Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hours of fun per gaming dollar

In the latest podcast, I proposed a measure for the value of games, the ratio of gaming hours per dollar. (Let's abbreviate this ration HPD, for convenience.) The HPD for a game like Mage Knight: The Boardgame is pretty high: out of the box, you get a very good game with a lot of depth. A lot to explore, even if there were only one scenario, but the designer provided several scenarios to explore, out of the box.

I'm repeating the phrase out of the box for a reason. The HPD for a game should depend on what you get, prior to any expansions. That's what makes the HPD very high for Mage Knight, and even higher for its granddaddy, Magic Realm. Good gravy, that game provides a lot of different dimensions to master, and a lot of different options to explore. Again, out of the box.

Which brings me to another recent publication, the new edition of Wiz-War from Fantasy Flight Games. I'm not such an old fogey that I swing my cane at any young whippersnapper of a designer who dares tinker with a time-honored classic. The tweaks in the FFG edition of Cosmic Encounter, for example, made sense, and were thankfully limited. Cosmic Encounter might have needed a tune-up, but not a brand new engine.

But some people can't help but open the hood and start pulling out parts. Decision Games has a bad track record of damaging games like Empires of the Middle Ages and Imperium through unnecessary changes. FFG altered the combat system for Dungeonquest for no good reason, and it seems as though Kevin Wilson went a rule too far with the new Wiz-War.  Over at Boardgame Geek, Rusty Ballinger provides a very balanced critique of this new edition, which unfortunately echoed some of my concerns when I started perusing my copy of the game.

Yes, I know, you can easily ignore some of the new rules. It doesn't cost you anything to change the victory conditions back to the classic "capture two chests." But there are other aspects of the new Wiz-War that, I fear, reduce the HPD ratio. Read Rusty Ballinger's review for some examples, and I'll add one of my own:

The old Wiz War might have been underproduced, but you sure got a lot of plays out of it.

The box was small, so it didn't take up too much room in your gaming closet. There were only two expansions, and each was relatively inexpensive. Even without the expansions, out of the box, you'd get a lot of plays out of the basic set. Which makes the HPD ratio even higher than it is with the new edition, almost by definition.

Given the choice, I'd rather have nicer components than uglier ones. But the components don't really add much to the HPD ratio. Sure, it gives you that "good all under" feeling when you first look at it, but how long does that frisson last? Especially when compared to more durable aspects of the game, like its replayability?

Nothing comes for free. You focus your attention on the components, and you invest less in other things -- like the rulebook. As Rusty Ballinger asks, "Dammit, you guys had twenty years to straighten out ambiguities  & questions; how could you leave old ones & add new ones!?" The answer to that question is, the rules were a lesser priority for this edition. Rules problems -- holes, ambiguities, changes, misinterpretations -- are a net loss in HPD terms. You're spending less time actually playing, and more time figuring out the right way to play. Ugh.

1 comment:

  1. Been listening to your podcast and enjoying it (and sad to hear you are no longer in the bay area since we have similar tastes, though I think we may have met at a couple of BAP meetings.

    Anyway, I did want to respond to your gaming value per dollar rant/screed/reasonable assertion. At the end you claimed that adding this additional gameplay would cost publishers no additional money because the component costs would not increase by much. That doesn't really seem relevant to me. The increase in cost is going to be person hours to create and playtest all these extra scenarios you talk about and that is not even remotely free. This is like saying that a band should always release double albums because the cost of a second CD is just a piece of plastic.

    That aside, I'm not sure of the value of that measure beyond a certain point. I don't have nearly enough time to exhaust all the games that I own (to say nothing of the dozens of new ones that catch my interest each year). It is far far more important that the first 20 hours of a games experience be good than hours 20-200 - I simply may never get to them. There are exceptions, sure, but I'd rather publishers concentrate on delivering a really well developed and tested play experience over a limited time than worrying about my ability to play it for 200 hours without getting tired of it.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!