Substance over form

Stefan Feld has been appointed headmaster of the Uwe Rosenberg School of Crappy Game Design.

Let me rephrase that: in recent years, several concepts have become popular in the design of modern board games that I believe lead to weak designs. Two noteworthy and popular designers who apply these concepts are Uwe Rosenberg and Stefan Feld, but they are definitely not alone.

Before I am going to discuss these inferior concepts, I need to give an explanation of what I think makes a good game. In my opinion a good game is a game that has tactical and strategical depth following from a parsimonious ruleset. To put it in simpler terms: A good game is easy to learn and still offers plenty of opportunities for exploration. It follows that a good game has little randomness (because much randomness makes choice less relevant) and has interaction with opponents (because without, a lack of randomness would allow straightforward calculation of the best moves). In this vein, Go approaches perfection in game design: with only four rules it can be taught in 5 minutes, but it offers a lifetime of tactical and strategic exploration.

Now, besides offering some challenge, modern board games also must be fun, or at least interesting, to play. And fun can be incorporated through different means, for instance by adding a captivating and visually good-looking theme, or by offering players a lot of diversity in choices. So-called ‘Ameritrash’ games usually have overly complex rulesets and a lot of randomness, but are so theme-heavy that they may become a lot of fun to play if the theme appeals to you (for me personally, Battlestar Galactica is the core example of a game that sins against all my mantras for good game design and is still an enormous amount of fun to play).

In recent years, I have observed a trend in modern board game design that has become highly popular but which I think is detrimental to the design of good games. This trend really took off with Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola, which is why I attribute it to him. Let’s call it the Rosenberg Style. The Rosenberg Style has the following features:

  • The game looks good, with a rainbow of colored wooden or cardboard bits, to provide an instant ‘Wow’ factor leading to quick sales.
  • The game has a crapload of cards, where each card represents a different rule, so that players believe that it has a lot of diversity (alternatively, for ‘cards’ read ‘action spaces’).
  • The game has a myriad of different ways to score points.
  • The game obfuscates the final score, so that all players will always have the feeling that they “just might win”.

The Rosenberg Style might lead to interesting games. Agricola, for instance, is a game that I enjoy. I don’t think it is a great design, but because of the tension that the game provides between scoring and (basically) eating victory points, combined with the fierce battle between players over the scarce resources, provides a nice challenge.

However, more often than not it leads to games that are simply inferior. Rosenberg’s latest, Ora & Labora is just terrible. There are so many ways to score points in that game, and you will score so many points during it (which are only calculated at the very end), that you never have any idea who is ahead. The game comes with hundreds of cards, all of which will be played during the game, each card representing a different building with different ways of using it. You can use all the cards on the table, even those in front of other players, which are very hard to see, and of which even the exact positioning matters. It comes with several hundreds of little two-sided cardboard chits, of which each player has dozens of different ones in their resource pool, and which have a tendency to accidentally fall over to their other side, which has a big impact on the game. The game just handles badly. Even if it would be a good game otherwise, its physical attributes alone make the design just a plain awful.

The weird thing, to me, is that Ora & Labora is quite popular, to the point that many people call it superior to Agricola. I have been wondering why that is, and I have concluded that Ora & Labora is more an activity than a game, and what many people look for in a game is something to do rather than a challenge to overcome. Because the scoring of Ora & Labora is more or less invisible, there is no need to worry about it. Because you have so many possibilities, there is always something that you can do. If you can’t quickly find an action to perform, you take some resources — that’s never bad. If you want particular resources that don’t seem to be available, you take some action — those are never bad. Or you construct a building — there are several points right there. If you want, you can set a strategy at the start or during the game — “this time I will try to make lots of whiskey and beer and get points by turning them into relics!” And if that doesn’t pan out, you just change to another strategy on the fly. It is not a bad thing that a game allows switching strategies, but in Ora & Labora you can do it because it does not seem to matter.

To be frank, I believe that in Ora & Labora strategies actually do matter, and that there are definitely ways to play the game that are superior to other ways. But to get to that level of thinking, you must have played the game so often that you know all the cards, and you can follow them on the table. It will probably take at least half-a-dozen plays to get some ideas in that direction, and several dozens to reach the minimal level of knowledge needed to be a strong competitor. But Ora & Labora got rave reviews from the outset, from people who played it once or twice. Why? Because it is an activity. You do stuff. It does not matter if you really know what you are doing. You always have choices, you always score points, you have a feeling that you are in control because you have lots of resources, and at the end someone wins. Maybe with 300 points, but as you had 285 points, you did quite well, didn’t you?

It is my firm opinion that in a game choices should matter. I loathe roll-and-move games (like Monopoly) because there are no real choices to be made. The Rosenberg Style often (but not always) leads to games where choices do not matter much as they are balanced to provide every player with about the same amount of points, regardless of what they do. The main saving grace of these games is that they hide the fact that choices do not matter under a thick layer of diversity and colorful components. (I should point out here that I think that Rosenberg’s own games that use this style tend to be more interesting than those of most of his colleagues.)

I think that one reason that we see so many new games using the Rosenberg Style these days, is that it is relatively easy to design games this way. You have a game with a board that allows players to get resources, and buildings that convert resources. You give it ten types of resources and create 200 buildings, all along the line of “The Smithy turns 2 Iron and 3 Gold into a Horseshoe and 7 Nails”. You allow players to construct those buildings using resources, and use them with workers. Each building is worth points, some resources are worth points, and quite a few buildings allow turning resources into points. At the end you add up all the points. And there’s your mechanism.

The main trick, where the designer is concerned, is to devise a good theme to give those buildings interesting-sounding names and convince the publisher that they should hire a good illustrator and invest in nicely-colored wooden bits. You might think that the building design is pretty tough to keep balanced, but it is not really that hard, because of three reasons: (a) it is usually relatively easy to come up with some rules of thumb to decide what the building should cost to construct; (b) as you allow every player to use every building, any player can make use of an overly strong building; and (c) you want a little bit of unbalance (though not too much), so that players feel that they need to fight over some buildings.

Rosenberg Style games are often forgettable, in the sense that people rave about them when they come out, but no longer play them two years later. Ora & Labora is already on its way out. And why not? These games are similar to action movies that hinge on special effects: once you have seen them, they no longer hold interest, and the effects are dated in a few measly years.

My main annoyance with Rosenberg Style games is their brief popularity. I do not play games on my own. I need others to play with me. And if these others are keen to switch from one Rosenberg Style game to another, I never get the chance to really explore a game that deserves exploration. Fortunately, in the groups where I play there are enough people who want more from their games than just an activity. But even they get swayed now and again.

That’s fine in a sense: I can be entertained by “just an activity” too. As long as I get to experience games designed on substance rather than form with some regularity, I’m good.

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