Friday, September 19, 2014

Perfect to a Fault

Last time I talked about how most games can be at least partially broken by exceptionally smart players. And although it may seem that it is the geniuses game designers should aim to please the most, the truth is that they are not the biggest threat to how we perceive games. On the contrary, it is the idiots that should be feared.

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Let me start by saying that I really do not mean to offend anyone – at least not without offending myself as well. The truth is each of us may become a boardgaming idiot from time to time due to various circumstances. In my case, I managed to come through as a complete dumbbell during my first game of Agricola.

It was a few years ago, during a convention, right in the middle of a graveyard shift I was assigned to staff the games room. We started the game around 4.30 and by the time it came to an end, roughly three quarters of my brain bailed on me, deciding that whatever usually governs breathing can hold the fort, while all the other little grey cells will go to sleep. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I scored way below zero, with a single pasture, three bags of wheat and a (probably extremely underfed) pig to show for all my heroic struggles.

I do not remember all of the mistakes I made, but I can easily recall the guy who taught me the game, as he gazed at me triumphantly, counting his precious points, thinking that I was probably somebody’s brother, who (by the looks of him) is a drummer in a thrash metal band nobody listens to, duped into doing a job no sane convention attendee would ever want to just do out of their own volition. So, in short, I was the designated idiot for that game.

So, you're the idiot that ruined that other guy's game.
The real problem with us idiots is that we are also able to break a game – as I clearly broke Agricola for one other player at the table on that faithful night. My erratic movements made it impossible for him to form a consistent strategy and between me doing random things and the game teacher performing at the peak of his abilities, that other player felt that the game structure gave him no chance to do anything significant, thus deeming it vastly underwhelming, if not outright broken.

All of that meant that by performing erratically, making really silly moves, doing what no intelligent player would ever do I transformed the game (for one player) into an excruciating experience, either by testing the mechanisms until they finally give way, or by making the game underperform severely due to my inconsistency and counter productiveness. And although it should be easy to differentiate between an experience of suffering through a game diminished by poor player decisions, and a broken design, the reality is that often it simply is not. And I am pretty certain of that, being a few times on the business end of such an unpleasant experience.

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This is exactly what happened to me with Mag*Blast, a light card game about shooting lasers and making silly noises, right after it was played with two people who decided to make it a full on strategy game, killing the fun for everyone else and proving that there was one clear way of winning the game. A similar thing happened to my wife, as she played Garden Dice with someone who decided to adapt a strategy as aggressive as humanly possible, which meant that, while having no chance at achieving victory, he made the whole game a painful slog for everyone else at the table.

Now, I would lie if I said that there is no space between the idiots and the geniuses. There is and most of us actually inhabit it on a daily basis. It is full of people smart enough to understand and play board games proficiently, but either not quite as bright as the brightest, or just never bothered to calculate and optimize everything, choosing to go with their gut for the sake of what they perceive as fun. And it is this exact group most designs should probably be aimed at.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that dumbing down is the way to go, as this is not what gamers expect and, for obvious reasons, appreciate. What I am saying is that a game should strive to be fun even if not all moves are optimized, because it will mostly work in an imperfect environment. It will never be idiot-proof, as destroying a game is sometimes as simple as swapping the original objectives for a set of few arbitrary ones (like becoming “the master of all wizards” in Lords of Waterdeep, or deciding to never trade in Settlers of Catan) or just being dead tired. But a design should be able to withstand some sub-optimal play without immediately handing over the victory to whoever uses a strategy that can be countered only with a very specific response, executed flawlessly and perfectly timed.

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What I am also not saying is that games for the exceptionally smart should be immediately discarded. However, we need to remember that they have a tendency to be misjudged by gamers not willing to delve deep enough. A prime example of such a misunderstood game is The Great Zimbabwe, which has an amusing feature of becoming longer with every subsequent play. The first games will usually be surprisingly short, won by a player who manages to seemingly break the game by introducing a strategy that seems unbeatable. That might earn the game a “broken” status right out of the gate and move it from the shelf to the trade pile, without giving it a second chance.

It is only later that players discover that there is a counter for every possible approach and that the first victories are usually a matter of other players’ negligence rather than anyone’s superior performance. But that requires everyone to be willing to play The Great Zimbabwe again, and that, as my own experience clearly indicates, is by far not a given.

So what should a designer do in order to make a game that would satisfy the most people? In a perfect world, he or she should aim at the brightest, hoping the rest will see how solid their design really is. In the real world, aiming for the smartest gamer should also be acknowledged, just as much as remembering that a game should be attractive to all others – even some of the idiots. After all, we learn, we become smarter, we sleep off the wear and tear of pulling an all-nighter at a convention or we are told to stop acting like a jerk – and we become the masters of the games we enjoy the most. But for this to happen, we also need a chance to enjoy the game right from the start, even if we err on our way.

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