Continuing my look at the original Dominion deckbuilding game.
This past Christmas I got a very generous present from my long-time friend Christopher Allen: a beautiful wooden box for storing my Dominion cards, complete with labeled dividers showing which cards went where. It’s a thing of beauty — and also a solution for a few different problems that I’d had with Dominion over the years.
The Problem with Dominion Boxes
Previously, I had a mighty stack of square Dominion boxes atop one of my book cases, running from the original Dominion (2008) to Dark Ages (2012) — with a few of the smaller boxes located somewhat nearby. Unfortunately, I always found the individual boxing of Dominion supplements to be troublesome. It might seem a silly thing to complain about, but boxes can have real repercussions for how you collect and play games (as I’ve written about in the past), and I think that’s particularly true for Dominion.
Form Follows Function. It’s a rule in modern architectural design. According to Wikipedia it means that “the shape of a building or object should be predicated by or based upon its intended function or purpose.” I think that’s a rule that could be equally applied to board game components — and with at least as good of a result.
To me, you see, it’s all about usability. The components of a game should make a game easier to use, and for at least the last ten years we’ve been moving rapidly in that direction — to the point where I’m aghast when I pick up a game (usually published on the American market) where the question of usability has not been addressed. But, these questions of usability have usually fallen short of the architectural ideals that talk about how the shape of something can improve its usability, and that’s what I’m going to address today.
First, though, a look at what we’ve done thus far. Continue reading
Remember back to days of playing Monopoly? Did you ever actually read the rules? For myself I’m pretty sure the answer is, “No”, because in more recent years when I have gone back and looked at the venerable Monopoly rules, they looked entirely unfamiliar to me.
There’s a reason for that.
Now, I would never be one to call Monopolyan elegant game, but the Parker brothers did know how to do one thing right: they made good use of their components. In Monopoly’s case, practically everything you need to know about playing the game is right there on the board and the cards.
“Collect $200.00 Salary as You Pass Go” the Start space says boldly. “Community Chest,” another space states. “Follow Instruction on Top Card.” Sets of property are color coded, and the cost of each property is clearly stated on the board. The ownership card for each property displays all possible rents, a mortgage value and the cost of houses and hotels.
Now some game designers (and publishers) think that the primary purpose of components is beauty, so if they want to impress you they use quality materials and plaster artwork wherever possible. The results of this can be very positive. I’ve found that French games in particular, including Asmodee and Days of Wonder, often wow me with their artistic sensibility.
However any publisher that stops there has only gone halfway, and is omitting the other great advantage that components can offer, the one that the Parker brothers knew: elegance. Continue reading
I’ve long been convinced that the reason for The Settlers of Catan‘s huge success wasn’t its simple — yet strategic — gameplay, nor the fact that a lighter, more random game was more likely to appeal to families. Instead, I think it was largely due to its superb usability. Settlers’ clean, intuitive, and well-done player aid is the heart of the game’s ease of use, and thus I think the heart not only of its success, but also the overall success of the eurogame movement.
Thus whenever I’ve reviewed a game, I’ve looked very carefully at the design of its components, and in particular at their usability. I’ve tried to figure out what was done well and what wasn’t. Below I’ve listed about 50 of my lessons learned. They’re not necessarily the 50 most important; I’m sure I missed the third biggest thing that every component designer should know. Instead they’re just the first 50 or so items that came to my mind first and/or the ones recently mentioned by other gamers, by my wife, or by myself in my last 9 months or so of reviews.
Feel free to add on your own in the comments section!
In halycone bachelor days, I was a collector. My bookcases overflowed with variant editions of Michael Moorcock and H.P. Lovecraft. When I stumbled upon one of my favorites with a different cover, I gasped, scooped it up, and ran at once for the cash register. Multiple editions of roleplaying books graced my shelves. I could adroitly explain to you the differences between every edition of Call of Cthulhu from first to fifth and I could even shake my head and sadly state, with quiet assurance, that there was never a Pendragon second edition, that Chaosium just skipped from first edition to third, with nary a backward glance.
As you might expect, my purchase of board games suffered from this affliction as well. I’d long noted the identical spines of the Avalon Hill bookshelf games, which fit together so beautifully on the shelves, but it was TimJim Games which truly fed my addiction. Like those Avalon Hill stalwarts, the spines of the TimJim boxes were equally designed to entice any obsessive-compulsive purchaser, but they also went a step further and put product numbers on the spines in very large, highly contrasted, boxes.
I like the Empire Builder series of crayon railroad games. Something about their freeform nature — where you start with a blank slate and slowly fill in that canvas — appeals to my right brain and makes me think that I’m really creating something. Beyond that the games have a neat puzzle-like feel to them, where at any time you’re juggling a set of three demand cards, each with three demands, and trying to figure out how to best and most efficiently serve them. Creativity & puzzles together define some of my favorite game design elements.
As a result the Empire Builder series of games is, perhaps, the only games that I played in college that I still play today. Dune, Dragon Pass, Hacker, and others now largely gather dust, but I play a couple of tabletop games of Empire Builder (or one of the variants) every year, and I play the Iron Dragon computer game with much more frequency than that (albeit with frequent swearing at the slow and dumb AI).
Unfortunately Empire Builder is dated. The original game was released in 1980 and though there have been a lot of neat new maps, events, and terrain types since then there have been very few changes to the basic game. As a result, the game is too long and doesn’t make good enough use of its components. It’s also too solitaire and it’s got some rough corners that any modern developer would probably smooth right out. Unfortunately, Mayfair doesn’t seem too inclined to change the game. And who can blame them? Based on the continual flow of Empire Builder variants I have to imagine that the games remain good sellers, and that’s something that you don’t mess with.
You’re sitting down to play your favorite game, you pop open the box, and you start pulling out the pieces. It’s then that the pre-game activities begin, starting right off with the squabble for who gets which components.
Because game pieces innately come in colors.
We’ve been trained through years of playing that color is how we recognize which pieces belong to whom. When a game like Tigris & Euphrates comes along, which marks player pieces with symbols instead of colors, it’s a problem. I don’t know how many players I’ve seen who didn’t understand that they couldn’t be blue, red, black, or green in T&E. Personally, I found that I had to make my brain leap through strange hoops the first time I played that much esteemed game because symbols didn’t make sense, and colors do.