Written 24.09.2010 - Uploaded 04.10.2010
Sometimes an otherwise excellent game can fail because it encourages playing styles that are not fun. Other times games can mislead players into forming the wrong goals – to play the wrong game. In this article I'll look at two examples, games that are in many ways similar in their problems.
I will start with Descent: Journeys in the Dark. It's a popular board game designed by Kevin Wilson and published by Fantasy Flight Games. Descent is a dungeon crawling board game where a group of heroes compete against the evil forces controlled by the Overlord player. When the game is played in our gaming group, I'm usually playing as the Overlord, and wiping the floor with the poor heroes. Why? It's certainly not a huge difference in player ability – we play highly competitive and good matches in many other games – so what's going on here? The problem is, they are playing the wrong game. It's hard to blame them though, as Descent can be a highly misleading game.
The typical way of playing dungeon crawlers is to proceed steadily, wiping out all enemies and collecting all the treasure, while avoiding getting killed. The monsters give you experience points to develop your character(s), and treasure gives you better equipment. This holds true for all dungeon crawling games I have played on various platforms. Well, all, except one, which happens to be Descent. The game totally looks and feels like a dungeon crawler the way it is themed. The heroes proceed through areas separated by doors, and upon opening a new area, it is filled with monsters to kill and treasure to grab. Initially it seems the challenge/reward dynamic in Descent is really straightforward: kill the monsters, grab the treasure. Of course, it turns out this is almost the polar opposite of the truth.
Monsters in Descent don't give any experience. The only benefit for killing them is to avoid them killing you, or to access locations blocked by them. Actually, the monsters that are set on the board when a new area is revealed are not in fact much of a threat anyway. At least if you compare them to monsters and other nasty effects spawned by Overlord cards. These are cards that the Overlord player draws during his turn, and can play at appropriate times during course of play by paying for them with tokens, which he also gets more of each turn. At the start of his turns, the Overlord can spawn more monsters by playing cards into any areas the heroes' line of sight does not cover. With this analysis it should be clear that time is heavily stacked against the heroes.
Clearly the goal of the game is not character development. The typical way to win a quest is to kill the boss, which immediately ends the game in a hero victory. Descent's problem is that the players have to overcome their initial impression of what the game is about, which can be very difficult, and develop an entirely new doctrine that is in high contrast against all other games that appear to be similar. Instead of being a dungeon crawling game, Descent is in fact a dungeon dashing game, where speed is everything. All kills and gains need to be weighed against the amount of time lost. Sometimes it's better to allow one hero to be killed rather than take the necessary safety precautions which would waste a complete turn. The correct way to play this game is just not intuitive at first.
Nevertheless, Descent is an excellent game once all players get the hang of it. However, I do think the doctrine for playing this game should be more emphasized in the impression given by theme and game components. Observing the dynamics in the game it is quite clear that Descent is indeed intended to be played by optimizing for speed (on the heroes' side anyway, the Overlord is all about stalling to gain more resources), and it is a good design. Enough about Descent though. Let's turn our attention towards another game that shares some similarity to Descent's situation. The game I'm going to discuss next is Valkyria Chronicles, a turn-based tactical RPG for PlayStation 3 developed by Sega WOW.
Valkyria Chronicles is set in an alternative reality and its version of World War II. The game system mixes turn-based strategy with real-time action using a rather clever system. In games of this sub-genre (tactical combat), it's a very common trait to have individual units that gain experience and better equipment. It's also usually common that units can and will be lost permanently in combat if the player is careless. This highly encourages really careful play. Especially since training your individual units to become better and better fighters creates emotional attachment – you are not only losing a hard-boiled veteran, but also a dear friend who loyally helped you through a great deal of the game. That loss really hurts, and is usually enough for most players to load an earlier save and try again. The games reward careful play, because the longer units stay alive, the better they become. This is sadly where Valkyria Chronicles fails.
The units in Valkyria are not as highly individualized as in typical games of similar nature. All units, be they seasoned veterans or fresh recruits are almost of equal skill, because units are leveled up by unit class instead of as individuals. Sure, they all have a name, a profile picture and a few fixed traits to set them apart from each other. But really, in terms of pure game mechanics, there's nothing much to create attachment. Nevertheless, I ended up using the same units through most of the game, because while I knew I could easily replace them from strategic point of view, their past deeds were in my memory, and that individuality gained through personal history I could not replace. So, although not as strong, the attachment is still there, so this is not exactly where the game fails.
The reason of failure is in the challenge/reward dynamics. Characters don't get permanently killed very easily. As long as another character can reach a wounded comrade before the enemy does, they can be saved to fight in the next battle. So far everything is still quite okay. Careful play is the common doctrine in these types of games, so it feels like the natural course to take. The problem is, Valkyria Chronicles outright lies to the player. Here's the thing: missions are ranked based on completion time (in turns) only. So, in reality, the game rewards reckless rushing towards mission goals without giving any real regard to safety. Oh, and by the way, the game does not actually explicitly tell you this. I played for a long time thinking my rank is affected by casualties taken as well.
Because the rank is not just a score, but also determines how much experience you get, this reward system does intolerable damage to the gaming experience as you can't just ignore it. But this sounds hauntingly familiar. Didn't I just praise Descent, which has pretty much the same kinds of problems? Yeah, I did. But in Valkyria Chronicles, the design of the game doesn't make it feel like this is how it is intended to play. Oh, and in Descent casualties do in fact matter, because enough hero deaths means game over, and if you want to score your plays, each death also decreases your point total. In Valkyria, it doesn't matter if it's just one half-dead guy who reaches the final objective in time, you still get an A. It just feels wrong.
So, while it may have been the designer's intention to play the missions in a rushed manner, optimizing for speed only, the real problem is, having my characters killed, even if it's just temporary, made me feel bad about myself. I don't feel bad in Descent when my hero runs past monsters, leaving them so far behind that they can no longer reach him, instead of killing them. Why should I, my hero is safe after all. Personally, I don't think rewarding play that makes the player feel bad about himself is a very good design strategy. Sure, it if it's framed properly it can work (horror games again), but it most definitely doesn't feel appropriate in Valkyria Chronicles which tells the story of tightly knit-together squad of soldiers.
So, after all this ranting (that was two A4's worth of text just now), what I propose you take home from these examples? Giving the player right impression about how the game is supposed to be played is really important to make the game more approachable for beginners. Even more importantly, pay special attention to being consistent. As we see from the example of Valkyria Chronicles, a really small slight in the game's reward system can create a doctrine that brings about a gaming experience that is far from optimal. Only a small fix (adding casualties as another scoring criteria) would tremendously change the way the game should be played.
If you are playing board games somewhat regularly, with people willing to try out rule modifications and house rules, try to change the reward systems of some games and see how dramatically play is affected. Does the game stay in balance, or does balance fly right out of the window? Better yet, try it with your own designs – maybe you can come up with something unexpected that makes the overall design better. Of course, the reward system is just one example. Slightly altering other mechanics can have dramatic effects as well. The good point about board games is that these kinds of things are relatively easy to implement and try out.
In the case of Descent, a re-theming might have solved the issue of initial impression and keep the play intact. However, it's a tough game to re-theme, because it is not like your usual highly abstract European board games. Reducing the effect of time consumption on hero challenge curve would change the doctrine towards more traditional dungeon crawling, but would of course need some counter-balancing. Rewarding the heroes for killing monsters would of course also shift the scales towards other styles of play. Another way to accomplish something like this is to make it harder to run past monsters, which is what I am experimenting with in my own Descent mod.
To summarize, it's crucial to identify what kind of playing styles your game rewards. Do they match the theme of the game, and if not, how will your game suggest mindset changes to the players? If your game rewards a playing style that feels stupid, how can you weed it out without affecting the more interesting playing styles? And most importantly: is your game consistent in supporting playing styles?