Geometry Is a Harsh Mistress

Tactical wargaming is probably my favorite gaming genre, at least judging by the amount of playing time and money I have invested in the stuff. For my purposes of looking at usability in wargame design “tactical” includes unit scales that range from fire teams up to platoons, mainly because games set at those scales tend to try to accomplish many of the same things regardless of the specific design mechanisms. “Skirmish” scale games — where the game pieces represent individuals — are a bit of a different beast, so they lie below my definition today.

One of the things that strikes me about graphic design in tactical games is how little things have changed in more than 40 years. Compare the counter layout in 1970′s PanzerBlitz to the counter layout in a more modern game like PanzerGrenadier, World at War or Conflict of Heroes. Looky there; numbers in the corners, artwork in the middle. Is that one of those unwritten game design “standards”? I’d think it is, especially considering that one of those contemporary games — World at War — is so loath to part from the standard that it actually screws up usability by cramming too much information into too little space.

World at War counter

World at War: 11 values? Count 'em. And squint.

Note that I’m not advocating sticking values in the middle of a counter. But I will point out that the geometrical judgement is fairly harsh: Cramming 10 values into four corners is simply not a recipe for great usability. I like the World at War system quite a bit, but I don’t get it on the table as often as some other games (or buy as many of the add-ons, to make an economic point) simply because of the usability issues.

Within the limitations of a square counter format, how many practical options are available for a designer to experiment with alternative, useful locations to place information? Some designers have experimented with alternative locations that weren’t so useful — the teensy values for command range or whatever they were (it’s been a few years) on some of the Fortress Berlin counters come to mind here — but are there any realistic options for the format?

I don’t consider spreading different bits of information across both counter faces a win for the user experience. Only one face is visible at a time. Asking a gamer to reach halfway across a table and flip multiple counters over to view the information he needs isn’t a gamer-friendly design choice. One of the things that has always put me off the La Bataille series of games, for example, is the design decision to place critical combat information on the plain, reverse side of the counters. I friggin’ hate having to pick up pieces, turn them over and squint at tiny type just to figure out their combat values.

LaBat counter images

Front vs. Back in LaBat. C'mon man!

Using the reverse side of the counters to indicate various unit formations — even those used primarily in combat — doesn’t resolve the issue. The design decision at that point seems to acknowledge the basic uselessness of the colorful obverse side of the counter, exchanging it for a much more bland reverse face that is essentially just a slate of numbers which are still too small for easy reading. The graphic design in this case doesn’t marry good art with usability; in practice, it slices them apart with a straight razor.

Now, obviously, in the case of the La Bat games, the very nicely done obverse counter faces are an important part of the game’s user experience. They look good individually; they look good in play on a map. Change formation and flip them over, though, and you’re suddenly playing with counter artwork from SPI’s old “USN”. There has to be a happier medium than that.

USN counters

USN looked like this. Catchy.

For today I’ll plant the suggestion that perhaps the game system design and the game interface design need to cooperate a bit more in many cases. Given the basics of the interface format — a hunk of cardboard slightly over a half-inch square — a wise system designer might consider reducing the number of system values that a counter needs to deliver.

More on that next time.

Part of an occasional series. Part One is here:
Game, Graphics and Barbarians



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