Saturday, January 10, 2009

Game Chrome and Color

Even though I haven't heard this from a lot of gamers (Translation: This is probably more my opinion than a useful observation.), I think chrome and color are as important as mechanics in making a successful game. I think this is true for electronic games as well as board games. For example, there were tons of real-time strategy games (I contend this genre is mis-named and should actually be called "accelerated-time strategy games.") in the '90s, but only a few became phenomenal hits. Warcraft seemed, at first, like a generic fantasy game. But "Ready to work!" became a part of our universal gamer consciousness. Such touches added such slices of character to a universe unlike ours, but they sounded right. Imagine also how Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon would have been without the evolving locomotives of railroading history. It just wouldn't have been the same without some continuity with locomotive designs. How would Age of Empires have fared without the different looks of its cultures?

Chrome in the world of board games can apply to something as simple as the tactile feel of a cardboard counter, token, action or playing card, wooden block, or miniature (or even something as visual as an elaborate poster of a technology tree or similar playing aid). The components and/or structure of a game are tremendously important for providing the kind of immersion that one quickly gets on-screen with an electronic game. Abstract games with cookie-cutter components and artwork are quickly relegated to closets and yard sales, but games that offer something different are games that can keep gamers like me hooked for years.

For example, the first time I played the wooden block game, Napoleon, I realized that I was playing something special. It was the first time I really understood the appeal of the Napoleonic Era. At the same time, it pointed me toward System 7 miniatures and other Napoleonic games because, for the first time, I began to understand some of the "cat and mouse" of maneuver that was important in bringing forces to bear in those famous pitched battles. The use of those wooden counters to provide "fog of war" or "friction" was a powerful metaphor for me. Though the same style of components work really well for different reasons in later games like East Front, Europe Engulfed, Hammer of the Scots, and Crusader Rex (and I particularly enjoy Europe Engulfed and Hammer of the Scots for entirely different reasons), Napoleon served as a conceptual blockbuster that widened my world of wargaming.

In a similar way, the process of "building a deck" for Magic: The Gathering was another conceptual blockbuster for me. On the one hand, the process seemed incredibly open-ended to me, and on the other hand, the process seemed intimidating. The game mechanics were accessible but challenging, yet the real appeal of the game was the ability to collect one's own art gallery of cards while customizing one's strategy. Other games had degrees of success using the collectible card game or trading card game format, but most of the games didn't take the time to commission paintings of the quality as those created for Magic. Some games, like Doomtown and Legend of the Five Rings came close to matching Magic's appeal with their storyline tournaments and licensed products such as the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trading card games used their built-in audiences to approach Magic's success, but it wasn't until something with an entirely different feel, Pokemon came along that anything reached and surpassed Magic's level of success (even if only temporarily).

At the same time, Wizards of the Coast's own "ARC" series of licensed Xena, Hercules, and C-23 never managed to even compare with its marquee product. The mechanics were there, but the art and the feeling of customization just didn't compare. Aliens vs. Predator, Battletech Collectible Card Game, Blood Wars, Dredd (as in the infamous Judge), Dr. Who, Dune, and Harry Potter all missed the mark in terms of finding the right mix between art and gameplay. To me, none of them came close to capturing the feel of the concept or universe behind their titles like the ever-expanding Magic: The Gathering.

Arkham Horror was a huge surprise to me. I thought the whole Cthulhu mythos had become last century's news for purposes of gaming. Yet, the map, the characters one can play, the character cards, the counters, the monsters, and the game's objectives which change slightly from game to game provides an amazing atmospheric experience of the mythos that only misses the "fishy" smell. Whether the game ends in victory or defeat (for the group or individuals), this board game affords an incredible experience. As a gamer biased toward historical wargames, I was thrilled to discover this delightful game.

One simply wonders if Axis & Allies would have succeeded as well without its miniatures and it is clear that part of the appeal of the WizKids "Clix" games was the collectibility of the miniatures. I know people who simply had to have the superheroes, even if they never played the games. Of course, quality components are only part of the story. Eagle Games put out a formidable series of products with marvelous plastic miniatures and built off marvelous branding, yet the components drove up the pricing and the actual gameplay elements suffered from trying to get too many of the features of the computer game licenses into the games. As a result, their version of Sid Meier's Civilization suffered by virtue of being perceived as too lengthy and complicated while the more playable Sid Meier's Age of Mythology had some play balance issues that could have been addressed. Even with wonderful components, the games didn't perform as expected in the marketplace.

Of course, game designers don't necessarily identify "chrome" with the quality of the components. The components are only one portion of the look and feel of a game. Anything, even a random events chart or a minor rule (even an optional rule) that adds to the color of a game without destroying the game's balance (or unduly influencing the overall game mechanic) can be considered "chrome." For example, a rule in an early Vance von Borries design (I think it was Decision at Kasserine) had the possibility of Italian troops not having enough water to make pasta. This is not something one would ordinarily find in an order of battle, but it really offers a delightful bit of historical character to the game. More recently, Ed Beach's Here I Stand! has a delightful element where King Henry VIII keeps trying to get his heir. It was important with regard to Reformation Era politics and it is significant to this game. It may be "chrome" in that you can win without it, but it is definitely a terrific addition to the game.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I'm not sure all gamers will agree with me, but I think the color and chrome that designers add into the game makes all the difference in terms of whether I'll see this as just another game on the subject matter or see it as a fresh, new experience. Naturally, gamers want a mixture of comfort and surprise. If the experience is too new and fresh, it will be threatening and lack a great deal of fun. If it is fresh, as well as familiar (in terms of game mechanics and metaphors), it is likely to have considerable appeal.

Monday, January 5, 2009

What Happened to Game Reviews?

When I was editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine, I was sometimes accused of being the "guy who kept the fun out of CGW." There was some truth in that. I didn't like seeing the adjective "fun" in the magazine for one simple reason. "Fun" isn't very descriptive because it means different things to different people. I believed that it was necessary to describe the games as precisely as possible in order for readers to determine if the game was going to be "fun" for them.

There were some other ideals to which I aspired as editor of the magazine (and later, as group publisher of lots of magazines). One ideal was that reviewers should play the game all the way through. I discouraged the use of "walk-throughs" as provided by the game publishers because I felt that playing a game according to a "walk-through" was equivalent to taking a state-escorted tour of Moscow during the Cold War. One would only see what "the party" wanted one to see.

Another ideal was that games should be evaluated on the basis of what they were trying to accomplish and not on the basis of what the reviewer would have preferred. I believed that many so-called "reviewers" suffered from "designeritis." They wanted to be designers and used their reviews as "bully pulpits" to describe the game they would have designed if they had the discipline, talent, and opportunity to do so.

Another ideal was that games would not be reviewed by people who hated the genre or style of a given game. Some rival publications regularly ran reviews that said, "I don't like this kind of game, but if I did like this kind of game, this particular game wouldn't be the game I'd like." Such an approach is simply silly.

Yet another problem review that we used to see was the review which began by inventorying the various components in the box. I know that used to be common in board game reviews and with the freelancers who came from the board game magazine background that I angered in my early years because I excised those portions of their reviews (and they were paid by the word). Yet, I'm not sure that it ever benefited my readers to know that there was a code-wheel, a 155-page manual, a cloth map, and six colored markers (or whatever) within the game box.

Worst of all were those reviewers who accepted the assignment to review a multiplayer game and reviewed it on the basis of its single-player mode alone. To be sure, it was often difficult to find an online opponent in those days of custom set-up files, memory managers, and early online services, but it wasn't fair to review an online game on the basis of its tutorial mode.

Today, I am embarking on a new phase of my life. I'm publishing an editing a magazine for those of us who love strategy games played on the table-top. In this new venture, tentatively entitled Reroll & Replay magazine because it is like getting to "roll again" in a game whenever you've rolled poorly, I want to address some fallacies that I'm seeing in board game reviews on the web and elsewhere.

The first fallacy has been with us for as long as I can remember. It is what best-selling novelist Michael Stackpole once described as the "shrink-wrap" review. In this type of review, the critic barely breaks the shrink-wrap of the package and takes inventory of the components before writing the review. At most, one or two turns of a game will be played before the "critic" attacks the keyboard. In fact, some reviewers even justify this style of "criticism" by stating that game consumers are actually "collectors" rather than "players." Right! And lovers of fine wine only need ratings numbers so they can show off their cellars just like bibliophiles would never think of cracking a cover to read their treasures! There may be some gamers, oenophiles, and bibliophiles that fit the profile, but I can't believe they constitute the majority.

The second fallacy is similar to one I listed above from the electronic gaming world. I recently read a review of a card game designed for up to six players. The reviewer stated that he had only played it as a two-player game. Now, this game, like most multiplayer card games is full of neat little dirty trick cards, gimmick cards, and defense cards, just like you see in Naval War, Modern Naval Battles, Jaunty Jalopies, and Illuminati (to name a few in the genre). The trouble is that dirty tricks cards aren't near as fun when you can't direct them at your buddy who howls the loudest when you pick on him (Yes, I WAS thinking of Terry Coleman here!) or play the "Don't Tread on Me THIS Turn" card when four or five players are ganging up on you (Yes, I WAS thinking of Alan Emrich here!). Games with nasty consequent cards are a lot more fun when you have multiple targets from which to choose. There is a reason why Junta isn't a good two-player game, but I'll never forget some of the dirty-dealing we did at various game conventions over the years when we had all the positions covered. I'm glad I never read a review of Junta as a two-player game. I never would have experienced the joy of double-dealing (even better than in Shanghai Trader) that makes certain multiplayer games transcend their role as a game and become an "experience."

Finally, I've always believed that reviews serve the reader more than answering the question, "Should I buy this game?" A good review should be entertaining, enlightening (possibly adding some real-world knowledge or background material that the reader might not be privy to), and efficacious (helping readers to master the game or figure out new ways to play it). If a reviewer can't bring any expert knowledge (whether from extra reading, dedicated playing, or general gaming and design experience), he or she should not be reviewing a game.

These are the ideals from which I've always tried to work and they form the strategy with which I'll work in the future. I hope you'll join me on the trek.