August 1st

When I first began working on Balance of the Planet second edition I unthinkingly planned on one turn every five years, which added up to twelve turns over the 60-year period covered by the game. But frequent playtesting demonstrated that you seldom made many changes in your plan once you got started. Besides, many of the processes developed at such a stately pace that there really wasn’t any need for mid-course corrections. Unsure of myself, I made the turn length (in years) a variable that I could alter at will to try out games of differing lengths. I shortened it from 12 moves to 10 moves, then 8 moves, then 5 moves, and in each case the game seemed to be easier to understand because you really could see cause and effect more clearly when your causes were stable. 

So I decided to go all the way and reduce it to a single turn. That seemed to make the game easier to understand (of course, as the designer, I have no idea what’s easy for somebody else to understand). So I left it at a single turn and never looked back.

But now a number of people have suggested that I restore multiple turns. One person in particular made some solid arguments in favor of multiple turns. His most compelling is as follows: suppose that the player has multiple turns and is halfway through the game when he realizes that climate change is getting out of hand and so the player tries to shut down carbon emissions with steep taxes on fossil fuels. But by that time, nasty positive feedbacks have kicked in; even if the player shuts down all fossil fuel use, the earth will continue to warm. The player has triggered an out-of-control situation and can’t stop it. This, my friend points out, would be a valuable lesson to many players.

He’s quite right, of course. That sense of frustration at losing control of the situation is a powerful educational experience. It clearly demonstrates that what we do NOW is of vast importance, that we can’t just kick the can down the road and expect people in the future to solve the problem; we might just bequeath them a hopeless situation.

Moreover, there is certainly something screwy about being forced to make decisions in 2012 that will remain in force for 60 years. Why shouldn’t players be able to modify their decisions partway through?

On the other hand, I like the intellectual cleanliness of getting just a few basic decisions and seeing how they play out. The cause-and-effect network of this simulation is immensely complicated; every additional button or switch we put in front of the player complicates his task. Going from one turn to five turns quintuples the number of causal connections that the player must figure out.

Right now, I don’t know what to do.