The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Half Baked

Greg J. Schloesser

July, 2000

The Not Quite Ready For Prime Time Games

It's no big secret that I love games. I mean really, really love 'em. My wife and friends liberally use the term "obsessed" when it comes to describing my affection for these table-top wonders. I stopped counting the money I spend on purchasing games a long time ago, and I think my wife has finally given up on nagging me about it, figuring that it does absolutely no good whatsoever. Further, I shudder to think of the amount of time I spend on gaming and game-related activities such as internet forums, website development and maintenance, etc. I'm sure some psychiatrist somewhere would easily classify me as an addict. Hmmm... I wonder if I could qualify for some sort of "emotional" disability and begin collecting hefty government benefits?

So, with my absolute devotion to games, and given the fact that my pulse and heart rate speed up rapidly in uncontrollable anticipation every October (the Essen Toy Fair) and February (Nurnberg Toy Show), it is surprising to me that I am beginning to have a nagging concern over the completeness of games being released. I'm beginning to have a strong suspicion that game companies are falling all over themselves in frantic attempts to release new games and gain valuable shelf space and market share. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I fear that quality may be suffering in the process.

Don't get me wrong, there are still some fantastic games being released each year. Few could quibble with the quality and excellence of such games as Torres, Tikal, Stephensons Rocket or Taj Mahal. For sure, some folks may not actually enjoy these games, but no one has suggested that they weren't thoroughly developed, playtested and found to be "complete" and ready for mass consumption and enjoyment. And that is just the point—these games have, by all appearances, been carefully planned, designed and playtested. The rules were written, proof-read, corrected and proof-read some more. There are few, if any, ambiguities and no apparent loopholes or omissions. These games clearly underwent countless hours, days and months of playtesting before being declared "ready to release". This is how the process is supposed to work.

Sadly, there have been others—far too many others—which do not seem to have had the benefit of such extensive development and playtesting. This isn't just a matter of taste. Rather, the games seem to have an "incomplete" feel about them. Oftentimes the rules are poorly written, with ambiguities or even outright omissions, contradictions or errors. Examples may not be clear, or even be in contradiction to the rules themselves. Even worse are mechanics which simply do not work or can easily be "broken". That is, if a certain strategy or path is followed, the game will break down due to an easy or certain victory or stalemate. Situations may arise in such games which are not dealt with by the rules. To me, if this is a rare occurrence which can happen only in the most unusual of circumstances, it is acceptable and can be dealt with. But if it arises often enough, it smacks of poor playtesting and development. In these cases, it is unforgivable.

Naming such games is a tricky proposition, as in nearly all cases I thoroughly respect the designers involved and only wish I had even an ounce of the creative spark they have in terms of game designing. I greatly admire their talent. But please note that the fault may not lie with the designers themselves. Based on discussions with various designers it has become quite clear that the game companies themselves often tinker with the designs, changing themes, mechanics, rules, etc. Many times the end product is almost unrecognizable in contrast with the original game submitted by the designer.

Martin Wallace, owner and chief designer for Warfrog Games of Great Britain, relates the following story:

"Mik Svellov (of Brett & Board fame) is correct in identifying the German end of the process as being potentially detrimental to the development of a game. I know from bitter experience what changes can be made by the Germans. Geoff Brown will testify to the tortuous process that City State went through. What started as a pretty good design was developed to the point of unplayability. Fortunately the game is still on the shelf rather than in the market place. The Germans have different tastes that do not always match those of an American or UK designer. The designer has no say over the final version. I still have no real idea what changes have been made to White Lotus. I'm fairly sure nothing dramatic has been done but I won't know until the final version lands on my doorstep. What this has taught me is to do as much development as possible before presenting a design and reducing the number of elements which can be changed. Give them something that cannot be changed then hope for the best."

Martin does point out that not all German game companies are as meddling, but many are. Most game companies reserve the right to alter the game as they see fit so that it will (hopefully) have wider market appeal, resulting in greater market penetration and sales. However, it would seem to me that such alterations and modifications should be submitted back to the designer and various groups of playtesters to solicit their input and suggestions before such changes are incorporated into the game. I know that this is being done to a certain extent, but I have my doubts as to how thorough this process is. I have talked with a few game company representatives who have flatly said that certain changes were made because they felt it would improve the game, but they weren't really playtested.

Sadly, this is resulting in more and more incomplete games being released to the public, games which have an unacceptable number of flaws and problems. As gamers, we can grumble about it, fiddle with it if we have the inclination, or simply move on to other, more "complete" games. But what effect does this have on the general public, most of whom are casual gamers? Suppose Helmut, who is not a serious gamer, visits a local store and is intrigued by a game. He makes the purchase, takes the game home and begins to read the rules. Although a bit confused due to the poorly written tome, he decides to give it a try with his family and friends. Unfortunately, situations arise during the game which aren't adequately explained in the rules, so the game is ultimately abandoned after an hour of frustration. Helmut and his friends will certainly have a acquired a negative impression of not only the game in question, but perhaps the designer, game company and even games in general. Multiply this by the thousands of people who are likely to purchase this one, flawed game and we begin to get a glimpse of the potential severity of the problem. It doesn't bode well for the future of gaming.

What's to be done? Part of me enjoys the virtual avalanche of games which is being released each year, and I scurry about to play them all. However, the other part of me is concerned due to the lack of completeness of many of the titles. I think it is time for designers to provide a better developed, more intact game to the gaming companies so that the finished product will more closely resemble the original game. It's also time for the gaming companies to work more closely with the designers before modifying or altering the game. Further, any changes made should be extensively and thoroughly playtested before declaring the product "ready to produce". Taking these steps may, indeed, mean fewer games released each year. However, the end result would most likely be more polished, more complete games. This can only help the hobby and industry grow and prosper.

- Greg J. Schloesser

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