Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Praise of Basic and Advanced Rules

I finally picked up a copy of Hasbro’s Battleship Express the other day. It was part of a series of classic Hasbro game titles retooled in 2007 to feature faster, shorter gameplay. It comes in a round plastic “pod” intended to make the game travel friendly. The rules, designed by German board-game superstar Reiner Knizia, have little to do with the original Battleship game, a classic of the abstract battle game genre, but outline a basic “Captain’s” game and more advanced “Admiral’s” game expanding on the basic rules that offers some entertaining mechanics in fleet construction and engagement.

(I found it at Tuesday Morning, a great discount store with a fun toy section worth checking regularly. Aside from discount versions of chess, backgammon, dominos, and other standards, one occasionally finds lost gaming treasure like Battleship Express or Front Porch Classics’ elusive Valley of the Pharaoh at irresistibly good prices.)

Merits and flaws of Battleship Express aside, the game’s presentation of basic and advanced rules reminded me how much I admire this approach in games. Some games introduce the core game concepts in the basic rules, using the enclosed components, then expand upon those in advanced rules that further develop gameplay and strategies. This approach isn’t always the best for every game. It depends on the practicalities of the rules and components, whether the basic mechanic can stand on its own and develop into a more involved game with advanced rules.

Why bother with basic and advanced rules? Having short, basic rules enables players to dive into a game quickly without having to wade through lots of rules. They can enjoy the components in a meaningful play experience within the scope of the game’s theme, mastering the basics before further enhancing gameplay with more advanced rules. Basic rules also enable enthusiasts to more easily teach new players and entice them to more completely immerse themselves in the game.

Here are a few games featuring basic and advanced rules with which I’m familiar:

Battleship Express: As mentioned above, it presents a completely new rules set for playing a naval-themed game with tiles and dice. The basic mechanic of setting up a fleet and attacking other player’s ships with die rolls develops further with the addition of special abilities for different ship types.

Star Frontiers: A classic science fiction roleplaying game from TSR, the Star Frontiers boxed set offered a slim basic rules booklet and a more substantial expanded rulebook. The basic rules outlined character creation, combat, and equipment, then dropped players into the action using a programmed solitaire adventure to further illustrate the rules in practice. (I’m a strong advocate of using solitaire tutorial scenarios to demonstrate both mechanics and setting for roleplaying games.) A group adventure followed, using the host of maps and counters included in the game to help players better visualize the action and make the unsteady transition from concepts of traditional board games to roleplaying games.

Wings of War: Dawn of World War II: I’ve talked about this game before and admire its simple mechanics of card play on the game surface to simulate World War II dogfights. The basic rules cover the bare minimum to enjoy a game: movement, shooting, and damage. Advanced rules add more technicalities, including altitude, special damage, and bombing runs.
Sirocco: A desert-warfare strategy battle game simulating the World War II conflict between Patton and Rommel in North Africa, Sirocco teaches the core concepts of movement and combat in the basic rulebook, while adding a host of optional rules for terrain, range, command, supply, and troop quality -- plus several scenarios -- in the “Masters” rulebook.

Lego games: The constructible board games released by Lego all include basic rules followed by additional variations to bring gameplay to new levels. Given their basic audience, most of the rules, even the optional ones, remain pretty straightforward; but Lego encourages players to cooperatively change the game rules for additional fun, imparting a principle essential for good game design and creating “advanced” rules: “The secret to changing a game is to change only one thing at a time. That way, you can see if the change makes the game more fun. If it does, keep it and then try another.”