Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The rules

This weekend I did a playtest session for my new camping themed coop game and Animal Odyssey, a game that Improviser and some collaborators created.  The playtest illustrated the difference in the way I approach building a new game and the way other people do it.  The main difference between the two endeavours was that my game had well defined rules that made it very clear what the players could do and Animal Odyssey had at least a half dozen situations where the rules simply didn't exist or weren't clear.

I build games that can withstand a rules lawyering bastard who will twist wording, take advantage of inconsistencies, and abuse good faith rules in a ruthless quest for victory.  I can't help it.  Every time I build a rule I immediately think about how I am going to push past it, work around it, or otherwise maximize my chances of victory.  I am not a perfect engine of deconstruction but it is fair to say that if I take a game and simply can't find a way to break it that 99% of the population won't have a hope of doing so.  I am good at breaking games and I build games that I can't break.

Other people don't do this.  For example, in Animal Odyssey there was a rule to prevent people backtracking in order to stop them from just going back and forth between trivial challenges farming resources.  The trick was that nobody was quite sure what that entailed.  Does that mean if I go from A to B I can't go to A again?  Does it mean that ABA is okay but ABAB is not?  How about if I go AB, try C, fail, and want to go back to A?  Is ABCABC okay?  Nobody knew.  This rule was clearly intended to let people know that they shouldn't do abusive ABABAB tactics but it relied on people having a sense of when they had pushed it too far.  I quickly came up with a half dozen nasty strategies that might potentially be stomped by this rule... depending on what the rule ended up being.  I don't want to guess when I have broken the rules, and I don't want to feel guilty for doing something effective that might be a violation of the rules but might not.  Just tell me what I am allowed to do and let me be as effective as I can!

From looking at games that people other than me have built this seems like the norm.  People have a gut sense of what would constitute an unfair strategy and build rules to stop that but never take the time to actually look at every strategy in between Horribly Broken and Normal Play and make sure that the rule clearly and unambiguously draws a line.  It is fine if you get the rule in not exactly the right place (especially in a coop game) but it is important that the rule be clear and consistent.  I am not arguing for byzantine rulesets but rather comprehensive ones.  Some of the suggested rules about backtracking in Animal Odyssey were incredibly complex and most people would have found them impenetrable.  Especially for a game themed around animal adventures that children might want to play it is critical that the rules are simple.

One confounding factor is that Animal Odyssey has multiple creators.  It is always trickier to make these sorts of decisions when you don't have a single person that can just make a call and have the team push forward with that in mind.  When a group of people are contributing to a project they bring a lot of creative energy, which is great, but without firm direction it can be very hard to ever get the numbers right.  You can't sort out the difficulty level of the tiles until you know how many cards people will draw, you can't know that until you know how people can move, and you can't know *that* until somebody decides what the backtracking rules are.  It is easy to keep on producing content but you won't know if that content is built in a way that supports the rest of the design without making some hard choices.

I like the idea of having collaborators on my games but it would be really hard to give up control of the numbers.  If they want to rewrite Trolls in HBT, card names in my camping game, or unit titles in FMB I would be perfectly content.  But if they wanted to make chain armour give +3 Armour instead of +2?  Go to HELL.  The number is TWO.  I think this is a big part of the reason I end up building games by myself and that they are tight on numbers but lack some of the thematic breadth that I would like.

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