The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Letters - July, 2003

Sarah Samuelson: Thanks for your excellent article on Design Considerations. I was just reading through it and discussing it with my oldest son. I enjoy reading such articles because they clarify what I like best about a good design, and what grates most about the poor ones. Good design decisions satisfy without necessarily being immediately apparent, whereas the bad ones certainly do become bothersome right away. Your examples were excellent, and I especially enjoyed the pictures.

Dan Blum: I agree with your last bullet point (well, all of them really), but if it were me writing it I would have noted that if you include extra bits in a game where the component mix is an intentional limit, make sure you say that there are extra bits. I've lost track of the number of people I've seen play Puerto Rico with more than the correct number of colonists (just to pick one example) because they never counted them and just assumed they had 100 total.

Cory Jorgensen: I just finished reading your article entitled Design Considerations,  in which you offer your insights into the physical presentation of games. I found this article highly relevant, as well as very interesting. In regards to your invitation towards the end of your article to share our own views, I have the following two suggestions for game-makers:

1. In later editions of a game, print on the box "Nth Edition" and include in the rules a summary of what has changed. The Farming Game is a good example. In my edition, there are two Option To Buy (OTB) cards for each Cattle Range. Whoever exercises his OTB first gets the range, and everyone else is out of luck. While playing a friend's later edition, I managed to acquire two OTBs for a certain range, and so held off my purchase on it while I went after the slightly more profitable Fruit market. (There was no hurry now that I held a de-facto monopoly on that range, or so I thought.) When another player snatched it out from under me with a third OTB (standard in his edition), my strategy went south. I was frustrated that my ignorance of the rules (which I know inside and out for my edition) cost me the game.

Other games that require a slight modification of play include Life and The Totally Insane Card Game.

2. Make the size and shape of the box as similar to the other games on the market as is possible. Having limited shelf space, most of us must stack all our games, sometimes as high as six deep. My copy of Mad Gab is an ongoing nuisance. Its three dimensions (Length, Width, Height) are almost the same, roughly 10 inches, giving it a distinctly cubicle shape. The only way to keep my stack from toppling is to put it on top.

Eddie Timanus: I read with particular interest your piece on Design Considerations. I was especially pleased with your suggestion that game components should be distinguishable by shape as well as color. Given my ongoing quest to find games that can be adapted for my use with as few adaptations as possible [GGA - see Modifying Games for the Blind], I certainly hope manufacturers take that bit of advice to heart. I've read a number of favorable reviews of Ursuppe, but I had thought it would be unplayable for me given its reliance on colored bits. I might reconsider that conclusion given your mention that its amoebas have discernible shapes. I'd have to work something out for the food cubes, of course, but one barrier seems to have been removed.

Anyway, I was wondering if you could think of any other games offhand whose pieces could be distinguished by some means other than color, whether by shape or some other tactile characteristic. As I said, I'm always looking to try new things. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

GGA - There are not a lot that spring to mind. Roborally has unique robots for each player but the board contains a lot of visual information so I do not think it would be a good choice. Cityscape would work well, the pieces only have two relevant bits of information - their height and location on the board both of which can easily be determined by feel. You can read the review I wrote here.

You might also want to investigate Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. The board is very simple and your opponent's pieces (in large plastic holders) are hidden from view. You would need to mark the front of your own pieces as well as the cards. There are only nine of these for each side though so it seems pretty do-able to me. Click here to read my review of the game. 

Torben Mogensen: I enjoyed Nick Sauer's article about Control vs. Luck, but I feel that he was a bit too hasty in dismissing Snakes and Ladders. While the standard version doesn't have any player choice and, hence, is little different to flipping a coin, it does serve an important purpose in introducing children to games. It teaches them how to follow a set of rules. It is, in my opinion, a good idea to initially separate this aspect from the decision making that makes games really interesting. Afterwards, a good way of introducing (limited) player choice is to let each player of Snakes and Ladders play two pieces (the first to get both pieces home wins). This introduces a binary choice each turn - which of my pieces should I move? While this may seem trivial, there is much to learn from even such a simple choice. In addition to judging immediate rewards of the two possible moves, the perceptive child will notice that moving one piece home loses you the advantage of choice, so (all else being equal) you should move the piece that is furthest from getting home.

Thorsten Gimmler: I read the review from Greg Aleknevicus about Odin's Ravens. It's fine, that he like the game. But I have a question for him—did he play it with extension of the terrain? I didn't read anything about this. At the end of your turn, you can lay a new terrain-card at the end of the way. When conducting this extension you can decide which terrain type to lay on your side. So you can add those terrain types which match the "Magic-Way"-card to your opponent.

GGA - Yes, I was aware of the "terrain extending" option in Odin's Ravens and it was a conscious choice not to mention it. The reason I'm responding here is that it gives me a chance to comment about my personal review writing philosophy.

One of the problems facing reviewers is how much detail they should include in describing the game's mechanics. My personal opinion is that a review should include a fairly brief overview so that readers can get a sense of how the game works. Other reviewers prefer to write much more, in some cases practically teaching you how to play the game. I find this approach to be overkill and I usually scan such reviews looking for the "important stuff" - what sort of experience does the game provide and did the reviewer enjoy it? Limiting myself to more brief descriptions of play means that I often have to leave out certain bits. The "terrain extending" feature of Odin's Ravens is a perfect example of this. While it may be an important part of the game I don't think it's critical that readers of the review know this rule. Knowing how the terrain is laid out and moved across is sufficient to understand how the game works. 

Brian Leet: I have recently read The Game Inventor's Guidebook and would echo the sentiment that it is an excellent introduction. Everything I read seemed to echo what I'd been gleaning from other industry folks, plus lots of new information. The one possibility for getting some recognition that is overlooked is the game design competitions. There are now a few efforts underway such as at www.hippodice.de and www.bgdf.com that will consider any designer's work without prejudice.

The Design Considerations article should be mandatory reading for everyone involved in the production end of the industry, from designers, to artists to producers of games. A lot of excellent advice for everyone!

GGA - Thanks. I have received several e-mails from designers and publishers stating that they found the article useful. I'd love to publish further articles with even more "tips & tricks".

Finally, I have reached the point of amusement with the oft raised issue of games ratings. I'm not sure if it keeps developing because of a problem in current systems, a propensity of gamers to invent this stuff, or some other factor. Whatever the reason, I've found that I desire other a broad brush glimpse, in which case a system like the BoardGameGeek's is perfect, or I want the rating in the context of a review. So, I'm pretty happy with the simple one dimensional ratings most of us use right now.

Mario T. Lanza: I enjoy the rating system you developed [GGA - see Game Alignment], especially the choice for the three scaled categories. One thing that I might need is another scale gauging how fun the game is. Granted, "fun" is completely subjective and will vary greatly from gamer to gamer; however, your current system creates an interesting result if you were to rate all the games on BoardGameGeek with chaos/control, abstract/themed, and light/heavy you might find that of the many games which share identical ratings, some you really enjoy, and some you don't care for.

Perhaps, the missing scale isn't a "fun" scale, but some other scale. I guess I'm just getting a little carried away by the thought that a particular rating system—yours for example—made up of scales (that aren't very subjective in nature, like chaos/control) might present me with precisely the kind of information to clue me in on what other games I might like.

For example, I'm a member of Netflix—an internet-based movie rental site. As I rate movies, the site uses some formula (to compare my ratings to others movie viewers) in order to suggest what other movies I might like to rent.

I offer all this input, not as a criticism—I like your rating system better than most—but as a point to ponder. What other scales (perhaps only 1 or 2 more should do it) would offer a formula for game consumers to choose games with a better degree of success? For example, I already know that a working formula for me would be:

Chaos - - - I - Control
Abstract - - - I - Themed
Light - - I - - Heavy

Sliding any of the scales to the right also works for me, but not to the left. I may use you rating system in future reviews, if you don't mind.

One other scale that occurred to me is "Solo.....Interactive"

It seems to me that me that lots of gamers discuss a game as being good based on how much interaction one has with other players. For example, Princes of Florence has very low interaction and Settlers has much more. I think there two varieties of interaction in game play:

1. Interactive as far as my having to deal, discuss, trade, and so on with other players. I mentioned Settlers; however, Diplomacy is all about this kind of interaction.

2. Interactive as far as how much impact other players have on my situation.

In some games the decisions of other players has a very low impact on one's score. Princes of Florence and Iron Dragon are two examples. In other games it can be much more dramatic—Tikal, Tigris & Euphrates. Perhaps relaxed/tense is a better classification as it seems to me, the games where the moves of other players have dramatic consequences on my position are more tense. (Does this correlate with your light/heavy classification?) I like this in games.

Anthony Simons: It is very interesting to note how your views correlate with my own as regards the usefulness of this rating system. In particular I think you have made a very good point about how similarly rated games may often still differ in flavour, and there will be variance in all players' tastes for them. I think at best this suggested system typifies the games rather than summaries; there are probably many other categories on which you could rate them.

Your suggestion of rating the game on a scale of fun is a fine idea, from the viewpoint of reviewing a game at least. As you quite rightly pointed out it is subjective, but despite this I agree that it is also an important (perhaps the most important) quality of any game. Because it is subjective, it is more likely to vary from reviewer to reviewer than the less subjective (but notwithstanding they are still subjective to some extent) qualities I suggested in the article.

The idea behind this, for me at least, is to present relevant and important game qualities to somebody who has not played it before; perhaps just as useless as any other rating system without an accompanying review, but it does allow the casual observer to home in on the game type that might appeal the most.

Of course since writing the article I have had other ideas for useful scales to include; for example you could utilize a scale from downtime to constant player activity, or low to high quality of components; but I feel that adding too many scales might defeat the object (brevity).

I have a theory that we might find people who play a certain genre of game more often than others will have similar tastes in their preferred game alignment; I can tell you for instance that my preferred tastes are the same as yours (though being mad about games I do make allowances in both directions of the scales).

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