The Case Study: Communication Rules

Recent posts have been very theory-heavy–and that’s not making progress on Over the Next Dune! Let’s get back into the swing of things by taking a look at a concrete problem that’s come up.

Most of my playtests have been solo games; the solo boardgame market is underserved, and I want OtND to work well in that mode. However, I also want its cooperative play to sing. To that end I’m planning a group playtest in just a few weeks.

In getting ready for that session I’ve been taking another look at the communication rules. They’ve always been a bit bodged together, and now’s a good opportunity to focus on them and get them right.

The facts: Here’s where the player communication rules stand as of the 2/5/14 ruleset (Over the Next Dune – Rules – 2-5-14):

“In general, players may not communicate with each other about the game. (Conceptually, the players are sneaking through the night with Axis soldiers nearby; they cannot have conversations!) Of course, it is perfectly permissible to ask another player to pass the chips or to flip the next searcher movement card. The only thing the players cannot do is discuss strategy.

The one exception is that players may talk at the beginning of the sneak phase about when they would like to move. In doing so, the players may say only when they want to move (e.g., “I want to move first,” “I want to move after Jen”). Players may not say why.”

I believe that these rules are functional; one could play the game this way, and it would work. Yet, they also seem lacking thematically. If the players need to be quiet, why is this discussion OK? It’s a very “game-y” moment where the theme falls away and the mechanics reign.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there’s no limit on how much talking goes on. So long as the players aren’t discussing strategy in detail, they can argue endlessly about who moves when. Moreover, the debate is likely to be fruitless since no one can explain why they want to go when they do. Frustration is apt to result.

The issue: What form should the player communication rules take so that unnecessary disputes over turn order are avoided while keeping discussion to a minimum?

The rules:

1. It must not be possible for one player to dictate other players’ actions. Whatever the rules are, they must protect each player’s autonomy.
2. The rules for player communication must reinforce the theme of the game.

Thinking it through: The current rules do a good job of keeping each player separate and allowing them to make their own decisions. The concern is simply that they’re not thematically appropriate. It would be great if we could keep the good while eliminating the bad.

The good here is the limit on strategic discussion. Preventing players from saying why they want to go in a certain order controls each player’s ability to influence the others. Everyone is able to come up with his or her own plan for the turn.

What’s bad is the endless go-round of people arguing over turn order. It breaks the theme and it’s just plain unpleasant. Keeping the discussion of turn order brief will help evoke the feeling of people sneaking quietly through the night and will move the game along at a brisk pace.

So, the best system would be one that limits strategic communication, but still allows players to come to a conclusion quickly. One solution would be to allow just enough strategic discussion to give players reason to accept other views on turn order without allowing so much that one player can lay out a complete plan for everyone.

The most straightforward way to achieve this limit is by imposing a number–“you can say up to three words.” However, any number chosen will be, and feel, arbitrary. There’s no reason why this many words will never get a player caught but one more word does. To make it thematic, the amount of talking should determine the amount of danger.

Danger in OtND is measured, in my experience, by the distance from a player to the searchers and by the future paths of the searchers–searchers far away and facing in the wrong direction are not threatening, while those close and headed straight for you are quite disconcerting! To tie talk to danger, it seems like talking should influence one of those two things.

It would be thematically sensible for talking to affect the searchers’ facing; if a player talks too much the searchers will turn toward the player and move to investigate. However, in trying out a rule wherein the players could attract the searchers’ attention I found that it can be hard to point the searchers toward players when the searchers can only turn 45 degrees at a time. For example, when a player is a “knight’s move” away from a searcher (i.e., one square over and two down), the searcher can’t point directly toward the player. Figuring out when the searcher should face straight down in that situation, and when it should face diagonally down, turned out to be pretty irksome. I’d rather not follow that road again if there’s another way.

If direction is out, what about distance? The rule could be something like this:

“At the start of the sneak phase, the first player chooses when he or she would like to move–first, second, third, etc. The other players then choose in descending order.

Players may give suggestions and discuss these choices. However, each word a player speaks moves the closest searcher one square closer to that player. (To move the searcher closer, move it so that the number of spaces between the player and the searcher’s center square is reduced. If there are multiple places where the searcher could move to to be closer to the player, the player decides which of those squares it moves to. If multiple searchers are equally distant from the player, move them all closer.)”

(It’s true that this rule requires rules establishing who is the “first player.” That’s pretty simple; I’m not worried about that minimal amount of additional complexity.)

Unfortunately, this rule has some immediate problems. First, it could potentially allow a player to dictate to other players, at least to the extent of commanding a turn order. What’s worse, players receiving the message might find it stressful to determine what a cryptic one- or two-word statement means. “You first”–OK, but why? This could be a recipe for nasty post-game arguments about who was responsible for a botched plan.

Furthermore, this rule is vulnerable to being gamed. Two players whose closest searcher is between them could have a complete conversation simply by talking in turns, pulling the searcher back and forth. In all probability that situation would be very rare, but it would be pretty silly when it came up.

Last but not least, this rule still has some thematic issues. Why can players across the map talk to each other as easily as players right next to each other? Why does only one searcher respond no matter how long and loud someone speaks?

That rule doesn’t seem great. However, it indirectly points toward another approach. Rather than limiting discussion by restricting what each player can say, what about restricting who can talk to who? A weakness of the previous rule (players can athematically communicate across the board) could inspire a better solution:

“At the start of the sneak phase, the first player chooses when he or she would like to move–first, second, third, etc. The other players then choose in descending order.

Players may discuss their choices with any other player(s) whose tokens are directly adjacent. They cannot speak to or communicate with other players, or even to players whose tokens are directly adjacent at any time other than the start of the sneak phase.”

(I think this will require a more rigorous definition of player tokens in the main rules, but that’s fine.)

I like this for a couple of reasons. It’s thematic; if someone is right next to you you can whispher to them just briefly, but otherwise you have to stay quiet. Since the players aren’t realistically going to be able to form a big group, no one player can dominate. (I suppose the players could form a bucket brigade of information, but that seems like a difficult, nifty strategy rather than an abuse case that needs to be stopped.) The turn order selection keeps the process moving; two or three players might have a discussion about what to pick, but everyone else will just choose.

Of course, “I like this” is completely different from “this is actually good.” 😉 Only testing can determine whether or not the latter is the case. I’ll report back on this issue when I have more data.

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