Sunday, June 30, 2013

Action Economy in D&D Next

A few weekends ago, I finally fulfilled one of my long-standing gaming goals by playing in the D&D Next open beta as part of D&D Worldwide Game Day. As a roleplayer, I couldn't have been happier with the new rules--my wonderful and patient non-roleplayer girlfriend got to endure at least five minutes of me singing its praises.

Many of the mechanical and narrative high points in D&D Next are really only relevant in the context of roleplaying game design, but a few mechanics have some interesting implications for strategy game design too. In particular, the way that "actions" work in Next, sometimes called the "action economy," is vastly streamlined in comparison to D&D's earlier incarnations.

The 3rd Edition of the game, released in 2000, came with a veritable smorgasbord of them: standard, move, swift, immediate, full-round, free. 4th Edition kept most of them and added minor, interrupt, reaction, and the maddeningly vague "no action". Next simplifies things a lot. Most of those action types do indeed still exist in Next, but in keeping with the "modular" theme of the rules, not every action type is necessarily attached to every character, so the core rules don't assume every player needs to understand all the action types.

For example, the core rules account for exactly two "actions," the action (what used to be called the "standard action") and the move (which is no longer an action proper but a distance). Swift actions and reactions exist in Next, but not every character has something that can be accomplished in a swift action, so the swift action isn't described in the core rules. Instead, the description of how it works is included in every ability that needs it.

Going along with our recent discussions of complexity and approachability, the takeaway here for strategy game design is that if a game must be complex, it's better to move complexity to where it's required than to assert it in a game's basic rules. How many times have you unwrapped a new Euro-style board game to find a twenty-page manual describing every corner case of each rule variant that might exist but that doesn't tell you how to determine who goes first?

Of course, in designing a game, those rules variants and corner cases are important. It's essential to think about any situation that might possibly arise during both mechanical balancing and playtesting. But if a given piece of information is only relevant some of the time, the best games find ways to introduce that information when it is needed and not a moment sooner.

Quick Reviews 2nd Quarter 2013

I didn't get to try as many new games in the past three months as I would have liked, but I did get a few in. The following are my quick reviews, ordered from most anticipated to least anticipated. I hope to cover a few favorites in depth in the months to come.

Rarely do I feel a movie, TV show, book or game delivers on the hype I overhear before experiencing it for myself. But it sure feels great when it does.

The Resistance is more of an experience than a game, and that is the ultimate compliment. Five to Ten players act as a rebellious group attempting to undermine an oppressive government. Some of them however are spies attempting to work against the group. This game offers a simple rule set anyone can pick up in five minutes and forces the players to make each game an experience, full of double thinking, suspicion and empty offerings of trust.

I can't recommend it enough.

The Resistance Verdict: 10 out of 10

I remembered when Gra-Gra Company was originally brought to the US by Z-Man Games in and thus when I saw the re-titled Stack Market at a discount retailer for under $4 I figured it was worth a try.

Players stack wooden dice into buildings that represent their growing investments in companies and are rewarded for increasing the height these buildings and punished when a building collapses.

There are some interesting ideas as two people can be working on the same building at once and players can switch buildings at the end of their turn. The problems are insurmountable though as the rules are clunky (the average player is likely to end up with less money than the started the game with) and it lacked the hold-your-breath anticipation and fun of a game like Jenga. I'm glad I gave it a try but it simply won't be revisited by me anytime soon.

Stack Market Verdict: 5 out of 10

We shouldn't judge a book by its cover and neither should we judge a game. But abstracts can often be the worst offenders as they lack any imaginative presentation. I gave Atoll a try simply because it puts in the effort to make the game play intuitive and easier on the eyes.

If you look a the board to your left and took a guess  as to how it is played you'd probably come pretty close. Something should be said for the importance of graphic design for this month's topic of approachability. Players take either black or white pieces and alternate turns in order to strategically place their pieces to connect to diametrically opposed sides on their color in one continuous line.

It has some interesting ideas in regards to blocking your opponent and requires the forethought to think many turns ahead. This is a quality abstract, but unfortunately it just isn't for me.

Atoll Verdict: 4.5 out of 10

After Atoll I gave another abstract a shot, this time with a light theme called Tricky Safari. Players move their camera (the red or yellow piece in the lower left and upper right corners in the picture) orthogonality or diagonally around the board to capture photos of each of the area's diverse species.

Players each take one turn trying to position themselves in front of (relative to the animal's arrow) or beside an animal, scoring up to one point per animal. After each has taken a turn, all ten animals move forward, with delicate rules in place in cases where they run into water spaces or brush.

Tricky Safari really grew on me as I became more impressed with each game. A good player has to think not only about this turn but similar to billiards, how they will set themselves up for the next turn. I'd guess this might be a tedious game to play in person (constantly moving ten neutral pieces) but it is a wonderful little abstract available on Yourturnmyturn.

Tricky Safari Verdict: 7 out of 10

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Game Ratings Follow-Up: Abstract Aesthetics

My third and (for now) final follow-up to the game ratings scheme I published a few weeks ago deals with the aesthetics of abstract games. Alex touched on the topic when he discussed approachability, citing the relative simplicity of the rules of chess as part of its beauty. My friend and fellow gamer Josh agrees and puts it more strongly: "abstract aesthetics [like those in] chess should not necessarily be a detractor; I think chess can, in its own way, be very beautiful."

I defined "aesthetics" as a (mostly arbitrary) combination of a game's sensory elements--typically visual and tactile--and its theme. It's tempting to sub-divide the aesthetics score into "sensory" and "thematic" sub-scores, awarding perhaps up to one point for each, to better describe the contribution of each to the game's overall aesthetics.

But I deliberately avoided that level of granularity. It's useful to take a more holistic approach to evaluating aesthetic quality because there's also an implication of integration between the two: the visual design should reflect the theme (the mechanics should too, but that's a more complicated consideration). And sensory and thematic design are in that statistical murky ground of being neither perfectly correlated nor truly independent.

Based on the way I've defined aesthetics, a game needs both an attractive sensory design and a compelling theme to earn a high aesthetics score. It would be tough to argue that chess has a compelling theme because it doesn't have one at all--it's entirely abstract. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it has no sensory appeal. As both Alex and Josh both point out, plenty of people find chess not only visually pleasing but among the most beautiful board games that exist, precisely because of its iconic abstractness.

Since this blog is focused on important considerations for game design, what are the takeaways from trying to evaluate the aesthetics of abstract games? First, it's a much tougher task than it appears at first, and in many respects, appropriately evaluating aesthetics becomes tougher as a game becomes more abstract. In a strongly themed game, it's relatively easy to determine how well the visuals fit the theme. In abstracts, particularly the "classic" abstracts, that determination becomes a trickier--and more subjective--proposition.

A related point: only a few games flourish as complete abstracts. Chess and go and backgammon have been immensely popular for centuries, but that continued popularity shouldn't give contemporary game designers incentive to avoid the responsibility of coming up with a suitable theme for their games. As this blog has discussed before, a theme is an essential component of developing and marketing a game successfully.

Finally, the prospect of applying a contemporary rating scale to a classic abstract might involve faulty logic on its face. Modern games are often the product of a single designer or team of designers, while the much older games are products of hundreds of years of cumulative development. Chess has apparently been played in Europe since the 1200s, while its rules weren't finalized until the 19th century; Go took more than a thousand years to become the game played today. What does that mean for contemporary game design? Avoid drawing comparisons to classic games, because they've had centuries of playtesting that you haven't.

So was I incorrect in using "completely abstract" as reasoning for giving a "0.0" aesthetics score? I don't think so, but I think I erred in picking chess as the "complete abstract" to illustrate the point. The real lesson here is how difficult it is to use such a well-known and immensely popular game as a basis of comparison. In his rating scale, Alex stipulates that he doesn't rate games played with an ordinary deck of cards because a from-scratch game is necessarily a better design achievement than one used with standard cards. I still believe that, all else being equal, a themed game is necessarily a better design achievement than a pure abstract, but in the future, there's wisdom in avoiding the traditional abstracts as bases for comparison.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Quick Semantics Question

Or: what do we call this hobby?

I'm a bit of a linguistic prescrptivist. I believe that language needs to play by the rules, and unusual or nonstandard usage tend to bother me more than most people. But I suspect I'm not the only one who's occasionally put off by the term "board games". After all, plenty of the games we play have nothing to do with boards.

Despite the argument against it, board gaming might well remain the best description we have. BoardGameGeek, by far the hobby's most popular and influential website, hosts reviews, discussion, and information for thousands of games. Many hundreds of those games don't use a board at all. Even the linguistic argument against "board game" might be losing steam as it's increasingly commonly used to refer to any non-roleplaying analog tabletop game. But what might some alternatives be?

A term like board/card gaming brings the Dominions and San Juans of the world into the fold, but it's a lot clumsier to say yet doesn't add too much information. What about games that use both cards and boards like Agricola or Settlers of Catan? How about games that use neither, like Carcassonne or various dice games? If the distinction between "board" and "card" game is slowly fading, then this term doesn't necessarily make too much sense.

A much better alternative might be tabletop gaming, the term favored by Wil Wheaton in his TableTop web series. This one is better--it doesn't limit the games to a certain medium, it's descriptive in that many of the games in this genre are in fact played at a table, and it emphasizes that we're not playing party games or video games, neither of which typically involve tables. The biggest argument against "tabletop" is that it's already used in RPG parlance to differentiate analog games like Dungeons and Dragons from video game RPGs. "Tabletop" might actually be a better term to describe a class containing both analog RPGs and board/card/whatever else games.

If "analog" is a good retronym to describe non-video games, then how about analog gaming for the class as a whole? It's probably worse than "tabletop," as it's less specific and could feasibly refer to RPGs or party games or basically anything else that's not electronic.

We might be tempted to use Euro gaming, but that term suffers the opposite problem that "tabletop" and "analog" do: it's too specific. There are plenty of high-quality, well-designed games that are not European or even particularly Euro-style; popular ones include Pandemic and Blokus among many others. There's the added disadvantage that people who don't play Euro games likely don't know what a Euro game is.

Moving away from media or surfaces entirely, strategy gaming might work well, since it doesn't discriminate by style or medium. Gaming purists might balk at some games playing fast-and-loose with the moniker "strategy game"--Betrayal at House on the Hill proudly describes itself as a "strategy game," though compared to games like Power Grid, Betrayal's strategic depth might leave a little to be desired. On the other hand, compared to something like Sorry, perhaps Betrayal counts as a strategy game after all. One cause of hesitation with "strategy game" is that it too already has a definition; war or territory-control video games such as Starcraft or Age of Empires are often described as strategy games.

A possible compromise might be tabletop strategy gaming, though that's a bit of a mouthful, and it might have the unintended consequence of making people assume we're always playing Starcraft in board game form, or Risk.

Finally, just plain gaming might not be as bad as it seems at first. Video gaming, roleplaying, (standard-deck) card gaming, and party gaming are already content to use the narrower, more descriptive labels, so can we get away with simple "gaming"?

What do you call your gaming hobby? Is there a standardized term that the community has already agreed upon? Do we need one at all?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Complexity Redux

In his recent post, Matt covered a few thought provoking items about complexity in game design that I hadn't considered before. One of the most significant was that realization that a game design can approach a point of optimization and after this a plateau can be observed where increasing complexity really only increases complexity.

The idea of the plateau in design is quite intuitive in hindsight, and at some point all designs form (and should form) an asymptote where they have achieved the design goals and by adding more, one in receiving diminishing returns at the cost of overwhelming the audience. Once we've "maxed out" a game design we can approach it with an emphasis on parsimony - the idea that all else being equal, the simplest explanation (the ideas and mechanics) that can be used to interpret the data (the game design) is best.

Since depth and complexity are two sides of the same coin and abstract in nature, how can one measure how a design fares? There are many variables to account, but a game analysis can largely be formed by a consensus of many players in the aftermath. A successfully balanced game leaves players thinking "I didn't do it quite well that first game but I can see how my decisions can have benefits and repurcussions for next time". A poorly balanced game leaves players failing to see the forest for the trees and feeling that they just didn't know where they went wrong.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Game Ratings Follow-Up: Complexity

A few weeks ago, I described my system for rating game quality. My "five axes" had two important qualities. First, the descriptors are orthogonal, which is a fancy mathematics word for "independent". A game with a given strategic complexity has equal chances of being aesthetically beautiful as aesthetically bland, and aesthetic quality doesn't correlate at all with strategic quality. Second, all the descriptors are "per se" good things; all other things being equal, a game with greater strategic depth is better than one with shallower strategy.

Of course, no system can capture each and every trait that makes a game good or bad. Two that Alex and I discussed after I published the article are approachability, which Alex and I posted slightly different takes on last week, and complexity, which is the subject of this post. We'll define complexity as the number of things "going on" in a game: the sum of all the rules, mechanics, decisions, design, and implementation.

Complexity works a little differently than the traits I use as my five axes in that it's not orthogonal to the other axes, and it's not per se desirable for determining quality. Complexity is in fact highly correlated to strategic depth (strategically deeper games tend to be more complex) and adaptability (more complex games often have more variety for ways to play), in addition to approachability (more complex games can be less approachable simply because there's more happening).

Further, a more complex game is not necessarily a better game. Sometimes, more complexity makes a game better. For example, tic-tac-toe and Connect Four are nearly identical in aesthetics, mechanics, and general feel, but Connect Four is a better game because it's strategically deeper, and most of that strategic depth comes from its increased complexity.

On the other hand, sometimes more complexity makes a game worse because it makes a game more difficult to play but doesn't improve its strategic experience. I came down pretty hard on Ascension: Rise of Vigil because it takes a good game (Ascension) and adds a mechanic that makes things more difficult to keep track of while simultaneously increasing the game's variance.

And often, a greater-complexity game is neither markedly better or worse, it's just more complicated. For any given play style, there's probably a complexity optimum that's sometimes undershot, sometimes overshot, but often on a complexity plateau where all you're doing by adding more complexity is adding more complexity. In that case, the simplest version of the game that provides the same quality is the best.

A situation that lends itself well to examining where the complexity optimum lies is in games with lots of expansions. Maybe you've noticed this yourself: in your favorite thirty-seven expansion game, you really like playing with a handful of them, there's a few you never want to see opened again, and most of them you could take or leave, right? I'll illustrate the phenomenon with my own favorite thirty-seven expansion game, Dominion.

Logical extensions to existing mechanics promote "good" complexity. That's most evident in Dominion's first expansion, Intrigue. It's loosely themed around secrets and conspiracy, but it mostly contains cards that would be at home in base Dominion. Unlike in later expansions, there are no card types or wildly different card effects added, simply existing mechanics (and tweaks to existing ones) that can be played in different ways. Intrigue adds complexity to Dominion, but it does it in a way that adds strategy without drastically changing substance.

Making the numbers bigger promotes "neutral" complexity. Nothing illustrates that better than Prosperity, whose central theme is "more is better". There's a bigger, better Treasure card (Platinum) and a bigger, better Victory card (Colony) and a handful of other cards that would destroy the ones in the main set by how overpowering they are. Because of the extra tiers, it's certainly more complex than base Dominion, but it's a complexity that almost makes it feel like a different game. Where I'll never hesitate to throw Intrigue into my Dominion game, I think harder if I want to play with Prosperity--not because I dislike it, simply because it's more to account for.

Rules exceptions, conditionals, and single game-altering mechanics promote "bad" complexity. Probably the only Dominion iteration that comes close to "bad" complexity is Alchemy, which relied on entirely different ways of thinking than any of the rest of Dominion. Cards costing multiple types of resources, situations where you can control elements of your opponents' turns, and cards that force you to make dozens of different decisions per turn all turn Alchemy into a high-complexity game without necessarily making it more fun or strategically deeper.

Having said all that about shades of complexity and a hypothetical quality vs. complexity curve, Alex brings up an important point: people tend toward games that are as complex as they like them to be. To a non-board gamer, maybe Dominion in any capacity is too complex. To a chess player or war-gamer, maybe Dominion in any capacity is too simple and too inclined toward variance.

How does that affect a game's quality score? On one level, it subconsciously inclines players away from games that might deserve a higher rating. I rate high-concept warfare games like Diplomacy fairly low in general, ostensibly because I find they take too long and don't feature intriguing mechanics, but really because I find it difficult to wrap my head around every single player's tree of strategic possibilities. In other words, it's too complex for my tastes.

On the other hand, given that I know high-concept warfare games aren't my thing, I tend not to seek them out. Therefore, I'm prevented from polluting their ratings pools with what would be artificially low scores to legitimate fans of the genre. Both are effects designers should be aware of. And although complexity isn't an attribute that's easy to score directly, it has an effect, subtle or overt, on practically every measure of quality.

In conclusion, here are some important considerations on complexity for a game designer: does a mechanic enhance the strategic depth of the game or is it merely clever? Is every decision the player is required to make both interesting and meaningful? Have I made my game so complex that it's no longer approachable? Does changing the number of players substantially alter the rules and the game's ease of implementation?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Revisiting RollerCoaster Tycoon

On a recent trip to visit my girlfriend Steph, she excitedly told me that she'd procured a copy of RollerCoaster Tycoon. Never being one to shy away from 90s nostalgia, I settled in for an afternoon of theme-park building on a lovely Boston May day where the temperature didn't quite crack 55 degrees. Like every game fondly remembered from adolescence, you never know how well it might hold up as an adult; for every Chrono Trigger, there's a Diddy Kong Racing.

To be sure, some elements of RollerCoaster Tycoon haven't aged terribly well. Its graphics look halfway decent at first given that the game was a product of last century, until you remember that the likes of  Final Fantasy X came out just a couple of years later. The music, exactly like that at a real theme park, consists of four or five tracks on infinite loop. And, at least in the early stages, the game is trivially easy, but that might be because we--not the game--are older.

That said, RollerCoaster Tycoon had one nice surprise up its sleeve: it's a delightfully gamer-y game. I didn't notice it when I was twelve, and I didn't expect to see it now, but practically every decision in this game is highly mathematical. What's my return on investment on this massive roller coaster I'm plopping in the middle of a lake? What's the expected value of increased customer happiness from this elephant-costumed entertainer, and is does it outweigh the $40/month cost? How do you optimize revenue from park admission--does the parabola's maximum lie toward low cost and lots of people or high cost and few visitors?

One especially satisfying mechanic in RollerCoaster Tycoon that in retrospect does seem way ahead of their time is its persistent, dynamic actors. It's easy to write a mathematical model for a number of guests over time--it's akin to a common engineering problem of a reservoir filling and unfilling at different rates. Plenty of older games would have written a differential equation, solved it as a function of time, and asserted that you had that many guests in your park.

But tracking each guest individually by mood, money in the bank, preferences, and position in the park is a much tougher problem. (Essentially, it's like assigning every drop of water its own residence time, tracking its position and momentum in all three dimensions... and figuring out how happy it is on top of all of that.) RollerCoaster Tycoon solves the problem transparently and doesn't fudge numbers the same way that some of its successors do. The game is perfectly content to let the model run, but you can step in and manually control each of your customers--put him by a bench if he's about to throw up, or stick him in front of your overpriced hamburger shack if he's hungry. The result is a highly adaptable experience that's exactly as interactive as you want it to be.

In contrast to its transparent handling of customer dynamics, the scoring in RollerCoaster Tycoon is a bit murky. Number of guests in your park is easy enough to figure out--it's a function of the amount of stuff in your park, its admission price, and your advertising campaigns. So far, so good. Another number sometimes used to evaluate your park is "park value," which seems to have to do with cash in hand plus some depreciated value of your attractions, but has no apparent formula or useful predictor.

Stranger still is "park rating," which is likely also a function of the amount and quality of stuff in the park, plus upkeep, maintenance, guest happiness, and Chris Sawyer only knows what else. Steph and I managed to get our park to the maximum rating of 999 for a few months, but we noticed that the rating seems to fluctuate by plus or minus 20 points for no particular reason. Other events happen stochastically but without a reliable method of forecasting how often. For example, the underlying mechanics behind your rides breaking down doesn't always make a lot of sense, with the most tortuous roller coaster in our park malfunctioning at about the same rate as our haunted house.

None of that probably bothered me as a kid. After all, this is a game marketed to preteens who like to ride roller coasters (and/or build things--I was never much of a roller coaster person), not twenty-something engineers who like to delve into game design. Maybe that's why Steph and I found it so easy now: since we're now interested in how the game operates in addition to making gorgeous theme parks, figuring out optimal strategies becomes that much easier. (Our optimal strategy in a nutshell: build one of every ride, charge a nominal fee for ride admission, a ton of money for park admission, and outrageous prices for umbrellas while it's raining.)

Yet, most importantly, making gorgeous theme parks is still fun, fourteen years later, and in game design, that's the biggest goal of all.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Approachability Redux

As a follow-up to Matt's article on Approachability, I wanted to add a few additional thoughts.

Approachability can be evaluated in many different ways, but somehow each measuring stick is as intuitive as the conceptual idea behind it. When instructing a game, how often do you receive befuddled looks, or a person interjects with a question as there is no simple interpretation?

The idea of approachability is visible in teaching games. Some of the greatest games have the simplest rules, allowing new players to find their bearings and head in the right direction on their first play. What about the games where everyone needs a practice round? A practice game? In searching for the next great innovation designers often lose sight of approachability as it fades into the horizon.

I'm of the school of thought that Chess cannot be improved upon and I'm certainly not alone. But if it was designed today someone might try to make it more complex than necessary, losing the beauty of it. What if when the black pieces end their move on a darker square on the chess board they gained a special ability? What if when the white pieces entered a lighter square on the board the player draws a card. This sounds absurd but it is the direction some designers are moving and it may not be forward. Designers are increasing complexity and often by relation there is an increase in strategy, but the deep end of the pool is quickly becoming a "no diving" zone.

Is it possible to achieve perfection on a the scale of approachability? Should beginners have a reasonable shot at winning? Should a game be so intuitive that there are no technical questions such as "Can I do this?"

I think the answer to all of these questions is simply "no," as approachability does not extend into the learning curve of a game. Approachability is simply the hike up to base camp, and it says nothing about the height of the mountain or the rate of incline. Beginners don't need a reasonable chance to win, and we all learn differently - rarely do we see a set of rules that is comprehensive enough that we don't even try to break from constraints.

Approachability should be the gentle ascent preceding the real challenge, not phase one of Mount Everest.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Game Ratings Follow-Up: Approachability

I've gotten some useful feedback after I posted my draft of a new game rating system last week. Obviously, no one rating system can capture every important aspect of a game, and different reviewers are likely to value different features in assigning a numerical score. One aspect that I touched on briefly in my "mechanics" section, but that deserves a more thorough treatment, is "approachability".

We'll define approachability as the tendency for new players to be able to relate to and pick up the rules of a new game. It shares some things in common with mechanics, which I described in the previous post, and with complexity, which I'll talk about in the next post, but it's not exactly the same as either. So what factors account for a game's approachability, and how should it be scored? I'll answer that question within the context of Carcassonne, a well-known (and notably approachable) game in the genre.

More approachable games have few, intuitive mechanics. Carcassonne does pretty well here. It's essentially the proto-worker placement game, but someone who has never played a worker placement game before can understand its rules just as well as a veteran of the genre. The game has only two rules: each edge of a placed tile has to match existing edges, and a meeple can only be added to a structure that doesn't have a meeple yet.

Approachable games avoid analysis paralysis and limit decisions. A game where each turn involves making half a dozen decisions, each among half a dozen options, tends toward analysis paralysis easily. Carcassonne avoids this pitfall by limiting the number of decisions per turn to two: where to place a tile, and whether to put a meeple on your tile. Often, one or both decisions are made for you; the map's geometry naturally limits where tiles can legally be placed, and the finite number of meeples in each player's supply means you can't necessarily place one even if you want to.

Proactive strategy hurts approachability. This criterion has Puerto Rico specifically in mind as a counter-example. The helpless sensation of seeing Puerto Rico set up for the first time has to be a shared experience among Euro-gamers: there are so many options and so few clues to how to proceed that you have no idea how you're supposed to play the game. Games requiring reactive strategy generally fare better, as you can shape your future actions based on the current board state. Carcassonne doesn't have a particularly reactive or proactive strategic approach--instead, success in Carcassonne depends largely on instantaneous "value plays" that simply require making the best move based on the pieces you can see right now.

Rules exceptions diminish approachability. The easiest games to learn, and therefore the most approachable, are ones where all the rules are applied consistently to all aspects of the game. Carcassonne fares reasonably well here, except in the rules for farmer placement and scoring, which operate entirely differently from the rules for every other worker placement and scoring. Questions about how the farmers operate have been the single biggest source of confusion among new Carcassonne players in my experience.

Approachable games are scored transparently and intuitively. In some games with many paths to victory, not all strategies are created or scored equal, making it difficult for new players to grasp which decision is really the optimal one. Games with nonlinear scoring systems (e.g., one worker gets three points, two workers get five points, three workers get six points, and so on) can be particularly tricky to pick up at first. Carcassonne does introduce a little confusion here in that cities (double points for a completed city) are scored differently from cloisters or roads (where there's no "completion bonus" aside from getting your meeple back).

What are some factors to consider for how to incorporate approachability into a game's overall score?

Approachability is per se good. Like each of the five axes I outlined in the last post, a more approachable game is always better than a less approachable game, just as a more aesthetically beautiful game is always better than a less aesthetically pleasing one.

Approachability alone does not make a game good. Let's say there are two games, Game A and Game B, that are highly approachable but derive their approachability from different methods. Game A has mechanics that are substantially similar to those of Game X, a different, more familiar game. On the other hand, Game B has beautifully intuitive mechanics that allow new players to leap right into it without having played a similar game. Both A and B will earn high scores in approachability, but Game B will earn a much higher score in mechanics than Game A. So, while approachability is always a good quality for a game to have, a mediocre game can nevertheless be highly approachable--and a game that's otherwise very good in terms of strategy and aesthetics and adaptability can lack approachability entirely.

Approachability matters only sometimes. Race for the Galaxy, probably my favorite of any game, admittedly has some approachability issues, notably in the areas of rules exceptions (try explaining the consume/trade rules to a new player) and mechanical overload (the iconography is brilliant once you understand it and useless until then). But difficulties that new players may encounter when playing the game for the first time no longer deter me from playing it.

With all that in mind, how should approachability best contribute to a game's total score or rating? We've identified several reasonably objective factors that define approachability, and it behaves sort of like the rest of the factors I use in scoring in that it's orthogonal to the other axes and is a per se good. But elevating approachability to the same level as the other ratings doesn't seem to make much sense because it becomes progressively less important the more a game is played.

Therefore, it makes the most sense to consider approachability as a secondary element to all the other categories, particularly mechanics but also aesthetics and strategic depth. How easy are the mechanics to grasp for new players? Does the game's visual design serve as an aid to explain how the game is played? Are player aids effective in representing the game's most important mechanics and decisions? Can new players grasp the strategy deeply enough to enjoy the game yet still want to come back to the game to get better at it?

In the next post in this series, I'll discuss complexity, another pseudo-category important for game scoring.