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Board Games on the iPad?

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Last week I came across this article about board games and Apple’s new iPad device.  It was reporting comments from (amongst other) EA, whose VP of worldwide development was speculating on using the iPad as a way of playing board games. I tweeted about it, but I’ve been giving it a bit more thought and maybe it deserves a bit more than 140 characters.

He described Scrabble, and how the larger screen has the potential to be a new way to enjoy boardgames: the iPad laid down on a table with family and friends.

The idea seems to be that the iPad owner will install a number of games on the device.  When you want to play, say, Trivial Pursuit, you can lay the device down flat on the table, everyone can gather around, and play around it as though it were a traditional board.  And if you don’t fancy Trivial Pursuit, you can dismiss it and just push a button to play Monopoly, or Boggle, or whatever.

EA Mobile produces several traditional games on mobile devices, including Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Boggle, so it’s not unreasonable for EA to talk about one of those, but I do get the feeling that Apple have thrown this device out into the world and now everyone is trying to figure out how it applies to their own business and products.  Newspaper publishers are figuring out how to get newspapers onto it, TV companies are looking at it as a TV device, and people who own board game properties working on ways of using it for board games.

The board game people are following the same logic, basically, that the music industry applied to the iPod and that book publishers applied to the Kindle: you can now carry hundreds of movies, albums, books around with you in a convenient object, and I guess the idea is that you’ll do the same with board games.  One problem that I see as we move along this path (movies -> albums -> books -> board games) is that the connection between the physical object and the experience becomes more important.

  • We’ve never been particularly bothered about the physical object used to deliver our films, probably because we’re just as used to seeing moving pictures on broadcast television or in a cinema as we are via a physical object like a DVD.
  • We somewhat fetishise the physical CD (or vinyl album), but portable media players are gradually getting away from that.
  • Some people (early adopter types, for the most part) do like consuming books through their e-readers, but for most practical purposes, paper is still preferred.  The experience is just plain nicer.

And then we come to board games…

iPad - do you want to play Monopoly on a board that big?

iPad - do you want to play Monopoly on a board that big?

The iPad screen size is less than 8 inches by 6 inches, which makes it about half and inch wider and deeper than a DVD case.  Even in purely practical terms, it’s difficult to imagine a pleasant game of Monopoly or Scrabble for two or more people on a board this small.

The experience of actually holding and moving physical objects shouldn’t be underestimated either.  Monopoly players love amassing the physical cards and the physical banknotes - expanding your assets is a satisfying way of lording it over your opponents.  In Trivial Pursuit, pulling the question cards out and asking the questions is as much part of the social side of the game as answering the questions.  And when you start to think it through, some of the industry’s most popular properties don’t even work as iPad replacements for their traditional versions.  Scrabble, for example, simply doesn’t lend itself to this format, because you can’t hide the contents of your letter rack from your opponents.

I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but most of the board games that you imagine working best on an iPad laid flat between people are the ones that don’t belong to anyone.  I imagine that chess, backgammon and draughts would work very well, but no-one’s going to make a lot of money out of those…

A lot of the “owned” properties will continue to work just fine on the iPad, but only in the way that they already do on iPods and personal computers - playing against the machine or multi-player online.  Replacing physical games, even as a portable option, seems like a big ask.  I expect that the comments from the game industry are just very early reactions to the device, and these people are well aware of the issues that they face in terms of making use of their board games on the iPad.  There’s definitely room for some bright person to come up with a way of using the device that is truly innovative, rather than just mimicking the physical games.

Blast From The Past

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Ah, there we are.  We’ve been a bit lazy over Christmas vis-a-vis the old blog, haven’t we?  Ah well, if there’s one time of year when it’s permissable, if not expected, then I guess this is it.

Happy New Year, anyway, and I hope you had a terrific Christmas.  Ours was splendid, enhanced rather than spoilt by being snowed in for several days.  If you have places to be and things to do then of course that’s a thundering nuisance, but we didn’t, and the fridge was full of delicious food, so all in all it was very peaceful and festive. We watched some rather good telly too, some of it games-related, particularly BBC4’s short Games Britannia season.

The second episode dealt with the story of board games in Britain, and was a thoroughly entertaining romp through history of the subject, although it was a slight shame that its occasional (and perfectly informative and entertaining) wanderings across the Atlantic to talk about games like Scrabble, Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, and even to Essen, had to be curtailed or spun whenever the programme makers remembered about the “Britannia” in their title.

Still, without the “Britannia”, it’s unlikely that the program would have paid much attention to a game that I’d forgotten about, but which I now remember rather fondly.  That fondness is probably nostalgia, because in honesty it isn’t a classic game, but Kensington was a big deal for about 25 minutes in 1979, when it garnered a lot of mainstream media attention and even won the UK Game of the Year award.  These days it’s out of print, but it was significant in that it was one of the first successful independently produced board games, and as such started a cottage industry that’s still going to this day.

Put together by two novice game designers, Brian Taylor and Peter Forbes, as a way of staving off the tough economic conditions of the day, the board of Kensington was inspired by a tiling pattern at the site of the Albert Memorial in London’s Kensington Gardens.  Taylor and Forbes did a brilliant job of getting themselves all over the newspapers and TV, and made some terrific marketing decisions, including distinctive packaging.  The game itself came in a flat sleeve, 12 inches on a side, so it looked like an LP record (and I kept my copy at the end of my row of albums).  You couldn’t mistake it for anything else.

Each player had 15 pieces.  The pieces were small plastic discs, and were all identical except that one player had blue pieces and the other had red.

The board looked like this:

The object of the game was to place six of your counters on the six vertices of one of the white hexagons or one of the hexagons of your own colour.

The game had two phases.  In the first phase, the players took turns to place their pieces on the board.  Pieces could be placed at any unoccupied vertex.  In the second phase, players took turns to slide one of their pieces from one vertex to any unoccupied adjacent vertex.

During either phase, players tried to occupy all the vertices of any triangle or square, and if they did so, they won the right to reposition their opponent’s pieces: one piece for occupying a triangle, or two pieces for occupying a square.

If you’re thinking Nine Men’s Morris on steroids, you’re not a million miles away.  The problem with the game was that the first person to occupy a triangle or square pretty much then had their foot on their opponent’s neck, and it became very difficult to get back into the the game for the other player.

As I said, Kensington is out of print now, but it’s possible to pick it up on eBay.  Or you can make your own.  It’s not a stayer, but it’s interesting enough for a while, and it’s an important footnote in the history of the board game because of its indie origins and as a lesson in the importance of getting good media attention.

Games and Puzzles Media Round-Up

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

It’s been great recently to see quite so much about games and puzzles in the media. There have been plenty of articles in the papers about boardgames (here, here and here, for example), and in particular it’s been encouraging to read articles in the mainstream media suggesting that there is life beyond Monopoly and Cluedo.

BBC Four is currently in the middle of its Game On Season, featuring documentaries on board games, outdoor play and crosswords, amongst others.

Last week BBC Four showed its eagerly anticipated documentary on Kit Williams, creator of treasure hunt classic Masquerade, which you can watch on iPlayer.

Also still available on iPlayer is James May’s recent BBC2 series Toy Stories, which each week took a classic toy brand from my generation’s childhood - Airfix, Plasticine, Meccano and Scalextric - and turned it into a giant engineering project.  Later this month, the BBC will broadcast the final episodes, on Lego (20th December) and Hornby (Christmas Day).

Add to this the current vogue for games manufacturers to team up with Hollywood for upcoming film versions of Risk, Battleship, Monopoly et al., and it’s clear that something is up.  I can think of three reasons for the renewed interest.  Firstly, although it’s unlikely that the traditional industry is ever going to claw back the lead that the video game industry has established over it, there does seem to be a renewed appetite amongst the public for games that have a more sociable element to them.  Secondly, it’s well-known that recessionary times lead to more time spent at home, for both economic and psychological reasons.  And thirdly - and I don’t know if this is oversimplification or not - but there seems to be a strong nostalgic element to this, most clearly seen in the Game On season and in James May’s series, and nostalgia is a state of mind to which even TV commissioning editors and Hollywood producers are susceptible.

Hello, This Is Interesting: LEGO Games

Friday, November 20th, 2009

So, yes. We’ve been playing Lego Minotaurus this week. Minotaurus is part of a range of games, which includes Ramses Pyramid, Lunar Command and Creationary, as well as a few smaller, lower cost games. Creationary seems a bit different from the rest, in that it’s basically Pictionary-with-LEGO. and I think that this game, along with the other games that LEGO has released this year, is potentially very significant for the perception of board games amongst the wider public.

Award-winning Eurogame designer Reiner Knizia has been involved to some extent with the design of the games. Even though it’s not clear how much he’s actually contributed to the games’ design, or whether it’s more of a PR thing, it’s an interesting development that LEGO clearly think it’s beneficial to have a name designer on board.

These aren’t the first games that Lego has published. A few years ago, my youngest and I played game after game after game of LEGO Racers, in which you built a racetrack out of interlocking cardboard pieces, then raced your LEGO cars around the track. Movement was determined by a spinner, and you could pick up various power-ups as you progressed around the track.

Good fun, but it didn’t really need to be LEGO. What’s different, and very interesting, about this new batch of games is that they are much closer to the brand values of LEGO, in particular its appeal to creativity and interchange.

Briefly, here’s how Minotaurus works. It’s a game for two to four players, and each has to navigate three pieces from one corner of the board to the centre. The board is a LEGO base with a simple labyrinth, constructed out of more LEGO pieces. The design of the initial labyrinth is set out in the rules (but more about that in a moment).

There’s a piece called the Minotaurus, which starts in the middle, and can be moved around by the players. If the Minotaurus catches a player’s piece, that piece has to return to the corner where it started.

The dice - also made of LEGO - has the numbers three to six on it, plus a grey face and a black face. Throw a number, and you get to move one of your pieces. Throw a grey face, and instead of moving you get to reconfigure a wall, either to block an opponent or to clear your own route to the centre. Throw black and you get to move the Minotaurus piece eight spaces, hopefully to catch or at least block an opponent.

So it’s really straightforward, and kids should have no difficulty picking it up. What’s interesting from a gamer’s perspective is that the rules actively encourage mucking about with the game. There are suggested tweaks, including changing the labyrinth layout, making the Minotaurus faster, or allowing players to jump walls if they throw a certain number, but implicitly the rules say: MAKE UP ANY RULES YOU LIKE. GO NUTS!

And this is what should make the LEGO games interesting to the specialist game community. It’s not that the game mechanics are particularly innovative, it’s that the game actively encourages variants and modifications, and because it’s LEGO, there’s no shortage of extra bits and pieces that can be filched from the toybox to make new pieces for the game.

From there, it’s only a short leap for kids to start using LEGO to make up their own games. What a wonderful opportunity for children - and their parents - to realise that they don’t need to be confined to the published rules. This approach to gaming is, of course, already recognised in the hardcore gamers’ world, but when a toy company with the reach of LEGO gets behind it, things could really get interesting.

On the Battlefield of the Soul, We’ve All Lost

Friday, November 6th, 2009

The newspapers carry the sad news today that Hasbro has acquired the film rights to world-domination boardgame Risk.  Furthermore, it’s not just Risk: films are already in development based on Monopoly, Cluedo (known as Clue in North America) and, if you can believe it, Battleship.  Ridley “Blade Runner” Scott is being touted as a possible director of the Monopoly film, and has been quoted as saying that a Monopoly Movie would be “hysterically amusing”.

He may be right, but perhaps not in the way he intended.  Here are Stephen Colbert and Jeff Golblum “auditioning” for the Battleship movie:

The problem is that there’s no narrative in most of these games, the exception probably being Clue/Cluedo.  Clue/Cluedo has at least the potential to work as a narrative, but only because its format is based on a narrative genre: the 1930’s country house murder.  OK, that’s a literary genre first, but also exists as a film genre.  In fact, Clue/Cluedo has already been made into a movie once , directed by Jonathan Lynn of “Yes Minister” fame and starring Tim Curry.  It’s played for laughs and it’s actually rather good.

But what can we expect from a movie based on Risk, for goodness sake? This? Probably not…

There’s no dramatic story arc in a boardgame.  Videogames ought to be easier to adapt, but Hollywood has had years of failing to deliver a decent film based on a videogame.  Boardgames are much harder to turn into a satisfying narrative - unless you don’t even try, and instead make a genre movie and just slap the name of the boadgame on top of it.  In the case of Risk, you can imagine an epic war film, maybe, with a load of enormous CGI battle scenes, Lord Of The Rings style, but there’s no artistic reason at all for an epic war film to be a Risk spin-off.  Exactly the same holds true for Battleship.  Expect a generic hunt-and-destroy submarine movie (though it would be great if they made a really good sub movie, of which there have been none for literally decades), but again, why not just make a really good submarine movie?

Well, there’s one obvious reason, of course.  The movie will sell a few more tickets based on brand recognition from people who play (or used to play) whatever game it’s based on, and Hasbro will sell an enormous number of extra copies of Risk and Battleship.  And you can’t blame game companies or film companies for trying to make money, because that’s what they’re for, but it’s hard to feel totally comfortable sitting in the cinema when it all looks so blatantly cynical.

The Monopoly film is going to raise a feeling of slight unease outside the US, because all the properties have different names in different territories.  Fair enough if they stick to the American names, which they surely will - it’s an American film, and Monopoly is an American game, after all.  But here in the UK we all know what Old Kent Road and Mayfair represent, and most people won’t know the difference between Boardwalk (which actually sounds a bit cheap and vulgar, doesn’t it?) and Mediterranean Avenue (which sounds kind of upmarket).

Having said all that, if there’s anyone from Sony or Paramount reading this who’s interested in the film rights for Army Of Zero - call us!  (We suggest Kenneth Branagh for Lord Icclestone).

Hardest Puzzles #2: Jigsaws

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

More about very difficult puzzles, following on from last week’s post…

As far as jigsaw puzzles are concerned, you might remember that about his time last year, jigsaw manufacturer Ravensburger was getting a lot of publicity for its Jungle Scenes puzzle, which had just been completed by a British man in about 3 months.  It had 18,200 pieces, and apparently it is known as “The Everest” amongst jigsaw fans.

But hey! there’s a larger one called “Life”, which has the Guinness Book Of Records entry for the world’s largest commercial jigsaw puzzle, with a massive 24,000 pieces.

Of course it’s not all about the number of pieces.  Some experts say that the hardest jigsaw ever is a version of Jackson Pollock’s painting “Convergence“, by Springbok, which dates back to the 1960’s.  Only 340 pieces, but the image makes it a challenge that few people have the patience to successfully complete.

And you can also get jigsaws where the picture is a single solid colour.  Here’s an online version that you can try, but to me, these don’t really count because they’re just wilfully difficult, and being able to build up a picture is a fundamental part of a jigsaw.

Hardest Puzzles #1: Logic Puzzles

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

If you’re finding yourself getting stuck on the Army Of Zero puzzles, here’s a bit of light relief, in the guise of a series of blog posts about the hardest, most fiendish puzzles in the world! After these, you’re going to be glad to come back to Army Of Zero…

This week I’m going to point you towards the hardest logic puzzle ever, according to philosopher George Boolos. I’ll add more posts at future dates about other kinds of puzzles.

OK, here we go, hold on tight to something.  This is what is reputed to be the hardest logic puzzle:

Three gods A, B, and C are called, in some order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for yes and no are ‘da’ and ‘ja’, in some order. You do not know which word means which.

So it’s similar to what’s known as the knight/knave puzzle, in which you’re asked to imagine yourself on an island where some of the population always lie and the rest always tell the truth, you don’t know which is which, and you have to find a reliable way of getting the truth out of someone.  Only in this version, it’s way, way harder because (a) you might be talking to someone who lies or tells the truth at random, and (b) you don’t know whether their answer means “yes” or “no”.

My brain is melting out of my ears.  If you want to read more - and see the solution - go and have a look on Wikipedia.

Thirtieth Anniversary of Kit Williams’ “Masquerade”

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Readers of a certain vintage will remember Masquerade.  Quick summary for those who don’t: in 1979, artist Kit Williams wrote and illustrated a children’s book called Masquerade, which told the story of the journey of Jack Hare and how he lost a valuable treasure.

However, the treasure wasn’t entirely fictional.  Williams also created a real treasure, a hare-shaped pendant made of gold and jewels, and buried it in a secret location.  The reader of the book was invited to study the fifteen paintings within the book, to uncover the clues, and thus to reveal the location of the hare.

Unfortunately the quest to find the hare ended in a bit of a shambles, as you can read at Masquerade’s Wikipedia page.  The hare was located by subterfuge rather than by  solving the puzzle, and Kit Williams found that his credibility as a serious artist was undermined by the book’s commercial success.

Masquerade basically invented a whole genre of game: the armchair treasure hunt. You’ll spot the fact that Army Of Zero can trace its lineage back to Kit Williams’ work.

The important difference is that my artistic credibility within the art world is not at threat, and will probably remain at the same level no matter how popular Army Of Zero is.

Ahem.

Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to a new BBC documentary, to be shown on BBC Four in the Autumn.

Why There Won’t Be an Online Version of Army Of Zero

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Not a week goes by, it seems, without someone suggesting putting a playable version of Army Of Zero on the website - either someone wants to play against a computer, or they want to help out by writing a program for us.  Technically, it’s absolutely do-able.  You might remember from an earlier post that we used a computer program during the play-testing, to simulate a lot of games and make sure that the balance works, so it wouldn’t take a lot to adapt that, along with some nice graphics, into something we could put on the website.

Unfortunately, it’s there are other complications, related to the Army Of Zero trademark, and I’ll tell you all about it.  By the way, this all happened about nearly a year ago, and it’s probably worth making the point that we’re not upset about it: it’s just the way the intellectual property world works, and it was ineresting to see it in action.

We chose the name Army Of Zero because (a) the number “zero” is significant to both the gameplay and the prize puzzle competition, (b) there are a lot of warrior-type characters and (c) it references the well-known expression Army Of One.  It’s a good idea to get a trademark registered, partly to make sure that no-one pinches your brand name and partly to make sure that you’re not going to get into trouble by inadvertently pinching someone else’s.

In the UK, you apply for a trademark via the Intellectual Property Office.  You can do it yourself, but it’s one of those jobs that’s probably best left to a specialist, so we employed an Intellectual Property Attorney.  She began by carrying out an initial search for existing trademarks in the same market - toys and games - that might clash with Army Of Zero.  It’s a good idea to do this so that you maximise your chance of getting your own application accepted.  The only thing she found that she thought might be a problem was a game called Army Of Frogs, but she thought it would probably be OK.

We decided to carry on with the application.  With the IPO’s process, you get an initial response in a few weeks stating whether the application has been accepted, and in our case it was, so that was good.  You can then put TM on your stuff, indicating that the trademark has been accepted by the IPO, but then there’s a three-month period during which other trademark holders can raise objections if they feel that their own IP is being infringed upon.

Fortunately the three month period passed without objection, and we became entitled to change the TM to an (R).  It was a long wait, because we didn’t want to go to manufacturing until the whole process was done with.  Apparently people sometimes do decide to do this, if they think they need to get to market fast, but it’s a risk.  We waited, and were pretty relieved when the process had run its course.

Literally a couple of days after the trademark was awarded, we got a very polite letter from Electronic Arts’ legal representatives in California, saying that they’d noticed our trademark application, and pointing out that they had a (computer) game called Army Of Two.  They told us that they wouldn’t object to a card game called Army Of Zero, but that they would get legal on us if we started doing computer games, including web-based games.  They didn’t want people to think that Army Of Zero was in any way related to Army Of Two.

At this point, we had three paths open to us.

First of all, and probably silliest, we could take issue with the EA legal team and see them in court if they felt like being litigious. But it’s not unreasonable to assume that EA have bigger, more expensive lawyers than we can afford, and consequently it doesn’t really matter who’s in the right: whatever the outcome, we don’t really want a drawn out legal battle.

Secondly, we could choose a different name for the game, but we didn’t want to do that because we’d just waited three months for the application to run its course, and didn’t want t owait three more months. And there was no guarantee that at the end of it we wouldn’t have someone else kicking up a fuss.

Thirdly, we could accept EA’s position and agree not to develop computerised versions of Army Of Zero.  Which was what we did - it seemed, and still seems, the least bad option.  I’m sure EA knew we’d see things that way too, and probably that’s why they wrote to us directly after the trademark application was over, rather submitting an objection during the process.  And although it was kind of annoying, it’s probably better for us too that they let things pan out the way they did, otherwise we’d have had to think up a new name and go through the trademark application at least one more time.

Except that we can’t do an online version of Army Of Zero, and now you know why.

How Computer Games Can Be Educational

Friday, July 24th, 2009

So it’s the first week of the school holidays, and the main order of the day is finding ways to keep the kids entertained whilst keeping them as far as possible away from their games consoles.

So it seemed like a pretty good compromise to visit the Videogame Nation exhibition at Urbis. It’s a pretty comprehensive collection of the history of British videogames, including personal favourites like Elite, Operation Wolf, Sensible Soccer and GTA. The kids’ perspective was interesting: they were just as happy to play the jerky, blocky Jet Set Willy as they were to play photo-realistic stuff like LittleBigPlanet. And despite their tender years, they also were particularly drawn to stuff that was nostalgic to them, like Donkey Kong Country, which seemed to me like it came out five minutes ago.

Sensible Soccer
Sensible Soccer

Here’s something I found particularly informative. We had a game of Sensible Soccer, which I spent far too much time on in the nineteen-nineties, and guess what? It was still great! The graphics were primitive in the extreme, but it was fast and easy to get the hang of and consequently brilliant fun. And it played nothing like football, but it didn’t matter because you got that it looked like football, so you knew the object of the game, and then you got that it was fun, and so who needs the “realism” of FIFA10?

I’m reminded of a documentary I saw once about seventies TV sci-fi, in which the “special” effects were discussed. The point was made that the fact that the spaceships were painted egg-boxes on bits of wire wasn’t a concern, because the viewer was quite happy to accept that the egg-boxes were a representation of a spaceship. Of course they were! You couldn’t film an actual spaceship, so what were the special effects guys supposed to do? The egg-boxes were used to inform us that the spaceship was on the move - and on with the story.

And so it is with Sensible Soccer. And it was a timely reminder, as we continue to work on the Army Of Zero rule expansions, that realism comes a distant second to playability and fun. Being able to pick up the game and just play it and have fun with it is paramount, and simulating “realistic” combat doesn’t matter. At all.


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