Thursday, November 7, 2013

S'up brah? North brah!


Maps come in all different scales and sizes, but almost all of them have one thing in common: North is at the top.

For this, we have the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy to thank. His method became the model, though for a while European maps with the East at the top were not uncommon (and also the genesis of the expression "to orient" oneself).

Wargame maps typically follow the North is up rule. And the text on the map is oriented for a reader sitting at the southern edge of the map when the map is placed on a table.  But because most wargames are for two players (or more) this design is broken.

Frequently - if not most often - one of players is seated at the southern edge of the map, while the other player is seated at the northern end of the map.  Those to the north most often see everything in the game upside down.

It's no big deal, really.  The human brain copes wonderfully with limited or distorted information.  And some of us apparently read upside down by nature.

But can viewing a map upside down impact the player's performance?

With permission from BGG user Buffalospynovel, a photo of  (L) 2004 WBC Champ Nick Anner vs. (R) 2008 WBC Champ Riku Reikkonnen and spectator Nels Thompsen.
The above photo is of two WBC PoG champions facing off.  Nick Anner (on the left) won the match but says it had nothing to do with the fact that he saw the map rightside up.  "Pog is not a game where place names matter, but something like india rails would really be challenging upside down," said Nick.

Seems logical.  With some familiarity of the battle geography, wargamers know instinctively which direction to attack. And it is likely the actual name of a location is of little real value when moving your troops four spaces on a board.  Or we just... adjust.

It's not like the major leagues here in the US where ball clubs travelling west seem to perform below their potential.

So, perhaps, the text orientation to the North/up map design is not exactly "broken."  But it can be an important design decision and one that designers have addressed creatively.

What are the design choices for orienting game map text?

1.)  Follow tradition... put the North at the top and orient the text so that one player must crane their necks throughout the game.  Designing a map this way puts you in good company.  Most wargames follow this model. See almost any game published by MMP.

2.) Follow tradition but... orient players East-West so neither has a monopoly on seeing the text correctly.   See Unhappy King Charles. Designer Charles Vasey says it was intentionally designed that way through playtest experience...
"...it arose from discussions with Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and from the original playtest version having three separate sections and noticing how we assembled these when we actually played. Some gamers still get annoyed about it though so they must play with a different orientation."
3.) Split the map so that players see text oriented toward their side of the map.  These seem to work well for games with a N/S split between the forces, like the French/Indian War or the American Civil war.   Martin Wallace chose this approach for A Few Acres of Snow .  What was his reason?  I emailed him to ask and he replied:
"No particular reason, just seemed to make sense as it is a 2 player game."
It's easy to see that presenting text fairly to each player (neither has the total advantage while neither has total disadvantage) makes total sense and is a very good reason.

I would always select option 3, if geography permits.  Geography doesn't always permit though.

Look at a typical wargame map of North Africa.  It's is a narrow band of land, bounded on one side by the Mediterranean and on the other side by the barren dessert.   The famous battles of WWII ranged from west to east and back.

When designing a game map of North Africa, it would be ideal to position the players East/West.  But this isn't reasonable because the distance is too far to comfortably reach a stack of counters in the middle.  Based on average human arm length, it's much easier to put the players on the northern and southern edges. And so option 1 above seems best.

Of course as we remove the constraints of the human musculoskeletal system, the issue goes away.  When playing VASSAL, both players view the same map orientation.

However, as long as boardgames remain on a board, map orientation is an important design choice.


1 comment:

Itinerant said...

Interesting. I've wondered how map orientation affects play. But I wondered the same thing about chess. It's good if the player occasionally gets up and views the game from a different perspective.