Columbo picked up the red pillar and placed it off to the side. “That’s my turn,” he said, “now which card are you going to take?” Smith smirked. “Sorry, Mr. Detective–“ he delicately placed one of the cards in front of him– “but this is my win. I’ll use my two copies of Helm of Invisibility to install the rest of my cards in my elysium. There’s no way you can beat it.” He got up to leave.
“Just one more thing, Mr. Smith…” said Columbo. Johnson froze. “I thought you weren’t allowed to have more than one copy of the same card…”
This above hastily written fan fiction is an example of what I call “Columboing”. It is the bane of any game designer and the second-worst thing that can happen to you during gameplay, right after “watching someone else take a fifteen-minute turn in Once Upon A Time”. Columboing is the phenomenon in which a player’s elaborate plan, or even multi-turn, game-winning strategy, is ruined because nobody at the table noticed a small, overlookable rule until it was relevant.
The example I gave above is Elysium’s rule about not being able to have more than one card with the same name in your play area, not because it’s the worst offender (players don’t get the opportunity to hoard identical cards very often), but because it’s almost the perfect encapsulation of the problem. The same-name prohibition is buried in the middle of the rulebook, can’t be logically deduced through play, and significantly affects strategy once it’s discovered.
Basically two things can be done to prevent Columboing.
- Remove excess rules
Often, when designing a game, uncommon or small exceptions come up that can threaten to unbalance gameplay. It’s the first instinct to simply add something in the rules that prevents these specific situations from happening, and sometimes this is the only workable way to go about it, but these rules are by far the most likely ones to be missed until it’s relevant.
The biggest culprits here are rules that can be ignored; that is, if a game makes complete sense while ignoring your small fix of a rule, people are definitely going to miss it. These most often occur in fiddlier Euro-style games that have a lot of moving parts; small rules often make the game more tense and cerebral, but it’s also possible to play an entire game without realizing you were supposed to (or not supposed to) do something and still have an enjoyable time.
Part of my game design philosophy is not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. If a certain style of gameplay works great if people can keep track of a lot of fiddly rules, while another style isn’t quite as good but is easier to remember, I go with the second variety every time.
- Point it out in the rulebook
Columboing also occurs because it’s difficult to find a place for it in the manual. Many missable rules aren’t part of the flow of gameplay (e.g. a rule about maximum hand size versus a rule about you can draw cards), making it more likely that it will be missed both by someone reading the book and people having the rules explained to them verbally.
The most effective way to fix this is to emphasize the rule, either by bolding/italicizing it or setting it off in its own box. I personally prefer the latter, as it ensures the player sees it while also “taking a breath” from the flow of gameplay so the reader isn’t thrown off. However, both of them have their merits and text emphasis is probably better in lighter games with shorter rulebooks.
If the pesky rule in question only affects a certain subset of components, printing a reminder symbol or word on the components in question can be useful. People who remember what it does will remember the rule, while people who don’t remember will be prompted to look it up.
The true danger of Columboing is the fact that it’s very easy to say, “this may happen part of the time but it’s not worth fixing.” It definitely is worth fixing. If someone has a bad time during their first time playing a game, 80% of the time they’ll be unwilling to play it again. And it’s hard to imagine a worse experience than the game owner pointing out that your win was invalid because they overlooked something minor.
Columboing happens a lot in a lot of otherwise extremely good games, and sometimes it’s impossible to help; however, if you have the ability to fix the problem you should make it a high priority.