Thursday, July 20, 2006

If It's Broken, Don't Replay It!

Last month Larry Levy offered up a column that he called The Curse of the Learning Curve in which he opined that players should have patience with new games, lest they throw out something good just because of a bad first-time experience.

I can agree with some of Larry's point. It does take some time to really figure out some games. However I disagree with some of his specifics. In particular, I see a big difference between a game that offers a first-time player a shallower experience (because they didn't understand the subtleties) and a game that offers a first-time player a broken experience (because it just didn't work).

Broadly I see four different types of game design that are related to "the learning curve", and in the first two cases I'd fault the designers and developers with bad design.

Case the First: Players Breaking the Game

The worst thing that you can experience in a first-time gameplay is a broken game. This was surely the case with one of the examples that Larry provided, Fifth Avenue. Therein players could place businesses to end the game very quickly, even when it wasn't in their best interest to do so.

Larry brushed this off as "groupthink", but I'd instead describe it as a natural consequence of a game with a nonintuitive strategy. It's not immediately clear which strategies are best in Fifth Avenue, and thus it's not really a surprise that one or more brand new players might try out the thing that happens to end the game.

Larry also said that it "probably couldn’t have been anticipated", and here I'd disagree even more. There's a way to anticipate exactly this sort of thing: blind playtesting. You give a group your game and your rules, then you let them play and you see what happens. Then you do it again and again. Big problems will turn up, and they'll turn up frequently--and then you go back to the drawing board.

If players can break a game through normal gameplay, it's broken. Period, end of sentence. It's a little better if a game can only be broken through subpar gameplay. And it's even better if players can only break it through purposeful, subpar gameplay. But it's still broken, and now we're just talking about degrees.

Sure, there might be a great game in there. It might be easy to figure out how to play that great game, just as the designer intended it. Or, you might keep stumbling around and never figure out the style of play that worked for the designers. I've experienced both situations with games I've tried out. But, the designer (or really, the publisher) still released a broken game.

A better designer or developer would track down the way that players could break the game, and they'd counter them. In Fifth Avenue you might put some cap on business building. It might cost the game some of its elegance, but traded off against even some percentage of first-time players experiencing a game that doesn't work, that's well worth while.

Of all the learning-curve experiences that I discuss in this article, this is the only one that I consider a deal-breaker: the game shouldn't have been published.

(And to close off, another of Larry's example fits into this category for me: Antike. As he notes, players can make that game stagnate through "bad" play. That's another word for broken.)

Case the Second: Players Ruining their Own Game

A less critical problem is when a first-time player is able to make sufficiently bad decisions in a sufficiently unforgiving game system that he ruins his own game, putting himself at such a deficit that he's totally unable to recover. Age of Steam is truly the poster-boy for this type of unforgiving gameplay.

Some players enjoy the challenge of this sort of gameplay, and I'd in no way call it "broken" like I did the previous category of play. However, it is very unfriendly and generally not what I'd consider a good style of play.

For me, a good game allows for players to come back from deficit. If not, there's no reason to continue playing the game after that first fifteen or twenty minutes, as it just becomes a however-many-hour-long festival to annoint the already clear winner.

Beyond allowing players to come from behind, a good game should also guide them in how to play well. I suspect many unforgiving games fall down at least partially in this regard.

So, though I wouldn't call a game with this failing "broken", I would say that it's limited its own appeal, and I wouldn't fault at all a player who decides never to play it again after a terrible first-time experience.

Case the Third: Players Being Confused

Another category of games which have a learning curve are those that are too opaque. I think a lot of Italian games fall into this category, for reasons that I've discussed previously. Il Principe is a fine example of a game that made little sense to me the first time because of the multiple interconnected systems. Many auction games generate this sort of confusion for first-time play because players can figure out how to value things. Michael Schacht's Hansa is another example of a game where the action-victory interface is sufficiently disconnected that, 7 plays later, I still dont' know how to play well.

Now players being confused isn't necessarily a game-breaker. I've been rating these issues in descending order of importance, and so confusion falls somewhere below players totally blowing their own games.

However, confusion isn't a good thing either. A clearer game will result in more enjoyment. Especially in an era where a game might only be played a few times, a designer should do what he can to clarify those first-time plays. Auction games sometimes do this with minimum bids, like those in Ostia. It's amazing how much that single benchmark helps out. Designers who think about these first-time inclarities and improve up them will just be improving their game as a whole.

Case the Fourth: Players Not Seeing The Depth

In Larry's article, he generally suggested that people should hang in there, and try out a game again to try and find its hidden beauty. I generally disagree for all of the cases that I've outlined already. If players can break a game, totally mess themselves up, or are generally confused by a game, then that's because the designer didn't produce a game that was robust, fair, or clear enough. Maybe there's a good game there, but I'll happily suggest that players move on rather than digging.

However there's a fourth case where I generally agree with Larry, and that's for games that have greater depth which you can only discover through additional plays. People often talk about this when they play Reiner Knizia games, and a second or third or fourth game suddenly opens up new realms of possibility.

Game designers have to be careful here, because if their game don't offer sufficient depth of play a first time out, players will have no reason to try again, but if a designer can manage to make a good game great through additional plays, that's well worth while, and shows the sort of thing that additional plays should reveal.


Yes, there's definitely such a thing as first-timer's impatience, and yes, people often move on from a game without having discovered the exact formula that turns it into a great game. But, generally, this is a perfectly valid and reasonable response. There's a glut of games on the market. If something doesn't seem to be working, then move on to the next one, and maybe you'll encourage that designer to make his next game work all the time rather than just part of the time.

It's evolution in action.


Anonymous said...

I think you mean "can't value" rather than "can"...(also, "inclarity" isn't a word.)

I agree that it should be possible to come back from deficits, but it should be difficult. Presumably you fell behind because you were playing poorly, it should take corresponding extra-good play to make it up.

I can give you some tips on Hansa if you'd like.

huzonfirst said...

Good counterpoint to my article, Shannon. I think we agree on some things and disagree on others.

I don't really agree with your first case. Fifth Avenue is a nonintuitive game and, as I mentioned, the rules probably should have provided some hints to give the players a little clue of how to play well in their first game. But the way a lot of folks were playing the game at the Gathering was really stupid. They were taking actions calculated to end the game quicker when they weren't leading and those actions did nothing to score them points. I don't care how nonintuitive a game is, good players shouldn't be doing that.

You say that a game that can be derailed by subpar play is broken. I think very few games can stand up to poor play. Modern Art is the most obvious example. But look at a game like "I'm the Boss"--suppose all the players decided to make a deal every turn and never draw cards (with the justification that the active player has the advantage of starting out as the Boss). Such a game would be horribly broken, but I see no fault in the design. You could force players to draw cards when they are low, but that changes the game for the worse. It's far better to assume the players have an IQ higher than a kumquat's and leave the rules as is.

I agree with your point about blind playtesting, but I'm not sure it applies to Fifth Avenue. I'd be surprised if the game wasn't extensively blind playtested. We're dealing with one of the best developers in the world in Stefan Bruck. Maybe Alea was rushed with the game (I know that was the case with their previous effort, Mammoth Hunters)and couldn't attend to all the normal safeguards. But given the label's past history and reputation, and how truly dumb the "breaking" strategy was, I'm inclined to give Alea the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Sure, you could limit the business building. But rather than take that entirely unnecessary step, I'd much rather they devoted a paragraph in the rules to things that players should do and not do in their first game (as is sometimes done in other games).

I have more sympathy for your position on Antike. Here, the problem is that a "greedy" strategy (doing what gives you the most immediate benefit) can hurt you in the endgame. This is a far easier trap to fall into. Again, though, a short section in the rules warning against this could have spared a lot of players a poor first experience.

Different players have different preferences for how far someone should be able to come back in a game (as David's comment illustrates). So there's no right or wrong there, just games that appeal to different kinds of players. I don't like games to have runaway leaders, but I don't mind unforgiving games. I've seen plenty of stirring comebacks in Age of Steam, but if you screw up in the early game, you're toast. That doesn't bother me, but I know a lot of players dislike it. Curiously, AoS is similar to Settlers in that regard--it's easy to come back in Settlers, but it's very hard to recover from a poor opening position.

Games like Il Principe, Hansa, and Industria are opaque. There truly are a lot of players who enjoy unraveling these Gordian knots and figuring out how to play by the seat of their pants. These games do have limited appeal, but most of them are gamer's games to begin with, so they'll never be big sellers. I agree with you, given the current status of gaming, publishers should provide as many hints as possible to make the first game work. I'd also like to see a "spoiler warning", so that players who'd rather figure it out on their own can do so.

There are games that play well out of the box. Not all of them are light or middleweight games. But there's a lot of games that require some experience to play well and I just don't see where that's a problem. You say confusion is a bad thing. Well, the first time I played Puerto Rico, I didn't have the foggiest idea of what I was doing and I loved the game. I loved it more once I started to grok it, but I knew it would take time to get even a basic handle on things and I was willing to put that time in. My fear isn't that players are no longer willing to make that effort (if that's their preference, so be it), but that they've lost the ability to tell when a game requires more study to play well. Hence, all the accusations of "broken" games whose only crime is having a learning curve.

I agree with you: all things being equal, you'd prefer a design to give you a great first game experience. However, things are never equal. You say we should encourage designers to create games that work all the time. My fear is they will respond with shallower games that work the first time and will be abandoned after the third time, because there's nothing more for the players to master.

Shannon Appelcline said...

Thanks for the thoughtful responses, Larry.