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.