Monday, August 27, 2007

War on victory points

Victory points are an amazing tool for balancing a boardgame. If you're making a game about, say, warfare and you notice that your generous trading rules makes it unfrofitable to fight you can adjust the victory points slightly so that military objectives are scored higher. Just by toying back and forth with the victory points you can create perfect balance without having to redesign the whole game.

But while victory points are no doubt great for the designer I can't help but feeling that they are an unaesthetic feature. Like a carpenter built a house but didn't remove the scaffolding. Or a painter put her charcoal sketches on top of the brush strokes.

Not only are victory points inelegant, but oftentimes they obscure the purpose of the game, making it harder to learn and to grasp.

Puerto Rico is the perfect example of a game that has lost itself in victory point extravaganza. When I first read the rules of this game I understood nothing. Then I read them again and I understood even less. It seemed to me that they weren't rules so much as a run through of a chain of events – they told you what to do but didn't explain why you should do it.

In all it's compact eurogame glory Puerto Rico is thoroughly non intuitive. It takes at least three full games before you can truly wrap your head around it. A gamer has to give this game many chances before she can actually fall in love with it. The problem is that you can't really tell who is ahead before the ritual counting of victory points at the end, and even then you can't actually be sure what you did wrong.

To be fair, the victory points are only partly to blame. Puerto Rico is a somewhat schizofrenic game. At first, the objective is to create an efficient economy, then at some unknown midgame turning point you need to make a one-eighty and try to convert all your assets to something else. This is in itself a strange practice and not really backed up by the theme, but if the victory points had at least been represented by something else the game would have been easier to understand: Say you bought techical upgrades or bigger ships, or the winner of the game was the first player who could afford a castle.

I'm not suggesting a redesign of Puerto Rico (although it could use a facelift). It seems to be appreciated in all it's qirkyness. But the victory point phenomenon is something for future designers to think about. Germany has revitalized the boardgaming hobby with their flood of easy yet clever games. Sometimes thy get a bit abstract, though. It's time to go to the next level now. Give the games back their soul. Lose the victory points and make winning conditions a little less obscure.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Company at the bottom of the pit

There's nothing sweeter that sharing your loves and obsessions. The internet makes this possible on a massive front. Participating in boardgaming communities, baking forums and World of Warcraft newsgroups makes me feel less alone. But the real challenge is dragging your real live friends into the darkness of your hobbies.

I have, as you may have understood, a severe gaming addiction. My friends play too, but they are all a lot more casual users than I am. They like to smoke weed on the weekend, while I sometimes want to spike my veins with high grade smack or inhale the sweet fumes of crack cocaine from a stainless steel pipe. Of course I could go the full mile and start hanging out with some real junkies, but there's also the respect from my loved ones to be considered. No one wants to live with a substance abuser.

On a couple occations, though, I have been able to drag my friends down with me.

I used to be heavily into World of Warcraft (then I quit, because it stopped giving me the thrill I needed, read more about this here). While I was just starting up I gave the ten day free pass to a friend. To my great joy he took the offer and before I knew it he had passed me in level. Now, we had some great times in that parallell universe, but sometimes I wonder if I really should have slipped him that ticket. I hardly see the guy anymore, and, though his girlfriend seems to be okay with it, he's only a part time resident of earth nowadays. All mixed up in guild business and skipping soccer games for raids in the dungeouns of Azeroth.

Last week I gave another friend a plastic container of active sourdough culture and bullied him into making his own bread. I was pleased to hear the bread turned out great and tasted fantastic. It seems like the hobby is catching on. Next on his list is Austrian whole grain rye. The question is, will it turn into an an addiction, and do I want that on my conscience? What if he drops out of the university and go start himself a bakery?

You have to look out for yourself, too. Perhaps you need a sane environment to stay in touch with the real world. Before you break out that nice little gateway boardgame or ten day free trial to kick off your win over campaign, think it through. You may need people around you to help you stay put. My girlfriend for instance, I would never want her to come over to the dark side. She is my lantern in the blackness. My north star to keep the ship straight. Without her I might have quit my job and started selling The Big Issue.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Boardgame nostalgia at the end of time

We had two full bags of boardgames and a week to play. We were isolated in a house on an island. This, I felt, was a chance to sink our teeth into some of the more time consuming games out there. I was anxious to get a game of Epic BattleLore going as well as a four player Dungeon Twister.

However, the week played out a little differently. Plenty of gaming, but our restless thirty plus city souls never found time for the more ambitious projects. We played several games of Ticket to Ride and Thurn and Taxis. We also managed to squeeze in Settlers of Catan and Citadels.

Time didn't use to be an issue. In my gaming peak, about twelve years ago, we could play through the night and well into the morning and not even finish the game. Games like Civilization and Mighty Empires could take an hour per turn and it really didn't bother us. There was nothing else demanding our attention. We played through hunger, thirst, fatigue and even sickness. Somehow, as long as there were huge bottles of Coca-Cola around, we were fine.

I miss those times. I miss the ability to shut everything out but the rolling of the dice. Our island boardgaming trip was great. I love the lighter games too. But Ticket to Ride can only get you that deep. And I realized on that trip that the days of boargaming trancendance would never return.

Two hours is the upper limit nowadays. Any game that takes longer than that will get one play only and then returns to the shelf, never to be dusted off again. Sadly. Because Dungeon Twister is a really cool game. And don't you just love Diplomacy?

Monday, August 20, 2007

I bake therefore I am a nerd

Perhaps when you look at me you will suspect nothing. I don't have buck teeth and thick glasses. I wear clothes that are (arguably) up to date, I have a good job and a gorgeous girlfriend. But I am a nerd in the most literal sense of the world. Up until my early twenties I was an avid roleplayer, I still consider boardgames one of my major hobbies, I play World of Warcraft and whatever I do I always do it a little too much.

This summer I took up baking. It started with a little web browsing on sourdough and a few experiments at home. Then, as always, it just spun out of control. Before I knew it I was ordering baking bibles on the internet. Big fat volumes with very few images, dense with complex baking theory. I brought home proofing baskets, thermometers, spatulas and expensive flours. My jeans constantly smudged with white powder. The freezer filled to the top with halves of bread that are simply two many for us to eat.

And, to be honest, even though every loaf took about twenty-four hours to make the bread isn't that much better than the average stuff you bake over three hours from the back of the flour package.

So what's the point? people ask. Why go through that much trouble for such a measly result? Well, there is of course the hope that one day the bread will be just amazing and truly outshine everything I ever ate before. But to really answer the question I need you to understand the mind of the nerd. See, the question is really the other way around. The result is really just a biproduct of the hobby. The nerd needs a challenge for the mind, and hobbies that don't take up a lot of energy and time are just not worthwhile. Mediocre end results are frustrating, of course. But really it just means I get to spend a little more time trying to master my hobby. Dive back into the books, go over the procedure and try to zoom in on what I did wrong.

In the end I will make that fantastic loaf, which will surely give me a sweet thrill of success. But us nerds are restless souls. If there's nowhere to go from there, if there's nothing more to learn, then I will have to trash the apron and go find myself a new hobby.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Gaming theory 3: The good and the ugly

Good graphics is a concept that I find is often misunderstood. There's a diffence between good graphics and high resolution. Sure, the PS3 (for example) has a huge capacity for detail, both in images and movement, but it's up to the artist to deliver good graphics.

A painter doesn't automatically get better just because she is given a finer brush. In fact, a lot of the time thumbnail sketches are much better and more lively than the finished design. Attempting high resolution, realistic graphics often results in stiff characters with severe lack of expression. A cartoonish approach is likely to be much more vivid.

A question I like to ask in connection to this is, if you carried a picture of your girlfriend (or boyfriend) in your wallet, would you rather it be a high resolution picture of her looking ugly or a low resolution picture of her lookig good?

Gaming theory 2: Your drug of choice

I often hear people say, "I like racing games" or "I'm more of a shoot 'em up kinda guy". While I don't dispute that at all I want you to try to remember your five most fulfilling gaming experiences. If you're a long time gamer you'll find yourself with five very diverse games with little in common. What they will have in common is that they were all one of the first games you played in that specific genre. The human brain is tuned to reward you when you master new skills. Repeating the same things over and over does not grant the same sensation.

Back in the days me and my friends were completely absorbed by Tony Hawk. Once we got the hang of it we couldn't get enough. We played for days on end. By the time Tony Hawk 2 hit the stores we were so excited we nearly wet our pants. We gathered up to play it, crawling out of our skins with anticipation, but the feeling wasn't there. It simply wasn't as fun. In all fairness, the game isn't at all bad. Probably better than the first one. But it was more of the same thing and the interest faded after that.

Getting into new genres can be scary because you're on uncharted territory, but once you get past the obstacles the feeling of mastering something new vastly outshines utilizing your old skills. It should be pointed out that the exhilharation may not come the first time you play the game. It may not even come the second or third time either, but when it comes it can never be repeated. This new experience reward is a one time fix. You will either have to put up with the diminishing effects or find yourself a new game.

I warmly recommend Ralph Koster's book A Theory of Fun that digs deeper in to the subject.

Gaming theory 1: The pursuit of freedom

For many people the ultimate game experience would be a vast imaginary world where you can do anything you want. Total freedom as it were. And that would certainly be something. But take your personal top five games of all time and ask yourself how much of that freedom they actually contained. Also, ask yourself if that was the quality that made them fun.

Game developers like to brag about how you can destroy or interact with anything in the environment, but while this is a nice feature it is hardly what makes the game great. At first you may marvel at the possibility of being able to completely eliminate an entire building or pull every lever at an abandoned construction site, but after about half an hour you get annoyed that your pulling the levers actually has no effect whatsoever on the game.

Freedom is great, but it has to be balanced with an equal ammount of content in order for people to actually appreciate it. Smashing pots in Zelda is fun for a while, but once you've maxed out the rupees in your wallet you're not likely to do it anymore. It has no additional effect on the game. Jumping off a ramp and go crashing through a window before landing on a grinding ledge in Tony Hawk can be exhilarating but what actually makes your pulse go up is the fact that it gives you a point multiplier.

Players love the illusion of freedom in, say World of Warcraft or GTA, but without a goal and limitations the game just simply wouldn't be fun.