Alright, I admit it, I love a game that has "good bits". Those wonderful little pieces or components that can really add to a gaming experience. I know that some readers will find the whole subject somewhat goofy so I suppose this article is something of a confession. I intend to pick nits and I'll not be ashamed of anal retentive or obsessive behaviour!
My initial interest in a game is almost directly connected to its production values. If it has attractive art and nice looking parts I'm much more inclined to give it a try. Conversely, I'm less likely to show interest in a game that looks as though the cat dragged it in. Consider Ave Caesar. (I could hardly talk about nice components without mentioning this game.) Whenever its mentioned people invariably talk about the cute little chariots and coins. Copies of the game seem to be rising rapidly in price and I was lucky to be able to secure one at the last Spiel in Essen. What's interesting is that it appears to be more desired than the very similar game Ausgebremst which is generally regarded as the better game. Why? The obvious answer is the games production.
There are a few things to consider about a games overall production but the most obvious thing is the components.
Cards. One of the most important factors for me is the quality of the cardstock used for cards. Aside from the functional plusses of having thicker, more rigid cards for shuffling is the tactile pleasure one gets when holding them. I've been more or less impressed with the new Avalon Hill's production values. If nothing else they're pretty, but I must say that there's something about the cardstock they use that feels "funny". It has an odd, flimsy feel to it that I can't quite figure out. I've measured stacks of their cards and they appear to be the same thickness as other games so I'm not sure what it could be. The one noticeable difference is that the Avalon Hill cards are all very smooth whereas many (most?) German games have a sort of weaved appearance to them. I'm not sure if it's this or the paper or coating used but there is a noted difference.
Tiles. Every component has a dollar cost and I can understand why some companies need to cut corners somewhere. However, once you've handled the thick tiles of Tigris & Euphrates, the thin ones of Streetcar simply do not impress. There would have been a time when the latter game wouldn't have seemed at all cheap but I can't help but think how much more I'd enjoy it with better pieces. (Hmm, does anyone know if the original German Linie 1 has thicker tiles?)
Board. One of the greatest contributions that the old Avalon Hill made in the 60s and 70s (in terms of production values) was the introduction of the mounted board. I've heard that this was only possible due to the fact that Monarch Avalon (the parent company of Avalon Hill) had their own mounting equipment. Despite being a better surface on which to play, they no doubt increased the life of the games as the boards were much more likely to survive harsh conditions. While paper maps still exist (particularly in the small market wargames category) it's hard to consider them to be particularly pleasing. (Don't bother jumping down my throat on this one, I admit there are some very nice paper wargame maps out there. I particularly like the one in Columbia's EastFront.) Once again the Germans have even improved in this area. Most "American" games have boards that are folded forward which creates a small "valley" in the fold. The clever Germans backfold the maps which results in a much cleaner and level surface. Not much of a difference but this is an article about fiddly little improvements after all.
Tokens. If there's one component that the German invasion has brought to the forefront of the English-speaking world is the ubiquitous wooden cube. No longer are cardboard chits acceptable, at least for pieces without printed values.
I think the above points are pretty self evident and most everyone would agree that higher quality components are better, However, simply having an expensive or fancy design is not the be all and end all. If the design works against the game then I'd consider that a negative rather than a positive. As an example Steve Jackson's Illuminati; the original had small little black and white cards and later, these were replaced with larger, full-sized cards, a definite improvement. This was around 1982 and for the time they were fairly attractive. Recently a new version was produced and the cards were full colour and by themselves, much improved, the graphics were much more professional. However, in actual use I found that they weren't as clean and functional as the earlier ones. The fancy backgrounds and colour obscured the printed information and made it harder to see across the table. Overall, a worse product. Clearly making a component fancier does not necessarily make it better, it must at the very least not hinder the parts inherent functionality.
A common observance I hear about Elfenland is that the little cylinders you use to mark unvisited cities tend to roll all over the place. Again, this isn't a huge problem but I can see no advantage the cylinders have over the more standard cubes so why were they chosen? Which brings us to Vino. I'll give credit to the packagers for having the novel idea of using purple beads to make off players' holdings. They do look like little grapes but in practice they just don't work as they tend to roll all over the place. In short, attractive is good, clever is nice but make sure the pieces work.
A good production will even extend beyond the games components. An attractive box is an obvious advantage but there are other considerations as well. Alan Moon's old company, White Wind, would print the boxside graphics with different orientations. On one side the graphics would be printed along the length of the box, on the other it would be across the width. This meant that you could use the appropriate side depending on how you stacked the game on your shelf. I'm sure some of you are rolling your eyes at this point, I mean how anal do you have to be to be concerned about box orientation on your shelf? To a large extent this is true but my point is that it takes no more effort to do it thus and it is a clever feature. Of a more practical nature is the storage capabilities of boxes. Often these are less than useful as they make the pieces too difficult to sort or to put away. Sometimes, as in the case of Big City, they're too awkward to actually use. (The slots for the pieces in Big City grabbed so tightly onto the pieces that it was very difficult to get them out.) Tikal on the other hand has the best plastic insert I've ever seen for a game, everything has a place and it's very convenient to use.
Moving beyond the boxes there are other little touches that can really improve a game even if they have no bearing on the gameplay itself. Some examples:
Bohnanza: I'm really fond of this game overall, both its gameplay and its design. Everything from its small, compact box (well, the Amigo version anyway) to its artwork. What really struck me as clever though was printing the coin symbol as the card back graphic. As you use the cards to keep score this really fits well and although it's a meaningless bit of fluff it's a nice touch.
Exxtra: Including markers to indicate each player's colour is a good thing, no more asking "what colour are you Bob?"
Mississippi Queen: Aaah, you gotta love the little paddlewheelers! Little, tiny southern belles and nice thick cardboard tiles, wonderful! What could be better? Well, since I asked, markers to indicate each players' colour as well as a place to hold your passengers, something that Goldsieber did when they released the Black Rose expansion.
True, none of this really affects the game but ask yourself the following: Would you really want to play a game of Chess with cardboard counters instead of three-dimensional pieces?
Moving from the nit-picky to the obsessed…
I tend to want to make up any deficiencies I see in a games package and so some of the joy I get out of a new game is in "improving" it. The most obvious of these procedures is organizing all the components in the box. I've always got a collection of various sized Ziploc bags used to hold wooden bits and pieces. As well, several sizes of rubber bands to hold cards together. (You need several sizes of course to ensure that the band is neither too loose nor too tight, potentially damaging the cards.) Next up (and much more involved) is the creation of play aids. These can be scoring sheets or turn summaries or similar such things. After first playing Lord of the Fries I found that players were repeatedly asking what the current order was and having to pass around the small sheet with its tiny graphics. This just wouldn't do and so I fired up CorelDraw and created 2"x2" colour icons of all the food items, printed them out and stuck them on thick cardboard (double sided naturally). Now when an order is called we place these tokens in the middle of the table so that it's very clear what's required. (If you think that's extreme I probably shouldn't mention the gavel and tiny little pedestal I created to hold auctioned cards in Modern Art.) Of a similar extreme nature, I've seen an advertisement on the internet for a wooden Settlers of Catan board. It's meant to hold all the tiles as well as the resource and development cards. Very attractive but very over the top as well. While not many would go to these extremes it's obvious that there are others of a similar mind. The Boardgamegeek has plenty of play aids posted that people have created to help them enjoy a game that much more.
Ok, it's nice if a game has a clever, functional and beautiful design but is that really better? Hardly surprising that the answer, in my case, is a resounding yes but here are my reasons why.
Usefulness: This first reason is both obvious and pragmatic. It simply makes the game easier to play just as a good table of contents and index make a book more enjoyable.
Pretty bits: This is trickier and I suspect that it's the little boy (or girl) in us, we like playing with toys and the prettier the better.
Feeling of quality: This is the trickiest yet. There's something about a high quality object that is innately rewarding even if this doesn't affect its usefulness. A Hyundai may take you from A to B as easily as a Mercedes but the two experiences are markedly different. The cards in High Society needn't be as thick as they are but they do feel better.
Whew! I feel much better having got that off my chest. Seriously though I do feel that any game can be improved with careful attention to its production. It needn't always mean more expensive components, simply an intelligent approach to every aspect of its design. Advancements in technology have made a lot of this possible and I hope that this trend will continue. Now excuse me I'm off to play Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit.
- Greg Aleknevicus