Lines of Questioning: Playtesting Change to Lawyer Tiles

Sometimes your game surprises you. When I started testing leaving the lawyer’s tiles on the board in Lines of Questioning, I thought I was fixing some problems while incidentally making the game harder. It increasingly appears, however, that this change is making the game easier instead. To be honest, I’m kind of pleased by that result; it emphasizes just how tricky and interesting game design really is.

Relatively early on in Lines of Questioning’s design, I started treating the lawyer’s tiles differently from the witness’. The witness’ tiles stayed on the board when the witness’ line ended. By contrast, when the lawyer’s line ended the lawyer’s tiles were removed. I liked this for thematic reasons, and also because it created sudden changes in the board state that a savvy player could use to advantage.

Yet, there were two issues with that rule. One I saw coming: the game was more difficult to learn. Players tended to want to the two kinds of tiles, which are similar in many respects, to work the same way in this area as well. Removing one kind of tile but not the other was confusing.

Playtesters confirmed that that was a problem, but they brought a second issue to my attention as well. Seeing tiles disappear just plain felt bad. They felt like their effort had gone to waste.

Since my suspicions about increased difficulty had been confirmed and an additional problem with the rule had been raised, I decided to try testing Lines of Questioning without special treatment for lawyer tiles. They would stay on the board after the lawyer’s lines ended, building up just like the witness’. No more would effort be wasted, and there would be one consistent rule to learn.

Having played Lines of Questioning many times, I thought I knew exactly what this would do to the game’s difficulty. Strategies that revolved around keeping the lawyer’s and witness’ lines separate would get weaker, since the buildup of lawyer tiles would push the lawyer’s line closer to the witness’. Other strategies would be unaffected.

After some testing, however, it appears that I may have been completely wrong. Keeping the lawyer’s and witness’ lines separate is still pretty easy; the board, even at four spaces by four spaces, provides enough real estate to keep the lawyer and witness apart. Using the lines together, on the other hand, has become even easier. The lawyer’s line can be directed into corners with impunity, putting lawyer tiles in place for later with the confidence that they’ll remain even if the lawyer’s line comes to a halt.

The fact that this change isn’t having the effects I expected doesn’t mean it’s bad. It solves the issues it was meant to solve, and might therefore remain in place. I’m just struck by the reminder that game design always has surprises in store.

Lines of Questioning: Coding

I’m always torn when I’m coding. On the one hand, I very much enjoy it. On the other hand, it feels like I have to pause the theoretical aspect of the design work in order to code; the game is here, and I want to take it there, but first I have to get the digital version of the game to where the paper version of the design already is.

Building a strong foundation is important, and I think Lines of Questioning will benefit a great deal from a strong digital implementation. If nothing else, distribution to playtesters will be enormously easier! However, it does mean–in the short term–putting hours toward Unity and C# instead of hammering on the gameplay.

12-1-14 - Unity ScreenshotI’d best get back to working out what the most efficient way to deal out opening hands of tiles is. (The current front-runner is: move an object which is just the tile back, flip it, replace it during the flip with an object whose texture is the front face of the tile, repeat.) Wish me luck. 🙂

Lines of Questioning: A Quality of Life Addition

I like elegance in design, and part of that is wrapping as many functions as possible into its pieces. The stacks of tiles in Lines of Questioning also serve as its turn track; the corners of the board are both places to play and a way to keep score. Whenever the game needed something, I tried to find a way to handle it with existing components.

Sometimes, though, the game needs something that the current pieces can’t provide. Playtesting Lines of Questioning has revealed one: a way to note the last-played tiles. The ends of the lines are important, which means it’s important to be able to remember where they are after the lines lengthen and twist back on themselves. It’s also valuable to have a visual reminder when the last tiles in the lines are not adjacent. Some kind of token at the ends of the lines would answer both of those needs, but neither the board nor the tiles can act in that role.

In the digital version of the game I’m working on, there are markers that automatically follow the lines as they grow. A nicely-produced physical version might employ cubes, meeples, or (at one playtester’s suggestion) little wooden gavels. For the print-and-play currently available, coins are a good size.

If you’ve been having trouble keeping track of what’s happening as Lines of Questioning progresses, try using tokens at the ends of the lines. They reduce the memory overhead quite a bit.

(A quick poll: Gavels? Or something else? I’m tempted to try something like a legal pad for the attorney and a Bible for the witness, but many witnesses choose not to swear on a Bible anymore . . . .)

Lines of Questioning: Revised Rulebook

Showtime! Lines of Questioning’s new rulebook is now available:

Lines of Questioning 11-26-14b

I’m always interested in more feedback. Right now I’m particularly looking for people’s thoughts about:

1. The diagrams. Are they helpful?

2. The rules without associated diagrams. Which ones would you have liked to see a diagram for?

3. The FAQ. The intent of the FAQ is that it supplements the rules by making unusual interactions clear, but that those interactions can be correctly worked out without the FAQ. In other words, there should be no rules found only in the FAQ. Do you feel that either of the questions in the FAQ can’t be answered without reference to it?

Thanks for your thoughts, on these or other issues. For those celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, have a happy holiday!

Lines of Questioning: Updates Across the Board

Lines of Questioning is currently undergoing a lot of changes–none of which, ironically, affect core gameplay very much. These include:

New art: while it’s good to have rules when handling art in DIY fashion, it’s even better to get a talented artist to help out. Lines of Questioning now has a new board and tiles–and they’re amazing! I just need to check one last thing with the artist, and then I’ll be ready to show them to you.

Revamped rulebook: over the past few weeks I’ve asked playtesters to learn Lines of Questioning entirely from the rulebook, and got their feedback on what was missing or unclear. Their comments have helped make the rules, by conservative estimate, one zillion percent clearer. A revised rulebook is almost done; it has more and better explanations, to say nothing of a number of example diagrams.

Alternative approach to question tiles: this one is more gameplay-related. One interesting piece of playtester feedback was that discarding question tiles when the lawyer’s line ends was a strong feel-bad moment. I’m getting ready for another playtesting project to see what happens if question tiles are never discarded.

PC implementation: it’s getting closer! I have a version that works, but it isn’t fully rules-enforced. Once it’s over that hurdle, I’ll consider it ready for a beta release.

I’m very pleased with how Lines of Questioning is shaping up. Aesthetically it’s going to be leaps and bounds ahead of where it was–there’s just no comparison. Playtesters have given positive feedback about the design (which feels good) and have expressed that they’d like some things changed (which energizes the project like nothing else). New players will shortly find the game a lot easier to get into. All of these are exciting developments; stay tuned!

Lines of Questioning: Prototyping Away

Just a small update for today: I’m experimenting with chipboard as a prototyping material. It should prove sufficiently strong to serve as a material for Lines of Questioning’s tiles, while being thin enough that the stacks of questions and answers are each a reasonable height.

Unfortunately, working with chipboard has required picking up some equipment and developing new muscle memory. All of that has taken time away from the more theoretical aspects of design, and made for this rather drab post. ;)I have a topic in mind for Wednesday, though, that I think is absolutely fascinating . . . .

Theory: Revisiting the Rules for Tile Art

When one follows a rule and gets a shaky result, one of two things has happened. The first possibility is that there was a misstep; the rule wasn’t actually followed. The other is that something is wrong with the rule. Looking back at the rules for tile art, I think the latter led to the failings of Lines of Questioning’s new tiles, which proved confusing in play. Rule #1–that a tile’s gameplay has to be clear–provided a goal without any indication as to how one might achieve it or how one could tell it had been achieved. As a result, I was unable to judge accurately whether its dictates had been met. Crafting a more detailed rule should help avoid similar mistakes in the future.

“A tile’s gameplay implications must be clear” sounded like a great rule–and so far as it goes, I think it is. Game pieces are, by definition, part of a game. They need to function within that environment.

However, the rule is ultimately question-begging. How does one make gameplay clear? What steps should be taken to make gameplay stand out as art is incorporated into the design?

Thinking about this reminded me of some upheaval in Legend of the Five Rings’ graphic design, and I think there are valuable lessons there. When the game first game out, Legend of the Five Rings’ cards looked like this:

11-14-14 - Old L5R CardI’ve always liked this design a great deal. Its border has the monochromatic aspect I like, even if the major color is red rather than black. The lantern, diamond, and circle . . . well, it’s not really clear what they mean, but they’re individually pretty. Using a bronze gradient for the text gives the impression of a plaque, lending a sense of place and permanence that (for me, at least) creates a feeling that this is somewhere important.

Legend of the Five Rings was later bought by Wizards of the Coast (of Magic: the Gathering fame). Under Wizards the card design changed significantly:

11-14-14 - New L5R CardThe background is still textured, but the new stone look is simpler, and the card text is now on plain slate. Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the numbers: the geometric shapes are gone in favor of a gold coin and a flag that give some sense of what the numbers might mean.

I no longer have the link, but my memory is that a Wizards employee explained that these changes were based on internal focus testing. Players, especially new players, expressed that the old cards were too busy and did too little to indicate what the various numbers meant. The new design was meant to be attractive, but also clear in play.

While I don’t enjoy this look as much from an aesthetic perspective, I can’t deny that it has advantages as a design for game pieces. The text is much easier to read, the numbers are contained in pictures that serve as a shorthand reminder of their meanings, and the game-relevant aspects of the card stick out from the background.

All of this happened years ago (and L5R’s cards have changed again in the years since), but I think this is an interesting case to look at because of how clearly the intent behind the update shows through. There’s still art involved in the cards–a great deal of it–but the focus of attention has shifted. Where the old cards were all about the bold, atmospheric border, the new ones draw the eye toward clear black-on-white text and numbers identified by icons.

The importance of those changes is reinforced, I feel, by the cards used by the still very new Hearthstone:

11-14-14 - Hearthstone CardArchmage Antonidas here is pretty elaborate–but it’s not hard to figure him out. The background is textured (interesting how we keep running into “broken stone”) and colorful, but it doesn’t demand attention. Having one number in a sword, and another in a drop of blood, suggests their functions even to those who have never played the game. Another number in a gem is harder to parse, but the gem correctly indicates that it has something to do with the card’s value. Text is large, on a very simple background.

Each of these elements–artistic but “quiet” background, attention-grabbing and useful iconography for key gameplay elements like numbers, high contrast between text and the surface it’s on–follows the same course as the updated Legend of the Five Rings cards. One hardly imagines that that’s an accident.

I see those same elements in Suburbia’s tiles:

Image from Boardgamegeek
Image from Boardgamegeek

All of these tiles have a background–a picture of the building the tile represents–but it’s done in muted colors that don’t pull focus away from the text. That text is black on plain white banners stretched across the art, and is presented in conjunction with meeples and building shapes that tie into the game’s rules.

Simple background, easy-to-read text, icons that are useful and draw the eye; these seem to be consistent themes. They should be the basis for new, more detailed rules regarding the interaction between tile art and gameplay:

1. A tile’s background must not distract from gameplay elements.

2. Text on tiles must be easy to read.

3. Key gameplay elements should be highlighted with art that reminds the player of their functions.

Where the new tiles seemed to pass the old rule’s muster, these new rules make it clear that they’re not going to work–and why. The background is bright and busy, competing with the lines for attention. Even worse is relying solely on the text to indicate which side of the tiles is which; periods are not nearly as attention-grabbing as Legend of the Five Rings’ gold coins, Hearthstone’s swords and gems, or Suburbia’s meeples. If I’d had these rules when working on the new tiles, I could have predicted that they would have problems in play.

Another update to the tiles is still in the works. In the interim, here’s hoping that these rules help you dial in the art for your projects without wandering in the woods like I have. 🙂

Lines of Questioning: Oh, Balancing Tests

The last few days have seen a lot of behind-the-scenes work on Lines of Questioning’s art, in addition to the conversation in the comments to the previous post. (Special thanks to locksleyu for the feedback!) I don’t have new art to show yet, but things are happening on this front, and I hope to have a new set of tiles that are both attractive and more readable soon.

Part of the challenge with the tiles is that there’s a balancing test involved. Aesthetics and gameplay clarity are both important, but they don’t always pull in the same direction. When they don’t one has to decide how much weight each should be given. It’s never easy to do that, especially when dealing with non-quantitative factors like “how nice does this look” and “how easy is this to read at a glance.”

This is, unfortunately, an area where legal principles can’t offer much help. Balancing tests are common in the law, and they are just as much of a challenge there as here. Different judges will look at the same facts, apply the same balancing test, and come up with different conclusions–all of which are reasonable, defensible, and in some sense “right.”

Of course, sometimes it becomes clear that the balancing test was applied wrongly, and that’s happened here. (See the comments to the previous post for more details.) Time to file the appeal . . . .

Lines of Questioning: New Tile Art

Lines of Questioning’s tiles used to look like this:

AnswerRightQuestionRightThese were simple, but only lovable by those who like black-and-white art as much as I do. Certainly they don’t do anything to sweep players into the thematic experience of the game.

With the rules for tile art in mind, I mocked up some new versions:

Answer Tile Right 1Question Tile Right 4Although these new tiles still won’t be mistaken for the work of a trained artist, I’m much happier with them. They’re far better at meeting the demands of the rules.

A tile’s gameplay implications must be clear: nothing could match the gameplay clarity of the arrows, but using grammar and punctuation to indicate which side is the start and which is the end is almost as good. In addition, the combination of highlight colors and differing fonts does an excellent job of distinguishing the lawyer’s questions from the witness’ answers. That was sometimes a problem with the old, monochromatic tiles. If there’s a loss here, it’s a small one.

Tile art should connect to the theme of the game: the new tiles are meant to call to mind a lawyer’s hastily-written notes and a witness’ answers recorded in the formal record. Whether they succeed is a decision I have to leave to the reader. 🙂 Even if they fall short, though, I think these are definitely superior to the arrows from a thematic standpoint.

Tiles must be visually interesting: using a paper texture rather than a plain background gives the new tiles a much more engaging look.

If the tiles will be played on top of something, their art must mesh attractively with that surface: since the board is still a work in progress, let’s bifurcate the trial and leave this issue for later.

The new design isn’t necessarily final; in particular, the board may necessitate a different approach. I thought it would be interesting to put these up, though, to show how the tiles are evolving as work on Lines of Questioning continues. When I think of the testing process, I always think of fiddling with the core gameplay. There are actually quite a few other levers that need to be pulled and positioned.

Theory: Rules for Tile Art

While trying to decide what Lines of Questioning’s tiles should look like, I realized that I was breaking my own cardinal rule: approach questions as though they were legal problems, and solve them using the tools provided by legal analysis. I’m not accustomed to doing that with graphic design issues, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work. So, let’s do the background research by looking at some cases–successful tile-laying games–and finding the rules that emerge from them.

Tsuro

Tsuro is a personal favorite of mine, and its path-building gameplay was an inspiration for Lines of Questioning. It’s an elegant design: players put a tile down in front of their pieces, and then move forward along the path they’ve created. Whoever can stay on the board longest, extending her path without running off its edge, wins.

Image from Boardgamegeek
Image from Boardgamegeek

I don’t have an artist’s trained eye, but Tsuro’s tiles strike me as both attractive and functional. The paths are easy to see, but there’s still some color, and the mottled backgrounds lend visual interest. Although the brown color scheme might seem drab in other games, here it feels–at least to me–relaxing. Tsuro bills itself as “beautiful and beautifully simple,” and I think these tiles capture that.

Image from Boardgamegeek
Image from Boardgamegeek

In addition, the tiles mesh well with the board. Their color scheme is consistent with what the board’s doing, but it’s still easy to tell where a tile has been placed.

Carcassonne

A tile-laying classic, Carcassonne is an area-control game in which players create the areas to be controlled on the fly. There’s no board, and the other game pieces (at least when playing without expansions) are simple meeples, so the tiles have to do a lot of heavy lifting. Both the aesthetics and the gameplay ride on them.

Image from Boardgamegeek
Image from Boardgamegeek

Carcassonne’s tiles are more cheerful than Tsuro’s, but they have the same clarity. One is never confused about a road’s path or which sides of the tile are part of a castle. They also have something going on in the background; farmland and castle both have some texture, rather than simply being “green space” and “brown space.”

Everything is also consistent with what one might expect of a medieval city. There are monasteries, walled fortresses, roads, farms. Expansions add things like rivers. At the end of the game, the tableau looks appropriate for the period.

Suburbia

Like Carcassonne, Suburbia has players lay tiles to build a city. Absolutely everything else about the games is completely different. 😉 Nevertheless, some similar principles underlie the design of their tiles.

Image from Boardgamegeek
Image from Boardgamegeek

Both games have thematically appropriate artwork, although in Suburbia’s case this means modern buildings rather than medieval ones. They also share an emphasis on ease of reading during play; Suburbia’s tiles are more complex than Carcassonne’s, but the use of bright colors and easily-recognized icons still allows them to be taken in at a glance. Finally, Suburbia follows Carcassonne’s lead in avoiding dead space on the tiles, filling the center area with art and minimizing the swathes of plain color.

There are many more excellent tile-laying games, but I think the rules are becoming clear. Part of being a good legal researcher is knowing when to stop.

1. A tile’s gameplay implications must be clear. Tsuro, Carcassonne, and Suburbia all put gameplay first in their tiles. There is never any ambiguity about whether this connects to that, or which tiles do what. When tiles are central to the game, as they are in these cases, the tile needs to support the game’s play and foremost.

2. Tile art should connect to the theme of the game. Carcassonne and Suburbia both reinforce their city-building themes with tiles that look like parts of a city. Tsuro’s art is simpler, but appropriate for an abstract.

3. Tiles must be visually interesting. None of the tiles here have plain backgrounds. Whether it’s Carcassonne’s grassy fields, Suburbia’s colorful expanses, or Tsuro’s muted earth, variation and texture are used to keep the entire tile engaging.

4. If the tiles will be played on top of something, their art must mesh attractively with that surface. Tsuro looks as good as it does, not just because it has great tiles (though it does), but because the tiles and the board work together to give the game an appealing overall look.

Applying those rules to Lines of Questioning, it instantly becomes clear that the very simple tiles are out. They’re clear, yes, but they’re athematic and boring to look at. More attractive tiles will benefit the game a great deal. I’ll have some ready for next time.