What could possibly go wrong? An examination of Board Game Bugs
Just like in software, there are 'bugs' that can crop up in a board game or card game. Since many of these productions are complex and have a lot of moving parts, we have to be especially vigilant to avoid the issues below.
What are the bugs?
Why do they occur?
How can we prevent them?
And what kind of support do we offer when one slips through the cracks?
As the saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Understanding these errors helps us to be vigilant and watch for them, as well as to put in place better processes for design, development, and production.
When an issue does arise, a clear-cut policy will help to ensure that the issue can be addressed consistently and economically.
Sometimes a loose reading of the rules can alter how a card or a rule plays out. Sometimes a strict reading of the rules introduces a result that's different from the design intent of a component. Ambiguities can create gameplay issues that players aren't able to resolve, and can ruin the flow and experience of a game.
Reasons: Put basically, Templating is "the way game rules are expressed in language." Ambiguity is usually a function of poor templating, or a poor enforcement of templating.
Prevention: The best way to avoid Ambiguities is to involve proof readers of all levels of skill, and to do blind testing of a game's components with players who are not familiar with the game, or who are unfamiliar with games in general. When a template is created, that template should be strictly enforced by the project's Editor.
When it happens: An FAQ should be posted publicly to address the ambiguities and convey designer intent.
Especially in competitive games, it's important that players have a level playing field to play on. While we love our asymmetric sides and variable player powers here at Level 99 Games, this means that we need to pay even more attention to balance.
Care should be taken with declaring a Balance Error. A Balance Error occurs when some text or balancing factor was left off of the component during pre-press, resulting in an unintended effect or interaction which alters game balance. If an element was printed as intended, but turned out to be stronger or weaker than expected, that's not a Balance Error—it's just poor balance (or the vagaries of a particular metagame).
Reasons: Balance Errors can occur when text from a game's database isn't imported correctly, or when text or numbers are accidentally altered during pre-press setup. The gameplay usually isn't altered, but the game's balance changes due to these alterations or omissions.
Prevention: When creating pre-press cards, use automation as much as possible, and minimize manual correction and manual data entry. Ensure that the developers are able to check the cards alongside proof-readers, and establish a checklist whereby each card's integrity is verified against the game's database.
When it happens: In cases of an element that is balanced too weak, no action is necessary. In the case of an element that is balanced too strong, the element should be banned from competitive play. This ban should be made public via an FAQ. The element may be rebalanced in a future edition, but should not be altered in future printings of the same edition.
This bug can occur when there is confusion about what a product is. As important as it is to deliver on what we promise, it's also important to inform on what we're delivering. If a customer doesn't know precisely what components and how many are supposed to be in the box, or how one game integrates with an expansion, or which box specific components are supposed to be in, then the game experience can be quickly ruined.
Reasons: Often arises when a product is missing a components sheet, or the components sheet has some error, or when some piece that was advertised as a feature is missing from or hidden within the final game. This can also occur when the components sheet lacks detail.
Prevention: Create components sheets and advertising materials carefully to reflect the final contents of the game. Rigorously check the components sheet during the digital proof phase to ensure that every item in the box is accounted for, and every promise made by the game's feature list is fulfilled. Furthermore, if some elements are printed on the back of other elements, make sure that the components sheet is clear when explaining how many physical components (4 tiles) versus intellectual components (with 8 cities, 2 per side).
When it happens: An FAQ should be posted publicly to address the sources of confusion. Improve the components sheet in the next printing.
Games have a lot of text. Errors of punctuation, spelling, and syntax (such as the consistent use of bolds and italics) can negatively impact experience. In the worst cases, these may introduce Ambiguities or Inconsistencies.
Issues where a card is templated incorrectly or has the wrong background, art, font, or symbology are also editorial errors.
Reasons: Lack of professional editing, not enough proof-reading support, or a templating scheme that is overly complex or not well conveyed to the editing team are sources of this error.
Prevention: Editing should take place in multiple passes, with each pass checking for a different kind of specific issue. Furthermore, automated spelling and grammar checks should be used on every piece of game content. Finally, wherever possible, text formatting should be accomplished by the use of automated styling (GREP styling).
When it happens: If the Editorial Error affects gameplay, it should be corrected in a publicly posted Errata. Otherwise, the issue should be corrected in the next printing.
This occurs when artifacts from the graphic design of the product, its production, or its templating process show up in the final game. This can also occur if images are altered, incorrectly clipped, bleed into one another, or have the wrong color format or resolution at press time.
Reasons: Most graphical glitches occur due to technical graphic design malfunctions, such as damaged art files, incorrect color profiling, images having a resolution of less than 300dpi, or poorly setup frames and clipping masks.
Prevention: These issues can be caught during the editing step, but the best method of prevention is to standardize the formatting of components and of artwork. With standardized components, the risk of systemic errors drops dramatically.
When it happens: If this issue affects gameplay, the Graphical Glitch should be considered an Editorial Error and handled appropriately. Otherwise, the issue should be corrected in the next printing.
Even though we work in the realm of fantasy and fiction, we often depict semi-realistic individuals, races, events, genders, or cultures based upon the real world. When doing this, it's important to treat these elements with due respect, to do research, receive permission where necessary, and to represent them appropriately. Care must also be taken that the content of games matches the age rating we post on the sides of the box.
Reasons: The world is always changing, as we each only have one perspective on it. Things which seem like a harmless joke, a parody, an homage, or even adolescent humor to some may be offensive or insulting to others.
Prevention: Show the work to a diverse community of potential players who will make you aware of any red flags they find. When dealing with specific cultures, subcultures, or traditions, be sure to consult an expert on the elements you're working with.
When it happens: A public apology should be issued, and the error corrected in the next printing.
Similar effects should be written in a similar way, and should use similar components. When the same effect is worded multiple ways, or when a character is called one thing somewhere and something else somewhere else, it creates ambiguities or questions which can disrupt play experience.
Reasons: As with Ambiguity, inconsistency is primarily an error of templating, though it can sometimes come about in other components or in the minor changes between printings.
Prevention: Editors should be trained in the templating language of the game. Use of a database that can check for consistency in an automated way is also a great step. Furthermore, during the digital proofing stage, the game should be reviewed alongside any other printing to ensure consistency between the component quality of the versions.
When it happens: If the Inconsistency creates an Ambiguity, then an FAQ should be issued. Otherwise, it should be corrected in the next printing.
This occurs when a planned component does not make it into the final production. This may be a critical component, like a card or booklet, or it might be something more aesthetic, such as a divider, tray, reference card, or poster.
Reasons: In particularly large or long projects, the scope of the product may change or the nature of the product may be incorrectly communicated with the factory. Sometimes the planning stages of a project are malformed, and the project leadership team does not fully understand all the components that were intended to be put into the final game.
Prevention: Good planning stages and clear communication between the production, development, and planning teams are critical. White proofing is an essential part of this, as is a clear game database during development.
Each component should be evaluated to ensure that it is necessary—simpler games have less room for errors.
Each development team should be focused on only a single project at a time—divided attention creates confusion and leads to more errors.
When it happens: If the product ships with a Missing Component, then an assessment of the component itself is necessary. For components critical to the product, a replacement must be produced and issued, wherever reasonable. For components which are non-critical, an apology and/or partial refund should be issued, and the bug should be corrected in the next printing.
Sometimes during production, an error systemically affects the entire print run of a product. This may be a major misprint, like punchboards sticking together, or it may be as small as a smudge on every tenth deck of cards produced.
Issues with color matching, incorrect finish, or inconsistent component sizing are also Production Flaws.
Reasons: Production Flaws often happen when the product is rushed due to holidays, produced on a minimum budget, or when the nature and quantity of components are incorrectly conveyed to the factory.
Prevention: Just like it's good for development teams, it's also good for factories to be working on only one project at a time. Avoid producing multiple games in parallel at the same factory.
Ensure that the factory understands the game components. White proofing and digital proofing are essential steps.
Finally, a factory first (a sample off the line) should always be requested before a game leaves the factory floor. For especially complex games, several firsts should be checked against one another. To prepare for freight and delivery, as well as to verify components, box packing and shake test videos should also be requested from the factory.
When it happens: Work with the factory to determine the root of the flaw. If the factory is at fault, then the factory should be expected to correct the issue as far as possible. If the flaw originates from our team's mistakes, then it should be corrected at our expense.
As with a Missing Component, consideration must be made to how critical the part is. Critical components must be replaced and re-issued. For non-critical flaws, and apology and/or partial refund should be issued. In either case, the bug should be corrected in a future printing.
Excellent article David. This rigorous approach to consistency is, in my opinion, the biggest thing that sets you guys apart from the rest of the board game industry.