“I’ve heard it said that “looks pretty” is what sells games, and “plays well” is what creates retention and builds a community. I don’t know whether this is the case globally but it matches my experience.
As such, a pretty table with pretty models will draw people in and give them a flavourful first game, which is always worth doing because nobody ever plays a second game unles they enjoyed the first. However, as Thomas Cato says, one needs to examine the abstract game which lurks behind the prettiness. If you play any game for long enough you start to see the maths which lies behind it, and if this maths isn’t fun then the game isn’t fun – as you have memorably pointed out with Warhammer and mental geometry.
In this case, with small model counts and large open spaces, my intuition is that this abstract gameplay will be mostly about first-move advantage and firepower, rather than about morale or maneuver. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but needs to be deliberate on your part rather than an emergent property of the assumptions you made.
I’m interested in seeing what your thoughts are about system…”
There are a number of things I’d like to pick up on here.
Firstly, the idea that pretty sells, and gameplay retains. I think that’s largely true, and like I said above, true whether you’re talking about computer games or board games. Tabletop games could be thought of as a slightly different kettle of fish because the gamer determines a fair slice of whether they are pretty or not themselves with their painting and modelling skills. Still, cack models and duff art won’t impress anyone, so I’d argue that it broadly holds up here too.
One conversation I often have with clients is about how “sticky” a game is, or could be made to be, and what makes it more or less so. By sticky they mean retains gamers, and keeps pulling them back for more. That’s probably a whole post on its own, though good game play, and replayability without becoming repetitive is probably a good starting point.
Having played games for a very long time, and spent so much time taking them apart for work, I find it hard not to see the underlying structure. And, in many ways, that’s where I find the attraction of many games. Some designers create such elegant and beautiful structures that I can’t help but admire them, even if I don’t actually like the game itself (for example, if the theme fails to appeal). That said, games should be about making interesting (and difficult or challenging) choices, and if a game fails to offer these then it doesn’t matter how clever the mechanics are.
So I agree with EJ that these two broad threads run through each design (pretty and game play). However, I don’t think he’s right in implying that we have to pick one or the other. I think we can have both. I certainly hope we can because that’s what I always aim for in my own work and would hate to be so fundamentally misguided 🙂
Of course, there are plenty of examples of pretty games you’d not want to play twice, or unattractive games which you play till they fall apart. Fewer games make it to be both really nice to look at and great to play again and again. That’s a shame, but being hard to do is no reason to give up trying to make them both.
As far as Old Skool Skirmish is concerned, I’m trying to make an engaging game because I’m writing it for me to play. Of course I want to play it repeatedly (and I have to in order to playtest it), and I’m not going to do that if I find it dull. I’m a fairly harsh critic too, and quick to see problems in a system, so I have set a fairly high bar for OSS to reach. But I would say that 🙂
As far as appearance goes, my comments about making it look really good are based on decades of looking at thousands of gaming tables, and 90% of the time being underwhelmed by what I saw. Again, I want to aim high for this new set of models and terrain I paint and build. I’ve not done any real painting or modelling for years, and so I’m coming at it all fresh. Sort of. I want to go for the ideal, and for me that is making something that looks like a great diorama – a diorama on which you can move the figures and play. I know this is an even higher bar, and I may not reach it. However, by trying for that ideal I may get somewhere close, and I can build on that.
EJ’s comment about “first move and firepower” is also interesting. I see where he’s coming from, and a low model count game could indeed end up not working, or having a single initiative roll which was overwhelmingly important. OSS doesn’t do things quite like that. It’s sequencing is done by a chit draw, and while there will obviously be someone that goes first, there is enough mud in the water for things to be quite tense as the turn unfolds. It’s a bit of a retro approach, and that’s deliberate. Perhaps it’s not as slick as some later mechanics I could think of, and again, that’s intentional. It does, however, allow for some gameplay which I haven’t worked out another way to replicate, and I really like that. I was going to explain a bit more, but this post’s already a bit long, so I’ll spare you the details for now. Suffice to say that yes, it’s a potential worry, but I think I’ve worked a way round it in OSS so the game can both look pretty and play nicely every time 🙂