Category Archives: Game Criticism

Board Game Review: Twilight Struggle

Over the past week I got a rare opportunity: a chance to play a top-rated board game with its designer — learning from the man who made it. I refer to the critically acclaimed Cold War simulation Twilight Struggle, and one of its two designers, Ananda Gupta. Ananda is a senior game designer here at Firaxis, and yet in time I’ve known him I only recently discovered that Twilight Struggle was his credit. That just goes to show how little I follow nondigital designers these days, considering the game has retained a choice spot in BoardGameGeek’s “The Hotness” list for what seems like forever. It was a classic case of “Oh, that game! I’ve heard of that, and I’ve been meaning to get around to playing it…” until I found out it was Ananda’s, and then the opportunity was obviously too good to pass up.

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Critical Series – Nuns on the Run

During the Christmas holidays this year, this new title from Mayfair Games was among the additions to our family repertoire. With characteristics similar to Scotland Yard, it’s a quick and funny game I consider superior to the famous detective game. Suitable for all ages and capable of supporting a large number of players, Nuns on the Run is a game I would recommend for any casual board game collector.

Multiplayer Sneaking

The dominant mechanic in the game focuses on sneaking — always a trick in a board game, where every player’s actions take place mere inches from each their fellows. As in Scotland Yard, the board is marked with paths and numbered intersections, and players record their moves in secret on a slip of paper, noting their movement distance and the number of their destination spot. The ultimate aim of each novice is to secure a key from somewhere in the abbey, take it elsewhere in the abbey to unlock the acquisition of their “secret wish,” and then make it back to their cell — all while avoiding capture.

However, unlike Scotland Yard, the roles of sneaker and seeker are inverted: all the players play novices scampering through the sleeping convent, while one takes the role of the hunter and controls the Abbess and Prioress characters, who in concert attempt to find out and catch the wayward novices. Thus, each turn consists of a table-wide covert movement by the novices, followed by the overt and obvious movement of the nuns. This systemized hide-and-seek ensures that every turn is exciting and nerve-wracking, even if you think your novice is safely ensconced in an alcove or a broom cupboard and can’t be seen or heard.


The convent is big and maze-like enough that it would seem a safe path could always be had, but there are twists to the movement mechanic. Foremost is the idea of speed and sound — a novice who runs can get further away but is more likely to be “heard” by the Abbess / Prioress, whereas taking it slow or even standing still will not produce much progress but is a much safer guard against attracting attention. The movement of Abbess and Prioress, on the other hand, is predictable: they begin with a set of paths and target spots they travel, like a night watchman’s circuit, known and understood by all. They will also always walk, keeping a regular speed. However, if one of the novices makes too much noise (as mentioned above) or if they stray into the sight line of one of the adults, the Abbess or Prioress can divert immediately from their route and take off running in the direction of their suspicion, and their controlling player has complete control to path them wherever he wishes as long as continues to uncover sensory evidence of the naughty novices. Whenever this occurs, it’s a mad scramble to avoid the rampage — in my game, one careless novice forced three others to dive behind walls and hide in bushes for several turns while the Abbess tramped up and down before losing the scent and returning to her path. It could easily have cost us the game, if the same thing had not occurred a few turns later with the Prioress on the other side of the abbey!

In contrast to Scotland Yard, which is a much more systematic, collaborative process of analysis and zone defense, the movement of the novices in Nuns on the Run is purely individual and, for the most part, completely opaque to everyone else including the other novices. This makes each turn more anxious and often hilarious, but suffers from a lack of novice-to-novice interaction. Two novices could literally be standing on the same spot or following the same path, and their controlling players would have no idea unless spooked by the Abbess or Prioress. This prevents players from playing off each other, hiding in each other’s “radar shadow” or deliberately alerting the adults in an attempt to get another novice nabbed. Each player’s midnight run takes place in a vacuum, for the most part, and it can be disappointing to be playing along and simply discover, as if from nowhere,┬áthat another play has won.

Trust also plays a big role in the prosecution of victory, as the validity of a path can only be verified once a player has claimed a win. And even if the players are well-intentioned, mistakes can happen particularly with younger players. Nevertheless, the game does not require such rigid precision that a misstep or two would ruin the session.


Even after one play-through, I was deeply impressed by the balance and tension of the game, and by how cleanly it remained engaging throughout. The constant threat of discovery, combined with the time pressure to be the first home with little or no knowledge of the plans of the progress of one’s competitors, made for a speedy and exciting game. Having played Scotland Yard a number of times I was familiar with the idea of recording secret moves, but the inversion of the hunter/prey roles made for a more madcap and amusing experience. And it scales elegantly, often becoming more difficult and exciting with more players, and a higher density of novices in the abbey means more chances for the Abbess / Prioress to see or hear someone and abandon their plotted course.

In short, Nuns on the Run is a delightful game, one I intend to add to my library without delay. I heartily recommend it to all, particularly those with children or otherwise mixed groups of players.


Context is King

I was intrigued by a post on WaterCoolerGames, discussing a Tetris clone made where the blocks are textured to appear like ethnic cleansing internment camp prisoners and the play-space resembles a mass grave. Apparently, a team of Brazilian game designers took a claim from Raph Koster about how context can dramatically alter games and decided to put it to the test. Functionally, the game is still Tetris - it plays exactly like the Pajitnov original. But it appears to be a game about the best way to efficiently dispose of genocide victims, and that is huge difference.

As in all things, context is king. “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” says Shakespeare. On their own, games are simply math and logic chains, and for the most part we can strip away or reinvent the context applied to a game without altering play. We could restyle and rename all the pieces in Chess to strip out the references to medieval warfare and the game would be wholly unchanged. We could replace the suits and ranks of standard playing cards and people could still play Poker, Hearts, Bridge, and Solitaire pretty much exactly the same way they do now.

But is this always the case? If we changed Doom to simulate dispensing candy to hysterical schoolchilden we could do so without changing any of underlying system that makes Doom work. But is it still Doom if we do that? Of course not. The context is indivisible from the game. Killing monsters is somehow so integral to what makes Doom exciting that it cannot be changed without destroying it. So what makes Doom different from Chess and Poker? Why can we get away with stripping the context off those games but not from this one? I think it comes down to potency.

Because Doom has such a visceral, emotional, potent context, the context is too easily missed when it is removed. It’s like smelting an alloy – using trace amounts of a tougher metal would make the new metal stronger, but it would still be only marginally distinguishable from the original material and the tougher metal could be taken out of the recipe without much loss. However, using high concentrations of that superior ore would yield a much better alloy, but now the alloy is utterly dependent on it and cannot exist without it. Doom is like an alloy formed from equal parts simulation and context. The game is too far from a pure simulation or a pure system – it was made with a context that was so highly developed it completely covered and repackaged the mechanics that made up the system, and now we cannot think of Doom without viewing it through that context. If it had a different context it would obviously still be a shooter, but it wouldn’t be Doom in the way that Chess would still be Chess even if we changed the pieces to characters from The Simpsons rather than knights and bishops. Doom with a different context would certainly still be a “shooter,” but it would be a different game. Hence why innumerable shooters can exist with virtually identical mechanics: they have vastly disparate contexts that cover and repackage those tired old mechanics so well that we view them as entirely different experiences. Indeed, the juggling of contexts is what makes genres possible in the first place.

Yet I argue that this isn’t enough. What we do with contexts in video games isn’t close to realizing their full potential for meaningful play. Having a rich context isn’t right for every game, certainly, but under certain circumstances it can take an otherwise simple, mundane experience and truly make it profound. My professor and mentor, Brenda Brathwaite, recently completed a game that illustrates this potential better than any game I know. Without going into detail, she presents a game that on the surface appears simple, straightforward, even a tad dull. Players play the whole game believing there is little more to the game than its mechanics. But upon completion, the game reveals its context in one jaw-dropping moment and suddenly the entire experience is transformed. Everything the players just completed, the seemingly-uncomplicated system and basic decision-making they participated in, it all suddenly has deep and disturbing weight and consequence. All from the context! Brenda is debuting the game at the Game Education Summit at CMU in June, and I encourage you to check it out if you can (otherwise look for posts about it on her blog) – you can see what I mean about the power of context.


Penny Arcade Adventures Seduces

An intersting observation: the second episode of the endearingly-titled On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Penny Arcade Adventures has just come out and I’ve acquired it, as I did with the first episode. I’m about half way through, and I can see the improvements they’ve made without sacrificing any of the fun of the original. However, the very fact that I have purchased and am playing the game is curious. The game is a phase-time RPG, and a simple one at that. The world is not overly large, the range of items and character development is modest, and the variety of enemies and obstacles is likewise undaunting. Yet the game is so much fun! But what makes me more eager to play PAA than other, similar titles? Why do I choose to purchase this title but ignore Fallout 3? This is not to say I won’t eventually get Fallout 3, or enjoy it when I do. But I jumped to purchase PAA while I am content to wait more or less indefinitely to buy Fallout. Why?

I have been a fan of Penny Arcade and their jokes and antics for some years now, almost as long as the strip has existed. I have watched the creators grow from a couple of jokers with a copy of Photoshop into premiere game critics and the progenitors of now-tremendous PAX and Child’s Play. Is it then a sense of loyalty or familiarity that makes their game so attractive, simple though it is? There is far less opportunity in the game to offer the kind of witty commentary I enjoy about the strip, and while I also appreciate the art style (both in the stip and the game), art alone has never sold me on a game before. Perhaps its my penchant for creative indie product. I’m on the verge of beating Braid (one puzzle piece to go, that last one in world 6) and I’m playing through World of Goo. PAA is a similarly quirky title from an indie developer. Likely this is part of the reason. It is elusive, the reason for this enthusiasm in the face of apathy towards other, more sophisticated titles. I am curious: do others also experience an attachment to games that would not logically seem to warrant such enthusiasm? Do you have a pet favorite that holds some magical drawing power that seems to affect only you?


How Many Players Can Really Play This?

Something I encountered the other week: the problem of how to address a variable number of players in a non-digital game. The vast majority of board and card games include rules that allow for a range of players. Most insist on at least two or three, and most cap the number at four, five, six, eight , or even ten. Few can support an unlimited number of players. In addition, nearly all have an optimal number, or a quantity that represents the best employment of the game’s particular mechanics and mathematical interplay.

Euchre, a classic card game popular in my native Midwest, is a superb example. It can be played with two or three players, but it is clearly designed to work best with four. The partnership play and the deck breakdown with four cards per trick are obvious assets, but there are also core rules (like “going alone”) that are only possible with four players. Clearly, the game has a poor answer to the question of variable players. It takes the strategy many non-digital games unfortunately employ: accomodating variable players without optimizing for them.

The situation that brought this to my attention was a three-player game of Blokus, the acclaimed geometric puzzle game. Blokus allows for 2-4 players, but it has a square board and location-based play mechanics. In our game, I chose the West corner and my opponents chose North and South. One of my opponents had lost to me every other time we played, and she talked up my skill to our third player, a newcomer to the game. Well, not only did I not win, I lost by a wide margin — the first one to be unable to play. However, I didn’t realize until after the game was over that I had been playing at significant disadvantage. Strategy in Blokus centers around finding space to play while restricting that space for your opponents. Yet at the game’s very beginning, from the choice of our start positions, I was limited to one quarter of the board as my influenced territory before I crossed the invisible line into space dominated by my opponents. However, with no fourth player, both my opponents were uncontested on one of their two borders, giving them essentially three-eighths of the board to call their own. Both of them had a one-eight board space advantage on me, and the added benefit of having no one to contest their moves into that extra eighth. This margin made it very difficult for me to even be competitive, and I am not surprised I lost.

What this showed me was that Blokus also fails at the question of addressing variable players. With a base-two symmetrical board, it is obviously designed to be played with an even number of players. An odd number necessarily leaves one at a permanent disadvantage. This oversight plagues many excellent board games, and few really have good solutions to the problem.

One that I know of that may be the most creative is Rio Grande’s recent masterpiece, Notre Dame. Aside from being an excellent game, it has a particularly unique answer to supporting three to five players. The board is rotationally symmetrical, based around a central tile that represents the famed cathredral. However, the game ships with three different cathedral tiles: each with either three, four, or five sides. The other board pieces are larger, “city section” tiles, and they too are oddly-shaped: Each player controls one section, and they can be rotated to fit the different central tiles and still ensure that each player’s section is equidistant from all other payers’ sections, ensuring that no matter how many are playing, all play from the same position of strength and the game retains its location-based mechanics. Brilliant! Granted, they had to mess with the conventions of board design and layout to achieve this, but it is a prime example of designing with variable players in mind. Clearly, the makers of Notre Dame were more forward-thinking than most board game designers, and we could all learn from their example when considering how to accomodate variable players in our games.


Getting it Wrong

From a recent post by Yehuda with some simple but important advice: how to recognize hack game design. Too many games, digital and non-digital alike, fall into at least one of these traps. As the designer of more than thirty quick game designs on this blog, I am well aware of the easiness of hacking a design. And, as a student, I see these flaws glaring in many of my fellow students’ work. However, I submit that this is not their fault, and nothing to be ashamed of. They are inexperienced designers, and they have to start somewhere. I certainly count myself among these — I am not a professional (yet) and by forcing a new design out of my head each week, I have no doubt that some of them are utterly worthless, awful games. I value these failures above all others, because this is how I learn. Failing and then having to fix your failure will teach you better than anything how to avoid that mistake again, and being able to recognize the hack spots in your design is critical to this process. It’s no good to have a broken game and no idea why it won’t work. So, if you’re like me and trying to grow and improve as a designer, read what Yehuda has to say and make a checklist for yourself. Study games you play and look for the hacks. Little by little, you’ll learn how to avoid getting it wrong :)


Riches to be Found in Cooperative Games

Cooperative games, or games that don’t result in one player winning and all others losing, are fascinating. There are precious few of them in the board and card game world. Many competitive games feature elements of cooperation, or at least opportunities for mutual gain among players, but few really pit players on the same side from start to finish. I think of games like Shadows Over Camelot, which I reviewed on this blog some time ago, in which players strive to complete the game before the rules overwhelm them. The game itself functions as the adversary, not the other players. Pandemic is a similarly excellent example: a game that’s cooperative in a players-vs-game mode, that’s really difficult, and that’s tons of fun. It further appears that the tradition of “digital games inherit from board games” is reversed in this instance. Digital games have played cooperatively ever since Mario was joined by Luigi. Why so few cooperative board games, then? They are getting more common, don’t get me wrong. But I feel there are untold riches to find in cooperative game design.

For one, players are required to think in a much larger context. For many, attempting to read and predict the intentions of their opponents is a prohibitive challenge and easily frustrating. In a normal board game, players need only think about the resources in play, their share of those resources, and their opportunities to gather more. In a cooperative game, players think about these same equations and opportunities for all the players in the game, and think about them in terms of contributing to a larger balance — a balance that can and often does involve sacrifice by one or several players for the gain of the whole. The possibility space of moves and decisions is multiplied by the number of players playing — each player is, in a sense, playing for all the players. Each one must think and act from the perspective of everyone in the game.

Another major advantage is the ease and richness of diplomacy and interpersonal communication as part of the system. In a competitive game, players can reasonably assume that all their opponents are out to get them. In a cooperative game, particularly one with elements of competition or hidden motives, this becomes infinitely less certain. Conversation, be it debate, persuasion, collaboration, or simply information sharing, is now a critical mechanic. Many competitive games can virtually be played in silence — players’ intentions are obvious, and their actions within the rules are sufficient to communicate anything they might need to say. But in a cooperative game, lack of communication is like shooting yourself in the foot, and no involved player can afford to sit on the sidelines. Cooperative games therefore involve players to a much greater degree, and keep them involved longer. Consider how, in some competitive games, players can fall far enough behind that they have effectively lost before the game ends and, feeling disaffected and bored, tune out and cease to interact with their fellow players. In a cooperative game, that would never happen. Even if a player’s utility is diminished, it is never destroyed. As a member of the larger effort, they have an everpresent responsibility to contribute their analysis of the situation and suggestions for choices to make (remember above, where I said players are effectively all playing for each other?). Furthermore, even if their actions are limited, the opportunity remains for them to make a small but vital contribution at a crucial moment and, in so acting, save the common effort. Like a pawn sacrifice that leads to checkmate, even the smallest action can have universal importance. Thus, no player is ever “sidelined” in a cooperative game.

These are just some of the ways in which cooperative games offer an expanded, richer experience. I remember in vivid detail games of Shadows I have won and lost, while I tend to forget games of Chess or Go or Settlers or Ticket to Ride. The shared experience has a greater effect and leaves a greater impression, like how team sports are more emotional (by and large) than individual sports. People have a natural affinity for common effort, for coming together to triumph over an adversary no individual could defeat alone. I hope game makers catch on to this and produce many more cooperative games.


Lost in Translation

The other day I invited my brother to play a game of Go, and after he accepted, we realized that no goban or stones could be found at our residence. Fortunately, I have the software on my Mac and we were able to play there. However, I found that not only was it difficult to keep his interest in the game, but my own suffered as well. While this could be attributed to many things, one thing in particular I did find hurt my interest was being forced to play a board game on a computer.

We sat side-by-side to view the screen, as opposed to opposite each other, so conversation suffered because we were not facing. The process of making moves involved reaching over the other person to twiddle the touchpad, and this motion was awkward enough that it visibly slowed the progress of the game: moves were not as rapid or as cadenced as they would be if placed by hand. But these were just the logistical irritations. The real loss came from what I call the “traditional experience.”

Go is an ancient game, and over the millennia the playing of it has become highly ritualized. The correct way to hold the stones and to place them — near the intended point and then slid a short distance into place. The particular size and weight of the stones, and the texture of the buffed stone. The construction of the board with particular dimensions and using particular wood, so that the stones make that certain sound when they are laid. In Japan, China, and Korea (among others), the national Go Institutes have entire special rooms for playing championship or important ceremonial matches. This pure dedication to purpose and ancient role makes these rooms almost sacred; the Japanese one has a name that translates to “The Room of Deep Contemplation.” This ritual, this tradition, is as much a part of the game as the rules, and separating it cannot be other than a loss.

I know avid poker players who bemoan their lack of opportunity to play, but refuse to play internet poker because of the loss of the integral experience of a poker table: facing out opponents, facial and body language, psychology, to say nothing of the feel of cards and chips in the hand or the sight and sounds of a poker room. The most expensive board game in the world is a richly detailed Chess set; if there were nothing to Chess besides the rules, why bother making ornamental sets? There are some games that lose so much in digital translation. We who see only rules and competition may scarcely realize how different our online play is from the real experience.


The Guys Play Pool

An observation from a year’s worth of weekly trips to the local billiards bar with a group of friends: without fail, the male members of the party are there to play pool. For many, it’s the reason they attend the event at all — many don’t like bars, aren’t extroverted people, don’t enjoy drinking or being drunk all that much. Upon entering, they head immediately for the table and focus their attention it almost exclusively for the next several hours. They play seriously, strictly enforcing rules and caring about the outcome. If they socialize, it is with the other players or other members of the party, but they always give priority to the game. They get annoyed when people aren’t taking their turns in a timely manner because they are chatting or getting a drink.

The female members do not come to play, or at least not with the single-minded intensity the males do. They come to socialize. They interact with many people including a wide variety not associated with the game or the group. They play few, if any games, and tend to care little about the outcome when they do play. They cheer for their companion male (if applicable) and watch the games, but with moderate interest only.

What is remarkable about this dichotomy? Pool, though fun and challenging, is not riveting or immersive in the way that a videogame (such as Guitar Hero) is. It does not require deep, uninterrupted concentration. It has a modest pace. The learning curve is steep beyond the beginner level, so games tend to be drawn out and highly dependent on luck amongst casual players. Surely, if the males were interested in a good game, they could find many others far more compelling. So what is it that attracts them so in this particular situation? Is it the situation itself — the setting and company? Does the context of playing in a bar, with a group of friends, while drinking, somehow translate their attitude to seek some sort of refuge in play? Does the ability to focus on the game and act in it’s context somehow shield them from the far more complex social game going on all around them? I submit that is it exactly. The men, introverted and shy, seek comfort in the familiar and understandable world of the game. From this safe place, they can make controlled forays into the social game and in so doing plumb its more dangerous depths and find safe paths through it. The game becomes a medium, a lens and a shield that helps them reach out. Seem plausible?


Brooks on Immersion

I’ve been reading Max Brooks’ seminal work, World War Z, for the second time this past week. If you’re not familiar, check it out. Also listen to the interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. It has to be one of the most captivating books I’ve ever read, and that includes classic literature. The funny thing is, it’s not a horror book. There’s actually very little graphic description of violence or murder. It’s not a gory story, except in select parts. The most horrifying moments are often those seen from a distance, abstracted in some way. The real story is a human one and, I submit, a fundamentally hopeful, optimistic one. This is a book about people and their experiences in the face of unbelievably horrible circumstances. Some of the most compelling tales barely involve explicit combat or bloodshed at all, just implied as in any story about war or conflict.

Yet despite it’s very un-movie-like presentation, it is the most visceral, terrifying account of a zombie plague I have ever encountered. You read about a third of the book and you are so drawn in, you start to think something like this could really happen. By the time you’re halfway, you’re thinking that it really did. It scared me more than any film has ever or could ever do, and it inspired me about the potential of humanity to unite and overcome great odds more than any politician’s speech or activist’s dream.

As I’m reading, I’m trying to figure out how he did it, and I can’t. Max Brooks is truly a magician, and his book is unsettlingly immersive. The attention to detail is incredible, but more than that, it’s the choice of detail to pay attention to. Each story is carefully seeded with real-sounding facts and events, and everything fits together so seamlessly you can barely detect its subtle power. I wonder if the lack of pictures makes it stronger, playing on the reader’s own internal zombie nightmare and tapping it through the use of dialogue from “innocent” external characters. I wonder if it’s the variety of perspectives and the multicultural interviewees: there are accounts from everyone and everywhere — American soldier, South African street kid, Japanese otaku, Russian priest, Chinese submariner, Australian astronaut, and scores of “ordinary” people who were just trying to find their own way through the crisis.

I’m trying to dissect the book for clues about how to form a strategy for achieving this level of immersion in a game. No game has ever come close to convincingly me that a patently unreal scenario was real, the way this book has. Undying came close, as did Half-Life 2 and Bioshock. Maybe I can play those game again and compare them. Certainly it’s about the story, the amazingly real and seductive tale that Brooks tells through the eyes of the thirty-or-so interviews, and game designers have long ago decided that dialogue and NPC-development alone is not the key to true immersion. There must be something more…