Friday, February 19, 2016

Creative Inefficiencies

An important principle of board game design is to keep the gameplay as efficient as possible. What do I mean by efficiency? Well, any board game experience has a few very-fun parts, like making big strategic choices and pulling off brilliant tactical combos and imagining the details of a strange new world and making terrible puns based on the game's thematic setting and lobbying your friends to ally with you and rolling a dozen dice at once and anticipating the thrill of victory. Any board game experience also includes a dozen activities that are much less fun, like setting up the board, adding up your score, figuring out the rules, moving pieces back to their starting zones at the end of each turn, and waiting for other players to move. An efficient game gives you a whole lot of the very-fun parts and relatively little of the not-so-fun parts. You want to fill your hour of board gaming (or four hours of board gaming, or however much time you've got) with as much fun as possible.

Often, as gamers and as designers, we don't pay enough attention to the resources demanded by a game. I've heard people say things like "I like Concordia better than Dominion." Fair enough. But do you like Concordia four times more than you like Dominion? Because the same play group can probably get through three or four games of Dominion in the time it takes to play one game of Concordia. And at least in my experience, there are some real returns to scale when you play the same game multiple times -- people get more comfortable with the rules, people feel more free to experiment with oddball or amusing strategies, and it's not as much of a big deal if you lose one game because of an unlucky draw or just plain being outwitted. Are you really going to have more total fun playing one game of Concordia than the total fun you would have playing four games of Dominion or 7 Wonders or Splendor or Codewords? If you're designing a game that takes two hours to play, will people have more fun playing it than they would have playing four half-hour games? People don't often ask these questions, and they should.

The Wrong Kind of Efficiency

Here's where things get interesting, though: too much of the wrong kind of efficiency can be deadly. You want to keep your game moving, so that you can build a sense of excitement and momentum and so your players aren't spending the bulk of their night groaning and sighing and waiting for Bob to make up his mind -- but you also don't want to suck up every ounce of your players' mental energy. Part of what makes a game fun is the chance to engage in banter, teasing, and casual conversation with your friends, the chance to sit quietly and appreciate the game's artwork and theme, to let your imagination run wild for a moment with the game's possibilities, and to savor a beer or a coke or a liter of pretzels. You can't do any of that if 100% of your attention is going to a desperate struggle to keep your character alive. Optimizing too aggressively for something like "strategic decisions per hour" wrecks the other virtues that make boardgaming worthwhile.

As an example, consider three popular space strategy games: Cosmic Encounter, Eclipse, and Space Empires 4X. Cosmic Encounter is inefficient in terms of strategy per hour -- you spend a lot of time politicking to see if your neighbors will help you colonize other planets or at least stay out of your way, and you try to choose the card from your hand that's as weak as possible while still allowing you to successfully colonize a planet, and that's pretty much the whole 90-minute game. Like the vacuum of space, Cosmic Encounters is too thin for the time it takes to play. By contrast, Space Empires 4X is too efficient in terms of strategy per hour -- even after you finish calculating your budget to the nearest milliStarbuck and plotting your fleet's journey on a hex-by-hex basis, you still need to pay close attention to your opponent's moves so you can try to figure out which chits represent which cloaked ships and what upgrades your opponent might have secretly bought. You're constantly calculating odds, calculating budgets, calculating routes, calculating counter-strikes, mentally re-designing your ships -- and on top of that you still have to play politics like you would in Cosmic Encounter. You can literally lose a game of Space Empires by losing track of which of your opponent's fleets was which while you step out to use the restroom. I would argue that Eclipse offers a happy medium in terms of strategic efficiency -- yes, there's a tremendous amount to think about, including ship design and resource management and politics, but when you pass your turn, you've passed. You can take a deep breath, take a deep swig of IPA, and ask the other guy who passed how his artisinal mushroom farm is doing. The game crams a lot of action into its four or five hours, but it also gives you a chance to breathe. Eclipse has some creative inefficiency built into the design.

And if the designers had removed that inefficiency by finding a way to make sure players have something important to do even after they pass? It would have made Eclipse much less fun to play.

Broader Applications

I suspect that this idea of creative inefficiency has much broader application, well beyond the world of board gaming. Take Bell Labs, for example. For decades, Alexander Graham Bell's phone company had a total monopoly on telephone service in the US, driving up telephone prices to inefficiently high levels. People used to pay well over ten cents a minute to talk to people who lived in the next county over. Now we barely even have the concept of "long-distance calls" anymore because the assumption is that calls from a landline anywhere in the US are free of charge. The reason why long-distance charges went away is that the US Justice Department busted up Bell's monopoly, splitting the phone company into lots of smaller competitors (Southern Bell, Pacific Bell, etc.) that competed on price, making telephone service cheaper and more efficient. So that was good, right?

Well, maybe. See, before the breakup, when Bell Telephone pretty much owned the entire telephone industry, Bell had an incentive to invest in all kinds of speculative research on the off chance that it would turn up something useful to the telephone business. It didn't really matter if the scientists figured out a way to make better microphones, or better speakers, or better wires, or better networks -- pretty much any telephone-related invention would be good for Bell. Bell was so huge, and Bell earned such nice fat profits from its inefficiently high prices, that Bell had no reason not to fund a few hundred full-time scientists to see if they could think of any useful innovations that might have something to do with telephones.

As a result of the research at Bell Labs, we got the transistor, the laser, radio astronomy, the calculator, UNIX, C++, and half the modern economy. On a per-dollar basis, or on a per-scientist basis, the research done at Bell Labs was some of the most useful research that's ever been done. But when the hammer came down on Bell's monopoly, Bell Labs' pure research division was shut down, and it hasn't been replaced. The closest modern equivalent is...Google Labs, which is made possible by the fact that Google has over 90% of the market share for Internet search advertisements, and Google regularly collects huge profits that it has no good way of spending. So, Google has no good reason not to pay eight hundred engineers to see if they think of anything neat that relates to the Internet, and as a result we get Gmail and Google Maps and Google Calendar and self-driving cars.

We could use the government to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of the telephone business and Internet search business, so that consumers get the lowest possible prices. But should we? What if leaving companies with a generous layer of fat is one of the best ways of keeping them healthy and productive? What looks like an inefficiently high corporate profit could sometimes turn out to be an essential pillar of the broader economy.

(You might think the government could just tax AT&T and Google and spend the money on the appropriate kinds of pure research projects, but whenever the government sponsors an activity, there's a certain amount of...public paranoia about whether you're making good use of the taxpayers' money. You know those guys who are always freaking out because the National Endowment for the Arts funded 10,000 paintings, one of which included a boob? Well, they're watching the science budget, too. You can be doing serious research on how to cure gastrointestinal disorders by investigating microfauna in animals, and then some idiot publishes a press release about how your grant is wasting the taxpayers' funds on studies of badger poop, and suddenly you're out of a job. Good science usually requires long-term commitments of energy to speculative, counterintuitive projects. By contrast, anything the government spends money on has a way of becoming the public's business. The public does not like or support long-term commitments to speculative, counter-intuitive projects. They will not pay for more than a tiny amount of it, no matter how good the scientific track record is. I used to work for the US Antitrust Division. I don't like monopolies. But I'm forced to wonder -- is there something about a monopoly's inefficiency that we actually need because we can't get it any other way?)

Think about Baseball; think about baseball; think about baseball...

I don't want to beat a dead horse here, but here's three more quick examples to illustrate the idea of creative inefficiency: baseball, foreplay, and Ford Motors. Baseball is sometimes mocked as the world's least interesting sport, but what you lose in fast-paced action, you gain in relaxation and meditative contemplation. It's actually surprisingly hard to go sit outside on a warm afternoon and relax for three hours. Unless you're a Zen master, you'll either fall asleep or you'll get bored, go inside, and watch TV. Baseball provides just enough stimulation to keep you awake, and then gives you the time and space to let your mind wander and your emotions recharge. If baseball were more efficient at delivering sports-action-per-minute, it would be worse at accomplishing its true goal: recreation.

Similarly, the way foreplay works is that you try not to arrive at your goal. The space that you create by leaving some of your clothes on, by putting certain kinds of touching off-limits, and by framing the exercise as 'introductory' gives you time to focus on touch, on intimacy, on enjoying the look, sound, and taste of your partner(s), and on being playful and silly and thoughtful and kind. If you're woefully inefficient at stimulating your partner, foreplay can get boring, but if you're too efficient at getting each other aroused, then you're missing the point of the exercise. It's the permission to be inefficient that makes foreplay interesting.

Finally, Henry Ford famously paid the workers on the assembly line at his Model-T automobile factory at least twice as much as workers were earning in similar situations. The extra wages allowed Ford's employees to purchase their own automobiles, stimulating demand for the new product. Even better, the higher wages drove up wages at nearby factories, allowing some of the workers at other factories to buy Model-T's as well. Prices for automobiles were higher than they needed to be -- but that was OK, because people were earning more than they needed to earn. The United Auto Workers union eventually locked in those inefficiently high wages at Ford and at its oligopolistic buddies (GM and Chrysler), letting two generations of working-class white men earn a comfortable living, buy houses in the suburbs, and send their kids to college. With the help of sky-high tarriffs and loose anti-trust enforcement, GM, Chrysler, Ford, and the UAW together were able to keep high auto wages and high auto prices going for over five decades. Was that wrong? Should we have instead found a way to manufacture automobiles for the lowest possible prices so that Americans could drive more miles a year and pave over more acres of forest at an earlier date?

Our cars are better and cheaper today now that we have competition from Japan and Germany and Korea -- but is that really good for the economy? Detroit is a ghost town, union workers have lost their pensions, and the Big Three flirted with bankruptcy.

So: try to make board game designs (or try to look for board games to play) that are reasonably fast and reasonably streamlined -- but don't get carried away. If you focus all of your attention on speeding up the strategy, you can lose out on the other ingredients that make board gaming (or anything else) worthwhile.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Space for Civilization

My ultimate board game design fantasy is to create Civilization in Space. In this introductory post, I'm going to explain exactly what I mean by that, and then in future posts, I'll share some of the reasons why Civilization in Space is so important to me, where some of my previous attempts went wrong, and what I'm doing on my latest quest for the Holy Space Grail.

What is a Civilization game?

A 'civilization' style board game, or 'civ' game for short, is a board game that shares some of the key features of Sid Meyer's classic 1991 computer game Civilization. Civilization puts you in the role of an absolute monarch, encouraging you to manage the welfare of your empire's individual cities in order to raise armies, construct public works like roads and aqueducts, and discover new technologies. Civilization deserves praise for many, many different features: it had truly progressive and innovative graphics, music, user interface options, tactics, politics, and immersive depth. In my opinion, though, there are two key features that make Civilization and its heirs better than all other games.

First, Civilization lets players seamlessly transition between minor questions about how to manage the population in an individual city and major questions about how to manage the progress of your empire as a whole. With a few clicks, players could direct a group of 10,000 villagers to stop working a Forest tile and start working a Grassland tile -- or, also with a few clicks, players could direct their million-person empire to throw off the chains of Despotism and declare a Republic. A sane player won't have the time or attention span to constantly micro-manage the placement of every single villager in the empire -- but a competent player won't be able to avoid making at least some decisions about how to distribute her workforce. The beauty of this system is that it challenges the player to identify which decisions are truly important, and which decisions can be left to the computer's sub-optimal default choices.

Second, Civilization allows players to directly challenge, invade, and conquer each others' cities, but there is much, much more to the game than simply winning at military conflict. Many 'wargames' such as Axis & Allies, Game of Thrones, and Eclipse have reasonably complex economic systems, but almost the only outputs of the economies in those games are faster, better, and more numerous machines of destruction. In Axis & Allies, for example, if you have a strong economy, you can build lots of tanks and deploy them close to your enemies, and if you have a weak economy, you're reduced to building a handful of riflemen that will be trapped close to your home cities. That's about it. By contrast, in Civilization your economy is good for a very wide variety of aims -- you can discover civilian technologies that help you support larger and happier cities, you can terraform the landscape to make it more fertile and more productive, you can fill your cities with banks or recycling centers or cathedrals or courthouses, you can link your continents with a network of caravans and railroads, and ultimately you can build a starship and launch it toward Alpha Centauri. Of course, none of that will do you any good unless you also build enough Catapults and Chariots -- and then later enough Cannons and Submarines -- to defend your cities and protect your pioneers from barbarians and invaders while they march around laying rail tracks. The beautiful, simmering tension in Civilization is that you have to build a military in order to protect the rest of your accomplishments, but if all you build is a military, then you miss out on most of what the game has to offer. In short, Civilization hits players right between the eyes with the bread-or-butter dilemma of Vietnam-war era America: you have to choose how much you want to invest in a bright new future, and how much you want to invest in making sure someone else doesn't take what you build and run off with it.

To sum up this section, I'd say a game qualifies as a Civilization game if it offers (1) a challenging mix of micro-management and big decisions, and (2) an interesting mix of options for both military and civilian progress.

What does it mean for a board game to be set 'in space'?

At the simplest level, you can set a game 'in space' by changing some of the cover art and the names of the pieces. Your marines become "Space Marines," your cities become "Space Stations" and your sailboats become "Spaceships." Some Eurogame companies make a habit of 'porting' successful games into every conceivable thematic environment -- pirates, Shakespeare, steampunk, ancient Rome, the desert, a coal mine, a horse race, a dog show, a sushi restaurant, etc. -- with only one or two minor changes to the game's mechanics. There's a lively debate that's been running for at least fifteen years about whether this is good for the gaming community, but it's not a debate that particularly interests me -- for better or worse, I'm firmly on the side of the debate saying that your themes need to match and reinforce your mechanics, so that the thematic content of a game piece (e.g., this tiddlywink represents a pirate ship) helps you remember how the game piece behaves mechanically (e.g., this tiddlywink will move to different port cities and take cargo cubes from the cities and from other tiddlywinks).

So for me, to set a game 'in space' means that the mechanics of the game need to match and reinforce the outer space theme. This is tricky, because we don't have much in the way of real-life examples to inspire the mechanics! We 'know' from Grade-B sci-fi movies what bug-eyed green aliens from Mars do, but what do space station managers do when a shipment of water doesn't arrive on time? What do the captains of long-haul space freighters think about when they plot a course back from Saturn or from Betelguese? What does a general in the Asteroid Belt do when she's plotting a diversionary action to cover a retreat from the Moon? What kinds of hard choices are faced by an 'average' terraforming engineer? By an amazingly talented terraforming engineer? By an under-funded and rushed terraforming engineer? What new options become available once civilization starts spreading beyond the planet Earth, and what new challenges will future leaders be forced to grapple with that present-day leaders are free to ignore?

All this uncertainty means that there are really two parts to the 'space' part of the Civilization in Space challenge: step 1 is to imagine, in loving detail, what a human future in space might look like, and step 2 is to tie the details of that future to specific board game mechanics.

Didn't Sid Meier himself already make expansions that set Civilization in Space?

Yes and no. In 1999, Sid Meier released the smash hit Alpha Centauri, which invited turn-based strategy gamers to rebuild civilization on a strange alien world. IGN called it "deep, rich, rewarding, and thought-provoking in almost every way." PC Gameworld called it the "Holy Grail." I called it awesome, and played it non-stop for months when I finally got a copy. For better or worse, though, the action in Alpha Centauri and its expansions all took place on a single planet. You can build satellites that show up in a special window that's notionally 'in orbit' of the planet and that provide benefits to all of your cities, but you don't travel to other moons or other planets, let alone other solar systems -- once the mothership crashes on Planet in the opening movie sequence, you're stuck on and around that planet for the rest of the game. In my opinion, Alpha Centauri is really just a remake of Civilization that happens to have a pasted-on futuristic theme. There's nothing that happens in the Alpha Centauri game that couldn't also happen on, e.g., a post-apocalyptic Earth.
Last year, Sid rolled out Civilization: Beyond Earth, which, oddly, follows exactly the same format: rebuilding civilization on a single alien world, with orbital satellites providing small bonuses and no forays of any kind beyond low orbit. The 2015 'companion game' Sid Meier's Starships extends the premise a little bit by allowing players who successfully rebuild civilization to go out and explore nearby colonies and try to weave them into a federation, and Starships is definitely set in outer space -- but sadly, Starships isn't a civ game! Instead of building a multistellar civilization, you're commanding one fleet on a series of scripted missions with familiar goals like "escort this diplomat," "find this shiny MacGuffin object," "rescue these innocent victims," and "blow up the dreaded space pirates." The gameplay has more in common with Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance than it does with the original Civilization. Good fun, but it's not thematically or mechanically equivalent to building up a civilization as you see fit.

So -- what would it take to truly put Civilization in space? To not just offer a strange alien landscape, to not just offer some civilization-style features on a star grid, but to reinvent the civ-building genre to incorporate the challenges and opportunities afforded by (a) being able to colonize incredibly different environments, some of which are extremely hostile, (b) having to cross very long distances of uninhabitable vaccum in order to reach your neighbors, and (c) having a technological base that can only be sustained with a minimum population that's larger than the population of the average colony?

I'm working on it. Stay tuned!