple and obvious ... and not done nearly enough. When you have to instead look up that price on a chart, in a rulebook, or even on the gameboard you're slowing down the game for no particularly good reason.

Any game designer should be thinking about every one of his components, from board to cards to playing aids, figuring out how the information about each individual item could be encoded on it--or at the very least nearby.

Some of the most innovative work that I've seen in this regard has been by Kevin Wilson of Fantasy Flight Games and has centered on dice.

Dice Design

Fantasy Flight Games are unabashedly Anglo-American designs, with lots of randomness. Most recently I've been playing Descent a straight-up board-game dungeon crawl, with one player trying to foil the rest. In that game the random pedigree is obvious: an attack can randomly hit or miss, can randomly do a little or a lot of damage, and can randomly be boosted or not.

Now a traditional roleplaying design--even closer to wargaming origins than any modern board game--would encode these possibilities in charts. For example to make an attack in Dungeon & Dragons I'd first look up a to-hit chance (on a chart), then throw a 20-sided die. Then if I did hit I might roll again (using the same chart) to determine if the hit was a "boosted" critical hit. Finally I'd look up my weapon's damage (on a chart) and roll that. That's all the same possibilities as Descent offers, on two or three different charts.

Descent instead includes dice which show all this information. One specific die determines hit or miss for each attack. Beyond that, every die includes symbols which show damage and boosts. You just add up all the appropriate symbols, sometimes deciding whether to use one result or another, and you get your total. Granted, the dice are a bit ugly looking with their cacophony of symbols, but they're easy to read one you get used to them ... and surprisingly elegant.

My favorite thing about Descent's dice is the way that it deals with ranged combat, which is perhaps better than any actual roleplaying game I've ever played. Besides all the other info, each die also has a range number. When you roll your dice, you add up the ranges, and if they equal or exceed the actual range to your target, you hit, otherwise you miss. This means that the further away something is, the harder it is to hit, using a very clean formula that increases the difficulty space by space. Likewise as you gain in experience you'll throw more dice, and thus gradually be able to hit things further away.

Compare that to a standard roleplaying game's model of ranged combat. You usually have range bands which only allow stepped differences in difficulty at a few specific thresholds. When you use a ranged weapon you have to look up those range bands, typically cross-referencing them to penalties to hit. Descent instead encodes that all in the dice, showing off just one of several ways that the game keeps players out of the rulebook and focused on the game instead.


Fantasy Flight's dice work is, of course, not the end-all and be-all of component design, but it definitely shows off how easily this particular corner of game design can still be expanded.

In what other ways can components be used, to keep players playing the games rather than reading the rules? I hope more designers like Klaus Teuber and Kevin Wilson are thinking about that very question.


qzhdad said...

I am not sure I agree with your assertion that wargames didn't use the components to contain valuable information. One gamer when presented with a new game asked, "Is it Avalon Hill? OK, then I'll just read the board and we can play." They weren't quite that straightforward, but there is a lot of information on AH boards. One couldn't pitch the rules and play, but I think they did a great job of mnemonic charts and turn order right on many of their boards.

All in all, though, I agree that the more of that information that is available on the components, the smoother teaching games goes. Icons are powerful tools and I always appreciate when designers include them.

Unknown said...

I think what made some AH games more playable was commonality rather than really good component design. If you've played PanzerBlitz, you could figure out PanzerLeader and Arab-Israeli Wars by looking at the charts and counters. If you've figured out how to work an odds chart, that could go a long way in many games.

That said, some wargame companies do have very good component design. Columbia deserves particular praise here; many of their games are more or less chart-free with graphics that easily and cleanly convey a lot of information.

Avalon Hill of course also published a lot more than just wargames. Sometimes they did a good job, sometimes they didn't, but they published a lot of games. Games like Civilization, Dune, Titan, and 1830 are all very good in this respect I think (and all acquisitions where the physical presentation was left more or less unchanged, rather than in-house designs, admittedly). In the 90s, a number of wargames had very good component design, such as Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage and We the People. Hannibal is of course not a trivial game, so it's still got some rules, but the cards and leaders and board make it a lot easier to play than games of comparable raw complexity but weaker graphic (and game) design.

I agree that the dice in Doom and Descent are terrific game design elements, brilliant really. It's just so frustrating to me that it seems like they thought to themselves "wow, that's a great idea!" and then stopped worrying about the rest of the game. The scenarios in the original Doom were egregiously poor to the point of ludicrousness. Descent would be a great game if only they could have tightened up the pace. You can play that thing for 4-5 hours (or more) and not get a lot out of it. I also felt like Descent got less mileage out of the custom dice concept because of the prevalence of melee rather than ranged combat, and because the dice and weapons you got access to (without playing forever) seemed to lack the same range as Doom.

caradoc said...

Thanks for an interesting and engaging article Shannon!

I think component design can make the difference sometimes between a good game and a brilliant game - one where the game takes many, many plays to 'nail down' and one where play feels almost intuitive.

I agree with Chris too in regard to Descent, although i found the Doom scenarios to be less ludicrous - especially with the difficulty levels from the FFG site. I think Doom is a fantastic system, especially the 'ammunition' aspect of the dice - you can hit and the marines can still be wincing. The dice don't have the 'critical damage' component that the Descent dice do - but they are still such a simple way of handling so many different game play aspects.

Thanks again!


Shannon Appelcline said...

I've played Descent three times now and I've been quite pleased with it, as have the other players who actively requested the third game instead of some roleplaying we had planned.

The game is long compared to a board game, but is a perfectly fine length for a RPG. It helps if the players really push the game, and the players who played games #2 and #3 did.

caradoc said...

Descent is a great game - it certainly adds a lot that Doom doesn't have. I really do enjoy Descent, but I also love the pared down version that is Doom - although I feel that in Doom players need to play a certain way (keep moving) more so than in Descent - but I like the 'pressure-cooker' feeling this produces.

Ys is an example of a very complex game that doesn't feel as complex as it could as a result of some very clever graphics (although the character cards take some getting used to) - the board especially is an excellent example of references that help make the complexities of the game easier to process.

Great article Shannon! - thanks!

Gerald McD said...

That's another excellent article, Shannon. I agree with your assertions.

A corollary might be: Poor design of information on components can lead to confusion. The Mine cards in Boomtown are an example. Each card has a number on it and one or more gold coins. We don't play the game too often, but when we do, we always have to remind each other that the gold coins do not represent the cost of the Mine, but rather its production value, while the number is the cost. It is confusing. Perhaps if the gold coins had been pictured in an ore cart coming from the mine and the number placed on a For Sale sign, the confusion would have been avoided. Sometimes graphic designs can be too clever and defeat their primary purpose.

Gerald McD said...

Akkkkk -- I shouldn't be doing this tonight. The number on the Mine card is the die roll to indicate that the Mine produces. The cost of the Mine is established by the auction. --- Like I said, confusion (in this case, just in my mind, I guess).

Coldfoot said...

Good, thought provoking stuff.

This piece should be re-posted on BGDF and BGG for greater exposure.

huzonfirst said...

Shannon, didn't Richard Borg's designs of Battle Cry and Memoir '44 predate the FFG games with their use of custom dice to indicate combat results without the use of charts? They were probably a lot simpler, but I think they used the same concept. I have no idea if that was the first use of custom dice for that. Eagle's Conquest of the Empire also uses custom dice for combat, but that came later than Borg's C&C games.

Melissa said...

One newer game that I think does the information thing extremely well is Pillars of the Earth - we rarely have to go hunting for anything, as there is just enough information on the board and on the cards.

Jeffrey Henning said...

And what those Descent dice look like: