Monday, February 11, 2013

How to Make Games For Everyone

In this post Max examines designing games for casual audiences. What kinds of mechanics do they find interesting? What kinds of mechanics make them disengage with the game? Which games are well designed for casual audiences, and which are not?

A few years back I went on vacation with my father and my two brothers, and decided to bring some games along.  To give you a sense of their gaming proclivities, my father taught me chess once but has never played it with me after he that.  He does tons of Sudoku and some crossword puzzles, and very rarely can be caught playing a playing card game.  My brothers are a bit more of a mixed bag; we were raised by a German friend, and so all three of us grew up playing Settlers of Catan.  When I started playing Magic: the Gathering, they were in the "you're so cool big brother, we want to do everything that you do!" phase (those were good days).  Eventually they realized that analog gaming wasn't as mainstream as digital gaming, and to the best of my knowledge they have not played an analog game outside of my company since. 

Anyway, back to the vacation. Since our choice of vacation spot had unreliable electricity and even less reliable internet, I hoped that this was the perfect opportunity to reintroduce them all to analog gaming. I perused my collection for light games that would be amenable to my family.  I ended up selecting Bang!, with the thought that it was basically Mafia but with cards... what could be easier to understand? As an afterthought, I grabbed Bohnanza off the shelf, thinking that it probably had too much math for them, but I'd give it a try. My primary goal was to avoid a repeat of the Fluxx debacle from a few years earlier—my brothers still complain that I made them play that game.

Pronounced "sheff-field"
It took a significant amount of herding of cats, but I eventually got my family circled around a bed in one of our rooms and started dealing Bang!  My father is a spaghetti western buff, and immediately began correcting my pronunciation of cards like "Schofield." So far so good, I thought.

Bang! is a lot like the classic game Mafia (which for some reason is also called Werewolf?), with some twists.  One player is the Sheriff, one player is the Deputy, one player is the Renegade, and all other players are outlaws.  The Sheriff wins if he kills the Renegade and Outlaws, the Outlaws win if they kill the Sheriff, the Deputy loses if the Sheriff dies, and the Renegade wins if she kills everyone else.  Oh, and all these roles are secret.  The game is spent figuring out who you want to shoot, extending your range so you can shoot them, shooting them, and trying not to die yourself.

My elation at playing Bang! with my family didn't last long, however.  The game uses symbolic representation on its cards, likely to avoid having to do much translation from the original italian.  These symbols make a whole lot more sense than those of Race for the Galaxy, but they're still not great.

For example, some of the core symbols in Bang!:  

From left to right, lose one health, gain one health, cancel health loss ("miss"), target anyone in YOUR range, target anyone within 2 distance. 

Okay, so those particular symbols aren't horrendous.  You could express these concepts with words, but the symbols aren't bad.  But ignoring for the moment the racist depictions of Native Americans in westerns, can you guess what the "Indians!" card does from it's symbols?  No?  Neither could my family.  It means everyone who doesn't play a card that cancels health loss loses one health, but that's not clear from the symbols.  Even after I explained what each card did, my family balked at the complexity. 

This threw me for a loop... why were they so against the game?  Sure, there are a bunch of different cards, but most of them are pretty simple, even if some were like the "Indians!" card.  When it came to my father's turn, he often didn't even know what to do! I mean really—you just shoot somebody.  It's not that hard.

After my family recovered from the Bang! catastrophe, I was able to reluctantly coax them into playing Bohnanza with me, and surprisingly they loved it! (Okay, they liked it enough that they requested to play it a couple more times.)  I found this strange because Bohnanza is a strategic numbers game about bean farming.  In the game, each player has a hand of bean cards, and two "fields," each of which can contain any number of bean provided they are of the same type.  The hands consist of bean cards of various types (soy beans, red beans, chili beans, green beans,) which each have a value (how many you need to sell from your fields to make gold coins), and a rarity (how many of that type of bean exist in the game).  Usually, the rarer a bean is in the game, the more gold you make for selling them.  At the start of your turn, you have to plant a bean card from your hand.  If it can't fit in one of your fields (for instance, you have to plant a green bean from your hand, but you already have a soy bean field and a stink bean field), then you must replace one of your fields with the new card.  The core choice players must make in Bohnanza is: "is it worth it to harvest my field now since it allows me to plant a new bean variety, or should I wait till later when it will be worth more money" and this choice is mostly informed by their conception of how many of various types of beans are left in the deck (probability) and their likelihoods of getting them (i.e., are other players looking for the same types).

You can understand my confusion here!  I had thought that my brothers and father would not like a number crunching probabilistic strategy game.  Bang! had very little systems-thinking strategy, and Bohnanza had lots of that kind of strategy.  If systems complexity didn't determine what my family liked to play, what did?  How was Bang! different from Bohnanza?

Default Actions
I did a deeper dive into the nondigital games that casual gamers tend to like, and I found quite the trend.  Many of the games that my family and self-described non-gamer friends like have what I call "default actions," meaning when it comes to your turn, thinking strategically about what you want to do can help you win, but you don't really need to do so—instead there is a default action you can take that will reward you.  For example, in Monopoly players need only roll the dice!  They can think about whether they want to buy a property, but they can still do well simply by rolling and eventually collecting their $200 from passing go.  Another great example is Settlers of Catan, a well-known game for getting "non-gamers" into strategy gaming.  In Settlers, you roll the dice and collect resources based on the number shown.  You probably then want to strategically spend those resources, but you don't really have to.  You can simply get ahead by just rolling the dice and collecting the resources.

This begins to explain why my family liked Bohnanza, but not Bang!  Every turn in Bang! the player must choose which of their cards to play, and often who to target with it.  If they choose poorly, the could actively be making themselves less likely to win.  Meanwhile, in Bohnanza the player often doesn't have much of a choice.  The game rules dictate that they always have to plant the first card in their hand, and when they do so they usually automatically receive money for the beans they are harvesting to make room for the new one.  At the very worst, this replacement will gain them nothing.  Usually, it gains them a few coins, putting them closer to winning. 

Exception-based Design
The other pattern that began to emerge was that my family and other gamers like them do not want to have to read cards, pure and simple.  In traditional playing card games, players treat all cards the same way; sure, they have two different values (suit and number), but in the end a four of spades is just as useful in (for example) making a straight flush as a ten or diamonds.  At the very most, there may be two different types of card in, say, a game of poker: value cards, and wildcards, and so long as the different types can easily be held in a player's memory ("aces are wildcards, nonaces are just regular cards") non gaming audiences don't seem to have problems.

What's actually going on here is that these games do not use what is called "exception-based design."    Nonexception-based design results in games that, when a player takes an action, what occurs is defined by the overarching rules of the game, cross referenced with value(s) or variable(s) related to the game components used.  Cards are a great example of these components  When we score a poker hand, we are simply checking the suit and number on the cards, and comparing them as the game rules dictate.  In Bohnanza, as mentioned above, cards have three values (bean type, bean value, and bean rarity), and whenever a bean is played it is simply evaluated using these values.

Many more in depth games such as Magic: the Gathering, and Fluxx, however, do use exception-based design.  This results in games in which, when a player plays a card (for example), what occurs is defined not by the overarching rules, but primarily by new rules enumerated on the card.  For example, in Magic I draw one into my hand every turn.  I could play a card that says "you draw two cards every turn," thus amending the rules of the game through exception-based design.  Games with exception-based design can have rich card interactions, because amending the rules in complementary ways (called synergies) can from cool strategies.  Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of complexity and cognitive load.  Instead of being able to think "I have a five, a six and a seven," in an exception-based game I would have to think "I have a card that does a, b, and c, another that does x and y, and another that does l and m, how do these interact?"  This thought process is overwhelming for everybody at the start, and this causes a barrier to entry in these games for players who don't expect to log a lot of hours playing.

Those who view themselves as nongamers don't expect to spend a lot of time gaming, thus I think they get easily turned off of learning difficult games.  On the flip side, learning a quick playing card game allows them to become invested more easily.  Of course, many "nongamers" spend a huge amount of time playing regular card games, and could have learned an exception-based game in the time they spent mastering the other ones.  In the end it comes down to intimidation.

I believe these two factors explain why my family enjoyed Bohnanza, but were stumped by Bang!  The takeaway lessons for designing games for casual audiences, then, are make games in which players can opt into the strategy, but can still progress without making difficult decisions (although they many not win), and make games with few different functions among cards or components, so they can be summarized in the rule booklet and not on the cards.


Behrooz 'Bezman' Shahriari said...

A great article. Both points you state make complete sense.

I suppose, then, that if your game /needs/ to use exception-based design, you're just as well forgetting about 'casual' gamers and just focusing on making it fun for those who will enjoy it for what it is.

Max Seidman said...

If you have a great concept for a game structured around exceptions, then by all means don't let inaccessibility stop you. That said, it's good to remember that how much complexity and how many exceptions players are comfortable with is a spectrum, and casual/hardcore is not a binary. Settlers of Catan, despite having a little bit of exception based design, still manages to be an accessible gateway game (although it's core mechanic is not exception-based).

It's also worthwhile to note that exception is not the only thing that can make a game less accessible. All of Reiner Knizia's heavier games (Modern Art, for example) are designed elegantly with little exception, but can still be too difficult for players less accustomed to hobby games.