Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Patching Board Games

Caverna, image provided by publisher
As board gamers we have varied expectations for what it looks like to be a consumer within our niche community. Some people like their games to be dripping with theme and pimped out with fancy bits while others just want solid game play and don’t care as much about presentation and immersion. But we can all agree that we want our games to be well tested and produced whether that means coming with piles of miniatures and beautiful art, being deeply immersive, tightly balanced, having varied depth of play, or a healthy dose of everything. So how should we react when a game comes out with a flaw? Should we demand that the first edition of our games be perfect or be willing to support developers when something goes wrong? Is there an inherent risk for being an early backer and waiting for a second printing is the way to go (assuming there is a second printing)? What obligations do designers and publishers have when a flaw is found in their game? What may seem absolutely fundamental to some instead come across as being entitled to others.

Glass Road, image provided by publisher
Essen saw the release of two highly anticipated games by the great Uwe Rosenberg: Caverna and Glass Road. I’ll start off by saying that I have the utmost respect for both Uwe and the publishers of these games. This isn’t meant to slander any of the parties involved, in fact hopefully you’ll find the opposite to be true. I’m using these game simply to give a recent case study for what to do when things go wrong. Within a couple weeks of release, both of these games were found to have an infinite resource production loop that allows for a significant game-winning advantage. When these strategies were mentioned on BGG (Caverna, Glass Road) both cases were addressed directly by Mr. Rosenberg or the publisher as a problem that needed to be fixed in order for the game to be properly balanced. The general response seemed positive in both threads with Uwe or the publisher and members of the BGG community brainstorming ways to fix the problem.

However, some were unhappy that the games were allowed to be published with such glaring flaws (now that someone has pointed it out). Speculation on why the problems weren’t caught during playtesting ensued. It proved even more perplexing and comical that this could happen with two games from the same designer at the same time. This naturally leads to discussing what obligations the designer and publishers had to prevent and fix it. It also leads to concerns from those who already own the game and wish to have their copy corrected as well as from those deciding whether it is still worth buying. These discussions aren’t new and seem to come up whenever a misprint or game-breaking case is found.

I want to take a short break from board games to discuss another industry that has shaped both producing and consuming products in our modern society: software development. Some years ago the concept of patching software after its release became common place to the point where you’re unlikely to see a version 1.0 last very long. Supporting a product means not only helping the consumers use the software but also providing continuous updates to fix any problems they might find. The whole concept of patching has two facets. First, the expectation that some problems will make it through testing and when users find them there is a built in way to fix them. This isn’t saying that developers are lazy and didn’t catch all the bugs just that as software gets more complicated the chances of catching everything with limited resources decreases. Eventually there comes a point when the product needs to be released to make a profit, patching simply becomes a necessary result. Second, developers are able (and perhaps obligated) to continue improving the user’s experience by adding in functionality that didn’t make it into the release (sometimes at the expense of creating more problems but we’re already prepared to deal with those). Back in the days before patching the user had to come up with a workaround or wait to buy a new version. To an extent both of these scenarios still exist but hopefully if you find a problem it will get fixed without having to resort to either of those.

Now that the concept of patching is commonplace and expected you’ll find a new mentality can creep into the development process. There’s the idea of rushing products to release with the expectations to fix bugs that exist later in order to get the product out sooner. It’s obviously problematic to release a product that has bugs that are already known with the intent to fix them with a patch. Let’s instead look at the case where the bugs exist because of insufficient testing. This is essentially turning customers into glorified testers, enlisting their unknowing help to find bugs in the software. This essentially shifts the focus from development to support by letting users do the testing. This is a “deliver now, fix later” mentality that feeds our society’s need to have the latest and greatest as fast as possible at the cost of quality.

I’m not saying that this problem has fully manifest itself in board games but it’s intriguing to think of how the internet and communities like BGG have allowed for flaws to be found in board games and provided a way for them to be “patched” more easily than ever. Whether it’s a rules erratas, FAQs, house rules, second edition printings with corrected cards, or endless expansions there are many ways to correct, improve, and continue to support board games after they are released. This may be viewed as a crutch to release games before they are ready or a tool that developers and publishers can use to support their games. Truthfully it’s probably a bit of both but either way the technology and community are there and it would be foolish to ignore them.

We come back to the concept of being consumers in this community, what are the expectations that we have for designers and publishers? Should they be required to find every possible problem before they release a game? If a problem is found in a game after it is released what obligations do they have to fix them?

I think it’s safe to say that we should never expect a game to be truly flawless so it becomes a matter of what flaws you find to be acceptable in your games. There are many problems that can occur during production and hopefully a good publisher will work with gamers to ensure that they are happy with the quality of their game. This is not unique to our hobby so I’d like to focus specifically on the more complicated design problems. Most people prefer to play published games because they don’t want to feel like a playtester so it’s safe to say that we expect games to be properly and fully playtested before they are released. However, just as in software development, resources are limited and playtesting is a long and exhaustive process. Especially in the case of more complicated game it’s reasonable to think that some edge cases could exist that no one thought of. I don't want to get into an extensive discussion on how playtesting should happen but having been on both the side of developer and consumer of software I’m going to present my very idealistic view toward board gaming. Basically it comes down to a matter of having good faith in the designer and publisher. I’d like to trust that they did their due diligence during playtesting and if something falls through the cracks then they will work hard to come up with a solution. In the case of both Caverna and Glass Road it’s been exciting to see some of the BGG community take this to heart. You may not want to be on the bad end of inexperienced Kickstarters (and really that's a completely different discussion) but if that makes you squeamish you can take a “trust but verify” view on it and wait for the early reviews or second printings. Let others test the water and then decide whether any flaws that are found are reasonable or corrected to your liking. Basically, don’t put such an unreasonable expectation on publishers and designers that they are afraid to release games fearing backlash from the community. We’re all here to enjoy games so we should strives to create an environment where developers flourish.

Here's my niece (the baby) being
skeptical about whether Ascension
is properly balanced.  Don't let
 her ruin your fun!
There’s still hope even in the worst case scenario where you encounter a flaw in your latest game that ruins the perceived balance. Perhaps a house rule removing a problematic card or restricting a dominant strategy could be used to maintain balance. I’m generally of the mindset that you should play a game extensively before imposing your own rules but whatever lets you have fun is really what’s important. I find that the most fun way to combat dominant or unbalanced strategies is to get creative. Try a divergent strategy or some odd-ball plan that no one has thought of yet. You might fail miserably over and over but if a clear boring dominant strategy is present and everyone chooses to ignore it then you can still have a blast. It’s all a matter of determining whether your group can handle knowing that they can abuse an unintended flaw and ignore it anyway.

The bottom line for me is that we play games because we love them so we should have good faith in our cherished designers and encourage new aspiring ones to give it a shot. Perhaps I’m a bit naive but seeing Uwe interact with BGG over the last week has given me hope that there are a lot more people willing to make our hobby an accepting place than one that demands perfection.

What do you think?  Should we be more accepting as a community and trust designers to properly test their games or crack down more to ensure the highest quality in our age of post-production patching? You can even discuss Kickstarter if you'd like but this article is generally aimed at more traditionally published games.


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  1. As someone who works in the video game industry, I can only say that the assumption that any software dev that ships products with flaws in it doesn't care or takes it users as testers is completely wrong and doesn't take into account the complexity of software. We usually have 2-300 testers working on a single product and they work their a$$es off. The reality is there is a great difference in getting even 300 people testing something and then getting several million people doing the same. New issues that were never found are bound to come up.
    I assume the same is true with boardgames. Even if you get 20-30 people testing, it's still far less than the number of people who will start playing when the game is released and unless the game is very simple, a few "bugs" are bound to be found.
    Please do not assume that devs and boardgame designers/publishers are lazy or are cutting corners. We do the best we can and we definitively wished that we could deliver something that's perfect each and every time, but it is simply not always possible.

    1. It was not my intent to criticize the video game industry or imply that most software is insufficiently tested and intentionally released with bugs. I'm a software developer myself and know the challenges of testing. I presented a pretty severe worst case scenario to look at how being able to fix things after release can negatively impact development. This isn't saying that it always does just that it can. I simply wanted to draw a parallel between how the idea of patching from software development can show up in the board gaming world.

      In fact my point was that we should trust that board game developers are doing their best to play test their games before releasing them and be forgiving when some "bugs" show up. You could likely say the same thing for video games and software.

    2. My only experience with video game software is the Civilization franchise. It is notorious for the first releases to have extremely buggy issues - and not with broken play, but with technical crashes and thing not doing what they're supposed to. Bugs that in my (uniformed) experience should be obvious? I still wonder whether the emphasis to release new versions and expansions in a timely manner to meet demand effects those issues. Especially since the very first patch is usually out pretty quickly. It has always made me think that they ARE releasing a product that they know is only about 99.5% ready so that they can hit the shelves for what has been after all one of the more profitable franchises in the computer game market.

      I think the difference here between video and board gaming problems is most times video game patching is for technical bugs. Whereas flaws in board games are more in the realm of actual broken game play or dominant strategies - sometimes that can be "patched" with an expansion, but at a price to buy it. Software patches, OTH, are free. So "patching" board game flaws can be more problematic even though software game flaws can be frustrating, too.

  2. Some interesting points. I will say that IMHO, board games are so much simpler than software and video games (millions fewer possibilities and iterations) that they should be held to a much higher standard.

    When your game revolves around drafting cards with special abilities (Glass Road, Viticulture, Seasons, etc), you should probably use some sort of software to look for game-breaking combinations, rather than relying on anecdotes from a few dozen playtesters.

    1. There's a really great discussion about using software to aid in game development and play testing going on at BGG here

      I think that using software in game development can be a great tool if it is cost effective but that isn't always the case. For game designers or playtesters with programming experience it's absolutely an excellent option.

  3. Great article. Game designers and publishers should do everything to release the game without any flaws, but if it happens I understand and don't crucify them. As long as they don't ignore the problem and try to fix it. (I think Uwe has done very good job in that being very fast admiting the problem and trying to fix it.)

  4. A critical difference between board games (or any physical product) and software is the fact that software can be updated automatically, online, to address an issue. This will meet the needs of the vast majority. By contrast, a physical product has no update capability - there's not even a reliable way to identify and notify the consumer, short of issuing a recall notice. And even then, consumers may freely ignore such a notice.

    I think the takeaway from this is that issues in a board game, like any physical product, are difficult to correct. On the other hand, it's too easy to fall into "analysis paralysis" and end up never releasing anything on time.

    1. Well, look at the examples we have seen in the car industry over the last decade or so. Specific models end up being recalled because of brakes, engine problems and so forth. In this case, the industry often knows who the owners are and so it is easier to identify and notify the consumer. Nonetheless, these are *major* ticket items that ships with flaws. I think the approach is to look for easier ways to provide updates for owners of games...

  5. This isn't much of an issue for me. I thought the Few Acres of Snow thing was blown way out of proportion for what could easily be a fringe strategy. Of course, I also come from CCGs, where they were always banning cards or releasing errata, etc.

    The Caverna thing is especially puzzling. The combo was found in solo games (I believe), and it seems pretty hard to pull off in multiplayer games.

    I'm still eager to try both Glass Road and Caverna. I am glad, though, that the designer has jumped into the conversation.

    1. I agree completely regarding A Few Acres of Snow. It's interesting to me how much animosity there was in that instance, but for the games cited here it sounds much more friendly (I haven't read the BGG threads). I wonder what the difference is?

      I dislike when "patches" are sold as "expansions," but I understand how business needs drive that model. As for typos and errors on cards or rules, eh, it happens.

    2. I think part of the animosity was the publisher's response: shrugged shoulders and reluctance to offer a solution.

      And yes, patches sold as expansions? Bogus.

    3. I think one of the differentiating factors is game genre; AFAoS is a wargame whereas these are more peaceful Euros; which genre lends itself more to cutthroat play?

      In addition, it seems that the HH was never really satisfactorily "solved" by the designer, unless I'm just not up-to-speed with that situation. In Glass Road at least, there has already been an official ruling presented that solves the game-breaking scenario. Not sure about Caverna, though.

    4. Concerning Caverna, Uwe weighed in with an official ruling after thinking about it for the weekend and it involves the requirement to overbuild the problematic tiles so they can't exist together. I like the solution as it doesn't specifically alter the functionality of the pieces but still prevents the combo from occurring. However, it does require knowing the rule in order to implement properly since there isn't a visual reminder. In this respect Glass Road's fix of simply removing the problematic tile is easier to enforce but removes some functionality from the game.

      I'm curious to see how Lookout Games will support the Caverna ruling. From what I can tell at the moment you would only know about this fix if you specifically followed that thread on BGG.

  6. When you're dealing with any game that has a level of complexity I can't see that you're going to catch everything.

    So as consumers you've got to be aware of it and realise that this can happen.

    How the designer/publisher deals with the occurrence is far more important. Not only should they work hard to provide a solution - and in this day and age this is made easier with direct contact with gamers - but they should also review their play testing process to see if it can be tightened. I don't think that as consumers we can expect or ask for anything more.

  7. What is concerning to me is that play testing and balancing a game is a much more crucial part of game design than coming up with a theme and some mechanics. A flaw in a game is fine - that can be fixed - but it speaks to the possibility that maybe the game isn't play tested fully. I would like to go into any game I play trusting the designer that their game is balanced and I'm not going to be on the losing end of some lack of balance in the game.

    1. I think that, realistically, the only way to be assured of this is to play very simple games; or to wait a year or so to let other consumers do the testing for you...


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