Introducing the ‘New’

Here is something I’ve been thinking of late. New ideas and concepts are most easily absorbed when presented with something traditional or in a traditional form. Things which are completely new and are presented in a totally new way can be overwhelming and an instant turnoff.

Original ad to the left and a more iconic, untraditional approach to the right.

For example, iPod was introduced with a traditional commercial of a kid ripping a disk and downloading the music to the iPod. After which he got up, put it on and did a dance. While the commercial irritated some people (the dancing of the kid), it showed the ‘common folk’ how an mp3 player worked and why it was a must have product. Then, came the hip, image building brand campaign with the silhouetted youth dancing on bright backgrounds that we all have seen. Now, we had to have it because it was cool. A novel product introduced traditionally so that it could be absorbed, followed with a novel communications platform.

A sponsored project I did years ago in school to teach others about the bond market. Much of the mechanics were borrowed and altered from Monopoly so that the game could be instantly “understood” upon looking at it. This went a long way to getting the players into the mechanics of the bond market rather than the mechanics of the game which was already familiar.

I am reminded of a senior project I worked on while at Art Center years ago. We had a sponsored project with a bond marketing firm to design a tool to explain the bond market to non savvy people. (I think many of the traders just wanted something to explain to their parents or spouses just what they did for a living.) One tool they suggested we could create was a game. You can bet I jumped right on that one! I came up with a boardgame which was visually based a bit on Acquire. It had tiles that would be placed on a grid and would somehow (I don’t remember now) fluxuate on the board to describe changing market trends. Visually it was perfect for showing the market dynamics. However, when I brought it in, both the concept of how to play and the unusual format thoroughly through everyone off. They had to get past two barriers before even beginning to understand the bond market – how does the game work and why does it not look like something familiar. I changed the game to a Monopoly style format with a roll, move and buy style of game. There was a track on the outside with color coded types of bonds, random event cards and a tracker for the lifespan of bonds were also included. I did add twists to all these mechanics, but the look and feel was instantly understandable to anyone who took a look at the game. They saw it and ‘got it’. The game was a huge success and stole the show. Why? Because it was comfortable and familiar. Was it a great game? No, not to us designer game enthusaists, but the purpose was less about the game and more about a delivery system for understanding the bond market.

We all gravitate toward the comfortable and familiar in all that we do. Even though we seek out new adventures, new game mechanics and new themes, it helps if some element is grounded in the familiar.

Mall World’s board. A nicely themed look with the blueprint. Nicely layed out too from an aesthetic point of view. However, the 45° angle is unusual and perhaps harder to wrap one’s head around.

On a recent game day, I had the chance to see Mall World played. Now, I’ve read a bit about this and how unusual it plays. I also saw the unusual look and feel of the board with the isometrically designed grid and diamond tiles. Not only did it play ‘odd’ (read: new and different), it looked ‘odd’ (read: novel graphic look and feel). Nothing wrong with either of these two, but combined I can’t help but wonder if the look might have not served the game so well. I actually think the look of the blueprint is interesting and thematic. The layout is dynamic and clever in the way the blueprint crimps up at times and sits diagonally on the board. To this end, I like the look. (Though I'm less sure about the tiles). However, this layout and the diamond tiles it creates might just be too much unfamiliar to absorb.

The point that I make here is not an absolute, as plenty of new products have been successfully brought to market in completely unfamiliar ways. Nonetheless, it is an insight to be aware of and factor when introducing something novel and truly new.

– Mike

Design 101 Reference: Edward Tufte

For a deeper read than I could ever provide, I will be recommending a few books that I think will be of interest to anyone looking to demystify visual processes and what happens when one looks at art and information. The first books in this series are by a Yale School of Art professor, Edward Tufte. Some of you might have run across his books before. For those that have not, know then that Tufte is a passionate advocate of precise and accurate delivery of information and information graphics. His books outline statistical graphics, charts and diagrams of all sorts and methods for better organization and clarity. If you are in scientific or data heavy fields, the books that follow could be very illuminating for you. I know my brother, Matt, who is a mathmatician really loves these books. Well written and easy to read, Tufte’s works are filled with valuable examples all beautifully laid out for easy comprehension.

So how does this relate to gaming? Well, for me, game boards tend to be something of a beautifully illustrated dynamic chart of some sort. Their purpose being to track changing information and display relationships in an informative manner. Understanding basic mechanics in the display of information can be helpful in evaluating just what is going on when I look at a board and play a game. When I have a hard time ‘wrapping my brain’ around a game, some times it can be attributed to poor graphic design application. If not poor application, at least missed opportunities which could have exploited processes that take place on a basic perceptual level. One such example that I brought up briefly in my last blog is Mayfair’s T&E. Here, thematic ‘data junk’ overpowers critical information (like the color of the tiles). While it does not make the game impossible to play, unnecessarily emphasis on thematic details does get in the way of one’s ability to quickly scan the board and assess player positions. This is not to suggest that any graphic element that is purely thematic is bad. Quite the contrary. Instead it is the proper implementation of thematic details that allows important game play data to be a first read.

The first book in Tufte’s series is The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. This book is a visual primer relating to charts, graphs, tables and statistical graphics. Tufte delves deep into the simple display of information and how to design for quick, accurate analysis. Chalked full of examples, the book is as fascinating to look at as to read.

His second book, Envisioning Information, highlights more complicated forms of displaying information through pictograms, diagrams, computer interfaces and much, much more.

His third book, Visual Explanations, again explores the delicate processes that make up visual narratives. Here, Tufte highlights cause and effect and dynamic relationships through printed visual media. Again, absolutely fascinating and filled with beautifully illustrated examples.

For a particularly sharp blasting of PowerPoint presentations, the printed essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, is also available. This thoughtful examination of PP's corrupt influence on data and statistical analysis is something that I personally like, as I have had a particularly low opinion of presentations dependent on PP.

The books can be purchased through Tufte’s site and I believe can be found through major book dealers.

- Mike

LudoNJ Game Day - Tigris and Euphrates, Sticheln and Das Zepter von Zavandor

Yesterday marked another great game day with the LudoNJ group. I was able to attend the full time from just after noon to close, which was at 11:30 on this session. I managed to get in 7 games, 3 of which were new to me – which is always a delight. I played Tigris and Euphrates, Caylus, Ra, Mamma Mia, Sticheln, Das Zepter von Zavandor and Amun-Re. Caylus continues to amaze me. With all the varying possibilities of play each game remains fresh and unique. New to me were Mamma Mia, Sticheln and Das Zepter.

Another new experience was playing T&E ‘in person’. All my previous plays have been online (with particularly miserable play on my part). Funny thing here is how difficult the Mayfair edition is to play based on the graphics, particularly compared to the online experience. I will be elaborating on this in a future post, but this has to do with the complexity of the board graphics and tile graphics and relative weakness of the color impact of the tiles. In games such as this where spacial pattern recognition is vital towards “seeing” the game status, the eye needs to absorb the board as a whole very quickly. Weak differentiation with pieces or undo visual clutter can really hurt game play here.

Image by Psauberer

Sticheln is a fascinating card game from Amigo from around 1993. The cards have 5 colored suits numbered 0 through around 14 (depending on the number players). It’s a once around play of cards with the highest card winning each trick. The only exception being an “anti-trump” suit which is the first card played that set. Any card of this color automatically loses unless all players play this suit. Each card won scores one point except “pain suit” cards. At the beginning of the game, each player picks one card from their hand, the suit becoming their individual “pain suit”. Any time a player receives a card from that suit, the number of that card is subtracted from their score. Ouch! With cards numbering up to 14, capturing just a few of such cards can negate scores of tricks won. Consequently, most of the game is spent screwing other players with their pain suit more than looking to win tricks. Pure evil! In the six player game we played, I came out victorious with just 9 points – a number of players coming out solidly in the negative.

Image by BigWoo

Now onto Das Zepter. Wow! Definately the highlight of the day. I must admit, when the game was introduced the month before, I passed on this one. With a theme solidly in the fantasy camp, this seemed not my cup of tea. The fact of the matter is that the fantasy veneer disappears immediately in this game of economic management. For me, it felt like Goa on steriods. The artwork here is mesmorizing and game play is thoroughly engrossing. Players purchase gems which provide income and some VPs. They may also purchase upgrades on six different tracks which give mostly economic benefits and a few VPs for maxing each track out. Artifact cards may be purchased which give both economic benefits as well as a good amount of VPs. These are like the buildings in PR where some new playing benefits can come from each one. Finally, players my buy the super expensive Sentinal cards which are like the big buildings in PR – no economic benefits, but many VPs if players meet specific requirements. Of particular interest is player order which is determined by VPs. The player in first place is penalized with higher cost for cards and, in the 5 or 6 player game, players in fifth and sixth place benefit from reduced costs. This creates interesting situations where players may wish to stay behind the pack a bit to take advantage of these economic perks. While I came in third of six, this was my strategy (for a lack of knowing what I was doing), staying in fifth and sixth place and launching into third on the last turn. Game ends when a certain number of Sentinals are purchased. With six players, this clocked in at about 3 1/2 hours, which was long. But, wow, was it a good ride! I can’t wait to play this one again.