Monday, August 5, 2013

Design Lessons from the D&D Next Playtest (Part 2)

Continuing from last week's post, today we'll talk more about some of the design decisions made in the D&D Next open beta playtest and how they relate to strategy game design or design in general. This post will cover the live stream game from July 12 and the ensuing discussion on the July 18 podcast.

A well-designed game is reasonably intuitively able to be played even without looking at the rules. It's an interesting point, one that dovetails nicely from our recent discussions of approachability. Rodney and Mike assert that a marker of good game design is that if you open the box--literal for board games, more figurative for roleplaying games--you have at least some idea of how to play the game. You don't necessarily grasp all the complexities of the rules, and you certainly don't understand optimal strategies. But you have a decent idea of where pieces might go and how the board might look in its setup, early game, and end game.

There are two important implications of this design principle. First, it explains the enduring popularity of certain motifs in game design: moving spaces around a track by die rolls, winning tricks from hands of cards, completing sets of shapes or colors. Games that contain those elements make it relatively easy to predict the rules or gameplay just by looking at the parts. Second, making sure that games play the way you think they should play simply by looking at them removes barriers to approachability and encourages players to dive straight into the mechanics.

Two strategy games that do very good jobs of this intuitive leap into playing are Kingdom Builder and Carcassonne. Both games have boards that are easy to set up and pieces that clearly go places on those boards. If a new player opened the box to either game for the first time, she'd be able to reason through what the game was supposed to look and feel like almost immediately, even if she didn't instantly grasp the scoring or strategic nuances.

Mechanics should feel like tools in the hands of the players and not limitations. In some ways, this is an expansion of the previous point; if you feel like you should be able to do something in a game, the best games give you ways to do that. In roleplaying games, this is relatively simple: even if a situation isn't covered by the rules, the game master can pretty easily make a decision or institute a rule on the fly. For strategy games, though, rules tend to be harder coded, meaning good design requires a better forecasting of what naturally follows from a game's theme and mechanics.

For example, Settlers of Catan is about building a civilization, but it's not really a war or conquest game. There's no way to invade someone else's territory or steal their cities--but given the focus of the game, players don't really expect there to be, so it's not a limitation. At the same time, it does feel like there should be a way to defend your territory, which is why the knight/soldier card is so common. Settlers also handles resource trading exceptionally well, since it's natural for competing civilizations to want to specialize in what goods they produce. In contrast, when other resource management games that don't allow trading, that mechanic (or lack thereof) feels like an artificial limitation on something you'd naturally expect to be able to do. In this example, disallowing trading isn't necessarily a wrong design decision, but it's one that needs to make both mathematical and thematic sense before it's included in the game.

A game's numbers should mean something inside the game. Here's another nod toward theme, without which we'd just be throwing dice or drawing cards with increasingly abstract and complex rules constructions on top of them. Many, perhaps most, design decisions are made simply because it makes mechanical sense to do so. Maybe you draw three cards at the beginning of your turn to deplete the deck and to replenish your hand. That's fine; to be a good or even a great game, not every element of every turn needs to have deep thematic significance.

But it never hurts--and often greatly benefits--a game for its mechanics to have an in-universe, narrative reason to happen. In La Citta, citizens move from city to city because those citizens think they'll be better educated if they live elsewhere. In Tongiaki, ships sink if there aren't enough experienced captains among them to navigate the seas, and some routes are tougher than others. Perhaps Antoine Bauza designed 7 Wonders to have three ages because he thought that gave the right combination of brevity and strategic depth, but as a player, it's a lot more fun to think of it as pre-modern history getting divided into the ancient, classical, and medieval eras.

Next week, I'll be back with the third and (for now) final post in the series as the live stream game wraps up and the D&D design team offers its perspective on the game's conclusion.