Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Puzzles disguised as games. And Zombie Risk.

Nomenclature varies; what many people call games (such as card Solitaire) I call puzzles. Most single-player video games are puzzles, some (such as Pac-Man) with an exact but sometimes very difficult solution. Many Euro-style games are much more puzzles than games, such as the ones called "multi-player solitaire". Players are playing against the non-sentient system, not against each other. At most, the player interaction is of the anticipatory kind, "I'd better take that role before so-and-so gets it".

What brings this on is a game someone brought into the NC State game club recently, Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead. The title invokes possibilities, but it falls flat on its face. The game exhibits many of the sins of poor contemporary Euro-style games. Quite apart from virtually no player interaction, which goes far to make it a puzzle rather than a game, there is insufficient justification for the complexity, too many bits for what it does (at least there aren't a mass of cards with minuscule text), much too long for what there is to it: just too clunky. Add to that Tom Vasel's comments that the puzzle is too simple and too dependent on technology dice luck, too obvious, and it seems as though the game is a badly missed opportunity. The resemblance to Pandemic are pretty obvious, and while that isn't bad, there's nothing to justify the much longer game. I did not play (thank heaven, that would have been extraordinarily tedious), but it did tie up five players for several hours.

The question is, when is there justification for the complexity? If complexity is there in service of a story, or of an educational message, if the complexity results in a much richer and more interesting interaction amongst the players, then it can be justified. Substituting complex pieces and rules for substance seems to be a common characteristic of contemporary boardgames.

But I know that reasons for liking games vary immensely, as I've written about in this blog and elsewhere. So I went to boardgamegeek to see what people say.

The people who like it seem to like the semi-cooperative aspects but especially like "getting into the theme". The theme does nothing for me--I've designed two zombie games, but I've only ever watched two zombie movies in my life (well, plus the Resident Evil movies), and the idea that zombies can defeat tanks is just too much to swallow.

It certainly illustrates how slippery the term "fun" is. To me it's deadly dull. To some people it's really "fun". I strongly suspect that those people like puzzles (I despise formal puzzles). One BGG video reviewer who said the game was really fun, played with his buddies, and they all got into the theme. I'm sure he and his buddies had fun with acting out the theme (evidently they helped each other as much as possible), but it's a case of the fun coming from the people, not from the game. (The same thing happens all the time with Monopoly; a mediocre game at best, but people often remember it fondly because of when and who they played it with.)

I think Tom Vasel was being nice about Zombie State when he said something like "it's not a very good game". To me it may be a (barely) acceptable puzzle for cooperative play, but as a *game* it's a bust.

A text review:

I was so disappointed with the promise of the phrases "Zombie state" and "Diplomacy of the Dead" that I devised, and solo tested three times, Zombie Risk. The zombies are like a disease, and absorb enemy armies as they defeat them. I need some folks to playtest it with real people, now (write to me if you'd like to try). And I have ideas for an actually competitive and interactive game involving world nations, zombies, and vampires...


Alden said...

How can I contact you about possibly playtesting Zombie Risk?

Lewis said...

Try lew(put what usually goes here)