Theory: The Limitations on the Rules

I propound a lot of rules on this blog, and I present them as things you should always do. However, it’s important to recognize that they are not necessarily immutable or universally applicable. While I don’t believe rules are made to be broken, I do believe that they need to be properly understood—and that means giving due weight to their limitations.

One might reasonably ask why it is that game design rules aren’t as reliable as, for example, the laws of physics. I can see at least four reasons:

1. Game design rules are sometimes in tension, and so it might not be possible to follow all of them at once.

Wargames are called upon to provide reasonably accurate simulations of the conflicts they’re based on. That often means putting in some period detail. Fire in the Lake is a good game about the Vietnam War for many reasons, and among them is how it incorporates actual events and issues to create a you-are-there feeling.

At the same time, elegance is usually seen as an important design goal. Just as too much chrome is bad for the look of a car, too many special cases and deviations from the general pattern is bad for a game experience.

Top-flight wargames can balance these two considerations, detail and elegance, but they will always be in conflict. It’s just not possible for such a game to pursue either elegance or historicity to their fullest extents; doing so will prevent the game from achieving its broader goals. The design rules have to bend.

2. Sometimes you get more by breaking a rule than you do from following it.

League of Legends is arguably the most popular game in existence today. It also, as its VP of Game Design points out, breaks the rules sometimes. That’s not because League’s designers don’t know the rules; it’s because they recognize circumstances where they can get more than they give.

As a non-League example, think back to the Babylon 5 CCG. The B5CCG was probably “wrong” to have lots of off-card states to track. However, those states created levers cards used to impact the table-talk at the heart of the game. B5CCG broke a rule because doing so was important to that specific design.

It may be that this is just a subset of the previous situation; the B5CCG may actually have been following a rule (perhaps one as yet unelucidated) when it added meters that had to be tracked on a playmat. However, I think the question of “should I break this rule, given that I’ll get a lot of benefits” comes up often enough to deserve its own entry. If the cost-benefit analysis supports it, the answer is “yes.”

3. We know that some games break rules and get away with it.

An act that contravenes the laws of physics is going to have big problems, but we know from experience that games can break the rules of design and be a lot of fun. Maybe that means they’re following deeper rules than we’ve yet discovered; maybe that means the rules are mere guidelines. Either way, there’s clearly a limit to how much respect the rules of design are due.

4. I don’t know everything.

The fact is that I’m learning as I go. Sometimes I’ll have an incomplete understanding, and thus propound an incomplete rule; sometimes I may just turn out to be wrong. Rules are best when they’re made by the best, and I’m not there yet.

Try letting go

I like rules. I think they’re useful. I’ll even go so far as to say that I believe in their power and utility.

However, the rules of game design aren’t as ironclad as the rules of science. Perhaps that’s because they can’t be; perhaps we simply aren’t as far along in our understanding of them. Either way, it’s always worth keeping in mind that the rules may not be leading you in the right direction. Recognize their limitations, and allow yourself the freedom to—judiciously—break them.

Theory: Explain the Purpose of Options

So you’ve designed a game where it’s hard to transition from reading the rules to playing  intelligently. Maybe the player has options whose import–the “why” as distinct from the “what”–aren’t clear just from reading the rulebook, or perhaps the game is just too complicated for new players to be able to devote much thought to strategy. Everything is fine once someone is invested and has discovered the game’s tactical nuances, but the learning curve is more like a cliff. How can you help new players understand their choices, so that they don’t just quit in frustration?

There’s an often-overlooked solution: simply tell them.

GMT makes Fire in the Lake, its excellent-but-complex simulation of the Vietnam War, approachable using that exact method. Fire in the Lake has two big humps in its learning curve: first getting through the dense rulebook, and then understanding how the rules are applied on the tabletop to make progress toward winning. By being straightforward about what each maneuver is intended to accomplish, GMT gives players a tremendous boost over the second hurdle.

You see, there’s a lot for new players to take in when they start to learn Fire In the Lake: four factions, each with their own victory conditions and unique actions. It doesn’t get easier when one considers that each action has multiple parts. A US player, for example, can assault with her own troops in any of several locations (which costs no resources), then has the option of forcing her ally to attack (which does cost resources). How many pieces are removed by the assault depends on who’s attacking–the US or her ARVN ally, the terrain, and whether or not the US has established a base at that location. The US player also has three other actions she can take, plus three additional helper-actions which can’t all be combined with all of the main options. Her choices are also, by the way, contingent on the monsoon.

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to see the forest for the trees at the end of all this. After going carefully through the rulebook before my first game I was so busy juggling the technicalities in my head that I wasn’t sure how to fit my choices together into a strategy. Then I looked down at the player aid, and saw this:

"Why you would do this," helpfully spelled out.
It’s the first line that’s key.

Having the execution details of a patrol–the cost, where patrolling troops can move–was useful. The greatest value, though, came from that first line: “Purpose.” Here’s why you would do this; you’ll get the following out of it.

All of a sudden it was possible to make meaningful decisions. I had been getting ready to take actions “just to try them out,” accepting that the match would basically be an extended tutorial. Equipped with some basic information about what I could expect from each action, however, I was able to pursue a coherent strategy right away.

It’s worth pausing to reiterate that. A few lines on the player aid saved me from a four- to six-hour tutorial, and launched me right into the exciting part of the game. Those couple of sentences granted an enormous return in player engagement.

Fire in the Lake isn’t the only game that can benefit from explaining when and why certain moves are useful. Consider, for example, chess. The rules of chess are quite simple. Even small children can easily learn the game.

However, the strategic implications of the choices available are complex and often opaque. On his first turn a player can move a pawn, or jump with a knight. When is one better than the other? Why? If he should move a pawn, which one? How many spaces forward? I’ve never heard anyone say that they stopped playing chess because they couldn’t learn it, but I’ve heard people say that they just found it overwhelming.

Now imagine how much more accessible chess would be if every set came packaged with some basic information about what various moves accomplish. This opening brings the bishops and rooks forward to useful positions; that maneuver threatens the opponent’s pieces. Suddenly the player could to evaluate positions, at least in a simple way, and make informed choices. If he wanted to bring the bishops and rooks forward, he might try these moves; if he preferred to get his queen involved, he would at least have an example of what not to do.

Of course, that sort of information is readily available; there are any number of chess resources out there. Seeking them out, however, requires a level of investment that cannot be assumed of new players. When the problem is getting players engaged in the first instance, there’s no better solution than putting valuable help in the one document they’re most likely to read: the rulebook.

As always, this is not a tool suited to every game. Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition doesn’t need to expend energy telling people what the “Warfare” and “Production” roles are for. Netrunner can safely assume that everyone will understand the use of “purge all virus counters.”

When there’s a divide between a game’s rules and its strategy, however, a little explanation can go a long way. Helping players out with a brief statement of how each option might contribute to a strategy does a great deal to bridge the gap between reading the rulebook and having fun with a game. If nothing else, it avoids four- to six-hour tutorials!

Theory: Essential Wargames for Designers

Following up on last Wednesday’s post, here are five wargames that have something interesting to teach designers. Playing any one of these represents time and money well-spent.

Wargames As Exemplars of Board Game Design: Twilight Struggle

Defying the notion that board games and wargames are separate entities, Twilight Struggle is, as of this writing, both the #1 rated board game and the #1 rated wargame on Boardgamegeek. It features a superb marriage of mechanics and theme; complex but intuitive rules that fade into the background during play; rich strategy that continues to be interesting over many plays; and quality components (especially in later printings, when the game’s success allowed for a nicer board). In other words, Twilight Struggle has the things one wants any good board game to have.

Perhaps the great lesson of Twilight Struggle is that the fundamental rules of board game design are more powerful even than we thought. One might reasonably question whether principles often stated in terms of deck-builders and worker-placement games are applicable outside the subgenres that are currently prominent in the market. Twilight Struggle demonstrates that some rules of design really are applicable to the full range of board games, and that adhering to them (or at least, breaking them only consciously and for a specific purpose) consistently leads to good results.

Incomplete Control: Memoir ‘44

Most board games assume away problems of communication and coordination. Cave-people in Stone Age always go where players tell them to go and do what they tell them to do. Pandemic’s medic never has to worry about whether his support staff will fly to the wrong city, or quit their jobs rather than entering a country where a dread disease has taken hold.

What if a designer seeks to capture realistic human behavior, where misunderstandings, mistakes, and outright refusals are part of the experience? It’s time for that designer to look toward wargames. They have been finding ways to introduce uncertainty and the fog of war into the open-information environment of a board game for years.

Memoir ’44 presents one such solution: rather than moving any piece she wishes the player uses randomly-drawn cards to activate units. If no card in hand can move a unit, that unit is conceptually out of control: maybe its radio has been destroyed and messages aren’t getting through, or the soldiers are panicking and won’t come out of their foxholes. It’s an easy-to-learn, elegant system that shows how modeling the human element adds to a design.

Solo Gaming: D-Day at Omaha Beach

Requests for a “solitaire mode” and questions about whether a game works with only a single player are seen in many board games’ forums. That’s not surprising; we’ve all had games we loved that our playgroups weren’t keen on, or been hankering for a round of something long after all opposition has gone to bed. Sometimes it’s nice just to be able to give in to analysis paralysis, really thinking through the complexities of a difficult decision without feeling guilty about making others wait. Being able to play without other people is a valuable feature.

Wargames have long been a hotbed of solo gaming innovation. The tradition can easily be traced back to 1973 with The Fall of Rome; miniatures games were doing it even earlier, and doubtless these are only the tip of an iceberg hidden by the mists of time. For designers who want to tap into this deep vein of knowledge, D-Day at Omaha Beach is considered a shining star, a brilliant game constructed from the ground up as a solo experience.

Learning by Doing: Squad Leader

Squad Leader has a tutorial so good that it’s a worthy game unto itself. Anyone who’s designing a game complex enough to warrant an introductory mode or scenario should play it, just to see what a really good one can do. You can find more discussion about why SL’s tutorial is amazing here.

Asymmetric Multiplayer: Fire in the Lake

Historically many wars have involved nations (players) with widely disparate economic and military capabilities (starting positions), available technologies (powers), and objectives (victory conditions). Wargames have had to model those asymmetric situations, and in the process wargame designers have put a lot of thought into how to do it well. The results go far beyond a certain species being better at propulsion technology, or a character having a really good fireball.

Fire in the Lake is a stand-in here for the entirety of GMT’s COIN series of games—Fire in the Lake, A Distant Plain, Cuba Libre, and Andean Abyss. Each of them is a game about four different factions. The factions all have their own abilities and goals—but every faction is on a team with another, whose interests only partially align. Far from treating asymmetric powers as simply a way to introduce some diversity and keep the game fresh, the COIN series thus uses asymmetries to create vital gameplay dynamics: the tension between the international coalition and Afghanistan’s government in A Distant Plain, or the I-need-you-but-you’re-bad-for-me relationship between the dictatorship and the crime lords in Cuba Libre. Playing these games is an eye-opening experience that shows what asymmetry can really do.

Getting the Goods

I’ve tried, in composing this list, to stick to reasonably available games. Wargames often have short print runs, and their prices can ascend toward the level of collector’s items very quickly. Even when in print they can cost close to $100; low volume means each unit has to carry a high margin, after all.

Nevertheless, I would urge designers to seek these games out. They all offer valuable lessons. What’s more, they’re all good games that deserve a spot on your shelf. You might find them engaging, or frustrating, or informative, or difficult, or any of many other things. You won’t find them to be wastes of your time or money.