Monday, July 25, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 21: Arkham Horror

The stars are right for summoning our opinions about Arkham Horror. Why do we keep coming back to it, in spite of the insane amount of setup? Which expansions are worth getting? How should new players dive into Arkham Horror's murky depths? Plus, during our discussion of games we've played recently, Tom and Paul recount their return to ASL, via VASSAL. Verily. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 20: Brian Train on wargames about revolutionary and asymmetric warfare

Brian Train, wargame designer, joins us to discuss simulations of irregular warfare. How do insurgencies differ from conventional wars, and what's different about how you simulate them in wargames? We talk about many of Brian's published games on these topics, such as ¡Arriba España!, Battle for China, Shining Path, and Algeria, as well as his upcoming games. For more info on Brian and his games, visit Copyright (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Monday, July 11, 2011

I've Been Diced! episode 19: Magic Realm

We love Magic Realm, so why not spread the love? This episode, we give an overview of the game for new players, and we talk about what makes Magic Realm both unique and great. Later, Tom has Spain on the brain, so he gives a quick overview of wargames about the Spanish Civil War. Plus, an announcement about future episodes that will rock your world! Or just mildly perturb it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

LA Noire: Watch the silliness evaporate

This morning, I finished LA Noire. As some reviewers have said, the good parts are truly brilliant, and the bad parts are teeth-gnashingly awful. The good news is, the further you get into the game, the more the silliness evaporates. By the last few chapters, the game is tightly focused on the main plot, which is very well-written. Unless you don't like mysteries at all, it's worth wading through the muck to get to the conclusion. But man oh man, why so much muck? Why the endless car chases, foot chases, shoot-outs, and time-wasting non-clues?

How UX made me a Ticket To Ride player

After playing a few sessions of Ticket To Ride with friends, I lost interest. It struck me as an OK game, and I could understand why it had a strong fan base. However, given limited boardgaming opportunities, I happily let my copy go.

That was several years ago. Today, as a dedicated iPad user, I was mildly interested to see how well Days Of Wonder implemented Ticket To Ride for this medium. Now, in spite of my earlier diffidence to Ticket To Ride, I'm a regular player.

What changed? First, there's the lack of setup. Even with a simple game with relatively few components, the process of setting up and breaking it down factors into my interest in playing it. (One reason why I don't get Arkham Horror to the table that often.)

Second, there's the speed of play. Ticket To Ride played face to face took longer than I had hoped for the class of game it is. Playing Ticket To Ride on the iPad takes only about 15 minutes, even when played online against other people. Dealing with players suffering from analysis paralysis is much easier in the anonymous online world than when sitting across from the table, worried about how that player will react to urging to get along with it already.

Finally, there's mobility. On the couch, on the train, on the plane, I can jump into a game of Ticket To Ride whenever I feel a need to take a short mental break from my work.

In other words, the iPad version of Ticket To Ride has a completely different user experience (UX) than the boardgame. The rules are the same, but it's essentially a different game. Ditto for similar games, such as Carcassone, that I've revisited in their iPad incarnations.

Another interesting case is Joan Of Arc. Because of the subject matter, I've been intrigued, but never took the plunge because it seemed at risk of being another game that was too Euro-ish and too long. Many times longer, in fact, than Ticket To Ride, which would try the patience of my regular gaming group if it turned out to be less than stellar.

The iPad version is pretty good. I'm glad I bought it, both in and of itself as a game I enjoy playing on the iPad, but also as something I might consider buying, now that I have more experience with it.

That's a pattern I hope to see repeated with other games in general, and wargames in particular. The user experience of physical wargames may be too much for neophytes, interested in the history and gameplay, but not sure about the investment of time. Having played Washington's War on the iPad and enjoyed it, a newbie might then want to introduce a friend to the physical version. Learning how to play any iPad wargame would certainly help the new player understand wargame conventions in general, lowering the barrier of entry to the hobby in general.

Again, it all comes down to user experience. As I said in my earlier post, software often fails because the initial user experience is confusing and difficult. If eventual complexity is necessary, you need to provide some kind of simpler initial user experience that suggests where to go next, and the rewards for going there. That, by the way, is where many "gateway" games fail, for some players. While Memoir '44 might be easy to grasp, it's also not much of a simulation. The leap from Memoir '44 to Washington's War is a lot tougher than the transition from the iPad version of WW to its physical one would be. So, here's to companies like Shenandoah Studios, providing the initial user experience that may get more people playing wargames.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

User experience is more than mechanics

Boardgame fans are, by and large, a forgiving people. While emotions might run high sometimes, as they often do on public forums like Boardgame Geek and Consimworld, they often sound like lovers' tiffs. For instance, in last week's podcast, I got a bit worked up over the utter disregard that FFG shows for first-time players of Twilight Imperium, but I still love the game anyway.

People are a lot less likely to suffer the imperfections in other things. Software designers, for example, only recently admitted to themselves that (1) the average user really hates the average application, and (2) there's a harsh economic penalty (lost sales, wasted resources, etc.) for delivering software that is too difficult to figure out or use. Developers build applications for people unlike themselves, and boy, does it show.

As a result, concerns over user experience have skyrocketed in the last several years. In fact, if we roll back the clock a decade or two, the average programmer might not even have heard the phrase user experience. If they had, it might have been limited to trivia, such as where to put buttons in a dialog box, or how many menu items is too many.

User experience, in the sense that we now use the term, is a much bigger concept. What are the steps the user expects to take, in doing a task like entering an invoice or reviewing case files? How much does the actual experience of using the software match the expected experience? What are the details of the actual experience that matter to the user, and why?

User experience (abbreviated UX) is more than the sum of its parts. The positioning of buttons doesn't matter if the dialog box is incomprehensible. A well-designed dialog box is useless if the user can't find it. A highly accessible dialog box is worse than useless if it gets in the way of completing a task. Providing an easy path through one task has limited value if it takes 10 minutes to start using the application at all. A bad experience in some parts of the "application flow" will tarnish the user's perception of the other, better-designed parts.

Games can provide a bad user experience, too. The average gamer might have more personally invested in playing Dominion than using an airline ticketing application, so they're willing to put up with a bit more. However, their patience isn't bottomless.

Unfortunately, game designers don't usually think in terms of user experience. Instead, they craft a set of game mechanics, bundle them together, and declare the game to be finished. They use some rough measures of user experience, such as rules complexity or average playing time, but these are very incomplete measures, much as the number of clicks needed to finish a task is only a partial measure of user experience in software.

This rule applies as much to video games as boardgames. I'm nearing the end of LA Noire, and man alive, what a disappointing user experience it has provided. The parts that excel — the interesting mystery plots, the overarching story about the aftermath of WWII —  are buried in game mechanics that are irrelevant and irritating to people who enjoy mysteries or film noir. I had hoped to play the game with my wife, who's a big fan of both, but there's no way she would sit through the repetitive car chases, foot chases, and shoot-outs.

Is user experience a problem, if boardgamers are a forgiving bunch? Yes, for one big reason: staying power.

Boardgames that provide a poor user experience, or just the wrong one, lose market presence. After the initial enthusiasm for new games, only a few retain a strong following. In December 2008, Battlestar Galactica was played 1231 times, among players who record gaming sessions on Boardgame Geek. In June 2011, that number dropped to 531, which isn't bad for an older game. Ghost Stories, another popular game in 2008, dropped from 1121 plays to 353 in the same period.

You can't attribute Battlestar Galactica's success to the popularity of the TV show, since many if not most licensed games are miserable failures.  Marvel Comics may be responsible for two summer blockbuster movies, Thor and Captain America, but the Marvel Heroes boardgame has only 38 logged plays in June 2011 on Boardgame Geek. Battlestar Galactica continues to draw players because it delivers a good user experience, one part cooperation, one part "Who's the toaster?" paranoia — just what you'd expect from a game based on the TV show.

Although many of you might disagree, I don't think that Marvel Heroes was all that bad of a game. However, it didn't deliver the user experience players might have expected from a superhero game. (And it's hardly alone among games about that genre that don't feel like comic books. What's up with that?)

Soren Johnson, the designer of Civilization IV, identifies this potential disconnect in an excellent series of blog posts about the difference between theme (what the box says the game is about) and meaning (what playing the game is like). Meaning is a big part of user experience: Does Marvel Heroes feel like a comic book? Does Descent feel like a proper dungeon crawl? How well the game delivers this experience is just as important as other qualities of the game, such as whether it's any fun to play, or too long, or aesthetically repulsive.

User experience is at the heart of my continued skepticism about Mansions Of Madness. Since I can read, I know what the theme is. However, after playing the game, I don't know what the game is supposed to be about. Is the main point competition between the keeper and the players? The mechanics imply that's the case, since players have to focus on moving through the house and overcoming obstacles (locks, monsters, darkness etc.) fast enough to resolve the challenge successfully. Other people have argued that it's a storytelling game, in which the mechanics generate a Lovecraftian story. If so, Mansions Of Madness fails, if for no other reason than the win/lose mechanics that are not part of the Call Of Cthulhu role-playing game, which is designed to re-create the experience of the Mythos stories, even if the Keeper has to fudge die rolls or plot developments occasionally to make it work. (To borrow James Carse's terminology, Mansions Of Madness is a finite game, and Call Of Cthulhu is an infinite game.)

User experience should be the basic requirement of any game. As someone who is trying to design his first wargame, I'll say that, as a starting point, the intended user experience does help a lot with the process. Rather than succumbing to the temptation of throwing in mechanics because they might be significant, I'm pruning things that don't contribute to the user experience.

Some designers seem to be very good at user experience. The average Martin Wallace game, for example, has the right feel, whether it's competing in the early days of the automobile industry, competing as the overlords of war-torn Poland, or pulling every devious trick you can imagine in Renaissance Italy. Since not everyone has this knack, I'd make user experience an explicit requirement at the beginning of design, instead of releasing a game that succeeds on all the usual measures (balance, complexity, etc.), but matches the intended experience as much as Microsoft Word resembles the process of writing.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Spain, PC wargames, Barcelona, and other news

As you can tell from this week's podcast, we're back after a short break. I'm totally to blame for missing one of our regular recording windows, but I had very good reasons. First, I was in Barcelona for business, and then stayed for a few more days on vacation. (More on that later.) And, it was the regular end-of-the-quarter mayhem, during which myself and my peers at Forrester Research are pushing hard to finish research reports and consulting projects before the end of the month.

Since I download to my iPad practically everything that looks interesting, I tried out Stitcher, the multi-platform, hybrid Internet radio/podcast app that has been advertising a lot on NPR lately. I registered the I've Been Diced! podcast there, for anyone who switches to that as their preferred app. (I've also been experimenting with iCatcher, which gives you the option of downloading or streaming podcasts to which you subscribe.)

As I mentioned on the podcast this week, I've been learning The Operational Art Of War III. If that sentence sounds as though I'm learning a language instead of a PC-based wargame toolkit, you wouldn't be far from the truth. Once you get a handle on the game, it's a rewarding experience, particularly given the gazillion scenarios available for it. However, learning it is a lot like a night class covering Serbian for beginners.

Maybe I'll write something longer about TOAW, but for now, let me just say that it's harder than it should be to start. No game ever reveals itself completely on the first play, and the part that's often obscure is the step beyond the basic mechanics. You can read the rules and understand how to play Combat Commander, for example, but it will take a couple of games before you can assess how risky your planned attack will be.

That's where I am now, having played the Arracourt scenario several times, switching between the Americans and Germans. I've fought the computer to a draw, and even pulled out a minor victory once. But jumpin' Jehosephat, the interface and documentation did not help.

I hadn't been to Spain, and I feel that I still haven't, at least the part we normally consider to be Spain. Catalonia definitely has its own identity, starting with the Catalan language, which is different enough from Spanish that my high school Spanish lessons did me little good.

We stayed in the center of the old medieval city, the Barri Gòtic. It was very touristy, but heck, we were tourists. If you're a history buff, Barcelona is a fascinating place. Tons of interesting medieval details, and a surprising amount of the original Roman settlement still visible, from a section of the original wall (shown here) to the ruins of the downtown area that you can visit in the bottom level of the City Museum.

Taking a drive up the Costa Brava was a great idea, since we got to see a few other fascinating things. If you're ever in the area, take the time to see Empúries, an amazingly well-preserved ancient town, first settled by the Greeks, and then by the Romans. Both settlements are excavated, and both are chock full of fascinating things, from tiled floors to the water filtration system, from the Roman forum to the Greek jetty.

I strongly recommend taking the time to read about Barcelona, Catalonia, and Spain in general before going. Otherwise, you'll miss a lot. For example, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the residents of Barcelona successfully resisted the Falangist seizure of power. Visiting the Place Sant Jaume, the square in front of the old city hall and police station, is a little different experience when you've heard that's where the local military commander, ordered by his Nationalist superiors to fire on any Republicans, had the field guns loaded with blanks.

There's an element of games in my day job, as a computer industry analyst. Game-like exercises, serious games, are seeing some adoption in software development teams as tools for understanding customers and making better decisions. You can see my slides here, if you're interested at all. (Serious games have applicability outside of software development, but that just happens to be my research coverage.)