Sunday, April 22, 2012

All of life is Interface Design

I'm going to repeat that, it's important.

All of life is Interface Design.

Ok, what's interface design? In broad terms, when you try to get someone to understand how to do something, you're doing interface design. Everytime you're managing the way that someone interacts with a system, that's interface design. It's a pretty broad category, which allows me to make sweeping statements like the two up above.

How do you tell good interface design from bad? How easy is your interface to use? Ideally you want people to not even notice the interface is there. In this sense, a banana has better design than a pineapple.

Let's bring this down into the specifics. Supposing you've got a new game to play. If you've never played it before, and if you've got nobody there to teach you, what do you do? You read the rules. It's always an odious task, and oftentimes they don't seem to go out of their way to make it easier.

About two weeks ago I was helping some people learn to play the game Killer Bunnies It's a decent game, so far as I can tell. You have a certain amount of resources, you're trying to deprive your opponents of their resources, and it's complicated by the fact that you need to plan out your actions two turns in advance. I really can't give you any idea of the nuances of the game, I didn't pick up on them because I spent the entire game trying to figure out how to play cards. That's not where you want your player to be.

The game comes with a "your first game" booklet. Ok, that's good. I've been considering writing that sort of thing up for our games. It goes through some basic setup, and tells us that there are five kinds of cards; Run, Special, Very Special, Kaballa Dollas, and Play Immediately. Then it instructs you to deal with the latter two types of cards. Then it helpfully goes into how to play a bunny, which is an important type of resource in the game. It gets you through the first turn, the first round and then... nothing.

Hey wait a minute, how do I play "special" and "very special" cards? How do I play weapons? I've got a lot of weapons in my hand, and I've got no idea how to get them into the playing field. I get how you play bunnies, but most of my cards aren't bunnies, and I don't know what to do with them. From that point the game, whcih was ostensibly started, lurched from confusion to confusion until I had read enough of the second rules booklet (with helpful things like instructions for playing special cards), that finally I had an idea of what I was doing. By then the game was pretty much over. Briefly, this is the paragraph they should have put into the rules:

"Most of the time you'll play cards by sending them through the run. The run, in case you've forgotten, is that set of two cards in front of you. Cards that are the type "Run" (which include bunnies, weapons and some other stuff) can only be played by sending them through the run. You set them down in the "replace" part of the turn (Remember the basic order; flip, slide, draw, replace.), and then wait to slide and eventually flip them on subsequent turns. Special cards can also be played through the run with two important exceptions. First, instead of flipping over the top card of the run you can play a special card from your hand. Or, if you already sent it through the run and flipped it, but do not wish to use it right away, you can set it aside and "store" it for now. On your future turns you can play that card without having to forgo your flip. Very special cards are much the same as special cards, but you can play them on anyone's turn, and you don't have to forgo any flips to do it."

Or something of that nature. If that was for one of my games I'd spend quite a bit more time wrangling over exact phrasing and such, but you get the general idea. If they had that explanation in the rules the game would have been quite a bit less frustrating.

Still, that rulebook wasn't the worst I've seen. You want truly horrendous? Power Grid. Given a group of several intelligent, experienced gamers, we had to read through that rulebook at least three times before we knew what was going on, and even so we spent the majority of the first two games putting things on hold to make sure we're doing things right. It's a very fun game, with all sorts of interesting strategy decisions, but getting there was pretty agonizing.

Does any game do it very well? I don't know. I'm inclined to give some credit to Magic the Gathering, because I know they spent some time and money researching the best way to teach people how to play the game. (Fun fact: the card Giant Octopus got reprinted in 7th, 8th and 9th edition because it made for a really great picture in the "how to play" comic books. Apparently the octopus trying to eat your opponent makes it easy to remember you're attacking them, not their creatures.) Even so, I learned Magic the only really good way to learn a game I've yet found.

I got someone who knows how to play the game to show me.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Further updates on RISK updates

Ok, ok, one month is better than three, right?

When last I showed my face around this blog we were talking about RISK Legacy. The promise of the game is that each time you play the game changes irrevocably in new and exciting ways. It's interesting territory, stuff that I haven't really seen games doing before. So I'd been waiting to play the game for a couple months before we finally got a chance to.

Dramatis Personae:
Havoc Jack, playing myself

The game comes with five factions, so maybe if we had been able to rustle up a fifth conspirator that'd've been better, but you go to war with the generals you have. Or something. We divided factions between ourselves.

Each faction starts with a special power. Which you have to choose from two. Then you physically peel the sticker off of the card it comes on and place it onto the faction's card. So, for example, Die Mechaniker (which, for those of you who don't "spreckinze Deutsch" is German for "The Mechaniker"), they get to treat the space with their headquarters as fortified. That is, they get a bonus on their dice rolls when defending home. Oh yeah, you get a headquarters when you start the game, to place on a space of your choice. I went with Russia, recently upgraded from being Ukraine on previous boards. The board itself starts the same as standard RISK. It doesn't stay that way for long.

In the game we each also got scar cards, at first they're just two types; a space gets declared "fortified" by putting a bunker scar on it; that gives all defenders +1 on their higher die roll. Or you can have a space with an Ammo Shortage on it, which gives it a -1 to it's defense instead. In the first game, due to a border war I was having with Barbarossa Brazil got the fortification and North Africa the Ammo Shortage. Each player gets one scar per game to place on the board (provided there are enough scar cards left) and each territory can have only one scar. They remain on the board permanently, affecting future games.

To cut to the chase, Napoleon took this one down. He owned Australia. He got to sign the board (They provide 15 lines for signiatures), and he founded a major city (Erik's Land) in Greenland, because he he heh, those suckers are gonna be soo cold. I founded the city of Scandiland in Scandinavia, Barbarossa founded Jaynestown down in Argentina, and I can't quite recall which town Zerg_Rush founded. Possibly the Prussian Consulate in Siam, but maybe that happened in a later game. There are other options for changing the board at the end, (in a later game, which Zerg_Rush won, he renamed North America to "Twelvepakistan". Or you can choose to upgrade a territory card; upgraded cards count as multiple when trading in cards for armies.)

Anyways, with the first game over there are some changes. Cities on a territory mean that the territory is worth 2 or 3 for purposes of counting for armies at the start of your turn. So if I held Scandiland it'd be worth two and Erik's land worth three. And Napoleon gets a missile instead of a red star. The stars act as victory points; if you control four you win the game. You start with one if you haven't signed the board yet (that is, if you haven't won a previous game), and controlling someone else's headquarters counts as one, and you can get them in other ways. By giving Napoleon the missile (which can be used once a game to change one die roll into a six) you make it harder for him to win in the next game.

So we played the next game. Barbarossa took this one down, (holding S. America), and put up a major city in Russia, named Syktyvkr. (This is a running joke from our playing of Russian Rails, basically that any word with eight consonants in a row doesn't deserve to be pronounced correctly. I'm looking at you Kyrgyzstan. So we tend to pronounce it something like "Skeer-ki-veer-ki-verk-i-gard." Or something longer.) And the game evolved more.

In the box they have some cards blocked off in containers with tantalizing instructions. "Don't open until all the minor cities have been placed." "Don't open until a faction has been eliminated." "Don't open until the world capital has been founded." (How do you open the world capital? It must be in one of those containers.) And my personal favorite. "Don't open. Ever."

After the fourth game we were able to open three of them. In the fifth game we had one faction with another special power (having gained one from being eliminated) and a couple new scar types. Due to repeated provocations by Napoleon, who somehow tends to end up down there, Barbarossa scarred West Australia with a toxic waste dump that removes one army from that space every time he takes a turn. Essentially it means that holding the continent is only worth one extra army, a change I think we can all get behind.

So after five games what does the world look like? It's surprisingly more populous; there are cities all over Southeast Asia, various scars all up and down South America, a continent renamed, and five signatures on the board.

Yeah, I'm still irked by that.

So what about the game from a design perspective?


So, I really like the idea of future games proceeding from the way the first one changes. Or, more generally, games that take more into account than the movement of pawns on the board. Richard Garfield's quest to make a game larger than the box it comes in is what gave birth to Magic.

Speaking of Magic, you've got to be careful treading in these grounds. You know how they did a parody set called Unglued? Well, you know what the two least popular cards from that set were? Blacker Lotus and Chaos Confetti. You know what those two cards have in common? Yeah, they both refer to Alpha cards*, but really what I'm saying is they both require you to tear them up to play it. People don't like getting rid of perfectly good stuff. I know I was unhappy to toss away the cards with one sticker still on them, one special ability never to be played. We even went so far as to look up the price of multiple copies of this game in case we wanted to play through it again. Beyond my price range.

Another concern with the game is, once we're past 15 plays, will we be able to continue to play the game? Probably, but if it's still changing at that point it'll only change for the worse. One of the options you have if you win the game is you can tear up a territory card. Literally tear it up. No word as to whether you need to sprinkle it over your opponent's permanents... anyway. You can make them better if you lose a game, so taking that option if you win (instead of renaming a continent, founding a major city, or raising or lowering the army bonus of a given continent) helps you control an out of control territory card. But if you play the game an infinite number of times (in this case, infinity is probably close to 40) you'll run out of territory cards.

Using stickers to modify your cards is probably the best way to handle that, but it does make them harder to shuffle.

How do we manage a play group? Taking the life of the game as fifteen games, it looks like we're going to keep on with the same four players throughout. Most games we invite people over to play, let them play, let them see how things are going, etc. In this one? I sort of want to keep the same group together, because it feels like the 15 games are really all part of one larger one.

Anything else? I think the changes could be a bit more radical. That is, I don't think they're doing enough to change the game. Or maybe I've got enough lingering resentment for how RISK worked beforehand that I could use more change. Still, it'd be nice to see "Nuclear Wasteland: Remove Great Britain from the board." You could print a "cover this up with a sticker" sticker large enough while still fitting it on those cards.

Even so, I'm still pretty happy with the game. Odds are I'll steal some of it's ideas in the future.

If we go 15 games without opening it, I'm cracking the "don't open. ever" pack.

*Hanging Asterisk. I don't see a good place around the web to link to for the chaos confetti legend, so this is a reminder for me to write it up someday.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Killing Zombies for Fun and Profit

Time for an update on the Zombie Game. If you'll recall, last time we discussed it the game was undergoing some serious rules revision. After a couple playtests, it's clear that there need to be some even more serious revisions before we get anywhere with it. Quick recaps: the first game featured a surprise attack by the United States on the Arab League. I know, shocking, right? The game went poorly, due in large part to the fact that we didn't have a decent board at that point. So, a couple weeks later, we tried again. Inspired by the previous surprise attack, I, as the Arab League, launched a surprise attack on Russia, for the same reasoning as previous: their lands were wide open. The counterattacks were not unexpected, but the nuking was. The zombies won soon after that.

So, in the third game, we decided to see what would happen if all sides went after zombies exclusively. Short answer: they'd win, but it takes too long for it to happen. After about seven or eight hours of playtime we eradicated most major concentrations of zombies with several sets of minor outbreaks on the board.

Instead of doing the full recap here, I'm just going to outline some positives and negatives I happened to notice.

1. Killing zombies is still really fun.
2. The special abilities the nations have are also a lot of fun.
3. This game is going to be the only time I ever get to say "man, suicide bombers are totally awesome."
4. Making fun of the UN never goes out of style.
5. Rolling 30+ dice at once and still needing to roll more? Also good.

1. Hard to kill zombies fast enough.
2. In a regular game, the zombies are probably going to win.
3. Lack of rulebook meant that half the time we weren't sure how to rule on something.
4. After a while, rolling more than 30 dice can get kind of annoying.
5. Right now, the only way to wipe out all the zombies is with nukes. I'm not opposed to this, but I dislike it being the only option.
6. The event cards are, in general, too uniformly negative, which in a zombie world, might be to be expected. Even so, I think it needs a change.

I think that's about all I've got right now, I might discuss specific changes later now that I've got these going on.