Design Matters: A series on matters relating to design, and why design thinking matters.
Rex Brynen and I recently play tested Rex’s brand new copy of Tiny Epic Zombies. Our ensuing after-play discussion got us thinking about the game and certain common, irksome points we thought were design pitfalls to be avoided in any games, whether destined for the entertainment market, or geared toward the serious gaming and educational spheres. Thus the idea of Design Matters was born.
Tiny Epic Zombies – A Game of Brutal Survival
Watch it Played
I LOVE Gamelyn Games. I do. I own every single one of their games, love the concepts, adore the themes, am awed by the artwork, thrilled with the simple —yet engaging— rulesets: all in small inexpensive packages.
I say this, because, while I do enjoy the theme, concept, and art, Tiny Epic Zombies presents a few significant —avoidable— problems that should come as a lesson to all game designers.
Tiny Epic Games are not small, by any means, in their effect or entertainment value. Where Tiny Epic Zombies’ (TE:Z) size is lacking is in its small font.
Graphic design is about much more that making something pretty. The fundamentals of graphic design deal with visual communication; the key word being communication. If information is not being clearly, and effectively, communicated it can severely impede gameplay. If this is an intended effect, to frustrate or slow players down, it can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, in the case of TE:Z it is not. Sometimes icons, or text are impossible to read at any reasonable distance.
From a graphic design perspective: parts of the rulebook, certain objective cards, some mall map cards, TE:Z comes up short. This author and Rex Brynen both had difficulty discerning the text on certain cards without picking up the card and playing with the distance, necessitating glasses, adjusting glasses, removing glasses, or resorting to using the magnifier function of my iPhone to read some text. In one particular case it was absolutely impossible to discern what icon was being used on an objective card. Not difficult, not challenging, but impossible. The font size used on the Investigate the Source Objective Card —for example— was simply too small. The print resolution would not allow for the icon in the text to be seen as anything other than a circle with a blob. This inexcusable error in graphic design was immensely frustrating, and forced us to work backwards, trying to figure out what the icon could possible be. The design decision to go with such an impossibly small icon is confounding and frustrating.
It is always important to remember that —particularly— in game design, form should follow function. Games enjoyment, and engagement depend so much on a suspension of disbelief that any shock to the system that brings us out of the game experience will have an associated detraction from said game experience. Stopping the action to peer over a card, squinting to read text is anathema to a positive game experience.
Contrast this user experience (UX) with the thoroughly adorable and fun ITEMeeples Gamelyn produces for TE:Z. ITEMeeples, are iconic, specialized, plastic avatars with holes in them to place “reminder” items on a player’s character piece, representing weapons. While fundamentally unnecessary to gameplay, they add so much enjoyment and fun to the UX, and suspension of disbelief (“no, I really am carrying a chainsaw!”) they become an intrinsic piece of the game experience and enjoyment. They are so intrinsic to the positive game experience, their creation and inclusion in a number of the Tiny Epic Games makes one wonder how we ever gamed without them.
This fabulous attention to detail in this particular aspect of the game experience, while ignoring the game experience in another should serve as a cautionary tale to game designers: everything matters.
Location, location, location
The Echo Ridge Mall is the nexus of this little slice of this apocalyptic zombie outbreak. It is beautiful, with a richness of art that I admire tremendously.
However, in our play test this richness in detail sometimes became problematic. Each of the separate “stores” has any or all of: its own written rules box, objective placement icons, room numbers, or secret passages. These elements get lost in the richness of the art at tabletop distances. If our two player test had troubles, I can only imagine the difficulty five players, huddled around a large table in a semi-lit room would have discerning what they were supposed to do o a given card. Certainly, after one has played through a few rounds, the card-store effects become second nature, but having to pick up a piece of the map in order to read what you’re supposed to do, displacing items, meeples, and tokens is problematic.
Further, unlike other Tiny Epic Games I’ve played through, the precise placement of the cards can be quite important. Each of these store location cards is divided into three rooms, which are bordered by thick walls. Each card, in turn, is bordered by this same thickness of wall, creating a discrete, modular store. Eight (8) of these stores surround a central courtyard in a layout as pictured below. Gamelyn produces a TE:Z Gamemat and online visual aid to lay this out.
Where other Tiny Epic Games’ card-location is only important insofar as where they are placed relative to each other (adjacent or not), TE:Z’s location-cards are placed and played directly against one another. This impacts movement, shooting, and card legibility.
The problems with this scheme are many fold:
Some cards will be placed upside-down. This would not matter except for the fact that many rules are written on the location-cards themselves resulting in a situation where many cards’ rules will be upside-down relative to the player. Add to this the font-size problem discussed above and early play grinds to a halt as players jockey for position to read a card, or have to pick up said location in order to proceed.
This, in turn leads to another —fiddly— problem: position matters. Each location card has one main “opening” or entrance, otherwise it is bounded by a solid-line wall. Players may move through walls, as they are presumed to find or make gaps through (strangely weak?) mall walls. If players pick-up and replace location-cards, jostle location-cards during gameplay or accidentally shift their position in any way, this can dramatically affect movement, shooting, tactics, and approach to gameplay. The Gamelyn-produced TE:Z Gamemat-for-purchase addresses this somewhat, but this particularly fiddly scheme could have been more easily solved with a simple graphic element — an alignment arrow in the middle of each card edge.
As walls are so fundamentally important to the gameplay, it struck us as very strange that all walls were clear, and of uniform width except for the central courtyard walls. Where all location-cards’ rooms are very clearly delineated by thick walls or uniform width, the central courtyard is divided into five (5) sections by markedly thinner walls. These walls are so different, we didn’t even consider them walls when playing through the game in our play test. Only upon careful review of the rules did we realize, thanks to a simple qualifying statement (p.8 “*Note: the Courtyard has 5 rooms*”), that these were meant to be walls, and the courtyard was not simply one large room. This would have substantially altered our game outcome. The lack of consistency in the application of this design element is inexplicable to me.
The decision to go this particular route with location-cards (stores), has another side-effect: The playmap neither looks nor feel like a mall. Referring back to the suspension of disbelief and user experience (UX) design discussed above: a decision was made to create this particular schema that took Rex and myself out of the game. When something doesn’t feel like what it is expected to be, there is a cognitive disconnect that occurs that informs gameplay. This can be a powerful tool when implemented properly, or a distracting nuisance when accidental. The result was —for us— a persistent feeling that something didn’t quite feel right.
Dissociative Personality Disorder (AKA I can do what?)
On that same front, we questioned the abilities of a number of the Player Cards. Not so much the abilities themselves, but the abilities associated with the names of the Player Cards.
User experience (UX) is a tricky and very particular aspect of any game design to master, largely because it relies on fickle and finicky human emotion, response, behaviour, and expectation. Designers can use psychology, the senses, and numerous devices to shape this experience. Gotten right, a game’s UX can overcome many a shortcoming. Gotten wrong it can detract from the pleasure of play.
There are specific instances where the player has a reasonable expectation of what a particular Player Card should allow the player to do:
Athlete Card: enables greater movement
Burglar Card: expanded item acquisition powers
Mechanic Card: better at repairs
When this expectation (Based purely on Name) meshes with the effect of a particular card, the result is pleasing and harmonious: a triumph of UX design.
When this does not:
Fry Cook Card: somehow make less noise?
Photographer Card: ending your turn in a store with 2 zombies results in finding ammunition?
Scientist Card: if any other player kills three or more zombies gain ammunition?
a disconnect results while questioning the meaning/source of these effects. While not insurmountable, the unintended consequence of a naming convention and the resultant cognitive dissonance when an effect does not match one’s expectation is entirely avoidable.
If these Character cards were named for persons instead of a specific role —Mary instead of Photographer— there would be no (reasonable) expectation of effect: why can’t she, instead, see things better with her zoom lens —improving search— for example. While this won’t break a game, it will distract, and distractions of this type will almost always lead to lessening enjoyment. Anytime a player begins questioning what the designer was thinking, the player is out-of-the-game.
What Went Right
The above should serve as cautionary reminders to PAXSims’ community of game designers and enthusiasts: every aspect of a game needs to be considered. A solid theme/idea/ruleset is not enough, a designer needs to communicate clearly and shape gameplay with intention or the game experience can suffer.
However, when you do get things right —as Gamelyn often does— you can create great experiences.
Excepting the above, TE:Z remains an enjoyable game because what it gets right it gets really right.
Some design shortcomings aside, the game art is —simply— fantastic. The clear theme carries throughout the game and spectacular card and box art. The game’s art direction truly sets the stage for the coming zombie apocalypse. Before the players even open the box, the stage has been set, then reinforced. Gamelyn, in my view, always gets this right. This is the campy, fun, zombie game experience you want with the pièce d’art of the contemporary gaming world: ITEMeeples.
ITEMeeples add so much fun and thrill to the game that no tiny pieces of plastic have any business doing —they are near magical. The excitement of attaching a chainsaw or assault rifle to your character meeple is reminiscent of opening a surprise gift. Completely unnecessary to the rules, this component-based element of UX is beyond spectacularly fun. Add a police car or motorcycle into which you can literally place your ITEMeeple, and you’ll be making engine noises while moving your pawn like you did when you were pretend driving in the back of your parents’ car as a child. This level of engagement clearly demonstrates how well-chosen and designed components can directly impact the game experience. (A phenomenon we harnessed in developing MaGCK, using iconic images as aides-memoire for matrix gaming)
Objectives (excepting some of their card design problems) are largely fun affairs where the ongoing challenge of risk-reward balanced against time constraints and a little bit of greed (but I really want to pick up that bazooka in the other store) played out —for us— down to the wire. The game seems to achieve a great balance of ramping up danger, while keeping you on the edge of your seat with interesting choices. Developing appropriate challenges and choices shape the game experience and flow, great care was taken in creating and testing these objectives, I am certain.
Once you get into the groove of the gameplay (one or two full turns to get up to speed), the game progresses quickly, satisfyingly ramping up intensity. If not for the distractions discussed above, the play is near seamless, with decision points to test each player’s resolve. Ease of access, understanding, and a gradual learning curve benefit this (and many) game greatly.
The card-based AI work very well. We played cooperatively without a Zombie-player, and the anticipation of each end-of-turn search-card’s resolution kept us in some suspense. I look forward to playing a larger, competitive game with the full complement of 5 players to note the differing experience. (clearly knowing each location-card’s ability will be fundamental to this, I believe) Scalability is a great aspect of the game: playable by one to a full complement of five players.
Overall, while not my favourite Gamelyn gameplay experience, Tiny epic Zombies remains a game I would replay. For PAXSims’ readers’ purposes, the game does illustrate a number of avoidable design pitfalls that should be considered by game designers and producers:
We can see, in the example of TE:Z, it is not enough for a game to be pretty (but sometimes, it certainly helps!). While great visuals can immediately engage players, clarity and legibility are fundamental in rules layout, design, and ability descriptions. Form must follow function. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to read a rule, card, ability, or effect.
Consistency is key. A lack of consistent application of design elements can —and often will— lead to misunderstanding and misplay, affecting the overall game experience. Design must be purposeful and mindful in order to lead the player to the game experience the designer wants. Any lapse in this regard will have unintended consequences.
Expectations must be mindfully considered and managed as they will form an immediate opinion and impression. If something looks out-of-place it creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, which —if purposeful— can be a powerful tool —if accidental— will detract from a game and risk running it off the rails.
Components and visuals can have tremendous positive impact, when properly implemented, or detract from gameplay when applied carelessly. The purposeful use of media will have an important impact on a game. (As discussed at Connections North in the presentation Grand Designs – Design Thinking in Games)
An accessible learning curve, geared toward the target player creates ease and comfort, allowing players to engage in the game quickly. The faster a player can integrate the rules into their experience, and simply engage in the theme of the game, the more effective the game will be.