September 27, 2019

6 (or 7) Zones of Play & Design Implications

I caught a recent Ludology episode, which covered the 6 Zones of Play. For those who haven’t seen or heard of the 6 Zones of Play, it’s a concept framed out by Scott Rogers that breaks down the “physical” board and play space into… wait for it.... 6 zones! A cliffhanger, I know.

Briefly, the 6 Zones are as follows (this is my paraphrasing):

Zone 1 - Player’s Dominant Hand: This is where the most personal game assets are held or manipulated, such as a hand of cards.

Zone 2 - Player’s Off-Hand: Often used for manipulating other pieces or pawns elsewhere in the game space.

Zone 1 and Zone 2 are notable because there is a physicality to how far you can reach (without getting out of your seat or god forbid moving around the table). It’s also where the ergonomic design of the game can come into play (how many hands of cards and tiles do I have to juggle?).

Zone 3 - Personal “Tableau”: This is the area directly in front of the player that is not usually part of a shared board space. It might contain a player mat or is a place where you are playing cards/tiles or other assets directly in front of you.

Zone 4 - The Board / Shared Space: This is the main area in the center of the board, often a game map, where all players typically perform actions.

Zone 5 - The Sideboard: These are areas adjacent to the main board, which could contain stocks/supplies of common resources, the bank, victory tracks, markets, etc… this is usually also a shared space but not the primary focus.

Zone 6 - The Rulebook: Rulebook or supplemental information that governs play. May be needed in case of reference.

So, having established these zones, the Ludology podcast (with Scott Rogers himself) discussed the pros/cons of these different spaces and implications for design. I found the formalization of these spaces to be interesting as point discussion for design. However, I have some (shall we say very strong?) reservations about the conclusions they drew from the analysis of these zones. Their conclusion, which I am quoting from the original article, is thus:

What is the point of identifying these Zones? The goal [my emphasis], as a designer, is to bring activity from the further Zones (4-6) into the closer Zones (1-3), so that the necessary information can remain in the player's view and easily accessed. Remember, all game play should be centered around the player and the closer you can keep a game's components and information "within reach" of the player, the more engaged they will remain in the game.

I’m injecting my gaming preferences and bias into my criticism, which is to say that I think the above “goal” really only applies to the design of certain types of games, and is outright bad advice when applied to many other sorts of games. My primary issue is in suggesting that elements of Zone 4, i.e. the shared board space, be brought closer into zone 1-3. The discussion did acknowledge the impossibility of doing that for games with a shared space, but nevertheless prompted the issue.

Here’s my counter argument to this recommendation: the more a game pushes play into zones 1-3, the more the game focuses player attention on their own assets with a reduction in need (or opportunity for) interacting in shared spaces. Moreover, the more that player attention is focused on zones 1-3, the harder it is to see or process what’s happening in all the of the other players' zones 1-3, which are even further away from view/reach than zone 4 in the first place. It becomes a self-defeating cycle, where the intent of pulling play into zone 3 (i.e. avoiding the access issues of zone 4-6) actually creates even greater access issues and separation of attention for players. Consider whether you are focusing attention on ONE shared space versus having to split your attention between 2,3,4,5,n... other Zone 3 spaces.

That’s a lot to unpack. In the worst case (and my bias is showing through here) the recommendation would push designs towards multiplayer solitaire. If reading someone else’s zone 3 is too difficult, the design is softly incentivized to not make it necessary for players to keep track of or watch what other players are doing in their respective zone 3s. This directly cuts into the heart of interactivity and leads to a lot of “head down” gaming experiences. Surely many people enjoy this - but it’s not my preference at all.

What would I recommend as a useful takeaway from the 6 Zones of Play? Here’s my alternative recommendation:

Minimize the number of zones of play that are needed and strive to keep player attention focused on primarily just one or two zones (which ever zones those may be).

If a game focuses the design around just a couple of zones, regardless of whether that is leaning more towards personal space or shared space, the play experience will feel more streamlined and ergonomic. Players will be able to focus their attention better and more exclusively on those fewer zones and be able to dedicate more thought space to strategizing and planning instead of spending thought space
shifting focus between different zones, the latter of which is brain-power consuming “multi-tasking” instead of focused attention.

To critique my own work, Hegemonic failed spectacularly in following this rule. There are player boards with tech cards played (which players across the table need to be mindful of). There are two hands of cards. A hugely intricate shared board to fight over. A separate score tracker board. A pool of tiles to draft. It's a complex game so the rulebook makes too many appearances. It’s too much really. Were I to redesign the core of Hegemonic, I would strive to do away with at least some of that (just one hand of cards, no tech cards played in zone 3, eliminate the sector tile pool, etc).

A second critique I have is that the 6 zone theory intentionally ignored Zone “0” - which is the mind or thought space of the players at the table. I feel this is a major oversight. Yes, the 6 Zones are all physical space, but they represent areas where our thoughts and mental attention are to be directed. To ignore Zone 0 is to ignore the critical importance of thinking about the plans, intentions, and motives of the other players at the table. Good games (again my bias) make us consider what our opponents are scheming - whether that’s manifest through reading their board position or staring them in the eye and trying to divine their intent.

To summarize, I found the 6 (or 7) Zones of Play to be a useful nomenclature for talking about the design of the game, where you want player attention focused, and ergonomics. There is good stuff in the framework to be cognizant of. But I don’t agree with the premise of emphasizing Zone 1-3 at the expense of shared space or “mind space.” Not only might that lead to a self-defeating prophecy, but it can (and often does) lead to rather uninspired and non-interactive experiences (once again… my bias).

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