Continuining our occasional series of posts about the AXSchat we conducted a few months ago I want to address another of the uniformly great questions asked during the Twitter chat that followed the interview.
Question five: Being able to select a difficulty level is a well-known accessibility benefit of digital games. Do you know of similarly flexible board games?
There are a number of games that permit for players to select a level of difficulty, although they all tend to do it in different ways. Pandemic for example permits players to choose how many of the potentially devastating epidemic cards are going to be threaded into their grim and unfortunate future. The more cards they shuffle into the deck, the harder their lives are going to be. It’s am imprecise instrument of difficulty though – the way in which you encounter those cards is more predictive of difficulty than the number in and of itself.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game has a beautifully innovative system where it uses a token draw rather than dice to handle randomness. That permits players to fiddle with the odds of reality at a fundamental level – to change the random number generator rather than the game set up. It’s very smart, even if that approach requires a few design trade-offs and a number of interface inelegancies.
Other games, such as Flash Point, let you scaffold the difficulty by reducing or increasing the number of moving parts in the system. You can add in rules that make certain things more or less difficult to deal with – that’s not so much a way of adjusting difficulty though as it is a way of letting people choose how fiddly the job in front of them is going to be. It’s not so much a difficulty bump as it is a way of smoothing out the smaller oscilations of the experience. It reduces the complexity of the task by adding a consistency of outcome that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
Lots of games then offer the ability to choose difficulty level either through setup, game rules or component manipulation. As the starter question implies, permitting different levels of difficulty is a marvellous way of improving the accessibility of a game. I think though this question by itself is a little misdirected. It presumes that board games and video games are bound by the same conventions of user control. The ruth is, they aren’t. Board games have a secret superweapon when it comes to flexibility – they’re infinitely modable. In fact, people do it all the time. We don’t call it modding. We call it house ruling.
And gosh darn don’t you know – this is perhaps the single most powerful feature that board games have when it comes to flexibily supporting accessibility needs. It’s a bit like when video games used to routinely offer cheats as part of the game interface. The Konami Code is probably the most famous of these, but hundreds of games had codes you could type into a menu or console dialog box to get borderline magical effects. It’s a practice that has fallen out of favour in an environment where you can sell this functionality in a microtransaction, but you can still see it honoured within in a handful of titles. Type ‘motherlode’ into the command console of the Sims 4 and you’ll get free money delivered into your virtual mitts. For the Sims 5, you’ll probably need to type in a credit card number but for now – free money is yours whenever you like it.
The limitation was that you only got the cheat functionality that developer was prepared to give you, and they rarely gave you all the options you’d like to have. As such, an industry of cheating grew up around gaming . if you’re old enough you might remember trainers. These were (and still are) third party software packages that sunk their tentacles into the running process of a game and fiddled with its memory locations. If the developer didn’t want to give you infinite lives, you can bet your buttocks there was a trainer that did it for you.
You could even buy specialist devices like cheat cartridges – sorry, no – utility cartridges – advertised freely on the pages of any video game magazine. I had an Action Reply that plugged into the back of my C64. You’d press the pleasingly red button on the cartridge to suspend the game, and then instruct the software that would be invoked to search through the computer’s memory for a particular value. Let’s say I had $5000 and I wanted more. I’d search for 5000 and find the dozens of locations where that value was currently held in memory. Then I’d buy something in the game and search for the 4800 that I had left over. The cartridge would search through its previous list of memory values to find which one now contained 4800. If there was only one, that was where the money was stored and you could set it to whatever you liked. Modern cheat engines work in broadly the same way.
Occasionally people would even write editors that would let you change the state of the game inbetween loads and saves. Fallout Shelter for example is built on a microtransaction system that incentivises people to spend real money on loot crates that contain in-game equipment. On the other hand, you can go into the save file and give yourself a million of them for nothing.
People like cheating, and cheating finds a way.
The limitation here though is that video games only permit cheating within certain constraints and occasionally with a considerable investment in extra equipment and risk. Ecven then you can alter some fundamental game rules such as ‘Being shot hurts’ but you can rarely fine-tune things like AI behaviour, game physics, or any of a million other subtle and nuanced things that might be impacting on game enjoyment. For that you need to get into the modding scene, and the barrier to entry there is considerably higher. You need a complex skillset to engage in sophisticated modification to how a game plays. You need to learn the conventions of the game, its game engines, and then usually you need to learn how to code.
Not so with board games – the only skill you need to mod a board game is imagination. That’s not to say it’s easy – we all know the Monopoly house rules that make it even more of an endless chore to play. The distance between ‘the game as it is’ and the ‘game as I want it to be’ though – well, that’s virtually zero. That’s a colossal power, and it has massive implications for game design.
Often the term ‘house rule’ is used to describe ‘any rule within my house’, and that isn’t quite the spirit in which I’m using it here. Many of the things people consider house rules are really just social conventions that they have agreed to adopt. For example, ‘a dice that falls on the floor has to be re-rolled’, ‘couples can’t collaborate’, or ‘we adopt the touch rule for pieces’. Basically if you don’t need to specify to which game a rule applies, it’s a household rule rather than a house rule House Rule is used here to mean things like ‘no inside jokes’ for Dixit or that using the Praefectus Magnus card in Concordia is optional rather than mandatory. Those are things that change the way a game plays and would make little to no sense in other contexts.
House ruling is not lacking in controversy. There are many who view it as anathema – a crime against the vision of the designer. Some think of it as a kind of ludic vandalism – that clumsy inexperienced hands will do nothing except undermine the results of hours and hours of careful and diligent testing and balancing. Many more will say that you’re not actually playing the game if you play with house rules. Even genuinely popular rule changes that not sanctioned by the designer are considered apocryphal and those that employ them are apostate.
On the other side are those that see house-ruling as an inescapable consequence of a hobbyist landscape that emphasises the ever accelerating release cycle that necessitates ever diminishing testing phases. They point to a myriad of games like Seafall, or Fallout, A Few Acres of Snow, or any number of others where game rules are inelegant or lead to game states that seem broken. House rulers in such circumstances are engaged in an act of healing. They’re resurrectionists, bringing a potentially dead game back to life at the cost of some of its authenticity.
On whatever side you fall here, it’s hard to deny that house rules are powerful – that’s why they’re so contentious. A single house rule can destroy a game – Monopoly is a bad game at the best of times but it becomes a bad game for longer if you employ the common house rule of placing taxes into the Free Parking space.
What’s less explored though is the role that house rules have in the creation of accessibility in games that otherwise do not permit it. One of the things I tend to do in accessibility teardowns is talk about variants of games – things that use the same set of components and rules but are put together in a way that doesn’t stress more troublesome parts of cognition. There are some games for example that are just satisfying because of what you’re doing. Patchwork is satisfying just because you’re snapping together pieces into a nice quilt. NMBR9 is relaxing even if you’re just creating meshes of numbers. Some people play Scrabble just to make nice words even if that’s the least effective way to play. In such circumstances it’s the competition in a game that often lends it a weight – that you’re being rated on how well you can do something in comparison to someone else. If you were playing a video game, that would be it – the game exists and you play it as presented . In a board game though you can say something like ‘Hey, let’s play co-operatively. We’ll look to maximise our shared score and we’ll just try to beat our last score’
Suddenly the game goes from being one where you’re each trying to eke out every advantage against an opponent into one where you’re actively looking to help each other. Sure, maybe the perfect piece comes your way during your turn but it would get more points if you left it for your fellow player. So you do. The game changes, because you change it through an act of will. It perhaps doesn’t change for better in a design sense but it might be a better fit for your group. It’ll certainly be more cognitively accessible because often the largest barrier to play for people with cognitive impairments is the fact that their skill has to scale to the challenge of others. When playing co-operatively there’s room for strong players to support weaker players.
If you’re house-ruling for accessibility, I think you’re making use of the medium in its optimal way no matter how much it may upset purists.
Sometimes the problem is simpler than restructuring the entire model of competition versus co-operation. Sometimes it’s just a single rule that seems opaque and causes people to stick on it. It’s probably there for a reason, but where’s the harm in simply trying the game without it? I’ve said before in other posts – if we’re honest with ourselves we have to admit that the game itself doesn’t matter as much as might pretend. It’s just a facilitator. I’d argue that it’s better to play a good game than a bad game, but it’s better to play a bad game than no game. Sometimes that’s the choice you’re making with accessibility. If it turns out that your change doesn’t work, you just say ‘Oh well’ and play the game ‘properly’.
Maybe the problem is a particular card that appears in a deck – one that is perfectly fine and reasonable but for whatever reason is a problem for your group. Just take it out. There are no board game police that are going to come and confiscate your collection. In fact, except in very tightly designed games like Hanamikoji, there’s no risk to doing this. If a card isn’t guaranteed to appear in every game, then it not being able to appear in any game by definition can’t be a game breaker. If a particular card is the source of inaccessibility, you can just play one of the subset of games where that card didn’t naturally come out of the deck. You can change the trousers of time here – it doesn’t matter the card didn’t appear because it couldn’t. It was always possible the game would have gone this way.
Maybe it’s an issue is that there’s a lot of hidden state in the game and it makes play challenging for a table of people with varied accessibility concerns. Those with cognitive impairments can ask people for help about hidden cards, and people with visual impairments may not be able to closely examine their components without revealing more than they intend in play. Maybe in those circumstances you play the game with open state instead – letting everyone see the cards and resources you have and simply playing around that sudden change in information asymmetry.
Perhaps the problem is with the nature of randomness, in which case you might consider simply using different dice. If the game provides d6s, what happens if you switch to d8s? Perhaps you change the way the dice work? For example, modern versions of Monopoly (later than 2006, at least) sometimes include a speed die that basically turns it from a two-hour crucible into something a good deal nippier and brutal. I don’t know if the speed die was originally from a successful house-rule but it’s a good example of how changing a part of the game can lead to a more enjoyable experience. Even if all you’re doing is rolling two dice in a game, maybe you decide let people choose how – use the sum, the product, or perhaps only one. You’ll screw up any statistical balance with that but you might just make the game more fun and tractable.
Part of the issue with accessibility is that it’s complex, and it’s not always possible to identify a proximal cause for mismatched performance. Maybe the problem that a card couldn’t be easily read. That’s certainly credible. Perhaps though the real problem is that the extra cognitive load of poor readability meant that someone just didn’t have the mental energy available to really consider what the game state actually meant. Our teardowns are long and complex because accessibility is nuanced – we also need to take into account how a game flows as well as how technically accessible it is. It’s entirely possible that a game that seems accessible still results in a disadvantaged player losing more than you might expect.
Maybe all you need in order to make a game accessible in those circumstances is to give a kind of ‘offset’ for the varied impact accessibility needs tend to have. The welfare mechanic in Catan is a useful way to help mitigate some of its more frustrating cruelties – basically when you go a prolongued period of time without anyone rolling a number that gives you a resource, you get to choose a free resource and add it to your supplies. These kind of rules can help in games where someone has a tendancy to fall behind for one reason or another, and by making it a house rule rather than an occasional and specifically individual compensation it feels fairer for everyone.
In the end, the very tactility of a board-game is its own inherent way of letting you engage in a kind of participatory design. There’s no black box in a board game, save for those that employ apps, that’s going to hide the systems from you. It’s a cardboard computer – you’re the one that needs to enact its instructions. There’s nothing to stop you deciding for yourself what the processor is going to run, because that processor is everyone around the table. Board games are driven by rules, but nobody said those rules weren’t meant to be broken.