Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Trail of Cthulhu: Playing Not So Quiet

Pelgrane Press publishes quite a few very high-quality modules for Trail of Cthulhu, several of which are in the recent compilation Out of Time. The Black Drop is definitely the best Cthulhu adventure I've ever played in any system. But running these as one-offs presents certain difficulties, as does getting players up to speed with the style of Gumshoe. This piece is about my experience running one of the modules in Out of Time, Not So Quiet, both for my local players and at a local game convention. It's got my tips for running it and Trail of Cthulhu in general.

Needless to say, there are massive spoilers ahead for the module.

Here is the brief teaser for the module, copied from Pelgrane Press website: Bullet-ridden, bruised and bloody, the Investigators, soldiers and nurses in the Great War, are brought from the frontline to Military Hospital Number Five. Once the haze of morphine clears, they sense a brooding malevolence and they will soon realise there are worse things in this life than a bullet wound.

One of the biggest problems with running Cthulhu adventures is getting everyone on the same page with respect to style. People's RPG experience with the Cthulhu mythos runs a very wide range, from action-adventure thrillers to stark psychological nihilism. With one-shot modules, if players don't know what to expect, it's hard for them to know how to respond. It's terrific that Trail of Cthulhu supports a wide range of play styles, and has put some effort into defining "pulp" and "purist" both stylistically and mechanically. But players often need more. Not So Quiet is not really purist in the strict sense of the style, but is constrained (with only one real location, Military Hospital Number 5), psychological, and fairly dark. I would say it tends strongly towards purist. But when you tell a group of random convention players that a module is "purist" or "very pulpy", what some seem to hear is that it's "a little bit more purist/pulpy than what I'm used to", or "hmm, I wonder what purist means? Maybe I should ask? Nah, I guess I'll find out". The standard experience of Call of Cthulhu seems, in practice, to be well into Trail of Cthulhu's definition of Pulp, with boardgames like Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness going further that way still. The more purist – and in my opinion much more authentic – Trail of Cthulhu modules are a rather different experience. Not So Quiet has very little action – it's easy to play through it without any action scenes at all – and the players are going to have to do some scary stuff and get hip-deep into the cult to succeed. I still haven't figured out a good way to strongly telegraph the style of the module without spoiling too much of it. I'm open to suggestions. Robin Laws recently wrote about the many disadvantages of premise concealment, so it may just be a matter of getting up in front of the players and saying "this module is darkly purist, has no built-in action scenes, and is going to require heavy use of your interpersonal skills". For one of these one-off modules, the messaging here is really important and I'm still figuring it out.

Along these same lines, supplied pre-generated characters with detailed backgrounds are often tricky. Both The Black Drop and Not So Quiet use them. In The Black Drop, the characters' backgrounds directly influence the story, which seems to be the default expectation of players. Chekov's Gun and all that: if my background says I want to visit Betsy Cove to make some astronomical observations, then trying to do that should drive the story forward. But Not So Quiet doesn't work this way. The players all have backstories that set them up to be in an emotional place to sympathize with the cult in the module. But none of the apparent plot devices are actual plot devices. This has really tripped up players I've played with. The Paul Remi player has inevitably spent a bunch of energy trying to track down his friend Paul LaFarge who went missing at the hospital, but there just isn't anything there in the module as written. And Hauptmann Ranaulf Keppel has always presented major problems. He's a downed German airman behind enemy lines trying to pass off as Canadian, and his player has always embraced this, spending time trying to keep a low profile, hoard supplies, or plot an escape – all of which can easily be counter-productive in terms of keeping the module moving in the right direction. His enemy-combatant status is entirely irrelevant to the story. Nobody is looking for him, and there is no chance he'll be found out unless he jumps up and down screaming "Ich bin Deutscher!". His background was really problematic even when I very explicitly told players up-front that they should let their backgrounds inform their characters' states of mind, but were flavor and not plot points in any way. If you have fewer than 6 players, I definitely recommend ditching Keppel. Otherwise, keep his game stats, drive (Ennui), and flavor but change his background. As written it's a completely irresistible time-sink. Paul Remi's background could also usefully be generalized to make his player less likely to get sidetracked.

The last big-picture issue I need to mention is the balance between gathering information via forensic investigation (looking for footprints, searching archives, testing chemical samples), and using your interpersonal skills to interview people of interest. The player advice section of the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook (largely common to all the Gumshoe games) mentions that many players prefer forensic investigations, and that you neglect personal interviews at your peril. That's great, but in one-shot modules or more casual play where people probably haven't read that, it's not much help. Plus, of course, groups have a preference to do what they find fun which may or may not necessarily be the easy or obvious way. In theory, Gumshoe as a system handles this by having a systemic bias for giving the players information if they have a plausible plan of action. It seems to me that Gumshoe modules should, as a matter of general principle, support multiple paths to important information so clues can come out either through library research or through talking to witnesses (say). Unfortunately this is not the case in Not So Quiet, and forensic investigation is going to dead-end very quickly. This is not to say that there aren't good reasons for this in this particular story; there are. But still. A lot of information exists only in the skulls of NPCs. If the players are to succeed, there simply is no option but to get out there and talk to people, figure out their background and motivations, and infiltrate the cult. So groups who haven't read the player tips section of the rulebook, aren't good at this stuff, or have a serious bias for forensic evidence are going to get quickly stymied. You can actually get something of a read on this pretty early. If the players strike up a conversation with, get some information out of, or show concern for "Cheery" Patterson in the very first scene for posted characters, that may be a good indicator that they'll "get" the module. If they ignore her or don't think she's important, get prepared to be much more aggressive about having your NPCs initiate the interactions with the players, and get ready to pull the trigger on some hard drivers. Don't overreact right away to one scene, of course – just start to prepare yourself.

Here are a few more tips to specific scenes in this module that I've picked up from running it a couple times:

The PCs are divided into two groups, posted and injured, and introduced in two separate scenes, one called Hate for the posted and a player-constructed flashback called The Last Thing You Remember for the injured. Hate is a good and purposeful scene, but the injured characters' introduction isn't providing an opportunity for the characters to bond. I'd suggest that instead of simply asking the players how they got injured, go with "how you got injured and ended up in the same ambulance with the other PCs" to let the injured characters both figure out their introductions and also come up with basic relationships. The module's splitting of the party into two groups at the outset is one of the more interesting elements of the module actually. I've told my players up-front that it's fine if the two player groups only come together late in the game. If that's the way they want to go though, they can't cordon off character knowledge from player knowledge as is the tradition to try to do in many RPGs. Don't duplicate the other half of the players' work because "that's what my character would do", or "my character doesn't know that yet"; use your player knowledge to choose something that both makes sense for your character and is interesting and supportive and moves the story forward. If the players are struggling with this somewhat unusual mode of play, don't mess around, throw the group together quickly.

The characters will almost certainly discover the outlines of the cult and the identities of several cult members basically right away, maybe 30-60 minutes into the game, in the Night Time Perambulations scene. This can be good or bad.  If they use this as a stepping-off point to start talking to those people or otherwise figuring them out, that's great and the module will work the way it's intended. If they draw on their pulp experience to think of cultists as brainwashed zombies and immediately back off and start relying heavily on forensics, that's trouble. If so, you need to start throwing the interesting NPCs at them. Have them strike up casual conversations, be bunked next to them, whatever. Save one of the interesting and sympathetic NPC for the players to get to know before they find out he's a cultist. This may be hard; aggressive players willing pull rank may make take systematic and plausible methods to identify and quarantine all the current cultists, so you may have to go with a new recruit or someone just initiated who hasn't attended the ceremony yet. Almost anyone in the hospital could turn out to be a cultist retroactively. The PCs simply must find their way into the cult. That may require extreme measures, like introducing an NPC with a ret-conned backstory who knows one of PCs who tries to recruit him or her into the cult without any prompting. You need to be really adaptable here and prepared to wing it. It's very easy for the players to go off the grid, and keeping the story's flow going is much more challenging than usual because so much key information only exists inside various NPC's heads, and no amount of Chemistry, Art History, Forensic Accounting, or Library Use is really going to help.

In the Where is Pombal? scene, the Evidence Collection core clue should include some blood. This really bugged one of my players, that Pombal had his throat slit in his tent without there being any blood left behind. He had a point I felt.

In His Enthusiasm is Commendable, Dr. Watts is written as the red herring. I'd be flexible with this. As written he lacks the psychological profile of a cultist, but he's also been the one NPC my players have consistently found interesting enough to engage with, perhaps because he seems intriguingly crazy but obviously not a cultist. But he too could have a dark secret of some kind, perhaps a family member who is insane which drives his research, which might make him an additional access point to the cult if the players go that way. As an aside, there is a natural affinity between Watts and Keppel – Keppel has decent Electrical and Mechanical Repair to latch on to Watts or his equipment as a way to resolve his problems. This has some potential; I didn't figure out that was what the Keppel player was doing in one game until it was too late to work with it. But while it can be a fun roleplaying moment if it doesn't take too much time, and if Keppel (or another character) and Watts bond I think you could improvise a route into the cult there, ultimately this whole thing is a red herring as scripted so either activate it and hook it back into the mainline of the story, or don't let it get bogged down.

Throughout this, keep the player's drives at the ready. Another possible issue with the module is that since many of the characters are clearly and explicitly part of a military hierarchy, there is an obvious and entirely plausible option for them to try to get someone else to resolve their problems for them: report it to their superiors and get them to deal with it, or call in the military police. In the early stages, it's easy to rebuff this. It's a supernatural cult, after all, so you can go to the standard bored/uninterested authority figure. But as dead bodies pile up and military regulations are flagrantly broken, it gets harder and harder to keep things on track if the characters are insistent on following this honestly quite plausible path. Either you reflow the entire module, or the players are doomed to fail. As written it's possible to temporarily suppress the cult's activities by resorting to extreme measures via the chain of command. But this is not how these stories work, and from a practical story-telling point of view it's just not an interesting way to go. For the players to succeed, the cult needs to be stamped out, the only really good way to do that is through infiltration, and only the PCs are in a position to do that. As a consequence of all this, I really think you need to head anything off early, before the option even becomes established. If characters are faltering in their commitment to the cause, call hard drivers until they get the point: Ennui, Curiosity, Arrogance, and In The Blood on the pre-gens are all easy to work with. While ideally of course you'd prefer to not have to invoke the game mechanics associated with drives (other than to hand out stability points when players do the right thing and get into trouble on their own), you'll be far better off if you bring the hammer down earlier, at the first sign of issues, rather than waiting until after things have gotten well and truly derailed. If you're not sure how your players will react to the events, it'll pay to spend a little bit of effort ahead of time thinking about how you'll use the drives if players are not actively deputizing themselves to deal with the problem.

Despite the impression all this may give, I actually think Not So Quiet is a very interesting module. I like that it's dark and constrained, and the idea – that the cultists are just normal people who have suffered as a result of the war, just like everyone else, except that they truly think they've found a good way out – is great, and it both twists around the traditional narratives and gives the players difficult questions to wrestle with. It's a compact module that does what it sets out to do, and gives the GM lots of levers to control pacing. But it's also a difficult module to set expectations for, to get the players into the right frame of mind, and it's very easy for them to flail. None of the times I've run it has it proceeded anything like the way it's laid out in the book. The GM has only a few limited ways to plausibly move around the trail of clues, so the bottom line is you have to be flexible and potentially aggressive in how you use your NPCs. At the end of the day, this adventure is all about the NPCs, their losses and sacrifices. In your gamemastering, focus in on them as your primary tools and the key to telling the story.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


We wargamers have this genre called "Card Driven Games" (CDGs). Back in the early aughts, this was popularized by GMT to mean "games vaguely based on the ideas in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, a game we know many of you like a lot". But things have sprawled now, and the CDG brand – to the extent it means anything at all anymore – has come to encompass a lot of games which have little or nothing in common. The Kaisar's Pirates, Empire of the Sun, and Combat Commander all show up on GMT's "CDG" page, for example.

What has diluted the idea for me is our propensity, as gamers, to focus on mechanism rather than something that actually matters. Cards, activation points, and events are mechanisms, but if that's all you know, you really know next to nothing about a game. Adding in the topic – say, the First World War – doesn't help much. We're now at the point where "a CDG on the First World War" would be an essentially vacuous description.

What made Hannibal great and distinct was not that it used cards, although clearly that was a powerful design choice. It was that it was a combination of a game that consistently managed tension well, keeping the players in constant, high-stakes conflict, combined with card design as an effective means of portraying the flavor of the period in several dimensions. In the 2nd Punic War, the loyalty of many Italian allies was fluid and having this cleanly abstracted in the card deck is great. The players know Syracuse sympathizes with the Carthaginian cause in a way that neither Roman nor Carthaginian leaders had much control over, and the cards provide an abstract way to play that out. The cards provide reasonable trade-offs between (say) using your limited political capital to get a reluctant general to seriously campaign, and reaching out to Macedon or raising auxiliaries. The system also portrays the Romans, with their rancorous and still-vaguely-Republican Senate, as having more inherent political friction than their less-representative Carthaginian foes, at least until Rome goes all-in as represented by the arrival of Scipio Africanus. All this is easy for me to say, but it requires a lot of attention to detail to get right, especially in a game of the size and scope of Hannibal.

Sekigahara is the first game to come along in a long time that manages, like Hannibal, to deliver the whole package: an elegant, playable, high-stakes game combined with highly evocative player decision-making. It's a game where risky, high-stakes battles produce great tension, and where hidden blocks give a lot of opportunity for bluffing and hoping. It plays in 90-120 minutes of high-speed action with a ruleset that can be easily taught at the game table. But what makes it a great game for me is that at the core of the design, the cards that drive the action, is an abstraction that makes sense and is historically flavorful.

In Sekigahara, you command an uneasy alliance of factions in the quest for control of Japan. Each player controls blocks of various strengths and types from four different factions. The shifting loyalties are controlled by a deck of cards (one for each player), with each card having a symbol for one of the factions. Once battle is joined, to get a block from a given clan to actually fight you need to play a matching card. Card-play alternates back and forth, with whoever is weaker needing to commit enough strength to close the gap. Large armies can be paper tigers due to the lack of sufficient political leverage to control them, while small armies that consist of dependable troops can be potent.

Of course, this being the period that it is, we have to have treachery. Each player has Loyalty Challenge cards which can cause blocks to switch sides if a clan's loyalty is borderline (i.e., if after committing it to battle you can't play an additional matching card to resist the challenge). While these challenges seem to be hard to time and rarely successful, they do make you nervous every time you commit a block with your last card for that clan and are dramatic when blocks actually defect.

Another interesting dynamic is the way cards are cycled. After battle, you replace all the cards you spent. So there isn't a net cost in cards to fight a battle, but the overall loyalty picture of the various clans tends to significantly change. Who knows what happened during the battle to cause the shift – it's below the level of the game – but nonetheless a battle where reach deep into your hand to call on the loyalty of your Samurai is a significant event with hard-to-predict consequences for loyalty amongst your factions. You may lose influence with some of your allies while another becomes more committed.

The thing about Sekigahara is that this relatively simple system creates a lot of the subtle nuance that is the hallmark of a great game. The strongest army is usually a hard core of good blocks from a single one of your factions which you can back up with matching loyalty cards, but this can be risky as a battle that uses up your cards and doesn't bring good replacements can leave that army completely ineffective. Armies of diverse clans don't pack as much punch but there is usually someone in there you can rely on if your opponent seizes the initiative. Battles can be fought for the secondary purposes of determining clan loyalty. You need to know when to press your luck because in the last battle your opponent cycled a bunch of cards and may be looking at a weak hand. And you have to know when to take a deep breath, give up significant tempo, and repair alliances by using the discard and draw action.

The last important thing that makes Sekigahara tick is the geographical layout. The game revolves around 9 castles on the board; Tokugawa starts with 5, Ishida with 4. Both players start with strong bases on opposite sides of the board, and isolated castles strung out in enemy territory. Both sides need to be super-aggressive about taking out the opponent's armies that start in their territory and consolidating control over castles. Both sides face tough choices about how to balance aggression between marching on their opponent's core areas (and relieving pressure on their far-flung outposts) against leaving enough troops behind to clean up their own backfield. Both sides face a huge amount of pressure to take the battle to the enemy, which is great and keeps the game dynamic and moving.

The designer's notes to the game – which are recommended reading if you want to understand what Matthew Calkins has done here – talks about how important personal loyalty was to this conflict, and how the game was designed with that idea at the core. I think Sekigahara does a great job of both capturing something important and interesting about the period and conflict, and bringing it to the tabletop in an elegant, highly-playable, compelling package.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Communication Design in Boardgames

I had a great time at BGG.con this year and got to play a number of new games. None of the new stuff really jumped out at me. Probably the most enjoyable was Kingdom Builder, and Power Grid: The First Sparks might have potential, but there was nothing I played that had me running over to the vendor area to snag a copy.

Instead, I found myself struck by something else: wow, the physical and communication design on many boardgames is appallingly bad.

Let me pick on one thing in particular – perhaps inspired by realizing that Steve Jobs was obsessed by fonts – that I think will be completely uncontroversial and yet remains the source of the most common, irritating, and inexcusably bad design decisions: font sizes. If you want to play along here, you'll need a decent metric ruler (I use metric because that system actually makes sense). The size I'm measuring here is the x-height, the height of the lowercase letters which are the bulk of the text.

Break out your copy of the base set of Dominion, and look at the Chapel. This has a text box roughly 3.5cm by 4.5cm. It's got a single line of text. That line of text is 1 (one) millimeter high. 1mm! For me, it's only clearly readable at half an arm's length even in the bright light of day. What nut job thought using text so small in a sea of empty space was a good idea? By far the most frustrating thing about Dominion's thoroughly terrible graphic design is that through 5 expansions and explosive popularity, they've refused to revisit a single thing about its physical design despite its clear unusability.

Compare this to a more sane game like Glory to Rome, where the font size is 2-3 times as large (text is 2mm high, keywords 3mm and usually highlighted). I can generally read Glory to Rome cards across the table, and can certainly see the important keywords. To heap insult upon injury, not only does Glory to Rome have far more legible text than Dominion it also has larger art. San Juan also thankfully starts at 2mm, although it could still easily be larger with no loss of aesthetics.

Deck building games are of course serial offenders here. Because it uses a slightly bolder font with more heft, Ascension's text is crisper and more readable and looks larger (I can comfortably read it at arm's length), but it sticks to the same paltry and unnecessarily small 1mm font size. Nightfall – I think we're seeing the pattern emerge here – 1mm. Nightfall uses small caps for everything, so it's a bit more legible, but still not readable at arm's length. At least they're using a larger percentage of the text box. On the plus side, Thunderstone seems to have grasped the apparently difficult concept that if you have more space to say something, you can use a larger font to say it more clearly. Unfortunately, they also start with the base borderline-readability of 1mm and work their way up to maybe 1.5mm which, while an improvement, is still no great shakes and still leaves many cards with the confusing combination of small text with lots of dead space.

Compare this to the font size in the book I'm reading (Jasper Fforde's One of Our Thursdays is Missing, if you're curious): about 1.5mm. Can you read your average book from across a card table? I hope so, because gaming font sizes are reliably considerably smaller than that.
The problem of ludicrously small font sizes is disturbingly widespread. Just to pick a few additional random games of various genres that are serious offenders: War of the Ring, Eminent Domain, the reference cards for Undermining and Pret a Porter, Kingdom Builder (given these cards must be viewed across the table), Castle Ravenloft, and Maria. I was surprised to find that a personal favorite of mine, Rivals of Catan, uses tiny 1mm fonts – and thin ones! – for the card text; I expected better from Teuber, Kosmos, and Mayfair. This inspired me to check Mayfair's 4th Edition of Settlers of Catan, and the fonts on the Discovery cards are horrible – tiny and low-contrast, white on green (fortunately Trails to Rails is much improved). Agricola also is a slave to consistency, using the same (you guessed it) 1mm font on all its cards, so the couple that run long will fit while the 95% that have only a line or two of text maximize their unreadability.

Now, take a look at Quarriors. By the (admittedly sub-basement) standards of these games, it's not so bad: the font size is over 1mm (just; about 1.2mm), and the font is strong, making it somewhat more readable than Dominion but not as good as Ascension, although the total choice is still obviously bad given the amount of wasted space. But, it's worse than that. Unlike Ascension, Quarrriors cards must be read across the table, not just in your hand. At those distances, more than say 50cm, the text is simply not readable. You have to go over everything at the beginning and then remember what the dice do, or lean over and peer every time you need a refresher. You can argue persuasively that in order to be able to enjoy Quarriors, you need to remember what the dice do, so if you can't remember, you're not going to enjoy the game anyway. OK, but this still misses the fact that there is no reason for the cards to be as unreadable as they are. There is plenty of space on most of the cards. And many powers could have been clearly explained with large friendly icons, although as Pret a Porter and 51st State demonstrate, incomprehensible and/or misleading icons may be worse than borderline-readable text.

All these games have made inexcusably poor and indefensible choices about their fonts. But I reserve my especial contempt for Star Trek: Expeditions, the rather fun and thematic Knizia cooperative game made borderline unplayable by miserable choices in graphic design. For an example of possibly the most poorly designed card in all of gamedom, check out the Captain's Log card The President's Wife. Can you read the Politics penalty for leaving the location without resolving the challenge? I can't. I'm guessing, because my eyes hurt just trying to make it out, but I think it's about 1.2 mm high, same as the other text in the box (which, by the way, is gargantuan - 3.5cm by a whopping 7 cm). Putting one line of text in a 3.5x7cm text box and sizing it at 1.2mm is bad enough. But then making part of it dark purple on black is the height of insanity. The Rebels track (yellow) is OK. Green (Environment or Energy, depending on who you believe) is borderline acceptable. But the purple is not good.
Now, in fairness, The President's Wife is substantially the worst card of a bad bunch – that dark purple on black doesn't happen to come up anywhere else. Still, if you want to play Star Trek: Expeditions, I recommend you do so during the day, when bright natural light seems to make most things in the game readable – by comparing the look of this game in the daytime vs. at night you can see how much brighter daylight is than the artificial light I typically game under. The raw font sizes, at about 2mm, aren't terrible if they're nearby, and the key information (type of challenge, skills required) does jump out at you.

The crippling problem with Start Trek: Expeditions is one of how the components are used. These are not cards sitting in your hand, where they would be acceptable. These are cards that have to lie on the board and be read by everyone at a distance of 60+ cm. And at that range, the small font sizes and low contrast with their black background is hugely problematic. It's like flying in the dark. You can see the challenge, you just can't read the consequences or benefits. While it's true that there isn't a ton of wasted space on the cards, nonetheless the choices here make the game much too hard play, solely because the presentation is bad.

This is not rocket science. People get it right, and oddly some small publishers seem to do better than larger ones. CGE's Space Alert uses a good card design with strong 3mm high-contrast text which is readable across the table. The aforementioned Glory to Rome from Cambridge Games Factory uses a very sensible card layout.

Perhaps I'm getting older, but I still win the "youngest player" starting condition in some of the groups I play with. My corrected eyesight is still good and I don't need near-vision correction yet. But I will at some point, probably soon – and don't kid yourself, once you get into your 40s you will most likely either need them or be happy to live in denial. Whichever way you go, many games being published these days will become problematic. Here's hoping that game publishers can figure this out and fix it before it's too late for us.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Eminent Domain, Kickstarter, and You

Eminent Domain was an early product of Kickstarter, the web site that allows independent projects to crowd-source their funding. I've been following Kickstarter with some interest. When I first started hearing about it, I was dubious of its impact on the boardgame market. I felt it would simply allow a bunch of lousy games that couldn't find publishers – usually for good reasons – to get published and further dilute the quality in what is already a pretty diffuse marketplace. I honestly don't think we need more games published each year, we need better games. In which case, Kickstarter wasn't clearly going to help. But as Kickstarter has matured, I've become more optimistic. Smaller but still professional publishers are putting better-quality pitches up, and I've even backed a couple projects. I actually feel like I’ve been able to make more informed backing decisions than I can when, say, I decide to pre-order a GMT P500 game. So I’ve come around to the idea.

So what about Eminent Domain? Is it any good? And what does it say about Kickstarter?

When to borrow, when to steal

I took a wait-and-see attitude to Eminent Domain (I didn't back it). GMT has been using a Kickstarter-like publishing process for their games for over a decade, and history says that the single most important thing to take into account is the track record of the designer. This designer’s last game, Terra Prime, was a dog's breakfast: lots of ideas liberally lifted almost directly from classic games (Starship Catan, Starfarers of Catan, with maybe a touch of Merchant of Venus), but re-assembled in an only minimally coherent way. As is often the case, the re-assembly lost the less tangible aspects that made the originals great: tight pacing, good tension, and a working narrative arc. Terra Prime took forever to play and large chunks of it had no pulse.

The origins of Eminent Domain are clearly similar. It’s a role-selection deck-building game. The designer is obviously a fan of Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome, from which he has lifted quite heavily. And deck-building games are hot, hot, hot.

The object of Eminent Domain is to build up your interstellar empire and score lots of victory points. You do this first by surveying the galaxy for planets, and then adding them to your empire either through conquest or colonization. You can then use those planets either as a springboard to acquiring technology (which gives you game advantages as well as points) or producing and trading goods. You do all these things each turn by selecting a role: survey, warfare, colonization, produce, trade, and research. Sound familiar?

You start with a deck with 2 cards of each role (except warfare, for which you get 1). The new idea in Eminent Domain is that when you select a role, you claim a card from the reserve supply of that role and add it to your deck. When performing a role during your turn, you can then add cards from your hand to "juice up" the role and get bonuses (one ship per Warfare card played, for example). Then, other players can "follow" your role by playing their own matching role cards from their hands to gain the advantages of that role, sometimes in a reduced form, sometimes not.

Having written these last two paragraphs, I realize Eminent Domain is a lot harder to explain without just saying "it works just like produce/trade in Race", or "colonizing planets is a lot like building buildings in Glory to Rome", "dissenting is just thinking", or "planets with icons are just clients". In fairness, Eminent Domain is less of a straight microwave job than it first appears. Various aspects of the source material have been mixed up a bit, and none of the mechanics are straight copies of the originals. Still, the overall sense is that if you took the basic planet and role structures of Race for the Galaxy, implemented them with a Glory to Rome-like lead/follow card mechanic, and made it a deck building game, you'd end up at Eminent Domain.

This is only an overview of the systems, there is actually a bunch of stuff I'm glossing over here. The rules are available for download via BoardGameGeek, so check them out if you want more details. Read them closely before playing – the mechanics are all familiar but there are a couple pointy nuances (acquired research cards go directly to your hand, for example, and colonize icons on planets don't work the same as all the other icons) that are important.

The problem is …

Fundamentally, the problem with Eminent Domain is just that it’s really boring. What exactly has gone wrong is a little murky, but I think there are a number of things, all interrelated..

Firstly, I believe that there is some basic mis-calibration at work in the engine. For the game to end, the players need to exhaust the supply of one or two different roles, depending on the number of players. Remember every time you choose a role, you are adding one from the supply to your deck whether you want to or not, so that puts a cap on the number of times that role can be done before triggering the end. The problem is that to do anything, you need to acquire planets. You can't meaningfully research without two matching planets. You can't interestingly do produce/trade until you've got 2-3 planets. So if you've got 4 players, that's maybe 15 of those actions before you can do anything else interesting. There are only 16 Warfare and 20 Colonize role cards in the middle – a number which doesn't scale with the number of players – so you've draining a significant chunk of those roles before you've started, especially if players chose a preponderance of one or the other, as is likely to happen since there is an advantage to "drafting" off of other players role choices. So by the time you've gotten to the point of being able to start thinking about a research or produce engine, the game is well on its way to being done. A player who is going heavily into warfare just runs out the clock while you struggle to get something going. A meaningful mid-game or late-game phase to the game doesn't occur; you build the foundation, then you're done. Meanwhile, there are 16 Produce/Trade role cards, more than you could possibly ever need, and 20 survey cards, similarly more than you are ever likely to need. If a bunch of those cards had been moved to the Warfare or Colonization supplies, it's possible it might have extended the game enough to give trade and research a chance; but no. As it is, players doing Warfare or Colonize have all the control over how long the games goes while Produce/Trade have no leverage at all.

Secondly, due to the first problem, there is just no way for the players to differentiate themselves. You're going to have to settle or conquer a few planets to do anything at all. So you need to get a bunch of those cards into your deck. Then you can choose to do a little research, or maybe some produce/trade, but by the time you start into this there just isn't much time left, so you can never build an engine that might allow you to put some distance between you and your fellow-players. I kid you not, my last three games of Eminent Domain the scores were 20-20-20-19, 16-16-14, and 17-16-15. The players do lots of stuff – because settling or conquering most plants is likely to involve 3-4 steps of building colonies or fighters – but they never get traction with the game system.

Thirdly, because you add a new role card to your deck each time you take that role, it becomes too hard to pivot strategically. Which is doubly problematic, since the game forces you to start out doing warfare or colonization, since you have to add a couple planets before you can do anything else. After you've built up this core of planets, you need to decide whether you should pivot to doing produce/trade or research, or if you just keep going after more planets. It's true that getting points through colonization and conquest is harder than making and selling resources, but the problem is that your deck is full of warfare and colonization at this point and you have only your starting produce/trade cards. To pivot, you need to both get more Produce/Trade cards and cull your deck of all the excess Survey, Colonize, and/or Warfare cards. This inertial effect is quite damaging. It is additionally problematic if you're using the Kickstarter promo cards, which include several high-value prestige worlds which offer large rewards for colonization and conquest and so further skew the game in that direction.

Lastly, perhaps the most fatal problem with Eminent Domain is the lack of interesting card differentiation. What made Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome so much fun was not the mechanics of building buildings or colonizing planets, but all the interesting things built on top of those mechanics: the endless search for killer combos or mixes of capabilities that produced useful engines; the tension over whether you’ll complete your engine in time; the fear that you opponents are going to beat you the punch. All this is missing from Eminent Domain. Planets' special traits are very coarse (an occasional icon to boost a specific role – even the type of good they produce is immaterial unless you have one of two specific high level technology cards). All the individual role cards are the same. The first-tier research cards are just dual-icon cards. The second tier research cards offer some potential, but since they just go into your deck like everything else they are too hard to wield, and the game is simply not long enough for them to be interesting. You will likely only be able to acquire 2 second-tier research cards, or one third-tier card, typically just as the game ends.

All this means the game has no arc, no narrative. It's just a minimally interesting tactical exercise that is never allowed to develop.

Back to Kickstarter

So, Eminent Domain is what I fear about Kickstarter. It's a concept that is viscerally appealing to gamers: Deckbuilding! Space conquest! Mechanics “borrowed” from Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome! And we've got some great graphics! All these things are true, and if you take it direct to the traditional game consumer you can sell it. But this is a game the traditional gatekeepers – established publishers – hopefully would either have rejected, or would have forced more development work onto. They would have been fulfilling an important function, and by allowing someone with a seductive idea to bypass them and get a game published with greatly reduced financial risk, Kickstarter allows a game that is at best mediocre to suck up resources that would have been better allocated elsewhere.

But at the end of the day, that all sounds a little snotty. Traditional gatekeepers are dying in every corner of the economy where they are not protected by statute. Those gatekeepers, whether they were professional journalists, travel agents, radio DJs, or stock brokers, provided useful services but also controlled access in ways that weren't exactly problem-free either. As consumers, whether we are Kickstarter backers or not, we should expect to have access to more choices, which is good. It also means that we have to take a lot more responsibility for our choices, whether we want to or not.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Blast from the Past: Downtown

In reference to my last post on Nightfighter, I dug up and moved my (now surprisingly old) writeup of Downtown from the old blog over here.

5 years later, I never played Downtown as much as I think I would have enjoyed. Maybe half a dozen games. It's just an expensive game to play, compared to the rewards. For me, Nightfighter does a better job of encapsulating the theme of tactical and technological evolution. Downtown has some of the same appeal, but you have to log a ton of hours with the game to really experience it. I need a 2-5 hour game to be a standalone experience, and for me, both Downtown and The Burning Blue were just too much overhead for not enough excitement.

Both games still tug at my imagination, though – Downtown more than The Burning Blue, perhaps surprisingly. Downtown is still a game I'd enjoy playing from time to time, but the practical difficulties imposed by the game's complexity are significant.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Nightfighter is a new game from GMT Games and Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, the folks who brought us the entertaining but rather over-complicated The Burning Blue and Downtown. It covers primarily Bomber Command's night campaign against German cities, although scenarios from many different campaigns (including the Pacific) are included. For players who were intrigued by Brimmicombe-Wood's previous games but daunted by the complexity, the good news here is that Nightfighter is highly playable with only a dozen pages of well-presented and intuitive rules to get started. I realize that even 12 pages may sounds daunting in some contexts, but it's not – I can generally teach players and have them up in running in just a few minutes.

Nightfighter is unusual in that it is a game for one and a half players. One player plays the night fighters, trying to find and shoot down the bombers in the dark. The other half a player plays the bombers. The game is single-blind, in that the bomber player has a map behind a screen with all the pieces on it and makes information available to the night fighter player as his radar and searchlight searches do their thing. While the night fighter player decides on his search strategy, the bomber player has essentially no meaningful game decisions. He is there so that the night fighter player can experience a thematic game, and will have fun in proportion to how much he enjoys his privileged position of watching the night fighter player struggle with the problem he knows the answer to.

The good news here is that the game plays very quickly – a single match can be done in 20 minutes even for new players. The bomber player enters bombers. The fighter tries to track them with a rather clever and fast-playing system for radar searches, and then vector the night fighter to shoot them down. It's nicely evocative and plays quickly. The bomber player then gets to turn it around and play the fighters. If it helps, think of it as a two-player I go-you go wargame where the turns take about 20 minutes. Or you can just accept that it is what it is, and that it works.

The thing about Nightfighter that may trip people up, and which I think the game could do more to help make clear, is that what I've just described is not actually where the game is. A single scenario of night fighters vs. bombers is not really going to be all that satisfying – not even if you play twice and switch sides, and especially not for many of the earlier scenarios. After the brief initial thrill of discovery, the search techniques are clever but just not all that complicated, and once you've seen a given configuration of radar, searchlights, and bomber and fighter tactics, the replay value of any given game configuration is likely to be basically zero. It also doesn't help that scenario difficulty is not always well-calibrated. My favorite scenario to introduce new players with is #3, The Kammhuber Line, because it's the first to contain a minimally sophisticated defense network of a fighter, radar, and searchlights and so have a little bit of texture. But even though it's rated as "normal" difficulty, it's almost impossible for the night fighter player to lose unless he gets outrageously unlucky and gets shot down by bomber defensive fire.

The game here is in the evolution of night fighter tactics and technology. The first scenario has the fighter pilot looking out the window, trying to see stuff in the dark. The second adds some ground-based radar. The third adds more and better radar, as well as searchlights. The fourth takes away the searchlights but adds airborne radar. The fifth gives the defender some high-performance day fighters but the only detection equipment you have is searchlights and eyeballs. And so on, as electronic warfare evolves (tail warning radars for bombers and interception of navigation radars for fighters, for example) and tactics change (increasing density of bomber streams, evolving fighter tactics, and eventually intruder night fighters). This is where the game is going to hook you, or not – playing a series of scenarios which depict the changing nature of the air war. To use the language of Hamlet's Hit Points, playing a single scenario of Nightfighter isn't going to give you much in the way of arrows. There just isn't enough going on. But play three different scenarios in a row that follow the narrative of the historical progression, and you've got something. Hope that a new set of equipment and tactics will be more effective than before, followed by the anxiety of facing an empty night sky with unproven techniques. And Nightfighter gives you a lot of different scenarios and variants to try out.

To that end, I think the satisfying way to play this game is to focus on Bomber Command's night campaign against German cities and treat the various Pacific and other scenarios as sidelines that it was nice of them to include but that are just not the main event. The satisfaction here is going to be found over multiple scenarios that have some narrative cohesion, which the other theaters don't really have. Play each scenario or configuration only once as the night fighter player (unless there are real rules problems, which there shouldn't be). Keep moving through the historical narrative.

I like Nightfighter – it's a clean, fast-playing game that nicely evokes the feel of the night air war over Germany. But I think you really need to treat it not as a 20-minute quick-playing game, but as a 90-minute game of 4-5 short episodes. If you play just one scenario and then put the game away, it may or may not come back off the shelf. If you give yourself a chance to experience the different environments, the game will have a chance to exert its narrative and emotional pull even when you're playing the bombers.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hamlet's Hit Points for Boardgamers

I recently finished reading Robin D. Laws' book Hamlet's Hit Points. This is a short, highly readable book that I recommend for anyone interested in a little deeper understanding of how these games of ours grab and keep our attention and interest. It's true that the book is written primarily with role-players in mind, and will be invaluable for game masters, but the concepts and techniques discussed are 100% portable to the realm of boardgames.
The basic idea is this: the conception of narrative that you probably got back in school was one of escalating conflict and tension, followed by a climax and resolution, then denouement. This is also how I tended to think good games should feel. It has a lot of intuitive appeal, especially in the light of various practical problems boardgames usually have. Given that hobbyist games don't tend to get a ton of replay and mixed experience levels are very common, you'd like to give your players a chance to warm up with some lower-stakes conflicts early before proceeding to the high-stakes endgame. It also serves as a built-in catch-up mechanism since players who make poor choices or have bad luck early can still get back into the game with good moves later.
But as Hamlet's Hit Points makes clear, while this may be true on the macro level, this misses out on a very important key to how narratives keep and hold your attention during the moment-to-moment action. The book takes three classic plots – Hamlet, Dr. No, and Casablanca – and plots the action on a hope/fear axis. In each moment (or narrative "beat") your empathy for or feelings about the protagonist or other characters in the narrative are moving somehow: towards hope that things are going to work out well, or towards fear that they are not. Narrative tension relies on skillfully moving back and forth between these drives, not giving you too much hope without an injection of fear, or vice versa. In his analysis of Hamlet – an analysis I agree with – he finds that "down" (towards fear) or "up" (towards hope) beats in the story never cluster together in groups of more than about 3 in a row.
Bearing in mind that everything is obvious once it's been properly explained, this seems so clearly true, and so useful to GMs, designers, and people just wanting to understand a bit more about games, it's surprising nobody's said it before. Maybe they did, they just didn't have as clever a title or explain it as clearly.
Anyway, this simple concept has a great deal of explanatory power as to why some games work from a narrative perspective and why other, quite similar games don't.
Before starting, I'll stipulate a lot of boardgames don't necessarily succeed or fail based on emotional engagement or narrative. There is a branch of boardgames (let's call it the Caylus/Age of Steam branch) that fans like because of the pure intellectual challenge, and as such perhaps has more in common with a puzzle than a play or movie. Some players enjoy the lengthy period of frustration followed by the exhilaration of finding a solution. Having said that, let's also not make the mistake of associating "narrative" strictly with "thematic", or not looking at how nominally abstract games can engage us emotionally. Many successful abstract games, like the GIPF-series games or the classics like Chess and Go, do work with this pattern of balance between hope and fear.
With these caveats though, looking closely at the hope/fear beats of boardgames shows pretty quickly why some games are so engaging and some are not. I'll look at a pair of games, one successful, the other not so much: Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror.
The turn structure of these cooperative games, which is "do something good"/"do something evil", is clearly aimed at this modulation. In Lord of the Rings, the fear of what the tile draws from the bag are going to be is quite visceral. Looking at the structure of the events on the boards, which is what drives the fear of those tile draws, usually the events that occur early in each narrative are of the structure "meet some condition to receive a significant reward, otherwise suffer a significant penalty", which give the players hope for success but fear of failure. Later events tend then to get very bad, but at this point they are balanced against the hope of actually finishing the episode and moving on to the next, when the game reset involved in the episode transition gives the players a large jolt of hope as they move on to face the next challenge. Then when you get a chance to take your turn, you almost always receive clear, immediate, useful rewards that feed your hope of getting out of this mess alive.
So why does Arkham Horror not work as well as Lord of the Rings? If you think about it as an exercise in trying to move between hope and fear in reasonably tight circles, it's fairly obvious: Arkham Horror neither reliably rewards the characters to give them hope nor does it reliably put them in enough danger to be really fearful. Often you will visit a building with some hope of receiving a useful item or piece of information, but too often the rewards are minor, nonexistent, tangential to what you are trying to achieve, and generally not enough to inspire hope. The Mythos cards rarely have the dimension of meting out rewards or punishment that could inspire hope or fear, they are simply one-off events that the characters too infrequently can't do anything at all to anticipate, they simply respond. They are also too unreliable in their effects to get into any kind of cycle between hope and fear. An event that is not foreseen with at least some clarity can't inspire fear. The same thing can be said for character actions: too often there isn't enough you can do to give you hope, because clues are unavailable, you have to waste time in the hospital to recover health or sanity, and a route towards positive progress is not reliably open. Without some way to reliably make significant forward progress, we are denied the jolt of hope we need to keep interested.
This is not to say Arkham Horror can't get onto this virtuous cycle; sometimes the cards flow well and the situation develops in an interesting manner. But compared to the well-plotted structure of Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror is relying on the luck of the draw to get into a good narrative zone. This is obviously not a great way to do this. As board gamers we tend not to like "scripting" in games, but scripting is obviously a mixed blessing. To the degree that it constrains player choice, it's not great. But narrative needs structure to work. As a recent convert to the GUMSHOE roleplaying system (designed by Robin Laws), I appreciate the book sections in the Esoterrorists book (also in Trail of Cthulhu) where he talks about railroading and the importance of giving the players the illusion of player control while keeping them on the narrative straight and narrow. These things are not contradictory.
While the comparison between Arkham Horror and Lord of the Rings is clear, you can see the logic here in tons of boardgames. For me, the difference between Dominion and Thunderstone in that Dominion is a fairly linear procession, while Thunderstone has some of this modulation. The flow of monsters up from the depths of the dungeon obviously helps. If you think of breach effect, traps, and treasures as hope/fear modulators and amplifiers, they make a lot of sense. Crucially, by giving you a set of characters with at least some personality that you can hope will advance in level and get more powerful while being afraid that they will die, Thunderstone helps you get invested in the game and actually feel something. Dominion gives you nothing.
There are plenty of other good examples in thematic games. Small World, where hope spring eternal when you draft a new race – and the personalization of the races and powers make a huge difference in our being able to identify with them – but gives way to fear as the race reaches the end of its rope and it becomes incredibly fragile in decline. Agricola is another classic manipulator, catching you between fear of starvation and ruin and the hopes that you have to build your farm, and thinking in these terms its tremendous popularity is easily explained. Classic games like Dune, Civilization, Titan, or Republic of Rome operate on longer time scales, but have amplified peaks and troughs of hope and fear, as anyone who has stared at their opponent across a combat wheel in a high-stakes battle in Dune can attest. Traditional games like Risk give you a lot of hope on your turn as your armies rampage across the board but then leave you to be very afraid of what your opponents are going to do to you once you pass the dice.
When you think about it terms of hope and fear, the visceral appeal of card driven wargames, especially the good ones like Hannibal, Successors, and Paths of Glory are likewise easily explained. Even titles which may not be as solid on game system merits (like Labyrinth or Twilight Struggle) can nonetheless be compelling because of the way they are always jerking you between hope for the cards you are holding and fear of what your opponent is going to do to you. Similarly, block games like Rommel in the Desert and EastFront manage this hope/fear balance, as they have the players playing in an environment of scarce information which is revealed in fits and starts, sometimes answering questions, sometimes creating new problems for you to grapple with, and giving you plenty of room to create your own hopes and fears.
Being about RPGs, one challenge that boardgames face that Hamlet's Hit Points doesn't talk about is how a narrative can keep this structure of hope and fear going when you play the game 5, 10, 15 times and know the general contours of the experience. This is not as much of an obstacle as you might think. The source narratives Laws analyzes are plays and movies which have survived a fair amount of repeat viewing. These emotional experiences the narrative aims to evoke are fundamentally manipulative. If you succeed the first time you can probably do it again.
This sort of modulation is obviously not the only way that narratives can be compelling. As mentioned in the book, rules are made to be broken, and some of our most compelling art comes from rules-breaking. But the lessons of Hamlet's Hit Points are extremely powerful as a tool to understanding what makes games tick.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


One of the things I find cool about Stronhold's recent game Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War is how it develops interesting and severe information asymmetry as the game goes on. When you're making the final push to get the briefcase to your opponent's baseline, you get into a situation where you're using just a few pieces about which you know a lot because you've had to move them frequently to get them into that position. Meanwhile, your opponent is likely defending with a number of pieces about which he knows almost nothing, but you know everything. This makes for interesting opportunities to bluff and makes the situation very tense for the defender.

I like this particularly because Confusion goes through these very different game phases – development, dueling for control of the briefcase, endgame push – completely organically, without any explicit or coercive rules. While I like some 18xx games (1825 is my favorite these days), I've come to dislike the way it does phasing, with lots of rules and explicit game parameter changes as the trains are bought through. It's a fair bit of rules complexity which trips up new players. Power Grid is similar, although less severe. I now much prefer it when a game can go though its phases organically, as with Confusion, Diplomacy, Container, or Rivals of Catan.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Trail of Cthulhu, games as stories, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and why Mansions of Madness doesn’t really work

I’ve finally had a chance to play the Trail of Cthulhu role-playing game, which uses Pelegrane Press’ GUMSHOE game system. The GUMSHOE system is very interesting, for both boardgamers and role-players. To explain why, I need to back up a bit and lay some groundwork.
What differentiates the sorts of games we like, be it RPGs or boardgames, from other sorts of games is that they tell stories. They may be boring, short, or thin stories, or the story may not be the most important element of the game, but if stories weren’t important, we wouldn’t get pasted-on themes, nice art, or miniatures. The story can be something that is more abstract and visceral, as in Knizia games like Ra, Through the Desert, or Ingenious, but these games still have a narrative arc of buildup, tension, and release that is the stuff of storytelling. Plus of course, there is a large segment of the hobby – which Fantasy Flight is trying to corner – for which the story the game tells is the key thing.
The Cthulhu Mythos is well-travelled thematic ground, with many board and role-playing games trying to capture the flavor of Lovecraft’s popular creations. As always, trying to take a literary story and re-tell it in game format is not an easy proposition, and failures vastly outnumber successes. To see why it’s hard, let’s look at one particular game system that, while popular, is to my mind clearly not a success: the RPG Call of Cthulhu.
Call of Cthulhu is, at a system level, a very traditional roleplaying game. Ever since D&D, the core of role-playing games has been a task resolution system. While the details may differ – the game may use a d20, 3d6, d100, or a pool of d6 or fudge dice – the vast majority of popular RPGs are set up such that whenever players interact with the world of the game, it’s a conflict or a task at which they succeed or fail with measurable probability. When a character wants to accomplish something, we pick a character trait to use, figure out a difficulty number, and roll some dice. The variance between the systems is in the choice of what skills to define and what kinds of probability curves to use.
This is great, but this core system of task resolution simply can’t tell a wide range of stories that people who play RPGs happen to like and desperately want to game. The most obvious are, unfortunately, mysteries, horror, and epics (I use the term “epic” as Stephen R Donaldson lays it out in his monograph Epic Fantasy in the Modern World).
The problems with telling mystery stories are straightforward, and fairly obvious if you’ve ever tried to run a mystery in Call of Cthulhu. The narrative structure of a mystery story is that there is a trail of clues that the characters must gather and piece together to figure out what’s going on. That trail of clues drives the narrative arc. The characters start out with a hint, follow the leads, and over time the truth is revealed. There are all sorts of conventions to the mystery genre which allow readers or viewers to engage with them, but this is the core. This is an incredibly common narrative format, used by H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen R. Donaldson, the X-Files, and Law & Order as well as many – probably the majority – of the episodes of Star Trek or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Even the Harry Potter novels are, from the point of view of narrative format, actually mysteries.
The problem of course is what happens when acquiring a clue requires success at a task which the players repeatedly fail? What if there is a witness holding out on them and the players can’t make their Intimidation check to save their lives? Or if there are documents hidden in a room and the players can’t pass a search check? The GM then has to resort to ever-more-improbable ways to get the players the information they need to follow the trail of clues. OK, you blew your search, maybe the contents of the documents was known by an NPC and you can try diplomacy. Blew that too? OK, maybe the documents were in another location. Still not making that search roll? Eventually the documents end up lying in the middle of the road where the PCs trip over them. This is immensely unsatisfying because a) why are we rolling all these dice and jumping through all these hoops when the conventions of the genre of story we’re trying to tell requires us to get this clue?, and b) in the system we’re using, which is all about tasks and succeeding and failing at them, why are we not being punished for all these failures? Because the players are failing all these checks, they can clearly see the hand of the GM coming in and granting them the information they require. To look at it form a narrative point of view, you never have a scene in Law & Order where the detectives execute a search warrant and no information comes out of it. Searching the apartment was a scene in a sequence, and the narratively interesting thing is not whether or not the detectives’ skills were up to the task of finding anything, but what they found, how they went about finding it, how illuminating the information was in light of other clues already gathered, and what they do with the information to move the narrative forward.
This is not to say that good mystery stories have not been told by many talented GMs using the Call of Cthulhu game system. But their success in doing this is in spite of the system, not because of it.
To divert briefly into epic tales, you don’t have to go very far into Tolkien to find story elements that stymie RPG-standard tools of skill checks and difficulty levels (or traditional boardgame tools of resource management, risk, and positional tactics). The epic confrontation between Eowyn, Merry, and the Witch-King cannot be gamed using any sort of task-based system. Tolkien has just spent the last three books building up the Witch-King and the Nazgul as terrifying and powerful, so in gamer-land no rational player who can look at their character sheet and know their odds of succeeding at various tasks is going to resort to direct conflict to take him down. And if they do, and win, does it feel like a victory, or like the GM resorted to fiddling the dice or making stuff up to let them do it, a far less satisfying outcome given the entire structure of the game is based around tasks with predictable odds? There is something else going on here. This is an epic scene where characters go beyond themselves, tying in with previous plot hints, and as such is hard to imagine how it could satisfactorily be done in a games which are driven by probabilities and specific knowledge of capabilities.
To get back to the main topic of mysteries, the GUMSHOE system sets out specifically to tell mystery stories. It recognizes that to do this, a systemically different way to define characters and drive narrative is required. So it defines characters partially in a traditional conflict-based way (because mysteries have fight scenes), but simultaneously in a more narrative-focussed way. Your skill with firearms will be familiar, but your rating as a forensic accountant is different. If you have skill in accounting, the system says that you are sufficiently skilled that no narratively critical clue that can be unearthed using accounting will elude you. Your rating in these skills are not skill points, but narrative points, and reflects the importance of that skill to your character’s narrative. If you have some rating points to spend in accounting, your character can move the narrative a bit if the player can come up with a way of weaving the skill into the story. If so, the character can unearth clues which, while not the core clues that allow the players to solve the mystery in a baseline sort of way, will expand the character’s understanding of what’s going on and perhaps make piecing together other clues easier. It’s important to mention that the GUMSHOE system is not a collaborative storytelling system like Fiasco or Polaris; 3 points in accounting doesn’t give you narrative prerogative to skip the suspect interview and hit the books. But it does allow you to weave the storyline if the GM can figure out how to get you interesting information from your proposed course of action, the more detailed and persuasive the better (perhaps you could use Legal to get a search warrant for a suspect’s banking records, then Accounting to track down information that the GM had originally intended to come out via Intimidate or Reassurance in an interview).
Because it’s such a different way of looking at characters, and because task-based systems are so ubiquitous, this definitely takes some getting used to. A 3 rating in Evidence Collection is not more capable than a 1 rating in Evidence Collection. Instead, the character with a 3 rating has a little more latitude to expand the narrative – the rules refer to it as “spotlight time” – than the player with a 1 rating, if he can effectively weave it into the story. Either character will discover the clue that will get the group to the next scene, but the player with the 3 rating can spend some points to try to direct the narrative a little bit and gain information that, while not critical, will be helpful later or give more detail to the grand picture. So, for example, Evidence Collection may turn up three shell casings, some fingerprints, and a bloodstain, but a 1-point spend might additionally tell you (with some narrative associated) that that the shell casings have been sitting there for four days, even though the crime scene is only a day old. In both cases the players get the two critical plot hooks, leading them to identify the fingerprints or take the shell casings to the lab, but the player who had the spend has some information which may make the picture make more sense as it develops and will make the scene more narratively satisfying. So, we have a systemic way to develop the story in interesting ways that relies on player ingenuity in the application of their skills, but not on crude skill checks. This means that GUMSHOE is very good at the specific types of stories it is trying to tell. It focusses on information, how (and not whether) it is obtained, and what the players do with it, which is the stuff of mystery stories.
Boardgamers actually have had something analogous to this for some time: Tales of the Arabian Nights. In this game, the players choose what skills and traits their characters have – Appearance, Weapons Use, Magic, Piety – and then how to respond to encounters, whether by Negotiation, Robbing, Courting, and so on. Then through the magic of a lot of cross-referencing and a book with 2500-odd paragraphs in it, the narrative of the encounter emerges. Instead of choosing how to use your resources and abilities to navigate an existing narrative successfully, your choices (along with a dose of luck) define the narrative which allows it to be, at times, epic in nature. Like in Trail of Cthulhu, Seafaring is not going to get you out of an encounter with an angry Djinn if there is no water in sight, but your skills and your choices nonetheless help shape the story. This is what makes Tales of the Arabian Nights narratively satisfying, while Betrayal at House on the Hill just feels like a fire-hose of disjointed random events.
This brings us, finally, to Fantasy Flight’s most recent weighty box of plastic and cardboard, Mansions of Madness. I’ve only played it once, so I’m not going to judge too harshly. But, like Call of Cthulhu, Mansions of Madness is trying to tell stories that are narratively mysteries while using the standard boardgame tools of conflict, risk, and resource management. In my opinion, this is a case of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. The common core mechanics we have in boardgames (and RPGs) are simply not amenable to mystery stories, and Mansions of Madness ends up being a nail, in this case a glorified dungeon crawl. Which is fine, but all the trappings of mystery – the extensive intro text, the flavor of a path of clues – are squandered and can actually detract from the gaming experience, since they may misdirect you into thinking the story is something it isn't.
If we want to tell different kinds of stories, we need to expand our toolbox. Arkham Horror is not a tale of mystery or horror, it’s a tactical game of resource management with the narrative structure (to the extent it has any, which is not great) of an action-adventure with characters being led through set-pieces over which they have no control. By contrast, Castle Ravenloft – which is fundamentally the same game as Mansions of Madness – may not be a classic game, but it’s more narratively satisfying because the tools it uses are appropriate to the story it’s trying to tell and it gets the critical structural bits (pacing and tension management primarily) pretty much right.
Worlds like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos are notoriously hard gaming problems, done badly so many times, and these are the reasons why. The very few great games we have work because they’ve limited themselves to portions of the story that can be told with the mechanics available. The brilliant bit of the classic CCG Middle-Earth: The Wizards was to focus on the years between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when stories could be adventures of risk and reward and not epics. Knizia’s Lord of the Rings works in part because it focuses in tightly on the hobbits, who are modern characters who become immersed in an epic world which is not their own, and also of course because Knizia is a design genius who is keenly aware of how tension management and tight pacing can produce strong narrative structures in games. What success Lovecraftian boardgames have had, they have when they focus on the pulpier, action-oriented face of the mythos at the expense of the core stories that the readers love (it’s interesting to contemplate how much of the veering of Lovecraftian material into pulp is a direct result of a gaming fandom which lacked the conventions to tell the real stories). Clearly there is room for innovative new systems and mechanics that will help us tell these other kinds of stories in enjoyable and satisfying ways. RPGs are leading the way with serious, envelope-pushing titles like Trail of Cthulhu, Polaris, and Fiasco, all designed to tell specific types of stories that would be extremely challenging (at best) to do using more traditional systems. There is no reason these trains of thought can’t be extended into boardgames where the differences between the two blur.