Theory: the Dark Side of Computer Assists

Computers can help during the ideation phase of design, and can also point out new strategies to players of what might otherwise be considered a game past the point of innovation.

On the other hand, they can also enable a rate of play that forces a major design firm, with testing resources most can only dream of, to ban a card 48 hours after release.

I suppose we have to take the bad with the good.

Theory: Q’s without A’s

Fantasy Flight Games’ reboot of the classic CCG Legend of the Five Rings raises a number of intriguing issues. In fact, I’d say there’s almost nothing about it that isn’t interesting:

The license itself. The received wisdom is that licensing a fictional world is only worthwhile when the world is a major draw; otherwise, one might as well start from scratch, and forego the expense. Was Legend of the Five Rings worth the cost?

On the positive side of the ledger, it’s a long-standing name in the tabletop market, albeit not perhaps as strong a brand as it was in the past. FFG also received at least some existing art assets–we can see them in the cards displayed on the new website–which avoids the cost of recreating card art.

On the other hand, a game two decades old comes with a lot of baggage. There’s an existing base to be placated, if you’re not simply going to accept their ire. Old data floating around the internet might confuse customers. Your product has expectations out of the gate that otherwise wouldn’t burden it.

I’m not certain whether it will be possible to determine from the outside how the license works out, but it will be interesting to consider.

The gameplay. For all its mechanical warts, old Legend of the Five Rings did one thing right: it was a game about acquisition. Over the course of a winning game you got more honor, more cards, more stats, more abilities, more of just about everything. That acquisition felt good.

New Legend of the Five Rings is, in some sense, a game about losing your resources. Honor and cards are both naturally given away during a game. I can see how those negative feedback loops resolve a runaway-leader problem that bedeviled old Legend of the Five Rings, and can also imagine that they lead to interesting decisions. Yet, the fun of a game isn’t solely in whether it’s mechanically balanced. Will players see the game as punishing them for engaging with it, and move on to something else?

The theme. In the 1990s Legend of the Five Rings’s mashup of dynastic China and Shogunate Japan was seen as forward-thinking and progressive. Today, it might be seen in a different light. Will the theme and fictional history be a help, or a lightning rod for criticism? How will Fantasy Flight handle issues of portrayal going forward?

. . . and so on. Legend of the Five Rings is a venerable brand, and that throws the changes it’s undergoing into especially sharp relief. I’ll be extremely interested to see how the new release plays out.

Link: SJG Report to Stakeholders

Business information is not easy to come by in the tabletop games industry. Hence, any data that appears is highly to be prized by anyone who wants to make a living–or even a reasonable amount of pocket money–in board games. There’s a lot one needs to know, and much of it can only be learned by experience.

Fortunately for all of us, SJG releases an annual Report to Stakeholders. It represents a wealth of knowledge on topics ranging from marketing to management to production, and even on what a major player in the business sees as key industry trends. While obviously it’s not enough to be the foundation of a business plan, it’s still a great window into one company’s process.

As time has gone on I’ve had to become more interested in the business aspects of game design, for better or for worse. SJG’s reports are a valuable resource for the entire community of design professionals. They’re worthy of study.

Mark Your Calendars

It doesn’t seem that the website is up yet, but the NYU Game Center’s End-of-Year Show is the evening of May 18th in Brooklyn, NY. The End-of-Year Show is a chance to play and discuss games with a who’s-who of the New York game creation scene. Tickets are free, and NYU pays for the food; it’s well worth your time!

Link: AlphaGo’s Impact on Go Strategy

I’ve always thought of top-flight AI players as a sort of death knell for strategy games. That way lies solved systems, where memorization is king. A blog post about AlphaGo, however, suggests a different use for them: exploring new tactical avenues .

In sum, the article points out that AlphaGo (a very skilled AI player of the classic game Go) sometimes does things human players have long written off as ill-advised. Never embarrassed by the risk of making a rookie mistake, and able to think about the entire board with each move, AlphaGo explores strategies that the Go world has dismissed or even actively rejected. That allows it to find not just new sequences of plays, but to reveal innovative approaches to the game.

RoboRosewater showed us that computers can help us brainstorm. AlphaGo has a new lesson on offer: if a game is deep enough, AI players can direct us toward avenues of complexity that humans have yet to explore. Computer assists can be valuable at both ends of a game’s lifecycle.

Bernard DeKoven & Play

Few people have done more thinking about the nature of play than Bernard DeKoven. He was a leading light in the New Games movement, which sought (in an extremely minimal and perhaps unfair summary) to separate games and play on the one hand from competition on the other, demonstrating that the former could exist without the latter. In addition, he is the author of the seminal text The Well-Played Game.

Sadly, Mr. DeKoven has terminal cancer. His announcement includes this call to action:

Make up your own games. Make them up together with the people who play them. Play. Teach. Invent. Play some more.

Also especially – look into this playfulness thing too. Deeply. Because we’re not talking just games here. We’re talking about how you can let yourself be as playful as you’ve always been, how you can be playful almost anywhere with almost anyone, how you can invite people to be playful with you, in school and office and in the checkout line: all kinds of people with all kinds of abilities from all kinds of backgrounds.

Mr. DeKoven’s work is a treasure trove. Designers should check it out for an entirely unusual, and yet entirely compelling, perspective. They should also check it out because play is a good thing to bring into the world, and so few of us have created as much play Mr. DeKoven has.