Healing Blade 3.0

August 6, 2012/0/0
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Last year when I got my hands on a copy of Healing Blade, I tore open the box full of anticipation. Cool artwork! And a science theme! Games about science have been an interest of mine for some time. Games are fun and science is fascinating. Combine the two and you can potentially get quite a thrill.

But merging gaming with real world data is harder than it seems. Most games create their own reality, and that reality serves the game. If something is bogging down the game during the design process, you just change it until it’s better. Games that try to have an educational component suffer from the very inflexible restriction of trying to be accurate. Imagine you are designing a board game about human anatomy… and it becomes clear that the game would play a lot better if only the kidney and the brain were on one side of the board, and the lungs and the uterus on the other. Suddenly you must choose between improving the game and really watering down, even distorting the educational content.

The Healing Blade card game already makes some compromises. The interactions between medicines and bacterial infections is simplified so that X beats Y, and we don’t have to worry about different illnesses caused by one bacteria, or similar illnesses caused by different bacteria, or different forms of the drugs.

From a gaming, rather than medical-accuracy point of view, the game is still extremely unwieldy. Each antibiotic has a list of things it can treat, and it seems to follow no real logic. In magic the gathering, a creature without flying can sometimes kill a creature with flying, and all the card has to list is one ability: “reach”. Now you can look at the card and you know it kills all 936 different creatures with flying that have ever been printed. (I made that number up.) Can you imagine the hassle if there were 936 Lords of Pestilence that Cipro could beat, and the Cipro card had to list all 936 names separately, because there was no underlying principle?

I noticed this problem immediately with Healing Blade, and it was a real obstacle to getting non-medical professionals/students interested in the game. I went through an obsession seeking a solution. I sorted all the cards using as many subcategories as I could: shape (rod-shaped, etc.) gram-stain result, aerobic/anaerobic, toxins, spores, opportunistic, method of spreading, area of infection, etc.

At first, it looked like there was some hope. Aztreonam cannot vanquish gram-positive or anaerobic bacteria. That’s a nice big category that doesn’t require a long list. If it beat all gram-negative bacteria, that would really be perfect, but…. nope.  The world just doesn’t work like that. And unfortunately Aztreonam is one of the few drugs that can be categorized so broadly, most of the other antibiotics have a much more random-seeming list than Aztreonam does. Even drugs in the same family have differing levels of success against many bacteria. Not to mention all the complexity caused by resistant strains. I failed to find the perfect solution to all those long lists on the cards.

This is just one example of the simplicity of a game world and the complexity of the real world. In the real world, there are always exceptions, and conditional contexts. Maybe you’ve accepted this, or you even revel in the beauty of this fact. But it’s maddening! How do we improve our game without distorting the science of it?

I have a friend who teaches game design classes at a university near where I live, and I recently showed him some of my attempts to “fix” Healing Blade. My most important change was making sure the Apothecary player always knew what bacteria was attacking in advance, so he could try to select the best cure. It turned out to be a terrible rule change! Our conclusion on play testing was that the rule change turns the game into a “pattern matching” game rather than a strategic one. You look at all the lists in your hand, and figure out which card you can play to protect yourself. Usually there is only one card you can play, if any. Sometimes, you get to choose between two or more cards, in which case you just keep the card that cures the most things because it is probably more useful, and play the least useful one. The player ends up not having any real choices, and the entirety of their game play experience is limited to reading lists and cross-referencing to find out what one move they are allowed to do. Not fun.

One idea I am now contemplating is removing the lists altogether for the online version, because there are far better referencing systems than a bunch of cards with unique lists. Tables and search functions seem like obvious improvements. There could be different modes: if you felt well educated on drug-bacteria interactions, you could play blind and just use your knowledge to help you decide what cards to play when. If you felt rusty, or if you knew nothing about medicine, your game would take on a mode of discovery, where you tried out various medicines and the program helped you record which ones worked or failed, in a sort of online notebook.

Readers, you tell me if the game is a useful study guide, because I can’t speak to that (I’m a  musician) but I am determined to make our next version even more fun. This is where I come in, as game design consultant for Nerdcore Learning. The plan is to update the rules and make some changes for the online version (which is nearing completion). Got some complaints or brilliant insights? Post em here. So far, the first lesson is this: the player needs to have imperfect information. That adds tension, and choice (and the possibility for regret).

This is a thematic compromise though. You wouldn’t want your doctor plying you with random antibiotics in the hope that he got lucky and picked the right one. In the game, there will often be useless antibiotics hanging out on the battleground, failing to have any effect. I’m okay with it if you are.

And if diagnosis is your area of interest, we’ve also got a game/study-aid specifically about that…. it’s called Occam’s Razor, and it’s in the works. More on that later.

One thing I think we can all agree on though is that rote memorization is a drag. Here at NCL, we’re trying to find more pleasurable ways to keep all that information fresh in your mind.

Your new VP of operations,

Blak Lotus