Sunday, November 27, 2011

Communication Design in Boardgames

I had a great time at BGG.con this year and got to play a number of new games. None of the new stuff really jumped out at me. Probably the most enjoyable was Kingdom Builder, and Power Grid: The First Sparks might have potential, but there was nothing I played that had me running over to the vendor area to snag a copy.

Instead, I found myself struck by something else: wow, the physical and communication design on many boardgames is appallingly bad.

Let me pick on one thing in particular – perhaps inspired by realizing that Steve Jobs was obsessed by fonts – that I think will be completely uncontroversial and yet remains the source of the most common, irritating, and inexcusably bad design decisions: font sizes. If you want to play along here, you'll need a decent metric ruler (I use metric because that system actually makes sense). The size I'm measuring here is the x-height, the height of the lowercase letters which are the bulk of the text.

Break out your copy of the base set of Dominion, and look at the Chapel. This has a text box roughly 3.5cm by 4.5cm. It's got a single line of text. That line of text is 1 (one) millimeter high. 1mm! For me, it's only clearly readable at half an arm's length even in the bright light of day. What nut job thought using text so small in a sea of empty space was a good idea? By far the most frustrating thing about Dominion's thoroughly terrible graphic design is that through 5 expansions and explosive popularity, they've refused to revisit a single thing about its physical design despite its clear unusability.

Compare this to a more sane game like Glory to Rome, where the font size is 2-3 times as large (text is 2mm high, keywords 3mm and usually highlighted). I can generally read Glory to Rome cards across the table, and can certainly see the important keywords. To heap insult upon injury, not only does Glory to Rome have far more legible text than Dominion it also has larger art. San Juan also thankfully starts at 2mm, although it could still easily be larger with no loss of aesthetics.

Deck building games are of course serial offenders here. Because it uses a slightly bolder font with more heft, Ascension's text is crisper and more readable and looks larger (I can comfortably read it at arm's length), but it sticks to the same paltry and unnecessarily small 1mm font size. Nightfall – I think we're seeing the pattern emerge here – 1mm. Nightfall uses small caps for everything, so it's a bit more legible, but still not readable at arm's length. At least they're using a larger percentage of the text box. On the plus side, Thunderstone seems to have grasped the apparently difficult concept that if you have more space to say something, you can use a larger font to say it more clearly. Unfortunately, they also start with the base borderline-readability of 1mm and work their way up to maybe 1.5mm which, while an improvement, is still no great shakes and still leaves many cards with the confusing combination of small text with lots of dead space.

Compare this to the font size in the book I'm reading (Jasper Fforde's One of Our Thursdays is Missing, if you're curious): about 1.5mm. Can you read your average book from across a card table? I hope so, because gaming font sizes are reliably considerably smaller than that.
The problem of ludicrously small font sizes is disturbingly widespread. Just to pick a few additional random games of various genres that are serious offenders: War of the Ring, Eminent Domain, the reference cards for Undermining and Pret a Porter, Kingdom Builder (given these cards must be viewed across the table), Castle Ravenloft, and Maria. I was surprised to find that a personal favorite of mine, Rivals of Catan, uses tiny 1mm fonts – and thin ones! – for the card text; I expected better from Teuber, Kosmos, and Mayfair. This inspired me to check Mayfair's 4th Edition of Settlers of Catan, and the fonts on the Discovery cards are horrible – tiny and low-contrast, white on green (fortunately Trails to Rails is much improved). Agricola also is a slave to consistency, using the same (you guessed it) 1mm font on all its cards, so the couple that run long will fit while the 95% that have only a line or two of text maximize their unreadability.

Now, take a look at Quarriors. By the (admittedly sub-basement) standards of these games, it's not so bad: the font size is over 1mm (just; about 1.2mm), and the font is strong, making it somewhat more readable than Dominion but not as good as Ascension, although the total choice is still obviously bad given the amount of wasted space. But, it's worse than that. Unlike Ascension, Quarrriors cards must be read across the table, not just in your hand. At those distances, more than say 50cm, the text is simply not readable. You have to go over everything at the beginning and then remember what the dice do, or lean over and peer every time you need a refresher. You can argue persuasively that in order to be able to enjoy Quarriors, you need to remember what the dice do, so if you can't remember, you're not going to enjoy the game anyway. OK, but this still misses the fact that there is no reason for the cards to be as unreadable as they are. There is plenty of space on most of the cards. And many powers could have been clearly explained with large friendly icons, although as Pret a Porter and 51st State demonstrate, incomprehensible and/or misleading icons may be worse than borderline-readable text.

All these games have made inexcusably poor and indefensible choices about their fonts. But I reserve my especial contempt for Star Trek: Expeditions, the rather fun and thematic Knizia cooperative game made borderline unplayable by miserable choices in graphic design. For an example of possibly the most poorly designed card in all of gamedom, check out the Captain's Log card The President's Wife. Can you read the Politics penalty for leaving the location without resolving the challenge? I can't. I'm guessing, because my eyes hurt just trying to make it out, but I think it's about 1.2 mm high, same as the other text in the box (which, by the way, is gargantuan - 3.5cm by a whopping 7 cm). Putting one line of text in a 3.5x7cm text box and sizing it at 1.2mm is bad enough. But then making part of it dark purple on black is the height of insanity. The Rebels track (yellow) is OK. Green (Environment or Energy, depending on who you believe) is borderline acceptable. But the purple is not good.
Now, in fairness, The President's Wife is substantially the worst card of a bad bunch – that dark purple on black doesn't happen to come up anywhere else. Still, if you want to play Star Trek: Expeditions, I recommend you do so during the day, when bright natural light seems to make most things in the game readable – by comparing the look of this game in the daytime vs. at night you can see how much brighter daylight is than the artificial light I typically game under. The raw font sizes, at about 2mm, aren't terrible if they're nearby, and the key information (type of challenge, skills required) does jump out at you.

The crippling problem with Start Trek: Expeditions is one of how the components are used. These are not cards sitting in your hand, where they would be acceptable. These are cards that have to lie on the board and be read by everyone at a distance of 60+ cm. And at that range, the small font sizes and low contrast with their black background is hugely problematic. It's like flying in the dark. You can see the challenge, you just can't read the consequences or benefits. While it's true that there isn't a ton of wasted space on the cards, nonetheless the choices here make the game much too hard play, solely because the presentation is bad.

This is not rocket science. People get it right, and oddly some small publishers seem to do better than larger ones. CGE's Space Alert uses a good card design with strong 3mm high-contrast text which is readable across the table. The aforementioned Glory to Rome from Cambridge Games Factory uses a very sensible card layout.

Perhaps I'm getting older, but I still win the "youngest player" starting condition in some of the groups I play with. My corrected eyesight is still good and I don't need near-vision correction yet. But I will at some point, probably soon – and don't kid yourself, once you get into your 40s you will most likely either need them or be happy to live in denial. Whichever way you go, many games being published these days will become problematic. Here's hoping that game publishers can figure this out and fix it before it's too late for us.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Eminent Domain, Kickstarter, and You

Eminent Domain was an early product of Kickstarter, the web site that allows independent projects to crowd-source their funding. I've been following Kickstarter with some interest. When I first started hearing about it, I was dubious of its impact on the boardgame market. I felt it would simply allow a bunch of lousy games that couldn't find publishers – usually for good reasons – to get published and further dilute the quality in what is already a pretty diffuse marketplace. I honestly don't think we need more games published each year, we need better games. In which case, Kickstarter wasn't clearly going to help. But as Kickstarter has matured, I've become more optimistic. Smaller but still professional publishers are putting better-quality pitches up, and I've even backed a couple projects. I actually feel like I’ve been able to make more informed backing decisions than I can when, say, I decide to pre-order a GMT P500 game. So I’ve come around to the idea.

So what about Eminent Domain? Is it any good? And what does it say about Kickstarter?

When to borrow, when to steal

I took a wait-and-see attitude to Eminent Domain (I didn't back it). GMT has been using a Kickstarter-like publishing process for their games for over a decade, and history says that the single most important thing to take into account is the track record of the designer. This designer’s last game, Terra Prime, was a dog's breakfast: lots of ideas liberally lifted almost directly from classic games (Starship Catan, Starfarers of Catan, with maybe a touch of Merchant of Venus), but re-assembled in an only minimally coherent way. As is often the case, the re-assembly lost the less tangible aspects that made the originals great: tight pacing, good tension, and a working narrative arc. Terra Prime took forever to play and large chunks of it had no pulse.

The origins of Eminent Domain are clearly similar. It’s a role-selection deck-building game. The designer is obviously a fan of Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome, from which he has lifted quite heavily. And deck-building games are hot, hot, hot.

The object of Eminent Domain is to build up your interstellar empire and score lots of victory points. You do this first by surveying the galaxy for planets, and then adding them to your empire either through conquest or colonization. You can then use those planets either as a springboard to acquiring technology (which gives you game advantages as well as points) or producing and trading goods. You do all these things each turn by selecting a role: survey, warfare, colonization, produce, trade, and research. Sound familiar?

You start with a deck with 2 cards of each role (except warfare, for which you get 1). The new idea in Eminent Domain is that when you select a role, you claim a card from the reserve supply of that role and add it to your deck. When performing a role during your turn, you can then add cards from your hand to "juice up" the role and get bonuses (one ship per Warfare card played, for example). Then, other players can "follow" your role by playing their own matching role cards from their hands to gain the advantages of that role, sometimes in a reduced form, sometimes not.

Having written these last two paragraphs, I realize Eminent Domain is a lot harder to explain without just saying "it works just like produce/trade in Race", or "colonizing planets is a lot like building buildings in Glory to Rome", "dissenting is just thinking", or "planets with icons are just clients". In fairness, Eminent Domain is less of a straight microwave job than it first appears. Various aspects of the source material have been mixed up a bit, and none of the mechanics are straight copies of the originals. Still, the overall sense is that if you took the basic planet and role structures of Race for the Galaxy, implemented them with a Glory to Rome-like lead/follow card mechanic, and made it a deck building game, you'd end up at Eminent Domain.

This is only an overview of the systems, there is actually a bunch of stuff I'm glossing over here. The rules are available for download via BoardGameGeek, so check them out if you want more details. Read them closely before playing – the mechanics are all familiar but there are a couple pointy nuances (acquired research cards go directly to your hand, for example, and colonize icons on planets don't work the same as all the other icons) that are important.

The problem is …

Fundamentally, the problem with Eminent Domain is just that it’s really boring. What exactly has gone wrong is a little murky, but I think there are a number of things, all interrelated..

Firstly, I believe that there is some basic mis-calibration at work in the engine. For the game to end, the players need to exhaust the supply of one or two different roles, depending on the number of players. Remember every time you choose a role, you are adding one from the supply to your deck whether you want to or not, so that puts a cap on the number of times that role can be done before triggering the end. The problem is that to do anything, you need to acquire planets. You can't meaningfully research without two matching planets. You can't interestingly do produce/trade until you've got 2-3 planets. So if you've got 4 players, that's maybe 15 of those actions before you can do anything else interesting. There are only 16 Warfare and 20 Colonize role cards in the middle – a number which doesn't scale with the number of players – so you've draining a significant chunk of those roles before you've started, especially if players chose a preponderance of one or the other, as is likely to happen since there is an advantage to "drafting" off of other players role choices. So by the time you've gotten to the point of being able to start thinking about a research or produce engine, the game is well on its way to being done. A player who is going heavily into warfare just runs out the clock while you struggle to get something going. A meaningful mid-game or late-game phase to the game doesn't occur; you build the foundation, then you're done. Meanwhile, there are 16 Produce/Trade role cards, more than you could possibly ever need, and 20 survey cards, similarly more than you are ever likely to need. If a bunch of those cards had been moved to the Warfare or Colonization supplies, it's possible it might have extended the game enough to give trade and research a chance; but no. As it is, players doing Warfare or Colonize have all the control over how long the games goes while Produce/Trade have no leverage at all.

Secondly, due to the first problem, there is just no way for the players to differentiate themselves. You're going to have to settle or conquer a few planets to do anything at all. So you need to get a bunch of those cards into your deck. Then you can choose to do a little research, or maybe some produce/trade, but by the time you start into this there just isn't much time left, so you can never build an engine that might allow you to put some distance between you and your fellow-players. I kid you not, my last three games of Eminent Domain the scores were 20-20-20-19, 16-16-14, and 17-16-15. The players do lots of stuff – because settling or conquering most plants is likely to involve 3-4 steps of building colonies or fighters – but they never get traction with the game system.

Thirdly, because you add a new role card to your deck each time you take that role, it becomes too hard to pivot strategically. Which is doubly problematic, since the game forces you to start out doing warfare or colonization, since you have to add a couple planets before you can do anything else. After you've built up this core of planets, you need to decide whether you should pivot to doing produce/trade or research, or if you just keep going after more planets. It's true that getting points through colonization and conquest is harder than making and selling resources, but the problem is that your deck is full of warfare and colonization at this point and you have only your starting produce/trade cards. To pivot, you need to both get more Produce/Trade cards and cull your deck of all the excess Survey, Colonize, and/or Warfare cards. This inertial effect is quite damaging. It is additionally problematic if you're using the Kickstarter promo cards, which include several high-value prestige worlds which offer large rewards for colonization and conquest and so further skew the game in that direction.

Lastly, perhaps the most fatal problem with Eminent Domain is the lack of interesting card differentiation. What made Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome so much fun was not the mechanics of building buildings or colonizing planets, but all the interesting things built on top of those mechanics: the endless search for killer combos or mixes of capabilities that produced useful engines; the tension over whether you’ll complete your engine in time; the fear that you opponents are going to beat you the punch. All this is missing from Eminent Domain. Planets' special traits are very coarse (an occasional icon to boost a specific role – even the type of good they produce is immaterial unless you have one of two specific high level technology cards). All the individual role cards are the same. The first-tier research cards are just dual-icon cards. The second tier research cards offer some potential, but since they just go into your deck like everything else they are too hard to wield, and the game is simply not long enough for them to be interesting. You will likely only be able to acquire 2 second-tier research cards, or one third-tier card, typically just as the game ends.

All this means the game has no arc, no narrative. It's just a minimally interesting tactical exercise that is never allowed to develop.

Back to Kickstarter

So, Eminent Domain is what I fear about Kickstarter. It's a concept that is viscerally appealing to gamers: Deckbuilding! Space conquest! Mechanics “borrowed” from Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome! And we've got some great graphics! All these things are true, and if you take it direct to the traditional game consumer you can sell it. But this is a game the traditional gatekeepers – established publishers – hopefully would either have rejected, or would have forced more development work onto. They would have been fulfilling an important function, and by allowing someone with a seductive idea to bypass them and get a game published with greatly reduced financial risk, Kickstarter allows a game that is at best mediocre to suck up resources that would have been better allocated elsewhere.

But at the end of the day, that all sounds a little snotty. Traditional gatekeepers are dying in every corner of the economy where they are not protected by statute. Those gatekeepers, whether they were professional journalists, travel agents, radio DJs, or stock brokers, provided useful services but also controlled access in ways that weren't exactly problem-free either. As consumers, whether we are Kickstarter backers or not, we should expect to have access to more choices, which is good. It also means that we have to take a lot more responsibility for our choices, whether we want to or not.