Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Dice Mountains of Madness : My time with Elder Signs iOS

H. P. Lovecraft's Cthuhlu universe has been the subject of a lot of games down the years, and Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror a series of board games is commonly considered to be one of the most effective interpretations. Sadly my experience with that lineage is somewhat non-existent, so when I picked up their spin-off game Elder Signs on iOS it was on the basis of the strength of my affection for the mythology and board games in general.

Having first read about Elder Signs on Tom Chick's Quarter to Three game diary and found myself intrigued I've put about 7 to 8 hours into the game. I've played a couple of fantasy flight games before and they live up to a well-deserved reputation for Thematically strong but sometimes mechanically light games (so called Ameritrash games).

In Elder signs you control a team of paranormal in investigators wondering through the demon infested halls of the Miskatonic University Museum in prohibition era America. Trying to find the ancient symbols that will allow you to seal away a Elder god threatening to break into our reality.

In my experience the success or failure of the translations of board games to iOS tends to depend on how good a job the App does of teaching the game. Unlike video games the mechanics in a board game are always close to the surface, so it is always important for a player to be able to be able to get to grips with them so they can begin to feel their way around the confines of the system.

In some ways I feel FF should be good at this by now boardgames are a social medium, so when a developer fails at this its often painfully obvious. There is nothing worse than a half dozen people sitting around a table, staring at a board with blank looks on their faces and not feeling like anyone knows what to do.

In most gaming groups having at least one person around who can teach the other players is considered pretty essential. What companies have struggled for years with is how to work with a group where no one can fill this role. Its become increasingly popular to offer video tutorials on a games website to help walk people through their first game, which is exactly the system that Fantasy Flight use here.

The problem is that this is a video game not a board game, and video game players are used to being allowed to learn through tutorials. For all the problems a bad implementation can cause, tutorials in video games are a far more effective and direct form of communication than a video walk through typical is. Without a way to test the rules of the game world first time players of Elder Signs can easily mistake its obtuseness for cruelty. FF needs to understand that it has this option of being able to directly tutor someone and use it better in future releases.

This general lack of transparency is most problematic when dealing with the Glyph systems,one the games main elements. Glyphs are used to control success or failure in any of the encounters your investigators have while searching the museum. They are based on a series of what are essentially 6 sided dice rolls. 

When you hold a physical dice in your hand and turn it over you can intuitively get a feeling for your chances of achieving a result. Elder Signs problems occur because FF seem to be assuming that players have the same instant familiarity with a digital dice as they do when they handle a physical one. Where as the truth is this is something you simply do not get when you are just watching a row of random 'slots' show up on screen.

Now it is true that if you dig into the games help guide you can uncover this information, but on a iOS release a developer just can't make the assumption that every player will have the time or the inclination to sit down and read a manual. The information should be available in the game not in a separate help file.

In the end I have enjoyed my time with Elder Signs. Initially at least it does a great job of creating a strong resonance between the gameplay mechanics and the uncaring universe of Lovecraftian horror stories. However after you do get past it's obtuse luring curve it looses allot of this, and you find yourself winning far more often than perhaps feels appropriate for a mythology where grisly failure is the norm.

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