Thursday, August 31, 2017

When Good Games Go Bad

Here's a game design theory question for you: if you can break a game by playing it wrong, is that a fault of the game's design?

Last week I played New Angeles with my group. Pictured is your author -- centre, with the odd-shaped head -- struggling to deal with the intricacies of futuristic mega-corporate tomfoolery.

In New Angeles, players take on the role of mega-corporations in the cyberpunk -- but not Cyberpunk -- city of, er, New Angeles, and their job is to keep the city running while also making more profit than each other; one of the players may also be working for the government, trying to cause chaos in the city so that the Feds have an excuse to come in and kick the mega-corps out. It plays a bit like an evil neoliberal Pandemic, with various escalating threats, er, threatening the city, and the mega-corps coming up with plans to reduce said threat while also making a bit of cash.

We played it like Pandemic, working together to keep New Angeles out of trouble, which was great for the people of the city but a bit rubbish for the government mole, because there was no way to undermine all that good civic work without unmasking and then being locked out of the game by the other players, who have no reason to support any of the mole's proposals.

(There are a few other problems with the way New Angeles implements its traitor mechanic but this isn't a review of the game.)

We were playing it wrong. We weren't supposed to be so cooperative; we were supposed to be more selfish, allowing the city to suffer for profit, bribing or forcing other players to support our proposals if necessary. With everyone being a bastard to everyone else, the government traitor could work without standing out as a wrong'un.

It made for a rather flat experience, which is I suppose an incentive to not play the game in such a friendly and helpful manner, but that seems a bit passive to me; everything kept ticking along to the end, whereas you'd expect problems to be more apparent earlier on if you're getting a fundamental part of the game wrong. I was the traitor and I did note that I was powerless quite soon, but I assumed I was just being rubbish, because I am rubbish at most games.

Hence my question. If a game allows you to play it wrong without it being clear you're playing it wrong, is that bad game design? Or is it players being dense? Both? Neither?

We're going to try New Angeles again, with the benefit of knowing where we went wrong the first time. I'm sure it will be a better game the second time around, but I wonder if it will prompt any more interesting questions?


  1. Maybe it is intentional. Showing that cooperation and mutual aid makes for a boring time.


  2. So nobody started trying to undermine the others late in the game? I would have figured somebody would see they were falling behind on profits, and start playing dirty to try and hamstring the others, out of desperation if nothing else.

    1. Part of the problem is that there are multiple and variable victory conditions; in this game, the player coming second on points also won, because he beat me. He didn't need to beat the first player.

      But yes, the idea seems to be that everyone should be undermining everyone else, but the game mechanics don't seem to encourage that. That's where I wonder if the game's design is at fault.