Monday, April 25, 2011

Micro Mutants Evolution/X-Bugs - I Never Realized How Much I Like Picking And Flicking

I went to Atlanta on a business trip last week, and I was fortunate enough to hang with a buddy for some gaming. Among the amazing games we played was a really fun one that I had overlooked several times, thinking it was too cheesy. I'm man enough to admit that I was wrong, because Micro Mutants is an incredibly fun little game that was on sale at the Fantasy Flight webstore for five duckets over Christmas. This was one instance where it wasn't too good to be true, it was just plain great.

It's a flicking game akin to tiddlywinks, but it's actually interesting, unlike tiddlywinks. Players take on the role of theater commander of a faction of cybernetically enhanced or alien insects that have various powers, allowing them to hide in bushes, fire missiles, spit acid balls, and all sorts of other things. It has all the hallmarks of a good Ameritrash game: dice rolling, player elimination, and most importantly, an ant farm full of luck. Wait, I take it back. The real hallmark of a good Ameritrash title is that it's fun!

I need to point out that there are actually two different iterations of this game; one is the original X-Bugs game published in the States by Steve Jackson Games, and the second is Micro Mutants Evolution which is a Fantasy Flight game. There are some major differences in them, the most important being that Micro Mutants Evolution comes with a thin, felt playmat printed with some information and the X-Bugs game only has the bugs and dice themselves.

The rules are also a little different as well, the most important being that in X-Bugs, you may roll up to three bug dice to move three bugs where you only have two dice in Micro Mutants. They are, at their core, the exact same game using the exact same factions and the exact same quality bits, but Micro Mutants Evolution has all four factions inside a much larger box with that mat where X-Bugs has two factions per box in a Munchkin-sized box, and no mat. I'll be going back and forth between the two during this review, but I'm going to say up front that I like X-Bugs better, even though I had to go out and spend three bucks on a three square foot, polyester felt sheet because we don't use tablecloths at home.

The overall concept of the game is that, essentially, an alien spaceship crashes on Earth, and while all the alien pilots are dead, the insects that were stowed away on board were not and they are vying to dominate the planet. In other words, it's totally realistic and plausible, at least if you're a aficionado. Anyhow, several factions of these alien bugs were aboard, and they're all warring for control.

To stop the alien menace, the United States created its own DNA-modified bugs to battle them from the planet for a total of four playable factions in the box, at least in Micro Mutants. Players take turns rolling dice to determine which bugs they may attack with, and there are some resources you can capture that can upgrade your bases to give your squad additional powers, or repair damaged bases. There's a surprising number of strategic options available to players, but at the end of the day, your success may come down to your luck in rolling the die and your skill at launching your bugs where you want them to land.

Regarding the components, let's go to X-Bugs first. Each 2-faction set comes with nothing more than a couple of identification references and a rulebook in each set. Each set comes with a couple of sticker sheets, one for each faction, three colored dice per faction, and some colored tiddlywinks that you'll transform from mere plastic disks to mutant insect killing machines when you apply the stickers. That's all that's in the box, and you can play on any cloth surface. You can't effectively play on a hard table, though, because trying to flick the winks is virtually impossible to do if you hope to get airborne, which is a requirement. As I noted before, I bought one square yard of polyester felt, and it works outstandingly well, but any tablecloth or carpet will do.

Micro Mutants Evolution, however, has a load of stuff in the box. First, the box is the standard FFG bookshelf sized box, and inside is a nice, blow molded holder for all the bits. The box has four factions in it, complete with stickers and colored winks as noted in X-Bugs, but it only has two dice per faction which limits your play by one move per turn compared to X-Bugs. That being said, it comes with a very nice, printed mat that is pretty much perfect for playing the game.

It also comes with some double-sided big cardboard terrain features that add to the gameplay, and the factions' bases are made of cardboard rather than being the same plastic winks as the bugs are. There are also four cardboard rulers for use with the bugs' powers as many of the powers have been changed from X-Bugs to facilitate their use. Finally, instead of the paper references, each bug and base type has its own card to explain what each bug does and the base powers are also more plentiful but come on cards as well.

I'd like to note that the artwork, while not all that exceptional, is pretty good. One nagging pain in both sets is that the bugs that have different pictures on either side of their disc, so sometimes identifying a bug you've rolled to activate can be a pain. Also, with the USA faction, some of the bugs are very similar and are hard to tell apart, further complicating the identification problem. The artwork on X-Bugs is not as good as the treatment that Micro Mutants got, either, so I'd have to give the win, from an art perspective, to Micro Mutants.

In both games, setup is very similar, with each player placing their three bases and all of their bugs on their side of the playing area. Whereas in X-Bugs you can place anything anywhere you wish, provided you are a minimum distance from the edges and the center of the play area, the areas for bases and the boundaries for bug placement are printed right on the mat. In four player games, you simply take ownership of a corner for setup, and for a three player game, two factions take over the corners on one side and the third takes a central position on the opposite side.

Finally, for both games, all the resource tokens are simply dropped by hand into the center of the playfield. In Micro Mutants, one extra step is needed if desired, and that's the placement of the big terrain pieces, which are just flipped randomly onto the board. These terrain pieces have varying purposes, acting as portals or pits that can trap, kill, or move your bugs if they land within.

Gameplay is very similar between the two games in almost every way, but Micro Mutants has a little more chrome involved, which is endemic of Fantasy Flight's apparent penchant for spicing up games it leases. In both games, you roll your dice, and the faces that turn up will indicate which kinds of bugs you're allowed to flick. X-Bugs has a starting amount of three dice to roll, and when one of your bases is killed, you lose a die. In Micro Mutants, you have only two dice, and you don't lose dice if you lose a base.

To kill an enemy bug, you need only land one of your own bugs on top of that bug. Not all bugs can be killed like this, but in almost all cases, this is the way to defeat them. Some bugs have special powers that are only activated if that bug has its special power side showing, and these powers vary greatly in what they do. Some offer defensive abilities such as a shield, some allow special extra shots to be fired such as missiles or entangling webs, and some allow you to control other bugs. The variation in the game is really something to behold, and no two games will ever play exactly the same.

Flicking is done using a flat plastic "squincher" piece that is about the same size as a little stick of Trident gum, but about half as thin. You simply press down with its edge onto the edge of the piece you wish to move and it will pop up and fly to its destination. This takes a little getting used to for nuance shots, but once you get it down you'll be squashing your opponents like...well...bugs.

The real magic in this game is in its simplicity, and while it will take a couple times of playing with one faction to really get your arms around all of the mechanics for that faction, it's really a simple game at its heart and even if you forget a few rules you're not going to break the game or have a conniption fit. It's just a really, really fun little game system and it is just as great for hardcore gamers as it is for an Easter game of bug flicking with your older kids.

Gathering resources is precisely the same as killing enemy bugs in that you just land on them and then you can take the bit for your own later use. In X-Bugs, these are used to upgrade your bases and gain more abilities for your bugs, but in Micro Mutants, there's a lot more to it. You can upgrade bases just as you do in X-Bugs, but now you can repair damaged bases as each base has a "healthy" and a "damaged" side, which makes your bases more durable. On top of that, each base provides two new bug powers, to choose from which are illustrated on their own cards, and you may take one for free when you first upgrade a base. To buy the second, you need simply spend one captured resource token to buy it.

The game ends when in all cases when you've killed the enemy bases or all but two enemy bugs, but there's also other available end game situations you can play, such as ending the game when the last resource token has been taken, at least in Micro Mutants. As in all other aspects of Micro Mutants, there are just a few more options available than in X-Bugs, and they lengthen the duration of the skirmish more than anything else.

In short, with X-Bugs, there's just manoeuvering and maiming, and that's all there is, really. Yeah, you can spend your resources to upgrade bases which entails simply flipping the base over to the upgraded side, but in Micro Mutants, there's a lot more game in the box. The look is better and the bits are better, but there are a couple of things I didn't like that cause me to proclaim that X-Bugs is superior from a gameplay perspective. First, there's the three dice versus two dice situation, and I think that the concept of having a die per base and losing dice when you lose bases fits the game concept very well and adds importance to the idea of defensive play.

Next, the big terrain bits are a pain in the ass. It's more chrome, and most of the time the rule of thumb is to simply avoid them, so why bother even fielding them? The main, overwhelming reason I like X-Bugs better is the ruler mechanism. With X-Bugs, all powers do what they're supposed to and it's really simple whereas in Micro Mutants almost all of the powers that cause other bugs to be affected are measured effects, and the range can be extended through base upgrades. It's not that much of a pain, but it adds a step to every move you make and it's just not as clean as in X-Bugs.

Finally, In Micro Mutants, there's more powers available through the cards, and because of the damage and upgrade structure of bases, the gameplay concept really changes as gathering resources becomes a far more important aspect and skews the strategic process in that direction. That being said, with all four factions in the box, a playmat, and a better overall value for the dollar, Micro Mutants ends up making up for the shortcomings in a big way.

If you can find X-Bugs cheap, make sure to grab it. Micro Mutants Evolution can usually be found pretty inexpensively as well, and this would be a good idea to do as well. I really, really like these games, and I think that virtually anyone would love this. It's fast, and can be played by four in about an hour, and most importantly, every time I've played this game I've wanted to play again afterward. That's got to be worth something.

What Made Me Get The Bug For These Games:
- A four player game can be played in under an hour
- Everyone at the table will be having fun
- The balance of depth and simplicity is very good
- You're not going to get much more entertainment than this for $25.00 or so

Why I Want To Reach For Raid To Kill These Bug Games:
- The Micro Mutants ruler mechanism may have sounded like a good idea, but it wasn't
- X-Bugs doesn't come with a play surface, which would've been nice
- The art is not bad, but not great, either

I highly recommend this game because it's fast, requires both thought and skill, and most importantly, it's a hell of a good time. While I think X-Bugs is a streamlined and better version of the game system, Micro Mutants is no slouch. Were it not for the ruler mechanism, and the fact that there are no backwards-compatible rules that can allow you to omit it, I would tell you that Micro Mutants is an equal to X-Bugs from the gameplay perspective. Luckily, so much extra stuff comes in the box that from a value perspective, Micro Mutants more than makes up for that ruler by providing options that you might find more attractive than I did. All in all though, you can't miss with these, so pick them up!

X-Bugs Rating:
4/5 Stars

Micro Mutants Evolution Rating:
4.25/5 Stars

Check out X-Bugs here at the Steve Jackson site:

Check out Micro Mutants Evolution at FFG's site:

...and there's an expansion out, which you can check out here:

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Toe-To-Toe Nukl'r Combat With The Rooskies- Making Prison Rape Seem Kinda O.K. By Comparison

So, I got pretty drunk last night, and while I am immune to hangovers, today has been a profoundly shitty exercise thus far. The 2-year old peed herself not once, but twice, and my lovely and talented wife placed the Comet on the fridge in such a precarious manner that when I closed its door after retrieving the cream for my lovely, Keurig-brewed coffee, the bloody cannister fell and dumped bleach-laden cleaner all over me, the table, and directly into my coffee. For a brief second, I thought about sucking that tainted coffee down and ending it all right there. But you, my dear reader, deserve better, so I am soldiering on.

Anyhow, when days like this occur, I find that it's the best time to shred something without quarter or reservation. This is not to say that I randomly pummel games with a verbal brachial stun simply because I'm in a bad mood, that's not it. I may be an asshole, but I'm fair, and to do so would go against my Bushido code in a variety of ways. I just know that on average, at least one time a month my day will be completely aborted from the moment I open my eyes, and I reserve shitty games for moments just like this one. So, without further delay, "Hajime!"

Todays contestant on 'The Game Fucking Sucks' is Toe-To-Toe Nukl'r Combat from Victory Point Games, which I got from a syndication partner site for review. It's a tongue in cheek spin on the old "Dr. Strangelove" line that bears its namesake, but instead of tongue in cheek, I felt like I was sitting and playing it with thumb up my ass. What an immeasurable pariah. This game has all the subpar component quality of a print-and-play that was hastily printed and cut by a pet chimpanzee that just snorted a couple of rails of Xanex, and the comparison is totally appropriate because after playing this the fourth time, just to be sure it really was this bad, I wanted to rip my own face and limbs off.

Now some of you know that I believe that solitaire board games completely defeat the purpose of boardgaming because there's no social aspect, but since this game is solely designed as such, I can't dock points from it. Unfortunately, I didn't have to, because it fails on its own merit, or rather lack thereof.

The concept is that you play a bomber crew flying over Mother Russia during the cold war, and your objective is to rain nuclear fire down upon the inhabitants of bases, silos, and other targets deemed worthy of the most powerful weapons known to mankind. You start with a set amount of defenses and ordnance and all you need to do is vaporize your targets with an atomic fireball, and not the cinnamon kind, and get the fuck out of Dodge. On paper (which it is) it may sound good, but in practice I've had a better time waxing my jacobs.

To begin the dismantling of this "product", let's talk about the components. The game comes in a plastic ziploc bag, and I'd argue that the bag itself is the most professionally produced portion of the presentation. Inside you'll find a strip of marginally round die-cut chits that have about 72 DPI print quality. The art is actually pretty good throughout and everything is easily recognizable, but the die cut job leaves much to be desired. Then it comes with what is likely the smallest D6 on the planet, with the pips being roughly the same size as the game's entertainment value. It's the same size as the ones that come with Star Wars Pocketmodels, if anyone knows that one, or about half the size of a green pea. 

Then there's the "board" which is nothing more than thin cardstock with a nice fold down the center, and its print quality is on par with the chits. It is split into to portions with a faux aircraft cockpit display to help keep track of things, and the upper section is the map itself, complete with four different play areas. To add to the veritable cornucopia of vastly underproduced parts, there's a stack of cards that are roughly half the size of a poker card. They, again, are printed on cardstock, have sharp corners, and have poor resolution as well, although I'd have to say that of all the included parts, these looked the best.

Finally, there's the rulebook that, while effective, reads like a stereo manual, and to top it all off, there's about twice the weight in advertisements packed in the bag than there is actual game material. I have to give it to Victory Point, though, they have an incredible sense of humor. One of these advertisements is a thesis on how to make a prototype, and the whole time I was playing the game I was thinking that it was precisely that: a prototype. The one thing that was missing from the sea of adverts in the bag was the one thing that should've been required, which was a pamphlet from a suicide prevention service.

To set up the game, if that's what this is supposed to be, you simply read Section 1.2 of the manual which refers to other numbered sections to describe what the stuff is, and you place the parts where you're asked to. You are allowed 60 megatons worth of bombs to lay waste upon the Evil Empire, which can be comprised of a variety of nukes from 10 megaton through 50 megatons. You can have up to four munitions on board, and each one has a multiplier that may affect your score later on down the line.

Once you've chosen a "mission", which is essentially one of the four paths on the map, you start the mission. You can change altitide, which changes the threat levels of enemy forces and allows them easier or more damaging strikes at you, and then you can move your little plane icon another space on the map. Certain spaces have little dashed lines surrounding them, indicating that you must expend a fuel unit to carry on the mission, and if you run out, your plane ditches. This is not really an instant loss, but it lowers your final score significantly.

Each space on the mission tracks were loaded with a mostly circular chit during setup, and when you land on each space, you flip it over to see what bad shit is about to befall your noble airmen. This is not to mention that there's already an icon printed on some spaces, and in those instances, you're doubly fucked. The good news is that the game is so incredibly bland that when you get destroyed, it's a liberating feeling because you can go do something more fun, like getting cockpunched.

I'd go into some of the other aspects of the game, but quite honestly, I've spent about ten times the amount of energy that this game deserves to have devoted to it. The long and short is that at the end, you look at your score and then refer to a chart to determine how awesome you are at playing this abysmal game. I played a total of five times, and it was because I don't shit lightly on people's work. It's unfair, and it's not cool. So, I had to be sure that I was righteous in doing this, and I am here to tell you that if you drop the $17.95 on this game, you have some serious mental issues. Forbidden Island is 100 times the game as this is, has 10,000 times better components, and is five bones cheaper.

Now to be honest, VPG does make some games with this shitty production value that are fun and really clever. Nemo's War is one of them. That being said, there's no way in the hottest part of hell that anyone should think that this is in any way a value. They price their games on par with larger companies, but their parts are completely fucked. It's as if they can't use Google to find Superior Print On Demand and get quality bits for about the same price. It is my understanding that VPG is an extension of an art school, and so it underscores the point that these people need to realize that the visual and tangible aspects of a product make a tremendous difference in the value of the product. While Nemo's War is something that I might be on the cusp of recommending to a hardcore solo gamer, this craptastic late-term abortion of a sort-of-game is absolutely not worth half of the price they ask for it.

Why This Is A Nuclear Blast:
- The art is actually pretty good, despite the shitty medium it was printed upon
- The concept is pretty funny and has some in-jokes for Strangelove afficianados
- The little D6 can be put in gerbil cages so that they can be a part of the gamer lifestyle
- In a pinch, you can use the bag to suffocate yourself for buying this
- The game components can be used as kindling to keep warm while playing a real game

Why I Wanted To Be Nuked After Just A Few Games:
- The components are so bad they should have come with a prescription for Valium
- The gameplay is so rote and boring that even Goldfish crackers weren't smiling back
- For $18.00 you can get Forbidden Island or any number of Small Box games

Don't buy this game. If you think about it, have yourself put on a 72 hour observation at the local psyche ward. This game is so incredibly shitty that I simply do not have any more words to use in order to express the abject horror I sumbitted myself to in order to choke down five plays. This is the anti-game, and the only game I've ever reviewed or played that rated a 0.5 rating. I thought Scooby Doo Gold Rush Game was the worst, but I've been corrected. This is, without reservation, the single worst game I have ever played, and I'd argue that this extends to previous lives or incarnations.

0.5/5 Stars

If you want to check out other games from Victory Point Games, head here, and remember that it is my honest assertion that this game is not at all representative of the FUN of all VPG games, just the component quality:

What, you ask, is a brachial stun? Think "Captain Kirk Chop", but that actually works. Check it out on YouTube, I'd bet there's someone out there dumb enough to let another person do it to them.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Elements That Transform Good Designs Into Great Games

I had a conversation with my wife recently about the elements of a game that make a game surpass expectations and deliver a top quality experience, and as a result, I decided that it was time for me to sway from my golden path of reviewing and head into the world of design. I've interviewed enough designers and have played enough games that I think I've got a good grasp on what separates the good from the great, and I thought I'd share it with you all and perhaps spark some discussion on the subject. I may be full of crap, but I also might be onto something. I leave that for you to decide.

Why Theme Is Important

The first thing people see when they research a game is the artwork and the general theme. I'm sure that playing a game that attempts to re-enact the amazing and interesting world of export is incredibly compelling to some, a la Container, and to others there's nothing more compelling than having a Space Marine carry out the Emperor of Mankind's orders by emptying the skull of a Genestealer onto a nearby wall. Theme matters, and while you can't be all things to all people, designers must strive to create a compelling, cohesive game world that allows the players to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the game, allowing them to feel as if they're in the game world rather than a sitting in a darkened room eating pretzels and playing a board game.

Designing a game with a concept in mind and then building the game around that world is always going to be more engaging than developing a set of mechanics and then figuring out what to wallpaper those concepts with. The key is not to figure out what people would be interested in as much as developing the world based on a concept, because with little exception, the game's integral theme will be executed far more effectively than making a game and trying to figure out what the game should be

From the ground up, a game should have every aspect of the mechanics exude the game's theme. A great example of this concept is the recent Merchants and Marauders, where you feel like a salty scallywag from the moment you look at the box to the end of the game. You can tell that the entire game was built around the theme, and both the art and execution make the game completely immersive.

The antithesis is a game like Lost Cities that appears to have been designed with a poker deck and then, after the fact, it was decided that it should be a game about archaeology. I'm not saying that a game with a weak or pasted-on theme can't be a success, such as Tigris and Euphrates, but I am saying that designing a game that has theme elements permeating through gameplay will always be more successful.

Now all of that being said, even a great, popular theme that is executed well will not save a mediocre game, but it most certainly will help sell units. Witch of Salem is a great example of a mediocre game that has a rich, engaging theme that was adhered to well. At the end of the day, if games were meant to be nothing more than an IQ test between friends, all games would simply have Scantron sheets, number two pencils, and a SAT pre-test in the box. People want to, by and large, live something outside themselves and take a small, reasoned break from their own realities, and in order to offer this, a game needs to have a well executed, integral theme.

How Art Can Shape Perception

I cannot stress how strongly I feel about artwork enough: it is critical to making a successful product. Games are a visual medium in most cases, and the more evocative and pleasing a game's art is, the more it will allow a player to suspend disbelief. I'm not saying that a game has to have Cyclades quality murals, although I'd personally love that, but I am saying that having the bare minimum of passable art will certainly not aid the game's cause. Using the Lost Cities example again, had the game had far more appealing visuals, even with a painted-on theme, the game would feel more thematic and interesting.

When I think of a game that was done spectacularly well, I think of Space Hulk. Notwithstanding the full barrel's worth of oil required to cast all of the plastic in the box, the art alone is enough to make the game stand among the top tier of published games. Art is not an afterthought, and when you consider that some games, such as Magic The Gathering have made millions of dollars by being consistently beautiful to look at, you have to accept that art is not only a requirement, it's a necessity.

While it is arguable that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there's no accounting for taste, you have to admit that there are certain things that everyone can agree on when it comes to visuals. The magic is to have art that is the outward face of the theme, because no matter how compelling your theme is, if it's not believable and viscerally "real" then it will almost certainly be relegated to be remembered as a passable effort rather than a masterpiece.

Why The Components Don't Need To Be Expensive To Be Good

There is a lot of division over the subject of components, and while some will say that without a pound of plastic in the box a game is only half produced, I think that having the components mirror the theme, no matter what they are made of, is a key ingredient of success. I don't see much distinction between Arkham Horror using the standies or the same game using the pre-painted miniatures aside from the fact that buying the figurines will triple the total purchase price.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather have a reasonably priced game with exceptional, thematic art than a bunch of miniatures in that same game at twice or triple the price. What it really comes down to is what best serves the design, though, and in some cases, miniatures are really the best way to establish the theme's overall feel, and in those cases, the extra price may be warranted.

An example of a design that would have failed without the miniatures is Heroscape. The gameplay is exceptional and the design is dripping with theme, but without all the wee plastic army men, the game likely would've flopped. Part of what made the game appealing was the tactile aspect of moving soldiers across tiered, plastic terrain, not to mention the collectability of the series.

The fact is that you cannot discount, as a publisher, the innate hoarding and collecting gene that seems to be inherent to a large contingent of the gaming community, so if the game is compelling enough to suck in the consumer and the design is such that unlimited expansions of plastic bits will sell, there's nothing wrong with having premium bits.

Another key issue regarding components is the durability and quality. When you look at games like Betrayal at House on the Hill's recent re-release, the quality just not there due to tile warping issues, and the wide array of complaints has most certainly turned off quite a few people. Not only does using subpar materials hurt the individual game's sales, it can also taint the publisher's name. In the case of Betrayal, it seems like it was a one-time lapse, not a systemic issue with Wizards, but were they to make the same mistake again, it most certainly would begin to sow the seeds of doubt in the consuming public's mind.

In short, taking an interest in a game's bill of materials can be immensely important to the long term success of not just the individual product, but to the long term reputation of a publisher, and to ignore the quality aspect of a game is sales suicide. The fact that technology has matured to the point that a small, previously unknown publisher like Clever Mojo Games can produce a world-class product at a reasonable price reinforces the idea that a larger publisher failing to produce a quality product is not only harmful, but it can be fatal.

My final sentiment on components is that there is really only one truly unforgivable sin when it comes to the contents of a box, and that is completeness. There is no excuse, in my opinion, to force players to go out and get extra items to play a game that they just bought. The prime example of this, and the one that I beat up on most often, is Munchkin. There is simply no reason for a game with an MSRP of $25.00 to NOT have level counters within, be it nice plastic ones or just plain old 10 sided dice.

I can understand running out of counters in a game due to an oddball situation that was likely an unforeseen event, but not putting required items in the box is, in my opinion, a sure fire way to anger the consumers whom you wish to peddle your wares to. Even if you put a disclaimer on the box that tells a purchaser that they'll need to have something on hand to play, it's always better to spend the extra change on the game and put everything needed to play the game right into the box.

Complexity For Complexity's Sake

Games need to have the Einstein philosophy of design that, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Tossing in complexity for the sake of complexity can take an otherwise exceptional product and turn it into a pariah. Android is a perfect example of a game that would've been far more widely lauded as a success had Fantasy Flight focused far less on chrome and boiled the core game concepts down to a far less complex game.

Conversely, very complex games that have tremendous upkeep between rounds are not necessarily destined for failure, as evidenced by Arkham Horror. It is a complex game that has just the right balance of chrome and core rules to give players an exceptionally rich gaming experience without making it so ridiculously hard to grasp that people give up on it.

Another key aspect of the complexity conundrum is that the complexity of a game should closely mirror what the designer wants to accomplish with the design. Forbidden Island was clearly meant to be a light, cooperative puzzle game and it completely nails that design concept. The rules are very light and understandable, and the bar to entry is very low while still providing enough depth to warrant multiple plays. Conquest of the Empire, a twenty-six year old game, is another example of a game that, while substantially more complex than something like Forbidden Island, doesn't have so much excess chrome merely for the sake of complexity.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, games like Tannhauser or Earth Reborn that have much higher levels of complexity are immune to overwhelming players because the chrome that has been added significantly enhance the enjoyment of the products. Chrome is not a bad thing, in other words, but it really has to fit the design goals and it has to be executed in such a manner that it does not make the game a burden to play. The upshot of this is that the complexity of the game has to be adequately explained to the players by the rulebook, which is likely the number one reason that a game can be accepted en masse or dismissed as a poor design.

Far too many games have gone to the wayside because the design was "trying too hard", or forced the players to absorb too much information too fast. Earth Reborn is arguably the antithesis of this, with a tiered rulebook that slowly builds the player's understanding of the game up by having a series of tutorial scenarios with increasing amounts of complexity being added into each, climaxing with the full game rule set. It is a clever teaching mechanic, and far more games would do well to learn from the idea of teaching little pieces at a time, slowly stacking people's understanding of the game until the final lesson where the player has become fully adept at understanding the complete package.

How Coherence and Tempo Can Make Or Break A Product

Sometimes games attempt to do a lot of diverse things in the box and it works, but other times the game will give players the feeling that a part was bolted onto the end of the game as an afterthought, creating a "disconnect" between the game's overall feel and its mechanics. While coherence is an extension of the theme to a degree, it really is more about having everything come together in a symphony that is greater than the sum of its parts rather than being a poorly unified group of good ideas that don't work especially well together.

An example of poor coherence is the revised Fantasy Flight version of Dungeonquest. It is superior in a lot of ways to the original Games Workshop version, but because the game has a more complex combat mechanic than fits the game's fast and furious style, bogging the game down and making players wonder why combat extends a player's exponentially, turning what was a fast game into a game that has an uneven tempo.

The end result of this instance was that FFG realized it and almost immediately released "optional" combat methods to amend the game back into what it originally was thirty years ago.Tempo is equally important with coherence, as I alluded to, because there's very few more frustrating things than having a player's turn taking far longer than normal because of the designer neglected to keep the tempo of a game consistent by design. A jilted, stop and go tempo can absolutely ruin a player's time, and the proof is in the fact that people prone to analysis paralysis are often derided and scorned.

It's one thing to create a design that affords paralysis prone individuals the opportunity to slow a game down by taking long turns through the dreaded move optimization spectre, but it's entirely another to force the game to a grinding halt because performing a specific action is so time consuming, by design, that whenever the mechanic comes into play the table collectively moans in anticipation of five minutes of waiting.

This is not to say that a game has to have a fast tempo and short turns to be a success, but rather that if a game is meant to be deep and complex, with long turns being the norm, it should not switch between fast and slow gameplay. When you sit down to play Risk, you know the game is going to take forever, but when you sit down to play Dungeonquest, the expectation is that the game will be very brisk throughout. Building in a mechanic that causes the game to essentially pause for all but one player is, in my opinion, a recipe for disaster.  

Why A Well Written Rulebook Can Singlehandedly Save A Design

Some companies seem to think that "less is more", and I'd tend to agree with them with the caveat that while it is better to have less fluff in the manual than more, the rules have to do a good job of explaining what it is the players are supposed to be doing and how to do it. Twilight Creations is the poster child for rulebooks that, on balance, do a terrible job of explaining how to use their games.

I equate it to buying a piece of stereo equipment, but finding that none of the hundreds of buttons are labeled and that the owner's manual has no illustrations in it and refers to the controls in such a manner that you're expected to instinctively know the product as if you were on the design team. While I understand that paper is getting more expensive, there is simply no excuse for a game that cannot be handed to a random person on the street and played through, without significant issues, using only the rulebook.

I am so terribly disgusted by the swath of games that are released and then subsequently have large "FAQ" documents released to explain what was not adequately explained in the original rulebook. If you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on publishing a game, do yourself a favor and get as many schleps off of the street as you can find to play the game using only the rules so you can find out what you missed. It seems that there are very few games that do not require tremendous after-the-fact explanation, which indicates to me that there was simply not enough effort put into the rulebook to explain the game with any degree of precision.

I am not saying that the solution to this problem is a fifty page rulebook in all cases, but I am saying that if you're going to produce a boardgame product, you should most certainly make the rules as easily understandable as possible, with illustrations and examples where needed, so that your game is completely playable right out of the box. It's totally acceptable to have "FAQ" documents produced in answer to rules lawyers that need to have every single thing explained in triplicate, but when a game's core gameplay is ambiguous, especially in a complex game, is simply not made plain by a good rulebook.

Games like Space Alert that take the time to not only explain the game, but create an atmosphere through clever narrative and humor, are always going to be more interesting to read than a dry one like those found with many Victory Point Games. That being said, a game like Return of the Heroes that uses a story-driven rulebook doesn't get points for style because as interesting as it is to read, it fails miserably to explain key points about the gameplay. It is great that publishers go the extra mile and want to craft the story into the rules to help augment the theme, but it doesn't pan out if the rulebook fails to achieve its ultimate purpose of explaining how to play.

As mentioned above, the rulebook is, at its core, a teaching tool and should be written from the perspective of a teacher attempting to explain complex and abstract concepts to an amateur. It is a mistake for a company to simply assume that if a player was interested enough to buy the game that they must have some level of expertise in playing similar games. One has to consider that many publishers release the rules in advance of the game's availability, and if the rules are not appealing and understandable, the consumer may decide that the effort is not worth the time investment and not purchase that product.

The Final Analysis

While this article is obviously not all encompassing, it certainly does point out, at least from my perspective, things that can make a good design great or make a great design turn into a commercial failure. As someone who spends my treasure and time buying, playing, and reviewing games, I believe that many of the games on the market should've taken the time to assess how their design meets the above goals.

Yes, some games are beyond salvage, such as Munchkin Quest, but at the end of the day, if publishers would think a little more about the individual issues that consumers make purchasing decisions on, their sales will be better, product reviews will be more favorable, and their final product will be much more attractive to buyers than many of the things we see on the market currently.