Ladies and Gentlemen, here is your daily boardgame trivia question: what is the property that comes just before Free Parking?
It's likely you've played Monopoly enough times to create a mental representation of the board in your mind -- special locations on the corners, railroads in the middle, two sets of properties on each side. Each of us paints the board in our head a little differently, but the core concept is the same. Monopoly's iconic status means it's a second hometown we all share, one each of us can drive through without a map.
I raise the concept because I've had the opportunity to review the rule books of three different boardgames in various states of development in the past few weeks. One is still conceptual, one is entering formal play-test, and the third is just shy of proof-review. But all of them have one thing in common, modular boards based upon cards or tiles that are laid down differently for each session. All three look promising, but all three present something that I'm not terribly comfortable with – a feeling that I'm lost.
Modular boards aren't a terribly new idea and two of my top five games utilize the concept. But pretty much the rest of the games I enjoy don't, and I think there's a good reason for that. I like a hometown feel. I like having some level of comfort when I sit down to the table to play, and I like the idea of having lessons-learned from previous sessions apply to how I play in this one. For in spite of what that notorious mountebank Mr. Barnes has to say about "fun" part of the joy of gaming for me personally is learning from past mistakes, figuring out how I can improve my game, and putting those lessons to the test in subsequent plays. Any exercise of a skill teaches, and lessons are best applied to situations of similar nature. Getting across the English Channel in Warriors of God won't go perfectly the first time, so it's worth a second try and a third. (In my case a fourth and fifth are warranted as well. I'm much better at playing the French.) For in spite of its static board, WofG continues to present challenges a dozen plays in.
So I asked the designer of one of these three new games why he had chosen a modular board in the first place.
His answer: "it makes the game play new each time."
"Is that a good thing?" I asked, walking a little farther down the path with him.
"Because the game stays fresh longer."
But any design decision brings trade-offs, and in the case of a modular board I see three drawbacks entering the scene in order to make a game "stay fresh longer." The entry barrier rises, the overall intellectual structure of the game (that mental map thing I was talked about earlier) has trouble forming, and lessons learned may be of limited use in future plays. "Fresh" is fine, but sometimes players want structure so they can focus on execution instead of comprehension.
Entry Barrier for those of you that don't speak marketing-ese is the concept that any new experience will present some level of discomfort, even if you're a very motivated consumer. This is negative pressure, a moment when you consider balking an action because you don't see the reward as worth the price of the discomfort. When working our way through pages two and three of a new game's rulebook (which incidentally was where I was when I asked the above questions to the designer) players seek reassurance that their understanding is sound, taking comfort in stable structures and dependable facets of the game before them. A setup step that says "lay out the board in a random way" is easy enough to execute, but it doesn't provide comfort. Most of us want clearer direction. New players want to see something in the book that looks just like what they have on the table before them. That random board presents an extra layer of misdirection the reader has to push through to achieve understanding.
This isn't an insurmountable obstacle – The Settlers of Catan has a recommended setup for first games (and it's very detailed) that provides comfort to new players. Mayfair extended the length of the rule book to provide this comfort (and that decision presents its own drawbacks) but in return they've laid down firm structure for new players.
The recommended "starting set-up for beginners" presented ultra-early in The Settlers of Catan rule book. Settlers goes so far as to include the starting locations for first-time players, i.e., each player's first moves. This depicts strategy as well as rules, and gives everyone an opportunity to exercise the larger mechanical concepts of the game during their first play. Unfortunately, the examples used later in the rules don't appear on (or could even evolve from) this starting board.
The designer I was speaking to asked me to explain my concerns. I indicated to him that the examples in his rulebook weren't well-grounded because they didn't all play out on the same board configuration – each example represented a scenario that could only happen in certain games. Given the small size of his playing surface I didn't see an alternative since no one board could provide all the rule conditions he was describing. The nature of his game meant his choices were limited. So at a time when users are supposed to be forming a mental structure of the game, the rules were saying "let's start again with a brand new board" several times. The new player needs to work harder to understand, a challenge multiplied when it's time for him to deliver the message verbally to his fellow players on game night.
This effect continues beyond first play. Intellectual Structure is one's mental model of the board and the actions that play out on it. In order to establish a true understanding of the ruleset and overall modus operandi of any particular game a journeyman player must first travel through a murky region where much of their mental energy is spent keeping within the boundary of the rules. For much of us this period a game isn't terribly enjoyable. We like learning new games, but when the learning is focused on figuring out which rules apply when, mental reward is thin. The real fun begins when the rules become second nature, when "how to play" is behind us and "how to win" before. This cannot happen until players have a firm understanding of the nature of the gameplay. In a previous article I compared Monopoly to a muffin tin and that may have sounded strange, but each of us paints curious pictures of the world and our games are no exception. Static game boards have pinch-points and critical regions, places that are inherently more valuable than others. Our mental images of them contain different levels of detail depending on their relative importance to us. Electric Company and Water Works . . . I know where the two of them are, but I'll confess that I don't recall which is which because for me they are game-wise equivalent. They're also not very critical to success, so I haven't devoted significant mental energy to them. But St. Charles Place is strategic because there's a card that drops someone on the space. St. Charles is more valuable, and my Intellectual Structure of the Monopoly board paints it in more detail than the locations around it. I've been burned by St. Charles Place, and I've made it work to my advantage, so it warrants additional Intellectual energy. My personal mental picture of the Monopoly board envisions St. Charles Place larger than the spaces around it, with the perimeter lines bending to handle the oversized location. Other spaces have changes as well – Boardwalk is smaller and grayed because I've never made it work, all three greens are hazy, etc. This is how we mentally manage complexity in other parts of our lives as well. The entire Pennsylvania Turnpike is one chunk of generic road in my mind save for the landmarks approaching the Harrisburg exit, because for years that was the one section of the highway critical to my success at getting home.
U-Build Monopoly, an update on the classic game that includes a modular board. It is available at your local deep-discount store for a fraction of its wholesale price while its ubiquitous parent continues to sell to at full retail.
But what happens when these mental benchmarks scramble every time you play a game? Our second hometown becomes a jumble. This isn't just about comfort-level or understanding. It invalidates much of our strategic understanding of the play because lessons learned are of lesser value in subsequent games. Two of the three designers I was working with admitted that this was a design goal. It was their intention to have end-users start from scratch each game, since this would keep the game fresh for players putting in 100+ plays. One mentioned giving new players a better chance against veterans as an advantage to modular boards.
But here's a problem. I'm more of a 2-to-25 plays kind of guy, and there's a lot of people like me. For a game like Dominion where you pound out a dozen plays in an evening you have sufficient opportunity to create a mental model of the gameplay in spite of it having no concrete visual representation on the table. The cards eventually lay out in your mind with relationships strong or weak, and the flow of the game itself often elaborates as hills and valleys (or colors, or roads, or some other comfortable structure) that you use to transform lessons-learned into an intellectual roadmap you can more easily follow. But for games where the playtime is an hour or more and where the realistic number of plays (modular board or not) is measured in the dozens, the changing board means that mastery is hard to acquire or out of reach. Most hobby gamers want to reach that level. They want to play hard and do well, and they want their opponents to give them that level of play in return.
I'll admit to a personal bias on the subject matter. I very much favor maps in my board games, and I don't mean just boards. I mean geography. It feels rich to me. I enjoy the graph-theory nature of the many positions and the interconnectivity that a map provides, so to a large extent all three games I'm looking at aren't really my kind of play. As a guy reviewing their rule books I'm more concerned with the Knowledge-Transfer aspects that affect Entry Barrier (and to some extent Intellectual Structure) so I stay in my role and limit my questions to how it affects the written materials. But in an industry where anyone with a ballpoint pen and a box of card sleeves can take their shot at designing a commercial product it's common to see results that work to those tools. There's a market for those kinds of game. But designers beware. Your modular decision brings advantages and disadvantages. It's worth laying all of them onto the table together so you can get a clearer picture of the overall result.