Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Uncertainty in X-wing

Now and then I dabble in some “academic” reading about game issues, an exercise that inevitably starts me thinking and writing about the convergence of gaming as an activity and more analytical analysis of game elements. Having enjoyed his brief monograph I Have No Words & I Must Design (a wonderfully accessible and thought-provoking read), I picked up Greg Kostikyan’s Uncertainty in Games to further broaden my horizons and re-focus my way of looking at games. It immediately helped me define both my interest in and frustration with Fantasy Flight Games’ X-wing Miniatures Game.

Costikyan might be best-known for his involvement in such innovative roleplaying titles as the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and Paranoia from West End Games and Toon from Steve Jackson Games. He’s had a long history and career in gaming, from the days of SPI to time working in the video game industry. His rather prolific output includes four novels, several short stories, gaming zines, numerous games (both analog and digital), and two books and numerous articles about games and the gaming industry.

Uncertainty in Games looks at one element that makes games so enjoyable...and at times frustrating. It’s by no means a hard-core academic work, but one which looks at games from a different perspective, seeking the sources and application of “uncertainty” in games, all with Costikyan’s entertaining language, clear logic, and acerbic wit. Two chapters in particular offer readers valuable information about discerning uncertainty in games. In “Chapter 4: Analyzing Games” he takes a look at numerous games – both analog and digital – and examines them for source of uncertainty. Monopoly, rock/paper/scissors, Diplomacy, chess, Memoir ’44, poker, and Magic: The Gathering are just some of the analog games Costikyan outlines, noting how rules and components add layers of uncertainty to thwart players and enhance the game experience. In “Chapter 5: Sources of Uncertainty” Costikyan categorizes several kinds of uncertainty in game mechanics, from wholly expected ones like “player unpredictability,” “hidden information,” and “randomness” to less apparent ones like “solver’s uncertainty,” “analytic complexity,” and “narrative anticipation.” He includes examples from across the field of analog and digital games to further illustrate how various uncertain elements enhance (or detract from) the challenging tension driving a game. Overall Uncertainty in Games offered a light reading style packed with plenty of revelations and a new way of perceiving games. Anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of successful, satisfying games – and certainly in designing them – should read the book, along with Costikyan’s other writings on the subjects of games.

Costikyan doles out concise wisdom across a broad range of games and topics within his subject, fulfilling the back-cover promotional “blurb” from award-winning game designer Warren Spector that the book “is sure to provide readers of all stripes many satisfying ‘Aha!’ moments.”

His brief discussion of Tic-Tac-Toe illustrates why uncertainty remains essential for entertaining games. “Whoever goes first will take the central square, because occupying it is advantageous, and unless one player is naïve or stupid, players will prevent each other from winning by blocking any attempt to get three in a row. It is a solved game, and a trivial one, and no one beyond a certain age can pay it with enjoyment, because no uncertainty about the game’s path exists.” In discussing game definitions Costikyan talks about “outcome,” both in sociologist Roger Caillois’ definition of play as activity where the outcome is uncertain and in other definitions games as resulting in “quantifiable outcomes. He presents the case of Space Invaders, which has no “win state,” only one where the player loses yet reaches a particular score; as well as the case of Dungeons & Dragons, whose adventures and campaigns arguably have no “quatifiable outcome” or win/lose state. Costikyan’s analysis of uncertainty in individual titles provides a wonderful example of analyzing elements in games; his discussion of Monopoly shows how the core mechanics remain based on completely random die rolls and card draws, with the only player decision whether to buy a property or pay rent.

Uncertainty in Practice
A few weeks ago the Friendly Local Game Store hosted a small X-wing miniatures tournament. Having recently read Uncertainty in Games, I found myself analyzing elements of X-wing that infused it with uncertainty, in some cases giving players the illusion that they can mitigate the uncertain aspects through “hedging one’s bets,” manipulating the game through legitimate, expanding rules combinations. X-wing offers the illusion of control, yet undermines that with numerous uncertain elements, which might explain why the game is both addictively interesting and frustrating. I’ve previously discussed planning against uncertainty and addiction marketing in relation to the X-wing miniatures game. Now I was looking at this game through the categories Costikyan outlined in his book. Here are some sources of uncertainty I found in X-wing:

Analytic Complexity: In discussing this element of uncertainty, Costikyan mentions games by Reiner Knizia and Sid Meier that offer players only a few, difficult choices, “games in which players need to think about what to do, have to parse a complicated decision tree, and are uncertain, even as they make a decision, that it is necessarily the correct decision to make.” While the X-wing in-game play offers this to some degree, the pre-game planning stages take this to new heights on par with crafting a winning deck for Magic: The Gathering. For tournament games – and certainly in casual play – participants build squads (generally 100 “point” each), where each ship, special pilot, and upgrade comes with a point cost. Aside from enhancing a ship’s performance in combat, they can also combine with other aspects to give a player multiple enhancements and some key advantages during the game. The constantly growing number of upgrades (which aren’t usually limited to a particular faction or ship) increases X-wing’s analytic complexity exponentially with each new release. My personal frustration comes from building a squad I feel might win only to see it ripped apart by players who find lethal combinations for their own ships.

Hidden Information: Although the X-wing playing field displays “perfect information” showing where spacecraft and obstacles stand and, on the side, which ships have damage or lower shields, the maneuver phase hides each player’s intent for where ships intend to fly. Maneuver dials allow players to secretly and simultaneously plot their move (both distance and turn) only to be revealed in order of pilot skill. This not only conceals where a particular vessel is going, but its intentions in terms of approach and attack. The execution of individual maneuvers in order often leads to ships “bumping” each other in a crowd, halting their movement (and denying them an action), and often changing how players execute attacks later in the round.

Performative Uncertainty: Costikyan describes this factor mostly in terms of digital games, where a player’s ability to physically master the game controls through hand-eye coordination offers some uncertainty against various in-game obstacles; however, I found X-wing has some “performance” issues with a player’s ability to judge distance and turns when planning maneuvers. Will a bank or a full turn avoid that obstacle, “bump” a ship (halting movement, denying an action, and preventing a shot), or bring an enemy into range and fire arc? This plays a large role when fielding numerous ships in close formation. Successfully visualizing and plotting where maneuvers bring particular ships – and how their movement and opponent ship movement affect the playing field – compounds the expected Player Unpredictability and Hidden Information during X-wing’s planning phase mentioned above. (I could see someone arguing that this aspect of the game represents what Costikyan calls “Solver’s Uncertainty,” in that it represents a player solving the puzzle of moving around the field, but that doesn’t address the correlation between perception and execution.)

Player Unpredictability: This remains perhaps the most expected source of uncertainty on Costikyan’s list; he discusses it more from the perspective of individual games (including solitaire ones). Yet players bring uncertainty to any multiplayer game by their very participation, especially in adversarial games like X-wing. Here one finds several shades of player unpredictability: not knowing an opponent’s overall strategy for maneuvering across the play space and attacking your squadron; not knowing every turn what maneuvers each opponent ship will attempt (though in some situations one can make an informed guess); not knowing what actions various vessels will take; and not knowing which ships will attack – or more importantly, concentrate firepower on – your own craft. It might seem an expected source of uncertainty to take for granted, yet it provides a great deal of the tension in X-wing.

Randomness: X-wing relies on randomized die rolls to determine if attacks succeed or fail, using a set of proprietary eight-sided red attack dice and green defense dice. While this the game skews this uncertainty factor by varying the number of dice rolled – by different ship stat values, bonuses based on range, the effect of ship actions declared earlier in the turn, and advantages granted by upgrades – in the end the random die roll still provides a great deal of uncertainty. As I’ve discussed before, players have some means of skewing these results in their favor, but it does not eliminate the possibility of failure no matter how powerful a ship, pilot, and upgrades seem.

Costikyan’s Uncertainty in Games certainly deserves a read from anyone seeking a deeper understanding of how games work beyond the immediate tabletop experience (and fans of electronic games will find a good deal of his analysis covers this medium as well). It certainly helped me identify why I find X-wing such a satisfying yet frusrating games, as it balances many elements of uncertainty with mechanics that seem to give players some degree of control over those variables.

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