Thursday, July 25, 2019

The 6 Zones of Play


I’ve been doing an unofficial study (unbeknownst to my fellow gamers) pertaining to where a player sits at the table and how that affects the way they play during the game. While my study is still early, I’ve noticed some interesting trends – particularly how players who sit closer to a certain spot at the game board (usually their own starting position) will tend to primarily keep to that section of the board regardless of whether there are better options elsewhere. 


For example, while playing Charterstone, I observed that even though players could make a play any available location on the board, they tended to play nearer their “home” location (within arm’s reach) regardless of how “good” any other optional move was. Some of the players were even hesitant to get up from their chairs to observe what the offerings were at the other side of the table, even if there was a better move to be made by placing there.


This same phenomena occurred during a game of Formula D. Players new to the game remained seated in their chairs until it became absolutely clear that they would need to get up, move around the table in order to move their cars. (In some cases, the player asked another player to move their car for them!)

After witnessing this, I started thinking about the relationship of the player to the table, the player to the components of the game, the components to the table, the direction of the components on the table, and even the relationship of the player to their own hands and how they affected the play of the game. 

Not long after, I was playing a prototype in which an important victory condition was on a side-board. As a result of my unfamiliarity with the game as well as the distance of the side-board from where I was sitting, I neglected to interact with the side-board. As a result, I lost the game handily - mainly due to missing scoring opportunities on the side-board. I identified the issue to the designer, but they didn't have a better solution to my concern. Which got me thinking, what could be done to alleviate this for the player?


The topic came up once again, during an episode of Ludology podcast (on which I am the co-co host) about my concept of “handiness” – what players do with their hands during a game and how it is impacted by the number of components the player may have to handle during play. As a general rule, you don't want to overload the player with too many things to handle unless there is a place for them to "live." (like on the player's tableau in Scythe)

I was thinking more about how to formalize these concepts when the subject came up again when I was a guest on Becca Scott's Victory Points podcast. Becca had caught wind of my survey (probably through an errant conversation on Facebook) which led to a conversation about what I am now calling the "6 zones of play". I decided to stop lollygagging and to go ahead and get my thoughts down about this subject. I even drew a picture!


The theory is that there are 6 zones of player activity that physically compete for a player's attention during play of a game. (Game designer Mike Sellers pointed out that there is a "0 Zone" the player's mind, but since they don't concern physical components, I will leave it out of this thesis.) These zones are based off of physical interaction and ergonomics of the player. I find that the proximity of the zones to the player impacts certain aspects of play as well as emphasizes their importance to the player during game play. 

There is a natural priority to these activities due to their proximity to the player. The zones are as follows:

ZONE 1: The Player's Dominant Hand. This Zone is where the player holds cards or information that are most important to play of the game. It is the most secret and personal of spaces and in most cases, not accessible to the other players unless a card or ability allows it. From a functionality point of view, the player might often swap out what is in this hand to perform some other action - such as move a unit, roll die or make some other significant move during the game - but players will hold these components "close to their chest" as it were. They are often critical to the player's success of the game and the best zone to which the designer can convey or even change information to the player.

ZONE 2: The Player's Non-Dominant Hand. This Zone is the domain of the hand that is doing what the other hand isn't. Depending on the player's handed-ness (left, right or ambidextrous) the non-dominant hand might be reaching for resources, moving a pawn or even grabbing snacks. Often a player will switch between these two hands to perform different tasks, only to return back to the dominant hand. This hand is an accessory to the player's dominant hand when it comes to functions and the designer should never make the functions in the non-dominant hand redundant to that in the dominant hand. (For example, a player should never have to juggle two hands of cards at the same time!)

ZONE 3: The Tableau. This Zone is the personal play space of the player. It's where a deck of card goes, where the player keeps their character sheet, their pile of meeples or coins or resources or a status tracker for health or some other currency. The other players rarely have access to this space - unless a card or special ability allows it - and it is where many of the player's tactics are plotted out. As a designer, this is the second best location to convey information to the player as it is literally "in front of the player" and hard to ignore. Plus, this Zone often undergoes the most change during a game, allowing a location for new status or rules to be communicated to the player.

ZONE 4: The Board/Shared Space. This Zone is the first and most important common space in the game. All players have access to this place where they can move and place their pawn/meeples, collect resources and cards, or interact and combat the other players. This is usually where you find resources and currency used in the game. This Zone often represents the microcosm of the game - a representation of the game's world and everything that isn't of personal use to the player in it. Information and rule changes can be done here, but because of the distance of the board to the player, it is less desirable. Any change to any game state represented on this board should be big, obvious and clear to all players.

ZONE 5: The Sideboard. This Zone is the domain of extensions to the main game board (Zone 4) and is often where secondary mechanisms for the game play resides. (such as Lords of Waterdeep: the Scoundrels of Skullport's corruption tracker) In many cases, these side boards are used to track points or world conditions such as a round or time tracker. Because of its distance from many of the players at the table, components in this zone should be designed to have a lesser priority or infrequently used (such as once every player has had their turn or when a specific condition arises) by the players. This Zone is where problems can arise for players. One suggestion is to make this Zone mobile - so that it can be passed around to the other player rather than being locked into a fixed and distant location.

ZONE 6: The Rule Book. (The internet also counts as Zone 6 for purposes of this theory.) This Zone is also troublesome to game designers. When a player has to refer to a rule book during the game, it breaks the game's magic circle and the immersion of the game. Designers should strive to make players refer to a rule book as infrequently as possible - this of course is the greatest challenge to a game designer - clear and concise rules. Player aids (which can live in Zone 3) or rules printed on cards (Zone 1) or icons on the board (Zone 4) or even a shorthand guide printed on the back of the rule book (to keep the player from having to "go into" the rulebook) can help the player with this dilemma. However, some books (such as those found in Seafall or Betrayal Legacy) are a thematic component of the game that help keeps the players within the magic circle. But despite this, they still can disrupt the rhythm of play and their use should be used infrequently at best.


What is the point of identifying these Zones? The goal, as a designer, is to bring activity from the further Zones (4-6) into the closer Zones (1-3), so that way necessary information can remain in the player's view and easily accessed. Remember, all game play should be centered around the player and the closer you can keep a game's components and information "within reach" of the player, the more engaged they will remain in the game.



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