In a September, 2005 article for The Games Journal, I stated that "Black Vienna is the finest deduction game in existence" but also that "[it's] absolutely unforgiving of mistakes". In fact, the possibility of error was such an Achilles' heel that I stopped playing the game—too many playings were aborted due to an inadvertent mistake by one of the players. Since your deductions were built upon previous calculations, one mistake would completely unravel all subsequent effort.
(A quick explanation for those unfamiliar with the game: Each player has a hand of cards, each uniquely identified by a single letter of the alphabet. On a turn, a player will be presented with an Investigation card showing three unique letters. [e.g. ABD] The player will then indicate how many of those letters are in his hand. So, if my hand consists of cards A,D,G,I,M & X and I'm investigated with card EGW, I respond with "1" since I have G in my hand, but not E nor W.)
It might seem that answering an investigation incorrectly would be a rare occurrence, but in my experience, it happened often. What was needed was a method of ensuring that such mistakes could not occur.
A secondary concern was the sometimes glacial rate of play. Black Vienna provides much opportunity for involved calculation and deductive reasoning—it's one of the best games I know for creating "logic puzzles". The problem is that it does not always present every player with an equal challenge each turn. When Bob responds with "2" to Investigation card DHR, it may be redundant information for me, but provide crucial clues for Donna. So, while she works through all the ramifications of this new information, I'm left with little to do.
For these two reasons, Black Vienna rarely made it to the game table.
Jumping forward a few years, I stumbled upon a post on Iain Cheyne's blog where he mentioned both issues and wondered if a play-by-web moderator was the solution. I commented:
"I think a computer-moderated version would be ideal. Playing over a long period? I think this would improve the game. Removing the pressure to play quickly allows you to devote as much effort as you like to long chains of logic. I'd love to play a game that had a turn-a-day rate of play."
Since this idea had been percolating in my brain for some time, I decided that I should commit to actually creating an online version.
Creating The Moderator
Once I determined to undertake the project, progress was remarkably fast. There were one or two re-starts required, but once I had decided upon the structure of the tables (the heart of Black Vienna Online is a MySQL database), a functioning framework was up and running within a few hours. It took considerably longer getting everything polished to the point that I could begin real testing, but the work was relatively straight-forward. I'm no web- or graphic-designer, but I created a stark, clean design that I think is quite pleasing.
I recruited Iain as well as Mikko Saari to help with the alpha-testing and very quickly, I knew that it would completely solve the two underlying problems with Black Vienna. What emerged almost as quickly was another problem—timing.
The New Problem
Since Black Vienna Online was turn-based, not all players would be "playing" at the same time. Jane could investigate Frank even when everyone else (including Frank!) was busy with real-life. For much of the game, this has little effect but it becomes critical during the end-game. Since accusations (the guessing of the three members of Black Vienna and the goal of the entire game) are made at any time by any player, an advantage is given to those first able to check their e-mail after an investigation has been made. It's unsatisfying to discover that the case you were working on had been solved while you slept.
Addressing this issue involved a considerable amount of thought and effort. The group of testers had grown to about 20 or 30 in number and there were many helpful suggestions (and as many complaints that this was, indeed, a problem). Ultimately, the solution I chose was fairly simple—I introduced a 24-hour window after a case had been solved in which the remaining players could make their own accusation. (If correct, they would also be deemed to have "solved" the case.) I maintain that this is the best compromise possible although I understand that for many, it's an unsatisfactory one. Most of the options and tweaks I've subsequently added have been to further refine this solution, but end-game timing remains the biggest flaw with Black Vienna Online.
A Modest Response
For the most part, I'm happy with the response the site has received. While I hoped it would garner more attention, the number of people playing has been sufficiently numerous that I don't feel my efforts have been wasted. At the height of its popularity, there were 30 to 40 people playing at any one time and 60 to 70 turns were processed on an average day. Things are much quieter now; there are fewer than ten active players on any particular day. But it is being used and I still receive the occasional e-mail thanking me for making it available.
Do I consider Black Vienna Online a success? It does solve the two main problems I set out to address so from this perspective, the answer is an unqualified "yes". However, the timing issue is troubling and I know there are people who enjoy Black Vienna but prefer not to play the online version due to this. Personally, I think the trade-off is worth it. (Of course, if the timing issue really bothers you, you can always choose to play in "real-time", with all participants regularly refreshing the web-site/checking their e-mail. The quickest case on record took just 30 minutes from start to finish!)
If you're interested in trying Black Vienna Online, please visit http://www.aleknevicus.com/bv/. There's also a Yahoo group for discussing the game and seeking opponents. If you have any questions about the moderator, please feel free to ask.
- Greg Aleknevicus