Friday, November 15, 2013

Broken Ideas

For anyone who has been following board game news lately (and who hasn't?) one of the biggest bits of news from the Essen convention was the release of Caverna. It's big news because it's designed by one of the hottest game designers out there, Uwe Rosenberg--the desginer of the classic Bohnanza and the more-recent and much-heavier Agricola, which for a long time was ranked the #1 board game on boardgamegeek.com.* He'd probably be considered a top ten (current) designer.

And no sooner had the game been released that a game-breaking combination was found.

OK, perhaps game-breaking is a bit strong, but it did create what is known as a "dominant strategy," a pretty big problem for board game design. If there is an obvious route that one is supposed to take in a game, it means there are no real decisions to make--and the crux of nearly any sort of game is presenting the player with a series of decisions that have real consequences. When there are no such decisions, it makes for a very dull (and usually broken) game.

For such a high-profile game (and for a designer who has plenty of award-winning games under his belt) it was a minor if somewhat alarming oversight. It serves as a good reminder that, no matter how well a game is playtested or how professional the designers, publishers, and writers are, there's always something.

Board gaming isn't like video games. Aside from the obvious, you don't have the ability to run multiple tests repeatedly. Video game playtesters, of course, sounds sexy but is actually very mundane; your job isn't to simply play video games, but to fall down a pit on level three 400 times to see if anything wonky happens. With board games, having that level of detail in the playtesting would be awesome, but unfortunately, you need multiple people, plus the physical aspect of manually doing everything, and it makes such repetition unrealistic. Good designers know that good playtesters try and break a game as much as possible, stretching it to its limits to see what happens.

Another sad aspect is that you can't really patch it; once it's shipper from a Chinese printer and on a dock in San Francisco, there's nothing you can do about an error except let everyone know on the internet and hope it gets to all the players. It was even worse back in the days of Avalon Hill; they made highly complex wargames riddled with unknown combinations. You'd have to send a SASE to Baltimore, and they'd send you back a thick packet of FAQs (back before FAQs were on the internet) and you'd have to cross-reference anything. I'm old enough that I remember specifically doing this. Times were tough, back before dial-up, let me tell you.

Thankfully, most board gamers know this and are pretty forgiving. Rosenberg himself showed up not seven replies into that forum post I linked above (showing that he was not only paying attention to what people were saying, but was doing so pretty quickly), profusely apologizing in amusingly broken English and offering up some practical solutions. That, in and of itself, should tell you everything you need to know about how people in the board game hobby operate.

*For those that aren't into the hobby...that's a pretty big deal. The current holder is Twilight Struggle, which I reviewed here.

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