This is the fourth in a series of posts about retraining myself in how I watch for trends and preferences in the gaming community.
Writing rules is hard. I know; it’s part of my job.
Naturally, the more complex the game, the more difficult it is to write the rules. Game complexity can come from a whole slew of places, but when actually writing rules, one of the most challenging types of complexity to explain comes when a game has tons of little sub-routines.
Games that get their complexity from strategic depth can actually have very simple rule sets. The difficulty in comprehending chess, for example, comes from the fact that on any given turn, the number of choices presented to a player are huge, and each possible outcome will each affect that many more possible outcomes on the opponent’s turn. Every choice opens up a geometric expansion of further game states.
The rules for chess though are elegantly short; they account purely for the game’s setup and the rules for moving the various kinds of pieces. Chess also includes a short list of additional rules for various game situations and movement exceptions, but in total, chess can accurately be explained in fewer than 1,500 English words and only a handful of simple diagrams. These can all reasonably fits onto a single sheet of standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper, using both sides.
The depth of Chess’s strategy however is a subject that has been the subject of tens of thousands of books and articles over the course of more than 1,000 years of play. A child can learn the complete rules of chess in a matter of hours, but the study of the game’s strategy can consume a lifetime.
Then there are games where the gameplay can be entirely open-ended, but also less strategically complex in their play than chess. The rules for these games might still require dozens of pages (if not more) to explain.
Gloomhaven is a tactical “campaign” style adventure game with deep roots in narrative exploration of a city and its surrounding world. It is huge in every sense of the word.
The box measures around 17″ x 12″ x 18″ and weighs 20 pounds. There are 18 sheets of 11″ x 17″ heavy chipboard punchboards, including literally hundreds of map tiles, monster standees, tokens, and markers. There are 17 little paperboard boxes for different unlockable character classes, each with sculpted plastic miniatures and over two dozen cards, markers, and other pieces of paraphernalia. There are at least 1,500 different cards covering a range of purposes — player actions, attack modifiers, monster stats and actions, equipment and other treasures, randomized events, randomized side-quests, and more. There is a book with 95 playable campaigns. There are envelopes with secret content to be opened at various stages of the game. There is a board showing a map of the city of Gloomhaven and a chunk of the continent surrounding it, and a sheet of stickers to add to the expanding range of known locations on it.
And there’s a 52-page rule book.
The community response to this game has consistently been incredibly positive. When Isaac Childres of Cephalofair Games first launched Gloomhaven’s first printing in September of 2015 on Kickstarter, he went in seeking $70,000. He finished the campaign with over five times that funding goal, and after the orders were closed, demand on the retail and secondary markets far exceeded the supply.
A second printing was announced in April of 2017, and at that point I knew I had to back the game. This time Isaac placed the goal at $300,000.
He hit the mark in five minutes. By day 4 of the campaign he had over 16,000 backers, nearly all of them in for at least $95. The next day the pledges totaled over $1.6 million, and over 2,000 of the backers were actively participating in a Gloomhaven mini-adventure Isaac was hosting through the Kickstarter updates.
After all was said and done, Gloomhaven’s second printing raised $3,999,795, coming in only $205 shy of the 4 million mark. The guy I shared an office with pulled his own $105 pledge just hours before the deadline because he was putting in an offer on a house and opted for financial adulting. (Sadly, the bid on the house was not accepted and he wound up kicking himself for withdrawing on Gloomhaven).
The backers of the second printing had largely received their copies of the game by late November 2017, and a retail release date was quickly set for mid-January 2018. At the time of this posting, the number of remaining retail copies is dwindling to a point where copies regularly sell online for around $200, significantly higher than the $140 MSRP. The current placement on BoardGameGeek.com’s all-time board game rankings and the user ratings back up the hype; Gloomhaven holds the number one slot, recently edging out Pandemic Legacy, and boasts a remarkable (and yet fully-deserved) 9.0 out of 10.
The game is largely narrative-driven, despite not actually being a role-playing game. Some reviewers categorize it as legacy game, though that’s up for debate. There’s a very good case for it being a turn-based strategy game — in a similar way to how a lot of video games are categorized as such — themed as a dungeon-crawl adventure. There’s no question though that the 52-page rule book covers a lot of technical/mechanical ground, and this is where the game’s complexity becomes apparent.
As I said earlier, part of my day job is to write rules documentation for games. Writing rules for themed strategy games with lots of parts and sub-routines is really hard. I have a number of tricks I fall back on to help push clarity in my rules (I’m not averse to repeating a paragraph if having it in two different places helps people get through a process without having to cross-reference), but I’m always looking for ways to improve the information design that goes into writing rules.
And that’s ultimately what it is; information design, the place where my career and professional training began. It’s not an easy skill to build, and it‘s something that can make or break a player’s first experience with any game, let alone one as complex as Gloomhaven. Isaac and his graphic designer Josh McDowell did an amazing job pulling all the rules together in that book, and presented them with a visually beautiful and well-designed structure. Still, even with 52 pages to get everything in there, there’s a lot of stuff that players have found a need for beyond those rules.
Usability through information design extends beyond rules too, affecting the design of individual components. Great components are intuitive in their purpose, and take into account the way the audience is likely to interact with them. Weak component design can stifle the play experience before the players even get to the heart of the gameplay.
This is where the story fits into my Reading the Room series; Gloomhaven is a prime example of the game’s community coming together to listen to questions other players posed, looking at how to better present information for players and then building better tools with which to learn and play the game. It’s not my own research and synopsis about usability and product design, but it’s definitely about improving a product based on community feedback, and in that, it’s something I can carry forward in my own rules-writing and component development process.
By this past November, before I had even received my own copy of Gloomhaven, I had spent hours upon hours reading through discussion threads on BoardGameGeek.com about the game. My goal was to know as much of the workings of the game as I could, so that when it arrived I could dive right in. It’s entirely possible that I did more active studying for the arrival of this game than I did for the arrival of my son.
Despite the amount of reading I’d done within the community threads, I never read the actual rules until I had the game in my hands; a PDF of the rules existed on the Kickstarter campaign page, but I tried to stay as unspoiled as I could about the actual game components. That included the rule book.
Instead, I followed discussions on the merits of pre-fabricated storage inserts, do-it-yourself options, painting guides for the starting characters, miniature landscape accessories, and so on. I read about common mistakes made by new players, and the methods for adding and removing players from the game over the course of a campaign (because not everyone in the party will always be available to play ever time). There were minor spoilers, but it was worth it to me to have a general understanding of the kinds of things I’d be able to do and the ways I’d be able to share the game experience.
At one point, Isaac posted a link to a set of graphical assets that he and Josh were making available to the community for the purposes of creating new home-brewed dungeons and quests. Isaac’s only stipulation was that if anyone wanted to use the assets for anything other than making their own campaigns for personal use, that they request his permission first. A chorus of gratitude and applause for the move followed from the community. The assets were embraced and immediately put to good use, evidence of which can be found in the many web-based tools, third-party apps, and printable materials that can be found in the BoardGameGeek Gloomhaven Files forums.
The kinds of files available range from schematics for home-made storage inserts to tuckboxes and envelopes for components to rules reference materials. Subscribing to any of these threads will quickly demonstrate how much the creators of these files care about their usefulness. Dozens of them show multiple stages of curation with periodic file updates and version tracking numbers. The originators frequently take and respond to questions in the forums, incrementally making the utility of those files more attuned to the needs of the end users.
With the availability of the art assets, the creators of the files are able to build things like full rules and campaign books translated into different languages that look just like the original. Players can also create appendices to the rules that summarize game sub-routines in formats that the rule book wasn’t able to devote space to.
For example, Bill Norris (BGG username Harleyguy) was able to create a one-sheet summary document with key game information for use as a quick reference guide. It begins with the full back page of the official rule book, but adds a reverse side with brief summaries of key combat-related conditions, effects, and sub-routines. Because Bill had access to the iconography, stylistic elements, and typefaces that Isaac and Josh had used, he was able to make his player aide visually tie in to the original game materials seamlessly.
BGG user Gekey took advantage of the art assets to create a simple, attractive board for setting out cards relevant to players’ visits to the city of Gloomhaven through the game. It’s a nice accessory piece that adds some flavor and focused visibility of thematically connected game components. I’m personally already seeing ways I’d like to use this in a constructing a physical tool for storing armor, weapon, and item cards available in the game’s marketplace.
Takeaway Number One for me: As long as there’s little concern for counterfeiting, trust the community and provide them with digital assets for creating supplemental materials. It’s impressive how much the community can add to the play experience when provided with elements that help them create accessories and player aides. Better assets will only help them build those pieces in ways that tie into the game’s existing richness and environment.
One of the most useful kinds of user-made appendices that I’ve found is flowcharts. While Isaac and Josh are thorough in explaining in the text of the rules how every process works, with a few exceptions, most of those processes are shown only as text. Given the enormous number of multi-stage procedures in the game, properly parsing and executing all of the rules text for those procedures is difficult. Even with decent quick-reference indexes (the rule book actually includes two of them, and each character box holds a simplified turn guide), it’s easy to miss or misunderstand key steps in any of those processes. Flowcharts have shown to be an excellent way to get from start to finish without overlooking anything.
There are many of these flowchart documents available in the Gloomhaven files forums, with varying degrees of detail in their step-to-step writing. One of the most useful flowcharts I’ve used is also one of the simplest. Erik Nilsson (BGG username Arne_Sven) created a clean, bare-bones four page set that explains the process of setting up and playing the game. They are elegant in their brevity, and were indispensable for my first dive into character creation and playing of a campaign.
Takeaway Number Two for me: Any rules document I create from now on for games with moderate or high complexity will include one or more flowcharts as appendices to help players quickly understand the flow of rounds and/or turns.
(Assessing the quantifiable meaning of “moderate or high complexity” remains to be worked out.)
Even in some of the lighter games I’ve designed and developed, I’ve seen time and time again that text alone often isn’t enough to explain concepts that play out within the game. Every game experience has moments where a choice or choices will create branching paths that the game process can take from that point. Static paragraphs of text can’t account for or accommodate the changes in procedure that the choices create.
Even visual diagrams will come up short when describing sequences with a set of interconnected or nested decisions and results. Diagrams nearly always need accompanying text to explain what’s going on in that diagram, which then in turn necessitates a structured system through which the text and diagram components are connected. Diagrams tend to be absorbed by the eye as a whole, while the text or copy that correlates to the diagram must be processed — in part or in whole — in a segmented, linear manner.
This is all to say, once again, that good information design is hard. Using flowcharts in the rules I write will reduce my own headaches and those of the people trying to play the game I’ve put in front of them. Why has this not occurred to me before? No idea.
Much of the fun of Gloomhaven is the discoveries that happen as the story unfolds. One of the first things you’ll notice when you start digging into the community’s conversations and home-made tools is how often the words “spoiler warning” appear, and how emphatically they hold others to respect that concept.
All of this can make discussing rules and asking questions about specific in-game situations very tricky.
Luckily, Isaac and Josh came into this prepared for some of the biggest potential spoilers. Within the game, there are points in which certain boxes are opened to reveal new characters. The game needs a way to tell you to which box should be opened, without ruining the surprise for players as to what kind of character they should be expecting to find.
Six of the characters are available right from the start of the game — The Cragheart (broken diamond), the Scoundrel (stacked daggers), the Tinkerer (gear), the Brute (three horns), the Spellweaver (swirling star), and the Mindthief (brain). Eleven others begin the game locked, and are brought into the game as previous characters complete objectives and are “retired”. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the names of those eleven other characters are, and I don’t want to know.
The real beauty of the icons Josh made for the character classes is that they provide only the most minimal information I need right now, and spoil nearly nothing that I don’t.
Beyond that, they give the community a way to identify them without ever mentioning their names directly. When I reach the point that I’ve opened the character box with the Cthulhu–looking symbol and I have a question about the way something in that box works, I can go to the forums and post a question with “Cthulhu-looking symbol” in the title without spoiling a single thing for anyone who hasn’t gotten there yet. Other users familiar with the contents of that box can then click on my question and respond with full confidence that they’re not unnecessarily spoiling things for me. Anyone who hasn’t opened that box yet can glance at the title of my question and walk on by without concern of seeing something they don’t want to yet, and feel assured that they’re also not missing critical information that would be valuable to them right now.
There is clarity in the obfuscation.
The game also keeps plenty of information under wraps through the use of decks of cards, kept separate from the main game components and accessed only when directed. Some of these are numbered so that a game event can tell players to go retrieve a certain card (and be surprised by the results), and others are kept in stacks that are shuffled so that they can produce randomized results (that will also keep users surprised by the results).
During a campaign’s setup, the campaign book may show you that there’s a treasure chest to be looted. It may even say that the treasure chest contains an item — but knowing that that particular item is shown on card #070 won’t ruin the surprise until you’ve looted that chest, retrieved card #070 from the box, and read what kind of item it is. And much like the character class symbols, the numbered card system allows players to reference and discuss items, treasures, and events without ever risking spoiling other players’ experiences.
This is not to say that the game’s creator and designer did a perfect job of hiding things that players want to discover gradually.
The particulars for setting up any given campaign are shown in the campaign book. It’s a static document; it would be impossible for the creator and graphic designer to hide any or all of the setup for any given dungeon from the players once they’ve turned to the campaign’s page.
There is a deck of cards that comes in the box meant for generating randomized dungeons, so a system of cards that might only reveal dungeons one room at a time is theoretically possible. It would be exceedingly difficult to organize and produce though — the sheer volume of cards needed to hide each room’s contents, along with story introductions, event descriptions, special instructions or conditions, and other relevant information for all 95 scenarios (in just the base game) would number in the high hundreds. That’s on top of the more than 1,200 cards already in the box. The book, while an imperfect delivery system for hiding spoilers, is the most practical option available.
But then the community showed up, and they found a way to improve on Isaac’s design in a way that fully maintains and respects the thought that went into the initial design.
BGG user tds_gaming went above and beyond, working his way through a PDF of the entire campaign book and adding opaque blocks that can be toggled on and off. The result is an interactive digital campaign book in which users can hide and reveal information as their campaign progresses.
RVG Software Ltd (Roy Goncalves, BGG username Riggert)went one step further, bundling the interactive campaign book into an app, available for Android and iOS devices. I’ve used the app to play through campaigns myself, and while visually the covers are a bit choppy, the overall effect on play experience is exciting and well worth the download. Not knowing quite what’s going to be behind the next door adds both challenge and atmosphere to the game in a way otherwise lost in the physical book.
The app and PDFs also have the benefit of obfuscating story points that couldn’t be considered as anything but spoilers. It’s tough to pretend you can’t see a full paragraph of “future” story text when you’re scanning the spread to make sure you haven’t missed the information you need right now.
Takeaway Number Three for me: When keeping information back is critical to the enjoyment of the game, having elegant ways of hiding, revealing, and — in particular —discussing that information makes a world of difference. Numbers are functional and accessible when dealing with a high quantity of hidden information, but the are clinical and devoid of flavor. The iconography created by Josh for the character classes is exceptionally flavorful, mysterious, and exciting, and it serves its function incredibly well.
I’d like to use a similar iconography system if I ever need one for a future project, but I need to keep in mind that each icon will eventually be described by players as a tool for spoiler-free discussions. Icons built for this purpose must be vague in the sense that the contents are a secret, specific in the sense that they flavorfully represent the contents are known, and specific and distinct from each other so that players can accurately reference them when speaking with each other in open forums.
The final question after all of this is whether the community finds these tools as valuable as I do; after all, this entire article series began because my own personal read on what a game’s greater community liked and disliked didn’t line up with the actual likes and dislikes of that community.
Facebook polling has proven relatively useful for me in this regard. The sample size I was able to gather within the official Gloomhaven Board Game Facebook group was smaller than the ones I’ve been able to put together in Magic: The Seatlling, but it was informative none the less. 62% of respondents there reported having used community-made tools when playing Gloomhaven. One group member gave recommendations on the apps and sites he’s found to be most helpful — John Tonkin’s Arcane Library is just one website that frequently comes up in community discussions of useful sites to have bookmarked.
BoardGameGeek.com also keeps statistics on the number of times files posted to the site are downloaded. This makes it even easier to evaluate how often community members see a need for a supplemental accessory or aide created by another community member. While the raw numbers don’t speak to whether the file was used or not or how the user might rate the usefulness of the file they’ve downloaded, they do tell us how often a community member felt they had a need for or interest in it.
Among the most downloaded file types are the flowcharts and the interactive/hidden scenario viewers (both PDF and app formats). Tds_gaming’s interactive campaign PDFs are broken into 13 different files to account for BGG upload limitations; the file for campaigns 1 through 10 has been dowloaded from the site more than 1,400 times. The most recent version of Eric Nillson’s flowcharts has seen almost 2,000 downloads to date. Roy Goncalves’s Gloomhaven Scenario Viewer has had over 5,000 downloads just on the Android platform alone; I wasn’t able to find publicly available numbers for his iOS downloads.
Gloomhaven has roughly 21,000 “registered” owners on BoardGameGeek.com — and this doesn’t include those who own the game but haven’t tracked their ownership on the site or don’t have an active BGG account. It would be easy to look at the numbers put up by Eric Nillson and tds_gaming and assume that when 10% of registered owners or fewer are downloading a file, the demand is not high. There are over 150 different files available for Gloomhaven just on BGG though, and several popular websites that have features that help players track game states and effects; using only a small sampling of the various community-built tools to assess the larger picture underrepresents the overall supply and demand for these tools.
(Which is to say that, in all honesty, I have no quantitative way of reporting how frequently players rely on these kinds of accessories and aides, but I haven’t seen any evidence that the community would rather “commando” their way through the game without them.)
Even if the larger community wasn’t finding the tools other community members were offering to be useful, all of the takeaways I’ve outlined are still valuable to me. The community has found ways of explaining and distilling complex game content that will continue to inform my own design philosophy and methods.
The community looked around saw holes where things they wanted and/or needed would fit, and they made those things. I continue to learn how to watch the community so that I can improve the things I’ll make for them down the line.
Special thanks to DM Apprentice on WordPress, and Bill Norris, Erik Nilsson, Gekey, tds_gaming, and Roy Goncalves on BoardGameGeek.com. Thanks also to Isaac Childres and Josh McDowell for the game and information design and illustrations that went into Gloomhaven and the digital asset kit.
Link to DM Apprentice’s image: https://dmapprentice.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/gloomhaven-kickstarter-unboxing/comment-page-1/#comment-89