The 3D Boardgame (and a plug for Origins 1997)

July 1997, by Bruce Biskup

The 3D Boardgame

Freefall is a space combat game and like the majority of space combat games, Freefall is two dimensional. There has been a recurring discussion on the various boardgame-related USENET sites about how a “real” space combat game needs to be three-dimensional since space has three physical dimensions. I obviously disagree with this premise or else I would have made Freefall (and LNL) a 3D game and will attempt to explain my design decision in the following paragraphs.

The reason I did not make Freefall 3D is that Freefall is meant to be a board war game and not a simulation. To me a simulation is a model of reality. A game is a group activity that is fun. A board war game, therefore, is a simulation that is fun to play. I contend that adding the third dimension to a boardgame makes the activity more of a simulation at the expense of the (playability) game. Adding the third dimension to a game makes the game longer and more complex since the players will now have to track their counters in 3D, think in 3D and try and orient themselves in 3D. All of this makes the game more rigorous for the players and detracts from the playability of the game. Games that are difficult to understand or much less played tend to not be played at all. I want people to play my games so I attempt to minimize the work involved so that players can get on with enjoying the game.

Critics of my position would argue that air combat games are 3D. Yes they are, but aircraft rarely travel at acute angles from their flight paths. High angles of attack are typically bad for aircraft and until recently there have been no examples of such aircraft. Because of the nature of aircraft flight, air combat games essentially track 1 velocity vector (where the nose of the aircraft is pointing) and an altitude position for an aircraft. Although 3D, the mechanics of air combat games are somewhat easier to represent on a 2D board since the playing surface is essentially the “ground”. As we are all aware of, space has no floor. Therefore, there has been much more success in designing playable air combat games than 3D space combat games.

One of my favorite air combat games is Avalon Hill’s Mustangs. Mustangs is an introductory level game and the complete rules take both sides of a legal size sheet of paper.

The other popular comment on the net is to say Wouldn’t game X be better as a 3D game? What usually gets left out of the discussion is how much of the game mechanics must be modified to include the next dimensions. Games like Task Force Games’ Star Fleet Battles and Starfire are both complex 2D games. Many of the rules are a reflection of the 2D nature of the game design (weapon firing arcs, shield locations, jump point positions). To make the game 3D requires not only a rewrite of the movement system but careful analysis of the mechanics of the game to make sure that no glaring hole in the rules arise that can be ruthlessly exploited by devious players (the rules lawyer syndrome). Modifying an existing game for 3D usually boils down to an academic exercise since no one but the author ever sees or much less plays the game. Again, the basic problem is that the complexity overwhelms the playability of the game and people lose interest.

To conclude, if you believe that the only “real” space game is a 3D game then I would suggest designing the game from the ground up to be a 3D game rather than attempting to modify an existing game. This can be done as several companies have published 3D space games before. Keep in mind that people must be able to visualize the environment so care must be taken to design a good game interface.

Origins ’97

It is now official. BoneGames will be at Origins this year in a most unofficial capacity. Joshua and I will be attending the July game convention in Columbus, Ohio along with our friends from Cheapass games. Look for us at their booth. We will be glad to tell you all about Cheapass games. (We might even put in a plug or two for Bonegames as well – just don’t let James know…) If you are going to attend, look for us there and stop by to say hello. We would enjoy meeting those of you who actually have looked at our games and maybe have actually played them.

Well, this is it for now. I hope you enjoyed it.