Lines of Questioning

As promised in last week’s comments, here’s a print-and-play version of Trust Me’s successor, Lines of Questioning:

Lines of Questioning – 10-13-14

Lines of Questioning is a solo board game that tries to capture the experience of questioning a witness in the courtroom. You know what you need the witness to say, and you have some control over what the witness talks about . . . but witnesses aren’t puppets. They have their own views and agendas, and you’ll need to work with what the witness gives you in order to win.

Over the Next Dune taught me that big print-and-play files are off-putting, so Lines of Questioning is very lean. The file linked above has both the rules and the stuff to cut out. The game ‘s components just barely extend onto four pages, and you can have the whole game ready to go in 15 minutes or less.

Many aspects of Line of Questioning were informed by my own experiences in and around the courtroom. On Wednesday I’ll talk a little bit about how I imported legal rules–and legal realities–into the game.

Trust Me: A New Direction

Last time we said that Trust Me has two issues: Player 1’s game needs to be more interesting without being more challenging, and Player 2 needs more satisfying gameplay without making it easier to win. The solution, I think, lies in going all the way back to the beginning of the design. Decoupling Player 2’s activity from Player 1’s opposition makes it possible to fix both problems.

Player 1 currently can’t be challenged because Player 2 is providing the challenge, and for thematic reasons it needs to be difficult for Player 2 to win. If Player 2 isn’t the opposition, however–if that role is filled by a hypothetical Player 3, or by the game itself–then Player 1 can be confronted with as many difficulties as necessary to make her game interesting. This is fighting the hypothetical, in some measure; we’re not finding ways to increase interest without increasing challenge, we’re just making it possible to increase challenge. Still, I think it’s a good solution.

With Player 2’s experience no longer directly opposed to Player 1, it becomes easier to measure Player 2’s progress on axes other than “how is Player 1 doing.” It will be easier to give Player 2 sub-goals that can provide satisfaction even if Player 2 isn’t winning.

I’m on my way out the door for a trip as I type this, so I can’t go into as much detail as I would like. On Monday I’ll talk about Player 2’s sub-goals: how they work and why they’re important.

Trust Me: Transitioning from Art Installation to Game

There’s a classic legal ethics problem that goes something like this: the client is accused of a crime. He has an alibi, but he doesn’t want you to use it because it’s embarrassing. Should you override the client’s wishes in order to win, or does the client have the right to tank his own case?

Academics aren’t the only ones who care about the answer to that question. Disputes over control can poison the attorney-client relationship, especially when they’re mismanaged. I envisioned Trust Me as a simulation of these issues, an abstract demonstration of how  divisions arise in the partnership and why they can be difficult to address. The challenge of the design now is to make Trust Me into a game that captures the unequal and potentially conflict-ridden nature of the situation, yet is still a game people would want to play.

“Unequal” may seem like a strange goal for a game, but inequalities are a fact of attorney-client interaction. Lawyers have specialized knowledge that their clients lack. They are familiar with the legal environment and its processes, while the client likely finds them strange and even intimidating. Lawyers are repeat players, while the client is probably being opposed–and judged–by strangers. Ethics rules give the lawyer final say over many decisions, including some that the client may care very much about. The lawyer is even on familiar ground, in an office or a courthouse the lawyer has practiced in before, while the client feels like he or she is an outsider. Any game about attorney-client interaction needs to recognize and represent that inequality.

(As a side note: I am not saying that these inequalities are necessarily good or desirable. Scholars have struggled for years to find ways to reduce the paternalism involved in lawyer-client interaction without losing the value of the lawyer’s expertise. The topic remains one of hot debate, with arguments for many different solutions. Some have even argued in favor of the inequality. I have my own views on this subject, but Trust Me is not about whether or how the playing field between attorneys and clients should be leveled. It is evoking the inequalities that have existed in the past and that are still present today.)

In real life the issue of attorney-client inequality stirs up a pot already set to boiling by the fact that lawyers and their clients don’t always want the same things. Traditionally litigators have focused on winning the case. Clients usually want to win too, but they can have additional goals separate and apart from overall victory. They might want to punish someone who has harmed them, and hope the lawyer will really put the screws to that person on the witness stand. They may want answers to burning questions, and feel that the only way they’re going to get them is if the person who knows the truth is under oath. They may simply want to have as little to do with the situation as possible, and favor solutions that keep them far from the courthouse and the opposing party–even if that means a less-desirable outcome. A client may simply want to feel like he or she still has control over an important situation in his or her own life, and want something minor just for the satisfaction of influencing the case. The attorney-client relationship can become a tug-of-war, the attorney pulling toward a winning verdict while the client tries to move the attorney toward other objectives.

Trust Me succeeds, I think, in demonstrating the challenges of a building a constructive relationship despite these two problems. The players are unequally situated: Player 1 has more influence than Player 2, and is more likely to win. Each has different goals–Player 1 to reach the opposite side of the board, Player 2 to have markers collected–that sometimes align but often conflict. It’s possible to work together, but it’s also possible for only one person to get what he or she wants, or for the relationship to break down entirely. (I equate Player 2 boxing Player 1 in out of spite with a client firing his or her attorney.) As an art installation that exists to make a point, Trust Me works.

It falls down, however, when evaluated as a game. Player 2’s lack of control is thematically appropriate but frustrating. Having Player 2 manipulate the barriers captures abstractly the client’s efforts to get an attorney to take certain approaches, but interacting directly with Player 1 would feel more accurate. The game is too easy for Player 1, but in the current design the difficulty can’t be increased without giving Player 2 an unthematic amount of power.

At this point Trust Me is achieving its thematic ends, but no one would want to play it more than once. Turning it into a better game–and, perhaps, a more effective art piece–requires solving some design problems. How can Player 1’s experience be made more compelling, when it probably can’t be made significantly more difficult? How can Player 2 be given interesting decisions and opportunities for satisfying gameplay without making it easier to win? I have some preliminary ideas about the answers, and will get into them next time.

Trust Me: Rules Changes

One nice thing about two-player games is that they’re a lot easier to playtest than five-player co-ops. I’ve been able to get Trust Me to the table, and have made some changes:

1. Player 1 now moves one barrier and then moves the mini one space. This allows more time for players 1 and 2 to signal whether they’re looking to cooperate or to compete. It also gives Player 1 more interaction with the barriers, which is the meat of the game.

2. Since Player 1 moves more slowly, the game is only played to the end of area 2. The print-and-play file has been updated to have the goal line in the correct place. This change also eliminates the need for area 3’s barriers, and they have been removed as well. Trust Me is now really, really quick to assemble. 🙂

3. As matters stand, it’s possible to rough out the optimal path for a Player 2 victory at the start of the game. That can lead to frustrating gameplay, either because it’s lengthy (in which case Player 2 is apt to feel like he or she can’t win no matter what), or because a player does something that appears sub-optimal (which can lead to confusing signals and ultimately post-game recriminations). There are two changes in the rules that are intended to make “solving” the board before turn one impossible:

– The game-end condition has changed: now, at the start of the 16th turn and every turn thereafter, the players roll a four-sided die. If the die comes up as a 1, the game ends.

– Most markers in area 2 are distributed during play, much like the barriers.

4. The number of markers has been changed to four in area 1 and five in area 2, with six markers needed for Player 2 to win. Having a greater percentage of markers in area 2 helps avoid situations in which Player 2 is “out” relatively early in the game.

I’m experimenting with a fifth change, in which barriers are distributed using smaller dice that place them in the middle of their areas. This avoids useless barriers that are way off to the sides, but having different numbers for distributing markers and barriers makes the board visually busy. A computerized version of this game would make setup a lot faster . . . .

Trust Me – 9-15-14

Trust Me: Speeding Up Setup

Trust Me’s initial setup poses some challenges. On the one hand, randomness in the setup improves replayability. On the other hand, even when relatively few rerolls are needed it takes over five minutes. Furthermore, the setups that result can be uninteresting. It’s easy for barriers to get stuck between the edge of the board and a marker, such that they can’t move until Player 1 has passed them by and they’re irrelevant. I’ve also had barriers tuck themselves into corners or along the edges, where they’ll never affect the game.

In an effort to speed things up, and to ensure that there are enough barriers in relevant positions, I’m experimenting with starting some of the markers and barriers on the map. There’s no need to reprint the board if you have already; the changes are easily made with a pencil.

There are also two technical changes: the setup rules now prevent markers or barriers from starting the game in the “Start” space . . . and the “Start” space is now marked on the board. Oops!

Trust Me – 9-10-14