Posts Tagged ‘board games’

It’s been almost a year since I saw anything really compelling in games retail, so I was surprised to see a cool idea out of… Wal-Mart of all places.  I’ve only been inside Wal-Mart a handful of times, having grown up in southeast Michigan and thus buying everything at Meijer for the first 20 years of my life.  But Wal-Mart’s in-store “Family Night Center” sounds like it could solve some serious problems getting more casual gamers to warm up to purchasing more games throughout the year.

In a nutshell, it’s a section of the store that is full of products that could help plan a fun family night in, regardless of product category.  So you’ll find family-friendly DVD movies right next to the Doritos right next to Scattergories.  This being Wal-Mart and times being what they are, they put a $30 ceiling on everything in the section.  Smart.

If this section really takes off, it could mean big things for board and video games.  Settlers of Catan* is retailing for right around $30 now, and most of the games on my shelf could really use the boost that would come from being available at the world’s largest retailer.pandemic box

There’s tremendous potential here for the industry to embrace.  Last month, we saw Wal-Mart slash the price of Batman: Arkham Asylum at release in all of its Canadian stores to just above the $30 threshold for the Family Night Center.  It was so well-received, Canadian Gamestops had to follow suit.  I’m guessing this was a test from the überetailer to see how marquee games perform as a  loss leader in a non-holiday part of the year.

Wal-Mart tested lower pricing for the stellar Batman:AA in Canada

Wal-Mart tested lower pricing for the stellar Batman:AA in Canada

New revenue streams like in-game ads and microtransactions could make it entirely reasonable for a big publisher to put out a serious title at a price point of $30 or less, if it means achieving the scale that comes with prestige shelf position inside Wal-Mart.  We’ve already seen plenty of manufacturers create special versions of their product specifically to meet Wal-Mart’s pricing standards.  So by the same logic, couldn’t a developer like EA put together a much less feature-rich version of their next Skate game  for a lower retail price as a Wal-Mart exclusive, qualify for sale inside the Family Game Center (which no doubt boosts the hell out of sales), get a ton more customers into the game, and then reap greater awards by selling these consumers new skaters, outfits and levels a few dollars at a time?  Let’s talk, guys.

*In case you missed it, be sure to check out Andrew Curry’s excellent Wired piece on Settlers of Catan.  After years of reading about what a great game it is, and seeing so many outstanding videogame developers list Settlers among their greatest influences, it became my gateway into more elaborate games designed with adults in mind.

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RIP Scrabulous

RIP Scrabulous

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the rapidly expanding world of casual gaming apps delivered over social networks (and who hasn’t?!), last week was an interesting one.  At the beginning of the week, the poster child for Facebook as a gaming platform, Scrabulous, was turned off for all North American users.  By the end of the week, it had gotten a minor facelift and was reintroduced as Wordscraper.

With all the parties involved, and all the legalese to wade through, it’s tough to tell who ultimately made the call to pull the plug.  I mean, what are they really saying in a publicly issued statement like this: ‘Hasbro is pleased that the developers have voluntarily removed their infringing Scrabulous application on Facebook, and we appreciate Facebook’s assistance in expediting this matter‘?  Besides, it was in pretty much everyone’s best interest to make Scrabulous not look like an exact Hasbro knock-off, at the very least.

EA paid a no doubt princely sum to execute games based on Hasbro’s IP.  To keep potential suitors interested in their games, beyond EA’s 2013 expiration date, it’s to Hasbro’s advantage to protect their game concepts as ownable, patent-worthy product.  Facebook needs to prove to the world (including advertisers) that they have a handle on protecting copyrights within their platform, and it’s not the hedonistic wild west that MySpace or Second Life turned into.  Even Scrabulous‘ designers, the Agarwalla brothers, had something to gain by pulling and modifying the game.  They’ve shown the world that they know how to make a simple, working social game.  It’s the hottest hot spot right now for VCs, and it behooves them to not get sued back to the stone age so early in their careers.

Died and reborn as Wordscraper... like a zombie!

Died and reborn as Wordscraper... like a zombie!

It’ll be interesting to see how Wordscraper fares after its relaunch, combined with competition from EA’s fully branded, household name Scrabble app.  Even more important are the results of Hasbro’s lawsuit in this case.  After all, it could set a precedent for tons of litigation down the road.  At its core, this suit asks the question, “what constitutes a ‘game’ and just how much of that is ownable?”

Do the makers of a million bad Tetris knockoffs owe Alexy Pazhitnov royalties?  Do the makers of that Wii beer pong game owe your fraternity some coin?  This suit could decide once and for all.

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As you can probably imagine, I played plenty of videogames growing up. Luckily, my family not only tolerated the hobby, but even got into gaming a little bit over the years. Mom still plays a mean game of Tetris, and my sister was the first person I knew to beat Super Mario Brothers 2.Wii Family

With all the downtime around the holidays, it’s only natural that we play a lot of multiplayer games when the whole family gets together. Last year, a still-functional Super Nintendo, Super Mario All-Stars, and a lot of time on our hands made for a holiday filled with some of the most intense Super Mario action this side of The Wizard.

This year, I brought along the Wii for some Mario Galaxy and Wii Sports. The DS Lite came along as well, and we got to take advantage of the superb download-and-share feature in New Super Mario Brothers. Almost as an afterthought, I brought along Settlers of Catan.

SettlersYou’ve already read the title of this post, so you can probably guess which game we got the most play out of. I was pleasantly surprised to spend so much time with a non-video game over the holidays.

Settlers, like other European designer board games, is exquisitely balanced and relatively easy to learn. Out of the 4 games we played during Christmas, we had 4 different winners, and each one capitalized on a different strategy. The more relaxed, turn-based play of a board game fits well in a family setting, and was a nice break from faster-paced games of Bomberman and Mario 3 on the Wii’s Virtual Console.

There’s a real lesson here for videogame designers, particularly those pushing hard to attract casual gamers (and who isn’t these days?) The RULES in a game like Settlers or Puerto Rico are complex, but that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. A well-designed game, in any format, has plenty of rules that apply just the right amount of pressure on players. To hold our interest, a game needs to be hard enough to remain challenging throughout a new player’s learning curve (so we don’t feel like an adult playing Candy Land with children), but not dauntingly difficult (so we don’t feel like that guy doing the enormous crossword puzzle in the SkyMall catalog, or anyone that ever played Super Ghouls and Ghosts).

Along with those complex rules, however, are very simple CONTROLS. Obviously, that terminology stretches a little when we’re talking about board games vs. video games, but in either case, the range of player inputs shouldn’t feel like you’re learning a second language. Settlers offers a few actions for each player to use on each turn (trade, purchase, roll) and the entire game neatly fits within that framework. By contrast, every second of a game of Halo presents the player with an astounding number of choices, so the barrier for entry is significantly higher for rookie players.

The brilliance of a game like Settlers is it marries the rules and controls that govern the game to a fairly simple storyline, so each player’s role makes sense in the loose “story” that’s unfolding on the board. Further, the story makes all of Settlers’ rules easier to grasp, and easier to see how the individual player decisions affect the game.

As stories in games get more and more sophisticated, control schemes and rules shouldn’t have to. Epic found an elegant compromise with their context-sensitive, all-purpose action button in Gears of War, and it looks like Metal Gear Solid 4 will boast a simplified control scheme that remaps action buttons based on circumstances. Mario Galaxy introduced a ton of new rules, with different gravity on quite a few of the planets in each level, and I never felt like it snuck up on me, or was a cheap way to up the difficulty in some stages.Mario Galaxy gravity

Hopefully the new generation of game developers hasn’t entirely forgotten gaming’s roots and plays a new board game once in a while. After all, there are only so many original Nintendo and Commodore 64 games that a developer can draw inspiration from.

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