Designer’s Notes #2 – Game orientation

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Designer’s Notes #2 – Game orientation

Introduction

When we started thinking about Brass for tablets the very first question that popped into our minds was: how we will fit the huge Brass board into a small tablet screen? Not surprisingly, one of our earliest design decisions was about the display orientation. This section will tell you how we decided on the orientation for the mobile version of Brass.

Portrait vs Landscape

To get better insight about the game, we started talking to Brass players. The feedback we received confirmed our own experience: to play Brass effectively, you need a full board overview. Expert Brass players (200+ games recorded) tend to use cards to plan their strategy. That is because they are perfectly familiar with the board, and they have it memorized. However, for beginners the board is the main way to plan strategy. We wanted the game to be accessible for everyone, so we decided that the full board overview is important for us.

The second thing we wanted to handle with care is usability. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to touch a tiny square surrounded by other squares in the middle of the map, and accidentally touching the wrong one.

This gave us two goals to fulfill when designing the game orientation:

  1. It should be possible to view the whole map at once.
  2. It should be easy to use the map.

Portrait

When you lay out the boardgame version of Brass, you immediately notice that it has portrait orientation. This is even more visible when you remove the left part of the board, which is not part of the map. That is why our first attempt was with portrait mode.

Here is what it looked like:

The board fits very nicely on the iPad screen, but there are some problems:

  • The building slots are bit too small to be touched comfortable. They are 90×90 pixels, while the recommended size is 140×140 pixels. This means that the game could be played on iPad size devices, but on smaller devices like iPad Mini, the slots would have to be 50% bigger compared to what they are now.
  • There is no space left for other User Interface (UI) elements (buttons, tabs and menus). The map fills the screen completely, and we would have to make the board even smaller in order to make some room for UI controls.

Portrait with zoom

The 2nd approach was to enlarge the board so the building slots are large enough to use comfortably. Here is the result:

Now it is comfortable to touch a building slot, but it creates two problems:

  • We can’t see the whole map at once; you have to scroll the board to be able to play. However this means we can put UI wherever we want and just scroll the board underneath it.
  • The board scrolls in two dimensions.

Landscape

Next we tried landscape mode:

Now we have nice big building slots that are easy to use, but we still have a problem:

  • You have to scroll the map. (But at least you scroll in only one dimension.

The solution

As you can see, no orientation is perfect. To make things worse, the best orientation depends on the size of the device in use.

The first thing we did was to add zoom support to the game. That was easy and eliminated a lot of problems. If you play on very small device like a phone, then you need to zoom and do a lot of scrolling, but the game is still usable. If you play on a tablet, then you have the best experience – you do not have to zoom, and the amount of scrolling is minimal.

This still left us with the choice of portrait vs landscape. From the usability perspective, landscape mode has a huge advantage: the scrolling is only in one dimension, and you can play comfortably even on smaller devices like phones. This is a huge gain from the usability perspective, and our initial tests confirmed that.

But we also liked the full board overview of portrait mode. This mode works great on iPad-size devices.

We wanted to have it all. That is why we added support for dynamic device rotation. This is unusual for a game, but this allows you turn the device in any direction and still play the game. You can use it comfortably in landscape mode on almost any device, or you can try the portrait mode that gives the better map overview and no scrolling, if you do not mind the smaller UI.

Summary

The game orientation may seem a simple question, but we took it very seriously. We could have just gone with portrait mode and allowed zooming and panning in all directions. That would be easy. However we wanted to deliver the best possible gameplay experience for all devices, and we went the extra mile to do things right.

Here is the final result:

 

Brass development team.