The List: #4 – Pieces of Hate

This post forms part of The List. The List is where the worst parts of gaming belong: those errors that designers and publishers repeat, over and over again; those aspects of the hobby, and of the culture surrounding it, which embarrass and shame us.

Compiling the whole List would be impossible – no one person could ever hope to detail all that is rotten in the kingdom of board. But we can point to its lowest, most worrying points – a Worst Of Gaming compilation. Read on, dear gamer, and despair.

Good mechanics with the wrong components make for a bad game.

I could leave this entry at that, really. There’s this thing about board games (and wargames, and miniatures games): they are actual, physical creations. That, in turn, makes for a large part of their appeal. Not just the visual element, though that’s a part of it – there’s a reason that chess’s default setting includes two sets of elegantly carved pieces, each formed of a simple but attractive symbol, arrayed across a geometrically perfect 8×8 chequered grid. No, more than that, there’s a simple pleasure in getting to hold your pieces, have them represented by real, touchable objects, and getting to physically place and move them around.

As such, it can be something of a disappointment when we have games made up of cheap components – small, plasticky pieces; spartan boards; wavy card stock. But that’s not what I’m here to complain about – cheap components are often a disappointment, yes, but they’re often required to keep costs down on more niche titles, and they won’t ruin a good game.

What will ruin an otherwise promising title are poorly designed components – components that, for whatever reason, are not fit for purpose. Because when the components of a game – as in the things that players have to handle, to place, to read in order to understand what is going on at any given moment – don’t behave properly, they can make a game unplayable. There are a few things that components absolutely should do, and there are some games that absolutely fail in these regards. I’m not going to make a list of the ideals that components should aspire to (not least because the number of different types of component that different types of game require would make such a list extremely cumbersome), but I will give some examples of games spectacularly failing in their duties.

This tile ain’t big enough for the two of us

Imagine the scene. You’re about to play Horus Heresy, Fantasy Flight Games’ epic strategy game set during one of the defining moments of Warhammer 40,000’s backstory. You’ve read the manual, and now you’re filling the board up with little soldiers, using the basic setup guide. The game has a gorgeous board with 3D terrain features, and masses of dinky figures for both sides: it’s quite a sight to behold.

Only, there’s a problem. You ignore it at first; a minor niggle. Only, it keeps happening. Over and over again. You see, even though you’re only on the opening turn, just beginning to add figures to the board – they don’t actually fit in their spaces. Oh, some do – many locations are absolutely fine – but some of the more heavily fortified areas become overloaded immediately, with those attractive 3D terrain features causing particular consternation. This is a board game whose board cannot hold its figures. And we’re not even talking about it being overloaded by an unusual concentration of models – this isn’t Risk falling over because you decided to try and fit 40 soldiers in a territory – this is immediately following the game’s default starting position. You’ve barely begun playing and you’re struggling with your figures, desperately trying to stack them, to place them in some way which makes it clear what area of the board they’re meant to be in. And you can bet your bottom dollar that this problem isn’t going to go away after the first turn.

Space Marines (given a great paint job by Alexander Danev on BoardGameGeek) huddle for stability on the ramparts.

It leads to a game which, whatever the actual mechanics, will always be frustrating: every turn marred by struggles with figures, by a board that is hard to read, and quickly becomes an actual hassle to play. And I don’t know about you, but that’s not something I look for in my games. And worst of all – there’s no excuse. This is a premium release – it’s expensive, and it shows. And yet, for all its production values, Fantasy Flight Games didn’t see fit to make sure that the board’s regions were large enough, or the figures small enough, for even the game’s opening turns to go smoothly. Just an incredible oversight, which absolutely spoils the experience. On the plus side, having that flaw does overshadow another of its quirks.

We haven’t got all day, you know

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t got all that much opportunity to play games. There are only so many hours in the day, particularly hours where I and my victims friends are all free and able to play. Such time as we manage to squirrel away is precious, and we want to spend it enjoying ourselves.

We do not want to spend most of it getting the games ready to play in the first place.

Now, I didn’t bring this up while having a go at Horus Heresy because of a simple reason: scale. Horus Heresy’s setup time may be very long, what with it coming with hundreds of pieces to deal with, but at least it comes attached to a game that will keep you occupied for hours on end. Admittedly, much of that time will be spent getting annoyed as you struggle to place models on the table, but that’s not the setup phase’s fault.

No, the problem comes when a game’s setup is disproportionate to its length. When you spent 40 minutes setting up a 20 minute game, you know something’s amiss. I’m going to go back to my favoured whipping boy here, and bring up Memoir ’44. Because Memoir ’44, in its attempts to look and feel like a ‘real’ wargame, has tons of little figures, and terrain, and cards to set up.

So many pieces, for so short a game. Add the expansions and time-to-table begins to overtake time-to-play.

To be fair, it doesn’t come anywhere near the setup time of a full-scale historical wargame (where setup is measured in hours, and part of a game which will likely take days), but odds are good that you’ll spend as long setting up a game of Memoir as you will playing it. This is Not Good Design (it’s also completely solved in the computerised releases of Memoir, which I heartily recommend to fans of the game).

Simply: if you’re going to make a game which requires a lengthy setup process, you had better make sure that the game itself reflects that. Otherwise you’re just wasting your players’ time. Well, that or you’d better make sure it’s a compelling setup phase – technically, you could argue that tile-laying games are 100% setup, but that’s fine, because in that case the setup is a significant part of the game. When most of your setup phase is following instructions, randomised, or in any other way deathly boring, that’s when length becomes an issue. Sort it out.

I’m after a stable relationship

Okay, this one’s a little cruel, as it’s focussed on a specific game, and a specific mistake it made which has since been fixed. That said, it is a problem which can crop up with other low-budget games, and it’s one that is crucial to avoid.

Quite simply: if your game has a board, it had better be sturdy. And, you know, not have a tendency to develop creases, or lumps, or blow away in the wind… I am, of course, thinking of the lovely Summoner Wars, and the awful ‘board’ the original release shipped with.

Summoner Wars, for those unaware, is essentially a miniatures wargame… without the miniatures. Played entirely with cards, it’s a clever, strategic little game. It also had the misfortune to ship with a board made entirely out of glossy paper at release. The idea was that this was a board you could fold up and pack away, and of course that it was extremely cheap to make. It was also, unfortunately, entirely unusable. Cards, it turns out, don’t weigh very much, and when put on paper which has been pre-folded, they tend to slide around, not stay in their positions, and generally misbehave. And should you be playing outside, and a gust of wind arrive, well you can imagine the results.

That's it... now just don't make any sudden movements. Or breathe too hard.

Fortunately, the game now ships with an actual, honest-to-god board which suffers from none of these problems, allowing people to play the game without having to worry about rogue breezes or their cards falling out of position. However, many other low-budget titles with sub-par boards haven’t managed the same. Few go quite so far as Summoner Wars, but games with slippery tiles; lightweight, damage-prone boards or otherwise unreliable components are distressingly rare, and they can quite literally ruin your game – at best forcing you to stop mid-game, at worst leading to damaged, unusable components.

Perhaps it goes with the territory, but you’ve got to wonder about the publishers’ respect for their games: if they don’t think them worthy of decent quality materials, why do they expect gamers to consider them worthy of purchase? I do appreciate the issues of cost, particularly with less well known designers and more unusual game designs, but you should at least make sure your games are playable. If the choice is between attractive but impractical designs, and plain but reliable, go for the system that works every time. And I say that as someone who lusts after a good theme in his games.

Wait, what’s going on?

That said: don’t take that lust for practicality over aesthetic too far. If there’s one thing you need your games to be, it is readable. As in: players need to be able to scan the board and understand what is going on without difficulty.

War of the Ring – the Fantasy Flight Games (gosh, they’re getting a lot of mentions in this piece) release, not the Games Workshop wargame – is a deep, complex strategy game. It comes loaded with hundreds of lovely little soft plastic miniatures. Lovely little soft plastic miniatures which only come in two colours despite being split into three different classes and five different armies for the Free Peoples alone, and have a distressing habit of looking very, very similar while on the board.

This leads to a game where, though it’s always very apparent which areas have large quantities of soldiers from either side amassing, judging the quality or nature of those troops at a glance is beyond difficult. Particularly problematic when you consider that, for much of the game, certain nations will not be actively taking part in the proceedings, making their figures important to distinguish from the other, similar looking, identically coloured figures.

Four elite troops, for four different armies. Imagine trying to distinguish between them at a distance, over a massive board.

In short, it makes the game extremely hard to read, adding unnecessary confusion to the players, and greatly slowing down play – no wonder, then, that so many players opt to repaint their own models, if only in new basecoats to distinguish the armies each belongs to. Why Fantasy Flight Games didn’t opt to use more than two colours of resin in the first place is anyone’s guess. Well, actually, it’s almost certainly to do with money, but it doesn’t change the fact that it feels cheap, and leads to a game that is far more cumbersome to play than it ought to be.

There are almost certainly worse examples than this – many chit-based wargames have worryingly opaque and similar symbols for very different things – but it is certainly the highest profile example I can think of. When a company has splurged on the Lord of the Rings licence, on attractive artwork, on sticking hundreds of figures in the box – you’d think that they’d at least make sure that those figures are easy to distinguish on the board. To not do so just seems wilfully obtuse.

Now, there are certainly other practical issues that plague boardgames – fragile pieces, not least – but the above four issues are the most significant, most immediately annoying problems that I see repeated over and over again. And there’s no bloody excuse for it. If you want people to pay for your product – be it £15 or £100 – you should at least treat them with enough respect to give them components which are fit for purpose: a board and pieces which are fully compatible with one another; a selection of components which don’t require an engineering degree and the patience of a saint to assemble; components that will actually stay put;* and pieces that you can actually recognise at a glance. Anything less and you are failing your customers.

Don’t build a reputation for shoddy games that are a pain to play. Sort your components out before you go to market.

PS – You may notice I’ve not mentioned manuals in this article, not even once. There might just be a reason for that – watch this space.

*Buckaroo and Pop-Up Pirate excepted.

Author: Yann Best

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4 Comments

  1. What?!?! I need to Memoir ’44 again?!?!

    Setting up does take a fair while but but it’s not a nightmare. I think the biggest issue is how all the pieces are packaged up making it hard to find the pieces you need. Especially with them all being lumped together and the same colour.

    With a bit of organisation this is easy enough to sort out. It’ll take an extra box but you can group up the parts into units and keep the terrain tiles organised as much as possible.

    It’s a shame the terrain tiles are double-sided. They’d take up too much space otherwise but it would be easier to organise.

  2. What can I say, I live for your indignant responses 😉

    In fairness, I think Memoir’s setup is fine if you’re planning on playing out a series of battles, but it’s annoying for any one off games, as they’re so short – it’s just overlong for what should be a perfect, bite-sized game, particularly if you don’t have the luxury of multiple boxes to categorise everything into.

    Fortunate, then, that the computer version exists, and removes the hassle from setting the game up; from the busywork that just stops it being a game you can just pick up and play to fill half an hour on a whim.

  3. What would you do to improve it? It’s a wargame. Wargames take some setting up. Other than making it as painless as possible with organisation shaving time off as a bi-product, I don’t think much can be done to cut into the set-up time heavily.

  4. Well, as I covered previously, I don’t think it /is/ a wargame, which is the problem. It has the trappings of a wargame, but the soul of something altogether more throwaway – not that the latter is a bad thing, just that I don’t like the illusion of depth being thrown over something light, and which in this case leads to an actual issue with the time to play and time to setup not quite balancing right.

    The solution? Lose the trappings of wargamedom (that’s totally a word) entirely, or release it electronically. Which, er, they’ve done. I guess I’m saying that Memoir ’44 makes a better computer game than board game, not just despite the pretty bits and bobs the real version includes, but /because/ of them.

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