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Systems Shock

May 22nd, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Design, Me

One of the great things about working at home is that if I want to take an hour in the middle of the day to run errands or play a game, then I can do that with a clear conscience if I can make up the hour later in the day or on the weekend. So when Bruce Geryk emails to ask if I want to play something on Brettspielwelt and chat, I can usually accept.

Last week it was a game of Dominion, one of my favorite card/pattern based games, but a number of expansions have come out since we last played it in earnest. And, of course, half the card piles were things I had never seen or heard of before. How do treasures work? Am I reading the Peddler text correctly? There are Colony victory points now? Bruce is a busy man, so it wasn’t surprising that he was almost as lost as I was. So we did what any good gamer does in that situation – we mostly stuck to the cards that fit patterns we recognized and understood – those with bonuses for actions, cards and coins. The Market pile drained very quickly.

It’s not that the new cards were hard to understand as much as it is that we have a system in mind when we play Dominion and it takes a while for us to absorb whether introductions to the system make any sense, are superior to the old way of doing things and if they are well integrated into the rest of the game we know well. Every expansion to Dominion changes the way people play just enough to make it a little bit confusing if you have a strategy and plan that you have become accustomed to.

Few genres systematically remold themselves in updates and expansions as much as strategy games. It doesn’t take much for a developer or designer to upset the apple cart of player planning and sometimes the real test of an update or expansion is how well the changes fit with the old understanding. It is sometimes easier to learn a new system from scratch than it is to accept major changes to an assumed one.

In some ways, it’s a lot like life, so I hope you’ll excuse the personal detour here as I try to underline the point a bit. As readers and listeners know, my past year has been a bit of a mess. The decline and collapse of my marriage undermined many of my understandings of who I was and how the world worked; my previous beliefs in the connection between is and ought and the revelation that Stoicism is a really shitty philosophy for handling this kind of thing contributed to a cognitive dissonance that brought me as close to a total breakdown as I ever want to get.

Now, I’ve always been fortunate in my choice of friends, and they were there for me even when I said and did things that made me hard to like sometimes. But, as good as they were at listening and sticking with me, they didn’t know the system I was in and couldn’t really help me understand what I should have been doing to make things better. However, now that my life is in a new phase where I have to build a new system, they’ve been crucial in helping me get to sanity quickly – living alone, getting into shape, healthy diet, staying social, slowly learning a new job…the new system has been easier to pick up because I can learn each element from someone in my support network.

To bring this back to gaming, there is a distinction between learning to love and appreciate a new system like Civilization V (in spite of all the problems the game has) and accepting how a tacked on mechanic doesn’t quite fit, like the espionage system introduced to Civilization IV. In Civ 5, there is an a priori assumption that things will change from the previous game, so you as the player will need to unlearn some things first. In Civ 4, espionage fit poorly with how players understood the diplomatic matrix, the UI clues were terrible and there was little clarity on where and when you should direct your spy energy. In the same expansion, however, corporations made sense because they mimicked the established religion mechanic; the scaffolding for understanding and interpretation was already there.

The Sims games probably have the biggest hill to climb here, because each expansion can introduce entire new worlds for your sim to explore and master. With so many adventures and education opportunities now available to your sim, the domestic drama that is the core of the game play can sometimes feel lost. New rules for dating, new ways to climb the career ladder, supernatural elements to appeal to Twilight and Harry Potter fans, etc. As sturdy as the core Sims‘ system is, piling on new elements sometimes distracts and detracts from the core time/resource management game that I love so much.

There is a tendency among developers to make system changes that are introduced in updates and expansions the new stars of the show. New rules for governing some of the Asian nations in Europa Universalis 3: Divine Wind were dramatic, and became central to the PR push for the game. But these governing rules were limited to a handful of nations and made both China and Japan much more frustrating to understand whether you controlled them or played against them. New rules about building construction, however, were perfectly integrated into established systems and I think are the best part of Divine Wind. If your update or expansion loses sight of what makes your game so amazing (like the sorry campaign add on for the otherwise super brilliant Gratuitous Space Battles), then you risk misdirecting future energies as you try to right a listing ship.

I am sure that I will eventually work out a way to figure out which of the new Dominion cards fit my understanding of the game. (For the record, I beat Bruce for the first time in ages.) But it will require something pretty dramatic, I think, like a stack draw that is 75 or 80 per cent things I have never seen before; at that point it becomes a new system to learn and I can’t just fall back on the way I have always played the game.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Rob Thomasson

    Sheesh, well, this prompted me to acknowledge both my long-standing appreciation/admiration for FoS and 3MA (if it is okay to abbreviate like that) and for yourself in being the excellent and real human force behind their existence.

    “I can’t always fall back on the way I have always played the game” … well, thank the forces that be for that, although it’s not always fun along the way. I need to be prompted/thrust into learning new ways at the same time as knowing that’s what fuels me. “Staying social” is indeed the priority – it is nothiing without the other people and you get the friends you deserve and that you work for.

    So … thank you and, er, speak softly and carry a big stick.

  • Ron Geiger

    I’m glad to hear that you are working on the diet Sir. Drinking with you at the Duke was the first time I have ever seen someone inhale a steak. Thanks for the article. I’ve been worried that you would stop writing on the site since you got the marketing job.

  • Troy

    Have to write to stay sane – just been hard to find the time to game for inspiration.

  • Indignant Desert Birds » Sunday Morning Reading Material: Fifth Sunday in May 2011: unPATRIOTic laws edition

    […] Troy Goodfellow meditates on the difference between making big changes and making smaller ones. He finds (I tend to agree) that bigger changes are easier to get used to. Perhaps we can call this the uncanny valley of change? […]

  • Pod

    I play Dominion at least twice a week. I don’t know what choices the online version offers you, but we usually play so that at the end of the game, we remove 5 and bring in a new random 5. Then at the end of that game remove the oldest etc. This style was very useful as we added each expansion, as it allowed us to stick with what we know, but occasionally pick up new cards. Then, the next time we saw the cards again (either in the next go, or in a game a month or two later), we’d have better ideas and stratergies built on the card, rather than incidentally using it.

    Also, there’s a new expansion out in about a week :)