Monday, June 6, 2011

Design that Makes Players Better

I was crossing a main boulevard in Berlin a few nights ago, in order to pick up a DVD for my wife and I to watch that evening.  It is a busy street, with a grassy island in the center and two sets of tracks for the streetcars that travel each way on that island.  At various intervals, there are paved pedestrian crossings across the tracks.

At a break in the traffic, I strolled to one of those crossings, lost in my thoughts as the city air turned cool in the early evening.  After making it across one track, however, I was jolted out of my daydream by the sight of a streetcar coming towards me from the opposite direction on the other track.  I saw it in plenty of time to stop and wait, however, because of the way the path across the island was designed:  the civil engineers did not simply pave a straight path across, but, instead, made it jog a few meters so that the pedestrian would be forced to turn in the direction of the oncoming street car, no matter which way he would cross.  There was no need for me to even turn my head to make sure the way was clear, and metal fences also prevented teenage cyclists from darting across carelessly while plugged into their iPods.

It may seem funny, but I was inspired by the thought that went into such a simple, utilitarian design.  And I was impressed that--although it was purely functional and not at all an aesthetic work--it's design was successful in actually reducing human error and accidents. I began to ponder other areas of design in which the functional aspect can be so well thought-out that it limits human error, and, naturally, I thought of boardgame design as well.

It seems that there are much too many games in which human error plays a part in souring the game (think deduction games) or, at best, making it drag a bit.  The paved crosswalk near my home, then, begs the question, "Are these games functionally well designed?"  Can games be designed in a way that limits mistakes--that help the players actually perform better?

Certainly, one of the aspects that can help people play games better is to have clear and concise rules sheets, written in a way that is easy to process and internalize so that one can focus on exploring the game's tactics.  If they are not clear, than players are distracted by constant referral to those rules, and they are often distracted from the gameplay by trying to remember all of the cases ("If you do this, than this is the result, except when...").  The best games are the ones that have rules sheets that can be read (and even studied) but then put back in the box during the game.

It is then up to the components of the game to push players along, much the same way that crosswalk helped lead me across the streetcar tracks unscathed.  Because the game board and pieces are much more than simply markers tracking the player's progress during the game--they are also symbols and clues to the mechanics of the game.  Components--which include the illustrations, language-independent symbols, and shapes and colors of the bits--do matter.  The sooner players can form associations between the components and the rules, the better they will play the game.

I've always stressed the importance of theme in games, and I believe that it completes a kind of Vitruvian triangle of boardgame design together with the rules and components.  Theme, however, is much more "big picture" in that it can be a helpful bridge tying the game's components to its rules.

The functionality of a game, then, depends not only on an elegant ruleset, but also on the ability of its theme and components to continue telling the story that the rules introduce.  If a certain kind of move is forbidden in the rules, it should be obvious in the board artwork and components as well, and it should be intuitive in regards to its theme.  If a specific card is required to perform a specific action, the cards and action spaces should likewise physically and graphically correspond to each other.

This type of design helps avoid the annoying breaks in gameplay when players forget rules: "Wait--can I take that last action back?  I forgot that you could do this instead." Ultimately, it can even help players play better.

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