29 Apr

Are player aids always a good thing?

Saint Petersburg box coverComputers are great at tracking thing. Hundreds of units, percentages of damage, thousands of die rolls – all those are things the computer will love.

All those are things that board gamers complain about as book keeping. Stuff that we don’t like, that slows down game play, makes games tedious and makes us wish for a clean cut computer to handle it all. But do we really want it to?

Here’s the thing. A computer could calculate everything for you. It could give you the damage and success percentages for ever combat before it occurs, it could help you in your decision making in ways an average board gamer can’t even imagine (take a look at AI decision support system research if you want to get your head blown off).

I’ve always been solidly in the “lets get all the book keeping out of the way so we can play”-camp of board gamers. But thinking about it now, with computers so close to board games, makes me doubt if removing all the book keeping is a good idea.

Take a look at poker. You could have a system that keeps track of all the visible cards and all you know and gives you accurate percentages when you play. It’s great if you’re into professional poker playing as a means of generating income. But would it really be fun?

I recently played St. Petersburg Amazon on the computer. It’s a game I throughly enjoy; it’s got all the engine building, VP collecting and cut throat decision points that my Eurogamer heart craves. And yet, on the computer, where it will keep track of everything for me, it’s not that much fun.

At first I thought this was because I was missing fiddling with the cards and cash and cubes. And sure, that’s part of the problem, but only part. The big part is that the computerized version gives me all the incomes, costs, merits and what-nots I need. It’s the perfect player aid, keeping track of everything so I don’t have to. And that makes the game worse.

See, St. Petersburg is a game of outsmarting and outthinking your opponent. There’s almost no luck involved, it’s all down to who can come up with a better plan, optimize his cash in a more efficient way and build the better engine. When the computer takes care of that the game becomes as fascinating as playing Chess by feeding the moves into a chess computer and then following the advice: you become a mechanism for moving pieces, nothing more (and in the computer version of St. Pete that’s done for you). Ok, I overstate a bit, it doesn’t really do all that, but just seeing all the scores, all the incomes and all the possibilities lined up, all the small reminders of what I should optimally do, takes away quite a bit of the mental strain. And I’ve come to realize that mental strain, to a certain degree, is fun. It may not be brain burning (which is what I see as the purely positive side of mental strain) but it still adds something to the game. Too much mental strain isn’t good, but an amount of it is.

I had a similar epiphany in designing Bagdad – that the player aids I had come up with were making the game worse. It’s a question of learning; it’s a pleasure to learn St. Pete but once you’ve mastered it there’s not as much fun in playing it. And the computer version lets you master it so much faster – there’s not enough hidden or random involved for the game to be fun once you can see all the variables laid out for you. Thus St. Pete is a game of mind challenge, of challenging yourself as much as it is of challenging your opponents.

Lets make a thought experiment; let’s take Tzolk’in Amazon and give it a computerized player aid that will give you the probabilities for what the other players will do, and what you should do in return. Tzolk’in is a perfect information game, so it is by definition solvable – in every situation there is a best action. Thus a computer could play it perfectly and you, with the aid of such a computer, would be able to play it perfectly as well. You’d win every time. But would it be fun?

I don’t think so. I think it would be a chore, for what makes Tzolk’in fun is, for me, the mental challenge, the joy of finding that optimal move, the one that will give you a score of VP while at the same time blocking all your opponents. That’s what makes Tzolk’in good, challenging and fun: to look for the best move. Not to make the best move by having someone else point it out to you.

And that’s what player aids, and computerized board games, can sometimes do.

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