Category: games

Sometimes it’s difficult to get a tabletop RPG going in person: friends move away, or you just don’t live in an area where many people want to play. Since the three of us at 10×10 Room are divided between two major cities, we know what that’s like.

To help with that, we’ve created Bones, a dice-rolling app for Google+ Hangouts. If you’ve never tried one before, a Hangout is a group video chat that supports extra features like screen sharing. With Bones, now you can roll dice and share the results with gamers no matter where they live:

Bones for Hangouts Screenshot

To play with Bones, you’ll need a Google+ profile. Then click this button to kick off a Hangout with the app:

Start a Hangout with Bones

After that, you’ll be able to select Bones from any Hangout you kick off; you won’t have to keep using the button. Check it out and let us know what you think!

p.s. Hangouts are also handy for playing our web-based RPG Conclave face-to-face.

[This is part two in a series of posts on probability and roleplaying games.  You can begin with part 1 here.]

Who else remembers these?

RPG designers haven’t always looked at the role of probability in action-taking in the same way.  In fact, over time, those designers have made it more and more likely that players will succeed at their actions.

What’s the most common thing players do in RPGs?  They try to whack a baddie on the head.  So let’s start from there and see how likely, historically, you’ve been to successfully whack that baddie.  And let’s narrow it further and look at fantasy RPGs:  what happens when a fighter-type tries to smack a goblin with a sword?  How often does he hit?

If we jump in the Wayback Machine and head to the days of 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, said fighter’s chances ain’t looking so good.  A 1st-level human fighter with Strength 16 – average for a fighter using the recommended method for rolling character attributes – has only a 30% chance of hitting a lowly goblin with his sword.  That’s right:  just 30%.  Now, there were a lot of quirks to AD&D’s system are worth exploring in their own right, as they show other ways in which the genre has evolved; for example, all 1st-level characters had exactly the same chance to hit our poor goblin, but fighters were vastly more effective at higher levels, which is very different from how most modern games handle level progression.  Still, for now, we’ll just stick with our simple number.

In other words, back then, a character could be expected to fail at this core action over and over.  Fast forward to AD&D’s 3rd Edition, and the picture looks somewhat different.  Take the 1st-level human fighter again, still with Strength 16.  He’s got +4 to hit – +1 from having a level of fighter, +3 more from Strength – and he’s facing a goblin with an AC of 15.  This gives him exactly a 50% chance to hit.

Now look at the 1st-level human fighter of today.  He has a Strength of 18 if we use the standard score array and assign his +2 racial bonus to Strength.  This gives him +4 to hit from his strength, +3 more from using a long sword.  We presume he chose the one-handed combat style, for +1 more.  We assume no other bonuses from feats, and that he’s just using his basic attack, instead of a power like Sure Strike.  There’s not just a single goblin for him to face, but most goblins have an AC of 16.  Now he has a 65% chance to hit.

What we see in these numbers is a direct and dramatic climb in the chances of success over the years.  This change can’t have been accidental:  just take a look at the notes on variant rules in the 3rd Edition Dungeon Masters Guide to understand how sensitive the D&D game design team was to the impact of much more minor rules changes than than these.  The designers made a conscious decision to have players succeed more and more often at their actions.

Okay then:  why has the number changed so much over time?  I think there are four interrelated answers:

  1. Success is fun.  While letting players succeed with their characters’ actions all the time takes away the benefits of dice-rolling, players will nevertheless have more fun if they succeed more often than they fail.
  2. Inaction is boring.  Failure usually results in nothing happening; a miss in combat, or a failed skill check, is usually wasted time.
  3. Wasting limited resources feels frustrating.  If I can only cast a certain number of spells each combat, or can only use my special power twice per day, I’m going to save it up for when it matters; when the time comes, I want it to be likely to count for something.  (You can see 4th Edition D&D take this a step further by introducing a number of daily powers that are guaranteed to have at least some effect, albeit a reduced one, even if they fail.)
  4. Failing takes time.  Assuming that the rate of foe failure is similar to that of characters (not always true, but close enough), introducing more failures means that the time it takes to resolve a conflict in a game is directly lengthened by the chance of failure, without changing the eventual outcome.

Now, you can have too much of a good thing.  The previous post already explored a bit of why succeeding all the time isn’t necessarily good.  Consider also what happens if the time allotted to a conflict is compressed by a very high rate of success:  that leaves fewer opportunities for player decisions, fewer chances for tactics and dramatic roleplaying, fewer moments where a gamemaster or computer can spring a surprise on the players.

But the point is that the people in the know – the Dungeons & Dragons designers, reacting to ever increasing amounts of data – steadily hiked up the chance of success, because they saw reasons such changes would improve their game.

Now, another factor started to appear in the ’80s, and has proceeded to become ever more significant, which is the rise of computer RPGs – games which began as followers in the trends set by paper and pencil RPGs, but have since switched roles to become leaders.  More on the impact of CRPGs, and the evolution of Conclave’s own use of probability to decide the results of actions, in the next post.

A great roll... but why are we rolling in the first place?

One question a game designer must ask is how often players should be able to succeed at the actions they take.  In many games, success is automatic:  you can’t fail to use a capturing move in chess, say, or to buy a property in Monopoly.  In fact, the majority of non-electronic games are based off of automatic success.  This is not to say random elements – the roll of a die to determine movement, say, or the cards you draw from a shuffled deck – but most such games limit the actions you can take through randomness, rather than leaving up to chance whether or not you will be able to successfully take your actions.

RPGs are one major exception to this rule.  Another is wargaming, roleplaying’s ancestor: Dungeons & Dragons evolved out of Chainmail, which took the mechanics of wargaming and applied them to the swords and sorcery genre.  As part of its inheritance, Dungeons & Dragons relied heavily on dice to determine if player actions succeeded.  (In fact, early editions of Dungeons & Dragons offered options to use dice to handle almost anything you might want to do in the game, from creating dungeons to determining which of twenty forms of insanity a character might develop if rendered insane, to figuring out what might happen if you mixed a potion of invisibility with a philter of love.  More on this topic later in this series of posts.)

Later RPGs questioned the centrality of dice in the game, with many seeking to reduce randomness, and some eliminating it entirely in favor of some mix of gamemaster and player dictate.  Often this came from the desire for stronger storytelling:  both gamemasters and players rebelled at having a story shredded by a particularly ill-timed lucky (or unlucky) roll.  But most RPGs kept dice.  Why?

One reason is that dice can be exciting.  Randomness – uncertainty – creates tension and variety.  This is pretty obvious!

But a second reason is that randomness helps enhance the sense that the RPG is a simulation of reality.  RPGs inevitably seek, to varying degrees, to simulate some version of reality, some cosmos.  In the real world, we are used to the idea that our actions will not always succeed or have perfectly predictable results.  The abstraction of the die roll provides a simple path to creating the same situation for our characters and their foes.  It’s easier to imagine ourselves into the bodies of our characters when we can’t know if they will succeed or fail within the larger world.

Additionally, as simulations, RPGs must handle a huge variety of possible actions, situations, and outcomes.  The RPG must be able to provide appropriate results depending on whether your warrior is trying to hit a cowering kobold, a veteran swordsman, an ancient dragon, or a deity (!).  Probability is a great mechanism here, expanding success from a simple digital yes-no to an analog range.  Boardgames cover a vastly smaller set of situations; with a simple possibility space comes the possibility of using simpler tools for resolving actions.

So die rolling is good, right?  Hold on there, sparky!  If there’s one thing any game designer, in any genre, knows, it’s that too much randomness – too much of that uncertainty mentioned above – can spoil the game-playing aspect of a game.  Players want to have control, too; they want to feel that their skill has an effect on the outcome of the game.  RPGs are funny beasts in many ways, and one is the tension they experience between giving players the unpredictability and simulationism enabled by die-rolling, and the desire to exert control.  Mess up this equation, and your game will become less fun.

What’s more, dice rolling takes time.  Every die roll involves a wait, and potential distraction from the flow of the game as a player digs for dice, adds up the results, and the roll gets checked against various charts and sheets to produce an outcome.  Such is not a concern with computer games, but you can bet that card and board game designers worth their salt take this sort of thing into account.

Having looked at some theory behind randomness in RPGs, we can next look at how randomness has evolved in RPGs over time – and what it looks like for today’s CRPGs.  That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

Execution is marketing

Tadhg Kelly of What Games Are recently posted about the need for games to have a marketing story. While his overall point is a good one, I have to quibble with a comment he made in a follow-up post:

The hard part isn’t execution. […] The hard part is creating and living a marketing story that makes people pay attention, because there is no list to tell you how to do that.

Duke Nukem Forever ... for real this time?

For real this time?

For one thing, execution is hard. Having good tools and developers is necessary but not sufficient; it also requires perseverance, effective communication, and high tolerances for risk, rejection, and criticism. But there’s another reason execution is challenging, and it relates to Tadhg’s second point: your execution is part of your marketing story.

If your execution is poor, you’re effectively marketing only to that subset of your audience willing and able to hear your story amid the cacophony of bad word of mouth. The near-mythical Duke Nukem Forever is one cautionary tale: its story at this point is almost entirely about its troubled execution. You could argue that its execution has been so bad that its story has garnered more attention than a successful game would have, but that’s not a result I’d try to reproduce.

Minecraft: Blocks all the way down

Blocks all the way down

Minecraft, on the other hand, demonstrates how execution can make a positive contribution to a marketing story. Part of what makes its story so compelling is that Notch was a one-man wrecking crew for much of its development; had it been a AAA title produced by a more conventional team, reactions to the game likely wouldn’t have been nearly as strong.

While those are extreme examples, execution matters to nearly any game’s marketing story. It’s not just the choice of indie or not, though our decision to build Bastion: Call to Arms as a three-person, self-funded team certainly influences how we talk about it. It’s that players will also construct their own stories based on their experience with a game. Whatever your intended narrative, players will create competing tales of woe if your game is sufficiently buggy, unbalanced, or user-unfriendly.

Executing well is one way to make it more likely that your game is the hero rather than the villain of those tales. That in turn makes it possible for your own marketing story to be heard, especially if it complements or amplifies the stories of your players.

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ding

With World of Warcraft, Blizzard continued – and perhaps perfected – a game design they started to really shine at in Diablo 2: the art of always providing positive feedback and an ever-present goal just a few minutes away.

When a player is playing World of Warcraft, they are constantly rewarded for victory. With every normal monster fight, there is a battle, a regular “rotation” of spells/abilities that the player uses to take out the normal monsters, and victory within 5-10 seconds. The monster gives an experience reward as long as the player isn’t max level, and a loot reward regardless. If the player is in the endgame, there’s a high likelihood that the experience reward has been swapped out for a reputation reward with whatever faction is tied to the monster, but the treadmill (if you’re being cynical about it) continues. Monsters are always available, so once you get your little thrill of victory after 5-10 seconds, you look around for the next monster, which takes about 3-5 seconds, and start again. And on, and on, and on. My lizard brain reward neurons are firing just writing about this stuff.

Then, layered on top of the pure combat grind, there are the quests. One is almost never simply killing mobs in a vacuum of XP or rep grinding. Every monster killed is killed for a reason. Either you need to kill a certain number of them for a quest, or they sometimes (sometimes very rarely) drop an item you need for a quest, or they are in between you and the destination place or object you need for a quest. So not only are you getting the tiny reward for each monster beaten, you get closer and closer to a bigger reward of completing one (or often several tied to the same area of the map) quest. That quest, once completed, gives the same reward as a monster kill but in bigger doses: loot, XP, reputation.  Quests are, by the way, the most extensive way that narrative is woven into WoW.  It’s because WoW has thousands of quests that you don’t feel like you’re just doing the same thing over and over and over and over again.

Layered on top of questing is the reward of leveling either your character or your reputation with a faction. Aside from the occasional helpful loot reward from a monster or quest, this is the first reward you get that directly improves your character. With a new level you either get a new talent point to spend or a new spell. When you reach a new reputation level with a faction, you likely have access to new gear that will help your character.

Finally, at the endgame you have layered on top of leveling/rep boosts for your character the concept of getting better gear for your dungeon/raid group.  Players are rewarded by being part of a solid dungeon or raid group even if they are unlucky enough not to get any drops that help them directly by still getting drops that will help other members of the group, and so the group advances even when an individual character does not.  Blizzard has improved this formula in later expansions by granting currency to each participating party member for every endgame boss killed that, once enough are accumulated, can be traded in for gear even if that character never gets a direct gear drop from any boss fights. For each raid, there is eventually a boss considered a “gear check.” That boss encounter is impossible for the raid to beat until they have gone through the earlier raid content enough times for their entire group to have good enough gear from the earlier bosses to have the raw stats high enough to beat the gear check boss. This boss is, therefore, the gateway to higher content.

Like XP/quests before, some players are just raiding for better and better gear for their characters, others are raiding just to get to see all the content, and others are in it for both. But the raid activity for “progression” is the same for all three.

But wait, there’s more! That’s just one “stack” of reward layers. There are at least three other parallel reward paths:

Crafting: As players are out in the world-whether completing lowly quests or endgame raids-they will come across nodes of resources that can be harvested for crafting components. As players build gear from these components, their crafting skills are improved, and they get closer to building better and better gear. So players will often fight monsters just to get to a harvest node so they can get more resources to build more gear and raise their crafting.

Achievements: With Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard added explicit achievements to the game. These can range from exploring all the points in any and all maps, to accumulating vanity pets, to completing all the quests in the game, to beating all the dungeons in heroic mode. As with the main reward system, achievements are often layered. For example, players get a small reward for exploring every node on one map, a bigger one for exploring every map on a continent, and the biggest one for fully exploring every map in the game.

PvP: (Disclaimer: I never got deeply into PvP, so my knowledge of this dimension of the game is limited and may not be entirely correct.) Completely parallel to the main game, players may choose to participate in player versus player content. The PvP starts at level 10 (though you’ll be yelled at if you’re not level 19 to be the “appropriate” level for the 10-19 PvP group), and some players spend all their time “twinking” their level 19 PvP character. It ends at Arena matches, available only to characters who have gotten to max level, which have 2v2, 3v3, and 5v5 ladders. Arena PvP is associated with “seasons” in which the medium, higher, and highest ranking players are given gear roughly equivalent to the gear their characters would get at the endgame raid PvE content that is in the game for that season. As I said, I haven’t followed this aspect of the endgame very closely, but I’m pretty sure when new raid content is added to the game with the associated next level of raiding gear (your raid group will only have a fighting chance against higher end raid bosses if they’ve geared up from earlier raid bosses) a new Arena season starts at the same time with rewards on par with the new endgame gear.

What say you, gentle reader?  Did I miss anything?

The many forms of “We rule!”

Derek’s post a couple days ago on “I rule!” versus “That rules!” got me to thinking, which is always a dangerous and frightening prospect. While thinking back on my own “I rule/That rules!” experience, it suddenly struck me that my very best experiences in multiplayer role playing games have always come from two very different approaches to “We rule!”

On the one hand, we have the MMO raid endgame experience. There is nothing like 25 voices screaming in victory after taking down a raid boss that the guild has been throwing itself at over and over again for weeks. Progression raiding is painful. It’s frustrating. It’s time consuming. It can tear guilds apart. And it is one of the best video game experiences out there when you finally succeed.

On the other hand, there is the group of role players I am currently tabletop gaming with. We are the Most. Dysfunctional. Party. Ever. Our mage has a charisma of 2, but will take any opportunity upon meeting new friends or foes alike (‘friends’ in this case being defined as NPCs we haven’t made ‘foes’ of yet) to bring out his magic box which will announce to the world that he is “HARWIN THE MAGNIFICENT!” One of our fighters is a greedy halfling, who in his finest hour discovered that the urn he was hauling tightly in his arms back to town to figure out how to open was actually a trap: on our way out of the dungeon the urn evaporated, leaving dear Merbles covered in green slime. The bad kind. Our priest has a relationship with the bottle that can only be described as masterful. But even more important in understanding his personality is to realize he…ah…absconded with the robes and holy symbol he currently wears from a fellow traveler on the roads. He has no idea which deity is answering his prayers (and for our party, we need a great many prayers), but some higher power is indulging his adjurations…at least for now.

I round out the group as our second fighter, a dwarf named Lars the Epithetless, who fancies himself something of a strategist. He almost never gets to enact any great plans due to his fellow party members’ tendency to rush into the next room swords and spells blazing, but last session he finally had his chance to shine. The party had come to a halt in front of a door behind which was a room teeming with rats. Behind us was a room full of caltrops we had picked our way through earlier. 15 minutes of excited scheming and trap setting later, Lars launched into action—the final result of which was a horde of nonplussed rats, Lars’s feet riddled with rat-poop-covered caltrops (cure disease, anyone? no? lovely…) and the nasty monster who was master of this corner of the dungeon alerted to our presence. It was the best role playing I’ve done in weeks.

Our party is terrible. But at the same time, we rule! Because playing these horribly inept adventurers is hilarious. Managing to get out of every mess we’ve made for ourselves so far has actually been something of a two-edged sword. We were never supposed to make it to level 2. Months later, now that we’re approaching level 4, I must admit, I’ll be sad when we eventually end up getting ourselves killed by plunging into the middle of more than we can handle. But that won’t change how we play this group, because that’s who these characters are.

This second form of ruling—the ability to craft a fun player-based narrative, even if it is by playing incompetent characters—is something you don’t see much in single player RPGs. It’s out there, though, if you can find it. One of my biggest “I rule!/That rules!” moments in playing Mass Effect 2 happened during one of the cutscenes. For those not familiar, if you progress far enough in either the “paragon” or “renegade” options for your character, sometimes you have the opportunity to interrupt a cutscene to your benefit. The character I was playing was primarily a paragon, though she would occasionally show traits that could be considered “renegade” under stressful situations. During one particular cutscene, a renegade interrupt became available to my character. But it just didn’t fit her character, so with great difficulty (as a player), I let the opportunity to interrupt the scene pass. Later in the same cutscene, a paragon interrupt opportunity appeared, which my character did activate. It was awesome! It was perfect! By being true to my character and keeping a cool head, I let a chance to be a nasty sort of character pass, and I was given the chance to influence the narrative in a more virtuous manner. The result was both an “I rule!” and “That rules!” moment at the same time. BioWare managed to outdo itself again by supporting this kind of gameplay opportunity, and I was thrilled that I had discovered it. At the same time, I was able to keep my character true to the personality I had crafted for her, which made the moment “rule” for me in an entirely different way.

In the end, I’m not sure how well the MMO style of ruling and the narrative crafting/role playing style of ruling can coexist. As I wrote in the comment section of Derek’s post, an MMO raider serious about progressive raiding isn’t going to be worried about whether his character’s arachnophobia should be decreasing his competence against the spider boss, nor would his teammates appreciate him playing that encounter “in-character” by /cowering in the corner during the entire fight. On the other hand, a munchkin/rules lawyer tabletop player may not be seen as the optimal partymate for a group of gamers who are injecting a lot of player-based narrative into a gaming session. Therefore, as game designers, one of the challenges we face is determining what type of gameplay experience we’re trying to build in our game and make sure that the content we’re producing allows that type of experience to shine.

“I rule!” vs. “That rules!”

On her blog Creating Passionate Users, game developer and author Kathy Sierra has often written about the need for products to create an “I rule!” experience for their users. And at their best, the web’s most popular apps do just that: Facebook makes us feel more connected, Twitter more popular, Basecamp more productive.

Those products are designed primarily for utility. For products that are meant to entertain, however, the intended reaction is less “I rule!” than “That rules!” We might get lost in the action of a movie or empathize with the protagonist of a novel, but the experience doesn’t need to leave us feeling more powerful for it to be compelling.

Part of what makes game development so challenging, I’ve recently realized, is that games can provoke both types of reactions. Intuitive and responsive controls, a steady increase in difficulty, a satisfying conclusion: these elements add up to an “I rule!” experience for players. Story and aesthetics, on the other hand, are key to provoking a “That rules!” reaction. The difficulty isn’t just that we need to worry about both goals when creating games; the goals themselves are sometimes at odds. Games that spend too much time in cutscenes, for example, risk making the player feel like a passive observer no matter how well written and rendered they are. And satisfying the player’s desire to rule often places constraints on the stories that we can tell or how we tell them: an unexpected death can be a powerful moment, but not if it causes the player to quit the game in frustration.

Considering the need for games to strike a balance between “That rules!” and “I rule!”, it’s not too surprising that some have trouble seeing games as art. Done well, a game is both art and application, art and not-art — and that’s one of the things that makes creating a good one so rewarding.

What we’re playing: Lord of the Rings Online

LotROI loves me my MMOs. The old cry of “SOW PLZ” from the trade channels of Everquest still ring in my ears (kids, ask your gamer parents). Though I’ve tried a great many, I never got very far in most of them. In fact, of all the MMOs I’ve played, I’ve only reached the endgame content in Daddy WoW. I made a great group of friends doing 10-man raid content in WoW:BC and WoW:WotLK. That time, alas, is past.

As Nick mentioned, it’s quite remarkable how much creating new worlds from scratch can devour one’s free time. Parenting does an impressive job of p0wning the rest. (L2P means ‘learn to parent while playing MMOs’, amirite? Haven’t mastered that one yet. I’m such a n00b.) It’s crushing me to watch Cataclysm’s release date approach and know that I won’t be able to play it. Because the fact of the matter is, while I’d still love to play, I can only seem to squeeze in a couple two-hour sessions a month no matter how hard I try. This, dear friends, makes the $15 subscription fee to continue the work of my beloved tank to free the world from evils great and small while keeping my friends from getting their faces melted cost-prohibitive.

So when I heard that Lord of the Rings Online was moving to a freemium model, I was thrilled. I’d stuck my head in the LotRO door a couple times in the past, so I already knew I’d love this game. Creating a new character and logging back in, it was everything I remembered. The graphics are gorgeous, the music is compelling, and there’s enough quest content to keep my lizard brain extremely satisfied smashing mobs and returning lost trousers to townsfolk in need. Plus, LotRO has something WoW will never have. Soon after I created my character, he crossed paths with a shadowy gentleman who went by the name of Strider. Strider was helping a Sackville-Baggins who was being pursued by a Ringwraith, but Strider in turn needed my help. He explained that there was a different Baggins that needed protection elsewhere–the true target of the Ringwraiths. Strider needed to get to that Baggins quickly before the Ringwraiths realized their mistake.

Um. Wow. Yes sir, I will help your cause.

Needless to say, I’m really enjoying LotRO, as little as I get a chance to play it. It’s firing on all cylinders for me. There’s just one problem. When you play as intermittently as I do, you end up missing out quite a bit on the “massively multiplayer” part of the MMO experience. I find myself agreeing with Leigh Alexander in her recent Kotaku post: no matter how much fun a game may be, it’s always more fun with a posse. But how can you gather a posse when you’re just not around all that much? We’re trying to answer that question in our own way with Bastion: Call to Arms, but I’d love to figure out a way to play with friends in the MMO environment as well, even if it’s just a couple of times a month. Has anyone else figured out a way to do that?

What’s wrong with Civ V?

I’m a long-time fan of the Civilization games, old enough to remember playing a cracked copy of the original Civ games on the university computers while in high school. (Yes, I pay for all my games now, thanks for asking.) When a new iteration of Civilization comes out, it’s a joyous event: not quite Christmas, but bigger than Halloween, y’know? So when I got my sweaty palms on Civ V, it was with a great deal of anticipation.

Developing a game doesn’t leave you with much time to play other games – one of those ironies they don’t tell you about. But I’ve managed to sneak in enough time with Civ V to end up… a little disappointed. Not such that I won’t play, or enjoy myself while doing so, but I’m not enthralled, not yet. Civ 2 and Civ 4, I each played for five years, all the way through until the next version came out. Civ 3, I played for maybe six months. There’s a danger Civ 5 will be another Civ 3 for me.

Why? What’s the problem? Did they simplify too many things, or the wrong things? Maybe, but I think it’s something else. I think it’s the vaunted new combat system – or, more precisely, the secondary consequences of that system.

One of the largest changes to Civ V is the elimination of stacked units. Now, each combat unit occupies a space that cannot be shared with any other unit. This, combined with the introduction of hex spaces, pushes the game into the tactical realm inhabited primarily by war games. And it does make the combat more interesting, on a per-engagement basis.

However, to make this work, each civilization needs to end up with an army that is much smaller on a per-unit basis than was common for any prior Civ game. There’s just not room on the map for them otherwise, and presumably they also wanted to limit the amount of time players needed to spend each turn just moving their armies around the board. Instead, you have tougher units, and more attacking and withdrawing and so on.

At least, that’s the theory. And sometimes it works out okay, and you get nice consequences, like more “leveling” of units as they survive and gain experience. But the big problem is that this means they need to make each unit more expensive to field. Creating an up-to-tech unit takes much longer in Civ V than in previous versions, and costs a whole lot of schmuckers to buy outright.

Okay, so what? Well, if we push further down the train of consequences, we get to this ugly one: if you defeat your enemy’s initial forces, they can’t rebuild in time for it to matter (unless the enemy is very large). As a result, it’s all about the early battles. Win those, and you will collapse the enemy’s empire and take it all for yourself. There’s a middle ground, but it is small.

Civ IV, by contrast, had both small and large wars. A number of things worked against large-scale conquering: the slow process of assimilating new cities, the effects of culture on newly-acquired border cities, war unhappiness, the ability to manufacture reinforcements reasonably quickly, and the ability to stack units in cities (which not only protected those cities, but also kept the reinforcements safe until there were enough of them to meet the enemy in the field). Civ V only has unhappiness penalties for new cities (and it doesn’t matter whether you are at war or not, so this is not a disincentive to further warring), and some policy and wonder bonuses available to boost combat prowess within one’s own borders – which won’t matter once you’ve lost your army.

And that’s really too bad, because it eliminates a whole dimension of gameplay, and makes the game swingy: be the first to bash another Civ’s head in, and you have a big leg up on the rest of the game.

Civ V gets a lot of other things right, particularly the addition of city-states, which are a huge and clever innovation that adds both to the mechanical gameplay, and to the realism factor in the game. And I will continue to play it, with some measure of happiness. But the main thing I’ve come away with is a renewed appreciation for the potential for unintended, second- or third- or nth-order consequences in the complex, dynamic system that is a game (especially one with as many variables as a Civ game). Something to watch out for.

Boardgaming and the iPad

Board game publisher Days of Wonder recently announced the release of Small World, one of their popular boardgames, for the iPad. Rumor has it the popular “eurogame” Carcassonne will be showing up soon as well. Scrabble, already popular on the iPhone, now comes in an iPad version.

Like many people, I had trouble seeing exactly how to use the iPad when it was first shown to the world. It was cool and capable, certainly, but what was it for? What did one do with it exactly? Replace your computer? Your phone? Was it supposed to go on your coffee table? What was this thing?

Turns out that one answer is that it’s a killer boardgaming device. In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense. You have a display that’s large, colorful, and detailed enough to allow multiple players to read from and interact with it. The multitouch screen means moving pieces, scrolling and zooming the board, and shifting around cards are all easy, intuitive functions. You can lay it flat, so it can look a lot like a board or other playing surface. And the iPad is eminently portable, so it’s great for restaurants and travel.

Oh, and it’s a computer, so you always have a friend to play with. Small World might be missing an AI, but you can bet most other iPad boardgame releases will be packing a savvy computer opponent to keep you challenged during that subway commute or solo business flight. In this, it beats out the Microsoft Surface – that, and an order of magnitude in cost.

There are shortcomings. Hidden information gets difficult to manage, though perhaps a few games will take the Scrabble approach and allow players with iPhones to use their phones for exactly this purpose (players with iPhones can link them to the iPad game and use them to view and manage their racks). Display space is limited – probably too limited for many games. And there’s no substitute for the tactility of a hand of cards, or rolling dice – though nice sounds and animation can provide a different sort of sensory whiz-bang.

Perhaps, though, we are seeing something of the future of boardgaming here. For years, I’ve wished I could play Magic using a deck of electronic paper cards, saving me huge amounts of storage space, and the time it takes to manually pore through physical cards and put together a deck. An iPad as a game surface, and an iPhone for my hand of cards… well, that wouldn’t be so far off.

So what does this mean for the boardgaming industry? Perhaps very positive things. They are sitting on a chunk of intellectual property that just grew in value overnight, needing only some talented engineers to translate it to the new medium. In the short term, iPads and their coming brethren aren’t likely to cannibalize existing sales; dedicated gamers will be happy to pay a few bucks for electronic versions of their favorite games, and the games will see exposure to an entirely new audience. Longer term, it gets hazier: if the electronic experience grows to rival the physical one, and prices stay in the $5-10 range, then game publishers will begin to see a squeeze from shrinking margins.

It also means we can expect to see a shift in who works for boardgame companies. Many may partner with contract developers (creating something of a fun opportunity for talented developers with a gaming bent); however, if eventually the very nature of boardgame publishing changes to become more electronic, then the composition of the workforce at these companies will itself have to change. We can play out how this might affect distributors and local game stores, but that’s simultaneously straightforward and murky to predict.

Games themselves will change, too. There are things you can do electronically that are difficult or impossible with paper, cardboard, and plastic, from the aforementioned sound effects and animations, to complex randomness, to simple adjudication of time-based rules (e.g., who pressed the button first, timing of turns, etc.), to mid-game transformations of the board and pieces themselves. As a game designer, it is this last element that is perhaps the most exciting: a chance to mix the immediate social experience of boardgaming with the interactivity and under-the-hood power of the computer.

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