Diamonds from the Rough Hot

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diamond.jpgThe explosion of the game scene on the internet has had a series of unexpected consequences. I’ve discussed one or two of the negative ones in the past but on the whole its been excellent, positive stuff. If you’d have asked me four years ago that I’d play the majority of my games by email and that doing so would open up access for me to a whole new genre of games I’d previously dismissed - wargames - I’d have laughed in your face. The internet means we can often check rules and opinion before we buy a game, it means new designers can self-publish without the help of a company, it means that we have easy access to games across the globe, it means we have easy access to other gamers across the globe. Because of all this, another knock-on effect is that games can be, and often are, playtested more - a lot more - than they were in the past. Which ought to be a good thing and for the most part it is - but I’m starting to notice a slightly strange trend in some recent titles that indicates to me that its possible to playtest or discuss things in a game too much.

I find it very hard to quantify my misgivings in this regard. But it seems to me that a parallel can be drawn between this “globalisation” of the board game community and the economic globalisation of trade. The latter has lead to the emergence of a number of big brands who, mindful of the extremely wide customer base, need to be very careful in both their actions and in the products they offer, to retain as wide an appeal as possible and to offend or annoy as few people as possible. The result is mass-market product which is satisfying in its own way but which lacks a certain elemental uniqueness, making it bland, uniform, somewhat dull. People on the fringes of areas where mass-market culture overlaps with art, individualism and politics - such as cinema, for example - lament that this domination of the scene by big player and desire to avoid failure has lead to a churning out of product which is rarely bad, but neither is it rarely good - it is simply mediocre. We’re stepping beyond the confines of this article now, but it seems to me to be a pretty valid critique.

When it comes to boardgames the causes are somewhat different and the impact much less but it seems that the result is very much the same. There seems to be an increasing number of games around which, when examined with a critical eye, appear to have been tested or commented on by so many different groups of gamers that elements of virtually every play style have found their way into the mechanics. You might well think this is a good thing - I’ve been banging on for years about the exciting developments that have come out of the blurring the traditional boundaries of board game genres - but it can cut both ways. A game which has been designed to appeal to a wide range of different people might end up thrilling all the gamers in that range, but is more likely to fail to satisfy any of them by trying to be all things to all men.

The game that set me off on this train of thought was Dominion. I hated it after playing it once. Loved it after playing it twice, but by the time I’d reached about ten games I was entirely indifferent to its charms. Certainly not a bad game, and definately a clever design, but simply not something I’d want to spend an awful lot of time playing. I decided to write a review of the game and that required me to sit down and have a good old think about exactly what I did and didn’t like about it. And when I did so it occurred to me that there were aspects of the design which, combined with the highly customisable nature of the game, left it capable of creating a play experience that could appeal to just about anyone. There was a big slice of efficiency-optimisation at the center of it, for sure, but around the edges there was orbiting some player interaction, some attempts at theme, some simple kingdom combinations suitable for family gamers, other combinations that broke the rules in subtle ways and offered glimpses of deeper strategy and so on. And the problem was, I felt, that it offered all these things and yet failed to capitalize on any of them, resulting in a game which would no doubt delight efficiency gamers and leave them feeling like they were dabbling their toes into realms of play they rarely visited, but which would probably leave most other groups of gamers feeling cold. And I couldn’t help wondering if that please-all aspect of the design wasn’t in some way linked to the now infamous amount of playtesting the game underwent.

Ever since then I seem to be seeing it in other designs. I alluded to something similar in my recent Age of Conan review when I said that the game seemed to have undergone a checkbox approach to design, resulting in something that appeared to have been carefully calculated to have appeal for as many different play styles as possible and for which the whole suffered as a result. I have no idea with AoC as to whether it did indeed undergo such a design checklist, or whether it underwent similarly extensive playtesting to Dominion, or whether it’s merely co-incidence, but the comparative feeling is striking.

What I find worrying about this trend is not just the danger of endless wide-appeal games that miss their mark horribly and end up being merely widely mediocre, but the very concept that such a game is possible or, at least, possible as an end goal from a design stand point. You see I think this links up with a point I’ve made repeatedly about what ought to be considered a “suitable” design goal. There are many such goals, and games tend to some degree to succeed if they stick to them. Think of it as like a business case - if the game meets the goal then it’ll succeed on some levels at least, even if it isn’t a brilliant game. But some design goals seem tailor made to lead to bland games: as soon as requirements like “must play within 60 minutes” or “must play 2-5 players” become part of the goal, the other goals can become badly compromised. If goals of that nature become the entirety of a games’ goals then it’ll almost certainly become an tedious, empty, dull excercise because like much mass-market product it exists for no better reason than to fulfill a marketing niche. “Must have as wide an appeal as possible” is just such an empty goal.

Besides which, many of the most interesting games I’ve encountered in my life are very much not games which offer wide appeal, and besides many have very obvious rough edges around the design to the modern eye. Take for example that enduring classic Diplomacy. What might happen to that great and highly acclaimed game in a group of modern playtesters or a producer who wants to widen the prospective buyer base? They’d say it was too long, for starters, and almost certainly they’d add that the requirement for a full complement of seven to make a halfway decent game wasn’t really workable and that the game needed changing to accommodate less players. They might well add that the lack of any random mechanics at all would probably frustrate a lot of gamers and that some sort of semi-random addition, maybe something like the treachery cards from Dune would improve the game no end. Whilst lauding the simplicity of the rules they might bemoan the fact that game only really has one distinguishing mechanic - the secret orders - and lobby for the inclusion of another, probably some sort of auction since they tend to be popular with gamers of all stripes. They’d probably go on to say that paradoxes - though rare - were an artefact of a badly realised design and that because they were a pain to sort out would undoubtedly need eliminating from the finished game. In short what they’d end up with would likely be something not dissimilar to A Game of Thrones which, whilst not a bad game, is entering its twilight years and finding its popularity waning: certainly not something which will endure like Diplomacy. In other words a solid, but ultimately mediocre design, which is exactly what I’m railing about in this article. Who knows what other fantastic, rough edged niche designs might have been neutered in this fashion over the last few years and emerged as an briefly popular but instantly forgettable title? Certainly many of the most popular and long-lasting games that came out of the eighties would not have seen print today in their celebrated and memorable original form.

And the fact of the matter is that this sort of approach to design and testing of games doesn’t actually work. A wide base of playtesters, or an eye for as wide a customer base as possible is never, ever going to match the volume of experience and expectation than constitutes the real-life gaming crowd. Some people seem to believe that in spite of the volume of playtest hours that went into Dominion that the game has been “solved” - or at least that a strategy exists which allows players to play very effectively with minimal thought and effort.  For all that time spent trying to perfect it, it turns out that it’s still a game in which enjoyment is largely in the hands of mature players who understand that a fun shared experience is far more important than winning.

I may be overstating this as a problem. But I seem to keep seeing signs that the boardgame industry in undergoing a revolution similar to those which engulfed the miniatures wargaming world in the eighties with the GW management buyout or RPG’s in the nineties with the WotC buyout or - indeed - the mass market consumer culture during the late seventies. Big brands take over, choice is reduced, and the players in the arena start to behave less and less like friendly neighborhood characters with your best interests at heart more and more like cash-hungry, ruthless businesses. Board game companies have started fixing prices at whatever-the-market-will-bear instead of what the physical product and design time is actually worth. Customer service standards from some retailers and publishers seems to have dropped. Some designers and publishers seem to increasingly be releasing games with expansions ready planned in a manner to make as much money as possible instead of as much pleasure and convenience as possible for the consumer. These facets are all, I would argue, potentially double-edged swords. They stand the chance of actually driving standards up alongside the pain they cause to us, the gamer at the end of the line. But the rise of the concept of the wide-appeal, playtested-to-destriction, mass-market game does not - there’s no silver lining to that cloud. Tread carefully before you buy.

Diamonds from the Rough There Will Be Games
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