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? Continue reading

Games, Graphics and Barbarians

In the work-a-day world, I’m a technical consultant for an interactive media company. That’s not as fancy-pants as it might sound, but sometimes it can be pretty interesting. One of the things I get to do is talk to business owners who have under-performing websites and help them figure out why their online stuff sucks.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the appeal and artistic grace of lovely ponies-and-rainbows website designs. Unfortunately, the dialectic of business analysis is rather like setting Conan the Barbarian loose with his big sword to run wild in the ponies’ multi-hued pasture. Business is about making money. Ponies that don’t make money need to be “recycled” and sent to the glue factory.

Think about it this way: A business website is an online graphical user interface (GUI) that connects customers to a business. There’s no separating the “graphic design” part from the “user interface” part. They either work together, or they don’t work at all. The skill of coupling attractive design with maximum usability is what sets a professional web designer/developer apart from Cousin Ned sitting at a PC in the back with his copy of CoffeeCup. Continue reading