If life were a board-game, would people play it? Would it get published? Let’s take a look!
What type of game is life
Let’s first look into what kind of game life is.
Life is best described as a semi-cooperative game, in that there is ample room for both fruitful cooperation, but there can be quite a bit of in-play adversity as well. In-play adversity can be very intense, even leading to sudden player elimination.
Worker placement is probably the most important “major” mechanic. It’s got a slight twist compared to other games in that you only get to have a single worker, and you get to allocate time for that worker to accomplish actions. In the later game it is possible to obtain multiple workers, but you still need to allocate time from your original worker for them to take actions. An interesting part of this is figuring out whether this trade is worth it or not.
The other major mechanic is resource gathering and allocation. There are a great deal of resources in the game, with accompanying advantages and disadvantages; food is a requirement, but diamonds really are just a nice-to-have There is a rich in-game economy which lets you get from one resource to another. What I do dislike is that there is this one resource “money” which can be traded for almost all of the other ones.
Next to worker placement, there are numerous minor mechanics. At different points in the game there will be pick-up-and-delivery, bluffing, social deduction, area control and many others.
It’s quite interesting that you can chose which of these mechanics you are most interested in and use those more frequently.
So what are some of the good features of the game?
Depth of play
Life offers incredible depth of play, with huge amounts of possibilities open to players and a nearly infinite strategies possible. This is better than any other game I’ve ever seen and is probably it’s most important selling point.
One downside of this depth is that it brings the difficulty of making a choice between all the different options. The result is that players tend to copy what the other players nearby are doing, which sometimes makes for a bit boring (local) game play. “Mary, John, Alice and Bob think it’s a good idea to have a kid, so I should probably get one too.”
The player interaction is truly superb. You can form alliances or make enemies, stand together or try to eliminate another player altogether. The mechanics for this are subtle and well thought-through. This is done by giving bonuses to players who work together (greater productivity, increased defense, etc.) but also by having feedback loops which mean that going without interacting with other players can be quite costly in “mental resources”: Getting too high on the “loneliness track” can be a real killer!
Much of the depth of the game is driven by this player interaction.
A lot of attention was put into the board and the looks of the player representations. And while not all of it is exceptional, there most certainly are parts which are better than any other game I’ve ever laid eyes one!
Some elements aren’t good or bad but neutral or good and bad in equal dosages.
Length of play
A game of life can differ significantly for different players, some playing for decades while others don’t even get minutes.
For most players however life is much longer than any other game one would generally play. This is good as it makes it possible to explore the fast depths that the game has to offer.
The fact that play length is very random does detract significantly from the game.
Like any board-game there are pieces that could’ve done with a bit more testing before they were put in the final version.
As already mentioned the game incorporates player elimination. In fact, player elimination is very simple in general, though there are also strong in-game consequences for doing this, making it a risky strategy to pursue.
That however does not help any players that actually get eliminated…
The rule book
There is none.
Instead there is a sort of awkward tutorial phase in which new abilities and options slowly become available. This takes a long time and is not particularly interesting.
The one redeeming quality is that it blends perfectly into the actual game play so that you’re never quite sure whether you’re still in tutorial mode or playing already.
Still, having the rules written out would’ve been a really big boon!
Unclear winning conditions
As there are no written rules, the winning conditions are unclear.
This can make for interesting game play as it allows players to choose their own goal, but in general it is found to be quite irritating; I would call this one of the major design flaws of the game.
Unbalanced starting positions
Starting positions for players are random, but these have a tremendous impact on the game. They determine early access to resources, which have huge cumulative effects throughout the game; when you start in the “Europe” region you can expect to have more starting resources than players at the very end of the game if they start in “Africa”. Could do with some proper balancing!
Large parts of the game tend to be quite repetitive and boring.
This is in part because of the unclear winning conditions, which makes it difficult to make a choice of which option is better than the others. The result is that many players start to hedge and go for resources that are very “general” in nature (i.e. “coins” and “social status”) so that if they somehow figure out what their winning conditions are, they can change their resources relatively easy.
Even though there are no clear winning conditions, having more resources is obviously useful.
When resources are relatively scarce, getting enough resources to pay the many different “taxes” (e.g. “food” which gets consumed every turn, the requirement for “shelter”, etc.) can be quite demanding. Moving towards getting a bit more resources can be very challenging.
However when you do get to a decent surplus of resources, it is incredibly easy to increase these further, to ridiculous amounts even (I’ve heard stories of players who literally had a million times more resources than other players!).
This is further exacerbated by the unbalanced starting positions, making a random element that is determined before starting the most important part of whether you can get to a surplus at all.
So what are some of the more interesting bits of the game, what makes it stand out from all the other board-games that are out there?
One truly unique mechanic is that it is possible for players to generate new players! This is something I’ve never seen implemented in anything else.
Generating a new player costs quite something in resources (also because this includes resources required for the tutorial), but for most players this is attainable.
It’s also interesting that not one but two players are required to generate a new player. The result of this is an increase in overall cooperation in the game and further deepens the player interaction.
The artwork interacts with the game
The artwork can have a direct impact on the game!
The first way this is done is through pieces of the board that can enhance (or detract from) your mental resources (e.g. “sunset” can increase your “mood”).
Even more amazing is that the artwork of the player representations have an impact on how they influence other players: Players that have been rendered more beautifully generally interact more easily with other players!
This is one example of an unbalanced starting resources; the artwork for different players differs significantly and while it can be changed, this is difficult. For game play it is a negative, but the idea is very elegant and interesting!
Play only once
Life can be played once and that’s it. There are some discussions on different forums that it’s possible to start anew, but how that would be done and whether it actually works is murky and highly debated.
This means that it is not possible to implement what you learned in one game to the next. Due to potential game length however it is possible to pick up a lot of the game whilst playing it. And one could argue that playing a second game with knowledge of the first would give an incredible advantage compared to other players.
There are some other games that aren’t fun to play more than once, but they still can be. For life however this is strictly not possible.
The final verdict
Though the game has some serious balance problems, this can be forgiven because of the incredible depth that the game offers and some very interesting new mechanics.
If the imbalances get improved I would rate it higher, but as it stands, it gets 3 stars out of 5.
Hi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.
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