Published by Nature Trail Ltd
Designed by Glynn Kay
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Each year I go to the London Toyfair in the vain hope that I will find an outstanding mass market boardgame, or even one that doesn't slavishly follow the established pattern of roll the dice, move round the board or trivia questions. This year I drew almost a complete blank but was quietly reassured by a visit to the Nature Trail stand. These gentlemen were displaying Swoop, a game about the birds of Europe, featuring eye-catching colour illustrations and stunning production. Nowadays I'm not one to be deceived by the bits alone (oh how we change...) so I quizzed them for some while about how they had designed the game, planned a series, plumped for an environmental theme, derived scientific formulae for the board, playtested it to destruction and done all the market research. They had even taken the prudent route by deciding to keep the print run small and by lining up potential markets in the UK and abroad. Everything looked very positive then, and I left the show looking forward to the game. Could we be looking at another rare British success against all the odds?
Unfortunately, when the game arrived and we eagerly played it, all of this went up in smoke in the space of forty minutes. Disappointment did not begin to describe the experience, aggravated since both of my opponents were both gamers and 'twitchers' and therefore more than keen to like it. Partly out of retaliation for this let down, I immediately had it in mind to deliver the traditional Siggins hatchet job, but stayed my hand. Instead, I contacted the company and asked them a few key questions, and got an interesting reaction. Therefore I thought, on this occasion, it might be possible to turn it around, take some time over the review and analyse, constructively, the design and making of a commercial game. Why? Because this game will probably still sell in its target market, I liked the people behind it (this helps matters) and, in the nicest possible way, it has made many of the mistakes that plague first time releases. Now that statement in itself implies that I am going to set myself up as an authority, and for the sake of argument only that will be the case, but throughout it will be important to remember that I've never done it, never would and admire the pluck of those that do. And I am also comparing a game designed for the mass market with the standards demanded by the games hobby - and this is the debatable point on which I will start.
I'm the first to acknowledge that these comments could easily be read as arrogance. We are the tiny gaming hobby, our games are best, and the rest of the world would like them if only they could buy them and see the light. That is, I suppose, the case but it is delivered with the best of intentions - like all evangelism, the converted wish to spread the good word. Nevertheless, it is easy to sneer. I have touched on this many times before, and still wonder in those quiet moments whether the two types of games are in fact distinct. What stops a good hobby game being a family oriented, mass market game? Not much, I would suggest. The Germans have been designing them that way for years, why not elsewhere in the world? The public are open to a degree of innovation (no-one is saying we have to jump to Die Macher complexity in one bound), are not thick, and as we know, they do play games. Year round sales of Triv, Pictionary, Scrabble, Monopoly, Perudo, Rapidough and others are not a patch on the two months pre-Christmas, but they do sell. So, groundrules laid out, to the game.
Swoop is a game based on a nature trail, along which you hope to see and 'collect' sets of birds. What looks like a cleverly constructed board layout, with icons and arrows, is in practice no more than a 'round the board' route compressed down into a snake. Rolling a die moves you along a set number of squares, with another free turn if you roll a 6. The first problem we encounter, in that incisive way we have, is that the board is constructed in such a way that you might never pick up a bird card - you could just roll all night, be incredibly unlucky, and miss all the bird icons. Okay, you'd have to be a freaky roller, but I did nothing for six moves at one point. Even in Monopoly there is something happening most turns. This approach is akin to having Free Parking on every other space. That's bad, though probably understandable, but the reaction when I brought it up with Nature Trail was not one of surprise. It was a designed-in feature, and not in fact a bug.
Possible Explanation: The mass market seems not to mind moving around a board using a die. In fact, they expect it and are familiar with it. What else could they possibly do? Are you going to start mucking around with clever movement systems, no boards, card based movement, no movement, no fixed turns? And what is wrong with not being able to pick up a bird?
Worse is the 'hide' feature. This is the operational equivalent of Monopoly's Jail and you go there, well, to be delayed. You have to roll a 6 to escape, play a card to get out (we know a phrase about that don't we children), or progress up and down a blind alleyway until you return to the trail. The worrying thing is you can't do anything while you are there. I thought this was down to a rules glitch since when you are in the hide, you should expect to see birds, right? Er, no says the designer. In fact, he had thought this a great idea as a way of 'resting' during the game. But as we know resting wastes time, and by extension players' lives and patience. So, I pointed out why this might not be a bright idea in this situation (since it achieves little but delaying and annoying people, and increases game time) and what about keeping the concept but allowing a player to spot two birds per turn while in the hide? I may be a birding layman, but it makes sense to me. He took it on board, and we may yet see variants in future rule sets.
Possible Explanation: The mass market doesn't mind missing turns. They have been doing it for years, why change now? There is equally little resistance to, or questioning of, moving backwards or even starting again from scratch. Why would you want to be doing something positive and feeling as if you are making progress, when you could just as easily be sitting around twiddling your thumbs? Easy choice there.
The third type of space is the event card. This generates the usual range of incidents from the vaguely distracting to the downright painful - one card requires you to wait (lost) until another player passes your token (this could take some time...) and another cutey makes you lose all the cards you have gained to that point, apart from those in sets. Fun!
Possible Explanation: Chance and Community Chest have a lot to answer for. We expect event cards to spice up the game, to hinder some players at random, and to boost others arbitrarily. Luck and skill are in imbalance.
The final space is where the game loses its way somewhat. It is a question mark, which means.... yes, trivia questions on birds. Hooray! Round the board and trivia. Sadly, this is very much an afterthought as there are no proper questions provided. You have to read a card and ask something based on the information thereon. Such as what is the latin name, what is this bird, where does it live, or true or false questions for the ornithological dunces (like me). Not very inspiring, bloody difficult, and half baked. Unless you are all bird experts, I'd leave it out altogether despite the undoubted educational benefits.
Possible Explanation: Good, successful, games have a trivia element. A bunch of happy Canadians with their own golf course are proof of this. If you can have some edutainment, the game will sell to doting parents. There is nothing wrong with educational games, but make it part of the design from the start, and make it interesting.
Okay, so we can see how the game functions, but where is the gameplay? The main idea of the game is to collect sets of birds. It is here the game starts to show its strengths. It is interesting at one level (mine) to find out which family birds are in, which ones are rare, which ones fly into Britain for the winter to claim social security payments. For the twitchers, they could identify the birds without looking at the names, say if they'd ticked them off in their little books and tell tall tales on how they thought they'd seen a dodo on Hampstead Heath. This is good stuff. You trundle round, picking up bird cards, trying to group them into sets and make them safe. Safe from what? Unlike many neophyte game designers, Nature Trail at least identified a requirement for interaction. It is not a major feature of the game, but at least it is there. For without it, we would have a truly solitary experience. The game features birds of prey which can be used to steal birds from other players which adds an interesting angle, but not one likely to keep one on the edge of the chair.
Thus far, we have a game that, while establishing no new standards on the design front, is on the surface playable. No one dictates that innovation is part of the deal (though it helps); I'll settle for a well executed, attractive, punchy family game. The problem arises with the playlength. I did a quick extrapolation when we played and came up with a couple of hours to finish. The designer reckons it could be as long as three. This is probably the biggest mistake of all. I think this misses the mark for almost any market it could be aiming for. We well know the German unwritten rule of 60 minutes tops, and that is followed broadly around the world. And there is a very good reason for this stipulation - that the family market will not tolerate games longer than the magic hour, and most publishers therefore prefer 45 minutes. Hobby gamers are a different breed, but even so three hours is far too much of the same. The rules suggest that you can play to a time limit, which is fine, but I suspect the card mix will not have been balanced to this end. Some action needs to be taken on this point.
The cause of much of this seems to be that the designer's exposure to games dictated that this was the (only?) way games worked. In fact, when you think about it, the general UK trend is for either abstract games driven off of chess, draughts or other classics that most people have played, or board games with their roots in Triv, Monopoly or perhaps Pictionary. That's as far as it goes, but if you can throw in some edutainment then that's better still. Is it a case of not thinking beyond that paradigm because it has been proved successful, because the public know how they work, because that is how games are? How different to the German experience which almost dictates that a game will not be published unless it diverges, sometimes substantially, from that over-familiar paradigm.
Running through all these comments is a feeling that the components deserve better. Like many such games, one is tempted to fix or improve when the pieces cry out for it, because production and impact is where Swoop really scores.The game comes in a large sleeved folio which looks like a luxury atlas on the shelf. This is all tastefully done in dark green with gold lettering and the effect is impressive. Even better are the components. A superbly laid out colour board, top quality here again, and two large packs of cards (140 in total) with excellent Harper Collins bird illustrations. These are Carta Mundi, colour, glossy, superb. The rules fit on a single page and are clear and complete. The whole package is class, and I can't imagine anything looking more enticing on the shelf. This all begs the question of pricing and the target market.
Swoop will cost £39 ($60) which is, by any stretch, an awful lot of money. Even in the heyday of Trivial Pursuit which established the viability, and me-too pricing by 1980's rivals, of a £30+ price tag, this would have been too much. For the gamer, used to even 'interesting' German pricing, it is extremely expensive. For the public punter, rather more relevant here, it has to be firmly into the luxury band. So is this a strategic mistake? I would say yes, given what I understand of the vast majority of UK games buyers. Looking wider, to the international markets, there may be more mileage in such a price point since we know the Germans, French, and parts of the US are happy to pay for quality. In the UK, Nature Trail hope to sell to the RSPB and National Trust, up market shops and similar outlets. I can see this working to a point (for low volumes) as the price may not be too much of a hurdle judging by the typical clientele - as a Christmas or birthday present it will solve many dilemmas for those who already have several pairs of binoculars and a cupboard full of field guides. So why the high price? The old story I suspect. Limited print runs and quality production lead to high unit costs and to make money after all the various cuts have been taken, you need a high retail price. White Wind had related problems, compounded by the lavish production values favoured by Nature Trail. The answer is a catch 22 - lower prices means higher print runs, requiring higher sales which aren't necessarily there.
So, what exactly are we left with? A superbly produced, indeed beautiful, game that comes at a commensurately high price. A game with virtually zero innovation (not in itself a bad thing for the mass market) and some confusion as to its identity. But one that looks so damn good on the shelf, poster or table that you just want to buy it, play it and, perhaps, for it to succeed. And that, in context, is what is critical from a marketing angle, as the sale the important thing. Whether it is played, or replayed, and whether that consumer will come back for more can I suppose be considered an added bonus in this industry. So will it fly? The cynical view is that this one will die like so many before it, leaving its designers with a hefty bill and a ton of experience. The optimist will say that they've identified their shot at glory, and have taken it, and can, if they desire, improve as they go - through new rules and tweaking the base system. If you, friends or your family are bird fans then you will wish to look into Swoop. It offers no less play value than most recent death-row games, indeed much more than most. It has been executed well in many respects, but fails in others but remains, for all that, a very good family game. Your call, and I wish Nature Trail all the best.
Swoop, and forthcoming series games on butterflies and safari animals, can be obtained from:
Nature Trail Ltd
18 Camden Terrace
Tel: (44) 0117 9254505
hide: a blind; a protected area in which bird watchers hide in order to observe unobserved
twitcher: bird watcher
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell