User-Friendly Games, Part 2

The Story So Far…

Deep games are cool.  Complex games can be awesome.  Many excellent games are excellent because they are complex and deep.  But when these elements aren’t well conveyed, good games get glanced over.  They get a single play but little more.  Rules complexity or obtuse play become an impediment, preventing the game from ever gaining the following it deserves.

This post takes a look at complexity.  How each it be managed to engage our players and keep them engaged.  How can complexity be user-friendly?

 

User-Friendly Utilities

webopedia mentions Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), online help systems, and menu-driven programs as examples of ways to achieve user-friendliness.  What do these look like in a tabletop game?

GUIs

Graphical User Interfaces allows computer users to interact with devices through icons instead of text.  With the spread of the eurogame revolution and its emphasis on language-interdependence, board game companies have excelled at GUI implementation.

So long as the icon is an intuitive match for the game action it represents, your GUI will be smooth and your players will thank you for it.

NavegadorEuro games are filled with excellent examples
of GUI icons.  Shown to the right is the player mat from Navegador.  It’s easy to see each icon explain its function.

Even text-heavy American style games benefit from well-planned GUIs and recent editions of Magic: the Gathering are an excellent example.  Not only is a picture is uniquely associated with each card, Wizards of the Coast has gone one step further by ensuring that the images be closely linked to the actions or creatures they describe.  For example, wings are only depicted on creatures that can fly.


Menu-Driven Programs

Our first instinct might be to think tabletop games cannot be menu-driven.  It’s not as if we can choose our play by tapping on the top ribbon of the game board and selecting from the pulldown, is it?  But some games do have fixed sequential turns and many of them do use menu-driven systems.

Mexica CardPlayers in Mexica spend action points each turn to carry out actions.  Each player gets a reference card and this card works exactly like a menu.  The indicator in the upper left corner reminds us to take 6 action points at the beginning of our turn.  Each row on the right shows icons for the actions and their corresponding action point cost.  Reference cards like this empower our players without sacrificing complexity from the design.

We similarly chose to guide players through their turns in Dragon Tides by printing the turn sequence on each player mat.  From top to bottom, each player carries out Lights → Camera → Action, selecting from the menu of options at each step.

Online Help Systems

There is always a chance of misinterpretation no matter how diligently you test, retest, blind test and blind retest your game.  Online support keeps you in touch with your player base and allows you to answer each question publicly as it arises.

 

Every game published in the twenty-first century should have this kind of online support.  Even designers who self-publish on a minimal budget have access to bandwidth at fan sites like the Geek.

Put a pdf of your rulebook online and update it as needed.  Keep an additional FAQ at the same location and update it even more regularly. Put these documents on the publisher’s website and link to them on fan sites.

If you have the resources, make instructional videos that cover setup and show sample turns.  I recommend making several small videos that highlight key elements rather than a single long video.  They are for your players to access and download when away WiFi isn’t accessible.  They are also more likely to answer each player’s specific question quickly and get him or her back into the game.

Introductory Scenarios

Play almost any new game on a smart device and you’ll first be led through sequence of introductory scenarios.  Why are those there?  You already know why.  Carefully sequencing the first scenarios in a game ensures each player gets a complete introduction to the game while simultaneously getting him or her into the play as quickly as possible.

  • A sequence of introductory scenarios gives players an opportunity to settle into the setting of your game.
  • When your rules harmonize with your setting, introductory scenarios gives players an opportunity to feel like active parts of your game’s setting.
  • Well-sequenced introductory scenarios limit the number of rules the player needs to take in at a time.  This in turn temporarily reduces the complexity of the game.
  • Well-sequenced introductory scenarios embed tutorials. Highlight critical elements of play by making victory in the scenario depend on mastering those elements.

Tune in Next Time

Our next post in this series will focus on conveying game depth.  In it we’ll discuss designer-in-a-box syndrome and continue asking how user-friendliness manages players experience and keeps our players engaged.

What do you think of the complexity and its impact on user-friendliness?  How do you convey complexity in your designs?  what have you learned from the experience? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

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User-Friendly Games Part 1

Merriam-Webster defines user-friendly as “easy to use or understand.”  Okay.  How do we apply that concept to tabletop game design?  Do we say that user-friendliness measures how easily players can understand the rules of the game?  Sure, that’s a good starting point.

Rules Clarity

Video games have rules and art.  They also have the advantage of programs to prevent players from violating any rules of the game.  This polices play and frees players to explore.  Tabletop games have rules, components and art but no rigid coding to prevent accidental misplays.  Our players must self-police their play to make sure that all rules are followed.

 

Clear rules clearly go a long way toward making your game user-friendly.

 

User-friendliness is an evolving idea for me.  Over the last few years, it’s become evident that clear rules are an objective but not a sufficient endpoint; a checkpoint but not the finish line.  We must also consider questions of complexity and depth.

Rules Complexity

The complexity of a game is essentially the number of choices players get each turn.  Complex games overwhelm many players when they cannot take in all the options set before them.  Complex games can be made user-friendly if we develop them diligently. Make sure the components are clear.  Include reference cards.  Provide illustrated examples of play.  Provide a living rulebook and FAQ on the publisher’s website (and link to these documents on fan sites like the Geek).

Play Depth

Making choices easier to understand isn’t always enough to make the game user-friendly however–not if the game is also deep.   When a game is deep, it offers early choices with big implications later in the game.  Deep games seem obtuse when players cannot perceive the implications of their actions.

Distinguishing Depth From Complexity: An Anecdote

A gamer was visiting from out of town a few years ago and a member of our club offered to host gaming for him that night.  My wife Debra and I joined in to bring the total to four (that being a good quorum or many games).  One of them brought an area control game.  The rules were taught and off we went.  It should now be mentioned at this point that Debra and I had been playing area-control games most every evening after dinner.  By the middle of the game, she and I had each recognized that some areas had been secured by their current holder and were essentially unassailable.  We ignored those and exerted our efforts elsewhere.  When one of our companions attempted to go after one of these regions, we eyed each other and happily gobbled up the rest.  When the dust settled, our scores were literally half again that of the other two players.

 

Everyone at that table completely understood the rules and their components.  Any issues of complexity had been solved.  Its depth however, eluded the other players.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I love deep games.  I appreciate complex games.  Many games are great because they are complex and deep.  But when these elements aren’t well conveyed, good games get glanced over.  They get a single play but little more.  Rules complexity or obtuse play become an impediment, preventing the game from ever gaining the following it deserves.

 

Over the next few columns, we will going to take a look at complexity and depth each in turn and discuss how each can be managed to engage our players and keep them engaged–by making them user-friendly.

What do you think of the complexity, depth, and their impact on user-friendliness?  How do you approach them in your designs?  what have you learned from the experience? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.