When the Rules Make the Game

A good ruleset is really important to a game’s ultimate playability. Ideally, a game’s rules will promote fairness and fun, and discourage bad play. Those first two things are actually the easy part; making a game fair and fun is more or less one of the prerequisites to getting the game on store shelves. The last one, though, is far more difficult.

Take Monopoly, for example. The rules are certainly fair, as they are equal for all players. And they’re certainly fun, as the game is all about amassing and flaunting wealth. But they don’t discourage bad play. A bad Monopoly player is one who plays too safely, stonewalling sales and blocking trades. This player is never going to win; winning Monopoly requires a certain amount of risk, after all. Nonetheless, he can certainly hurt the game for the rest of the players, as any money or property that falls onto that player’s side of the table is essentially out of play, thereby dragging the game out needlessly.

Monopoly is intensely fun if everyone is playing to win and taking the risks necessary to make that happen… but the rules have no way to enforce that style of play; the game sort of just has to take on faith that players know what they’re doing and are willing to make risky moves — and very few players are. That’s why you all hate Monopoly.

I think we can all agree that cheating definitely counts as bad play, and that games should be designed so that cheating is difficult to pull off but very easy for other players to catch. This is why I’ve never been big into those vast tabletop wargamesor collectible card games. These games are designed for players to rip each other to shreds, and have a million little rules to facilitate that shredding. These games are incredible amounts of fun if every player knows the rules and is playing in good faith… but all it takes is one buttmunch, and suddenly every move devolves into bickering and errata.

That’s the brilliant bit of Arkham Horror, you see. It is far and away the most complicated board game I own, with a million little chits and pieces and something like twenty separate decks of cards. Players have absolutely no incentive to try and twist the rules, though, because it is not a competitive game. Instead of every player trying to best the others, the players form a team and are playing against the board. ┬áIf a rule is somehow vague or unclear — and in a game like Arkham Horror that is inevitable — there is no incentive for two players to read that rule differently. The players can, as a group, simply make a ruling that everyone is happy with, because they’re all on the same side. Even if they always err in their own favor, so what? The board doesn’t care if the players gang up on it.

Video games, by and large, do a much better job at eliminating bad play than board games do. You can’t cheat at a video game without hacking it in some way, and the pool of players is so much larger that you never have to worry about alienating players from future games. Still, though, a poorly-designed ruleset can still hurt a game. Even a one-player game. Even something like Dissidia 012.

In Dissidia, some of your attacks have a special property that initiates a “chase sequence”. During a chase, you are either attacking or defending. If you’re attacking, you can choose to do a very fast hit, which knocks your opponent back and continues the chase. Or you can do a very slow hit, which ends the chase but may also win you the match, as well. If you’re defending, you can’t do anything but dodge, and your only choice is whether you want to dodge immediately or after waiting a moment. If you dodge immediately you’ll avoid the weak hit but leave yourself vulnerable to the strong one, and vice versa if you wait. If you dodge successfully, the two players switch roles in the chase sequence, and now it’s your turn to attack.

The chase lasts until: 1) the attacker decides to abort, 2) someone gets hit with a strong attack, or 3) the chase reaches the edge of the play field.

In the first Dissidia chases were tests of reflex. You had about a half a second to notice whether your opponent was going for the fast hit or the strong one, and you had to use that moment to react appropriately. Done well, you could theoretically “solve” chase sequences, and beat the computer every single time simply by using them as much as possible. This set-up was perfectly fine in single player, since the computer doesn’t mind getting schooled over and over, but obvious problems crop up in multiplayer. If one guy has “solved” the chases, and the other hasn’t, the second guy has no shot at ever winning a match (i.e.: not fair). If both players have “solved” them, chases will drag out uneventfully until someone quits (i.e.: not fun). Chases are therefore only good if both players are bad enough at them that they are fair.

If that sounds backwards to you, you’ll be delighted to know that the people who designed Dissidia 012 are in agreement. Chases are now much faster, and you have much less time to decide how you want to dodge. It’s really no longer possible to read your opponent and react accordingly; now you have to guess what kind of attack your opponent is going to throw. It’s not exactly a coin toss, because there are a lot of knowable game variables that can lead you to guess correctly. Of course your opponent knows that and can try to fake you out. And of course you know he knows that, and around it goes.

Nonetheless, they didn’t remove the reflex test involved in successful chase-dodging. If you guess “fast attack”, and dodge immediately, and you’re right, you win. No damage, and now it’s your turn to attack. But if you guess “strong attack”, and you’re right, you don’t win. Not right away. You still have to time your dodge so the strong attack doesn’t hit. And if you’re a split-second off in either direction, you lose — even though you guessed correctly. And the timing and tells on these strong attacks is slightly different for each of the game’s thirty characters.

That seems like a strange imbalance, doesn’t it? To dodge a fast attack all you have to do is guess right, but to dodge a strong one you have to guess right and pass the reflex test. Remember: it’s that strong attack that can actually kill you.

This is how chases promote bad play, even in single-player: you can’t get better at them. Reflex-style is fine, because you can practice and learn to read the various tells. And coin-toss style is fine, because your worst case scenario is a 50-50 shot. But coin-toss-with-reflex doesn’t really work. Here’s how it promotes bad play: if I’m fighting the computer, and initiate a chase, and lose, I just retry the match. I don’t feel like I owned the loss, and I don’t feel like there’s any incentive or possibility to improve that aspect of my game.

Maybe the new chase sequences work in human-on-human multiplayer. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried multiplayer in Dissidia, and I’m betting most other people haven’t either. But it’s interesting to see how a minor rule change can alter aspects of a game so dramatically. Maybe trades in Monopoly should be decided by coin tosses or thumb wrestling? Worth a try, I guess.

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1 comment to When the Rules Make the Game

  • Metal Man Master

    I’ve got no clue about the Dissidia mechanics you were just talking about, but when it comes to bad play because of mechanics, I’m directly recalling snaking from Mario Kart DS. I could never get down the speed or timing to keep up with those eternal boosters.

    Mario Kart Wii isn’t any better, though. I’m all for more people to the party, but the sheer imbalance in item randomization with 12 people is frustrating.

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