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.

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