Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ready, Set, Go!

 This post was inspired by MaRo's recent column, "10 Things Every Game Needs," (you can read part 1 here and part 2 here if you missed them). It got me thinking about my effort a few years ago to learn Go, and what I could learn about game design from it.

Go is one of the most frustrating games I've ever played; it seems so simple, and at one point I thought I was getting the hang of it. Then I played someone who actually understood the game, and it was like playing an event deck against a Legacy grinder armed with Ad Nauseum Tendrils. I'm still half-convinced he was a cheater or a magician or something. Similarly, it seems like Go itself is cheating Mark's rules of what makes a game fun.

Go has limited interactivity, at least during the beginning phase of the game. Usually, we think of interacting through some game element that directly affects another player. The beginning phase of Go is like a draw-go control mirror match in Magic; the only interaction is that the players usually jockey for strategic board position.

Go has no catchup feature. If a player starts to fall behind, the only recourse is to play better and hope the opponent starts making mistakes. There is no Reiver Demon to destroy all the white pieces.

On a side note, MaRo keeps mentioning inertia as being an important part of games. I think what he really means is momentum. They're both physical properties, but the non-scientific definition of inertia is synonomous with immobility, which is not the idea he means to communicate. Momentum is the forward motion idea I think he wants to capture. (Go does have rules to maintain momentum, for example, by preventing players from infinitely repeating plays.)

Go has no surprise. In an old design article, Richard Garfield tried to argue that games of perfect information still have random elements, in that even an amateur player could discover a surprising move and steal a match from a high-level player. I think this is wrong. If a skilled player loses to a surprise move, it is because the skilled player made a play mistake. Complex games with perfect information are chaotic in the sense that they have an unpredictably large range of variations that determine the ultimate outcome, but this is not the same as being random. Just because we can't currently predict all outcomes doesn't mean they are unpredictable.

Mark mentions that surprise is key to maintaining, replayability and depth of play, hence the need for randomization outcomes from the hand or library. But Go is also very replayable, and is probably the deepest game in popular play in the world, entirely from the complexity of interactions that arise as the game moves past the opening stage. There is nothing in Go that creates a chance outcome, and as such, no game element for surprises.

Go has no flavor. Its name means something like "surrounding spaces with rocks." I guess it is technically flavorful, since it pretty much sums up what the game is about, but it doesn't tell a story or create an environment. And this is fine, because Go doesn't need those things. Mark's argument is that flavor is necessary for lowering the barriers of entry to new players. It's hard to imagine a lower barrier game than Go. You need a square grid (19x19 or 9x9, or some other size, whatever), and a pile of pieces. Each player takes turns putting pieces on the grid. The interactions get massively more complex from there, but it's tough to imagine an easier board game to get started on.

Go has no hook. This ties in with the problem above: there's no real way to grab people and get them to play. The best tagline you come up with is something like "The classic Chinese strategy game!", which tells you nothing about the game or how to differentiate it from other classic board games like chess or backgammon.

By Mark's standards, Go looks lame. It would be an awful business choice for a modern toy company; there's very little content to market, and even if it took off, there would be no way to protect it as an intellectual property (again, all you need to play is the board and some rocks). And yet, Go is one of the most popular board games in the world (if Wikipedia's to be believed, with 27 million players).

One argument that could be made for Go's popularity is simply its age, but just because people were playing two thousand years ago doesn't mean it was a popular hobby two thousand years ago. If I was going to make a thesis of it, I'd argue that Go took off the same way chess did: in the early 20th century, there were more people with free time to play games, and more newspapers to communicate about games or organize tournaments, which led to a lot more people playing games. To put it a different way, it seems like Go exploded when the barriers to play were reduced. I think it'd be neat to see Magic become as popular Go (MtG is way more fun, even if it's just as frustrating sometimes). All we need is about 20 million more Magic players.

So how do we break down the barriers to entry to get more people into the game? And how can design help make that happen?


  1. Cool thought to compare a classic game to Mark's list of game requirements. I pretty much agree with your analysis. I think the reason for the huge difference in player communities is all about time. Magic is massive for a game that's less than 20 years old. It doesn't hold a candle to Monopoly, but we all know Monopoly isn't a terribly good game by modern standards either. The fact that it came out almost a century ago when there were so few alternatives and that nothing really challenged it for another half-century let it spread across the country and from generation to generation. Go has the same factor going for it, times ten. Magic is on the scale of decades, Monopoly of centuries and Go of millenia.
    It takes time to catch up, even for vastly better games.

  2. also, the better game might not be more popular than the bad ones. for example, the more efficient DVORAK keyboard is not as popular as QWERTY.