Monday, May 21, 2007

Heads down, heads up.

I finished a game of Through the Ages recently, and in the post-game debriefing, one of the players said that they thought that they were done with the game because TtA was too much of a 'heads down' game. Where time seems to spin and warp, resulting in a feeling of disconnection - not only with the outside world, but also with the other players.1

At first I was taken aback - you mean that's a bad thing? But the longer 2 I thought about it, the more I can see where he was coming from. If a game draws you into your personal planning too much - it can cease being a game and become more like a puzzle - at which point the non-puzzle inclined will enjoy the game less.

A common complaint about some of the longer, more detailed games is the propensity for solitare play. Not outright solitare, but an odd mutated form of solitare where interaction with the other players occurs, but ultimately doesn't have as much an impact on your play as your own strategy and long-term planning.

A game I highly enjoy - Roads and Boats, epitomizes part of this complaint. There is plenty of interaction in Roads and Boats 3, but ultimately your own optimization of routes, deliveries, and production will have a greater effect on the final standings than interplayer decisions and contests.

Back over to TtA 4, this game also relies on personal optimization and decisionmaking - with a small bit of player-smacking to keep players honest. Ultimately this reliance on personal optimization does create a game that encourages 'heads down' play.

So we have 'heads down' play.

At the other extreme is 'heads up' play - perhaps epitomized by Modern Art - where every playing is constantly engaged with the other players. 5

Heads up play often isn't very contemplative. You don't have time to puzzle out a tricky valuation, or internally debate the relative merits of a temple placed in hex A or hex B. You might think you have time to decide, but often the game, or players won't allow it.

Of course, like life, most games fall halfway in-between the heads up and heads down spectrum. Wolfgang Kramer's action point games reward both personal planning as well as reactionary defense and attack moves against other player's pieces.

Mostly, I think it's important not to confuse the concept of heads up/down with game weight.

Heads down appeals more to puzzlers, and Heads up to players who find the optimization distracting enough to stop them from watching what the other players are doing. This is probably the biggest complaint about a 'solitare' game - that the game causes players to miss what the other players are doing, which takes away from the group dynamic.

I've used heads down and heads up because that's what started me thinking about this spectrum of games. Perhaps a better set of terms would be internal/external.

That is all.


1 I am actually paraphrasing here.

2 Days, almost a week, not seconds. Sometimes I'm not a quick thinker.

3 Enough interaction to foster long term grudges, and frantic wall building and blockading. Roads and Boats must not only undergo labels such as "multi-player solitare", but also can fall squarely into the "let's you and him fight so that I win" camp.

4 Where player interaction is entirely focused on smacking the player with the least military. Which is often the player who is doing best in non-military, point-generating, game winning stuff, but not always.

5 In modern art, tracking not only the current painting up for auction, bidding on said painting, tracking who is bidding on said painting, what people are willing to pay for said painting, and what players have purchased so far this round. Personal strategy loses to groupthink and interplayer reactivity every single time. except for the 'I'm not buying anything strategy'. Which just loses.

Recently played: Himalaya, Drive, Tichu, Starship Troopers, Hansa

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I guess I'm a heads-up guy, because I love Modern Art, and don't much like optimization (heads down) games, like Princes of Florence, Caylus, etc. Nothing wrong with them, I just prefer player interaction.

Dana More