Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Hidden rules are the worst

You've probably noticed that I've been toying around with Mobile Frame Zero a little lately, especially with my two children. They're both young so they're into whatever I'm into. We kludge together a few mechs and then set them up on the floor to play.

The older one sometimes plays War! Showdown or Pirates! Showdown on my iPad so he grasps the point of a wargame. The abundance of dice around the house probably also helps him along a bit.

But as you might imagine, young children don't usually have an interest in understanding the rules before starting play. Instead, they like to make up rules as they go along. It's like play-storming but without anyone writing anything down. For my eldest, every turn is an opportunity to make up a new rule about something.

"I rolled a 3. If I roll another 3 now then that makes 6 and I get to capture that weapon tower."

"How many 6s did you roll in the game? If you rolled enough then you get to repair your robot without having to go back to the start."

"If you capture that tower, you can put it on your robot and move seven spaces instead."

You get the idea. It made me realise something I don't especially like in gameplay: the hidden rule. I played a game of Warhammer 40K with a more knowledgeable friend one day. Everything was going just fine until I made a move and he said, "And now I get to… " Follow this with the total destruction of my Tau army.

Oh. Do you think I would have made my move the way I did if I knew that?

You might say that I should have known the rules before I started playing. True! I should have absorbed that massive fifth edition of the WH40K rulebook before I even considered playing. OK, so I kid a bit. The point is that there were surprise rules. I didn't know them all and suddenly there were more of them.

In game design I think this requires a special audience, or perhaps a better game design. When I think of a game that avoids this neatly, I'm immediately drawn to Lady Blackbird. All the rules are on the character sheets. It's great because it's simple enough to fit on a single sheet without being crowded. It even has exception based rules on each sheet, but they're also few in number.

With all that I've just written, perhaps you think I'd hate the mother of all exception based games: Munchkin. But it's just the opposite. I like that game because the exceptions are the expectations. The game is specifically about those exceptions. Players don't have to memorise them all, just be able to play them as they come up. In games with hidden rules you have to memorise them all and that drains the fun out of the game for me.

So in short:
- Games with easily presented rules are good.
- Games that include exception-based rules are good.
- Games that punish players for not memorising the encyclopaedia of rules are bad.

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