Monday, January 16, 2012

LEGO? LEGO! LEGO Game? Yes please!

Originally I wrote this massive spiel on the level of maturity in the game business, both in content and in practice, but F that madness-- I want to write about LEGOs.
Yes, those little blocks that allow kids to build whatever their imaginations conceive. They started out in super simple packages of a variety of colors and shapes, and in recent years have become increasingly complex kits bordering on, if not surpassing, full on model kits.

This is both a blessing and a curse-- where I tried to build my own AT-AT as a kid, there were some corners and edges I wished could have been smooth (nevermind not having enough blocks or articulated joints), but I simply lacked such elaborate blocks with which to complete my masterpiece. Now, the creation is hardly left to the builder, who is meant merely to follow instructions until the numbered steps have been checked off and decals placed.

So imagine my surprise this past week when my nephew insisted we play his LEGO board game, Lava Dragon. Here I was, thinking it was going to either be overly simplistic and boring to anyone over the age of 11, or very complicated to build with the same poor payoff of simplistic gameplay. Then I read the rules: very simple, very easy, but so fun that I actually wanted to go back to the game a couple times.

First, 4 players stand their little men in each corner of the "volcano" of LEGOs, each one a different color with 9 tiles of a matching color. Player order always starts with the youngest, which I found a cute way to resolve who goes first-- "your little brother! It's written down, so quit fighting about it!" (Not that there was such an argument when my wife and I played with the nieces and nephews).

So Player 1 gets to roll a special 6-sided die. On each face of the die are 4 LEGO pegs. Two faces have a 2-peg-long orange tile placed. We'll get back to them in a sec. Anyway, once Player 1 rolls, he gets to place one of his color tiles on the face of the die, and move his little guy one space.

Player 2 then rolls and places his colored tile on the die face, moving his guy one space (more if he already has a color tile placed-- if there's an empty space, he places another colored tile). If he rolls the side with Player 1's tile, Player 1 also gets to move his guy one space after Player 2. This continues until the die is filled or someone wins the game. And that's another clever design-- how a player wins.

Remember those orange tiles I mentioned? Those are Lava tiles. If a player rolls a lava tile, not only will he be able to move his little guy at least one space, but he also gets to move a Lave block on the board to block another player.

A player wins not only by simply reaching the highest point of the volcano, but he also has to roll another lava tile on the die. Only then does he get to be the badass that mounts a dragon and flies away.

So what do we have so far? A super simple rule set that pits players against each other not only for who can reach the top of the volcano and ride away on the dragon, but also for the inherent competition of who can place the most tiles on the die. This creates a great element of simple strategy, in that a player can try to base his gameplay on greater movement that in turn limits his opponents' movement and benefits him during another player's turn, or he can play offense and keep blocking other players with lava while suffering an overall lack of movement.

And the best part of the game isn't even in it's own inherently varied levels of gameplay-- it's in the fact that it is so simple, LEGO actually encourages players to make up their own rules. In my 10 year old nephew's case, this means that you can only do stuff that allows him to win the game-- you know, regular 10-year-old fare like he can jump two levels up the mountain when he rolls a 1, but you can't because, frankly, you're not him.

Anyway, the game even comes with extra pieces and suggestions for variations on the base game. A brown tile for the die represents a rope for the player to climb multiple levels in one turn (equalizing my nephew's previously over-powered move), and a "lava stick" to shove opponents off the volcano when an orange tile is rolled, rather than simply block their paths.

After playing a few variants on the base game, I have to say that I am really impressed. Such a simple game design that is specifically made to tailor to variants isn't something I've often heard of, let alone from a game designed for kids aged 7 and up. Now I want to go out and buy my own LEGO set and build board games out of it. Being an old man, though, would mean that I would just buy the traditional set and build something from scratch-- some of today's kits are just too complicated.

But that's what really got me excited about this game-- in designing my own board games, I can't believe I never had this idea. Or maybe I had-- I know my old teacher/friend Todd probably mentioned this in the past. I've got all sorts of designs for games ranging from simple board and card games to Xbox 360, but one of the hurdles in completing a prototype, especially for a board game, is in the actual construction of the board. For whatever reason (probably that I was over-thinking it, as I usually do), the potential of using LEGOs for prototyping never really occurred to me until this last week. After playing Lava Dragon though, I think I actually will be buying the old school construction kits in the near future. And probably one of those cool LEGO die, just to be safe.

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