Some six or seven years ago, my good friend (and Christ look-a-like) Frank Branham showed me a prototype for a board game that he designed called Battle Beyond Space. It was inspired by The Last Starfighter and Starcrash, and it had bits salvaged from the old TSR Buck Rogers game as well as lava rock asteroids. The game was awesome, a fun space shoot ’em up with a cool squadron movement mechanic and plenty of total mayhem. We’ve played it off and on over the years, and now it’s finally been released to the general public by none other than Z-Man Games. I tell ya, that Zev Shlasinger is a man of impeccable taste. Looks like the discounters are selling it for about $32.
It’s a great beer-and-pretzels style dogfight game and the production looks outstanding- the illustrations are right on the money in terms of capturing the tone and atmosphere of it. Also, my name is in the thanks section…printed in Comic Sans. It’s the only Comic Sans in the whole game. I really should demand a complementary copy as reparations.
Anyway, I am totally shilling for this game and for my pal. Don’t be like old Bill Abner, who failed to buy a copy at Gen Con. Right after meeting Frank. How rude!
I’ve finally had to a chance to play Dirk Knemeyer’s Road to Enlightenment, and the good news is that all told it’s a pretty darn good game. It wouldn’t be proper for me to formally review it since Conquistador Games’ Director of Operations is none other than Bill Abner. You might could say that I’m in cahoots with him. He used to technically be my boss. There are all kinds of impropriety that would be bound up in my reviewing the game, which just shipped to Kickstarter bankrollers or whatever they’re called. I thought this game looked good enough to support, and the good news is that it’s not a disappointment.
But I am going to make an example out of the game to illustrate a larger point. Road to Enlightenment has one of the worst rulebooks I’ve read in recent memory. After reading through them one time, I had no idea what the core mechanic of the game was and it wasn’t even apparent that it was fundamentally a deckbuilding game. Basic game functions and processes were poorly explained to the point where it’s not clear how to play Vermeer, Newton, and Cromwell into one of the game-driving action stacks. Objectives were not clear. How to pay costs for cards wasn’t immediately evident and issues of timing were vague at best. Really important rules were crammed in an appendix of terms, stuck into call-out boxes, or hidden deep in paragraphs. Oh…so I can’t use the politics points on a Catholic card if I’m anti-Catholic? You mean there’s really not a turn marker, even though there’s a turn track or did I just miss something? Examples of play were sparse, and I came out of the rules scratching my head over them. Looking online for answers, I found rules questions and FAQs picking up the slack.
The trouble extended to actually playing the game with a table of five other seasoned game players. I had enough of an idea of how it would operate to get us going, but after literally going page by page through the rules and hitting the most significant points they all looked at me with that “what the hell are we supposed to do” thousand yard stare. That’s before they got dealt ten cards with a bunch of esoteric icons, numbers and text rules on them that they had never seen before. It was definitely a learning game to say the least, with questions and rules consultations at every turn foreclosing on anyone getting into the more interesting parts of the game. There are only about five pages of rules, which suggests both that there are about five too few. The game simply was not explained adequately by its rulebook.
Having read hundreds and hundreds of rulebooks in my time, I’ve seen more than a fair share of terribly written, formatted, organized, and explained rules. Road to Enlightenment isn’t nearly as bad as some of the rules I recall reading in the early 1990s, where designers and publishers seemed to be ephemerally suggesting how you should use the components in the box. It’s also a far cry from the confusing and complicated rulebooks that Nexus tucked into the first edition of War of the Ring and Marvel Heroes. It’s nowhere near the atrocity that was Return of the Heroes’ rulebook, presented as a conversation between characters. And we’re obviously not talking about an issue like with Magic Realm or Up Front, where it’s a very complex and detailed game that virtually requires you to learn how to play in stages.
But it is an example of why concise, clear, and well-organized writing is essential and why badly written rules are frustrating- especially when the design is good. When you’re writing a set of rules, you’re writing something that is going to be sent out into the wild and used to re-enact your game as it is intended to be played. More significantly, it is a document that game players are going to use to effectively complete the alchemical cycle of game creation by completing the design through play. With this in mind, there is no excuse for the rules to be the chief stumbling block or barrier to entry for players to experience the design. Card FAQs in a game like this should be expected, but FAQs practically required to comprehend the game at a basic level should not be.
You can’t assume anything about the reader. You have to understand that you’re giving the ingredients and the recipe for the cake but if it’s not clear if it calls for milk and pickles, then milk and pickles can and will find their way into what comes out of the oven. You’ve got respect the consumer and provide them with the best, most authoritative rules out of the box that they have purchased, not in an Internet fix-it-up file. By the time a table of six players plays the game and it bombs because of bad rules writing, it may be too late for the online FAQ. The rules are where players are introduced to a design and learn how to execute it, so don’t screw it up. That’s the TL;DR version and the moral of the story.
Like a lot of rules sets from first-time designers or smaller publishers, Road to Enlightenment feels like instructions that would make perfect, complete to sense to someone who has had the game explained to them or that has played it enough to fully comprehend its process and mechanics. But consumers purchasing this game are not those people, barring those who have had Mr. Knemeyer or our very own Bill Abner teach them how to play at the World Boardgaming Championship or elsewhere. This is why the rules FAQ is already available and growing, and it is something that could unfortunately jeopardize the success of the game in the marketplace as word gets around that the “rules are really bad”.
Getting the rules right- and I mean the writing part more than the design part- is obviously essential. But it’s also something that is a very tricky proposition that demands accessibility, proper formatting, examples, clarity, and completeness. Looking across the shelf at the rules writing at other companies provides some good examples. GMT’s often very complicated games have a uniformly impeccable, clean presentation using the traditional case-based numbering system that doesn’t necessarily make for good cover-to-cover reading, but the practicality of reference can’t be beat. And they usually include a more prose-oriented playbook with extended examples of play or a completely explained sample turn. All of the above can make their rules seem more difficult than they really are, so it’s sort of a trade-off.
Fantasy Flight Games used to have some of the worst rulebooks in the business. In recent years they’ve scaled back the text and improved their organization to the point where even their most complex games have concise rules, well-organized and thoroughly illustrated with an eye toward making it playable by someone who’s never picked up a hobby game before or a veteran. The problem with their rules is that they can’t seem to get QA issues and basic copyediting nailed down.
Mage Knight’s rules, although split between a play-through tutorial and a reference rulebook, serve the game well by making it actually quite easy to understand if you learn it as intended. I remember looking at the rules when I first got that game and thinking “oh no, this is going to be a burden”. But it wasn’t. Reading through the rules I was surprised at how well-written and executed they were, and how there was almost no confusion or vagary. The game needed this kind of entry point, and it contributed to my enjoyment of last year’s best release. If that game had a bad rulebook or if it weren’t so well-explained, I doubt it would have found the fanbase and acclaim that it has.
Road to Enlightenment presented me with a set of rules that gave me a feeling similar to what I get from reading a Phil Eklund game for the first time- complete confusion. But instead of feeling like the rules were over my head and rigorously academic, explaining a game with lots of very specific (and rationalized) detail, I felt like what should be a very easy game at a rules level was made much too difficult in the telling so to speak. Bad rules often portend bad things for a design, but there are also occasions when a little clean-up and some good old fashioned red pen editing are all that’s needed to tease out a great game buried beneath bad writing. A second edition rulebook- better written, better formatted, and better explained- is likely all Road to Enlightenment needs. Other games aren’t so lucky.
As we speak, the World Boardgaming Championships are going on in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This nine-day event, attended by some 1,500 gamers including our very own Bill Abner, features organized competitions, retailer and publisher exhibits, and of course tons of open gaming. I was asked by no less than eight people if I was going to put in an appearance, and I’ve also been asked from many different quarters if I would be at Origins or Gen Con. I’m on a large mailing list featuring pretty much every game player in the metro Atlanta area and I get invited to get-togethers, meet-ups, conventions, and other gaming event all the time. The answer to all of the above is always “no, Barnes will not be there”. Usually I cite my “won’t drive more than 15 miles to play games” policy, a parameter that has decreased over the years. But ultimately it’s because I’m done with playing games with strangers- particularly gamer strangers.
Let’s be clear. I love playing games and I love getting together with friends like my wonderful Hellfire Club gaming gang and local gaming celebrity Frank Branham and whoever is playing at his manse. He’s got good taste in games and friends, for the most part. As much as I love playing games 100% of the time the main attraction that gets me to leave my hermit-like lifestyle as well as my family behind to spend an entire evening over a game table is actually the socializing and catching up with good friends. I really don’t care what game we play.
But as I’ve stated in the past quite plainly, I’m done with playing any games with strangers unless they’re vetted and vouched for by friends and invited into our closed, secretive cabals. Or if I’ve “met” you online and I have a good sense of who you are and how you play games. But random “mind if I join you guy”? Sorry, table’s full. Lost the pieces for the fifth player. Bye.
Call me inhospitable, call me a jerk. But the fact is that my gaming time, especially with two small children around, is very precious and very limited. I don’t want to waste it. I’ve done more than my fair share of accommodating random “mind if I join you” guy between decades of gaming at weekly public events, demoing games at conventions, and running a game shop where practically every day I was playing something with some people I didn’t know. And I’ve had far, far too many bad experiences with this character than good ones.
Fred Fredburger, the original Fun Murderer that yelled at a child over a rule in War on Terror, was a random “mind if I join you” guy. The table of people I played Das Zepter von Zavandor for six hours at Atlanta Game Fest while my friends played Fury of Dracula in a third of the time were unknowns. I couldn’t have known that they were human abacuses. Playing with strangers has resulted in some of the worst, most unfun gaming sessions I’ve ever experienced and at least one unforgettably disgusting quote- “you’ll have to excuse me, I ate a large quantity of sausage before I came here”. It’s totally different when my buddy and TI3 champion Will Kenyon says something like that. We have an understanding.
The problem is that socialization is first for me, the game second. If I just cared about getting a game in, then I wouldn’t mind posting up at a random table at WBC with Joe Carcassonne or whoever and playing whatever. But I want to play games with people I like, people I can relate to and talk to about something other than the game that’s on the table in front of us while we play. If all we have between us is that game, we have nothing.
Yes, I do feel like an anti-social curmudgeon and I’m well aware that most well-adjusted gamers just want to be accommodating and welcoming to both nebbish newcomers that don’t know anyone in the room and awkward old-timers, like the poor guy that used to come into my shop and set up old Avalon Hill wargames, waiting patiently for random “mind if I join you” guy since he was too shy to ask someone to play on his own. I’m glad that there’s kinder gamers out there willing to spend their time with these folks, because I’m not. Not any longer.
I’ve met some truly phenomenal people while gaming. Like Richard Launius, the designer of Arkham Horror and the man I would likely nominate as the Greatest Gamer of All Time. Seriously, there is no one on this planet that is as passionate and enthusiastic about games as this man. And then there’s John Clowdus of Small Box Games, a man that understands that any game is good when played with Evan Williams. Then there’s my good friends the Philosophale family, Dr. Dan Baden, Steve “Tanktop” Avery, and pretty much everyone in the Atlanta Game Factory family. All were strangers once. Now they’re friends.
These days, the odds of me meeting these kinds of great people through gaming are slim because I’m so ruthlessly elitist and unfriendly. I’m OK with that, because again I think back to all the gamers I’ve met that have been awkward, embarrassing, weird, nasty, rude, or otherwise incapable of carrying out normal human interactions without the social media of a game through which to communicate. Hell is other gamers, which is why I prefer to strictly game with friends.
For the first time in 16 years, I do not have a full time job in the videogame industry.
No more editing reviews, hustling for assignments or badgering PR for early review copies. Not that we are against getting review copies for NHS but I no longer care as much about meeting a deadline. It’s liberating — like being blasted in the face with ice water shot from a cannon. The fact that we have a great community here at NHS who come every day to read our stuff is now like icing on a cupcake. Not a real cake, we aren’t that big yet, but in this case a cupcake will do.
It’s crazy to think that I have made my living writing about games since I left college, but that’s the truth of it. I thought when I lost my job at GameShark back in May that I would scramble around trying to fill the void with yet another editor assignment but you know what? I’m done with that part of my life. I love games and always will but covering games in a certain way and working for another website holds absolutely zero interest to me.
You have NO IDEA how much I am looking forward to playing games just to play games. I miss that. A lot. Now I can fire up Crusader Kings 2 because that’s what I want to play. I’m sure I’ll play as much new stuff as I did before but the pressure of having to race through a game I’m not enjoying — it’s just not for me anymore. Writing about games at NHS needs to be fun, first and foremost, and as a result I’m going to write about what interests me. Period. I hope that you can all understand that.
As for my job, I have been hired as the new Straw Director of Conquistador Games. Taking the reigns of a shiny new boardgame company is an opportunity that I simply could not let pass by — and I’m being paid — that seems almost unfair. Conquistador is a brand new company and our first product, Road to Enlightenment, is about to ship and we have several prototypes in the hopper. I’m basically handling the day to day duties, some of it fun game stuff and some boring business stuff — but at the end of the day, I am steering the ship of a boardgame company which I have to tell you beats the shit out of worrying about if Game Company X sends us a review build on time.
I am excited, nervous, anxious, and so thrilled to be doing this that I can’t wait to get started. In fact I started on Monday which is why I haven’t been writing much here of late. I hope you understand — it’ s a new job in a field of gaming that I adore so I want to get off on the right foot.
What does this mean for me and NHS? I have every intention of writing for NHS for as long as they will have me. Short term, it means I’ll be writing less. The reason for this is that I will be traveling more for my job at CQ than I ever did for Gameshark because Gameshark rarely paid for me to travel (true story, ask Brandon and Todd). I will be heading out to Lancaster, PA for the WBC on August 1st to run the booth at the convention, then we’ll be going to GenCon, then BGG Con, and maybe even Essen. As the Director of the company — you kinda have to go to these things. So that means less time to write about viodeogames — at least for now. Once I get settled into things here I will get back on the writing horse, whether it’s a write up about an old game, some boardgame stuff, iOS, whatever.
Right now, there’s a tubby nerd making sure he’s got an extra asthma inhaler ready for when MORE news about Assassin’s Creed 3 this week. A dudebro is swiveling his Oakleys to the back of his bald head, applying eyedrops that will keep his eyes moistened (read: disguise his tears) while he watches trailers of Black Ops II, Halo 4 and the new Gears of War game. Some girl that smells of shampoo and mildewy teddy bears is stroking her inadvisable Yoshi tattoo, hoping and praying that Nintendo doesn’t bungle their Wii U presentation. That’s right, it’s E3 week.
And since I’m not there to join the vagabond NHS crew, lead by the destitute , drug-addled Bill Abner, that also means it’s B3 week! I won’t be feasting on lemon bars, gawking at desperate “models”, or in a back room signing an an agreement to give every EA game an 90 or better rating in exchange for a Lamborghini Countach. I won’t get to hob nob with celebrities like Tom Chick and Snoop Dogg, nor will I get to dine on the epicurean delights of California Pizza Kitchen.
Like last year, however, B3 will be far more awesome than E3 has ever been. To prove it- and in the spirit of bullshit marketing- here is a one hour and twenty six minute trailer for B3. Although it shows no actual gameplay footage, it captures all of the majesty, pageantry, and sheer amazingness that B3 offers. It should tide you over until the torrent of teasers and empty advertising crap starts to wash over us all. Come for the vikings, stay for the octopus. Really, you’ve got to see the octopus. E3 doesn’t have an octopus, does it? Octopus revealed and confirmed at B3!