Theory: Include “How to Start” In Your Rules (and a Lines of Questioning Update)

I’ve done a thorough revision of Lines of Questioning’s rules based on current feedback. (you can find the new version here). The full changelog is below, but there’s one I feel is especially important: the rules now explicitly state how to start the game. Few “modern” board games (or whatever term one wants to use) do that, but I think it’s important. Saying “here’s what to do to kick things off” really helps people who have less experience with board games as a whole.

I learned this the hard way years ago, when some friends and I were just getting into board games and decided to try Shadows Over Camelot. Shadows’ rulebook does what many games do: it explains the steps one takes during a turn, and assumes it will be clear that to start playing one just launches into those steps.

For my friends and I, that assumption did not hold true.

Let me set the stage for you. In the room are two law students (both of whom are now lawyers), a Ph.D. student (now a scientist), and an engineer. All of these people have at least a passing acquaintance with board and role-playing games. Every single page of the rulebook has been read out loud. The engineer says “OK . . . how do we start?”

There’s a pause.

Rulebook pages flip.

A cricket starts chirping.

In retrospect, this was completely hilarious. A cricket chirped during an uncomfortable silence! It was a perfect sitcom moment, in real life! The whole thing was worth it, just as a story!

However, from a rulebook design perspective this was a disaster. After thoroughly perusing the rules, the players didn’t know how to start playing. Shadows Over Camelot almost went back in the box without so much as being tried. (Which would have been a shame–my friends and I went on to have many hours of fun with the game.)

Among the skills board gamers learn is reading board game rulebooks. We gain the ability to take rules and translate them into what the game looks like during play. In the process, we learn to make certain leaps: if the game proceeds in turns, and every turn begins with X, we should start the game by doing X.

New board gamers don’t have that rule-processing skill. Help them out by spending a line or two explaining how to start playing. They’ll appreciate it, and their positive experiences will come back to you in repeat customers and positive reviews.

– – –

Other changes:

– The numbered tiles have been removed; they added some complexity without a concomitant improvement in gameplay. With that change, the goal is now to proceed around the board clockwise, building a stack of tiles four-high (with an answer tile on top) in each of the four corners in sequence.

– The rules were changed to clarify that when an answer tile is played on top of the last tile in the line of questioning, that does not cause an answer tile to be added to the question hand.

– Being unable to play a tile when you need to do so is now a loss condition (this fixes a bug with the Something to Hide variant, in which it was possible to need to start a new line of answers but be unable to do so).

– Many rules have been rewritten and reorganized to make the game easier to learn.

Theory & The Case Study: Gates in Over the Next Dune

I’ve been considering whether to try out gated player abilities in Over the Next Dune. Gating player capabilities would be a substantial change, and unusual for a cooperative game. On the other hand, gates are a commonly-used, proven mechanic. It’s not a trivial decision.

Let’s start at (what I think is) the beginning. Why would one ever use a gate, instead of just letting players deploy their capabilities whenever they want? I can see two reasons:

1. The gate leads to interesting decisions. Mark Rosewater likes to say that “restrictions breed creativity.” Limiting the player’s access to a capability forces the player to think about when to use it, and to find alternative solutions when the capability isn’t available or shouldn’t be employed.

As a quick example, think about Barrier in League of Legends: a protective shield that isn’t available for a few minutes after being used. Since access to the Barrier is limited, players have to make tough decisions about precisely when it will do the most good. They also have to find ways to conserve the Barrier for those key moments, and to protect themselves when the Barrier is “on cooldown.” If players could just throw up the Barrier all the time, those decisions would be lost–and no other decisions would appear to replace them.

2. The gate prevents an ability from dominating gameplay. In some ways this is the inverse of the previous rule: the gate is in place because unlimited use of a player ability makes the game less interesting. RPGs often use gates in this way; powerful abilities would make the early game trivial, so players can’t access them until later.

(There’s also a third reason–to help monetize the game. However, that opens up a can of worms that I’m not looking to address right now.)

Those both seem like good reasons to include gates. Yet, they aren’t universal in cooperative games. Pandemic‘s Scientist doesn’t need to do anything to be able to cure a disease with four cards instead of five; that ability is always “on.” Shadows Over Camelot‘s Sir Bedivere can trade cards in for new ones without earning the privilege. Clearly, gates aren’t for every power or every game.

What considerations, then, militate against gating player powers? Ironically, I find it much easier to think of why a designer would want to limit powers than why the designer wouldn’t. Perhaps that says something about me. 🙂 Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. The game is unplayable when the ability is not available. Most RPGs don’t limit your capacity to walk around. In fact, I’m not aware of any at all that do. That’s not surprising, because if the player can’t move around the world in an RPG the player can’t do anything at all. Limiting walking would tend to destroy people’s ability to play the game.

2. The game needs something, and the ability provides it best when it is constantly available. League of Legends needs a way to ensure that games move toward their conclusions. A big part of ending a game of League is damage output; players and teams need damage to destroy the opposing team’s defenses and ultimately the enemy base. Thus, the game needs to ensure that teams have reliable access to damage output. If no team can damage objectives, the game cannot progress (setting aside really grindy strategies like letting minions do all the pushing–let’s not go down this road).

League’s need for guaranteed damage is met by “auto-attacks.” Every character can punch, swing a sword, fire arrows, or has some other freely available mechanism for inflicting damage. Since they’re costless, auto-attacks guarantee that the game cannot stall completely. Regardless of the team composition or overall situation, both teams have the theoretical ability to bring down objectives and end the game.

3. You want to encourage a behavior. If players should be doing something in a game, designers can incentivize it by letting players do it no strings attached. Ikaruga, for example, is a “bullet hell” game in which the player(s) can switch colors to absorb enemy fire. The color-switching mechanic made the game an instant classic. Having no limits on switching colors was a good design move, because it encouraged players to try the mechanic out early (desirable because color-switching was the game’s innovative feature) and to do it often thereafter (important because it helped players progress and kept them hooked).

So, two reasons to use gates and three not to. What do they mean for OtND?

To date players have three capabilities in the game: moving, tricking searchers, and rescuing other players. Moving should not be gated. The game is unplayable if players can’t get around the board.

Tricking searchers also should not be gated. It is, at least arguably, the most interesting aspect of the game. Keeping it freely available encourages players to interact with this important mechanic.

Rescuing is already gated by the need for several players to work together. That proved necessary to stop rescuing from dominating gameplay. However, the current limitations appear sufficient; I don’t think more are needed.

What about additional player abilities, then? Things like Pandemic’s Scientist and Shadows’ Sir Bedivere, that are outside the core rules of the game? Do they need to be gated? Should they exist in OtND at all? Let’s take that up next time.