CTF: Quality vs Investment

CTF

Consider the following: At what point do you make sacrifices to the quality of your game in order to lower the investment required from the players?

Money

Photo from Boardgamequest

Photo from Boardgamequest

The new Megaman Board game asks for a pretty large financial investment from its players. You're looking at $80 for the base game, or $160 if you want to get the add ons and extra figures.  That's about twice the cost of most comparable board games and while part of it is the fact that it is Megaman, but the real expense comes from the very detailed models.

For those of you who have not played it, the basics of the game consist of you and your enemies racing to collect two Robot Master powers before racing to beat the final boss.  To collect the Robot Master powers, you need to go through a series of Challenges, and then defeat the Robot Master himself.  To complete the challenges and beat the Robot Master, you must roll a certain face (or faces) on your Megaman themed dice, while slightly modifying your chances by playing cards that either help your or hurt your opponent's chances of rolling the required faces (or suffering additional consequences for not rolling them).  The models are not required, and only act as the marker for your character or the location of the boss (which is also indicated on the board).

The game experience itself could probably be recreated for less than $20 if you removed the flavor, but the cost skyrockets in large part  due to the models that come with the game.  That price tag definitely has kept a large number of people from buying the game.  On the other hand, however, those same models (and the theme) are the primary reason that a lot of people picked it up, despite the price tag.  I would love to see actual numbers comparing how many sales were lost due to the high cost compared to the the sales made due to the high quality models.

Image from Megaman Kickstarter.

Image from Megaman Kickstarter.

Most game designers, if they haven't considered it from the beginning, must ask themselves if they are making the game because they want it to be experienced by the most players, or if they are making the game as a monument to the designer's ability to create something beautiful and impressive.  This conflict can also be seen in the video game market with the division between indie games and triple A titles.   While each side of that conflict is clearly represented by a large population, the actual number of players who feel like they are clearly on one side or the other would be very interesting to investigate.

Brain Space

Magic the Gathering is a game that could easily be looked at and considered when discussing the monetary investment, but let's discuss the brain space investment that it asks of its players, because that opens an interesting question.  Look at the player who reads the top decks from each tournament, follows Mark Rosewater's blogs and the MTG articles, practices drafting at tappedout and sits at home considering whether to put 2 or 4 traumatizes in his mill deck.  Now look at the guy who just goes to prereleases occasionally and sometimes plays with his old squirrel deck against his friends sometimes.  Magic is interesting in that actually playing the game takes roughly the same amount of concentration and mental focus for both of these players, yet the total amount of brain space that the game has taken up is vastly different.  What is particularly interesting is that Magic doesn't require the players to go the extra mile.  A player can ignore all the extras and just draft a random deck and still be a great player, while others can focus on all the community activities, the meta game, and magic celebrities, yet still be awful.  Many games, like MOBAs and RTS's for example, allow the player to determine how much knowledge they care to learn and brain space they want to dedicate to the game, without requiring it to be "good."  These games are deeper than they appear on the surface, and have a huge community and meta game that surround them, and each game has lots of choices for the player to make.

On the other hand, there are games that do not allow the player much choice.  Some games are very simple and shallow;  There just isn't that much to learn.  These games are typically "on rails," meaning that there are obvious "correct" plays to make (Betrayal at the House on the Hill, One Night Werewolf), or simply don't have the depth to explore (Dixit, Monopoly).  There isn't much to  study or consider about these games outside of the games themselves.  While playing the game, there are often obvious and limited choices, which prevents the player from exploring a variety of possibilities during actual gameplay.  These just don't allow for the same engagement that a deeper, more expansive game might.  

From wikipedia

From wikipedia

While some players may say that these games are bad for those reasons, this might actually make these game preferable to others.   Like the money example above, being simple and easier to engage new players allows them to be more accessible and played by more people.  Some people enjoy a nice and simple game where they do not need to constantly keep up with the latest meta, or walk through a hundred different possibilities before making a single move.  There are many games that are famous for being deep, but their depth and complexity actually act as a deterrent to new players.  Classic games like Chess and Dungeons and Dragons appear infinitely complex to some players, and they may never even attempt it after looking at the rule book.  Other games may appear more simple, but have too many options for a new player to feel comfortable to process; Drafting games like Greed or 7 wonders can be intimidating for players who would prefer to have a more obvious route of play.  

Creating a game deep enough to allow a community to gather around and discuss it is, in my opinion, critical to a game growing into something great, but there is a fine line between a game that simply HAS the depth that a player can choose to engage in, versus a game that REQUIRES  the player to explore its depth to enjoy the game.  Lenticular design is a term for hiding complexity in a way that protects new players from being exposed, while allowing experienced players the option to explore it.  If this type of topic interests you (and it must if you've read this far), I recommend looking it up.

Time

DC Deck Building and Legendary are very similar games.  Both are deck building games themed after superheroes (DC and Marvel, respectively).  Both have a lineup where you purchase cards that make your deck strong enough to defeat the villains.  Both have a card that is bad for you (weakness/wound), both have a "pay 3 get 2 resource" card available to the players in a separate pile (Kick/Shield Officer), and both have 10+ expansions/variations.

Image from Cryptozoic

Image from Cryptozoic

Image from Boardgamegeek

Image from Boardgamegeek

They do have a number of differences however.  DC allows you to pick a hero which slightly alters the way you will play the game: one might give you a bonus for playing heroes, while another gives you a bonus for playing villains.  DC also has you fight multiple main villains, and once you defeat them, they enter your deck just like every other card you would interact with.  There are also attack cards, which harm your opponents, and defense cards, which protect you from the attacks.  Each game takes roughly 30-60 mins, and I have often likened DC to the potato chips of Deck buildings.  You grab a bag, throw it on the table, and the players just start mindlessly eating, and enjoying, them.  It's pretty fast, has almost no table talk required, and can be played almost completely on auto-pilot.

Legendary has two resources: money and attack.  It also contains a second lineup, which fills with villains.  You use the money to buy heroes, which go in your deck, and you use the attack to defeat villains, which you collect for points.  As the lineup gets full, the villains escape, which is bad.  There is also a scheme that acts as the "lose" condition for all the players.  This might make you believe that the game is co-op, but it is not, rather, each player must balance gaining points individually vs the needs of the overall group so as to not have the game simply end because the villain defeated all of you.  As such, each turn requires the player to track two resources separately, consider the needs of their own deck (so that they can get the most points) against the needs of their enemies (so that the game doesn't end), and decide which villain to defeat (again, determining if they should go for their own benefit or help the team more).  There is also hostages, and the placement of cards in the line up can matter, and the order you play your cards in matter, and there are master strikes and... there's a lot to Legendary.

Image from Cryptozoic

Image from Cryptozoic

Now, if DC is potato chips, Legendary is a steak dinner.  Not only is it deeper, longer and has a huge amount of different "stuff" in it, but the preparation is equally long.  Legendary has approximately 100+ different heroes you can pick (you need 5-6 depending on the number of players), you pick your one scheme from around 50+, your one mastermind villain from among 30+, 2-5 villain groups from 100+ (again, depending on the number of players), and you also have to pick whether you are playing with the Villains expansion rules, which add new base cards as well.  The entire process of picking everything can either take an hour by itself as you lay out the choices and have player pick, or be completely random, though pick randomly and you run the risk of everyone losing because your heroes don't work well together.

With DC, you pick which box you want to play with and pick a hero.  That's it.  Maybe you decide to mix in the 14 cards from one of the small expansions.  Maybe you decide to mix two boxes (or more) together.  Regardless, you're playing in under 5 minutes.

Image from crittohit

Image from crittohit

Set up, individual turn length, overall game length, and tear down are all massively higher for Legendary.  Legendary is also more expensive, and requires a significantly large amount of brain space than DC.  DC is cheaper, simpler, and takes less time.

Please be aware that I am not saying the DC is a better game. On the contrary, I think that Legendary is a better game.  When I was first introduced to them both, I only wanted to play Legendary.  It was deeper, had more to explore and understand, and was, by all of the measures that I personally cared about, a "better" game.  Yet, time and again I found myself becoming less and less willing to go through the set up, and each new expansion that should have made me excited to pull out the game instead made me want to pull it out less and less. My play group and I kept finding ourselves playing DC.  If we got sick of one version, we just moved on to another box or mixed them together.  I was confused when I realized how much more I was playing DC, as I still believe that Legendary is the "better" game.  Despite this, my group plays DC weekly (or more), and I haven't pulled out Legendary in almost a year (despite buying all the expansions that have come out).

Consider the following: At what point does the investment required to play the game start to affect the quality of the game?  When does a game become too deep and too complex and too full of choice to be enjoyable?  I would love to hear your thoughts on these, and maybe some examples of games that you feel exemplify these qualities.  Are there any games that straddle the line, or perhaps another pair of games that do a good job of showcasing the gap?

Thanks!

~Nick