Cruel 2B Kind & Failure

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I. Disclaimer

Let me just start out saying that this is not a complaint about Jane McGonical & Ian Bogost’s Cruel 2B Kind. It’s a great game, it just didn’t work out for me.

II. How It Went Down

I had set up the game as described here. I had emailed all of my participants (20 in total). I had everyone’s phone number in a spreadsheet, and that spreadsheet in my phone. I showed up on site, and texted all of my teams that the game would begin in 10 minutes.

Here’s the thing about Cruel 2B Kind: There is no opening event where all the players gather for rules and instruction. The game relies on players not recognizing each other, so keeping the teams separate until the game begins is paramount. I didn’t have the person-power to assign each team a handler, so I just took a position in the center of the park where we were playing and told teams to contact me if they had questions.

Everyone got to their launch points (I assumed) and started the game (I thought). Thirty minutes in, having seen zero kills and only one group that I suspected was playing, I starting texting my teams asking where they were and how the game was going. I got responses: “Someone was sick, so our team is not coming.” “Oh, sorry, we didn’t come out today.”

Three of my five teams had failed to show. I called the other two teams in, and faced up: The game wouldn’t run.

I knew that this was a possibility when I set out to run this game. The dilemma of anyone who runs free public events is how to get an accurate headcount; just because someone signs up on Facebook does not mean that she is coming out on the day of. She might get sick. She might find something better to do.

III. Lessons Learned

I don’t think there’s a game-design lesson here. Cruel 2B Kind works great. It relies on people showing up, but so does every game. There were, however, some lessons about event hosting generally.

Firstly, people need to have skin in the game. I didn’t learn this from this event; I learned it from running other events with Chicago’s own Waxwing Puzzle Company. This event just confirmed it. Our paid games are always better attended than our free games. This perplexed me, until I thought about it: With no money down, a potential player has nothing to lose in skipping out on an event. Once the potential player has paid, no matter how small the sum, he is taking a loss by skipping out. Sure, some people may apply the logic of sunk costs and decide not to come despite this financial loss, but for most people, the fear of loss keeps them on the roster. Thus, for future Cruel 2B Kind iterations, I’ll charge a fee (and donate the proceeds to charity, per McGonical & Bogost’s directive).

The second lesson is more obvious: Be prepared for failure. As soon as I realized that teams were bailing out, I knew we couldn’t play Cruel 2B Kind. Initially, I planned to send everyone home as angry and disappointed as I was. But then I remembered the rules to another game that I’d been tossing around that needed playtesting, and would work in the park.

The eight remaining players joined me in testing a sort of live-action checkers that, with their input, morphed into a sort of live-action billiards, and had a great time doing it.

Thanks to Jane McGonigal (@avantgame) and Ian Bogost (@ibogost) for making Cruel 2B Kind, and using their twitter clout to help me promote the iteration that I (almost) ran.

 

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Rules/Play/Culture: Why Journey to the End of the Night Succeeds

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I. Recap of my Journey

I (finally) played Journey to the End of the Night — Chicago has two different groups organizing this game every year, one in May and one in September, so I had had plenty of chances to play, but until now, I hadn’t.  This time, everything fell into place.

I arrived alone, but quickly found a team — an attendee from a game I had run the week before, and some friends of friends from my neighborhood. We decided to run together, and despite what I had heard about it being hard to keep a group together, this ad-hoc team stayed intact almost the whole way through.

The game started at an empty lot in the shadow of the Sears Tower, and moved throughout the near southwest side of Chicago. There are lots of buses in this part of town, so most of our strategy revolved around getting to a bus (buses are safe zones, but embarking and disembarking are not) that would drop us directly into the checkpoint. Using smartphones, we mapped bus routes, and, on foot, detoured a few blocks away from obvious transfers. One or two of us would wait, nonchalantly at the bus stop, hiding our player ribbons behind the pillars of the bus shelter. The rest of the team hid nearby, ready to bolt at the first sign of a chaser, then sprinting to the bus as soon as it pulled in. Waiting for a bus was never more exciting, and though we had few encounters with chasers (due, I’d like think, to our planning skills), we nonetheless experienced the excitement of the game.

Outside of checkpoint five, we were ambushed! Disembarking from the Ashland bus, just beyond the safe zone, one of our members gave up his extra life (won during a dice game at an earlier checkpoint), and the rest of us scattered. Most of the team ran south, into the safe zone, but in the chaos, a teammate and I ran north, and were quickly cornered and tagged. In Journey, when you are tagged, you aren’t out, you just change sides.

We grew into our role as chasers, setting traps for unsuspecting runners, or driving them backwards into safe zones they had been trying to leave. We ended up in a parking lot at University of Illinois at Chicago with about 6 other chasers. We took up positions behind parked cars and in the shadows of trees and buildings. The parking lot was in sight of the finish line, and was a tempting route for runners. As soon as they were too far in to turn back, we sprung out at them, catching some, missing others, but at least making them work for their victory.

Later, we rendezvoused with the rest of our team, who had traveled 2 miles north of most of the game activity, then rode the Halsted bus south, disembarking adjacent to the final checkpoint and claiming victory.

II. Why Is It So Good? Three Answers

While I was disappointed not to have been able to join my teammates at the finish line, playing both sides of the game gave me insight into why Journey to the End of the Night works so well (it is hosted regularly in large cities around the world!).

Much of what makes the game interesting is cultural — players participate in an outsider activity that allows them to simultaneously appreciate and subvert the urban scene. Players gain a real appreciation for parts of the city they might not otherwise encounter (especially, in this iteration, its functional public transit system) while repurposing its resources for unintended activities (a parking lot becomes a dangerous obstacle course). In a big city like Chicago, these activities can happen again and again, and engage new players in the magical re-imagining of the city twice a year.

There is also a facet of Journey that allows the player to define her/his own play experience, in particular, the game’s win condition. The official Journey to the End of the Night website says that “whoever reaches the end first wins,” but this race-element was not mentioned in any literature or introductory speech by the organizers at the iteration that I attended. At this event, the focus was on reaching the finish line at all, and many players defined winning as reaching the finish line with their entire team intact, regardless of timing.

Lastly, the rules of Journey to the End of the Night facilitate a continued engagement with the game even when a player is “out.” When I got tagged, the event was not over for me (though some players did choose to go home, rather than join the tagging side). Instead, I was reincorporated into the game in a new role. This is a particularly elegant rule: it keeps players engaged while serving the purposes of the main game by increasing the difficulty level as the game goes on (more players tagged out = more taggers in play).  Though it is not mentioned on the Journey website, taggers have also developed their own win conditions, despite the fact that, by a strict reading of the rules, they can no longer participate in winning the game (ie getting the final checkpoint). Most “kills” — player ribbons collected — is a goal that many taggers have defined as “winning” on their side of the game. Some players volunteered to start the game as taggers, and others let themselves get tagged early on, in order to have more time to accrue kills.

Thus, there are three important elements that make Journey fun and replayable. Firstly, the cultural appreciation/appropriation of the city dynamic. Secondly, the loose, player-definable win conditions. Thirdly, the game mechanic of “nobody out,” whereby even tagged players get to keep engaging (even “winning” their own sub-competition).

All of these things — engaging the culture, malleable play experience / win condition, and well-designed rules conspire to create game that is satisfying and replayable. I’m already gearing up for the September iteration of Journey!


Thanks to Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, whose Rules of Play introduced me to the tripartite rules/play/culture model. Thanks to Shama & Evan Jacover and the other organizers of the Chicago’s yearly May Journey. 

Monopoly

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I. Why Monopoly Is A Bad Game

My experiences with Monopoly tend to go like this: Choosing a game. Remembering the thrill of shrewd business dealings, of jockeying for the railroads, of squeaking past an opponent-controlled Boardwalk. Deciding to play Monopoly.

Three hours later, regretting this decision. Landing on a high-rent square. Slowly bleeding money, convincing myself that a lucky roll of the dice will reverse my fortunes. Attempting to bankrupt myself. Holding on by the thinnest of threads, mortgaging and un-mortgaging in an attempt to make the passage of the hours seem meaningful. Losing the game.

Now, that ignores some of the great times I had playing Monopoly growing up, with friends in college, etc. etc. The game has no small amount of sentimental value to me. But it is, from a game designer’s point of view, a bad game.

Here, in my opinion, is what makes Monopoly a bad game: Long before the game is over, the identity of the winner is exceptionally clear.

Sure there are exceptions to the rule — some of the best games of Monopoly are duels between the top two land barons that last the entire game. But any other players are merely casualties. Thus, Monopoly can be a great two-player game.

I would like to propose two options for rule changes that would, in my opinion, make Monopoly a better (group) game.

II. Fix A: The People’s Revolt

Monopoly is a simulation game — it represents the real estate market, and players take on the role of real estate tycoons. The game’s theme and even the nature of its flaw (progressively greater and greater inequality) accurately depict aspects of the real-world real estate market.

So, in the spirit of the simulation, this rule change allows for a communist revolt.

The rule change would be as follows: If any one player owns more properties than the total number of properties owned by other players, the other players may vote, by simple majority, to stage a revolt.

Now, the wealthy player plays against his rebellious comrades, all of whom are teamed together. There will have to be some sort of balancing mechanism — perhaps the government seizes the protestors’ assets and reallocates them to the capitalist — so that the single player is not rapidly overwhelmed.

This basic change allows for numerous permutations: Perhaps a combat mechanism emerges, whereby the empowered proletariat can capture properties by force. Perhaps the land baron’s game piece becomes a totem of the land baron on-the-run, moving from house to decadent house, one step ahead of the angry mob. The possibilities expand from the simple all-against-one Monopoly game that the initial rule change proposes.

III. Fix B:  Rise & Fall

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been playing a lot of Small World recently, and this rule change is directly derived from Small World’s signature game mechanic.

In this version of Monopoly, after a set number of turns (let’s say 10), a player “declines.” Maybe the real estate tycoon retires, or passes the company to a younger partner. In any case, after 10 turns, the player represented by the Thimble removes the Thimble from the board. All of Thimble’s houses and hotels are removed and all of Thimble’s property returns to bank ownership. The player who once controlled Thimble takes Thimble’s money, and starts a new playing piece (Wheelbarrow) at GO, seeking to use Thimble’s fortune to begin anew.

This cascading cycle of “declining” pieces retains the main goal of Monopoly (hoard a lot of money) while forcing players to adapt to a strategy of short-term acquisition. Maybe the moment of decline is decided at random after certain number of terms, adding an element of risk (should I hold on and keep buying, or will my piece decline next turn?). Either way, this rule change, while not entirely leveling the playing field every 10 turns, does allow for a more even game, though perhaps one that would last indefinitely.

IV. Theoretical Underpinnings: Feedback Loops

These two rules changes both derive from an important game design concept: The Positive/Negative Feedback Loop. Monopoly, in its regular form, contains a strong positive feedback loop: The player with the most money can afford to buy the best properties, and improve them at the fastest rate, which allows her to acquire more money, which allows her to buy the best properties, etc.

An example of a negative feedback loop would be the robber in Settlers of Catan: Any player with a large hand (a strong advantage in that game) must discard half of that hand (when the robber strikes), while players under the limit are unaffected. This moves the formerly strong player into a position of weakness, and leaves the formerly weak players stronger by comparison.

While neither of the Monopoly rule changes proposed above are classic negative feedback loops, they both interrupt or subvert the action of the strong positive feedback loop that, in my opinion, makes the game unplayable.