Another retro piece for the ancient but excellent Sierra board game/PC hybrid, Jones in the Fast Lane.
Jones, created by Sierra in 1991, is an odd beast. Board to computer game conversions were very common when the industry was young – one of the first games ever available on the PC was chess after all – but using computer gaming as a medium to make new board games was a newer concept. Many companies started to experiment with the idea and quite a few games got released. However, by the mid nineties most people realised that while solo card games worked very well on computers, board games, which are predominantly a ‘group’ experience, didn’t fair quite so well.
Jones was one such attempt. The basic gameplay works a bit like that of the Game of Life. You select one of four characters to play as – the choice being entirely superficial, they’ve all aged far worse than the game itself – and take turns to move around the game board, which is set out in the form of a simple town. Instead of rolling a dice to determine how far you move, you receive a set amount of time every day in which to complete tasks and then find your way back to your apartment. Each turn leaves you a lot of freedom to decide exactly how to approach your virtual life, although if some tasks like buying food or not returning to your apartment are skipped, you’ll lose valuable time next turn due to fatigue or sickness.
Jones had several different ‘goals’ to achieve in order to the win the game, and the game continued until a player reached all of these to a certain level, which can be set at the start of the game. Really, everything revolved around money, as any of your goals in the shallow world of Jones revolved around money. Even happiness would solely be achieved via a bigger apartment or more modern appliances. The emphasis on money means you need a proper education to get a high paying job. The first stage of the game is normally spent trying to keep a balance between going putting yourself through your academic study while making sure you work just enough to pay for your food and rent.
Depending on the degree you take ( and you can take as many as you like ), you can then get a higher paying job at one of the many buildings on the board – most of the buildings you’ll use such as the bank, shops and even the university double up as places you can also work. Where you work doesn’t matter too much although obviously some jobs pay better than others, and the ones that pay out the most generally take the longest to study; although this isn’t always the case. The game also has a touch of random luck. You’ll occasionally end up spending or gaining money on random events that the game reports you ‘did at the weekend’, you can play the lottery or you can get robbed, which is where the bank comes in handy. The most powerful random occurrence is also the most frustrating; the game will report a surprise ‘recession’, and all players will either lose their jobs or start earning far less money for an unspecified period of time.
Jones is one of the few computerised board games that actually understands what it’s trying to achieve. A computer board game might not be as tangible or nice looking as a real life counterpart, but what you can do is use the power of a computer to do things that would otherwise be impractical without them. For example, the computer can do random events far better than a card system can, it can add up money and divide time quicker and in the background, and it can keep accurate records of exactly how much each player has achieved. Nowadays of course many board games also incorporate electronics into their systems to do these things, but this was virtually unheard of in the early nineties. Jones proved that board games could deal with more data – and therefore become deeper experiences – while still remaining fun and ultimately simple for the gamer.
After all that though, the real genius of Jones isn’t really down to any technical flare at all. Jones is playable solo and the AI is functional enough, but much like normal board games and popular modern video board games like Mario Party, the real fun is experiencing the game with other people, not the computer. The game uses a ‘hotseat’ system where a number of players all use the same computer and simply move out of the way when it’s the next players turn. Hotseat games existed before Jones, and continue to exist long after, even today. However, being able to see your opponent’s screens and having to move every few minutes isn’t exactly the best way to play games. Somehow though, Jones makes it fun. It’s even better if you can sit around a table with a laptop.
It’s because of the simple and fun multiplayer aspect in Jones that I’d rate Jones one of the most instantly accessible games ever. You can fire it up and be playing with three friends in minutes and importantly, in the same place. In many respects, multiplayer gaming has moved on. Games like battlefield allow huge, varied battles along large stretches of land, and there are nine million people subscribing to World of Warcraft. It’s in this huge expansion that multiplayer games have found a whole new market for themselves, but nothing has been released since Jones that comes close to the personality and simplicity of a quick game of Jones.