Theory: Making Barriers into Benefits

When someone purchases FFG’s X-Wing, this is what comes in the box.

Image from Boardgamegeek
Image from Boardgamegeek

When someone purchases a box of Warmachine, he or she gets this:

12-31-14 - Warmachine BoxLooking at those pictures, one would expect Warmachine to be the province of the hardest of the hardcore, true grognards–but it is instead, as of last time I saw sales figures, the second most popular miniatures game on the market. Part of that is simply because Warmachine is a superbly designed game. Part, however, is that Warmachine turns its barrier to entry into a strength, using it to generate engagement with the game.

Every game has barriers to entry. Usually they must be purchased, sometimes at great expense. Rules must be read. The game must be set up on the table, which is easy enough in the case of something like Tsuro but which can be quite laborious in the case of wargames and RPGs.

In general, these barriers to entry are undesirable. They prevent people from buying, playing, and enjoying a game. Minimizing them is thus usually viewed as strictly beneficial. Designers try to make rules easier to learn and publishers look for simpler, less expensive components, all in the name of lowering these barriers.

X-Wing is a superb and successful example of that process in action. The minatures are ready-to-play right out of the box, fully assembled and painted to a standard much higher than most players could achieve on their own. While the game is not exactly cheap, lots of starships are available at the $10 impulse-buy price point online. FFG has done as much as possible to make getting into the game painless.

Warmachine, on the other hand, makes few concessions. Its miniatures come unpainted and in pieces. Most boxes of Warmachine minis don’t even have an instruction manual; one is expected to figure out that this piece goes here and that these arms are bent just so such as to fit those torsos. It’s not uncommon for miniatures to have flaws straight out of the box requiring non-trivial modeling skill to fix; from the beginning of the game to today, people have been fixing the “Khador gap.”

One might expect that all of this would render Warmachine the nichest of niche games. Instead, however, it’s enormously successful, begging the question of how an expensive game that requires tremendous amounts of setup could ever overcome its barriers to entry. Warmachine is a superb game, yes–but many superb games fail for lack of players willing to invest in them. That alone did not propel the game to the heights it has now achieved. How did Warmachine manage its barriers to become a key player in the miniatures space?

The answer is that Warmachine’s greatest barrier–the tabula rasa nature of its pieces–is a strength in the eyes of a substantial proportion of the player base. They become an artistic outlet; one is not just going to field pikemen, one is going to field one’s very own pikemen, with paint schemes and poses chosen in accordance with one’s taste. Many players end up involved the game just for the painting, playing only rarely as a way to show off their work.

Personalizing the miniatures in that way invites other forms of creativity, such as biographies and backstories chronicling the achievements of one’s troopers. Ultimately all of this can even feed back to the tabletop, with players devising campaigns in which rivalries between their armies are settled and new ones created. Again, these opportunities to craft something unique are the result of what would otherwise be a barrier to entry, and are an important draw for many players.

Not every game can do what Warmachine does, but it’s a possibility for more games than one might think. What if Agricola required players to build little parts of houses, instead of just using tiles? Would that lead to a greater sense of ownership over the homes, and more incentive to play? Would players be less likely to shake their heads at the depth of chess and give the game up if they painted the black squares on the board themselves?

Barriers to entry are always going to be a problem. However, it’s possible to approach them imaginatively, and ask how they can be used to encourage player investment.

Now you’ll have to excuse me–I have some pikemen to paint.

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.