Sunday, October 7, 2012

Print and Play Study

In preparation for creating our own Print-and-Play games in the coming weeks, we downloaded and printed a bunch of free PnP games off of the internet, to check 'em out, see what makes them tick, and what does and doesn't work in the PnP format.

The first game we played was called Fire and Water (but sounds much cooler in its original German: Feuer und Wasser). It plays kind of like a cross between Dominoes, Othello, and Go. The idea is to capture to most amount of territory on the board by playing numbered tiles to increase your influence.

The game was a lot of fun, but suffered from some logistical problems. There are these extra pieces called Leaders and Elementals, which added different challenges in an effort to break up play, but there wasn't any sort of reward for overcoming the extra challenge; conquering an Elemental tile gives you just as many points as conquering any other tile.

About halfway through the game, we discovered it was actually a lot easier for a player to build up a ton of influence by himself in one corner of the board, rather than try to compete over tiles with opposing players. The game got a little silly after that; there was still interaction between players on the board, just not as much, and then I ended up winning on a technicality.

So the game certainly has problems, but we did have fun playing it. There's a wonderful sense of achievement that you get from starting out with an empty board and slowly filling it up over the course of the game.

One other thing worth mentioning: although the game did manage to get a good amount of complexity out of very simple pieces, and overall made the most of the Print-and-Play format, it also tended to suffer from Tiny Paper Squares Syndrome. Way to often the game had to be put on hold because someone laughed a little too hard, breathed too heavily, or would even just look at the pieces funny, and they would go tumbling across the table. Now, this is a problem I've had even with professionally made board games, and it's not exactly a deal breaker, but it's also not a lot of fun. The problem was somewhat compounded for this game, because the pieces are nothing but tiny paper squares, and there's a lot of them. I'm not about to declare for myself or for anybody else that Tiny Paper Squares are off-limits in designing a PnP game, but I think it's definitely something to keep in mind, and if you can avoid having Tiny Paper Squares in your game, you probably should.

The other game we played was called The Duke. This one is essentially a chess variant, but with two very interesting new mechanics. The first is that each piece has two different rules for movement, which are each displayed on opposite sides of the unit's tile. Whenever you move a piece, you then flip that tile over, so on the next turn, it moves according to a completely different set of rules. For most of the tiles, the two movement options are designed as an "offensive" and "defensive" set, so making use of the appropriate tactics at the appropriate time becomes very important. These movement rules also necessitate that you think kind of... fourth-dimensionally, I guess you could call it. You can't just look at the board and size up what each piece will be able to do, and a piece can go from being useless to unstoppable in the blink of an eye if you're not careful. You're allowed to check the backs of your own pieces to remind yourself of their other movement rules, but you're not allowed to check your opponents' pieces. So unless you can remember all the movement options for all the different pieces (unlikely on your first play-through), you have to be prepared for surprises. I was able to pretty much demolish my opponent because he couldn't really get his head around the shifting movement patterns.

  The second major change is that you start with only three of your pieces on the board, and you can spend a turn to select one of your other pieces at random to place on the board. What really makes this interesting to me is that it actually gives value to the Duke piece (this game's analogue for the King in chess). In chess, the King really only has value because the rules say so. It's not a particularly useful piece (until endgame, but let's not get into that right now). But in this game, the Duke is incredibly valuable, because he's how you place new units. Whenever you place a new unit on the board, it has to be placed in an empty square adjacent to your Duke. Just because of that mechanic, you can win or lose simply by the placement of your Duke.

Here's a tip, in case you ever play this game, which you should: One of the first things you learn in chess strategy is "control the center of the board". Here, that rule counts times a million. This board is a factor smaller than a chessboard, and it gets cramped quickly. It's actually possible for a piece to become permanently stuck, so forcing the other player to the edges is always a good idea. Also, get new pieces on the board as soon as possible. The first time they play, most players will probably spend their first turn to move one of their Footmen forward. That is a waste of time. Use your first turn to get your Duke clear of your Footmen, and then, if you can, move it on or near the center of the board. Then just start placing as many units on the board as you can. Once the game gets going, finding the time to place a new unit will become very hard. Do it early in the game, before you have lots of stuff to deal with.

So that wasn't exactly the sort of analysis that we were supposed to be doing of these games, but hopefully it's apparent that I enjoyed playing this one. This is a great example of how a few simple variations on an established format can create a wildly different experience. This game also manages to wring a lot of complexity out of comparatively few pieces. It does suffer slightly from Tiny Paper Squares syndrome, but the squares are a fair deal bigger than in Fire and Water, and on top of that they were weighed down by the tape I used to stick the two sides together.

Another interesting note is how the designers were able to establish an enjoyable theme for the game out of almost nothing. The only embellishment that each of the pieces have is a little symbol to the side representing a weapon or a scepter or sigil or something, but that symbol is the difference between "the piece which moves according to these rules" and The Champion, or The Seer. We probably only played this game for about an hour, but people got really into the theme, going on about "Aw Yea, got my Wizard now bitch, what'choo gonna do now!" and stuff like that. And although the movement patterns are mostly abstracted, there is a fair amount of thought given to the relationship between what the piece is called and how it moves. Certainly more thought than in Chess, where castles charge across the countryside, and priests can't step on the wrong color.

It was also really handy that all the rules for movement are displayed on each of the pieces. That was especially important for this game, since the rules are changing constantly, but even if that wasn't the case, having the rules readily accessible during play, without having to review the rulebook constantly, would make things a lot more accessible to a new audience. If I was inventing Chess, and I was making it a Print-and-Play game, I would write the movement rules on all of the pieces.

Gosh, I sure do talk a lot, don't I.